The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor, recounts the story of vanilla, which in a very real sense created flavor science. In the late 1970s, spice and flavoring company McCormick was having difficulty obtaining vanilla beans due to geopolitical issues in Madagascar, so their flavor scientists set out to create the perfect imitation vanilla. At the time, artificial flavors were crude; scientists would start their flavor analysis with trained sensory experts who listed all the flavor characteristics they could detect, then analyzed the substance with a gas chromatograph to identify every compound present, matching each with its characteristic flavor.
The McCormick scientists were close to vanilla but something was missing - a flavor component identified as “leathery” or “resinous”. When they finally isolated the compound, they used a mass spectrometer to measure its contribution and realized that the unnamed chemical (still a closely guarded trade secret) was only present in parts per trillion but was a required component. They had unlocked the secret to imitation vanilla, and the field of flavor science was born. There are now over 2,200 different flavor compounds that can be used to create just about any flavor you can imagine.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~4% of opens) was about glacier mice, mysterious little balls of moss that roll along glaciers in coordinated herds.
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Planning & Strategy.
- I enjoyed this article on the contrast between the urban planning philosophies of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, two prominent (and controversial) figures in 20th-century urban planning in NYC. The primary tension between the two was Jacobs’ support for a more organic style of growth, where cities took on a life of their own, growing from the neighborhood up, while Moses had a tendency to wield power as a dictator, from the top down.
- Each year, the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card-style grade on the condition of America’s (and each state’s) infrastructure. The 2021 report card gave both the country and my state, Missouri, a C- overall. Browsing the report details, I think that’s about right. As one example, 24 km from my house, we have a major bridge over the Missouri River undergoing major rehabilitation.
Making & Manufacturing.
- My uncle-in-law, Joe Balsamo, recently passed away at age 84. In his younger years, he was employed as one of the cartographers who created maps for the western suburbs of the city of Chicago, and many of the maps created by his generation are now considered art as much as reference. Chicago’s maps are now part of the geographic information systems service that the city provides. The Chicago In Maps website has a look at maps of the city through the years.
- I’ve always loved glassblowing as an art form, particularly scientific glassblowing. With only one college in the U.S., Salem Community College, teaching it, the field is quickly losing its best practitioners. This article, which reads a bit like a last man on Earth sci-fi epic, outlines some of the challenges faced by newcomers to the field. It’s a very specialized discipline, requiring background knowledge in organic chemistry, math, computer drawing, an apprenticeship, and obviously glassblowing.
- I’m fascinated by the JWST mirrors. From their hexagonal shape to the crazy-small alignment tolerance to the -220° C operating temperature, they’re an amazing feat of manufacturing! The mirrors were formed from beryllium mined in Utah and sent to Ohio to make blanks. From there, they went to Alabama, California, Colorado, Alabama, Colorado again, California again, Colorado a third time, to New Jersey, to Colorado a fourth time, to Alabama once more, and then on to final acceptance testing at Johnson Space Center in Houston and lift-off in French Guiana!
- When I came across this video for the Lava Me 3 carbon fiber smart guitar, I had mixed feelings. A smart guitar essentially has a musician’s gig bag built in - typically including a tuner, storage capacity for recording, a small screen that can display chords and lyrics, and possibly a lot more. There’s no doubt it can be a valuable tool, but the question for me is - do I really want all these capabilities? I’ve tended to think of my two passions - music and technology - as separate disciplines; a brief respite from the world of bytes and protocols and operating systems.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- This article on America’s digital divide, calls out both AT&T and the FCC for dropping the ball on broadband promises over the last 30 years. It turns out we (the taxpayers) have been providing the major telecom companies with tax breaks and direct funding for both broadband and “last mile” services that have never been built. However, there are some bright spots (at least in my home state) with electric cooperatives stepping up to provide rural broadband to bridge the gap.
- In South Africa, Pro-Opt Engineering developed a new all-terrain vehicle to replace the traditional donkey cart. Called the Kotonki, it’s “a front-propelled vehicle that mimics the traditional methods of a donkey pulling a cart or carrying water.” I’m a big fan of local solutions to local problems and the Kontonki looks like it has the potential to be a great one.
- In the early 70s, the Grateful Dead were really hitting their stride and it wasn’t unusual for them to play for crowds in excess of 50,000 fans. While “cutting-edge sound engineering” probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind with the Dead, they had what might have been the best live sound setup ever – the “Wall of Sound”. Designed by noted 1960’s sound engineer Owsley Stanley (who might be better known for his night job), the Wall of Sound was one of the largest non-permanent sound systems ever built and was truly a leap forward in outdoor live sound at the time. For the audiophile, a more technical explanation; a fan builds a replica mini Wall of Sound.
Distribution & Logistics.
As quickly as it boomed, the trucking industry appears to be on the cusp of another bust, with some industry vets calling it “The Great Purge.” The industry is twice as likely to suffer a downturn as the rest of the economy and frequently acts as a bellwether for the economy at large.
Speaking of the trucking industry, the explosion of big box retail was largely enabled by the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. The act deregulated the trucking industry, lowering costs at the expense of driver pay and benefits, largely removing union protections, and placing an entire industry of solidly middle-class workers on increasingly shaky ground. While some economists argue that without it, we wouldn’t have Amazon, Internet commerce, or next-day delivery, I counter that at least we’d have truck drivers with retirement plans and kids in college. Dan Rather seems to agree.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- Ken Shirriff recently reverse-engineered the Apollo spacecraft’s FM radio module and the guts of it are wild! In the days before printed circuit boards, the components were soldered to metal pegs, forming a big ol’ jumble of resistors, capacitors, and multi-colored wiring, all covered with what’s probably silicone to keep it dry. I’d be nervous if I saw that in my toaster and this was the hardware that we used to fly men to the moon.
- For nearly 6 years, my primary phone was the awesome Samsung Galaxy S3. It sold horribly, but it was a fantastic phone for rooting and installing a custom ROM. Android is basically just a version of the Linux operating system with some extra stuff thrown in to make it work on handheld devices. For a hardware junkie like me, being able to fine-tune my phone’s operating system and applications was well worth the many, many hours I put in tweaking configuration files, digging through source code, and finally figuring out how to make the @*&!’ing thing just work. Now, when it comes to Apple jailbreaking? Not so much…
I stumbled across a fantastic video created by Sony for Michael Jackson to demonstrate the CD manufacturing process for the release of his album HIStory. Aside from the 90’s era clothing and computers, the inside look at the process (including the glass masters) makes it well worth the 8-minute watch.
Thanks as always to The Prepared’s Members for supporting The Prepared. A big thanks as always to my long-suffering wife Suzanne for her gentle editing suggestions (if you think I’m long-winded in written form, you should see me in person!), and to my fellow passionate super-nerds on the Internet - those of you who are passionate enough to write 10,000 words on a topic that only 50 people might ever read. I love you all!
p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.