John Coupland is a Professor of Food Science at Penn State. His research program is on the physical properties of foods, in particular fats and oils. He teaches undergraduate Food Chemistry and graduate level Food Chemistry and Food Physical Chemistry. This is about that.
Ikea as a Predictor of Nobel Prizes
“Correlations tell the researchers the degree of relationship between factors; no more, no less. They prove useful in understanding which factors are related and in generating hypotheses for further experimental testing. Our discussion of a recent report attributing beneficial effects to chocolate consumption shows the peril of over-interpreting correlations. In nutrition research, such erroneous inferences may have dramatic effects, as they may lead to attributing beneficial (or harmful) effects to a wrong cause, hence representing a real danger for health.”
Maurange, P.; Heeren, A.; Pesenti, M. “Does Chocolate Consumption Really Boost Nobel Award Chances? The Peril of Over-Interpreting Correlations in Health Studies”. Journal of Nutrition 2013, doi: 10.3945/jn.113.174813.A
Its easy to laugh at these absurd examples but surprisingly hard to catch yourself when the correlation supports your existing view of the world.
Non-brewed condiment: The punk rock vinegar
Vinegar is made by a secondary bacterial fermentation of ethanol to acetic acid. A range of delicate flavors can be found in vinegars made by the careful fermentation of different sources of alcohol (e.g., beer, wine, cider, sherry). On the other hand if you ask for “vinegar” at a British chip shop you get this.
Legally this isn’t vinegar and the chip shop shouldn’t even imply that it is. It’s “non-brewed condiment” - a solution of industrially produced acetic acid (almost certainly from a fermenter somewhere in China if you’re a stickler for terroir), caramel colorings and salt. It is a completely synthetic food lacking any of the subtlety of a malt, let alone a balsamic, vinegar. And it is completely perfect for its purpose. The harsh acid cuts through the grease of the chips without imposing any other tastes. Non-brewed condiment is to malt vinegar as the Buzzcocks are to Pink Floyd.
The Gentleman’s Relish
Modern manufactured foods are the evolved products of capitalism. The unprofitable are weeded out while the successful brands extend and mutate while striving to reduce cost. Almost every food you see in a supermarket has at least one direct competitor in the same store. If you look closely though, you may come across a solitary “living fossil” of a product still finding a niche. A good example is Gentleman’s Relish.
Gentleman’s Relish is a grey paste consisting mainly anchovies with salt, butter and some herbs made in one small plant in the south of England. It comes in tiny, very expensive plastic jars (42 g for about 3 GBP) and is spread on toast. I like it a lot but perhaps the nicest thing you could say is that it’s not for everyone.
The wonderful thing Gentleman’s Relish and products like it is they shouldn’t exist. The modern process of product development would reject the concept, the business model, the consumer analysis, the branding - everything about it, but still it is sold for profit and is enjoyed. Finding this product in your local supermarket is a bit like finding breaded coelacanth at the fish and chip shop. Learn to recognize and enjoy these unique foods.
“The starting point is a snow-covered mountainside that looks solid”
“Nothing looked more impervious to revolutionary change than Brezhnev’s Soviet Union in 1980, yet just over a decade later it was gone. The hegemony of the Catholic Church in Ireland looked unshakable in 1990, but two decades later it was gone. Lehman Brothers seemed a good option for top graduates in 2007. Just a year later, it too was gone.”
MOOCs, massive open online courses, have the potential to transform higher education. They provide a mechanism to deliver something traditional universities do rather poorly, large lecture sections, and do it probably as well over the internet for free. I’ve speculated previously on the effects of MOOCs on a big university like mine but in their recent report Barber, Donnerly and Rivzi go much further. They argue that a modern university is a set of people (students, administrators, faculty), doing a set of things and generating a set of outputs. They then systematically go through each of these and argue they could be done. Perhaps better, by other institutions, for example:
- “Big” research done by private institutions like Merck or the Institute for Genomic Research.
