Monday, October 23, 2006

The Study in Study Abroad

I haven't really posted anything about what I'm actually doing in terms of school yet, so I thought I would do that.

My hardest class, the one that's been consuming a ton of my free time, especially this past week, is Software Engineering. It's designed to give realistic experience working as part of a team on a large-scale software project, so the whole class is project based (we work in teams of 6, randomly assigned). The project this semester was to design a control system for a robot that would travel around a factory floor (simulated on smaller robots about the size of canteloupes [or 'rockmelons' as they're called here]). Our robot takes commands from a user who has the map represented on their computer screen. The user tells the robot where on the map to travel to and optionally which sections to avoid, and it goes there, following black lines on the floor to stay on track. In real life it's about as impressive as it sounds, but it took a ton of work and we're all sort of proud of it (in a I-will-crush-you-if-you-make-one-more-wrong-turn sort of way). Besides all the coding, we also have hundreds of pages of documentation to show for it as well.

My other Comp Sci class is Operating Systems. It hasn't been nearly as much work, but it's still been fairly interesting. Earlier in the semester I wrote code to simulate several different process scheduling algorithms, and right now I'm simulating page replacement algorithms and then writing a report on them. Don't worry, I don't expect most of you to understand that last sentence.

Moving away from the sciences, I'm taking Film Studies, which has been quite fun. My big project in there was a paper exploring the use of cinematic techniques in Fight Club's treatment of masculinity.

My fourth class, 20th Century Australian History, has also been pretty interesting. I know a lot more now about Australian history than I did before (not really that hard, since before I knew absolutely zilch). Earlier in the semester I wrote a paper about the eugenics movement in Australia between WWI and WWII, focusing especially on the influence of Australian modernist artists like Max Dupain (photographer of the famous Sunbaker).

Rather than writing more about homework, I'm going to get back to doing it now.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Heysen Trail

I want to start off this post with an awesome message we found in the logbook of a campsite we passed on the trail:
"Tim, where are you? Are you lost? Are you lazy and at home? It's 1pm. We're leaving after eating lunch. Hope you're not lost, it'll be a pain in the arse getting someone to move into your room.

PS if anyone sees a skeleton in red lycra it's Tim. Can you bag him up and send his remains to his mum in Coffs Harbour."

Anyways, this is the rundown on the three-day hiking trip we took along the Heysen Trail, which runs near Adelaide.


We left on the second Wednesday of break (having had a couple days to recuperate from the outback trip). We took tents, sleeping bags, food, and everything else with us in backpacks. Four of us went: me, Katherine, Cassie, and Kyle (a friend we made here - an exchange student from William Jewell College). The trip lasted three days.

On the first day, we took a bus out to the Morialta Conservation park, where we picked up the trail. Morialta was beautiful, rewarding us for a steep climb with views of the city of Adelaide, the wooded hills surrounding us, and the gorge with waterfalls that ran through the park. After that, the trail followed a remote vehicle track that serviced the properties in the Adelaide hills area for a while. After a brief stint alongside a paved road, we turned off onto a path that went down a very, very steep hill. I'm talking steep. According to measurements I made from our map, the hill had an average grade of 31.6%, and some sections were even steeper than that. At the bottom we were rewarded with a very picturesque creek where we refilled all our water and spent a while just playing on the shore and such. Also Katherine made friends with some sheep. She named them 'Fluffykins', 'Brown Butt', and 'Dinner'.

After following the creek for a ways, we turned off into another conservation park. The afternoon involved a lot of climbing (300 vertical meters of it). By the time we made it to our campsite for the night, we were pretty tired. My rough measurements from the map estimate that we walked about 19km that day and did close to 600m of upward elevation change. Our campsite was just a flat grassy area that had been designated as a site. No toilet, water, fire grate, or anything like that. We had brought in frozen beef, so we grilled hamburgers over our little camp stoves, sat around the campfire for a while, and went to bed.

