From Paris, With Smell

The first telegraph sent across the Atlantic, on 16 August, 1858, read: “Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men.”

The contents of the first transatlantic telephone call, placed by AT&T President Walter S. Gifford on 7 January, 1927, were more mundane: a report the next day in The Manchester Guardian noted that the weather and the time difference were the main topics of conversation, and that “a more pleasantly futile dialogue could hardly have taken place over a suburban party-wall in Dulwich or Chorlton-cum-Hardy.”


IMAGE: Walter S. Gifford places the first commercial trans-Atlantic telephone call. Photograph: AP via The Guardian.

Yesterday, at the transmission of the first transatlantic smell message, perfumer Christophe Laudamiel sent an olfactory snapshot from Paris to New York City, and a small but eager audience at the American Museum of Natural History were treated to the scent of champagne and macarons.

“Nibbled in Paris, tasted in New York!” Laudamiel said, as he hit send.

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IMAGE: The first transatlantic smell message, projected for the audience at the American Museum of Natural History. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

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IMAGE: The oPhone was designed to resemble an abstract, minimalist flower planter in order to help users feel comfortable smelling it, according to Vapor Communication’s co-founder, Rachel Field. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

The event was a launch of sorts for Vapor Communications’ first product, the oPhone Duo, a small, brick-shaped device mounted with two smell delivery tubes. The oPhone is required to “play” a smell message: it reads the tagged scents beamed from the message recipient’s iPhone using Bluetooth, swivels the correct odour cartridge slots into place, and then blows a ten-second burst of air through the chunks of solid perfume, up to your nose.

The experience is a considerable improvement on earlier Smell-o-vision experiments in that the scents are delivered to a single recipient, in a short burst, with no more than three different smells in combination per tube. The reasoning behind this is that it takes humans about three to four seconds after exposure to detect a scent, and about ten seconds after that to reach saturation, or olfactory fatigue — the point at which the epithelium is overwhelmed enough to be temporarily unable to distinguish new aroma molecules.

Meanwhile, researchers have also found that ordinary, untrained humans can typically pick out only three or four different notes within a smell — more than that, and the brain lumps them all together as a single smell.

“In a way,” says David Edwards, the Harvard professor who co-founded Vapor Communications with his former student, Rachel Field, “the nose was made for olfactory tweets.”

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IMAGE: David Edwards holds an odour cartridge, or oChip. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

For now, anyone with an iPhone and a Facebook account (which counts me out, disappointingly) can compose and send a smell message: you simply download the free oSnap app, take a photograph, and tag it with up to two sets of up to four smell tags each.

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IMAGE: Screenshots from the oSnap app.

These are chosen from a pre-existing range of thirty-two food-related aromas organised into five palettes, from “Paris Afternoon” (“tomatoey,” “meaty,” “onionish,” and “red wine.”) to “Confections” (“buttery,” “caramel,” “brown sugar,” and “espelette pepper”).

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IMAGE: The system currently offers thirty-two food-related aromas organised into five palettes. According to Rachel Field, “tomatoey” was the trickiest smell to get right, as it was much more potent at a lower concentration than the other odours in its group.

The resulting smell is an abstraction of an abstraction: a croissant and coffee might become a jet of “buttery” “grilled toast” accompanied by a “zesty” “cacao plume.” If the sender is equipped with an oPhone themselves, they can test and tweak their smell message before sending it, adding “bitter cocoa bean” or “yeasty brioche” notes as necessary to match their real-world aroma experience as closely as possible.

Imagining a generation of oSnap users repeatedly trying to distill their own aroma experience in terms of these pre-assembled scent “phonemes” raises the interesting question of how this new, albeit limited, olfactory language, complete with associated colours, might end up re-shaping odour and flavour perception.

In studies, the descriptors used on menus or food labels have been shown to exert a huge influence on what flavours consumers subsequently report experiencing. It’s easily to imagine a similar effect by which an oSnapper will perceive croissants as more buttery and toast-like, and less floury, say, or sweet, than someone who is not trying to summarise the aroma using Vapor Communications’ limited palette.

It’s even possible that the oSnap app might even induce a new synaesthesia, in which chocolate is associated with purple and onions “taste” turquoise.

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IMAGE: Rachel Field allows members of the audience to experience the first transatlantic smell message on the oPhone. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

Of course, as Edwards speculated, it’s entirely possible that in the future the app could use image-matching technology to mine a database for aromas associated with the thing you’ve just taken a picture of, so that the user doesn’t have to rely on their own perception (this, of course, risks reduction to an olfactory average: all glasses of red wine will smell the same in scent message form).

Vapor Communications is also developing an oPhone “Uno,” which will attach directly to your phone, trading portability for a reduced palette of aromas. Edwards also mentioned discussions with car companies, to deliver coffee aromas to sleepy drivers.

For right now, however, eager early adopters can reserve their own oPhone Duo as part of an Indiegogo campaign, but will have to wait to experience their smell messages (or oNotes, as the company calls them) at a handful of public oPhone “hot spots” (the American Museum of Natural History will host one, starting in July).

