Thursday, August 28, 2008

Minding the gap

We began the day with a trip down to Kathleen Springs on the southeast side of Watarrka National Park. We didn't see any wildlife that morning, but tracks were everywhere. Many of the local species are nocturnal, so that wasn't a big surprise.

Next we drove up to Alice Springs. The West MacDonnell range is just down the road, and just beore the sun went down we made it over to Stanley Chasm. Just as we entered, we saw a black-footed rock wallaby in the wild. It was very shy, and bounded up the rocks as soon as it saw us. Their coloring is excellent camoflauge for the rocks...if it hadn't come down to the canyon bottom to feed, we never would have seen it.

Our next stop was Simpson's Gap, and there we found out that it is actually pretty rare to see the rock wallabies in action, since they are on the edge of being endangered. Driving out of the gap, we saw two more making their way along the dry riverbed next to the road. They instantly split up, heading in different directions. Very neat!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

King's Canyon

About three hundred kilometers away from Uluru is King's Canyon in Watarrka National Park, and was the next stop on our trip. Mom took her first turn at the wheel for part of this trip, as we both felt she shouldn't miss an opportunity to drive on the left side.

We reached the canyon in early afternoon, giving time for the walk at the bottom before I headed up to the rim walk. The walk around the rim is one of the most amazing 3 hour walks I've ever been on. The beginning looks like Gollum's little shortcut into Mordor, but soon the view of the canyon from the rim are on full display.

Further along the trail meanders among "bee-hive" formations where the layers of rock have eroded into a maze.

After crossing to the other side, a brief side path takes the hiker down into the Garden of Eden--a continuous water supply that contains plants from 60 million ago.

Once on the other side, you could see where occasionally the rock would split and crash to the canyon floor below.

All together, this was a fabulous hike, and a great way to see the Park. After viewing the sunset (which sadly, wasn't as spectacular as down at Uluru and Kata Tjuta) we headed back to the resort. Dinner was a Bush pizza (croc and kangaroo meat) and another Bush show. There were two performers, and what they lacked in technique they made for with props and audience participation. In fact, Mom got to do the little dance to "Home among the gum trees", along with five other audience "volunteers". Good times!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Kata Tjuta

The sunset was so spectacular that we decided it was worth rising early to see the sunrise at Uluru. It was nice, but lacking the clouds of the night before, the colors were not quite as spectacular.

The highlight of the morning turned out to be the Ranger led talk along the Mala trail. This trail hits some of the highlights of Uluru: there are Aboriginal drawings, geological formations, ending at a shaded waterhole.

After lunch at Uluru, it was time to head over to the second half of the National Park: Kata Tjuta (aka The Olgas). This formation is similar to Uluru but was exposed earlier, and erosion has divided it into multiple mounds. They have an excellent trail to several scenic views. I was fortunate enough while on this path to run across a wild Wallaby, and the views were amazing.

The composition of Kata Tjuta is similar to that of Uluru--the sunset did not disappoint!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Red Centre

Today we headed out of the big city for good, starting the beautiful landscapes portion of the tour. Our first stop was Uluru (aka Ayers Rock) a monolith listed as a UN World Heritage Site for both it's natural and cultural importance.

Uluru lies in the middle of the Red Centre, the large desert region in the middle of the Australian continent. In the desert thrives a fungus that can go for years without water--this fungus binds iron oxide, giving the soil and rocks their characteristic red color. It is at sunset where this becomes truly amazing. As the sun sets, the golden shade of Ululu darkens slowly to a rust color. Then as the suns rays turn reddish, for about five minutes or so the entire monolith glows an unearthly orange color that takes the breadth away.

After the sunset, we headed back to Ayer's Rock Resort--essentially the only place within a few hundred kilometers to spend the night. They have a great Australian BBQ set up: for a set price you get the Crocodile, Kangaroo, and Emu meat, and then it's up to you to grill it. They also have live music, our night it was Mal Clarke. Mal is an excellent guitarist who performed a range of Aussie favorites. It was a no brainer to get his CD to keep us company driving the next few days.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Melbourne's south side

Today we picked up two metro passes and headed towards the south end of town. They have an excellent, easy to understand tram system (basically everything either runs north south or east west--and you can tell where the lines are because the tracks in the street are obvious.) Our first stop was the Shrine of Remembrance. This massive pyramid is dedicated to Australian and New Zeland armed forces who served in World War I and later conflicts.

