Sunday, June 29, 2008

What Is a Vegetable?

That was the question posed to me by my two-year-old daughter. She already knew examples of vegetables. She wanted to know what makes a vegetable a vegetable.

I didn’t know, and I later found that the answer has a few twists and turns. From Wikipedia’s Vegetable article:

The term “vegetable” generally means the edible parts of plants. The definition of the word is traditional rather than scientific, however. Therefore the usage is somewhat arbitrary and subjective, as it is determined by individual cultural customs of food selection and food preparation.

Generally speaking, a herbaceous plant or plant part which is regularly eaten as unsweetened or salted food by humans is considered to be a vegetable. Mushrooms, though belonging to the biological kingdom Fungi, are also generally considered to be vegetables, at least in the retail industry. Nuts, seeds, grains, herbs, spices and culinary fruits are usually not considered to be vegetables, even though all of them are edible parts of plants.

In general, vegetables are regarded by cooks as being suitable for savory or salted dishes, rather than sweet dishes, although there are many exceptions, such as pumpkin pie.

For a livelier version of the same topic, I liked “What is the difference between a fruit and vegetable?” from YES Mag, a Canadian youth science magazine:

The answer depends on your relationship with the two items. If you’re stocking the produce department at a grocery store, a tomato is a vegetable. If you’re a plant scientist—a botanist—a tomato is a fruit. Cucumbers, pumpkins, avocados, and peppers are all fruits. Culturally, however, the grocer is going to call them vegetables.

A fruit is the ripe ovary or ovaries of a flower—the mature ovary of a seed-bearing plant. Let’s say you’ve got a tomato plant with those little yellow flowers all ready. A bee comes along and fertilizes the flower. The flower starts developing into a fruit with the seed inside. (There are four kinds of fruits, which explains fruits such as pineapple and blueberries, but let’s not get into that.) And, hey, guess what? Nuts are fruits. True nuts that is, chestnut and filberts come to mind.

Vegetables, however, are the roots (eg, carrot), tubers (eg, potato), leaves (eg spinach), stems (eg, celery), and other bits of plants that you might eat. For a botanist, a vegetable is sort of like the umbrella word for all the edible parts of a plant. Just to keep life interesting, mushrooms aren’t plants at all, they are a kind of fungus.

Let’s just keep with the cultural distinctions!

I’m still working on how to explain this to a two-year-old.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The State Motto Grotto

Except in New Hampshire, where the license plates proudly assert the state motto, “Live free or die,” you don’t usually see state mottos. Far more often you’ll see state nicknames, like Missouri being the “Show Me State.“ You may recognize that nickname, but how about Missouri’s state motto, Salus populi suprema lex esto?

Other than “Live free or die,” state mottos are apparently kept in a cave somewhere, a cave we’ll call the State Motto Grotto. Prepare to behold the many beasts of language that dwell there.

A word of caution first. Like Missouri's, many state mottos are in Latin. For example, who can remember Alabama’s “We Dare Defend Our Rights” without the crutch of the official Latin version, Audemus jura nostra defendere? Obligingly, I will provide non-English mottos in their original language and then an English version.

As a starting point, you might be surprised how few state mottos are about geographic identity.

  • Minnesota: L’├ętoile du Nord (French, “The star of the North”)
  • Indiana: “The crossroads of America”
  • And with an extra bit of marketing panache, Michigan: Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice (Latin, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you”)

Beyond those, state mottos are more about concepts than places. For an extreme example, North Carolina: Esse quam videri (Latin, “To be rather than to seem”). Don’t look for it on a license plate soon.

Or how about Maryland’s Fatti maschi, parole femmine? The direct Italian translation is, “Manly deeds, womanly words.” But before your imagination runs wild, think of it as something like Theodore Roosevelt’s, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, and South Dakota: God gets a mention in each of their mottos. Apparently, they’re not taking too literally the “state” in “separation of church and state.” (Florida, you clever one, your choice of “In God We Trust” kicks any complaints upstairs to the federal government, which features that phrase on its money.)

In the secular-inspirational genre, we have New York’s Excelsior (Latin, “Ever upward”), Wisconsin’s “Forward,” Alaska’s “North to the Future,” California’s Eureka (Greek, “I have found it”), and New Mexico’s ominous Crescit eundo (Latin, “It grows as it goes”).

Less manifest-destinational is South Carolina’s Dum spiro spero (Latin, “While I breathe, I hope”), which Rhode Island reduces to “Hope.” And Connecticut brings us the unusual Qui transtulit sustinet (Latin, “He who transplanted sustains”), which is so 1639.

More contemporary sounding, albeit from 1873, is West Virginia’s Montani semper liberi (Latin, “Mountaineers are always free”). Or consider the following mottos, pulsating with the poetic minimalism of the Standard Industrial Classification.

