Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Apple #191: A Bumper of Bumpers

I've been reading a hefty amount of Victorian era novels lately: A Tale of Two Cities -- which is unbelievably violent, and I say unbelievably because I don't remember such bloody horrors from when I read it in high school -- Vanity Fair, and a somewhat obscure novel by Anthony Trollope.

In reading these novels, I encountered people drinking bumpers of punch, or pouring out another bumper of some kind of alcoholic drink. This was made to sound like a lot of hooch, and that word "bumper" made me think of the felt-covered bumpers that are on billiard tables. I wondered, are people drinking that much liquor, and out of things that look like pool table bumpers?

  • The word "bumper" is meant to indicate a hefty measure, but not in the container I was imagining.
  • Most of us know the word "bumper" in its first meaning, which is some kind of device that protects an object against shock or damage from oncoming things. But there are two other definitions.
  • The first alternate definition for "bumper" is a glass filled to the brim. This is the one we're after.
  • This definition may come from the observation that when one fills a glass with wine, or nearly any liquid, the liquid tends to cling lower to the sides of the glass than in the middle (a phenomenon called surface tension). This means that the liquid in the middle of the glass rises up, or "bumps" up.

Surface tension makes the water bulge above the rim of the glass, and is also strong enough to support this paper clip without making the water spill over
(Photo from the DHD Multimedia Gallery)

  • There is yet a third definition for bumper, and maybe this is also related to the wine-drinking definition. "Bumper" can also be an adjective meaning extraordinarily abundant, as in the phrase "bumper crop."
  • Finally, there is a much more recent slang meaning for bumper: crack cocaine.
    • I'm not sure where this meaning comes from exactly, but when I was looking for more information about this, I saw that in lots of drug busts, the cops found cocaine hidden in the bumpers of cars.
    • I also saw that the word "bumper" is can describe a container used to dispense small amounts of crack.
  • Lots of other things have been referred to as bumpers. Most of these things are either protecting one thing against damage from another or are somehow especially abundant. Here are some additional types of bumpers:
    • Side wall of a pool or billiard table
    • Piece of music or other interlude used to separate the content of one radio or television program from another segment, or from a commercial
    • Pad designed to fit around the inside of a baby bed to keep the baby from hitting itself against the bars, or from falling out
    • Bouncer, or door-man
    • Person who molds bricks by hand, or a machine that rams sand into a mold
    • Covered house at a theater (this is old slang)
    • A woman's well-endowed bottom (current, total slang)


Apple #200 is approaching...
Do you know what your favorites are?
More coming soon.

OneLook, bumper
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, accessed through, Bumper
Illinois Institute of Technology, Smile Program, Surface Tension of Water
Office of National Drug Control Policy, Street Terms: Drugs and the Drug Trade
Urban Dictionary, bumper

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Apple #190: Duty-Free Shopping

A friend of mine recently went to Canada and during this trip, he bought some whiskey in a duty-free store. It was very cheap, compared to what it usually costs. In discussing this little venture, my friend and I realized we didn't really understand how duty-free stores work.

We knew it had something to do with not having to pay taxes on the goods in the store, but beyond that, we had many questions. For example, could you go to your nearest local international airport, find the duty-free store, buy a bunch of stuff, and go back home?

Clearly, this was a question for the Apple Lady.

  • Normally, if you buy a product from another country, you pay an extra fee for it. You pay this fee partly because you don't live in that country and pay its taxes and do all the things its citizens do to support its economy. You may also be buying the product from that foreign country because the product is cheaper or somehow better than what you can get in your own country. Your own country doesn't want all its citizens to buy everything from another country and thus send all that money elsewhere, so your own country also wants you to have to pay extra to get that exotic item. The upshot is, you have to pay extra for the privilege of buying an imported item. That extra amount is known as the "duty" or the "tariff."
  • "Duty-free" is supposed to refer to goods that do not have that extra amount tacked on to them. So people assume that "duty-free" stuff is cheaper.

