Sunday, May 31, 2009

Media training

Last week we has media training at CSIRO. There was a lot of hands-on exercises on how to best represent your science to the public. The first was a TV interview with a local newsman. I was still a bit groggy and we were fresh out of the gates at that point. I have another interview with someone from radio news that was later and much improved.

I mentioned earlier that I missed working with the media from my old job- it's different now because my work is a bit more behind the scenes and more complex. Most people know that river forecasts exist, but they may not know how they're made. It can be easy to just say that the forecasts are getting better because of (a) better tools or (b) better understanding, but it's more nuanced than that. One doesn't want to discount the human element of the forecasting process. And there's vast empty spaces between research and practice. And when a proverbial hammer does the job, there's no shame in not using a nuclear powered superhammer with tassels.

Friday, May 29, 2009


In the US (and maybe here) there's a phrase "going postal" which usually means going crazy... or more specifically losing it and getting violent in the workplace, based on an incident in the early 1980s where a series of postal workers came in and shot up their managers. We recently saw a movie called "He was a quiet man" that has some of those plot elements (good movie, recommend, no spoilers here).

To be honest though, the post office doesn't seem like that bad of a place. There's something reassuring about the transaction, I entrust you with my goods, we exchange a tiny bit of money, you go off and take my stuff anywhere in the world. No way could I get a package from here to the US for under $30 if I had to do it myself. Good on ya, post office, big fan here.

Now, VicRoads, on the other hand... It's the equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in the US. We're able to convert our US license to an Australian one without an actual test, which is great. But we do need to go in person to their office. We needed to make an appointment, and the earliest appointment was 8 weeks out. That's longer than the gestation period of an emu (all the way from "hey there good looking" to "hark, a little baby emu!" and still no license).

Their "downtown" office is about 40 minutes on public transit from the Docklands. Here's a picture of their front door:

And here's what I imagine it would look like if an asteroid to hit their office:

They asked for all kinds of ID, passport, utility bill, old license, local credit card, etc. There was also a form that asked a zillion things. One was if I was taking any medication. Oh, if ever there was a box that I could untick. Stop time... just reach across the counter... comically large eraser... wipe out the whole thing.

The bad news was that I'd need an appointment with a doctor and have him fill out a form and I'd come back a second time. It took a while to set up going to the doctor, paid some money for a rubber stamp really.

Today I thought it would be nice to do my follow up appointment, so took off work early. Getting cross town was nuts, almost none of the trams were working because of evacuations associated with a chemical leak downtown. Took forever to get a taxi then was stuck in traffic.

To make a short story long, I rock up and their first question is "passport please?" Even without my passport, they apparently wouldn't have given me the license anyway because my medical form would still need to be reviewed by their doctors which takes a couple days. One part of me felt like I'd lose my marbles and just go ape... Another part felt like "yup, of course, deserve that". Can we just get a replay on that asteroid?

Christine is quite effective at getting her way re customer service. My strategy is mostly to be quietly indignant and marbled with sarcasm.

"Do you really mean I have to come back a third time?" "Yes" "Like I have to take off work again?" "Yes" "And go all the way cross town?" "Yes" "Because my ID verification from the first time is in the computer but not your actual paper form?" "Yes" "And the same shift manager from the first time is right there and she saw everything I had last time?" "Yes" "Can you copy it from the computer to your form?" "No" "If you give me the pen, can I do it?" "No" "Is this a hoax?" "No" "Right, well forget you then, I'm off!" "Bye" I don't think it works. Having worked for the government, you would think I'd could speak in secret code to them. Hard to win against industrial strength bureaucracy though. I'm probably better of not driving anyway.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Microwave time

The Antarctica book talks about how starved for stimulation people get when wintering over. In particular they start reading the ingredients list on cereal boxes and canned food and so on. Yet at the same time hectic non-important importance of civilization seems so distant to them.

Back in Portland I remember the time when Christine complained that "our microwave is too slow". I didn't know how to react. Is there something faster than a microwave?

Recently however I realized a thing I was doing subconsciously. If I wanted to cook something for a minute, I'd set the timer for two minutes. I'd open the door when the first minute was up and cancel the rest. I'd say to myself "right, that was going to take two minutes but I did it in one. I just saved an extra minute that I can use to do something important".

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I'm almost finished reading Sara Wheeler's book "Terra Incognita": Travels in Antarctica.

