Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Apple #367: Magic Eraser

I generally avoid talking about brand-name stuff here because I don't want to go around advocating products and coaxing people to buy things and turn this site into some thinly-veiled commercial. I would hate that, as a reader, so I haven't wanted to do that to you. But I'm going to make an exception this time because I have been curious, ever since I tried it, how the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser works. Because it works really well.

The original Magic Eraser, out of the box, before being put through a trial -- and performing beautifully!
(This and other photos of how it performed at Michael P's blog of Cruft)

My kitchen sink is an old enamel thing and it stains really easily. Press a pan against it and voila, there are a bunch of steel-colored scrapes all over it. Leave a glass in the sink with water in it for a day and it leaves a ring. Even though these stains show up very easily, often even bleach doesn't get them out. With the Magic Eraser, though, they come off with hardly any effort. Miraculous.

Same story in the shower. Wipe it on the floor and the water stains come right off. It cleans gunk off the side of pans that regular soap & a dishcloth can't budge. It cleans out the bathroom sink easy as pie. It works so well and so easily, I was very curious to know how it does what it does so well. At the same time, I was afraid to find out that I was using something toxic or wrong or in some way bad. So I restrained my curiosity and did not look into it. Until today.

I am very relieved to know, the Magic Eraser is not bad.

I like the Extra Power variety. The curvy sides make it easier to hang onto. It's also supposed to work 50% better than the regular sort, but I haven't done a one-on-one comparison, so I can't attest to that.

  • The major ingredient in there is a melamine foam. First, let's talk about the foam part.
  • Some foams are pockets of air or another gas trapped in a liquid. Dishwashing liquid foam, is one example, or shampoo foam, or spray-can shaving cream.
  • Other foams can be air or gas bubbles trapped in a solid. Styrofoam is one example here. Foam padding that people use as mattresses is another.
  • The Magic Eraser is the second kind -- air pockets that form in a solid.
  • The foam is made when melamine resin is cured -- hardened, essentially. The resin (a plastic) gets a bunch of air bubbles in it, and it hardens that way. Also, the resin gets very thin but very hard, like a needle-sharp piece of glass.
  • So you've got all these air bubbles surrounded by very strong net of glass-like stuff. But it's not brittle like glass. In fact, it's flexible like a sponge. It's hard to keep the idea of glass and sponge in your mind at the same time, but that's what's going on in there.

Diagram of the structure of the melamine foam in a Magic Eraser.
(Image from BASF. They also have an animation of how it works that's helpful.)

  • There's one more thing that happens. Not all of the glass-like spongey bubbles stay intact. Some of them break. This makes the Magic Eraser what's called "open-cell" foam.
  • Now, when you rub this substance over a surface -- say, over my kitchen sink -- the superfine yet super-hard resin scrapes away the stains. What's more, the stain or whatever goo it has scraped off gets collected in the bubbles that have broken open. The open cells become almost like miniature trash cans for the stains.
  • Pretty ingenious, I say.
  • The only downside is the Magic Erasers don't last very long. The fineness of the resin breaks down pretty quickly, and those open cells get filled up with the goo pretty fast. But they sure do the job, in my opinion. Many others agree.
  • Also, if the material you want to clean is very sensitive to scratching, you probably don't want to use this. But all the surfaces I've tried it on have been fine.

So then I have to ask, what is melamine?
  • First, I want to address an old rumor that Magic Erasers are toxic and stores have been pulling them from their shelves. Both parts of that rumor are not true.
  • The reason people think they're toxic is because the full chemical name for the melamine foam is formaldehyde-melamine-sodium bisulfate copolymer. People see that word "formaldehyde" and they freak out.
  • But as we all remember from our chemistry classes, when you mix substances together, their properties change. Hydrogen on its own is a gas, extremely flammable and dangerous. Pair it with oxygen, though, and you get water.
  • Same thing happens with our Magic Eraser. Its manufacturers have combined formaldehyde with other substances to get an entirely different compound with entirely different properties.
  • Melamine is a mixture of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. It was first mixed in the 1830s and was used to make plastics and laminates.
  • If you mix melamine again with formaldehyde, you get our friend the moldable plastic resin foam that's useful for all kinds of things.
  • Melamine foams have been in use for decades in a variety of applications:
  1. Sound-proofing foam in airplanes, cars, ceiling tiles, acoustic sound rooms.
  2. Foam in cushions for mattresses and sofas.
  3. Flame-retardant in construction.
  4. Strengthener in other materials like Formica counter tops and dinnerware (though the plates scratched easily, and you can't get plates made with melamine foam anymore).

Melamine foam cut into pyramid shapes makes a great sound proofing material.
(Photo from ASI Pro Audio Acoustics)

Here is melamine foam in the form of acoustic, patterned ceiling tiles.
(Tiles available from Acoustical Surfaces, Inc.)

  • You don't want to eat a Magic Eraser certainly. Melamine in powdered form is the stuff that got added to pet food and to infant formula in China and which killed or injured people's pets and children.
  • I know some of you out there might love your Magic Eraser so much you want to eat it. But don't, okay?
  • But as far as cleaning with it and handling it, you're fine. It's only toxic inside the body. I checked the Material Safety Data Sheet. These things exist for all chemicals. The manufacturers have to publish them, and they have to tell you if something is toxic or hazardous and they have to tell you if the stuff requires special handling. In brief, here's what it says for melamine foam:
  1. No hazardous ingredients.
  2. It can catch on fire, but its flash point is over 400 degrees Celsius. (That's 752 degrees F. This flash point is so high, the stuff is used as a fire retardant.)
  3. If it gets ground up into dust, "treat as any nuisance dust."
  • That's it. So just don't eat your Magic Eraser, don't put it in your pet food, don't put it in your infant formula. Clean your counter tops and your stove tops and your sinks with it and throw it away when it looks beat, and that's it.

