15 March 2011

The call of the astroidians

They've got a yen, and will not be denied. This trip will be longer than my previous visits, because this time they've set aside a deli section for me to fill.

As usual when I leave for Asteroid * , I leave you with a glimpse of a treasure so great and full of mysteries, that worlds of study are mere bits of dust upon its surface.

14 March 2011

How to survive an American luxury hotel

Some days there is too much news. So today's column will instead, contemplate that peculiar instrument of temptation and torture, the "coffee/tea maker"—finishing this long meal of words with a brisk mention of that other item "featured" in hotel guest-rooms: the refrigerator.

Your correspondent, a citizen of the world, flying into the USA from Australia, recently stayed in a hotel that bills itself as "luxury", though it stoops to offer conference deals to the likes of me, which is why this survival guide exists.

On arriving after an interminable (patience, reader! venting necessary, but this won't be a complete blow-out) plebe-class journey (a large part of it taken up with the big Q: how can an airline legally sell a full-fare ticket to a seat that only a person with one leg can use with any degree of stoicism, the other space under the seat in front being entirely taken up with a metal box stuffed with something useful to something, but not a passenger) err, upon arrival, then three more hours' travel . . .

. . . (finally!) the check-in to The Hotel was efficient, the room pleasantly large and unmusty, the bed firm, the sheets crisp and white; and the shower was hot and beautifully full-strength on the muscles. The robe was roomy enough for the person who must have broken the scale at the unbelievable number it was stuck on, but the scale was only a curiosity to play on after the shower – the Great Necessity at This Point being, of course: that first cup of tea, followed by another with a pile of pre-conference work that had to be faced.

The coffee/tea maker wasn't the plug-in jug that is common to even the commonest of Australian overnight stops. Nor was there a generosity of tea. Only two small one-cup tea bags. The bags, branded "F______ Hotels & Resorts" have airs—one green and one black tea with descriptions including "Jasmine Butterfly #1: Premium early season China green tea - May jasmine blossoms impart an expansive floral bouquet on this premium quality Fujian Province green tea".

And there was not milk, again something that every Australian hotel, motel, and even b & b considers as necessary as sheets. Little pots of non-dairy creamer substitute substituted for the cream for coffee, though the coffee offered has airs (two filter-packets of it, each big enough to make a several-cup pot of coffee).

The real surprise was the maker itself. It took your correspondent 45 foggy minutes to figure out how it worked, because it was impossible to believe the truth. A tea drinker is supposed to drink tea made from water boiled and filtered through the plastic basket that is impregnated with the oils and acids of coffee grounds. The result is a tea made—if one would— with water that tastes as if it's taken from a tumbling stream run down a back flight of apartment stairs lit at night with the sounds of drunks kicking fighting tomcats. Not that I tasted the water. The smell of the plastic basket was enough.

Oils and acids
find homes in
while steel is hard
and mean.
Coffee, ground,
finds plastic sound
& luxuriantly welcoming.
The hotel makes a big deal about tea, and it's not alone. It, like many in cities across America, has "English" teas in its lounge. But if you order tea there, the thought of being offered milk with tea (or even lemon) is as much a part of this hotel's tradition as serving their martinis with a twist of blubber. It isn't even just the English who have milk with their tea. A large part of the civilised world makes milky tea, and it's from them that the English learned refreshment. But even if one drinks green tea, fragrant and golden, the expansive bouquet is best tickled up only with a mix of other tea, for instance, and never with the smell of armpits, old socks, cat spray or the maker that could never be a result of intelligent design. A plastic coffee/tea maker is a plastic coffee or tea maker — and as much an abomination as non-dairy dairy.

Better by far, if a hotel makes a pretense of accommodating the wonts of those from distant shores, as travellers sometimes are: a simple water boiler and instant coffee, or in a luxury dive, a coffee maker and a humble boiling coil, if it pleases the Management. The present state of tea-making expectations vs. reality in American hotels is Ironic, too, since tea has become insufferably precious now there, with tea shops and emporiums (an emporium is a shop which sells premium packaging with some stuff inside) popping up in all cities with any luxury to them. Prices for little bags of tea prove there is always a new field to plough when it comes to people with too much money and no sense. The New Yorker bears ads for an electric jug (so much more efficient than kettles on the stove, but curiously UnAmerican) that heats water to (oh, my thermometer!) precisely X degrees (no more nor less, as demanded by your Phoo Er is Human, which is Divine-brand tea, tip-picked [only the first 2 mm of each violet-tinged leaf] between 2:35 and 4:79 a.m., on the 3d night of the crescent moon when the barometer is at x, windspeed x, in the province of ..., a tea that that is cured for ten years at moisture levels monitored by …) with an exactitude that Phileas Fogg would approve, if he were a pretentious food bore.

