Saturday, 11 May 2013

Much ado about nothing?

I have of late been watching with some interest media reports about synthetic cannabis products. Various iterations of these products have been available in stores for years, and reports about the terrible harms they cause appear from time to time in the media. In the last week or two there has been an explosion of stories prompted by the banning of the product K2 and other substances with the same active ingredient. The general tone has, of course, been one of much hand-wringing and tut-tutting about the evils of these substances, and they generally call upon the government to immediately ban all synthetic cannabis products. We've been subjected to images of college-age youths buying and smoking these products on the way to school, and we've heard many anecdotal tales about how addictive and damaging the use of these substances can be. So can the government ban them, and, more importantly, should they? Or is there a better way to tackle this issue?

Firstly, what is synthetic cannabis, and why is it legal to sell in the first place? This all hinges on the provisions in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. The act defines various controlled substances ("drugs") and breaks them down into different classes based on the harm they may potentially cause and the penalties which may be applied for the importation, manufacture, sale and possession of each class. Heroin, cocaine and a bunch of other drugs are considered Class A and are subject to the harshest penalties. Cannabis is generally a Class C drug and as such attracts less severe penalties. But what the act actually defines for each substance is the active psychoactive chemical. This is an important distinction because the primary active substance in cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a fairly complex chemical with the formula C21H30O2. What manufacturers of synthetic cannabis products do is change the active ingredient a bit, essentially tinkering with the exact chemical composition of the active substance without significantly changing its underlying structure. In so doing the chemical is no longer THC, and as such is not covered by the act. Substances infused with these THC-mimics are therefore not prohibited for sale and/or possession under the act, but still produce similar psychoactive effects as THC. Authorities wishing to regulate these substances end up playing a never-ending game of catch-up; as soon as one THC analogue is added to the act the enterprising purveyors of synthetic cannabis release a new product with a slightly different modification to the THC molecule.

So are they safe? Well, the fact is we really don't know. Given their chemical similarity to THC it is likely that their health effects are similar. Chopping a hydroxyl or methyl group off one of the benzene rings in THC and replacing it with, say, a phosphate or sulphate group is not too likely to cause significant harm, but without testing and/or data there isn't any way of telling for certain. I urge readers not to fall prey to the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the vocal minority which appear in the media. The reports of harm from these folk are almost always subjective and anecdotal, and while their stories are at times tragic they are not a representative sample of the whole population. The media are always going to report the most severe and tragic cases; there is no incentive for them to run a story about the majority of people who smoke synthetic cannabis and enjoy the experience with no adverse consequences. It is not at all sensational enough, and there does seem to be a bit of a negative bias in the media towards synthetic cannabis at the moment.

What is the solution then? The Hon Peter Dunne is proposing a new bill in parliament called the Psychoactive Substances Bill. If passed this bill will put the onus on the manufacturers of psychoactive substances to prove that "the degree of harm that the product poses to individuals using the product is no more than a low risk of harm." In principle this seems reasonable. My issue with this is the definition of a low risk of harm. How low is an acceptable risk, and who determines this? Could it be applied retrospectively, and if so could we see the likes of caffeine (known to be mildly psychoactive, addictive and harmful in high enough doses) fall foul of such legislation? And why single out psychoactives? Why not apply the same rules to food, for example? I can imagine a new brand of cracker, with a high salt and fat content, entering the market, and which could easily fail to meet the test that it posed "no more than a low risk of harm."

