Monday, January 26, 2015

Apple #699: Gustave Doré

Last week, we read about the albatross, especially the bird's appearance in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  You may remember that I posted an engraving of the albatross from that poem by Gustave Doré.  That reminded me that I've been meaning to do an entry for a long time about Doré.  Because this guy is The Man when it comes to engravings.

This is from the beginning of Paradise Lost.  Satan has just woken up, discovered he's not in heaven anymore but rather has fallen into some burning lake, and he's talking to his old pal Beelzebub (standing, looking dire), with whom he recently fought a war against God and lost.  They're just about to hatch their plan to round up the other fallen angels and keep the fight going on earth.
(Engraving by Gustave Doré, of course, sourced from Art Passions)

His engravings are incredible.  Tempestuous, chock full of detail, passionate as the day is long -- and he made a ton of them.  

I've always meant to find out more about him.  So now is the time.

Young Gustave Doré
(Photo by Félix Nadar, sourced from WikiArt)

  • Gustave Doré's full name is Paul Gustave Louis Christophe Doré. But you can call him Doré.
  • He was born in 1832, in Strasbourg.  That's in Alsace-Lorraine, which is that part of Europe which is kind of French, kind of German.  He spent most of his life in Paris, though.
  • He was the son of a wealthy engineer (seems like a contradiction in terms for the times), and he was extremely quick on the uptake in all sorts of things.
  • His earliest known drawings were ones he made when he was 5.  At 12, he carved his own set of lithographic stones, complete with companion stories for each.  By 15, he was doing caricatures and drawings.
  • While on a trip to Paris with his parents, they passed the window of a publisher where some illustrations were displayed.  He pretended to be sick, told his family to go on without him, got out his sketchbook and made his own versions of the illustrations in the window.  Then he went inside, set his illustrations on the publisher's desk, and said, "This is how those illustrations should be done."  
  • The publisher thought this kid was rather full of himself, but all the same he was stunned at the skill of the drawings. Skeptical that this kid who looked about 10 could have drawn so well, he asked the kid to make some more on the spot.  So he did, in seconds.  
  • The publisher--Charles Philipon was his name--was so impressed, he would not allow Doré to leave his office.  He had someone find Doré's parents and offered Gustave a contract then and there, for the next 3 years.  
  • So Doré moved in with the publisher, and Paris became his new home that day.  By the following year, he had become one of the highest paid illustrators in the country.
  • He became famous as the "boy genius," and published a book at the age of 16.  He wrote all the text and did his own illustrations, some of them engraved in stone.
  • Over the course of his teen years, he drew some 2,000 caricatures.  That's about 500 caricatures per year.

One of Doré's multitudinous caricatures.  These are opera singers. His caption was, "People who sing opera generate huge acoustic forces."
(Drawing by Doré, sourced from Prospect magazine)

  • He soon became restless and began doing engraved illustrations for literary works -- all sorts of them.
  • Such restlessness and the desire to keep working on the next project, and the next project, stayed with him throughout his life.  In addition to caricatures and engravings, he would also produce his own books, paintings, and sculptures. 
  • But he remains best-known for his engravings.  So let's talk about those for a while.

From Dante's Inferno, this is Paolo & Francesca being spotted by Dante & Virgil.
(Engraving by Doré, sourced originally from A Lonely Philosopher (the page no longer exists), subsequently picked up by GoPixPic)

  • His first real engravings project was when he decided he wanted to make an illustrated version of Dante's Inferno.  Folio-sized, meaning it would be enormous.  And therefore pricey.
  • The publisher, Hachette -- yes, the ones now fighting with Amazon -- thought this would never sell, so they didn't want to do it.  
  • Doré went ahead with it anyway.  He made 76 full-page engraved illustrations, and he paid all the costs to have the book printed.  Reluctantly, Hachette agreed to bind and sell the thing, but they made only 100 copies.
  • Within only a few weeks, Doré received a telegram from Hachette saying, "Success! Come quickly! I am an ass!"  (when does anyone get such a note from their publisher?)  The Inferno had sold way more than the 100 copies almost immediately, and the book went into multiple reprintings. It has since been produced in over 200 editions.
  • After that, Doré could provide engraved illustrations for pretty much any book he wanted to.  The list of books he illustrated is pretty staggering.  Here is an incomplete list:
    • Dante's Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso
    • The Bible
    • Don Quixote
    • Rabelais' complete works
    • Perrault's Fairy Tales
    • Baron Münchhausen (yes, Terry Gilliam got most of his ideas from Doré's illustrations)
    • Arabian Nights
    • Orlando Furioso
    • History of the Crusades
    • London: A Pilgrimage (social commentary)
    • Balzac's Droll Stories
    • Shakespeare's The Tempest
    • Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner
    • Tennyson's Idylls of the King
    • Poe's The Raven 
    • Dickens' A Christmas Carol

    While Dante clings to him, Virgil pushes Filippo Argenti back into the River Styx, who will be subsequently torn to pieces by the other wrathfuls in the Styx. Kind of remind of you of Inferii, don't they?
    (Engraving by Doré, sourced from The World of Dante

    • Books are produced so quickly and easily today, you might be yawning and saying, "Eh, what's the big deal?"  Let me show you what's the big deal.
    • Below is a video showing how copper engravings were made, a little before Doré's time.  He worked  mainly with wood engravings, but all the videos that people have posted about how to make wood engravings show people using electric, modern-day tools.  So while some of the processes involved in copper engraving are different than wood engraving, this gives you a pretty good sense of the amount of work involved in producing one engraving.  One.
    •  The good stuff begins 36 seconds in.

