Category Archives: Food

Neither history nor security

Once in a while I run into a “study” being done by someone under odd pretense that begs the question “who approved this for funding?” Here is a perfect example:

Simon, who teaches at Philadelphia’s Temple University, thinks that by spending time at Starbucks — observing the teenage couples and solitary laptop-users, the hurried office workers and busy baristas — he can learn what it means to live and consume in the age of globalization.

“What are we drinking, and what does it say about who we are?” Simon asked during a recent research trip to London.

His research has taken him to 300 Starbucks in six countries for a caffeine-fueled opus titled “Consuming Starbucks” that’s due for publication in 2008.

Observing teenage behavior in public places? This appears to me to have nothing to do with the study of history (more like sociology, psychology, or anthropology, if not culinary arts). He then goes on to postulate about the “comfort” patrons feel when they isolate themselves in familiar and unchallenging surroundings…

Simon believes Starbucks succeeds by “selling comfort” in an anonymous, often dislocating world. He says he has lost track of the number of times people have told him that when they traveled to a strange country, “the first thing I did when I got off the plane was go to Starbucks.”

Brilliant. He’s lost track? This man has discovered that the franchise concept works by selling comfort to people afraid of the unfamiliar and thus unwilling to take any chances. What a breakthrough in history. The only thing more preposterous would be if his book was funded by the company he is studying, since it so eloquently has the same namesake. And 2008? I’ve never heard of a “current event” study taking so long to reach publication. This is why historians should stay out of fashion design too, incidentally. Where’s the blog? By the time he writes this thing his observation of “teenage” behavior is very likely to be irrelevant.

IMHO, here’s a more notable topic worth reviewing, relative to the past versus the explosion of bland coffee-houses in London — it’s called the history and decline of the community and their gathering places (e.g. the local pub) in England. In the early 90s you could not find a decent cup of coffee in downtown London to save your life, but there were a hundred opinions for every ten pints of domestically produced beer usually in some relation to current events. Brand loyalty meant something deep and mysterious, somehow tied together with hundreds of years of publican tradition. Today, you can’t take a step without running into someone sloshing a smelly black imported brew in styrofoam containers as they race along the street, and I somehow doubt that these global-franchise loyalists could give a crap about history or even local issues. Good or bad? Who knows, but I’m certainly not going to ask for money as a historian to sit in Starbucks around the world for two years to “prove” that strangers like comfort.


Delicious stuff, but the word Kvass (Russian word for leaven?) seems more like a sound of exasperation than a delectible treat. I highly recommend it, not least of all because the ingredients are just so darn simple. Rye, sugar, water. Either some Ukranians have found a way to make real food for real people, or they are being incredibly modest about the ingredients (perhaps to hide corporate secrets about the true chemical makeup required to mix tasty beverages). Best tasting soda I’ve had in ages. Taste some yourself and see…

The Deadly Blue Ring Octopus

I just found out from The Cephalopod Page that some octopuses have a venom that can quickly kill humans:

Typically, the victim is unaware of the danger and either picks up the innocuous looking octopus or inadvertently contacts it. The bite is slight and produces at most only a small laceration with no more than a tiny drop of blood and little or no discoloration. Bites are usually reported as being painless. Often the victim doesn’t even know that he had been bitten. This can make it difficult for emergency and medical personnel to determine the cause of a patient’s distress. In fact, there is some question as to whether the octopus even needs to bite to envenomate a human. In cases with prolonged contact, the venom might pass directly through the skin. While most severe envenomations appear to involve bites, I can report developing mild local neurological symptoms after immersing my hand in sea water in which a large blue-ring had been shipped.

Seems like powerful stuff. Probably most dangerous if you try to eat or drink the toxin. The damage potential of even a small octopus is impressive:

The toxin was characterized as a low molecular weight, non-protein molecule and was named maculotoxin. It was recognized to be similar to tetrodotoxin (TTX), the extremely deadly toxin found in pufferfishes Experiments with rabbits showed that a single adult blue-ringed octopus weighing just 25 g possessed enough venom to fatally paralyze 10 large humans.

