Monthly Archives: December 2010


Testing the assertion that "it's all good"

In the aftermath of holiday meals, our refrigerators and cupboards fill up with morsels that are too good to throw out, but may not be enough for a complete meal.  Similarly, I find myself at the end of December with tidbits that I accumulated in 2010.  By themselves they didn’t seem to be enough for a whole post, but together they might make an interesting stew, especially since they are about aspects of eating, biting, and swallowing…

     •  Early in the year we all enjoyed the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, briefly becoming experts in sports we have already forgotten until the 2014 Games.  Think back to luge for a moment, though — remember those sleds zipping down the course?  Following the Men’s Singles final, silver medalist David Moeller of Germany sustained an unusual injury.  “The photographers wanted us to bite into our medals at the presentation ceremony,” he told the German newspaper Bild, “and a corner of my front tooth broke off.”  That kept him from smiling during the celebration, but it could have been worse, I suppose — Moeller could have broken a molar.

     •  It seems obvious that the increasing number of people who are overweight would be associated with increases in the size of meals — “super-sizing”, in fast-food jargon.  Two brothers, Brian and Craig Wansink, wondered when the trend toward larger portions began, and they came up with a novel study:  they looked at paintings of the Last Supper from approximately A.D. 1000 to the year 2000 to compare serving sizes.  The results were published in the International Journal of Obesity, which offers a lot of food for thought.

The Wansink brothers (both scholars, by the way) assumed that the head sizes of Jesus and his apostles would remain consistent in depictions of the event.  With that as a baseline, they used computers to evaluate the amount of food that was shown on the plates.  Sure enough, over the millennium the size of entrées increased by roughly 70%, and the bread was 23% larger.  The diameter of the plates increased significantly, too.

Duccio’s Last Supper, done in 1311, shows the disciples eating what would barely be a snack by today’s standards.  The most famous Last Supper, completed by Leonardo da Vinci in 1498, isn’t nearly the feast that Tintoretto painted in 1594.  By the 20th century, Andy Warhol included potato chips at the Last Supper.  At least Tintoretto gave the disciples some fruit and vegetables.

     •  In April, a 37-foot gray whale beached itself in West Seattle and died a few days later.  Biologists examined its remains and discovered a lot of garbage in the whale’s stomach.  Among other things, the poor whale had ingested a pair of sweat pants, duct tape, surgical gloves, over 20 plastic bags, and a golf ball.  It seems to me that if you hit your golf ball somewhere that a whale might swallow it, the penalty should be more than one stroke.

Happy New Year, and eat responsibly.  Don’t go biting any Olympic medals, OK?

Spot On

A leopard, just trying to blend in (photo by Sally Reeder)

Sometimes scientists struggle to prove the obvious:  There is probably a study in progress right now to explain why you feel wet if a bucket of water is thrown on you.  In that same vein, I did not say “aha!” and slap my forehead in astonishment at the results of research done by William Allen and his colleagues at University of Bristol (UK).

Basically these guys were exploring why some big cats have spots and some don’t.  I’m going to assume that you have not recently conducted extensive research in that area yourself, yet you knew that it had something to do with camouflage, right?  If you’ve seen any nature documentaries, you’ve watched leopards or lions sneak up on their prey and then pounce.  You figured the coat patterns (or lack thereof) helped the big cats blend into their environment.

If that’s what you thought, good for you — Dr. Allen and his team have proven you right!  Yes, most cats (with the notable exception of cheetahs) stalk and ambush from relatively short distance, so the camouflage on their coats allows them to get close to their unsuspecting next meal.

Apparently there had previously been an alternative hypothesis — one that hadn’t occurred to me — that the spot patterns were some sort of signal between cats of the same species.  Nope.  The cat’s coat has no relationship to its sociability.

The research team studied 37 species of non-domestic cats, investigating how coat patterns matched the cats’ habitat.  The results, published a couple of months ago in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, confirm that big cats who spend most of their time in the dappled light of treetops — like leopards, for instance — have more complex patterns than cats who hang out in open areas, like lions.  (As we know, lions don’t have spots.)

