Saturday, September 30, 2006

Next Two Weeks

The kids are off school for two weeks, and we've set our travel schedule. I go to Adelaide and Perth next week, and return to Canberra on Saturday. On Sunday (the 8th) we fly to Brisbane, where we'll take in the Australia Zoo (Steve Irwin's place) and the various attractions of the Coast. From there, we fly to Cairns, where we'll spend one day on the reef (via a tour company called Quicksilver) and another walkng through the rain forest. I'll fulfill my dream to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef, and they have submarines, glass-bottom boats, underwater observation tanks, and other non-swimming things. We'll also see the rainforest: it's quite tropical in the North. We return to Canberra on the 15th, and the kids are back in school on the 16th. Then I'm off to Melbourne again on the 18th and 19th, and then Sydney on the 25th and 26th.

Of course, as a result of the trip to Cairns the children will have to work their own way through college. But just think of the value of the experience!

Go West Coast Eagles!

Watched the grand final of the Aussie Football League today on TV, with the Sydney Swans against the West Coast (Perth) Eagles. The Eagles jumped out to a huge lead, but in the second half Sydney kept chipping away, until they got within one point. The Eagles would pull away, and Sydney would again come within a point. Then again. At the siren, the Eagles won, 85-84, in the closest football final since 1966. It was really exciting (even Susan got into it a bit, though she'll never admit it). This would be like a Super Bowl where one team led 24-3 at the half, only to hold on at the end, 31-30.

Tickets to the game were going for thousands of dollars, even though scalping is illegal in Victoria.

American football never really caught on here as a spectator sport. It started to get traction in the 90s, until some kind of exhibition game was held. When people realized that everyone just stands around most of the time -- George Will once described football as combining the two worst aspects of American culture: violence interrupted by committee meetings -- that was it. Well, that plus maybe Terrell Owens.

Friday, September 29, 2006

It's a Small World After All (repeat 250x)

Susan met the people living next door, who are just here for the weekend. Their family was the owner of one of the rarest pianos in the world (and certainly the rarest in Australia): a 125 year old Rönisch Concert Grand Piano , made out of a rare species of Nigerian timber. The owner -- an Australian man -- purchased it about 30 years ago without knowing its importance. Over time, the family realized what they had. The initial thought was that it had been built around 1884, but an examination showed that it was older. It may have been played at the 1880 Melbourne Exposition. No one is quite sure, as the company is in Dresden, and all of the records were destroyed during WWII.

The father decided that he needed to sell it, and feared that it would go to someone outside of Australia. When the Australian Environment and Heritage Authority said that it could not be taken out of the country, the Australian National University bought it. The family, from Melbourne, is in Canberra to attend a concert where it will be played. They invited us, but we are engaged in far less culturally elevated activity -- watching the Aussie Rules football final at John Hart's house, and then a barbecue.

What an extraordinary story -- to be able to contribute to a country's cultural and artistic heritage in that way. Amazing.

Oh, forgot the small world part. After introducing ourselves, and noting that Sydney has a very appropriate name for someone visiting Australia, one of the siblings told us what he named his daughter:



I occasionally give a lecture on political forecasting, about the different methods of predicting election outcomes. A key element of this talk is the uncertainty of forecasts: anybody who nails a congressional election or presidential vote percentage 6 months in advance is just lucky, and the farther into the future the event is, the bigger the range of uncertainty. In December 2003, the top three contenders -- in both polls and among pundits -- for the Democratic presidential nomination were Dean, Gephardt, and Clarke. Within a month, they had all crashed and burned.

I always make a point of mentioning this whenever I'm asked to forecast a result -- "here's what it looks like today, but things can easily change." At times, I'm accused of waffling, but it reflects the reality that there is no way to predict things like this: A GOP Congressman from Florida, Mark Foley, has suddenly resigned after sexually suggestive emails and instant messages to a Page were revealed.

Foley was expected to win in a landslide, and this race has now become an instant tossup. To make things more complicated, the ballots have already been printed, so even though the Republican Party can replace him, voters will still see his name when they go to the polls on November 7th.

When you're on a razor's edge -- I had thought that the Democrats would win 212-215 seats, and that range has just gone from 213-216 -- something like this could easily have national repurcussions. And there ain't a forecasting model in the world that can predict this before it happens.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders! Spiders!

