The perils of digitization

February 17, 2011

This semester I decided to put my career plan of digital history into action, taking on a semester project to digitize a decade of the Banner. The project was to both give me experience in the process of digitization, the different tools, methodologies and practices that exist, and to do some research into my own denomination.

This really was a terrible idea.

I mean, it isn’t really terrible. I am learning a lot and slowly am making progress.

The good news is I am learning about a lot of open-source, creative solutions to digitization. Because Yale, for all its money and prestige, is probably the least friendly place to be taking on this project. Just a reminder that prestige does not equate to best resources, particularly if one is trying to do something “new.”

Sorry, venting. Anyway, I will digitize these Banners, if it kills me.

Current attempt: build your own scanner with a digital camera and process the images with Linux-based software. It may not be “professional,” but it will be functional.

Images to follow. If this works, I will post on how you too can digitize on a minimal budget!

About adventure #2…

October 17, 2010

So, yeah. It’s October. Middle of October. When did that happen? Where have I been?

The second adventure was a camping trip in Vermont! It was wonderful. We survived a freak thunderstorm, hiked a washed out trail, realized that I packed too much food (again), and really enjoyed getting away from the normal surroundings. Vermont is beautiful and there were areas to camp that didn’t cater to 500 RVs.

The rest of the summer was spent working, traveling to Michigan (yay!) and getting ready for another semester. And that semester has been taking up much of my time since September. That and applying to PhD programs. More about that to come…

Summer Adventures #1

August 12, 2010

This summer has been a momentous summer for me! This summer I have rediscovered that I do indeed have hobbies! I had lost them for the past, oh, 7 years. (Am I really that old? Did I really graduate High School in 2003? What have I been doing with myself?)

It sounds crazy but it’s true. I became so absorbed in school, in making an impression, in appearing smart, that for the past few years, the question of “what are your hobbies” has left me fumbling over words, confused, and wanting to hide under the table until everyone forgets that they ever met me. Because what kind of answer is, “Um… reading… thinking… procrastinating…?” Don’t get me wrong, I still do all of those, frequently and quite well. But I realized this summer that I do indeed do other things.

The first rediscovered hobby is gardening. Now this will come as a shock to those of you who have seen me kill multiple houseplants. (The only ones that have continued to live under my care are a small bamboo plant – b/c it’s a weed – and an orchid plant – which is just amazing, but I’m pretty sure it will never flower again.) However, there was a time, when I was young, that I successfully planted things and this summer that activity was revived. On a relatively small scale. We have 5 tomato plants out front and about 8 basil plants in the back! I will be cooking Italian throughout the month of August.* And the tomato plants are huge! (thus the “relatively” describing the scale.) Anyway, they were planted in the front for two reasons: 1. it gets the most light, and 2. as an act of reclaiming public space for the production of food. And so far it’s been a hit! The neighbors snag a few when they pass by (not enough) and we have enough fresh tomatoes to OD on.**

Here is our little garden:

Tomato Plants

The little guy in front, that’s a pepper plant. Recently grew about 15 buds… oh boy!

Pepper Plant

Next, we have a German Heirloom

German Heirloom

Next, Caspian Pinks

Caspian Pink

Then Beefsteak (which have oddly decided to look like Romas)

Cherry Tomatoes, which are taking over the world…

And Romas. Which are also growing rather oddly. But they taste good.

Our first real harvest was last weekend. It was glorious. And much of it was turned into tomato sauce today!

Harvest 1

And that is hobby number #1 of the summer. Is it fall yet?

* I have just been informed that this is wishful thinking. More like through the end of October. Goody.

**If you live in New Haven and would like to help us by taking some of the tomatoes, please let me know!

New Directions

July 21, 2010

This blog will be taking a new direction. While general ponderings will still be included (because musing is what I do), I am concocting a new theme that will be amusing, informative, and keep you up to date with the adventures in our lives. My attempt at a serious academic blog is floundering. So we’ll try humor and story-telling next 🙂

Hope you enjoy!

I love salt. A lot. Always have. So when this article appeared in the New York Times on the push to lower salt consumption I was intrigued. Then I realized it was about food politics and I got excited.

The gist of the argument is that, on the one hand, there is evidence that the amount of salt in the American diet presents a major health risk. In contrast, the major food producers argue that salt content is a minor concern in relation to, for example, the quantity of food consumed, and that to substantially reduce salt in many food products would both destroy the flavor and make it too expensive to produce the foods.

