Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Apple #114: Jumping into the Chicago River, part II

Last time, in response to a request from a reader, we looked into the health effects of jumping off the Wells Street bridge into the Chicago River. There's a second part to Chris' question, which is what would the legal consequences be.

I checked the Chicago Municipal Code, what portions of it that are available online, and I didn't see anything specific to jumping off bridges. So I asked a librarian at the Chicago Public Library to look into it for me (when in doubt, ask an expert, I always say). The librarian, Mr. Lyle Benedict, e-mailed me back and said he didn't see anything in the Code specific to jumping off bridges, either. However, he did say that "if the police were inclined to bring charges," they would probably do so under the Disorderly Conduct portion of the Code.

There are 10 distinct acts that qualify as disorderly conduct in the City of Chicago, and while some do get very specific (such as picketing within 150 feet of a place of worship while services are being conducted), none mention jumping off a bridge. But the first two acts defined as disorderly conduct are pretty general and could probably cover jumping into the river, if the police wanted to make the case for such. This is what the Code says:

A person commits disorderly conduct when he knowingly: (a) Does any act in such unreasonable manner as to provoke, make or aid in making a breach of peace; or (b) Does or make any unreasonable or offensive act, utterance, gesture or display which, under the circumstances, creates a clear and present danger of a breach of peace or imminent threat of violence.

Setting aside the fact that the Code apparently applies only to men and not to women, presumably, you'd be presenting more than just a threat of violence if you had jumped into the river: you would have already committed violence against your own person. You could also argue that jumping off a bridge into an urban waterway might constitute an unreasonable act.

So let's say they gave you a ticket for disorderly conduct. Then what happens? According to the Code, you would get fined somewhere between $5.00 and $500.00 for each disorderly offense. The fact that the Code gives a range means that you'd probably be given a ticket and have to appear before a judge. The judge would then decide how much you'd have to pay. Probably, if some emergency crew had to use some kind of crane or other gear to fish you out, the judge would make you pay for the use of the equipment, or close to that amount, up to $500.

There's another part of the Code that might also come into play, and that is Trespassing on Elevated Track. The picture I posted in the previous entry shows an el track as part of the Wells Street bridge. If this is the same bridge to which Chris was referring, and if he would have to climb on the el track in order to execute his dive, and if somebody saw him climbing on the track prior to his dive, he could also be issued a ticket for doing this. That's assuming that he did not touch the third rail and electrocute himself in the process.

But say he climbed up on the track and survived. Unless he's an employee of the el, he would be given a citation for this, too. The Code doesn't stipulate a fine under this particular section, but it does state under the more general section dealing with plain old trespassing that you could be fined anywhere from $1.00 to $100.00 per offense.

So, worst case scenario, legally, you get fined $600. And here I must remind you that I am not an attorney and this should in no way be considered a legal opinion. I also want to remind you that I am in no way condoning jumping off of bridges, no matter what the fine or the consequences to your health. This is because, although swan dives may sound nice in theory, they sure look a heck of a lot like suicide and might actually wind up being such. And the Daily Apple is doing all it can to turn people away from suicide.

With that in mind, I am pleased to report that this evening I was watching an episode from the fifth season of The Sopranos and was delighted to realize that none other than our very own Diamond Dave, the one and only David Lee Roth, had made a guest appearance at the poker table. He was looking pretty haggard, I have to say, but it was him, no doubt.

In the spirit of dispelling all creeping miasma, let's turn to the Diamond David Lee Roth Army for another quote from Mr. Roth. In an interview, responding to the fact that Eddie Van Halen had screamed on camera that he would kick DLR in the nuts, Roth said:

This causes me to ask, because we're talking to a very articulate magazine here, with an articulate audience readership, and an entirely articulate interviewer here. What kind of balls is he imagining? What kind of testicles are haunting Eddie Van Halen's sleep? Are these giant turbo-prop monster truck nards that smash Chevies and Buicks and are now rolling over his front gate right now up there at 5150 and crushing his designer sports car and the family pet as it squeals a short, brief, glorious warning? Or are these highly trained, super-mobile, small, but highly maneuverable Belgian assault nards that even now are swarming under the gates and are about to sail into the nerve center of the gangland stronghold! The mind fairly reels, sire.

Three more requests to go. I'll keep the request lines open another week, and then go back to our regularly scheduled programming. If you're hankering to know something, post it in that entry, in the Comments field, please.

Selected codes from the Chicago Municipal Code
Chicago Public Library's Ask a Librarian service
Diamond David Lee Roth Army, DLR Rothisms

Monday, September 26, 2005

Apple #113: Jumping into the Chicago River

The short answer is, don't do it. Here's what happened to one guy who did.

A while back, a Daily Apple reader named Chris, in his boyish curiosity, asked the following:

I pass over the Chicago River every day on my way to work and flirt with the idea of doing a sweeping swan dive off the Wells Street bridge. My questions:

Will I get fined or jailed for doing the dive? And if I do manage to make the leap, what's the likelihood of me getting sick from being immersed in the river?

The El going over the Chicago River on the Wells Street Bridge
Photo from Metros with a View

Of course, any sane apple lady would tell a person not to jump off a bridge. But in this specific case, given what I've learned about the Chicago River, I would say, really, don't jump into that river.

First of all, the health issue. This was easier for me to answer. The State of Illinois, along with such illustrious people as the Lieutenant-Governor and the Friends of the Chicago River, have sworn to "make the Chicago River swimmable by 2020." Think about this for a minute. This initiative started in 2003, which means they're expecting it to take 17 years of concerted efforts to clean up the river before anyone could safely swim in it. This gives you some idea of the state of the river's water quality.

