Thursday, December 27, 2007

Cheap VR

Excuse me, but I'm having a super geek moment. One of the research methods that I use is a head-mounted virtual reality device, which allows the research participant to move around a virtual environment that can be controlled by the experimenter. I'm currently using a borrowed, low-cost version for my purposes, but I plan to get something really nice in the next year. The problem: the price tag is at least USD $30,000. Imagine my excitement then, when I saw this video, which shows how a beginner VR system can be concocted from a Wii game system:

You can check out the rest of Johnny Chung Lee's Wii remote projects here. Johnny Lee is my hero!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

I'm sorry about my absence from the blogosphere. I promise to make amends later in the week. All is well here. Somehow Santa arrived even though we don't have a chimney. Maybe it's because Will was able to make a special request at the Indooropilly Shopping Centre:

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Denial: It's Not a River

At long last, SE Queensland has been getting some very good rainfalls this week.  There's a vibrant green everywhere, which I have never seen before in my previous wintertime visits to Brisbane.  Still, the drought continues because we are still woefully down on the annual rainfall total, which has been the case for several years.  I find the graph below, which is updated every day, especially scary.  The dams represented here comprise the major water supply for the Brisbane metropolitan area.  The largest dam is Wivenhoe, which is at less than 16% capacity.  Somerset is at 35% capacity, but it is a much smaller reservoir.  
Note that the black line, which represents the total system capacity, hasn't been above 30% capacity for 18 months.  Even with the recent rainfall, there hasn't been much of an increase above 20% in the last six months.   I find numbers very convincing.  As the experts keep saying, unless we get a weather event equivalent to a cyclone, with heavy rains in the catchment areas that last for several days, we aren't going to see those lines going back up anytime soon.  By the way, this information is freely available and publicly repeated nearly every day.

Thus, reading the following comments from the Courier-Mail web site left me stymied.  How can anyone think that this 'drought' is actually some sort of government conspiracy to increase revenue?  Why do some people have such a difficult time understanding that there are always limitations to our natural resources?  And, if you live on the driest continent on the planet, how can you not think that we have to be particularly careful about our use of water?  A few examples of The Denial:
  • though that this was supposed to be all taken care of after the 1974 flooding so we don't have this risk anymore? while i love the fact that we are getting the rain is the local government infrustructer really up to the weather we are about to be facing over this year and next? the state take over of the watter supply is not going to change anything and i think even if we got all the dames full they would try to take us all up to level 7 or 8 watter restrictions... they ate now seeing that there is money in watter and in fines and while they are the government they know they can do what ever they like and every1 eats must play along. after all last time the dames got 3 months i think it was instead of keeping to the old planed time table for the higher restrictions they moved it flowered i mean really how much of a mushroom are we in Queensland? and how much longer are the government going to be feeding u crap for!!!  Posted by: Mark Brown 12:52am today
  • an independent surveyor should be engaged to tell us exactly how much water is in our dams, as i dont belive the crap the government and media reports on a daly basis, and i agree with mark brown the government will tell us lies for as long as possible to extract every last cent out of us to pay for there billion dollar blow out of the water grid,  Posted by: global warming my ar@# of qld 7:29am today

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Home

I have started a photo album of pictures of our home and the immediate neighborhood. You can find the link under "My Photo Gallery" or you can click here. We live in Toowong, which is one of the suburbs that make up Greater Brisbane. We are very close to the city centre (about 3 miles/4.8 km), and even closer to my work (1.5 miles/2.4 km). Toowong is great for public transit because there is a major train station, a major bus junction, and a ferry stop here. There is also a sizable shopping and restaurant district about two blocks from our place. The neighborhood is made up of mostly large apartment and condo complexes, and is heavily populated by university students. Now that we're in the summer holiday period, the place is almost a ghost town. I'll post some more pictures from our place once we finally get rid of the boxes on our upstairs veranda (4 months late).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Rubbish

No matter how many guidebooks one reads, there are many unadvertised features of Australian life that you just don't learn about until you get here. Today's example: getting rid of the household rubbish. Although we had many, many boxes to unpack, complete with lots of packaging and other garbage, we ended up paying over $200 to have someone pick up most of it, despite the fact that Brisbane provides regular trash and recycling services. Why? Recycling is on alternate weeks only, and, even on the week when we can put out both the trash and recycling bins, everything must fit in these two bins at the time of pick up. There's no laying of extra stuff next to the bin, or topping the bin so high that the lid doesn't stay on. Everything must fit neatly in the container. Despite the fact that we live in a condo complex, we don't have a big dumpster where we can put it all. In fact, I have yet to find a dumpster at UQ or anywhere else...just regular trash bins.


And it's not just about neatness. It's because the rubbish is picked up from our curbside by a very noisy truck at 6:30 every Tuesday morning. As you can (sort of) see from my photos, a solitary man drives the truck down the street and uses a dangerous-looking claw that extends out the side to pick up each bin and dump it into the truck. The driver remains in his seat for each pick up, which lasts about 30 seconds. So, if there were anything placed outside the bin, there would be no one else able to pick it up, unlike the two guys who would hang off the back of the garbage truck in front of our home in Atlanta. There, we could pile up all sorts of garbage, including boxes, pieces of wood, and other assorted junk, and it would all be picked up on the designated day. Oh, there is a similar comprehensive service in Brisbane...but it occurs on just one day each year (in March, I think). Until then, we will continue to hoard the rest of our rubbish from the move, slowly dispersing it whenever we some extra room in the bins.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

No Scrabulous in Syria?

A few months ago I started to Facebook in response to peer pressure. As of today I have 73 'friends,' and I am probably responsible for recruiting 15 of them to the site through my own pressure tactics. It makes little sense that I am on there at all, but I am enjoying having occasional contact with people that wouldn't happen through normal channels. Nearly all my FB time is spent playing Scrabulous with a few friends, and even some strangers.

Lately, however, I've been growing concerned about the ethics of Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, a paper multi-billionaire at the age of 23. In the past year he was hit with a suit involving the origins of the site. A story here elaborates on how he was once hired to program something called ConnectU with some other Harvard students. A few weeks after he pulled out of that job in January 2004, with apparently little progress, he debuted Facebook with many of the features of the planned ConnectU project. More recently, Zuckerberg and his mates introduced "Beacon" to Facebook, which tracked the activity of FB users at 'partner' sites, such as Fandango, for broadcast as 'news' back on Facebook. There has been a lot of criticism of the way FB users need to opt-out of this program, rather than choosing to opt-in (see this story). That is, the tracking would occur without the user's permission, and, more importantly, without the user's knowledge.

Finally, today I read this story about Sryria banning Facebook. Are my days playing Scrabulous on Facebook numbered? Will I finally decide to rid my self of social networking web sites? Stay tuned...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Selection

Many of my friends thought I was crazy when I left a tenured position at my old university to come to here on a 5-year contract. Early career academics in the U.S. are entirely focused on landing the tenure-track job and then actually obtaining tenure (as was I!), so it did seem rather foolish to throw it all away the moment I finally earned it. Luckily for me, however, someone in my department at UQ (and in my area) resigned in August, which meant a ‘continuing’ position suddenly opened up. In Australia, tenure doesn’t really exist. Instead, one has to pass a probationary period of 3-5 years in a continuing appointment before it becomes 'permanent.'

I applied for the open position. I was then chosen on the short list of five candidates, made up of people from Australia and the United States. Each of us gave a school seminar last Thursday and went through the interviews on Friday. Again, this is all different from what is done for academic appointments in America. In my old department, the short list usually had three candidates, and each would come separately to visit the campus for two days, with all the candidates spread across a two-week period. In Australia everyone comes to campus on the same two days, which meant that I kept bumping into the other applicants (we were the only men wearing ties!). We also gave our seminars one after another. There is only one official interview here--a panel of six sit around a table and take turns asking questions for 30-45 minutes. Back in the States, candidates for a job face several 30-min interviews with 1-2 faculty members at a time. Another major difference is that here the panel (the search committee) makes the final decision about whom to hire, usually right after the last interview. At my old department, the entire department faculty would make that decision at a meeting that could run a few hours, and which was based on information from several sources.

