Paid Placeholders, Virtual Queues, and Other Ways to Hack a Restaurant Line




Just another day outside of Dominique Ansel Bakery, home of the cronut.






Yep, they’re still lining up for cronuts.
The line is out there every morning snaking down the Soho sidewalk before the 8am bakery opening. It’s not just New York and it’s not just a mania for pastry hybrids. They’re lining up for old school barbecue in Austin, Korean fried chicken in D.C., and the latest ramen bar in Chicago.

The problem is, it’s not just hype and tourists clogging our sidewalks. Restaurants of every stripe are happily embracing the queue. It keeps down the administrative costs of doing business—there’s no salaried reservationist, reservation no-shows, or cut off the top going to a service like OpenTable. Plus a line out front is good for business. It’s like a flesh and blood Yelp review signaling quality and popularity.

You hate waiting in line (and who doesn’t?).
You can stick to restaurants that take reservations, at the risk of missing out on transcendent sushi and the best pizza in town. You can go out before the lines form and force feed yourself a Florida-style 5:30 dinner. You can brave prime time but eat before you go to keep your blood sugar from plummeting before you’re seated. Or you can avail yourself of one of these solutions to the frustrating time suck of restaurant lines.

Pay someone else to wait, so you don’t have to.
CFxlvYdUkAEb_hd13 year-old Desmond (left) is heading back to junior high so his Austin-based business BBQ Fast Pass will be on hiatus til the next school vacation. He spent his summer as a line-sitter for hire in a folding chair outside of Franklin Barbecue, a local legend known for its succulent brisket and 5 hour waits. Taskrabbit, in Austin and more than a dozen other cities, connects you with locals that you can contract with to do your waiting for a negotiable fee. Rent a Friend claims to have more than 530,000 registered service providers worldwide. The company specializes in fake wedding dates and other stand-ins, but line waiting is among the service options. Los Angeles’ Line Angels enables ‘influencers, doers, and go-getters to make the most of their time’. New York City has the similarly pitched Same Old Line Dudes with two fee schedules—one for cronuts and one for all other lines.

Take a virtual number.
According to QLess (company motto: Queue less. Live more) we spend two years of our lives waiting in lines. The mobile wait management system is making a dent in all that lost time. It allows you to take your place in line, online, merging your spot with the in-person waiting list at the hostess stand. While others are cooling their heels at the restaurant, you’re going about your business while QLess gives real time estimates and alerts. If your table is ready before you are, just give someone a virtual ‘cut.’ A running tab on the website tallies the total time savings restored to QLess users; at last check it was 1,185 years, 304 days, 18 hours, 9 minutes.

Go off-peak.
Google recently added a new feature to its search bar. Tap on the restaurant’s name in the search result and the tool displays its busiest times.

fdfdb007a5ab3d6c2c71f065a250b126Get it to go.
Hangry was just added to the Oxford Dictionary, a clear sign that waiting for a table is incompatible with contemporary culture where gratification is supposed to be just a few keystrokes away. Impatience and tech savvy join forces in the many ordering, takeout, delivery, and payment apps that let you breeze by all the analog suckers standing in line. Users appreciate the streamlined process, and the restaurants like them too. According to a MasterCard survey, customers will spend as much as 30% more when they order dinner using a cash-free mobile app. It’s a crowded field with hundreds of apps vying for different market segments. There’s Tapingo, a campus food app for college studentsthe no-smartphone-required, all-text Zinglethe coast-to-coast 600-city coverage of Seamless; and Caviar, with its stable of Michelin-starred restaurant partners.

Is it worth the wait?
Yahoo Travel
lists the top ten longest restaurant lines around the country. Huffington Post shares 19 Cult Food Destinations Worth Enduring An Insanely Long Wait In Line.


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Virtual Reality? How About Virtual Lasagne?

Virtual Reality can create a world without calories or food intolerances. 
Diabetics can eat donuts, dieters can indulge in fried chicken, Jews can eat bacon, and every child can have peanut butter—and it’s all sugarless, low calorie, kosher, and allergen-free.

Virtual Reality is not pie in the sky. 
VR devices are already a reality with Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, and Samsung Gear VR headsets, and major tech players are gearing up with strategic partnerships and billion dollar acquisitions. While food scientists work out the fine points of virtual taste and texture, developers are bringing VR food applications to market.

The Russian Tea Room via YouVisit

The Russian Tea Room via YouVisit Restaurants


YouVisit Restaurants offers VR tours of an impressive list of New York City restaurants. It’s more 3-D tour than fully immersive experience, but the application is free and they’ve signed up hundreds of restaurants including iconic locations like The Russian Tea Room, Tavern on the Green, Delmonico’s, and Le Cirque.




CyberCook Taster calls itself “the next evolutionary step in cooking media.” It’s designed to “tackle the disconnect” between what we read and watch and what we actually cook. The app combines a hyper-realistic kitchen simulation with hands-on, interactive elements.

laboratory pie, Project Nourished

laboratory pie, Project Nourished


virtual reality pie, Project Nourished



Virtual Reality meets molecular gastronomy at Project Nourished, developed by the West Coast think tank Kokiri LabThe project utilizes sensory inputs through a VR headset, external food detection and motion sensors, and aromatic diffusers. The physical food is crafted mostly from algae, seaweed, fruits, vegetables, and seeds bulked up with hydrocolloid polymers and gums, while the simulated dining experience transforms the substances into a savory and sumptuous meal. The plate says ‘vegan, lo-cal, gluten-free’ while the brain is duped into perceiving steak and cheesecake.

Tastes are relatively easy to recreate. Textures are much trickier. The lab-created meals are essentially jello-like substances enhanced with salt, sweeteners, and flavor compounds. Early simulations have focused on foods like steak, lasagna, and fruit pies—all foods with large, regular surfaces and simple geometry—that are easiest to mimic and work well with the sensors.

the digital interface of taste over internet protocol

Taste I/P: the digital interface of taste over internet protocol


The ‘Taste I/P’ approach to Virtual Reality removes physical food from the equation. 
It borrows from the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) methodology that’s used for the delivery of voice communications over IP networks. Instead of voice messages, Taste Over I/P formulates XML-based taste messages that can travel within existing communications frameworks.

It’s earned the nickname ‘the digital lollipop’ because the transmitter communicates with tiny electrodes that are placed on the tongue. The electrodes receive electrical currents that stimulate the tongue’s heat, sensation, and taste receptors tricking the brain into perceiving flavors. The technology could make it possible to send a taste of cake with a Facebook birthday greeting, or for a television chef to share real time tastes with a viewing audience.