Since about third grade, I've had a general infatuation with Antarctica on maps. I would place my finger on where I was on the globe and try to place my other finger on the other side of the earth. It may have had something to do with wanting to get as far away from wherever I was at the time (I later turned into a serial runaway in high school and now my adult skills have allowed me to switch continents). Antarctica was a massive ribbon of white along the bottom of most maps, like the edge of the world, beyond which you'd find ye olde seamonsters. Going to Antarctica is one of the things that has reliably stayed on my list of things do to before I die.

Anyhow, I always thought that there are only two kinds of people that they let
visit Antarctica: scientists and artists (not true actually). But for years this made me think that someone like me would never make it there. But what a way to separate the scientific "clergy" from the lay- give them a whole continent. One thing I enjoyed as a 10 year altar boy was going all over the parts of the church that were off-limits to most people (the balcony, the back rooms, various store rooms). Solemn, quiet, forbidden.

Sara Wheeler was one of the earlier writers to participate in the Antarctic artists program. Her book is about 40% about herself, 30% mechanics of snow life 20% quotes from other famous explorers and 10% taking in nature. I was somewhat surprised that Antarctica is practically money free. Everything is stocked for you and you just take it off the shelf if you need it. She talks about the effects on the psyche; there's an interesting passage about boat crew members that were so desperate they'd break open the compass to drink the alcohol!

Today I came across this passage "...everyone who went to Antarctica came back vowing that nothing in heaven or earth would tempt then to go near polar regions the end of six months they were on their knees in front of whomever might be able to get them there."

Not there yet but hopefully sooner than later.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Before and after

When I first arrived in January, CSIRO took a staff photo:

Today they took another...

Bags under the eyes have gone from a clutch to a satchel perhaps but doesn't seem too different?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Andrew Bird

Lately I've been going on an Andrew Bird bender. I've liked his music for a while. The first time I heard his work was on headphones while hiking up to the top of Mt Tabor in portland. At the time it just came up on shuffle play and I thought that it was from the 1920s, early jazz/swing.

Soon after, I put "Opposite Day" on a mix for Christine and "A nervous tic motion of the head to the left". "Glass figurine" was the first song on our wedding album (right before Billie Holiday's "I'll never smile again").

One thing I especially like is that it's easy to hear his voice just as an another instrument. If you focus on the lyrics they're also ambiguous so they have almost any meaning you want. Music like that can have a more profound impact on your being than something with a ham-fisted message or trying to build up the artist's brand/identity. For example, I didn't know what he looked like for years until I found one of his live performances on youtube. Woody McBride was probably my favorite artist throughout most of college (1993-96ish) and I'm still not totally sure what he looks like. Some artists (e.g. Mike Banks) refuse to be photographed on principle. I suppose the same should probably go for science - my first advisor told me "when journals will publish your bad articles (because of your fame), it's time to switch fields".

Friday, May 22, 2009

media training

Today CSIRO sponsored a media training at my work. Reporters from radio, newsprint and tv came in and talked about science and the media with the help of a facilitator. About 10 or so scientists participated and it was the whole range from people who were working on relatively arcane topics to things that were more immediate and maybe even controversial. It was quite participatory which was good experience (I have a video that hopefully I'll be able to convert and upload).

Aside from Neko, today I realized that one of the other things I miss in my old work was interacting with the media. There's a love/hate relationship of the nuanced, soft spoken, rambling professor interested in gnats knees with the fly-by sensationalist reporter... but my experience was that it could be an unfortunate stereotype.

I often did interviews with newspapers and even had one NPR radio interview (disclaimer- not my most articulate um like work...and stuff...). CNN TV called me for a story once but never followed up.

True, when it was bad it was bad. For example, one time a reporter was sly and got me to forward him an email chain of a heated (but at that point very internal) controversy about global warming and the washington state climatologist. You know you're in trouble when your exasperated boss storms into your cubicle and says "Right... you do NOT answer the phone for a week".

But when it was good it was great. They'd call interested in the latest forecasts for runoff and I was probably one of only three or four people who know what was going on and could give them the best information. It made me feel like an "insider", I suppose a bit like that presidential staffer that nobody's heard of but actually knows all. The drama, the suspense, all fleeting but very engaging.

It is especially flattering when you get repeat business from a particular reporter. There were several I liked but I delighted when working with John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal. He clearly "got it" and was always able to draw out the good quotes, making me sound much more erudite than I probably am. Henry Brean in Salt Lake was good too.

