Friday, January 25, 2008

A belated account of my arrival in Australia

I have been in Australia for 23 days now. I meant to write a blog post sooner, but internet troubles (Australia has the worst broadband connection of any industrialized country, and although the internet provider won't fess up, we get brown outs if usage is high), travels, and the lethargy of an Australian summer have overtaken me.
My flight out here was full of small snags that managed to keep a 24 hour flight exciting, but none so big that afterwards seemed of any consequence: My window seat was stolen by a Korean exchange student so friendly it was hard to bear any sort of grudge. More worryingly, our flight out of Portland was held up for 45 mins so that several passengers "stuck in bad traffic" could make it to the airport. Those of us who had managed to factor traffic into our airport arrival time spent the flight staring at our watches, willing the plane to go faster so we could make our tight connection. In the SF aiport, all of us flying to Sydney ran through the aiport as a a herd of disgruntled passengers, making the shuttle to the international terminal less than 30 minutes before departure time. We needn't have worried, because our next flight was no where near ready to take off. After another half an hour at the gate, which more resembled a Chinese railway station than an international departure gate, we finally boarded over an hour late. Mutiny almost broke out when the captain informed us that a "light snack" would be served in over an hour. It was 11pm by that time, and none of us had eaten dinner. Luckily, the light snack turned out to be lasagna, bread, canned peaches and salad, so the mutiny was placated. The flight to Sydney was uncomfortable, as right after the plane took off the person in front of me reclined all the way, cutting off my leg room (and if I don't have enough leg room, I can't imagine how anyone over 5'5" could cope). Turns out United has invented a new class, economy with leg room, which unfortunately I wasn't sitting in. Our minds were distracted from such petty discomforts though, when we hit some major turbulence. I've found there's nothing like flying over the south pacific to remind you that you are hurtling through the air at enormous speeds in a tin can, and this time was no different. The plane shook violently from side to side and then started rising and falling, much like an elevator at great speeds. This was during night time, and everyone sat very still, pretending to still be asleep, given away only by the white knuckles on the armrest. After several minutes of tense stillness, the captain announced that everything was "perfectly safe" and the plane "was engineered to withstand much greater turbulence" but that we would be changing course to avoid a tropical storm. After what seemed like an eternity later, we landed, sleep deprived, in the Sydney airport. At his point I kicked myself for booking my ticket to Melbourne instead of Sydney, as now I had to fly Melbourne-Adelaide, instead of directly to Adelaide. Nonetheless, my flight to Melbourne was uneventful, my luggage showed up, and I went through customs relatively easily, although my hackey sack was almost confiscated. In the end, the woman couldn't figure out if it was stuffed with plastic or seeds, so she gave me the benefit of the doubt and let me through. I went to check into my Adelaide flight, only to find out it was cancelled, and I had been put on the next flight several hours later. On the whole not a big deal, except if you've spent the last 30 hours in airports/airplanes. When the man asked my why I hadn't checked my departure before getting to the airport, it was the last straw. "I've been flying for 30 hours. I've just come from San Fransisco via Sydney. I don't even know what day it is, I haven't slept in two days." I gave the man a desperate stare of half-crazed malice and sleep deprivation. "Ooh, that's rough mate" he said, and gave me 12 dollars in gift vouchers to McDonald's, the "maximum he was entitled to give out." Between McDonalds, gossip rags, and my book, I managed to make it until my flight. An hour later, my luggage and I arrived safely in Adelaide.