    • The guy in the video, Andrew, traces a drawing someone else made.  Doré wouldn't have done that.  He would have made his own drawing, and then made the engraving from there.  In fact, he drew right on the material that would be engraved -- wood or metal.  He didn't draw it on paper first.
    • In copper engraving, you etch lines into the copper and the ink fills in the places you've gouged away.  Excess ink is wiped off, as you see Andrew doing in the video.  To get the ink to transfer onto paper, you have to use a ton of pressure to squeeze the ink out of the engraved channels onto the paper.  That's why Andrew has to put the copper plate into a rolling press.

    Copper engravers also had to make mirror images of the thing they were engraving.  Here, the engraver is shown with the print propped up next to him and a mirror in front of him.  He is working from the mirror image of the design he wants to re-create on copper plate.
    (Image from Steve Bartnick Antique Prints & Maps)

    • In wood engraving, you cut away the stuff you don't want, and the ink stays on the raised parts.  No mirroring is necessary.  The block is pressed to the paper, but it doesn't require the same kind of pressures that copper plates do.  So wood engravings were relatively easier to print from.
    • In about the 1820s, engravers figured out how to engrave on steel.  Steel was much more durable than copper, and more impressions could be made from a steel plate than from a copper one.  But since the material was firmer, it also required more force when being engraved.
    • But steel's durability had another benefit, which was that it allowed the engravers to make extraordinarily fine lines very close together, without risking damaging the plate.  As a result, steel engravings allowed for incredibly sharp detail, sharper than on copper or on wood.  But to make such fine detail also required great intensity and focus by the engravers.
    • Illustrators were having a great time making steel engravings, and the public were delighting in them.  It was in this environment that Doré was making his wood and steel engravings.
    • There's another part to how engravings are made that I want to point out.  You'll notice that Doré's engravings are characterized by all sorts of fine lines running across the image.  This is true of engravings in general.  You don't ever really want to have any part of the plate unengraved.  The ink would blob onto that smooth surface, and it wouldn't transfer very well to the paper.  It would stick, and kind of suck at the paper as the paper was pulled away, and you'd get kind of a puckered impression.  
    • So you had to engrave everything, including the backgrounds.  And you'd want to make the clouds distinct from the sky, or dark clouds distinct from light clouds, or a threatening sky distinct from the dark and scary mountainous peaks in the distance.  So all of those things would require fine-line engraving, and each background element would have to be engraved slightly differently so as to distinguish one from the other.

    This is the famous engraving of Satan falling, from Paradise Lost.  Hopefully this is large enough for you to see the engraved lines going horizontally across the entire image.  They are especially noticeable in the dark clouds at the top, and in the lighter clouds at the earth's surface below.  Notice, too, how those horizontal lines continue across even as he's got shafts of light coming down diagonally through them.  And then, of course, there's the outline of Satan's body and the delicate curve of his wings, and specificity of his toes.
    (Engraving by Doré, sourced from North Country Public Radio)

    • Oh, and did I mention, the majority of Doré's engravings were done in wood, not steel?  Paradise Lost was one of the books whose engravings he made on wood.
    • So think about carving a million teeny tiny lines into a block of wood with a tool that looks something like this:
    This is one wood engraver's tool, called a spitsticker.  I am not kidding.  It is similar to the copper engraver's burin, but here the handle is mushroom-shaped, as opposed to the burin's L-shaped handle. Your palm cups around the knob of the handle, and your thumb and forefinger grasp the top, dull part of the blade.  The point of the blade is sharpened to a prism shape. It must be kept sharp throughout the engraving process, or you'll get ragged cuts in your surface.
    (Drawing by Andy English)

    • It is true that, later in Doré's career, he did have many apprentices working for him.  He would draw the initial design, and his apprentices would do the finished engravings. As I mentioned earlier, he would draw directly onto the plate to be engraved, whether it was a disc of wood or a steel plate.  The engravers would then follow his lines.
    • But that said, his final tally is still impressive.  Pretty much every major work of literature published in the late 1800s, Doré made engravings for it. His catalog totaled over 200 books, with multiple illustrations in each, some numbering over 400 plates per book.
    • Just when he was hitting his peak of popularity, color printing started becoming the next big thing.  It had been invented long before, but prints had to be colored by hand.  But around this time, people were figuring out that you could carve wood cuts or engravings, one for each color, and print them sequentially to create a multi-colored print. 
    • People were wondering why Doré wasn't making any engravings that could be printed in color -- some have speculated that he was color blind.  Whether it was to disprove his detractors or to try the next thing, he took up painting.  The French said his paintings were really only illustrations in color, but others wondered why that was a problem.  
    • His paintings were shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1896 to an enormous turn-out.  Over 16,000 people came to see the exhibit each day, totaling more than 1.5 million people in the 8 months it was at the museum.  This broke every previous attendance record the museum had.

    Vivien and Merlin, 1867. Even in color, Doré hasn't lost his flair for the dramatic, for intense variations in light and shadow, and his love of tall knobbly trees.
    (Painting by Doré, sourced from The Art Tribune)

    • But tastes in the art world were changing, away from the overly dramatic, and toward Impressionism, with less grandiose subjects, and a lot more color.
    • So when Doré died in 1883, people were already looking ahead to the next thing in art and illustration.
    • But Doré's influence remains.  Some filmmakers say his illustrations "anticipated modern cinematography" for their use of dramatic light and shadow to highlight the central element in a composition, and they used some of his drawings as inspiration for composing their own scenes.

