Home loan

Having whined about phone companies yesterday, I thought I'd whine about mortgage companies today. I am quite unhappy with my mortgage provider, Ratebusters. Since we took out the loan, they've increased our interest rate in excess of reserve bank increases, two or three more times than the major banks did the same. As a result, our interest rate went from 1% below what we could get from the major banks to only 0.3% lower. This might sound okay, but we paid a big establishment fee at the start of the loan, which I'd calculated was more than offset by the lower rates we were supposed to be getting. I knew under the terms of the contract that they could change our interest rate whenever they pleased, but figured that they'd keep up a comparable margin in order to remain competitive in getting new loans. They got around this by increasing my interest rate once I was locked in (with extortionate exit fees if I left within 5 years), while offering a much lower rate to people taking out new loans. At the same time, they introduced transaction fees (there were no transaction fees on the account when I signed up).

Now we're 5 years in and I am thinking of switching to MECU. MECU have my savings account and have always treated me well. They have an equivalent home loan product that charges less interest than I am paying now. Only, over the life of the loan, that would probably only save us $650, whereas switching would cost us $950 (for a net cost of $300).

Do I want to "punish" Ratebusters enough to pay $300 and go through all the hassle of establishing a new home loan and transferring all our direct debit and direct deposit arrangements? Probably not :(

Phone companies

Finally giving up on Vodafone's dreadful network, I am attempting to switch back to Telstra. On Saturday morning, I went into a Telstra shop and explained that I wanted to switch, transfer my Vodafone number, and get Visual Voicemail activated (even knowing that Telstra charge an extra $5/month for that). After explaining my data needs, I was offered a choice of a $49/month (plus $5/month) contract plan or a prepaid card, with the recommendation of charging $30/month, which would give me all the calls and data I'm likely to want. I chose the latter, filled in the paperwork, showed ID and gave them my Vodafone number to be transferred. I was told that the transfer would not be done during business hours, but would probably happen on Saturday evening or, failing that, on Monday.

I waited patiently.

Today, surprised that my Vodafone sim was still active, I put the Telstra sim into the phone to check it. It connected with no problems, but didn't ring when I called my number. I put a $30 charge on it to investigate further, and called my office number to see what number it was on. Ah. Not my old number, but the number printed on the pack the sim card came in.

I called Telstra. I was on the phone for over an hour (and will need to work late tonight to make it up). I was told, "no, you bought a starter pack that comes with its own number: your old number won't be transferred. You'll have to go back to the shop and buy a blank sim if you want your number transferred." I protested. I was put on hold. Now, "okay, we can transfer your number to the sim you already have." Would my $30 charge be transferred, including the 1Gb bonus data that came with that charge? Not automatically, but they could give me a $30 "welcome" credit. Would it come with the bonus data? "Yes." Then I was transferred (after more time on hold) to a second person, who was going to make it happen.

After going through everything again, I was assured that the number would be transferred and the charge credited within a few hours. Fingers crossed (now waiting). I thought I should check one final detail. Visual voicemail: had that been set up correctly? No, they had activated Video Messagebank instead. I have no use for Video Messagebank, I said. I want Visual Voicemail, which (as I had already explained to the guy in the shop) Telstra called something else (Messagebank Plus). Well, I was told, you can't have that on a prepaid phone.


When the iPhone 5 comes out, I want to upgrade, so I'd consider going on a postpaid plan then, but I've just checked Telstra's offering, and it looks like they only offer the low-end iPhones on the $49 plan. For the high-end iPhone (which I'd want), I'd need to go on a $79/month (plus the monthly handset premium) plan. Why so arbitrary? And if I bring my own phone, there's no discount vs getting an included low-end phone. (Perhaps I should get the included phone and sell it on ebay to offset the cost of buying a handset from Apple directly?)

The thing is, none of the other phone companies are any better.

Mechanical Turk

Has everyone here heard of Amazon's Mechanical Turk? It's a site to which companies can post small jobs that require human intelligence, but not much of it, for very small amounts of money. A 500 word essay for a content farm might fetch USD 5, while identifying a picture, transcribing a short piece of audio, or drawing a box around an object in a photo, might fetch $0.01 - $0.03. It's called "Mechanical Turk" in honour of an old showground trick. What appeared to be an amazingly good robot (in the days before robots really existed, and called the mechanical Turk) was in fact operated by a hidden puppeteer. Amazon's Mechanical Turk is designed to be used in the same way. There are quite a few smartphone apps, for instance, that will send part of the job off to humans. The app descriptions never seem to mention this, preferring us to believe it is all done by amazing computer technology.

