Thursday, March 31, 2005

Apple #54: Soap Operas

I've been sick for the past few days, and I've been gorging myself on soap operas. Greenlee on All My Children is one of my new favorite characters, but they really need to do something about her hair. Those highlights are nasty.

If you recognize this shot, you're probably hearing the old All My Children theme song playing in your head right now.

(Photo from David R. Jackson's site about soap opera songs)

So my question was, why are they called "soap operas" anyway?"
  • Soap: When they were first broadcast on the radio and later on TV, these programs were sponsored by laundry soap companies. Based on what I've seen lately, Procter & Gamble is still the biggest advertiser.
  • Opera: The stories are characterized by larger-than-life plots with excessive melodrama, the same as actual operas.
  • They've also been called "chewing gum for the eyes," "mindless entertainment," "a shameful addiction," "my stories," and "social realism."
  • They're written for women at home (housewives) who may be faithful watchers, but who also may be interrupted by household chores. Thus, in the midst of their dramatic dialogue, the characters will catch you up on what's happened lately.
  • One source claims that soap operas are the most popular form of television programming in the world.
  • They first appeared on the radio in the 1930's and made the switch to TV in the late 1940's and early 1950's.
  • Guiding Light was first broadcast in 1937. With the exception of a few years' hiatus in the 1940's, the story has aired every weekday since, making it arguably the longest story ever told. [Update: CBS is canceling Guiding Light. The last episode will air on September 18, 2009.]
  • Radio soaps used organs for background music, and to emphasize dramatic events. Organs were cheaper than orchestras. TV soaps also used organs up until the 1970's.
  • TV soaps are characterized by other low-budget production methods, such as recording the shows on videotape rather than on film.
  • Soaps rely on a lot of "backlighting" for dramatic visual effects. This highlights the actors' hair and gives them a special kind of glow and also casts interesting shadows across the face. All TV shows used to use backlighting, but most have abandoned it because of the unnatural effects it creates -- except for the soaps, of course.

As the World Turns' Martha Byrne, all lit up with the backlighting.
(CBS photo from AllExperts)

  • Soaps also use a lot of brown in their sets -- dark brown wood (or what looks like wood), brown leather, dark wallpaper, and gold accents. This is to make the places your favorite characters go look very expensive, which is supposed to mean that your favorite characters are very wealthy. Which of course they are.
  • Soaps don't have to air in the daytime to be considered soap operas. Some night-time shows have enough cliff-hangers, multiple marriages, and evil twins of their own to be called soaps. You'd be surprised at some of the candidates that make this list:
  1. Dallas, Dynasty
  2. Knots Landing
  3. St. Elsewhere
  4. Hill Street Blues
  5. Beverly Hills 90210
  6. Melrose Place
  7. E.R.
  8. The West Wing.

Gotta go -- All My Children is on right now!

Image from
Wikipedia's entry on All My Children
Merris Griffiths, "
Why are soap operas so popular?" Media and Communications Studies, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, November 15, 1995
Laborlawtalk's encyclopedia entry on
soap operas

Monday, March 28, 2005

Apple #53: Brown vs. White Eggs

Recently I've started buying organic, cage-free eggs. The eggs in these boxes are always brown, while the eggs in the regular boxes are always white. I thought I'd read someplace that the color of the shell has nothing to do with the supposed "health" benefits of the eggs, but that people only think that brown eggs are healthier. However, I've also noticed that the organic, cage-free eggs which happen to be brown have a thicker shell as well. So are the brown eggs maybe produced by healthier chickens, and are they therefore better?

  • In general, the color of an egg has nothing to do with its taste or nutritional levels.
  • The eggshell color comes from a pigment that is part of the overall genetic make-up of the hen that lays the egg. While you can't necessarily predict the color of the eggshell by the color of the feathers, there is an connection in the color of the earlobes. Hens with white earlobes lay white eggs. Hens red earlobes lay brown eggs. Who knew hens had earlobes?

The smaller white patch above the big round white patch is the earlobe.
(Photo from My Pet Chicken)

  • In general, consumers in the Northeast of the US prefer brown eggs, so most hens there are Rhode Island Reds, which produce brown eggs. Consumers in other parts of the country prefer white eggs, so most hens used elsewhere are White Leghorns, which produce white eggs.
  • Brown eggs generally are more expensive because the Rhode Island Reds are bigger birds and eat more, which means it is more expensive to maintain them.
  • Chicken eggs are not just white or brown. They can also be blue or green or speckled, depending on the breed of hen.
  • Organic eggs do not impart greater nutritional benefits, but they are produced by hens who are fed grains that have not been treated with commercial pesticides or fertilizers. The idea is that hens given organically grown feed aren't ingesting lots of man-made chemicals, which then could be passed on to you.
  • Free-range eggs are produced by hens that are not kept in cages but live on an open floor, and not necessarily outside. These eggs are produced on a seasonal basis. Again, free-range eggs do not have any immediate nutritional benefits.
  • The overall size and weight of an egg is an indicator of the health, breed, and maturity of the hen that laid it. Healthier, larger, and older hens produce larger eggs. Poor nutrition, stress, heat, and overcrowding can make hens produce smaller eggs.
  • Similarly, the thickness of the egg's shell is determined by the age of the hen and the hen's nutrition. The healthier the hen, the thicker the shell. At the same time, older hens produce larger eggs. Larger eggs have a thinner shell, just because there's more area to cover. If a larger egg has a thinner shell, that may have more to do with the age of the hen rather than its health.
  • So if the eggshell is thicker, it's not because it's a brown egg. It's most likely because the hen is healthier, or older, or living under better conditions.

