Archive | March 2014

Getting the Hang of It

“Conservation is simple, once you get the hang of it.” So says the tag on the towel rack in my Homewood Suites hotel room. In the name of water and energy conservation, the tag encourages you to hang up your towels and reuse them. When you need new ones, you just leave them on the floor, and housekeeping will give you fresh ones.


In principle, this sounds like a good idea. In practice, hotels have yet to get the hang of it.

Homewood Suites by Hilton needs to get the hang of giving guests somewhere practical to hang towels so they dry.

Homewood Suites by Hilton needs to get the hang of giving guests somewhere practical to hang towels so they dry.


The problem from the hotel guest’s perspective is that there often isn’t anyplace you can hang your towel and expect it to be dry the next time you need it.


My current room at the Homewood Suites in Carle Place, New York, has a single towel rack placed less than a foot above the top of the toilet tank.


Try to hang your towel on the rack after a shower. It invariably drapes down over the top of the toilet tank, teasing fate as if it’s about to fall in.


I tried putting my towel on a hook on the back of the door. Much of it stayed bunched up and was still quite damp the next morning.


Putting the towel over the shower curtain rack isn’t practical either. As soon as my husband would shower, the towel would get all wet.


It’s not as if the hotel couldn’t have provided a practical towel rack. Get rid of the giant poster hanging over the top of the towel rack, move the towel rack up another 30 inches, and you have a practical solution. Or, leave the poster in place, and mount a towel rack on the side wall, 40 inches above the toilet paper.


Better still, put two or more towel racks in the bathroom. Hotel suites like this can easily sleep four to six people. But there’s nowhere to hang the towels so they dry.


This isn’t the only hotel with this problem. My husband and I have stayed at lovely luxury hotels that provide six to eight fluffy pillows, but less than 24 inches of towel-hanging space.


Tags touting water and energy conservation may get brownie points from the U.S. Green Building Council or other groups. But real conservation and energy efficiency happen only when companies make it practical for people to follow through.


Conservation may be simple, once you get the hang of it. Let’s hope hotels get the message soon.


Ohio Consumers Could Face a Catch-22

My latest feature at Midwest Energy News focuses on pending state court cases that could leave Ohio consumers out of luck in rate reviews.

The Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center is home to the Supreme Court of Ohio and its affiliated offices, the Ohio Court of Claims, and the Ohio Judicial Conference. Image courtesy of the Ohio Supreme Court.

The Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center is home to the Supreme Court of Ohio and its affiliated offices, the Ohio Court of Claims, and the Ohio Judicial Conference. Image courtesy of the Ohio Supreme Court.

Ohio coal-price case could leave consumers out of luck

A case before the Ohio Supreme Court could leave the state’s ratepayers with no way to recover unreasonable utility overcharges.  Read more…

5 Things I Really Don’t Need To Know

An item on Yahoo! Shine today tempts readers with the headline “5 Things You Need to Know About Prince George’s New Nanny.” The article is reprinted from The Bump.

Who do the editors think they’re kidding?

I really don’t need to know anything about Prince George’s new nanny. Nor do more than 99.9 percent of the people likely to see the headline. We won’t be meeting and interacting with her. We’re not likely to consider hiring her after she leaves the British royalty’s employment. And we’re certainly not considering kidnapping the little baby—in which case Maria’s Tae-Kwon Do and stunt driving could foil our attempt.

Even readers who are considering hiring a nanny right now probably aren’t looking for those skills. They want someone who will engage and stimulate their children while caring for them safely. They want someone who will be reliable and trustworthy when it comes to showing up on time and following parents’ instructions. And they’d like someone who can be flexible—adjusting to the children’s needs and the demands that parents’ jobs can place on them from time to time.

In short, the editors’ headline is nothing more than a grab for attention. It may get some gullible folks to read the article. But then they’d find there’s nothing there they need to know.

Headlines about x things you need to know are nothing new. They provide an easy format for both the writer and reader. And they tempt readers to follow up. “Hmmm, what are those 5 things I need to know?” they might ask.

But then the body of the article is supposed to have information that people really do need to know. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some excellent examples.

5 Things you can do to lower your child’s lead level” offers five practical steps parents can take. If I had young children and lived in an area where lead poisoning was a possibility, I’d get started on those steps right away.

5 Things You Need to Know about Tuberculosis (TB)” does cover basic facts in a helpful Q&A format. With one-third of the world’s people being infected with the bacteria that cause the disease, this really is information we all should know. “Almost 2 million deaths worldwide occur each year from TB,” reports the CDC. TB is one of the world’s deadliest diseases, and it affects people around the world—including thousands in the United States.

