The ‘Ick’ Factor

I was reading an item over at AgWeb about what appears to be a growing interest in raising insects for animal feed <click the link to read the item>. Now you wouldn’t think that there would be any interest in feeding bugs to cattle. Cows, after all, are herbivores, they eat grass, grain. And they do. But cattle also need protein, especially if you want them to grow quickly for meat or if you want them to produce milk. Most rations for beef and dairy cattle both have some kind of added protein, often in the form of fishmeal or soymeal, but sometimes other types of proteins derived from animal sources. (Until the discovery of BSE (mad cow disease) including animal protein and bone meal derived from waste from cattle processing facilities was fairly common.)

In the US and EU feeding cattle insect derived proteins is illegal, but it is a common practice in other parts of the world, and there seems to be considerable interest in the practice. There are attempts to start up companies that produce insect proteins (usually some kind of larvae) specifically as a cattle feed supplement. There seems to be some justification for the practice. It would be relatively environmentally sound because the insects would be raised mostly on organic waste that would have otherwise been discarded. They can be grown in controlled, sanitary conditions. And there’s no doubt that it could produce feed supplements that would work just as well as other supplements.

But there has been some rather strenuous objections, especially in the US and the EU, over the practice. Mostly for reasons that aren’t really all that logical. This seems to be changing, but I suspect that many of the arguments against the practice aren’t due to logic, but to the ‘ick’ factor.

In Western cultures we’ve been raised to see insects as dirty, filthy, carriers of disease, to be disgusting, horrible things that should be killed on sight. We’ve been trained to be scared of insects rather than look at them as beneficial animals that have their own and very necessary niche in nature.

This kind of cultural

Yummy yummy blutwurst

conditioning takes place in all cultures, of course. Every society, every culture, has it’s own ‘ick’ factors. Heck, I probably eat things, and enjoy them, that would make you gag. Like blutwurst or blood sausage. And yes, it’s made with real blood. Headcheese, which isn’t cheese, but is made with heads. Raw fish…. And I’m sure you eat things that would make me shudder. My sister used to dip sardines in milk. I have no idea why. And yes, she’d drink the milk after.

I’ve always been fascinated with this ick factor, why some people are disturbed, even disgusted by some things, while others find the exact same thing not at all disturbing, even kind of nice. And with how it changes in individuals, including myself.

If thirty years ago someone had told me that I would one day love squid, octopus, raw fish, eel, I’d have questioned their sanity. But I do. If they had also told me that I would one day find chicken so disgusting that just the smell of it would make me retch, I’d have told them the same thing. But I do.

People are weird.


Meal Kits? What the heck is a meal kit?

Yesterday I ran across an item over at Mother Jone’s website talking about meal kits, which are supposed to be the hot new thing in the food service industry. These things started up a fairly short time ago, offered by companies like Blue Apron, HelloFresh and many others, and according to the press (some of it anyway, not all) meal kits are the best thing ever.

So what exactly is a ‘meal kit’? The idea is this: Every day a box arrives on your doorstep. Inside of it are all the raw ingredients to make a dinner. Everything you need from the entree, to side dishes, to seasonings,to condiments are pre-portioned and individually packaged. And a recipe telling you how to make it.

And that’s it. You get a box full of raw ingredients and a recipe.

You still have to cook it. You still have to use a stove, oven, etc. You still have to mix and stir. You still have all of the dirty dishes to deal with.

Well, they at least deliver it to your door so you don’t have to shop, right?  Uh, well, no, because these are only dinners. Unless you’re eating breakfast and lunch at a restaurant every day, you still have to go shopping for food.

So you still have to shop. You still have to mix, stir and actually cook. You still have to clean up afterwards and deal with the dishes. So this is useful for, well, who, exactly? People who can’t plan a meal, I suppose?

Then there is the cost. These things seem to be just a wee bit on the pricey side. We’re looking at anywhere from $9 to $50 or more per meal, per person depending on the service you’re talking about. Now I don’t know what restaurant prices are like where you live, but around here that basically means you’d be paying more for a box full of raw ingredients that you have to cook yourself, than  you would pay for a comparable meal at a restaurant, even at the low end of the meal kit price structure. I took a look at some of the menus from these places and figured that one chicken based meal they were sending out for $9 per person could be made for about $3.75 per person.

