Monday, March 30, 2009

Apple #377: Octopi

Recently, I saw a news story about an octopus in aquarium that escaped from her tank. I'm not exactly sure how she did it, but she also managed to open some sort of valve that allowed salt water to gush out onto the floor of the aquarium -- 200 gallons of it. She survived the flood, as did all the other animals in the aquarium. After the staff closed up the place in her tank where she busted out, she "sits in her tank as if nothing happened."

This reminded me of a YouTube video a friend of mine told me about a while back where you can watch an octopus do all sorts of things -- including opening a jar to get a a crab inside, finding its way into an Erlenmeyer flask also to get at its lunch, and squeezing itself through a narrow tube. Watching this video was pretty much how I learned just how wily octopi can be.

Here's the video he told me about. And no, I don't know what's up with the music.

That video is edited so you can't really see how the octopus removes the jar lid. In this one, you can see the entire process from start to finish. I think the noises in the background are the TV and the octopus owner's bird.

  • Scientists don't know that much about octopi because they're very good at avoiding humans, and they tend to hide when divers come around to look at them.
  • Another reason it's hard to study them, says one biologist at UC Berkeley, "If you watch them, they watch you back."
  • Octopuses are cephalopods (squids, octopuses, cuttlefish, and nautiluses). The word cephalopod comes from a Greek phrase which means "head-footed." Their bodies are really a squishy head which is called the mantle, a bunch of arms, and a foot. The foot is the thing they grasp with and it is attached to the head, hence the name.
  • Scientists think that cephalopods have been around for 500 million years.
  • All cephalopods have three hearts. Two of the hearts pump blood to the gills and one pumps blood to the rest of the body.
  • Another feature of cephalopods is that they have eyes that look a lot like human eyes, and they are "vision-forming," which means they aren't just spots designed to look like eyes and fool possible predators, but they actually work and help the cephalopods to identify and track the food they're about to eat.
  • The ink that most cephalopods expel to confuse any attackers is made of melanin, the same stuff that pigments your skin.
  • Cephalopods have large brains and some species are known to be able to learn and retain information. I'm willing to bet that, since we don't know all that much about them yet, scientists will find out that even more species of cephalopods can learn, and that they're all a lot smarter than people realized.
  • All cephalopods are nocturnal.

The Coconut Octopus in Sulawesi. Impressive creature, isn't it?
(Photo by Alistair Watters)

  • As you probably learned in elementary school, octopuses have eight arms.
  • Octopuses mostly eat crustaceans like crabs, shrimp, lobster. They'll also eat clams or fish, and they may also eat other octopuses.
  • The Smithsonian and other zoos are trying to learn more about octopus behavior and capabilities by putting stuff into the tank with their octopus -- things like jars with lids, laundry baskets, shelves, doorways, rubber dog toys, etc. -- and seeing what the octopus does with them. Octopuses will inspect these items, climb on them, or if they're small enough, move them around in the water with jets of air -- effectively playing with them.
  • One researcher put a bunch of stuff like plastic jugs, plates heaped with pebbles, and clumps of algae in the bottom of an octopus tank, making a maze that hid the exit. She tried this out on a few different octopuses, and it only took a few tries before they found not just the exit, but the quickest way to get there.
  • She even moved them from one maze to a second one and back again, and they were apparently able to remember what they'd learned the first time they'd been in the maze.
  • Octopuses are also very skilled at camouflage. They can suddenly change their skin color to match the color of coral or nearby plants, or they can turn themselves completely white to scare off a predator. It's not an octopus, it's a ghost octopus!

The Blue-ringed Octopus is venomous. It turns its rings bright blue to warn predators. If they get too close, this octopus can bite and inject the neurotoxin into the wound through its saliva. The venom is so potent, it can cause heart and respiratory failure in a human being within minutes.
(Photo by Roy Caldwell, California Academy of Sciences)

Here are some photos of the Blue-ringed octopus camouflaging itself.

  • One particularly impressive trick is to make themselves look like a rock. But they don't just take on the coloring and shape of the rock. That wouldn't be that effective because they would have to sit completely still at the bottom of the ocean. No, the octopus dons all the appearance of the rock and then it moves very slowly across the ocean floor at the same rate of speed as the light moving in the water. So what looks like a rock with light playing over its surface of the rock is really an octopus in disguise sneaking up on some dumb crab.
  • Octopus mating is about as complex and involved as the rest of octopus behavior. When a male octopus woos a female octopus, he can use all sorts of techniques to get her attention. Some male species of octopus have stripes that become visible only when the male turns them on, so to speak, so he might flash his stripes at her. He might also puff himself up or even link arms with her.
  • Some sneakier males don't turn on their male stripe until they get really close to the female in her den. So they think the male is a female until he's right up next to her, and then he'll flash his male stripes not so much to get her attention but to keep other males from coming around.
  • When the male and female are ready for it, they move off together away from the den, holding hands. Or arms. Or tentacles. Then the actual mating can take place several times over. The male has a special arm called the hectocotylus which he extends and slips into the female's mantle cavity, where his octopus sperm gets deposited.