When your Magic Eraser starts looking grungy like the ones on the right, toss it.
(Photo posted at a billiards forum, by a member recommending its use in cleaning the shaft of pool cues.)

K. Caldwell, Magic Eraser by Mr. Clean: Product Review, Associated Content, June 27, 2006
Judy Stark, A hand for Mr. Clean,
St. Petersburg Times, July 24, 2004
BASF, Science around us, Spring cleaning . . . as if by magic
Howstuffworks, Erasing Stains with Melamine Foam, Mr. Clean Magic Erasers have been banned -- false
Wise Geek, What is Melamine?
Kate Pickert, Brief History of Melamine,
Time, September 17, 2008
Acoustical Surfaces, Inc. Material Safety Data Sheet for Melamine Foam, issued July 1, 2003

Friday, January 23, 2009

Apple #366: 3D Movies

Recently, I went to see My Bloody Valentine 3D. That's right, your Apple Lady went to see a strictly-gore-fest movie. And it was fun. So there. Plus, I got a swanky pair of glasses -- to keep.

As I was ducking flying pickaxes, dodging tree branches, and telling the people on screen not to walk backwards, didn't they know they were in a horror movie? I was also impressed by the 3D. I wondered, how does this work? Why don't they make more movies in 3D?

  • To understand 3D, you have to understand plain old regular vision.
  • We have two eyes, spaced about 2 to 3 inches apart. Your left eye takes in one stream of information from its position while your right eye takes in a slightly different stream of information from its position. Imagine two separate flashlight beams shining into the back of your head through your eyes.
  • Your brain -- genius thing that it is -- takes those two steams of information, correlates them, and builds one picture of the landscape in front of you, in three dimensions.

How your brain creates a 3D image based on the 2 separate images taken in by your eyes.
(Excellent diagram from Tom's Hardware)

  • If you had only one eye, you would still be taking in some information like colors and shadows that tell you that objects have depth and distance and so on. But it would be much harder for your brain to build an accurate picture of the relative position the objects have to each other, how far away they are from you, or how rapidly they are traveling toward you. If you shut one eye and try to catch a ball someone throws to you, you'll see what I mean.
  • 3D movies mimic the way in which your eyes take in two sets of information and your brain processes them into one.
  • I gather that the technology is a bit more sophisticated than this, but 3D movies are essentially filmed using two cameras. In the old color 3D movies, one camera would film in red, the other in blue. This creates the set of two slightly different streams of information about the same landscape.
  • When the movie is shown, two projectors are used, one to show the red while another one shows the blue. The images are slightly off. I haven't seen an explanation of this, but I suspect it might be some function of the distance apart that our eyes are and the distance the seats are from the screen.
  • The glasses play a key role because the lenses are different from each other, and they work like filters. One lens lets in the red color only and the other lens lets in only the blue. So you're getting two sets of slightly different information about the same landscape coming into your brain, and your brain correlates them and builds them into a single three dimensional image.

A color 3D movie is shown by two projectors, one red and one blue, onto the screen, and then the color 3D glasses filter the image into one blue and one red version.
(Extremely helpful diagram from

  • Current 3D movies do the same thing, except that instead of splitting the image on the basis of color, they're even more sophisticated. They are still filmed with two cameras, but one represents what the left eye would see, the other the right.
  • Again, the movies are shown using two projectors -- but actually, the current technology has gotten more sophisticated. The two images are spliced onto one piece of film, keeping one set on the left and another on the right. The very special digital projector takes in the data from both sets of film and buffers it, then projects the left and right images, back and forth and back and forth very fast, at 144 frames per second. In addition, so that the image on the screen doesn't appear to flicker, each left and right image is repeated three times.
  • But ultimately what you get is two streams of information, one for the left and one for the right, being displayed on the screen and bounced back to your eyes.
  • The glasses, again, have a special role to play. The left lens is polarized in one direction to allow only the left-side image to enter, while the right lens is polarized in another direction to allow only the right-side image.

Polarized 3D glasses have one lens that allows in light traveling in one direction while the other lens lets in light traveling in another. If you want to know more about polarized lenses in general, check out a previous entry on the topic.
(Diagram from the Museum Victoria in Melbourne)

  • Your brain then correlates and synthesizes the two slightly different streams of information and builds them into a single three-dimensional landscape.
  • People say that the polarized 3D is much better than the color 3D because the images and colors are more precise -- that's true in my opinion -- and it also doesn't give you a headache. Here, I'm going to qualify this.
  • I wear glasses and my right eye is slightly weaker than my left. I can tell I'm going to need a new pair of lenses soon because I've sometimes noticed this difference lately. When I first put on the 3D glasses (over my regular glasses; they were large enough to allow for that) and started watching the movie, I found myself adjusting the 3D glasses so that my eyes felt like they were taking in comparably not-blurry images. Then about 2/3 of the way through the movie, my brain started to feel tired and a little headachey. I suspect that if I didn't need regular glasses, I probably wouldn't have felt that way by the end of it.

