Sunday, August 30, 2009

Apple #406: Gristle

You know those little pieces of hard, white stuff in ground beef? It's called gristle.

Sure, you've heard that before, but what the heck is gristle?

It's cartilage.

Smooth, solid, and elastic, it's the stuff that makes your ears hold their shape but remain flexible, and it's what most of your nose is made of.

Cartilage in the nose.
(Diagram from the Free Dictionary)

Your larynx (a.k.a. voice box) is made of cartilage. Your xiphoid process (a.k.a. sternum) is made of cartilage. Cartilage also covers the ends of any bones where they meet at bendable joints.

Cartilage is also what an embryo's skeleton is made of and as the embryo matures, the cartilage becomes bone.

You've probably encountered cartilage / gristle when you've cleaned chicken parts. It's the knobby white stuff that isn't as hard as bone and it's sure not meat.

Cartilage, or gristle, in a chicken thigh.
(Photo from Home Ec 101)

Apparently, when the hard-working butchers are grinding up the cow to make ground beef, they aren't as careful to remove all the cartilage. So it gets ground up along with everything else and then much later, you discover it as a little knobbly white thing in your hamburger.

By the way, if you search for the word "gristle," or images of gristle, you'll find a lot of references to and pictures of Madonna. This is because her ex-husband, Guy Ritchie, said that her four-hour-per-day workout regimen pared her down to such an extent that trying to be romantic with her was like "cuddling up to a piece of gristle."

Obviously Guy Ritchie was angry about a lot of things, but there are a lot of photos of Madonna out there in which her arms are pretty scary-looking.

(Photo from the Telegraph, sourced from Home Talk Entertainment where you can see some even less flattering photos)

Webster's 1828 dictionary, gristle
Online Etymology Dictionary, gristle
Medical Free Dictionary by Farlex, cartilage (redirected from gristle)
Daily Mail, "Making love to Madonna 'was like cuddling up to a piece of gristle,'" October 20, 2008

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Apple #405: Disposable Lighters

Daily Apple reader Dan wants to know:

What about doing a daily apple entry about the disposable lighter? i know zippos and other butane lighters have been around for awhile, but what about the plastic disposable Bic? So ubiquitous these days.

Ah, yes. Having been a smoker for several years, I suspect this entry will be of greatest interest to those of you out there who are smokers. You probably have a favorite brand of lighter. You may even prefer a particular lighting mechanism that fits best with your thumb, or one whose flame won't gutter out in the wind. Perhaps you prefer a lighter that is adjustable, maybe one with the solid as opposed to translucent body, perhaps you even prefer one particular color of lighter over any others. It's all part of the ritual, I know.

Now you can find out all about the background of your second-favorite companion, your necessary tool that gives you flame, your disposable lighter.

(Photo from James Wood's Basecamp)

To be clear, "disposable lighters" refers to those low-cost plastic lighters that can be refilled (semi-disposable) as well as those that can't, and "luxury" lighters that are fancier but are still plastic. Basically anything but a Zippo is pretty much considered disposable.

These are refillable but still disposable.
(Photo from


  • The mechanism by which a lighter works, striking flint against iron, is based on that of the flintlock pistol.
  • Early non-disposable lighters were fueled by gasoline or methanol.
  • Cricket's website says they made the first disposable lighter in 1961. The first Cricket lighters were sold in Annecy, France.

A Cricket lighter today.
(Photo from Exchange3D, which also has 3d images of the interior of the lighter)

  • The Cricket lighter was very popular. It used the flint wheel and butane was the fuel of choice. Due to the relative stability of butane, other disposable lighter manufacturers followed suit.
  • Swedish Match, which also sells a lot of matches in the UK, in 1965. They made their first lighters in 1965 from the extra lipstick tube containers they had lying around, and they called them the Round Stick.
  • 1973, BIC which had previously made a lot of plastic-barreled pens, launched its first disposable lighter, which sported an adjustable flame.
  • The name BIC, by the way, is a take-off on the company founder's name, Bruno Bich.
  • The lighters were tremendously popular, and the titillating commercials featuring sensuous women encouraging smokers to "Flick my BIC" didn't hurt. (You can watch one of those old commercials on RealPlayer here, but it's one of the tamer ones.)
  • Then BIC cut the price of its disposable lighters to $1, and Gillette couldn't compete. By 1978, BIC sold more of their lighters than Gillette could sell their Crickets, and by 1984, Gillette stopped making the Crickets altogether. (Later, Gillette sold Cricket to Swedish Match Corporation, which now sells Cricket lighters primarily in the UK.)

Hard-to-read diagram of the workings of a BIC lighter.
(Diagram from BusinessWeek)

More details on how lighters work are available from FindTarget Reference.


  • While their lighters were selling like hotcakes, BIC was secretly accumulating a pile of lawsuits. The New York Times found out about this and in 1987 published an article revealing that BIC had settled more than 20 cases in which their lighters had leaked, exploded, failed, ignited while lying on overheated dashboards, or otherwise malfunctioned and injured somebody.
  • The company issued denials, stonewalled, hedged, etc. Their stock price plunged 25%. After a week during which all sorts of rumors swirled about the things their BIC lighters had got up to, BIC finally caved and admitted that, yes, they had settled lawsuits, and that in fact, they had an additional 42 lawsuits pending. And yes, it was true, a woman had died in an accident involving a BIC lighter.
  • But, BIC said, most of those accidents happened because the customer used the lighters incorrectly--not BIC's fault. And the model of lighter that killed that woman had been discontinued. Not to worry, they said. And it worked. Soon BIC's stock price started to go back up again.
  • But the issue of safety didn't go away. And here is where the disposable lighter-road diverges into two paths: one path that safety advocates take, and one taken by smokers who like their lighters to have some guts.
  • BIC kept getting sued over incidents in which their lighters had severely injured children, exploded when dropped, etc. Lawyers for BIC argued that the children had clearly been left unsupervised--not BIC's fault, in other words. BIC said that out of 50 such lawsuits, they lost only 3, and two of them were later reversed.
  • But, BIC said, the cost of defending themselves against such lawsuits was prohibitive. So in 1992 they said with a sigh, all right, we'll give, and they made a lighter that had a child resistant catch. You had to slide the catch up and to the right before the lighter would strike.
  • (I hated those lighters. The latch didn't always work right, it was a pain to slide that thing up and over, and the whole thing was wimpy. Most people I knew who had lighters like that found a way to tear off the safety catches or else they chucked the lighter entirely and bought different ones. One store in Chicago next to the Brown line sold those kinds of lighters with the safety catch already removed.)
  • In 1994, the Consumer Product Safety Commission adopted a standard for disposable lighters that required child-resistant features.

