17 December 2006

The closing of the greenhouse door

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That's it. A full year of greenhouse delights have come and gone. Consider this the final In The Greenhouse post for now. There's just no point in posting pictures of flowers you've seen before. As soon as novel beauties come into bloom, naturally I'll be sure to post those. And of course, you can always dip into the Archives and revisit old favourites! Thanks for all your enthusiasm; it's been a pleasure sharing a year's worth of irrational passion in this way. I hope you've been inspired by the world of orchids to add some tropical splendour to your own life.

Laelia tenebrosa. Big, colourful, bold as brass (literally). The flowers measure 18 cm from petal tip to petal tip. It's a summer-flowering Brazilian species and so always flowers around Chrimbo time in the southern hemisphere. Merry Christmas.

An ode to zingerone

Ginger. Where else would you find a flavour so common-place and familiar, so comfortingly domestic: our house filled with the tempting scent of my mother’s ginger snaps cooling in the kitchen; the deceptively light ginger beer we used to make during the summer school holidays; Mrs SJE de Villiers’s ginger waffles. Ginger. Where else would you find a flavour so exotically tropical, so wonderfully dangerous, so intertwined with tales of adventure in foreign climes, with the enigmatic history of the Spice Route? Thai curry is nothing without the tang of freshly grated ginger, sushi is just fish pressed between some rice without the delightful pink arrangement of amazu shoga to cleanse and refresh the palate in between bites.

Oh, how I long for a colonial home: trade winds kicking up sand outside the screen doors, the texture of damask table linen, ceiling fans uselessly circulating the oppressive heat, the sound of singing coming from the plantation and Ceylon tea served at exactly four o’clock in fine white china with – best of all – some golden pieces of crystallized ginger! Ginger. The essence of contradiction. A taste of latent ruin.

Ginger is the rhizome of Zingiber officinale. The word ‘ginger’ is derived from the Sanskrit word shringavera, which means ‘shaped like a deer’s antlers’. The Zingiberaceae family possesses other culinary delights: Curcuma longa is a closely related plant and the source of the spice turmeric. The hot, pungent molecule in ginger is called zingerone. A name suited to a forbidden aphrodisiac. Chemically, it looks a lot like capsaicin, the hot molecule found in chillies, but lacks the long hydrocarbon tail and a nitrogen atom. It fits pain receptors on the tongue. A sting of pleasure. The ginger rhizome holds a complex variety of related compounds, all differing just slightly from zingerone in the length of the chain replacing one of the hydrogen atoms of the terminal methyl group. The exact blend of this intricate set of aromatics depends on nutrients in the soil, the temperature, the availability of light and a myriad of other growing conditions, making each piece of ginger totally unique.

Common ginger has small white and maroon flowers, but many of the other 60 Zingiber species and many related plants in the Zingiberaceae family have curiously beautiful, sometimes almost orchid-like blossoms: check out Zingiber spectabile, Roscoea purpurea, Costus pulverulentus, Etlingera eliator, and Hedychium coccineum at your nearest tropical conservatory. I never cease to be inspired and enchanted by the versatility of ginger. Here are two very easy recipes I’ve come across in my infatuation with ginger, my zingerone addiction.

Gingered watermelon juice
500 g watermelon, peeled, de-seeded and roughly chopped
2 tsp ginger, freshly grated
Process ingredients in a blender or food processor for 2 minutes. Add 6 ice cubes and process until ice is crushed. Serve garnished with a thin wedge of watermelon.

Gingery lemon muffins
1/4 cup maragrine, room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg
2 tbsp ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tbsp grated lemon zest
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups plain, low-fat yoghurt or buttermilk
2 cups plain flour
Cream together margarine and sugar in a large bowl. Beat in egg. Add ginger and lemon zest. In a separate small bowl, stir baking soda into buttermilk; it will start to bubble and rise. Fold flour into ginger mixture one third at a time, alternating with buttermilk. When well blended, spoon into greased muffin pans. Bake in a preheated 190°C oven for 15-20 minutes, or until lightly browned.

7 December 2006

5 things to do before 2006 ends

1. Finish the damn thesis. Obviously. I'm so close... need to really work on the Discussion now.

2. Make a glass tile mosaic. This has become a December tradition.

3. Repot all of the neglected orchids which are now taking root outside their pots. I'm a bad mother, sniff.

4. Read something longer than 100 pages that does not concern photosynthesis, kinase signal transduction or UDP:glucosyltransferase enzymes.

5. Lose some weight. Hmmm. This one might prove problematic right before the season of honey-glazed everything.

24 November 2006

Post # 50

I spend Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with my new old computer, fixing my real-time PCR graphs on SigmaPlot. I also fix my old amino acid sequence alignments and feel kind of in control. Thursday I make a Powerpoint presentation (30 slides, a new record!) and watch Pourquoi pas moi? again and wonder the same thing. Crazy by Patsy Cline fills the air. As the credits roll a calmness overtakes me. I start thinking that things are going to be pretty okay from now on. Change is in the air, maybe even for me. Pressure drops. I go and stand outside in the rain.

