Things to “wine” about—and some beer

 new UW study found arsenic levels in 98 percent of red wines tested exceed U.S. drinking water standards, but that health risks depend on one’s total diet. Mr.TInDC, flickr

A new UW study found arsenic levels in 98 percent of red wines tested exceed U.S. drinking water standards, but that health risks depend on one’s total diet. Mr.TInDC, flickr

Two items in the news today should be noted by beer and wine drinkers everywhere. One is a cool upcoming talk at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and the other is a new science report reminiscent of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

First, if you’re anywhere in the Cleveland area Friday night and are not already planning to go see the Red Sox take on the Indians, head over to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for the next installment of their Explorer Series, “Uncorking the Past: Re-Discovering and Re-creating Ancient Fermented Beverages

Patrick McGowan, an adjunct anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, will describe how our human ancestors made an astounding array of fermented beverages from honey, grapes, barley, rice, sorghum and perhaps even chocolate. Light appetizers and a cash bar precede the 7 p.m. talk, so what’s not to like?

Then there’s a new study on wine out from the University of Washington, and this one has 64 things not to like. In particular, researchers found levels of arsenic above the safe drinking water standards in 64 out of 65 samples of U.S. wines.

“Unless you are a heavy drinker consuming wine with really high concentrations of arsenic, of which there are only a few, there’s little health threat if that’s the only source of arsenic in your diet,” U-W researcher Denise Wilson noted in the press release accompanying the report.

“But consumers need to look at their diets as a whole,” Wilson continued. “If you are eating a lot of contaminated rice, organic brown rice syrup, seafood, wine, apple juice — all those heavy contributors to arsenic poisoning — you should be concerned, especially pregnant women, kids and the elderly.”

Ironically, arsenic was one of the poisons added by two spinster aunts to the elderberry wine they used to kill boarders in the classic comedy play and movie, “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Definitely watch the old Cary Grant flick if you’ve somehow missed it. And if you’re up for a fun, more modern spoof, check out Parnell Hall’s cozy 2013 mystery, “Arsenic and Old Puzzles.”

I don’t know yet whether any of the wines tested by the U-W researchers were elderberry wine. The full report appears in the October issue of the Journal of Environmental Health.

For the Love of LEGO

LEGObookphotoThere are days when the theme song from last year’s The Lego Movie still keeps running through my head. And it never annoys me. That’s more than I can say for many of the tune that the Academy Award folks nominated for an Oscar last year or in most years. I’ll bet this is true with lots of people too. Thus, even if the artists who composed and produced “Everything is Awesome” didn’t get the recognition they deserve, their creation continues to inspire and resonate.

This is very much true of LEGOs themselves, which made possible and inspired Mike Doyle’s latest book, Beautiful LEGO: Wild! When I saw the press release for the book from No Starch Press, the cover immediately made me want to review a copy. First, it features LEGOs, which were one of our kids’ favorite toys as they were growing up.

My son, in particular, loved designing buildings and a variety of other creations with LEGOs—not just as a little kid, but into junior high and high school. He’d develop detailed plans for structures with all of the basic blocks, as well as a variety of specialized pieces, including the larger bases. My son has always loved parrots too, and the cover photo of Beautiful LEGO: Wild! includes the ~750 piece sculpture “Rainbow Lorikeet” by Gabriel Thomson.

Doyle himself is a LEGO artist and graphic designer, and the book is a lovely collection of a variety of artistic works—plants, pets, marine animals, wild animals, and more. There’s even a “Grumpy Monkey” and “Boxing Panda” (both by Tyler Clites). Photos are in full color, and brief descriptions identify the artist and approximate number of pieces. The book would be fun for folks to just look through.

Perhaps more than many other art books, this one can also serve as a source of inspiration for others to try their hands at awesome LEGO art. After all, basic LEGOs are at most toy stores, and it’s much easier these days to get specialized pieces than when my son was little. Just order them online.

But while the book can provide inspiration, don’t expect it to provide how-to information. The preface points out that many of the sculptures feature a piece known as Plant Leaves 6 x 5. But I would have preferred some more information on other specialized pieces that helped artists make particular designs. I also would have liked to see some information for people who wanted to learn more about the how-to side of things.