So just what is the point of all of this? Apparently the only thing this service does is relieve you of the horrible responsibility of — of planning what to have for dinner?

The ads for these places tout the ‘freshness’ of their ingredients. They wax poetic about ‘sustainable’ this and ‘environmental’ that, about how their “chefs” partner with “trusted farmers”. And all of that means pretty much nothing because all of those terms could be applied to just about anything.

The Mother Jones article linked to at the start of this turned up some rather troubling information about these meal kit companies. It seems that I’m not the only one who looks at meal kits with a skeptical eye. Apparently their own customers do as well.

According to independent marketing data that MJ dug up, half or more of the people who sign up for these things cancel the service within the first week. And only 10% or less kept the service after six months. Despite massive injections of venture capital, none of these companies have managed to achieve a positive cash flow from the scanty data I’ve tracked down. They’re continuing to exist only by burning through hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital as they desperately try to attract new customers to replace the customers who almost immediately cancel the service once they’ve tried it.

The companies themselves vehemently deny that their customers abandon them in droves after trying the service for only a brief time, but refuse to show any data that supports their claims.

Still, the hype goes on. Celebrity chefs are hooking up with these places, the food service press waxes poetic about the ‘potential’ of meal kits. There are services that offer specialty kits, like strictly vegan, or “all organic” or vegetarian or, hell, places that only ship their product in ‘free range’ cardboard boxes, I suppose.

I don’t know, is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this whole concept is, frankly, ridiculously silly?

Warning for OSX users

I’m not sure exactly when this happened, possibly with updating to Sierra, possible during one of the security updates to OSX that took place over the last couple of months, but you want to double check your iCloud settings on all of your iMacs and Macbooks. I didn’t find this out until I suddenly got a warning that I was running out of capacity on my iCloud drive.

I had disabled all automatic storage and backup from from my iMac to my iCloud account because I don’t need it except for photo sharing. I do my own backups to external devices so I didn’t need it for that. I also didn’t want documents, emails or other information being stored off-line out in the cloud because I don’t particularly want things like financial information, tax returns and similar information stored heaven only knows where on some server I have no control over.

Somewhere along the way, perhaps with the upgrade to Sierra, Apple decided to reset all of my iCloud preferences and now everything was turned on. It was automatically saving my entire documents folder, desktop files, contact lists, calendar, and pretty much everything out on the iCloud. Even worse, it had also turned on iCloud for every third party application that has iCloud capabilities – word processors, accounting software, a couple of photo editors — all of them were now storing duplicates of everything out on the cloud as well as on my local drives.

Not only is this a privacy concern, it also sucked up a hell of a lot of storage space, and while iCloud storage isn’t exactly expensive, it still costs money.

So if you use iMacs or Macbook computers, go to your system preferences and check your iCloud preferences so you know what’s actually being stored out on the cloud somewhere.

Important – just found out the hard way that if you do disable Sierra’s ability to “share” your documents and desktop with iCloud, and then delete the documents and desktop folders on your iCloud account, it will also delete the documents folder and any documents, photos, etc you have on your desktop from  your iMac’s local hard drive as well.

And, of course, I’d emptied the trash bin before I found this out and had to restore my documents folder from backup (Thank you Time Machine)

Additional note: Apparently just switching iCloud functions off doesn’t actually do anything. After switching it off, deleting the unwanted files from the cloud, I discovered OSX put them right back again. I had to log out of my iCloud account, reboot the computer, then log back in before the changes actually went into effect.



It’s been a weird fall here in Wisconsin

This fall has been ridiculously warm. You’d think we’d like this unusually warm fall up here in the land of blizzards, frozen cars, burst water pipes and children frozen to flag poles. But we don’t. Not really. We’re not used to this.

img_0828It’s October 23, and I’m still harvesting eggplant and peppers, for heaven’s sake. I mean look at that box full I picked this morning over there on the left. And there seems to be no end in sight. The eggplant and assorted pepper plants are in full bloom, loaded with baby fruit. I’m harvesting dill for the second time this year. I have a second crop of spring onions about ready to eat. I planted those at the end of September. I have chives coming out my ears. I’d be drying those but we already have far, far more chives than we know what to do with. The greek oregano is going crazy. It’s over a foot tall and in full bloom, for the second time this year. Same with the sage. Some of my hostas have put out flower stalks for the second time this season. I was looking back in the tomato bed that I cleaned out at the end of September and found a dozen or more volunteer tomato plants newly sprouted, some six inches tall already. I’m tempted to pot some of them and see if they’ll grow indoors.

