A Good Deed

A day late and not very committed, I have seen the signs of NaBlo…Thing and thought, oh! perhaps I should write! Not every day, goodness no, but at least once since the last post in…. I can’t even bear to check when.

I saved someone from an unfortunate encounter today. And possibly saved an innocent spider from squishing. At the very least I encouraged said spider to rebuild its web elsewhere while still in the early stages of construction, preventing a sad investment of time that would no doubt be destroyed, likely accompanied by shrieking.

Australia has a lot of spiders, and while this is a characteristic that I quite enjoy I understand that others do not share my feelings.

And so, the spider carefully building its web at face height across the neighbourhood sidewalk was gently relocated to a friendly nearby rose bush.

On Kookaburras, in trees, which happen to be of the gum variety.

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One of my favourite things about Australia is the birds. I’m sure I’ve become unhabituated to US birds, and upon returning I will find them just as exciting. “Omg! Squirrel!”

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But for now… I am quite happy to excitedly notice every bird I come across here. I have several favourites.

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Recently I’ve been spending time reading papers on the wide lawns of a large estate next to my institute.

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A special bonus to this besides the enhanced concentration due to absence of computer and internet, and the time outside in the air, grass, and sun, is the discovery of a clan/family of laughing kookaburras numbering at least four.

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They spend their days, as most members of the kingfisher family do, watching and fishing, in this case in the sea of grass.

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Sometimes they in turn are watched by noisy minors (top, noisy), ready to chase them away from a nest.

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They sit on a low branch intent on the rolling ground  beneath until some signal seen only by them sends it leaping into a dive at the ground, stabbing the turf with an audible “thunk.”

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…. and a spray of dirt.

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They often rotate from one tree to another. If you are patient, chances of one hunting 10 feet in front of you, or swooping low over your head are quite good.

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It’s really a most pleasant way to spend an afternoon (reading! I swear!).

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Anyone wanna visit? I’ll show you my kookaburras.

*all photos taken on lunch breaks :)

It’s called Spautumn

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I’m gonna tell you a funny story. That’s not very funny! Actually, ignore that. I’m just going to ramble. And distract you with pretty pictures.

I went to New Zealand a couple of months ago (I actually started writing this only a month after getting back, but now it’s been 3. Oops.) and split my time between two Bens. It was amazing.

I took tons of photos, of course, and spent many hours editing, cropping, lightening… and then I deleted them all. I’m not sure how, though I have a hunch that I managed to select two folders while deleting something else. Woo!

It’s winter here (I got a winter birthday! In name only, because it felt like spring, but still. If I were in school I could bring cupcakes to class like all the school year birthday kids!) and leaves have changed colors, the sweet gum trees are dropping their seeds, and the Galahs are feasting on them at the side of the road.

Taken during a morning run
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They didn’t like me very much.
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I’ve started editing NZ pictures again, but… man that’s a daunting task and it’s going slowly. I hate redoing work.

So in the meantime you wanna know about something cool? Pretty flowers are cool! I took these on several different photo walks from late summer to winter.

Sometimes known as frangipani, the plumeria tree is really interesting. It’s produces beautiful flowers frequently used in Hawaiian leis and it looks like an emaciated succulent when bare.

I totally wasn’t exaggerating: strange cactus, perhaps? Plumeria leafless
Shortly after it leafs out, it starts the long process of blooming. Not that it takes a long time for it to flower, but that it just keeps going and going and going.

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I remember them first flowering in… December, maybe? At this point some of them have lost their leaves, and some still have a few buds developing into flowers.

 The flowers are just so perfect and lovely.

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They feel really good, too. Texturally. They’re thick and meaty with a velvety skin.
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I wonder if they’re edible? I bet they’d taste good, like orchids._DSC2221aPink plumeria 10

So anyway. All at the same time, while the sweet gums are dropping leaves and seeds, some plumeria are bare, others are budding, and the magnolias are starting to flower. wtf winter, Oz?

It’s totally Spautumn. New season. I’ve named it.

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A post about cereal. Totally not boring!

I’ve discovered a few things about breakfast cereals here in Australia. Here, I’ll list them.

1) Yes, I will discriminate.

Foods branded the same in two different countries can be two very different cereals. Example: Cheerios. In the US, Cheerios are a dense, small circle of crunchy cereal with very little sugar. In Australia, Cheerios are larger and airier and sweeter, making them more like a pale brown fruit loop to my sensitive palate.

