Tuesday, December 25, 2007


How about this 'Last of the Mohicans' shot of my wifey from our Christmas travels.

I am almost thirty and yesterday was my first Christmas without mom and dad. Kate is in the same boat. Somehow, it seems like this should have happened sooner. Maybe thirty is not that old, or maybe we grew up slower than most, or we are just lucky. In any case, it has highlighted the only real problem that we have with living in Australia: a lack of family. Brisbane is incredible, the weather is unfair, the laid-back lifestyle and spectacular scenery in Queensland would make any sane man contemplate staying for good. Plus we constantly meet great people who are very good to us. Here’s why I won’t stay: because Canada is also a good place to live, and because a Christmas phone call to parents and siblings is just not good enough. That would be even more true if I was here alone, or if Kate and I had children.

So... family is important. Family is good. Duh.

Our genes program our little brains to love our close-relatives and we produce hormones that create a strong urge to take care of those we care about. Biology is neither good nor bad, the hormones exist because our relatives share our genes and thus it is best for our genes to help their genes survive. Sure that sounds crude but it works for elephants, penguins, ants, and people. But an understanding of this changes nothing.

We have just been told that Kate’s dad is going to visit us for a few weeks in May. From the minute she heard this news, Kate has been planning every detail of his stay here. It was instant motivation and I know of few things more impressive or capable than a motivated woman. Ken will have a great visit and we're thrilled that he is coming.

Oh, and friends are family! The biology goes as follows: an old friend and a distant relative might as well be the same thing because we evolved in an environment in which all close friends were likely related. This could go without saying but when I say family, I include the many non-related family members that we would have loved to see this holiday season. Anyway, I didn’t really intend to rant today, enough thinking. And I also don't mean to complain. We have countless reasons to enjoy our Christmas in Aussie Land. Here are some pics of how it all went down:

We decided to treat ourselves to a brief holiday in an isolated little rainforest cabin before christmas.

Many years ago in Kingston Kate and I watched a young couple get out of a mini-van and put on matching brightly-coloured full track-suits and matching roller-blades (and wrist guards) and skate away together down the path by the lake. We promised ourselves that day not to become that couple. Avoid matching outfits at all cost. So how did this happen?

We also had time to do some hiking (the Mohican's shot from earlier) and to see the sights in and around the beautiful town of Montville.

Then a quiet Christmas eve and morning at home by ourselves. Rather than a tree, we got a bird with a hat. Here's Kate on Christmas morning on our balcony.

And we also had a big turkey to eat courtesy of our friend Connor (an Irish chemist). He put this Christmas dinner together for a mix of his family-less friends in Brizzy.

We decided not go to the beach for christmas but I do have another typical Aussie scene to finish with. Kate screamed when she noticed this beastie in our cabin bedroom. He was harmless (I think), but too big to take outside in a glass. We decided that the only option was for Peter Parker to take a sad and sudden trip to a better place.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Belated props for Dr. Diamond

This is a picture of our kitchen. You might notice the maple leafs on the fridge mailed to us a few weeks ago by Sandy (a highly illegal violation of Aussie customs but since they slipped through and we did not know they were coming I suppose we're in the clear). Also notice above the stove our quickly expanding little library.Kate and I read a lot here. Maybe because we feel like we’re on holiday, maybe fewer friends mean more free time. Who cares? We read. I like it. By curious analogy to Sandy and Ken (Kate’s parents), Kate reads fiction and I read non-fiction pretty much exclusively. We rarely share a book.

And for the first time in years I am reading 'non Organic Chemistry' and it feels good. Up until a few months ago I felt like any wasted reading could cost me my degree or post-doc, career. It was pretty tense :) I no longer have that feeling. Don't get me wrong, I like chemistry and I continue to read that too but I have no doubt the last five years have been (by necessity) a real ‘mind narrower’.