(Photo from Sterling Ticket)

  • But of course there's a little more involved than that.
  • The only people who are really eligible to buy goods without paying that tariff are the stores located in airports or boat ports or railway stations, places that are at the entry and exit points at international borders. These stores are given special exemptions from having to pay the duty on those international goods.
  • The idea is that these stores will then pass along those savings to me and you. Or at least they'll give us a portion of those savings. But there's nothing that requires the stores to pass along any particular percentage, or even to give any discount at all. So technically, a store that calls itself "duty-free" may not be offering its goods for much less than another type of store.
  • Most of the time, you can get some good bargains in duty-free stores. The best savings are in high-luxury, or high-danger items that typically have lots of taxes associated with them: things like jewelry and perfume, or cigarettes and alcohol.

The jewelry counter at Niagara Falls' duty-free store

  • Items that are probably not going to be less expensive are hand-made, crafted items made by the local folks. Say you're traveling in Namibia and you're about to go home and you stop in the Namibian duty-free shop. That wood-carved elephant might look like a nice last-minute souvenir to purchase, but you probably would have gotten it a whole lot cheaper in the Namibian market where you were shopping the day before.
  • Mid-range stuff that can sometimes be pretty pricey in general is a toss-up area. Crystal, china, watches, electronics, and cameras may look like they're cheap in a duty-free shop, but you might actually be able to purchase them at a lower price in a discount store back home. Not necessarily, but that is sometimes the case. So you might want to do some homework on those items before you go traveling.
Now that you're a savvy duty-free shopper, you should also know that it matters in which country's duty-free store you're going to exercise your savvy purchasing power.

Duty-Free store on the Blue Water Bridge between Michigan and Canada

  • If you are coming home from traveling and you stop at the duty-free store in your own country, you can buy whatever you want and not have to pay the duty on it. The duty applies only to the importer, and since the store already took care of the duty for you, you pay nothing.
    • However, it's not so easy to pop into your local airport's duty-free store, do some shopping, and zip back home. In airports, duty-free stores are located beyond the gates where you have to show your boarding pass to enter the area. (The stores pay a huge rent to be located in those choice shopping areas, so you better believe you're going to be paying some of their rent.)
    • Also, once inside the duty-free store, the clerks are supposed to ask you to show your overseas ticket. Whether they actually do or not, I don't know, since I haven't been in a duty-free airport store. But I gather that this is the custom.
    • Stores on the border at highways are set up so there's only one means of entry and one means of exit, on the other side of the border. So you can't run in from the United States and run back out into the United States.

Duty-Free in Strasbourg

  • If you stop at the duty-free store in the country you're visiting and you buy stuff there, once you bring that stuff into your home country, you become the importer, and now you have to pay the duty. Sometimes.
  • Here are the rules governing what you're allowed to bring back to the United States from elsewhere without paying the duty:
    • You have to have been out of the country for longer than 48 hours.
    • You must be able to carry the items with you. If you're going to ship them home, you're going to have to pay to import them.
    • Items have to be for your personal or in-home use.
    • The total value of your purchases has to be less than $400. If you buy goods with a total value over $400, then you have to pay.
    • You can't have used any part of your $400 allowance in the past 30 days.
    • Within your $400 allowance, there are some other exceptions:
      • If you're buying tobacco, you can buy up to 200 cigarettes and up to 100 cigars. Over that amount, and you have to pay.
      • You can bring up to one liter of alcohol into the country, and only if you are 21 or older.
      • None of that alcohol can be absinthe. Importing absinthe into the US is prohibited.
  • Have you got all that?
  • It's important to note that these particular rules about amounts and so on will be different in other home countries.

Australia's rules about how much they can bring home are a little different.
(from the Melbourne Airport)

  • The upshot is, they've made the rules so that duty-free shops might give you a bargain, but only if you're really and truly traveling internationally, and only if you're buying a small amount of stuff.
  • Oh, and there's no such thing as duty-free shopping anywhere in the European Union anymore. So don't expect to go gadding about from Spain to France to Portugal, scooping up bargains as you go.
Sources, "How Customs Works," and "How the U.S. Customs Service Works"
For more specifics on personal exemptions and restricted items, see Howstuffworks, "What Does Duty-Free Mean?"
Jack Adler, "Duty Free Shopping," TravelASSIST Magazine
Betsy Wade, "What's So Free About Duty-Free?"
The New York Times, August 16, 1998
Ask Yahoo, "What's the deal with duty-free shopping?"

