Saturday, May 27, 2006

No hurry to find a place

Well, I appear to be tackling the accommodation-finding project with about as much enthusiasm as writing a program in assembly (sorry, a little computer "joke" there. That’s very little enthusiasm for the non-techies out there(!)).

The shared accommodation I had a look at recently required a longer commitment than I was willing to give. The single/studio "units" (apartments) I've looked at were spectacular (picture standing in your living room, looking out the floor-ceiling windows and seeing just the blue harbour with the bridge and the opera house behind) but after getting over the view, all that’s left at the end of the day is an empty apartment to come home to...

Which leaves the current place I'm living in (Alfred Park Hostel) and the real reason for my lethargic searching. Would I really want to leave the easy-to-make-new-friends environment, the regular "wine tasting" sessions with the buddies (it usually takes a couple of bottles for the taste to come through ;), the free wireless broadband internet, the private room with ensuite all of which gets cleaned by someone else (and yes, mum, I do keep my room clean also(!)), the great location near central train station, and so many other plusses?

The only minor downside is sharing the kitchen but even that can be interesting. There was somebody there this evening who had clearly never cooked for himself before: I no longer wonder what would happen if someone were to put a big sandwich role into the microwave and turn it on, without taking the tinfoil wrapping off first...!

So, ironically, I guess I'll be staying in the one place (a hostel) that I initially found myself trying to avoid(!)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Job hunting is (currently) finished

Well, the job hunting is finished: I am now a productive, tax paying member of Australian society. I have taken on a contract with "Bullseye" ( to do an ASP.Net + SQL Server website. The contract is initially three months in duration but if things work out there is the possibility that it might be extended to six months, or even a more permanent position.

The job hunting took longer than expected. I had been advised before coming here that I should start applying for jobs on arrival into Sydney, or even before arriving: when the time came, though, I figured I'd just spend some time doing the tourist sights first and so it wasn't until two weeks after arriving into Sydney that I started looking. Even then, I only applied for one or two jobs and was in no particular hurry, which wasted another couple of weeks.

In the end, though, it all came together rather quickly: applied on Wednesday, phone interview Thursday, technical face-to-face interview Friday afternoon and the contracts were signed an hour later.

Naturally, within an hour of signing, the flood of available positions from other recruiters started pouring in and between Friday arvo (see: I'm starting to pick up the local lingo(!)) and on Monday I had to decline half-a-dozen promising positions. It may have been a coincidence, but on the other hand I had a week previously changed my CV to clarify my experience (for the techies: very few people had heard of Sharepoint or the Compact Framework, so a clarification of what they were (ASP.Net and Winforms) was put in).

With regards to the job websites, and were the most fruitful. I did get the impression that there were more jobs being advertised for than there actually were in reality: multiple recruiters were retained by companies to find candidates and so multiple-similar ads would appear. Also, on applying for a job that had been posted only hours previously, I would sometimes get an email back straight away saying that the position had been filled (already?!) but that they would keep my CV in case anything else came up (indicating that the ad was more of a CV-harvesting exercise).

Still, those harvesting recruiters were fortunately few and far between: the vast majority of the recruiters I dealt with were positive, helpful and enthusiastic.

As for the .Net (its a programming language, for the uninitiated) skill breakdown, the following is how the main skills are ranked in terms of popularity of available positions:
1) ASP.Net. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of positions were for ASP.Net, preferably with SQL Server or (less frequently) Oracle. Having these skills on the CV is a big plus and is one of the factors which attracted me to the Bullseye position.
2) Winforms & Sharepoint. In tied second place are Winforms and Sharepoint (separately). Both appeared with about the same frequency, but due to a shortage of Sharepoint developers, having Sharepoint skills is seen as being a major plus.
3) Compact Framework. Companies looking for this experience are rare but if you have the experience you could find yourself in demand due to a shortage of suitable developers. However, while I was job hunting I did not see any Compact Framework roles.

