Ten Landmarks of the Chinese Cryosphere

“The Price of Cold” — the story of my recent adventures exploring China’s artificial cryosphere — is now online in The New York Times Magazine. In it, I visit the world’s first and only frozen dumpling billionaire, hang out with the chef leading a one-man refrigeration resistance movement, and visit refrigerated warehouses and R&D labs across the country. In my completely unbiased opinion, it’s a lot of fun, and you should read it right now — and then share it with all of your friends!

Meanwhile, for those of you for whom that is not enough refrigeration for one weekend, I compiled this list: ten stand-out destinations for the armchair Chinese cryotourist, based on my own travels while reporting the story.


IMAGE: All ten destinations, mapped.

From the “Room of the Sleeping Fish” in Jinan to a Wal-Mart in Zhengzhou, these places are both extremely obscure and yet globally significant. Together, they help tell the story of how refrigeration is changing the way Chinese people farm, eat, and shop — in exactly the same way it changed the American and European landscape and diet, and yet, of course, with a uniquely Chinese twist.

1. Sanquan Headquarters, Zhengzhou

Chen Zemin is the official Father of Frozen Food in China, Sanquan is his frozen dumpling company, and frozen dumplings are the the Swanson’s TV Dinner of China — the gateway convenience food paving the country’s path towards a future of chilled prepared meals and frozen entrees. My New York Times Magazine story includes these facts and much more besides, including Chen’s life story and a gorgeous photograph of the Sanquan factory floor taken by Massimo Vitali.

But neither my words nor Vitali’s photo quite bring to life the mesmerising process of making 100,000 dumplings an hour. For that, until your next visit to Zhengzhou, you will have to make do with these iPhone videos (forgive the quality).


VIDEO: The glutinous rice ball production line at the Sanquan factory, Zhengzhou. The entire process takes 20 minutes from start to finish. People dressed in white jumpsuits are line workers, those in pink are production line supervisors, yellow are quality control, and blue are mechanical support. All photographs and video by Nicola Twilley.


VIDEO: Quick-frozen glutinous rice balls being bagged at the Sanquan factory. “The first machines could only produce one ball at a time,” Chen Zemin explained, “whereas today, our machines make it look like it’s raining balls.”


VIDEO: The frozen dumpling production line at the Sanquan factory, Zhengzhou.


VIDEO: Dumpling inspection on the way into the freezer at the Sanquan factory, Zhengzhou.


VIDEO: Boxes of dumplings enter the largest fully automated, “lights out,” refrigerated freezer in Asia, Sanquan, Zhengzhou.

2. Wal-Mart, Zhengzhou

31 Shopping for frozen ball things

IMAGE: Shopping for Sanquan frozen meatballs at Wal-Mart, Zhengzhou.

Zhengzhou, as those of you who have read my article know, is the capital of frozen food in China. “Think of Kansas City, but double the size,” explained Ralph Bean, who, as director of the United States’ Agriculture Trade Office in Beijing, is tasked with getting U.S.-grown ingredients into China’s frozen dinners of the future.

In other words, it’s a third-tier city of nearly 9 million that boasts one brand new subway line (it opened in January) and three Wal-Marts. I visited the Manhattan Plaza branch in order to spot Sanquan dumplings in the wild, and to see who bought them, and why. This lady explained that she liked them because they were a new, modern kind of product.”They didn’t exist before,” she said, as if that were reason enough to have them for dinner.

Meanwhile, the packaging emphasised frozen food’s classiness (“enjoy the elite flavour”) and convenience, listing the “Three Withouts”: you can eat these without chopping, without having to wash anything, and without seasoning. The store’s tiny frozen food section was dominated by dumplings, with some dubious-looking meat popsicles and a lonely “Children’s Steak” ready-meal rounding out the options.

Elsewhere in the supermarket, store-made fresh dumplings were for sale behind a sneeze-guard and raw meat was laid out on ice and handled with tongs, in stark contrast to the Zhengzhou wet market (see destination 3, below). But fish is sold live, even at Wal-Mart, and the front wall was covered with scoop-your-own seafood tanks.

2 Live fish at Walmart

IMAGE: Wal-Mart’s scoop-your-own seafood tanks.

3. Wet Market, Zhengzhou

14 Meat aisle wet market

IMAGE: Chicken for sale at the wet-market, Zhengzhou.

