Monday, October 29, 2007

More pictures, fewer words.

This weekend we discovered that we live a $40 (round trip) ferry ride from a sandy island called Moreton.

These ships were intentionally sank here to promote coral growth (and tourist growth).
Rob (our local host) on the left and John (the canuck I 'almost' knew back home) on our right.
These next shots are courtesy of John's ridiculously cool camera case.

We tried sand tobogganing. Interesting.

Game requirements: three competent (preferably non-sober) volleyballers, short net, some stupid scoring system, courage.
Our ride home. Beats a bicycle.

Monday, October 22, 2007


Is it true that the average North American person is busier, more up-tight, more stressed or even more angry the average Aussie? Is Canada (and the US) more formal, more politically correct than where I am now? Are we less happy, do we laugh less, holiday less, have less fun? Do North Americans work harder? Are Aussies rougher, more rugged people? Do they drink more? Are they more racist? How do schools compare? Most chemists I know feel that the level of graduate school in Canada and the US is very strong. How about primary school and high school? Are kids smarter or happier (or both) here or there? Who am I kidding, kids are happy everywhere. How about the average adult? Are people generally ‘the same’ in all ‘first world’ countries?

Who cares? Maybe these questions don’t matter. We are who we are. What is the point of making comparisons between countries? My impression is that most Canadians are very happy. Most of us inherently find what we need to live a happy and full life. Plus, nobody can answer questions like these with any confidence. It’s all debatable. The thing is, I have noticed a few such striking cultural and social differences that I can’t help but make some comparisons that are interesting to me. Here are a few:

On Friday afternoons at 4:45 we have an event at my work called ‘Beer Club’. Not ‘social club’ or ‘team meeting’ or even ‘party’ but ‘BEER CLUB’. Kate also has two hours of ‘open bar’ every Friday at her law firm from 5-7.

When there is not enough room on the road, people here park their cars on sidewalks on curbs. I know it happens even more in Europe. I like it. There are no complaints. And why should there be? Somebody clearly needed to park. Seems like a simple case of empathy. Unless it has completely immobilized me, why should I care where someone else is parked?

In Brisbane, all children, of all ages, wear uniforms to school. Imagine that. No little ‘Eminems’ or little ‘Britneys’ or little ‘Nine Inch Nails’ look alikes. No ‘gapped out prep school types’ and no dirty old or cheap outfits either. Every kid looks the same. I see a group of kids waiting for the bus and I can’t tell at first glance who’s pop owns a ‘yacht’ and who’s just owns a ‘ute’. It seems to me like it would be easier for kids to learn in this system. Plus, it is probably difficult for the all the angry little boys to organize a ‘trench coat mafia’ if they have to come to school in little pansy shorts, knee socks, and a jacket with the school crest, and the school issue backpack.

Australian radio and television advertising is full of really blatant sexual innuendo. It was both shocking and hilarious at first. Check out this add for a chocolate bar, or this one for nicotine gum (both shown here at dinner time). You can imagine what beer and underwear ads are like. And it’s not just the advertising, it is everything here. We see A LOT of legs and cleavage walking about on the streets in Brisbane (and on local television programs). Downtown Brisbane on any given Sunday afternoon makes UWO campus in September look like a convent. It’s more like Halloween night on Richmond Street (for those that know about that). Kate and I were in total shock and disbelief for our first few weeks here. People here are just desensitized to it, they don’t notice or they don’t care. Yesterday we took a 10 minute evening bike ride along the river to our volleyball game and saw three adult couples, not teenagers, full-on necking. It must be the heat.

And when they want to send a harsh message to the public here they don’t pull any punches either. We drove by a highway sign recently: ‘Tired drivers die. Take a break.’ or “Drunk? Sooner or later you will be caught.” Here’s a television commercial about setting a positive example for children (don’t watch it if you don’t want to see some powerful images). It seems to me that this country is just a little more ‘rough around the edges’ than Canada with respect to public images. I don’t know which is better, but it is clearly different here.

Want more Aussie culture? Kate started work with four weeks of holidays. I also have four and that is absolutely unheard-of for a post-doc in the US or Canada. It also seems very common for Aussies to take ‘unpaid leave’ for months at a time and have a secure job waiting. A LOT of people have traveled overseas for ‘extended’ trips before starting a family. Obviously there are no international borders here, every other country is ‘overseas’.

