Category Archives: Uncategorized

The glamourous world of long term travel

We’ve turned a new page in our travels. This week we’re staying in Izmir with Fi’s aunt and uncle, with every home comfort we could ever want. There are fridges and a fruit bowl. And a linen cupboard with actual linen. Today we even went to the movies.

All this comfort has causes us to reflect on some of less glamorous parts of our travels we’ve endured:

  • The state of available bathrooms is a frequent topic of conversation. Are they squat style? Clean? With running water? Toilet paper?
  • They probably don’t have toilet paper. So we carry it from one hotel to another.
  • There has been a constant assault on our digestive system: new cuisines, dubious water and occasional (ill-advised) decisions to eat cows hooves. We’ve rarely been very sick, but feeling a little queasy isn’t uncommon.
  • I’ve read recently that there are apparently twelve pairs of shoes that every man needs. This year I have had three pairs, and never more than one at a time. We carry as little as possible and the only time we get to buy new things is when getting rid of old ones.
  • We often look like complete dorks and slightly stalkerish, awkwardly going up to other people’s tables to snoop at their meals to point out to waiters with no English what we want to eat..
  • Washing machines are luxurious, driers more so. Without them we hand wash. And then we dry things in our rooms.
  • A good sniff is required to determine whether clothes are dirty, or just smell like backpack.
  • Travel towels. They’re highly useful but broadly horrendous. And they never feel clean, hand wash or no.
  • Then the worst: Fiona has taken to drinking instant coffee, black.

LinkedIn says: “You wouldn’t be in the top 50% of applicants for this role”

It’s job hunting season so I finally decided to take up LinkedIn’s offer of a free month of their ‘premium job-seeker service‘. There’s not much different about it to notice but there is this: for every job position LinkedIn advertises it offers and assessment of your chances of getting the job, like this one:

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 11.32.04 AM
LinkedIn says this. I say: “whatever”.

You can imagine how they come up with this assessment: your qualifications, experience, keywords that match between your profile and the job ad crunched together, generating a score that ranks you against those who have already applied. To me this process seems folly. And arguably irresponsible.

For one thing, LinkedIn is seldom the only way to apply for jobs, but only its applicants are analysed. That’s selection bias right there. For another, there is apparently no consideration of the immigration status required for each role, a factor which is incredibly important, if not determinative. This says to me the algorithm isn’t especially well thought through.

But mostly I’m just skeptical that candidates can be effectively ranked by LinkedIn (and on a related note I really hope that’s not a service LinkedIn is peddling to employers). You need a lot of assumptions, like how an individual employer values academic qualification, even though that plainly varies greatly, even within a single industry. You have to assume that a job description is an accurate representation of what an employer wants, and it’s often just a cut and pasted jumble. When they see a particular candidate they might rethink or realise they’d written the first JD wrong.

Then even if all your assumptions are right, or right enough, I still like to think there are things a candidate can convey in an application, like their motivations and values, that are important, and aren’t sitting in plain sight on their LinkedIn profile.

'Insights' LinkedIn offers on other candidates.
“Insights” LinkedIn offers on other candidates.

Look, I know big data can be incredibly powerful. The much cited example of Walmart predicting when its shoppers are pregnant is an excellent case in point. And maybe my skepticism is just naivete dressed as understanding. But I for one will be taking no real heed of LinkedIn’s assessments of my job prospects. I might be inclined to browse the “get more insights” section that shows me characteristics of other candidates (pictured above) so I can play up comparative advantages. But I won’t shy from applying from applications where LInkedIn says I haven’t a shot.

My concern is that if  job seekers buy into LinkedIn’s assessments more than I do, it may well be encouraging the wrong candidates to make applications. That wastes candidates time and messes with employers’ chance of getting who they need. Applier beware.

Mountains of meat


Turkey may not be up to much in the pizza toppings department, but they have other meat based snacks down. You can scarcely walk a city block without encountering massive piles of meat being cooked on rotisseries like the one above. And the snacks they make from them are much more varied than the doner kebab you might get at home. This kind of meat is a key ingredient in all sorts of wraps, pizza, sandwiches and even just sold in a bowl all by its lonesome.

The prevalence of meat mountains has caused us to wonder how they’re made. It is hard to see in this picture, but in Turkey they actually have slices of tomato cooking amongst the meat, presumably to keep in moist. And the construction of the mountain is ongoing through the day. See the bits on top that look a little like tinned apricots? They’re actually new, raw, bits of chicken that are being added to the pile. Initially this caused us concern. Putting raw chicken next to cooked chicken didn’t seem like a hygiene maximising idea. But then we realised it won’t just be the chicken on top that is raw, presumably the stuff in the middle is too, only cooking when it reaches the outside.

