Campaign Sense and Cents-ability

It’s election season again. Another year to struggle through election ads. Another year to get an article from us talking about propositions to label genetically modified organisms. This year, however, offers something different and interesting within the political arena.

Keeping in mind that this is just my views on the situation – I’ve heard as many things and done as much research into the matter as I can, so consider myself pretty well informed, – I’m reading between the lines here, but there’s lots of interesting subtext between those lines. I’m not involved in any of the political movements going on this year, not even as a voter. I can’t really speak for either side, but there have been enough patterns in the history of movements to label genetically modified organisms that I’ve been able to ferret out an interesting story within the story.

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An Open Letter to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Recently, I discovered in my Facebook feed an interview with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson in which a question was asked to Dr. Tyson about his opinion of genetically modified organisms. Here is a link to the original video:

Dr. Tyson brought up some good points, but predicated his argument on something that I’ve heard a lot with regards to recombinant DNA modification of organisms: that this manipulation is just like the manipulation that we have done with selective breeding over many thousands of years.

I disagree.

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BITS and Bytes

For our first post of 2014, we have some exciting news.

A website is born!

It’s taken a long, long, loooong time, but we’ve finally gotten to the point where our ideas have crystalized into a real, working thing–and you get to check it out first!

OK, admittedly, it doesn’t do much yet, but what exists is the tip of a large pyramid that we’ve been building for years. It’s finally time to discuss how our company, Brain in the Sky, is going to change the face of conscientious consumerism.

This is a map of a part of the internet. The brain in the sky. Get it?

Wikimedia commons

This is a map of a part of the internet. The brain in the sky. Get it?

The vision for Brain in the Sky is to build software tools (our acronym is BITS, after all) for ethics-aware marketplaces. Today, it is clearer than ever how our decisions as consumers affect our world. We know that certain products are produced in a way that hurts our environment. We know that buying cheap likely means we’re not buying local. We know that not every product is built by employees who get fair treatment. We know that we express our ethics with every purchase, voting with our dollar to support production methods that matter to us.

The problem is: how do we know which products are the good ones? Marketing can be abused by unscrupulous companies. There isn’t enough bandwidth at the point of sale to clearly communicate how ethics differentiate one product from the next. And who has the time to research a company’s ethics when they just need to buy groceries? It’s hard to be a modern consumer.

That’s where we come in. We’ve built the Knife & Fork Project to harness the collective knowledge of food producers and consumers in a way that makes it easy to understand where your dollars go. In the store we acquire not just a product, but also that product’s ethics, and we all win when it’s easy to know the full story and make informed decisions.

And today, you get to join us as we take the first baby steps toward effortless ethics.

We’re building a web app to collect as much information as possible from producers and consumers about food. We’re going to use this information to match consumers to the foods which fit their ethics.

What if there were one aisle in the supermarket that contained only the products that fit you the best, or one block of your city that held just those restaurants which you want to support? Imagine if it were simple to find the most ethical egg, or when your favorite produce is available, or which restaurants deal directly with local farmers, all customized for your personal preferences. That’s the idea.

How does it all work?

Like this:

Seems clear enough

© Knife & Fork Project

Seems clear enough

Our first beta release, which we just put out, allows you to create an account and start entering in very basic data about food products. We’re not tracking ethics yet, but those features are due to land soon.

We’ve been hard at work building this site–we’ve written about 55 thousand lines of code so far–and we’re just now getting to the good stuff.

20 thousand slices of pizza?

© Knife & Fork Project

55 thousand slices of pizza?

We’re looking to raise a round of angel investment to bring in some good folks to grow our application into a fully-featured tool. We’ve got lots of ideas about where to go from here and we’re excited about what the future may hold for Brain in the Sky.

Get out there and give the Knife & Fork Project a look! Let us know if you experience any problems or have any ideas for features you’d like to see.

Initiative 522 By The Numbers

It’s voting season again: that time of year when people you’ve never heard of send you flyers urging you to vote for them for vice-mayor of Munchkinland while simultaneously flooding the airwaves with slam ads against their fellow candidates. Or just bribing their way into office.

"What are you going to do about it?" - Boss Tweed.

© Knife & Fork Project

“What are you going to do about it?” – Boss Tweed.
Actual quote.


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Proposition 37: A Socratic Dialogue

Demeter: Great teacher, what is this California Proposition 37 I’m hearing about? I just moved to California from Olympus and am still catching up.