ALL Australians over 18 vote in the federal and state elections. The turnout is 100% because it is ‘illegal’ not to vote. Offenders get fined, and the fines increase for repeated failure to vote. Does that mean that the average person here knows more about politics? Heck yeah it does.

By the way, I believe all ‘successful’ politicians are inherently devious people. I wish it were different. It is the last thing that I would ever want to be involved in. We are a month away from a federal election here and all I see is ‘negative’ ads and smear attacks back and forth between their top two parties. It bothers me. This type of add must be very effective if it can cause people to be so cruel. Or they make financial promises that are complex to the point of confusion. Don’t you think that every government should provide a yearly ‘one page’ summary of the entire budget that is honest but dumbed-down to a level that 95% of people could follow? Why does it have to be so complicated? Cash in, cash out, interest, debt, bottom line… ummm, done. No deception. Don’t confuse us. It’s our money. One page.

The only thing I know of that absolutely MUST be complicated is physics. I don’t think economics does. Economists can certainly choose to make it complex. I have known many chemistry professors that like to ‘sound smart’. Confusing students makes them feel smarter and better about their chosen profession. Dr. Kerr was not like that. I don’t think there is any reason to pretend that something is more difficult than it actually is.

Oh, and along those lines, wouldn’t it be nice, as a voter, to know what countries owe us money and who we have borrowed from. It’s our money after all. A second page then, and dumbed down please. Wouldn’t that simple information clear up a lot international politics and wouldn’t it make it difficult for a government to ‘hide’ motives for war.

I’m sorry. I don’t know what got into me there. I don’t have any informed political opinions, just na├»ve ranting. I’m just a simple minded idiot. I sat down today and started writing… whatever. I’m trying to ‘lurn to write gooder’ and I got carried away. Not too many people read this. If you still are, I apologise. Just pictures next post. I promise. Here’s a goodie from last weekend. Speaking of Aussie culture. Yep we finally tried it! And not on big long boards either :)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

the addiction

Although I did recently play in a beach volleyball tournament (and that is the topic of this post) the truth is that for the first time in many years I am playing the same amount of volleyball that my wife would like to see me play: not much :) It's not that Kate doesn't like the sport, actually she is getting quite good herself. It is simply that volleyball eats time, and it has eaten a LOT of mine. It's not hard to see her point. What girl doesn't want a little bit of a guy's time. That brings me to another good thing about Brizzy, a few weeks ago I found a little rec. one-night-a-week two’s league that she and I have joined as a team. The club is a ten minute bike ride from home. We’re having a good time and we’re playing against men’s teams and doing well. Generally speaking, I don't like co-ed sport. It is always awkward. In fact, unless Kate is playing with me (and enjoying it) I will almost never play rec or co-ed volleyball. There is no incentive, I would rather sleep. With her on the court though it's a different story. I find it really fun watching her improve and enjoy the game I love. Here she is in front of the set up on a Monday night. And the season runs 12 months of the year, outdoors!

I have no illusions about the fact that I am a ‘retired’ beach player. I no longer want to seriously train or improve. In the last decade I have put in my time. Fortunately I now find that I'm not getting worse in any hurry which puts me in the comfortable position of being able to just go out and play once in a while at a good level and enjoy it with no pressure. The fact that Kate has always been an athlete herself means that she understands what competition means to me. For the most part, she has tolerated the 'addiction' remarkably well. In fact, it's pretty clear that she wants to see me enter a handful of ‘real’ tournaments every year. Maybe it’s because she knows how excited I get about it, maybe because she wants to see me get in good shape again, or maybe she just wants a good excuse to go to the beach for the day. Who cares?

I'm not the only addict, many of my friends in the Canadian BV community have it too and it was not very difficult to find some locals with the same disease. Actually, beach volleyball players here are strangely similar to the boys back home. Like in Canada the sport is far from a main-stream so the community is small and tight. It is not a good way to make money. The AVP in the US has some wealthy ‘lifers’ as does the international tour (FIVB) but the reality is that a very small number of people (mainly Brazilian) share all of the prize money and the rest are just getting by weekend to weekend, desperately seeking sponsorship, or often spending a lot of their own money.

