Now the Games of the XXX Olympiad (that’s London 2012 Olympics for us mere mortals) have come to a close, there will be much hand-wringing, soul-searching and other colourful metaphors used within the offices of the Australian Olympic Committee. The AOC forecast fifteen Gold Medals for Australia at this Olympics, not quite the seven we actually received, and at times we ranked on the Gold Medal Tally behind well-known Olympic super-powers like Cuba and New Zealand (g’day neighbours!). This is not to say that our athletes didn’t perform well, that it’s only about bringing home The Gold, or that I could somehow qualify for more than sweat-wiping duty of athletes at the games. However, the AOC is all about exchanging cash for gold and they will now be looking for more cash given that there will be a demand for more gold.

In some ways, it’s an Australian success story. The Australian Institute of Sport was established in 1980, four years after our zero-gold result at the Montreal Olympics. In the years that followed, Australia averaged more than nine gold per Summer games (including London 2012). What is sometimes overlooked is that this has been a scientific triumph as much as a sporting one. While it is the athletes standing on the podium receiving the medals for all to see, it would be justified to also see up there the army of sports scientists and specialists in sports medicine standing there that Australia has willed into being to create our international success. It is probably the Australian scientific organisation with the most influence on the international scene in recent years, but it’s disguised as sport to keep the masses happy. Thanks to the AIS, a country of around 20 million people was able to rank fourth at the Olympics as recently as 2004.

But eventually the limitations of our population size and ability to fund elite sport was going to catch up with us. We had a temporary advantage due to the skills and knowledge in the AIS and the system around it, but information wants to be free. Australian coaches, scientists and even athletes are now helping out other nations. Even Australia’s first individual gold medalist at the London 2012 games, Tom Slingsby, wasted little time after the games to head to the US to help the team defend their America’s Cup title. This is not a slight on the patriotism of those individuals, but recognition that information advantages last for only so long. We now need to find another approach to win a disproportionate share of the Olympic gold.

Our new competitive advantage could be our women. While women made up 46% of the Australian team, wins in their sports accounted for 57% of our Olympic medals (note also that only 46% of the opportunities for a medal are eligible to women). Our first gold medal of these games was from women, and it stood as the only one for nine days. However, while wins in women’s events were responsible for 57% of the medals, they were responsible for only 43% of the gold. Something is not quite right.

Even before the games started, there was some contention that Australia’s female athletes were treated differently from the male athletes. Media reports revealed our women’s basketball team flew to London in economy class while the men’s team flew business. This may be just be the rumblings of a couple of disgruntled athletes, but let’s see if there are some stats that could shine some light on a systemic difference between the men’s and women’s performance at the games.

Despite winning more medals, our team’s women’s medals converted to gold less often than the men’s medals in London. Just 15% of the women’s medals were gold, while 27% of the men’s medals were gold. This difference of 12% between their ability to convert medals to gold, despite coming from the same country, being selected by the same process, and being supported by the same institutions, turns out to be pretty poor compared with other nations. The following table compares all countries who won at least a dozen medals (just so we can have some level of statistical validity):

Rank Country Womens Gold Mens Gold Womens Medals Mens Medals Womens Conversion Mens Conversion Delta
1 BLR 1 2 9 4 11% 50% 39%
2 IRI 0 4 0 12 0% 33% 33%
3 JAM 1 3 5 7 20% 43% 23%
4 UKR 2 4 10 10 20% 40% 20%
5 AUS 3 4 20 15 15% 27% 12%
6 FRA 4 7 15 19 27% 37% 10%
7 CHN 21 18 52 38 40% 47% 7%
8 GER 4 9 17 31 24% 29% 6%
9 RUS 12 12 44 38 27% 32% 4%
10 CUB 1 4 3 11 33% 36% 3%
11 ESP 2 1 11 6 18% 17% -2%
12 GBR 12 20 26 45 46% 44% -2%
13 NED 4 2 15 9 27% 22% -4%
14 HUN 3 5 6 11 50% 45% -5%
15 JPN 4 3 17 21 24% 14% -9%
16 CAN 1 0 9 9 11% 0% -11%
17 USA 29 17 59 46 49% 37% -12%
18 NZL 3 3 6 8 50% 38% -13%
19 ITA 3 5 8 20 38% 25% -13%
20 KAZ 4 3 6 7 67% 43% -24%
21 BRA 2 1 6 11 33% 9% -24%
22 KOR 5 8 7 21 71% 38% -33%

