Tuesday, April 29, 2008

To Catch an EgoSurfer

I just woke up from a dream in which I was talking to someone I knew when I was five years old.  One of the drawbacks of having changed towns every few years is that I don't have contact with any childhood friends.  I believe the friend I have known the longest is Laurel Anderson, whom I met when we moved to Rockford, Illinois in January, 1979, when I was 15.  Laurel is an artist living in San Francisco with her husband Craig.  I met her on my first day at Guilford High School because I was assigned the seat in front of her in English.  Our lives became intertwined over the next few years as she talked me into joining the debate team, we went on a double date (or two), we gave the commencement addresses at our high school graduation ceremony,  and we went off to attend rival colleges in Iowa.  She eventually saw the light and transferred to my university (the University of Iowa), so we got to spend a couple of years there together.  I attended her New Year's Eve wedding to Craig a few years later (1990?), but that's the last time I saw her.  We recently reconnected on Facebook, along with another high school friend, and Sadie Hawkins date, Lisa Weissbard.

Before moving to Rockford, however, there were are other places and other friends.  I first attended Oakwood Elementary school in Plymouth, Minnesota (a suburb of Minneapolis near Wayzata).  There I remember John Yngve (or was it J.P.?), Steve Ruff, and Lisa Crocker (my first crush).  I used to know more names from that era, but that part of my brain has been taken over by being a parent.  By the way, the person I was dreaming about just prior to writing this was Deirdre Hansen, the daughter of one of my dad's friends.  I caught up with her father at my aunt's funeral a couple of years ago.

We moved to Dixon, Illinois in 1973, when I was 10. There I immediately became friends with two neighborhood kids my age--Stephan Mayfield (or was it Stephen Mayfield?) and Scott Smith.  At school I had a few tangles with Janet Trent, who was my 5th and 6th grade nemesis (blood was involved on at least one occasion), competed with Kim Taylor (who seemed to beat me in any competition), "stalked" a gymnast named Elizabeth Nehls (Franklin), and became best buds with Chris Shaw, Howie LaFevre, Andy Near, and Larry Knicl, whom I think I had an email exchange with about ten years ago. I also rode the bus with Beth Stitzel.  Beth later attended Iowa while I was there.  I saw her a few times during my freshman year, but we lost touch.  It's funny, but I know that there was another girl whom I became obsessed with in 8th grade, and my friends at the time tried unsuccessfully to help our budding romance, but I can't remember anything about her. Oh, how love is fleeting...

It was during this time in Dixon that my family spent a summer in Wagga Wagga, NSW.  There I had my first kiss behind the tuck shop with Marie Manning, and I hung out with the Arbuckle brothers and Rodney Waters.  I received a message before we moved to Australia last year from a member of the Arbuckle family, as a result of that earlier blog post.

If you have read this entire entry, I do apologise for boring you out of your mind.  But, by listing all these names and places, maybe I will catch one of these childhood friends while they're engaged in a little egosurfing.  And, if I did happen to catch one of you, please drop me a line before I forget another name!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Boy Time

V. has been away during this long weekend (ANZAC Day was on Friday), leaving Will and I to fend for ourselves.  Actually, it's been very nice spending so much time with him, although I haven't had a real conversation with someone over the age of 3 in the past 72 hours.  The two of us have been going on various outings, including visiting several "playgrounds."

One of these playgrounds was IKEA.  I had to buy a few items for our home and for my laboratory, so I put Will in his umbrella pram and pushed him among the Saturday hordes of shoppers at our quite large local store.  Despite its size, we repeatedly narrowly missed crashing into someone else.  I have been a long-time IKEA shopper, having been introduced to my first in Burbank, California in the early '90s. I can tell you that there are definitely some universal IKEA shopper behaviours.  Because it is so family-friendly, the place is always packed on the weekends with lots of kids.  The children's playroom normally reaches capacity by late morning, so there are still many more running around the mock-up apartments (measured in square meters here, of course).  Many customers walk through IKEA like it's a museum.   The unidirectional pathway that meanders through all the showrooms was chock full yesterday of slow-moving adults gawking at the inventory as if they have never seen cheap, Scandinavian-designed, East Asian-made furniture before.  To keep our trip under an hour, Will and I were darting around displays and taking every short cut that only an experienced IKEA shopper knows about.  Of course, I also had to keep Will from grabbing every fragile item within reach as we zipped around.  Finally, there was the inevitable long checkout line at the end of the whole thing.  By then, the rest of the shoppers and I were balancing oddly shaped items that were falling out of our yellow plastic bags or balanced on those flat trolleys that only IKEA seems to know about.  It was at this point that Will decided to throw a tantrum because he didn't like either the juice or the bread that I had brought for him.

