Seaweed, It’s Not Just for the Fishes

November 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

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On Wednesday, while we were watching Game 6 of the World Series, I saw a commercial that featured a young girl introducing herself to her new classmates. Her parents met in Texas, she tells them, then relocated to Washington, and she was born at Fort Knox. Next came Georgia and then Korea. “Mmm,” she says, pointing to South Korea on the wall map, “Seaweed snacks.”

Her fellow students think that sounds pretty awful, but my son, who was born in Taiwan, yelled out, “See? See? I’m not the only one!”

She ends her introduction with “And now we live here for good.”

What were they advertising? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find the commercial online and watch it again. I Googled “home ad seaweed.” Google asked if I meant “home and seaweed” and showed me 5 Creative Uses for Seaweed in the Home, from Rodale’s OrganicLife: fertilizer, dietary supplement, East Asian cuisine ingredient, pet food ingredient, and beer additive. It also led me to a Wired article telling me, “This Seaweed-Covered House Is the World’s Coziest Sushi Roll” (“The primary challenge for the designers was turning an unruly weed into a consistent building material”), and The New York Times sharing that “Seaweed’ Clothing Has None, Tests Show” (“the labs found no evidence of seaweed in the Lululemon clothing”).

Thinking the commercial might be selling houses, I searched for “real estate commercial seaweed,” but that honed in on “commercial seaweed,” which gave me Grand View Research’s “Commercial Seaweed Market to Reach $22.13 Billion by 2024,” and “The Power of Seaweed, from the Wall Street Journal (“there’s growing evidence that seaweed might fit the bill as a raw material for biofuel, and one Indian entrepreneur is hoping to exploit it”).

No World Series commercial yet, but I didn’t give up. And through some combination of search terms, I found what I was looking for. The ad is from Navy Federal Credit Union and is titled “Here for Good.” I couldn’t embed it, but you can watch it at iSpot.tv.

Are you like the students in the commercial and you think that eating seaweed is more yuck than yum? Or are you like my son: “Edible seaweed? What’s not to like?” Either way, if you want to find out more about “the new potato chip,” edible seaweed (nori in Japanese, hai tai in Mandarin, or kim in Korean), take a look at KQED’s “Savoring Seaweeds: What You Need to Know before Diving In.” More options? Well Deutsche Welle would like you to know “Seaweed Wine Hits Germany’s Stores, and The Portland Phoenix wants to introduce you to “Seaweed Tea: The Next Big Drink Trend?

Of course, the chips aren’t made from potatoes, the wine isn’t made from grapes, and the tea isn’t made from tea. They’re all made from marine algae.

So, how long before you’re saying, “Mmm. Marine algae.”

[photo: “Wasabi flavored snack nori わさび风味のり,” by kattebelletje, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Of Big Macs, KFCs, and Tall Lattes: A Full Menu of Global Indexes

October 9, 2017 § 1 Comment

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I’ve always wondered about the “heat index” and “chill factor,” ways to say, “We know how hot or cold it is, but here’s how it feels.” Obviously there are scientific factors figured into the calculations, but it makes me think we could also have a “Great Grandma Gordon Index”: “I’m telling you, it’s at least 125 degrees in the shade!” or a “Guy Who Lives Down the Block Index: “It’s so cold I can’t feel my left foot!”

When you travel, you see how much weather standards aren’t standardized around the world, either. For people in hot climates, the winter parkas might come out when the temperature dips below 60°F, or for those where cold is routine, when they register the same temp, it’s time to put on shorts.

But keeping track of relative weather norms isn’t the only concern when going abroad. There’s also that finances thing. You want to know how much money you’ll need to spend while spending time in another city—in terms that make sense. So you might be thinking “How much does, for instance, a Big Mac cost there?”

Well, funny you should ask.

One of the most well-known economic indexes has the answer. Taking its name from the classic McDonald’s sandwich, the Big Mac Index was developed in 1986 by The Economist “as a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their ‘correct’ level.”

