Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Rainbow's Edge

You want to know where the rainbow ends? The pot of gold, the secrets of string theory, winning in Vegas? Well, we've seen it. It may not be ungodly riches, but it's still pretty nice:
Ths is an actual, unretouched photo (credit: Susan) of Sydney Harbor. Pretty cool.

Sydney Harbor

You've seen the postcards, probably. We knew that Sydney was one of the world's great cities, but it's hard to describe how impressive it is. We met up with our Madison friend Peg and her kids, and walked to the Circular Quay (pronounced, we learned, "key"). To say it was breathtaking is a cliche, and also the understatement of the year (another cliche). It was packed.

Is there a more iconic modern structure in the world than the Sydney Opera House?

It's actually three separate buildings -- the opera house, a concert hall, and a smaller restaurant (and playhouse, I think). The initial design was by a Dane, Jorn Utzon (draw a diagnoal line through the O in Jorn to get the full effect), who said he got his inspriation while peeling an orange. The sails are parabolic solids carved out of spheres. It's definitely a "wow" building.

We had always figured that the white shells were metal - aluminum, perhaps. Nope: ceramic tile on what looks to be a concrete substrate.

Here's the other great Sydney structure: the Harbour Bridge. It too nine years to build, and is the second-longest single span bridge in the world. You can take a walking tour up and down the top. (photo credit Adam).

Adventures in Sydneysitting

Drove to Sydney on Friday, in terrible weather. Rainy, with very low visibility, in the dark. We almost turned around about 100 km in, but decided to press on.

We were warned that Sydney is not an easy driving city; the downtown is a warren of narrow streets, many one way, with lots of dead-ends and unsigned intersections. We got hopelessly lost, and pulled off to a side street to ask for directions.

Just my luck: the guy we asked was not at all fond of Americans. He did have a forceful suggestion for where we could go and what we could do to ourselves once we got there, but it really wasn't very helpful. At least, from that point, the kids got a kick out of pretending to be Canadian.

On Saturday, we went to the Aquarium; it's an amazing place, with special exhibits on the Great Barrier Reef, sharks, and tropical ecosystems. It's huge. Susan got some great shots.

A moon jellyfish:

The main tank (that's Adam):

And sharks (Adam took this one, in a tunnel under the shark tank). I think this is the business end of a grey shark.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Birds and Random Pastoral Scenes

One of the first things we noticed here was the exotic birds that are everywhere. It's an ornithological paradise (I think I read that there are more species of parrots in Australia than anywhere but Indonesia, and that's not far from here). Every day we see sulphur-crested cockatoos, galahs, gang gangs, king parrots, and other beautiful creatures that we had never seen outside of zoos. It's really amazing.

A Kookaburra in our backyard (got that song stuck in your head yet?):

They really do laugh -- or sound like they're laughing. Or maybe they sound like maniacal shrieking monkeys.

Here's a parrot - not sure of the species.

And here are a few random shots that Susan took around the ANU campus:

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


No, not the person (though love her we do. . .). The City. Our plan is to spend a couple of days there this weekend. It has to be an easier drive than the one last weekend. The zoo, aquarium, harbor tour, opera house, saying hi to John and Peg and maybe some others.

Australian Electoral Commission

Met with staff from the Australian Electoral Commission, the national agency that runs all aspects of elections: administration, redistricting, campaign finance reporting and disclosure, voter registration, etc. It's one of the more highly regarded government agencies, and is known world-wide as one of the best and most professionalized election entities anywhere. I'll be seeing them again, and may be able to conduct some research using ballots before they are thrown away. They also said that if I could make it over for the federal election, which will take place next Fall, I could be a part of an international observer group to see how things happen. Anybody got $20 so I can start the fund? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Now if I could just fiigure out the Single Transferable Vote. . . e=mc**2 * pi/fermat-dx, or something, converted to Celsius, or maybe Kelvin. Hmm. That doesn't look quite right. Maybe I have to divide by 14.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Weekend Upddate

Made it to Bateman's Bay and Pebbly Beach, on the coast of New South Wales. It was a difficult 2-hour drive, with narrow winding roads and steep hills. At several points, the curves were so tight that the speed limit was 25 km/hr (15 mph).

But worth it. Bateman's Bay is fishing village at the mouth of the Clyde River, population 16,000:

There was a meeting of the Ogden Nash Appreciation Society:

We had lunch at a local place, which fries the fish they catch that day. We sampled the famous Clyde River oysters -- even the kids tried them. Everything was delicious.

