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Friday, February 27, 2009

Tasmania (Part IV)

After we got off the track, we ate a quick lunch at Lake St. Clair and then drove to Strahan in the rain. We were definitely feeling sticky and smelling nasty as we drove, so I had every incentive to make it fast, but the combination of wet roads and twisty one does not make for fast driving, so it took us until 5:30pm to get to Strahan Village resorts.

Our travel agent must think that we're rich or something, since so far, she's not put us up with anything but swanky hotels. I guess this is what happens when I let someone else do the work of planning our trip. Nevertheless, it was such a relief to get out of the rain and into a hot shower that I don't think any of us complained at all.

After dinner, we did laundry, and then went to bed for an early morning Cruise into the Gordon River. Breakfast was meat pies and then it was onto the Lady Jane Franklin II, a fast catamaran ferry with specially designed low-wake engines for use inside the National Park. Pretty slick.

The trip was a total tourist trap, along with the mini-walk in the rain forest, and lunch. I would normally not be impressed with things like this, but I'd just came off a 6 day walk with a backpack, so something that let me veg out was a good option. It was a misty morning, and we got to see the mist rise from the forests and the river, as well as enjoy the reflections on the river. It was all very controlled, like a Disneyland ride, which I guess was what they were going for. We did get a guided tour of Sarah Island, which was a shipyard building 132 boats by convicts. The last boat got stolen by the convicts themselves. That part of the tour was worth it.

After we returned, we went to the post office to pick up a COD package from our previous hotel, where Lisa had left a shirt. Then we went to Ocean beach to scout and noticed that Mutton birds show up at Dusk, and made plans to return the next day, since we'd already made plans to night to eat at the 42-degree view restaurant. We returned to town just in time to catch the 2 person play, "The Ship that Never Was." Since there were about 15 people involved in the story, the play drafts members of the audience to play bit parts, with an elaborate stage that can be rigged up like a stage. I enjoyed it but Lisa thought the Australian accent too thick to penetrate.

The 42 degree view restaurant turned out to be an expensive buffet dinner. It was a nice buffet, with Oysters and everything, but the food felt very familiar. Then we realized that we'd seen it before --- on the Lady Jane Franklin. The same family owned all these operations and re-used their food preparations everywhere. We resolved not to eat at the same family-run place again.

We signed up for the Wilderness Railway just before the Overland Track, on the recommendation of some other tourists we met. Having a completely different weather gave the trip a completely different view, and it is a great complement to the Gordon River Cruise. Where that was about pristine Wilderness, this is all about the destructiveness of man's mining activities. The railway goes along the King River, which is a completely dead river, because the Lyell Mining company dumped all its tailings into the Queen River, which flowed into it. As a result, 10 years ago, the river had the consistency of wet concrete, and even now it still had no life at all in it. I'm guessing the government had no budget to clean up the river, but at least the mine is no longer dumping its tailings into the river!

The railway ride was almost all day, so we extended our stay in Strahan by one night and had dinner at Risby Cove, an excellent restaurant recommended by the Rough Guide. After that, we immediately headed over to Ocean beach to catch the sunset, and wait for the Mutton birds, who only came back around 9:00pm. Those are hard working birds that look a lot like the birds you draw as a kid --- two long wings and a torpedo body. I didn't get any pictures since it really was too dark and they moved very fast.

After that, it was one more round of laundry, and then packing for the next day.

The drive to Hobart was 4.5 hours long, made longer because of the bane of a driver's existence --- the huge camper van being towed by an underpowered truck that refuses to pull over despite having 10 cars behind it. By the time we got to Hobart, the trip had taken 5.5 hours and I was quite tired, but still had to run downtown to see if I could find an eyeglass shop to repair my titanium glasses, which had broken at the bridge. I learned that titanium has to be welded in an oxygen free environment, and only a shop in Melbourne could do it!

By this time, I had gotten repeated notification from my employer that I had to fill out my tax forms or else, so I spent the rest of my night in Hobart (after an un-satisfying dinner) filling out tax forms. It turns out that having someone else do my taxes is just like doing them myself on TurboTax. If not for the foreign stuff, I never would have had to worry about it whatsoever. I wish I had more time to explore Hobart, but I'm not a city person anyway, and there seemed to be massive alcohol driven parties at all the pubs on Friday night.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: The Talisman

The Talisman (kindle edition) is a cross-world fantasy by Stephen King and Peter Straub. Cross-world fantasies are a genre in which a protagonist discovers the ability to travel between alternate versions of the Earth, usually ones in which the alternate Earths have special attributes, such as a place where magic works.

What King and Straub brings to this genre is the use of a child as the protagonist. This does several things --- first, the child is unlikely to use the scientific method to tell the difference between the two worlds, and analyze things like magic. Secondly, we care a lot about a child's emotional reactions, especially to tropes such as the Big Bad Wolf.

Nevertheless, this approach hides a lot of weaknesses --- the worlds are simplistic in how they map between each other, and one never gets a sense as to what's at stake in the quest and why it is important to the other side. Some parts of the narrative also seems to drag, especially when Jack gets captured by an evangelical foster boy's home. The horror is evident (King and Straub succeed in making us realize that our world is much more horrifying without the help of magic than any fantasy world can be), but the fact that they used a child means that he can't take a very active role in getting himself out of many bad situations.

All in all, while the novel was not a complete waste of time, I find it difficult to bring myself to recommend it, or to even find interest in reading the sequel.

Review: Daemon

Folks at work were raving about Daemon (kindle edition) when it came out as a self-published novel. Well, a real publisher has picked it up, and turned it into a "real" book now, so I picked it up and read it.

As a thriller, this book has all the hall-marks of a Tom Clancy novel. The characters are wooden, with the ideas being the important part of the book. The plot is fairly straight-forward. A rich tech millionaire dies, and left a distributed-web program living on, executing his vision of the world through the internet. The Daemon goes on a killing spree, and then starts hiring people and using people as part of its distributed network.

