Monday, December 29, 2014

Apple #695: Licorice

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

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

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

Liquorice Plant

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

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

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

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

Medicinal uses

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

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

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

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

In Tobacco

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

Black Licorice

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

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

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

Red Licorice

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Apple #694: Christmas Carol Lyrics

As Christmas so closely approacheth, I thought I would do something a little different for this Daily Apple. Instead of me telling you all kinds of stuff, I thought I'd make this entry a quiz.  Let's see how well you know our good ol' Christmas carols.

We hear Christmas carols all the time. But how well do you really know them?
(Image from

The Mystery Lines

There's a mix of the secular & the religious.  That's the only hint you'll get from me.
  • 1. "Fear not, then," said the Angel, / "Let nothing you affright."
  • 2. No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground.
  • 3. Through the years, we all will be together / If the Fates allow
  • 4. We'll frolic and play, the Eskimo way
  • 5. I love you, I love you / And I'm gonna bring / Bananas, pianas, and everything
  • 6. We won't go until we get some, so bring it right here
  • 7. Later we'll have some pumpkin pie / and we'll do some caroling
  • 8. Peace on earth will come to all / if we just follow the light
  • 9. Giddy-up, jingle horse, pick up your feet
  • 10. And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again

Bonus points if you remember which Christmas carol the Peanuts gang sings at the end of their Christmas special.
(Image from Reform Worship)

The Answers

1. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen - at least as old as 1760

2. Joy to the World - 1719. Muusic by Handel, words by Isaac Watts, who was imprisoned twice for religious non-conformism

3. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - 1943. The minor key and slow tempo of this song always make me think of all the people who were suffering through World War II when this song was first performed.

4. Walking in a Winter Wonderland - 1934. Lyrics written by Dick Smith, who lived in Honesdale, PA, and was said to have been inspired by the winters of his home town. He wrote the song while he was suffering from tuberculosis. Neither he nor his fellow songwriter, Felix Bernard, lived to see the song's success.

5. Shake Hands with Santa Claus - 1958. Performed by Louis Prima, written by the songwriting team of Milton DeLugg (what a terrible name) and Bob Hillard

6. We Wish You a Merry Christmas - sometime in the 16th century. Rather demanding, isn't it? But I guess figgy pudding was considered very delicious and a true treat of its day, requiring somebody to pretty much empty the pantry of everything good in the house: butter, sugar, eggs, milk, figs (of course). rum, orange or lemon peel, nuts, and spices including cinnamon, cloves, and ginger.

7. Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree - also from 1958. Performed by Brenda Lee, written by Johnny Marks. Brenda Lee was only 13 years old when she recorded this song. Sure doesn't sound like it, does it?  Her father died when she was 8, and she started earning money to support her family when she was 10. Perhaps that accounts for the maturity in her voice.

8. Here Comes Santa Claus - 1946. Written by Gene Autry, the same guy who wrote "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and "Frosty the Snowman."

9. Jingle Bell Rock - 1957. The most widely-played cover is by Hall & Oates. But it's been covered by scores of groups: The Platters, Chubby Checker, Glee, The Beach Boys, .38 Special, Hilary Duff, some people called Aly & AJ (now 78violet), and more.

10. It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas - 1951. Notice that it's spelled "A[space]Lot." Not "Alot." Because "alot" is not a word!  Written by the woman who wrote The Music Man, Meredith Wilson. This song has also been covered by a lot (not alot, a[space]lot) of people -- Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, and more recently, Michael BublĂ©.

Bonus. Hark! the Herald Angels Sing  - 1739 & 1840. Lyrics written by Charles Wesley, whose brother John founded the Methodist church. Charles Wesley also wrote the tune, but it's not the tune we know. His original melody was very slow and somber, almost like a dirge.  Over 100 years later, Felix Mendelssohn wrote a cantata, and an English composer adapted Mendelssohn's piece to fit Wesley's much older lyrics.

So, how did you do?

