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Archive for the ‘Places’ Category

Some Last Words on Australia

Posted by hyperpat on October 19, 2008

As I indicated in the prior posts, I used to live in the Miranda area back in 1954-1955, and went to school over in Cronulla. You might wonder why I was there in first place.

The answer is both simple and somewhat important even to current residents of the area. My father used to work for a construction company that specialized in chemical plants. In late 1953, construction was just about done on the Isle of Grain oil refinery just outside of London, England, a very large plant that my father worked on from 1951 to 1953, and the family at that time lived in Maidstone. In 1952, the Sutherland Shire council removed its opposition to the construction of an oil refinery on the Kurnell peninsula and Caltex subcontracted with my father’s company to do some of the engineering work for the planned plant. I think we were originally scheduled to move to Australia about November of 1953, but just at that time there was a major North Sea storm that flooded the plant in England, and my father stayed there a few extra months to help fix up the mess. But in March 1954 we packed up and headed back for a short visit in the US, then continued on to Australia.

Site construction had just begun by then (it started in Dec 1953), and at that time there was only a single auto-navigable road to the area that had just been built (it’s now Captain Cook Drive). Cronulla and the surrounding area had a much smaller population at that time, which is why I remember it as a far more rural environment than it is today.

The plant came on-line in February 1956, but the engineering portion of it that my father worked on finished somewhat earlier, and we left Australia in November, 1955. The plant itself added a major industrial capability to the area, and some have called its construction the beginning of modern industrial Australia. Others have been very unhappy about the ecological impact this plant has made on the area.

The Kurnell Oil Refinery

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Australia, Day Seven

Posted by hyperpat on October 16, 2008

Bright and early the next morning, we headed up to Kuranda village and the Daintree Forest via the Freshwater Scenic Railway.

The Freshwater Train

The Freshwater Train

While the train was nicely appointed and appeared appropriately old-fashioned, I was a little disappointed in the amount of things we could actually see from the train windows, as a good portion of the route up into the mountains had heavy foliage on both sides of the track when it wasn’t otherwise obscured by the rock cliffs the roadbed had been cut through. But the train did make a short stop at Barron Falls, which is certainly spectacular enough:

Barron Falls

Barron Falls

At the Kuranda train station stop, we transferred back to our tour bus, which is certainly uniquely decorated, and finally reached Kuranda Village.

The Tour Bus

The Tour Bus

The major attraction here is the Butterfly sanctuary, which had something like 50 different kinds of butterflies merrily flapping their wings all over the place. These little guys were hard to get on camera, as they wouldn’t stay still most of the time, but we did get a few of them, including the gorgeously colored Papilio ulysses:

Papilio Ulysses

Papilio Ulysses

There was also the Cairns Birdwing:

Cairns Birdwing

Cairns Birdwing

We didn’t actually get to see this guy, but they had a specimen mounted in the display room.

Cosdinoscera Hercules

Cosdinoscera Hercules

It’s the world’s largest moth, with something like an 10″ wingspan (the larger female one shown here). The largest ever recorded had a wingspan of 14″.

Continuing from Kuranda our next stop was the Aborigine Cultural village and the rainforest itself.
Here we got to listen and watch a performance of native dances accompanied by the didgeridoo, a full half hour show that kept us spellbound:

Aborigine Dance Exhibition

Aborigine Dance Exhibition

These dances helped illustrate just how vibrant and ecologically aware the Aborigine culture was, a culture and people that have not been well-treated by the white settlers in this country, a treatment as bad or worse than that meted out to the Native Americans of North America. The country in recent years has moved to redress at least some of the most egregious treatments of this people, but Aborigines (and for that matter just about every other non-white group that has come to Australia) are still treated as at best second-class citizens. This is one record that Australia should not be proud of.

Of course, after that show, we had to learn all about how to play one of these weird instruments, which are formed from wood hollowed out by termites. The termites are heavily present in this area, and sometimes form six foot high mounds.

Didgeridoo Lesson

Didgeridoo Lesson

Next up was a lesson in how to throw a boomerang, absolutely essential knowledge for any Australian wanna-be:

Sylvia and Boomerang 1.01

Sylvia and Boomerang 1.01

My own practice throw was pretty poor, but I think I could get reasonably good at it with some practice. Some of the other people in our group did quite well at it, but there was one (isn’t there always one?) who managed to throw it almost straight up, and it returned practically on top of heads. I suppose that’s the reason that everyone except the thrower is kept inside a roofed wire enclosure, as getting hit by one of these things will certainly give you a long-lasting headache. We purchased a couple of boomerangs here to bring home, these being the genuine article, as opposed to some we’d seen in the various souvenir shops that may have been prettier (and a lot pricier, with some at $500 price tags) but certainly not as functional and strictly intended for tourists.

His..

His..

...and Hers

...and Hers

Next up was a spear throwing demonstration, both directly hand-held and using a woomera, a device that helps increase the distance they can throw. They didn’t let us poor tourists try this one, but it was quite impressive to see the distance they could accurately throw one of these things, and one of the demonstrators holds the Guinness record for an aided throw of 147.5 meters (1 1/2 football fields).

Spear Throwing 1.01

Spear Throwing 1.01

After a pretty good barbecue lunch we then seated ourselves in an old Army Duck for a little excursion through the rainforest.

An Army Duck

An Army Duck

These vehicles are over 60 years old, originally constructed for WWII action, and still running just fine today. Now if our auto industry would still make vehicles this way, you’d only have to buy one car for your entire life. Of course, that would mean the industry wouldn’t be able to sell nearly as many cars, which just can’t be allowed to happen in a capitalistic society. Of course, the top speed of about 5mph of these things probably won’t impress you, but they will allow you to get through some very rugged terrain and/or marshes quite well.

I thought the best part of this little jaunt was when the duck took to the water. While we didn’t observe any crocodiles poking their snouts out, there were turtles and snakes along the way. And our guide stopped at one point to demonstrate the extreme flexibility and sturdiness of the rattan wood, something I have memories of from my school days here, as rattan canes were used for discipline of extreme infractions (their use has now been outlawed in all schools in Australia).

Guide and Rattan

Guide and Rattan

After the rainforest, we took a stroll through the wildlife section of this attraction. While many of the animals were ones we’d observed earlier in Featherdale Wildlife preserve, there were some new ones, like this guy whom I unfortunately didn’t catch the name of: (Now labeled with correct designation thanks to a commentor):

A Quoll

A Quoll

We also got a better shot of one the big cassowaries here:

Cassorwary

Cassorwary

Sylvia got brave and actually went up and touched one of the kangaroos:

Kangaroos Can Be Nice

Kangaroos Can Be Nice

This day was still not done, as we still needed to get back to Cairns, for which purpose we took 7.5 kilometer Skyrail cable car ride over the rainforest (Sylvia once again surprised herself at calmly accepting this move to high in the sky).

Katoomba Skyrail cable car

Skyrail cable car

The views from the car were awesome, at some places just barely skimming over the tops of the trees, and allowing a view down to the forest floor some 200 ft lower, at others giving us a panoramic view of the entire area.

Over the river

Over the river

At the Top of the Forest

At the Top of the Forest

View towards Cairns

View towards Cairns

We finally got back to Cairns, and decided on a simple dinner, so we went to the local MacDonalds (yes, they’re everywhere). This allowed us to make a direct price comparison to American food prices. I found my standard Double-Quarter-Pounder combo meal at $14 AUD. Even applying the then current exchange rate, that translates to about $12.50 US, a lot more than the US price. Prices here are definitely high. After dinner,and this very long sight-filled day it was time to pack up and get ready for the flight back to Sydney in the morning.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General, Places, Travel | 4 Comments »

Australia, Days Five and Six

Posted by hyperpat on October 14, 2008

We left Sydney early the next morning, with the usual idiocy of the airport, and arrived at Cairns about 11AM. By the time we got to the hotel, it was almost noon, but our room was not quite ready yet, so we checked our bags with the concierge and went for a little walk around the hotel, just to see what was there. Unfortunately, it was pretty hot, and after about a half mile of walking I found myself in bad shape:

Me at the hotel after our little walk

Me at the hotel after our little walk

From the way I felt, it was probably a case of dehydration, as I was very flushed, light-headed, weak, and felt hot even in the air-conditioned hotel lobby, which we returned to to wait till our rooms were ready. While waiting, Sylvia had some fun taking pictures of herself, trying out some the camera’s capabilities that she hadn’t really been aware of up till now. Once we finally got in our rooms, I took a little rest, which made me feel much better, and we decided to do a little more exploring, since it was now night and not as hot. We took a walk out to the wharf, scoping out where we’d have to go the next morning for our Great Barrier Reef trip, and returned via the Esplanade, on the lookout for a good place to eat. This was done in the rain that had decided to drench the area. While walking by all the shops, we came across one that had a stuffed kangaroo in the window display, and Sylvia naturally wanted to take some pictures up next to it:

Sylvia and Stuffed Kangaroo

The picture taking activity attracted the attention of the store owner, a nice middle aged lady, and we got into a conversation about where we were from and such. Eventually the talk turned to politics and the latest on the financial catastrophe happening on Wall Street. She greatly surprised us with how knowledgeable she was with the American scene, knowing more about happenings in our country than many people in the US. She knew who our Presidential candidates were, what their platform positions entailed, the general economic status of the country, the specifics of the current sub-prime mortgage lending mess, what our Congress’s proposed actions were, and had opinions on what effect those actions would have on her own country’s economic health. It would probably be impossible to find an American who could talk knowledgeably about Australian politics like this! We must have talked with her for an hour. After finding some dinner, we stopped off at the Reef Casino. Just like American casinos, it’s filled with lots of slot machines and a few gaming tables. Almost all the slots were pretty much the same type, a trend that’s also happening in the US. We tried our luck at a couple of them, putting in $5 in each one. Sylvia ending up going broke, but I managed to double my money on mine, so we broke even – not a bad result.

At the casino

At the casino

The next morning we got ready for our trip to the reef. While waiting for our boat to come in, we took some more pictures of the wharf and ships there, including this one:

Eventually we set out in our high speed catamaran, first to Green Island, then off to a mooring pontoon located on the edge of the this portion of the reef.

Our Tour Boat

Our Tour Boat

As you can see, this was a pretty large boat, which was good, as once we got out into the open ocean there was a pretty good chop and about 2-3 foot swells. The size of this boat did much to mitigate the rolling effect, though it was still noticeable, and we didn’t have any problem with sea-sickness. Even with the speed of this boat (I’d estimate it was doing a good 20 knots), it still took us about an hour and a half to reach the reef.

The mooring pontoon had an observation deck below the water, where we could observe the hardier folks doing some scuba diving:

Scuba divers at the reef

Scuba divers at the reef

A little later, after we’d had some lunch aboard the pontoon, we got into a semi-submersible craft and headed off for a little cruise over the reef. We were accompanied by this little guy:

Fish on side of submersible

Fish on side of submersible

Little is perhaps not the word for this fish – he’s about three foot long. The submersible itself:

The trip over the reef was great, giving us a great view of just how rich this coral community is, with lots of fish and some very uniquely fantastical coral shapes:

Corals

Corals

Some of the fish

Some of the fish

Heading back from the reef, we stopped again at Green Island. Green Island is what is known as a sand cay, built up by sedimentation over the corals over a long period of time. Green Island is one of the larger ones, and has developed quite a covering of forest.

Green Island

Green Island

All in all, this day was pretty relaxing (no long walks!). So that evening we headed out to the Red Ocher Grill in Cairns. This restaurant is somewhat famous for its selection of native indigenous fare, and we tried their sampler plate, which included crocodile, kangaroo, and emu as main dishes. The kangaroo we found to be most like beef, but more strongly flavored, and was the least favorite of ours. The crocodile was a little like chicken (doesn’t everything taste like chicken?), and although it was a little tougher than chicken, it was nicely seasoned and quite palatable. The emu was what we liked best, tasting somewhat like duck, but less greasy and with a little milder flavor.

Walking back to the hotel after our meal, another aspect of Cairns showed itself. This town is definitely a partying night-life town, with a large contingent of young people (many of them obviously surfer types) constantly out and about at night, frequenting the pubs and open-air musical shows. Quite a change from Sydney. But for us it was lights out, so we’d be ready for our next day trip to the Kuranda village.

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Australia, Days two to four

Posted by hyperpat on October 8, 2008

After our exhausting first day, we tried for a little quieter second one, going on just a morning bus tour of Sydney’s city sights. Of course the highlight of this was the view of the Opera House and Harbor Bridge:

Opera House and Bridge

Opera House and Bridge

But equally interesting was the trip under the bridge, the trip through the Rocks district, the famous Bondi beach (where we managed a morning snack – a single piece of bread that was definitely a full meal in itself), the viewpoints that took in the entire city skyline and promontory points, the Botanical Gardens, the cathedrals, Darling Harbor and the Maritime Museum, Hyde Park, Sydney’s Chinatown (though it’s not up to par versus San Francisco’s Chinatown, it still illuminates part of Australia’s history), the ‘rich’ district and the various styles of home architecture, and including a very distinctive glass house:

Glass House

Glass House

Still, this only occupied us till about 1PM. So now we could relax for the rest of the day, right? Wrong. We decided to do a bit of a walkabout just in the area of the hotel, and found things like the Town Hall:

Town Hall

Town Hall

We also found something rather unexpected in our little walk, the entryway to the State theater, which is spectacular:

Theater Entrance

Sydney State Theater Entrance

But underneath all of the buildings in the district is where we found all the shops, from very high-end fashion stores to pedestrian Subway eateries. Just walking through all of this managed to occupy us for another four hours (and gave us more sore feet to go along with the ones acquired during the prior day’s excursion), as practically every shop demanded at least a look and various items considered for their souvenir qualities. So once again we ended up back at the hotel totally tuckered out.

The next day found us taking a tour up to the Blue Mountains with a major stop at Featherdale Wildlife Sanctuary. This stop simply wasn’t long enough to really see everything there, as they have representatives of just about every unique form of Australian wildlife there (not counting marine life – that’s a later trip). Most charming here was all the various types of birds they had present, from cassowaries, peacocks, kookaburras (a bird whose raucous call used to wake me up almost every morning when I was living there), and cockatoos to Australia’s very own penguins, the smallest representative of this genus in the world. Of course they also had the obligatory koalas, wallabies, wombats, and kangaroos, and a very nice (read: quite large) crocodile:

Crocodile

Crocodile

Continuing up into the Blue Mountains, we were treated to some spectacular views of the area (including the blue haze over everything caused by the great quantity of eucalyptus resin in the air), along with being able to get a very nice lunch in a local small eatery with very personable staff, who, when asked if we could get another one of the glass Coke bottles they had (our sons collect Coke memorabilia, and glass bottles, especially when marked with their place of manufacture, are almost non-existent in the US today), went so far as to open and quickly down one, just to provide us with the bottle.

Blue Mountains

Blue Mountains

Once again, though, we found ourselves doing a fair amount of walking, both in the wildlife park and on a little mountain trail down to our lookout point where we took most of our pictures of the Blue Mountain area. After this little excursion we then took a little ride on the World’s Steepest Railway. This one my wife approached with quite a bit of trepidation, as she has problems both with heights and anything that even looks like a roller-coaster ride (and I’m not fond of those things either), but she did finally get on and take the ride down. It’s only a couple of minutes, and it’s actually pretty slow (about 7 mph), but boy, is it steep – while going down it seems like you’re facing straight down and falling down a cliff. It’s actually not quite that steep, it’s only about a 52 degree incline, but as people don’t normally descend at anywhere near angles like this, your inner ear screams that you’re falling.

On our way back to Sydney, we took a little excursion through the site of the 2000 Olympics venue, whose buildings are still spectacular, and managed to catch some views of Sydney as seen coming in from the west, a very different viewpoint from what we’d seen before, and our second trip over the Anzac bridge, which is just as unique as the Harbor bridge.

Olympic Stadium

Olympic Stadium

Day four looked like we might get away from the walking business, as our selected tour of the day was the Sydney Aquarium, which was just across the street from our hotel. No such luck. The aquarium seems to have miles of walkways between an incredible number of various aquatic tanks which contain everything from various fresh-water fish, turtles, and lizards to sea-water corals, cuttlefish, and of course the walk underneath the shark tank, where there were representatives of that genus both large and small, along with rays and giant turtles. Having one of these great sharks swim right over your head is an experience. We ended up spending almost five hours in this little (?!) place. After a quick lunch we then headed up the street (and I do mean up – the road has a distinct upward inclination from Darling Harbor to George Street) to go to the Skytower, the tallest building in Sydney, with its own distinctive architecture that rivals Seattle’s Space Needle. The view from the top of this is spectacular, and provides probably as good an aerial view of the entire city as you get get from a helicopter. And as it’s a nice, stable platform (as opposed to said helicopter), it’s easy to take pictures from. Descending a little bit in the tower, we then took the OzTrek adventure, which includes a set of dioramas of what life is like in various parts of Australia and a movie trip with 180 degree screens coupled with one of hydraulic powered chairs that move appropriately to the scene on the screen. This was pretty close to a roller coaster ride in a couple of places (especially when the scene was one of white-water rafting), but nonetheless provided a very unique view of some of the other places in Australia that we wouldn’t otherwise get to see on this trip.

Skytower

We had planned on also seeing the Wildlife World (right next to the Aquarium) this day, but by the time we got back to the hotel after the Skytower and investigated the condition of our feet, we decided to skip this one at this time, figuring we’d have another day in Sydney later to catch this. Instead we packed up our suitcases in preparation for our early morning departure for Cairns, the next stage of our journey.

One other item that deserves mention here is the price of food. The hotel we were at was charging $60 AUD per person for their buffet-style dinner, $40 for breakfast. We found these prices to be outrageously steep. We did normally eat breakfast there, as it was included in the price for our rooms, and quality wise it was very good, but we definitely skipped on eating dinner there. Instead we did try some of the other restaurants there, which were still pretty expensive (we paid about $80 for the two of us in each one we tried), but still quite a bit cheaper than the hotel, and I think better quality. But a little more on eateries in my next installment.

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Silicon Valley

Posted by hyperpat on March 15, 2007

Why does Silicon Valley dominate the world of electronics innovation? Not that there aren’t many things that are developed elsewhere, but for the last thirty years or so this place has been the leader in developing new products, manufacturing methods, and even whole new industry segments. Other places have sent people here to see just what the ‘formula’ is, and to a certain extent have managed to copy it, but they are still trailing this place in terms of patents granted or almost any other measure of success.

Now clearly part of the reason is the local great schools: Stanford and Berkeley are both world-renowned schools that year after year graduate brilliant and usually well-grounded students into the local businesses. And this doesn’t even count the network of various local community colleges and places like San Jose State. But having these students wouldn’t do any good if the local businesses couldn’t induce them to stay in the local area, not so easy when you consider that this area is one of the highest cost of living areas in the country, and is plagued with some of the worst commute traffic.

Business inducements range from relatively high starting salaries to the incredible number of start-up businesses that offer stock options and other perks, along with the opportunity to work on something new and different to new employees. Money alone isn’t all the answer, though. Another major piece is how employees are treated: here, most companies really believe in empowering their ‘little people’, giving them the authority to make meaningful decisions about the company direction, and treating them with some respect rather than as interchangeable cogs. Flexible working hours, corporate game and exercise rooms, memberships in athletic clubs, help with day-care and other family obligations are all part of the parcel.

There is a positive feedback effect working here, too. With so many high-talent people working here, an idea percolates from one group over to another, sparking additional ideas. Networking between people in multiple companies is common, happening anywhere from the corporate cubicle to the evening watering hole.  And of course, the very fact that things are happening here attracts more people who want to be in on the action.

Now it doesn’t hurt that the Bay Area has what some people would consider the world’s best climate: never too cold, you don’t get soggy-drenched in the winter, hurricanes and tornadoes are almost unheard of, and typically there are only a few days in the summer that it really gets hot.  And if you really want to go flop in the snow, there are some really great ski runs located only a few hours by car from here. There are some pretty good cultural/artistic places/theaters/museums here, too, allowing you to be a geek and art-lover at the same time.

I first moved to the Bay Area in 1972, when I was still in the Air Force, and got stationed at Mill Valley Air Force Station, located atop Mt. Tamalpais, about ten miles north of San Francisco. This, however, was not the place to experience the Silicon Valley revolution, as, with 169 curves from the top to the bottom of the mountain, plus another sixty miles to get to the heart of Silicon Valley,  it was a major chore to make the trip. However, when I left the military in 1980, I got an immediate job with a firm in Sunnyvale working on (as one small aspect of their overall business) microcomputers for use on the Galileo space shot.  This was my first real experience with the excitement and rewards of working in the valley (besides instantly doubling what I had been making in the military).  It was also my first experience with something known as environmental testing; clearly, if you expect a circuit to work in space, it makes sense to test it here on the ground at both very hot and very cold temperatures, in a vacuum, pure oxygen or nitrogen atmospheres, drop it a few times (the g-stress test), shake it up some more, and in general abuse it in every way you can think of. This is a field I’m still involved with today.

But since that first experience with the Silicon Valley way, other than one side trip to Florida to get married, I’ve remained in the valley, one among many others who find this environment a great place to work.

Posted in General, Places, Science & Engineering | 2 Comments »