While various points along the river are currently designed for "full immersion uses," the head of the Friends of the Chicago River says, "These stretches now have far too much bacteria."

Over the course of decades, slaughterhouses, tanneries, rolled steel plants, boat manufacturers, lumberyards, and graineries have lined the Chicago River and emptied their waste right into it. There's a photo from 1911 of a stretch of the river that ran next to the stockyards. This stretch was called "Bubbly Creek" because the stockyards used to fling their offal -- yes, that's cow parts -- into the river. As the stuff decomposed, the gases bubbled to the surface, giving it its name. But in this picture, the sewage is so thick, it's crusted over, and a chicken is even standing on top of it. Flash forward 90 years, and this is the river you're considering diving into.

Yes, it's cleaner than it used to be. The City built the Sanitary and Ship Canal, which diverted water from Lake Michigan into the Chicago River at a rate of six billion gallons per day. This huge onrush of water turned the river into the other direction, so that it emptied instead into the Mississippi River. It also flushed out the pollutants into the Mississippi, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico, and hello New Orleans! This cleaned up the river, but then in the 1930s the US government made the city build a dam to slow the river's flow, and that turned it into a sewer pit again. In the 1960s, people started cleaning up the river once more, and there's been quite a bit of progress, but there are still industrial metals trapped in the sediment and bad things in the water, as we'll see.

The Illinois EPA determines whether it's safe to swim in water by the level of fecal coliform bacteria. When it comes to swimmability, they don't test for metals or pesticides, just fecal coliform bacteria. Too much of this, and no swimming is allowed. And the Chicago River has too much. Way too much, judging by the fact that people think it will take seventeen years to get rid of the bacteria. To get technical about it, if more than 200 observations of fecal coliform bacteria are present in 100 ml of water, AND if more than 10% of the samples over a 30-day period contain more than 400 observations per 100 ml, then no swimming is allowed.

People also like to go boating and fishing on the Chicago River. This is called a secondary or recreational use. The Illinois EPA didn't test for this category of use, so I can't say whether it's safe to do that or not.

The Illinois EPA does test to see if it's safe to eat the fish you catch, and if fish can even live in the waters in the first place. These tests are called fish consumption and aquatic use tests. For these assessments, different people use various methods in different parts of the state, but basically they look at the fish to see if they're healthy or diseased, they look at the vegetation on the riverbank to see if that looks good or if it's dying, they look at the number of bugs in the river mud, and they test the water chemistry. It's in these assessments that you get records of heavy metals, pesticides, oil and grease, mining runoff, stuff like that.

They evaluate the Chicago River and Calumet Basin as one area and here's how it scored:

Aquatic Life -- Poor
This means that it would be difficult for aquatic life to survive in this environment.

Fish Consumption -- Poor
This means that for at least one species of fish, human consumption of any kind is banned.

Indigenous Aquatic Life -- Mixed good and fair
I don't trust this more lenient assessment, given that the ratings are worse in more general categories.

Primary Contact (swimming) -- Nonsupported
No swimming! Too much poo!

Specifically, evaluators found in the various branches and channels of the Chicago River excess algal growth, dissolved oxygen, ammonia, nitrogen, phosphorous, zinc, nickel, and PCBs. These things come from sewage overflows, storm and urban runoff, channelization, "municipal point sources," and "source unknown."

Still want to swim in the Chicago River?

Actually, Chris wanted to know how likely he would be to get sick, not whether he would encounter anything nasty. So let's look at the possible virulence of some of the things in the Chicago River.

First, let's start with the thing that keeps you from swimming in the river. Fecal coliform bacteria is not usually a pathogen, but it does usually signal the presence of other pathogens. If you are exposed to this environment, you could get stomach cramps, nausea, fever, ear infections, gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, or typhoid fever. You can kill the bacteria with boiling water or chlorine, or by washing it off thoroughly with soap. So if you dove into the water and jumped out right away and washed off, as far as the bacteria is concerned, you might not get sick. Maybe.

Now for the PCBs. The worst kind of exposure to PCBs is through fish consumption. This can mess up your reproductive function, your children can be born with all sorts of physical or mental defects, you can get toxins in your breast milk, you can get liver disease or diabetes, systemic problems with your thyroid and immune systems, and increased risk of all sorts of cancers. Other types of exposure include breathing it in or contact through the skin. Swimming in PCBs would constitute skin contact. The most common effects of skin contact include lesions and rashes, burning eyes and burning skin.

I'm not seeing any incidence rates of illness related to PCB exposure, but I've stopped looking. The things I have been reading are starting to depress me, and this is antithetical to the spirit of this blog. So I'm going to stop now and list the positives:
  • Manufacture of PCBs was banned in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so at least no more of it is being produced.
  • People are working on cleaning up the PCBs. It won't be an easy task, but they're working on it.
  • Initiatives are underway for cleaning up the Chicago River. It'll take time and money, but more people are starting to care about it. As more residences are going up on the riverfront, more people are wanting to enjoy looking at the water, and smelling the water, and using the water for recreational purposes. This is probably the biggest driver toward making the Chicago River cleaner.
  • People are learning more and more all the time about the importance of keeping our land and water clean.

Bubbly Creek today
Photo from the Chicago Public Library

So, Chris, if you could postpone your swan dive until 2020, you might survive the dip. Whether or not you'd be fined or arrested, that's another story for another day. But in the meantime, maybe you'd better confine your execution of beautiful dives to nice, big Olympic-sized swimming pools.

(Curse you, Blogger software, for losing my entire entry not once but twice!)