Of course, there was no matching the Utah snow surveyor Randy Julander. I can't count the number of times I came in and scrolled through the morning news and did a spit take all over my screen on seeing his latest quote. Can't put my finger on one at the moment, but while accurate they were strikingly visual, and occasionally bawdy (he's only person I knew who could legitimately work the phrase "brass monkey" into a story). He also wrote the narratives for the utah water supply outlooks which are surprisingly fun to go back and read.

a stray cat

On the way to work today a strange thing happened... I saw my first cat since arriving here. Strange because I saw cats all the time back in Portland. I suppose we're living in an urban enough area that there wouldn't be strays, but my workplace is a bit more suburban. 

I stopped briefly and pet its cheek but had to move on. It mewled and I have to say it really tugged at the heartstrings.

Ok, right, it can be a truism that people don't realize that "your baby is boring". Zillions of photos of all the minutia... A long stare and a burp can send parents tittering. But I'll confess that I had a love affair with the cat, Neko, I left behind.

People who don't like cats, or even other peoples cats, all this probably doesn't do anything for them. But there's something to be said for that warm ball of fur laying on you and purring contentedly to let you know it's going to be alright. As long as the food keeps coming and nothing too scary happens, life is good.

I've probably had about 5 cats over the years, some of which liked me and others didn't but something just bumped Neko into a whole other category. I mean, how many people photoshop a valentine for their pet?

Or dedicate their dissertation to them? Neko, if you're out there reading this daddy misses you terribly!

Off topic but today I also got carded for my ticket for the first time on the train. It was a little stunning how many people didn't have tickets actually. And there's no excuses they accept, so no use stammering. One guy was spitting mad that they were carding him, but what can you do?

Friday, May 15, 2009


Christine got me a gift of a book of australian national parks. The places that seem to interest me the most are the ones that are the least accessible. When I was flying to Portland for the first time, I talked with my seatmate for most of the trip. She brought out a map of Oregon in the in-flight magazine and talked about different areas. I pointed to southeastern Oregon where there was a large blank on the map. I asked what was out there and she said "nothing". That sounded like the place to be. Unfortunately I never did make it out east before moving away. 

But tonight when I was looking in the book I came across one place labeled "unnamed conservation area". Unnamed? Really? There is nothing in the world that's unnamed, especially places. Is it waiting for a name and nobody has gotten around to it yet? Sure enough, googling turned up only one or two links. There's the "unnamed conservation park management plan". The area's been thought about enough to have a plan, just not a name?

I can relate in a way though. My research has been on building a piece of software for forecasting. Although naming your program is always one of the biggest steps, a bit like naming your band, we've gone months without agreeing on a name. Good acronyms are especially important. VIPER, SPUR, VIC, all good. DWOPER or unpronouncable strings of consonants (strangely common here) not so good. Middle-of-word acronyms are a definite sign of weakness, like Hydrological EstimAtion Program Sofware (HEAPS).

Anyhow someone really did suggest the "unnamed model" and I kind of like it... UNM. I'm almost at the point of calling it "Claire" just to get that out of the way. Tom

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The stamp on the letter

So coming home on the train today I saw two old men that I would swear could be Richard Nixon impersonators. Really, got on the train and thought "that guy looks just like Nixon" and thought "how often does that happen?"... I kept walking through the car and sat down across from another old man and thought "look at those jowls...and the cross-legged slouching... you could ski jump down that nose!" Can't make this stuff up.

Unrelated but last year Christine gave me a self help book, David Burn's "Feeling Good"
In the early pages it talked about how the expected satisfaction one gets from a task is often quite different from the actual satisfaction. The example he gives is that he asks, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much of a sense of accomplishment and well being one would get from the parts of writing a manuscript (foggy memory, so apologies if it's not the actual example). 

How much joy for preparing the first drafts? Some enjoyment perhaps, 6. In revising and editing? That's probably not fun, 3. Getting an envelope and putting a stamp on it? Maybe thrilling if you're in to stamps, 2? And what a hassle to go to the post office. 

But when someone goes through the process and records their satisfaction as events occur, people often have a different reaction than they'd expect, e.g. in editing, one can get a certain enjoyment from coming up with a particular turn of a phrase (my former office-mate Holly once delighted at the chance to use "a seeming surfeit" in one of her papers). And certainly those last minutes before and the afterglow of dropping it down the chute of a post box... It can take you by surprise. 

