Sunday, July 27, 2008

Apple #331: Bluebirds

For some unknown reason, I have that song, Zip-a Dee Doo-Dah in my head. Especially the line about "Mr. Bluebird's on my shoulder." I am not feeling all happy-skippy, just sort of ordinary. But the song is in my head even so.

The song is utter pap, and not what I'm wondering about. I am, in fact, thinking about bluebirds.

My mom often says that bluebirds are not so common anymore, that she might see blue jays out & about, but she hardly ever sees a bluebird.

So what's up with that? Where do they live, and where might it be possible to still see one?

A male Eastern Bluebird. How pretty! No wonder my mom gets excited when she thinks she's seen one.
(Photo from the North American Bluebird Society)

This map shows where the Eastern Bluebird lives in the Western Hemisphere. Some Eastern Bluebirds also live in Europe.
(Map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

  • There are three types of bluebirds that live in the United States: Eastern Bluebird, the Western Bluebird, and the Mountain Bluebird. Sounds like they live according to the time zones, doesn't it?
  • The bluebird has a bright blue back, reddish-orange feathers at the top of the breast, and white feathers at the belly. The female's feathers have a similar color pattern, but are not quite as bright as the male's.

The Western Bluebird (male) has orange on its chest, but the blue also extends around his neck under his chin.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

Where the Western Bluebird lives. Unlike their relatives to the east, Western Bluebirds like to live in forested areas.
(Map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

      • The Mountain Bluebird is the only one of the three types that doesn't have any orange or red on its chest.
      • The female Mountain Bluebird is almost entirely gray, with some flashes of bright blue on her back.

The Mountain Bluebird (male) is almost all bright blue. He's almost too blue to be believed!
(Photo from Wikipedia)

The Mountain Bluebird's habitat in the Western Hemishere. They prefer open areas like meadows, where they can spot lots of bug activity.
(Map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

  • Bluebirds are a member of the thrush family, which means they are related to robins. They are more shy than robins, though. Most people say that when they get within 20 feet of a bluebird, the bluebird will fly away. That's probably one reason why you don't see them very often.
  • Another reason is their habitat is going away. Bluebirds like to nest in holes made by other birds. These are typically holes bored by woodpeckers into old trees. However, most old trees are cut down to make way for new developments or to keep old branches from falling on people or their houses. So there are fewer places for bluebirds to nest.
  • What nesting places are available, bluebirds have to compete with other birds to get. House Sparrows and European Starlings both like to nest in the same kinds of places that bluebirds do, but the sparrows and the starlings are both very aggressive, and they'll chase away the bluebirds and sometimes even kick them out of an established nest.
      • House Sparrows are not actually sparrows but are Old Weaver Finches. They were brought over to the United States from England in the 1850s to try to control insects that were destroying crops.
      • Unfortunately, the sparrows reproduced at alarming rates because they had very few predators in this land, and not only did they not help control the insects, they caused even more damage to the fruit and its trees. And they took over the nesting sites of the birds that did help to control the insects. Oh, people.

An Eastern bluebird, judging us not.
(Photo from Flighty Thoughts from the Bird Lady)

  • In the spring and summer, bluebirds eat insects, earthworms, and snails. Insects are plentiful enough.
      • Bluebirds keep a sharp eye out for insects and other prey. Sometimes they hover above the ground, looking for something tasty, and then they'll snap it up and swoop back up to a branch and eat it. Or they may spot it from their perch, swoop down to grab it, and fly back up.
  • In the winter, bluebirds eat wild berries (elderberries, poison oak berries, mistletoe, juniper berries, blackberries, blueberries, dogwood berries, etc.). Again, because there are fewer and fewer wild lands about, there aren't as many wild berries for the birds to eat.

Two female Eastern bluebirds in a Fraser fir tree.
(Photo by KVAWARRE2P, from Seahorsekisses)

      • If you want to give bluebirds more things to eat, you can plant these sorts of berry bushes in your yard. Bluebirds will also eat suet and mealworms, if you want to make those available.
  • Fortunately, bluebirds will also nest in houses that people build. And more people have been learning about the bluebirds and how to build nesting boxes that the bluebirds will like. If you want to learn how to build a nesting box that will attract bluebirds, the North American Bluebird Society and the Bluebird-L Reference Guide have lots of helpful and important tips.

Bluebird nesting box. Notice that there's no perch. That's important because sparrows like nesting boxes with perches, so if you leave off the perch, you're more likely to get a bluebird than a sparrow.
(Photo from Ranch Ramblins, from a page about how this blog owner built not just one bluebird perch but a trail of perches in Oklahoma. Lots of photos & tips)

North American Bluebird Society and the Bluebird-L Reference Guide
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds, Eastern Bluebird
Wild Birds Forever, Attracting Bluebirds
Nature Works, Mountain Bluebird - Sialia currucoides
Las Pilitas, Western Bluebird, Sialia mexicana
BirdWeb: The Birds of Washington State, Western Bluebird
Mathew Tekulsky, Birding Column: Mesmerized by Western Bluebirds, National Geographic News, June 22, 2004

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Apple #330: Paisley

I couldn't settle on a topic for today's Apple, so I thought I'd listen to some music, do some other stuff, and something might come to me. I had my iTunes on random, and when Simon & Garfunkle's "America" came on, I thought, "Paisley!"

