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Of Man and Nectarines September 30, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in climate, food, football, transportation.
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I love nectarines. They’re delicious. Especially when they are just before ripe and the flesh breaks off the pit cleanly rather than making a sticky mess. I am not a big fan of peaches, however. It’s not the fuzz. It’s the taste. Something about it nauseates me. For a while, this nectarine/peach dichotomy didn’t bother me because I believed that they were two different species of fruit. Specifically, I thought that the nectarine was some hybrid of a peach and a plum. You know, like a pluot/plucot/plumcot/Dinosaur-egg is a hybrid of a plum and an apricot. As it turns out, the nectarine and the peach belong to the same species, with nectarines classified as a cultivar. The nectarine’s smooth skin is simply a recessive trait. Peach fuzz is dominant. To use a politically incorrect analogy—is there a better kind?—caucasians are nectarines, mongoloids are peaches, and peach fuzz is the epicanthal fold. The analogy breaks because I like mongoloids and caucasians equally well. But it works otherwise.

Nectarine season is over. The last batch I bought was crap and I couldn’t finish it. We have now officially entered the two-month dead zone between nectarine season and orange season—which is roughly equivalent to the two-month dead zone between the football and baseball season. To commemorate, I thought I would write a philosophical/environmental post about man and nectarines. You see, the parallel between humans and nectarines are downright creepy. Humans come in several cultivars—some fuzzy, some not—same for nectarines. Humans bruise easily, so do nectarines. Humans are delicious—probably—so are nectarines. Humans were not meant to fly. Neither were nectarines.

Segue alert!

If Darwin wanted humans to fly, he would have made us descendants of bats rather than apes. Mechanical flight is one of humanity’s greatest achievements and one of the true game-changers of the industrial age. It’s also one of the lynchpins of climate change. There is nothing that blasts out CO2 like flying. A round-trip from Washington, DC to Seattle emits about 2,000 kg of CO2 per passenger. That’s as much as the average non-hybrid passenger car emits in a year! Washington, DC to Chicago is 580 kg. Washington, DC to Paris is 4,140. Washington, DC to Wellington 9,800 kg! Visit atmosfair.de to find out how much CO2 your next plane trip will cost the world.

Now, I understand flying to Paris. Paris is probably amazing and you should definitely see it once or twice if you can—I haven’t yet, but I plan to. Same for Wellington. Chicago on the other hand is a different story. Chicago is cool, but the O’Hare Hilton is not. And I personally have done somewhere on the order of ten day trips from Philadelphia to a conference room in Chicago O’Hare. Ten day trips and 5,800 kg of CO2. Ten day trips and 5,800 kg of CO2 that could just as easily have been replaced with ten conference calls. Hmmm. I would never tell people to travel less for vacation or pleasure. Seeing different places is an incredible experience and one of the true benefits of our advanced civilization. But I have no problem telling people to travel less for business or quasi-business. Business travel is one of the banes of humanity.

Segway alert! Man, I am on an absolute roll when it comes to making jokes at the expense of deceased people. Anyways, from now on, the term segway will be used to describe a segue back to the original topic. Run with that.

The Whole Foods on River and Dorsey sells nectarines from three originations—from Pennsylvania for $1.99/lb, from Washington State for $2.99/lb, and from New Zealand also for $2.99/lb. I buy the ones from Pennsylvania. Because I am a cheap-elitist-bastard—a cheap-bastard shops at the Giant, a cheap-elitist-bastard is the kind of person who shops at Whole Foods but buys the cheapest stuff there, it’s an important distinction—and because it pains me to think of nectarines flying from Washington to Washington, much less Wellington to Washington. That’s a long way for a nectarine to fly. A good-sized nectarine weighs about four ounces. The average 180 lb. man is the weight equivalent of 720 nectarines. Using the same atmosfair calcluator, dividing by 720 and carrying the one, a one way trip from Wellington to Washington, DC spews out 7 kg of CO2 per nectarine. Emissions-wise, buying a nectarine from New Zealand is the same as driving a non-hybrid for day! Buying 720 nectarines from New Zealand is the equivalent of flying to New Zealand yourself or driving a non-hybrid car for two years! Now, I have bought at least 720 nectarines this summer. I may have bought 1,720. I said they’re delicious didn’t I? Happily, all but perhaps 20 of them were from Pennsylvania. Sadly, the ones from New Zealand are superior. Smaller, but with more tang. However, my atmosfair experiments have taught me a valuable lesson. Next time I am jonesing nectarines from down under, I should just fly there myself and eat them there.

