Monday, October 31, 2011

Apple #556: Bored at Work

For many years now, I've used Sitemeter to keep details of the traffic that comes to me site. to their data, I am well aware that a lot of people are looking at the Daily Apple during the work day. That suits me fine; in fact, it warms the cockles of my heart. This is because my original goal in creating this blog was to give people who are stressed out or overburdened or otherwise taxed by their jobs a place to go to read about everyday, relatively unstressful things. Learn something new for a bit, then go on back to work. So it seemed that I must be fulfilling that goal.

Is this how you feel before you go surfing around and wind up at the Daily Apple?
(Photo from Your Balance)

But recently it occurred to me, maybe people are stopping by here not because they're stressed out, but because they're bored. Looking for something, anything to break up the monotony. So why not make an entry for the bored, as well as for the stressed out? (As it turns out, boredom can be a version of stress. But more on that shortly.)

Of course, since I'm all about finding answers to questions, I thought I'd take up several questions on behalf of those who are bored at work: are other people bored in their jobs too, what's causing your boredom and what can you do about it, and why should your boss care if you're bored?

(Photo from Label Girl Hype)

Boredom Defined
  • Believe it or not, researchers have had trouble defining workplace boredom. One good definition is "a transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in the current activity."
  • It's transient because if you do something else, you don't feel bored anymore. But as long as you're doing the current activity, you feel a pervasive lack of interest.

Traditionally when studying boredom, researchers focused on people working blue collar jobs. But now they recognize that office and white collar jobs can be just as unstimulating.
(Photo by Renault, from Treehugger)

Signs You're Bored at Work
  • You're tired all the time. You yawn about every 20 minutes, it seems.
  • You check the clock frequently. It seems to have hardly moved.
  • You try to focus on the task at hand, but you're uninterested and easily and willingly distracted. Tasks may take you twice as long as you know they should because you allow other things to pull you away.
  • The metaphorical needle that registers your intellectual or emotional involvement lifts only a fraction above zero all day long.
  • You find yourself doing pointless, non-job-related things at work, like looking at videos of kittens on skateboards, or playing Angry Birds, or shooting paperclips at the ceiling tile. For hours.

Is this sort of activity how you spend your time at work? Do you fantasize about the whole place crumbling down like this?
(Screen shot from Capsule Computers)

  • You imagine what you would be doing if you were at home or out with a friend or someplace else, anyplace else. The daydreams get longer and more involved as time goes on.
  • You show up later and later and you leave earlier and earlier.
  • You feel yourself "coming down with something" about once a week.
  • You find yourself looking at job ads while you're at work.
  • You check the clock again.

Another way to fill those dead zone hours.
(Photo from the Guardian)

Lots of People are Bored at Work

  • 1/3 of Britons said they were bored at work for most of the day.
  • 55% of US employees said they were "not engaged" by their work.
  • 61% of college graduates who have since taken jobs say they are regularly bored at work.
  • Boredom has been found to be the second most commonly suppressed emotion at work (I wonder what the first is).
  • Professions who report the highest rates of boredom include:
  1. Administrative/Secretarial: boredom gets a 10/10
  2. Manufacturing: 8.1/10
  3. Sales: 7.8/10
  4. Marketing: 7.7/10
  5. IT/telecommunications: 7.5/10
  6. Scientific research: 7.3/10
  7. Media: 7.1/10

People who do very technical but repetitive work, such as research lab assistants, also report high levels of boredom.
(Photo from Reuters)

  • Based on those results, it looks to me like just about every job has the potential to be boring.
  • Except maybe for teaching. Teachers gave their jobs a 4.0/10 on the boredom scale.
  • 28% of graduate TAs, however, said they were bored in their jobs. Apparently, they require something other than, or in addition to, teaching to keep them engaged.

In spite of all the brightly colored decorations and stars which are probably meant to be motivational, these people look thoroughly unenthused in their cubicle land.
(Photo from Focus)

  • Even a job you might think of as challenging could become boring. One of George W. Bush's senior advisers admitted to ducking out to the movies out of boredom. One day while out and about he ran into an official from another department. I'm not sure if the other guy was headed to the movies too, but it was an encounter they both found awkward.

