Monday, February 26, 2007

Apple #228: Lemmings

The other night I walked into the middle of a conversation and was asked immediately if I knew what lemmings are. "Sure," I said, but realizing that maybe I wasn't so sure.

"I say they're a bird," one friend said, "and he says they're a mammal, and this guy says they're a reptile."

"Yeah," said the third friend. "I think they're a type of salamander."

"They're not a salamander," I said, recalling my entry on salamanders. "But I do think they're reptiles. I think they're like mudskippers, with eyeballs on top of their heads."

"We want to know," said the second friend. "Because if we're not supposed to be like lemmings, we should at least know what they are."

"That's right," said the first friend.

"So there's an Apple subject for you," said the second friend. "Tell us what lemmings are."

As you wish.

  • Lemmings are a vole, a type of rodent. They look like gray hamsters. In the winter, their fur turns white.

The lemming: an arctic rodent
(Photo from Corel CD-ROM, used at Elizabeth Viau's site on the tundra)

  • They live on the tundra or in open grasslands, mainly in Alaska and northern Canada along the coast.
  • They reproduce very quickly, betting that their sheer numbers will help them survive predators and the severe arctic weather. Lemming females can reproduce every 20 days, with litters of 6 to 9 babies each cycle. The young females become sexually mature when they're only one month old, so the number of lemmings can get to be exponentially high very fast.

In the winter, a lemming's fur turns white
(Photo from Arthropolis)

  • They are food for a lot of predators, but because of their extreme rate of reproduction, they can get over-crowded fairly quickly. When they reach a crucial level of overcrowding, they will disperse, embarking on a migration to find more space.
  • Sometimes that migration can get pretty frenzied, and since they often travel along the coastline or on the edge of embankments, sometimes the lemmings knocked each other into the ocean.
  • Also if the food supply is scarce, lemmings may kill other lemmings to lessen the competition for food, or to create more food; that is, they may eat each other.
  • Sometimes they head into the water, thinking they're crossing a river, but it turns out to be the ocean, and they drown.
  • A little dense or even murderous they may be, but suicidal they are not.
  • How then, did the lemmings-are-suicidal myth get started? Mainly from a 1958 Disney movie called White Wilderness.

    Disney's White Wilderness was part of a series called True Life Adventures. White Wilderness is contained in this collection.

  • To make the movie, filmmakers bought some lemmings from Inuit children and then took the animals to landlocked Alberta, Canada. Lemmings do not live in Alberta, preferring colder climes that are not landlocked.
  • The few lemmings were filmed on turntables from various angles. Those images were reproduced to give the illusion of a crowd of lemmings. They were then taken to a cliff overlooking a river and herded into the water -- some say "thrown off the cliff" -- while the cameras rolled.
  • In the finished film, the voiceover says that the rodents are "carried along by an unreasoning hysteria," which results in the animals "casting themselves out bodily into space," when in fact people were flinging the lemmings into the water at the time.
  • In other nature documentaries, filmmakers had difficulty capturing a lot of live lemmings on camera. More often, they were able to find lemmings that had swum out into the ocean, believing it to be a river, and drowning, or other lemmings being pushed off a cliff by their fellows during the mad dash to migrate.
  • Many cartoons have also been drawn showing lemmings dashing headlong into the sea, including cartoons by none other than Gary Larson. I'm not allowed to reproduce that cartoon here, but you can look at it on this page.

This lemming says, "Don't believe the hype!"
(Photo from University of Wyoming's Population Ecology lecture notes)

  • People have seen enough of these sorts of images to develop the notion that lemmings jump willy-nilly into the sea to drown themselves, when in fact, the lemmings are being murderous or careless or just dumb.
  • (Hmm, in believing this Disney movie and other images we've been shown, are we not behaving like the mythical lemmings we have ourselves created?)
  • In any case, though lemmings are not suicidal, the attributes they seem to have are not especially admirable. I'd advise against such similarly murderous, cannibalistic, careless, or stupid behavior.

Sources, White Wilderness
Elizabeth Anne Viau, California State, The Tundra
Canadian Fauna, Lemming (Lemmus Lemmus)
Riley Woodford, Lemming Suicide Myth: Disney Film Faked Bogus Behavior, September 2003
April Fools' Science Fables, Lemming theory jumps in in the lake
IMDB, White Wilderness
Chris Clarke, "By Design,"
New Internationalist, Issue 308

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Apple #227: Orcas

The other night, I was out with some friends. The TVs in the bar were playing, for some reason, the National Geographic Channel, which was showing an episode about sharks and other sea animals.

Then one friend -- I'll call him Harvey -- pointed to the TV and said, "Orcas! I hate orcas! They scare me. They're like sharks but smarter, and they're huge -- one orca is as big as this bar." We regarded the TV and him with some skepticism.