OK, so what’s the deal with tigers — why stripes and not spots or blotches?  A reporter asked Dr. Allen about that.  His response was, “There aren’t enough species of stripy cat to reliably make associations between stripes and potential drivers of stripyness.”  In laymen’s terms, that translates to “Hell if I know.”

Another unanswered question is why cheetahs have spots.  I have personally witnessed them hunting gazelles in Tanzania, and I can tell you that cheetahs would blend into their environment a lot better without the spots.  It’s also unknown at this point why coat markings in some species change as the animal matures.  For that matter, do coat patterns evolve over generations, as the animals’ environment changes?

It may be up to other scientists to answer these questions; Dr. Allen has already moved on to a new study about color and pattern on snakes and certain mammals, such as giraffes.  Let me think… do you suppose he’ll eventually learn that it has something to do with the creature’s habitat?  And by the way, has it been conclusively proven that a bear defecates in the woods?

A Night at the Opera

This turned out to be the bad guy.

Perhaps you’ve never been to a live performance of an opera like Aïda or Lohengrin, but you have at least passing familiarity with the conventions of Grand Opera.  If nothing else, you have heard Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” on the music loop in your neighborhood Italian restaurant.  When someone says opera, it creates a mental image for you:  “The opera ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings,” maybe.

Whatever your mental image, it is at odds with Beijing Opera (or Peking Opera, as it is also known).  For one thing, Beijing Opera has no fat ladies.  There are many other unique features of this theatrical idiom, developed by the Chinese in the late 18th century.

During our recent visit to China, Sally and I attended a performance.  A brief description of that experience follows, culled from my journal entry for September 5, 2010.  The evening began with a meal featuring Peking Duck…

…After dinner we walked through the lobby, where the performers were putting on their elaborate makeup.  (see photo)  We were then escorted to a table in the theater that was perhaps fifty or sixty feet from the stage.  There were some snack items on the table — peanuts encrusted in something was one choice; a bowl of what looked like limes (but were called oranges) was another.  A young waiter had a tea kettle with a spout that was at least three feet long.  He gave a showy performance of pouring hot water into our tea cups.

The opera turned out to be unlike the version of opera we know.  There were no arias or inspiring choral singing.  The orchestra did not play what we would recognize as melodies.  There were only eight or ten musicians, most of whom seemed to be playing percussion instruments.  The others had stringed instruments, one of which looked something like a banjo.

This aggregation provided punctuation to the odd behavior on the bare stage.  The performers were dressed in period costume — I guess that’s what you’d call it, but I have no idea what period.  They strutted and struck poses and did some acrobatic stuff.  The Chinese people in the audience who could appreciate what they were seeing would reward the performers by shouting what sounded like “Ho!”  We westerners exchanged bemused glances, as if to say, “Huh?”

One scene featured a young woman (or someone who was portraying a young woman, anyway) who sang.  “Wailed” might be a more accurate description; it was an ear-splitting falsetto that seemed to be conveying her dismay about something.  Even the English-translation supertitles didn’t make clear what her issues were, but it seemed to have something to do with a sick husband, and her desire to obtain herbs that bestowed immortality.

The last scene had some terrific acrobatic maneuvers that involved several performers tossing and kicking flexible wands at each other. It began with the woman fighting one warrior with two batons.  More joined the fray until there were four warriors and eight batons flying around; she kept several in the air at once, kicking or slapping them back at the warriors.  I liked that part, and so did the locals, who broke into sincere applause and lusty “Ho!”s at the finale…

Four Bowl Games Worth Watching

They have finally broken my spirit.  When I first started publishing my predictions of college football bowl games in 1994, there were “only” 19 games.  That means 38 teams played, and as we all know, in any given year there are not 38 good teams.

This year there are 35 bowl games, which means that 70 teams are playing.  Seventy!  Here’s how silly it has gotten:  There are 12 teams in the Southeastern Conference; 10 of them are going to bowls.  Pittsburgh was so thrilled about getting a bid to the BBVA Compass Bowl that they fired coach Dave Wannstedt.