Now BICs are sold with the child-resistant guard, which is a metal band that goes over the spark wheel. I think the guard is supposed to make it harder to turn the wheel and thus light the lighter. I never saw that much of a difference with these, but some people are really annoyed by the guards, and they pry them off.
(Photo from Total Merchandise UK)

  • Grudgingly, BIC and other, smaller lighter manufacturers in the US have been adding child safety features.
  • In the meantime, they've all started designing lighters specifically for "the youth market." The lighters have designs on them that would appeal to teenagers or kids. The growth in sales in these "youth" lighters is among the highest growth categories in the lighter industry. So much for that business about not encouraging kids to smoke, I guess.

Lighters targeted to the younger crowd.
(Photo from Empire Distributor)

  • In the late 1990s, cheap imported lighters imported from China started showing up in stores. These lighters are made by New York Lighter, Spec, and Iwax or Wax. Unlike lighters made in the US, imported lighters are not required to have any child-resistant features. Furthermore, these lighters had -- and still have -- even higher failure rates than the original BIC lighters.
  • And here's where the Consumer Product Safety Commission has started to get mad. Canada, Mexico, the EU, all sorts of countries have adopted mandatory safety requirements for their imported disposable lighters. The US has not. So the cheap Chinese lighters keep getting imported here, and people keep getting hurt.


  • About 1 billion lighters are sold in the US each year.
  • For every million lighters sold, one person gets injured.
  • About 3 million lighters are sold per day.
  • This means three people are injured each day from disposable lighters.
  • One person dies each year due to accidents with disposable lighters.
  • In 1993, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that 97% of the house fires that happened in the US that year were caused by disposable lighters.
  • In 2002, after more lighters were sold with child safety features, they reported a 40% reduction in the number of fires and a 50% reduction in the number of injuries and deaths. As of 2005, retail sales of lighters in the US topped $600 million. Even though cigarette sales have declined, lighter sales have increased. Riddle me that one.

Pretty much whatever you want pictured on your lighter, you can get. These are James Bond 007 BICs. Judging by the number of James Bond lighters I found pictured online, they seem to be in-demand.
(Photo from the James Bond Shop)


  • Apparently a story has been circulating for several decades that once upon a time, two welders (or railroad workers or soldiers) were killed by butane lighters that exploded. Big deal, right? But the story includes the little detail that the explosion was equal to that of 3 sticks of dynamite. This, according to Snopes, is false.
  • However, as we know from all the lawsuits, there have been lots of actual injuries and even deaths involving lighters.
  • The accidents can be caused when the plastic casing melts, the butane overheats or leaks, bits of flint get under the gas jet so that it doesn't extinguish properly, or the canister is compromised.
  • In my own personal experience, one night my friend and I were sitting outside on her back porch and she lit her cigarette and all of a sudden there was a bang so loud I thought someone had shot a gun at us. It was her lighter, one of those translucent ones, green, that had exploded. She held it in her hand, laughing nervously, and showed me how half of one barrel had blown clear off. Her hand was also burned in one spot.
  • In 1987, Cynthia Littlejohn from Philadelphia was on a camping trip. She was sitting near the campfire with her disposable lighter in her front shirt pocket. While inside the pocket, her lighter "ignited, engulfing her in flames." She was burned from the neck to the waist. BIC later paid her a settlement of $3.25 million.
  • During the Littlejohn court case, BIC admitted that they knew of more than 50 similar fires had started when people kept their BICs in their right front shirt pockets.
  • Kellie Davidson, a 12 year-old girl from Kentucky, had her left breast and half her face burned off when her BIC lighter exploded. BIC settled the case and agreed started a $425,000 fund to make payments to the girl for the rest of her life.
  • In 1985, Ethel Smith from Tower City, PA was lighting her cigarette when the lighter exploded. She caught on fire and two days later died of the burns. Her husband who tried to put out the flames suffered second- and third-degree burns.
  • Kenneth Lovli from Tampa was 23 when his lighter exploded and he suffered burns on 70 percent of his body. He lived 17 days after this.
  • In 1995 in Brussels, a disposable lighter salesman had 500 lighters in his car. They heated up in the warmth of the sun until finally they exploded and his car burst into flames.
  • One man from New York was about to board a plane for the Dominican Republic. He was carrying a bag full of disposable lighters (why, I have no idea). The lighters in the bag blew up, fortunately before they were loaded onto the plane.
  • On November 2006 Mythbusters did a segment about exploding lighters. They wound up concluding that the premise that one lighter could be lethal was a myth, but that 500 lighters exploding in a car was "plausible."

