Things Consumed

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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Let's worry about the impact of apples grown on the moon

  I've never been a fan of fake meat: not having ever been a fan of eating real flesh, the imitation flesh just doesn't have much to offer me. It would be like hating roses and wearing rose perfume: no. (Though those Tofurky Italian Sausages, which are nothing like sausages, go really well with good Belgian beer. 'Just sayin'.)

A FB friend posted Processed, imported vegetarian proteins not greener than local meat | green LA girl (, 2/19/10), and it's amusing, because it contradicts that popular Global Tacoshed study that says that food transport isn't a big deal. The overall message of the article is that we should eat more veggies, but the thing that is supposed to get your attention and make it newsworthy is the idea that there are vegan foods that are over-processed far away, and that some of those are bad for the environment.

Are these strange processed foods as bad for the environment as the caviar industry? Are they as bad for the environment as whaling? As ranching on public lands? As sheep farming? What about imported versus local items of the exact same type? It would be no fun to provide context, so instead it's about how there are some really weird vegan foods out there, and if they come a great distance, they may be worse for the planet that something local that isn't as good for you.

My comment on my friend's post:
What bums me out is that articles like this always look for something absurd - an organic Oreo handmade in an obscure town in Mongolia - and then try to compare it to something awful for you - a locally made cigarette - and then say that the local cigarette is better for the environment.

It's never a comparison between two things that are good for you, because then logic will prevail - you should eat things that are good for you AND the environment! But no. It never goes that way, because that isn't news.
The article's point that you should eat more veggies (and avoid over-processed foods of any kind) is lost in an odd warning that you should second-guess the merits of surface-healthier-but-not-actually-healthy choices at a level of scrutiny you don't apply to other decisions you make.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Soft words butter no parsnips (or: it takes four squirrels to make pie)

  My mother grew up in Connecticut, and she remembers all sorts of regional specialties that she ate growing up that people just don't make now. She was thrilled to find a 1963 reprint of the 1939 regional Yankee Cookbook by Emmajean Wolcott.

Emmajean. Who is named Emmajean anymore? (Well, to study that, you'd want to look at the beautiful graph at Name Change, but that's a separate topic. It's a really lovely way to present that information though, isn't it? Nearly as nice as the Crayola color chart analysis in Color Me A Dinosaur. Pretty digressions are the best kind!)

Ahem. This cookbook is full of strange lore, and stranger recipes. It has recipes for cooking with coots (a TV series title waiting to happen!), which are birds with tough feathers that lived in the region, which were a challenge to prepare.

It offers tips such as:
At least four squirrels are needed to fill a two quart pie dish. Four squirrels serve six.
Because you were wondering.

There are many recipes involving cornmeal. As a fancy Californian, my mind automatically turns to polenta with sun dried tomatoes (mmmm, polenta) but soft or hard polenta-type dishes went by many names: bag pudding, johnnycake, hasty pudding, and gap and swallow. (<-I do not recommend searching for this term, as nowadays, it only leads to 'p0rn.') Soft, hot cornmeal was served with milk as a dessert; there were variations of "Indian pudding" with cornmeal, molasses, milk, sometimes salt, sometimes cinnamon. (It must have been tough to get cinnamon.) I'm trying to picture something like cornbread pancakes with syrup, but softer: it has some potential.

I may have liked the versions of pumpkin pie they had in the area: since sensible chickens don't lay eggs in winter, pumpkin pies were egg-free. Pumpkin, molasses, milk, ginger, cinnamon, and salt were the primary ingredients of the pie filling. Pumpkins ("pompions") that weren't baked and eaten fresh were sliced up for storage, and the strips were air-dried.

The cookbook includes some recipes from the native people who pre-dated the New England concept, mostly involving the complex preparations you need to make to prepare local fauna for roasting (how to remove glands you may not be aware of, for example). You're still thinking about squirrel pie, though, aren't you? I am, too, and I don't remember it having any other ingredients. Did I mention ick? Ick.

Aside from thinking about the potential to make sweet dessert polentas, I didn't come away with any inspiration. New Englanders ate simple foods, many of which were baked or roasted, with relatively few ingredients. The desserts appeal to me in their simplicity - apples, pumpkins, cinnamon, molasses - but not the entrees. It's the sort of cookbook that makes you understand why people glamorized spice traders: relative to a pie shell full of squirrels, a masala dosa with a side of sambar starts to sound like heaven many times over.

