Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Deck the Sheds

We've been making the rounds at preschool Christmas pageants and community carol sing-a-longs (which are highly prevalent in Oz). I have been pleasantly surprised by the Australian versions of some classic carols:
Deck the sheds with bits of wattle*, fa la la la, la la la la,
Whack some gum leaves in a bottle, fa la la la, la la la la la,
All the shops are open Sundies, fa la la la, la la la la,
Buy you Dad some socks and undies, fa la la la, la la la la la.

Deck the sheds with bits of gumtree, fa la la la, la la la la,
Hang the deco's off the plum tree, fa la la la, la la la la la,
Plant some kisses on the missus, fa la la la, la la la la,
Have a ripper Aussie Christmas, fa la la la, la la la la la.

Say g'day to friends and rellies, fa la la la, la la la la,
Wave them off with bulging bellies, fa la la la, la la la la la,
Kids and babies, youngies, oldies, fa la la la, la la la la,
May your fridge be full of coldies, fa la la la, la la la la la.

Chop the wood and stoke the barbie, fa la la la, la la la la,
Ring the folks in Abudabe**, fa la la la, la la la la la,
Pop the stuffing in the turkey, fa la la la, la la la la,
Little Mary's feeling ercky***, fa la la la, la la la la la.

Rally rally round the table, fa la la la, la la la la,
Fill your belly while you're able, fa la la la, la la la la la,
Joyce and Joaney, Dave and Darryl, fa la la la, la la la la,
Sing an Aussie Christmas carol, fa la la la, la la la la la.

*Wattle = Mimosa Tree also known as Acacia
**Abudabe = A Faraway Land
***Ercky = Not too well

And then there's:

Dashing through the bush,
in a rusty Holden Ute,
Kicking up the dust,
esky in the boot,
Kelpie by my side,
singing Christmas songs,
It's Summer time and I am in
my singlet, shorts and thongs.

Oh! Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way,
Christmas in Australia
on a scorching summers day, Hey!
Jingle bells, jingle bells, Christmas time is beaut!,
Oh what fun it is to ride in a rusty Holden Ute.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Transitions

transition |tranˈzi sh ən; -ˈsi sh ən|nounthe process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another
Although it's been nearly 2 1/2 years since we left Atlanta, our move to Australia is still going on. Sure, I am now used to so many things that originally were foreign. I have learned a great deal about Australian pop culture, the government, the economy, traditions, and the geography. And I now know enough about my university's policies that I feel comfortable when I complain about them. We have several friends (some are even Aussies!) who have also become a sort of second family to us. V. and I are both happy in our jobs. And when Will's friend apologised to him the other day for taking away his train, Will cheerily replied, "that's OK, mate!"

Despite this successful transition, I often think about whether we should return to the U.S. Some aspects of my job are terribly frustrating, but they are endemic to the Australian higher education system so they are unlikely to change. V. still has to take a huge medical exam next July (so that she can finally do exactly what she was doing in America), and this involves a continuation of the months of intense studying and practice workshops she's already put into preparing for it. We are still at least two years away from having enough money saved up for a down payment on a house, as homes here cost nearly 2-3 times more than they were in Atlanta, and we're still paying off the debt associated with selling our home in Atlanta for less than the mortgage. I also miss the North American flora and fauna. Seeing green lawns on an American television show, for example, seems downright exotic to me. And, I really miss being able to see my family more often than once a year.

This is going to be a long transition.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dreaming of a New Blog

I always seem to be coming up with ideas that I feel that I just have to act on. I know they are good and original ideas, but it usually turns out they would actually require more time and effort than I am willing to sacrifice. As an example, for several years I have planned to write a major theoretical paper on a model of prejudice that I have talked about at several seminars conferences. If I were to do a good job on this, it would probably be a well-cited paper, but I have yet to start it. I have also thought long and hard for at least 2 years about writing a book on social neuroscience. Again, I have never started it and, honestly, I probably never will.

My latest 'brilliant' idea is start a blog to monitor the awful stranglehold that News Corp. has over Australian news. Nearly all the major newspapers in Australia (e.g., The Australian, Sydney's Daily Telegraph, Melbourne's The Herald Sun, Brisbane's Courier-Mail) are owned by Rupert Murdoch's company, and in some cities, such as Brisbane, there is no real competitor. News Corp. also owns, of course, the UK's The Times and The Sun, as well as The New York Post (and now The Wall Street Journal). And then there are the biggest beasts of all, Fox News and Sky News. Of course, as we watch newspapers die all over the place, all this consolidation of various news outlets makes sense from a business point of view. It's clear that News Corp. makes good use of its various assets by circulating the same story in each of its papers. The stories on the international pages of the Courier-Mail, for example, are typically attributed to The Sun, The Times, and The Post. The problem, however, particularly in this country, is that one reporter can have an immense effect with one little story because it can be immediately picked up and passed along to all the News Corp. outlets worldwide.