Why You're Bored

"Workplaces today are increasingly automated, with faceless technology being the interface through which many tasks are completed. Many jobs in the past that involved skill use, decision-making and contact with people can now be achieved with the press of a few (boring) buttons." -- Sandi Mann

  • Job is not challenging enough. This is probably the number one cause of boredom regardless of profession. You may have a lot of stuff to do, but if none of those tasks use your intellect to the extent that you possess it, you can get mighty bored pretty quick.
  • Having work that is unchallenging can be just as stressful as having too much work or having too many expectations placed on you. With monotonous work or work that's too easy, you can wind up just as burned out, disengaged, unmotivated, exhausted, and depressed as if you had too much to do.
  • Job does not fully utilize your skills or knowledge. This is a more specialized version of the same thing. If you've been trained at some point in a certain skill -- and that skill could be anything, mouth to mouth resuscitation, gas metal arc welding, speaking and reading Portuguese -- if that skill is important to you, and your job allows it to lie fallow, you can begin to feel bored. Even if the job requires you to use several other skills that you have, the fact that that one particular skill is going unused can be bothersome. It's like having two arms but only using one. Sure, you're using one arm, but that other arm is perfectly good. Soon enough, you'll feel those muscles beginning to atrophy, and dissatisfaction and unease will set in soon enough.
  • Job is full of repetitive and uninteresting routines. Lots of manufacturing jobs fit this description, but white-collar jobs can be mindlessly repetitive too. Filling out the same forms over and over, answering the phone the exact same way every two minutes and telling people the same thing again and again, creating the same spreadsheets with slightly different numbers--all of that can get pretty old pretty fast. Jobs that require watching for infrequent events (life guarding, patrolling, workplace inspection) also fall into this category.

Even the dog hates paperwork.
(Photo by Chris Scott, from the Cheerful Monk)

  • Not enough to do. Not having enough to do can actually be more dissatisfying than having too much to do. This runs a close second on the boredom/stress scale behind not being challenged enough. 800,000 employees surveyed rated jobs that offered "too little work" lower than jobs with "too much work."
  • People notice the lack of work especially after they've had bursts of time where they had a lot to do or even too much to do. They get used to operating at a higher level of productivity, and having to drop back to extremely low levels of engagement can be all the more frustrating afterward.
  • Too many constraints. The job has so many rules, requirements, and restrictions, it's hard to get anything accomplished. Or it's too physically restrictive; you can't leave your station to walk around, or you're not allowed to talk to the people nearby. Your employer feels so much like a third world dictatorship, you're not only bored out of your mind, you're contemplating storming the walls with catapults and battering rams.
  • The confinement may be intellectual rather than physical. A lack of opportunities to learn new things, and no provisions for training or for opportunities to interact with and learn from other professionals in the industry keep you from being challenged afresh. You have probably gotten very efficient at performing your job, but you're operating at that same level and you have done so perhaps for years on end. Stagnation, boredom, a feeling of mental atrophy have taken hold.

A screenshot from The Office was inevitable.
(Photo from Rookie Pastor)

  • Too many meetings. This is a specific form of constraint which keeps people from actually accomplishing anything. 82% of white collar workers report spending nearly 1/3 of their work week in meetings of one kind or another. Keep people in a room talking about how they're going to do something and talking about how they're talking and eventually someone's either going to fall asleep or run out of there screaming.
  • Job lacks meaning. The big-picture nature of one's job or industry may not match up with your values. Say you are passionate about the rights of children, but for your job, you design cereal boxes. Making sure cereal is packaged safely and so that the cereal lasts a long time and tastes good may be beneficial to children who eat cereal. But in a bigger picture way, over time, you may begin to feel the gap between what you really care about and how you're spending your workday. Though you may be very good at designing cereal boxes and though it may pose consistently new challenges to you, the fact that you don't really care all that much about cereal boxes may lead you to disengage from the work and become bored.
  • Job is too difficult. This one is less common, but it does happen, perhaps most often among students (by the way, all of these factors can apply in the classroom as well as on the job). When students took classes that were above their comprehension levels, they had difficulty grasping the material, so very soon they had difficulty paying attention and quickly became bored.

(Demotivational poster from MotiFake)

What to Do About It

"Boredom . . . is an alerting phenomenon that all is not well and something must be done."

This is a bit of a stressful, depressing topic, isn't it? Well, hopefully these possible solutions will bring some hope to the picture.

Short term solutions
  • Intersperse activities. Instead of doing one mindless task that takes hours until you're done, try breaking it up into smaller pieces and inserting another task in between. The inserted tasks may be just as mindless, but simply bringing some variety to the picture can help. Or you may find that the interspersing activity needs to be something more lively, like talking with a colleague, or walking to the vending machine for a coffee.
  • Take breaks. Get up from your desk and walk around. Go to the water cooler and get yourself a big cup of cool water. Go outside, breathe in some fresh air. Walk around the block. My friend Angelica, who is admittedly a bit nutty, does five quick push-ups in her cubicle to wake herself up.
  • Clean up your work area. Putting away the accumulated paperwork, cleaning off your desk, organizing files, sweeping the floor where you stand every day -- these are small things that first of all burn up some of your extra time. But a clean, newly organized work environment also contributes to a sense of being refreshed. Cleaner, more organized surroundings may wake you up a bit. Maybe you'll see things in a new light, and you'll see more possibilities within your work.