Joe’s guide to booking flights online: part 4 – flight search engines, the ugly, the good and the bad

In my first post on booking flights online I said you could never trust a single search engine for your flights, not even those who purport to search all the airlines. You do better making more searches.

In this fourth post in the series I want to give another example of how badly some search engines can get it wrong (“the ugly”) and then talk about some specific good and bad points of the various search engines available.

Auckland to Buenos Aires – going through London is ugly

Say you’ve decided to fill your late summer with delicious cuts of meat and implausibly cheesy pizza by heading from your home in Auckland to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Good call. If you jump on, a search engine that purports to search all the airlines (and all the other search engines) you’ll be recommended this…

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 9.06.36 PM

Two problems with this fare:

  1. It’s British Airways, via Hong Kong and London! That’s an unnecessary trip to a whole other hemisphere and almost three times longer than the most geographically direct route.
  2. Trips across the South Pacific are seldom cheap (there’s very limited competition), but kayak is asking you to pay about $500USD more than if you went ahead and searched directly with Lan Airlines, or, for that matter.

Following the advice from my first post would have yielded you that saving. If you went further, per my third post, and looked to break the fare at intermediate stops, in this case Tahiti, you’d probably end up with further savings.

The strengths of different searchers

Much as I caution against relying on one search engine they are unavoidable tools of the trade. Knowing how to get the most of them means knowing which have particular strengths. And that’s the main purpose of this post. There are a range of search options that are fine, but do nothing special (orbitz, priceline, expedia, edreams), so I’ve left them out.

  • Kayak is generally pretty good. It has a nice feature called ‘hacker fares’ where it will suggest different airlines for different legs of your trip if that turns up a cheaper fare. It also uses an algorithm that tells you how likely the fare you are looking at is to increase, though I am pretty sure that’s rubbish. Sometimes, though, it really lets you down, like in the example above.
  • Skyscanner is generally pretty good too, and it makes less outright mistakes than kayak. One feature that is especially neat if you can search a country or even “everywhere” as your destination. This is great when you’re looking for ideas. It may be the closest thing you get to the dream we all have of walking into an airport, picking a flight from the departures board and buying a ticket. Skyscanner’s Achilles heal is that you can’t search multi-stop flights.
  • ITA Matrix is google’s product. It has the best search functionality. You can search date ranges easily and specify you’re happy with a range of airports or cities. This kind of thing is great when you’re planning a holiday and are prepared to be flexible. To get the most out of ITA you need to learn the advanced routing codes. ITA’s downside, and it is a big, bad one, is that you cannot book the fares it finds you. So you end up using it to scan the market, then search for bookable fares elsewhere. You can also try and take the routing codes to some unsuspecting travel agent. In my experience they look at you like you’ve practiced airline voodoo. There’s a 50/50 chance they can actually book the fare to which you point them.
  • Statravel genuinely offers different fares for students, teachers and young people. The different fares have different conditions, and some “youth” age brackets go as high as 32. So if that counts you it is worth a try for long haul travel. Also, for reasons I have never understood, it is the only site I know that bundles multi-stop Virgin Australia domestic trips with fares in and out of Oz.
  • Ebookers is where I often find myself booking. It has no special functionality to speak of but it seems to often offer fares that no other site does. It only quotes in pounds, which is annoying when you’re comparison shopping, but it often converts out as the cheapest option.

Two final cautions. One: always check the fare you find at any of these sites against what the airline offers on its own website. You might be surprised at how much you save. Two: these kinds of search engines take different approaches to bundling baggage fees up in their low cost carrier fares. Always check carefully over what you are actually buying.

We’re probably approaching the end of the online flight booking knowledge I can easily disperse here at this point. But please, ask me anything and I will share what I know.

Sloth International Day

I hope that you are joining with us in celebrating Sloth International Day. If you haven’t already, do something slothful.

#teamsloth forever.

We’re going on a job hunt… we’re going to catch a big one…

As the end of the calendar year looms so do our planned travels and the pot of money we set aside to support them. Despite Fiona’s recent success pick up sticks with our host family in Shiraz, it seems unlikely she’ll be able to go pro. So, we’re starting to look for more conventional forms of employment for 2015.

We’ve decided to roll the dice and see if we can find some work overseas. We’re interested in new challenges and the buzz of a big city. We’re also conscious that we’ll probably never find it as easy to break ties to home for a while. We’ve neither a mortgage nor kids to keep us fixed in place.