Harvey went on, "I just know, someday, I'm going to be on my honeymoon, and we're going to be walking on the beach, hand in hand all nice. Then an orca will swim up onto the beach, slide right up there, and chomp me and carry me out to sea, and I'm going to be like, 'Dammit! I liked her.'"

Well. Clearly, some of what he said was in jest. But is it true that orcas are "like sharks but smarter?" Are they really that big, and will they swim up onto a beach to attack a human?

Orcas seen from the coast of Orcas Island in Washington
(Photo from Orcas Island Bayside Cottages, where you can rent a cottage for about $200 per night)

  • Orcas are also called killer whales. That name "killer whales" is a misnomer, though, first of all, because they are not whales.
  • Orcas are actually part of the dolphin family, and are the largest type of dolphin.
  • They surface and breathe through a blowhole the way dolphins do, and they also communicate with series of complex clicking and chattering sounds. They recognize each other by their sounds.
  • People have also identified distinct populations of orcas, mainly by the "dialects" they use. Orcas from different populations will not inter-breed.
  • Orcas stay with their mothers their entire lives.
  • Orcas live in every ocean in the world, though the highest numbers of orcas live in colder waters. They will sometimes swim into estuaries to catch sea lions and penguins, but they usually don't stray far from the sea. So an orca is not likely to swim up onto a beach to catch something.

The darker blue patches are the places where orcas live.
(Image from

  • Orcas grow to be about 27 to 33 feet long, and they weigh somewhere around 8,000 to 12,000 pounds. For the sake of comparison, large male Asian Elephants weigh around 12,000 pounds, but they're only 11 feet tall.
  • The black on their backs means that animals above the water have trouble distinguishing them from the water's surface. The orcas' white bellies blend in with the light above the surface of the water, so animals in the water have trouble seeing them as well.
  • Orcas eat fish, turtles, squid, octopi, birds, penguins, seals -- and sharks. They have also been known to attack small blue whales. In fact, orcas are at the top of the ocean food chain.
  • A typical orca will eat about 550 pounds of food per day.
  • They are pretty serious hunters. They can achieve bursts of speed up to 30 mph to catch prey. They can dive as deep as 100 feet to go after something.
  • Orcas' teeth are large and interlocked for added stability in the jaw. The teeth curve inwards and backwards in pairs on both the top and bottom of their jaw. Basically, this means they can gnash the flesh of their prey extremely quickly. They don't have to chew their food after the initial strikes, but can swallow animals as large as sea lions whole.

Keiko, getting his teeth checked by a trainer. Each tooth looks about as big around as one of the man's fingers. Supposedly an orca's tongue feels like sandpaper.
(Photo from jikido-san's Flickr photostream)

  • Often orcas will work in groups -- called pods -- to catch their prey. Their tendency to hunt in packs has earned them the epithet "wolves of the sea."
  • Some of their hunting techniques include:
    • Ramming into an ice floe to knock an unsuspecting seal into the water,
    • Slapping their tails on the surface of the water to create a wave that sloshes penguins or sea lions into the water,
    • Herding schools of fish until they are surrounded by orcas and are easily swallowed by the mouthful,
    • Working together in groups to chase larger prey like sharks and biting and chasing the prey until it's too tired and becomes food.
  • The orcas share what they've caught.
  • As far as whether orcas will attack humans, only a very few instances of orcas attacking humans have been recorded. One recent attack happened in captivity, at a Sea World, when an orca carried and repeatedly plunged its trainer underwater. Some people believe that instead of trying to drown the man, the orca was actually trying to breed with him. The orca is such an efficient hunter that if the orca had wanted to eat the trainer, it would have done so without hesitation.
  • update: in February 2010, just after his noontime show at Sea World, an orca named Tilikum surfaced, grabbed one of his trainers by her pony tail and began thrashing her about in the water, eventually killing her.  One dolphin trainer who had warned Sea World that they were working their show mammals too hard said of the incident, "Happy animals don't kill their trainers."  Many trainers and people who work with water mammals say that too many years spent in a tank that's far smaller than their usual habitat makes them "demented."

Here is Shamu being fed -- rewarded -- in captivity. Very different from the way orcas usually eat in the wild. Perhaps this is why some captive orcas, over time, get confused.
(Photo from Scandblue's Flickr photostream)

  • The few attacks on humans that are on record all occurred in captivity, and they are very similar to the Sea World incident.
  • There are no recorded incidents of orcas in the wild attacking humans. This may be because humans tend not to be in the places where orcas hunt.
  • Because there have been so few attacks on humans, people say that orcas should not be called "killer" anything. And once again, orcas are not whales, but dolphins.

So, yes, orcas really are that big. Imagine an animal the size of an elephant, but longer, swimming and eating in the ocean.