During the rest of the weekend we visited three other playgrounds that were also more crowded than usual but more suitable for Will.  At each I watched my little boy try to emulate the actions of older kids.  These 5- and 6-year-olds seem to delight in climbing on the playground equipment in some unsafe way, and Will feels compelled to do the same.  I look forward to the day when V. and I can rest comfortably while we watch him play.  Today, however, I still need to stay close by as tries to jump off a swing in mid-flight or climbs a ladder that is too high.  He also has the curious habit of inserting himself into some other person's parent-child interaction.  For example, this afternoon another toddler was repeatedly jumping up to yell "Daddy!" to his father, so Will stood next to him and yelled "Daddy!" at the stranger too.    

We then came home and played with his new IKEA wooden train set, available for $20 at your local store.  Just please keep it moving when you go there, OK?  There might just be a harried father pushing his toddler behind you.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

World Leaders

Last weekend Prime Minister Kevin Rudd led the Australia 2020 Summit in Canberra. A thousand accomplished Australians representing different fields were invited to share their ideas for developing long-term strategies for the nation in ten key areas. The news media were particularly interested in Cate Blanchett's leading the "Towards a Creative Australia" stream with her one-week old baby in arm. "Ordinary" Australians were invited to send suggestions before the start of the conference and then the 100 delegates in each area spent two days developing a consensus about the best ideas. A full report will be presented next month for Kevin to ponder, but a preliminary one was already available at the site's web page on Monday morning.

Although I haven't had a chance to read every page, I am struck by the optimism that permeates the report. In particular, I am fascinated by how often the goal for Australia to be a world leader in a particular domain comes up. For example:
  • "We'll know that we're on the right track [by having] Australia attracting and enabling the best minds." (p. 6)
  • "[Australia should have] a world leading education and innovation system. (p. 6)
  • "Australia should be the best place in the world to live and do business." (p. 10)
  • "the GDP per capita [should increase] so that Australia is among the top 5 countries in the world on this measure..." (p. 10)
  • "Our aspiration is that by 2020 Australia is the world's leading green and sustainable economy." (p. 13)
  • "Be a world leader in research and translation (including technology." (p. 20)
  • "...reaffirm Australia as an international leader in bioengineering." (p. 21)
  • "Assert new leadership in global governance" (p. 36)
Dozens and dozens of interesting ideas are presented in this report, such as digitising the art collections of major national institutions by 2020, providing tax concessions to get private industry involved with indigenous communities, making social inclusion a national priority, putting taxes on, and banning advertising of, junk food to children, adopting a National Sustainability, Population and Climate Change Agenda, and developing an immigration plan that is a model for the rest of the world.

I have experienced a similar sense of enthusiasm for new ideas and the desire to be among the world's best at the University of Queensland, and it's something that I find inspiring for my own goals. I suppose that, as a result of growing up in the United States, Americans don't often think about being the "world's best" because (1) they're too busy competing with each other, (2) they arrogantly think they already are the "best", and/or (3) the country is so large that they don't really consider their place in the world until the economy starts to tank or the country becomes involved in another war. What constantly amazes me about Australia is that despite its small size (having roughly the population of Southern California), it has such huge aspirations. Maybe its size and location in the world are precisely what drives this desire to be a "world leader." How else can you explain one of the report's goals that in 2020 there will be a "greater international understanding [of Australia] as a mature, creative, innovative society?" (p. 29) I am looking forward to what happens next.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Thinking About 'Racism' at 2 in the Morning

I woke up wide awake at 2 am, and can't get back to sleep because it's so terribly quiet. Even with the windows open, I could hear absolutely nothing--not a car, a cricket, nor a gecko. This is in sharp contrast to the usual chirping and squawking one hears all day from the many birds around our place. I guess even those obnoxious crows have to sleep sometime.

