24 December, 2015

Be Careful What You Wish For

Gentle Reader, as we look back at 2015, I am forced to conclude that one must be careful what one wishes for.  You will notice that updates here at the ol' Half Dipper have been sparse since August.

Like many of us, I live my life according to the teachings of the films of Jerry Bruckheimer.  For example, in the Parable of the Top Gun, we are taught that

"Losers always whine about their best.  Winners go home and **** the prom queen." 

I take this as being an allegory for the life of an academic.  I have therefore attempted never to whine about my best, and always to go home and **** the prom queen (figuratively speaking).

What they don't tell you is that, beyond a certain level in academia, a shocking truth exists: it is insufficient merely to go home and **** the prom queen (figuratively speaking).  In fact, to succeed beyond a certain level, one must be ****ing the prom queen all day, every day (figuratively speaking).  It is probably even true that the quality has to stay consistently high - on a long-term basis, you are pretty much only as good as the last ****ing administered to the proverbial prom queen (figuratively speaking).

As you will agree, with all of this (figurative) activity, life has changed somewhat, and my ability to write articles here along with it.

Erratum: it turns out that the above verse is from "The Rock", by Michael Bay.

Now, these are not negative constraints that I am whining about.  For indeed, was it not the very same parable that taught us that only losers whine?  Rather, these are examples of (to quote another gospel) "making you an offer you can't refuse".  It is good busyness, but it is busyness nonetheless.

Combined with the never-ending Sisyphean thrill which is childcare of a 3-year-old and 5-year-old (which is itself a tremendous benefit to the spirit), time is scarce - in a good way.

it's time to wake up now!
it's morning, daddy!

- 5 a.m. Fatherhood

This leads me on to consider a recently-identified pet peeve: people with one child.  Specifically, academics with one child.  I know quite a lot of such people - this is because childcare is quite expensive, education can be expensive, and having more than one child is a big commitment.  What bothers me is not the fact that an academic might have a single child - more precisely, if you are an academic and you have one child you are absolutely forbidden from telling me how tired you are.

If you have one child, you don't know real tiredness.  You are a dilettante at parenting.  You are wading in the shallow end.  You are a part-timer, who can always hand off the child to your spouse.

While I am rocking my dual-child credentials and dreaming of spending some of my conference travel budget, my single-child academic colleagues are kicking it in the Caribbean, or are off on jollies to the People's Republic of Jaegermeister.

If a substantive part of your academic year is spent on a beach supping coconut milk from the tanned cleavage of nubile natives, and is not spent up to your elbows in soiled nappies and bedtime stories, then you are playing at parenting.  You are subsequently disqualified from complaining to real parents about your lack of time, tiredness, hangover, venereal disease, etc.

So, then, to tea.

I have one-and-a-half books of notes that I look forward to writing-up in due course, which have focussed on a QUADRUPLECTIC whammy of care packages sent by the respective proprietors of white2tea, Essence of Tea, Bannacha, and Yunnan Sourcing.  We laughed, we cried, we drank some decent tea.

However, at our vantage point looking back over the peaks and troughs of the passing year, I would instead like to describe a few teas taken away from my tea-table, which struck me as being variously significant in one way or another.

Tea #1:  The Interview in Brussels

one hundred pages
half-an-hour interview
my first EU grant

The tea was a Darjeeling, served by the quiet Fortnum & Mason outlet in London St. Pancras.  This is the last outpost of civilisation before an Englishman takes the Eurostar train to the continent.  I was heading to Brussels, to face down some Eurocrats for a grant interview.  I had written one hundred pages for this monster, and the EU grant scheme has a 6% success rate.  As I sipped my very decent Darjeeling, I contemplated the 94% of applicants who were objectively wasting their time by writing all those pages.  This is a hugely inefficient process, designed for the convenience of the reviewers, and neatly summarises the EU's approach to science.  As it happens, the interviewers barely let me finish a sentence, with constant (often incorrect) interruptions to my answers of their (often bizarre) questions.  Needless to say, I was one of the 94% on that occasion.