Socrates: Prop 37 is a measure to label genetically modified foods, my dear. I’ve been a ghost haunting the Castro in San Francisco for years, I can help you out. Are you familiar with genetically modified foods? With California’s proposition system?

Demeter: I’ve heard something about genetically modified organisms - that’s the process by which our alchemists create chimaeras in the laboratory by combining the traits of natural plants and animals. Don’t they call them GMOs? Are they bad for you? Haven’t we always been modifying the genes of organisms by selecting for desirable traits?

Socrates: Nobody knows if GMOs are bad for you. Studies have been done on the effects of genetically modified foods, but, as Hypereides says, one must be aware from where the drachma flows. Or was it Deep Throat in All the Presidents Men who said “Follow the money”? I get my ancient orators and contemporary movies mixed up.

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Why you just don’t see some things made from scratch.

I have to admit: I have a penchant for making things from as fundamental and raw ingredients as possible. While some people like to prepare from scratch for special occasions, I tend to do it for that rare occasion called “Tuesday”. I can certainly cook, and I enjoy it, but there’s something of the engineer in me that likes the precision of activities like baking, where the process is a bit more rigorous. There is a healthy population of people who are like me in this respect: homebrewers fuss over wort temperatures and measures of liquid gravity, artisanal bakers make their own sourdough bread from carefully maintained cultures, micro chocolate makers fuss over the perfect blend of terroir in their cocoa.

OK, that last one is a bit more esoteric than the others, but that hobby really does exist. I know from experience: I do all of those things. Yep, that’s me. Food nerd.

© Knife & Fork Project


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A Watched Pot – Food Chemistry No. 1

Food is chemistry. I think that’s one of the reasons that it holds such mystique: talented cooks are not only preparers of nutrition, they are practical chemists. There is a lot to learn about the natural world just by making food – and if you truly understand food and food preparation, you have also gained an intuitive understanding of chemistry, the modification of molecules to create a desirable result.

Food and chemistry have always gone hand-in-hand. One of the earliest and most popular alchemical processes was the manufacture of aqua vitae – the “water of life”. Today we call the process “distillation”, and transliteration of “aqua vitae” gives rise to the words “whisky”, “eau de vie”, and “vodka”.

The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosophers' Stone by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771.

When the aqua vitae starts glowing, it’s time to call a cab.

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When Life Gives You a Lemon Tree

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you a lemon tree, you might have to get a little more creative. Lemonade gets old after the hundredth glass, so each winter, when citrus is ripe, you may need to diversify into other citrusy products; anything you can do to deal with the tangy bucket of fruit that’s just been dropped on your doorstep. What does one do with seasonal produce? Even if you don’t grow them yourself, seasonal goods are far cheaper, likely much more local, and taste better because they are in season. How can you personally make the most of a feast-or-famine situation?

This is more than a hypothetical question for us. When we first moved to California, we bought a dwarf Meyer lemon tree to celebrate our relocation to the Fruit Eden that is the San Francisco Bay area. We put it in a pot, pretty much leave it alone, and it gives us 15-20 lemons each winter. It’s just the magic of what was once the Valley of Heart’s Delight, the world’s largest fruit producing region, which we now call Silicon Valley. And no, we didn’t know until our first batch of lemons that, while some species produce year round, most citrus peaks in late winter or early spring.

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Droll Foods, Whole Paycheck?

We are now near the anniversary of an event that caused some outrage in the pure foods movement: on January 21, 2011, Whole Foods Market supported the entrance of Monsanto’s genetically modified alfalfa to the global marketplace.

If you missed our post on why genetically modified organisms are a big deal, go check it out now. Whole Foods’ support of GMO alfalfa is viewed as a massive betrayal to those who are extra conscious about what they eat. Whole Foods’ story is that they were backed into a corner by the USDA and forced to choose between nothing or “coexistence” – growing GMO and non-GMO side by side. They chose the lesser of the evils, and backed the approval of GMO alfalfa.

That’s just dandy, but at this point I would like to remind you that GMO crops do not coexist. If the patented gene in the crop makes it into your field, then you are suddenly guilty of patent infringement. There is no recourse for the farmer whose crop was contaminated, so the situation is fairly one sided. It’s like your teacher asking you to coexist with the bully who steals lunch money from you. What’s worse, it’s a particularly bad arrangement to make with alfalfa, much worse than with the other big GMO crops, corn and soy. You practically have to shove pollen into corn to get it to pollinate, and soy is a self-pollinator. Alfalfa, however, is insect pollinated, so there is not even a hint of possibility of containment.

Some bees just want to watch the world burn.

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