And yes, orcas are really that smart. They communicate using a distinct form of language, and they have developed sophisticated hunting techniques. So yes, they are "like sharks but smarter." In fact, they eat sharks.

However, since orcas prefer to stay in the ocean, they will not steam up onto a beach. Unless a human being is a trainer putting him or herself near the mouth of an orca on a regular basis, it is very unlikely an orca will attack a person. So unless Harvey is planning on honeymooning on the beaches of Antarctica and masquerading as a sea lion at the edge of an ice floe, he is probably safe from the orcas.

Enchanted Learning, Orca
National Geographic for Kids, Orcas Fun Facts
Orca Network
PetsandWildlife, Largest Dolphin: Orca (Killer Whale) Fact Sheet
Tigerhomes, Killer Whale Attacks on Humans - Orca Attacks
Humane Society of the United States, Sea World Attack Reaffirms Whale of a Truth
Singapore Science Centre, Do killer whales attack humans?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Apple #226: Pipe Organs

Earlier this week, I went to a pipe organ concert. A cathedral near where I live just got a new, enormous organ, and they hosted four organists from the area. The music they played was challenging -- even I, who knows nothing about this instrument, could tell that -- but it was also fantastic, mainly because of the instrument itself. It sounded like I was listening to an entire orchestra, there were so many different sounds, but they were all coming out of one instrument.

I don't know how many pipes this thing has, but I'd guess easily over 50. Some of the pipes in the middle of the whole array are tremendously tall; I'd say somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 feet high. Then there are little clusters of shorter pipes, flanked by cupids -- yes, actual cupids. The pipes are shiny and the wood encasing them is rosewood or some other bright red wood, and the whole thing gleams and looks as if it knew exactly what it is capable of.

Pipe organ at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, DC. Note how small the organist and console are relative to the pipes behind them.
(Photo by Keith Stanley)

When those organists got the lower registers working, I tell you, the sound just permeated everything -- the cathedral, the inside of my body, my mind -- in an entirely, complete, and good way. It was magnificent.

The program they handed out before the concert was quite lengthy, and it included some kind of chart about the organ's construction. The chart is divided into four groups, each one labeled Great (middle of case), Positive (above keydesk), Swell (oberwerk position), and Pedal. I don't know what these terms mean, but I'd guess they refer to each bank of keyboards available, and also to the pedals you'd play with your feet while your hands went like mad.

Beneath each one of these headings is a list of various terms, some in Latin, some in German, with numbers next to them, such as "Principal 16" and "Qvintadeen 16." I want to find out what this chart means, and I also want to learn more about these instruments in general.

The console of the pipe organ at Christchurch Priory, in Christchurch, England. Several different keydesks are present in this organ. The knobs flanking the keyboards also correspond to divisions of pipes.
(Photo from Christchurch Priory)

  • The organ I heard is a pipe organ. The pipes are like whistles, sticking up out of a box. Air is pumped into the box and then travels into the pipes that are opened or closed by the organist working the stops.
  • It used to be, the wind necessary to blow through the organ was provided by some poor sap pumping in the air with a bellows. Now, however, most organs have electronic blowers, which look sort of like generators, and which have lots of high-powered fans.
  • Every pipe organ is different. The pipes might be made of different materials, there might be tons of ranks of pipes and several corresponding keyboards, or there may only be one or two ranks of pipes. Also, the organ-maker might choose to make the pipes of varying varying heights and tones, which taken together, results in a completely different instrument.
  • Regardless of how large or small it is, every pipe organ is a miracle of organization. I'll break it down into its components to help you get an idea of the size and complexity these things can reach. Before I begin, it's important to remember that the pipes you see behind the organ are only a fraction of the pipes in total. Most of the pipes get stacked in descending order of size behind the pipes you can see.

Pipe organ at the Terrell Heritage Society Museum, in Texas. Some of the behind-the-scenes pipes are just visible behind that first array of pipes in front.
(Photo from the Terrell Heritage Society)

  • Each pipe in an organ is different. Each pipe is of a particular height and circumference and made of a particular material and may or may not have something capping it on top, etc. The upshot is, each pipe produces its own particular sound.
  • But each pipe is part of various ever-larger groups, in the same way that a bluebird is a single bird, but it is part of a species, then a genus, then a family, and so on.