Why so much? And how many rabbits had to die to figure that out? Interesting to note how these octopuses happen to produce and carry the toxin:
Blue Ring

Their salivary glands harbor dense colonies of TTX-producing bacteria. The blue-rings have evolved a symbiotic relationship with the bacteria, providing them ideal living conditions while using the toxin they produce to subdue prey and as part of their highly advertised defense.

There’s a beautiful picture of one available HERE, probably taken just before it killed the photographer, William Tan.


The exhibition floor reminds me of a county fair, bristling with prize cattle and pigs. I hate to say it, but I find myself wandering among the herds of vendor logo’d sales people and entertainers, munching from troughs of mediocre food, wondering if this is really the best way to find new/interesting products and make contacts.
Perhaps the most odd thing of the evening was when I found a Blue Screen of Death prominently displayed on a vendor system, and realized I was the only person who seemed to realize that it was a bad thing. I thought about making a big deal of it, but then just decided to help the vendor understand the error and to get the system back up again.

Someone in a PGP shirt walked up to me and said “How does anyone make a decision here”, to which I simply had to reply “Hmmm, let me think about that. I’m not sure, but it’s one of two ways.” He didn’t laugh.

An enigmaI had fun at the NSA booth where I typed out a message on an actual three-rotor German military Enigma from WWII. The keys are hard to press, but satisfying. Here is the result: QLKERMAKJDU. Pretty cool, eh?

I played some odd ping-pong ball drawing and won a lottery-ticket that won two dollars. I must have had a dour expression on my face during the process because the woman pulling the balls out said “you don’t seem very excited” to which I simply had to reply “oh, is it exciting to stand here and win other people’s money?” I guess I don’t believe in the “free” money concept.

Clearly I was missing something since I really just wanted to find the folks who could solve a few burning questions about encryption and key management for/with me, not play the lottery or place a bet on roulette, or throw bean-bags through a hole…sigh. Ten california rolls, three tiramisus, two kebabs, a slice of roast, some mozzarella balls, two salami slices, six eggrolls, and a chocolate-covered strawberry later I finally connected with a real crypto-token vendor who gave me a demo and might actually be able to sell me some fobs (no software, no integration, no lottery tickets…).

I also discussed some anomaly and fraud detection software with the IBM engineers, but they kept saying “contact center” instead of “call center”, which started to give me the creeps, so I took one of their squishy brains and moved along. Microsoft said they could sell me software to integrate directories for just $25,000. I almost coughed up a cracker (with cheese) when they tossed that number out at me. Microsoft sells midrange software? They backpedalled a bit “you probably have a reseller who could get it to you in the teens”. It started to sound like an IBM rep talking. Apparently the cough-up your food on the sales engineer technique is handy in negotiation. They were just lucky I wasn’t drinking wine.

All in all, some good contacts, a couple interesting new products, and a fine start to the week. I just wish I had paid more attention to math when I was young.

If thou art diligent and wise, O stranger, compute the number of cattle of the Sun, who once upon a time grazed on the fields of the Thrinacian isle of Sicily, divided into four herds of different colors, one milk white, another a glossy black, a third yellow and the last dappled. In each herd were bulls, mighty in number according to these proportions: Understand, stranger, that the white bulls were equal to a half and a third of the black together with the whole of the yellow, while the black were equal to the fourth part of the dappled and a fifth, together with, once more, the whole of the yellow. Observe further that the remaining bulls, the dappled, were equal to a sixth part of the white and a seventh, together with all of the yellow.

— Archimedes

Death by Insurance

Bruce Schneier has posted a restaurant guide to San Jose, which reveals his particular taste in food as well as humor. I found it enjoyable and informative and noted that he, and his wife Karen, hate the idea of corporate food because corporations are not legally bound to serve the interests of the consumer:

Look up the 1919 court decision Dodge v. Ford Motor Co.; it’s easy to find with
Google. That case still stands, and it upholds the fundamental legal principle that a corporation must put the interests of its shareholders above all other interests; and that it has no legal authority to serve any other interests, customers included. A corporation can only serve its customers’ interests inasmuch as it also serves its shareholders’ interests. Otherwise, as in Dodge v. Ford, the shareholders can sue.