I give my final talk in the Genetics Department today, as part of our annual postgraduate symposium. I kind of enjoy giving everyone a comprehensive overview of my research. It does look like there was a point to all of the suffering after all. Apparently the Fulbright people are negotiating my tuition fees with the people at Colorado State, so that looks like it's becoming a reality. Lunch is served outside, in the FABI courtyard by the koi pond. Lasagne and a fresh garden salad. Prepared by the same people who normally do the yucky food for the residences. Who knew they had it in them?

I am indescribably tired, but you know what? It's been a good week.

18 November 2006

It never rains

I think the universe likes me. Why else would it have such a friggin' interest in me? Monday morning when I switched my PC on, the fan went on as usual... and that was it. Nothing else. No hard drive noises, no booting, no Windows. Nada. After taking it to several computer shops (I do not trust a single opinion) the consensus was that my motherboard was fried. However, (ah, lucky-lucky-lucky me) this specific motherboard is no longer manufactured (I bought the thing in 2003) and therefore I had to purchase a new CPU as well. And apparently nobody uses a measly 256MB of RAM, so I had to buy 512MB of that as well. Five days, two grand, two hard drive formattings and two operating installation procedures later, I have a PC that more or less resembles the one I had last week. What a waste of time, especially now when I cannot afford it. Now what I'd like to know is: why?

10 November 2006

An update, of sorts

I think I've forgotten how to do this properly, but here goes. The controls on Blogger seem quite alien, like a new kind of software I've not seen before. On Halloween I finally finished all of the laboratory work for my MSc in Genetics. No more Schott bottles filled with 3 molar sodium acetate, no more 22 micron filters, no more polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis. All that is left to do is to write up my What We Did During Our Master's Degree style thesis and I can be out of here. Easier said than done, I know. After three years of samey labwork, you get quite bored with it. It becomes difficult to write it all down and keep it fresh and exciting.

I apologize for the lack of activity on this blog, but every once and again, life happens to the author and other things do take preference over
Eclectic Epiphytes, I'm afraid. I planned a big, final In The Greenhouse post for October to celebrate a full year of orchids, but this has been delayed. As I'm not at varsity much these days (it's where I upload the photographs), you fans of horticultural things will just have to bear with me that bit longer.

Last weekend was, erm...
interesting, to say the least. As you know, I've been jumping through the hoops for the Fulbright people, in order to have some sort of career, eventually. One of the pieces of admin is passing something called the GRE Subject Test in Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology. For reasons that escape me, I somehow failed to be registered for the 4 November test in time. This meant going onto something called "standby registration", which means popping over to the test centre on the morning of the test and asking the benevolent administrators to literally "squeeze you in". So on the morning of 4 November 2006, after having studied the components of the Krebs cycle and the intricacies of the lac operon for two days straight, I drive all the way to Wits, or as Wendy likes to call it, the Alcatraz of South African universities. After going through several rounds of close scrutiny by security guards and scary receptionists behind bullet proof glass, I'm led to the basement level of a building called the Senate House. (To my ears the security personnel kept calling it the Sears Tower, which I'm convinced is in Chicago.) Upon descending the wooden staircase to the basement level, I find several nervous persons fidgeting on a little bench. I had - literally - descended into madness. The two test administrator's were probably retired schoolteachers or something (I seem to recall them carrying the exam papers in a little cloth covered basket). In my mind however, they turn into the two psycho old people who crawled out of the brown paper bag at the end of Mulholland Drive and have now come to antagonize me. I go up to the woman and tell her that I'm there on standby to write the Biochem Subject Test. She makes it clear that it all depends on whether somebody else actually registered for this specific test and leads me into the examination hall. Now, I've written countless exams in all sorts of places, but none as exotic as this. Picture, if you will, a gigantic disused storage space under a school carpentry workshop, lit by twenty thousand fluorescent tube lights and containing probably, ooh, I don't know... a hundred thousand grey injection-moulded exam benches. Seriously, these things are packed into this airless underground cavern all the way to the horizon. She whips out some official looking forms from her basket and says: "Aah, you see, they sent us some tests for English Literature, Computer Science and Psychology, but none for Biochemistry." I mutter something along the lines of "I'm so screwed" under my breath, to which she responds: "That's the chance you take when you're on standby. The next test date is 14 April 2007, but you probably need to take it this year. And there aren't any extra dates, I'm afraid. They used to do it in December, but that wasn't very popular, so they stopped it. I could let you take an SAT, but I don't suppose that would help you? What you can do is take a plane to Durban and see if you can get in there. The Subject Tests are only this afternoon, so if somebody who scheduled a Biochemistry test there doesn't arrive, you might have a chance..." The old man with the scary thyroidy eyes interrupts her then: "Look, we've got a lot to do. You've tried your best, you can see what it's like. Please leave." So I drove all the way back home, astounded by the idea that she actually suggested that I take a plane to Durban, find my way to another test centre, and pray to all that is unholy that the single person who was supposed to write the test there developed a case of Delhi Belly.

So now I can only write the damn test next year April. When will this mad world of bureaucracy ever end? Later that afternoon, I drove 265km to a game farm near Thabazimbi, where I spent our annual lab "workshop" in a drunken state of ennui.

And you?

PS: I apologize for my excessive use of quotation marks, but it's the mood I'm in, you see.