    Doré's drawing of Baron Münchhausen
    (Engraving by Doré, sourced from Wikipedia

    Screenshot from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Anglicized spelling), brainchild of Terry Gilliam.  Gilliam relied heavily on Doré's illustrations to decide what the characters in his movie should look like.
    (Screenshot sourced from Morgan on Media)

    • Others in the field of literature say his illustrations marked the beginning of the horror genre -- particularly because of the engravings he made for The Raven.  But I would argue his horror-friendly tendencies were present long before then.

    From The Raven, illustration corresponding with "Darkness there and Nothing more."  How many times in horror movies have we seen malevolent spirits crouching where the hero can't see them?
    (Engraving by Doré, sourced from Art Passions

    Spendthrifts running through the forest of suicides, from the Inferno. I think this just looks creepy.
    (Engraving by Doré, sourced from The World of Dante)

    The Mariner, on board ship after the entire crew has died, "And yet I could not die." Neither have tales of ghost ships traveling the oceans.
    (Engraving by Doré, sourced from Art Passions)

    Ugolino, gnawing on the brains of Archbishop Ruggieri, from the Inferno. It doesn't get much more horrific than this.  Maybe it's Dante who's to blame, more than Doré.
    (Engraving by Doré, sourced from The World of Dante)

    • He is also considered to have contributed to the founding of comic books and graphic novels.

    Puss in Boots, looking as dramatic as Don Quixote.
    (Engraving by Doré, sourced from Art Passions)

    • So his influence lives on, even if nobody makes 'em anymore the way he used to.

    Gustave Doré
    Yovisto Blog, The famous illustrations of Gustave Doré
    Dan Malan, Gustave Doré - Adrift on Dreams of Splendor, at Postaprint
    The World of Dante, Gustave Doré
    Art, Gustave Doré Art Collections
    WikiArt, Gustave Doré
    Charles Solomon, The son of King Kong and Gustave Doré / Ray Harryhausen discusses his influences for creating some of film's most memorable animation, SFGate, March 19, 2006
    Katherine Stauble, Gustave Doré’s illustrious imagination, National Gallery of Canada Magazine, June 10, 2014

    Andy English, How Wood Engravings Are Made
    Norman Kent, The Woodcut Versus the Wood Engraving
    AIGA New Orleans, Know Your Design History: Metal versus wood engraving, April 24, 2014
    The Collation from the Folger Shakespeare Library, Woodcut, engraving, or what? February 7, 2012
    Steve Bartrick Antique Prints & Maps, Information - Printing Methods - Engraving
    Thomas Ross Collection, The Art of the Engraver and Etcher
    The Virtual, Hatching and Cross Hatching [sic]
    expertvillage, Intaglio Print Engraving: Intaglio Print Crosshatching [video]

    Tuesday, January 20, 2015

    Apple #698: Albatross

    I heard someone on the radio say that albatrosses mate for life.  Which, it occurred to me, means that an albatross is saddled with another albatross for life.

    Ba-dum ching.

    Seriously, folks.  I did want to know more about these not-mythological birds in general, and I also wondered where that idea of an albatross as a terrible thing you're stuck with all your life came from.  Did it originate with old Samuel T., or was it in the lore before he wrote it down in his Rime?

    But first, of course, this:


    • Yes, it seems that the idea of an albatross as a burden one can't get rid of originated with the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
    • Here's the deal.  When the albatross first shows up, following the ship, the crew take it as a good omen.  And good things seem to happen while the albatross is with them.
    At length did cross an Albatross,
    Thorough the fog it came;
    As if it had been a Christian soul,
    We hailed it in God's name.

    It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
    And round and round it flew.
    The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
    The helmsman steered us through!

    And a good south wind sprung up behind;
    The Albatross did follow,
    And every day, for food or play,
    Came to the mariner's hollo!

    In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
    It perched for vespers nine;
    Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
    Glimmered the white Moon-shine.
    • Then the wedding guest asks the Mariner, well, if that was all so good, why the long face?  And the Mariner says: 
    With my cross-bow
    I shot the ALBATROSS.

    Engraving by The King of Engravings, Gustav Doré
    (Image hosted by the University of Adelaide)

    • No good comes of this, of course. The wind drops, the sun gets hotter than blazes, and everyone says it's the Mariner's fault.
    And I had done a hellish thing,
    And it would work 'em woe:
    For all averred, I had killed the bird
    That made the breeze to blow.
    Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
    That made the breeze to blow!
    • Then you get the most famous and best-est lines:
    Water, water, every where,
    And all the boards did shrink;
    Water, water, every where,
    Nor any drop to drink.

    The very deep did rot: O Christ!
    That ever this should be!
    Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
    Upon the slimy sea. 
    • It gets even worse.  They have no water to drink so they finally have to bite their arms to moisten their mouths with their own blood.  Then DEATH shows up and the whole crew, one after another, drops dead.  Plunk, plunk, plunk.
    Four times fifty living men,
    (And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
    With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
    They dropped down one by one.
    • The Mariner, however, does not die.  Terrible as it is floating around on this ship full of dead guys, he does not die.
    • But then he sees some water snakes, and he thinks they look beautiful, their colors and how they swim across the water.  Delighted by their beauty, 
    A spring of love gushed from my heart,
    And I blessed them unaware:
    Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
    And I blessed them unaware.

