Bring on the Frankenbrew

Ron Bailey’s one of my favorite science writers and I’m completely on board with his complaints about alarmist reactions against genetically modified food. Yet in this post of his about a newly passed Hawaiian ban on growing GM coffee, I’m sympathetic to the coffee farmers who supported it. They’ve succeeded in creating an immensely popular brand — rather above its actual quality, in my experience — and their livelihood depends on keeping it intact and protecting their organic certification. Their fears of losing certification in US markets are likely overblown, but I can understand why they have them. (Even so, as Ron has previously written, it’s not at all obvious that organic farmers deserve legal protection against potential contamination.)

If there’s anyone to blame here it’s the USDA’s and Europe’s organic certification programs and the consumers who demand products bearing their labels. It’s weird that certification, which depends mostly on the farming techniques used in production, also addresses the genetic composition of the plants at issue. It would be nice if we could decouple these standards because right now there’s no convenient way to convey to consumers that a product is GM yet otherwise grown under organic conditions. This is especially problematic given that a major aim of genetically modified crops is to make it easier to avoid the pesticide use that drives many people to prefer organics.

Is there a future for GM coffee? Maybe. Trials for pest-resistant varietals have been successful despite attacks from vandals hoping to derail the project. Coffee is an incredibly complex crop though, and it’s hard to predict how a new varietal will taste under different growing conditions. If scientists do create a GM bean that tastes great and makes it easier for farmers to work without pesticides, coffee lovers should welcome it with open arms. Under current regulations, however, we won’t be able to market it as organic no matter how naturally it’s grown.


Station spotting

If you have a clear night and not much light pollution (like I currently do in the UP), you can spot the International Space Station with the naked eye. NASA publishes a schedule of up-to-the-minute sighting times here. It looks like a bright, quickly moving star without magnification, taking 1-4 minutes to pass overhead. With magnification, it’s possible to capture an impressive level of detail. A cool thing to notice if you look up at the right time.


More on alcohol and genetics

As a follow-up to George Will’s column on selection for genetic adaptation to alcohol, here’s a report on a new study:

As many as one in four Britons have a much-reduced risk of developing alcohol-related cancer thanks to their genetic make-up, scientists have discovered. Researchers have identified two genes that quickly flush alcohol out of the system, thus reducing its carcinogenic effect. People carrying one or both of the genes may have only half the chance of developing mouth, throat and oesophageal cancers that are strongly associated with drinking.


Health experts welcomed the findings, but warned that they should not be interpreted as a green light to drink heavily. ‘This shouldn’t have any direct effect on people’s drinking behaviour. Those people with one or both of these rare gene variants are lucky in that they are at lesser risk of developing these cancers. Having up to half the risk is significant,’ said Wiseman. ‘But they still face some risk. So the advice to them wouldn’t be, “Go away and drink”. It would be, “For cancer prevention, avoid alcohol entirely if you can and, if you do drink, limit it to one drink a day for a woman and two drinks a day for a man”.’

Given that moderate alcohol consumption is also linked to reduced risk of heart disease (and high levels of fun), avoiding alcohol entirely doesn’t sound like good advice.


Call me “John Henry”

Sometime last year David Schomer, famous barista trainer, wrote an article in Barista Magazine predicting that automated machines will eventually be able to perfectly extract espresso more consistently than trained humans, leaving latte art the last province of artisinal baristi. Could machines someday surpass us in that, too?

Oleksiy Pikalo has engineered a printer with edible ink to put intricate designs onto the top of his latte. Check it out here, with video of it printing the Starbucks logo, tongue firmly in cheek.

It’s slow, and it’s no comparison to a free pour rosetta, but it sure is neat!

[Via Pasteboard.]

Absurd latte art


Watching the tobacco watchdogs

Physician Michael Siegel runs perhaps the single most interesting tobacco blog on the web. A researcher who favors significant controls on tobacco, he’s nonetheless become a staunch critic of the pseudo-science promoted by many in the contemporary movement. A recent post explains how public health advocates have been getting away with statistical murder now that tobacco companies have abdicated their adversarial role:

I remember, back before 2001, that whenever we wanted to make a public statement, we would quake in our boots over what the tobacco industry’s reaction might be. We pored over every word of every statement we made because we were scared. We were scared of being nailed by the tobacco industry. The industry was watching every word we said and they would nail us to a tree if we took any mis-steps. So we were exceedingly careful.