Personally, I don't like the knee-jerk calls to ban these things immediately they appear on the market. Firstly, there's a 50/50 chance that the newly banned substance will be replaced by a more harmful analogue. Secondly, for its entire history mankind has experimented with psychoactive substances, and repeated attempts to legislate against these substances just doesn't work. It does nothing to reduce the demand for them, and serves only to create black markets and to put the drug economy in the hands of gangs. This results in drugs being sold by people who willingly and actively flout the law, who care only about selling product, and care little about who they are selling to. It certainly doesn't help keep drugs out of the hands of children. And it criminalises a subset of humanity whose only "crime" is that they choose to imbibe a substance that a bunch of conservative middle-class white people don't like. Drug laws, as they are implemented, are fundamentally discriminatory. If you are in a lower socio-economic group, and especially if you are of Maori or Pacific Island descent, you are much more likely to be detained and convicted for drug offences. Maori comprise approximately 15% of our total population, but make up about 35% of all drug convictions. (Data from 2004)

A much smarter way to tackle the issue of synthetic cannabis is to destroy the demand. And there is a demand for these products for one reason and one reason alone: the illegal status of cannabis itself. If natural cannabis were to be legalised and regulated in much the same way as alcohol the "problem" of synthetics would disappear overnight, as would a range of social ills associated with the criminalising of cannabis. We already know that cannabis is relatively benign, certainly compared to a number of legal drugs. Yes, there are some known health effects, but these are far better managed under a regulated legal framework where they can be treated as any other health problem. We don't incarcerate and abandon alcoholics in their time of need just because they have a problem with alcohol, we choose to treat them for their addiction and any subsequent health problems. So why should we treat cannabis users as pariahs? By criminalising cannabis and those who choose to use it we create considerably more harm than we prevent. Let's have the courage as a nation to take a sensible stance on drug laws rather than introduce another piece of flawed legislation.

Personal disclaimer: I haven't tried any of these products, so am unable to comment authoritatively on their effect, either short-term or long-term. I'd welcome comments from folk who have tried them and who are prepared to share their experiences. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

International TableTop Day - Rolleston edition

Howdy gamers of the world,

My friend Duncan hosted what may well have been one of the first International TableTop Day (ITTD) gaming events at his house here in Rolleston, New Zealand. OK, we may have cheated a wee bit because we held the event yesterday, due mainly to a venue scheduling snafu. Here are a few photos of the games we had available on the day:

We started at about 11am with a game of Gloom, which I didn't win, then stopped for a bit of a barbeque lunch. After an hour or so of hanging around eating and talking we decided to have what we though would be a quick round of Munchkin before tackling Ticket to Ride. However we played what I have since christened Death Munchkin. We improvised with a house rule* that all monsters were always wandering, i.e. as if the Wandering Monsters card was permanently in play. This made the game quite brutal, especially as players got close to 10th level. So much so that the game lasted most of the afternoon and we ran out of time for Ticket to Ride, but thats ok because it just means we'll have to play that on another occasion. Here's me in the middle of some tense Munchkin action, which, for the record, I also didn't win:

My mate Steve popped around today so in the spirit of ITTD we had a two-player game of Munchkin, because he'd missed the date change for yesterday. It seemed like the decent thing to do to play at least one game on the day anyway. And, I WON!!!!!!

The last couple of days have been a lot of fun. Getting a group of friends together to play a board game or two is a fantastic way to socialise. Over the years it has been one of the main ways I've kept in touch with my friends. I can't recommend this enough as a way to keep your social circle together. Well done Wil Wheaton and Geek and Sundry for promoting International TableTop Day. Long may it continue.


*OK, so we misread the rules. Hey, it happens! We also screwed up another rule, such that the card revealed when you kicked down a door wasn't in play unless it was a monster or curse, so players couldn't pick it up. These two rules "modifications" made for quite a challenging game. :)

Friday, 30 November 2012


At last the mostly woeful Black Caps have won something.

You know, I was so tempted to leave it at just those few words. For my fellow cricket followers out there it probably says everything. But for those who have a more casual relationship with cricket I feel I ought to enlarge upon my measly offering. I write this a few minutes after the New Zealand cricket team won the second test match against Sri Lanka in Colombo. It has been a tough tour for the Kiwis. The early games were heavily influenced by the monsoonal rains. The only 20/20 was rained off after the Black Caps set a meagre total of 74 runs off 14 overs. Only 3 of the 5 one-day games were completed, and they were also affected by the inclement weather, leading to victories to Sri Lanka via the Duckworth-Lewis system.

