Monday, March 18, 2013

Adventures in Time Flying

I can hardly believe that last month, my son started first grade; that he now bathes himself completely independently; or that his love of washing machines continues unabated, but there you have it.

Vinny is enjoying school, and doing very well. One thing they have here, similar to the school I attended in England, is the concept of houses (like in Harry Potter, only without the magical hat). For good behavior you can earn a house point for your house. This is something Vinny had really wanted to earn for his house. After a few weeks, he started earning house points (which are awarded at Friday assembly). He was so proud every time he earned another point for his house, which surged into second place last week. Jeff has seen him receive his house point awards at the assemblies. Sometime I will have to attend too.

He can now bathe himself; we start the water for him, and he takes it from there. I am enjoying this new independence, personally!

Vinny continues to love washing machines. In addition to the washing machine videos on youtube, he has watched other videos that are Minecraft tutorials, which helped him figure out how to build a washing machine in Minecraft! And lately at night before he goes to sleep, we have been discussing our "fake day[s] at the laundromat." I don't know what exactly he sees in washing machines that is so fascinating, but my job is to support him even if I don't always understand him completely. And I am enjoying that job immensely!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Adventures with Thrombolites

A few weeks ago, we went to Lake Clifton in Yalgorup National Park, where we saw some thrombolites. I made a slideshow of our trip for your enjoyment!

In case you are having a hard time seeing it, you can try this link to the flickr slideshow. I suggest clicking on "Show Info" so you can see my captions!

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Interesting Article

I read a very interesting article recently, about the type of thinking we as a society have about why events happen the way they do, and how to shape them.

The article is very dense and intellectual but I hope you will read it nonetheless. The take-home points I got from it were encapsulated in this quote:
The two deep cultural ideas that we hold to that manifest around guns and gun control alike–and around many other things besides guns–are as follows: 1) that individual action focused by will, determination and clarity of intent can always directly produce specific outcomes and equally that individuals who fail to act when confronted by circumstances (including the actions of other individuals) are culpable for whatever happens next and 2) that there are single-variable abstract social forces that are responsible for seemingly recurrent events and that the proper establishing structure, rule or policy can cancel out the impact of that variable, if only we can figure out which one is the right one.
Basically, every society has some form of magical thinking in it. It is easy to see others' magical thinking, but not as easy to see our own. American magical thinking is that first, by sheer power of will, we can manipulate outcomes (and if the outcome is not in our favor, it is because of a personal failure); and second, there are single causes for certain types of events and if we can find the proper way to control that cause, we can eliminate those types of events.

He is talking about this in the context of gun control, but I can see how it applies to almost everything in our national discourse. Often we have people who believe that there is a single cause to our problems in society, when in fact it is quite nuanced. So for example, people who need welfare are obviously lazy and if they were more industrious or harder working like me, would not be in this situation. And the way to stop people from being on welfare is to punish them for being on welfare. In reality, there are many reasons people may find themselves on welfare, from a lack of socioeconomic opportunity to personal tragedy, and if those multitudinous causes could be addressed, we could reduce the incidence of people needing welfare.

Unfortunately, this magical thinking is embedded in the American identity, and is therefore hard to eradicate. The idea of the rugged individual, depending on nobody, is what it means to be American. But even in elite academic circles, where that idea would be dismissed, there is still a strain of this belief.

When I was in college, the movie Forrest Gump came out. One of my professors hated the movie because the title character made history yet he appeared to have no intellect, no intent, and no agency. I think he felt it was insulting to see this person with no intent making such an impact on history. He believed that a person made history, not that history made a person. This is an intellectual strain of the same belief.

If someone had smothered Adolf Hitler in his crib, would millions of Jews still be alive today? My professor seemed to believe that yes they would -- neglecting the myriad of other factors surrounding the rise of Hitler, such as heightened anti-Semitism, German poverty, and the German nationalistic identity at the time. Hitler rose to power because of those factors, and if he hadn't been there, it seems likely that someone else would have risen in his place.

While of course one person's actions can make a difference, and we should by all means continue to do the best we can to make this world a better place, there is not one single factor. You can't save the world by yourself, nor can you ruin it alone. Understanding this fact can be depressing (because you can't make things happen in the way you want them to) but also liberating (because the responsibility for the world is not solely on your shoulders). The world is a complicated system and the best we can do is to manipulate the few variables over which we have control.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Adventures in Laundry

It is not atypical in Australia to have no clothes dryer in your house. Our place doesn't even have room for one! We have a lovely four-line clothesline setup on one side of our tiny back yard.

