Monday, March 31, 2008

Post Trip

Yes, I am back in the land of the kangaroo, the emu, and "Spicks and Specks"-- feeling quite energised, although I feel I could sleep for a week.  I'll be posting pictures here later in the week. Perhaps the biggest shock of the trip came from my continuing battle with the telecoms in this part of the world.  Using my mobile in New Zealand to make calls to Australia was expensive (about $3/minute*), and a 10-minute call from my hotel room cost me $80.  I didn't use the internet much either, as the hotel charged $30/day for the service.  Despite those minor inconveniences, I look forward to seeing more of NZ on a future trip.  The South Island is still my undiscovered territory.

*All prices roughly converted to Australian currency.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hanging Out With Seals

I am in Wellington and having a good time. I have long wanted to visit New Zealand, and I haven't been disappointed with it one bit. The terrain is quite different from anywhere else I have ever been: for example, mountain ranges seem to just erupt from the sea; pine, palm, and fern trees grow next to each other in dense forests; and cities and towns seem to cling to the shoreline (and parts of them are even washed away). And Kiwis are even more laid back than Aussies, a feat that I thought was impossible for any other nationality.
My morning started out with a 45-minute wait for my tour bus to pick me up. When the driver finally arrived, he announced, "we are running a little late, but that doesn't really matter." We then drove around the SW corner of the North Island for eight hours. This particular tour advertised visits to "Lord of the Rings" sites, which turned out to include a stop at a gravel pit and two city parks, none of which particularly evoked memories of the movie. We did visit a park that had a section nicknamed "Rivendell," the site of the Elvin world in the first movie, which actually did remind me of the film...sort of. Anyway, the real highlight of the trip was our very long journey way out to Palliser Bay to see a colony of fur seals (that group of rocks in the upper right side of this picture, which I got from here). There were only seven of us on the trip and we were able to spread ourselves out among the rocks and watch dozens of seals and their teen pups frolic in the waters around us for nearly a half hour. It was absolutely amazing. Other highlights included lunch at a small cafe, wine tasting at Martinborough winery, and a perilous drive across the mountains. It was all fantastic!

I did catch up with some of my colleagues at the conference welcome reception at the end of the day, so I can say I did a little work. Tomorrow the conference really gets into full swing. I will have to try hard to keep my thoughts from drifting back to those seals.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Idle Idol

I'm off to Wellington, New Zealand for a social psychology conference for the next few days. Unfortunately, Will and V. won't be coming along this time. As you can see in this picture, however, V. will have plenty of entertainment to keep her occupied. I'll try to post once or twice while I'm in NZ. I have never been there before, so there's much to anticipate. And I'm also looking forward to cooler weather...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Fugitive Bunnies

It's Easter Sunday, so that means we are in the middle of a long, 4-day weekend here in Australia. In the U.S., I never had off Good Friday or Easter Monday, so I am enjoying this new way of celebrating the holiday. It feels a bit like the four days off during an American Thanksgiving, except that we spent the afternoon at a great outdoor pool with our friends yesterday. It also differs from its American counterpart because Australians have compulsions to eat hot cross buns and give chocolate eggs to one another. Maybe the latter happens because the Easter Bunny could be shot if he isn't too careful when hopping around this country.

You see, as the 'Rabbits in Australia' wikipedia entry points out, "In Australia, rabbits are the most serious mammalian pests, an invasive species whose destruction of habitats is responsible for the extinction or major decline of many native animals such as the Western Quoll," a cute cat-looking creature with white spots and brown fur. Although rabbits came to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788, their population didn't seem to really take off until Thomas Austin released 24 rabbits into the countryside in 1859 in one of those "be fruitful and multiply" moments. There were later attempts to control the expansion of rabbits with an 1800-km long 'rabbit-proof' fence in Western Australia in 1907 and a rabbit-killing virus that was introduced in the '50s, which eventually lost its effect and the rabbits came back again. Government researchers, however, are still working on variants of this myxoma virus to prevent conception in rabbits.

