Thursday, September 07, 2017

‘Gluten-free water' shows absurdity of trend in labeling what's absent

Ran across the concept of "fake transparency" in this article. Gluten free water. file-20170824-18734-g7730j.jpgGluten-free, GMO-free and 100 percent vegan. ericlefrancais/Shutterstock.com

The food labeling craze coupled with banner headlines about the dangers of gluten, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and hormones are leading to increasingly absurd results.

For example, you can now buy “premium” water that’s not only free of GMOs and gluten but certified kosher and organic. Never mind that not a single drop of water anywhere contains either property or is altered in any way by those designations.

While some labels provide useful information that is not readily detectable by consumers, others contain misleading claims that exploit a knowledge gap with consumers and take advantage of their willingness to pay a premium for so-called process labels. For example, details on a product’s country of origin are helpful; labeling a bottle of water “gluten free” and “non-GMO” much less so.

In my experience as a food economist, such “fake transparency” does nothing to inform consumers about the nature of their foods. Moreover, it can actually decrease well-being when accompanied by a higher price tag. A new labeling law set to take effect next year will only make matters worse.

A side-by-side comparison shows the differences between old and new food Nutrition Facts labels after changes were made earlier this year. Food and Drug Administration via AP

Brief history of food labels

Until the late 1960s, consumers knew very little about the nutritional content of the prepared foods they purchased.

The dramatic growth in processed foods changed this and led to a system of voluntary and mandatory nutrition labeling in the early ‘70s. As we learned more about the relationship between diet and health, Congress sought to provide consumers more information by passing the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to require companies to list certain nutrients and other details on food packages.

Since then, food labeling has only gotten wilder. Some labels, such as “organic,” follow strict federal guidelines, while others aren’t regulated, such as “natural.” Eggs might come from chickens that are “cage-free” (which isn’t regulated) or “free range” (which is), while your milk could come from cows that are “grass-fed” (no standard) or “hormone-free” (requires verification).

These labels are largely the result of the consumer desire to know more about the way food is produced – and the willingness to pay more for the claims, spurious or not.

Healthier internet? Mr. Gray

Characteristics of a product

To understand how all this labeling drives consumer behavior, let’s turn to economics.

The economist Kevin Lancaster hypothesized that consumers derive happiness not from a product they might buy but from its characteristics.

For example, when purchasing a car, it’s the characteristics – color, brand, size, price or fuel efficiency – that make you want to buy it. Browsing online even allows us to refine searches by these characteristics. Some of these characteristics, such as size and color, are visible and verifiable to they eye before purchase, while others, like a car’s fuel efficiency, can’t be confirmed until you sign on the dotted line and collect the keys.

In other words, the company knows more about the car than you do, something economists call asymmetric information. Economist George Akerlof won a Nobel Prize for his work on asymmetric information and how it leads to terrible market outcomes.

Similarly, food has characteristics that can be observed only after purchase. You can pick up an apple and see whether it has any blemishes, but you don’t really know how it will taste, and you cannot know how many calories it has even after consumption. That’s where food labels can help.

Exploiting the knowledge gap

Unfortunately, the problem of asymmetric information can never be eliminated entirely, and consumers may never have as much knowledge as they’d like when making purchases.

Mandated labeling has helped narrow this gap, particularly when the additional information increases consumer well-being, such as knowledge that a food contains 160 calories or 60 percent of the recommended daily does of vitamin C.

Some companies, however, use food labels to exploit this knowledge gap by preying on consumer concerns about a certain ingredient or process in order to collect a premium or increase market share. One of the ways they do this is by providing fake transparency through so-called absence labels (like “does not contain”), which are increasingly found on products that could not possibly have the ingredient in the first place.

While the water example I mentioned earlier is the most clear-cut illustration of this, others only require a bit more knowledge to see that they don’t serve a purpose. Since federal regulation requires that hormones not be used in pork or poultry, advertising a chicken breast as “hormone-free” doesn’t make sense – yet doing so allows a company to charge more or help its products stand out from the less-labeled competition.

The FDA allows a business to use the phrase as long as the label also notes that “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

Signaling safety

A new law that makes GMO labeling of some foods mandatory will likely compound these problems once it takes effect in the summer of 2018.