Zhengzhou’s largest wet market happened to be right next to my hotel, which made the 5 a.m. start to visit it a little easier (but not much). These chicken had been slaughtered at the farm this morning, the vendor explained, and he would sell them all today.

When I asked how he kept the meat fresh, he looked confused, and replied, “It’s winter!” In summer, apparently, a regular hose-down with cold water (hence the name “wet” market) and a standing fan do the trick. “If I don’t sell it all by evening,” he shrugged, “I’ll just send it to the hotels.”

42 Hanging dead sheep

IMAGE: Hanging a carcass without having to put your cigarette down is a two-man job.

67 Dog carcasses

IMAGE: Freshly skinned dog carcasses.

Other vendors had their own small freezer chest, or rented space in the refrigerated walk-in beneath the market, but they all explained that their customers preferred fresh meat. In January, they told me, rabbit and dog stays fresh in the open air for a couple of days at least; duck lasts two or three days; and mutton can sometimes be fine for nearly a week.

108 Cold storage door open

IMAGE: The entrance to the wet-market walk-in refrigerator.

99 Underground cold storage at wet market

IMAGE: Inside the walk-in.

Once I saw the market’s communal refrigerated walk-in, with its funky smell and collapsing cardboard boxes piled high on the concrete floor, the pervasive idea that unrefrigerated, but freshly slaughtered, meat was fresher than its refrigerated counterpart made a lot of sense.

Tim McLellan, a tireless advocate for all things cold chain and a director at Preferred Freezer Services, an American company that is about to open its third cold-storage warehouse in China, told me that, while touring some of these older facilities, he had even seen rats. When I expressed surprise that they could survive in the cold, he explained that they live inside the wall insulation, and brave the chill to chew through boxes and gorge themselves.

In any case, this particular cryospheric landmark may not be around for much longer. According to McLellan, both the wet market itself and its outdated cold storage are endangered spaces in today’s China, given the government’s ambitious cold chain modernisation and supermarketisation plans. “That’s what the government wants to do, is shut them down,” he said. “It just takes time.”

89 Oxygenating live fish

IMAGE: Live fish transportation requires an octopus-like exoskeleton of liquid oxygen hoses.

Outside the market, men unloaded a lorry-full of live fish, which is transported using an incredibly complex truck-bed system of Styrofoam boxes, running water, and oxygen tanks, all laced together with a spaghetti-like profusion of hoses.

As in Wal-Mart, so too in the wet market: in China, fish is just not fresh unless it’s still alive.

4. Longjing Caotang, Hangzhou

66 Pulling in the net

IMAGE: Catching my dinner, Hangzhou.

The freshest fish I ate in China, however, was at a restaurant called Longjing Caotang, in Hangzhou. Dai Jianjun, its chef-owner, serves a “prelapsarian Chinese cuisine,” to borrow Fuchsia Dunlop’s description from her wonderful New Yorker article about the place. Everything I ate had been pickled, dried, preserved in-house, or freshly foraged that day.

3 Fish drying

IMAGE: Dai’s bamboo fish-drying hut.

Dai’s depth of knowledge about traditional Chinese flavours — he can and did talk for hours about the importance of orientation and bamboo-rod spacing when wind-drying sausages, or the under-appreciated difference between small-leaf and large-leaf pickles — is only matched by his dislike for all things modern. “City food gives me the shits,” he said, before quoting two ancient Chinese philosophers to explain that agriculture had first gone wrong by harnessing oxen to the plough, rather than relying on manpower alone.

But, though it’s easy to laugh at his quirks and disagree with his fetishisation of some kind of Utopian, originary foodscape, Dai is almost single-handedly managing to preserve and revive the kinds of micro-local, pre-refrigeration techniques and flavours that are increasingly rare in contemporary China.

As Fuchsia Dunlop puts it, “Dai’s main worry is that traditional farming and cooking won’t survive another generation.”

When I spoke to Jim Harkness, Senior Adviser on China at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, he confirmed this prognosis:

The unfortunate thing is that, on the one hand, the economic boom and things like more modern food distribution systems and cold chain allows for a far more varied diet for many people in China — but it’s a varied diet in which a lot of the traditional foods are dying out.

They desperately need a Chinese Slow Food movement. You’re simply not going to be able to find a lot of those traditional foods as capitalism develops and people can’t or are not willing to invest time in food preparation. And, of course, food safety regulations make it harder for a lot of the traditional practices and enterprises to continue. The knowledge is disappearing, and I think that’s a real shame.

