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


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


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...