Aha. After delving further into this using the wonders of the futuristic filing cabinet called the internet, it appears that Cheerios here are made and branded by a company named Uncle Tobys which in turn is owned by Nestle, made possible because of an international partnership with General Mills, which produces the cereal in the US. Phew. Long sentence.

Damnit, Nestle. You’re ruining my cereal.*

2) You say dried grape, I say you’re saying it wrong.

Did you folks in the US know that we use the word “raisin” to apply to all different types of dried grape and that’s not necessarily how the rest of the world does it? Here in Oz there are supposedly different kinds of dried grapes which are given different names. I say supposedly because I haven’t seen any small dried fruits here that aren’t sultana (Seedless Thompson) raisins. And in the US’ defense, I don’t remember seeing any non-sultana raisins the US that weren’t labelled with the grape they came from.

I liked this bit from the Wikipedia article on sultanas: “Sultana grape juice was fraudulently sold as being of Chardonnay grapes in Australia for wine making, due to the lower cost of Sultana grapes. The fraud was discovered in 2003 by Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation. It was considered the largest case of wine deception in Australian history.” Hah.

Anyway, the point is that what I’m familiar with as Raisin Bran is here named Sultana Bran.

Back when we first got here and I didn’t actually know what sultanas were or how the name came about, I found this very charming in a sort of, “I don’t know why it’s named that, but I’m going to imagine to myself that it is very fancy and the king of cereals and all the other cereals send it tithes because it is the most delicious.”

Sultana bran

It might also be worth noting that the box pictured here was selling for over seven dollars. Don’t worry, I didn’t buy it.

3) The ACTUAL king of cereals.

Did you ever have Fruit Squares cereals? Man, they were my favorite.

Image credit: http://www.mrbreakfast.com

I miss them a lot. I remember plenty of times taking baggies of the dry cereal for breakfast or lunch or snacks and being quite happy with my meal experience. This isn’t going to help my “I’m not crazy” cred, but I even remember eating them with apple juice rather than milk and being in heaven… The apple squares were totally the best. Or maybe the raisin. Or the strawberry…

Anyway, every couple of years my longing for this discontinued cereal grows and I search online for a modern alternative. Or, even, a revival?

Well, here in Australia, I finally found it! Sort of!

Fruit Miniwheats

They were *on sale* even, so I bought them!

They’re a lot sweeter than I remember. They don’t so much taste of blackcurrents as they do mildly flavored sugar jelly. That was one of the things I loved about Fruit Squares – that they weren’t too sweet and really tasted like fruit. But I’ll take it, for now. Maybe if they get popular enough, they’ll bring back the old version… I can dream, ok?


*If you’re *really* interested in international cheerio differences, you can click on these thumbnails to see nutritional information. Daily recommended values are similar between US and AU, but you can ignore that and look simply at the grams. I only included this because I was curious and looked it up. The one in kilojoules is Australian.

Cheerios Oz nutritionCheerios US nutrition

There’s a hole in it

New South Wales does this thing with its trees and its power lines. The US may very well do this too, but I’d never noticed it, so I’m taking a moment to describe it.

Back when we were searching for a place to live, we visited a flat in a place galled Greystanes. The flat was nice looking, but it was one room with double glass doors facing the main socializing area of the family with young children that lived in the main house. Who smoked.

The real estate agent was very kind though we didn’t want the place, and gave us a ride back to the train station. She told us stories about landowners she had worked for.

One owner drove by a house he owned, and called the agent, furious. The top had been cut off of the palm tree in front of the property, and he blamed the tenants. Literally, the top had been cut off the top of the palm tree. There’s not much to a palm tree other than the top, you know. It turns out the local council maintenance folks had cut the tree in half because it was getting too close to the power lines.

Now, I don’t know how you would trim a palm tree if it really needed to be trimmed that didn’t involve cutting the top off, but it does make for a hilarious story.

(I still don’t understand why he would assume his tenants had cut his tree down, but whatever)

Anyway, the local councils are dedicated to keeping the power lines free of entanglement dangers.

And that leads to things such as this:

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It’s just so perfectly round!


Tiny dramas

I was late to work this morning because a tiny drama was playing out in my window:

A moth had been flying around our bedroom for a couple of nights. This morning I found it on the edge of death on the bathroom counter. I decided to see just how ballsy our little pet black house spider is.

It’s a Badumna insignis, black house spider. Or, Badumna insignis, “said to be a favourite food of the white-tailed spider.” I’m glad it hasn’t gotten eaten by that white-tail I accidentally let loose in the house…

As for toughness? It turns out, very.

