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Features

On the Road

As part of our transition between California and the east coast, my husband and I decided to take several months to travel the world. From volunteering on a French dairy farm to biking through the Baltic States to taking the Trans Siberian railroad to doing a homestay with Mongolian nomads, it's been quite an adventure.  I'm trying to keep up with it all  here.

Stick To The Goat At Hand

Last summer my husband, Peter, and I spent two weeks on a family farm in France—a sort of "working vacation" in which we exchanged labor for room and board. The farm was home to a menagerie of pigs, cows, dogs, cats, chickens, and pigeons, but lucky for us, we didn't have to worry about any of them. Our sole responsibility was the family's herd of goats, which we were supposed to milk twice a day. It was the easiest job on the farm. And yet one morning, halfway into our stay, we managed to almost blow it.

In a piece for O Magazine, I learn the benefits of single-minded focus -- courtesy of a herd of French dairy goats.

Mindfuless Meditation for O

I've been meaning to start a daily mindfulness meditation practice for a long time, but thanks to this assignment from O, The Oprah Magazine, I actually started one. (And then got to participate in a full-day photo shoot that involved almost getting attacked by a bull.)

We've all had the experience of sensing time decelerate naturally when we're not so thrilled about what we're doing (think torturous spinning class or hour-long "synergy workshop" at the office). As my dear grandmother would have said, it takes only one colonoscopy to prove that time is relative. But what about the more enjoyable times in life? I hoped that practicing the popular and proven type of meditation called mindfulness—which focuses on bringing awareness to the present moment—might help me slow those times down as well.

A Taste Of Chocolate At a Former Army Post

Last weekend I had the pleasure not just of attending a workshop about chocolate, but of writing about it for the New York Times.

Wearing a short-sleeve shirt embroidered with his name, Mr. Recchiuti, whose shop is in the Ferry Building Marketplace, looked more like a mechanic than a fine chocolatier — albeit one with cocoa powder on his hands instead of grease.

He greeted each of his 19 students with a spoonful of liquid chocolate and a white plate holding eight samples arranged like numbers on a clock, with a small bowl with two roasted cocoa beans and a pinch of chocolate-covered barley — a “taste project” — at the center. The students would taste single-origin varieties of chocolate from around the world, and watch Mr. Recchiuti transform chocolate into confections that presumably could be replicated at home.

Diabetes Update

It's nearly 2010 and, guess what? I still have Type 1 diabetes. Sucks. So I'm writing about it -- on a site called A Sweet Life. My latest contributions:

-a review of Riva Greenberg's 50 Diabetes Myths That Can Ruin Your Life -- and the 50 Diabetes Truths That Can Save It

-a review and taste test of yacon powder, a would-be wonder tuber that's supposed to be a great sugar substitute

-an interview with Yale professor and researcher (and Type 1 diabetic) Kevan Herold

And, lastly, a guest post on Six Until Me about how to cope with holiday food.

The Sludge Report

phpthumb_generated_thumbnailjpgIf you want to avoid having conversations about your work, I highly recommend telling people that you're writing a three-part series about sewage sludge. It tends to shut them up quick. Thankfully, though, my personal sludge hell is reaching an end: The series was just published on Grist. Part one explains current uses of sewage sludge, and the rebranding effort it took to get there:

"The renaming contest [for sludge] received over 250 entries, many of which suggested that even water quality professionals still enjoy a good poop joke. Submissions included “bioslurp,” “black gold,” “sca-doo,” “hu-doo,” “geoslime,” and “the end product”; one person proposed rebranding sludge as “R.O.S.E.” (“Recycling Of Solids Environmentally”). Critics asked whether a rose by any other name would still smell as bad, and in 1991 WEF settled on “biosolids,” a term that Sheldon Rampton, co-author of Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, suggests “must have been chosen precisely because it evokes absolutely nothing in the minds of people who hear it."

Part two is about turning poop into gold -- or, more specifically, figuring out ways to recycle it into a marketable commodity. (Though, actually, there's a sewage treatment plant in Japan that is literally mining gold out of crap -- I kid you not.)

And part three is about shitting in a bucket. Or, more precisely, composting toilets.