On the bright side, I resubmitted the functional 8-page core of the 100-page monster to a UK governmental agency, which funded it for more than the EU was offering, and with a fraction of the bureaucracy.  It's all about the prom queen, don't forget (figuratively speaking).

Tea #2:  After the Chapel Service at School

from the thin briefcase
the school chaplain produces
the large basketball

My eldest son, Xiaohu, who is now five years old, has left pre-school and started at proper school, in one of the colleges of the university.  Every Wednesday, they pile into the chapel for their weekly service.  Every Wednesday, after chapel, the parents gather in the hall for tea.  Institutional, long-stewed hongcha, of course, but tea nonetheless.

Over those cups of tea, parents exercise their "getting-to-know-you-chit-chat" gland, mindful of the fact that their sons will be in the same class for at least the next eight years.

One week, a guest chaplain gave the sermon, whose past had included being a professional member of the "Magic Circle"; that is, he used to be a professional magician.

As his sermon proceeded, expounding the need to pay careful attention to one's daily life to see the evidence of the divine in the detail, he placed a thin briefcase on the lectern and then produced a full-size basketball from it.

He bounced the basketball off down the aisle, towards the awestruck choir.

Said choir has been travelling, including taking selfies with the Pope, and singing in his local chapel (pictured).  Truth is stranger than fiction.

Tea #3: Shupu in my Parents' House

I leave you with a haiku that recounts a recent conversation between my youngest son, Xiaolong, and his mystified father over a cup of dense shupu, in the house in which I grew up, back in The Other Place.  With this, I wish you all my very best wishes for the Christmas season, and look forward to further correspondence in 2016.

Daddy, my drawing
has a tail - do you know
what it is?

a platypus? no!
a spider monkey? no!
a beaver? no!

then I don't know -
which animal has a tail?
an ambulance!

07 October, 2015

Milan, I-V

rotating smoothly
gracefully but so slowly
Milano loo-seat

Milan mosquitos:
do the humans taste better
in five-star hotels?

grand opera house
wearing their best t-shirts
the americans

Mimi la Boheme
despite her poverty
is not malnourished

the scent of cologne
made fresh again by a tear
at the opera

10 August, 2015

Pairing Tea

We have known one another for so long, Gentle Reader, that I feel as if I can confide in you.  Among the veritable plethora of "things that yank my chain", up there near the top is "pairing tea".

Don't get me wrong.  Everyone should be free to do as they wish in the comfort of one's own home.  However, if you are pairing TEA and FOOD, and you choose to write about it, then I am probably quietly hating you.  Is that too strong?

>_<  HATRED  >_<  

It feels good, so it must be right.

Pairing wine and food is fraught with danger, too.  It's good when you get it right (thx, Wine Steward), but it gives rise to all manner of silly rules that folk try to remember.  "White with white meat, red with red meat", for example.  I'm probably going to cry the next time I hear that: big, fat tears are just going to tumble down my face.

So, with pairing such a dangerous game, I thought I'd give it a go (!), by matching a tea to a wine.

OK, I happened to be drinking a tea and a wine from approximately the same year.  However, the similarities between the two were absolutely striking.

The tea is a 1990 "Qizi Bingcha", which is a bit like saying "red wine".  The paper, pictured above, is written in the handwriting deluxe of my old teachum, RJ.  I appreciate a bit o' the ol' calligraphy. 

 "From wild trees at the border between Yunnan and Vietnam, processed on pine wood.  A private creation from the tea merchant Wang from Taiwan - I was told."

The boys leave for the park with their auntie.  The tea consequently takes on a new significance, as I pay attention in the unexpected silence.  An old aircraft drones overhead.  A gentle breeze gives the impression of an indolent summer Sunday.  The qizi bingcha is tannic, and magnificently eroded - just like the Pauillac.  There is rounded, unobtrusive, structural sweetness.  Most importantly, it is comforting.