I’m going to try something different today with this post. Bare with me (or not). I'll start with a little story:

Seven million'ish years ago in Africa, Jack and Jill decided they would be monkeys no longer. Slowly, very slowly, they then spread all over the world killing lots of big animals and gathering nuts. By thirteen thousand years ago small bands of hunter gatherers with stone tools had spread to every single corner of the globe. They were intelligent, very intelligent, and yet not a single one of them could farm or write and nobody had any domestic animals or anything resembling what you or I would call technology. This is all FACT, proven by
chemistry (okay, fine, physics... no it's radio-chemistry damn it!). At that point, rather suddenly, because of critical population density and the end of an ice age and a bunch of other reasons Jack and Jill took a completely unprecedented turn toward civilization. They 'decided' first to domesticate plants and animals (which was very difficult) and this allowed them to settle down and feed politicians, builders, inventors, artists, and armies and thereby grow from bands to tribes to ‘chiefdoms’ to states and then to empires.

This all happened so that in 1998 Dr. Jared Diamond, a 61 year old professor of geography and physiology at UCLA, could describe these last thirteen thousand years in his ridiculously popular book and win heaps of awards for his effort. Here is a picture of JD.
I am impressed that JD would even consider aiming a complex history book full of original ideas at the general public rather than just publishing his ideas in academic circles for his geography, history, and biology buddies. And the brilliant award-winning aspect of his book was the fact that Dr. Diamond clearly explained (with ideas that were neither uncertain nor controversial) why, from an equal starting point thirteen thousand years ago ‘civilizing’ happened at different rates on different continents. Why did north North Americans not discover Europe and slaughter the English, French, and Spanish tribes? Was it race? Varying intellect and 'civilizability' between continents? Was it a few freakishly creative inventors that happened to be born in one place and not another? Nope. Nope. And nope. Highly motivated, intelligent, and racist scholars have tried endlessly to prove the above explanations (especially the first one) but they have not succeeded because these explanations are not true and therefore nearly impossible to prove :). The real reason is geography, and only geography. Cool eh? I thought so too. And I don’t care if you believe it or not, I just wish I had found time to read it eight years ago when Millington first suggested it to me.

Before I continue, I will briefly digress. This blog post is my attempt at a book review. I now notice book reviews in newspapers I'm developing the opinion that these ‘reviewers’ are mostly idiots. I say that because they are way too negative and make too much effort to sound smart.

Dude (I mean Sir), if you don’t like a book, why draw my attention to it at all? Save yourself time and effort and mention it not. Then I won’t buy it. I won’t even know it exists. I may save ten bones if I read that a movie sucks (that’s ten Mars bars) but books are available in the thousands and I don’t require anyone’s help ‘not buying’ them.

And reviewers try too hard to sound smart. I suppose it’s natural but I don’t like it. Dude (I mean Sir), you are not an author and your little article is just a glorified advertisement. So please, unless you have been asked for your expert opinion, don’t give me two pages of original thought. If you’re feeling so creative write your own book. Your review should be a summary and some quotes. Heck, quote the crap out of it! Take a cue from movie advertising and just spoil it. A trailer for a comedy is not some guy I don’t recognize delving into the characters or telling me how hard he laughed . Just a few funny scenes (usually too many). So quote the book numb-nuts.

And introduce the author so I know who I’m reading and can try and determine his or her motive. I’m a practical simple minded scientist-type and I dislike books with obvious (or worse, irrational) bias. I do not want to read non-fiction (arguably) written by politicians or scientologists or anyone else who is heavily invested in, and very proficient at, wasting my time. So briefly sum up the book, the author, and then hit us with some quotes.

Here, if you’re still reading this foolishness, I missed the last ingredient. These are some great, if somewhat random, JD lines that I could not help but underline while reading this book.

JD on cheetah’s and zebras:

…tame cheetahs were prized by ancient Egyptians and Assyrians and modern Indians as hunting animals infinitely superior to dogs. One Mogul emperor of India kept a stable of a thousand cheetahs…. all of their cheetahs were tamed ones caught in the wild… efforts to breed cheetahs in captivity failed.
Zebras have the unpleasant habit of biting a person and not letting go. They thereby injure even more American zoo-keepers each year than do tigers! Zebras are also virtually impossible to lasso with a rope, even for cowboys who win rodeo championships by lassoing horses, because of their unfailing ability to watch the rope noose fly toward them and then duck their head out of the way
JD on sheep:
At the time of a recent census, Australias 17,085,400 people thought so highly of sheep that they kept 161,6000,000 of them.
JD on ‘farmer power’:
In a one-on one fight, a naked farmer would have no advantage over a naked hunter-gatherer… farmer power lies in much denser populations that food production could support… Farmers tend to breathe out nastier germs to own better weapons and armor, to own more-powerful technology in general, and to live under centralized governments with literate elites better able to wage wars of conquest.
JD on where food comes from:
A typical American fast-food restaurant meal would include chicken (first domesticated in China) potatoes (from the Andes) or corn (from mexico), seasoned with black pepper (from India) and washed down with a cup of coffee (of Ethiopian origin).
JD on the strange nature of many inventions:
…Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the most original invention of the greatest inventor of modern times. When Edison built his first phonograph in 1877, he published an article proposing ten uses to which his invention might be put. They included preserving the last words of dying people, recording books for blind people to hear announcing clock time, and teaching spelling. Reproduction of music was not high on Edison’s list of priorities. A few years later Edison told his assistant that his invention had no commercial value. Within another few years he changed his mind and did enter business to sell phonographs-but for use as office dictating machines. When other entrepreneurs created jukeboxes by arranging for a phonograph to play popular music at the drop of a coin, Edison objected to this debasement, which apparently detracted from serious office use of his invention. Only after about 20 years later did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph was to record and play music
I should mention JD's big central thesis. He is all about the 'axes of the continents'. "Around those axes turned the fortunes of history" Civilization progressed faster where people had longitude rather than latitude to work with. This is because food production (that big first step) spread faster along the east–west axes than along north–south axes because plants are adapted to a particular latitude (temperature, growing season, etc). Here’s a picture from JD's article in Nature in 2002. (I hope he won't mind me borrowing it, nobody reads this anyway)

JD on one of his many personal insights about New Guinea (the book is full of these):
In a traditional new Guinea society, if a New Guinean happened to encounter an unfamiliar new Guinean while both were away from their respective villages, the two engaged ina long discussion of their relatives, in an attempt to establish some relationship and hence some reason why the two should not attempt to kill each other.
I want to give you a few more quotes but first, a warning. History is full of harsh realities involving inhumane cruelty and death. If you are the type to get very emotionally involved then don't read this book (or the rest of this blog post). I like understanding the past but there is no certainly no changing it (although people do speculate). The human rights conventions adopted by most of the world today are a great achievement, but also a very new idea. The history of civilization (like evolution by natural selection) is mostly cruel, gruesome, and full of death.

JD on guns:
… in 1908 a British sailor named Charlie Savage equipped with muskets and excellent aim arrived in the Fiji Islands. The aptly named Savage proceeded single-handedly to upset Fiji’s balance of power. Among his many exploits, he paddled his canoe up a river to the Fijian village of Kasavu, halted less than a pistol shot’s length from the village fence, and fired away at the undefended inhabitants. His victims were so numerous that surviving villagers piled up bodies to take shelter behind them, and the stream beside the village was red with blood. Such examples of the power of guns against native peoples lacking guns could be multiplied indefinitely
JD on crappy diseases:
The major killers of humanity throughout our recent history - smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera - are infectious diseases that evolved from diseases of animals, even though most of the microbes responsible for our own epidemic illnesses are paradoxically now almost confided to humans… The greatest single epidemic in human history was the one of influenza that killed 21 million people at the end of the First World War. The Black Death (bubonic plague) killed one-quarter of Europe’s population between 1346 and 1352
JD on the sad fate of native North Americans:
The Indian population of the island of Hispaniola declined from around 8 million when Columbus arrived in AD 1492 to zero by 1535… For the New World as a whole the decline of the Indian population in the century or two following Columbus’ arrival is estimated to have been as large as 95%.... Europe’s sinister gift to all other continents were the germs evolving from Eurasians long intimacy with domestic animals.
I will finish with a lighter one. JD on dingos:
Native Australians kept captive dingos as companions, watchdogs, and even as living blankets, giving rise to the expression “five-dog night’ to mean a very cold night.
My parents and older relatives have always been concerned with me knowing my Polish-Catholic roots. This is more than understandable. I should. And if you wish to dig a little deeper, shameful or not, this book is as deep and well written and intelligent as a description of all of our roots will get.

Apparently there is now a three hour
PBS documentary that sums it up pretty well on DVD, so why read.

Here's a final thought. Much of this book is about the domination of 'haves' over 'have-nots'. Powerful advanced societies over weak primitive ones. It's not hard to step back and see that the story is far from finished. JD throws out some very universal insights about leadership, power, and large populations. There are some obvious parallels with aspects of the world today. Somebody will probably write an interesting update in another 1000 years.