With all these bowls, the names are becoming redundant:  There’s the Military Bowl (Maryland vs. East Carolina) and the Armed Forces Bowl (Army vs. SMU).  Similarly, we have the Independence Bowl (Georgia Tech vs. Air Force) and the Liberty Bowl (Central Florida vs. Georgia).  For those of a compassionate nature, you might like the Humanitarian Bowl (Northern Illinois vs. Fresno State) or the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (Boston College vs. Nevada).

With so many obscure bowls and undeserving teams, I just can’t do it anymore.  I can’t summon the enthusiasm to analyze individual and team stats from the 2010 season.  I’d like to warn you that East Carolina’s porous defense yielded an average of 43.42 points per game, the third-worst in the country… but who has the time to do that for 70 teams?

I used to enjoy calling your attention to facts like this:  Hawaii has the top passing offense in the nation, with almost 400 yards per game.  Its opponent in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl — Tulsa — was statistically next-to-last in pass defense.  Based on info like that, I would confidently predict that Hawaii would win.  And sometimes I’d be right.

But do any of us, other than the players’ families, care that BYU (6-6) is playing University of Texas-El Paso (6-6) for the New Mexico Bowl trophy?  Or that Ohio and Troy will each get $325,000 payouts for participating in the New Orleans Bowl?  Sorry, but I’m afraid you’re on your own for picking a winner in the Holiday Bowl (Hint:  Nebraska).

What I will do, though, is point out four games that might actually be worth watching.  Let me also suggest that if you are a fan of the University of Connecticut, you won’t want to be watching when the Huskies face Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

1)  The Rose Bowl matches undefeated Texas Christian against one-loss Wisconsin.  These teams tied for 4th in scoring offense, each having generated 520 points.  TCU was the nation’s top defensive team, though, while Wisconsin was 22nd in total defense and 29th in scoring defense.  On that basis, I give the edge to the Horned Frogs.

2)  Virginia Tech was humiliated in its second game of the season, losing to James Madison (coincidentally the shortest president of the U.S. at 5’4″ tall).  Since then the Hokies have turned their season around, winning 11 straight.  In that stretch they have not faced a quarterback with the skills of Stanford’s Andrew Luck, who threw for over 3,000 yards and ran for 438 more.  It may be close, but Stanford wins the Orange Bowl.

3)  Ohio State is a slight favorite over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl and should be able to at least slow down the Razorbacks’ high-powered offense.  Buckeye QB Terrelle Pryor has been inconsistent throughout his career, but if Good Terrelle shows up, Ohio State will come out on top.

4)  The BCS championship game matches two great teams, Oregon and Auburn.  The Ducks have a slight statistical advantage, but something tells me that Cam Newton, this season’s Reggie Bush, will lead Auburn to victory.

There are some other games of at least passing interest (check out Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl if you get a chance), but these are probably the four best.  And just remember that any game — even if it’s Baylor vs. Illinois in the Texas Bowl — is worth watching if it gives you an excuse not to clean out the rain gutters.

Et Cetera and Others

It's helpful to know a little Latin in case a Roman centurion shows up at your place of business.

Did you ever stop to consider how many languages you speak?  I’m assuming your first language is English, but you know some German:  hamburger, gesundheit, pretzel, dachshund.  You have some French:  chic, liaison, brassiere, faux pas.  Your Japanese vocabulary includes sushi, karaoke, kimono, and karate.  You know a lot of Spanish words:  fiesta, amigo, sombrero, mañana, adiós.  You get by in Italian with pasta, vino, grazie.  Your Mandarin is limited, but you know China’s essential word:  Wal-Mart.

You even know a fair amount of Latin, even though no one other than priests, lawyers, and scientists speak that language anymore.  Because it is a so-called “dead” language, some of your Latin skills may have eroded; perhaps it would be useful to review a few terms that occasionally cause confusion.  Part of the problem is that they are usually abbreviated (which, by the way, is from the Latin word brevis, meaning “short”.)

Depending on your age group and occupation, you may think IE stands for Internet Explorer, or Indo-European, or Industrial Engineer.  In Latin, though, lower-case i.e. stands for id est, meaning “that is”.  Here’s an example of how it might be used in text:  The experiment with gasoline and matches had a predictable result; i.e., an explosion.  Basically, i.e. is a short way to say “in other words”.

