Mail a coconut from the Molokai, Hawaii post office

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I just returned from a trip to Hawaii with my family. We spent most of our time on Maui but we took a day trip (by ferry) to the island of Molokai, which is famous for its leper colony founded by a Roman Catholic priest named Father Damien in the 19th century.

Compared to Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, and Kauai, Molokai is very undeveloped, with a population of only 7,000 people. I took quite a few photographs during our brief visit to this beautiful and interesting island and I will post more about Molokai later this week, but I wanted to share one highlight: the Post-A-Nut service offered by the Hoolehua Post Office. Here, you can select a free coconut and mail it, unboxed, anywhere in the world simply by writing an address and sticking postage stamps on it.

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post-a-nut-8.jpg The post office is situated in the middle of a farming area, and has two signs on the outside of the building advertising its Post-A-Nut service.

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USGS: California is not doomed to fall into the ocean

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Yet another aftershock of the March 11 earthquake hit Japan today. So it seems like a good time to bring up the United States Geological Survey’s fascinating FAQ on earthquake myths. Here’s one new thing that I learned.

Q: Will California eventually fall off into the ocean?

A: No. The San Andreas Fault System, which crosses California from the Salton Sea in the south to Cape Mendocino in the north, is the boundary between the Pacific Plate and North American Plate. The Pacific Plate is moving northwest with respect to the North American Plate at approximately 46 millimeters per year (the rate your fingernails grow). The strike-slip earthquakes on the San Andreas Fault are a result of this plate motion. The plates are moving horizontally past one another, so California is not going to fall into the ocean. However, Los Angeles and San Francisco will one day be adjacent to one another!

Image: Photo taken by Wikipedia user Ikluft, used via CC

“Meat glue” sounds kind of awesome

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I know this story on Planet Green—all about the edible “meat glue” that holds together everything from imitation crab sticks and chicken nuggets to modernist chef cuisine—is supposed to make me freak out and only want to eat organic, whole foods from the farmer’s market.

Trouble is: I kind of think meat glue sounds pretty cool. I like the fact that we’ve found new ways to use scraps and parts of meat that aren’t sell-able on their own. That alone is nothing new. Humans have been doing that for centuries (See: sausage, soup stock). Transglutaminase—meat glue’s real name—is just a newer tool. And it doesn’t even sound particularly scary or gross. At least, not to this honest-with-herself omnivore.

Technically called thrombian, or transglutaminase (TG), it is an enzyme that food processors use to hold different kinds of meat together. TG is an enzyme that catalyzes covalent bonds between free amine groups in a protein, like lysine, and gamma-caroxminid groups, like glutamine. These bonds are pretty durable and resist degradation once the food has been formed.

Thrombian is made from pig or cow blood, though you’ll see it on labels, if at all, as “composite meat product.”

It’s a naturally occurring enzyme, derived from animal blood. When you put it that way, it’s easy to understand why the EU—which tends to be more stringent on rules about food additives than the United States—voted nearly unanimously in favor of allowing transglutaminase to be used in products sold in EU countries.

Personally, I’m with wrecksdart, who Submitterated this, in wondering where I can get transglutaminase, and what ridiculous foods I can make at home with it. Animal-shaped meatloaf pops, here I come.

Japan nuclear crisis: “Should I take potassium iodide pills to protect against radiation exposure?”

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In the past couple of days, as many of us around the world began thinking seriously about the fallout from the damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan, I’ve gotten lots of questions about potassium iodide pills—”Why do people take them?”, “How do they work?”, “Should my family take them?”

I’ve spoken with several health physicists—researchers at American universities and at the Mayo Clinic—and I think that I can now answer these questions well enough to post something to BoingBoing. This is a scary, nerve-wracking topic for a lot of people, so I’m not going to bury the information down in a narrative. We’ll just get right to the point. In fact, I think that I can clear up most of the confusion by answering four questions.

What are potassium iodide pills?

Basically, potassium iodide is just a specific kind of salt. Nothing fancy. The same stuff is often put into table salt as a way to get iodine into the diets of people who don’t eat much naturally iodine-containing food. Iodine, itself, is an element that’s important to the human body. Without it, the thyroid gland can’t make certain hormones. If you don’t eat enough iodine, especially as a kid, you’ll end up with goiters, fatigue, depression—and worse. Thanks to iodized salt (and diverse diets), those of us who live in industrialized nations don’t have to think about whether we’re getting enough iodine. And, thus, we don’t think too much about potassium iodide. Until there’s a risk of radioactive fallout.