For answers to whether Chris would be fined or arrested, see the continuation of this entry, Jumping into the Chicago River part ii

State of Illinois, Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn pages, Chicago River Summit
Encyclopedia of Chicago, Recreational versus Commercial-Industrial Uses on the Chicago River
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Water, Illinois Water Quality Report 2004 This sucker is 547 pages, so make sure you have some time if you want to look at it.

City of Boulder/USGS Water Quality Monitoring, General Information on Fecal Coliform
Barry L. Johnson et al., Public Health Implications of Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
Fox River Watch, How are Local People Exposed to PCBs?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Apple #112: All Along the Watchtower

About a week ago, a faithful reader wanted to know how many people have recorded "All Along the Watchtower," and why would anyone else bother recording the song after Jimi Hendrix "made it his." The answer, my friend, is a testament to the song's staying power, and Hendrix's genius.
  • The song was originally written by Bob Dylan, and it appears 9 times in his current catalog of recordings, including its original release in 1967 on John Wesley Harding, as well as on live albums and compilations.
  • Jimi Hendrix recorded it the year after Dylan's release, in 1968, on Electric Ladyland. It was Hendrix's only Top 40 hit in the U.S. Dylan was so impressed with Hendrix's recording that for years afterwards, he played it the way Hendrix did.
  • The structure of the song is unusual for Dylan's writing style up to that time, with three verses and no chorus. He wrote it not long after his injury in a motorcycle accident, and it was during this period that the tenor of his music changed from longer, more ballad-like songs, to tighter songs with more unusual and inventive lyrics. He wrote the third verse first, but later moved it to the end of the song.
  • Dylan originally played it as a straight-up, three chord folk song, with the music doing little to support the lyrics.
  • Hendrix, on the other hand, altered the music so that it would mirror what's happening in the words. Throughout the song, he builds the musical tension with guitar solos, then drops back when the lyrics return. He distorts the notes, bending them or using the wah-wah pedal, to get at the otherwordliness hinted at in the song. And in each guitar break, he uses ascending scales, each one reaching higher than the last, until he hits the highest, blistering note at the end of the song, and there he stays, working it and working it. This makes, as one reviewer describes it, a "keening sound," which echoes the last words "The wind began to howl," and suggests a future, apocalyptic moment.
  • Lots of people try to interpret who is the joker and who is the thief and what it all means. Since that wasn't part of the question I was asked to answer, and since I couldn't provide a definitive answer anyway, I'll leave the interpretation up to you.
  • Here are the lyrics, for reference's sake. I've broken the lines the way Hendrix sings them, but I've used lower-case to show that Dylan wrote it so that each line would be twice as long:
"There must be some kind of way out of here,"
said the joker to the thief.
"There's too much confusion,
I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine,
plowmen, dig my earth,
None of them along the line
know what any of it is worth."

"No reason to get excited,"
the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us
who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that,
and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now,
the hour is getting late."

All along the watchtower
princes kept the view
While all the women came and went,
barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance
a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching,
the wind began to howl.

  • Hendrix's performance of this song is so seminal, many folks who refer to the song cite both Dylan and Hendrix as its creators. This version made #48 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. ("Like a Rolling Stone" was their favorite. Figures.)
  • Here's a list -- probably incomplete -- of others who have recorded the song. If you recognize every performer on this list, someone ought to give you a million dollars or something:
    • The Band (with Bob Dylan)
    • U2
    • The Dave Matthews Band
    • The Grateful Dead (with Bob Dylan)
    • Eric Clapton
    • Neil Young
    • Richie Havens
    • Brewer & Shipley
    • XTC
    • The Indigo Girls
    • Run DMC
    • TSOL
    • Elton John
    • Michael Hedges
    • Howie Day
    • Larry McCray
    • Jim Capaldi
    • Dave Mason
    • Paul Weller
    • Antoine Rocks
    • Buddy Miles Express
    • Calvin Russell
    • The Dream Syndicate
    • Jackie Green & Sal Valentino
    • Jazz Crusaders
    • Michael de Jong
    • Michel Montecrossa
    • Tom Landa and the Paperboys
    • Al Rowe
    • Den Fiori
    • Jenn Adams
    • Michael Angelo
    • Michael Packer Blues Band
    • Michael Sokolowski & Tim Reynolds
    • Pat Guadango
    • Paul Rose Band
    • Phil Zuckerman
    • Ricardo Ferranti
    • Richard Trible
    • Cary August
    • Border Town Fools
As for why all these people recorded the song after Hendrix did, I can only offer my opinion. I think it's because Hendrix took a good song and made it great. People want to imitate what they admire, with the hope that maybe, just maybe they could be the magic person to top the master. As one reviewer said of Hendrix covering Dylan, "To admire a seminal artist is one thing, to cover his work and top him at it is testament to the reach of Hendrix's talent." I haven't heard every version that pops up on iTunes, but I'm going to bet that nobody tops Jimi Hendrix.

Here's the song itself, available for purchase from iTunes (this link will launch iTunes).

Photo from Bowtwanger's Jimi Hendrix page

P.S. Request lines are still open! If you've got a question and you want the Apple Lady to research it for you, enter it in the comments field here.

Sources, Songs - All Along the Watchtower
Songfacts, All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix
Reason to Rock, Track: All Along the Watchtower
Wikipedia, All Along the Watchtower
Rolling Stone, "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time," 48: All Along the Watchtower
Jason Warburg, Review of Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix, The Daily Vault

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Apple #111: What's a Hoosier?