12 October 2006

Degrees of Separation

This is my week of Northern Blotting. I have exactly 51 minutes, 08 seconds before I have to take my membranes out of the anti-fluoresceine alkaline phosphatase-conjugated antibody and submit them to several rounds of wash steps. Hopefully, something will develop by the end of the evening. On to the topic of tonight's post.

Each piece of music is connected to every other piece of music, just as all actor's are connected to one another in the Kevin Bacon Game. All music is connected, and not just through shared influences, shared recording studios and such. I like knowing that all of the music in my collection is made by this network of musicians and technicians, this family of artists. My family, somehow. Just for fun, let me list some connections, off the top of my head. No sleeve notes, no Googling.

Let's start with Goldfrapp. Alison Goldfrapp performed vocals on Tricky's debut album, Maxinquaye. Tricky used to be a member of Massive Attack. Massive Attack did the arrangements for I Want You on Madonna's collection of ballads, Something To Remember. Justify My Love was written for Madonna by Lenny Kravitz. Bedtime Stories was written for Madonna by Björk. Björk used to go out with Tricky. Tricky is from the Bristol trip-hop scene, same as Portishead. Tricky's Hell Is Around The Corner is built around a sample from Portishead's single Glory Box. Portishead made some really good remixes of Walking In My Shoes for Depeche Mode. Vince Clarke used to be a member of Depeche Mode, but is now half of Erasure with Andy Bell. Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters performed a duet with Andy Bell on his solo album Electric Blue. Blondie's Parallel Lines is Andy Bell's favourite record - both Blondie and Talking Heads used to perform at the punk night club CBGB in New York. Scissor Sisters are also from New York. Deborah Harry from Blondie performed a memorable duet with Iggy Pop (Well, Did You Evah!). Depeche Mode covered the Iggy Pop and the Stooges song Dirt as the b-side to their single I Feel Loved. Erasure's 1992 ep Abba-esque was a collection of covers of this most successful Swedish band. The Cardigans are widely regarded as the second-most successful Swedish act of all time. The Cardigans performed Burning Down The House with Tom Jones, a song originally done by Talking Heads. The only song Depeche Mode ever recorded for a soundtrack was Death's Door, for the Wim Wender's movie Until The End Of The World. This soundtrack also featured original material by Talking Heads (Sax and Violins) and Until The End Of The World by U2. This song originally featured on their album Achtung Baby. The cover of this record was designed by Anton Corbijn, who also did music videos, record sleeves and stage design for Depeche Mode. Andrew Fletcher from Depeche Mode manages an independent record label called Toast Hawaii. The only act currently on Toast Hawaii is Client. The vocalist from Client is Sarah Blackwood, who used to be in a band called Dubstar. Dubstar mention Morrisey in their song The Day I See You Again. Morrisey was the vocalist for The Smiths. Death Cab For Cutie did a cover of This Charming Man by The Smiths on their album You Can Play These Songs With Chords. Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie is also part of The Postal Service, whose song We Will Become Silhouettes was covered by The Shins. Two songs from The Shins feature on the soundtrack for the movie Garden State, along with a song called Such Great Heights, performed by Iron and Wine, but originally written by The Postal Service. The Garden State soundtrack features a track by Zero 7, often called the British Air. Air has produced two remixes for Depeche Mode. Rex the Dog has produced dance remixes for Depeche Mode and also for Client. Which brings us back to Dubstar. Dubstar site Portishead, Cocteau Twins and Durutti Column as influences. Martin Gore from Depeche Mode performed a cover of a Durutti Column track on his Counterfeit ep in 1989. Martin Gore performed a guitar solo for a track on Gwen Stefani's solo album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. The track was never used. Gwen's band No Doubt intended to record A Question Of Lust by Depeche Mode for their singles collection, but decided on It's My Life by Talk Talk instead. Gwen Stefani added her vocals to the single version of Moby's Southside, from his album Play. Moby's use of blues samples on this record is influenced by his experience recording Bloodline with Alan Wilder's project Recoil. Alan Wilder used to be a member of Depeche Mode. Mute Records is the label for Moby, and also Depeche Mode, Goldfrapp, Erasure and Nick Cave. Nick Cave performed a duet with Kylie Minogue, called Where The Wild Roses Grow. Kylie sang songs written for her by Scissor Sisters and Emiliana Torrini. Emiliana Torrini is from Iceland and is often confused with Björk. Nellee Hooper has produced albums for Björk and Madonna. Shep Pettibone produced Madonna's Erotica album, and did a remix of Depeche Mode's Behind The Wheel. The Cure did an exceptional cover of Depeche Mode's World In My Eyes. Katie Melua did an exceptional cover of The Cure's Just Like Heaven. World In My Eyes was produced by flood, who also did prodution on U2's Pop, together with Nellee Hooper. Pop's cover art was designed by Anton Corbijn, who designed the cover for R.E.M.'s Automatic For The People. R.E.M.'s Fretless also featured on Until The End Of The World, as did a song by Nick Cave: (I'll Love You) Till The End Of The World. Anton Corbijn has taken photographs of Annie Lennox, who is part of Eurythmics. Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics was covered by Marilyn Manson. He also did covers of Soft Cell's Tainted Love and Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus. Personal Jesus has also been covered by Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash did the vocals for The Wanderer, the final track on U2's Zooropa (1993). The stage design for the ZooTV tour was done by, you guessed it... Anton Corbijn. Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn has shot promotional material for BMW. Madonna was featured in online ads for BMW. The music video for Madonna's single Fever was directed by Stéphane Sednaoui. Stéphane Sednaoui also directed many videos for Björk and tricky and also the music video for Dream On by Depeche Mode. The sleeve and promotional material for Depeche Mode's The Singles 86>98 was produced by the London design company Intro. Intro shot the cover of Exterminator for Primal Scream, who supported Depeche Mode during their 1993 Devotional world tour. Intro also created the cover of Life Thru A Lens for Robbie Williams. Robbie Williams performed Kids with Kylie Minogue, who also did that duet with Nick Cave, remember? Kylie had a thing for Michael Hutchence from INXS. The promotional material for the last INXS album, Elegantly Wasted, was also handled by Intro. I could go on and tie Fatboy Slim, Queen, Groove Armada, Moloko, Franz Ferdinand, Pearl Jam, Enya, Pet Shop Boys, Ladytron, Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos, The Doors, Prince, Thievery Corporation, Beck, Grace Jones and Stan Getz into the equation, but I'm kind of tired now so I guess I'll stop. Play this game with me. Maybe you can figure out what the links are?

