Monday, October 30, 2006

A good weekend of Aussie music

After attending Canberra's biggest live music festival over the weekend, Stonefest, and then watching the ARIA awards last night, I am comforted to see that Aussie music is as diverse and interesting as ever. In truth, Stonefest wasn't much to write home about, but did have it's interesting moments. The festival is a Friday night, Saturday day event at The University of Canberra. The line up this year included Regurgitator, The Herd, The Avalanches (just a DJ set), Cog, Urge Overkill, Mark of Cain, Sarah Blasko and the Hoodoo Gurus. Unfortunately due to other commitments, I was unable to check out Sarah Blasko, or the Hoodoo Gurus. While not particularly phased about missing reunited 80's bands like the Gurus, I was keen to see Sarah Blasko, but unfortunately this was not to be.

Regurgitator took out best set for mine, although they did keep to a very tried and tested playlist, opting not to play much of their new stuff. They clearly knew their crowd though, and I think they made the right choice (although they didn't play my favourite song, "Bubber Boy", which is guaranteed to get the mosh pit going. Hip-hop act, "The Herd", probably would have been my favourite but for some pretty ordinary sound checking of their voice mics prior to their set. I was pretty close to the front for these guys, but could hardly make out a word they were saying, which is a pretty fundamental problem for a music genre relying on spoken word. It was pretty disappointing because I do like my Aussie hip-hop, and The Herd are one of the best.

The other acts on the Friday night were all DJ sets, which did not appeal to me so much. On the Saturday, after a couple of local acts, Cog took the stage in fine style. These guys are pretty loud and heavy, and not really my thing, but I have no doubt they did keep their fans happy with a very tight set. Sometimes the visual alone is enough for me to enjoy sets like this, the crowd was definitely into them.

Another stand out performance, despite not really being my thing, was Mark of Cain. These guys have been around for years, although not much has been heard from them for a while. They are, like Cog, loud and heavy, but you sense an air of experience about these guys, which adds further to their on stage presence. They took command of the crowd almost instantly with their trademark song "I could have been a contender", and then continued to rip through a great set. Due to a party on Saturday night, I had to leave after these guys.

Despite not being overwhelmed by excitement with any of the acts, I did enjoy the diversity of music on show. In the same vein, the ARIA awards last night seemed to also satisfy this criteria. I didn't catch the whole show, but what I did watch was pretty interesting. The choice of bands and artists for some of the big categories was really very encouraging. Seeing bands like Augie March, Eskimo Joe, Wolfmother, The Audreys, The Hilltop Hoods and TV rock taking out awards, and putting on good performances really brought home the diversity of this years awards. At least some of the superficiality and blandness of previous years was avoided last night. And good on Midnight Oil for taking their moment in the spotlight to make some very interesting points, particularly their none to subtle dig at shows like Australian Idol, which was met with considerable crowd support. They are, were and always will be a class act.

It was a good night for Aussie music.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Swoop 2006!

The season has officially begun. For weeks I have been cautiously eyeing the sky, looking for sudden movements in the trees, listening for that all too familiar sound of fluttering feathers as these black and white dive bombers make their approach. In four days of cycling, I can report three strikes, all within a 2km radius of the ANU. The worst of these, as always, was the first of the season, which took me completely by surprise. This magpie, for whatever reason, has decided the best place to setup shop for the spring time egg hatching season is in a tree right next to the ANU's main entrance gate. I don't have the stats, but on any given day I would expect a few hundred cyclists probably pass through this gate. This magpie has decided to take on the formidable task of swooping just about every cyclist passing through this entrance. It must surely be the most strung out magpie in Canberra, and if I were the magpie, I'd be having a very serious chat with my real estate agent.

This morning I received my third swooping of the week, this time from a different bird preferring the quieter surrounds of Black Mountain - though not quiet enough apparently. The interesting thing about this magpie is that I have been observing it for weeks, sitting on a power line above the road, watching the traffic below with great skepticism. It has always had that look - that look of being on edge, and very trigger ready, that look that at any moment, it might just snap, and decide "that's it!". Well, I am not sure what happened over night, but clearly magpie central radioed in some sort of "fire at will" command, because I received a pretty comprehensive swooping this morning, and a clear message that Black Mountain is no longer a viable cycling option.