Since we had three days in which to go out and back, we stayed at the same campsite both nights, meaning that on the second day we could leave most of our stuff at the site rather than carry it with us, making it more like a day hike. We walked through more hills, which were all covered in eucalypt forests. Near lunchtime we started passing places that raised sheep and cattle. Just in time for lunch, we reached a "town", which was really just a paved road and a restaurant/gas station/convenience store. Still, we all felt like it was quite luxurious. We bought a plate of chips (french fries), used their bathrooms (with running water!), and asked for plastic forks as we had forgotten to bring cutlery on our trip. We sat in the courtyard (which had a beautiful view of the nearby hills), eating our chips and lunch we had brought with us. Then we turned around and walked back the way we had come, after first stopping for Cassie and Katherine to befriend some horses at the farm across the street.

The third day was pretty much the first day in reverse. Remember the hill I talked about? We had to climb back up that. Fun. We took a different route through the Morialta conservation park which took us past a couple nice waterfalls and such. We made it back by late afternoon and caught a bus back home in time for dinner.

Since I had done most of the planning, I was relieved that the trip had gone off without anything going seriously wrong. Even better, I had a very good time, and I think everyone else did too.

One of the coolest parts about the trip was that we got to see a lot of Australian animals actually in the wild. Among those we saw were:
  • Koalas (including a baby koala!!)
  • Kangaroos
  • Parrots
  • A fox
  • Skinks
  • tiny lizards (possibly Tawny Dragons)
  • SNAKE! SNAKE! Ohhh, it's a snake!
That last one was especially fun. For all the worrying about the many varieties of snakes that live in Australia, none of us had seen one in the wild until this trip. Early on the second day, we were walking along a grassy part of the trail when Kyle jumped at least one foot up and two feet sideways, simultaneously making a noise which I definitely can't transcribe accurately. I looked over in time to see it slither quickly off into the bushes. We don't know what kind it was (it looked black), but don't worry, it's overwhelmingly likely that it was horribly venemous. That was the only one we saw, but for the rest of the trip, every time we came across a skink (they seemed to like sunning themselves on the trail), Kyle would do the same jumping-in-the-air thing, which in turn made the rest of us very twitchy.

Also fun was the terrifying sounds around our campsite at night. We think it may have been wombats, but we don't really know. All we know is that once it was pitch dark, something would start making unnatural noises at regular intervals very near our campsite. The noises were unlike anything I've ever heard. I can't describe them very well, but imagine an eight hundred pound bulldog, and then imagine that it's purring loudly, and then imagine that punctuated by loud snorting/grunting noises. The sound would last for five seconds or so, and would happen probably every ten to thirty minutes. Sometimes the noises would circle our campsite. Other times, there wouldn't be any noise for a while, and then it would happen unexpectedly (like when Kyle went off into the dark to pee and suddenly the noise happened very, very close to where he was standing). We never saw anything, but apparently wombats make very strange noises, and we don't know what else would have been big enough to be that loud. So yeah, good times.

Alright, that's all I can think of to write. One more thing: I can't promise regular updates again now, since I'm back to the school routine and soon it's going to be finals time, which means I may not have a lot of time, and then I'll be traveling and who knows if I'll have much access to internet. I'll try to put up something once a week or so, but no promises.

Edit: Just remembered that we saw a fox too (even though they poison foxes here). More posts coming soon.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Outback Trip: Getting Home

A couple photos...

Once the trip ended in Alice Springs, we were free to go our own ways. A fair number of people flew from Alice up to Darwin or Cairns to sightsee (since we had a whole second week of break free). Since we were heading back to Adelaide, we chose the cheap option of riding back with the tour bus. We took a more direct route back, but it still took us the rest of Day 7 and most of the next. We were pretty sick of being on the bus, but the trip home turned out to be pretty tolerable. Since over half the group didn't come back on the bus, we each got our own pair of seats and could stretch out and stuff. All of the loud annoying girls were gone, so things were a lot more peaceful. And having a smaller group and no schedule to meet meant things were a little more relaxed.

We stopped for the night a little bit before Coober Pedy. We literally just turned off the road, drove into the bush a little ways, and set up camp. It's pretty strange to be able to do that without worrying about getting in trouble for using someone's land, but in the middle of the outback it's really not a problem. We had a nice campfire, and all sat around and talked. Bill, our guide, showed us a couple campfire games. It wasn't eventful, but it was still one of my favorite evenings of the trip. The next day we drove almost nonstop, and made it back to Lincoln in time for very long showers before dinner.