Australia comes 5th worst, out of 22 countries, right behind Belarus, Iran, Jamaica and Ukraine. Not exactly the company we’d chose to validate our support for women athletes.

If Australia had lifted women’s events conversion to parity with men’s events, we would’ve gotten another two gold on top of our other seven, and we would’ve ranked eighth rather than tenth. So, if the AOC is looking for somewhere to spend to increase our performance in the face of the declining benefits of our leading science, I suggest ploughing money into women’s sport.

NB. For the purposes of the above analysis, I’ve looked at whether sports events are male-only events (like Men’s Marathon), female-only events (like Rhythmic Gynamistics) or support both (like Equestrian or Mixed Doubles in Tennis). When determining if an event is a women’s event, I’ve included the two latter categories, and similarly men’s events include the first and last category.

For those that are interested, my analysis spreadsheet is also available. A more thorough analysis would look at previous summer and winter Olympics to see if this was just a one-off, but I leave that as an exercise for the interested reader.

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We’re about to have both our kids in child-care, for at least some of the week. This means they’re joining around a million other kids across Australia using the child-care system, according to the government. For various reasons, all of the families represented by that statistic are using professional child-care instead of completely looking after their kids themselves.

Professional child-care isn’t free, of course, so it is open to only those families who can afford it. Specifically, they need to be able to afford the child-care even after accounting for the additional income that might be brought in through allowing a care-giver such as a parent to enter the paid workforce. I wondered exactly how much income would need to be brought in to offset the paid care, so I’ve thrown together a quick spreadsheet on the economics of child-care.

To put two children into care, five days a week, for all but four weeks of the year, at a child-care centre that charges $87/day, the now-employed parent would need to earn at least $30,970.06 full-time to offset the costs. At a centre charging a higher rate of $120/day (but less than a reported maximum of $135/day), the salary would be $52,773.72. If there were three kids, then the salary would need to be $84,308.94.

Instead of looking at this as the amount that would need to be earned to go into the workforce, it can also be viewed as the amount that is being effectively earned by not going into the workforce. A stay-at-home parent is “worth” at least a salary of $30,970.06 from that perspective. I recognise that other costs avoided or reduced could also be included, reflecting domestic chores also performed by the stay-at-home parent, from cleaning to cooking, however these might also be shared with others depending on the household situation, so I will leave them out of my simple analysis.

To put this in context, $30,970.06 per year is $595.58 per week, and the Australian minimum wage is $589.30 per week. Taking a minimum wage job to put two kids into child-care doesn’t make much sense if you just look at the numbers. On the other hand, according to the ABS, the average full-time adult earns $1,322.60 per week (or $68,775.20 per year), and if we look at women only, it’s $1,165.00 per week ($60,580 per year). So, assuming the stay-at-home parent can leave home for an average wage, it is probably economically positive.

Knowing this is one thing, but it doesn’t do anything for the twin challenges of finding child-care places and finding a decent paying job.

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I was one of the early adopters of Myki for my public transport ticketing, and it wasn’t the best of experiences. I went back to using Metcard shortly afterwards, and it was only once Myki was fully deployed across trams and buses did I go back to it.

I’ve been using the Myki Money approach, which in theory is cheaper than the Myki Pass approach, but requires the user to “touch on” before travel and “touch off” afterwards. I’ve been using it for over six months now, but recently I’ve suspected that it hasn’t been operating quite as it should.