The novel is fast-paced and never drags, and as a core idea proposes that with everything being networked nowadays, sooner or later a computer program will come and run mankind, including human institutions such as corporations or even the government. Bits of philosophy are interspersed throughout the book, including the role of corporations, and who really runs the world right now, but it's nothing very deep --- it is a techno-thriller, not a philosophy book --- if you want better philosophy read Richard Morgan. There's a half-hearted attempt at romance, but fortunately the author maintains control of himself and doesn't expect it to carry the book. (The characters are such stereo-types anyway, that you wouldn't care about them --- a good thing, since characters get killed with alarming frequency)

The book does get into all the techno-details that a geek would expect to care about, such as gait-recognition, neuro-testing of candidates (rather than interviewing them), and of course, MMORPGs. If you're a fan of any of these (or consider yourself a geek), just buy this book already --- you'll like it.

My one complaint about this book is that it obviously leaves plot ends open so that a sequel can happen. Given that the book was well-written and I enjoyed it, that's not such a bad thing, but I'll be very annoyed if he does this on every book --- I do want things tied up.

Highly recommended for an accurate portrayal of today's technology (at least from my perspective) and how automation can work, and an interesting plot. Go elsewhere if you want well-developed characters, or a completed plot in one book, but I'm afraid I'm hooked --- Suarez will have me buying his next book.

The Overland Track (Tasmania Part 3)

After a hefty breakfast, we were shuttled over to the Ronny Creek trailhead by the shuttle services at 10:00am. At the walker's registration, I noticed that another group had already left for the Overland. We started in beautiful sunshine and lifting fog. Walking along the level path that was the boardwalk at the start of the track gave me a fit of optimism that this would be a relatively easy walk, even with the heaviest pack I've ever had in my life.

All that evaporated an hour later, when I was faced with a steep trail. Sweating and breathing heavily, we got to the top only to discover after a short flat section another trail going up, this time with cables to assist what looked like an almost vertical ascent, much like what one sees at the top of half-dome. Doing so with a heavy pack felt like suicide, and when I got to the top I had to drop my back and immediately go back to help Lisa up. Even then, there was still a little bit of extra climbing before getting to Marion's lookout and the end of the steep section, where we met Sarah and A.

We took a deep breath and looked around --- all around were mountains (not high mountains --- there's nothing taller than 1663m in Tasmania), and Dove Lake far below showed us that we'd climbed a thousand feet or so. With that feeling we headed to the true high point and then made for Kitchen hut, a good spot for lunch but had no drinking water. There we ran into Sarah and A. again, but they were heading for Cradle Mountain's summit and Lisa & I were feeling low on water, so opted to move on. I was to later discover that Sarah and A. had a ton of water and would have been happy to donate some to us.

We met Vladimir, a Russian living in Queensland who was hiking the track as well. He had just done Cradle Mountain summit, and walked along with us exchanging stories. We were then passed by a bunch of fast walking hikers --- these were the folks who paid $2500 a person in exchange for guides to carry and cook their food, mountain huts with hot showers, and no need to carry anything but clothing in their packs. We felt envious of their speed and obviously lighter packs, but felt a little less envious when we saw that they looked a little herded together.
By and by, we reached the first hut we would stay at, Waterfall Valley hut. The group camp site was up in the trees, and Lisa and I pitched our tent on one of the tent platforms. The drinking water was down by a secondary hut, so we chose to cook there. This was the first time I'd ever used my Trangia stove indoors and I was impressed --- I had never seen it boil water so fast! At this rate, I was definitely carrying way too much fuel! Then more trackers came in, having all taken the Tassie Link shuttle from Launceston, which got them into Cradle Mountain around noon. Despite all that, most of them had done the Cradle Mountain summit.

We exchanged equipment tips, and stories. These were people whom we would share the track with for the next few days, and it was worth getting to know them: Monique & Yuri, a Dutch couple now living in Perth, Dana and Satoshi Kato, a Japanese couple from Tokyo, Annabel, Jen, and Tara, from Perth as well, John and Connor Fitzgerald, a father and son pair of musicians, who were commemorating John's impending retirement.

The next day we started the trek with overcast skies and low fog. We spent the time to the Lake Will turnoff chatting with Jacob, an American from Arizona. The walking was relatively easy and we opted to visit Lake Will for lunch. Lake Will was pretty but by the time we got there we felt little rain drops, and so ate a fast lunch at the beach and then headed back to the intersection to find that most folks had decided not to do the side-trek, instead opting for an easy rest day or combining two days together to make a 25km day to save time on the track.

Windermere Valley hut was situated nicely enough, at the bottom of a valley. By the time we got there, the sun was out and it was warm. The location wasn't particularly inspiring, but Lisa preferred the tent to the hut so we camped out. At this point we learned that Sarah's backpack had been broken into. At dinner, we met a Frenchman who was doing the track in 4 days.

We woke up in the middle of the night to hear a wombat scratching at our tent trying to get into our food! Turning on Lisa's headlight made him go away, but the next morning we found that he had bitten through one of the tents, creating in it a hole the size of my fist! That taught us that no matter what the rangers told us, we should keep backpacks and food in the huts, not in the tents!

This was to be our longest day. The hiking wasn't particularly hard, walking through plains with a few ups and downs, but the scenery was spectacular, since when there aren't any trees, the mountains really do come out and show themselves. There was also not a cloud in the sky.

The 16.75km took its toll, however, and by the time we got to Frog Creek Camp, we were quite worn out. By the time we got to New Perlion hut, we were quite done for the day. Someone mentioned that there was a swimming hole at the old hut 25 minutes away, but an extra hour round trip did not seem worth the effort, so we just pitched our tent, had dinner, shot a few sunset pictures, and then went to bed.

As far as huts go, the New Perlion hut is unique in that the hut proper has much better scenery than the tent platforms, so if you visit it, stay in the hut instead of camping. By the time we figured that out we had already pitched our tent, and were too tired to take it down right away, but we really should have, as that night was the coldest of the entire trip!

We woke up the next to find the tent completely wet from condensation because it was so cold. At least the walk to Kia Ora hut wouldn't be challenging today, we speculated. Satoshi and Dana were planning to skip right over it and go on directly to Windy Ridge, but I harbored hopes that we'd do Mt. Ossa.