Such was the case when Britney Spears came to Australia. In the week prior to her visit, one of the News Corp. papers ran a story about how some fans were willing to pay hundreds of dollars to watch Britney lip-sync. That story appeared in every city's paper, and the morning television stations even chatted about it. The pump was now primed, and all it took next was Britney's first concert in Perth to ignite a bigger story. A News Corp. reporter in Perth showed up to that concert (ostensibly to write a "review"), and published a story the following day about the "hundreds" of concertgoers who walked out of the concert because of all the lip-syncing. That story appeared with a big headline in all the News Corp. papers in Australia, which, in turn, was picked up by the British papers. Before Britney woke up the next morning, a worldwide controversy had erupted, dubbed by some (at News Corp.) as "Britney-gate." It didn't matter that Britney's lip-syncing had been going on for months during the tour and that everyone was well aware of it already (as evidenced by the story that appeared prior to her arrival in Oz). It also didn't matter to News Corp. that some of the people leaving early did so because they were upset about other things like their bad seats, or that it was nearly impossible to find evidence of these walkouts at other concerts. But the story got bigger and bigger, and soon the non-News Corp. outlets were reporting the story of Britney-gate (all based on the Perth reporter's article). On the basis of these stories, singers John Mayer and Michael Buble rushed to defend Britney, providing even more fodder for the News Corp. machine.

I have watched several similar news cycles come and go since I have arrived here, and I am still amazed how successful they seem to be for News Corp. For example, sixteen-year-old Jessica Watson's solo trip around the world on a yacht was initially praised by the News Corp. reporters, but then it went through a stage where they focused on how unprepared she was, and now they've gone back to a cheering role by providing regular updates of her progress (mainly by paraphrasing from her blog). I guess this is what happens when the readership is relatively tiny, the pool of "big" news stories is small, and the competition is weak. And don't even get me started on the lingerie and bikini photo galleries that feature prominently on Australian news websites.

Well, when I figure out how to clone a more energetic and youthful version of myself, perhaps I can convince him to start that new blog.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The All-Australian Playlist

It was nearly two years ago when I first mentioned my affection for Australian musicians. (By the way, "musician" is often shortened here to "muso"-- another wonderful example of the Aussie tendency to abbreviate words and stick on an "o" as the suffix). Since that first post, I've continued to broaden my education, and I realise that I am now playing Australian music on my iPod at least half the time. I even have an overplayed Aussie highlights playlist, made up of both old and new acts. Here's a sample of that list:
  1. Missy Higgins, "Peachy"
  2. The Waifs, "Lighthouse"
  3. Faker, "This Heart Attack"
  4. Silverchair, "Straight Lines"
  5. Empire of the Sun, "Walking on a Dream"
  6. Katie Noonan, "Blackbird"
  7. The Veronicas, "Untouched"
  8. Jessica Mauboy, "Been Waiting"
  9. Dash and Will, "Out of Control"
  10. Josh Pyke, "Make You Happy"
  11. Hoodoo Gurus, "Come Anytime"
  12. Kate Miller-Heidke, "Caught in the Crowd"
  13. Sarah Blasko, "All I Want"
  14. Angus and Julius Stone, "The Beast"
On Friday night we got to see Kate Miller-Heidke in concert at the Lyric Theatre in QPAC. I only very recently discovered this incredibly talented muso, who hails from Brisbane and went to school just a short distance from where we are living. Kate's music is best described as eclectic, but it's also thoroughly musical and full of comedy. Her voice is beautiful. Opening for her was Skinny Jean, another band from Brisbane (which has also produced Powderfinger, the Veronicas, Katie Noonan, and Savage Garden, among others), which V. and I quickly became enamoured with. As soon as the monthly cap on our bandwidth is lifted, I plan to buy Skinny Jean's album, as well as one from Hunz, who--you guessed it--are also from Brisbane.

Assuming that my American readers will not have heard most of this music, please check out the video for Miller-Heidke's, "Caught in the Crowd," which won the 2008 International Songwriting Competion, by the way:


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Still Here

It's been more than two months since my last post.

All is well. We have renewed our lease on this old Queenslander near the railroad tracks, complete with rats. We continue to pay off of the debt incurred when we sold our house in the U.S. for less than what we owed the bank. Classes are over and I have just one final exam to mark next week. The honours students are done. I'm nearly finished with a chapter for an edited volume that has been terribly difficult to write. And Will has been teaching us about the six white boomers that pull Santa's sleigh. It's nearly summer, and I can hardly wait.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Travels to the Osage

I just returned from a 9-day trip to the United States. My stepfather, Bob Daniels, passed away on August 22, so I went to Ponca City, Oklahoma to be with my mom for a week. Bob and my mom got together well after I had left home for college, so I never experienced him as a member of the family in the same way my younger siblings did. Still, I'm going to miss this talented and stubborn man who really had a heart of gold.

My mom faced a rough week while I was there, both as a result of the things that you would normally expect in the wake of the death of a spouse, as well as things that you would not. She's a remarkably strong person who reminds me of the 'Pioneer Woman' represented in a famous statue in Ponca City. After one particularly long day, I headed back to my room at 10:30, completely exhausted, but left my mom still carrying on with her household chores (caring for the many dogs and cats she has rescued over the years) well after midnight. She has a resilience that I'm afraid that I have not yet developed. I hope that her resilience continues to serve her, however, as she is now facing several enormous challenges as she adjusts to a life without her husband.

