Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Season's greetings

Hope you received everything on your Christmas list. The Dude and his cousin did!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Hair today

December 2005: the Dude had a mohawk. We shaved it off around his birthday in January and he has been growing it ever since. Only once in the past 12 months has a hairdresser been near it, and that was for a quick shape-up in about March or April. The result is below...

December 2006:
Pretty, or what?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Funny feet club together

On one of my favourite websites, Mrs Darcy referred to a recent article about the nineteenth century publisher John Murray's legacy of letters. At the end of the article, excerpts from some letters included this quote:

John Murray letter on Scott and Byron meeting for the first time

I can recollect having seen Ld B at Albemarle St. As far as I can remember he appeared rather a short man, hands and countenance remarkable for the fine blue veins which ran on his temples. The deformity in his leg was to me very evident as he walked down stairs, he carried a stick... Mr M first introduced Walter Scott to Lord B - on meeting, they embraced each other in the most affectionate manner and were highly delighted with each other. It was a curious sight to see the two greatest poets of the age (both club footed) stumping down stairs arm in arm...

I knew that Lord Byron had a club foot but didn't realise that Sir Walter Scott* shared the same affliction as the Dude.

* Actually, according to the Wikipedia, Scott's limp was caused by polio, not a club foot.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Freedom of speech

Another example of Christians asserting their right to express their faith symbolically is discussed over at the Bad Astronomer's blog.
To summarise, a church has erected a brightly-lit cross on a hilltop not far from Mount Palomar observatory, breaking several local ordinances in the process. They defend their right to do this using the First Amendment to the US constitution.
Once again, I think that their determination to stand up for their faith on principle is overriding natural logic here: surely they can find a way to display their faith in a positive way, without contributing unecessarily to light pollution in a sensitive area?
As His Dagginess commented to me the other day, atheists are the only really tolerant people in the world, because there's no imperative for evangelism.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Bye-bye Beasley

Why didn't Julia Gillard run for leader of the Labor party, rather than deputy? Surely Australia, one of the first nations in the world to give women the vote, is ready for a female opposition leader? (Note that I don't count any Democrat senators as "opposition" leaders.) More people know who Julia is than who whatsisname is -- you know, the guy who ousted Kim Beasley -- um, Kevin Rudd. I doubt he would have won the leadership without her name on the ticket, so why not give her the job?
Kim Beasley's biggest mistake, the one that perhaps cost him his position as party leader, was of course mixing up his Roves. I mean, what Australian politician would think, on being asked if he had a message for Rove, that he was being asked to console a grieving comedian and not to address the adviser to the President of the United States? Wrong assumption, Kim... you should know that Aussies don't give a fig about international politics when one of our celebrities has recently died in tragic circumstances.
If her husband's well-being was so important that it was essential for our opposition leader to have an opinion on it, I wonder why Belinda wasn't offered a state funeral? Even Brockie had one. Crowds of mourners lined the roads of Mount Panorama to farewell the great Aussie statesman* who did so much for our country. I wonder if these were the same crowds of mourners who, two weeks later, lined the streets to mourn for the four teenagers who were killed in a single-car accident in Byron Bay. In a Commodore, the very brand of car Brockie put his signature on. Yes, he did a lot for our country.

* I suddenly see what they were thinking: somebody got their models mixed up and thought he was advertising a Holden Statesman, not a Commodore. I guess if they'd got the model right, he'd have been buried at sea with full naval honours...

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Blame Borat

Last week I saw the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Having just that morning read of the rumours of lawsuits Sacha Baron Cohen faces from supposedly unwilling participants in the movie, I had my sceptical hat on as I watched it.
The whole thing is staged and scripted, surely. There's a scene where Borat chases a guy down a New York street, trying to greet him in the "traditional" Kazakh manner. The chase is shot from at least three different camera angles, meaning that it had to be done in several takes, and wasn't in the least spontaneous.
Even if people were filmed under false pretenses (that is, if they really thought they were going to be appearing on a Kazakhstan documentary) it doesn't excuse their behaviour. Instead of suing Borat for exposing them to ridicule, they ought to take responsibility for themselves and look at how their own attitudes and prejudices made them ridiculous in the first place. And the less said about Pamela Anderson looking ridiculous, the better.
On the subject of another blame game, I really enjoyed reading Hemlock's Diary for Sunday, November 26. The amoral Hong Kong gwailo gives his opinion on the ubiquitous pirate DVD industry in China, in his usual acerbic style. I confess to being a pirate myself (although you already knew I was a Pastafarian, right?) having purchased a copy of the most recent Harry Potter movie in Shanghai last year, for RMB3, or approximately 50 cents, only to get it home and discover that it was dubbed in Mandarin and subtitled in Cantonese. Very strange viewing when you speak neither language -- so I gave it to our neighbour.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

In which we discover that a) Red Square is not in Moscow; b) Thursday nights are free again; and c) rats like beer

This week was my last Modern Astronomy class on a Thursday night. I will miss it (although it does mean I may be able to start playing volleyball again), and I will miss all of the great speakers we heard and our discussions in the tea break.
This week we had the young and enthusiastic Peter Tuthill, the latest in a line of young and enthusiastic astronomers. (I didn't get around to reporting on our lecture from the young and enthusastic Laszlo Kiss last week, who was so endearing, bouncing on his toes as he introduced interesting facts about pulsating stars and leaping about at the front of the lecture theatre, speaking in melodic Hungarian-accented English.)
Peter Tuthill's talk was a demonstration of how a $200 aluminium plate, based on telescope technology from the mid-19th century, can actually produce higher resolution images of distant objects than that multi-billion dollar piece of space junk they call the Hubble Space Telescope. (Okay, not being very fair here. He didn't run down the Hubble like that: of course it has its uses.) Check out his web page (linked above) to see some amazing images that his little invention has produced, including the Red Rectangle. He also told us that he had just heard that very morning that a paper on his latest observations had been accepted by Science magazine -- a discussion of a galactic object he calles the Red Square.
In the tea break, our usual gang sat around and my fellow student, the Neuroscientist, told us about a paper he's submitted for publication on his latest experiment: beer-drinking rats. Seriously, it's an experiment designed to see what genetic and/or neurological expressions in the brain are involved in recidivism in alcoholics (or something like that).
First, he set up a little beer garden for the rats, with a "bar" where they had to go and push a lever to get beer. When they were all well and truly sozzled, he put them in a detox centre -- a different environment where they pushed the lever but didn't get any beer. Then, when they were thoroughly dried out and had given up pushing the lever, he put them back in the first beer garden to see how long it would take them to go back to the "bar". Turns out rats like beer so much they headed straight for the lever!
He showed me a bite on his finger, and I said, "Wow, they must really want their beer."
His reply: "This rat was from the cocaine experiment."
"I thought cocaine was supposed to make you happy."
"Not when you don't give it to them."
I couldn't help it. I had this mental image of a whole lot of drunk, stoned and hyped up rats hanging out at Madame Fling Flong's. I had to apologise profusely to the Neuroscientist for seeming to belittle his work by laughing at it.
The things you do in the name of science, eh? Oh, and it turns out that rats like Coopers.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Stereotype threat

About a week ago, I read about a phenomenon called stereotype threat -- a condition which causes human beings to live up, or down, to people's expectations of them. It applies to racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes, among others.
Since then, I've had almost daily conversations with my family and friends that have coincidentally raised examples of stereotype threat. It seems that, now that I know what to call it, I see it everywhere. Having a label to apply to certain events or attitudes in one's life is handy, although there is a risk that applying a label will lead to further stereotyping...
Unfortunately, the knowledge that there is such a thing as stereotype threat probably does not help in overcoming it in one's everyday life. Especially if you don't recognise the stereotype that is threatening you.
And, of course, the "threat" of a stereotype is not always negative: for instance, growing up as the eldest of three girls had, I think, more positive effects on my character than negative (although maybe my sisters would argue against that). The stereotype of being the eldest and therefore the one responsible for the others meant that I had to live up to the expectations that I would be able to take charge and look after my sisters. This probably gave me more confidence to take on responsibility in other areas of my life: I'm not naturally a "leader", but living up to the stereotype of "the eldest" did instil some leadership qualities in my character, I think.
I would be interested to learn of examples of stereotype threat that you think have affected you in either positive or negative ways. Please leave comments or email me privately if you prefer.