Felix J. from Indiana, wanted to know, for once and for all, what the word "Hoosier" means, and where it came from. Felix, I'm assuming you know, the word isn't flattering. So what I have to tell you might not be nice to hear. But at least you will know the answer. And perhaps you can also take some comfort in the fact that David Lee Roth is also a Hoosier, originally.
  • Dictionaries playing it safe give the definition of Hoosier as a native or resident of Indiana. But we know there's more to it than that.
  • It's not listed in my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, nor is it in my Compact Oxford Dictionary. Perhaps it's considered slang and not worthy of inclusion?
  • I was taught, in high school English class, that the word means "country bumpkin." The Infoplease dictionary offers the similar definition: "any awkward, unsophisticated person, esp. a rustic."
  • Jeffrey Graf of the Reference Department at the Indiana University Libraries at Bloomington provides this definition: "a term of contempt and opprobrium common in the upland South and used to denote a rustic, a bumpkin, a countryman, a roughneck, a hick, or an awkward, uncouth or unskilled fellow."
  • As far as where this word comes from, once again, nobody really knows, but everybody's got an idea. Here are some of the possibilities:
    • The first recorded appearance of the word was around 1826. At this time, Indiana was still considered frontierland, and part of The West. The West was supposedly full of men who could outrun, outfight, and probably outdrink another man. These super-strong men of the West were called "hushers" because of their ability to shush their foes. Bargemen originally from Indiana who traveled up and down the Mississippi were known to be especially combative and engaged in all sorts of fights, organized and otherwise. Thus it is possible that these men earned the nickname of "husher" for their home state. And then this word mystically was transformed both in pronunciation, to Hoosier, and in meaning, to something derogatory.
    • Alternatively, many think that the word originated from a greeting. It used to be common practice to holler to someone in their cabin, so they did not shoot you, "Hello the cabin!" The folk inside would holler back, "Who's yer?" which was a variant of "who's there" or "who are you?" Eventually, the story has it, this got slurred over time to Hoosier.
    • The secretary of the Indiana Historical Society has concluded after much research that the word comes from a Cumberland, England dialect word, "hoozer." Some dictionaries say this word means anything large, which is sort of mysterious. Mr. Indiana Historical Society says that "hoozer" comes from an Anglo-Saxon word "hoo" meaning high, or hill. Immigrants who came from Cumberland first went to the Appalachians and then moved up into the hills of southern Indiana and brought the word with them. I'm not sure I like this suggestion because if you've ever been to most parts of Indiana, you know there ain't a hill to spit at for miles.

photo from "Flat, but not Dull -- Understanding the Central Indiana Glacial Landscape"

    • The story I like best -- because it accounts for the practice of capitalizing the word Hoosier -- is that a contractor named Samuel Hoosier was hired to get a canal built, not in Indiana but in Louisville. He liked to hire men from Indiana because he found them to be hard-working and efficient. Eventually, all his employees came to be called Hoosiers. Presumably, the people in Louisville didn't like outsiders in their territory, so perhaps for them, the term took on its negative connotation.
    • A similar story has it that a different man, Robert Hoosier, was in charge of extending the National Road (US 40) from Columbus, Ohio, where it had last stopped, into Richmond, Indiana. Workers in the then-territory of Indiana agreed to work in Ohio, which was already a state, because they would earn more money in a state rather than in a territory. These workers who moved temporarily across the state line got the name "Hoosiers" in reference to the man for whom they worked. Again, the negative connotation may have gotten attached later by those who didn't like interlopers.
  • I was wondering, why on earth the State of Indiana would choose to refer to itself as the Hoosier State, but it turns out, that's only what everybody else calls it. The official nickname for the state is "Crossroads of America."
  • Senator Dan Quayle (later VP Quayle) tried to change the meaning of the word in 1987 by adopting a non-binding resolution in the Congressional Record that Hoosier should mean instead, someone who is "smart, resourceful, skillful, a winner, unique and brilliant." What prompted him to do this was Indiana's 1987 basketball championship loss to Syracuse.
  • Looks like, in spite of their best efforts, the Hoosiers haven't been too successful at re-formulating their image.

Dan Quayle photo from

Infoplease Dictionary, Hoosier
Merriam-Webster Online, Hoosier
The Word Detective, Hoosier
Wikipedia, Hoosier
The Word Hoosier, by Jeffrey Graf of the Reference Department at Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington provides perhaps the most exhaustive description of all possible sources of the word.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Apple #110: Sally Ride

As requested, here's some biographical information about Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman to orbit the earth.

Dr. Sally Ride, prior to her first flight on Challenger

  • As a teenager, Dr. Ride wanted to be a professional tennis player, and for a while she was a ranked player on the junior tennis circuit.
  • In 1968, she enrolled at Swarthmore, but dropped out to pursue a career in professional tennis. After three months of training, she decided she was not good enough to be successful at a professional level. She then applied for and was accepted to Stanford University.
  • At Stanford, she earned two Bachelor's Degrees -- one in English and one in Physics -- and then went on to earn both a Master's and a Ph.D. in Physics. Her research interests included astrophysics, general relativity, and free-electron laser physics.
  • She applied to the astronaut program after reading an ad in the Stanford paper. More than 8,000 people applied that year. Of the 35 accepted, six were women, including Sally Ride. This was in 1978. She was 27 years old.
  • In 1979, she completed her mission training, which made her eligible for assignment on future space craft.
  • On the ground, she worked as the capsule communicatory officer for the 2nd and 3rd flights of the space shuttle Columbia.
  • In June of 1983, she became the first woman to orbit Earth, on board the space shuttle Challenger. While the shuttle's missions included deploying satellites and conducting various scientific experiments, Dr. Ride tested a robot arm that deployed and retrieved the satellites, and acted as flight engineer. Total mission time was 147 hours, or about 6 days. She has said of that flight, "I'm sure it was the most fun I'll ever have in my life."

