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Violins by Stradivari are worth a fortune, but may not be best

Q.  In the 1970s, beef consumption in the U.S. accounted for nearly 50% of all meat, followed by pork, then chicken at 20%.  By 2018, chicken’s share had climbed to 36%, nearly 20% higher than beef.  Why the shift?

A.  “The main reason for chicken ascendance has been its low price, which reflects its metabolic advantage: No other domesticated land animal can convert feed to meat as efficiently as broilers,” says Vaclav Smil in “IEEE Spectrum” magazine.   According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it takes 3-4 units of feed to produce one unit of edible meat for broilers, 9-10 units for pork and 20-30 for beef.  Further, broilers have been bred to mature faster and to put on an enormous amount of weight, helping to lower prices more.

Consumers benefit while the birds suffer, Smil says, since people’s desire for excessively large breasts “shifts the bird’s center of gravity forward, impairs its natural movement and puts stress on its legs and heart.”  Moreover, a broiler is allotted a very small living space (slightly larger than an A4 sheet of paper, 8.27 x 11.69 inches), and its life ends in less than seven weeks, though its normal life span is up to eight years.

But pork is still about 10% ahead as the choice of meat worldwide, thanks to China and Europe.  Concludes Smil: “Still, broilers mass-produced in confinement will, almost certainly, come out on top within a decade or two.”

Q.  Calling all bibliophiles.  As lovers of books, you may know the following book-related terms: “biblioclast,” “bibliophage,” “chrestomathy” and “feuilleton”?  Do you?

A.  “Biblioclast” derives from the Greek “biblio” (book) and “clast” (breaker), hence, “one who destroys or mutilates books,” says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website.  “Bibliophage,” from Greek “phage” (one who eats), is “one who loves to read books; a bookworm.”

For “chrestomathy,” two meanings apply: “a volume of selected literary passages, usually by one author”; or “a selection of literary passages from a foreign language, especially one assembled for studying a language.”  Finally, from the French “feuillet” (sheet) comes “feuilleton” (FOI-i-ton), “a short literary piece,” “a novel published in installments,” or “a part of a European newspaper devoted to light literature, criticism, and the like.”

No need to worry about “abibliophobia” (fear of running out of books to read) any time soon.

Q. Violins made by the Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari around 1700 sell for millions of dollars and are often regarded as the best ever made.  Are they the best?

A.  Scientists have speculated that the wood used in Stradivari’s time had subtly different mechanical properties (density, stiffness) than today’s, somehow leading to richer sound, reports Sid Perkins on the “Science News for Students” website.  Perhaps early craftsmen chemically treated the wood in some way lost to history — an idea bolstered by the observation that old violins seem to be remarkably resistant to wood-eating worms.

But are Stradivarius violins really superior?  What does recent research suggest?  In one study, 21 experienced violinists, wearing goggles and odor desensitized, each compared three old violins and three high-quality new instruments.  As for the results, says Perkins, “Overall, and in head-to-head tests, most preferred the new violin.  They preferred the Stradivarius least.”

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