Spike suit

How cute!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sculpture by the Sea

This time last year the Upstaters visited from New York and we went to Sculpture by the Sea. It's hard to believe a full year has passed since then, and now the Upstaters are celebrating the very recent birth of an addition to their family: Spike (born 10th November).
I've posted a selection of my favourite sculptures at flickr, so take a look if you'd like to see some great public art. As one of the sculptures says, "Free Art, before it frees you".

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

In which we discover that young astronomers can get very excited about their new discoveries about the universe

The last two weeks of my Modern Astronomy classes have been conducted by two young, exciting astronomers talking about their work. One was Ilana Klamer, a specialist in supermassive black holes (SMBHs) with some groundbreaking ideas on how it is possible that quasars (the emissions from the accretion disks of super-supermassive black holes) formed in the early universe. Ilana was so keen to tell us about her SMBHs and her research in particular that I matched her disappointment when she realised that the time alloted for the lecture was at an end.
(The security guy prowling around the doorway to the lecture theatre was the clue -- he wanted to go home and have his dinner, I think.)
The other young astronomer was Bryan Gaensler, who was named Young Australian of the Year in 1999. Back in his home town, he was the ideal lecturer. He impressed me with his ability to deliver a coherent, structured lecture at the same time as he answered questions that caused him to skip around his PowerPoint slideshow in non-consecutive order. He talked about an event that happened on December 28, 2004, when a magnetar on the other side of our galaxy sent out an "insanely powerful" half-second flash that was a thousand times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way. Fortunately for us, the flash was mostly gamma rays, which don't penetrate the earth's atmosphere and can't be seen by the human eye. Phew!
These youngsters (!) have such a fresh approach to their research and they are very easy to listen to. How inspiring.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

What Sydneysiders look like

This fascinating image is a computer-morphed picture of what the average male and female residents of the City of Sydney look like. Do you recognise me? Or His Dagginess? The Dude? Check out the website to see how the image was made. There are also more localised images: not surprisingly, the average resident of Haymarket has slightly Asian features (for non-locals, Haymarket is where Chinatown is located in Sydney); the average resident of the Rocks is slightly older-looking and the average resident of Surry Hills is more youthful.
I think what I love about these images is that it reinforces the idea that, despite our skin, hair or eye colour; no matter what language we speak at home or how much money we have; underneath it all we're pretty much just ordinary human beings.
Wouldn't it be great if someone did a portrait like this for the whole world?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Makes it all worthwhile

Spell-checkers are great, but sometimes they just don't cut the mustard. Here's an example of why you really need to employ a sub:

“The male rufous whistler is quite a handsome bird with distinctive rufous underparts, grey head and white throat, combined with a black mask. The female and immature birds are more subtly coloured, but can be distinguished from most other whistlers by heavy streaking on the underpants.”

[From an actual article I was subbing for the January issue of a magazine I work for.]

I thought it was just 11-year-old boys who could be identified by that means, due to their lax personal hygiene habits.

Monday, October 23, 2006

In which we discover that radio astronomy can cause insanity

Last Thursday's lecture in Modern Astronomy was by Dr Enno Middleberg, whose scientific speciality is radio astronomy, using the 64m telescope at Parkes as well as the Compact Array at Narrabri to look at cool things in the universe. When I say cool things, I mean that he explained that the kinds of things you see in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum are much cooler and thinner than the hot, dense objects you see in the visual part of the spectrum, using optical telescopes. Some of the recent discoveries in radio astronomy in Australia have included the first double pulsar and a supermassive spiral galaxy about 20 times bigger than the Milky Way.

Dr Middleberg showed us a lovely movie of The Dish, not the one with Sam Neill, but a webcam at the site in Parkes that takes a shot of the telescope every 30 seconds and turns it into a movie every 24 hours. It's fun -- it looks like the telescope is dancing the night away!
He also admitted, when trying to answer questions about some of the technical details of the Compact Array:

"There is an infinity of miraculous steps involved, and if you arrive at a place where you understand it all, you'll go mad!"

That explains a lot.

Hand Crafted by me

Here's the latest publication I had a hand in. I didn't do much, but there are about half a dozen projects in this book that I made. They're not attributed to the various creators, so I'll 'fess up: the ones I made are on pages 22, 56, 60, 148, 164, 166, 168.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Foodie heaven on my doorstep

Some of you will know how I love to boast about the foodie haunts I frequent in my neighbourhood: Fratelli Fresh, Danks Street Depot, Simon Johnson, Bitton, Allpress, Hung Ha Bakery... I could go on. But my pride in these matters is vindicated! In last Tuesday's Good Living section of the Sydney Morning Herald, there was a report on a new outlet in Gardeners Road, Alexandria (just around the corner from me). I quote:

"-- they call it Alexandria, but there's more than a sniff of Beaconsfield to the location."

I never thought I'd see the day when foodies would try to muscle in on my tiny, forgotten suburb as a desirable destination. And just to prove that I'm generous, I'll say that they are welcome to do it, as long as the bakery turns out to be as promising as the article suggests.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Religious symbols

I find myself quite incensed about all this fuss over a woman who wants to wear a cross pendant to work. The constant media comparison of her right to openly display her religious affiliation with the rights of Muslims to wear hijab or Jews to wear yarmulkas is all well and good, but I have an objection.
The difference between the two cases, to me, is that one is a voluntary witness to faith, while the others are compulsory observances according to doctrine. I have never heard or read any theological argument for the wearing of jewellery in the form of a cross: there is no instruction from Jesus, any prophet or apostle or even a Pope or archbishop that says, "Thou shalt wear a piece of jewellery to prove thou art a Christian".
There are, as I understand it, doctrinal reasons in the respective faiths for the wearing of hijab or a Sikh's turban or a yarmulka. In the case of hijab, for example, it is a scriptural command, although the interpretation of the necessary level of coverage may vary. In the case of the yarmulka, the coverage has already been reduced to a symbolic state, but it is worn to obey a Talmudic command.
For these reasons, I have little sympathy for the airport employee who wants to wear her cross pendant at work (and it should be noted that she is not being banned from wearing it, only from having it visible). If she is so concerned about displaying her faith for all to see, she had much better do it by acting as a Christian than flashing a bit of expensive metal around. After all, wasn't it the founder of her faith who derided those who tried to make a visible show of religion: "By their works shall ye know them" (Matthew 7.16). To paraphrase the old saying that was drummed into me at Sunday School: "Wearing a WWJD bracelet does not make you a Christian, just as living in a garage does not make you a car."
I hate to say it, but it was people like this woman, who thinks she is making a public stand for her religion, who caused me to question -- and, although other reasons came into it, ultimately reject -- my former faith. I think she should get off her high horse and live her beliefs in humility, not just walk around wearing its trappings like the Pharisees beating their breasts in the temple (Matthew 6.5-6).

Ah well, as I have said before, plus ca change.... If Jesus could see her now, he'd be turning in his grave.

