Friday, February 26, 2010

Your Values Predict the Science you Believe

NPR has a story addressing why people frequently invoke science to back up some of their beliefs, and reject science in other cases. They say you believe science when it backs up your worldview and are "skeptical" of it when it doesn't.

They describe a number of experiments where they first assess an individual's values: "individualists" who embrace new technology, authority and free enterprise, and "communitarians," who are suspicious of authority or of commerce and industry...

...then read them a set of facts describing the possible benefits and threats of a scientific issue (e.g. global warming or nanotechnology).

Asked what they thought about the issue, individuals routinely overemphasized statements that validated their worldview and rejected ones that didn't.

In another example, "individualists" could be influenced to consider global warming a serious threat when nuclear energy was proposed as a solution, meanwhile "communitarians" were less concerned about global warming when given the same information.

Finally, they found that individuals were more likely to believe the safety of vaccines when the information was delivered by the person they saw most like themselves - either a sharp, businessman or a shaggy professor.

This hits a little too close to home, and is a good reminder to all of us that we need to be aware of our prejudices if we don't want them to subconsciously influence our behavior...

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Joel Kotkin recently discussed his new book, "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050," on the radio. It's on my reading list. In the meantime, here're some of his main points:

No matter how much you may love New Urbanism, 80% of Americans prefer the suburbs, the 20% that does enjoy cities is heavily biased towards young renters, and immigrants love the suburbs even more than long-term natives. He points out that most people don't want to live in super dense urban areas and that "everyone's for smart growth, except in their neighborhood."

NYC and D.C. are the only major U.S. cities that have functioning economic centers that are amenable to mass public transit. Most cities are more like San Francisco, where work is distributed through multiple locations in the suburbs (e.g. Silicon Valley). Even if people were excited about public transit, it doesn't solve the issue of sprawl - suburbs originally sprang up on train lines, not highways.

He recommends telecommuting and living near where you work as solutions to gridlock. He seems to imagine suburban developments as town-like entities that cater to local needs with small, local town centers. He says that community cohesiveness can be fostered by investing in local cultural hubs like schools, churches and farmers' markets. He says Houston and Phoenix are cities of the future.

h/t: Forum

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Free the Klamath!

"Four dams along the Klamath River on the Oregon–California border are one step closer to coming down. More than 30 governmental, agricultural, tribal and conservation groups along with PacifiCorp signed a landmark agreement at the Oregon capitol building Thursday. But as Salem Correspondent Chris Lehman reports, the dams won't be coming down anytime soon."

h/t: NPR

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Eat Your Lawn"

Hank over at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook (one of my new favorite blogs) recently rattled off a long list of edibles growing in his lawn.

Many of these species are ubiquitous Old World weeds that followed the Europeans here. Hank lists some of the highlights and describes the weather that produces the best tasting harvest (with environment affecting plant metabolism and all...)

Since reacquainting myself with Eastern wildflowers this past spring, I've kept a running mental tab of native and/or edible herbs that I'll be overseeding my glyphosated lawn someday. I'm glad to see that I can now put an "edible" checklists next to violets and vetch. Why anyone would want a solid green lawn over a seasonal gradient of yellows, whites and purples, I'll never understand...

Just make sure you know what you're eating.*

*Incidentally, does anyone know if there's any risk of picking up parasites eating from the same salad bowl that your local critters roll around in?

Monday, February 22, 2010

(Ignore) Food Expiration Dates

Talk of the Nation today discussed Nadia Arumugam's new piece at Slate, titled "Ignore Expiration Dates."

Apparently these dates are mostly set by the manufacturers with little to no direction from the Feds. She says they're generally set very conservatively to prevent dummies from drinking bad milk that they probably stored poorly in the first place.

She points out that you're perfectly capable of telling that your milk went bad and recommends you trust your senses over statistically calculated risk thresholds.

I guess this means I'm not a rebel for eating expired food all the time...

Friday, February 19, 2010

I love the smell of geosmin in the morning!

I got around to watering the struggling figs in my dark apartment last night and was soon immersed in the scent of geosmin.