The slow roll-out has a silver lining — Edwards and his colleagues are using it to understand how people actually use scent messaging in the wild. Thus far, for example, they’ve been surprised to see more non-food than food-related oNotes. In the forty-eight hours the app has been live, users have already created “Lady Gaga,” “My Room,” and “Smoky Beach” — a hint that Vapor should probably move beyond what they call “foodie adventures” in future oPhone cartridges.

(For those who are worried about being pranked by unkind friends sending fart smell messages: it’s possible but not easy. Rachel Field told me that the team has developed a “barf” cartridge, filled with four particularly disgusting odours, but that those aromas are not yet publicly available through the oNote system. And, because the receiver would have to intentionally load their oPhone with the barf cartridge, anyone who was subjected to a fart message would have had to have set themselves up for it ahead of time: no nasty surprises here.)

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IMAGE: Rachel displays the interior of the oPhone Duo, including the cartridge slots. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

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IMAGE: Edwards and Field worked with perfumers and flavorists to encapsulate custom-blended aromas in solid matter to fill the cartridges. Field estimated that the odours in a cartridge would last a month in regular use. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

With only thirty-two base aromas, yielding a maximum of 300,000 combinations, the oPhone/oSnap/oNote olfactory ecosystem is still frustratingly limited and awkward to use right now. And, frankly, I’d have been more excited if Edwards and Field had chosen to use individual aroma molecules over pre-made analogues — Isoamyl acetate rather than banana, for example, or cis-3-Hexenal instead of freshly cut grass — so that users could start to understand real-world smells as the sum of their chemical constituents.

Still, I’ve ordered my oPhone Duo. And when I’m old and grey, and the sending and receiving of long-distance sniff-o-grams is just a normal part of everyday life, I’m sure I’ll tell everyone who will listen that I was there to smell the first transatlantic scent message in the world…

Thanks to the inimitable Paola Antonelli for alerting me to the event.

Posted in Smellscapes, Uncategorized | 4 Responses

Vanilla Is The Old Black

The words “vanilla” and “chocolate” are used with equal frequency as both flavour and colour descriptors — but, curiously, the particular shades they describe have not always been the off-white and brown they signify today.

Instead, according to anthropologist Kathryn Sampeck, one of the earliest appearances of “chocolate”-colour, in Abraham Werner’s 1821 Nomenclature of Colours, is as a modifier for a particular shade of red. “Chocolate Red,” Werner writes, is “a veinous blood red mixed with a little brownish red.”

(At the risk of infinite recursion, “Brownish Red” is in turn defined  as “chocolate red mixed with hyacinth red, and a little chesnut [sic] brown.”)

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IMAGE: Chocolate red, as defined in Abraham Werner’s 1821 Nomenclature of Colours.

Meanwhile, vanilla pods are brownish-black, vanilla extract comes in shades of brown, and, when Europeans first encountered this new-world orchid in the sixteenth century, it was in the context of chocolate. Indeed, the Aztec name for the ground vanilla beans used as flavouring in their prized bitter, spicy, hot cacao-based beverage was “tlilxochitl,” derived from “tlilli,” meaning “black.”

What’s intriguing about vanilla’s dramatic colour shift, and chocolate’s more subtle one, is that they seem to coincide with a change in their respective consumption formats. When chocolate referred to a brown-tinted red, as opposed to straight-up brown, it was encountered primarily in powder and beverage form—and pulverised raw cacao is definitely on the lighter, rusty red end of the spectrum, even when diluted with water.

It wasn’t until 1828, seven years after Werner’s Nomenclature, that Dutch-process cocoa powder was invented, which is treated with alkaline salts to reduce cacao’s natural bitterness and acidity. Alkalisation, writes baking expert Alice Medrich, “darkens the color, making it appear to be more chocolatey.” The Dutch process also made the industrial scale consumption and production of chocolate possible for the first time, when Joseph Fry found a way to mix it with melted cacao butter and mould it into bars.

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IMAGE: A colour comparison of powdered cacao versus dutch-processed cocoa, via.

Suddenly, chocolate moved from an aristocratic luxury—a frothy drink made from reddish powder—to an everyday treat, and one that was solidly brown. Funnily enough, at more or less the same time, writes Kathryn Sampeck, the rich, red-brown tones of “chocolate”-coloured fabrics went out of fashion in Britain, and brown dresses were relegated to Quaker widows and weavers.

Chocolate was cheap and brown, and its colour association shifted to match.

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IMAGE: Vanilla beans, photographed by B. Navez.

Vanilla, on the other hand, was and still is expensive. Until 1841, when a twelve-year-old slave on the French-owned island of Réunion discovered how to hand-pollinate the vanilla orchid, its production was limited to the habitat of its natural pollinator, a small bee native to Veracruz, Mexico. Even today, vanilla is hand-pollinated, and, as a result, costs more than $100 per kilo, making it second only to saffron as the most expensive spice.

But how did it become associated with a creamy white?

Vanilla’s first recorded use as a colour name came much later than chocolate’s, in Aloys John Maerz and Morris Rea Paul’s A Dictionary of Color, published in 1930. Meanwhile, vanilla, used in reference to a culinary flavour, started showing up in European cookbooks in the seventeenth century, most commonly in recipes for drinking chocolate.

