Archive for January 2012

Stealing From The Mouths Of Babes

Originally posted on Agritate, which is no longer active.

I just read a story from Nature about a new source of bioethanol—brown algae. I’m a fan of biofuel production, because it combines the passions I had when starting to get into science: genetic engineering and agriculture (sometimes).

But this particular article irked me in the first sentence. Click on the link above. Go ahead, click it. Read the first sentence. I’ll wait.

No, I lied. I won’t wait. Here’s the first sentence:

Bioengineers have devised a way to produce ethanol from seaweed, laying the groundwork for a biofuel that doesn’t sacrifice food crops.
Most bioethanol comes from sugar cane and corn, the article later mentions. And then makes another couple of related statements:
Many researchers are exploring ways to produce ethanol without using food crops such as sugar cane or maize (corn), and have turned to different feedstocks including switchgrass, the succulent plant jatropha, cyanobacteria and green algae. However, producing biofuels from sugar cane or maize not only detracts from food supplies, but also takes up huge areas of arable land. In the case of maize, more energy is required for growing and harvesting the crop than can be gained from the ethanol produced.
I can’t figure out what to say about this. I mean, the research is cool, I like hearing about new people doing new things to address this old problem of sustainable production of bioethanol, because the author is right—corn et alia take up a huge amount of arable land and require way too much energy to grow and harvest for the amount of fuel we get from them. That’s why switchgrass and other crops and organisms have hit the scene, because they are more amenable to nonarable land.

But the corn used in ethanol production is not corn that would ever reach our table. In fact, most corn (80%) in the US never reaches our table, anyhow—it goes to cows and other livestock. Only 12% of corn ends up in human food—which includes corn syrup, taco shells, and the like, as well as fresh ears fulls of perfectly plump, unmarred kernels. There are different types of corn for different purposes. Grocery-store corn, at least the fresh kind that you shuck with your family at home for a nice barbeque in the summer, is also probably not the kind that is used for high-fructose corn syrup or even tortilla chips, and none of those corns are the same corns used to produce ethanol. Each corn variety needs a different profile of chemicals—more sugar, different enzymes—to make it appealing for the purpose it’s destined for.

So, no, corn-based ethanol does not take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans. What it does do, however, is take up land that could be used to grow different varieties of corn (or other crops) that might end up in our bellies, either through the meat we eat or directly as a vegetable.

It’s all about the land, baby—that, and the cost. Corn is not a viable biofuel producer, on that the author and I agree. But the argument that using corn to generate ethanol is stealing food from Americans? No more so than attempts to eradicate dandelion, which is totally edible. (The point being that although people could stick these things in their mouths and chew on it, it’s not really grown to be eaten.)

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Right-o, Oxford Comma

Originally posted on Agritate, which is no longer active.

Lately, posts about the Oxford comma abound out there on the web. I know it’s one of those polarizing issues—and, it seems, my love for the series comma (‘cause, uh, I didn’t know it was also called the Oxford comma, I’ve always called it the series comma) aligns with most other bloggers (although, perhaps not that of their commenters).

It’s nice to have the support of my love of that little clarifying piece of punctuation, but I’ve been enjoying the crazy graphics people come up with.


Image from WeKnowMemes

This particular version of this graphic was edited by someone down the road to include dialogue—a lot of graphics that “show” why the series comma is important seem to think a series of two items would still use a comma (the unedited version has eggs instead of a dude talking to toast and orange juice). I understand that the graphic artist is trying to impress upon people how not having that comma can confuse the reader—but this modified example is grammatically what the sentence could say without a comma. If a reader actually thought someone was talking to toast and orange juice, well, that’s a different issue, but how about the sentence “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”? Three ways to interpret that: someone invited the political dudes and some party girls to a get-together (series without the series comma); someone is telling the political dudes that the strippers have been invited; or someone is telling someone else that the previously mentioned strippers have been invited (in the case where the names had not been previously used in conversation, then the comma wouldn’t be here, so this third interpretation takes some assumptive background storytelling—but it’s the one that makes this next graphic so frakkin’ entertaining).


Image from The Gloss

Perhaps oddly, the Oxford style guide says not to use the Oxford comma, unless there’s something more obviously confusing going on (when one thing in the series includes an “and” within the unit).

I just think a series comma is more clear to the reader. And, in the case where you’re talking about strippers named JFK and Stalin, well, there are always better ways to phrase the idea you’re trying to convey.