At first it was overwhelming, and I think the fact that it was winter contributed to that, because I had to really watch the weather forecast and dodge the rainstorms. That plus my inexperience really made things difficult and stressful. But now I have a system and I am able to do up to eight loads of laundry in one day.

The most important thing to consider is your real estate and time constraints. A washer full of jeans will require more drying time, but less hanging space than a washer full of socks. Also, some clothes (particularly bright colors) need to be hung in the shade so they don't fade, while other clothes (e.g., your underwear) benefit from exposure to sunlight (the natural disinfectant).

I've worked out a system now: every week I have to do a load of delicates (the clothes I wear to work), and several loads of regular clothes. I generally do the delicates first, and hang them on one end of the clothesline that is in the shade. Then I do a load of socks and underwear, and hang them in the sunniest part of the clothesline. The clothesline is full and I've used most of the clothespins by this point. Then I wash a load of shirts, and when they are done I take down the delicates and the driest of the socks and underwear, and replace the delicates with the shirts I don't want to fade, and the socks and underwear with lighter colors and/or old shirts. Then, I will do either some towels or some jeans and hang them in the sunny part (taking the jeans down quickly once they are dry so as to minimize fading). If I had not done laundry in a long time and I needed to do two loads worth of socks and underwear, I would do the following: delicates, then socks/underwear, then Jeff's button-down shirts (which hang on hangers on the line, so take up little real estate), then the second batch of socks/underwear, then other clothes as above.

Sheets are like socks and underwear in that they require a lot of real estate but a short drying time. I hang them across two parallel clotheslines, which helps them dry more quickly, but takes up quite a bit of space. So if I had to do some sheets I would probably wash them first, followed by the delicates, followed by the socks and underwear.

I also have a portable indoor/outdoor clothes drying rack, which was helpful in the rainier months, but which I now use for overflow. But in the hot, dry summer air here, I rarely need any kind of overflow, especially now that I have my system down.

Now I really enjoy the challenge of hanging the clothes on the line, and it's gotten a lot easier with experience. As an added bonus, I'm saving a lot of money on my power bill, my clothes will last a lot longer, and they smell so much fresher when they are air-dried.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Adventures in Time Off Work

My employer shuts the place down entirely for the week between Christmas and New Year's, and also gives us a few days beforehand as well. I also got to take January 2 off work, so that means that I had nearly two weeks of paid time off without having to expend a single vacation day!

It was the longest I've taken off work since 2009. (Even between jobs -- I was unemployed for only 10 days.) It was glorious, doing only what I wanted to do for this extended length of time!

Vinny and I made Christmas cookies and decorated a gingerbread house. We also played lots of board games and Uno together. The three of us went on bus and train excursions, to satisfy our curiosity about where some of the routes went.

We had a fun Christmas, despite the (record-setting) heat. Vinny got more legos and games than you can shake a stick at. Jeff gave me some books about places to see in Australia (one about where to go with kids, and one about the national parks in Western Australia) and a journal to record our adventures in, and Vinny and I gave him a GPS that we can use to guide us there. Santa also brought Jeff and me Civilization 5, because Santa apparently does not understand that I should at least occasionally speak to my family or that I need sleep.

We finished up the time off today by going to the Western Australian Museum. It was interesting, not too huge, and had free admission, so I think we will take our guests there in the future! There are other campuses of it in Freemantle (apparently a world-renowned maritime museum) and a few other places in Western Australia, so we will have to see those sometime. After the museum, we went to a place called "Jus Burgers" (where "Jus" is pronounced like "Just" without a "T" instead of like in French) where Jeff and I enjoyed some delicious hamburgers.

Tomorrow I go back to work, hopefully re-energized and ready to work!

Monday, December 31, 2012

Adventures in Driving on the Other Side of the Road

So, we bought a car a couple of weeks ago. Actually it is a green Ford Territory -- an SUV that can seat up to seven, but realistically can hold five people comfortably (so when guests come we can transport everyone to interesting sites outside of Perth).

The other day the three of us all got in the car and Jeff and I practiced driving it around the neighborhood. There are three challenges we are trying to overcome. The simplest is the fact that this is a new vehicle and very large as well so we have to get our bearings on the dimensions of it. The second somewhat difficult concept is the roundabout. Yes, there are occasional roundabouts in the US, and I have driven in Europe where they are pervasive, but the etiquette for them is a little different here. For one thing, you use your turn signal to indicate your ultimate destination: if I enter with the intention to go left, I turn on my left indicator; right, my right indicator; and straight, no indicator at all.