P.S. What am I doing in a conference room at the O’Hare Hilton? Attending program committee meetings, of course. For the unwashed, a program committe meeting is a meeting held on a Saturday in a conference room at the O’Hare Hilton—or at the Hyatt if the Hilton is booked—in which 30 men and women gather to decide which 40 of 200 research papers submissions will appear in upcoming technical conference X. Physical program committee meetings—in which the committee is physically present in one room—are the biggest wastes of CO2 I can personally think of. Virtual program committee meetings—in which the committee is physically distributed and communicating by phone—are far better environmentally and likely result in technical programs of equal quality. Why are virtual program committee meetings not used more frequently? Is it because you have to flush them on context switches?

P.P.S. There are many things to admire about professional athletes—their talent, the time they must have put in to work on their bodies and on their games. There are a few things to despise also—the fact that they can get away with vehicular homicide. Add another to list number two. As part of rookie hazing, Roy Williams of the Dallas Cowboys took the entire team out to a fancy dinner and left the bill with disrespectful rookie Dez Bryant. The total? 54 large. That’s right. $54,000. On dinner. There are 53 players on a football team. That’s $1,000 per person! Roy, you want to make a point without looking like an LEED silver a-hole? Donate $54,000 dollars to charity and stick Dez with that bill!

P.P.P.S. On second thought, this isn’t a reason to hate professional athletes, just the the Cowboys! E! A! G! L! E! S! EAGLES!

P.P.P.P.S. The Vegas line for Eagles-Redskins has moved from 7 points to 6 in the last two days. Still solid for a division game. 24-13 Eagles.


Undo! Undo! April 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in drama, food, politics, religion, technology.
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Every self-respecting publication has a retractions section. Bluejay is nothing if not self-respecting (which I guess makes it nothing) and so here is the inaugural retractions section.

Several hours ago I posted about the Catholic Church’s new harder stance against sex-offending priests. That led to a comment about Stephanie Ragusa. And a short-ish rant about the lack of a double standard in statutory rape laws. My view was, there should be a double standard—currently there doesn’t appear to be one—because young boys are less psychologically damaged by sex with older women than young girls by consensual sex with older men. Well, I thought it over on the drive home. And I retract. That’s a knee-jerk, narrow view that smells of David Lee Roth’s (no relation) “Hot for Teacher.” Stealing is stealing, whether it’s stealing from rich people or poor people. And statutory is statutory, whether you’re “Hot for Teacher” or not. On the web—as in life—there is no undo. There is only strike through. And so I am striking through rather than deleting the retracted part of the previous post.

Also heard and pondered on the drive home, this entry’s post-scripts are brought to you by WHYY, Philadelphia and NPR. National. Public. Radio.

P.S. Big round for Family man Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) for making Congress eat dogfood. For the urban-dictionary-impaired: eating dogfood means playing by the same rules you set for other people.

P.P.S. As it turns out, there is a new weed out there that is resistant to each and every herbicide approved for use in the US. Farmers have had to resort to weeding by hand! Ha! Take that! How exactly did this super-weed develop? Apparently because of overuse of Roundup. And why is Roundup overused? Apparently because of the proliferation of Roundup-resistant genetically modified crops! Evolution, evidently, is not only a bitch, she’s a bitch with a sense of irony.

P.P.P.S. Twitter is going to start advertising. In other news, toilet paper is going to start advertising.