(Photo from

  • Give yourself challenges. If you're supposed to enter the data for 199 reply cards an hour and you've mastered that, challenge yourself to complete 225 reply cards an hour. Perform the list of your daily tasks in alphabetical order. See if you can complete two versions of that insurance form, one in English to be filed and one in French for yourself.
  • A caution about this tip: it's possible you'll get so focused on your own self-imposed challenges that you'll lose sight of the more immediate and important goal of completing the work accurately. You want to be careful not to make your self-imposed challenges too difficult or diversionary. And since your self-imposed challenges are probably pretty meaningless, you may get bored with those soon, too. But they'll spark your brain for a little while at least.
  • Design your own rewards. Decide that if you finish filing that mountain of paperwork, you'll take yourself out to lunch. Every fifth call you field, you get to put a gold star on your desk calendar. The trick here is to choose rewards that don't wind up bankrupting you, and you'll want to alter them periodically so that even the rewards don't get old.

Here's one alternative to giving yourself gold stars.
(Photo from Xinjo)

  • Other people. Go talk to the person in the next cubicle. Form a friendship with the guy down the hall or the woman on the next floor. Socializing with someone for a little while can re-energize you and wake you up so you can go back and focus on that repetitive task again.
  • That said, in some workplaces, you may find the people around you to be boring. The things they're interested in may be things you find absolutely stultifying. If that's the case, then your boring co-workers can actually contribute to your boredom and stress.
  • Other work. If it won't get you in trouble, bring something from home to do. Read a book, write a letter to a friend, read the actual newspaper, write down the details of that invention you've been meaning to patent. Just be careful not to use company equipment to do your personal work. The advisability of this may also depend on the temperament of your boss. She may blow her stack at the sight of you knitting at your desk. Or he may be perfectly fine with you doing crossword after crossword while you wait for the phone to ring.

Find your Hobbes. Or draw him.
(Drawing by Xris at Buzznet)

Long term solutions
  • Ask for more work. As we've seen, simply increasing the workload may not be enough, especially if you're not feeling challenged by what you're already doing. But if you're underutilized and you have too much time on your hands, having more to do will help somewhat.
  • Ask your co-workers if they need help. Something they do might be slightly different than what you do, and having something different to do could perk up your interest. You'll want to be careful about how you approach people and whom you approach. Some workplaces get extremely territorial and offers to help could be regarded as efforts to steal someone else's turf. But if you phrase it so that it doesn't seem like you're taking their stuff away but rather helping them to look better in the long run, you might have better results.
  • Ask your boss for more responsibilities. Lots of people suggest phrasing this delicately. They say it's not a good idea to go to your boss and say, "I'm bored," because people have been known to get fired after saying that. It's better to come across as being proactive, solving a problem, and being willing to take on more work. Instead of going to your boss with a complaint, phrase it as an offer. Try something along the lines of, "I've found a way to be more efficient about filling in the boxes on those forms so I'm available to take on more work." Offer to take on something specific -- and new to you. For example, "I noticed that the mail room is a mess. It looks like it hasn't been cleaned in about a decade. Do you mind if I cleaned it up and possibly re-organized it too?" Or you could go Erin Brockovich and take on that weird, annoying thing that everyone has been ignoring and pushing being the filing cabinet, and it may just turn out to be something really interesting and challenging.
  • Ask your boss for more training. Learning something new, being challenged in a new way, and finding new approaches to performing old tasks can help wake up the work day. As a plus to your employer, you may learn how to be more productive, or more creative, or how to expand your products or services, and ultimately earn the company more money.
  • Seek opportunities outside of work. This isn't looking for a job elsewhere -- yet. These opportunities could be taking classes unrelated to your job, perhaps learning a new hobby or a craft or a skill. Or it could be volunteering, or joining a club, or planning an event like a block party or a reunion.

These people are volunteering to help keep their riverbanks clean and healthy. The work they're doing is probably labor-intensive and menial, but they're smiling because the work means something important to them.
(Photo from River Guardians)

Why Employers Should Care

If you're a boss and an employee comes to you asking for more work, or for work that challenges or stimulates them in new ways, believe them. It took some nerve for them to approach you with this, and they've probably already tried to live with things they way they are for quite some time. They're telling you they need more from the job, and they mean it. Just because you feel busy doesn't mean they do.

So give them what they're asking for. There are about a thousand reasons why you should.