No idea where that connection comes from. It exists somewhere in my brain, obviously, but I can't explain it.

It turns out, the history of paisley is actually kind of fascinating.

Paisley fabric, from somewhere on Maggie Delaney's site.

  • Paisley patterns as we know them today originated in Kashmir and Persia (today, Iran).

Kashmir doesn't exist as a discrete country today. It's an area that includes parts of India, Pakistan, and China. Like much of the Middle East, it's an area where nobody can agree on what land belongs to which country and what should be sovereign to whom.
(Map from Pro-Pakistan)

  • Paisley patterns first appeared on shawls (the word shawl comes from the Persian word shal, which refers to a type of woven fabric).
  • People in Kashmir had been making woven shawls since at least the 11th century, but it wasn't until the 18th century when they were somehow inspired by English books about various plants and herbs that they began to put these particular patterns on the shawls.
  • The first patterns were kind of like drawings in that they were representations of a single plant.
  • The shape of this plant changed and changed again over the years until it became the curving, swirly cone we're so familiar with today.

Diagram showing the evolution of the original flowering plant into the familiar paisley shape.
(Image from

  • People aren't sure why the plant evolved into this exact shape, but the Paisley Museum thinks that it may come from the Babylonian date palm.
      • Way back in ancient Babylon (what Persia used to be), people used to render the growing shoot of a date palm in a teardrop shape. They think that this teardrop shape of the date palm merged with this other plant design that we know today as paisley.
      • The date palm was source of all kinds of essential things -- food, shelter, wood, clothing, etc. When they put the date palm teardrop on clothing and other stuff, it was more like a symbol, representing the Tree of Life and fertility.
  • So you could say that the paisley shape celebrates life, growth, and fertility.

Wool and silk woven paisley shawl from 1860.
(Photo from

  • People from Kashmir started selling their shawls to people in Great Britain, and they were a huge hit. This was around the early 1800s to about the 1870s -- right smack in the middle of Victorian England.
  • I wonder if all those Victorian women knew that when they wore their paisley shawls everywhere, they were wearing a bunch of fertility symbols?

A very large paisley shawl, made to cover the entire crinoline of a woman's dress, about 1865.
(Image from

  • Paisley shawls made in Kahsmir and imported into England were really expensive. So various cloth manufacturers in England and Scotland and France started making their own paisley shawls.
        • You can tell the difference between Kashmir shawls and Europeans shawls by the material with which they're woven. British shawls are made from silk and wool. Kashmir shawls were made from goat's fleece.
        • The softest and finest of the Kashmir shawls were woven from the fleece on the underbelly of wild central Asian goats.
        • And, by the way, the word cashmere, which refers to very soft goat's wool, comes from the word Kashmir.

Cashmere goats, on the steppes in Mongolia.
(Photo from e-Mongol)

The yarn that's spun from their wool
(Photo from Beijing Richman International)

And a shawl that's made from cashmere wool yarn.
(Shawl from Elizabetta, made in Italy, sells for $98. She's got lots of other really beautiful shawls and stoles)

  • One of the places in the UK that made a ton of these shawls was Paisley, Scotland. It didn't take long before the name of the town also became the name the English-speakers used for the patterned fabric.
        • The word paisley, by the way, comes from the Gaelic word baslec, which comes from the Latin basilica. So paisley is actually another word for church.
        • Leave it to the Victorians to give something that stands for fertility and life a name that means "church."
  • Paisley shawls fell out of fashion in the 1870s because the Franco-Prussian war made it harder to export the shawls from Kashmir. And the ones produced in the UK had become so inexpensive -- only a few shillings -- it was no longer a mark of status to wear one, and therefore they became unfashionable.
  • Even so, the paisley design has stuck around and sort of popped its head above water now and again.
        • In the late 1960s, it emerged with all the psychedelic stuff.

Vintage dress from the 1960s features a can't-miss paisley print
(Photo from Kaboodle)

        • It had another resurgence in the 80s when it showed up on lots of socks & ties & skirts. Just watch an episode or two of Designing Women, and I bet you'll see some.
        • These days, paisley is a big hit on all those Vera Bradley bags which are suddenly and inexplicably popular with all the preppy girls.

One of Vera Bradley's fabric patterns for 2008, Raspberry Fizz, features paisley in its design.
(Swatch from Sandpiper Clothiers' page showing a whole bunch of Vera Bradley Swatches)

  • The big difference today, though, is that most paisley fabric is printed. It's really hard to weave a paisley pattern -- and expensive. So most cashmere is all one color of yarn, and most paisley is printed on silk or another type of fabric. If you can find something that's paisley and cashmere today, I think you've probably got yourself a rare item.

This photo shows how a paisley design is plotted on the warp and weft of a woven fabric, and gives you an idea of the complexity involved in making one of these things. This design was used in a shawl made in about 1850.
(Photo sourced from designer John Coulthart's blog feuilleton. Photo is originally from Paisley Patterns: A Design Source Book)

Meg Andrews, Beyond the Fringe: Shawls of Paisley Design,
Thistle & Broom, Paisley
Online Etymology Dictionary, paisley
Wikipedia, Paisley (design)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Apple #329: Narcolepsy

Last night as I was in bed, drifting towards sleep, I thought of something my mom told my niece the last time I was home. She said that when I was little, they would often walk into a room and find me asleep on the floor. If I'd had a big day, or lots of excitement, or especially after Christmas, I used to sack out wherever I happened to be.