The research for this series was provided by a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Reporting.

The Locavore's Dilemma

Ordinarily, I would never eat turnips. I managed to go 30 years without buying one. But now every winter I'm faced with a two-month supply, not to mention the kale, collards, and flat-leaf Italian parsley that sit in my refrigerator, slowly wilting, filling me with guilt every time I reach past them for the milk. After three years of practice, I've figured out simple ways to deal with most of these problem vegetables: I braise the turnips in butter and white wine; I sauté the kale and collards with olive oil and sea salt; I wait until the parsley shrivels and then throw it out. The abundance of roughage is overwhelming.

I subscribe to a CSA —a program, short for "community supported agriculture," in which you pay in advance for a weekly box of fresh produce delivered from a local organic farm. For the most part, it's great -- until you reach your seventh straight week of radishes and start to lose the faith. I wrote for Slate about my attempts to get it back.

Flying the Coal-Powered Skies

In the not-so-distant future, cars could run on electricity, power plants on wind and solar energy, and city buses on zero-emission hydrogen fuel cells. But airplanes? Those just might run on coal.

Yes, coal. The U.S. Air Force wants to create a synthetic-fuel industry that, unless something better comes along, will mine America’s massive coal supply (we have more than a quarter of the world’s known reserves) and turn it into enough jet fuel for half its domestic operations to run on a 50/50 blend of synthetic and regular fuel by 2016. By the Air Force’s logic, it has no choice. It uses more fuel than all the other branches of the military combined, burning through 2.5 billion gallons of the stuff in 2007 alone—10 percent of the total used by the entire domestic-aviation fuel market—at a cost of $5.6 billion. And although oil prices have dropped in recent months, no one expects the relief to last indefinitely. Yet alternative fuels for aviation are hard to come by. The Air Force says it’s open to all sources of power for its fleet, but according to former assistant secretary of the Air Force William Anderson, petroleum, natural gas and coal are our only current options—and when you look at the U.S.’s resources, the choice is clear. “We’re not the largest holder of oil reserves, so that’s not a good option,” he says. “We’re not the biggest holder of natural gas. But we are the Saudi Arabia of coal.”

For Popular Science, I investigated the Air Force's plan to launch a domestic industry for coal-derived jet fuel.

Volitan: The Sun-Powered Sailboat

I wrote an article for Popular Science about a Turkish sailboat powered not just by wind, but by sun. A teaser for the nautically inclined:

A desire to make boating clean again inspired Hakan Gürsu and Sözüm Dogan of the Turkish design firm Designnobis to envision a zero-emission, engine-assisted boat that didn’t burn a drop of fuel—and was swank enough for the yachting set. Their solution is Volitan, a 105-foot concept sailboat powered by nothing but sun and wind. The ship’s strong, lightweight body is made from a composite of carbon fiber and epoxy resin and covered in carbon-foam lamination. Its two solid, solar-panel-covered sails, which extend from the ship’s body like wings (the boat is named after a flying fish found in the Mediterranean), catch wind when the sailing is good, and deliver electricity to the two 200-horsepower electric motors that propel the ship when the wind won’t cooperate. Controlled by an onboard computer, the wings rotate and tilt to track both the sun and wind. The energy they harvest is stored in conventional marine batteries that sit at the bottom of the boat’s centerboard and act as ballast.

The Great Awakening

For Outside Magazine, I spent a night in a strip mall in Fremont with a bunch of electrodes attached to my head, doing a sleep evaluation. I can't say it was the best night I ever had, but it made me even more obsessed with my eight hours a day than I was before. And believe me when I say that I take my sleep seriously.

As little as 20 hours without sleep leaves you with the same impaired attention and slow reflexes of someone who is legally drunk. Chris Eatough, six-time winner of the World Solo 24 Hours of Adrenaline Championship mountain-bike race, says that during a day-long competition, his vision will occasionally stop. "I'll be flying downhill with rocks and trees to dodge," he says, "and I'll get a snapshot of the trail that doesn't change for four or five seconds."

