Thursday, December 11, 2008

April 29, 1992

I have been following the news about the riots in Greece, which have gone on for about four days now. The Greek government has been largely ineffectual in stopping the mayhem, and the reporters have noted how it seems that no one is in control. The riots seem to have been brought on by the effects of the collapsing world economy, so we might witness more of this in other countries in the months ahead.

What is happening in Greece reminded me of a horrible event that I experienced firsthand--the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. I was then working at the University of Southern California, which is situated next to the neighborhood where the riots first broke out on Wednesday, April 29th. When the verdicts of the "Rodney King" trial were announced that afternoon (four White officers were found not guilty of using excessive force to arrest a Black suspect), many of my co-workers and I went home early in anticipation that there might be some trouble as the news of the verdict spread. By rush hour, the first major incident started when a group of young men began ruthlessly attacking White and Latino motorists at the corner of Florence and Normandie. I had made it home by then, but I watched live television as Reginald Denny was pulled from his big-rig truck and beaten to unconsciousness by a gang of thugs as a news helicopter flew overhead.  The L.A. police were ordered to keep away from the intersection, so they waited around a few blocks away. One of the thugs, Damian Williams, danced around as he kicked Denny and held his fists in the air, taunting the news helicopter. Denny was finally rescued when an African American truck driver, Bobby Green, Jr., who had watched the beating on his television, decided to go to the intersection, pull Denny to safety, and drive him to an emergency room in Denny's truck. That live news coverage of the events at the intersection certainly contributed to the mayhem that occurred for the next six days. It was clear that no one was in charge. Looting began in earnest. That first night I even saw a group of USC students loot a shoe store on live TV. Over 1000 buildings were set on fire. Fifty-three people were killed, most of them murdered. The Los Angeles area was shut down. I stayed locked up in my apartment for three days, smelling the smoke of fires burning 10 miles away. It felt like the end of civilization.  

Finally, after days of little action, the state and federal governments sent National Guard units, marines, and soldiers to Los Angeles. One of the command posts was at the Coliseum, a large sports arena (and site of the '84 Olympics) next door to USC. On Day 4, a Saturday, we started to drive around again, and I remember feeling somewhat safer when I saw troops patroling the perimeter of the USC campus. When we later returned to work we discovered that a group of shops about a block away from the psychology building had been burned to the ground. These included some Korean businesses, which were favored targets during the first 24 hours of the riots. As the days and weeks passed, life finally returned to normal. A year later, there was little mention in our everyday conversations about how the world had seemed to fall apart so quickly. To this day, however, I am still aware of the fragility of our social institutions. I sometimes grow nervous that I'll once again have to experience the kinds of riots that are now going on in Greece. It might seem highly unlikely here in Oz, but don't forget about those riots in the Sydney suburb of Cronulla just three year ago.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

On My Way Home

I am writing this entry on Saturday morning. I am still in Atlanta, but soon I'll begin my journey back to Brisbane, where I'll arrive in about 32 hours. My first twelve days here involved visiting family members in the Midwest. I drove over 1400 miles (2200 km) on that part of the trip, which included a tense three hours dodging the cars in front of me that were sliding off the road during a snowstorm. I then spent four days in Atlanta because I needed to work on some research projects here. I also wanted to see quite a few of our old friends, so I ended up scheduling little two-hour visits with as many people as possible. I met five babies who were born since we left the country. I had dinner twice one night. I stayed up late each night talking with different friends, but then woke up early the next day to have breakfast with someone else. I am now exhausted and hope that I can enjoy my two long plane trips without having to engage in conversation with anyone but the flight attendant about my drink choices.

Besides seeing all these friends and family members, I did get to experience things that are hard to come by in Australia. These included Jiff peanut butter, Taco Bell and Chilli's (but also some real Mexican food too), very hot chicken wings (labelled 'Death' at one restaurant), Walmart, hours of listening to CNN and NPR (mainly on my rental car's radio), American television commercials, chicken fried steak, USA Today, Hampton Inn, cheap shopping, and much more. Yes, I enjoyed all of this, but I have had my fill of "America" for at least another year. I now look forward to the heat and humidity of a Brisbane summer, the inane Mel and Kochie on "Sunrise," flat whites, buying fresh fruits and veggies (and the rest of our groceries) at our local shopping mall, Aussie accents, high toilets and bathroom counters, driving (and walking) on the left side, expensive books, my friends, and, most of all, V. and Will.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The First Day of Summer

December 1 is the first day of summer in Australia. It seems appropriate then that today I am getting to experience the first snowstorm of the season here in northern Illinois. Right now my nieces are frolicking around in the first couple of inches that have fallen, but I am worrying about how this will affect my travel plans of driving 11 hours to Arkansas tomorrow. Tonight the wind is supposed to pick up and cause drifting on the roads. Lucky me.

Friday, November 21, 2008


I'm in the midst of a six-hour layover in Denver. My journey from Australia to Arkansas began 24 hours ago, and I still have five hours left. I'm beginning to feel a bit punchy as a result. Perhaps that explains why I've seen so many angry people in America today. Or, perhaps that's because the number of travellers has picked up in advance of next week's Thanksgiving holiday. Or, perhaps a lot of people aren't as happy about Obama winning as I thought. Or, perhaps Aussies are even more mellow than I realized.

I did manage to see my old friends, Tiffany and Dave, and their beautiful son, Ryan, for 30 minutes at a gate here, just before they boarded their flight. And I managed a garbled conversation with V. and Will back in Brisbane via Skype and free Wi-Fi, courtesy of the Denver airport. I also got to eat a bagel (Einstein Bros.) and a cinnamon roll from Cinnabon, and I'll be eating Mexican tonight for dinner (sorry, Mooselet!). Travelling isn't so bad.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

International Contrast

I was looking through the news feed on my Facebook account this morning. It updates me about any changes to my Facebook friends' profiles in the past 24 hours. Among my FB friends are PhD students back in Atlanta and here in Brisbane. Over the weekend the temperatures dropped below freezing in Atlanta, whereas here the max was over 30 C (86 F). According to the Facebook news feed, graduate students in both places hosted an outdoor social event. 

In the picture below, you can see the UQ "post-grads" playing barefoot lawn bowls. Note that everyone is barefoot and several students are holding a drink while they bowl. I think this looks like a lot fun, especially as I'm an old ten-pin bowler from way back, but I haven't had a chance to try this yet.
In the next picture, you can see some GSU grad students celebrating "Fakesgiving," complete with a turkey and all the side dishes. I don't know the origin of this little feast, but I guess it's a way for them to have a Thanksgiving dinner together before they all leave town for the holiday. Such cold temperatures in Atlanta are pretty unusual this early in the season, but that didn't seem to deter anyone from eating their meal outside.

That reminds just a few days I'll be donning my own coat, hat, and scarf to face the chill of North America. Brrrrrrrr!

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Vaccine Publicity Machine

Yesterday there was a big announcement from Professor Ian Frazer at the University of Queensland regarding his plans to begin clinical trials for a new vaccine that may help prevent some kinds of skin cancer. This is exciting news, especially in the country where the incidence of skin cancer is the highest in the world, and in a state (Queensland) that has highest number of reported melanomas. Scottish-born Professor Frazer is already a hero in Australia, having received numerous awards, including Australian of the Year in 2006 ("Ian embodies Australian know-how, determination and innovation"), for his work on the development of a vaccine to prevent papilloma virus infection, a vaccine more commonly known around the world as Gardasil. Human papilloma virus (HPV) infections cause nearly all cases of cervical cancer, which is the fifth leading cause of death of women worldwide. 

In the past 24 hours I have seen several news stories about Professor Frazer's announcement about the skin cancer vaccine. In these stories he has been referred to as the man "who developed the vaccine for cervical cancer," "the scientist who discovered the cure for cervical cancer", the "creator" of the HPV vaccine, and "the Australian scientist who pioneered the vaccine for cervical cancer." Here, on the UQ campus, it's hard not to see a photo of Professor Frazer somewhere, whether at a bus stop or in the latest glossy brochure heralding the university's achievements. Obviously, Australia is quite proud of Ian Frazer's accomplishments--as they should be. Gardasil is now available worldwide, with already over 16 million doses distributed just in the United States, as of June 30th of this year.

