Keeping an Eye on Emulsifiers

The David and Goliath story of plucky little Hampton Creek vs Big Egg and Big Mayo continues to entertain. I’ve written a follow up piece over at Eat This Podcast, the gist of which is that all the fuss about eggless mayonnaise is over an ingredient that is present in such small quantities that it isn’t even declared on the label.

The best bit, though (which is why I am reposting here) is Hampton Creek’s explanation of their position:

Meanwhile, Hampton Creek, maker of Just Mayo, is playing word games:

“The term ‘mayo’ should not now be held to the regulatory standard for ‘mayonnaise,’” wrote the company’s lawyer, Josh Schiller.

So yes, they’re guilty, bang to rights, of making a product that isn’t mayonnaise. But the fuddy-duddy old FDA is guilty of confusing “mayo” with “mayonnaise”.

“While there is a food standard of identity for ‘mayonnaise,’ there is no current standard for ‘mayo’. … Hampton Creek does not use the term ‘mayonnaise’ on any of its products or any of its marketing materials … If FDA had intended to cover products that use the term ‘mayo’ in its standard for mayonnaise, it could have done so, yet it did not.”

More here.

Technology, Save Me From My Stupidity

My digital recorder is a thing of beauty. It’s a Roland R-26, and it does everything I could want, and more. But … There’s always a but. It allows me to be foolish, and I wish it didn’t.

The recorder lets me monitor through headphones, which is absolutely essential, but it does that even when it is not actually recording. There is an indication that I am not recording; the little red light on the record button flashes instead of staying on. But whenever I’m flustered going into an interview (as I was this morning because my interviewee was late, and is busy, so I didn’t want to take up any more of his time than I could help) I forget to press the record button a second time, which is what the recorder needs to actually start recording. And I miss the beginning of the interview.

I know I’m to blame. But couldn’t the technology help me by playing, say, a beep every 15 seconds if it is in standby mode?

Maybe there’s a hack.

History Is Written by the Podcasters

Let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset. I have no idea who is responsible for “history is written by the X,” where X is any one of a number of synonyms for victors. The internet will give you lots of options: Napoleon, Walter Benjamin, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Pliny the Elder. I’m going to go with Walter Benjamin, because it suits my purposes.

Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything had a recent episode on Secret Histories of Podcasting that I listened to with great pleasure. The episode was well-made, featured some good voices and made some good points, not least that there are several ways to tell the history of podcasting and that, like Rashomon or The Alexandria Quartet, different people tell the story in different ways. And yet …

You might think an honest-to-god timeline from Vanessa Quirk, a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, would get things straight, but that too reflects the author’s selectivity. How could it not?

It was Dave Slusher who sensitised me to some aspects of the history because, no matter what Vanessa Quirk may think, his Evil Genius Chronicles podcast is the longest continuously running podcast, which I’d say deserves a place on any timeline. Dave says he’d prefer to be remembered for co-organising an impromptu barbecue pool party at one of the first Podcast Expos, but that’s MIA too. I sent him a link to the timeline:

Thanks. Any timeline that excludes all the Podcast Expos but includes the founding of Odeo is pretty specious.

Anyway, that’s all a long, throat-clearing exercise prior to getting to two points.

The first was an excellent discussion of the differences between podcasting and radio and the whole notion of quality. On quality, Dave Winer 1 admitted, rather proudly I think, that one of his early podcasts had a three-minute gap of dead air because something went wrong with the microphone. Stuff like that happens, but listeners shouldn’t have to put up with it. How hard would it have been, even in the bad old days, to edit the file? That kind of poor quality as a mark of “authenticity” pisses me (and Benjamen Walker) right off. Sure, if content is compelling one can put up with a certain amount of poor audio quality, but dead air?

And then there was the comparison of radio and podcasting. These days, all the popular podcasts do sound a lot like NPR, and there has been a lot of noise about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. One view seems to be that you couldn’t actually put some podcasts on the radio, and that somehow makes them lower quality. But there’s a crucial difference, which Ben Hammersley 2 nailed:

They’re not unbroadcastable. They’re uncommissionable.

That’s the crucial part about podcasting; you don’t have to persuade some no-account “commissioning editor” who “can’t hear it on the page” that people might want to listen to your stuff. You make it, and if people want to listen, they can. And, as someone 3 perspicaciously noted, it was the “quality” of most broadcast radio that drove many people – makers and listeners – to podcasting in the first place.

Looking forward, to the history yet to be made, I’m pretty certain something new will turn up in podcasting, just as I am pretty sure the same old stuff will continue to be made. The democratisation of radio, like the democratisation of print before it, is a wonderful thing, which offers opportunities that could barely be dreamed of even 20 years ago.

Ah, but …

To be continued.

  1. Who made podcasting possible by adapting RSS feeds so that they could include audio files.

  2. Who coined the term podcasting in the rush to make an extra line in a print story. Ironic, or what?

  3. Maybe Hammersely again, maybe Walker. Which gives me an opportunity to point out that automated transcription of audio is by no means ready for prime time yet.

Laboratory Equipment

One of the trickier aspects of home fermentation is the need to keep things anaerobic. The bacteria that do the work are perfectly happy without oxygen. Most spoiler moulds and bacteria need a bit of oxygen. So the usual advice is to ensure that all the stuff you’re pickling is submerged beneath the liquid in which it is being pickled. Easy enough in a nice, straight-sided pickling crock, where a plate with a weight on top does the job smoothly. Posh crocks may have a fitted lid or even an air-lock. But they’re expensive and second-hand ones are hard to find.

