Saturday, March 29, 2008

Apple #307: Perdera Wine

Continuing my What I Did in Florida series, one night my friend and I went out to a restaurant. We ate out quite a lot, actually, but at this one particular restaurant, I decided I wanted a glass of wine with my dinner.


(Photo from Lola's Curmudgeonly Musings)


I know almost nothing about wine. I know you're supposed to have red wines with red meats and white wines with white meats (to put it very simply). I know that I prefer reds to whites, generally. But I can rarely remember what kind of wine I had that I liked. And when I'm in the grocery store looking for wine to buy to cook with or maybe to take to someone's house, I am at a complete loss. I know you're thinking that the first part of my problem is that I'm shopping for wine in a grocery store. But that gives you an idea of the extent of my wine knowledge.

So, being so woefully uninformed about wine, I asked our server to suggest a red wine to me. She said that the owner always recommended the first one on the list, a certain variety that started with a P. She said he bought it specially for the restaurant because he liked it so much. So I said Sure, I'll try that one.

Lo and behold, it was the best wine I'd ever tasted.


(Photo from Our Manly's article on the benefits of red wine)


In my experience of red wines, even the ones that have a nice, full flavor and that don't sap every ounce of moisture from your mouth but rather make you feel like you're sampling some especially sumptuous flavor -- even these tend to have a kind of bitterness, or a tang, or an acidity about them. Not so with this wine.

There was a delightful mix of flavors. I can't recall exactly what they are, and I am certainly no sommelier, but I'll say there were a few different types of fruitiness at first and then I tasted a kind of richer, fuller flavor -- maybe something along the lines of walnuts? -- and then there was the loveliest finish. No acidity, no bite, no sharp pinch at the end. Just full, round deliciousness. Every sip I took I enjoyed. I have never been able to say that about any wine I've tasted.

Because I never remember these things, I wrote down the name. Not only would I like to taste it again, I'd also like to give a bottle or two to people and say, "Try this and tell me what you think." And a bottle of wine usually makes a nice gift, don't you think?


These wine carrier bags are also insulated, so if you want to give someone wine and you want it to stay chilled, you can put the bottle in one of these bags and hand it over without feeling like a total wino.
(Carriers are $8.00 each from Wine Country Gifts)


  • The wine is called Perdera and it's made in Sardinia (Sardegna to Italians).
  • Sardinia is actually an island off the west coast of Italy, and apparently the grapes they grow there are different than the grapes grown in other parts of Italy.

Sardinia is the island in green next to Italy. Sicily, by the way, is the knob down at the bottom of Italy's boot. The island just north of Sardinia is Corsica.
(Map from Travel-Sardinia.com)



There are all sorts of pictures of Sardinia that look like this. Rocky shorelines around belly-like bays of super-blue water, and skies equally vivid blue. If this is what it's like there, maybe I should just go to Sardinia and drink the wine right there.
(Photo from Hooked on Cycling, Italy)


  • Perdera wine is made from another type of Sardinian grape, the Monica.
  • Apparently, some wine experts call this type of grape "unspectacular," so if you are a super-wine-afficianado, you may be poo-poohing this entire entry.

I don't know what kind of grapes these are, but there are enough in each box to make a case of wine.
(Photo from some unknown group's visit to The Wine Room in Cherry Hill, NJ where they participated in making wine)

  • The one type of Perdera that pops up online the most often is one made by a Sardinian vintner, Argiolas. This particular Perdera is comprised of 90% Monica grapes, 5% Carignano, and 5% Bovale Sardo grapes, which almost went extinct but for the efforts of this winery. Perhaps the combination of different grapes is one reason why the wine has a nice mix of flavors.

This is Giuseppe Argiolas, one of the two brothers who own and operate the Argiolas winery in Sardinia.
(Photo from DiWine Taste, an Italian site)


  • A few wine reviewers said that this gets better if you allow it to decant (open it and leave it alone) for a while, about half an hour before pouring.
  • They recommended drinking it with roast meats or pasta with meat sauce or pork. A lot of people used the word "rustic."
  • Different reviewers discussed different years in which this wine was made. Wines from 2003 and 2005 seemed to get the highest praise. They also said this wine is best within two to three years of the date on the bottle.

(Photo from Sherry-Lehmann wine merchants, where you can get a case of Perdera for $179.40)

  • Here are the various ways that other wine reviewers described this wine:
      • Blackberry, blueberry, and raspberry aroma, earthy on the palate followed by more berry flavors, and mellowing into black currant and ripe blackberry flavors.
      • Prune and strawberry aroma, followed by berries on the palate, with a finish of coffee and chocolate
      • Ripened cherry, cinnamon, and black pepper, followed by chocolate and "firm tannins."
      • Juicy bouquet of cherries and dark fruit out of the gate
      • Jammy dark fruit and spicy black pepper
      • Full and warm in flavor, plummy and peppery
I think you get the idea.

