Yearly Archives: 2007

Things I Haven’t Said for Eight Years

(I quickly stopped using New Zealand vocabulary and learned to speak American. Because folks laugh at you when you say…)

  • Get off the grass
  • Turned to custard
  • Skiting
  • Ute
  • Lollies
  • Gummies
  • Sweet as
  • Jandals
  • The too-hard basket
  • My oath
  • Spat the dummy
  • Sook
  • Fizzy drink
  • Packed a sad
  • Too right
  • Choice!

Mount John Blues

tekapo_small.jpg

I’m here on the top of Mt John, in the Tekapo Valley. The observatory here has scientist accommodation if you’re connected with Canterbury University; the décor is a bit Research Station Cinderblock (a Star Wars poster and a collection of interesting pine cones) but, hey, there’s wireless.

mt_john_map.gifMount John is rather grandly named; it’s more of a a solitary hill rising out of the Mackenzie Basin. You’re ringed by the Southern Alps, and look down on the amazing turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo. The lake and valley are both products of twenty or so glaciations, which scoured out the basin and left Mt John sitting like an increasingly battle-scarred veteran each time they retreated. The surrounding mountains do keep the clouds at bay, and make a good spot for an observatory (which, to my disappointment, consists mostly of people looking at monitors; computers are doing all the stargazing).

But walking round Mt John by day, when the astronomers are asleep, is an experience. Skylarks (Alauda arvenis) are all around, trilling as they ascend from sullen earth to sing hymns at Heaven’s gate, or at least they try when the wind is not howling too forcefully. It’s a bit blowy today, and I watched a surprised lark fly backwards. Supposedly there are chukor (Alectoris chukor) in the tussock, but I had to descend to the larch forest on the southern slope to see any other birds; various finches and grey warblers (Gerygone igata). spaniard.jpg

The vegetation has been sadly rather munted by rabbits and sheep, though pockets of subalpine native plants persist. In the rockfalls are various spiky and twiggy divaricating shrubs, the occasional nibbled-on native broom (Carmichaelia), and golden spaniard (Aciphylla)—even ferns (Blechnum penna-marina), perhaps the last things you’d expect to see on a wind-blasted, sunbaked mountain. I do love spaniard, with its ferocious spines and crazy yellow thatched flower spikes, just daring you to touch it. The spines don’t seem to work too well against mammals, but they almost certainly evolved as a defense against moa browsing, a poke in the eye for Megalapteryx.

This landscape used to be full of totara forest, but now the blasted emptiness of the tussock-clad basin is sublime. You could paint it with a very minimal watercolour kit; the tricky part would be getting the opaque blue of the lake. It’s almost like the blue of the sky at the horizon, perhaps because the fragments of quartz in the water scatter the light the way dust does in the atmosphere.

And you’ll see the mirror image of this if you ever have a chance to visit Mt John overnight: the lights of the lakeside town twinkle for the same reason stars do. As above, so below.

Sucky Money

new_5_dollar_bill.03.jpg In the liner notes to Stop Making Sense, David Byrne got it right: “American money is the ugliest money in the world.” (Byrne also claimed that the best way to keep your money from sticking together was to crumple it into little balls. See what you miss when you buy all your music as MP3s?)

Anyway, someone at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing felt that the five dollar bill unfortunately wasn’t quite ugly enough, so they stuck a big Barney-purple 5 on it (note the carefully-clashing sans-serif typeface—wouldn’t it be great if it turned out to be Arial?). Yes, this seems to be for real. Isn’t that the most jaw-droppingly hideous thing you’ve ever seen?

“We wanted this redesigned bill to scream, ‘I am a five. I am a five,”‘ Larry Felix, director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We wanted to eliminate any similarity or confusion on the part of the public between the $5 bill and the $100 bill.”

monopoly-money.jpg Well, Larry, I don’t like to tell a man his job, but have you ever considered not making all the bills the same color and size? That seems to work pretty well for, oh, every other country in the world. Actually, I know what Larry would say—every American says the same thing when you point this out to them. “Monopoly money!” Yes, it’s true. Even a child’s board game has better-designed money than the USA.