Although I’m well trained now in “touching off” at the train platform, I find it hard to remember to do it when jumping off a tram. In one instance, leaving a tram to catch a train, my Myki failed to be recognised at the train station turnstiles (no error message – nothing), probably due to the card thinking I’d only recently “touched on” to a tram, so how could I possibly be touching on to a train. How helpful. Not.

Failing to “touch off” on trams has also meant that I’ve been charged extra, as the system assumes I might have traveled into Zone 2, while in fact I’ve remained in Zone 1. This is as-designed, but is highly annoying. Given that I don’t catch trams often enough to reprogram my habit of leaving the tram without touching off, it’s probably sufficient to motivate me to stop using Myki Money.

However, there’s another problem I’m experiencing that’s not meant to happen: sometimes, I’m charged more than the official fare. If I travel more than two trips – more than a train to work and then a train home – it seems I get charged for those extra trips, even though Myki Money is not meant to cost more than a standard daily rate (which is equivalent to two trips). All it takes is to use the tram twice on a normal day to be overcharged by 100%.

Luckily, there’s a free online tool that can help spot these overcharges: Mykileaks. It takes your Myki transaction statement, analyses it, and provides you with clear advice on exactly where you’ve been overcharged. The process is:

  1. Log in to “My Myki” and download a PDF statement of “My transactions”. Set the filter options to include as much as the last six months, then press the “View and Print Statement” button.
  2. Visit Mykileaks, specify the file for the PDF statement, and press the “Submit your statement for analysis” button.
  3. Read the resulting report, and confirm that it makes sense.
  4. Go back to “My Myki” and open the Refund and Reimbursement Form. Fill it in, print and post to Myki.

Ok, so it’s a bit laborious, but it really irks me that they still run this system with overcharging bugs in it. Mykileaks found that I had a case for being overcharged $14.66 over the last five months. According to a Herald Sun article, around 300,000 people used Myki in March, which if my level of overcharges is typical, would equate to $10.5M in unjustified charges over the course of a year.

I’m going to send in my reimbursement claim, and once it’s used up, Myki Money can “sod off”.

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About a week ago, Demographia published their 7th Annual International Housing Affordability Survey. They picked up some press for finding that Sydney was the least affordable major housing market outside of Hong Kong, and Melbourne wasn’t that much better. Both were labelled “severely unaffordable”.

And while there is some irony in using the term “unaffordable” to describe the prices at which actual sales occurred (in any case, I agree that Australian capital city houses are expensive), it is the methodology of the survey that I want to nit-pick. It is based on a ratio that Demographia call the “Median Multiple”, which is calculated by dividing the median house (i.e. not apartment) sale price in that market for that period by the median household income for that market at that point in time. Apparently, such a measure is endorsed by such august bodies as the UN, the World Bank and Harvard.

I have previously talked about the mistakes that can be made in comparing two different medians, and it should be clear that there is no reason to assume any particular relationship between (say) today’s median Melbourne household income and the median sale price of a house in Melbourne over the last quarter. Ideally, the median should be calculated on the set of individual house affordability ratios, rather than a ratio calculated from the medians of two somewhat independent sets.

But the major issue I have with the report is that it picks, seemingly out of the air, the value “3.0″ as value that separates unaffordable markets from affordable markets, as if it is some kind of universal constant. In fact, the value seems to be chosen principally because, in the past, affordability ratios were less than 3.0:

As Anthony Richards of the Reserve Bank of Australia has shown, the price to income ratio was at or below 3.0 in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States until the late 1980s or late 1990s, depending on the nation.

In fact, it should be clear that in a country like Australia, and specifically in cities like Melbourne, you would expect their Median Multiple figure to generally increase over time. Hence, there is no constant value that can be used for this ratio to indicate whether the housing market is out of whack.

For the Median Multiple to increase, basically median property values need to grow faster than median income. From my point of view, there are two obvious drivers for this growth to occur.

1. Gentrification

The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) recently published a report on the gentrification of Melbourne and Sydney. (Essentially, this is when the existing residents of an area are displaced by a wealthier demographic.) For Melbourne, the regions of Maribyrnong and Northcote were identified as undergoing gentrification.