To understand why, let’s return to asymmetric information and a related economic theory called the signaling effect. A signaling effect occurs when a buyer receives an implicit message from an explicit cue. For example, a food labeled “low sodium” may implicitly communicate that salt should be avoided. When the government is involved in the signaling effect, such as when a label is mandatory, the impact tends to become stronger.

Thus the new GMO labeling law is bound to signal to consumers that bioengineered foods are somehow bad. While some countries have banned the use of GMOs, such as in Europe, the FDA has said that “credible evidence has demonstrated that foods from the GE plant varieties marketed to date are as safe as comparable, non-GE foods.”

As a result of the new law, companies selling products without GMOs will likely slap “GMO free” on the label even though the law doesn’t apply to those foods.

My worry is that consumers will become ever more mystified as more businesses make increasingly absurd claims on their labels so that their products stand out from the competition in the grocery store aisle. I expect that the only thing consumers will get in return for these “fake transparency” labels is a higher price tag.

The Conversation

Brandon McFadden expects to soon join Monsanto's Sustainability Advisory Council as a paid consultant.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sometimes Storytelling Is Just Resource Management

Chuck Wendig has some of the best advice about writing this side of Steven Pressfield. This post is just an amazing slice of practical pie that is so inspiring. No, the metaphor should be that this is 'inside baseball' without the stats and all the coolity. Read and learn. It IS all about resource management.

Once upon a time I had a vision in my head of what being an author was like.

I imagined that I would wake up at the crack of noon, and I would roll out of bed and then ruminate on the complexities of the past, the present, the future. I would Think Very Hard about Big Ideas, and then I would go to the fertile garden of my word processor and gaze upon the word-seeds I had left the day before, and there, they would bloom, carrying forth the fruit of my Big Ideas — fruit that whose skin would rupture and it would leak the sweet juices of my Pure Nourishing Genius across the page.

Then I wrote a story longer than 2,000 words and became immediately divested of this bullshit notion. To clarify, I don’t mean that writing is not about big ideas, or that storytelling is not a conveyance and mechanism for those ideas, but rather, that in the day-to-day, this isn’t what writing or storytelling is about.

No, it’s about resource management.

Like, we’ve all had jobs. Regular, normal-ass jobs. (Or normal ass-jobs? Hm.) Jobs where you juggle tasks and complete them on time. Jobs where you have to keep track of random shit and make sure some kind of process or production stays orderly. Maybe you put things into a spreadsheet or you arrange widgets and dongles or you make sandwiches as a sandwich artisan.

All good. All normal. No shame in dongle-sandwich management.

Life, too, is this way — my adult life is constantly about managing things. Am I wearing pants? Am I where I’m supposed to be? Have I put food in my body? Where are my pants again? Having a child only increased this, because suddenly I’m worry about a tinier, less-responsible version of me. Is he eating food? Is he eating the right kind of food? Am I committing to his physical, emotional and intellectual nourishment? Where is he? Right now, seriously, where is he? Is he under the couch? He might be under the couch. He might be in the ducts, like John McClane. Did he poop today? This is legitimately a thing you have to think about with kids. Their poop. Did they do it? Did it look okay? Are you feeding them the right amount of poop fuel and is it resulting in proper poopification? You just don’t know. But you always have to check.

Job, life, it’s all resource management. Hell, even video games are like this. Wandering around Mass Effect is a constant act of, “Well, I found another pair of space pants, what do I do with these? I found seven Krogan whatchamafuckits, will I use them to upgrade my sniper rifle or will I spend them for research points in order to build space toilets on this disreputable planet I found, or maybe I’ll just sell them for space drugs.”

Storytelling, I had hoped was different.

Spoiler warning: it ain’t that different.

Writing a story is often just an act of resource management.

What I mean is this:

I am often forced to be focused on basic logistics for a story. My questions are ceaselessly dull. Where are the characters? Can they have gotten there in that time frame? Wait, have they slept? What are they holding? Could they have that? Wait, does that character know enough about that thing to accurately speak about it? What’s today’s date? When is it? Where am I? Where are the characters’ pants? Are they space pants? Do they need seven whatchamafuckits to defeat the seller of space drugs? Did the characters poop today?

