Thursday, August 28, 2008

Labor Day Weekend

I'm heading out of town. So there won't be a Daily Apple this Sunday, sorry to say. See you later next week.

(Photo from Muskoka Park)

In the meantime, have a relaxing Labor Day weekend.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Apple #337: The Fork, Italy, and Pasta

Once upon a time, I wrote an entry about lasagna. Ever since, I've had in the back of my mind that I wanted to find out more about the development of the fork and how it changed food and eating and table manners and all the rest of it.

So I've done a bit of reading online about all of this, and the best way to present this, I think, is in terms of a timeline. Because according to what I'm finding now, nobody is saying that the growth in popularity of the fork is directly related to the growth in popularity of pasta in Italy. But the two things did happen around the same time.

Every good scientist knows that correlation does not imply causation, so I will not go so far as to suggest that the fork allowed people to eat more pasta, or that people liked eating pasta so much they started using the fork more because it made pasta-eating easier. No, I will not suggest any such things. But I will present the facts in sequence, and if you want to make the leap, I won't stop you.

  • The fork is known to have been in use in such ancient cultures as Greece and Egypt. But once Rome got sacked and the Dark Ages hit, just about everybody in Europe forgot about the fork along with everything else they'd learned. Stupid Dark Ages.
  • However, over in the Middle East, people were still using forks.
  • Forks looked different back then: most of them had two tines instead of the four we're used to now, and the tines were much longer and pointier. Mainly, they were used for spearing meat and carrying it to your plate, or for holding the meat steady while you cut it with a sharp knife.
  • In the 11th century or so, a princess named Theodora from Byzantium (Turkey, or generally, the Middle East, where people still remembered and used the fork) married a nobleman who lived in Venice. When she moved to Venice to be with her betrothed, she brought, among other things, a case full of the two-tined forks that her folks were accustomed to using.

Byzantine Empire, around 1190 A.D., showing roughly where the princess with the forks came from.
(Map from The Maskukat Collection of Medieval & Islamic Coins)

  • They had dinner parties, as noblepeople are wont to do, and at these parties the Byzantine princess used her delicate, golden two-tined forks to hold her meat and cut it in to pieces. Well. The Venetian nobles and the clergy were very scandalized.
  • The clergy were perhaps the most scandalized of anybody. They said that God gave people natural forks, which are the fingers on one's hand, and to use anything else is to insult God. So they turned up their noses at the Byzantine princess and actually banned forks. Oh, wisdom, where had you gone?
  • But apparently, Theodora kept eating with her forks. Then she got some sort of mysterious disease (probably wouldn't be mysterious now, but back in those dark days, nobody knew what it was), and died not very long after she came to Venice.
  • Of course everybody chalked her death up to the fact that she ate with forks instead of her fingers. They said "her excessive delicacy" is what caused her death.
  • Even though the Italian clergy had said the forks were anti-God, people apparently kept using them because when Catherine de Medici (Italian) married Henry II (English) in 1533, her dowry included dozens of dinner forks.

Catherine de Medici, influential in so many ways, including bringing the dinner fork to England.
(Image of a miniature from the Victoria & Albert Museum, sourced from

Golden fork with a coral handle, circa 1590-1610. Could be something like the forks that Catherine de Medici had. In fact, I think this fork looks a little bit like her: gilded, firm, and haughty.
(Image from Cutlery of the Middle Ages and Renaissance)

  • In fact, by the late 16th century (a.k.a. the high 1500s), more and more Italians were using the fork. They liked it because cleanliness was all the rage at that time, and the fork helped keep their fingers from getting stained while they ate.
  • English noble people who traveled to Italy on the all-important tour of Europe encountered Italians eating with forks. This was commented on as something of an oddity, but the Englishmen did note that the Italians' method of eating with the fork kept them from touching the food with their fingers, and since "all men's fingers are not alike cleane," this was a pretty good idea.

16th century fork from Naples
(Image from Cutlery of the Middle Ages and Renaissance)

  • So more English people started using the fork, and so did people in France, but by the early 1600s, it still hadn't entirely caught on yet. In France, for example, a few people were mainly using the fork to help them eat dishes that had sticky or gooey sauces, or something that might stain the fingers.
  • Among those French people who did use the fork, it was especially popular with the courtesans. So then the French clergy got all wound up about the forks, too, and they said that forks were an immoral influence and banned forks from France. Brilliant.
  • Even so, enough rich people in England had started using the fork that in 1633, Charles I of England declared, "It is decent to use a fork." This is considered by food historians to be the birth of the modern table setting and table manners as we know them today.
  • Though it was now all of a sudden "decent" for English nobility to use a fork in 1633, it took a while before the common people throughout England and France were using forks regularly. But of course it took a while longer before the fork evolved from its two-tined form to his four-tined version with the blunted ends that we use today.