Okay, to the point. Last weekend I played the tour opener here. It was an oddly familiar experience. A 5:30 wake up meant I was dressed, packed, well fed, and on the beach looking at this pretty view by 7:30.

The anticipation during these mornings is one of my favorite things about the whole thing. At 55 minutes, the drive to this beach was shorter than the many similar drives I’ve taken in Canada. If I look a little overdressed it’s because of habit. That is just how tournament mornings are done, regardless of temperature.

The tournie was played in a ‘King of the Beach’ format (my first one) meaning that each player entered individually and each game with a different partner. This format not only gave the foreign guy a chance to play with locals but it also allowed for young players to play with experienced volleyball vets. If ten years ago, in Ontario, one of the good guys was ‘forced’ by the tournament format to play with me, give me tips, and encourage me to play well, I would have loved it. Instead, Hubbard and I got the 1-2-barbecue from the old bastards over and over and over again for a few summers without so much as a single word of encouragement. It’s was cruel way to learn the game.

Things are better now. On Saturday I played seven games on ‘show court’. A few of them were a little too close for comfort but the result was a seventh place finish of the thirty-two players; fairly respectable. And more importantly I met the whole local crowd. The faces were all new but the whole thing seems so familiar I feel like I have known them for years. Anyway, it will now be straight foreward to find a partner for a future tournie or two.

Kate took some quality game shots, here's two:

And it feels nice to be reminded of just how small the volleyball world is. The guys I have met here that have traveled internationally know the Canadians that have done the same: Binstock, Reader, Lelliot, Simic all came up in conversation. Everybody knows VanHuizen. Matty Diets and T-Bone have played right here in Queensland. I played a game with a kid whose mother and two grand parents represented Poland in volleyball years ago. They will likely know my dad through the sport. Kate and I have now met some very friendly and interesting people here because of my addiction, you’ll probably hear more about them in later posts.

They also have good quality gear here. I have never met an athlete that didn't like good gear.

One more thing: A real personal dream came true for me this weekend. There was a MacDonalds about a hundred meters from show court! You can see those beautiful golden arches just left of the blue flag in this picture :)

Yet another addiciton. And I'm not the only one:

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

the OC

Today I will take more time than usual because this post is pretty important to me. So far I may have presented a somewhat skewed picture of reality in this blog and I’m going to fix that right now. I would like simply to talk about work. Yep, you would't know it from the pictures I've taken but I do work. In fact, Kate and I get to have this extended holiday in the sun mainly because of 'organic chemistry'. I think most of you know that I just started a two-year post-doctoral research fellowship doing synthesis. More specifically I take part in a very time consuming, technically exhausting, accident prone, rage-inducing, wonderful battle against nature’s tricky-little-bastard molecules in an endeavour know as the total synthesis natural products.

I will not try to justify or explain my reserach in this post, some of you would fall asleep, but I would like to make a few simple points about my little world because very few people know much about the profession of chemistry, or any science for that matter, and some of it is pretty cool. Fist of all here's a helpful analogy: if we equate the entire world of chemists to the 'American armed forces' then we total synthesis types would be like the ‘naval aviators’. (huh? – you see there are many types of chemistry, and ours is the coolest.) Furthermore, this gentleman would be 'Iceman'. 'Viper' would be this fellow or this one or him or him or one of a number of others, and I guess RB Woodward would then be the Red Baron. (and of course, this guy is Maverick!) Most of the rest of us, myself included, are just nerds. And we’re simply trying not to end up like Goose.

By the way, a chemist can tell that things are starting to look positive for him when he looks down and finds his own name embroidered on his labcoat.

It’s a good thing I have already found a wife.