  • Utah: “Industry”
  • Tennessee: “Agriculture and commerce”
  • Montana: Oro y plata (Spanish, “Gold and sliver”)

Finally, we have the classic American theme of liberty and freedom, rendered variously as:

  • Delaware: “Liberty and independence”
  • Iowa: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain”
  • Massachusetts: Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (Latin, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty”)
  • New Jersey: “Liberty and prosperity”
  • Pennsylvania: “Virtue, liberty, and independence”
  • And, of course, New Hampshire’s commandment-style “Live free or die.”

Now, having toured the State Motto Grotto, perhaps you’ll agree that “Live free or die” deserves to bask in the reflected headlights of motorists everywhere, or at least New Hampshire. By comparison, most other state mottos lack the pith and punch, which explains why they linger in silentium (Latin, “in obscurity”).

[Should you wish to audit every state motto, see Wikipedia’s List of U.S. State Mottos. The license plate image is from Wikimedia Commons.]

Saturday, June 14, 2008

John Gruber’s “Daring Fireball”

The mainstream tech media has always had plenty of pundits and prognosticators. And now with the Internet, anyone with an opinion and a Web site can play along.

The good news is, amid a spectrum of awful to awesome, the best amateurs can be as good or better than most pros. Case in point: John Gruber, a Web developer and technical writer whose Daring Fireball blog tracks the world of Apple.

You’ve got to care inordinately about the Appleverse to read everything Gruber writes, and there’s no shortage of people who do. Me, I rely on tech-news aggregator sites like Techmeme and Hacker News to link to Gruber’s more general-interest stuff. Having clicked that direction many times over the years, I’ve been conditioned to expect insightful, well written, and righteously right (as in correct) views.

I was reminded of this with Gruber’s take on this week’s iPhone 3G announcement. His opening line is roughly what others said, but he then nails the story behind the story.

Today’s message is pretty simple: Apple is going for iPhone market share in a big, big way....

So, step one: sell a ton of iPhones and grab a huge chunk of worldwide smartphone market share. That’s the new $199 iPhone 3G. Step two: introduce features that people and companies love but which tie them to the iPhone. That’s the SDK — games and apps from App Store, and custom in-house apps for the enterprise market.

The physical phone is not the story. A year from now, the iPhone 3G will be replaced by another new model. The platform is the story. Platforms have staying power, and, once entrenched, are very hard to displace.

Although that was good, where Gruber really gets interesting is when he dissects others’ Apple coverage. For example, check out his prosecution of a Fast Company cover story on Apple that, to put it kindly, Gruber found lacking.

Here’s a sample, with quotes from the Fast Company article in italics and Gruber’s mix of intellect and umbrage in normal text:

In an age increasingly defined by interoperability and technical collaboration, Jobs still refuses to license Apple’s operating system.

Because there are so many companies making so much money “licensing their operating system”, other than Microsoft. Worked out great for Apple the last time they tried it a decade ago, and it’s worked out great for Palm now, right?

(Note also that all these decisions are, again, solely attributed to Jobs’s personal whim, rather than to Apple as a company.)

He won’t allow music and videos downloaded from iTunes to be played on other MP3 players.

Except for all those iTunes Plus tracks that have no DRM, and which Jobs has stated explicitly, in a widely-publicized open letter, he’d like to see the entire iTunes Store switch to, if the music labels would allow it.

He won’t permit music downloaded from competing stores to play on the iPod.

Except for all the music from any store that sells DRM-free music, like Amazon’s or eMusic’s. Otherwise what’s being argued here is that Apple should support Microsoft’s DRM platform, formerly known as PlaysForSure, recently renamed to “Certified for Windows Vista”, which Microsoft itself doesn’t support in its own Zune players. There’s a lot of stupid packed into the above 13-word sentence.

Maybe he could be more polite, but being a self-appointed messenger of truth takes its emotional toll—the title of Gruber’s Fast Company critique being, “Yet Another in the Ongoing Series Wherein I Examine a Piece of Supposedly Serious Apple Analysis From a Major Media Outlet and Dissect Its Inaccuracies, Fabrications, and Exaggerations Point-by-Point, Despite the Fact That No Matter How Egregious the Inaccuracies / Fabrications / Exaggerations, Such Pieces Inevitably Lead to Accusations That I’m Some Sort of Knee-Jerk Shill Who Rails Against Anything ‘Anti-Apple’ Simply for the Sake of Defending Apple, and if I Love Apple So Much Why Don’t I Just Marry Them?”

Whether you find his attitude entertaining or annoying, don’t let it distract from his ability to marshal facts to puncture others’ flimsy assertions. For this, as well as his own original analyses, Gruber is a welcome addition to the tech-media landscape—so much so that after years of doing Daring Fireball in his spare time, Gruber now makes enough income from the blog to have it be his primary job.

Good for him, good for us.