Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Eight-Legs Good

Looky! I uncovered this nifty-cool spider just now while I was cleaning my utility room:

It obligingly held still long enough for me to fetch a ruler for scale, too:

I know spiders get a bad rep, but I think they're just the coolest, neatest organisms. I have way too many unwelcome bugs around here, but the spiders are always welcome. In fact, the spiders are especially welcome when I have unwanted bugs. (Well, OK, maybe not the poisonous ones, but not because I'm afraid of them for my own sake. I happily co-habited with a black widow for a couple of weeks once; they're not dangerous as long as you know where they are and stay away from them. But I don't trust the cats to be that sensible.)

Anybody know what kind of spider this is? I have an insects and spiders identification guide, but I have never successfully identified a bug out of it yet.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

What I Did On My Australian Vacation: Day Eight

Day Eight:

This was our first full day in Cairns, except we immediately left town on a boat bound for a section of the Great Barrier Reef. The trip out took over an hour, during which there were snacks and drinks and an environmental lecture over the PA available on the boat, but I spent most of my time standing in the stern basking in the wind and the sun and the salt spray. For some reason, I find this irresistibly pleasant, not to mention being the single best cure for seasickness I've ever found.

We docked at a pontoon platform which featured a roped-off area in which you could snorkel around the reef. Because this is Australia, they recommended renting a jellyfish-proof suit, which, being my cowardly self, I most assuredly did. Those things were highly amusing; they made us look like a group of the world's dorkiest superheroes.

Unfortunately, I didn't really spend quite as much time snorkeling as I might have liked. Even with a life jacket, I'm not exactly the world's greatest swimmer, and my mask, despite my best efforts, kept leaking water. Plus, my friend, who's less of a swimmer than I am, ended up spending most of the time clinging to the conveniently-provided flotation platform, and I eventually figured it might be a good idea to ditch the leaky mask and join her somewhere less wet and salty.

Despite not exactly staying out long enough to succumb to the rapture of the deep, I really did enjoy the experience. As advertised, even this tiny section of reef was packed with more fish than I've ever seen in my life, outside of an aquarium. Big fish, little fish, colorful fish, drab fish, fishy-looking fish, funny shaped fish... Lots of fish. Also coral. So now I know for sure that Jacques Cousteau and the Discovery Channel have not lied to me! (Well, OK, I'm sure the Discovery Channel has occasionally disseminated untruths, but it wasn't kidding about the fish.) I neither saw nor was stung by any jellyfish, although some other folks did report encountering them (although not their tentacles).

After the snorkeling, there was a nice buffet lunch on the pontoon, and then we took a ride in a semi-submersible boat to see more of the Reef in comfortable dryness. Well, OK, semi-comfortable drippiness, to be honest, but there was a very, very cool view. Which I would try to describe, but, really, you've all seen pictures of the Great Barrier Reef, and no words of mine are remotely going to do it justice.

Oh, wait, actually, I can supply some pictures... Note, though, that the colors are inevitably kind of dimmed by looking through that much water, though, and that the image quality isn't helped by the fact that these were taken through glass:

And then we got back on the boat, and I stood out on the deck getting wet and wind-blown again.

All in all, a really good day.

Friday, May 23, 2008


These kinds of memes always crack me up, although I think this one came out less amusing than the last time I did a similar one. Ah, well...

The rules are simple: Go to Wikipedia, hit random whilst thinking about a question, and see what happens.

(Wikipedian answers will be in regular text, with my comments thereon in italics.)

1: How do you see yourself?

Ion (Greek mythology): According to Greek mythology, Ion was the illegitimate child of CreĆ¼sa, daughter of Erechtheus and wife of Xuthus.

Yes, I am just like a character in a Greek tragedy.

2: How do other people see you?

James R. Toberman: James Robert Toberman (1836 – January 26, 1911) served two non-consecutive terms. He first served between 1872 and 1874 and again from 1878 to 1882.

Apparently he was the mayor of Los Angeles. I'm sure it's possible to find some obscure metaphor in there for how people see me, but damned if I can see it.

3: What do you fear the most?

Orgasm (cocktail): The Orgasm is a cocktail that can be either served on the rocks or layered and drank as a shooter. It is an IBA official cocktail.

*snerk* Well, if that ain't some kind of Freudian answer...

4: What gives you most pleasure?

Philadelphia Health Management Corporation: Philadelphia Health Management Corporation (PHMC) is a non-profit, public health organization engaged in research, education and direct services in the Philadelphia area. PHMC was founded in 1972.

Yeah, I get all tingly just thinking about that.

5: What thing in your past has had most impact on who you are now?

Vision Park: Vision Park is an electronic entertainment company and has been credited on the following games:

* Globetrotter 2 (a.k.a. Round the World Challenge; publisher)
* Europa Universalis

I'm not denying the impact of video games on my life, but I'm pretty sure I've never played either of those.

6: What can you expect from the future?

Podvelka: Podvelka is a town and a municipality in Slovenia..

Well, I'll be interested to see how I end up there.

7: What thing do you desire the most?

Freedom of religion in Jordan: The Constitution provides for the freedom to practice the rites of one's religion and faith in accordance with the customs that are observed in the Kingdom, unless they violate public order or morality. The state religion is Islam. The Government prohibits conversion from Islam and proselytization of Muslims.

Actually, freedom of religion on Jordan sounds pretty desirable to me. Judging by this entry, I'd say they're not exactly there yet.