Well, it seems to be a good time to write about the following story of the firing of an Aussie television news journalist, which my American readers may find interesting as a cultural contrast. It appeared in the The Australian last week:
Nine to Challenge Spiteri Claim
April 16, 2008

THE Nine Network will ask a judge to throw out a breach of contract case brought by reporter Christine Spiteri.

In the Federal Court in Sydney today, Justice Richard Edmonds set Nine's application down for hearing on May 23.

Ms Spiteri, 40, is seeking damages of more than $500,000 under the Trade Practices Act after she was told her contract with the network would expire in March this year.

In her statement of claim, she says she was racially and sexually discriminated against.

She alleged Nine's news director John Westacott told her: "You should work for SBS, you certainly have the name for it."

She also alleged Mr Westacott told female j
ournalists "to make it in this industry, you gotta have f***ability. To make it in this game, women have to be f***able".
The basis for the claim of sexual discrimination should be obvious from the last paragraph. In fact, this article is consistent with a string of stories about the Nine television network that has established a consistent pattern of sexism, especially in the newsroom. But notice that this lawsuit also includes a charge of 'racism,' which is supposed to be supported by the alleged quote from the news director that Spiteri should work for SBS, a public television channel that includes the rebroadcasts of news programs from around the world. When I first read this quote, I thought I was missing something. Why should the suggestion that someone work for a more multi-cultural network connote underlying racism?
Finding this picture of Spiteri didn't help answer the question. Her ethnic background appears to have a European origin, just like that of her former news director, John Westacott. And, according to a Google search, Christine's surname is shared by a few significant people from Malta, so I am assuming that her ancestors immigrated to Australia from Malta or Italy. So, I was still left wondering why this could be considered a case of racism.

I think the answer to this question lies in two ways (among many others) that Australia differs from the United States. First, many Australians consider their country to be culturally "diverse" as a result of the many non-British immigrants who ended up coming here in the latter part of the 20th century. For at least 100 years Australian immigration was comprised of a high proportion of immigrants from Britain and Ireland. In fact, an official Australian government program ran from the 1950s through the 1970s that encouraged Brits to immigrate to Australia for just 10 pounds--the rest of the cost was subsidised by the Australian government. As I understand it, Australians were greatly concerned after WWII that they desperately needed to increase their population to avoid a future threat of invasion from their Asian neighbours. During this same period, however, many other Europeans, particularly from Greece and Italy, also came to this country, under the guise of a "White-only" Australia policy, which also had atrocious consequences for the indigenous population. This all changed in the 1970s when the Australian government finally began to allow greater emigration from Asian countries. It is primarily this mix of Greeks, Italians, and Asians that I think people are referring to when they speak of Australia's diversity. Consistent with this, the suggestion that Christine Spiteri should work for the SBS probably reflected the perception of a descendant of British immigrants (Westacott) that Spiteri is a descendant of Italian (or Maltese) immigrants.

In addition, the charge of "racism" here reflects a different use of the word than I am accustomed to in the United States. I remember reading not too long ago a story in the Australian press about British People Against Racial Discrimination. It sounds like this would be a group concerned about promoting better interracial relations, doesn't it? Well, it turns out that BPARD were only concerned about a specific issue--banning a Toohey's beer commercial that depicted British people as whinging (complaining), warm-beer-drinking, wimps. A member of this group was even quoted as saying that the ad constituted a "racial slur" against the British by Australians. Although that example borders on the ridiculous, I am left thinking that any instance of prejudice involving a person based on their ethnicity or nationality can be called "racism" in Australia. Thus, the term isn't limited to just instances of expressed antipathy based on a person's "race," as it would be in the United States. And that also probably explains why Spiteri considered her news director's SBS comment to be racist.

I'll have to keep all of this in mind the next time an Aussie makes fun of my love of Reese's peanut butter cups. Now it's time to go back to sleep...

