Nathan Myhrvold – dinosaur-hunting, myth-busting physicist geek chef inventor tycoon (and lots of other things too)

3 Feb 2015: My piece for Intelligent Life – now FREE to read on moreintelligentlife.com.

COMMISSION FOR INTELLIGENT LIFE MAGAZINE JAN / FEB 2015 FeaturesNathan Myrhvold

Dr Nathan Myhrvold in his office with a prehistoric shark fossil and an ICBM nose cone

HEAD EAST FROM downtown Seattle, into the suburban technopolis that has grown up around Microsoft’s headquarters, and you will find the warehouses and towers of a company called Intellectual Ventures. A featureless block turns out to be the cave of a geek Aladdin. In the corridors are a second-world-war German cipher machine (part of the Enigma apparatus), a Japanese anti-aircraft gun and a whole host of shabby Bakelite and wooden machines that are the ancestors of the computer on your desk. The staff kitchen has a hybridised coffee machine, which remembers all the espressos it has ever made and can replicate them. At reception, a full-size T. rex roars out of the wall: it appeared in the film of “Jurassic Park”. In the boss’s corner office, when you’ve taken in the view of the snow-peaked Cascade mountains, you can gaze upon dinosaur toenails and an entire fossilised prehistoric crocodile. You may also spot a model of a Gulfstream V jet. The coffee table, part of a nuclear-reactor core, stands beside a hip-high cone tipped with dull metal and a shabby column of plastic and old circuit boards. This is the nose cone and command centre of a Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile, the tactical nuclear device that saw the United States through the early cold war: technology that worked because it was never used. The hoard is more than a monument to its owner’s bubbling curiosity. It is also a statement from a self-styled “technological optimist”, a man who, at 55, has an unshaken belief that human ingenuity will sort everything out. Read the rest here

Food is too cheap

cheap-eats-cover10 Jan 2015: Thrifty or lavish, we all are now guests at the discounted, buy-one-get-one-free, year-round cheap food feast, eating more than we need and paying less for it – as a proportion of our incomes – than our grandparents did, or their parents before them. This, it turns out, is not entirely a good thing.

Cover story for Newsweek magazine – free to read here 

 

For the good of animals and humans, butchers’ windows should look like this

A high Street butcher in Suffolk has been forced to take down its window display, as shoppers are said to be offended by the sight of bits of dead animals25 Feb 2014. Comment piece published in the Daily Mail (original here): A high Street butcher in Suffolk has been forced to take down its window display, as shoppers are said to be offended by the sight of bits of dead animals. Hanging pigs’ heads, limp rabbits and dead pheasants were upsetting the children.

The story is  ludicrous. But such silliness is indicative of something disturbingly wrong in our nation’s culture.

The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of ‘mutilated carcasses’.

This seems implausibly puritanical. Any child with internet access and a stack of video games will have seen far worse.

These sentimental folk are part of an ever-growing collective ignorance about food and farming that is immensely damaging not only to the countryside, to farming and to animals — but also to ourselves.

Our lack of understanding of where food really comes from is helping to create mountains of food waste and a population of fat, unhealthy Britons.

We should not underestimate the scale of that ignorance.

Last year, a survey of 27,500 children by the British Nutrition Foundation found that almost a third of those aged five to 12 thought fish fingers came from chickens or pigs. One secondary pupil in five didn’t know where potatoes came from. Ten per cent thought spuds grow on trees.

If you’re shocked by those figures, consider this: 80 per cent of the secondary school pupils surveyed had been on a ‘farm visit’, presumably arranged to counter lack of understanding of food and its sources.

The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of 'mutilated carcasses'

The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of ‘mutilated carcasses’

Few of us today spend time thinking about where our food comes from. It arrives on supermarket shelves or over the fast-food counter without any traces of its origin.

There’s no mud on our salad or root vegetables. Most fruits are so perfect, glossy and uniform, they might have been made in a factory.

Butter comes wrapped in foil and a cut of steak or a chicken thigh is sold in a plastic tub covered with plastic film. Is it any wonder that some people, confronted with the visceral reality of  an old-fashioned butcher’s window, take fright? But there is a curious double standard at work. While we recoil at the sight of a pig’s cheeks or a pheasant, we are happy to put meats of much stranger origin in our mouths: ready meals full of chemicals, sugar and preservatives, even cheap ‘beef’ dishes that turn out to have been made from horses.

The consequences of our ignorance about food’s origins are far-reaching.

First, there is the waste. The average UK family loses £60 a month throwing away usable food — nearly a meal’s worth a day. And supermarkets reject huge amounts of food because it doesn’t look right. Retailers say they are only catering for our inability to tolerate anything not recipe-book perfect.

In a refreshing bout of honesty, Tesco admitted recently that nearly half its bread products, more than two-thirds of its bagged salads and 40 per cent of its apples are thrown away. Yet this food is good and healthy.

Neither Tesco nor any other store has admitted what weight of edible parts of animals are chucked out. Yet there is little of a farm animal, other than the hide and bones, that cannot pleasurably be eaten.