Just before we moved to Australia last year, I saw a story about the HPV vaccine in an American newspaper. It contained a brief history that featured the work of researchers at Georgetown University and the University of Rochester, but there was no mention of any research in Australia, except for the fact that it was one of 13 countries involved in the clinical trials of Gardasil. I ran a Google news archive search to see how often Frazer's name was mentioned in conjunction with Gardasil in the past three years.  After excluding Australian news sources, I could find only one or two entries.

So, why then is there nary a mention of the discoverer of the HPV vaccine outside of Australia? A 2006 article that appeared in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, titled "Who Invented the VLP Cervical Cancer Vaccines?" may provide some answers. It turns out that four institutions hold the patents for the Gardasil vaccine--the National Cancer Institute (in the U.S.), Georgetown, the University of Queensland, and the University of Rochester. And, according to the peer-reviewed literature, "the development of the VLP/L1 vaccine was an incremental process with multiple contributors." There were five key discoveries that led to the various institutions and researchers each claiming credit for the vaccine:
1991: Expression of the human papillomavirus L1 and L2 proteins together, but not L1 alone, resulted in the formation of small VLPs described as "incorrectly assembled arrays" of subunits (reported by Jian Zhou, Ian Frazer, and colleagues at Queensland; Virology).

1992: HPV L1 expression in mammalian cells led to an L1 in cells that was recognized by monoclonal antibodies that bind conformational epitopes; no VLPs were produced in this study but it was considered important because the ability of L1 to self-assemble into VLPs and produce neutralizing antibodies depends on the native conformation of L1, which involves conformational epitopes (reported by Shin-Je Ghim, A. Bennet Jenson, and Richard Schlegel of Georgetown; Virology).

1992: L1 from bovine papillomavirus type 1 self-assembled into morphologically correct VLPs that induced high levels of neutralizing antibodies in immunized animals (reported by Reinhard Kirnbauer, Doug Lowy, and John Schiller at NCI and colleagues; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

1993: L1 from HPV 11 self-assembled into VLPs, later shown to induce neutralizing antibodies (reported by Robert Rose at Rochester and colleagues; Journal of Virology).

1993: L1 from HPV 16, taken from lesions that had not progressed to cancer, self-assembled more efficiently than the HPV 16 L1 that researchers everywhere had been using; the old strain was shown to be a mutant, possibly because it had been isolated from a cancer (reported by Kirnbaueer, Lowy, and Schiller at NCI and colleagues; Journal of Virology).
Thus, the way the Australian media wants to paint the picture of Ian Frazer as being some sort of Aussie Jonas Salk is misleading. Big discoveries in medicine, and science in general, can rarely be attributed to one person any more. Many people work on different pieces of the puzzle. Apparently, such (international) teamwork makes it difficult, however, for journalists to tell the whole story.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Parking Ticket

When I was a student at the University of Iowa, I was terribly irresponsible about money. Among the many collectors who seemed to want a piece of me was Iowa City itself, due to my penchant for receiving parking tickets. I am proud to say, however, that I changed after leaving Iowa. In the 21 years since, I have received just two parking tickets (and never a moving violation). And one of those appeared on my windshield on the campus of the University of Queensland at 11:28 AM on May 19th, 2008.

I park at the university three days each week. This involves finding a place along Sir William MacGregor Drive, which runs along the river at the edge of campus. Parking permits are conveniently sold through little vending machines. You put in your $3 worth of coins and out comes a small receipt that you put on your dashboard. Of course, I do this all the time, but on the 19th of May, I put the receipt in my pocket and walked away. I came back to the car that day and found a little wispy slip of white paper under the wiper, which turned out to be a ticket for $30.

I put that wispy slip of paper in my pocket, fully intending to pay the ticket via the UQ website. But, I forgot about it. And, being that it was such a little slip of paper, it was later thrown away with all the other little receipts that we accumulate over the week. 

A few months passed, and I received a letter from UQ demanding that I now pay something like $60 for this delinquent parking ticket. Again, this notice was printed on such an insignificantly thin slice of paper (I've only seen paper this thin in Australia and Croatia) that it was soon lost in our piles of papers as well.  I should have gone to the UQ parking office and sorted it out then, but I forgot.

Now, nearly five months later, I have received a regular-sized envelope, with a letter printed on regular bond paper from the Queensland Government Department of Justice and Attorney-General, notifying me that I owed $97.50 for this original parking violation. It contained the following notice:
If you do not pay this order by the due date, a $84.00 enforcement fee may be added and the following enforcement action taken against you:
  • your driver licence could be suspended
  • your employer may be required to deduct a certain amount from your wage each month
  • your bank may be order to transfer money from your account to SPER (State Penalties Enforcement Registry)
  • an interest may be registered in your property or it may be seized and sold
  • a warrant could be issued for your arrest and imprisonment
Needless to say, I paid the fine today via the handy "BPAY" option.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tuckshop of the Year

tuckshop. n.  shop selling food and drinks, especially at school.

Here's another a group of Australian awards that I learned about this week--the 2008 Queensland Tuckshops of the Year.  Last weekend, at the 8th Annual Gala Dinner at the Broncos Leagues Club in Red Hill, Brisbane, one could pay $49-$59 a person (or $44 with a booking of 10 or more) to sit in semi-formal attire while the TOY awards were presented for Queensland Tuckshop of the Year, Central Region Tuckshop of the Year, Southern Region Tuckshop of the Year, Western Region Tuckshop of the Year, and Outstanding Achievement in Tuckshop Management. A friend of ours has volunteered at her daughters' school's tuckshop quite a bit, so we were happy to hear that their primary school, Ithaca Creek State, won the coveted Tuckshop of the Year trophy. Apparently, Ithaca Creek's tuckshop is noteworthy for its wide range of healthy food choices. Open on Tuesdays and Fridays, students can choose from a menu that includes sushi, pasta, vegie burgers, a bean trio or chicken caesar served layered in a crunch cup or wrap, berry yoghurt crunch, and a banana lickety stick.

As for me, I began a life-long love of meat pies at the tuckshop at our primary school in Wagga Wagga. I guess that's no longer considered a 'healthy' choice.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

We're Anti-Pool People

One of the perks of being married to someone who was trained in medicine is that you get to hear constantly about the health risks of various activities, including bad eating, drinking, and gun ownership. Recently, V. and I have been gently debating the risks of having a pool in the backyard of our future home. Despite the fact that residents of SE Queensland are a short drive from the ocean, and they repeatedly face water restrictions, they just love their backyard pools (this is easily confirmed when you fly over Brisbane). V., however, feels very strongly that we should never have a least until Will is an adult. Her certainty on this matter reminds me of a passage in Levitt's and Dubner's Freakonomics about the decision to send one's child to a house with guns or one with pools:
Consider the parents of an eight-year-old girl named, say, Molly. Her two best friends, Amy and Imani, each live nearby. Molly's parents know that Amy's parents keep a gun in their house, so they have forbidden Molly to play there. Instead, Molly spends a lot of time at Imani's house, which has a swimming pool in the backyard. Molly's parents feel good about having made such a smart choice to protect their daughter.