The wine sells for around $11 to $13 per bottle, depending on who's importing it and how far it has to get shipped and so on. I've asked around at a couple of wine shops and a restaurant or two since I've been back and nobody had any clue what I was talking about. It's not a very commonly-stocked wine, apparently, so if I want to taste it again and share it with people, I might have to order some of it myself.

Which means buying a case. I have never bought a case of wine in my life before. But I'm really considering it. But if I'm going to buy a case of wine, I'm certainly not going to toss back all the bottles in, like, a week. So do I need to have some sort of special storage method or something? How does one keep a case of wine, and how long can you have it around?


What a case of wine looks like when it arrives
(Photo from edmund's blog's very first entry)



If you're going to keep bottles of wine for more than a few weeks, store them
  • Out of direct sunlight
  • Away from any source of vibration
  • Away from a heat source
  • Not near anything else that has a strong odor
  • On their sides (this keeps the cork moist and airtight)
  • Temperature should be about 55 degrees
  • Humidity should be around 70% to 80%
Even if you'll be keeping wine for longer than 6 months, these same recommendations apply.


Most wine racks are stupidly expensive. But this one, which is actually three racks on top of each other, is on sale for $10 per rack plus shipping. Each rack holds 6 bottles.
(Photo and $10 deal from eWineRacks.com)



Lots of bottles now are made to resist ultraviolet light, but if you'll be keeping wine for several months, that fancy glass won't be enough to keep out the UV rays. If your wine is exposed to direct light, it gets "light struck" and will taste like wet cardboard.

All those storing requirements sound an awful lot like my basement. One site says that a corner of a basement may do just fine, or a closet where you can shut the door, or a cupboard under the stairs, or other such nooks & crannies that might be in your house.

Well, so I could buy a case and store it just fine in my basement. But $10 per bottle plus shipping means I'd spend around $150 or more for a case. But maybe I could order just 6 bottles instead of 12. From the Wine Library, 6 bottles including shipping comes to $83. The full case is a better deal per bottle, but I'm not sure I need 12 bottles.

Well, I'll spare you all the details of my decision-making process. Let's just say that I'm going to buy some of this wine and leave it at that.

Update, about a week & a half later: I decided to buy 4 bottles. Because the company shipping them said they absolutely had to have somebody sign for them, I had them shipped to the office where I work. And, delightfully enough, FedEx put a label on the box that said in huge letters, ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES and DO NOT RELEASE TO AN INTOXICATED PERSON. So when I arrived at work, my boss said to me, "[Apple Lady], your booze is here." Lovely.

I opened one of the bottles last night. I let it sit for a while, maybe 15 minutes, while I did other things. Then I poured myself a glass to drink with dinner. Alas, it was not as beautifully smooth as I had remembered. I'd wondered if the mixture of being on vacation and the balmy breezes of Florida might have somehow influenced my experience of the wine, and that may be the case. But I did take my time about drinking it, and it did seem more mellow after about 20 more minutes, so I think maybe the reviewer who said you ought to let it sit for about half an hour first had some good advice.

I've got the opened bottle downstairs on the counter. I'm waiting for it to come to room temperature, and then I'll try another glass.


Sources
Red Wine Review: Argiolas Perdera, Wine Weekly, February 23, 2007
Benito's Wine Reviews, 2002 Argiolas Perdera, October 15, 2007
Winebow, Italy, Sardinia, Argiolas
The Wine Cask Blog, Argiolas Perdera Isola dei Nuraghi 2003 (PB), August 7, 2005
Supermarket Guru, Wine FAQs: Storing Wine
Cellarnotes.net, Storing Wine
My Wines Direct, Wine Guide: Storing Wine

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Apple #306: Kites

Since it's been a full week since my last entry, I thought I'd give you all two Apples today (see the entry on Easter Lilies below). And I'm continuing my series of entries on stuff that I did when I was in Florida.

One of the things my friends and I did was go to the beach and fly a kite. It was pretty windy that day, which was what gave me the idea, and though the wind made it tough to put the kite together, when it came time to get the kite up in the air, it was a breeze (oh, me, with the puns today).

I've tried to fly kites a couple of times before, but the wind would die down and so would the kite, and it just wasn't that much fun. This time, one of us would have the strings, the other would let go of the kite, and zip, it was up in the air.