I realize one doesn’t page through an art book on the Impressionists or M.C. Escher and expect to see how-to information there either. But since No Starch Press bills itself as a publisher of “the finest in geek entertainment,” I would hope future titles in the series have a bibliography in the back with this sort of thing.

On the other hand, I would not want to see anything nearly as detailed as the very specific instructions that LEGO includes in its robotics kits. After all, part of the fun of this book and most other LEGO art is that it takes off in directions that other people may never think of.

Speaking of the LEGO robotics field, though, those kits and groups have inspired some of their own awesome designs in the technology world. The LEGO robotics field is especially popular with a lot of middle, junior and senior high school students, who might start out making a kit but then go on to design their own incredible machines and devices with Arduino boards, laptops, Bluetooth, and other components. And if you have any doubt about some of the incredible things kids are designing, check out the titles of the technology projects for the 2015 Broadcom MASTERS finalists, who were announced earlier this week.

Put some basic tools in the hands of artists, designers and engineers of all ages, and you can wind up with some really wonderful creations. Everything is awesome!

Shout-out to Jonna Michelle

Personal and family issues have made this summer WAY more hectic than I had ever imagined. I promise I’ll soon be back to my usual columns about science, policy, journalism and life in general.

Today, however, I want to take a moment to give a huge shout-out to Jonna at Jonna Michelle Photography in  Silver Spring, Maryland. Please read her blog post about Bethany and Jarrod here:

And let me repeat what I said on FACEBOOK this morning:

A huge THANK YOU to Jonna at for sharing her amazing talents and even more wonderful friendship with Bethany Meissner and her fiancé Jarrod Jabre. I love her work and am so excited that she will be photographing our daughter’s wedding in a few weeks!

For our own protection?

Admiral Michael Rogers. Photo from NSA biography.

Admiral Michael Rogers.
Photo from NSA biography.

Admiral Michael Rogers will do his utmost to protect Americans from terrorism. But he would never want the price of security to be the basic liberties that Americans hold dear.

“I don’t want to compromise who we are or what we are,” Rogers said. “As long as we can find something in the middle, I can live with that.”

Rogers is Commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and Director, National Security Agency/Chief, Central Security Service. Yesterday he spoke in Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the Cleveland Clinic’s Ideas for Tomorrow Series. The Cleveland Council on World Affairs was a sponsoring partner for the event.

Rogers admitted that NSA has been involved in a great deal of controversy lately. But, he cautioned, people should not believe everything they hear or read in the press.

“We are a foreign intelligence surveillance organization,” Rogers said. “It is illegal” to collect data on domestic persons, he added.

But, he noted, there is an exception: The agency can go to a judge and seek access to data for a specific phone number if it can demonstrate a connection between someone with that phone number and a person believed to be involved in terrorism activities. And, Rogers added, recent executive directives and changes in the law require people outside the NSA to review and approve any such information requests before the NSA can get the data and then access it.

“I would vote for him,” one person said at a reception following the event.

“I don’t trust him,” someone else answered, noting that Rogers left a lot unsaid.

Ironically, the night before Rogers’ talk I’d just finished reading Rachel Bohlen’s debut novel, The Historian. No, this is not Elizabeth Kostova’s 600-plus page vampire book from 2005. Bohlen’s 2014 book bills itself as speculative fiction about time travel, but it’s more of a political thriller. Bohlen’s friendship with my daughter was a big factor motivating me to purchase the book, and I could see how it reflects Bohlen’s background as an attorney and as an alumna of Xavier University’s honors program.

In the book’s near-future setting of Washington, D.C., a Department of Time has the country’s only time machine and its security forces will stop at nothing to thwart anyone suspected of possible time travel terrorism. Those efforts include extensive searches and surveillance to thwart any possibility of time travel terrorism—defined to include even public criticism of the government. Life imprisonment or death is the punishment for a conviction.

Bohlen’s heroine, Emilia Falk, describes herself as a mere historian at the Department of Time, working away in her cubicle on classified and probably pointless research projects. Like most people, she pretty much accepts the secrecy and tight security measures for everything even remotely related to the Department of Time—until her own sister is accused of time terrorism.