And if you have any interest in how and why I ended up in this field, here it is (hey, it's my blog :) A lady I once knew named Mrs. McLean is responsible for the fact that CHEM100 at Queen’s went well for me. For that reason I decided to take more similar courses and then, by chance, stumbled into this lab for an honours project. Years earlier, Dr. Lemieux was recruited from a high school in Montreal to some Div 1 school in New York on a football scholarship. He enrolled in general arts (basket weaving and stuff). I may not have the story quite right but I think that a single lab chemistry elective in third year led him to quit football to become a chemist. He is now department head in Kingston and he was a good supervisor. I met some talented students in his lab like Ken Maly that got me thinking about grad school. Dr. Lemieux suggested this guy, and after a bad MCAT essay and bad volleyball tryout, I decided to go get a PhD at Western. My boss, Dr. Kerr is Canadian but chose to do his PhD here and his post-doc here so he has some good 'worldly' stories to tell. He was another good supervisor, the good ones know each other. The Kerr lab was a great place to see and do a lot of different reactions. I worked for four years beside an exceptionally good chemist (Ian, who is now doing his post-doc with 'Iceman' in San Diego). He managed to keep me alive long enough to allow me to become not half-bad at this stuff myself. After a few long years, I found that the compounds eventually started to listen when I asked them to behave. And once the compounds start to behave, well... then you can’t help but like what you’re doing.

That's pretty much it... now I’m here. For many organic chemists a post-doc is a good opportunity to go somewhere new and distant for a few years and grow up (at 29) before either becoming a professor or a pharmaceutical pro (assuming you know what you're doing AND you still like this stuff when you're done). I was lucky to find yet another supervisor that both cares about his students and does quality research. Dr. Coster also travelled far to do his PhD here, then came back to Australia for his post-doc here and now holds an impressive position at a hot new reserach facility at Griffith at only 32… and he has me working on some interesting compounds. I can't really take pictures at work or speak specifically about any compounds because of a confidentiality agreement I signed but I can say that I am very impressed with the lab and working environment. I'm fairly sure that I'm safe talking very generally about equipment and I know that at least a couple of my old lab mates read this and they will apprecaite the following: This lab is RIDICULOUS! We have multiple fully automated Mass Specs and HPLCs and the fastest coolest NMR/robot combo I’ve ever seen and it's all a few feet from my bench… people here often monitor their columns by MS in 96 well plates. Yesterday I dropped in a TLC plate, submitted a proton to the robot, developed the plate, and then processed and printed spectrum in about four mintues total. There are four rotovaps (good, working vaps) within eight feet of my bench, four more another ten feet away. Double manifold, unlimited glassware, walk in fridge and freezer (-20C, feels like Canada), and a LOT of chemicals in the stores. Pre-packed columns that fit into automated solvent pumping thing-a-ma-jigers and fraction collectors… but I can’t do it, it feels like cheating. Needless to say it's pretty easy to be efficient with your time here. (actually, there is no ultra high pressure reactor so K-dog has us beat there, and strangely there are no gas lines)

There... I'm done. I'm sorry about that. That's all that I wanted to say about work. I will try hard to keep this blog interesting for everyone by not talking too much shop in the future... maybe just a little.

And how's this for interesting:... we have been having some storms in the past three evenings that are hard to describe with words. I was told that storms here would be 'electric' and there would be hail but what we saw a two nights ago was on another level entirely. The hail missed us by about 20 km (but apparently my boss' father's car looks 'like a golfball') but the lightning was practically next door. Kate made a solid effort to take some video without getting the camera wet or herself killed… but the best way to describe what we saw is to show you these pictures (taken two nights ago and submitted to the local newspaper by loyal readers and damn fine photographers; I borrowed them from here).

Monday, October 8, 2007

"at least we didn't choke!"

This was a very sad weekend for much of the south Pacific and it is a safe bet that very few Canadians have the slightest idea why that might be. Should you happen to be interested, here it ls:

I will save discussions of the Australian Football League, Rugby League and Cricket League (the three biggest sports leagues here) for when Kate and I actually go to see some games live. As for beach volleyball, it is alive and well here (as you might imagine) and I will write a post about that soon, but not yet.

Today it is all about Rugby Union, or what I have always know as just ‘rugby’ (this is their ‘international hockey’). This weekend, both the Wallabies (Australia) and the All Blacks (New Zealand, seems like every national team, sport and geneder, goes by a different mascot here) were eliminated in the quarter finals of the Rugby World Cup by England (10-12) and France (18-20) respectively. The games were both upsets, with the top two world ranked teams sent packing. Both games had very tight and emotional finishes. On Saturday night a 40 yard kick that would have won it for Australia sailed slightly wide with just minutes left. On Sunday New Zealand (favoured to win the whole tournie) was up 13-0 before demonstrating a textbook-perfect choke act that the country will be recovering from for years. The title 'at least we didn't choke!' was on the back cover of the Brizbane Courier Mail today, this was presumably a way to help ease the pain. There were very few dry eyes among Australian sports fans today, and not one in New Zealand. Next weekend, England will meet France in a semi-final that nobody could have predicted.

