Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Walk in the Woods

Yeah. Serious spider. Big as my hand. Should've put my hand near it for scale but...that would mean putting my hand near it. Found along a trail in the mountains near Chiang Mai. After settling in for an extended stay in the old walled city of northern Thailand, we embarked on a three-day guided trek through scrubby, late dry-season terrain. It was a blast. The trails followed the tops of long ridges and dropped down into valleys that were a bit more leafy and cool.

And we faced other monsters along the way.

Yeah. Cone-making wasps. They didn't bother us, but they did all kinds of freaking me out.

This is not a monster, it's our guide July. Not his real name, surely - and I think our other guide Jungle Man was using a pseudonym, too. He's doing a magic trick with that plant that didn't really get captured in the pic. It's a latex-producing plant that you can break the stem and blow on - to make bubbles. Totally cool trail entertainment.

July later got really drunk on rice whiskey and talked about how he worked for the Thai army killing drug dealers along the border with Burma.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Rebel Camp

So the International Crisis Group says Bangkok is on the brink of an “undeclared civil war,” but the opposition Red Shirt camp in the middle of town seems more like a festive bazaar than the epicenter of a movement. Street vendors are hawking fatty fried stuff on sticks, festoons of flowers, and tee shirts (almost exclusively red), which swing in the breeze from makeshift stalls. A weary crowd sits on the blockaded street in front of a mainstage with loudspeakers as though it were any old summer folk festival. At least that was the vibe on Friday when we strolled through it. People were friendly. They wanted their picture taken.

The last outbreak of violence had been two days before, when protesters blocked train tracks. A police officer shot another police officer by accident in a skirmish over it. Taxi drivers are mad at the Red Shirts – at least the few that we spoke to. I think drivers are universally against any movement that blocks traffic.

The barricades of tires and sharpened bamboo are intimidating, but also strangely artistic, like post-apocalyptic setpieces for a budget science fiction flick. In any case, it just doesn’t feel like a place that’s about to erupt.

Then again, I’m really no seismologist.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Friends in the Right Places

Want to know the best first stop on a tour of Southeast Asia? Here’s what you do. Find some foodies with a famous blog, and befriend them. Then, show up on their doorstep in Malaysia and be like “we’re just blowing through, so don’t go out of your way to entertain us.” Then they will go out of their way to entertain you. They will feed you the maximum amount of street treats and culinary treasures in the shortest amount of time.

You will be exposed to 16 implausibly tasty items in 48 hours. Here are some of those flavors, scantily described:


Steamed Beef and Rice Meal

Chicken Chop in Gravy

Fish and Pork Fried Thing

Roti Chani with Dal

Fried Savory Donut Hole

Hokien Fish Two Ways

Rice Noodly Wafers in Dark Sauce

Durian Cream Puff


Wild Boar Curry

Sour Fish Soup

Fiddleheads in Maybe Sesame Oil

Bean Porridge with Coconut Milk

Fishy Thing and Shredded Jicama Lettuce Wraps

Unripe Fruit in Dark Fishy Sauce

Chinese Pork Sausage Fried in Tofu Skins

Nutmeg Fruit Drink

If you play it right, the bloggers on which you have imposed might also send you on your way with a long list of other treats to try in the region. Seriously, if you don’t have foodie friends, make them now before it’s too late.

Oh yeah, here's Robyn and Dave's awesome blog:

Monday, March 10, 2008

Fire On The Belly

Here I am on fire. It's called 'fire therapy' and it feels good. We went to a nearby acupuncture clinic to check out some of the strange and shocking treatments they offer. First, they rubbed an herbal salve on my bare belly, then they covered it in these damp red towels and soaked them with alcohol. Then they lit my stomach on fire with one of those long barbecue lighters. They repeated the process three times, snuffing out the flame when the towel started to singe. By the third time, the heat from the flame had penetrated all the liquids, and it was very warm - enough to redden the exposed skin. It felt really great, but mostly because I was getting over the trauma of my previous treatment, which is called electro acupuncture. But that's another post...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"Excuse me, could you take our picture in front of this dormant volcano?"

Know-It-All's Guide to Krakatau

1. Bioluminescence: what, why, and how?

What: Based on Richard's sating they were a plankton, I'm thinking the ones we saw were probably Dinoflagellate, which sounds to me like the Latin word for "dinosaur fart". Check out the wiki picture above of these guys in a breaking wave!

Why: There are four main accepted theories for the evolution of bioluminescent traits: Attraction, Repulsion, Communication and Illumination.

How: Has something to do with "Quorum sensing", which I would have guessed is something City Councils do. Actually, if I'm reading the science-speak right, it's a way for the critters to control their population density.

The glowing blue light is a result of a "luciferase" enzyme, which I would like to suggest from now on we call "Satan's Spit".

Cool bonus fact #1: All cells, including human, emit some kind of bioluminescence, but the wavelengths are more often outside the visible light spectrum. That's cool. That means we glow in the dark, you just can't see it.