Monday, December 10, 2007

geekfest 07

Ten months ago Mark Coster, my boss, relocated to Griffith University (Brisbane) from the University of Sydney . He had a large research group in Sydney . One student (Sean) one post-doc (Kylee) came with him, and I joined them here, but the majority of the group (Sam, Adam, Katie, Katelyn, Josh, Hendra and Cody) chose to stay behind and, although now co-supervised by another professor, finish their PhD projects more independently than most. So Dr. Coster’s group is like a family split in two. And as might be expected, we get together for the holidays. Actually, for just one holiday: Geekfest!

About a hundred clicks north of Sydney there is an old university research station out in the middle of the woods. It is a large cottage that sleeps twenty’ish and is used mostly for the study of Aussie plants and animals. Many years ago, this facility was donated to U of S by a nature loving rich woman who willed it to be used by zoologists or botanists or other hippies for research. We rented it for Geekfest! It was a Thursday to Sunday holiday consisting of a day and a half of chemistry seminars, a day and a half of relaxing family time and… well, three nights of heavy drinking. Here are some pictures.

First, the group from left to right: Hendra, Sean, Kylee, Me, Katelyn, Josh, the boss, Katie, and Sam. Two others, Adam and Cody, missed this picture.The 'research station'.

Inside, we set up a nice little classroom.
This is Mark Coster going down to barbecue town, medieval style on this old stone beast.
An Australian brush turkey. No relation to ours, and harmless (although not very afraid of people). We shared the facility with a few of them and with with an older gentleman doing some very intensive research on brush turkey mating behaviour. Apparently, they are special due to an unusual lack of parental care. Like Britney :)
The birds and bees of brush turkeys are as follows: boy turkey builds a large nest (a meter-high mound of leaves and crap), various hot young girl turkeys come around to mate with him. Usually on his mound. Later the ladies lay their eggs in daddy's mound. Daddy's job is now to defend and maintain the mound, which is warmed via exothermic decomposition of biomass. (In sharp contrast to my lab, where exothermic decomposition is usually a very bad thing. Geekfest.) Sadly, when the young whipper-snappers come digging out of the mound, neither mom or dad want anything to do with them. Kinda harsh for bird behaviour I think. Furthermore, apparently big daddy doesn't realize that some of the little'ns in his mound are (of course) not his. Pimpin ain't easy.

We could not have a 'geekfest' without a geek car or an outdoor movie theatre that played recently pirated films and (when moved indoors) doubled as PlayStation heaven!
I was happy to introduce the game we all know and love to the Aussie chemists. Beersby is spreading fast, as it should be. Soon the frizbee will be sold at the beer stores everywhere. (As with most things here, the cottage was not far from ocean and beach.)
Sean demonstrates a rye and coke Aussie style. Pre-mixed coke and CC in a can. They bottle and can a lot of mixed drinks here. But the real hero at geekfest was Captain Morgan.
After a long flight and months in the closet, this shirt finally came out. Behind me is a Kookaburra. A pretty but vicious little carnavore that makes sure your hotdog is dead (by bashing it against something a few times) before eating it.
And the moustache is now gone, it's December.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Chemistry after Australia

I’ve been thinking 'career' in recent days and that always leads to a sense of 'reality' that can be a little overwhelming. Everybody (or the statistical equivalent thereof) finds a first job. Thankfully Kate and I are on the same page with regard to how much money corresponds to satisfaction and its not much. A modest little house somewhere safe and some pocket change to travel with for a few weeks a year would be more than enough for us both. So I'm not worried. But the overwhelming 'reality' comes when I let myself think about just how much time and effort I have invested into this 'organic chemistry' stuff. Time I can't get back, time I might have spent working or learning something different. I like what I do and and I like what I have learned but I am heavily invested and that can be stressfull. I hate the thought of the time I may have wasted should things not work out well as I believe they can. Other than Kate, most my friends and family (ouside of academia) don't have a good understanding of my career options. Many of you will not want to waste any more of your time reading this but I will try to briefly describe those options in this post. If nothing more this will clear my thoughts so I can get back to work.