The sun came out for the test matches. Unfortunately for the Kiwis their losing streak didn't end with the rain. The first test was all about Rangana Herath. He bowled magnificently, taking 11 wickets in the match. There weren't many highlights from New Zealand; McCullum and Flynn made 50's in the first innings and Southee and Patel bowled pretty well. In the end the Sri Lankans had an easy victory. Following another all too familiar ordinary Black Cap batting performance they were left a second innings target of just 93 runs to win the test. They got them without losing a wicket, wrapping the match up inside 3 days.

So it was fair to say I wasn't approaching the second and final test with optimism. The Sri Lankans had consistently had the wood on the Black Caps, out-batting and out-bowling us in every game. Losing McCullum and Guptill early in the first innings didn't add to my confidence. But then something special happened, and it happened in the guise of Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson. These two put on a determined display of batting, with their partnership adding 262 runs before Williamson succumbed to the wily Herath. He and Taylor crafted innings of 135 and 142 runs respectively, and Flynn again chimed in with a nice 50. The batsmen had finally set the bowlers a respectable total of 412 to defend, and they went about the task with enthusiasm. Southee and Boult were particularly troublesome, taking 9 wickets between them. The Lankans were bowled out for 244, giving the Kiwis a first innings lead of 168 runs. Only Samaraweera showed any real resistance, notching up a good 76 runs, with unconverted starts by a number of other batsmen. 

Our batting was more fragile in the second innings, but it was Taylor's match with a gritty 74 before he was run out by a poor Southee call. It was also nice to see a solid 35 run effort by Todd Astle on debut. Thanks to the first innings effort our total of 194/9 declared was enough to set Sri Lanka the target of 363 runs to win the match. With a day and a bit to achieve it this was likely to be a tall ask, but a draw was definitely on the cards. Our seamers won the day however, dismissing the hosts in the final session for 195 runs. Mathews was solid, but his 84 run innings lacked support. Overall a victory to the Black Caps by 167 runs squaring the test series. 

I like one day and 20/20 games, and I always want the Black Caps to perform well, but there is something about a test victory that seems more special somehow, more deserving of praise. Perhaps it is because they don't happen that often, especially away from home. So well done to the Black Caps, who have come away from the series smarting a bit, but who must feel at least a little better having won the final game. They now head to South Africa where a bigger challenge awaits. The wickets are at least likely to be a little more similar to those here at home, and the weather will hopefully play less of an active role in the games to come. Here's hoping the confidence boost this test victory gives them will result in a few more wins against the Proteas.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Of things geeky

Those of you who know me a little have probably guessed that I'm a bit of a geek, but only my best friends are aware of just how nerdy I can be. So let me crack open the door to the closet a little and let you have a peek inside.

Firstly, my job. I work on an IT help desk, and prior to that I worked in microbiology laboratories, so immediately you know I'm going to have at least a hint of the geek about me. But the geek taint runs deeper in me, oh yes, much deeper indeed. When I'm not helping the good folks at my workplace use their computers I return home to my cave and let my true nerd surface. I love reading science fiction and fantasy novels, so have a bit of a library of my preferred authors at home. Robert A Heinlein is probably my favourite, although Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, David Eddings, Julian May and many others also grace my bookshelves. I think the thing I like most about Heinlein is that while his works are strongly sci-fi, at their heart they are very human stories. Science fact still interests me as well, even if my career has headed in a different direction. And though I majored in botany/microbiology I also remain fascinated by, and try to keep abreast of, the discoveries in the fields of astronomy, cosmology and physics.