The reason I care enough about this stuff to write about it here is that it it has reminded me of just how AWESOME sport is. And although it is very different here on the surface,
it’s all the same underneath. People everywhere have a need to feel competitive; to risk losing in exchange for the chance of winning... it's basic Darwin stuff. It doesn't matter whether you're playing or watching, there's nothing quite like a game on the line... especially one that really matters. It gave me chills this weekend.

If you don't care about any of that... here's a picture of Kate on the cool fountain-thingy we found on the campus of Bond University. Bond is big fancy private school on the Gold Coast with a pretty sick campus (and some beach courts, we were there for a little tournie - 1,2 barbecue - if you don't know what that means, don't worry). We are definitely having fun here.

Let me finish with some general education: a few months ago I learned that this and this are the two top sports in Ireland, bigger even than soccer. You may not have ever heard of either of them.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

the new wheels

This was the only remaining available vehicle when I called my good friends at Alpha last friday... so this is the ride that Kate and I took to the beach last weekend. A flatbed truck or 'ute' like this one is the most common style of truck here, all pick ups are called 'utes'... sport utility vehicles are called 'four wheel drives'.

But that's not what this post is about. Actually, before I get to it let me show you a picture of downtown Brizzy taken from a spot about 50 meters from our apartment. Kate's fancy new law firm is right in the middle of it. She has a 25 minute walk to work, across a foot bridge (not on the picture, to the left) and then along the river through that park. I'm pretty proud of her, she scored a sweet job.We also took the ute to the local marina where I took this sweet candid shot of a typical Queensland father-son Sunday afternoon. People are big on fishing here, and sailing. I have never seen this many boats in one place; might have been a few thousand.

Anyway... to the point of this post: my new wheels:

Until three weeks ago I had never bought a bicycle for myself. When I was a kid I had a few and at Queen's I got a hand-me-down BMX from Chike which was pretty sweet but rarely used. Here, I have suddenly found myself cycling to work (45 min) and back (40 min... an elevation thing) every day. Riding a bicycle is not fun. Some people will disagree but I can’t relate to them. I think it is painful, sometimes very painful. But I'm motivated and I expect to continue as long as I’m here even though the Brisbane bus system is a very cheap and convenient alternative. Today (during the bike ride) I considered the source of my motivation… and now I’m going to go on a rant:

As an adult, everything that I have ever willingly done for me (so excluding things done for Kate or family and friends) falls into one of these three categories:

1. necessary & productive
2. fun & productive
3. fun

My point is this: exercise and cardio has no place on my list. I have never liked it. Jogging or cycling for an hour to get from point A to point A feels like a huge waste of time. Cardio is obviously productive from a health perspective and if you consider it fun, so be it (#2), if you think it is necessary, fine (#1)… but for me it usually doesn’t fit on the list. (The exception being watching 24 while on the elliptical machine - #2.)

I have no problem with exercise while training and competing in volleyball or soccer but take away the ball and the opponent, or the motivation to improve and win, and I am no longer interested. But now that the bike can be a primary vehicle for the entire year I find myself sitting firmly in category #1… getting to work is necessary, saving some money and getting some exercise are productive. Plus there's the efficiency of getting three birds with one stone which feels good. I like doing multiple things and having a lot of stuff on the go… I have had a good friend call this attitude a path to “mediocrity” and maybe that is somewhat true.

So I now own a decent bike and I’m also quickly becoming a bike mechanic. I also found need for a set of saddle bags and a pair of those padded cycling tights which I still can’t wear straight faced unless I have a second pair of loose shorts over top (and I sincerely hope that my attitude in this area does not change).

Let me finish with some legal jargon: the Aussies don’t mess around with bicycle safety… helmets are a necessity for everyone, as are front and rear lights, and best rule of all: you can lose your driver’s license if you are caught operating a bicycle while intoxicated (and it’s 0.05 not 0.08 here :)