After Australia my aim is Montreal. I hope to be hired as a research chemist for Merck or Pfizer or BI or some other Pharma Giant. Rarely are they formally offered but these jobs are usually ‘informally available’ for the right well-trained synthetic chemists. It works like this: seven years of good synthetic experience (via PhD and Post-Doc), a handful of good publications, good reference letters from impressive supervisors, and some luck all add up to an interview. In that interview, on my own, I will either succeed or fail. It is not complicated. A pharma interview is the equivalent of a comprehensive synthetic chemistry oral exam and only acing it with flying colours constitutes a ‘pass’. It is not difficult for a company find the best talent and filter away the rest in that interview room. These jobs are difficult to get, we all know that, but they are definitely worth getting! So I study. I will read and learn chemistry every day between now and that interview. There are, of course, other options. There are lesser known generic companies that are satisfied with less decorated chemists in exchange for lower salaries. There are also countless smaller biotech’s and start-ups that have need for the skills I offer. In these companies, there is the potential to fast track into management and possibly make a lot of money from the success of a company. But a start-up is far from an established business and with typically only a year or two of secured funding a start-up can’t guarantee success. And they often fail. Some survive and with that in mind I’ll certainly have a look around when the time comes but I have the feeling the stress and risk of that kind of work is better suited for someone single (or soon to be single :). I am also qualified to teach chemistry at any University anywhere in the world. These positions are always available but many people have an intuitively inaccurate knowledge of how academia works. Here it is: a well-paid happy university professor is a researcher first and foremost and educator second (a distant second). To survive, one must have original ideas. There is no escaping that simple fact. It also helps to write good grant applications and/or to kiss a bit of bottom early in your career (sadly). Also young academics must work VERY hard and their ideas must succeed (or lead to something that does) so that they can publish, and publish, and then publish some more. Can I do that? Maybe.... probably. I have an idea book, and it is not blank :). I am certainly capable of teaching well, but that is not a useful quality. Some research chemists also happen to teach well which is great but teachers who can’t research do not survive. Universities today do have ‘just teaching’ positions but these come with salaries similar to those of high-school teachers who were smart enough not to waste five years getting a PhD. (That was a very harsh statement and I respectfully apologise to anyone that may have loved their PhD and now loves their teaching job and doesn’t give a crap about my opinion.)

Many chemists aspire simply to be one of the best in their field. The top academic chemists in the world, the ones that travel for half the year, the ones in contention for Nobel, the ones whose names all other chemists know, are not only the most knowledgeable and creative of us but they are also natural leaders and motivators that have a natural ability to impress, sell their ideas, and showcase their results. I have observed that unfortunately some of these same top-academics (too many) also benefit from being cut-throat competitive, guarded, and from having little regard or respect for their peers (that is especially but note exclusively true in the American system). The rules of the game are such that academics compete with each other for government funding. Each can benefit only at the expense of the rest. It's not quite as cruel as Texas Hold'em (there are more winners) but it's the same idea. I don't mean to sound too synical but I do belive that for many reasons, academia is a difficult career choice. Some scientists are so passionate, creative, independent, or 'odd' that they have no choice at all, they are born academics and they are happy and I admire these people greatly. And I will always respect a chemist who has something positive to say about someone else’s research. It is far too rare.

That brings me to the end of this rant. For those that stayed with me, thanks for listening. Somewhere in all this mess, I will soon find a niche for myself. Of course, there is the possibility of a completely unforseable career: there are transition options into other fields of chemistry and science, the environmental chemists are pretty busy these days. I have thought about science journalism or writing, if only part time. Possibilities are numerous but starting with anything outside of synthesis will surely not justifiy all of this training. One thing is for sure, I'm done with school for a while.

Enough of this serious talk, there's more to life than just work. Plus I have to go to bed. I have to get up early and go to work :)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Games to fifteen again!

Kate and I at the Mermaid Tavern on the Gold Coast last weekend celebrating a very unique 'Movember' day on the beach.
My PHD supervisor from Western encouraged me with a recent email saying: ‘work hard and play hard’. Honest advice from someone who has done his share of both. He also managed to accurately sum up the mentality here lately. This post and pictures definitely concern ‘playing hard’ but the chemistry work is also moving along. I am now proud mentor of ‘Emma’ an undergraduate summer student who I have been asked to try and mold into a competent lab monkey in the next three months. And thanks to the much appreciated assistance of a talented colleague back at UWO named Cheryl Carson a project that I was forced to ‘finish without quite finishing’ in August is now actually completed. For your benefit I will avoid specifics and just say that Cheryl’s hard work revealed a result that was very much a best case scenario for both of us. Thanks again Carson.