8: What thing do you find most repulsive?

Tunku Muhriz: Tunku Muhriz (1945-) is the only son of Tuanku Munawir ibni Almarhum Tuanku Abdul Rahman, the Yang di-Pertuan Besar (hereditary ruler) of the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan from 1960 to 1967, and of his consort, Tunku Ampuan Durah binti Almarhum Tunku Besar Burhanuddin.

Names I can't pronounce disgust me.

9: What will give you your ultimate lucky break?

Reggie Barnes: Reggie Barnes was a star running back in the Canadian Football League.

My lucky break will be in Canadian football?! Wow, that sounds... unlikely.

10: What will be the cause of your ultimate doom?

River Ems (Hampshire): River Ems is a river in England with its source at grid reference SU808122 about ½ a mile east of Stoughton, West Sussex and its mouth at Emsworth, Hampshire. It is named after the town of Emsworth rather than vice versa.

I'd say, great, now I'll know to avoid that river, but since we've already established the Greek-tragedy nature of my life, I don't imagine it will actually work...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

By The Way...

I was vaguely thinking of linking to this bit of very cool Doctor Who news, but I honestly think that everyone I know who actually cares has already seen it. Still... if anybody hasn't, there ya go.

Mars or Bust

Here's a nifty press release that just came to my work e-mail about the job NRAO is doing in tracking the Phoenix spacecraft, which is set to land on Mars on Sunday. I'm not on duty on Sunday, myself, but in fact right this very moment I'm... Well, actually, I'm not working on processing the data from the last test, because you know how this sort of thing goes: if people give you something important to do and tell you it's super high-priority, it will inevitably turn out that something needs to be fixed when there's nobody around who's capable of fixing it. But never fear. I'm sure it'll be working fine tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, I can vicariously pretend I'm on my way to Mars!

Monday, May 19, 2008

What I Did On My Australian Vacation: Day Seven

Before I start with Day 7, let me share a couple of photos of the moon over Kata Tjuta that I took around sunset on Day 6. Because I managed to miss them the first time, and I think they're worth sharing:

Right. On to...

Day 7:

On the morning of Day 7, we did a sightseeing flight over Uluru and Kata Tjuta in a small plane. Kata Tjuta, in particular, is extremely impressive from the air, but even just getting to see the bushland spread out below us from altitude was cool. (Less cool was what the flight did to my stomach, but at least none of us lost our breakfast. Which is more than could be said for the person who went up before us. Oops.)

After that, we had a little while to spend kicking back by the pool before our flight to Cairns on a significantly larger and less nausea-inducing plane. Lying on a deck chair in the shade reading Darwin was decidedly pleasant after the previous day's fast-paced desert trek, but no matter how often I expressed a desire for one, no cabana boys came by to serve me fruity drinks with umbrellas in them. Ah, well. I suppose even on vacation one can't have everything.

The hotel in Cairns may not have had any cabana boys, either, but it was impressive nonetheless. Hell, it's probably the poshest hotel I've ever set foot in, let alone stayed at. For those who may have missed the first of these travelogue posts, wherein I talked about hotels, here's the picture of our room in Cairns again. The shots I took of the lobby didn't really come out that well, so I won't post them here, but you can see a bit of it on the hotel's website.

We had the evening free in Cairns, which I spent happily exploring the immediate area, especially the night markets, a late-opening shopping area featuring lots of crowded, just-on-the-right-side-of-seedy shops selling all kinds of cheap goods and services. It was a lot of fun to wander around while eating ice cream.

(By the way, Australia is a great place for ice cream. Everywhere we went, there were little places serving delicious oddball flavors, some of them featuring tropical fruits I'd barely even heard of. I'm not saying that this in itself justifies the airfare, but it definitely helps make the trip feel entirely worth it once you're there.)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Yet Another Doctor Who Discussion Post

Here's your Doctor Who discussion post for yesterday's episode as aired on Sci-Fi, "The Sontaran Stratagem." The usual spoiler policies apply.

Friday, May 16, 2008

What I Did On My Australian Vacation: Day Six

I'm determined to finish this account... eventually. So, where was I? Oh, yes...

Day Six:

That was this day, for those of you keeping track. Here's what happened:

The previous day, we were told that this morning would feature a trip into the park to see Uluru in the sunrise, for anybody who wanted to get up early and come, and that at that point they'd drop off anybody who wanted to do the climb up the rock on a chain or to walk the trail around it. A couple of people opted for the climb (which ended up being canceled due to wind), but I was the only taker for the hike. Apparently a six-mile walk isn't most people's idea of fun... an attitude which I confess I find baffling. Me, I usually walk at least two miles per day (often a fair bit more), and after all that time in buses and airplanes and hotel rooms, I was feeling more than ready to get out and stretch my legs. (Actually, my friend would have loved to have done it, but, while she could probably have physically managed it, due to her health problems it would doubtless have left her exhausted, and she would never have managed it in the alloted time, so I regretfully talked her out of it. But her willing spirit earned her an exemption from the "What a bunch of wimps!" jokes I inevitably made afterward.)

Anyway, as you know if you read the post I made that day, things didn't exactly go according to plan, as the stupid hotel alarm clock failed to go off at the right time, and I woke up about five minutes before we were supposed to leave. Amazingly enough, I managed to throw on my clothes and grab my stuff (well, most of my stuff -- I had to go back for my water and managed to forget my park entry ticket entirely) and get to the bus before it took off. (This is a little trick I learned in college, where more than once I overslept and woke up mere minutes before I was supposed to be at my 8 AM class.)