I have to share one more bit of Christmas carol lore with you. This is taken from a recent article in the Telegraph:

Perhaps, the most Christmas-like biographical snippet, however, belongs to Josef Mohr (1792-1848), the illegitimate son of an Austrian embroideress and godson of the local executioner, who required special papal permission (on account of his missing father) even to be allowed to train for the Catholic priesthood. Mohr was sent off to the remote Alpine parish of Oberndorf. The organ was in such a bad state of repair, legend has it, that Mohr was moved to rush off the words for a carol that was so simple it could be sung without accompaniment. So 'Silent Night' was in fact written to make sure that December 25 would not be silent in Oberndorf church. (The Telegraph, December 19, 2014)

Merry Christmas, everybody!

(Image from

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Apple #693: Removing Pine Sap

I put up my Christmas tree this weekend.  A few years ago, I learned that pine sap makes me itch, so now I wear leather work gloves when I do this annual coniferous task.  I also wear an apron, as I have to lean across the tree to drape yon tree lights around its girth.  But despite my gloves and my apron, this year I somehow managed to get pine sap on my fingers and on my clothes.

Pine sap is sticky stuff.  What's the best way to remove it?

Pine sap. Sticky stuff.  To be said the same way Elwood says, "This is glue. Strong stuff."
(Image from Poppy Swap)

What is Pine Sap?

This wouldn't be a true Daily Apple if I didn't give you a little edumacation information first.
  • Pine sap is actually resin.  
  • It's sticky stuff that the tree secretes any time it's cut into.  
  • Some scientists suspect that its purpose may be to help seal cuts in the tree bark, or to be toxic to any insects that might burrow into the tree, or both.

Amber is in a similar class of plant fluids as pine sap.  You know how bugs get stuck in amber?  They get stuck in pine sap too.
(Image from Legend Diamond)

  • Over time pine sap (resin) will harden and even crystallize, but it will soften and turn sticky again when it gets warmed up.  This is why you might not get it on yourself as you're bringing the tree into the house, but you might after it's been in the house a while and you're decorating it.
  • Various resins have various chemical structures, but in general they include a substance called terpenoid hydrocarbon.  Think turpentine.
  • By their chemical structure, resins are resistant to water.  Which means you can't just wash pine sap off your hands with soap and water.  You have to use something else.
  • On the other hand, resins are generally soluble in alcohol or in oils or fats.  Which means to remove pine sap, you'll want to use a cleaning agent that is one of these types of things, and that also won't harm your skin or your clothing.

Turns out, lots of people have lots of suggestions for things that will remove pine sap.  Probably any of these products will work on whatever surface has the pine sap on it.  But some are better in certain situations that others.  For example, nail polish remover might work to take sap out of your hair, but you wouldn't really want to put that all over your head.  Or, peanut butter might take the sap out of your carpet, but then you'll have a peanut butter stain.

Products that Remove Pine Sap from Skin

  • Nail polish remover
  • Rubbing alcohol 
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Margarine
  • Corn or vegetable or olive oil

Rubbing alcohol. Do what the name says: rub it on your skin, and the pine sap will come off.
(Photo from HubPages)

Products that Remove Pine Sap from Hair

Put a gob of peanut butter or mayonnaise in your hair where the sap is, comb through carefully, then wash with warm water and shampoo.
  • Peanut butter
  • Mayonnaise
  • Olive oil

Don't be shy with the peanut butter -- or the mayonnaise or the olive oil.  Put in a nice big dollop and comb it through carefully.  It will wash out.  Plus, your hair will feel nice and conditioned afterward.
(Image from Huffington Post)

Products that Remove Pine Sap from Clothing

As with any stain, try the removal product on a small area first to be sure it won't change the color of the fabric.