Worse, the writing itself is subject to resource management: did I use that word too many times? Should this chapter follow that chapter? Is there a jump in time that will help? Am I establishing a good rhythm, with differently-sized sentences and paragraphs nestled up against one another? Am I breaking this chapter up, or leaving it long, or what? Do I need more space drugs? ARE MY WORDS TOTAL POOP TODAY?

Storytelling has its own abstract resources, too. You want tension, but you don’t want too much of it — overuse it, and it becomes overwrought, listless, expected. Conflict can’t just be one thing, it needs to come in a rainbow of fucking flavors. You never want just one plot, you need multiple plots, driven by stories, circumstances, conflicts creating conflicts, scenes creating scenes. It all has to flow together. It has to have a narrative rhythm just as your words need a rhythm of language. More resources, more management, and more poop, probably, I dunno.

I note this for a few reasons.

First, because it was on my mind and what’s on my mind often gets frothily reduced, like a fine sauce, on this here blog.

Second, because I think it’s important to hold minimal illusions about what the day-to-day job entails, and sometimes this job entails not merely herding cats but rather, WRESTLING MANY HERDS OF THE AFOREMENTIONED CATS, meaning, it requires juggling lots of internal narrative data. We often see writing and story spoken of in this high-minded and occasionally impractical way, but that’s rarely what really goes into the nitty-gritty of it.

Third, because I think maybe a lot of big Hollywood films have actively lost sight of this kind of important resource management, and they treat the narrative resources cheaply to score a lazy impact — so sad when I watch big movies and find a hundred different plotholes or worse, aren’t sure how a thing is actually happening, all because I think the storytellers forgot to track the narrative data. They become so consumed with spectacle that they fail to remember how things need to actually make sense at the most basic level. Storytelling can be about pomp and circumstance, but the moment we stop believing in the basic reality of it is the moment all the pomp and circumstance deflate like a sad erection.

Fourth and finally because you do still need to transcend this — you’re managing resources but at the end of the day, a story isn’t a spreadsheet, it isn’t logistics, it’s something grander, greater, squirmier, stranger. You must get the data and details right, you must force it to make sense, and then you go beyond it. Only when your ducks are in their proverbial row do you transcend those details and find a way to arrange everything for maximum emotional or thematic impact.

But it’s okay that in the trenches, it’s about crude logic and basic arrangement.

Let that be okay.

Don’t sweat it.

Get it right, then go bigger.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to find my pants and go buy more space drugs.

* * *

Coming soon:

DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative

by Chuck Wendig, from Writer’s Digest, October 17th

A new writing/storytelling book by yours truly! All about the fiddly bits of storytelling — creating great characters, growing narrative organically, identifying and creating theme. Hope you dig it.

Pre-order now:

Indiebound

Amazon

B&N

(Come see me launch the book on October 17th at Borderlands in San Francisco with Kevin Hearne launching the amazing Plague of Giants and Fran Wilde supporting her sublime Bone Universe books! 6pm!)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Syllabus: Public Writing in de Tocqueville’s America

What are our duties as public intellectuals? And how can we measure our progress?

We’re in an interesting political era, to put it mildly. I don’t just mean “Trump’s America,” or the specific partisan aspects of our contemporary situation. I mean also that we’ve been publicly grappling with broader issues of how individual people can feel empowered and engaged in the work of deliberative democracy, when so many of our digital tools have made us seem further away from those we disagree with than ever before. We’ve been grappling with this broad idea called “populism,” a curious debate given the basic definitions of democracy; we’ve argued over the proper role of experts and expertise; we’ve worried over bubbles, fake news, and the death of the commons.

We’ve also asked for decades how the liberal arts can be made relevant and important again. These seem to me to be two questions that answer the other. It is precisely the humanities that has long concerned itself with these questions, and it is the humanities that is best suited to answer them. We should look beyond our narrowly vocational interests in education, and recognize that STEM-mania and the obsession with technical skills have something to do with our unhealthy public discourse. A healthy deliberative democracy requires work. It requires people to go out of their way to foster discursive spaces where we can have a truly democratic conversation. Dismantling the humanities, despite what you’d read in the average magazine article, has consequences, and we’re living with them.