These days, whenever a rabbit does appear, there is an almost immediate reaction to get rid of the little creatures. I heard recently about some children in a classroom at a Brisbane school who were forced ten years ago to give up their illegally-held rabbit for slaughter. Although it is legal to keep pet rabbits in some States, it is illegal to do so in Queensland, according to this posting, where one can be fined $30,000 for harboring a bunny. Audra, an American ex-pat blogging in Sydney, posted a picture of a flyer announcing the mass poisoning of rabbits in her neighborhood last year. Poisoning seems to be the preferred way of getting rid of bunnies, as traps have been banned due to concerns about animal cruelty. Out in rural Australia, shooting rabbits is highly popular. Here's a posting from AusHunt, "The Australian Hunting and Shooting Directory," where there's a picture of 17 dead bunnies all lined up with the following caption underneath:
Rabbit shooting for an hour!

It was a still night and not a breath of wind so I decided to head out and bag a few rabbits off my Uncle’s property.

I grabbed my SAKO Varmint .22LR with it’s 4.5-14 x 40 variable scope attached, a packet of Winchester Powerpoints, my small battery pack and packed in my Lightforce spotlight which can be mounted directly onto the scope. An hour or so of walking around and the results speak for themselves.
As a wanted, shoot-to-kill criminal, I do wonder how the Easter Bunny is able to make his deliveries Down Under.

Friday, March 21, 2008


A quick update on Will. All of a sudden, he now says an avalanche of new words each day. You know that scene in "Meet the Parents" where the little boy mimics "Ass-hoooole?" Well, that could easily happen here now, as Will is quick to copy lots of things we say and do. V. and I had a little toast with a glass of wine before dinner out on the patio this evening, and Will was quick to hold up his glass of juice and say "cheers" as well. Earlier, he was playing with his water toys in the back. He walked up to me holding out his cup and said "need more water." I was beginning to answer him when I suddenly realized what he had actually said to me. Oh my! Could toddler blogging be next?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Where (Almost) Everyone Knows Your Name

I had to get up at 4 a.m. this morning so that I could be in the office for a 4:30 conference call with colleagues back in the U.S. I don't usually go to such great lengths to make phone calls, but one of my former students was proposing her Master's thesis, and I was invited to take part. Anyway, when the meeting was done two hours later, I went home and resumed our normal morning routine: V. leaving for work at 7 and me taking care of Will until I dropped him off at daycare at 9. So, by the time I got back to the office, I was starting to feel sluggish after 5 hours of activity.

What a pleasure it was then to go to my favourite coffee shop on the UQ campus (Bar Merlo, at the library) to get my daily cup of flat white. Ordering a cup of coffee there involves giving your name to the clerk who writes it down on the cup's lid. When the barista is ready with your coffee, he or she calls your name out. After several months of being a regular customer, however, most of the staff now know my name. They are always quite friendly, and a few even call me "hon" (even though they are in their 20s), which makes me feel like I'm back in Georgia. There has been only one other time in my life where food service staff got to know my name--more than 12 years ago, when Patty and I used to go to the Crown City Brewery in Pasadena, California nearly every weekend (I miss the lavosh), and we always got our favourite waitress. It's such a small thing knowing a customer's name, but it works on me on every time.


(that's a reference to an old TV show, for you young readers out there).

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Bandwidth Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, a social primate lived with his wife and son in a big, huge house in a magical place called the “American suburb.” In the American suburb, the social primate was able to connect to the internet at a fairly low price, but what was more amazing is that his download speeds were incredibly fast and there were never (ever) any limits on how much he downloaded. Life was good for the social primate and his family, who loved to spend hours everyday listening to and watching all sorts of new media content.

Then, one day, during a period of turbulent weather, the social primate and his family were forced to leave the American suburb and its plentiful high-speed bandwidth. They boarded a large jet and went flying for what seemed like days to the other side of the planet. They arrived in a magical country called “Aus-tra-li-a,” which resembled the American suburb in many ways, but also contained lots of strange animals that screeched and crawled all over the place. After patiently waiting a few weeks in their new but much smaller home, they were finally able to connect their computers to the internet once more, happily resuming their sedentary lifestyle in front of the glowing screens.

But while the social primate and his family happily downloaded new podcasts, streaming audio, photographs, movies, and television shows, something sinister was happening, about which the social primate was totally ignorant. You see, even though they were now paying double what they used to pay in the American suburb for their high-speed broadband service, they were also quickly starting to “use up” their bandwidth capacity each month.