In such cases, property prices rise because people with higher incomes move into the neighbourhood. Actual incomes don’t necessarily rise at all – it’s just people moving around.

When an area has little ability to accommodate the displaced, e.g. through supporting greater housing density from subdividing lots or building apartment blocks, they need to find somewhere else to live. According to AHURI, displaced residents commonly relocate to an adjoining suburb (e.g. in 44% of cases of employed renters or 38% of owners). As they note, this in turn creates a “rippling effect” of gentrifying another region, and then another.

2. Trading Up

A major constraint to purchasing property is the ability to borrow money. First Home Buyers feel this pain worst of all, because (unless a significant deposit has been saved) they typically borrow between 80-90% of the  purchase price.

However, everyone else in the market (by definition) has already purchased a home. So, when trading up, any additional amount to be borrowed will depend on the difference between the value of the current property and the value of the next.

Since banks limit the amount they lend based on a household’s income levels, clearly if a purchase relies principally on borrowing, it will be constrained by income level. But, if a purchase makes use of the equity in an existing home, it can go beyond income level.

Admittedly, this requires property values to grow, in order for the home owner to build up equity. So, it’s somewhat circular to argue that growth in property depends on growing property values. However, the growth in equity is typically much faster than the growth in the underlying property value, which is why subsequent properties can be purchased at a level equivalent to growth faster than income.

For example, a property purchased on a 10% deposit will, after five years, have had its equity grow the equivalent of about 30% per year, if the underlying property value grows just 5% per year for that period (assuming the mortgage isn’t paid down at all). Or more specifically, a $400k property on a $360k mortgage will end up as a $510k property with $150k of equity under those conditions. If the household income has also grown during that period, then the mortgage that could be serviced at the same level (as the mortgage at time of purchase) will have grown at the same rate. Putting that together with the increased equity is how the purchase price of the next home grows faster than income, while keeping the portion of income used to service the loans at about the same.

Australia has a large proportion of home owners as possessors of property. The recent AHURI policy bulletin on Australia’s changing patterns of home ownership noted that the home ownership level continued to remain around 70% of the population. Together with tax treatment that allows home owners to sell their property without any tax implications (versus, say, investors who would be up for GST), this creates an environment where trading up is encouraged.

Concluding remarks

So, if you’ve read this far, you’ll hopefully now agree that the Median Multiple price-to-income ratio is likely to increase over time in Australia, and hence there is no constant level of affordability that relates to it. 3.0 is not the magic number of affordability.

To conclude, I will leave you with a graph from an RBA speech on housing costs showing how, as you’d expect, the  price-to-income ratio for Australian property has fluctuated, but trended up over the last 15 years (blue line).

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There. I’ve said it. I like Reality TV. Alright, I’ve actually said it before.

It shouldn’t be a shocking thing to say though, should it? Just like any genre has its good shows and bad shows, liking the genre shouldn’t commit you to liking the bad shows.

Admittedly, Reality TV is full of bad shows. I am not a fan of The Farmer Wants a Wife or  The Bachelor. And looking back at the grand-daddies of Reality TV – Big Brother and Survivor – who have been with us for about a decade now, I’m not a fan of them either.

However, I do like some Reality TV. There are basically three principles that work for me:

  1. The participants should be there because of real talent.
  2. The judges/hosts should be supportive of the participants.
  3. The outcome of the show should not depend on audience votes.

When I look at the Reality TV shows that work for me, there’s not actually a great deal of difference from the “game shows” that I watched on TV when I was a kid, with the exception that the contestants have to sleep on set. Sale of the Century plus a sleep-over, if you will.

One example of a show that I enjoy that almost follows the three requirements above is So You Think You Can Dance. There’s real talent molded into amazing performances by expert choreographers, the judges are there to provide tips and guide the contestants, but there is audience voting. However, the way voting is set up (until the top ten) gives the judges the ability to save the top contestants from poor choices by the voting public. Still, the drive to get the audience to vote (and pay for that privilege) distracts the show from its pursuit of excellence. I prefer watching the US version of the show, as when it’s re-screened in Australia, some of the pleading is edited out.