My niece looked at me as if she thought this was funny and a bit strange. "Is that true?" she said.

I shrugged. "Yeah." I could get very comfortable on the floor. Bare floor, not so much. Carpeted floors, though, were never a problem. To this day, I can get myself a very satisfying nap on a carpeted floor. Usually, I'm flat on my stomach, one hand slipped under my temple for a pillow. Just thinking about it sounds kind of good to me.

Last night, I was thinking about that conversation, and then I wondered if maybe someone could say about me, "She can fall asleep anyplace." Because here are the various sorts of places other than a bed where I have fallen asleep:

  • On a city bus
  • On the metro train, several times, often when very full

See? People fall asleep on the train all the time.
(Photo by Tyler Campbell)

  • At work, during lunch, while sitting at the break table.
  • On the beach; in my backyard on a blanket; lots of various outside places that aren't that unusual.
  • Also not that unusual, at libraries when I was supposed to be reading or studying.
  • In a waiting room at the doctor's office, waiting for a friend who was seeing the doctor.
  • In a doctor's examining room, with the stupid hospital gown on and everything, waiting for the nurses to give me some tests.
  • When I was a teen-ager, at a slumber party, with MTV blaring and multiple girls talking and laughing and coming and going.
  • Another time when I was a teen-ager, in a church during my friend's Christmas concert rehearsal, I was reading her copy of The Shining while I waited, and then I dozed off. I was awakened by a terrific noise from the pipe organ and momentarily scared out of my wits.
  • On the grass of a college campus, flat on my stomach. It was after exams were over, and I just lay down on the grass and fell asleep. A stranger woke me up and asked me if I was OK. It was only then that I realized I had done an odd thing.
I think it's safe to say that if I'm tired enough, I can sleep just about anyplace. Provided no one is in the room snoring. I have a lot of trouble sleeping through someone else's snoring. But pretty much other than that, if I'm ready to sleep, I'm can fall asleep wherever I am.

But I know I do not have narcolepsy.

Yes, I've done this. But that doesn't mean I have narcolepsy.
(Photo from IvyGate)

  • Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that gives people overwhelming urges to sleep at fairly random times during the day or night. They may fall asleep for only a few seconds or for an hour or longer.
  • Researchers think that narcolepsy is characterized by a blurring of the boundaries between waking and sleeping.
  • Narcoleptics don't get more sleep than the rest of us; instead, they fall asleep at the wrong times during the day, often involuntarily. Then during the night when they're supposed to be asleep, they can't fall asleep or they wake up a lot.
  • Those of us without narcolepsy take about 80 to 100 minutes of early-stage sleep before we hit REM sleep. Narcoleptics, however, enter REM sleep after only a few minutes.
  • Narcoleptics often fall involuntary into sleep, sometimes for only a few minutes or seconds. These are called microsleeps. If the narcoleptic has been doing some task, especially if it is routine or habitual like driving or typing or taking notes, they will often continue to perform that task even during the microsleep.
  • Narcoleptics may wake up to discover they are driving and don't know where they are or how they got there, or awaken in the middle of class to discover their notes are completely illegible and they have no idea what was said for the last half hour, or they wake up to discover they have put all the groceries away but in slightly strange places. And they have no recollection of doing any of these things.
  • People with narcolepsy may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
      • Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). People describe this as "a persistent sense of mental cloudiness," lack of energy, extreme exhaustion, or difficulty remaining alert. This is the most common symptom. This is what makes narcoleptics nod off in the middle of things.
      • Sudden loss of voluntary muscle tone (cataplexy). This is often mis-diagnosed as a seizure, but it more closely resembles the interruption of muscle activity that happens during REM sleep. Some muscles get droopy all of a sudden. It could be that only the eyelids droop suddenly or speech gets slurred or the knees buckle during laughter. Or it could be so extensive that the narcoleptic suddenly unable to speak or move. These things occur while still conscious. These episodes are often accompanied by extreme emotions such as anxiety, fear, excitement, or humor. Laughter is the most frequently reported trigger for cataplexy.

A narcoleptic teenager waiting for a bout of cataplexy to pass. It really bites that laughter is usually what precedes something like this. I would come to dread laughing.
(Photo from Psychology Wiki)

      • Vivid hallucinations just as sleep is coming on or while waking up. Usually the hallucinations are visual, but they can involve any of the senses. Again, these experiences are similar to what occurs during REM sleep. Basically, this amounts to experiencing your dreams while awake.
      • Brief but total paralysis either at the beginning or end of a sleep episode. This is similar to cataplexy, but this occurs during sleep. When people experience this, they wake up to discover that they can't move and they are terrified they are permanently paralyzed. I only lasts a minute or two and once the episode is over, they can move and speak as they always have. But it sounds horrific.

This is a rough estimate of the likelihood that a narcoleptic will have each of the four major symptoms of narcolepsy.
(Graph from Basics of Sleep Research's Sleep Syllabus)

  • Here are some examples from Stanford's Narcolepsy Center of what some of these symptoms look like.
      • In this first movie, a weimararner has lots of occurrences of cataplexy. There's no sound, but you can see the dog's legs kind of give way several times. He's barking, doesn't like it apparently, and finally he passes out.
      • In the second movie, two dogs are running around all excited, and then they both get less and less control over their legs and then they both kind of sink to the floor, paralyzed. Then a dachshund comes in and the same thing happens. A doctor narrates what's going on. He says "See? Completely paralyzed" a lot.