According to the recording thermometer the coldest night we’ve had has been about 41. Daytime temperatures have generally been up in the high 60s to low 70s. The only way we know it’s fall is that the days are much shorter and the trees are losing their leaves.

This isn’t a horrible thing, this extended warm streak. It certainly is keeping the heating costs down. But it’s, well, odd. It doesn’t feel right. And you can tell it’s bothering people. They seem nervous, edgy, waiting for the other shoe to drop. We all have this feeling of mild dread.

I don’t know if it’s our upbringing, or some kind of inherent human trait, but we all seem to share it. We all get this feeling that something is too good. Some malicious deity or force of nature or something is deliberately lulling us into a false sense of security, and then wham, drops ten feet of snow on us, or plunges the temperature down to -30, or — or something is going to happen.

The thing is, we like winter up here. We like the snow. We like the bone chilling cold. It’s part of our heritage. It’s part of our nature.

We complain about the cold, the winter, true. But if you listen to those complaints, you begin to realize that we also take a perverse pride in it as well, pride in our ability to deal with it. And an enormous amount of delight in laughing at the people down south when an inch of snow shuts down the entire metro Atlanta area.

Our complaints about the cold and snow are part of the fun, the bragging about how cold it was, the complaints about shoveling six feet of snow off the porch before we could even get outside to get to the outhouse.

Well, okay, the outhouse thing is a bit outdated. We’ve had real indoor plumbing here in Wisconsin for, oh, two or three years now. But you know what I mean.

What’s the point in living in Wisconsin if we can’t brag about the bad weather any more? Is it really worth putting up with living here if we can’t laugh at the people in Illinois because they don’t know how to drive in the snow any more?


State may expand funding for dairy farm digesters: (Here we go again, GF)

Agency approves $7.7 million for solar and other renewable projects at homes and businesses.

Source: State may expand funding for dairy farm digesters

I’m all for alternative energy sources, but putting any kind of tax funding or other subsidies into manure digesters in the belief that they will somehow help deal with the impact of manure on water pollution, well contamination, quality of life problems caused by manure from CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) is utterly ridiculous.

CAFOs like the mega dairy farms here in Wisconsin and other parts of the country, large animal feedlot operations and pork operations that raise thousands upon thousands of animals, produce such large amounts of manure that it is mind boggling. One single dairy farm here in Wisconsin produces as much manure as a city of 180,000 people.

And, of course, that manure has to be disposed of somehow. One of these days I’m going to have to tell you horror of manure disposal here in Wisconsin. I don’t want to get into that now because if I could probably do a thousand words on just that. So let’s stick to digesters.

The idea behind digesters has been around for a long time. The manure is put into air tight holding tanks. Bacteria is added to the mix. The bacteria thrive in this environment, and as they grow and multiply, they produce, among other things, methane gas. Because the tank is sealed, the methane accumulates and is piped off and used to power engines which drive generators to produce electricity.

It sounds rather logical, I suppose. You can produce electricity from cow poo, or pig poo, or whatever kind of poo you shove into the tank. It sounds all ‘green’ and environmental and good for the planet, doesn’t it, producing electricity from manure. It solves a lot of problem, doesn’t it? Gets rid of the manure, makes electricity to keep all of our gadgets running…

Only doesn’t do any of that. Not really. Especially not the getting rid of the manure part.

These things are ridiculously expensive, first of all. We’re talking millions of dollars even for a relatively small one. Without heavy taxpayer subsidies, no farm could afford to put one of these in. Special holding tanks have to be built, first of all, because they have to be completely sealed to keep the gas in. Otherwise all that methane is going to go straight up into the atmosphere, and since methane is a green house gas that is much worse than CO2.

The gas that comes off these things  is highly corrosive. That means all of the pipes, tanks, even the engines used to run the generators, are extremely expensive to make because special materials have to be used to prevent them from just corroding away. Special filter systems have to be installed to remove unwanted elements from the gas, dryers to remove moisture… The list goes on and on.

The whole process is neither efficient, nor is it ‘clean’ by any stretch of the imagination.

