Saturday, May 30, 2009

Friday, May 29, 2009

Millionaires abound! Business lesson from Facebook …

Recent investment in Facebook by Russia’s Digital Sky Technologies for U$200 million puts valuation of the social-networking portal at $10 billion. Based on reported monthly audience of 100 million, it is equivalent to $100 per unique user. If other websites could attract investors with that multiple there would be plenty of millionaires around, including the author of this post! Unfortunately, the reality is quite different as many small sites sell for less than 3 times NET PROFIT. The size DOES matter!

It is a spectacular result for a website that started only 5 years ago. Good idea, great execution. The question remains though, whether Facebook will ever be able to make money. The opportunity is definitely there (large and engaged audience) but the money making model is not yet defined. Bloomberg reported that Facebook and MySpace make $820 million in advertising revenue between them which is only a fraction of the $45.7 billion online advertising market (ie. 2%). Top valuation is most likely the reflection that Facebook can dramatically increase the share of that market.

The idea of paying top dollar for unprofitable internet ventures is not unique. Google bought YouTube for U$1.65 billion when the site was reportedly loosing U$1 million a month. Rupert Murdoch bought MySpece for U$580 in 2005 hoping he eventually will find a formula to make a buck on it. And Twitter is "not-for-sale" for U$700 million. It appears that the most “successful" (read: pricey) ventures are those that focus on generating large, repetitive traffic, buzz in the community, but not necessarily on profitability. Maybe there is some logic in this madness… but it certainly goes against the wisdom of how to start and run a business that you can learn from books, universities or consultants.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Another perspective on the size of online market

In one of my recent posts I attempted to put a figure on the size of the market for online maps in Australia (measured in terms of visits per month). The methodology applied was far from credible but, nevertheless, it allowed to estimate the monthly traffic in the range of 9 to 15 million.

Since aus-emaps.com is aiming to compete in more than just “online mapping” segment (see “adding value to online maps”) it is worth considering how big is the overall pie. Nielsen publishes quite interesting stats:

Sessions/Visits Per Person - 42
Domains Visited Per Person - 65
PC Time Per Person - 43:46:23
Duration of a Web Page Viewed - 00:01:01
Active Digital Media Universe - 11,573,426
Current Digital Media Universe Estimate - 16,925,964
[Australia: Average Web Usage, Month of April 2009, Home/Work Panel]


Top 10 Parent Companies and Unique Audience
Google - 9,647
Microsoft - 8,892
Telstra - 5,345
News Corp. Online - 5,195
EBay - 4,940
Yahoo! - 4,882
Facebook - 4,772
Australian Federal Government - 4,307
Apple Computer - 3,608
Fairfax Digital Aus and NZ - 3,517
[Australia, Month of April 2009, Home/Work Panel]


It is very rare that the site is visited only by local users. In other words, some traffic comes from overseas (ie. the content is “exported”) so, in effect, majority of sites in Australia operate in the global market. And the size of this pie is truly galactic:

Domains Visited per Person per Month - 72
Active Digital Media Universe - 378,168,997

[Nielsen, World, data for March 2009]

In the digital age, an old saying: “think globally, act locally” is more relevant than ever…

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Adding value to free online maps… aus-emaps.com motto!

Although the core functionality of major online mapping services is very similar (see my post on online maps becoming a commodity) there are literary 1,000’s of ways those maps can be used. The most prominent and most widely used online mapping applications are built around real estate, travel and weather information. But there are also many niche applications. Social networking, point of interest location (eg. famous public loos map!), movie star spotting, etc. etc. - you name it, maps are almost everywhere… Google maps mania, programmable web or Via Virtual Earth blog feature many interesting examples.


examples of Australian sites
[examples of Australian sites from ProgrammableWeb.com]

As it is commonly believed, 80% of data/information has a spatial context so, it should not be a surprise that interactive online maps have such a wide range of applications. [By the way, who came up with that “80%” first? It has been repeated so many times that original attribution was lost… I think it’s just a concept and no one actually proved this hypothesis. Yet, it is a convenient argument to stress significance of “spatial” element of any piece of information!]