Two-tined forks, English and German, from the 19th, 17th, and 18th centuries, respectively
(Image from The History of the Fork)

  • Lots of people credit Marco Polo with bringing pasta to Italy from China. But really, they probably got it from the Etruscans, because the Romans were making something called "lagane," or "laganon," the forerunner to today's lasagna as early as 1 A.D.
  • The lagane used flat noodles that were baked, not boiled. So most people don't even really consider lagane to be the first pasta noodle. Instead, food historians think that Italy's first pasta noodle actually came from the Middle East (the same part of the world where the fork came from).
  • The Arabs conquered Sicily in about the 8th century A.D., and when they settled in there, they brought a certain kind of dried noodle made from durum wheat flour with them.

Map showing Italy and the island of Sicily, where Palermo was the place that the Arabs conquered and brought their pasta to the Italians.
(Map from Student Britannica)

  • Soon the Sicilians were calling this "maccaruni," because it means "made into dough by force," referring to the fact that you kind of have to beat up on durum wheat flour to make it into a noodle.
  • Actually, though the name resembles today's word "macaroni," the pasta looked more like spaghetti: long, flat noodles.
  • The dried pasta started becoming a staple not just in Sicily but across the rest of Italy, too, because it had a long shelf life and was easy to store as well as to make.
  • By the 1600s, pasta had started to become popular in the northern parts of Italy because there was an economic crisis around Naples at that time, and it was hard to get meat and fish without paying a lot of money. So more Italians started eating pasta, because the flour was much cheaper.
  • Because the demand for pasta was on the rise, some Neapolitans figured out how to make pasta in a more industrialized way. Instead of kneading it entirely by hand, they extruded it through a die, so it was faster to make. It was also easier to dry and it had a longer shelf life. So not only did this reduce the cost and make it even cheaper for people to buy, this also made it easier to transport the dried pasta farther and farther away.

Poster of people in Italy drying pasta. They'd figured out how to make enough of it at once that they'd get batches of this size.
(Photo from

  • Now, you'll remember that it was also in the 1600s that people in England had started noticing that the Italians were eating their dinners with forks. The way the English reported it, the Italians were using forks to cut their meat. No mention of anybody eating pasta yet. But that's probably because it was the rich people in Italy who were using forks, and the rich people could probably still afford to eat meat.
  • Pasta was gaining in popularity, and it wasn't too long before even the rich Italians were eating it. In the 1700s, someone in the court of King Ferdinand II of Italy got the idea to start eating the pasta with a fork that had four short prongs, and soon not only were the rich people eating pasta, they were eating it with forks.
  • The common people, though, were still eating their pasta with their fingers. As late as the 1800s, most people got their pasta from street vendors who cooked it over a charcoal fire and served it without any sauce (except maybe a little goat cheese). The passersby who bought the vendors' pasta ate it with their hands.

  • Then in 1839, peasants in Italy fell on hard times again. Explorers had brought the tomato plant back from the Americas, so there were these tomato plants growing here and there and producing fruit. Up until this point, everybody thought tomatoes were poisonous because they are, after all, a member of the nightshade family.

Now, if you had never seen such a plant before, would you think it was poisonous? It is a tomato plant.
(Photo from Harvest to Table)

  • But then somebody was just plain too hungry and they said, screw it, I'm eating the tomato. Lo and behold, it was not poisonous. Not only that, it went really well with the cheap pasta that people were eating. Thus the first spaghetti with tomato sauce was born.
  • Now here is where I really inject my suppositions. I'm thinking that at this point, more and more people are using the fork. They see how it keeps the saucey staining stuff off their fingers. And now that they've just added tomatoes and sauce to the pasta, and the pasta is really long and slippery, how are they going to pick that stuff up? Best thing to use, clearly, is the fork.
  • So it's my theory that the fork and the pasta and the tomato all helped each other out. Now, I don't know if you'll find anybody else who agrees with this exact interpretation of events. But I think we probably owe our entire method of eating meals with a fork to the Italians and their spaghetti with marinara sauce.

So much history comes together right here.
(Image from Allposters, where you can buy a poster of this image)

Dennis Sherman, A History of the Table Fork
Suzanne Von Drachenfels, A Short History of the Fork, from The Art of the Table
Life in Italy, Pasta History
In Mama's Kitchen, The History of Pasta
Anna Maria Volpi, A Passion for Cooking
European Commission Education and Culture Lifelong Learning Programme, History of Pasta
The Nibble, The History of Pasta

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Apple #336: You're So Vain

The response to my request for votes on the topic of the next Apple was purely overwhelming. Two people voted -- one person voted twice. Now, I do not mean to diminish the importance of these two votes. If you want something, you have to speak up and ask for it, and these people were bold enough to do that. They participated in the opportunity for democracy! They did not turn an indifferent eye on your beloved Daily Apple!

But since so many of you did not participate in the opportunity for democracy, I am going to exercise my power as dictator of this here Daily Apple and decide which of the three options I gave you I feel most like discussing today. Although the Acerbic Penguin voted twice for the fork, that entry will take quite a bit of searching and compiling and otherwise effort, and I'm pretty wiped out today. And besides, who doesn't want to know who Carly Simon is speaking to when she says, "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you"?

Just to get you all in the right frame of mind for thinking about this song, here are the lyrics:

You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht
Your hat strategically dipped below one eye
Your scarf it was apricot
You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte
And all the girls dreamed that they'd be your partner
They'd be your partner, and....