The original Monopoly design has an appealing simplicity, with slabby serifs and ball terminals in a classic transitional typeface, rather than that ludicrously bloated font on the greenback. The numbers are big and clear. There’s an anti-counterfeiting pattern, and a rather sweet repeated train and house motif—in the real world, those could be little transparent windows in a polymer bill. Heck, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing should just adopt this design as is—after all, Monopoly was invented in the Depression so ordinary people could live the American dream of being property-owning capitalists. And its inventor seems to have stolen the idea. What could be more appropriate? It’s the USA writ small.

Recommended

Bone Sharps cover Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards by Jim Ottaviani and Big Time Attic, a graphic novel about the Marsh/Cope Bone Wars • Flight of the Conchords, the best New Zealand comedy ever made (not that that’s saying much); adored by American critics, about to screen in its homeland, and you can catch most of it on YouTube already • Finally, someone explains Unicode, ANSI, and the difference between UTF-8 and UTF-16, which may seem trivial but is vitally important if you want to spell Māori correctly. • Endless Things, the final and long-awaited book in John Crowley‘s Aegypt quartet (but newcomers should read Little, Big instead) • Don McGlashan’s post-Muttonbirds solo album Warm Handgapminder.gif• Hans Rosling previewed the amazing global statistical visualisation tool GapMinder at TED, and Google bought it in a fit of non-evilness so we can all have a play • Getting Eastern editions of overpriced textbooks direct from India, dirt cheap • Watching the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra play over a fine breakfast at the Maranui Surf Lifesaving Club in Lyall Bay epitomises all that is good about Wellington • The groovy Flickr toys at Big Huge Labs • Taking down your profile on the Face Book and complaining how it’s not cool any more now the Man is there

Good Kiwi Stuff

airnzreboot.jpg Air New Zealand’s fancy on-demand entertainment system, just what you need on a fourteen-hour flight (although it runs on Windows, so when it crashed I was left staring at a boot screen) • Good fish and chips, including the wonderfully disgusting object that is the battered deep-fried pineapple ring • Isaac Freeman‘s drily witty blog and comics • Anzacs, afghans, toffee pops, and jaffas–the latter make all movie-going complete • Friendly ATMs that play video clips on their TV screen, which for some reason reminded me of Bladerunner • A bus trilogy: advertisements on the side panels of bus shelters that change every few minutes by spooling up from a roller, which is also a bit like Bladerunner, but a low-rent Edwardian sort of Bladerunner • GPS units on buses (a Kiwi invention, everyone will tell you) that lets you read the ETA off a monitor while you wait • Apologetic buses: when not in service they display SORRY as their destination • Meaty bacon, made from happy meaty pigs who have never heard of a hog lagoon (look it up, but not just before eating) • There have always been New Zealanders who, like me, are a bit fanatical about native plants, but this attitude now seems to be mainstream, with city councils putting tussock, flax, three lancewoods and a cabbage tree on every scrap of land plug.jpg• Gourmet food (laksa, ostrich, local wine and olive oil) at places that would be greasy diners in the USA • One thousand people paying to attend a panel discussion by scientists on water use on the Canterbury Plains; perhaps that’s a testimony to Christchurch nightlife on a damp Monday, though • And it is intrinsically more sensible for switches to go down than up, and for wall sockets to have switches on them as well (though now kiwi plugs seem big and clunky, perhaps to cope with our grunty 240 volts)

Ducks in the Avon

scaup.jpg When I was growing up in Christchurch, it seemed like the Avon River’s sole purpose was to drain the city’s inherent swampiness and look tidy while so doing. Its banks were kept neatly mowed, lined with willow trees and little else. In the 1990s, the city council changed their policy and began planting native grasses and shrubs along the banks and dialing back the mowing (a big ask for New Zealanders, with our innate ferociousness in the field of lawn care). And in just a few years, two species of native duck have returned to the Avon.

New Zealand scaup, or pāpango (Aythya novaeseelandiae), are little golden-eyed black ducks of classic rubber-duckie shape. They’re divers, happy to suddenly disappear underwater and pop up again ten seconds later. If you read the old guide books, you’ll find that our scaup are the inhabitants of high mountain lakes. Well, they don’t seem to be reading the field guides, because they make up about half the ducks on the Avon, and probably a good chunk of the world’s A. novaeseelandiae are swimming within a few miles of the Cathedral.

paradiseducks.jpgParadise ducks (technically shelducks, since they’re Tadorna variegata) are pūtangitangi in most of the country, and pūtakitaki hereabouts. Weirdly for ducks, the male is duller colored–the female has a white head contrasting with a russet body. You almost always see them in pairs–one, usually the male, keeping a lookout somewhere high. When you approach, they start calling to each other in a wheep-honk-wheep-honk chorus, but in Christchurch they’re used to people. This morning I was out walking and was able to touch one as it sat on a bridge pillar.