Maps are being added to more and more sites. The applications range from simple point maps, for example to show where a business is located, to complex Customer Relation Management (CRM) and Business Intelligence (BI) solutions. The key characteristic of this approach is that online maps are just “bolted on” to existing websites/ systems. There is nothing wrong with that. I just want to point out that with this approach you end up with yellow pages listings – with maps, property listings – with maps, weather information – with maps, travel information – with maps…. The pattern is obvious. How about looking at things in reverse and making maps the central point for accessing all that other information?

Google and Microsoft are already doing it to some extent and I want to pursue similar strategy with aus-emaps.com. My concept for the site is to offer all the core functionality on par with Google, Microsoft or whereis.com (see “I can do what you can”) and then expand the range of base maps and functionality with specialised components and information tailored for various groups of users. Obvious candidates for add-ons are weather information, demographic data, postal and location boundaries and topographic maps which are already included on various aus-emaps .com pages. Why? “Because one map is not enough!” And that’s the differentiation point for the website – single location with convenient access to numerous information themes…

To sum up, the challenge is to make aus-emaps.com a recognised (and hopefully preferred) information source and a window to 1000’s of thematic views. The task of organising available information is not a small undertaking, and it may be a never ending quest for perfection, but this year’s goal is fairly modest - to complete and deploy core functionality modules, including point-of-interest/ local search and driving directions.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Photosynth – big promise or just a fancy photo viewer?

When I fist saw videos demonstrating Photosynth concept it was one of those “jaw dropping” moments. The whole idea of using publicly available photos to create 3D representation of the world (ie. actual shapes and dimensions of buildings and structures derived from photos!!) and allowing seamless browsing through thousands of computer stitched images in that 3D environment seemed revolutionary. However, the end result is somewhat disappointing. Current version of Photosynth for public perusal is just like a fancy photo viewer for small collections of images uploaded by users. Not to mention that you need to install Microsoft’s Silverlight to use it (great stuff but it doesn’t work in all browsers).

You can still see one of those original videos here. They are as impressive today as they were a few years back. In my opinion, Microsoft is yet to deliver on the main premise outlined in the early days. It is not that the challenge is too big. I think that Microsoft suddenly realised how valuable tool it has and possibly doesn't want to share it for free anymore…

Microsoft “can’t do it yet” but others have already figured out how to capture 3D point clouds from Photosynth and export to 3D applications. This video describes the whole process. Just imagine the flow of royalties form licensing that capability and it becomes clear why Microsoft may be reluctant to enable this functionality for all to use. And where would that leave those who spent many thousands on creating 3D models of cities for sale – same could be achieved by anyone just with “a few” postcards of cityscape :-).



I must admit that I was looking into the whole 3D challenge myself but have given up after viewing original Photosynth videos. How can an amateur compete with that! As to the current Photosynth capability, I don’t know, maybe the expectation was set too high. Maybe Google’s Street View took some shine away from it. Maybe with such gadgets the novelty factor wears out pretty quickly. One thing is certain that the race for live 3D representation of the real world is still on!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Software as a Service (SaaS) Explosion

Did you notice how often Saas (Software as a Service) term started to appear in company announcements recently? The train is leaving the station and everyone is jumping on the bandwagon…

Remember the ASP (Application Service Provider) concept? Well, this didn’t last long. No one trusted the Internet then. But slowly, over the years companies like Salesforce.com, Google started to release applications on the Internet for anyone to use… You email on an online portal is a SaaS, your map (whether Google, Virtual Earth, Yahoo, etc) is a SaaS, .. it’s everywhere and has been there for a long time. Only now commercial companies realized its full potential and are jumping over each other to offer their products for a fee (eg. Telstra’s T-Suite).

Will SaaS suffer the faith of ASP? Technology has certainly moved forward since “ASP” term was first coined. We all got more accustomed to “using stuff off the Internet” but whether big organizations are ready to take up the offering, time will show. As for me, aus-emaps.com is SaaS user and provider from day one. I may slip this acronym here and there, just to take advantage of the growing recognition of what is behind it.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Coronary Heart Disease Epidemic: Possible Culprits Part I

In the last post, I reviewed two studies that suggested heart attacks were rare in the U.K. until the 1920s -1930s. In this post, I'll be discussing some of the diet and lifestyle factors that preceded and associated with the coronary heart disease epidemic in the U.K and U.S. I've cherry picked factors that I believe could have played a causal role. Many things changed during that time period, and I don't want to give the impression that I have "the answer". I'm simply presenting ideas for thought and discussion.