I did find the job hunting to have a steep learning curve on the regulatory side of things. So, here are the main points:

There are two types, "Holiday" (no work allowed) and "Working Holiday" visa (work allowed, but with restrictions). Could you get away with just a holiday visa and still pick up an IT job? I guess its possible, but the VAST majority of ads state that applicants must how a working related visa, so it would be tough starting with just the holiday visa.
The main restriction with the Working Holiday visa is that you are limited to three months with the same employer. However, if your employer has multiple offices you could work for the Sydney office for the first three months, the Melbourne office (but in the Sydney office) for the next three months, etc. The visa regulations are being changed to allow a straight six months with the same employer (in the same location), but those changes don't come into effect until July 2006 and apparently they are not retrospective so my visa will still be limited to three months.

So, you don't have a working visa, or you have a working visa but want to stay with the same employer for an extended period (upto four years)?, then you will want sponsorship from a company. This takes a couple of weeks to be processed, must be done by an employer and has the unfortunate side effect of canceling your previous visa, meaning that if you leave your sponsorship then you have 28 days to leave the country(!)... Still, its seen as being the way to go. I don't need it (yet) as I am doing a three month contract, which fits in with the standard Working Holiday Visa regulations, but if I want to stay on longer then I may need sponsorship.

Contracting v. Permanent
If you want a permanent job, then you will need to find a company which offers sponsorship and not all do...
The more flexible approach is to get a contracting role as this may allow you to retain your existing visa. So, one approach you could take for example, is that you could get a three month contract to get some money together and then spend the remaining nine months traveling around Oz. Alternatively, you could get rolling-contracts, one after the other.
Being a contractor, you will need to be contracted from some company. For the brave, you could set up your own company and contract yourself out from it, but keep in mind that you will need to arrange your own insurance and sort out the tax yourself. The easier approach is to go with a contract management company (such as Lesters Associates of Sydney) who takes care of everything for you (for a small monthly fee, naturally).
The usual path is to start out as a contractor and if things work out then you could become sponsored and permanent.

Money-wise, the salaries being quoted here are a lot higher than back home. You can also, generally, claim your tax & pension back though there are time-based restrictions (e.g. If you stay for a couple of years, you may not be able to claim back the tax for the initial year(s)).

So, there you have it: the job is sorted out. Next task, find suitable accomodation, which hopefully won't take as long to sort out...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Powerhouse Museum (Sydney)

May 7th, 2006:

I had intended upon visiting Sydney's biggest museum yesterday, but felt too relaxed after the Chinese gardens to face walking around for half a day at least around a museum, but I came back to Darling Harbor refreshed for the trek today.

So, today's exploration was of the Powerhouse Museum. This museum has a mere 380,000 things to see and at any one time only a fraction of that is on display depending on what themed-exhibits they set up. Despite there being only a fraction available, I still spent over four hours there and at that I did not stop to read any of the descriptions next to each item: it was more of a frantic brisk walk around just to see what "little" they had on show that day.

So, on walking in, there was the "Design throughout the ages" exhibit which showed how design had evolved over the centuries with original furniture, dresses and jewelry. I did not spend much time here as (amazingly) jewelry and dresses do not interest me much(!)

However, something in the next section was facinating: they had the world's oldest existing steam engine. This engine was not a locomotive engine as it predated trains(!): it was used to extract things from coal mines and was the third wheel-turning engine ever created. Even more surprising was that it still works and there are regular demonstrations in the museum of the steam engine turning a big wheel attached to it.

Next to the Watt steam engine was another interesting item: a model of the cathedral clock in Strasborg. At regular intervals, based on the timing mechanisms in the clock, little characters would move around the clock structure.

Other sections in the museum were the Space exhibit(satellites, rocket parts, replicas of space ships, etc), the automotive items (old trains and old & new cars), the Cyber exhibit (everything from an early TV and original Enigma machine to modern robotics), the chemistry exhibit, and too many others to mention.

There was even a temporary Kylie Minogue exhibition which was arranged like a darkened art gallery. On show was the singer's photo shoots, the actual dresses from the videos (I nearly missed the "Spinning Around" dress, it was so compact!) and even had a row of her actual awards, including Grammys, EMIs, MTV awards, platinum disk awards, etc.

As you enter the museum you can get a yearly membership which costs 60 dollars (as opposed to the once off 10 dollars entrance fee) and I had wondered upon entering first if you would really come back multiple times to the place. Well, I don't wonder any more: as it was, I barely saw the current range of items on show: as the exhibits change every couple of weeks I may find myself coming back again, and again, and...

