Monthly Archives: June 2010

Been away for the redesign

Convincing the editors to use this as the lede image for the redesign was my most visible contribution

Been stuck at the office for the past couple of weeks, but it’s been worth it. Helped with ProPublica’s redesign, which we did in conjunction with Mule Design Studio. Our journalism has always been top notch, but the site didn’t quite look the part. Now it does. As my boss writes, “Our goal is simple: For the design of our site to match the sophistication of our reporting.”

Mermaid Parade 2010, Coney Island

Mermaid Parade 2010, Coney Island, originally uploaded by zokuga.

If I lived equidistant between Coney Island and Central Park, I don’t know if I could decide between the two where to put the towel. I was so impressed with how well kept Coney was that I told to my friend that it had been overly maligned by my friends, but I guess it helps to come after a massive renovation of the area.

A++ would recommend again

Patriotic Mermaids at the Coney Island subway station

Mermaid Parade 2010, Coney Island

Mermaid Parade 2010, Coney Island

Fries and Flavor

For your Friday reading pleasure, a 2001 Atlantic article (adapted from his “Fast Food Nation“) by Eric Schossler on Why McDonald’s Fries Taste So Good:

The taste of a french fry is largely determined by the cooking oil. For decades McDonald’s cooked its french fries in a mixture of about seven percent cottonseed oil and 93 percent beef tallow. The mixture gave the fries their unique flavor — and more saturated beef fat per ounce than a McDonald’s hamburger.

In 1990, amid a barrage of criticism over the amount of cholesterol in its fries, McDonald’s switched to pure vegetable oil. This presented the company with a challenge: how to make fries that subtly taste like beef without cooking them in beef tallow. A look at the ingredients in McDonald’s french fries suggests how the problem was solved. Toward the end of the list is a seemingly innocuous yet oddly mysterious phrase: “natural flavor.” That ingredient helps to explain not only why the fries taste so good but also why most fast food — indeed, most of the food Americans eat today — tastes the way it does.

Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker apparently wrote about the same subject area in 2001, concentrating more on McDonald’s attempts to make healthier versions of its food (remember the McLean? (sub-parenthetical thought: there’s far fewer Googlable articles about the McLean than I thought there would be, given its notoriety))

My favorite part of Schossler’s article is his exploration of the flavor chemical industry, by which one drop of something like methyl-2-pyridyl ketone can make a jelly-bean taste like popcorn.

Some excerpts:

A nose can detect aromas present in quantities of a few parts per trillion — an amount equivalent to about 0.000000000003 percent…The quality that people seek most of all in a food — flavor — is usually present in a quantity too infinitesimal to be measured in traditional culinary terms such as ounces or teaspoons. The chemical that provides the dominant flavor of bell pepper can be tasted in amounts as low as 0.02 parts per billion; one drop is sufficient to add flavor to five average-size swimming pools. The flavor additive usually comes next to last in a processed food’s list of ingredients and often costs less than its packaging. Soft drinks contain a larger proportion of flavor additives than most products. The flavor in a twelve-ounce can of Coke costs about half a cent.

How to make something taste like a strawberry:

A typical artificial strawberry flavor, like the kind found in a Burger King strawberry milk shake, contains the following ingredients: amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amyl ketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone (10 percent solution in alcohol), a-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, g-undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent.

The difference between natural and artificial flavors:

A natural flavor is not necessarily more healthful or purer than an artificial one. When almond flavor — benzaldehyde — is derived from natural sources, such as peach and apricot pits, it contains traces of hydrogen cyanide, a deadly poison. Benzaldehyde derived by mixing oil of clove and amyl acetate does not contain any cyanide. Nevertheless, it is legally considered an artificial flavor and sells at a much lower price. Natural and artificial flavors are now manufactured at the same chemical plants, places that few people would associate with Mother Nature.

Also, there’s a bit about how food-coloring is about as important as flavor to how humans perceive taste:

Food coloring serves many of the same decorative purposes as lipstick, eye shadow, mascara — and is often made from the same pigments. Titanium dioxide, for example, has proved to be an especially versatile mineral. It gives many processed candies, frostings, and icings their bright white color; it is a common ingredient in women’s cosmetics; and it is the pigment used in many white oil paints and house paints. At Burger King, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s coloring agents have been added to many of the soft drinks, salad dressings, cookies, condiments, chicken dishes, and sandwich buns…

Flavor researchers sometimes use colored lights to modify the influence of visual cues during taste tests. During one experiment in the early 1970s people were served an oddly tinted meal of steak and french fries that appeared normal beneath colored lights. Everyone thought the meal tasted fine until the lighting was changed. Once it became apparent that the steak was actually blue and the fries were green, some people became ill.


