Sunday, January 17, 2010

Board Game Geek

I've pretty much been playing games my whole life. Back in junior high school there was a club called the Gaming Society, where we'd stay after school to play games. The big thing at the time was Marshals & Myrmidons, a role playing game the teacher sponsoring the club had created. Of course the club was open for all types of games, but we didn't often play any others.

Even being in Australia I've found a group of friends who really enjoy playing games. I thought I was quite the gamer until I met these guys. Recently one of them told me about a great website called What is cool about it is that it has a pretty extensive database about almost every game I could think of, with a description, brief outline of rules, comments, ratings, etc. You can also create your own library of games, and then view them on your mobile phone.

Yes, I am a board game geek, but I'm sure everyone sits down to a game every now and then.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Do Not Call Lists

I just got an email saying my tax forms are ready for the 2009 year. I've been sitting here going through the forms and seeing if I have to pay or fill out any forms this year since I actually haven't made any money. Turns out I don't, in case you were wondering.

The process reminded me of a funny story I thought I'd share on my little blog here. A few years back I was driving through Baltimore City with some friends when I got a phone call. (NOTE: I know you're not supposed to talk on a cell / mobile phone and drive but this was back when everyone was much more stupid... if that's possible.) Being the good, focused driver I am... and with the radio and friends in the car I didn't quite hear what the person on the phone was saying. They sounded quite business-like, and I concluded the call was some kind of telemarketing pitch.

I responded, "Oh, no thank you. Can you please add me to your do not call list?"

After a pause I clearly heard the lady respond back, "Sir. This is the IRS. We don't have 'Do not call lists." She then laughed and repeated, "Do not call list..."

I immediately pulled the car over to the side of the road so I could focus all of my attention on her. Turns out she needed a form I had not included with my tax return and was calling to give me information on where to send it so my return could be processed. I was both shocked that the IRS was actually calling me (don't they normally send letters or scary men in suits and dark glasses to your place of work...) and that they were proactively attempting to help me complete my return in an efficient manner. Some businesses I have dealt with, I'm looking at you Comcast and Verizon, were far from proactive even when I was trying to give them money.

So just in case any of you are wondering, the IRS does not have a 'Do not call list.'

Monday, January 4, 2010

Great Australian Sandstorm

I guess since I don't update my blog as often as I should I probably can't expect there to be that many responses to my reader's poll. I'm happy that someone is reading it though... so easy to get lost in all that is the internet.

Australian Sandstorm it is. I've been trying to figure out how to write blog entries without them being chock-a-block of pictures, but how can you talk about something like this dust storm without pictures? (My internet miming skills are a bit rusty at this point.)

So without further adieu, here is my story. The night was dark and stormy. Winds swept through the maze of buildings that is Brisbane city, creating a faint howling sound that slowly slipped through the windows of my apartment. A solitary crow squawked in tree on the corner that could only mean something was about that happen. Sounds ominous, eh? None of that is true.

There real story is that there was really nothing unusual about the day when I woke up on the 23rd of September. I had a short list of errands to run, and some studying to do for classes at uni. I was in the midst of my morning rituals when I happened to notice the morning news a little more excited than usual. I looked up at the TV and noticed everything seemed a bit red. The news reader then told viewers "Do not adjust your set, this is an actual picture of the weather outside." To illustrate, check out this picture released after the storm on one of the news websites showing a before and after.

Fascinating. I watched for a few more minutes as they described how a storm had whipped up dust from the interior of Australia and was spreading it towards the eastern seaboard. Sydney, where most of the nationwide news broadcasts are located, was one of the first cities to be affected by the storm. According to the weathermen, Brisbane wouldn't be far behind. I then opened the blinds on my window to see if I had been mysteriously been transported to Mars during the night, and this is what I saw.

Clearly we had not yet arrived on Mars, but the sky was a bit more dusty that it typically is. Here's a picture I took shortly after getting to Brisbane to show you what I normally would see when looking out the same window.

I was a little apprehensive about venturing out into a weather event, but Arron's run errands, so I went. My first stop was to get a Queensland driver's license. As I got to the Motor Vehicles office I noticed the sky was turning more red and snapped a quick picture.

After a quick half-hour I was now the proud owner of an Australian driver's license. I ventured outside again and noticed the thick of storm was upon us. Walking through the city I took a few more pictures. These next two show you how bad it got in Brisbane. The first is the center of Queen Street Mall, and normally you can see the building that is in the second picture just under the canopy in the center. I would say the distance from me to the building is only two city blocks, which according to Google Maps is about 300 meters away.

Walking through the city the wind wasn't blowing hard, but it was blustery. I think I saw Winnie the Pooh and his pals float by at one point. What was more annoying was the constant taste of dust in my mouth, and smell of dust in my nose as every breath inoculated my senses with a very earthy flavour. I did notice there were many people taking to the streets with their cameras to take pictures, and very few of them had dust masks on. The news had said there were few health hazards to being outside during the dust storm, but cautioned elderly people and people with breathing problems to stay inside.

By late afternoon the dust was starting to thin, and the thickest part of the storm had passed. This is what the city looked like at around 5pm, which was a mere 5 hours later.

Afterwards I found this cool satellite picture of the storm. Brisbane is almost the exact center of this picture just above the border between New South Wales and Queensland.

So here's some interesting information about the storm. The theory goes that due to drought conditions in the interior parts of Australia, the wind storm swept up the dust from farmer's fields and carried it to the coasts. While Martian like landscapes were one side effect, there were many others. For one, people's homes and cars were now coated with layers of dust. Water restrictions imposed by the State government were relaxed for the week following to allow people to clean up.

The dust also created a massive canvas for people to write parting messages to others...

Another interesting side effect, from a public health point of view, was an incident believed to have been caused by the dust storm. Water samples from a nearby reservoir had been tested and found to have unusually high levels of bacteria. The working theory is that the dust, blown in from farms, contained fertilizer that happens to be full of bacteria. When the dust coated the lake it also increased the bacteria and the potential risk to those swimming in it. So far as I'm aware no one actually got sick from it.

While I've experienced many dust storms in my life growing up in the Arizona deserts, I have to say that this was the most invasive one. Mostly because it wasn't followed by rain to clear everything away. This was more like a earthy fog that swept in and lingered for a few hours, then slowly drifted away. Everything smelled like dust for a few days afterward.