Mythbusters. If I trusted the results of their experiments before -- and I'm not sure whether I did -- I sure don't now, after reading their conclusions about whether or not exploding lighters is a myth.
(Photo from metapedia)

  • I suggest to Mythbusters that their experiments represent too low a sample to be reliable, that they read the testimony of people who were severely burned or by the relatives of those who died from lighter explosions, or that they go interview those people themselves.
  • Furthermore, Mythbusters, I invite you to type "exploding lighter" into a YouTube search and you'll see for yourselves how easy it is to make a lighter explode.
  • Finally, this report from the Lighter Association, practically begging that safety standards be required of foreign as well as domestic manufacturers, is full of incidents in which disposable lighters overheated and exploded, leaked, caught fire, shattered, or turned themselves into flame throwers.

So what's the upshot? The Apple Lady who cares about people's safety and does not want to recommend that her readers do anything that would jeopardize life or limb wants to urge people, if you must buy lighters, please don't buy the disposable ones.! Go for the Zippo! Or if you don't want to spend that extra money on keeping your nose from getting burned off and you still must have the disposable variety, then be sure to choose one that does have the extra safety features on it.

Notice how the Zippo lighter has a lid that snaps closed. This ensures that the flame will be put out for certain, thereby reducing the likelihood of the majority of the accidents described above. The fact that Zippos are made of metal and thus won't melt or develop punctures is another key feature.
(Photo from

  • I say all of this while the ex-smoker inside me is muttering, Get real. Those child-safety lighters are annoying and wimpy. Nobody really wants to use those. Not only are the lighters without the safety guards on them better at lighting your cigarette, it's also pretty cool if you can tweak your lighter to make the flame bigger.
  • So it seems that I am diverging down two paths myself. I will compromise by giving you that time-worn, wise saying, ye pays yer money, ye takes yer chances. Meaning in this case, if you're not willing to fork out more than $2 for a lighter and you think the odds of getting your face burned off are low and you're willing to take that risk, then so be it.


  • Want to know how to open that non-twist off bottle cap with a lighter? Basically, wrap your hand around the neck of the bottle and use your thumb as the fulcrum and the bottom of the lighter as the lever. eHow has instructions.
  • The safety-conscious Apple Lady wants you to know that using a lighter to open a bottle could break the lighter or cause it to leak which could result in an explosion later.

(Photo from Talkkok Realm, which also has instructions.)

  • Some guy did a study to find out if all those people at a concert burning their BICs while the band plays Stairway to Heaven are contributing to greenhouse gases. His findings: nah. Not significant. But I'm wondering if that practice of slow-song lighter-burning is dying out anyway. Is it the new thing be to light up your cell phone and hold that aloft?

Cell phones at a Switchfoot concert
(Photo from University of Wisconsin-Green Bay)

Swedish Match, History of lighters and Cricket - in a class of its own
Fire Starters - History - Brief Article,
Whole Earth, Winter 1999
BIC World Product History
Funding Universe, BIC Corporation company history
Funding Universe, Ronson PLC company history
Tamar Lewin, "Lawsuits, and Worry, Mount Over BIC Lighter," April 10, 1987
Lee A. Daniels, "BIC Says Its Lighters Are Safe,"
The New York Times, April 11, 1987
Google, Disposable lighters history timeline
US Consumer Product Safety Commission, Meeting on ANPR on cigarette lighter safety, December 6, 2006
Commission of the European Communities, Draft of decision requiring Member States to take measures that only disposable lighters which are child-resistant are placed on the market, 2005
Risk vs. reward in the lighter category [excerpt],
Convenience Store Decisions, February 1, 2006
Snopes, The Lighter Side of Death, July 14, 2006
Darrin Burgess, Rock Concert Question: Are Lighter Salutes Bad for the Environment? Live Science, July 15, 2006

Monday, August 17, 2009

Apple #404: Hurricanes

It's late summer, which means it's hurricane season.

Or if you're in the Pacific, call 'em typhoons. Or if you're in the Indian Ocean or in Australia, call them severe cyclones. Tomayto, tomahto, hurricane, typhoon, they're all the same thing.

As I type this, Hurricane Bill was just upgraded to a Category 3 hurricane.

I originally posted this late Tuesday night, the 18th. I see now that this image is being automatically updated with real-time data by the National Weather Center. That's pretty cool.
(Map from the National Hurricane Center)

There's an even cooler flash-based site that shows you Hurricane Bill's progress and maps out a path of what it's predicted to do next at a site called Stormpulse. It's especially cool if you turn on the clouds.

Now, about those hurricanes.

  • The sun over the ocean heats up the water. As the water heats up, it evaporates. That creates clouds over the surface of the ocean. No big deal -- yet.
  • Once the ocean surface hits 80° F or warmer, this is when things can get dicey.
  • As you may remember from the Daily Apple entry Why is March Windy, when the temperature goes up, the air pressure drops (air molecules move around faster when it's warm, creating lots more space between the molecules, which means less pressure).
  • As areas of low pressure get bigger, they sort of suck things toward them. That's an unscientific way of putting it, but that's how it best sticks in my mind.

Basic elements to make a hurricane. But the recipe needs a few more ingredients.
(Diagram from Valdosta State University)

  • So our pocket of hot air & low pressure over the ocean is going to move. Winds blow, the earth turns, stuff like this moves. As it moves, it's going to suck things into it, because it's a well of low pressure.
  • What gets sucked into this low-pressure pocket is more air and, since it's over the water and water likes to move, more water.
  • First, the air. If the earth were flat and did not spin, the air that got sucked into this hot, low-pressure pocket might blow straight into it in a streak. But the earth is round, and it does spin. So the air flowing into it gets bent into a spin of its own.
  • The strength of that spin depends on how close the hot, low-pressure mass is to the Equator. Because of the way the earth is tilted, the effect of the spin is greater the farther you get from the Equator. So as that low pressure mass and the wind it's sucking into it moves away from the Equator, the harder & faster that air is going to spin.
  • So now we've got the movement we're so familiar with: a huge bunch of clouds over the ocean, starting to move away from the Equator, getting bigger and developing more of a noticeable spin, until that eye forms in the center (when windspeeds reach 74 miles per hour) and bingo, we've got hurricane. Right?