Its other early use is in ice cream — famously, Thomas Jefferson brought back a handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream from Paris in the 1780s. But, in the days before mechanical refrigeration, ice cream was a rare treat, limited to the aristocrats who could afford to harvest and store natural ice or enjoyed outside the home.

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IMAGE: Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream is a national treasure, housed at the Library of Congress.

Still, the prevailing theory is that because one of vanilla’s early usages was as a flavouring for ice cream, it became associated with the off-white colour of ice cream’s principal ingredient, cream.

What’s intriguing, however, is that that colour/flavour association did not become established until the early twentieth-century — well after the 1858 discovery and 1874 synthesis of artificial vanillin, which is the most signficant aroma molecule of the two-hundred-plus that make up natural vanilla flavour.

Vanillin, whether produced from petrochemicals, clove oil, or wood pulp, is a white to yellowish crystalline powder — and it costs a tenth of the price of real vanilla.

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IMAGE: Vanillin powder, as offered by the Hangzhou Union Biotechnology Co., Ltd.

It is cheap, white to yellowish vanillin that made vanilla flavour so ubiquitous in America’s cakes, cookies, sodas, and ice creams: Slate reports that between 90 and 97 percent of all vanilla-flavoured products use synthetic vanillin, not real vanilla.

In other words, vanilla, in the artificial form that we most commonly encounter it, actually is off-white to begin with, ice cream or no ice cream.

This triumph of the petrochemical pretender reminds me of Sam Jacob’s fantastic appreciation of the avant-garde logic of blue raspberry, published last year, in Bompas & Parr’s Tutti Frutti. As a pioneer of the post-natural fruit spectrum, he suggests, blue raspberry breaks free of imitation, implying “that the things we eat might become abstract notions: the taste of wavelengths rather than biology.”


IMAGE: Raspberry-flavoured gummi rings.

In any case, as with chocolate, vanilla’s colour association reflects the most popular format in which we encounter the flavour — and thus is susceptible to cultural shifts over time.

What’s more, the colours associated with particular flavours are not just a historical or aesthetic curiosity. In the course of their fascinating research into multisensory integration, Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Lab have performed several studies showing that these kind colour/flavour preconceptions have a significant impact on our experience of food and drink.

For example, in one paper titled “Grape Expectations: The role of cognitive influences in color–flavor interactions,” Maya U. Shankar and her co-authors showed that British and Taiwanese test subjects, when presented with an identical brown drink, were “primed” to expect a different flavour experiences based on pre-existing associations: the British consumers expected a sweet “cola” flavour, while the Taiwanese associated that shade of brown with a popular grape drink instead, and were anticipating more of a tart, fruit flavour. And these kind of colour-associated flavour cues exert a significant impact on actual flavour experience: one often-cited study found that nearly half of its participants reported that an orange-coloured, cherry-flavoured drink tasted of orange.

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IMAGE: Vanilla, as defined by the Pantone colour system.

The colour of flavour, it seems, offers both historical insight and future-shaping potential. It not only tells us something about the format in which that flavour was first consumed, but also determines our future food and drink expectations, and thus experiences.

In this context, it’s hard not to mourn the loss of chocolate and vanilla’s original hues. I can’t help but imagine that a reddish chocolate might actually seem more spicy and luxurious than a brown one, and that re-inventing vanilla as an exotic black orchid could put an end to its use a synonym for bland.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Responses

Forest Hydraulics

The maple syrup season was late this year, and so am I in posting these images of a late March visit to two sugar-making operations in the Hudson Valley.

The first sugar shack we visited, Soukup Farms in Dover Plains, NY, is a third-generation maple producer with an old-school, wood-fired sap evaporator.

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IMAGE: The sugar shack at Soukup Farms. All photographs by Nicola Twilley.

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IMAGE: Loading firewood into the evaporator at Soukup Farms.

I asked them if they were burning maple wood, and received a horrified stare in response: this is not cannibal syrup.

The small shed was a maple sauna: a toasty, fairy-tale fug of sweet steam above a faint note of wood smoke. At the tail-end of a long, hard winter, with the snow still lingering stubbornly on the ground, it was hard to imagine a better place to be.

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IMAGE: A maple cloud above the evaporator at Soukup Farms.

Having inhaled brunch, we set off down the road to visit Soukup’s more high-tech neighbour, Madava Farms.

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IMAGE: Barrels of maple syrup in cold storage at Madava Farms.

One of the largest maple syrup producers in the country, Madava Farms’ sugarhouse is more ski resort-chic than rustic shack. But what it lost in atmosphere, it made up for in spectacle: the green, foamy sap, like diluted dish soap, filling the collection tanks; the spaceship-worthy shiny dials and levers of the reverse-osmosis machine; and the gelatinous, sickly chartreuse of the resulting pre-boil syrup.

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IMAGE: Sap collection tank at Madava Farms.

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IMAGE: Reverse-osmosis machine at Madava Farms.

