Saturday, July 31, 2010

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Crisis Economics

From National Affairs, a discussion of the effects of government spending vs tax cuts

Monday, July 26, 2010

Bumper Sticker

I saw this one: "God Bless The Whole World--No Exceptions".
Really? Bless the ones who are lazy and willfully ignorant? The ones who see any position of power as an opportunity for graft? The ones who enslave their women? The ones who feel that killing off the next tribe over is a fine sport? Bless them just as much?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Adelaide zoo

Wombat and a rare non-stealth kangaroo, in Adelaide zoo.

The Ghan Train

Pictures from the Painted desert, showing the notorious Invisible Kangaroos.

Ayers Rock

Walpa Gorge in the Olgas, near Ayers Rock

The Olgas at sunset

Ayers Rock at sunset

Great Barrier Reef

Looking across the top of Briggs Reef 

A giant clam--the blue-green zigzag is the edge of his shell. This is a small one, about 18" long; I later saw one about four feet long.


The coast north of Cairns, and the Milla Milla waterfalls. As I mentioned previously, we didn't see any poisonous snakes, spiders, or other interesting wildlife around Cairns; however, near the waterfalls there's a park with a sign which warns of stinging trees. The leaves of these trees are covered in tiny silicon (glass) hairs, which are coated with a neurotoxin that causes intense pain. Fortunately we didn't see any of those around the waterfall.


Here's the Brisbane Ferris wheel and a harbor ferry catamaran.
The second shot is from the Maritime Museum. The plaque on the boat says:
Some years ago a young Canadian adventurer set out from the east coast of Canada in his 2.7 metre aluminum boat named HAPPY. He sailed down to the Panama Canal, through it and into the Pacific Ocean. He crossed the Pacific to New Caledonia, where his boat was driven ashore. He rebuilt it as exhibited here and renamed it HAPPY II. He eventually reached the coast of Australia, and subsequently HAPPY II was handed over to the Queensland Maritime Museum. 

Photos of Sydney

We have about 700 photos of the Australia trip; I'll post a couple of each place we visited, starting with Sydney. Here's the Opera House at night, and the view of the Circular Quay as seen from the Opera House, with downtown in the background.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Coming back from Toronto Sunday night, we made it to Philly but our flight from Philly to Norfolk was cancelled. There was still one more flight, but it was full. Monday morning's flight was delayed also but eventually arrived around noon. We discovered the microwave had died, which was no surprise; we also found the water heater was leaking. I suspect one of our house sitters moved the dryer and hit the drain pipe, breaking the seal; in any event, we got to buy a new heater on Tuesday. Fortunately the leak was from high up on the heater, so we had a 2-3 gallon flood instead of 50 gallons.
Also on Tuesday, Josh took my car to Fairfax so he could see his new apartment (we signed the lease while he was in Australia this spring) and go to the Iron Maiden concert.
Oh, and I still need to go in to work and make a month's worth of sales in two weeks, and deal with accumulated angst from various friends, neighbors, caretakers, and so forth. If you're wondering why I'm just getting around now to posting what happened last weekend, that's why.

Friday, July 23, 2010

July 15 -18, Toronto

We were in Toronto for a niece's family wedding. In addition to the joys of jet lag, large social gatherings with people I mostly don't know, and staying in a place without internet access, there was also the particular joy of dealing with Toronto traffic. Once you're on the main highways, it's okay, but downtown is a painful experience. A lot of the streets are allegedly four lane, but that's a lie. A lot of intersections don't have left turn lanes, so the left lane stacks up behind that poor guy who's trying to turn left in the face of oncoming traffic. The right lane is often taken up by vehicles which are parked or just stopped for a delivery, or by construction. Consequently, you don't even have a two lane road, because you can't just stay in one lane; you have to bob and weave back and forth, while the cabbies and other psychos behind you try to cut past.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

