Cosmos: A Spacetime Controversy?

Helix Nebula
Helix Nebula, as seen from the Hubble Telescope. Photo courtesy of NASA

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered it’s second episode this past Sunday. This show is a follow up of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980)

The second episode, which focuses on molecules, contains information about the origin of life and evolution. This can be a controversial topic that many religious people may not enjoy watching, but I think the show’s host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, presented it very intelligently and non-threateningly.

“Some claim that evolution is just a theory, as if it were merely an opinion. The theory of evolution — like the theory of gravity — is a scientific fact. Evolution really happened. Accepting our kinship with all life on Earth is not only solid science. In my view, it’s also a soaring spiritual experience,” Tyson said during the program.

Some people, mainly Creationists, did not like Tyson’s outlook of the theory of evolution. Danny Faulkner, Professor of Astronomy and a Creationist, was interviewed on The Janet Mefferd Show. Faulkner said he thought it was only fair Creationists received a chance to rebuttal the claims made by Tyson in the show.

Faulkner said; “I don’t recall seeing any interviews with people – that may yet come – but it’s based upon the narration from the host and then various types of little video clips of various things, cartoons and things like that.”

Tyson had made a statement earlier in the month during a radio interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. In the interview, Tyson about one-third “Western/American scientists who claim that there is a god to whom they pray” and they’re “fully functioning” as scientists. He said problems arise when they use scripture as their source for theories.

Overall, I know there will probably be conflicting views of creationism versus the big bang theory for a long time, but I’m glad I can tune into the show to learn more about the major scientific theories there are about the universe.


Pharmaceutical companies; are they helping us stay healthy, or are they selling sickness?

Recently, I read an article from NPR about how people in the United States are often rushing to get brain scans at the first sign of a headache to make sure they don’t have a brain tumor. Researchers at the University of Michigan have found people in the US spend around one billion dollars a year because they have a simple headache.

This made me think about the state of the medical system in the US. In my opinion, it seems we are moving to be a country of hypochondriacs because many people go straight to the emergency room at the sign of a sniffle.

A lot of this change in culture may be caused by the pharmaceutical business practices as a whole. Since the beginning of drug regulations in the mid 1900s, pharmaceutical companies have made the pharmaceutical industry more of a business of selling sickness, and less about finding the right drugs for actual sicknesses.

In fact, pharmaceutical companies spend about nineteen times more money on marketing than basic research. This marketing includes advertising, paying doctors to promote and prescribe certain drugs, and sending pharmaceutical representatives around the country.

While many people obviously have a sickness that can be aided by certain drugs, I think pharmaceutical companies are selling us sickness, and in turn causing people to look to take a pill for anything that might be wrong with them.

The fact that people are bombarded with ads about different diseases may also cause people to become paranoid, and assume they have a certain ailment. Many doctors complain about the “WebMD patient” who diagnoses themselves with a disease and only go to the doctors to get a prescription. This type of practice is putting healthcare in the hands of people who aren’t trained in medicine.

Many people agree this pharmaceutical marketing practice has some downfalls, and recently, GlaxoSmithKline announced they will stop paying doctors to promote their drugs.

What are your thoughts on the current pharmaceutical industry setup? Do you think it is fine the way it is, or should changes be made?

Cold temperatures may cause damage to grape harvest in the Finger Lakes

Cold weather has caused damage to the grape vines

This winter’s extreme cold weather has raised concern about the health of grape vines in the upcoming harvest season, but local groups are taking measures to minimize the impact.

Currently, grape vines are in their dormant stage, meaning there are no blossoms, but the plant is still at risk to be damaged.

Dave Wiemann, vineyard manager of Sheldrake Point Winery in Ovid NY, said the coldest recorded temperature at their weather station was -4 degrees Fahrenheit.

“With this weather, the type of injury we suffer from with the vines is bud mortality,” Wiemann said. “Buds are the little itty-bitty things where the growth starts. And in that bud is the potential for having a crop, so if those buds freeze and die, the amount of crop we can have for the following year is reduced.”

Wiemann said this winter, Sheldrake Point has suffered about 20% bud mortality. He said other vineyards that reached colder temperatures will probably have a higher bud mortality, which results in less usable crops. These vineyards may have to outsource to get grapes for their wine production.

Hans Walter-Peterson, viticulture specialist and team leader for the Finger Lakes Grape Program, said this is the coldest winter vineyards have seen in this area in ten years.

The Finger Lakes Grape Program is a group that supplies participating vineyards all throughout the Finger Lakes with information about how to keep a healthy crop and maximize grape harvests. The program, a part of Cornell Cooperative extension, holds information sessions and distributes material from research that is being done at Cornell and elsewhere about grape farming.