These dogs are not asleep; they are all in cataplexia, the state of paralysis associated with narcolepsy. Two of these dogs are in the second movie linked to above.
(Photo from Stanford University, sourced from Science Online)

  • It is often 10 to 15 years before narcolepsy is accurately diagnosed.
  • About 1 in 2,000 people have it, or about .03% of the population.
  • Narcolepsy usually makes itself known between the ages of 35 and 45. It can also show up at a younger age, between 10 and 25, and it may be mis-diagnosed as or associated with attention deficit disorder. It is less likely to appear once you hit 50, but it has shown up in a few people at that age or older.
  • Researchers think it appears due to a combination of genes and experiences, particularly those that are stressful or traumatic. But the researchers are really only guessing.

Horses can have narcolepsy, too. If a horse droops, then buckles suddenly but appears to be awake and there's no seizure, your horse may have narcolepsy.
(Photo from Horse and

  • Nobody knows for sure what causes it. They think it's related to a deficiency in a particular chemical in the brain called hypocretin, but they don't know why there's not enough hypocretin.
  • And there is no cure. Doctors don't yet know how to make use of the knowledge about hypocretin in a way the fixes the problem.
  • There are medications that can help, however. Medications are often prescribed to control the EDS, and these tend to be the same kinds of drugs that are prescribed for depression. Doctors may also prescribe amphetamines (speed), though there are so many negative side-effects with the amphetamines, doctors prefer to prescribe something else instead, if they can.
  • Some narcoleptics may also be given a prescription to help with the cataplexy. The drug used to help with this symptom is Xyrem, better known as GHB, which is often abused and has been dubbed the "date rape drug." Because of the way it has been misused, its prescription is very closely regulated and monitored.
  • People with narcolepsy are encouraged to
      • Try to keep to a regular sleep schedule as much as possible, even if that means taking scheduled naps throughout the day when they tend to feel the most sleepy
      • Avoid caffeine and alcohol, substances which can interfere with the body's sleep mechanisms
      • Refrain from smoking especially near bedtime
      • Exercise regularly, 4 to 5 hours before bedtime
      • Keep a comfortable, warm, and dim bedroom
      • Do soothing things like take warm baths or have a massage before bedtime

People with narcolepsy may sleep while driving without even realizing it
(Photo from

I'm the most curious about narcolepsy and driving.
  • According to what I found -- and it's not necessarily the most recent or complete information -- there are regulations against driving if you have diabetes and might have an insulin attack, if you have severe heart disease, if you have a respiratory condition that might restrict the flow of oxygen to the brain, if you're addicted to alcohol or drugs, if you have visual or hearing impairments. But not much about narcolepsy.
  • A few states have regulations that don't allow people with narcolepsy to drive. Others say you have to wait at least a year after starting treatment before you can get your license. Most have a statement that anything that might lead to a loss of consciousness could be considered a restriction against getting a driver's license. But they don't explicitly include narcolepsy.
  • Your doctor may decide, if you have narcolepsy, that you shouldn't drive at all. Under those conditions, the doctor may fill out some Official Form that would keep you from getting a license.
  • But generally speaking, people with narcolepsy are allowed to drive. I'm guessing this is because medications to control the EDS can be helpful enough that sleep attacks won't happen as often, or can be avoided?
  • Even so, people with narcolepsy are encouraged to make driving accidents less likely by
      • Taking medications as prescribed
      • Planning to drive when sleep attacks are less likely
      • Napping before driving
      • Stopping regularly during long drives to exercise or take breaks or naps
      • Riding with friends or family members
      • Avoiding situations or passengers who might create overexcitement and trigger a sleep or paralysis attack
This seems pretty dangerous to me. I've always thought that sneezing while driving was dangerous enough. But if it's possible you might sack out at the wheel for an undetermined length of time, it seems to me that maybe a different method of transportation might be the wisest choice.

Update: A safety study compiled by General Accounting Office and obtained by the Associated Press reveals that commercial truck drivers are often licensed in spite of having medical conditions that could interfere with their job. As a result, of the 5,300 people who died as a result of commercial trucking accidents in 2006, the majority of crashes were associated with a medical condition of the truck driver's or because the truck driver fell asleep. The doctor who oversees the Federal Motor Carriers Association, which is supposed to regulate who gets a commercial driver's license and who does not, said that this is "one of the biggest causes of occupational deaths in the United States today."

Representatives are going to begin reviewing changes to regulations that would hopefully close some of the loopholes that currently allow truckers who are probably going to pass out to keep driving. Perhaps they'll look into whether or not narcolepsy should be on the list of hazardous medical conditions.

(The GAO report is due to be released later this week)

So, what are some of the stranger places where you've fallen asleep?