This was my third interview in 13 months for a particular position at UQ. My first was when they flew me over in October 2006 for a job that I didn’t get. The second attempt was in January of this year, when I applied for the 5-year position that I currently have. I didn’t have to come to Brisbane that time, but was interviewed by the panel via a satellite link. This third try was also successful. I found out about 90 minutes after my interview that I did get the continuing position. This means that V., Will, and I no longer have the 5-year countdown to deal with. I still have to make it through the probationary period (which is much easier than getting tenure in the States), and I will still be working like a maniac to move up the food chain, but we can now breathe a bit more easily. Staying here permanently has become a real option, if that’s what we choose.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Accent

After living here five months, I am increasingly less conscious of the Aussie accent(s).  That is, I don't really think about the fact that other people sound different until either (a) someone comments on my accent or (b) an Aussie utters a word or phrase that requires some translation (e.g., "we always try to find the daggiest bar at the conference").  In fact, this past weekend I started watching season 1 of "Lost" on DVD, and was immediately struck by all the American accents of the actors, and how familiar Claire, the only Australian who survived the flight from Sydney (!), sounded.  As an American, I find that I have to repeat myself quite a bit to others who aren't expecting to hear my accent, as if the other person has to stop and put on their American listening ears.  Given that I'm a pretty fast talker, I have also learned to slow down my speech a tad and to enunciate a bit more.  I still find some Aussies difficult to understand, and I'm not sure whether it's because of a particular accent or that they're just mumbling.  It seems to me that there is quite a range of Aussie accents, but apparently there are 'officially' just three: broad (like Steve Irwin or Crocodile Dundee), general (like Nicole Kidman or a news reader), and cultivated (a nearly extinct accent, closer to British English), which supposedly reflect a rural versus urban background, rather than regional or class differences.  A quick search on the web revealed several sites that will teach you how to speak with an Australian accent, such as this one.  I particularly like the last tip: 
"Keep your tone light and jovial.  When speaking with an Australian accent, you should convey happy enthusiasm."
As opposed to that depressing Midwestern American one I have?!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Boys of Summer

V. has been in Melbourne attending a conference since Tuesday night, leaving me alone with the boy (and our temporary nanny on the week days) until tomorrow afternoon. Will has been just fine, but the toddler tantrums are more frequent now, and it sometimes feels like we're walking on a minefield in anticipation of the next outburst. I honestly don't see how single or stay-at-home parents do it all alone. I can only really manage basic household tasks when Will is in his high chair or taking a nap. On top of that, I would really like to finish this manuscript that I am working on, so I better keep this blog entry brief (Will just went down for a nap).

Today is the first day of summer, and also the beginning of the Aussie Christmas season. Starting today many families put up their Christmas trees (nearly every one is artificial) and some will even venture onto their roofs to string along some lights. It is difficult for me to get into the spirit of the season, as I don't have any of the normal cues to get me into the mood. I am afraid that we won't be sending out many Christmas cards this season, nor will my nieces get their gifts on time, as we didn't start early enough to compensate for the international mail. Maybe by next year I will have developed a stronger association of the holidays with the smell of sunscreen to keep me from becoming the Grinch.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Celebrity Space

I have been pondering what it is that constitutes a 'celebrity' lately, and while I haven't exactly answered the question myself, it did get me to thinking about the extent to which someone is internationally famous.  During my lunch hour I sketched the following Venn diagram about celebrities in the U.K., U.S., and Australia (I couldn't figure out how to handle Canadians just yet) based on their professions.  Notice that I left off celebrities from the arts, politics, and news of the weird for now (click here for a bigger image).
According to my diagram, there are relatively few athletes who become international celebrities, whereas musicians and movie stars are likely to have a bigger world impact. I also couldn't think of any instances where someone is a celebrity in Australia and the U.S., but not one in the U.K., whereas there are many uniquely popular in the U.K. and Australia.  But what do you think?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Career in Prejudice

I know it's hard to believe, but research is a major part of my 'portfolio' as a social neuroscientist at the University of Queensland.  In fact, I have spent nearly 30 hours in just the past week writing a manuscript about 'social categoriz(s)ation' and attention, which I really, really want to send away as soon as possible.  Anyway, one of my research themes is the emotional underpinnings of prejudice.  In fact, it would  be fair to say that my career has been built on my attempts to understand prejudice.  When I lived in Atlanta, it was easy to figure out which social groups to look at-- the stormy relationship between Blacks and Whites remains one of the major social problems facing the United States.  Here in Oz, however, finding prejudice in situ to study is a bit trickier.  Of course, the Europeans' horrible treatment of indigenous Australians rivals their treatment of the indigenous people in North America, and there are many, many lingering issues yet to deal with because of that past (in fact, the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, plans to issue an official apology to the Aboriginal people soon).  Still, the very low number of Aborigines on the UQ campus makes this a difficult group to study in relation to the White population.  I am tempted to examine prejudice towards Asians, as there is a large international student body here.  But, this sleazy story out of New South Wales last week is making me consider a different intergroup dynamic:

Fake Muslim flyer row flares in Australia election
By Rob Taylor

Reuters

Wednesday, November 21, 2007; 7:36 PM

CANBERRA (Reuters) - A fake letter linking Muslim extremists to Australia's opposition Labor Party and blamed on conservative supporters on Thursday entangled Prime Minister John Howard in a damaging row two days before a national election. The flyer, purporting to come from a non-existent Islamic Australia Federation, was dropped in letterboxes in a key Sydney seat and painted Labor as sympathizers of three men on death row in Indonesia over bombings in the tourist island of Bali in 2002. Howard's Liberal Party said it had suspended two unidentified members over the hoax. Both parties referred it to Australia's electoral commission.
"I condemn it, I dissociate myself from it. It is no part of my campaign and the party has acted promptly to deal with it," Howard told local radio.
The furor follows controversy about small numbers of Islamic extremists in Australia's Muslim community. Far right politician Pauline Hanson, who a decade ago called for an Asian immigration ban, is campaigning this time for a freeze on Muslim migrants.
"My first reaction was 'oh no, not again, not the Muslims again'," Australian Federation of Islamic Councils President Ikebal Patel said.  "At such a late stage in the election process to bring something like this up in a fake flyer going around is really quite despicable," he said, demanding a police investigation.
The minority Australian Democrats accused the government of resorting to "bigotry and fear-mongering" to stave off defeat and peg back a year-long lead by Labor in opinion polls.
"Instead of standing up against prejudice and ignorance, the Liberals have regularly turned a blind eye or given knowing winks to dog-whistling that plays on fear regarding Muslim Australians," Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett said.  The bogus pamphlet applauded Labor for supporting bombers "unjustly" sentenced to death and praised the party for allowing a controversial Muslim sheikh, who compared immodestly dressed women to uncovered meat, to live in Australia.
"We gratefully acknowledge Labors (sic) support to forgive our Muslim brothers who have been unjustly sentenced to death for the Bali bombings. Ala Akba (sic)," or God is Great, it said. The damaging row looked likely to overshadow a televised address to the nation by Howard later on Thursday.  Howard said the flyer was "wrong, unfair and dishonest," and it was "outrageous" to link Labor to the Bali bombers, blamed for the deaths of 88 Australians among 202 victims.
"I knew nothing about this until I was informed that it had occurred and can I say that the Liberal Party organization has acted with lightning speed," he said.
The western Sydney seat is held by retiring conservative MP Jackie Kelly, a former minister and close confidante of Howard, who condemned the flyer and said she knew nothing about it.
"I think its intent is to be a send-up, but it obviously hasn't worked," Kelly told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Note: It turned out that the husband of the Liberal candidate for that electorate was the one behind the flyer.  The Liberals ended up losing the seat, and the candidate and her husband are now separated.


 

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Day After

I learned something about myself last night. I am a geek for politics. I watched the coverage of the Australian election on two channels non-stop from 5:30 until about 11:00 (when I fell asleep with the TV on). In case you didn’t hear, Labor won in a “Rudd-slide.” John Howard wasn’t even able to retain his own seat, which he’s held for 30+ years. I know that my colleagues at UQ will be thrilled with the results, as tertiary education has suffered under Howard’s government for most of the past 11 years. Even though I can’t vote, and I have only lived in this country about five months, I’m quite excited about all the new possibilities with a Labor government. The last time I felt this excited about a national election was in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected and we all sang along to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.”