But according to the data, their choice isn't smart at all. In a given year, there is one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential pools in the United States. (In a country with 6 million pools, this means that roughly 550 children under the age of ten drown each year.) Meanwhile, there is 1 child killed by a gun for every 1 million-plus guns. (In a country with an estimated 200 million guns, this means that roughly 175 children under ten die each year from guns.) The likelihood of death by pool (1 in 11,000) versus death by gun (1 in 1 million-plus) isn't even close: Molly is roughly 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident at Imani's house than in gunplay at Amy's.
To further support my wife's brilliance, here are few more U.S. statistics that I found on a pool alarm website:
* Six people drown in U.S. pools every day. Many of these pools are public facilities staffed with certified professional lifeguards.  Centers for Disease Control

* Drowning is the 4th leading cause of accidental death in the United States, claiming 4,000 lives annually. Approximately one-third are children under the age of 14.  American Institute for Preventive Medicine

* Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional, injury-related death among children under the age of 15.  National Center for Health Statistics

* A child can drown in the time it takes to answer a phone.  U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

* 19% of drowning deaths involving children occur in public pools with certified lifeguards present.  Drowning Prevention Foundation

* A swimming pool is 14 times more likely than a motor vehicle to be involved in the death of a child age 4 and under.  Orange County California Fire Authority

* Children under five and adolescents between the ages of 15-24 have the highest drowning rates.  American Academy of Pediatrics

* For every child who drowns, four are hospitalized for near drowning.  American Academy of Pediatrics

* An estimated 5,000 children ages 14 and under are hospitalized due to near-drownings each year; 15 percent die in the hospital and as many as 20 percent suffer severe, permanent neurological disability.  Foundation for Aquatic Injury Prevention

* Of all preschoolers who drown, 70 percent are in the care of one or both parents at the time of the drowning and 75 percent are missing from sight for five minutes or less.  Orange County, CA, Fire Authority

* In 10 states - Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington - drowning surpasses all other causes of death to children age 14 and under. Orange County, CA, Fire Authority
Needless to say, I'm with V. on this one.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Deposit on the Future

V. and I are looking at some houses to rent today. Our son will start Prep (the equivalent of kindergarten in the U.S.) in two years, so we are also thinking about where he would go to primary school. It's a strange thing, planning for the future. We have no idea where we will be in 10 years, five years, or even two years from now. We might go back to the U.S. or end up staying here permanently. We don't really know. Yet, because we have a young child, we must consider some sort of vague plan. In fact, I just sent $375 to Brisbane Grammar School, a private school for boys that has a very good reputation, so that Will can be on the waiting list for the Year 6 class that will enter in 2017. Yes, that's more than eight years away, but we may already be too late to guarantee his admission! Of course, we are not at all certain that we will want him to go there or whether he would even want to attend it when he's older, but we didn't want to eliminate the chance of his going if we did decided in 2016 that it was the best option. 

But now it's time to figure out what we're going to have for lunch.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Catching Up

The last two weeks were, as you know, very busy for me. Because I didn't blog much about what was going on at the time, here's a brief recap:

I spent 24 hours in Newcastle, New South Wales. I went to the University of Newcastle to give a talk at the School of Psychology, and spent most of the rest of the time with two social psychologists who live there. I visited Newcastle once before, in 2001. It is the largest coal port in the world. At dinner at a wonderful restaurant along the harbour, my hosts and I watched large ships with Chinese flags lining up to fill their holds with Australian coal. Australia's economic boom in the past decade has been largely due to China being a hungry customer for its natural resources. Any downturn in China's economy will in turn have an impact here.

Last weekend we took an early Saturday morning ferry to Stradbroke Island, which is about 40 km due east of our home. I was attending a cognitive neuroscience workshop, made up of researchers at UQ, at the university's marine research station. Meanwhile, V. and Will spent the time over at Point Lookout with my colleagues' families. We stayed at a small resort that had a kitchen and washer/drier, etc. for two nights, and then left early Monday morning so that we could get back to work and Will could go to day care. What a great place! The beaches are huge, sandy, and beautiful. And they were nearly empty. The 40-minute ferry ride was easy for us and fun for Will. It's becoming increasingly clear why so many SE Queenslanders stay in the area during the holidays. We live in paradise!

In the midst of this traveling I was also marking (grading) thirteen 40+ page honours theses. In Australia the mark on an honours thesis has nearly the same importance as GRE scores in the U.S. At UQ a score of 80 or higher indicates the thesis is 'first-class,' which, as long as their coursework is also first-class, means that a psychology student can get a scholarship to become a Ph.D. student, or it could also mean that they are admitted to a clinical psychology program. Thus, I felt great pressure to be fair and accurate in my marks, as I was (partially) determining the future of the 13 students whom I was marking. Of those 13, my marking partner and I gave three a first-class designation.  

I had also scheduled to take my four honours students to dinner this week as a way to celebrate the intense year we had been through. Unfortunately, on the day before the dinner, the co-ordinator of the honours program announced that we could tell our students their final marks (by the way, supervisors do not mark their own students' theses). I had planned to tell my students the day after the dinner, so that we could enjoy our meal in peace, but that plan was disrupted when I began receiving email messages such as "my friend just found out her thesis mark, can you tell me mine?" I was able to hold off the announcement of those marks until the next day, much to the disappointment of a couple of my students. Then, I had the 'pleasant' task of giving the news the next day. Some were more disappointed than others, but no one ended up with an especially tragic mark.

On Thursday afternoon I received a call from the U.S. Consulate in Sydney.  My first thought when the caller identified herself was, "how did they find me?" It turned out that I wasn't in any trouble. Instead, the Consulate invited me to speak on Friday to a group of 30 Australian students who will be going to the U.S. for study abroad in January. I was asked to address certain points (e.g., the grading system, living on campus, the drinking age), but the students themselves asked questions that were more specific for the particular university they were going to (e.g., "can I list my friend as my preferred roommate?", "does it cost money to use the gym?").

Then, of course, the whole week was overshadowed by the election in the States. At work a large group of department staff and students spent several hours in one classroom watching the returns. I heard one Canadian grumble, "our election last month didn't receive this kind of attention." The other Canadian responded, "there was an election last month?" As I hinted in an earlier post, Australians are overjoyed with Obama's election. (Unlike some of my relatives, who think that Obama's secret socialist, Muslim-based, Black conspiracy will now ruin the country).

Now, as the temperature starts to go up, there's a short lull before I have to mark 250 exams next weekend. Right now we are trying to sort out whether we want to move to a house with a yard in a more suburban locale. 

Stay tuned.  

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Shopping List

I am flying to the U.S. in less than two weeks, so I am preparing a shopping list. Our fantasies of me wandering the aisles of Walgreens, Target, Baby Gap, the Apple Store, Kohls, or Borders ignore the reality of the greatly depreciated Australian dollar. Despite the depressing exchange rate, there are still plenty of things that are far cheaper or only available back in the States. Here's a preliminary list of things I'll be putting in my extra suitcase:
  • peanut butter (Jif or Skippy Extra Crunchy)
  • fabric dryer sheets (last year's supply is nearly exhausted)
  • clothes for Will
  • clothes for me (esp. shirts that can be put in the dryer)
  • Merrell shoes for V.
  • shoes for me
  • children's (and adult) vitamins
  • some recent novels (I haven't read a Grisham in a couple of years)
  • plastic bibs, forks, sippy cups and knives for Will
  • dental tape
  • a melon baller (?)
  • an EMS travel bag
  • a DVD boxed set of some old TV show (maybe)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Smile

What a wonderful moment.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Where Did I Put My Fascinator?

Australians are following two big races today. The first is the Melbourne Cup, which is the premier horse race of Australia ("the celebration that stops the nation"). In Melbourne this means a day off from work. For everyone else it can mean a very long lunch hour. Restaurants all over Brisbane have been for weeks advertising Melbourne Cup special events, including champagne and a chance to dress in fancy clothes. I just walked by a conference room in another building and saw it was full of people dressed up, eating a catered lunch, and watching the race on a big screen television. The women were even wearing fascinators. This race has far greater meaning for Australians than, say, the Kentucky Derby has for Americans. I heard someone explain this morning that an appreciation for the Melbourne Cup in Australia begins in the pre-school years. In fact, Will's day care was decked out with pictures of horses this morning. 

Interestingly, the other big race today that Australians are following is the U.S. election. It has almost overshadowed the Melbourne Cup in coverage. Several television stations will be devoting most of their broadcasts to the election returns all day tomorrow (starting at around 7 pm Eastern time in the U.S.). I have heard of many plans for parties, including one that will be taking place in the School of Psychology. Most Australians are eager to see Bush go. What's more, Obama is really popular here. I saw a morning news poll of viewers (not a scientific one, mind you) in which 89% of the callers said they would vote for Obama if they had the opportunity.