Cool bonus fact #2: You might remember Alba The Glow-Bunny in "news of the weird" headlines a few years ago. An artist named Eduardo Kac paid to have Alba's DNA spliced with some "Satan's Spit" -generating DNA from a jellyfish. Here's a sort of obituary for Alba, whose existence "highlighted" all sorts of ethical issues.

2. Effervescence, on the other hand, is a real word that means "the escape of gas from an aqueous solution". Schweppervescence is a marketing campaign for ginger ale and tonic water invented in 1946.

Superfluous chemical reaction example to make me seem more smarter: H2CO3 -> H2O + CO2

Cool bonus fact #1: This guy suggests another definition for Schweppervescence - "thousands of tiny bubbles that last the whole drink through."

Cool bonus fact #2: Schweppervescence is also the name of a race horse:

3. Whirlwinds - what are they?

During the trip I suggested they might be like tornadoes that rotated in the opposite direction. Wrong.

A whirlwind is a class of atmospheric event that includes tornadoes, water spouts and land spouts. Also includes those little harmless spinning wind vortexes popularized in the film "American Beauty". As far as I can tell, only Indonesia's state-run news agency Antara reported the story about the one in Bali over the weekend. Here's what I think happened: Antara often uses strange vocabulary for things, probably because they use an automatic text translator like toggletext. So they called it a whirlwind instead of a tornado. Possible conspiracy theory: they said 'whirlwind' because it doesn't sound as bad as 'tornado'.

Cool bonus fact #1: What's a "land spout", you ask? WHy, it's a slang-term coined by meteorologist Howard B. Bluestein in the early 1980s for a kind of tornado not associated with the mesocyclone of a thunderstorm.

Cool bonus fact #2: There's a supervillain named Whirlwind. Last we knew, he was an active member of the Masters of Evil formed by Baron Zemo.

5. Sea Angels. On the way back to the boat from the reef on Sunday, I found myself surrounded by these little translucent thingies with maroon and purple insides and cool little wingey things. They have some at the Singapore Underwater World that are from the Arctic.

Sea angels are small pteropod mollusks of the suborder Gymnosomata. Their feet have developed into wing-like appendages (parapodia) and their shells have been lost, both adaptations made to suit their free-swimming oceanic lives. These adaptations also explain the common name sea angel and the New Latin name of the order; from gymnos meaning "naked" and soma meaning "body." Within the order are approximately eight families and 17 genera.

Cool bonus fact #1:

Another large polar species of sea angel, Clione antarctica, defends itself from predators by synthesizing a previously unknown molecule, named pteroenone. As predators will not eat the sea angel some animals, such as amphipods, take up home inside them. Local population density of Clione antarctica may reach claustrophobic levels; up to 300 animals per cubic metre have been recorded.

Cool bonus fact #2:

The IPCC reports that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide is causing acidification of the oceans which could eliminate pteropods from the Southern Ocean and cause serious repercussions through the food chain.

6. Jellyfish and Pee: Really? Does it work?

Someone filed a story about the whole urine-on-stings idea. Conclusion: not helpful, sort of silly. Go with vinegar. In fact, Wikipedia says "Rubbing the wound, or using alcohol, spirits, ammonia, or urine will encourage the release of venom and should be avoided."

And how do jellyfish stings work?

Nematocysts; generally, each nematocyst has a "trigger" (cnidocil) paired with a capsule containing a coiled stinging filament, as well as barbs on the exterior. Upon contact, the filament rapidly unwinds, launches into the target, and injects toxins. It can then pull the victim into its mouth, if appropriate."

Most stings are not deadly.

Here’s a bit from a site called “Jellies Zone”…

“Jellyfish toxins include a poorly understood array of complex chemicals, many of which are proteinaceous. Many have deleterious effects on cell membranes and cause them to rupture. This may, for example, lead to the breaking up of red blood cells, certainly not a desirable response to a sting. Other toxins have disruptive effects on the action of nerve and muscle cell membranes and impair their normal function. Throw in toxins that degrade collagen, break down proteins and lipids, and disrupt cellular influx of ions like calcium, and you can see why jellyfish mean business.“

Cool bonus fact #1: A group of jellyfish is often called a "smuck". Seriously.

Cool bonus fact #2:

Chinese and “other Asians” eat jellyfish. Only jellyfish belonging to the Order Rhizostomeae are harvested for food. The rhizostomes are favored because they are typically larger and have more rigid bodies than other scyphozoan orders. Traditional processing methods involve a multi-phase processing procedure using a mixture of table salt and alum, and then desalting. Processing makes the jellyfish drier and more acidic, producing a "crunchy and crispy texture." Nutritionally, jellyfish prepared this way are roughly 95% water and 4-5% protein, making it a relatively low calorie food.