So there you have it. After a couple days recuperation, we went on a hiking trip, which I will tell you about in my next post. For now, I need to get some homework done.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Outback Trip: Days Seven and Eight

Photos! Well, actually only one photo. Sorry, there just wasn't much that called for photo-taking.

We spent the morning driving to Alice Springs. Around lunchtime we stopped to look around the historic Hermannsburg Mission. The mission was one of the first of its kind, and was pretty successful in taking in displaced Aborigines in the area. It also produced one of Australia's most famous Aborigines, Albert Namatjira. Most of the old buildings were still intact, and they had lots of old photos taken on the mission. For a tangent about Aboriginal issues, see below the main update.

After tea and scones at the visitor center, we traveled on to Alice Springs. It was the first time we had seen much in the way of civilization since Coober Pedy. We had some time to wander around the outdoor mall area of Alice, and then we headed to the nearby campground where we were spending our last night. The campground even had a pool, albeit small, salty, and populated with several unsettling water-creature-bug-things.

The next morning we visited the famous School of the Air, Australia's largest school (or is it the world's largest? I forget...). Created so that young children at remote stations in the outback could get schooling without leaving home, all classes were originally conducted over radios. These days they've switched to computers with a satellite linkup. We got to watch and listen to a teacher conducting a second grade class (learning about dinosaurs). After that, we ate a delicious brunch at a cafe, and that was it. The trip was over. Except getting back to Adelaide. More about that in the next post...

For now, here's a tangent:

The area around the Hermannsburg Mission at the present day is a lot of public housing for Aborigines. It was kind of a shock driving into the residential area. I mentioned a while ago how clean Australia is - even in Adelaide there's never any litter on the streets. Entering Hermannsburg, all of the sudden the sides of the road are strewn with all kinds of trash. The gas station we stopped at sold gas specially formulated so it couldn't be huffed. The whole place had a destitute air about it. It's pretty easy to tell that Aboriginal issues are still, as Bill Bryson puts it, "Australia's biggest social failing." I was reminded a lot of the Native American projects near our house in Minneapolis. It seems like these cultures are so incompatible with Western life that indigenous people are exceptionally vulnerable to all the corrupting aspects of Western culture.

Up through the first half of the twentieth century, almost everyone (even those sympathetic to the Aborigines) subscribed to the belief that they were a dying race, not likely to make it past this century. Given what they observed happening to Aboriginal communities, it's not really that outrageous of a conclusion to draw. Every time Westerners came into contact with a group of Aborigines, the tribe would almost immediately start showing signs of "degeneration." Western diseases wreaked havoc on them, Western vices like alcohol gripped them especially hard, and Western ideas like land ownership interfered with their traditional way of life. Seeing this cultural implosion, it's not that surprising that anthropologists thought Aborigines would fall completely under the onslaught.

To end on a brighter note, I feel like Australia is at least headed in the right direction. Don't get me wrong, there are still some serious, serious, issues that must be confronted, like the enormous gaps in education, health, family cohesion, and so on. But the progress Australia has made so far makes me hopeful that they will be able to tackle the big problems eventually. There's been an official government apology for what was done to Aborigines in the past. Some tribes have successfully claimed rights to their traditional land (Uluru is a notable example of that). Even just simple things, like the way places are referred to by their Aboriginal names rather than the names the settlers gave them, are a good way to get the general populace supporting the cause. I don't know of anything comparable that the US has done for Native Americans, at least in the Midwest. It seems like Australians have really figured out that this 40,000 year old culture is an amazing thing, and they're doing something to protect it.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Outback Trip: Day Six


In the morning it was back on the bus for more driving, this time to the Watarrka (King's Canyon) area. After lunch we hiked into the canyon. The canyon offered lots of stunning views and neat rock formations (trust me, all the landscape photos I uploaded are only a fraction of the ones I took). Some parts took us right alongside the edge of the cliff, where we could peek over. Australia seems to so far be unafflicted by the stupidity syndrome that pervades American tourist areas. Here they don't put up ten-foot safety railings, they just tell you that it's dangerous and trust that you'll be intelligent enough to keep yourself safe. Quite refreshing, really. It makes the experiences seem much more authentic.

