31 January 2013

Do spiders fear other spiders?

This young huntsman was no match for the insignificant-looking daddy-long-legs who was busy wrapping by my desk, and from whom I stole this prize. To me, a home is not a home without a huntsman on the wall. They are particularly helpful keeping down the black house spiders that prefer the great indoors to those of out-. And we cheer when they bag a daddy.

A dare
Say "Who fears a Pholcus phalangioides" 3 times really phast.

28 January 2013

Darlings, you're choking me! Chouchous and chokos gone wild

In French, chouchou is a term of endearment, and this vegetable is also so loved by the French that when they claimed the idyllic Indian Ocean island of Réunion, this versatile cucurbit Sechium edule, known by many names including chayote (squash), christophine (or -ene), merliton (or -leton), chu-chu, (and choko in Australia) was one of several winners that have since, transformed the steep and verdant mountains of the spectacularly up-and-down Réunion. The story goes that the first plants were shipped from Rio de Janeiro to what we now call Réunion Island (it's gone through many names) in 1834. Like the English when they came to Australia, the French thought nothing of keeping the virginity of this new land sacred. And chouchou grows like a weed, even on the steepest slopes, so it made marvelously cheap slave food. Chouchou au gratin is a favourite dish there in both restaurants and at home, and is considered a classic in the Réunion Creole repertoire. But you could gratin cardboard and it would taste divine.

Like the slaves on the island, chouchous escaped.
Feral chouchous looking down on Hell-Bourg, Salazie, Réunion Island

Chouchou is an important agricultural crop, one which was hurt by Cyclone Dumile earlier this month. From the Google translation of the report:
"...The agricultural economy has also been hit hard. In the east, many producers reported losing virtually all of their harvest. Dumile and ended the season of mangoes and farms darlings Salazie are also devastated. Agricultural Chamber of Reunion laments 40 million loss for farmers Reunion."
Chokos, although never exactly popular in Australia, were nevertheless, widely used, mostly to make choko jam but also to boil to grim death. Choko vines were a common lounger on innercity paling fences, dropping their fruits right beside the dunny (outhouse).They are much more expensive now, now that that type of neighbourhood is history. But chokos have never lost their fascination to me. I like to eat them raw, but often leave them to age because they have such personality. That inclination to go wild when no one is looking ...

Old chokos never die. They just go draconic.

Postscript: 30 January
This portrait I made is for 'Nora, because of her comments below, but to the rest of you, I highly recommend you sidestep over to one of her typically fascinating and intriguingly titled posts, "Spilled coin purse and a flower"—about black-eyed peas and rice, and more.

The Judgement of Pears

27 January 2013

The next small thing

"curry punk" (Piptoporus australiensis)
Of the many Australian bracket fungi, this one intrigues me the most. It does have a smell that lingers, and that is very pleasant.
The view above is what I'd call the plantar side, the dorsal side looking like a case of Epidermodysplasia verruciformis.

21 January 2013

For the pun of it

(The 'artwork' is mine. The model was Rosie)


For those wondering where they put their toe clippers, this creature was roaming around the other night on the balcony. I'd say he or she is a longicorn beetle, the longi- referring to the corns, as in uni-.

And after they kiss etc., they make little banovados

"why an avocado ripens when you give it the company of a banana in a bag (it's the pheromones)"

That is part of the selling spiel on the back and online for the highly touted and very worthwhile What a Plant Knows: a Field Guide to the Senses, by Daniel Chamovitz, a Scientific American book published in 2012.

from the blurbs
"...scientifically accurate..." - Professor Stephen D. Hopper, director, Royal Botanical Gardens

Hormones, pheromones, what does the difference matter?
Dr Chamovitz does explain inside the book that the ripening secret is of course, ethylene, which has been called the 'aging hormone in plants' and 'the ripening hormone' in the pages of Scientific American. But if one learns the pheromone factoid and mashes it with other information, as we tend to, one can end up then adding up both to Learn the Secret of Secrets. Age+=IrresistibleAttractiveness+. Pile on those years!

