Friday, October 03, 2008



I'm embarked on a new voyage. Want to follow me? Go left of the setting sun.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Chris to Google: go Gfck yourselfs

Dear readers, this is the last post you'll see here on my blogspot account, except for when I put up an address for my new blog (probably wordpress, but I'll decide soon).

I put with the mysterious way blogger handled uploaded images (at least until I got a flickr account). I grumbled about the consolidation of gmail and blogger, but had to concede that since someone was offering me a free service, I was prepared to let them streamline their affairs as they saw fit. I was somewhat more alarmed when the posting and sign-in information that must logically have been available somewhere became publically accessible via a google ap (and if you think that's not a problem, I suggest you ponder the implications for river, or anyone else saying politically sensitive things in regions lacking the rule of law).

The final sticking point was trivial, until you consider that without email, I can't work. Being locked out of gmail for no reason that I can ascertain, albeit temporarily, even though I was only using it for a relay, has caused me to reconsider placing my personal writing and communications at the mercy of a very large corporation who increasingly, I mistrust.

I'll be back, soon, but in a setting whose terms and direction I feel more comfortable with.

Haere ra, Rumours of Rain And War.

Friday, September 19, 2008


Flashes of Auckland

Yes, I've been here for seven weeks already. No, I haven't come up with a nice flowing blog post about being an ex-expat and all that. Of course Auckland is the last place I ever expected to find myself living, but now that I'm here it's not what I expected, and I like it.

It's a beautiful place, this. Whether it's the greenery that seems to be in every suburb, the way you always seem to end up facing Rangitoto, or the sudden view from the top of our road of Great Barrier Island and the mountains of the Coromandel peninsula lit up by the low afternoon sun after a rainy day, I'm continually stopped in my tracks. I will shortly get a myself a compact film camera (now about $20 on Trademe) to carry around.

The coffee! I could cry, honestly, and how good the average coffee is in this city. Call me tragic, I'm an Epicurean and I like my food and drink, which brings me to: the food! Various flavours of Indian, Thai, old-school bakeries with yummy stuff like pecan muffins, cheap and tasty meat pies (to any Australians reading: you have no idea what I'm talking about when I refer to a good meat pie).

Shame about the drivers. Aucklanders, you can't drive. You're inverterate tailgaters, you don't know how to use roundabouts, you quite frequently act as if you don't know where you're going, and your inability to merge is the main reason your motorways don't work.

I'm not too thrilled about the cheddar monopoly either, or that fact that wildly exotic fare like haloumi seems to be regarded as some sort of gourmet shit that only yuppies eat, and costs $7 for 100g.

But I do love the tui in the trees, and the beaches, and the way to sea is everywhere. I'm very happy with the train that's 15 minutes walk from my door and runs straight into town (on which the conductors never get around to clipping your ticket about a third of the time). bFM is a reasonable substitute for Triple J, and my local camera shop has Reala on the shelf.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


Four years, 11 months, 16 days

"Is that really how long you've been away?"
"Welcome home, then"

*I don't think a couple of one-week trips count...

Friday, July 11, 2008


Scatterlings and refugees

I seem once again to be entering that phase of life where all my friends are spreading to the four winds. It's an occupational hazard of being in academia, and I'm about to join the diaspora myself. Although I don't think it counts as a diaspora if you're returning to the country of your birth.

It's a sad thing saying goodbye to people you've come to know well, and even in this highly-connected age of cheap air travel, it'll be a few years before I see some of them again. I hereby commend to you a rather sad, beautiful song by Joshua Ellis, he of Zenarchery, that dwells upon this very subject. This is a legitimate download direct from the artist's website, by the way. If you like it, go tell him so, or drop some money in his commercial front at red state soundsystem.

Scatterlings and refugess (demo).mp3

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


How to get a frog in your trousers

It's not every day that you find a frog in your trousers. Indeed, some might say that they've never had one at all. It was something of a surprise to me, let me tell you. Would you like to know how I found a frog in my trousers? Are you sitting comfortably? Actually, I don't care how you're sitting, read my blog in whatever position you want. I'll begin however you are.

ANZAC weekend, tempting as it may be, isn't a particularly good time to go on a camping trip, especially not when it coincides with the end of the school holidays. Thus went our reasoning, so we didn't. Instead, the urge to leave the benighted, expensive, noisy city was channelled into a daytrip to Wiseman's Ferry, of which I have written before (there's a few pics of the last trip on my flickr page, by the way). I am pleased to report that Deschamps Delights continue to stock a fine range of pickles, and serve an excellent Devonshire tea. But clearly, I digress. Which I reserve the right to do, and if you don't like it you can go find a more linear blogger. Where was I? Oh yes, convict stoneworks.

You may, if you're feeling exceptionally masochistic, walk from Sydney to Newcastle by way of the Great North Walk. This follows, in places, the original overland route from Sydney to Newcastle, from before the time when the inevitable march of progress and the invention of both tarmac and the Otto cycle engine bought the people the F3 freeway. In the vicinity of Wiseman's Ferry it finds the luxury of not one but two convict-era (no, not Howard, the original settlers) tracks to follow. The day-tripper is thus able to avail themselves of the unusual luxury of a loop track, which starts about half a kilometre left of the ferry, goes up the hill to Finches Line, and comes back down about two kilometres down the road after considerable meanderings.

The first, uphill stretch of this track is a startling example of the 19th-century road-builders craft, and for once I am not being facetious, sarcastic, or even slightly silly. Admittedly, they were using convict labour, which was pretty cheap, but you have to hand it to those chappies: when they decided to build a road they Built A Road. There were no temporary measures. This particular bit of civil engineering skirts the side of a rock face one step removed from being a sheer cliff. Fitted stone blocks cut from said cliff face brace the outer side up to the width of a proper horse-and-cart track (they would have been pretty tired horses by the time they got to the top, mind you). Fancy diving-underground drains run under the road from the cliff side and drain out of buttresses on the outside, and thence down lined channels away from the foundations. Switchbacks are done in a proper curve of the wall, with natural watercourses run under the road and carried clear of the foundations on a lipped drain. All of this was built from stone quarried on the spot, faced up square and dry-fitted. We're talking serious stuff here, as testified to by the fact that it's still standing and usable 180 years later. Even more startling, they got the bulk of it done in about six months. Those convicts obviously didn't get much time off, the poor bastards.

Unfortunately for their industry, that inland track never really took off as a way to get from Sydney to Newcastle. Presumably that's why the original road is still there, rather than being buried under disintegrating tarmac. This is all to the good if you want to go for a walk in the bush with a nice view over the Hawkesbury. There was a lyrebird in the bush, giving his all. If you're not familiar with the talents of a male lyrebird when he's after a mate, I'd recommend a trip to YouTube; they're probably the most extraordinary mimics in the animal kingdom. This particular one was doing a fine line in native bird calls: kookaburras, whip birds, currawongs, a smattering of galah, you name it, he was spinning the disk.

The next diversion of a zoological nature was a big ant-hill. Going bush-walking with biologists tends to be full of zoological and botanical diversions, by the way. Australian ant-hills are kind of interesting most of the time. They're not particularly tall, but the ants cover them in different coloured stones depending on what the weather's doing: white on sunny days, dark-coloured on cloudy days. The attraction of this particular nest was that it was sending its winged reproductive offspring off to reproduce or die trying. Attempting to get some decent close-up photos of this event, I rather offended the ants. Australian ants, even in repose, tend to be a confronting if you're accustomed to the insects of more temperate climes. These particular specimens were the wrong side of a centimetre long, with jaws to rather more than match. I submit that most people would be somewhat discomfited to have such beasties swarming up their legs en masse. Eventually, dear reader, I was able to persuade most of them to go elsewhere. I'll leave my capering, leg-shaking and jeans-flicking up to your imagination, I think. Unfortunately they rather had their revenge on me for wasting ant time. They sprayed me with general-purpose attack-this-guy pheromone as they went about their work, and every other line of ants we passed made a beeline for my legs. I hadn't realised just how many ants were along the side of that hill, until that point. Most of them big.

Eventually, order was restored. We continued our loop, along a section that hadn't been subject to the tender ministrations of a British colonial-era roading engineer. The only Australian in our little party almost stepped on a legless reptile (the exact provenance of which is still open to debate: I thought it had external ears, which would make it a legless lizard, but it also had a very short tail, which is more of a snakey characteristic). Orchids were spotted. Apples were eaten. Views were admired. More steps than were cared to be counted were executed in a downwards direction following natural stratigraphic features underlying the the topography of the region, SIR! Ahem. The rather unfortunate ending to this loop track is along the side of a thoroughly 21st-century stretch of road, complete with 21st-century dickheads unfamiliar with the function of the pedal to the left of the accelerator.

Pausing at the ferry ramp to take in the scenery, I noticed yet another example of the local insect life attached to the hem of my trousers. The ant pheromones were obviously still hard at work. This particular one was some sort of wasp, so I chose to flick it off with circumspection. As I was accomplishing this task, I felt something cold and wet against my calf. Anyone who's spent any time in the Australian bush will be thinking "leech" about now. That was certainly my thought, that's why I was shaking my leg with some vigour, and no doubt why the frog fell out and hopped away in such a hurry. I still have no idea how it got there.

Friday, February 22, 2008


Australia's Muldoon?

I normally try to avoid talking about politics on this blog, and there are other people who do it better. But I thought I might kick John Howard in the head one more time, just to keep the joy fresh. I'd like to share with you, dear readers, a thought that has occurred to me lately.

John Howard is Australia's Rob Muldoon. This only struck me when listening to the long-overdue "sorry" speech back-to-back with David Lange at the Oxford Union, but there's more to it an them both being ousted by fast-talking public-school boys who overshadowed them almost immediately. I'm not prepared to defend the resemblance between Rudd and Lange in any great length, but I think the Howard-Muldoon contrast has legs. Both small-minded, short-statured, xenophobic control freaks who won't be kindly remembered by history. They lived in different worlds, of course; Howard would have wet himself if he could have exercised the kind of power Muldoon had over the nation. But, like Muldoon, the attraction Howard held for the electorate is hard to explain in hindsight.

There a still a few of Muldoon's fanatical fanboys around, albeit diminished in numbers, but it's getting hard to find anyone prepared to admit to supporting the Springbok tour. Or who can remember what they thought, John Keys, you lying coward. It may be too soon to tell what'll happen to the memory of Howard, but Brendan Nelson's pitiful attempt to adopt a Howardesque stance on Aboriginal reconciliation certainly went down like a lead balloon. The man himself was conspicuously nowhere to be seen to defend his long-held position. And while his sycophantic toadies in the publication that we Sydneysiders laughingly refer to as our daily newspaper continue to toe the faltering party line, I think someone should tell them that they're rapidly becoming unfashionable. Miranda Devine, I am looking at you.

Monday, February 04, 2008


Don't pay the ferryman

So, a while since I've written anything travel-tourist-overseas-adventure styles on these pages. The Indian wedding I was at on the weekend was pretty exotic and I shall hit you up with some Flickr love as soon as it becomes available, dear reader. But on a related note I've been up to Wiseman's Ferry not once but twice in the last two weeks (short version: reconnaissance mission, stag night), and I found that blog-worthy.

If you're not cognisant with the Sydney-speak (and why should you be), Wiseman's Ferry is the car ferry across the Hawkesbury River, up the back of Windsor and Dural; in other words, in the middle of nowhere. The only reason there's anything there at all is that it used to be the main route from Sydney to Newcastle, which just shows how hard against it the burghers of Sydney were getting around the countryside in those days. The terrain is not gentle. The area around Wiseman's Ferry is dominated by the extraordinary land feature that underlies and defines Sydney: a continuous slab of sandstone that starts near Wollongong, runs furrowed and magnificent beneath all the city's famous landmarks, and carries on up to the North where the F3 freeway cuts through sold cliffs of it.

Bondi's trademark headlands are outstretched, rather battered fingers of that same single slab of rock. The CBD is built on it, and many of the historic buildings are built out of the quarried rock. At the end of my street the Lane Cover river has sliced a furrow 100 feet deep out of it, baring cliffs and ledges to which eucalyptus trees cling and cockatoos circle and scream. Near Wiseman's Ferry the Hawkesbury river runs through a deep gorge that has cut right down the layer of stone. The first day we were there was one of Syndey's periodic bouts of soaking wet. The valley was roofed with cloud as we came down the steep, narrow, winding road that drops you from the plateau to the level of the river. Drifts of cloud hung around the broad stripe of orange rock exposed mid-way up each side of the valley. The view was particularly striking from the balcony The Champs Delights, where we took Devonshire Teas and bought pickles. Yes, you're quite right, it was rather civilised.

Calling Wiseman's Ferry a car ferry isn't strictly accurate; there is a car ferry running there (two of them, actually), but there was a ferry there before them, and I'm sure it'll be called the Ferry after they're gone. The ferries themselves are free, which makes the title of this post a bit of a smarty-pants classical allusion rather than something topical, but I'm not prepared to let that stand in the way of a snappy phrase. They also run 24 hours, and I can only imagine that being a night ferryman would be a remarkably boring job, no matter how interesting "Confessions of a Night Ferryman" might sound. Rather more interestingly, Australia's (alleged) oldest pub is up the road from the Ferry, on the other side of the river. Not a great road, it must be said. Not one of the highlights of the Australian driving experience. Fortunately the rain had taken the bite out of the corrugations and made the countryside all green and pleasant in a manner almost, but not entirely, completely unlike England.

I do recommend the pub, though. Just go up the other side of the river so that you approach it across the bridge. I'm a tad unclear on how the location of the pub on the old wagon route relates to the modern position of the ferry 20km downstream, but then again it was raining so we went into the pub instead of standing around outside to read historical summaries.

The stag night? Missed out the pub entirely, went the other way to Millers Creek camping ground. Saw a wombat (pretty cool, that was), failed to persuade it to do anything compromising to the groom. Had to chase brush turkeys away from the food at about 5 in the morning, which I don't really recommend as a start to the day. Didn't see any drop bears. I did take some photos of all this. Eyeball the Flickr widget on the left there, they'll probably go up eventually.

Friday, January 18, 2008


I'd not normally do this

Deborah reports that Hone Tuwhare has passed away. I'm not hugely familiar with his work, but what I know of it I liked a lot. I also get the feeling that his passing marks the beginning of an end for an era. The world doesn't seem to be producing poets of his ilk any more. In honour of Tuwhare's passing, I'm going to lift a meme, which I don't normally do. John at Evolving Thoughts has one going about poems that stick in your head. I've memorised a few poems in my time, but most of them I had to sit down with for an extended period of time. The things that stick in my head are snatches, short sections that roll of the tongue. I'm a firm believer that poetry is a spoken art form. Hone Tuwhare had a great deep Maori voice that rumbled over the vowels of "Oh, tree..." liked a seasoned orator. There are a couple of poems by Sam Hunt that have snatches like that. From No exit:

Egmont dropping the the rear view mirror, as you drive drunk with all love lost in mind.

I don't condone drink-driving, of course. But I don't condone reading that to yourself, either: stand up and let that lovely alliteration roll of your tongue. I feel the same way about Conrad, incidentally, but people seem to think that's odd. One more piece of Hunt (from Naming the Gods) might, I think, make a fitting end to an obituary.

Ruamoko, earthquake god.

Not that a man dare answer back to a god like that,
Instead fall,
Hug if he can in her turning,
Mother Earth in her pain

There's more. You can go find the book and read if yourself. Aloud.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Nobody likes a smarty pants...

Regular readers of this blog, and those who know me well, may very well have formed the opinion that I'm not a person with a religious nature. This would be the correct impression. According to the much-maligned Myers-Brigs test I should have spiritual leanings and I could, at a pinch, refer to myself as an Epicurean, but realistically I'm just a plain old unbeliever; an atheist (although I think atheist correctly means godless rather than without belief).

Now atheism of late has become rather trendy in intellectual circles. People whom I respect have signs on their personal websites attesting to their lack of theism, and various intellectual (sometimes self-appointed) heavyweights have weighed in (heavily) with books and essays on the matter. There's even considerable noise being made about evangelical atheism. Despite my self-professed membership of the aforementioned group defined by a lack of something (a dubious way to define a group, as any taxonomist will tell you), I am not about to join the ranks of the evangelical. Let me share with you my reasons...

I am not all opposed to the notion that a person might like, on occasion, to have a good think about their own beliefs. I think it's more than likely that a reasonable person coming at some existing belief-sets with a moderate knowledge of science, sociology and world events could find them a little questionable. Such a person might come away from their good think with a rather less constrained belief system of their own; and good for them. I'm not about to rush about noisily encouraging other people to do likewise, and nor do I particularly care to know the outcome of such a burst of cogitation, one way or another.

Anyone whose tastes in life lie even a little outside the mainstream very rapidly learns that evangelism, be it of God, atheism, vegetarianism, or Macintoshes, is really tedious. There is nothing more boring that someone going on at length about something. The capacity to get really intensely attached to a notion that you simply must persuade others of seems to go hand in hand with being, well, boring. Evangelism is boring, and so, by extension, are evangelists. Jessica Alba in a gold string bikini talking about how great it was being a vegetarian would be boring (I have no idea if the luscious Jessica is vegetarian or not, I'm making a point). PZ Myers talking about developmental biology is fascinating and informative. PZ Myers taking a stick to religion is nigh-on painful, and I haven't read his blog in ages because it's so unattractive. The Selfish Gene is one of the better general books on evolution ever written (even if I don't entirely agree with the premise), but The God Delusion is a bit silly.

In fact the whole concept of evangelical atheism is, in my humble opinion, a bit silly. You'd really really like people to believe in, well, nothing, really... whatever you want, y'know, some sort of rationalism... it sounds like a Monty Python sketch. Surely the whole point of loosing your religion is to get rid of it, not replace it with some other arbitrary set of beliefs that you can proceed to get worked up about? And please nobody come in talking about scientific thought, that's a method, not a belief system. And quite possibly an oxymoron. And I know enough about it to argue that case until the cows come home, get milked, and go back out into the paddock. So there.

I'm aware that there a sadly unenlightened parts of the world where people have to deal with the agendas of self-appointed religious thinkers on a regular basis. That's unfortunate, of course, and a huge drain on resources that would be better spent elsewhere. I don't have to deal with the kind of concerted nonsense that scientists get in those backward countries, but do I teach in biology courses with a strong evolutionary slant. You can't actually teach general biology any other way and do a good job of it, by the way. I've never had a student take exception to that general slant, either because it's pretty obviously the unifying theme in at least one course I teach in (at least the way I teach it), or because they're keeping their real opinions quiet.

If that last point is the case, it's a wise move. I'm an evolutionary biologist with an interest in social history. If anyone does ever seriously try to bring up a creationist line of argument with me in my professional capacity, I've got at my disposal the metaphysical equivalent of a muscle-bound Austrian with a mini-gun and lots of ammunition; the resulting scene would not be pretty. I have no desire to create such a scene in general conversation though. It's not good dinner-table conversation, that's for sure. And it's not an argument I would particularly enjoy, even though I like arguing, for two reasons: firstly, like I said, I don't much care what other people choose to believe in, as long as they're prepared to do me the same courtesy; but mostly because as a wise man (actually it might have been Barbara Hambly) once said, you should never argue with a drunkard or a zealot. Neither of them know when they're beaten. And they're both boring.

And life is too short for all that.

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