Next we headed over to the Old Melbourne Observatory in the Royal Botanical Gardens. They have an excellent cafe and visitors center--it was cold enough on this day that a cup of hot chocolate tasted wonderful.

Then we wandered north to the National Gallery of Victoria. This is your standard huge museum with art and sculpture from ancient times up through modern times. Exhausted, we then made our way back downtown, crossing the Yarra river with its scenic backdrops.

On the north side, we then went though the branch of the National Gallery dedicated to Australian artists before deciding it was time to eat. We picked a Vietnamese place called Mekong based on a recommendation from the Melbourne Visitor's Center, and it was great. A nice way to finish our stay in Melbourne.

Friday, August 22, 2008

It's the gaol for us

The next day we headed back to Melbourne to see the sights of the city. Much was like Sydney: they have great green spaces, the beautiful St. Patricks cathedral, and museums such as the old treasury. They have an excellent (and free!) tram the loops around the main downtown area to all the major attractions.

The highlight of the day was the Old Melbourne Gaol. This is a combined ticket with the Police Watchtower Experience, where you get to tour a Police City Watch Station set up as when it closed in the 1990's.

That was fun, but the Gaol is fantastic. Most of the cells contain a mini-museum on particular inhabitants of the prison, many with copies of the death mask taken after their execution. It's a grisly thrill, mixed in with changing ideas about what the gaol should be used for as Australia moved from frontier outpost to modern country.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

There's gold in them thar hills

We started the day at the The Eureka Centre. Tired of paying taxes with no say in the lawmaking, a bunch of miners at the Ballarat goldfields decided one day enough was enough and built a stockade. The government response was quite a bit over the top, and involving storming the stockade and killing several miners. This was considered a turning point in Australian history, where for the first time the idea of Australians versus just colonists was being raised. The Eureka Centre tells the story of the events leading up to the fatal day, and is an excellent, interactive museum that sets the scene nicely.

But for the full immersion experience, you have to go to Sovereign Hill. This living history recreation of a mining camp circa 1850 is top notch, with the standards you expect such as a blacksmith and candle maker with some really nice extras.

For example, they smelt a $100,000 worth of gold into a bar during one demonstration. Our tour happened to coincide with a school group coming through. They were dutifully impressed, and so were we.

They also have an antique bowling alley, powder demonstrations, and every day the redcoats march through town to show the town who's in charge.

At night, they have a sound and light show recreating the events at the Eureka stockade. Good stuff!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Where, oh where has my little bag gone?

So on the trip out to Australia from LAX to Hamilton Island, Qantas loses my luggage.

I never thought they'd go for a twofer.

Still, the glum reality after flying from Sydney to Melbourne was that, in fact, my luggage was nowhere to be found. Sigh.

Melbourne was the first part of the trip where I rented a car. Driving on the left, yeah! Turns out the biggest adjustment was the fact that the turn signal and wipers were switched. So we're turning left are we? Wipe, wipe. Now a right turn? Wipe, wipe. We may not have signaled our intentions, but we had the cleanest windshield around.

We'd rented a car because we weren't going to stay in Melbourne right away. First we were headed out to Ballarat and the gold fields. Sydney experiences a gold rush in 1850, right after the California one, which had even more drastic effect on what was then still a colony. The population exploded but labor was short as everyone headed out to make their fortune. We headed out there to be tourists.

Much as I disliked Qantas losing my luggage so often, I had to admit they were top notch about getting it back to me, as they sent in out via bus to Ballarat that night, and then had a cab take it over to our motel. However, when my luggage had been returned, they forgot to take the errant tag off showing where it went. Turns out instead of going from Sydney to Melbourne, my luggage went to Ayers Rock Airport. It was just jumping the gun by a few days.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Letting sleeping koalas lie

Koalas are cute, there's just no denying it. Since their primary food source is the semi-poisonous leaves of eucalypt trees, they spend most of their day just digesting the stuff, sleeping up to 20 hours a day. Still, we managed to catch a few on the move while visiting Sydney's Taronga Zoo.

This was an amazing zoo for me, which had the largest group of animals I'd never seen before, mostly because of Australia's unique set of marsupials. Platypus, kookaburra, bilby and the leopard seals just to name a few. This zoo has been around for almost a hundred years, and has very nice natural enclosures including this one where the emu, kangaroos, and wallabies roam.

Their bird show is excellent as well, and gives the best views of Sydney from across the water. You have to take a ferry from Circular Quay to get to Taronga, and its well worth the trip.