What the glasses look like. They're made by a company called RealD, which makes most of the 3D movies currently in production. Their website is totally unhelpful.
(Photo from ZDNet)

  • By the way, those Magic Eye books work on the same principle. You know, those books that have really complicated images in them and you're supposed to hold them a certain distance from your face, let your vision go fuzzy, and you'll see a 3D image. Those are called stereoscopic books. They have one image overlaid on another, a slight distance apart. When you hold the book at the right distance away from your eyes -- it's a function of how far apart your eyes are -- you're supposed to see the third 3D image float before you.
  • Those Viewmaster viewers with the circular discs of pictures also worked the same way. Each picture is actually two photos of the same thing, taken from a slightly different position. The Viewmaster splits the photos so that you see one with left eye, one with the right. The result appears to be in 3D.

Here you can see the two photos that the stereoscopic viewer helps your brain to process as a single 3D image.
(Photo from Hermes Press)


Well, okay, maybe we wouldn't want them all to be in 3D (though I'm not sure why not), but at least, why aren't there more 3D movies?

Maybe you wouldn't want every movie to do this. But then again, maybe you would.
(Image from Tom's Hardware)

Answer: it's expensive.

The current polarization 3D movies require lots of pricey equipment.
  • Then you have to print the images on that special film that's got one set of images on the left, one on the right.
  • Then the theater has to have that super-fancy digital projector. Those things cost a theater "tens of thousands of dollars," according to an article from Wired.
  • Apparently, there's more involved than just the projector; an entire "3D system" is required, which can tack on an additional $20,000 to $50,000.
  • It's not clear from that Wired article, but I suspect that system may include the cost of installing a special silver screen -- literally, a silver screen -- which helps to keep the image polarized.
  • Several film studios have made deals with theaters, agreeing to help pay for some of the cost of making the conversion so that the theaters will be equipped to show their movies. A lot of the theaters are converting first to digital technology, and then they will acquire some of the other equipment needed to show the 3D movies.
  • By the way, the cost for 20,000 screens to go digital: over $1 billion.
  • As of April 2008, there were 4,6000 digital-ready screens, and only 1,000 capable of showing 3D movies. The theater industry hopes to get 4,000 screens ready to show 3D movies by summer 2009.
  • To put that number in perspective, there are over 38,000 indoor movie screens in the United States. So they're hoping to get the number of 3D-ready screens up from 1% to 4%.
  • So if you can't see My Bloody Valentine in the 3D version in your area, that's why.
  • That's also why the ticket to see that 3D movie will be more expensive than what you usually pay. Prices range from $10 to $15 per seat, depending on what part of the country you're in. That higher price -- and the fact that home movie-viewing can't replicate the 3D experience yet -- is why movie studios and theaters want more 3D movies.
  • Here are some upcoming movies that will be released in 3D:
  1. Coraline - February 2009. Animated. A young girl (voice by Dakota Fanning) unlocks a door in her house and discovers a parallel reality, where her mom has buttons for eyes.
  2. Monsters vs. Aliens - March 2009. Animated. A young girl gets hit by a meteorite and turns into a monster and is recruited to fight the aliens by a bunch of underground monsters. Stephen Colbert does the voice of the President.
  3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - July 2009.
  4. A Christmas Carol - November 2009. Animated. Jim Carrey does the voices of Scrooge and of all the ghosts. Gary Oldman is Bob Crachit and Tiny Tim. Sounds a bit schizo to me.
  5. Avatar - December 2009. It's a James Cameron movie with Sigourney Weaver, about humans in the future on another planet and they have to fight the native planet people.
  6. Alice in Wonderland - 2010 ish. Animated. Tim Burton's 3D take on Alice in Wonderland.
Trailer for Coraline:

Howstuffworks, How 3-D Glasses Work, How 3D IMAX Movies Work
Betsy Schiffman, Movie Industry Doubles Down on 3-D, Wired, April 14, 2008
National Association of Theater Owners, Statistics
Patrick Corcoran, National Association of Theater Owners, The Reel Blog, DCIP signs digital cinema agreement with five studios, October 1. 2008
Patrick Corcoran, National Association of Theater Owners, The Reel Blog, 3D - the back seat driver of digital cinema, April 14, 2008

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Apple #365: Presidential Inaugurations

If you've had the TV on today to watch all the inauguration festivities like I have, you may be tired of inauguration trivia by this point. But it's high time for a new entry, and since this is what's in my mind, this is the topic for the day.

Painting of George Washington's inauguration in 1789. The chancellor of New York is administering the oath, and the Secretary of the Senate is holding the Bible. VP John Adams is standing nearby.
(Painting by Allyn Cox, sourced from The Architecture of the Capitol)

  • Shortest inaugural address: The first, which was at George Washington's second inauguration, 1793, at 135 words. He said essentially, I take the oath to uphold this office, and if I screw up, you can all take me to task for it.
  • Longest inaugural address: William Henry Harrison, 1841, at 8,445 words (2 hours). He started his address, took the oath, and resumed speaking. He caught pneumonia and died a month later.
  • First inauguration parade which included African Americans: Abraham Lincoln, 1865.

Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, March 4, 1865. There had been so much rain earlier, people were warned to stay away if they could not swim.