We’re finding that looking for work overseas is a very different proposition to looking in New Zealand:

  • We’re much less likely to know the employer, or even someone who works for them. Our applications are the job hunt equivalent of cold calling.
  • Small countries like generalists who can turn their hand to new problems as they emerge and that’s how we’ve been conditioned. Big countries expect specialists.
  • We find it hard to fit ourselves into the kinds of boxes that recruiters like to draw. We’re neither IT specialists, management accountants nor engineers and we’re yet to see an advertisement for a specialist in sloths, flight booking and travel blogging.
  • When location isn’t a given the range of possibilities is almost impossibly large, and that can be dizzying.
  • Immigration laws bite. That said, as New Zealanders we are lucky to have a relatively of wide range of places where visas aren’t tricky. Certainly things are harder if you’re Iranian.

We’re currently casting a wide net, and trying to leverage every connection we have. And to that end we’d be very grateful to any readers or our blog who thought of anyone useful with whom they might put us in touch. For the record

  • Joe is looking to work somewhere where government and commercial worlds collide. That might be a regulated or government owned business, consulting, or in a government itself. Experience is here.
  • Fiona is looking for work as a social policy economist. That might be within government, a think-tank or other NGO. Experience is here.

But more than that if you’re a regular reader of our blog you probably have a better idea of what would fit for us than any description we can give. So we’re open to your ideas and suggestions. And yes, we will work almost anywhere.

The job hunt juggle

Even though our job search has only just begun we’re already experiencing its impact on our travels. It is harder to peruse Persian ruins when you’re preoccupied with the cover letter you need to write that night. Iran has been an especially frustrating place to kick things off. Internet is frigid. Skype is impossible.

Thinking about what is next also has the unavoidable implication of realising that our travels are not indefinite, and will be over sooner rather than later. I always get to a stage in trips where time seems to be running out and I start to wonder how I will look back on what I have experienced, and how I will package the entirety of the journey into sound bites and pleasantries that will inevitably be required when I get home.

The truth is the value of travel doesn’t become apparent immediately. It seeps out into your everyday life. Memories and anecdotes are relevant in unexpected places. You look at something in your own society in a new way. And everything you do, including and especially your work, is informed by a richer diversity of experience.

Mashhad – a spiritual and actual refuge


Mashhad is Iran’s holiest city, and its second largest.

The holiness is due to the massive shrine complex in the city’s centre. Inside is the body of Reza, one of the twelve Imams of Shia Islam, and the only one to be buried in Iran. Reza was poisoned with grapes and pomegranate juice, which is kinda cool. Shia pilgrims come to pay their respects and ask for favour from Reza.

They stay in concentric circles of hotels that span out from the shrine. Arab tourism means the streets we walk in are filled with men in long white robes and women dressed even more conservatively than Iran’s laws require. We’ll write about our experience in the shrine soon.

The population is largely due to the Iran-Iraq war. Mashhad was the Iranian city that was furthest from the front. Its population skyrocketed with Iranians displaced from the conflict and others who were scared its misery would encroach further towards their homes.

It feels like the Iran-Iraq war is under-represented in western consciousness. Which is to say, I was embarrassed by how little I knew about it. As a broader mark of how much we care it apparently used to be called the Gulf War in English until Iraq invaded Kuwait a few years later and we decided the fight that involved western forces deserved the name. The war lasted for eight years, the longest conventional war in the 20th century. It also saw the revival of trench warfare for the first time since world war one, and the serious use of chemical weapons.

About a million people died. A considerable number of them died as deliberate martyrs. It was common for young Iranian men to walk through minefields, sacrificing their lives to try and clear them. Today billboards in towns throughout Iran still display their pictures and offer thanks.

When the war started in 1980 Iran was still piecing itself back together after the 1979 revolution. It seems the domestic chaos was a prime motivation for Saddam Hussein’s opportunist grab of oil rich Khunestan province on his northern border. He was also concerned that the Iranain revolution might serve as a model for the Shia Islam minority he oppressed.

In some senses the invasion probably galvanised Iran’s new Islamic State; volunteers flooded south to fight the Iraqis. Iraq’s army was better organised and armed but Iran’s was more numerous. By 1982 Iraq had been pushed back to its borders but Iran sought to continue the conflict, invading Iraq with dubious claims to legitimate sovereignty over important Shia pilgrimage sites Najaf and Karbala. A cease-fire was negotiated in 1988, though apparently prisoners were still being exchanged as late as 2003. By the time this uneasy peace was reached about a million Iranians had fled their homes, and most of them had ended up in Mashhad.

