Friday, May 31, 2013

Apple #637: Knaidel

You may have seen the news articles that the 13 year-old boy, Arvind Mahankali, who won the Scripps National Spelling Bee secured his win by spelling "knaidel."  Like me, you may have wondered, what the heck does that mean?

  • Knaidel is defined as a small ball of unleavened dough.  That's pretty vague.
  • A more descriptive definition is that it's a dumpling popular in Jewish cooking.  One type of knaidel with which most people are familiar is the matzo ball.

This knaidel is made from potatoes, for a gluten-free variety, and is served here in chicken soup.
(Photo and recipe from The Shiksa in the Kitchen)

Matzoh balls, sans broth.  Matzo balls are made from matzo meal, which is unleavened wheat flour, chicken fat, and eggs.
(Photo from The Cook's Thesaurus)
  • The plural of knaidel is knaideach, or knaidlech, or kneidlach.

This mix says you can make your own knaidlach, and gluten-free too.
(Photo and mix from Always Kosher)

The woman who made these spells them matzah balls. I wonder how Scripps handles variant spellings.
(Photo from Kveller. She's also got about 5 different recipes, from spicy, to potato, to fluffy, to not cholesterol)

  • Ah, here's the Scripps rule about variant spellings:
If more than one spelling is listed for a word, any of these spellings will be accepted as correct if the following three criteria are met: (1) the pronunciations are identical, (2) the definitions are identical, and (3) the words are identified as being standard variants of each other. Spellings having temporal labels (such as archaic, obsolete), stylistic labels (such as substand, nonstand) or regional labels (such as North, Midland, Irish) which differ from main entry spellings not having these status labels will not be accepted as correct.
  •  How you'd remember which variants are of the acceptable vs non-acceptable variety, I don't know. But then, these kids remember a ton of spelling and grammar rules, so maybe they have some sort of trick to deal with variants. 

This is Arvind with his trophy. I wonder if he'll celebrate with a bowl of knaidel, or matzo ball soup.
(Photo from Reuters)

Related entries: Kosher

Scripps National Spelling Bee, 2013 Championship Finalists
Fox News, New York teen wins National Spelling Bee title, May 31, 2013
Reuters, New Yorker Arvind Mahankali wins U.S. spelling bee with 'knaidel,' May 31, 2013

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Apple #636: Sessile Trillium

I'm going to be away from the internet on Sunday, so I thought I'd give you a little Daily Apple for your Memorial Day weekend.  Let me tell you about a plant I noticed for the first time recently.

It's called the Sessile Trillium.

Sessile Trillium. You can just make out, inside the arching petals, the stamen standing straight up.
(Photo by the Apple Lady. For some reason, when I uploaded my photos, the colors got over-bright. Not sure why that happened.)

  • Some people know this flower as Toadshade, I think because its leaves are so large and mottled, it looks like a place where toads might take shelter.
  • Other people might call it the Wake Robin.  It blooms in early spring, before the trees have leafed out, and when the robins begin to sing their spring songs.
  • When I first saw this plant, I caught my breath.  Maybe because the flower is dark, or maybe because it grows low to the ground, it seemed like it was some kind of treasure growing secretly in the woods, and I happened to be lucky enough to notice it. 
  • I also thought the flower hadn't fully blossomed yet and that's why the petals hadn't opened.  But according to my wildflowers book, that's how the petals stay.
  • The petals stay closed around the stamen (sensitive reproductive part) in order to protect the pollen from rain.  How sweet is that?
  • Actually, the flower does not have a sweet fragrance, but in fact may smell faintly of rotting meat. :(  This is to attract the bugs that pollinate it, which are beetles and ants and flies.
  • The sessile trillium has 3 petals, maroon in color, and 3 leaves.  The word trillium refers to the number three.  The sessile part means attached directly to the base with no stalk.  I think that refers to the way the leaves and the flower grow together, both attached at the same place. 
  • It likes woodlands where there's a mix of sun and shade.  It also likes the ground to be very rich and loamy, where dead leaves tend to pile up, or near wetlands.
  • If you see one, look around carefully because you'll probably see another close by, and then another not far away.  They tend to spread out across an area.
  • It grows in the Midwest and a few Eastern and Atlantic states.  In some of those locations, it's a threatened species. In others, it's endangered.
  • Deer really like to munch on trillium, but sometimes they miss this species because the darker flower helps to camouflage it against the leaves. (Deer are color-blind.)
  • Also, since they plants tend to like wetlands, and wetlands continue to be turned into other types of environments, the plants have fewer places to grow.
  • Another thing that threatens these plants is the fact that they take a long time to grow.  The seeds take 2 years to germinate.  Once the plant has found its way up through the soil to the air, it takes another 2 to 3 years to mature and produce flowers.  Lots of things can happen in that 4- to 5-year span that ruin the plant's chances of reproducing.
  • So the petals have adapted by protecting the plant's pollen as much as possible.

