Wednesday, June 25, 2008

thoughts on 'sounding American'

They say Aussies are friendly folk. They are. And they like Canadians because they feel we're ‘similar’ somehow. I have the impression that a Canadian passport makes for pleasant travel in most parts of the world lately. In contrast, Americans seldom feel welcome across an ocean these days.

To the average Aussie I ‘sound American’. On occasion, I have noticed blunt anti-Americanism directed at me by strangers. Sometimes, if I tell someone I’m Canadian I hear: “Oh thank God!” Often my accent generates a sudden unprovoked irritation at the deli or video store. Apparently, the shop keeper is serving sliced ham to a citizen of a country undeserving of courtesy; a small scale protest against the Bush administration – being rude to me. It is sad. I will gladly defend Americans. I often do. My country enjoys many benefits as a result of a strong and healthy relationship across the long border. Plus, I like most of the American people I have met. I like them a lot. Certainly, I also agree with virtually all Aussies that US foreign policy is another matter. It is morally suspect and down-right embarrassing. But bad foreign policy is nothing new – it has been around since there were borders.

I have read some history-economics-type-stuff lately. I’m making an effort to learn a bit more about how the world works. Most countries, openly or not, make every effort to gain at the expense of other ones. Moral considerations aside, 'abusive' foreign policy it is biologically pretty natural. You and I are no experts but we both understand that strong countries have benefited at the expense of weak ones throughout history. The fact that military action in this respect is not so common anymore does not mean we should forget how recently it was very common. The actual ‘killing’ of foreigners on their own soil to gain economic benefits at home is traditionally associated with 'imperialism'. Perhaps the best historical examples are British, French, and Spanish. These guys kicked ass all over the globe for centuries – committing atrocities upon atrocities – usually in the name of both God and Country. In 1914 Germany-Austria-Hungary decided to try for a bigger slice of global pie but they were ‘one player too many’ and the issue was promptly settled. The Second World War was politically and economically simpler then than the first but imperialistic intentions again resulted in the death of millions of innocent young men on both sides of the issue. As for the imperial goals of Japanese and Russian leadership – same result.

Lessons learned? The current result is the maintenance of a somewhat sadistic and fragile ‘power balance’. I suppose world leaders now realize the penalties of trying to be ‘too powerful’. Strangely, today’s American leadership appears to be oblivious to recent history. The US has spread her wings pretty wide.

Why? Because human beings are pathetically self-centered; an obvious consequence of evolution by natural selection. It is ‘natural’ to break rules and take whatever one can from others - to 'extend’ the boundaries of morality - for person or country. So who knows if a real ‘global’ peace can ever work in the long run? I hope so. There is nothing ‘natural’ about treating your neighbours with dignity and respect but thankfully many people still do it. And they do it not just because of ‘fear of the Lord’ but also to try to fulfill their role in a ‘good society’ where we all get treated with dignity. Being rude to Americans is counter-productive.

A brief history-lesson interlude: I recently read that in the first half of the twentieth century, eighty percent of the world’s oil was American oil. Middle East oil fields were yet to be discovered. During both of the ‘big wars’ British and allied troops lugged American oil all over the world (even into the Middle East). For more than a half-century most of the industrialized world was essentially powered by Texas.

Consequently, the US (and many Americans) became ridiculously wealthy from oil exports. What would you do if you were a billionaire oil-tycoon from a billionaire oil-family and you found your wells getting dry? Imagine literally having been ‘growing a money tree’ for a hundred years and then running out of ‘fertilizer’. Imagine owning billions of dollars worth of infrastructure: distribution networks, refineries, and big’ol oil boats, but not having any more ‘crude’. A long list of wealthy Americans must be in this position. These people know the ‘oil business’ – and it is a rich business. The world is, after all, addicted to petroleum. These folks can’t simply let the ‘money tree’ die if there is some way to prevent it, can they? For them, any other energy source, translates into the loss of more invested capital than you and I can even comprehend. Thus, sadly, US troops are dying in Baghdad and not elsewhere. Similarly, by the way, Aussie troops are busy in East Timor and not elsewhere. But we already know that don’t we.

America has a lot of ‘back stepping’ to do in the next few years. A difficult task, but they can manage (assuming of course that they elect a democrat :). In all honesty, I am more frightened by American ‘hard-core Christianity’ than by their invasive military-economic strategies. Creationism? Intelligent Design? WTF? And they ARE serious. There is no room for laughter or debate when it comes to firearms and Jesus in ‘many’ of the United States; an attitude that was understandable three hundred years ago when we could not ‘prove’ the things that we can prove today.

Irrational and extreme organized religion frightens me because: “… sooner or later, God will be on both sides.” A great line from a pretty good Tom Hanks movie.