Despite the horror and longevity of the war I can’t find anything that says anyone seriously considered intervening to knock it off. The US did give a bunch of money and weaponry to Saddam though. And that worked out well.

Policy wonk digest – Iran

  • Iran executes the second largest number of people in the world (after China). There were more than three hundred executions last year.
  • There are some unusual opportunities for reprieves for death row inmates. You are likely to have your sentence commuted if you manage to memorise the Quoran. Family of victims of murder can also choose to pardon offenders, which they tend to do at the last minute when the noose is literally around the neck. Blood money paid from the family of the offender to the family of the victim is has a significant influence on pardons.
  • Iranian weeks and years are organised differently to ours. Weekends are Thursday/Friday with the Muslim holy day placed like our Sunday.
  • Date wise, today is 4 Mehr 1393. The calendar counts from when Muhammed migrated to Mecca. The twelve months correspond to signs of the zodiac. Each year begins with the autumnal equinox (20 or 21 March).
  • We’ve read that as well as the strict dress code for women, it is also illegal for men to wear neck ties. We can’t validate this, but we can say we’ve seen no one in a tie and none on sale in shops.
  • The morality police crack down on women not correctly wearing hejab at the beginning of each summer, when the oppressive heat might incline them to show just a little more skin.
  • Bus drivers have a gadget installed in their vehicles that records their speed. They have to stop every 100km to submit results to police to prove they’ve not been speeding. This seems overly frequent, but these counters are a very interesting idea and I wonder whey they haven’t had wider application.

Normal service will resume shortly

Apologies for the interruption to travel blogging from my focus on the New Zealand election (and more importantly my sweepstakes) in recent days.

We’re in Iran, having a fantastic time, and normal blogging will resume shortly.

In the meantime, if you’re really desperate you might like to read back through some of our favourite posts:

  • Here‘s the story of our visit to the home of the family of Colombian refugees who Fiona worked with in New Zealand.
  • Here‘s when we went to the last Maoist commune in China.
  • Here‘s my review of the five main kinds of steak offered in Argentinian asados.
  • Here‘s some chat about when we toured the massive silver mine in Potosi, Bolivia, and met some devil worshippers.
  • Here are my thoughts on New Zealand’s decision to caution travelers against flying a Chinese built plane in Tonga. I’ve an OIA in on this subject, so I hope to make a follow up post soon.

Great electoral sweepstakes: Results (updated)

For me personally the most satisfying thing about last night’s election results was having a credible reason to put them in a spreadsheet and crunch them up.

The table below shows the 25 questions, the correct answer and the % of entrants who answered correctly. The toughest question was about how many electorates would change hands between parties which was widely overestimated. The easiest prediction was that Te Ururoa Flavell would be re-elected. Y’all also smashed the question about who got most crushed by Dirty Politics: It was Judith Collins.


The top six

I was all ready to give a top five paid entrants and a top five including everyone. But actually, all the top five had ponied up so no one who only wanted glory featured. So these results are for the best pickers and those who will be in the money.

First place: Oscar Ellison, an old school friend who I nagged into playing after I saw on Facebook he was procrastinating my making an electoral calculator in Excel. Oscar scored 18/25. Congratulations, Oscar! $144 is coming your way soon.

Second place: A further five players scored 17/25. Congratulations to:

  • Kenny Clark
  • Olivia Rees
  • Kurt Purdon
  • Rachel Baxter
  • Matt de Witt

That’s exciting because it means we get to turn to turnout estimates to determine who gets the prize money for second and third.

Remarkably Kurt Pudon and Olivia Rees were both within 1% of correct turnout which was 77.04%. Kurt said 76.7%, Olivia sad 76.3%. Ad that was all that separated them. So congratulations to Kurt, $72 for you, and Olivia, $24 to you.

Tough luck to Rachel and Kenny who very nearly got there. If we were still in 5.2 and doing an office sweep, you would have smashed it. Matt de Witt, you were just a bit hopeful with your turnout estimate.

If anyone would like to know their individual result and can’t be bothered counting it up for themselves you can get in touch with me and I’ll tell you. And if anyone wants to challenge any of the results you have until 5pm Monday New Zealand time to do so.

Most of all, a big thank you to everyone who played. Look out for the next exciting edition in 2017.

*My apologies for originally stating that only two electorates changed hands. It was actually four. This did not impact the results, however.