The first time I encountered the name of this chemical was in a college microbiology class. We were instructed to choose a prokaryotic microbe, go out and find it in the real world and then give a presentation on our isolated specimen. Kyle and I lucked out with our slime mold-like Myxobacterium - we only had to hunt for rabbit droppings to culture it. One of our classmates finally found his Vibrio in a rotting squid carcass (and then had to use a really complicated culturing medium to get it out!).

The actinomycete pair was giving their presentation when the specimen's Petri plate made it to my row. We were instructed to smell the culture, which was thick with volatile geosmin. It's funny how smells can evoke such sudden, visceral memories. For me, this smell instantly summoned orchid potting bark. It's also the reason some people are disgusted that beets taste like "dirt," and last weekend I detected it in some Thai black sweet sticky rice.

It's amazing how single chemicals can manifest such powerful and complex summaries of our experiences. I remember my old labmate showing off his most recent hexanal sample, which he said smelled like perfume. Its scent immediately struck me with the notion of rotting fruit, which puzzled me as I tried to identify its source.


I would have thought that a single isolated scent chemical from banana would smell as "natural" as banana soda - that our sensory impression of something as complex as a fruit would also be complex - but in this case, a single chemical pretty much summed it up. The same thing happened when he showed my that his octenol sample smelled just like mushrooms (whose volatile emissions, incidentally contain almost exclusively octenol)! Maybe it's true what was reported recently - that humans are incapable of perceiving more than a few chemicals at a time (contrary to the effusions of sommeliers!).

Sometimes there's not really a line between what's "natural" and "synthetic."*

*An alternate example? Howabout the "Grapple," which if rhymed with "apple" gives a better insinuation of it's taste than the long "a" the producer wants you to use. They're just low quality apples soaked in the dominant chemical responsible for the flavor of grapes - and are an abomination that tastes more like "purple" than "grape!"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Turning Parking Meters into Bike Racks

Following a 26% increase in bicycling last year, NYC's Department of Transportation will be transforming over 200 parking meters into bike racks.

The project is modeled on the creation of 16,000 such bike racks in Toronto, and is being considered in L.A. and Chicago.

h/t: PSFK

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Climate Change + iPhone

Run into a dummy in the coffee line spouting anti-global warming "facts" he heard from Glenn Beck?

There's an ap for that.

The Big Three (auto or seed?)

I heard a great question from the audience at this week's departmental seminar (paraphrasing):
I can imagine how the automotive industry can support several massive companies since everyone kinda wants different things in their car - but how do the massive companies in the seed industry differentiate themselves when they're all selling pretty much identical versions of the same commodity?

Industry scientist:
There are a couple of reasons - some are kind of random like brand loyalty, but the best large scale farmers buy seed from multiple companies to hedge their bets. They know that (since companies each work from their own germplasm library) any two varieties from one company will be more similar than any two from different companies. So they may, say, buy their early maturing variety from Company 1 and their late maturing variety from Company 2, and then buy their third variety from Company 3 because they happened to offer them a good deal.
Biodiversity is good practice at all scales!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Naked Pint [Book Review]

I just finished "The Naked Pint, an unadulterated guide to craft beer."

Christina and Hallie apparently wrote this book for an audience of hesitating female novices, reluctant to engage in the culturally-masculine world of craft brewed beer. I obviously wasn't won over by their frequent reassurances that I, the reader, wouldn't lose my femininity by being interested in beer, but it was a good book all the same.

They start out with the basics (what's malt? what're hops for? what's the difference between a lager and an ale?) and then launch into four chapters (the bulk of the book) exploring all the types and subtypes of beers, accompanied by some quintessential and unique examples of each. I learned a lot about different styles of beers here (and a lot that I felt like I already should have known).

I particularly like that they cite specific beers from specific breweries. It definitely gave me a greater awareness the next time I found myself staring at 6-packs in the grocery store.* They also spend a lot of time describing the flavors and scents that you should be able to detect in different beers if you like to be as serious with your beer as you are with your wine. I have a lousy palate so this was all lost on me, but it's a nice inclusion.

Towards the end of the book, they give extended instructions and recipes for keeping, serving (and brewing your own) beer. Overall, the book was an easy, quick read and I'd recommend it to anyone who wanted to cement their knowledge of the basics of beer production and styles.

