Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hand Hewn

I have a particular fondness for rough hand hewn lumber nurtured  actively during my childhood years by Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods.  Laura's father "Pa" Ingalls  built many a log cabin for his family with only a hand ax.  I actually do not know many such men who could do this now- certainly not my own amiable father.  My own Pa Hugo is a man of multiple talents including enjoyment of delicious raw sea creatures but none of his abundant skills involve any form of sweat-inducing manual labor.

My sweet husband could build us a cosy hand hewn cabin if he had the will.  However, I dare not ask him to square raw logs by hand in this age of power tools and milled lumber.  I need him to spend his precious time on my custom desk, tea cabinetry, wiring, plumbing, tiling, grouting, cladding, decking, window and staircase installation and more.  Thankfully we can rely on reclaimed barn beams to bring back this bygone era of hand milling.   The above stack of century old tamarack beams came from a farm in Washington state. Of course holding up a barn means that these here beams saw plenty of live-stock action.  When you wash the mud off them, they smell of hay but nothing as offensive as a young ripe shu.

Such a structural piece once set cannot be readily undone so you really must be sure of yourself.  I actually picked out my beam from the stack in an instant.  All those decades of scrutinizing wood grains and hand cuts apparently paid off so I knew what I wanted.  Only if I had such confidence with my puerh selection.   We lugged this beauty home pleased as punch.  When there is only one readily-accessible purveyor of a desired good,  it's important to want what they have in hand.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Constructing Space for Tea

My little home has been under massive construction.  I have long desired a dedicated room for all things I love- tea, writing, and maps.  My tiny plot barely allows for a vegetable patch or two, but I've finally sacrificed the valuable gardening space. We had to prematurely pull two squash bushes and relocate herbs to make way. My dear husband will build custom tea cabinets so I can continue hoarding. It really must be hoarding. I pathologically bought a few pounds more tea last week and am too sheepish even to mention the contents. I'm itching to make another order.

Every day I come home and sit inside the new space fantasizing about the new organization scheme I can enforce. Currently, beengs and bricks are squished in any way they will fit which offends my sense of order.   Still grouping by style, shape, factory, region, and year is not always straight forward.  

I'll probably have to move teas gradually to determine storage worthiness . I'll move a few lesser beengs for a month and monitor moisture and to dim the smells of new construction. I have no shortage of such strong scented budget puerh to prep and saturate the boards.  I severely interrogated my poor husband during dinner about possibility of mold or mildew but he insists the insulation and vapor barrier would prevent such a disaster.  Still I'm a nervous nelly-  pu once ruined is ruined forever.

The plan is to put in a roof deck with an outdoor sink so I can have a new space to brew tea.  I love plans and even planning to brew in a novel setting makes me happy.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Back in the game with GABA Oolong

I'm really cleaning out the tea closet.  A true sign of a hoarder is a painful inability to part with any piece of their treasured hoard.  My first serious subtraction is a box of shu little over 5 pounds that I dropped off at the post office today.  I have 10 more pounds ready to handover to a friend visiting from Hawaii this weekend.

What's the first thing one should do after clearing out tea?  Buy more tea of course...  I limited myself to a small box of oolong as it's the only kind of tea my body tolerates these days.  I ordered from mainly because they ship from L.A.  A box full of tea waiting on my front porch warms my heart like no other delivery.

I ordered a spectrum of oolong to refind my preferences.  I used to drink high mountain oolongs fifteen years ago when I didn't know too much about tea and thought they were quite the bee's knees.  Who knows what I was actually drinking back then- probably some mediocre oolong marked up as Alishan. I probably would not have known any better back then either.

You can see this vendor thoughtfully color coded their pouches to match oxidation levels with yellow being their light roasted oolong. The tea in the purple pouch is in a unique category of its own- it's an oolong oxidized in the presence of nitrogen to increase naturally occuring GABA levels.  The Japanese came up with this discovery twenty years ago while experimenting with alternative preservation methods.   Most humans probably could do with more GABA- a neurotransmitter which increases mental alertness as well as tones muscles. The reputed health claims of GABA are so wide and varied that if true- GABA would be a wonder drug.

I don't have an entrance exam to take but I'm always keen to enhance my flagging mental functions.  I was playing hooky today to go to the post office so the most mentally taxing thing I had to do was organize panda and polar bear photos on pinterest.  I'm not sure I was the beneficiary of increased mental function but if GABA tea had such noticeable effects, should we not see it in almost every store that sells tea?  But then America is not so much a hyper-competetive society and not all Americans actually want to be smarter or more focussed.  In fact many citizens in Northern California prefer the opposite it seems.

The tea was a pleasant affair - one notch above ho-hum and I'm not motivated to draw it out. I would probably not buy or drink this tea without the reputed health benenfits.  In the summer, I love sipping my tea in front of my squash and tomato patch contemplating novel ways of enjoying the summer veggies.  After seeing me struggle with my ipad camera and wobbling tea plate,  my husband sweetly volunteered to be the hand model in this shot. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Shield Your Eyes

Now for something completely different...