Well, by the time we got to the intersection with Mt. Ossa, Lisa was having her monthly cramps, so that shot that idea to hell. However, we did make it to the saddle to see the summit proper tower above us. Well, after that intersection, there was still quite a bit of up and down, and we arrived at Kia Ora properly tired. The tent platforms there were quite good, and after pitching the tent I tried going for a swim, but fell and hit my tailbone and sprained my right pinky instead. When John and Connor showed me the proper swimming hole which had no such risks I was quite embarrassed. The water was extremely cold, however, and none of us could stay in for long.

That night, I told everyone that Lisa's birthday was tomorrow. Everyone gave her good wishes, as we retired to an extremely windy night, with the wind howling and flapping the tent flies all night. This did have the benefit of granting us a completely dry tent in the morning!

It being Lisa's birthday, we sang Happy Birthday to her in the morning before setting off. We did discover that we had miscalculated the amount of toilet paper to bring, and thus Lisa's first birthday present this year was a spare roll of toilet paper from Tara!

The walk itself was uneventful --- we did a side trip to see two waterfalls, and then got to Windy Ridge hut after rainforests and various bushes. Since we had to walk out early the next day to the ferry on a schedule, we decided not to camp but to stay in the hut for the night instead. What a lucky decision that turned out to be!

At dinner, Tara, Jenn, Monique told me that the Cradle Mountain Huts guide had said that he would try to bake a chocolate cake for our birthday girls (Lisa's birthday was the 23rd, and Annabel's was the 24th). Lo and behold, right at dinner time a chocolate cake was delivered, and Happy Birthday was sung once again! Pete, a Canadian was making custard at the same time and we had a perfect blend.

After the cake was had and everyone settled down, John announced that he would sing a song for our birthday girls --- to my surprise he performed a song I knew, "The Rambling Rover", which I have a copy of, as performed by Silly Wizards on their Live Album. Not to be outdone, Connor gave a percussion performance with clicks, snaps, and fist.

By this time, the weather had truly taken a turn for the worse --- we saw sheets of rain, then lightning (followed by thunder), and then hail! Staying in the hut never felt like such a correct decision. Folks started moving bivy sacks, sleeping bags and entire tents into the hut to escape the rain.

The rain did not let up all through the night and the hut was cold as ice the next morning. By the time we left we had used up all our food, given away the rest of our chocolate, and gritted our teeth for a miserable walk. It turned out that the rain had softened quite a bit, but what trail was definitely wet and muddy. We pushed through, trusting our boots to protect us. Well, the insides of our boots got damp anyway --- I don't know why that would be. Lisa's made out of Gore-Tex, and mine is leather with a fresh layer of wax. It could be that my waxing job is bad, but hers shouldn't need waxing. Perhaps when the fabric is saturated it doesn't breath out any more and we get damp feet from our feet no longer breathing? A cursory Google search turned up nothing, but if you know something about this please post here. I mainly want to know whether the waxing job I did was inadequate, or whether even with a perfect waxing job damp feet is to be expected.

In any case, the walk out was boring, through rainforests and not much scenery --- shadows of the surrounding mountains through the clouds were as much as we got, in between long periods of staring at the trail so as to not step on a slippery rock or wet tree roots. We did stop to get out the camera from the dry bag at the suspension bridge, but the rest of the time just put our heads down and tried to make good time.

Getting to Narcissus hut and using the radio to confirm our ferry booking, I felt my load lighten up despite the rain. At 12:45pm, we walked to the ferry jetty, loaded onto the Ferry, and headed across Lake St. Clair in the light misty rain, ending our Tasmanian wilderness adventure. It's been incredibly pretty for the first 4 days --- the last 2 were a little boring but as my first self-contained really long walk, I can't think of a gentler introduction.

Tasmania (Part II)

On the 18th of the morning, I woke up at Dawn, put everything that wasn't needed for the track in the car, and started the drive. It's never stress-free starting a drive to a deadline, but the combination of early hour, foreign country, and the wrong side of the road made this drive something altogether. I started in the fog, but soon, the sun came out and gave me gorgeous views of the area. I couldn't stop and take pictures, since I didn't know how much time it would really take for me to do the drive. However, it was indeed a gorgeous sunrise, and I did gawk a little as I drove through all the National Parks I had to drive through in order to get to Lake St. Clair through the gorgeous morning.

Arriving at Lake St. Clair, I checked with the ranger as to where to park the car, and then found the Tasmanian Tour company van parked just as I left the visitor center. I chatted with the driver and he gave me the impression that he expected a heck of a lot more than 1 passenger! Nevertheless, we were all good for the ride. We drove East instead of West, and started down a series of dirt roads at incredibly high speeds. I did get to see the Great Lake, and several other sights, but the rough roads (the driver proudly told me that the van's suspension had never been replaced) made for a really bumpy ride.

At this point the driver received a phone call on his mobile. He answered it (yes, while driving on dirt roads at high speed), and then said to me, "I guess you're getting the scenic tour today --- we're going to Launceston to pick up others!" It turned out that the tour company had agreed to ferry two other walkers from the Penny Royal in Launceston to Cradle Mountain that day, but had screwed up and forgotten to pick them up!

This turned my transfer from a 3 hour transfer to a 5 hour one, and by the time we stopped at Cradle Mountain Transit Center it was 2:15pm. The two walkers we picked up were quite antsy, especially when it started raining as we entered the park. I walked over to the park center with them, and had no trouble at all picking up my Overland track pass, despite it being before 3pm, and not having any paperwork for me. I then went back to the lodge, had a quick lunch, and then Lisa and I took the shuttle over to Dove Lake for a look around. Dove lake was beautiful in the misty rain, but then we wanted to go to the feeding session for the Tasmanian Devil center, and so took the shuttle back after only about 20 minutes or so.

The Tasmanian Devil center's tour was really a movie, followed by a question and answer session about Devil Facial Tumour Disease, which is a cancer that can spread by contact. This has several implications and apparently the entire population is really vulnerable to it, thereby causing possible extinction for the entire species in 20 years' time! What's fascinating about it is that the vulnerability is caused by an insufficient amount of genetic diversity amongst the Devil population (All Devils can be traced to about 10000 or so animals due to some prior population crash), and some researchers speculate that humans may be vulnerable to a similar sort of disease given that we have about as much genetic diversity as the Tasmanian devils. (There's a great SF story in there somewhere)

We got to pet Tasmanian devils, and then walked back to the hotel in the rain for dinner before going to a real bed for the last time in a while, hoping for good weather.