UPDATE: Well, it turns out that Viewed was this year's Melbourne Cup winner, and he won in a thrilling, photo finish. I am hoping that the other race today won't be as close...

Friday, October 31, 2008

Video Directions

I just got back from spending a wonderful day at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales. We leave tomorrow for a two-night stay on Stradbroke Island.  AND I have yet to finish marking those honours theses.  

Check out the following video, made by one of my colleagues when she should have been marking theses as well.  This must be a first-of-a-kind way of giving directions to someone's house!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

And The Winner Is...

Yesterday I attended the annual Teaching and Learning awards ceremony for the SBS Faculty (a division within the university that includes the schools of psychology, journalism, etc.).  Several deserving colleagues won awards for best lecturer, best tutor, and a citation for outstanding contributions to student learning (despite the name of the ceremony, there doesn't seem to be an award for the best learner). I believe that later in the week the university will announce the university-level teaching and learning awards. Presumably, these university award winners compete for 27 national learning and teaching awards, including the Prime Minister's Award for Australian University Teacher of the Year. Earlier in the semester there was an equivalent round of awards for Research. Recipients of these university awards typically learn of their good fortune prior to the awards ceremony, but are not allowed to let others know that they have won. Thus, there is a great deal of excitement surrounding the "big reveal" of these awards, which are highly valued when it is time for a promotion.  This got me to thinking about what other Australian awards I might try for...

The Australian Swimmer of the Year Awards were held last night in Sydney.  Among the winners was Grant Hackett, who won the "prestigious" Swimmers' Swimmer Award, and Stephanie Rice, who won Swimmer of the Year.  Other major awards included the People's Choice Award, Coach of the Year, Discovery Swimmer of the Year, Open Water Swimmer of the Year, Swimmer of the Year with a Disability, and Open Water Coach of the Year.  These awards were preceded a month ago by the Australian Football League awards (including the AFL Rising Star, the All-Australian team, the Coleman Medal, Goal of the Year, Mark of the Year, and Norm Smith Medal) and Dally M Awards for the National Rugby League (including the Daily M Medal, Rookie of the Year, Top Tryscorer of the Year, Top Pointscorer of the Year, and Toyota Cup Player of the Year). And, of course, there are awards for cricket (e.g., the Allan Border Medal for outstanding cricketer of the year, the Bradman Young Cricketer of the Year), the Netball Australia Annual Awards, and awards for sailing. If someone misses out on one of those awards, there's always a chance that he or she could win one of the 2008 Australian Sport Awards, which includes awards for Sport Executive of the Year, Volunteer of the Year, and National Team of the Year.  

If sport isn't your thing, there are plenty of awards in the arts, literature, and entertainment.  There are the Logies (television), the ARIAs (music), the Helpmann Awards (theatre), the Archibald Prize (portrait art), the Margarey Medal for Biography ("awarded to the female person who has published the work judged to be the best biographical writing on an Australian subject"), the Aurealis Awards for Excellence in Australian Speculative Fiction, the Miles Franklin Literary Award (the most prestigious Australian literary award), the Max Afford Playwrights' Awards, and the Thelma Afford Theatre, Stage, TV or Film Costume Design Award.

In science, engineering, and medicine, there are the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes (e.g., Ethics Research, Science Teaching, Environmental Journalism, Sleek Geeks Science Prize), the Green Chemistry Challenge Awards, the Life Fellowship of The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, and the Australian Engineering Excellence Awards.  Of course, there are also the Australian Business Awards (e.g., Best Eco-Friendly Product, Marketing Excellent, Best Value) and the Real Estate Institute of Australia National Awards of Excellence.  There are also the Walkley Awards in Journalism and the Australian Commercial Radio Awards (e.g., Best Salesperson, Best Newcomer Off-Air, Best Newcomer On-Air, and Best Station Produced Commercial).

Most of the awards that I have mentioned are given at ceremonies involving lavish dinners at fancy venues.  The awards in sport are often televised.  Newspaper and magazines feature photos of the nominees (and their glamorous partners) strolling down the red carpet, much like the Academy Awards.  This doesn't happen for the awards in academia, however.  It's probably because, as a group, we're just not that photogenic.  

The grandest of all awards in Australia, however, has to be the Australian of the Year award. The federal government actually gives out awards on Australia Day in January each year to the few, but highly-deserving. I don't quite understand all the rules, but I believe that winners at the federal level have usually won at the state level earlier (e.g., Queenslander of the Year). And, just like all the other awards here, there are several subcategories as well. There's the Young Australian of the Year, Senior Australian, and Australia's Local Hero. In fact, Chris Lilley created and starred in an Australian mockumentary about the competition titled "We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year." It follows five Australians (all played by Lilley) who have been nominated for the award. Phil Olevitti, a cop from Brisbane, is probably my favourite character, as he is so obsessed about winning the award (on the basis of his saving nine children when their jumping castle crashed into a power line) that he ends up lying to his family when he doesn't make it to the finals, but tries to sneak into the final ceremonies anyway.  

Give me a few years. I might not win any of these awards, but, like Phil from Brisbane, that won't stop me from trying to crash the party anyway. 

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Look Down Here!

I'm here.  That's me, sitting at the bottom of an enormous pile of work that threatens to topple over at any moment.  While trying to stay focused on reading all these honours theses, I also find myself absorbed with the machinations of the presidential elections back in the States, worried about the consequences of this economic disaster for everyone I know, and more protective of my little family here in Toowong.  It's a great comfort knowing that my friends and family in California, Iowa, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Georgia, and Australia are still checking in at my blog.  Things should lighten up in another week and I hope then to resume blogging more regularly.

I saw a t-shirt last night that I would love to get:  Procrastinators: Leaders of Tomorrow. 

Monday, October 20, 2008

Father Time

A new unpublished study was reported in the Australian news today, which found that Australian fathers spend on average six minutes alone with their children from Monday to Friday. Yes, this means that the average Aussie father spends about a minute a day alone with his children. He may spend more time with them on weekends, but the author of the study, Dr. Lyn Craig, states that a father is more likely to spend time with his children only as a family unit. Compared to the U.S. and many European countries, the gender disparity of alone-time with children is the greatest here in Australia. You see, Australian mums "spend almost three hours a week purely looking after children (without counting child-related housework such as making their beds, cleaning away toys or doing their washing)," according to the article.  
Dr. Craig says, "it's a reflection of the fact that childcare is a family and leisure activity for men."

First, let me state right away that I am certain that Dr. Craig is correct in asserting that there is a great disparity in Australia between men and women in their childcare responsibilities--much like there is in most countries in the world. One of the only countries I have visited where I didn't see such a disparity was Denmark, where I regularly saw mothers and fathers sharing all aspects of child-rearing. Dr. Craig even mentions Denmark in her article.  

However, I have a few methodological questions about Dr. Craig's study.  How were the data gathered?  Did both men and women contribute to the data?  Did participants keep daily diaries?  Did the number and age of children have no bearing on the results?  How was divorce and subsequent custody arrangements taken into consideration? 

I tend to dislike reading generalisations about men and women (e.g., "it's a woman's job and a man's hobby"). Social scientists who study gender rarely seem to have problems making such statements, even though stating the same sorts of things in terms of  religion or ethnicity, for example, would be completely unacceptable (e.g., "childcare is a family and leisure activity for Blacks"). Such simplifications are usually part of an agenda where the researcher is striving for social change. I am all for the social change, but I worry about the effects of sending a perception that one gender is more at fault than the other.  

In my specific case, I easily spend at least 14 hours alone with Will on weekdays, which includes "feeding, bathing, and ferrying him to and from childcare." And I work full-time. V. is able to spend more time with him, but she also works half-time.  But, according to Dr. Craig's study (if the data are as solid as one would hope), the typical Australian child only gets a total of 3 hours (mum) and 6 minutes (dad) alone with their parents. The fact that it's just 186 minutes should be getting as much attention as the disparity between the genders.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Can you figure out what this is?