On seeing stars and hearing voices

On Saturday night, the Dude and I went up into the mountains to escape the city lights and look at the galactic ones instead. The night started out quite clear and warm, and we were fortunate to be able to see some pretty spectacular sights through a collection of telescopes of different shapes and sizes.
We saw Jupiter, and three of its Galilean satellites (although the owner of the telescope, a far more experienced stargazer than I, said he could see the fourth one lurking at the edge of the planet's atmosphere). Some of the cloud bands were visible, but I didn't spot the Bad Astronomer's eponymous storm -- the Oval BA. After Jupiter sank below the treeline we watched Scorpius following in its wake. The Southern Cross was also headed for the horizon but we took a quick look at Alpha Centauri and were able to discern that there were two stars through the telescope, despite the fact that it looks like a single star to the naked eye.
The Dude was fascinated by the nebulous Milky Way -- he's been to one of these viewing nights before, but I guess it didn't come to his notice in the past. He also enjoyed seeing globular clusters, nebulae and galaxies through the telescopes.
We saw Uranus, as well, and the Dude amused some of the more senior stargazers with his off-hand comments when they enthusiastically inquired what he thought of it. "Did you see it?" "Yeah," he shrugged nonchalantly. What more reaction could you expect from a self-conscious pre-teen, on the cusp of grunting adolescence? He was actually quite impressed, as he revealed the next day when he told His Dagginess all about what we had seen.
The last sight we saw before the sky clouded over was the Andromeda galaxy, rising above the treeline on the northern horizon. Our host informed us that it it is the most distant thing that you can see with the human eye, although we needed binoculars that night.
This stargazing event was run by my former astronomy teacher, who began the evening with a quick tour of the sky and was patiently happy to answer all sorts of questions from the assembled throng. This was one of the best parts of the night, as he imparted interesting information and opinions: I always enjoyed his classes because he has the ability to relate esoteric information without being patronising, and he is possessed of a speaking voice of such a lovely mellow tone that one could listen to him for hours without tiring of hearing it (in fact, I have listened to him for hours...)
Thinking about the pleasant sound of his voice drifting through the clear, dark night brought about a Proustian moment of sorts. It made me remember other voices I have loved to listen to: such as my grandfather (for whom the Dude is named) praying in his deep, sonorous voice at the breakfast table, while our linen napkins lay on our laps and our heads were bowed over the pristine china and silverware; or my dad using his "radio voice" as he read the news on the air -- I recall the way he would lower the tone of his normal speaking voice to achieve the proper solemnity required by the broadcast; my uncle, too, has a voice I love to listen to, although I've never sat in on one of his university lectures I imagine his students might have been privileged to enjoy his dulcet tones in that way.
I like the tones of His Dagginess' voice, too. Maybe I just have a soft spot for baritones.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Post-footy blogging...

... or, a bit of a stitching update.
Here is my current project. It's been ages since I crocheted, but when my Upstate Sister spotted this cute little retro baby outfit I promised to make it for Spike, who is due to join us any time in the next month or so. Here are the colours I picked for Spike's version (they look muddier in this scan than in real life):

Plus ca change...

I've been a regular reader of Hemlock's Diary for about a year now. It's often full of local politics, but there was an eerie feeling of familiarity in this week's blog. If nothing else, it's nice to see that we're not the only nation in the world with a pathetically short-sighted elected government.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Grand final musings

I'm not going to bemoan the fact that we went all the way to the 'G to watch the Swannies lose by one lousy point, because it was actually a great game, fantastic atmosphere, beautiful day...

Here's my lasting grand final day memory:

After World Citizen 3000 cooked us a lovely consolatory dinner at his home, we wandered around the corner to a local Saudi Arabian cake shop for dessert. When we arrived, still wearing our footy colours, we saw a family of West Coast supporters in the store, indulging in some celebratory cakes (it was after dark, even though it is Ramadan). Giving a wry smile and a nod as we passed them, we were surprised when they greeted us in a friendly manner and struck up a conversation. This family had travelled over from Perth for the game, just as we had travelled from Sydney. We congratulated them on their team's success, they commiserated with us on our disappointment, we all agreed that the two teams are in a period of great rivalry that makes every match a nail-biter and it's all good. We parted with the words, "See you next year for the decider." Smiles all 'round.

Next, a local couple walked into the cake store. They looked confused so we showed them where to get a ticket so they could be served in their turn. The male then asked, "Are youse from Sydney?" When we said we were, he replied in a sullen tone, "I'm glad your team lost. And I hope Melbourne wins the rugby league grand final tomorrow." [So did we, but we didn't tell him that.]

Now I ask you, who is my brother? Is it the Muslim family from Perth who were friendly and cheerful despite their absolute right to gloat at our expense, or the Melbourne man who was full of hatred for us Sydneysiders despite the fact that he supported neither of the teams involved?

Just so that I'm not too negative about Melbourne, another memory of the day is a train trip on which there was a spirited discussion about saving water. Two women on their way to the football were discussing a local council's use of recycled water and were joined by another woman across the aisle who is a waste-water engineer for another local council. As His Dagginess noted: "This would never happen in Sydney: all we talk about is road tunnels and tolls." Go Melbourne! Gotta love that city.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Of Charlie and Granny

Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes wins the Chas Brownlow medal.
His Dagginess, Beche-la-mer and the Dude are going to the Grand Final in Melbourne.
Two packets of Luscious Strawberry TimTams are on their way to the Upstaters in NY.

All is right with the world.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Friday, September 22, 2006

In which we learn that MASH is not just a TV show, or His Dagginess' favourite dish, and find that planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets

Last night's astronomy lecture was delivered by the King of the Acronym, Quentin Parker. This excitable fellow is based at the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO) and uses the UK Schmidt Telescope (UKST) at Coonabarrabran to look at planetary nebulae (PNe). He talked us through MASH, SHS, 2MASS, 2dF and 6dF sky surveys, not to mention the rave review he gave to SuperCOSMOS (I can't even remember what that is an acronym for -- he spoke too fast for me to write it all down! Something about coordinates, size, shape, mass and objects, I recall, but I can't remember what the other O stood for).
Planetary nebulae are his bag. It was the 18th-century English astronomer William Herschel who gave PNe their name, because through the telescopes of the time these pretty objects appeared similar to the flat, luminous disks of the planets in our solar system. With better optics and understanding, we now realise that a PN is actually a stage in the life cycle of a star similar to our own sun: in fact, our solar system will one day have its own pretty PN when the sun, nearing the end of its hydrogen-burning phase, blows up into a big ol' red giant then puffs off its outer layers and shrinks down to a white dwarf.
The problem with PNe is that there just isn't enough stuff in them. When an astronomer looks at a PN and the white dwarf star at its centre, and adds up all the mass she can see, she ends up with just a fraction of the original mass of the star, which must be in a range around the size of our sun (otherwise you would get a supernova rather than a PN). This results in the MMM: missing mass mystery. Fortunately, the King of the Acronym has been using the UKST to MASH the SHS with SuperCOSMOS and discover the answer to the MMM in PNe. And you can see the pictures here.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

More footy blogging

Okay, so I had this dream the other night that I was playing midfield for the Sydney Swans, and I was really frustrated because Chris Judd kept beating me to the ball....

This reminded me of the time His Dagginess had a similar dream:
"I was playing in the ruck for Richmond, and I tapped the ball down to Joel Bowden on the wing. Then I woke up and thought, 'WTF! What is Joel Bowden doing playing on the wing?' It didn't occur to me to think, 'What am I doing playing in the ruck for Richmond?'!"

Hmmmmm. Maybe it's a good thing there's only a week and a half to go until the Grand Final. It's all getting a bit obsessive around here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

If it's September, it must be footy finals

I am sitting here at my desk with my finger on the redial button of the phone, trying to get through to the hotline to register for tickets to the AFL grand final, on behalf of His Dagginess, who is at work. So I thought a bit of a miscellanaea of football blogging was called for to pass the time.
The medal at left belongs to the Dude, for his contribution to the Newtown Swans Under 11s this season. Since it was presented to him on Sunday, he now gets up in the morning and comes in to my room to wake me with all five medals jingling around his neck (one for each junior year, plus two extras for playing in grand finals) and his five trophies (from his Auskick years -- that's under eights for those not in the know) are currently on temporary display in the living room. He has signed up to play again next year already: I love that about him, that although he's by no means a star of the team he gets in there and does his best every week. How inspiring! (I also love it that he is defying his orthopedic surgeon's prediction that he would be left too far behind his peers to compete in physical sports by this age. Imagine how good he would be if he wasn't handicapped by his talipes!)
Yesterday I was discussing the footy with a colleague I have known for many years in many different capacities and publishing companies. He always has unique insights into the game because he is a real "footy fan" rather than a follower of any particular team. Anyway, we came up with the theory that having an alternate strip is the secret of success on the football field. I have always thought that the Swans play better in their stripey socks, and this year they have been wearing them all season (and doesn't Ted Richards make them look good?). Fremantle, too, have a striking clash jersey and look how well they are doing this year! This is not just a frivolous theory, though: my colleague and I think it is because the white jersey/striped socks give the team greater visibility on the field, thereby making it easier to spot a teammate for more accurate kicking or handballing. I mean, when Freo were wearing their purple strip and Melbourne their navy blue on Saturday night, you could hardly tell the teams apart!
And here's another footy rant, about the grand final ticket registration. Today we had to call a hotline to register for the waiting list to purchase a grand final ticket, before we even know if our team is in the grand final. For this, we had to pay a registration fee of $7 per ticket, non-refundable, of course. There are four clubs still in the running; if 20,000 members of each club register to be on the waiting list for tickets at $7 per ticket, Ticketmaster have just made $560,000 clear profit (they didn't even have to employ staff as the whole process is automated). Come in, spinner!
Last, but not least, here are some jokes for His Dagginess' dad:
Q: Why were Richmond fans happy that round 22 was so late this year?
A: Because they finally got to see their team play in September!