This is a Delta kite, which has a triangular shape and essentially a straight long side. This particular variety also has sort of a rudder, but not all Deltas do.
(Image from Let's Fly a Kite, which sells this kite for $15.95)


  • Different kites fly better depending on the wind speeds.
      • Light to medium winds (6-15 mph):
          • Deltas (triangular shape)
          • Diamonds (the kind Charlie Brown flew)
          • Dragons (one really long, wide tail)


Dragon kites are typically long. They can be simple like this 30-foot one which is available from Akira Toys, or they can be more complex like the one below (which only looks small because of that perspective thing). In any case, dragon kites are usually flown using one line, and they are considered relatively easy to fly.

(Photo by Danarah from Flickr)

      • Stronger winds (8-25 mph)
          • Box
          • Stunt (triangular, but with three points on the longest side)
          • Parafoil

Typical stunt kite. Notice the three pointy places. Note the two lines extending from the braces.
(Image from HiflyKites, which also provides a guide to assembling and flying kites)

  • You can also add tails to your kite to help its nose stay pointed skyward and to give it more stability in higher winds.
  • Here's a guide to help you estimate the wind speed:
      • 0-5 mph: light breezes, leaves rustling
      • 6-10 mph: leaves in motion, light flags extended
      • 11-15 mph: dust and loose paper get picked up, branches as well as leaves moving
      • 16-20 mph: trees begin swaying, crests forming on waves
      • 21 mph: umbrellas difficult to control, large tree branches moving. Some people say that at this point, it's too windy. But I think it was probably about this windy when we were out, and we actually had fun.

This is a diamond kite -- a pretty fancy one, but a diamond, nonetheless. It's good for flying in lighter winds. This one is called the Prism Stowaway, and it comes already assembled, for $26.
(Image from WindPower Sports)


  • As you're standing facing your kite, make sure the wind is at your back and blowing into the body of the kite.
  • Here are some tips on launching your kite, depending on how windy it is and whether you have someone with you or if you're flying it by yourself:
      • Friend holds the kite and lets it go (quite windy)
      • Friend holds the kite and at a gust of wind, lets go and you take a step or two backwards (fairly windy)
      • Friend holds the kite and you both begin to run into the wind. When the friend feels the kite begin to lift, friend lets it go and you play out the lines (barely breezy or fitful)

(Somewhat hard-to-read diagram from KitesOnline)

      • If you're by yourself, position the kite standing on its points in the ground or against a picnic table. With your arms holding the lines straight out in front of you, take a large step back and at the same time bring your hands straight down along your thighs. This will pull the lines down and lift the kite. (quite or fairly windy)
  • Once the kite is in the air and all you want to do is keep it flying, the important thing is keep the tension in the lines. As the wind moves the kite about, your line or string may tighten or slacken. When the line droops, reel it in a bit to tighten it. Or you can tighten the line by pulling your arms down, which will make the kite fly higher. If your kite has more than one line, you'll want to make sure the tension is equal in all the lines.

Box kites look pretty much what they sound like, though some of them can get fairly decorative. This one rotates as it flies. It's available from Let's Fly a Kite for $35.89.

  • If the kite is drooping and won't stay up, try letting out the line and pulling your arms down to make the kite fly higher. Winds are generally better and more consistent about 50 feet up.
  • To make the kite do stunts, you need to be flying a kite with two or more lines. Most stunt kites come with two lines.
  • To make your kite turn left, pull down on the left line. The kite's nose will point left and it will swoop downward to the left. To make the kite turn right, pull down on the right line.

(Diagram from KitesOnline)

  • Following a turn in one direction with a turn in the opposite direction will keep your lines from getting wound around each other.
  • To land the kite, first reel it in so it's fairly close to the ground. Then with the nose pointing up to the sky, take a few steps forward without tightening the lines. The lines will slacken, and the kite will drop.
  • Sometimes your kite will crash and that's okay, except if that happens too many times, your kite can get damaged. More importantly, you want to make sure your kite doesn't crash onto a person or an animal because that can cause serious injury.


Parafoil kites have a flat surface to which the lines are attached. On top of that surface is another layer, but this one is curved into several channels, or aerofoils, which help give the kite considerable loft and stability. The result looks sort of like flying pillows.
(This Prism Stylus parafoil kite is available from WindPower Sports for $139)


And of course, observe all the rules of good kite safety:
  • Don't fly a kite near power lines
  • Don't fly near airports
  • Don't fly over roads or sidewalks
  • Don't fly during thunderstorms, even if you think you are Ben Franklin
  • Find an open area away from buildings and power lines and kite-eating trees



Sources
Gomber Kites, How to Fly a Kite and more tips available here
American Kitefliers Association, Professor Kite and the Secret of Kites
Let's Fly a Kite, A Handy Little Wind Scale Chart
Kite Flyer Info, How to Fly a Kite
KitesOnline, How to Fly a Stunt Kite

Apple #305: Easter Lilies and FishFish

First things first. Happy Easter, everybody!


