Archive | August 2013

Spicing Things Up

Prehistoric chefs didn’t have fancy foodie kitchens. Nonetheless, New Stone Age people liked to spice things up. New research in the Public Library of Science shows that people were cooking with mustard seed as early as 6,100 years ago.

Hayley Saul and other scientists from the University of York tested chemical residues in old pot shards found in Denmark. Among other things, they found plant residues similar to modern garlic mustard seeds.

Garlic mustard has little energy value, but it packs a punch of taste.

“Until now it has been widely accepted that the calorific content of foods was of primary importance in the decisions by hunter-gatherers about what to eat,” said Saul when PloS announced the research.

For example, the pot shards also had fat residues from marine and land animals, plus some evidence of starchy plant foods. The new study confirms that taste factored into hunter-gatherers’ food choices too.

Earlier studies had shown the use of spices such as poppy seeds and dill dates back 5,000 years. By that time, though, agriculture had begun. The new research shows hunter-gatherers had also discovered and used spices.

“[I]t is now established that the habit of enhancing and altering the flavor of calorie rich staples was part of European cuisine as far back as the 7th millennia BC,” said Saul.

Now that’s some tasty news!

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Photo by sannse, Tapeley Park, Instow, North Devon, 14 May 2004 (Wikimedia Commons).

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Photo by sannse, Tapeley Park, Instow, North Devon, 14 May 2004 (Wikimedia Commons).


Is This Clear, NFL?

Earlier this week, I wrote about the foibles and frustrations of NFL’s new “Be Clear” policy.

In my view, the policy clearly imposes a disproportionate burden on women. With another exhibition game coming up tonight at Browns Stadium, it’s time to point out another obvious flaw with the policy.

Specifically, NFL now limits any carry-in bags to clear plastic totes that don’t exceed 12” x 6” x 12”.  I’ve made my own bag, because I refuse on principle to shell out $9.95 plus tax for a branded bag that would add to NFL’s coffers.

Yet while the bag may be transparent, the stuff we put inside it won’t be.

That’s right, NFL: Except for air, the stuff fans carry inside their see-through bags is not invisible.

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

As a case in point, here’s my see-through 12” x 6” x 12” tote. Inside, there’s a hooded sweatshirt, a cut-off tee shirt, a fabric flower, two knives, a corkscrew, a pair of scissors, 4 blue-tinted supermarket bags, and a tomato.

Now, I have no intention whatsoever of trying to smuggle any banned items into Browns Stadium or anywhere else that they’re not allowed. And I certainly do not want anyone reading this to disobey applicable law or regulations.

My point is only that making fans go to the trouble of getting a see-through bag doesn’t eliminate the task of actually looking into or otherwise scanning those bags for banned items.

In short, the world is not invisible!

And no, NFL, you can’t realistically expect people to only put see-through clothing, see-through tissues, see-through medicines, see-through cameras, see-through phones, or see-through personal products in their see-through bags.

Thus, as far as I can see, the policy adds nothing to safety. Consequently, there is no justification for its disproportionate—and hence discriminatory—impact on women.

This is perfectly clear to me. And it should be clear to the NFL too.

Earth-shaking News!

Eath's major tectonic plates.  Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Eath’s major tectonic plates.
Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Plate tectonics affects all of us in more ways than you think. Check out my first feature for Science News for Kids:

“How Earth’s surface morphs”

Sew what, NFL!

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

The NFL has a new “public safety policy” this year: no purse, no fanny pack, no diaper bag, no backpack, not even a binocular case.

In my view, NFL’s “Be Clear” policy clearly has a discriminatory effect on women. We wouldn’t mess with a purse if clothing manufacturers gave us enough roomy pockets for us to carry around our necessary stuff.

You’re lucky if you can fit a small coin purse in some of the front slash pockets of the pricier slacks sold at Coldwater Creek, Chicos, and JCPenney. And don’t get me started on those fake welt decorations on the backs of pants. They promise a pocket, but give you nothing.

Thus, NFL’s “Be Clear” policy won’t really affect whether guys can carry in their wallets, chewing gum, combs, and other stuff securely. Many women, however, will either have to leave the wallet at home or scour stores for pants that can accommodate it.

Fortunately, I have the luxury of saying, “Sew what, NFL!” When I go to games this year, I’ll be wearing some of my clothes made from Saf-T-Pockets patterns.

And while lots of NFL teams will likely be selling overpriced see-through bags, I can make my own 12” x 6” x 12” clear plastic bag. And I already have!

I don’t got to a lot of NFL games, but the last thing I want to worry about is how to carry in my stuff. Nor do I want to buy one of the NFL’s bags and let them profit from a policy that I believe has a discriminatory effect.

What’s more, I made a separate bag for my friend Tina. She’s got season tickets, so she goes to a LOT of games. Tina’s tote is a slightly different design, with a top-closing zipper for security. The zipper is pink, of course.