First on the list: sugar. Here's a graph of refined sugar consumption in the U.K. from 1815 to 1955, from the book The Saccharine Disease, by Dr. T. L. Cleave. Sugar consumption increased dramatically in the U.K. over this time period, reaching near-modern levels by the turn of the century, and continuing to increase after that except during the wars: Here's a graph of total sweetener consumption in the U.S. from 1909 to 2005 (source: USDA food supply database). Between 1909 and 1922, sweetener consumption increased by 40%:

If we assume a 10 to 20 year lag period, sugar is well placed to play a role in the CHD epidemic. Sugar is easy to pick on. Diets high in refined sugar tend to promote obesity due to overeating.  An excess causes a number of detrimental changes in animal models and human subjects that are partially dependent on the development of obesity, including fatty liver, the metabolic syndrome, and small, oxidized low-density lipoprotein particles (LDL). Small and oxidized LDL associate strongly with cardiovascular disease risk and may be involved in causing it. These effects seem to be partly attributable to the fructose portion of sugar, which is 50% of table sugar (sucrose), about 50% of most naturally sweet foods, and 55% of the most common form of high-fructose corn syrup. That explains why starches, which break down into glucose (another type of sugar), don't have the same negative effects as table sugar and HFCS.

Hydrogenated fat is the next suspect. I don't have any graphs to present, because no one has systematically tracked hydrogenated fat consumption in the U.S. or U.K. to my knowledge. However, it was first marketed in the U.S. by Procter & Gamble under the brand name Crisco in 1911. Crisco stands for "crystallized cottonseed oil", and involves taking an industrial waste oil (from cotton seeds) and chemically treating it using high temperature, a nickel catalyst and hydrogen gas (see this post for more information). Hydrogenated fats for human consumption hit markets in the U.K. around 1920. Here's what Dr. Robert Finlayson had to say about margarine in his paper "Ischaemic Heart Disease, Aortic Aneurysms, and Atherosclerosis in the City of London, 1868-1982":
...between 1909-13 and 1924-28, margarine consumption showed the highest percentage increase, whilst that of eggs only increased slightly and that of butter remained unchanged. Between 1928 and 1934, margarine consumption fell by one-third, while butter consumption increased by 57 percent: and increase that coincided with a fall of 48 percent in its price. Subsequently, margarine sales have burgeoned, and if one is correct in stating that the coronary heart disease epidemic started in the second decade of this century, then the concept of hydrogenated margarines as an important aetiological factor, so strongly advocated by Martin, may merit more consideration than hitherto.
Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fat, which is truly new to the human diet, with the exception of small amounts found in ruminant fats including butter. But for the most part, natural trans fats are not the same as industrial trans fats, and in fact some of them, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), may be beneficial. To my knowledge, no one has discovered health benefits of industrial trans fats. To the contrary, compared to butter, they shrink LDL size. They also inhibit enzymes that the body uses to make a diverse class of signaling compounds known as eicosanoids. Trans fat consumption associates very strongly with the risk of heart attack in observational studies. Which is ironic, because hydrogenated fats were originally marketed as a healthier alternative to animal fats. The Center for Science in the Public Interest shamed McDonald's into switching the beef tallow in their deep friers for hydrogenated vegetable fats in the 1990s. In 2009, even the staunchest opponents of animal fats have to admit that they're healthier than hydrogenated fat.
The rise of cigarettes was a major change that probably contributed massively to the CHD epidemic. They were introduced just after the turn of the century in the U.S. and U.K., and rapidly became fashionable (source):
If you look at the second to last graph from the previous post, you can see that there's a striking correspondence between cigarette consumption and CHD deaths in the U.K. In fact, if you moved the line representing cigarette consumption to the right by about 20 years, it would overlap almost perfectly with CHD deaths. The risk of heart attack is so strongly associated with smoking in observational studies that even I believe it probably represents a causal relationship. There's no doubt in my mind that smoking cigarettes contributes to the risk of heart attack and various other health problems.

Smoking is a powerful factor, but it doesn't explain everything. How is it that the Kitavans of Papua New Guinea, more than 3/4 of whom smoke cigarettes, have an undetectable incidence of heart attack and stroke? Why do the French and the Japanese, who smoke like chimneys (at least until recently), have the two lowest heart attack death rates of all the affluent nations? There's clearly another factor involved that trumps cigarette smoke. 