This chart lists a few organ stops and the type and shape of their corresponding pipes.
(Image from The World's Largest Organs site)

Organ Stops
  • The first group to which a pipe belongs is the organ stop. Each stop produces a different timbre, or tonal color. The timbre, or tonal sound is often meant to sound like another instrument, typically a wind instrument such as a flute or an oboe -- which makes sense because the pipes are making noise because wind is being blown into them.
  • An organ stop includes 61 pipes, each pipe voiced to belong to that same timbre. If the pipes are controlled by foot pedals rather than by a manual keyboard, the organ stop includes 32 pipes.
  • I've listed some examples of the organ stops that are part of the organ I heard this week. The links will take you to a sound file that plays a sample of that one particular stop. The sound files play arpeggios of notes to give you an idea of what the organ stop sounds like across its full range of available notes.
    • The Gedackt stop is supposed to sound like a "covered flute."
    • The Hautbois is supposed to sound like a type of oboe.
    • The Nachthorn or "night horn" is a cross between a flute and a horn.
    • The Posaune is sort of a cross among the trombone, a trumpet, and a reed instrument.
  • The number after each organ stop name refers to the height of longest pipe in that stop. In the case of the stop noted as "Principal 16", the tallest pipe in that organ stop is 16' high.

The St. Peter Chapel Organ at Grace Lutheran Church in Lancaster, PA. This organ is relatively small, with very few of the pipes visible in the case.
(Photo from Grace Lutheran Church)

  • As far as I can tell, the terms "rank" and "organ stop" mean roughly the same thing. The phrase "organ stop" refers to the type of sound produced by the pipes in that given sound family. "Rank" refers to the physical pipes themselves, as they are arranged behind the keyboard. In other words, the pipes in a particular organ stop are ranked together. So, the same set of 61 pipes is a full rank for manually-operated stops, while 32 pipes is a full rank for stops operated by pedals.
  • Some ranks have a ton more pitches available than the typical rank. These are called Mutation, or sometimes Mixed stops. A Roman numeral after the organ stop name means that the organ stop has not one rank of corresponding pipes but that multiple of ranks of pipes. For example, Rauschpfeife III means the Rauschpfeife organ stop has three ranks' worth of pipes (183 pipes) for that particular organ stop, while the Cornet V has five ranks' worth (305 pipes).

This relatively new pipe organ at the First Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia has forty-six ranks of pipes.
(Photo from the A.E. Schlueter Pipe Organ Company)

Divisions and Keyboards
  • Several ranks together are referred to as a "division." Each of the pipes in that division are controlled by a single, entire keyboard ("keydesk" in organ parlance). That division and its corresponding keydesk is given a name, such as Great, or Positive, or Choir.
  • Divisions operated by pedals are called, simply, Pedal. These are typically longer pipes, which produce the bass or lower notes, but that is not always the case.
  • Organs can also have a division referred to as the Swell. These pipes are encased behind wooden shutters, which the organist can open and close in order to make the sound emitting from the pipes "swell" forth.

This is just one division's worth of pipes (the Choir division) that are part of the organ at St. Raphael's Cathedral in Dubuque, Iowa
(Photo from Wikipedia)

The Organ I Heard

Based on what I've learned about stops and ranks and divisions, I'm going to do some calculations to figure how many pipes are in this organ that I heard.
  • 4 Divisions
  • 66 Organ stops in all (some of which are multiples)
  • Tallest pipes in the lot: 32 feet tall.
  • Total number of pipes (estimated): 5,085. Pretty much eclipses my original guess of "easily over 50."
  • This number of pipes explains why I felt like I was hearing an entire orchestra. Imagine hearing an orchestra of 5,000 people playing specific flutes and reed instruments and trumpets and trombones and anything else you could blow air into to make noise.

The organ at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York has over 9,000 pipes.
(Photo from the New York City chapter of the American Guild of Organists)

So when people say, "pull out all the stops," if you did this in reality to a pipe organ this size, you would probably blow your eardrums or something. It would be serious business.

American Public Media, Pipedreams
Lawrence Phelps, Pipe Organs 101
Ross King Company, How an Organ Works
Concert Artist, Organ History, The Organ and How it Works
Wikipedia, Pipe Organ
Organ stop sound files from the Encyclopedia of Organ Stops

Monday, February 19, 2007

Apple #225: Danger, Will Robinson

Last night in passing, I said, "Danger, Will Robinson." Then today I heard someone on TV say it. Which made me realize, I don't know where this phrase originated. And who the heck is Will Robinson, anyway?

  • The phrase comes from the 1960s TV show, Lost in Space.
  • The series centered around the Robinson family, who were chosen to fly a spacecraft called the Jupiter 2 to investigate a planet orbiting around Alpha Centauri. However, Dr. Smith, an "intergalactic doctor" who was also a spy snuck on board to try to destroy the spacecraft. But he botched his plan and only knocked the Jupiter 2 off-course, also trapping himself on board in the process. So the family was doomed to be lost in space, wandering to strange planets and trying to avoid comets and various space criminals.

The Robinsons, that everyday, 1960s space-orbiting family, with their very own robot and evil doctor.
(Photo from the official Lost in Space site

  • Will Robinson was the youngest boy in the family. His job, at something like age 12, was to keep the on-board Robot maintained, using his exceptional abilities in electronics. Despite Will's extensive robot know-how, he wasn't very good at figuring out who was a good guy and who was a bad guy, so the Robot had to warn Will often. Despite the Robot's warnings, conflicts ensued.