In Ponca City I ran into other people facing plenty of hardship as well. A jar sat on a counter of a pizza place in an attempt to raise money for an employee's medical attention. I watched two young women trying to come up with just $4 between them to pay for a prescription co-payment at the Walmart pharmacy--they ended up walking away because they didn't have the cash. I saw several young teenagers with babies, including a 15-year-old daughter of one of my mom's former employees. How they survive in an economy as bleak as Ponca's is a mystery to me. I also spent a lot of time listening to and watching CNN and the other cable news stations while I was there. Though I was already aware of the growing animosity to Obama and his plans for healthcare reform, I was shocked by how truly vicious some Americans have become in their opposition. There has never been this much division in American society during my adult life, and I worry about where it's all going to lead.

On my flight back to Australia I felt a little like I was escaping both my family's problems and the nation's. Life here in Brisbane is very good on many levels. And, I guess the price I'm going to pay for this good life is living with the guilt.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Camel Cull

Wow! I have been so terribly busy with work during the last two weeks, I haven't been able to write a single post here. But, when I saw this story a few minutes ago, I nearly blew a gasket! Sometimes Americans can look so stupid!!

Some background: Australia is home to nearly a million feral camels that roam across much of central Australia unchecked. In fact, V. and I saw quite a few on our train and bus trips across the Northern Territory and South Australia in 2003. Camels are NOT native to Australia. Like many other introduced species, they came over with 19th century settlers who thought they would be ideally suited for Australia's environment. They were right! In fact, their population is doubling nearly every 10 years.

As stated in an excellent piece in The Australian a few weeks ago (and quoted in the article at Punch), camels
maraud Aboriginal communities, trample fence lines, attack standpipes, destroy water tanks. They roam unchecked across the plateaus of the Western Desert, fanning out from creeks and riverbeds, creating a wasteland inside the wilderness, eradicating native plants, leaving nothing for the remnant wildlife. They are hardy and perfectly adapted to their new environment.
So, the Australian Federal Government is going to spend $18 million on a program to control the camel population, at the same time recognising that it is practically impossible to completely eradicate them from the continent.

This is all seems quite reasonable...except to a few 'journalists' back in the USA. On a recent segment on his CNBC show, Jim Cramer (the buffoon whom Jon Stewart so masterfully handled earlier this year) and Erin Burnett went on a lengthy rant about this supposed 'genocide' of camels. In the process, they called Prime Minister Kevin Rudd a 'serial killer,' and claimed (incorrectly) that Rudd is launching air strikes against the camels (to which Cramer chuckled something like, "does Australia even have an air force?").

To put it mildly, Australians are outraged by this story, particularly because it comes from a couple of American 'journalists' ranting about something that they clearly don't understand. I have to say that I join them in this outrage. I do wish more of my fellow countrymen would get it together and begin to gain a better understanding of other nations and cultures.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Petrol Skirmishes

From today's Courier-Mail:

The battle for the consumer dollar reached new heights yesterday when Woolworths and Coles announced unprecedented discounts, offering 40¢ a litre off at the bowser for shoppers who spend $300 on their groceries in one hit.

For you non-Australians, what this means is that the two largest supermarket chains in Australia (which control nearly the entire market in a duopoly) are offering a deal (which ends on Thursday) that amounts to the equivalent of a A$1.50/gallon discount when you purchase fuel at one of their affiliated stations, if you buy a lot of groceries at once. It's a pretty amazing offer, given that prices average over A$5.00/gallon right now, but it also puts enormous pressure on the remaining petrol chains (two of the four are controlled by Woolies and Coles), which means we'll probably end up with another duopoly in that market in a few years.

Petrol here is generally more expensive than it is in the United States. But I am not exactly sure why. It could be due to a lack of competition, but I suspect that it is more due to Australia being a small, isolated market. I used to think that the federal government was collecting huge taxes on it, the way European governments do to help subsidize public transport, for example. Given that Queensland only recently removed a multi-year 9.2¢/litre subsidy, this suggests that governments here don't tax fuel consumption as much as they encourage its purchase. I'm afraid that Aussies are nearly as enamoured with their cars as Americans are, although they tend to drive smaller ones for more years. (When we were in the States last month it was remarkable how many enormous pick-ups and SUVs (4WDs) we still saw everywhere, despite the fact the U.S. has faced some huge fuel price increases in the last five years). Perhaps this love of cars reflects the fact that Australia, like the U.S., is a wide-open country with vast distances between its cities. Building a more extensive national train network, for example, would be enormously expensive. I am very happy with Brisbane's bus and rail network, by the way. For a city that has half the population of Atlanta, Brisbane's public transport is many times better. V. and I are able to use the trains, buses, and ferries so much that we only need to fill the tank of our little Yaris once or twice a month. And, in the meantime, it looks like we can save a few bucks at the bowser when we put a few more avocados and jars of Dick Smith peanut butter in our grocery trolley.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. I am now eating Australian peanut butter and I like it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Another Young Adventurer

