Saturday, January 31, 2015

Less People May Be On Australia’s National Minimum Wage Than You Think

This week the Fair Work Commission released its first findings from its Australian Workplace Relations Survey (AWRS), which is a survey that links together employers and their employees in the same data set. Most of the first findings are pretty basic, and generally covered by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ set of surveys. Like the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey the really interesting stuff should come when researchers start to do their ‘cross-tabs’ and interrogate the data a bit more.

One nugget of interest for me though in the first findings was the extent of use of Australia’s National Minimum Wage – which is currently $16.87 an hour. The survey found that only about 1 per cent of enterprises pay any of their employees the National Minimum Wage, and only 0.2 per cent of employees are paid the National Minimum Wage.

Those numbers do not really surprise me, although it is interesting to have them confirmed. But this does not necessarily mean that barely anyone is reliant on the National Minimum Wage adjustments. The National Minimum Wage applies to employees not covered by an award or agreement, and plenty of employees on award rates may be getting paid the same rate as the National Minimum Wage, or close to it. Indeed, the low extent of employees being paid the National Minimum Wage indicates that most employees are covered by an award or agreement. Other surveys have found – as shown in the Productivity Commission’s recent Issues Paper for its Workplace Relations Framework inquiry – that the percentage of employees paid the hourly minimum wage rate is more like 5 to 10 per cent, whether this be through an award or otherwise.

I suppose another thing of interest for me from the AWRS’ first findings was that employers still prefer to use informal documents to grant an employee flexible working arrangements rather than the formal Individual Flexibility Arrangements. (I wonder what employees prefer?) IFAs have in general not been that widely used since they were first introduced. It would not surprise me if the Productivity Commission’s inquiry recommends dropping or replacing IFAs from the industrial relations system. Speaking of the PC’s inquiry, with the Issues Paper now released, I may post something about that sometime in the next few weeks.   

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When To Buy Petrol (In Your Australian Capital City)

Last month, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission launched a web page which suggests when the cheapest and most expensive times to buy petrol are.  How does it do this? By keeping track of what is known as the ‘petrol price cycle’. Retail petrol pricing is a bit unusual. Overall retail petrol prices reflect the international price of petrol and the exchange rate. But overlaying that in the Australian capital cities are these regular (or at least semi-regular) patterns or cycles. That is, petrol prices reach a ‘peak’, then come down over a period of a couple of weeks, and then in the next few days shoot up again. Why? It is a little bit of a mystery; it could indicate some collusion between retailers but this is hard to show.

These ‘cycles’ make it somewhat predictable in terms of knowing when is the best time to buy petrol. We say somewhat here because the length of cycles can vary, and indeed have on average been becoming longer over the past few years – the average trough-peak duration in Australia’s five largest capital cities was one week back in 2009, but is now out to two and a half weeks (see the ACCC’s  latest petrol monitoring report, p. 89) except in Perth. Further, in 2014, the petrol price cycle in these cities ranged from 13 days to 43 days. One theory is that a less predictable cycle is more profitable for retailers, but again it’s all a bit of an enigma.

There are a couple of things we do know, and when you first learn them they seem a bit surprising. One of those is that there is currently no day which is, on average, more or less expensive than the rest (p. 90), again except if you are in Perth (don’t fill up in the latter part of the week). Another is that the price increases before public holidays are no greater than any other time in the year, nor do public holidays appear to affect the timing of any price cycle increases (p. 94).

So I know petrol price cycles exist, and that regular information is available on them. And yet I am a terrible consumer, because they have never explicitly factored into my petrol-purchasing decisions. I tend to just buy petrol whenever I am out driving, which is itself a rational factor, though probably still not the best move given petrol stations are hardly a long way from my house. I am probably one of those consumers that the ACCC people shakes their head at. Still, I guess it is their job to at least try and help us. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Tom Brady v Peyton Manning: Even If Brady Wins A Fourth Super Bowl I Would Still Probably Choose Manning

Last week Tom Brady, quarterback for the National Football League’s New England Patriots, helped the Patriots into their sixth Super Bowl during his career. The week before Peyton Manning, quarterback for the Denver Broncos and formerly of the Indianapolis Colts, saw his team eliminated from the playoffs in their first game. This has been taken by some observers as further support for the argument that Brady, who has been in three Super Bowl winning teams compared to Manning’s one, is the better quarterback, including by Bill Simmons.

