Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

Quarterlife: Angst 2.0

| Mon Nov. 19, 2007 7:30 PM EST

Sure, My So-Called Life was cheesy, but as a 14-year-old, I bought the sixteenth best cult show ever hook line and sinker. I swooned over dreamy Jordan Catalano. Rayanne "I Wear My Slip on the Outside" Graff was my grunge fashion inspiration. When Angela Chase observed, "My parents keep asking how school was. It's like saying, 'How was that drive-by shooting?' You don't care how it was, you're lucky to get out alive," I thought, How true.

So when I heard that the new web series Quarterlife was produced by MSCL masterminds Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, I hoped it would be just like old times. The problem was, it is.

The premise of the show is familiar enough TV territory: Twentysomethings share house, drama, shenanigans (see Three's Company, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, for starters). In each 8-minute episode, the gang does all the things that we've expected modern singles to do ever since, well, Singles: They flop onto their unmade beds. They leave empty beer bottles around their kitchens. They wonder whether to move in with their girlfriends and boyfriends.

The bummer is this:

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The USDA's E. coli Loophole

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 3:54 PM EST

3ec1.jpgWhat do you do with meat that's contaminated with E. coli bacteria? Slap a "cook-only" label on and sell that shit (pun definitely intended), says the USDA.

The Chicago Tribune reports on a little known "E. Coli loophole:" If the deadly bacteria is found in meat during processing, companies can still sell the meat if they label it as "cook-only." The reasoning seems sound, since cooking kills the germs, but inspectors say the practice is more dangerous than it appears:

...some USDA inspectors say the "cook only" practice means that higher-than-appropriate levels of E. coli are tolerated in packing plants, raising the chance that clean meat will become contaminated. They say the "cook only" practice is part of the reason for this year's sudden rise in incidents of E. coli contamination.

E. coli has been making headlines a whole lot lately. First there was the spinach scare; then the Topps recall; and just a few weeks ago, the Cargill recall. There's no evidence that the cook-only loophole has to do with any of this, but it sure doesn't make hamburgers sound any more appetizing.

Columbia Dating Scientists Up the Heeby-Jeeby Factor

| Fri Nov. 9, 2007 5:01 PM EST

dating.jpgNumber one on Slate's "most read" list at the moment is "An Economist Goes to a Bar and Solves the Mysteries of Dating." The name pretty much says it all: A bunch of researchers from the economics department at Columbia ran a speed-dating service for students at a favorite campus watering hole. After each mini-date, participants were asked to rate their partners on variables such as attractiveness, intelligence, and ambition. Their findings were a cliché come true: Men "did put significantly more weight on their assessment of a partner's beauty, when choosing, than women did," and "intelligence ratings were more than twice as important in predicting women's choices as men's." As for ambition, men "avoided women whom they perceived to be smarter than themselves. The same held true for measures of career ambition—a woman could be ambitious, just not more ambitious than the man considering her for a date."

What does it all mean? Simply refer to this neat little paragraph that sums up the researchers' findings:

So, yes, the stereotypes appear to be true: We males are a gender of fragile egos in search of a pretty face and are threatened by brains or success that exceeds our own. Women, on the other hand, care more about how men think and perform, and they don't mind being outdone on those scores.

Never mind the depressing fact that these unimpressive, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus-ish attitudes are present at Columbia, where your typical student is supposed to be busy learning how to "work across disciplines, embrace complexity, and become a fluid, fearless, forward-looking global citizen and scholar." Far more unsettling is the fact that a key point seems to have evaded both the researchers and Slate: Complex and fluid though it may be, Columbia University is most certainly not a microcosm of the larger world. Just because 400 Columbia students (who most likely have a slightly different relationship with the terms "ambition" and "intelligence" from the rest of the population) embraced these unfortunate stereotypes doesn't mean everyone else does.

The researchers' creepiest conclusion by far, though, was that "women got more dates when they won high marks for looks." From whom did the women win these high marks? Not their speed dating partners, but "research assistants, who were hired for the much sought-after position of hanging out in a bar to rate the dater's level of attractiveness on a scale of one to 10." File under: Ewwww!

This all brings us to the ultimate question: Don't Columbia economists have better things to do than scope out co-eds at a campus bar?

No Justice In Climate Change

| Thu Nov. 8, 2007 4:00 PM EST

Global-warming-maps_hi-res-sm.jpgWhen it comes to global warming, discussions tend to get real abstract, real fast. How will climbing temperatures actually affect you? Well, it depends where you live—and how rich you are (or aren't). According to a forthcoming study, climate change will disproportionately impact the world's poor.

Jonathan Patz, a professor of public health and the environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of the study's lead authors (and also an IPCC author). Patz says it's time for those of us in the gas-guzzling-est of countries to come to terms with the painful (and inconvenient) truth: Our lifestyle is bad news for the developing world—and we've got an ethical problem on our hands. In a UW-Madison press release, Patz says:

If energy demand drives up the price of corn, for example, this can inflict undue burden on poor or malnourished populations or shift agricultural areas away from other traditional food crops.

And then there are the health issues:

There are many serious diseases that are sensitive to climate, and as earth's climate changes, so too can the range and transmission of such diseases....Many of these climate-sensitive diseases, such as malaria, malnutrition, and diarrhea, affect children.

This isn't the first time someone has pointed out the unfairness of climate change. Among others, Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier has noted that her people's carbon output is a tiny fraction of the U.S.'s, yet global warming is already threatening the Inuit way of life. The IPCC has also predicted that poor people—particularly those in Africa—will be hardest hit by climate change.

To read the study, you'll have to wait till next week, when it will be published in the journal EcoHealth, but you can already check out these cool maps—one shows countries' relative carbon outputs, while the other shows their vulnerability to the effects of climate change.

Wolf Controversy Resurfaces

| Wed Nov. 7, 2007 5:41 PM EST

wolvesnew.jpgA few years ago, a 22-year-old student was killed in the wilds of Saskatchewan, and evidence suggested that wild wolves were the culprits. The incident was widely reported in the media, since there had never before been a documented case of death-by-wolves in North America. Last week, the coroner's inquest finally finished, and the wolves were found guilty. But some wildlife experts still have their doubts. Goat, the blog over at High Country News, has a good summary of the controversy.

The debate about the Saskatchewan incident reminds us that we've never had an easy relationship with wolves in North America. They loom large in our mythology—both Native American and European—and they've come to represent a truly wild part of our landscape. We tend to romanticize this wildness, casting wolves either as mystical beasts or angry killers. (And some of us want them in our bedrooms—WTF?)

Amidst all the T-shirts, sheet sets, and other wolf propaganda, we tend to forget that wolves are, um, actual wild animals, too. During the westward expansion, we hunted so many gray wolves that the species was nearly extinct. But thanks to protection under the Endangered Species Act and a reintroduction program, these days, wolves have made a comeback. In 2004, gray wolf populations in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and parts of other states around the Great Lakes were officially removed from the federal list of endangered species. Sizable wolf populations in the Rocky Mountains have some people cheering and others up in arms, literally. Ranchers in the Rockies have trouble protecting their sheep, and a few hunters have reported that their dogs have been attacked, too. Right now, wolves in the Rockies are listed as "non-essential experimental populations," and the EPA is currently considering revising the wolf rules for these areas.

High Country News points out that the decision in the Saskatchewan case "bolsters those who continue to oppose wolves in the West." It'll be interesting to see how everyone reacts—the mystical wolf T-shirt crowd and the angry wolf T-shirt crowd alike.


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