Easter Lily
(Photo from Wikimedia)



Texas A&M has a page full of interesting stuff about Easter Lilies, such as:
  • Easter Lilies are native to Japan. They were first brought to the US after World War I, when a soldier planted several hybrid bulbs on the south coast of Oregon in 1919.
  • Their popularity in the US exploded during World War II when, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it became extremely difficult to get Easter Lilies.
  • Now, 95% of Easter Lilies sold in the US are grown in a very small region along the California-Oregon border, near where that soldier planted his first hybrid bulbs.
  • The bulbs take three to four years before they are ready to be potted and forced to bloom in time for Easter.
  • Lots of traditions and legends surround the connection between Easter and Easter Lilies, but here is one particularly compelling item:
      • White lilies were found growing in the Garden of Gethsemane, where before Jesus was arrested, he prayed so fervently "his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground." Tradition has it that where the drops of his blood fell, lilies grew.

FISHFISH

The next item on my list is to note that yesterday was FishFish's second birthday -- believe it or not. For those who may not know who or what FishFish is, he's my betta fish. And technically, he's more than two years old because two years ago yesterday is actually the anniversary of when I brought him home from the pet store. But he's still coming along swimmingly (har har), thanks in no small part to kind friends who look after him while I'm gadding about in other parts of the country.

For more about FishFish, in the right-hand frame under the section Browse the Daily Apple, click on the betta fish link.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Apple #304: Palm Trees

While I was in Florida, watching the palm trees pass by while my friends kindly drove me hither and yon, it occurred to me to wonder what palm trees were doing in Florida. Not having grown up there, the cliché picture I have in my mind of palm trees is a few of them standing around in the middle of a desert.


Two palms in the Sahara.
(You may purchase a print of this photo for $200 from Art.com)



So how did palm trees wind up in Florida, which is obviously a non-desert environment?

One of my friends suggested that most of the palm trees we were passing are not actually native to Florida. However, I just found a very helpful page about plants native to Florida, and several varieties of palm trees are on that list. (By the way, Jarred, the page also gives tips about how to choose which native species to plant.)

Okay, if palm trees are native to Florida, then obviously I either don't understand Florida's climate, or I don't understand palm trees.

  • South Florida's climate is classified as hot-humid. Not desert.

(Diagram from the DOE, sourced from Commercial Building Products)

  • In fact, Florida is one of the wettest states in the U.S. It gets at least 50 inches of rain each year.
  • 70% of the rain Florida gets in a year falls from May through November. The rest of the year can be quite dry, and can even experience droughts for long periods of time. But still, this ain't no desert.

That's roughly how I would have described Florida's climate. So clearly I must be misunderstanding palm trees.
  • While palm trees can be found in the desert, they're always growing around oases. In that photo above of palm trees in the Sahara, the reason they're standing around in that particular location is because there's water there. I say to myself: duh.
  • The reason palm trees hang out in oases is because they love water. Besides growing around pools of water in the middle of the desert, they like coastal, humid, or otherwise wet regions. And that is Florida.
  • In fact, if you do a quick search for images of palm trees, the majority of them are standing near the shore of an ocean, not in the middle of a desert. Sure, they might be hanging out on desert islands, but those islands are surrounded by water.


    (Poster available for £3.99 from starstore.com)

I say to myself again: duh.


Now for some facts about palm trees that maybe you didn't already know:
  • Palm trees as a family (Arecaceae) are incredibly diverse, with somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 different species. (The number is indefinite because taxonomists disagree about how to classify lots of them).
  • Most species of palm trees grow in the tropics and subtropics. More than 2/3 of palm species grow in rain forests.
  • Though most of palm trees like moist and tropical environments, it's possible to find palm trees in all sorts of climates around the world.
      • One especially hardy palm, the Trachycarpus, is native to the Himalayan mountains and gets covered with snow in the winter.

The Trachycarpus fortunei, a.k.a. Hardy Windmill Palm, doing just fine in Seattle even though it is covered with snow.
(Photo from Pacific Northwest Gardens)



Snow-covered palm trees in Machindschauri, Georgia, Russia.
(Photo by Rapho)

      • The Ravenea musicalis, which grows in Madagascar, is a water palm -- the only one. It grows in the water of flowing streams.
  • While most palm trees have a single, woody trunk with leaves concentrated near the crown, there are some species that have a different morphology (shape).
      • The Potato Chip palm has a trunk, but it's more like a stem, and it doesn't generally get any thicker than the diameter of a pencil. The tree itself generally doesn't grow any taller than one foot.