Finally, after a particularly heavy weekend of downloading inspired by the offerings of the iTunes store, the social primate received a bill from the Big Bad Broadband provider from the Big Pond. Imagine his horrible shock when he found that it was for $732! You see, the social primate and his family had exceeded their monthly 25 GB allotment just a few days before, and were now being asked to pay nearly $600 for the additional 4 GB of downloads that had since occurred. As you might expect, there was much crying and thrashing about in the social primate’s household, and it looked like they might never download again.

Hope returned to the social primate’s household a few days later when the Big Bad Broadband provider from the Big Pond told the social primate’s wife that he could appeal the bill if he submitted a form explaining what happened. It would take 3-4 weeks for the Big Bad Broadband provider to make a decision. The social primate and his family now wait patiently for an answer.

What is the moral of the story, you might ask? Well, I can’t think of one. Perhaps you can…

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


An under-appreciated activity of the research academic, which is also probably unknown to everyone else, is the reviewing of manuscripts that have been submitted for consideration for publication in an academic journal. These manuscripts are typically between 20 and 40 pages long and the reviewing itself is often done blind. That is, the names of the authors do not appear on the title page, and the reviewers themselves are not known to the authors during the process. We are asked by an editor of the journal (another academic somewhere) to complete this review by sometime between 3 and 5 weeks from the receipt of the manuscript (usually sent electronically these days). This kind of reviewing has no pay associated with it, and isn't often considered as part of one's normal workload assignment at the university. For me, a typical review can take at least 5 hours to complete (including carefully reading the manuscript) and is about three pages long, single-spaced. The authors, the editor of the journal, and the other reviewers of the manuscript all receive a copy of the review.

About now you're probably wondering why anyone does something like this for no compensation. Well, first there is the notion of future reciprocity to consider. That is, if I later submit a manuscript to this journal, 3-4 reviewers will be asked to review my paper, including perhaps an author of a manuscript that I reviewed. If no one is willing to conduct reviews, then the whole peer review system would fall apart. Besides the reciprocity factor, there are also other more intangible benefits of reviewing: One gets to read about the very latest (unpublished) work in the discipline. One has some influence over what is and isn't published in the field's journals. And, reviewing helps your overall networking and profile in the field, which could lead to invitations to join prestigious editorial boards or to become the editor of an important journal.

In the early, heady days of my career I was asked to be a reviewer for many journals. I was probably doing 3-4 reviews a month by 2000, and I was even asked to join one of those prestigious editorial boards for five years. But, just about then these invitations to write a review started to drop off, and finally, a few years later, I was being asked to review a manuscript no more than 3 or 4 times a year. In fact, I was no longer asked to review for the most prestigious journals at all. There are a few factors that probably led to this state of affairs. First, during this time I went through a difficult period of life, and I frequently took a very long time to return my reviews. In some cases, editors were forced to make a final decision about the manuscript without my review because I never finished it. Second, as my productivity (i.e., the number of publications/year) dropped, so did my profile, and I think people just forgot about me altogether. This decline of my profile was entirely my fault, but it is something I hope to change in my new position.

In fact, things have already started to turn around. In the past six months I have received about eight requests to review manuscripts, including two from those "prestigious" journals. I have completed most of them on time, and I am trying now to get them done within two weeks of receipt or else I will decline the invitation. One of the less rewarding aspects of reviewing is that it is difficult to tell if you are doing a good job when writing a review, especially if it contains a lot of negative feedback. Last week I completed three reviews. One was for an editor who had stopped sending me manuscripts about four years ago when I failed to complete a review in a reasonable amount of time. This week he sent me a copy of the action letter that he sent to the authors, and I was pleased to see that he liberally quoted from my review when justifying his decision to reject the manuscript. Five hours later, he sent me a personal message to thank me for my excellent review and mentioned how I had raised some issues that no one else had noticed. That felt very good.