Being as I was in an unwashed, under-caffeinated, generally groggy state, I was figuring on scrapping the walk idea entirely and just enjoying the sunrise and heading back to the hotel. But the weather was unutterably beautiful, there was coffee at the sunrise viewing, people were encouraging, and, well, the tour guide had already gone to the trouble of arranging a boxed breakfast for me. Plus, I'd had the presence of mind to grab my deodorant and toothbrush on the way out, so I could even clean up a little. So, what the hell, I went.

And I was glad I did. It was a really pleasant walk, among pleasant scenery, and I had long stretches of it all to myself, which was soothing to my introvert's soul. Unfortunately, thanks to first having to make a long trek to the distant restrooms and then taking a wrong (although very pretty) turn onto a side trail, I really had to push my pace to make sure I'd be there when the bus got back. I felt it later, let me tell you. Hell, I felt it during. But, still, definitely worth it.

Despite my need to book, I did take frequent stops for photographs, as I'd promised my friend I would do so she could at least live the experience vicariously. Unfortunately, it seemed like almost every time I did so, immediately after that I'd see the sign, a dozen feet or so along, forbidding photographs in that area. As I mentioned before, this is a hugely significant area for the native population, and there are many spots around the rock that are used for religious ceremonies. These sites are considered sacred, and not to be entered or viewed too closely, except by the appropriate people at the appropriate times, so they ask visitors to stay away from them and not photograph them. Now, I'm not great respecter of anybody's religion, but I figure any people who've been shit on as much as the aboriginal Australians certainly deserve to have their wishes honored when they're asking for something as simple as random tourists refraining from snapping pictures on their land and plastering the results all over the internet. So a lot of those pictures, you're not going to see. Here's a few that should be OK, though:

And here's a picture of the rock as a whole:

After the walk, we did a much, much shorter walk down into a gorge with some rock art:

Then we stopped at the aboriginal culture center, which had various shops and an interesting visitor's center/museum featuring information on various aspects of local aboriginal culture.

Then it was back to the hotel for a long, long, long shower, after which we clueless Americans spent a ridiculously long time trying to do laundry and having trouble figuring out why the washing machine wouldn't work. (Hint: The power switches located on all the wall outlets in Australia? It's kind of important to make sure they're on. D'oh!)

In the afternoon we went to Kata Tjuta (aka "The Olgas"), a lesser-known but almost equally impressive geological formation also located in the same national park. Here's Kata Tjuta:

The name means "many heads," and it's a pretty good description of a fascinating landscape.

We rounded off the (very, very full) day with a barbecue dinner under the stars. No kangaroo this time, but the chicken was pretty good.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

This Is In No Way A Shocking Result.

Your Score: Hamlet

You scored 59% = Tragic, 34% = Comic, 14% = Romantic, 28% = Historic

You are The Tragedy of Hamlet. Highly regarded as the best play ever written by anyone ever, Hamlet tells the story of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, and his desire to enact revenge on his Uncle for the murder of his father. When performed in its entirety, Hamlet is just under 4 hours long and contains many of the most recognizable phrases in the English language. But enough of that - let's get back to you. Your results tell us that you are no doubt of high intelligence and cultural grace. While sometimes a bit dark and moody, you still have the poise and respect of a royal noble. Your tragic flaw, however may be that you tend to over-analyze situations and think too much when you should act. You also may be a bit long-winded, but we like you anyway!

Link: The Which Shakespeare Play Are You? Test written by macbee on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test
View My Profile(macbee)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Return Of The Random Links

Apologies for the lack of updates, the (temporary) stalling out of the Australia travelogue, etc. Remember how I mentioned a little while ago that I'd started playing The Sims 2? Um, yeah. Turns out it's every bit as addicting as the first game, and it has completely eaten my life. I'm attempting recovery, honestly. I just can't quite seem to manage cold turkey.

Anyway, have some random links, some of which have been sitting around since I got back from Australia.

Holy Frell: BOOM! to publish Farscape comic: Kind of old news by now, but perhaps there's still somebody out there who's interested and hasn't seen this. New Farscape comic! Coming soon!

Screengrab Movie Vacations #1: The Very Large Array: An article touting the VLA as a cool vacation stop. Which it is. And this is a pretty good article, except that when the writer says, "I know what you’re thinking" in the last paragraph, what I'm actually thinking is, "Dude, they're not looking for aliens." Anyway, yes, come and visit the VLA! See what your tax dolors buy and why you should support your tax dollars buying it! Spend money in the gift shop!

Sexpelled: No Intercourse Allowed: Amusing parody of the creationist propaganda film Expelled. Demand equal time for Stork Theory!

An Engineer's Guide to Cats: I've seen this linked to all over the place, but I don't care, I'm linking to it again. Because it's engineers and cats!

Friend's Best Man: A guy investigates pet psychics by asking them about his imaginary dog. Wackiness ensues.

Knitwit BBC Goes After Dr Who Fans: I'd originally planned to link to a page featuring some incredibly cool and utterly adorable Doctor Who-themed knitting patterns, but instead here's an article about how the BBC intimidated the knitter into taking them down. Because Doctor Who fans with knitting needles are a threat that must be stopped, clearly.