The book itself is well written, the concentration on plants' reactions quite fascinating. The wide praise that What a Plant Knows has garnered is well deserved. So either it's a shame that this factoid is sitting in pride of place to no good end, or I'm just making a fool of myself, displaying my ignorance. I'm no scientist. So my question to Dr Chamovitz is: Is this a factoid you wish to stand by: "it's the pheromones"?

If not, what's going on?

Pop trends in pop sci books
The reason I ask this question is that I see a trend in popular science books, to churn them out and damn the facts, instead, filling the minds of innocents with factoids that are sensational, but wrong, not that anyone's complaining. One example of this is the text of the book Fifty Animals That Changed the Course of History by Eric Chaline, who has also written in this series, Fifty Minerals... and Fifty Machines....

This is an ambitious and growing series from Firefly Books, every one looking like a book to trust, use as a reference, and above all, to have around for children to learn from. Filled with pictures that illustrate the topics excellently, and very attractively designed. However, the information itself is where the series fails. Here's an excerpt from Fifty Animals... by Chaline, about the Camel:

"In the nineteenth century...the US Army had its own camel corps for transportation in the Southwest during its war against the Native Americans in Florida." 

Because most nonfiction books are packaging exercises as this series is, the going cheap on the actual text here could be forgiven, if it weren't a series that otherwise looks so good that, as my local library did, buying this series is as much a no-brainer must-have to a public library as encyclopedias once were. But encyclopedias were like beehives, buzzing with many authors, in a time when time meant time, and not no time. What bugs me most is that sloppiness of information when presented so attractively and sensationally, corrupts young minds (old ones tend to forget it, so I'm not so worried about the wrinkled browed). And it's odd, too. Books that are supposed to be definitive sources are most reliable when they're written for the wrinkle-browed, who love nothing better than waving their sticks at false factoids, so there's more care put into books for those who are no longer young and supple.

Ah well, I think I must be showing my pheromones.

18 January 2013

King parrot's pic on a broiling day

Noon. 42°C (over 100 Funnyheight)
Parrots hold their wings out and pant like dogs. This mature gent is sheltering under the balcony's eaves, but getting no joy from the shade.

I've never had much confidence in my skill with a camera, but this photo places me finally, into the ranks of professionals! Need an ID pic?

16 January 2013

God's barroom

Morning in the forest

Today is actually pleasant, but the fires have been discombulating here. Last night I could hardly sleep for the choking stench of stale burn, lightly sprinkled with rain a few days ago. Like God's barroom. Gave me a headache. Today the sky is a smudge, but it's not hot. There are still fires around and many planes flying surveillance, not to mention fire crews roaming the place, putting out as well as lighting fires. But this forest has had its visitation.

14 January 2013

Still life, for a change of pace

Indispensable Classics

Strawberry Caramel from "North Island Product Institute Compass", Japan

Snake Brand Prickly Heat Powder (Classic) from The British Dispensary (L.P.) Co. Ltd., Thailand

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst

The Hunting Wasps by J.H. Fabre

The Book of Prefaces by Alasdair Gray

10 January 2013

Sky crane delight — fire-watching night

This is the third fire we've been through here, or rather the third fire that's been through us. The past weeks have been busy here in our 'fall' that comes from the dry summer. Not just leaves have to be raked up, but shed limbs picked up from the fire tracks that were slashed yet again, though there was hardly any growing stuff, and the slasher blades were often bit the dirt. That was after the tractor itself needed a tractor-doctor housecall after it choked on stuff that made a smoker's lungs look clean as a baby's.

Still, slashing, raking, filling the water tank from the creek, clearing down to the dirt all around the house, cabin, shed—and the next day's leaf-fall mocked every effort. Watch the forecasts, put up enough water for a sustained loss of electricity, pack, discuss where to go if—discuss the problem of knowing when to do what when

We decided that the paddock would be our refuge. This time of year, grass should be knee-high. Now it doesn't come higher than a gumboot's sole. Jenny, George (the eeyores) William, Boris, and Mr. Gingerbread ('the boys', our gentlemen of leisure steers) are in that paddock. The tractor and our refuge: the car—joined them, car packed for an unknown period (check: lots water, kerchiefs that could be wetted down and worn, our books on a USB, some food, a torch, change of clothes, and that necessity in the modern world: the documents that will be needed to file this year's tax.

