Sunday, November 22, 2015

Apple #721: The Wrong Side of the Bed

For quite a while now, I've been getting up on the wrong side of the bed.  I mean that metaphorically.  As the old saying goes.

But where does that saying come from?  And just what is the wrong side of the bed, anyway?

  • Well. As with most sayings and customs that have been passed around with no attribution whatsoever, 1) nobody is really sure where it comes from and 2) there are a lot of ideas out there presented as fact which are a lot of hogwash.
      • hogwash - kitchen swill, or slops fed to pigs (not the disgusting remnants left over after washing a hog), or in general, the refuse from a kitchen or brewery. Later, an insult referring to cheap liquor.  Still later, an insult referring to "inferior writing."

Not actual hogwash. Or if you like, a metaphorical demonstration of hogwash, in the sense that it is inaccurate.
(Image from Lifevine's Blog)

Actual, for real & for true hogwash.
(Photo of a bucket of pig slop, as ferried on the back of a man's bicycle in China from Waffles & Steel)

  • Back to the wrong side of the bed.  The saying means you wake up grumpy for no apparent reason, so you might as well explain it by saying you got up on the wrong side of the bed.
      • (I haven't been waking up grumpy, I've been waking up out of sorts, unhappy, sometimes downright inconsolable. But this makes about as much sense as being grumpy due to getting up on the wrong side of the bed, so I'll just say I've been getting up on the wrong side of the bed.)

This for sure would be the wrong side of the bed.
(Sourced from SlideShare)

  • Some recent news articles refer to a mysterious "study" conducted by Sealy UK (you know, the people who make mattresses).  I've looked at Sealy's website and their blog where they publish little press releases about the results of their "research," and I don't see anything on either site about this "study."  But let's pretend that it was published, and let's pretend that it was done with at least a modicum of scientific rigor.
  • According to this mysterious "study," Sealy UK found that in the case of couples who sleep together, there really is a "right" and "wrong" side of the bed.  That is, the person who sleeps (and therefore wakes up) on the left side of the bed is 10% more likely to have a positive outlook on life, and to be 8% more likely to enjoy their job.  The person who sleeps on the right side of the bed is, as you might therefore expect, more pessimistic and more likely to dislike his or her job.
  • This ephemeral study further says that for those who are not in a relationship, if they don't have many friends, they sleep on the right side of the bed.  Those not in a relationship who do have a large circle of friends sleep on the left side of the bed.
  • My big question which goes unanswered in the articles that quote this ethereal study is which side of the bed is the left and which is the right?  The left as you face the bed, or the left as you're lying down in it?  I suppose, since we're talking about sleeping in the bed and getting up from the bed, it would be the left as you're lying down in the bed.  But we need to know these details.  Otherwise, how will we rescue ourselves from pessimistic loneliness, since apparently all it takes is sleeping on the other side of the bed?
      • In case you can't tell, I have more than a healthy dose of skepticism about this so-called study and its purported results.

This kid got up on the wrong side, and is skeptical of everything besides.
(Photo from The[Robert]D.)

Our conventional wisdom about the wrong side of the bed says it's on the left.  Is that what this photo is saying, or not?
(Photo from Reinventing the Event Horizon)

  • If this "study" of Sealy's is correct, it flies in the face of centuries of commonly-held wisdom about what is the wrong side of the bed.
    • A lot of other sources on ye olde internette claim that the wrong side of the bed is the left side.  These hogwash purveyors say that the reason we have this phrase at all is because for a long time we -- or perhaps it was ye olde Romans, since some say this phrase is as old as the Roman Empire [we are awash in gallons of hogwash here] -- were very superstitious about anything left-handed.  The thinking here is that, since people used to be terrified of the lefties, if someone was plagued by mysterious bogeymen throughout their day, then it must have been that they got up on the cursed left side of the bed.  Or at least, that's what those silly superstitious people used to think, way back in the day.

[Cue the buckets of hogwash here.]

  • Other sources don't try to stake out which side of the bed is the bad side, or why, only that those silly people long ago thought that there were ghouls or demons lurking under one side of the bed, and they infected you as you arose from your slumber. So you spent your day fighting off the grumpy-making demons, and your day was screwed.
  • Now, there might seem to be some logic to the idea that the wrong side of the bed would be the left side.  Because the word wrong does mean the opposite of right. However, wrong's oppositeness to right is in the sense where right means moral, just, fair, etc.
  • Digging further into the opposites, etymologically speaking, the word right does not have anything to do with the right-hand side, but rather it means straight or even (it comes from the Latin rectus).  Wrong does not come from any word having to do with the left-hand side, but rather it means crooked, not straight.  A wrong, for example, could mean an unjust thing done to another person, but it could more concretely mean the crooked branch of a tree, or the curved rib of a ship.
  • So, making the claim that there is some etymological reason why the wrong side of the bed would be the left-hand side would be, er, wrong.
  • Further, those who say the phrase dates back to Roman times are also (say it with me) wrong.  The OED, the reference book that has been one of my dearest loves for decades, says that the first recorded published instance of the phrase "the wrong side of the bed" is from 1801.  Let me give it to you in all its finest OED detail:
To get up or out of bed (on) the wrong side, with allusion to the supposed disturbing effect on one's temper. colloq.
1801 Marvellous Love-Story I, 167 You have got up on the wrong side this morning, George. 

The OED. This may be my desert-island book--if I'm allowed to bring both volumes.
The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (in slipcase with reading glass) (v. 1-20)

  • Other examples from later dates follow, but there you have it. First published usage is from 1801. Don't you think, if this phrase dated back to Roman times, there might have been another published instance of it before 1801?
  • What the incomparable OED does not tell us is why this phrase exists, what gave rise to it.  And that's really what we want to know.
  • I suspect that the reason we don't have a definitive source from which this phrase springs, or a particular reason for its existence lies within the nature of the phrase itself.  I believe what the phrase initially intends to express goes, in long form, something like this: 
Geez, George, you're in a bad mood, and it looks totally random and out of the blue as far as I can tell. You're acting like you just woke up this way, that it's got nothing to do with anything happening around you, you're just plain cranky today.  That makes no sense, really, so what put you in the bad mood to begin with must be something that makes about as much as sense -- like getting up on the wrong side of the bed. 
  • Looking for an explanation of the phrase might make about as much sense as looking for an explanation for the bad mood.  You'll find it on the wrong side of the bed.  Wherever that is.
  • As far as whether or not this entire blog post is hogwash, in the "inferior writing" sense of the term, I leave that to you to decide.

