Monthly Archives: January 2010

In Defense of Food: Book Review

According to Michael Pollan, food has been disappearing from supermarkets around the country. It’s being replaced by food-products, which are not quite food. In Defense of Food argues that we should live by some simple rules: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

I had previously read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I figured I would continue my food reading with Pollan’s next book. While Omnivore was a hefty 411 pages, Defense is a very quick read; about 200 pages. Whereas The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a narrative adventure, following the path of a few meals, In Defense of Food is more about the history of our attitudes about food. Pollan explores the policy changes that gave way to subsidized farming and “nutritionism,” a form of reductionist science to ultimately dictate what Americans should eat. In that sense, it’s a much simpler book. A lot of the lessons learned in Omnivore’s Dilemma are in this one as well. In Defense of Food seems to focus more on the effect of the “food” we’re eating on our health, rather than the actual production of the food.

The second half of the book goes into detail on Pollan’s rules about eating. These are simple tips, like avoiding food with too many ingredients, or ingredients that you can’t pronounce. If you follow all of them, your health should improve dramatically. It’s a bit of a challenge, though, to go against the American culture of fast, processed, artificial foods. For example, as I’m writing this, I am staring at a package of Pepperidge Farms Goldfish Crackers. They contain such ingredients as “thiamin mononitrate” and “monocalcium phosphate,” so I shouldn’t really consider eating them. But they’re damn good, too!

Since I moved out of my parents house and began making all of my eating decisions, I’ve tried to strike a balance between healthy and delicious. I’m pretty sure I could manage both, but delicious/easy tends to win over delicious/lots of work. It’s really encouraging to see these food rules, though, in a simple form. I think that I can slowly make a few small victories in my eating (and food shopping) habits that will eventually steer me into better health.

One thing I have noticed in many of the books that I’ve been reading recently is the attack on reductionist science. The argument basically states that science relies heavily on breaking complex systems into smaller, easier to understand parts. These parts can be broken down further until they’re atomic, more or less. Reductionist science believes that once everything is broken down and understood on the atomic level, the system as a whole is understood, QED. The unfortunate proof is that systems are complex, and no one ever understood how a car works by overanalyzing the air freshener.

In Defense of Food argues that “nutritionism,” the food science equivalent to redictionism, is one contributor to our total lack of common sense when it comes to food. We process foods so they lose nutrients, then we pump them back in. But nutrients might interact with others. Fiber slows the absorption of something, certain vitamins are fat-soluble. Pollan’s solution is to just eat food that isn’t processed to remove all of the nutrition.

Barabasi’s book also argues against scientific reductionism. Or at the very least it details the shortcomings of it. One example is that while we’ve fully mapped the human genome, it’s the interactions between genes that really matter. The fact that networks are a great way to model complex systems makes me excited about studying them. Am I getting off topic?

In any case, In Defense of Food is a nice companion to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’d suggest you read the latter before you read the former. IDoF is a quick read and highly recommended for anyone who eats food or food-like substances for nourishment.

Why the Apple iPad Will Fail

Edit: Cool, looks like my blog got posted to from some hack blog called “PCWorld.” I will note that while it is easy to make dumb predictions about the future, it is even easier to go back and look at the incorrect ones. If everyone made accurate predictions about the iPhone, it would’ve existed before Apple invented it. Please keep the comments section nice, or I might pull an Engadget. My mom reads this, you know!

Once upon a time, I made a post about how the iPhone was going to fail. I did it mostly for lulz and also to try and get on the front page of Digg. Seriously, that post was diggbait! That was back when people still went to Digg and people still tried to get on the main page of Digg. The interesting thing is that post got a lot more commentary than other technology posts I made before and since then.

Today, I feel the urge to write a post about how the iPad thing will fail. This time, I actually mean it.

In essence, the iPad is just a giant iPhone with no camera, no microphone and no phone. What it gains in screen size it loses in a lot of core functionality. It doesn’t even really bother me so much that they took out important features. It’s what they left in.

The iPad works on the iPhone OS. This could be a good idea, except that they really didn’t consider that making a device four times bigger might introduce some design considerations. The iPad is quite literally a giant iPhone. Most iPhone games, etc (at least, those not requiring a mic or camera) are supposed to work on it. But when you think about it, what games using the accelerometer will actually work out of the box when you’re dealing with something 1.5 pounds heavy and clunkier than a handheld device? Shaking a tablet is different from shaking a small phone.

I’m not sure if the designers were just lazy or if they didn’t care at all about the new scale. The mail app looks like it was hacked into the iPad. It should look like it was designed for the thing, but for some reason we still have the really thin column and a bunch of whitespace. WTF?