July 14

We get up, get packed, drop our key in the box--the front desk is not open at 7am--and start hauling our stuff outside. Josh takes one of the bags that was holding the door open and, voila, the door closes. And locks. With most of our stuff still inside. Bang on the door, nothing. There are two room windows we can get at and I bang on them, no response. We accost someone in the street and get him to use his mobile phone to call the hotel's emergency number; he gets a voicemail (and leaves a message "Your building is on fire!"--he was sympathetic). Bang on the windows again, nothing. Our cab is arriving in five minutes. I am looking around for what Josh describes as a Camel Negotiation Interface, i.e. a rock or similar device, for purposes of Breaking and Entering, when someone finally comes down the hallway and open the door. It's a hungover Russian rather than one of the staff, so my window-thumping must have had an effect after all. We get our stuff outside just as the cab arrives, and off we go.
We leave Sydney at 10:30am and fly and fly and fly and fly. This time we're surrounded by high schoolers and the one behind Josh is a girl with a high, whiny voice that would surely be grounds for acquittal. I watch Clash of the Titans and some other movie which is even less memorable, but at least I don't quite sink to watching Book of Eli. We arrive at LA at 6:30am--yes, we get there four hours before we left. Unfortunately we then get off the plane, go through Customs, go through Security, get on another plane and go to JFK. And get on another plane and go to Toronto, although fortunately the Customs hall in Toronto is almost empty and we speed through. Take a cab and get to the house at 11pm, roughly 31 sleepless hours after getting up.

July 13

Adelaide. Our hotel is downtown and near two universities; there's a wide mix of businesses in the storefronts, from old books to souvenir tee shirts, sex toys, Macca's (McDonald's), jewelry, pub, travel agent. Adelaide is relatively far from the equator and it's winter, but still warm enough not to need a sweater (we did see one girl at the pedestrian mall wearing black briefs, a silver bikini top and a suit jacket, but it wasn't that warm). The pedestrian mall is busy, a great place for people watching.
In the morning we go to the zoo and finally see a kangaroo, wallabies, a tasmanian devil, crocodile, bilby, and so forth. The wombats are not in their area; one of the keepers hears us mention our disappointment, so she takes us back to where the wombats are being fed and we get to pet one. The fur is silky, but the body underneath is hard as teak--it doesn't feel like an animal, it feels like a heavy piece of furniture that just happens to have fur.
Then we catch a flight to Sydney.

Monday, July 12, 2010

July 11 and 12

Fly from Ayers Rock to Alice Springs, where we spend a couple of hours before catching the Ghan Train. Alice Springs is supposed to have some fun events--there's a dry river regatta, where people paddle with shovels or use boats with the bottoms out, Flintstones style--but there's nothing particularly interesting while we're there. I spend an hour at an Internet kiosk, of which approximately 42 minutes are spend muttering rude things under my breath; that keyboard was obsolete in 1985 and the browser...grrr.

I was expecting the train to have an open lounge where we could socialize, but in fact you spend most of your time in your 2-person compartment. We roll for hour after hour past hills, grassland and scrubland, without a building or light to be seen. Also without a kangaroo, dingo, or other wildlife to be seen; Josh and I conclude that we will have sharp words with the Australia Tourism Board about misrepresentating the existence of these mythical kangaroos. We pass over the Finke River, said to be the oldest in the world; the Painted Desert, which we didn't really see much of since it was night; Port Augusta, "where the Outback meets the sea". Still no kangaroos, but we do see sheep. I've heard from several people that the Ghan Train is a great experience, but I frankly would rather have flown to Adelaide (or Sydney or whereever). There are only so many hours of looking at barren landscape (particularly at night!) that one can appreciate.
We're about to arrive in Adelaide.

July 10

Took nearly $60 for 3/4 of a gas tank to fill the rental car. Dropped it off, navigated through the Cairns airport--which isn't finished yet but is small enough that that's not a problem--and caught the flight from Cairns to Ayers Rock. The land there really is red, with ridges like narrow sand dunes, dotted with green. There are several different hotels on a loop of road, near the airport, but they're all owner by the same company. We're told they've had record cold (I needed a sweater at night) and record rain. There's a notice that people are not allowed to climb the rock because there's more than a 5% chance of rain. We sign up, $282 for the two of us, for a bus tour around the Olgas, a walk through the gorge, and a sunset view of Uluru, total about 4 hours. There are a mix of people on the bus: a Spanish couple, a couple of French families, a Portuguese lade who reminded me of Barbra except shorter, and a 6ft tall German girl with thistledown hair and a permanent smile. Her name, we found, was Kirsten, pronounced "Care steen"; she was working at a private school in Melbourne teaching German and art. I realized the Australians tell what city they're from; other people only tell what country they're from, "Germany" or "Indonesia" but not anyhing more specific; Josh and I say that "we're from Virginia, in the US."