I sincerely hope Dai’s fish-drying hut is not also an endangered species. Nonetheless, no Chinese cryo-tour would be complete without a stop at Longjing Caoting, to experience the kinds of foods that refrigeration — and its companions, urbanisation and a rising GDP — threaten to make extinct.

5. The Room of the Sleeping Fish, Jinan

27 Sleeping fish being explained to Owen

IMAGE: Owen Guo, my wonderful interpreter and fixer, being instructed in the art of sending fish to sleep.

Fish are the anti-frozen dumpling: unlike Chen Zemin’s rice balls, they have no legs, both literally and metaphorically. But, at China’s National Engineering Research Centre for Agricultural Product Logistics in Jinan, sandwiched between the “Time/Temperature/Tolerance Laboratory” and “Small-size Instruments Storage,” the curious cryo-tourist can visit “The Room of the Sleeping Fish.” As I describe in a forthcoming issue of Harvard Design Magazine, the Centre’s scientists have developed a way to ship live fish out of water, by using refrigeration to induce a sort of suspended animation.

According to the technician in charge of the process, the fish are sent to sleep by gradually lowering the temperature of the water, half a degree at a time over the course of twenty-four hours, to just above freezing. In this sluggish state, a fish can be rolled up, popped in a clear plastic poster tube, and mailed to anywhere in China. As long as they arrive at their destination within three days, the Centre’s Director explained, they will simply wake up and start swimming again as soon as you slide them out of the canister.

What’s more, he added, these revived sleeping fish taste better than the freshest just-caught fish: the whole process is apparently the piscine equivalent of a spa retreat, and the less stress, the better, as far as fish flesh and flavour are concerned.

6. XinFaDi Agri-product Wholesale Market, Beijing

1 Neon gate

IMAGE: The neon entrance gate to XinFaDi market.

According to official statistics, less than five percent of China’s vegetables are transported under refrigeration. An early morning visit to the XinFaDi wholesale market, which supplies more than 70 percent of Beijing’s vegetables, demonstrates the reality behind that figure. Eggs, grains, oils, and, curiously, mushrooms are all sold from inside a covered structure, but fruit and vegetable transactions are handled in the parking lot, at the back of each delivery truck.

20 Little kid on veg truck

IMAGE: Check out the little kid perched on top of this banana truck.

And, of course, the trucks are not refrigerated. Instead, vendors pack the vegetables tightly under layers of blankets, ice, and even hay, excavating each radish or head of broccoli individually for their customers. As I explain in the story, it’s thus perfectly normal for a quarter of the cargo to rot before it can be sold — more in summer.

36 An ice-packed broccoli truck

IMAGE: Ice-packed broccoli being dug out from the back of the truck for a customer.

7. Yantai Quanyuan Fruit & Vegetables Co. Ltd., Qixia

1 Chinese Apple Move Toward the World From Here

IMAGE: Yantai Quanyuan Fruit & Vegetable Co. Ltd.

“Chinese apple move toward the world from here,” proclaims the slogan on the side of one of the largest modified-atmosphere, refrigerated apple-storage facilities in China. Quanyuan uses German-designed equipment to store the apples at 0 degrees Centigrade. Flushed with nitrogen, in order to remove oxygen and slow respiration still further, the apples stay fresh for a year. The company exports its product across Asia, to Africa, and, most recently, to Canada. Soon, they hope, their apples will be allowed into the United States.

The company’s owner, a tall, unsmiling man wearing a blue suit with a gold tie, told me that when he was a boy, his family would wrap the apples from their orchard in paper and put them in a specially dug hole, near the house, so that they’d last the five or six months from harvest to lunar new year. “Still,” he remembered, “they were always wrinkled and soft. These fruits are screwed without refrigeration.”

25 Loading apples

IMAGE: Loading apples in the cold storage warehouse at Quanyuan.

The modified-atmosphere technology, which is standard in the United States, was introduced to the Chinese apple-growing region of Yantai in 1994, and it has changed everything for Quanyuan.

“Before, I lost a lot. It was tough,” he said, in a matter of fact tone. “Now, I lose less than 1 percent of my apples.” Standing in front of a photograph of himself shaking hands with a senior member of the Party’s standing committee, he added, “It took me three years to pay the construction of these warehouses back, but we started exporting in 2000. I see huge potential.”