Somewhere in that crowd was John Wilkes Booth, who may have tried to assassinate Lincoln on that day had he not been thwarted by a New Hampshire politician named Benjamin French.
(Photo from the Library of Congress)

  • First parade to include women: Woodrow Wilson's second, 1917.
  • Only President not to place his hand on a Bible while taking the oath: Teddy Roosevelt, 1901. (Richard Nixon, by contrast, used two Bibles and put one hand on each.)
  • First President sworn in by his father: Calvin Coolidge, 1923. He took the oath of office in Vermont, where his father was a Justice of the Peace, following Warren G. Harding's death while in office. Two years later, Coolidge was sworn in by William Taft, who was by then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the only time an ex-President administered the oath of office.
  • First inauguration to be televised: Harry Truman, 1949.
  • First ceremony to include a poet: John F. Kennedy, 1961. Robert Frost was the poet in question. Blinded by sunlight, he did not read the poem he had prepared but recited another from memory. Bill Clinton's two inaugurations and now Barack Obama's are the only others to have included poets.
  • First President sworn in by a woman: Lyndon Johnson, 1963. He was sworn in not by a member of the US Supreme Court but by a US District Judge, Sarah T. Hughes. This occurred under emergency circumstances in an airplane over Dallas, after JFK had been shot.

Lyndon Johnson, taking the oath of office on board the plane that became Air Force One, as Jacqueline Kennedy, Johnson's wife, and others observe.
(Public domain photo by Cecil Stoughton, sourced from Wikimedia)

  • First inaugural ceremonies held on Superbowl Sunday: Ronald Reagan's second term, 1985. The marble-topped table from Lincoln's second inauguration, which I think is the same table in the photo above, was used at this inauguration to hold the Bible.
  • First swearing-in that used a Bible which was kept closed: Barack Obama's, 2009. The Bible used was the same one used at Lincoln's first inauguration (1861). Because of the book's fragility, the Library of Congress asked not that it be opened to any passage, but kept closed.

Barack Obama being sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts while Michelle Obama holds the Bible. Roberts flubbed his lines not once, but twice. Already some people are saying this means Obama is not really President. They are incorrect. According to the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Barack Obama became the 44th President at noon today, whether he said any oath or not.
(Photo sourced from AFP)

  • The first inaugural ceremonies were held in April. In 1937, the date was moved to March so that people would not have to suffer the heat. After FDR and Hoover had to negotiate a very fractious and difficult transition between Presidencies, the date was moved by Constitutional amendment to January 20 to make the switch happen faster.
  • One last tidbit: Before Richard Nixon's second inauguration parade (1973), parade organizers sprayed a chemical called Roost-No-More into the trees. This was supposed to make the feet of pigeons itchy so they would fly away and not spoil the parade. However, the birds ate the chemical, which killed them. Pennsylvania Avenue was thus littered with dead and dying pigeons. They were removed as quickly as possible before the parade commenced.
Oops, I almost forgot to state the obvious.
  • First African-American to be inaugurated President: Barack Obama, 2009.

P.S. "Out of an abundance of caution," Obama took the oath of office again on the 21st, and this time he and Roberts both took it more slowly and didn't make any mistakes.

Library of Congress, Presidential Inaugurations, Some Precedents and Notable Events
Infoplease, Inaugural Trivia
Irish Times, Ten inauguration facts
Sky News, A History of Inauguration Mishaps, January 19, 2009
USA Today, Obama to be sworn in on "Lincoln Bible," January 19, 2009

Friday, January 16, 2009

Apple #364: Year of the Ox

As this week comes to a close, I know what everyone is thinking about. The anticipation is palpable. People are making plans, preparing food, planning parties. It's clear that everyone is looking forward to January 26, the date of Chinese New Year, when it will become the Year of the Ox.

I've got my finger on the pulse of the people, I tells ya.

  • The dates of Chinese New Year mark the beginning of a new lunar year, according to a calendar established by a Chinese Emperor named Huang Ti in 2600 B.C.
  • If we Westerners were keeping track of dates according to this calendar, as opposed to the International/Gregorian calendar which we use now, we would be referring to January 26 as the first day of Lunar Year 4706. (Some count the cycles differently and think it should actually be 4705.)

One month in a typical Chinese calendar. Even if the characters weren't in Chinese, I think I would still be confused.
(Image from Volatile Yard's blog about computing, math, and physics)

  • People living in China, Korea, and Vietnam do use this calendar. They'll be celebrating their new year on the 26th by decorating their homes with lots of flowers and fruits which are signs of new life, lots of visits with all sorts of family members, and remembering their ancestors.
  • Many cities also have parades that include the traditional lion and dragon dance. The dragon is a symbol of good luck and fertility. It is also said that the dragon lives in the heart of every person. So the more undulations the dragon makes, the stronger its spirit. The longer the dragon, the longer it will live. The lion is also a symbol of good luck, so when the two of them are dancing together, that's supposed to bring a lot of good luck to the coming year.

The dragon during a New Year parade in London, 2005. Often the people carrying the dragon will do lots of undulations and circlings during a parade, signifying the dragon's vitality.
(Photo from Nam Yang Pugilistic Association, Surrey)

Lots of lions were in the parade, too. Later, there was a dance in a square between these lions and the dragon.
(Photo from Nam Yang Pugilistic Association, Surrey)

  • The Chinese calendar seems very complex to me. It tracks both the moon and the sun's movements, and sometimes also Jupiter's. The days, months, and years are reckoned by both the sun and the moon.
  • The years are counted using a two systems of reckoning paired together, which some people refer to as the Stem-Branch system.
  • The Heavenly Stem is like a color-element sign. There are 5 of these. The elements are described by colors that most closely resemble their properties.
  1. White Metal
  2. Black Water
  3. Green Wood
  4. Red Fire
  5. Brown Earth.
  • Each of the five properties repeats two years in a row, once for its yin (feminine) and again for its yang (masculine) attributes.
  • Earthly Branch is the second part of a year's name. This part uses the name of one of 12 animals. There are 12 of these.
  1. Rat
  2. Ox (sometimes translated as cow)
  3. Tiger
  4. Rabbit
  5. Dragon
  6. Snake
  7. Horse
  8. Sheep (sometimes goat)
  9. Monkey
  10. Rooster
  11. Dog
  12. Pig