Octopus mating. He is inserting his hectocotylus into her mantle.
(Photo by Roy Caldwell, UC Berkeley)

  • After they're both satisfied, she goes back into her den and lays tens of thousands of eggs. The eggs are laid on strings which she weaves together into a kind of web and attaches to the ceiling of her den. She takes care of the eggs by blowing jets of water on them to keep them clean and warm.
  • She can't leave the den to get food, though. So she starves to death while the eggs grow. After about a month or two, the eggs hatch and the mother dies.
  • As for the father, usually he only lives a few months more after mating.
  • Depending on the species, an octopus may live only a few months or for a few years.

UPDATE 12/o9: Scientists recently revealed video of veined octopuses who live on exposed, sandy sea floors, picking up discarded coconut shells, tucking them skirt-like under their bodies, and running with them across the ocean floor. Once they get to a suitable place, they plunk down, pull the shell over themselves, and lurk in their new, convenient hiding spot. Or, if they've been lucky enough to find two halves of a shell together, the close the shell around their body and hide in there.

This article from the BBC has the video.

Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Cephalopods, Giant Pacific Octopus Behavior Watch, and Zoo Exhibit
Tree of Life, Cephalopoda
Joey C's Study of Octopus Behavior, Stone Middle School, Melbourne, Florida
Carl Zimmer, How Smart Is the Octopus?, June 23, 2008
Yasmin Anwar, "Octopus sex more sophisticated than arm-wrestling," UC Berkeley press release, March 31, 2008

Monday, March 23, 2009

Apple #376: Sharpies

Some time back, Stefan Bucher who draws the Daily Monsters, put a link to the Daily Apple on his page. Since then, lots of people have come from his site over here to browse around. I've been meaning for some time now to do an entry on the Sharpie marker as a way of saying hello and thanks for stopping by.

In case you're not familiar with the Daily Monsters, Stefan does this really cool thing where he blows an ink blot onto a page, and then uses Sharpie markers to make a monster out of the ink blot. He films himself doing this and posts it in sped-up time onto his blog. So you get to watch the monster come to life in Sharpie-fast-action. As a friend pointed out, watching him do the fills with the Sharpie is very satisfying.

One of Stefan's monsters in the making
(Photo still from Designers Who Blog)

I'm assuming that people who stop by here by way of his blog would be interested in Sharpies, markers, drawing, and what-not. So, Daily Monster visitors, here you go.

The black Sharpie. Stefan's and many artists' weapon of choice.
(Image from Jerry's Artarama discount art supplies)

  • The Sharpie was invented by the Sanford Ink company in 1964. It was the first pen-style permanent marker. Johnny Carson and Jack Parr endorsed Sharpies on their shows.
  • Currently, more than 400 million Sharpies are made each year. That's enough for 4 Sharpies per household in the US. Do you have 4 Sharpies? I think I have 5. So if you've only got 3, maybe I have yours.
  • "Permanent" marker means the ink contains either dyes or pigments, it will write on most surfaces, and it is water-resistant. It might smudge if you get water on it, but it won't go away entirely.
  • The black ink in Sharpies is permanent ink, which is made with ethylene glycol monobutyl ether (EGBE) in an alcohol solvent.
  1. Ethylene glycol - A member of the alcohol family. Used in antifreeze and deicers as well as in ink. Don't worry, it's not carcinogenic. If you inhale a lot of it, though, you could be in for some serious respiratory damage.
  2. Combine ethylene glycol with monobutyl ether and you get a very effective cleaning solvent. Which is sort of funny because the Sharpie ink, which contains EGBE, is very hard to remove.
  • The colored inks are made of Permchrome, which is a proprietary formula (meaning they won't say exactly what it is). These inks are also based in alcohol but they don't contain glycol ethers.
  • To get Sharpie out of fabrics, some people recommend spraying the area with hairspray or rubbing alcohol and then blotting with paper towel. If that doesn't work, there are some specialty ink removers.

These 24 Sharpies in a zip case cost $29.99.


On your walls
  • One man in Kentucky drew a mural on all the walls of his basement using $10 worth of black-ink Sharpies. Sounds like it might be kind of ho-hum, but because he likes mystery novels, the drawings include lots of bookshelves as well as his renderings of people like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, lounging in his basement. Check out the 360 video of his basement.
  • If you want to color your own wallpaper, but you're not that good at drawing, you could buy this wallpaper designed by Jon Burgerman in the UK, which he made to be colored in.