"Very good - this is old tea", notes my dear wife as she takes a cup in passing.  I could drink this tea all day.  Sadly, I have to go to town to buy swimming trunks, to take my dudes swimming, after my previous pair spontaneously disintegrated while I was swimming with them last time.  There's nothing funnier than seeing a bony white man suddenly become naked, against his will, in the children's learning pool.



and just when they stop
f'ing you - then the f'ing
really begins


thanks for the question
there's a whole community
working on that


more seminars
more hamiltonian
markov chains


I double-dare you
to give your talk and not say
big data

03 August, 2015

The Circle is Overcomplete

The Peacock of Bulang went well, last week, and thus emboldened, I dug through some of my old samples to find a bit more Dayi: the 8582-805.

First of all, this is a sample kindly provided (many years ago, in fact) by Terje; the tea-leaves have been relaxing in the splendour of their polythene bag for a number of years. I have written previously about a cake that I own in some quantity, the 8582-801 (which is doing quite well).

Comparing the fifth batch of cakes to the first batch of cakes in a year (i.e., 805 to 801) is fraught with difficulties under normal circumstances, but any comparison is surely futile if one has been aging nicely in a tong, while another has been "aging" in a baggie.

Perhaps expectedly, the result for this 805 is not great: it is orange, sour, and seems to be desperately in need of humidity.  It is not a comfortable tea to drink.  It is fishy, like Dayi, but ultimately so, so sour and dry.

Thus, for the avoidance of doubt, I would not recommend aging your young Dayi cakes by sealing them in plastic bags.  Ahem.

Westminster, I-IV


on a moving train
before opening the bottle
of fizzy water


a summer day
at our lower Thames campus -
Westminster palace


oh piss off, sir mark
another friendly meeting
in the ministry


the sound of the bell
that ends he meeting
is Big Ben

27 July, 2015

The Circle is Complete

Peacocks.  Sure, they look pretty - until they open their mouths.  GRAAAARKKK!  They sound like the eternal damned.

There is a very pretty pub in this city, by the river.  Everything nice, everything routine.  Bridge, running water, old buildings.  Also, it has a bunch of peacocks strutting around.  GRRAAAKKEEK!  It's not a peaceful place.

Old-school Gs among you might recall some similarly pretty-but-obnoxious cakes in the "peacock" range from Dayi, in 2008.  We had the Peacock of Badashan, and the Peacock of Menghai, and even the Peacock of Mengsong.  While perusing the darker zones of our tea-toom, I discovered a cake that I've not written about before: the 2008 PEACOCK OF BULANG.  Just when you thought it couldn't get any more bitter, we find a Bulangshan cake.

This cake has spent its entire life in storage at our place - we bought our house at almost exactly the same time as we bought these cakes.  Therefore, I am tense!  It has only known British storage.  Will it be any good?

It has a dense scent of sweet darkness, which is, at least, mildly suggestive of improvement.  The scent in the wenxiangbei is "breadlike" and sweet, which is, again, not bad news.

It is strong (strong!) plantation tea, as expected.  The soup, pictured below, demonstrates that - lo and behold - it does appear to have aged somewhat.  The chunky yellow Dayi youth has gone, at least. 

It is clean, bitter, and has a soft and settled flavour.  Also, it is bitter.  I am primarily thrilled by the fact that it doesn't suck, and secondly quite surprised that it tastes reasonably humid.  British storage is a funny thing: it is (very) wet, which you can taste in the air when you come home from abroad; this avoid the "dry" storage aspect.  However, it isn't very warm here, and so cakes do not rocket off into the aging that you'd expect from humid Asian regions close to the equator.  The result is interesting - it is a little like aging a super-tight tuocha in Asia, in the sense that its aging is slow (deliberately so, in the case of a supertight tea).

For $10, I am surprised that it is so drinkable.  I wonder if I have the mystery fifth variety of Peacock around here somewhere...



sunday monday
tuesday - shops, restaurants
museums closed


mother and child
emerge from the cathedral
their pushchair stolen


I cannot tell
French peaches from nectarines
- that's an apple


you taught him to beg
I wonder when you will
teach him to read

18 July, 2015

Purple Haze

Gentle Reader, I hope that you are easing pleasantly into the summer, in whichever way you ease best.  The end of the academic year  here feels like the climax to a bad movie: more, and more, and more pressure / examinations / socials... and then pop!  Sudden silence.  