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IMAGE: The concentrated sap, after reverse-osmosis but before boiling.

Maple syrup is simply the concentrated form of maple sap, with the water boiled off or separated by membrane suction. It takes between 40 and 50 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, though the sap is also increasingly pasteurised and bottled for sale as “maple water.”

Reverse-osmosis and maple water are just two of the many ways the traditional maple business is changing. Last year, the International Maple Syrup Institute released a new set of standards for syrup grading, although adoption has been slow.

Maple syrup grades reflect the amount of sugar in the sap, which varies over the course of the season. Sap that is 2 percent sugar and 98 percent water will be lighter in colour by the time it has been concentrated to 66 percent than sap that starts off at 1 percent, because the sugar will be less caramelised. On the other hand, the hundreds of trace compounds that give maple its flavour will also be more concentrated in the darker syrup.

Traditionally, the lighter, more delicate-flavoured syrup was sold as Grade A Light Amber, while the darker stuff was confusingly classified as Grade B, implying to the average consumer that it was of lesser quality, despite actually having more maple flavour.

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IMAGE: Traditional USDA colour standards for maple syrup, ranging from Grade A Light Amber on the left to Commercial Grade on the right, as seen in the window of Soukup Farm’s sugar shack.


IMAGE: A label created by Butternut Mountain Farm in Vermont explains the difference between the old and new grading systems, via.

In keeping with our current cultural tendency toward grade inflation, under the new system, everything gets an A.

Grade A Light Amber becomes Grade A Golden (Delicate Taste) while Grade B becomes Grade A Dark (Robust Taste). The new system doesn’t go into effect in New York State until January 1, 2015, so we bought one of the last bottles of Grade A Dark Amber.

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IMAGE: Tapped trees at Madava Farms.

Madava Farms also allows visitors to wander through its maple forest, which is a truly astonishing sight: more than 20,000 maple trees plumbed together into one sprawling vascular system, with miles of blue and green plastic tubing gleaming like spider silk in the late afternoon sun.

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IMAGE: Tubing lines catch the light at Madava Farms.

Plastic tubing began to replace the traditional bucket and tap system in the 1960s: rather than simply wait for sap to spill out of its own accord, the airtight tubing connects each tree to a whirring vacuum pump, sucking the sugary water up under pressure.

The maple forest becomes a super-organism, as each tree’s internal plumbing is connected to a larger, landscape-scale hydraulic infrastructure.

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IMAGE: The tubes converge into larger, black rubber pipes…

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IMAGE: … that flow into the to the collection house.

The trail ends at the collection house, where thousands of miles of artificial tree veins converge on the motorised heart at the centre of the system, sap spurting rhythmically into a stainless steel tank.

It is a sight that couldn’t be further from the rustic warmth of Soukup Farms, but has a chilling, post-natural wonder all of its own.

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IMAGE: The vacuum pump at the heart of Madava Farms’ maple forest plumbing.

Although purists complain about this new “techno-syrup,” researchers at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center say that the vacuum tubing collection increases yield without damaging the tree. It seems as if it would be labour-saving, too—the maple farmer no longer has to collect each bucket individually—but installing thousands of miles of plastic tubing each January and keeping it leak-free (squirrels are a particular pest) takes a full-time team of half a dozen specialists at Madava Farms.

Technology aside, the entire phenomenon of maple syrup is semi-miraculous: a physiologically unique phenomenon in which sap flows independent of the usual leaf transpiration or root pressure mechanisms. Instead, in a complicated and only recently understood process, freezing temperatures at night create ice in the maple tree’s xylem, trapping gas in the vessels through which the plant normally transports water. When the ice melts in the heat of the day, the gases expand, creating the positive pressure that propels sap up the xylem, and—if the tree is tapped—out.

Weirdly, almost all other tree species lack this mechanism. Several species (willow, aspen, elm, ash, and oak) don’t exude sap at all, due to differences in the structure of their xylem. Other syrup-producing tree species, such as birch, rely on a build-up of root pressure from warming forest soil, which makes the birch sap season later than that of the maple.

Sadly for New England forest lovers and pancake aficionados alike, climate change is disrupting the spring cycle of freezing nights and warmer days upon which the maple syrup industry depends. After all, one anomalous extended warm spell can cut the season short, as the trees bud. Similarly, as happened this year, an unusually long cold snap can eat into the start of the spring run.

The University of Vermont’s scientists think they have developed a system to sidestep global warming’s worst implications, but it involves harvesting sap from uniform rows of beheaded saplings rather than mature trees, looped together into a hydraulic forest. I recommend appreciating this peculiar form of infrastructural magic while you still can.

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The Carrot Hack

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People who sell seeds have always struggled with an inconvenient reality: Their merchandise reproduces itself.

So writes Lisa Hamilton, one of my fellow Fellows from the inaugural UC Berkeley/11th Hour Food & Farming Fellowship programme, summing up a problem that plant breeders have struggled with for generations: how to monetise the effort and ingenuity embedded in their work.