But the most difficult thing is of course the fact that we have to drive on the left side of the road. This can really make your brain hurt. Even though we have been passengers on the left side of the road since July, our brains are not fully wrapped around this concept. And there are a lot of automatic behaviors that you have to change.

For example, the driver is in the seat on the right side of the car. So the rear-view mirror is to your left, not your right. When you are backing out of the driveway, you have to look left for the traffic in the nearest lane. Right turns are the long, lane-crossing turns. (I practiced a lot of right turns in our driving practice session.)

Another thing is that the turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel, and we keep hitting the wipers instead. At least this just makes me giggle.

Finally, Australian roads are weird. Although they are generally wide like American roads, they tend to have obstacles to slow traffic (or perhaps just to terrorize novice American drivers, I'm not sure). There tend to be jogs in the otherwise straight roads, and curbs jutting out for no reason. I hit one of the errant curbs on a major traffic artery, but luckily nothing bad happened (other than scaring the driver and passengers).

Getting Back into Writing

Hello, my vast fan base!

I took a very long break from blogging, mostly inadvertantly. One day just led to another, and then another, and then a week, and then a month, and then a couple of months...

I have mixed feelings about the whole blogging thing. It requires a lot of time and effort to do, but I really enjoy reading my old entries and recalling what I was up to, and what I was thinking about. But when I am feeling stressed, I tend to just retreat inside myself and not have anything to say to the rest of the world. And there is a domino effect, where the less I write, the less I can think of to say. Also, when I go too long without writing, I feel obligated to catch the blog up on what I haven't said, and then I end up feeling overwhelmed and putting it off even more.

It is a new year, and I am thinking I will use that excuse to just start anew and pretend like there is nothing to make up. Hopefully I will write more, although I am not making any promises.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Adventures in Western Australia

Sorry, my vast fan base -- long time, no write! Things have just been that busy!

In addition to living and working here, we have decided that it is important to take advantage of our location and (occasionally at least) be tourists. Last month, we went on a really cool tour. We took a tour like the actual tourists, in a group, on a bus, and with a tour guide. It was no ordinary tour, though.

Our transportation was a 4-wheel-drive bus. It was really tall and you had to ascend some very steep steps to get in.

Our chariot awaits!

It looks tall enough in that picture, but for scale, here it is with Vinny:

4WD bus with tall five-year-old for scale.
 First, we went to Caversham Wildlife Park and got to see the animals:

Vinny feeding a kangaroo
After a stop in the lobster-fishing town of Cervantes for lunch, we went on to Nambung National Park, home of the Pinnacles, some very strange and very ancient rock formations.

First views of the Pinnacle formations (click for a bigger view).
Panorama of some pinnacles (click for a bigger view).

A pinnacle viewed through another pinnacle.

I thought this looked like a Picasso pinnacle!

The pinnacles were truly amazing natural formations, and I really enjoyed our time there. But soon it was time to load back up in the bus so we could go to a gigantic sand dune near the town of Lancelin, where our bus took advantage of its four-wheel-drive capabilities and drove around on the sand dunes (with us inside, except for the last turn, where Jeff got off and took the below picture).

Four-wheeling bus on the sand dunes
Then, we got to go sand-boarding, which as it turned out was really fun for Vinny. I didn't enjoy it as much as he did, probably because I ended up getting sand in places that I did not think it was possible to get sand.
Vinny sandboarding for the first time

But a good time was had by all, and I'm really glad we took the tour!

We've also gone several times now to King's Park, a 1000-acre park in Perth. There is lots to do and see there. The first time, we went to the "Lotterywest Federation Walkway," a large suspended bridge from which you have a great view of the park and the city. The last time we were there, we went to the Naturescape area, which is a natural bushland area for kids. Vinny had a blast climbing the lookout towers, climbing on ropes, and wading in the water.

In the future, we are going to explore more of this enormous and diverse state. Western Australia encompasses nearly 40% of the Australian continent, so there is lots to see. Our tourism will be facilitated by purchasing a car, which we will finally be able to do next month when we close on our house in Tennessee.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Adventures in a New Culture

It's really interesting how in many ways, everything is very similar to the United States. But in many other ways, it is completely different. Here are a few things that are just different.