Mosaic of the 12 animals in the Chinese calendar, from the courtyard of the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver.
(Photo from mag3737 on Flickr)

  • The color-element part with its yang and then its yin gets linked up with the animal part, which gives you each year's full name. For example:
  1. 2002 = Black Water Yang Horse
  2. 2003 = Black Water Yin Sheep
  3. 2004 = Green Wood Yang Monkey
  4. 2005 = Green Wood Yin Chicken
  5. 2006 = Red Fire Yang Dog
  6. 2007 = Red Fire Yin Pig
  7. 2008 = Brown Earth Yang Rat
  8. 2009 = Brown Earth Yin Ox, etc.
  • Using this system, the years get a distinct name every 60 years.
  • There is so much more going on with this calendar, I am only skimming the surface.
  • I can't tell you why, but all I know is that most of the time, people ignore the heavenly stem part with their yang and yin, and only refer to the years by the earthly branch, or the animals.


Most pictures of the Chinese zodiac include only the animals, sometimes with their characters, sometimes with the years. I didn't see any that also included the heavenly stems, or elements. A more complex one is here, but I don't know what all the other characters mean.
(Image from Annette's Chinese zodiac page)

  • Perhaps the reason people only talk about the animal part of the year designation is because a whole mythos has been built up around the earthly branches, or the animals.
  • The story goes that Buddha called the animals together to celebrate new year's day with him, and only 12 were loyal enough to show up. To reward them, he named a year after each one.
  • The story gets more detailed, with descriptions of who arrived first and when or how, which in turn tells us something about each animal's personality.
  • For example, Ox arrived first, but Rat was riding on his back and jumped off and ran ahead, so Rat got to be the first animal in the list.
  • According to some renditions, Dog and Pig didn't actually show up, but their names were included on the list because of what was essentially a clerical error.

Character representing Ox. The guy who was essentially Buddha's secretary wrote down the wrong characters, and that's how Dog and Pig got on the list.
(Image from Ching Oracle)

  • So the animals each have their own personalities. Thus, according to Chinese astrology, each year has the personality of its animal. So, too, will all the people born during that year. So if you're born during the Year of the Ox, you will have a bit of the ox in your heart, as the saying goes.

The ox is helpful and loyal
(Drawing by Fa Lian Shakya, sourced from Poems on the Oxherding Series)

  • [This is very similar to Western astrology, in the way people say things like, if you're born during the end of February, which is the Pisces or fish sign, you'll have the personality of everyone else during that month, which is to say imaginative yet sometimes too idealistic, compassionate yet sometimes too easily led, dreamy yet secretive and vague.]
  • So if you were born in any one of the following years, which are Years of the Ox, you are supposed to have the traits associated with that animal sign:
  1. 1913
  2. 1925
  3. 1937
  4. 1949
  5. 1961
  6. 1973
  7. 1985
  8. 1997
  9. 2009
  • Let's take an example and see how this plays out. One of the people born in a Year of the Ox is Barack Obama.
  • (See? There is a method to my madness after all.)
  • So, according to the Chinese Lunar astrology, Barack Obama and the year 2009 are supposed to have these following personality traits:
  • (positive traits) Patient, dependable, hard-working, calm, honest, reliable, logical, well-organized, work best when alone
  • (negative traits) Stubborn, narrow-minded, lacking in imagination, tend not to say much, not very sociable, shy

The ox can also be stubborn
(Drawing by Fa Lian Shakya, sourced from Poems on the Oxherding Series)

  • The Metal Ox (1961, the year Obama was born) people tend to be even harder workers than their fellow oxes. Especially bold and strong-willed, sometimes to the point of being ruthless. Fierce defender of the truth.
  • The Earth Ox (2009) is supposed to be a year of calm, good judgment, modest ambitions, stable reliability.

Poster of the Year of the Ox by Swan Design, available for $50

Meanwhile, economists in the US and in China are predicting a lot of instability, possible military strife, and general unpleasantness in the coming year. We'll have to see how it all plays out.

Sources, Chinese New Year 2009
Wolff-Michael Roth's page on Chinese New Year
China Beautiful, Chinese New Year by the Chinese Calendar
Calendars through the Ages, The Chinese Calendar
Chinese Fortune Calendar, 2009 Chinese New Year Days (I found this site confusing until after I'd looked at a few other explanations)
Mark Schumacher, Onmark Productions, Zodiac Lore
China Orbit, The Chinese zodiac, Year of the Ox 2009 Predictions and Forecast
US Bridal Guide, Chinese Horoscopes, The Ox
The Economist, China in 2009: Year of the Ox, December 22, 2008

Monday, January 12, 2009

Apple #363: The Purpose of Mosquitoes

Last week, a friend told me about a story he'd heard on NPR, about how mosquitoes alter the pitch of the whine they make in order to harmonize with and woo a potential mate. This is a very cool bit of information, but the fact that it was about mosquitoes raised that old question for us, what good are mosquitoes anyway?

Ugh, right?
(Photo from

We all know a lot of the bad things they do:
  • Bite us and inject us with their saliva, to which we are allergic and which makes us itch
  • Carry terrible diseases like
  1. Malaria
  2. Yellow fever
  3. Dengue fever
  4. West Nile virus
  5. Lyme disease
  6. Encephalitis
  7. In dogs, heartworm

By the way, only female mosquitoes bite. Male mosquitoes don't have the proboscis for it. They also don't need the blood. The females need blood only a few days out of their lifecycle, just before they're going to lay their eggs.