Virtual Reality has a long way to go before it’s the truly immersive, ultra-sensory media experience demanded by food applications.
But the early signs point to its enormous potential, both culinary and clinical, and these early glimpses whet the appetite.

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Chef Watson: The Supercomputer that Cooks


Watson promotional images via Thornberg and Forester


A head of lettuce, a can of beans, a single potato, and a few stray onions—it looks like mighty slim pickings to you, but factor in a half a dozen pantry staples and Chef Watson can come up with 3,628,800 menu suggestions.

You might remember Watson from TV’s Jeopardy!
In 2011, IBM’s supercomputer made headlines when it trounced the game show’s most formidable human contestants in a million dollar tournament. The current Watson is smaller, faster, and smarter by a factor of 24. Its natural language processing and computational creativity benefit a wide range of industries, running financial markets, improving retail shopping experiences, and diagnosing cancers in hospital oncology centers. And now Watson is coming out with a cookbook.

It’s much more than a gimmick.
The scientists at IBM Research worked with chefs from New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. They created preparations and combinations that the world has never seen, but that still steer clear of wacky. Most recipes are twists and fusions that borrow from a global kitchen of ingredients and techniques like Portuguese Lobster Rolls, Peruvian Chile-Potato Poutine, Creole Shrimp and Lamb Dumplings, Indonesian Rice Chili con Carne, and Vietnamese Pork and Apple Kebabs.

Could the talented chefs at the ICE have come up with these dishes on their own? Perhaps, given enough time for research and experimentation. But human creativity is defined by the limits of personal experience and biases, known and conventional food associations, and the brain’s finite bandwidth. By contrast, Watson is able to instantly sift through vast amounts of culinary data while simultaneously evaluating the potential of an infinite number of ingredients and combinations in a process known as cognitive computing.

Watson was fed an encyclopedic data diet of recipes, food chemistry, molecular compounds, chemoinformatic flavor profiles, hedonic psychophysical taste models, behavioral psychology, cultural preferences, and nutrition. The ICE chefs originated the creation of each recipe by prompting the system and steering it through its algorithms and analytics. They then sifted through thousands of outputs looking for dishes that were appealing, workable in a home kitchen, and contained an element of surprise through new and unique flavor combinations. And finally, the chefs did something that a computer can only simulate—they tasted their creations.

Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education will be released on April 14 and can currently be pre-ordered on Amazon.

You can participate in the Watson project by applying to beta test the Chef Watson app that IBM is developing in conjunction with Bon Appétit.


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Top Food Inventions of 2014

It wasn’t just cronut-inspired pastry hybrids.
2014 brought the doughssant, the doughscuit, and the crookie. You could even call the Taco Bell waffle taco a direct descendent of the trendy pastry mashups. But it’s good to know that the year’s food innovations didn’t stop there. Many addressed the pressing problems of climate change, world hunger, public health, and animal welfare.

Whether you’re a Luddite, a technophile, or something in between, here are some of the  year’s coolest, useful, and tastiest developments that came out of the overlapping spheres of food and technology.



A banana that prevents blindness
Young children in Sub-Saharan Africa eat a lot of bananas. They also go blind at a frightening rate—30% of kids under age 5 are at risk—due to the lack of vitamin A in their diets. Scientists have engineered a souped-up banana, enriched with alpha and beta-carotene which the body converts to Vitamin A. It could prevent 1 million cases of blindness a year.



Electronic tongue
Researchers have developed a device that can scan food for additives, impurities, and even taste. It works like a human tongue with sensors that detect substances and send signals to a computer for analysis, much like the way taste buds transmit flavor messages to the brain. Ultimately it will be used to detect toxins and bacterial contamination at food inspection and processing sites. It’s already in use in Thailand where restaurants earn a Thai Delicious designation when the e-tongue verifies the tastiness of their ingredients.


Levitating cocktails
A British inventor has come up with a levitron that lets you sip a Bloody Mary out of thin air. Soundwaves lift cocktail droplets out of a glass and suspend them in space. He’s hoping to have a floating rainbow of jelly beans by Easter.


 la-dd-eco-friendly-froyo-edible-packaging-20140312Edible wrappers
WikiFood (the company), is making WikiPearls (the product), out of WikiCells (the material). These are all-natural, water-tight, edible shells made from things like dried fruit, coconut, and seaweed. WikiFood casings reduce packaging waste; they provide a protect barrier against contaminants and temperature swings; and they can be enhanced for improved nutrition. They’re a natural for humanitarian food aid, but you can also buy them at Whole Foods filled with Stonyfield yogurt.


article-2530195-1A29DF9E00000578-358_634x4243D Printed Food
The futuristic fantasy became a reality in 2014. The Foodini is a home printer that produces pasta and burgers to cook at home, and The ChefJet prints desserts in sugar and chocolate. 3DPrintingIndustry explores the outer limits of printed edibles, like foods that can double as biomedical sensors or electrify your insides with conductive jello. Recipes and other matters of modern gastronomy are discussed at 3Digital Cooks.

The innovations will keep coming.
Food startups are attracting significant venture capital as we look for solutions to society’s ills and explore viable, sustainable alternatives to our current model of industrialized food production. Insect-based foods, customized nutrition, laboratory-grown meat analogs—these are some of the developments we’ll be seeing in 2015 and beyond.

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Plenty of Giga-Bites at Supper Clubs for Tech Luminaries


secret handshake (members only)  via Pragmatic Obots Unite

secret handshake (members only) via Pragmatic Obots Unite


The tech elite meet to eat at power supper clubs.
Last week’s inaugural gathering of the Silicon Alley Supper Club drew tech influencers from the New York offices of Google, CNN, Studio Industries, Facebook, Buzzfeed, Mashable,, It’s On Me, Krux, Food + Tech Connect, Tech Cocktail, ThriveMenu, and Blue Apron. It joins the ecommerce-oriented CEO Supper Club and the ultra-exclusive outings held by the west coast’s Silicon Valley Supper Club.

They’re the latest in a long line of exclusive and often secret societies favored by each era’s masters of the universe.
From Freemasons and Opus Dei to college fraternities and the TED conferences, like-minded individuals of similar calibre have always gathered for social discourse, mentorship, philanthropy, or to conduct their business in darkened back rooms and exert a mysterious influence on our culture. In the case of the tech leaders’ supper clubs, they also gather to eat.

Think Skull and Bones without the ivy, or Bilderberg without the conspiracy theories.
These are tech events without an online presence. There are no Facebook pages for these clubs. You can’t make your reservations through Open Table and you won’t find mentions in the attendees’ Twitter feeds. Most hush-hush of the new-school supper clubs is the Silicon Valley group. It’s a who’s who of Palo Alto’s power elite where Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Apple SVP Jony Ive, PayPal cofounder Max Levchin, LinkedIn chairman Reid Hoffman, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, and SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg have all been seated around a single table. These should be headline-making assemblages, and they’ve been holding them about once a month for years, yet there’s no social media trail.