Another edge case is The Biggest Loser. While the casting is oriented around weight and motivation rather than a generally recognised “talent”, I did enjoy watching the emotional journey as contestants rebuilt their self-esteem. However, now I feel that requirement #2 is lacking also, at least in the US version of the show. It seems that off-camera, the contestants are engaged in the opposite of the sort of practice that the show outwardly espouses. In this case, it would be better if there was more reality in this Reality TV show. This one’s now off my list.

At least, one clear case of good Reality TV is MasterChef Australia. The competitors can really cook, the judges try to help them, and competitors win through decisions of the judges alone not through votes of the audience. It’s also light-hearted and fun.

Clearly, I’m not the only fan, with an estimated 4 million people expected to tune in for Sunday night’s finale. I realise that 95% of them (give or take…) are from Melbourne, but apparently it does have national appeal. It is Australia’s most watched, non-sporting event. Given it’s now-so-obvious-appeal, it’s hard to understand how when TV media experts first saw the pilot, they didn’t think it would survive.

I’m not sure who I should be barracking for in the finale. Should I go #teamadam or #teamcallum? Although I respect both competitors, I’m not sure if I should be wishing my favourite the fate of Julie or the fate of Poh.

In any case, this is at least a Reality TV show where the judges decision is final.

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When I was back in high school, one of my English Lit teachers used to say “A wise man laughs with trepidation”. He said it a lot. He also joked a lot. Perhaps he was warning us that Sex And Violence Fridays weren’t likely to be as funny to parents.

But anyway, he was right that with most humour, someone is the butt of the joke. Someone is being ridiculed, if only the joke-teller. But very often someone is being offended.

And this week, some people were so offended by Catherine Deveny‘s postings on Twitter, that her employer at The Age newspaper decided to give her the sack. Now, I’m not so interested in whether her comments were offensive or not (since, almost by the very definition of humour, someone would find them offensive), but in what this example can tell us about communications in the age of social media.

Last year, Julian Morrow of The Chaser fame gave the Andrew Olle Media Lecture on a related matter. It was (and still is) a very interesting speech, and outlined the concepts of a primary audience, who are the people that a comedian is targeting their humourous content at, and a secondary audience, who are the people that discover the content after the fact. For example, the primary audience may watch your TV show, but the secondary audience may watch the highlights/lowlights of your TV show when they are rebroadcast on the nightly current affairs program.

Since in a world where anything can be discovered later on the Internet, e.g. via clips on YouTube, a specific Google search or even through the Internet Archive, the secondary audience potentially consists of everyone living and who may live in the future. It’s a given that for anything humourous you’ve publicly released, there will eventually be someone who will find it and be offended by it.

I’ve previously tried to characterise communications technologies into those that are public and those that are private. Twitter was classified as a publishing business where primarily it attempts to allow communications to be publicly disseminated.

I don’t know if Deveny’s Twitter followers at the time (her primary audience) were particularly offended, or whether it was in the wider group of social media users who discovered her tweets (the secondary audience) that the most offended people came from. Given that her humour is at the more offensive end of the spectrum, I’d expect her primary audience to be pretty thick-skinned. So, if it was the secondary audience’s reaction that resulted in her sacking, then this is likely to be a template for future problems for comedians.

Is is reasonable for a comedian to take into account the reactions of their secondary audience?

In an ideal world, perhaps not. But pragmatically, if it’s going to affect important things like their ability to pay a mortgage, then probably they will. However, the secondary audience in the world of social media and the Internet can be anyone who will ever live.

Is it even possible for them to foresee the reactions of this group?

Even in an ideal world, probably not.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see comedians move away from publishing platforms like Twitter and towards messaging platforms like Facebook (to use the classification scheme from my previous post). This would seem to be an approach for limiting the risk from the secondary audience.