You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you
You're so vain, I'll bet you think this song is about you
Don't you? Don't you?

You had me several years ago when I was still quite naive
Well you said that we made such a pretty pair
and that you would never leave

But you gave away the things you loved and one of them was me
I had some dreams they were clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee and....

You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you.....

Well I hear you went up to Saratoga and your horse naturally won
Then you flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun
Well, you're where you should be all of the time
And when you're not you're with
Some underworld spy or the wife of a close friend
Wife of a close friend, and....

You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you.....

Carly Simon in 1973, having dated quite a few famous men.
(Photo from the Daily Mail Online)

  • This song hit #1 on the Billboard charts in January of 1973. Ever since, people have been asking Carly Simon, the song's writer and performer, who the song is referring to.
  • She has said, though, that it is a composite of three men she knew -- or were her boyfriends -- when she used to live in Los Angeles.
  • So of course, the speculation has continued. Here are some of the people rumored to be the song's subject.

Warren Beatty

Still from Bonnie & Clyde, which was released in 1967. Note the hat, strategically dipped.
(Photo from Warner Bros, sourced from

  • Carly said, when asked if it was him, "It certainly sounds like it was about him. He certainly thought it was about him -- he called me and said thanks for the song." (That sounds like he meets one of the primary criteria right there.)
  • Until his marriage to Annette Bening when he was 55 years old, Beatty was a notorious womanizer. For roughly thirty years, he had multiple affairs with princesses, pizza parlor waitresses, actresses -- you name her, he probably dated her.
  • Here are some--but surely not all--of his more famous ex-girlfriends, in no particular order. Reading this list, I am not so much impressed at his prowess as I am dismayed at some of the women who fell prey to his wiles:
      • Carly Simon
      • Natalie Wood
      • Brigitte Bardot
      • Justine Bateman
      • Daryl Hannah
      • Faye Dunaway
      • Joan Collins
      • Jane Fonda
      • Linda McCartney
      • Kate Jackson
      • Raquel Welch
      • Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
      • Madonna
      • Mary Tyler Moore
      • Joni Mitchell
      • Barbra Streisand
      • Vivien Leigh
      • Elle Macpherson
      • Connie Chung
      • Diane Sawyer
      • Cher
      • Diana Ross
      • Candice Bergen
      • Princess Margaret
      • Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia
      • Maria Callas
  • Sure looks like lots of girls are dreaming that he'd be their partner.
  • Recent update: A biography, which may or may not be entirely factual, released in 2010 claims that Beatty slept with around 12,775 women from when he lost his virginity at age 20 until he married Annette Bening in 1992. Lauren Falcone of the Boston Herald did the math and figured this means that he would have had to have sex with at least one different woman each day for 34 years.

Now when I see photos of Warren Beatty, I find myself wondering, was that taken before or after he had sex that day? In this photo he's with Jack Nicholson and Lauren Bacall in 1977. Speaking of people with high numbers, I wonder what Jack Nicholson's is.
(Photo from Novak's blog)

  • Warren Beatty's mother was born in Nova Scotia -- which is where the man in the song flies his Lear jet to watch the eclipse.
  • Woody Allen once joked that if reincarnation exists, he would like to come back as Warren Beatty's fingertips.
      • Warren Beatty used to say to women over the phone, "What's new, pussycat?" Woody Allen found out about that and used it as the title of his very first film (which I think is one of the most hilarious things I have ever seen) about a thoroughgoing womanizer who finds it extraordinarily difficult to stop seeing other women and get married.

What's New, Pussycat stars Peter O'Toole as the Warren Beatty-like philanderer, Peter Sellers as his insane psychotherapist, and Woody Allen as sort of the counterpoint to Peter O'Toole. Sheer wackiness.

      • Beatty was supposed to star in it, but then Woody Allen's part started getting more air time, and Beatty's role got smaller and smaller until he got mad and quit. Regardless, they remained friends and both dated Diane Keaton off and on for several years. Oh, how nice.

This was well after Carly Simon wrote her song, but Warren Beatty was on the cover of Playgirl in 1987.
(Photo from

  • Shirley MacLaine is his sister. That has nothing to do with anything in this entry; I just find that fact astonishing.

Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger in 1971, with Bianca. He is wearing a scarf and a hat, but not quite in the style the song seems to suggest.
(Photo from Great black and white pictures from 1964-1974)

  • This guess surprises me a bit. But he did sing back-up vocals on the song. Here's how that bit of teamwork came about, according to Simon:
I was in London, it was 1972 and he happened to call at the studio while I was doing the background vocals with Harry Nilsson. Mick said "Hey, what cha doin'?" and I said "We're doing some backup vocals on a song of mine....why don't you come down and sing with us?"

So Mick and Harry and I stood around the mike singing you're so vain and Harry was such a gentleman - he knew the chemistry was between me and Mick; in terms of the singing, so he sort of bowed out saying "The two of you have a real blend - you should do it yourselves."

And that's how it happened.