Chinese Garden of Friendship (Sydney)

May 6th, 2006:

I have a handy guide book of Sydney and it seems there are thirteen major things to do at Darling Harbor. I have only done three of them, so today I took a look at the fourth thing-to-do there: the Chinese Garden of Friendship.

Darling Harbor itself had a very Asian theme to it today as it was Budda's birthday and there were many celebrations taking place including a Buddhist wedding, all of which set the stage nicely for entering the Asian gardens.

The Gardens themselves were a gift from the Guandong Province of China and were created in 1988 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the European settlement of Australia. It is the largest garden of its type outside China and provides a soothing haven from the hustle and bustle of the nearby city.

Despite being relatively new, the gardens look timeless with mature weeping-willows hanging over tranquil lakes and the only sound being the gurgle of small waterfalls. The gardens and the architecture of the buildings look so authentic that its hard to believe that you have not traveled to China itself. The final addition to the convincing illusion is that you can put on traditional Chinese garments and it is mesmerizing to be standing in a traditional Chinese garden, looking at traditional Chinese buildings and then to see someone in traditional clothes emerge from the building.

The gardens cost six dollars to enter and are a pleasant, relaxing way to spend a couple of hours.

Back to Manly and panoramic photos

2nd May 2006:

Knowing that this nice weather won't last forever, today I took a ferry back to Manly Beach. I didn't bother bringing any beach related stuff as the plan was to lie-out on the grassy area next to the beach: imagine my surprise after traveling for nearly 3/4 hour to get there when it turned out that the grassy areas were closed to allow the grass to grow...

So, I went on a little walk and soon found myself at the improbably named "Cabbage Tree Bay", which sits alongside Manly Beach. This little cove is popular with snorkelers as it it is protected from the waves by a headland and the beach itself had nice, golden sand.

During the course of the afternoon I took a couple of photos of the bay but it became clear that the best way to capture the place was to get a panoramic photo. A normal shot only takes in so much of a scene: to get a panoramic photo, you just take multiple normal shots and join them up later on a computer to end up with a wider/taller photo. Most digital cameras have a panoramic or "stitch-assist" mode which helps you take photos which overlap slightly, enabling easier joining/blending later.

There have been many times since leaving Ireland where it would have been nice to have taken a panoramic photo (e.g. the beach+sea+mountains of Koh Tao and more recently the mountain range of the Blue Mountains), but doing so would require installing software on a computer to stitch the photos together, which is not possible in an Internet café... or would it?

So, that afternoon at Cabbage Tree Bay I took three shots for a panoramic photo and that evening I hunted around the Internet for suitable software which didn't have to be installed and which could run from a USB memory key. Eventually I came across the free "AutoStitch" software for combining individual photos into one panoramic and also found the "Portable Gimp" for image editing as I have been unable to do even the most basic editing (such as cropping) for the past couple of months. I could run both programs from my USB memory key.

The resulting panoramic photo is in the Manly section of my photo gallery. It turned out well enough, but there is a slight fish-bowl effect due to the curvature of sand-raking which had been done on the beach and is in the foreground of the photo. I had also taken panoramic-ready photos of the harbor, while at the Botanical gardens, and that photo (in the Sydney section of the photo gallery) came out better with no apparent distortion.

So, if you're looking to add an extra dimension to your photos, try Google "AutoStitch".

Botanical Gardens and more of Maritime Museum (Sydney)

31st April 2006:

Well, its been another week of doing the tourist sights around Sydney. Its still quite easy get around, weather-wise, as it is still mostly dry. There was a piece on a news channel on just how dry it was in April: usually there is 127mm of rainfall in April but this year there was a mere 7.9mm(!)

So, seeing as it is still warm with blue-skies, today's activity was a walk around the Royal Botanical Gardens. Despite giving the walk the better part of a day, I still only saw a fraction of the place as it is spread over 30 hectares. Established in 1816, it boasts over 7500 trees which even includes a rare tree from the Jurassic-era. One of the things I liked about the place was that the signs, instead of saying "Please keep off the grass", said "Please walk on the grass"(!). Admission is free and you'll also get great views of the harbor area and of the city skyline.