Jon Burgerman's colour-in wallpaper
(Photo from Jon's blog)

  • Justine Ashbee makes her own enormous art using Sharpies (paint pens, she says, but other people call them Sharpies). I'd post an image here so you could see but she doesn't want people to do that. So check out her photos of her art. It's pretty cool.

On your vehicles
  • You can re-paint your car. Jason Thorgalsen "tattooed" his Lamborghini using Sharpies. Apparently it took him 2 weeks.

(Photo by VOD Cars)

On your clothes

On your skin
  • Some people don't even bother with the T-shirts. They go straight to drawing on the skin, sort of like tattooing by Sharpie.

(Sharpie tattoo by Vince Diga, photo from Eating Sandwiches)

(Drawing and photo by Insanity)

  • Or, of course, you can Sharpie-tattoo your friends when they are asleep. Which is what seems to have happened to this poor sap.
  • If you're about to have surgery done, you'll probably be written on with a Sharpie. Before they cut people open, they mark the spot where the surgery is to take place, just to make sure they don't cut the wrong person in the wrong place or take off the wrong limb or whatever. And Sharpies are the pen of choice to make that X.

In your hair
  • One artist has used Sharpies to tint her hair. She uses Sharpies to draw, and she got the idea to give herself auburn low-lights with a red Sharpie. "It works and it stays in," she said. Jamie at a beauty blog recommends using Sharpies to touch up the gray in between appointments at the hair salon.
  • eHow says if you have a synthetic hair piece, like say for a weave, a cheap and fun way to dye it is to color it with Sharpies.

On paper or anyplace else

  • You could use them to make poems. Sure, you could write with them the old-fashioned way. But Austin Kleon uses them to black out some words from newspaper articles, and the words he leaves alone form poems.

I think this is called Gimmick. By Austin Kleon.

  • Four Seasons Fly Fishing uses Sharpies as part of the process of tying flies.
  • You could make a kaleidoscope using mirrors, PVC pipe, and Petri dishes. The Petri dishes are the part you draw on. Dr. Greivenkamp has complete instructions.

(Image from Pen2Paper, office supplies in the UK)

If you want more ideas for things to do with your Sharpies, stop by the official Sharpie blog.

P.S. The first race of the Formula One season is this weekend! I know you're all as excited as I am.

Sharpie History and FAQs
Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, ethylene glycol
Dow, Product Safety Sheet for Ethylene Glycol Butyl Ether
Cleanit Supply, Understanding "Butyl" (Ethylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether)
Thrifty Fun, Sharpie on Carpet
Don Retson, "Sharpies excise big expenses in operating-room budgets," Edmonton Journal, October 11, 2008

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Apple #375: St. Patrick's Day

I just now remembered that I wanted to do a post about St. Patrick's Day. It's a bit late, so please excuse the brevity. Soul of wit and all that.

(Photo from You're History)

  • St. Patrick was born the son of wealthy British parents in 387 A.D.
  • Before he became St. Patrick, his given name was Maewyn Succat.
  • When he was sixteen, he was captured by several Irishmen who were raiding his parents' estate in England.
  • They brought him to Ireland and sold him to a chieftain who held him captive for six years.
  • He worked during his enslavement as a shepherd. He sought solace in Christianity and became a devout and prayerful shepherd.
  • Finally he was able to escape. He walked something like 200 miles to get to the coast and got on a ship, making his way back eventually to Britain.
  • Once there, he had a dream in which an angel told him to go back to Ireland -- the land where he was held prisoner -- and become a missionary. So that's what he did.
  • As soon as he arrived in Ireland, he went back to the chieftain who had enslaved him and paid the guy the price for his freedom.
  • Then he began traveling all across Ireland, speaking Gaelic and teaching everyone he met about Christianity in a way that fit in with customs they already observed.
  • St. Patrick's signature prayer is all about the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). He used the shamrock to represent the Trinity. The shamrock was also sacred to the Druids. Using a symbol that was powerful to them to describe Christianity was typical of his teaching methods.
  • So the shamrock remains a traditional symbol of St. Patrick's Day.

Stained glass window of St. Patrick, holding the things that are typically associated with him: his shepherd's crook, reminding us of his early days as a shepherd, and a shamrock which was his way of teaching about the Trinity.  Sometimes he's also drawn holding a snake, but here his third item is a book. This is somewhat ironic since he grew up with little education, but here the book symbolizes the writing and teaching he did in his later years.
(Photo from St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel in Park Slope)

  • St. Patrick did not drive any snakes out of Ireland. That story is a myth. It does serve a purpose, though, which is to suggest that he is responsible for making Ireland "safe," and thereby demonstrating how beloved and revered he became among the Irish.
  • March 17 marks the anniversary of his death. For many years, the British did not allow the Irish to do all sorts of things, including speak their own language or have their own celebrations. So they were not allowed to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
  • It wasn't until after millions of Irish had emigrated to the US that they were able to celebrate the day freely, and they did so with gusto. Even though this anniversary takes place in the middle of Lent when many Catholics abstain from meat, it became traditional to suspend all of that for one day and drink and dance and eat bacon and cabbage in celebration.