As Hamilton’s article, published in the June issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, describes, since the passing of the Plant Patent Act of 1930, breeders have relied on intellectual property law in order to profit from the years they invest in developing a useful characteristic in a plant — an easier-to-harvest broccoli, or a lycopene-rich red carrot.

In order for seeds to become a commodity and generate a profit, there had to be a reason for people to buy them year after year. Over the course of the twentieth century, the industry devised certain solutions, including hybrid seeds and “trade-secret” protections for their breeding processes and materials. But perhaps the most effective solution is the application of intellectual-property rights, of which the utility patent is the gold standard.

Before the Plant Patent Act, plant breeders complained bitterly that the reward for their achievements was frequently obscurity and poverty, in contrast to the fortunes being reaped by mechanical inventors such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.

Luther Burbank, the first (and perhaps only) celebrity plant breeder, many of whose new fruit and vegetable varieties still fill our plates today, died before the Plant Patent Act was introduced, and frequently despaired over his inability to make a profit:

A man can patent a mouse trap or copyright a nasty song, but if he gives to the world a new fruit that will add millions to the value of the earth’s harvests he will be fortunate if he is rewarded by so much as having his name connected with the result…. I would hesitate to advise a young man, no matter how gifted or devoted, to adopt plant breeding as a life work until America takes some action to protest his unquestioned rights to some benefit from his achievements.

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IMAGE: Application for Plant Patent 15, “Peach,” filed posthumously by Luther Burbank’s widow on December 23, 1930.

But, as Hamilton explains, while the utility patent may have made plant breeding profitable enough for the multinational likes of Monsanto and Syngenta, the application of intellectual property law to nature is not without problems, from the eminently practical (it tends to constrain seed-sharing, which ultimately hinders “the very resilience of agriculture itself”) to the philosophical (can an element of the natural world, however much altered and “improved” upon by human ingenuity, really be owned by an individual?).

Her article, which you really need to read in full, looks at one renegade group of plant breeders who have banded together to launch a challenge to the prevailing model of seed IP: the Open Source Seed Initiative, which released its first open-source, un-patentable broccoli, kale, and celery seeds this past April.

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IMAGE: A meeting of the Open Source Seed Initiative Group at the University of Minnesota in 2012, from the group’s website.

Missing from the final article, in the interests of streamlining, was one of my favourite anecdotes from Hamilton’s reporting: the carrot hack. The doctoral thesis project of Claire Luby at the University of Wisconsin, the carrot hack proceeds in the reverse direction to conventional plant breeding. As Hamilton explained to us, Luby is effectively “un-breeding” the American commercial carrot in order to free its genetic code for remixing:

The mesh bags represent the project’s first stage, for which she grew every commercially available carrot variety in the United States. There are 144 in all, ranging from the knobby French heirloom Tonda di Parigi to CrispyCut, a ten-inch long variety designed to be lathed into baby carrots.

Because carrots are biennial, they require two seasons to reproduce: during the first they grow their nutritious root, during the second they flower and produce seed. Luby is storing her harvest in the adjacent cold room, whose temperature of 41 degrees F will trick the plants into thinking they have passed through winter in two months. After Thanksgiving, for the project’s second stage, she will plant them in the greenhouse. As they flower, she will introduce ten thousand flies to cross-pollinate them en masse.

This is the opposite of what her fellow students will be doing this winter. They will mate specific pairs of plants to breed more targeted individuals. Luby will effectively un-breed her carrots, mixing their genes at random into a population that is wildly heterogeneous. The idea is to capture the entire range of genetics used in commercial carrots within a single collection. Breeders can then use that seed to produce new varieties. There’s only one catch: those new varieties can never be patented. That’s because Luby’s seed will be open source.

It’s an incredibly ingenious idea that, predictably, has not gone perfectly smoothly. In discussion with University of Wisconsin lawyers, Seminis (the largest developer of fruit and vegetable seeds in the world, purchased by Monsanto in 2005) banned Luby from using its carrot germplasm. In the end, more than a third of the original 144 carrot varieties cannot be included in the open-source mash-up due to corporate restrictions. However, Hamilton told us, there’s still hope, because many commercial carrots come from the same original stock, and thus still share DNA:

By comparing DNA markers, Luby will map out where the carrots’ genes overlap. It’s possible that the seeds she can use will contribute many genes that are also found in the seeds she can’t use.

Hamilton’s reporting on this story is an important wake-up call to those of us who have never considered how seed IP affects what we eat, both now and in the future. It’s a complicated issue, and, as a result, growing corporate control of germplasm, and its equally problematic counterpart, declining public investment in plant breeding, rarely make headlines.

But, although it’s unclear yet whether the Open Source Seed Initiative or Claire Luby’s carrot hack can provide a viable alternative model to plant patents, what is utterly fascinating about Hamilton’s article is the way it demonstrates the importance of metaphor in opening new possibilities for imagining the world, and constraining others.

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IMAGE: Jim Myers, professor of vegetable breeding and genetics at Oregon State University, photographed in a broccoli field at the university’s research farm by Lisa Hamilton.