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Unfortunately, any necessary personal products will still be on view for everyone to see. It wouldn’t be so bad if the NFL’s restrooms dispensed free sanitary products or disposable diapers of different sizes.

My response: Slip-in sleeves on both bags I made carry a quote from the character Esposito in Woody Allen’s classic movie, Bananas:

“In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.”

It’s probably too much to hope that the gate checkers will see through to the irony.

Sleepy Little Owlets

A new study from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the University of Lausanne brings eye-opening revelation: Baby birds’ sleep patterns are similar to those of baby mammals—including people.

The study focused specifically on barn owls in the wild. Scientists tracked sleep patterns for both adult and baby owls, who are called owlets.

Like mammals, birds have both REM and non-REM sleep periods. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement, and it’s the phase in which we do most of our dreaming.

The scientists also found that periods of REM and non-REM sleep changed for the owls depending on age. This also happens with humans. About half of newborn humans’ sleep is REM sleep. The figure is only about 20 to 25 percent for adults.

So, what do adorable owlets dream about?

We can only guess.

Image by Fabrizio Sergio from EurekAlert!

Image by Fabrizio Sergio from EurekAlert!


Trash Talk

Today’s Wall Street Journal carries a front-page article on the National Park Service’s “Carry In Carry Out” policy along George Washington Memorial Parkway. According to reporter Elizabeth Williamson, NPS chief groundskeeper Anthony Migliaccio justifies  the program as a way to free up trash haulers to pursue “more noble beautification projects.”

Let’s be honest: The program is a way for the parks to save money.

Carry In Carry Out policies don’t reduce the total amount of trash our society has to handle. They just shift the costs back to people who actually comply—and then to whoever is in charge of the facility where they ultimately dispose of the trash.

During my conference last week at Maumee Bay State Park, I discovered that Ohio has a similar  “program.” During my early morning beach walk, there was nowhere to throw out my coffee cup. So, okay, I carried it back to the lodge and plopped it into a can. I was actually staying at the lodge, so that wasn’t a problem. But now I’m wondering how many day visitors to the park do the same thing. Isn’t it somewhat unfair for the lodge to have higher trash disposal costs because the adjacent state park beach has no trash cans?

The beach at Maumee Bay State Park has no trash cans. Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

The beach at Maumee Bay State Park has no trash cans.
Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Proponents of the policy will say people should just put their trash in a bag and carry it back home with them. But suppose you’re traveling. Food remains can get quite rank after a while. And if there’s an infant in diapers, the stench of a dirty diaper can cause the whole family to get carsick.

Some people might stomach the stench temporarily until they get to the first gas station or restaurant or other business along the road. Again, the cost is just being shifted to someone else.

Other people would find some other way to toss the trash. Even the NPS’s Migliaccio recanted and replaced a trash can in one area after people put lots of garbage in the area’s Porta Potties. At least he didn’t remove the Porta Potties—although I have to wonder if that crossed his mind.

Parks are public places that attract travelers. Part of the costs for operating those public spaces is providing necessary infrastructure. That includes transportation, water, and sanitation. And I expect that to be included in my taxes and public park fees.

We’re told to “Put litter in its place.” Take away trash cans, and you encourage litter.

The United States has come a long way since the 1970s’ Keep America Beautiful ad campaigns. For my part, I’d prefer that our parks provide services that encourage people to use the parks and keep them clean.

Pretty Invasive

Wrestling with weeds sometimes seems like a no-win situation. I don’t mind the spreading spearmint too much in my garden. However, the scraggly sage makes me struggle to strip it out. Prickly thistles are even worse.

You might guess weeds wouldn’t be a worry out in the wild, but think again. Sometimes even pretty plants threaten to take over huge tracts. And when those plants are outside invaders, they can crush the natural ecological balance.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to observe a few of these invasive plants firsthand while walking through the swamp at Maumee Bay State Park in Ohio. The park’s boardwalk loops let visitors safely explore the area up close without sinking into goo.

Phragmites (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

First, I saw phragmites. (Say FRAG-might-ease). These coarse, reedy grasses can grow more than 12 feet tall. Yet they spread like crazy, crowding out native species and reducing overall diversity.

Purple loosestrife is also on the loose out at Maumee Bay. It also crowds out native plants, reducing diversity and providing poorer food resources for wildlife.

These plants looked pretty as I was out on my walk. But they and other non-native plants can also be pretty invasive.

Purple loosestrife  (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Purple loosestrife
(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

One more thing: Thanks to the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources. Their workshop on agriculture and water quality in Lake Erie was the reason I was out at Maumee Bay in the first place. The presentations and discussion were fantastic and provided lots of great ideas for me to pursue in my work as a freelance journalist. The workshop also added to my understanding about complex water quality and agriculture issues facing the Great Lakes region.