Q: Why does the AFL have a final eight?
A: So Richmond can come ninth.

Friday, September 15, 2006

His Dagginess

New pseudonym for the Fun Policeman (formerly known as the Voice of Reason):
Henceforth he will be known as "His Dagginess".

This arises from a conversation we had yesterday, discussing the fact that His Dagginess has just laid out good money to immortalise our family names in football fandom by buying a bit of inscribed concrete. I wouldn't mind if he'd just had his own surname inscribed for posterity, but no, he had to include mine as well! My response was, "In future, can you please exclude me from your acts of dagginess?"

Later that day, I received a sulky email telling me how shattered he was by my insult. So? It's not like it's written in stone! Ugh!

In which it is discovered that jet skis may have a useful purpose after all, and that having 11 dimensions is much better than four

I've signed up for another lecture series at Sydney University Continuing Education: this one is called Topics in Modern Astronomy. Each week a guest speaker will discuss their particular area of expertise. The first was a talk by Joss Hawthorn, of the Anglo-Australian Observatory, on Dark Matter. Here's what I learned:
How jet skis can be used to explain Special Relativity
Imagine a jet skier travelling north at 100km/h, and another one travelling east at 100km/h, and draw a graph of their paths over a period of time (such as a second). Now imagine another jet skier travelling north-east and draw his (we will assume it's a male) path on the graph: the plots of all three are the same length but if you read the graph back to the axes, the third jet skier is not travelling at 100km/h, but appears to be going slightly slower than the two that are travelling along the axes. Now change north to Time and East to Space and there you have special relativity: the faster you travel through space, the slower you travel through time.

Why the universe is easier to understand the more complicated it gets
Joss Hawthorn is very excited about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which Dr Brian Cox talked about in the Science Week lecture that the Dude and I attended. The problem with dark matter is that it is dark (duh!), not just to our eyes, but across the entire electromagnetic spectrum: it just doesn't show up on any detector we've been able to build so far because it doesn't interact with baryons (the stuff that stars -- and people -- are made of). So how do we know that dark matter is there? Because we need it to be there, to explain why the universe is shaped the way it is.
One theory about why we can't see it is because it exists in one of the seven other dimensions that are predicted by string theory. So the great minds of our time are busy trying to work out how to see into those other dimensions: Joss Hawthorn reverently refers to the work of Ed Witten, who he claims is the greatest thinker since Einstein, and Stephen Hawking should eat his heart out.
This is why they are building the Large Hadron Collider, where -- when they turn it on in 2008 -- they will smash gold atoms together and make pretty pictures of the results. Here's my drawing of the picture Joss drew on the blackboard of what the results might look like:

So that's all clear then? Good.

Oh. Well, just in case, here is a link to the Millenium Simulation at the Max Planck Institute, showing what the universe would look like if you could see the dark matter. Very pretty.

Stay tuned for next week's lecture on wide-field astronomy.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Gawd, I love this city!

For non-Herald readers, the title of this post is a frequent quotation from Peter Fitzsimon in his newspaper columns, The Fitz Files. And it pretty well sums up how the Fun Policeman (okay, okay, I'm thinking about another pseudonym) and I felt last night.
It was a balmy spring evening in Sydney, the sky was clear of clouds for the first time in a week and we were strolling across the forecourt of the Opera House, having enjoyed a production of The Tempest by the Bell Shakespeare Company. The waves of the harbour were lapping gently against the quay, as many as six or seven stars were visible through the light pollution of the city (okay, it's not a perfect city), and all seemed right with the world.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

The play? It was a lovely, simple production. John Bell was brilliant as Prospero, naturally. Miranda and Ferdinand were suitably gormless, and Ariel sang beautiful, melancholy songs with a remarkable voice. I remember debating, many years ago, whether Ariel was meant to be played as a male or a female, and I suspect Shakespeare himself intended the gender of his airy spirit to be indeterminate. This Ariel was unequivocally played as a female, and Bell has added an undercurrent of hints that she might be half in love with Prospero to the master/servant relationship. Caliban was one of the best on stage, I thought; he was played by a tall, lanky and remarkably good-looking young man, so the ugliness of the character had to come from the actor's skill rather than costume or make-up. He did, however, sport an impressive mohawk, which the Dude was jealous he didn't get to see.

The Tempest must be on the HSC curriculum this year, as a large contingent of teenagers trooped into the theatre just before the lights went down (there was no curtain to go up) and immediately raised the noise level by about 300 per cent. The FP has decided that the collective noun for a group of teenagers should be a "spectacle", because -- in his opinion -- they are constantly trying to draw attention to themselves by talking or laughing louder than necessary, or making a fuss about things that aren't worth making a fuss about. As we have lived with teenagers (and occasionally their friends/boyfriends, thus experiencing the phenomenon of a spectacle of teenagers in our own home) for the past seven years, we know what they're like.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Hip hop hooray

Have I mentioned how much I like the Hilltop Hoods? I'm not normally a fan of hip hop, but they got my attention when the Dude and I first saw the video clip of "Clown Prince" (click on the link to their website above, go to the video tab and you can see the clip and hear the song). Then I bought the album to listen to on the 24-hour plane trip to New York. Now I'm hooked on "Conversations from a Speakeasy", while the Fun Policeman (who keeps begging me for a new pseudonym, by the way) loves the eponymous single from the CD, "The Hard Road". Okay, there's a bit of a language issue, but they have a kind of funk feel to some of their tracks that I really like. Top it off with the really refreshing sound of the Aussie accents and it's quite cool (or fully sick, or whatever I am supposed to say to sound young).

It's your round (if you're hangin' at the back of the bar)
So just bounce (like you're bangin' in the back of your car)...

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Cafe wisdom

Printed on my take-away cappuccino cup, from Bitton Gourmet in Erko:

take away coffee
and what other pleasures are left?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Clever clogs

This ad has been appearing for a few weeks now on the puzzle pages of the Sydney Morning Herald (and perhaps, I assume, in other major dailies). It's just a photograph of a life-size pen, of the kind that you might choose to use to complete the crosswords, sudoku and other puzzles on the page. How effective is it? Well, twice now I have been sitting at the table doing the crosswords, put down my coffee cup and absent-mindedly tried to pick up the photograph of the pen to write in a word.
Not only that, but yesterday I caught the Dude doing it too. (So it's not just my 40-year-old senility kicking in, or my 40-year-old eyes going.)
Here are my excuses:
1. Haven't finished morning coffee yet so brain is still fuzzy.
2. Same brand of pen I have in my home office, so obvious mistake.
3. Clever advertising campaign.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Stitching update

I thought it was time I showed some of my recent handiwork. Here is the block I embellished for Sue in the Round Robin I recently participated in. It will be on its way home today or tomorrow, I hope. Sue's blocks are all crazy-patch christmas trees, so on this one I added some gold star charms and coloured "tinsel". The star at the top of the tree (it wouldn't quite all fit in the scanner) was made of gold threads using soluble fabric stabiliser (which was the theme of the Round Robin). I hope Sue likes it!

