The Huntington Library – December 2008

The Chinese Garden is mostly finished; the plants are young and unimpressive, but the structures are beautiful.

Magnolia setting seed.

Interesting pose: self-referential and yet, detached.

On of many lovelies in the History of Science exhibit in the main library.  Thank you security personnel for trusting me to take non-flash photos.

More magnolia.


Lazy Susan of Microbes


I guess I thought the Lazy Susan was an American invention used in Asian restaurants to facilitate serving.  They’re utterly common in Taiwan as well; the whole business of eating is quite different there.

You start with a tiny bowl that you fill with rice and then you come to the table and sit down.  The Lazy Susan goes around and you take about three bites worth of whatever you’re wanting to eat.  You lay that on top of your rice and go to town, then spin the Lazy Susan and have something else.  At the table you see in the picture, 13 people sat on stools, shoulder to shoulder.

At first I was pretty horrified that we were all serving ourselves with the chopsticks that had just been in our mouths.  That was before I found out that the wash water for dishes was completely cold and we were to use hand soap for all the bowls and chopsticks.  And that was before someone came to the table one morning with a cold.  Then, I was truly horrified.  But I was hungry too, so I was over it soon enough.  I tried to serve myself from the least savaged portions of each dish, but since we were essentially sharing chopsticks, I knew that wasn’t really helping.

No one drinks anything with meals, but the entrees are followed with soup, usually musk melon which is a little like loofa in warm broth.  There’s a lot of lip smacking and slurping, and no one uses napkins either, so your companions at meals are quite greasy-faced.

Hunger moderates one’s reactions to any of these issues, and I really like the communal feeling of dining with a gang of people.

I wondered about portion control while I was there – you have no idea how much you’re eating after you portion yourself out some rice.  You kind of just stop when you’re full.  As it turns out, you eat quite a bit less than you would otherwise.  I lost weight in Taiwan, despite the 30 gallons of water I was evidently retaining, and I did it without the benefit of an intestinal parasite or microbial revolt.*

One night we had a long discussion about the possible value of “immune challenges” where you challenge your resilience with all manner of germy insults hoping to strengthen it to future assaults.  I think the theory has some merit.  Maybe I can get a grant.


* I’m sure that somewhere there are overweight Taiwanese people, but they are probably Americans because I didn’t see any of them on the island.  It gave me pause: not one overweight person was spotted in the entire time I was there.

Century Egg


See that black and green region on this plate?  Century egg.  Why is it that color you ask?  Well, because it’s rotten.  Why is it on a plate instead of in the trash?  Because it’s a delicacy.  You will eat some, and you will like it.

And I did, and I did.  It’s got an earthy flavor and creamy texture, and you only taste the “offness” of it a few seconds after you’ve swallowed it.  I split it with 2 other people, and we pretty much ate it with great relish and exclamations of bravado.  The tofu chaser next to it makes everything okay again.  Follow with white fungus soup and a steamed pork bun.  Yum!

I expected to have stomach distress of various kinds in Taiwan but it never happened.  In fact, the relative richness of food back here in the states after being on a pretty clean diet for 2 weeks caused the most distress.  The richest thing I ate was fried duck – served whole, of course, so we could make meaningful eye contact while I dined on his innards with a nice guava nectar.

Fang: a love story


Now that’s what I call an Orb Weaver. This female was so enormous that when we released her later, she had trouble navigating and actually walking with that huge abdomen. We had found her in a large web built between two trees nearly 5 feet apart. She was as shy as a virgin bride and hunched every time we pet her through the bag. Petting spiders is a scientific procedure performed by trained arachnidologists and should definitely be tried at home. Pet the top part, not the fang part.

The site was also teeming with Argiope spiders with newly hatched young and they are some businesslike parents. We spent at least an hour watching one feed her wee spiderlings right over the top of our water cooler.

Confession: A couple weeks ago I talked to one of the other students I was traveling with in Taiwan and admitted I had sprayed the entire perimeter of my dorm room entrance with DEET on the day we arrived. For your information, spiders are unimpressed by DEET.