Here you can see how the petals are arched over the reproductive parts, and there is open space between the petals.  You can also get a better idea of how the leaves and the petals are all attached at the same place.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • If you see one of these, do not pick it.  It's worked to hard to get here, so let it keep doing its thing and hopefully it will be able to generate more of these secret treasures in the woods.  
  • Instead of taking the flower with you, take a photo, and you'll be able to admire it at your leisure any time.
P.S. I can't recommend this book highly enough. The pages on the left hand side are full-color photos and the facing pages describe the plant.  Everything is organized by flower color, so it's really easy to use.

Robert L. Henn, Wildflowers of Ohio, Second Edition

Robert L. Henn, Wildflowers of Ohio, Second Edition
Illinois Wildflowers, Sessile Trillium
Ball State University Field Station and Environmental Education Center, Sessile Trillium
USDA Plants Profile, Trillium sessile L. toadshade

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Apple #635: Turkey Vultures

The other day, as I was driving away from a friend's house out in the country, I saw two gigantic black shapes up in a tree.  They were so big, I thought they couldn't be birds, they must be black trash bags caught in the tree or maybe someone had put statues of owls up in the tree to scare away the woodpeckers.  But when I looked again, I realized they were actually birds.  They were so enormous, I knew they had to be turkey vultures.

I stopped, turned around, pulled over to the side of the road, and took pictures using my handy built-in zoom lens. They didn't move, and they looked so bizarre that, even though I was looking at them through my camera, I doubted for a moment that they were real.  They looked like statues, or somebody's bizarre idea of what clown-birds from outer space might look like. Then they moved.  It kind of spooked me.

A pair of turkey vultures (a.k.a. clown-birds from outer space)
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Basic Facts & Identification

  • Turkey vultures can be anywhere from 25 to 32 inches long, or roughly 2-1/2 feet long.  That's just slightly smaller than a bald eagle.
  • They have a wingspan of 6 feet.  That's right, their wingspan is as wide as a man is tall.
  • For all their size, they only weigh about 6 pounds.  I guess that's part of being a bird and having those special bones that are hollow enough to allow for flight.
  • You most often see turkey vultures flying up in the sky.  They look big enough to be a hawk or an eagle, but you can tell they're turkey vultures by a number of traits:
    • They tend to wobble or teeter as they soar. They're either trying to catch thermals and get a better lift, or trying to catch scents.
    • The undersides of their bodies are black but their tail feathers are white, so if you see a distinct dark vs. light coloring on the underside, it's probably a turkey vulture.
    • Sometimes even though they're up in the sky, you can make out the red head.

The light vs. dark coloring on the underside of the turkey vulture might be the most obvious identifier.
(Photo from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Don't They Eat Dead Things? And Isn't that Gross?

  • Turkey vultures eat carrion -- the flesh of dead animals and birds.  A lot of people think they're scavengers that pick off the food that other animals have killed, but most of the time, they are the first to arrive on the scene where an animal has died, whether the animal was hit by a car, or succumbed to disease, or was injured and managed to get away but died later.
  • Turkey vultures are so quick to arrive because they have an extraordinarily powerful sense of smell.  When they're up soaring above the canopy of the trees, they can detect the minutest scent of carrion coming up from the ground through the trees into the sky.
  • Because they eat the flesh of dead animals, most people think vultures are ugly, or undesirable, or a bad omen.  But they are, as Hagrid would say, "dead useful."  Not only do they take care of dead animals -- something most of us wouldn't want to do -- but they have really remarkable immune systems.  Most of us avoid dead animals because the corpses are rife with bacteria and all sorts of other nasty things that would make us very sick.  Not turkey vultures.  They can eat all sorts of stuff and they are not affected by things like botulism, cholera, salmonella, or even anthrax.
  • In fact, even their droppings are disease-free.  So they really help clean up the place. 