I know that some people are really, really into them. I'm not a real arachnophobe, but it does startle me when I'm driving and see one of these inches away from my head, inside the car:

It was the biggest damn spider I had ever seen outside a zoo - it must have been 15 inches across, and was panting like a dog. OK, that's not entirely true. Still it was about 3 inches across. And I think I was the one hyperventilating.

I calmly pulled over, carefully opened the window, and brushed it outside. I then spent the rest of the drive home feeling like something was crawling up my leg. And my neck.

What I really want to know is how it managed to get inside the car. It certainly looked big enough to open the door.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled heebie-jeebies.

The Great Wall of Rabbits

Our favorite Australian television commercial is for broadband internet. A cute kid in the backseat of a car, doing a homework assignment, obviously writing on a map of China. The kids looks up, all bright eyed and alert, and asks

"Dad, why did they build the Great Wall of China?"

Dad, has no idea, and after a painful pause and a look like he wanted to jump out, came up with
"That was during the time of the uh great emperor Nasi Georing, and it was, eh, to keep the . . . . . . . rabbits out. To many rabbits. In China,"

Kid: with a look that of "huh, never knew that,"

Cut to the next day. Kid at front of the room. Teachers voice: Today, Timmy is going to give us his report on China.

I think it's just hysterical. Probably will sell alot of broadband, too.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

This Week

Yesterday (the 26th) I had lunch with the new U.S. Ambassador, Robert McCallum, the Vice Chancellor of the ANU, people from the University, and Fulbright alumni. I hope to have pictures soon -- there was an official photographer. Ambassador McCallum went to Yale College and Yale Law School.

It was my first experience with security; there were several plainclothes officers who secured the building and shadowed the Ambassador. After a while, you got used to them (they work at fading into the background).

Today, I had lunch with several members of John Howard's staff and representatives from the U.S. embassy. We mostly talked politics, and they were very interested in what I thought would happen in November (for the record, I now think that the Republicans will hang on to the House majority. My guess is that the Dems will wind up with 212-215 seats).

When I came here, I figured I had about a 10% chance of seeing the Prime Minister. Those odds just went up, as at lunch I asked the advisers if it would be possible to get even 10 minutes, just to meet. They thought it was a great idea, and promised to look into it. Wouldn't that be something?

And a final note: one of the first things I learned as an adult is that I can't drink anything during lunch on a workday. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Otherwise, I'm just useless. I don't think I've had three workday beers over the last 25 years. I was about ready to order water today, when one of my hosts ordered a bottle or red wine. And then another. For 4 people. When in Rome. . .

Susan drove me home.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Rainbow Capital

Dreary weather today. But once the blustery clouds broke, we saw an amazing 180' double rainbow. Just yesterday I heard that catching this on film is as rare as as finding a any original beanie baby selling for more than $6.

The original picture is in the second Sydney post. Here we got a couple of more, from Canberra.

And you'll never guess where the rainbows ended. No, not i a field of prancing pink unicorns defending pots of gold. But Canberra's Spring flower festival, Floriade. That's some pretty synergistic marketing.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Tasmania II

My talks at the University of Tasmania went well: an afternoon seminar on election administration, and an evening public lecture about constitutional foundations of executive power. About 30 people were there. The UTas is especially strong in environmental policy, and it's one of the main staging points for Antarctic research; one physicist I met even knew about a University of Wisconsin project called Ice Cube, a cubic kilomter neutrino detector at the South Pole that cost more than the annual national Australian scientific research budget. I wonder what happens if they don't detect any neutrinos.

We also met a bunch of people who came to Tasmania expecting to stay for a few months (that was anywhere from 8 to 20 years ago).

Here is a view from a lookout above town, called Mt. Nelson. The city is at the lower left:

A photo of the Harbor (those are statues of seals and penguins):

It's become clear that even with six months, we're barely going to scratch the surface of what Australia has to offer. I'm already thinking that our time here is dwindling fast.