In the marathon coverage of an election in which I couldn’t take part, I did notice a few interesting things with my American eyes:
  • Legislative districts in Australia are named, not numbered (e.g., Bennelong, Canning, Tangney). And the origins of these names isn't always clear. For example, we live in the district of Ryan, yet there are no geographical features around here with that name.
  • The voting sites are known as “booths.” Most booths were at schools and churches. There was one around the corner from us that looked a bit like a carnival. The place was crowded all day, and there were all sorts of posters and campaigning going on just outside the entrance (in the U.S. there is large buffer zone that puts any campaigning fairly far away from the polling place). In addition, various groups engage in fund-raising at the booth. For example, one of our friends ran a bake sale for her children’s school while people were waiting in line to vote.
  • Some of the network commentators were candidates in the election themselves. This was quite a bizarre sight. Major candidates from both parties sat at the network desks the entire night, rather than hanging out with their own campaign staff back in their districts. Notably, the new Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the first woman to be elected to this office, was with the ABC all night. It was particularly strange on Seven when someone made a concession or winning speech. For example, while John Howard made his dignified speech late in the night, the Seven network would cut to a close-up of a Liberal party supporter at their desk in a split-screen. It was clear that the poor sod was also watching himself looking crestfallen while watching the monitor to listen to Howard’s remarks. I presume that the candidates who were commentators felt very good about their chances of winning, or else they would have risked being in the studio when their loss was announced.
  • “On a knife’s edge” was a phrase frequently used throughout the night. Anytime a race was too close to call, it was labeled a knife’s edge.
  • There's a national tally room in Canberra where all the results come in. Each TV network has a partitioned area around the edge of the room. The room itself was full of party supporters who would cheer each time a sign was updated with a district’s total. For some reason the cheering was so loud that it would frequently drown out the commentators at their network desks. By the way, the tallies were recorded on a massive scoreboard…by hand, in which numbers were exchanged on a board from behind, kind of like a baseball score at Fenway Park.
  • Seven had several other commentators sitting around in another room, which included a former prime minister and two former state premiers. That room had a bit too much testosterone flowing, as heated arguments would flare up between the Labor and Liberal commentators as soon as it looked like Labor was going to win.
  • I saw very little exit polling on the demographics of voters (e.g., how many women voted for Rudd) and why they voted the way they did. This is now a required part of American television coverage of elections, and I missed that.
  • Much was made of the degree of “swing” there was in the vote of each district. On the ABC a meter would indicate the swing from one party to the other since the 2004 election (e.g., “there’s a 6.54% swing in Sturt to Labor this year”). All that swinging seems very important here.
  • The party headquarters for each of the prime minister candidates looked small by American standards. When Howard made his concession speech and Rudd made his acceptance, it looked like each faced a crowd of 200 or so supporters. Maybe everyone else went to bed?
Well, I now have less than three years to wait until the next election. Meanwhile, tonight we get to find out who wins Australian Idol...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Turkey Day

In honor of my friends and family back in the United States, as well as the other American ex-pats living in Oz, I walked around the UQ campus today looking for a bush (or scrub) turkey to photograph for your viewing pleasure. We have many of these birds on campus, and every one of them makes a huge mess while they build their nests. Bush turkeys are a regular feature of life around Brisbane, but one hardly ever hears about them. And, no, you can't eat them, even if it is Thanksgiving.

In lieu of all our usual traditions, and especially because it was just another normal day of work, we celebrated Thanksgiving with the customary Old El Paso taco kit. Just look at the spread that awaited V. when I had finished cooking!


And for dessert we had an apple pie. Well, a very well cooked apple pie (originally found frozen at the supermarket). We still haven't figured out how to use the oven correctly...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Changes Ahead?

The Australian federal election is just a few days away. Two things you ought to know right off the bat--voting is compulsory here and it occurs on a Saturday.

Besides those obvious differences, however, there are other things about this Aussie election that I am quite intrigued about, from my standpoint as a lifelong consumer of American politics. First, there really is no discussion of "social" hot button issues here, such as abortion, school prayer, evolution, stem cell research, or flag burning. Instead, the candidates talk about the economy, interest rates, long-term energy plans, aboriginal issues, and what Australia's role should be in accommodating UN refugees. Based on what I have seen in the past four months, I think this year's election is really a referendum on John Howard's industrial relations laws. When Howard's party took control of all levels of government in 2004, he enacted several workplace changes that undermined the power of union contracts and collective bargaining (replacing them with the euphemistic "WorkChoices"). Kevin Rudd, the leader of the opposition, has vowed to roll back these changes if his party, Labor, wins the election. In turn, Howard's Liberal party has been running ads suggesting that the days of strikes and powerful union bosses will return to ruin Australia if Labor wins. On top of this, the federal reserve has raised interest rates six times in recent months.

The politics of climate change are also quite prominent. Both parties acknowledge that climate change poses a real challenge, but the Liberals don't seem to be especially worried about it. Keep in mind that Howard's government in Australia and Bush's in the United States are the two notable exceptions to the 172 parties that have signed the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases. Both Labor and the Liberals support the export of Australia's vast stores of uranium (and coal) to other countries, but only the Liberals want to build more nuclear plans here.

The most astonishing thing about the Australian election is the lack of concern about what is perhaps the most volatile issue in contemporary American politics. I have watched several hours of speeches and interviews involving John Howard and Kevin Rudd this week, and nothing was ever said about Iraq, Afghanistan, or "The War on Terror." For the record, Rudd has vowed to pull out the 2000 or so Aussie troops in Iraq next year, whereas Howard has said he will maintain his commitment to the Coalition Forces. But, as I have said, this issue hardly gets a mention.

If Howard is indeed voted out this weekend, I am interested to see how the American media will cover the story. I have a feeling that someone will try to make the attribution that he was voted out because of his support of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, even though he was re-elected in 2004. But, you read it here first. Despite shepherding one of the best economies in Australia's history--or maybe because of it--John Howard will lose this election because the people felt comfortable enough to try something else.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

We've Moved to Ohio

My guess is that many people back in the U.S. don't really understand how "big" Australia. After spending about 30 minutes trying to find a good comparison map, here's the best I could come up with:The point is that the continental United States is roughly the size of Australia. The state of Queensland, where we live, is about the size of the Northeastern U.S. and Midwest...put together. However, the population is much, much smaller. As of this morning, according to the official government population clock, the resident population of Australia is 21,143,490. This would make Australia the third most populated state in the U.S., right below Texas (23,507,783) and just above New York (19,306,183). Queensland itself has a population just over 4 million.

Perhaps more interesting is to consider the size of the Australian economy. Here's an interesting map (full of inaccuracies, mind you) from a great blog about maps. It shows each U.S. state renamed with a country that has about the same size GDP as that state (click to make bigger).
As you can see, Australia has a GDP around the same size of Ohio (pop. 11,478,000). But I think the beaches are nicer here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Christmas in Oz: A Primer

Myer, a big department store chain in Australia, is now featuring a TV ad to get us all in the mood for Christmas shopping.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find the ad to show you here, but I did find similar images in the new Myer Christmas catalogue.  Keep in mind that this will be our first Christmas south of the equator, so I am quite eager to learn the local customs.