Sometimes you see turkey vultures hanging around with their wings open a little, like this.  They're probably letting their feathers dry after a heavy dewfall, or else regulating their body heat.
(Photo from Ask the Birds and They Will Tell You)

  • Tibetan Buddhists regard the vulture in a positive light, as a creature that helps release the human soul from the dead body.  The Latin word for the turkey vulture reflects this view: Cathartes aura means "golden purifier" or "purifying breeze."
  • One of the few things that harm turkey vultures is lead shot.  If a turkey vulture eats an animal that has been shot by a hunter, the vulture will also consume the ammunition, and then eventually it will contract lead poisoning.
  • You don't want to be without vultures (turkey or otherwise).  In some parts of urban India where accidental poisoning killed off so many of the vultures, there aren't enough of the birds to clean up the dead animals.  So now details of people have to go around burying animals so that people don't get sick.
  • So, yes, they eat dead things.  But they're really good at it, and they're doing everyone else a huge favor. 
  • One little note: just because they're circling doesn't necessarily mean they're closing in on something dead down below.  They could just be traveling as a group on the same thermal. 
  • A group of vultures circling is called a kettle.  If they're just hanging out, not flying, then they're called a venue. 

These turkey vultures may look like they're circling over some carrion, but actually, they're just migrating.
(Photo from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Birdscope)

Turkey Vultures & Wild Turkeys

  • The fact that they eat carrion is why they don't have feathers on their heads -- or at least, that's what we assume.  Vultures can eat and not be affected by all sorts of toxins, but it might be a different thing if they went around with that toxic stuff in their face-feathers.
  • By the way, turkey vultures keep their leg feathers clean by urinating on themselves.  That may sound gross and terrible, but actually the uric acids kill any bacteria they may have picked up, and it's what helps keep themselves healthy.
  • The turkey vulture's bald head is why they're named after turkeys.  Because they look kind of like a wild turkey.

The wild turkey has a bald head like a turkey vulture does, but it also has the wattle under its chin and that knob over the beak which is called a snood.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • But there are several differences between the two types of birds.  Besides the fact that wild turkeys can't fly much higher than low tree branches, as compared to turkey vultures which like to get up there and soar around on the thermals, and the fact that turkey vultures' feathers are more brown while wild turkeys' feathers are more blue-black, there's also a difference in that bald head.  
  • The head of a turkey vulture is red and bald.  A wild turkey's head isn't entirely featherless, and the male's head may be blue, red, or white, depending on the time of year.  It is thought that the color changes are associated with trying to attract a mate, or trying to intimidate other male rivals.  The female wild turkey's head is gray-blue and does not change.

Vultures, Buzzards, and . . . What?

  • A lot of Americans use the word "buzzard" to describe vultures, especially out West.  Actually, buzzards are types of hawks that live in Europe (they're related to the red-tailed hawk that we have in the States and look somewhat similar). The misuse probably came about when people from Europe saw vultures and thought they were the same thing as buzzards.  But they're not.
  • Now here's a tidbit that will really tweak your vulture ideas: for a long time, scientists classified vultures with the big birds of prey like hawks and eagles.  But actually, DNA tests show that vultures are not related to raptors (who, for example, have almost zero sense of smell) but rather are more closely related to storks.  Yup, the ones that bring the babies.  Let that float around in your boat for a while.

Wood stork, more closely related to the turkey vulture than the turkey or the hawk.
(Photo from Birds and Gators)

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Education for Kids, Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture Society, Turkey Vulture Facts, Maps, and Statistics
Adirondack Wildlife, Turkey Vultures
National Wild Turkey Federation, What Does a Wild Turkey Look Like?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Apple #634: Pre-Euro European Currency

Daily Apple reader Laxmi asked me a pretty difficult question, which actually turns out to be quite timely and intriguing:

Apple Lady, what happened to all the European currency from different countries after the Euro was adopted? Did the banks just start hoarding the Francs and Drachmas and burn them all up or something? Thought of this over the weekend when I found some coins in a box...

French franc from 1974
(Image from UCoin)

The reason this gets interesting is because a lot of people are talking about the possibility of one or two countries leaving the Euro, or going back to a national currency, or the whole EU dissolving altogether.  So could those old coins possibly become the currency of choice again?  And, I'm assuming the reason Laxmi is asking, could they maybe be worth a little more?

As is inherent in Laxmi's question, the answer to what might happen in the future lies in what happened in the past.