Like Rogers, the character who heads the Department of Time is charming and reassures the public in all his statements that the government is only acting within the bounds of the law. Yet while media reports about nonclassified NSA activities are certainly not a crime in the real world, Rogers is clearly concerned about some of those reports.

“I have watched targets…change their behavior as a result of these revelations” about certain technology details and other things, Rogers said. “For those who would say this hasn’t had an impact, clearly you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

However, curtailing discussions about nonclassified technology could threaten freedom of speech and of the press. The practice of science, which relies on open discussion and peer review, could suffer as well.

“Personally, for me, I do not want another major terrorism event on my watch,” Rogers said. He stressed again that the NSA acts within the bounds of the law, subject to both congressional oversight and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Unfortunately, less than 20 percent of the public approves of the job Congress is doing, according to the Gallup Poll. And ex parte proceedings and a high government “win rate” have led some to question whether the FISA court is a “rubber stamp” for the government.

“The very mechanisms we put in place to engender trust in this world today don’t have that trust,” Rogers noted. Even if everyone in the NSA is in fact following the law, that’s a problem.



Choosing the lineup

Lake Erie Crushers' first baseman Joey Burney at bat against the Washington Wild Things. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Crushers’ Joey Burney at bat against the Wild Things.  Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Serious baseball fans don’t just watch the game. They learn background about players, teams and opponents. Many seem to second-guess coaches’ and managers’ decisions too. “Why is he playing this guy today?” a fan might ask when the clean-up guy in the lineup is someone who’s been in a slump. “Get someone warming up!” another fan shouts when the pitcher walks another batter.

Now a new business idea from America’s Ball Club and the Lake Erie Crushers of Avon, Ohio, gives fans the opportunity to vote as a group on one aspect of the game for an actual professional team—the starting lineup.

Fans who pay a membership fee would get to come up with three or four lineups for each game. The manager would then choose from among those for each remaining game in the season.

“He already makes out a few different lineups for the game and then makes the decision at the last minute” of which one to go with, explains Michael Waghalter of America’s Ball Club. Waghalter and colleague Kevin Barber were in town this month to promote the idea with a pre-game picnic and meet-and-greet with several players from the Crushers.

Unlike previous fan involvement promotions, America’s Ball Club is not currently looking to have fans vote on decisions during the game. Rather, the idea is to engage serious fans to boost their enjoyment of the game. The concept would also share some of that hive’s collective wisdom with team management. Unlike teams in Major League Baseball that have big budgets for statistical and other kinds of analyses, that’s not the case for clubs in independent leagues like the Crushers’ Frontier League.

“When you have baseball right here in your backyard, why not get involved and have a say in their success?” asks Barber. “I think it has a place in this league in this baseball world.”

“I like the idea because it gets people more involved. At this point, why not?” says Crushers player Joey Burney, who played first base at that night’s game against the Washington Wild Things. “I don’t think they would ever put a lineup out there that’s unheard of.”

The membership fee would help guard against that, Waghalter and Barber noted, while also covering expenses so the business could become profitable.

“The upside is it gets the fans more involved,” says Crushers pitcher Trevor Longfellow. “We’ve been struggling fanbase-wide, but I think that will help out with it.”

And the downside? “I don’t really know,” Longfellow says. “It’s more of a positive than a negative, that’s for sure.” He does note, though, that there’s a lot that goes into designing really good lineups.

“If you’re just looking at the statistics, you can’t really tell how a guy does against certain pitches,” Longfellow says. Slumps and streaks matter too. Even a really good pitcher can have bad statistics after one or two bad outings.

“There are diehard fans out there, and they put a lot of time and effort into the game,” notes relief pitcher Brad Duffy, who also likes the idea.

Interestingly, Duffy says he’s not someone who does extensive pre-game analysis and “likes to know everything about everyone” before taking the mound. As a reliever, his job is to go out and help his team in whatever situation the game presents at that moment. Thus, he says he takes each game play by play. “Here’s what I have to do one pitch at a time.”

America’s Ball Club hopes fans can start voting on lineups sometime in July, although whether that happens depends largely on whether the group meets its $75,000 Indiegogo goal. Watch for more in a future blog post here.