Boredom can quickly lead to any or all of these negative consequences:
  • Poor performance
  • Increased errors
  • Accidents
  • Absenteeism
  • Stress-related illnesses
  • Increased thrill-seeking (which can lead to injuries)
  • Property damage

Here, Level of Pressure can be read as Workload. Note that the section where there is little to do and which is characterized by boredom has the lowest level of performance on the entire graph. The sweet spot of productivity is a workload that keeps you about 10% to 20% below fully occupied.
(Graph from Right Corecare)

  • Boredom "casts a pall on the whole organization and creates a demoralized de-energized atmosphere. Furthermore, it blocks creativity, which will undercut a company's ability to stay abreast of the marketplace competition," says one expert.
  • Says another, "Boredom can build like a critical mass that hurts the company's performance and market position."
  • All of these negative consequences translate directly to the bottom line. Whether it's in terms of lost revenue, decreased productivity, the cost to fix mistakes, increased insurance costs, even worker's compensation payments or liability lawsuits, as an employer, you're going to be shelling out money in one way or another if your employees are bored.
  • Eventually, you'll lose your employees altogether. 45% of hiring experts agreed that firms lost top workers because they were bored (1998).
  • 24% of office employees surveyed said the reason they looked for jobs elsewhere was because of boredom.
  • Half of employees who say they're bored consider changing not just their jobs but their professions.

Which Leads Me Back to You, the Bored Employee
  • If you've tried all the ways to wring more out of your job and that's still not doing the trick, it's probably time to find a new job.
  • That's easier said than done these days, but if nothing else, the job search will give you something challenging to do.
  • You might want to look for a job whose work is meaningful to you. The people who report being the happiest in their jobs are those who in some way serve others.

Physical therapists, clergy, firefighters, teachers, psychologists, and authors are among those who say they are happiest in their jobs.
(Photo from Building Best Body)

"The cure for boredom is curiosity." --Dorothy Parker

(Photo from Christa in New York)

Get curious and try new things! Who knows what possibilities will open up for you?

Douglas LaBier, Feeling Bored at Work? Three Reasons Why, and What Can Free You,
Psychology Today, May 3, 2010
Cynthia D. Fisher, Boredom at work: a neglected concept, Bond University ePublications, December 1, 1991
Dr. Sandi Mann, Boredom in the Workplace, Presentation for the Association of Business Psychologists, May 7, 2009 (PowerPoint slides)
Kate Hilpern, Chairmen of the Bored,
The Guardian, June 28, 2008
Sirota Survey Intelligence, Bored Employees Are More Disgruntled Than Overworked Ones, Research Finds
Career Rookie, Combating Entry-Level Boredom
Zen Habits, 30 Things to Do to Keep From Getting Bored Out of Your Skull at Work
Deborah S. Hildebrand, Career Advice, How to Overcome Boredom at Work, Preventing Burnout

Happy Halloween

Woof or treat!

Have a barking good time!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Apple #555: Ghosts, Goblins, and Ghouls

Halloween is coming soon, so I thought you'd all want to brush up on the specifics of a few entities you might encounter as you're doing your Halloween thing this weekend. Just a quick introduction for each.


Photo taken in 1936 supposedly of the ghost known as the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • Ghosts are the disembodied soul of a dead person, usually appearing as a pale or transparent form.
  • Originally the word simply meant soul or spirit. It wasn't necessarily good or evil.
  • Then the word came to be associated with various Germanic and Norse words that mean "to frighten" or "to be amazed." The phrase "to be aghast" means that you are shocked or frightened -- similar to being frightened by a ghost.
  • Generally, ghosts may simply be the spirit of a dead person and not necessarily malevolent. Or a ghost may be a spirit that has turned evil, or someone's evil spirit double.
  • Ghosts may not necessarily be the spirit of a person but could be spirits of dead animals, or more rarely, spirits of trees or other objects.
  • Candles and torches near graves or during funeral rites were initially intended to help guide the departing soul away and on into its next life. Candles etc. were also supposed to keep the evil spirits away from the dead body and from reanimating it.
  • A poltergeist, by the way, is a noisy ghost: poltern (make noise or rattle) + geist (ghost).
  • Some famous ghosts include the ghost of Hamlet's father, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and the ghost of Jacob Marley.