  • On January 1, 1999, the Euro was introduced in participating countries.  People in those countries continued to use their national currencies, and they also used the Euro.  You could pay for your sandwich with either your Belgian franc or a Euro, no problem.
  • On January 1, 2002, the Euro was introduced in still more countries, those in the "euro-area."  They too could pay for things with either their national currency or with the Euro.
  • As people paid with their national currency, the European Commission says, "national cash . . . was progressively withdrawn from circulation, mainly collected by shops and banks." In other words, when people converted their original national currency into euros, the banks and stores hung onto that currency and then turned it in.
  • By March 1, 2002, only the Euro currency was accepted in the euro area.

Member states of the EU.
(Map from Wikimedia Commons)

  • So that's how they phased out national currencies.  To prevent people from stockpiling and making a profit from the changeover, before the EU introduced the Euro, they established fixed conversion rates for each of the national currencies.  Those fixed rates are the same today as they were in December 1998 when they were first established.

 Fixed euro conversion rates for the 17 member states
1 = BEF 40.3399 (Belgian francs)
1 = DEM 1.95583 (Deutsche Mark)
1 = EEK 15.6466 (Estonian kroon)
1 = IEP 0.787564 (Irish pound)
1 = GRD 340.750 (Greek drachmas)
1 = ESP 166.386 (Spanish pesetas)
1 = CYP 0.585274 (Cyprus pound)
1 = FRF 6.55957 (French francs)
1 = ITL 1936.27 (Italian lire)
1 = LUF 40.3399 (Luxembourg francs)
1 = MTL 0.429300 (Maltese lira)
1 = NLG 2.20371 (Dutch guilders)
1 = ATS 13.7603 (Austrian schillings)
1 = PTE 200.482 (Portuguese escudos)
1 = SIT 239.640 (Slovenian tolars)
1 = SKK 30.1260 (Slovak koruna)
1 = FIM 5.94573 (Finnish markkas)

In addition to the above 17 member states, 10 other countries are members of the EU, but they do not participate in using the Euro currency.  These 10 countries are Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey are all acknowledged candidates.

  • So, Laxmi, reading that above list, if your francs are French francs, you would need almost 7 of them to get 1 euro.  At the moment, 1 euro is worth about $1.30. (To get an updated rate, check here.)  So those French francs are not worth that much.
  • OK, so those bills and coins were "withdrawn from circulation." What does that mean?
  • Honestly, I'm not sure what it means in the EU, but I can tell you what it means in the US, and assume the process is roughly the same in the EU.
  • In the US, the Bureau of Engraving & Printing creates & destroys bills, and the US Mint creates and destroys coins.  If a bill is so mangled it can't go into a vending machine, or if it's too full of graffiti, or it's worn too thin, or if there are any number of problems with it, it gets shredded.  (They do also repair damaged currency.)  The shredded bills are taken to a landfill or they are incinerated, or they are occasionally packaged and sold as a souvenir.  In the case of coins, they get melted down and turned into new coins.

This package of $150 worth of shredded bills can be yours for only $20.
(By the way, it is illegal to intentionally deface or destroy US currency. So don't try this at home.)
(Photo from DC Gift Shop)

  • So, presumably, when the banks and shops in the EU countries collected that national currency, they turned it in to their country's central bank which then, presumably, destroyed it.
  • But there are a couple wrinkles in this process which are specific to the nature of the EU, and which make the answer not so neat and tidy as "the old currency got destroyed."
  • Right now, there isn't one central place that prints all the euros for every participating country.  Instead, some of the central banks of participating countries have been printing the euros on kind of a rotating basis, making sure there is equal and adequate supply of euros throughout the countries in the EU. 
  • But, let's say a member country decided to leave the EU and stop using the euro.  Where would their currency come from?  
  • Let's pretend, for the sake of this Daily Apple entry, Ireland decided to exit.  Here is where Laxmi's question gets interesting: Would people open their old sock drawers and dust off their old Irish pounds that they never exchanged, and would everybody pretty much go about business as usual, just using those old Irish pounds?  Or have all the old Irish pounds vanished, and would Ireland's central bank have to churn out a ton of Irish pounds and coins well in advance of an exit in order to be sufficiently prepared?

An Irish pound coin, or punt.  I won 20 Irish punt on my 20th birthday.  That was a good day.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • In December 2011, when there was a lot of talk that any number of countries might get out of the euro, many country's central banks were wondering exactly the same thing.  Especially since many countries in the EU have been relying on the EU system to provide them with currency, not every country would even be capable of switching back to their own national currency.
  • For those countries that have a central bank, some of them were simply asking when they would need to start printing money.  Others (like Ireland) have a central bank but they don't have enough equipment, supplies, and staff to print enough money by themselves, and quickly enough, so could they somehow find a central bank in another country to produce some of their currency for them?  Still others don't even have a central bank at all.  Montenegro, which adopted the euro in 2002, not only lacks a central bank, but it never even had its own national currency before the euro.  They used Germany's Deutsche mark as its currency.  So would they go back to that, or would they establish a new currency?  And who the heck would make their bills and coins?

