31 August 2007

About Australian Weather

Tomorrow is the first day of Spring. Australia, being a fiercely independent, not to mention remote continent/country, feels no inclination to adhere to the commonly accepted celestial demarcations of the seasons. And judging from the sudden and dramatic change in the weather, they seem to be perfectly justified in this regard. The air is warm and softly perfumed with fragrant blossoms. The sky is clear and bright. United in the sense of pride that comes from having survived another winter, Sydneysiders have contracted a collective case of Spring Fever. The sidewalk cafes and courtyard pubs are bustling with cheery people displaying pale skin.

But, alas the weather forecasts predict a cooling trend and more rain by next week. Of course, I’m not too worried by this, because from my observations, Australian weather forecasters couldn’t predict a splash in a toilet bowl.

Now I know that America has its fair share of weather bimbos on television, but it is possible to find a local weather report delivered by a genuine meteorologist. Oh how I miss Chico’s Dave Vanore and his passionate descriptions of orographic flow, employing data from several models and images to explain the why and how of his predictions. It is a rare forecast here that even shows a satellite image. Most weather maps are cartoons of the continent with little suns all over it, and the forecast is simply “fine with a high of 26 in Darwin” or “mostly fine with a high of 22 in Sydney”. All weather reports include the temperatures in all the major cities, and on channel 7, are typically broadcast from some daggy outback drinking establishment with a name like “The Pub with No Beer” or a dinky town with a name like Grass Patch (Australia’s Yabby Racing Capital.)

30 August 2007

A Public Acknowledgement of Sincere Gratitude


Why Screwing Around in the Blogosphere is Never a Complete Waste of Time.

Despite the eight decadent years spent squandering resources for a major biopharmaceutical company, I am fundamentally a frugal scientist. I generally prefer to make do with what I have. As in my personal life, I take supreme satisfaction in resuscitating usefulness from an otherwise an obsolete item and gloat ceaselessly when I am able to save a buck. However, once in a while, even my head is turned by a new (or not so new, but new to me) technology. On such occasions, need and desire wrestle violently within my psyche, and I have several imaginary arguments with The JD in which he tugs at his mustache and frowns at me over the top of his glasses.

Thus, I had all but resigned to the fact that I would never be able to justify the purchase of a $1700 piece of equipment to replace a perfectly serviceable one already in my employ, even if it did mean eliminating my exposure to a nasty mutagen and severely reducing our lab’s contribution to a toxic landfill.

But then, an ethereal and gallant Black Knight chivalrously bestowed upon me the obvious but hitherto unconsidered knowledge that would fortify my position and ensure my victory…and he fed me a fabulous curry dinner, for which I am equally grateful.

After yet another hallucinatory conversation with my life long mentor, I performed the necessary experiments to prove beyond a doubt the superiority of the far less expensive scientific method, then parlayed that argument to justify my acquisition.

Bolstered with confidence, I went a step further convinced the department to pay for it!

Thank You, Black Knight! I am deeply indebted to you for positively impacting the healthfulness of my working conditions, for helping to save the planet for future generations, for contributing to the financial and experimental success of my lab, and for this profound, if fleeting sensation of smug satisfaction arising from the knowledge that the many hours I spent languishing in the enjoyable musings of your blog were well spent.

27 August 2007

Getting to Work Now

Aside from the Thump Factor, our primary reason for moving to St Leonards was to improve my commute to work. Our new apartment is located directly on the train line, a mere three minute walk (including the elevator ride to the lobby) from the station. Granted, the trains are far noisier than a pair of toddlers and their pissy parents, and their rumblings start much earlier in the morning - the first in-bound train arrives at a startling 4:47 am. Perhaps the trains are less annoying because I tend to think of them as my personal chariots of convenience. In fact, they do serve as a sort of snooze alarm, coaxing me slowly out of my morning slumber as their frequency increases toward peak hour. Unfortunately, this alarm still functions on weekends, except when there is track work and the trains aren’t running at all. Surprisingly, on such occasions my sleep is perturbed by their very absence, my subconscious breathlessly anticipating the sound of a horn that never blasts.

Aside from the reduction of my overall one-way travel time from one hour forty plus to 45 minutes, my commute has benefited from the flexibility of the train schedule. I need not worry about catching any particular bus or train, because I know there will be another along in 3-6 minutes. And, if for some reason the trains are delayed or malfunctioning, I still have the option to board any number of city bound busses along the Pacific Highway.