As as result, I’ve been doing most of my pickling in glass jars designed for home canning, and because they have a narrower neck and a shoulder, keeping stuff submerged isn’t easy. I put a plastic bag in the neck of the jar, fill it with water (mercury would be so much better) and try my best to push the bag full of water into the space above the stuff. It works, but not perfectly, and it is, to be honest, a bit of a pain.

So I was thrilled to discover (and I wish I had made a note of where) a company called pickl-it. They make glass lids that fit my canning jars. But these lids are special; they contain a hole, with a silicone grommet, into which you can push a little plastic airlock, like the ones brewers use. They also make a nice bit of round glass to keep things submerged.

I ordered them. They arrived. I made sauerkraut.

I’m still improvising though, because the little bit of round glass isn’t actually heavy enough to keep the cabbage submerged, especially in the early days when there isn’t much liquid. So I put a little espresso cup between the lid and the round bit of glass to push down on the cabbage-leaf cap for the sauerkraut. Five days later, when the salt had drawn much more liquid out of the cabbage, I replaced the espresso cup with an empty mustard jar to push down even further. And now it is all bubbling away.

These things aren’t cheap by any means, but I think they are going to be very useful.

P.s. 1 November 2015: I just tasted it; fantastically good. And in just 10 days. It has been warm, which could account for the speed, but I also like to think that the new equipment provided a better environment for a good fermentation. Now I just need to find some raw bettroot in the market for some beetroot and turnip. There are lots of green beans about too.

The Arithmetic of Abundance

There are quite a few podcasts that I keep an eye on but do not actually subscribe to. One of those is Econtalk, and recently I spotted a couple of things there that looked interesting enough to mark for listening. Rachel Laudan talked to Russ Roberts about the ideas in her book Cuisine and Empire, and as she’s an old cyber-friend and previous guest on my own podcast, I was keen to hear what she had to say.

One of Rachel’s key points is that we now live in an age of abundance. Globally, we grow enough food to give the whole world a decent diet. Sure, there are problems of distribution, but those are problems of politics and economics, not agriculture. We could quibble about that, especially taking a longer-term view, but there’s another problem. How do you control, or even influence, what people choose to eat in this age of abundance? Nudges are all the rage, making the healthier choices easier to make; is that enough to get people to forego, for example, three meats a day? A few hundred thousand years of evolutionary history in which fats, sugars and salt were scarce have left us with little in the way of brakes to apply. Now that those commodities are cheaper than ever, and food processors are smarter than ever, we’re eating more of them than is good for us.

One of the themes that runs through Cuisine and Empire is the way that food is a marker of class and privilege. Right now, a few rich people who have been blinded by the light of a more sustainable diet are making different choices, eating lower on the food chain, eating less. Do we have to wait for economic development to make people so rich that the whole world comes to the same realisation? And when that happens, how will the elites distinguish themselves once again?

It’s a puzzle, for sure. I certainly don’t have answers, although I am convinced that one problem is the way we keep the score. The cost of abundance is paid elsewhere – in health care, environmental damage, animal welfare, human rights.

Which is why the other Econtalk show I listened to had me hopping mad. The host, Russ Roberts, talked about the economics of buy local with his colleague and co-author Don Boudreaux. Two things in particular made me cross.

One was the overuse of reductio ad absurdam as a rhetorical device. Like, if you have a local economy then you have to have a local car manufacturer, and that would make cars so expensive that nobody could afford to buy them anyway. Or, if the Chinese decided to set fire to a nominal $400 million trade deficit with the USA:

Then the goods and services they otherwise could have bought are available to the rest of us, so the value of the remaining dollars rises, so we can now afford to buy those goods and services. Dollars are claims on American assets. If foreigners don’t take advantage of that, it’s a gift to us. Year-round Santa Claus.

Which is true, but in my view that is not an argument against buy local as most people understand it. It’s an argument against a straw man of protectionist, isolationist economics. Against trade, in fact, which was what most of the hour seemed to be dedicated to. And that is not merely a straw man but, as my old friend Nick Humphrey memorably said, a straw man with feet of clay.

Roberts and Boudreaux did briefly touch on buy local as most people, in my experience, understand it, which is in connection with food. Here too, they tried to rubbish the idea by making it silly; what if the farmer from whom you bought your broccoli spends the money on a car, or a fridge made in China?

The really good reason to buy locally, especially for food, is that it may reduce some of the externalities associated with food production and consumption.

And that’s what made me really mad; throughout the discussion these two economists never once directly mentioned externalities, positive or negative. They weren’t even implicit. So the idea that local food might have a lower carbon footprint, reduce other environmental pollution, even, God help us, result in more humane treatment of the workers who produce it, got barely a look in. That’s not to say that all food should be local. I quite agree, for example, that New Zealand lamb shipped to Europe or the US might overall impose lower externalities than local lamb under some circumstances. But if food can be grown locally without too much in the way of inputs, I believe that there is virtue – and economic sense – to preferring it over the same food produced further away.

This is by no means an argument against trade, as Roberts and Boudreaux seem to want it to be. Nor is it an absolutist argument. If you buy local broccoli, you must also buy a locally made car, fridge and hedge-trimmer. If you buy local food, you must buy only local food.

Those are indeed absurd ideas.

However, buying some of your food from local sources brings benefits that their economics doesn’t capture, in environmental pollution, in labour and possibly even in human health. The fact that their economics doesn’t capture those benefits is not a reason to pretend they don’t exist. It’s a reason to change the way economics keeps the score and maybe change the arithmetic of abundance.

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