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Narcolepsy Information Page and Narcolepsy Fact Sheet
Mayo Clinic, Narcolepsy
Ingfei Chen, "A Leap Forward, but Hurdles Remain in Narcolepsy," Times Essentials: Reporter's File, The New York Times, date unknown but probably some time in 2006.
Sleepnet, Narcolepsy forum, Narcolepsy and Driving, September 13, 1998
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Diseases and Conditions Index, Living with Narcolepsy
Scuba-Doc, Diving with Narcolepsy

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Apple #328: It's the Humidity

The other day, I was temporarily without a car, so I was taking the bus to work. I had already ridden on one bus and was waiting at a stop for the second. It was a sunny day and warm, but not especially hot, and every once in a while a nice little breeze came up with a lovely cooling effect. But though the temperature wasn't hot, the air was very humid. I was standing still, reading some poorly written free newspaper, and the sweat was rolling off of me as if I'd been running for miles. I was very glad when the air-conditioned bus arrived and I could get out of that humidity.

(Image from the City of Ann Arbor)

I've noticed that high levels of humidity bother me now more than they used to when I was younger. So I'm curious about a lot of things having to do with humidity: why do we perspire more when it's more humid? Do high levels of humidity somehow put more of a strain on our bodies so that we feel more tired as a result? What are the effects on our health when we're in very humid environments?

  • Actually, it is incorrect to say that we sweat more when it is more humid. Our bodies produce the same amount of perspiration whether it is humid or dry; what makes us sweat more is higher temperatures.
  • To understand why we feel like we sweat more when it's humid, it's useful to review how sweat works in the first place:
  • Sweat is our body's way of cooling us off when it gets hot.
      • Sweat glands release a mixture of water and various salts and potassium through tiny ducts up to the surface of the skin.

Sweat gland and its duct leading to the skin's surface
(Diagram from Skin Care Forum)

      • Once that water is up there on the skin, the water discovers it's pretty warm out there, maybe even warmer than it was in the body, and it wants to evaporate.
      • It is a pretty big deal for any element of matter to change states -- in this case, for liquid (sweat) to become a gas (water vapor) -- and it therefore requires a decent amount of energy to make that conversion happen. In this case, the heat of your body provides that energy, and the sweat therefore evaporates.

Simple diagram of how evaporation happens as the temperature goes up
(Mark Swindle, World Book, sourced from NASA)

      • The clever part is that in that evaporation process, the heat from your body has been "spent," so to speak, on the evaporation. So not only has the sweat evaporated, but your body has also been cooled off by the amount of energy it took for the evaporation to occur.
  • This process doesn't work quite so neatly when the air is very humid. When it's humid, there is already a lot of moisture in the air, and unless the temperature goes up so more, no more water will evaporate into it. So the sweat on your skin stays there. Because it doesn't evaporate, your skin doesn't get to spend its heat-energy on the evaporation process. So now instead of being cooled off by sweating, all you feel is hot and damp.

So what is too much humidity? First, allow me to clarify what most people mean when they say "humidity."
  • If you look at a weather report than includes some mention of humidity, it will usually display it in terms of a percent. The figure they're giving you is actually the relative humidity.
      • Relative humidity is the amount of water vapor present in the air divided by the amount of water vapor that could possibly be present in the air.

This diagram demonstrates the concept of relative humidity, how higher temperatures can accommodate more water vapor.
(Diagram from Physical

      • The higher the temperature, the greater the amount of water that could be evaporated into the air (turned to vapor).
      • So in order to figure relative humidity, you have to know three things: 1) the amount of water vapor in the air 2) the current temperature 3) the amount of water vapor that could possibly be in the air at that temperature.
      • Let's say you've measured the amount of water vapor in the air and discovered that there are 20 grams of water per cubic meter of air. The temperature also happens to be 86 degrees F (30 C). Meteorologists tell us that air at that temperature "can hold" 30 grams of water per cubic meter of air. So you'd calculate the relative humidity by dividing the amount of water vapor present (20) by the amount possible (30), and you'd get 66.6%.

So what does that mean? So what if the relative humidity is 67%? Who cares except a devoted meteorologist and the Apple Lady and maybe one or two other nuts?
  • The reason you do care, probably without realizing it, is that most people are comfortable at relative humidity levels around 45%. If the relative humidity is at 67%, the sweat that your body produces won't evaporate very well and you will be experiencing more discomfort from the heat as a result.
  • Furthermore, lots of things that make people allergic are more active at humidity levels above 50%. Molds are thriving and releasing their spores in that moisture-rich environment, dust mites are happily rolling around their balls of dust and fecal matter, and all sorts of pollen are hanging around in the air on those particles of water vapor. So if you've got allergies, you're probably going to discover you're sneezing and coughing more often if the humidity is over 50%.

You might find yourself doing this more often when it's more humid
(Photo from EHS Innovators)

  • Furthermore, people's asthma tends to get triggered more often when relative humidity is over 50%. Bacteria and viruses love to thrive when the humidity ranges from 50% to 70%. If you've got arthritis, you're going to feel the ache more at humidity over 50%.
  • The higher the relative humidity, the more susceptible you are to things like heat stroke, heat rashes, or heat exhaustion. This is because, as we've discussed, at higher humidity, your body's cooling system doesn't work as well, so the heat has a greater effect on your body at lower temperatures.
      • Meteorologists have a method of expressing this, called the Heat Index. It's based on quite a complex calculation, but it is a function of the temperature and the humidity, to provide an expression of how hot it feels.
      • In our example, the temperature is 86 degrees F and the relative humidity is 67%. According to NOAA's Heath Index calculator, that means those conditions will feel like 94 degrees F. And at 94 degrees, your body heats up and gets tired a whole lot faster than it does at 86 degrees.