First, one gathers all the pretty blue ornaments to decorate the tree...on the beach:
Then, apparently, the former Miss Universe, Jennifer Hawkins, delivers the presents.  I like this custom!
 All the pretty kids then gather at their special kiddie Christmas table on the beach:
Meanwhile, the adults drink a nice Aussie wine while bathing in the sun:  
I think I'm going to like Christmas here...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Praying for Rain

As most of you know, I moved from Atlanta, Georgia, to Brisbane, Queensland, this past June. Without intending to do so, we also stayed within the same K√∂ppen climate classification group and subdivision: Group C: Temperate/mesothermal climate, Humid Subtropical. World cities in this group include Houston, Milan, Brisbane, Atlanta, Yalta (Ukraine), Porto Alegre (Brazil), and Luodian (China). What’s more, we moved from one drought-stricken city to another. As soon as we got here, “saving water,” “Level 5 restrictions,” and “Dam area catchments” became a regular part of our daily conversations. People here have been madly buying rain water tanks for months…so much so, that there was a shortage of tanks back in July. Huge public works projects are going on so that a large pipe grid can more easily shift water from wetter parts of the region to dryer ones. Households face restrictions based on the number of their occupants. Four-minute showers are the norm. And Level 6 restrictions go into effect next week, which will severely limit the amount of water businesses can use. I have friends involved with both the pipe grid project and the public education campaign for Queensland, and I am impressed how everything is proceeding, despite the fact that the dams are now less than 20% of their capacity.

As I said, I left Atlanta in the middle of a similar drought back in July. The only noticeable sign of the Atlanta drought back then was that people were restricted to watering their lawns at only certain times on certain days. That was it. When I visited in October, those watering restrictions were more severe (although the lawns still looked surprisingly green in my old neighborhood), but nothing else had been done. There was a mild ruckus when the Stone Mountain amusement park announced its plans would proceed for building a snow mountain in August (with temps reaching into the 90s), even though they would be using public water from the county, rather than from the lakes in the park. I also heard the governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue, make an impassioned plea that FEMA send water trucks to Atlanta to help out. Lots of blame was put on the federal engineers who control the water at Lake Lanier, the primary reservoir for metro Atlanta, but it’s clear that the lake would run out of water anyway, regardless of whether they stopped releasing any more into the Chattahoochee. In October golf courses were still allowed to water their massive turfs. There was no talk of rain tanks, no public campaign to urge people to conserve their water usage, and no proposed long-term plan to deal with future droughts. Still, Lake Lanier could run out of water in a matter of months, if there isn’t a significant rainfall soon. And Atlanta is now entering the driest part of the year.

Well, Georgia has come up with a plan that I don’t think Queensland has thought about yet—prayer! Yes, the governor gathered a group of people on the steps of the state capitol to pray for rain on Tuesday. Interestingly, he acknowledged that the people of Georgia have been a bit shortsighted:

“We acknowledge our wastefulness. We acknowledge that we haven’t done the things we need to do. Father, forgive us and lead us to honor you as you honor us with the showers of blessing.”

I am convinced that we are going to see increasing problems around the world due to water shortages. Populations in the driest parts of the world have nearly all exceeded their local water capacities, and it’s only going to get worse. Maybe praying can help, but we all should be planning and acting now before the pipes run dry.
============================
UPDATE: I just found this New York Times story about one BIG water user, who says he only recently became aware of the severity of the drought in Atlanta:

ATLANTA, Nov. 14 — A day after Gov. Sonny Perdue asked God to forgive Georgia for being wasteful with its water, county officials in the wealthy suburbs northeast of Atlanta confirmed Wednesday just how profligate one consumer had been.

A homeowner in Marietta, Ga., used 440,000 gallons in September, or about 14,700 gallons a day. By comparison, the average consumption in the United States is about 150 gallons a day per person, and in the Atlanta metropolitan area about 183 gallons.

Month after month during a record-setting drought, the two-story, five-bedroom home owned by that consumer, Chris G. Carlos, a wealthy investor who is a member of one of Atlanta’s most well known and philanthropic families, has topped Cobb County’s list of residential users.

Robert Quigley, a spokesman for the Cobb County Water System, said Mr. Carlos had used an average of 260,000 gallons of water a month for the last year, about twice as much as the consumer next-highest on the county’s list. Mr. Carlos has apparently been using the water not only to flush nine toilets and maintain a swimming pool but also to refresh nearly four acres of lush landscaping around his white-columned, red brick home. click here for the rest of the story...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Australia Smells Nice

My sense of smell has faded as I have grown older, but I am able to enjoy the smells of Spring in Brisbane. There are at least two flowering plants (and I have no idea what they are) around here that have been filling the air with beautiful fragrances for a few weeks now. Every time I catch one of their scents, I find I'm smiling.

I'll finish this overly positive, treacly blog entry with some lyrics from one of the top songs of the year, at least in English-speaking countries. I heard Fergie sing them on the radio today for at least the 100th time, and I finally appreciated the nostalgia they convey. Fergie's phrasing in the song itself helps, so you might want to listen along:

Like the little school mate in the school yard
We'll play jacks and UNO cards
I'll be your best friend and you'll be mine, Valentine
Yes you can hold my hand if you want to
'Cause I want to hold yours too
We'll be playmates and lovers and share our secret worlds
But it's time for me to go home
It's getting late, dark outside

I suppose for a teen in Brisbane, that last line could refer to around 6 pm, even in summer...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Schoolies vs. The Toolies

As someone I know from Melbourne put it, an "advantage" of living in Queensland is that the 12th year of school is optional. Yes, that means many kids here finish school after the 11th grade. I don't really understand all the consequences of making such a decision, but I do believe that a student's chances to attend university are helped by staying in school until the end of Year 12. Regardless, here in SE Queensland the school year is about to end. Therefore, students who are finishing their school lives, known here as "school leavers" or "Schoolies," will soon be out on the beaches celebrating in style. One big draw for the Schoolies is the Gold Coast, which is about an hour away from our home. I found this article, which appeared in today's Courier-Mail, quite fascinating, as it makes me realize (yet again) how much more I need to learn about Aussie culture. For example, try to figure out what a "Toolie" is from this story...
Schoolies-only zone on the Gold Coast

Jeremy Pierce

November 12, 2007 11:00pm

THE kids are ready to party, but parents of this year's generation of Schoolies revellers have been warned against giving them the booze to fuel the fire.

The 2007 Schoolies Festival kicks off with a bang on Friday as up to 35,000 school leavers descend on Surfers Paradise, and parents have again been reminded of the penalties facing under-age drinkers.

By law it is not an offence for parents to supply their children with liquor, but once in their possession, the schoolies, most of whom are 16 or 17, face heavy fines.

Under-age drinking, public drunkenness and possession of alcohol in a public place all attract fines of up to $1875.

Entry to this year's Schoolies will be the toughest ever, with personalised, bar-coded wristbands required to enter a special kilometre-long fenced-off section of Surfers Paradise.

The 1.8m high fence will run along the Esplanade and down to the water's edge.

Police and security guards will patrol the perimeter of the special "schoolies pen", turfing out anyone not wearing official Schoolies accreditation.

People who try to gain access to the enclosure by swimming around the side of the fence will also be arrested.

Wristbands have been a common feature of Schoolies Festivals in the past, but this is the first time they have been personalised. It is also the first time an area has been specifically fenced off for the event.

Both measures are designed to stop "Toolies" from spoiling the fun, initiatives welcomed by Benowa High school leavers who could hardly contain their excitement yesterday, celebrating the end of school with a swim at the beach - in full school uniform.

"I think (keeping Toolies out) is definitely a good thing," said Alix Crozier, 17. "It's our party and we don't really want them coming along trying to ruin it."

She also said she could not wait for the party to start.

Also yesterday, Schoolies organisers announced an entertainment program for southern schoolies, who traditionally miss out on most of the concerts and events organised for Queensland graduates during the first 10 days of the festival.

For the first time there will also be official Schoolies events running in the second week of the festival.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Boy

The more astute among you (i.e., my mom and dad) have noticed that I am woefully behind in keeping Will's personal blog (GoWillGo) up to date. Let me assure you that "The Boy" is doing fine. Here's a snapshot (both figuratively and literally) of things right now:

Will is more than 21 months old. His vocabulary is still pretty limited, but it's starting to pick up. Words that he has uttered more than twice include, "moon," "bye," daddy," "ma-ma," "clock," and a garbled "butterfly." There are a few more, but I don't think he has said them recently. He also likes to say "A B C D," and says the letters "B" and "D" when he sees them. He likes to make the sound of a snake and to roar like a lion. After months of trying to get him to wave to me when I went to work in the morning, in the past month he has finally begun waving at everyone, including strangers.