  • The other day, I accidentally pushed the button on the bus that indicates that it should stop at the next stop. When I realized what my errant elbow had done, I used my best manners and apologized to the bus driver: "I'm sorry, sir!" He looked at me like I had just flown in from outer space. After discussing with my colleagues, I learned that Australians don't call anybody sir, and that in fact the bus driver may have thought I was making fun of him. Hopefully my strong accent clued him in that I am just culturally inept.
  • The Australian accent is very distinct, and differs from anything I have ever really heard or spoken. I can speak like a Kentish schoolgirl from living in England as a child, but I just can't figure out how to do the Australian accent. Vinny, on the other hand, is picking it up. One of the most distinctive sounds that Australians make is a very distinct "o", such as in the word "No." It was not a sound that I could even attempt to imitate -- all my tries came out totally wrong. Vinny, on the other hand, picked it up perfectly. So the other night I asked him how you do it. He helpfully tutored me on it -- first you make an "urr" sound, then you make your mouth do an "ee" sound. By the end of it I could make that sound. But it still seems like an awful lot of effort when you could just purse your lips into an o shape and be done with it.
  • The other day, somebody was celebrating something and brought in a "white chocolate mud cake." I was bewildered that one could make a mud cake from white chocolate, but whatever. I expected something gooey (like Mississippi mud cake!) but it turned out to be a free-standing round cake. It was very delicious but nothing like I expected. I asked the person who brought the cake what made it a mud cake. He said it was because they used oil instead of butter to make the cake. I told him I think of a cake made with oil instead of butter as a chiffon cake. And then I described what I thought of as a mud cake, and promised to make one whenever we get settled into our house. (Yes, our stuff did arrive and we are slowly making our way through it -- but that is a story for another time.)
  • Another interesting thing is that in our new house, the toilet is in a completely separate room from the rest of the things you would associate with a bathroom. So you have to go into a different room to wash your hands after you use the potty. This is a fairly typical arrangement from what I have seen.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Adventures in Different Things

Sorry for the hiatus, folks! I really had intended to do more posting to this blog once we got to Australia, because there would be so many interesting things to talk about. And there are! It's just that... well, let me just tell you what's been going on.

I started my new job about a month ago. It has been going well. I like my new colleagues and I'm pretty happy at work so far.

We scrambled around and found a place to live. It is hard in Perth because there is more demand for housing than supply. So you end up having to bid for a place to live, offering to pay more rent than they are asking. We were finally successful at that and took possession of a place effective August 1.

But, there were a few issues with our household goods. First, they tried to charge extra to give us all our stuff. Luckily, my new boss is pretty hard-nosed and told them no way can you charge more, and eventually, they agreed. But, our stuff is still not here yet. So my new boss graciously agreed to extend our temporary housing another week, and then another... I told him if it doesn't come by the end of this week, we will just camp out. Really. Because it is getting ridiculous!

We don't have a car, and have no immediate plans to buy one, at least not until our house in Tennessee sells. So far we have been getting by with walking and riding the bus. This has worked surprisingly well. Our temporary housing and our new place are both within easy walking distance of the grocery store. From our new place you can see Vinny's school.

Once we had our lease, we signed Vinny up for school. He's been going to school for about 3 weeks now. He's had two weeks of swimming lessons through his school, which is not something you would get through the schools back home. He's in pre-primary, which is equivalent to Kindergarten in the US. (They call pre-school Kindergarten here.)

So far we have not suffered too much from homesickness. Of course we miss our family and friends, but the internet has really helped us to keep up with what is going on with them. We miss some foods back home (such as root beer, Reese's cups, and buttermilk biscuits in a can) but have discovered others that we now enjoy (such as Tim Tams).

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stream-of-Consciousness Bullets of Getting There