I am actually looking forward to writing my next review tomorrow. A little validation can go a long way, don't you think?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Tornado Ran Through It

As most of you know, we lived in Atlanta, Georgia up until last July, and we still own a house in one of the suburbs there that we are trying to sell. Well, a tornado (maybe two?) hit downtown Atlanta at around 10 pm Friday night local time. My job was at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta, so I know the entire area that was hit very well. One of my former students has sent some links to Flickr albums that contain amateur photos of the destruction:
It is terribly disorienting to see something so familiar look so devastated. The picture below, in particular, gave me a shiver. It appears to have been taken just ESE of Georgia State, in an area where many students and faculty I know live. I hope they are all OK.

Thankfully, it appears that our house, which is in a suburb 20 miles to the north, was nowhere near this path of destruction. I would hate to have to deal with that kind of mess from the other side of the world.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Australian Charity

This picture (stolen from my School's web site) of four heroic colleagues of mine captures a phenomenon that I hadn't quite experienced back in the States. And, no, I am not referring to baldness:The phenomenon, for lack of a better phrase, is "charity stunts." Sure, in the U.S. we have walk-a-thons to raise money for breast cancer, AIDS, or autism, among other worthy causes, and there are also the occasional telethons and maybe kissing booths and cookie sales, but there isn't a strong tradition of attention-grabbing fund raising stunts like there is here. This particular event was part of the World's Greatest Shave 2008 to raise money for the Australian Leukemia Foundation. Similarly, the month of November was Movember, in which men didn't shave their beards for the entire month to raise money for men's health issues (particularly prostate cancer). Before that was a pink day, for which I previously showed you a picture of Will dressed in pink at a tea party at his daycare to raise money for breast cancer. Still to come is "Red Nose Day" at the end of June, which raises money for the SIDS and Kids organisation. This is just a small sample of such charity stunts, which can give you the impression that Australians are highly charitable givers.

I have no idea what the actual rate of charitable giving is in this country, at least for the average income earner. There was a story this week, however, about charitable giving by the richest Australians. Interestingly, the wealthiest Australians (i.e., incomes of $100,000 or more) donate about 0.5% of their earnings to charity. By contrast, their American counterparts (which are often stereotyped as being stingy because of their relatively low contribution to foreign aid) donate about 3% of their earnings. I heard elsewhere that this same study found that Australian millionaires give about 3% to charity, whereas American millionaires give about 10% (but this might be calculated as a percentage of net worth rather than income). I don't really know what to make of these statistics, but I am curious about comparing the tax breaks of the two countries when it comes to charitable giving. I'll let you know more when we finally have to file taxes for the first time in Australia later this year.

By the way, if you'd like to donate to the World's Greatest Shave campaign yourself, here are the links to my colleagues' personal contribution sites: Blake (on the far left) Michael, (standing next to Blake) or Bill (standing on the far right). I can personally testify that they really did shave their heads.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Spitzer Shocker

Eliot Spitzer, the governor of the State of New York, has been linked to a prostitution ring as a client.  I don't know why, but I am quite shocked about this.  As the state attorney general (and before that, a district attorney), Spitzer built a reputation of going after crooked politicians, businesspeople, and other assorted white-collar criminals.  I have always admired his work, which seemed to be built upon a strong moral conviction that it's wrong to ignore the law and/or profit illegally.  It's now apparent in today's news that Spitzer had developed a fairly sophisticated way of using this prostitution service, complete with code names ("Client 9") and booking hotel rooms using one of his friend's names (unbeknownst to the friend).   As a social psychologist I am usually quick to come up with situational explanations for a person's behaviour.  This time I think I will have to resort to some personal causes in understanding what happened.  And, after the shock wears off, I suppose I will just end up even more jaded about politicians and others in power.  How disappointing.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Out of Complaints

I had lunch with a couple of colleagues today. There is a wonderful place on campus where we can eat our lunch--the Staff Club, which has an enormous patio that overlooks the side of a large green hill and a small lake. You really should join us if you happen to be around! Anyway, as I nibbled on my sandwich listening to these two very nice people, it suddenly occurred to me that I have run out of complaints. You see, while I was still at my old job in Atlanta, I would regularly get together with my friends and complain about all sorts of things having to do with my job and the field of psychology. The sad thing was these complaints carried on for years, rarely ever resulting in changes leading to any sort of satisfaction. It must have been miserable for my friends to listen to those same gripes, over and over. Sure, these days I do have the occasional whinge about this or that, but nothing that I really remember to bring up again the next day. It's been like this for several months now.

