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Hellooooo from Instagram

Welp, it’s been nearly a year since I wrote anything here (oops) but if you’re interested, I have recently gotten myself an Instagram account like all the cool kids. If writing on wordpress is “blogging” and twitter is “micro-blogging”, then I guess what I’m doing on insta is “meso-blogging”*, in the sense of being a bit like my “postcard from” series — I quite enjoy the photo+a paragraph format. If that sounds fun to you, check it out here.

* Sorry, physics joke (I’m not sorry.)


My life soundtrack

I was thinking about music the other day, and how strongly it’s tied to memory for me. So I thought it would be fun to scroll through my music collection and pick out some tracks with strong associations. None of these associations make any sense, but I can listen to any of these songs and be taken to exactly the same place every time.

(Feel free to laugh at my taste in music which has basically not evolved since I was about 14.)

Pictures of You, The Cure

Why yes, I was that teenager who listened to the Cure incessantly. I also wore a lot of black.

(I still do both those things.)

This song, and the entire Disintegration album, takes me back to family holidays in the South West of Australia. It’s a good 5 hour drive from Perth to Albany, and as a teenager my trusty Discman was my first line of defence against having to listen to the cricket the entire way. So this song is the dry summer sheep paddocks finally giving way to greenery and cooler weather as we’d approach the south coast. It’s cool drizzly mornings in the middle of summer. It’s long walks along some of the most beautiful coastline in the world.

(It’s also: being a teenager who’s grumpy about enjoying these things with her parents.)

Continue reading

Book review: Stir, by Jessica Fechtor

I made a batch of these chocolate cookies yesterday afternoon. I love this recipe — see my modifications at the end of this post — because it’s very simple and you don’t need to measure ingredients particularly accurately, but the result is a cookie with a deep flavour and a texture that’s heading on for brownie-like. Basically, this is the double-choc cookie recipe that will ~*change your life*~.

I’ve been on a bit of a “the girl who brings cookies” kick recently, which is not an identity I’m entirely comfortable with (I’d rather bring my rapier wit, y’know?) but I am enjoying getting back into baking after spending Spring going “urgggh, I’m too¬†tired and cooking is hard and complicated.” And creaming butter and sugar by hand feels approximately like exercise so this is all about healthful living, right?

Actually, part of what prodded me to get back behind the mixing bowl was reading Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor, which is a book I’d love to read the proposal for because the concept is that it’s a combination food memoir (ok fair enough…) slash (wait for it…) recovery-from-a-brain-aneurysm memoir. Continue reading

Got any good recipes with no onions or garlic? Or: What it’s like to have a wacky sense of smell.

African elephant warning raised trunk.jpg

(True confessions: I had to check on wikipedia that elephants actually use their trunks as noses and that’s not just something we pretend when we talk to small children.) African elephant warning raised trunk” by Muhammad Mahdi Karim Facebook

If you’ve been following along for a while, you might remember that back in April I realised I couldn’t smell anything. Not in the sense of, Yup, I’m living in a clean (enough) apartment without any unpleasant odours, but in the sense of smelling nothing. A sort of silence for the nose. The realization came as something of surprise for me, since a working sense of smell is something you tend to take for granted, but apparently losing your sense of smell is a thing that can happen when you injure your head, which I had done a few weeks prior.

(As an aside, there’s an extremely nerdy drinking game to be had by looking through neuroscience journals and taking a shot whenever you encounter a variation on “olfactory disorders are among the most common sequelae of head injuries” in the introduction to a paper. As an aside to an aside: how cool is sequelae as a word?) Continue reading

How to pack light for Christmas holidays

Normally I have a really easy time of this — I fly directly to Australia so I just throw a bunch of tshirts and a few pairs of shorts in a bag (clean or dirty, doesn’t matter, I can always wash them when I arrive at my parent’s place) and bam. This year, I’m heading to Germany tomorrow for Christmas and flying from there to Australia on the weekend. This raises the difficulty level enough that I need a step-by-step guide.

Step 0: Be overambitious. Carry-on only! A smaller backpack than anyone would think reasonable for 3 weeks! Bring the laptop even though it’s bulky!

[Actually, this year I’m skimping on step 0, since I finally replaced my ratty old 35-litre tear-shaped (ie: useless-shaped) backpack with a shiny new 40-litre bag that’s good and rectangular. I refuse to be drawn into a discussion of whether I should have replaced the old bag 3 years ago, when it had almost a full pint of beer spilt on it in a pub in Glasgow, or even 2 years ago when it started shedding its plastic lining all over everything I put in it.]

Shiny new beer-free backpack.

Shiny new beer-free backpack.

Step 1: “This will be easy.” You just need to substitute warm clothes for some of the tshirts, right? Start making a pile of clothes on the bed.

Step 2: Look at pile of clothes on the bed. It’s such a small pile! Add some more clothes.

Step 3: Put clothes in bag. Awesome, they all fit! You are the queen of minimalist packing!

Step 4: Oh yeah, your laptop needs to go in there. And the power adapter. And your journal. And a book to read on the train tomorrow. And some snacks. And shoes.

Step 5: Pull clothes out of bag. Start putting other things in. Ditch some tshirts.

Step 6: Repeat steps 3-5 a few times. Consider the fact that you have a Bachelors degree in mathematics but are unable to work out if a collection of items will fit in a bag without actually putting them in there to find out. Maybe this is why you’re now a physicist.