0 minutes, 20 seconds. Gotta go.

8 October 2006

Tag, I'm it

Thanks to Arcadia, who tagged me here. Seems like I'm always the last to get around to doing this sort of thing. Hope you're not all bored to death with it by now.

One. Everyone seems to start with this one. I was born in the Mary Font Hospital, Pretoria, on the 1st April 1981 by caesarian section. Yes, and I do get the April Fool thing every year, folks!

Two. Dexter-sinister factoids: I'm left-handed, but use scissors made for right-handed people. I wear one contact lens, in my left eye, to correct short-sightedness. The right eye has perfect vision.

Three. Seeing Depeche Mode in concert at Wembley Arena was the highlight of my year.

Four. In 1989 I fell down part of the waterfall at Klein Kariba. That was the day I broke my left leg (see point two).

Five. Kate Atkinson is my favourite author. I'm dying to read her new novel, One Good Turn, but need to finish my thesis first. It will be my reward once it's all over.

Six. I like going to movies on my own, but definitely feel uncomfortable sitting in restaurants alone. Maybe it's because I don't smoke? What do you do with your hands?

Seven. Christmas makes me melancholy. Easter is a much more guilt-free religious holiday (it's kind of the point of Easter, isn't it?).

Eight. In 1997 I was presented with a HAT by Prof. Elize Botha for being the overall winner of the Afrikaans Expo. The following year, one of my poems was read aloud at the award ceremony by Jannie du Toit. These were proud moments for me.

Nine. I dislike passionless people and zealous extremists in equal measure. But I think I hate bureaucrats most of all.

Ten. I lived in Pietermaritzburg from 1989 to 1993 and have fond memories of biking around the Ferncliffe Nature Reserve and the Sappi plantations.

Eleven. I received a Fulbright scholarship to pursue a PhD in the USA in 2007.

Twelve. I cannot stand gem squash.

Thirteen. I'm a closet fan of romantic comedies.

Fourteen. The longest I managed to stop biting my nails is 4 weeks.

Fifteen. People are always surprised by my athleticism. Sports make me tense because I'm competitive and I hate feeling hot and sweaty; that's why I'm not that active. Not because I can't do it, it's that I don't like to feel tense and bothered.

Sixteen. I'm pro-choice, but think each case has its own merit and needs to go through a commitee review process first.

Seventeen. I tend to switch off when boring people talk to me, then snap back and realize that I have absolutely no idea of what they're on about. Bad habit or sanity preservation strategy? Methinks the latter.

Eighteen. My favourite record is Songs of Faith and Devotion by Depeche Mode, and I've had it for over ten years now. It has this gigantic wall of sound that never ceases to amaze, entertain, intrigue and move me. Each time I listen to it, I discover something new. It's that complex and layered. Like an ogre.

Nineteen. Ten thousand six hundred and forty-five is the amount of words so far completed for a humorous novel I started writing in 2000, but now know I'll probably never finish.

Twenty. I'm an obsessive-compulsive hypochondriac. But a sensible one.

2 October 2006

5 things I plan on doing (but secretly know I never will)

1. Watch every Woody Allen movie ever made.
2. Learn to speak an African language.
3. Read a Jane Austen novel.
4. Learn to play the guitar.
5. Repot all the orchids in a single marathon weekend session.


24 September 2006

We're one, but we're not the same

Confessions. Pleas for understanding. People desperate to share what they truly are and truly feel, but afraid of scorn, of judgement, of ridicule, of persecution. And so these confessions largely remain hidden.

The other day,
in my old copy of The Book of Lists, I read something kind of interesting concerning a particular song by U2 which made me think about some of the really great confessionals that form part of my music collection. Among these are some familiar radio favourites, open secrets like the catchy single Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters (found on Scissor Sisters, their 2004 debut album). This song takes the listener along on the camp-as-can-be glam disco journey as a young man and his friends show his mother a gay old time on the club scene. Other songs are hidden gems, like the electro-blues of Hideaway, from Erasure's 1987 album The Circus. This features the harrowing chorus:
Oh my father
Why don't you talk to me now?
Oh my mother
Do you still cry yourself to sleep?
Are you still proud of your little boy?