“Burgernomics,” says The Economist “was never intended as a precise gauge of currency misalignment, merely a tool to make exchange-rate theory more digestible.” But the Big Mac Index has gotten a lot of weighty attention, garnering coverage in textbooks and academic studies. In fact, the index is taken seriously enough that a New York Times article postulated in 2011 that Argentina was artificially keeping its Big Mac prices down to influence its place on the scale. And Computerworld reported this year that the malware Fatboy, a ransomware-as-a-service (software that locks up a computer and demands payment to decrypt its data) uses the Big Mac Index to determine how much ransom needs to be paid for a particular location.

The Big Mac Index is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity. I’m not an economist, so it’s easy for me to get lost in the weeds on economic theories. But rather than use it as a rigorous currency-valuation metric, I see it more as a quick-and-dirty cost-of-living index.

If you have a hunger for that type of thing, too, I’m glad to tell you there’s much more on the menu than just the Big Mac. Here’s a list to whet your appetite:

The Tall Latte Index
Also called the Starbuck’s index, this is another iteration from The Economist, comparing prices from the coffee chain.

The KFC Index
Because McDonald’s has restaurants in only three African countries, the Big Mac Index doesn’t work very well on that continent. Therefore, Sagaci Research developed an index based on KFCs, which are present in nearly 20 nations in Africa. The metric is based on the price of an Original Recipe 15-piece bucket.

The Mini Mac Index
Invented by Benn Steil and Emma Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations, it compares the global prices of iPad Minis.

McDonald’s Index of Humanitarian Access
Jonathan Whittall, head of humanitarian analysis at Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders writes that

no country with a McDonald’s has ever rejected humanitarianism on ideological grounds. It is in those states where the economic and political influence of the west still has space that all components of the west’s foreign policy are accepted: both McDonald’s and INGOs.

The Coca-Cola Index
This analysis branches out a bit more, showing the relationship of Coke consumption with quality-of-life factors. Using UN figures, The Economist (those guys sure are busy), shows that countries’ higher rates of Coca-Cola drinking correlate with higher wealth, health, and political freedom. Have a Coke and a smile?

The Happy Planet Index
Speaking of smiles, the New Economics Foundation publishes this global ranking of “how efficiently residents of different countries are using environmental resources to lead long, happy lives.” (I really wanted to find a “Happy Meal Index,” but so far, it hasn’t been created yet.)

And while we’re on the topic of quality of life, we have

The Better Life Index
from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

The Legatum Prosperity Index

The Human Development Index and The Gender Development Index
from the United Nations Development Programme, and

The Where-to-Be-Born Index
from the Economist Intelligence Unit

And finally, if you’re looking for some straight-up cost-of-living indexes, take a look at

Expatistan’s Cost of Living Index and

Numbeo Indexes
The Numbeo site describes itself as “the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide.” Not only does it have an overall cost-of-living index, it also includes indexes that compare property prices, crime, health care, pollution, traffic, quality of life, and travel costs.


(D.H. and R.L.W, “The Big Mac Index,” The Economist, July 13, 2017; Daniel Politi, “Argentina’s Big Mac Attack,” Latitude, The New York Times, November 24, 2011; Darlene Storm, “Local Cost of a Big Mac Decides Ransom Amount for Fatboy Ransomware,” Computerworld, May 8, 2017; Jonathan Whittall, “The McDonald’s Index of Humanitarian Access,” MSF Analysis, February 7, 2014)


[photo: “NRT: McDonald’s Menu,” by jpellgen, used under a Creative Commons license]

Stealing Cookies and Borrowing Stories

March 26, 2017 § 2 Comments

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I recently listened to a TEDx talk by Scott Geller, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech, entitled “The Psychology of Self-Motivation.” In it, he recites “The Cookie Thief,” a poem by Valerie Cox.