We all de-bus at the Gorge and walk up the trail between the two mountains on either side; there are vertical cliff faces about 500 meters high. These mountains are conglomerate, basically natural concrete with a mix of stones from egg to melon size. There are lumps of it, ranging in size from a car to a small house, which have popped out of the cliff walls and are now lying on the gorge floor. Best not to stand too near the cliff. We board the bus again and go to a spot west of Uluru. There are about 20 buses parked here, and each has a table with wine and some sort of snack; we have trail mix and peanuts, but the next table over has a potful of curry. We take pictures of Uluru every few minutes, as the sun sets and the Rock changes colors from red-brown to red to shadowed purple. Meanwhile we feed the pigeons and magpies.

Back to the hotel for a shower and dinner. There's a camp-like covered area with picnic tables; if you want to spend $30 or so you can pick out your steaks and grill them yourself, but Josh and I decide on Kangaroo wraps with barbecue sauce. I find the kangaroo meat to be tough so I offer other half of mine to Josh, who wolfs it down. Kirsten and her Portuguese friend arrive and we invite them to share our table. Josh crashes around 8pm; I stay and we talk about Portugal, and the world cup, and listen to the guitarist. Eventually we join the students on the dance floor, and dance with them for an hour or so. A couple of Australian girls join us; each of them separately advises me to loosen up. This seems to be a recurring theme.

The two ladies with ne are taking a dawn tour which leaves at 6:15am, so when the guitarist finishes at 11pm they say goodnight; the Portuguese lady does the kiss-on-each-cheek thing, which takes me completely by surprise; Kirsten gives me a handshake; they both dart off, presumably to bed. I head back towards our room but stop for a while to look at the stars, the Southern Cross and the Milky Way.

July 9

Friday morning is sleep and laundry. Friday afternoon we drive to south, then up into the fog-laden tablelands to Milla Milla. On the way there is an overlook down into the river gorge; a scenic drive which turns out to be a one lane road through the rain forest; and three waterfalls. The pool of the first is fairly shallow, and the second you can't get at, but the third is deep and there are abougt twenty people swimming. Continuing the drive, we pass signs that warn of tree kangaroo crossings, then wind down a long twisty road down the mountain.

That evening, Josh's scuba group was supposed to be meeting for pizza at the Wool Shed, a bar in downtown Cairns that caters to students and backpackers. Four of Josh's group are there--Gwen, Chris, Dougall, James--and we join them, talking and watching an Australian Rules football game.

A girl and five guys come in and take up the other half of our table. It's happy hour, and the girl (I'll find out later that her name is Heather) asks why I'm not drinking; I mime driving, and she says"Very responsible. But you should have some drinks and get a cab." It's too noisy to explain that we're leaving at 5:30am; I sit back and watch the game and the people around us, hearing snatches of conversation. After a while, Josh and friends go to get ice cream; I offer to hold the table, except the ice cream expedition turns out to be an hour and a half. Heather is trying to talk to me, so I sit next to her; with the music this loud, the only way to have a conversation is to lean in, almost cheek to cheek. She confides that she's had more to drink than usual; she's from a little town north of Toronto; she had a strict Catholic upbringing and her family would be appalled if they saw her now; and that I should loosen up. She's tipsy enough that I don't bother discussing it with her. Shortly her friends finish their drinks, gather her up and depart. The DJ is holding a dance contest; I abandon the table and move to where I can see the dance floor, or more accurately the crowd around the dance floor.
At the booth in front of me are two couples. The two guys sit atop the seat backs, and put their feet at the edge of the table to brace it and one of the girls, a lovely Japanese girl--radiantly happy, and therefore beautiful--in a blue and white striped party dress and white heels, gets up on the table and starts dancing. This is a good deal for the guys, as they get to appreciate her dancing without being obligated to dance themselves. I move on, around the bar, downstairs, outside, eventually concluding that Josh has indeed wandered off and is nowhere to be found. I decide to wait till midnight; Josh shows up at 11:40. He'd gone with the scuba group to their hotel and had to look around a while to locate the bar. We headed back to the hotel, packed, and got a few hours of sleep.