The Potato Chip palm, which stays very small even when mature, is native to Guatemala and Mexico. It can also grow in California, Hawaii, and Florida.
(Photo from the Virtual Palm Encyclopedia)

      • Some other palm trees grow by climbing, and still others send down suckers which bury themselves into the ground and form additional trunks.
  • Palm tree leaves can be extremely large. In fact, world record holder for the largest leaf was measured at 25 meters long. It came from the Nigerian or king palm.

Emu is put in beer bottles, but it's actually palm wine.
(Photo from the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi, Nigeria)


  • Speaking of things you can make from palm trees, here are just a few more things you can use palm trees for:
      • palm oil
      • palm wine and beer
      • paper pulp
      • wax
      • soap
      • candy
      • palm hearts (they taste like artichoke hearts)
      • fruit, nuts, dates, kernels, coconuts, etc.
      • animal feed
      • building materials
      • furniture
      • nets & ropes
      • clothing, hats, fans, jewelry, etc.
      • shady places for people to rest
So, palm trees are extraordinarily useful, hardy, and pleasant for all kinds of reasons. If you want to grow palm trees in your yard or even in your house, go to your nearest nursery and ask someone to help you pick out a variety that's going to be happy in your environment.


Soldiers resting under the palm trees in Iraq, near a town called Karmah.
(Photo from Michael J. Totten's foreign correspondence blog)


Sources
University of South Florida, Florida Climate Data and Native Trees for South Florida
Miami University of Ohio, Earth Expeditions, Dragonfly project, palm trees
Palm & Cycad Societies of Florida, Virtual Palm Encyclopedia, Introduction
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Tropical Palms, Introduction, Current palm products
Aluka digital library about Africa, Palmae
David Chandler, The Many Types of Palm Trees

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Apple #303: Jigsaw Puzzles

Well, I'm back from my trip to Florida. It was very relaxing and enjoyable in so many ways. But of course while I was sampling Florida's various delights, I also encountered a few questions, some puzzlements, and some just plain intriguing things that I wanted to learn more about once I got home. So let's get to it, shall we?

The first item, jigsaw puzzles, may not seem all that thrilling to you. But that's exactly what's good about jigsaw puzzles -- they present a bit of a challenge, but most of them are not so difficult that you want to tear out your hair or pummel your neighbor over them. Though I know that some jigsaw puzzles are designed to be very challenging.

I used to put together jigsaw puzzles quite a lot when I was but a Pre-Appleteen. So when my friends and I purchased a used jigsaw puzzle from the local Florida library, it was something of a pleasant journey back to my younger days as we put the thing together, together.


This is the puzzle we put together. We got it for $1, used, and there was a piece missing. Anyway, it's called Nantucket Breeze by Charles Wysocki. It was pretty decent, as puzzles go. The sky was the hardest part, as usual.
(Photo by Jarred Wilson)



Really, there's no satisfaction quite like finding the piece you've been looking for and then pressing it neatly into place. Ah.

HISTORY
  • The first jigsaw puzzle is generally believed to have been made by a mapmaker named John Spilsbury, in 1760. He mounted one of his maps on a piece of hardwood and used a saw to cut around the borders of the countries. The puzzle of countries was intended to teach British children geography.
  • Jigsaw puzzles continued to be made of maps and other educational images, and primarily for children.
  • Through the 1800s, manufacturers used different types of wood for the backing and different methods of cutting the boards into shapes.
  • By the early 1900s, puzzle makers had just started using cardboard as the backing, though wooden puzzles were still the ones sold most often.
  • Puzzle-assemblers today would find these early puzzles a bit frustrating. The pieces did not interlock but instead were laid next to each other. A mis-timed sneeze or an inopportune jostling of the table could send the entire thing into disarray.