The new supper clubs are unique among secret societies in their singular devotion to good eating.
There’s synergy and symmetry between food and technology. They’re the twin cultural pillars of the New York and Bay Area communities where so many startups are incubate. They’re the twin preoccupations of today’s diverse and well-educated workforce, and the signature perk of employment in the tech sector.
Even Alice Waters tweets.

The supper clubs have convened in venues both posh and homey.
Food met technology at The Silicon Alley kickoff where Los Angeles and New York chefs collaborated on a dumpling and crudo event held in the offices of
  The Daily Meal, and the Silicon Valley group has gathered in a parking lot filled with food trucks, had drinks in the dugout and dinner in the locker room of AT&T Park, and trekked up to Wine Country for a blowout dinner at The French Laundry. 

You can grumble about the elitism of the supper clubs, or envy their privileged access to prized tables and chefs, but these are our leaders, visionaries, and innovators. They should be eating well. 




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Dining on Mars: The Reviews are In


A NASA crew of simulated Mars-dwellers returned to Earth last week and they were pretty sick of the food.

This was the second of four planned HI-SEAS missions, an acronym for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. The space agency sent six volunteers to live for four months inside a mock Mars base camp atop the Mauna Loa volcano. It’s an isolated location at an elevation of approximately 8,200 feet above sea level with a Mars-like terrain, less the 3.711 m/s² gravity. The crew spent 120 days inside the 1,000 square foot geodesic dome exiting once each week in simulated spacesuits.

The missions are designed by NASA’s Human Research Program seeking insight into the quality of life issues that will keep astronauts happy and healthy on extended missions in space. Not surprisingly, food is a primary focus of the simulations.

Some surprising ingredients fill the HI-SEAS pantry.
To make the cut, foods need to be compact, shelf-stable, and require minimal water in preparation. Of course there was Tang and the expected space-food pouches of freeze-dried processed meals, but the crew also brought along things like pepperoni, crystallized ginger, dried shitake mushrooms, miso paste, polenta, truffle oil, and anchovies, all in the same form you’d find in an earth-bound kitchen.

Textured vegetable protein loaf again?
The HI-SEAS crews have learned a lot about menu fatigue. Eggs and cheese come in crystal or powdered form, and fruits and vegetables are sliced, diced, and freeze-dried. Most of their protein comes from meat analogs created out of soy, gluten, and multi-purpose textured vegetable protein, with names like chickenish and baconish.

The crews of both missions had a nearly universally complaint: textural monotony.
There are no chips to dip or carrot sticks to munch on, no juicy burgers or spare ribs to gnaw. Frying is forbidden and crumbs are discouraged in the dome where equipment and instruments can become filmed with grease or clogged with debris. Combined with all the preserved and processed ingredients, it adds up to 4 months with no crispy, crunchy, crackly, crustiness.

Food bloggers in space
The crew members of HI-SEAS2 share recipes, food pics, kitchen tours, and more on the website.
The next simulated mission, HI-SEAS3, takes off in October and will run for eight months.

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Skincare Company Launches First-Ever Drinkable Sunscreen


image via It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

image via It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Just in time for summer, Colorado-based Osmosis Skin Care is promoting its drinkable sunscreen.
Take a few swigs of its UV Neutralizer Harmonized Water and in an hour your skin will radiate sun-blocking waves that neutralize 97% of the sun’s UV rays, or so goes the company’s claim.
Is it too good to be true?



Well I’m no doctor, but…
The ingredients are listed as distilled water and the company’s proprietary blend of ‘multiple vibrational frequencies.’ According to Osmosis Skin Care, they’ve identified the precise vibrational frequencies—basically radio waves—that neutralize ultraviolet radiation. They infuse hundreds of thousands of vibrations into distilled water, and then they bottle it up. When you drink the solution, the vibrations are shared with the body’s own fluids at a cellular level and then the vibrations are emitted through your skin where they repel sunlight. Got that?

Each 2 milliliter dose lasts for 4 hours before you have to chug some more, and a 100-ml bottle of UV Neutralizer Harmonized Water retails for $30. Since it’s marketed as a cosmetic, the FDA hasn’t reviewed the product, although some of the other products in the Osmosis line have received approval in Kenya.

Harmonized waters might be hard to swallow, but you can eat your way to sun protection.
There’s no shortage of legitimate, peer-reviewed clinical studies documenting the skin-protecting qualities of a carotenoid-rich diet. Carotenoids are members of a family of nutrients that contribute sun blocking pigments to plants and animals. When carotenoids are in the foods we eat, the pigments are deposited in our skin where they prevent sunburn and the kind of oxidative stress that leads to skin cancer. It’s a measurable level that a dietician can assess with a laser scan of your skin.

Carotenoids are why frogs are green and flamingos are pink. They put the yellow in egg yolks and turn a cooked lobster red. Dark chocolate and green tea are good sources of dietary carotenoids, as are most deeply colored fruits and vegetables like squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, apricots, and dark green leafy greens, and the colorful flesh of salmon and trout.

A thorough explanation of dietary carotenoids along with the carotenoid content of dozens of foods can be found at the online at the Micronutrient Information Center at the Linus Pauling Institute of Oregon State University.

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We Hear the Crisp and Taste the Crunch


image via the Loud Food Club

image via the Loud Food Club


Sometimes we eat with our ears.
So say the food scientists. They contend that crispy and crunchy are two different sensations. One we sense with our mouths and the other with our ears.

Naturally, they looked to the ultimate crispy and crunchy food: the potato chip.
It’s just potato, hot fat, and salt, but together they make sensory magic. When we eat potato chips we hear the crunch, but we’re really sensing it in our mouths. When it comes to their crispness, even though it’s bound up with the crunch, we’re assessing it with our ears.

Pringles. The favorite chip of the scientific community.
Researchers love the unnatural uniformity of Pringles with their low level variances. It’s what made them an ideal test material for a team of Oxford University scientists who designed a chip mastication study to confirm the link between sound sensation and taste perception. Chip-eating test subjects were outfitted with microphones and headphones to capture and deliver the sounds. When the sound level was amplified, the potato chips were perceived as both crisper and fresher. Fresh or stale, crunchy or soggy, the subjects happily chomped away, as long as the auditory cues continued to suggest freshness.