  • Those images you've seen a thousand times only show you the top-down view. But there is so much more going on inside the hurricane.

  • The center of the hurricane is the oh-so-famous eye. This is where all that low pressure that's sucked everything toward it gets centered. Like some sort of drama-causing diva, it is humming along, blissfully calm while everything and everyone around it is pure chaos. Winds are calm. Sometimes the sun shines. Birds, finding themselves here, flit about.

Inside the eye of Hurricane Katrina, as seen by a NOAA hurricane-chasing aircraft.
(Photo from NOAA. More photos of Katrina's eye here.)

  • The eye wall, on the other hand, is where the storm is at its worst. The eye wall is a thick, vertical bank of clouds surrounding the eye. Here is where the clouds are the most concentrated, the thunderstorms are most severe, rainfall at its greatest, wind speeds at their highest. Everything that's been getting sucked into that low-pressure zone is converging here. You do not want to be here.
  • The winds & storms in the eye wall that are being pushed toward that low-pressure center are spiraling upward. In other words, at the heart of a hurricane is a tornado, or a cyclone. In fact, a hurricane is considered a particular type of cyclone.
  • In that la-de-da eye, warm air is floating lazily back down to the surface of the ocean. As the hurricane travels, though, it's going to suck that air right back into itself and continue to feed the cyclone. Isn't that the way with divas, though? Even their cast-offs become fodder for more drama.
  • Beyond the eye and eye wall are those strips of clouds that extend outwards. Or from above they look like clouds. But actually, they are rainbands. Rainbands are skinny strips of rainclouds and thunderstorms that are lined up, parallel to one another and all spinning in a spiraling near-concentric circles out from the eye.
  • So it's raining inside that hurricane, in one wave of rain after another. Because of all the wind blowing things around inside the hurricane and mushing everything together, you're not aware of the rain passing over as one band after another. But that's what those rainbands are doing.

Cross-section of a hurricane. There are rainbands in there, man!
(Diagram from UCAR, University of Michigan)

  • But that's still not all. Because remember how I said that both air and water get sucked into the hot, low-pressure pocket?
  • Underneath the hurricane, at the ocean's surface, even as the rain is coming down and the winds are reaching tremendous speeds, the seawater is getting sucked up into that low-pressure pocket that is now the tempestuous eye wall. The storm is literally lifting the ocean up towards it.
  • As the hurricane travels, it's carrying that huge hump of water with it. And of course that hump doesn't stay the same size. Just as the winds spin faster & harder the farther away they get from the Equator, so too does that mound of water underneath the storm get bigger and taller.
  • It is this hump of water that becomes the storm surge, once the hurricane hits land. This is also why the bigger and faster hurricanes have a bigger storm surge: because the increased strength of the wind has been able to gather that much more water towards it.
  • An additional factor in building the size of storm surge is the fact that the ocean floor gets shallower the closer the storm gets to land. That mound of water the storm is pushing along with it simply doesn't have anyplace else to go.

  • For most of us, the most dangerous part of a hurricane is the storm surge.
  • Storm surges typically increase the water level at the shoreline by 15 feet. That's about the height of one and a half stories in a building.

Here's a nice pretty graphic diagram of a storm surge
(Diagram from Rick McClain's Nautical Sailing Terms & Nomenclature)

And here's what a storm surge looks like in real life
(Photo from the McKnight Foundation)

  • Considering that water weighs 1,700 pounds per cubic yard, if we translate that height increase into volume (cubic yards), that's about 8,500 pounds of water crashing on your head.
  • Lots of storm surges have been even larger. The storm surge from Hurricane Katrina was estimated as high as 30 feet. The largest ever recorded was in Australia in 1899, when the storm surge got up to 43 feet.
  • In developing countries, storm surges are responsible for the majority of deaths associated with a hurricane. In developed countries like the US where people have far better systems in place for warning the public about approaching hurricanes, it isn't the storm surge that kills people so much as it is the inland flooding that happens afterward. Witness Hurricane Katrina.

In this video, you can see the water rushing inland at amazing speeds. The water continues to rise higher and higher, and at the end of the video, there's less water but much higher winds. This is because the storm surge precedes the actual hurricane. Those winds at the end of the video are the hurricane itself arriving.

  • The storm surge and its attendant flooding varies from one side of the hurricane to the other. North of the Equator, hurricanes spin counter-clockwise. This makes the right front quadrant of the hurricane the area where the winds are at their strongest, and where the storm is going to carry the most water along with it.
  • The amount of inland flooding that occurs depends a lot on how quickly or gradually the land rises as it moves away from the shoreline. The more gradual the slope, the easier it is for that extra water to push inland.
  • Once the hurricane moves over land, or over cold water, its primary source of energy -- warm, evaporating water -- is no longer available to keep feeding it. So the wind speeds drop, the hurricane's spin loosens up, and the single storm breaks up into a whole bunch of rainstorms.


Lots of people cite this hurricane scale (officially called the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale), but those numbers by themselves don't mean a whole lot to me. So I thought I'd pair them up with hurricanes that people may remember.