Rub the removal product into the sappy area, rinse with the warmest water possible, allow to air dry.
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Nail polish remover
  • Hand sanitizer
  • WD-40 / rinse with vinegar and water
  • Deep Woods Off! bug spray
  • Pine Sol
  • Goo-Gone
  • For additional abrasive assistance, add baking soda to any of the above

If you use nail polish remover, you'll want the kind that comes in a bottle like this, not the pots you dip your fingers into.
(Photo from Redbook

Products that Remove Pine Sap from Carpet

As with any stain, try the removal product on a small area first to be sure it won't change the color of the fabric.
  • Nail polish remover
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Dawn dishwashing detergent

Dawn. I love this stuff.  Has so many uses.  They have lots of varieties that say "antibacterial" on the front. Stay away from those, and get the blue kind.
(Photo from One Good Thing by Jillee)

Other Removal Products

These products will remove pine sap, but they might also bleach your clothes or your carpet, or remove paint from your floor or walls or car.  Or they could render your fabric flammable.  So if you do use these, use them with much caution and rinse them out very well with water.
  • Paint thinner
  • Mineral spirits
  • Lighter fluid

Mineral spirits and paint thinner are essentially the same thing. Mineral spirits have been refined further, so they have fewer additional elements you might not want, and they are not as stinky as paint thinner.
(Photo from Mineral Spirits Information Blog -- it's a crap site, but I needed the image)

Is it going too far to say that putting up a Christmas tree is a sappy tradition? Har har. 

Oxford English Dictionary, resin
Cyberlipid Center, Terpenoids

Monday, December 8, 2014

Apple #692: How Do Football Players Go to the Bathroom?

OK, let me say right up front: I thought this would be a pretty innocuous question.  I was watching a Packers game last week and for some reason, it occurred to me to wonder, where do they go to the bathroom?  I've never seen any evidence of it, and it's not something anybody talks about so it had never occurred to me to think about before.  I thought they might have Porta-Johns on the sidelines, which the cameras never showed because nobody wants to see that.  Or maybe those professional teams had something fancy that was small and discreet.

But it turns out, the answer is rather disgusting.

They go on the sidelines.  Literally.

The sidelines in the NFL. A.k.a. the team bathroom?
(Photo by Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

Let's put this in perspective.
  • Players arrive at the stadium several hours before kick-off.  For players who are not regular starters, they find out whether or not they're playing by whether or not their uniform is all laid out in front of their locker.  Then their start their pre-game rituals.
  • Some players read the Bible or pray, some listen to music, some get injections that help them play in spite of some compromised muscle or joint, some eat certain things (Brian Urlacher always eats two chocolate chip cookies--only two and exactly two), Jermichael Finley gets a pedicure, John Henderson of Jacksonville has someone slap him in the face hard several times, some players cover all their exposed skin in Vaseline to make themselves more slick and harder to tackle.
  • They all will spend some quality time in the bathroom.  They want to clear out the pipes as much as possible before going on the field, and they do their best to make that happen.  Some players take Pepto-Bismol to aid that effort, others drink Red Bull, and you can imagine other remedies they might use to keep the plumbing from becoming a problem during the game.
  • Then they get their pads on and get dressed.  The jerseys and pants are as skin-tight as possible so there's no loose clothing for anyone to drag and use to pull you down.  Some guys wear their jerseys so tight, they even have some embarrassing moments when they have trouble pulling them on.
  • They also get taped up.  Ankles get taped, knees get taped, muscles get taped with kinesio tape, fingers, hands, wrists get taped.  Gloves go on and oftentimes the gloves are taped on over the wrists.
  • Then a couple hours before kick-off, the players go out on the field.  They're out there warming up, stretching, getting used to the feel of the field.  Some go out and do their warm-ups before getting dressed. They'll go in, get dressed, and come back out again to do some more but lesser impact stretching. 