After seeing the zoo in fact, we used the ferries to take a tour of the Sydney waterfront. The sun set while we were on the water, and it was very nice as all the lights came out.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Feeling artistic

Another day in Sydney! On Saturday we'd tried to do the Sydney Tower in order to get our bird's eye view of the city, but learned that it was an hour wait up and an hour wait to come down. Not a good idea! So today we headed over there bright and early so that we could whip up to the observation deck at the 250 meter mark. It was a gorgeous day, and the views did not disappoint. This is a view of St. Mary's Cathedral from the Sydney Tower.

In fact, it was so nice that we decided to hit more of Sydney's green spaces like Hyde Park and Archibald Fountain, on our way over to St. Mary's Cathedral. Of course, by the time we'd reached the bottom, the storm clouds had started to gather. This is a view of the Sydney Tower from St. Mary's.

Following St. Mary's we went over to the Hyde Park Barracks, a museum showcasing what it was like to be thrown in prison after you misbehaved after being sent to the giant prison of Australia. Hint: it wasn't fun. Next we wandered over to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to get our refill of culture, before heading back to the Sydney Tower to run through OzTrek--a motion ride tour of Australia. I'm sure the designers meant well, but that is definitely a D-ticket ride.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

On top of the world

Sunday was my first full day in Sydney, and our goal was modest: see the two biggest architectural landmarks in Sydney. First was the Sydney Opera House. We took the roundabout approach--coming in from the Royal Botanical Gardens.

The hour long tour is very well done. It was a mix of short prerecorded videos on the history shown between seeing the different venue. Our tour had one guide and there were about twenty people on the tour. After hearing about the history and seeing the performance venues (there is a concert hall and space for plays in addition to the opera stage), we were sold, and we decided to get two tickets to an opera that they were performing on Tuesday.

Next we took another run through the gardens, followed by a trip by Circular Quay. This is where many of the ferries leave for various outlying parts of the city. Then it was time for me to get ready for my twilight climb of Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The bridge was built in the late 1920's (you can see it behind the opera house in the photo above) and is over a thousand meters long and 139 meters high. The Sydney Bridge Climb has been operating for almost ten years. They have strung a cable from the base up to the top span, across the bridge, and then down to the other side. They do not allow any loose objects up on the climb (including cameras) for obvious reasons, but they have a couple stops set up for the guides to take pictures.

The picture above was on the way up the bridge. For a while it looked like I might not get to do it--they suspend operations when there is a lightening storm within 10 km, and one passed through just as my group was heading up to the top. Fortunately it passed, and by the time we were coming down the other side, it was nightfall, giving a great view of the city.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

To Sydney!

Today I flew down to Sydney to connect with my Mom coming in from Seattle via San Francisco. Meeting at the airport went fine-but then the first problem arose.

Every vacation must have its little hiccups, and mine came when I first opened my suitcase to find that the four pairs of long pants so carefully selected for the trip where nowhere to be found. Fortunately we were in Sydney, one of the world's greatest cities, right?

They do indeed have some fabulous shopping (the above picture of the Queen Victoria Arcade is but one of the many fantastic locations.) However, I was a bit stymied in my search. The problem is my body shape. My height is 5' 11", but most of that is in my upper body. While I have a waist of 38", my inseam is a mere 29", very short for my height. In the US, men's pants are sold by waist and inseam, but as I discovered, the same is not true in Australia. They sell by waist, followed by three choices of long, regular, or short for inseam. And even the short pants were about two or three inches too long to be wearable for me.

This is when it helps to be traveling with one's Mom. She had brought along her little emergency travel sewing kit, and was able to turn up a pair of pants for me that lasted beautifully through all the climbs and hikes yet to come. Thanks Mom!

After having toured the downtown, the next stop was Darling Harbour. This is waterfront Nirvana for tourists, boasting museums and restaurants in profusion. Our main stop was the Sydney Aquarium, where we were introduced to several of the fish and reptiles that we'd be seeing in the weeks to come.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Great Barrier Reef

The final day at Hamilton Island was a beaut: the sun shown all day with nary a hint of rain. And that was good timing, because the last day was the excursion day where conference attendees were free to spend the day seeing the sights. Most of the conference (myself included) decided to take a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef.