There's a New Scientist article about it here and an article about one of the better uses for it here.

On the one hand, Mechanical Turk offers the new low-skilled jobs that will replace the many unskilled jobs (check-out operators, for instance) that technology is slowly but surely replacing. Something has to fill this gap. It also potentially provides a way of globalising jobs, helping poor countries get into a service industry paid for by the rich. But it is very ripe for exploitation. It crosses national borders (and hence skirts local labour laws), and every worker is a home-based piece-worker (and hence not subject to any minimum wage or working conditions).

It's also interesting from a technological point of view. What further uses will innovators find for this melding of human and computer skills? And will we keep investing in ways to get computers to do complex tasks if we can get humans to do them so quickly and cheaply?

I use a couple of iPhone apps that use Mechanical Turk, so I thought it would be a good idea to find out what it is like on the other side.

On Sunday, I signed up as a Mechanical Turk worker and spent an hour taking on a few random jobs and not going out of my way to find higher-paying jobs. I completed 14 jobs. The first 3 or 4 were assessing to-do list items with regard to whether they could be broken down into sub-items and whether they could be aided by an online personal assistant, and if so, how. This was kind of fun, but paid only 1c per item.

Then I took on a 5c job in which I was asked to look at 100 pictures in which other workers had drawn boxes around the part that showed the "ceiling" and rate them as "good" or "bad". This dull task took around half an hour, as the criteria were quite strict and arbitrary and the pictures were loaded one at a time. I did it to the best of my ability, but at the end, I was not paid the promised 5c (or anything at all), as someone decided I had marked too many "bad" boxes as "good".

Next, I took on a job of watching videos and taking note of when people in them made a promise, threat or apology, or expressed an opinion. I had to write in the start and end times and what they said. For this, I was paid between 11c and 22c (a base of 11c, with a bonus of up to 11c for each job depending on what types of statements I could find).

Next, for 3c for each set of 10, I ran through lists of quotes from people who mentioned "o2" (apparently, a phone company) and assess whether each expressed a positive or negative feeling about the phone company (or whether the quote was unrelated to the company or expressed no opinion).

Another job paying 3c, was to put an item into a product category from a long list. This looked very dull and rather time-consuming, so I rejected this job.

All up, in my hour as a Mechanical Turk worker, I earned 64c.

European holiday

homonculus and I are off to Europe for three weeks tomorrow. It's very exciting. I really need the break, too (but worry that overseas holidays, while enourmously fun, are rarely much of break in terms of relaxation).

On happiness

Here's a rumination on happiness that I've been meaning to post for a while.
There's quite a lot of evidence to suggest that we each have a "happiness set point"; a level of happiness to which we'll bounce back after we get used to just about anything good or bad that happens to us. Win a lottery or lose your job: these things will make you happy or sad for a while, but it's surprising how much we adjust. Even people with "locked in" syndrome, when means are found to communicate with them, generally report that they are happy in their lives, once they get used to it. We can think of this "set point" as a mathematical attractor and the big events of our lives as perturbations in the field.

It tends to be these big things that we think about when we ponder what will make us happy and what will make our lives fulfilled - and yet, their effects are mostly transitory. (Unless the perturbation is great enough to cross the x-axis and cause a break).

Of course, that isn't all there is to it. Other work shows clearly that we can do some fairly simple things that will make us more happy. These tend to be little behavioural habits, rather than big things. Get enough exercise. Each week, write down 3 things that have gone well in the past week or that your are grateful for. Keep a pot plant in your office. Perform 5 acts of kindness in one day. Visualise yourself taking steps to achieve your goals (rather than having achieved your goal). There's evidence that all sorts of little things like that can make a difference (I recommend the book "59 seconds" for more).

So how does this fit in with the "set point"/mathematical attractor model? Perhaps it moves the set point.

In summary, in this model, the big things in life simply perturb us from our set point, while our little day-to-do habits affect the position of this point.

One more plot, just to put it on more sensible axes:


Home again

Have arrived safely back in Canberra. With the pneumonia, I keep wavering between thinking "poor little me, I'm sick" (which is true), and thinking that if I had got this with a cold instead of by itself, I would have just thought it was part of the cold and probably wouldn't have seen a doctor (which is also true). Have learnt a) to take coughs more seriously in future; and b) how to tell when I gave a fever.