Around the year 2000 or so, coinciding with the change in the public position of the tobacco companies over the health effects of smoking, the implementation of the Master Settlement Agreement, the Engle decision and the tobacco industry’s attempt to portray itself to the jury in a new light, the dissolution of the Tobacco Institute, and the attempt of the tobacco industry to create a new public image in light of damaging publicity from lawsuits, it appears to me that the industry made a decision to lay off its constant vigilance over the communications of anti-smoking groups…

And it has truly become a free-for-all for anti-smoking organizations.

Imagine this: the anti-smoking groups can actually claim that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure is enough to cause hardening of the arteries. They can actually claim that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure increases your risk of a fatal heart attack to the same level as that of an active smoker. They can actually claim that 2 hours of secondhand smoke increases your risk of sudden death from a cardiac arrhythmia.

Read the whole thing at The Rest of the Story.


The stapler’s secret

And now for what may be the most prosaic post in Eternal Recurrence history: examining your stapler! Yes, your stapler. A simple object you’ve used thousands of times and probably feel like you’ve mastered. Well, think again. Your stapler may possess a mysterious feature…

Here’s what the base, or anvil, of a stapler looks like prepared for normal operation:

Normal stapler anvil

But push up on that metal plate and it rotates:

Stapler morph

Turn it 180 degrees and it displays an anthropomorphic smiley face:

Oh hai i stapled ur paperz

But that’s not the point! Now the staple bends outward instead of inward, like this (top normal, bottom reversed):

Crazy, man

Wow! My friend Caleb showed me this yesterday, though even he was unsure of why staplers do this. Wikipedia has the answer:


This method is by far the least known and utilized stapling method. It is used to temporarily bind documents or other items, often cloth or clothing, for sewing. In order to pin, the anvil must be shifted so that the staple bends outwards instead of inwards. The staple binds the item with relative security, but can be easily removed by pulling the staple along the plane of the paper. This method varies between staplers, as some anvils need to be simply pushed forward to allow pinning, while others must be rotated. Some staplers implement pinning by bending one leg of the staple inwards, while bending the other outwards. Some modern staplers do not even include support for pinning.

Since learning of this feature I’ve shown it to lots of people and only one of them was aware of it. So informal poll time, blog readers. You’re an intelligent mob and have been around your share of staplers. How many of you knew they could do this?

Bonus link: I’m sure you’re dying to go play with a stapler now, but you may not have one nearby. No worries, the internet offers a handy virtual stapler for all of your virtual stapling needs.


Google’s Lunar X-Prize

Building on the success of the Ansari X-Prize, the foundation announced today the new Google Lunar X-Prize. Google will award a $20 million purse to the first group that successfully sends an unmanned rover to the Moon.

I wrote about the X-Prize’s award for a practical 100 mpg car at A Better Earth a few months ago. Also, check out this Marginal Revolution post for an interesting story of how the prize’s funders cheaply insured the purse thanks to “experts” at Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas declaring that it had virtually no chance of being won.


Optimism for the new year

The 2007 EDGE question and answers are up, and as always the responses thought provoking. Each year EDGE asks leading scientists and empirically minded intellectuals a single question. This year it’s, “What are you optimistic about? Why?”

I’ve only had a chance to read through about a quarter of the responses so far and couldn’t pick just one to quote. So instead, here’s a suprisingly theological answer from Martin Seligman:

I am optimistic that God may come at the end.

I’ve never been able to choke down the idea of a supernatural God who stands outside of time, a God who designs and creates the Universe. There is, however, an alternate notion of God relevant to the secular community, the skeptical, evidence-minded community that believes only in nature.

The rest of his response is here.

[Via BoingBoing.]


Vacation reading review

Over the course of a week in the Michigan Upper Peninsula I was able to knock four books off my “to read” shelf:

Cheese PrimerWhen most people think of beach reading, they think of escapist fiction. This has never made sense to me. I can read escapist stuff anytime. It’s the tedious, self-edifying books I have a hard time picking up. That’s why they’re perfect for the beach. The opportunity costs are low, because what else are you gonna do while you bask in the sun? The same thinking applies to plane rides, of which I had five. So I find vacations the perfect time to read something big and dense. (I should also note that UP beaches are populated more by retirees than by babes in bikinis, so the distractions are fewer than in, say, Daytona.)