I realize I own more spices right now than most people in NE consumed in their entire lives. Lucky lucky lucky. Spoiled and lucky.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:04 PM

Monday, March 29, 2010

Behold, the uses for the Internet

  When I could contain myself no longer, I went to Apple - QuickTime - Apple Special Event January 2010 and watched the iPad presentation. Then the sky opened up, angels wearing iPods sang (or at least lip-synced), and a Voice pointed out that it is possible to navigate information without having to use a mouse, that interface design is alive and well, and that personal computing devices can actually be a pleasure to use.

[Have you ever watched Star Trek? Have you ever seen people on ST clicking through folder after folder to get to some program they need to launch with some lame pointing device? No. Why? Because the people who design the tech for sci-fi shows are OPTIMISTS. They assume we'll move past the interfaces we have now, just like we switched over from all those cool, light-up analog-style buttons, knobs and sliders. Which I kind of miss, actually.]

One passionate detractor described the iPad to me as "just a big iPhone," which made me laugh: it's not like that's an insult, and it's not like she doesn't own a post-iPhone touchscreen phone that mimics the interface to a point, which seemingly never would have been introduced if not for the iPhone's existence.

But this detractor was missing the point: the iPad isn't as much of an innovation as the infrastructure behind it is. iTunes will now carry apps for the iPad also, plus books, plus everything it has already been carrying for iPhones and iPods and iPodTouches. The apps, the genius of having a clearing house for them, of doing quality control and then making them available cheaply, is incredible. INCREDIBLE! The iToys are shiny and beautiful and thoughtfully designed, yes, but it's iTunes that makes this all so clever.

Fake Steve Jobs ( has gone on some brilliant tirades about the nature of Apple's business. Apple's business isn't the sexy iToys so much as it is Digital Asset Management: the selling of songs, movies, apps, books, and any other media currently in the works. Selling them differently than others sell them.


Software: okay, look: say I'm a programmer, and I want to sell a program that does something on a personal computing device. In the past, this would mean I'd write my program, and then go to a publisher, design packaging, get a manufacturer to burn discs, have the packages shipped to a distributor, work out deals with big box stores to try to get them to carry my product, set up my websites, hire a marketing company... To make this work, considering all of that overhead, I'd have to sell approximately a gazillion copies. If this product wasn't going to be big in all possible markets, it wouldn't be worth making, because it would never pay for itself.

If my program was for an Apple device, I could skip most of the steps after writing it: I could test it, form a little company, hire a designer to design a cool icon and website for me, and Apple basically does the rest. My overhead drops down low enough that this could be a side project. A pet project. Frivolous, even, or serious. But it is both low overhead and low risk.

How many people do you know wrote a major piece of PC software based on their own ideas and got it published for retail sale? How about an iPhone app? I know people who are writing iPhone apps. I read articles about people writing iPhone apps. I hear stories of people taking time off their main jobs to write iPhone apps. Not to go the old route, but because the new route makes so many more things possible. Massive funding up front is no longer the filter for ideas.

Even big media is figuring this out: they only figured out that they could sell DVDs of popular television programs a few years ago. But even that entails risk, and the production costs are high. Now viewers can subscribe to those shows in iTunes - no packaging, no manufacturing forecasts, no shipping, much less risk.

(Yes, on iTunes. Not on their own sites. You did notice this, didn't you?)

iTunes is a digital media platform that major networks and lone programmers can both get their work out through. Its strength lies in its one-stop, comprehensive nature. And that's what other companies have been figuring out in recent years.

Music? This works a lot like software does.

Books? I'm a huge fan of independent bookstores, which is where I do most of my book shopping, but Amazon is now catering to tiny, independent booksellers. If you have ten rare and obscure titles that you collected for sale, it will take a long time for people to find you; but if you sell through Amazon (where huge volumes of people are already looking, and which rates well in search engines), you can be found and can sell under Amazon's umbrella.

Stock photography? You used to have to publish a print catalog of your own images for sale and distribute it to buyers around the world, and the collection would have to be comprehensive to get any attention. Now dozens of heavily consolidated stock agencies use thousands of independent photographers to flesh out their catalogs. There's no way a shipping company in Korea would have found the image they purchased for a calendar from me if I were acting alone, but with my images as part of Alamy's agency database (, I was exactly where they were looking.