Seeing seeds as software, for example, inspires certain solutions (a carrot hack! Linux for lettuce!) but creates other problems (how does licensing enforcement work when the open-source genetics are not marked in any way?). Elsewhere in Hamilton’s article, breeders refer to the idea of a “national park of germplasm” — a “genetic easement” that preserves, un-patented, enough of the important DNA of, say, commercial carrot varieties, for future generations of plant breeders, growers, and eaters. This idea of the natural world as a protected commons offers, in turn, its own set of tools and limitations.

In the end, it seems that one of the more valuable contribution those of us who are concerned about seed IP could make would be the gift of a new set of metaphors, to re-imagine how we relate to the natural world we make.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Responses

Three Strikes

A quick promotional note about three events that I’m excited about — and will be speaking at — in the next few weeks.

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First of all, if you’re in New York City this weekend, I’ll be speaking as part of a panel discussion at Gizmodo’s Home of the Future. One of a series of awesome free talks, workshops, parties, and conversations being held inside a custom-built apartment filled with the latest domestic gadgets, tele-presence robots, and virtual entertainment, my panel is titled “Food of the Future: What We’ll Eat Next.”

Several of my fellow panelists should be familiar to Edible Geography readers: Miriam Simun, the artist behind Ghost Food and Human Cheese; Emilie Baltz, the food designer who created the world’s first lickable ice-cream orchestra; and Saul Colt, from NYC’s innovative Windowfarms LLC. Our moderator, Alissa Walker, is Gizmodo’s Urbanism Editor—some of you may remember her as the fabulous lady behind the megaphone during Foodprint LA’s foodscape walking tour.

The panel runs from 5-6:30pm, and it’s free, but you should RSVP here. And, if the chance to listen to our thoughts on how we’ll grow, buy, store, and eat food in the future isn’t compelling enough, you’ll also be able to sample Hop Tech 431, the beer of the future brewed by Brooklyn’s own Sixpoint using a mysterious experimental hop (take a sip every time I mention refrigeration).

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Next up is the MacroCity conference in San Francisco on May 30th and 31st, where Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG and I have the daunting task of coming up with closing remarks after two days of incredible field trips and fascinating speakers looking at the “numerous, enmeshed layers of critical infrastructure that quietly hum in the background to make modern life possible.”

Tickets are available here, with nice discounts for students and non-profits. Thanks to the generosity of the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory, who are organising the conference, I have one “Basic Pass” available to give away to a lucky stranger; email me if you are that person! [Update: it’s gone!]

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And, finally, I’m extremely honoured to have been invited back to MCA Denver to participate in Re-Mixed Taste, a special tenth anniversary season of their legendary lecture series “featuring encore presentations of the best lectures of all time.” As always, I am tormented by the fact I can’t attend the entire series (who wouldn’t want to go to a talk on Existentialism & Giant Vegetables, or Sigmund Freud and Machine Guns?), but, if you’re in town, you can and should!

I’ll be doing a new-and-improved version of my 2012 talk on artificial flavour, paired with the inimitable Geoff Manaugh on urban spelunking. It will, as always, be a lot of fun: tickets are available here.

Hope to see you at some or all of these — please do say hi, as there’s nothing I like more than realising that the faceless, anonymous people I write this for are such clever and charming individuals in real life.

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Posted mainly for the pleasure of typing “Fromidable!” repeatedly.

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Thanks to the wonders of Canada’s bilingual labelling laws, and Loblaw’s stupendous “No Name/Sans Nom” brand packaging, we now have a fantastic new adjective to describe Johnny Hallyday’s greatest hits. And, of course, processed cheese spread. Fromidable!

Posted to Twitter by @Wheeler, discovered via @doingitwrong.

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Mouldscape Architecture

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IMAGE: Metamorfos 0611, Hans Jörgen Johansen via All Good Found/Liljevalchs.

These atmospheric photographs document mould landscapes grown by Hans Jörgen Johansen. 460

IMAGE: Metamorfos 0803, Hans Jörgen Johansen via All Good Found/Liljevalchs

The Swedish artist is pioneering the practice of mouldscape architecture: designing and cultivating his way through a catalogue of horticultural styles, from the romantic to the formal, on a two-foot-square base of pasta sheets, bread, and bacon fat. 460

IMAGE: Houndstooth, Hans Jörgen Johansen via All Good Found/Liljevalchs

A Capability Brown for our era of microbial awareness, Johansen’s decay gardens apply horticultural principles at a new scale and in a new medium, with stunning results.

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Dot Bio


IMAGE: Mycorrhizal fungi connected to plant host roots. Photo: Yoshihiro Kobai, NWO.

Last week, I received a press release promising that, as of April 14, 2014, “the organic world will have its own space on the Internet”: .bio.

I was, naturally, rather intrigued. Was .bio to be a Gibsonian matrix, in which otherwise discrete, glitchy, flesh-and-blood organisms could upload and outsource their voltage-based central nervous systems to a branded, interconnected digital network?

Or, instead, perhaps .bio represented a ground-breaking attempt to create a human-accessible portal to the so-called “Internet of Plants” — the network of mycorrhizal threads through which individual tomato plants spread the word about imminent aphid attacks and other pressing issues?