New Zealand Herald, Left side of bed may be the 'right' side for best sleep, November 22, 2015
Daily Mail, Woken up grumpy? It really could be because you got out of bed the wrong side (and we FINALLY know which side that is), November 21, 2015
Sealy Blog, Sleep Research
Grammar-Monster, What Is the Origin of the Saying "To Get Out the Wrong Side of the Bed"?
Bloomsbury International, Get up on the wrong side of the bed
Woman's Day, The Origins of 12 Common Idioms, August 10, 2009
Ask Men, Weird Expressions & Their Origins - Part 4

Online Etymology Dictionary, wrong, hogwash 
World Wide Words, Wrong side of the bed
The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (in slipcase with reading glass) (v. 1-20)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Apple #720: October, the Eighth -- er, the Tenth Month

I've recently been battling the effects of too little sleep and too much work for too long, so my posts have been spottier than usual lately.  I'm starting to make inroads on the exhaustion, though, so I thought I'd give you another Daily Apple.  This one is about a little inconsistency I noticed this afternoon.

October is the tenth month in our calendar.  But clearly, octo- means eight.  How did a month named "eighth month" wind up in the tenth spot?

And wait a minute. September = 7, November =9, December = 10.  But they are in the 9th, 11th, and 12th month positions.  How did that happen?

Even Philosoraptor wants to know.
(Meme from imgflip)

The Short Answer

  • As you might guess, it's because of the transition from an old calendar to the calendar which we now use.
  • In the very old Roman calendar, October was the 8th month.  When the Roman calendar was revised, more months were added, and that pushed October into the 10th slot.

The Complete Answer

  • Regular Daily Apple readers will know that a three-sentence answer to any question is probably not the entire answer. The complete answer may take longer to get to, but therein lie the oddities, and therein lies the fun.
  • First of all, the Romans didn't quite have it all down pat when it came to their calendar.  They got their ideas about their calendar from the Greeks, but they added their own special flair to it.
  • Initially (before 700 BCE or so), their calendar had 10 months.  Nice, round number.  Easy to work with. The months were ordered thusly:
  1. Martius
  2. Aprilis
  3. Maius
  4. Junius
  5. Qunitilis
  6. Sextilis
  7. September
  8. October
  9. November
  10. December
  • You can see the Romans trying to be logical.  They were creative with the first 4 months' names, and then they gave up and named the months after their position.  But that made things easy to keep track of.
  • The problem was, the earth's rotations and the months and days don't fit nicely into a 10-month package.  The Romans wound up with 61 days that didn't belong to any month at all.
  • I don't know what people did for those 61 days.  Went around holding their breath, I suppose, or saying, "We are in the monthless days," I don't know.
  • Then Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome--this was before there were emperors or even a republic--came along.  He ruled from 615-673 BCE, after the first king, Romulus, had died.  He decided to reform the calendar and account for those rogue 61 days.

Sculpture of Numa Pompilius. I'm talking about him as if he were an actual person, and he was, but he lived so long ago, and so many stories have been told and re-written and exaggerated that it's difficult to know what he actually did and what was done by other people and got attributed to him. From what I gather, he's sort of a catch-all figure for Things People Did During the 700 BCE years.
(Image from Crystalinks)

  • Numa added two more months, January and February, at the end of the calendar.  So his months went like this:
  1. Martius
  2. Aprilis
  3. Maius
  4. Junius
  5. Qunitilis
  6. Sextilis
  7. September
  8. October
  9. November
  10. December
  11. January
  12. February
  • He preserved the logic of the months' names and their positions, and his calendar came closer to the actual solar year, but it fell a little short at 355 days long.
  • To correct that problem, he said that every other year there should be an inter-calendar month of 22 or 23 days, whichever was necessary, called Mercedinus.   
  • You would think that Mercedinus would be inserted after February, but that's not quite how it went. Numa said Mercedinus should be inserted within February, after the 23rd or 24th, and then once Mercedinus was over, they'd go back to February and finish that month.  So in practice his calendar went more like this:
    • 1. Martius
    • 2. Aprilis
    • 3. Maius
    • 4. Junius
    • 5. Qunitilis
    • 6. Sextilis
    • 7. September
    • 8. October
    • 9. November
    • 10. December
    • 11. Januarius
    • 12. Februarius
    • (no number). Mercedinus for a while
    • 12. back to Februarius
  • Numa also declared that the previous practice of figuring out what day it was solely by what the moon was doing was too fuzzy.  From then on, every month would have 31 days.  Er, mostly.  
  • The Romans liked 31 because they believed that odd numbers were lucky.  But not every month could have 31 days and keep the calendar corresponding with actuality, so Numa said some months would have 29 days. Keepin' it odd.
  • But even with these improvements, the Roman calendar was still messed up.  The months wound up moving slightly as time progressed so a month that used to be in spring, after a certain amount of time, would wind up in summer.  
  • Also, since the priests were still in charge of announcing when it would be the Ides or when it would be the Kalends, they were messing with the decrees to make parts of a month longer or shorter so the rulers they liked would be in power longer.  There were decrees being made left and right, changing the length of months all the time.  The whole thing got pretty jacked.

Replica of a fragment of a Roman calendar (one of the Fasti), showing January through May. Days were reckoned by the new moon (Kalends) and how many days had passed since that, the first quarter (Nones) and how many days after that, and the full moon (Ides) and how many days had passed since then. Crystal clear, right?
(Figure from Calendars through the Ages)

  • When Julius Caesar came along, he said, "I'll fix this."  He asked an astronomer for advice and based on what that guy told him, in 45 B.C.E. he established a new calendar that had 365 days (10 more than the Roman calendar) divided into 12 months.  Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Julius Caesar, perhaps decreeing that we should all abide by his new and improved calendar.
(Photo from Calendars through the Ages)

  • He made January the first month of the year.  This was in keeping with a practice that many people had been following for about 100 years already because January 1 was the beginning of the civil year in Rome, when the elected consuls would begin their one-year term.  (Sort of ironic that Caesar, who inaugurated the empire and put an end to the Republic, would codify a practice associated with the rule of the republicans).
  • He didn't change the order of any of the months, just shifted the beginning of the year to January.  So his calendar went like this:
  1. Januarius
  2. Februarius
  3. Martius
  4. Aprilis
  5. Maius
  6. Junius
  7. Qunitilis
  8. Sextilis
  9. September
  10. October
  11. November
  12. December
  • So that's how the eighth month wound up being the tenth month.

But Wait, There's More

  • After a few years, the astronomers discovered the Julian calendar wasn't right.  So they added a Leap Day at the end of February every third year.  But then after a few more years it became obvious that still wasn't right, so they changed Leap Day to every fourth year. 
  • After more time passed, they discovered that this still wasn't right.  An extra day was getting added every 128 years.  So every 128 years, they had to shift the calendar to skip that extra day.
  • Even so, that calendar was pretty popular and some parts of the world or some scholarly disciplines still use it.
  • In 1582 during the tenure of Pope Gregory XIII, a new calendar was adopted, which we call the Gregorian calendar after the Pope, even though it was an Italian astronomer who came up with it.