Meanwhile, both Crushers’ management and players hope the idea will attract fans to the games.

“I’ll do anything if it gets fans in the stands,” says Burney. “It’s hard to get all pumped up for something if you don’t have fans in the stands.”

And if the America’s Ball Club idea takes off, many of those fans won’t just be sitting in the stands.

“Now they’re looking at the statistics. They’re looking at the lineup,” says Burney. “It’s a baseball experience on steroids.”

What’s been going on?

While the posts here have been sparse, I’ve nonetheless been busy.

Our family has had a variety of big events and trips. In between, I’ve been tackling a variety of creative cooking adventures, home organizing projects, and sewing endeavors.

On the work front, I’ve had lots of interesting work projects, ranging from the intrigue of state politics and various economic issues to microbiology, neuroscience and environmental issues. I’ve also gotten to go on some extremely intriguing field trip experiences, including a tour of labs at the Cleveland Clinic, an old pig iron blast furnace plant, and a wonderful winter workshop that was put together by the great folks at the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Things should be getting back to normal now, though, so watch for some really fun columns coming up in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, if you want to catch up on a few of my other projects over the last few months, check out the following:

Ditching farm pollution—literally.” Science News for Students, April 17, 2015.

Silencing genes—to understand them.” Science News for Students, March 27, 2015.

3-D recycling: Grind, melt, print!Science News for Students, March 24, 2015.

Report finds fault with Ohio pipeline routes for fracked gas.” Midwest Energy News, June 2, 2015.

Net metering going under the microscope in Ohio.” Midwest Energy News, May 18, 2015.

Thanks for your patience! Watch for more original content coming here soon.

The eagles have landed!

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Something else awesome has been happening in South Bend, Indiana, this week besides the wake and funeral of Notre Dame legend Theodore Hesburgh. And while that something hasn’t had electric signs highlighting where to park, it’s a first-time-in-a-century event.

In short, the eagles have landed!

Drive a few miles north of Notre Dame’s golden dome, turn left off Route 933 and then park by the big barns at St. Patrick’s County Park. In addition to enjoying the excitement of snow shoeing and tubing, you can see the first bald eagle nest in St. Joseph County in over 100 years.

I was privileged to visit the site earlier this week as part of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources’ workshop, “Talking Science, Telling Stories: Natural Resource Journalism in the Great Lakes.” Hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative, the workshop brought together researchers, journalists, field workers and others to explore some of the cutting edge science and conservation challenges presented in and around the Great Lakes region.

St. Patrick’s County Park is host to the Environmental Change Initiative’s Linked Environmental Experimental Ecosystem Facility, or LEEF. The facility pumps groundwater up into a kidney-shaped pond, from which it flows into a stream and wetland. The system can also be configured in different ways to bypass different parts in that chain.

The aim will let researchers design experiments and test hypotheses under controlled conditions. For example, how long does it take DNA to degrade in a freshwater system? Or, what are the impacts of something upstream on downstream habitats?

Using land at the county park provides space that is close to campus but not otherwise readily available in the midst of classroom buildings, a basilica, library and expansive football stadium. The county park location also provides opportunities for public outreach. Those opportunities include teacher programs, field trips and public outreach days. In short, everyone can have a chance to see science in action.

“We wanted an environmentally friendly facility,” park director Evie Kirkwood told us.

The site was so environmentally friendly that it attracted the county’s first bald eagle nest in 100 years. Built from LOTS of twigs and sticks, the nest measures six feet across. After all, bald eagles are big—especially when they spread their wings!

As exciting as the new eagle’s nest is, it adds a few wrinkles to LEEF’s plans. Federal law restricts activities for up to 650 feet from an active nesting site. More stringent limits apply closer in.

If the eagles stay at the nest and make it permanent, the limits will continue to apply. If the birds leave, that would mean fewer restrictions on the new research facility and other park activities. Yet their departure would also deprive visitors of the chance to see bald eagles up close—or at least as close as allowed under federal law.

“The next few weeks will be critical,” said Kirkwood, adding that she was “surprised” more birders hadn’t come out to the park yet to view the bald eagles.


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