I had the most unexpected pleasure of touring the synchrotron at Lawrence Labs arranged through a friend.  In layman's parlance,  the synchrotron is a light factory which beams x-ray strength light at different ranges to be employed in scientific experiments ranging from recreating conditions in the earth's core to uncovering protein structures such as the ebola virus.  Our friend's neighbor Tom has been running the facility for 13+ years and proved a most excellent guide. I'm not used to hard-core science so my poor brain probably absorbed only a fraction of what Tom transmitted so any apologies in advance for incompleteness and errors.

Tom first took us around the end of beamlines- beamlines are vacuum sealed pipes delivering radiation to an experimental endstation as shown above.  If you've ever built your own spectrometer with a cereal box, duct tape and CD, you can see the above setup is altogether a different beast replete with it's own cryostat.  All that wrapped foil is not a scientist's idea of a prank.  The foil actually keeps the heat in for burning out the impurities inside the system in order to create a serious vacuum.

The x-rays are generated as a by-product of electrons racing around a giant ring with bending magnets forcing them to a circular path.   Because the synchrotron was shutdown for maintenance, we were allowed to go inside the normally off-limits storage ring.  I was too agog to take a picture of a wiggler- not the Super Mario critter but magnet arrays that "wiggle" the particle beam.  As a software engineer, I felt a tad jealous that anyone could just walk around and appreciate the complexity and engineering so visually.  I've seen more wires, tubes and shielded boxes today than I have in the sum of my entire life.  I've only visited one another particle accelerator CEBAF when my husband worked there as a young lad long ago but now I'm quite curious to visit a collider.  Yeah science! (I'm only a mild Breaking Bad fan but Mr. White definitely would have drooled over all the crystallography projects going on here. Unfortunately the character died in a shoot out but if he had quit his meth empire while he was ahead, he could have submitted a research proposal for some beam time. )

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Collecting China - Spode Greek

When you drink tea seriously, you naturally end up collecting tea wares trolling ebay in your leisure time. Even the history of tea adoption in 17th century England is accompanied by insatiable demand for hand-painted Chinese porcelain tea wares which conveniently served as ballast for the tea laden cargo ships. Fortuitously the overwrought unmet demand for Chinese porcelain gave birth to the great pottery industry in Staffordshire, England which proudly dominated world ceramics production for centuries only to crash in competition with cheap Chinese wares in our time of changing tastes. Ironically, British potteries sent manufacturing back to China in the last decade to cut costs with inferior results which only accelerated their irreversible decline.

Even before I drank tea seriously, I had a fondness for English transferware as each plate tells many stories and I love stories. Transferware involves a process by which copper engravings could be inked on to paper rubbed onto ceramics allowing complex patterns to be readily and faithfully reproduced on china at a moderate cost.  I'm a fan of Spode reproductions of their archival engravings because of their dishwasher safe durability and the historical quirks of the designs.

My everyday set is the Spode Greek reproduction which was first introduced in 1806.   I love the cartoony renditions in Spode's Greek pattern which is by far one of their most elaborate designs with encircling vases replete with their own individual scenes. I was once pushing peas around my plate only to notice that the horses pulling Zeus's chariot were clearly ungelded stallions.  I can't imagine an unsuspecting diner two hundred years ago wanting those extra bits and bobs on their dinner plate.

Despite this minor allowance, Spode designers appear to have tamped down Greek sensuality and naturalism when it came to the human form to better match Georgian sensibilities.  The Spode Greek patterns are based on three different renditions of engravings off Sir Alexander Hamilton's vases.  (I am impatiently waiting for my 15 pound Taschen reproduction of these engravings to arrive in the mail and have prepared an Amano chocolate bar for my postman.)

I found the original Greek urn for the above platter in the British Museum.  If an ancient Greek saw the above neo-classical version, they might be quite confused as to why the most important detail had been omitted- it would be like drawing a face without a nose.  Also the languid look of eroticism between the center nymph and a seated Herakles is translated above into something much more chaste that is not even likely to lead to hand holding.  Unlike this politely seated man-boy,  the real Herakles was a noted virile stud responsible for uncountable dalliances with both sexes. In fact, his young lover Iolaus is looking on right of Herakles. I'm not sure I want a look of burning desire across my meat platter but it's fascinating to see how cultural prejudices and commercial pressures have transformed the original.  Also the Spode pattern heavily anglicizes the faces with the prominent Greek noses reduced to an insignificant squiggle.
© Trustees of the British Museum

Even with apparent effort at restraining the erotic exhuberance of the Greek source material,  men remain bare buttocked and even though the female sex is modestly covered- the Spode engravers still have slipped a nipple or two under their togas. I'm not sure if the upright Georgians or tight-lipped Victorians ever discussed the salaciousness of these designs but it surely would have made for a more lively dinner party.

I have 4 different sets of Spode out of 9 china sets which mark varying stages in my life.  When I first moved to earthquake prone California, I was very hesitant to amass a cabinet full of breakable things. But I quickly overcame this quandary - if my china smashes to bits in the next "Big One",  I was simply going to build a giant mosaic fence to commemorate my love for china and the inevitability of breakage.  Even if my china were to succumb,  it was completely worth the daily joy I received all these years eating off such illustrations instead of enduring the bland white replaceable bistro tableware that seems to be so prevalent in private homes now.