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


I am a bit burdened with all sorts of work-related responsibilities right now, including writing programs for my four honours students in a new language (Revolution).  While I'm programming, I find that listening to Groove Armada or Goldfrapp really helps.  Here's a new one from Goldfrapp for your viewing and listening pleasure.  I've been hooked on this one since seeing the video Saturday morning on "Rage:"

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Weight

Will keeps surprising us every day with some new mental feat. Mimicry is an important part of his repertoire. Yesterday he repeated nearly every letter of the alphabet that I said. At the playground he's now trying the higher slides or the rope climb or some other dangerous apparatus just because he sees another (older) kid doing it. He also requests that I carry him out onto the veranda before his bath at night so that he can look at the Brisbane skyline. Last night he was thrilled when he could see lightning in the distant sky. This elicited an excited outpouring of conversation, of which I could only understand about 10%.

Each morning after I have changed his nappy, he grabs his blanket and then runs into my arms so that I can carry him downstairs. Although he's tall, he is on the slender side, so it's still easy to carry his 26 pounds (11.9 kilos). I do very much relish every moment that I can carry him. It is clear, however, that we can't stop him from growing. He has outgrown nearly every item of clothing that we brought with us to Australia over nine months ago. That got me to thinking about when the inevitable day will come when I will no longer be able to carry him around in my arms. In the picture above you can see me standing on the left, when I'm about four years old. My mother is on the right holding my brother Darron. There must have been a day when my mom or my dad carried me like that for the very last time. The next time they tried I was either too heavy or refused to be carried. I wonder whether I will recognize when it's the last time I can carry Will.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Telstra is So Nice

Remember my earlier posting about that huge bill for our broadband service?  Well, I just received word from Telstra (BigPond) about my request to forgive those additional charges that I incurred when we went over our bandwidth limit:
Dear Eric,

Thank you for completing and returning the BigPond Request for Credit Form.

This email is to advise that your request for credit has been accepted.

BigPond will credit your account with a once-off amount of $ 673.67.
How nice is to receive sympathy for my stupid mistake from such a big corporation, huh?!  Thanks, Telstra!!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

New Zealand Photos

Today I posted some photos from my New Zealand trip on Flickr (the same ones that appear on Facebook, my FB friends!). I found it quite hard to take pictures with our little Fujifilm FinePix--without my glasses I can't see the little video display when aiming the camera. :-(

Friday, April 4, 2008

Time Slip

I turn 45 this year. I'll admit that it's a bit old to be starting a new life in a foreign country, giving up tenure for a new job, raising a two-year old, and erasing many of the financial assets that took us so long to accumulate. There's also the challenge of forming new friendships while all the rest of this is going on. Sometimes I feel like I'm just starting out in my 20s again (although this time I have a toddler and a wife!). The major difference is that I probably have only 20-25 good work years ahead of me, rather than the 40-45 that I had in 1988. Thus, time has become much more precious to me. For instance, there is so much more that I want to accomplish in my career, but I know that I can't really work long days and nights with a family at home. Thus, I want to become more effective in managing my time so that I can end up spending more of it doing more meaningful things: more time playing with Will and talking to V., and less time watching "The Top 25 richest people in Entertainment;" more time developing my research and less time sitting in meetings that don't benefit me; more time getting exercise and less time sitting in the car.

Getting a handle on time management is probably easier for some, but for many of us our old habits are hard to change. I was recently inspired, however, by some lectures given by Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon University. Pausch is about three years old than me and has had a successful career in computer science (much of it having to do with virtual reality), and he has three young children and a wife at home. He's also dying of pancreatic cancer that has metastasized to his liver and spleen. In October 2007 he gave an inspiring "Last Lecture" at CMU, in which he talked about how to achieve one's childhood dreams. He has also posted a lecture on time management that he gave a few weeks later at the University of Virginia. The latter is interesting, given that Pausch learned to manage time highly effectively many years ago. I recommend that you watch both of these videos--you won't be wasting your time! A few tips that I have tried to incorporate from his time management lecture:
  • keep you email inbox empty, reading each email only once
  • schedule every minute of every day
  • keep your own meetings as short as possible
  • delegate when possible
  • keep your workspace tidy
  • develop an effective filing system, and use it
  • remind yourself what is most important to you and plan to spend your time accordingly
I may not have cancer, but I do feel like there's some urgency in my life, as much of it is starting over. Now, if I could just figure out what to do with all this silver hair on my head...

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

What I Want for Christmas (or Sooner)

What does the guy who lives in paradise and has the perfect life desire now, you ask? I would really, really like US$3500 to buy this software from WorldViz for our VR lab...