8. Beijing Vegetable Research Centre, Beijing

22 Beijing Vegetables Research Centre

IMAGE: An experimental greenhouse, Beijing Vegetable Research Centre.

Liu Sheng, at the Beijing Vegetable Research Centre, is developing the optimal post-harvest regimes for Chinese produce. These were developed for British fruit and vegetables beginning in the 1920s, and UC Davis’ Post-Harvest Technology freely disseminates separate sets of specialised guidelines perfectly tailored to the unique metabolic profiles of Anjou pears and Bartlett pears, or Red Delicious apples and Golden Delicious apples.

“We have some for Chinese vegetables, but ours are not as specific,” Sheng explained. “We have a single standard for thirty different fruits!” He spends his time measuring loss rates between batches of bitter melon that have been hydrocooled versus those that have been exposed to forced-air precooling, and assessing organoleptic deterioration in hawthorn berries when stored at 3 as opposed to 4 degrees Celsius. Personally, he is a big asparagus fan.

Sheng also helped plan one of the Party’s flagship cold chain projects, the “South to North Vegetable Transfer.” Launched in 2011, this “Pilot Program of “Modern Agricultural Circulation” aimed at repurposing the country’s southernmost, tropical island province, Hainan (otherwise popular with Chinese honeymooners), into the “National Winter Vegetable Base,” complete with 30 brand new logistics centers and an express refrigerated rail-link to Beijing.

In other words, just as drought conditions in California are driving up fruit and vegetable prices across the United States, the Chinese are racing to turn Hainan into their Central Valley.

Meanwhile, his colleagues, as I mention in the magazine story, are breeding varietals that are better adapted to cold storage in the first place. As we looked across the street at the purple-lit greenhouse dedicated to their research, Sheng admitted that he thinks this will result in a loss of flavour, because “you can’t have both.”

9. Yogurt Control Room, Yili, Tianjin

6 Yoghurt control room

IMAGE: The Yogurt Control Room at Yili’s Wuqing plant.

A traditional Chinese diet involves very little dairy: cheese is viewed as disgusting, butter is indistinguishable from cheese, ice-cream is only for kids, and the majority of the population is lactose intolerant. But, with the temptation of such a huge market, and equipped with a growing cold chain through which to reach it, both international and Chinese companies have pushed a “yogurt strategy” to “reintroduce dairy,” as Chris Brimlow, Nestle’s Director of Research and Development in China, told Paul Roberts in The End of Food.

“Even as adults, in only takes three months to develop the enzyme,” Brimlow says. “They may feel sick for a little while, but they get used to it.”

Yili is the market leader, achieving success with its locally attuned flavours (sweetcorn and aloe, as opposed to Danone’s strawberry) and with a clever marketing campaign that pushes yogurt as good for teenage complexions. I visited the newest of its ten yogurt factories, in Tianjin, built to anticipate a demand that is projected to grow by 20 percent year-on-year for the next decade.

With consumer confidence shaken by the country’s milk powder scandals, Yili were anxious to show me their rocket-ship style Yogurt Control Room, which includes a real-time map of the company’s GPS-enabled refrigerated trucks that I wasn’t allowed to photograph. “We want customers to know about our cold chain system in order to build trust,” the oily PR representative told me. “So we made an infographic.”

10. Express Channel Food Logistics, Beijing

20 Loading dock KuaiXing warehouse

IMAGE: Refrigerated loading dock at Liu Peijun’s brand-new refrigerated warehouse.

Liu Peijun got his start persuading wary Beijingers to try Sanquan’s frozen dumplings back in 1996, when they first reached the capital’s supermarkets. He personifies China’s new wave of homegrown logistics entrepreneurs: ambitious (he is expanding to Shanghai), successful (a Jeep, a BMW, and plans to send his son to college in the U.S.), and as frustrated by the missing links in China’s cold chain as he is proud of his pioneer status.

We went out for Mongolian hotpot to warm up after our refrigerated warehouse tour. As I struggled with how exactly to eat a duck’s tongue, he said, “I have to admit, business is good.” From the way he smiled, it was easy to tell that business was very good indeed. In fact, Liu added, cold chain logistics is so hot in China right now that the interpreter he brought with him last year on a fifteen-day research tour of refrigerated warehouses overseas quit as soon as they got back to Beijing, in order to start a cold storage business of his own.