Who knows what’ll become common in years to come? Black swans? Shovellers? White herons? Native birds are obviously just waiting for us to meet them halfway. So if you live in a city with a river flowing through it, why not bring your representatives’ attention to an interim report archived here? You too could have scaup on your doorstep.

A Short Rant About Kiwi Tucker

duckandspinach.jpg There was a time, I am told, when New Zealand cuisine was ghastly. A good feed might be a big hunk of meat and two boiled vegetables, accompanied by a nice iceberg lettuce salad (topped with tomato wedges and hard-boiled eggs, and dressed with, shudder, condensed milk). Garlic was viewed with deep suspicion, and coffee unknown. Kiwi tucker was essentially British food, but with all its interesting diversity (toad-in-the-hole, spotted dick) stripped away by the rigours of the long sea voyage, emerging pale and weak on Southern shores.

Well, not any more. Kiwis are now food-mad. The indigenous snack food, the humble meat pie, has been transformed into dozens of gourmet variants. Chicken, asparagus and cashew; curry and rice; steak and Guinness; hunza and lentil; lamb’s liver and bacon. That last one I bought at the modest Lyttelton Farmer’s Market, where in the shade of a local primary school on a freezing July morning you can get fresh locally-grown shiitake, and artisanal baguettes as good as any I ate in Paris. How can this be? Well, most New Zealanders live next to farmland or the ocean or both, so there’s abundant fresh local produce. Nasty industrial farming hasn’t really arrived, so cattle eat grass all year round and butter and cheese are as yellow as God intended—no need for the orange annatto coloring you get in American cheese. Supermarkets haven’t driven local butchers to extinction. And there’s no California or Florida conveniently nearby, so you have to eat more seasonally.

One thing I knew I would miss when I left America was real Mexican food. There are no Mexicans at all in New Zealand, and you could put on a sombrero and a silly accent to sell corn chips on TV without anyone complaining. But Tex-Mex, which is what most Americans think Mexican food is, has certainly arrived. On Armagh St in sedate Christchurch you can buy a burrito that kicks the living crap out of anything I ate in 8 years in the USA. Hey, Cosmic Cantina, on Perry Street, Durham, NC, I’m talking to you. (For years I would tell Americans that Cosmic sold garbage in a wrapper, and they would look at me like I was nuts, until I seriously doubted my sanity. Well, I am vindicated, and they were wrong, wrong, wrong.) Yes, New Zealanders could teach Americans how to make a burrito—yet just ten years ago if you advertised a burrito on TV you had to explain to the viewers what it was.

lytteltonbread.jpg On every travel show about New York, one’s invariably exhorted to sample a hot dog. A hot dog is rubbery mystery meat that’s been bobbing all day in a tank of warm water, stirred up occasionally by the vendor’s sweaty arm, and plopped on a gluey white bun. Now, folks will argue passionately about whether to dress the dog with sauerkraut or with mustard and ketchup (combining all three is apparently a mortal sin), and which are the best hot dogs (Nathan’s Kosher at Coney Island, apparently). But I’m afraid it scarcely matters, because hot dogs are intrinsically terrible. I realized this when I had a freshly-grilled, locally-made organic weisswurst on a crusty French roll with a dab of mustard at one of the two wurst stands at the Arts Centre market. The other stand’s wursts didn’t look as yummy, but they also sold their own whole salamis, speck, sausages, and a dozen other kinds of charcuterie, which made up for it I think.

New Zealand pizza makes all but the very best New York pizza look pretty sick, too. The fastest-growing chain is Hell Pizza, with a box that transforms into a little cardboard coffin for storing your “remains”. Oh, and you don’t tip the delivery guy. In fact, you don’t tip anyone in New Zealand (perhaps because they’re paid a decent wage), and sales tax is always invisibly included, and the bill is always a nice round number because the smallest coin is 10c, and you’re never expected to clear your own table, because that’s what the servers are paid to do. And when you order a cup of tea, you get a little teapot with leaves in it and a tiny jug of milk, not a styrofoam cup of hot water and a teabag. (OK, I’ll calm down now.)