As I sit in front of my computer and ponder the benefits of a corporate membership in the Qantas Club (those layovers at Terminal 4 in LAX are growing old), my admiration goes out to a 16-year-old Aussie girl who plans to sail around the world on her own. Jessica Watson will finish high school by 'long distance education' so that she can embark on her 230-day adventure in September. I must admit that the parent in me wonders how Jessica's mum and dad can let their little girl do this. I have a hard time just imagining Will going off to school in 18 months! On the other hand, as I read Jessica's website and blog, she does strike me as being very much different from your typical teenager. She's been sailing and 'racing dinghies' since she was 8, doesn't watch any television, and seems far more mature than most adults I know. Apparently, this trip will be expensive--A$250,000--so, in addition to the aid of several corporate sponsors, there's a fancy dinner ($100 per person) scheduled next week to help her raise the funds.
I know that I'll be closely following Jessica's journey in the coming months. I have long had a love for the tales of adventurers, which was born in my early adolescence during those travelogues I used to watch at a theater in Dixon, Illinois, was then nurtured through many books by authors like Jon Krakauer and Barbara Savage, and then renewed by all those Michael Palin television series and books. All those people, including teen Jessica, are far more intrepid than this soon-to-be-Qantas-club-member.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Against the Clock

Some spam that I received today, obviously in response to the hard work of my alter-ego:

Dear Dr. Vanman,

WHO has declared H1N1 pandemic on June 11, 2009. You are probably working against the clock to create effective vaccines and discover the infection mechanisms. You do not have to fight against the pandemic alone; GenScript is at your side to help accelerate your projects. In fact, we have already delivered over a dozen custom services for the H1N1 research community and prominent pharmaceutical companies.

Please Visit http://www.genscript.com/H1N1.html for more information.

As a leading Biology CRO, here are selected services/products GenScript can offer to speed up your race to understand the infection and to prevent its spreading:

Synthesis of H1N1 specific genes: http://www.genscript.com/gene_synthesis.html
—hemagglutinin (HA), neuraminidase (NA), matrix 1 (M1), polymerase PB1 (PB1), polymerase PB1 (PB2), etc.

Molecular biology services: http://www.genscript.com/molecular_biology_service.html
—gene synthesis, knock-In and knock-out vector construction, PCR cloning and subcloning, mutagenesis and custom siRNA to prepare seed virus, especially when reverse genetics method is used.

Antibody service: http://www.genscript.com/antibody.html
—produce reference reagent used to validate the identity and potency of the reference virus strain (seed virus).

Stable cell line: http://www.genscript.com/stable_cell_line.html
—attractive alternative to egg-based H1N1 vaccine production technology

Please visit http://www.genscript.com/H1N1.html for more information, and our customer service representatives are available to assist you 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday.


Yours sincerely,

Maggie Li
Account Manager
GenScript USA Inc.
120 Centennial Avenue
Piscataway, NJ 08854, USA

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Running

This is my public declaration that I intend to run in the Bridge to Brisbane 10K event in two months. Yes, on 30 August I will join thousands of other runners who will race across the Gateway Bridge on their way to the EKKA showgrounds. My plan is to merely finish. I haven't done any serious running for eight years, and my 30-min jog today nearly wiped me out. But, I'm determined to shake myself out of this sedentary lifestyle before it kills me.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Humpin' My Bluey

Will and I were listening to "The Great Australian Songbook" this morning while playing with his trains. This album includes such classics as "Waltzing Matilda," "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport," and "Red Back on the Toilet Seat." But I was pleasantly surprised when Track 11 came on--an Aussie version of "I've Been Everywhere." I knew it as an old song, and was most familiar with the Johnny Cash version that features in a Comfort Inn (I think) ad back in the U.S. It goes something like: "Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota, Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma, Tampa...I've been everywhere, man, I've been everywhere..."

Well, it turns out the Australian version is the original version, as it was written in 1959 by Geoff Mack in New South Wales. It was later rewritten for a North American audience and recorded by Hank Snow in 1962. I had heard it on Telstra television ads prior to today, but just assumed that they were adapting the 'American' version for Australia. How wrong I was! According to this Wikipedia entry, the Australian version starts:

"Well, I was humpin' my bluey on the dusty Oodnadatta Road..."

The place names listed are:
Verse 1
Tullamore, Seymour, Lismore, Mooloolaba, Nambour, Maroochydore,Kilmore, Murwillumbah, Birdsville, Emmaville, Wallaville, Cunnamulla,Condamine, Strathpine, Proserpine, Ulladulla, Darwin, Gin Gin,Deniliquin, Muckadilla, Wallumbilla, Boggabilla, Kumbarilla
Verse 2
Moree, Taree, Jerilderie, Bambaroo, Toowoomba, Gunnedah,Caringbah, Woolloomooloo, Dalveen, Tamborine, Engadine, Jindabyne,Lithgow, Casino, Brigalow, Narromine, Megalong, Wyong, Tuggeranong,Wanganella, Morella, Augathella, Brindabella
Verse 3
Wollongong, Geelong, Kurrajong, Mullumbimby, Mittagong, Molong,Grong Grong, Goondiwindi, Yarra Yarra, Boroondara, Wallangarra,Turramurra, Boggabri, Gundagai, Narrabri, Tibooburra, Gulgong,Adelong, Billabong, Cabramatta, Parramatta, Wangaratta, Coolangatta
Verse 4
Ettalong, Dandenong, Woodenbong, Ballarat, Canberra, Milperra,Unanderra, Captains Flat, Cloncurry, River Murray, Kurri Kurri,Girraween, Terrigal, Stockinbingal, Collaroy, Narrabeen, Bendigo, Dorrigo, Bangalow, Indooroopilly, Kirribilli, Yeerongpilly, Wollondilly
What a silly American I am to think that the Aussies stole something from Johnny Cash! As penance, my goal is to memorise this version. I'll let you know when I do.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Perils of Preschooler Travel

We're back home in Brisbane. Once again, we're suffering the consequences of transoceanic flying. Jet lag is as rampant in our household as flies in the summer. I'm writing at 3 am because Will was wide awake at 2, just as he was the night before. He's watching 'Ratatouille' and asking why it's still dark outside. V returns to work later today, so I'm trying to let her sleep. I'm staying at home with Will because he's not allowed to go to daycare for a week, simply because he's been to the U.S.