Omega-3 Phatty Acids

Oct. 17, 2006 | I can't say I've ever eaten yogurt fortified with microencapsulated fish fat before, but hell, there's a first time for everything. I'm in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and Ian Lucas, executive vice president of global marketing at a marine research company called Ocean Nutrition, has just handed me a spoon. The yogurt sitting between us is flecked with peach, but it also contains a surprise: powdered oil from smushed anchovies, encapsulated in pork gelatin. You might say it's surf and turf in a cup. It's also just one of a slew of newly developed food products that have been fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. With the yogurt still in front of me, Lucas pours a large, cold glass of fish-oil fortified milk as I rip open a bag of omega-3 tortilla wraps -- all products that contain what's referred to in industry circles as designer lipids. Food technologists working the world over have been busy figuring out how to shrink fish oil capsules to microscopic size and bake them into bagels. Entire companies have devoted themselves to breeding algae laden with omega-3, which can be dried into flakes and used as animal feed, or sprayed as powder and used in food products. There are already omega-3-fortified eggs and infant formulas on the market (not to mention margarine, gummy candies, orange juice, fruit chews, nutrition bars, chocolate, bread, pizza crust and, yes, yogurt) -- and eventually there will be omega-3-fortified cake. There will be cookies. There will be omega-3 ice creams and cheeses. Research has even begun on omega-3 pâté.

I'll admit it: I went through a year of my life where I was obsessed with omega-3 fatty acids. Luckily for me, Salon shared the love.

A Chicken in Every Plot, a Coop in Every Backyard

Novella Carpenter remembers the day she killed her first chicken. It was a rooster named Twitchy who had been injured by an opossum that got into her backyard chicken flock. About to leave for vacation, Ms. Carpenter, 34, had no way of caring for the wounded Twitchy while she was away. So she took it to the back porch and chopped off its head.

Before I wrote this article for the dining section of the New York Times, I had no idea you could keep chickens in the city. Now I kind of want to get some.

The Anonymity Experiment

In 2006, David Holtzman decided to do an experiment. Holtzman, a security consultant and former intelligence analyst, was working on a book about privacy, and he wanted to see how much he could find out about himself from sources available to any tenacious stalker. So he did background checks. He pulled his credit file. He looked at Amazon.com transactions and his credit-card and telephone bills. He got his DNA analyzed and kept a log of all the people he called and e-mailed, along with the Web sites he visited. When he put the information together, he was able to discover so much about himself—from detailed financial information to the fact that he was circumcised—that his publisher, concerned about his privacy, didn’t let him include it all in the book.

I spent a week trying to live as anonymously as possible and reported on the results in Popular Science. The experiment was hell, but it was worth it: the piece was recently selected for The Best American Science Writing 2009 (HarperCollins). 

I was also invited to participate in a podcast on the topic.

What Every Freelancer Should Know

I could never be happy in a traditional job. I hate fluorescent lights. I detest working in groups. While I can get interested in just about anything, nothing interests me enough for it to be a full-time career. Also -- and, to me, this is no small thing -- the smell of office carpet makes me existentially depressed. So I became a freelancer -- thus joining the growing armada of the self-employed who sit at the same cafe table every day and thrust their business cards in your face during casual conversation. For the most part, it is a satisfying existence, a life of freedom and flexibility and almost no personal connection to "The Office." Then there are days when the clock slips past noon, but I haven't been outside, I haven't spoken to another human being, and I start to wonder if I'm going to wake up one morning when I'm 70 and regret never having owned a pantsuit.

It's true: I have a love-hate relationship with my career choice. In celebration of tax day, I put together some freelancing tips for Salon.

Jesus is Magic

As the annual convention of the Fellowship of Christian Magicians kicks off on a hot July afternoon, the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University is awash in displays of irreverent reverence. Ventriloquists converse with Scripture-quoting puppets, unicyclists pedal through the halls, and a man plays "Amazing Grace" on a turkey baster. In the gym, vendors sell mysteriously materializing Communion cups, paper that dissolves in water (perfect for making sins "disappear"), and fire-spouting Bibles ($50 each, they open "with or without flames"). Visitors to the auditorium are greeted by a Noah's ark and Jesus, life-size and complete with cross and crown of thorns, made from balloons by a group of self-described "balloonatics." Outside, preteens wearing gold crosses and short shorts practice high kicks: The five-day event coincides with a gathering of the Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders.