Sadly, ICANN’s vision for the new .bio domain is not quite that ambitious. Dot bio has been launched as part of a huge expansion of the Internet’s naming system, including other top-level domains such as .farm, .land, and .sexy, and is envisaged as a “very special new domain space” related to “many different fields linked to science, nature, and life.” Starting Dot, the company licensed to operate the new extension, suggests that a .bio extension is perfect for biologists, autobiographers, and, especially, anyone who wants to demonstrate their “commitment to an organic lifestyle.”

Indeed, because “bio” is commonly used to refer to organically grown products in several European Union countries, any would-be registrant who is connected to agriculture, food, and farming (whether as producer, processor, or retailer) will not be allowed to buy a .bio name unless they comply with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements’ Principles of Organic Agriculture.

Further, in their .bio policy document (pdf), Starting Dot explains that names that violate organic agricultural principles, such as <>, <> or <>, will be banned.

In the next breath, however, Starting Dot trumpets the desirability of a .bio extension for biotech companies and laboratories. It seems that the nomenclature through which we police various categories of nature is as fuzzy in URL as it is IRL.

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Dietary Superpowers

The better part of an aisle of in most pharmacies and supermarkets is usually dedicated to dietary supplements: vitamins, minerals, and extracts that promise various flavours of biological optimisation, from an immune system boost to healthy joints or even stronger fingernails. Even a trip to Starbucks offers the option of ingesting substances that will speed up your metabolism (green tea) or your brain (caffeine).

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IMAGE: Vitamins, via.

But what if tweaking your diet could go beyond improving what you were born with, and instead endow your body with entirely new capabilities?

A recent article on the BBC surveyed a subculture within the bio-hacking movement, in which humans attempt to acquire animal sensory perception.

At the relatively tame, though still awe-inspiring, end of the scale, we find a handful of blind people who have developed the ability to navigate their environment using echolocation. Of course, their tongue clicks are within the human acoustic range, unlike the ultrasound squeaks of bat or dolphin sonar. Nonetheless, through careful training, their perceptual world has been expanded beyond the limits of the typical human sensory apparatus.

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Animal Superpowers, 2008, Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada.

Another approach is to use prosthetics. Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada’s Animal Superpowers, for example, is a range of brightly coloured wearable devices give children the temporary ability to emulate ant, giraffe, and bird perception.

Still others take the plunge into full-on bodily modification. Peyton Rowlands, a 19-year-old member of citizen biohacking collective Science for the Masses, inserted a neodymium magnet under the skin of the middle finger of his left hand in an attempt to mimic the ability of birds, sharks, and bacteria to detect magnetic fields.


IMAGE: Peyton Rowlands with his bandaged magnet finger, via.

Although the procedure sounds rather excruciating — he performed the insertion without anaesthetic, and his body eventually rejected the magnet—the resulting perceptual shifts were fascinating. As Rowlands told the BBC, thus equipped with magnetoception, his environment resonated with the otherwise invisible vibrations of electrical current, rising and falling with proximity to household electronics and pylons:

You feel a slight buzz once you get within a couple of inches of basically anything with electricity running through it. It’s a very interesting sensation, kind of crazy. One of the things that I noticed is that DC current often felt similar to a ferrous metal or another magnet, a static bubble pushing or pulling against you, as opposed to AC currents which were much more like the kind of pins and needles feeling people describe.

Rowland’s latest project, however, does not rely on training, prosthetic additions, or physical modification. Instead, it could be described as dietary bio-hacking. By cutting retinal (part of the Vitamin A complex) out of his diet, he is hoping to force his body to develop near-infrared vision.

It is — if it works — a dietary anti-supplement that bestows sensory superpowers.

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IMAGE: Electromagnetic spectrum via the Universities Space Research Association.

The strategy is inspired by tilapia (and other freshwater fish), which use a different form of Vitamin A, dehydroretinal, to bind with their opsins (the retina-based proteins that turn light into an electrochemical signal). In humans, opsins preferentially bind with retinal to form rhodopsin; in freshwater fish, it’s more common for dehydroretinal and opsin combine to form porphyropsin. The difference between the two light-sensitive visual pigments is small at the blue end of the spectrum, but porphyropsin is progressively more sensitive than rhodopsin at longer wavelengths.

The result is that freshwater fish can spot tasty infrared-reflective shrimp in murky lakes and streams, and humans cannot.

Because the human body is capable of metabolising and using dehydroretinal, if forced, Peyton Rowlands and his Science for the Masses colleagues have reasoned that a diet that cuts out all retinal but contains dehydroretinal will enable them to see a tiny bit beyond normal human vision, into the near edge of the infrared band.

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IMAGE: Image from Predator 2, via.

What would that mean? Not Predator-style heat vision, unfortunately — if it works, this near-infrared augmentation would only extend a human’s visible light spectrum from its current edge at about 700 nanometres up to 790, which is not sufficient to detect thermal traces at room temperature.