It's my responsibility to watch the forecasts on the web. We could be cut off at any time (we have a satellite connection, our landlines being literally the end of a long line, some of which is literally tacked to of all things, trees). Electricity and phone go early in a bushfire, and the local radio is almost useless for knowing what's happening, so in our valley, it's the senses that tell most. Though in the 2001 fire, native cockroaches came out from under logs, the sky's the thing, and the nose.

Watch the skies, smell the smoke but it's elusive (the last fire crept up from behind, from where we didn't smell a thing).

On the 7th, the Rural Fire Service reported a 5 hectare fire some ways away but close enough to be a problem, given the wind direction and forecasts, but that it was 'under control'.

The 8th opened up hot, the reports stayed constant: 5 hectares (in the country, 5 hectares is the size of a handkerchief, and 'under control' is nothing to worry about, but . . . by noon, we could smell but not see smoke. I'm 'refreshing' the Major Fire Updates page every few minutes, and no new news. Nada! Nix! Yet if that's a 5 hectare fire under control, I'm a horse's arse.

1:00 update admits that the fire is out of control, a fact that has been frustratingly obvious to us for hours. The fire service has many people on the ground but isn't as good at updating, and the site can't carry the capacity it needs, so it fails frequently, just when it's most needed.

Wait. Watch.

3:48, and now it's this big, coming our way. How far away, how fast? Who knows? At 36 degrees and wind picking up, it's anybody's guess.

We have made all our preparations by ourselves, including watering our house, hooking up hoses, a portable water pump for fires, and running spike sprinklers around the house. But the air is so dry that we can only wait and do it again at the last moment. But now our dirt road rumbles, and the Rural Fire Service in the form of a truck and team, comes down our road and joins us, uncoiling what seem like long hoses, all ridiculously short compared to the bush itself in full flagration. This team of 'firies'—all volunteers who use this holiday period to fight fires, has been up since 6 am, all cheery as anything. One of them is an engineer who calls himself 'retired'.

The fire is going to hit in about two hours, they say. Or, they say, maybe not. Fire is more unpredictable than weather. Their radios crackle like old radios did. Their communication system sounds antique.

Now we're all waiting, watching, and that fire front looks black. Then from the north, not west, comes another sound, louder and louder. The sky crane. It's beautiful and so looks so purposely functional. As it approaches, it looks so much like an assassin bug that I'm enthralled. Then it bombs us.

9000 litres in one dump, more water than we use in four months, being off 'town water' here

There is no rain that feels as good as this, especially when we all feel like we're scones baking in a convection oven. We were bombed time and again by a bevy of copters of various sizes—one with a yellow bucket, one with an orange bucket. The big dump was so heavy right in front of our balcony that it snapped off at the shoulder, some of the soft crooked limbs of the big “rough-barked apples” (the masquerade as ‘eucalypts’ just to confuse us) that the king parrots use as day perches, the rainbow lorikeets have been hanging out in because of this year’s unusual blossoming, and the honey eaters and noisy friarbirds hunt in. The rainbow lorikeets have been especially entertaining this year, swaggering like tiny dinopirates who never know when to stop bragging. Now that the sky is salmon, visibility naught, and the air, pushing itself into every pore, saturated with essential oils, stings in the nostrils and eyes, irrelevant thoughts crowd in.

Will the parrots’ trees be burnt? Should I offer the firies fruitcake and fruit again? Should I have bought ‘cold drinks’ in case they turned up, even though we never have this stuff in the house and only have room-temp water ourselves?

6 pm passes, and where the fire is, is anyone’s guess. Then we see a blaze in the forest on the next property. Even though the wind is coming straight at us, no one is worried about it but me because they all expect the fire to go around and up and come down at us from the back, and they expect this one we’re looking at, which is a Guy Fawkes fire from Hell, to piss itself out. Why? I dunno. Anyway, another crew is working on that property. This is the first fire we’ve been in that the sound of copters every few minutes is the prevalent roar. In 2001, the howling duet of fire and wind at 3 am was so loud, we couldn’t hear ourselves yell in the blackness lit only by the blood of fire itself.