Which Candidate Makes the Best Sidekick for Which Dr. Who?: Speaking of Doctor Who... (Yeah, yeah, I know.) I thought the funniest thing here, actually, was the descriptions of the various Doctors, but I really must protest. Paul McGann was not awful. You can argue that the movie he was in was awful, but McGann rocked. I will brook no argument on this point.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Oods and Ends

Because I just realized I didn't remember to do it last night: here's your regularly scheduled discussion post for the most recent episode of Doctor Who to air in the US: "Planet of the Ood."

As always, no spoilers past this point, please.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

What I Did On My Australian Vacation: Day Five

As you might have noticed by now, this is more a collection of rambling things that I thought about while on this trip than an exciting and action-packed travelogue...

Day Five:

On Day Five, we drove out from Alice Springs to our next stopping place: the Ayers Rock Resort, just outside the national park that is home to the famous rock itself. A word about names here, by the way... I'm not sure exactly who Ayers was or how his name got attached to this particular geological formation, but of course it had a name long before anybody ever gave it his. The original inhabitants of the area called it Uluru, which means "meeting place," as it was (and still is) a place where various local groups would meet for important religious rituals. You still see "Ayers Rock" used in many contexts, such as the name of the resort town, but all the official signs and such use the original native names. As I understand it -- and I'm sure the politics were way more complicated than I'm making it sound -- the land containing the national park was ceded back to the aboriginal people a couple of decades ago, and they are now renting it back to the Australian government on a 99-year lease. (I'm told this extended lease is a common sort of arrangement in this part of Australia, though usually it's the Australian government leasing land to ranchers.)

When you're actually in the national park, by the way, there is a very strong sense of being constantly reminded that, yes, you are on aboriginal land, on the sacred site of an ancient culture, and that your presence, while tolerated, is something of an intrusion. On the other hand, while it's not remotely a tourist-trap kind of place, there are also, inevitably, many signals that scream "Welcome, tourist! Come and see everything! Spend money!" The resulting feeling of cognitive dissonance pretty much encapsulates the post-Imperialist world in a nutshell.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I was going to talk about the trip from Alice Springs. This was a fairly long drive -- something like five hours, I think -- and I was prepared for a stretch of boredom, or at least for a chance to do some reading. (I had a paperback copy of The Origin of Species that I carried around with me for the duration of the trip. I thought it might be rather cool to finally get around to reading that book in a place with such an interesting evolutionary history. Which it was, but I didn't exactly end up having much reading time, so I didn't finish it until the flight home... by which point it had become rather badly battered, poor thing.) Turns out that boredom wasn't a problem, though. Partly this was due to Linda the tour guide, who would periodically chime in with information or jokes or music, partly due to the fact that a couple of stops broke the drive up nicely -- more on the one that wasn't a lunch break in a minute -- and partly because the view out the window held my attention remarkably well. The vegetation looked enough like what we have here on the New Mexican chaparral to feel pleasantly homey, but with the red sandy soil that said vegetation was growing in, the result was a sense that something very like my home desert had been transplanted onto Mars. It was weirdly fascinating.

I was also peering out the window hoping to see some wildlife... I realize that, when I talked about driving along the Great Ocean Road on Day Three, I neglected to mention that we did get a very, very brief glimpse of some wild koalas high in the trees. I was really hoping to see wild kangaroos somewhere other than on a plate, but, like most desert animals, they're mostly active at dusk, so our late-morning/afternoon drive was sadly kangaroo-less. Well, except for a couple of roadkill 'roos along the side of the highway. We did see lots of birds, though, including a couple of eagles munching away on aforementioned roadkill. Australia seems like a great place for birds... I knew they had wild parrots and cockatoos, but I didn't realize they had wild cockatoos hanging out in the middle of cities. I saw them pretty much everywhere, though. Well, everywhere except the outback, so apparently I'm digressing again.

Speaking of animals, the non-lunch stop we made was at a place that offered camel rides. For five bucks, you could climb up on one and they'd lead it around the yard for you. I didn't go for this, myself, as I don't even care for horseback riding, but several other members of our tour group did, and it was fairly entertaining to watch. Here, have a camel picture:

After the ride (the bus ride, that is, not the camel ride), we had some time to kick back at the hotel, then we drove into the park to view the eponymous rock in the setting sun. Very pretty and colorful. Not quite Grand Canyon-in-the-sunset levels of pretty and colorful, perhaps, but a beautiful sight nonetheless. Plus, there were snacks and wine.

And then it got dark. And I realize that I forgot to mention something about Day Four, too, which is that it marked the first day (or rather, night) in which I was able to get anything like a proper look at the stars of the southern hemisphere. Which, frankly, was one of the things I was most excited about on the whole trip. I had a southern star chart (which someone, rather wonderfully, slipped into my mailbox at work before I left), and I pleased myself enormously by discovering that I could identify Alpha Centauri (our nearest stellar neighbor!) and the famous Southern Cross quite easily. And then I stood there like an idiot for ages gaping at Orion, good old familiar Orion, which was upside down. I mean, I knew it would be, but seeing it like that was just bizarre. Orion's sword had become Orion's necktie! Actually, standing there gaping isn't precisely what I was doing. In fact, I was hopping around and pointing at things in the sky and exclaiming and twisting my head around to look at things upside down so I could identify them better, while passerby no doubt gave me a wide berth, and my friend stood there smiling in tolerant bemusement.