In case you're wondering, Montenegro is pretty much between Bosnia & Serbia.
(Map from Eurail)

  • So now Laxmi's question gets even more interesting.  Because if countries might be sweating to try to get their hands on a few francs, maybe those coins she's got socked away could turn out to be more valuable than we thought.
  • Now I've got another little wrinkle to throw at you.  Because the truth is, nobody's really sure where all those pre-euro bills and coins went.  Many of them did get exchanged for euros and then shipped to the central banks where they were then destroyed or perhaps only stored in some secret vault.  But in Germany, at least, it's estimated that a whole lot of people never turned in their Deutsche marks to begin with.
  • In January of 2012, the German Federal Bank estimated that some DM 6.41bn in notes and DM 6.9bn in coins (DM 13.31) were never converted to euros.  According to my calculations, in dollars, that's about $8.8 billion worth of German national currency.

The 20 Deutsche mark, no longer in circulation--but still out there, apparently.
(Image from Leftover Currency)

  • The report further says that the majority of this currency was simply held onto by the German public. Many Germans associate the Deutsche mark with economic prosperity and so were very reluctant to let it go.  Another chunk of those Deutsche marks is assumed to have been hidden in what was Yugoslavia, where the DM was a popular currency during the Balkan wars.
  • Germany probably isn't typical since its country is among the financially healthiest in the EU both when it joined and now, but the point is that there may be a lot of that original national currency still floating around out there.
  • So now it seems that those old coins that the central banks could be sweating to produce might not be as scarce as we thought.  So does that in turn mean that the currency is not as valuable?
  • Well, a currency's value depends more on the economic health of the country that's backing it, not on how many physical units of currency exist.  So I've kind of led you down the garden path for a while here.  But I did so because 1) I thought all that stuff about the currency supply was pretty interesting and 2) the answer about the value of the old currency is kind of boring and depressing.  And here it is.
  • Two economists, Jens Nordvig and Nick Firoozye, at Nomura Securities, in a paper submitted for the Wolfson Economics Prize of 2012, made their best guess at how the national currencies of the EU countries would be valued if the EU were dissolved.  
  • Now, please understand that this is a guess.  The real answer is dependent on so many variables--what will be the economic state of each country upon dissolution, will all countries exit at the same time, will any of them be at war at the time, what will be the cost of essentials like fuel and food at the time, etc., etc.--that this chart is very much a guess.  But I trust that these economists know a whole lot more about formulating this guess than I do.
  • Basically, they say, as of December 2011, all the currencies except Germany's would be worth less than the euro.

(Graph from Nordvig and Firoozye, p 45)

  • That line at 1.34 represents the value of the euro (1) to the US dollar (1.34, at the time this graph was made).  So according to these guys, if the EU were to break up, those French francs of Laxmi's would be worth even less than they are now.
  • So, Laxmi, if you want to get something for your French francs, assuming they're so old they wouldn't even be accepted as legal tender anymore, you've got 3 options:
    • 1. Sell them as collectible items. 
    • 2. Turn them in to the central bank of the issuing country (though some countries like the Netherlands take out-of-circulation money only as a donation to charity, meaning you'd get bupkis for it).  

Related topics: Dollar signs (includes a section on the Euro symbol)
European Commission, Scenarios for adopting the euro
Joe Weisenthal, If the Euro Breaks Up, This Is What Will Happen to Each National Currency, Business Insider, Apr 3, 2012
Jens Nordvig and Nick Firoozye, Planning for an orderly break-up of the European Monetary Union, Submission to the Wolfson Economics Prize, Jan 2012 (p 45)
David Enrich et al., Banks Prep for Life After Euro, The Wall Street Journal, Dec 8, 2011
European Central Bank, Use of the Euro
Tony Patterson, Mystery of Germany's 13bn Missing Deutsche Marks, The Independent, Jan 2, 2012
Daniel Indiviglio, The Destruction of Money: Who Does It, Why, When, and How? The Atlantic, Apr 8, 2011
Jill Insley, A fistful of francs: Forgotten foreign currencies still have value, The Guardian, Sept 9, 2010
ABCNews, What to Do With Old European Money? Jan 4, 2002