More questions than answers. In 1996, Pet Shop Boys released Bilingual, where the track Metamorphosis presents us with the oh-so-witty line 'What I wanted was to be a family man, but nature had some alternative plans'. The subject is treated with humour and melancholy in equal measure, you see. Everyone knows what George Michael implies when he says that he'd 'service the community' on Outside, released in 1998 on his Best Of collection, Ladies and Gentlemen. And it's obvious that most of these songs have been created by artists who are icons in the gay community. But what I'm getting at is that some songs are less obvious in exploring this theme, both in lyrical content and in who is behind the microphone.

Every straight man's favourite fag, Freddy Mercury, was possessed by the act of perfecting the multi-layered masterpiece
Bohemian Rhapsody for Queen's remarkable 1975 album A Night at the Opera. The band had to keep overdubbing the operatic vocals until you could see right through the deteriorating master tape. Brian May once remarked that this ethereal piece of work seemed to literally disappear as they were making it. Opinions differ, of course, but in Bohemain Rhapsody Mercury comes to terms with his own homosexuality. It was during this time that Mercury gave up the straight and narrow for what his gay friends called 'the real life'. For 'Mama, just killed a man', read 'Mary, my old self is dead'. There is no more powerful account of a person's struggle with their own demons. In the end, there truly is 'no escape from reality', unless you are resigned that 'nothing really matters' to you anymore.

The most common interpretation of the lyrical content of One, taken from the 1991 U2 album Achtung Baby, is that it's about lovers who need to end a destructive relationship. According to The Book Of Lists, Bono Hewson 'discovered' that the song was actually about a boy with AIDS addressing his father. Anton Corbijn directed the video for the song, in which Bono is singing to his own father while wearing a black gown. Apparently, the sight of Bono singing in drag upset some management types, who were concerned that the video might imply that only gay people get AIDS. In fact, two other completely different videos were duly created, and these lend themselves more to the many other interpretations of the song. In true U2 style, some of the proceeds from the sale of the One single went to AIDS charities. The Book of Lists calls this song an astonishingly potent cry against a fear so powerful it could sever a father from his ailing son.
Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without

More questions again. Confessors waiting for a response. This time, will it be judgement or compassion?

18 September 2006

Once Upon a Time

Arcadia is my list muse. The first sentence is what inspires you to read the rest of the book, isn't it? I have therefore prepared a list of some of my favourite opening lines from books. I've permitted myself more than a single sentence in instances where I think the essence of the opening passage is not captured merely before the first period. You'll notice that I adore books that start off with high tension. There is tension regarding a character's identity, their past, their future or their motivation. Tension is created by change, the sense that everything's going to be irrevocably different from now onwards. Vonnegut's characters who have to want something on every page. Enjoy.

1. The Bridge of San Luis Rey - Thornton Wilder [1927]
"On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below."

2. Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons [1932]
"The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occured in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living."

3. The Outsider - Albert Camus [1942]
"Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know."

4. The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov [1967]
"At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriach's Ponds."

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel García Márquez [1967]
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

6. Tales of the City - Armistead Maupin [1980]
"Mary Ann Singleton was twenty-five years old when she saw San Francisco for the first time."

7. Less Than Zero - Bret Easton Ellis [1985]
"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles."

8. The Object of My Affection - Stephen McCauley [1987]
"Nina and I had been living together in Brooklyn for over a year when she came home one afternoon, announced she was pregnant, tossed her briefcase to the floor and flopped down on the green vinyl sofa."

9. A Home at the End of the World - Michael Cunningham [1990]
"Once our father bought a convertible. Don't ask me. I was five."

10. The Secret History - Donna Tartt [1992]
"The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation."

11. A Map of the World - Jane Hamilton [1994]
"I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn't learned that it can happen so gradually you don't lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing."

12. The Dead Heart - Douglas Kennedy [1994]
"I had never seen so many tattoos."

13. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - John Berendt [1994]
"He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features: a neatly trimmed mustache, hair turning silver at the temples, an eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine - he could see out, but you couldn't see in."

14. Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk [1996]
"Tyler gets me a jo as a waiter,after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die."

15. The House of Sleep - Jonathan Coe [1997]
"It was their final quarrel, that much was clear."

16. Devil's Valley - André P. Brink [1998]
"'I been sitting here, waiting for you,' said the old man, not bothering to look at me."

17. Coast - Matthew Branton [2000]
"It started the day the Indian boys fell out of the sky."

18. Emotionally Weird - Kate Atkinson [2000]
"My mother is a virgin. (Trust me.)"

19. Orchid Fever - Eric Hansen [2000]
"There is something distinctive about the sight and sound of a human body falling from the rain forest canopy."

20. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides [2002]
"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."