I think the thesis of the book was that depressed people often don't "do" because they don't expect that they'd enjoy. The context for thinking about this was that I've recently been working on a conference paper about my group's research. I'm not sure I'd say I'm the best writer...Scientific writing, with its sentences, shaped in tortured passive constructions, and a seeming surfeit of clauses and commas, can resemble, in a way, the literary equivalent of River Dancing. But nonetheless, I probably wouldn't have believed if you had asked me a week ago how much better I'd feel after the draft was finished. But there it is, felt good to know it was done and could leave work before the security guard tossed me out. 

One can't help but wonder the broader context of what else is enjoyable but not necessarily an obvious thing that one would want to do. There's something to be said from learning from experience and knowing what one likes (I once heard that one's life-long musical tastes are set by 22). At the same time though, there's that cliche that you should do at least one thing a day that you're afraid of.  

Sunday, May 10, 2009 burns.

I can't begin to tell you guys how clucking easy it is to get sunburned here. 

Even when I wear a high SPF sunblock, hat and (good, polarized) sunglasses - I still get fried. Melanoma is TEN times more common here than in most countries. We're #1 in the world.  Click here for other facts about Australia and skin cancer. 

It's starting to freak me out.  Statistically, the chances of getting metastasized melanoma (which is, oh by the way, basically fatal) are slim.  It's not even completely clear how UV rays relate to melanoma. 

But basal and squamous cell carcinomas - geez, I see a lot of people with telltale patches of gauze taped all over them. Those ones are rampant. It's treatable, but wouldn't you want to do about everything possible to not have chunks of skin regularly lopped off your body?   Yick.

Literally, I feel like I should wear a bag over my head. I don't know what to do about the eye holes though, because my eyes seem to get burned the worst.  That mostly just hurts. I don't think it causes eye cancer but it's can't be good.  I can see wearing Terminator style wrap-around glasses (ewe) or those old navigator Ray Ban's, the ones with the protective leather guards on the sides.  Tom suggested some Nicole Richie's, the kind that cover half your face.  We're going to look into that as an option.  This isn't me, it's her, by they way:

Actually, I'm not even completely clear on the action items.  Apparently the high levels of UV radiation here are due to the hole in the ozone.   Supposedly, due to legislation banning chlorofluorocarbons  (CFC's) and other ozone damaging chemicals, the hole will heal itself in say, another 50 years.  Those pesky fluro-clurvo-flavins (I accidentally called them that on one of our first dates...don't ask.) 

In the mean time, I mostly see advice like:
  • Don't drive a car (check)
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle (mmnnn...check)
  • Buy CFC-free fridges (not sure, checking...)
  • Dispose of old fridges and air conditioners properly (other than just removing the door and leaving it behind the garage indefinitely)
How the hole is the ozone relates to global warming (or the performer previously known as Global Warming) is also unclear to me.  I know my friend Kitty (weird, I know, there are two of us) went on a cruise to Alaska three years ago and the same one again last year.  Apparently she had no recollection of the first one because the second one looked NOTHING like it. The glaciers were just gone.  When they do melt entirely, it will raise the sea level and cause, I don't know... famine, draught, petulance, clothes with labels sewn into them that can't be removed without tearing the fabric, more bad stuff, etc.  Tom said that he went to a conference and someone started a speech with:

"For the last decade, scientists have been warning us that climate change will cause the polar caps to melt entirely by the year 2075.  We now know that the timeline has evolved and this catastrophe is now expected to the time I finish this talk." 

Anyway, I hate to get all freaked out and full of hyperbole (you know me) about what's happening to the planet.  It's just really strange, and doesn't quite seem okay, to step out of our house, into paradise, and be actually and instantly burned alive.  It's not cool. 


Puffing Billy, A Train Ride

Every month or so, we rent a car for the weekend. Yesterday I went shopping with a girlfriend and we stocked up on bulky objects like an oil space heater, crock pot and a few metric tons of TP. That's just sad to have to make a special trip to the store for TP, lean thinking be damned.  Tom also got me a beautiful pair of kidskin elbow length gloves for our 32 month anniversary that is tomorrow. This will be the first he knows about it (thanks, Honey....they're PERFECT!). 