Tasmania (Part 1)

We arrived at the Melbourne airport to discover that not only was the flight to Launceston not run by Qantas, but also we were for some reason not in the computer system! Fortunately, all that was straightened out but we barely got to the gates on time. After all the smooth flights so far this was quite a shock.

Arriving at Launceston airport, we found ourselves in an airport so un-automated that baggage carousels didn't exist! Tasmania was also very strict about enforcing quarantine, and they used dogs to sniffed our carry-on baggage as well as our lugguage for non-native plants and fruits. The process was long enough that I had time to check out the rental car and still come back and watch the baggage carousels unload.

Then we headed downtown to buy everything we couldn't buy before --- fuel for the stove, lighters, matches, and regular food for 3 nights of car camping. We found an organic foodstore that had vegetarian indian pouches for food, and the super-market had Horlicks instead of just Milo. That's quite a treat for us, so we bought it despite the price. We loaded up with water, and then headed over to Cataract Gorges, which was both a swimming area and a hike.

While Lisa took a nap, I swam around the pool and then checked out the gorge's swimming hole. It was the oddest swimming experience I ever had --- the top layer of water was warm, but if you swam around you swirled water up from the bottom and got quite chilled!

We then took a quick walk and then I looked at the map as to where to spend the night. The visitor center had suggested Longford, but I saw pictures of Freycinet National Park 2.5 hours away, and was captivated and wanted to drive there right away! It was a long drive, but quite worth it as the scenery along the way was gorgeous. When we got to the Park the visitor center was closed but they had kindly listed the open camp-sites. We visited the first one that was free (site 19) and couldn't believe our eyes! The site is a raised platform that had fences on four sides, no benches or table, but the beach was literally 10 foot steps away! Not only that, the beach was next to empty!

We just couldn't believe how luck we were, until we had to drive the stakes into the ground --- Freycinet is only recommended for free standing tents, and we didn't bring one this time! Nevertheless, we got dinner, sunset pictures, and then discovered that the showers were cold! Ouch ouch. That night a possum visited our site, attracted by our garbage --- it must have een quite used to people, since it did not scare at all, and after we took away the garbage bag, it climbed a tree.

The next morning, we made a quick breakfast, and then were approached by a ranger who gave us a friendly notice to pay up! He noticed me struggling with the stakes, got a pair of pliers, and helped me with them. What a nice guy. We took a walk on the beach and then we to pay up our visitor park passes as well as the camping ($13 a night!). Then we were off to hike Wine Glass Lookout (pretty, and not at all strenuous) and the Cape Tourville Lighthouse (gorgeous!).

One of our Easton aluminum stakes had a separated cap as a result of our struggling with stake removal, and the ranger had suggested that we go to Bischofen for contact cement. We drove there and found that as promised, the general store (named The Log Cabin) was indeed opened, and sold us super-glue, some guylines, and a couple more stakes for car camping. I'd spied a scenic drive marker earlier, so we went back and drove that. There's an incredible blow-hole right in Bischofen, where the waves pushing through below some beach rocks, would pressurize and blow water up through some holes. Touristy but in a nice way.

More scenic driving until about 4:30pm, when we arrived at St. Helens and determined to find a campground with hot showers this time. We ended up at the Tourist Caravan Park just out of St. Helens, and had a grand time talking to our neighbors in the park, who were eager to give us suggestions as to where to go and so forth.

That night, I discovered that my CPAP machine was no longer getting power from the battery. A look at the cigarette lighter mechanism showed that it had broken. Well, I could take it apart but that would take daylight, so I went to sleep without it instead.

The next morning started off gloomy. We ate a quick breakfast, took down the tent, and were sent to a local auto-parts store to find a replacement fuse for the cigarette lighter adapter --- when I took it apart, I found a broken fuse. Replacing the fuse did the trick, and I bought several more fuses to tide me over in case of another failure.

We then drove out to the Bay of Fires and the Garden, which was a pretty collection of rocks similar to what one might see in Point Reyes, but in a desolate and windy environment with very few tourists. Wild and desolate country indeed! That detour took a couple of hours so we had lunch back in St. Helens on the way out. We then started to drive West towards Cradle Mountain. Lisa wanted to see a Lavendar farm/garden that was on the map, so we drove there, stopping only for a short walk through a rainforest that was an educational exhibit on the road. Arriving at the Lavendar farm, we smelled lavendar oil in the air and went to see the distillery.

After that we had a decision to make --- camp out on the North coast? Or head down to Longford where we had a campsite recommended to us on our first day in Tasmania? Looking at the map, I wanted to avoid more driving, so we drove down to Longford to find that the commercial campground was pretty and very well laid out. Well worth the $20/night.

The next morning, I started by arranging transportion from Lake St. Clair back to Cradle Mountain for when I shuttled the car to the southern end of the Overland track. Transportation being what it was in Tasmania, it took me a few calls to find someone who would do it --- it turned out that the Tasmania Tour Company was happy to do so.

The drive to Cradle Mountain Lodge was interesting, taking us past King Solomon's Caves, where we arrived just in time to get a National Park Service tour. This was much different from the Jenolan Caves --- this tour was much more about ecology and damage, as well as living creatures in the caves than it was about the formations. Quite worth the money, however, and the views were very good.

Arriving at Cradle Mountain around 1:00pm, we ate lunch at one of the hotels, then visited the park information office to confirm everything. I was then told that I had to book the ferry for our return if we were planning to use the ferry. Discovering that my cell phone didn't work, I had to wait until we got to our hotel room at the Cradle Mountain Lodge to make that arrangement.

By the time all was said and done, it was time to take the Enchanted Walk scheduled at the lodge to see and hear about the interesting animals living in the park: the Wombat, the Platypus, and of course, the Tasmanian Devil. I also found out that it would take a 3 hour drive to get to Lake St. Clair, which meant that I had to get up at 6:00am the next day to make the 10:00am shuttle that I had arranged!