The Super Size Me documentary showed the dangers of being an uninformed consumer, and how the giant food corporations can get an upper hand on average people by abusing their trust. Some suggest that putting regulations on these corporations will have a chilling effect on the market, but the opposite is generally true. The problem is that the market of “nutrition” slides into a market for “marketing”, which means those who actually try to deliver nutritous meals are sidelined by the deceptive and more profitable substitutes. “Honey, are we having snake-oil for dinner again tonight? It’s my favorite!”

In related news, I just read about the tragic story of a man who paid money into a health-insurance company only to find out that they had no intention of helping him afford health-care treatment. If you think markets do not need regulation, try to figure this one out.

When [KMBC’s] Flink talked to Tracy Pierce, his cancer was attacking his body. Despite being fully insured, every treatment his doctors sought for him was denied by his insurance provider. First-Health Coventry deemed the treatments were either not a medical necessity or experimental.

“I don’t know what else to do but just wait,” Tracy Pierce said last May.

As he waited, his doctors appealed again and again, including a 27-page appeal spelling out that Tracy Pierce would die without care. Coventry dismissed each request.

“It’s purely economical. You never see an insurance company try to block an inexpensive test,” said William Soper.

Soper leads a group of doctors who filed a lawsuit last year against insurance providers. This week, Soper went to Jefferson City to lobby legislators for change.

“And you know, it’s not going to get better anytime soon. It’s going to get worse,” said Myra Christopher, who is the president and chief executive officer of the Center for Practical Bioethics.

It is hard to read this type of news and then review the Coventry Health Care, Inc. website, which boasts how shareholders are richly rewarded by sound financial management.

Coventry Health Care, Inc. (NYSE:CVH) today reported operating results for the quarter ended December 31, 2005. Operating revenues totaled $1.72 billion for the quarter, a 24.2% increase over the fourth quarter of 2004.

Their mission statement seems plausable for a health-care provider:

To be the recognized leader in providing quality, accessible, and affordable health care benefits and services that maintain and improve the quality of life of all our members and the communities we serve.

But the only news that this corporation reports seems to be related to pleasing their shareholders:

Barron’s has repeatedly made note of Coventry’s focus on keeping costs down, indicating that Coventry shared in common with 2005’s other top 5 finishers “a tightfisted approach to overhead� and an “innovative use of information technology.�
Among all companies named to Forbes’ list in the category of Health Care Equipment & Services, Coventry was recognized in the 2005 edition as having had the highest 5-yr annualized total return, a distinction the company repeated in the 2006 edition.
Among all Fortune 500 companies, Coventry was also cited in the 2005 edition as having had the third highest total return to shareholders over the prior five-year period.
The Wall Street Journal again named Coventry to its list, and cited it as having the seventh highest five-year returns among all companies. As in the 2004 edition, Coventry again ranked #1 among all health plans nationally based on five-year performance.

Take a look yourself, ALL the news items they cite are related to shareholder returns. Not a single news item related to their mission statement!! Any chance they would post a news page where they actually say something like “we helped someone stay healthy today” or give some testimonials? I couldn’t find one. In light of the news they favor, maybe they should change their mission statement to “we keep overhead down and give great returns to shareholders”.

This of course begs the obvious question what is the antidote to the powerful incentives that make companies deny treatment in order to achieve financial accolades? Who can answer? Could it be the new Coventry CEO (ex-CFO), Dale B. Wolf who reported a cool $4,364,807 income for 2005, and $1,153,490 in exercised stock options (and $16,733,300 in vested, $2,632,500 in non-vested options)? Not bad for a company that was reported in 2005 to have a $5.3 billion revenue with $337.12 million net and $3.72 earnings per share.

Ouch. Tracy Pierce died while Coventry reported a $337 million net. Something tells me if you take this case to the feds right now, they might have a hard time understanding the problem. Even though the public pays for an ambulance that the AP says Vice President Cheney always has on call, I suspect that Bush and Cheney never actually bother with health-care insurance or consumer-grade care because they simply do not trust the system to take proper care of them.