  • Apparently, the rumor about Mick Jagger exists because he sang back-up vocals. But would somebody who is getting thoroughly skewered want to sing back-up in a song about how rotten he is?
  • Elsewhere, Carly has denied several times that she ever slept with Jagger. Once upon a time in 1972, Bianca Jagger called up James Taylor -- to whom Carly Simon was not yet married -- and told him that Mick and Carly were having an affair. Taylor said that wasn't true, Simon said it wasn't true, and then Taylor and Simon got married very quickly after that.
  • Here's an interesting little tidbit: one of the people who asked Carly if the song was about Mick Jagger happened to be Diane Sawyer -- another one of Warren Beatty's ex-girlfriends. I wonder what else Carly and Diane talked about that didn't make it into the interview?

James Taylor

James Taylor and Carly Simon just after their wedding in 1973, on the cover of Rolling Stone.
(Photo from Rolling Stone)

  • Since the two of them got married just before the song hit number 1, a lot of people thought it might have been about him.
  • But first of all, that's really a great thing to say about your brand-new husband. Sign of a healthy marriage that'll last for decades. I'm being sarcastic.
  • She straight-out denied that it was about him, which she hasn't done about any of the other men she was asked about. Here's what she said back in 1973:
No, it's definitely not about James, although James suspected that it might be about him because he's very vain. No, he isn't, but he had the unfortunate experience of taking a jet up to Nova Scotia after I’d written the song. He was saved by the fact that it wasn’t a Lear.

  • They are divorced now, though.

Kris Kristofferson

Carly Simon and Kris Kristofferson, Vanity Fair, April 1974?
(Photo sourced from NoGoodForMe filmstills blog)

  • She did date him, and she covered one of his songs ("I've Got to Have You") on her 1971 album.
  • He had been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and a captain in the US Army.
  • He had a pilot's license, but he flew helicopters. In one famous incident, he landed his helicopter in Johnny Cash's yard to give him some tapes of songs.
  • He did have a pretty big problem with the alcohol; it cost him his job as a helicopter pilot when he passed out at the controls, and his wife Rita Coolidge divorced him because he was drinking a bottle & a half of whiskey each day.
  • He also had a job as a janitor for a while. I don't see somebody who's particularly vain working as a janitor.
  • Generally, he's best known as a drinker and a partier and a hard-living guy. Probably a good dose of vanity comes along with that, but I don't see a bunch of girls lining up wanting to be his partner.

Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens in the 1970s. I can't picture him in an apricot scarf and a rakishly tilted hat, can you?
(Photo from Listal)

  • She wrote "Anticipation" about waiting for a date with Cat Stevens.
  • She did write "Anticipation" before she wrote "You're So Vain," so I suppose it's possible she could have looked forward to seeing him and then, once things went south, changed her mind and decided he was vain.
  • But Cat Stevens has since become a Muslim, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and has held concerts to benefit charities like UNICEF. And he wrote "Peace Train," for crying out loud. I really don't think it's him.

My Final Answer

Most recently, in an interview in May of 2008, Carly Simon said:

"When I had the line 'You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you,' that was definitely about one person. The rest of the descriptions basically came from my relationship with that person."

This contradicts what she said much earlier, about it being a composite of three people. And the more I look into these men and her relationship with each of them, the more I'm convinced it is one man: Warren Beatty.

Carly Simon Official Website, So Carly, just who is "You're So Vain" about?
NNDB, Warren Beatty
Who's Dated Who, Warren Beatty
Lauren Beckham Falcone, Warren Beatty was into lights, cameras, and lots of action, Boston Herald, January 5, 2010
Nationmaster, Encyclopedia, What's New, Pussycat
Carly Simon Still Denies Sleeping with Mick Jagger, The Insider, date unknown
Brian Balthazar, "Singer wants to 'Serenade' fans with love songs," MSNBC, October 20, 2005
Wilson & Alroy's Record Reviews, Carly Simon
IMDB, Kris Kristofferson
AOL Music, Kris Kristofferson biography, Cat Stevens
"Carly Simon stays silent about who was so vain," Reuters, May 2, 2008

Monday, August 18, 2008

Apple #335: Trampoline

Well, all those Olympic swimming events were very exciting, especially, of course, the events in which Michael Phelps won the gold medal. The number of new world records that have been set just in the swimming portion of these Olympics is pretty astonishing. I think Bob Costas said that, in this 2008 Olympics, the swimmers have set more new world records than were set in the previous two summer Olympics' swimming events combined.

Today was the last day for any swimming events, so now what? Sort of a ridiculous question, since there are so many events in the summer Olympics. But what shall we focus on now? Most people, I'm sure, will turn their attention to all the track and field events. But that's not where your Apple Lady's curiosity is headed. Instead, let's find out more about a relatively new event in the summer games: the trampoline.

This girl is enjoying the trampoline in her backyard.
(Photo from Super Tramp trampolines, which sells the above trampoline for BP 294.00)

  • There's one event for women and one for men.
  • The trampoline became an Olympic event at the 2000 games in Sydney.
  • The Russians dominated the event at Sydney, and have continued to provide strong trampoline competitors.
  • The Ukraine, Canada, Germany, and China have also won medals in the trampoline.
  • It's a bit strange that Americans haven't done better in this event because the trampoline has long history in the United States.