    The self-same moment I could pray;
    And from my neck so free
    The Albatross fell off, and sank
    Like lead into the sea.
    • Later, he has a vision in which he hears two voices talking about him.  One of them says, basically, "Is this the one?" and the other one says, "Yeah, this is the jerk who shot the 'harmless albatross.'"  They say he's done penance for this deed, but he's got more penance still to do.  More bad things happen on his ship, which winds up sinking, and he asks to be forgiven for his sin of killing the albatross, but basically he's condemned to tell his story for the rest of his life.


    • Really, it isn't the albatross itself that is hanging around the Mariner's neck.  It is his sin of killing the bird that haunts him. 
    • But that's not how we remember it.  We think of it as the albatross itself that is the burden one cannot shake.
    • That's very unfair to the bird.  And very much not in keeping with the moral of the poem:
    Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
    To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
    He prayeth well, who loveth well
    Both man and bird and beast.

    He prayeth best, who loveth best
    All things both great and small;
    For the dear God who loveth us,
    He made and loveth all. 
    • The Mariner abjures us not to kill or curse beasts but to love them, and to love human kind as well. 
    • So, going around essentially using the name of "albatross" as an insult is not quite in keeping with the spirit of the poem.  Maybe that's why the Mariner has to keep telling his dag-goned tale.  Because we refuse to get it right.  We keep blaming the albatross.


    With the Mariner's injunction in mind, what are some useful things to know about the bird itself?

    • Albatrosses have the longest wingspan of any bird: up to 11 feet.
    • Think about that for a minute.  Their wingspan is as long as two men are tall.

    This kind of gives you some idea of the size of an albatross' wingspan.
    (Photo from Wallpaper Abyss)

    Or this photo might give you an even better indication of the bird's overall size.  They are not small.
    (Photo from zoochat)

    • With that huge wingspan, they can glide for hours without moving their wings once.  
    • Since they're gliding, and they don't have to flap their enormous wings, they can glide and glide and glide for hours without landing to take a rest.
    • This type of gliding has a specific name: dynamic soaring.  If you want to know the physics involved, check out this article from IEEE.  Yes, aerospace engineers are studying the albatross.
    • Researchers speculate that they fly while sleeping.  Yes, with their eyes closed.
    • They drink salt water.
    • They can do this because they have a special gland that filters out the extra salt in their blood, and then the salt is excreted through some tubes in the bill. 
    • They also have a powerful sense of smell.  This is what guides them to food sources that can be swimming up ahead for hundreds or thousands of miles.
    • They prefer the ocean and stay at sea for years at a time.  About 5 months after they are hatched, they spend the first five to ten years of their life at sea, without ever coming to land.
    • The main reason they do land is to find a mate, do the deed, lay one egg, and the pair take turns looking after it until it hatches.  Once the chick is old enough to fly, they all take off and don't see land again for maybe as long as a decade.
    • Cornell, which is where all the bird specialists are, hesitate to say that albatrosses mate for life.  They go only as far as to say they "form very long-lasting pair bonds." 

    A pair of albatrosses looking after their chick.
    (Photo from Wallpaper Abyss)

    Albatross in flight
    (Photo from, an organization working to conserve the albatross. Check out their site to find out how you can help.)

    • There are actually 22 species of albatross.  All are threatened, some are endangered, some are critically endangered. 
    • Most live in the Southern Hemisphere, around Antarctica, Australia, South America, and South Africa.
    • 3 species live in the North Pacific, around Japan, Hawaii, Alaska, and California.
    • Albatrosses eat squid, crabs, shrimp, krill and fish, but researchers recently discovered they also eat another kind of animal.
    • There are these bizarre-looking gigantic fish called ocean sunfishes.  They get to be over 3 meters long and they weigh one or two tons.  They hang around on the ocean's surface, eating whatever wanders by.

    This, by the way, is an ocean sunfish. Weird-looking thing, isn't it?  This one lives in an oceanarium in Denmark.
    (Photo from Advanced Aquarist)

    • But unfortunately they get parasites. Crustaceans that latch onto the fish's body and do their icky parasitic thing.
    • A few years ago, a bunch of Japanese researchers observed a school of sunfish all headed in the same direction.  And they figured out they were following the path of an albatross flying above it.  They couldn't figure out what for.  
    • Then the albatross flew down and picked a crustacean off one of the fish.  While the albatross was bobbing in the water, enjoying its crunchy lunch, other fish swam up next to the albatross and sort of showed off its side, as if to say, "Here's another one; eat this one."
    • Researchers hesitate to say that this is a thing lots of albatrosses do on a regular basis -- they haven't seen enough evidence of many albatrosses doing this in many places at many times -- but they are intrigued enough to wonder if this is a habitual thing, and if the albatross might be helping out other fish in similar ways.
    • For these sunfish, having an albatross hanging around seems to be definitely a good thing.
    If you want to see albatrosses live & in the flesh, Cornell's Lab of Ornithology has an albatross cam.  It's not up at the moment, but they say it will be soon, when the mating season starts.  Check Cornell's page that lists all their bird cams.

    I've saved the best for last.  How could anybody shoot anything this fuzzy?
    (Photo from Cutest Paw)



    Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, (reproduced at Poetry Foundation)
    National Geographic, Albatross
    Cornell Lab of Ornithology, FAQ: Bird Cams - Laysan Albatross
    Darren Nash, Scientific American Blog, Tetrapod Zoology, A symbiotic relationship between sunfishes and . . . albatrosses? Say what? February 1, 2012

    Monday, January 12, 2015

    Apple #697: Paper Cuts

    Let's talk about paper cuts and pain.