A college class, obviously, is a little thing, and doesn’t have much impact on the national conversation. But I am naive enough to believe that teaching and learning still matter, and so I’m laying out a vision for a class I thought up that is designed to address precisely the crisis of conversation we’re seeing today. The liberal arts are constantly based for their supposed impracticality, but it’s hard for me to imagine a task more practical than that of teaching young people how to be engaged, involved citizens.

Seminar in Public Writing: de Tocqueville’s America

The class I’m proposing here I envision as a 400-level seminar in English or Writing programs, entitled “Seminar in Public Writing: de Tocqueville’s America.” The class will be a seminar revolving around Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal text Democracy in America, and using the text as a lens to consider public writing, public formation, and deliberative democracy.

Public writing is a field concerned both with writing objects designed for public consumption and with the theoretical and practical structures within public writing. It foregrounds the role writing plays in various types of political power structures, with an emphasis on its generative potential within a deliberative democracy. Public writing is ideally designed to produce effects within the world. Those effects may be as passive as mutual understanding or as active as generating concrete expression within the political process. In every case, public writing looks out from the individual or small group concerns of the creator of the writing onto a larger public to which it is addressed.

Dr. Linda Shamoon, Professor Emeritus at the University of Rhode Island, once described the process of public writing creating social change as such:

In our democratic society we ordinary citizens (as well as professional writers and those in leadership positions) who encounter a problem we consider to be public in nature may use many kinds of writing to arouse the concern of others in our community. Some in our society say we are obligated to speak out—or write—about such problems or issues. Initially,  we may get little or no response to our demands for a remedy to the problem, but those of us who track an issue and seek or develop forums for our voices to be heard may find ourselves involved in many different kinds of public writing in support of our cause and working with others for solutions we had just begun to understand when we started.

Public writing assumes various stages of success. Generally, we see public writing succeeding in four stages:

Recognition— the work of public writing is read/heard; the argument is recognized as having been made.
Inclusion— the person or persons who produced the writing are recognized as valid members of the public, permitted to make public statements.
Discussion— the piece of public writing is legitimately and openly debated in good faith.
Action— the public writing produces those effects it was designed to produce.

Note that any piece of public writing need not be successful at any of these stages for it to be considered worthwhile by the person or persons writing it. Political dissidents and other out-group members often participate in public writing with no expectation that their writing will be recognized, included, discussed, or will generate the action they desire. We should still see the effort involved in public writing as beneficial and worthwhile even if it satisfies none of these stages. Democracy involves failure as well as success.

The tendency for public writing to be created but to be denied entry into the space of public discourse concerns the second stage of success, inclusion. Public writing is deeply concerned with the question of who has the right to speak— that is, who is allowed entry into a particular public sphere. Publics formation is one of the key theoretical areas of public writing, and it is here that we intersect with Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy in America.

De Tocqueville’s text is one of the seminal works of early political science and a definitive statement on early American democracy. De Tocqueville, a traveling French nobleman, was deeply intrigued by the still-young American republic of the 1830s. Commissioned to examine the American prison system, de Tocqueville and his traveling companion sojourned across the United States and into parts of Canada, documenting many aspects of early American life that were in contrast to the practical and political norms of continental Europe. De Tocqueville’s text is a useful historical account, but it is must valued today as one of the most important evolutions in the history of political science.

A pressing question animates de Tocqueville’s text: why had republican representative democracy succeeded in America when it had seemingly failed in many other parts of the world? As an intrigued and sympathetic observer, de Tocqueville catalogs the unique elements of American democracy and civic participation. Concerned particularly with the intersection of religion, citizenship, and democratic duty, Democracy in America attempts to understand the particular American equation for successful repesentative democracy.