Dr. Ride, on her first Challenger mission, floating in weightless space
Photo from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

  • She flew on Challenger a second time, in 1984. On this flight, a much larger crew deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, conducted scientific observations of the earth using a Large Format Camera, and demonstrated satellite refueling. Total mission time was 197 hours, or roughly 8 days.
  • Dr. Ride was training for a third mission when the Challenger exploded in 1986. Her mission was cancelled, and she was appointed to the Presidential Commission that investigated the accident. In 2003, after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated, she also served on the investigation of this accident. She is the only person to have served on both panels.
  • Following the Challenger investigation, she was assigned to NASA headquarters for long-range planning. In this capacity, she completed The Ride Report. This report made several recommendations for further space exploration, including a Space Station much more elaborate and well-supported than the current International Space Station. Another recommendation, that a permanent lunar base be established prior to exploring Mars, disappointed many who thought we'd explored the moon enough.
  • In 1987, she retired from the astronaut corps and joined the faculty at her alma mater, Stanford. There, she became the Science Fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control.
  • In 1989, she moved to the University of California at San Diego, where she taught physics and directed the California Space Institute until 1996.
  • She began a series of programs to educate young students, including EarthKAM, an Internet-based NASA project that allows middle school classes to take photos of the Earth from space and to download those photos.
  • She currently sponsors the Sally Ride Science Festivals, which offer activities and workshops for girls, their parents, and their teachers, with talks from astronauts, microbiologists, engineers, oceanographers, veterinarians, and other scientists. The next Sally Ride Festival is coming up soon, on September 24, 2005, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  • She also established the Sally Ride Science Club, an association for young girls and their parents and teachers "to empower girls to explore the world of science."
  • Her company, Sally Ride Science, runs both the club and the festivals. Dr. Ride is the President and CEO of this company.

Dr. Ride in 2005 (from Florida Today)

  • She has written several children's books, including
    • To Space and Back
    • Voyager: An Adventure to the Edge of the Solar System
    • The Third Planet: Exploring the Earth from Space
    • The Mystery of Mars
    • Exploring our Solar System
  • Dr. Ride has received numerous awards, including:
    • National Spaceflight Medal (twice)
    • Jefferson Award for Public Service
    • American Women Award, given by the Women's Research and Education Institute
    • Member, National Women's Hall of Fame
    • Member, Astronaut Hall of Fame, inducted 2003
  • Some quotes from Dr. Ride:
    • "If they asked me if I wanted to go into space tomorrow, I'd do it in a heartbeat."
    • [When the space shuttle took off on its first mission,] "I didn't know whether I was going to be exhilirated or terrified. Actually what washed over me and what blanked out my mind was a feeling of complete helplessness, like there was so much power that there was nothing that I could do to change what was happening."
Great question, Anonymous Monsieur! Keep 'em coming!

NASA's StarChild pages, Dr. Sally Ride
NASA's Johnson Space Center pages, Biographical Data, Name: Sally K. Ride (Ph.D.)
NASA Kid Interview with Sally Ride
National Women's Hall of Fame, Sally Ride
Enchanted Learning, Zoom Explorers, Sally Ride: Astronaut
Wikipedia, Sally Ride
Lucidcafe, Sally Kristen Ride, First American Woman in Space
"Sally Ride is leaving NASA after making major contributions," Houston Chronicle, 9/21/1987

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Apple #109: The Stork, Bringer of Babies

One faithful reader wanted to know the source of the legend about storks bringing babies. As I have discovered is the case with many often-referenced tidbits in our culture, nobody is really sure where this tale came from. But here are some possibilities:

Image from the Pregnancy Help & Information Center

  • Many cultures have admired and revered storks, including ancient Greece, Egypt, China, and Israel. But, many say, the legend of the stork bringing babies seems to have originated in northern Germany, possibly in the Middle Ages. Why they say northern Germany, I'm not sure. This may itself be another tale that gets passed on without explanation.
  • Some say the the legend came about when people noticed that storks, migratory birds, arrived at their nesting places about 9 months after midsummer. Midsummer, or June 21, was a huge pagan festival day and a time of lots of weddings and in general much partaking of fermented beverages. The suggestion is, obviously, that many folks were getting it on at about this time. Nine months later, the storks showed up on their migratory route. Storks happen to like to nest in very high-up places, like the tops of chimneys or roofs. So if a stork chose your chimney top or roof to build its nest, you would say that the stork had brought your baby. This was perhaps also a way to dodge admitting what you had actually done to bring about the baby.

Storks nesting on top of a chimney.
(Photo from Stork Wallpaper)

  • Another possible origin for the myth is that people believed that the souls of unborn children lived in wet places like marshes, ponds, springs, and wells. Since storks often stalk these areas looking for food, people thought that they were also fetching the souls of newborns out of the water.
  • In Germany, the myth went that storks found newborns deep in rocky caves (also a preferred nesting place for storks), or "stork-stones," and carried the babes to their parents-to-be.
In addition to pagan legends, the Bible includes several references to storks as signs of a turning away from sin and bearers of heavenly truth. Many Christian songs and paintings depict storks as present at the Annunciation, which presumably would have been in springtime, 9 months before the birth of Christ.