Traditional Irish breakfast.  Irish bacon is at about 1:00 on that plate.  It's made from brined pork shoulder and boiled slowly with salt, pepper, and spices.  It's thicker than the bacon we're used to and may be more like Canadian bacon.  Clockwise from the bacon are: fried egg, sauteed tomato, baked beans inn tomato sauce, Guinness brown bread with butter, and Irish sausage.
(Photo and bacon recipe from Emma Clare Eats)

More Irish bacon with a few sausages.
(Photo and bacon recipe from Emma Clare Eats)

History Channel, Who Was St. Patrick? and the History of the Holiday
Sean Markey, St. Patrick's Day Fast Facts: Beyond the Blarney, National Geographic News
New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Patrick
Kiddyhouse, St. Patrick's Day Resources

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Apple #374: Vegemite

My friend Karen, who is Australian, asked me to do an entry about Vegemite. Never having tasted or even seen the stuff in real life, I'm going solely by what I find online. Let me know if I've left anything out or gotten anything wrong, OK, Karen?

Vegemite spread on toast, which is the most common way to eat it.
(Photo from Eat Out Zone)

  • Vegemite is a spreadable paste made primarily from Brewer's Yeast. Ugh, sorry Karen, but that just sounds nasty.
  • It's thick and black and very salty, like beef bouillon. Supposedly it smells like very strong soy sauce. You eat it the same way you eat peanut butter -- spread on a sandwich. Except because it's so salty, spread it on thinly.
  • It is so salty and, er, potent, most non-Aussies compare it to things like salty battery acid, the remnants of a dead slug killed by salt, etc. Lots of Australians, however, say that sort of reaction is a sign that the non-Aussies have tried to eat too much at once or else they're just wimps.

Ad for Kraft Vegemite from Women's World, 1925.

  • Brewer's Yeast, the main ingredient in Vegemite, is a specific type of yeast. All yeasts are actually fungi which forms clusters of living organisms. Brewer's Yeast in particular can be used for lots of things, from brewing beer to making bread.

Brewer's yeast
(Photo from the Cook's Thesaurus)

  • In its deactivated form (the yeast is no longer active or alive), it's a favorite among vitamin-lovers because it's super-rich in all the B vitamins. My mom used to make us take Brewer's Yeast pills along with our breakfast. Tasted grainy and bitter and pretty terrible.
  • This is the primary component of Vegemite. It's also got bits of celery and onion, lots of salt, and some secret spices.
  • In 1922, the Kraft Walker Cheese company (today, Kraft) wanted to make a spreadable paste from Brewer's Yeast. So they hired a food chemist to come up with something.
  • Months later, Dr. Cyril P. Callister emerged from the lab with a "tasty spreadable paste."

1930s ad for Kraft Vegemite

  • The company had a contest asking people to name the paste, and the winner was supposed to get 50 pounds prize money. Nobody knows anymore who came up with the winning name or whether that person actually got paid. But they had a drawing and Dr. Callister's daughter pulled out one of the entries, and on it was the name Vegemite.

1970s magazine Kraft Vegemite ad. I think she's trying to give back the sandwich.

  • Over the years, the company we now know as Kraft kept up the marketing campaign, asking people to write jingles for Vegemite, seeking and being granted official endorsements from the British Medical Association, and continuing to tell everybody how nutritious Vegemite was, especially for pregnant women. So it retained its popularity even through World War II when it had to be rationed so that most of it could go to the Australian armed forces.

Vegemite commercial from the 1960s featuring the Happy Little Vegemites jingle -- which many Australians are more than pleased to sing upon request -- plus some additional insanity thrown in.

  • Vegemite remains popular in Australia today. Currently, Kraft sells 22 million jars of it each year.

Kraft Vegemite ad from 2001

  • Other ways people eat Vegemite:
  1. With melted strips of cheese on top -- "tiger toast."
  2. On toast with eggs
  3. In a quiche
  4. Rolled up in a pastry with cheese and cut so you can see the spiral
  5. Added to gravy
  6. As part of a marinade for beef or chicken or shrimp that you then put on the grill and barbecue.
  7. To flavor soups
  8. In meatloaf
  9. Baked in bread
  10. In tomato sauce over pasta
  11. A teaspoon of it given to a child to suck on and soothe a toothache

Vegemite is also sold now in squeezable tubes like this one.
(Photo from About Australia)

And of course, there is the song "Land Down Under" by Men at Work, which may have been the first time I ever heard of Vegemite.
(Vegemite reference at about 1:00 in)

Kraft, Vegemite Heritage
What's Cooking America, History of Vegemite
Urban Dictionary, Vegemite
Syrie Wongkaew, Vegemite - An Australian Icon,
Eat Out Zone, Vegemite

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Apple #373: Dollar Signs

A while ago, faithful Daily Apple reader Dan wanted me to find out about dollar signs. Here's what he asked:

where did the symbol for the dollar come from? I was looking at some web site yesterday and they showed the prices in pounds, euros, dollars, etc., and it occurred to me that somebody had to invent the "$". Who, (we know about when) and why the "$"?