This summer my big self-edifying book was Steven Jenkins’ Cheese Primer. As much as I love food, I didn’t know jack about cheese. I knew just enough to recognize the pun in previous sentence, but not enough to resist using it. Trips to the cheese counter were an exercise in complete ignorance. Thanks to this book, I now know enough to get by. At 500 pages, the percentage of information I actually retained is pretty low, but it’s still a lot more than I knew before. Despite the repetition in some chapters, notes on the culture and history of the regions represented kept the reading interesting.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is the difference in labeling of American and European cheeses. American cheeses tend to be represented by individual brands, whereas regional descriptors and certifications often take the place of branding in Europe where traditions are more firmly in place. This could partly be due to the fact that the author is an American and therefore more likely to be familiar with individual American producers than European ones, but the difference is real. Europe has been more successful at maintaining quality traditions, but what will happen in the future? Will American cheesemakers, armed with the advantage of branding, innovate and equal their European counterparts, as they often have with wine? Perhaps the next decade will see an explosion of fantastic American cheeses.

Libertarian nota bene: many of the best cheeses come from unpasteurized milk. But if they’re not aged more than 60 days, they can’t be imported to the US and one has to travel abroad to taste them. Thank you, FDA.

Shadow of the Giant Of course, a little escapism is a good thing for the summer. This year it was provided by the latest novel in the Ender’s Game series, Shadow of the Giant.

These sci-fi books are organized unusually, with two series branching off from the initial Ender’s Game. That book was fabulous, as was the second book in the Ender Quartet, Speaker for the Dead. After that, author Orson Scott Card seemed to lose control of the metaphysics, and the rest of the series following Ender went downhill.

Fortunately, the series following the bit character Bean has remained solid. Though less philosophical than the other series, the novels offer consistently good characters and stories rooted in world politics. Shadow of the Giant resolves much from the previous books and nicely lays the groundwork for a finale. Ender fans will be pleased.

Pirates in an Adventure with ScientistsThe Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists provided a few more brief moments of escapism. This is a very short book, but extremely funny. Fans of Monty Python and Douglas Adams will enjoy this immensely.

The story follows the adventures of the glossy-bearded Pirate Captain, his loyal crew, and Charles Darwin, as they attempt to rescue Darwin’s brother from the scheming Bishop of Oxford. Absurd humor, anachronisms, and evolutionary in jokes abound.

British author Gideon Defoe has already published the sequel The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists is forthcoming. Defoe has also written a book called How Animals Have Sex. I bet they’re all hilarious.

Stumbling on HappinessTyler Cowen called Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness “so far the best book this year.” I have to agree, and not just because this might be the only book published in 2006 that I’ve read yet. It’s a fascinating look at human psychology.

The subject is happiness, or more particularly, how we consistently mispredict what will make us happy and what will depress us. There’s far more to the book than I could summarize here, but most of it concerns what Gilbert calls the psychological immune system. Thanks to illusions of memory and imagination and the powers of rationalization, we wrongly believe that good events will make us happier than they do, and bad events sadder. In reality, we adapt and acclimate to both.

We are, in fact, doubly mistaken. We are mistaken first in our expectations, and mistaken a second time as we remain blind to the defense mechanisms we should know that we possess. We tell ourselves that moving to California and getting the perfect job will make our lives complete, or that losing a romantic partner will devastate us. And they do, but not for long. If we are smart, we know that we can be happy in a lot of places, in a lot of jobs, with a lot of people, yet we persist in investing our decisions today with a significance far beyond their actual capacity to effect our happiness.

Should this lesson change the way we live our lives, the way I live my life? I have found it liberating as I downgrade my apartment significantly from a nice, spacious, one bedroom apartment near the Metro to an older, three bedroom with flatmates further from the train. Sharing the space won’t be so bad, I don’t really need the stuff I’m getting rid of to fit into it, and I was paying too much before anyway. See, the psychological immune system is working already. Knowing that it’s going to kick in makes doing what I need to do easier from the beginning.

On the other hand, there is the risk that such a zen attitude could deaden ambition. Why make sacrifices today to work toward a vision of the future? If you believe that achieving that vision will make you happy, you are probably mistaken. So why not enjoy today and be confident that you’ll be happy ten years from now, too, regardless of what you’re doing? Why don’t we all just work in coffee shops?

Perhaps the answer lies in eternal recurrence. No, not my blog. If you think you’ll find the meaning of life here, move on. Or try John Coleman’s site. I’m talking about Nietzsche’s challenge to live a worthy life. Imagine your life recurring again and again, endlessly. Do you curse yourself for squandering it on petty matters? Or do you rejoice in its aesthetic achievement? And if you take the question seriously, does the possibility of regret for wasted opportunities partially invalidate Gilbert’s thesis?