The evening was spent packing, arranging what had to be brought with us on the overland track, what would be left in the car, and checking that we had everything we needed for a 6 day, 5 night walk --- the longest self-contained backpacking trip I had arranged in my life.



We picked up our rental car and found ourselves driving on the freeway towards the city. There was a toll-way, but after our last experience paying for it, I opted instead for the surface streets. Australian drivers are generally terrible. They swerve all over the place, drive too fast, and seem generally unable to follow a painted line. But Melbourne takes the cake for driving insanity. There are 12 intersections where you cannot turn right from the right-most lane (they drive on the left side of the road, so you already have a cognitive disadvantage). Instead, what you're supposed to do is to make a right turn from the left-side curb, executing in a car what cyclists call a box-turn: you drive to the corner of the street where you wish to make a right turn, stop the car (annoying anyone behind you), and then when the light changes, you can then execute your right turn after the intersection clears but before the rest of the cars move. I have no idea how accidents don't happen, but this is easily the biggest insanity I've seen as yet.

We arrived at our hotel at 6:00pm, and then headed out for lunch. By sheer luck, I walked into what was the best Singaporean restaurant of the trip so far, a place called Singapore Chom Chom. One of my favorite noodle dishes in Singapore was this dish called Mee Pok (sic). It's basically a noodle dish with fishballs, fishcake slices, minced pork (yes, that's probably how the name came about), and flat twisted egg noodles, with a spicy vinegar sauce that when done right, gives it the distinctive taste. It's served unmixed so you can mix it all. Well, Singapore Chom Chom is the only place outside Singapore I've found that served Mee Pok, and what a treat that was! Lisa also tried Rojak for the first time.

We then walked around the city some more, and I shot some night scenes and we went to bed.

The next morning was shopping day, as this was our last chance to pick up more camping gear in a big city before having to pay island prices. We bought cheap sleeping pads, mosquito veils, insect repellent + sunscreen, freeze-dried food (none of my favorite Mountain House was available, mugs, cutlery, and lexan bowls, so we had to settle for a New Zealand brand and pray that it tastes good), a hat for me, and enough ramen to tide us over for some time.

By lunch time, we were quite hungry and found yet another Singaporean restaurant, this one not as good as Singapore Chom-Chom, but we did end up meeting some Singaporeans who were living in Melbourne who could give us tips on where to go. They suggested St. Kilda Beach, the Victorian Market, the Eureka SkyEdge building for views of the city, and the botanical gardens. We went back to dump all our gear and then proceeded to take the train ride around the city. By the time we got to the Victorian Market, however, it was closed. We ate once again at Singapore Chom Chom (the Mee Pok was just as good the second time) for dinner, and then visited the SkyEdge building, which is easily the tallest building in Melbourne.

The night view was very pretty, but the place was totally a tourist trap. It was a nice enough place to watch the sunset, but the glass had just enough dirt and dust on it that pictures came out horrible. You'll just have to pay up. The gimmick here is the Edge experience, which is a glass cube that extrudes from the building with variable frosting so you can see all 88 stories below you as well as the sides and top. I think it's highly over-rated, but we're tourists, so what can we do.

By the time we were done it was 10:00pm, so off to bed it was with us.

The next day, we rented bicycles and rode to the Botanical gardens and even rode through it quite a bit before being told that bicycling was verboten there. Oops. Well, that took care of that. We then toured the veterans memorial, rode along the Yana river until it went out of town, and then came back just in time to catch a new performance at the computerized bells exhibit. This time for a change they got human performers, who would stand on elastic steel stilts and use their body weights to swing from bell to bell and ring the bells to music. There were 3 of them and we got to watch a rehearsal and a performance for the cameras.

Lisa wanted to try out a cantonese restaurant for lunch, so we did, and after that we went back to the hotel to pick up the car and drive it to St. Kilda Beach, where Lisa got a foot massage and I visited an internet parlour that was too slow for use but nevertheless had every booth filled with people performing job searches.

With that, we returned to the hotel where I paid the toll for tomorrow's trip to the airport, having finally figured out that you could pay the toll in advance! Then we went out to get some more food at the Old-Town Singapore Kopitiam (not recommended) which the Singaporeans suggested but I found not so good. We ended up back at Singapore Chom Chom for a third visit when Lisa wanted some coconut rice and I pointed out that for $3 more we could get a whole plate of Nasi Lemak at Singapore Chom Chom.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Review: JAG in Space novels

Another eminently readable John G. Hemry science fiction series, this one is composed of four novels so far: A Just Determination, Burden of Proof, Rule of Evidence, and Against All Enemies. All four novels revolve around the naval career of Paul Sinclair, who starts the series as an Ensign in the United States Space Navy. All of them introduce an interesting legal situation, resulting in a court martial that then gets tied up at the end of each novel, thereby ensuring that each novel is readable independently and without reading the others. There are recurring characters, however, so you will learn the characters better if you read them in order.

What I enjoy about these novels is the use of Hemry's experience. The depiction of life aboard a naval warship is as realistic as one would want, including the requisite dressing down by the skipper or senior officers. There's also references to age old naval traditions Hemry speculates will probably never be abandoned (and probably rightly so). Yet none of it is confusing --- even the ticing of hammocks is explained, though not in a fashion that's annoyingly pedantic (Hemry has clearly mastered what Jo Walton calls "in-cluing", providing information in-line with the character's experience without extensive explanation).

A Just Determination examines the role of the Captain and his orders on the ship. Paul Sinclair, as the ship's collateral legal officer finds himself testifying in a court martial when a routine patrol results in an international incident. The procedures of a court martial are provided and followed to the letter, and the legal procedure both interesting and educational. We also get insight to a certain style of leadership --- one where junior officers are provided guidance without explicit direction. It's the kind of leadership that works when recruits are of extremely high caliber and can respond to little clues, but falls apart when hiring standards drop. What's interesting to me is that the navy Hemry portrays has commanders and senior officers capable of discerning what type of officer Sinclair is and adjust their leadership style correspondingly. My experience in military organizations (and civilian organizations as well) is that such senior officers are rare.

