Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Oz Files, #17: Farewell to Canberra

(Editor's note: We're doing the time-travel thing again. Michael and I are actually back in Philadelphia, but this post is about the end of last week in Canberra, so just bear with me and do the pretending thing, mmmkay?)

Yes, it's hard to believe that we're approaching the end of our time here. Perhaps more surreal than the fact that we're here at all is the fact that we soon won't be, and that we'll soon be back in the Northern Hemisphere, where it's summer and people drive on the right side of the road. Weird.

Unfortunately for those of you who have gotten used to reading about my breezy and charming exploits in a savage and beautiful country, I've spent most of this week in the office, working. To be specific, I finished up two paper drafts and sent them off to my co-authors, and Michael submitted an NSF grant proposal. Play hard, work hard.

There are a few interesting tidbits to report on, however:

On Wednesday evening, we met up with Ellen (Brit, philosopher of biology) and her boyfriend Simone (Italian, logician; it's pronounced "si-MON-eh") for dinner at Wagamama. We definitely need one of these in Philly: fast, fresh, Asian food with lots and lots of noodles and good veggie options. May I humbly suggest that Penn installs one of these into the currently vacant storefront at 38th and Spruce (Stouffer Commons, next to the SaladWorks (gag)), instead of yet another in a long line of utterly disgusting dining-services run flops?

So dinner was nice, although nothing particularly special. Afterwards, we wanted to find somewhere to get a drink, but we were all a little sick of beer by this point. On a whim, we headed across the street to a promising-looking and very hip bar called Tongue & Groove. This place is definitely a winner; if you're in Canberra, go there now. Have the pizza. You won't be disappointed.

We had to sit outside on the patio at first, under the heat lamps, since it was too crowded indoors, but we were able to get a table in the dining section after our first round. The bartender (experimental jazz pianist doing a music degree at ANU) really knew his stuff. He mixed me an acai berry mojito to start with and also did some expert sidecars for all of us at the end of the night. Yummy. We ordered some desserts and a cheese plate, too, to take the edge off: baked pear with walnut baklava and honey ice cream, chocolate ganache and hazelnut praline tart, and the cheese platter. Super yummy. Plus, our waiter was from Philadelphia. What are the odds?

Since we were the last degenerates sitting in the bar, sipping cocktails at closing time on a Wednesday, the owner came up to see how we were getting on. He's American too, from California, and is justifiably proud of the place. All in all, a fun evening.

On the way home, we bumped into a trio of brush-tailed possums, nibbling grass and bugs off the ground near our apartment:

Here's one of them, hiding in a wattle tree:

That one actually had a baby in her pouch. We couldn't see it directly, but we could tell by the way the pouch was bulging down. Naturally, we did our best to keep our distance so as not to alarm her. Standard wildlife protocol, right? But she didn't seem to mind our presence at all. In fact, after we'd been there for a while, snapping pictures, she came right up to us to see what was up with these new additions to her environment. First she went sniffing around Michael's shoes, and then she came over to me and starting sniffing at my shoes. And then she bit my toe! Not hard, certainly not hard enough to break through the leather, but definitely hard enough for me to feel a pinch. It wasn't meant to be a threat or an attack, since she wasn't aggressive at all --- it was more of a "Hey, what's this? Can I eat it?" kind of exploration. Needless to say, I was not too happy about her eating my toes, at least not through my boots, so I twitched a little and she backed off. Maybe there was something sweet-smelling in the shoe polish that attracted her? Or maybe her eyesight was kinda bad and she mistook me for a very strange tree? The world will never know.

Goodnight, possum:

Aww. I love those ears.

Thursday was more work, afternoon tea, a philosophy talk, some pubbing, and then Brett picked us up from the pub for dinner at his new apartment with his girlfriend, Liana. We got some lovely Turkish take-away and enjoyed it with some delicious and very un-Australian (read: subtle, less than 17% alcohol) pinot noir made at Liana's parents' vineyard outside of Melbourne. Pick us up a case if you can find it in the States, won't you? After dinner, the three of us bullied Michael into playing a board game called Pandemic. Think Risk meets swine flu. It's a great game, and the structure is very different from anything else I've playing. Rather than competing with each other, the players have to strategize and work together to beat the game. The premise is that four diseases have broken out in various places all over the world, and the players have to find cures for them and eradicate them before they take over. We did, so we won, and even Michael enjoyed it (do I get to say "I told you so"?).