I placed the moth in the web an inch or two above the entrance to Mr Spider’s hidey hole. He became alert immediately. Once he gathered the gumption to strike, he darted out and grabbed hold of the tip of one of the moth’s wings. And pulled.

This standoff lasted about 10 minutes. With a brief struggle, the moth gave way and was dragged partly into the entrance of the spider’s house.

Another ten minutes passed and I decided I ought to get to work. I set the gopro up wedged into the curtain rod above the window and hoped that more action would take place before the battery ran down. I doubt that it did, but Ben provided me with updates throughout the morning as it unfolded.

Ben: spider is eating/preserving the moth
me: yes!!!
Ben: nom nom
and the spider is back in its home
I wonder what will happen now
spider back on the moth now

I’ll see what’s left of the moth when I get home.

This whole drama played out in the lower left corner of the upper panel of our kitchen window.


Stenocarpus sinuatus

Firewheel Flowers crop

I ride to work through side streets to avoid the busy roads. There’s very little traffic so I spend most of my time looking around and listening to the radio on my phone (headphone cords act as antennae!). I noticed a flower on a tree that I’d never seen before. I made a point of changing the route of my next run to pass it, so I could look at it up close. It’s fascinating.

Several days later I took my camera to work, and stopped by this tree on my way home to take some pictures. I was busily shooting when an older gentleman came up to me from next door with his lawn mower.

When I got home I talked to Ben online, who was at the library working:

 me: I just met the nicest person, taking pictures.
  I was taking pictures of that tree I showed you yesterday
  and he lives nextdoor, and was coming out to edge his lawn.
  he asked me if I was taking pictures of a bird, in which case he’d not start his machine and scare it away.
6:25 PM I said no, I’m just taking pictures of these flowers, they’re so unusual.
  Do you know what they are?
6:26 PM He said, well, I think it’s called a fire wheel tree, but that’s not the real name… the woman who used to live there told me the scientific name more than once, but I can’t remember, I don’t think.
  I thanked him, he went to edging, I went to shoooting.
6:27 PM A bit later he came walking over to me with his edger on idle, and said, this might not be right either, but there’s a tree called the Illawarra Flame Tree, named after the place, Illawarra. That might be it. I don’t know if that’ll help, but maybe you could look them up.
  So I said yes, even if they aren’t scientific names, I’m sure they’ll bring up information online, thank you!
  Then I went back to shooting.
6:28 PM When I was done I asked him if I could take his picture, as the person who told me what the flowers were.
  He said he wasn’t very photogenic, but ok.
  I did, showed him, and he said “you can always delete it.”
 me: I rode away, got home, got my camera out of the bag
 me: and discovered I dropped my dragon change bag somewhere while I was getting out a new memory card.
 me: So I got dressed again and rode back to all the places I had been
  and as I rode past him to the tree where I had been taking pictures, he waved me over
6:30 PM and said he knew it had to belong to me! He was going to call the hospital tomorrow to try and return it (we’d chatted about work)
  I like him.
The wonderful Ross

The very nice Ross

While he was edging and I was shooting, a noisy miner did show up to drink some nectar, noise or no noise! It’s not a great picture, but it’s all I’ve got.

Noisy Miner and firewheels

*note: Stenocarpus sinuatus is a tree native to Australia, more frequently found further to the tropical north.

**note: Noisy Miners sure do live up to their name! We have a family living outside our living room window, and they’ve had at least one clutch of young so far. They can lay eggs several times a year (and are veeeeery territorial when they do! They’ll swoop and call and even attack you if you get too close). When the young are fledging, they go through a long phase of experimenting with their voices and cycling through the weirdest most bizarre calls before settling on the more typical adult miner call. It’s been entertaining to listen to!

On The Ethics of Animal Research

*note: I am not speaking in Standard Philosophical Definitions of ethics here. This is a pile of thoughts.

I’ve been attending a two day class on animal handling and ethics at the University of New South Wales this week.

A month ago I took a similar course offered by University of Sydney, and I’ve gotta say, the UNSW version is way better. And I’m saying that even though it took 2 days of my time vs one for the USyd course. The USyd course was composed of similar elements, but much less intensive, and not as well done.

It’s really, really interesting how much they talk about the ethics of animal research and the importance of an animal’s wellbeing here. Vs. in the US where what I remember most from the half day orientation I got was the instructor advising us not to pick heavy mice up by the tail because sometimes their skin can come off. Pretty much anything would be more informative than that class was, but the UNSW course has been spectacular.