Haven’t found real bagels yet, though.

Evolution 2007 Highlights

The meeting started in the Christchurch Town Hall (the same 1970 decor I remember from my childhood) with the usual awkward biculturalism; a hokey Māori welcome, thrilling the Americans but making the locals cringe, was followed by various middle-aged white men prefixing their speeches with a few words of mangled taiko.jpgMāori. Hayley Lawrence showed how it was done, using English, Māori, and Mōriori in her presentation on tāiko (Pterodroma magentae), in which she confirmed that the type specimen of Magenta Petrel was indeed a tāiko, and suggested there may be some tāiko burrows yet to be found on main Chatham • Katie Hartnup also used ancient DNA, to analyse Māori feather cloaks. She debunked the suggestion that one cloak was made with moa feathers, proving instead it was emu, probably from Governor George Grey’s private menagerie • Lisa Matisoo-Smith and Andrew Clarke pieced together the story of Polynesians carrying chickens to Chile before Europeans had even heard of the place, bringing sweet potatoes and bottle gourds back–this was breaking news, as Matisoo-Smith’s paper was published that very day, but did you see a mention of it in the newspapers? Clarke, when pressed, revealed that the traditional Maori kūmara varieties “repatriated” some years ago from Japan, with much fanfare, were actually not that old • eudyptula.jpgPhylogeography seemed especially big this year; is it a powerful tool, or the current fad, encompassing problems of just the right size and complexity to fill a PhD? Time will tell. Anyway, numerous interesting stories came to light; for example, Otago and Australian blue penguins (Eudyptula minor) form a single clade, claimed Amanda Peucker (Deakin), sister to all other New Zealand E. minor, and the “white-flippered penguin” I remember from my old Fiat field guide is not a species at all • There’s very little cuckolding going on with kiwis, says Karen Nutt. And given the amount of effort males put into parenting–incubating for nearly 80 days–you’d expect them to be worried about extra-pair copulations. Or perhaps they just don’t have the energy • One controversy I missed whilst in America is over the supposed drowning of the New Zealand archipelago in the Oligocene, 22 million years ago. Tied into the “goodbye Gondwana” backlash, proponents claim the whole land mass was either submerged or reduced to just a few small islands (a critically important distinction, one would think, if you happened to be living there at the time). Adrian Paterson and Steve Trewick both advocated drowning or near-drowning in just this way, making a scientist sitting next to me’s blood boil. DNA evidence nevertheless seems to show rapid and recent radiation in some groups, like galaxiids, rata, and parakeets. How moa were supposed to have persisted on tiny islands nobody could say. What seems well-established, though, is the recent submergence of the Chathams, implying everything nowweka.jpg there dispersed across water within the last few million years • Jeremy Kirchman reordered the flightless Pacific rails, collapsing a bevy of monotypic genera into Gallirallus, Porzana, and Porphyrio. The banded rail G. philippensis, incidentally, is not the ancestor of most Gallirallus, and isn’t even monophyletic • Alison Campbell chilled my blood with the hidden history of New Zealanders stoutly resisting the teaching of evolution; until very recently official Ministry policy was against teachers claiming evolution was the only explanation for life (no doubt a symptom of the scrupulous fair-mindedness of kiwis). The new curriculum which for the first time builds evolution right into the foundations of science teaching is not yet approved, so let’s hope it survives • The idea that sexually-selected characteristics displayed positive allometry was methodically demolished by Russell Bonduriansky ; the usual examples of positive allometry, like fiddler-crab claws, only get into the textbooks because they’re atypically weird, sepsids.jpgwhile model organisms don’t show noticible allometry of sex characteristics at all • Nalini Puniamoorthy’s dancing dungflies provided some comic relief, and showed the importance of judiciously-chosen video in your PowerPoint show. It helps if you can keep up a deadpan commentary and drop in the occasional dry witticism, whilst behind you the dungflies are wriggling and cavorting • Walter Jetz, using a huge dataset of birds and mammals, demonstrated that Bergmann’s rule seems to apply to birds but not mammals. I must admit to a bias towards graphs with thousands of data points on them • Alan Cooper, in his talk on ancient DNA, mentioned in passing the meteor that struck North America 12,900 years ago, decimating the megafauna, and allowing humans to wipe them out. Amazing stuff, and Alan claimed to have seen plenty of physical evidence, though I’m going to remain agnostic until I see it in a peer-reviewed publication • And to prove the doubters of catastrophism wrong, the snow arrived just in time to ruin the travel plans of all the Americans I’d been advising to visit the West Coast. Oh well.