The reason that's relevant to Day Five is that there was supposed to be an optional star party thing the previous night, which turned out to be unavailable, a fact at which I expressed great disappointment to Linda. Well, she happened to stumble across a flyer somewhere at the resort advertising a "night sky show" at the tiny Ayers Rock Observatory and offered to book me in for it. So of course I went. It was basically just an astronomer giving a very, very basic-level talk, and letting people look through a telescope at various star clusters. (Also the moon, which really is an awesome sight through a reasonably-powered telescope, and Saturn, which is just pretty.) As basic-level astronomy talks go, it was pretty decent, although I give the guy points off for going on about astrology and pointing out everybody's star signs. I suppose it's considered a way to get people who know nothing about astronomy interested by relating it to something they are familiar with, but I can't help but disapprove on principle. Especially as the guy claimed he would "totally discredit" it later, and then apparently forgot to do so. Oops. Still it was enjoyable nonetheless, and I could tell that the people there were getting something out of it. One couple asked the astronomical guide to settle an argument: "The moon isn't visible in the daytime, right?" they said. "So when it looks like you can see the moon in the day, that's just a reflection, right? It can't be the actual moon? Or is it?" Oh, man, that level of... of not-looking-up-at-the-sky-ness, and not-understanding-the-universe-ness, it just makes me sad. Not mad at people for being ignorant, or contemptuous of them, or anything, just sad. How can you have an amazing, wonderful thing like the moon around and not even pay enough attention to it to know whether it's supposed to be there or not? At least they did get their explanation: yes, the moon is visible during the day. And I am re-confirmed in my belief that these kinds of public talks by scientists are useful and important.

For myself, I learned how to find south by the stars in the southern hemisphere, which is not nearly as easy as finding north around here. Something in the back of my brain is utterly convinced that this is vitally important knowledge to have, even though I'm honestly not sure I'm ever going to make it back to this side of the planet, let alone find myself in a position where I'm going to have to navigate by the stars. I suspect that's the same part of my brain that is convinced there's an actual chance of my ending up as a Doctor Who companion and that I need to know where the vulnerable spot is on a Dalek. (Aim for the eyepiece!)

Unfortunately, this night, and the few others we had under clear desert skies, were not in fact good nights for stargazing, as the moon was nearly full and completely washed out some of the more interesting objects visible in the southern hemisphere. Meaning I still have not seen the Magellenic Clouds. I'm thinking that just might be the thing that will eventually persuade me to go back...

Here. Have One Of These Again.

Current clothes: A white terrycloth bathrobe. I just got out of the shower and am having trouble working up the ambition to even get dressed, let alone to do any of the other stuff I probably ought to be doing today.

Current mood: Inert.

Current music: Most recently, Jonathan Coulton's Thing a Week One.

Current annoyance: Being back at work. I want more vacation! I want Ed McMahon to come and give me a giant check so I can retire at 37! Is that too much to ask? And my work schedule is annoying me greatly. I worked two twelve-hour night shifts over the weekend, which isn't exactly fun, but which I can handle well enough. The thing is, though, it used to be that when you worked all damn weekend like that, you were then done with your scheduled work for the week and you could just come in and put in those remaining 16 hours whenever you liked, working on whatever you wanted. I'd usually take a day off, then put in 3 or 4 short days, working after hours when things were nice and quiet. But now when you work 12-hour day shifts over the weekend, you just keep right on working, with two more 8-hour shifts on Monday and Tuesday. And when you work those weekend nights, you've then got three days to completely shift your sleep schedule around so you can be in for a day shift on Thursday and Friday. That's what I'm trying to do right now. It's not going well. Aargh. I've worked worse rotations than this, it must be said, but this one is definitely up there on the annoyance scale.

Current thing: Suddenly, it's The Sims 2, which I made the mistake of buying when I got my new computer. I had this great plan yesterday, which was that I'd get lots of productive stuff done during the evening/night while I was naturally awake, and then crank up The Sims to keep me awake during the day so I could get myself switched over for those day shifts. I then made the mistake of booting up the game sometime around, I don't know, 1 AM, just to remind myself where I'd left off last time I played. Next thing I know, it's 7 o'clock in the morning, my wrists and neck are aching, my eyes are glazing over, and I'm physically incapable of playing any longer. I fell asleep at 10:30, and woke up today at 4:30 with something in the back of my brain telling me that it desperately want to get back to the game. So far, I have succeeded in not giving in to it, but it's not easy.

Current desktop picture: Still M78 and reflecting dust clouds in Orion.

Current book: The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder, a non-fiction book from the early 80s about a group of computer engineers working on designing a new minicomputer system in the late 70s. It's kind of interesting to read, because Kidder's trying to give us the sense of how new and exciting this technology is and what a special new breed these computer people are, and so on, but of course it all feels rather quaint from my vantage point here in 2008. What I find really interesting, though, is noticing what kinds of things Kidder believes he has to explain to his audience. Like, the concept of cubicles. Wow, things have really changed in the world over the last three decades, haven't they?

Current song in head: It's pretty much been Cavalcade of Rush in here since the concert. Right now, it appears to be "Face Up" from Roll the Bones.

Current DVD in player: Nothing at the moment. Most recently, the last episode of Doctor Who, which I got from the UK. So far, I'm really enjoying this season, regardless of whether the individual plots actually make any sense or not. I'm not so sure about next week's episode, but we can discuss that when it airs in the US.

Current refreshment: Nothing. But I'm thirsty. *goes off to get some water*

Current worry: That I'm not going to be able to stay awake at work on Thursday, but will instead end up slumped face-down on my keyboard, snoring gently.