The course has included about an hour’s information on our safety as animal handlers, about three hours on how to properly handle and do procedures on the animals (more training to occur at the specific animal facilities people will be involved with), and the rest of the time on various aspects of the ethics of animal experimentation, and our responsibilities as researchers.

There is a huge focus on reducing the impact of animal experiments on the animals, and that includes using non-animal methods for parts of the study where possible, paying attention to the animal’s anxiety and general wellbeing, and planning experiments efficiently to use fewer animals.  It seems to be standard here to provide rodents with some sort of house or shelter, and rats get wood to play with and chew on. I feel so much better working with animals when there’s at least a tiny semblance of environmental enrichment in their lives.

The animal’s state of mind is considered. Its importance is presented in two ways: the scientific practical consideration that anxiety and fear can significantly alter many results, in addition to the overlying Treat Animals With Respect standpoint.

Every procedure performed on an animal in Australia, every experiment planned, has to be approved by an Animal Ethics Committee. A similar system of approving protocols exists in the US. But there’s something really interesting going on here, specifically: every committee is composed of four members, a vet, a researcher, a layperson, and an animal welfare representative. They all have to agree that a given proposal is justified in its use of animals in that there are clear benefits to be gained, that there aren’t other alternatives to get similar data, and that there are adequate procedures in place to prevent animal pain and distress.

These committees oversee animals used for scientific research, teaching, agriculture field trials, wildlife studies…

My (albeit with limited experience in Australia) sense is that similar amounts and types of research go on here as in the states, but the way it’s thought about is what’s different.

The instructors of this course have been generally fantastic (it’s been fun to be in a classroom environment again, especially with good presenters), but the content is what has stood out. The focus of the course hasn’t been to drill facts or catchphrases into our heads. The focus has been to be thought provoking, to introduce perspectives and considerations that we may not have thought of. The aim seems to have been to make us into more thoughtful, deliberate, researchers, and that is awesome.


January 18, 3ish o’clock, at work.

Being a lab scientist has its benefits. We can swipe dry ice for bottle-explody experiments, usurp broken cell culture flasks to store bug carcasses, and we have infinite cardboard boxes at our disposal when it comes time to move. And when it’s a record-breaking day in Sydney, Australia, we have the sensitive digital thermometers to set out in the shade in the courtyard for evidence.

That’s one hundred and twelve degrees for you fahrenheit people. IN THE SHADE.

The most colorful 5K

A couple of weekends ago Ben and I ran a fantastic 5K.


There’s a tabloid-y newspaper that’s given out free at major train stations in Sydney called mX. In addition to sensational stories with punny titles, it contains some news of local events. Back when we first arrived in Australia and were riding on trains a lot, I happened to see an ad for a 5K. The color run!

Money was low and was going to stay low, but dude, color run. We signed up. Fast forward four months and we arrived at 830am (9am is a late starting time for most races, but I guess this isn’t a real race) at the old olympic park on our bikes.

This thing was massive. They had a loooong stretch of road cordoned off as the entry gate to the race. We were early and worked our way towards the front, but we were still only in the third wave allowed to set off.

During the long, long, hot, dripping wait to be released, we were able to observe the many people who had come dressed in fairy wings, tutus, togas, tiaras, rainbows, and boas while listening to the DJ announcer who was really really good at repeating himself and yet somehow not sounding like an idiot. Mostly. I suppose it’s an unavoidable consequence that comes along with the job, so all things considered he did a good job of saying generally the same thing for 45 minutes.


To start the race off, a motorized chariot carried the race mascot, a white plush unicorn with rainbow dreadlocks (I so pity the human stuck inside in that heat), to the front of the line.


And we were off!

Approximately every kilometer color zones were set up, large arches covered in balloons with appropriately themed music playing, and hordes of volunteers with access to barrels of chalky color and large squirt bottles to apply it to the runners. Everyone would dance by the volunteers, spin, and some people rolled on the ground in the quarter inch or so of color we were running through. First was blue (I’m blue da de da da), then pink (Pink, pink panther), then orange…

When we reached the end of the course, there were still hundreds of people waiting to be released from the gates. My god.

The park at the end of the run was turned into the venue for a dirty, sweaty, colorful concert. Each runner had a pack of color we’d carried through the race, and here we were welcome to throw our powder in the air, at each other, and beg to be colored by others.



It was fun. More fun, though, was riding home, gawked at by small children, dancing as I rode.

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And this, this was the aftermath.