Thursday, July 31, 2008

Child Labour

It's finally time to confess that whenever V. and I go to work, we send our little 2 and 1/2 year old off to earn a few additional dollars each day (after all, we are still paying that mortgage back in America)...

But, as you can see below, Will is still a very happy boy!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Rebel American

Today I lectured for nearly six hours, which, at my ripe old age, is physically exhausting.  At the end of my day I took the CityCat boat from the university to our neighbourhood landing, and then I walked from there through the Toowong Village Shopping Centre on my way home.  Tired and worn out, I found my tolerance for slow walkers in some of the narrower passageways had disintegrated.  During my last few turns in the Centre I was overcome with the urge to resist walking on the left (as one does in Australia) and instead started WALKING ON THE RIGHT SIDE--much to the chagrin of several Aussies coming from the opposite direction.  Oh, how sweet it was to walk on "my side" once again, even if it was for a few brief moments.  I believe a little rebellion every once in a while can do the soul good.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

His Last Lecture

I just learned that Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon computer scientist, has died. You might remember that I posted an entry about his ideas on time management a few months back. Since then his "Last Lecture" book has become an international bestseller--I have even seen it at bookstores here in Australia. For months I have been checking his blog as he detailed his fight against pancreatic cancer, including posting the "box scores" of his blood tests. There had been no new entries since the end of June, and it looks like he quickly declined in the last two weeks. Randy was 47, and he leaves behind his wife and three young children. Watching his CMU last lecture was inspiring for me. And, being so close to his age, the slides of his childhood and even some of his dreams were eerily similar to some of my own.

Goodbye, Randy.

Friday, July 25, 2008

I'm a Podcaster Now

We had some (unusual) significant rainfalls the last few days, which are finally putting the Brisbane dam levels above 40% (later today), the first time they have reached that level since 2005. There will be some easing of water restrictions, but nothing that will really matter until the dams reach 60%. With all this wet weather has come some cold temperatures, which have caused many of my colleagues to "rug up" like the girl in this photo. The max yesterday was around 14 C (57.2 F), which is frigid for longtime Queenslanders, most of whom don't have any real heat in their homes. As for me, I find this weather quite nice!

This week I began giving lectures for the second semester at UQ. I'm teaching a new course, Social Neuroscience, which I'm really excited about because the topic is very close to my core interests. But it also requires a lot of preparation because I am having to read a lot of new research that has been published only in the last 2-3 years. As part of the course, I'm recording my lectures as video podcasts. I have some software on my laptop that records the slides the students are seeing while also recording the audio. I am making the podcasts available on my socialneuro website, where you can even subscribe to the entire course via your local iTunes app. Listening to myself, however, makes me wish for a low, deeply resonating voice like you hear on FM radio. A guy can dream...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wet Ones

A blurb from my main source of weather information these days:
Tomorrow, the rain will shift further east and south as a trough heads towards the coral sea. Onshore winds will increase and continue feeding moisture into this trough. All in all residents of eastern QLD should take a brolly everywhere or they may just get soaked.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


In the days since my last post, our little family has faced some major challenges and savoured a few minor victories. V. is once again in action, having gone back to work last week. She still feels the back pain, but has learned some good exercises from her physiotherapist that have strengthened her back already. Will was pretty much back to normal last week, except for a lingering cough. Even I enjoyed 2-3 normal days of work until I fell to some horrible influenza virus. I haven't been that sick since I was a kid. I spent over three days in bed, and I'm just beginning to feel normal again this afternoon. Now we worry that Will's coughs and fever are once again on the rise...

We also had some action on our house. We had two "legitimate" offers that we counter-offered on, and we're still waiting for all that to conclude, so stay tuned. All I can say right now is that we won't have a penny (well, a 5 cent piece here in Oz) to buy a piece of cheese if the buyers accept our latest offer.