Thursday, May 14, 2009

“I can do what you can …”- online maps becoming a commodity

The race to copy the functionality of online maps offered by competitors led to very similar products and service offerings from the main suppliers. Open source community is not far behind with OpenLayers maps and OpenStreetMap data.

Functionality such as map and satellite view options, address search, driving directions or local/points of interest search is common across many online map services. The battle front has now moved to capturing street panoramas (examples include Google’s Street View, equivalent offering from street-directory.com.au, or Microsoft’s Birds Eye View option in Virtual Earth and Photosynth extension) and enhancing viewing experience in 3D (eg. Google with Earth browser plug-in, Microsoft with Virtual Earth 3D extension, or Map24 with “flat perspective” view option).

No one is able to gain the upper hand in terms of functionality. And because that functionality is also available to developers, whatever you can do on maps.google.com.au or maps.live.com.au or whereis.com websites, you can also do on aus-emaps.com (well, not quite yet but soon!) and similar sites. Barriers to entry for any new service provider are so low that, in effect, online maps have been “commoditised”.

It is a different a story if you are developing an online mapping technology and hope to compete in the provision of online mapping services with your own package of tools and information . Unfortunately, unless you are a multi-billion dollar corporation you can only play on the fringes. The amount of money required to acquire and process imagery and data to create services similar to Google or Microsoft is staggering. Yet, everyone expects that it is all free to use. The business model major players are pursuing is not necessarily focused on profit from the provision of online maps, although they are selling commercial versions as well. Rather, the maps are used as "free giveaways" to attract the public and generate revenue from advertising. So, in real terms, online maps have just a commodity status.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Coronary Heart Disease Epidemic

Few people alive today are old enough to remember the beginning of the coronary heart disease (CHD) epidemic in the 1920s and 1930s, when physicians in the U.S. and U.K. began sounding alarm bells that an uncommon disease was rapidly becoming the leading cause of death. By the 1950s, their predictions had come true. A decade later, a new generation of physicians replaced their predecessors and began to doubt that heart attacks had ever been uncommon. Gradually, the idea that the disease was once uncommon faded from the public consciousness, and heart attacks were seen as an eternal plague of humankind, avoided only by dying of something else first.

According to U.S. National Vital Statistics records beginning in 1900, CHD was rarely given as the cause of death by physicians until after 1930. The following graph is from The Great Cholesterol Con, by Anthony Colpo.


The relevant line for CHD deaths begins in the lower left-hand part of the graph. Other types of heart disease, such as heart failure due to cardiomyopathy, were fairly common and well recognized at the time. These data are highly susceptible to bias because they depend on the physician's perception of the cause of death, and are not adjusted for the mean age of the population. In other words, if a diagnosis of CHD wasn't "popular" in 1920, its prevalence could have been underestimated. The invention of new technologies such as the electrocardiogram facilitated diagnosis. Changes in diagnostic criteria also affected the data; you can see them as discontinuities in 1948, 1968 and 1979. For these reasons, the trend above isn't a serious challenge to the idea that CHD has always been a common cause of death in humans who reach a certain age.

This idea was weakened in 1951 with the publication of a paper in the Lancet medical journal titled "Recent History of Coronary Disease", by Dr. Jerry N. Morris. Dr. Morris sifted through the autopsy records of London Hospital and recorded the frequency of coronary thrombosis (artery blockage in the heart) and myocardial infarction (MI; loss of oxygen to the heart muscle) over the period 1907-1949. MI is the technical term for a heart attack, and it can be caused by coronary thrombosis. Europe has a long history of autopsy study, and London Hospital had a long-standing policy of routine autopsies during which they kept detailed records of the state of the heart and coronary arteries. Here's what he found:

The dashed line is the relevant one. This is a massive increase in the prevalence of CHD death that cannot be explained by changes in average lifespan. Although the average lifespan increased considerably over that time period, most of the increase was due to reduced infant mortality. The graph only includes autopsies performed on people 35-70 years old. Life expectancy at age 35 changed by less than 10 years over the same time period. The other possible source of bias is in the diagnosis. Physicians may have been less likely to search for signs of MI when the diagnosis was not "popular". Morris addresses this in the paper:
The first possibility, of course, is that the increase is not real but merely reflects better post-mortem diagnosis. This is an unlikely explanation. There is abundant evidence throughout the forty years that the department was fully aware of the relation of infarction to thrombosis, of myocardial fibrosis to gradual occlusion, and of the topical pathology of ostial stenosis and infarction from embolism, as indeed were many pathologists last century... But what makes figures like these important is that, unlike other series of this kind, they are based on the routine examination at necropsy of the myocardium and of the coronary arteries over the whole period. Moreover Prof. H. M. Turnbull, director of the department, was making a special case of atheroma and arterial disease in general during 1907-1914 (Turnbull 1915). The possibility that cases were overlooked is therefore small, and the earlier material is as likely to be reliable as the later.
Dr. Morris's study was followed by another similar one published in 1985 in the journal Medical History, titled "Ischaemic Heart Disease, Aortic Aneurysms, and Atherosclerosis in the City of London, 1868-1982", conducted by Dr. Robert Finlayson. This study, in my opinion, is the coup de grace. Finlayson systematically scrutinized autopsy reports from St. Bartholemew's hospital, which had conducted routine and detailed cardiac autopsies since 1868, and applied modern diagnostic criteria to the records. He also compared the records from St. Bartholemew's to those from the city mortuary. Here's what he found:

The solid line is MI mortality. Striking, isn't it? The other lines are tobacco and cigarette consumption. These data are not age-adjusted, but if you look at the raw data tables provided in the paper, some of which are grouped by age, it's clear that average lifespan doesn't explain much of the change. Heart attacks are largely an occurrence of the last 80 years.

What caused the epidemic? Both Drs. Morris and Finlayson also collected data on the prevalence of atherosclerosis (plaques in the arteries) over the same time period. Dr. Morris concluded that the prevalence of severe atherosclerosis had decreased by about 50% (although mild atherosclerosis such as fatty streaks had increased), while Dr. Finlayson found that it had remained approximately the same:


He found the same trend in females. This casts doubt on the idea that coronary atherosclerosis is sufficient in and of itself to cause heart attacks, although modern studies have found a strong association between advanced atherosclerosis and the risk of heart attack on an individual level. Heart attacks are caused by several factors, one of which is atherosclerosis.  

What changes in diet and lifestyle associated with the explosion of MI in the U.K. and U.S. after 1920? Dr. Finlayson has given us a hint in the graph above: cigarette consumption increased dramatically over the same time period, and closely paralleled MI mortality. Smoking cigarettes is very strongly associated with heart attacks in observational studies. Animal studies also support the theory. While I believe cigarettes are an important factor, I do not believe they are the only cause of the MI epidemic. Dr. Finlayson touched on a few other factors in the text of the paper, and of course I have my own two cents to add. I'll discuss that next time.

Sizing up the challenge (and opportunity!) - market size for online maps

Online maps became very popular since Google and Microsoft launched their versions in 2005. There was an explosion in deployment of websites using online maps since the technology became readily available to masses and was no longer restricted to a handful of GIS experts. As the result the market, measured in terms of visits to online mapping sites, grew exponentially. But how big is the market now? One day I will do a proper analysis but today just a quick, “back of the envelope”, calculations in relation to Australia.

Telstra’s online mapping site, whereis.com, claimed 4.7 million visits a month in 2007 (Omniture Data October 2007, as reported on whereis.com about page). Since then, the volume of visitors to whereis.com halved (see Google Trends graph below). Hitwise statistics published in February 2009 put Google share of Australian online maps market at almost 75% .Based on the above, the total number of monthly visits to online mapping sites can be estimated to be in the 9-15 million range.


[see Google Trends page for interactive chart]


Calculations: estimated traffic to whereis.com in early 2009 is 2.3 million visits per month, market share (max 25% to min 15%), which gives estimated market size in the range of 9.2 to 15.3 million visits per month.

Dodgy methodology but it gives an indication of the magnitude of the opportunity for aus-emaps.com and other map centred websites. And this market is expanding at 40% p.a. according to Hitwise, with maps being one of the fastest growing industries amongst all websites (although this finding is somehow inconsistent with Google Trend for keyword “map” which shows steady decline over the last few years).

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Welcome to all-things-spatial blog

I have been struggling for a while with the decision whether to commit and “start blogging” or skip that part of “internet experience” altogether. In the end, the need to explain the users of my websites, in simple words and with simple examples, how to take advantage of available functionality took precedence over my reluctance to “stand in the public spotlight”.