    (Image from Psychology Today)

    There are lots of kinds of pain.  I'm not talking about major-serious pain -- grief, despair, depression, betrayal, angst, etc.  For my money, emotional or spiritual pain is the worst kind there is.  But that's not the kind of pain I'm talking about here. 

    The kind of pain I mean is physical pain.  Even in this realm, there is a continuum.  There are people who suffer horrible burns over most of their body, and live.  I'm not talking about that kind of pain.  There are people who undergo surgery without anaesthesia -- though this doesn't happen as often these days as it once did.  I'm not talking about that kind of pain.  There are people who lose limbs (physical) and feel the loss of the limb for months or years afterward (physical and emotional).  I'm not talking about that kind of pain, either.

    I'm talking about mundane physical pain.  Barking your shin on the corner of the coffee table.  Dropping a hammer on your toe.  Cracking your head on a cupboard.  The kinds of things that make you swear [insert your favorite curse word or phrase here] immediately and loudly and with vigor.  This is the kind of pain I'm talking about.

    OK, so, now that we have the proper context established, here's the question: Daily Apple reader Jamal wants to know, why do paper cuts hurt so much?  Relatively speaking.

    A paper cut.  So insignificant, you can hardly even see it in this photo. In the grand scheme of things, this is a tiny injury.  So why does it hurt as much as it does?
    (Image from No Dankes. Yes Bitte!)

    They're stupid.  Just stinging little slices across your finger, made by a piece of paper.  Just a tiny thing. Yet a paper cut gives you a searing flash of pain.  And it doesn't go away immediately, but the dang thing continues to give you a piercing, stinging pain for quite some time afterward.

    What's up with that?

    1. You get them on your fingers.

    • . . . or maybe somewhere else on your hand, but usually you get paper cuts on your fingers, and anyway, the ones on your fingers hurt more than elsewhere on your hand.

    Our fingertips are among the most sensitive parts of the body.  They are so sensitive, we can detect variations in textures that are only nanometers thick.
    (Photo from Creative Commons / International Science Times)

    • We have tons of pain-sensing nerve fibers called nociceptors packed into the skin of our hands & especially in our finger-skin.
        • Nociceptors (noci- is Latin for "hurt") are nerve endings that sense all kinds of pain: heat, pressure, stretching, chemical burns, etc.
        • You have these scattered throughout your entire body, including in your internal organs. But the type of pain experienced in your internal organs is called "visceral pain" (it happens in your viscera, or guts), and that is a far different sensation than the kind of pain that happens at your skin's surface.
        • Since you do a lot of things with your hands, and since you rely on them so much, you have an especially high number of nociceptors / pain alarm bells packed into the skin of your hands, and especially in your fingertips.
    • So a cut in the skin of your fingers is going to hurt a lot more than a cut to the skin of something a lot tougher, like, say, the base of your foot where you have a big fat callous. 

    2. Paper cuts stay skin-deep.

    • This reason is related to the first. Since paper cuts slice the surface of your skin, they're cutting through a lot of the super-sensitive nociceptors.  They don't penetrate down through the layers of the skin into the deeper tissue, where the pain sensation system works differently, and which doesn't have the same kind of immediate-screaming-alarm bell response.

    This is a rather rudimentary drawing, but it gets the point across. The red knobs are the nociceptors, and the black lines are the nerve bundles that extend down to the rest of your nervous system.  A paper cut will slice off or otherwise activate a bunch of those red knobs / nociceptors, so you're going to get a whole lot of pain alarms going off.  A deep cut will penetrate into the skin and activate far fewer nociceptors.
    (Diagram from Greenwich Medical Media Ltd.)

    3. Paper cuts usually don't draw blood.

    • Because paper cuts stay skin-deep, they usually don't draw blood, or don't draw very much of it.  You might think this would signify that they hurt less (doesn't more blood = worse injury?) but in fact, in the case of paper cuts, this means they hurt more.
    • Not only because of what we've just talked about, that there are a lot more pain receptors at the surface of your skin on your fingers than in the deeper tissue, but also because blood carries with it all the equipment necessary to form scabs and heal cuts.  Without the ambulance's worth of aid that blood brings to the scene, a paper cut stays open. So you feel every subsequent bump, nudge, and re-opening of the initial cut.

    4. Paper is dull.

    • Maybe you've heard it said that dull knives are more dangerous than sharp knives? This is because dull knives do more damage.  Rather than making a clean cut, they tear the flesh into ragged bits.
    • Paper is not even as sharp as a dull knife.  The cut that an edge of paper makes in your skin may look to the naked eye like a clean and even slice, but microscopically, that dull edge of paper has made all kinds of tears in your skin. And your nociceptors are reacting to pretty much every single one of those tears.

