Thursday, April 27, 2006

double trouble

It's happened twice within a week, which in my rule book at least, calls for a rant.

Coffee. I like it - in fact, I live by it. When the coffee is good, it can truly be one of life's great pleasures. When the coffee is bad, it can be quite an ordeal (for me at least). Canberra does have some very good coffee spots, and I am pleased to say that one of their best is only a stone's throw away from my building here at ANU. Today, however, I left this establishment rather grumpily after a slight miss understanding about what I ordered.

I asked for a "strong flat white". I usually say "double shot flat white", but for some reason opted for the shorter description this time. What I got back was the most gigantic bucket'o'milk coffee I have ever received. I looked at it and said, "oh sorry, is this mine. I ordered a strong flat white?". The coffee maker (who is a new guy) replied, "yep, that's as big as they come."

Not wanting to make a scene over the meaning of strong, I took my litre of milk, and walked out. A similar event happened last weekend at a cafe', when I did actually ask for a "double shot flat white", and got back a mug. For some reason these people think that bigger means stronger - it doesn't! I want a double-shot because I like the taste of strong coffee. Adding more milk along with the extra shot just cancels the extra shot out. It's not bloody rocket science.

The ratio of milk to coffee is very important. In my view, the standard Australian "small" cup size is perfect for good coffee, and is probably the result of Italian coffee makers who knew what they were doing. The larger cup sizes that are flooding the coffee market are the result of stupid American coffee outlets, who subscribe to the doctrine that "bigger is always better". Well people - it's not.

From now on I'll be ordering "a double shot of espresso coffee in a small cup ,with cow's milk please".

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Having had only two hours sleep last night (for no reason except that I couldn't get to sleep, although the 11pm coffee may have had something to do with it), I was awoken rather rudely by my alarm clock at 4.30am this morning. For some reason, I felt compelled this year (for the first time) to go to the ANZAC day dawn service at the National War Memorial in Canberra. Canberra had turned on its usual early morning freezer conditions, making the initial decision to get out of bed all the harder. Compounding my early morning, sleep deprived, anguish was the fact that I had also decided to ride my bike. This was because I had been told that crowds are usually pretty large, and parking can be tricky.

I managed to arrive just in time for the ceremony to begin. As I mentioned, this was my first dawn service, so I had no idea what to expect. In the end, it turned out to be pretty much as I guessed - a fairly simple, somber affair - but boy did the Canberrans come out in their droves for this one. An estimated crowd of 28,000 people apparently showed up - that is pretty incredible for a city the size of Canberra.

I do find the symbolism of ANZAC day a rather difficult thing to relate to, and I often struggle to resolve my personal anti-war views with the glorification of past conflicts that inevitably seems to resonate from these sorts of services. I am well aware that we are remembering those who have fallen, and I have no issue with this whatsoever. What I do have issues with is how many of the prayers and reflections given during ANZAC day services like this morning's, often draw an arbitrary moral line in the sand, such that any military action of Australia and its allies must surely have been justified, and therefore righteous. One of the prayers read out this morning actually asked God to bless all those troops fighting for Australia, and its allies - as if God actually recognises our military treaties with other countries. I found that line just a tad ridiculous.

The shame of all this is that I want to embrace this day as one for Australia. I want to cheer and support our ex-service men and women. I have no moral conflict thanking all those people who have protected our shores, nor celebrating the fine tradition of professionalism in the Australian armed forces. This, however, does not necessarily stretch to the decision makers who send our troops off to fight unjustified wars. I have a real problem with the way history is politicised, and re-written to invoke a false sense of patriotism and self-righteousness. The fact is, wars should not happen, and too often are motivated by very dubious ambitions. Young lives lost fighting unjustified wars are just tragedies, nothing else.

Despite my concerns with some aspects of this morning's ceremony, I will probably attend the dawn service in future years as well. I do support the essence of ANZAC day, and am happy to accept that the symbolism of the day is relevant to Australian culture, and forms part of our national identity. Most of all, I think the ANZAC motto, "Lest We Forget", is an important message to take from this day, and for this reason I am happy to embrace it, and participate in it.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Three Ooooh

It's looming. Like a storm on the horizon, like a ship coming into dock, like a PhD thesis submission date - the big three "oh". That's right, this computer geek is pulling into the home straight of his 30th lap around the sun. The crowd is up, the flags are flying, and the big screen is capturing my triumphant approach to the line. Of course, one commentator inevitably starts suggesting that my increasing age may cause subsequent lap times to slow. This, however, is quickly dismissed by experts who explain that everyone knows "30 is the new 20".