Things I’ll Miss About the USA

salmander.jpg

  • Free refills for your soda
  • Toads, snakes, salamanders, and the amazing insect life of the South
  • Real bagels. Last I heard, there was only one bagelry in New Zealand, run by New Yorkers in Wellington.
  • Cheap clothes, kitchenware, books, and magazines
  • The free New York Review of Books at the Duke bookstore, an exotic luxury in New Zealand
  • The American sandwich: toasted, with huge amounts of meat and a salad dressing to bind it all together
  • The New York Times on a Sunday
  • Good Southern fried chicken
  • Texas ribs and Alabama barbecue
  • American gumption and self-confidence okra.jpg
  • Free weekly papers, especially the Village Voice
  • Baseball, mostly because everybody stands up and sings “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at the seventh inning
  • Fresh okra at the farmer’s market
  • The omnipotence of the internet: Netflix, Bookmooch, Lala, Amazon, Half.com, Emusic, and all the other sites that only work or only work well in the USA
  • The free zoo and museums in Washington D.C.
  • Autumn in a deciduous forest
  • Taquerías and other real Mexican food
  • American breakfasts, especially waffles and pancakes
  • Cheap gasoline (see also Things I Won’t Miss) squirrel.jpg
  • Effortless access to PDF articles and interlibrary loans at university libraries
  • Bears, bison, and bald eagles
  • Sticks of butter (although the butter itself is nasty)
  • Seeing indie bands that will never come to the Antipodes
  • Peaches and boiled peanuts from a roadside stall in Georgia
  • Shops open almost all the time, including twenty-four-hour supermarkets
  • Not needing a landline telephone
  • Turning right on a red light
  • A rodeo in rural Montana
  • Thanksgiving, especially turkey
  • Turtles
  • Fireworks
  • Squirrels
  • Snow

Things I Won’t Miss About the USA

Ten things I could never get used to. Note that unlike most critics of the USA, I actually lived there for years and years. For what it’s worth.

  1. Religion a routine part of daily life to rampant creationism, abstinence education, and belief in the impending End Times to people who are offended if you say “damn.”
  2. Political conservatism to no real Left, almost no unions to poverty the fault of poor people.
  3. Social conservatism to death penalty and early marriage fine, interracial dating still controversial to feminists that nevertheless expected me to pay for everything on a date.
  4. A health care system at the mercy of insurance companies to try not to get sick.
  5. Deep-seated federalism to state’s rights to a culture of decentralization and a suspicion of government to locally-funded public schools to half of America doesn’t know the Earth goes around the Sun once a year.
  6. Cheap gasoline to urban sprawl, lack of public transportation and sidewalks, SUVs, and Texas to a tendency to invade Iraq.
  7. Protestant work ethic to one-hour commutes acceptable, fifteen-minute lunches eaten at your desk, ten days leave a year, and sometimes no sick leave or maternity leave at all.
  8. A food culture degraded by the drive for convenience to flavorless produce bred only for looks and shipping, and processed foods laden with corn syrup to ghastly industrial farming and entrenched protectionist agricultural subsidies to Cool-Whip, Easy Cheese, and Twinkies
  9. Obsession with slavery and the Civil War (because nobody else in the world ever had slaves or a civil war) to omnipresent racial politics to lack of engagement with other racial problems, like genocide and immigration.
  10. American exceptionalism to insularity to educated people arguing that if everyone had a gun in their home we’d all be better off, despite evidence from the rest of the world that this might not be the case.

It’s interesting to note that a New Zealander in the US saying these things is accused (more than once) of “hating America” and told to go home. An expatriate American criticizing New Zealand would likely get rueful shrugs and sighs of agreement. OK, and then people would call him a wanker behind his back, but still.