Grainger had brought a dozen small glass bottles from the lab. After he opened each bottle, I dipped a fragrance-testing filter into it — a long white strip of paper designed to absorb aroma chemicals without producing off notes. Before placing each strip of paper in front of my nose, I closed my eyes. Then I inhaled deeply, and one food after another was conjured from the glass bottles. I smelled fresh cherries, black olives, sautéed onions, and shrimp. Grainger’s most remarkable creation took me by surprise. After closing my eyes, I suddenly smelled a grilled hamburger. The aroma was uncanny, almost miraculous — as if someone in the room were flipping burgers on a hot grill. But when I opened my eyes, I saw just a narrow strip of white paper and a flavorist with a grin.

Speaking of flavor, one of the more interesting angles I got out of the New York Times recent investigation into the food industry’s efforts to combat salt limits is how integral that compound is to making many foods taste good, from cookies to coffee. The industry argues that with less salt, they’d need better ingredients to keep a food’s flavor. Good reading if you have even more time to read about food today:

Even as it was moving from one line of defense to another, the processed food industry’s own dependence on salt deepened, interviews with company scientists show. Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called “warmed-over flavor,” which, the scientists said, can make meat taste like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair.”

…As a demonstration, Kellogg prepared some of its biggest sellers with most of the salt removed. The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.

“I really get the bitter on that,” the company’s spokeswoman, J. Adaire Putnam, said with a wince as she watched Mr. Kepplinger struggle to swallow.

They moved on to Corn Flakes. Without salt the cereal tasted metallic. The Eggo waffles evoked stale straw. The butter flavor in the Keebler Light Buttery Crackers, which have no actual butter, simply disappeared.

Bon Appetit!

Hat-tip to; if you haven’t bookmarked this Instapaper-friendly site, do it. It’s made my gratuitous purchase of an iPad almost worth it.

The Secret of 5 Beekman St. (ScoutingNY)

A foreign friend points me to this very cool blog, ScoutingNY, which is run by a film locations scout who, having the luxury to appreciate the hidden corners of New York, is kind enough to share them with the rest of us. Some great interior photos of 5 Beekman in downtown Manhattan, an abandoned building I’ve passed by many times without noticing, including what ScoutingNY says is “quite possibly the most beautiful atrium in New York City, rising nine stories overhead”

Steve Jobs, adorably wrong, 14 years ago

Great time capsule from, a 1996 Wired interview with Steve Jobs, in which he makes a laughably wrong prediction on the impact of the web and an existential lament, long before his cancer diagnosis:

The Web is going to be very important. Is it going to be a life-changing event for millions of people? No. I mean, maybe. But it’s not an assured Yes at this point. And it’ll probably creep up on people.

It’s certainly not going to be like the first time somebody saw a television. It’s certainly not going to be as profound as when someone in Nebraska first heard a radio broadcast. It’s not going to be that profound.

We live in an information economy, but I don’t believe we live in an information society. People are thinking less than they used to. It’s primarily because of television. People are reading less and they’re certainly thinking less. So, I don’t see most people using the Web to get more information. We’re already in information overload. No matter how much information the Web can dish out, most people get far more information than they can assimilate anyway.

And here, maybe one of the more profound, humble statements from a CEO I’ve read. Puts those keynote addresses in which Jobs hops around the stage with a new gadget in a new light:

The problem is I’m older now, I’m 40 years old, and this stuff doesn’t change the world. It really doesn’t…I’m sorry, it’s true. Having children really changes your view on these things. We’re born, we live for a brief instant, and we die. It’s been happening for a long time. Technology is not changing it much – if at all.

These technologies can make life easier, can let us touch people we might not otherwise. You may have a child with a birth defect and be able to get in touch with other parents and support groups, get medical information, the latest experimental drugs. These things can profoundly influence life. I’m not downplaying that. But it’s a disservice to constantly put things in this radical new light – that it’s going to change everything. Things don’t have to change the world to be important.

The Great Wikileaks-Military Secrets Heist

Wired has posted some of the relevant chat logs between ex-hacker Adrian Lamo and Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old suspect in the Wikileaks-leak case. Reading it makes you a little ill at what passes for top-secret security in the institution that defends our country:

(01:54:42 PM) Manning: i would come in with music on a CD-RW
(01:55:21 PM) Manning: labelled with something like “Lady Gaga”… erase the music… then write a compressed split file
(01:55:46 PM) Manning: no-one suspected a thing
(01:55:48 PM) Manning: =L kind of sad
(01:56:04 PM) Lamo: and odds are, they never will
(01:56:07 PM) Manning: i didnt even have to hide anything
(01:56:36 PM) Lamo: from a professional perspective, i’m curious how the server they were on was insecure
(01:57:19 PM) Manning: you had people working 14 hours a day… every single day… no weekends… no recreation…
(01:57:27 PM) Manning: people stopped caring after 3 weeks

(01:57:44 PM) Lamo: i mean, technically speaking
(01:57:51 PM) Lamo: or was it physical
(01:57:52 PM) Manning: >nod< (01:58:16 PM) Manning: there was no physical security
(01:58:18 PM) Lamo: it was physical access, wasn’t it
(01:58:20 PM) Lamo: hah
(01:58:33 PM) Manning: it was there, but not really
(01:58:51 PM) Manning: 5 digit cipher lock… but you could knock and the door…
(01:58:55 PM) Manning: *on
(01:59:15 PM) Manning: weapons, but everyone has weapons
(02:00:12 PM) Manning: everyone just sat at their workstations… watching music videos / car chases / buildings exploding… and writing more stuff to CD/DVD… the culture fed opportunities

So this is the security blocking secrets so sensitive to our national security and diplomacy? It’s not hard to sympathize with the militia-types who don’t want to even hand over their last names to a welfare agency. What do the low-level domestic grunts watch while “securing” that data, the Lifetime Channel?