Of course, the success of 1830s America was success predicated on a system of brutal and oppressive inequities in power and quality of life, which de Tocqueville does not ignore. (It is relevant to point out that de Tocqueville’s view on American democracy grew much darker in his later years.) Indeed, the question of slavery haunts the book. De Tocqueville does not ignore the fact that slaves, women, and native peoples were written out of the very democratic processes he praised, and neither should we. Rather, who is included and who is excluded from democracy is of central importance to the theories of public writing. De Tocqueville’s text remains relevant to a 21st century audience in part because it is so insightful about how democracies have always excluded as well as included, with the backdrop of 19th-century America providing a host of examples of how a public is formed and how marginalized people are excluded from it.

The following syllabus describes the course, its readings, and its goals. Students will learn basic theories of publics through philosophers like Habermas, discuss what it means to write for a public, consider the impact of the internet on publics formation, and read through Democracy in America, using the text to give the course shape and structure. They will participate in creating a journal of their own writing, to be hosted online as well as bound, printed, and distributed on campus – because it’s still a thrill to see your words in real print, especially for young students.

public writing and DIA syllabus (editable Word document)

public writing and DIA syllabus

Down the Drain: The 19 Best Shower Beers

Glorious. Foolhearty. IPA's for the a.m. crowd. In the shower.

Sierra-Nevada-Torpedo-shower-beer-e15018

Drinking in the morning is no longer a sign that you have a problem with alcohol; it’s mandatory for getting through the day without committing a series of grisly homicides, then going on the run. The single problem with getting a little liquor in your system to face the daily grind is finding the time […]

The post Down the Drain: The 19 Best Shower Beers appeared first on TheCoolist.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Path to Quality

Yeah, this is a big question and I love how she wanders through it, a personal feldgang that keeps approaching the issue from lots of angles, mostly asymptotically--my favorite oblique stance.
b4f181_72fa33d57494418da77bd543d7dd2032~
I’m undergoing a fundamental change in thinking about a lot of things right now, and one of those is how I manage my personal knowledge. I am a very good researcher and acquirer of information, but over the past two years I’ve stressed over finding a good way to curate all the content I amass. This is a weak point in my skills. As I’ve tried to find a way of capturing, creating/co-creating, saving, internalizing, reflecting all this information, it has occurred to me that I need to stop and think about where all of this is taking me, and where I really want to go. I suspect that ultimately these two destinations are not the same. It’s one thing to allow circumstances to sweep me up into a new way of thinking and/or behaving, but quite another to carefully craft a path for my mind, career, and even feet, to follow.
"SOMEBODY has to manage all this mess I’m creating"
My biggest sticking point is the sheer volume of information I find interesting. I do a lot of rabbit-holing and squirrel-chasing down paths that take me away from the original intent of my research and reading because I’m interested in SO MANY THINGS. I have always envied people who are more single-minded than myself, while simultaneously speculating on how flat their existence might be. I’m sure they look at me and wonder how I ever get anything done and cringe at the thought of how chaotic my brain must be (my favorite quote from the first Avengers movie always comes to mind: “That guy’s brain is a bag of cats. You can SMELL crazy on him.”). This broad range of interest has been known to turn me into a feckless wanderer, the thought of which initially brings me great joy when I think about all the freedom that gives me, and then crashes me back to the reality that SOMEBODY has to manage all this mess I’m creating.
During a Twitter chat a few weeks back I started thinking about how to start dealing with my tendency toward a cluttered mind. This is the aftermath of a major house move that involves a downsize of gargantuan proportions (from 2300 square feet to 700—don’t panic! we have an attic, a basement and plenty of garage space). As I’m examining basically everything I own to decide if I should keep things to use, keep things for the future, keep things to cherish, or get rid of things entirely, I find myself thinking in terms of a lot more than just my physical surroundings. What about my virtual house? It’s pretty much a hoarder’s den. This brings me to the idea of quality vs. quantity.
Just start from today
When it comes to personal knowlege management, I tend to want ‘all the things’ instead of carefully selecting what best applies to me and my current situation; probably because I very naively think I will eventually get around to reading/using/needing whatever all that extra stuff is. In reality, it’s saved somewhere, mostly unindexed and of no use to me whatsoever in its current form. The thought of actually taking the time to sort, clean up, and categorize all those articles and notes is daunting. If they were physical copies I could better keep them in check, but mostly they’re virtual—articles I’ve saved, examples of forms, snippets of blogs (or whole blogs), .jpgs and .gifs, lists of even more websites that contain even more stuff of interest to my ‘bag of cats’—which makes them far too easy to hoard. I’d need to take all my vacation time to curate it all. I’ve told myself many times to start from today--just start from today—and not to worry about all the virtual piles in the corners of my house. Maybe if I just started from today I would develop some discipline and become a guru of PKM.
Now that you’ve had a good laugh, get off the floor and sit back down in your chair (I’m sure your cat will come out from under the couch again soon) and stick with me for just a few more moments.
What I've begun to realize is that what I really need to do isn’t to organize what I have (yet), but to first choose my path. Where do I want to go? Who do I want to be? And what will get me from here—which isn’t all that terrible except for those piles of virtual junk in the corners—to where I want to be tomorrow? Next week? Next month? This time next year? Five years hence? Ultimately, the answers to all of these questions will take me toward a more focused approach to my PKM, and ultimately my career. Once I’ve figured out the goal (the real goal, not the pie-in-the-sky goal, or the dead boring practical goal, but the REAL GOAL) then I will more naturally select quality over quantity. If I downsize my expectations, my hopes and my dreams, I can distill them into an attainable and satisfying draught that will sustain me on the path toward my future. Just like I don’t need seven living room chairs in my 125 square foot living room, I don’t need to try to follow all of my interests to their conclusions. We all need a bit of a distraction now and then…
SQUIRREL!!
…but if I want to continue to grow in my profession I need to find real focus on a pathway that will lead me to my destination.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Dr. Amanda Visconti retweeted: What if we stopped trying to save so much digital shit? Big data is not just a huge fossil fuel suck, it's increasingly taking up land