One thing we are tempted to buy: a Tasmanian myrtle dining room table. It's just exquisite, with the grain reminiscent of cherry, but with more depth. Hell, I can see the difference, and my artistic skills are normally relied on for, well, truth be told, nothing. Kind of a nouveau classic design (that means nothing to me, but there are evidently people who know precisely what it means. My wife, for one). It was pretty steep and we're looking into the shipping costs. Too bad you can't get this into a $14.95 FedEx World Wide Overnight bag. Still, it would be a nice memento of our time, and one that we'd use . It's a Win-Win !


I'm blogging out of order, but we made it back to Canberra, after a week in Tasmania and Melbourne.

Tasmania is an island about 120 miles off the southern coast. It's a quarantine within a quarantine: the island ecology is so distinct that you can't bring food or animal products from the mainland. It is sparsely populated, and beautiful, with a population of about 450,000.

On Sunday (Sept. 17) we visted Port Arthur, about 100 km outside of Hobart. It was established in 1830, and became a destination for transported convicts who got into trouble once they arrived in Australia (and it didn't take much). It was the prison system's prison.

And an appallingly brutal place. Intolerably cruel conditions, whippings, impossible work requirements, terrible sanitation. Most inmates were constantly in leg irons, weighing up to 30 pounds, and they faced additional discipline if they tried to keep their ankles from swelling up from the irritation. One inmate got 75 lashes for sending a letter of complaint to the prison commandant. On arrival, inmates spent up to 4 months in solitary confinement, in total sound isolation -- they were not permitted to speak, and the guards wore slippers to muffle their footsteps. Even during compulsory worship, the chapel was designed so that the men could not see each other. There was even a separate boys prison for children too young to survive in the main camp. The youngest wound up there at the age of nine. It was very strange walking through such a beautiful place, knowing what went on there.

The prison closedin 1877, and a series of brush fires around 1890 destroyed much of what was left. Now, it's mostly masonry walls and foundations.

This is the main building, which was built by the convicts. Several hundred were housed on each floor.

Trivial rule violations bought you up to 30 days in an isolation cell, in total darkness. One inmate had his arm amputated after being shot trying to escape. He was sent back to the work detail 3 days later, to show the others that being hurt wouldn't get you any favorable treatment.

Here's the church, which was built in 1836, also by convicts:

In April 1996, Port Arthur was also the site of the worst crime in Australian history. A young man named Martin Bryant shot and killed 35 people, and wounded 17 more. The main rampage started in a cafe on the site, where 20 people died. It's now a memorial garden. I tried to read an account of the day at the bookstore, but couldn't get through it.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Had a wonderful adventure today in Melbourne. We were on a tram to the suburbs, trying to find a factory outlet shopping mall (Susan wanted to get some things for the kids, and the pickings in Canberra are pretty slim). A woman saw me fumbling with the map, and asked if she could help. When I told her where we were heading, she said "You'll need a ride once you get off the tram. I''ll take you there." We walked to her home, in a suburb called Mooney Place, and she invited us in for tea. all four of us. We met her dog, Toby (he was a bit cranky, having just been fixed). She then drove us to the outlet mall. She was utterly charming, and it was just extraordinary that we bumped into her. How often would that happen in New York City or Los Angeles? So, Paula, we thank you for your hospitality, and we hope to return the favor someday -- either when you visit Madison, or with some other random act of kindness.

Turns out the outlet was a bust -- not much there. But meeting Paula was more than worth the trip.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

No Posts

Sorry for not posting - we're in Tasmania, and our hotel does not have internet access. We're fine (I'm writing fron an internet cafe in Hobart), and I'll have a full report when we get to Melbourne.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Question Time

Watched it in person on Thursday. It was a typical raucus atmosphere: lots of jeering and catcalls ("you're an insolent goose!"). A point of order was rased as to whether it was appropriate for members to listen to iPods when the government ministers are ansering questions (conclusion: no). One member got tossed out, presumably for talking like a disruptive 7th grader . It was pretty comical. The speaker was challenged on why, over previous months, he had kicked out 109 members of the opposition, against 4 of the government. It was the proverbial sausage factory.

The high (or low) point came when the speaker introduce a delegation of visitors from the Republic of Vietnam, who were in the gallery. They stood up, everyone applauded, and they must have been thinking, "we get to do this?"

The one advantage is that everyone speaks in complete sentences, which is not a skill that our national politicians are forced to develop. The lamest backbencher here sounds like a goddam poet compared to the best that the U.S. Congress has to offer. But they attack each other like schoolyard rivals. At least the insults are funny.