I disagree. Most of my reasons actually accord fairly well with the arguments put forward in this Salon article by Allen Barra. But here is why I think Manning has been the better quarterback, or at least about even.

First up, I put little weight on the argument that Brady holds an 11-5 edge in games between their teams. For one thing, Brady and Manning’s teams do not just play each other; there is the rest of the league where their performances matter as well. Second, as important as quarterbacks are, the head-to-head record tells me more that Brady has been in a better team. Third, Brady and Manning aren’t even on the field at the same time; they each face off against the opposing team’s defence, not each other.

I put slightly more weight, but still relatively little, on Brady having more Super Bowl wins. Again, it mainly just tells me that Brady’s teams have been better, not that Brady himself has been better. Now, given how important the quarterback is to an NFL side, the fact that Brady has been involved in winning three Super Bowl tells me that he is probably really, really good. But I prefer a measure that can abstract a bit more from the effects of his teammates.

For example, Manning has been voted five times the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, to Brady’s two times. Sure the MVP voting is quite subjective, but that tells me that more often football observers have considered Manning as more crucial to his team’s success. Interestingly in working out which quarterback ‘won’ each year, Simmons gives 2003 and 2004 to Brady, even though Manning won the MVP in both years, probably on the basis that the Patriots won the Super Bowl. But voters clearly judged Manning the better individual player, so Brady’s triumphs seem more reflective of team success.

Manning also has a slightly better career passing rating, at 97.5 to Brady’s 95.9. While a passer rating is not the be-all and end-all – and it is itself partly dependent on a QB’s teammates – it does capture many of the major statistics used to evaluate one quarterback against another (touchdowns, completions, yards gained, and interceptions). David Berri’s QB Score, which takes into account what quarterbacks do with their legs as well, rates Manning even higher.

Brady proponents though can always point to Brady’s great playoffs win-loss record to Manning’s so-so one. This argument was addressed recently at Fivethirtyeight, and while it showed Brady has been the better playoff performer, Manning’s playoff record is still somewhat better than if his teams had instead had an ‘average’ quarterback.

It is pretty close though, and perhaps my argument is as much that Brady is not clearly better as that I think Manning just shades him. But basically I think it is only Brady’s three Super Bowl wins in four years – certainly not a small achievement, by the way – that has stopped the consensus from favouring Manning.

On the other hand, maybe I just like Peyton Manning more.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 98

ECONOMICS: Working long hours? This article suggests you are not producing that much more by doing so.

ECONOMICS: Australians shouldn’t be surprised that the carbon price reduced emissions.

ECONOMICS: Stephen Koukoulas on Australia’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.

ECONOMICS: Defeated in the Senate (for now), the Grattan Institute looks at the potential impacts of the Australian Government’s proposed reductions to the its co-payments to doctors. Hmm, these links seem to have a ‘bashing the Australian Government’ feel, but I’ve included them all because I found them interesting … I guess the policies of whoever is in government are always of interest …

ECONOMICS: What is going to happen to oil prices? Probably something very different to what people currently expect.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Origin of the Wooden Finger

Why is this blog called ‘The Wooden Finger Depot’? When I was a teenager I discovered that I could ‘click’ my middle finger on my left hand in an unusual way, so that it made a hollow sound if I clicked it against something like a table, like this:

A friend of mine dubbed it the ‘wooden finger’. As a teenager, assuming that I would run a creative empire one day, I planned to call said empire ‘Wooden Finger Productions’. As a 20-something, intending that this blog would lead to my creative empire one day, I called it ‘The Wooden Finger Depot’.