This puzzle, made in 1898, is an example of one of the early techniques of making jigsaw puzzles, called color line cutting. The pieces were cut along the lines where the colors of the image changed. They did not interlock but lay against one another.
(Image from Bob Armstrong's article on Earliest Use of Special Techniques for Making Adult Jigsaw Puzzles)

  • Also around this time, puzzle makers began to use metal dies to cut the pieces. The dies were made by taking thin strips of sharp metal, curving them in various shapes, and attaching the strips to a plate so the edges stuck out on one side. The plate with the edges sticking out would then be pressed into the cardboard so that all the pieces would be cut at once.
  • This method made puzzle-making a whole lot cheaper and easier, as did the use of cardboard. By the 1920s and 1930s, several companies were turning out cardboard jigsaw puzzles all over the place. What's more, they weren't all of the educational variety anymore, but also included lots of images of trains and steam engines as well sentimental depictions of ladies in love and puppies and so on. Furthermore, the puzzle makers started designing the puzzles to be more difficult, so they'd be more appealing to adults.
  • Unlike most products sold in the United States during the 1930s, sales of jigsaw puzzles soared during the Depression. They were very inexpensive -- most cardboard puzzles sold for 25 cents -- and they could be used and enjoyed by one person or several people at a time without having to go anywhere special.

This puzzle, called Checkers, was made around 1932. You probably can't tell from this picture, but the pieces are especially curvy and strange. The image is "It's Your Move" by Norman Rockwell.
(Photo from Bob Armstrong's Old Jigsaw Puzzles, which is a wealth of images and information)


  • Companies were giving them away, free, with things like toothbrushes. Libraries were lending jigsaw puzzles for three to ten cents per day, depending on the size. In 1933, when puzzle makers started producing weekly jigsaw puzzles, people were buying jigsaw puzzles at a rate of 10 million per week. Jigsaw puzzles were the bee's knees.
  • Since the Depression, jigsaw puzzles' popularity has waxed and waned a few times. Wooden jigsaw puzzles got too expensive to make on as large a scale as the cardboard ones, but you can still find a wooden puzzle here and there.

This is a very modern version of the earliest jigsaw puzzles: made of wood, geographic image, educational in nature.
(Photo from Kids-WoodenToys.com, which sells this Learning Journey puzzle for $11.80)


  • Now, with the advent of online jigsaw puzzles, the concept is very popular once more. Online jigsaw puzzles are free, they don't require that you have a huge empty table, and it's very easy to switch puzzles, find a new one, and test your assembling skills against others.


TECHNIQUES
  • Basically, the way to put together a jigsaw puzzle is to organize the pieces. It's really that simple. There's no way you can assemble all the pieces at once, so you have to group them in smaller categories that you can handle.
  • Some basic techniques in putting together a puzzle include:
      • Start with the border. Look for the pieces with flat edges first and assemble those.
      • Separate the pieces with lots of detail and contrast, like dark letters against a light-colored background, and assemble those first.
      • Sort the pieces by general color categories or major areas of the final image, like the grass or the sky.
      • Sort the pieces by shape -- all the two knobs at either end together, or all the double flares together, or the flares + knobs together, etc.

Reading left to right, two knobs at either end, double flares, and a flare + knob. I have no idea what other people call these shapes. This is just the terminology that I made up in my head.
(Images from Jigsaw Jungle's Jigsaw Puzzle Tips)


  • Obviously, you don't have to use any of these techniques if you don't want to. But they can help to make the task more manageable, especially if you're working with one of the larger-sized puzzles.


INCREASING THE CHALLENGE
  • Most adults find puzzles of 1,000 to 2,000 pieces to be challenging without being too taxing.

This is the kind of puzzle I used to put together a lot when I was younger. About 1,000 pieces, fairly colorful image, looks a little daunting at first but when you get into it, you soon discover that all the variations in color actually make it pretty easy. Springbok is a good source for this level of puzzles.
(Lucky Roll, 1,000 pieces, from Springbok, available for $14.50)


  • At about 3,000 pieces and up, they're more appropriate for adults with more puzzle-assembly experience.
  • Some of the largest puzzles available weigh in at a hefty 13,200 pieces. Assembled, they measure 9.5 feet by 4.4 feet.

One of Clementoni's 13,200-piece puzzles. This one uses a reproduction of a painting by Tiziano Vecellio called Sacred and Profane Love. Other 13,200-piece puzzles sold by Clementoni include The Last Supper, and a more modern underwater scene called Lahaina Visions by Christian Lassen. Puzzles of this size sell for around $140.
(Image from Missouri Puzzle, where you can also order this and other jigsaw puzzles)


  • An even larger puzzle, with 18,000 pieces, is also available. But some puzzle purists don't count this one as the largest because it is made up of four panels which, due to the difficulty of printing across such a large area, don't match up color-wise too well. So you probably end up assembling the four panels individually.

Tropical Impressions, one of the 18,000-piece puzzles made by Ravensburger. The four panel dividers allow the printer to hide any printing incontinuities. This one is available from Compleat Gamester for $150.