11 September 2006

Generally Redundant Examination

So on Wednesday I woke up at 05:00 so that I may beat the traffic to Johannesburg. I left the house at roughly 05:45 and headed out to the highway in the dark. There was already traffic on the highway. Lots of it. I shall never understand how people can live in one city and then work in another. People driving in to Johannesburg from Pretoria. People driving in to Durban from Pietermaritzburg. People everywhere in their cars. But not driving, really. Because it's more like waiting. I arrived in Parktown at 07:15. That's an average speed of 40 kph. So much for all the signs prohibitng speeds in excess of 100 kph - there's just not enough room on the N1 to attain it. I listened to Zero 7's In The Waiting Line whilst stuck somewhere in Midrand. How appropriate. I cannot imagine doing this every day. I wouldn't do it and I respect all of you who daily commute between home and work. The lab is about 15 kilometres from my home, and travelling that distance every morning frustrates me to no end.

Empire Road is the home of the Thomson Prometric office, where I had to take a GRE test. The GRE test being one of the requirements of the Fulbright Commission, even though I have a BSc(Hons) degree in the field of molecular biology and will hopefully have an MSc degree soon, too. Luckily the Fulbright people at the US Embassy gave me a voucher, so I got to take the test for free. This test measures your language and basic mathematical skills. In the end I felt like I had driven 120 kilometres and spent a whole day proving something that I felt could be ascertained by reviewing my tertiary education history. What a waste. We are all slaves to bureaucracy and there's nothing we can do about it. Or is there?

1 September 2006

In The Greenhouse (09/06)

Welcome to orchid season. All of the precious sleeping beauties that have lain dormant all those winter months are finally awake and putting on a splendid display. With this, my largest orchid post ever, I would like to show you the symptoms of my spring fever. A word of warning, though: it is highly contagious...

Dendrobium nobile 'Joyful Heart'. I purchased this Himalayan plant for R50,00 from MC Orchids several years ago. Then, it was a cute little ikebana of a plant, with a couple of spindly canes with velvety pink flowers on them. Since then, it has grown into a splendid specimen plant, a monster that entirely covers the large coconut-fibre basket it grows in. I completely stop watering it by the end of May, when its resting period commences. All the leaves from the previous season's growth drop off, leaving the canes completely bare. By the end of July, tiny buds start to form at the nodes of the bare canes. These develop into gorgeous trusses of flowers like the one you see here. My favourite is the inviting, dark velvety centre and the dangerously spicy scent. Furry.

Laeliocattleya Trick or Treat. How delicious is this? Bright vermillion, starry flowers are completely irresistable and there are many similar Laeliocattleyas to choose from. Lc. Trick or Treat is one of the best and most famous of these miniature jewels and was hybridised in the 1970's by the experts at Stewart Orchids. Zesty.

Oncidium hybrid. Karen Little gave this plant to me for my birthday about two years ago. The tag listed it as Oncidium flexuosum, which it definitely is not. The size and shape of the pseudobulbs is completely different, not to mention the patterning on the flowers. It's very possible that Onc. flexuosum features somewhere in this plant's parentage, but without a proper tag, it is impossible to be certain. Whatever the exact genetic make up, this is a superior plant with a large (almost 1m tall!) and branching inflorescence carrying hundreds of perfectly formed yellow flowers with red and brown markings. It grows outside in bright but filtered sunlight, receiving lots of water and fresh air. I love it. Bright.

Cymbidium hybrid. This is an orphan I inherited from my aunt when she moved to George. It had a name tag nestled in the potting mix, but it was too eroded to be read. I repotted the plant immediately, dividing it and placing my divisions in terracotta pots filled with large chunks of composted pine bark. This year, the divisions each made two spikes of graceful jade blooms with intricately patterned lips. Graceful.

Masdevallia Copper Angel 'Highlands'. Masdevallias are rude and obscene harlots. They appeal to the senses with their perfect symmetry and curiously glowing colours, luring you into the very centre of the flower where the reproductive parts are hiding, like a dirty secret. They are impossible to photograph accurately. This one is a primary cross between Masd. triangularis and Masd. veitchiana. It is a deep orange colour, with dark burgundy hairs all over this orange base, giving the impression of a luminescent sheen that moves over the surface as it bobs in the breeze. Fluorescent.

Rhyncholaelia glauca. Yummy. This is sometimes known as Brassavola glauca, but is actually quite different from individuals in that genus. This species is found in open hot forests in Central America. It is glaucous, the leaves having a waxy blue appearance. Single 12cm flowers are produced from the newest pseudobulbs. Drying out between waterings is imperative for this species and as you can see, mine is quite happy growing on a log mount. I like the tiny red detail right in the centre of the lip that draws the pollinating insect right into the middle. Would this plant compete for pollinator attention with cactus flowers of similar appearance? Both are white and emit a strong perfume at night and would therefore be visited by moths. I haven't read anything to that effect, but it seems very likely. Pristine.

Dendrobium kingianum. Possibly the easiest of all orchids to grow. It has a profusion of shapely dusky pink flowers in spring. It is a coastal lithophyte from eastern Australia. There are thousands of named varieties, some with speckles or stripes, some which are pure white and some the colour of a good red wine. Keep it in dappled light, provide an open potting mix and water it once a week. I fertilize mine when I remember (which is seldom) and it seems to do just fine. Really difficult to kill, perhaps a little tricky to grow really well. Use your intuition and your Den. kingianum will reward you. Accommodating.