Before I give some of the priceless tidbits from this article, let me forewarn you of my bias. As you may already know, I am pretty skeptical about agribusiness and large food corporations. My own opinion is that natural foods, grown or raised locally, prepared fresh and not packaged in boxes are healthier for you and better for the world. So I tend to be suspicious of the arguments presented by companies like ConAgra or other large food corporations.That being said, lets examine some of the incredible claims made in this article.

Quotable Quote #1: “[Food] Industry insiders call the strategy [for defeating attempts to regulate salt in foods] “delay and divert” and say companies have a powerful incentive to fight back: they crave salt as a low-cost way to create tastes and textures. Doing without it risks losing customers, and replacing it with more expensive ingredients risks losing profits.”

The key here is that salt is necessary for making the packaged, processed foods that we love – the crackers, the chips, the canned soups, the microwave meals. Salt creates “tastes and textures” cheaply and allow the companies to avoid using “more expensive ingredients” that would cut into their profits. Sounds somewhat reasonable… until you read this…

Quotable Quote #2: “Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called “warmed-over flavor,” which, the scientists said, can make meat taste like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair.””

So, by saying that salt makes it possible to make foods cheaply, what we’re really saying is that salt covers up the fact that processed foods and their ingredients, on their own, taste like “cardboard” and “damp dog hair.”  Well, yes, I can see why reducing salt would pose a problem to the food producers. Who would buy something that tastes like damp dog hair? And yet, not all foods without salt taste so terrible… tomatoes on their own taste just fine. Meat without salt, though a little lacking in luster perhaps, is a far cry from dog hair. So what are they using that requires so much salt?

Quotable Quote #3: “Making deep cuts in salt can require more expensive ingredients that can hurt sales. Companies that make low-salt pasta sauces improve the taste with vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh herbs that cost more than dried spices and lower grade tomatoes.”

Ooohh. I see. So companies have been making foods with cheaper ingredients and making up the difference with salt in order to increase their profit margin. Heaven forbid they have to use fresh herbs and “vine-ripened tomatoes.” I mean, be reasonable…

Quotable Quote #4: “In recent months, food companies, including Kellogg, have said they were redoubling efforts to reduce salt. But they say they can go only so far, so fast without compromising tastes consumers have come to relish or salt’s ability to preserve food. “We have to earn the consumer’s trust every day,” said George Dowdie, a senior vice president of Campbell Soup. “And if you disappoint the consumer, there is no guarantee they will come back.””

This is a beautiful piece of rhetoric. Such care for the consumer… or really such care for the market share. Never mind that the food is potentially detrimental to the consumer’s health, the consumers’ trust involves providing a consistent taste. Never mind that they created the taste that consumers have become attached to in the first place. Using the consumer in order to avoid having to change a process that is, frankly, questionably healthy. Very clever.

Quotable Quote #5: “Dr. Howard Moskowitz, a food scientist and consultant to major food manufacturers, said companies had not shown the same zeal in reducing salt as they had with sugars and fat. While low-calorie sweeteners opened a huge market of people eager to look better by losing weight, he said, salt is only a health concern, which does not have the same market potential.”

Oh sad but probably true. Oh the educated discerning American consumer. Does it affect how we look? Not really. Is it part of the huge diet/weight-loss industry? Not really. Well then, no big deal. Never mind that it might be detrimental to our health.

Quotable Quote #6: “The food industry has identified the [nutrition] guidelines as a battleground. The panel needs “to include expertise and perspective related to food product development,” the Grocery Manufacturers Association wrote to the Agriculture Department in nominating 7 of the panel’s 13 members.

Food companies then peppered the committee with their perspective on salt. In a letter, Kellogg said that lower salt guidelines were “incompatible with a palatable diet.””

This part frustrates me. The government committee that regulates the food industry is made up of a majority of people somehow connected to the current food industry, because they are “experts” on “food product development.” That is just terribly circular. True, they are experts, but committed to a particular model of food production that, given the information above, is not exactly above criticism. How can they regulate if they are committed to the existing model?

That aside, the statement by Kellogg exemplifies the conceptual failure on the part of the food producers. To claim “that lower salt guidelines were “incompatible with a palatable diet”” is only true in the case of food produced in the manner that Kellogg is currently producing its product. Reduced salt and palatable diets are completely compatible if one eats few processed foods and cooks using fresh ingredients. Changing the regulations concerning salt does indeed threaten the model currently employed by the major producers of our processed foods and so they are right to worry about such change. However, government agencies and consumers need to decide what is more important: preserving the current business models and accepting food products that use both lower quality ingredients and compensate with unhealthy levels of salt or pushing companies that produce foods to be honest with the consumer about the ingredients and potential health issues involved and to educate consumers on how to prepare and eat food that is not processed.

Know what you are eating and where your food comes from, because in so many ways, we are what we eat.