Five food safety myths — debunked!

Does the threat of being felled by a carnitas burrito at your local taquería or sidelined by the potato salad at your annual church picnic keep you up at night? Nope? Me neither! But, according to President Obama, the U.S. food system is a “hazard to public health,” and we should all be quivering in our urb-ag-chic Wellies. In January, he signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act, authorizing $1.4 billion dollars to be poured into Food and Drug Administration prevention and enforcement activities. Great, except in the quest to fan public outrage, a few untruths have been (conveniently) perpetuated.

1. Food safety is worse than it used to be.

Food safety has actually improved since the mid-1990s when the Centers for Disease Control first began its national monitoring program, with net incidence of the major illnesses falling by 20 percent. On a disease-by-disease basis, that means 30 percent less campylobacter, 41 percent less toxin-producing E. coli and 10 percent less salmonella. In fact, the only increase — by 85 percent — has been in vibrio, contracted by eating raw shellfish. (You heard it, people, shuck and slurp and you’re on your own.) And even though the CDC recently tripled the number of major foodborne pathogens it monitors from 9 to 31, it reduced its estimate of annual illnesses from 76 to 48 million.

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A couple of pawns in a historic game of chess

While politicians are busy mining the intellectual works of the Founding Fathers for evidence to support their agendas, archaeologists in Virginia have uncovered actual physical evidence of how one such Father exercised his intellect at home. Archaeologists at Montpelier, James Madison’s Virginia estate, recently discovered pieces of two pawns that belonged to the former president’s chess set among a variety of artifacts excavated from a 19th century trash heap.

Historians have long known that our fourth president was an avid chess player. Madison frequently matched wits on the chessboard with his presidential predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, whose granddaughter Ellen Wayles Coolidge would later write that her grandfather, “a very good chess-player,” sometimes participated in “’four hour games’ with Mr. Madison,” as the Associated Press recently pointed out.
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Photo: Back in the pilot’s seat

Astronaut Mark Kelly participates in a training session at the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center in September 2007. Photo: NASA

NASA announced today that astronaut Mark Kelly will resume training as commander of the STS-134 space shuttle mission on Monday, February 7. Kelly has been on personal leave since January 8 to care for his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically wounded in an assassination attempt in Tucson, Ariz.

He will be aboard shuttle Endeavour as commander of a two-week mission, scheduled to launch on April 19. Among the objectives of the mission is to deliver the cool-sounding Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a device that will study the universe’s origin by searching for antimatter, dark matter and strange matter, and by measuring cosmic rays.

Mark’s twin brother, Scott J. Kelly, is also a NASA astronaut. Scott has been aboard the International Space Station since October 8, 2010. The Kelly brothers are the only twins (or siblings, for that matter) to have both traveled in space.

You can follow Mark Kelly on his Twitter feed, where he posts updates on the mission and his wife’s progress. You can follow Scott Kelly on his Twitter feed where he is currently conducting a geography trivia game from space called “Where over the world is Astronaut Scott Kelly.”

AHA urges stricter guidelines for sodium, fat intake

How much salt and saturated fat is OK? According the American Heart Association, quite a lot less than the limits suggested by the USDA.

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued its “2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” The guidelines, first published in 1980 and updated every five years, play an important role in federal nutrition programs. But according to the American Heart Association, the new USDA guidelines’ recommendations on sodium and saturated fat intake represent a step backwards in the campaign to promote good health among Americans.

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Don’t expect sweeping reforms in Jordan, former ambassador cautions

The tremors of Egypt’s popular uprising continued to ripple across the Arab world Thursday as King Abdullah II of Jordan met with leaders of the opposition there to discuss possible political reforms, two days after dismissing his cabinet and promising to “bolster democracy.”

Some observers, however, have warned not to expect wide-ranging reforms to Jordan’s political process, which disenfranchises large swaths of the population and acts mostly at the discretion of the king. Edward Gnehm, the former U.S. ambassador to Jordan from 2001 to 2003, warned in an interview this week that Jordan’s deep ethnic divisions and traditional power structure augured against the kinds of sweeping changes being demanded in the streets of nearby Arab capitals.