Some egg tips:

  • The shell of an egg allows air to permeate it, so the chick inside can grow. The same is true of the eggs in your refrigerator. The longer you've kept the eggs, the more air will be inside them. You can check the amount of air in the egg by holding it up to the light (it won't work for brown-shelled eggs because they're too dark). A grade A egg is sold with an air pocket 3/16 of an inch deep. If an egg is very old, it will float in water while still uncracked because it has so much air in it.
  • There's a natural coating called a "bloom" over the egg, which keeps bacteria from getting in through the tiny holes in the shell. When eggs are washed -- which they all are at the packing house -- that bloom gets washed off. The packers then apply a thin coating of oil to replace the bloom. If you wash your eggs before you use them, you get rid of the oil coating and leave the egg again vulnerable to bacteria. So don't wash your eggs.
  • Generally, eggs are still good up to four weeks after they've been packed. Most egg cartons will display the packing date, as a number from 1 to 365. Most cartons also display an accurate expiration date.
  • You may find, in a rare occurrence, a blood spot on a yolk. Blood spots do not indicate fertilization. They do not happen often, but they are caused by the rupture of a blood vessel on the surface of the yolk when the egg is formed. Most eggs with blood spots are removed during inspection, but some do slip through. A blood spot will not affect the flavor or quality of the egg. In fact, it is an indicator of freshness, since the blood spot is diluted as an egg ages. You can remove the blood spot with the tip of a knife.

Ask Yahoo, "
What's the difference between white eggs and brown eggs?" May 23, 2000
Ohio State University Extension, Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick:
Brown Egg, White Egg, January 11, 2004, Knowledge:
Raley's and Bel-Air Health Notes:
Hormel Foods:
Egg shopping guide
Incredible Edible Egg:
Basic Egg Facts

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Apple #52: Giant Squid


The story goes that there are enormous squid who live in deep, deep waters. They've never been seen in their habitat, or they've been glimpsed long ago. So I'm wondering, are there really such things as giant squid, or is this some kind of urban legend gone ocean?

Answer: they exist. Below, a museum curator examines a female giant squid that washed up onshore in Tasmania, Australia in 2002.

Photo from "Giant Squid Washes Ashore in Tasmania," National Geographic News, July 26, 2002, printed in NGN with permission from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
  • People have seen them. Every once in a great while, since the 1800's, somebody spots one. People on steamer ships, on fishing boats, and on military vessels see giant things floating in the water, and when they look closer, they realize the thing in the water has a great big long head and many arms or tentacles: a great big squid. Sounds like something made up, I know, but even a regular squid looks like a made-up thing.

This photo was taken in November 2005 by Japanese researchers who saw an actual giant squid and tempted it with bait, as shown in this photo.
(Photo by Kubodera and Mori, posted at Science News for Kids)

(The photo I originally had up here was taken down, and I discovered this some months after I originally posted this entry. In looking for a replacement photo, I learned of these news giant squid developments!)

  • People have witnessed giant squid locked in combat with other things. One time people watched from a lighthouse while an enormous squid wrapped its long arms around a young whale and then tried to drag the whale under and drown it. This struggle went on for four and a half hours.
  • A Norwegian tanker was also attacked by a squid. Three times, the squid wrapped its arms around the hull. The squid never got a good grip and slid off and fell into the ship's propellers.
  • Twice, people have seen a squid floating in the water alongside their ships. One man noted that the squid was as long as his trawler, which was one hundred seventy-five feet long.
  • One man, on his 110-foot boat which was attacked by a squid, said that he looked out the porthole and saw the squid's tentacle. It was thicker than his leg.
  • Dead squid have been found in the bellies of sperm whales, which themselves are huge. More squid have washed up on beaches. One that washed up in Australia in 2002 weighed 250 kilograms and measured 60 feet long.
  • Scientists think that these giant squid can survive only in very deep water, where the temperature is cold enough to keep the oxygen levels steady in their blood. (but if this is true, how were all those squid who have been seen at the surface able to survive?)
  • The squid is carnivorous and believed to feed on some of the world's largest creatures -- whales -- though it is likely the squid also eats other ocean animals too.
  • It has a beak-like mouth strong enough to cut through steel cable. Its eyes can be as large as 18 inches across.
  • The suckers on the giant squid's tentacles are used to hang onto prey. They are estimated to measure only about 2 to 5 cm in diameter, or at their largest, about as wide as two or three of your fingers together.
  • Apparently, giant squid also have ears. After several squid washed up onshore in Spain, following several offshore seismic surveys conducted in the area, scientists reported that the dead squid had suffered numerous internal injuries and that their ears were also badly damaged. From the description in the article about the incident, it sounds like basically their ears ruptured, possibly due to suffocation.
  • It has been difficult to learn much more about them because the dead squid which have been found decompose very quickly, so that often only a partial squid actually remains.
  • It moves the way all squid do, by siphoning water through its body in a rhythmic jet. The motion of the water through the squid's body also refreshes the gills with oxygen; in other words, the way the squid moves is also the way it breathes.