July 8

Thursday. Drove to Kuranda, up on the Atherton Tablelands. The road goes up the side of a mountain, about the same as going up Bent Mountain in the Blue Ridge, except that the the signs warn of emus and kangaroos rather than deer crossings. Kuranda itself seems to be mostly a marketplace with leather, hats, fabrics, clothes, digeridoos, jewelry from semiprecious stones, wooden bowls and plates, and so on. I saw one Indigenous man at work there, painting landscapes. They also had an aviary and a zoo of venomous creatures, but I didn't go in. I did get a "thick" milkshake, but it wasn't nearly as thick as an American milkshake would be.

Came back to Cairns and picked up Josh as he returned from the dive trip. Walked around a while, got excellent lamb gyros at Greek Taverna, headed back to the hotel so Josh could wash off three days accumulation of salt and then sleep.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

July 7

Josh is still out on the Reef doing scuba, so today was a slow day. Did some shopping, mailed a couple of postcards, visited a grocery. Food in Australia is expensive, 50% more than it would be in the US, sometimes more. Yogurt cups, for instance, might be US$0.80 at home, whereas the cheapest ones here were Aus$1.69. You're rarely going to see a restaurant meal for less than $15.
In the afternoon, I drove up the coast road toward Port Douglas. Saw a couple of college kids with huge backpacks hitchhiking, so I picked them up. Becky and Lucien, from Germany. Went past Port Douglas to Mossman, dropped them off there and turned back to Cairns. Becky has been here for a while. We drove past sugar cane fields and she said that the burn the fields during harvest, and the air smells like caramel.
The coaast is gorgeous. Tropical forest right down to the seaside. In a lot of places the coast is rocky, but there are stretches of sandy beach. The forest is overwhelmingly green, but every now and again there are flashes of flowers, pink or orange or yellow.

July 6, Cairns and Great Barrier Reef

July 6

Today was my snorkel trip day. They picked up Josh and I from the hotel and took us down to the boat. Sign in, take off your shoes, get a pair of fins, get a mask and snorkel, get a wet suit, get a seat.

Boat briefing: here's the head, here's the upper deck. Motion will be worse in the head and on the upper deck. if you're fealing queasy, go to the stern, look at the horizon, grab a bag. If you have a regurgitation event, aim in the bag, then hand the bag to your favorite crewman, who will dispose of it for you. Winds are at 15kt which means we'll have some seas. If you're standing, keep a hand on one of the grab rails, else you will fall and we all take pictures and laugh at you. If someone goes overboard, keep your eyes on them and yell "Man overboard! Man overboard" until a crewmember tells you to do otherwise. Then you can get your camera, take pictures and laugh at them, but do the yelling part first.

About a two hour ride to the reef. I'd taken scopolamine, which is supposed to prevent motion sickness, or in my case, tone it down to bearable levels. I got queasy, clammy skin, sweats, and had to stay determinedly focussed on the horizon and the thought "I Will Not Get Sick. I Can Make It. Not Sick At All"; but I've been a lot sicker on a lot shorter and smoother ride, so all told, I'd count that as a success. Not a success I want to repeat, but a success. Some of the others actually used their bags; one poor girl just lay there on the stern deck, obviously miserable. Josh, of course, has a cast iron stomach. Despite being queasy, I am coherent enough to chat with a Finnish couple in the next seats. He did his military service in the Hakkapaalita corps, which I think is exceedingly cool. There are also people there from tthe US, Switzerland, and Germany, possibly other countries as well.

We make it out to the MV Kangaroo Explorer, which is stationed at the reef, and the scuba trip people (including Josh) transfer over. This leaves us with about twelve snorkellers.

Safety briefing: Don't touch the coral. The coral will cut your suit and you, and most of it is related to jellyfish so it will sting you. Don't touch the coral. Your guide will go with you and he has a life ring if you need it.