So how to survive the cruel disappointment, how to break the spiral of depression that can result from being forced to live in primitive conditions of deprivation when surrounded by so much wealth, including a jumbo bathrobe and assorted citrus-scented toiletries? It's a cruel truth luxury has many meanings — one person thinking that this hotel's suited and hatted bag-carriers mark it out as luxury, while I suspect that many of us who are tea drinkers are more comfortable carrying our own, and would carry a camel's-worth if we could only have our cups of tea in bed. The lack of the means to restore the dead, to provide comfort upon waking in a strange room at 5:30 a.m., or having a quiet escape and a cuppa alone in one's room in the middle of a conference, is sorely felt. I haven't even mentioned the biscuits (cookies) that most Australian hotels still also provide, making a stay in even the worst hotel something that makes you feel at least a bit good, like when you've just given blood (where you always get a cuppa–strong, white and sweet—and two bikkies). Another thing about making it oneself, by oneself. To each, one's taste provided for. I like my tea strong enough to walk on, with only enough milk to make it opaque. Others like theirs weak as a screaming brat's mother's request to her child to be considerate.

Tea at will. Tea in private. Tea in bed. If Americans met it, they might also redefine necessity, like this cruise-chooser. " This is going to sound silly, but it might be that the deciding factor between a cruise on either Celebrity Eclipse or P&O Azura in summer 2010 might come down to in-cabin tea & coffee making."

That is a pick-me-up that no expensive bottle of water, even if it's from an island, can bring. But enough of tragedy. Now for succour. Look in the refrigerator, and have a laugh. I didn't until the next morning.

As early as anything opened, I left the hotel. Shaking with withdrawal, I found a local market where I bought four egg-sized plums to have instead of four cups of tea at various times of the day and night. I ate one, and opened the fridge to store the rest. You probably already know that the fridge was so packed with bottles and other things to sell, that the plums had to be balanced between bottle necks. There wasn't room to do even that.

As for the fridge, here's some tips, gleaned from some well-oiled experts in the lounge, when I asked them if they'd hit this in their rooms.
(general laughter)
"All hotels do that now."
"Don't touch anything in there! If anyone sees your fingerprints the bottles, that's the same as eating or drinking the stuff. You'll be charged for anything you move."

"I always ring ahead and tell them I'm diabetic."
Oh, and there's another way to survive all this luxury. Again, I prescribe laughter. Open the In Room Dining Service Menu. I purchased mine so I couldn't be accused of stealing it.
For your delectation, have a taste of these crumpets:
"Anna, the Duchess of Bedford … experienced a 'sinking feeling' in the late afternoon."
from The Origin of Afternoon Tea

"Honey BBQ Bacon, Honey BBQ Link, Apple Cinnamon Mini Muffins And Two Waffles"
from Breakfast To Go, Business Dogs on the Go, Dog's Delight (they get their own page, which includes Movie Snacks)
Fwah! Rosie has woken from the dead. She's howling!

If only the Duchess of Bedford, or the CEO of this Luxury hotel & resort chain could have seen Rosie's pride at finding her own Dog's Delight one morning — a roo paw of distinguished vintage. What, Rosie? Well, I'll pass on your question about the Movie Snacks. We notice "lollipop" and "banana biscotti" but the only thing to go with sheepdog trials is lamb tails and …. Hello, hello? Sorry, Rosie. I think he experienced a sinking feeling.

11 March 2011

Washed up but still together – The coralline around the dead man's fingers

Two seaweeds, nowadays more properly known as macroalgae

The coralline (I'm not game to say which species) is brittle and has been bashed on its way to this between-tide resting place on the beach. But the Codium fragile is floppy and as fun as its common name, much more fun and inspiring than the more proper (imposed 'common'?) name, branched velvet weed. Yes, it is velvety, but that's like telling a child with new rubber boots that a puddle is a meeting of declivities in a road-surface. Velvet ignores the potential of the codium fragile (which isn't as fragile as all that), for as soon as a normal person picks up this seaweed as a freshly sea-disgorged clump (inevitably finding it as limp, bouncy, and boneless as a rubber chicken) the healthy impulse is first, to waggle it so that its fingers flop around – and then to throw the hand in some unsuspecting innocent's face.