Luigi Lilio, the Italian doctor/philosopher/astronomer who came up with the calendar we call Gregorian and which we use today.
(Image from adnkronos)

  • The Gregorian calendar was pretty much the same as the Julian calendar, except the number of days in each month were a little more flexible -- no need to stick with that lucky odd number anymore -- and the months were adjusted so the first day of a new season fell on the 21st, or as close to that as possible, and the way Leap Day was calculated was more nuanced.
    • Leap Years would not be every fourth year absolutely, but would occur only if the year is evenly divisible by 4.  But if the year is evenly divisible by 100 it is not a leap year, unless the year is also evenly divisible by 400.
  • This got rid of that problem of an extra day every 128 years, and it also helped keep the months more closely aligned with the seasons each year.  It is the calendar we follow today.
  • By the way, English-speaking folk took longer to switch to the Gregorian calendar.  It wasn't until 1752 that Great Britain and the then-colonies began counting their days the Gregorian way.
  • The Gregorian calendar still isn't perfect, by the way.  It adds an extra 27 seconds each year, which amounts to 1 extra day every 3,236 years.  In a few thousand years, somebody will have to tweak our calendar some more. 

Another indicator of how the Gregorian calendar still contains errors. You can see how the calendar date of the summer solstice falls at various times relative to June 21.5 as the years progress, and then gets readjusted with the divisible-by-400 leap shifting. If our calendar has this much variation in it, imagine how much variation there must have been in the Roman calendar compared to seasons and equinoxes.
(Chart from Wikipedia)

Bonus Fact

  • In the very early days of the Roman kings, a priest (pontifex) would keep track of what the moon was doing and when a new moon started, the pontifex would announce that a new month had begun. The verb for "to solemnly announce" is calare, and it is from that verb that we get our word calendar.

Calendars through the Ages, Early Roman Calendar
Times News, October was once the eighth month, October 19, 2013
The Calendar FAQ, The Julian calendar

Monday, September 21, 2015

Apple #719: People Leaving Syria

Like most of you, I've been hearing more and more news reports about the refugees who've left Syria.  I was kind of taking it in, kind of not. Then I heard one news report on the radio say that an estimated 5,000 people are leaving per day. Each day.  That number stunned me so much, I decided to find out more.

My big question was, if you were in charge of a country where people were so desperate to leave that 5,000 people each day would rather abandon their homes, the places they grew up, the food and the customs and the music and their friends and their family and their places of worship and the places where family members are buried -- they would rather leave all that, and put themselves in the hands of complete strangers to guide them into completely foreign lands and risk being taken advantage of, kidnapped, raped, or left to suffocate in a truck, or who knows what else -- 5,000 people each day would  rather risk all of that than to stay in your country, wouldn't you start to think that maybe something's wrong with the way you're running your country?

Mm, apparently not if you're the guy in charge of Syria.

Syrians in a refugee tent in Nizip, Turkey in 2013.  Apparently, Bashar Al-Assaad would rather blow up his country than have these people stay in it. Just look at those threatening children.
(Photo from Reuters, sourced from PRI)

I don't want to give you a history of all that's happened in Syria.  Lots of other sources out there have done a much better job of that than I could (see Sources at the end of this entry).  Instead, I'm going to give you some facts here & there that you might not know (I didn't know these things).  Because everybody's saying this is the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

In reading about the refugee situation, I discovered I got kind of tone deaf to all the numbers being tossed around. They're all so big, it doesn't take long before they start to get meaningless.  I had to find reference points for those numbers so I could get a picture of just how big they are.  So I'll give you some of those numbers along with the reference points, too.

I know this map is hard to read, and it's outdated from 2012, but my point is the arrows. They're pointing to all countries on all sides of Syria. Meaning that people are taking any and every route possible to get out of the country.
(Map from somewhere on News Aggregator)

The Numbers

  • Syria is about the size of Arizona. 
  • Arizona's total population is about 6.7 million people.
  • Syria's total population -- difficult to estimate given how many people are leaving -- is somewhere around 22 million people.
  • 22 million people is everybody who lives in Florida plus everybody who lives in Iowa.
  • Since 2011 when the civil war started, an estimated 2 to 3 million people have left Syria.  That's somewhere between all of Houston leaving the country, or all of Chicago leaving the country.
  • Millions more people have not left Syria but have been displaced from their homes. This is a nice way of saying their houses got bombed or destroyed, or their farmland was burned, or there's no longer any usable water, or for some other drastic reason they had to leave home and find someplace else to live.
  • That number is estimated to be anywhere from 4 million to 11 million people.
  • 4 million people is all of Los Angeles plus more.  11 million people is all of New York City plus all of Chicago.  Looking for someplace else to live, all at once.
  • Imagine everyone in all the five boroughs of New York leaving their homes and looking for someplace else to live. Because all five boroughs have been bombed or destroyed or have otherwise become unlivable. Oh, plus all of Chicago too.
  • Another way to think of that 11 million is that it equals half of the entire country's population. 

One of the refugee camps specifically for those who have left Syria. This one is in Za'atari, Jordan, as of 2013. The camp is 30,000 square meters and can hold up to 113,000 people. Over 600,000 refugees from Syria have come to Jordan.
(Photo from the US State Department, sourced from Wikipedia

What's So Terrible?

  • For that many people to leave, things must be pretty bad.
  • The dude who runs Syria, Bashar Al-Assad, is pissed off and he is bombing his own people.

Looks like your basic nerd, doesn't he, with the sleeves of his jacket too long and everything. He was trained to be an ophthalmologist.  But apparently this is what a desperate villainous dictator looks like.
(Photo from Bashar Al-Assad's personal website)

  • He rules his country in one of those pseudo-democracies that are really dictatorships that also have a religious component.  Since he's in charge, his religion is the only acceptable one to practice, and he denies various rights to or persecutes people who practice religions other than his.
  • His religion is a small branch of Islam (Alawite).  Other Islamic branches which have more people, both in the world and in his country, his government has repressed in some way.  
    • For example, political parties that are allied with one of the unacceptable Islamic religions or some other religion are illegal, and if you're found doing political things associated with those illegal parties, you could be jailed or worse. People have been beaten, kidnapped, disappeared, etc.
  • So in 2011, a bunch of people attempted their own Arab Spring and rebelled against his government.
  • His father used to be in charge of Syria, and when his father faced an uprising from another Islamic group, he dealt with that by destroying entire neighborhoods where that group was centered. I mean, he leveled everything like a tornado.