Instead, according to Jeffrey Tibbets, Science for the Masses’ medical expert, this diet-enhanced vision would be more akin to Sony’s Nightshot feature — the infamous filter that users quickly realised allowed them to see through people’s clothing. Beyond naked humans, however, by following this alternative-A diet, Tibbets expects that:

A person would be enabled to see through darkly tinted car windows, or sunglasses with ease. Although investigators generally use ultraviolet light to pick up body fluid stains, infrared works just as well. Even old faded papyrus manuscripts and otherwise illegible faded books would be an easy feat for our augmented friend. One limiting factor of how far a person can see is the amount of particulate matter in the air. Infrared light cuts through fog, haze, and dust to a degree that would enable this person to have much sharper vision at a distance than a non-augmented human.

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IMAGE: Sony’s NightShot feature in action, via.

Not everyone is so sure that dietary superpowers can be so easily achieved, arguing (both persuasively and poetically) that the eye will only see itself — that a device built of warm-blooded cells will blind itself with its own thermal signature. There’s also a concern that, whether or not humans can develop the physical ability to detect IR in our environment, we can’t evolve the neural structures to translate it into a comprehensible visual signal quickly enough.

On the other hand, Tibbets points out that he and his bio-hacking colleagues are merely following in the footsteps of the United States Navy, which apparently already successfully tried this experiment on sailors during World War II.

They fed their sailor guinea-pigs with a diet low in normal sources of Vitamin A but supplemented with the livers of walleyed pikes, and, according to Perception, a psychology textbook, “over several months, the volunteers’ vision changed, giving them greater sensitivity to light of longer wavelengths.”

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IMAGE: The infrared-detecting sniperscope from the June 1946 issue of Popular Science.

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IMAGE: Today’s Aviator Night Vision Imaging System (ANVIS) AN/AVS-6, courtesy PEO Soldier.

The experiment was aborted, however, when researchers developed primitive “image converter tubes” — the predecessor of today’s nightvision goggles — that translated infrared light into the visible spectrum. The wearable device beat the bio-hack: the mechanically augmented human took precedence over the diet-adapted one.

Technological enhancements and cyborg transhumanism aside, however, it’s somewhat fascinating to reflect on the way in which our diet generates our perceptual universe, which in turn is precisely tuned to the luminosity of our environment.

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IMAGE: Vintage Violence, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2011, from Infra by Richard Mosse. Mosse uses a discontinued infrared film called Kodak Aerochrome to document the contested and bloody landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The wavelength of the peak irradiance of sunlight on earth surface is 500 nanometres (the same is true of moonlight, which is simply reflected sunlight), which happens to be the peak absorbence of rhodopsin, meaning that the retinal in our diet is perfectly adapted to give us maximum sensitivity to available natural light.

But the different structures of Vitamin A allow for a sort of “spectral tuning,” exploited by fish , and perhaps soon Peyton Rowlands, to adapt their vision to the murkier haze of underwater — or, indeed, contemporary — life.

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Happy Hour Again

Although I have today off (I’m giving a talk about my favourite subject, artificial refrigeration, at The Berlage in Delft), for the past couple of weeks I’ve been happily posting more booze-related stories over at Gizmodo each Friday at 5pm.

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IMAGE: Six almost-identical prototype glasses being tested during the final round in the design process.

Last week’s alcoholic adventure was a look at the the world’s first stout-specific beer glass, developed as a collaboration between Left Hand Brewing, of Longmont, Colorado, Rogue Ales of Newport, Oregon, and Spiegelau, a 500-year-old German glass company that became part of the Riedel empire in 2004.

The design process by which the team arrived at a drinking vessel whose form enhances the best characteristics of the beer style is fascinating. I asked the brewers—Brett Joyce of Rogue and Eric Wallace of Left Hand—if they could imagine an inverse process: reverse engineering a new beer style to fit a particular glass. “We’re good,” laughed Joyce. “But we’re not that good.”

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IMAGE: Spiegelau’s IPA-specific glass (left) and stout-specific glass (right).

Spiegelau’s Matt Rutkowksi hinted that more style-specific glasses are on the way, with the collaborators sworn to secrecy. Joyce’s fingers are crossed that it’s a barleywine-specific glass: “It’s under-appreciated, and it needs the right glass—something smaller volumetrically, which teases out the bitterness to balance its sweetness.”

Wallace’s vote went for a glass optimized for the flavour and mouthfeel of sour beers, while Rutkowski suggested that the complexity of barrel-aged beers merits a better vessel—which may or may not be a hint as to what to expect from Spiegelau in the coming year.

You can read the story, including my review of the glass’s performance, here.

Meanwhile, the week before, I wrote about a new line of cocktail bitters designed by three New York-based ethnobotanists as a teaching tool: a way to a way to represent the plants of a particular place, and also to tell a story about the traditional culture and plant knowledge of that place.

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IMAGE: Shoots and Roots bitters.

From roots used by black bears to calm stomach upsets to the spectacular clitoria flower, the ingredients in each Shoots and Roots bitters blend are all listed (most bitters makers keep their recipes a closely-guarded secret) and accompanied by detailed descriptions of the plants’ habitats and human uses. The result is a refreshing way to transform your cocktail into a natural history lesson. Check out the full post here.

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