Oh, and did I mention they explode sometimes? Like this one that happened at a digester here in Wisconsin. If you click the link to the jsonline article, you’ll note that the project has been plagued with problems from the beginning. And this isn’t the only one that’s had major difficulties. Plug ‘manure digester explosion’ into Google and you’ll see what I mean.

But they generate electricity, right? Well, sort of. Not much. Certainly no where near enough electricity to pay for building and maintaining one of these systems. And it isn’t “clean” energy by any stretch of the imagination because it still generates electricity the good old fashioned way, by burning stuff. Burning methane is cleaner than burning coal or oil, but it still produces waste material like CO2 and other gases.

They’re pushing these things by claiming that they somehow help to eliminate the manure disposal problems CAFOs have. So let’s look at that.

They don’t. I’m sorry, they just don’t. They do nearly nothing to eliminate manure disposal problems.

The digestion process does alter the chemical composition of the manure, I’ll grant you that. It will reduce the amount of phosphorus, and that’s important because it is a major problem around here. Phosphorus runoff causes toxic algae blooms in lakes, causing major fish die offs. We have huge dead zones in the Bay of Green Bay on Lake Michigan that seem to get bigger every year, due to phosphorus.

But that’s all these digesters do, remove some of the phosphorus. And only some of it. About half of it still remains. And the other pollutants in the manure remain virtually unscathed.

And then there’s the quantities involved. You put 100,000 gallons of manure into a digester and what you get out the other end when the process is done is, well, 100,000 gallons of manure. It does absolutely nothing to reduce the sheer quantity of manure.

The single biggest problem with manure is the sheer volume of it, and digesters do absolutely nothing about that. All the digesters seem to be is little more than a lame attempt at ‘greenwashing’, trying to cover up the real problem.

The Echo from Amazon

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-8-39-44-amI’ve been curious about the Echo from Amazon for a while now, and I finally broke down and bought one, suspecting that like most of the high tech gadgets I end up with, it would be an enormous disappointment. I’ve heard all the ridiculous hype, and in the vast majority of cases, ridiculous hype is exactly what the claims for these products turns out to be. But in the case of the Echo, well, it seems to pretty much live up to all of the hype. I’m having a lot of fun with this thing.

I didn’t really expect much from the Echo at first. About the only reason I bought it was because it’s supposed to be able to link to Amazon music and I have Amazon’s unlimited music service.

So this thing showed up on my doorstep two days ago and I get to work setting it up. Amazon doesn’t exactly make this easy. You apparently can’t just plug it in and turn it on. You have to download an app for an IOS or Android device, and use that to set it up. So right off the bat I’m irritated because I didn’t remember anything in the product descriptions that said you had to have a cell phone or tablet just to use the thing. It turns out that apparently you can activate it from a computer by going to a website. But Amazon never said that anywhere that I could see in the product description either. I didn’t find out about that until I was searching for answers to problems I was having.

I installed the app on my iPad, but not without some misgivings because the app has one of the worst reviewer ratings I’ve ever seen and the first five reviews on the app store claimed that the app either didn’t work at all or had major problems. This did not bode well, as they say.

Still, it did work, and setting it up wasn’t that difficult. The instructions in the app were fairly simple to follow, and after typing in passwords, linking it to my home WiFi network and all that fun stuff, it was up and running.

Now I’ve never had much luck with speech recognition systems in the past. Siri, for example, can’t seem to understand a word I say. I thought it was just me, but apparently she can’t figure out with my wife or sons say either.

The Echo, though, was an entirely different story. The default code word to get the Echo’s attention is Alexa. You say Alexa first, followed by what you want it to do. So I said “Alexa what’s the weather for tomorrow”. And a pleasant feminine voice told me what the weather was going to be.

Damn, this thing actually works?

I tried other requests, using my normal voice, normal pronunciation, at various levels of loudness, and… Well, damn, it just — just worked. The voice recognition on this thing is, for me anyway, amazingly good. And it worked even when the ambient noise levels were fairly high. I run air filters, fans, various equipment back here in the office, and it never seemed to have a problem understanding what I said, even when I was talking quietly.

What I bought it for, though, was easy access to music. I have Amazon’s unlimited music service (extra cost option for Prime members which claims to be able to stream “tens of millions of songs” for just eight bucks a month) and I’d never really used it for very much. So I started messing with the Echo and seeing what I could dig up.