So, here I am writing my first post on the blog that will be devoted to all things spatial: software, tools, applications, maps, visual effects, ideas, trends as well as, to interesting geographic locations and travel information to lighten up the dry technical content. I hope that, regardless whether you are hardcore IT/GIS professional, web developer looking for solutions or widgets, someone who just needs to make sense of all this “location intelligence” hard sell, or a traveller looking for maps and information on locations of interest, you will find something worth your while.

Since this is an inaugural post for all-things-spatial blog it seems appropriate to begin with a (not-so) short history on how it all started…

…And it started back in 2005 when I asked myself a simple question: what would it take to replicate the functionality of a very cumbersome GIS software, worth tens of thousands of dollars, that I and my colleagues were struggling with trying to deploy a range of simple online applications. (This was the time when Google Map was not yet in the public domain and there were only a handful of companies with virtual monopoly on all things spatial, especially as far as online applications were concerned - seems like an ancient history now!).

Well, I had an answer within a few weeks, after a few long evenings of experimentation, when I finished my first online interactive map. I used open source MapServer, to dynamically generate map images, and my own concoction of HTML and javascript to move that map on the screen with a mouse. I started from ground zero since I had only limited exposure to HTML at the time and not much idea about javascript or other programming language. The stunning discovery was that it was not difficult at all to create that functionality!

The whole exercise made me realise a simple truth: everything is very easy once you know how to do it! I know, I know, the conclusion seems obvious but somehow I missed its true meaning till this point in time. And certainly, I did not explicitly realise that it has such profound implications: either for saving money (do it yourself if you know how) or making money (do it for others who don’t know how).

It is so basic. If you know how to manage your finances, you don’t need to pay commissions to others to make investment decisions for you (and loose 50% of your money in the process!). If you know how to connect those 3 cables sticking form the ceiling to your new lampshade, you can save $150 and a week waiting time for an electrician. And so on, and so on…

I used my test map to launch the first version of aus-emaps.com in 2006. I can proudly claim I was one of the first to offer free street map service in Australia for others to link to using third party WMS service. Unfortunately, it suffered from low reliability so, I switched to Google Map as soon as it was launched in Australia but the original code is still in use in the low bandwidth version of the website.

More than 3,000 hours later and having a go at HTML, XHTML, XML, XSLT, SVG, CSS, JavaScript (and libraries), PHP (and libraries), MySQL, Google Map API, Google Earth, Virtual Earth API, KML, geoRSS, WMS, WFS, JSON, AdSense, Adwords, SEO, Flash, MapServer, graphic programs etc. my little experiment is still in progress…Traffic grew organically, without advertising, and now I am ready to launch the second, “educational and promotional phase” of the project.

What started as an intellectual challenge, to see if there is an “easier way to do things”, is now my passion and a very engaging hobby. Things are moving slowly (there is a cost of gaining the knowledge!) but what I learnt over the last few years has been invaluable, also for my professional career. This blog will be a record of the progress of the project and I hope it can inspire others to use maps in an innovative ways for business and for pleasure!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dihydro-Vitamin K1

Step right up ladies and gents; I have a new miracle vitamin for you. Totally unknown to our ignorant pre-industrial ancestors, it's called dihydro-vitamin K1. It's formed during the oil hydrogenation process, so the richest sources are hydrogenated fats like margarine, shortening and commercial deep fry oil. Some of its benefits may include:
Dihydro-vitamin K1 accounts for roughly 30% of the vitamin K intake of American children, and a substantial portion of adult intake as well. Over 99 percent of Americans have it in their diet. Research on dihydro-vitamin K1 is in its infancy at this point, so no one has a very solid idea of its effects on the body beyond some preliminary and disturbing suggestions from animal experiments and brief human trials.

This could be another mechanism by which industrially processed vegetable oils degrade health. It's also another example of why it's not a good idea to chemically alter food. We don't understand food, or our bodies, well enough to know the long-term consequences of foods that have been recently introduced to the human diet. I believe these foods should be avoided on principle.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Pastured Eggs

Eggs are an exceptionally nutritious food. It's not surprising, considering they contain everything necessary to build a chick! But all eggs are not created equal. Anyone who has seen the tall, orange yolk, viscous white, and tough shell of a true pastured egg knows they're profoundly different. So has anyone who's tasted one. This has been vigorously denied by the American Egg Board and the Egg Nutrition Council, primarily representing conventional egg farmers, which assert that eggs from giant smelly barns are nutritionally equal to their pastured counterparts.

