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.

This Is Your Brain on Music

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 4:00 PM EST

brain%20200.jpgFor the past few years, I've been posing a question to all my music-enthusiast friends: Why do we like music? And more specifically, why do we like the particular music that we do? "There's no accounting for taste" simply doesn't cut it for me. I'd like someone to explain to me exactly what accounts for musical taste. So far, though, no one's been able to answer my question definitively.

All this has, however, led to some pretty interesting nature-vs.-nurture discussions. Most people I've asked are cheering for nurture. "My older brother was really into hardcore, and I ended up stealing all his mixtapes," they'll say. Or, "I liked this guy in high school who played in a punk band." Even, "I used to dance around my living room to my parents' Paul Simon tapes, so I've always had a soft spot for folk music."

So it's pretty clear that formative musical experiences influence our music preferences at least a little, but there's some scientific evidence that there's an organic component, too. Today, I came across an Innovation Canada interview with Daniel Levitin, a McGill University neuroscience professor who studies music's effect on our brains. Now don't get your hopes up: Levitin says that scientists have a long way to go before they'll be able to answer the taste question. But what's really interesting is Levitin's unique research method:

IC: You emphasize using actual music — not abstract electronic sounds — in your studies. Is rap music by Busta Rhymes better than classical Bach for your research purposes?
DL: Part of the challenge in designing a rigorous experiment is ensuring that each subject has something equivalent. In the old way of thinking, you played everybody the same piece of music, but if you hate classical music and I make you sit for an hour and answer difficult questions about music while listening to Beethoven, I may not be getting meaningful answers out of the experiment. The newer way of thinking is that we need to be flexible about equivalence across subjects. That doesn't mean a loss of rigour, it means that you might have an experiment where everyone brings in their own music and each subject serves as their own control. So, the experiment may steer more to [rapper] Ludacris than [virtuoso pianist/composer] Liszt depending on who your subject is.

So even if he can't explain taste, Levitin is obviously acknowledging that it exists—and that it's important. My challenge to Levitin: Find me a scientific explanation for the fact that anyone was ever into the Doors. Now that would be impressive.

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Divorce is Bad for the Planet

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 2:44 PM EST

"Oh, I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-E." Mother Nature probably agrees with Tammy Wynette. According to a recent Michigan State University study, divorce is taking a major toll on the environment.

Some of the findings:

* In the United States alone in 2005, divorced households used 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water that could have been saved had household size remained the same as that of married households. Thirty-eight million extra rooms were needed with associated costs for heating and lighting.

* In the United States and 11 other countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Greece, Mexico and South Africa between 1998 and 2002, if divorced households had combined to have the same average household size as married households, there could have been 7.4 million fewer households in these countries.

* The numbers of divorced households in these countries ranged from 40,000 in Costa Rica to almost 16 million in the United States around 2000.

* The number of rooms per person in divorced households was 33 percent to 95 percent greater than in married households.

But the researchers also point out that divorce is just part of the picture: In the U.S., multigenerational households have become less common over the past few decades. What's more, single people are putting off getting married, and hence living alone for longer. Seems like the only bright side about sky-high rent, then, is that it might actually make some cities greener (since fewer people can afford to live alone).

Creationism Kerfuffle Forces Texas Science Curriculum Head to Resign

| Fri Nov. 30, 2007 3:15 PM EST

Texas' director of science curriculum has been forced to resign over an e-mail she sent. What was in the offending message ? Trash talk about colleagues? Porn? Nope—it was about (drumroll, please) an upcoming lecture. The horror! Read more on the Blue Marble.

Texas Science Curriculum Director Resigns Over Creationism Kerfuffle

| Fri Nov. 30, 2007 2:29 PM EST

creation190.jpgThe science blogosphere is abuzz (here, here and here, for starters) with some juicy creationism news from Texas. According to the Austin American-Statesman, Chris Comer, the state's director of science curriculum, was pressured into resigning this month. Her crime? Forwarding an e-mail about an upcoming talk by creationism expert Barbara Forrest. (Now mind you, by "creationism expert," I don't mean "creationist." Barbara Forrest testified in the Dover trial, and according to Pharyngula blogger PZ Meyers, she had creationists shaking in their boots.)

Anyway, long story short, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) had a fit. A TEA memo obtained by the Statesman said, "Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral."

Now, never mind the fact that the neutrality for which Texas strives on the subject of creationism pretty much amounts to bad science. Even if neutrality is your goal—heck, even if you're the biggest creationist ever—you might still be interested in hearing what this Barbara Forrest has to say. And if you're a teacher, you're ostensibly interested in open forums, free exchange of ideas, etc. Tough luck for you if you're teaching in Texas. Talk about a hostile learning environment.

In Defense of Uncomfortable Air Travel

| Tue Nov. 27, 2007 2:55 PM EST

air%20travel%20200.jpgThe heaviest travel weekend of the year is over, and the verdict is in: "Flying coach has become an increasingly miserable experience," says the New York Times. In an article called "Aboard Planes, Class Conflict," Michelle Higgins enumerates the various ways in which modern air travel, well, sucks: The seats are tiny. Blankets and pillows are scarce. Free meals have become a distant memory.

This weekend, I traveled a round-trip total of 5,408 miles to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Boston. Sure, it was cramped (barely even enough room to turn the pages of Sky Mall) and the miniature allotment of pretzels (flung at me in my window-seat cave) didn't exactly tide me over for six hours, but basically, I spent most of both plane rides asleep, and the whole thing was astoundingly easy. From one coast to another! In only five hours! Coming back yesterday morning, I boarded the plane while it was still dark and rainy in Boston, but as the trip wore on the day dawned clear in the West, and I spent a good half hour staring out the window and marveling at how I was being whisked across the country. There go the snow-capped Rockies! Onto the Sierra Nevadas! I arrived at work in San Francisco only an hour late. I'd love to see my family more often, and after this easy trip back home, I began to think I could. But should I? Probably not.

Convenient though it may be, air travel is not exactly green. By some estimates, flights account for nearly four percent of human contribution to global warming. But there's a deeper problem, too. Environmentalists like Wendell Berry would argue that we've allowed ourselves to abuse our earth as much as we already have because we feel disconnected from it. No matter how tiny your seat is on a plane, it's pretty easy to feel divorced from the planet when you're zooming across it at 30,000 feet up.

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