    Tracing paper is thin, right?  Seems like it would be pretty smooth too, yes?  Well, think again.  This microscopic photograph shows the top surface and cross-sectioned edge of a piece of tracing paper.  Imagine slicing open your skin with that.
    (Photo by Dianne van der Reyden et al., Journal of the American Institute for Conservation)

    For comparison, here's the edge of a new utility knife blade.
    (Photo by Onycha Banton at Midwood Science Image of the Week 4-2-2012)

    Here's a heavily used utility knife blade.  Even though it's pretty dinged up and dulled, it still looks a whole lot sharper than that edge of paper, doesn't it?
    (Photo by Onycha Banton at Midwood Science Image of the Week 4-2-2012) 

    In Sum

    So when you get a paper cut, you're slicing open one of the more sensitive parts of your body with a dull edge which results in tearing, and the wound doesn't benefit from the healing properties that blood brings to the scene.  Therefore, in terms of the amount of pain response, a paper cut may be the worst kind of cut you can get.  Not the most damaging, but maybe the most painful.

    (Photo from ALD Talks)

    Here are a couple final tidbits for you:
    • Nociceptors are supposed to stop firing after the damage has been healed.  But they don't always stop when they're supposed to.  Nociceptors that don't stop can become  what we call chronic pain.
    • When people who have lost a limb and experience that phantom limb sensation, that's the nociceptors in the remaining tissue continuing to send back the "there's a problem" message long after the limb is gone.

    Mental Floss, Why Do Paper Cuts Hurt So Much?
    ABCNews, The Peculiar Pain of Paper Cuts
    Indiana Public Media, A Moment of Science, Paper Cuts, Why So Painful? December 20, 2012
    One Medical Group, Quirky Questions: Why do teeny little paper cuts hurt so much? March 2, 2011
    Purves, D., et al., Neuroscience, 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates, 2001, What are Nociceptors? June 11, 2014
    Alan Fein, Ph.D., University of Connecticut Health Center, Nociceptors and the Perception of Pain, February 2012

    Monday, January 5, 2015

    Apple #696: Escalators

    I have had another request!  Daily Apple reader Jamarcus wants to know when escalators were invented.  That sort of question usually gets a rather uninteresting answer, like, a year.  So I'll try to give you some more engaging information about escalators.

    I first of all want to note that Arthur Weasley calls them "escapators" (pronounced by Jim Dale as ESS-keh-pah-tors").


    • In the mid-1800s, the elevator had already been invented by Elisha Otis (you'll notice the name OTIS on the outer edge of most elevator cars), though Otis was still working in the finer points to make elevators suitable for public use.

    The Otis name on an escalator step.  Note how the slats, or cleats, with one step inter-align with the cleats of the next step, like the way you lace your fingers together.  This is an innovation that took escalator inventors a while to come up with.
    (Photo from Elevator History)

    • In 1859, inventor Nathan Ames from Michigan filed a patent with drawings and descriptions of his Revolving Stairs, which is generally considered the first escalator.  However, it never really existed in real life; he was never able to get the thing built before he died a year later.  The design was problematic anyway in that it required passengers to jump onto the base and jump off again at the top step.  

    Nathan Ames' Revolving Stairs. The drawing at the lower left gives you the best indication of how people would have to jump on & off the thing. Note also how the steps jut out at fixed right angles from top to bottom.
    (Drawing from Ames' patent sourced from Elevator History)

    For comparison's sake, here's a drawing of how escalators work today. The steps are individual flat platforms, connected by wheels to the continuous chain. The handrail is a relatively flexible rubber that circulates on its own pulley system above the moving steps.
    (Diagram from How Products Are Made)

    Here's another diagram, this one from 1939, which may actually be more helpful.
    (Diagram from SurrenderDorothy's Etsy page)

    • It took almost another 40 years before someone was able to take a design for moving stairs and make them work in real life.  In 1896, Jesse W. Reno introduced his first working escalator, which he called the Reno Inclined Elevator.  This was a 6-foot conveyor belt that was set on a 25 degree incline and had grooved wooden slats on rubber cleats.  It was installed at Coney Island and carried people up to the Old Iron Pier at a speed of 1-1/2 miles per hour.
      • Today's escalators move at about 1-2 feet/second.  1-1/2 mph is about 2.2 feet/second. So Reno's early conveyor belt escalator was actually a little faster than our escalators today.
    • Reno's Coney Island Inclined Elevator was only in operation there for 2 weeks. And it was actually intended as a ride in itself.  It was not really supposed to be a tool to get you someplace else.
    • Two years later, Harrods of London installed a Reno Inclined Elevator, and they paid a man to stand at the top of the escalator and offer brandy to any customer who felt faint after the experience.  Too bad Harrods doesn't offer brandy at the end of their escalators anymore. (See an image of an escalator in Harrods in 1911.)

    Here's what one escalator in Harrods looks like today.  A bit fancier than the early Reno Inclined Elevator.
    (Photo from 2011 from TripAdvisor)

    • At about the same time, another guy named George Wheeler filed a patent for a moving stairway, which featured the innovation of flat steps but it also had a moving handrail.  Because of the handrail, people had to get on & off from the side.
    • Yet another inventor, this one named Charles Seeberger, started his path to invention by buying the patent for Wheeler's moving stairway.  Wheeler then took a job at Otis Elevator Company, and he refined Wheeler's design, making the first version in which the steps moved.
    • Seeberger also came up with the word "escalator," which is a combination of "elevator" and "scala" which is Latin for steps.
    • Up to this point, all these working moving stairways were demonstration versions, on display at places like the Chicago and Paris Exhibitions. 
    • But Jesse Reno, who was the first one to make an actual moving stairway at Coney Island, wasn't done. He founded Reno Electric Stairways and Conveyors in 1902, and he made further crucial alterations to the design of the escalator.  The biggest improvement was making a cleat-type moving stairway, and he put the thing together so that it actually worked.  This was installed in 1900 in an elevated rail station in New York City.  So it could be argued that Reno's was the first working escalator that people used for its intended purpose.
      •  Other escalators of Reno's were installed in lots of cities.  Some of them were still in use in subway stations in Boston and London as late as the 1980s.  You'd know a Reno escalator by the wooden slats used for the stair treads and risers.
    • But the same year, the Otis Elevator Company installed their first escalator in a Gimbel's department store in Philadelphia. So there was pretty immediate and close competition between Reno and Otis.
    • About a decade later, in 1911, Elisha Otis's elevator company bought all of Reno's stuff and his escalators became part of the elevator company.  After that, escalators were made by Otis for a long time, until they lost the patents and the trademarks.