Friday was our last day at ANU (sniff, sob), so we made the most of it by observing the traditions: morning tea, lunch at Vanilla Bean, afternoon tea, and Friday night drinks at Fellows' Bar. Kim and Melanie very generously invited us over to their place again for dinner on our last evening. We had Indian food from Blu Ginger and some truly great port, which Kim insisted on serving in gigantic chalices:

Seriously, look at that thing! It's like I'm drinking out of a flowerpot!

Mel and Michael:

Me with Uncle Kim:

Unfortunately, we couldn't prolong the evening, much as we wanted to --- our train to Sydney was due to leave at 6:37 am the following morning. Yes, I agreed to that voluntarily, but you'll have to wait for the next post to find out why.

In the meantime, here are a few more birds we spotted on campus. This is a (slightly blurry) magpie-lark:

Two galahs (pronounced guh-LAHs):

And a currawong, which sounds like this:

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Breaking news on Aussie birds


In a shocking discovery yesterday afternoon over tea, your intrepid heroine, Dr. Deena Skolnick Weisberg, discovered that the Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala) is not the same bird as the Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis). Submitted for your consideration are the following two pictures:

Noisy miner:
Common myna:

Although the two birds share remarkable similarities, such as yellow masks, yellow bills, white tail feathers, and terrifically annoying screechy voices, they are undeniably distinct, as any moron with eyes should have been able to tell.

In defense of her egregious mistake, Dr. Weisberg was only able to offer this lame excuse: "Have you ever heard an Australian pronounce 'miner' and 'myna'? They sound exactly the same! Stupid accent."

In an unrelated incident, at approximately 12:30 a.m. today, Dr. Weisberg's boots were the subject of intense scrutiny by an extraordinarily cute brush-tailed possum. Details at 11. And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Oz Files, #16: Weekend in Canberra

Finally, kangaroos!

But let me back up a bit.

On Saturday, a bunch of us (Ellen & Simone, Rachael & Ben, Patrick & Alkistis, Matt & Wiebke, me & Michael) decided to go for a bushwalk up Mt. Ainslie, on the east side of Canberra, to hang out and get in a bit of nature. And what a great idea it was. We started off at the base of the mountain around 3:00 and saw some 'roos straight off, along a bridle path that cuts around the base of the mountain:

From there, we hiked almost straight up along the rocks, with magpies and parrots overhead, until we got to the top of the mountain about a hour later. We were treated with some magnificent views of Canberra, including Capital Hill and the Captain Cook Memorial Waterjet:

Yes, the Captain Cook Memorial water jet. Honestly, if I discover a continent (rather, "discover" a continent), I'd like something more impressive than a glorified fire hose. Can we arrange that? Okay? Okay.

After catching our breath for a bit at the summit, we headed back down the path before it got too dark. We saw a few more kangaroos on our descent, but just a small mob (yes, that's the appropriate plural term):

What better after a hike than some good beer? We went to the Wig and Pen for some local brew to take the edge off all the exercise, and then to the Asian Noodle House for some laksa to take the chill off. After that, it was on to Koko Black for dessert --- I had the aptly named Belgian spoil, which consisted of a teeny chocolate cake, a teeny serving of mousse, a teeny scoop of ice cream, two truffles, and a chocolate-dipped shortbread, all of which added up to a very satisfied sneed. Mmmmm... And then, of course, like good Australians we headed back to the pub to round out the evening. So it was bushwalk-roos-pub-dinner-dessert-pub-bed. Honestly, does life get any better than that?

Sunday showed us that we'd done well to plan our bushwalk for Saturday; it was rainy and a little miserable. So Michael and I decided to spend our time at the National Gallery of Australia, getting some culture. It's actually quite an amazing museum. Their collection isn't very large, but what they have is excellent, and absolutely the jewels of every culture they collect from. They just opened their new Asian and Indian wing, and textiles alone are to die for. But the real draw and highlight for us was the series of paintings on Ned Kelly, done by Sidney Nolan.