- Students and faculty members need no longer be physically present in the same place. While on sabbatical I have taught a class and given PhD exams from the other side of the Atlantic.
- Companies specializing in student assessment already exist (e.g., College Board)
- Universities still enjoy a legally protected monopoly on awarding degrees but other institutions (like Pearson, the textbook publisher and employer of the authors of the report) are building a case that they too deserve that privilege.
So what remains? What is it that cannot be replaced is “a fascinating truth about the traditional 20th century university, which is this: above all, it is a place, a collection of buildings.” Building and maintaining buildings is an obsession of university administrators but they are surely a means rather than the end?
Universities had traditionally regarded other universities as their main competitors – if a prospective grad student accepted a place at Ohio State or a star faculty member was poached by Berkley we felt we had somehow lost. What this report shows is many, many other types of organization can now compete for parts of our business and consequently the enterprise of higher education is becoming unbundled. What we recognize a university is open for debate.
“It is in the nature of markets in periods of transformation that successful enterprises find themselves competing not just with traditional rivals in their own market, but with entirely new kinds of competitors – as, for example, early 19th century canal owners found when railways developed, or traditional post offices have found with the advent of email and other forms of instant communication.“
Unbundling is clearly disruptive but needn’t be a bad thing. The report offers paths forward for different types of institution but we must be brave enough to define our own mission; at the moment “the vast majority of universities in the US are, from however distant a baseline, seeking to become Harvard.” For Penn State, our mission is grounded in the land grant tradition and the particular needs of the state of Pennsylvania. Different campuses should be free to tailor their definitions of excellence to local need. We should look for ways to better achieve our mission by combining the things we are and do with external MOOCs and other disruptions.
[Image “A bundle of sticks” uploaded by the Flickr user TamnLu Productions]
Pollan on the Moral Nature of Cooking
I am not a huge fan of Michael Pollan. He says sensible things but mixes in a lot of silliness. In particular I find him too willing to dismiss the advantages of efficiency in a food system and too dismissive of science as a way to evaluate risk and benefit. Having said that, I find this almost-agrarian defense of cooking from his forthcoming book rather wonderful. Although he connects cooking to wider social benefits, his argument is fundamentally a moral one - mindfully performing these actions makes us better people. Forgive the long quotation:
Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: We’re producers of one thing at work, consumers of a great many other things all the rest of the time, and then, once a year or so, we take on the temporary role of citizen and cast a vote. Virtually all our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to the food industry, our health to the medical profession, entertainment to Hollywood and the media, mental health to the therapist or the drug company, caring for nature to the environmentalist, political action to the politician, and on and on it goes. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves — anything, that is, except the work we do “to make a living.” For everything else, we feel like we’ve lost the skills, or that there’s someone who can do it better. (I recently heard about an agency that will dispatch a sympathetic someone to visit your elderly parents if you can’t spare the time to do it yourself.) It seems as though we can no longer imagine anyone but a professional or an institution or a product supplying our daily needs or solving our problems. This learned helplessness is, of course, much to the advantage of the corporations eager to step forward and do all this work for us.
One problem with the division of labor in our complex economy is how it obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility, between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences. Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon. Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.
Perhaps what most commends cooking to me is that it offers a powerful corrective to this way of being in the world — a corrective that is still available to all of us. To butcher a pork shoulder is to be forcibly reminded that this is the shoulder of a large mammal, made up of distinct groups of muscles with a purpose quite apart from feeding me. The work itself gives me a keener interest in the story of the hog: where it came from and how it found its way to my kitchen. In my hands its flesh feels a little less like the product of industry than of nature; indeed, less like a product at all. Likewise, to grow the greens I’m serving with this pork, greens that in late spring seem to grow back almost as fast as I can cut them, is a daily reminder of nature’s abundance, the everyday miracle by which photons of light are turned into delicious things to eat.