Sausage factory, indeed.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Fulbright Enrichment Seminar

First of two days meeting with the Fulbright staff and the other American scholars on Fulbrights in Australia. It was an impressive group - intimidating even. One chair (me), 3 professors(regular faculty at a university), and 12 postgraduates, ranging from people just out of college to those working on their dissertation or post-docs. Their projects include quantum light computing, cochlear implants, social spider behavior, robotics, indigenous law and identity, fertility, recovery of speech after brain injury, Malaria research, and organic solar cells. Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Virginia, Stanford, Cornell, Mt. Holyoke, GWU. One of the other senior scholars is an art professor at the University of Baltimore, who got his degree from the Maryland Institute of the Arts. Turns out he knew a certain faculty member there, who taught photography. Didn't like him much. Small world. Really small.

When I was just out of college, I was a punk who still had to pay off a ticket for parking on the wrong side of the road. I would not have been competitive with these folks.

We went to the embassy, and had a short ceremony with the new Ambassador, Robert McCallum, who presented us with our Fulbright pins. I'll have a picture soon.

I'm doing my first interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday morning; if there is an online version, I'll post a link.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Again, apologies for the slow posting. We've been busy getting ready for next week, and tomorrow and Friday I have a two-day Fulbright Enrichment seminar, when all of the American Fulbrighters meet.

Saw this article on MSNBC on tipping. As a fomer restaurant worker myself, I have a hard time leaving anything less than about 17-20%, and usuall tip more than that.

In Australia (as in most other parts of the world), tipping is not the norm. You don't normally tip waiters, taxi drivers, or even bellhops. We were even cautioned that some people get offended when offered tips, as it reinforces the servile status of whomever you're tipping (one other example of this: when you ride in a cab, you sit in the front seat, not in the back like some fancypants snoot who needs to be chauffered around). It's a hard habit to break.

In restaurants, it's pretty easy to calculate the U.S. equivalent of whatever bill we're presented: knock off 20% for tipping and taxes, and then take 3/4 of that in the conversion from Australian dollars (works out to about 0.6 of the bill). That means an $80 tab (not unusual) would be $65 before tips, and then converted to about $50 as the baseline U.S. bill. Not sure that this means anything, but it makes me feel better.

Friday, September 08, 2006


We can't decide what regional food we like best There's seafood, of course, with the Clyde River Oysters that tasted like little rays of sunshine (Sydney said they looked like giant boogers ,but there was just no poet in her that day). The prawns are to die for. Sadly, that can actually happen, given that they send your cholesterol through the roof. The Vietnamese food? Thai? Sushi? Indian? Malay-Chinese fusion? Italian? Continental/French? Mexican? (don't laugh - we've eaten there twice, and it was pretty good). Places that we haven't gone to but want to: Portuguese, upscale Chinese, even an Ethiopan place.

We'll have to do a lot more experimenting -- a lot -- before we can make an informed judgment.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Adam's school had a dance Thursday night, with a loud DJ playing pop and techno songs -- you know, songs teenagers have to listen to in order to shock their parents, but the parents, having lived through the Beatles, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Ozzie Osbourne , and the Ramones, find themselves largely unshockable. So it all works out nicely. One of Adam's favorite groups is AC/DC, which I listened to in college, 20 years ago. Ok, 25 years ago. Oh, hell, 30.

Back to the dance. The DJ played the Village People song YMCA. In the States, everyone knows what to do: you jump up and down making "Y"s and "M"s and "C"s and "A"s. But here, the kids didn't know what to do in between -- you know, what Timo does, one hand behind your head, the other pointing around the room to the beat. Adam started in on the whole package instinctively, and the other kids followed along. Thus was extended the reach of American Cultural Imperialism. Great fun all around. It won't be good if they elect him class president just as he is forced to flee the country due to a lapsing visa. Though I bet we could cook up a good story for that.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

More Random Bird Pics

We thought we had something when the King Parrot landed on my head at Pebbly. But at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, there are flocks of tame birds always looking for a free meal. Hold out your hand with a bit of bread, and,

Gez, do I make a lousy scarecrow. Ornithologists have been studying this particular expression since the time of James Audubon. What it means, scientists can confidently state, is "where's the bar?"