In the first study the test subjects enjoyed stale chips that sounded fresh; in a second study they rejected fresh chips when they didn’t hear the crispness. This time the Oxford chip-eaters ate Pringles while wearing sound-blocking headphones. Without an auditory cue they quickly lost interest in the Pringles no matter how fresh and crunchy they tasted.

Crunching the numbers.
Potato chips are a $6 billion business in the U.S. That big chip business means that serious research dollars flow to the community of food scientists in the quest for the perfect crunch. Engineers employ signal analyzers to measure the sound frequencies of airborne crunches (the chew you can hear from across the room) and artificial mouths(?!) to gauge the mechanics of something they call oral residence—the combination of teeth time and tongue compressions. They regulate chewing with metronomes to perform frequency-time studies of mastication, and study chip eating among different ethnic groups to determine if there is a genetic or cultural component to the range of crispy/crunchy sensory perceptions.

It’s all about that first chip out of the bag.
Pristinely crisp with a crunch that is unsullied by time or ambient humidity, it’s clearly both a gustatory and an auditory pleasure. With all the chip analysis and quantification of sensory inputs, we can only hope that the snack industry can crack the code, and someday every potato chip will be as satisfying as the first one out of the bag.

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Could This Be The World’s Most Perfect Coffee Mug?








Scientists call it the Goldilocks Principle.
It comes from the children’s story The Three Bears in which a little girl named Goldilocks finds a house owned by a family of bears. Each bear has its own porridge bowl, chair, and bed. Goldilocks tests out all three examples of the items, always finding that one of them is too extreme in one direction (too hot, too large) or the other (too cold, too small), and the one in the middle is just right.

In science, the Goldilocks Principle states that something must fall within certain margins, as opposed to reaching extremes. Astronomists call Earth a Goldilocks planet because it’s not too near or too far away from the sun, but it’s just right to support life. In medicine the Goldilocks Principle defines the ideal dosage of a drug—too small and it’s ineffective; too large and side effects will harm the patient. And now a chemical engineer and an industrial designer have applied the Goldilocks Principle to coffee cup technology. They’ve created what could be the world’s most perfect travel mug.

The Temperperfect mug makes use of a phase changing material sandwiched between thermal walls. It alternates between a liquid and a solid as it absorbs, stores, and dissipates heat. Dean Verhoeven, one of the mug’s inventors who spent the last 15 years making, testing, and improving prototypes, describes its groundbreaking temperature regulating mechanism:

This project was born of my frustration with not being able to drink my carefully-brewed, but too hot, coffee right after I made it, and it then getting cold before I had time to enjoy it. I wanted it just right.
I thought about this problem and had an inspiration: why not take the excess heat out of the too-hot coffee, store it in the wall of the mug, and then use it later to keep the coffee at a pleasant drinking temperature? I realized that this could be done simply by adding an extra layer of what I call active (“Temperfect”) insulation to a standard mug. This extra insulation layer absorbs the excess heat from your drink, and brings it quickly to a comfortable temperature. Later, it slowly releases that heat back into your drink to keep its temperature just right.

It seems that the world has in fact been waiting for hot—but not too hot—coffee.
The creators found an enthusiastic audience when they turned to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. They were hoping to raise $23,500 to cover the cost of the production tooling that’s need to manufacture the mugs. Instead, that amount was pledged 10 times over by more than 4,000 backers and it’s allowed them to move straight from tooling to production.

The first Temperperfect mugs are planned to ship next summer. The company’s website can hook you up with a pre-order.

Temperperfect: a prototype

Temperperfect: a prototype




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What Is a Calorie and Why Should We Be Skeptical?


It’s a household word but still a mystery to many.
Ask ten people what a calorie is and at least nine will tell you ‘It’s the stuff in food that makes me fat.’ Calories are one of the most commonly counted things on the planet, but how many people know what they’re really counting?


calorieThe calorie is a unit of heat energy.
It was originally developed as a way to measure the efficiency of fuel burned in steam engines. When scientists turned their attention to humans, they borrowed the concept of the calorie as a way to quantify food as fuel for the human engine. In theory, the amount of heat that can be provided by any particular bit of food is the same whether it’s burned in a steam engine or a human body. More edible calories mean more energy for work, like coal in a human stove.

To measure the energy in various foods, early 20th century nutritionists burned small amounts of each inside a bomb calorimeter—a lab tool that surrounds a food-filled capsule with water. They assigned caloric values by calculating the different amounts of heat given off by different foods—one calorie for each one degree increase in the temperature of the surrounding water. These calculations are what we still use today; the calorie count on a box of Honey Nut Cheerios is calculated in 100 year-old Atwater units.

A calorie is a calorie is a calorie? 
Scientists are just now teasing out the nuances of the calorie. Advances in understanding were presented at this year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and it’s clear that all calories are not created equal.

451343 (1)Raw and unprocessed foods have fewer calories than we thought; or at least fewer than we are able to digest. The more a food is handled the more calories it gives up in digestion, and it can mean a swing of 30 or 40%. Most foods keep the calories contained inside their cell walls, so you have to do something to rupture the walls. The chopping, mixing, and heating of cooking might be enough to crack open the cells for some foods, but if you really want all the calories, you just need to eat factory-processed foods.

We’re also learning more about the body’s mechanism during digestion. Digestive tracts and their microbes are determined by genetics and cultural factors so you see big variations, like people of Russian descent with five more feet of intestines than the rest of us, and Japanese citizens with marine bacterium in their gut that help digest sushi. The old Atwater bomb calorimeter can’t even come close to figuring calories for these populations.

We understand enough to know that traditional calorie counts don’t apply to every food and every body. 
Ironically, this understanding comes just as the federal government is getting ready to launch a nationwide requirement for posted calorie counts in restaurants. The labeling, based on out-dated Atwater units, might not be accurate, but for now it’s the best method we have for quantifying calorie values, and one worth paying attention to as a defense against obesity.

In 2013, these were the most-searched calorie terms on Google:

  1. Egg
  2. Banana
  3. Beer
  4. Oatmeal
  5. Sugar
  6. Sushi
  7. Wine
  8. Popcorn
  9. Coffee
  10. Avocado


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Soylent: When Silicon Valley Dreams of Food



Soylent, a high-tech food alternative, has been grabbing headlines and investors.  
The meal substitute has the wind at its back with millions raised through crowdfunding, pre-orders, and the backing of prominent venture capital firms. Many in Silicon Valley think that Soylent could be a real game-changer.

Soylent is an engineer’s approach to food. 
It’s an odorless, neutrally-flavored sludgy mix of nutrients in a base of oat starch. It’s gluten free, vegan, and halal. It’s appropriate for sufferers of food allergies, acid reflux, or digestive disorders, and can be used to control weight or cholesterol. Soylent is essentially an efficient, inexpensive, clean-burning fuel. Its taste, to put it kindly, can be characterized as pretty much like you’d expect.