Sidney Nolan, for those of you who don't know, is probably the most famous modern Australian artist. His fame is due in no small part to his 27 paintings depicting incidents in the life of Ned Kelly. Ned Kelly, for those of you who don't know, is a famous Australian bush outlaw, akin to Jesse James or suchlike in the States. You may be tempted to rent the movie Ned Kelly in an attempt to learn more about the story. Don't. It's appallingly bad, despite the presence of Heath Ledger and Naomi Watts and Orlando Bloom and Geoffrey Rush. Really, it's bad. You'd think, with a cast like that, they could have managed a better script, but no. Take my word for it. They completely ignore the true drama of the social and economic tensions between the Irish settlers and the police and the realities of living a hard life in the bush, and try to work in some stupid romantic subplot for Ned and make him out to be some kind of Robin Hood figure. Note to Hollywood: Ambiguous anti-heros make for good cinema. Unambiguous "us-good, them-bad" stories are boring.

Anyway, as far as I can tell, the story goes that Ned took offense at the attention paid to his sister Kate by a policeman, Fitzpatrick, which touched off a series of clashes between the Kelly Gang (Ned, his brother Dan, and their friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart) and the police, eventually culminating in the capture of Ned and the killing of the rest of the gang by burning the hotel in which they were sheltering. There are various accounts of all of these events, from various points of view, but what makes these particular outlaws noteworthy and what imbues them with a touch of the Romantic is their armor. Ned and his associates forged for themselves homemade armor, including helmets, which were basically big metal barrels with slits for eyes. Nolan's series of paintings takes advantage of this imagery to depict Ned Kelly as a baneful, watchful, barely human presence, like so:

Those of you who have been loyal readers will remember that image from the PBDB t-shirt. It was Michael's idea, which Brett brought to fruition, and it took the mask and skyline and dressed it up with a snorkel and swimming fins to reflect the sprit of the conference.

To finish off the story: After a long stakeout, Ned was eventually captured by the police --- they shot him in the legs, for which he hadn't made armor. Funny how (a) Ned hadn't thought to do that, despite protecting the rest of his body, and (b) the police hadn't thought to exploit that particular weak point before. Ned was tried for his crimes and convicted, and his last words before being hanged were, reportedly, "Such is life."

All 27 of Sidney Nolan's Kelly paintings are housed in the same room at the National Gallery, and we spent a good bit of time just drinking them in. The rest of the Australian collection is very good as well, and obviously not the sort of thing that we can get in the States, so all in all it was a very enjoyable and cultured afternoon.

That is, until we had to step outside into the cold rain. We thought that it might be nice to have a stroll around Capital Hill, see the capitol building and the embassies and such, but aborted that plan almost before we'd gone 5 meters from the entrance. Instead, we called a cab to take us downtown, where we picked up some more veggies and sundries for the apartment. We had a quiet evening at home, making pasta sauce and keeping the chill away, and getting ready for the start of our last full week in Australia.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Oz Files, #15: Dolphin Beach

It has been an awesome week here in Australia --- I'm not sure I have the proper words to describe everything that's been happening, but I'll do my best.

Last Tuesday, July 21, all the philosophers of biology at ANU (and me) lit out for Dolphin Beach to attend PBDB 3: the third semi-quasi-annual Philosophy of Biology at Dolphin Beach conference. (Historical note: Michael and I were at the first one, in 2006, which had about 10 people and four talks, along with snorkeling, walking along the beach, and general merry-making. See here for pics.) The conference is held at Easts Dolphin Beach Holiday Park in Moruya Heads, New South Wales. It's a really nice holiday park, with cabins of various sizes as well as camping/trailer park facilities. We booked up their "spa suite" to hold the talks in and a bunch of the smaller "villas" for our accommodation. It's hardly roughing it: All of the cabins have a gas range and an oven, which is more than I can say for our accommodations in Liversidge Court, as well as a regular bathroom with tub and shower, plastic chairs for sitting on the porch, eat-in kitchen, real glasses, and heated mattress pads. It's a great place to vacation, although I should note that the heated mattress pads are there only because it gets frickin' freezing at night and there's no other source of heat in the bedroom.

On Tuesday morning, we picked up two vans (Australians call them "people movers." How cute!) from the rental agency and departed Canberra around 9:30 to take the 2ish-hour drive down to the coast.