Today we all went to the Dandenong Mountain range, about an hour north of town and took the Puffing Billy train ride.  There were fabulous views. We stopped in a small town and found a scrumptious bakery before returning back to the starting point and then headed off to a skyline viewpoint site and heading home.  Let's hope I don't get any more speeding violations.  On the last day trip I got 2, which added up to almost $600 in fines and 5 demotion points (you can get 12 demotion points before you lose your license).  (I haven't gotten around to getting a license yet, will be interesting to see how that plays out when I do.)

The funnest thing about Puffing Billy is that they don't mind if you climb up on the gunwales of the cars and hang your feet out the side.  This was exhilarating while going over creakity old wooden bridges and it was fun to try to reach the local flora with our feet.  Hard to imagine being allowed such reckless abandon in American.  It was exciting enough that one could hardly escape the sense that it must be naughty, adding to the excitement, creating a positive reinforcement loop of foot swinging, train riding bliss.


Sunday, May 3, 2009

We went to the Footy

Australians just love to endear nouns by shortening them and tacking on a long "e" sound.
  • In the morning, they eat "brekkie".
  • Instead of college, they attend "uni".
  • If someone, who shall remain nameless, takes home all the teaspoons from his company kitchen, they are said to have "gone walkie".
A little while ago we were lucky enough to come by some free "footy" tickets 3rd row right behind the goal posts on Sunday.We were at the point of, why not, even if only to get the t-shirt that said we did (available for $89.00 btw). Footie is Australian Rules Football, a combination of rugby and American football. It's played on quite a large field. It's constant action, very few lets-stand-around-and-get-reorganized moments. Kind of tough to tell how violent it is, they don't wear any protection, although sometimes there are people all up in a pig pile.

On the train there someone was leading the car in a war chant, half cheering half booing and a third half of commuters a bit afraid for their lives. The stadium is really convenient... We took the train and were in our seats in less than 35 minutes door to door.

Christine has a new "I don't want to take public transportation without being medicated" policy. It's true, the train rides are especially memorable on game days. Knowing this, she donned her special train "stimulus minimization uniform": 

There is something that happens when the compartments are too crowded to find a handhold...when the train lurches, because everyone is so closely packed together, no one falls. You're really far more stable than when you standing freely.

So a couple things we noticed that were weird about this sport...

1. No "commercially prepared" food allowed inside. Didn't quite understand what that meant, but everyone brought food... One guy in front of me pulled out a steak knife (how did that get past security??) and goes to town on some lunch meats, I couldn't bear to watch. I just know the sandwich was gone in three bites but the smell of egg salad stayed through most of the second quarter.

2. Alcohol on the property, sold at reasonable prices... ~$5usd for a beer (labeled light, medium and heavy beer... there was a sign that no heavy beer was to be sold at tonight's event... makes you wonder what nights they _do_ serve heavy beer). Oh and Whiskey and Vodka. You can get hard alcohol at pretty much every 4th stand. And yet, no heavy beer. (?)

3. On the Jumbotron, around the end of the first quarter, they flashed the score and made an announcement to get your last bets in at an online sports gambling website. Right out there in the open, on the very jumbotron itself.

4. The mix of foods is all different, meat pies, fish and chips, sausage rolls, chikka (aus for chicken) roll, etc. We saw a hot dog on the way out but Christine reminded me that we haven't found a hot dog we've liked since moving here (I think 99% of her samples have come from Ikea where the hot dogs are reshaped recycled cardboard marinated in Bragg's Amino seasoning). We do like the Slurpees though, and have a new recipe of adding a full can of lemonade to the 7-11 large size which gets the slush to sugar ratio just about right.  They don't have the long straws that fit the large cups here yet though.  In fact, only about half the places you get a take away (to go) drink will provide a lid. We're okay with that.  No one said immigrating would be easy, they just said it would be worth it. 

5. No protective nets behind the goal lines like in the US. If a just-kicked touchdown sails into your drink, oh well, ha ha.

6. We counted about 5 uniforms on the fields, 1 for each side, one for referees, one neon for runners to the fields for the coaches, and then sideline folks who have refreshments and a medical bag. One of the rules has to do with bleeding players so it's important to staunch the flow so they can get back up again.

Overall, we'll admit that we can see the draw now, though we don't see picking a favorite team or investing in any mascot motif apparel anytime soon.  Our next sporting adventure will probably be the Melbourne (horse racing) Cup, for which Christine is already being coached by some girlfriends and planning her outfit. Apparently some very big hats are going to be involved.