I'm not as up on my history of currency as Dan is, so I'm not one of those "we" who knows when the $ sign was invented. So I'll look up both when and by whom.

[looks stuff up online]

Dollar sign by Andy Warhol
(You can get a poster of this from All

Okay, Dan, the answer to the by whom part is one of those vague things like, "People just started doing it this way." Given the time period, "people" probably means white men who were educated and were writing letters and printing things in newspapers. That's about as specific as I can get about the who.

As for the how, this is one of those situations where nobody knows for sure how it came to be the way it is today. There are lots of theories, most of which have been debunked by this point. Rather than muddy the waters and tell the same untrue stories over again (including the one that is in Atlas Shrugged), I'll tell you the story that most people currently think is correct.

  • The evolution of the dollar symbol took place in the late 1790s, just after that there Revolution when the Colonists separated themselves from the British. You might think that the British pound would be the primary currency, but actually, the primary coin in use at the time was the Spanish peso.
  • The Colonists-now-Americans decided they were going to subdivide the British pound into 100 cents as a way to distinguish themselves from ye olde Britain. Cent is a Latin-derived word meaning "hundred," so that's where that word comes from, by the way.
  • At about the same time, in 1797, the US ran into a shortage of both gold and silver, which tightened up their ability to mint US coins. So the US government said, there's a lot of Spanish currency still floating around here, let's make Spanish money legal currency again for a while. (Spanish dollars remained legal currency in the US until 1857, after the Gold Rush.) Anyway, that tells you how pervasive Spanish money was at the time.

Peso, or pesata, used in Spain in 1809. It's hard to see but at the top of the coin on the left, Peso is abbreviated Ps. You can see a larger version here.
(Photo from FAO Coins. These are for sale, so this image might not be around long.)

  • The way people abbreviated "pesos" was to write a P (some say upper case, some say lower case) with a little s sort of superscripted next to it. Like, Ps except with the s smaller and up high.
  • As time went on, people -- there are those mysterious "people" -- began smashing the two letters together, and then they stopped making the loop on the P, only making the downstroke.

How some helpful soul via Wikimedia represents this transformation.

  • That seems like a lot of steps to get to the final transformation. But as the wise folks at the Oxford Dictionaries point out, putting a slash through a letter was a common way to indicate that the abbreviation you're using represents currency. So maybe the $ sign was sort of a mash-up of the Ps abbreviation as well as the habit of making a single slash to denote currency. This last bit is my own supposition.
  • How the single downstroke became a double downstroke, I'm not sure. People (there they are again) started adding the second line in the 1800s. But there are still a lot of dollar signs out there with a single downstroke. Like this one. $

The Pound, The Yen, and The Euro

Coloring the £ with the British flag is optional.
(Image from Welker's Wikinomics)

  • The origin of the £ sign, which represents the British pound, is similar to that of the $ sign. The L is a calligraphic L with a slash through it to indicate it's an abbreviation representing currency.
  • The L stands for the Latin word libra, which was a unit of weight back in the days of Rome.
  • The weight came to mean currency because a pound's worth of British silver coins used to equal a troy pound's worth of mass. This was a way to say, these coins are unadulterated silver through and through, and they're worth this much.

(Image from, which makes pins and buttons with your favorite currency symbol)

  • The Japanese yen, which is a Y with one or two slashes across it (¥), was established by the Meiji Government in 1871. The yen was part of a new monetary system designed to be similar to European systems of currency. The origin of the symbol now seems pretty obvious: upper case Y to indicate "Yen" and draw a line through it to mark that it's an abbreviation for currency.

How to construct the €, by the European Commission Economic and Financial Affairs bureau.

  • How the euro symbol (€) came about is a more modern tale. Basically, it was the brainchild of a commission meeting in 1996. It was a ring shape with two lines drawn through it.
  • The problem was, it was more of a logo than a letter. It was supposed to represent the Greek epsilon, "thus pointing to the cradle of European civilization and the first letter of the word 'Europe.'" But this explanation is probably a load of, um, bunk, because it was promulgated after lots of people complained that the € symbol was actually really hard to reproduce.
  • In order to use the symbol, publishers and typesetters had to design the symbol from scratch for each font they had. And they found it harder than you might expect. It was too fat, too round, took up too much space, etc. So they were yelling to the EU about it a lot. At the same time, they had to come up with something, so they were changing the shape of the symbol to make it work in their fonts.
  • Now, in 2009, a scant 13 years after the Euro was established, the shape of its symbol has changed. It's no longer the nice round, reminiscent-of-a-circle-and-harmony shape, but it's more elongated. The "people" have altered the currency's symbol.