Here's our route:

On the way out of Canberra, we passed along one side of the airport, then through the suburb of Queanbeyan, which Michael insists on calling "queenie bean." I'm sure the locals won't mind. Just let's not have any bad jokes about Bungendore, shall we?

About halfway through the drive, we stopped in Braidwood, as per tradition, to have lunch at a really good pie shop. But wouldn't you know it --- the pie shop is closed on Tuesdays. (WTF? Closed on Tuesdays?) So we made do with some inferior pies from a bakery next door, which also happened to have some really good sourdough bread, so we bought a few loaves to have for breakfasts at the beach.

Philosophers at lunch:

Left to right, seated: back of my head, Arnon, Jo, Alkistis, Brett, Kelly, Rob, Kim. Standing: Matt, Wiebke, Kim2, Ellen.

This isn't everybody --- in addition to our two vans, there were several car-loads of people coming from Sydney and few other stragglers who met us as the beach, so this is just the core ANU-based group. Kim2 (center of the photo, in the back), so called to contrast with the original Kim, is part Native American, but he's been been living in New Zealand since he was a teenager. He's working on his masters' thesis with Kim1. I mention this because his thesis is on cognitive evolution, specifically the role of the narrative ability and storytelling and theory of mind in early hominid evolution. So, really, it's like we're the same person. Well, research-wise, anyway, if you swap "evolution" for "development." Cool.

Michael tells, Kim what he wants for Christmas:

Braidwood also has a fantastic old-fashioned lolly shop called The Boiled Lolly, selling all manner of homemade gummy critters, peach slices, malt balls, chocolate-covered candied ginger, etc etc. It's indicative of the town, which feels a bit like the Old West, with one very wide, dusty street running through it and shops with big, creaky porches on either side. Except that the horse hitches have been replaced by parking meters.

Coming out of Braidwood, Michael took a turn at driving on the left side of the road. Don't worry, we all lived to tell the tale, and most of the pedestrians we passed escaped relatively unscathed. :) In all seriousness, he did a really good job and managed to keep mostly between the lines, even on quite windy mountain roads, and only hit one curb going around a roundabout. The real issue was that the location of the turn signal control and the windshield wiper control is reversed from where it is on cars in the States, so you can imagine the kind of confusion that causes when you're trying to change lanes.

Our next stop was the grocery store in Batemans Bay to stock up on food and other supplies (read: wine and beer) for the trip, then through the old mining town of Mogo, past Bimbimbie and finally to Moruya Heads.

This is where we stayed. If you click and drag the map, you can see a 360 degree rotation of the area, including the path down to the beach over the ridge on the left side of the road:

We were welcomed to the campsite by a very large, and very unafraid, kookaburra, the first that I've seen on this trip so far:

What a handsome guy! Kookaburras are the largest members of the kingfisher family, and, like all kingfishers, are carnivorous --- just look at that beak! This was demonstrated to us rather vividly when one of them caught a lizard in the flower patch outside of one of the cabins:

They stun/kill their prey before eating it by grabbing it in their beaks and whacking it on the ground repeatedly. This behavior becomes increasingly hilarious when they do the same thing to bits of bacon and hot dogs that they steal off the barbies.

After unpacking and settling in a bit, we took a walk across the road and down the path between the dunes to the beach. Dolphin Beach, to be precise. You might be thinking, as I have, that the place is called Dolphin Beach to lure in tourists, akin to what I'm sure are various Butterfly Coves and Fuzzy Animal Hotels and No Really We Have Mermaids Lagoons all around the world. But no. Dolphin Beach is called that because they actually have dolphins. There was a pod of five or six of them playing in the waves just off the beach when we got there, poking their fins out of the water and just cruising along. They were too difficult to photograph, unfortunately, because they were a bit far away and it was hard to predict when they would appear above the water, but we watched them for a while until they faded out of view. A few of the hardier members of our philosophical team (not me) even did a bit of swimming, although the water was truly frigid.

Unfortunately, all the fun had to come to a temporary halt at 4:30, when we all packed ourselves into the living room of Kim's spa suite to hear Matt and Stefan give talks. (Oh right...this is a conference. Yeah.) Matt did his bit about overheated claims of mindreading from cognitive neuroscience, and Stefan gave a talk on ecology. I didn't get as much out the session as the philosophers, obviously, but everything went really well. There was also the official unveiling of the t-shirt design for the conference:

I realize that this requires some explaining for the non-Australians in the audience, but I will save that for later so as not to drag this post out longer than it needs to be. (Too late...)