Monday, August 21, 2006


We've just had Science Week here in Sydney and the weekend was packed with fun and exciting stuff to do at the Ultimo Science Festival. The Dude and I, along with his friend Titania and her brother Boris and parents, headed down to some of the displays, events and talks. Who knew that you could turn an ordinary drinking straw into a maddeningly annoying noisemaker with just a pair of scissors? Thanks to the Young Scientists Australia, NOW we know....
Yesterday the Dude and I went to listen to a lecture by Brian Cox -- former new wave pretty boy musician and current plotter of the paths of electrons -- about what the universe is made of. Maybe it was partly the adorable Mancunian accent and the floppy Beatles-style fringe, but this guy really lived up to his claim of being a science communicator. The Dude, who had threatened to fall asleep as he did in the front row of the Darwin Day lecture, stayed awake for the whole thing. I copied down a really cool little table that explains all about quarks and leptons and bosons (such as the relationship between up quarks and charm quarks, for example, which I have never been able to understand before).
But I am not going to give you a precis of the whole lecture here. What I wanted to blog about was the weirdos. We sat through an hour-long talk, with lots of pictures and graphics and even quotes about poetry, and heaps of stuff about the subatomic structure universe made sense even to a layperson like me (and the Dude). But when question time came around, the first person to stand up said, "Everything you have just said is wrong because..." [produces a small bottle] "... I have gravity right here in a jar." Or something like that. (I swear the bottle bit is true, I just don't remember his exact words.) Much rolling of eyes around the audience ensued, but super-smooth Dr Cox just smiled and said, "I promise to talk to you later, but now we'll move on to a question that will interest everyone in the room." How I could have hugged him! (Mmmmmm....)
Second question comes from the other side of the lecture theatre, from a bespectacled middle-aged man in suit who claims to be a physicist: "How can you do experiments on quarks and stuff if you can't see them?" I would have said, "Well, der, weren't you listening for the last half hour?" but super-patient Dr Cox took the trouble to explain AGAIN how his experiments work. Then he cracked a joke at the suit guy's expense, in the nicest possible way, so that even the suit guy had to laugh when Dr Cox asked what branch of physics he was in, "because those kind of questions usually come from people who are after my grant money."
After that, a few sensible questions were asked and answered. But it made me realise that science communicators must get to see more than their fair share of weirdos. My admiration for those who do it (Bad Astronomer, Pharyngula, etc, please take a bow) has just doubled.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Hysteria Alert!

I received an email the other day with pictures of a plant that had apparently been killed by being watered with microwaved water. Normally I delete these emails after a cursory glance but the hysterical language of this one caught my attention. I Googled it and found this website. The website admits what the email does not: that the experiment may have been flawed, that the results were not statistically significant, and that the photographs had been doctored.

But what I enjoyed most about the email was the additional conclusions added by one of the forwarders somewhere in the chain. I reproduce it below, with my own thoughts in square brackets.

The problem with microwaved anything is not the radiation people used to worry about; it is how it corrupts the DNA in the food [but water doesn't have DNA, so how does this experiment prove anything about radiation and DNA?] so the body can not recognize it. So, the body wraps it in fat cells [oooh, a present. For me?] to protect itself from the dead food or it eliminates it fast. [Dead food? Isn't all food dead when you eat it? I mean, maybe my parsley is still photosynthesising when I pick it out of the pot... and I think I ate a live pippi at the beach once.... It will definitely be dead once you microwave it, in any case.]

Think of all the Mothers heating up milk in these "Safe" appliances. [Uh-oh. Hysteria Alert! Using Capital Letters in the Middle of Sentences is always a bad sign.] What about the Canadian nurse that warmed up blood for a transfusion patient and accidentally killed them when the blood went in dead. [Those damned Canadians, eh? They're always doing stupid stuff that no-one in the good ole USA would do, eh?] But the manufacturers say microwaves are safe and to keep using them. Ask your Doctor. I am sure they will say it's safe too. [And you would rather me believe a 6th grader than my GP?] Proof is in the pictures of living plants dying. [That have been doctored, by the admission of the website owner.] Try it yourself. [This is about the only sensible sentence in the whole article.] Remember You are also Living. [So don't microwave your own head.] Take Care.

My reponse to this drivel is this:
The problem with alarmist anything is not that the original experiment was necessarily faulty, it's how it corrupts normally sensible people's brains so they cannot recognise rubbish when they read it. So the brain wraps it in hysteria to protect itself from actually having to process dead wrong information.

Think of all the Scientists trying to teach Sense to your children. And don't blame Canadians (or, in Australia, New Zealanders) when you are trying to make a far-fetched fictional anecdote sound scientific. Doctors say your brain is safe and you should keep using it. Ask your teacher. I am sure they will say it's safe too. Proof is obtainable with only a little effort, so try it yourself. Remember, you also have a brain. Use It.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Big Four-Oh

Okay, now I am 40 years old in both Australia and the US. To celebrate my birthday, we drove (well, some of us drove and some rode their Harleys) down through Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia to North Carolina for the 2006 Smokeout and, coincidentally, to visit Farmer Pete's sister and her family. Just to whet your appetite for more, here I am celebrating my age by defying death on the back of a Fat Boy (that's the bike, not Farmer Pete). You can see more photos over at my Flickr album (click on the link in the sidebar to get there), including two of the cutest boys in North Carolina.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Niagara Falls

Note: I'm having intermittent difficulties uploading pics to Blogger from my sister's computer, and today is one of those days. So I apologise for having to give you links to Flickr instead of photos right here in the blog.

Although the day started out wet and windy, by the time my sister and I got to Niagara Falls it was clearing (although still windy -- but the falls are always windy due to the huge updraft created by the massive amounts of water dropping over the edge). Those who have seen my photos of my last visit to Niagara will recall that we crossed over into Canada to see the falls from that side two years ago, so this year we decided to visit the American Falls. Goat Island is the tract of land that separates the Canadian Falls (Horseshoe Falls) from the Bridal Veil and American Falls. We parked on the Island, then walked out to the Three Sister Islands, a rather appropriate destination although only two of the three sisters were actually present. Wonder if we'll ever manage to get all three of us there at the same time?
After checking out the Horseshoe Falls from the south side and eating lunch in the Top of the Falls restaurant -- I had a local beer called the Dawn Patrol that was quite tasty -- we ventured over to the American Falls. The Cave of the Winds tour involved a 175-foot descent in a lift (or an elevator, as Farmer Pete insists) to a boardwalk that takes you right under the foot of the falls -- hence the yellow condom and strange sandals. Naturally, this didn't stop me from getting my jeans soaking wet when we went up onto the Hurricane Deck.
I am always amazed by the sheer quantity of water that goes over Niagara every second. Especially in the light of our drought-stricken continent downunder, it just seems impossible that there is enough water in the entire world to keep the Falls pumping millions of litres a second, 24/7, 365 days a year. Mind-blowing!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Animals upstate

Here's Farmer Pete mowing the lawn. It only takes him about five hours, and that's just the bit around the house. The field at the back is waist-deep in grass ready for hay-making.
Here's the supreme terror of the house in pensive mode: Sprocket the Not-So-Brave Beagle (he's quite scared of Puss when Puss is in a mood).
Puss is much more my style: he just lazes around in the sun all day and stalks the halls at night, occasionally taking a swipe at Sprocket if he gets too annoying.

Here's some upstate wildlife. The deer come down most days at dusk: on this day there were five or six in the hayfield. One spotted me with the camera and went bounding off into the trees, leaping high over the grass and showing the white underside of his tail with each bounce.

I've been trying to get close enough to a bumble bee to get a photograph for years, but they just won't hold still. These lumbering guys are about five times the size of Australian bees and make a much lower droning sound. I grasped the chance to finally get a photograph when we arrived in Colden to find a veritable graveyard of bumble bees in the side porch. Don't know why they all come to Colden to die!