Category 1
winds 74-95 mph
damaging winds
Hurricane Cindy, 2005
storm surge: up to 6.2 ft

Category 2
winds 96-100 mph
widespread wind damage
Hurricane Isabel, 2003
storm surge: up to 10.5 ft

Category 3
winds 111-130 mph
dangerous winds, extensive damage
Hurricane Rita, 2005
storm surge: up to 14.9 ft

Category 4
winds 131-155 mph
extremely dangerous winds, devastating damage
Hurricane Hugo, 1989
storm surge: 20 ft

Category 5
winds 155 mph +
catastrophic damage (complete roof & building failures)
Hurricane Andrew, 1992
storm surge: up to 23 ft

(Satellite image of Hurricane Andrew from the Sun-Sentinel)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005
storm surge: up to 28 ft

(Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina from 10 East)

During Katrina, Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi
(Photo from the Gulf Coast Information Service)

After Katrina, Mississippi
(Photo from the Gulf Coast Information Service)

After Katrina. This is what they mean when they say about a Category 5 hurricane, "catastrophic damage, complete building failure."
(Photo from United Methodeviations)

A district court judge recently ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was negligent in maintaining a canal near New Orleans and knew that their negligence could lead to increased flooding in the case of a hurricane, yet they did nothing to address the problems they had created.

“Once the corps exercised its discretion to create a navigational channel [MRGO], it was obligated to make sure that channel did not destroy the environment surrounding it thereby creating a hazard to life and property.

“When the corps designed the MRGO, it recognized that foreshore protection was going to be needed, yet the corps did nothing to monitor the problem in a meaningful way.

“It is the court's opinion that the negligence of the Corps, in this instance by failing to maintain the MRGO properly, was not policy, but insouciance, myopia and short-sightedness.

“For over 40 years, the Corps was aware that the Reach II levee protecting Chalmette and the Lower Ninth Ward was going to be compromised by the continued deterioration of the MRGO. . . . The Corps had an opportunity to take a myriad of actions to alleviate this deterioration or rehabilitate this deterioration and failed to do so. Clearly, the expression ' talk is cheap' applies here.”

--U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood Duval, Jr.

The judge awarded damages to 5 plaintiffs and opened the door to some 100,000 more claims that could be filed against the Corps. This is potentially a huge piece of justice for the people of New Orleans. This Bloomberg article has more details and explanation.

Daily Apple, Why is March Windy? March 7, 2009
USA Today, Answers Archive: The relation between temperature and pressure, March 19, 2003
Weather Wiz Kids, Hurricanes
USA Today, Understanding the Coriolis force, 2003
Valdosta State University, What is a Hurricane?
Lisa Tacoronte, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, What is a Hurricane?
USA Today, Hurricane, tropical cyclone glossary, 2001
University of Illinois WW2010, The Eye Wall

NOAA National Weather Service, Hurricane Preparedness, Storm Surge, Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, and The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale (Experimental)
Wise Geek, What is a Storm Surge?
Enchanted Learning, Hurricane Landfall and Storm Surges
NOAA, Most Intense Hurricanes in the United States, 1851-2004

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Apple #403: Ironweed, not Joe Pye-Weed

I originally posted these pictures and identified this plant as Joe Pye-Weed. But it turns out I was mistaken. So I had to take down the post and re-do it.

Yes, the Apple Lady sometimes makes mistakes. But she fixes them as soon as she becomes aware of them!

New York Ironweed, not Joe Pye-Weed.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

This plant that I have seen growing here and there in my town is actually New York Ironweed.

It was an easy error to have made, confusing Joe Pye-Weed and Ironweed. Both plants
  • Like to grow taller than any other plants around it.
  • Bloom at the end of summer--late July or early August--through October or the first frost.
  • Like to grow in moist soils, along riverbanks, or along roadways.
  • Are fast-growing and may overtake other plants in your garden.
  • Are very popular with the butterflies.

But the major difference between this plant, New York Ironweed, and Joe Pye-Weed is the color. Joe Pye-Weeds may be dusty pink or white. New York Ironweed is a vibrant, brilliant purple. Even though I put my trusty camera on a setting that is supposed to capture foliage in all its splendid color, these photos -- and other photos I've seen online -- don't quite capture the intensity and depth of the purple in these flowers. It's really astonishing and magnificent.

New York Ironweed buds & blossoms -- super-purple
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Other differences include:
  • Sweet Joe Pye-Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) smells like vanilla.
  • Spotted Joe Pye-Weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus) has flecks of purple on the stems.
  • Coastal plain Joe Pye-Weed (Eupatoriadelphus dubius) grows along the Atlantic coast.

So we know it's not Joe Pye-Weed. But it is a species of Ironweed. But which one? There are about 30 species of them, growing anywhere in the United States from Montana, Utah, and Arizona eastward.

I used the USDA Plants database distribution maps to narrow the options down to 4. Close contenders include
  1. Giant Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea)
  2. Prairie Ironweed (Vernonia faciculata)
  3. Missouri Ironweed (Vernonia missurica).
The shape of the buds of those others wasn't quite the same, or the color was more pink than purple, or the length of the petals on the flowers was different, or, as is the case with the Missouri Ironweed, the stems were really hairy. No hairy stems here.

So I am fairly certain I have this plant identified correctly now as New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis).

Now that we've got all those errant identifications out of the way, let's talk about New York Ironweed. In addition to characteristics I've already mentioned above (tall, blooms in late summer, grows in moist areas or along roadways, big hit with the butterflies), here are some facts about our friend the New York Ironweed:

More buds on the New York Ironweed. The darker, spear-like leaves belong to the Ironweed.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • They are called ironweed because their thick, tough stems stay pretty much intact through winter.
  • They grow to be about 2-8 feet tall.
  • They bloom in late summer.
  • They like a lot of sun.
  • They grow in moist places, along streams or marshes, or also along roadways.
  • Butterflies & bees love them. Cattle do not. They'll graze around the ironweed.
  • If you plant these in your garden, you may discover that they crowd out other plants or grow way faster than everything else and take over. If so, thinning them out of pinching back the seeds in the spring keeps them in check.
  • It is probably this variety of ironweed after which William Kennedy's novel, Ironweed, was named.
  • Ironweed takes place in Albany, New York, and tells the story of an alcoholic, Francis Phelan, who returns home 22 years after having killed his child and left. The book makes lots of comparisons between Phelan and the ironweed plant: disregarded and unwelcome (weed) yet strong and persevering even in harsh conditions (iron).
  • And I will reiterate, the color of these plants is tremendous.