One trampolinist competing at the Olympic Games in Athens
(Photo from Eric Mirlis' blog about the Athens games)

Here's the history of the trampoline in general:
  • The first trampolines were made of animal skins that people held taut while someone jumped or was tossed by their friends.
  • There are pictures of the Eskimos (Aleut) doing this very thing with walrus skins, and while other ancient folks in China, Egypt, and Persia did the same thing, it's believed that the Eskimos were the first.
  • Firefighters used a "bouncing bed" to catch people who had to jump out of burning buildings.
  • Then a French trapeze artist, du Trampolin, designed the precursor of today's trampoline -- a much smaller version. Circuses would cover the trampoline with bedclothes and use it to perform various comedy routines.
  • In 1935, two Americans re-designed it for gymnastics. One of the Americans was named Larry Griswold (no relation to the Griswolds of the Chevy Chase Vacation movies). Larry Griswold was an assistant coach at the University of Iowa's gymnastics team. The other inventor, George Nissen, was a tumbler on the team.
  • Nissen refined his and Griswold's trampoline to make it portable, and as a gymnast who performed trampoline routines, he played a key role in making trampoline jumping as a competitive event.

George Nissen and a kangaroo, trying out his invention, the modern-day trampoline
(Photo from the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame)

  • During World War II, the U.S. Navy used the trampoline to train naval pilots and navigators how to control their bodies in the air and to help them get over a fear of falling. They also used the trampoline generally to aid in physical conditioning.
  • Trampolining saw its first world championship competition in 1964. The sport has grown (a bit slowly, it's true) in popularity around the world ever since.

Trampolines used in competition today are marked like this one, with a great big plus sign to indicate the center.
(Photo from the University of Bolton's news archive)

Things to watch for during the medal competitions:
  • The athletes have 10 bounces per routine. They try to make each of those 10 bounces as exciting and dynamic as possible, combining flips and twists and turns.
  • Because they want to combine as many skills as possible into each bounce, they want to be able to get as high off the trampoline as possible. So they can reach heights of 10 feet above the trampoline.

Most of the photos of trampoline competitions are like this one, with the athlete totally airborne in some posture, and the trampoline and floor nowhere in sight. This particular athlete is Anna Dogonadze of Georgia (former Soviet Union), who won the gold at Athens in 2004.
(Photo from The World Games)

  • Where a gymnast may fall off the balance beam or miss the high bar doing a complicated flip, a trampolinist may mis-time a bounce or catapult themselves awry so that on the descent they miss the trampoline entirely.
  • This is why the area around the trampoline is surrounded by thick and extensive mats.
  • Trampoliners execute various moves reminiscent of what gymnasts do, combining somersaults and flips and twists. But the names of some of these skills are especially enjoyable. Here's some of the terminology:
      • Adolph - forward somersault with 3-1/2 twists
      • Crash dive - somersault 3/4 complete, landing on the back
      • Fliffis - double somersault with a twist
      • Triffis - triple forward somersault with a twist
      • Quadriffis - quadruple somersault with a twist
      • Rudolph - forward somersault with 1-1/2 twists
      • Randolph - forward somersault with 2-1/2 twists
      • Miller - triple twisting double backward somersault
      • Miller plus - quadruple twisting double backward somersault
      • Lazy back 3/4 - backward somersault 3/4 complete, landing on the stomach

Here's a 7-second YouTube clip of Anatoli Dronov of Russia doing a quadriffis followed by a triffis -- though it looks to me like the second bounce has 4 turns in it.

  • The event is scored similarly to diving and gymnastics, in that an initial mark is given for a routine's difficulty, and a second, execution score is given for how well the competitor executes the routine with 0.5 points deducted for each error.
  • Men's events have difficulty ratings around 15.5 or 16.0, while the women's difficulty ratings are around 13.0 to 14.0.
  • So far, the Chinese and the Russians are in the lead after two rounds of qualifying.
  • The women's finals will be held on Monday the 18th, and the men's final will be on the 19th.

Okay, Daily Apple readers, what would you like to learn about next? Vote for your choice in the comments field of this entry (you need to allow pop-ups to post a comment).

  • The fork and how it changed the foods we eat, and the culture of manners and etiquette and all sorts of things
  • Another Olympic sport
  • Who Carly Simon was really referring to in the song "You're So Vain."

NBC Olympics, Trampoline main page (this site is a huge memory hog), Trampoline history
Jumping on trampoline, The History of Trampolines

Monday, August 11, 2008

Apple #334: The Olympics

I've been watching the Olympics in the evenings, so I haven't been keeping up with my Daily Appling as frequently as I'd like to. So I'll give you a few Olympic facts and then I'm going to check on how the US Swimming team is doing. Haven't those events been fantastic?

"I thought, 'That's ridiculous. I'm at the Olympic Games, I'm here for the United States of America. I don't care how bad it hurts, I'm going after it."
--Jason Lezak, describing what he was thinking in the last few meters of the 4x100 freestyle relay.

  • The original Olympic games were held in Athens in 776 BC.
  • A French guy named Pierre Frédy (the Baron of Coubertin and who is often referred to as Pierre de Coubertin) brought about the revival of the Olympics.

