Archive for the ‘Food’ Category


Bad Government, No Snack

March 27, 2010

Libertarians amuse me. Particularly fascinating is their insistence that government can’t get anything right, and that somehow, miraculously, the free market will handle all manner of goods — market and non-market, exchange and non-exchange — with greater efficiency and better quality than any other possible social coordination mechanism. Most of the time, the insanity of libertarians is simply an amusing aside, too stupid to bother with. Sometimes, however, it’s a fabulous parody of itself, as in this humble video screed from Reason [sic]. Read the written article, watch the video below, and see how many logical fallacies you can spot.

I’ll play along too by commenting on the video. More after the jump…

Read the rest of this entry ?


Akrasia Solved!

January 28, 2010

NPR has this bizarre story on chocolate cake and why you can’t resist chocolate cake when trying to remember a lot of numbers. It’s cribbed from an earlier WSJ article on the same issue. Since I try to avoid reading the WSJ, I’m only just learning of it now.

Evidently, some people think that your brain can “fill up” like a trash bin, and that willpower works kinda like your muscles.

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

Spare me. The numbers “took up valuable space in the brain”? That’s ridiculous, unless she’s speaking metaphorically. Oh, she must be speaking metaphorically, since the brain is a physical object and the numbers are…wait for it…frigging numbers. They don’t take up any space at all.

Maybe she means that the students were preoccupied with trying to focus on a random seven-digit strong of numbers when some chocolate-cake wielding seductress assaulted them and tempted them to do something that they might otherwise not have done. How hard is that to understand? It doesn’t have anything to do with space being taken up. It has to do with chocolate cake, focusing on something other than chocolate cake, and getting a wee bit piggy. But wait, it gets better.

The willpower-as-muscle metaphor should also change the way we think about dieting. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University who has pioneered the muscle metaphor, has demonstrated in several clever studies that the ability to do the right thing requires a well-fed prefrontal cortex.

In a 2007 experiment, Prof. Baumeister and his colleagues found that students who fasted for three hours and then had to perform a variety of self-control tasks, such as focusing on a boring video or suppressing negative stereotypes, had significantly lower glucose levels than students who didn’t have to exert self-control. Willpower, in other words, requires real energy.

Um, okay, which they’re measuring by looking at what people do... so maybe it’s the case that what takes real energy is doing something, whether will power is involved or not. And how is this supposed to help us think differently about dieting?


Tank Steak

November 30, 2009

Looks like scientists are moving forward on the laboratory grown sausage. It’s an idea that’s been getting traction for over a decade now. Here’s a short, somewhat popular piece I wrote a few years back on the ethics of lab grown meet.


Look Who’s Not Coming to Dinner

November 8, 2009

I was mighty distressed to read last week that we might have to eat our dogs due to their inordinately high carbon footprint. Since I don’t own a dog, it occurred to me that in order to keep up with the Joneses I might have to eat my SUV. The thought of that gustatory torture nearly had me running to the pound to pick up a plump pooch for supper.

Fortunately, here’s a nice debunking of that claim.



October 27, 2009

Apparently London’s climate chief, Lord Stern, has recommended that people adopt a vegetarian diet for environmental reasons. Startling. Outrageous. Ludicrous!

This, of course, has been the recommendation for more than 20 years. There are innumerable books on this topic, the most recent of which, Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, even turned Queen-cum-Senator Amidala away from the dark side. Maybe this will help contextualize: MotherJones has a story on environmental push-back from big agriculture.


Pass the Information, Please

October 24, 2009

Have food phobias?  Some people are terrified of mayonnaise, others Jello… {Food on Shine}Sweden, one of the most fish-and-mayonnaise-eatingest countries I visited last month, is conducting an experiment by putting CO2 emissions labels on their food products. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. Judging by the sheer girth and heft of the average American tush, coupled with our long available nutritional data, I’m not terribly optimistic that carbon footprint information will change behavior. Far better to do something exotic like encourage people to have fun doing the right thing. Either that, or to offer full release massages to your employees. Or both.


Skydiving for the Earthbound

October 23, 2009

This fun article over at the Atlantic offers some nice tales about amateur mushroom hunting, a quasi-dangerous past-time that I used to engage in often, but that parenthood has kept me from pursuing more ambitiously. I’m told that the season this year was terrible, but next year, let’s hope for better. Local Coloradoans might consider joining the Colorado Mycological Society. I’ve been on one foray with them, and they have some pretty well informed members.


The Woes of Oscar

October 22, 2009

Now how, exactly, is the new San Francisco law prohibiting the reckless disposal of food scraps supposed to work when so many poor monsters are dependent upon leftover trimmings for nutrition? This is clearly an inconsiderate strike against the interests of our lovable curmudgeon.  The grouch will have nothing to nosh on. He’ll go hungry, I say! He’ll stave, only to emerge weeks later — emaciated, chartreuse, and rail-thin — to terrify kids and spew all manner of hate-filled nonsense on freakishly-large birds with imaginary woolly mammoth friends.

What is he to do? Is he to eat plastic? Is he, woefully unqualified, suddenly to take bottom-of-the-trash-bin jobs photosynthesizing our waste?  Or will he be forever relegated to a life of crime, forced to steal cookies from other, more fortunate, monsters? What, pray tell, is the grouch to do when food scraps are pillaged from our waste stream?

There is no justice in this world.


Milky Serial

October 6, 2009

The French are at it again.  This time they’ve pissed off the Walloons.  And you know what happens when you piss off the Walloons?

A giant spritzer of milk on your riot shield, that’s what.

At least it’s warm.


Cross Contamination and Passable Substitutes

October 5, 2009

The follow-up to the New York Times’ Tainted Meat video is equally valuable and important.  It raises the question about “safe handling instructions,” which many folks agree are the minimum required to maintain a healthy kitchen.  Their conclusion is that we should all “go beyond package safety instructions” to avoid unpleasant trips to the emergency room.

But this, of course, rests pretty squarely on a questionable hypothetical imperative.  You should go way beyond package safety instructions (as they say), only if you’re preparing foods that have a relatively high likelihood of being contaminated, and only if you don’t want to run the risk of getting sick from some foodborne pathogen.

It pretty much goes without saying that most people would prefer not to get sick, though this maybe also ought not to be a foregone assumption.  That’s a mistake that public health managers make all the time.  Many people eat risky foods partly because they’re risky.  I eat wild mushrooms for instance, because in my mind, I’m a foolish culinary paratrooper…though I’m not so foolish as to jump headlong into a bowl of Fugu.

Moreover, some risks are inevitable.  I probably won’t be cutting spinach or peanut butter out of my diet, for instance.  I do wash my spinach thoroughly, even though some have said that it doesn’t do very much to cut down on pathogens.  (Not true for pre-washed spinach, incidentally, as this month’s issue of Cook’s Illustrated points out.)  You too should probably also wash your spinach thoroughly, provided that you don’t want to get sick.

Which brings me back to this point about the hypothetical imperative: another way to avoid a higher risk of getting sick is to avoid foods that bring on sickness… like, oh, I dunno, hamburger.  Since there are quite a few other reasons to avoid hamburger, including the fact that there are passable substitutes for hamburger, why not simply use a passable substitute?  Even if the passable substitute is only 90% passable, meaning that it’s only 90% as tasty as the real thing, that extra 10% of tasty really should alter your risk calculus, should it not?