Who am I kidding.

Anyway, for those Melburnian's out there, Aff and I are planning to head down to Melbourne to celebrate my 30th on the night of Saturday, May 20. No plan yet (I will email this soon).

For Canberrans, never fear! Some sort of Saturday night, May 6th event will also happen.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Master Macca - the graduation

On March 16th I finally graduated from my Master of Computer Science degree at Melbourne Uni, so ending an eventful four years of part-time research. For some people, graduation ceremonies are not necessarily worth traveling vast distances to attend, and there is always the option of having the certificate mailed to you. For me, however, there was no chance I was going to miss this one. I often joke that my whole motivation for doing postgraduate study is to get at least a second (now a third) crack at a decent graduation photo. When I got my Bachelors degree in 1999, I was only days away from leaving the country for a year, and in all the rush, unfortunately did not get a chance to organise a suit. I also weighed about 20kg more than I do now. So it was clear as soon as I saw the photos, that I would need to give it another go (there is also the little known fact that Melbourne Uni, who follow the Oxford model for graduation ceremonies, do not allow graduands receiving Bachelors degrees to wear any kind of funny hat!).

So I had my suit dry cleaned, my annual shave brought forward a couple of months, and set about making sure this ceremony was one to be proud of. Aff, and Mum and Dad all came along. It was great.

What I didn't count on when I arrived at Union house and joined the queue of people waiting to get decked out in all the gear, was how many people I would recognise. As it turned out, this graduation ceremony was almost exclusively for Engineering graduates, of which computer science and software engineering students make up a considerable number. What was even more bazaar was that many of these people recognised me, and were coming up to say hi. I didn't know their names, but they knew mine ? Then I did some quick back of the envelope calculations and realised that most of these people were students of mine when I was lecturing back in 2004. This was confirmed when one person came up to me and said, "how could you have been my lecturer when you didn't even have a Masters?" Fair question I guess.

While the ceremony was never going to be as exciting and glitsy as the commonwealth games opening ceremony which happened the night before (though I would liked to have seen the academic procession come in on a flying tram), it wasn't a complete bore either. I think graduation ceremonies are designed to give the graduand one last challenge before stepping up to the next level of academic achievement. It's not just the patience of the graduand who is forced to sit and listen for an hour and a half that is being tested, but also the graduand's ability to coordinate the complex series of actions that must be executed, in front of 1000 people, when receiving their certificate. One needs to know when to walk, when to doff one's funny hat (if you have one), when to shake the Vice-Chancellors hand, and how to get back to one's seat without looking stupidly lost. Not everyone succeeded I must say. One guy attempted to walk back down the stairs he came up on - a big no no. You could almost see the Dean of Engineering wanting to take back the certificate and proclaim to the audience he was clearly not one of ours. Thankfully I executed the required actions successfully, and now have the certificate.

Of course, there is always room for improvement, and there is always the possibility of wearing an even sillier looking hat. Thankfully I get another crack at it in three years time (hopefully). I had better start practicing now.

Thanks to Mum, Dad and Aff for enduring the ceremony with me. A special mention should also go to the lady in the Union's Regalia Shop, who spent considerable time dressing me, and sticking pins into me.

I've put some more photos from the ceremony here.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Ain't no mountain high enough - breaking the Camel's Back

Autumn is without doubt my favourite time of year. In Melbourne, this was mostly because of the festivals that occur around this time (e.g Moomba, comedy festival etc). In Canberra it is purely and simply the weather. The hot dry weather of the summer gives way to frosty morning's, but gloriously sunny days with hardly a hint of wind, and very little rain (which is true of just about anytime of year in Canberra). Sure, the night's will freeze your nads off, but the average Autumn day in Canberra is near perfect. On Saturday morning I woke up to just this.

