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


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


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


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.