Step 7: Procrastinate! Make dinner. Clean the apartment. This is a vital step since procrasti-cooking and procrasti-cleaning are your primary means of eating a nutritious diet and not living in squalor.

Step 8: Try to find ways to leave things out. Maybe if you stay up all night reading the book you were going to read on the train, you can sleep on the train tomorrow and leave the book at home? Realize this will save you a small paperback’s worth of space and will make you miserable. This is barely enough to dissuade you.

Step 9: Success??! You have a bag, it has stuff in it. Time to pull your laptop back out and write a blog post about this. Maybe with an insufferably smug title that positions you as some sort of expert, like “How to pack light for Christmas holidays”.

Step 10: Realize you haven’t packed any toiletries. Packing is the worst.

Summer reading: “Too much happiness” (Alice Munro) and “Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War” (Lucy Hughes-Hallett)

I took 2 books with me on vacation this year, and both have stuck with me, for very different reasons.

The first is a short story collection, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. “Ooh, short stories!” I thought when I bought it. “And apparently Munro mostly writes about day-to-day things. This will be good for dipping in and out of.” Tell you what, I had to dip out after every story just to catch my breath. I’m not even sure what the right word for this book is — haunting suggests the wrong atmosphere because the stories aren’t otherworldly at all; beautiful clarity is what the blurb says, but that doesn’t express the darkness that’s never far below the surface of ordinary human interactions; I think I said devastating in a facebook post but that’s not quite right either. I’ve hung onto the book so I can re-read later, but already it has burrowed into my brain and I suspect it’ll pop into my thoughts when I least expect it.

The other book was Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. I don’t even remember how I came upon this. A review somewhere maybe? It’s a biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio, who was an Italian poet and political figure in the early 20th century. Possibly I had never heard of him before because people would rather forget him? — he is most infamous for leading an invasion of the city which is now Rijeka in Croatia, without the official support of the Italian government at the time.

From the start, I was hooked. In some ways, the subtitle of the book should really be “Can you believe this jerk???” because this guy really was a nasty piece of work, so reading was a bit like watching a train wreck. He starts off as a poet who’s obsessed with fame, once he’s famous he uses that fame to do whatever he likes, including plenty of womanizing that leaves his lovers at best emotional wrecks, and then moves in to politics. The kicker is that he was vehemently pro going to war in 1914, mostly because it suited his aethetic ideals about countries being founded on the blood of young men. Hughes-Hallett doesn’t use the word “sociopath”, but I will.

But wrapped around all of this is not just a history of Italy at the time but also of intellectual fashions and popular world views. Because D’Annunzio didn’t live in isolation, and if his (horrible) views and actions didn’t resonate with others, he wouldn’t have gotten very far. For instance, something that comes up a lot is the late-19th-early-20th century idea of “beauty” being everything and if you’re making beautiful things then traditional morality is beneath you. And it’s true that making beautiful things is a good thing to do, but over the course of the book you see the idea being caught up in some really ugly selfish behaviour, because it is a selfish way of thinking. In the end, I was just as much challenged by the question of what unexamined ideas do I have about the world that are ripe for being exploited for bad ends?

(My only complaint about the book is that it could have been about 25% shorter — but that could just be because I had to carry it around in my backpack!)

Blog revival!

When I last posted (in, um, 2011), I was in Italy. So it’s quite convenient that I’m in Italy now, and I can pretend that I’ve maintained some kind of continuity of blogging…

Mountains through the bus window

I’m living in Turin, which is a fantastic city in a fantastic area — just look at the view you get on the way there from Milan Malpensa airport! (disclaimer: you have to be lucky to get a clear day like that) I’m hoping this blog will be a good place to show off where I live, as well as some of my travels.

Some goals for this year:
– maybe attempt to learn to ski (this should be hillarious)
– see more of Italy! I’ve never been south of Rome, so I’m pretty excited to have booked some tickets for the easter weekend to go to the Naples area
– have some actual conversations in Italian (“can I have a kilo of apples?” “here you go” “thank you” doesn’t count, nor does “ciao! come va?” “tutto bene” *switch to english*)
– keep in better contact with friends and family around the world – hence this blog.

Science! Ant rafts

I got into Florence this afternoon, after ~20 hours of travel – bleagh! I will try catch up on the rest of my time in the US soon, but for now here’s some fun science:

(Sorry about the ad at the start.)

One of the talks I happened across at the conference was about a sort of model for ant rafts. Like any good physics model, it was heavily simplified: a pile of staples being shaken. The idea was to look at how the aspect ratio of the staples (ie: how wide their base is relative to their arms) affects how well a pile of them holds up to the shaking. It turns out there’s an optimal arm-to-base ratio, since if the arms are too short they can’t lock into each other, but if the arms are too long the pile doesn’t fit together well.

I’m not sure how directly you could apply this to real ants that have six bendy arms rather than two rigid ones, but it’s a nice start on the question of how ant rafts hold together.

Me with European cities sign post near the Atomium in Brussels

5 weeks and 2 days until I head out the door again – hopefully with more useful navigational aids than this!

This photo is from a couple of years ago. After I went to Italy the first time, I took a few weeks holidays and wound up spending a day in Brussels. I had expected it to be a bit like Canberra only bigger, but was wrong – it didn’t suck even a little bit (note for non-aussie readers: bashing canberra, our national capital, is a hobby all australians enjoy).

One of the tourist things to do in Brussels is to visit ‘Little Europe’. I didn’t actually do this, since we arrived just after it closed, but I did get this photo outside it.