The sun was starting to go down as the talks wrapped up, so we all headed back to our own cabins to prep for dinner. Due to the number of people there (about 30), we had agreed that everyone would be responsible for bringing food for themselves or their cabin group, but that cooking and would be a communal affair. There were two gas-powered barbies just outside our cabin, next to a very long picnic table, and we made the most of it.

Kim demonstrates his carnivorous tendencies, with Stefan and Rob looking on:

Gal and Matt take care of the veggies:

View of the barbies from our porch:

I hope you can tell from this photo just how dark it is at night there. We got very lucky on the first night: The air was cold and absolutely crystal clear, and there was very little moonlight. After dinner, we all went walking out on the beach, and away from the lights of the holiday park, the stars were breathtakingly bright. Looking up from the beach, I could see the entire span of the Milky Way and even the two Magellanic Clouds of galaxies, like foggy smudges on the background of sky. Even in a planetarium, I've rarely seen the stars that bright and clear. It was barely possible to make out the constellations; I'm used to relying on the fact that constellations are made up of brightest stars in the sky, but even the Southern Cross was hardly different from all of the surrounding pinpricks of light. The exception was Jupiter, which was was very high and very bright, and it was even possible to pick out Mars because it looked genuinely red. Many people have said that looking at the stars makes them feel tiny and insignificant, but for some reason it wasn't like that. The stars felt like they were so close, almost close enough to touch, and so bright, like they were inviting me in and not pushing me away.

Mirroring the stars overhead, there was phosphorescent bacteria underfoot: Scrape the toe of your shoe through the sand, and you could see hundreds of glowing points, like the tail of a comet. It was in the sea, too, and the waves glowed blue as they crashed on the beach. A few brave souls (not me) went swimming in it, and they said that their movements through the water looked like they made millions of sparks.

Stefan and Kim2 lit a fire at the base of the sand dunes with some driftwood and eucalyptus branches, and we all huddled around to keep the chill away. The light and the smoke made the stars a little harder to see, but by this point I think everyone was so cold that we didn't care very much about that. We sat around until the fire burned down, talking and drinking and listening to Kim 2 recite his bush poetry. It felt ancient, like we were the first humans to huddle by a fire to keep warm and to listen to the crash of the waves and to see the vastness of the stars.

People had been drifting back to the cabins in twos and threes for a while, but Michael and I stayed out until it got too cold and smoky to handle the beach any more. We kicked sand over what remained of the fire and wandered back across the road to the cabins. And while we were chatting with some of the other conference-goers in the yard, we saw a pair of kangaroos! It looked like a mother and a baby, lurking just on the edge of the campsite and just out of the light, but as soon as we moved closer they hopped away. Come on, we just wanted a picture!

We hung out a bit more after that, but everyone was getting sleepy, so we decided to call it a night and headed off to our cabin. On the way back across the campground, we ran into Kim2 and decided to take one last walk on the beach to enjoy the stars. It was absolutely silent by this point --- the fire had gone out and everyone but us had gone to sleep. We could see the entire sky overhead, with just the ocean and the eucalyptus trees marking out the edge of the horizon, and the Southern Cross starting to set over the forest. After a very refreshing walk, we made it back to our cabin, where we checked the time for the first time since the talks had ended; it was 3:30 am. Couldn't have asked for a better night.

The next morning, Wednesday, we woke up around 9ish, feeling bright and refreshed (which is more than I can say for the rest of our fellow conference participants). Breakfast was a leisurely affair, as people tumbled out of cabins to share around bread and cheese and tangerines and such. Michael and I had bought some lovely Tasmanian Camembert that we contributed to the common pool.

Once everyone was reasonably awake and reasonably well-fed, we piled back into the cars and drove a little ways up the road to Shelly Beach.

Many people (not me) went snorkeling. I have to admit that I was slightly tempted to, but I've been completely spoiled by the coral in north Queensland. The water was really cold, necessitating a full wetsuit, and there was a very strong current, which not only made it hard to swim but which was chasing most of the larger wildlife away. Even the most gung-ho snorkelers only stayed out for 1/2 hour or so before joining the rest of us on the beach.