Here's another way of depicting the heat index. The humidity and the temperature work together to raise the heat index.
(Chart from NOAA's National Weather Service)

If you can get the relative humidity below 50%, you'd be so much more comfortable for this army of reasons (dust mites tend to die off, molds get less active and dry up, perspiration is more likely to evaporate, etc.). So how do you reduce the humidity?

You could move to a part of the planet where there is less humidity. On this map, dark gray areas tend to be humid. Yellow and tan regions are arid (dry).
(Map of the Global Humidity Index from the University of Arizona Office of Arid Lands Studies)

  • Well, you can't do anything about the air outside. But you can do something about the air inside.
      • You can run an air conditioner, which runs hot air over condenser coils and removes both heat and moisture (this is why you get water dripping from an air conditioning unit in your house or in your car).
      • Or you can run a dehumidifier, set at around 45%. A dehumidifier works very much like an air conditioner, except it is even better at reducing the moisture in the air. Sometimes even a central A/C unit will work more efficiently with the aid of a dehumidifier.

The LG 45 Pint Dehumidifier with Electronic Controls got one of the highest customer ratings from Epinions, and you can get it through Amazon for about $110.

  • When you are outside or are otherwise in high-humidity conditions, you can take steps to keep yourself from getting overheated:
      • Stay hydrated to replenish the moisture you're losing to perspiration.
      • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothes, preferably made of cotton. You don't want to be wearing fabrics that will trap and keep the heat and perspiration close to you.
      • If you're exercising or doing strenuous work, give yourself time to adjust. Start slowly and increase your pace slowly, and also allow for a longer than usual period to cool down.
      • Allow yourself to take breaks.
      • Wear a hat and sunscreen, even if it's cloudy.
      • If it's at all possible, avoid strenuous work or exercise in the hottest part of the day. (Most people think this is around noon, but actually, this is around 5 to 6 pm.)

Spreading asphalt has always looked to me like one of the hottest jobs ever.
by Matt Smith from LeHigh Valley Live)

MadSci Network, Why do people sweat more in humid weather?
Howstuffworks, Why We Sweat and What is relative humidity and how does it affect how I feel outside?
Jack Williams, Getting a handle on humidity, USA Today, July 18, 2005
Duane Johnson, "Hate the Humidity?" housekeeping channel
Relative Humidity and Health, Engineering Toolbox
US Dept of Energy, A Consumer's Guide to Energy Efficiency, Your Home, Central Air Conditioners
EmaxHealth, Exercising Safely in the Summer Heat and Humidity

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Apple #327: Summer Reading

I love books. I love reading. Reading is one of my favorite things to do. I like holding books, I like paging through them, I like looking things up in books. I like going to libraries (I used to be a librarian, you know), and I like going to bookstores -- used or new -- and finding treasures. I like books with pictures in them. I like listening to people read books to me. I like reading before I go to sleep at night, and I like reading while I eat my lunch.

My dad said to me once, looking up from a book he was reading, "Aren't books wonderful things? Somebody took the time to write all of this down so other people could read it. Magnificent."

My thoughts exactly.

As you probably know, I was off on vacation for a week. I went to one of the best places in the world, ever, and it was beautiful there. I did quite a few outside things, but I also did a ton of reading. I was there with my parents, and at two or three points throughout each day, in between running errands or fixing this & that, we would stop for lunch or a snack and read. At the beginning of the day, we'd start out with the paper, and then as we finished with that, we'd each move to our respective novels and histories. By night time, the three of us would all be sitting around the coffee table -- my dad in the big wooden rocking chair, my mom in the blue upholstered rocking chair, and me on the couch -- reading. Familial bliss.

Want to know what we were reading? Okay.

My dad:

  • Mr Lincoln's Army, and then A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton. They are 2 of the 3 volumes in the set called The Army of the Potomac. My dad read out loud a few passages to my mom and me, one in which Lincoln paid a visit to General McClellan who was taking his time about things. Lincoln said to McClellan, "If you don't want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for a while." My dad likes Civil War histories almost as much as he likes World War II histories, but he especially likes Bruce Catton's writing style. John Miller, one of Amazon's reviewers agrees: "If every historian wrote like Bruce Catton, no one would read fiction."

  • He finished those two and moved on to Panama Fever: The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time-- the Building of the Panama Canal, which is just out this year, and something my mom brought home from the library for him. It has several photographs, and my dad always starts a history book at the photos and reads forward from there. He showed me one photo of the locks when they were closed, no water on the side from which the photo was being taken. I don't know the height of those enormous metal doors, but the person standing in front of them looked about the size of a wee pencil in comparison. He also read out that Panama had several feet of rain one year when the canal was being built. Yes, that's feet.
  • Waiting in the wings for him are several P.D. James mysteries. He likes P.D. James quite a bit. He says sometimes the things that happen are distasteful, but he enjoys the writing so much he's willing to overlook the unsavory parts. The next one on top of the pile is A Taste for Death (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries, No. 7).