Fishing for Giant Squid, Science News for Kids, November 2, 2005
Smithsonian Institution, Architeuthis Dux (classification name for giant squid)
Giant Squid Washes Up on Beach," CNN, July 22, 2002
Seismic surveys may kill squid,", September 22, 2004
Sea Base Alpha: Giant Squid
The UnMuseum,
Giant Squid

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Apple #51: Robins Redux


Since we just had our first official day of Spring the other day, I thought it might be appropriate to re-visit the

The information in this Apple comes from
Roland Wauer's book, The American Robin

  • Robins are one of the few birds that migrate both day and night. They return to the north at the beginning of Spring to start the breeding process.
  • The majority usually return to an area close to where they were born. Given that most robins live just over a year, most only do this once.
  • With a few known exceptions, robins are monogamous. That exclusivity lasts only through the nesting season, however.
  • Males select the breeding territory, but most often it is the female who is successful in defending it against other robin challengers. She is also the one who chooses the specific nesting location.
  • Robin nests have been found in all sorts of places, including the pocket of a coat left hanging on a tree, on the arm of an active oil well pump, and on a locomotive that traveled back and forth between Sioux City, Iowa and Chicago.
  • Robins have been known to attack even snakes who get too close to the nest. Brown, garter, and ribbon snakes have been killed by protective robins.
  • The female does most of the nest-building, though the male sometimes carries materials. Nests are made of grass and straw on the bottom, a layer of mud, and then softer grasses and moist mud where the eggs will rest. It usually takes about 4 to 6 days for her to build the nest.

  • The female lays usually 3 or 4 eggs, then incubates them for about 2 weeks after the last egg is laid. The male robin stays near the nest and will respond immediately if the female sounds the alarm.
  • After the babies hatch, they grow very quickly. They are fed regurgitated food only for the first four days. By the fifth day, they can eat pieces of earthworm, and soon after that, they can eat whole worms or insects.
  • During the 2 weeks a brood is in the nest, they will eat just over 3 pounds of food. By the last day in the nest, one of the young robins will eat as much as 14 feet of eartworms. To accommodate this demand, both parents are involved in feeding for up to 21 hours a day.
  • If the young birds leave the nest too soon, the parents will continue feeding them on the ground, if they can. Sometimes other species of songbirds will feed fledgling robins on the ground.
  • Once the young birds are out of the nest and moving about, they stay close to the ground at first. This is when the male takes over, showing them how to find worms while watching out for predators. After only a few days of this, the young birds can feed themselves and are fully-fledged. By this time, the second brood has been laid in the nest and is ready to hatch.

Once again, I have used my recently-purchased copy of Roland H. Wauer's The American Robin (Corrie Herring Hooks Series), University of Texas Press, 1999.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Apple #50: Tuberculosis

I'm reading one of Dostoevsky's novels, The Idiot, and one of the characters in the book is running around with tuberculosis. It struck me that a lot of novels from his day had characters with tuberculosis, which makes me think the disease must have pretty common. Which is probably the case if everybody who had it went around coughing up blood everywhere. But I'm curious: what made the disease go away, just about, and when did that happen?
  • Tuberculosis is a kind of bacteria. It can attack any part of the body, but usually it goes for the lungs.

Microscopic view of the tuberculosis bacteria.
(Photo from La Corporacion para Investigationes Biologicas in Colombia)

  • The disease is airborne, and it can be transmitted when people who are infected cough or sneeze.
  • People can be infected with a latent form of tuberculosis, which means they have no symptoms, but they can still spread the bacteria.