What the Euro logo looked like originally, and what most typeset symbols tend to look like now.
(Image from Font Shop)

For how to type all these currency symbols on either a Mac or a PC, check out this page at

Roy Davies, The Word "Dollar" and the Dollar Sign $, last updated September 4, 2008
The Straight Dope, What does the S in the dollar sign represent? October 23, 1992
Mark Brader, Origin of the Dollar Sign, Alt Usage
Ask, What is the origin of the dollar sign ($)? and Does the '¢' in the US cent sign stand for 'cent'? and What is the origin of the pound sign (£)?
All Experts, Pound (currency) and Troy weight, pound
GoCurrency, What is the British pound (GBP)?
ADVFN USA, The history of the Yen
European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs, How to use the euro name and symbol
J├╝rgen Siebert, The Euro: From Logo to Letter

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Apple #372: Why is March Windy

The other day, we all turned our calendars from February to March, and bang, it got super windy outside. It was as if the atmosphere knew, hey, it's March! Time to get windy!

But seriously, why does that happen? It's not as if the earth suddenly starts spinning faster on March 1. Something is changing, at exactly this time of the year, which makes the wind pick up. But what is it?

(clip art from Idaho Public Television)

  • I found only a couple sites that explained this. But before I could understand exactly what I was reading, I had to learn all over again what wind is.
  • The air surrounding our planet is not all at the same temperature. In some places, it's warm, in others it's cold, still others, it's downright hot. The molecules in hot air behave differently than those in cold air.

Molecules on the left are cold. Not moving much. Packed together. Molecules on the right are warm. Moving around a lot. Lots of space in between. Flying high.
(Diagram posted by AtownWxWatcher at's blog)

  • Think of the molecules in the air like a bunch of little kids. They're all standing around on the playground. Warm up the playground, and they'll start running around. They'll get all giddy and excited. The space between each kid will get bigger and bigger. Just as the kids are running around, excited, putting more space between each other, that's what happens to air molecules as you heat them up. They move faster, spread out, get less dense.
  • And when kids get a chance to run around and burn up their energy, they feel less and less pressure. They're happy, they're excited, they're under very little pressure. So, too, when the air heats up, its pressure drops.
  • Now, instead of warming up the playground, let's cool it down. In fact, let's get it downright cold. The little kids are going to stop running around. They're going to huddle up next to each other. They're going to press their arms and legs together tight and stick close to each other for warmth. That's what the air molecules do, too, when it's cold. Slow down and stick together.
  • When you put a bunch of little kids really close together, they won't like it very much. Packed in like that, they're going to start feeling the pressure. In the same way, the cold air molecules are sticking together at higher pressures.
  • So we've got our various pockets of air. In the hot zones, all the little kids are running around excited under very little pressure. And they're right against the pockets of cold air, where all the little kids are packed together and surly and not liking it one bit.
  • Now, it's just a fact of physics that when you put two extremes next to each other, they're going to try to balance each other out. (Specifically, according to the second law of thermodynamics, high energy states will move toward low energy states, yah yah yah.) So our excited, high-pressure kids are going to try to mingle with the surly, low-pressure kids. "Hey, you guys," they're going to shout, running over to the cold kids. "What's the matter with you? Come on, let's play! Tag, you're it!"
  • Okay, I now have to abandon my metaphor because the air molecules are going to start moving in ways that little kids do not. Like I said, when the hot high-pressure air gets near the cold low-pressure air, the hot air will flow toward the cold to try to balance out the differences in pressure. That gets the air moving, starting up our wind.

Almost exactly what happens when two pockets of different air pressure encounter each other. Except the hot air blows into the cold.
(Art by Johanna)

  • Because the pressure in a column of cold air gets lower and lower really fast as you go up the column, the hot air is going to shoot up that column of cold air to try to balance out the pressure. Which makes for more wind.
  • Another factor that affects all this is the fact that the earth is rotating. Underneath the air, the earth is spinning. Where the air is closer to the ground, the friction of the moving ground slows down the wind speed. Up higher, where the temperature also happens to be colder and the pressures lower, the wind speed is faster.
  • The motion of the earth below the wind also influences the way the air travels around the centers of pressure. Around our hot, low-pressure pockets, the wind turns in one direction; around low, high-pressure centers, it spins the opposite way. Where the two pockets of pressure touch each other, those two windstreams will join up and help to spin each other faster.
  • Which way the wind spins around the pressure centers is determined by which hemisphere they happen to be in. In the Northern Hemisphere, the air around the high-pressure pockets spins clockwise and counter-clockwise around low pressure zones. In the Southern Hemisphere, it's exactly the opposite.