I suppose that Apple needed to release the thing and do it with an unpolished product. Some apps look well designed, like the iBooks one (clever naming convention there, Apple), but most look like they were just stretched to fit the larger resolution. A lot of companies could get away with this, but I think people expect more from Apple. If Apple wants to control the entire end user experience, they should take that responsibility with a burden.

My predictions:

  • Apple will get better at designing apps for the iPad. The best ones will come from them.
  • Most developer apps will look like crap on the iPad. A few will “get it.” Those ones will be successful.
  • Most developers will probably find developing (quality) apps too difficult on the damn thing, give up.
  • People will realize that they don’t want a computing device that only allows Apple-approved software on it. They’ll stick with the Macbook, which can do much more than an iPad and runs any third-party software, including Flash and Firefox.

The Victorian Internet – Book Review

A book that I read recently, Connected, made reference to another book called The Victorian Internet. I checked it out of the library and ended up reading it pretty quickly. Despite the name, the Victorian Internet is not a sci-fi alternate history novel. It’s about the history of the internet before the internet: the telegraph.

Much of the book is centered around how the telegraph came to exist. It describes the setup of optical telegraph systems where numerous towers were constructed to the laying of thousands of miles of electrical cable, some across the ocean. This part of the book was mostly a bore to me. While it’s nice to know that there was a long process to standardize codes and international regulations, etc, it just isn’t that salient to me. I do, however, appreciate the author’s acknowledgment that there was a lot of bad poetry written about the telegraph. Example:

‘Tis done! The angry sea consents,
The nations stand no more apart;
With clasped hands the continents,
Feel the throbbing of each other’s hearts.
Speed, speed the cable, let it run,
A loving girdle round the earth,
Till all the nations neath the sun
Shall be as brothers of one hearth.

The book actually got interesting once it started explaining how people reacted to the telegraph. Maybe it’s a symptom of having gone to a school where sociological and technological problems merge… The name of the book implies that the telegraph had a similar effect in the 1800s that the internet did in the late 1900s. While I was reading I took note of a few things that the author described about the telegraph network that seemed very applicable today.

Regarding newspapers, “James Gordon Bennett was one of many who assumed that the telegraph would actually put newspapers out of business.” Funny to think that the extinction of newspapers was predicted more than 100 years ago, and extended to lay the blame on the internet. In a way, newspapers really do seem like they are going extinct. Maybe it’s that the internet is finishing the job, as a natural extension of the telegraph.

Another chapter describes love by telegraph. There’s a story of a couple who were married while 650 miles apart, one in Arizona and the other in California. Thanks, telegraph! There was also the story of the telegraph operators who were good chums together. Only once they met in real life did they realize that they were of opposite sex, and got married soon afterwards! Sorry, World of Warcraft, but telegraph did it first!

One of the most entertaining descriptions was of a company that “employed thousands of operators … leading to widespread concern that too much power was concentrated in the hands of one company. [It] handled 80 percent of the country’s message traffic and was making a huge profit.” Sound like Google? It was actually Western Union, which seems like it’s being used more for Nigerian scams than legitimate business. Though I guess Google sends plenty of Nigerian spam as well…

There are other examples of the internet echoing things that happened a century before it on the telegraph network. I’ll leave it to as an exercise to the reader to actually read the book. The takeaway from reading this book seems to be that the interactions that happen with humans and new enabling technologies were recorded long before the internet. History repeats itself, and if we want to know what will happen next with the internet, we might want to see what happened to the telegraph.

Harry Connick Jr. – Your Songs

I’m a pretty big fan of Harry Connick Jr. I listen to his Christmas album year-round. And look at the picture above! He’s totally man-crush material. So it is with a heavy heart that I have to give his latest album, “Your Songs,” a bad review.

HC Jr. is best when he’s singing jazz standards, or songs that have been creatively arranged as jazz standards, like his Christmas songs and his really cool album, “Songs I Heard,” which consists of a bunch of songs from kid’s movies. I really like Songs I Heard because it takes familiar songs and transforms them into something unique that Connick can work with.

Your Songs pretty much seems like a cash-in album. Harry C basically loaded a bunch of popular songs into this album so that people would buy it. “Oh, it has ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ on it! It even has a Beatles song!” The problem with the album, and I’m not sure how the producers didn’t catch this very early in the process, is that the arrangements are so dull that Harry sounds like he’s in pain throughout the album. The arrangements don’t fit his singing style because they’re popular songs, and Harry Connick Jr. is not a pop singer. The thing that bothers me most is that this is a completely safe album. There were no risks taken in the vanilla arrangements. So what we get is a really sub-standard pop album from a really good jazz vocalist.

These may be my songs, but Harry: you can keep them!

(Yeah, so what if my only reason for writing this review was the cheesy last line? I’ve done worse on this blog!)