Burden of Proof revolves around a ship-board accident and a certain kind of officer that one frequently encounters --- the man who can do no wrong from his superior officers' point of view. When a fire occurs on a naval ship, an initial investigation finds Paul Sinclair at fault. He leads an investigation which leads to the court martial of what turned out to be something more sinister. What's interesting about this plot is that Sinclair has a personal stake and while he rises to the occasion, he is not at all rewarded for his performance. Again, this is extremely realistic --- we are reminded that the navy is a large organization which does not always results in justice being done.

Rules of Evidence gets even more personal --- Sinclair's girlfriend is accused of sabotaging a navy ship, causing the death of hundreds in a massive explosion. This is where the series starts to sag, as while the investigation is interesting and logical (Hemry provides all the correct clues in the right places), one has a hard time understanding how the court martial process could be so screwed up that major pieces of evidence could be left out. Then again, knowing about government procurement procedues perhaps this is not too surprising. Nonetheless, with the format not being fresh any more, this rates as a less interesting read than the first two.

Against All Enemies shows a clearly different approach. Rather than leading the investigation, Sinclair is roped into an investigation by internal intelligence officers, and then involved in the court martial only peripherally. His role being only to be manipulated into doing the right thing. This is the weakest of the novels, though it does introduce the complication of having civilian lawyers in a court martial (a rare occurance).

Rather than being a who-done-it in classic fashion, these novels explicate navy life, leadership lessons, and how there's the wrong way, the right way, and the navy way. Eminently readable and short, these are perhaps as perfect as it gets for airplane novels or for surface intervals between dives. Recommended as such. And the price at $30 for 7 novels is not bad at all, in DRM-free form.


Pardo's friend Guy Carpenter greeted us onboard the Spirit of Freedom right at 7:15am, having told us via e-mail that if we tried to take the taxi to his home where he'd offered to put us up for a couple of nights, the taxi driver would just laugh in glee. Tall and with the look of a well-adapted Australian, Guy had lived in the Cairns area for the last 15 years or so.

Lisa had mentioned wanting to get a photo with Koalas, so Guy offered to take us to what he felt to be the best of the Wildlife habitats in the area. It turned out that Guy contracted at the Geographical Information Service department of the government two days a week, as well as supporting the local conservation efforts as a volunteer, which made him eminently qualified to make good decisions about such things. We then made a long drive to the place, making stops every so often to get pictures of the area. He mentioned that that past Port Douglas, there were the Daintrees, which had voted to stay off the grid. If the weather had been less warm and humid we would have considered going out there, but it was hot and humid and Guy lived up in the Tablelands/highlands area, which would make everything really more comfortable, so we decided that we would make our way back to his place eventually.

The Wildlife habitat was great --- they somehow managed to get a lot of wildlife in a small place without it seeming unnatural. We arrived early enough to follow the morning feeding cart, and so we got to see birds arrive and snatch fish off the feeding cart, as well as get various species of birds pointed out to us, either by Guy or by the feeding agent.

After that, we went to Port Douglas for lunch, where we found a cheap sushi place that also served an amazingly authentic Char Siew Bao. Then on the way back, we stopped by the Barron Falls --- with the monsoon rains we could see the incredible amount of silt built into the river --- an outpouring of brown water slammed down 500 feet from the top of the fall, creating a massive spray and a breeze that blew secondary streams into the air before they even met the river.

After that sight, we got to see the train station over at Karuda, unchanged for 100 years, with train passing at most once very 3 hours or so. We were then brought to the Carpenter home, with introduction to Francesca, their lovely daughter Jasmine (an impressive 10th grader at Atherton high school). They fed us an amazing dinner with vegetarian pumpkin soup, fresh homemade bread, and we talked for the rest of the evening about friends and matters in Australia and throughout the world.

The next morning started with a visit to the Curtain Fig, an enormous fig tree that had strangled its host, which then fell upon another tree during a windstorm, forming a curtain of roots from up high that was amazing. We then walked around Meecham lake, reminding me why I didn't plan any camping or hiking in the rainforest --- the verdant lush growth made me itch just walking around on an improved trail around it.

Lunch was at an old veteran's convalescent home. We then took the waterfalls route, stopping at no less than three waterfalls, which were clearly at the height of the wet season --- it was hard to believe that in June, these powerful cascades would diminish to a trickle. We then dropped by the local chocolate and cheese factory, buying some chocolate for the family, and getting a video of the cheese-making process, then a quick visit to the Chinese temple that was closed. It turned out that some of the early settlers in this part of Australia were Chinese, and unlike Chinese in other parts of the world, they were so respected that they were never subject to any of the concentration camps that occured during world war 2.

Guy knew the person who ran the bat hospital, so after a quick call we received permission to visit. The facility, which had taken over Jenny's home and her life had both mega (fruit eating) and micro (insect eating) bats, and took in bats that were injured in barbed wire, carelessly put together fruit nets, or in recent years, orphans whose parents were infected by a virus carried by local ticks. We were given a quick tour of the facilities, including the recovery areas as well as shown the baby Albino bats that were brought in from Cairns that looked just amazing.

We then returned to the Carpenter home for a soak in the pool, just the thing for the tropical heat, and another great meal and more conversation. It's always great to have hospitable hosts watch out for you and show you around, and this would definitely be a highlight of our trip!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kindle 2 Launch

As a Kindle advocate, I want the Kindle to succeed, but Kindle 2 shows the pernicious effect of Apple on the design of products in the industry. Kindle 2 is all about slimness. Thin is in, but that meant that they sacrificed an SD card slot and a replaceable battery, both practical features that I've used on my Kindle. As a result, I'm going to pass on this upgrade and wait for Kindle 3 or all my Kindle 1 batteries to die. What a disappointment for those of us who want our devices to work, as opposed to those who want to be fashionable. Reading isn't fashionable, no matter how you cut it, and Amazon will never sell those for whom fashion is the most important attribute in a device anyway.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Review: Stark's War, Stark's Command, and Stark's Crusade

For those who don't know, John G. Hemry is the same person who wrote all of the Lost Fleet series as Jack Campbell. This series, rather than being about space ships and relativity, is about war on the moon. At least, that's the military shtick. Hemry works through all the implications of fighting in 1/6th gravity, including what you have to do to muzzle velocities in order to keep your bullets from achieving orbits.