Hamlet sees his father's ghost.
(Image from USF clipart)

When Jacob Marley freaks out and starts yelling and shaking his boxes and chains at Scrooge, whoof, he's scary.
(Photo from Stuff from 311)

I loved this book when I was a kid. This is about a family of ghosts who move into a suburb to haunt it. The little children ghosts are thrilled to discover trick-or-treating, but they eat so much candy, they become tangible and turn into marshmallow.
(The Marshmallow Ghosts is out of print, but some people are selling used copies on Amazon)


Goblins in the woods
(Image from Seligor's Castle)

  • Some people say goblins came from France in the 12th century, others say England. Still others say goblins hail from Germany, from kobold, the demon of mines, or from the Greek kobalos, the mischievous spirit.
  • Regardless of where they first came from, they have no home now, so they haunt other people's homes and old trees and the clefts of mossy rocks.
  • They're ugly little malevolent things.
  • Sort of like poltergeists, they like to mess up stuff. Their laughter sours milk or turns the fruit rotten and makes it fall off the trees. They'll turn direction signs around or blow out candles or hide little objects, all to confuse people.
  • They generally run around outside and wreak minor havoc.
  • Very different from how they appear in Harry Potter, by the way, where the goblins are in charge of Gringotts Bank, and even moreso from the movie versions where they're depicted according to stereotypes so anti-Semitic they made me wince.

Hobgoblin Detour
  • One of my favorite sayings is "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance)
  • But hobgoblins are different than goblins. They're more elf-like where goblins are more gnome-like.
  • Hob means "elf." It's a variant on the name Rob, which is short for Robin Goodfellow, who was a miscreant elf in German folklore.
  • They can be annoying and harassing, or downright terrifying.
  • Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream is perhaps the most well-known hobgoblin. He's more mischievous than mean, though.

Puck, hobgoblin and trickster sprite.
(Image from Seismic Twitch)

  • The word comes from the Arabic ghul and it means an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses. The word comes from an Arabic verb meaning "to seize."
  • They're very similar to zombies, though not quite the same. Zombies are dead people reanimated to eat live people. Ghouls are spirits who eat dead people. Technically, ghouls would eat zombies. But I suspect the two would get along at a dance party.
  • Ghouls live in graveyards or deserts. They may take the form of a hyena.
  • Ghouls can also be people who are grave robbers, or it can be a more metaphorical insult for those who delight in the macabre so much, they are ghoulish.

Yikes. Ghouls are pretty scary.
(Image from Hypnogoria)

This is kind of funny and also historically accurate. This is Ghoul with a Pearl Earring. But see, in many of the cultures where the Arabic ghul originated, often the evil spirit was female. See?
(Image from Why not?)

  • My favorite line about ghouls comes from Hitchcock's Rear Window when they're looking out Jimmy Stewart's window and Grace Kelly says, "We're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known." But she says it in that Grace Kelly way which is so delicate, if she'd been talking to you, you'd almost delight in being so insulted.

Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly: two of the most frightening ghouls you've ever known?
(Screen shot from Rear Window from

I sneaked in some Shakespeare there, did you notice? This turned out to be secretly a Shakespeare entry! A Shakespeare entry in a costume! Hahaha!

Ah, Halloween. Too much fun.

Onelook, ghosts, ghoul
Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, Ghosts
Online Etymology Dictionary, ghost, goblin, ghoul
Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, goblin
Oxford World Dictionary, goblin
Long long time ago, Puck
bordeaux undiscovered wine shop, Of Goblins and Fairies for Halloween, October 29, 2009
Wisegeek, What is a hobgoblin?, ghoul

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Apple #554: Candy Corn

Someone brought candy corn in to work the other day, and I ate some. That sweet, smooth, creamy flavor reminded me immediately of when I was very little.

When my mom went grocery shopping, she took me with her because I was much too small to stay at home, and she told me I could have one treat at the beginning of the shopping trip. As an adult, I see this now as a clever trick to keep me occupied while she was shopping. But as a little kid, I thought, Oh boy! Whatever I want! Nearly every time, I chose candy corn. I loooved candy corn.

Candy corn. Beloved by thousands for over a century.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

Now, as the Apple Lady, I want to know how it's made.
  • Among candy makers, candy corn is considered a type of "mellow creme" which means it has no oils or fats but it's made from some type of sweetener and has a flavor that is at least marshmallow-like.
  • Candy corn doesn't just have a marshmallow-like flavor, actual marshmallow is one of its ingredients. That's what gives it that special milky, creamy consistency.
  • Recipes vary from one manufacturer to another, but in general, candy corn is made of:
  • sugar
  • water
  • corn syrup
  • some manufacturers also use honey
  • fondant (icing made of sugar, water, and corn syrup)
  • marshmallow
  • coloring
  • salt
  • gelatin and soy protein, to help it keep its shape
  • edible wax and oil glaze, for shine

In the variant candy corns with a brown layer, the brown is chocolate-flavored.
(Photo from College Candy)

  • Corn isn't actually an ingredient in candy corn, except that the molds are dusted with cornstarch, which helps the candy keep its shape and not stick to the molds.
  • Essentially, the candy corn is made upside-down. Kernel-shaped wedges are punched into trays. Then a machine called the Mogul fills the trays with the candy corn mixture or slurry. White first, then orange, then yellow.