The Robot and Will, exchanging crucial information
(Photo from the official Lost in Space site)

  • The Robot had no name, except "the Robot." Its job was to be a sort of space-age bodyguard and protect the family, and also warn family members of any imminent threats.
  • Dr. Smith hated the Robot and called him all sorts of insults throughout the series. Some of the doctor's more inventive invectives included:
    • Traitorous Transistorized Toad
    • Uncultured Clump
    • Primitive Pile of Pistons
    • Sorry Specimen of Computerhood
    • Medical School Dropout
  • To see an example of the Robot's less-than-graceful arm movements and his canned campiness, check out this brief clip on You Tube.
  • Sometimes the Robot said, "Danger, danger," and sometimes it said, "Warning, warning." But word has it that only once in the entire series did the Robot say, "Danger, Will Robinson." Supposedly, this occurred in the third of the show's three seasons, in an episode called "Deadliest of the Species."

  • You could download for free any of the episodes from the first two seasons of the show at However, none of the episodes are available from season 3, when the magic quote supposedly was uttered.
  • Amazon has this new thing where you can download video from them. They have the video of the episode "Deadliest of the Species," and if you wanted to pay the $1.99, it could be yours here:

Lost In Space season 3 download
Follow this link, then scroll down to choose the episode you want

  • If anybody does watch that episode, let me know if the Robot actually says, "Danger, Will Robinson" in it or not, please?

As you can see, the show had exceptional special effects
(Photo from the official Lost in Space site)

  • If you really like the Robot, you could buy a full-sized, licensed replica of your very own. I guess you'd keep it in your home and hope it notified you of impending danger. Or something.

Lost in Space classic TV website, Lost in Space episodes
Wikipedia, "Danger, Will Robinson"
Charles V. Pena, "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!" Cato Institute, May 25, 2002

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Apple #224: Napkins

I knew a guy who studied theater, and once upon a time he told me a tip he learned from a director. When he was supposed to be one of those people sitting at a restaurant table in the background while the main characters did their talking up front, they had to find a way to murmur believably but without distracting from the main action. So the director told my friend and his fellow background-mates that they should say actual words, just not anything in a sentence. He said good words to use -- because they included some consonants but nothing with a lot of s's -- were "watermelon" and "napkin."

So when my friend didn't know how to respond to something, he would reply with his customary filler words: "Napkin, watermelon, napkin."

I have been trying to come up with a decent Daily Apple for today, but I am drawing a blank. Since I already did an entry on watermelons, today we will learn about napkins.

(You can buy these napkins, or ones like them from MiTUSA)

  • Back in Greek & Roman times, people used to use small pieces of bread for the purpose of wiping their hands.
  • Later, people began providing cloths of different sizes so their guests could wipe their hands or blot their lips. The larger-size cloth, called a mappa, was also used to form a pouch so that the guest could take home some of the goodies from the dinner. Thus the napkin doubled as a doggie bag.
  • In the Middle Ages, people stopped using napkins and used their clothes, a piece of bread, or whatever was available.
  • The French resurrected the napkin in the 1400s, except they used their napkins firstly as a way to mark the places on the couch where guests were to sit, and then they also provided a communal napkin, more like a large towel, that hung off the end of the table for all guests to use.

In this detail from Dieric Bouts' depiction of The Last Supper, which he painted in the 1460's, you can see in the foreground the communcal napkin hanging like a swag from the edge of the table.
(Photo from the Web Gallery of Art)

  • In royal households, where they had servants who did nothing but fill water glasses and clean up after people, one servant carried around a towel and proffered it to the guests so they could wipe their hands on it. This was the beginning of the custom whereby butlers and maitre's d carry napkins draped over their forearm.
  • This person who carried the napkin around was also sometimes required to taste the food to make sure it was not poisoned. After tasting the food, the servant kissed a towel reserved specifically for the lord of the table, then draped it over his shoulder to signal the food's safety and also to give him his very own napkin to use throughout the meal.
  • In the 17th century, the napkin fell out of favor again when people started using forks. Everybody suddenly became neater eaters. But then, over time, the napkin came back into general use again, although it was generally smaller than it had been before.

A fork and a napkin together? Redundant! the 17th Century English would have cried.
(Photo from Relish)

  • I tried to find out how many paper napkins are manufactured in the U.S. each year. I was more interested in learning that data for paper napkins, since that's probably what most people encounter most days of the week.