Our trip back to Australia started this past Thursday with a four hour drive from Springfield, IL (where we had been visiting some friends) to Chicago's O'Hare airport. After checking our suitcases, V and Will went through security while I returned the rental car. I didn't return for over an hour because it took nearly 40 minutes in rush hour traffic to find a gas station to refill the tank. We then boarded our plane for Los Angeles. Things went pretty well on that flight, until the final hour when Will decided to empty his bladder on my lap (via a leaky diaper) while we were playing a game on my iPhone. V was able to change him in the plane's toilet (how she does that is still a mystery to me), but I had to wait until we could pick up our suitcases from baggage claim for my own change.

We then hauled our bags to the Bradley International terminal to check in for our Qantas flight. Extremely lucky for us, our tickets were upgraded to Premium Economy and we got to sit together. Our 11:30 pm flight was delayed 45 minutes, however, so by the time we boarded Will was acting like a drunk pirate. In fact, he fell asleep while the plane was still taxing. V and I got to enjoy a wonderful dinner (complete with a white tablecloth) and movie while Will continued to doze. It was about five hours into the flight, after all the other passengers had fallen asleep, that Will woke up screaming at the top of his lungs. He never really opened his eyes much, but he was completely unhappy with his seat. Because the fancy seats in Premium Economy don't have moveable armrests, I couldn't have him lie across my lap. He soon was bellowing at maximum volume, and we could do nothing to soothe him. I picked him up and took him to the lavatory. There I rocked him for about 15 minutes until he stopped crying and coughing (all those tears got him very congested). I was a little worried that a flight attendant would hear all the coughing and report us to the health officials when we landed. Alas, Will did finally fall asleep. I carried him back to the seat where he slept a few more hours. The rest of the flight went pretty well, even after he woke up again with five hours to go.

In Sydney we faced the same bedlam that I experienced 2 1/2 years ago when I came over for my job interview. Since then I have always flown directly to Brisbane to avoid the connection, but we couldn't do that this time. Sydney is the major entry point for Australia, and it appears that most of the international flights arrive there within the same hour each morning. With four or five 747s emptying their bellies at the same time, the immigration and customs lines quickly look like the freeways of LA at rush hour. Will soon became bored and we had to keep him from climbing between people's legs and opening their suitcases. The worst part about flying into Sydney, however, is the connection to the domestic flight. Qantas makes you take all your bags to the other side of the international terminal where there was a one-hour wait to drop them off (even though they had been tagged back in Los Angeles). While we waited, Will sat perched on top of two suitcases on a trolley, playing with my iPhone. As we neared the front of line, the staff suddenly called our flight (we were getting close to missing it by this point, even though I scheduled a nearly 3-hour layover). As we pushed our trolleys into the "express" lane, Will rolled off the trolley and hit his head on the floor. He was OK, but his crying alarmed the Qantas staff, who quickly put us at the front of the line. Gee, if I had known that a little head banging would have sped things up, I might have tried that trick earlier!

After finally taking a shuttle to the domestic terminal, we almost immediately boarded our flight to Brisbane. Will slept the entire flight, but was delighted when we pulled into our gate in Brissy because he knew we were home. He was smiling nearly the entire 40-min taxi ride to Graceville. When I unlocked the front door, he ran to his toys and immediately started putting together his train tracks. V and I hauled our five suitcases up the steps and then crashed on the sofa.

And they lived happily ever after.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chigger Redux

Sure, we get all sorts of nasty bugs down in Australia. And, sure, we don't have window screens (a.k.a. "fly screens") on our house in Brisbane, thus making it that much easier for various antipodean insects to come bother us in our pajamas. But, none of those bugs are as irritating as chiggers in Arkansas! Amazingly, I mentioned this in a blog entry during our last family visit to Hot Springs two years ago, and here I am again scratching away as I write this.

Chiggers our particularly bothersome because you never see them. They lie in wait in the grass, in bushes, or benches, ready to leap onto your body undetected. They then lay larvae on your body, which crawl around until they find a cozy place to take hold. This description from an Ohio State website says it best:
The preferred feeding locations on people are parts of the body where clothing fits tightly over the skin such as around the belt line, waistline, under girdles and under socks, or where the flesh is thin, tender or wrinkled such as the ankles, in the armpits, back of the knees, in front of the elbow, or in the groin.