New York Ironweed
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

New York Ironweed
USDA Plants database, ironweed
North Creek Nurseries, Vernonia noveboracensis: New York Ironweed
Connecticut Botanical Society, New York Ironweed
Virginia Tech Weed Identification Guide, New York Ironweed: Vernonia noveboracensis, New York Ironweed
Easy Wildflowers, Vernonia Ironweed Seed & Plant
Joe Pye-Weed
Marcia Bonta, Naturalist Writer, August Natives
David Beaulieu,, Landscaping, Joe-Pye Weed
Kemper Center for Home Gardening, Eupatorium purpureum
Dave's Garden, Plant Files: Sweet Joe Pye Weed
Brenda Hyde, Old-Fashioned Living, Growing Joe-Pye Weed
USDA Plants Database, joe pye weed
University of Michigan - Dearborn, Native American Ethnobotany database, Eupatorium purpureum L.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Apple #402: Oceans

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a new love. It's a book.

It's really cool and also beautiful, it's always at hand when I need it, yet it doesn't interrupt when I want to do something else. We never fight. Best of all, it teaches me something new all the time.

The book is called Ocean: The World's Last Wilderness Revealed, and it is huge.

It is 12" x 10", 512 pages, and nearly 6 pounds, to be exact. It is so big because everything you could imagine having to do with oceans in any way is discussed and described and photographed in this book. Every page is in full-color, photographs galore. There are atlases of the oceans. There are explanations of ocean currents, of plate tectonics, and of salt farming. There is a fully illustrated guide to species, from bacteria and protozoa, to sponges and molluscs, to birds and reptiles and mammals.

Each page has one huge photograph of something spectacular -- a gigantic fish, for example -- and then surrounding the large photograph are smaller photographs of related things -- smaller fish or similar fish or fish that live in the same region -- with paragraphs of explanatory text around them. So each page is chock full of information and really cool things to look at besides.

Here are some of the facts I've learned so far:
  • Oceans are the largest habitat on earth. Yet because of the depth of the water, we know very little about them. We have better maps of the moon.

See? Look at all that ocean.
(Photo from Kennesaw University)

  • Free divers pooh-pooh the oxygen tank. They simply hold their breath. The deeper they go, the more their lungs get squeezed by the pressure of all that water above them. But at the same time, their blood vessels expand, so they're all right. Some free divers have gone as far as 600 feet deep -- that's on one gigantic breath.
  • 600 feet might not seem like much. But compare this: in 1960, two guys took their ocean diving craft called the Trieste into a really deep part of the Mariana Trench -- the deepest place on earth. They dove down 35,797 feet. In their powered craft, it took them 5 hours to get down there. No one else has dived as deep since.
  • There are mountains on the sea floor. These are called seamounts, and they have to be at least 3,300 feet tall to qualify (El Capitan in Yosemite is 3,300 feet tall). Yet they are completely submerged. There are some 100,000 of them on the ocean floor.
  • Lobsters migrate. On their spiky little arms, they walk in single file across the ocean floor.
  • There's a place on the coast of Namibia called the Skeleton Coast where the desert goes right into the sea. I mean, the ocean waters are lapping against the desert sands. This seems to defy all logic. You would think that all that ocean water would rain down on the coastline and water that desert, but no. It condenses into a near-permanent fog, the wind usually blows off the water into the ocean, and the desert stays desert.

The Skeleton Coast
(Photo by Pepix2007 on Flickr)

  • It is called the Skeleton Coast because all that fog and the high winds and the overall insanity of the place make it very hard for ships to navigate, and countless ships have run aground there. Survivors who make it to land encounter a long walk through desert and then they have to cross a mountain range before they find any people.
  • Birds that steal food from the mouths of other birds are called kleptoparasitic birds.
  • There's something called a Prickly Redfish that looks like a huge lumpy carpet. It's actually a kind of sea cucumber, and it crawls across the seafloor on its orange tube feet. It's considered a delicacy in East Asian cuisine.

(Photo from the Australian Government Reef Monitoring program)

  • The fur of the sea otter is the densest of any mammal on the planet. Because its fur is so dense, the sea otter's skin never gets wet, even though it spends its entire life in the water.
  • Sometimes old coral reefs get so sculpted by the ebb and flow of tidal waters that they get carved away on the sides and underneath until they stand up out of the water like tables, or mushrooms. These are called champignons, which is French for mushrooms.

Champignon in a lagoon, I think in the Indian Ocean
(Photo by Donald & Esther)

The carving action of the water is more dramatic on this champignon.
(Photo by Ben Stobart, Aldabra Marine Programme)

  • Most marine mammals (sea lions, seals, penguins, walruses, etc.) are completely carnivorous. No vegetarians there.
  • There's a sinkhole off the coast of Belize called the Great Blue Hole. It's a 480-foot hole in the limestone reef and because of its depth, the water has a brilliant blue color. People do go diving there, but it's treacherous because of the stalactites hanging down from the walls and the fact that sharks like to hang out in it.

The Great Blue Hole. Not kidding about the blue.
(Photo from Biocassanova's blog)

  • The Cookiecutter shark has lips that hold its victim in place and then its teeth bites cookie-shaped chunks from its prey.
  • Juvenile zebra sharks have stripes. Adult zebra sharks have spots.
  • Polar ice can be different colors. If it's white, it has a lot of air bubbles trapped in it. Older ice that's had most of the air bubbles compressed out of it is blue. Sometimes an iceberg can flip over, in which case the algae growing on the bottom becomes visible, and the ice appears to be green.
  • You've probably heard of the fjords in Norway. But did you also know that there are fjords in Chile? That's what the Andes mountains descend into on the southwest coast of Chile. There are 21,500 square miles of fjords down there.

