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My Blog

September 2010

The ill-named Cockatoo Island

Last weekend, we visited Cockatoo Island, the largest island in Sydney Harbour.  Although Cockatoo Island has been home to an industrial school for boys and a reformatory school for girls, it's primarily known for the years when it was a prison and a shipyard.  You can walk the entire circumfrance of the island in less than 15 minutes, yet at times there were as many as 500 prisoners on Cockatoo Island.  The prison was so overcrowded that each inmate had 43 centimeters of sleeping space in the barracks! 
 
The history was interesting, the view a little different than what we've seen before, but the most memorable part of our journey was watching the birds.  We were surprised, given the name of the island, that we did not see any cockatoos.  There are 2 living in the tree next to our house but we did not see even a single cockatoo. 
 
However, there were hundreds of seagulls.  And they were none too happy to see us because apparently we visited the island during the height of breeding season.  We saw lots of mama birds sitting on eggs, little babies in various stages of youth, and even a couple fights over nests/eggs.  It was fascinating! 
 
View the photo album on the Australia page.

Don't Read After Dark

So maybe it wasn't the largest spider EVER.  But it certainly was the largest that any of us has ever seen outside of the arachnid house at the zoo.  While they are big and ugly at the zoo, we have no problem tormenting them because there is a thick piece of glass between us and them. 
 
However, when we found this one in our house, Wendy immediately consulted the handy, dandy Spider Chart on the refrigerator, which was given to her by the relocation agent... Just in case. 
 
 
Then she called Mike and begged to come home from work.  Since that wasn't an option, she grabbed Max's staff (aka, BIG stick), wrapped a plastic bag around it (to avoid getting spider guts on it), and called on the moral support of her 3 biggest fans (Jake, Max & Alex). 
 
The first attempt to stab the spider was unsuccessful and resulted in a lot of screaming and door slamming!  The second attempt was also foiled but this time, instead of just trying to find another hiding spot, the spider ran toward Wendy.  Natural instincts kicked in and she clubbed the spider!  It's guts went all over the bag and the carpet.
 
 
 
At this point, the boys joined Wendy and worried when they saw the legs of the mammoth spider twitching.  Once the legs had fully contracted, Wendy flipped it over and took yet another photo.
 
When Mike called to make sure that everything was OK, Wendy said, "The adrenaline is still rushing through my veins.  I may need a beer."  Instead, she decided to share this crazy story with you!
 
Still want to visit us??
 
(Picture of dead spider on the right.)

Vote 2010!

There are some things in my life that have always been crystal clear – voting is one of them.  I’ve never been conflicted about it, always felt privileged, humbled and honored to pull the lever.  I’m not militant or anything, I don’t view voting as some moral responsibility and I don’t really care what you do.  But, I do see it as one of the great opportunities afforded to us in the free world and especially in the US where there still is some representation to our Republic.  I’m proud to say that I’ve voted in every election in which I’ve been eligible and a lot of elections that didn’t really matter that much (in Acton, Massachusetts we elect a trustee for the library – wooooo whoooo!!).
 
But this November, it just feels too hard, and let’s be honest in Massachusetts does my mid-term vote really mean anything anyway?
 
As an outsider I really enjoyed watching the recent national elections in Australia.  Politics is a full-contact sport here that they play a little like they play their rugby – hard.  First of all Kevin Rudd (the last Prime Minister) was thrown out by his own party less than 90 days ago at the end of June.  Then his successor Julia Gillard and the other leaders of the Australian Labour Party (which is probably the equivalent of the Democrat party in the US) declared a national election on August 21 (a Saturday, which I guess is normal).  I was told by some of my local friends that voting here is compulsory.  I choked a bit and loudly said, “what?”  After which it was patiently explained that anyone who is registered to vote can be fined if they don’t vote.  I must say I find this a bit puzzling, and to be honest not entirely in keeping with my voting as a privilege philosophy.  To the credit of the Australian system they do one thing much better than most countries in their preferential ballot.  Essentially the way it works is that you declare your first choice, and then your second, and on down the list.  What it means is that if your top choice isn’t in first or second place, they essentially award your “preference” to the party who is in first or second place.  The effect of this is the elimination of potential tide-turning effect of a third party candidate like Ralph Nader had in Florida in 2000.    
 
So anyway, the Labour Party declares a new election thinking they have it in the bag.  Then the Liberal Party (the Australian equivalent of the US Republican party, I know… anyone confused yet), put up a serious fight.   After all the votes were counted – no one won.  That’s right, neither party won. 
 