The crew banters quietly amongst themselves. These volunteers are so different to the ones in the 1990s who were often rough-as-guts fire voyeurs, itching to set fires. I asked one then, “Would you like to ring your wife?” and he answered, “Nah. I left me rope in the car” to an appreciative audience.

This crew is even worried about how our donkeys are going. Where are they, they ask? I point out the boys and the eeyores in the corner of the property under the trees by the creek, the furthest away that they can get from what really scares them: the copters.

One of the crew, the youngest, is a trainee paramedic, and this crew also attends highway disasters. They’re good people to know in an emergency, calm and serious. One of them looks exactly like the Marlboro man. I’m thinking that when he goes behind the truck and yes, lights up. He’s so good at it that he must be doing it purposely. But no. Maybe he’s just a natural. Whatever, there’s nothing for me to do, so I go inside the house, lay down on the bed, and for the first time in days, it seems, sleep. Like the dead.

9 pm. We’re surrounded by fire, creeping, as everyone but me predicted, down the hills on two sides.

11 pm. Fire still creeping, though taller now. You can tell where the creek is because of a dotted line of fire in the roots of the fringe of trees. Relatively clear sky.

The first crew left and the second pitched up. The fire was behaving itself, slowly creeping down toward the fire roads. They weren't concerned about the road, but the One here who's done so much to create and maintain them gently suggested that these roads be taken seriously. In the end, they were, first, by the crew (sort of), and when they left at about 3:30 am, by the One Who Hadn't Slept in days. While I slept, thinking vaguely of people who burn in their beds because they get all fatalistic, he walked the tracks, clearing, raking, watching. Ever vigilant.

Today is filled with the sounds of copters and birds. The Vigilant One walks the tracks. There are logs still burning, like filter-tipped fags.

Crazy things happen after a fire. A man-length goanna just sauntered up to our balcony. I took some shots for you. But, dammit, my software is on strike, and won't copy it to my computer. If only every day posed that as the biggest worry.

05 January 2013

Review: The Love Machine & other contraptions

by Nir Yaniv
Introduction by Lavie Tidhar
published by infinity plus, December 2012

First, I'm not a reviewer. I'm just saying what I think, in my own words. There's a short version of them and a long ramble. In short, this collection of short stories is: outstanding. Buy more copies than one if you give special books to people you respect.

Want more?
I don’t mean 'outstanding' in relation to other books this year, but in relation to any in any. One feature of this collection is that it has so many tones. This doesn’t mean it is uneven, but good at saying many things and producing many different effects, such as a sudden explosion of laughter, an unkillable urge to get up and check up something in some other book, the Book, no less. Rage, sadness, and above all, thought. These aren’t stories to consume mindlessly, but to savour. Yaniv’s unpretentious fiction has the depth of Gogol and his wryness; in say, “Vegescan” the intelligent playfulness of Stanislaw Lem, and a sense of tragic humour that I can only describe as Ashkenazic; but “A Wizard on the Road”, one of my favourites here, fits Yiddish humour as well as Turkish and Australian. Indeed, it would be as funny in any culture mature enough to make fun of itself. “The Word of God”, however, is quite something else. If it were translated into a wealth of languages and were read by millions, it could do what fiction can sometimes do: change the way people think. I cannot recommend it too highly. This story took great skill to write. Rage always needs to be treated with tough love when harnessing it to a piece of fiction. Yaniv knows his ropes. (To those who, like me, want to stand up and wave “The Word of God”, I also recommend Yann Kerninon’s glorious essay, “Pour une religion du bonhour” in Liberation, January 19, 2004)

Lavie Tidhar’s Introduction is quite helpful. Usually introductions are painful, but Tidhar illuminates. The translating is seamless, though there are several translators—Tidhar for 7 stories, Joe D. Brown for 2, Ido Reif for 1, and Yaniv himself for 7, including the “Contraptions” series, which are flash-fiction-length stories that are interspersed amongst the others, and that interact with the other stories in a way that shows that the collection isn’t an assortment as much as a body of work, with a reason for everything being there and being where it is.