How the wind spins in different directions around high pressure versus low pressure centers.
(Diagram from

  • Finally, because of the earth's rotation, the wind isn't spinning in nice neat circles around the pressure centers, but is flowing around them in a stream. The streams flow against each other or collide, and any place they come into contact, they're going to try to balance each other out -- more wind.
  • So we've got all kinds of things creating wind. But what causes the most noticeable increases in wind speed is when two very different pockets of air pressure and temperature get up next to each other. The hot is going to rush into the cold, and it'll get windy.
  • Specifically in March, in the Northern Hemisphere, there's still a lot of cold air hanging around, left over from winter. That cold air can be really dense and cold, same as during a storm in January. However, because the Northern Hemisphere is starting to get more sun, the sunlight is heating the surface of the earth and it's creating more pockets of warm air.

Due to the revolution of the earth around the sun and the earth's tilt, by the time it's March, the Northern Hemisphere will start getting more sunshine, which means more warm air.
(Diagram from

  • The new warm air pockets start flowing toward the big cold air masses that are still hanging around. The pockets of warm air will rush toward them, trying to balance out the pressure. The warm air rushes up into the pockets of cold air, mixing the pressures and creating lots of wind.
  • Throughout March, the earth is steadily working its way around so that still more sunshine falls on the Northern Hemisphere. By the time we hit April, there's a lot more warm air, and the cold air masses are less severely cold. So the wind isn't as gusty and forceful come April.
  • I think it's pretty much a guarantee that March will always come in like a lion and go out like a lamb.

(Image by Karen Craig, from the picture book directory of children's illustration)

Weather, What causes wind?
theweatherprediction, What Causes Wind? by meteorologist Jeff Haby
Weather Dudes, Why is March such a windy month?
USA Today blog, diagram labeled Why is March so windy?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Apple #371: Beans -- vanilla

This is the final entry in a series about Beans.


Vanilla beans growing in Hawaii. They look a little bit like green beans.
(Photo from Huahua Farm)

Vanilla beans, dried and cured. You can get a bundle of 12 from Arizona Vanilla Company for $17.95.

Classified as:

  • Fruit.
  • Orchid.
  • That's right. Vanilla plants aren't members of the Fabaceae with the majority of the beans in this series. Nor are they in the same family as coffee plants. They are members of the Orchidaceae family.
  • There are 150 species of vanilla orchids (27 of which are native to Florida), but only 2 are grown commercially for the vanilla flavor.
  • Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla fragrans both originate from the Gulf of Mexico. If either of these plants are grown in Mexico, they are called Mexican vanilla. If they're grown elsewhere, they're called Bourbon vanilla. There's also Tahitian vanilla, which is a hybrid of planifolia and fragrans, and is grown in -- you guessed it -- Tahiti.
  • One reason that Mexican vanilla gets its own, distinct name is that the same plant's vanilla beans can taste very different depending on the soil it's grown in. Vanilla orchids growing as close as 20 miles from each other can yield different-tasting vanilla. Also, nobody cures their vanilla quite like the Mexicans do. People consider Mexican vanilla to be the best vanilla in the world.

Vanilla planifolia in bloom.
(Photo from Dragon Agro, a wholesaler of unusual plants)

General facts:
  • People now say "plain old vanilla," but it used to be considered a flavor suitable for Aztec royalty, an exotic plant, and an aphrodisiac.
  • The first people known to use vanilla were the Aztecs. Spanish explorers in the 1500s wrote home about how the members of the royal court were flavoring their royal chocolate beverages with something from a black pod -- vanilla.
  • The Spanish came back from their trip with a hot beverage of mixed chocolate and vanilla, which was not only supposed to quench your thirst and warm you up, but it was also believed to be an aphrodisiac.
  • Even though the Spanish were the first Europeans to find out about vanilla, it was the French who started growing the plants. It took them a while to figure out how to grow them, mainly because only a certain type of bee that lives around the Gulf of Mexico will pollinate the orchids.
  • But after a while the French -- it was a Belgian, really -- figured out how to pollinate the plants by hand, and they started getting lots of vanilla beans.

Vanilla orchids grown commercially on a large scale are pollinated by hand -- very gently, like this man is doing.
(Photo from Spice Lines)

  • Not until the vanilla bean is slowly cured -- dried by the sun or over a wood fire -- that the enzymes are released and the fragrance and flavor emerges. So the French brought over some of the Totonaca people, natives from Mexico who were particularly adept with vanilla, to help the French figure out how to cure the beans. The Totonaca gave them some pointers, but they didn't tell them everything. So Mexican vanilla remains the finest in the world.
  • The French started using vanilla for all kinds of stuff -- flavoring their tobacco, making perfume, and, taking another cue from the Totonaca, scenting their homes.
  • When Thomas Jefferson came back to the States after having been an ambassador in France, he was disappointed that there wasn't any vanilla. So he had somebody in France send him a bunch of vanilla. Pretty soon, doctors in the states were prescribing it as a way to "stimulate the sexual propensities."
  • Today, the majority of vanilla is grown in Madagascar and Tahiti.