(Photo from Ace Janitorial in the UK)

  • If I had a lot of money, I could pay for statistics that would tell me exactly how many napkins are produced in a year. But I don't have a lot of money, so I have to go with what's freely available.
  • The closest I could get is the total number of miscellaneous paper products -- that includes napkins, as well as envelopes, paper bags, paper foils and films, sanitary paper products, and paperboard -- shipped. That means produced and sent to a customer, either in the U.S. or abroad. And the number of miscellaneous paper products shipped in 2006 is just shy of $44 billion worth. That's a lot of napkins.
  • The dollar value of shipments of just straight-up paper is four times that amount.
  • That amount also represents paper products made only in the U.S. Most paper products are manufactured in Canada (they have more trees).

Packaged paper napkins, available from Wicks and Wax

  • The first sanitary napkin, or pad, for women, was manufactured in 1896 by Johnson & Johnson. It didn't sell very well because people were too embarrassed to advertise it or ask for it at the store or buy it and carry it home. It wasn't until 1926, after World War I nurses had discovered the superior absorption of paper cellulose over cloth diapers, that disposable paper sanitary pads started selling on a larger scale.

  • I found lots of sites that teach you how to fold napkins, but the steps to make some of those folds get pretty complicated.

This particular napkin fold is called the Floral Bloom. Instructions (and this photo) are available at My Paper

  • Rather than reproduce all the instructions here, I'll give you the links to some of the more appealing designs I found:
    • Make a pocket out of the napkin to stow the knife, fork, and spoon
    • The omnipresent goblet fan (which I think is a little gauche, actually; I don't want my napkin in my drinking glass)
    • The standing fan fold (If you can get all your napkins pleated like this and to stay standing for longer than five minutes, I think you should get the Napkin Prize)

Suzanne Von Drachenfels, Napkins: A Brief History, from The Art of the Table
Karen Herzog, "The royal treatment,"
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, December 24, 2006
US Census Bureau; Manufacturing, Mining and Construction Statistics; Manufacturers' Shipments, Inventories, and Orders; Historic Timeseries Documentation (NAICS Based); Shipments
The Straight Dope, Who invented tampons? June 6, 2006

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Apple #223: Health Benefits of Herbal Tea

I've been drinking a lot of herbal tea lately. I can't have caffeine anymore, for one thing, and for another, my nose and throat feel somewhat arid these winter days, especially right after I wake up. The steaminess of the tea seems to soothe my nose and throat, and the warmth of the tea travels into me and warms me from the inside out.

(Photo from Stock.xchng)

I also like a lot of the flavors of various herbal teas. Right now, my favorites are a combination of peppermint & spearmint with a little cinnamon thrown in, another variety that includes a little snappiness of ginger, and yet another richer tea that has a vanilla flavor going on.

Drinking all this tea has me wondering, can herbal tea somehow contribute to the health of my heart, perhaps? Are there some secret health benefits to these various grocery-store-available herbal teas?

I should say up front that I'm not interested in things like drinking echinacea tea to improve immunity, or drinking raspberry leaf tea to counteract PMS. I'm more interested in a general health benefit. Black tea, for example, is supposed to have anti-oxidant and therefore some anti-cancer and anti-stroke properties. So does herbal tea have any similar kind of general benefit?

  • First of all, I learned that herbal tea is not, in fact, tea. Black tea and green tea and even red tea all come from the same evergreen tea plant called Camellia sinensis.

The leaves of this one plant, Camellia sinensis, can be processed in different ways to make black, green, red, or even white teas.
(Photo from the Tea Museum)

  • The leaves from this plant contain polyphenols, which are chemicals that, when consumed, protect our tissues against damaging things called free radicals. They can also deactivate other substances that trigger the growth of cancer cells. Polyphenols are the magic things in tea that give it those extra health benefits.
  • Herbal teas are not made from the Camellia sinensis leaves. Herbal teas are usually infusions of other types of herbs and flowers and spices -- but not the tea leaf. Therefore herbal teas are technically not "teas," but are in fact "tisanes."
  • Since herbal teas -- excuse me, tisanes -- are not made from the same plant as black or green teas, they do not necessarily confer the same benefits.
  • I looked for more information about what herbal teas -- dang it, tisanes -- can do for you, but I'm getting the impression that herbal teas -- tisanes -- seem to be regarded by the medical research community as the realm of crackpots or something because they don't seem to have done the same kind of research into herbal health benefits as they have for black teas. That's just my impression, though, and it's possible that lots of highfalutin' research has actually been conducted that I don't know about.
  • However, one study conducted by the American Chemical Society found that people who drank five cups of chamomile tea each day increased their levels of hippurate. The "parent," so to speak, of hippurate is phenolics -- the same group of good-for-you chemicals that you get from drinking black or green or red tea. So it looks like chamomile tea might, in fact, provide you with some of the same benefits as black or green tea.