And there it is. I actually originally called this blog ‘Random Mumblings’, until the same friend I mentioned above said it sounded too self-deprecating. I do prefer ‘The Wooden Finger Depot’, but I do sometimes think about changing it.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Leaden Finger Gamer’s Review: The Last Of Us

‘The Last of Us’, a shooter/adventure/puzzle game revolving around yet another ‘zombie’ apocalypse, is one of the best reviewed games of all time. I was therefore very curious to see it, and see it all the way through, which I recently did – on walkthrough. Yes, in the case of this game review my gaming fingers were so leaden that I did not even play the game at all.

Actually, watching ‘The Last Of Us’ on walkthrough is I feel one of my better ideas. The game is only available on a PlayStation, and since it is unlikely that I will buy one of those just to play the console exclusive titles I thought: why not just watch the whole thing on walkthrough? I can then see the whole story, and without any of the stress of dying and whatnot. (I could take this even further: ‘Red Dead Redemption’ may be next on my ‘watch list’.) Anyway, it’s not like I was doing completely nothing: I used my time watching the walkthrough to do some jogging (when I was not settling my newborn daughter), so as the main character Joel was running about I felt like I was running with him, even if I was doing nothing else.

For those unfamiliar with the game ‘The Last of Us’ takes place following a pandemic that infects most of the world’s population. You mainly play as Joel – a tough middle-aged man tasked with escorting a young girl named Ellie who holds the key to saving the human race. You face off against many enemies; naturally the infected people, but also many crews of uninfected people who are not at all sympathetic to your plight.

By the title I thought that people would be few and far between in the game, but actually there are quite a lot of people that you encounter, with the military having taken control soon after the virus broke. More of the action also takes place in cities than I imagined, rather than deserted woodland. And those infected ‘clickers’ are damn fast – not at all the slow-moving zombies than one might expect.
The game was also larger than I was expecting – much larger. It feels like ‘The Walking Dead’ blown up and blown out, and makes that game feel like the small, 2D game that it actually is. It also reminded me of ‘Batman: Arkham City’ in that it takes a lot longer than you expect to get where you are heading to, particularly in the scenes in Pittsburgh.
Still watching ‘The Last of Us’ as a walkthrough probably gave me a somewhat different experience to actually playing it. Really, it hardly felt like looking at a game at all. Because the game is quite realistic and cinematic in style, and the person doing the walkthrough obviously knew what they were doing it felt very close to watching a movie, where the gameplay blends seamlessly into the cut scenes. I did not get a sense of how much your character actually dies if you play it.  That absence of possible failure may also be part of why it seemed to me that there were a few too many combat scenes.
Nevertheless you can see why this game rates near the top of many people’s all-time lists. The story and characters must rate amongst the best to ever appear in video game form. I am glad I sat/jogged through twelve hours of it; perhaps even more than if I had actually played the damn thing. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Wooden Finger Five - January 2015

Epic Rap Battles of History’ is one of those things that I didn’t realise was missing from my life until I found it. I first came across it by searching on Spotify at Christmas for songs with Santa Claus, and finding the ‘Moses vs Santa Claus’ rap battle, which featured Snoop Dogg.

The series is the creation of two rappers/comedians, Nice Peter and EpicLLOYD, and features well-known historical and fictional characters taking on each other in rap battles. It’s very clever, and very funny. All of the rap battles are great, but here are my five favourites:

5. Steve Jobs v Bill Gates

This was one of the more successful battles, in terms of both the number of views and in winning an award. It’s a natural battle to have; Jobs actually gets most of the good hits in during his first verse, though the point is made that Gates was the more successful of the two. A ‘surprise guest’ rapper at the end adds an extra facet to this episode.

Jobs: ‘Why’d you name your company after your dick?'
Gates: ‘I give away your net worth to AIDS research’

4. Steven Spielberg v Alfred Hitchcock

This is one of the longest battles: the Jobs v Gates battle had one guest rapper, this battle has three. Extra cast members aside though the main Spielberg and Hitchcock verses are surprisingly good, and imbue both of these figures – Spielberg in particular – with more personality than I ever gave them credit for.