Thanks to a tip from Dan, this is one of several amazing photos of the sun found in this article at, the home of the Boston Globe. The caption reads:
Image of an active solar region taken on July 24, 2002 near the eastern limb of the Sun. The image highlights the three-dimensional nature of the photosphere when seen at these large angles. The structures in the dark sunspots in the upper central area of the image show distinct elevation above the dark "floor" of the sunspot. The height of the structures has been estimated by Dr. Bruce Lites of the High Altitude Observatory to be between 200 and 450 km. The smallest resolvable features in the image are about 70 km in size. There are also numerous bright "faculae" visible on the edges of granules that face towards the observer. (Prof. Goran Scharmer/Dr. Mats G. Löfdahl/Institute for Solar Physics of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)
Here's another.  Be sure to check out all 21 pictures on the site.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Fast Food Fighting

Student elections at UQ are going on this week.  I don't remember this kind of strong campaigning for an election at any of the other universities with which I have been associated in the past 25 years.  I believe there are just two parties, Fresh and Now!, which are running for control of the student-run UQ Union.  Unlike most universities in the U.S., there isn't a student-run newspaper here, like The Daily Iowan or The Emory Wheel, which might provide more information about what's going on in students' heads.  My colleagues have told me that the national political parties back these student groups because they want to promote their own agendas, particularly those having to do with whether compulsory student fees will ever be reinstated. (These were abolished on July 1, 2006, under the Howard government, which led to a great curtailing of student services on Australian campuses).  One of my colleagues informed me that Fresh is backed by the Liberal party (the party on the right) because they want to keep the fees voluntary, but most UQ students are unaware of this affiliation.  All week, both Fresh and Now! have had huge teams of supporters wearing yellow and blue shirts passing out fliers all over campus.  

A member of Fresh asked for a few minutes to speak to my class on Tuesday to tell my students why they should vote for her party.  Her main message appeared to be that Fresh has been working hard to get Subway on campus, whereas Now (made up of Greens and other progressives) doesn't support this action.  Yes, this seems to be a central issue in the campaign this year, as you can see in the banner below.

Sure, I occasionally went to Subway when I lived in the States, but I usually preferred going to local shops for my sandwiches.  I rarely encountered any sort of line when I did go to Subway, so imagine my surprise at seeing long queues nearly every time I have come upon a Subway here.  Australians just go mad about Subway.  Since my arrival, I've been to shopping areas full of quaint food stands and quick eateries that were serving original, delectable dishes, but the only place with any kind of line was Subway.  They always seem to be busy.  I can't explain why Subway is such a huge phenomenon here, nor why it's such an important issue to UQ students. And vegemite isn't even on the menu.  Then again, I don't understand pickled beetroot on hamburgers either.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Good Week for Voting

I have had a pretty good week:  one of my manuscripts was accepted for publication, I got my first Australian research grant, and my PhD student, Michael, was 'confirmed' with flying colours. And the cherry on top was being able to mail our U.S. election ballots this morning. And it's only Thursday! 

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


If you're feeling bored (reading this a good sign that you are), you might give this website a try.  You too can discover the real you with a little photo manipulation.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Exam Trees

It's springtime and the jacarandas are blooming.  Here are some pictures that I took this morning on the UQ campus as I walked from my car to the office.  Jacarandas are so plentiful here in Brisbane that I thought they were native trees.  But, according to the ever-trusty Wikipedia, they are not.  I used to see a lot in Southern California and in Florida, and it is from the Americas where these trees have emigrated.

In the Wikipedia entry there is also an interesting description about the importance of jacarandas to UQ students and other Brisbane residents:
The city of Brisbane in Australia has a local reputation of having a significant population of Jacaranda trees. The University of Queensland in the city's inner west has a very high concentration of the tree, and due to the impressive display of purple flowers in mid-Spring, which wind up littering vast sections of the suburbs, local folklore claims that "one won't start studying for exams until the jacarandas have molted". At Sydney University there exists a similar expression "by the time the jacaranda in the main quadrangle flowers, it's too late to start studying for exams".

This has led to the slang name "exam tree" being attached to the plant. At the University of Queensland students even maintain a joke superstition that if a Jacaranda bloom falls on their head during exam time, they will fail an exam. The bad luck can be broken by catching another bloom before it hits the ground.

The reason for the Jacaranda's proliferation in Brisbane is often attributed to the thirties and forties, when new mothers leaving the maternity hospital were given a jacaranda sapling to plant.

Jacarandas in bloom have become closely associated with Brisbane and South East Queensland. The Brisbane City Council have used jacarandas to line avenues, and commercial developments in some areas, particularly along the Brisbane River have incorporated jacarandas into their landscape design. The trees are common in parks throughout the city, most notably in a long curved avenue in the inner city New Farm Park, in Goodna, and in private gardens. Brisbane's hilly geography allows views of the city and suburbs in which the brightly coloured flowers can be easily seen for miles. The jacaranda has become so much a part of the city's identity that contemporary art, particularly of streetscapes, often incorporates the flowering jacaranda, despite the fact that it only flowers for approximately six weeks from September through October.
Exams don't start this semester until November, so I guess that means bad luck for everyone.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Life at 1, 2, 3...

I am currently swamped at work. It's nearing the end of the semester, so I've been editing my honours students' theses, marking papers for one of my courses, and trying to complete a lecture on neuroeconomics. I haven't had much time to watch TV, but I wanted to alert you to a fantastic program that the ABC aired in the past two weeks, called "Life at 3." It's a documentary-style series about a group of eleven 3-year-olds who have been followed since birth. They are the public face of a much more comprehensive, longitudinal study of 10,000 Australian children that is being conducted by an excellent team of scientists. I have been a fan of the older British Up series, "7 Up," 35 Up," etc., which has followed a cohort of people since the early 1960s. There's also an American version that started more recently. But this Australian series is different in many ways. It is really focused on both increasing our understanding of, and teaching the public about, a wide range of developmental issues. For example, V. and I watched last week's episode on "Bad Behaviour." While that episode was telling the story of 5-6 children who differed in the ways they were handling stress in their lives at the age of 3, the narration was peppered by findings from the greater longitudinal study about individual differences in resiliency and what psychology knows about risk factors for later problems. Personally, I was gratified to see that our son is doing well by comparison, and that the form that his occasional tantrums takes is amazingly similar to that of some of the kids on the show. Unfortunately, it looks like the producers are only managing to put out two episodes a year (where's some big American money to produce another 20 episodes?!), so I will have to wait until next October for something more. In the meantime, you can watch the episodes on the ABC website.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Come Walkabout

In conjunction with the December release of Baz Luhrmann's new epic film, "Australia," starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, the Australian Ministry for Tourism (yes, that's an official government agency) is releasing a new ad campaign. Here's the 'Billabong' version that features an American in New York who is dreamily invited by an indigenous Australian boy to come walkabout. I think the message is a bit obscure for the average tourist, but I'm also in the minority who liked the "Where the Bloody Hell Are You?" campaign.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Stranger

Today I gave a lecture on attachment and relationships in my Social Neuroscience course. I covered a few new studies of the brain areas that appear to be involved when people first fall in love. To point out the challenges inherent in scientific studies of love, I presented the lyrics to "Love as a Stranger" by the Eurythmics, which I have always thought captured the maddening complexities of love very nicely. Picture me standing in front of my class of 110 students while I played a few minutes of the song, revealing the lyrics one line at time:
Love is a stranger
In an open car
To tempt you in
And drive you far away

And I want you
And I want you
And I want you so
It's an obsession

Love is a danger
Of a different kind
To take you away
And leave you far behind

And love love love
Is a dangerous drug
You have to receive it
And you still can't
Get enough of the stuff

It's savage and it's cruel
And it shines like destruction
Comes in like the flood
And it seems like religion
It's noble and it's brutal
It distorts and deranges
And it wrenches you up
And you're left like a zombie

And I want you
And I want you
And I want you so
It's an obsession

It's guilt edged
Glamorous and sleek by design
You know it's jealous by nature
False and unkind
It's hard and restrained
And it's totally cool
It touches and it teases
As you stumble in the debris

And I want you
And I want you
And I want you so
It's an obsession
So, yes, I imposed my love of early '80s music on those poor students today. It was for their own good.