All that remains is the high-pressured whine of the accumulated guilt of that huge pile of papers that needs to be written, and those grant proposals that need to be sent off for review.  As a consequence, it sometimes feels that this job is as much about talking about what you want to do in future (via grant proposals), as much as doing actual research.  Sadly, "I want to drink tons of tea" doesn't seem to cut the mustard, as far as talking about what I want to do in future.

The sun is shining (just about), and so let's make some hay.  I seem to have been added to Jalam's "tea club" mailing list: this is the second xiaobing that has made its way to me in as many months. I am not complaining!

The 2014 Nannuoshan "Ziye" [purple leaf] is packed with summertime sweetness, atop a base of true and surprising bitterness.  BOLD is the man that sends real tea to his tea-club, rather than nondescript crowd-pleasers!  I approve wholeheartedly. 

The "purple" flavour of ripe fruits is always welcome, and very well-suited to the character of Nannuoshan, which is likewise fruity. So good, in fact, is this tea that I have a second session with the same cake in the afternoon, using a new set of leaves in the pot.  This tea is ab-so-lutely perfect for low-intensity summertime quaffing.  Perhaps I'm just in a good mood, from the season.

There is vibrancy abound in this little number, and that satisfying sweetness is made interesting by the unsociably bitter base.  I can imagine tea-club members being terrified by this bitterness, and that makes me love it twice over.

The remainder lasts me several days in my lab, and I drink it as a priority, due to its haute deliciousness. It seems to last forever, and it stays unbroken in its sweetness as the infusions come and go.  Purple tea is so very good for the summer, and this cake is a friendly example of the genre.

Trinity Term, I - III


is when everyone
sneezes at last


little fireworks
reflected in the eyes of
little boys


saying goodbye
to the old professor
at his funeral

13 July, 2015



many sandals
many backpacks many beards


is it fair
to blame Nicholas Cage
for all those deaths?


this is where you stand
to tell all those scientists
about your science


after the dinner
the balloon roadrunner runs
home with the young boy

15 June, 2015


William of Bannacha has lain tea thricely upon us.  When a man married to JINGMAI LADIES (probably in the singular) sends you Jingmai tea, you take it seriously.

These are, it would seem, the first 2015 teas that I have written about on this humble web-site; I have to create a "2015" tag for the occasion.  Let's drink some twenty-fifteen!

You know the drill by now: in tea, as in life, I start at the bottom and work up.  The least assuming of these three teas is the "Jingmai Natural", which is an amusing name in the sense that the other teas, by implication, are unnatural.  The price for this cake is not (yet?) listed at William's web-site, but I imagine it will be lowlowlow, based on previous pricing.

He be selling it low.  Low.

It has the smallest leaves of the three samples, and is all sugary sweetness.  It is rounded, especially saccharine, and perhaps none too fragrant.  It is not by any means complex, but is straightforward and enjoyable.  Combined with an assumedly rock-bottom price (the 2014 price was a shocking 7 Euro/200g), this might we worth considering.  Nice, probably cheap, I can get behind.

However, for now, we have larger aquatic lifeforms to saute.

...starting with the "Jingmai Single Tree".

This fad for single-trees is all very well, but it doesn't necessarily make for the most complex tea.  However, we get ahead of ourselves.  The maocha, pictured above, is delightful.  The locals have done a good job of removing huangpian [yellow flakes] but the odd stem remains - I am happy to brew the odd stem, by the way.

The soup is the purest, purest yellow.  That yellow really is considerably in its purity.  It has the buttery, spring-time aroma of good processing and we conclude that all is well in Jingmai residents ability to cook their leaves.

It is vibrant and bitter, but very well-defined in its own way.  It has obvious "gushu" flavours, but perhaps reminds me a little of kudingcha: it is 1-dimensional, but that single dimension is most pleasant.  And exceptionally pure.  Does it leave you wanting more, for all that purity?

The final act is by far the best: the "Jingmai Ancient Gardens".

I'm sure that this will be priced more cheaply than the "Single Tree", but I much prefer it: this "Ancient Garden" tea has a broader base.  In tea, as in life, one simply must appreciate a broad, well-defined base.