I’m aware that there is plenty of publicly available, offensive material on Facebook, but here I’m talking about the ability to set up a private channel of communication to a select group of people, i.e. Facebook Groups. Of course, it’s up to Facebook as a business to determine if they want to host groups that non-group-members find offensive, but from the perspective of my argument here, this “messaging” functionality will exist somewhere (e.g. email lists) even if not within Facebook. I’m just using them as a contrasting example to Twitter.

Unfortunately, the clear downside of humour moving away from the public domain into private groups is that we can’t easily or accidentally discover a new comedian. In this brand new, Internet-connected world, we may find ourselves in the old, historical situation of comedians telling their jokes to audiences in (virtual) rooms. And people laughing, even if with trepidation.

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There’s talk again of the house price boom (or even bubble). I know people who are looking to buy at the moment, and I feel so lucky that I’m not having to find a first home in the current market.

However, stories I read in the media suggest to me that we’re also in the midst of a blame game, where various bogeymen are out there pushing up prices to the detriment of everyone else. If you believe everything you read, we can blame:

  • First-home buyers – whose free cash from the government in the form of the FHOG (First Home Owners Grant) is making it hard for others to compete.
  • Overseas investors – who are apparently making the most of relaxed rules from the FIRB (Foreign Investment Review Board) to invest in Australia when other international markets are looking shaky and depressed.
  • Local investors (in particular Baby Boomers and Gen X) – whose access to the tax deduction of negative gearing enables them to sustain larger holding costs of property than non-investors.
  • Developers – who have been slowly releasing lots from their land banks rather than supplying enough to the market to meet the demand
  • Immigrants – who have been coming here in increasing numbers because it has a promising way of life but are now competing with the locals for somewhere to stay.
  • Governments – for allowing all of the above to occur.

Is there anyone left?

What is good in this debate is the recognition that it is supply and demand that is driving the prices in the market. However, the purpose of this finger-pointing seems to be to blame everybody else for the problem. I’m not convinced that any of the above factors are at the heart of the matter:

  • First-home buyers – the demand from these guys doesn’t explain why an unrenovated house in Richmond sells for more than $2m (as I read in yesterday’s paper). The whole market is booming, not just the cheaper end.
  • Overseas investors – although they are active, they are still a minority. I don’t think they could underpin the entire boom.
  • Local investors – negative gearing also results in lower rents than would otherwise occur, which should in turn reduce the demand for home ownership.
  • Developers – their land is generally at the fringe, and there is heavy demand in the centre.
  • Immigrants – these are a net benefit to a society, since they generate taxes and jobs, but have always been an easy target.
  • Governments – there is some truth to the saying that in a democracy, we get the government that we deserve. If governments continue to follow policies that we don’t agree with, we can only blame ourselves for voting them in.

On the other hand, a factor that I don’t think has gotten enough attention is our culture. In particular, the “Australia dream” of owning a house on a block of land.

I worry that it is the pursuit of this goal, more than any single segment of society, that is driving the demand for houses in the suburbs of our capital cities. We need to give up on this dream if we are to achieve sufficient densities in the inner ring of suburbs where most people wish to live.

Rather than blaming other people, I can fess-up to being as guilty as everybody else on this one. A couple of years back, Kate and I bought a house together that would’ve housed a family of five when it was designed and built around 1900 in Kensington. This is a typical, gentrified, ex-working-class neighborhood of Melbourne that probably has lower densities now than when it was new. We moved out after we had our first child, because it was too small for us (!).

In the same way that governments around the world have influenced the cultural desires for a certain family size, it ought to be possible to embark on a campaign to change our cultural expectations and change this demand factor. Make living in high-density accommodation the trendy option. Guilt people out of their large houses with empty rooms and private back yards. (Other countries have a higher density of living than us, hence why many immigrants are willing to live in apartment blocks that locals would avoid; another reason why immigrants aren’t contributing as much to the problem.)

At the same time, there needs to be more direct incentive to motivate people to embark on such a change. Make subdivision easier. Make building apartments on new land easier. Ensure that apartment blocks are built well (good climate control and sound/smell proofing) and there is provision for common outdoor areas.