Will goes to a family daycare near my work three days a week (on the days that V. goes to work). There are never more than four kids at this daycare, which is run in the caregiver's house. Unfortunately, after this week she will be unavailable until the 9th of January, so we are going to be paying a university student who works part-time at a nearby daycare to take care of Will for three days each week. V. takes him to Gymboree every Friday (which he loves) and also to UQ for weekly swimming lessons (he has absolutely no fear of water, which scares us). I'm hoping to begin going with him soon to a music class on Saturdays.

At home he has a circuit of toys that he plays with in our lounge (living) room. He really loves the "Teletubbies" and watching music videos. He's eating fairly well, although he could do better with vegetables. He goes to bed every night at 7, after a bath with his mum. We can't remember the last time we had a problem getting him to go to sleep. He usually wakes up between 5:30 and 6:30 am, depending on how loud the birds are. We think he has a very happy, free-spirited disposition. If another kids accidentally (or even intentionally) hits him, Will never seems bothered. He loves to run around and make lots of noise at Gymboree. V. says he's "ebullient" when he's with other kids.

Will is quite affectionate and a real sweetie too. And his parents love him very, very much.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

While You're Giving Away Money...

We are now just a few weeks from the Australian election. Compared to American politics, the whole campaign season here is very short (technically, just six weeks this year). Because Aussies elect local MPs, who in turn elect the Prime Minister based on the size of the winning coalition of parties, there is much more emphasis on the power of local seats. Right now the candidates are zipping around their districts, standing outside of shopping centres or at street corners, passing out pamphlets next to a sign prominently displaying their face. I read in today's Sunday Mail that yesterday, our local MP, whose mother is Asian and father is European, faced strong racial harassment while campaigning outside the Toowong shopping centre. The protagonists were a couple of drunks who probably wandered over from the Royal Exchange Hotel (an enormous pub). They kept up their barrage of racist remarks for nearly an hour...starting at 11:30 in the morning! The situation got so out of hand that the cops were called, but the cowards were gone by the time the police arrived.

One noteworthy feature of Aussie politicians, however, is that they are quite fond of announcing every other day a huge financial project to win votes. Whether it's for a billion dollars road-works project or a package to help farmers in the bush or a new funding scheme for hospitals, there seems to be something for everyone, regardless of who wins the election. Today's announcement by PM John Howard that the government will be giving $500,000 for Orangutan conservation (although Australia has been fairly ineffective in stopping the destruction of the forests in Borneo) is a fine example of this great money giveaway. Do I hear, "Bingo!"? As you can see in the following video, Howard's new initiative seems to have been solely inspired by a chance encounter with a young boy with cerebral palsy. Now, if I could just find a way to get the politicians to throw some money toward my own interests...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Favourite Answer

I'm in the middle of marking (grading) a few hundred exams right now. I particularly liked this student's answer to the following question: "Contrast Premack's and Hull's definition of a reinforcer."

Answer: That is a secret that I will take to the grave.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Aussie Music Scene

Helen Reddy, The Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John, The Little River Band, Air Supply, Men at Work, Split Enz (and later Crowded House), INXS, Midnight Oil—these are all great Aussie acts that I listened to in the ‘70s and ‘80s in America. And some of these people are still around. Peter Garrett, the lead singer of Midnight Oil, will likely be the new Environment Minister in Canberra next month. Colin Hay, front man for Men at Work (you remember, "Who Can it Be Now?" and "Down Under," don't you?), will be playing in Brisbane next week. Olivia seems to be on the cover of some woman's magazine every month. Crowded House reunited and toured Australia this year, and Nick Finn performed an acoustic show on TV recently. And although my current music listening habits largely feature the music of my youth, I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about current music (I love “Thout Shalt Always Kill” by dan le sac VS Scroobius Pip, for example).

Well, moving to Australia has reintroduced me to the greatness of the Australian music scene. Most of the top bands here reportedly have had modest success back in the States, but I hadn’t heard of most of them before July: Powderfinger, Silverchair, Missy Higgins, Sarah Blasko, The John Butler Trio, Rogue Traders (who have a lead singer who is too beautiful!), The Waifs, Sneaky Sound System, Ben Lee, and Damien Leith. Even a recent inductee to the ARIA Hall of Fame, Nick Cave, barely registered in my consciousness in the past decade, and that’s probably because I had heard him on previous trips to Oz. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my favourite show on the ABC is “Spicks and Specks,” which is an incredibly cool music trivia game. Their guest panelists are frequently Australian musicians from the past 30 years who are completely unknown to me. Next week, Australian Crawl's former singer, James Reyne, will be on. Who's that? And I certainly can’t answer most of the Australian music trivia questions, such as “What was the name of the second Hoodoo Gurus album?” It’s really quite amazing that, despite the globalisation of American music, there is still so much great original music coming out of this relatively small country. I'm looking forward to getting to know it better. I just wish I had more time to listen to Triple J...

A recent act from Brisbane, The Veronicas, are 23-year-old twins who now live in Los Angeles (as do many of the other acts listed above). Their new song, “Hook Me Up,” is so catchy that I had to feature it here:

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Bush Salute

With warmer temperatures have come the flies. I can't give a better description of this than Bill Bryson's in "In a Sunburned Country:"
I had gone no more than a dozen feet when I was joined by a fly--smaller and blacker than a housefly. It buzzed around in front of my face and tried to settle on my upper lip. I swatted it away, but it returned at once, always to the same spot. A moment later it was joined by another that wished to go up my nose. It also would not go way. [...]

Flies are of course always irksome, but the Australian variety distinguishes itself with its very particular persistence. If an Australian fly wants to be up your nose or in your ear, there is no discouraging him. Flick at him as you will and each time he will jump out of range and come straight back. It is simply not possible to deter him. Somewhere on an exposed portion of your body is a spot, about the size of a shirt button, that the fly wants to lick and tickle and turn delirious circles on. It isn't simply their persistence, but the things they go for. An Australian fly will try to suck the moisture off your eyeball. He will, if not constantly turned back, go into parts of your ears that a Q-tip can only dream about. He will happily die for the glory of taking a tiny dump on your tongue. Get thirty or forty of them dancing around you in the same way and madness will shortly follow.

And so I proceeded into the park, lost inside my own little buzzing cloud of woe, waving at my head in an increasingly hopeless and desultory manner--it is called the bush salute--blowing constantly out of my mouth and nose, shaking my head in a kind of furious dementia, occasionally slapping myself with startling violence on the cheek or forehead. Eventually, as the flies knew all along, I gave up and they fell upon me as on a corpse. (p. 140)
I couldn't find a picture that adequately shows what Bryson is talking about, but I did find this one on my Google image search. It seemed to fit.

Monday, November 5, 2007

More Sports

Two more quickies about sports here in Oz:
1.  The Melbourne Cup.  It's kind of like the Kentucky Derby for Australia, but it is also far more important. The State of Victoria has the day off tomorrow.  Restaurants all over Brisbane (and the rest of the country) are having special Cup lunches.  Our Courier-Mail had a huge insert about the betting, the fashions, and the rest of the cultural impact of this horse race.  Schools show the race to their students (but a gambling addiction support group wants to see that practice banned)  Really, I never seen anything like this.
2. Air Racing.  Apparently this is an international sport, but I had never heard of it before this past weekend.  Single seat planes fly around at 200 kph through a race course to compete for the best times. This year's winner was an American pilot flying in a Red Bull-sponsored plane.  The people of Perth must have had a good time watching this over the Swan River.  Really cool stuff.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Money, Money

We had dinner at a very expensive restaurant in Brisbane last night that left me feeling a bit robbed on the way home. Sure, the setting was nice enough (looking out over the river at the Story Bridge), but the service and the food were ho-hum. Because we only get to dine out about twice a month, I was hoping for something special, especially given the prices we paid. That got me to thinking about a question a lot of people back in the States asked me when I was there last—is it expensive in Australia?

Well, the simple answer is yes. Keep in mind that the exchange rate right now (more on this in a moment) is about $1 Australian = $0.92 U.S. A bag of M&Ms in the vending machine is $2.20, as are all the candy bars. A small bottle of soda is about $3.00. A large cup of coffee (a flat white) is $3.75. Lunch on campus costs me $8-$10/day. Child care is about $45/day. Gas hit 126.4 cents/liter this week. That’s a gallon of regular gas at A$4.78 or US$4.40.