As with all three teas in this triptych, the leaves are well-preserved and very nicely wok'd through their shaqing [kill-green] process.

Most importantly, this "Ancient Garden" cake is just delicious to drink.

It has the vibrant spring-time freshness of good, young tea.  To those HUMBLE MORTALS who maintain that shengpu has to be old before it can be tolerated, I offer a respectful raspberry.  This tea has Jingmaishan flavour, but which is entirely complementary to the grassy power of the tea.  While grassy cakes might be questionable for aging, this big cake is ready right now: powerful, cooling, and enduring.  It is yummy and, in a very real sense, in my tummy.

If this cake sells for a price similar to the 23 Euro of the 2014, it would be foolish of me to miss buying some for immediate consumption.  The long hold on my faculties keeps the attention, and the more attention one gives this tea, the better it becomes.

Oh, the wallets, they are a-purchasin'.

my handkerchief jumps
into the lavatory
with a loud flush

08 June, 2015

Rolling the Dice, Playing Croquet with MJOLNIR

Every time drink the pu'ercha, you're rolling the dice - let alone before buying the darned stuff with the hope of it aging nicely.  We are, therefore, no strangers to risk.  We are not risk-averse.  Indeed, there can be little chance of reward without risk.  It's all about playing the probabilities.  You gotsta play the numbers, as the wise man once said.

I've been through the 1980s "Yiwu Maocha" from Teaclassico in the past (notes here).  That was in autumn of last year, in which I concluded: yum.

Sometimes, when you've time for a tea session and that time is becoming ever more scarce in its availability, you simply wish to minimise risk.  You wish to set aside learning and experience, and just get down to some tea that is THE MIGHTY THOR.

In this wise, I opted for low-risk 1980s maocha.  It is a Mjolnir among teas.

The photograph really emphasises everything we need to know about this tea.  It is so very good, and so very dependable, that it completely satisfies my desire to avoid risk.  The only hazard in such a session is to one's wallet.  Seriously, this one is wallet-critical in terms of risk.

It is instantly (INSTANTLY) dark, and even the first infusion is smooth and gentle in its texture.

It reminds of one of family heirlooms, of sorts: a wooden indoor croquet set, made for very young children, which belonged to my mother, when she was a girl in rural Anglia.  It then belonged to me, in due course, and its dark woodiness left a lasting impression on me - the scent of the dark, sweet wood in particular.  This croquet set really made an impression on my growing senses.

This 1980s Yiwu Maocha is almost the perfect recreation of that wooden croquet set.  It is a state of remembrance in which I dwell for the entirety of the session.

...and some days you wish only to roll the dice, and let the chips fall where they may.

I do not know where this cake comes from - Gentle Reader, if it is from you, then please accept my thanks.  Let's roll the d6...

This cake looks good, does it not?  The wrapper suggests that it is "Simao Cuiyun Wenhua", where Cuiyun is a town in Simao prefecture, and where "wenhua" is (very approximately) "tradition".  It also has a stamp tha reads "huaxing", which "means that the company is traditional", according to my dear wife.  Experience suggests that I rather like random Simao cakes, and so I am optimistic.

This cake dates from 2005, and its darker shade of leaf, along with the quite well-preserved maocha, suggests that we might even have something of decent "artisan" status on our hands.

Oh boy, does this cake suck.


Suction of a manner that I have not experienced for some considerable duration, in fact.  There is real, true suction on offer here.  It has the sweet, sticky character of red pu'ercha with a very low ceiling indeed - its processing has left it almost nowhere to go, and its dry storage has not been kind.

It is aggressive on the tongue and lips, and I do not mean that as a compliment.  This is agrochemical all the way.   The sensation persists for some minutes, and I have only had two small cups from the first infusion.

My poor, poor tongue.  I nurse it back to health with some of that 1980s Yiwu Maocha with which I started this article.

What did I learn?  I learned that not every roll of the dice turns up the goods.  This stuff is as [insert derogatory adjective] as the [insert name of body part] from a [insert name of continental European country] mother.  Like, for reals.

after our meeting
only one of us, minister
will scrub nappies