When headlines don’t deliver on their promise about “things you need to know,” that’s a problem. The editors of Yahoo! Shine and The Bump might not care about their credibility. But readers are then likely to be skeptical about whether other news articles really will offer news points they need to know.

I probably wouldn’t have been in a snit if the headline had read, “5 Fascinating Facts about Prince George’s New Nanny.” I might or might not find all of them fascinating. But at least I’d have been fairly told that I was basically going to read trivia.

And yes, I realize Yahoo! Shine and The Bump are not noted for being pinnacles of journalism. But the more often hype like this gets used, the worse it is for both writers and readers.

Found ‘Em!

Credit: BICEP2 Collaboration

Swirly B-mode pattern.  Credit: BICEP2 Collaboration

Researchers on the BICEP2 project in Antarctica celebrated yesterday. And it wasn’t because of St. Patrick’s Day.

The researchers say they’ve found the first direct evidence of gravitational waves. Physicist Albert Einstein theorized about them more than a century ago. However, no one has directly seen them.

When I wrote about gravity for ODYSSEY last year, physicist Xavier Siemens at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee compared gravitational waves to light waves. Shaking around an electric charge generates light, he told me. “When you shake around a mass, you generate a wave of gravity.”

So why were researchers looking for gravitational waves with a microwave telescope in Antarctica? After all, it’s cold year round and pizza delivery is sparse.

“The South Pole is the closest you can get to space and still be on the ground,” explained John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in a press release announcing the discovery. “It’s one of the driest and clearest locations on Earth, perfect for observing the faint microwaves from the Big Bang.”

Gravitational waves squeeze space as they move, and that distortion causes patterns in the cosmic microwave background. That’s a faint glow of electromagnetic radiation left over from the Big Bang.

Scattering causes the glow to become polarized. Polarization restricts a wave’s vibrations in whole or in part.

Researchers expected gravitational waves would cause polarized microwaves to have a certain type of swirly pattern. And they found it.

“The swirly B-mode pattern is a unique signature of gravitational waves because of their handedness,” Chao-Lin Kuo at Stanford University noted in the press release. Just as your thumbs point in one direction or another, handedness of a wave tells whether its pattern goes to the left or right.

“This is the first direct image of gravitational waves across the primordial sky,” Kuo added.

The researchers hadn’t expected the signal to be as strong as it was, however.

“This has been like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead we found a crowbar,” Clem Pryke of the University of Minnesota noted in the press release.

Finding evidence of gravitational waves helps confirm physicists’ ideas about what gravity is made of. More importantly, it also acts as confirmation of the Big Bang and the rapid expansion of the early universe.

If further work confirms the discovery, it could open a “new chapter in astronomy, cosmology and physics,” reports the journal Nature.

I Can Has Salmon Burger?

Despite vegetarianism becoming more and more popular, a press release today seems to champion eating animal protein—at least for older people. “Diets High in Animal Protein May Help Prevent Functional Decline in Elderly Individuals,” it says.

I wonder if this could this be the Holy Grail that meat lovers like my husband have been waiting for: a blessing to indulge because animal protein is good for you.

I also think of the famous meme showing a hopeful cat and the caption, “I can has cheezburger?”

Although it was originally embargoed until March 13, an email this afternoon now says the embargo has been lifted “effective immediately.” The full paper has been published online by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, explains the email. But the import seems to say that this is news that should be broadcast now. And yup, I was curious.

The study looked at diet and health factors for more than 1,000 elderly Japanese people living in the community. After seven years, the men in the highest quartile for eating animal protein had a 39-percent lower chance of experiencing high-level functional decline than the quartile that ate the least animal protein.

“Along with other modifiable health behaviors, keeping high protein intake could contribute to maintain elderly functional capacity,” study co-author Megumi Tsubota Utsugi said in the press release. She’s at the National Institute of Health and Nutrition in Japan. Other study co-authors are at Japan’s Tohoku University and Teikyo University.

Sounds good for cheeseburger lovers, right? Not quite.

Apparently, being in the top quartile for eating fish was linked to the lower health risks for decline. “[W]hereas meat intake was not associated,” says the study.

On the other hand, the study didn’t say not to eat cheeseburgers at all. I know a lot of folks who will take comfort in that.

In any case, it seems salmon burgers are good for you. And a grilled tuna sandwich could hit the spot too.

Then again, there’s a whole range of concerns about sustainable fishing practices, environmental pollution, and other factors. When I interviewed Steve Teo at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last year, he said he often refers people to different “fish watch” lists, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommendations. “That’s a reasonably good source,” he told me.

It’s also important to note that the new study from the Japanese researchers found a statistical association. And an association is not necessarily the same as causation. In this case, the researchers note, men who ate less animal protein also tended to have a less healthy diet overall.