This is food by and for the tech crowd.
The concept took shape in Y Combinator, the preeminent bootcamp for digital entrepreneurs, and the story of Soylent’s development is peppered with techspeak about optimizations, inputs, and beta-testing (what regular eaters call nutrition, ingredients, and tasting). Its creator refers to meal replacement as a default diet, while regular dining is called recreational eating.

Soylent was influenced by the kind of sci-fi futurism that’s so beloved by engineers and technologists. 
The film and literary genre often depicts a bleak, dystopic future whose inhabitants subsist on lab creations like the vats of goopy gruel in the Matrix series or the blue milk of the Star Wars trilogy. Even the name Soylent comes from the novel behind the 1973 sci-fi classic Soylent Green in which Charlton Heston’s character discovers the unthinkable secret behind the edible solution to the twin problems of overpopulation and an insufficient food supply (It culminates in one of filmdom’s most memorable lines, captured in this YouTube clip).

Could this really be food’s future?
Soylent is regularly showing up on lists of the top food trends for 2014. It’s seen as the perfect food for the stereotypical, heads-down coder who subsists on takeout pizza and data packets. It’s also expected to appeal to people who think that home cooked meals are not worth the hassle of shopping, cooking, and cleaning up afterwards.  
The investors are betting that even outside of Silicon Valley, that adds up to a sizable population.



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Name That Smell


via WikiHow


It’s hard to believe that it took this long.
The scientific community has finally developed a system for describing and classifying smells.

Think about taste: there are countless variations but just five basic categories (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami) that can be detected by the taste receptors on the tongue. Touch is categorized as heat and cold, pressure and pain. Sight and sound are easy because we’re perceiving the light and sound waves, which are measurable physical phenomena.
For too long, scents were divvied up into good smells and stinky ones.

Smells are tricky.
There are more than 100,000 smells floating around the globe, but most of us can perceive just a few hundred. They’re processed in the limbic region, the emotional center of the brain, where the sensory data gets all tangled up in memories, especially those of childhood. That’s why a whiff of roasting turkey can flood you with warm and fuzzy memories of family Thanksgivings, or a fragrant bouquet of flowers will have you thinking of your beloved grandmother, even if you never knew that her hand cream was lily-scented. But you could also be allergic to poultry, or those same lilies could have perfumed the air of a friend’s funeral, and to you the odors are detestable. This subjectivity, in the absence of empirical measures, has forever stymied scientists.

Until now. A group of researchers has finally come up with a statistical approach that allows them to systematically measure various dimensions of a smell in a way that allows it to be characterized and grouped. The newly published study, using a methodology known as non-negative matrix factorization, claims that the vast world of smells is actually very tightly structured, and that every smell in the universe can be assigned to one of 10 basic categories: woody/resinous, fruity (non-citrus), chemical, minty, sweet, popcorn, fragrant, citrus, pungent, and decayed.

Before you start arguing the inadequacy of the 10 categories (and doesn’t naming one of them ‘fragrant’ sound like a copout?) remember that they’re classifying a single, discrete scent. A smell can be sensed by just a handful of molecules reaching your nose, and an object can have hundreds or even thousands of different volatile compounds all throwing off their own molecules. A wine enthusiast might swirl a single glass and detect notes of canned asparagus, burnt toast, mango, and pickle brine. A complex odor like wet dog or new baby might even combine elements of all 10 scent categories.

Smell and taste are the sister senses, basically playing off of the same molecules.
While we don’t know where this research will lead, it’s considered a major breakthrough, and one that’s got the food world buzzing.

Fun olfactory fact: Most of what you smell is coming through the left nostril. The reason you never noticed this is because 80% of noses are not in the middle of the face but pitched slightly to the right, so it seems like the smell is coming right up the middle.


Posted in food knowledge, Science/Technology | 2 Comments

7 Geeky Gadgets Where Pizza Meets Technology


It’s a well-known fact: computer geeks love pizza.
In the technology business it’s said that if you need more productivity from your software development staff, you just hand out free t shirts and buy them pizza.
Why pizza? Because it’s delivered at all hours. Because it can be eaten with one hand while the other’s on the keyboard. And because it allows developers to make nerdy puns about pi and pie.

When pizza meets technology.
This is what happens when twin passions collide:


Dip Hop lets you play pizza toppings like a keyboard. It uses the very cool Makey Makey invention kit to convince your computer that the toppings are piano keys. The pizza sauces conduct a tiny bit of electricity; dip a slice into the sauce and you make a connection—and music. 

Domino’s, well-known for its commitment to speedy delivery, is testing a pizza delivery helicopter drone it calls the Domicopter.  The lightweight aircraft is eco-friendly, never gets stuck in traffic, and there’s no driver to tip.



Pizza Compass is just what it sounds like.
The app’s pizza slice is a directional pointer to nearby pizzerias. It  provides maps, opening hours, and links to reviews.



pizzamagnetLots of pizzerias hand out refrigerator magnets, but only Red Tomato’s is bluetooth-enabled. It’s preset for your favorite pizza; just press the pie to place an order. Alas, you need to be within delivery range, and Red Tomato is located in Dubai.



Pizza Hut passed on the refrigerator magnets and made an app for the XBox game consoleYou can place your order with the game controller, voice input, or Kinect gestures. After all, who’s really standing around the refrigerator until after the pizza arrives and they’re grabbing a soda?



dominostrackerDomino’s piloted a webcam program that lets you see your pizza as it’s being made. They haven’t rolled it out in all the locations, but you can still monitor your pizza’s virtual progress with the Pizza Tracker app.


NASA is making plans for the first pizza dinner in space with the construction of a 3D food printer for the International Space Station. ‘Ink’ nozzles print layers of liquid pizza dough, tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings, and the whole thing bakes on the printer’s heated surface. Until Domino’s and Pizza Hut can colonize space, it’ll have to do.

Posted in diversions, fast food, gadgets, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

The Slow Web. Why Stop at Slow Food?


Greywell Road image via Sebastian Ballard

Greywell Road image via Sebastian Ballard


The Slow Food Movement taught us to reject the creep of fast food and industrial food production so that we can rediscover and reclaim the pleasures of traditional food and cooking.
The Slow Web Movement aims to do the same for the internet.

The Slow Web isn’t a longing for dial-up.
Don’t let the name fool you; nobody wants to slow down your internet connection or take away your smartphone. The movement wants to keep the speed and efficiency of technological gains but find the human rhythm within it that allows for authentic personal connections and deeper engagement with content.