We are told a corporation in America is legally a person (as in corporeal) and yet how many of us really know the person that we entrust with our lives or health? What do you do when you get cancer and the person you paid in advance to take care of you says “sorry, I don’t think you’re worth the time/expense”? And that is not even to touch upon the insurance premiums that are forcing the cost of care to skyrocket. The health-care crisis is solidly upon America, and detailed insider information (about corporations) is power.

One final thought: I always see innocent kids drinking “Rockstar” and I wonder if they know or care who is behind the label. Does it matter? Based on the above, I would hope most people might say yes. We need information to make the market work, and yet most people find information gathering expensive and clumsy. Journalists used to make a living out of delivering quality information, but even that market has eroded in terms of quality to the point where individual contributors and boutique outfits (those less beholden to the shareholder) are a more reliable source of data.

Anyway, back to Rockstar, Russell Goldencloud Weiner is the founder and CEO of the company, which is based in Las Vegas, Nevada. It turns out he is the son of Michael Weiner, ala the extremist right-wing talk-show host Michael Savage. You might have heard of Savage as the guy who said on air that the US should murder millions of Arabs, or the guy who claims that “radical homosexuals” and “radical Islamists” are “one and the same, they’re all terrorists”. Maybe you heard about the time when he said Clinton would recover from heart surgery only because “hell was full”. And then there’s the time he explained to his listeners “When you hear ‘human rights,’ think gays. […]think only one thing: someone who wants to rape your son”.

So, speaking of sons, is there a political connection between the younger Weiner and the Savage? Sure enough, Salon reports that they are both in the business together:

Savage’s son, Russ Weiner, kicked off the show. With his spiky, dyed-orange hair and calculated scruffiness, he was reminiscent of Dr. Evil’s son Scott from the Austin Powers movies. The resemblance was confirmed when Weiner proclaimed, “I’m proud to be the son of Savage!” The 30-something Weiner is the founder of RockStar, an energy drink that he developed with his dad, drawing on Savage’s previous career as a Marin County herbalist and ethnobotanist named Michael Weiner. RockStar’s herbal liver-cleansing formula is supposed to enable drinkers to “party like a rock star,” which presumably means drinking and doping. Generous free samples had been passed out to the crowd on the way in. It lived up to its hype: The antifreeze-colored, cough-syrup-flavored beverage can only be enjoyed if you’re taking drugs.

But while Weiner has cashed in on other people’s bad behavior, he made it clear that he’s a family-values kind of guy.

Right. Drink up everybody. Here’s to healthy information.

Cheese blends

I’ve been eating Cambozola lately and trying to figure out the odd pattern of little circles on the rind. They seem to indicate places where someone has inserted something and left a scar. The name of the variety apparently refers to a mix of Swiss camembert and Italian gorgonzola, and there are dots of blue on the inside that are roughly in line with the marks around the outside. So I suspect the gorgonzola is injected via a large needle…altogether it ends up having a very creamy and soft consistency with just a hint of the typical blue’s sharpness, which was probably the objective.

Well done, I say.

Hints to Cheese Makers
by James McIntyre (1827 -1906)

Addressed to Jonathan Wingle, Esq.

    All those who quality do prize
    Must study color, taste and size
    And keep their dishes clean and sweet,
    And all things round their factories neat,
    For dairymen insist that these
    Are all important points in cheese.

    Grant has here a famous work
    Devoted to the cause of pork.
    For dairymen find that it doth pay
    To fatten pigs upon the whey,
    For there is money raising grease
    As well as in the making cheese.

12 Best Foods

I find the “12 Best” list a bit odd.

First of all, my diet’s gravitated towards this list naturally. Does that mean I share taste preferences or even a common upbringing with the author, or that there really might be something to the list?

Second, hello, what about cheese, pickles, kraut and peanut butter?!

» Black Beans, Blueberries, Broccoli, Chocolate
» Oats, Onions, Salmon
» Soy
» Spinach, Sweet Potatoes, Tomatoes
» Walnuts

Fish and chips are strangely absent as well.