Duck tongues at hotpot

IMAGE: Ducks’ tongues consist almost entirely of cartilage, making them tricky interview-fare for the non-native diner.

There are far too many people I have to thank for making this New York Times Magazine story, and the opportunity to explore the Chinese cryosphere, possible: the UC Berkeley Food & Farming Fellowship crew; my superstar interpreter, Owen Guo (and Josephine Lau, who introduced me to him, via my old friend Dechen Pemba); my skilful editors Bill Wasik, Claire Gutierrez, and Jon Kelly; my tireless fact-checkers Karen Fragala-Smith and Dan Kaufman; the anonymous folks on the copy desk (“fridge” is not allowed, according to the NYT style guide, FYI) and the rest of the magazine team; my first and favourite editor, Geoff Manaugh; and so many people who spoke to me, hosted me, recommended me, and introduced me to others — Jen Lin Liu, Fuchsia Dunlop, Corey Rosenbusch, Judith Farquhar, Steve Boucher, Tim McLellan, Ralph Bean, Jim Harkness, Susanne Freidberg, Mike Moriarty, Ram Krishnan, Jackie Janus, Mark Bills, Clyde Verhoff, Tianle Chang, Richard Brubaker, Piao Li, Soonguan Poh, Liu Peijun, Chen Zemin and Chen Nan, Feng Shaotong, Wu Jianfeng, Mr. Mu, Zhang Li, Wang Guoli, Jiang Xu, Jiang Yuanquan, Qin Yunming, Liu Sheng, Chairman Wang, Black Sesame Kitchen, Hugo Lindgren, Rob WalkerJohn Thackara, and Alexis Madrigal. Thank you!


Posted in Artificial Cryosphere, Uncategorized | 2 Responses

Bike-Powered Rice

I was first introduced to the Randall’s Island rice paddies in miso form, as part of former Momofuku R&D chef Dan Felder’s experiments to develop a truly local terroir for the restaurant’s New York City iteration of Asian cuisine.

8 Rice germinating 460

IMAGE: 2014’s rice seedlings germinating inside the greenhouse at Randall’s Island Urban Farm. All photographs by Nicola Twilley.

But, although the rice’s microbes were proving somewhat recalcitrant, I was delighted to learn earlier this year that the rice itself was thriving. In a presentation at this year’s Roger Smith Food Tech Conference, Nick Storrs, the manager of Randall’s Island Urban Farm, proudly described the exponential growth of the city’s only rice paddy fields, from the first experimental one in 2011, to five this season.

Growing rice in New York City, thousands of miles north of its traditional home in Arkansas and California, turned out to be surprisingly easy, Storrs explained. Hulling it — removing hard husk that protects each individual grain of rice — was the real challenge.

That is, until a microscopist for DuPont spent two winters tinkering in his basement, bolting together bike chains, chopping boards, and boat launch bumpers to design and build the missing machine that could crack open micro-scale rice markets across America.

14 Paddy rice and hulled rice

IMAGE: Randall’s Island paddy rice (right) and hulled rice with chaff (left).

A few weeks ago, I went out to Randall’s Island to witness the delivery of their very own bike-powered rice-huller and to talk with Don Brill, its unlikely inventor.

You’ll have to head over to the New Yorker to read the rest of the story (well worth it, in my unbiased opinion), but here are some additional photos for when you come back.

5 Nick and Don kneeling straw hat and pink bike

IMAGE: Don Brill and Nick Storr kneel to set up the rice huller.

13 Nick on bike

IMAGE: Nick Storrs on the bike, hulling rice.

7 Side of rice huller up close

IMAGE: The rice huller from the side.

12 Don and local kid on rice huller

IMAGE: Don Brill adds paddy rice to the huller while a random child tries out the bike.

10 Hulled rice in the beige bus tray

IMAGE: Hulled rice and chaff in the beige bus tray. This still needs to be winnowed before consumption.

For the full story, check out “The Rube Goldberg of Rice” at the New Yorker online.

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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.

oPhone Duo 460

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.”

David Edwards holds oChip 460

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.

Screenshot 1

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”).

AromaticVocabulary 460

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.)

Rachel displays interior of oPhone 460

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

My hand holding an oChip 460

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.”)

Chocolate red 460

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Discovered via Kottke.org.

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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 <gmo.bio>, <fertilizers.bio> or <pesticides.bio>, 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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