Seriously now, recommended reading:
The Intertidal Rocky Shore by J Floor Anthoni, Seafriends
– Informative, passionate, and excellent pictures, too

Macroalgae: Prime Facts by Dr Alan Millar, Principal Research Scientist, Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney, NSW Department of Primary Industries, June 2009
– Beautifully communicative –"With few exceptions, macroalgae are strictly benthic plants; that is they are always attached to the seabed or a solid substratum such as …" – and also a life-preserver to those of us willing but unable to identify –"The Australian continent hosts the richest marine macroalgal flora in the world with some 3000 species documented. The southern coast of Australia has about 1200 of these species."

06 March 2011

Gorgeous fabrics

Season's remains:
A phasmid's elytron-wing

Saudi Kingdom bans "Day of Love"

As reported today by David Randall in The Independent,
"The Saudi Interior Ministry said the kingdom has banned all demonstrations because they contradict Islamic laws and social values."
Saudi Arabia bans all marches as mass protest is planned for Friday
Read the official Saudi announcement, in the regime-controlled Arab News: Kingdom Bans Demonstrations

Now, when news-gathering is both imperative and a danger-filled adventure of confusion, Randall's claim that the Saudi regime's move "comes before a ' day of rage ' threatened for this Friday by opponents of the regime" must be another laughably wrong translation.

The Friday demos must be for a Day of Love, for how else could Abdullah be The People's King, as Bloomberg's Business Week as well as many other news reports in the Arab News (which covered the return of the king with "RIYADH: Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah’s return home sparked celebrations among Saudis and expatriates alike. The nation’s capital became the site of an impromptu festival…") have assured us nervous oil addicts?
"The contrast between Libya and Saudi Arabia on Feb. 23 couldn't have been more striking … King Abdullah returned from three months of medical treatment abroad laden with gifts for his subjects. Abdullah, known as the people's king, announced $36 billion worth of new jobless benefits, education and housing subsidies, and debt write-offs. The government even unveiled a new sports channel."
– Glen Cary and Joseph Carroll, Calm in Saudi Arabia: Generous benefits and a popular king help stabilize the oil-rich kingdom
Of course, a little persuasion-power doesn't hurt, as they state, so reassuringly:
"Observers like Peter Zeihan, of geopolitical consultants Stratfor, are betting that Saudi Arabia will escape the turmoil. 'Odds are the Saudis would hold on because they have much better social control in the form of policing powers, and they are better able to insulate the minority group that might like to see a change from events in the outside world,' he says."
Three days ago, Peter Coy was a bit more conditional in his certainty, saying in his Bloomberg column, Saudi Arabia Must Keep Pumping Oil to Buy Stability. Coy calls the ruler a Gradualist Reformer, and says,
"The Saudi kingdom … is ringed by revolts in Bahrain, Yemen, and Oman. It is undemocratic, inegalitarian, and economically sluggish. It has high youth unemployment (30 percent in 2009) and a disgruntled Shiite population in its oil-rich Eastern Province. Investors are getting nervous … The kingdom is staging elections for the first time this year, but they are only for members of city councils, and only men can vote. The likely successors to King Abdullah are considered less reform-minded than he is."
However, Coy ends the column on an uplifting note, focussed on what matters:
"Saudi Aramco may outlast the family that took it over."
As this is Women's History Month, an aside:

"Everything we see in the world is the creative work of women."
Kemal Atatürk

The contrast between women couldn't be more striking

"Gianna Bern, a former BP (BP) crude trader now at Brookshire Research and Advisory, puts it this way: "The real concern is that if we see these sorts of disturbances spread to Saudi Arabia or Iran, then we're going to see turmoil in energy markets go to another level, an unprecedented level."
Calm Speaks Volumes
“There are no more borders for ideas,” Mai Yamani, an anthropologist who is a daughter of former Saudi Oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani, told Bloomberg TV on Feb. 28."
Must Keep Pumping Oil

03 March 2011

How green are my wings

Gaddafi has tried, but he can't ruin the colour green.

Gum Leaf Katydid - Torbia viridissima

Even the elytra are green-veined.

See the Chew family's charming, informative, and extensively illustrated page about these katydids, complete with pictures and an account of egg-laying, here. It is part of their always fascinating Brisbane Insects site.

I'd never seen a katydid this large, but found the one above on a forest path–and like sometime revolutions, another one just moments and metres away.

"Me object, your honour."

"Us Australians can be very clever."
– James O'Loghlin, "one of the most popular stand-up comedians in Australia … a former lawyer and radio broadcaster", speaking in the current TV ad as the presenter of The New Inventors from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Us Australians are everywhere
"Us australians can be idiots some time's it aint there fault its ip blocked …"
"Do you think us australians are weird?"
"Do you think us Australians are smug?"
"Only us Australians can be that sarcastic"