But what are the good things they do?

Mosquitoes and especially their larvae are food for fish, birds, frogs, bats, etc. But mosquitoes make up only about 1% of the diet of other animals and insects. Some scientists will even say that if you removed mosquitoes from the planet, those animals wouldn't starve because they eat lots of other stuff besides mosquitoes.

But, the scientists caution, you don't really want to get rid of all mosquitoes from the planet because they might play a bigger role than we realize. So, okay, I ask, what role could that be?

In addition to themselves being a food source, they pollinate. Nectar is their food (not blood), so when they stick their long skinny noses into the plants to get after the nectar, they also happen to collect and distribute pollen.

The don't pollinate a lot of plants, but some, including:
  1. Certain grasses
  2. Some species of Platanthera orchids
  3. Goldenrod

The Platanthera flava, or the pale-green orchid, and one of the plants pollinated by mosquitoes as well as other insects. This species is threatened or endangered in its home locales.
(Photo from Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium at U of Wisconsin)

Also, this video isn't exactly thrilling, but here's what mosquito pollinating looks like. In this case, it's an elephant mosquito pollinating goldenrod.

In all of those above cases, mosquitoes are not the only pollinators to visit those plants. For example, some species of orchids are pollinated by mosquitoes and also butterflies. Both have really long noses that they can stick way down into the orchid to get at the nectar, and in the process, get pollen all over themselves. So you could also make the argument that, even when it comes to pollination, if you got rid of all the mosquitoes in the world, the impact wouldn't be that great.

However, there is one plant that is pollinated only by mosquitoes. It is the blunt-leaved bog orchid, (Habenaria or Platanthera obtusata). It grows in bogs and other swampy or wet woody places. Most people seem to talk about it growing in northern Wisconsin, but its habitat is in wetlands all over the Northeast, Midwest, and lower Canada. Varieties also grow in Alaska and Eurasia.

Platanthera obtusata, or bog-leaved orchid, here blooming in Colorado. This plant, too, is threatened and likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
(Photo from SW Colorado Wildflowers)

So the question then becomes, what role does this plant play in the greater scheme of things? I haven't found anybody who has the answer to that, or at least they're not giving it out for free on this here Internet. But as you've probably learned elsewhere by now, wetlands play very important roles in cleaning fresh water and balancing other ecosystems like forests and and aquifers. All the plants in a wetland -- and the species diversity in a wetland environment is quite vast -- play important parts in keeping the wetland healthy and functioning.

Wetland at Gettysburg
(Photo by Carolyn Davis, US National Park Service)

So even though I can't tell you exactly what the Platanthera obtusata's role is in the world of wetlands, I'm going to bet that it does support other organisms in some crucial way. So if we want to preserve this and other bog orchids, it looks like we're going to have to keep the mosquito.

That said, I'm not saying, "Let's all love the mosquitoes," and don't slap them if they're biting you. Because in addition to being annoying, they do spread horrific and nasty diseases that kill people. Maybe there's a way we can manage them better, without killing lots of other stuff in the process, or maybe there's a way we can get them to stop carrying around those diseases. I mean, talk about baggage.

So, hey, scientists, would you get on that, please? Thanks.

Here are some other tidbits I came across while researching mosquitoes:
  • Pesticides that are used to kill mosquitoes are also in some cases killing honeybees. (This is not the primary reason for the rash of colony collapses that are devastating the honeybee population, however. [edit 2012: actually it's beginning to look as though pesticides may be the culprit in colony collapse, after all.])
  • Because there are fewer honeybees, other types of flying insects -- the kind most of us don't like, such as flies, midges, and mosquitoes -- are now becoming the dominant pollinators in some countries.
  • Cacao trees, the source of chocolate, are pollinated only by biting midges and gall midges.

That's right. Your beloved chocolate, brought to you courtesy of biting midges.

"Bite Like a Mosquito, Sting Like a Bee," Shine Newsletter, Summer 2007
"Dipteran Pollinators: Flies, Mosquitoes, and Midges," National Biological Information Infrastructure
US Forest Service, Celebrating Wildflowers, Fly Pollination
Central Massachusetts Mosquito Control Project, Mosquito Control FAQ
Nelis A. Cingel, An Atlas of Orchid Pollination, 2001, pp 57-59
Kimi Ross, Alaska Site, BellaOnline, Ten Interesting Facts about Mosquitoes
Kenneth W. Blank, University of Kentucky, What do mosquitoes eat? Bionet bulletin discussion board
Ed Saugstad, AllExperts, Entomology, Purpose of Mosquitoes and Bees, January 12, 2007
USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plants Profile, Platanthera obtusata and Platanthera flava
Boreal Forest, Platanthera obtusata, Blunt-leaved Orchid
Utah State Herbarium, Platanthera obtusata
Encyclopedia of Life, Platanthera obtusata
NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, Part 193: Trees and Plants - Page 2

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Apple #362: Hula Hoops

Last month, I bought a hula hoop as part of a costume. Long story, which isn't even that interesting. I wound up not using it with the costume after all, and it's been sitting around my house, just being circular.

Hula hoops: the emptiness of American culture, or something more?
(Photo from Science by email, which has lots of observations about the physics of hula hooping. And which is Australian.)

Then the other day, I picked it up and tried it out. It was harder than I'd thought it would be! I could get it to go around maybe 5 or 6 times before it dropped to the floor. I knew I wasn't doing it right, so I looked for some videos of people hula hooping, to see how they did it and maybe I could copy them.