Cool bonus fact #3: Factoid warning: "sources specualte" that some jellyfish stings have a "Viagra" affect...

7. What's up with pumice? Chris gave us a good overview. Here's more...

"It forms when gases exsolving from viscous magma nucleate bubbles which cannot readily decouple from the viscous magma prior to chilling to glass. Pumice is a common product of explosive eruptions (plinian and ignimbrite-forming) and commonly forms zones in upper parts of silicic lavas. Pumice has an average porosity of 90%, and initially floats on water." Yup. Sure does.

Cool bonus fact #1: Pumice is considered a glass because it does not have a crystal structure.

Cool bonus fact #2: (actually this is more of a 'smuck' of facts)

After the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa, rafts of pumice drifted through the Pacific Ocean for up to 20 years, with tree trunks floating among them. In fact, pumice rafts disperse and support several marine species. In 1979, 1984 and 2006, underwater volcanic eruptions near Tonga created large pumice rafts, some as large as 30 km that floated hundreds of miles to Fiji.

8. This is just a really cool site:

9: Poop in the sky…

9: The Crown Of Thorns Starfish, and the cross it must bear.

The cut-and-paste of it:

The starfish is a coral reef predator and preys on the coral polyps by climbing onto them, extruding its stomach over them, and releasing digestive enzymes to then absorb the liquified tissue. They feed alone at night, maintaining a constant distance between themselves and other crown-of-thorns starfish. During times of food shortage, these creatures can live on their energy reserves for over six months.

Notable predators of Ancanthaster planci include the Giant Triton (Charonia tritonis), a species of shrimp, a species of worm, and various reef fish (especially the Humphead wrasse) which feed on larvae or small adults. It is quite likely that the decline of these predators (through overharvesting, pollution, etc.) has been a factor that led to the rise in the population of the starfish, making outbreaks more likely to occur.

Cool bonus fact #1: They're called corallivores because, well, they eat coral.

Cool bonus fact #2: Outbreaks of huge numbers of these starfish are believed to be caused by agricultural runoff which causes algal blooms.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Tsunami of Stuff

Dear Clutter Wrangler,

I and my partner are radio reporters in a developing country. Last night, there was a series of earthquakes near here, the kind that spurs people in our kind of work into action. Okay, I don’t at all mean to diminish the struggle of people in the disaster zone today, but I have to say the real disaster for me was right here in my home office.

When something like this happens, a lot of people start yodeling for our attention.

We got a stampede of assignments and deadlines and equipment to manage, but we have about the same organizational skills as a saguaro cactus. We end up running around like wild horses in a telephone booth.

We have this one little cubby where we throw our cords. Mic cords, USB cords, power cords, adapters – they’re all tangled in there like a pile of lassos at a roping convention.

O Clutter Wrangler, can you help us rein in the mess?

-Hog Tied in Jakarta

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Year in Pictures 6

The man on the left is giving us a tour of his village, which was completely flattened in the quake.

After the interview, he apologized for wearing a helmet on his head. He’d been wearing it for several days to cover a really nasty open head wound he got from a falling door jamb as he was carrying his children out of the building. He hadn’t received any medical treatment.

Picture taken May 30th 2006. Earthquake struck on May 27th. It lasted less than a minute.

The Year in Pictures 5

For a story about the one-year anniversary of the Yogyakarta earthquake, I visited farms in the area that were affected by the quake.

The public relations office of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) set up an interview with the woman in pink on the right. Her farm missed two planting cycles, and the FAO helped her (along with 132 other farming communities) because most laborers were busy surviving after the earthquake or rebuilding their lives. In this fertile climate, the fields quickly grew over with weeds and it took months to get them ready to plant again. In Javanese rice farming, women provide 60 percent of the field labor.

The funny thing about this photo is that the woman showed up for the interview dressed in her best clothes. I asked if there was someone who could show me how the work in the field is done (I wanted to record the splishy sound of rice paddy tending), she immediately took of her shoes, rolled up her pants, and jumped in. Note the muddy feet.

Picture taken May 2007.

The Year in Pictures 4

Hours after Garuda flight 200 crashed on March 7th, the woman on the right waits with her sister at the Jakarta airport to hear whether her husband was on board.

The Year in Pictuers 3

Me interviewing volunteers during a huge cleanup operation following a flood which covered 70 percent of Jakarta in February 2007. Our apartment in the Pejompongan district of central
Jakarta was high enough to escape flooding, but the neighborhood was surrounded by water in each direction for a few days.

The Year in Pictures 2

Trish knee deep (and sinking!) in silt, interviewing fishermen at the mouth of a river where the sludge run-off has killed off most fish stocks. The mud was also full of little pinching crabs. Taken in March 2007.

The Year In Pictures 1

Me in a tippy wooden canoe floating through the remains of a town that was inundated by toxic mud from a botched mining operation. The man in the front, a construction worker named Untung, is showing me the house he built and lived in for 15 years. Taken in March 2007.