The book published by infinity plus, is well produced technically, with quite an attractive cover and a well-chosen and well-set crisp internal layout. I’ve read this in both paperback and e-edition formats, and they are both smooth. In the whole book, there are maybe 4 typos, all quite minor. A curious inconsistency of ‘grey’ and ‘gray’ is just that: curious. A reader should be so lucky to find many books as well written in “English”.

I’ve only mentioned a few stories, and hesitate to say anything more except, strongly: Buy this book.

The reason I don’t have much more to say about the book as a whole is that I really can’t do reviewer-talk when it comes to technicalities and all the stuff that makes me not want to read a book once it's been exposed to that kind of language. I think that those who know would say, for instance, that “The Story Ends” is an example of a certain kind of fiction, not that it matters to me. But this story made me want to say something non-professional about it, so:

some thoughts about
“The Story Ends”
I was young and foolish and very keen to have the job, which for some reason seemed to me to be glorious in its marginality and fascinating in its monotony.
Starting out with a very funny job interview (to be a slush reader) in which honesty conquers ‘taste’, this charming novella is about the writer as a young man; specifically, his moonlighting for an Israeli science fiction publisher. Heavens Publishing, Inc. owned by Nathan Katzenberg.
“Here’s your desk,” said Katzenberg, this time with his reading glasses on, and pointed to a part of his desk that really didn’t look any different from the rest of it, being covered with papers and ash. An ancient swivel chair had been placed to the side, so that Katzenberg and I would sit in a right angle to each other.
The romance of it all!
Katzenberg pushed a big stack of paper in my direction. “Those are the stories we received last week,” he said. “You can start”
I remember thinking to myself, That’s it. Now you’re a member of the editorial staff of a science fiction and fantasy magazine. And not just any magazine, but the famous Starlight, no less. It was a dream come true.
He quickly learns that most stories are “really not” good. And that even if he thinks something in one might have something in it that works for him, that’s no basis for passing it up the line to Katzenberg.
“Is this your idea of a good idea?” Katzenberg said, and one of his eyebrows rose reproachfully.
Soon enough, Katzenberg says, “Do you consider all of the stories that you’ve read so far to be of an insufficient quality?”
“I . . .” I said.
The story is unforgettable if read only for the relationship between these two. The inscrutable Katzenberg, kind, impatient, and maddeningly skilled, can tell how any story ends when just told a scrap about the beginning. The writer learns how to write, how not to write, and how many stories submitted to the magazine are unoriginal while some that aren’t, are so badly written that they fail as well.
So he gets an idea for a story, “a story-writing software”. Because he makes his living by day as a computer programmer, he knows enough to see that the story has a solid science-fiction basis. But “I suddenly realized: the story-writing software isn’t a story idea—it’s an idea for the real world. And I can write it.”
His motivation is different, but time marches on, so today it’s code, while other writers at other times have been inventive also, for their own reasons. For instance, there was John Kendrick Bangs’ somewhat irascible “Enchanted Typewriter” (a creation that we could only wish were summonable in the ‘real world’ just as we could only wish another of his fictions, true: that all golf courses took up green space only in Hell).

But back to other writers’ wishes to find substitutes for our poor hardwired faculties: that pinwheel of I-can’t-remember who, but I wonder how many writers have constructed one, since this little cheat-spinner is as widely mentioned as Asimov’s unsightly output. And there is the machine that “works on a transistor and ordinary valves” in R.K. Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets, in which the vendor’s son, scorning the father’s sweet-making business and wishing to get rich quick and be a global player at it, unwraps a parcel to reveal “a small object which looked like a radio cabinet.”
“With this machine,” he tells his old father, “anyone can write a story… I am going to manufacture and sell it in this country…In course of time, every home in the country will possess one and we will produce more stories than any nation in the world. Now we are a little backward. Except for Ramayana and Mahabharata, those old stories, there is no modern writing, whereas in America alone every publishing season ten thousand books are published… Today we have to compete with advanced countries not only in economics and industry, but also in culture.”
Good observers need no machine, Lavie Tidhar has proved that. And so has Nir Yaniv. May his words be translated more and more. And thank you, Lavie, for all your fine work. You’re not only a fine writer, but a generous one. I look forward to reading those works you’ve both collaborated on, too. It would be cruel to have us depend only our imaginations for Retzach Bidyoni (Fictional Murder).