Pierre de Coubertin, the man who made it all happen for us again.
(Photo from Wikimedia)

      • de Coubertin was very passionate about education and he thought that sports and competition was a pathway to a moral education.
      • He decided when he was 31 (this was 1894) that he would make the Olympic games happen again.
      • Two years later, in 1896, it was a reality. The first modern Olympic games were held in Athens.

First Olympic Games (all summer events) in Athens, 1896
(Photo from the IOC)

      • 14 nations participated, but the majority of the athletes were Greek.
  • Those Olympics in 1896 were all summer events. The first winter Olympics were not held until almost 20 years later, in 1924, in Chamonix, France.

First winter Olympic Games, 1924
(Photo from the IOC)

  • It wasn't until the Games in 1912 that participants came from all five continents. A year later, in 1913, de Courbertin designed the Olympic flag with its characteristic five interlocking rings of different colors.

Olympic flag
(Image from Create More Customers)

      • The colors are meant to represent the five continents that participate in the games: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Europe.
      • Because the rings interconnect, and because the flag is supposed to signify the cooperation of all nations, the colors do not correspond to individual continents.
      • At the close of an Olympic games, the mayor of the host city presents the flag to the mayor of the next Olympic Games' host city. The flag is kept in that city until the opening of the games when the flag is raised again.

Olympic flame in Greece, from which the torch is lit
(Photo from monstersandcritics)

  • The Olympic flame is meant to symbolize the death and rebirth of the ancient Olympians, as well as the purity and striving for perfection.
      • Carrying the torch from Athens to the new host city (the torch relay) did not exist until the 1936 games that took place in Berlin.
      • Before the start of each Olympics, a new flame is lit in the ancient Olympic stadium in Olympia, Greece. At the end of each games, the flame is extinguished again.
      • A new torch used to carry the flame to the new host city is designed each year.

Athens, 2004. Very different from the Athens of 1896.
(Photo from CL Productions, who planned the opening & closing ceremonies)

Now I'm going to go check in on the action. If you're still curious, here are some more entries related to the Olympics:

The Olympic Theme Song

1904 Olympic Marathon

Ping Pong (Table Tennis)

International Olympic Committee, Olympic Museum, Permanent Collections
Official Website of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, The Olympic Flag
Enchanted Learning, The Olympic Games
Jennifer Rosenberg, Interesting Olympic Facts,

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Apple #333: The Platypus

I cannot remember now how this came up, but it did. I was e-mailing a friend and I mentioned a platypus. There was a reason; I think I was making a joke, but I can't recall anything further than that. (No, it was not a dirty joke! Sheesh.)

But I wound up looking up information about the platypus. And there are so many strange facts about this animal, I just had to share them with you.

Print of the platypus, by John Gould, from 1863. Goofy-looking, aren't they?
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Nobody agrees what the plural should be.

  • Most of the time, words that end in -us, as platypus does, are Latin words. Usually, to make the plural of these kinds of words is to change the -us to an -i. So lots of people think that the plural of platypus is platypi.
  • Not so.
  • Platypus is actually derived from Greek, not Latin. Specifically, it comes from πλατύς ("platys", flat, broad) and πους ("pous", foot), meaning "flat foot" (see the section below on webbed feet).
  • So the plural of platypus technically should be platypodes. But who in the world ever says platypodes?
  • Some people avoid this difficulty and go for platypuses. But that sounds really awkward, doesn't it?

It's an egg-laying mammal.

  • For an animal to be a mammal, it must give birth to live young, that is, not in an egg the way a chicken or a fish does. But the platypus, a mammal, lays eggs.
  • The platypus also has fur, is warm-blooded, feeds its young with milk produced in mammary glands, has a single bone in its lower jaw, and has three middle ear bones -- all the other characteristics required of mammals.
  • (By the way, five species of mammals lay eggs. The platypus is one, and four species of echidnas make up the rest.)

It has a bill like a duck.

  • But this duck bill is covered in a skin that some describe as leathery, others call rubbery.
  • The nostrils are at the end of the bill, which allows the platypus to breathe even while swimming.
  • But the platypus dives underwater a lot to look for food and dig its burrows, and the fact that its nostrils can be closed off comes in very handy.

Platypus, showing off its amazing bill
(Photo from The Complete Platypus)

  • And this bill -- which really is not that much like a duck's -- is a sensory organ in and of itself. That's right,

It can sense electrical fields caused by muscular movements of its prey.

  • In the skin of the bill are all sorts of receptor cells -- nerve endings, if you like. They can sense touch, like our skin does, hot and cold, etc.
  • But there is also a row of a different kind of receptors -- about 850,000 of them -- that sense electrical impulses.
  • Here's how it works. Say some little animal is trying to hide out in the sandy riverbottom and thinks it's being all sneaky, but then maybe it flinches or even moves slightly. When it does that, its muscles generate an electrical pulse which the platypus can sense with its super-sensitive bill, and then snap! the platypus catches the animal.
  • (It doesn't eat what it's caught right away, but stores the food in cheek pouches. When the pouches get full, the platypus surfaces and crunches -- well, does not crunch since a platypus has no teeth, only grinding pads -- grinds up its food.)
  • Scientists think that, when it is swaying its bill back and forth and rooting around in the sand, the platypus is using those electroreceptors to pick up electrical activity.
  • In fact, this is probably how the animal "sees" underwater at all. Because while the platypus swims, its eyes and ears are shut.