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Apple #189: Salamanders

When I was in Florida, my friends and I found ourselves discussing a burning question: can salamanders really survive amid fire? We had heard people describe salamanders as walking around in fire. I once upon a time got hooked on a computer game called Dungeon Keeper, and some of the creatures in it included salamanders, and they were the only creatures who could walk through fiery lava. So do actual salamanders live on the sides of volcanoes or something? Where does this salamanders-enjoy-fire idea come from, and is it accurate?

  • In real life, salamanders like to live in watery or moist environments.

This is a Tiger Salamander from Illinois
(Photo from

  • Salamanders are also known as newts.
  • They don't have scales or hair or feathers, just a smooth skin that is often moist or even slimy to the touch, like frogs.
  • They are very closely related to frogs, in fact (they are also related to the Mexican axolotl).
  • Salamanders begin life in the water, much like frog tadpoles. Once they transform from larvae into their adult bodies, most will leave the water and live on the land.
  • Wherever they live, all salamanders need to be near water or somehow be able to keep their skin moist. If their skin dries out, they will dehydrate and die.
  • Another caution: it's really not good for salamanders if you touch them. They have their whole super-slick skin thing working for them, and the oils and dirt and stuff on your skin will mess that up. So don't pick them up or touch them.
  • Salamanders are nocturnal. They hunt for their food at night, eating insects, earthworms, millipedes, aphids, and moths.
  • Most salamanders live in the Northern Hemisphere, and primarily in North America. Some live in Central or South America. They're also spread across Europe (they seem to be really popular in the Netherlands), all the way across the expanse of Russia over to Japan.
They don't live in especially hot climates. They need to stay moist and be near water to survive. So where does this salamanders-live-in-fire business come from?

This picture of a salamander in fire was drawn in 1617.
(Image from Strange Science)

  • The word "salamander" comes from a Greek word that means "fire-lizard."
  • According to Greek mythology, salamanders were believed to be able to quench fire. Such notables as Aristotle and Pliny said they had observed this very characteristic.
  • Here are some possible explanations for why Aristotle and others through the centuries believed this about salamanders:
    • The necessary moistness of the salamander's skin may make the animal more resistant to fire to begin with. They also secrete an extra, milky slime when they encounter fire, so this does give them a bit more imperviousness.
    • Some species of salamanders like to live in rotting logs. When people picked up the rotting logs and threw them on the fire, the salamanders scurried out to safety. Thus people thought the salamander could survive being thrown into a fire.
    • Another thought is that since most salamanders like to live in the water, they are more likely to survive a wildfire than other types of animals. Here comes a fire, jump in the water, wait for the fire to go out, come back out of the water, and lo, it looks like the salamander lived through a fire.
    • In fact, many salamanders thrive in post-wildfire environments, where loose debris that is also moistened by a hard rain covers the forest floor, and insects get to stirring over the remnants.
  • Of course the myth-makers weren't content to let the salamander stop at being able to combat fire. Over time, the salamander became larger, and it lived in fires, and it liked fires so much that it became an animalistic symbol of fire. Salamanders became something like dragons, except without the malevolence.

This salamander from a game of the same name looks more like a snake or a dragon, but it's a salamander and apparently there was lots of fire involved.
(Image from Insomnia)

Other notable appearances of salamanders:
  • In Marco Polo's records of his visit to China, he reported that his Chinese hosts gave him something called salamander cloth. It could not be burnt even if it was thrown into a fire. He was told it was made from the hair of salamanders, but in truth, it was asbestos.
  • In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the firemen's truck is called the salamander.