Obscure camera equipment? My little neighborhood camera stores have to carry what people are most likely to buy regularly, so a specialist in obscure parts or rare collectibles isn't going to get a lot of mileage out of their storefront. But on eBay, they can reach freaks like me who are actually looking for 8x10 Fidelity film holders, or lenses from decommissioned equipment, or replacement parts for equipment that was last manufactured before I was born. The odds of someone in any particular city needing these things is low; the odds of someone with an Internet connection needing these things... it is completely different.

Handmade paper goods and crafts? I don't think I need to explain Etsy to you.

Many big retailers and media companies are still figuring out how to make money on the Internet, and perhaps they never will. Look how long it took record companies to figure it out - they had to have it explained to them, and they had ideal products to sell digitally - they just couldn't conceptualize it. But there are tools now so that little media - "little" programmers, independent artists and musicians, collectors, makers of obscure specialty equipment - can benefit from retail outlets that have never been available to them before.

The Internet: it's getting interesting.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Like a brush with fame / or perhaps it's infamy / for my bad haiku

  My haiku Twitter feed, was featured in BART's less official blog on the 19th: Play us a song, BART piano man - SFBART's blog ( Thanks to Mini Me and Margot (MS and MS) for calling this to my attention.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)11:13 PM

Postal fetishism

  I ordered stamps today, and it got me excited. I am still a fan of mail. A fan of real mail, snail mail, actual letters. I have boxes and boxes of letters I have received in my life as a dedicated correspondent, adorned with gorgeous stamps and handwritten notes from those dear to me, whether they are near or far.

I'm dabbling in mail art at the moment, which only makes my fondness worse: the mailbox/postal system as a gallery is fun, and I'm a sucker for collaborative art. The member show at Camerawork ( last fall was encouraging, in a dangerous way.

My eyes wandered the net today, looking at postal-themed images. Things I especially enjoyed:

Good Mail ( This is one of those dangerous sites that makes me consider setting up a tumblr account just to have a blog showing other people's images that I like, so I could keep that separate from my own images. As if I should spend any more time on the web. Added bonus: you can follow any of the image links back to even more sites devoted to an even wider range of topics, where these mail-themed images just happened to appear. (The only bummer is Flickr, which still lacks that special something...)

Good Mail Day (, the blog associated with the excellent book of the same name, which I own and enjoy very much, about mail art.

Red Letter Day Zine (, also about mail art. Because people really like their mail.


posted by Arlene (Beth)5:18 PM

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Coming soon: Things Consumed 2

  Blogger, which I have been using since 2002, is (sensibly) discontinuing their FTP publishing service. I publish via this blog via FTP currently, and will have to choose how to proceed so that the functionality I like - especially mobile publishing - can work more fluidly than the current FTP structure allows.

I had been considering a switch regardless: the FTP functionality has been declining for a while. The post I published prior to this one took about a minute to publish: Blogger not only updated the main page, monthly archive page, the one page devoted to the tag I used, but actually updated ALL of the pages for ALL of the tags -- that little text-only update involved 141 files and (mysteriously) 2 MB of data.

In addition to speed, I want some of the snappy embed functions I get so effortlessly with other publishing tools.

I don't think I want or need to port the entire 7+ year archive to a new site, so I may just keep all of this as an archive and start fresh. I'll post updates and links accordingly when I do make the switch. (If you are reading this through FB, you won't notice a change: I'll have the new blog imported just like this one is.)


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:21 PM

Friday, March 19, 2010

Comparing apples and avocados

  Every so often, something comes out that reminds you that (a) people in the US, on the whole, have no idea where their food comes from, and (b) some of those same people are kind of interested in having some kind of relationship with something they understand, perhaps including their food.

There is quite a bit of reposting and linking to the store Biography of a Taco Mission Loc@l -- San Francisco Mission District's News, Food, Art and Events (, which is heartening. The article has some charming moments about a class project on figuring out where each of the ingredients from a local taco truck originate.
"It was very difficult to trace the origins of these foods," said John Bela, a director at Rebar and an instructor for the class. "There was an intentional obfuscation of food origins that we didn't anticipate. We were stonewalled by corporations. So we had to use subterfuge, like having our Puerto Rican aunt call to ask."
It was interesting to learn that the salt used in the tacos is local -- those salt ponds that turn wild colors in Google maps actually are in use!