    I don't know when this image was made, but please note the escalator operator at the base. 
    (Image from J Bashford & Associates)

    Up & down escalators in the London Underground at Earl's Court Station, circa 1911-1915.
    (Photo from the London Transport Museum, sourced from IanVisits)

    A wooden escalator, from some time in the 1920s or 1930s, still in use at Macy's in Herald Square, NYC. Many of the original wooden treads have had to be replaced over the years.
    (Photo from Elevator World)

    • Mitsubishi Electric got into the escalator business in the 1930s. They are now the primary manufacturer of escalators worldwide.


    • Here's one surprising fact for you: escalators, as long as they are moving, are SAFER than standard stairways. The number one hazard of stairs is tripping and falling, which doesn't happen very often at all on escalators.
    • However, if the escalator is not working and you have to walk up it while it's standing still, it is LESS SAFE than a traditional stairway. This is because the steps on an escalator are higher than on a stairway, but people tend not to expect that, so they don't lift their legs high enough, or it's simply harder to walk up or down the higher steps, so they tend to trip more often on a stopped escalator.
    • Finally, as is the case in pretty much any mode of transport, slower traffic keeps to the right, and people pass on the left. So if you're going to stand on an escalator, move to the right so that people walking up it can go past you on the left.

    (Image from Vow. Move. Live.)

    Mitsubishi Electric, History of the Escalator, Story Behind Inventors and Inventions, Escalator
    The Great Idea Finder, Escalator
    Engines of Our Ingenuity, No. 250: Magic Stairways
    Elevator History, The History of Escalators
    Neatorama, Inventions for Lazy People 
    Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, Escalator Safety

    Monday, December 29, 2014

    Apple #695: Licorice

    Daily Apple reader Maximilian wants to know about licorice.  This question was posted somewhere on his facebook wall or on mine, but I don't remember where exactly, and the dang things aren't searchable -- at least, not in any way that is at all reliable or usable (thanks a lot, Zuckerberg).  So I have no recollection of the context for the question, or what specifically about licorice Maximilian wanted to know. Which means I'm going to take the scattershot approach and hope, in covering as wide an area as possible, I hit the target.

    Because there are a LOT of things to know about licorice.  There's the plant itself, there's black licorice, and then there's red licorice.  I'll take each of those things in turn.

    Will the real licorice please stand up?
    (Photo from Door County Confectionery)

    Liquorice Plant

    • I'm choosing to spell the name of the plant with a q, mostly to distinguish the plant from the candy licorice.  You can spell it either way in any context; this is just a distinction I'm making for the purposes of this entry.
    • The liquorice plant has been known and loved for centuries, by civilizations around the globe.  The Chinese loved it, the ancient Greeks loved it, the ancient Egyptians loved it.  There's even some in King Tut's tomb.
    • It's a legume (like a bean) that grows in open scrublands, near ditches or streams.  In the US, it grows in California, Nevada, and Utah.
    • Outside the US, it grows in places which can be hard to do business with: Afghanistan, the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Turkey (M&F Worldwide's 10-K/Annual Report).
    • The Latin name of the plant looks like someone sneezed while typing it: Glycyrrhyzia glabra.  
    • But if you break that word down, it makes sense.  Glyc- reminds you of glucose, yes? That's because it means "sweet." And -rrhyz should remind you of "rhyzome" because it means "root." So the Latin word means "sweetroot."
    • In fact the sweetroot compounds (glycyrrhyzin) that collect in the roots of the plant, and which are used for flavorings, are about 50 times sweeter than sugar.  

    Glycyrrhyzia glabra, or liquorice the plant. Looks like a pretty ordinary shrub, doesn't it? This one is growing in Bremen, Germany.
    (Photo from Russian Wikipedia

    Liquorice the plant gets these clumps of pods that contain seeds. Kind of like what you see on a sumac bush.
    (Photo from Wikimedia)
    Liquorice root, cut and dried. This is where all the glycyrrhyzin compounds are concentrated, and it's the roots that are the source of liquorice extract.
    (Photo from Health Mad)

    Hunks of liquorice root that will get ground down further to form a powder which can then be made into capsules or made into a liquid extract or even an herbal tea.
    (Photo from Wikipedia)

    Medicinal uses

    • I'll get to the flavorings aspect in a bit. But first I want to talk about the medicinal uses of the liquorice plant.  Because they are many and varied and kind of surprising.
    • To be clear, eating licorice the candy probably won't affect you in these ways. You would need to get some type of botanical liquorice the plant extract.