Now to the ‘playing hard’: A few years ago a local Gold Coast volleyballer named Shannon Zunker decided that he would organize a unique tournament as a tribute to the way the original beach game was played in California in the 70’s and 80’s. ‘Olskool’ rules would be enforced: side out scoring (only the serving team can earn a point), the original volleyballs, no antennas, VERY tight hand setting requirements, and no referees (disputes to be settled by honesty or dance-off), and the old 9x9 metre court (8x8 is the standard today). In addition, players would be encouraged to wear old-school uniforms.

On the weekend, Kate and I played in the fourth repeat of Zunker’s annual tournament. I am not surprised that the event continues to grow each year because the old rules make for an awesome game that is all but forgotten. Big court and side-out scoring both ensure that closely matched high caliber teams are usually forced to play very long and entertaining games. If you find yourself a player in one of these games you develop a surprising feeling of patience rather than urgency. It is nothing like what modern beach volleyball has become. For reasons I don’t feel like explaining the old rules also mean much more aggressive jump serving, and consequently less blocking and far more hitting. All of which are pro-spectator. On top of that, there are many more come from behind wins and MANY more exciting match point situations. It was an experience that brought back some good memories, and I loved every minute of it.

The tournament also offered some other unique aspects: big trophies (where the heck have those gone lately), including big golden volleyballs for the winners of the highly contested charity ‘hardest serve competition’ complete with policeman and radar gun. Also spectators of the final games were entertained by an Olympic caliber commentator and, of course, there was quite the Saturday night party involved. Very well done Zunks! I will tell every beach player I know about it.

Here are some pics:

First, below is the man with the plan: Shannon Zunker. And above, his shiny trophies. Man did I ever want that golden ball, but it was not to be.
And here are some ridiculous costumes. Starting with Adam and Rob.

Horse and I did our part.
Below are Dan Carey (Maverick) and his little brother Jimmy. Both are outstanding young local players from the Gold Coast. Dan won the tournament and the serving competition with an 84 km/h missle.
And if it has looked so far like just a sausage party. The girls also get dressed up. These are our friends Ghyda and Cassie.
And below is the team of Kate and Lib. Or Cadets 'Hot Dog' and 'Bacon' of police academy. Also proud winners of the overall costume contest.
In this picture 'Hot Dog' and 'Bacon' are actually playing in their 'uniforms'. Well done ladies.
I'll finish with some more game shots. First, this is 'Elevation' Elliot Weston, another skilled Brisbane volleyballer. I borrowed a lot of these pictures from El's facebook site.

That's about it. The last one is Dan Carey with that 'golden ball trophey' winning serving style.

I hope you have had your fill of volleyball on this blog because I'm done posting about it for a while. No more volleyball discussion until April! There is a tournament at the end of March that will probably warrant another picture or two.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

guns and beaches

Despite her deep hatred of the NRA and Mr. Heston my ‘little rain cloud’ was kind enough to agree to pose like this and model the ‘Amazing Flygun’ for you:

Kate generally adopts a buddhist-esque refusal to hurt (or even inconvenience) anything that is innocent or oblivious; except for me. But she is close to making a second exception for Australian flies. The ‘gun’ is manufactured by ‘Wonderfully Weird’ of Cape Town Africa where, I gather, flies must be a very big problem to inspire such creativity. This is the only product this company sells.

I was committed to the $10 purchase the minute I read the packaging. Here it is:

“The most effective shooting position is directly above the fly at a distance of 30 – 60 cms. Don't make sudden movements and the fly won't see you as a threat. Now gently squeeze the trigger … goodbye fly!! Shooting flies at an angle is a bit harder and needs practise. If you fancy yourself as a real Amazing Flygun expert then you can try knocking out a fly in mid-flight. It's not easy but it can be done. Happy hunting!"