Friday, June 16, 2006

Back to the blogosphere -- in New York

After several months of hiatus, I'm back! And I'm in New York!
I arrived in New York city on Friday evening, in pretty good shape thanks to a surprise upgrade to business class on my flight. The Upstaters (my sister and her husband) flew down to meet me at the airport and we dragged our luggage out to Uncle's place in New Jersey, which would be our base camp for daily forays into the Big Apple: just an hour on the bus each way.
I had a short list of four things I wanted to see or do in NY city: one of the big art galleries, Central Park, Greenwich Village and a Broadway show. We easily did all that and more, but there's still plenty to see next visit! All the photos are here, in my Flickr account.

Day 1
We headed straight for Times Square where we sipped coffee and watched the world go by. From Times Square we took a stroll uptown to the Rockefeller Centre. The Museum of Modern Art turned out to be the gallery of choice, rather than the Met, and it was all I thought it would be. Seeing first-hand original artworks that I've studied and written essays about was awe-inspiring. It's such a great collection of iconic works. When the security guards threw us out at closing time, we headed downtown to Chinatown for dinner. Much to my delight, I found several stores and street vendors who were selling the delicious hot coconut milk tea that the Dude and I fell in love with in Shanghai. I bought a cup for the Upstaters, who declared it delicious (although Pierre said it would be better without the "gloppy shit" in the bottom).

Day 2
On this fine sunny Sunday we elected to visit Central Park, only to find that half the park was closed to the public because of a Puerto Rican parade. Still, we walked through Strawberry Fields (and saw the Dakota apartment block where John Lennon was shot), strolled around the Lake to the Bethesda fountain and visited the Belvedere Castle for a great view of the Turtle Pond and the city skyline over the park. Shakespeare's garden was lovely, with lots of flowers in bloom. From Central Park we dropped in at the Waldorf ("where folks sit around all day") for high tea. Heading back downtown we went to Battery Park and visited the World Trade Centre site before going to Little Italy for dinner al fresco.

Day 3
Greenwich Village was ticked off the list today: Washington Square, NYU, the Stonewall Bar and various other sites. We ate lunch in a bar that was showing the World Cup, but just missed the Australia vs Japan game (that Australia won 3-1, and apparently John Aloisi made a hero of himself again). In the afternoon, we took the ferry to Liberty Island and Ellis Island to get an education in local history and some photographs of an iconic landmark. For dinner we found a little cajun cafe called Great Jones, so I got my first taste of gumbo and cornbread.

Day 4
Now with thoroughly sore feet, we had tickets for a show on Broadway this evening and everything else on my list done, so our first stop was NY Choppers, a custom bike shop famous among bikers like the Upstaters. Just down the road we ate lunch at the Hello Deli, which is apparently famous because it is a regular segment on Letterman. The owner was happy to pose for photographs with the customers, all day. And the sandwiches were good. Next stop was the South Street Sea Port, where there was an exhibition of plastinated human bodies similar to the one I saw in Sydney with the Aforementioned Engineer. The Upstaters were keen, so we checked it out. Afterwards we went to Union Square to meet my fellow blogger, Kevin, and get the lowdown on what we had missed from a true New Yorker! Last stop was Times Square (again) for a piece of New York pizza and some cheesecake to complete our sampling of NY cuisine. Spamalot was our Broadway show of choice (due to a long-term Monty Python indoctrination) and we were not disappointed, apart from the fact that the big-name stars (Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria) had been replaced by lesser-known performers. We finally made it back to New Jersey and fell into bed, knowing that the next day was just for travelling.

Now we're upstate, in sunny Colden where the temperature is (uncharacteristically) supposed to hit 90 degrees in the next day or so. (That's about 35 degrees for those who think in Celsius.) The Upstaters have family visiting for the Father's Day weekend so tomorrow looks like a grocery shopping day.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Philosophy 101: on happiness

Last night I attended my first philosophy class, which was a rapid-paced overview of the history of philosophy, touching briefly on each of the types of philosophy and the examples of philosophers that we will cover in future weeks. The class has about 30 people in it, ranging in age from about mid 20s to 70-odd, and ranging in style from hippy chic to business suits. There are only about six or seven men in the class. I am not sure what this says about philosophers!
The good news is, the lecturer stayed on topic. There were questions from the students, and almost all of them were related directly to the topic (one was about whether we could have the air-conditioner turned off, so we'll excuse that). This is such a nice change after my last course on string theory (which I have complained about at length in other blog entries).
During this class the teacher explained Aristotle's belief that happiness is the basic human need: everything we do can be boiled down to the pursuit of happiness.
This got me thinking about a conversation I had with my mother in January. Mrs B told me that she had made a new year's resolution to have no stress in her life (hence her unwillingness to visit me, as she and her partner find driving in the city stressful). I said, "Life is stress: you can't resolve not to have stress, you can only resolve to deal with stress better".
We talked about the fact that she doesn't feel happy when there is stress in her life. Happiness for Mrs B is a future prospect: she looks forward to a time of perfect felicity but doesn't experience it now. Any happiness she feels is tempered by the expectation that there is a better happiness just aeound the corner. I told her that I feel perfectly happy (when I am happy, which is by no means every moment of the day) now, and that I don't expect to feel any happier when I have paid off the mortgage/taken a holiday/eliminated stress.
Mrs B's response to my claim was to say, "Oh, but the worst thing that has ever happened to you is your father dying" (as if that's not bad enough).
I was a bit annoyed about this comment: it was as if she was trying to say that I could only think myself happy because nothing bad has ever happened to me. I admit I'm pretty lucky compared to some; but bad things have happened to me (I could have reminded her of an acrimonious divorce; my son's major surgery as a three-month-old baby and six months in a wheelchair as a three-year-old; losing two jobs because the companies went into liquidation, and so on) and bad things do happen to me and will continue happen to me. But good things also happen to me, and although I have never won the lottery or looked like a supermodel or been world-famous, I have (in the last few days):
  • received a spontaneous kiss and cuddle from the Dude
  • had a steamy kiss and cuddle with the Fun Policeman
  • made at least two new acquaintances whose company I enjoyed
  • giggled with the Dude's friend, the Princess, while looking at sperm under a microscope
  • talked to a man who was wearing chain mail and a sword
  • heard a Japanese choir singing in perfect harmony
  • read part of a good book
  • got butterflies in my stomach when Mr Darcy almost kissed Lizzie in the new Pride & Prejudice DVD
  • eaten fresh sushi and drunk good coffee
  • played my current favourite song on the car stereo (and sung along, loudly)
  • walked in a park on a sunny day
... I could go on. The point I am trying to make is that all those things are moments of pure happiness, mixed in with the rest of life -- work, housekeeping, bill paying, etc. But those moments of happiness are what makes life worth living.
Aristotle was right.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Merry Christmas

Sorry for not blogging for a while -- I have been pretty busy and distracted. Here is the christmas tree I made using soluble fabric stabiliser for Joy's block in the Round Robin I'm participating in.

More Dude Sculpture came home this week -- I'll post a pic in a day or two.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Top 10, er... 1000

Gosh. If I didn't have to limit myself to a top 10 of must-read books, I could go on forever... oh, it looks like someone has. I want one!

FP at Mardi Gras: no comment

Sunday, March 05, 2006

All love is equal

That was the theme of last night's Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, which was the best parade in years. Better than last year, definitely better than the year before when my friend MJ and I cowered under a tree with rivers of raindrops running down inside our plastic ponchos.
This year the Fun Policeman finally managed to persude the Fire Brigade to join the police, ambulance and other emergency services by entering a float to show support of the GLBTQ community and the members of the service. He was absolutely hyped at the end -- they had a great time walking along and waving to the crowd, getting their pictures taken with various elaborately costumed parade participants (everyone wants a photo with a fireman!) Articles in the mardi gras press drew attention to the fireys' participation with the headline: What starts with F and ends with U C K in the Mardi Gras parade? Answer: A firetruck!
The FP said he saw Molly Meldrum and even got close to Toby Allen but he didn't get his picture taken with him -- dammit!
The following photo is especially to make MJ jealous: he couldn't make it this year due to a family wedding but sent me plaintive SMS messages all night asking how the parade was going. And the Sydney Convicts Rugby team in their jock straps was another sight to be seen!