*Unfortunately, I've found our upstate breweries to be pretty underwhelming (Ithaca and Saranac). Of course, if I didn't insist on shopping at the discount grocery store, I probably wouldn't have such a hard time finding Dogfish Head, New Belgium, Deschutes, etc. On the plus side, I've recently discovered Great Lakes, and have been pretty happy with them so far...

Monday, February 15, 2010

U.S. Regions via Facebook

I'm completely fascinated by regional idiosyncrasies of ecology and culture. Every time I hear someone comment about how they associate some typical personality with some part of the country, I can't help but pin them down and try to figure out exactly what their impression is and how they came up with it.

Appropriately, Peter Warden created a map of the U.S. based on the connectivity of Facebook friends. He found that friendships in the U.S. form 7 major clusters, which he dubs...

The Northeast and Midwest, where people die in the town they were born. People mostly are friends with people in their own town and the next one over.

Same as above but as a separate cluster (which doesn't include southern Florida). People are very likely to have friends in Atlanta.

Greater Texas
Includes Missouri and the Gulf Coast. People are very likely to have friends in Dallas.

Nomadic West
People are very likely to have friends in all kinds of small and large towns throughout the entire western half of the country.

A little cluster inside the above, located appropriately.

LA is the hub of California, where Californians tend to be friends only with Californians (no surprise here).

People in Seattle apparently never go anywhere besides Seattle.

h/t: Edible Geography, PSFK

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pancake Patch

Gene Logsdon has been pushing the idea of grains as a garden crop for some time - a "pancake patch." For a gardener in the pursuit of extreme, high intensity gardening projects, this was immediately appealing - and I say ranks up there with growing bananas in Ohio.

I put his book, Small-Scale Grain Raising, on my library que some months ago, but some local dummy is sitting on his borrowed copy (there's no excuse, it's a very short book). I'll probably just buy a copy when I get some money.

The wind was knocked from my sails this past week however, when my boss pointed out a problem with my plan. He was on a homemade bread tangent when I started asking questions about the logistics of getting usable flour from raw grain. This led him to an anecdote about a local mill that was trying to sell some variety of "local, organic" bread flour. Shortly after it appeared on the shelves, the co-op was inundated with complaints regarding the poor baking quality of the flour.

The fruit quality of grasses, like any plant, is heavily impacted by the environment. Mills routinely test and mix different batches of grain to assure that the final flour product has appropriate levels of gluten, etc. This little local mill, which was only able to buy grain from one farmer its first year, was unable to correct quality imbalances and was forced to sell an inferior product. They hope to recruit additional farms in the new year.

I suppose this isn't a deal breaker - it just means that cereals aren't completely foolproof.

I bet a dwarf wheat variety would make a nice front "yard."

Sourdough FAIL

I've been making bread for awhile now without incident (with the world's easiest base recipe). I thought it would be a simple extension to establish a starter culture in lieu of relying on commercial yeast.

All over the Internet, it's stated that all you need to do is set out equal parts flour and water and natural yeast will colonize and froth it up - or you can dope it with bread yeast, or inoculate it with likely-colonized dried fruit (I did all this and also added some drops of dregs from wine and beer bottles).

Set out, and every day or so, dump half of it and replace with fresh water and flour to keep the happy fungi growing actively. I've spent half my professional life inside a sterile hood, culturing fungi, so this seemed pretty trivial. But it didn't work. Here is fresh dough mixed with a full cup of starter "culture" that smells faintly right but never rose. Any ideas what went wrong?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Orange Dyed Oranges

Back in California, winter was orange season. Starting sometime around November you could buy big onion bags of them at farmers' markets and grocery stores absurdly cheap - and they were all great quality. Unfortunately, eating oranges in the Northeast always seems to be a gristly, horrible experience.*

Luckily, even dime-store mandarins always seem to be good. I was disgusted though as I peeled the first fruit of a new box (of the CA "Cutie" brand not Spanish "Clementines"). I removed the peel to find the normally white albedo layer distinctly orange - a supposed sign of artificial dye - though the edible part was sweeter and more tender than most.