In a New York Times article devoted partially to his research, Gilbert seems to share this worry:

‘Hope and fear are enduring features of the human experience,” he says, ”and it is unlikely that people are going to abandon them anytime soon just because some psychologist told them they should.” In fact, in his recent writings, he has wondered whether forecasting errors might somehow serve a larger functional purpose he doesn’t yet understand. If he could wave a wand tomorrow and eliminate all affective-forecasting errors, I ask, would he? ”The benefits of not making this error would seem to be that you get a little more happiness,” he says. ”When choosing between two jobs, you wouldn’t sweat as much because you’d say: ‘You know, I’ll be happy in both. I’ll adapt to either circumstance pretty well, so there’s no use in killing myself for the next week.’ But maybe our caricatures of the future — these overinflated assessments of how good or bad things will be — maybe it’s these illusory assessments that keep us moving in one direction over the other. Maybe we don’t want a society of people who shrug and say, ‘It won’t really make a difference.’

So the question remains, what role should happiness play in the planning of our lives? Gilbert doesn’t claim to know, but he does offer insights into why our predictions fail and what we should expect from our psychology. He also posits many other interesting ideas and even explains a Paul Simon lyric whose meaning had long eluded me. For the questions the book answers and especially for the ones it doesn’t, I recommend it highly.


The $700 valet

Growing up in Texas, where we don’t have space limitations and the parking spaces are sensibly sized like football endzones, adapting to the parallel parking conditions in DC has been a challenge. In Texas, I didn’t have to be able parallel park well to pass the driving test. In fact, as I discovered, I didn’t even have to obey all the stop signs. Standards are a bit more relaxed down there.

Parking around DC is more difficult. As a few unfortunate friends can attest, backing my Aztek into a crowded spot usually requires at least half a dozen tries and a consultation with my seventh grade geometry text book.

That’s why I think Toyota’s new “parking assist” feature is so very cool. The $700 option does all the work of parallel parking, leaving the driver to merely ease off the brake pedal to control the car’s speed. It’s only available on hybrid models in the UK right now, but will probably be making its way to the US. Be sure to check out the video to see a self-parking car in action.

[Via Barzelay’s newly weblog.]


High on religion

Speaking of atheism, a few neuroscientists have a new theory about how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam got started. From The Syndey Morning Herald:

Glad tidings of great joy: there could be a straightforward medical explanation for at least three of the world’s major religions. Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus all experienced revelations on mountains, but they were probably just suffering a form of altitude sickness, say a group of Swiss and Israeli neurologists, casting doubt in the process on the very existence of God.

All three felt, heard or saw a presence, experienced lights and felt afraid, say the brain scientists from Lausanne, Geneva and Jerusalem. But so have contemporary mountaineers who are more interested in ice picks and thermal undies than anything mystical – suggesting the dizzy heights may have the effect of turning ordinary mortals into prophets.

Note that the paper is published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, which the Herald describes as “positively boastful about giving a run to bright new ideas that haven’t been through the usual discouraging process of scientific peer review.”

I’m not sure what to make of that. But in a similar, perhaps more credible vein, Daniel Dennett’s new book looks interesting.

[First link via TMN.]


Geeks in the air, under the sea

Two pieces of news from Slashdot worth mentioning:

1) United Airlines has received FAA approval to install wi-fi networks for in-flight use. It’s still a year away from implementation and won’t be free, but it brings us one step closer to eliminating one of the last places where people might be tempted to read an actual book. [/.]

2) I’ve never been SCUBA diving, but this is very cool. An Israeli scientist has invented a system to extract air directly from water, freeing divers from having to wear bulky compressed air tanks. [/.]


Playing catch up

I’ve been extremely busy for the past few days moving to a new apartment and just barely getting a book review submitted by deadline. I’ve left the place Court and I shared in Clarendon. It was a great location and she was an ideal flatmate — one of the few people I could tolerate, much less enjoy, living with — but it was time to move on. I’d originally planned on throwing my stuff into storage and bidding D.C. adieu for the summer, but at the last minute a number of plans changed and I decided it was worth sticking around. I was lucky to find a great apartment in Courthouse’s Colonial Village, a sunny complex with lots of grass and no high rises, and move into it this weekend. The downside is that I’m no longer just two and a half blocks from Murky; the upside is I’m now dangerously close to my favorite pho restaurant.