Wait a minute. Hadn’t I heard that a-stranger-stole-my-cookies-in-an-airport story before? In fact, several years ago, as I recalled, I had seen an actor on a late-night talk show telling how the thievery had happened to him . . . but maybe it had taken place in a train station. I was unclear on the details. I also couldn’t remember which show it was on, but I was pretty sure it was a British actor, since he called the cookies “biscuits.” It’s a funny story—with a great punch line—and I’ve retold it a few times. But is it true, or too good to be true? And regardless of its truthfulness, who can lay claim to its origin?

I did a little digging, and here’s what I found (with thanks to those who’ve dug before me). . . .

First of all, the British “actor” was actually a British author: Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He was a guest on Late Night with David Letterman, and videos of his appearance on the web give the show date as February 14, 1985. Adams was there to promote his novel, written in 1984, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, “the fourth volume in the Hitch-Hiker Trilogy.”

Letterman asked him if he used his own life experiences in his writing, which was, I’m guessing, a pre-planned question to set up what came next. Adams answered,

Yeah, well occasionally. Actually there’s one story I put in this book, which I fi— I wanted to put in print, because it’s something that happened to me a long time ago. And I’ve told the story pretty regularly now, with the result that other people are beginning to use it, so I wanted to put it in the book to say, “Hands off, guys.”

The gist of his story (minus Adams’ comedic flair) is this: At the train station, Adams buys a newspaper and package of cookies (biscuits). He puts his purchases down on a table and sits down across from a stranger. The man across from him opens the package of cookies and proceeds to eat one. Adams is perplexed, but saying nothing, eats a cookie himself. Back and forth they go, with Adams wondering how anyone could have such gall. Finally, the cookies are gone and the stranger leaves. When his train arrives, Adams picks up his newspaper to depart, and, much to his surprise, finds his unopened package of cookies lying there.

In 2001, Adams again recounted the story in a speech to Embedded Systems, saying that it had occurred in Cambridge in April of 1976. After Adams’ death in 2001, the Embedded Systems retelling was included in The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, a collection of Adams’ previously unpublished works.

So Adams’ story predates Cox’s “Cookie Thief,” which was published in 1996 in A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul. But his rendering is still not the beginning.

Jan Harold Brunvand writes in The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends that the biscuit/cookie story is one of many variations on “the unwitting-theft legend,” a general category for which he finds examples from as far back as 1912. Though the origins of Adams’ account don’t seem to be quite that old, they still precede his 1976 timeframe. Brunvand points to a letter written to the editor of the journal Folklore, in 1975. In it, A. W. Smith writes that he has seen the story in print three times, in July 1974, July 1972, and some indeterminate time earlier. The sources are, in that order, London’s GuardianOxfam News, and (possibly) London’s Evening Standard. Smith notes that in all these versions, the traveler is British (in Oxfam News he’s the director of Oxfam Scotland); the encounter takes place in a train station, near a train station, or in a dining car; the offending stranger is from another country, a West Indian, African, or Pakistani; and the foreigner kindly offers the Brit half of the last cookie. On the last two details, Smith asks, “Does the essence of the story concern the patient and indeed saintly character of the often despised and rejected?”

While Adams’ and Cox’s version leave out the cross-cultural aspect, Cox’s telling does include the stranger’s kind (but irritating) act of breaking the cookie in half.

Back to where we began, here’s Cox’s “Cookie Thief” in video form.

(Douglas Adams, appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, NBC, February 14, 1985; Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, Del Rey, 2005; Valerie Cox, “The Cookie Thief,” A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 More Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit; Jan Harold Brunvand, The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends,  Norton, 1984; A. W. Smith, “Letter to the Editor: Yet Another Modern Legend?” Folklore, vol. 86, issue 2, 1975)

[photo: “dark chocolate digestive BISCUITS,” by SimonQ, used under a Creative Commons license]

Krispy Kreme: Going Global with a Strategy That’s Full of Holes . . . and Topped with Green-Tea Icing

March 17, 2017 § 2 Comments

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In September of 2015, CNN posted a story with the horrifying headline “Krispy Kreme Krashes”! (exklamation point mine), announcing that KKD stock had dropped 12% following poor sales and earnings reports. The problem? Lackluster profits on their packaged doughnuts sold outside their Krispy Kreme stores. The solution? Opening more Krispy Kreme stores overseas.