(1930s poster from the National Library of Medicine)

  • Tuberculosis has been active for thousands of years. Spinal column fragments of some Egyptian mummies show signs of decay associated with tuberculosis.
  • In classical Greece, they called the disease "phthisis," which translated to "consumption." Most people called the disease "consumption" in the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • Medical understanding of the disease progressed slowly. Over the course of centuries, people began to realize things about it such as that it killed nearly everyone it infected, it was highly contagious, to the point where the belongings of a person who had died from the disease should be burned, and that it seemed that "wonderfully minute living creatures" must be behind its transmission.
  • In the late 1800's, an English doctor suggested that TB could be cured. One patient he knew went to the Himalayas and was cured. So he built the first sanitorium for TB patients. This started a lot of people building and going to sanitoria and healing waters and all kinds of places, seeking a cure for TB.
  • The main benefit of the sanitoria was to separate the infected from the healthy population. Sanitoria-goers were also helped by better nutrition, rest, and a cleaner environment.
  • Also in the late 1800's, an Italian doctor discovered that collapsing a lung had a beneficial effect on the disease. This started a raft of procedures called the pneumothorax, which was a surgical method to reduce lung volume. (This procedure appears in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. It sounded so ridiculous to me, I wondered if he made it up.)
  • Finally, in 1943, an antibiotic was developed by a man named Selman Waksman. The antibiotic was first administered to a human in 1944. The disease stopped its progression, the bacteria disappeared from the patient's sputum, and the man recovered fully.
  • In years following, the antibiotic was administered widely, and more antibiotics were developed. Strains of bacteria resistant to the antibiotic soon appeared, but the use of combination therapies was effective against those strains.
  • In industrialized countries, the incidence of TB dropped steadily.
  • In developing countries, however, the story is very different. Of the 8 million people infected with TB each year, 95% of them are from countries where economic conditions are poor: Africa, parts of Asia, Latin America, and China.
  • In the mid-1980's, the incidence of TB in industrialized countries stopped declining. Since then, the rate of infection in these countries has actually increased. Reasons for the increase include
    1. immigration from countries where TB is more common
    2. HIV -- people with HIV have weak immune systems that are susceptible to infection from more diseases, including TB
    3. a decline in the active treatment and prevention of the disease, based on the assumption that it is no longer a problem
    4. strains of bacteria resistant even to multi-drug treatment. Today, most people infected with TB are given four antibiotics to take simultaneously.
  • In general, much of the research in tuberculosis seems to be focused on examining the bacteria at the genetic level, in part to understand how the bacteria functions and spreads, how and why it has developed drug resistance, and what drugs might be developed to attack the bacteria at the genetic level.
  • Currently, the key to preventing the spread of the disease is early detection and treatment. For people such as health care workers in areas of high risk, personal respirators are recommended.

Centers for Disease Control, National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention, "
Questions and Answers about TB"
New Jersey Medical School, National Tuberculosis Center,
Brief History of Tuberculosis
Goshen College, Biology 206,
History of Tuberculosis
Johns Hopkins
Center for Tuberculosis Research, University of Illinois at Chicago Institute for Tuberculosis Research, Stanford Center for Tuberculosis Research

Friday, March 18, 2005

Apple #49: Hair, Cinderblocks, and Hot Fudge

Since the last few entries have been quite long, I thought I'd do a few short ones.

  • Hair goes through three stages: it grows, detaches itself from the follicle, and rests before it falls out. This complete process can take anywhere from two to seven years.
  • The average rate of hair growth is six inches per year.
  • You lose anywhere from 100 to 300 hairs from your scalp each day.


Some Daily Apple readers asked me to find out if there is a relationship between cinders and cinderblock. Answer: yes.
  • A cinderblock is made of cement plus coal or wood cinders.
  • The cinders are a type of aggregate in the concrete. In general, aggregates can be things like sand or gravel. They help keep the concrete from breaking when you put stress on it.
  • Once upon a time, blocks were made using clinkers, or hunks of coal that wouldn't burn in the furnace. Clinker blocks were produced close to power plants, which used coal and thus turned out lots of clinkers. However, these blocks crumbled easily and were abandoned in favor of cinder blocks.
  • Cinderblock is relatively lightweight, easy to handle, you can pound nails into it, you can paint it and improve its water resistance, but above all, it's cheap. This is why you see it a lot in schools, prisons, basements, and government buildings.

Is hot fudge really fudge? Answer: the two are pretty much the same thing.
  • Hot fudge sauce is generally made from sugar + cocoa (chocolate), milk of some kind, and butter or oil. You put this all in a saucepan, heat it up, stir it until it gets all melty, and pour it over ice cream.
  • Fudge is pretty much the same ingredients. Some recipes call for eggs. Some add other stuff like marshmallows or vanilla or peanut butter. But otherwise it's the same ingredients as hot fudge. You even melt it the same way. The difference is, as soon as it melts, you next pour it into a pan right away and bake it. When it's done, refrigerate it and cut it into cubes.
This would suggest you could perhaps melt some pieces of fudge and put them over ice cream. But somehow, I don't think that would work the same way.
Sources, "
What is Normal Hair Loss?", "
Wikipedia, "
Cinder block," "Concrete," "Cement," "Aggregate," "Clinker"
US General Services Administration, Historic Preservation Technical Procedures, "
Concrete Block: Characteristics, Uses and Problems" (cached)
Various recipes for hot fudge and fudge at
My copy of Betty Crocker's New Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Cook, Macmillan, 1996.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Apple #48: Bananas

I got into a discussion today about how bananas ripen. In my experience, the peel of an unripe banana is very thick and the fruit is skinny. In a more ripe banana, especially ones that are going brown, the peel is very thin and the fruit is much thicker. Thus it was my theory that somehow, the white stuff on the inside of the peel becomes part of the banana. Whether this is true, and exactly how this happens was a mystery. So I decided to try to find out (see the comments for a reader's answer).