Halfway through the hike we reached a permanent waterhole deep in the canyon, where stopped for a swim. Most of the outback is so dry that opportunities like this seemed like real luxuries. After that we drove back to King's Creek Station for the night.

It just occurred to me that I should talk about how we spent our evenings. We would build a fire (which we used for a lot of our cooking). The meals were on a rotating schedule, so whoever was on meal duty would go prepare supper while the rest of us unpacked the bus or just relaxed. After dinner we usually sat around the fire for a while. Bill, our tour guide, brought a guitar, so sometimes he would teach us songs, or give it to another guy in the group who played as well. We usually went to bed pretty early, the result of it getting dark early plus getting up early in the morning.

Outback Trip: Day Five


Day five was Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock). We spent an hour or so browsing the nearby cultural center, which explained the significance of Uluru in Aboriginal culture, as well as more general aspects of the culture of the tribes living in the area. The whole exhibit was very well made, and gave the impression that Aborigines were actually involved in the planning and creation of it.

Next we had a tour led by three guides, one white and the other two Aborigines. The Aborigines, Richard and Wayne, spoke Pitjantjatjara, their native language, while the third guide (whose name I forget) translated. They showed us traditional Aboriginal tools and customs, and the guys got to try our hand at using a spear thrower. The girls didn't get to try because it's a cultural taboo for women to use men's tools (and vice versa). After that, Richard told us a traditional story, illustrating by drawing in the sand. The tribes near Uluru have a number of stories they tell that involve Uluru, and often explain physical features of the rock. For example, in the story he told us, one of the characters (a lizard) stole some meat and hid in a cave high up on Uluru. The hunter he had stolen from built a fire to smoke him out, and he fell out of the cave, leaving bits of skin on the rock as he rolled down. Part of the rock near that cave is stained green, which they say is the lizard's skin.

Tourists like to climb Uluru, which is allowed, but the Aborigines prefer that people do not. Interestingly, it's not as much because Uluru is sacred to them (though that is one reason) as just that they would prefer people stay on the ground and learn about why Uluru is important to them. Richard told us, "Up there, it's just rock. There's nothing up there. The stories, the life, it's all down here. Why would you go up there just to see the same ground?" They also worry about people hurting themselves on the climb, a very real danger. Almost 40 people have died on Uluru, either from falling or heart attacks and the like from exertion. Our guides explained that it was okay if we chose to climb it, but they wanted us to think about it first. Whether it was what they said or the fact that the temperature was in the mid 30s (which translates to Fahrenheit as 'very hot'), everyone in our group chose not to climb it.

After lunch we hiked partway around the base of Uluru. I took tons of pictures trying to convey the immensity of the thing, but of course none of them really do it justice. I'll just say this: Uluru is huge. Breathtakingly huge. Its size is accentuated by the flatness of the land all around it (even right up to its base). It's one of those landmarks that should really be seen in person.

We stayed for a sunset on Uluru, viewed from a trail some distance away. Something about the atmosphere kept the sunset from producing all those gorgeous reds you see in pictures of Uluru, but the sunset itself was quite nice, and we could see Kata-Tjuta (The Olgas) off in the distance. We drove back to the same bush camp near Mt Conner for the night.

What struck me about Uluru is how well the owners have balanced different interests. Instead of becoming a trashy, overrun tourist trap (which is most definitely a danger), they've managed to accommodate the floods of sightseers while still preserving the cultural links of the native Aborigines. The land is administered jointly by a board of park rangers and Aborigines. The nearby resort (Ylara), instead of being glittering and huge, is actually so well built into the landscape that it's barely visible from the road. And instead of selling cheap imitation trinkets, the cultural center offers tours like the one we had and sells art by local Aboriginal artists. It felt like they were doing a lot to change the focus from sightseeing to education, which in my opinion is exactly what they should be doing. There are still a lot of unresolved social issues surrounding Aborigines (more on that in day 7), but it's nice to see that at least in some places Australians are doing a rather inspired job of accommodating both cultures.