Friday, August 24, 2007

10 things I hate about Microsoft office

There are many many reasons I strongly dislike office, many which begin with 'autoformat.' However, now that I am living on the outskirts of the global empire (take your pick which one), I have a whole new set of issues.
1) the 'default' language button not only resets itself to US English for each new document (despite warning me that changing the default will affect all 'normal' templates), but it also resets itself EVERY time I open up an existing document.
2) If I notice in the middle of typing that the language has magically reset itself to US English, and change the default setting to Australian, the changes will only apply to what I type after I make the changes. Because, I mean, if someone changes their default language halfway through a document, the most logical explanation is they want the top half in US English and the bottom half in Australian English.
3) regardless of what form of English I pick, US, UK, or Australian, it will not accept -ise endings as legitimate. EVER.
4) I know this is basically the same point as above, but it bugs me enough to be a second point. SPELL CHECK WILL NOT ACCEPT LITRE AS A LEGITIMATE SPELLING. Maybe it's just because I have to write it all the time, as in "in 2007 Australia produced 1.3 billion litres of wine." On top of it, the second recommended spelling option is "litter."
5) Even more heinous, autoformat automatically changes words from British to American-- organise becomes organize, programme becomes program. Given that my first instinct is to write the American spelling anyways, I don't need any help in the random-American-spellings-scattered-throughout-my-document department.
6) This means that I must stare at irritating little red squiggly lines the entire time I'm typing my document, even though the words are properly spelled. It's a little act of in-your-face American chauvinism that makes me understand "why they hate us." It makes me want to draw little red squiggly lines on Bill Gates' glasses, so he is forced to look at them for the rest of his life. "Why don't you just turn off spell check?" you might ask. Well, unfortunately I do occasionally need help with an actual misspelled word. And isn't the WHOLE POINT of picking your language that then you can have a spell check that functions for that language?
7) Point 6 is getting a bit long, and I think it is kind of turning into a new point anyways. I wouldn't be as annoyed if they only offered US English, but to call something Australian English, and then have it be EXACTLY the SAME as American English is just #@*$ing insulting. And completely untrue.
8-10) I would write these out, but I have collapsed into pile of foaming vitriol.

Monday, August 6, 2007

marketing 101

Last week I went to the Adelaide wine industry expo, which basically consisted of a bunch of little booths, large machinery, and lots of wine industry people gathered to talk shop and sell things. Much of it was centered on the technical side of making and growing grapes, which is all a bit over my head, though there was a neat kit of little chemicals that simulated common wine flaws, which you could add to wine for staff training purposes. There was also a mechanical grape picker, which was easily as high as a small building. Apparently it's designed to be driven over the vines, so the empty space in the middle of the machine is at least 7 feet high, with big wheels and picker-thingies on either side (note my technical language).

Another item on display was the zork. Currently, there are two main ways to stop up a bottle of wine. One is the cork, and the other is the screw cap, or 'stelvin enclosure.' Corks, while traditional, are increasingly expensive and can possibly ruin the wine, either through oxidation (letting in too much air) or cork taint (average cork failure rate is estimated to be around 8%). Screw caps are cheaper and cannot 'fail' like corks, but some people argue that they do their job too well, and don't allow for the wine to 'breath' the way corks do, i.e., don't allow for a low level of oxidation, which many think necessary for a wine to mature. This isn't a big deal if you plan on drinking your wine within a couple of months, but it may make a difference if you plan to cellar your wine for 5-10 years. So, enter the zork. The zork is a resealable plastic closure with a tiny channel that allows for a very low level of oxidation. Its design combines the best of both worlds: it lets the wine mature but won't taint the wine. The down side? It's butt-ugly. It looks like a plastic blob is eating your bottle of wine. It's clunky and recalls a nalgene bottle, not elegance.
The problem is the zork designers forgot to ask themselves the first question in creating a product: is there a market for my product?
The answer is, well, no. According to statistics, 80% of wine is drunk on the day it's purchased, and I imagine that most of the remaining 20% is drunk not much later. Thus for the vast majority of wines, ageing isn't really an issue. And the stelvin, which is cheap, attractive, and environmentally friendly, does just fine. Wines that people want to keep around for a couple of years tend to be at the premium end of the scale (i.e. more than $20 a bottle). Wine makers at that end can afford to pay for high quality cork, which has a much lower failure rate (around 1-2%) than cheaper cork, which really pretty much solves the cork problem. Moreover, when people are paying that much a bottle, they generally want their wine to look sophisticated, not like film cannister died on top of it. If your wine costs $50 but the bottle looks like something people would be embarrassed to order in a nice restaurant, there's a bit of a problem. In fact, people buying a luxury product generally demand that the product doesn't look like the manufacturers cut corners in a rather obvious way. Not to mention wine afficianadoes tend to be into the 'tradition' of wine drinking, for whom popping the cork is an important part of the whole experience.
There may be a market for wealthy, outdoorsy gen-Xers who get into the whole design element, but that's a bit of a niche market.

You know you're a nerd when...

When I heard about the tragic bridge collapse in Minnesota, my first thought was, Lord Voldemort makes his first move." Though on second thought, wasn't there some freak tornado in Kansas a while back? Let's hope Harry Potter gets his act together before any more senseless muggle killings.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Botany bay is actually a bit south of Sydney. Sydney was built around Port Jackson. The first fleet landed at Botany bay, where Cook landed, hoping to settle there but found it too difficult and so sailed up the coast to Port Jackson. But even though no one actually lived there, Botany Bay became a generic term for the colony.

