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Hidden infernos, name that fruit, a kick at the can

Haute cuisine aloft

Scientists in Germany "are using a chopped up airliner to study bad taste," reports Daniel Michaels in The Wall Street Journal. The wingless front portion of an Airbus A310 is enclosed in a large low-pressure chamber to mimic cruising at 35,000 feet. Moisture is sucked from the air and engine noise is added to replicate a truly unpleasant dining experience for dozens of human guinea pigs. Some notes:

Perceptions of sweetness and saltiness drop by up to 30 per cent. Sour, bitter and spicy flavours are barely affected.

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Parched cabin air quickly evaporates nasal mucous, which helps odour receptors function. Up to 80 per cent of what we consider taste is actually smell.

Lufthansa's sommelier, Markus Del Monego, is using test analysis to select wines for flight. A vintage that is "opulent and powerful" on the ground can taste light when aloft.

People crowded into coach emit lots of moisture, which keeps cabin humidity at around 15 per cent. In sumptuous first-class cabins, humidity can plunge to 5 per cent, sapping the bouquet from people's champagne and caviar.

Babies can bite

"You can watch the Twilight movies and read the books, but why stop there?" writes Nara Schoenberg of Tribune Newspapers. "Thousands of Americans are giving their babies Twilight-related names. Bella, the name of the love-struck heroine of Stephanie Meyer's vampire novels, hadn't quite cracked the [government's]list of the top 200 girls' names in America when the first Twilight book was published in 2005. Today, it's at No. 58, higher than Miley, Kingston or Maddox. Cullen, the last name of Bella's vampire beau, Edward, is in the top 500 boys' names for the first time in more than a century." Jasper, Alice and Emmett are also enjoying a surge in popularity from the books.

Romancing the tip

"[S]ngs with lyrics promoting peace and love can increase empathy and encourage charitable behaviour - at least in a research laboratory," writes Tom Jacobs for Miller-McCune magazine. "Now, a new study finds exposure to such music can have real-world consequences. It turns restaurant patrons into better tippers. That's the conclusion of a study from France, recently published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management." For six weeks, at lunch, and again at dinner, researchers played "pro-social" music to customers for one-third of the time, neutral music and normal restaurant music for one-third the time each. The staff tracked tips but were unaware of what exactly was being tested. (In France, tips are unusual because the law mandates a 12 per cent service charge on a bill.) Customers who heard neutral and normal music tipped 24 per cent of the time. Those hearing songs with pro-social music gave tips 35 per cent of the time.

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A kick at the can

Denmark's Tulip Food Co. has developed a plastic replacement for the tin can, Der Spiegel reports. It is "new, light, easy to open, long-life packaging that may herald the end of the ubiquitous tin can, which is already facing tough competition. The new packaging allows products to keep for up to two years outside a refrigerator, although there is still some time to go before reaching a tin-can shelf life of up to five years. Some 1.8 billion people across the world live without an available refrigerator."

Name that fruit

"It used to be that a peach was a peach and a plum was a plum, and that was it," writes David Karp in the Los Angeles Times. "Now, however, breeders are coming up with complex hybrids between species, such as fruits that are a combination of peaches, apricots and plums, and cherries or nectarines and plums. … Today, unbeknown to you, that fruit being sold as an apricot may actually have some peach in it; or a nectarine may have plum. A fruit may be given one identity for farming, another for ship-ping and yet another at the store. This is no small matter. Almost half of the plum-like fruits grown in California now are [interspecific crosses]- Pluots and the like."

Hidden infernos

"Internationally, thousands of underground coal fires are burning on every continent except Antarctica," Dan Cray reports in Time magazine. "Anupma Prakash, a University of Alaska-Fairbanks geologist who maps the fires, calls them 'a worldwide catastrophe with no geographic territory, and if we don't take care of them they are going to take a toll on us.'

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The problem is most acute in industrializing, coal-rich nations such as China, where underground fires are consuming at least 10 million tons of coal annually - and some estimates multiply that amount 20-fold."

Thought du jour

"Convention is like the shell to the chick, a protection till he is strong enough to break it through."

- Anonymous

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