Current thought: Sigh. I have to get up and start doing useful things. There's just no putting them off any more. I mean, I can smell the catbox from here, and it's not like anybody else is going clean it.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Sadly, However, It Also Proves That Ragan.Com Is Already Taken, Just In Case I Ever Wanted It.

Semi-random clicking on hits from my site statistics has just led me to this result of bored self-googling which led somebody else to my blog. For a second, I wasn't entirely sure whether to feel flattered or mildly creeped, out, but I quickly settled on a sort of amused bemusement. Hey, that's the internet for you! Plus, it's kind of nice to be liked by people I've never met.

Saturday, May 03, 2008


Am finally back at work. It's even more annoying than it was before I left. Can I have another vacation now, please?

Friday, May 02, 2008

What I Did On My Australian Vacation: Day Four

Day Four:

On Day Four, we left Melbourne behind and flew out to Alice Springs, in the heart of the Australian Outback.

The fist place we stopped in "The Alice" was the old telegraph relay station which was the initial reason for the town's existence. There are some original frontier buildings still standing there, as well as a display of old telegraph equipment. I think I got more out of it than I otherwise would have by virtue of having read a couple of relevant books. Several years ago, I picked up The Dig Tree by Sarah Murgatoyd, which was about the exploration of Australia's interior by Europeans and which impressed me greatly with the fact that the Outback eats people, or at least certainly did in those days. So that helped me form at least some vague idea of what a truly boggling feat it must have been to put a telegraph line straight through the heart of this wilderness. And just a few weeks ago, I happened to read The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage, which really brought home the fact that telegraph technology was as marvelous and as world-changing in its day as the internet is in ours, in extremely and fascinatingly similar ways. So it was rather cool to see a little piece of that history preserved.

Next, we visited the headquarters of the Royal Flying Doctors service, which maintains a medical staff and a small fleet of airplanes that can be dispatched almost instantly to rural areas which otherwise have no access to doctors. They showed us a little film, which was really a thinly disguised extended plea for donations, but since they are doing impressive life-saving work, and since most of their calls these days come from tourists rather than locals, I cannot remotely begrudge them for taking the opportunity to try to milk a few dollars from said tourists. (Indeed, I happily let them milk a few out of me.)

We also visited the Alice Springs School of the Air, where we got another film/plea for donations, a little tour, and a brief Q&A session with a staff person. The School of the Air provides education for children who live in isolated locations, and has done so since 1951. It originally started out using radio communications, but has now moved onto the internet. Most of the tour/film/talk was about current practices, which I was a little disappointed by, as I was much more interested in the institution's history. Teaching via internet, while a worthy practice, is considerably less impressive to me than running a classroom over the radio. Heck, I have a friend who does internet math tutoring from her home, using what seem to be pretty much the same methods as the School of the Air teachers, but my imagination chokes at the thought of trying to teach fractions via shortwave.

By the way, Alice Springs, from what I saw of it, seemed like quite a nice little town. Of course, mostly what I saw of it, other than the tour stops, was the shopping area. But even that area, while definitely geared towards tourists, managed to seem pleasantly livable rather than touristy and tacky. Mind you, it's probably a much less hospitable place in the summer... I heartily recommend April as a time to visit this part of Australia, as the weather was as gorgeous as it is possible for weather on Earth to be.

That evening, most of my traveling companions chose to go to an outdoor feast/aboriginal dancing-and-storytelling show. I figured this was probably going to be tacky, not to mention exploitative, and opted out. Which turned out to be a good call, as the folks who went came back reporting that the food was bad, the show was lame, and there was some kind of transportation mix-up that left them stranded without a ride for an hour afterward. They did receive a visit from some wild kangaroos, though, which everybody seems to have regarded as the highlight of the evening. And, as recompense for their troubles, they liberated a number of unopened bottles of wine left over after the dinner, something Linda the tour guide -- who had nothing to do with the screw-ups, it should be noted -- praised as being "in the Australian spirit," or at least in the spirit of the country's convict origins. Heh. My mother, at least, seemed to regard the whole thing as a we'll-laugh-about-this-later sort of adventure than as something to be genuinely annoyed about, which is cool, but I certainly wasn't feeling as if I'd missed out.

My friend and I opted instead to head to the Overlander's Steakhouse for what was almost certainly the most expensive meal I've ever eaten in my life, but one that made up for it in sheer novelty value, if nothing else. (Erm, any vegetarians in the audience may want to look away now.) Here's the menu for the meal we ordered (click to see full-sized):

There are two things to note here. One is that that's a metric crapload of food. The other is the nature of the appetizers, which consist of samples of crocodile, kangaroo, emu, and camel. (Yeah, this is the kangaroo-eating I mentioned in my brief and cryptic posts from the trip.) The kangaroo, in my opinion, was utterly delicious, with the emu being very nearly as good. Both tasted quite a bit like very lean beef, or possibly venison, though it's been long enough since I've had venison that it's difficult to compare. Interestingly, kangaroo was also served at the disastrous meal the others went to, and several of them complained that it was tough and unpleasant. And as I recall, somebody else mentioned on a blog comment that they'd found emu too dry. All I can say is, you guys must not have had it cooked right! Admittedly, the meat was a fair bit rarer than I usually like it, but maybe that's what made the difference. I suspect that kangaroo may be one of those things, like prime rib, that you simply don't order well done. I noticed kangaroo steaks on a menu somewhere else later, too, with "(rare only)" in a note next to it, so apparently I'm not the only person who thinks that. All I know is that I'm sorry emu never caught on here, and I'm really sorry that kangaroo isn't something I'm ever going to find on the menu at my local diner, because I'd probably order it on a semi-regular basis if I had the opportunity.