Platypus swimming for the bottom, its eyes and ears shut
(Photo from The Complete Platypus)

  • Only the platypus and a few species of fish have this electroreceptor ability.

It has webbed feet.
  • The platypus lives in rivers, streams, and coastal lakes in Australia.

The green patch indicates where the platypuses live in Australia.
(Map from Unique Australian Animals)

  • It has to eat 20%-25% of its body weight each day, and since it eats worms and crayfish and frogs and things like that that live in the water, the platypus spends a lot of time swimming around.
  • So, webbed feet are definitely an asset.
  • Even though its feet are webbed, the platypus doesn't rely on the webbing to make it go faster, but for steering. I'm not sure how the researchers know that, but that's what they say. I guess the platypus mainly kicks, sort of, to get around in the water.

It has a tail like a beaver's.

  • The platypus uses its flat, paddle-like tail, not for propulsion, but as a rudder while swimming.

Here you can see how wide the platypus' tail is.
(Photo from a MySpace page called the Metaphysical Platypus)

  • Like the beaver, the platypus also uses its tail to push soil around when digging burrows in the sides of riverbanks.
  • The tail is also a great place to store fat. That extra fat comes in handy if the platypus has trouble finding food for a time, or if the platypus is a female and needs to incubate her eggs (more about the eggs below).

Its legs attach in a weird place.

  • In other types of mammals, the legs attach underneath the body. That's true of your body, for example. That's also true of other mammals, like a dog or a horse or a cat: the legs extend down from below the body.
  • In a platypus, though, the hips and shoulders attach on the side of the body. This is another characteristic, like egg-laying, that is more reptilian than mammalian.

See how the shoulder joint kind of sticks out sideways?
(Painting by Rod Scott, sourced from

That's very similar to what this Italian wall lizard's shoulder joints are doing.
(Photo from Zooillogix)

It's venomous.
  • The platypus has a long talon, called a spur, on the ankle of its hind legs. Actually, the spurs fall off the females after they're a year old, so in adult platypodes, only the males have ankle spurs.

Ankle spur on a male platypus
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

  • These spur contains venom. It can kill small animals up to the size of a dog. Though the venom isn't strong enough to kill a human, it can cause you enough pain that you couldn't do much more than writhe around. And the venom can work itself into your immune system so that you feel pain at the slightest stimulus for a long, long time afterwards. The only other substance known to have this effect? Really strong opiates that people abuse for years.
  • The males only produce this venom during the breeding season, and platypuses are shy and will probably run away from you, but even so. Watch out for them platypi!

It growls.

  • Male or female, if a platypus doesn't like what you're doing and wants you to go away, it will growl. Apparently, the growl sounds like that of a puppy's.

The whole reproductive process is odd in many ways.

  • Researchers have recently discovered that the platypus has 10 different sex chromosomes. Some of them are typical of mammals, some typical of birds.
  • The female platypus has two ovaries, as most female mammals do, but only the left ovary actually works. This business of having a single working ovary is common in birds.

A platypus egg.
(Photo from Geneva Schools)

  • After fertilization, the female incubates usually 2 eggs internally -- is pregnant with them, so to speak -- for about 28 days. Then she lays the eggs and keeps them warm externally for about 10 days.
  • A chicken, by comparison, incubates internally for 1 day and externally for 21 days.
  • While a chicken sits on her eggs, the platypus swims around with hers, the eggs curled up under the fattest, warmest part of her tail.

The word for "baby platypus?" Puggle, of course.

The female produces milk, but not through teats
  • When a cat, or a pig, or a cow has babies, they line up to suck at their mother's teats to get the milk, right?
  • When a platypus has babies -- or when the platypus eggs hatch -- they climb onto her abdomen.
  • There, the mother's mammary glands produce milk, but the milk leaks out through the pores of her skin and collects in grooves. The young puggles lap up the milk from the grooves.
  • When the mother is lactating, she has to consume 90% to 100% of her bodyweight in food each day.

(Photo from Curious Animals)

No wonder, when the first people from England saw drawings of the platypus, and even when they saw the actual animal itself, they thought it was a hoax.

Probably the reason the platypus seems so strange is that, as scientists now know, its genetic map is part bird, part reptile, and part mammal.

Diagram showing the various characteristics of the platypus and which general animal group's genes they come from.
(Diagram by Zina Deretsky of the National Science Foundation)

One scientist, Michael White, has a lot to say about this characterization of the platypus as 1/3 this and 1/3 that. He says, it's all platypus, and it's all mammal. He feels quite strongly about this too.

Who knew the platypus could arouse such passion?