Don your wet suit. This version goes down to the wrists, down to the knees, leaves the head, hands, and lower legs bare. (Not coincidentally, I now have sunburned calves). The wet suit keeps you tolerably warm, as long as you don't get influxes of water down your wrists (so swim with your arms down at your sides) or down your neck. Spit in the mask and rub the glass to keep it from fogging; get your fins on, mask down, and "you, get off the boat!" Jump in. The first thing you notice is gosh that water is cold! It had rained as we were going out and that top layer sure was....brisk. Refreshing. Second thing you notice, when you put your face in the water, is that you can't see the bottom. However, it's shallow enough that you're staring into green depths rather than inky black. Third thing is, the waves are sloshing back and forth, continually, and you are sloshing with them. No matter what you do, you're moving; you may not be moving much but it's very difficult to stay in exactly one place.

The guide points us over to a reef, and it's obvious where he wants us to go; the water is sandy brown rather than green. We swim over, and then we can see the bottom, maybe five meters deep, and then suddenly there's a wall of coral ahead. The top of the reef is covered by about a meter of water so we swim over it, careful not to touch anything. The colors are mostly tans and browns, in a profusion of shapes. Some lpaces there are just a few fish, some places there are clouds of them, yellow, green rainbow, black, striped, electric blue. Go back to the boat, lunch, second swim. This time I'm taking pictures and don't notice the cold as much. None of the fish seem to be chasing each other; the only ones who are eating seem to be scraping at rocks and coral. There was a clam over a meter long, its shell edged in green and bright blue; something bright purple, which might have been an eel. I saw a distinctive shape--"Cool! There's a shark!"--a white tip shark, about 1.5 meters long, lazing on the bottom maybe 10m away.

Going back to the boat, I noticed one of the girls had kicked off her fins and was having a problem. I got her under my arm and swam her to the lifesaver ring, massaged her feet for a minute--foot cramps hurt a lot--then went back and retrieved her fins and made sure she got back to the boat safely.

Strip off the gear and rinse it. One more visit to the Kangaroo Explorer to take on people who were coming back after finishing their scuba trip. Then it was time to settle in for the trip back; the wind had died down so it was much smoother cruising. Turn in the underwater camera for processing, and then back to the hotel.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Monday, July 5, Sydney to Cairns

Woke up around 6am, took a long shower, got the bags re-arranged--we're leaving the two large ones at the hotel in Sydney. Then we set out through a light misting rain for the Harbor Bridge. There's a visitor's center in the southest pylon, with a display about the construction of the bridge; at the top is a lookout platform, which Josh climbed to. The mist had turned to a light snow. Apparently this is record-setting cold for Sydney, although I felt fine with just a shirt and jacket.

Back to the hotel, check out, shuttle bus to airport, where I'm typing now.

Later: Virgin Blue isn't going to be my favorite airline--their seats are uncomfortably hard, they wantt to charge for any kind of drink, and they have a videoscreen on the back of the seat in front of you which you can't turn off--but you can, for $10, buy a movie. I don't mind them selling a program but I at least ought to be able to turn it off. Fortunately all the rest of our flights are Qantas.

Cairns is humid, with a temperature around 25C. Rented a car. They drive on the left here, which feels odd but you get sufficiently used to it pretty quickly. The problem is that the cars have the driver's seat on the right and all the controls reversed from what I'm used to. I've turned the wipers on several times already, trying to signal a turn. But there's not much traffic and we made it to the Cairns Colonial Club with no difficulty aside from inconsistently and obscurely placed street signs. Nice, modern resort. Tomorrow we should be going out to sea.

Sunday, July 4, Sydney

Started with the Australian National Museum and saw the exhibits on Indigenous art ("Indigenous" being the current politically correct word for "Aboriginal") and Australian wildlife. Australian museums don't seem to mind people taking photos, so I took lots.

Across the street from the Museum is Hyde Park and the Anzac War Memorial. There were a few other people in the Memorial but it was absolutely silent; no one even whispered.

A block from Hyde Park is Sydney Tower, which stands out above the city skyline. The observationn deck is at 260m; it's a rather unsettling feeling to be looking down on skyscrapers.

From the Tower, it's a short walk to the Pyrmont Bridge, which takes you across Darling Harbour to the National Maritime Museum. Josh went aboard the submarine Ostlow. I had tea and a scone, which in this case was a sweet hard biscuit with sweet butter and jelly. When the people at the next table left, the gulls swooped down on their table and grabbed french fries, until I shooed them off. We also took a look at a replica of HMB Endeavor, a display of Indigenous art dealing with rays and sharks and such, plus other exhibits I'll remember when I sort through the photos.

