Friday, September 23, 2016

The Dorito Effect

We breed food for quantity instead of flavor. Then we we slather it with spices, fats, vitamins and sugar to make it palatable. Our bodies are getting confused, often craving something, but getting something different. This leads to overeating as we consume more of "fake food" in attempt to get the nutrients that are not present. Even the "fortified" foods can be problematic. Our bodies may associate something like "fruit loops" as providing the nutrition we desire - even though it is mostly providing empty calories. The fortifications also only provide a few of the vitamins that we know of, depriving us of the unresearched chemicals.
The food system does, however, succeed and providing fast quantities of cheap food. We can mass-produce corn, and then flavor it to appear to be anything else we want. (The same is done with animals. Special flavorings are added to their feed to encourage them to eat more.) We have enough vitamins to prevent some of the easily noticeable deficiency diseases (like scurvy). However, this system also leads to gluttony and a whole new set of diseases (like diabetes.) Finding a balance of quality and quantity is a challenge in our society. Until then, we may continue to be "fooled" into eating greater quantities of fake food.

Seeds of Rebellion (Beyonders Book 2)

Seeds of Rebellion is a typical "second book" in a series. The first book reached a conclusion, with the "hero" returning to his world at the end. It could stand alone (though it would not have been very satisfying.) This book starts out with Jason back in his world. He was a "missing person" for a while, then suddenly appeared in a cornfield in Iowa without any recollection of what happened. People just chalked it up to the concussion that he suffered before he went missing. However, he knew better. He went to the zoo one day to see the hippo and reminisce about the portal that took him to the other world. He heard music again, and this time jumped into the cage and forced the hippo to let him through the portal. From there he meets up with old friends, finds some new friends and goes on a quest.
The quest is the typical epic fantasy quest. A group of beings gets together. The group includes a grandfatherly figure, the reluctant heroes and some not-quite humans ("Displacers" that can remove limbs, others that can be reborn by planting their seed after death, and others that live their full life in a full year.) They are out to protect the world from big mean bad guy who is trying to dominate everything. They go through a number of trials to finally reach their goal (an oracle). The young "beyonder" girl gradually develops stronger, new powers (by speaking certain words.) It just seems a lot like every epic fantasy story. I found myself fading through some of the "quest". Luckily, this was shorter than most fantasy books.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A World Without Heroes (Beyonders Book 1)

Like most Brandon Mull books, Beyonders starts out in our world. A boy is studying biology, playing baseball and oggling a girl. He gets hit in the head which at first causes him to doubt what happens next. At the zoo where he works, he hears some music coming from the hippo, he looks and falls through the hippos mouth to another world. There he meats up with people, and sets out on a quest to find the syllables of a word that will defeat the bad guy. He also meets up with a home-schooled girl from earth who joins him on his quest. They also meet up with a "displacer" - a man who can remove and attach limbs at will. (This becomes quite useful for escaping from prison.)

The "Bad Guy" is a "Magician King" that rules over the Kingdom. He prohibits maps and attempts to limit communication among his subjects. He also has a special "feast" to which he invites the most "dangerous" of his subjects. This is an endless feast where the participants have every care in the world taken care of. They do enjoy it, but becomes gluttons that lose any desire of rebellion.

For the more powerful of his opponents, he asks them to partner with him. He will only take on the least powerful opponents in warfare. He desires to set examples of the pitfalls of opposition rather than risk creating martyrs.

The people in the world know of people from the "beyond" (Earth), and seem to have received their language and culture from there, but don't have much of a concept of what they are.

In the end, they complete the quest, but it doesn't end up quite as they anticipated and he ends up in a vast cornfield somewhere back on earth, setting the book up for a sequel.

The story is an engaging read, though not quite up to the quality of Candy Shop War. The alternate world seems interesting, but it could use greater fleshing out of some of the details.