Just as fast food fills us with empty calories, the Fast Web is feeding us the fat, carbs, and sugar of the internet.
It serves up clickable lists and slideshows, infographics and timelines that target our basest appetites for gossip, scandal, eye candy, and stupid pet tricks. It’s short and sweet and goes down easily but is hardly a full meal.

The Fast Web also fuels its own feeding frenzy.
Think of how a communication exchange used to work. Information was provided in something like real time by the media or shared by someone in your circle. Maybe the interaction allowed for some give-and-take—questions, clarification, and the like—but your response could usually be held until you were ready to release it. You would exit real time for an hour or a day or a week when you could reflect and reconsider before formulating a response and committing it to a letter, a conversation, a phone call, or an email.

The Fast Web shrinks the feedback loop down to a nanosecond.
Online responses follow hot on the heels of real time, and if you don’t keep up you’re out of the loop. There’s no time to ponder but who needs to when communication is reduced to smiley faces, LOLs and WTFs? Have a question? That’s what FAQs are for. Craving more interaction? Then click it, pin it, like it, tweet it, or share it.

The How Much Information? project from the Global Information Industry Center found that in 2009 we typically confronted around 100,000 words on screens and 34 gigabytes of information every day. While it’s the most recent study of its kind, it comes from a era when we still thought ‘apps’ meant cheese and crackers and the world had yet to discover Instagram, Pinterest, and the iPad; no doubt our consumption is even greater today.The abbreviated feedback loop of automated algorithms and canned responses is all we have to keep us from drowning in a sea of data.

The Slow Web Movement is concerned with the ways that this erodes our attention spans and devalues our online interactions. We consume vast quantities of information but do so in an endless stream of insubstantial snippets. It all lacks depth and heft, context and analysis. We can’t possibly devote the time to ponder and noodle; to put something down and return to it later with fresh eyes and insights. All of the clips and snippets and soundbites will always be information and never become knowledge.

The founding Manifesto of the Slow Food Movement was written as a call to “defend ourselves against the universal madness of ‘the fast life’… against those who confuse efficiency with frenzy...” It calls ‘the fast life’ a virus that “fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes.” Substitute Facebook for a McDonald’s hamburger and it’s clear that cyberculture  is infected with the same virus. It’s also easy to see why the Slow Web Movement has latched onto food as their model: just as with food, we need to restore communication and human interaction to their former positions as cornerstones of pleasure, culture, and community.

The movement is young, but there’s a groundswell of support.
The Slow Web Movement is explained more fully in the classic TED Talk In Praise of Slowness; it was a featured topic at this year’s SXSW Interactive Festival; and even one of the Fast Web’s big winners, Arianna Huffington, has been stumping for the movement, advocating for a slower, more substantive news cycle.

Does this whet your appetite for more than the junk food diet of internet memes and viral videos?
You can get a taste of the Slow Web by downloading the Instapaper app and installing a read-it-later bookmark, and then loading it up with articles from Longreads, a collection of the best longform writing from current issues of publications like The New Yorker, GQ, The New York Times, Gawker, The Believer, Vanity Fair, and anything else that catches the editor’s eye.


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Tech Support from the Kitchen


Rocket scientist apron via Zazzle

Rocket scientist apron via Zazzle


When it comes to tech support, nothing tops the kitchen.
It’s a treasure trove of fix-it potential. There’s wood and metal, plastic and glass; things that cool and things that heat; hard surfaces and soft; sticky and smooth.
Forget about help lines and warranties, everything you need to keep your gadgets running smoothly is right there.



Boost your home Wi-Fi
Most home routers project the signal in a circle. But most routers sit near the wall where the connection comes in to your home. That means that half of its signal is drifting outside through the wall. A couple of cookie sheets or a semi-circle of foil will redirect the signal back into your house.

Keep your phone charged.
Did you forget your cell phone charger again?
Put the phone in a cold place—the freezer compartment of the minibar fridge in your hotel room, or just a nice cold windowsill in wintertime. The cold will slow down the chemical processes inside the phone’s battery and extend the life of the charge

New life for old iPods
Early generations of iPods were plagued by temperamental hard drives that would lose their alignment. We’d constantly power up and power down, give them a shake or a gentle smack. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. There are newer, more reliable models, but if you’re still plugging your earbuds into vintage Apple, you can try to bring it back to life with a night in the freezer. The hard drive contracts from the cold, and more often than not it reseats itself properly as it thaws. fix scratchy disks (better than the method you use now)
CD and DVD lasers read data from a metal disk protected by a thin layer of plastic. When that top layer is scratched, a lot of people reach for an abrasive cleaner that makes the scratches shallower by rubbing off more plastic. Not the safest for data, but it works. Better still is a method that restores the protective layer: peel a banana and rub the fruit on the disk; then rub it in with the inside of the peel. Wipe away the excess and it’s indistinguishable (to you or to a laser) from the plastic coating. a wet cellphone
Studies tell us that one in three smartphone users bring their phones with them into the bathroom, and eventually, more than half of them will drop it into the toilet. Act fast and it might be resuscitated. 
Take out the battery, wipe it all dry, inside and out, and put the phone and battery in a bowl of rice. It’s the same principle as a few grains of rice in a salt shaker—rice has a kind of magnetic attraction for water molecules and if you leave the phone in there overnight the rice will pull out all the moisture. As long as the battery didn’t get soaked, the phone should be fine, although considering where it’s been, a little cleaning might be in order.

Combine a little patience with some ingenuity and a well-stocked pantry, and look what you can accomplish.

Posted in gadgets, home, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Will 3D Printers Really Be Making Our Dinner?

Jetsons image courtesy of Hanna-Barbera

Jetsons image courtesy of Hanna-Barbera


Jane Jetson pushes a few buttons on the food-a-rac-a-cycle and there’s dinner for four. No shopping, no chopping, no sauté pans to wash.
We got a little closer to that futuristic fantasy last week when NASA announced funding for the construction of a 3D food printer. NASA has scheduled the delivery of its first 3D printer to the International Space Station for late 2014. Initially it will just be running experiments on printing in a microgravity environment, but eventually the astronauts will use it to fabricate their own meals.

How is it possible to print food?
A 3D printer works a lot like an inkjet printer. Instead of ink, a food printer sprays edible liquids out of the print nozzles, and it keeps spraying layer upon layer until it’s built up a solid object. Take pizza, which the NASA contractor plans as the first printed meal in space: the ‘ink’ nozzles start the recipe by printing consecutive layers of liquid pizza dough; a switch to sauce cartridges and the printer applies layers of a tomato base; then cheese and toppings are printed on top of the crust and tomatoes, and the whole thing bakes on a heated surface of the printer.