ChiggerChigger larvae do not burrow into the skin, nor suck blood. They pierce the skin and inject into the host a salivary secretion containing powerful, digestive enzymes that break down skin cells that are ingested (tissues become liquefied and sucked up). Also, this digestive fluid causes surrounding tissues to harden, forming a straw-like feeding tube of hardened flesh (stylostome) from which further, partially-digested skin cells may be sucked out. After a larva is fully fed in four days, it drops from the host, leaving a red welt with a white, hard central area on the skin that itches severely and may later develop into dermatitis. Any welts, swelling, itching, or fever will usually develop three to six hours after exposure and may continue a week or longer. If nothing is done to relieve itching, symptoms may continue a week or more.

I'm scratching in all sorts of difficult-to-reach places. Won't I have a fun time on our long plane ride back to Oz on Thursday night?

Monday, June 15, 2009

My Daddy Hung It

Our current stop on the Great Midwest Tour of 2009 is Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. For the past week we have continued to experience a wide range of severe weather wherever we go. On Friday morning, while we enjoyed our Holiday Inn Express breakfast, a huge thunderstorm went over us in Ponca City, Oklahoma. That same storm eventually found its way to Arkansas. In today's Arkansas Democrat Gazette, an article on the storm contained the following delightful passage on American patriotism and the weather:
A quick-moving Friday storm shook the [Chrysler] dealership and demolished one of the building walls, however, leaving no chance of sales Saturday.

"I just had a complaint the American flag was displayed the wrong way," co-owner Ethel Cook said. "It's insanity. I said, 'My daddy hung it for the people on the inside. We didn't know the wall was going to be blown out.'"
It must have been one of those foreign storms messing things up.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Whirlwind

The American ex-pats who live in Oz will greatly appreciate this picture. It was taken at a Kohl's in Coralville, IA, where V., Will, and I had a spontaneous orgy of shopping after discovering the store directly across from the gas station where I was filling up the rental car. It was nearly 6:00 on a Monday, and I said, "I bet that store is open until at least 7." Of course, we nearly went crazy when we saw the generous opening hours--and it was only Monday night! Back in Brisbane, there's usually only one evening any store is open (Thursday, in our neck of the woods), so we don't even think about shopping after 5 anymore.

My friend Diane will want to kill me when she reads this entry. You see, she lives very close to the location of this photo, and I had just told her a few days before that we weren't planning to drive through Iowa. Well, I had a very sudden change of plans, as I was really desperate to see Iowa again. We stopped briefly in beautiful downtown Iowa City for a cup of coffee at the Java House and a loud tantrum next to the Englert, and then we drove out to the City Park so that Will could have some time at the playground. And then we were off again...a total of 60 minutes in I.C., maybe, until we were detoured in Coralville. After saving nearly $250 there, by the way, we drove to a Des Moines surburb to stay at a Holiday Inn Express (how utterly luxurious!). Today we proceeded south on I-35 through Madison County (home of the "Bridges Of..."), across the border to Missouri, and straight on to Kansas City. Unlucky for us, we endured severe weather, complete with tornado watches and warnings, for the next six hours. We briefly stopped off in Lawrence, KS, to see the University of Kansas, and then it was on to Topeka (where there's actually a National Historic Site for the Brown v. Board of Education decision), and south to Wichita, and finally Ponca City, Oklahoma, where we rest now.  There were moments during the final hour of the drive that were utterly terrifying as the visibility dropped to about 10 feet in blinding rain. V. said it was the scariest 10-minutes of her life.

Next time, Diane, we will definitely stop by your ranch, I promise!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Lagging

It's 4:41 am in Rockford, Illinois. It's very early dawn, and I am listening to a lovely concerto of  North American birds singing outside the window. I've been awake for about three hours--ever since Will started playing with my toes at the end of the bed. I responded by lying down next to him until he fell asleep an hour later. Then I was too wide awake, so I came out to my brother's living room to surf the web. Our trip across the world on Thursday was very long. Our plane in Brisbane was delayed nearly an hour. Then our plane from Los Angeles to Chicago was delayed two hours due to a mechanical problem.  Will was excellent for the largest part of the 20 hours we travelled. He spent a lot of time watching the in-flight entertainment system, and he slept (on me) for nearly six hours during the first flight, and another two during the second. We couldn't sit together as a family on either flight because both planes were full and something happened to our original seat assignments. We finally got to Rockford at 10:30, but didn't go to bed until 1 am. All three of us slept until 11:30 the next day (yesterday).

That's a lot of detail about sleep. You can see what's on my mind. In fact, I'm suddenly tired, so I'm going to try to go back to bed before there's too much daylight.  Good night or good morning or whatever suits.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Romance of China

One my PhD students is working on a manuscript about her honours thesis, which looked at, in part, the implicit prejudice that White Australians may hold towards people who are ethnic Chinese.  Much like in the American West at the time, Chinese immigrants faced riots and other forms of severe discrimination in late 19th Century Australia.  This led to the "White-Australia" immigration policy of the country, which wasn't really dismantled until the early 1970s. Since then, the number of Chinese immigrants has steadily increased, and Chinese Australians are indeed a vital part of modern, "multi-cultural" Australia.  Still, ethnic prejudice exists, and my student did find that it predicted discrimination on a simple decision about whether an applicant should be given a scholarship.