Of course, these magpies do not really inflict any injuries, so long as you are wearing a helmet. My real fear is not the magpie itself, but my reaction to the magpie, which normally involves my bike fish-tailing uncontrollably as I apply the brakes suddenly, and attempt to make eye contact with the bird (because this is somehow supposed to act as a deterrent). Riding along a busy three lane road makes this quite a stressful affair, and it has become abundantly clear that I should stick to the bike paths for the remainder of the magpie season.

So be warned Canberran cyclists - swoop 2006 has begun!

Goodbye Zone 3 - Hello affordable public transport

I can't say I am following the Victorian election with any great passion, but certainly keep an eye in when I can. It's heartening to see that public transport is taking a prominent place in both major party's campaigns, with some pretty significant promises being made.

If elected, the Libs promise to make public transport free for students, which sounds great, but Labor cannot see how this can be afforded, opting not to match this promise. It is interesting to note, however, that both parties have promised to abolish Zone 3 from the Melbourne metropolitan ticket zoning. Zone 3 is the outer-most ticket zone for Melbourne's public transport system, covering all the outer-eastern suburbs (where I grew up). An adult daily ticket into the city from zone 3 currently costs $12.60, which I think is quite an incredible amount, making the car option all the more attractive. Of course, maintaining Melbourne's public transport system cannot be cheap, by virtue of the suburban sprawl that seems to be forever consuming farmland in the West, the North, and the South East. Even so, if the State government is happy to allow Melbourne to expand like this, then it must be prepared to foot the costs of maintaining affordable, reliable public transport. The problem for Zone 3 dwellers has always been that public transport offers very few advantages over the car. The only incentive I currently see for catching a train rather than driving from somewhere like The Basin (where I grew up) is that you don't have to worry about parking. In my undergrad days before I moved out of home, I worked out that the optimal solution was to drive into North Carlton, park the car, and catch a tram (or walk) to uni. On most metrics, the car seems to win (probably even on travel time), and with big new freeways being built as we speak, this gap is only going to widen unless some significant changes are made. So it's good to see this issue taking the spotlight. I just hope this is backed up with action when the voting is finished.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Taking it to the streets

I mentioned a few months ago that I was leading an outreach "task force" to put together a 50 minute show about engineering for secondary schools in the ACT (and possibly further afield). Well, we are now approaching the end of the preperation time, and the start of the live performances, which is a little scary to say the least. We did our first live performance (in front of science communication experts) about 2 weeks ago (the day before I flew off to China), and much to my relief, we received some very possitive feedback. We are a team of three PhD students, and one undergrad, which is quite small compared with the other two teams. We are also the only team completely comprising of students, so I am pretty happy with what we have produced so far.

Our "show" is centred around robot vision, or in other words, how do we get robots to see, and then act. This made the most sense because all three of us PhD students are involved in robot vision projects. I have also managed to sneek a fair bit of honeybee content in as well, because the videos are too cool to leave out.

We hit the road in about 4 weeks, and do a whole bunch of school appearances up until School finishes in December. It may well continue on next year as well, although I probably won't be around to do much.

I am pretty happy with how things have turned out with this, because it has not been without stress. Trying to come up with an entertaining 50 minute show with genuine content (i.e not just a show and tell of robot videos), as well as interactive activities has really been quite difficult, and has undergone many iterations over the last 3 months. Ultimately, I just hope the kids don't boo us off stage.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Great Wall in Pictures

It was such a great way to spend my last day in China, I figure it deserves a blog post of its own. Heading out North East of Beijing with some people I met the day before, we spent four hours walking a 10.5km stretch of the wall. Put simply, this was an awesome day. It was also one hell of a walk, as you will see in the photos below. It's well worth clicking on the photos to blow them up to full resolution. The enormity of this wall really needs to be seen to be believed

First, a picture of the all conquoring Ghengis Macca ..

the wall that lay ahead ..

the wall already conquored ..

My army - Jinelle, Eric and his name-forgotten wife (making for some awkward interactions). Jinelle's partner Scott is not pictured...

heading down into the valley where our walk finished ...

a storage building (where they probably kept the grog) ..

this photo is for my t-shirt idea to compete with the "I climbed the great wall" t-shirts on sale all over China - the "I got drunk on the great wall and fell off" t-shirt.

and one more photo of me on the wall for good measure ...

Bee guru wins Prime Minister's award for Science

One of my supervisors, Professor Mandyam Srinivasan, just won the Prime Minister's award for science, for his work with honeybees and robotics. Johnny even gave him a cheque for $300,000.