Along the way, I learned some other interesting things about bananas.

(Photo from Wikimedia)

  • The banana plant (not a tree) is really a type of herb. It is in the same family with orchids, lilies, and palms.
  • When the blossoms become bananas, these are called "fingers." The bananas grow in rows, or clusters, called "hands."
  • There are usually about 15-30 fingers on one hand. One banana stem can grow about 7-10 hands, or anywhere from 100 to 300 bananas.
  • Bananas are 74% water, 23% carbohydrates, 1% protein, and 0.5% fat.
  • Vinegar and wine can be made from fermented ripe bananas.
  • In Hawaii, under the most optimal conditions, banana harvests have been reported as high as 75,000 pounds per acre. In 1992, Hawaii produced 12.0 million pounds of bananas.

The Ripening Process

  • Most fruits, including bananas, ripen in essentially the same way. The key to ripening is the release of a gas called ethylene.
  • Ethylene is released when something traumatic happens to the fruit -- like when it's picked, or the skin is pierced, or when a fungus or bacteria attacks it.
  • When the ethylene is released, this "turns on" a bunch of enzymes in the fruit. These enzymes do all kinds of things, including helping to change starch into sugar.
  • All kinds of stuff happens, actually, once the enzymes go to work. Chlorophyll gets broken down. Sometimes new pigments are released so that the fruit changes color. Acids are broken down so that the flavor changes from sour to neutral. Pectin is broken down, which "unglues" the cells, making the fruit softer (when too much pectin breaks down, the fruit becomes pithy).

Bananas through the stages of ripening
(Photo from A Piece of Heaven)

Back to the Bananas

  • Bananas are picked green. They're shipped in their unripe condition in refrigerated trucks. Refrigeration stops the ripening process. This means the bananas won't go bad before they get to the store, and they'll resist bruising during the journey.
  • Once the bananas reach the distributor, they're put into a warehouse and gassed with ethylene. The refrigeration stops the ripening process, but this external ethylene tells the enzymes in the bananas to go ahead and do their thing.
  • Once you have the bananas home, you can also keep them longer by putting them in the refrigerator. The peel will darken, but the ripening process will be slowed.
  • If you want bananas to ripen faster, but them in a brown paper bag. This keeps the ethylene they produce right next to the bananas and accelerates all that enzyme activity.
  • Bananas produce enough ethylene on their own, you can use them to ripen other fruits. If you put a banana in a paper bag and add to it, say, an unripe pear, the ethylene that the banana releases will also tell the pear to get to ripening.

Ethylene and Other Fruits and Flowers
  • Because of ethylene, that old phrase about one bad apple spoiling the whole barrel is actually kind of true. One apple that is wormy or has got some kind of fungus on it is producing ethylene like mad. Hence, the rest of the apples in the barrel will ripen like crazy, too. Apples are one of the highest producers of ethylene of all fruits.
  • Oh, and you might want to keep your bananas and apples away from cut flowers. Cut flowers are very sensitive to ethylene, which is known as both the ripening hormone and the death hormone.

So actually, the peel does not become part of the banana, which was my original theory. I didn't find anything that discussed the effect of ripening on the peel, but I'm going to assume, based on the other things I found, that the fruit gets bigger because of everything the enzymes are doing to it, and the peel might get thinner for the same reason. I think it's safe to say that the peel does not turn into fruit. (see the comments to this entry for one reader's answer to this question.)

How Bananas Grow and How Bananas Ripen
University of Hawaii at Manoa, Knowledge Master database,
General Crop Information on Bananas
Eastern Connecticut State University, Plants and Human Affairs course,
Fruit Ripening
Catalytic Generators LLC,
Ethylene FAQs,
Ethylene Gas

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Apple #47: Covered Bridges


Recently, I went for a drive through the countryside and passed a covered bridge. I don't think I'd ever seen one of those in real life before. It looked kind of strange, like a long gray house with an empty, open road stretching out from either side of it. It made me think, "Why the heck did people put a roof over a bridge, anyway?"