“The problem is, it’s really difficult for the king to agree to what they’re asking for,” said Gnehm, now a faculty member at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. “I think there’s likely to be some change and some movement, but I don’t think there’s going to be any massive shift, at least not right away.”

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Photo: Happy new year, Mr. Hare

This rabbit had an odd start to his lunar new year while trying to get food from the bottom of a cup during a snow carnival in Beijing on January 31, 2011. Photo: AP/Ng Han Guan

Today, people celebrate the start of Chinese Lunar New Year, and we are ringing in the year of the rabbit.

The rabbit occupies the fourth position in the Chinese zodiac and symbolizes such character traits as creativity, compassion and cautiousness. If you were born in 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, or 2011, you were born under the sign of the rabbit. It is said that rabbits are friendly, stylish and outgoing but avoid conflict and are not interested in taking risks. Rabbits allegedly do well in the fields of diplomacy, politics, therapy and teaching, as they are not easily rattled and are very good listeners.

As for their dating life, rabbits should seek out people born under the signs of dogs or pigs but steer clear of those darn roosters; apparently rabbits and roosters cannot even agree on the weather.

Could our government shut down the Internet?

Photo illustration by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

After five days with no access to the Internet, Egyptians are finally online again and back to tweeting and blogging live updates from the streets of Cairo.

But you may still be wondering how the government was able to shut down Egyptians’ access to the Internet.

The answer has more to do with politics than technology. There’s no on/off switch for the Internet, no circuit to short or plug to pull. It appears as though someone from the government simply called each of the country’s handful of Internet service providers, or ISPs, and ordered them to shut down.

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Photo: A onetime winter hero on four legs

Gunnar Kasson with Balto in the winter of 1925. Photo: AP

After reading yesterday about the probe by Canada’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals into the execution of 100 healthy sled dogs, I considered changing today’s photo of the day, but in the end, I decided that remembering Balto, Togo and the 150 sled dogs of the 1925 Serum Run to Nome could serve as a tribute to the slain animals at Outdoor Adventures in Whistler last April.

On this day in 1925, Gunnar Kaasen drove his sled dog team, led by a Siberian Husky named Balto, into Nome Alaska on the final leg of the 1925 serum run. Nome lies just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle and at the time was only accessible by steamship or the 938-mile Iditarod Trail. The residents of Nome were suffering an outbreak of diptheria, a highly contagious and potentially life-threatening bacterial disease.

Balto in bronze. Photo: Cameron Adam

The closest antitoxin was in Anchorage, nearly a thousand miles away, and because of weather conditions that grounded the only available plane, the serum would need to be transported by a relay of sled dog teams. More than 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs took part in the serum run, facing hazardous, blizzard conditions, dangerous frostbite and wind-chilled temperatures reaching to −80 °F. The total mileage of the sled dog portion of the trek was 674 miles, and was completed in an incredible 127 1/2 hours (about 5 1/2 days).

Just 10 months after Balto and his team arrived in Nome with the antitoxin that stopped the disease, a scuplture by Frederick Roth was erected in New York City’s Central park “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the Winter of 1925.”

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Is Jordan next? Pro-democracy activists in Amman think so

Thousands of Jordanian opposition supporters took to the streets of the country's capital Friday, Jan. 21, 2011. Photo: AP/Nader Daoud

In December 2009, a civil servant in Jordan’s ministry of justice did something remarkable: He turned in a bribe.

A private company seeking favors had offered the official 50,000 Dinar, which he then turned over to the minister of justice. The justice minister, in turn, offered him a 200 Dinar reward.

The media, online commentators and even some of the official’s coworkers, however, were less impressed by his honesty. “He would have done better to keep the 50,000,” U.S. officials wrote in a diplomatic memo summing up the common reaction among bloggers and television commentators. The cable was obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

The incident highlighted the deep cynicism among Jordanians toward the pervasive corruption in their country’s government. As U.S. diplomats noted in the January 2010 cable, bribery and favor-trading were so rampant that most Jordanians found “acts of whistle-blowing laughable.”

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