We made it to Australia on Wednesday! It was a long journey. Here are a few stream-of-consciousness bullets about the trip and the past few days:
  • Vinny had never been on a plane before. I was worried that he would not like it. He enjoyed our short flight from Lexington to Dallas, thank goodness. But then I was worried he would not enjoy the flight from Dallas to Brisbane, which is literally the longest flight possible with current commercial aviation technology.
  • I need not have worried. They had an in-flight entertainment system which kept him occupied for the whole flight.
  • I, however, was ready to get off that plane. The jerk in front of me kept his seat reclined the entire flight, which put my in-flight entertainment system so close to my face that it was almost too close to view. Thank goodness they made him sit up during the meals!
  • Speaking of meals, they fed us well. Even during our cross-continental flight from Sydney to Perth.
  • I was really disappointed that, when we went through immigration, customs, and quarantine, I did not see any of my favorite people from "Border Security: Australia's Front Line." I was also disappointed that nobody wanted to see the list of the contents of our bags that we had so painstakingly compiled. But, it was probably for the best, because we had a fairly tight connection.
  • We almost missed our flight to Perth because we almost left Vinny's car booster seat behind. We forgot that we had it checked in as a seventh bag. By the time we figured it out, we had gone through customs and were rechecking our bags for our flight to Perth. Jeff went to the baggage help desk and retrieved it, and he finally got it just in time that we could run through the airport and be the last people to board the flight to Perth, which had fortunately been delayed.
  • Once we arrived, we were met by a friend who is also an American woman living in Perth. She is the friend of a friend at my former workplace (still feels weird to call it that). I had spoken with her a lot over the internet and corresponded with her via email, so it was really nice to meet her in person. She was very friendly and very helpful.
  • On Thursday, we went into Perth to get bus passes and phones. We purchased the bus passes and then we ended up using them to go to a post office where they had some particular phones that were unlocked and could be used on any network and were on clearance. 
  • Yup, we went to the post office to buy phones. Turns out you can buy lots of strange things at the post office. Perhaps the most bizarre was that last week they had a special on sewing machines.
  • We have decided that we are going to try to go without a car for as long as possible. It is doable here. We are staying in temporary housing for 4 weeks, and it is about 1/2 km to the nearest grocery store. It is possible to take the bus to where I work. We are looking for similarly walkable longer-term housing.
  • They use the metric system here. I am still trying to get used to it. I do have some standards though, and I will be spelling the base unit of length as "meter" until the day I die.
  • On Friday, we got a bank account and I had to sign some papers for my soon-to-be workplace. Jeff and Vinny got to meet some of my future colleagues and see where I will be working.
  • On Saturday, our American friend took us to the biggest farmers market I have ever seen. It was amazing, especially considering it is winter right now in Australia. We bought a whole chicken, some potatoes, carrots, mandarin oranges and apples, and a liter of Gurnsey milk. We cooked the chicken and potatoes for dinner, and flavored the chicken with salt and pepper and a lemon we had picked in a nearby yard. The lemon was huge -- so big I could only use half of it on the chicken.
  • Speaking of winter, I am having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that it is winter. To me, it feels like we must be in the mountains. That explains the cool weather (because it is really not winter weather from my perspective). Although the lemon tree, and the gigantic aloe bush, and all the other strange vegetation contradict this theory.
  • I start work on Monday. I am looking forward to it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Adventures in Temperature Conversions

You may remember the complicated Fahrenheit-to-Celsius and Celsius-to-Fahrenheit conversion formulas. Or you may not remember them, but you may remember the fact that they are complicated, and involve 5/9 and 9/5, and adding or subtracting 32. But do you add (or is it subtract?) first, and then multiply, or do you multiply first, and by which factor?

Worry no longer, my friends! There is a much easier way to do it. The only formula you will need is the following:
T1 = (T2+40)*factor - 40.
The end.

This formula works for both temperature scales (so {T1,T2} = {F,C} or {C,F}). The only thing you need to remember is whether factor is 5/9 or 9/5. But that is not so hard: there are more degrees between freezing and boiling in Fahrenheit than Celsius, so when you convert to Fahrenheit, you need to use the bigger number, 9/5. Likewise, when converting to Celsius, use 5/9.

Does it really work? Yes! Let's do some examples.

Body temperature is 37 C or 98.6 F. Can we convert to those numbers? Let's start with C to F:
F = (C+40)*9/5 - 40
F = (37+40)*9/5 - 40 = 77*9/5 - 40 = 138.6 - 40 = 98.6
Now what about F to C?
C = (F+40)*5/9 - 40 
C = (98.6+40)*5/9 - 40 = 138.6*5/9 - 40 = 77 - 40 = 37
You can derive the traditional formulas for temperature conversion from this simple one.
F = (C+40)*9/5 - 40 = 9/5*C + 40*9/5 - 40 = 9/5*C + 72 - 40 = 9/5*C + 32
C = (F+40)*5/9 - 40 = 5/9*(F+40 - 9/5*40) = 5/9*(F + 40 - 72) = 5/9*(F - 32)
As easy as this formula is, it's still non-trivial to do in your head. So my sister Rachel told me an easy thing to remember about Celsius temperature ranges when it comes to the weather:

  • 40+ C: extremely hot (=104+ F)
  • 30-39 C: very hot (=86-102 F)
  • 20-29 C: comfortable-hot (=68-84 F)
  • 10-19 C: cool-comfortable (=50-66 F)
  • 0-10 C: chilly (=32-42 F)
So the ideal you'd be most comfortable in is the range around 20-25 Celsius (68-77 F). From there you can see how much the temperature deviates from the ideal. (In Perth, once every couple of years it dips down to freezing, so I did not go any lower on the scale.)