Third, something tells me that a six pack of Fat Tire might have been 13th and thus barely cut from the list. Why twelve? Wait, is beer considered food?

Fourth, how many things can you indulge in if they are only loosely tied to one of the twelve? Does my favorite salmon with pepper, cream and whiskey recipe fit the plan? Slather fresh salmon steak with dijon mustard, coat with cracked pepper-corns, heat in butter. After a few minutes pour in heavy cream and a “little” whiskey…toss on a couple chopped scalions and mmmmm. The salmon’s almost just a convenient excuse just to eat hot cream with peppered whiskey for dinner.

Bittersweet Security

All the way north on the Island of Madagascar is a city named Ambanja. The E. Guittard company claims to produce a 65% cacao bittersweet with flavors from the region. If you believe their website, the bars are a product of Criollo beans from the fertile Sambirano Valley.

Personally, all I can say is that I found the Ambanja Bittersweet very dry and light in taste, and a stark contrast to Guittard’s Chucuri Bittersweet. The latter is apparently a Columbian bean, which I think has a far more smooth and spicy flavor with a rich and familiar aftertaste.

This all makes me wonder if the “unknown” method of distributing food will come under pressure from newer and better distribution methods for old-world and boutique-type brands.

Take for example the unpleasant situation when a restaurant tells you that ground beef can not be prepared “rare” because of a law meant to protect you from disease — bad beef. Someone should alert the big beef that automation can be counter-productive when it becomes overly efficient at promoting one value in spite of all the others. In fact I usually say I would pay more if I could get a hamburger that came right from the “trusted” local butcher because I know my body is happier when I eat better food. I guess I should find out if you can even have a local butcher, baker…

So although I truly appreciate the security control model provided by the US government to reign in the mass-automation meal industry I would much rather know that the origins of my meal could be traced and therefore controlled right at the root-causes. Come to think of it, how do I find out whether the beef industry has the same or better tolerance for risk that I do? Is their idea of “safe” one in 1,000,000 deaths or is it the big fat 0?

Consider for a second the BSE website, which was prominently advertised on the front page of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. It provides the following assurance:

U.S. beef producers have worked with federal authorities for more than 15 years to set up the system of science- based firewalls that is working today to keep the food supply safe.

Hmmm, last time I checked firewalls are a single control and thus widely considered insufficient on their own to provide adequate security. Not such a great marketing campaign, if you ask me. Alas, nothing else is mentioned although I found it interesting that the Cattlemen’s website also links to some anti-vegetarian propaganda.

I suspect that if a proper set of consumer-based controls were in place, they might be able to preserve “single-origin” (e.g. quality) values on a large scale, such that we would still have excellent flavor and texture along with desireable price. But until that happens, wise consumers seek out the small-batch and single-origin brands that are a healthier choice and more in tune with their real needs (better cost-benefit ratio).

Back to chocolate, I have to wonder, are you safer trying to stay on top of the additives in the giant brand chocolate bars, or are controls more likely to be present and effective with small-batch real cacao, cane sugar, lecithin and vanilla? And does fair-trade mean less chance of sabotage? Mmmm, chocolate.

Balzana Olive Oil

I wasn’t going to say anything about the 2005 batches of Balzana California Extra Virgin Olive Oil (more for me, you know) but some friends convinced me that I should be generous and share the news. It’s an oil derived from several varieties of olives chosen by Mr. Edmunds himself with an unbelievably smooth and rich hint of pepper. The “extra virgin” means the olives are grown very near the place that the final oil is produced. Seriously good stuff. The last thing I can remember from Santa Cruz that tasted this good was a 2000 Bonnie Doon Big House Red. Give ol’ Merritt a call and get some for yourself:

Merritt Edmunds, Balzana
2655 Warren St., Santa Cruz, CA, 95062
831.475.7873 or 800.815.9775

Actually, is it single barrel oil or small batch…? I’m going to have to buy a case of the stuff just to be sure I don’t run out.

It seems to go well with anything, but I’ve been tasting it with the Explorateur triple crème, a super buttery and almost grotesquely moldy cheese from Ile de France.