But that's not really what the series is about --- it's about empire and ossification, and what tends to happen in large organizations that stay successful for too long, and end up with promotion systems that encourage cronyism and sucking up rather than true merit.

The story revolves around Ethan Stark, who begins the series as a squad seageant in the U.S. military of the far future, where the USA remains the only military super-power on the planet. Unfortunately, as citizens kept voting down taxes, the military ends up getting funded through corporate sponsorships and reality-TV-type broadcasts of military operations. The implications of all this is dire --- esentially big business dictate where wars are fought, and the infantry is micro-managed in a way only control freaks could dream of.

Yes, this is non-right-wing military fantasy, which is great. Stark ends up by a twist of events and by his own initiative, in charge of the lunar operations and the series then turns into a series of leadership lessons, from putting the right person in charge of the right job, to being able to trust and not micro-manage a battle. Very good, if cliched plots that are yet handled with a ring of authenticity which only a former military man can manage.

While all this is going on, Hemry manages to provide some insights into historical battles, as well as drawing an analogy between the US and Athens. The character of Stark is extremely likeable, and perhaps draws heavily on the ass-kicking seageant often seen in military fiction, movies as well as books.

In an age of 1000 page novels, Hemry manages to deliver a satisfying story in 3 200 page books. You can buy them one at a time: Stark's War, Stark's Command and Stark's Crusade in paper form, or pay $30 and by all 7 pre-Lost-Fleet books in non-DRM form. Since I'm halfway through my $30 stack, I have to say I'm definitely getting my money's worth --- not heavy fiction, but great vacation reading.


We arrived on Wednesday and didn't even get into our transport shuttle before a deluge of tropical monsoon came down on us. Fortunately, the rain was warm, typical of tropical monsoons, but with word of three cyclones in formation in the area, the prospects did not look good for good diving. We gave Spirit of Freedom a call and they confirmed that we'd be picked up the next morning.

Cairns turned out to be extremely oriented towards Japanese tourists. Lots of stores had Japanese speakers and Japanese signs, and we counted no less than 3 Japanese restaurant, including a Japanese noodle place that was extremely authentic. We then explored the town, which seemed pretty dead in the monsoon.

The next morning we were picked up at 7:25 sharp by the van from the Spirit of Freedom, and were taken to a local small plane airport to get weighed and flown to Lizard island. The flight was a nice low one, at 2000', granting us what would have been a nice view of the area. However, we did see a few squalls and I worried very much about the weather on the upcoming dives.

Landing on Lizard Island, we found that our boat was on the other side of the Island from the landing strip because of the prevailing conditions. We were taken to the Spirit of Freedom by 2 tenders, and the luggage moved separately. Once everyone was on board we were given an orientation, checked out on rental equipment, and provided with snacks. The boat schedule was organized around eating and diving. You'd wake up, eat, dive, eat, dive, and repeat up to 5 times a day.

We started with 2 dives for our first days, and I could definitely see the effect of having three cyclones in the area. The water was murky, with lots of particulate matter in it --- so much so that I resolved not to bother with a camera under-water while I re-oriented myself to diving. The food was amazing. I couldn't believe what Chef Andrew managed to produce from his tiny kitchen.

The next day, I woke up at 6:15 for the early morning dive, and then chose to skip the second dive. I resolved to do no more than 3-4 dives a day, including the night dive, since DCI sounds scary, and I don't always trust computers. Others on the trip did all the dives with no side effects, but I was told that the previous week, someone got bent. If you do 4-5 dives a day for 3 days straight, I'm not going to be too surprised that DCI rears its ugly head.

After lunch, however, we received an announcement --- the rest of the dives were canceled while we searched for the lost divers from SpoilSport. Passengers with binoculars broke them out and helped search, but I didn't have binoculars, so spent the day reading. We did eventually help the tender which delivered doctors to Fascination, which eventually picked up the lost divers get back to SpoilSport.

Saturday morning brought us more diving, and my first night dive. The day dives were pretty good, but the currents were so strong that I could easily see how one could get swept away. In fact, on my second dive of the day, I exhausted almost all my air getting back to the boat because returning to it took intense swimming against the current. I'm normally a strong swimmer on the surface, but with scuba gear and underwater, I'm not as good as I normally am.

The night dive was fun, everyone wearing glow sticks, and a flash light that let you see what was going on. The water wasn't any clearer but since you only were seeing what you pointed your light at, you weren't getting it in your face all the time.

The last day had 4 dives, two of which were Steve's Bohmmie. What a fantastic dive site that was. Gobs of wildlife, and the crew were so enthusiastic that we dived it twice. After 3 dives, I was so exhausted that I skipped out on the last dive, choosing to spend it chatting with the skipper of the vessel instead.

All in all, while I was disappointed by the weather, I was not at all disappointed by the experience. The Spirit of Freedom is highly recommended if you're going to do a dive trip in the area.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Aboard the Spirit of Freedom

Some of you might have heard about the case where a couple of Americans got separated from their dive boat yesterday in the Great Barrier Reef and drifted for 7.5 hours yesterday until they were found by a helicopter S&R. That couple was not us, but our dive boat was in the vicinity of SpoilSport when the event happened and our boat joined in the search and rescue operation. It was quite exciting with a lot of chasing and radio communications --- it turned out that it was very nearly the Spirit of Freedom that found them, but the information provided was a little off so the Spirit turned around just a bit too early and thus prolonged the search and rescue effort.

The weather's been not too great here in the Great Barrier Reef but we're still diving. It's just not super pretty with lots of current and waves, but the skipper is doing a great job finding relatively calm places and there's still plenty of wildlife to be seen, just not the 60' visibility we had hoped for. Oh well.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Jenolan Caves and More

We woke up early today to get an early start to get to the Jenolan caves. It took an hour to drive there, but what a trip! We got there just in time to sign up for the Caves of Baal, and the guide took us into a big cave, complete with stalactites, stalagmites, and lighting meant to set them off for best viewing. Well, not only that, they had music playing and the lighting fixtures timed to the music so you would see pieces fade in and out. It sounds really cheesy, but it was so well executed I had a great time despite my natural cynicism about such tourist traps.