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Adventures in Fibonacci Numbers

You may remember the Fibonacci numbers from math class. The Fibonacci sequence of numbers is easy to generate: begin with 0, 1. Then add the two previous numbers to get the next number in the sequence:
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144...
If you take the ratio of consecutive numbers in the sequence, you can see an interesting pattern:
0, 1, 0.5, 0.667, 0.6, 0.625, 0.615, 0.619, 0.6176, 0.61818, 0.617977, 0.618056...
Graphing these numbers, we can see that they seem to be honing in to one number -- increasingly accurate lower and upper bounds to a number that turns out to be roughly 0.61803, or more exactly 2/(sqrt(5)+1), the reciprocal of the Golden Ratio.

(In the above graph, I cut out the first few ratios so we could see the trend better.)

There are a lot of cool applications to for the Fibonacci sequence. It is often found in nature -- for example, the arrangement of seeds in a sunflower head, or the unfurling of a fern. There are also computer science data storage techniques, such as Fibonacci heap, that are derived from the sequence.

But a really cool use of Fibonacci numbers that I learned recently is the conversion between miles and kilometers. As it turns out, the ratio of miles to kilometers (0.621371192 mi/km) is pretty close to the ratio to which sequential Fibonacci numbers converge (0.61803), so we can use the sequence of Fibonacci numbers to roughly convert from miles to kilometers and vice versa. If we want to convert 3 miles to kilometers, for example, we simply take the next number in the Fibonacci sequence, so 3 miles is about 5 kilometers. (Doing the actual math, it's 4.828, which is pretty close.) Similarly, if we want to convert 13 kilometers to miles, then we take the previous number in the Fibonacci sequence, so 13 km is about 8 miles. (Again, doing the actual math, we obtain 8.078, so not bad!)

If you have a number that is not in the Fibonacci sequence, you can simply break it down into two Fibonacci numbers (there's a theorem that says you can do that for any integer!), and do the conversion on those two numbers and add the results back together. So, if you want to know what 60 miles is in kilometers, you break down 60 into 5 + 55, and convert them both to kilometers, so 8 + 89, to obtain an answer of 97 km. The actual answer is 96.56 km, so not too bad!

I plan to use this handy conversion factor in Australia to help me transition into understanding distance in kilometers. But also because it is just about the coolest thing I have seen in a long time!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Speaking of the strict Australian quarantine laws, some friends of mine alerted me to the existence of a show called "Border Security: Australia's Front Line." You can find playlists of it on youtube. Jeff and I have become addicted.

It's about the people who work in customs, quarantine, and immigration, and it's very interesting. We've learned a lot about what to do when we enter Australia. In particular, it seems that on the card you fill out before debarking the plane, you want to check "yes" on questions like "Do you have any food?" -- even if you don't think you have any -- because if it turns out that you do have some but didn't check that box, you face a fine of $220.

In the early seasons of the show, there is an immigration officer named Peter who seems to always get to the bottom of things and figure people out. (Of course, the whole thing is edited so naturally we never see any officers screw up!) I think if I get selected for questioning and it turns out to be Peter, I will just confess everything wrong that I've ever done ("I once blew a red light, and I should have gotten a ticket but I didn't!" "I teased my sister and made her cry!" etc.) and hope for the best.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Adventures in an Empty House

We are camping out in our house now. The movers came the week before last to pack everything up and get our belongings on the road ahead of us. It will take a minimum of two months for the 40-foot shipping container to make it to Australia, so we wanted to give it a head start. We're sleeping on mats and sleeping bags on the floor, and eating with plasticware.

The empty house is kind of sad -- but beautiful, because we have fixed it up for sale. We repaired a lot of things, had the interior and exterior repainted, had new flooring installed in the master bathroom and in the basement -- things that I now wish we had done years ago, because it is a much better house than we had been living in all these years, and we don't get to enjoy the benefits!

I took a bunch of food in to work yesterday, and I'm taking more today, for people to sort through and take. We can't take it with us, unfortunately, because of the strict quarantine laws in Australia.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Adventures in Labo(u)r Laws

When I received the offer for my new job, I looked through the packet of information with great interest. I was especially intrigued by one of the papers -- an information sheet (link is to pdf) from "Fair Work Australia" about my rights as an employee. It was a recursive info sheet -- one of my rights was "the right to receive this information sheet about your rights."

But reading it, several major points stood out in my mind. The first was all the rights that Australian workers have, rights that Americans only see as luxuries. For example, everyone receives four (4) weeks paid vacation! The lowest minimum-wage worker in Australia is entitled to more vacation than I receive as a highly compensated professional in the United States. Note that they are entitled to it; I receive three weeks off as a gesture of goodwill from my employer. (There is no vacation requirement in the US.)