My mother, by the way, made a face when I told her about this later and said she'd refused to eat the kangaroo because she didn't like the idea of eating anything "cuddly." To which I pointed out that she'd just ordered veal the night before, but it's a mistake to try to apply logic to people's food preferences, really. The reason I mention this is because my friend then responded, "Just think of them as bouncy cows!" and kangaroo meat thus will now always be "bouncy cow" in my mind. Heh. Emu, by the way, is "beef bird," which is what we immediately dubbed it upon tasting it.

The camel I thought was a bit stronger and gamier-tasting than the other red meats, although my friend pointed out that it was difficult to compare it properly, as it came in a plum sauce, which the others didn't. It's quite possible that the difference in palatability was to some degree psychological, as camels simply aren't tasty-looking animals. (Camels, by the way, live wild in the Australian outback, in herds descended from domestic camels initially brought in as riding animals. So camel really is an authentic Australian game meat! Who knew?)

The crocodile, while perfectly edible, was much less to my taste, having the consistency of slightly undercooked chicken and a mildly fishy taste. But it gives me an odd, triumphant feeling to chow down on something that normally regards itself as being higher than me on the food chain.

And I'm done talking about eating animals now, honest. I will, however, mention that pavlova, which is a desert whose description defies my ability with words, except to say that it was incredibly light and delicately fruity, needs to be imported into the United States right now, so that I may order it for dessert with every meal henceforward. Thank you.

Since It's Friday...

Here's your Doctor Who discussion post for the episode airing tonight in the US: "The Fires of Pompeii." The usual spoiler policy remains in effect!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

What I Did On My Australian Vacation: Day Three

Day Three:

On the third day, we did an all-day drive along the seacoast on the Great Ocean Road. As unhappy as I was about not having more time to spend in Melbourne, I do not regret electing to do this trip, as the scenery was spectacular, especially the famous rock formations known as the Twelve Apostles. (Even though there don't seem to actually be twelve of them.) Once again, the stops we made were too short to be entirely satisfying for me, but in this case I can't really complain, as there's no way we could have lingered longer and still made the entire drive before sunset.

Despite the briefness of the stops and the heaviness of the crowds -- Australia seems to be positively teeming with Japanese sightseers -- I did find a few lovely moments to stand off by myself, stare out across the sea and contemplate things like the vastness of geologic time and the incredible beauty of the planet Earth. Which, corny as it sounds, is something that just makes me feel... better, in a genuinely profound sort of way. Sadly, I seem to be the only one who bothers; I couldn't help but notice that I was pretty much the only person in all those crowds who stopped to look at things with human eyeballs rather than through the lens of a camera. The standard procedure seemed to be to run up, snap a picture here, snap a picture there, snap pictures of each other standing in front of the scenery, and then run immediately off to the next thing. I can't help but think that this must be related to another kind of behavior I've noticed in more than one person, both on this trip and on others, which is the tendency to obsess about buying souvenirs almost to the exclusion of paying attention to the places they're buying souvenirs of. It's like people care more about proving they've been somewhere than they do about actually being there. Which is a deeply strange attitude to me.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm as happy as anybody to take home a few pretty pictures, and I have considerable respect for people who practice photography as a serious art form. And my inability to engage in any activity without acquiring a t-shirt relating to it is legendary; you could probably write a pretty detailed biography of me just based on the contents of my shirt drawers. But, ephemeral is it may be, I'd much rather have the experience than the keepsake.

All of which doesn't mean that I didn't take some decent photographs, or that I'm not going to share them with you! So, here you go:

What I Did On My Australian Vacation: Day Two

Hey, maybe I will finish this in less than the two weeks it took to do, after all! Anyway, were we go...

Day Two:

As alluded to in the last post, this is the point where I experienced some misgivings about the whole package tour deal. Because the activity for Day Two featured a sightseeing bus tour of Melbourne, which started in the morning and which I was expecting to be maybe a couple of hours. Instead, it didn't finish until 1 PM. Now, my biggest concern about doing the guided tour thing was that there'd be a lot of rushing around and looking at the world through the windows of buses and never really getting to see anything, so we deliberately chose this tour, in large part, because it offered up a reasonable amount of free time at the various stopping points. But we then went and signed up to do an optional drive along the sea coast during what would have been our free day in Melbourne, so the fact that I spent an entire morning and then some hearing "and over there's an interesting place you might want to go" and "we're only going to spend a few minutes here, but it would be a great place for you to come back to tomorrow" was pretty frustrating to me, especially as Melbourne seemed to me like a lovely, friendly interesting city that I could happily have spent several days exploring. I also had the vague notion of perhaps looking up an internet friend of mine who lives in the city for lunch, but given that we didn't get back until after lunchtime, that sort of went out the window, too. And then once the bus tour finished, we ended up spending a fair amount of time in the Aussie equivalent of Wal-Mart purchasing all the stuff that everybody had neglected to pack, and then ate something of a hurried lunch. (Although, Melbournean internet friend, if you're reading this, I will mention that I did have souvlaki, and even though it was just from some food court place, it was delicious. You were so right about it being easy to find good Greek food in Melbourne! Who knew?)