Chamomile flowers, frequently dried and used to make tisanes, are members of the daisy family. So if you're allergic to daisies, don't drink chamomile tea.
(Photo from Plantlife)

  • Phenolics also help increase antibacterial resistance, so people who drink chamomile tea could see an increased resistance to colds and infections.
  • Another study also found that chamomile tea has "mild antioxidant and antimicrobial activities," meaning, again, that chamomile tea could be moderately useful in fighting colds and infections.
  • This other study also found that, in animals, chamomile tea helped lower cholesterol and protect against inflammation, which can contribute to anything from headaches to arteriosclerosis. They caution that these benefits have been studied only in animals and that similar studies on humans are "limited."
  • Other stuff in the chamomile tea acts as a nerve and muscle relaxant, which may help soothe muscle spasms -- often those associated with menstrual cramps -- and which may be why hot herbal tea acts as a mild sedative.
  • Too bad I don't like the flavor of chamomile tea. And some people are allergic to chamomile.
  • But researchers seem to have picked chamomile because of its popularity. They've already discovered the polyphenols in wine, and they know that those chemicals are present in lots of plant foods. So I'm willing to bet that if these benefits are true for chamomile tea, the same or similar benefits are probably also true of other herbal teas -- tisanes.
  • Medical researchers, here's another thing for you to get to work quantifying for us.

Gloria Tsang, Health Benefits of Tea, April 2006
Cynthia Brook, Medical College of Wisconsin, Studies Suggest Health Benefits of Tea, March 30, 2000
MedicineNet, Definition of Polyphenol
Michael Bernstein, American Chemical Society, "Chamomile tea: New evidence supports health benefits," January 4, 2005
Diane McKay and Jeffrey Blumberg, "A Review of the Bioactivity and Potential Health Benefits of Chamomile Tea," Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, July 1, 2006
Acu-Cell Nutrition, Bioflavonoids

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Apple #222: Tiger Sounds

I've been reading Life of Pi on my lunch hours over the past week or so. In case you don't know, it's about a young kid who gets shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a tiger.

I'm enjoying the interactions with all the animals -- and a surprising number of creatures appear on or near our hero's little boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But some other fairly incredible things have started happening, and I'm now regarding the narrator with increasing skepticism.

Partly because of this skepticism, I am starting to doubt some of the facts that are given about the animals that our hero encounters. The tiger that is shipwrecked along with Pi on the lifeboat is described, at one point, as making a sound which is not a roar or a growl or anything menacing. The sound the tiger makes is a friendly noise, almost indescribable, but known as prusten.

Well, says Skeptical Apple Lady I, it's time to find out if there is such a thing as prusten, and if tigers express friendliness to people.

  • Folks who study tigers do recognize chuffing as an expression of friendliness. Adult tigers will chuff in a greeting to other adult tigers, if they do not sense their territory or food is being threatened, or they will make the chuffing sound to their cubs. A tiger will also sometimes make this sound at the sight of people bringing food for it to eat.
  • The word prusten is German for "sneeze" or "snorting in laughter." I don't think that matches exactly with the sound the tiger makes, but I suppose it's the thing we naturally do that comes closest.
  • People can mimic this sound by exhaling air in a rush over the lips, like a forceful "f" sound, while at the same time rolling the tongue against the roof of the mouth. If you make this sound to a tiger in the zoo, the tiger might chuff back at you.
  • Tigers make lots of other sounds, too. They growl, snarl, roar, whoof, miaow, purr, and they also do something called pooking. This is a loud, clear, flat call, which some people think is the tiger's attempt to mimic a type of deer that is often the tiger's prey. They think the tiger makes this sound to try to fool the deer into thinking that one of its own is close by, when really, it's a tiger in disguise. Go, wily tigers!

More Tiger Sounds
Bengal tiger, sounding very hungry
Sumatran tiger, growling like it makes this sound easily as breathing
Sort of a cross between a growl and a snort
Tiger Territory's page of various sounds, including prusten
Zooschool's page of sounds. Be sure to check out the sound called "threaten."
Lots of links to sounds at Jungle Walk. You have to do a lot of clicking.

I really like tigers. Their coats are so incredibly beautiful, but I also like to watch them move. You get a glimpse of the strength and agility stored in their body, even when they're just strolling by. They seem to emanate their power with very little effort. I find them absolutely impressive.

Sumatran tiger, just relaxing at the Phoenix Zoo
(Photo from

So, I'll share a few more facts I learned about tigers.
  • On average, tigers are about 9 to 10 feet long and weigh in the neighborhood of 450 to 600 pounds.
  • Of all the types of cats -- wild and domesticated -- only the tiger and the jaguar willingly go in the water to cool off. They may even spend some time swimming around.