Furthermore, Australian workers are entitled to up to ten days of paid leave for illness or caregiving for a family member. Again, no paid leave is required in the United States, which means that the three days per year that my employer gives me is above and beyond the call of duty. But it is somewhat humiliating to realize that a minimum wage worker in Australia has more than 3 times the cushion that I do in the event of accident or illness.*

Another entitlement is to be able to work out a flexible schedule with your employer to accommodate for caring for your child under school age or disabled child. Imagine trying to do that in the United States! Even my employer, which prides itself on (its perceived) flexibility, would be hard-pressed to do that.

It's like employers are supposed to think of you as a full person, not just a "work factory!" I think I'm going to really like being respected as a worker.

* This is not intended as a swipe at minimum-wage workers. My point is that the lowliest workers in the Australian labor ecosystem are entitled to more benefits than the highest workers in the American labor ecosystem receive from top employers. American workers deserve more rights!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Open Letter to Fat-Haters

Dear Insecure Assholes,

Some fat people are fat because they eat too much. Others (usually the ones who are so fat that you make fun of them) have genetic make-ups that cause them to balloon in weight because of our modern, sedentary lifestyle.

What we call a genetic disorder was actually an advantage in the not-so-distant past. You see, if food was scarce, then being able to efficiently store as many calories as possible would be a huge bonus. And so would having a huge appetite, especially for sweet and fatty foods. But with today's plentiful food (including foods that are full of empty calories), this is no longer an advantage. So these people end up with more calories coming in than they are expending. Making fun of somebody who is genetically prone to obesity is like making fun of a woman who comes from a long line of ancestors with breast cancer.

Next let's talk about the people who are fat because they eat too much. People eat too much for a variety of reasons. Some people just don't make it a priority to watch their weight. There's nothing wrong with that choice, despite what our society preaches. Being moderately overweight has been shown to be beneficial in a lot of medical outcomes. Others have been sexually abused, and become obese so that they are "unattractive" in a dysfunctional attempt to ward off future abusers. And still others use food as a form of comfort to survive abuse or tough times. (This is what I did when I was going through a tough time.) In other words, at best you are making fun of people who have made a morally neutral choice, but more than likely you're piling further pain upon already-hurting people.

Next let's talk about your misconceptions about fat people. They are not inherently lazy. They do not all shovel doughnuts into their mouths by the dozen at all times. And, just because you see someone eating a Big Mac, for all you know that could be a special treat for the person and not a regular occurence! They often eat balanced diets. They often exercise. They are not dirty and gross. They are just normal people trying to make it through the journey of life.

If you are making fun of fat people, you must be feeling really hurt and insecure yourself. Well, just remember that we all have our ways of accommodating for our insecurities. Some people overeat, and others make fun of other people. Your behavior is no less dysfunctional than theirs.

Oh, and making fun of people because their body deviates from the ideal is so junior-high. Please grow the heck up already!

No love,

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Adventures in Australiana

Adding to the riskiness of taking this job, I have never actually been to Australia. The interview was over the internet. They sent me documents via email, and I returned scans of the signed documents. I've never seen my future boss in person (although I did meet a few of his colleagues when they visited my workplace to learn strategies from the top supercomputing centers as they were starting up their project). But I did not jump into this sight-unseen.

I did a lot of homework ahead of time. A colleague has a friend who lives in Perth and works in the same building I will work in -- an American woman, with whom I spoke extensively. And thanks to Google Maps street view, we've driven around Perth (admittedly very slowly and in a fishbowl!). I've been reading the local news as well, getting a feel for what's going on.

I also read all about Australia and Western Australia (WA) as a whole. I've learned about the way their government is set up, and the fact that they have a childless, unmarried, female, atheist prime minister (a combination that would be political suicide in this country!). I learned about their history and holidays (for one thing, Easter is a four-day weekend). I learned about their income tax system, their retirement system, and their public medical insurance scheme (alas, with a temporary work visa, we don't qualify and must pay for our own private insurance). I learned about how to get a driver's license in Western Australia. I read the Western Australian police department's website, the WA department of education's website, and examined some of the primary schools in the area that Vinny could potentially attend. I checked out the online shopping for two of the biggest grocery stores in the area, as well as the Australian Kmart and Target chains (they licensed the names and logos from the US, but that is the extent of the similarity). Yes, they do sell peanut butter.

A friend of mine let me borrow Bill Bryson's book In a Sunburned Country, a book that really did make me laugh out loud. (I only wish it would have had more about Perth.) We watched a number of documentaries on Australia as well.