Walter-Peterson said some varieties of grapes are less able to survive in this climate’s freezing temperatures than others, which makes them more susceptible to bud mortality.

“For example, something like concord, which is a grape that is based on a species from the northeast is much better adapted to these conditions than something like chardonnay, which is from a species that originated in the Middle East,” Walter-Peterson said.

In addition to bud mortality, Walter-Peterson said freezing of the woody part of the vine itself can also be damaging to harvests.

Ways to minimize impact

“The best thing to do every year is to make sure the vines are healthy going in and make sure they have plenty of the nutrients that make them winter hardy,” Wiemann said. 

One technique used to minimize impact to vines during the winter is ‘hilling up,’ which means arranging soil around the base of each vine so that it covers the graft. This helps ensure that even if the trunk of the vine freezes and dies, there is a chance enough wood will be insulated enough to be healthy and grow the following growing season.

Walter-Peterson also said having too big of a crop on the vines will weaken them and make them less likely to survive winter. Finger Lakes Grape Program makes sure to educate growers in order to minimize a decrease in harvest.

PUsh for Winter wine tourism

While vineyards are preparing for a possible decline in harvest, Finger Lakes Wine Country, a company that aims to attract people to visit the area, has been pushing to increase winter wine  tours in the past five years.

Christina Roberts, director of media relation and marketing of Finger Lakes Wine Country, said there is not any data yet to reflect this winter’s impact on tourism for wineries this winter, but they are working on collecting some.

Despite this extreme cold, Roberts said winter is a great time for people to visit wineries in the area and Finger Lakes Wine Country has been trying to change people’s perceptions that wine tours are only for the warmer months.

“We find the winter is really a wonderful time to visit,” Roberts said. “Accommodations typically are able to offer lower rates and it is more affordable to visit …. It’s also a great time to come because you don’t have to ‘fight the crowds’ and you get that individualized attention.”

Reddit: How can journalists use it?

reddit front page
The Front Page

Yesterday, I had my ‘teaching moment’ presentation in my mobile and social media journalism class. Over the course of the semester, each student has to give a presentation about something they think is relevant to journalists these days. I decided to present on one of my favorite places to find news, interesting facts, and funny pictures. This site is reddit.

Reddit can be a great tool in the online toolbox for journalists. In my discussion, I brought up a few ways journalists have used reddit in the past.

  • Finding story ideas by subscribing to ‘subreddits,’ which are sections of the site with content related to a certain topic. Subscribing to subreddits related to your beat is a great place to find new things that are happening in that area.
  • Finding and contacting sources. Because this is a user driven site, if you find someone who has an interesting story to tell, or could potentially be a source of information about a certain topic, you can private message them to see if they would be willing to be interviewed. r/IAmA is a Q&A format subreddit that is great for this.
  • Crowdsourcing. Journalists can ask questions on the r/AskReddit subreddit to get a general idea of what angle they might want to take with a story.
  • Breaking News Threads. Often, people will use reddit as a platform for their citizen journalism of breaking events by posting pictures and updates to a thread on reddit. These can be a great place for news organizations who are not close enough to the event to go themselves, but still have some first-person perspective of what is going on.

Some things a few of my classmates brought up is they don’t like the layout of the site, or find it a bit confusing. I’ll admit, it does take awhile to get used to, but just like anything else, you become more familiar with it as you use it.

Overall, I think reddit is a unique hub of information that you can refine to better fit your interests and area of specialty as a journalist. I personally like to use it,  both for the entertainment and news aspects.

FDA changes nutrition labels to reflect current serving sizes

Photo Credit: Vanderbilt University

The Food and Drug Administration announced they will be making some changes to the nutrition labels we currently have on the food regulated and sold in the United States.

The changes proposed are not much different- they will still be in the same white rectangle, but the FDA hopes they will help reflect the way we eat today. This will be the first major update to nutrition labels since they were introduced in the early 90s.

Some of the changes include:

  • Calories being emphasized with a larger and bold type.
  • Added sugars will not be included, because Americans only get on average 16% of their daily calories from added sugars.
  • Updates to serving sizes that better reflect what people eat, rather than what they “should eat”
  • Updates to % Daily Values, which are also shifted to the left of the label.
  • Amounts of VItamin D and Potassium would be required on the label.

To read more about the changes, click here.

Jessica Leighton, Ph.D., senior nutrition science and policy advisor in FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine, said, “The goal is to make people aware of what they are eating and give them the tools to make healthy dietary choices throughout the day.”

changes to nutrition label

Courtesy of The New York TImes

These changes have come along after some complaints about nutrition labels and how we present different foods were brought up. In May 2013, the National Consumers League filed a formal complaint with the FDA, urging them to change the way we categorize food so people can make healthier food choices.