It was a bit nerve wracking for me, as I'd decided to take an introductory scuba diving lesson. This could possibly be the scariest thing I've ever done--in the swimming pool before we went down to the reef I was pretty sure that I was going to cough or sneeze or somehow lose my respirator and drown. Once we were down on the reef all those feelings faded. It is a unique experience being down in the water without the natural time limit of holding your breath. Moving among the fish (who clearly had seen us before and weren't threatened in the least) was like flying through a fantasy landscape. Being with the "never dived before" group meant that there were four of us and one instructor.

I was pretty sure that I was the only one scared half out of his mind, but found out later that another member of my group was actually hyperventilating in the swimming pool from nervousness. Unfortunately, the instructor had to take him back ten minutes earlier because he had run through more of the oxygen in his tank.

I'm glad I got the full experience, back on dry land it seems as scary as before, and I'm pretty sure I'll go through full training before I head back underwater again.

The boat returned to Hamilton Island around 5:00, giving time to find a nice spot to watch the sunset. I stumbled across the "Hamilton Island Observatory" and a bunch of vacationers waiting for the colors to show. They even had a mobile snack and drink bar set up. Ah, the tropics.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cabaret ISBA 2008

Thursday was the last day of talks at ISBA 2008, culminating with a keynote by Tony O'Hagan on elicitation. Overall this was a great conference. I enjoyed the talks, and felt that they hit the right mix of diversity on topics and level.

Of course, at a Bayesian conference, the end of talks is when the party begins. That night was the banquet, followed by the entertainment. At all the Bayesian conferences I've been too, the entertainment is provided by the attendees at a Cabaret that anyone can join in on. I myself sung a little ditty called "The Simulator" accompanied by Gareth Roberts and Jeff Rosenthal. There is a video up on YouTube for those brave enough to watch--I'm not putting a link because although the crowd was into it, as a performance piece it's not my best work. I do plan to put a recording of myself singing up on my site when allergy season is over. For now, though, enjoy the lyrics, sung to the tune of "The Gambler":

On a warm summer's evening, on a plane bound for ISBA,
I met up with the Simulator, we were both too tired to speak,
so we took turns a'staring, out the window at the darkeness,
'Til boredom overtook us, and he began to speak.

He said, "Son I've made a life, out of reading people's data",
and knowing what their numbers tell, but the way their series lies,
So if you don't mind my saying, I can see you're out of models,
for a look at your data, I'll give you some advice."

So I handed him my laptop, and he downloaded my last file,
Then he bummed a thumbdrive, and I watched its blinking light,
and the night got deathly quiet, and his face lost all expression,
he said, "If you're running chains, boy, you gotta learn to run them right."

You've got to know when to propose them, know when to reject them,
know when to stop a chain, know when to run,
you never find your error, while your taking samples,
there'll be time enough for error bars, when the chain is done.

Now every runner knows, that the secret to chain burn-in,
is knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep,
because every run is perfect, and every run is worthless,
and the best that you can hope for is results you can repeat.

And when he'd finished speaking, he turned back towards the window,
Shut down his black ThinkPad, and faded off to sleep,
and somewhere in the darkness, his chain it reached convergence,
But his final words, I found a trick that I could keep.

You've got to know when to propose them, know when to reject them,
know when to stop a chain, know when to run,
you never find your error, while your taking samples,
there'll be time enough for error bars, when the chain is done.

You've got to know when to propose them, know when to reject them,
know when to stop a chain, know when to run,
you never find your error, while your taking samples,
there'll be time enough for error bars, when the chain is done.

You've got to know when to propose them, know when to reject them,
know when to stop a chain, know when to run,
you never find your error, while your taking samples,
there'll be time enough for error bars, when the chain is done.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I'm back!

I have returned from Australia in one piece! The usual adjectives describe my trip: wonderful, exhilarating, exhausting. I'm still far too jet lagged to describe it in detail, so I'll probably put down my thoughts about the trip in the coming days and I work through my notes and pictures. For convenience, I'll just blog about the day exactly three weeks before.

So this being just after midnight Wednesday in the US, I'll describe what my Wednesday was like at Hamilton Island during ISBA 2008. The lunch was supposed to be a beach barbecue but the rain intervened. So instead I hit the hiking trails. The view wasn't too great, too much cloud and mist for that, but it felt good to get a little exertion after sitting and listening to talks for a few days.

My poster was Tuesday night, and it seemed to go over well with the crowd (you can view the poster here). It was never a dull moment--I was kept busy explaining the work all night long. Moreover, it looks like the session will lead to a new collaboration, and that's always a good thing.