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Young Farmers Sprouting Up Across the Nation

Originally posted on Agritate, which is no longer active.

I’ve read stories like this before—lawyers-cum-farmers. One of my favourites is the man who ran the 14th & U Farmers’ Market here in DC. I never met him face-to-face, but I think I saw him from afar once while I picked up a loaf of bread. I followed his backyard-sharing gardening blog while he lived in DC, but then he quit his cushy cubical life to work on a farm in Pennsylvania. He’s gone back and forth, but last I heard, he’s still out there hoeing.

Sometimes, I wish I had that kind of determination, to just leave everything and go work on a farm. In some respects, I had that same spirit when I moved to Saudi Arabia. But there’s just something about getting home all dirty, sweaty, and sore from a day’s work. That utter exhaustion makes me feel accomplished. I feel like I’m missing out, sometimes, living in a city and working on freelance articles in a cafe.

But, grass is greener and all that. I would be satisfied just to have a large yard and a sizable garden. A farm would be way too much for me, but I’m happy to know that people are choosing to leave their rolling ergonomic office chairs and grab their hoes. Just doing that—and sharing that choice—allows others to consider it an option, not a crazy dream.

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BASF abandons GM crops in Europe

Originally posted on Agritate, which is no longer active.

I read this with perhaps a different reaction than most people would, whether they are pro- or anti-GMO: I thought, “Oh no! All those researchers at BASF Agrarzentrum, I hope they will still be employed.” Most of them were extremely kind to me and taught me tons of German phrases while I interned there in 2007. I wasn’t in the GM crop division, but more than those folks are being affected—the entire plant-science headquarters is being moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. That is a lot more drastic than just a single division, but with the amazingly collaborative way the facility in Limburgerhof worked, I imagine it would be difficult to move just one unit.

I do hope my old colleagues are doing well there—I know it would be difficult for many of them to have to relocate. But, then, if they’re in North Carolina, they’ll be much easier for me to meet up with and learn some more German!

I think it’s unfortunate that BASF has to move operations—I mean, it’s a reasonable business decision, but it must have been because of quite a strong reaction when the firm got approval to market the Amflora potato, which was the last time I really paid attention to the situation.

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Open For Business

Sort of. It's only slightly on the DL.

You who have followed my blog for any length of time know that I like to cook. I recently started a new blog, The House Husband, to kind of separate that hobby from my indoor/general gardening obsession--at least, online, so that it makes more sense to visit The Indoor Garden(er). The House Husband joins Bagging The Baggage and Agritate in my new series of blogs to help separate content into more digestible streams--I started feeling like The Indoor Garden(er) was too much of a random catch-all, that I had lost focus, and that I might be confusing people with the content I post under the assumption that it's going to be garden-related on the basis of the blog title, description, and general content. I can't say I've been consistent posting on any of these new locations, but I do of course intend to be. I'm still working on getting into some sort of routine after moving back to DC, but without any actual steady schedule (read: work), I've found it difficult to corral my own activities.

Part of that difficulty is the myriad choices I can make: Go freelance full-time? Try for an office job? Quit the rat race and join the food industry? I've attempted some combination of all of the above since I returned to the US in August--I've freelanced a bit, I've searched for full-time office jobs, and I spent a few months in the food industry (and technically, I'm still in it as Whisked!'s bakery assistant, but work is infrequent at the moment now that the markets are over for the season). The lack of direction has made it difficult for me, generally--it's hard to hammer something down when you're aiming at many separate nails all at once (like Whack-A-Mole, except a bit more frantic and with more life-affecting consequences).

But, eventually, the effort will yield something. I have some freelance opportunities, and I'm pursuing the food industry angle a bit more proactively now, too. I registered for the DC Grey Market on 28 January. The Grey Market is a place where unregistered food businesses can go to sell their product--shoppers buy a ticket ahead of time and acknowledge that they understand the food they'll buy at the market was prepared in a non-health-inspected kitchen or somesuch, and we vendors get the opportunity to sell our products we make in our home kitchens.

It's difficult to be a small food business in DC (probably in a lot of places, I'd imagine), but I know so many people in the area who have succeeded, and it's been something of a simmering dream of mine--I think it's actually a genetic predisposition. Everyone in my family (and, it seems, my beau's, too) has dreamed of opening some sort of food establishment. While I was a child, my dad had a crab truck for a few years--he went to the docks every weekend, bought a ton of crabs, cooked them in the truck and sold them on the side of the road. This was definitely before the lunch-food-truck craze of the past few years, but then, a half-bushel of crabs is totally not an appropriate meal for an office setting, eh?