When the weather is agreeable and I am feeling energetic, I have the option to take the train all the way to the university. However, this route involves a twenty minute walk and invariably costs me three extra dollars. The Redfern Station is situated in a neighbourhood that should by all rights granted under manifest destiny be a gentrified boulevard of shops, cafes, and funky terrace homes. However, some short sighted planning commission somehow relegated the blocks surrounding the vital depot to a community of aboriginal peoples who cannot now be moved by any act of congress or commerce, and to whom I am inevitably obliged to cast a few gold coins as I exit the station in exchange for their half hearted attempt to rattle some incoherent lyrical musings across a set of ragged guitar strings until they believe that I am out of earshot. I have been sternly advised to avoid the area altogether after nightfall and for the few days immediately preceding and immediately following disbursement of the government dole checks, when drug and alcohol infused tensions plummet and crescendo in anticipation thereof. (Editor’s note: It is a rare triumph that I am able to use the word “crescendo” in its proper grammatical context, and I feel compelled to boast.)

While the weather is frequently agreeable, I seldom feel energetic in the morning, thus I typically opt to transfer from train to bus at the Town Hall Station in the centre of the Central Business District. This routing not only affords the least possible physical exertion, but also allows me a moment’s repose to reflect upon the magnificent old sandstone building for which the station is named and also to observe the ridiculous posturing and screaming of the many cockatoos who each morning perch atop the multitude of flagpoles aloft there in, as well as upon the glorious sandstone crosses of the adjoining St Andrews cathedral. Alas, one of the added benefits of our new apartment is the agreeable absence of cockatoos, thus I am now able to once more rejoice in their cacophonous existence…from a comfortable distance.

Another advantage of transferring to the bus is that each morning I am still able to catch a glimpse of the cignet swans adorning the pond in Victoria Park. They have abruptly matured into gawky adolescents, their long necks bearing thickened beaks awkwardly above ragged bodies caught in the throes of moulting, yet still they peep innocent falsetto chirps. I worry about their future. Will they be able to cohabitate in the fertile feeding grounds of the city pond with their parents, or will they be chased away on the occasion of their passage into full fledged adulthood?

But then, I wonder the same thing about the skinny university students with troubled skin who ride the bus with their ear buds wedged deep into their skulls and speak in muffled grunts only when necessary.

24 August 2007

About Australian Politics

Before I begin this rant, I just want to say that the Mayor of Sydney is named Clover Moore. She goes by the title of Lord Mayor. I don’t know why, but I find this amusing. Whenever I hear reports about the activities of Lord Mayor Clover, my imagination depicts the otherwise dignified politician as a frivolous animated skunk or a cud-chewing cartoon cow.

Australia is a democracy.

That statement concludes my in depth understanding of how the federal government here functions. I have had several people explain it to me, and I always find myself sporting the same expression of confusion I witness on others when I try to explain the Electoral College, which I also don’t understand.

Basically, when it comes to federal elections, you don’t vote for a candidate, you vote for the party. There are two major parties: The Labour Party, which is liberal, and the Liberal Party, which is conservative. Whichever party holds the majority of seats in parliament gets to select the Prime Minister. Currently, the Liberal Party is in power and John Howard is the Prime Minister. He has the personality of a mean garden gnome.

The upshot of this system is that the television is not clogged with political commercials for individual candidates. Advertisements are supported by the parties (not lobbyists) and refreshingly deal with policy issues, primarily concerning labour laws, but occasionally touching on how to handle the delicate matter of drunken child molestation among outback aboriginal settlements.

In spite of this system, there is still intense campaigning between the party leaders, and television journalists are the soldier pawns in a war of popularity. Every day, the morning news shows report the latest poll on who is leading the race for preferred prime minister. Favour is lost or gained on a daily basis in reaction to information supplied to the media by the respective parties under the guise of news stories.

This week’s furor concerned a visit to a New York strip club by Kevin Rudd, the Labour Party Candidate, while he was on a government sponsored trip to the United States for some reason that remains vaguely elusive. Under attack from the Christian right, his shocking defence was that he was so drunk he didn’t know what he was doing. The Australian public seemed entirely satisfied with this explanation. The "man on the street" said the incident had a humanizing effect, but my favourite sound bite came from a minister of something-or-other who said “Frankly, I am quite disappointed in Mr. Rudd. I mean, Melbourne has several world class strip clubs right here in Australia.”

Keep Australian dollars in Australian G-Strings…except here the dollar is a coin…I guess that would make Australian strippers world class.

Eventually, the broadcasters got around to mentioning that Kevin’s strip club adventure occurred in 2003. To their credit, the general public immediately recognized the story as a blatant attack by the Liberal Party and dismissed it on the grounds of poor sportsmanship.