Apparently, since covered bridges are not built any more, lots of people aren't sure why they were covered in the first place. But many reasons have been offered as possibilities:

  • To shelter travelers during storms (but if that were true, why not build a roof over the whole road?)
  • To provide refuge from Native Americans on the attack (ditto, and also unsettling, since people find covered bridges so quaint today)
  • To hide the sight of water from teams of oxen who would otherwise balk at going over it (were oxen used in all parts of the US where covered bridges were built?)
  • To level off the farmers' hayloads as they passed through (sounds too cute to be true)
  • To provide additional support to the truss structure (this sounds more plausible, though my rudimentary knowlege of bridge construction makes me skeptical that these bridges would need a full-fledged roof to hold them up)
  • To protect the wood decking of the bridge, which would otherwise rot from too much sun and rain exposure. It was easier to build a new roof than it was to build a new bridge. This explanation I believe.

With the advent of steel and iron at the turn of the 20th century, people stopped using wood for bridges, and the covered bridge became obsolete.

States where you can still see covered bridges:

  • Maine
  • New Hampshire
  • Vermont
  • Connecticut
  • New York
  • Massachusetts
  • Virginia
  • Georgia
  • Alabama
  • Tennessee
  • Pennsylvania
  • Ohio
  • Michigan
  • Indiana
  • Illinois
  • Wisconsin
  • Iowa
  • Oregon
  • California
  • Nova Scotia, Canada

If anybody's an engineer and knows something about bridges and can shed additional light on this subject, please ring in. For your convenience, I'm going to open up the comments so that anyone can post one -- having your own blog is no longer necessary.

Ozaukee County, Wisconsin
History of the Covered Bridge (photo source, too)
Covered Bridges in Oregon (includes a very helpful explanation of various types of trusses. And this useful, authoritative page was made by two Oregon high schoolers. Go Springfield!)
Vermont's Covered Bridges
National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges

Friday, March 11, 2005

Apple #46: Soap


So I was about to wash the dishes, and I thought, "How does soap work, anyway?" I have a dim idea that it somehow traps dirt so that you can then rinse it away, but is this idea correct, and how does the trapping part happen? And does it really get rid of the dirt, or am I just falling prey to some stupid, enormous ad campaign? And is dish soap that much different from hand soap, and shampoo, and laundry detergent, and all the rest?

  • Soap works essentially by combining things with opposite natures. All soap is made of an acid plus a base. The acid is a fat, which is often a combination of a fatty acid and a triglyceride. The base is sodium hydroxide. When you mix the acid and the base together, the fat part splits, separating the fatty acids from the triglycerides. The fatty acids then combine with the hydroxides. All this, by the way, makes a kind of salt. Yes, soap is really a salt.
  • The process of cleaning is easiest to understand if you think of soap molecules as having a head and a tail. The head part of the soap is the triglycerides, which attract and hold onto water. The tail part of the soap is the fatty acids, which don't like water. Dirt and grime don't like water either.
  • When you run soap under water, the head of each soap molecule attracts and clings to water. When you rub the wet soap over dirt, the dirt will cling to the fatty acids because they're both in agreement that they don't like water. So now the tail and the dirt are clinging to each other, but at the same time, the head of the molecule is holding onto water.
  • When you pour more water over the whole thing, the head of the molecule with the water on it goes right along with the other water, and even though the tail and the dirt would otherwise not budge, it's too late for them, they are connected to the head of the molecule, and they are carried off with it.

Antibacterial soaps

  • The same process applies to bacteria. That is, regular old soap will also snag and carry off bacteria in the same way.
  • Antibacterial soaps, which are supposed to be that much better, really aren't. They do have an extra agent in them that is designed to kill bacteria. However, you have to wash your hands for at least two minutes for these agents to work, and most people don't want to spend two minutes scrubbing their hands.
  • You also don't want to kill every single type of bacteria on your hands. Some bacteria can be helpful. And bacteria can develop a resistance to antibacterials, which means that new strains of the bacteria could no longer be killed by the antibacerials. So if you do manage to kill the bacteria in the first place, you might actually be causing more problems.
  • Also, some of the germy things on your hands are viruses, not bacteria. Antibacterial agents will not kill viruses.
  • The upshot is, washing your hands thoroughly with regular soap will accomplish the same level of benefit, without the possibility of creating uber-bacteria.

Other soaps

  • Soaps can be calibrated, so to speak, depending on how you'll use it. Soaps that will be used on your body are made to be milder than those that will clean things that are not on your body. And if you're not going to touch it at all, soap can be made as harsh as it needs to be, to get the job done.
  • So, yes, you will get better results if you use dish soap on dishes and shampoo on your hair. If you use shampoo on your dishes, for example, your dishes might not get so clean.