I’ve spent most of my years since I left home living in higher density accommodation such as apartments and townhouses. Although I’m currently living in a house, I think I’d be willing to share walls again.

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So, apparently this year is an election year, and we’ll be forced to choose between the policies of Rudd and Abbott. But whatever happens, it is going to be full of crazy stuff, because election years always are.

Unfortunately, some of the crazy stuff is likely to go beyond ordinary crazy, and be crazily bad. One example is the proposed Internet filter. It must appeal to voters in key marginal seats, or something, because it’s hard to see any good reason to introduce such a thing.

On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons why it would be a terrible idea. If this is an issue you care about, you’ve heard them already, so I won’t rehash them here. Although, today Senator Conroy publicly released the submissions that various people and companies made on the proposal, and it was clear that there was wide condemnation that the proposal was unworkable, ineffectual and would prevent legitimate uses.

Since I’m not able to effectively fight against it myself, I’ve donated some money to the EFA (Electronic Frontiers Australia) to go into bat for me. They make it more likely that we’ll all have the freedom to use the Internet unencumbered by crazy stuff like filters. The EFA is a volunteer-run organisation that survives on donations and is currently running a fund-raising campaign. This is just a free plug to say: help them out and they’ll help us all out.

Support EFA

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PlayTV

Image via Wikipedia

For Christmas, we bought a Sony PS3 bundle that included a PS3 Slim 250GB unit, a Bluray Disc remote control, and a PlayTV peripheral. Before buying it, I read a few reviews on it, spoke to some PS3 owners, skimmed through the Whirlpool forum posts on PlayTV, and started to think that it would be a good PVR. It was also cheaper and larger than the TiVo 160GB units that were on sale at the time.

However, now that we’ve been using it for a few months, I now know whether it is a good PVR.

What it has going for it:

  • Has a very slick and responsive user interface. It’s moderately easy to use, although you need to be comfortable using the Sony square/circle/triangle/cross buttons to move in and out of menus.
  • Records SD and HD. A 250GB unit can record about 30 hours of HD programming, given that Australian HD TV channels currently consume about 6GB per hour.
  • Can either record a given channel/day/time or specify a show (which can be found via a text search of the EPG – Electronic Programme Guide), including repeat recordings. If you specify a show, the PlayTV will adjust the recording times if the EPG start/end times are updated (which they sometimes are on most channels, except Nine and Go!).
  • TV programs are recorded exactly as they are received off the air, in their MPEG-2 Transport Stream, so if you later want to read the subtitles, they are available.
  • You can copy recorded programs (up to 4GB) from the device onto an external USB stick or drive. Although, it does require some fussing around.
  • Can pause live TV and then fast-forward through ads to get back to the live TV programme.
  • Even though it is “just” a peripheral to a games console, it functions as you would expect, recording shows even when you are using the PS3 to do other things, and also turning itself on to record shows if you’ve previously turned it off.
  • The fact that the Bluray Disc remote is based on Bluetooth (wireless) rather than InfraRed means that it doesn’t need to be pointed towards the unit to work. This has proved particularly useful with a toddler in the house that loves to press the buttons on the front of the PS3. The PS3 can be turned so that the front is not visible from the front of our TV cabinet but the remote control keeps working.
  • The PS3 also provides the ability to watch ABC iView (although you need to pick up a standard PS3 game controller rather than the BluRay Disc remote), BluRay Discs / DVDs, and has a web browser that allows you to get to most web sites (including YouTube).