The real answer to this question, however, is more complicated. I am paid significantly better here than I was in my equivalent job in the States. And, if one considers the drastic rise in the exchange rate since I was offered the job, I have had over a 20% pay rise in American dollars since Feb. We also live more cheaply than we did in the States because of the activities associated with our new lifestyle. Parking at the beaches, for example, is free. Our utility bills are much lower. Car insurance is about half the price it is in the U.S. There is less taken out of our paychecks on payday. There’s no tipping. And meat is generally much cheaper.

So, in the end, moving to Australia has probably had no real net effect (positive or negative) on our finances. Of course, the money lost when getting rid of our belongings, the cost of setting up a new home here, and the fact that we are still paying the mortgage on our unsold home back in Atlanta means we have had an overall drop in our net worth this year. But I am hoping that once I start my American-style peanut butter business, things will improve!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Twisted

From today's CNN website comes a story that sadly demonstrates how religion and politics and the law and can become so twisted together back in the States:
BALTIMORE, Maryland (AP) -- A grieving father won a nearly $11 million verdict Wednesday against a fundamentalist Kansas church that pickets military funerals in the belief that the war in Iraq is a punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

A member of Westboro Baptist Church protests outside a veteran's hospital in Maywood, Illinois, in April 2006.

Albert Snyder of York, Pennsylvania, sued the Westboro Baptist Church for unspecified damages after members demonstrated at the March 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq.

The jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. It returned later in the afternoon with its decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress.

U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett noted the size of the award for compensating damages "far exceeds the net worth of the defendants," according to financial statements filed with the court.

Church members routinely picket funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, carrying signs such as "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags."

A number of states have passed laws regarding funeral protests, and Congress has passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal cemeteries.

But the Maryland lawsuit is believed to be the first filed by the family of a fallen serviceman.

The church and three of its leaders -- the Rev. Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebecca Phelps-Davis, 46 -- were found liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress.

Snyder claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.

The church members testified they are following their religious beliefs by spreading the message that the deaths of soldiers are due to the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

Their attorneys argued in closing statements Tuesday that the burial was a public event and that even abhorrent points of view are protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.

The judge said the church's financial statements, sealed earlier, could be released to the plaintiffs.

Earlier, church members staged a demonstration outside the federal courthouse.

Church founder Fred Phelps held a sign reading "God is your enemy," while Shirley Phelps-Roper stood on an American flag and carried a sign that read "God hates fag enablers."

Members of the group sang "God Hates America" to the tune of "God Bless America."

Snyder sobbed when he heard the verdict, while members of the church greeted the news with tightlipped smiles.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Media Darling

Extra! Extra! Our little boy makes it into the local paper. (He's the one in pink in the middle...)

I Want to Throw a Party Like This!

If only we had enough room in our lounge...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween Zombie


 Originally uploaded by WilWheaton
Happy Halloween to anyone out there who still gets to enjoy it! Here in Australia there is nary a mention of something I get very nostalgic about. I asked our friend's daughter, who is in primary school, about Halloween the other day. She knew what it was, "but," she said, "we don't celebrate it at school because it's an 'American' thing."   Chalk up yet one more failure of U.S. diplomacy! For a more absorbing analysis of another American's experience of October 31 in Oz, please read Audra's entry.

This picture comes from one of my favourite bloggers, Wil Wheaton. If you know anything about "Star Trek: The Next Generation," you know who he is. He has become an excellent writer, and his blog is a great gathering place for geeks far and wide. (Yes, believe it or not, I am a geek).

Thursday, October 25, 2007

My Aunt

My aunt and my dad’s sister, Maj Siri Ulmen, passed away last week while I was in the States. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about this until I was flying out of the country on Sunday. Last May she fell and hit her head, eventually leading to a blood cot that had to be removed. Her two daughters, Leah and Erin, kept a blog about her progress over the summer. I hadn’t checked it in a few weeks because I thought Maj Siri was getting better. My dad is in Minneapolis this week, visiting my cousins and their families.

The photo above is of my dad’s family. It was some sort of passport photo taken just before they boarded a ship to America from Sweden. As I understand it, their immigration in the early 1950s was inspired by the success of Sven’s brother, John, in Iowa and Nebraska. From left to right is Edla (my grandmother), Bo (my dad), Bert (my uncle), Maj Siri, and Sven (my grandfather). My dad was the middle child. I imagine that he must be feeling quite alone now, as he is the only surviving member of his family.

To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t seen my Aunt in over 25 years. And I only met one of my cousins very briefly when she was a little girl. There were various reasons why so much time passed without any contact between us. I do have many good memories of Maj Siri when we lived in Minnesota, however. She had a dry sense of humor and a really throaty laugh. She became an adult in the ‘60s, and there was always something hippy-like about her that I found fascinating. I know this is going to sound awful to contemporary ears, but I also fondly associate her and the rest of my dad’s Swedish relatives with the smell of cigarette smoke. As a kid I’d hang around listening to their conversations as they all puffed away on their cigs. The women usually had a special case for their packs, and everyone seemed to carry a personal lighter. My grandmother later developed a hacking cough, and most of the family died at relatively young ages due to various health problems. But memories of smoke-filled discussions (and plenty of arguments) between Maj Siri, my dad, Bert, and their cousins can still easily bring a smile to my face.

My thoughts are very much with my dad and my cousins. And I’ll say a prayer for my Aunt too.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Diversion

Just a quick note to say that I am back in Brisbane. However, I did experience a little "diversion" on the way from Los Angeles. Just after we crossed the International Date Line, the pilot announced that we were taking a "hard turn" towards Nadi, Fiji. It turned out that Brisbane was forecast to have heavy fog during our scheduled 6 am arrival, so that meant that we wouldn't have enough fuel if we were forced to circle around waiting for the fog to clear. Therefore, we had to land in Fiji to get more fuel! From my seat (three away from the window), I could see the country is beautiful, mountainous, and very green. It also looked sparsely populated. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to get off the plane during the refueling, so I wasn't able to see much more. Soon after we were airborne again, I used the plane's satellite phone system to call V. so that she would know I would be arriving three hours late.

Finally, when I got through customs at 10 am in Brisbane (they had to scan my bags because I declared my peanut butter), I walked out into the central arrivals area and heard a little scream of delight from my son. Will's face lit up when he saw me. I picked him up right away and he gave me a very tight hug, not letting go for several minutes. How wonderful! And, of course, V. was glad to see me too!

I'm home at last.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Flying with Trojans

I am in the middle of a 36-hour journey back to Australia, currently waiting at LAX for the 11:30 p.m. flight to Sydney. I arrive in Brisbane at 6 am on Tuesday. First, however, my trip began at 6:30 a.m. Sunday when I checked out of my hotel in Savannah. My friend Yuki and I then drove four hours to Atlanta. I returned my rental car to Enterprise (luckily, they didn’t notice the damage inflicted on the car by a homeless man with a wheelbarrow in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood where we had dinner on Tuesday), and flew to Chicago. I made some calls to my family there and received some sad news about my aunt, whom I will write about later. I grew even sadder as I thought about the great distance that I will soon be from my family once more. At the gate for the flight to LA I noticed a large number of USC Trojan fans, including members of the marching band, were waiting to board. I went to grad school at USC, and was affiliated with the university for nine years, but I haven’t kept up with its football team. This weekend, I quickly learned, was the classic USC-Notre Dame game, and yesterday these fans had watched the Trojans crush the Fighting Irish on their home field.

As our plane pulled away from the gate and the safety video started to play, I was happily surprised to watch at least half the passengers (i.e., the Trojan students and other fans) begin to interact synchronously with what was going on on the screen. I don’t know how it was organized, or whether this is some new cultural phenomenon based on a recent movie, but everybody really did the same thing at the same moment. For example, when the narrator mentioned that the seatbelts should be fastened, a steady clicking noise started to swell as all the passengers clicked their belts. When the video showed the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling, people made a loud blowing noise throughout the plane. When the exits were identified in the video, dozens of hands started to make waving gestures towards to the various doors. And when the film finished, everyone clapped. It was perfect. It was a bit like going to the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" back in college, in fact.