Spielberg: ‘You rock as many Oscars as that schlep Michael Bay’
Hitchcock: ‘Half your billions should go to John Williams’

3. Albert Einstein v Stephen Hawking

This was another highly successful episode, which perhaps played well to what I imagine is the Epic Rap Battles’ primary audience – i.e. uber-geeks. Einstein naturally makes fun of Hawking’s disability but in a clever way, while Hawking’s main targets are Einstein’s looks and intelligence.

Einstein: ‘I’m as dope as two rappers you better be scared/Cause that means Albert E equals MC squared’
Hawking: ‘There are 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 particles in the universe that we can observe/Your mama took the ugly ones and put them into one nerd’

2. Michael Jordan v Muhammed Ali

Almost every line in this battle is a winner. People of my generation, who remember Jordan being the most famous person in the world, will likely appreciate the references to his career and life more, but there are still some good lines about Ali in there.

Jordan: ‘You can fight one man?/I can drive through a whole team’ … ‘I would pass the mic to Pippen but I’m not done scoring’
Ali: ‘Now your daddy got killed and I feel for your family/But your baseball career that was a tragedy’

1. Rick Grimes v Walter White

How good is this battle? Walter White gets in three of the best lines from the series, and I’m still not sure he won this one. The impressions are spot-on: Grimes with a laid-back southern twang, and Walter with a menacing staccato. And it has a good beat; I could listen to this battle many times over.

Grimes: ‘Sheriff Grimes rhymes dirty like my armpit stains’
White: ‘I’ve seen Walter Jr. handle walkers better than you’ … ‘You can bite me/I’ll be standing right here in my tighty Walter Whities’ 

And my favourite lines from the other epic rap battles:

Goku against Superman: ‘How many times are they gonna rewrite your story/Your powers have been boring since the nineteen fucking forties’

Gandhi against Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘I am celibate because I don’t give a fuck’

Clint Eastwood against Bruce Lee: ‘I’d beat you in round two but that’d be unbelievable/No one in your family ever lives to see a sequel’
Mozart against Skrillex: ‘I am the world’s greatest composer/No one knows what you are/Except a lonely little troll who knows how to press a spacebar’

Captain Kirk against Christopher Columbus: ‘Why don’t you boldly go someplace you’ve never gone before/Like India’
Oprah against Ellen: ‘So check under your seat because I got something for ya’

Ellen against Oprah: ‘I’m jumping over Oprah like I’m Tom Cruise on a sofa’
Babe Ruth against Lance Armstrong: ‘Yerr out, with three strikes, and just one ball’

Moses against Santa Claus: ‘It takes nine reindeers to haul your fat ass/You took the Christ out of Christmas and just added more mass’
Ben Franklin against Billy Mays: ‘Cause I’m mint I’m money I’m an educated gentleman/So join or die Bill cause it’s all about the Benjamin’

Mitt Romney against Barack Obama: ‘We all know what went down in that 2008 election/You’re a decent politician with a winning complexion’
Chuck Norris against Abraham Lincoln: ‘I invented rap music/When my heart started beating’

Sherlock Holmes against Batman: ‘Dissing these dynamic douchebags was elementary my dear Watson’
Renaissance artists against Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: ‘We’re like your NES game/Cause we can’t be beat’

Ebenezer Scrooge against Donald Trump: ‘I don’t believe in ghosts/And I don’t believe that hair’
Adolf Hitler against Darth Vader: ‘You call yourself a Dark Lord/You couldn’t even conquer Space Mountain’

Marilyn Monroe against Cleopatra: ‘You think you’re so chic/Up in your fancy palace/Getting low on Marc Antony/Tossing Caesar’s salad’
Dumbledore against Gandalf: ‘The prophecy forgot to mention this day/When I knocked your ass back to Gandalf the Grey’

Monday, January 5, 2015

A) The Stylistic Simplicity of Grant Morrison’s ‘Thunderworld Adventures’; B) And That of ‘The Rocketeer’; and C) The Bleakness of ‘The Adventures of Luther Arkwright’

Comic book writer Grant Morrison has a reputation for fitting big ideas and manifestos into his stories. ‘Thunderworld Adventures’ – the latest instalment of his cross-title epic ‘The Multiversity’ is, as far as I can tell, not one of those stories. From my reading it is essentially a ‘simple’ 1940s-style tale of Captain Marvel and his Marvel family. And yet it does that really, really well. How does it work?

