Saturday, September 27, 2008

Back from Ithaca

I gave my talk on Tuesday, and I have to say, it went very well. Both on Monday and Tuesday I met with various friends from my graduate school years--including Kathryn Caggiano who was a year ahead of me at Cornell and now is back lecturing and organizing the Masters of Engineering program.

I also met three of the faculty members that joined after I left, Mark Lewis, Phillip Protter, and Shane Henderson. Another faculty member that joined last year, Dawn Woodard I already knew since I was on her graduate committee at Duke and we've coauthored several papers together.

Altogether it was a great experience, and I'm glad that I got the chance to head back there!

Monday, September 22, 2008


Tuesday I'm giving a talk at Cornell at the ORIE Colloquium. So I flew up to Ithaca on Sunday to do some sightseeing beforehand. There were a couple of places that I wanted to see.

First on the list was one of my favorite places to go when I was a graduate student, Taughannock Falls. These big falls aren't much to see this time of year, but the walk along the riverbed is still lots of fun.

Next I headed along the Caygua Wine Trail. There are a couple dozen wineries along Cayuga Lake, most with tastings. This was taken at the Thirsty Owl Winery which you can see overlooks Cayuga Lake.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Prep day

Tomorrow I'm flying out of RDU up to Ithaca, NY in order to give a talk at Cornell in my old graduate department: Operations Research and Industrial Engineering. So this is one of those prep days, my last chance to get my ducks in a row, my cards lined up, my &lsaquo object &rsaquo put in &lsaquo position object normally travels in &rsaquo .

To that end, I make "To Do" lists for the day. I try to keep them short and only consisting of the things that I absolutely must get accomplished today. I have other "To Do" lists that are general in the sense that they need to be done, but maybe not today. I'll write the "To Do" list down on paper I find around the house, and throw it away after the last one is crossed off.

My "To Do" list today is incredibly boring:

  1. Get Haircut
  2. Pack for trip
  3. Finish writing slides (10 to go!)

I am trying to get this done by 6:00 so that I can join the Statistics Departmental Party tonight. It was supposed to be two weeks earlier, but a hurricane threatened to come through and it was moved.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Ah September! Being in a southern state, the flowers are still blooming in full force as another high of 94 degree day settles upon Durham.

And with September, the academic year has also blossomed into meetings, classes, and conferences. Classes are now starting their third week, which means that the drop/add period is over and so classes have settled down to their expected size. My graduate "Topics in Probability" course has landed on a reasonable 16 people. More than small enough to give everyone all the help they need.

I'm only teaching one course this semester because I am also heavily involved in a SAMSI program: Sequential Monte Carlo methods. In the past, I've done work on methods that are both sequential and Monte Carlo, however, the specific phrase "Sequential Monte Carlo" means something very specific, and is an area that so far I've only brushed against.

From last Sunday through Thursday was the opening workshop, with tutorials on Sunday and regular talks Monday through Wednesday, followed by working group meetings on Thursday. These working groups will form the backbone of the research conducted by the program, and represents small groups of people with shared interests who meet weekly to look at specific problems. In my case, I'll be leading the "Theory" working group, and looking at ways to transform one of my algorithms for Monte Carlo into an algorithm for dealing with the types of problems used for Sequential Monte Carlo.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Last Day

Our last full day in Australia, and we thought to ourselves: We need to see more crocodiles! Beaches! Sunsets! And maybe actually have a hot breakfast for once, as up until now we'd been subsisting on Nutella and jelly sandwiches.

So we headed up the coast toward Hartley's Crocodile Adventures. On the way we stopped at one of the many beaches that you can't swim in due to jellyfish. They did warn us, however!

Next up was Hartley's Crocodile Adventure. The setup was similar to, but larger than the Rainforestation zoo. And of course, they were all about the crocodiles, which they not only display but raise for food and skin here. I had wondered why crocodile meat was so inexpensive. Feeding a crocodile a chicken a week makes raising them expensive, but the skin is so valuable that the meat is more or less just a byproduct.

After a great breakfast, we headed out for our boat tour. They have a small river/island set up where the crocs that aren't part of the farm can relax in the sun. Our boat driver also got to feed a couple of them. As this picture shows, when they want to leave the water, they can!