If I have an objection to the article, it is to the attempt to be balanced by suggesting that choosing local can be stupid by setting up a bogus example:
To grow avocados local to New York City, for example, imagine the energy it would take to mimic the climate of Chile in the middle of winter, Yu and her classmate Annalise Aldrich pointed out.
Since the localvore movement has emphasized local specialties -- eating what can be grown near you, and what is actually grown in your region - this hypothetical totally misses the point. None of us are suggesting growing pineapples in the Sunset district. We are suggesting that we grow some mighty fine artichokes in Half Moon Bay, however, and that a healthy diet could always include more artichokes.

Mmmmm. Artichokes.

It was good that the students had a look at how far food travels before getting to your plate, and that they considered the energy required to grow food. It seems like they started to touch an idea, and then dropped it: they noted that food transport is a relatively small energy consumer relative to... Well, to what? The California Academy of Sciences has a great, straightforward exhibit on the environmental impact of food choices currently, and it isn't just about the energy used to transport it.

You know where I'm going, right? We've known it for years, and the UN FAO's magazine covered it back in Spotlight / 2006: Livestock impacts on the environment (
A new report from FAO says livestock production is one of the major causes of the world's most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Using a methodology that considers the entire commodity chain, it estimates that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport.
So, if the students are considering the implications of the transport of the food, but not of production of the food itself, they're missing the bigger picture.

But it's a start! A good start.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:30 PM

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Low overhead

  I've known several aspiring chefs, and have never envied them their career paths. While there are always restaurants, to work your way up to having your own restaurant (or cookbook, or food column in a magazine, or workshops, or television show) has always involved an eternity of cooking in anonymity within a highly hierarchical kitchen system that... ouch! That's hot! Be careful with that!

Anyway, all that work in the kitchens of others doesn't necessarily lead to having a kitchen of your own. That takes a lot of money up front. You need to lease space, outfit a kitchen, hire staff... And you never stop working. You're shopping, menu planning, hiring, taking reservations, ordering supplies - it's not something you can ease into, because of that big outlay up front.

If only you could just rent a space now and then and have a part time, occasional restaurant, you could get some serious cooking done without needing a huge outlay of cash. This clever idea occurred to some clever people: At Pop-Up Restaurants, Chefs Take Chances With Little Risk (, 2/12/10).

It's a rather neat idea. I've heard that the execution favors trendy diners: my spies tell me that these places don't take reservations, and so they rely on people waiting around all night in hopes of getting a table, which makes the event look like quite a "scene" but means that a lot of hungry people need to stand around.

I'm not cool enough to stand around. But I like this idea, and hope some good chefs leave a trail of happy diners in their wake.

(Like the book publishing community, these chefs will require some sort of system for them to publicize where they go and what they do, so their fans can find them, but that's probably easier to work out now than it would have been a few years ago.)


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Friday, March 12, 2010

Dry, so dry...

  Another episode of staring at the earth from satellites: Dry, white hills near San Lucas, CA - Google Maps.

This is a landscape I viewed many times by car on return trips from two semesters at a university in San Luis Obisbo. The white, chalky, dry soil also seemed so improbable in our lush state.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)6:00 AM

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Once upon a time, with a view of Everest

  It has always been a pleasure to love maps, but satellite images with maps delicately, digitally laid over them may be even better.

When I was young, so long ago, I went on a trek in Nepal. At one point, we were in Tengboche, a flat spot where there was a monastery, some outbuildings, and many festivals, though none timed to coincide with our too-early arrival. My trekking group stayed there for a few days. We had stunning views of Mt. Everest and Ama Dablam. It was extraordinarily cold at night: another story I tell, about my the water in my water bottle freezing solid in the tent, despite being between me and my roommate, occurred in Tengboche.

It occurred to me while telling another story about things I did in Tengboche that the name had no meaning to anyone who had not been there, or who had not planned a trip to Everest. So I mapped it.

Go to Tengboche, Nepal - Google Maps and make your browser window as large as you can. Collapse the sidebar. Zoom in, just a bit, or out just a bit, to see the Everest Himalayas (Everest is just up and to the right of Tengboche).

What a lovely planet we live on.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

They day already isn't long enough for all I need to do

  Chile Earthquake May Have Shortened Days on Earth - Yahoo! News (03/03/2010):
The massive 8.8 earthquake that struck Chile may have changed the entire Earth's rotation and shortened the length of days on our planet, a NASA scientist said Monday.

The quake, the seventh strongest earthquake in recorded history, hit Chile Saturday and should have shortened the length of an Earth day by 1.26 microseconds, according to research scientist Richard Gross at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:22 PM

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