This is Bashar's dad, Hafez. How many people must suffer because of Bashar's daddy issues?
(Photo from Bashar Al-Assad's personal website)

  • So Bashar tried to do the same thing. He got his army to kill or kidnap or "disappear" the people involved in that revolutionary effort.  But when he tried his dad's technique, it didn't work. His attempt at repression backfired.  It only made the rebels fight back harder.  And then so did he.
  • He's bombed his own cities, he's burned people's farms, he's had people kidnapped or murdered, his army has raped women and killed children, and then of course you remember the sarin gas incidents when he gassed his own people.  
  • He got rid of the sarin after the international community made all kinds of threats, but reports say he's now using chlorine and ammonia.  Plus, he's recently gotten funding from Russia so he's dropping even more bombs -- including barrels full of ammunition dropped from helicopters -- onto places that may or may not house rebel forces.  So he's killing or injuring lots of civilians in the process.
  • Meanwhile, ISIS has seen this chaos and destruction as a prime opportunity for them.  So they've moved into Syria and they're conducting their brutal recruitment tactics with their lovely beheadings and so on, forcing those people whose heads they have not cut off to join them.  
  • Hospitals have been destroyed, water lines have been blown up so there's not much clean water, in some towns there aren't enough people to bury the dead, and as for food, even before the war people were having to smuggle things in through underground tunnels and now those tunnels have been blown up in places so it's very hard to get decent food, or for anyone to deliver supplies to them.

Syrian residents in a refugee camp within Damascus waiting for food to be distributed. These are people who have left their home somewhere in Syria and come to this camp for the displaced in Damascus. The food aid being given out is not from their own government but from the UN and other relief agencies.
(Photo from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency / Getty, sourced from US News)

  • There have been attempts at a peace agreement, but the rebels don't believe that Bashar will keep any agreement he makes, so nothing sticks.
  • With no end of the destruction in sight, more and more people are saying, Time to GTFO.

The Initiating Event

  • What triggered all of this?  What was  the event that set all this in motion?  
  • Some teenagers painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall.
  • The teenagers were arrested and beaten and tortured.  Always the appropriate response to graffiti.
  • Demonstrators protested.
  • Government security forces shot at the protestors and killed several.
  • That only led to more demonstrations, and ultimately thousands of people filled the streets demanding Bashar's resignation.
  • But of course Bashar would not give up his power.  Apparently he would rather destroy his entire country than give up his power.
  • All this from some words that some teenagers painted on a wall.  
  • What did they write? "The people want to topple the regime" and "It's your turn, doctor."

This graffiti, painted in 2011 during the initial uprisings, says "Down with Bashar."
(Photo from jan Sefti on Flickr, sourced from Wikimedia)

Syrian children in a refugee camp in Za'atari, Jordan
(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell / Getty)

This page lists all the organizations (primarily US) that are providing some form of aid or support to Syrian citizens or refugees.

Summaries of the Conflict
BBCNews, Syria: The story of the conflict, March 12, 2015
BBCNews, Syria's war
The Washington Post, 9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask, August 29, 2013
The Numbers
CIA World Factbook, Syria
World Population Review, Syria Population 2015
CNN, War has forced half of Syrians from their homes. Here's where they've gone, September 11, 2015
The Situation
The New York Times, For Those Who Remain in Syria, Daily Life is a Nightmare, September 15, 2015
The Economist,  Syria's Humanitarian Crisis, June 8, 2015
Newsweek, Syrian Refugees: All You Need to Know, September 17, 2015
The New York Review of Books, Syria's Refugees: The Catastrophe, October 10, 2013
The Spark
The New York Times, A Faceless Teenage Refugee Who Helped Ignite Syria's War, Februrary 8, 2013
CNN, Daraa: The spark that lit the Syrian flame, March 1, 2012
Open Doors, Graffiti on a Wall Sparked Syrian Conflict, March 9, 2015

Monday, September 14, 2015

Apple #718: Why Am I Hungry if I'm Fat?

Dear Apple Lady,

My body has rather obvious stores of fat available to it. How come when I'm hungry, it doesn't just burn that extra fat?  How come my body wants me to eat more food, when it's already got a lot of food stored up in the fat?

Asking for a friend,

Well, A.L., I had to read up on this one because I've had that very same question for a long time (imagine that).  Based on what I've read, the answer is: fat don't work like that.

Fat cells very nearly have a mind of their own. They don't work the way other cells do and they don't take direction from many other parts of the body. They will keep getting bigger in spite of other processes going around them which should otherwise direct them not to.
(Diagram from QMP's Plastic Surgery Pulse News)

  • Fat cells in your body are like rich people.  You know how when people start to amass wealth, you would think they'd have that much more they'd be willing to share? (This was the theory behind Reagan's idea of trickle-down economics.) But in fact what happens is people raise their bar for what they consider to be the minimum amount of money they need to live on.  The more they have, the more they feel they need to protect.
  • Fat is like that.  The more fat you have, the more your body is going to give you the prompt to eat more. As one recent New York Times article put it, "We get hungrier because we're getting fatter."
  • For quite a while now, the prevailing wisdom about obesity has been that if you're overweight, you've simply eaten too much.  Too many calories in, not enough burned. That simple.  So all you have to do is un-do that equation.  Eat less and exercise more.
  • Problem is, this is a big fat lie.

This, on the other hand, is not just a joke, it's the truth.
(someecard sourced from All-species fitness)

    • Suppose you've been invited to a really phenomenal dinner. Your friends are going to prepare the best foods you've ever tasted in your life. It is going to be one great big spread of super-deliciousness. They tell you to "Come hungry." What do you do?
    • My answer was that I wouldn't eat much during the day prior to the dinner. Someone in the audience said, "Exercise." You know, "work up an appetite." 
    • Right, Gary said. To make sure you're good and hungry and ready to eat a lot, you eat less and exercise more.
    • So why are we telling obese people that the way to lose weight is to do the very thing we know will trigger us to eat a lot?
  • He does a lot more debunking of the conventional obesity theories and advice. So let me pause a moment here and say, it's time we quit blaming people for being overweight and obese, and started figuring out what we don't understand about how our bodies use food and get to fixing it.
  • Taubes debunks our current thinking about obesity in order to figure out the real answer behind how obesity works. If we know what's causing it, then we can know how to treat it or stop it.
  • The deal is that fat doesn't work the way we think it does.  We've been told that our body stores extra food as fat and then when it doesn't have enough food available, it will burn off the fat.  But it's more complicated than that.
  • Fat cells want to keep their fat.  Fat cells have a membrane that lets stuff in and keeps things from going out.  What is allowed in are fatty acids.  Some fatty acids that you may have heard of are
    • Omega-3
    • Omega-6
    • Prostaglandins
    • Palmitic acid
    • Stearic acid
  • There are all kinds of them.  These are what you get when you eat foods that contain fats. Meat or fish or nuts, for example.
  • The membrane around the fat cell lets the fatty acids in. Then the fat cell combines these with a type of sugar called glycerol to make triglycerides. This is the form in which fats and sugars are stored in your body. More triglycerides in the fat cell, the fat cell gets bigger, and you get fatter.
  • Once the fats & sugars are stored in the form of triglycerides, your fat cell does not want to let that triglyceride out. The holes in the membrane are too small for the triglycerides to pass through, for one thing, so the triglycerides can't get out on their own.