Srini is one of the primary reasons I came to the ANU. He has achieved some pretty amazing things, and is definitely a media (and grant money) magnet. He is also one hell of a nice bloke. Personally, I find him one of the easiest academics to talk to about a half baked idea, which is quite a luxury I can tell you.

For anyone in Canberra, he is giving a public lecture at the Finkel Lecture Theatre of the John Curtin School of Medical Research, on Wednsday Oct 18 at 12 noon.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Beijing in Pictures I

Do you ever get the feeling you're being watched (Tian'anmen)

Why I put on 2kg in one week (Wangfujing food market).

And I thought Rembrandts ran a tight ship (somewhere just East of Tian'anmen Square)...

The city moat makes for a very welcome escape from the chaos (north of the city)...

100 metres back in space, 50 years back in time ...

To enter the forbidden city without invitation once cost you your life. Now it costs 60 Yuan (and an extra 40 for a dodgy audio guide) ...

.. and oh what treasures lay waiting within...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Blogging in transit

Free internet access is perhaps the single greatest thing Changi airport offers its travel weary patrons, seeking to fill in the three or four hours between flights. If I had another hour, I would even consider heading into Singapore to check in on some old haunts. Being 7.30am on a Sunday morning however, this is probably not worth the effort. So I blog instead.

I left Beijing at midnight after a day spent walking on the Great Wall. It was quite an experience. I joined a few other people I met at the conference I attended and after 3 hours travelling in a mini bus North East of Beijing, we found ourselves a very impressive stretch of the great wall to walk on. 10km of it in fact. This is where most of those postcard pictures of the wall are taken. I, of course, have plenty of photos to post, but this will have to wait until I get back home. What I will say is that it was well worth the long journey out to see it. It reminded me of how I felt when I first set eyes on the temples of Angkor in Cambodia - it's just impossible to comprehend the history, and how such structures could possibly have been built.

The one downside to my day spent at the wall was that I then had to rush almost straight to the airport afterwards. So I am still in the clothes I wore while tramping along the wall. I really do feel quite disgusting, and I still have another 8 or 9 hours of flying left. Singapore airlines is good, but cattle class is cattle class. I am pretty tired as well, having been up now for about 28 hours straight.

Anyway, my time is running out, so I had better post this and find myself a coffee fix. More Beijing reports (and photos) to come.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Never trust air you can't see

Ah, beautiful Beijing. It is said that October in Beijing is when the air is clear and crisp, which I guess is the reason I am able to see the other side of the street from my hotel window (see photo). The polution here is almost a tourist attraction in itself. When I flew in bright and early on Monday morning, I thought, hmm, some morning fog. Well, I can now report that it ain't fog ! It's Beijing's answer to sun screen - smog. Ironically, smog makes for quite picturesque sunsets, when the light bounces off the small carbon-monoxide particles.

So here I am in Beijing. This trip certainly needs more blog coverage than my non-complimentary hotel internet access will allow me now, but I thought I'd put a few ramblings down while I'm here, or else it will undoubtedly become another unfinished "Tassie hike" report.

I have to be honest, my first impressions of Beijing were not fantastic, but I am very concious of the fact that I was not exactly fired up for this trip like I have been for OS trips in the past. Do I sound like a spoiled brat ? Probably. The thing is, you need energy to get around places like this. Not just the physical "get up and go" energy, but the mental energy to try and work out where the hell you are going, and how the hell you are going to find your way back (and cross the 8 lane road with no traffic lights in front of you). Getting simple things done has been difficult, due mainly to the language barrier. I needed to get a network cable for my laptop, so gestured my need to a taxi driver by pretending to type a computer keyboard in the hope that he would take me to a computer store. Ten minutes later I arrive at Beijing's premier piano store. I had to laugh when I got out and realised what he thought I meant. I have since managed to "borrow" a cable from the conference tech support crew :)

My second day in Beijing was much better than my first. I ticked off the forbidden city (which is quite amazing), Tiananmen Square and Behei Park (which is really quite beautiful). I guess I realised after seeing these things, just how diverse and extraordinarily large Beijing is. So my initial impressions have quickly improved, and I am enjoying getting out and about a lot more than at first.