Botany Bay

I just got back from spending 5 days in Sydney. The harbor (harbour?) bridge and opera house were, indeed, stunning. After little Adelaide, which has a population of 1 million but has a city center of mainly 2-story 19th century buildings, Sydney felt like a proper metropolis. While the city was full of anonymous glass and drab 70s skyscrapers, its location of being spread out across various inlets and a peninsulas still made it incredibly scenic. It was also very green, which added to its attractiveness. From what I've heard, it's a more humid climate than Adelaide, and certainly, for 3 of the days there was a fairly constant drizzle. Most surprisingly, it was quite hilly, and in places it felt like San Fransisco (especially to my knees).
But underneath the modern glitz, Sydney has a lot of historical significance, as it was where the first fleet landed and set up camp in 1788. Unlike other countries, Australians haven't been too keen to glorify their convict origins, and much of the original city was torn down. We did get to see the preserved barracks, built in 1819 to house prisoners working for the state (most prisoners were assigned to a free family basically as slave labor. Some prisoners, generally the most recalcitrant ones, remained in the government's direct control to do public works). We spent a lot of time staring at things and squinting, trying to imagine what the land would have looked like 200 years ago.
We also saw the first Catholic and Anglican cathedrals built in Australia, an exhibit of Islamic Art at the art gallery, the house of the governor of New South Wales (not to be confused with the premier of NSW, who actually controls the government.) The governor of NSW is much like the Governor General, except on a state level instead of a federal one. In other words, it's an archaic and symbolic role characterised by incredible pomp and circumstance and excessive Anglophilia. The house, built in 1845 and located in the botanic gardens only a spitting distance from the opera house, was designed by an English architect who never set foot in Australia. The result is a Scottish castle, which is dark, formal, and apparently unbearably hot in the summer months. Outside it looks completely out of place next to the gum trees, and inside it looks like a 1960s movie set of a castle done up in the Georgian style (complete with gratuitous portraits of obscure British royals), due to a misguided attempt to 'contemporize' the furnishings. Dave thought it looked more like a VIP airport lounge. It was interesting though, to see oil portraits of the early governors from back when the governor of NSW was the governor of Australia. I especially wanted to see Governor Bligh, of mutiny on the bounty fame. After the mutiny, he became governor of Australia. He looked short and unpleasant, although apparently his harshness and competence served him better as commander of a penal colony than it did as a ship's captain.

We also went to the Sydney zoo, which is quite large and spread out through beautiful parkland. It was full of lots of Aussie animals, including 11 of the 15 most deadly snakes, saltwater crocodiles, which 'only' kill 1 person a year, according to the sign, a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch, and ridiculously cute koalas. The animals did their best to give us a show, one that would probably earn an R rating if it were broadcast on television. Highlights were: (stop reading if you are easily offended or under 17) An escape-bent emu intimidating a group of Japanese business men in the petting zoo, a bit of sexual role-reversal involving a very frisky lioness and a quite grumpy lion, and a chimpanzee digging around in his butt hole, pulling out a big shit, and then eating it. Didn't realize chimps ate their own feces, though maybe it was deranged behavior as a result of confinement. More tamely, both the tiger and the cobra were came up to the glass to let us get a good look. My one disappointment was that the dingos didn't make an appearance.

On our final day, we took a ferry to Manly, a little resort town about 30 min. There was a very scenic 9 km hike that we did part of, but after 5 days of 8 hours of standing/walking straight, our feet started to rebel. We did get to see a bit of what the natural landscape around Sydney looked like though. Again, it was amazing how lush and green it was, and also how deceiving the landscape is, as it is almost completely unsuitable for agriculture.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

where the bloody hell are you?

is the Australian government's official tourism slogan.

In South Australia, our slogan is "Welcome to South Australia, now officially the poorest, most drug ridden state in the nation." (Well, at least until Northern Territories decides to join the federation. But as that's not looking too likely, our reputation is safe.) The most recent census data has just been published. Adelaide is the oldest capital city in terms of residents' age, and we just beat out Hobart (Tasmania) by $5 a week for the lowest average income. The federal government has asked the SA government to take special organized crime action against biker gangs, called bikies here and to stamp out a burgeoning meth, or ice, epidemic. (The two seem to go together.)
The opposition leader in the state government has just called for a crack-down (no pun intended) on a supposed rash of drug-addicted women who have children for the $5000 baby bonus. I'm highly skeptical, of course. If you're a drug addict and want some fast cash, holding up a pub or convenience store would be an easier option than getting pregnant, waiting 9 months, and then having and raising a child. (You don't get the baby bonus if you're not actually going to be raising it, of course.)