Good Stuff

helvetica.jpg The film Helvetica, a movie for typeface nerds and the people who love them–if your partner doesn’t understand why you hate shopping at a place with a badly kerned sign, take them to this • Shearwater, a band fronted by an ornithologist (who studies caracaras); try their remastered and expanded album Palo Santo • The ’90s Canadian sitcom Twitch City with multitalented Don McKellar (check out his wonderful 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould) and the lovely Molly Parker, lately of Deadwood • The postmodern ventriloquism of Nina Conti, now on YouTube • Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, an unapologetic rhapsody on fat, pork, salt, and smoke. Sidebar heading: “How real is the danger of botulism?” That’s my kind of cookbook. • Garfield is vastly improved if you remove his thought balloons • Hot Fuzz vs Shaun of the Dead? Which Simon Pegg/Nick Frost film is better? I love the DVD extras for Shaun, but it’s a close call. • Piedmont and Rue Cler, the latest new and promising contenders in the downtown Durham food scene • The point in an Ethiopian meal when you start tearing up the injera that’s been serving, up til now, as a plate.

My Famous Granola

Due to popular demand, here’s the granola I make and give away in vast quantities, part of my cunning plan to subvert civilization with granola. Adjust proportions to suit; more coconut, for example, if you like coconut more than me.

  • 2 C nuts; halved blanched almonds, walnut pieces, chopped cashews or pecans; whatever’s cheap, but avoid lots of powdery nut fragments (these scorch)
  • 4 C rolled oats
  • 1 C unsweetened shredded coconut
  • ½ C sunflower seeds
  • 4 T sesame seeds
  • ½ C honey or maple syrup
  • 1½ C fruit: raisins and chopped dried figs are good

Set the oven to 325°F. Preheat a big heavy roasting pan straddling two burners on medium. Toast and stir the nuts in the pan until they start to color and smell nice, which takes a few minutes–don’t burn them. Add oats and coconut and stir until the oats start to toast, but don’t let the coconut burn. Add seeds and toast and stir a few minutes more. Remove from heat, add the honey/maple syrup, then bake in the oven 15 minutes, stirring and respreading at the five and ten minute mark. Add the dried fruit, stir, then let the granola cool on a rack until it’s room temperature (but not overnight, or it’s less crunchy, being presumably hygroscopic). This will fill four big airtight jars, and stores well in the fridge.

How To Stop Buying Books

bookmooch_logo.gif I’ve been a member of the book trading site Bookmooch since not long after its inception, in August 2006. In that time, I’ve mailed off 82 books I no longer wanted, and received 119 in return. That makes me a relative veteran, so I thought I’d share my experience with the site.

To get started, you create an inventory of books you want to give away; the easiest way is by entering ISBNs and letting Bookmooch find them in Amazon. You can search the site for books you want, or, better, make a wishlist. When someone adds a book to their inventory that’s on your wishlist you’re alerted by email. If it’s a popular book you have to step lively to get it before someone else does, but I’ve been pretty lucky with grabbing wishlist books (I’ve set up my email software to make a loud ping when Bookmooch mails me an alert). I used to keep a reading list in my notebook, but now I find myself using Bookmooch as an online “books-to-get” list instead.

The currency in Bookmooch is points. It costs a point to mooch a book, and you get a point when you mail one off. As incentives, you get a tenth of a point for listing a book, and the same for leaving feedback when you receive one. Feedback is quite important, as you often have a choice of people to mooch from, and need to judge if someone’sbookmoochsnap.gif going to send the book promptly or if they’ve abandoned the site. I’ve gotten perfect feedback so far, probably because I’m careful to note the book condition, and I usually take the trouble to wrap books in brown paper before they go into a padded envelope. The book sender pays postage, but for most books sent via US media mail that’s only a couple of bucks.

One nice thing about Bookmooch is that’s a very international enterprise. I’ve sent books to Hong Kong, Finland, Norway, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Uzbekistan (a New Zealand guidebook, that last one). I’ve received them from Canada, the Czech Republic, England, Finland, and Singapore. It costs 2 points to mooch a book from overseas, and to cover the extra shipping cost the sender gets 3 points. To me that’s pretty reasonable, with US Global Priority 5-day shipping at $5 and $10 for mass-market and trade paperbacks respectively. Unfortunately the US postal service is canceling economy surface mail soon, which may discourage people from shipping to countries not in the Global Priority network.