A provocative, systems question. What if we stopped sending out so much signal? What if we rationed bandwidth? What if the carbon footprint of storage got so large that it became a national crisis? Any amount of added carbon now adds to the crisis, so this is not as crazy as it sounds.
8-RmjHoi_normal.jpg Flyover Easy
@eiratansey
What if we stopped trying to save so much digital shit? Big data is not just a huge fossil fuel suck, it's increasingly taking up land

Friday, June 30, 2017

Alex Smith’s Radio Ecoshock: A Complete Coverage Of My Work With Audio

Another podcast to consider. Carolyn Baker is a one-woman whirlwind of communication. She’s up-to-date on the news of the world, as she publishes her Daily News Digest. Carolyn is author or co-author of 11 books, has provided life-coaching for many, and leads workshops. Her motto is “Speaking Truth to Power”. From Boulder Colorado, it’s a treat to welcome Carolyn Baker back to Radio Ecoshock. Alex Smith devotes an entire page to covering my work

Friday, May 19, 2017

Flash Fiction Challenge: X Versus Z, Redux

Some fun?

Another classic challenge, of which I am a fan.

Way this works is, below you will find two tables — X and Y! — and you will pick (or randomly draw) from those tables. That will leave you with a set of X versus Y — and from there, you will write a piece of flash fiction based on that parameter set. You can even use the match up (SKELETONS VS. SCIENTISTS!) as the title to the work, or come up with a new title.

Length: ~2000 words

Due by: 5/26, Friday, noon EST

Post at your online space, link back here so all can read.

X

  1. Robots
  2. Vampires
  3. Monkeys
  4. Demons
  5. Pirates
  6. Kaiju
  7. Goblins
  8. Dragons
  9. Ghosts
  10. Gods
  11. Time Travelers
  12. Cops
  13. Librarians
  14. Bards
  15. Skeletons
  16. Interdimensional Floating Jellyfish Creatures
  17. Aliens
  18. Cats
  19. Werewolves
  20. Musicians

Y

  1. Zombies
  2. Monks
  3. Spiders
  4. Heroes
  5. Fairies
  6. Robots
  7. Assassins
  8. Mutants
  9. Cannibals
  10. Mermaids
  11. Scientists
  12. Evil
  13. Serial Killers
  14. Cultists
  15. George Washington
  16. Superheroes
  17. Artificial Intelligence
  18. Swamp Monsters
  19. Cheerleaders
  20. Elves