What is not so good about it:

  • It can record only one show at a time. Even though it’s got two tuners, it uses one of them for recording, and one for watching.
  • It is Freeview compliant. This means that the Australian version is crippled compared to the overseas versions, with the ability to skip ads or fast-forward at super-high speed removed. You can set the unit to operate in the mode of a different country, e.g. UK, but you lose the ability to tune in UHF channels like those of SBS.
  • It is overly sensitive to noise or interference on the antenna. If you live in a low signal area, use splitters or extension leads, then you could very well find that you experience visual stuttering when using PlayTV, even if other digital TV devices perform fine. Replacing our RF cable with a higher quality one helped reduce the stuttering a bit.
  • There is no RF-out (like you might find on a VCR or even TiVo), so if you want multiple devices in the room to receive TV signal, you’ll need to put in an RF splitter between your wall point and the PlayTV. Unfortunately, this will increase signal loss along the cables, and may increase the visual stuttering or worse. When I tried adding a splitter to our set-up, we lost several channels in the PlayTV.
  • The Bluray Disc remote lacks several buttons that we regularly use (and are on our TV remote), specifically mute and subtitle on/off. The lack of volume control is not such a big deal, as the PlayTV normalises volumes to a pre-set level.
  • The EPG is populated with information extracted out of the channels as they are watched. This means that the quality is variable, and not all the information is present when you turn on the device. Also, even after the full EPG (shows all channels) has information, the mini EPG (shows information for the channel being currently watched) sometimes does not. Other PVRs either have their own EPG feed or can make use of a third-party feed like IceTV.
  • Although you can add additional time to the end of a show to record it in case it runs over the scheduled time, the most you can add is 10 minutes. This is sometimes not enough, and we’ve missed out seeing the endings of quite a few programmes.
  • The PS3 DVD player is one of the few sold in Australia that is region-locked, without an easy way of removing the lock. We have a number of overseas DVDs that we can’t play in it.
  • The software (even though it is currently v1.21) still feels immature. There are a number of annoying bugs that have somehow slipped through the QA testing. For example, although you can jump directly to a channel by typing in the channel number, it doesn’t work for channels higher than #023. Also, the live TV buffer fills up after 30 minutes of buffering and then stops working (you can’t watch from the buffer any more and need to return to the live TV show). Also, sometimes its parsing of the EPG data sometimes goes a bit skewiff, and we’ve had it record 2.5 hrs for a 1 hr show. I hope these are all fixed in later updates.

In summary, I would not currently recommend the PlayTV as a PVR, compared to others with similar prices. Certainly, if you are considering getting one, borrow one from someone and check to see if you get all the channels and any visual stuttering before you buy.

We are mostly used to our PlayTV now. Although, I would like to get someone in to check out our TV antenna system at some point, because if we could get rid of the stuttering, the PlayTV would be a nice, basic PVR.

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I recently got back from a short holiday in Canberra, our nation’s capital. Amongst other touristy things, we visited Old Parliament House, where there is an Australian Democracy Museum. One of the displays is on the past Prime Ministers, and when you see them all together, you realise that we’ve had a lot of them, in the century and a bit that we’ve run our own parliament.

In fact, from 1901 to 2010, we’ve had 31 changes of government. For those not doing the math as we go along, that’s one every three and a half years.

And for someone who is, say, 35 years old, and facing 25 years before they can get access to the money in their superannuation, there’s an expected 7 or so new governments that will have a chance to meddle with it in the mean time.

The risk of current and future governments impacting the performance of an investment through passing laws is called Legislative Risk. Unfortunately, laws that affect superannuation have been prime candidates in the past for government fiddling. In the future, given the rumours about the Henry Tax Review, it will almost certainly get further tweaking still.

If you’re an employee, participation in superannuation is compulsory, where 9% of the total salary package (or thereabouts) is locked away in the system. Unless employees are willing to go to the expense and effort of setting up a Self Managed Super Fund, their money is generally invested in Australian stocks and bonds. So, if you want to invest in say fine art, residential property, a family company or venture-capital backed start ups, you aren’t going to get any joy with super.

Despite the limited investment options and the long period that you can’t directly benefit from it, an investment in your superannuation gets beneficial tax treatment. This is its key advantage, and the very thing that is vulnerable to legislative risk – a risk that is real, based on past actions and rumoured future actions of our governments.

I think that most Australians would benefit from having some level of investment outside of superannuation (even if it’s just their home), in order to reduce their exposure to this risk.

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