It’s instructive to compare Bookmooch with the CD-trading service LaLa, which I also use and like. LaLa effectively chooses which CDs you get; you list what you want and wait for random people to decide to send them to you. LaLa supplies mailing envelopes, but charges you a buck plus postage for each CD you receive. In contrast, Bookmooch gets no cut in any transaction, and in fact couldn’t, because it doesn’t even collect your credit card details. You pay your own postage, and the site simply hooks you up with people who want your books. The founder of the site, John Buckman, seems to have already made his dough back in the dot-com era, and isn’t particularly in it for the money–there’s no advertising, although Amazon presumably gives a commission on click-throughs for people who want to buy rather than wait for a trade. Also unlike LaLa is the personal nature of each Bookmooch transaction; the site initiates each transaction with an email on your behalf, and subsequent email communication is person-to-person, bypassing Bookmooch completely (whereas LaLa uses a cumbersome onsite message center).

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, Bookmooch is good, but not perfect. Sometimes you get books that are a bit scruffy, with underlining or damage the sender neglected to mention in the condition notes, but you always have the option of leaving negative feedback. Other times I’ve received books in pristine bookstore condition. A few people try to scam the system, but there are plenty of volunteer moderators who respond to reports of abuse. The site also has a slightly amateurish feel to it, with cruddy typography and very basic design, but it’s a work in progress, with features always being tweaked and added, often in response to discussions in the site forum.

If you regularly purge your books, and especially if you’ve ever unloaded them for a pittance at a used-book store, I recommend you give Bookmooch a try. I find I hardly buy books anymore, new or used. And that’s something I can’t imagine myself saying a year ago.

Recommended

neutralmilkhotel.jpeg Seeing the moving Lives of Others shortly after a screening of actual Eastern Bloc surveillance footage • Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea–why did nobody tell me about this album earlier? (Well, they did, but I didn’t listen.) • Sleeper film of 2006, United 93, devastating and absolutely not a date movie • Baking cinnamon sticky buns and feeding them to a small child • Sean’s music recommendations are almost always spot on, and especially his recent pick, Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One • ze.jpegZe Frank’s The Show, the funniest thing on the internet, which finally ended after exactly one year • The pleasant feeling when your word processor and bibliographic database work as a team, generating a beautiful reference list at the click of a button, particularly the night before you submit your dissertation • A hankering for poetically brutal scalpers on a sociopathic rampage through the Old Southwest? Why then, you need Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian • Mary Roach’s Stiff, a book about the various fates of cadavers, which had a great Six Feet Under cameo • Watching robins fly about their beaks stuffed with nest-building scraps • The Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible–anthem rock for hipsters.

Self-Saucing Chocolate Pud

chocpud.jpgThis recipe is kindly brought to you via Flick’s mum. A fine winter comfort food, it’ll feed four.

  • ¾ C (3 oz) self-rising flour (if you don’t have self-rising, you can fake it with cake flour plus 1¼ t baking powder and ¼ t salt)
  • 2 T cocoa
  • 1½ t instant coffee powder
  • pinch salt
  • 4 oz butter, room temp
  • ⅔ C (4 oz) superfine (caster) sugar
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  • ½ t vanilla essence
  • 1–2 T milk

Sift flour, and mix in cocoa, instant coffee and salt. Cream the butter and sugar until light, then gradually beat in eggs and vanilla. (Do this a little at a time, incorporating the egg completely into the creamed butter before you add more, and add some flour mixture with last few additions of egg. Don’t just dump the egg in the butter, or you end up with a lumpy swill and have to toss it and start again.) Fold in the remaining flour, and enough milk for a fairly soft consistency. Spoon evenly into a well-greased smallish but high-sided oven dish. Add some chopped or halved walnuts to top; I used good North Carolina pecans.

  • ⅔ C (4 oz) firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 T cocoa
  • 1 C very hot water

In small bowl mix the cocoa and brown sugar, then add hot water and stir until it’s smooth. Pour this over the pud and bake at 375°F for 40 minutes. The sauce will magically migrate under the pudding, and the whole bubbling mass will seem alive, eager to slither out of the pan like a tiny marauding chocolate Blob. Wait until it stops moving then serve with whipped cream. Delishimo.