Oh, and I also stood in line for five hours last Friday (July 11) to get a 3G iPhone. Yes, I got it...eventually. It couldn't be activated by Telstra until Sunday, but now I am the proud owner of the latest from Apple. Someone called me a "Fanboy" for my actions. Hmmm, what other first Apple products have I bought over the years? Here's a few that I can remember:
I think I like "FanMan" instead.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

An Australian Micronation (Since 1970)

Not long ago I came across an internet reference to the Principality of Hutt River. I have never heard any Australian speak about this "micronation," or come across it on the news. But, at 75 square kilometers (over 18,500 acres), and about 500 km from Perth in Western Australia, I was surprised that I didn't even know it existed. The story, as I can gather from various websites, including this Wikipedia entry, is that it was originally founded by Leonard George Casley in 1970 as a result of a dispute he had with the Australian government over quotas on wheat. In his interpretation of Australian and British law, Prince Leonard (as he is now known) argued that he could legally secede from Australia, although the government of Australia has never recognized the secession. Interestingly, an exhibit at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra does seem to acknowledge Prince Leonard's act as legitimate. The principality itself has few inhabitants, but issues its own stamps and coins (which are collected worldwide), has commissioned naval officers, issues car registrations and passports (over 13,000 to date), and receives off-shore company registrations. Looking around the site, I was amazed to see that Princess Cruises recently offered an excursion to the principality so that passengers could have "tea with the prince." In this picture you can see Prince Leonard standing at the left while the Princess passengers enjoy their tea:
How did so many people know about this? And, what was the attraction in visiting such an out-of-the-way place? I do think it's pretty cool that Australians have tolerated this whole enterprise. I suppose that any such move in the United States would quickly end up with some sort of stand-off with the FBI and ATF. If you happen to have visited the Principality of Hutt River, please leave me a comment. I think it would make an interesting holiday destination (check out the pictures at this fellow's website):

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Status Update

It's never seems to be boring in our home here in Toowong. Just as V. started to rise from her bed rest with a more manageable back, Will came down with some miserable virus. The poor guy has been running a fever and won't eat much. After 3-4 days of dramatic refusals of nearly anything we offer him, I'm really hoping this morning he'll wake up back and be his old self. V. will return to work on Monday. She's still taking a painkiller and can't sit easily on a regular chair, but we are staying optimistic that it's all going to get better. And maybe a little last.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Periods of Waiting

One surprise in moving to Australia has been the way that business practices are so different between countries. I mistakenly believed that in any competitive, "free-market" system, businesses would set up incentives and rules that would optimize choices for the customer. This was a rather naive belief, I now admit. For example, trying to make sense of the different mobile phone plans and broadband services here is a nightmare, especially as I ponder adding a data service when I finally (if ever) get an iPhone. There's even a website where people have serious discussions of all these plans. The absence of mortgages with fixed interest rates for the life of the loan is another mystery. Even paying the rent every two weeks is something new.

Another example of cultural differences in business practices is how health insurance works here. Sure, there is basic universal healthcare, which we have been using for the past year quite happily. But nearly everyone supplements this with private insurance. Depending on the plan, private insurance can include several extras, such as dental, eyeglasses, psychotherapy, etc., which are not normally included in the government coverage. In addition, with private health insurance one has more options for hospital and specialist care. After being here a year we finally got around to signing up for private health insurance last week. Interestingly, many of the extras that come with this new insurance require a waiting period of between 2 and 12 months, depending on the "extra." This is the time from when we started paying for the insurance to the time when we can actually make a claim for the service. Thus, there are several services that we will have to wait months to use.

In the booklet that accompanied our welcome kit, I found this explanation for the waiting period:
Before you can start claiming for hospital services, you must be in your chosen cover for a set period of time, (known as a Waiting Period). Customers can only claim benefits after they have served their waiting periods. This is necessary to keep health cover fair. Waiting periods protect existing customers who pay premiums to a fund over time, for when they might need health cover. If we didn't have waiting periods, people might join a fund to claim for a planned item and then leave.
That last sentence makes me wonder why this doesn't happen in the United States. That is, in the States there are no "Waiting Periods" (I think), so why doesn't this problem of people joining and dropping their coverage as soon as some procedure is completed exist there? I also like the middle sentence about "this is necessary to keep health cover fair." It captures the essence of many policies in Australia. There's a great emphasis on things being fair here that is best summed up by the belief in "a fair go" for everyone. (Here are a couple of interesting and contrasting takes on the Fair Go: here #1 and here #2). Perhaps it is this cultural value (one not widely shared in the U.S.) that underlies the Waiting Period. Then again, it doesn't explain why there are 15 variables to consider when choosing my mobile phone coverage.