A representation of a triglyceride. Three fatty acids plus glycerol. This makes for a big, complex molecule -- too big to get back out through the fat cell membrane.
(Image from

Another depiction of a triglyceride being made from 3 fatty acids and glycerol, and then being stored in the fat cell of a prairie dog, I think that is.
(Diagram from The KetoDynamic Antidote)

  • In order for the fat and sugar locked in your fat cells to get out, the triglycerides have to be broken down again into their fatty acid and sugar components, and then those can pass back out through the membrane.  
  • But your fat cells do not want the triglycerides to be broken up.  Your fat cells are like, "I worked hard to get these triglycerides. You are not getting these out of me just because you skipped lunch today. Uh-uh. No, sir."
  • When you get hungry, your body doesn't really see the fat stored in your body as available food. Because the stuff it needs is all locked up in those triglycerides. Think of it this way: When you get really hungry, are you going to take the time to dress and roast and baste a turkey? Or are you going to reach into the cupboard and grab the already-made container of pudding and scarf that down in 30 seconds? You are going for the 30-second pudding.

Literally everything in you says EatthepuddingEatthepuddingEatthepudding.
(Photo and recipe from Fine Cooking)

  • Your body is the same way.
  • Your body is like, I'm not going through all the hassle of breaking down those triglycerides. I'm not opening up the fat cell cupboard and mixing up spices and butter and roasting and basting and who knows what else for who knows how long. I need something in my blood, and it's got to be easy for me to get energy out of it because I'm hungry right now!
  • What's the easiest and fastest thing for your body to break down? Sugars. Highly processed carbohydrates. The ready-made pudding.
  • As long as your body can get its bloody little fingers on some simple sugars, it is not even touching what's in those fat cells.
  • So that is why you still get hungry when you're fat.
  • In fact, it's even likely that when you have a lot fat stored up, your body will tell you to eat more often because of it. Because your body has gotten very good at storing sugar, there's even less of it in your bloodstream, so you'll get the hunger prompt more often.
  • How are you supposed to get out of this vicious cycle?  How are you supposed to burn fat when all fat wants to do is store up more of itself?  
  • It seems like the answer ought to be involved in breaking up those triglycerides, which will make the fatty acids and the sugars available again and deplete those fat stores. But how do you break up those big triglycerides?
  • The answer is in a hormone.
  • Various hormones regulate the calorie-burning, food-intaking, fat-storing process. Think about how a child eats a lot and grows bigger. Or how when you hit puberty, if you were a girl, your body started storing fat in places it hadn't before -- breasts and hips -- and that was a good thing. Or if you were a boy, you ate a lot and got taller and also developed muscles. So something is telling your calorie/fat/food-using processes to use food in a certain way when your body was growing versus how it handles food and fat once your body has reached adulthood.
  • The main thing directing the food/fat traffic is hormones. Different hormones turn on certain processes and turn off others. We typically think of hormones as estrogen and testosterone, and it's true, those are two pretty important ones. But another hormone that is very important in the food/fat process is insulin.  
  • Insulin is not the only hormone working inside the fat cells, but it is the big policeman on the block, so to speak.
  • Insulin is the traffic cop directing fatty acids and sugars out of the blood into the fat cell. Insulin is the policeman who is locking the fatty acids to the glycerol and putting them in the triglyceride jail. And when the triglycerides want to bust out of jail, insulin is the guard who tries to keep them from busting out.

This is a very complex diagram that includes things not discussed in this entry, but the main point is to notice all the green boxes which contain the word Insulin and the one red box containing the word Insulin. This shows in how many fat-storing processes insulin is involved.
(Diagram by Keith Frayn, sourced from The Eating Academy)

Insulin. The police officer that does not let the triglycerides out of fat jail.

  • If you can control the insulin, you can control the fat.  More insulin equals more fats and sugars in the triglyceride jail. Less insulin means the triglycerides can bust out and be free.
  • But you do still need insulin, right? Don't people with diabetes have to inject insulin to regulate their blood sugar?
  • Yes. People with Type 1 diabetes don't have insulin being made in their bodies so they have to supply it. People with Type 2 diabetes have had so much insulin pulsing through their blood, their cells are desensitized to it and don't know it's there and so can't control the sugar in the blood. 
  • So, yes, we do need insulin, but as with most things, we don't want too much of it or too little of it.  What's the thing that results in too much insulin? Sugars. Carbohydrates.
  • Here's the process broken down:
    • You get hungry
    • You eat & start digesting food
    • Sugar shows up in the blood
    • Pancreas makes insulin to deal with the sugar
    • Some sugar gets burned as energy right away
    • Insulin ferries leftover sugar & fat to the fat cells
    • Insulin makes sure the sugar & fat (now triglycerides) are not getting out
    • Sugar levels in blood drop
    • You get hungry
    • It all starts over again
  • Of course it's more complex than that, but that's what we need to know for our purposes at the moment.
  • If we could have less insulin locking up the sugar & fat, it would stay in our blood longer and we'd have it available to burn. We don't want that stuff lingering in our blood too long because that's how you get heart attacks and nasty things like that.
  • So maybe we do something else to change the mechanism at the beginning of the process. Maybe we make the body work a little harder to get the nutrients it needs. Instead of letting it scarf down the container of ready-made pudding, maybe we make it reach for a turkey sandwich.

Now this is the kind of turkey sandwich I can get into. Not the slimy, weensy, sliced turkey from a plastic package, but hunks that have been cut off the roasted bird, with a healthy amount of mayonnaise and butter and some cheese too, on whole-grain bread. This one is made with roasted red peppers and pesto and fontina cheese.
(Photo and recipe from inspired2cook)

  • I'm being too metaphorical here. Let me get to the point. The best way to disable this fat-accumulating process is to eat fewer sugars and simple carbohydrates. 
  • When you put more easy-access sugar into your blood, you speed up the whole insulin-making, fat-jailing process. Once the fat is in the jail, your body has practically forgotten it's there, so it asks for more food. If you give it a lot of sugar -- way more than it can burn right away, which is true of those all those sugary processed things like candy bars and soda pop and doughnuts and pudding and children's cereal and most of the things in the mid-section of the grocery store -- if you give it more free sugar than your body can use, it's only going to lock more of it up in the fat jail. It's not going to bust out that stored-up fat, and it is certainly not going to do that if you keep giving it more free sugar.
  • The only way to break the fat-storing cycle is to quit giving your body more free sugar. You have to make it work for its food. Only then will the insulin police let the triglycerides break up and get out of jail. Only then will you start burning the stored-up fat.  Only then will you start losing weight.
  • So the short answer is: want to lose weight? Eat less sugar.