Improved soap

  • The fatty acids in soaps can cause problems. Some of them don't link up to the molecule chain, and because they don't like water, it can be hard to rinse them away. When the fatty acids won't rinse away, you get soap scum. This is what gives you a ring in your bathtub, a film that dulls your hair, or a gradual graying of your clothes. If you have hard water, which contains extra minerals, the fatty acids will cling to those to form more salts, which basically means the soap scum is even worse.
  • So it's essentially soap scum that's led chemists to experiment with all kinds of synthetic building blocks for soap to work as effectively as possible, depending on what type of surface you're trying to clean, what kind of dirt you're trying to get rid of, and what's already in your water.
  • Another reason chemists have added synthetic items is to give soap some extra benefits, many of which we take for granted but which are really not things that soap will do. If your soap does any of the following things, it's because somebody's added an extra something, which means it is technically no longer soap but a synthetic detergent, and which also means that the manufacturer has to list the ingredients on the package:
    • deodorizes
    • moisturizes
    • is an antiperspirant
    • fights acne
    • cures dandruff
    • gives a clean, fresh scent
    • makes you more attractive

Oh, and by the way, before all this experimenting started, soap used to be made from animal fats and wood ashes.

And yes, my dishes are still waiting for me to wash them. Although the dirt, which hates water, is very glad I have not yet washed them...

Howstuffworks, "
Is antibacterial soap any better than regular soap?"
Poison Ivy, Oak, & Sumac Information Center,
How soaps work,
How Does Soap Clean?
US Food and Drug Administration, Office of Cosmetics and Colors Fact Sheet, "
Soap," February 3, 1995

Monday, March 7, 2005

Apple #45: Venus de Milo


I saw the Venus de Milo once, when I was in Paris several years ago. I went to the Louvre, which is massive, got a map, and went looking. Following the map, I turned left at Winged Victory like I was supposed to, but every time I thought I was about to find her, I wound up in the stupid decorative porcelains room. Finally, I ran out of time and had to leave the museum. So I went back the next day and looked some more. When I finally found her, it was like the angelic music played and a light shone on her. I sat on the carpeted bench that surrounded the dias where she stood and just sat there, for a good ten minutes. I'm sitting here with the Venus de Milo, I told myself. That's the Venus de Milo right behind me.

And she really was that beautiful. There's such grace and movement in her pose, and a kind of cockiness too. She's not a woman who just stands there and looks pretty. She's got a force in her, no denying it.

(Photo from UTexas' syllabus on Aphrodite)

  • Venus de Milo is the Romanized version of her name; she is more accurately called Aphrodite of Melos, after the Greek island where she was found.
  • Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love and beauty. It's pretty bold to say, Yes, I can carve a statue that is the epitome of beauty.
  • People say the way the cloth is draped about her hips represents that kind of bravado, in that it is intricately carved, yet manages to convey a sensuousness at the same time. The drapery also cleverly hides the seam where the statue, carved in two sections, joins together.
  • It is not certain who sculpted the statue, but people are now pretty sure it was probably Alexandros of Antioch, son of Menides, who was also a singer and composer.
  • (Alexandros was also the name of Paris, the guy who essentially started the Trojan War, when he picked Aphrodite in a goddess beauty contest because she promised him the most beautiful woman in the world.)
  • The statue was sculpted around 150 BC, in an era known as the Hellenistic period.
  • She was found by a Greek peasant on an island in the Aegean sea, called Melos (hence, the name), in 1820.
  • At the time, the Turks were in charge of Greece, so they took the statue from the peasant.
  • The French then purchased her from the Turks for 1,000 francs, or roughly the cost of a sizable herd of goats. This purchase was part of France's campaign to acquire excellent pieces of classical art and thus compete with England and Italy.
  • As it turned out, the statue was not of the classical but Hellenistic period, which meant to the French at that time that it was not as good. So they went to lots of trouble to try to obscure some of the facts about its history, and in so doing, created lots of publicity for the statue. This was the beginning of the Venus de Milo's rise to its current level of fame.
  • The statue was presented to King Louis XVIII, who was so fat he was carted around in a wheelchair. French sculptors tried to provide arms for the statue, depicting her holding all kinds of things, from apples to lamps, and pointing in various directions. The king declared that she should be left armless, that her beauty should not be marred by the additions of any other sculptor. This was unheard of at the time, that a broken statue should be left as it had been found.
  • She is now the second-most famous work of art in the world, behind the Mona Lisa.
  • The number of websites selling reproductions of this statue is staggering. It's hard to find even a picture of the real thing.

Loggia's art history section,
Aphrodite of Melos
Wikipedia's page on the
Venus de Milo
The Louvre's page on the
Venus de Milo, translated from the French
Base Deception," Smithsonian Magazine, October 2003
Photo from
the Louvre

Friday, March 4, 2005

Apple #44: Carole King

I heard "It's Too Late" on the radio today, which, for those of you who don't know it, is a song written by Carole King, from her very popular 1971 album Tapestry. As I listened to the song -- very sing-alongable -- I wondered what happened to her. Tapestry was huge, but I couldn't think of anything I knew about her after that.