From there, 14 km north to Pebbly Beach, over a bumpy dirt road. The road went on and on, to the point where we wondered if we had taken a wrong turn. Then down a steep winding hill.

This is what the other side of the Pacific Ocean looks like:

The signs said not to feed the kangaroos, but not many people pay attention. The roos were obviously accustomed to being fed, and all you had to do was hold out your hand and they would come right up to you:

We got a clear view of a mom with her joey:

It felt like we were on a deserted pacific island.

The one disappointment was the parrots - we could hear them, but couldn't see them. And forget about the shoulder pirate wannabe stuff. But while Susan was trying to get a shot of a bird feeding, I got a bit of a surprise:

This one was quite happily perched for about 10 minutes, no doubt waiting for me to bring it a cup of coffee and a donut. Here's another gratuitous shot of a colorful bird:

We were so impressed by the beach that we talked about buying some property here. Our interest was further piqued by a house on the market outside of a town called Braidwood. A real handyman special:

Maybe not.

Traffic School

You know how to get people to drive on the left side of the road?

Start early. Last week, Sydney's class met at a local traffic educational center, to learn about the rules of the road. The center has a miniature road network, which is kind of like one of the rides at Legoland. Except the kids ride bicycles.

Here they are at the starting line:

Those damned roundabouts - they are so hard to figure out.

Rush hour.

At the end they got a lecture from a police constable, who then gave each of them a citation for running a red light. $120 and 4 points. This country is really strict.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


We miss alot of things from our home, but here's what we miss the most:

Ruby is being tended to two by wonderful people, Peg and Norm,who love dogs and wanted some company. As you can see, this is clearly the worst possible environment for a dog: devoted caretakers, romps along lake michigan, chasing every forest critter than crosses her path, an endless supply of chewy sticks -- and not the low-rent rawhide kind -- she has the real chewy sticks, the kind that come directly off of chewy trees.

She'll never want to come home. . .

Parliament House

Had my first round of interviews with Members of Parliament. They are much more accessible than members of Congress, and much less formal. All spoke to me by themselves -- no staff. Parliamentary debates can be uproarious, with members seeking to insult one another while staying within the confines of legislative decorum. It's far more colorful than C-SPAN. Technically, questions raised during debate must be answered in a germane form, and members may not disparage the reputation of another member. Technically. But the envelope, how shall I say it, gets pushed. One common method is to disparage the reputation of an entire party, which solves the problem of any one member. There's an old British joke about one MP calling another a liar. When informed that the remark was out of order, he agreed to rephrase it, stating instead that the right honorable gentlemen had committed a gross terminological inexactitude.

Question time, where the Prime Minister and the Cabinet face members, is televised in the afternoons.

The capitol building, Parliament House, is an unusual structure, and interesting from an architecture perspective -- it would be much more interesting, I'm sure, if I knew the first thing about architecture. On piece of symbolism that's impossible to miss: the whole structure is built into a hill, and there is a park that spans the roof. So people get to walk over their government officials.

Parliament House holds all legislative and executive offices, and it's not very big. While I was being escorted from one appointment to another, we walked past a suite with a sign, "Hon. John Howard, MP," which is the equivalent of walking by the West Wing. During another trip across the building a parliamentary vote was called, and the Attorney General and Treasury Minister walked by on their way into the chamber.

This weekend we're off to the coast, to Bateman's Bay and Pebbly Beach, where, we've been assured the kangaroos will come right up to you and the parrots will land on your shoulder. Always wanted to be a pirate.

Hard to believe, but we've been here a month.

Monday, August 14, 2006


Today, the Australian Senate voted on a key piece of immigration legislation, a bill that would have made it more difficult to for asylum-seekers to get into the country.

While out today, Susan noticed a plane skywriting (the kids saw it too; it was visible all over town. Of course, I missed it):

It says "Get Up! Vote No!" Get Up! is a group opposed to the bill, and this is how they got their message across.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Chargers 17, Packers 3

Favre on 8/31: "This is the most talented team that I've been part of as a whole."

Favre, after the game: "We've got a long way to go. We weren't very good."

Just the first exhibition game, but still.

Here we go again. My money's on 4-12.

Weekend Update

On Saturday, we went to some exhibits for a city-wide science festival called Questacon -- it's a two- week long program involving different venues and programs, all designed to get kids interested in science and engineering. We saw a 12-foot olive python (named, of all things, "Olive"), and learned that it's against the law to use live animals as food, even in zoos. Not clear whether this applies to everything, like crickets or goldfish. But it definitely applies to rabbits. Which, I guess, is better for the rabbit, but in the end it still gets euthanized and eaten by Olive, which remains a bummer if you're the rabbit.