I also found this poem, called The Stork Legend, which may be the origin of the legend, or the legend simply put into poem form and in a Christian context:

When Christ was born on Christmas Day
The birds and beasts knelt down to pray.
In wonder all adoring kneeled--
The ox in his stall, the fox in his field,
While badger, bear and each wild thing
Flocked round the manger where slept a King
Housed in a stable at Bethlehem.

And the long-legged stork was there with them,
Her feathers white, her crest held high,
And awe in her bright, compassionate eye.

"Alas," mourned she, "how poor His bed
Who rules the universe o'erhead!
Though cozily curled sleep all my breed,
The Lord of the World lies hard, indeed.
Unpillowed is He who should wear a crown."
Then out of her bosom she plucked the down.

The plumes from her breast she tugged and tore
That the Child should rest like a beggar no more,
But fine on a pallet fit for a prince.
And blest has the stork been, ever since --
For the gift she gave of her body's wear --
Blest on chimneys, blest in air,
And patron of babies everywhere.
--Author unknown

Storks are also the subject of other legends and associations, beyond just bringing babies:
  • While storks do not mate for life, individual storks do return to the same nest site. People assumed that the same pair of storks was returning and therefore decided that they were a symbol of fidelity as well as fertility.
  • Also, adult storks continue to care for and feed their young until well after the young are able to fly. People again mis-interpreted what they were seeing and thought that in fact the young were taking care of their elders. Thus a law in ancient Greece which requires one to take care of one's elderly parents is called Pelargonia, after the word pelargos, which means stork.
  • Storks were also a symbol of longevity. People maintained that at the spry age of 600 years, storks stop eating solid food. By age 2,000, storks hit middle age, turn black, and continue living. This of course is not true, but is perhaps a more accurate depiction of the longevity of the species.

A saddle-bill stork at the San Diego Zoo. Note the red patch.

Here are some facts about storks that are true:
  • The bare patch on the stork's breast (which the Stork Legend might say came from the bird plucking out its own feathers for the Christ child's bed) is actually a mating tool. The patch becomes bright red during breeding season and is designed to impress potential mates.
  • While many storks return to the same location to make their nest, they often have to rebuild the nest each year. For some storks, their nests survive. But the storks still add on to the nest with each return, and as a result, some nests grow to be enormous, as big as 9 feet deep and 6 feet wide.
  • Young, growing storks eat up to 60 percent of their body weight per day. So if you weighed 175 pounds, that would be like eating 105 pounds of food a day.
  • Some storks' bills are very sensitive. They need only to hold their bills in the water, very still, and when they feel a fish or bug or shellfish brush against the bill, they snap it up.
  • One type of stork eats snails. People had assumed that the stork simply crushed the snail shell in its bill, but they noticed that the snail shells were open but intact. On further investigation, they discovered that the stork holds the snail to the ground with the upper part of its bill, while the lower part of the bill slices the muscle that holds the shell closed. The shell opens, the stork eats the meat, and leaves the empty shell.
Thanks for another great question! If you have a question you would like to ask, simply post it in the Comments field of this entry.

The Straight Dope, Why are storks associated with babies?
Creagrus @ Monterey Bay, Storks
Suzetta Tucker, ChristStory Christian Bestiary, Babies & Spring
Babies & Birthdays, The Stork Legend
San Diego Zoo, Birds: Stork

Monday, September 12, 2005

Apple #108: Tonsils

As requested, I investigated tonsils. I found a lot of information that was surprising news to me. Maybe you know some of these things about tonsils already, but I didn't.
  • First of all, I always thought the thing that hangs down in the middle of the throat was the tonsils. But no sir, that's the uvula. The tonsils are farther back, on either side. All of a sudden, the fact that "tonsils" is plural suddenly makes sense.

Image from SEER's cancer training site

  • And there's more than just the two that you can see in the image. That set is called the palatine tonsils, which are at the opening of the oral cavity, or the palate. This is the set that most often gets removed.
  • The second set of tonsils is called pharyngeal tonsils, which are closest to the nasal cavity. These can get enlarged and make breathing difficult and make your voice sound funny. When this happens, people say you have adenoids, although everybody has adenoids; it's just that yours can get swollen along with the tonsils nearest to your nose.
  • The third set is called lingual tonsils, and these are on the underside of your tongue at the back of the mouth.
  • Tonsils are actually made of lymphatic tissue, meaning they are one of several sets of lymph nodes scattered throughout your body. Other lymph nodes are in your neck, armpits, and groin. Lymph nodes filter the bad stuff out of lymph, a thin fluid that contains white blood cells and helps to protect you against disease.
  • However, the lymph nodes in your tonsils don't seem to be especially crucial. Apparently they are sometimes not capable of handling "the multitude of viral infections that occur in children in an urban population." Speculation has it that tonsils developed a long time ago to deal with problems most children don't face anymore -- things like intestinal parasites -- or were originally built underequipped, so to speak, for today's viral threats.
  • Sticking out the way they do, tonsils snag a lot of incoming bacteria and viruses. That's supposed to help your body build up an immunity to those germs, but sometimes the tonsils get overwhelmed and can't handle the germs well enough.
  • If the tonsils are swollen and sore on a near-continual basis, or if you are having trouble breathing or sleeping, or especially if you have white, foul-smelling debris impacted in the tissue, it's time to get them taken out. If you're not sure whether your tonsils are infected, here's a picture that may help you decide.
  • The reasons why children most often have tonsillectomies are 1) childrens' bodies need more help fighting disease than adults, who have developed more immunities 2) your tonsils keep getting bigger until puberty, and after that, they shrink.
  • One last fact: another name for tonsils is amygdala, which is also the name for a part of your brain that is responsible for smell, motivation, and emotions. Both body parts are so named for the fact that they are almond (amydale) shaped (eidos).
US National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) training web site, Lymph Nodes - Tonsils
Texas Pediatric Surgical Associates, Tonsils and Tonsillectomy
American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, Tonsils & Adenoids brochure, reprinted at
Wikipedia, Tonsil, Definition of Amygdala
An impassioned plea against the notion that tonsils are obsolete: Giovanni J.R.C., Understanding the Functional Significance of the Once Thought Vestigial Tonsils

Friday, September 9, 2005

Apple #107: The Rabbit Done Died

Lots of excellent requests have been submitted so far. Keep 'em coming!