What I'm doing, however, is slightly different--I love interacting with the customer, and I'm thinking a farmers' market would be a wonderful place to get myself into in the future. So I'm testing the Grey Market. I'm bringing a bunch of different items, to see what people are interested in and whether it seems as if I could make anything of a profit. I'm calling myself "The Experimental Oven," for various reasons: I work under a trial-and-error scientific method; I like to be creative; I'm not baking, exclusively: I have a variety of products I plan on making; I never follow a recipe exactly, even if I'm doing it for the first time; and there's always something that makes each batch of what I make special, whether I ran out of milk and had to use a substitute or whether I accidentally had the temperature at 425 instead of 325 and had to reduce the bake time. I'm going to have to become a little more consistent if I want to start selling product to customers on a regular basis, but part of the name also implies that because everything I make is small-batch artisan foods, there will be some variation from week to week as I play around with the recipes.

What I consider to be a less-complicated but also less financially thrilling is doing wholesale orders for cafes or somesuch. I have a few ins that I could surely follow to make some of my specialty scones, biscotti, or random packaged goods such as hummus, pimiento cheese, or what-have-you. But wholesale is large-batch, low-cost: I'd have to make a ton of product to make the same amount of money I might at a market, because of the resale aspect, although the steady, more-certain income has its appeal.

After I try this Grey Market thing, I have to see whether I make enough money (after ingredient costs and other expenses) to consider doing it on a regular basis. I have to take into account rent for registered commercial kitchen space, the incorporation fees for the business, transportation, vendor fees, and insurance. There are probably other large expenses I'm forgetting at the moment (perhaps a stand mixer?), but there are a lot of start-up costs and a ton of things to hammer out if this is to become a reality. At least I'll soon have a logo--I had a meeting last night with blogger/foodie/friend FoodNewsie, who designed DC State Fair's first advertising back in 2010. He's working on a logo design for The Experimental Oven. I'm a logo virgin--I've never had one, and I'm totally excited about this!

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My First Freelance Piece

Originally posted on Agritate, which is no longer active.

In short, the piece is a Spotlight on an article that appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society detailing a new real-time cell-secretion assay system.

This one was tricky for me—it was one of my first pieces of writing in several months, and in a format I had never written before. My idea of “general audience” is still, I guess, more technical than a real general audience. But a few quick edits were all that was needed, and the most recent Spotlight I wrote for JACS was accepted without any desired edits—it just took a little bit to get back into the swing of it! I’m looking forward to more writing.

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Botanical Latin -- *Poof*

Originally posted on Agritate, which is no longer active.

I guess I have a thing for botanical taxonomy, eh?

I’m a week or so behind on this, but I had a wonderful holiday vacation, so I don’t mind missing the hooplah. I’ve run across a number of articles talking about the doing away of Latin in botanical naming conventions (example)—at first, my ire was raised when the first reference to it I saw almost implied that plant names would no longer be in “Latin” (and, of course, not all of them are—some are Greek! And then, some are awkward mishmashes of the two languages.). But then I dug a bit deeper and found that it was the long, intricate Latinized descriptions of a new species that’s being done away with.


This text is from the description of Achimenes hintoniana, described in 2002 by Larry Skog, a plant-club friend here in DC.

I guess I get scuttling a complicated (yet utterly formulaic) paragraph that serves only to frustrate botanists and hobbyists. I mean, of course Latin (and Greek!) is important to botanists, especially botanical taxonomists and taxonomists in general. But so few people choose to study ancient languages nowadays. Personally, I found Latin and ancient Greek translation to be a wonderful complement to my botanical and microbiological studies—but I was only one of two such students pursuing these courses at my university, and the other graduated in my first year.

I can’t really choose which camp to align myself with—I understand the move to English for taxonomical descriptions of new species (although I could have used the extra income freelance translating descriptions into Latin, I guess). But I can’t help but feel that the field is losing something by not encouraging botanists’ education in Latin (and ancient Greek).

Then again, maybe I support having everyone study those languages. Why should Christians have all the fun?

Hat tip to New York Botanical Garden Tumblr blog for the heads up on this topic.

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