Of course, the highlight of any decent science show is fooling around with liquid nitrogen:

This guy, from a Canberra science center called CSIRO, proceeded to pour the nitrogen on a latex balloon (it shrunk to nothing, rather than freeze; and then he reinflated it by breathing on it, noting that this is the only way to blow up a balloon from the outside).

On Saturday night,we caused an international incident, though no word yet on whether we will be recalled to Washington, DC. We went to a going away party for the head of consular affairs at the U.S. embassy, who is taking a position as chief advisor to the Secretary of State for Antarctic Treaty affairs. The host graciously invited the kids, who we promised would be well behaved. Then, I managed to spill a full glass of red wine all over the cream carpet. It looked like a scene from CSI Miami -- it was everywhere. Usually we don't do this much damage when we are invited to people's homes. We offered to pay the cleaning fees, and plan on sending over a couple of bottles of wine as a token of our embarrassment. White wine.

Sunday we visited the Australian Institute of Sport, which identifies and nurtures athletic talent. The Australians are very strong in swimming, basketball, and track -- our tour guide was a 6'3" race walker, who does a 5k in about 19:30 (that's about a 6:30 mile, a pretty decent clip). There wasn't much going on, but it was an impressive facility. On the basketball courts, we saw a 7' vollyeball player going 1-on-1 against a 5'2" gymnast.

This country takes its sports seriously. Since we've been here, we've seen television coverage of two kinds of rugby, Australian rules football, soccer, field hockey, tennis, basketball, a somewhat strange variant of basketball called netball (which is not played in the U.S.), swimming, cricket (which is the most complicated sport ever invented, kind of a cross between baseball, croquet, and Calvinball) , and bocce ball. Televised bocce ball. I suppose that's no worse than watching the 1978 Miller Hi-Life Professional Bowling championship on ESPN Classic. Uh, make that seeing. I wouldn't be caught dead watching that crap.

Susan plans on posting something soon; I've heard many requests to have her say something, and I guess people are getting tired of me. She awaits her muse.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Sorry. . .

For the light posting. During the week we've settled into a routine, and the kids are in bed pretty early.

Met with the Fulbright staff again today, to schedule my series of public lectures. I'll set up three different talks: election integrity, campaign finance, and executive power. For all of the similarities between the U.S. and Australian systems, there are big differences. Political parties are everything here, and candidates cannot realistically run without a party endorsement. Most members of Parliament spend no time raising money on their own (in contrast to congressional candidates, who routinely raise millions). It's almost unheard of for legislators to vote against their party -- three members of the governing coalition announced today that they would vote against a government bill on immigration and asylum, and it led the news.

And the voting process is enormously complicated. In the lower house, voters have to rank all of the candidates, and a system called Approval Voting is used. If you don't rank every candidate, your ballot doesn't count. This insures that whatever candidate is elected has an absolute majority of the vote, even if it isn't the voters' first choice. In the Senate, they use a system called Single Transferable Vote, which is about as complicated a voting method as there is. Sometimes, it takes more than 200 iterations to figure out which candidates are elected. In 1999, there was an election called the "tablecloth election," because there were so many candidates that the ballot (which by law has to be on a single page) was about 40 x 30 inches.
But, it seems to work.

Susan visted the art gallery today. The big scandal is that the museum had a Van Gogh valued at $20 million, but it turns out to be most likely a fake. Bummer.

Hmm. Guess this wasn't such a light post.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


Tidbinballa is a nature preserve about 30 minites from town. The name comes from an Aboriginal word for "rite of passage."

In 2003 a huge bush fire swept through the area, destroying everything; it even made it into Canberra, burning 500 homes and killing 4 people. Much of the land is nearly barren, and there are charred tree trunks everywhere. In Tidbinbilla, it killed every koala in the area except for one (named Lucky), who is still recovering from his burns. Parts of the park are still closed

But it's still amazing. As soon as we entered, we saw this:

We didn't know that emus had so many chicks (there were 7; that's a pretty big omelet).

The kangaroo enclosure was closed, but we went on a walk around a wetlands area, where the views were impressive. The white dot in the sky is the moon, which was on call waiting to the CDSCC. In one of the ponds we saw a platypus, which was making lazy laps but not surfacing long enough for Susan to get a picture.

Kangaroos everywhere - we counted close to 100.

That's John Hart with the kids.
Here's a black swan, a bird native to Australia.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled week.

Bet They Get ESPN HD

So, we're driving along on our way to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, when we descend into a broad valley. More of a bowl, actually, with mountains circling on all sides.