It is frequently confused with e.g., the abbreviation for exempli gratia, which translates to “for example”.  Let’s invent a person named Roberta to illustrate the difference between i.e. and e.g.  Roberta is a person with many interests; e.g., ice carving, tambourine music, and genealogy.  That is not a complete list of Roberta’s interests — we didn’t even touch on her enthusiasm for rum drinks — but it gives examples of things she enjoys.  Here’s something else about Roberta, though:  She is extremely loquacious; i.e., she won’t shut up.

Another Latin word that is occasionally useful is sic.  It is pronounced “seek”, and literally means “so”, or “thus”.  It’s used to indicate that a word or phrase is being quoted verbatim, even though it is non-standard or incorrect.  Remember the Woody Allen movie Take the Money and Run?  The bank robber handed over a note that would have been written up in the police report this way:  “Perpetrator presented demand reading  ‘Please put fifty thousand dollars into this bag and abt [sic] natural.  I have a gub [sic]’.”

For some reason sic is italicized, but i.e. and e.g. aren’t.  Another Latin phrase that isn’t italicized is etc., short for et cetera — “and others”.  It’s used to suggest that more of the same have been omitted for brevity, as in, “With the glaring exception of Los Angeles, the National Football League has teams in every major U.S. city:  New York, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, etc.”

If you use et cetera, there should be at least two or three in the list preceding etc.  I also don’t recommend using it in love letters:  “Oh, my darling, I am spellbound by your smile, your eyes, your personality, etc.”

As a Facebook friend might comment:  “Dude, you blue [sic] it.  That wasn’t to [sic] swift.”

Yes, It Leans

The Traditional Pose (photo by Sally Reeder)

If Pisa’s tower didn’t lean, why would anyone go there?  That’s not to say that the city of Pisa is unappealing, but there are lots of other towns throughout Italy that are equally charming, and they are not on the must-see list for most tourists.  Pisa draws crowds to stare at a monumental mistake.

It’s about a half-hour walk from the central train station to the Piazza di Miracoli, the square that includes Pisa’s cathedral and its famously flawed bell tower.  The cathedral and baptistery were already in place when work began on the tower in 1174.  The builders no doubt had the best of intentions, but nobody seems to have done any engineering studies of the soil at a site not far from the mouth of the Arno River.  Apparently they ignored the fact that the name Pisa is derived from a Greek word that means “marshy land”.

By 1178, after construction of the third floor, it was evident to even casual observers that the tower had begun to sink.  The city’s leaders had more pressing problems, though — they were involved in wars with neighboring city-states such as Genoa, Lucca, and Florence, so construction on the tower had to be abandoned for almost a century.  That may have been a stroke of luck, because that period of neglect gave time for the subsoil to settle somewhat, stabilizing the precarious foundation.

When construction finally resumed in 1272, some genius came up with a plan to disguise the tilt:  The upper floors were built with one side taller than the other, to make it look straight.  You may not have a degree in engineering, but you can probably guess what effect that additional weight had.

The torre pendente, as it is known to the Italians, was completed toward the end of the 14th century.  It was designed to be 185 feet tall, and sure enough, some part of it is exactly that tall.  The height is currently 183 feet on the low side and 186 feet on the high side.  That means it is something like 12 feet from perpendicular; about four degrees from straight up and down.

By the way, that story about Galileo dropping cannon balls off the leaning tower to prove something or other about gravity is probably not true.  A guy who understood the effects of gravity wouldn’t set foot in that thing.

There have been predictions of the tower’s imminent collapse for centuries, and several attempts have been made to keep it from toppling, including one as recently as 2008.  Pisa’s city fathers have put stipulations on repair jobs, though; they assume that tourists probably wouldn’t swarm to see the Perfectly Straight Tower of Pisa.  Officials want the tower to continue to lean, so periodically counterweights have been added, or soil has been removed, or cables have been connected.  Recently the angle of incline was straightened slightly, so that the tower is about how it was a couple of hundred years ago.

That will undoubtedly change, since the nearby cathedral and baptistery are gradually sinking.  There are a couple of other bell towers on other churches in Pisa that are now leaning, too, although not as spectacularly.

Keeping the tower from collapsing seems to be a job that will never be finished… not unlike the plumbing in my home.