Monday, September 12, 2016


The trailer for Zootopia shown during Star Wars stood out as being the one that didn't have a single person save the world from blowing up. It also made the movie look extremely boring. (Slow talking sloths do not a fun movie make.) However, it was misleading on both counts. Almost. We do have a single bunny that is off the save the world. And the movie was quite entertaining. The plot centers around a society of animals that no longer divides themselves into predators and prey. (How do they eat? That is an awfully large population of vegetarians!) The society sets itself up for plenty of visual humor. There are trains with multiple size doors and a fox that runs a racket by melting down elephant popsicles to make multiple rodent size ones. There is also a chase into a "rodent town" and plenty of other great bits of visual humor.

The theme is that you can do anything that you want and should not fall victim to predefined stereotypes. These stereotypes come from multiple different sides, with even the oppressed finding they are holding views that limit what their supposed oppressors can do. It does a good job of bringing out the theme without trying to attack any individual group.

In the end, the bunny saves the day by uncovering a plot for one group to obtain power by using a plant extract to make animals "wild". In the end, the bad guys are busted, an antidote is made, and an animal sings the catchy song. Make the animals out of legos and it could pass as the next Lego Movie.

Food Politics

Food Politics is a dense academic book that describes the key role that politics place in the food we eat. On one side, we have the government (USDA and FDA) attempting to regulate everything with a strict science-based approach. On the other side, we have food and supplement producers wanting to sell the most of their product. The loser? the American public. The FDA has noble intentions. However, it tends to rely on an overly reductionist approach to policy making. At times it does actually get things right. (It proposed a label for vitamins indicating that a balanced diet could provide the nutrients that we need.) However, it more often had the nasty habit of nitpicking labeling requests, thus giving the industry excuses to demand fewer regulations. Armed raids also don't help the matter. The industry also takes advantage of differences among scientists to help push its agenda. The end result is that we get a lot of marketing spiel with very little worthwhile information on our food labels.

The author had worked with the government and sat on some of the committees. She obviously favors the "science" approach to nutrition as opposed to the "feelings" approach advocated by many in the industry. In spite of this, she does not paint the FDA in a great light. Nutrition is an extremely complicated subject. There are some simple conditions with simple treatments (eliminate scurvy with fruit.) However, we have pretty much nipped all of these "easy" nutrition problems. Now, most of our problems are those of excess. We are concerned about the complex interaction among the many different components that make up the food we eat. However, many studies try to isolate one particular component of a food to study in a traditional study. Alas, this does not work well, because people don't eat that vitamin or mineral in isolation, they eat the entire fruit. And even if a particular food is studied, the nutritional profile of that food may differ depending on where it is grown, how it is prepared, and who consumes it. Food companies love this confusion and lobby to have their product "favored" based ona positive study, while fighting to prevent their product from being condemned after an unfavorable one. They even fight against labeling that might reduce the consumer's preference for their product. (However, if the public quickly turns on something, they are quick to "reformulate" to build market share. (e.g. "low carb", "low fat", "trans fat free")

What do we get out of this food politic mess? Not a whole lot. We often get fooled by "healthy" junk food that is really not healthy. And we get food that is excessively fortified to look good on labels. If anything, the confusion helps us to spend lots of money and get fat. I guess somebody is succeeding.

Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef

I didn't care much for beef growing up. If I did have steak, it was mostly as an excuse to eat BBQ sauce. Then I went to Argentina and wondered what I had been mising. Steak was dirt cheap and asado served with nothing more than salt was crazy delicious. When I returned the United States, I went back to my "beef-lite" ways. It just wasn't the same. Reading about Mark Schatzker's adventures made my mouth water for the good stuff. Only, I have no idea where I can find it here. He looks at American feedlots with huge numbers of cattle as well as small operations throughout the world. As is often the case, most of the beef we get in the US has been bread for quantity not flavor. The grading system even discounts "older" cattle and stresses marbleizing that can often be achieved by corn. Beef in the US is viewed as a commodity and treated a such. Alas, his voyage to Argentina finds that they too have gone down the "corn" route, much to the chagrin of beef lovers. (And in cold irony, the government is even subsidizing the grain-fed beef to keep prices down. ARRGGHH!)
Truly tasty beef, is partly in the eye of the beholder. Different people do like different things. The diet and the breed of the cow are important in taste. A good diet of grass will often produce the tastiest steak. However, the wrong grass diet can produce a horrible tasting steak. The stress of the cow and the way it dies can also impact the quality of the meat. "Marbling" is caused by fat visibly mixed in with the tissue. This is thought to produce the tastiest meet (and is part of the grading system). However, it seems that corn can be used to game the system and produce nicely marbled beef without the great taste.
The author travels the world to find the best steak. He visits Scotland, Japan, Argentina and other places to try their "native" beef. He even tries to raise his own cows with some success. (He had the right idea, but after going through with it, realized that he was a rank amateur in the field of grass-fed cattle raising.) He also tried to find out how the cows feel. (The answer is, somewhat surprising, that feedlot cows are generally content - perhaps moreso than the people that have to live near them.)
Alas, ranchers have mastered the art of raising cows that get fat in a hurry by eating corn. Hmmm... And this is part of the food system that helps get children fat in a hurry using corn. What goes around comes around.
I would like to try some of the San Juan Islands beef, or some of the super expensive Japanese Kobe and the like. But, I'll probably just stick with the occasional cheap cut and continue my beef-lite weight. With Argentina going to the dark side, its almost not worth the effort to find and pay for truly delicious beef.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Keeper of Dreams