I guess I am happy!

And I apologise to those friends who put up with my moaning for all those years.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

I Love You...I Think

In the last two weeks I have been rediscovering the TV shows of my youth on iTunes. Here's an excerpt of one that had a profound influence on my development...I think. This song was a #1 hit in the U.S. in the fall of 1970:

My family used to watch every new episode of "The Partridge Family" on Friday nights, right after "The Brady Bunch." The Partridge Family's "Up to Date" album was my very first. I think I might even have had their lunch box, in fact...

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Rude Morning Jokes

V. and I share a guilty pleasure. We enjoy watching "Sunrise," the morning show on 7, hosted by "Mel" (Melissa Doyle) and "Kochie" (David Koch). It comes on right after a broadcast of the previous day's "Today" program from the U.S, which provides a fascinating cultural contrast. Whereas "Today" is characterised by fast-paced segments of interviews, cooking demonstrations, and short bits of banter between the hosts, "Sunrise" covers only about a quarter of that material in the same amount of time because the interviews tend to be twice as long and the banter even longer. One feature of the show at around 6:45 am each day is Kochie's Joke of the Day. Here is where there's a very clear difference between the sensibilities of Australia and the United States. Simply put, most of these jokes would spark major protests if they were told on the "Today" show. For example, an entire week of Joke of the Day was devoted to dumb blond jokes. Many other jokes are just downright 'dirty.' Here's one that was told this week. WARNING: if you are easily offended by dim-witted humor, you may not want to read further!
One day the Lone Ranger was finally captured by some Indians and was told that he would be executed in two days for previous crimes against their tribe. The Lone Ranger asked if he could see his horse, Silver, one last time, so the Indians brought Silver to his tent. The Lone Ranger whispered something into Silver's ear, and Silver trotted away. A little while later, Silver returned to the tent with a beautiful blond on his back. The blond entered the Lone Ranger's tent and spent the night with him.

The next evening, the Indians reminded the Lone Ranger that he would be executed the following day. The Lone Ranger once again asked to see his horse. And, once again, he whispered something into Silver's ear and the horse trotted off. This time, however, Silver came back carrying a beautiful brunette on his back. The brunette entered the tent and spent the night with the Lone Ranger.

The next morning, as the Indians prepared to take him off to his execution, the Lone Ranger furiously yelled at Silver to come over to him. As Silver approached, the Lone Ranger shouted:

"You stupid horse! I told you, 'Get posse! Get posse!'"

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What It's Like in a Hot Market

I heard yesterday that there's a plan afoot to give temporary visas to American construction workers, who are suffering from a downturn in new home sales, so that they can come build homes here in Australia, where there is a shortage in all kinds of labor. In fact, I was told that the University of Queensland can't begin some construction projects for which they have received funding because local contractors are booked up months in advance.

For any American readers (or from elsewhere) who live in housing markets where things are slow, you would be quite shocked to see what life is like here in Brisbane as either a home buyer or a renter. For a start, most homes in our local area are sold by auction. In the States, auctions are usually associated with foreclosures, but here they are plentiful because the seller can potentially make a lot of extra money. During an auction a crowd gathers outside the house. After the bell ringer quietens the crowd, the auctioneer begins. The sellers stand nearby looking nervous, not so much because they are afraid they won't get their minimum price, but because their dreams of hitting the big time might be just too unrealistic. My guess is that, in this local market, more often people end up make a rather huge profit when they sell.