19 August 2007

I think this is legal in Holland

It has been three hours since I read the following email from my mother (who is coming to visit in one month - indeed I did suggest a camel trek whilst she is here) and I am STILL bursting into unexpected and inappropriate paroxysms of laughter. I cannot WAIT to hear the autopsy results...I would think that being crushed by a camel would be adequate explanation, but the fact that a professional opinion is warranted leads me to belieive that there is further physical evidence of the camel's romantic intentions that has not been revealed in this article...

DO NOT want to do this while in Australia.

Audra, change the itinerary.

Pet Camel Kills Australian Woman

By Associated Press
Sat Aug 18, 9:35 PM

BRISBANE, Australia - An Australian woman was killed by a pet camel given to her as a 60th birthday present, police said Sunday.

The woman, whose name has not been released, was killed Saturday at her family sheep and cattle ranch near Mitchell, 350 miles west of the Queensland state capital Brisbane, state police Detective Senior Constable Craig Gregory said.

The 10-month-old male _ weighing about 330 pounds _ had knocked her to the ground then lay on top of her in what police suspect was mating behavior, Gregory said.

Camel expert Chris Hill agreed with Gregory.

Hill, who has offered camel rides to tourists for 20 years, said young camels are not aggressive but can be dangerous if treated as pets without discipline.

The woman was given the hand-reared camel in March as a birthday present from her husband and daughter.

The fate of the camel is not known.

An autopsy of the woman will determine the precise cause of death within days.

17 August 2007

The Hole in My Life

There is a drain in the floor of my bathroom. When I sit on the toilet, I can’t resist leaning forward to look down it. There is water in it. Sometimes the water is gurgling, though no other pipes in our apartment are in use. Sometimes the water has a thick foul smelling scum floating on top of it. I flush the toilet to see if the water reacts to the sewer efflux. No. It just sits there. I run the bath tub. The water in the drain gurgles and I think that might wash away the smell, but the floating scum remains undisturbed. I run the sink and the shower. The water gurgles, but the scum remains. I pour bleach and perfumed oils down the drain. Now the scum smells like freshly scrubbed sandalwood.

Some days, when I get home from work the scum isn’t there. I contemplate where it went and why it decided to leave on this particular occasion. Is it in someone else’s drain? I kind of miss it. It comes back in a few days, and then I wonder why I thought of it with any sort of affection.

Sometimes I use Kevin’s bathroom. There is scum in his drain too, but it doesn’t have as much personality. It hardly ever has frothy lumps in it like mine. I once went to a town called Drain in Oregon. It didn’t have that much personality either, but it wasn’t especially scummy. But then again, it had a river and a Union 76 station.

I guess a drain in the floor is a good idea, since there is no overflow drain in the bathtub. I feel compelled to clean the bathroom with a high pressure hose and just let everything run down the floor drain, all that dust and soap residue, swirling away in clockwise direction – a phenomenon that really isn’t as interesting as it seems it would be from the perspective of the Northern hemisphere.

10 August 2007

About Australian Appliances

Perhaps ‘weird’ is too strong a word, employed by myself in a frustrating moment of confrontation with variation from that which I have grown accustomed and complacent. Since the mind is trained at an early age to observe contrast, I cannot help but catalogue the many ways in which American household appliances are superior to those down under.

For some reason beyond my comprehension, Australian apartments come furnished with a clothes dryer but not a washing machine. Despite the abundance of discarded washers along the roadside, we opted to purchase one second hand in the hopes that we would be assured a higher quality. Our laundry alcove featured a drain in the floor, which we naturally assumed was for the drain hose of the washer, but when we tried to fill the tub, the water would simply drain out. Fuming about our poor deal, we were just on the verge of calling a plumber when it occurred to me to elevate the drain hose to create back pressure which might allow the tub to fill. Thus by tying the hose to the faucet of the laundry sink, we were able to overcome this eccentricity and save ourselves from being the subject of spirited conversation during the plumber’s happy hour.