  • In the case of these enormous puzzles, the pieces are packaged in separate plastic bags, with each bag corresponding to a section of the puzzle. So a puzzle-doer could open each bag one at a time and assemble its contents before opening the next bag. But some puzzle purists call this "cheating" and open all the bags at once.
  • I also came across another puzzle that's larger still. This one is 24,000 pieces, measures about 14 ft x 5 ft, and sells for a mere $300. It is not divided into panels. Judging by the image, I'm guessing this one is digitally produced.

Life, the Greatest Puzzle, with 24,000 pieces is available from Compleat Gamester for $299.95.

  • Puzzles whose images use only a few colors or an image that repeats over an over again can also be quite difficult. Sometimes, though, it's possible to find very subtle differences among the repeating images. Or you have to go by where the shading and gradations in color occur relative to each other.

This Dalmatians puzzle not only uses just two colors and repeating shapes, but the same picture is also printed on both sides. In addition, the manufacturer has cut the pieces in such a way that the only way to tell if you have the piece right-side up is if the pieces fit together smoothly. So you're pretty much assembling this thing by feel. This level of challenge would give me the hairy fits.
(Photo from the Jigsaw Club, where you can buy this puzzle for $17.95)

  • There are also three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles. I have never put one of these together, though some friends of mine who were very good at math used to get 3D puzzles for Christmas and they'd put them together with their families. So I'm assuming they're harder than the average puzzle.

3-D jigsaw puzzle of the Notre Dame Cathedral, made by Wrebbit
(Image from Jigboxx, which sells this puzzle for $25.20)



If you really like puzzles and are always looking for new and challenging puzzles, check out Passion for Puzzles. Some of the puzzles are online games, and some are various types of jigsaw or 3D puzzles.


Sources
Anne D. Williams, Jigsaw Puzzles - A Brief History, reprinted at MGC Puzzles
History of Jigsaw Puzzles and World's Largest Jigsaw Puzzle, American Jigsaw Puzzle Society
20th Century Jigsaw Puzzles, Elliott Avedon Museum & Archive of Games, University of Waterloo, Belgium
Jigsaw Jungle puzzle tips
Hints, Tips, and Choosing a Puzzle that's Right for You, Puzzles on Parade

Monday, March 3, 2008

Hiatus

La, la, la, this is where I'm going on my vacation.



I'm going to see one of my BEST_FRIENDS_EVER (who also happens to be a loyal fan of the Daily Apple). There will be beach-going, adventuring, lunching at a place called The Salty Dog, and all sorts of good things. But mainly it will be a much-anticipated visit with friends. Yay!

If you want some entertainment until I get back, you could listen to this song which I had in my head all day yesterday and today, or you could listen to this song which I think is one of the best-written songs ever, and which I have been listening to incessantly tonight.

The videos aren't great which is why I didn't post them here. But you can nip over to the YouTube pages and let the songs go while you do other things, and maybe also think of Florida, imagine beaches and sun and palm trees, etc. That's what I'm doing right now, and I highly recommend it.



See you in about 10 days!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Apple #302: Hiccups

Last night I had the hiccups for quite a long time. I was hoping they'd go away on their own, but they kept happening. So finally I took my usual remedy -- which has never failed me, not once -- and they went away.

I'll tell you my never-missed-yet cure for hiccups in a bit. But first, I want to find out more about what hiccups are.

  • Hiccups happen when your diaphragm gets spasms.
      • The diaphragm is a wide sheet of muscle that stretches across your abdomen below your ribcage. It's the muscle that makes your lungs expand and contract so you can inhale and exhale.
      • When the diaphragm spasms, it contracts downward, making your lungs expand and pull in air. At the same time your vocal chords (glottis) are also drawn closed, and that makes the vocal sound. But instead of exhaling through your vocal chords which is what you usually do when you speak, you are inhaling, and that's why the vocal noise sounds funny -- and even sometimes unexpectedly loud.


What normally happens when you exhale is on the right. What happens during hiccups is shown on the left.
(Diagram from Humanillnessess.com)

  • A bunch of nerves (phrenic nerves) at the base of your neck in your spinal cord are what control the diaphragm. When those nerves get tripped in a certain way, they tell the diaphragm to start spasming. And you start hiccuping.
  • Various events can make those nerve endings freak out and get your diaphragm spasming. Some of those triggers include:
      • Eating too much food too quickly
      • Swallowing too much air (chewing gum often makes this happen)
      • Drinking too much alcohol
      • Smoking
      • Changing the temperature in your stomach too quickly (drinking something hot and then something cold immediately thereafter)
      • Getting really excited or shocked or stressed out about something