    Licorice root extract. People take it for any number of medicinal reasons. If you try it, please use it in moderation.
    (Photo from

      • Ulcer treatment -- evidence is mixed on this, but suggests generally favorable results. Or at least, it might help reduce the pain associated with ulcers.
      • Cough suppressant -- liquorice is a bronchial dilator, which means it opens the tissue in your lungs, allowing you to breathe more freely and cough less often.
      • Expectorant -- loosens mucus to make its removal easier during coughing. Another reason liquorice was often used as cough medicine.
      • Stomach acid reducer -- I don't know how well liquorice compares to the purple pill, but some people apparently report some benefit.
      • Reduces inflammation -- mainly in the gastric land, so it could be helpful in treating heartburn or indigestion.
      • Laxative -- the extent of the effect seems to vary quite a bit depending on the dosage and the person.
      • Fat burner -- some reports say that liquorice may help reduce either the amount of body fat, or the thickness of body fat. However, the dosage necessary to see results here also resulted in much higher water retention.
      • Depression -- here, reports are very mixed. Some say it helps combat depression, others say too much liquorice brings on or worsens depression.

    • Which leads me to the other side of liquorice as a medicinal treatment, which is that too much of it can cause problems, such as:
      • Increased blood pressure
      • Increased heart rate
      • Increased water retention
      • Reduced potassium, which can result in irregular heart rate
      • Muscle weakness
      • In pregnant women, lots of liquorice can result in early births or miscarriage.

    In Tobacco

    • One little point here.  Most tobacco products (cigarettes, pipe tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, chewing tobacco, and maybe even some cigars) contain liquorice.  Not much, maybe only about 1% to 4%, but it's in there.
    • Some people say it's added for the flavoring and that it helps the tobacco stay moist (one of your favorite words, Maximilian). 
    • Other people who I think are closer to the mark say the real reason is because of liquorice's bronchial dilation properties.  It helps open up the lung tissue so you'll be less likely to cough, get a bigger hit of the nicotine, and want more tobacco more often.
    Here is one extreme example. This is chewing tobacco -- "smokeless tobacco pellets" -- flavored strongly with licorice. (Or, I'll bet they actually used anise to get the licorice flavor.) One tin will set you back £4.55, or about $7.
    (Photo and tobacco from Black Swan Shoppe, where you must be 18 to enter) 

    Black Licorice

    Black licorice. Usually flavored, not with liquorice, but with anise. Same is true for black jellybeans, black Jujyfruits, Good 'n' Plentys, licorice ice cream -- anything supposed to taste like licorice is probably actually flavored with anise.
    (Photo of Australian black licorice from Heini's)

    • When liquorice the plant is used as a flavoring, it tastes a lot like black licorice the candy.
    • However, most black licorice today is made using anise seed or even fennel, both of which have flavors similar to liquorice the plant.  This is because they are cheaper and easier to come by than actual liquorice. 
    • Anise grows pretty easily in lots of places in the US, around the Mediterranean, in Asia.  In short, you don't have to fight anybody to get anise, while you might have to do so to get liquorice. 
    • Sometimes black licorice also contains molasses as a way to get the candy to have the color we expect of black licorice.
    • The first time licorice (black, of course) was made and sold as a candy was in Holland in the 17th century. It's been a favorite in Holland and the Netherlands ever since.  Even though now, their licorice, too, is probably flavored with anise rather than actual liquorice.
    • While the absence of liquorice in black licorice candy may be disappointing to some purists, the good news is that we don't have to worry too much about possible liquorice-related health risks when we eat black licorice candy.  Because there's probably zero liquorice in it. 
    • Most candy manufacturers will use the spelling of the word to indicate whether it's got actual liquorice, as I have:
      • Liquorice = contains actual liquorice-the-plant extract
      • Licorice = contains mostly or all anise oil, and no or very little liquorice-the-plant extract
    • However, not everybody follows this convention.  If you really need to be certain about the absence of liquorice in your black licorice candy pipes, check the ingredients.

    Liquorice root on top of licorice candy. Which is probably aniseseed candy.
    (Photo from Annmarie Gianni Skin Care)

    Red Licorice

    Red licorice. Or more accurately, red corn syrup & flavoring.
    (Photo from kmonse's Tumblr page)

    • For my money, red licorice should be called something altogether different because it never has contained any liquorice extract, nor does it contain anything attempting to approximate a licorice flavor.
    • It's pretty much all corn syrup, colored red, plus some sweeteners to make it taste like cherry or strawberry or whatever the heck other flavor you want.
    • Nothing to do with actual licorice at all, except to mimic its texture.
    • So for those of you who say, "I like red licorice, but I hate black licorice," what you're really saying is, "I hate licorice, but I love corn syrup."
    • Both red & black licorice also contain wheat flour, used as a binder to hold everything together. So licorice is NOT gluten-free.

    Hey, look at this. You can get a 5-pound bag of red "licorice" Scottie dogs for about $30. They sell black licorice Scottie dogs, too.
    (Photo and Scottie dog candy from CandyWarehouse)

    For the record, I like black licorice AND red so-called licorice. I am not licorice-racist.

    Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, Glycyrrhyzia glabra (liquorice)
    USDA NRCS Plants database, Glycyrrhyzia glabra
    University of Maryland Medical Center, Licorice
    Medline Plus, Licorice, Cigarettes: Some things you probably didn't know were in there (including licorice), September 11, 2012
    Licorice International,  About Licorice
    SF Gate, Dangers of Black Licorice, date unknown
    Boston Globe, What's the difference between red and black licorice, besides color? August 29, 2011, Black Licorice vs. Red Licorice
    Eating Real Food, What's in a Twizzler?