Michael and I took the opportunity to just enjoy the sun, walk along the beach, and peek into tide pools:

With fronds like these, who needs anemones? (Groan!)

Here are a few more pictures from Shelly Beach. First, Kim2, taking it easy for all of us sinners:

Kim and Rob, post-snorkel:

Patrick and his awesome tattoo:

Me on the rocks:

Alkistis and friend:

Arnon, after being buried in the sand:

Instead of taking the cars back to Dolphin Beach for lunch, a few of us walked around the point of the shoreline instead. It was a little rough going at times, since we needed to find a way from the slightly higher bluffs at Shelly down to the scrubby lower forest that surrounds Dolphin, and there wasn't really a trail. But there weren't any snakes least none that we could see. :) Our timing for getting back was perfect, though, since as soon as we started walking along Dolphin Beach back to the campsite, we saw a dolphin surfing in the waves. It was really close to shore, too, and acting very human --- riding the crest of a wave almost until it crashed on the beach, and then swimming out to catch the next one. Amazing.

By this point, we were pretty worn out and hungry, so we had lunch and then retired to the shade of the cabin for a little rest before the next set of talks, which were called for 2:30. A number of us assembled at Kim's cabin for the talks, but Kim wasn't there. In fact, there were only about 5 of us there out of the 30 who should have been. Where is everyone? We checked a few cabins, but they seemed to be empty. By this point we started to suspect that we were either the victims of a cruel hoax or the new stars of a very bad horror movie. Well, at least we'd seen very bad horror movies and we knew what to do: split up and search the area. ("I'll be right baaaack!!") This preferably happens at night and in the dark and with a woeful lack of flashlights and the wind creaking in the branches for dramatic effect, but we only had the lovely afternoon sun. Of all the rotten luck...

Anyway, Rachael and I headed across the road to check whether anyone might have gone down to the beach. Hello, anyone there? Yes, in fact: Everyone was down at the beach and we soon saw why: Whales! There were two southern right whales swimming, and possibly mating, just offshore at the far end of the beach. Whoa. The rest of the crew had gathered their field glasses and some had even grabbed their swimming gear and gone swimming out to get a closer look. (Obviously, not me.) Brett, in fact, had gotten such a close look that the local beach police had called him out of the water given him a ticket (!) for harassing the wildlife. Seriously? You can get a ticket for that? Okay, I get it, they're concerned that the whales feel safe enough to come back to this beach and keep on doing their natural, whale-y things, but really, who's in more danger from this encounter: a 100-ton whale or a 150-pound human? Really.

By this point, the rest of the stragglers had joined us on the beach and we watched the whales until they swam out of sight. I think it's safe to say that there's no other conference in the world that would delay a talk session because most of the conference participants were swimming with whales. But we finally did get to the last three talks, from Thomas, Patrick, and Brett, and we got a good photo of everyone posing with their official conference t-shirts. I'll post that as soon as I get a copy.

After the talks, we ran the usual grilling drill for dinner, with an unusual twist: Michael, despite 14 devoted years of vegetarianism, was convinced by the circumstances and some arguments about animal management to try a bit of grilled kangaroo. Here's how that went:

I think it's pretty clear that he's sticking with the vegetarianism thing. Perhaps more priceless than his reaction, though, is everyone else's reaction:

That's Joyce, PGS, Patrick, and Alkistis in genuine, unposed shock.

While we were putting the dinner things away in the cabins and trying to make sure that we ended up with approximately the same number of dishes and silverware that we started with, I spotted two kangaroos (live ones), hanging out behind the cabins. Michael and I quickly corralled Matt and Wiebke, UPenn students who were very keen on having the entirety of the Aussie experience, and went out to follow them with Michael's torch. The pair was definitely a female and her joey, probably the same ones we'd seen last night. They didn't seem particularly concerned that we were around, but wouldn't let us get too close before hopping away.