Monday, October 6, 2008

More Aussie Musical Brilliance

Check out this video for "Walking on a Dream," which we have been watching on "Rage" for the past two months. The duo, known as Empire of the Sun, released their first album on Oct. 4th and were featured in an article in The Weekend Australian. The shirtless guy will look familiar to those of you who know PNAU's "Baby."

Sunday, October 5, 2008


schadenfreude |ˈ sh ädənˌfroidə| (also Schadenfreude)
noun.  pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune.

We like to believe that the world is just.  Good things happen to good people, and bad things, eventually, will happen to bad people.  This belief, known as the just world hypothesis in social psychology, even guides our attributions about why some people are homeless, for example, and others successful.  We tend to believe that people deserve what happens to them because the world is just.

Well, in contrast to most people, I tend to find disconfirmation of the just world hypothesis all the time.  It seems like just the opposite is true:  good things happen to bad people--they rarely seem to get caught or face any negative consequences for their actions.  Therefore, the news yesterday that O.J. Simpson was found guilty of armed robbery was a complete shock.  Then there was the NY Times article titled "Top Psychiatrist Didn't Report Drug Makers's Pay" that really surprised me.  Charlie Nemeroff, a prominent research psychiatrist at Emory University, appears to be guilty of quite a few violations of federal and ethical guidelines regarding conflict of interest:
In one telling example, Dr. Nemeroff signed a letter dated July 15, 2004, promising Emory administrators that he would earn less than $10,000 a year from GlaxoSmithKline to comply with federal rules. But on that day, he was at the Four Seasons Resort in Jackson Hole, Wyo., earning $3,000 of what would become $170,000 in income that year from that company — 17 times the figure he had agreed on.
I have never met Nemeroff personally, but I have known many people over the past decade who have.  For several years he has bragged about his consulting relationships with the major drug companies while supposedly conducting bias-free research on various treatments for mental illness.  He has told audiences that he didn't have any real conflicts of interest because he accepted consulting fees from all the major companies.  The problem, of course, is that it would be difficult for any normal human being to ignore the luxurious perks and the hefty consulting fees that such companies provide.  This is exactly why the federal government wants institutions like Emory to insure that their investigators are not unduly influenced by private companies while supposedly doing research for the public at large.

Everyone who is been in Nemeroff's sphere of influence has known for years that he received a lot of drug company money, and, as I said, he also publicly acknowledged it.  There was an arrogance about the way he believed that he was above it all.  In the Times article,  an except of a 2000 letter shows how he vaguely threatened Emory when they started to question his activities:
“Surely you remember that Smith-Kline Beecham Pharmaceuticals donated an endowed chair to the department and that there is some reasonable likelihood that Janssen Pharmaceuticals will do so as well,” he wrote.

“In addition, Wyeth-Ayerst Pharmaceuticals has funded a Research Career Development Award program in the department, and I have asked both AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals and Bristol-Meyers [sic] Squibb to do the same. Part of the rationale for their funding our faculty in such a manner would be my service on these boards.”
It's clear that Emory's School of Medicine and its Department of Psychiatry have benefitted enormously from Nemeroff's dubious activities, and it probably explains why they tolerated what he was doing for as long as they did.  I guess that Emory's officials had long known that Nemeroff was receiving more than $10,000 a year from GSK, but chose to look the other way because of their own conflict of interest.  Really, the Emory community is small enough to find these things out with just a few questions. 

But what gave me particular pleasure in this case was the fact that this arrogant academic bully has finally been caught.  He (with help from his cronies, who I hope are next on the list) has run his area of psychiatry like a mafia drug lord.  His 850 publications include many in which he had absolutely no role but being the chair of the department.  Stories of his interactions with students, colleagues, and training fellows that I have heard over the years have always been laced with instances of bullying, arrogance, and sexism.  Simply put, he has been an enormous jerk whose influence over other people's careers has been unchecked. 

In an update to the Times article, I see that Emory has announced that Nemeroff has “voluntarily step[ped] down as chairman of the department, effective immediately, pending resolution of these issues.” My guess is that Emory will eventually receive some sort of sanction from this, and Nemeroff will have to leave the university for good. And on that day I'll have a private toast to the fact that there is one less a*hole in academia to make our lives miserable.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Bush Doctors

The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia provides "services to improve the health of people living in the bush."  On our honeymoon in 2003, our train journey across Australia included a stop at Broken Hill, NSW, where we visited the Broken Hill Flying Doctors Base.  My wife, V., watched The Flying Doctors TV series back in the UK when she was younger, so she was quite excited about seeing an actual base where specially-equipped planes departed several times a day to fly to remote places in the Australian outback to conduct clinics and provide emergency health services.  At the souvenir shop she bought a rain slicker with the Royal Flying Doctors logo, but, ironically, we have yet to find that jacket since moving to Oz.

Anyway, as you might know, V. is a child psychiatrist working in one of the Brisbane hospitals.  She was recently asked to provide occasional video consultation services to mental health workers out in the Queensland bush. One of her first consults was with a clinician in a remote town in Queensland (over a 10-hour drive from Brisbane), whose patient had to travel 100 miles across the bush to go to the nearest town for services. Because there are just a handful of psychiatrists available to serve a region about the size of Alaska, these videoconferences are vital for the delivery of mental health services. We're not sure whether the Royal Flying Doctors ever fly psychiatrists out to the bush, but I'm pretty sure V. would volunteer to do it without hesitation, if the opportunity arises.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Robot Love

I spent a large part of yesterday at the local Indooroopilly Shopping myself.  I desperately needed to expand my summer wardrobe.  After spending way too much at Myer, I headed over to Target (which isn't the same as the American store) to find some really cheap clothes.  I found a nice display of $25 denim jeans that were sorted by metric size.  My iPhone's unit converter rescued me here, but I was then horrified to see that these jeans didn't independently vary in length.  That is, they are designed for some "average" man's body where the waist and length perfectly correlate.  I happen to be an outlier on this little regression line, so I had to go for a slightly smaller waist in order to get some pants that were slightly too long.  Everything was fine in the changing booth, but I discovered this morning that I couldn't put anything in my pockets because the jeans were too tight! (Wasn't there a "Seinfeld" episode like this?) Awwwww!

So, after several hours of agony in this rather limited 
Australian retail scene, I was really missing all those huge stores back in America.  Do you know the kind--where you have to drive across a giant parking lot just to get to the next store over? And then you have to consult a map near the store's entrance to locate the specific items you're seeking?  And everything always seems to be on sale.  Well, due to the melancholy brought on by these memories of gluttony, I decided to take a break and watch "WALL-E," which opened up in Australia just a few weeks ago.  I spend a lot of time watching Pixar films (over and over) with Will, so it was a pleasure to get the chance to see a new one.  I think it's another masterpiece.  And, interestingly, it really is another example of the speculative fiction genre that I wrote about earlier.  Briefly, the future of the Earth depicted here is one in which there has been so much pollution that the population has had to leave the planet (around 2100) while robots are left behind to clean up the mess.  The story in the movie begins 700 years later, in which WALL-E appears to be the only robot still working on the mess.  The descendants of the original humans who left the planet on a gigantic cruise ship are now all rolly-polly and incapable of getting out of their floating lounge chairs.  They just eat and drink and lay about all day long.  Meanwhile, back on Earth, we see many shots of enormous mountains of trash interspersed with views of vacant humongous box retailers where the trash was originally purchased.  Yes, exactly the same stores that I was missing back in the States just moments before I went into the theatre were now shown as one of the causes of an apocalyptic future.  The message about rampant consumerism leading to our eventual demise is abundantly clear in this movie, and I soon felt guilty about my own wasteful ways.