As an aside, this weekend was the AFL (Aussie-rules Football League) Grand Final.  This is the Australian equivalent of the NFL's superbowl, and it comes with all the pre-game hype and run-up, (the betting is fast and furious and the live-television coverage started two hours before game time).  Anyway, it was a great game.  The Collingwood Magpies get out to a commanding lead early in the first quarter until the St. Kilda Saints start a long comeback.  In the final seconds of the game the pressure was immense and I'm not even a fan of either of these teams.  Incredible hand-passes, kicks and tackles...tons of action... the score is tied and it's coming down to the final seconds... WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN I SCREAM, IT'S TOO MUCH EXCITEMENT, I CAN'T WATCH... and then time runs out and neither team won.  
 
What, what, what???  You have to be kidding, time runs out and it just ends in a draw???  I've seen some strange things in my life and in my brief time in Australia, but in this sport crazed country a draw at the Grand Final is a new level of weird.  I'm told that the Magpies and the Saints will replay the entire game in a week's time so there will eventually be a winner, but I just don't have the energy to go through that again.  
 
So now back to Aussie politics.
 
The Australian constitution calls for the party that has the majority (76 of the 150 seats) in parliament to declare the Prime Minister.  But after the August national elections the Labour party had 72 seats in parliament and the Libs had 72 seats.  The remaining six seats were held by five Independents and one Green.  For a while, these six people were the most powerful people in Australia as they bargained for favors in exchange for throwing their support to one party or the other.     
 
For two and a half long weeks, it wasn’t clear what was going to happen.  It felt a little like Bush v. Gore when it went all the way to the US Supreme Court after the 2000 election – the difference between that US situation and the one that just occurred in Australia was that the 2000 US election was decided by the nine life-time appointed justices of the US Supreme Court.  Here in Australia the election was decided by six recently elected Ministers – I guess it was not that different after all except for the bargaining, pandering and promises that went on behind closed doors over the past couple weeks here in Australia.  Then again, pandering and promises are just politics as usual in the US. 
 
So after 17 days, the six Australian ministers all picked sides and the Labour Party was officially back in power in Australia, but not before opening a lot of eyes to the process and fragility of a system that can be brought to a standstill while the nation waits for the result.  
 
Over the past decade I’ve watched two incredibly powerful first-world coutries have elections that ended with razor thin margins, were held up in a state of limbo for weeks and were ultimately decided by a small group of individual people.  All that evidence points to the fact that each vote can matter, and, I’m still questioning whether I should vote or not in the November US election. 
 
I checked out the process for getting an absentee ballot; it’s a bit onerous, although I probably shouldn’t complain.  You have to get and fill out an old fashioned form, send it to your local town hall.  When the ballots are prepared near the end of October they will send one out and then you have to send it back.  For me it essentially means three trips around the world.  I find myself thinking, “it’s 2010, doesn’t there have to be a system more efficient than sending three pieces of paper a combined total of 30,000 miles?”  (Hey, what about frequent flyer miles for my mail?)  I guess it’s not that bad, but what they don’t mention in the ballot application is that you likely won’t get the ballot until after the voting is actually complete.  And, in today’s 24 hour media frenzy, the election will have been long since declared before the absentee votes are counted, and in many cases even before their cast.  I can’t imagine how much it must frustrate the men and women in the armed forces overseas to feel so disenfranchised and discarded.  But oh, well I made a choice to be here, I should suck-it-up, get a ballot and vote, or should I? 
 
In our home US congressional district – the Massachusetts fifth – there is little real competition, and not a whole load of integrity either.  In 1992 a Democrat named Marty Meehan ran on a platform that included among other things a commitment to term limits.  He pledged not to serve more than four terms.  He finally quit after being elected eight times – and in three of the elections he ran unopposed.  Meehan was replaced by Democrat Niki Tsongas, the widow of former US Senator and presidential candidate Paul Tsongas.  Niki ran unopposed in 2008, and while she will have a Republican opponent in the November 2010 election, I’d bet one of my toes that she’ll still take 60% or more of the votes cast. 
 
So it’s a safe bet that the congressional election is a foregone conclusion.  On to the Seanate...Scott Brown was just elected earlier this year, and Senator John Kerry is firmly ensconced in his seat until at least 2014, there’s no senate seat to vote for either.  It just doesn’t seem worth the effort of getting a ballot and sending it back.  I find myself a bit disappointed that I’m actually, legitimately and seriously considering not voting.
 
Here’s the problem – as logical and soundly reasoned as it would be to skip this election, I just can’t make myself do it.  I need to vote as if it somehow validates that I still matter even if I know statistically my vote doesn’t.  Plus now that I’ve made this rant public, someone will pull it out in about 20 years when I’m running to be elected as a trustee of the Acton library and it’ll be all the scandal that I didn’t vote in 2010. 
 