In addition to working with computers I also enjoy playing on them. Yes, I'm a bit of a gamer. I am the first to admit that I'm not a very good gamer, my reaction times aren't what they used to be, so I don't usually go for fast-paced multi-player shooters. I'm much more comfortable with a good old turn-based strategy title (the Civilisation series has collectively absorbed many many hours of my life) or a role playing game. I am currently playing through an old classic RPG that I never completed the first time around, namely Baldur's Gate 2. Titles like these have the added advantage of being easily saved, paused and/or exited at pretty short notice; having a young baby in the house means this happens often. :)

Geek chic is on the rise, but there is still, I think, a fairly strong social stigma surrounding some of the more extreme nerd pastimes. And there is no really good reason for this other than the innate human predilection for fearing and belittling that which is different and which we don't understand. So it is good to see guys like Wil Wheaton being so openly nerdy. Wil is probably best known as an actor. His roles include Gordie Lachance in the film Stand by Me, Wesley Crusher on the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and more recently an evil version of himself, and Sheldon Cooper's nemesis, on the TV series The Big Bang Theory. But Wil is also openly geek. For those of you likely to be interested in this sort of thing, and I'm hoping there will be at least a couple of you, Wil hosts a quite entertaining web series called TableTop on the Geek & Sundry website. Essentially Wil invites a few mates around to play boardgames, films & edits it, adds some commentary and descriptions of the game rules and mechanics, and releases it onto YouTube. I'd like to give Wil some special kudos for getting Steve Jackson in to play Munchkins. Yes nerds, THAT Steve Jackson! Wil takes him on at his own game, along with Felicia Day and Sandeep Parikh, but you'll have to watch the episode yourself to see if the padawan becomes the master.

On the very slim chance that Wil or someone else associated with TableTop reads this I'd like to thank you for advancing the nerd cause, for introducing me to some games I'd never heard of, and mostly for giving me a bloody good laugh. I'd love to see you guys have a crack at something like the Civilisation board game, but it does take a long time to play, so probably wouldn't translate well into the 30 minute format of TableTop. I own a copy of the English version published by Gibson Games, but I think I like the look and feel of the US version by Avalon Hill in the early 80's a bit more. It is long out of print now of course, but you can often pick up copies of out of print games on eBay. And if you're feeling especially generous I'd gladly allow you to use my copy, it is still in pretty good condition. You'll just have to fly it to the States, along with it's minder :)

I think that is probably enough self-exposure for one evening, and anyway I'm missing what might be a tight finish in the New Zealand vs Pakistan 20/20 cricket game, although it isn't looking promising. Go the Black Caps! And as the big fella said, the geeks shall inherit the earth.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Time, and Happy Birthday

Six weeks and two days ago our daughter Elizabeth was born. I have since discovered just how much of one's time a newborn consumes. So this is something of an apology of sorts, an apology for the time taken between posts. Having said that I in no way begrudge her the time, I wouldn't have it any other way. Be warned, however, that it is likely that service here will be a tad infrequent and irregular, at least for a few weeks more.

As it turns out caring for a newborn, while being a pretty miraculous thing, does descend into a repeating pattern of feeding, burping, jiggling, cleaning poo, and catching what rest you can between the above. It's a kind of Groundhog Day of fatigue. Luckily we're able to do it together. I have a new found respect for solo parents and parents in multiple-birth families. Even acting as a team as we are it is bloody exhausting, and we're only wrangling one baby between us.

So here's a quick summary of the first six weeks of parenting. Baby was great for the first few days, she slept for quite long periods of time between feeds, and aside from her exports being a bit sticky nappy changing wasn't especially unpleasant. By the end of the first week sleep was becoming a more precious commodity, with unsettled nights causing substantial disruption, particularly for Julie. Luckily I was able to sleep more throughout the night, and while she was caring for Elizabeth I was caring for her. Then I had to go back to work. Suffice it to say that I've had a couple of days off since then, mainly to recover from sleepless nights and accumulated sleep debt. Thanks very much to my employer for being so understanding, not only for allowing the occasional daddy day, but also for putting up with my reduced efficiency while at work.

After the first week pooing became much more frequent and a good deal more runny. We have only had one really major poo explosion, where the nappy provided insufficient cover and absorption, and that required an entire clothing change, and a new blanket to boot. I have no idea where it all came from. Luckily this has settled down after six weeks, and she's now no longer needing a change after every feed. Thank goodness.