My mom:

  • Immediate Family by Eileen Goudge. She told me it's about four friends, one of them a man, and each of the friends has a different and somewhat dramatic thing going on. One of the friends, a woman, really wants a baby. So the wife of the man tells him to go get her pregnant, which he does (reminded me of The Big Chill). In the meantime, someone also seems to have been involved in the shooting of the girlfriend of an aging rock star. My mom said she knew right away who the guilty culprit was, but having figured out that mystery certainly didn't ruin her interest because she read the whole thing in a day or two, even stayed up late one night to finish it.
  • I didn't see the title of the next book she started, but I know that she bought a copy of Henri Nouwen's Our Greatest Gift: Meditation on Dying and Caring at the used book store one day. She really likes Henri Nouwen, and when she sees one of his books (used) that she doesn't already have, she'll buy it. She said the way she reads his books is a page or sometimes only a paragraph at a time, and then she puts it down and thinks about it, lets it sink in for a while.
  • To make up for the fact that I didn't see the title of the next thing she read, I'll tell you that she also likes novels by Jan Mitford, the Miss Julia series by Ann B. Ross, and she liked quite a few novels by Elizabeth Berg. Recently, she read One True Thing by Anna Quindlen, and she liked that. She sometimes likes Tess Gerritsen (scary, says my mom), and every once in a while when she can't find anything else she'll read a Danielle Steele and sort of put up with it.

  • The Men and the Girls by Joanna Trollope. That is a thoroughly stupid cover and does not fit her writing style at all. Joanna Trollope is one of my recent finds, and fortunately she is wonderfully prolific, so I almost always find a book of hers that I haven't read yet. She takes a situation in marriages or families -- second marriages with step-children, for example, or couples who are unfaithful with friends, or young women who are searching for careers and romance at the same time, or in this case, older men (60s ish) who are married to younger women (early 30s ish) -- and shows how it plays out in two families. Trollope is really good at making the children real and moving among everybody's point of view, keeping you up to date on what everybody is thinking. When they start freaking out, she lets you follow along as they figure out why. She's very big on no self-pity, and if a character gets too caught up with a particular house or apartment at the expense of someone else, you can bet that character is going to wind up the loser.
  • I'm also wading through You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oates. This is the fourth JCO novel I've read in a row (I have my reasons), and it's getting a little old. She usually combines a tale about somebody who suffers some extraordinary violence at the beginning with some sort of cultural situation. In one book, the cultural situation was the lawyers and how corrupt they can be, in another it was doctors. In this one, it's the Cold War and bomb shelters. That topic never interested me to begin with. The place where I've paused in this book has taken a break from the personal story and is spending time on Eisenhower and bomb shelters and panic about nuclear war, and I find it dull. As soon as the story of incest with the uncle picks up again, I might get back into it. But this might be one that fades away.
  • Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel, by William Trevor, is one that I'm reading with great interest. In this novel, Mrs. Eckdorf is a photographer who finds out about very personal, heart-wrenching stories and goes and takes photographs of the people involved and publishes it all in documentary-like coffee table books. She's shown up at the O'Neill Hotel in Dublin because she believes some terrible tragedy happened there in the past, and she's determined to find out what it is and get pictures of everybody still caught up in the tragedy. But the people who live in this dilapidated hotel that is sometimes used for prostitution do not cooperate with Mrs. Eckdorf's plans. Mrs. Eckdorf, sometimes prone to shouting at herself in German in the middle of the street, kind of loses it. I find this book especially interesting to read during our current mania for tell-all memoirs. William Trevor has such a deft and gentle touch, and this novel is no exception. The novels of his I like best are those that deal with people who are off their rockers. So in my estimation, this is at the top of my list of his books.

  • From the library, I checked out a copy of Mrs. Pollifax and the Second Thief on tape, to listen to in the car on my drive back. I like to listen to books on tape as I'm driving long distances, but I make sure to pick novels that don't require intense thought, otherwise I tend to drive past exists and other places where I'm supposed to turn. My mom and I used to read Mrs. Pollifax books back when I was maybe 12 or so, and when she declared that the newer ones weren't as good, I took her word for it and left them behind. This title is the 16th of 22 and it's not too bad. Anyway, if you're not familiar, Emily Pollifax is a grandmother, a member of her garden club, has studied karate for enjoyment for years, and winds up becoming a spy for the CIA. Listening to this book now, I think the CIA sounds more British than American, or at least her two handlers, Carstairs and Bishop, seem far more gentle than I imagine most CIA guys to be. She gets into all kinds of scrapes (in this one, she's in Sicily being followed by many suspicious cars and being tracked by a notorious international assassin). Her adherence to manners, decency, and common sense are what help to get her out again. And she sometimes has the help of a dashing fellow agent named John Sebastian Farrell. In this one, Farrell is wounded and needs her help.

Hopefully, at least one book from all these titles will pique your interest and you'll check it out from your local library or book store. If you're not interested in any of these but you'd like some more suggestions, click on my label entries about art and books, and scroll down to find a few entries about other books and authors.

Or of course, a great place to look is at your local library's web site. Usually, libraries have lists of recommendations under such titles as "Recommended Reads" or "Reader's Advisory" or "If You Liked [Author Name Here]." Your local library is a great resource. Don't be afraid to ask the librarians for suggestions. For a librarian, that's the very best kind of question to be asked -- in my opinion, and I think most librarians would agree -- because you get to talk to people about books and what they like to read. Yum.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Apple #326: Tilapia

Okay, remember that dinner party where we wound up talking about outer space? Well, one of the things we ate at that dinner party was some very tasty tilapia, prepared by our talented and thoughtful host.