These people have gotten off the M/V Mare Australis cruiseliner and are taking the optional trek on the ice fjords on the Chilean coast. Note the blue ice!
(Photo from Explore UK, which has more information about this cruise)

  • The vampire squid is bioluminescent (glows) and it has things called photophores on the tips of its arms. When a predator tries to get it, the vampire squid thrashes its arms and releases sparkles of light all over the place into the water. The flashing lights distract the predator and by the time the sparkles have died out, the squid has escaped.
  • A polar bear's paw may be over 12 inches wide.

I'm telling you, this book is magnificent. Oh, I forgot to mention: I got it for $6.50 from my local Border's.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Apple #401: Somebody's Watching You

The other day I was watching a TV show, and in it a woman was sitting in her apartment eating Chinese food in front of her window with the shades open (the hussy). A man in the next apartment building stood at his window, apparently watching her. Because she was sitting sideways to the window, she did not know this while we, the viewers, did. But then she raised her head suddenly and turned, looked out the window and saw the guy looking at her. And I said to no one in particular, "Yeah, what is that, when you feel like you're being watched?"

I know I've had that feeling more than once, though I can't remember any specific instances. It's almost a physical sensation, a sort of prickling at the base of the neck. How odd, I thought, that we can somehow sense that we are being stared at, even when our backs may be to the person staring at us. So I wanted to know if scientists had any kind of explanation for this.

I'm sure you'll have this song in your head the whole time you're reading this, so I might as well post the video so you can have a listen, if you want. (Yes, that's Michael Jackson on the chorus. This is kind of eerie now.)

Well. Apparently I am either schizophrenic, or I am a crackpot who believes my house is haunted or that I have seen UFOs. Because according to what I found, researchers have been only able to identify -- definitively and with the kind of results that researchers require -- this sensation of being watched in schizophrenics. And also in one woman with epilepsy. In her case, they physically stimulated with an electrical impulse the tempoparietal region of her brain, and she said she definitely sensed someone else in the room with her. She said this person was standing just behind her and mimicking her movements exactly. But of course no one was there. They said she was interpreting her own movements as those of some shadow person. In general, researchers talk about this sensation of someone watching you as "illusory," signs of delusion or paranoia, and otherwise an indication that you're in some way mentally ill.

On the other side of the spectrum, the greatest number of anecdotes people tell about feeling they're being watched seem to come from folks who claim to have experienced the paranormal. They get the feeling that eyes are upon them, they turn around, and they see something in the woods that they insist is Bigfoot. Or a few seconds later, they see some shiny metallic object hover and then streak across the sky. Or in the next second, a mysterious mist appears in the upstairs bathroom and they are convinced it is the ghost of Uncle John who died very tragically in that location.

If we feel we're being watched and we can't see by whom, then it must be aliens!
(Photo from forteanpix)

Now, I know that I am not schizophrenic, nor am I an epileptic with someone electrically stimulating my brain, and I have not seen Bigfoot, UFOs, or the ghost of Uncle John in my bathroom. But I have experienced this sensation. And I am willing to bet a whole lot of money that you, dear non-schizophrenic-non-epileptic-with-stimulated-tempoparietal-lobe-non-Bigfoot-seeing reader, have too.

Even Bugs Bunny has felt it. Twice in the same episode. Make that three times.

So I continued my search. Along the way, I found all sorts of evidence that we -- people and animals, actually -- are definitely influenced in various ways if someone is watching us.

  • When a human being is looking at a jackdaw's food dish, the jackdaw will take much longer and be much more cautious about retrieving food from the dish than when a human is not looking at their food.
  • Starlings will avoid their food dish completely if a human being is looking at their food.
  • Researchers set out a donation collection box in a cafeteria. Sometimes they put a picture of a pair of eyes above the box, and sometimes they put a picture of some flowers above. People donated significantly more money when the picture of the eyes was above the box.
  • A certain fish called a wrasse grooms its fellow fish very gently when other fellow fish are watching. But when no other fish are watching, the wrasse doing the cleaning gets much more aggressive and even bites off the skin of the fish it's cleaning.
  • Lots of animals including squirrels and various species of birds will hide their food, even dig holes and bury it, if they think a predator such as an owl or a human being is watching. One of the keys here is that the squirrels will still try to dodge and hide food from the owl, even if there is no owl present but they think an owl is there.
  • One long-accepted theory in psychology is called "evaluation apprehension." This means that if you are good at a task and you know that someone is watching you with the purpose of evaluating your performance, you will do even better at the task. On the flip side, if you're not very confident about your ability and you know someone is observing you, you'll perform the task more poorly.
  • If you're being watched but not necessarily evaluated, that is, if you have any kind of audience, your level of performance will be affected. This is called social facilitation or the audience effect. It's difficult to predict exactly how your performance will be affected. You may get stage fright, for example, and freeze up. Or you may start stammering, or like Ron Weasely, you might miss all the goals that come your way except for one spectacular goof that happens to save the goal in spite of yourself. Conversely, you might love the audience and become more expansive and even better at whatever it is you're doing. Regardless, having an audience, knowing we are being watched, affects our behavior.
It seemed strange to me that, if researchers can quantify and are willing to accept all of that, why aren't they willing to accept that we can sense without directly seeing the observer when someone is watching us? So I kept searching.

Art at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. If this were my wallpaper, I wouldn't be able to stand being in the same room with it for more than a few minutes.
(Photo by gimmesanity)

Then I found an article, published in a scientific journal, that said all sorts of things that I nodded along with. This sensation has been described in fiction for decades, from Tolstoy to Aldous Huxley, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Women describe the feeling they are being stared at particularly in public places, including bars. Wildlife photographers and hunters report having felt the sensation and shortly thereafter discovered that some wild animal was, in fact, staring at them. Detectives are trained not to stare at their subjects for too long lest their subject turn and discover they are being watched. In other words, people in all sorts of circumstances describe this sensation.