Keeper of Dreams contain some lesser-known short stories of Orson Scott Card.

"The Elephants of Poznan" - The elephants are the dominant species and they use humans to help them breed. It was an interesting twist on the apocalyptic story.
"Atlantis" - The "flood story". This is an expanded version of a story told as part of the Christopher Columbus pastwatch book.
"Geriatric Ward" - A story about premature aging that I didn't care much for.
"Heal Thyself" - Neandrathals are non-infected humans. Curing all diseases causes people to "revert" to that state. Perhaps we don't want to mess with our DNA.
"Angles" - This is a fun, yet confusing story. "Oppressed peoples" are recruited to an alternate universe in the name of reviving their population. They are not allowed to bring anything with them when transferring. Alas, the alternate universe just wants to enslave them and use their talents. The Japanese group, however, have the last laugh as they are highly skilled martial artists who can fight back without weaponds.

Arcade Catastrophe

Arcade Catastrophe continues the children's "realistic fantasy" story started in Candy Shop War. The world is a sightly fictionalized version of today's outer San Francisco suburbs. In this story, an evil magician uses an arcade to recruit kids to do his bidding. By accumulating enough tickets, kids can get "stamped" with a magic stamp that gives them special powers (like flying or swimming underwater.) They later use these in competition with each other to carry out the magicians tasks. The kids from the Candy Shop War get involved in an attempt to rescue the "magic police" who have vanished. There is a ton of action and suspense, with plenty of magic before the kids save the day and live happily ever after. It is not a bad story, but it is not as good as Candy Shop War. It is fun how he uses kid's favorite things (kids and video games) as the mechanism for magic. (Magicians know how to attract them.) I wonder what vehicle they will use for a third book?

Feel the Fear . . . and Do It Anyway

Most humans feel fearful when trying something different. How do we make the feat go away? Susan Jeffers proposes that we don't. We should instead acknowledge the fear and plow right through it. That sounds great. The book, alas, goes on for too long, and tries to be a "meta-self-help" book, encouraging looking for other books and affirmations. Alas, I'm not so afraid of skipping that.

Third Plate: Field Notes on the History of Food

Dan Barber has a fancy "farm to plate" restaurant in New York. In the third plate he discusses farm-centric food. Mass agriculture produces great quantities of standardized food at the expense of taste and variety. He goes to explore farmers that produce "foie gras" naturally by little ducks and geese fatten themselves. He also sees the production of Jamon Iberico, the delicious Spanish Ham that feasts naturally on acorns and grain. (And ironically is difficult to import in the US due to USDA regulations meant to curb factory farm abuses.) By going back to the "natural" way of doing things, we can have food that is more delicious and less harmful to the environment. However, scaling this production is a challenge. We can't have anything whenever we want.
He also ventures out to the "bread lab" in Washington State. There they are working with "heirloom" varieties of wheat that provide different tastes. Rather than have a standard commodity, they are encouraging variation. The variation can optimize yields locally with the minimum of external inputs. (In Washington, wheat was often grown as a cover crop.) This seams like a win win. We get taste and variety, and farmers get more production with less expensive fertilizer and other chemicals. Other vegetable farmers show similar experiences with health and variety. Healthy plants are better able to fend of pests on their own. Even "weeds" can have their place in the healthy garden.
A successful re-envisioning of the food production system will need to take into account the billions of mouths that need to be fed. Taste does not have to be sacrificed in the name of production. However, availability and "sameness" will. Are we willing to sacrifice some uniform cheapness in favor of taste and nutrition?