Guy Montag at work on the salamander, in the movie version of Fahrenheit 451.
(Photo from Squidoo)

    James L. Byford, "Salamanders Handbook," School of Agriculture and Home Economics, University of Tennessee
    Melissa Kaplan's Herp Care Collection, Salamanders and Newts, August 17, 2002
    Living, Amphibia: Caudata
    Environmental Literacy Council, Salamanders
    Global Oneness Commitment, Salamander - Mythology, Amphibians and humans
    Sylvia Volk's Asia Page, University of Calgary, Ancient Uses of Asbestos
    Bookwolf, Fahrenheit 451, Questions for study with answers

    Wednesday, August 9, 2006

    Apple #188: Kayaks

    Another thing I did on my vacation (I know, it's been a while, but things have been crazy around here) was tool around in a kayak. It wasn't one of those white-water things, just some placid paddling action. I had been in a kayak once before, also on vacation, when I went to Vieques once. That was a great experience -- both the trip to Vieques as a whole, and also the part where I was in a kayak. So I was looking forward to the chance to get in a kayak again, and I was not disappointed. Even though it started raining halfway out. Even though my watch fell in the drink. I saw lots of shore birds, may or may not have seen an alligator, and just generally enjoyed zipping around in the kayak.

    • The kayak is an Inuit (Eskimo) version of the canoe. Canoes were first made some 8,000 years ago by digging out the innards of a tree and then covering the hull with some protective layer of animal skins, bark, or fabric.
    • Canoes are made depending on how and where they're going to be used. Deep-hulled, enormous dug-outs that seat 8 to 10 people were used on the Pacific Coast for navigating the ocean. Smaller canoes lined with bark were used on inland lakes and rivers. And the kayak, which typically has a deck that closes around a single person, was designed for zipping through the cold, icy waters, and giving extra protection to its paddler.

    This photo of an Inuit kayaker with his harpoon was taken around 1913 or 1914.
    (Photo by Robert Flaherty, from the Royal Museum of Ontario)

    • I found the kayak to be much more manageable and responsive than a canoe, and that's probably because kayaks were originally made for hunting, when swiftness is key. The word kayak actually means "hunter's boat."
    • They were also made to make the transition from water to land and back again more easily. Kayakers might hunt for seals, narwhales, or fish, as well as birds, caribou, or other land-dwellers.
    • Back in the day, kayaks were made from wood frames with either sealskin or caribou hide stretched over the frame. Materials used today include wood and fiberglass for the frames with kevlar coatings. But the shape and structure are still much the same as they were before the Europeans got to the Americas.

    This current Alaskan kayak doesn't look all that much different from the 1913 model.
    (Photo from Homer Ocean Charters)

    • Kayaks are also different from canoes in the way they're paddled. Typically a canoer gets a single oar with one paddle at the end of the oar. And usually, but not always, a canoe holds two or more people, each with his or her own paddle. A kayak's oar has paddles at both ends. This makes it easier for one person to navigate the craft.
    • Here are some tips for more efficient and easier paddling:
      • Sit up straight and don't allow your shoulders to slump
      • Bend your elbow as little as possible all the way through each stroke

    Note the position of his arms relative to his face and the side of the boat
    (Photo from Kayak Lake Mead)

      • Think of a stroke as spearing a fish. Start with your paddling arm in front of your face, then plunge the paddle nose-first into the water. Get the whole paddle blade in the water, and make sure it enters the water close to the side of the boat.
      • Then pull the paddle back at an angle of 45 degrees to the boat so that your supporting arm moves in front of your face. Lift the paddle out of the water when it's near your hips.
      • The stroke will feel short at first, but this keeps you from bending your arms and from putting extra strain on your shoulders. Instead, your lateral and back muscles will do more of the work, as they should, since they're bigger muscles anyway.
      • For pictures of what the stroke should look like, see these paddling tips.
    • That's just the forward stroke. There are many others, for steering or slowing the boat as needed. When you're really advanced, you can try the "Eskimo roll."