Then we had a quick lunch and our second cave tour, the adventure "plug-hole" tour. They suited us up in safety gear, but unlike the Bridge Climb, we would actually need the gear. We first abseiled down to the cave entrance --- when I first saw the pictures I thought it was like rappelling, but you're supposed to walk down, not push your feet against the wall and bounce along the wall. This took quite a bit of doing. Then we were led into the caves proper, and talked through the various maneuvers needed to get ourselves through it. The guides did so with such natural humor that everyone did it and had great fun, crawling through spaces (some headfirst, some on the side, and many on our butts).

Then we took a self-guided tour of the huge caves at the entrance, then went to see the Kanaga Walls. This was where I made the mistake of putting my naked camera in the backseat along with the tripod. While driving along the unpaved road, Lisa heard a loud noise, and I moved the camera to the front seat but it was too late --- the screen of my DSLR is now cracked! My experience with Canon is that they will fix it under warranty at no charge, but since the camera is still operational, that will have to wait until I get back to the U.S. I've done this lots of times with my film SLRs with no problems, but I forgot that the DSLRs have a vulnerable component on their bodies. Ah well... If I leave the camera at home I'd never get any good pictures, even if it was kept pristine.

The Blue Mountains

February 2nd

We got up and had breakfast at the hotel, then headed out to Echo point to begin a relatively short hike: The Giant's Stairway to Leura Forest, the Federal Pass, and then the Prince Henry Cliff Walk. It was warm at the top of the stairway, but as we descended into shade it got cooler and cooler until deep in the forest we were feeling quite comfortable! Then, we walked into the forest which was nothing special, but once the stairs back up began we found some of the prettiest waterfalls ever. These weren't particularly big, but there were many of them, and each one was quite different from the previous ones. The stairways were constructed such that we could keep our feet dry, but there would still be the occasional spray to cool us off as we climbed. One of the highlights was a fall that came down like mist, lighting up in the air as the droplets descended.

At the top, the Prince Henry Cliff walk was also nothing special, though there were many lookouts. We then had lunch at a Cantonese restaurant in town that was nothing special, but did have Beef Rendang (not that great though!). Then we took a nap in the heat of the afternoon, and then did a driving tour of the area, though we didn't end up with any sunset photos worth speaking of.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Singh-Ray versus High-tech

Nearly every serious nature photographer knows that in difficult lighting situations, the difference between a skilled photographer and an unskilled one is the use of a Graduated Neutral Density filter, or sometimes two or three in super tricky situations.

The High-tech series cost about $35 each, and the Galen Rowell ones cost $100 a pop. What's the difference? First of all, the hard stops on the Galen Rowells are really hard stops. They have a definable line that makes them easy to place and easy to see.

The second one, and the one that really justifies their $65 premium, is that they come in a felt-case. As I was cleaning my high-tech ND grads tonight, I was shocked to see that they were scratched in ways that would be impossible for me to remove --- I'm going to have to replace these completely. The felt case that comes with the Galen Rowells ensure that they won't be scratched, an important consideration with repeated use.

Now, a real cheap-skate will make his own felt cases for the cheap High-techs, but together with the fact that the Galen Rowells are a bit longer and just that much easier to use, I think I'm going to be buying those in the future.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Katoomba in the Blue Mountains

We got up and again had breakfast in the room. After packing everything, we walked down to the train station and caught the Eastern Suburbs line to Kings Cross, where we found our car rental place after walking for about 4 blocks. The day was incredibly warm (afterwards, someone would tell me it was 34 degrees), and we were relieved to discover that our rental car had air conditioning!

Using our handy GPS, we traveled out of town into the Blue Mountains on a 2 hour drive. Just before Katoomba, we turned off to visit the Wentworth Falls. I originally thought this was a 30 minute walk, but after getting to the bottom of the upper falls and taking a shower in one, I spoke to a Sydney native and he talked me into doing a longer loop to the National Pass. Well, Lisa and I had plenty of food, so we chose to forge ahead and do it. There's something about this trail that's great --- you feel like you're hiking in some exotic country, with step stones placed in the mud, but weeping walls above you dripping water onto you. (Where is all that water coming from? It's hot as heck and hasn't rained for days!)

We were really impressed by the beauty of this hike, though the mountains themselves aren't much taller than our native Santa Cruz mountains. (It still doesn't hold a candle to the Swiss Alps, though) After that, we checked into the Carrington Hotel, a swanky-looking colonial style old hotel with no air conditioner but really expensive looking lounges. At last it started to cool down and we went to have dinner where Lisa had a wonderful veggie pot pie at a diner-looking restaurant and I had a kangaroo burger (gamey, not all that great, but I gotta try, right?).

Then it was time to shoot the sunset at echo point, where we had an astonishing light show. We'll see how the photos turned out. I ran into a German couple (from Hamburg) who were on a round-the-world 9-month trip. You know, I do my little trips and think that it's so great that I can get 2 months off from work, and of course the Germans (and the English) out-do me all the time.

Sydney III

We woke up late and had breakfast in the hotel. Lisa was feeling a little tired after the activities of the night before, so we skipped the zoo in favor of a trip to the Aquarium. What's really amusing to me is how well they've tackled the space issues --- quite a bit of the Aquarium doubled back on itself, and they really made good use of space by having some large aquariums that had glass bottoms and underground passages so you could look up through. I'm definitely a big fan of tropical fish, and they had a nice collection of sharks and Dugongs.

After that, we finally cracked open our guide book to look for a place to eat, and discovered that the best food court was over in Paddy's Market near our hotel. We went there and ordered Nasi Lemak and Hainan Chicken. Yummy!

We then caught a bus out to the Circular Quay again, and then walked over to the Botanic Gardens, which looked quite a bit more wilted than I expected in the heat. Nevertheless, I ran around playing photographer, we got to see the fruit bats, and I even got some pictures of parrots later in the evening (shot at ISO 3200 --- I would never have attempted such pictures with film!). I'm definitely becoming a fan of the Canon 5D Mk II.

After that, we went back and had a late dinner, including more satay and Roti Canai, and Char Kway Teow which wasn't quite to spec. Food court dining is awesome, and I'd forgotten how much I miss it.