Hypocrisy

As the chef Fergus Henderson says: ‘If you’re going to kill an animal, it seems only polite to use the whole thing.’ But British butchers use less of an animal than their European counterparts — half a pig’s weight, whereas an Italian butcher will make meals out of 70 per cent of the carcass.

I’ve watched the Michelin-starred chef Andrew Fairlie preparing one of his most popular dishes — a ‘plate of pork’. It was a spread of delicious, old-fashioned treats: black pudding, smoked pork belly, a terrine made from the pig’s cheeks and tongue, and cuts from the head. ‘Any self-respecting chef should be using as much of the animal as possible,’ he said.

One of the window-display horrors that the good people of Sudbury complained about was a pig’s head. These are usually thrown away now, though for our ancestors they were a treat. Think of the ancient carol The Boar’s Head, which describes a great Christmas feast, and the many pubs named after it.

The second consequence of our ignorance concerns animal welfare. Those animal-lovers who object to seeing carcasses of birds and occasional pig parts in butchers’ windows are guilty of a grim sort of hypocrisy. Anyone who truly cared about animals would support any butcher who used whole animals.

Our squeamishness is a  driving factor in two evils: cruelty to animals and damage to the environment.

Choosy consumers who will eat only the lean meat from animals at the bargain prices we demand have driven livestock farming into a crisis. It is not possible for modern farming to keep animals in a traditional and kind way while supplying a narrow range of cheap cuts.

Ninety-five per cent of the chickens and almost all  the pigs we eat are raised in factory farms, where conditions would appal anyone with any feeling for animals.

The image of Daisy the Dairy Cow, happy in a green meadow, is becoming a myth. The new milk-factory super-farms, common in the U.S., and arriving here, house cows that never see daylight and die after just four years of production. All so we can have a cheap pint of milk.  A third of British pig farms have gone out of business in the past ten years and we now import 60 per cent of our pork from Europe, where pig welfare standards are  much lower.

The third point is that eating like this is bad for us. Rather than cooking from scratch with cuts of meat from a local, trusted butcher, we buy cheap meat from unknown sources, sold to us with added salt, preservatives, flavourings, colourings and fatty, sugary sauces. This does none of us any good at all and has helped to fuel our obesity crisis.

What’s the solution?

Sign: JBS Family Butchers has reluctantly had to remove the display after it become the target of a campaign including anonymous hate mail and people hurling abuse in the shop

Sign: JBS Family Butchers has reluctantly had to remove the display after it become the target of a campaign including anonymous hate mail and people hurling abuse in the shop

As we know, British children are toured around farms on school outings but many remain uncertain of the link between an egg and a chicken. More needs to be done.

A few years ago, concerned that our own urban children were growing up just as ignorant, my wife and I decided to keep a ‘remote pig’. So with the help of a friendly farmer just outside Edinburgh, where we live, we adopted a piglet.

We visited him fortnightly, often bringing chocolate. It was a bit like having a child at boarding school – in slightly more friendly conditions.

Fond as we were of the pig, there was no sentimentality. The kids called him Crispy Bacon. And a year later the family assembled in the butchering shed as we turned the grown-up piglet into a freezer-full of delicious roasts — and sausages and bacon.

We had worried about the emotional effect this might have on the children. But on the trip home, my five-year-old saw a field full of ewes and their young. ‘Can we get a lamb?’ she asked. ‘We could eat him!’

We were pleased — and so was the farm. It now has a wider adoption programme to help other city families be remote meat-producers. It’s fun, the meat is a bargain and we have learnt a new respect for farmers and animals.

Getting back in touch with the land and the origins of our food is good for us, for the economy and for Britain. Ignorance, of the sort shown by the silly shoppers of Sudbury, is causing untold damage to our farming traditions and the animals those shoppers purport to love.

Alex Renton is author of Planet Carnivore: Why Cheap Meat Costs The Earth (Kindle and iBook, £1.99).

Original here, with 100+ comments : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2567186/Why-sake-animals-humans-I-wish-butchers-windows-looked-like-this.html#ixzz2uKneIDHE

Hunger, child nutrition and eight ways to feed the world

Wrote three stories for the Observer (links to each one below) this weekend around the G8 discussion on food security and child hunger. Interesting comments, particularly on the piece on the Gates Foundation’s work; boy, do some Guardian Online users hate the corporates. Often with good reason.

But when government has done so badly at tackling hunger among the poorest, we’re not in a position to refuse any ideas. Don’t you think? According to new research, 3.1 million children are dying every year, largely because of malnutrition – in a world with more food than it needs.

Here’s a good Economist note on the problems around using the likes of Nestle to tackle child hunger.

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Eight ways to solve world hunger

Millions of people are starving, despite the world producing more than enough to feed everyone. What can we do about it? Read more 

How lack of food security is failing a starving world

Starvation is a symptom of a larger problem involving land, health, power and ecological damage, say experts. Read more

Bill Gates: UK leading the way in tackling world hunger

Microsoft mogul addresses London rally to praise British efforts on fighting starvation

Read more