What is also interesting about the movie, however, is how America-centric it is.  That is, the film suggests that Americans single-handedly destroyed the Earth with their pollution, and it was only Americans who fled in their cruise ships.  Moreover, it's an American captain 700 years later who comes to realise that "the humans" need to go back and take care of the planet. In fact, the later re-habitation of the planet starts in New York with a bunch of Americans.  Not one other nationality is ever mentioned in the film.  Now that I live abroad, I am particularly sensitive to this American-centrism, so maybe I am over-analysing things here.  Indeed, another blog I found talks about the gender, racial, and anti-fat aspects of the film, but neither the original post nor the comments that follow it mention anything about the Americanism of this film. But, perhaps it is intentional.  Maybe the film's creators were trying to speak directly to Americans because they are such huge polluters compared to everyone else.  Then again, it does seem like the future of our planet shouldn't be determined by one country in particular, although many films, including "Independence Day," have depicted America saving the day.  Often we Americans get to play both the villain and the hero in these narcissistic fantasies.  It's pretty easy then to understand why some people elsewhere in the world might resent us--they only get to play the extras. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Plague

A lead story on today's Courier-Mail web page:

Plague of Yobs Hit Schools
AN alarming spike in student suspensions for being aggressive, disobedient, taking drugs and wagging school is plaguing the state's classrooms.
A few translations for my non-Aussie readers:

yob is short for yobbo, "an uncouth person"
wagging school means playing truant

And plague and plaguing are favourite words of the Aussie tabloid 'journo,' indicating "panicky sensationalism of an ordinary social problem."

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I recently received a group email invitation from a professor that he sent to a discussion list, announcing his plans to publish an edited volume in an area of psychology in which I work.  The email (sent to several hundred people) stated "Your area of research will fit well in this edited volume." Of course, despite the fact that this flattery was entirely anonymous, I took the bait and explored the invitation more fully.  It turned out that, if my chapter were accepted for this book, it would be published by this professor's small university press in his small European country.  That means that it would probably not appear on anyone's radar nor in any major library.  What's more, I discovered that this professor (who apparently works in my area, but was previously unknown to me) engages in a type of self-promotion that I found rather curious.  For example, going to his web page, a pop-up window announced that he received the 2007 Professor of the Year Award from "Cambridge, UK."  That sounds prestigious until you learn that this award comes from one of those Who's Who-type ego-scams, which begins with an announcement that "You have been selected for a prestigious award," but which requires $475 to pay for the award to be sent to you, and another $500 to attend the awards ceremony.  How foolish I was to believe that any award that I received should actually involve me receiving something at no cost!  In addition, my would-be editor also has his own Wikipedia entry that touts his many contributions to my field.  Again, I never knew he even existed before he sent that email, so I am impressed by his rather bold pronouncements about his contributions to psychology.  

Perhaps this professor's actions should serve as a model of how I could raise my own visibility.  I could start by sending $500 to Cambridge, UK to get one of those prestigious awards and then writing a glowing Wikipedia entry about myself that mentions my receiving the Cambridge award.  Maybe I could host a conference in my name ("The Eric Vanman Symposium on All Things Important") or start a charitable organisation named for my son.  Maybe I could even commission The Veronicas to write a song about me.  There are so many possibilities...

Monday, September 29, 2008

An Old Dollar Bill

Several years ago I regularly registered U.S. dollar bills at the Where's George? website. The idea was (is) that I would stamp the bill with special instructions about the website, where the next owner could enter the serial number of the bill and thereby update its whereabouts. I did this for thousands of bills, but then stopped doing it in 2004 or so.  At one time I was one of the top Where's George users, and  I even attended a 'meeting' of Atlanta-area Where's George? users (yes, I am that exciting!). It turns out that most paper bills in the U.S. are removed from circulation after just a few years, so the chances of a bill still being out there after 3-4 years is quite small.

Well, today I received an email from Where's George? notifying me that one of my old bills was recently entered. Here's the link to the actual record, but I've also posted a screen shot of the information below. If you look at the bottom entry, you'll see that I entered this bill in Atlanta back in 2000, but the bill is still out there eight years later. It's been to Aruba and Puerto Rico according to the notes. And now it's stuck in New Jersey, where's it been sitting for three years.
Since 1984 Australia has used $1 and $2 gold coins instead of paper bills, so I won't be tracking money here. There are $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. Each is a different colour, which means there is little confusion when I go digging for money in my wallet. Still, I wonder what the chances are that one of my Aussie dollars will end up in Mendham, NJ some day.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Straight Lines

I have only recently realised the greatness of Silverchair, an Australian band. Here's a video clip and the lyrics of their 2007 hit to help you start off the weekend right. I don't quite understand the full meaning of the song, but I'll get back to you on that...

Breathing from a hole in my lung
I had no one
But faces in front of me
Racing through the void in my head
To find traces of a good luck academy

Sparks ignite and trade them for thought
About no one
And nothing in particular
Washed the sickened socket and drove
Resent nothing
There's good will inside of me

Wake me up low with a fever
Walking in a straight line
Set me on fire in the evening
Everything will be fine
Waking up strong in the morning
Walking in a straight line
Lately I'm a desperate believer
But walking in a straight line

Something I will never forget
I felt desperate
And stuck to the marrow
Invisible to everyone else
I'm a sex change
And a damsel with no heroine

Wake me up low with a fever
Walking in a straight line
Set me on fire in the evening
Everything will be fine
Waking up strong in the morning
Walking in a straight line
Lately I'm a desperate believer
But walking in a straight line

I don't need no time to say
There's no changing yesterday
If we keep talking and
I keep walking in straight lines

Wake me up low with a fever
Walking in a straight line
Set me on fire in the evening
Everything will be fine
Waking up strong in the morning
Walking in a straight line
Lately I'm a desperate believer
But walking in a straight line

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Global Changes

V. and I attended special public lectures last night delivered by two of the University of Queensland's most eminent professors, Paul Burn from the School of Molecular and Microbial Sciences, and John Quiggin from the School of Economics and Political Science.  They both conduct research on issues related to climate change.  Burn is developing cheap plastic solar panels and light displays, and one of his messages was that we need to set aside some of our non-renewable energy sources (e.g., oil) now to develop renewable energy ones.  Quiggin is focused on the impact of global warning on the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia's most significant agricultural area, which is quickly drying up.  One of his messages was that, although there's a lot of uncertainty about the future of the basin, it's no excuse for inaction now.

Since arriving in this country I have been repeatedly confronted with Australians' concerns about global warming.  Early last year the Howard government passed legislation to ban incandescent lightbulbs, which Quiggin referred to in his talk as a stupid purchase for a consumer to make, as their efficiency is woefully smaller than nearly all the alternatives.  Thank goodness, he implied, that the government decided to take away this decision from the consumer.  A great majority of grocery shoppers bring their own 'green' reusable bags to the stores here, rather than using plastic bags, and there's still a lot of discussion about whether plastic bags should just be banned outright.  At first V. and I were skeptical about reusable bags because we liked to use the plastic ones for nappies (diapers), but we have now changed our ways.  Recycling is much more extensive in Australia as well.   In Atlanta we sorted just our cans, bottles, and newspapers from the rest of the garbage, although most of our neighbors didn't even do that.  Here one can also recycle cardboard, jars, junk mail, and packaging, which really starts to add up.  As a final example, there are widespread public campaigns here to get people to reduce their energy and water consumption that I rarely, if ever, saw in the United States.

It might seem 'cute' that such a small country with a relatively tiny footprint on the world's greenhouse gas emissions is much more obsessed with global warming than the U.S., which is a much larger contributor by far.  My guess is that the typical Australian would in fact be shocked if they spent a week in an American home and saw how comparatively little concern there is for the environment there.  Not surprising, Australians are highly concerned about the American elections.  There are several reasons they should be, including the impact of the current financial crisis on their own markets, but Aussies are also watching what the next administration is going to do about developing renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gases.  A few sensible changes in America's energy policy, for example, would have a far greater impact on the future than if Queensland decides to ban plastic bags at the grocery store.