A good way to help yourself eat less sugar is to follow this map of a grocery store layout. Stick to the outer regions. Avoid the pre-made stuff in boxes in the center aisles. Except for the nuts. I'll go into the center aisles for the nuts.
(Diagram from Medicine in Plain Words)

P.S. When I couldn't eat sugar for a while -- and I mean I had no sugar at all. Not just the typical things you'd think of like ice cream or cookies, but also no bread. No ketchup. No tomatoes. It was intense. I ate almost exclusively protein and vegetables. -- I held to the restriction for about 3 months. And I lost 28 pounds. I wasn't even that much overweight to begin with.

When the problem that precipitated this drastic diet went away, I started eating some sugar again. I gained back the weight I'd lost and then some. :(  But I am proof that if you want to lose weight, don't eat the sugar.

P.P.S. I also learned, though another source, that if you're trying to change your behavior, it's much harder to achieve a Don't than it is to achieve a Do. So I'll say that while you're not eating sugar, Do eat proteins. Do eat vegetables. Do eat crunchy, complex things. Do add spice.

Salt & pepper. Two of the best anti-sugar aids ever.
(Photo from Gizmodo)

David S. Ludwig and Mark L. Friedman, Always Hungry? Here's Why, The New York Times, May 16, 2014
Berit Brogard, Does the Body Burn Fat When You Are Hungry?  Jillian Michaels
Encyclopedia Britannica, Fatty Acid 
American Diabetes Association, Insulin Basics
My Wellness Center, The Importance of Insulin

Monday, September 7, 2015

Apple #717: Ginkgo Trees

Yesterday, I was sitting outside a coffee house with my friend, let's call her Kiki Malone, and she noticed that the tree that was shading our table was a ginkgo tree.  I turned and looked at the leaves.  Seeing the distinctive fan shape, I said she was right, it was a ginkgo.

Only the ginkgo tree has leaves with a fan shape.
(Image from The Anecdotal Goat)

She said, "It's the oldest living tree in the world."  Then she added, "I think.  A person has to be careful saying things like that around the Apple Lady."

I said it had to get annoying, being friends with someone who often says, "Actually, according to what I learned when I did a Daily Apple on that topic. . . ."  Kiki was very gracious and said it wasn't like that at all.  She also said many positive and appreciative things about this here Daily Apple blog as a whole.

So, as a thank you to Kiki for saying so many nice things about the Daily Apple, here is an entry for you on ginkgo trees.  And let me begin by saying: You were correct.

  • The Ginkgo biloba is the oldest living species of tree in the world.
  •  Fossils of ginkgo trees have been found going as far back as 250 million years plus. 
  • That puts the ginkgo as having been alive in the Triassic period, which suffered a massive extinction event along with enormous volcanic eruptions.  Then the dinosaurs whose names most of us know showed up, and they went through their massive extinction event.
  • Ginkgo trees survived all of that.

Artist's rendering of what the Triassic period and its dinosaurs might have looked like. There should be some ginkgo trees in there somewhere. . . .
(Wallpaper from National Geographic)

  • The following characteristics may be why this tree has been able to survive for so many millennia:
    • No insects like to eat it or damage it
    • It suffers from no serious diseases
    • While it prefers moist, sandy soils, it will grow in just about any type of soil, even alkaline, or acidic, or compacted and not well-drained soils
    • It isn't bothered much by road salt, or air pollution, or occasional high temperatures

This particular ginkgo tree is a 1,400 year-old female. She lives in Jonichiji, Japan.
(Photo by Atsuko & Kunihiko Kato, on The Ginkgo Pages)

  • The ginkgo is singular in many other ways as well:
    • It is the only tree with a fan-shaped leaf
    • A single ginkgo tree can live to be 3,000 years old
    • While there are several varieties, it is the only tree in its species
    • While it is the only tree in its species, its classification confounds botanists
  • Some botanists say that the ginkgo is a deciduous conifer -- a type of tree with needles and cones, but which also has leaves that drop in the fall.  True deciduous conifers include several species of larches, bald cypresses, the Chinese swamp cypress, and the Pond Cypress, and the Dawn redwood.  These are also really old species of trees.
  • Some botanists argue that ginkgos are not really conifers, and so therefore are not a decidous conifer.  These botanists say the ginkgo is more closely related to cycads, which is another very old group of plants, of which only some 250 species survive. These live in tropical places and they have leaves that grow out in a radiating circle from the central branch.  They look like palm trees.
  • Still other botanists say the ginkgo is neither a conifer nor a cycad, but completely its own thing.
  • Apparently, botanists have a lot more to figure out when it comes to the ginkgo.
    • The seeds are another really unusual thing about this tree.  The female ginkgo produces a fruit, inside of which is a nut in a shell, and the nut is edible in small amounts.  But I need to break down each of these elements bit by bit.

    The items in these four bowls all come from the fruit. What they call "berries" is the fruit of the female ginkgo. Inside the fruit is the nut in a hard white shell, almost like a pistachio shell. Inside the shell is the nut, which is best roasted. Once that's done, peel the outer layer off the nut to get to the glistening, green nut meat.  But don't eat too many of them, or you'll get a stomach ache.
    (Photo from Hot Topix Suburban Foragers)

    What the fruit looks like on the ginkgo branch. These look a little too yellow; might need some more time to ripen.
    (Photo from Kennesaw State University)

    • The fruit looks like a small, yellow plum, but it stinks like crap.  Literally.  Some people say it smells like vomit.  Others say it smells like sulfur.  Still others say it smells like sour milk. Let's just say it reeks bad.
    • It stinks so bad, scientists can't figure out what animal would want to eat that fruit and thus disperse the seed.  They speculate that maybe the animal that used to eat it has since died out and the tree has outlived its disperser.  There are records that badgers used to eat them, but no current evidence of such today.  But somehow the seeds are still getting dispersed.
    • It could be that humans are now the ginkgo's greatest disperser because we now depend on this tree like crazy.  Since it will grow in spite of conditions that threaten other trees, and it has no pests and no diseases that go after it, it's become enormously common, especially in cities. Lots of cities have lined their streets with ginkgo trees.