In addition to the crocodiles, they have a respectable zoo there. In fact, we got to see one more new animal. Australia does not have much in the way of large mammalian carnivores, with the dingo pretty much topping the list. Even rarer are the marsupial carnivores. The largest one is the quoll, a relative of the Tasmanian Devil, and the zoo had two that they had acquired in the last month. They were still pretty shy, and hissed continuously at the keeper when he placed baby chicks around their enclosure for them to "hunt", but because they were feeding we got to see both the male and female.

At the end of the day they had another demonstration with the crocodile. They are truly stupid creatures. The croc handler had a chunk of fake food on the end of a rope, and swung it out for the croc to grab. At that point the croc was safe to be around. All the croc needed to do to get the handler was open its jaws, but once it got the fake bait in their mouth it refused to let go no matter what. But they're also fast and dangerous, so most of the demonstration was about croc safety when going camping in the Outback. Following our day at the zoo, we headed up the coast. At the Rex Lookout there were some hang gliders about to take off, but most people were just tourists taking pictures of the wonderful view like we were.

Further up the coast is the tourist mecca of Port Douglas. We found a nice restaurant right on the water's edge, and seemed a great way to end the day. We did get a surprise on our way out of town at dusk: bats were just coming out to feed, and there must of been thousands of them darkening the sky.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Riding high

The next day we headed to the rainforest. Specifically, to the Skyrail--a gondola ride that first gives you a great view of the rainforest from above, and then stops at a couple locations for a closer look. At the first stop, a ranger leads a tour around showing what the locals used the various plants for.

At the top of the Skyway is Kuranda, a tourist type village filled with small cafes and souvenir shops. Also in Kuranda was our next stop: the Rainforestation Nature Park. The first part of the park is a small zoo, here we saw our first wombat of the trip.

The next part of the park we visited was a short Duck tour of the rainforest. Yes, the same Army Ducks that have graced the Wisconsin Dells for so long. For those who haven't had the experience, Ducks are amphibious vehicles made during WWII that can drive on land or in water. They're going on over sixty years old now and still operating, which is amazing in an of itself.

Next we entered the Aborigine part of the park. First there was some dancing, followed by some demonstrations: the spear-thrower, the didgeridoo, and the ever popular boomerang. They let us throw one: I'm happy to say that mine came back, but I couldn't quite catch it. Not a good idea to just hold up your hand--instead you slap your hands together as is whizzes through. Mine was headed to fast for me, maybe next time.

By this time we were exhausted, but still managed to haul ourselves back to Cairns and Barnacle Bill's for the seafood platter. A guy's got to eat!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ready, set, snorkel!

Our first day in Cairns I'd signed us up for an all day snorkeling trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. The set up was a little different than the trip out from Hamilton Island. First, even though it was cheaper, the equipment was better all around--we got full scuba-style wetsuits even while snorkeling, and the snorkels they used seemed higher quality.

And the location! I saw more fish in the first five minutes where they took us than in the entire time at the other place. There were far too many fish for me to remember all of them, but I know that I saw an enormous school of yellowtail blue damsels really distinctive because of their bright colors. I also saw a moorish idol, which I recognized thanks to "Finding Nemo".

The worst part was the trip back--the seas were getting rough, and our tiny ship was tossed. So tossed, in fact, that at least one passenger did a little tossing of their own. Fortunately, the front and back of the ship were full of fresh ocean air. From the front you could see where they were doing controlled burns of sugar cane fields. Altogether, it was a great trip, and I'll recommend the Tusa Dive tour to everyone I know!

Alice Springs Desert Park

Nestled at the foot of the West MacDonnell range is Alice Springs Desert Park, a fantastic little zoo dedicated to the wildlife found in the center of Australia. The park is divided into three areas: one for the Red Centre, one for desert rivers, and one for the woodland areas. This last blends nicely into the West MacDonnell National Park, and the zoo had several native animals wandering around visiting the area in addition to the ones in cages.
They have quite a variety. This was the first time I'd heard of a numbat, let alone seen one.

The Red Centre area is somewhat different from what we saw on the way up, mainly due to the fact that they maintain it so that it looks like it would after a rainstorm had come through. This means that all the grasses and flowers are blooming, which is quite a sight.
They also have an excellent bird show, showing off the local hawks and the tool using birds getting into emu eggs. They also have several aviaries. Any zoo with desert creatures has to have a nocturnal house to show off the small mammals like this Bilby that only come out at night.

After the park, it was time to say goodbye to the center of Australia and head back to the northeast. Next stop, Cairns!