The washer has an uncanny ability to tie our clothes into complete knots. No matter how large or small the load, the clothes emerge twisted and mangled and wrinkled beyond recognition. Since the dryer tumbler is slightly smaller than a peanut butter jar, the wrinkles become cemented permanently into the fabric. I am of the opinion that this design is purposeful, thus encouraging the use of environmentally friendly, carbon neutral air drying. Indeed, Aussies in general are very fond of air drying, and all homes feature clothes lines. Furthermore, nearly every apartment balcony sports some sort of drying rack. We even have one, found on the side of the road of course. But since is only holds about five pairs of underwear and three socks, I have yet to appreciate its full utility. And there is no way to air a set of sheets on it…

Our refrigerator was also purchased second hand from a charming old man who had received about 50 calls, but saved it for me since I was the first and my need was urgent – we were living out of a borrowed Esky - with ice at $5 a bag! At the time, we were driving a tiny Hyundai hatchback rental, and I immediately appreciated the narrow design of Australian refrigerators, as we were able to stuff it inside the vehicle. Since we are now busy and gainfully employed and take-away food plays a major role in our diet, I have not been bothered by the compact interior, but stocking in a slab of beer is much like solving a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

Our new apartment has a gas cook top (Hallelujah), but all Australian ovens are fan-forced electric. Supposedly this makes them more efficient, but I cannot get past the notion that heated air forcibly blown across my chicken will dry it out. I gained confidence from a good read of the owner’s manual, then discovered with frowning amusement, that both the symbols and numbers had eroded from the stainless steel surface supporting the indicator knobs (such was the case at our last apartment, too and clearly represents a flaw in their paint qaulity). So while the instructions assure you that using the setting featuring a half dashed circle surrounding a solid circle at 180 degrees will guarantee a perfect roast, it is pure guess work on my part. The instructions also issued a firm warning against opening the oven door to check for doneness but promised that perfection would come with repeated experimentation. Do I need to explain why I find that weird?

But the best part is that our new kitchen is furnished with a highly coveted brand of appliance, such that the rental listing actually boasted their inclusion as a highlight of the property. This brand name serves as an endless source of amusement to me, but then you already know how easily amused I am. They are called Smeg. Guess what I call them…

The Joys of Solitude

As I helped Kevin reluctantly pack for his business trip to Townsville, he asked suspiciously,

"So, what are you going to do with a whole week to yourself?"

I knew that the rules of courteous marital discourse dictated that I say something along the lines of how I would mope around the house, count the hours until his joyful reurn, lie prostrate on the couch simmering in the lonliness of his absence, but I replied truthfully,

"Oh, I've got BIG plans! I'm going to sleep in the middle of the bed, eat dinner standing up in the kitchen, and leave the batroom door open when I shit."

03 August 2007

Weights and Measures

Recently, I was asked how I was adjusting to total immersion in the metric system, and I thought this might serve as a fine opportunity for a bit of a whinge.

Temperatures have not been problematic since I am used to dealing in Celsius in the laboratory – though only with a limited number of measurements. Thus, I know that a comfortable room temperature is between 20-22 C. Since 0 C is freezing, I instinctively know that anything close to that is bloody cold. Likewise, anything approaching body temperature (37 C) or above is stinkin’ hot. However, I am thrown by forecasts of 16 C but am learning from inference that wind and humidity have a profound impact on comfort.

Long distances aren’t much of a problem, though I do find I usually convert kilometres to miles in my mind. However, I am flabbergasted by smaller measures. When someone quotes their height in centimetres or talks about millimetres of rainfall, I cannot frame a reference.

When buying meat or produce, weight is not too difficult to comprehend, but it does make the prices seem shocking. With fruit I tend to convert to pounds, but with meat I have developed instincts about serving size and have no problem asking the butcher for 500 g of beef mince, though sometimes I have problems making my mouth say the words. I have a little trouble with body weight in kilos, but I am in a frame of mind to ignore my body weight anyway…putting on a couple of kilos is deceptively forgiving. Weights under one kilo are instinctive, again from my laboratory experience and also from my entrepreneurial efforts in high school.

Volumes aren’t a problem, because I know that a 12 oz beer is about 330 millilitres, a fifth of vodka is 750 mL, and a litre of petrol is freakin’ expensive.

I am considerably confounded by the way rates are measured. For example, mileage is reported as litres per 100 kilometres. This might be useful for comparison when car shopping, but I find it difficult when it comes to calculating economy. Similarly, nutritional values are reported per 100 grams, so to know how much you are consuming in a single serving, one must employ multiplication and/or division, which might explain the extra kilos mentioned above…that and the fact that an average beer here is 375 mL (and in the pubs, pints are a better value).

Most confounding is the practice of putting the day before the month when citing the date. I tend to get very confused until after the 12th of each month. However, my biggest peeve with this system is when it comes to organizing data files, which I frequently like to name by date.

I’m not saying that any of this is insurmountable or has any drastic effects on the quality of life. These are just little examples of the moments when I must pause, frown, and think consciously about things that are normally instinctually effortless.