    A tree-lined street in Mie prefecture, Japan
    (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

    • But here again, we run into the stink problem.  People find the stink of the fruit to be so disgusting, they've asked that the ginkgo trees be removed.  In various cities like Easton, PA, and Bloomington, MN, and Lexington, KY, they've done just that.
    • They haven't removed all ginkgos, only the stinky females.

    Catalpa Road  in Lexington, KY lined with ginkgos. Why they didn't call it Ginkgo Road, I don't know.
    (Photo from Panoramio)

    • But there's a small problem: it takes 30 years for a ginkgo to reach its reproductive years. And it is nearly impossible to tell whether a tree is male or female before that time. So the cities that are trying to get rid of the females aren't even sure they've got them all.
    • And then a funny thing happens.  Very occasionally, about 1 out of 100 male ginkgos will mysteriously transform.  It will become female and start producing the stinky fruit.
    • This thing is doggoned determined to reproduce.  I can almost hear those those ginkgo trees giggling at us and saying, "Silly humans. We have lived on this planet for millions of years.  It's going to take a helluva lot more than you puny humans digging up a few of our females to wipe us out."
    • But even that is not all there is to say about the stinky fruits.  They have the same toxin as poison ivy or poison oak.  So if you want to harvest them for the nut inside, you'd better wear rubber gloves.
    • Also, the fruit contains a tannin which will stain your clothes or your shoes. One guy who lives on a street in Pennsylvania lined with ginkgos had to get his car re-painted twice because of the ginkgo stains.
    • Oh, and one more thing.  People say the nut, when roasted, tastes like a cross between edamame, a pine nut, and a potato.  Quite tasty, in other words.  In various countries in Asia, the nut is considered a delicacy and is sprinkled on desserts, or in soups, or served with meats.  Only problem is, the nut carries another kind of toxin which will make you throw up if you eat too much of it.

    I can practically hear all the laughter from the ginkgos up and down this tunnel of them, in a park outside Tokyo.
    (Photo from Maxi's Comments)

    • About the name.
    • The tree is native to China, and then it was brought to Japan. Its name is an Anglicized rendering of the Japanese version of the Chinese name yin-hing, where yin = silver and hing = apricot. 
    • The tree was brought to Europe by a Dutch surgeon in 1727, and then to what is now the US -- Philadelphia, actually -- by William Hamilton in 1784.  A few years later, he suggested to Thomas Jefferson that he might like three of them in his gardens at Monticello. 
    • So the tree is pretty cool.  But I can't talk about the tree without mentioning the supplements.
    • There are all sorts of claims out there about the health benefits of the ginkgo.  In China, they say it's the seeds that have the health benefits. In the US, it's the leaves. Either way, such claims include but are not limited to the enormous list below. 
    • The 3 with the asterisk are ones where there has been some good scientific evidence that may suggest some positive result. The rest are pretty much fluff.
      • Brain / Memory
        • Improves memory
        • Improves brain health
        • Reduces severity of migraines
        • Reduces symptoms of dementia*
        • Reduces effects of aging
      • Other Mental health
        • Benefits people with ADHD
        • Benefits people with autism
        • Benefits people with generalized anxiety disorder *
        • Benefits people with schizophrenia *
      • Respiratory
        • May reduce asthma symptoms 
        • Treats scar tissue on lungs
      • Circulatory / cardiovascular
        • Improves blood circulation
        • Helps reduce high blood sugar
        • Helps in recovery from strokes
        • Reduces the number of attacks associated with Reynaud's disease (blood circulation)
      • Diabetes or related
        • Benefits people with retinopathy (diabetes-related eye damage)
        • Benefits people with kidney dysfunction, especially for diabetics
      • Eyes
        • Improves eye health and vision
        • Treats eye allergies
      • Ears / Balance
        • Treats chronic ear disorders
        • Aids in treating tinnitus
        • Treats altitude sickness
        • Reduces vertigo
      • Cancer
        • Prevents cancer
        • Shrinks stomach cancer tumors
        • Reduces effects of chemotherapy
      • Musculoskeletal
        • Improves performance in athletics
        • Assists in treating multiple sclerosis 
        • Improves quality of life for people with fibromyalgia
      • Other
        • Reduces cocaine dependence
        • Treats erectile dysfunction
        • Reduces toxicity of radioactive iodine used to treat thyroid disorders
        • Treats hemorrhoids
        • Reduces symptoms of PMS
        • Gel form reduces wrinkles
    • Boy, one plant that can do all of that, treat everything from headaches to old age to wrinkles and schizophrenia and cancer?  That sure must be some wonder drug!
    • (^sarcasm)

      Shelf after shelf of dietary supplements, or herbal supplements, or natural supplements. This is code for "bullshit."
      (Photo from Fake Food Watch)

      • One trial that asked people to take ginkgo supplements could not prove anything because they didn't get enough data. This is because the "natural" supplements that people were taking turned out to have less than the required minimum 24% ginkgo extract. The pills didn't have enough ginkgo in them to have an effect. Those "natural supplements" were, in effect, snake oil.
      • If traditional medicine is stumped, do you really think some nutjob with a pile of ginkgo pills is going to know something they don't?  Don't let them suck the money out of you. Smile and nod, and keep on walking. 
      • You know who's getting the last laugh, don't you? The ginkgo trees.  They're like, look at those idiots. Thinking my nuts are doing all kinds of wonderful things for them. All they're doing is dispersing my seeds. Disperse on, humans, disperse on.

      This ginkgo lives at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, CA.
      (Photo by Nathan Zanon)

      Yale Environment 360, Ginkgo: The Life Story of the Oldest Tree on Earth, May 1, 2013
      Missouri Botanical Garden, Ginkgo biloba
      Arbor Day Foundation, Ginkgo
      Harvesting ginkgo fruits: Breaking the stink barrier, The Washington Post,  October 12, 2010
      The Morning Call, No flowery expressions: Easton trees just reek, April 24, 2008
      Gingko [sic] Trees That 'Smell Like Vomit' Causing Trouble Nationwide, The Huffington Post via AP, March 18, 2010
      UBC Botanical Garden Forums, How many Deciduous Conifer's [sic] are there?
      about home, What Are Deciduous Conifers?
      University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Deciduous Conifers
      The Jefferson Monticello, Ginkgo

      As an herbal supplement
      Fransen et al., Assessment of health claims, content, and safety of herbal supplements containing Gonkgo biloba, Food Nutr Res. 2010; 54:10
      May Clinic, Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
      Target, Walmart Selling Fake Ginkgo, Garlic, Ginseng Thanks to Political Loophole, Fake Food Watch, February 5, 2015

      Monday, August 17, 2015

      Apple #716: Cicadas

      The air is buzzing with the noise of cicadas.  Which makes me realize, I know next to nothing about them.  I'm not a fan of their appearance, but I'm very curious about the loud noise they make. So what's the deal with cicada sounds?