It turns out that the geography is ideal for blocking terrestrial electromagnetic interference. Not to mention that we're about 15 miles southeast of Canberra, which is itself kind of in the middle of nowhere.

A perfect location for this:

It's the Canberra Deep Space Communication Center, a NASA facility which receives satellite and spacecraft communications from, well, all over the solar system. This is where the Apollo 11 moon landing video came in. The main dish is 70 meters (230 feet) in diameter, and there are three smaller antennas ranging from 26-34 meters feet across. While we were there, one of hte smaller dishes was getting data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, for which my cousin Nancy was the launch manager.

Here's a satellite picture of the facility.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming

We've noticed a drop in our email traffic, perhaps because folks are getting their updates from the blog. But we still want to hear from you! So keep us posted -- and don't be shy about leaving comments on the blog.

Photo Credits

The general rule: if Susan isn't in the picture, she took it. She got it from her father.

Mints and Zoos

Visited the Royal Australian Mint and the National Zoo today. The mint was interesting -- Australia has no dollar bills, and got rid of pennies about 10 years ago. They also shifted from the British currency system to the decimal system in 1966. The dollar was pegged at $2 per British pound, which works out to about $0.75 U.S. today.

The zoo had some interesting features (see below).


Dingos (they don't look so tough):

This one is 15 years old, and named "Maree," which the handler said was Aborigine for "Boy." There was another, named Nara (Companion).

A C-SPAN cable feed of the U.S. Congress:


And, of course, Kangaroos:

Circus Camp

Joe - this is for you.
Two years ago, we traveled through Canada, to vist a grad school friend/former roommate who lived in Quebec City. While we were there, his son attended a day camp run by a local circus troupe -- the farm leagues for people who want to make it to Cirque de Soleil. The children put on a performance, with trampolines, trapezes, gymnastics, acrobatics. We were struck by the sense that you'd rarely, if ever, see this in the U.S. -- the camp kids (about 5-13 years old) were flying around 30 feet in the air, doing flips on trampolines, climbing up 20 foot ropes, doing things that looked dangerous. Maybe it's a stereotype, but we couldn't shake the feeling that liabilty fears would stomp any effort to put this kind of thing together.

Today we visited the Australian National Zoo, where we came across a birthday party. The main event was this:

If it's not clear what's going on, that's a 6 year-old girl feeding a Sumatran tiger. Here's another shot:

I'm guessing that the keeper is holding the girl's hand behind her back for a reason. And it isn't because this is a baby tiger.

Kind of like the animal kingdom version of compulsory voting: hard to imagine in the U.S. In fact, if you google "hand feed tiger zoo," the first link that comes up is the Australian National Zoo.

Update, August 7: There are similar camps in the U.S. Apologies to the American Trial Lawyers Association and Stella Liebeck.

Update II: equestrian camps, too, although I'd bet these were for experienced and competitive riders.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


A few months ago, the Japanese Consulate in Chicago asked me to write a series of short reports on current state politics in Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Which I am writing in Australia.

From Canberra, to Tokyo, via Peoria and Northfield.

Not sure what this means, but I know it couldn't have been done 10 years ago.

Compulsory Voting

Been very busy this week, getting organized in the office, retrieving books from the library, finishing up a couple of projects I couldn't complete before we left. Not much to post about.

One topic that has come up in more than 1 conversation: voting is compulsory for national elections here. If you don't show up at the polls, you can be fined as much as $50 plus court costs. You don't have to actually complete the ballot (lots of people cast blank or incomplete ballots, and some write nasty messages), but you do have to make an appearance, unless you have a reasonable excuse, such as being out of town, ill, or the like. Most Australians just accept it, although there are periodic calls to abolish the practice. Turnout was about 95% in the 2004 election.

A few years ago, the president of the American Political Science Association called for mandatory voting in the U.S., as a way of bolstering civic engagement. Here's a 2003 USC Law Review note making the same point.

This strikes me as a complete non-starter, though I can't quite articulate the reasons. There are other forms of compulsory participation in the U.S., such as jury duty, the draft, and completing the census form (bet you didn't know that was required by federal law). Still, it's hard to imagine that we'd put up with this. We have generally considered voting to be a right, not an obligation.

The enforcement problems would be huge as well. Australia has a voting age population of about 13 million, and about 600,000 people didn't vote in 2004. The U.S. VAP citizen population is about 200 million. If we had a 5% absetntion rate as the Australians did, that's 10 million people who would have to be chased down. If 15% didn't show up, you're now talking about fining the population of California.