I feel especially happy to be an American tonight... and a (lapsed) Trojan!

P.S. This is my 100th post!!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Five Days Later...

Greetings from Savannah, Georgia, USA. I am attending the annual meeting of the Society for Psychophysiological Research, something I have been doing quite regularly for 22 years. My sleep is finally back to normal, but I get to disrupt it all when I leave for Australia tomorrow.

I was Atlanta for 48 hours earlier in the week. Besides working on some projects at Georgia State, I spent a couple of hours at our old house and surrounding community (where I launched a commando assault on Super Target and Babies R Us). I was surprised how little nostalgia I felt for anything, but that could be because I have been away for only 3 ½ months. The one exception was when I went to our house (it’s still for sale!) and walked through the Will’s old bedroom and his play area. I was momentarily overwhelmed with sadness as I thought about the times V. and I had spent painting his room and getting ready for his birth. It didn’t help that I miss V. and Will very much!

I saw a lot of old friends in Atlanta, and even some older friends here in Savannah. Many people have asked me what I miss most about the U.S. My first answer is always “my friends and family.” And then I have paused while I try to think of something else. If my questioner waited long enough, “peanut butter” was usually my next answer. Actually, I have found myself nearly every day wishing I was back in Australia, which has really surprised me. Besides seeing my little family in Toowong again, I miss the general friendlier “tone” of Australian society. Here in the States there is still so much public animosity surrounding race, religion, and politics. Sure, Americans are a friendly, happy lot. They are, after all, my peeps. But there is something not quite right about the way I have seen the Fox News Channel playing in the background nearly everywhere I go. I ate a burger in front of a TV in a diner the other night, and had the unpleasant experience of watching the hateful Bill O’Reilly for 30 minutes. The scorn that he regularly dishes out has made his show the most watched on cable TV (my guess is that he pulls in more viewers each night than does the top-rated show in Australia). I witnessed such spite firsthand as I walked the streets of Savannah, as the accompanying picture taken yesterday shows. Do democracies really require such extreme divisiveness to survive? I think not. Perhaps such hatred and intolerance is what leads to their eventual unraveling. I hope not.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Sleepless in the Land of Lincoln

I am writing this entry at 12:30 a.m. CDT from Rockford, Illinois. For four of the five nights I’ve been in the States, I haven’t slept very well. It’s the worse jet lag problem I have ever suffered through. I go to bed around 10:00 feeling sleepy, but then wake up two hours later, not being able to get back to sleep for another 4-5 hours. What's worse is that I had to get up at 6 each morning, and I haven’t really had a chance to nap. Later today (less than four hours from now), for example, I need to catch a 4:20 am bus to O’Hare airport, so that I can board a 7 am flight to Atlanta. Oh, why didn’t I take that Ambien along that V. recommended?!

Part of the problem is that my mind has been racing as I think about the events planned for the next day. And when you’re packing in each day like I am, there is much to think about. Recent highlights include a fantastic dinner in Chicago with my old friend Tiffany at Topolobampo, an exceptional Mexican restaurant part-owned by chef Rick Bayless, who has a line of cookbooks and television shows devoted to this cuisine. Tiff and I each ordered a sampler menu, which was comprised of five courses, each paired with the perfect ½ glass of wine. The mole sauces alone put me in a state of unbelievable gastronomic ecstasy. Oh, Rick, please think about opening a restaurant in Australia!! On Saturday night my conference had its big social event at the Shedd Aquarium. Our group had the entire place to itself, where we first sipped drinks while we watched the dolphins and beluga whales swim, and then were later treated to a buffet dinner surrounded by dozens of large aquariums. On Sunday I spent most of the day with my two brothers and their families. They each have two daughters in the age range of 5-9. We played Sorry! (the old board game) and some sort of shoot ‘em up video game. We also watched the Vikings beat the Bears, and then enjoyed an early Thanksgiving dinner put on for me by Betty. More than anything, my brothers love to laugh, and the constant kidding that goes on between them (and me) has been a part of our lives since childhood. I also briefly talked to my mom on the phone, who lives in Oklahoma. My family is currently scattered over a large section of middle America, so it’s always going to be difficult for me to create an affordable itinerary to see everyone on these trips.

Well, I am feeling a little more tired now. I had better try to sleep again so that I can get another two hours in. My next entry will come from Georgia. Good night!

Friday, October 12, 2007

One Man Shopping

Today I spent nearly six hours shopping along Chicago’s N. Michigan Ave. I didn’t realize how shopping-deprived I had become after living in Australia for only three months. But, the choices and the prices found in American stores just can’t be beat. My first stop was at the Apple Store. I got to handle an iPhone for 10 minutes, including sending myself an email using its beautiful touchscreen (the iPhone won’t be available in Oz until 2008 at the earliest). I also played with the new iPod Touch and the cool video Nano. It was like spending time in a geek porn shop. I then had lunch at the original Uno’s, where I had a marvelous deep-dish pizza. I had forgotten how tasty a real Chicago-style pizza is. After stops at The Gap, Niketown, Borders, Radio Shack, and Filene’s Basement, I paused my spending spree to save room in my suitcase for other things on our shopping list. Our son is getting plenty of new summer clothes, which are now heavily discounted here because winter is just two months away.

I did remember to attend the opening night reception for the conference I’m attending. And then it was back to my room to watch the end of “Survivor: China” and the latest episode of “The Office” while I munched from a bag of Cheetos Puffs. Don’t worry. I still want to go back to Australia after all this!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Touchdown in L.A.

I'm here...posting another blog entry at about the same time I did today (yesterday or tomorrow, or whenever). I’m sitting in the American Airlines terminal at LAX across from a Starbucks (where else?!) waiting for my flight to Chicago. I had to pay $6 for an hour’s worth of net access, so I’m using the time that I have left (after checking my email) to jot down a few lines here…

My flight was OK. It took nearly two hours of standing in line in Brisbane to check in, however. There were only two employees standing at the nine Economy check-in counters to process a nearly full 747. Sure, there were two counters open in Business class too, but that didn’t really help things. As a result of this staffing shortage, our plane left nearly an hour late, after several of us had to run to the gate when they made the final boarding call, just seconds after we got our boarding pass.

Anyway, I made it. I sat next to a very large woman, which made simple things like eating and sleeping a challenge. I watched three movies, several sitcoms, and probably slept an hour or two. Going through immigration and customs here took about 15 minutes. I picked up my rental phone, and walked out into the cool California sunshine. Of course, I was immediately accosted welcomed by three different solicitors begging for money (and I couldn’t even make out what “cause” they were mumbling about as I shooed them away). Back in Australia, I haven’t run into one panhandler yet, and anyone soliciting for charity sits quietly at a card table with a sign. They must come meet up with their American equivalents for some tips!

It does make me smile to hear those bilingual recordings of the LAX public address system and to be barked at once again by an unfriendly TSA agent. It feels almost like home.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The 17 Percent Loading

I leave for the United States in just a few hours. Today I will fly nearly 13 hours from Brisbane to Los Angeles, and then leave for Chicago three hours later. This 12-day trip is work-related, although I’ll get to see some friends in Atlanta next week, and my brothers and their families this weekend.

I attended a staff induction (orientation) this week at UQ--three months late-- and learned that one of my benefits (in fact, for all UQ employees) is four weeks personal leave each year, which can accumulate up to 20 weeks, plus a “17.25% loading.” I later learned that this loading is a 17.25% increase in pay whenever I’m on leave. Yes, I get paid more not to work! This is apparently a common thing in Australia, although no one seems to know its origin.

The price of an airline ticket between L.A. and Australia is nearly double what it was in 1996, so maybe the “loading” is meant to help with airfares when Aussies go on their holidays. It makes you wonder what will happen here when the “cheap” oil runs out. By then we’ll have more alternatives for cars, heating, etc. But, as far as I know, there are still no alternatives for jet fuel. Maybe Aussies will have to resume long sea voyages to see their families “back home.”