I attended the annual summer convention of the International Fellowship of Christian Magicians and reported on it for Mother Jones.

At a Tomato Tasting, Notes of Pond and Paint

Ms. Noble, professor emerita at the University of California, Davis, said the rules were simple. Close your eyes. Don’t talk. Turn off the background music. Smell before you taste. Each tester was given a comment sheet that included suggestions from Ms. Noble for tasting notes, like melon, apple, cinnamon, coffee and pumpkin. “With the first one you’re likely to say, ‘Oh God, it smells like a tomato — how will I kill the next half hour?’ ” she said. “But that’s O.K. It takes time. And just think — you might come up with the perfect word no one has ever used to describe that note.”

With that, she set the tasters free.

During the summer, my diet primarily consists of fresh tomatoes and mozarella (and strawberries) -- so I was thrilled to get to attend a tomato tasting in Capay valley and report on it for The New York Times.

In a Classical World, Nerds Walk With Gods

Don't get Andrea Goldstein started on "Troy," the 2004 film based on Homer's "Iliad" that starred Brad Pitt as Achilles. A freshman at the University of Chicago, Ms. Goldstein, 18, was so incensed after seeing the movie that she wrote an anti-"Troy" polemic in her high school newspaper. "On an absolute value scale of 10 to -10, this film gets a -7," she wrote, granting it a generous 3 points for set design and for its casting Orlando Bloom, whom she said did a good job "playing himself," as self-involved Paris. "It's like a train wreck: you stare in fascinated revulsion."

I love Latin. And apparently, I'm not alone -- as I discovered when I researched this piece for the New York Times about teenagers who are obsessed with the language.

In South Korea, Immersion in Buddhist Austerity

Be forewarned — the point of the temple stay is not, as the pictures on its Web site might make it seem, to lounge next to a brook nibbling crackers as you consider what it means to reach nirvana. The point is to live like a monk. And monks, it turns out, keep strict schedules, are vegetarian and spend a lot of time silently meditating in positions that can become, quickly and without much warning, incredibly uncomfortable for those unused to them. I got my first hint of this austere lifestyle when I arrived and was greeted by Cho Hyemun-aery, who introduced herself in fluent English. In the guesthouse, she showed me the communal bathroom and the small room my friend and I would stay in, which was unfurnished except for sleeping pads, blankets and small pillows. Then, after we’d dropped off our bags, Ms. Cho handed us our clothes for the weekend: two identical extra-large sets of baggy gray pants and vests, along with sun hats and blue plastic slippers. We looked like we’d stepped out of a propaganda poster for Maoist China.

On a trip to South Korea, I decided to participate in a Korean temple stay, and wrote about the experience for the New York Times.

Vows: Shoshana Berger and Tony Saxe

The projects in ReadyMade, Shoshana Berger's do-it-yourself magazine for the MTV generation, are rated according to difficulty, with instructions that should be easy to follow. But sometimes it's easier to build a chandelier from old wine glasses — an idea from a 2005 issue — than it is to build a relationship. Just ask Ms. Berger.

Step aside Lois Smith Brady: in what might be my sole foray into the Mergers and Acquisitions section, I got to profile a fantastic couple for the New York Times' Vows column.

Alternet: Will Saying Thanks Make Us Happier?

Positive psychologists endorse several research-tested [gratitude] exercises. These include keeping a "gratitude journal," where you record a running list of things for which you're grateful; making a conscious effort to "savor" all the beauty and pleasures in your daily life; and writing a "gratitude letter" to some important person in your life whom you've never properly thanked.

These gratitude exercises all sounded pleasant enough, but would they work for me? While I'm not currently depressed, I'm very aware that depression runs in my family: I'm the only person-including the dog-who has not yet been on Prozac. So I decided to indulge in all three of these exercises over a six-week period, risking the possibility that I might become an insufferably happy and cheerful person. 

Originally written for Greater Good Magazine, this piece is about a 6-week gratitude experiment in which I overdosed on gratitude exercises to see if they'd have a positive effect on my mood.