I think this is a good move on the FDA’s part. The fact is we don’t have the same dietary needs as we did in the 70s and 80s, which the original nutrition label was based off of. It will hopefully make it easier for Americans to make healthier choices in their diet.

Public access to scientific research expanded

The Open Access Movement refers to easy access to scientific scholarly articles.

There have been many debates about what information United States citizens are allowed to obtain. Often, the process, especially for government information, can take a long time to obtain.

Access to information is an important aspect of journalism, and many other professions. With the rise of technology, there has also been a rise in the Open Access movement.

Recently, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) announced they will be making changes to their data policy to make it easier for people to access data collected from scientific experiments. Beginning March 3rd, “authors must make all data publicly available, without restriction, immediately upon publication of the article,” according to PLoS. 

There are a few restrictions to the policy, but mainly in cases where a patient’s information can be compromised, or the research was funded by a third-party. In these cases, authors must make a claim that states the data can be obtained upon request.

This is great news for science journalists, because it will be much easier and cheaper to report on findings and trends in their articles.

And with technology making it much faster and cheaper to get information, why shouldn’t we? A petition started last year to “require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research” obtained enough signature to prompt a response from the government.

This caused the US government to issue a memorandum in February 2013 to heads of these scientific article publications, that states “directs each Federal agency with over $100 million in annual conduct of research and development expenditures to develop a plan to support increased public access to the results of research funded by the Federal Government.”

One downside of this is that there has to be a uniform way for scientific articles to be sorted, or there will be a lot of confusion down the road when referring to documents.

What do you think of the Open Access movement? Should it be more widespread? Or is there too much work to be put in to make it a reality?

Affordable housing programs aim to reduce homelessness in Tompkins County

David Reed, a tenant of Second Wind Cottages, sits in his home. Reed was formerly homeless, but has been living independently since December 2013.

Harsh winter weather conditions in Ithaca have raised concern over people who do not have a place to take refuge from the cold, but several programs have been put in place to get people into housing.

Some of the homeless population in Ithaca lives in an encampment called ‘The Jungle,’ which is located along the railroad tracks by Wegmans. In December 2013, Richard Sherman, an occupant of ‘The Jungle,’ burned to death because a fire he had going to keep himself warm got out of control.

Currently, there is an emergency shelter at 618 W. State Street where the homeless can go if they need shelter from the cold. It is operated by the American Red Cross but starting March 1st, The Rescue Mission, a group started in Syracuse, will take over running the shelter.

The Rescue Mission is a program directed at ending homelessness through a support program. They operate The Court Street Place in Ithaca, which provides dormitory style living for men who are or are at risk of being homeless.

Amanda Erwin, communication specialist for The Rescue Mission, said, “People who experience homelessness are more vulnerable than most people think. It creates health problems just being in the elements. Not just the cold, but hot as well.”

Rise of the housing-first method

Kathy Schlanger, executive director at the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County (HSCTC) said one of the best ways to reduce homelessness is to provide programs for people to find affordable housing.

“There’s a effort now toward a housing first method, where you find people housing, then you can work on whatever issues that make them homeless,” Schlanger said. “Moving people out of the shelters and into housing has been a real push in the past five or six years.”

The problem of finding affordable housing is one of the reasons Carmen Guidi, a mechanic in Newfield, started his Second Wind Cottages project. This project was started last winter, when Guidi had housed six homeless men from the Ithaca area in heated campers for the winter.

Guidi said he realized they could expand on this idea and make a more permanent style affordable housing option for these men.

“I started getting involved with feeding the homeless in Ithaca,” Guidi said. “Basically I started trying to help them with their physical needs; food, water, blankets, things like that, until one of the guys committed suicide because he was so desperate. He had been homeless for so long and never thought he could have a place to live….That really got me more proactive in helping men find housing.”

Second Wind Cottages is located on route 13 in Newfield, just south of Ithaca. Guidi has donated the land he owns for his repair garage to the project so they can have a non-profit place for the cottages.

Currently, there are six cottages, but Guidi hopes to expand this number to eighteen and to add a common room over the next few years.

Affordable Housing Success Story

David Reed, a tenant of Second Wind, was an occupant of ‘The Jungle’ when he started corresponding with Guidi. Having been in and out of housing, and after spending a year in jail, Reed decided it was time he made a change.

Reed was one of the original occupants who lived in the heated campers and said he was happy to hear Guidi was planning to build a more permanent residence.

“I like it because you don’t have to go through DSS, you don’t have to have pre-approval to get into this place. I mean, you do have to sign a lease and they check your background,” Reed said. “But they’re not going to turn you away because you can’t afford it.”