Maybe it sounds better when you’re in orbit 230 miles from Earth.
An astronaut’s mother could transmit a favorite recipe to the Space Station’s pantry of powdered and pureed foods and flavorings that would be 3D printable in infinite combinations. Sure, the ingredients are limited to reconstituted liquids and other sprayable and extrudable consistencies, and the ground beef in Mom’s meatloaf has been replaced with a laboratory-cultured, 3D printable meat stand-in known as ‘shmeat’, but with their tiny larder of freeze-dried foods and only occasional access to fresh ingredients, it gives the astronauts a taste of home to break the tedium and cabin fever.

It won’t be replacing Pizza Hut anytime soon.
I’d hang on to those takeout menus. Nobody expects that 3D printed food will replace the real deal for most of us, but there are some promising Earthbound applications.
CMYK_color_swatches.svg150px-SubtractiveColor.svg3D printers can match nutrition like regular printers match colors.
Think of the way that CMYK four color printing takes four ink colors-cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black)-and applies them in pre-set proportions to create a a particular palette. A 3D printer can use nutrients like colors, and print them in specific proportions to create customized, nutritionally-appropriate meals. Data-driven food can factor height, weight, body mass index, and exercise regimens to tailor calories, proteins, enzymes, and minerals to dieters or athletes, or use health records and lab results to create sterile printed meals infused with medication for hospital patients.

steakMeat can’t sustainably feed the planet, but printable meat substitutes can.
A steak doesn’t have to be printed from beef protein. The ‘inks’ could be made from other protein sources like algae, insects, or lab-grown meat analogs that don’t take the same environmental toll as raising cattle. The meat ink is also shelf stable for years and can be shipped anywhere on the planet where need exists.

Solving world hunger and customizing nutrition are still a long way off.
For now 3D printed food is just a novelty used to create previously unachievable food textures and shapes. There’s an edible desk lamp and a bacon mobius strip; you can get a full body scan to replicate yourself in gummy bear candy or render your beloved’s face in chocolate for a Valentine’s Day bonbon; and Google’s employees can order any shape or flavor of pasta printed in the kitchen of the company cafeteria.

When the 3D printing revolution comes, you’ll be able to eat it.


Posted in appliances + gadgets, Science/Technology | 1 Comment

Music, Food, & Molecules

cupcakes via Enjoy! Bespoke Events

cupcakes via Enjoy! Bespoke Events


It’s true that there’s no accounting for taste, but some foods just seem to go together.

It’s like that with music. There are notes that sound good together and other combinations that make you cringe. And we know that it’s based in science. The vibrations of sound in the air create sound waves, and when the math and physics of different waves are a good fit, you’ve got music.

We all know foods that go together better than others. Bacon with cheese, pickles with deli meats, sushi with ginger, tomatoes with basil—they seem to create their own harmonies. And just like music, there’s math and science behind the fit of flavors.

The science of food pairing
Scientific flavor analysis has only been with us for a few years. It’s based on the molecular analysis of ingredients that identifies the odor and flavor compounds. Ingredients are sliced and diced with liquid and gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, and then an algorithm is applied to the compounds to come up with a unique flavor profile for each food. Compatible pairings happen when ingredients share enough compounds.

The molecular basis of pairings takes chefs away from recipes, intuition, and tradition to inspire the new and innovative dishes that you find on the menus of cutting-edge restaurants. Some of the new combinations that have worked their way into modernist cooking are chocolate and pink peppercorn, cauliflower and cocoa, and salmon with licorice. Some are better left in the laboratory like liver paired with jasmine and chocolate with smoked fish. And it’s said that caviar is molecular perfection with white chocolate, but I’ll just take it on faith.

There are clearly limits to molecular pairing. 
That’s because we experience food in ways that transcend flavor. Preferences are also shaped by a dish’s appearance and texture, and the eater’s individual taste thresholds, culture, memories, traditions, and even inbuilt defense mechanisms that guided prehistoric eaters away from poisonous foods. The most complex genetic map in the entire human body is the one that controls the olfactory bulb that processes information sent to the brain about the food that we eat. Taste is far too complicated to boil down to a single, molecular rule of thumb.

Food, like music, can thrive on contrast as much as harmony. 
In music it’s called dissonance; the jangle of tones that deviates from neat sound waves to create harmonic tension. It can sound harsh and unstable but dissonance has also given us Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever, and pretty much every movie soundtrack worth its salt. In food a kind of dissonance is found in East Asian cuisines that are based on contrasting tastes combined in a balancing act of sweet and sour, hot and cooling. Garlic with sesame oil, shrimp with ginger —these are food pairings that are completely incompatible on a molecular level, but without them there’d be no Pad Thai, Vietnamese spring rolls, or Japanese gyoza.

Don’t just guess:
 has more than 1,000 pairing trees. These are interactive visualizations that give you all the possible combinations you can make with a chosen ingredient. Your selection is placed at the center and you can see all the molecularly compatible matches grouped on the branches around it. The closer to the center, the better the pairing.

Posted in cook + dine, food knowledge, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. Umami. Kokumi?



[image via Tiscali UK]

How many flavors can you taste?
Way back when we were taught that there were four basic flavors: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. These are the ones you can’t get by combining any others—they’re primary flavors, in the same way that red, yellow, and blue are primary colors.

A few years ago we started hearing about a mysterious 5th flavor known as umami.
Umami is described as a rich, satisfying, mouth-filling, savoriness. It’s that delicious something you enjoy when you eat umami-rich foods like aged beef, mushrooms, soy sauce, and Parmesan cheese, and that something can’t be explained by the four primary flavors.

Umami’s breakthrough came in 2000 when researchers at the University of Miami identified specific umami receptors on the tongue. That discovery put it in the same category as sweet, sour, salty, and bitter; in other words, we had a genuine, fifth primary flavor. The culinary world was rocked—it was akin to biologists suddenly discovering a third ear on the back of everyone’s head, or astronomers locating a new planet right in our solar system.

In fact, umami is nothing new—just newly embraced by western food scientists. It’s a traditional flavor enhancer for Asian cooking, where it’s concentrated in ingredients like soy sauce, dashi, bean pastes, and oyster sauce. It’s the reason that just a touch of ham can amplify the flavor of pea soup and a mere sprinkle of Parmesan does wonders for a pasta dish.

Here comes kokumi.
Just when we were getting used to the idea of umami as a 5th flavor, researchers are honing in on a candidate for flavor number 6. Sort of.
Kokumi has no taste. Some food scientists are arguing that there are distinct kokumi compounds and kokumi receptors on the tongue, which would qualify kokumi for primary flavor-hood. But unlike the other five, kokumi on its own is flavorless.