Fast forward to today, and the eatery has outlets in over 25 countries. That means fewer people making overseas Krispy Kreme runs and wondering if they can get their purchases through airport security and transport them as carry ons.

It also means plenty of new creations to appeal to global palates. Take, for instance, the new “premium” doughnuts at Krispy Kreme Japan, which, RocketNews24 reports, just became available this month. They include the Premium Matcha Azuki, filled with green-tea flavored whipped cream and red-bean paste and topped with matcha green-tea icing; and also the Premium Sakura, which has a multi-layered filling of cherry paste, strawberry-raspberry-cranberry puree, and whipped cream. (If either of those sound good to you, you’ll need to head over to the Krispy Kreme JR Nagoya Takashimaya store in Aichi Prefecture in the next few weeks—it’s a limited-time offer.)

Seeing that news got me wondering what else one can find at Krispy Kremes far and wide. And so that you don’t have to wonder, too, here’s a list of some of the tasty offerings from Krispy Kremes around the world.

My mouth is watering as I type. . . .

(Paul La Monica, “Krispy Kreme Krashes,” CNN Money, September 10, 2015; Oona McGee, “New Krispy Kreme Premium Range Includes Sakura and Matcha Green Tea Doughnut Cakes,” RocketNews24, March 8, 2017)

[photo: “Free for All,” by Bokeh-licious, used under a Creative Commons license]

Tea, 2, 3, 4

March 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

[an animation made from tea leaves]

“Tea Tuesdays: Kenyan Farmers See Green in the Color Purple”

Across the picturesque highlands of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, fields of tea shimmer in shades of emerald, lime and moss under the equatorial sky.

Some of these fields, though, are now darkened with patches of purple. The purple comes from leaves with high levels of anthocyanins, natural pigments that also give cranberries, blueberries and grapes their color.

These purple leaves are Africa’s newest—and most intriguing—tea.

At the moment, they are being made into a handful of different styles. . . .

As pleasing as the unique flavors might be, [purple tea] was never developed for its taste.

Instead, [state-run Tea Research Institute] breeders were most interested in creating “a high-value medicinal tea product.” A number of scientific studies done inside and outside Kenya on purple tea suggest that its anthocyanins may help protect against neurodegenerative diseases and cancer.

“Anthocyanins have capacity to scavenge for free radicals and thus are good antioxidants,” says Stephen Karori Mbuthia, a biochemist at Egerton University, Kenya’s premier agricultural public university, and lead author of a recent study.

Jeff Koehler, Tea Tuesdays, NPR, March 3, 2015

Those Friendly, Friendly Drive Throughs and “Food Houses”

December 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

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It’s that holiday time of the year, which means lots of traveling and probably some quick meals along the way. If you’re wanting to up your grabbing-a-bite-to-eat game, take a look at Business Insider‘s list of the top 25 US limited-service restaurant chains, published earlier this year. Below are the ten restaurants with the highest customer-satisfaction scores. (By the way, if you’re wondering, “limited service” means pay before you eat and includes fast food and fast casual.)

  1. Firehouse Subs
  2. Chick-fil-A
  3. Papa Murphy’s Pizza
  4. Ben & Jerry’s
  5. In-N-Out Burger
  6. Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers
  7. Krespy Kreme
  8. Fuddruckers
  9. Jersey Mike’s Subs
  10. The Habit Burger Grill

I guess you could say this is a pretty congenial group of eateries—offering good food at a good price with good service—but if you want to know just how friendly the American food-distribution scene is, you need to look at it from an outsider’s point of view. In his book End of the Spear, Steve Saint tells about his friend Mincaye’s first trip to the States. Mincaye is from Ecuador, a member of the isolated Waodani (Waorani, Huaorani) tribe.