For renters, the story is similar. There is a real shortage of affordable rentals, especially for students. It appears that most properties are owned by single investors, who have bought a second home to rent out and for which they receive a tax deduction on the mortgage interest (note that such a deduction does not occur for the first home's of the stranger mysteries of Aussie economics). Because these small-time investors don't want to be bothered by the responsibilities of managing their property, they typically use an agency that specializes in rentals. One of the biggest agencies around here (near the UQ campus) is Because rentals are in such demand, agents from these places typically schedule just one or two 10-minute showings of a particular property each week. This is your only chance to see the property. Last month, when my PhD student from the U.S., Michael, and his wife Erin were looking for apartments, they had to zip around a large area to many of these showings. Each time they would show up, there would be a fairly large crowd standing outside the property waiting for the agent. Roughly half the time, the agent never did show up (and it must be said that prorentals was one of the worst offenders). Another 20% of the time, the twenty-something agent would turn up, but announce that the property was already rented. I saw some people, probably newly arrived to Australia, going from property to property by taxi. It is only after one has seen the property that you are allowed to submit an application (a legal requirement). And, for each property there are many, many applicants. The owner of the property then sifts through all these applications at once and makes a pick. I can easily imagine where some housing discrimination could creep into the process. By the way, it was only when Michael and Erin finally deviated from the major rental agencies' methods and looked at the Saturday newspaper ads, did they find an apartment that was shown to them by someone at a mutually convenient time, and for which their application was successful. The scary thing about all this is that there's talk of opening up rentals to the auction process as well...

So, yes, sometimes being in Australia feels like we have entered some sort of alternate universe. Back in Atlanta, our house is currently being advertised as a rental or a buy, but we still haven't had a bite. There are nights when I have a dream of a riotous crowd gathered outside our home back there, which has divided itself into two groups--one that wants to buy it and one that wants to rent it. Then, just before the auction starts, a twentysomething male with spiky hair and wearing an ugly tie drives up in an agency car and screams, "sorry, but that property is already sold." But then I wake up...

Monday, March 3, 2008

Sowing His Oats

From the BBC website on 2 July 2006 (I must have missed this one when it was first reported):

21-year-old fathers seventh child
A 21-year-old who fathered his first child at 13 is about to become a dad for the seventh time.

Keith Macdonald, from Washington, Tyne and Wear has been branded a "reckless Romeo" after it emerged that all his children are by different women.

He is reported to be living apart from the mother-to-be.

As he is unemployed he does not support his children financially, but Mr Macdonald says he has no plans to father any more children

The north east has a high rate of teenage pregnancies, with 52 girls per 1,000 under 18 becoming pregnant, as opposed to an England average of 42.

Condom manufacturers also report low sales in the region.

Mr Macdonald said he did not want to have any more children and that his mother has strong views about the situation.

He said: "My mum's not happy about all these kids.

"She tells me to pack it in and keep it in my trousers."
I know some Evolutionary Social Psychologists who would enjoy meeting this guy.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Tropical Fruit World

Last Sunday we spent the day with Fiona and her two girls on a trip to the Queensland-New South Wales border. It was Fi's birthday and her husband Ian was on a business trip. For the first part of the day we went to Tropical Fruit World, a family-run attraction just south of Tweed Heads in NSW. Going on the basis of two brief word-of-mouth reviews, we really weren't sure what to expect. Well, it turned out to be quite wonderful. TFW is a real working fruit farm full of vast orchards of exotic fruits from around the world. Things start off with an introduction to the wide variety of fruits in a sort of stage show that included a chance to taste everything. As you can see here, even Will enjoyed himself.
Afterwards, we boarded a tractor-train that took us around orchards of avocados, bananas, oranges, soursop, coffee beans, pineapples, and many more. At one point we got off the train next to a macadamia tree (native to Australia), where we picked up nuts off the ground and cracked them at little nutcracker stations set up underneath the tree. At the end of this tour we were let off at nice little oasis called Treasure Island. A miniature train took us for rides around the perimeter of the island. We then boarded a covered boat that slowly took us on a lagoon tour while we fed ducks and geese swimming alongside us with bread provided by the tour guide. But that wasn't all! We then got off the boat to spend a little time at a petting zoo, complete with cows, mules, sheep, wallabies, and kangaroos. Will was having such a great time, but so were the rest of us. After spending a few minutes buying some fruit at TFW's little shop, we then headed off for lunch at the Gold Coast. We found ourselves near the most southern point of Queensland at Kirra Beach. Yes, once again we whiled away some time at a beautiful Australian beach. V. and I took turns standing guard while Will ran back and forth in the surf among Fiona's girls making sand castles. During the one-hour drive back home, a few passengers may have fallen asleep. It was a superb day. More pictures can be found in the album.