That night it wasn't nearly so clear; some clouds had rolled in during the afternoon and had not quite rolled away again, and there was also a good bit more humidity in the air. We lit another fire on the beach, and watched the phosphorescent waves roll in. A few people headed into the water to see what it was like to swim in it --- finally, yes me! Michael and I headed a little ways away from the campfire so everyone else couldn't see, and he rolled his jeans up while I disrobed a little more fully to get a better experience. Let me just say that it was worth every bit of the hypothermia risk and the sand in uncomfortable places. When I moved my legs through the water, it churned up the bacteria into millions of bright sparks. All of my movements left a trail that lasted behind me and that coated my body in the water like tiny, cold diamonds. The best part was to scoop the water up and toss it into the air and watch it fall back into the ocean like a comet or a shimmering firework. I hardly even felt cold after a while, possibly because bits of me had gone numb, but also because it was so incredibly exhilarating to feel all that cold water on my warm core, like an electric spark.

Even still, I didn't last very long before running out and back up the beach to the fire. There was still a strong current, and an extended night swim in that frigid ocean was not on the menu. The night didn't last nearly as long as the one before, since most people were worn out from the day (or still from the night before!) and since we had to leave early to get back to ANU.

Thursday morning involved lots of packing up, pathetic attempts to get sand out of our cabins, and silverware swapping so that we wouldn't be charged for missing utensils. The trip back to ANU was fairly uneventful, apart from a bit of rain and the occasional dead wombat on the side of the road. I've never actually seen a live one, probably because they're (a) very shy and (b) very stupid, hence tend to wander slowly onto roads and then freeze in the headlights. This is what happens in a country with no natural carnivorous predators.

On Thursday afternoon, Michael gave a colloquium talk to the philosophy department on his work on models, which went over very well, if I do say so myself. After the talk was the traditional pub-dinner-pub routine, and then we finally made it back to Liversidge.

Epilogue: For the next four or five days, I was finding sand everywhere. Seriously, everywhere. I can understand it on the hem of my shirt or on the soles of my shoes, but inside my jeans pockets? Inside? Really? Incongruously, there's also sand caught in the lining of my winter coat, which I was wearing on the beach to keep warm.

Postscript: As usual, Walt Whitman perfectly captures the spirit of how it feels to have an academic conference at the beach:
When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Picture issues

It has come to my attention that some of the pictures I posted are a little difficult to see, and also they don't link to a larger version when you click on them, as they should, for some completely unknown reason. I'm off to Dolphin Beach in 1/2 hour, but I will muck with the HTML and get this fixed when I get back.

Update: I'm back, and the photos are fixed --- they now all link to a larger version when you click on them. And there was great rejoicing.

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly

And I gotta post about 'em.

Let's start with the fish, since they come first, chronologically. Michael and I got a disposable underwater camera when we went out the outer Great Barrier Reef, and some of the pictures actually came out pretty well. At least they should give you a sense of what we saw.

First, the reef itself, with some small stripey fish:

Slightly different color palette:

Neither of those pictures can really do it justice, though, since the colors don't come out right on underwater film. On to the fish!

Two trumpetfish, swimming close to the surface:

A unicornfish, making it easy to see why it's called that:

The lighting didn't quite cooperate for this shot, but these are unmistakably blue tangs (aka Dory from Finding Nemo):

Finally, the motherlode: A humphead Maori wrasse, with scissortail sergeant fish swimming around it:

So. Freakin'. Cool.

Away from the seas, and on to the skies! This is a wedge-tailed eagle, which I spotted in the Botanic Gardens:

Also from the Botanic Gardens, a crimson rosella:

This is a red wattlebird, named for the patches of skin on its cheeks:

This one is either a white-cheeked honeyeater or a new Holland honeyeater, but even the bird book says they're hard to tell apart, so I'm not going to sweat it:

Slightly blurry view of a male Australian king parrot, in his green coat:

A very dignified-looking magpie:

Michael and I love the way the magpies sound. It's the background sound of Australia for us. Go here to download to a recording of their calls; the sound reminds me of what happens when someone's left the radio on the next room, not quite tuned to a station.

Last and possibly least, a crested pigeon on the ANU campus:

There are more birds around (eastern rosellas, wood ducks, magpie larks, etc.), but I just haven't had the camera handy at the appropriate times yet. But I will get them soon enough...oh yes I will...muwahahaha!!


In closing, a bonus picture: Mammal! Marsupial, even. Brush-tailed possum, to be precise: