Trip to Perth

On the weekend, I was in Perth for my grandfather’s birthday. It was a very relaxing trip, and even so I was able to catch up with quite a few friends and family members. Plus, the weather was nice, so I also got to swim at the beach. All up, very restorative.

There are some things about Perth that make the place very special (some would say “stuck in time”, but that’s a bit mean). As well as the lack of daylight savings, extended trading hours and pokie machines in pubs, there’s an easygoing lifestyle and pace that suggests a level of contentment now rare here over east.

Another thing they’ve got is wildlife. In some suburbs, it’s not uncommon to find snakes in your backyard. If you go to Rottnest, you’ll certainly come face to face with a quokka at some point. Also, the many parkland reservations throughout the city host bigger animals like kangaroos. This photo was taken in a reasonably old suburb that’s about 10-15 minutes drive from the centre of town. My parents live nearby, and the kangaroos are a daily occurrence.

The AFL Grand Final as a spectator

We went to the AFL Grand Final on Saturday, to see the West Coast Eagles win by just a point. It was a frustrating game, but it was very exciting towards the end as Sydney Swans came from hugely behind to close on the Eagles. (And let me say that if you’re going to have a mascot, one based on a bird is guaranteed to look like a chicken. Except if it’s an Eagle, of course).

Anyway, it was the second time I’d been to a Grand Final, but the first time I’d seen the game from the stands. Back in 1997, we were there as part of the talent. Not the sporting talent of course – we were in the pre-match entertainment.

It’s still run by Kerrie Hayes Productions. And they still teach the same dance moves. As the little people dressed in black waved their arms to Up There Kazaly, my arms twitched in synch.

It was much better to be in the stands. You could see everything and there wasn’t a costume. The only way to get a birds-eye view from down on the ground was to dress as a chicken.

Realistic Food Sites

Reading The Age Good Food Guide, a Melbournian might get the idea that everyone’s out there munching on foie gras, quaffing chateau du maison, and quoting French phrases. Most of the foodie websites follow this trend, and discuss high cuisine as if it’s almost an everyday experience for the authors. Maybe it is, but what about the rest of us?

For me, a good brunch out can be the weekend highlight. I recently came across a site that reviews good breakfast spots around Melbourne. It’s fantastic! The pictures get me drooling, and I’ve discovered several new places that I’ve simply got to try.

A little while back, I was pointed towards a site that reviews the best chicken parmagiana in town. These are people who take great pride in their mission, and their rating methodology is extraordinarily detailed. But it doesn’t explain why their ratings show North Melbourne as the centre of the parma universe.

Finally, there’s someone out there who is helping us to choose our morning brew. This site reviews cups of coffee (and the occasional hot chocolate). How useful is that? I haven’t really gone through their back catalogue of reviews yet, but there looked like a couple of places I really should check out. It goes well with the breakfast site.

So, more of it, I say. Not everyone has the ability to dine at two-hat restaurants, but a good coffee is realistically available to everyone, and a good breakfast can make your day. This is what the Internet was invented for!

Economics’ Poster-Boy

I first heard about Steven D. Levitt on Triple J, when he was in the country promoting his book. Somehow I managed to miss reading it, despite most of my numerate friends raving about it. Finally I borrowed it (although the owner doesn’t know I’ve got it) and now I can rave about it myself.

Freakonomics

A book to warm the hearts of statistics lovers everywhere

Steven D. Levitt has co-written this non-fiction book with Stephen J. Dubner, which is probably a good thing, as Levitt is an academic and Dubner is a journalist. However, this book revolves around Levitt and is rather admiring of him, with Dubner in the background. The hero-worship is slightly disturbing until you realise that Dubner’s previous book was called Confessions of a Hero Worshipper.

But once you get over that, there are plenty of interesting facts to enjoy. Some of the best non-fiction books are just interesting facts strung together, and this is that type of book. You really do come away with a feeling of knowing more about the world, and this book should be very useful to anyone who’s a parent, a politician, or a crack cocaine dealer.

It’s also funny. With the new-found knowledge Levitt provides, it’s easy to laugh at the illuminating history of the KKK and at the kids who have really, really stupid names. (Luckily, I’ve got a boring name).

One thing I was expecting was more economics. It doesn’t really go into the process of the research behind the facts, and instead jumps straight to the conclusions. So, it’s really more about statistics than economics. True, Spackistics doesn’t have quite the same ring.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****

American satire is not dead

I saw the shorts and I heard the raves about it. It’s a satirical look at political lobbyists and the smoking industry in the United States, directed by an American, based on an American book. (The American director is Jason Reitman, son of Ivan, no less). My scepticism and curiosity evenly balanced, I went to the movies and saw …

Thank You for Smoking

Proof that evil industries have their fun side

The film begins by introducing us to the “evil” smoking-industry lobbyist, Nick Naylor (played excellently by Aaron Eckhart), who promptly faces off against a child with lung cancer on a TV talk-show. We know who ought to win, but it’s great fun to see it from the other side. Throughout the film, we barrack for our hero, while trying to ignore the moral conflict that this presents.

However, the film sneakily brings the moral conflict to the foreground, through Nick’s conversations with his family about his job. It’s a comedy with an intelligent side. Although, the fact it is a comedy allows you to laugh away the keen philosophical points without really dealing with them.

Perhaps this is the sort of movie that improves with a repeat viewing, when the farce is reduced to expose more of the irony. This means you can choose to enjoy it for the laughs or for the points it raises about the implications of a free society, the meaning of integrity, and the idea of safety. Good stuff!

My rating: 4.0 stars
****

I tried to follow the principles I’ve outlined here in writing this review. Hopefully, I’ve succeeded.

Life and Times of Google

I’ve been digging into the history of the dot-com boom recently and a colleague recommended this book to me. It sounded really interesting, so it wasn’t long before I’d got myself a copy …

The Search

An informative read, but sometimes too awestruck by Google

John Battelle has subtitled this book “How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture”, and if you accept that premise then you’ll probably enjoy reading it. Or maybe that’s a little harsh.

Battelle does a great job of digging into the history of the search engine battles in the mid-1990s, and how advertising took off online and then within search results. I already knew much of the historical material, but it may be an eye-opener for those who weren’t around or paying attention at the time.

He also provides a detailed account of the origins and evolution of Google, warts and all. Since it is quite the media darling at the moment, this was fascinating, particularly the comparisons with Yahoo!’s internal culture.

Towards the end, I was getting a bit irritated by the continual praising of Google’s innovations and claims that everything comes down to searching. However, if you take that with a pinch of salt, then it’s still a well-researched, well-written historical analysis of the web search industry.

My rating: 3.5 stars
***1/2

This review was written using a little hReview plugin that I wrote for WordPress. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can check out this page on the hReview microformat.

NZ Snow is good!


Self-portrait at Cardrona

Originally uploaded by 4ndrewScott.

So, there’s no snow in Victoria at the moment, but there is a fair bit over in New Zealand. We’ve just come back from a trip to Queenstown using Value Tours, and can recommend them.

We got to three different mountains: The Remarkables (reasonable snow but a bit small, so it didn’t take long to have skied everything of interest), Coronet Peak (lots of runs, comfy chairs on the lifts, good views, but very exposed, and all the snow was artificial), and Cardrona (a bit further away, but excellent snow, and good pizzas and noodles). There was a fourth, Treble Cone, that only Dan made it to, and it had more skiable area, catering more to the black-run types.

Now that we’re in Spring, the snow is getting a bit soft, and the cover is reducing. Good for boarding, apparently, but is a little too sticky for my taste. Speaking of taste.. the bananas were great. Can’t wait til we get them back in Victoria at a reasonable price.

Picasso and Maar

We’ve seen a fair bit of Picasso, or rather his work, in Spain. Both Barcelona and Madrid have some pretty impressive paintings, particularly Guernica. That work falls in the period of Picasso’s life, 1935-1945, being focussed on in the NGV’s current exhibition …

Picasso – Love & War

Dora Maar was an absurdist photographer, and one of Picasso’s mistresses. She also hung onto a lot of stuff. When she passed away in 1997, the contents of her apartment turned out to be a veritable timecapsule. The scholarship that has resulted from the study of her treasure-trove led to this current exhibit. It’s her photos of him, his paintings of her, her knick-knacks that he’s scribbed on, his works-in-progress that she’s captured on film, etc.

The strange thing is that this exhibition is so obviously full of joint works, but Picasso has taken the title. This slight to Maar aside, it’s up to the NGV’s usual standard, and again shows their skill in taking an assorted collection of pieces, a few clear masterpieces (most in their permanent collection anyway), and creates something more than the sum of its parts.

If you’d like to learn about an interesting abstract artist you’ve probably never heard of, and learn some new things about an interesting abstract artist you’re probably sick of hearing about, then this is the show for you.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****

The State of Snow

What a poor ski-season it’s been this year in Victoria. Admittedly, we went to Lake Mountain and not Mount Hotham, but this picture still gives you an idea of the state of things. It’s mid-August, and there should be enough snow to go tobogganing!

Perhaps this photo overstates things. Even though there were patches of rocks, grass and dirt, it was possible to steer between them, following a winding path of snow to the bottom. In fact, the fact that you needed to steer probably made it a little more fun than it would’ve been normally.