The plot: Captain Marvel’s arch-nemesis, the mad scientist Dr. Sivana is trying to create a new day using time stolen from other universes: Sivanaday. Somehow introducing this day is meant to result in the defeat of Captain Marvel. Sivana employs a super-villain equivalent to the Marvel family, along with monsters and ‘time tornadoes’ to try and beat our heroes. On paper, it’s a relatively simple, better-than-average, traditional Captain Marvel plot.

How then can it work for a 30-something year-old reader in 2014? Though Morrison may use ‘Golden’ and ‘Silver’ Age tropes, he is extremely adept at doing so, being able to determine what attracted him to these comics as a child from the perspective of a middle-aged comic professional. Morrison writes good dialogue; it’s sharp, with few word balloons overstaying their welcome. For example, Dr. Sivana standing next to his captive victim saying ‘I thought so. The lightning-staff. Give.’ demonstrates the villain’s intelligence and ambition with more economy than many other writers would use.

All this is to say is that Morrison has a strong command of his style, and it is a style that can make even a relatively straightforward book like ‘Thunderworld Adventures’ feel like it has depth, meaning and craft (which it does). Morrison’s style has to, a large extent, made ‘The Multiversity’ books – really mostly just a series of one-shots – seem like a significant whole, as it did with his other one-off, multi-title epic, ‘Seven Soldiers of Victory’. Morrison has a more pop-oriented, more free-form (even if somewhat sharper) approach to writing than his chief comics writing rival Alan Moore. It will keep his books mostly out of the universities, and for some readers it may fail to convince, but if you can get into the rhythm of his stories they are an enjoyable ride.

For Christmas, my wife gave me the book ‘1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die’. Even for someone like me who has read more comic books than they should have I still found it full of interesting new suggestions. The editor and authors have tried to create a true international selection of the most significant comic books; hence not only are American comics well-represented, but so are those of Japan, France, Belgium, and the UK. It knocks out a lot of the ‘second-tier’ US comics (‘Young Avengers’? Chuck Dixon’s ‘Robin’? You won’t find them here …), although more surprisingly for me it also does not explicitly recommend some of the most well-received post-Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Marvel Comics runs such as Frank Miller’s first ‘Daredevil’ run, John Byrne’s ‘Fantastic Four’, and Walt Simonson’s ‘Thor’.

One series it recommends is the late Dave Stevens’ ‘The Rocketeer’, which given you can get it for a few bucks on Kindle I thought I should finally give a read. Stevens’ 1930-style stories, like Morrison’s modern-day ‘Thunderworld Adventures’, are relatively simple but enjoyable, though without even a hint of the high concepts that underlie Morrison’s series. The stories are well-crafted and serviceable, but they surely would have been mostly ignored if not for Dave Stevens’ beautiful art. The moments of cheesecake, with the Rocketeer’s girlfriend Betty (modelled on 1950s pin-up Bettie Page), probably helped it gain a following too.

Another thing that makes it special is that, in over two decades, only about 100 pages of ‘Rocketeer’ comics featuring Stevens’ art were produced. I read it all in one sitting, and it’s funny – the story was just OK, and even the art was pretty samey throughout – and yet I absolutely think it belongs on a list of the 1001 greatest comics (this reviewer looks to have had much the same view). Never underestimate the allure of cult status I guess.