Sky Raiders

Sky Raiders follows the typical Brandon Mull story arc. Some kids are living a normal life. Then, through in innocent action, they get thrust into a fantasy world. There they complete heroic adventures. Only unlike Fablehaven and Candy Shop Wars, they don't get to go home at the end.
In Sky Raiders, some kids decide to go to a haunted house. It turns out the scary spot was really a plot to kidnap kids to be slaves in an alternate dimension. Cole is tripped up in a curtain, so he is not taken away. However, he decides to follow his friends into another dimension in an attempt to rescue them. Alas, he is eventually ratted on by a girl and becomes a slave. He we becomes a scout who goes on raiding missions. On one he only comes away with a shawl, which ends up showing its utility later on. In this universe, there are people and "semblences" - people like objects that were created. Some people have "shaping power". Earthlings tend to be especially gifted. Those such as Cole who come willingly are even more gifted, though the gift comes later. Cole shows "altruistic" behavior and eventually helps a "princess" escape and battle a "bad guy" who is a manifestation of her shaping power. They win (in part due to the shawl) and she gets her power back. Now they need to continue on to battle her dad who has taken the power from her and her 4 sisters and allowed slavery in the five kingdoms.

This book has the feel of an installment, rather than a complete story. Our characters have been on their first adventure, but still have much to do before they go home. I found it more difficult to get into Sky Raiders than Candy Shop War. The situations were much more fantastical and more removed from our world. (The world, however, was quite similar - aside from the odd skies and meteorology and magic which included things such as shaping and jumping swords.) This is primarily an action book with enough story to hold things together.

Vivian Apple at the end of the World

The world seems to be coming to an end. Natural and man-made disasters are also spreading in epic proportions. What is a girl supposed to do? Go on a cross country road trip with her best friend and a boy she just met, of course. In doing this, she finds out more about herself and her family and finally meets her aunt and uncle and long-lost sister. Meanwhile, hoodlums reign in the world, doing things in the name of "the church of America". This church was started by Pastor Frick, who had predicted the apocalypse and a rapture event. The disasters bring people to the church, while the disappearance of many people on the rapture date drives the country into a frenzy. Alas, while Frick was genuine and his church "good", he was eventually manipulated by a big business to sell things. Eventually, the church cooperation came to dominate media, consumer goods and most of society. The mobs used the teachings of Frick to justify "elimination" of sinners. The rapture event was even an orchestrated killing at the hands of the business. Frick still believes that he is doing good, but internally, he is feeling the struggle.
I wish the book would have spent more time developing Frick. He was mentioned often, but it was mostly in the context of his teachings. He came across as a cross between a mega-church pastor and Donald Trump. He combined patriotism with fire and brimstone as a way of building up his empire. It is not until the end when we realize that he is the real deal. The empire building is something that has been done around him. The business even goes to the extent of showing him "visions" in the form of videos to manipulate him. When did this manipulation start? How did the company manipulate him?
The book suffers most from stereotypes. Most of the "believers" are portrayed as red-neck bumpkins eager to violently attack the non-conformers. Pittsburgh and the mid-west were overtaken by these vigilantes. Meanwhile, "enlightened" San Francisco has totally rejected Frick's church. This stereotyping is unfortunate, because the believers that we get to know in depth (such as Vivian's parents and friend they meet on the road) are complex characters, who are generally non-judgmental and proceed willingly (albeit with some naivety.) The rapid rise of the Church of America and descent into lawlessness also presses credulity. Would our secular society suddenly adopt a new religion that fast? The deeply religious already have their churches and competition. If a Methodist cannot stomach a Baptist, why would he adopt something totally new. This feels more like a San Franciscan's nightmare than a possible reality.