Pre-game warm-up. Pads & uniform on, ankles taped, gloves on. Everything but the helmet.
(Photo from USF Health)

  • Players also drink water or Gatorade to stay hydrated.  Staying hydrated is really necessary to stave off injuries and to keep muscles from cramping and forcing you to leave the game.
  • Then everybody troops back into the locker room about 30 minutes before kick-off for the coach's last instructions, the inspirational speech, and any last-minute individual or team prayers.
  • Then they go back out on the field for the player introductions, and then the two-minute warning sounds.  For many players, that's when the nerves hit.  
  • As soon as you get nervous, what do you have to do?  You have to go to the bathroom.
  • But what are you going to do?  Your gloves are on, maybe even taped onto your hands.  You've got on the skin-tight clothes that were a royal pain to pull on even with un-gloved hands.  The actual bathroom can be as far as a quarter mile away.  But the game is about to start, and you're bouncing up and down with the jitters so bad, you have got to go.

Players' Solutions

  • Different players address this problem in different ways.  Depends on the player, depends on the circumstances.
  • I should point out that players get the urge not just before kick-off, but at any one of many nervous moments throughout the game.  If he's a defensive player and the offense has been on the field for a while, and he knows he'll have to run out there again in a minute or two, the urge might come upon him then.  If he's a kicker and he knows he'll have to kick a field goal, but first the other team takes a time out, the nerves might kick in then.
  • In fact, a kicker was caught on camera doing what most of the players do to solve the problem -- urinating right there on the sideline while another person or persons holds up a towel beside him to shield his activity from view.

Nick Novak of the San Diego Chargers, caught on camera relieving himself during a game in 2011.
(Photo from Larry Brown Sports)

  • That seems to be the most common solution, to use the sideline as the restroom.  It seems they often choose to do this near the water cart.  Perhaps because the cart provides a relatively large shield that will not amble off as various players standing around the sideline might?  I don't know if that's the reason; I'm only guessing.  But it does seem a bit unsanitary.

St. Louis Rams player, urinating on the sideline during a game against the Packers in 2011.
(Photo from WKQS Sunny FM)

  • Another option that is not as popular but still fairly common is for players to go right in their pants.  Some recommend stuffing a towel into the pants first, then throwing the "sacrificial towel" away afterwards.
  • Other players do not even use a towel. Especially if it's late in the game, and they're already drenched in sweat, they will let the liquids go right in their pants.  They say that because of all the sweat no one can tell the difference, including themselves.
  • A few players will use a receptacle like an empty water bottle.  But apparently, this is not the most common technique.
  • Up to now, I have been talking about the liquid kind of elimination.  But as you no doubt suspect by this point, sometimes old #2 comes knocking on the back door, despite all a player's best efforts in the locker room beforehand.
  • What is a taped up, jerseyed up, keyed up player to do?  
  • Some players who know they have enough time will run all the way to the locker room.  But others simply cannot do that.  They can't take the risk of not being available if they're called upon to play.  Nature's call has to take a back seat to the coach's call.
  • Some players use the "sacrificial towel" in this situation too.  The towel goes in the pants, receives the donation, is used to clean up the aftereffects, and is thrown away.
  • In some cases, players don't have the luxury of time to make a choice.  Sometimes the hits in football are so forceful, the nervous system is temporarily overridden and the rear gates open without your say-so, and your pants become the receiver.
  • What do you and the other players do afterward?  Deal with it and keep playing.   
  • Some quarterbacks have found themselves in the unfortunate position of having to take the snap from a center who has had an accident in his pants.  The quarterback might opt to go to the shotgun, but for Matt Hasselbeck who found himself in just such a situation in a game in Seattle, the crowd noise was so loud, shotgun was not an option.  So he had to get right up close & friendly with that center's soiled trousers and get on with the game.
  • You probably think this is about as disgusting as I do.  I mean, I get that these guys are athletes, so they've seen pretty much every kind of impressive and also ugly thing the body can do.  So they're probably anesthetized to it.  But for some of the players, they are not only not grossed out, they even seem to be a bit proud of their outside-the-bathroom bathroom exploits.  I should re-emphasize that's the case for only some players.
  • Channing Crowder of the Dolphins said he urinated in his pants all the time.  Most often while in the huddle.  But every game.  For six years.  He seemed to be boasting about this. 