It turns out, essentially, her third husband died of an overdose and she moved to Idaho. She's still making albums, but none have hit the same level of popularity.
  • She had her own band in high school, in Brooklyn where she grew up, but she turned to songwriting early in her career.
  • She went to Queens College and there met Paul Simon, Neil Sedaka, and the man she went on to marry and write tons of songs with, Gerry Goffin.
  • She worked in something of a hothouse environment in New York, churning out songs with Goffin and others. Together, these are some of the hits she wrote or co-wrote:
      • "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" performed by the Shirelles
      • "The Locomotion" performed by Little Eva
      • "One Fine Day" performed by The Chiffons
      • "Pleasant Valley Sunday" by The Monkees
      • "Up On the Roof" by The Drifters
      • "(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman" by Aretha Franklin
  • In the 1960's, she tried a couple of albums and a couple of singles on her own, but didn't have much success. She founded a record label, but that didn't last long, either. She divorced Goffin, married the bassist from one of the bands on her record label, and moved out to the West Coast.
  • She formed a trio, which recorded an album, but they didn't tour because of her stage fright. One of the songs from this album was "You've Got a Friend," which James Taylor later covered and turned into a huge hit.
  • She became friends with James Taylor, and he encouraged her to try a solo career again. She released an album called Writer in 1970, which tanked, but the following year, she released Tapestry. That album stayed on the charts for six years and millions of copies were sold. This was before blockbuster albums even existed in the music business.
  • After that, she wrote a few songs with her first husband, with some help from Taylor, David Crosby, and Graham Nash. The album Pearls, released in 1980, is a collection of those songs.
  • In the late 70's and early 80's, she went on tour with a backing band, and at some point she must have gotten another divorce, because she married a third time, to another songwriting partner, named Rick Evers. Unfortunately, a year after they married, Evers died of a heroin overdose.
  • After this, she moved to Idaho, got involved in protecting her property against strip mining, and took a six-year break from writing songs.
  • She released two other albums, one which featured Slash from Guns 'n' Roses, and in 1994, she appeared on Broadway in a drama called Blood Brothers. She has released three other albums since then.
  • She also wrote and performs the opening song to Gilmore Girls ("Where You Lead"), and she has even appeared on the show a couple of times, as music store owner Sophie. Here are some photos of Carole King on the set.

Carole King website biography and discography
Bob's Page of Carole King
Gilmore Girls Episode Guide

Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Apple #43: Robins


I just got a little book about robins.

The American Robin
by Roland H. Wauer

I am very excited to learn some things about these birds and to share what I learn with you. Robins are so common, but I love to hear their good-night songs at the end of the day, in the summer time. I also like that they have orange bellies.

Just glancing through this book, I'm seeing so many great facts in here, I'm going to have a hard time choosing only a few. But I'll try to hold myself back to a reasonable amount.
  • The robin is a kind of thrush, a type of songbird. Other thrushes include bluebirds and nightingales.
  • While the average life span of a robin is 1 year and 2 months, at least one robin is known to have lived for 17 years.
  • Robins fly at speeds of 17 to 32 miles per hour.
  • A single robin has about 2,900 feathers on its body.
  • An average brood of baby robins gets 356 feedings each day.
  • People think that only the male sings, but in fact both sexes sing. They sing most frequently just before their young hatch.
  • While most birds sing as a way to mark territory or attract a mate, naturalists have not been able to attribute any similar kinds of reasons for the robin to sing. Robins do call to each other to warn of danger, but calling is different from singing. They sing at first light, and they sing in the evening. They sing just before rain.

  • Like dogs, birds do not sweat. They release excess heat by panting.
  • Robins, like many other types of birds, perform what is called "anting." They pick up ants, crush them, and rub the ant's body fluid on their feathers. Some speculate that the ant fluid (formic acid) provides some kind of natural pesticide, but nobody is really sure why they do this.
  • When a robin tilts its head close to the ground and appears to be listening for worms, it is actually looking very carefully at the soil, for earthworm burrows.
  • Animals, including worms and all sorts of bugs, make up slightly less than half of what a robin eats in a given year. Plants, especially berries, make up the rest.
  • Because robins eat worms, any place with broken soil and short grass makes a good home for robins. So as humans have settled more areas and made more farms and lawns, robins have expanded their territory also.
  • In the winter, robins cluster together and go to states where they can find berries. During this time of year, they tend to prefer wildlands rather than residential areas, perhaps because the berries they seek are more plentiful in the wild.
  • Robins are sometimes called the "wandering thrush" because they do not return to the same place to winter each year, but choose new spots all the time.
  • The term "robin snow" refers to a light snow after the robin has returned from its winter migration.
Okay, I need to stop myself. There is much, much more in this book, but I've put enough up here for one Apple. Maybe I'll have a Robins, Part II! Let me know what you think. If you're anywhere near as interested as I am, I'll add another Robins entry. If you'd rather move on to another subject, post a comment and let me know.

Source: Roland H. Wauer, The American Robin (Corrie Herring Hooks Series), University of Texas Press, 1999.
Photo from Michael H. Myers' photos of robins