Also, here is some powerful red-army-style anti-fly propaganda from their website:

-Flies can carry typhoid, cholera, diarrhoea, amoebic dysentery, T.B, anthrax, gangrene, bubonic plague, leprosy, scarlet fever and yellow fever.
-Flies vomit on food before eating it
-Flies defecate every 4-5 minutes
-Flies don't bite or sting … they stab
-Despite years of trying, no researcher has ever been able to teach flies anything… cockroaches learn, even worms learn … but never

Outside of fly hunting, we have been playing some volleyball lately. Last weekend at Burleigh beach Kate and I found ourselves playing on adjacent courts. How's this for a photo? Thanks Rob.

I continue to be impressed by my wife’s rapid rate of improvement. It reminds me of our friend Jocelyn back home who spent a few years watching Gareth and then just showed up one season without much warning and was suddenly very good. Here is Kate is posing with her recent partner Nicky and below playing with last weekend's partner Lib. Also, like the most veteran beach players, Kate is already showing an aptitude for bouncing between partners :)

I’ve decided to show you this next picture because it is so full of information. First this is Glen Horner (‘Horse’) my teammate with his girlfriend Nicky, Kate’s teammate. I am aware of the level cheese inherent in that last statement.

Glen and Nicky are very likeable people but there's some more to this picture. In the background beside Glen's head is Rob in very typical form talking up some brunette. The young man is always hard at work. Also, right above Nicky there is a child walking through with a little surfboard. There are many many children here that can barely walk but can surf very well. By our common standards of ‘safety’ these kids would never be allowed near the raging ocean but apparently in Australia they are safe in the waves for hours. It doesn’t make sense. Also unintentionally captured, on the left, there is a random bum. This is appropriate because, as I have said before, there are a lot of those everywhere too.

The other unique thing about the Queensland tour is that each year it moves to a new set of locations. There is so much sand here you can set up a tournament in a hundred different places. I am still in awe of the scenery at these tournaments.

If you look closely at that last one you will find a lonely surfer. This kid had a lot open water to himself. Middle of the day and no other surfers for hundreds of meters on either side. The waves were pretty small but it was still awesome to see him out there all alone like he owned the place.

Let me finish by admitting that although we are truly enjoying living here we're also lately going through a phase of feeling somewhat home sick. Both Kate and I are feeling it but not quite to the same degree. Kate has been very regular about calling home. She definitely misses mom and dad and Canada. She has even gone so far as to start making very advanced plans by looking at real estate in Montreal. I also miss family and friends and want to go back home, but not quite yet. We just got here. Canada is not going anywhere. Plus if I called home too often my parents would probably assume something was wrong. No news is good news for us. Even from Australia. I suppose that in some ways Kate and I are pretty different. It makes sense to me: I immigrated and moved around as a kid and have always been adjusting to change whereas Kate was very happily grounded living her entire childhood in the same house that Ken and Sandy still own. Hey, it's one theory anyway. Here’s a picture of your daughter talking to you Sandy. Check out the smile.

(no flies were harmed in the making of this blog post)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sharks, snakes, spiders, scorpions, and other scary s#!&.

This post has been a while in the making. We also have killer ants, bees, jellyfish, octopi, crocodiles (obviously) and even the worlds most dangerous bird

First, thank you for the feedback. I think I would keep this blog going (as a record of sunny-A for Kate and I) even if few people had interest in it but I’m happy that some of you do. Since you are reading these posts, I will try real hard not to waste your time with redundancy or babble and limit myself to only things that I think are funny or worth reading. And I will try to be concise and infrequent about it.
To the point. Aussie Land is home to the world's eleven most venomous snakes and twenty of the top twenty-five. The North American rattler is number twenty-three on
that list. We also have spiders that will kill you instantly or can cause the affected limb to fall off by ulceration and necrotic lesions. Plus, the Australian Government covers up hundreds of shark, crocodile and snake attacks each year to promote tourism.
And if you don’t die when something here bites you, you will wish you had. For example:
“For a shy little animal, the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) can cause a lot of grief. Tucked away on the back legs of mature males are a pair of short spurs each hooked-up to a venom gland that makes a viciously painful toxin. Platypus spurrings of people are rare, but the select group who have survived the trauma (often fishermen trying to free irate monotremes from their nets) report pain strong enough to induce vomiting which can persist for days, weeks or even months. The pain is resistant to morphine and other pain-killing drugs and anaesthesia of the main nerve from the spur site is often the only way to relieve the patient's suffering.” (somewhere online)
And if you’re thinking: come on, a platypus? Yes, a Platypus!
In Ontario, you can technically lay down and have a nap anywhere you want with zero chance of death by venom. Sure, as my new friends point out, bears are capable of eating Canadians and sometimes do but I can SEE a bear. A bear will not slither under my car seat and hide or crawl around in my hanging laundry.
Okay, okay enough. I'm sorry. I hope most of you are much smarter and braver than I was two months ago and don’t actually believe anything I have just written. It is half-true at most. Kidding, kidding. I am just having some fun with you (sorry Sandy). Some bites here are painful but none are deadly! NONE! I really mean that. There is no government cover up and I made up that deadly spider-limb thing. The platypus quote is true, so is the poisonous snake list but the bottom line is that people here simply do not die from spider or snake bites or shark attacks, period.