Channing Crowder.  Is he happy, or is that just urine in his pants?
(Photo from Dunk360)

  • For another player, there is no question he was boasting of his extra-bathroom pursuits.  Larry Izzo of the New England Patriots apparently "has issues" and spends a lot of his time in the bathroom.  He will drink "like, eight Red Bulls" and take "supplements" to try to deal with the #2 situation.  But during one game his methods, um, backfired, and he had to go.  So he somehow went on the sideline, during the game, and no one noticed.  Coach Bill Belichick heard about this and gave him the game ball.  According to Wes Welker, Izzo "takes ultimate pride in this whole deal. Of all the special teams tackles and Pro Bowls he's made, I guarantee you that game ball is probably a more prized item for him than his Super Bowl rings."

Larry Izzo, proud of his secretive behind-the-scenes skills.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • You might also think, as I do, why doesn't somebody get these guys a Porta-John?  Well, somebody did give one to the Kansas City Chiefs.  But what did they do with it?  The coach used it in a passing drill. 
  • Standing about 10 feet away, he told a receiver to get in the john and shut the door.  Then he'd give another coach a sign, and that coach would fling open the door and coach #1 would quick fling the ball at the player and he'd have to catch it.  "It's a good concentration drill, I think, for hands, eyes and getting the ball and getting your hands up quick," he said.
  • Clearly for pro football players, the game trumps everything, including their most pressing bodily functions.
  • Still.  I wish they would get Porta-Johns and use them as intended.  Or maybe at least get those guys a bunch of chamber pots.  They could even put the team logos on them.

(Photo from Wikipedia)

P.S. It's not just in the pros that this happens. Nor is it just in football.

Ryan Riddle, Bleacher Report, What NFL Pros Do in the Hours Just Before a Game, August 8, 2012
Stephen White, Bleacher Report, A Former NFL Player's Perspective on the Game Day Fans Don't See, September 8, 2012
Anthony L. Gargano, Deadspin, Jeff Garcia Pisses in Hand Towels, and the Art of Breaking Thumbs in the Loose-Ball Pile, October 19, 2010
Larry Brown Sports, Chargers Kicker Nick Novak Takes a Pee on the Sidelines, November 27, 2011
WKQSFM, How Do NFL Football Players Go to the Bathroom on the Field? November 4, 2011
ESPN Page 2, Pee is only a wee bit gross
USA Today, Former Dolphins linebacker says he wet himself during every game, November 21, 2013
Doug Farrar, Yahoo! Sports, Wes Welker: Larry Izzo once got a game ball for pooping on the sideline, May 3, 2012
Associated Press, Chiefs turn to a Porta-Potty to help curb dropped passes, August 12, 2010

Monday, December 1, 2014

Apple #691: Why Duck Feet Don't Freeze

The other day I was walking in a park near my house.  This park has a pond with a fountain to keep the water aerated, which in the cold weather also keeps it from freezing as quickly as it might otherwise.  Ducks love to hang out in & around this pond -- mallards, mostly, but also those larger, darker-feathered ducks, and Canada geese (note: Canada, not Canadian).

It was a super-cold day, probably about 21 degrees.  I was all huddled up in my winter coat & scarf & gloves & hat, and there were the ducks, paddling around in the freezy-cold water, not a single coat or hat or glove on 'em.  Some were standing along the shoreline, a few with one foot tucked up in their feathers, but most of them had both feet on the icy ground.

Ducks standing on the ice, letting the freezing-cold water lap over their toes, paddling in that frigid water -- no problem.  If you're a duck.
(Photo from Eco Habits)

I have seen this for how many winters now?  But this time around, it struck me: those ducks have nothing on their feet.  No feathers, no insulating fat, no socks, no sheepskin-lined boots, no nothing.  And they're paddling their naked orange feet in that freezing cold water like it's no big deal.

How can they do this without those little flappy orange feet freezing?

Answer: Duck feet are marvels of bioengineering, exemplifying the principles of heat exchange.