Candy corn pumpkins: similar recipe, different mold.
(Photo from the Happy Home Fairy)

  • The trays of candy corn are left to dry, which may take 24 to 48 hours, depending on the moisture content of the mixture.
  • After they've been allowed to dry -- not too much, just enough -- the trays are brought back to the machine where they're turned over so the candy corns fall out.
  • The kernels are transferred to big bulbous metal bins called polishing pans where the glaze and wax are added. The kernels are tumbled together in the bins so that they polish each other as they bump against each other.
  • Once polished, they are bagged and labeled, boxed and shipped.
  • Remember that corn starch? It gets separated from any stray bits of candy corn, sifted, and dried so that it may be reused.

This video from the Food Network shows parts of the manufacturing process in action. My favorite part is when all the candy corns are going down the chute into those bins. Sorry about the commercial.

  • Candy corn was invented in the 1880s by a guy named George Renninger who worked for the Wunderlee Candy Company.
  • Not long afterward, a different candy company, Goelitz (go-litz) started making it on a larger scale.
  • All of the candy corn was mixed and poured by hand. People used to carry 45-pound buckets of the mixture from the mixer to the people called stringers who poured it into the molds.
  • The same company still makes candy corn, only that company today is called Jelly Belly. Actually, a lot of other companies make candy corn, too, with Brach's making the majority of it. Regardless of the manufacturer, they all do the entire thing by machine.
  • Estimates of how much candy corn is produced vary widely. Anywhere from 20 million to 35 million pounds of candy corn are made each year. Another estimate puts it at roughly 8.3 billion pieces of candy corn made per year.
  • 75% of that production is for Halloween alone.
  • But candy corn isn't just for Halloween. You can get it in different colors for various holidays -- red white and green for Christmas, pink red and white for Valentine's Day, and pastel-colored for Easter.

I have never seen "bunny corn" before, but apparently it's out there.
(Photo and bunny corn, available in 10-lb cases, from

I would also like the answer to this burning question: do you eat candy corn from the top down, or the bottom up?

Candy corn cupcakes
(Recipe and Photo from The Little Kitchen)

Additional resources:
Make your own candy corn
Easy candy corn cupcakes
Crochet little ghosts, pumpkins, and candy corn
Dress up like candy corn for Halloween
Make Candy corn vodka tonic

TLC Howstuffworks, What is candy corn and how is it made?
enotes, How Products are Made, Candy Corn
Haunted Bay, Candy Corn

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Apple #553: Kaleidoscopes

I noticed that a lot of my entries lately have been about things that are white. Cotton balls. White caterpillars. Pantyhose. Well, that's not white, but it's blah-colored. I thought it was time for an entry with some color! Let's brighten things up around here! So I give you kaleidoscopes.

Pretty cool, huh?
(Photo and kaleidoscope by Peggy & Steve Kittelson who pretty much seem to be masters of the art)

  • Kaleidoscopes were invented in 1816 by a Scottish inventor named David Brewster. He was 35 years old.

David Brewster, several years after he invented the kaleidoscope.
(Photo from the David Brewster Society)

  • He was studying light and mirrors and optics. He was a pretty smart dude, by the way. He also invented the forerunner of the lighthouse, among other things. His method of calculating the angle at which light must strike a given surface to achieve maximum polarization of light, a calculation known as Brewster's Angle, is still used today in building microscopes and lasers and fiber optics, in adjusting radio signals, in meteorology, and all sorts of other applications.
  • So while he was doing all that investigating of light and mirrors and polarization, he noticed that the light bouncing off of two mirrors created patterns and colors that were visible on other surfaces. Long story short, he put the two mirrors inside a tube with an opening to look into it at one end and bingo, he had a kaleidoscope.
  • The word, by the way, is a compound word made of several Greek words. It breaks down like this: kalos (beautiful) + eodos (shape) + scopeo (to look at).
  • Dr. Peter Roget -- yes, the Roget of thesaurus fame -- said of the kaleidoscope, "In the memory of man, no invention, and no work, whether addressed to the imagination or to the understanding, ever produced such an effect."
  • Kaleidoscopes were an instant hit. People all over Britain and the United States were buying one or more for their homes. They were quite the Victorian fad.

With visions like this, it's easy to see why the gadgets became so popular.