Meat Is MRSA March 28, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in food, football, science, sustainability.
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I am quite proud of the title of this post. It’s a play on words and a homophone in one. Actually, Murder and MRSA are not homophones, they are more like semi-homophones (hophones?) or cadence-phones (caphones?), or semi-homo-cadence-phones (hocaphones)! Anyways, if you have just eaten or are about to eat or generally have an overly sensitive gag-reflex, you might want to skip this post. Just enjoy the title.

Still here? Good. You know what meat is. That’s right, it’s the stuff that animals are made of. The stuff they wouldn’t be made of if we weren’t supposed to eat them. You know what MRSA is? Methicillin (Multidrug) Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus. Or in English, antibiotic-resistant Staph. I don’t know what you know about MRSA (and I am not a physician so I technically don’t know that much about it either), but basically it’s a slow-moving flesh eating (technically, it’s “flesh necrotizing” or “flesh killing” bacteria) that doesn’t respond to a large class of antibiotics, including most that end in -icillin. Treatment for MRSA involves either massive doses of advanced antibiotics (although there are some strains of MRSA that have adapted to resist those), surgery, and maggot therapy. That’s right. Like in Gladiator. Despite these “medical” options, 18,000 Americans die from MRSA each year.

Historically, MRSA has largely been confined to hospitals–places that use a lot of antibiotics and have many people with open wounds–and the Cleveland Browns’ practice facility. But MRSA is “in the wild” now. Specifically, there is a strain of MRSA that infects cattle and can jump from cattle to humans. I heard on NPR last night from MRSA-lady (the woman who wrote the book “Superbug”) that there are multiple confirmed reports of this new strain jumping from cattle to their CAFO handlers. MRSA-lady also said that while there are no confirmed cases of contracting MRSA from infected meat, it is technically possible to do so, specifically by handling the meat with your bare hands. MRSA will not survive either cooking or the acid in your stomach, but it will transfer by skin contact.

If you’ve ever read “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlossberg or “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, or seen “Food Inc.” by Schlossberg and Pollan, you know that few creatures are more pathetic, disgusting, or more morally objectionable than industrial cows. Industrial cows are almost nothing like real cows. They don’t eat the same things (real cows eat grass, industrial cows eat corn and also chicken and dog), they mature about four times faster, and they are near total system collapse by 18 months, just in time for the meat-processing factory. CAFOs–the industrial operations that produce industrial cows–are essentially concentration camps, only worse. The very least we could do for industrial cows is to install them with Matrix-style bio-ports and at least give them the illusion that they are having anything like a normal life.

I stopped eating red meat about a year and a half ago. In truth, I could have kept eating red meat from non-industrial free-range cows and bison, but I decided to go “cold cow.” Ha! You didn’t think I had a sense of humor, did you. I didn’t do it for health reasons, although I did have “high” cholesterol at least by the 2008 definition of high and probably still do. And I didn’t do it for animal cruelty reasons, although fewer animals have an artificially shorter and more cruel life than an industrial cow. I did it initially because despite our best efforts, industrial cows are still relatively inefficient at converting calories of grain to calories of meat. They do so at a rate of about 7:1. Chickens? About 2:1. Chickens just make more environmental sense than cows. Oh, and they don’t fart methane either. And yes, I know that industrial chickens are not much better off than industrial cows and in fact may actually be worse off.

That decision looks better and better all the time. Industrial cows eat corn and grain (and chicken parts) which is an inefficient use of the global food supply. We could feed more people and feed them better if we ate less red meat and ate the grain directly. Cows produce methane, which is 20x more potent of a greenhouse gas than CO2. Counting everything, meat animals (mostly industrial cows) contribute more greenhouse gases than cars.  And now, they are also training grounds for various bacteria to evolve antibiotic resistance. Evolution can be a bitch!

P.S. And China’s move in the Google vs. China chess game is this. Well, it was either that or all 1.3 billion Chinese people standing on a chair and jumping down all together on the count of 3.