This is Anna, one of our friends from Madison, getting mugged. The rangers in the car yelled at everyone to stop feeding the birds. Which we did. Everyone else started back up as soon as they were out of sight.

And Adam, sharing a moment

The birds seemed to have personalities, though it could have been just feed me! expressed in cockatoolean, or klingon, or whatever langauge they speak.

And to complete the illusion, massive fruitbats hanging from trees. I thought bats navigated by echolocation. These guys navigated by making so damn much noise that every other flying species just got out of the way. I swear, when they spread their wings they looked just like, well, it was uncanny, Batman! You don't suppose there's a connection there, do you?

Purists might well respond that bats aren't birds. They're mammals. More like flying rats. But I say, you want taxonomic infallibility - get your own blog. And maybe a fruitbat.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Midterm Elections

Served as interlocutor (basically moderator) of a video-link lecture on the midterm elections, given by Jim Thurber from American University. He predicted that the Democrats would capture a slim majority in the House, but not the Senate. Judging from the various handicappers in the punditocracy (Charlie Cook, National Journal, etc.), this looks about right.

The Iowa Electronic Market, a futures market that is pretty accurate as the collective wisdom of people who have money on the line, shows about a 40% chance of the GOP keeping a House majority, a 55% chance of a Democratic takeover, and a 5% chance of a Republican House gain (I wouldn't take bet, even at 20-1).

Schedules and Trips

Have our first major domestic trip scheduled, to Tasmania and Melbourne.

I'm scheduled to give two talks -- a classroom lecture and a public talk -- at the University of Tasmania on September 19th. I'll talk to an American government class on election integrity, and then in the evening give a lecture on executive power.

We'll travel to Hobart on the 16th, and spend a couple of days exploring the island. There are some important historical sites, and it's rumored to be beautiful (but, then, we've sort of come to expect that).

From Hobart, we spend 3 days in Melbourne. And then, back to Canberra on the 23rd. Next month, it's Adelaide-Perth-Brisbane-Great Barrier Reef.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Steve Irwin

The Crocodile Hunter died today after what is being described as a freak accident: while diving off the Barrier Reef he was stung by a large stingray, and the barb penetrated his chest. He was filming a documentary on sharks, so the whole thing was caught on tape. People are noting the irony that he wrestled crocodiles and played with cobras, but was killed by an animal that isn't normally dangerous.

Irwin was likely the most famous Australian on the planet. He was controversial at times -- he took heat for feeding a crocodile while holding his infant son, and we hadn't seen the video of him walking his son up to the edge of the croc pond holding him at the waist, like someone playing with a doll. There's a story that he was about to be named "Australian of the Year," but lost it after the incident.

This is shaping up to be a national trauma. He had a wife, and two young children.


Friday, September 01, 2006


I've been retained -- gratis, sadly -- by the Australian Broadcasting Corporaton to do U.S. election coverage with their national political reporters.

The Australian relationship with the U.S. is one of the mysteries I hope to understand during our time here. On the one hand, American cultural influences are pervasive -- movies, television, music. On the other, Australia clearly has its own unique cultural character. People regard the U.S. with a mix of affection and uneasiness (not counting the guy we ran into in Sydney). I'm reading a book on politics in the 1990s, by a journalist named George Megalogenis, The Longest Decade, in which he claims that Australia is like a younger brother to the U.S. who is looking for respect. He notes most Americans give little thought to Australia (and people are a bit prickly that our main Austrlalian cultural reference point is still Crocodile Dundee -- the equivalent would be assuming that There's Something About Mary or Pulp Fiction give you a complete picture of the U.S.). Clinton, in his 14,000 page memoir, mentions Australia only three times (yes, people counted), only one more reference than Albania warranted. There is a Simpons episode, in which Bart insults an Australian, who then takes his complaint to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is introduced skinny dipping floating on an old tire, holding a can of Fosters.

But Australia is clearly a power in the pacific region, despite its small population (21 million) compared to Indonesia (200 million), Japan (130 millon) and China (1.3 billion, 65 times larger). Several officials have mentioned that in foreign policy, Australia "punches above its weight." The biggest factor is that Australia is a middle power, who by definition must look outward.