(Grapevine kaleidoscope available from Victorian Connection)

  • One of the things that will determine what shape you see at the end of the tube is how many mirrors are inside the tube. Regardless of how many they are, the mirrors run the full length of the inside of the tube.
  • Most kaleidoscopes have two mirrors. They produce the image you see the most often. Some people call these shapes mandalas.

The image looks like a circle but when you look closely, you'll see it's actually a decahedron (10-sided object). The center is a five-pointed star.
(Photo from possumjim and elizabeth)

A tube with three mirrors creates a triangular-shaped image, like this one.
(Photo from Kaleidoscopes of America)

Very few kaleidoscopes use four mirrors, but this one does. Four mirrors produce a series of rectangular images that are on opposite sides of a center line.
(Photo and kaleidoscope from Peggy & Steve Kittelson)

  • The angle of the mirrors also affects the image you'll see. The smaller the angle, the greater the number of reflections. In a two-mirror kaleidoscope, if the mirrors are placed at a 10 degree angle, the number of reflections is 360 degrees in a circle / 10 degrees minus 1, or 35 reflections. If the mirrors are placed at a 40 degree angle, there will be 360 / 40 -1 or 8 reflections.
  • As you can imagine, making sure those mirrors have straight, aligned edges can make a lot of difference. Kaleidoscope makers do their best to make sure everything is lined up just right, but sometimes the mirrors wind up out of alignment.

In this one, something about the position of the mirrors wasn't aligned quite right.
(Photo from
possumjim and elizabeth)

  • Some kaleidoscopes have an eyepiece at the front. That front lens is a diopter lens and it isn't involved in any of the reflecting activity in the body of the kaleidoscope. Its purpose is to magnify the image that you see at the end of the tube, making everything appear sharper and clearer to your eye. The longer the kaleidoscope, the more likely it'll have that front diopter, and the stronger it will have to be.
  • Many kaleidoscopes also contain liquid. This is to make sure the pieces slide around slowly and easily, rather than chunking and slipping and rattling abruptly into place. Often the liquid is mineral oil (a.k.a. baby oil) or glycerin. More recently, kaleidoscope makers use silicone, which is less prone to leaking.

This kaleidoscope has two mirrors, but it's oil-filled, which is what gives everything that rich, liquid feel.
(Photo and kaleidoscope by Peggy & Steve Kittelson)

  • A lot of kaleidoscopes being made today include found objects. Not just glass pieces, but other little tidbits like springs or buttons or doll eyes. My great uncle made a kaleidoscope. It had mostly pieces of glass in it but there were also a couple squares of window screen in there.

This kaleidoscope uses all sorts of seashells. I'm pretty sure that Judith Paul and Tom Durden made this one. They make a lot of seashell kaleidoscopes.
(Photo from balluun)

  • Some kaleidoscopes enclose the bits of glass and other goodies not in a chamber at the end of the tube but outside of it on a wheel which the user turns. Sometimes the shapes are fixed in place in the wheel, and sometimes the shapes are free-moving inside the glass wheel.

This is a three-mirror double-wheel kaleidoscope. This photo shows how the wheel is connected to the body. You can see that there are two layers of glass in the wheel, which will make for additional reflections and colors.
(Photo and kaleidoscope by Koji Yamami)

This is what you see when you look through one of his 3-mirror wheel kaleidoscopes. This one, I think, must be only a single-wheel.
(Photo and kaleidoscope by Koji Yamami)

  • Another variation is to use a tube instead of a wheel at the end of the kaleidoscope. The tube can be rotated or slid back and forth to change the scenery.

This is an oil-filled stained glass tube kaleidoscope.
(Photo and kaleidoscope by Koji Yamami)

The glass inside the tube are drawn and twisted to make very delicate shapes.
(Photo and kaleidoscope by Koji Yamami)

  • Once you realize that the basic components themselves can have so many variations, all sorts of possibilities start to open up. All you need is a tube -- which doesn't even have to be circular -- some mirrors to put inside it, and some shapes that will let at least some light through. From there, the sky is the limit.

This kaleidoscope is made from a wine cask.
(Photo and kaleidoscope by Mitsuru and Yuriko Yoda)

This is what you see when you look in the wine cask kaleidoscope.
(Photo and kaleidoscope by Mitsuru and Yuriko Yoda)

  • Kaleidoscopes that include images of the thing you point them at are called teleidoscopes. Instead of the end of the scope being a piece of glass with black backing on it, it's another lens. So the mirrors inside the tube are reflecting the image of what's outside the tube.

This is the view through a teleidoscope looking up at the treetops.
(Photo by jcarwash31 on Flickr, sourced from Rikki's Teleidoscope)

The variations and the permutations are endless. That's one of the reasons kaleidoscopes continue to fascinate us.