There's some little gymnast girl out there who can hula with her finger and her neck and who knows what else while doing the splits. That will have to be a long-term goal for me. I did find one woman who looks like she's hula-hooping for exercise, and I watched her closely. I also looked for some instructions, and well, here's what I have learned so far:

  • One site recommended putting one foot in front of the other, rather than side to side. That did help me at first to get more revolutions.
  • They also said to think of it more as shifting your weight back and forth from one leg to the other, rather than circling your hips. That also kind of helped at first.
  • But then, the more I did it, I discovered that what worked better for me was to put most of my weight on my left foot and bend my right knee so that I was on the ball of my right foot. I used that leg as kind of a lever to cock my hips up and down, and that kept the hoop moving more than the weight-shifting concept.
  • However, I know I'm still not that, um, entirely streamlined about it yet. So my method might change as I get better at it.
  • I also learned, from watching the video below, that it's important when you're first pushing the hoop off to start it in a straight line. If it's circling around crooked, it's hard to get it to recover and circle straight.
  • It also helps to keep your back straight and not bend over, which you tend to want to do to keep the thing from descending toward the floor.

Her hooping instruction is somewhat helpful, but still not the whole story.

  • The hoop that she's using in the video is a sport hoop, sold for people who want to hula hoop for exercise purposes. They are heavier than the plastic toy variety, weighing anywhere from 3 to 6 pounds.
  • Because the sport hoops are heavier, some people recommend that you get the kind that are covered in foam. Apparently, without that extra cushion, some people get bruises around their mid-section, especially if they're just learning.

This hoop is wavy because supposedly the waves help keep the hoop at your waist.  It weighs 2 pounds which is supposed to help you burn more calories while hooping with it, it's made of plastic, and it's detachable so you can stow it or carry it more easily. It sells for about $16 from Sports Hoop via Amazon.

  • The concept of the hula hoop has been around for millennia. The Greeks used to use hoops as toys and as a form of exercise. So did the Egyptians.
  • Even the British used to hula hoop, as far back as the 1300s. In the 1800s, it was British sailors who first started calling them hula hoops, after the way the motion resembled hula dancers in Hawaii. But then of course the British Victorian sensibilities kicked in, and they blamed the hula hoop for all sorts of unrelated maladies and stopped using them.
  • The hula hoop fad picked up again in 1958 when two guys, Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin, after hearing about kids in Australia using wooden ones in their gym classes, made them out of plastic and sold them for $1.98. All of a sudden, everybody had to have one.

In the 1950s, children were hooping all over the place.
(Photo from Lynn University's blog)

By 1958, hula hoops were so popular, people were hooping everywhere.  Even using "Bee Nees" (a.k.a. plungers) like this one on their heads.
(Photo from The Old Motor)

  • Not only were people around the United States hula hoooping, but so were people around the world. Except, in Japan, the hula hoop was banned because the motion was thought to be indecent. The Russians scorned it as a symbol of the emptiness of American culture.
  • Apparently, you're supposed to call it "hooping," not "hula hooping."
  • The first World Hoop Day was on July 7, 2007 (7-7-7). The purpose is to raise money to buy hula hoops and give them to needy children. The next World Hoop Day was on August 8, 2008 (8-8-8) and so on. The problem with this scheme is it has to stop in 1012 (12-12-12) because there isn't a 13th month. Those wacky hula hoopers.
  • Some hooping records:
  1. Longest stint of continuous hooping: 10:47 hours, by Mary Jane Freeze, age 8, in 1976.
  2. Most hoops twirled simultaneously by one person for at least 3 full revolutions: 105 hoops by Jin Linin in 2007.
  3. Hula running. That's right, running while spinning a hula hoop around your waist. Paul "Dizzy Hips" Blair ran 1 mile while hooping in 7:47 minutes. He also ran a 10K while hooping in 1:06:35 hours.
  4. Underwater hooping: 2:38 minutes by Ashrita Furman at the Nassau County Aquatic Center, in 2007.
  5. Tractor tire hooping: Roman Schedler from Austria spun a 53-pound tire around his waist for 71 seconds at a festival in Austria in 2000.

Ashrita Furman, setting his first record of 2:20 minutes in Key Largo in 2007. He beat that record a couple of months later. That's an awfully small hoop he's got there. I wonder how long he could go with a full-sized hoop.
(AP Photo by Bob Care)

It's really a lot of fun. I recommend the hooping.

UPDATE: Even Michelle Obama is hula hooping, right on the White House lawn, to encourage children and adults to exercise and eat healthy foods. She got her hula hoop to spin 142 times before dropping, which is about the high-end of my abilities, too.

More info and some photos here.

UPDATE #2, Jan 2012: I have to admit, I gave up on the hula hoop for a while. But I picked it up again recently and, lo and behold, it was a whole lot easier. I have no idea why this is so.  A few things I'm doing differently now are
  1. I'm letting it ride not at my waistline but above it, somewhere around the lower part of my ribs.
  2. I'm not popping my hips back and forth, the way you'd walk down the street a la sultry woman style. Instead, it's more like I'm shifting my weight left and right, or moving my torso rather than my hips. 
  3. This is probably not the recommended hula-hooping method, but it's sure working a lot better for me. I've been hula-hooping while I watch TV and I can keep it going for a whole segment before a batch of commercials runs.