I don't think that I have many prejudices, but upon some reflection I suppose my decision to post-doc here in Australia may have been somewhat ‘anti-American’. There are hundreds of good quality chemistry labs in the US. It should have been an easy post-doc option and a good career move but I applied to just one American school, and that was in Hawaii. I sent the bulk of my applications to Europe and Australia. Why? Mostly, I wanted to live ‘abroad’ and that sounds more real across an ocean. But I also preferred not to be in any way associated with American foreign policy or religious extremism. Also their immigration and VISA options were a bit silly: I was welcome to come and work in America but my wife was not. In any case, I had great options elsewhere. I wish all the best for Americans. I hope their foreign policies improve. I hope they balance the books AND give everyone free healthcare like most of the rest of us. They do live in a good country. Admittedly, some of them would benefit from toning down the: ‘Greatest country on earth!!!’ attitude. Can humility really be so forgotten in such a great place?

But the globe is much bigger than the US and the whole thing is far from a perfect sphere. What can you or I do to make a positive contribution to the greater good? Surely you can do more than be rude to Americans and I shouldn’t just ‘rant’ in some quiet-lil-on-line-corner that nobody visits. For one thing we can do our best to get off the 'C-sauce'. Huh? The C-sauce!! In a few years, Kate and I hope to be home-owners with a bit of financial breathing room and I hope try and ease off of the CARBON-energy-grid. I have the impression that even non-hippes are allowed to do that now. The tools are getting cheaper. Canada is trailing behind many other countries in the effort. Australia is even farther back (but man can they save water!). Assuming I can afford it, why would I not put some panels or a windmill on my rooftop and plug in not just my TV and furnace but also my car? You might wonder just what is available and whether the numbers can ever possibly add up. I don’t know. But I won’t knock it till I’ve tried it, or at least had a good look. I believe that ‘customer demand’ constitutes a simple solution to some of the world’s most complicated problems. Why couldn’t informed customers make demands that are partially based on the ‘greater good’? Put their money into smart purchases. That is why reading some non-fiction and watching the occasional documentary makes sense. I realize that the real world can seem pretty depressing if you're not used to it. But it is what it is. Ignorance is counter-productive too.

To continue off-topic: perhaps C-sauce-free ‘sustainability’ is not economically possible. That would be bad. I was born in a country lacking in food and fuel. My family left before I was old enough to worry. You have probably never been faced with an ‘empty’ grocery store either. You and I both love food so we should also desire a healthy economy. You might be happy to know that there are smart people working hard to make ‘sustainability’ a mathematical feasibility. Not surprisingly, some of the smartest ones are Americans.

The world has changed very quickly in recent centuries. I don’t expect the ball to stop rolling at ‘coal and nuclear generated electricity’, the ‘Ford F150’ and ‘America: World Police’. But beyond a few years, the future is hard to predict. One certainty is that you and I are just here for a short visit. Gravity and time are the only real winners so I prefer to be curious rather than worried about what happens to us next.

On that note, I’ve been meaning to buy Barack Obama’s book. They say it’s pretty good.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

State of Origin

Four professional sports leagues in Australia are referred to as: ‘footy’. The meaning of that word depends on who says it and where they live. The leagues are: Rubgy Union, Rugby League, Aussie Football League, and A-league Football. The two most popular, Rugby League, and AFL, are sports I had never seen played before coming here. I like them both. Rugby Union is the ‘international rules' rugby that we are familiar with in Canada. A-league is just soccer.

The most popular sporting event in Brisbane (and all of Queensland) is the Rugby League three-game all-star series know as ‘State of Origin’. I will do my best to describe it today - it's awesome.

The sport of 'Rugby League' is much like the rugby that we know but much faster with fewer stopages - muchos entertainment! The people of Brisbane (Queensland) and Sydney (New South Wales) are very much rivals. There is not much real hatred - they're all Aussies first - but a general 'dislike' is very much present. Their differences are settled annually by the 'Maroons’ and the ‘Blues’ in three violent and bloody games. Every player on an ‘Origin’ team plays for their 'home' state. Their current pro-team and city are irrelevant - professional friendships between athletes mean nothing.
'State of Origin' is the equivalent of a hypothetical NHL all-star game between the best of Quebec versus the best of Ontario (only players born, raised, and taught the game in each province are eligible). And unlike the gentle and friendly all-star attitude we are familiar with in Canada, Origin is very serious business. Pride is very big in Australia. Perhaps a better analogy would be an NFL all-star game between the ‘Southern States’ and the ‘Northern States’. It could be called ‘Civil-War’. Unfortunately, the racial implications of something that foolish might keep it from being as entertaining as what the Aussies have done here.