Additional resources:
Tips on how to take photos of kaleidoscope interiors
Instructions for how to make a simple three-mirror wheel kaleidoscope

Brewster Kaleidoscope Society, Sir David Brewster
Kaleidoscopes of America
Japanese Kaleidoscopes

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Apple #552: Concord Grapes

I love Concord grapes. For one thing they remind me of my brother, who loves them even more than I do. But I also love them for themselves. They taste dark but sweet, and that juicy, fruity, delectable place between the flesh of the grape and the inside of the skin I find absolutely divine. I put one in my mouth, pop the skin, and suck on that juice. Mm-mm.

They are one of the things, along with apple cider, that for me, embody fall. Those late October days when it's sunny but the air is crisp and you catch a whiff of the fallen, drying leaves, I swear sometimes I can also smell Concord grapes on the air. Mm-mm.

You can almost smell these Concord grapes, can't you?
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Eating Them
  • Concord grapes are one type of purple grapes. They're known as slip-skin grapes, meaning the skin isn't attached to the meat of the grape. (Ah, so that's what allows me to pop the skin off of them and eat the skin and the innards separately.)
  • Other purple grapes from Europe are not slip-skin grapes. For some reason, this means it's easier to ship them than it is to ship Concords.
  • The Concord Grape Association says
"you don't really 'chew' Concords - you suck them out of their skin to get the juice and flavor and swallow the grape whole (after you separate the seeds). You eat them somewhat like oysters."
  • I'm glad to see this because I thought my family were the only ones who ate Concord grapes this way. The skin on its own is pretty tart and I usually don't eat it. Sometimes I'll chew the innards and spit out the seeds, but usually I swallow the insides whole.

Nice, plump Concord grapes showing off their protective white bloom.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • The white coating on the grape is called the "bloom." This is a protective coating that's found on many types of grapes and also on blueberries. It's a naturally-occurring oleanolic acid which the grapes themselves produce to keep the fruit from losing essential moisture.
  • It's harmless to us, so it's no cause for alarm. You'll want to rinse the grapes before eating as you would with any fruit, and that usually takes off most of the bloom. A little light rubbing will remove the rest.

  • Concord grapes were first cultivated in 1854 in Concord, Massachusetts. Hence, the name.

Concord is a little place north and west of Boston.
(Map from the Massachusetts Hokkaido Association)

Ephraim Wales Bull, the first guy to cultivate the Concord grape.
(Photo from the American Indian Health and Diet Project)

  • Ephraim Wales Bull used seeds of the wild, native purple grapes which grew near his house. His home and farm, by the way, were "just down the road" from the homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Luisa May Alcott.
  • It's thought that he may have crossed two varieties, the Vitis labrusca and the Catawba.
  • After planting some 22,000 seedlings, he hit on a variety that he liked best. It ripens early which means it avoids being killed by the fall frost, and it still has a rich, full flavor.
  • A 100-year-old descendant vine from his original seedlings still grows near where Bull once lived.

This is Ephraim's house, now called Grapevine Cottage. Apparently it's for sale, priced at $799,000. It comes with the gravestone which reads "He reaped, others sowed," referring to the fact that he died quite poor, as well as the 100-year old grapevine.
(Photo from Elizabeth Bolton, realtor in Cambridge, MA)

Growing Them Today

  • Despite the plant's roots in New England, more than half of today's Concord grapes are grown in Washington.
  • The next-highest producing states in descending order of production are New York state, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Missouri.

This particular box of Concord grapes came from Michigan.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • The Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt, which is a stretch of land along the northwestern edge of New York state, is the largest grape-growing region in the United States outside of California. It encompasses 30,000 acres of grapes grown on 800 different vineyards. This is where the Welch family started their commercial grape juice business.

The Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt
(Map from the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt Heritage Association)

Concord grapes on the vine. Here the bloom is very visible.
(Photo from the world wide wine)

  • Most Concord grapes are turned into grape juice or jam because few people like to deal with the seeds.
  • Concord grapes are sometimes used to make wine, though not so often any longer because the wine they turn into is intensely sweet. Some Kosher wines are still made with Concord grapes.

Concord grape jam. That's some good-looking jam, isn't it?
(Photo from the Hungry Mouse)

Now I'm hungry for a peanut butter & jelly sandwich.

Concord Grape Association, The History of Concord Grapes
Washington State University Cooperative Extension, Concord Grape Establishment and Production Costs in Washington, 1996
Dan DeClerico, This Old House magazine, A History of the Concord Grape
Spade & Spatula, The Off-the-Beaten-Track Grape Guide and 3 Easy Recipes, October 10, 2011
The American Indian Health and Diet Project, Food Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, Grapes
World's Healthiest Foods, Grape