By the way, while I'm talking about shopping in Australia and while I'm already whining, I will add that, financially speaking, this was so not the time to visit the country. At an exchange rate of nearly one-to-one, things were definitely on the expensive side. It was like paying airport prices everywhere.

I really don't want to be too negative here, though, because despite these frustrations, it actually was an enjoyable day, and Melbourne did strike me as a wonderful city. If it didn't require that horrible, horrible plane flight, it would top my list of places to visit again. And once we left Melbourne, said frustrations melted away and I was extremely happy with the rest of the tour.

We did find time in the afternoon to visit the Melbourne Museum, even if we didn't get to see anything like all of it. And for dinner, we went to this Italian place where I had what I can safely say, with no hyperbole whatsoever, was the best lasagna I have ever eaten in my entire life. My mouth is watering just thinking about it now, and I'm not even hungry.

And then we went to bed early again, which was a good thing, because Day Three would require getting a very early start. But more on that later. In the meantime, have a picture of some local vegetation:

I did love the vegetation in Australia, by the way. There's something about the sight of eucalyptus trees and cycads everywhere that really kept bringing home to me the fact that I truly was on the far side of the planet.

What I Did On My Australian Vacation: Day One

OK, I know multiple people have told me they're looking forward to hearing all about the Australia trip, and I'm finally starting to get a bit caught up with my life after getting back from said trip, so I might as well actually start talking about it. It was a very full two weeks, and I kind of like the idea of blogging about it in detail, so I think I'm going to offer up a day-by-day report here, as I find the time. Which probably means it'll take longer for me to blog about than it took to live, but hopefully it'll be sufficiently interesting. (And, hey, if it's not, you can always skip the travel reports and just read the Doctor Who posts.)

So, here we go, the first entry in the retrospective Aussie travelog!

Day One:

Well, this would really be something like "Day One-and-a-Half" or maybe "Days One, Two, and Three"; it's hard to know exactly what to call it, what with all the weird, disrupted sleeping patterns and the crossing of a zillion time zones and all. Day One will do, and it's probably the least interesting part of the trip, because most of it was spent on planes.

I've already bitched about the long plane trips here before, and I won't do that rant again. I will say that at least the flight out was better than the flight back, despite being longer, because a) I was fresh, headed for adventure and rarin' to go, and b) It was a late flight and I actually managed to get some sleep, once someone lent me a neck pillow. That turned out to be an absolute necessity, as there is no comfortable position in an airplane seat. You keep thinking that perhaps if you just turned your head or your body or rearranged your arms just a little, that might make it endurable and you might be able to finally get some sleep, but this always turns out to be an illusion. Like I said, it is the transport to Hell. (And I'm not even going to get into how a certain member of my family refused the ticket agent's offer to move her to a window seat because then she'd be away from the group, and then insisted that I trade my window seat for her middle one because if she didn't have a window she'd get motion sick... and then spent the entire flight staring at the television screen, anyway. Ahem.)

Anyway, we landed in Melbourne at something like 6AM and took forever to clear customs and get our bags and stuff, which turned out to be not really a bad thing, because by the time we got to the hotel, our room was ready and we were allowed to check in early and take badly, badly, badly needed showers and naps. (I have been grungier than I was after that plane flight, but only once, at the tail end of a five-day backpacking trip.)

Speaking of hotels, this tour package thing was expensive as hell, but I have to say that they gave us our money's worth, as the hotels they had us booked in were nice. Especially by my standards, because I'm generally a serious tightwad when it comes to hotels, and I tend to consider anyplace where they provide shampoo as upscale. Here's a picture of the room we had later, in Cairns, by way of illustration:

After the napping and showering, we met for a drink with our tour director, Linda, who was great. I admit to having some doubts about how happy I was going to be with the whole package tour thing -- more about that when I get to Day Two, probably -- but my feeling now is that how well this sort of thing works must depend a lot on the tour director: how helpful they are, how on the ball they are, how well they connect with people... And this woman was great. Fun, friendly, helpful... She arranged for smoking rooms for my mother after her travel agent failed to put the request through, located my friend's wallet for her when she accidentally left it in an airport, and a whole host of other things. It was kind of like being a little kid again and having a parent to take care of you, but a parent whose only concern is to make sure that you have fun, rather than bugging you to eat your vegetables. Which is something that might wear thin after a while, but as a two-week vacation from reality, especially one coming hard on the heels of a period where I was feeling overwhelmed by adult responsibilities, it was marvelous. And my friend, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and walks with a cane, was particularly grateful to her. Because she gets around OK, for the most part, but sometimes needs a little extra assistance and time. Apparently it's sadly rare for her to encounter someone who is able to help make things easier for her in a situation like this without being patronizing or discouraging her from doing things she's actually capable of doing. And Linda was a star on both fronts.

After the meeting and the drinking and the discussing of the itinerary, we went to bed very, very early. In fact, this was a case in which jet lag worked in our favor. Neither my roomie-for-the-duration nor I are normally anything remotely like morning people, but we were easily waking up at disgustingly early hours the entire time. And, wow, being a morning person is nice when you're traveling. I had no idea! Usually on vacation trips, either people are dragging my sorry ass out of bed in the morning and I'm stumbling around being blearily miserable for hours or else all the interesting attractions are closed before I've had enough time awake to see everything I'd like. This realization, of course, only makes me resent morning people all the more, but it was good to find myself among their ranks just this once, anyway.

And that was Day One! Not very interesting yet, I know. But stay tuned. Eventually there will be koalas.