Vanilla plants growing on posts. They remind me of pole beans.
(Photo from the Vanilla Company)

  • Vanilla is the most labor-intensive crop in the world. The plants take three years before they mature and blossom. The beans have to stay on the vine for 9 months to ripen. Once harvested, they still have to be cured. The curing process can take weeks or even months depending on the method used. After curing, the beans are left to "rest" for another month or two to reach their full flavor.

Workers in Veracruz, Mexico (where the Totonaca are from) laying out vanilla beans on straw mats to be cured in the sun.
(Photo, and much more about the curing process, from Spice Lines)

  • Because the beans require so much time and labor, they can be quite valuable. In Madagascar, where most of the world's vanilla is grown, vanilla rustling is a serious problem. Vanilla growers even stamp their beans with a brand like cattle ranchers do.
  • Today, vanilla is used not just as a flavoring for foods, or a fragrance in perfumes or candles. It's also used in medicines to disguise icky flavors, or to disguise pungent smells in industrial products like paint, rubber tires, and cleaning fluids.
  • However, because of the time and expense involved in producing vanilla, 97% of the vanilla used today is synthetic.
  • To use whole, cured vanilla beans, split the bean lengthwise with a very sharp paring knife. Scrape the tiny black seeds (vanilla caviar) out of the inside of the pod with the edge of your knife and put them directly into your dish.

Scraping the vanilla seeds out of the pod.
(Photo from Food Mayhem, which has a recipe for Vanilla-Chocolate Swirl Cheesecake using an Oreo crust.)

  • The pod has flavor and fragrance too. You can use the pod, as well as the seeds, in making sauces. Even after it's been cooked in a sauce, you can dry the pod and grind it up to put into ice creams or cookies. Or you can put the pod in with your sugar or coffee to provide extra vanilla flavor.
  • If you manage to find uncured vanilla beans and if you keep them for a while, they'll eventually develop a white frost on them. If the white frost gets shiny in the sunlight and makes tiny rainbows, that it's vanilla crystals. Those crystals are highly flavorful bits of vanillin and they'll be mighty tasty. "Like black gold," one grower says of them.
  • If the white stuff doesn't look shiny in the light but stays dull, it's mildew. Throw out the bean.
  • Vanilla extract is made by chopping up vanilla beans and soaking them in ethyl alcohol and water. The FDA says that vanilla extract sold in the US has to be 65% water, 35% alcohol, and 13.35 ounces of vanilla bean must be used per gallon of liquid.
  • Differences in extract come from which beans they use (they'll say Madagascar vanilla, or Mexican vanilla, for example), and whether or not they've used additives. Vanilla is naturally sweet so there's no need to add sugar or anything like that, but some companies do add corn syrup or sugar or caramel coloring.

This vanilla extract from Mexico costs $24.95 for 8 ounces. By comparison, the same size bottle of extract from Madagascar costs $19.95. But the Mexicans are kind of mad at Madagascar for driving down the prices. And everybody says that Madagascar vanilla isn't as good as Mexican vanilla anyway.
(You can buy a bottle of this extract from King Arthur Flour)

  • The good thing about vanilla extract is that it will never go bad. In fact, if you keep it for two years, it will only improve during that time. The flavor stops getting better after that two years, but it'll never deteriorate from there.
  • If you don't want alcohol in your vanilla extract, look for labels that say "natural vanilla." That means the vanilla has been soaked in glycerin or propylene glycol instead of alcohol. Doesn't mean anything about the vanilla itself.
  • Vanilla flavoring or imitation vanilla are both synthetic vanilla. Most synthetic vanilla today is made as a by-product of paper manufacturing.

The bits of bean are visible in this ice cream because it was made with vanilla paste, which is vanilla extract that's also loaded with vanilla seeds.
(Photo and a recipe from NoMU in South Africa)

That's it for the beans! I saved the best for last, didn't I?

USDA Plants Database, Vanilla Mill.
Karen Hursh Graber, Mexican Hot or Not, Vanilla: A Mexican Native Regains Its Reputation
Orchid Flower HQ, Vanilla Orchid
Boston Vanilla Bean Company, Vanilla Beans: Past and Present

Tha Vanilla Company, How to Choose and Use Vanilla Beans and Sex, Love, and the Vanilla Bean and All about Vanilla Extracts and Flavors
Spice Lines, Veracruz: In the Land of the Vanilla Orchid and Veracruz: The Secret of Vanilla's Aroma
Arizona Vanilla Company, How to Use Vanilla