The following day I went back to the Maritime Museum to walk around the Naval Vessels berthed outside. While they do have a Vietnamese fishing boat(!), what I had actually come to see was the HMAS Navy Destroyer Vampire, the HMAS Submarine Onslow and a replica of Captain Cook's Endeavor. The "Big Ticket", at a cost of 30 dollars gives you access to everything at the Maritime Museum and is the most cost effective way of seeing the three vessels.

First stop was the Destroyer, "The Vampire". Now, while you do get a free audio guide to describe the various ship systems, the much better route is to go with the free guided tour which departs every hour or so. I initially went with the audio-guide but found it to be confusing and based on its lack of use by the other tourists, I probably wasn't alone in that confusion I therefore joined an already-in-progress tour being given by an ex-naval officer and found his information and anecdotes much easier to follow. The ship is in a good state of repair and the highlights were sitting in the captain's chair, watching and listening to a radio operator communicating in Morse code, marveling at the guns, and exploring the rooms and corridors below the main deck. Sadly the engine room was closed, but otherwise just about everywhere was accessible.

Berthed alongside the Destroyer (what a great name!) was the submarine, "The Onslow". Unlike the ship, every area of the sub was accessible (although I admit I didn't try climb into a torpedo tube). A certain amount of physical dexterity is required to enter the sub as you have to clamber up down four narrow ladders, set at a 45 degree angle, and going through the bulkhead hatches requires you to bend over double while stepping over a small metal lip.

When you descend the first set of stairs, you find yourself in the torpedo room. There are no electronic audio guides for the sub: instead volunteers located at strategic points in the vessel helpfully describe to you what happened in the sub and what it was like the crew it. So, a retired officer in the torpedo room showed us the torpedoes, the launch tubes and described how the technology changed over the years. For example, he was saying that modern torpedoes don't do what they typically do in the movies: instead of hitting a target directly, they go under the target ship/sub and explode there: its the resulting vacuum from the explosion which causes most of the damage.

Next to the torpedo room was the main crew sleeping area, with bunks lining the wall. Space was at a premium so there wasn't much space available to a bunk and it was easy to imagine that there was probably a few bumped heads climbing in and out of them.

Past the main sleeping area was a hallway with more bunks on one side and various rooms on the other, including a microscopic galley and rooms for the officers. Along the hallway, as with everywhere else on the sub, were exposed pipes, wiring, valves and other mechanical bits and pieces: functionality, rather than comfort, appeared to have been the primary goal in the design process.

Next stop was the bridge which was smaller than what I was expecting: there was barely enough room for two people to stand side by side in places. Equipment ruled here also with the equipment for navigation and weapons being the most easily recognizable. Also easy to spot was the periscope and a small desk for plotting routes on maps: I seem to recall that my desk at work was bigger(!)

After the bridge was the engine room with its two rows of diesel engines, followed by a storage room and the stairs out.

I found the sub to be an interesting example of how much stuff you can cram into a small area. One bit of advice though: don't do as I did and visit it at the weekend. The battleship was large enough such that I was able to avoid the crowds of excited 5-year olds running about: on the sub, however, there was no escape...

After the (slightly old) technological tour de force of the sub, it was time to jump back in time and explore Captain Cook's Endeavor. When I first saw it I thought it looked in remarkably good condition for a 200+ year old ship: sadly its just a replica rather than the real thing(!) Even as a replica, though, it is in spotless condition: it looks like it was made yesterday and looks like it could sail around the world at a moments notice.

Similar to the sub, you made your own way around and at key points there was somebody there to help you out. For me, the level below the main deck was the most interesting: there were hammocks for the crew on the port side and a dining area on the starboard side. We were shown a cat-of-nine-tails whip (which, it seems, is related to the true origin of the expression "not big enough to swing a cat"). There was a very low ceiling between the crew's area and the officer's quarters: it was a security measure for the officers and if crew members tried to storm the officers area, they'd have to move, hunched over at the waist, through that area which gave the officers standing at the other side the advantage. The officer's area itself was similarly well appointed with the captain's room being substantially bigger than the equivalent room on the newer vessels.

Overall, you'd be hard pressed to do everything at the maritime museum in a day: the ships & sub took me about four hours to do and by the end of them I would not have been able to do the museum also (thankfully I had done the half-day museum tour previously). I found it to be a well presented exhibition and definitely worth making the trip to see it.