I spent a long time on the Internet trying to find out if this was normal coloring for this variety or gross makeup and seemed to settle on three possible conclusions.
  1. The FDA banned fruit dyes a decade or so ago
  2. The FDA now requires added coloring to be listed as an ingredient
  3. Florida and Texas dye their fruit but California fruit change color naturally
The ingredients only list waxes, which I don't care about and I wouldn't expect would change the color. Anyone out there know anything about this?

I really know nothing about citrus, but it's a pretty fascinating group of fruit - with very different ripening biology than the plants I'm used to. I've read some good books revolving around apples and stone fruits. Anyone know of any good citrus ones?

*as a biased student of California Ag, I blame Florida!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The $17,000 Glass Vial

The scientist across the hall poked his head into my office today. He's a natural products chemist, which means he spends his time trying to identify and isolate new compounds with interesting biological activity from all kinds of crazy organisms.

He held up a little glass vial that appeared to envelop a faint coating of dust. It almost looked like someone had just scratched up the inside of the vial with a metal pick.

He informed me that this compound he had painstakingly isolated could be bought from a chemical supply company for hundreds of dollars a milligram.* The amount of dust he had collected inside that little vial would be worth $17,000!
He joked that if he did this part time, he could afford to hire a postdoc.

"Or just go buy a car!"

"Not a great one..."

*1 gram = 1,000 milligrams

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Canada Bans Weed and Feed

"Pesticides should only be used when and where there is a need...

...fertilizer-pesticide combination products for lawn and turf uses do not support the goals of best practices for pest management in turf..." - Health Canada
I imagine this will discourage indiscriminate dumping of unnecessary chemicals onto lawns. Now if we could just get rid of lawns...

h/t: The Clueless Gardeners

* I love best agronomic practices!
**My dad's been using corn gluten on our old acre lot and swears by it for weed suppression. We never had any pest problems - maybe because there was such a huge amount of habitat for predators. We did once have serious infestation of yellow jackets in the front yard - but some gasoline and fire took care of them!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cultural Consquences of Corn Color

Corn meal in Africa is white.

Although the carotenoids that color yellow corn are great for human nutrition, they make make corn meal more susceptible to going rancid. On a hot continent with limited refrigeration, this is a real drawback. The same story has played out with rice - although many modern people enjoy the more complex taste* and greater nutrition of whole grain "brown" rice, "white" rice (free from the oily bran and germ) can be stored much more easily (especially in tropical climates). In both these cases, practical food choices have become entangled with deep cultural meaning over time. Although rice seems like a homogeneous commodity to most Westerners, many Asian cultures take great nationalistic and ethnic pride in "their" variety of white rice.

Corn meal in the United States is yellow because virtually all our corn varieties are yellow (whether for corn flakes or cows).** In many parts of Africa, however, yellow corn is exclusively used for animal feed. This pattern was likely established for practical storage reasons, but now many (especially more wealthy) Africans have a strong cultural preference for white corn. This apparently has caused some tense diplomatic moments as the U.S. offered donations of what was seen locally as animal feed...

My boss read that the same thing happened when the U.S. helped to rebuild Germany after WWII. Our corn-loving forefathers sent huge shipments of their favorite grain to a country that considered only wheat and barley to be fit for human consumption, apparently producing some very insulted and hurt East Germans who felt patronized by an arrogant U.S. that expected them to eat "animal feed."

*not me, yuck!
**it's easy to find white fresh sweet corn here, but the field corn (that's dried and processed into meal) is almost exclusively yellow

Monday, February 8, 2010

Monsanto in the Whole Earth Catalog?

No, not really - but Stewart Brand (of the Whole Earth Catalog) is now advocating genetic engineering and nuclear energy as tools for environmentalists.

I've requested his new book from my local library. I'll let you know what I think!

h/t: Forum

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Family "Dinner"

Uh, I just saw a commercial last night with the following arc:
1) Your kids won't become drug-addicted losers if you eat dinner as a family.
2) We know you can't eat dinner as a family now because you're too busy to cook.
3) So have a family dinner with "healthy" individual frozen meals from Stouffer's!
Wow, I'm blown away. I must be just completely out of touch because I never would have guessed the average American family not only never eats together, but also is too incompetent in the kitchen to make even a simple casserole.

If this is true it's gonna take some of the fun out of accusing other people of living in bubbles...


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