Kokumi compounds are most plentiful in onions, garlic, cheese, and yeast extract (fish sperm too, but who’s counting), and are said to multiply in the slow-cooking or aging of foods. Combine kokumi compounds with other ingredients and pow!—it’s a flavor bomb. When the tongue’s kokumi receptors are activated the kokumi alters other flavors, adding a hearty richness and roundness. It deepens the sweetness of sugar and makes savory foods taste more savory.

Kokumi has been promulgated by researchers from Ajinomoto, the same Japanese food and additives company that sold the taste world on the idea of a fifth basic taste, umami, a decade ago. There’a a healthy skepticism, particularly among scientists in the west, who question whether a flavor enhancer can be considered a true flavor. There’s also speculation that kokumi-containing foods are merely activating calcium receptors on the tongue, rather than their own distinct receptors.

Whether it’s a flavor or just a flavor-enhancer, kokumi excites food scientists, nutritionists, and food processors on both sides of the debate. It’s flavor-boosting properties could mean less added salt in salty foods, sweet foods that are lower in sugar, and richness achieved with less added fat.
Kokumi just might hold the potential for healthier diets.

Posted in food knowledge, Science/Technology | 1 Comment

SXSW Makes Room at the Table for Food



[image via]

[image via]

South By South West rolls into Austin this weekend.
The wildly influential set of film, technology, and music festivals and conferences will screen about 300 feature films and shorts; more than 2,000 musical acts will perform at showcases; and the biggest names and brightest minds in emerging technology will captivate audiences at hundreds of interactive sessions.
Care to guess what all those artists and thought leaders will be talking about?

At last year’s SXSW, the online media monitors at Meltwater Group identified around 300,000 Twitter conversations (the social network of choice for festival attendees) taking place in social spaces surrounding SXSW. According to Meltwater’s data, most of that social bandwidth was buzzing about food. Food tweets outnumbered tweets about performances, events, and panels at a rate of three to one.

In the early years of SXSW, food appeared mostly to help soak up all the free beer flowing at the festival. The interactive conference didn’t host its first panel on food blogging until 2009, but each year since has seen a steady increase in food-related topics. Food themes are scattered liberally throughout this year’s conference sessions tackling topics like the niche food blog, the culture of ‘pop-ups,’ product branding for artisan producers, and the ways that technology can enhance the food shopping experience. A strong line-up of keynote speakers includes the founders of Whole Foods and Panera, and the provocative New York restaurateur Eddie Huang who will headline a panel titled The Social Media Chef.

The food scene outside of the Austin Convention Center is also a major draw.
More than 18,000 attendees have already registered for this year’s inaugural food crawla self-guided walking tour through some of downtown Austin’s notable eateries. Food trucks show up from as far away as Los Angeles—that’s a 1,400 mile trek in a rolling kitchen—for a spot at the annual Street Food Fest. So many marketers are looking to put their wares in front of the SXSW crowd that there’s a guide to all the free food and drinks.

From apps to check the ingredients in your cereal box to online reservations and new payment methods, technology permeates the way we consume and experience food like never before. Follow the happenings at SXSW to see how industry stakeholders are leveraging technology to help the food system become more efficient, entertaining, healthy, just, and sustainable.

You can’t make it to Austin? No problem. Many of the showcases, speaker panels, and interactive keynotes will be streaming live at You can also follow the festival via official SXSW social media:

Posted in cyberculture, media, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Have You Met Your Quantified Self?



Quantified Self is the name given to the movement that marries self help with data.
It’s all the wearable sensors and monitors that can track your heart rate, sleep patterns, exercise, calories consumed, and so much more. It’s all the filters, mobile apps, and data visualizations that analyze your performance. And it’s the social-sharing of data.

Self-monitoring isn’t a new idea.
Athletes have always tracked their nutrition, training, and performance. Dieters keep food journals, and migraine or allergy sufferers are counseled to keep journals that track their triggers. What’s new is our ubiquitous connectivity and the amount of data that can easily be captured. Tiny trackers can be clipped and strapped to body parts and embedded in clothing and everyday objects. Sensors can be hyper-specific taking the measure of every step, breath, and heartbeat, charting blood oxygen levels, sleep quality, sexual arousal, and how many swipes you make with your toothbrush.

Quantified Self has exploded in the world of diet and nutrition.
Early adopters were known as ‘body hackers,’ festooned with arm bands, ear tags, day-glo goggles, and dangling lead wires. They monitored everything that went in and plenty of what came out, all in the name of science.

Most of us are not so interested in counting intestinal bacterial colonies and correlating butter intake with math skills. We just want some help to stay on track with our health and fitness goals, maybe lose a few pounds, and eat more healthfully. The new generation of devices does just that, and early studies suggest that they work.

You can go crazy with all the options. There are devices just for swimmers, bodybuilders, and rock climbers. You can strap a monitor to your wrist for readings of your heart and respiratory rates, optical blood flow, perspiration, and skin temperature. There’s even a dieter’s fork that monitors every bite you put in your mouth. Barring any health concerns that require monitoring, you’ll do just fine with a set-up that includes apps to track diet and exercise, plus a scale so you can measure progress. Then you can go forth and quantify.

My Fitness Pal is the king of the calorie counting apps with 30 million registered users and a killer database. It’s basically a simple food tracker for your cell phone, but its food knowledge is scarily comprehensive. You can scan in foods through your phone’s camera, and it also seems to know all the recipes from all the major cookbooks, magazines, and websites. It never seems to take more than a tap or two to tell it what you ate, and it’s never stumped when it comes to the corresponding nutritional data. It’s also free, is available for iPhones, Blackberrys, Android, and Windows devices, and syncs with the app’s website.

With the diet piece in place, you’ll want to quantify your activity level. The Fitbit One is the shape and heft of a stick of Trident on a paper clip. Clip it to your clothes or tuck it in your pocket during the day and it records the number of steps taken, stairs climbed, distance traveled, and calories burned. When your travels take you to the vicinity of your computer it automatically sends data updates to FitBit’s website, and it wirelessly syncs to any diet or fitness apps on your cell phone. Wear it at night and it measures your sleep by both hours and degree of restfulness.

Step on the Withings Body Scale  and it measure weight, lean and fat mass, and calculates your body mass index. It tracks trends in your weight and body composition, and connects by wi-fi to your phone where it shares the information with your calorie counter and exercise apps. It can integrate data from the other programs to produce some nifty graphs. If you’re a fan of sharing TMI, it’s also twitter-enabled.

Posted in diet, gadgets, Science/Technology | Leave a comment
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