The Complete Platypus
Unique Australian Animals, Platypus
Geneva, Ohio Area City Schools, The Duck-Billed Platypus
ABC Australia, Scribbly Gum, Platypus Spurred to Action, July 2004
Online Etymology Dictionary, platypus
Onelook, platypus
Wikipedia, Platypus
Discovery Channel News, "Study: Platypus Retains Bird Sex Link," and Platypus: Lots of Sex Chromosomes, October 25, 2004
Jeanna Bryner, "Scientists decode mixed-up platypus genome," MSNBC Live Science, May 12, 2008

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Apple #332: Welcome to August

Not sure this needs any introduction. Except to say that August roughed me up pretty badly a couple of times in the past. But in accordance with my pledge that this year will be like the phoenix, I am determined not to let that happen this year.

  • The word "august" probably comes from a word that means, essentially, indicated by the augurs (prophets or prophecies) as being favorable.
  • In terms of the calendar, though, the 8th month is called August after Caesar Augustus, adopted son of Julius who established the Julian calendar, which is very close to the Gregorian calendar that we use today. This emperor was also called "venerable ruler."
Statue of Julius Caesar Augustus (and also Cupid at his ankle), which now stands in the Vatican.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • The term "august" can also mean all sorts of wonderful things, depending on which dictionary you consult, such as:
      • profoundly honored
      • marked by majestic dignity or grandeur
      • befitting a lord or one with exalted birth
      • inspiring reverence or admiration

Ragweed, not goldenrod, is the bane of allergy-sufferers' existence.
(Photo from WQAD)

  • The French Republic calendar used to call the 8th month Thermidor, or "hot month." (Actually, this month ran from about mid-July to mid-August in the Gregorian calendar.)
      • That word "Thermidor" may remind you, as it did me, of Lobsters Thermidor. What's the connection, you ask?
      • Okay, if you'll remember your French history for a moment, after Robespierre and the French Revolutionaries stormed the Bastille and all, they started hacking off the heads of royalty left and right, and they got totally out of control. This period is considered the "Reign of Terror."

This is not at all how I pictured Robespierre. He looks way too namby-pamby to have orchestrated several years' worth of executions. But, in fact, he did. In his mind, he was "weeding out" people who would undermine the Revolution.
(Photo of portrait from Wikipedia)

      • A few years later, Robespierre was overthrown (his head was cut off, actually), and the Reign of Terror was considered to be ended. This happened during the month of Thermidor.
      • Fast forward about a century, and in 1891, a French play called "Thermidor" opened. Though the Revolution had ended long ago, political tensions in France were very high and people were sharply divided along class lines. The play caused such an outcry that it was banned after only three performances.
"Night second scarcely allowed the actors to speak. A more astonishing scene was never seen in any theatre. Pandemonium reigned in the auditorium. The house was packed, and . . . the excitement was intense. . . . Lissagary, the editor of the Bataille, threw cents, whistles, and one-franc coins on the stage. He was requested to leave the proscenium box. Others were forced to quit the scene of the action . . . 'A mort Sardou' [death to the author of the play] was heard. . . . there could be no doubt of the presence of a large number purposely on hand to fight the play down. . . . At each lull the artists would begin, soon to be lost in noise and whistle. . . . After the spectacle, the street was full, and I am told that the police had to clear the way and carry off a good many shouters."

--New York Times review, Sardou's Ill-Fated "Thermidor," February 15, 1891
      • The night the play opened, the story goes, a French chef at the Marie restaurant in the Boulevard Saint-Denis in Paris invented the dish called Lobster Thermidor in honor of this play. Or perhaps, given the way the lobster is prepared, it is in honor of the decapitation of Robespierre.
      • In brief, here's how you make Lobster Thermidor (for a more precise recipe, check out the Old Foodie):
          • Start with a live lobster. Split it in two, lengthwise, while it's still kicking.
          • Season it all up, give it some oil, and roast it in the shell for about 15-20 minutes
          • While your lobster is roasting, make a stock of white wine, fish stock, and meat gravy, add some French-like spices and some chopped shallots. (Some people add mushrooms, or they use Sherry instead of white wine, etc.)
          • Reduce the stock, add a very thick Bechamel sauce (oh, so French!) and mustard.
          • Eyeball the amount of sauce you've got and add about 1/3 that amount's worth of butter. Can you feel the French yet?
          • Take the meat out of the lobster shells and give it a rough chop.
          • Pour some of your creamy-buttery sauce into the lobster shells, put the chopped lobster back in there, cover it with the rest of the sauce.
          • Add more butter and Parmesan cheese, and put it all back in the oven again to brown it up.

Lobster Thermidor, as served at Andre's in Las Vegas. According to someone who commented on the photo, this was the best lobster ever.
(Photo by ccaviness on Flickr)

  • Although Lobster Thermidor was not invented in the month of August, and technically the overthrow of Robespierre took place in what is now our July, I will now think of Lobster Thermidor in connection with August.

So that's the month of August. The month that is favorable for kings, assassinations, weeds, decapitations, and flayed lobsters. It's all making sense now.

Online Etymology Dictionary, august
OneLook, august
E. Cobham Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898, Months
Columbia Encyclopedia, sixth edition, Thermidor
The Old Foodie, A revolutionary dish, January 24, 2006