P.P.S. Why not? I would vote for you. Well, I don’t live in Massachusetts but I would trade votes with someone who does to vote for you.

P.P.P.S. Did you hear that Russia eliminated two time zones? They had 11, now they are down to 9. I think the US should eliminate Mountain time. Nothing happens in that time zone anyways. And this way, West coast baseball games would start at 9pm and end at midnight on the East coast. Either that or we should just go to “continuous” time. I mean, with GPS it is possible.

Staple My Fridge March 23, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in food, society, sustainability.
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One of the most shameful statistics I have read about recently is the 91 billion pounds (41 million tons) of food Americans throw away annually. That’s enough food to feed Canada. If the sheer waste of calories and nutrition is not bad enough, consider that food that ends up in landfills produces methane (CH4), which traps 20 times as much heat as carbon dioxide (CO2). It is estimated that 10% of all anthropogenic methane is the result of food waste. I am not sure how other countries rate on the food waste scale, but I would hazard a guess that America leads by a comfortable margin, both in terms of food waste per capita (although perhaps some other Western country is even more profligate) and gross domestic (although perhaps China or India waste more total food by virtue of having four times the population, although somehow I doubt it).

What an embarrassment. And what an opportunity. Just imagine what would happen if we could cut down food waste by 50%. We would have 20 million tons of excess food to either feed under-nourished Americans (and yes, there are many of them despite the obesity epidemic), to export, or G forbid to contribute to the World Food Bank. Consumers would save money by not buying 50% of the food they might otherwise throw away. And anthropogenic methane would be cut by 5% with a proportional reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

How do we do this? Self control? RRR (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle for the unwashed)? Eat more leftovers? I confess, 50% of what I eat is leftovers. I love leftovers. It’s my second favorite food category. Right after “food.” But how about this for an idea? Smaller refrigerators! The average residential refrigerator has a nominal capacity of 20-22 cu. ft. and an actual capacity of 15-17 cu. ft. I have not done a longitudinal study, but I believe that like our houses, cars, waistlines, and LDL levels, our refrigerators have gotten bigger over time. In 1922, the first commercial refrigerator had a capacity of 9 cu. ft. (Incidentally, it cost twice as much as a car did in those days). Capacity increases may have been abrupt, but more likely they were gradual. You know, like glacial melting.

Alright, maybe that is not a good example. But my theory remains. Most people have more refrigerator than they need. “And if you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t realize that you are like most people”. (one of my favorite quotes, courtesy of Daniel Gilbert). In addition to consuming more energy and kitchen real-estate, having more refrigerator than you need tempts you and gets you accustomed you to buying more food than you need. After all, a half-filled refrigerator is a pretty sad sight. And there is the probably the latent misconception that buying more food than you need now simply means delaying having to go to the store again. But that’s wrong because refrigerated food is refrigerated for a reason–it spoils otherwise. Buying more food than you need now means either eating more food than you need or throwing away more food. And really, which one is worse?

One of the recently popular solutions for drastic weight loss is bariatric surgery, i.e., having your stomach stapled to reduce its capacity. I myself sometimes joke that even that would not work for me and that what I actually need is to have my mouth stapled instead (that would actually kill two birds with one staple). But maybe what we need as a society is to have our refrigerators stapled instead. Try this for an experiment. Take a piece of cardboard and duct tape it over the bottom shelf of your fridge, thereby reducing its capacity by 20-25%. Try this for a couple of months and see if your eating, shopping, and food waste habits change. For the better. If they do? Hey, take another piece of cardboard and tape it over the second shelf!

I don’t do Facebook anymore, but maybe one of my three readers does and can start a little social experiment! Oh, and if you find yourself buying too much food while you are getting used to your new smaller fridge, you can send the excess to Donna Simmons.

P.S. Does having a blog make me a narcissist? I hope so. I need some narcissism (and some other big words) in my life.