This article said that scientists have primarily left investigation of sensation to the realm of the paranormal. But, he said, some research has been done into this sensation, and then he recounted the research history. (More on that in a moment.)

So that was article 1. In article 2, he offered explanations for what could possibly cause this sensation. He began talking about things like alternate theories of the process of vision, and then he said that there are morphic perceptual fields that our brains emit, in the same way that magnets emit a magnetic field, and he said that when we sense someone looking at us, perhaps it is that the perceptual fields are colliding or something like that. By the time I got to this part, I had long since parted company with him.

This guy's name is Rupert Sheldrake, and it turns out he "researches" and argues in favor of all sorts paranormal abilities including telepathy. He has conducted his own experiments into this business of sensing someone watching you, and he got results that were slightly better than chance. That is, when a subject said they felt someone watching them, only slightly more than 50% of the time, they were right.

Just over 50% is not considered statistically significant enough to prove that something works because it's about the same as chance. In fact, most other studies on this topic that researchers have conducted got roughly the same results. A little bit more than half the time, something like 52% of the time or so, the people who said they felt someone watching them were correct. And maybe 48% of the time, they were wrong. Even though they said they felt eyes upon them, no one was looking at them at all.

Sheldrake has published a book about all of this, The Sense of Being Stared At: And Other Unexplained Powers of the Human Mind, which also covers other topics such as cats who run to the phone when their owners are calling, or someone who thinks hard about receiving an e-mail from someone and then a message actually arrives from that person.

But Sheldrake found ways to reinterpret his data so that it would suggest that the results were better than chance. Or when he got results better than chance, when other researchers tried to run the same study, they did not get results similar to his. Or there were flaws in the way he set up the study to begin with. So most serious researchers have dismissed Rupert Sheldrake's theories about all of this.

The pigeons don't seem to be at all aware that they're being watched.
(Photo from Morning Berryz)

So where does this leave us? According to the "serious" scientists, those of us who say we've experienced this sensation remain in the realm of crackpots and schizophrenics (apologies to people with schizophrenia). But I maintain that these scientists are being far too dismissive. Just because we're not always right about whether we're being watched doesn't mean we don't get that sensation. Just because our radar is faulty doesn't mean we don't have it. I'm going to stick with my assertion that most of us have experienced the feeling of being watched at one time or another, and that it is a genuine sensation that does come from some source.

But, we want to know, what causes that feeling? Here are some theories that I've seen loosely tossed into the mix without ever really having been pursued. But they are possibilities.
  • This sense is something leftover from when we were predators & prey. This theory doesn't really explain how it works that we feel we're being watched, or why we get that feeling in a specific instance. But it's a thought. And it does allow for the fact that people and animals both behave differently when they're being watched.
  • We actually do see the observer in our peripheral vision. In my original example of the woman eating Chinese food in her apartment, she was sitting sideways in front of the window, so she could have seen the guy courtesy of her peripheral vision. But sometimes we get this feeling when someone is directly behind us, well out of the range of our peripheral vision.
  • We are responding to other sensory cues. Perhaps we hear someone approaching, the faint rustle of fabric, the footfall of a shoe on the floor. Or perhaps we smell the other person's scent. But how does this explain how a woman who is in a bar that is extremely noisy and crowded with all sorts of people and smells gets the feeling that some guy is looking at her, and she turns, and some guy is, in fact looking at her?

These kangaroos turned around and looked at the people who were looking at them. But they probably heard the clicking of the shutter when the people took a few other pictures prior to this one.
(Photo by Feeling Alive on the Kachoong travel blog)

I'm not satisfied that these are complete explanations. But since I read about all of this, I have paid attention to what happens when I look up from my task to discover a person nearby. In every case (and this has only been about 10 instances since I really started paying attention), I was responding to some sort of noise. The person was walking toward me and the floor creaked, or they had dropped a pencil, or they were sliding a cup across a table. Sometimes the person was looking at me, sometimes not. But always I was responding to some sort of sound, whether I was immediately conscious of that or not.

That's the best I can offer you on this topic. If you've experienced the feeling of being watched and you'd care to share your experience, please let us all know with a comment to this entry.

Oh, and that woman eating Chinese food in front of her window when she saw the guy looking at her? Turns out, she was wrong. He was looking at someone else, a floor above.

People more honest when they think they're being watched, scientists find, Wales Online, June 28, 2006
Eyes reveal our paleo-brain in action [summary],
Science, July 7, 2006, p. 25
People, Animals Behave Better When Watched, Iran Daily, July 29, 2007, p. 4
Jackdaws know when they are being watched, The Naked Scientist, April 10, 2009
Scientific Explanations for Paranormal Phenomena, Socyberty, March 29, 2009
Is it really me? A question of bodily integration and integrity, Ockahm's Razor, January 20, 2008
Rebecca Morelle, Meet the brains of the animal world, BBC News, May 7, 2009
Flying, Predators
Roger Highfield, Starlings know if you are watching them, April 30, 2008
Adrian Furnham, The psychology of behavior at work (Google Books)
Simple Experimental Designs: Being Watched, chapter 6 of Understanding Research Methods and Statistics in Psychology, November 21, 2007
Rupert Sheldrake, The Sense of Being Stared At, Part I: Is it Real or Illusory? Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol 12 no 6, 2005, pp 10-31
Rupert Sheldrake, The Sense of Being Stared At, Part 2: Its Implications for Theories of VisionJournal of Consciousness Studies, vol 12 no 6, 2005, pp 32-49
Wikipedia, Rupert Sheldrake and Psychic staring effect
The Feeling of Being Stared At, The New York Times, October 19, 1913