      The Magicicada septendecim emerges every 17 years.
      (Photo from Crockett Facilities Services)

      • There are about 3,400 species of cicada in the world, and over 190 species and sub-species in North America alone. So talking about cicadas in general means you're generalizing about a lot of different species, each with slightly different characteristics. But generalizing is what I'm going to do anyway.
      • In most cicada species, it's the males who make the noise, and the noise they're making is a mating song.  
      • Females make their own sound by flicking their wings, which sounds similar to a light switch being flipped on and off.  In some species, females make this sound in response to the males' mating song.
      • Cicadas make other sounds too, such as distress alarms when a predator is attacking, or warm-up calls before the males launch into their big production.  But we have a harder time hearing those other calls and distinguishing them from each other.  So most of the time when people are talking about cicada noises, they mean the loud mating call of the males.
      • If you think it sounds like thousands of cicadas are making the same noise together, you're not wrong.  Males will synchronize their songs with each other so they are all going off at the same time. This establishes a "chorusing center" and works to attract large numbers of females to the same place, increasing everybody's odds of finding a mate.
      • Exactly how each cicada makes his song isn't entirely understood.  What we do know is that each cicada has two bumps on either side of their abdomen.  The bumps are called tymbals.  Special muscles inside the abdomen make the tymbals contract and make a popping noise, and then the muscles pop the tymbals back out again to make another popping noise.  

      Close-up of one tymbal relaxed, then contracted. Popping the tymbal in and out makes a popping noise.
      (Diagram from The Robinson Library

      • They work a lot like those metal clicker toys you may have played with when you were a kid, popping the metal up and down to make a clicking sound.

      • The difference is a male cicada can make those tymbals pop in and out 100 to 500 times per second. 
      • The other difference is the echo.  The tymbals are housed in the cicada's exoskeleton. Beneath the tymbals, the body of the abdomen is mostly hollow.  So the clicking of the tymbals at rapid-fire speed gets echoed again and again, and the echoes echo each other.

      Cross-sections of a cicada's abdomen. You can see the largely empty abdomen and how much space there is for the noise of the tymbal to create an echo. 
      (Diagram from The Robinson Library

      • Making the tymbals pop in and out would be, for us, like making our entire rib cage collapse and expand over and over again 100 to 500 times a second.
      • But on the cicada, it looks like it's shaking its tail like a rattlesnake.

      • Knowing this much about how the process works, you would think scientists would be able to replicate the sound.  Nope.  
      • Naval researchers have tried for years to figure out how to do what the cicada does, in order to create a very loud sound that will travel a long way through water, produced using very little power. "We're still working on it," researchers say.
      • Perhaps the most mysterious part of the process is exactly why it's so loud.  But it definitely is loud -- deafening, in fact.
      • One species of cicada in Australia is said to produce a call that exceeds 120 decibels at close range. At this level, sounds reach the deafening point.  Other things that hit 120 decibels: fireworks displays at close range. Thunder. A passing freight train -- louder even than that.
      • The loudest cicada in North America was recorded by the University of Florida at 108.9 decibels. This is just slightly less loud than that passing freight train. 
      • The video below is of this species of cicada, the Neotibicen pronotalis walkeri (formerly Tibicen pronotalis walkeri), or the Walker's Cicada.  It lives in 28 of the 50 states, mainly in the Midwest and the South.

      • Even the cicadas have to protect themselves from their own noisy mating songs. On either side of their head, both males and females have large membranes called tympana. Yup, they're like ears. A short tendon connects each tympana to the auditory organ in the cicada's head. When the male sings, that tendon retracts, pulling the middle of the tympana inward, creasing it so that it will not absorb his own sound. 
      • In a manner of speaking, he's putting ear plugs in to protect himself from the decibels of his own song. (Pete Townshed, eat your heart out?)
      • The males also tone it down a bit when an interested female approaches.

      Life Cycles and Brood Cycles

      • The female lays her eggs in the roots or branches of a tree. After the eggs hatch, the young cicadas are pale little worm-like things. They live underground, in the tree roots, drinking the tree's xylem (nutritional fluids). They are too small to damage the trees they live on, even in high numbers.
      • In some species, the young stay down there for two or three years before they crawl up to the surface, shedding their nymph exoskeleton on the way, to begin their life as an adult.  In other species, the young may stay underground as long as 17 years. 
      • Still other species emerge each year, but every several years, enormous numbers of them will surface at once.  
      • Once the adults are above ground with their new skin, wings inflated and ready to go, they fly up into the trees where the males start their songs and the females commence their clicking.
      • One genus, the Magicicada, has species such as the septendecim that emerge every 17 years (Latin lovers will notice the word for "seventeen" in the name) or 13 years. 
      • There are pockets of Magicicada in various places around the U.S. One pocket, or brood, emerged this year in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas.  In 2016, another 17-year brood is due to emerge in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. (To see a chart of brood cycles across the country, check out Cicada Mania)
      • The fact that this species has broods across several states that each emerge at different times, plus the fact that there are many other species that emerge annually or close to that is why it seems like there are a ton of cicadas in some part of the country each year.

      Distribution map of the 17-year Magicicada species populations.

      Distribution map of the 13-year Magicicada populations.
      (Map from Sanborn & Phillips, Biogeography of the Cicadas, Diversity 2013)

      • As adults, cicadas live only about 4 to 6 weeks before they die.

      The life cycle of a cicada
      (Diagram from The

      Cicadas Are Not Locusts

      • It is important to note that cicadas are not locusts, which are migratory grasshoppers.  It is tempting to think there's a plague of cicadas when you see them in enormous numbers singing their crazy loud songs to each other. But that is simply not true.
      • Cicadas do very little damage to the trees they live on, either as adults that we can hear and see all over the place, or as nymphs underground.  Some younger trees might struggle with the effects of large numbers of cicadas, but older trees do just fine. 
      • They don't bite or sting people. They're not interested in people at all.  They just want to get it on, give up the ghost, and that's it. 

      Bonus Fact

      • Small cicadas make their songs at a pitch higher than what humans can hear. But dogs and other animals can hear them, and if they're close enough, the high-pitched song can be loud enough to make the dog wince or whine in pain.

      Cicada Mania
      The Robinson Library, Family Cicadidae
      Howstuffworks, How Cicadas Work
      Colorado State University Extension, Cicadas
      National Geographic, Cicada 
      Science Daily, Secrets of the Cicada's Sound, May 30, 2013