More broadly, my beloved New York Times has a great article today about Australia's uneasy relationship with China. The article discusses Australia's heavy reliance on mining exports to China, which has been the primary reason why Aussies have enjoyed such a brilliant economy in the past decade. Now the Chinese want to increase those exports and own more of those companies, mines, and land that produce them. There's a slowly building antipathy towardsChina as a whole, which should have some interesting implications for how Australians view the Chinese (and Chinese immigrants) in the coming years.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Courage

I hope that one day George Tiller will be recognised by most Americans as the courageous hero that he was. His strong convictions to help others, even when he was shot at, repeatedly harassed and threatened, and finally, murdered, make me realise me how scared and selfish most of us really are.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Compleat Aussie Academic

I've been contemplating writing a guide for the American academic who takes up a position at an Australian University. It would include the kinds of things that don't appear in other guides to the country--the 'unadvertised' stuff. A few that come to mind today:
  • Australian students (certainly those who study psychology) don't like to buy books after the first year of uni, and often their instructors merely suggest books, rather than require them for the final exam. A couple of reps from academic publishers told me that it is really difficult to sell textbooks here (compared to the States), even though there isn't really a huge difference in price (maybe 5-10% higher here).
  • Three-hole punch loose-leaf notebooks are available here, but the two-hole paper punch and notebook are much more the norm. Why anyone prefers just to keep their papers in such a notebook (the two holes are near the center of the page, leaving the tops and bottoms hanging around pretty loosely) is a mystery to me. Of course, this mystery goes in both directions. I once asked a student to use my American three-hole punch with a three-hole notebook for a lab project, and she responded, "Why?"
  • They're called brackets, not parentheses, here. I don't think there is a way to differentiate between () and [] in normal Aussie speech, although perhaps you could say "square brackets" when referring to the latter.  And, quotes (' ') are referred to as "inverted commas."
  • If you don't have the rank of Professor, be happy being addressed as "Dr." Of course, the students will probably call you by your first name anyway. In fact, the only people who don't use my first name when they first meet me are usually international students from Canada or the U.S. Back in Atlanta, where much of the etiquette is full of strong Southern tones, I worked with a PhD student who called me "Dr. Vanman" the entire five years I knew her--even though I repeatedly insisted that she call me "Eric."
  • The document created by a Master's student here is called a "dissertation" and the one produced by a PhD student is called a "thesis." That's exactly opposite of the American convention.
  • PhD students here don't normally have to defend their thesis orally.  In fact, the examiners of the thesis don't even come from one's own university.  When the student submits his or her thesis, it's sent to two examiners with an international reputation who have 6-8 weeks to write a report about the thesis. The student then responds to any suggestions/criticisms when the reports come back. Back in the States, a student gives an oral presentation of their dissertation, followed by questions from their dissertation committee and the audience. Then, they continue with another 1-2 hours of interviews with the 4-5 members of the dissertation committee. The dissertation committee is made up entirely of faculty members from the university, unless there is a need to have someone outside the university with special expertise. Finally, after the defense, there's usually a celebration with champagne and nibbles. Here, because the examination process carries on over several months, it's much harder to feel like one is done at some particular point.
  • Australian academics like really, really long PhD theses. I was the examiner for one that was nearly 400 pages long. By contrast, my own PhD dissertation was about 50 pages long.  This norm appears to be changing, as international assessors of Aussie theses often refuse to examine such long documents.
  • Australian universities like forms. There's a specific form for any activity here that a student undertakes. It's driving me nuts.
  • Australian undergraduate students like to focus on their "Assignments" during the semester (they can usually tell you exactly how many they have across all their subjects), and then, and only then, do they start to think about the final exam when they have heard the last lecture.
  • School (or Department) governance is more often run like an oligarchy or is even completely concentrated in the all-powerful Head of School. This is changing in my school, where input from staff members (i.e., "the faculty" in U.S. parlance) about major decisions is increasingly welcome. Back in Atlanta we spent countless hours discussing nearly every matter as an entire faculty group.  More democracy occurred there, but it was also a lot of wasted time. I am much happier with the benevolent (and competent) dictator model here.
Of course, the list largely reflects my limited experience in this one department at this one university. Perhaps I will find other North American academics to contribute to it...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hog Heaven

Kahneman and Tversky published a series of influential psychology articles in the 1970s about heuristics--the mental shortcuts that we all take when processing the constant bombardment of information that is inflicted on us during every waking moment. One of these is the availability heuristic, which, according to the Wikipedia entry, is a cognitive bias "in which people base their prediction of the frequency of an event or the proportion of the population based on how easily an example can be brought to mind." I've been lecturing about the availability heuristic for years in my social psychology courses. One example I always mention was how a friend of mine in graduate school refused to fly on DC-10s after just one high-profile crash in Iowa, even though DC-10s at the time had one of the best safety records of all aircraft.

Well, right now I'm suffering from the power of the availability heuristic as it pertains to the swine flu "pandemic." And I'm not the only one--emergency rooms in New York City are full of people who think they have the swine flu:  “The consensus among these physicians,” said Dr. Steven J. Davidson, the chairman of the hospital’s emergency medicine department, “is that the influenza is mild but the patients are unusually scared.”  Here in Australia the frequency of swine flu stories in the news has noticeably increased in the past week.  Some newspapers give daily Australian "swine flu tolls," as if they were counting deaths from the flu, although no one here has actually died in the over 170 cases that have been reported. Today's Courier-Mail included several pages of coverage to the swine flu, which included a major story about a cruise ship that has been sort of quarantined at the Great Barrier Reef (but the passengers continue to "party on," as one Brisbane bloke told a reporter). Another story was about the fact that the state and federal governments are now requiring that all children who travel to countries with high rates of swine flu (e.g., the United States) must stay at home for seven days when they return to Oz.