Elizabeth is eating like a trooper, and growing very nicely. She's put on 1.2 kg and is apparently tall for her age. Whether that is a predictor of future height remains to be seem, but we're relieved she is happy, healthy and well-fed. She's also a very good wee babe, doesn't really cry unless she actually needs feeding or burping, and has settled into a pretty good routine. She had her first inoculations on Friday and, while she cried a bit when she was jabbed with the needle, after a minute or two of daddy cuddles she calmed right down and went back to sleep. Needless to say we are relieved that she is such a relaxed and trouble free little girl. Long may it continue.

So happy six week birthday Elizabeth. One day when you read this know that your Mum and Dad love you very much, and we are doing everything in our power to make sure you are well cared for and well loved.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

New life and new beginnings

I say above that I am going to blog, at least in part, about the joys and demands of new fatherhood. Well, I am now in the position to start doing just this, because on June 30th at 3:20am my wife Julie delivered a beautiful baby girl, Elizabeth Rose. We couldn't be happier. For those who haven't seen the myriad pics on Facebook here she is with her very proud dad:

I guess the overwhelming emotion on the roller-coaster during the delivery was one of helplessness and impotence. Obviously I was excited and anxious, but really all I could do was stand by Julie, hold her hand through each contraction, support her and tell her what an amazing job she was doing. I was incredibly proud of her throughout the labour, and sharing this experience has brought us even closer together, something which those who know us well will probably find difficult to believe :) But in reality she was the one doing all the hard work, and experiencing the pain, discomfort and fatigue. While I wouldn't have missed it for the world, I still felt pretty useless, although I like to think that my support helped at least in some small way. It was a truly amazing and miraculous experience.

I know a few of my friends have talked about bonding with their newborns, and how this can sometimes take a little while, because the emphasis is usually on bonding between mum and baby. For reasons I won't go in to, following the delivery I was fortunate to be able to spend some time doing the skin-to-skin thing with our new baby, so in my case this bonding happened very early on. And wee Elizabeth seems to really enjoy dad cuddles, when she is being a bit grizzly a few minutes in dad's embrace seems to help soothe her. She is lovely to cuddle, really warm and soft and snuggly, and she makes the cutest little noises when she is feeling warm and contented.

So far being a dad is really rather enjoyable. I don't even mind changing dirty nappies, something I'd always kind of dreaded in the build-up to the delivery. Sure, for the first few days the poo is kinda nasty and sticky, but it doesn't take long before it starts to become less unpleasant. And having had pets for a number of years I've become used to cleaning up the odd mess. At least baby's poo is (usually) contained within a nappy. I have made one basic noobie error during changing, one which I trust will elicit some amusement for you. I cleaned Elizabeth's bottom and then picked her up to give her a wee cuddle before putting her clean nappy on. Of course she did the unexpected and promptly produced a second poo, all over my hand and t-shirt. I was initially stunned and a little horrified but, once I'd cleaned up, Julie and I had a bloody good laugh about it. So new dads, here's a tip for you - NEVER pick up your newborn without a nappy securely in place :)

There is one more challenging aspect to having a newborn, something which I'm sure fellow dads will sympathise with, and that is breast-feeding. Elizabeth can be a little fussy at times, and doesn't always latch on and feed well. This can be pretty frustrating, especially in the wee small hours when we're tired and she is crying up a storm. Once again I experience the same feelings of helplessness and impotence as during labour. I really want to help and get her feeding sorted, but there really isn't anything I can do. Our midwife assures us that we're doing everything right, but that in the early stages both mum and baby are learning how to make it work and we just have to persevere and be patient. Apparently by this time next week we'll look back and wonder what the hell we were worried about. That's nice to know, and intellectually one can take it on board, but at times it isn't easy. I think it might be a man-trait that makes us want to fix things, to find and offer solutions to problems rather than just sit and be supportive and comforting. It is this inability to rectify some situations which I find most challenging. Mostly, however, being a dad is a truly joyous experience.