Another series that was recommended, and which is not at all simple – and possibly not even all that enjoyable, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t good – is Bryan Talbot’s ‘The Adventures of Luther Arkwright’.  Seeing a full-page reproduction in the ‘1001 Comics’ book of the cover for issue #2, with the title character confidently striding forward and a massive hellicarrier in the sky behind him got me excited about this series. Then I saw that Warren Ellis called it ‘probably the single most influential graphic novel to have come out of Britain to date’ and that got me even more excited.

He may well be right. I don’t know enough about British comics to know how much of Arkwright was ‘new’, and how much of it reflects the British comics ‘scene’ or ‘tradition’, but in reading it I could see a lot of the work of other major British writers in it – Alan Moore especially, but also Warren Ellis, a bit of Neil Gaiman, and even Grant Morrison. There are alternate realities, spiritual mumbo-jumbo, filthy British streets full of citizens with rotten teeth, a fair chunk of graphic violence and along with this, wholesale massacre, both on- and off-panel. Why are British writers so keen on killing off scores of fictional citizens? – see Moore’s ‘Miracleman’, Ellis’ ‘The Authority’, Mark Millar’s ‘The Authority’, and John Wagner and Alan Grant’s ‘Judge Dredd: The Apocalypse War’. The British writers have written some of the greatest comic book stories ever, but it is hard to think of a major one that was not primarily bleak and full of death (maybe James Robinson’s ‘Starman’, and even there Robinson set fire to Starman’s home city). It makes me think that Britain is a very dark and dismal place indeed.

Anyway, ‘Luther Arkwright’ is worth a look. The main plot involves Arkwright travelling to an Earth where the English Civil War has continued on for the past few hundred years due in part to a group of madmen called the Disruptors. Talbot eschews conventional word balloons, jumps from time period to time period, and has a ‘ticker tape’ running throughout the comic of disasters befalling alternate Earths. There are fair portions of it that made relatively little sense to me, and some readers may very well ‘rage quit’ it about a third of the way through. But it is another demonstration of how idiosyncratic comics – often the work of just a single, ‘visionary’ creator – can be. It belongs on the ‘1001 best comics’ list as well (I think).

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Cursing Borussia Dortmund

After the World Cup last year I decided to pick a team to support in each of the major European football leagues. For the Bundesliga I was drawn towards Borussia Dortmund. I liked their logo, colours, and name, and I remembered watching them in my hotel room on holiday stage a miraculous comeback in their UEFA Champions League semi-final against Malaga. I even went so far as to order from their online shop this t-shirt:

Basically as soon as I pulled that t-shirt on Dortmund’s fortunes plummeted. While they have continued to perform well in the Champions League this season, in the Bundesliga they are perilously close to relegation, as I continue to wake up week after week and quietly curse as I see that they have lost another match. As a result I have fallen victim to the old sports fan’s superstition that somehow me choosing to follow them has caused them to crash.
I wondered if I could trace the fall back to specific players, or the absence thereof due to injury, similar to how I have done on this blog before for AFL clubs. But in the course of trying to find the player statistics I came across the team statistics, and was struck by how decent they were. Consider how Dortmund rank this season:
Borussia Dortmund’s ranking in Bundesliga for 2014/15 season, as of end 2014:
General play:
Possession: #2
Pass success %: #4
Shots per game: #3
Shots on target per game: #5
Defense (higher number indicates better performance):
Shots conceded per game: #16
Fouls per game: #16
Generally these are things that appear to have been found to help a team win. Essentially the one thing that stands out that Dortmund hasn’t done well – apart from, well, kick goals – is getting shots from within six yards of goal, where they rank dead last. It looks to me then that Dortmund have not performed particularly badly, or at least not as badly as their ladder position suggests; they just haven’t been winning. Which is a different type of ‘cursing’ I suppose, though one that should correct itself. That is, assuming that my t-shirt purchase doesn’t cause Borussia Dortmund to be playing off in the Bundesliga 2 next season.  

Postscript: Here is some further analysis I found on Borussia Dortmund's statistics this season.