After he and Steve return to Ecuador, Mincaye describes grocery stores to members of his village. To him, “food houses” are wondrous places with endless amounts of food (people take it out but no one brings it in), and taking it out is oh so easy:

The only thing you have to do is when you are leaving, you have to go by the place where the young foreigner girls stand. They look at you very seriously. But if you just stand there and smile, when they smile back, you can take all your food and go eat it happily.

At this point, Steve corrects Mincaye’s story by explaining that the food needs to be paid for and shows the group a credit card.

“Don’t worry,” Mincaye explains. ” They just give that thing right back to you, and then you can go and eat all your food!”

But someone wants to know how food can be gotten when you’re out driving and not close to a food house. Mincaye knows the answer. That’s not a problem for Babae, as he calls Steve:

Babae has friends everywhere. Whenever we are away from the big, big food house and my stomach hurts, telling Babae, he just stops at one of his friend’s houses. They open the little windows in their walls and hand us food. Those people really like Babae, just like we do.

I really feel special now. I guess those people really like me, too!

(I’ve written about Steve and Mincaye before, but if you’d like to know their full stories, read Elisabeth Elliot’s Through Gates of Splendor and Saint’s End of the Spear, or watch the movie of the same name.)

(Emmie Martin, Tanza Loudenback, and Alexa Pipia, “The 25 Best Fast-Food Chains in America,” Business Insider, May 9, 2016; Steve Saint, End of the Spear, Tyndale, 2005)

[photo: “Service with a Smile,” by Broken Piggy Bank, used under a Creative Commons license]

Airport Chocolate: The Triangle and the Sphere

December 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

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For me, they’re the airport candy: Toblerone and Ferrero Rocher. If you forgot to pick up a souvenir on your travels, you could always impress the kids with exotic chocolates from the airport. Even now that you can get them at Wal-Mart and Walgreens, to me they’re still the airport candy.

Toblerone
According to the Toblerone website, in 1900, a confectioner in Bern, Switzerland, Jean Tobler, handed his chocolate factory over to his son Theodor. Eight years later, Theodor, along with his cousin, created Toblerone, a chocolate bar made with honey and almond nougat and formed into a distinctive triangular shape. The name comes from Theodor’s family name and torrone, Italian for the type of nougat used in the bar.

Toblerone is now owned by the US company Mondelēz International, formerly Kraft Foods.

You can impress your friends by showing them the bear hidden in the picture of the mountain on the candy’s package. The bear has long been a heraldic symbol on the Bern coat of arms.

Ferrero Rocher
When it comes to chocolate, Ferrero Rocher has its own distinctive shape. Wrapped in golden foil, each candy is a small sphere made of a hazelnut, chocolaty cream, a crisp shell, and milk chocolate, sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts—in order, from the center out.

Italian confectioner Pietro Ferrero began selling chocolates in 1942, and the Ferrero company was founded four years later. But it wasn’t until 1982 that Ferrero Rocher was born. The Ferrero Group, now headquartered in Germany, has grown to become the third-largest producer of chocolate confectionaries, behind Mars and Mondelēz, and before Nestlé.

In the forty years before Ferrero Rocher was born, the Ferrero company was anything but dormant. During that time it introduced Nutella and Tic Tacs, as well as the Kinder line of candies. Kinder, of course, includes the Kinder Surprise, or Kinder Egg, an egg-shaped chocolate candy with a hollow center that contains a small toy.

While Kinder is also a staple of many airport stores, don’t make the mistake of trying to bring them into the US. If you do, and you’re caught, the candy will be confiscated, and you could get tagged with a fine. That’s because they’re considered a choking hazard and are banned in the States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that in 2011 they seized more than 60,000 Kinder Eggs coming in with travelers and in international mail.

(“The Chocolate Industry,” International Cocoa Organization, January 23, 2015; “Don’t Be ‘Surprised’ by Kinder Eggs: Seizures Double,” April 5, 2012)

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