In 2003, one month before this photo was taken, Christopher Reeve had surgery that allowed him to breathe without a ventilator, though he still needed it for speaking. This was possible because his phrenic nerves were still intact to his diaphragm, though the connection between the nerves and his brain was severed. The surgery implanted an electrode device which sent the signal to the phrenic nerves, which in turn told his diaphragm to function. Reeve had been paralyzed from the neck down in a fall from his horse in 1995.
(Photo from Wikipedia)


  • Some techniques for getting rid of hiccups work, scientists think, because they calm down those freaked-out phrenic nerves in your neck. Specifically, if you increase the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood, that extra CO2 sort of dulls those nerve endings, your diaphragm stops spasming, and the hiccups stop.
  • Some hiccup-relieving techniques that increase the CO2 include
      • Holding your breath for 10 full seconds
      • Breathing repeatedly into a paper bag for a minute or so
      • Slowly sipping a glass of water without pausing to breathe
      • Drinking water from the opposite side of the glass (I've never understood how to do this)
  • Other techniques that people say are effective include
      • Placing a teaspoon of sugar or honey on the back of your tongue and swallowing it
      • Pulling on your tongue with your fingers (how delightful)
      • Rubbing the roof of your mouth with your index finger
      • Biting into a lemon
      • Sitting down and leaning forward so that your chest and diaphragm are pressed against your knees
      • Having someone startle you (this one has never worked for me)
  • Those suggestions have all probably worked for some people at one time or another. But the ones in that list that I've tried have not worked for me.
  • But this technique I read about several years ago has never failed me:
      • Fill a drinking glass with water and put a spoon in it. Make sure the spoon is tall enough so that the end stands above the rim of the glass.
      • As you bring the glass to your mouth, make sure the end of the spoon rests in that spot between your eyes and above your nose.

This is essentially what my cure looks like. The girl in this photo is Jennifer Mee, who had the hiccups for several weeks in 2007. Apparently, this is how she finally got rid of her hiccups, but I can't get the video from the TODAY show to work, so I'm not certain that this is what did the trick for her.
(Photo from MSNBC TODAY)


      • Hold the spoon in that position while you drink the water in the glass. Don't allow the spoon to move and drink all the water, or as much as you can without stopping.
      • When you put down the glass, your hiccups will be gone.
      • I have done this enough times -- and with success each time -- that now, I no longer need to put the spoon in the glass. It is enough if I press my finger to that spot on my forehead between my eyes while I drink the water. But if I just drink the water without doing that, it doesn't work.
  • If your hiccups last longer than 48 hours no matter what you do, these are called persistent hiccups, and it is time to go to the doctor.
  • If the hiccups last longer than a month (this is very rare), you have what's called intractable hiccups. It is really time to go to the doctor if you're hiccuping this long. Not only would this drive you out of your mind, but intractable hiccups are often related to more serious health problems, such as
      • Major illnesses that affect the central nervous system, including cancer, stroke, injury, or infections
      • Metabolic dysfunction or decreased kidney function
      • Damage or disruption of the vagus or phrenic nerves due to surgery, anesthesia, or injury
      • Mental health issues
  • In cases of persistent or intractable hiccups, the doctor can try other techniques to stop the hiccups, such as
      • Using a spoon to lift the uvula (the thing that hangs down at the back of your throat and that gets drawn in cartoons a lot)

(Diagram showing the uvula from Just Janet's blog)

      • Applying pressure, electrical stimulation, ice, or anesthetic to the back of the neck
      • Emptying the stomach
      • Stimulating the pharynx by inserting a tube through the nose or mouth
      • Conducting surgery to interrupt the phrenic nerves
  • Men get persistent hiccups more often than women do.
  • When women do get the hiccups, it tends to be during the first two weeks of their menstrual cycle. Women who are pregnant (and not ovulating) get the hiccups far less often.
  • Premature infants spend 2.5% of their time in the womb hiccuping -- which is way more often than babies do once they're born and breathing air out here with the rest of us.



This woman is eight months pregnant, and her fetus has the hiccups.
(Video from YouTube)

  • All of us tend to get hiccups more often when we're tired. That means hiccups happen more often in the evening, and as we get older.
  • Nobody is sure why we get the hiccups. But one anatomist, Neil Shubin (University of Chicago), noticed that hiccups are very similar to what happens when fish breathe through their gills. So he thinks that hiccups are an evolutionary left-over from when human bodies used to be fish bodies.

Sources
WebMD, A to Z Guides, Hiccups
Healthscout, Health Encyclopedia, Hiccups
Howstuffworks, How Hiccups Work
Neil Shubin, "So who are you calling fish-face?"
The Guardian Observer, February 10, 2008