So I’ve made up my mind, I will vote – and on election night (which will be the following day here in Australia), when they are declaring the winner in the Massachusetts fifth district, I’ll say “wait, a minute there fellas… this thing isn’t over until you count my vote too.”  And then I’ll go on to other pursuits over which I have more real control, like finding a cure for deadly Australian spider bites, or waiting to see who will win the rescheduled AFL Grand Final.     
 
Cheers
 

Cupcakes!

Cupcakes are wonderful, even magical and one of the best invovations in all the world, if you ask me.  I mean, there is no possible way you can’t like a cupcake – it’s a mini-personal cake for crying out loud.  There is no down-side, full-stop.
  
But cupcakes suffer a stigma that has been unjustly thrust upon them.  People seem to think that cupcakes are kid food.  I shudder, and I will make it my business to update the image of the cupcake as a perfectly acceptable compliment to a good meal.  Okay, maybe that last piece is a bit of a stretch, I’m not that committed to the mission of cupcake equality, but I do think they should be embraced by adults. 
 
I love cupcakes!
 
What else…cupcakes have extended family – the muffin!  Muffins are like the cupcakes’ slightly more civilized cousin.  They get up early, they go to work.  But really, what are they?  A muffin is an excuse to eat cake for brekkie.  (FYI – breakfast is called brekkie here in Australia).  You might consider muffins more civilized because they don’t have frosting, and it’s not uncommon to see a bona fide adult eating a muffin as a breakfast partner to a cup of fancy coffee at a sidewalk café.  In a word it’s not embarrassing to order a muffin… it seems like an adult thing to do.  Try ordering a single cupcake, people look at you like you’re strange or something, oh well.  Civilized or not, I like muffins, just not as much as I love cupcakes.
 
I think I may have found a market that agrees with me about the merits of the cupcake – they are not just for kids parties anymore.  Here in Sydney there is not just one cupcake bakery, there are at least two competing cupcake bakeries with multiple locations across the city.  I prefer the Cupcake Bakery, but the Cupcake Factory has a leg up in terms of creativity.  Both places offer an insane variety of cupcakes.  Mini-cakes as far as the eye can see all screaming at me in a language that only has two words “…eat me.”  These sublime bakeries have tiny cupcakes, plain cupcakes, fancy cupcakes and even these supersized cupcakes that are actually the size of an actual cake, but that just plain misses the point (it’s supposed to be a personal cake, duh).  
 
You want another good thing about the cupcake?  Cupcakes come with their own little paper protector so you can be super sure that no human fingers have touched your cake.  Why is this great?  Where you find cupcakes, you very often find kids.  And, what do kids have on their fingers?  Boogers.  I love kids and all, but you have to agree that their fingers go in places that you don’t want to think about, especially mixed with your food.  Having a little fringed skirt around your mini-personal cake is sounding like a pretty good idea right about now. 
 
Even though I think I’m probably world’s biggest fan of cupcakes, the state of the art in cupcakes is another area that I find myself a bit behind the times.  It seems they have become fashionable – and moved up from the kids table to the adult realm.  I thought it was my idea, but apparently others have similar plans for the cupcake.  I’ve even heard about some people who have replaced their wedding cake with cupcakes.  Don’t believe me?  How do I know?  Country singer Carrie Underwood tweeted about hers just last month.  (And I thought nothing good could ever come out of following someone on twitter). 
 
Until next time, I’m off to brekkie, it’ll be a muffin for me!
 
 
Here are some pictures of cupcakes from my two favorite Sydney bakeries...
I carry these pictures in my wallet.

The Platypus: An Australian Icon

Below is a speech I gave to my class today.  Thought you might find it interesting.  The title is "The Platypus: An Australian Icon."
 
When I think of Australia and the animals that live here, I think of kangaroos, koalas, wombats and platypuses, all of which are Australian icons.  I’ve seen and touched and even fed many of these animals.  However, I’ve never seen a living platypus.  That’s why I chose it for my topic.
 
The platypus is an Australian icon for 3 reasons.  First, you can only find a wild platypus in Australia.  They live in streams, rivers, swamps and lakes around most of eastern Australia and Tasmania.  They have been around for 120 million years.  (Wow!) They’ve been called different things over the years.  European settlers called the platypus a water mole. The Aborigines called it the jimmialong.  
 
The second reason that platypuses are an Australian icon is because they are a part of a special group of animals called monotremes. A monotreme is a mammal that lays eggs.
 
The third reason that platypuses are an Australian icon is because they simply look funny.  When you first see one you might think it’s a beaver. Until you see it’s face! A platypus may have the body and tail of a beaver, but it has the bill of a duck! (Weird.)  It also has webbed feet for propelling itself through the water.
 
Because they are rare, I may have to be happy with looking at a picture of one on the 20 cent coin, some stamps, and lots of souvenirs.
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