Jim F. wanted to know the origin of the phrase "the rabbit died" (or as Aerosmith put it, "the rabbit DONE died"). He knew it was related to erstwhile pregnancy tests, but wanted to know more. I had never heard this phrase but was very curious, and it turns out, the answer is quite interesting:
  • In the 1920s, medical researchers discovered that, shortly after a fertilized egg implants itself in her uterine wall, a woman's body starts producing a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG for short. This hormone actually tells the placenta to start making progesterone so that the body doesn't reject the fertilized egg.
  • In an effort to develop a test so that people could know for sure whether a woman was producing hCG, and therefore pregnant, medical researchers discovered in 1927 that if they injected female rabbits with an extract of a woman's urine that contained hCG, the rabbit's ovaries would swell within a matter of days. Basically, the rabbit's body would assume that it was pregnant, because of the woman's hCG, and start making the phantom fertilized egg feel more comfortable.
  • Huzzah, researchers had a pregnancy test, a.k.a. "the rabbit test." The problem was, though, that scientists couldn't say for certain whether the rabbit's ovaries had swollen until they'd killed the rabbit and done an autopsy (this makes me regard Elmer Fudd's "Kill the wabbit" refrain in a new light).
  • So the test rabbit always died. The proper phrase would have been something like "the rabbit's ovaries swelled up," but "the rabbit died" was more fun to say. Thus people went around saying that if the rabbit died, it meant that you were pregnant.
  • A few years later, clinicians figured out a way to examine a rabbit's ovaries without killing the rabbit, but it was too late, people were having too much fun saying "the rabbit died."
  • Pregnancy tests have continued to evolve from this basic idea of testing for hCG in a woman's urine. This is how the home test kits work today, though there's no rabbit involved.

Image from Wiseacre Gardens' Elmer Fudd page

Thanks, Jim F, for a great question!

Snopes urban legends reference pages, The Rabbit Test, Pregnancy/Birth, The Rabbit Died
Etymologies & Word Origins: Letter R
Am I Right - Nonsensical Song Lyrics, Aerosmith
Ricki Lewis, Ph.D, "Biotech Devices: Replacing Test Animals, Improving Diagnoses," FDA Consumer, outdated issue
The Phrase Finder, Re: The rabbit died (this site offers a slightly different explanation, citing the FDA as its source. But I can find no confirmation of this scenario at the FDA, and I found no other source that offers a similar explanation.)
"Kill the wabbit" from Looney Toones at Check this site out if you can because there's lots of great stuff here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Apple #106: Request Lines Are Open

I've done this before, and it worked pretty well, so I'm doing it again. If any of you readers out there are curious about a particular subject, some little fact you've always wanted to know what the heck that was about, post a comment here in this entry and let me know. I, your Apple Lady, will do my darnedest to find the answer. And maybe I'll find a helpful picture or two.

I know for a fact that two or three of you regular readers have been storing up requests. You know who you are. I say to you, fear not! Request away!

You can post comments anonymously, so you don't have to worry about having a blog or not having a blog or any of that crap if you want to submit a request. Just click on the comments link at the bottom of this entry.

I'll keep taking requests for a while. I don't know for how long, depends on how many requests people submit and over what time period. I'll let you know when I get to feeling like the time for submitting questions is almost up.

And please, since everybody in the family eats apples, keep your questions suitable for all readers.

Thanks in advance for helping me expand this beyond my own imagination.

--The Apple Lady

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Apple #105: Tennis

I've been watching a lot of the US Open the past few days, and someone watching with me asked, "Why is tennis scored like that?" I used to play tennis -- badly -- back in my school days, and I've always taken the scoring for granted. It just is weird. Never thought to ask why. Until today.
  • Tennis originated not in England, which is what I'd always assumed, I guess because of Wimbledon and all that flat green grass. It's true that tennis as we know it today did come from England, but the English devised it from a game the French played, called "royal tennis" or "court tennis." English people like to say it started with them, in the 19th century, but the French were playing as early as the 12th or 11th century. Rumor has it that French monks were the first people to play it.
  • Most folks speculate that the name of the game comes from the French way of saying "Tenez!" which basically means, "Hang on, I'm about to serve!" or "Take that!"
  • There are lots of explanations for why the games are scored as they are. Here are a few:
    • Back in the long ago day, more people were superstitious about numbers -- or at least, more people were comfortable admitting their superstitions. The number 60 was considered to be a "good" number, so the scoring is based on numbers that divide 60 evenly into four parts: 15, 30, 45, and game. Except, wait, it's not 45 anymore, now it's 40. That's because people abbreviated it from 45 to 40. Makes perfect sense, oui?
    • Or it could be that the scoring is based on a clock face, where each point represents 15 minutes. This explanation comes from the Lawn Tennis Association in the UK, and they also say that tennis originated in England. They also offer no explanation for how 45 turned into 40.
    • Another possibility is that the numbers in French, quinze, trente, quarante, just sound good in succession. It is French, but this explanation sounds like hogwash to me.
    • I'm liking the numerology explanation best. It seems to fit best with the time period in which the game first appeared. And it's illogical enough an explanation to fit with the illogic of the numbers.
  • Zero is called "love" for an interesting reason. Lots of people say it's because the word "love" is similar to the French word l'oeuf or "egg," referring to a goose-egg, or zero. But actually, it's a way of saying that if your score is zero, you must be playing for love of the game. So love in tennis is not a nice and happy thing, it's a way of talking smack to the loser!
  • Initially, the game was played like handball, by hitting the ball with the palm of the hand. As the game caught on with the royalty, they made special gloves to wear, then bats made of cork wrapped in string, cloth, and later, leather. By 1500, a wood frame racquet strung with sheep's gut strings was commonly used.
  • This transformation is neatly summed up in etymology: the word "racquet" comes from the Arabic word rahat which means "palm of the hand."
Here's another pretty stunning transformation:

Andre Agassi, 1989 (photo from BBC Sport)

Andre Agassi, 2005 (photo from Tennis Much)

The Straight Dope, Why is tennis scoring so weird?
Lawn Tennis Association (UK), Origins of Scoring
Wikipedia, Tennis
BBC Sport Academy, The history of tennis

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Apple #104: Fingernails

(photo from A Sizable Apple blog of health tips)

I was filing down a rough spot in my fingernail and I thought, "I bet there are a few things about fingernails that I don't know." So I checked it out, and I was right. Here are a few fingernail facts:
  • Fingernails grow from the white, half-moon shape often visible at the base of the nail. This is called the "growth plate" or "lunula".
  • As more cells form in the growth plate, the older cells are pushed forward. During this growth process, the cells die and become filled with a hard protein called keratin. It is keratin that makes the nails hard.
  • A fingernail grows about 1/10th of an inch per month. It takes 6 to 9 months to grow a nail from cuticle to fingertip.
  • Fingernails also have a high sulfur content. This is why, if you accidentally burn your fingernail, say, in the flame of a candle, it stinks something awful.
  • Nails are ten times more porous than skin and can become chapped. Chapped nails are more likely to break in response to environmental damage -- that is, when you use your nails to pry something open, or when you catch them on things, or when you do a lot of gardening.
  • Infants' fingernails are very thin. Their nails tend to get torn rather than cut.
  • As people age, their fingernails get thin. Their toenails, however, get thick.
  • Changes in your fingernails may reflect changes in nutrient levels. There are some pretty creepy pictures of fingernails and in some cases, yeah, it's obvious, these people have something really wrong.
      • If the pink skin under the nail is spoon-shaped, rather than rounding upwards, or if it is pale rather than pink, you may have low iron levels.
      • Yellow or green nails may signal a respiratory condition, or swelling. The discoloration occurs because the growth of new cells has slowed.
      • Pitting, or what looks like tiny holes or scratches in the nail surface, is common in people who have psoriasis, a condition that makes scaly patches in the skin.
      • When the tips of your fingers enlarge and the nails curve around the tips, almost like claws, this is called clubbing. This signals low oxygen levels in the blood and can be a sign of lung disease. Come to think of it, I've noticed nails like this on older women who are hard-core smokers.
      • If the nails have ridges that run side to side, you may have recently had a fever or inflammation. In people who have recently had a heart attack, these depressions can be very deep, so that it looks like they slammed their fingers very hard in a door.
      • If your nails have ridges that run lengthwise, this is a signal of age and not any particular problem.
  • White spots on the nail are commonly said to be because of a zinc deficiency or a lack of calcium. Many doctors & dermatologists say that's a myth. Actually, the white spots are usually the result of some injury, like dropping something heavy on your hand so that it hits the nail just wrong, or catching your hand in the door. It may take several days before the white spot shows up, so most people don't remember the injury and attribute the white spot to that event.

White marks on the nail are called leukonychia. Despite the important-sounding name, most of the time, they're caused by some mild injury and are nothing to worry about.
(Photo from the Gemini Geek)

  • Another, less common, possible cause is an allergic reaction to nail polish, polish remover, or nail hardener. If you get lots of manicures and lots of white spots, hold off on the manicures for a while and see if that takes care of the white spots.
  • It is also possible that the white spots could be signs of an infection. This is unusual, however. If they get bigger, then it might be time to look into treatment. But probably they'll get smaller and fade away on their own.
  • For those of you who want to take extra care of your fingernails:
      • Don't have the cuticle removed. This makes your skin susceptible to bacteria, and it can also weaken the nail. Plus, it hurts like hell.
      • Do rub hand lotion into your nails.
      • Some nail polish and polish removers can irritate the skin or dry the nails and actually make them weaker, instead of stronger, which is what people think nail polish can do. Avoid polishes and removers that contain sulfonamide, formaldehyde, or acetone.
      • Drinking Jell-O or other gelatin products will have no effect on the strength of your nails. While gelatin contains protein, and protein is an essential part of fingernail cells, protein is essential to lots of other cells in your body, too, and the protein you eat gets all mixed into the protein pool, so to speak, and gets used in all kinds of part of your body. Extra protein from gelatin would not "go to" your nails but would get stored as fat.
MadSci Network, "Are our fingernails made up of stiff hair?"
Ask the Dietician, Fingernails, Hair & Skin
Mayo Clinic, What your fingernails can tell you about your health, sourced from Mayo, Fingernails: keep them healthy and strong
Health Guidance, What Causes White Spots on Fingernails?
Dr. Weil, Worried about White Spots on Fingernails?
WiseGeek, What Causes White Spots on Fingernails?