Monday, October 8, 2007

Mixed Tapes

V. and I had a "date night" on Saturday. After the babysitter showed up at 5 and went to play with Will in the back garden, we snuck away by foot to the Regatta Hotel for dinner. I haven't quite mastered the terminology yet, but "hotels" in Australia are sort of large combination restaurant/pub/entertainment centres. The Regatta in Toowong is a landmark, sitting near the river and having some sort of historical connection to Brisbane rowing. Anyway, we had a very nice dinner there, once I got over my angst about which steak to order. I haven't been so challenged about a piece of meat before. Take a look (the menu is posted on the website):
Stockyard MSA Beef 18-24 month old British Bred Yearling, grain fed at the "Kerwee" feedlot in the lush surrounds of the Darling Downs
Eye Fillet (minimum Med 100 days grain) 200gr $28.0
Eye Fillet (minimum Large 100 days grain) 300gr $34.9
Rib Fillet (minimum 100 days on grain) 300gr $26.9
Rump (long fed) (minimum 200 days on grain) 400gr $27.5

Diamantina MSA Beef Raised in the Central QLD Highlands, fattened at "Bottletree" feedlot in the heart of the rich Darling Downs
Sirloin (minimum 70 days on grain) 350gr $25.9
Rib Fillet on the bone (minimum 70 days on grain) $35.9
After dinner we walked to the ferry terminal below the Regatta and got on a CityCat for the 30-minute ride to New Farm. It was our first river trip all the way through the city centre and under the Story Bridge. Restaurants, clubs, and parks along the river were full of people enjoying the warm spring evening. Large clusters of people sat around public BBQs in the twilight, looking like scenes out of 1950s small-town America.

Disembarking at New Farm, we walked to the Brisbane Powerhouse, an old power station that has been converted into "a contemporary multi-arts, dining and conference venue." We had a nice coffee (a flat white, which has become our fav) before entering the Visy theatre to see Daniel Kitson's "C-90." We figured out that this was our first theater outing in over two years--the last just before we found out we were pregnant. The "play" itself was about 70 minutes long, and was actually a monologue by the fast-speaking Kitson, who wrote and developed the show back in his native England. I enjoyed the performance very much. It's the story about a man's last day at work in a large repository for mixed cassette tapes. (You do remember the cassette tape, don't you?) Most had been made for the benefit of others, either as gifts of appreciation or some romantic gesture (at the beginning, the middle, or the end of the relationship). As suggested by the show, sometimes a person might even make a mixed tape and label it "Sorry" before giving it.

In college I used to make a lot of these tapes. I remember the careful process of putting a record on the turnstile, setting the needle down, and then releasing the pause button on the tape deck set to record. As soon as the final bit of noise from the song was done, I would hit the pause button again and repeat the process with another record. Even after we got a CD player in 1989, I continued to make mixed tapes, but stopped when I was able to burn CDs in the mid '90s (a process that in turn ceased when I got my iPod). I still had many of these tapes when we were packing up to move. Of course, it had been many years since I listened to any cassette, so all the ones I had made were put in the trash and the rest given to Goodwill. After seeing "C-90," the funny thing is that I can't remember ever making a mixed tape for someone else, particularly for a romantic reason. I received a few from others over the years, but I don't think they were accompanied with romantic yearnings either. Maybe this was a more prominent form of expression in other parts of the world...

Did you ever receive or send a mixed tape? Was it ever done out of love?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

World News in Australia

For my friends back in the U.S., I thought you might be interested in learning about what we in Australia hear about the rest of the world in a typical week. The following represents my own memory of the major news stories, as presented in the past seven days on the websites of the The Courier-Mail, The Age, and The Australian, as well as the news presented on Seven and ABC television:
  • Britney lost custody of her children. This one received an excessive amount of attention in the Aussie press, unfortunately, and included the shocking detail that she went to a tanning salon after she dropped off the kids with their father.
  • The situation in Burma (Myanmar). Students on the UQ campus have been collecting signatures and starting facebook groups to urge the Australian government and the U.N. to get more involved.
  • The upcoming elections in Pakistan. As you might imagine, news from Asia is generally much more prominent here (and I hear very little about the Middle East).
  • Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car accident. Oh, yeah, that was 10 years ago, but every excruciating detail of her final minutes has been discussed this week as a result of the inquest in London.
  • Eva Longoria released a sex tape. Actually, it was a joke intended for Will Ferrell's website, but there was a lot of interest in this one because Eva has massive appeal here. She's prominently featured in several ads, including one for Pepsi Max, where she ends up running out of the gas with two strange boys in the car whom she's just picked up. She smiles and says, "I guess we'll have to spend the night here."
  • Marion Jones admits to taking steroids before the 2000 Olympics. The headline at The Australian: "Marion Jones admits she's a drug cheat."
  • Aussies prepare for Pom Assault. According to today's Fox sports website, "AUSTRALIA is preparing for a foul-play ambush from England when the two sides collide in a World Cup quarter-final tonight." That's the World Cup in rugby union football, mind you. Again, rugby league is something else...
For the most part, the rest of the news this week focused on stories coming from Australia itself (e.g., the trial of a father who drowned his sons by driving his car into the water, the wildfires in New South Wales, the building of a pulp mill in Tasmania). One can dig around and learn much more about the rest of the world, of course, especially on news websites. And, I think it's safe to say that the average Australian is more aware of news in the rest of the world than is the average American. I am looking forward to catching up with the news back in the U.S. when I arrive there next week. What's the latest on the Obama vs. Hillary battle? What's the current hotspot for racial tension? What's the latest gruesome murder? Who have the police mistreated this week? And, most importantly, is the latest edition of "Survivor" any good?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Assimilation

We arrived in Australia a little over three months ago. Of course, I know it's going to take a much longer time to feel like we actually live here. Right now I still feel like I'm on a sabbatical from the U.S. I am making daily comparisons between what "they" do here and what "we" do back in the States. Owning a house back in Atlanta that hasn't yet sold and renting our home here adds to this sense of a temporary lifestyle. In fact, I leave in a week for a 12-day trip to America to attend some conferences and see some family members. I find myself very much looking forward to this trip because I'll be able to relax again, being in my own culture surrounded by people who talk like me and eat my food, sell "my" kinds of things, etc. We're creating a shopping list of things for me to buy there that will require bringing along an extra suitcase. And I'll get to see so many of my dear friends and family!

Given my current state of mind, I found this page appropriately amusing. It's from www.matesupover.com, a website for ex-pat Australians living in the United States. On this page is a little anonymously written essay called "The Five Stages of Culture Shock." I believe that I am experiencing the beginning of the second stage (which followed a stage of wonderment and tourist-like excitement):
The second stage is the actual shock. It can be characterized with loss of courage and general discomfort. Changes in character occur, depression, lack of self-confidence and irritation, people become more vulnerable and prone to crying, more worried about their health, suffer from headache, bad stomach and complaint about pain and allergy. Difficulties with concentration often occur and reduce the ability to learn a new language. These factors increase the anxiety and the stress. In this period, the self-awareness dissolves and people have trouble with solving simple problems. Conversations on this stage are about things that cannot be bought, what you must get along without, and everything that the people in the new country do wrong (which means "differently").
It is easy to get into a rant about the little things that are different here (e.g., the lack of built-in sink plugs, the light switches that flip down instead of up, the complicated choices involved in choosing mobile phone services), but such rants merely mask pangs of homesickness. Most of all I miss my friends and family. It's hard to accept the fact that I can no longer just jump in the car and drive off to see them in a few minutes or a few hours. I also realize now that I am resisting assimilation quite fiercely by surrounding myself with things from "home," and occasionally mocking what people do here. I end up spending most of my social time with North Americans (which is easy to do at my workplace)! According to the "Five Stages of Culture Shock:"
The third stage of culture shock is characterized with one's plunging into new ways of living. With patience, it is possible to reach this stage by the end of the first year. Key aspects in a new culture are being learned and the earlier chaos and lack of direction seldom appears. Relations with the native population are initiated, such as neighbours and workmates or schoolmates.
So, according to this, I've got another nine months of moaning and whinging to go! Then I can start on fourth stage. Stay tuned...