This Bengal tiger looks perfectly comfortable in the water.
(Photo from

  • A tiger's night vision is seven times better than ours, though they can only see black and white.
  • When a tiger opens its mouth wide and seems to grimace, it's not wincing but trying to smell something better. In what's called the flehman gesture, the tiger opens its mouth, wrinkles its nose, raises its chin and extends its tongue. This opens a particular organ called Jacobson's Organ which is on the roof of the tiger's mouth, and thus enables the tiger to take in and identify more of a particular scent. Male tigers do this especially when trying to determine if a female tiger is ready to mate.
  • Tigers eat:
    • wild boar
    • cattle
    • deer
    • antelope
    • guar
    • monkey
    • pangolin
    • porcupine
    • sloth bear
    • young elephants
    • tortoises
    • reptiles
    • birds
    • fish
    • rodents
    • grubs
    • and on occasion they'll eat vegetation, to help their digestion
  • When they hunt, they stalk their prey by hiding in the tall grasses (its stripes help camouflage the tiger immensely), and creeping closer to a particular animal. When it is close enough and the wind is in its favor, it rushes out of the grass and attacks.

You don't ever want to see this coming toward you.
(Photo from

  • The tiger usually first leaps at the animal's hindquarters. Once the animal is knocked down, it then administers its killing bite at the nape of the neck.
  • Tigers rarely eat people. The few times this has happened, it has been because their accustomed hunting grounds had been turned into ranches or farms. The tigers took to eating the livestock they found on their hunting grounds, and in the course of that hunting found an exquisitely defenseless animal nearby, a human.
  • Tigers sleep or nap, on average, 20 hours out of a 24 hour day.
  • Eight subspecies of tiger have been identified. Three of these subspecies are now extinct and one is just about ready to die out. So please, don't shoot any more tigers!

An Indo-Chinese tiger
(Photo from Maria Magdalena)

Save the Tiger Fund, Tiger Sounds
Jungle Walk, Tiger Sounds
Cyber Zoomobile, Tigers
Isle of Wight Zoo, Tigers, About Indian Tiger
Tiger Territory, Communication

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Apple #221: February

So today is February 2. Groundhog Day, yes. And although I can't recommend the movie Groundhog Day highly enough (Bill Murray, I always like your characters better before they get reformed), I don't have any desire to investigate the history and oddity of this particular celebration. What I am more interested in is that oh-so-hard-to-say word, February.

Say "February" three times fast. See what I mean?

Punxsutawney Phil says, "I can't say it, either. Just let me go back to sleep."
(Photo from The Freeds blog)

So, yeah, I'm the guy coming up with the names for the months of the calendar, and I'm going to choose a word -- who knows what it means -- but I'm going to stick not one but two r's in the middle of it so that people can't pronounce it properly, and don't even want to try. Terrific idea, isn't it?

But seriously. What does February mean, anyway?

  • Apparently, the word February comes from the Latin word februum (yes, you pronounce both u's), which means "purification."
  • The second month of the year earned the epithet as "Month of Purification" because people used to have a purification ritual on February 15, by the Roman calendar. When we switched to the Gregorian calendar (named after Pope Gregory XIII, who commissioned it), they kept the name February. Because they liked it so much.

Pope Gregory the XIII, looking a bit nervous. Could it be that he knew the word for the second month was a poor choice?
(Painting posted at

  • I'd like to point out that that root word februum accounts for only one, but not both r's. I am therefore now convinced that adding the second r must have been the work of some sneaky Roman person who wanted to make us all miserable. But perhaps this is appropriate, since February is, in my opinion, the worst month of the year.
  • I'd also like to point out that many dictionary pronunciation guides are noting the fact that most people don't pronounce the month Feb-ROO-ary, but actually pronounce it Feb-YOO-ary. They give a fancy linguistic name for this tendency and offer a few explanations for it, but the upshot is that even the dictionaries are saying, yes, it's too hard to say both r's and we don't really expect people to do that. So take THAT, Mr. FebROOary Month Maker!

We could always go back to some other words for the second month that have been used in the past. Here are some options:
  • The Anglo-Saxons used to call February Solmoneth ("mud month") or sometimes the name that Charlemagne used for it, Hornung
  • The Finns call February helmikuu, which means "month of the pearl"
  • The Old English called their second month "Sprote Kale Monath," or "Month when the Cabbage Sprouts." I think I'd vote for this one, though it is a bit lengthy.

Apparently, February used to be the month when you started counting the days until you got this -- a table full of cabbage
(Photo from the Milk and Honey Farm)

And finally,
  • I know you'll be excited to learn that February 22 -- which happens to have been George Washington's birthday -- was designated by the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts as Thinking Day. So be sure to save up your thinking for the 22nd, so you can celebrate to the fullest!

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, cited at, February
Biology, february, February and February 22
Edgar's Name Pages, Names of the Months, 2004
L.E. Doggett, Calendars (which uses information reprinted by permission from the Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Almanac)
Web Exhibits, Calendars through the Ages