So for giggles I said “Alexa play The Laughing Policeman”. And it did. Okay… Play songs by Al Jolson… And it did. Play the latest Katy Perry album. And it did. Play Court of the Crimson King, and it did. Apparently there really are tens of millions of songs in there.

But back to the Echo, because that’s what this is supposed to be about.

It can answer some questions, not all, but there is a significant amount of information linked into the system.

It’s linked into TuneIn, so it can live stream a large number of radio stations. It has the current weather and weather predictions for every place I’ve asked about. Can read me the news. It’s even linked to my Kindle library and can read my Kindle books that have the audio enabled.

It has other capabilities as well. It can set alarms, links to Google Calendar, and has other “skills” (i.e. capabilities you can add to the Echo via the Alexa app that are usually associated with spending more money, like buying stuff by voice)

This thing is impressive.

Problems? Well, sure, there are always problems.

The Alexa app gave me some problems. After I used it to initialize and set up the Echo, the app refused to re-connect to my Echo. Every time I started the App it would try to go through the entire setup procedure again.

After spending a significant amount of time trying to find answers to that problem, I resorted to the old standby, unplugging the Echo and plugging it back in. Bang, now the app worked fine.  once I got that sorted, the Alexa app has caused me no problems at all. If you bring it up it shows a list of voice commands the Echo received, what music you’ve used it to listen to, you can control the volume of the Echo with it, pause the Echo’s playback, other goodies like that.

The only other real issue I have is audio output. The built in speaker isn’t bad, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the speakers in a good stereo system. My big 1980s era Pioneer speakers are much, much better. Even my Bose system’s speakers are better. The Echo has 2 inch speakers, for pete’s sake. I don’t care how good the technology is, trying to get high fidelity sound out of a 2 inch tweeter and a 2.5 inch woofer… well, sorry.

But the Echo has no external audio output unless you resort to buying extra cost options from Amazon. None. Can’t even link bluetooth speakers to it. You’re stuck with the Echo’s built in speakers. If you want to hook up external speakers, the only option is to get something like the Tap or a Dot from Amazon.

The Tap is a battery operated speaker/microphone to listen to/control the Echo. But that will set you back $130, for crying out loud. You might as well spend the extra money and get another Echo for $180.

The other option is to get a Dot, a hockey puck sized gadget which will set you back $50. It seems to be a downsized version of the Tap. It is also battery operated and requires an external charger. The Dot will connect to an external bluetooth speaker or via a standard audio cable. And at $50 it’s a lot less than the Tap, but come on, really?

According to the Echo’s specifications, it has bluetooth capabilities built into it. It can link via bluetooth to receive audio from your phone or tablet, but it can’t send audio to an external speaker without you having to spend at least $50 for the Dot? Really? I’m sorry, I don’t believe that for a minute.

I should point out that the Echo’s speakers aren’t bad, even at high volume levels. Considering how small they are, they are pretty good. But even a mediocre external speaker system would do better.

Overall I’m surprisingly pleased with the Echo. The voice recognition system is amazingly good. The sound quality, while not outstanding, is acceptable for casual listening. It’s great for doing metric conversions like how many feet are in a meter and things like that. It can answer some questions. It does pretty good at math, too. It can give you the news, weather and sports. Ask it sports scores.

Mostly I use it for music and radio. It’s been able to play just about any radio station I want to hear.

Note: Some of the music services require you to have the Amazon unlimited music service. Other music is restricted to Amazon Prime accounts. So what you have access to via the Echo is going to vary depending on whether or not you’re in the Prime program, etc.

Is the worst designed website ever?

I would really, really like to take whoever designed this website out behind the shed and introduce them to my little friend, Mr. Smackupsidethehead.

Vertical columns that scroll up and down at different speeds from the main columns, inconsistently colored headlines, a refresh system that constantly updates the main page even as you’re viewing it so it abruptly drops you to a different part of the page while you’re still reading. Go off to read an article and click the back button and you have no idea where you’ll end up. Even more interesting, now the story blurbs on the main page are different, moved, some gone, others added. Auto-start videos that you have to manually click to turn off. Only to have them start up again as soon as you scroll. Headlines that needlessly move as you scroll.

Dear lord, my cats could design a better website than this.