Also, an excerpt in which Manning describes what made him turn against his country (hint: something to do with detainee treatment; kind of amazing how that is becoming an endless source of misery for both detainee and detainers):

(02:31:02 PM) Manning: i think the thing that got me the most… that made me rethink the world more than anything
(02:35:46 PM) Manning: was watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police… for printing “anti-Iraqi literature”… the iraqi federal police wouldn’t cooperate with US forces, so i was instructed to investigate the matter, find out who the “bad guys” were, and how significant this was for the FPs… it turned out, they had printed a scholarly critique against PM Maliki… i had an interpreter read it for me… and when i found out that it was a benign political critique titled “Where did the money go?” and following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet… i immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding *MORE* detainees…
(02:36:27 PM) Manning: everything started slipping after that… i saw things differently

Also, Manning divulges details about his preferential treatment by Assange, which would explain Assange’s reported efforts to mount a legal defense of Manning…or at least advise him not to spill anymore of the Wikileaks operational secrets.

Wikileak’s Julian Assange cancels IRE appearance amid manhunt; Did he lie on Twitter?


As it turns out, Assange did not appear at the IRE showcase panel in any form, except as mugshot image on the Daily Beast story on a projector screen. He and Wikileaks did dominate the discussion, with most of the panelists agreeing that Wikileaks was, in theory, a good idea, but not comfortable with the vetting process and agenda of the operation. Valerie Plame said, to the laughter of the reporters in attendance, that sometimes secrecy is good.

With respect to the esteemed members of the panel who did show up (James Risen of the NYT also was a no-show on the advice of his lawyer), I think everyone was a little letdown with Assange’s absence. I don’t think there was any new ground covered in terms of the “risks and rewards” of anonymous sources…but hearing reps. from the traditional media debate Assange over Wikileaks’ motives and methods would’ve been very illuminating.

I misspelled Horvit’s name because I trusted but didn’t verify Daily Beast’s spelling. Also, maybe the tweet was not a flat-out lie. Just a very sly truth. Still, having to second guess what really is the “truth” still undermines Wikileaks’ ideal for transparency. Also, I think that if Assange’s arrest is an inevitability…there would’ve been no better place to get it over with than at a conference full of the most righteous journalists)

Bummer…I can’t be the only one who thought that despite the other luminaries on IRE’s showcase panel on anonymous sources, most of the interest would be the super-secretive Wikileaks founder.

According to the Daily Beast, IRE executive director Mark Horvik Horvit said Assange canceled “within the last several days as a result of unspecificed ‘security concerns.'” The Beast also points out that last week, at a New York panel, Assange only appeared via Skype from Australia, citing his lawyer’s recommendation that he not go back to the U.S.

So did Assange ever intend to show up at IRE? When did IRE know, and if they knew beforehand and were asked about it, were they obliged to tell the truth as soon as they knew it or feign ignorance for Assange (it’s possible this is old news for the other IRE attendees, but I hadn’t heard it until reading it on the Daily Beast)?

Apparently, the Twitter Wikileaks account, on the morning of Assange’s scheduled IRE appearance, tweeted “Super panel tonight in Vegas with Julian Assange, Valerie Plame & Scott Risen | IRE10“. So, if Horvit is to be believed, the wikileaks account is either not connected to Assange at all, or is being used as tool for deliberate misinformation.

I understand Assange’s need to cover his tracks, but it strikes me as very bad precedent for Wikileaks, which purports itself to be the brave dispenser of unfiltered truth, to use its official channel of communication to tell a flat-out lie (on second thought, maybe it’s not a lie. It’s still a “super panel”, and maybe Assange will show up via skype?). Many governments tell lies based on such justifications of self-preservation.

And besides, what’s the point of sullying your reputation, even if only in a tweet? Does he really think the military manhunters would be so easily thrown off the trail, as if their only investigative tools were looking at someone’s twitter account? Oh wait, this is the same military that let a 22-year-old download hundreds of thousands of top-secret files because he bypassed their security measures by lip-syncing to Lady Gaga.

(*piteous cry*)

Wired had an interesting folo today, about suspect Bradley Manning’s crisis of conscience. According to his chat logs with ex-hacker Adrian Lamo, Manning claimed that Assange offered him a position at Wikileaks…which would go against several tweets and statements by Wikileaks and Assange.

But Wired’s lead reporter on this case, felon ex-hacker Kevin Poulsen, should not be trusted, according to Wikileaks. But Wikileaks, as far as we know at this point, is not always telling the (whole) truth in its tweets