Duck feet.  Simple genius.
(Photo from

  • It's true.  Duck feet have no extra insulation, no waterproofed feathers, no extra layer of fat.  If their bodies worked as ours do, which decrease blood flow to the extremities when it gets cold, ducks would be up a creek in a hurry.
  • Fortunately for them, duck anatomy is not like human anatomy.  Their bodies are equipped with special capabilities that ours are not.
  • First of all, the innards of duck feet are almost entirely tendons.  There's very little musculature, or much of any fleshy stuff at all.  They're pretty much all skin, bone, & tendon.  So there isn't much stuff in there that has to be kept warm.
  • Oh, right, there's something else in their feet: blood vessels.  Arteries & veins.  You will remember from your biology class that arteries carry fresh, warm, oxygenated blood from the heart to all the parts of the body, and veins carry the used, cooler, less oxygenated blood back to the heart for rejuvenation.  Ducks have arteries & veins just like we do, only they have a whole mess of 'em in their feet.

The intermeshing of arterial & venous blood vessels is called "retia" which means "wonderful net." The large panel in the third row on the left of this cartoon depicts retia.
(Cartoon from

  • Specifically, the arteries & veins in ducks' feet are so closely intermeshed, their many arterial capillaries are cozied up close to their equally multitudinous venous capillaries.  This artery-vein closeness is happening all down their legs & throughout their flappy feet.
  • The reason this is important is because of that engineering phrase I used earlier: heat exchange.
  • The simplest way to describe heat exchange is to say that if you put a warm thing next to a cold thing, the warm thing will heat up the cold thing.
  • For example: your feet are cold, so you put them on the much warmer feet of your spouse/partner/best friend/dog, and though your sig. oth. may shriek at first, eventually, some of the heat from the sig. other's body will transfer to yours, and your feet will warm up.
  • There is a kind of heat exchange particular to fluids, which is called countercurrent exchange.  The same principle of heat exchange applies, in that the warm thing next to the cold thing transfers some of its warm to the cold thing.  The main difference in countercurrent exchange is that it's all about fluids.
  • (I wanted you to have these big science words mainly so you could say to people at parties, "Did you know, ducks keep their feet warm using the principle of countercurrent exchange?")
The warm fluid on the left could represent the warmer arterial blood descending down to the duck's toes.  The cooler fluid on the right could be the cooler venous blood going back up the duck feet to the heart.  The proximity of the two results in the arterial blood cooling as it descends while the venous blood is warmed up.
(Diagram from Wikipedia)

  • That intermeshing of multitudinous arterial & venous capillaries means the duck's blood vessels are really making the most of countercurrent exchange, letting it happen as much as possible throughout the duck's legs & feet.
  • While some of the heat from the arterial blood is transferred to the venous blood, the venous blood also cools the arterial blood on its way down.  
  • The result is that while the body of the duck may be around 100+ degrees Fahrenheit, thanks to its layers of fat & downy feathers, their feet will be pretty dang cold: only slightly above freezing.  
  • But that's warm enough, and the ducks are fine with that.

(Photo from CopyPasteRepost

P.S. Lots of animals use this principle of countercurrent exchange: most species of waterfowl have it in their feet, whales and sea turtles and other deep sea dwellers use it in their flippers, and cold-dwelling mammals such as arctic foxes and polar bears use this in their feet, too. Fish also use this principle, not to stay warm but to transfer oxygenated water from their gills to their blood.  Desert animals such as kangaroo rats and salt-water-dwellers like seagulls use this principle in their nostrils to conserve fresh water.  We also use this principle in our kidneys to remove water and build up urine, which we then get rid of as necessary.

Ask a Naturalist, Why Don't Ducks' Feet Freeze?
Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, How Do Birds Stay Warm?
Bird Watcher's General Store, Duck Feet Do Not Freeze
Dandy Designs, Duck Feet
The Naked Scientists, Why don't ducks get hypothermia?
Encyclopedia of Earth, Counter current exchange