    (From the Four Elements of the Eskimo Roll)

    • If you want to buy a kayak, depending on the type you choose, it can cost you anywhere from $250 for a beginner's single-seater to $4,500 for a top-notch double-seater foldable kayak. For some tips on how to choose a kayak, see Kayak Online.
    Virtual Museum of Canada, Living Traditions, The Canoe & Kayak
    Chicago Kayak, A little sea kayaking history
    Hickock Sports, History of Canoeing & Kayaking
    Deep Cove Kayak, Paddling Tips
    GORP, Essential Paddle Strokes for Kayaking

    Tuesday, August 1, 2006

    Apple #187: Rockford Files and David Chase

    Here's something else I saw while I was in Florida. I was by myself in the house for a while, lunchtime I think it was, and I was flipping through the channels on TV and I came across an old Rockford Files episode. I hadn't seen one of those in a while, so I thought I'd watch that.

    From the intro sequence
    (Photo from SuperSonic Soul)

    It was still very early in the episode, and they were showing the credits. I saw "Written by David Chase." I thought, could that be the same David Chase who is the head writer and brains behind The Sopranos?

    Tony, telling them how it is
    (Photo from Australia's The Age)

    Before I answer, a little background.

    In case you're not familiar, The Rockford Files was a detective show that first aired in 1974, starring Jim Garner as Jim Rockford, a no-fuss private detective who wasn't afraid to pretend he was somebody smarmy to get an address, and who would do his best in a fistfight if he couldn't avoid one. He lived in a trailer next to the ocean and drove a gold-toned Firebird. I used to watch this show a lot with my dad.

    The Sopranos, on the other hand, is a super-intense mafia drama on HBO. The lead character is Tony Soprano, de facto head of a New Jersey mob family. You see Tony exacting his mafia brand of violence on all sorts of people, and members of his mob family doing the same. The impetus for the show is that Tony is having panic attacks and goes to see a therapist. So you also see him in therapy sessions, trying to figure out his life. In addition, you also see a group of federal agents working to collect enough information to arrest Tony.

    Now, here's what happened in The Rockford Files episode I saw:

    • Jim and his troublemaker friend Angel Martin are in court for some detectiving misdeeds and the judge sentences them to group therapy.
    • During one group therapy session, a fellow member reveals some troubling information about people breaking into her apartment. Jim talks to the woman some more, and he learns that she was in a mental hospital for a while. There, she met someone who said he was a federal agent of an organization that might as well have been the CIA.
    • Jim tries to find out more about this supposed CIA guy. In doing so, he unwittingly alerts actual federal agents about his investigation and they start to follow Jim.
    • Jim talks to the CIA guy in the mental hospital and then talks to his friend Angel Martin, who tells Jim that the supposed CIA guy is actually an ex-mafia dude who ratted out his family. They can't kill him because of some family connections, so they've had him put in the mental hospital to punish him.
    • In the climactic scene, Jim is talking to the son of the mob family (the father is unavailable) and his flunkies, and then the federal agents bust in and it turns into a big 1970's chase scene.
    Do you see the connections? Therapy sessions, federal agents trailing people, the mob.

    So it should come as no surprise that, yes, David Chase of the now-Sopranos fame did write that episode. It's called "The Dog and Pony Show," in case you're interested.

    And in fact, David Chase wrote several episodes of The Rockford Files. He even won an Edgar Allen Poe award for one of them, called "The Oracle Wore a Cashmere Suit." That one doesn't have a whole lot to do with mobsters, but another episode of Chase's does -- "Just a Coupla Guys" is about New Jersey mobsters -- as does "Punishment and Crime," which includes Russian mobsters and a torture scene.

    Oh, yeah, and David Chase was also one of the producers of The Rockford Files, from 1976 to 1980.

    The point of all this is that maybe one of the reasons that The Sopranos is so good is that Chase had the chance to work on his plot a few times before he turned it into a full-blown, multi-season TV show.

    Internet Movie Database, The Rockford Files and Dog and Pony Show
    The Museum of Broadcast Communications, Rockford Files
    Wikipedia, The Rockford Files
    C Mulroony's blog about shows directed by Reza Badiyi
    Internet Movie Database, The Sopranos
    The, David Chase