How to Hula Hoop,
How to Use a Hula Hoop, eHow
Mary Bellis,, Hula Hoop
Christine Sostarich, Rewind the Fifties, The History of the Hula Hoop
Laurence O'Sullivan, "The History of the Hula Hoop,", June 21, 2008, The Origin of the Hula Hoop, Hula Hoop World Records

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Apple #361: Mucus

Fair warning: this first Daily Apple of this new year will be quite high on the Ew scale. I had a cold (maybe also mixed in with a bit of flu) that lasted a couple of weeks, and I'm still using a lot of tissues every day. So I have many questions about mucus. It is a very strange substance. And our bodies manufacture it. Happily and willingly. All the time.

So get ready to say "Ew!" at least once, if not several times, as you read this.

First of all, what is it?
  • Dorland's Medical Dictionary defines mucus as follows: "the free slime of the mucus membrane, composed of [mucin] the secretion of its glands, various salts, desquamated cells, and leukocytes."
  • Translation: mucus is made of:
  1. water
  2. salts
  3. mucin, which is a nitrogen-rich, gooey protein
  4. dead cells that have been sloughed off
  5. white blood cells
  • It lines not just your nose, but also your throat, lungs, ears, intestinal tract, urinary tract, and if you're female, your vagina.
  • So, phlegm, sputum, boogers, even ear wax (though it's a specialized type) -- it's all mucus.

All these places are lined with mucus. As are many other parts of the body.
(Chart from Live Wire Learning)

  • As my copy of Gray's Anatomy puts it, you've got mucus membranes any place where an internal organ might come in contact with anything external.
  • You've even got mucus membranes under your tongue.

What is its purpose?
  • Primarily, mucus is a protective substance.
  • Its gooiness helps trap any unwanted particles. It acts like a glue which snags any dust or tiny nasties floating around in the air. Those things get trapped in your mucus, but that means they don't make it all the way into your lungs or your intestine where they'd really cause a problem. If they're in the mucus in your nose, you can just sneeze or cough the stuff out of you, no big deal.
  • The white blood cells in the mucus are another key part of mucus' ability to protect you from the nasties. They help to fight against bacteria and viruses and other nasties that can make you sick, right on the spot.

White blood cells. Their hairy-looking shape allows the cells to trap and engulf the nasties.
(Photo from the University of Iowa)

  • In addition, most mucus membranes sit on top of a bunch of lymphatic vessels -- vessels which deliver substances that can fight against bacteria and cancer cells. So the mucus traps and keeps the nasties in place, and whatever the white blood cells can't conquer, the lymph vessels will try to defeat.
  • Finally, most of the places lined with mucus are also lined with cilia, tiny little hairs. The tiny little hairs keep things moving out. They move along the mucus, and they move along anything else that's trapped in there.

Cilia in the lungs.
(Photo from Wikipedia)
Biologist Michael McDarby has a really cool diagram showing cilia in motion.

  • The moistness of mucus also helps to humidify the air you breathe in. Have you ever been in really cold weather, so cold the inside of your nose feels like it freezes? If you have, then you know what it would feel like to inhale without the benefit of mucus: the air feels really cold and also piercing because it's way too dry.
  • The moistness is also useful in other passages. In the intestine, it helps food move along more easily. In the vagina and cervix, in addition to helping prevent infection, the mucus also tries get things moving farther in -- specifically, the spermatozoa toward the egg.

Mucus: aiding and abetting the cause of life, even here.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

Other stuff to know
  • The word "mucus" comes from the Greek word mussesthai which means, "to blow the nose."
  • Most of the time, mucus is clear.
  • When it turns yellow and then green, that means it's fighting off some sort of nastiness.
  • The yellow and green colors don't come from the nasty thing, but from the white blood cells which are hard at work.
  • If you drink a lot of dairy, your mucus may also turn white, or milky.
  • Medical professionals debate a lot about whether certain colors are associated with which type of white blood cells, or whether you can tell the difference between an allergic reaction and the presence of viruses, etc. Because they're not really sure what the color indicates, they just tell people that you can't diagnose anything based on mucus color alone.
  • Our bodies produce one to two quarts of the stuff per day. Normally, we don't pay any attention and swallow whatever mucus drains from our nose into the throat.
  • When it makes more than two quarts, that's when we notice it.

Motor oil is sold in one-quart containers. When your nose is making lots of mucus, it's making about the same amount as what you'd get in two of these quart bottles. That's a lot of mucus.
(Photo from Alphaworkx)

This is 1-3/4 quart, or about the upper limit of what your body produces in mucus, per day.
(Photo from Amazon, sourced from Road

  • If you've got a cold or some sort of infection, your body will produce extra mucus. Because it's staying on site, so to speak, you'll feel it clogging up your sinuses and in your lungs.
  • Drinking lots of liquids can help moisturize everything and keep things moving. Eating warm soup or drinking warm tea or taking steamy baths or showers can help loosen the goo, too.

This has been me, more or less, for the past three weeks: tissues and herbal tea, ad infinitum.
(Photo from Barnard College)

In a lot of horror movies, you know the alien or the monster has been there by the mysterious, mucus-like, ectoplasmic goo they leave behind (think of the library scene in Ghostbusters, and all the goo that always drips off the alien in the Alien movies).

But that's actually an injustice to mucus. I'm very pleased to realize that mucus is on our side, fighting the good fight. Who knew, mucus is one of the good guys?

You might also be interested in my entry about sneezing.

OneLook, mucus and mucin
Cari Nierenberg, "You Think It's Mucus, but It's Not," ABC News Medical Unit, December 10, 2008
Jessica Saras, About Mucus, eHow
SinusWars, What is mucus?
Steven B. Harris, M.D., Mucus color Usenet thread
My copy of the OED
My copy of Gray's Anatomy