Here's something close to home: the theme of the Lord [Lady] Mayor's entry was "you're not the only gay in the village", with signs representing each of the "villages" in the City of Sydney -- including my own little patch of turf.

More (and larger) photos in my Flickr set. Wait until you see the float sponsored by Lincraft!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Dude sculpture III

Looks like we have another Jackson Pollock on our hands. Anyone want to pay $5 million for these beauties?

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Top 10 continued

Top 10 fiction
I have listed authors rather than particular novels, because most of the people on this list have written more than one brilliant novel. I do have my favourites, though.
1. Charles Dickens. Bleak House is fantastic, but they're all good. The first page of Hard Times is a masterpiece.
2. Jane Austen. Emma is the best, in my opinion.
3. Shirley Hazzard. Because I've just finished The Great Fire and her wonderful writing style is fresh in my mind. The Transit of Venus is a good place to start.
4. Patrick White. Voss
5. Mark Twain. Huckleberry Finn, of course.
6. George Eliot. Silas Marner
7. The Brontes. Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights. Poor Anne's Agnes Grey is wimpy by comparison, although it's just as good as other books by her sister, such as The Professor and Villette.
8. DBC Pierre. Vernon God Little. Apparently his new one -- Ludmilla's Broken English -- is also excellent.
9. D.H. Lawrence. Definitely The Rainbow, followed by its sequel Women in Love. But Kangaroo is good, too.
10. Tim Winton. Dirt Music, but all his novels are magnificent.

Top 10 poets
Once again, listed by author rather than particular poems.
1. Geoffrey Chaucer. "Whan that Aprille with its shoures swoot..."
2. John Donne. "I wonder by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we loved?"
3. William Shakespeare. "Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising / Haply I think on thee and then my state / (Like to the lark at break of day arising / from sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven's gate."
4. T.S. Eliot. "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time."
5. e e cummings. "you shall above all things be glad and young / For if you're young, whatever life you wear / it will become you; and if you are glad / whatever's living will yourself become."
6. Walt Whitman. "I celebrate myself."
7. Judith Wright. "This is the blood's wild tree that grows / the intricate and folded rose."
8. Les Murray. "There's a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can't stop him."
9. Kenneth Slessor. "Time that is moved by little fidget wheels / Is not my Time, the flood that does not flow."
10. John Shaw Nielson. "Let your song be delicate."

Top 10 children's books
These are all books I still love to read, as an adult.
1. C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the best after The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
2. Alan Garner. The Owl Service, Elidor, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath.
3. Tove Janssen. The Moomintroll books
4. Joyce Lankester-Brisley. Milly-Molly-Mandy
5. Roald Dahl. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, of course.
6. J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter series (since she hasn't written anything else. Will she ever, do you think?)
7. Patricia Wrightson. An Older Kind of Magic or I Own the Racecourse.
8. J.R.R. Tolkein. The Hobbit
9. Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows
10. Ethel Turner. Seven Little Australians

Monday, February 27, 2006

Sub's day off

Yesterday's Sun-Herald contained a page-three article about a "slither" of land with views over Bondi Beach that had been sold for squillions of dollars. The Aforementioned Engineer and I had a giggle. One could almost slide straight into the Bondi Icebergs' pool, we decided, if one had a spare $3.5 million.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Top 10

Yesterday's blogging about The Origin of Species got me thinking about important books and texts. I started trying to compile my own "top 10" and found it extremely difficult. If the top 10 must encompass both fiction and non-fiction, it's virtually impossible; however, trying to limit myself, here's my preliminary top 10 must-read books for an understanding of modern western/European culture:
1. The Bible. I still like the Revised Standard Version: reasonably modern English with some of the poetry of the King James retained.
2. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
3. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Plays and sonnets.
4. The Metamorphoses by Ovid/The Iliad by Homer (still deciding, but there's only room on this list for one classical epic, I think)
5. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
6. The Mabinogion (Celtic mythology)
7. Metamorphosis by Kafka. I might change my mind about this one and include In Camera by Jean-Paul Sartre instead.
8. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
9. Collected Poems of Judith Wright. Cheating a little. I wanted to include an Australian writer, a poet, and a woman in the list.
10. The Second Sex by Betty Freidan. I had to have a feminist manifesto on the list, but as I haven't read this book yet (although I've read Freidan's Fountain of Age) I would almost like to replace it with Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf, or even The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, all of which were of more influence on me personally with regard to feminist thinking.
Of this list, I have yet to read the Communist Manifesto and the Second Sex. And now for the challenge: agree, disagree or write your own top 10. Leave suggestions in comments or by email. Next entry: Top 10 novels/poetry/children's books (in English, or in translation).

Saturday, February 25, 2006

On the Origin of Species

I am happy to report that I have finished it at last. Almost exactly three years to the day since I began, I have finished reading The Origin of Species.
The paperback book itself is tired, the covers and corners tattered and taped and the pages yellowed from being carried around in my handbag. (I always like to have a book on hand, to be pulled out at those moments when there is nothing else going on and nothing important to think about -- usually in cafes or on buses.) Some of the pages bear the telltale stains of solitary cappuccinos, and I have been using a Tusker beer bottle label (local brew from Bruce's bar on Hideaway Island, Vanuatu) as a bookmark.
I started reading Origin in Vanuatu while we were on holiday, three years ago. I’d taken it along as a back-up book if I finished the one I really wanted to read. Funnily enough, I can’t remember what the other book was! (I have a feeling it was Carl Sagan’s Contact, which I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as the Fun Policeman promised I would.)
You may ask why I wanted to wade through such a venerable tome as Origin. The answer is that it is one of the most important and influential books ever written: the back cover blurb says, ‘next to the Bible’. I have read the Bible, and many other books that appear on various lists of influential works of fiction and non-fiction, so I felt that I ought to round out my education by reading this one.
I began reading Origin well before I became aware of the current controversy about Intelligent Design. In fact, it was almost the other way around: I became aware of the controversy because I was reading Origin. Although modern biologists counter the accusations of ID by denying that they are Darwinists, pointing out that our understanding of natural selection and evolution has advanced in leaps and bounds and, in some cases, diverged from Darwin’s version of the theory, they do owe (and own) allegiance to him and his bold vision: just as western civilisation cannot escape the fact that we owe a great deal of our culture and current beliefs to the Christian bible, whether we believe it is divinely inspired or not.
I was pleased to discover that, in many ways, Darwin foreshadowed developments in science during the 20th century:

We shall never, probably, disentangle the inextricable web of the affinities between members of any one class; but when we have a distinct object in view, and do not look to some unknown plan of creation, we may hope to make sure but slow progress. (Chapter XIV)

Take a bow, Crick, Watson and Rosalind Franklin.

With respect to existing forms, we should remember that we have no right to expect (excepting in rare cases) to discover directly connecting links between them, but only between each and some extinct and supplanted form. (Chapter XV)

Thomas Huxley, you go, guy. Wilberforce has got nothing.

With respect to the absence of strata rich in fossils beneath the Cambrian formation, I can recur only to the hypothesis given in the tenth chapter; namely, that though our continents and oceans have endured for an enormous period in nearly their present relative positions, we have no reason to assume that this has always been the case…. (Chapter XV)

Thus was plate tectonics, a discovery of the mid 20th century, foreshadowed in the mid 19th century.

With respect to the lapse of time not having been sufficient since our planet was consolidated for the assumed amount of organic change… I can only say, firstly, that we do not know at what rate species change as measured by years, and secondly, that many philosophers are not as yet willing to admit that we know enough of the constitution of the universe and of the interior of our globe to speculate with safety on its past duration. (Chapter XV)

Hubble and Hawking meet Humanism. (That old chestnut, the “insufficient time” argument, was raised at the Darwin Day meeting I attended. Unfortunately I hadn’t read this chapter then.)

