Things I Like

Seabirds and Bacteria

I had some free time at the beach recently in Woods Hole, Mass., before starting a week of lectures and meetings with some of the most impressive oceanographers in the world. But I forgot to bring a book, so I occupied myself by watching seabirds harass a pair of beachgoers who’d brought snacks and thought it wise to share.

White gulls, brown gulls and several other shorebirds hopped along the sand with (mostly) quiet anticipation, until a thrown bit of food sent them into a flurry of screeches and feathers. It was all very entertaining, but I might have been more concerned about this had I first seen science writer Maryn McKenna’s dispatch from an infectious diseases meeting in Chicago. These birds were probably depositing nasty drug-resistant bacteria right at our feet.

McKenna reports on a small study of seagulls at Miami Beach, whose stools (such as they are) were found to contain 83 isolates of gut bacteria, including 21 drug-resistant forms of E. coli. “Seagulls could be an important vector of multi-drug resistant bacteria,” said study author Dr. Patrice Nordmann of the Hopital de Bicetre near Paris. And earlier studies seem to bolster this theory: ordmann and others have found similar results in Portugal, Siberia, Alaska, Greenland, Russia and the south of France, McKenna reports on her blog at Wired.

What does this mean for beach lovers? In most cases, a good scrubbing will eliminate the vast majority of bacteria from your clothes and your body, so it’s not like you should avoid the beach just because of the gulls. But it does suggest a smart beach strategy: Don’t feed the birds! If they stay at a healthy distance, maybe their poo will, too.

Industry and NASA’s Future Vision

Can private industry really replace the government’s most mystical agency? Washington Monthly magazine tackles the question this month, in a story that illuminates the divide within NASA about its future vision. It’s especially timely given the news last week that NASA canned Jeff Hanley, a rogue administrator who defied the White House and told workers to keep the Constellation program going.

As the Obama administration prepares for a congressional fight over NASA’s future, editor Charles Holmans wonders whether free enterprise — the market kind, not the space kind — could be the savior of the space program.

The recession is a unique problem for the hallowed agency. Its current near-Earth orbit missions are expensive, but so is planning for an uncertain future. In the current economic climate, it’s got to be one or the other.

The Obama administration aims to focus NASA on deep-space research and science missions, and remove the emphasis on sending humans to space. The administration hopes private enterprise can fill that void.

Holmans says it can be done, so long as businesses can figure out how to make rockets and space cargo trips profitable.

His proof of concept? The Kelly Air Mail program of the 1920s. Congress allowed commercial airlines to bid on U.S. Postal Service delivery contracts, which in turn let airlines to expand their routes. Demand for cargo increased, flights got cheaper, and as the public realized air travel was safe, passenger traffic grew.

It’s worth pointing out something Holmans doesn’t — the other result of the air mail act was the pioneering spirit it engendered. Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, gained the experience and confidence he needed to fly alone on instruments as an air mail pilot between Chicago and St. Louis.

Private space entrepeneurs like Richard Branson and Elon Musk are of a similar mold. There’s no reason private enterprise can’t inspire us, too.

Shooting the moon

Tonight, NASA will crash a rocket into the moon — on purpose, of course. You can watch online and read all about it in my latest story:

The harvest moon–which came a couple weeks late this year, on Oct. 4–has long allowed farmers to gather their crops late into the night, using moonlight as a beacon.

Someday, the moon might yield a harvest of its own, thanks to a natural supply of water. A NASA probe is set to crash into the moon this week in search of that potential bounty. Here’s how you can watch it from here on Earth.

Salad with a side of danger

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Neither blowfish nor butter are as dangerous to your health as your salad Nicoise, according to a new report authored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Health foods like leafy greens, eggs and tuna top the list of the 10 riskiest foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

So does that mean we can ditch health food and start feeling good about ground beef? Probably not. But you should take extra caution when washing your produce, which, along with eggs and fish, are responsible for about 40 percent of all food-borne disease outbreaks, the CSPI says in a new study announced Tuesday.

“Outbreaks give the best evidence of where and when the food safety system is failing to protect the public,” said CSPI staff attorney Sarah Klein, the lead author of the report.

The study does not include beef, pork or poultry, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and which present plenty of peril on their own. But the FDA regulates 80 percent of the food supply, including produce, seafood, dairy products and most packaged goods like peanut butter.

Continue reading “Salad with a side of danger”

It’s easier to buy something than to sell it

I just had a garage sale for the first time, and it was a somewhat shocking experience. I’m moving from Colorado to St. Louis, and my husband and I decided to upgrade some of our furniture, which means leaving our old, pre-wedding stuff behind. We’d rather make a few bucks on it than just give it all away, so we decided to host a garage sale with some friends who are moving to London and also need to ditch their things.

We don’t exactly frequent garage sales, so we had no idea what would be a fair price for something like a coffee table, a set of golf clubs or an old telescope. We basically settled on a few bucks for everything and figured people might bargain for a few bucks off. But it was far worse than I expected. Americans, I decided, are vultures.

By 7:15 a.m., an elderly man showed up and offered me $5 for my husband’s old PlayStation 2 and a stack of games, hoping his iPod-owning granddaughter would like it. We’d asked $15 for the lot, which I thought was more than fair, but apparently this guy thought that was a ripoff. Tired and anxious, I accepted his $5 and watched him walk to his car with a pile of what probably would have earned us five times that amount at a video game store.

An hour later, we sold our swamp cooler — for which we’d paid $100 a year ago — for $15, bargained down from $25. I started getting uncomfortable.

People showed up and rummaged through my old jewelry, rejecting most items and occasionally asking to pay 50 cents for something they did like. A father and son came by asking for tennis racquets. We hadn’t thought about selling ours, but my husband, eager to have less to pack, offered them both for $4.

Later, a woman said she liked my dish set, but was bummed it was green instead of blue, and asked if I had a blue set she could buy. It’s a garage sale, lady, I thought. This is all I have.

That last line became somewhat of a mental refrain throughout the day, as people placed so little value on things that, to me, once had plenty. This is all I have, and I am practically giving it away, yet you want to pay even less, you heartless strangers!

To me, my white-ash wood kitchen table is worth years of memories; I remember many Thanksgivings and Christmases shared around its veneer-covered surface. But to you, obnoxious shirtless college guy, it is worth just $100, with chairs (I got him to pay $120).

I know it’s shallow to feel attached to material things — they aren’t worth much, a fact laid out in stark relief at my sale. But still … they are valuable.

I have a friend who goes to garage sales and thrift shops to buy old picture frames, most of which still have family photos in them. She hangs them throughout the house as if she knows the people in them — she calls them her Faux Family, and even gives them names, like Flo Faux or Mo Faux. She likes them because they’re quirky. But I find it touching — these old pictures, things formerly valued and beloved, are able to find a new home. I don’t think the woman who bought my sailboat painting for $1.50 will feel that kind of special connection.

Next time, I think we’ll skip the scavenger-baiting sale and bring our stuff to the ARC. That way, our things will provide work for someone who needs a job, and someone will probably pay more for it in the store than they would on my front lawn. And I won’t have to bargain away my things for pennies on the dollar.