Josh still wanted Chinese food, so we set off for Chinatown; after dinner, we headd back to our hotel. There is a district between Liverpool St and William St where most of the shops and restaurants are open until 10pm; one we got outside that area, most things were closed--although to be fair, it is Sunday night. Finished a Charlie Stross book, Family Trade, and started The Farside Cannon.

Note: Next time I go on a vacation like this, get in training to spend all day walking.

Saturday, July 3 Brisbane to Sydney

Got Josh's stuff packed and hauled it, via bus, a few blocks of marching, and train, to the airport. Flew to Sydney, getting some photos of the Opera House a few minutes before we landed; Josh also saw a whale. Checked in at the Challis Lodge, which is two houses converted into a hotel. The rooms are quite small and there's one bathroom and two showers per floor; there's only one light per rooom, no reading lamp; and there's no internet access. On the other hand, it's a few minutes walk from the Botanical Gardens and perhaps half an hour from the Opera House.

So we set out around 3:30 and went to the Opera House, then walked around the Circular Quay--the tourist area. Most of the restaurants are offering dinner for $25-30 and there are shops for Australian souvenirs--mostly opals and bush clothing--as well as shot glasses and post cards and such. 5:30, shops started closing and by 6:00, the restaurants were about the only thing open. Josh wanted Chinese food, but there were none there and none to be found on the march back to the hotel. We went past the State Library, Parliament House, Hyde Park Barracks Museum, and St Mary's Cathedral, which tried to be Gothic but failed. We got to Harry de Wheels shop and Josh gave in and got a chili dog. I wanted something more typically Australia, so got a meat pie with mushy peas and sauce (ketchup) and ginger beer. Then we walked the rest of the way home through dark, deserted streets, feeling completely safe. One of Josh's Australian buddies had once explained, "Sure we could mug you, but we'd rather just have another beer." Got back to the hotel around 7:30, read for an hour or so, and lights out.

Brisbane, July 2

Friday night: slept from about 4:30pm to 10:30pm, by which time Josh was asleep. Played poker with a couple of the other guys in the suite, then watched Holland beat Brasil in the World Cup quarter finals. Somewhere around now, I finished Those Who Hunt The Night.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Day 1

Flight Norfolk to DC was uneventful. DC to LA was interesting because of the differences in the terrain as you head west. In the East and Midwest, you have square green fields, with darker green trees clearly marking out watercourses or covering hills, brown rivers, beige highways. In the central states, farmed land has green circular irrigated fields; elsewhere it's dust colored. Farther west it looks dry, with canyons that were obviously formed by water, but the rivers are small and seem to disappear rather than join other rivers. Then mountains, some with snow. California has yellow brown hills and irrigated green lawns, then Los Angeles is miles of low buildings in neat grids, and highways.
The flight from LA to Syndey might have been interesting if you could see--"there's Hawaii, look, there's Fiji"--but we left at 10:30pm and arrived at 6:30am, while it was still dark. I shared my seat row with two college coeds, Paige and Alicia, who were pleasantly talkative. Watched about twenty minutes of Lost in Translation at Alicia's insistance, but went to sleep in the middle--not the movie's fault, it was just a long day. Slept a while, then watched How to Train Your Dragon .  Then it was time for breakfast and landing.
Getting my luggage took long enough that I missed my flight to Brisbane, but they had another one half an hour later and it only took a little jogging to catch that. Still no scenery, though, as it was overcast.
On the train into Brisbane I met Brodie, a five year old bull rider, who had never met an American before. I showed him American money and gave him some change. He wanted to know my favorite "footie" team, which apparently refers to rugby.
Met Josh, who has lost some weight since February. We walked around the Queen Street Mall, which is a market street and doesn't look much different from what you might find downtown in an American city, except there are more Asian influence than you'd see on the East Coast. When we went to Portigal a couple of years ago, you could tell at once that you weren't in the US because the people all looked similarly Iberian, their clothes looked a little dated, and nobody smiled. In contrast, you couldn't look at the people of Brisbane and tell you weren't in America. Everyone's helpful and lots of them are smiling.
Went to the Maritime Museum and I'll upload pics at some point. Then came to Griffith University and found Josh's dorm room, where we'll stay tonight.