I believe that Australians are 'ahead' of the game on all this because they live in a place that is terribly susceptible to changes in the environment.  I think this entry from Wikipedia says it best:
By far the largest part of Australia is desert or semi-arid lands commonly known as the outback. Australia is the flattest continent, with the oldest and least fertile soils, and is the driest inhabited continent. Only the southeast and southwest corners of the continent have a temperate climate. Most of the population lives along the temperate southeastern coastline. The landscapes of the northern part of the country, with a tropical climate, consist of rainforest, woodland, grassland, mangrove swamps, and desert. The climate is significantly influenced by ocean currents, including the El Niño southern oscillation, which is correlated with periodic drought, and the seasonal tropical low pressure system that produces cyclones in northern Australia.[29] In June 2008 it became known that an expert panel had warned of long term, maybe irreversible, severe ecological damage for the whole Murray-Darling basin if it does not receive sufficient water by October.[30] Water restrictions are currently in place in many regions and cities of Australia in response to chronic shortages resulting from drought.[31] The Australian of the Year 2007, environmentalist Tim Flannery, predicted that unless it made drastic changes, Perth in Western Australia could become the world’s first ghost metropolis, an abandoned city with no more water to sustain its population.[32]
Of course, global warming is going to adversely affect everyone, but American politicians have been slow to realise this.  Here's hoping that they don't become too distracted by the screams of Wall Street so that they can begin to make a real difference sooner rather than later.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Watch Out for the Pergola

The weather news on is so much more entertaining than my old standby back in the U.S.,  I have made other references to this web site before, but I found a story today that forced me to do a little research to understand its full meaning. The story itself was about a severe thunderstorm that hit Alice Springs yesterday.  Alice Springs is a small town nearly in the dead centre of Australia, hundreds of miles from nowhere.  We went there on our honeymoon in 2003, and loved it.   It's hot and dry for most of the year, although I noticed that it can be much colder there at night than in Brisbane during the winter.  Anyway, this freak thunderstorm yesterday caused some damage and widespread power outages in Alice Springs.  Although all of the "Todd river causeways are open," there was this warning:
Motorists are being asked to avoid Larapinta Drive between the Stuart Highway and Millner Road, where a pergola has blown onto the westbound lane.
Now, I'm growing used to the strangeness of the animals and plants here, so I assumed that a pergola was yet another strange living thing that I knew nothing about.  Those more cultured readers out there, however, are probably laughing at me now because you know that a pergola is just a structure commonly found in gardens.  I guess it must have caused quite a traffic jam there in Alice.

And now I know.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

What Lies Beneath

We took a quick trip west to Rocks Riverside Park (in Seventeen Mile Rocks) late this afternoon, just before a thunderstorm rolled through at sunset. This is the largest and newest city park in Brisbane. Because it is set on the former site of the Queensland Cement quarry, it's full of unusual attractions. Will finds the various quarry structures fascinating, including this one that V. is telling him about. The old train tracks, massive drills, and rusty gears make the park feel a bit like an industrial ghost town of some long ago alien civilization. It is one of my favourites.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Common Thread

When I was in junior high I owned an anthology of short stories in speculative fiction titled "Possibilities," which I just loved.  It included weird, twisted tales like those that appeared on "The Twilight Zone" and "Night Gallery."  One of my favourites was called "Button, Button." It's about a couple who find a box at their doorstep.  Inside is a mounted push button and a note explaining that the couple will receive $50,000 if they press the button.  The catch is that if they press it, someone in the world will die.  The rest of the story is about the couple's decision.  I hadn't thought about this for many years until I read that a new film, "The Box," starring Cameron Diaz, will be released next year based on this very story.  That led me to finding out the name of the author of "Button, Button," which turned out to be Richard Matheson (the guy in the picture above).  And that led me to reading more about his other contributions.  Oh my!  It turns out that many of my favourite stories, TV shows, and movies from the '70s and early '80s were written by Matheson, but I had no idea that he was the common thread among all these works.  Among his many accomplishments:
  • he was one of the original writers for "Twilight Zone" and he wrote two episodes of "Night Gallery"
  • he wrote the story and screenplay for "Duel," Steven Spielberg's first major work, which featured motorist Dennis Weaver being terrorised by an unknown trucker for the entire movie
  • he wrote the novel and screenplay for "Somewhere in Time," starring Christopher Reeve (definitely a sentimental favourite of mine)
  • he wrote one of the first teleplays that led to the eerie TV show "The Night Stalker," starring Darren McGavin, which was sort of the "X-files" of the early '70s
  • he wrote the episode for the original "Star Trek" that introduced Spock's "Vulcan grip"
  • he wrote "I am Legend," which has been filmed in various forms over the years
Here's a fuller summary of his life and work (he's now 82).  It's amazing that all of this stuff I loved during my adolescence were all products of the same mind.  Now I want to reread "Button, Button" and some of Matheson's other works, but I'll probably have to wait until I go back to the States in November to find his books, as I haven't been able to locate more than one of two of them here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Small Doses of Hypocrisy Can Always Do You Good

I enjoyed this clip from "The Daily Show" (thanks for sending it, Matthew!):

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sometimes I Just Disappear

One of the more embarrassing aspects of being a researcher is that many of us are obsessed with reading the reference sections of new articles in our field of interest to see whether we are cited.  In my case, possibly because of a drop in my productivity a few years ago, I am quite used to not finding my name listed in articles in my field. I can live with that, and I am now attempting to rectify this omission with greater productivity. However, every once in a while I come across a review article or a particular passage that is directly related to my published work but I am still not cited.  In the past week this has been a frequent experience while I was preparing a lecture on the social neuroscience of prejudice and stereotyping.  Amazingly, researchers I know well who have attended my talks at various conferences or were even on the same conference panel as me, simply don't mention anything that I have ever done in the past 10 years in their articles.  It leaves me feeling a bit sad, and it reminds me of the way that Kip Williams describes what it's like when someone ostracises you.  I'm paraphrasing here, but he said that being shunned by others "is similar to what would happen if you were dead. You experience life as if you didn't exist."  When people I respect don't find any of my work relevant to theirs (although I find what they do highly relevant to mine!), it feels like I never existed.  If I don't exist, then it begs the question: What have I been doing these past fifteen years when I was conducting and writing up all this research?  In an occupation that has few rewards, recognition by one's peers becomes that much more important.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Here Comes the Judge

In the social neuroscience course that I am currently teaching, students put on a mock trial last week involving a defendant who supposedly had a brain injury that led him or her to commit a violent crime.  The course is broken into four tutorials ("discussion sections," in American parlance) with 25-30 students each, and I am teaching one of them, in addition to giving all the lectures.  Anyway, during the preceding week's tute, when the students were preparing their mock trial, I started asking them questions about the Australian/Queensland court system.  I was amazed that nearly everyone in the room had little or no knowledge about what actually happens in an Australian courtroom.  One student said, "we only know what happens in an American courtroom because of television."  When I asked, for example, if an Australian defendant has the right to choose whether he or she takes the witness stand (as they do in American courtrooms), my students had no idea.  When deciding on the order of events during the trial, we ended up relying on what they do in an American courtroom out of ignorance of what goes on in an Aussie one.  It was really quite astonishing to me that university students didn't know about their own local legal procedures and rights.  I have since confirmed some of those procedures and rights with my resident jury research expert, who informed me that some jury trials in Queensland will soon no longer require a unanimous verdict.  I am committed to learning more about all of this before I teach the course again.

In a small nation like Australia, it's perhaps not surprising that people can know more about some aspects of American society than their own, simply because of all the movies and television shows that come out of Hollywood.  I still find it unsettling that there are few Australian-produced dramas on television here.  Today's Australian-produced TV shows mainly consists of game/reality shows, sing-a-long and other talent contests, a handful of dramas, and perhaps one or two Aussie sitcoms.  The rest of the airtime is chock full of American sitcoms and crime dramas.  I still can't figure out how they manage to have their own television awards show here.  Thank goodness for the ABC and SBS.  Or, as an alternative, perhaps I should just pick up a good novel about an Australian barrister facing the perils of the High Court.  Do you have any suggestions?  Is there a sort of Aussie version of John Grisham out there, perhaps?