If you have any a faith in statistics (as I do and we all really should) there seems not to be much reason even to be careful (and Aussies are not). And the longer I spend here without seeing anyone die of venom or poison the more believable the truth becomes. The numbers are on my side big time. People here camp and hike and sleep outside. Many of the homes don’t even have windows that close. Here are the actual numbers: of the 20 million inhabitants of Australia about 120 000 will wave the big farewell each year to make room for the 'youngins'. Most of them will leave us because they have finished serving their time here and heart disease or something equaly tragic has held off as long as it can. More alarmingly, 3000 of us will die prematurely in an automobile accident this year (1 in 7000). Much fewer, only 300 of us, will drown (8 as a result of scuba diving accidents). Sadly, many of those 300 will be tourists new to the ocean and lacking in respect for it (Kate and I will not fall into that category, promise.). And what about death by shark or snake or spider? On average 1.0 person of the 20 000 000.0 here will die from shark each year, 1.6 from snake and NONE from spider. Also 0.7 people will be killed by crocodile each year and 1.8 people will die from a bee sting. So yes, I humbly admit that one or two people will earn the tragic title of ‘the statistic’ this year. And if it’s my time I suppose it's time but one in twenty million is good enough for me. And if you fear death by spider or snake then you should be equally afraid of death by falling coconut (which does happen).
But how and why are the numbers so low? Here it is. Snakes can kill but they don’t. It's that simple. Unless you’re a mouse, then you should leave Australia immediately. Snakes run and hide from people. And if I am enough of an idiot to somehow corner a deadly snake and receive a bite it will most likely not puncture deeply and inject enough venom to do any harm. If it does I usually have days and occasionally hours to get to the hospital for a dose of high quality Aussie brand anti-venom and I'm smiling again. As for sharks, to them we are food but thankfully we taste terrible. Brussel sprouts and liver, not poutine and rocky road. They ignore us. Even when we’re dressed like little black seals on our surfboards and they are feeding in swarms nearby. They still ignore us. The fact that you or I find that hard to believe makes it no less true. I will admit to hearing that they occasionally try and have a taste. (I suppose tasting bad is a rather late-stage defense mechanism to rely on.) And finally spiders. Many of the spiders here look ridiculously dangerous. I have shared a bathroom stall with some already. They are harmless. Unless you’re an insect, then you should leave Australia immediately. The Funnel-web and Redback are the only two that offer bites that can be very painful and theoretically lethal to humans. But since the introduction of anti-venom, 50 years ago, NOBODY in Australia has died of a spider bite. You have days and days to get to the hospital.
In the past months my co-workers have slowly laughed my fear of death by venom away. But even Aussies will admit that there are lots of little things here that hand out bites and stings that hurt like heck for quite a while. Ants in particular, we have many many ants. They are everywhere, and they are bastards. Also the flies here are quite ill tempered. Kate and I can’t figure out what they want from us they they clearly want something.

I'll finish with pics. First, here is John together with some local kid showing off their snake handling skills with this monster that we stumbled on about a month ago.
And don't worry about John, he really wanted this picture and he was 99.9% sure it was a python. Pythons don't kiss, they hug. And this one was cold and slow. Still, Kate and I still stayed pretty far away. I have been told that some people here find big pythons in their attics and just leave them there to kill mice.
And on a different note, here is a picture of the little cutie that was hanging out with his mom in the trees right beside the lab last week.

Not at all poisenous!! And seeing a wild one is rare, I got very lucky.