Rather than play catch up with new blog entries, here’s a list of the things I would have written about if I’d had the time:

Radley on Wegmans — Radley has a good op-ed up about the awesomeness of Wegmans grocery stores, the way they defy the expectation that markets produce low culture, and how lame grocery chains like Giant are using politics to block their expansion.

The Village Voice on Starbucks — In contrast, this Village Voice piece about Starbucks is all kinds of stupid. It’s written in reaction to news that Starbucks will have six weeks of exclusivity on retail sales of Alanis Morissette’s acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill (which I admit I’ll probably buy the day it comes out). I needn’t count the ways this op-ed goes wrong for frequent readers of this site, but I do get a kick out this quote from a member of the indie band Antigone, who will apparently have their CDs in Starbucks stores soon. It’s the smartest remark in the article:

“I think the biggest challenge for labels is breaking bands,” says Antigone’s Kristen Henderson, whose band will release its major-label studio debut in August. “The situation with Starbucks is perfect for us because it’s going to get us into 4,400 stores, front and center, and expose our band, our music, our name to a whole group of people who have never known us.” The acoustic Starbucks release doesn’t do the band’s accomplished hard-rock chopsówhich at times recall the Allman Brothers or the Black Crowesójustice. Still, the twentysomething guitarist feels no shame in having her band associated with the coffee store. “There’s always negative spin, people get like, hate the Man, the corporationóbut we’re signed to a major label. We were an indie touring band, but we consider our band a small business. We want to grow our business. . . . It doesn’t really freak us out.”

[Via Starbucks Gossip.] — Sticking with the coffee theme, check out this new coffee group blog. The contributors include Murky owner Nick Cho and reps from Eternal Recurrence favorites Counter Culture and Intelligentsia. It’s got a podcast, too.

Love and motivation — There’s some interesting new cognitive science research out about the way romantic love works. Peruse the NY Times article (thanks, Court!) or, even better, read Randall Parker’s take on it.

“Influential magicians” — Google offers an unintentional commentary on the state of the art. [Via The Magic Circle Jerk.]


I’ll drink to this

Thanks largely to the work of the Institute for Justice, today the Supreme Court overturned laws that ban the shipping of out of state wines directly to consumers while allowing it from in-state wineries. Twenty-three states passed these laws with dubious justifications like the need to collect tax revenue (this an issue with all shipped goods, not just wine) and the need to protect minors from obtaining alcohol (they could just as easily do this from in-state wineries as from out of state ones, nor is this really a problem). The Court ruled that the laws were poorly veiled attempts at protectionism and violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Full decision here [.pdf].

Stephen Bainbridge, a man who knows his wine and his law, notes that not once in the past ten years has the Court split as it has done in this case: Kennedy, Scalia, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer in the majority and Stevens, Thomas, O’Connor, Rehnquist dissenting. He also cautions that states can still choose to forbid all mail order wine sales, thus not discriminating in favor of in-state producers; the concentrated benefits this would provide to wholesalers and retailers suggests that there are good reasons to expect that many of the states that had their laws overturned today may choose to do so.

The decision is good news for sites like Best Cellars, whose brick and mortar stores are among my favorite places to buy wine. Hopefully they’ll soon be able to drop pages like this one from their website. Unfortunately, Virginia law hasn’t been quite as good for them lately. I dropped by their Clarendon location this weekend to find it completely closed down while they apply for a new liquor license. From what I can gather, their previous license for both on and off site premise wine and beer sales has been invalidated by the state. Virginia requires anyone selling wine for immediate consumption to also have minimum monthly food sales of at least $2,000. Since patrons came to Best Cellars to sample their unique selections of wine, not food, their wine bar had to go. Now Clarendon has lost a nice spot to stop in for a glass of wine and Best Cellars has been shut down for a week while they jump through the requisite bureaucratic hurdles, but at least the neighborhood is finally free from the scourge of rowdy vandals made tipsy by a little too much pinot noir. Thank you, state of Virginia legislators.

In other wine news, don’t you hate it when that $1,000 dollar bottle you purchased has been tainted by a faulty cork? Yeah, me too. A new company called Wine Scanner, Inc. has come to the rescue. Their scanners use nuclear magentic resonance technology to detect spoilage products without ever opening the bottle. Think of it as giving your wine an MRI before dropping a load of money for it.

That link comes from The Morning News, which also points to this site that makes me yearn to be back behind the espresso bar again. It showcases some amazing latte art along with step by step photos of how they were poured and etched.