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February 26, 2007
Volume 85, Number 09
p. 64

Lightly Salted

Following a mild December and early January, it has been colder than normal here at Newscripts headquarters in Washington, D.C. The first little winter weather event we had back in late January, a dusting of snow, turned into a thin slippery layer of ice that got everyone into a tizzy: Traffic was snarled, schools were delayed, and subway trains were packed and running behind. Then there was the salt.

Walking to the subway from my house, I became aware of a CRUNCH underfoot as I approached the station entrance. The walkways had been salted rather liberally. Typically, one lightly spreads salt over a surface to deice it or prevent icing. Calcium chloride is the most common agent used. It works by slowly dissolving to create brine that lowers the freezing point of water. That's some beautiful chemistry.

I had noticed that bags of salt were placed inside the station back around Thanksgiving. After crunching into the station, I saw that all the bags were gone. It seems the subway employees had gotten a little excited and used all the salt that likely was intended to last throughout the winter. By my estimate, they spread 500 lb of salt across an area of about 20,000 sq ft, or something less than half an acre. After a week or so, the tramping of thousands of feet had ground the thick layer of salt into a fine powder. A lot of it is still there.

A salt story of a different kind comes from Wales, where local authorities are salting mountainous roads with a new low-cost "sugar-based grit." Sheep are flocking onto the roadway to lick the tasty treat and aren't budging as cars approach.

iStockphoto (Both)

The grit is made from sugar, starch, and cereal, but there are no details on the exact ingredients. The decision to use the new material is based on the grit being environmentally friendlier and less corrosive to cars than salt. The sheep have been observed licking salt from the road in the past anyway, but it seems they prefer the sugar bowl to the saltcellar.

Surreal Crab

From the kitchen this week, Newscripts would like to pass on the good news that the Food & Drug Administration no longer requires that SURIMI be labeled "imitation crab."

Surimi is a flavored paste made from fish, typically pollack or whiting, that is shaped and painted with food coloring to look like and taste somewhat like crabmeat. It's a staple in Japan and is becoming a favorite worldwide as sushi (think California roll) becomes more popular. Surimi producers lobbied to modify the unappealing label. Now, they can use this: "Crab-flavored seafood, made with surimi, a fully cooked fish protein."

No one said there had to be any standards when it comes to human nature; here are a few quirks lately making the news:

Human Nature

A recent study in the British Medical Journal reports that male surgeons are taller and better looking than other types of male doctors. The theory is that dashing medical students are more likely to go for the challenge of surgery while the mere average or homely go for other types of medicine. The study also shows that actors who play surgeons are significantly better looking than the real thing.

In Japan, a person's blood type is just as important as his or her astrological sign. Most Japanese people have type A blood, but type O is most desirable. Type O is associated with warrior types, and in modern times that means successful bankers, politicians, and professional baseball players.

Why do we buy bad gifts for the ones we love? That question is wrestled with in a study in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. The answer the study gives is that familiarity with another person actually makes predicting their tastes more difficult. In other words, we don't know what we think we know about the people we know.

This week's column was written by Steve Ritter. Please send comments and suggestions to