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January 2009
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Joy of Cooking expands

I recently wrote about the interesting and fun book The 9-inch Plate "Diet" where we learn about the cultural factors influencing the increase in the amount of food we consume.

Today I learned (thanks to Adam Engst) about a Cornell University study that found that recipes in The Joy of Cooking have similarly increased in calorie count over the previous decades. One tidbit from the study is that a meal for 4 people in 1986 would have been for 7 people in 1936. Egads.

Book Review: The 9-Inch Plate "Diet"

Alex Bogusky and Chuck Porter are partners in the advertising firm that's responsible for the successful, and shocking, anti-tobacco campaign known as the truth. Now they've turned their polished and hard-hitting techniques toward American eating habits in the form of a book called The 9-inch "Diet."

Note the quote marks around the word diet, because this isn't really a traditional diet book. It's not about what you eat at all, it's about how much you eat. As two experts in the persuasion industry, the authors trace the dramatic increase of portion size, and plate size (hence the title) over the last 40 years. With anecdotes and statistics to back up their claims, they make a logical, clear, and cogent case against this overlooked American culinary phenomenon.

For example, we learn that the average person eats more than 300 pounds of additional food today, compared to 1970. The authors share personal stories too, such as when they worked on the IKEA advertising account and found that the Swedes were perplexed about why flower vases were selling so well in the US compared with other countries. Then they realized that Americans thought the vases were drinking glasses and were buying them in sets of 4, 6, or 8.

This book is also remarkable for its design and tone. The publishers went with an odd trim size--the size of a 9-inch plate--and the layout and illustrations are striking. There are two-pages spreads, dramatic pull quotes, and many other devices used to great effect. It's exactly what you'd think a technical manual written by two advertising guys would look like, but it actually works. If only more books about "dry subjects" took this much care to be compelling and beautiful, perhaps non-fiction in general would sell better.

The 9-Inch Diet is a quick read and one that many will enjoy. It has a powerful message, but even if you're not looking to drop a few pounds or change your eating habits, there is a lot to enjoy for the wit and the insightful sociological and cultural tidbits. It's a fulfilling read that won't leave you wanting more.

A light switch that encourages conservation

On the blog for the book about conscious decision making, Nudge, the authors describe a "smart" light switch that provides tactile feedback based on current electricity usage. The idea is to stop the mindless, and needless, use of room lights. While not an automated switch, the fact that the switch has a network connection so it can "know" the current usage definitely makes it smart. Get the details at Two Stanford Students Rethink the Light Switch

A tip for using Plain Clip with TextExpander

One of my favorite utilities, TextExpander, was recently updated to allow the execution of shell scripts based on the typed triggers. This makes a very powerful tool even more useful.

Coincidentally, Macworld has published a nice overview of another of my most-used tools, Plain Clip. It's a small, faceless application that strips formatting from text on the clipboard. It's essential for copy-and-paste between applications when you don't want to also copy font, color, and other text attributes. The new version of Plain Clip adds some handy features for stripping invisible characters and extra spaces.

The Macworld article is great, but it doesn't take into account the latest TextExpander update. (No doubt it was written before this new version was released.) So, when I followed its advice on how to tie TextExpander to Plain Clip, the two don't play along with each other exactly as I expected. (If you follow the steps to execute Plain Clip via an AppleScript, as the article describes, it will probably work fine.)

But if you want to use the more direct shell script method, you must omit the -v option that's described in the article. This is because TextExpander wants to automatically replace your snippet with the result of the script. With the -v option, Plain Clip returns nothing and fakes a paste command, so your typed trigger is not correctly replaced. To resolve this, drop the -v and add a line to the shell script that echoes the cleaned-up clipboard.


This causes TextExpander to replace your trigger with the output from Plain Clip, which is exactly what you want. As Macworld says, it's a very handy thing indeed.

For more, see My Favorite TextExpander Tip.

NYT on home automation and the elderly

The New York Times article Sensors Help Keep the Elderly Safe, and at Home provides another look at a hot topic; using automaton techniques for senior care and monitoring. "Aging in place" is the overall strategy, and allowing computerized sensors to identify unusual or unsafe activity allows caregivers to focus on more humane matters, as the article discusses.

See also Gadgets for Senior Care.

Book review: Reading the OED

Reading the OED by Ammon Shea is a quirky non-fiction book that had on impact on me much greater than I anticipated. The book outlines Shea's year long project of reading the entirety of the Oxford English Dictionary and the results and findings therewith.

As expected, he unearths and catalogs many interesting and obscure words, and if you're a fan of such things you'll find plenty to like about this book. Several stood out for me, including "zyxt," an archaic form of to see, and "Petrichor," the loamy smell of newly fallen rain.

But what I enjoyed the most, perhaps not surprisingly given my fondness for ethnography, was Shea's description of the process and experience of devoting a year of 10 hour days to reading over 21,000 pages. Learning about the physical and mental changes he underwent, as well as his quest for the best place to hunker, and his constant battles against tedium and distraction, were all fascinating for me.

By the end, I had found inspiration for my own project of a similar bent. I turned to my bookshelf and found a reprint collection of a notable newsletter for conjurers from nearly 70 years ago. It's held in high esteem, but most people treat it as a reference instead of reading it in its entirety. I decided to read all the issues, over the course of the next year, and so far it has been a delightful project. However, I must admit, I enlisted three trusted and creative friends to help me, so it's more of a social project than an individual obsession, but one that I nonetheless owe to Reading the OED.

Household Hamster Power, taken seriously

One of the more amusing hacks in Smart Home Hacks is Building a Hamster-powered Nightlight. It's also a hack that I usually include in presentations because it's so much fun to describe, particularly with the way it ends. (A postscript that I add for the attendees.) But despite the inherent silliness, at its core it's a sound solution and clever application of engineering and problem solving.

For those who remained skeptical, I take great pleasure in referring you to Harnessing Hamster Power with a Nanogenerator as published in the MIT Technology Review.

Vindicated; at last.

Location-aware Home Automation via Google

Google's latest service, Latitude may open new avenues for feature-rich home automation. By installing the app on your phone, your location becomes available via Google. Aside from the social networking and privacy implications, a home automation system could use this information as the basis for decisions about actions around the house. It will be interesting to see how or if this is used in this type of application.