Normally, when faced with the sight of clear blue skies on a weekend morning, the blankets go flying as I jump out of bed, and get on my bike. So keen am I to get out that I am sometimes reminded by Aff as I open the front door, that some clothes (at the very least, some pants) might be worth considering. On this occassion, however, I was feeling just a tad under the weather after a planned 4 beers, home by midnight house-warming party turned into a 10 beers, home at 3am affair. As such, I decided to catch a bit more rest, and see out my mild hungover state in bed. After breakfast with Aff at our local cafe` later that morning, I dropped her off at uni (apparently for Aff, the perfect Canberra day is best enjoyed in the comfort of your office, writing a paper), thereby leaving me to my own devices.

I considered my options for the day. Cycling was, of course, an option, but on this day I felt like something different. A bit of gardening perhaps ? - hmm, too many weeds, and too much like hard work! Shopping at Belco mall? As enticing as Belco mall is on a sunny Canberra day, shopping would require money, and that I do not have ; completing my 2004/2005 (insanely overdue) tax return ? - woh! too much excitement for one day I think, maybe next weekend (which is what I concluded last weekend). Clearly this was not going to be an easy decision.

Thinking some more, I gazed out into the distance, looking for inspiration. In so doing, I caught sight of Canberra's impressive sky-line. "Impressive sky-line?" I hear you ask - "does Canberra even have building's higher than three stories?". The answer, for the record is, yes it does, but when I refer to Canberra's sky-line, I am not referring to it's modest collection of tallish building's, but rather, the strikingly beautiful sight of it's mountain ranges that make up the entire Western backdrop of the ACT. It was with this view that I made my decision for Saturday's activities - a bush walk.

I have ventured out to the Western mountains a few times, but have only done a modest amount of walking in the area. With Lee-Fay and Tim last year, Aff and I climbed to one particular peak known as the "Camel's back". On that occasion, the weather turned quite horribly wet and cold, and so we were unable to walk to the very top. Well, it wasn't so much that we couldn't get to the top, we just couldn't be arsed climbing the extra 60 metres required (mostly rock scrambling), for no view whatsoever. Clearly then, I had unfinished business with this Camel, so decided this would be my mission for today.

The Canberra skyline (both of them), and the Camel's Back (circled)

The Camel's back track is mostly a fire access road that starts at the Tidbinbilla nature reserve, out along the Cotter rd (near the space centre). It takes about 30 or 40 minutes to drive there from Civic, which is about as remote as things get in the ACT. From the above photo (taken from Canberra's Mt Ainslie), you can probably gather that this walk is pretty much entirely up hill. In fact, from this photo you might conclude that this walk would be stupidly hard. The reality is, it isn't. Sure, you work hard in sections, particularly at the beginning when most of the steep climbing is done, but once you get your rhythm, the walk is actually quite a pleasant one. After the first kilometre or two, the grade of the track is significantly friendlier, and you just put your head down and go.

There is no doubt that bush walking, particularly alone, can sometimes be a very meditative experience. The walk to the top took me about one and a half hours, but it felt like I'd only been walking for about half an hour. Large slabs of time seemed to be completely missed due to my mind wandering off into countless thoughts of the week gone by, and the week ahead. It's almost like you have woken up when you suddenly look around and remind yourself that you are hiking (or more accurately, when you stumble on a rock or fallen tree branch and nearly twist your ankle). It took me a bit over an hour to reach the point where Lee-Fay, Tim, Aff and I stopped last time. Unlike last time, my view of the summit was not impeded by fog and rain, and the final stage of the climb was very much in my sights.

The Camel's back summit, as seen from the track as you approach it.

Apart from a little wind, conditions were perfect to make the climb to the top. The final climb, however, is not as easy going as the track before it, and I did a fair amount of rock scrambling, with only the occasional thought that I may in fact die out here, and no one would know it. It took about 15-20 minutes to reach the top, where I was greeted with some pretty spectacular views.

Of course, no mountain would be complete without the obligatory "conquered all" photo, of which I may have taken just a few.

A Saturday afternoon very well spent.

"The experiment has failed spectacularly" - the perils of privatisation

It's official ! The privatisation of Melbourne's public transport network has turned out to be a monumental cock-up. According to an analysis prepared by transport experts at a number of Melbourne-based Universities, Victorian tax payers are $1.2 Billion worse off as a result of the move to privatise Melbourne's public transport network.

Bloody brilliant Jeff, bloody brilliant!