In its two-decade history, State of Origin has been very closely contested. The 'overall' score is pretty puch perpetually tied. The encounter is admittedly more important to Brisbane than it is to Sydney because NSW is bigger and 'Sydney siders' consider themselves… well… better than the Queenslanders. So one might argue that the northern state has developed an understandable inferiority complex and STATE OF ORIGIN is their ultimate equalizer.

Every year home field advantage swaps. Two games are played in the home state, one away. This year games 1 and 3 are in Sydney. Game 2 was played right here on Wednesday night. The entire state shut down and watched as Wednesday became the night of the year for Brisbane: the Maroons skunked and embarrassed the Blues 30-0 to tie the series at 1-1. One of our friends saw the show live and claimed that he has never experienced anything like it. It gave him ‘shivers’ - 52 000 people (most of them in Maroon uniforms) mostly on their feet cheering and chanting for the whole game, in a stadium that is known as ‘The Cauldron’ because of how tightly the field is cramped by the massively-vertical grand-stands. At the start of the game the Sydney team was greeted with a collective BOOO that ‘shook the earth’. And they played accordingly. Home field advantage means a lot in game like this. Even the referees have to know (consciously or not) that some of their whistles will cause 50 000 people to cheer and others will cause them all to become angry.

I am fully committed to Origin tickets next year. This game has (once again) reminded me of just how well sport can entertain and unite us. No point in denying it: we're are a strange animal you and I.
Here's what it looked like (with thanks to some talented photographers from a local newspaper - I hope they won't sue me... I don't have much to lose anyway :)

If you would like more: here's a news story. And here's another.

I have never lived in a city with even a single professional team. Now, for two years, Kate and I have more than we can handle.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Kenneth Lowe

First - about the previous post: I generally have neither time nor sympathy for poetry (quality rap music excepted of course). For instance, I do not think much of William Shakespeare. Why high school english teachers like him so much is beyond me? It seems a bit ridiculous. Plays are intended to be watched not read - we have plenty of books. Why does that change for Shakes and only Shakes? I suppose that many years ago - somebody simply realized that making me struggle to figure out what Shakes is trying to say provides a good opportunity to 'evaluate' me. I personally prefer to read about a complex issue stated as simply as possible rather than a simple story all twisted up with excess words and riddles. Always, always, content before form please. Plus, Shakes mostly kills all of the good guys!? I feel that all fiction should end happy. The evening news is tragedy enough for me. Will's comedies are somewhat entertaining and I appreciate that his word-play is quite clever (once it is explained to me) but jokes should not have to be explained. It's like watching 'Les Boys' on a bus full of French-Canadian volleyballers - I can see them all laughing but I can't join them because - like Shakes - the jokes are not in my language! So, my point is: I generally dislike poetry. That being said, when I stumbled on that Kipling number (on youtube of all places), it somehow managed to hit a real soft-spot for me. Who knew :)

Enough. The rain is falling something-awful in Brisbane right now. It began a few days ago just as my father-in-law was getting onto a plane back to Canada. But Ken had a sunny (and busy) two-week holiday with us. Fraser Island, Some-Big’ol-Inland National Park, Noosa Heads, Sydney, and naturally a thorough walk-about in good’ol Brizzy. We sent him home exhausted and minus a few pounds I think (although we did our best to feed him). He bought and brought a lil’video camera for the trip and managed to record six-full-minidisks of holiday fun.

Here are some pics: First, here is Ken braving a random Aussie plant.

And here is on sandy Fraser Island.

And here with Kate underneath the shark tank in Sydney Aquarium:

And here the happy pair is feeding parrots at a lunch stop up in the hills somewhere.

Ken is a World War II buff – with a particular interest in naval adventures. As you might imagine, Australia has some cool war boats. Here is Ken in Sydney standing on the ‘action-deck’ of retired destroyer.
After a look at both the Brisbane and Sydney maritime museums, he was most impressed by a climb down into the guts of a fairly modern diesel submarine parked in Sydney harbour. It was quite the machine – a lot of ‘stuff’ in there – but far too cramped for comfort. Here's Kate inthe engine room. The boat is powered by a huge battery which is recharged (in just 30 minutes once daily) using these massive diesel engines. It carries a crew of 68 sailors cramped into essentially one long hallway. I asked one of the 'submarine experts' if it wouldn't be more logical to build a boat with a smaller crew - say 7 - for example... thereby risking fewer lives. He gave me a few good arguments.

That's all I've got for today. We really enjoyed Mr. Lowe's visit. Kate and I were treated to some stories about his youth that really should be written down! Awesome stuff. Incidentally, when Ken landed, he told us we would not be able to make him swim in ‘shark water’ but when given the chance he jumped in as care-free as I expected. It’s different when you’re here… and you see with your own eyes that people are not being eaten.

By the way - Kate is fast becoming a very talented photographer. How about this for a g’mornin picture by the lil' cutie.