One thing we've noticed is that Elizabeth seems to pick up our mental state and reacts to it, because when we are feeling a bit less certain about how things are going she seems to fuss more. As Julie said, even if you don't realise it you probably are a bit stressed so, if you can, take a few minutes for yourself and try to relax a bit.

Last, but by no means least, I'd like to extend my heartfelt thanks to our widwives and to the staff at Christchurch Women's Hospital. The quality of care we received was outstanding, and it was dispensed with a great deal of competence and professionalism. You made what was a potentially very scary and uncertain time much less intimidating for us. Thank you so very much.

Monday, 25 June 2012

NZC is like a box of chocolates...

It's true, you never quite know what you're going to get from New Zealand Cricket (NZC), and neither do the players. NZC have recently released their list of contracted players for the 2012/2013 season. Each year cricketers eligible to play for New Zealand are ranked by NZC, and the top 20 ranked players are awarded contracts for the season. The value of the contracts varies from $181,000 plus match payments for the top ranked player down to $73,000 plus fees for the 20th ranked player. The actual rankings remain a secret, but it is likely that the captain, Ross Taylor, will be somewhere near the top of the list.

This year the contracted players are: Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Dean Brownlie, Andrew Ellis, Daniel Flynn, James Franklin, Martin Guptill, Chris Martin, Brendon McCullum, Nathan McCullum, Kyle Mills, Tarun Nethula, Rob Nicol, Jacob Oram, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor, Kruger van Wyk, Daniel Vettori, BJ Watling and Kane Williamson.

The list has a fairly predictable sameness about it, which is a reflection of our relatively limited pool of top class players. Most of the contracted players have pretty much selected themselves, but as always the list has raised a few eyebrows, especially in the bowling stakes. Some commentators have wondered about the inclusion of Doug Bracewell at the expense of Mark Gillespie, but for me this is a sensible decision. Both have only played a handful of tests but Bracewell is younger, has a better record, and seems to be less injury prone. Injuries or personal reasons have ruled out a few other high profile players who would otherwise likely have made the cut, notably Jesse Ryder and Hamish Bennett. There has also been some surprise at the omission of Neil Wagner, but he has only just become eligible to play for New Zealand. He has been included in the team to tour the West Indies, and if his international performances live up to the promise of his domestic record he is almost certain to be offered a contract in seasons to come, but I have no issue with NZC not offering a contract to a player untested at international level.

But other contracts around the fringes are a bit more questionable. I remain unconvinced with Andrew Ellis and Rob Nicoll, and Jacob Oram, as fine a servant as he has been, must be nearing the end of his international career, especially in light of recent injuries. The problem, as always, is who to replace these players with if they were to be omitted. Andy McKay and Brent Arnell haven't really impressed when given a chance, and other bowlers on the domestic scene don't appear to offer more than the contracted players. At least Ellis and Nicoll are all-rounders, so if they have a bad day with the ball there is always a chance they can contribute at the batting crease, and vice versa.

Certainly the list of contracted players has a strong limited overs feel about it, which is hardly surprising given the Twenty20 World Cup to be played in Sri Lanka starting in September. For me tests are still the pinnacle of the cricketing world, and in a season where we have a lot of test matches coming up I'm not sure that such a strong focus on limited overs cricket is in the best interests of the team's future. T20 and One-dayers are good money spinners, but most fans and players still hold our test performances and rankings as being the most important achievements. But if the miraculous happens, and the team comes home with a trophy from Sri Lanka, I guess nobody will really care about test match performances. Sadly.

As an aside, NZC are likely to announce a successor to John Wright as coach sometime around July/August. Stephen Fleming has already ruled himself out, citing family reasons. I think in years to come, when his children are a bit older, and when none of his former team-mates are still playing for New Zealand, Flem will make an excellent coach of the Black Caps. Former coach Steve Rixon has been suggested by some commentators, and I'd welcome his input; his record with NZ last time was excellent. It would mean the aussie invasion of NZC would be complete though, but if we could be as dominant as the aussie team in years past I guess that would be ok.