I've also been in contact with some of my future colleagues, one in particular who has kids similar in age to Vinny. From that colleague, I've learned more about how the schools work and about Australian culture. I think it's all going to be just fine (although that is not to say that there will be no surprises!).

Friday, May 11, 2012

Adventures in Resignation

Eventually, I was going to have to tell the powers-that-be that I was leaving. Technically, I only had to give two weeks notice, but that would have been kind of rude. I might want to come back someday, and I don't want to burn any bridges. I asked my boss what to do, and he recommended that I tell them in May, to give them two months to adjust to the situation, and also, enough time to at least have a chance to counter offer.

But, when I talked to another person at work whose opinion I greatly respect, he told me I should tell the powers-that-be as soon as I was emotionally ready to do so. When I told this colleague, I ended up crying, because it is a very emotionally charged thing for me.* So I needed to practice, he told me, practice until I could say it without crying and in a way that would convey the excitement I was feeling -- to help them understand why I had made this decision.

In a way, this situation reminded me of when I was a postdoc and had to tell my boss that I was pregnant. I remember telling him that I had some "exciting" news -- not good news, not bad news. He received it very well. So I knew I could do it. It was just a matter of practice.

I decided that I needed to do it before a major conference that was approaching. I also thought it would be best to do it on a Friday afternoon. So almost two weeks ago, I told my boss' boss that I had decided to take the other job offer, because it was such an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

He was disappointed, but he took it well. I told him I would definitely like for our two centers to collaborate, and he readily agreed. I said I might want to come back someday, and he didn't disagree. The last thing I wanted to do was burn any bridges, and I don't believe I have.

* Also, I was really sick, and if I had a reasonable number of sick days per year, I would have been at home trying to recover from the flu instead of at work sharing it with my colleagues. So I wasn't really in the best state physically or emotionally that day.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Adventures in Difficult Decisions

I felt really guilty about it, but I wanted to take this other position, even though it meant leaving my family and friends, and my boss (who may as well be family) behind.  I felt that by staying, I could prolong my boss's life by keeping that pressure off of him.

At the same time, I was so angry at my current workplace that it was hard to retain my composure sometimes.  The fact that I had a good offer elsewhere helped to lower my inhibitions.  I became fearless -- asking nine questions of the head of my institution at a managerial meeting (more than twice as many questions as everyone else combined!), sending a letter of complaint to the head of HR about the HR person whose remarks had so angered me, and generally being more outspoken than usual, as I dared them all to fire me.

But still I felt so guilty and so ashamed to even think of leaving.  My in-laws would be devastated; my friends were begging me not to go; and I could not bear to think of abandoning my boss.

I had lunch with him, still away from work, and I sobbed nearly the whole time.  He reassured me that he would not think less of me for leaving, that he understood why I would want to pursue this opportunity.*  I saw a gleam in his eye when he talked about coming to our current workplace when it was a brand-new center.

I wanted that gleam in my eye, not the flash of fire that inevitably appears these days.  I wanted to love the way I earn a living.  So the solution seemed obvious.  But one stumbling block remained: relocation.  The offer did not include sufficient relocation funds to move our household without paying out of pocket, and I did not want to do that.  So I asked for what I wanted: full moving expenses and one month of short-term housing.**  And they agreed! (Maybe I should have asked for more!)

So I signed the papers, scanned them, and sent them over email, following up with the originals via priority mail.  Ten days later, I applied for the visa, and within six hours of turning in the final paperwork, the visa was approved.***

*See what I mean about how awesome he is?  Best. Boss. Ever!!!

** Template for others facing this situation:

Thank you very much for this exciting opportunity. I am very excited about the possibility and I would really like to accept your offer. There is one final concern that I have, but assuming that it can be resolved to our mutual satisfaction, I will sign the contract. 

 My concern has to do with relocation. I’ve been trying to find out how much it would cost to move our belongings from A to B, and from what I understand it may cost much more than $X. One quote I received was $Y, and based on Z’s experience (she forwarded me her moving info) this seems like a good approximation. Someone is coming to perform an in-home moving estimate on Monday, but unfortunately I won’t get a quote until after the deadline for accepting. 

What I would really like is for the cost of relocation and one month of short-term housing to be covered. It would ease my family’s anxiety about moving, and my anxiety about trying to find a place to live while trying to do well at my job and adjusting to a brand-new place. If we could agree to something like that, then I would definitely sign the contract.

*** I am really impressed with the efficiency of the Australian government (or at least their immigration department).  From my experience with hiring foreign nationals, this process would have dragged out another six months if I'd been dealing with the United States government.