I am not normally a fish-lover -- it's the texture that gets to me first, and then the fishy flavor, so lots of fish is pretty much off my menu. But I enjoyed the tilapia. There was a lemony sauce on top, nothing too overwhelming, but enough to give it a bit of sweet flavor. It was kind of like the fish version of chicken.

We all commented on it, complimented our host of course, wondered where it came from. (Aha, thought I. Some Daily Apple material here.) I guessed South America. Sounded like a good enough guess to everyone.

  • My guess was wrong. Tilapia comes from North Africa. The most prevalent species of Tilapia is the Nile Tilapia.
  • One thing to note is that some people confuse Nile Perch (Lates niloticus) and Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus). They are actually different types of fish.

Nile perch (Lates niloticus)
(Image from Wikipedia)

      • Nile perch live mainly in the major lakes of Africa
      • They have an almost pointy head, and they are silver with a blue tinge
      • They are super aggressive eaters, and will eat bugs, crustaceans, and other fish, including its own species.
      • Nile perch is very popular and has been introduced to a lot of places, but because it's so aggressive, it has either eaten or almost eradicated several species.

Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus)
(Image from the Southern Regional Aquatic Center)

  • Nile Tilapia like to eat water plants and algae, but they'll also eat little tiny animals and plankton. They don't filter the plankton the way that carp do. Instead, they secrete a mucous on their gills, the plankton gets trapped in the mucous until it forms a ball, and then the fish eats the ball of mucous and plankton. Ew.
  • They generally prefer warm fresh water, but they can tolerate brackish or salty water, too. They don't like true saltwater as much, though, so that means they tend to prefer living and swimming in rivers rather than in sea water. You can, of course, also raise them in ponds and tanks.

Nile Tilapia swimming around. One of the things they like to eat is mosquito eggs. So some scientists think they might be helpful in reducing the spread of malaria.
(Photo from

  • They don't mind a lot of nitrites in the water, and they're very resistant to diseases that tend to wipe out other types of fish.
  • They also spawn and grow quickly, so it doesn't take long before you can eat them. This is why lots of countries around the world are raising and eating tilapia.
  • Because they grow so quickly and easily, even in poorer conditions, they can become an invasive species, too, if they are not managed properly.

A bunch of farm-raised Nile tilapia that have just been caught.
(Photo from

  • But now, lots of people raise tilapia, mainly on fish farms, all over the world.
  • Most of the frozen tilapia sold in the US comes from China. Some food advisory people say to avoid tilapia raised in China and Taiwan because they tend to live in waters that are more polluted than what people in the US would allow.
  • But you can also get fresh tilapia that's grown up in Central America, in countries like Honduras, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago.
  • It's also raised in various places in the US, such as in Virginia and South Carolina. But it's such a relatively easy fish to raise, and it tolerates tank life very well, that probably you could find fresh tilapia that comes from just about any place.
  • In fact, they are so prolific that people in Indonesia used to regard them as pests, until they started eating them.

Fillets of Nile tilapia
(Photo from

  • Because it doesn't have a very strong fishy flavor, tilapia is becoming increasingly popular in the US. In fact, it is now the fifth-most consumed fish in the United States, behind other favorites like tuna and salmon.
  • Some chefs, though, poo-poo the tilapia. "Insipid," they call it. "Sponge-like," "flavorless," and "trash fish." These chefs are too good for the tilapia, apparently.

What grilled tilapia could look like on your plate
(Photo from's 7 Ways with Tilapia)

  • Mainly, you can grill it, broil it, or bake it -- pretty much the same as with most fish.
  • One easy recipe says to put the fillets on a piece of foil, give them each a tablespoon of butter, salt & pepper them, add some garlic, basil, and chopped tomato. Pour a cup of white wine over the lot, roll up the foil, stick it on the grill (medium heat) for 15 minutes until they're flaky. And that's it.
  • Another one that requires only slightly more work sounds pretty good to me, too: Tilapia with balsamic butter sauce. Simmer the vinegar and some garlic in a saucepan until it reduces, for about 5 minutes, set it aside. Salt & pepper the fish, put them in a skillet with some oil, and saute them for about 2 minutes per side. Then add some butter to the vinegar sauce, pour it over the fish, and you're done.

If you prefer spicy, you might want to try the Tilapia with Spicy Mango Salsa
(Recipe and Photo from In the Kitchen)

And with that, I am taking my leave for a bit. I'm going off on vacation. I'll be back probably on Sunday. Not sure whether I'll be able to give you a new entry on Sunday night or not. We'll see.

In the meantime, enjoy those fireworks and watermelons!

Len Spoden, "Two Sides to Every Tilapia," The Washington Post, August 8, 2007
Aquaculture blog, Tilapia Culture, February 3, 2007 -- a great overview
American Tilapia Association, FAQs for Tilapia -- these links open separate Word documents, which in some cases are not what the links say they're going to be.
Thomas Popma and Michael Masser, "Tilapia: Life History and Biology," Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, March 1999
Randy Sell, Department of Agricultural Economics, North Dakota State University, Tilapia