The conference has helped this too. To put it bluntly, the conference is pretty uninteresting. Being the only person from ANU, and not knowing anyone else in attendance makes it difficult. I am not a natural shmoozer, particularly when faced with 1200 other attendees. What also hasn't helped is that I am currently trying to pep myself up after the disastrous realisation that I did not purchase a conference banquet ticket when I registered many months ago (or more precisely, ANU admin didn't). It was assumed that it was included in the registration fee, but for students, apparently not. It's more than a little dissapointing, because in addition to missing out on the chance to get sloshed with the robotics heirarchy, I also miss out on going to the venue, "The Great Hall of the People", which is pretty much the equivalent of Parliament house (or as equivalent as such a building can be in a communist country). So I am now left to my own devices, hence the blogging (oh how sad I am). I am going to head downtown after this to acquire what should be my fourth Peking Duck dinner this week (and I thought deep fried shrimp in New Orleans was going to kill me).

Beijing is certainly different to other Asian cities I have been to. Parts of it remind me of Hanoi, particularly the leafy back streets where it feels like you have gone back about 50 years. Other less pretty areas remind me of Bangkok. Unlike Vietnam and Thailand though, you are not hassled nearly as much by people trying to sell you things. As a Westerner, you do get a fair bit of attention though. People do try and sell things, but seem to take the second or third "no thanks" as being serious, and leave you alone. The roads are pretty hectic, and driving is pretty disorderly, but it is again, no where near as hectic as places like Saigon. One thing I find interesting is that despite the fact that drivers in beijing appear to cut people off without a moments thought, they do use their indicators when they do it. For some reason I find this comforting.

Beijing is not as built up as places like Hong Kong, or Tokyo. It is, however, one hell of a sprawl, and it is pretty obvious that a week in Beijing barely scratches the surface of what there is to see.

Anyway, I am running out of time, so I thought I'd just put some photos to give you some impression of what I've seen. Can't seem to upload them now (conspiracy perhaps?) so will post them soon.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Marvelous Melbourne

In the weeks leading up, it was probably the most loathed trip to Melbourne yet. Another miss-spent long weekend running around the big smoke like a headless chook. That was my feeling as I awoke on Friday morning last week, ready for the oh so familiar seven hour drive to the city by the bay. This is, of course, no reflection on the quality of company we keep when we arrive in Melbourne, just the harsh reality that on Friday morning last week, a trip to Melbourne was not exactly in line with my long weekend wish to lie under a gum tree and forget the world for a few days.

Sometimes though, you don't know what you really need until you've done it.

I rate this weekend's trip to Melbourne among the best yet. Sure, it was hectic and a little disorganised in places, but overall, very much what the doctor ordered for mine. This was a classic "get out of the rut" weekend, and also an excellent opportunity to catch up with some good mates. I also got to meet and spend lots of time with my new niece Chloe, who is now 11 days old. Nothing like a baby to make you stop everything, and remind you a little about what really matters.

Aff and I drove back to Canberra yesterday, very proud of ourselves for having successfully navigated the weekend. The stats are pretty telling

  • Total friend/family events: 9
  • Birthdays: 2 (Mick's and Dad's)
  • New babies: 1 (Chloe)
  • New house tours: 2 (Tony's, and Shelley and Ben's)
  • Grand Finals watched: 2 (AFL and NRL)
  • Wedding related activities: 4 (Aff's hair, bridesmaids dresses, meet celebrant, wedding ring decisions
  • Dodgy 3am pizzas consumed: 1 (Friday night Intersection Cafe Carlton)

Of course, with every great trip back home to Melbourne, there is the double edge sword of realising you no longer live there, and having to leave it. I like Canberra, and am happy to be in Canberra, but I love Melbourne, and cannot deny that I do look forward to coming back to live there again. Much like when I worked in Singapore, I am finding myself noticing more and more things I miss about Melbourne when I am away from it. I don't think these are artificial products of home sickness either. I do not regard myself as homesick. When I am in Canberra, I like being in Canberra, and appreciate a lot of things about Canberra. I think very little about the things I miss in Melbourne. It is only when I go home and spend a couple of days walking the streets (and not just the trendy one's) and seeing the diverse range of people, that I realise these things.

It's not like my life would be that different if I were still in Melbourne, but being part of the Melbourne landscape, and hanging out with old friends is something I look forward to re-joining again. Of course, when Aff and I eventually move back to Melbourne, I will no doubt blog about all the things I miss about Canberra. Canberra has plenty going for it, and in many respects, is exactly what suits me at this time in my life. The only thing I really lack in Canberra is an emotional attachment with it. This, I guess, comes with time.