Pleurothallis truncata. What a lovely and curious group of orchids the Pleurothallids are. I've read accounts of explorers who entered the deepest parts of Andean cloud forests to find that the dominant vegetation is Pleurothallids, simply covering every dripping surface. There are over 1000 species in the genus Pleurothallis, and many in related genera like Restrepia and Dracula. I purchased this one from Afri-Orchids this year and am quite pleased with it. It is a cool growing native of Ecuador and thrives at high altitudes, where temperatures are constant and rain abundant. Each flower is about a third of a centimetre in diameter. Curious.

Oncidium Gower Ramsey. This is supposed to be one of the best Oncidium crosses ever made. It pales in comparison to Karen's lovely no name brand cross above, though. It's pretty standard as modern hybrid Oncidiums go, being nice and compact with a good flower count and lasting power. I've glued some cuttings from it onto a Cordyline in the garden and they seem to handle Highveld epiphytic life very well indeed. The common name for Oncidium is 'Dancing Doll' or 'Dancing Lady' from the way the lip resembles a flamenco dancer's skirt. The scientific name Oncidium, however, refers to the cancer-like growths at the base of the lip (from Greek = onkos, a tumour). Not what you expected, right? Sweet.

Masdevallia Heathii. An intoxicating flame, this is a cross between Masd. ignea and Masd. veitchiana made, not surprisingly, by Heath at the end of the 19th century. The flowers are large for the size of the dimunitive plant and seem to glow from within. They are carried singly on very long, thin inflorescences and seem disembodied, like will o' the wisps leading you to your demise in the dark places of the old forest. Incendiary.

Cymbidium Ivy Fung 'Red Radiance'. This is a very beautiful compact Cymbidium with sex dream dark flowers. It is such a strong grower and flowers very reliably. It will often produce two inflorescences per pseudobulb. My only complaint is that these are really difficult to stake upright, being very rigid. So I just let it run riot, unstaked, with the inflorescences protruding at awkward angles from the base of the pot. Upright inflorescences are a human aesthetic convention at any rate, and not necessarily the natural thing for a specific orchid to produce. Stubborn.

Dendrobium lindleyi. The undeniable star of the season. It is historically known as Den. aggregatum but is now named after the English botanist Lindley. This species hails from the hot jungles of Vietnam and other South East Asian countries. After a dry winter rest, pendulous inflorescences arise from the nodes of the pseudobulbs, quickly producing sulphur yellow flowers with gigantic crystalline lips. A true spring spectacle. Imagine the effort the plant has to go through to produce such exquisite blooms in such profusion. Even a small plant such as mine managed to make four inflorescences. Imagine what a giant specimen in the wild must look like. Now if only it wasn't for all that pesky napalm and Agent Orange stuff... Precious.

Dendrobium Brengle. A 21st century cross between Den. Glamour and Den. King-Wong. It pretty much resembles Den. x delicatum, which is a natural hybrid between Den. kingianum and Den. speciosum. It packs a lot of Ausie punch into a small package. Similar in gestalt to Den. kingianum, but with shaplier pseudobulbs and bigger flowers, it emits a barely perceptible musky honeyed scent during the early evening. Adjective-hungry.

Cymbidium hybrid. Another lovely heirloom. It makes very long inflorescences for a Cymbidium, with the large copper flowers spaced far apart on the descending part of it. It makes a good garden plant, so long as you give it bright light for a large part of the day, and excellent air circulation around the root system. Droopy.

Phalaenopsis Ho's Amaglad. A wonderful cold-tolerant Phalaenopsis. This is the only plant of its kind in my collection not to have lost any leaves during the winter months. It looks like a simple variety of Phal. aphrodite, but actually contains a complex mix of genes from Phal. amabilis, Phal, equestris and Phal. stuartiana. It produces a branching inflorescence with long-lasting, pure white blooms. The yellow detail on the intricate lip is especially striking. Phalaenopsis seem almost tired and overused, like the flavour-of-last-month pot plants of decor and lifestyle magazines. But let me ask you this: how can one ever tire of true beauty? It is timeless. Classic.

29 August 2006

Spring Fever

My throat feels scratchy and I'm all hot and bothered. I think I might be coming down with spring fever. Oh, dear...

Watch this space.

16 August 2006

Top 5 coolest things to do with genetic engineering

Biotechnology is my passion. After being inspired by Arcadia's Week Of The List, I would like to share 5 really cool things that 21st century biotechnology can do.

1. Ripe and ready to eat. CalGene's Flavr Savr tomato will always have a special place in history. It was the first ever GM food to be approved by the FDA way back in 1994. Normal tomatoes are picked green and hard and then left to ripen in the grocer's cooler. Flavr Savr tomatoes promised juicy vine-ripeness without spoiling during the picking, transportation and storage steps. This exceptional shelf-life worked by silencing the gene responsible for producing ethylene. This gas is produced by ripening fruit, especially bananas and avocados, and keeps the ripening process going. Without the ability to make ethylene, Flavr Savr tomatoes ripen on the vine to a pink blush and then stay in that state until they can be treated with exogenous ethylene right before putting them on display in the store. These GM beauties were last seen on shelves in 1997. Why were they pulled from the market? Not because of any fears about frankenfood, but because they were still picked and transported using traditional hard green tomato methods and equipment. Damage to the soft and squishy Flavr Savr tomatoes was as much as 30% by the time a desperate housewife could lay her hands on one. It was just not economically viable to keep the Flavr Savr going.