This officially makes Melbourne a leading example of what not to do with your public transport network. Apparently no other city in the developed world has followed Melbourne's example. Even Jeff, who triumphantly sold off Melbourne's trains and trams back in 1999 when he was state Premier, seems to be conceding that things haven't quite turned out the way he'd hoped, suggesting that the government should consider "all options", including taking back control of the public transport network. Giving even more indication that Kennet might have had a bit of a change of heart on the issue, he has even suggested "free public transport" might be a possibility worth considering. To borrow a phrase from Rove McManus - "What the?"

At the core of the problem is the fact that while the state government has sold off the public transport network, it is still paying millions of dollars in subsidies to these private companies (such as Connex,and Yarra Trams), just to keep them afloat. So it's effectively the worst of both world's. A bad privatised transport system that the government still has to pay for. Brilliant!

To quote from the experts who prepared the damning report:

The experiment has failed spectacularly … subsidies have increased, services have not improved, inappropriate rolling stock has been purchased … the regulator has been 'captured' by those he is supposed to be regulating, there is no real planning for the future

The experts recommend the government takes back ownership of the system as soon as possible, which would be in 2008 when the current franchise agreements come up for renewal. They believe the cost of such a move would not be too expensive.

As far as I am concerned, the sooner the better. It was an ill-conceived, ideologically driven plan to begin with, and should never have happened. Melbourne needs a world class public transport system that serves everyone, not just those where it is cost effective to do so - it is in everyone's interest to have a top notch system, and should therefore be in the hands of all Victorian tax payers.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Light media watch relief

For some lunch time amusement, I suggest checking out the ABC's Media Watch dog of the week web page. There are some priceless newspaper headline and caption stuff-ups.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A year flies by - what the hell happened?

It passed me by without much thought, but last week marked one year of my PhD, and indeed, one year of living in Canberra - and so I ask, how the hell did that happen ? Don't worry, I am not about to embark on some sort of flashback blog post, where I revisit all those humorous, and life changing moments - although the day I took out a female netball opponent with an accidental elbow to the jaw does deserve some mention, as does my first bowlo trivia night experience, and who can forget Aff's choir concert (and wild after party). Ok Ok, I'll stop.

It's fair to say that the last 12 months have been among the most interesting of my life to date (although it is hard to top my year in SE Asia back in 2000, and those crazy toddler years, when I learnt to go to the toilet on my own). In general, moving cities does go along way to ensuring life is never dull. However, these interesting times are not just the result of a change of scene, but also due to becoming a full-time student. This has allowed me to try out and experience a whole bunch of different things, and has introduced me to a lot of interesting people. I must admit, I am not sure I would have gotten so involved in these sorts of things if I stayed in Melbourne. There is something about a new environment where very few people know you, that unshackles you. It's probably the break from the routine of your comfortable existence that does it. If so, then I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I will always be a Melbourne boy, but Canberra is definitely a home away from home. So I say "Thanks Canberra!" - you may not be the most exciting city in the world, but you're not Adelaide either!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Priscilla, Australia's next Paul Hogan

Every now and then, an inspiring story of high achievement in the face of adversity comes my way, such that I am compelled to stop what I am doing, and immediately write up a blog post. On this cold Canberra morning, it was the story of Priscilla, the beer swilling pig from North East Tasmania that caught my attention.

Priscilla must surely be one of Tasmania's best kept secrets. I certainly had never heard of her prior to this morning's story. Priscilla's talent is a simple one, but one that would put many an Aussie beer drinker to shame. She has been reported to possess the ability to skull a whole stubby of beer (most probably a Boag's) in no less than seven seconds! Of course, you might think this is just a matter of someone, quite cruelly, force feeding the pig - but NO - Priscilla has been trained to actually drink from the bottle herself, and I suspect also puts a lot of Aussie beer drinkers to shame with her ability to keep it from dribbling down her front.

As it turns out, a lot of international tourists have actually heard about Priscilla, and come to the small town of Pyengana, just to see her chug another coldy down. Given her obvious appeal, and the problems Australia is having with its current "where the bloody hell are you?" campaign, I think there is some potential for Priscilla's talent in Australia's tourism advertisements. I would suggest we replace the current adds with footage of Priscilla downing a Fosters before trotting away into the Aussie sun set. The extended version would see her then drop onto the ground, and roll around in her own squalor (we could potentially keep the "bloody hell" slogan if we wanted). I am no expert, but I am pretty confident that footage of a beer swilling pig from Tasmania will translate perfectly, no matter what the language.