When food porn got boring

Oops, I think I just made one of those clickbait titles. But what else do you call the demise of the thing that’s gotten everyone salivating up till now?

It started with the announcement that (the generally excellent) Lucky Peach is folding after their final issue is published in May. Confession: I have a subscription (though my pile does not include the elusive first copy that apparently sells for upwards of $175), and my first thought was will I get my money back for the issues I won’t be getting? ☹️

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Watson gets it all wrong

So Watson the computer has just released a cookbook. Or rather, you can now buy a cookbook full of weird pairings generated by Science.

Now Watson’s been hanging out in the [bon appetit] kitchen for quite some time already, where (s)he/it has been “learning” about which foods go together for the purposes of helping to inspire chefs and other people who like to play in kitchens about surprising combinations that apparently work. As I wrote in the Mad Dispatches on the topic of “What is Cooking”, the idea behind Watson isn’t to ‘render the human cook obsolete, but rather to put the superior speed and memory capacities of a computer to the service of human creativity by analysing, for example, similar compounds in a multitude of flavour-pairings. In theory, Watson could then come up with combinations that make complete sense but might have taken us another several decades to discover in the kitchen.’

So how exactly does it work?

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Eat this now, before you die (or, some schizo[hive]phrenia)

As I pointed out the other day, Twitter is really a place of diverging views.
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Which is nonsense, of course. Because my Twitter is only what I’ve decided to make it, and here I will pat myself on the back for choosing not to live in a filter bubble where I only see things that please me.

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Science or fiction?

In the “Science or Fiction” segment of the (then) latest Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast (where host Steven Novella serves up one fake and two real news segment(s) for his panel of skeptics – or “rogues” – to figure out), the one that turned out to be fiction involved the recent approval of a genetically modified potato designed to contain up to 40% less calories than conventional potatoes. One of the rogue’s reasoning as to why this must be fake is that there is so much research going into making foods that are more calorifically dense (think Plumpy’nut, or peanut butter “amplified”) to treat malnutrition that it would make little sense for scientists to be working on something to contain less calories than necessary.

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A bad rap for sugar

Sugar is so convenient, isn’t it? If you believe the people behind the (predictably challenging-to-watch) film Fed Up, sugar has been a convenient way to hoodwink America into a full-scale obesity epidemic. But even more than that, it turns out to offer a really convenient way to explain away any complexities related to health and eating. Or just as a target for a (simple syrupy) finger of blame.

There have already been several excellent reviews of what’s wrong with Fed Up (very well summarised most recently by Harriet Hall), so I’ll just mention a few points that stuck out for me.

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Porn, the SFW edition

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Earlier this year I was delighted to be asked to contribute a short piece for the then-upcoming MAD4 on the topic of this year’s symposium: ‘What is Cooking?’

My take was (unsurprisingly) on some of ways food television influences the way we think about cooking and eating, including that pesky question of “food porn”. Since the good people at MAD have made it available, feel free to go and have a read. (And if you’re interested in food television generally, Chris Cosentino’s much-lauded talk is also worth a watch. But then so is most of the other stuff that’s been posted – let’s just say I’m in extremely good company there.)

The food porn thing does come up again and again, with varying degrees of usefulness.* But perhaps the most logical conclusion of a cultural obsession with food and sex is the porn star who turns his, ahem, gaze, to food. Exhibit A: “James Deen Loves Food“.

And then I’d recommend two interesting interviews with James Deen on the topics of food and sex: on Go Fork Yourself (!) with Andrew Zimmern, and with the slightly more irreverent folks at Eating Disorder. Both good fun.

Or we could just let Charlie Brooker have the last word.

*Anyone with an academic interest in these matters might want to check out my entry on “food porn in media” for Springer’s Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics.

On the death of expertise

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I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.

This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.

Worse, it’s dangerous.

An excellent essay by Tom Nichols at The Federalist.

Daniel Dennett on Science and the Humanities

In August, Steven Pinker wrote an excellent piece on the place of science in the humanities. Leon Weseltier responded. Here is Dennet’s response (brilliant as usual):

Postmodernism, the school of “thought” that proclaimed “There are no truths, only interpretations” has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for “conversations” in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster. Wieseltier concedes the damage done to the humanities by postmodernism “and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades” but tries to pin this debacle on the “progressivism” the humanities was tempted to borrow from science. “The humanities do not progress linearly, additively, sequentially, like the sciences,” he avers, in the face of centuries of scholarship and criticism in the humanities that have corrected, enlarged, illuminated, and advanced the understanding of all its topics and texts. All that accumulated knowledge used to be regarded as the intellectual treasure we humanities professors were dedicated to transmitting to the next generation, and Pinker is encouraging us to return to that project, armed with some new intellectual tools—both thinking tools (theories and methods and models and the like) and data-manipulating tools (computers, optical character recognition, statistics, data banks). Wieseltier wants no part of this, but his alternative is surprisingly reminiscent of the just discredited fads; perhaps he has not completely purged his mind of the germs of postmodernism.

Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or “problematics” to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid.

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The obesity era

Obese-modelFrom Aeon magazine, an excellent (and slightly frightening) essay on how the causes of weight gain are likely to be a little more complicated than the “calories in vs. calories out” model:

Yet a number of researchers have come to believe, as Wells himself wrote earlier this year in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, that ‘all calories are not equal’. The problem with diets that are heavy in meat, fat or sugar is not solely that they pack a lot of calories into food; it is that they alter the biochemistry of fat storage and fat expenditure, tilting the body’s system in favour of fat storage. Wells notes, for example, that sugar, trans-fats and alcohol have all been linked to changes in ‘insulin signalling’, which affects how the body processes carbohydrates. This might sound like a merely technical distinction. In fact, it’s a paradigm shift: if the problem isn’t the number of calories but rather biochemical influences on the body’s fat-making and fat-storage processes, then sheer quantity of food or drink are not the all-controlling determinants of weight gain. If candy’s chemistry tilts you toward fat, then the fact that you eat it at all may be as important as the amount of it you consume.

More importantly, ‘things that alter the body’s fat metabolism’ is a much wider category than food. Sleeplessness and stress, for instance, have been linked to disturbances in the effects of leptin, the hormone that tells the brain that the body has had enough to eat. What other factors might be at work? Viruses, bacteria and industrial chemicals have all entered the sights of obesity research. So have such aspects of modern life as electric light, heat and air conditioning. All of these have been proposed, with some evidence, as direct causes of weight gain: the line of reasoning is not that stress causes you to eat more, but rather that it causes you to gain weight by directly altering the activities of your cells. If some or all of these factors are indeed contributing to the worldwide fattening trend, then the thermodynamic model is wrong.