It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the “plan of creation”, “unity of design” &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only re-state a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject the theory…. But I look with confidence to the future, — to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality. (Chapter XV)

There’s still nothing new under the sun, and Darwin has already answered his 21st century ID-believing critics.

Reading The Origin of Species, despite the fact that many would call the science it contains obsolete in the wake of 20th century scientific progress, gave me some important insights. Firstly, I became aware of the scope of Darwin’s mind: his careful study and experimentation, his inquisitive nature and his prodigious imagination. Secondly, I became aware of the leaps and bounds that science has made in the past 200 years. Thirdly, I became aware just how much Darwin’s work does underpin commonly held beliefs today, as well as scientific endeavours.
Do I recommend that you read this book? Not necessarily. Though it is well-written, it is not an absolute pleasure to read (hence the fact that it took me three years to get through it in dribs and drabs). But if you feel that you ought to read it to better understand the history of human ideas, then it is certainly worth digging up a copy and ploughing through it.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

A good cause

A former colleague of mine is currently working (and blogging) in Tanzania. Livin' the dream of giving something back to a world that has given so much to her: I admire her for this.

Check out her blog, and the website of the school she's working for. Admiration is cheap: if you think you can do more, so much the better.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Dude sculpture II

Plasticene strikes again at sculpture club: this time in the form of a very decorative candle surround. After last week's effort, the Black Eyed Peabrain has been nagging his parents to buy some plasticene for him to make more teeny little underwater scenes. Now, we love to encourage creativity, but have you ever seen what that stuff does when it gets into the carpet? It's nearly as bad as the red wax covers off those little round cheeses you can buy in the supermarket, when they are left on the back seat of the car in the sun!
The Fun Policeman, living up to his name, quashed the plasticene request forthwith; however, the BEP proved quite resilient and persuasive (and promised faithfully that he would only play with the plasticene on the stainless-steel table top) so I relented and paid a visit to Eckersley's.
Now we have a happy little vegemite, but if so much as a skerrick of plasticene ends up squooshed into the carpet it will be my fault for giving in to him.
Parenting. It's that fine balance between encouraging creativity and independent thought in your children and maintaining your own sanity (not to mention upholstery).

This is the BEP's multi-level plasticene seascape, constructed in a small plastic bowl. There was a "scooper diver" -- as the BEP used to say -- but he took up too much room. Instead, you can see a clam measuring about a centimetre in diameter, and the cutest little crab cowering under a coral ledge. Unfortunately, no beche-la-mers: I will have to take him to task for that. Perhaps the scooper diver took them all home for dinner.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Gizoogle it

Ho-slappin' tha B-L-to-tha-izzack Eyed Peabrain (formerly knizzown as tha Dude). This impressive shina is tha result of a playground collision between tha BEP n his mate's foreheezee (I haven't seen tha otha gizzy but I believe he came off tha betta). Relax, cus I'm bout to take my respect.

This is the first paragraph of my previous post, transizliated into jive by Gizoogle.

Thanks to Kevin for the link.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Introducing the Black Eyed Peabrain (formerly known as the Dude). This impressive shiner is the result of a playground collision between the BEP and his mate's forehead (I haven't seen the other guy, but I believe he came off the better).

I also wanted to note that the RU486 bill passed the House of Reps on Thursday, much to the disgust of the PM and his parliamentary cronies who cried: "Don't you trust us to make decisions on your behalf, informed by expert advisers?"

Well, I don't know, John. Would those be the experts who advised you about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the ones who advised you about the children overboard, or the ones who advised you about the Australian Wheat Board's dealings with Saddam Hussein?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Dude sculpture

The Dude had his first after-school sculpture club meeting yesterday and came home with this. He modelled a group of colourful plasticene penguins to represent our family (the Fun Policeman, me, the Airhead, the Drama Queen, and the Dude) then placed them in a jar of water.

The Dude said, "We were supposed to put glitter in the water to make it like a snowdome, but I didn't want to. I guess it's more of a rain-dome."

Tune in for more sculpture next week.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

50 years from now...

... according to Liberal Party backbencher Danna Vale, Australia will be a Muslim country because of all the little Aussies we're aborting today. (I wanted to put a link to the article that appeared in today's Sydney Morning Herald, but they haven't put most of the inflammatory bits on the website.)
WTF? This is wrong on so many levels I hardly know where to start! She says that she heard a Muslim cleric at a Sydney mosque make the claim that Australia would be a Muslim country in 50 years. So what? Go to any evangelical Christian church any Sunday and you'll hear the same thing with the word "Christian" instead of Muslim, but no-one gets upset about that. (Actually, most Aussies react to both claims the same way: "Yeah, whatever... when's the cricket starting?")
And how dare she bring race into the RU486 debate? It makes it sound like eugenics: "if only all those white middle-class girls weren't aborting potential Australians, we would be able to prevent the Muslims from carrying out their not-so-secret plan to convert the whole country". Which is a really screwed up way of thinking. If you take it one step further, perhaps Danna Vale would like to encourage Muslim women to have abortions, because it saves the Australian government the trouble of rejecting the kiddies' refugee applications, sinking their boats or blowing them up in Iraq when they grow up.
Please note: Amanda Vanstone has responded to her colleague's comments by pointing out that she's completely wrong, although I think Mandy's response still smacks of racism. Yet once again I find her standing up against the more offensive views of her fellow MPs, for which I grudgingly give her kudos. Eh, Chloe, next thing we know we'll be having cucumber sandwiches with her ourselves!
And also note: I have written this whole post without a single personal, emotive attack on Danna Vale. Except the bit about taking it one step further. True2life should be (a little bit) proud of me, because I was tempted to say much more.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Great Fire

Last night I finished reading Shirley Hazzard's latest book, The Great Fire. I read it very slowly: it's the kind of book you want to enjoy to the fullest, so I didn't want to open it when I was just filling in time, or was too sleepy to take it in. And when I finally finished it, I felt as though I had had a box of exquisite Belgian chocolates and, although I was careful to conserve them as long as I could, I had just eaten the last one. I can still taste the sweetness this morning.
I read Shirley Hazzard's last novel, The Transit of Venus, as part of my Australian Literature course at uni. Being an impoverished student, all my books came from second-hand book stores and I remember turning up at the tutorial with my tattered paperback version in hand. The copy I had found was the kind of book that one of my lecturers would look down her nose at and term "airport literature": the title was in red foil letters and there was a slightly dated illustration on the cover of a blonde woman nearly popping out of a scarlet bustier. (The weird thing is, the heroine actually has black hair -- and I don't think she wears a bustier in the entire book.) My (richer) classmates had the brand-new version from the Co-op Bookshop, which had a very tasteful piece of modern art on the cover and a slim white serif font proclaiming the title.
Despite the off-putting appearance of its cover, I really enjoyed reading The Transit of Venus (and loved the debates we had in our AustLit tutorial about the ambiguous ending). So I was expecting a lot from The Great Fire. And I got it.
As well as rich, unpredictable characters and an intricate tapestry of plot threads, The Great Fire happens to be set partly in Hong Kong and Shanghai, where I have just visited. Not to mention Norfolk (UK) and Wellington (NZ) where I have also spent a little time. The postwar period setting notwithstanding, it was a kind of sweet synergy to have the characters treading in the streets I had so recently visited. Although I had to laugh when Peter Exley (a character who is originally from Sydney) describes working in the tallest building in Hong Kong, at 13 storeys -- these days, it would be one of the shortest (even our low-slung hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui had 14 floors).
We claim Shirley Hazzard as an Australian writer because she was born here. The Transit of Venus has an underlying theme of Australianness linked to the title: Captain Cook's voyage of discovery was primarily to observe the transit of 1776 from the southern hemisphere. Some of the characters in The Great Fire are Australian, too. But England, Japan, Italy, China and New Zealand are all beautifully represented in the scenery and characters of the book too. I think Shirley Hazzard is a truly international writer (in English), but nevertheless with a distinctively Australian sensibility.
I highly recommend that you read The Great Fire. It's just beautiful.