2. Got silk? Spider silk has a myriad of potential uses. For a start, it's a really strong protein: stronger than kevlar or reinforced steel, we're told. It's of obvious interest to structural engineers and fashionistas who like their ball gowns bullet proof. But spider silk is a precious commodity and spiders do not cope well with being farmed. Nexia Biotechnology in Quebec Canada has produced transgenic goats that secrete spider silk in their milk. That's right. Just skim it off, stretch, leave to dry, spin into fibres. A visionary technique for mass-producing the fibre of the future.

3. Red alert. The Danish company
Aresa has genetically modified the thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), a humble weed, to turn a bright red colour when it encounters unexploded land mines underground. This would help alleviate the suffering of people in countries riddled with dormant mines. The explosives slowly release nitrogen dioxide which then causes the leaves of the plant to turn their autumn colours. The genes responsible for producing the red pigment anthocyanin are usually switched off for most of the year, but these scientists have inserted an extra gene that turns on this whole biochemical pathway in the presence of nitrogen dioxide. In true Jurassic Park style, the company has made their patented BioSensor plants dependent on a specific fertilizer mix, so they won't escape into the wild.

4. Something fishy. Certain fish that live in Arctic and Antarctic waters secrete special proteins that protect them from freezing. If such a fish swallows a small ice crystal, these antifreeze glycoproteins bind to it and prevent it from growing larger. Scientists have already produced varieties of potatoes and tomatoes expressing these genes, with the potential to thrive where the dangers of frost would kill lesser crops. But would your salad still be vegetarian?

5. Hot stuff. This is an idea I had in my Honours year for a biotech experiment. Since tomatoes and chillies are in the same plant family, the Solanaceae, they share several characteristics. One feature exclusive to chillies is their burn. This is caused by the capsaicinoid molecules produced by the placenta (the membrane that connects the seeds to the fruit wall). Incidentally, capsaicinoids are produced by chillies to prevent mammals from eating the fruit. The mammalian digestive system destroys chilli seeds, whereas those of birds leave them intact to germinate. Birds do not have the pain receptors sensitive to capsaicinoids and therefore experience no heat rush when feasting on a habanero bush. How cool would it be to transform tomatoes with the genes for the enzymes in the capsaicinoid pathway? It should be a breeze, as the two crops are related. You then get hot tomatoes, useful in relishes and hot salsa. Land used for the production of tomatoes and chillies will be used for growing hot tomatoes with twice the yield. Simple? Not really. The enzymes that produce capsaicinoids haven't all been discovered yet. But if you give me some money, I'll gladly do it for you...

6 August 2006

In The Greenhouse (08/06)

Strange how August is always colder than July. Tropical orchids are quite confused by the cold fronts of temperate climes - some are already well into their spring growing season, whereas others are still slumbering in winter dormancy. This month carries on with the warm colours of the flowers from the previous month. Here are five winter warmers to cheer you up.

Dendrobium trigonopus. This truly delightful miniature species from South East Asia has bright yellow flowers and an apple green labellum with tiny red striations. It is also part of the Nigrohirsutae group in Dendrobium, which includes beauties like Den. formosum, Den. infundibulum and Den. cruentum. My plant grows mounted on a small piece of timber which is suspended from the roof of the greenhouse in a cool bright aspect. It has a delicious scent that some people say reminds them of honeysuckle. Personally, it reminds me of the smell of a candy shop. Pretty.

Cymbidium Kusuda Shining. An exceptional modern compact variety. The inflorescence produces the blooms at large intervals for a Cymbidium, displaying them singly and making the whole appearance less cluttered. Bright yellow labellum with prominent dark chocolate markings makes a nice contrast to the rusty amber petals. The column is a darker, dusty rose colour with a light anther cap. Sunny.

Pleurothallis prolifera. This is a very strange orchid from Venezuela and Brazil. It has coriaceous (i.e. leathery) leaves, quite atypical for its genus and can be found growing lithophytically (that means on rocks, folks) in hot, dry places. Other Pleurothallis are usually found in moist cloud forests, so this one really is the odd one out. Microscopic striped flowers are carried on an inflorescence along the mid-vein of the leaf. Weird.

Dendrobium Banana Royal. This plants is sometimes listed as Banana Royale. It has a lot of Den. canaliculatum influence and has to be grown in a warm situation with ample light. A dry winter rest is also required for successful flowering. Indeed, I've struggled for the last couple of years to get it to bloom. The flowers are small and twisted and are the colour of just-ripe bananas. Edible.

Laeliocattleya Ronselensis. This is a primary hybrid between the dull green Cattleya forbesii and dimunitive orange Laelia cinnabarina. It was first registered in 1904 and again illustrates how the progeny of a cross can be a vast improvement over the parents. This plant carries golden yellow starry flowers with cherry red lips on a tall inflorescence. Perky.