Also, the association was not seen in women. The different results between men and women weren’t entirely explained. However, the study notes, one factor there might be the relative degrees of muscle mass preservation.

From my perspective, I guess the bottom line is to eat a generally healthy diet. And, I suppose, I should keep up the regular exercise regimen too.

At least I got a walk in today, along with a weight workout at the gym. But maybe I’ll order something other than a cheeseburger when I go out tonight.

When the weather finally gets warmer and we’re barbecuing outside, though, that’s a whole other story.

“People To Shoot”

“Okay, now look like you’re telling each other some big news.”

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

“Is it okay if we really talk?”

Yesterday morning I did a short photo shoot with a couple of friends’ daughters for a science article I’m working on. An expert I’d interviewed talked about networks for spreading news among junior high school students, so I’m thinking it would be great if the final article includes an image of real junior high students sharing news. Hence, my request and gratitude to the two good sports who helped me out, as well as their moms who gave permission in advance.

The client for this particular article asks writers to identify a couple of images that would help illustrate the article, and the target audience is indeed students. After the girls left, I uploaded the images to my computer and tinkered a bit. I cleaned up one or two bits or red eye, adjusted brightness, and made sure the images were sharp. Then I selected the best, wrote captions, and finalized a memo describing how one of these and images from other sources would help illustrate different points of my article.

Even when a client doesn’t require that, thinking visually can help shape my writing. For starters, it makes me focus on the particular outlet. How might my article appear to that outlet’s target reader? Even though I write with my own voice, each piece needs to be a good fit for its outlet. And it must be accessible to those particular target readers.

Focusing on possible images makes the subject come alive for me. The more real and the more interesting I find it, the better I can understand it and convey its importance through my writing.

Thinking visually also helps me focus on what I want to say. The photo captions for my own images and those from other sources need to be short and accurate. They also need to convey how the image relates to the subject of the article. This makes me focus: Why is this photo relevant? What does it say? How does that relate to my topic? After I write the captions, I go back and review my article. Does it clearly make the points that the photo captions say? If not, I need to polish my writing more.

Taking some of my own images for articles has also created some fun memories. Back when my kids were younger, they and their friends would pose for different photo shoots. We did one for a meteor-watching party and another for a piece on how to do a time release image of star tracks. Afterward, we all celebrated with a dessert.

Yet another project illustrated points for a book on teens’ legal rights. My younger daughter volunteered to help line up friends for different shots. She even obligingly came up with a list, titled “People To Shoot.” For a few boys, she even included a note to avoid days they caddied: “Wednesdays are not good for them.”

This raises a whole other question about how words can have multiple meanings and how to avoid having something said in one context misconstrued in another. But that’s a whole other article. And I’m thinking a close-up of a camera would be just the shot to illustrate it.

Cow Science

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

“Do the cows come when you call their name?”

I posed this question to a dairy barn worker at Ohio’s Lake Farmpark. Her answer was negative. The names were mostly so the staff could tell one cow from another. “Cows are pretty stupid,” the worker told me.

Now it turns out that cows aren’t so stupid after all. And cows learn better with the buddy system. So says a new study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE.

Researchers found that calves housed in pairs learned better than calves that were kept alone. One test measured how interested calves were in a red plastic bin put into their pen as a novel object. Paired cows learned more quickly to recognize and then ignore the bin. You have to wonder if one said to the other, “Hmm—that old thing again? Wish they’d get us something in a bright yellow—with food!”

Another test tasked cows with figuring out whether to go to a black bottle full of milk or an empty white bottle. When the researchers switched the rules so the white bottle would be full, the paired cows were quicker on the uptake.

Farmers often use individual pens for calves to reduce disease risks. But small groups of two or three limits that risk, says Dan Weary. He’s a professor in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia.

Meanwhile, Europe’s FECUND study reports that cow fertility is “not so black and white.” Breeding programs in the 1960s and 1970s boosted Holstein milk production—but apparently at the expense of genes for fertility. Researchers are now looking for genetic markers to reverse a recent decline in cow fertility. CommNet and posted the news on AlphaGalileo.

Dairy farmers should be interested in both studies. After all, they need cows to have calves if they’re going to keep producing milk—and to have cows for the next generation.

Contemporary cows also need to learn more than how to feed. Robotic milking and similar systems only work if cows can figure out how to use them.

Speaking of cool cow machines, Michigan’s Kellogg Biological Station has a huge cow massager at its Pasture Dairy Center. All a cow has to do is stand in the right place, hit a switch, and a huge roller sweeps down to work out all the kinks.

The cows have certainly figured out how to work that one. I guess cows are a lot smarter than you think.