How do potassium iodide pills protect against radiation?

Elements come in two forms: Stable and radioactive, the latter of which are prone to breaking apart, shooting out particles that can damage cells and DNA. There’s good ol’ stable iodine—the stuff that keeps our bodies functioning properly. And there’s radioactive iodine—which is dangerous.

Radioactive iodine is dangerous precisely because, within the human body, it does the same thing that stable iodine does. It goes straight to the thyroid gland.

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The Price of Everything

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“According to Eduardo Porter of The New York Times editorial board, prices are more interesting than most of us realize. And the prices that never appear on a price tag are the most fascinating of all. In his new book The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do (2010, Portfolio), Porter explores the surprising ways prices affect every aspect of our lives, including where we live, who we marry, how many kids we have, and even how religious we are.”

Here is the introduction to Porter’s book.

PRICES ARE EVERYWHERE

Anybody who has visited a garbage dump in the developing world knows that value is an ambiguous concept. To most people in the developed world, household waste is worthless, of course. That’s why we throw it away. Apparently, Norwegians are willing to pay about $114 a ton for somebody else to sort their recyclables from the general garbage. A survey of families in the Carter community of Tennessee several years ago found they were willing to pay $363 a year, in today’s money, to avoid having a landfill nearby.

But slightly beyond our immediate experience, waste becomes a valuable commodity. In Kamboins√©, outside Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, farmers pay municipal trash haulers to dump unsorted solid waste on their sorghum and millet fields as fertilizer — bits of plastic included. The going rate in 2003 was 400 francs per ton. In New Delhi, a study in 2002 found that waste pickers earned two rupees per kilo of PET soda bottles and seven rupees per kilo of hard plastic shampoo bottles. A child working on foot on Delhi’s dumps could make twenty to thirty rupees per day.

Waste, in fact, confronts us with the same value proposition as anything else. The price we put on it — what we will trade to have it, or have it go away — is a function of its attendant benefits or costs. A bagful of two-rupee PET bottles is more valuable to an Indian child who hasn’t eaten today than to me, a well-fed journalist in New York. What she must do to get it — spend a day scavenging among the detritus of India’s capital, putting her life and health at risk — is, to her, not too high a price to pay because life is pretty much the only thing she has. She has little choice but to risk it for food, clothing, shelter, and whatever else she needs. I, by contrast, have many things. I have a reasonable income. If there’s one thing I have too little of, it is free time. The five cents I could get for an empty PET bottle at the supermarket’s recycling kiosk are not worth the trouble of redeeming it.

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Dirty debt collectors frightened victims with fake “sheriffs,” “courtroom,” “judges”

The Pennsylvania Attorney General has brought suit against the Unicredit Debt Resolution Center in Erie, PA. According to the suit, Unicredit dressed its employees in fake sheriff’s deputies uniforms to lure debtors out of their homes with unenforceable orders, and took them to a fake courtroom where another employee pretending to be a judge told them they could go to jail if they didn’t pay up.

“Can I look at your fake courtroom?” Parsons asked.

“First of all, that’s an allegation that supposedly someone said, so talk to the attorneys,” Covatto said. “You guys have a nice day. That’s all I got to say.”

The Attorney General’s Office told Team 4 that Unicredit lured debtors to the building by sending employees who appeared to be sheriff’s deputies to their homes, implying that they would be taken into custody if they failed to appear at the phony court hearings.

“It really galls me that someone would stoop that low,” Erie County Sheriff Robert Merski said. “This certainly seems to be a scam, and it upsets me that they are trying to play on the integrity of this office, the office of sheriff. We’ve been here since the beginning of the United States.”

The lawsuit accuses Unicredit of intimidating debtors into revealing their bank account numbers, even turning over the titles to their cars once they got them inside the building.

Team 4: Debt Collectors Accused Of Fake Courtroom, Judge

Erie debt collection company sued; accused of using bogus “hearings” and fake “courtroom” to collect from consumers (PA Attorney General)

(Thanks, Anthony I!)