Why is this causing me a problem? Well, we are scheduled to leave next Thursday for the U.S. with our 3-year-old in tow (who looked very much like that boy in the picture above when he was younger!). V. and I have thought seriously about cancelling our trip, and waiting until next year to try to travel again.  We would lose lots of money if we did so, and we (and my family members) would be very disappointed.  But, you know, it's our son that we're talking about here.

But, alas, we have decided to stick to the facts. The fatality rate from the swine flu is about the same as any strain of influenza, and, our chances of getting the flu (of any strain) are probably no greater when going to the U.S. now than staying around here where it seems our colleagues and friends are coming down with all sorts of viruses (remember, the flu season has just begun in the southern hemisphere).  I had a flu "jab" a few weeks ago that is supposed to inoculate me from both Brisbane strands of the virus (dubbed last year as "more deadly than any seen in the past two decades in Britain"). 

Damn you, availability heuristic, I'm going to stick to the facts this time when estimating the probability...

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Romantic

We watched "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" on Saturday night with Will (his first time). Call me an unrepentant romantic, but I just can't get enough of this song:

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Star Was Born (Somewhere Else)

I got up early this morning and headed off to the Seven television studios on Mt. Coot-ha to do a live "cross-over" for 'Sunrise,' the top-rated morning show in Australia. I have written in this blog before about the hosts of this show, Mel and Kochie, who have a style that would be considered completely inappropriate in the States. I adore them! Anyway, a few minutes before they cut to me, I got to speak briefly to Kochie via an earpiece. Then, following the news of a foiled terrorist plot in New York and torrentials rains in NSW, Mel went to me for an explanation of a recent article about the possible brain mechanisms that underlie love.  If I appear stiff and awkward in this video, it's because I was.  I was worried about fidgeting, talking too loud, and lifting my head too high to avoid a reflection on my glasses, all while I worried whether I was going to say something stupid on a one-second delay that appeared on the large television below the camera.  You can watch it for yourself:


Poor Will was watching this live at home, and when I disappeared from the screen, he ran to the front door, opened it (for the first time!), and began screaming for me.  Perhaps he sensed the quick fall from stardom that I now faced...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Would You Hire This Guy?

There must be a real shortage of quality executives out there because the guy in this picture, Sol Trujillo, an American businessman who recently returned to the States, actually thinks he's going to get hired by another American corporation because he's good at "fixing" broken companies.

For any non-Australian readers, Trujillo's name probably won't ring a bell. But, here in Oz, Trujillo had, until a few weeks ago, been running Telstra, the largest telecommunications company in the land.  It's Telstra that takes at least $300 a month from my pocket in return for a somewhat crappy iPhone service, our meager home telephone service (we pay for every phone call in addition to a $30 monthly fee), and providing internet service at a premium price. This is also the same company that had its Board of Directors meeting in Las Vegas last summer, while the current financial crisis finally started to have an impact here.  And Telstra is the company whose shares have dropped nearly 38 percent during Trujillo's tenure.  If Telstra had any real competition in this country (like the kind that goes on in the U.S., for example), I am certain it would be out of business by now.

Yes, Trujillo was recently forced to leave Telstra after breaking it (maybe this is why he's an expert on fixing broken companies?). During the four years he ran Telstra, however, he earned more than $30 million (US$21 million).  Now he's back in America, and according to an article in today's Australian, he's trying to defend his record at the company: "I don't know if you noticed that there is a global recession going on and we have outperformed the ASX [the Australian stock exchange] in total shareholder return."

Geoff Elliott, who wrote the article, then points out in the next paragraph: 
From the day Mr Trujillo started on July 1, 2005, to the day of his departure last Thursday, Telstra shares have fallen 37.8 per cent compared with a 13 per cent fall by the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index. Based on total shareholder returns, which takes into account dividend payments, Telstra shares have underperformed the wider market by 18 per cent, according to Bloomberg data.

Since the peak of the stock market in late 2007, the S&P/ASX 200 is off about 44 per cent, while Telstra shares are down just 32 per cent. Still, Telstra shares never moved more than a few cents past the $5.06 mark when Mr Trujillo joined the company and closed yesterday at $3.21.

And this is how someone earns $30 million in four years?  Running a sub-standard company that doesn't even benefit its shareholders, let alone its customers? Fortunately for Trujillo's successor, most Australians don't seem to know how substandard their telecommunication services are compared to the rest of the industrialised world, and therefore expectations are pretty low that it's ever going to get better here.

After digging around a bit, I discovered that before he came to Australia in 2005, Trujillo was the CEO of US West until a hostile takeover by Qwest in 2000. Then he became the CEO of Orange, the French telecom, which has an infamous reputation as an ISP provider in the UK. He's still on the Board of Directors of Orange today.  Gee, I sure hope that someone asks to see Trujillo's resume before he's allowed to "fix" his next company.