In 2007, the magazine Mother Earth News decided to test that claim. They sent for pastured eggs from 14 farms around the U.S., tested them for a number of nutrients, and compared them to the figures listed in the USDA Nutrient Database for conventional eggs. Here are the results per 100 grams for conventional eggs, the average of all the pastured eggs, and eggs from Skagit River Ranch, which sells at my farmer's market:

Vitamin A:
  • Conventional: 487 IU
  • Pastured avg: 792 IU
  • Skagit Ranch: 1013 IU
Vitamin D:
  • Conventional: 34 IU
  • Pastured avg: 136 - 204 IU
  • Skagit Ranch: not determined
Vitamin E:
  • Conventional: 0.97 mg
  • Pastured avg: 3.73 mg
  • Skagit Ranch: 4.02 mg
Beta-carotene:
  • Conventional: 10 mcg
  • Pastured avg: 79 mcg
  • Skagit Ranch: 100 mcg
Omega-3 fatty acids:
  • Conventional: 0.22 g
  • Pastured avg: 0.66 g
  • Skagit Ranch: 0.74 g

Looks like the American Egg Board and the Egg Nutrition Council have some egg on their faces...

Eggs also contain vitamin K2, with the amount varying substantially according to the hen's diet. Guess where the A, D, K2, beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids are? In the yolk of course. Throwing the yolk away turns this powerhouse into a bland, nutritionally unimpressive food.

It's important to note that "free range" supermarket eggs are nutritionally similar to conventional eggs. The reason pastured eggs are so nutritious is that the chickens get to supplement their diets with abundant fresh plants and insects. Having little doors on the side of a giant smelly barn just doesn't replicate that.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Iodine

Iodine is an essential trace mineral. It's required for the formation of activated thyroid hormones T3 and T4. The amount of thyroid hormones in circulation, and the body's sensitivity to them, strongly influences metabolic rate. Iodine deficiency can lead to weight gain and low energy. In more severe cases, it can produce goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid gland.

Iodine deficiency is also the most common cause of preventable mental retardation worldwide. Iodine is required for the development of the nervous system, and also concentrates in a number of other tissues including the eyes, the salivary glands and the mammary glands.

There's a trend in the alternative health community to use unrefined sea salt rather than refined iodized salt. Personally, I use unrefined sea salt on principle, although I'm not convinced refined iodized salt is a problem. But the switch removes the main source of iodine in most peoples' diets, creating the potential for deficiency in some areas. Most notably, the soil in the midwestern United States is poor in iodine and deficiency was common before the introduction of iodized salt.

The natural solution? Sea vegetables. They're rich in iodine, other trace minerals, and flavor. I like to add a 2-inch strip of kombu to my beans. Kombu is a type of kelp. It adds minerals, and is commonly thought to speed the cooking and improve the digestion of beans and grains.

Dulse is a type of sea vegetable that's traditionally North American. It has a salty, savory flavor and a delicate texture. It's great in soups or by itself as a snack.

And then there's wakame, which is delicious in miso soup. Iodine is volatile so freshness matters. Store sea vegetables in a sealed container. It may be possible to overdo iodine, so it's best to eat sea vegetables regularly but in moderation like the Japanese.

Seafood such as fish and shellfish are rich in iodine, especially if fish heads are used to make soup stock. Dairy is a decent source in areas that have sufficient iodine in the soil.

Cod liver oil is another good source of iodine, or at least it was before the advent of modern refining techniques. I don't know if refined cod liver oil contains iodine. I suspect that fermented cod liver oil is still a good source of iodine because it isn't refined.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Going local in... Deptford?

It seems the world at large isn't ready for trips to all corners of London's South East. Benji Lanyado caused quite a storm following his latest New York Times piece, which tipped visiting Deptford and New Cross.

The Mail
, The Mirror and The Telegraph were up in arms at the idea. "When the article says the area has 'an edge', the first thought of many was that it meant a knife edge," said the ever-one-sided Mail.

One thing I hate in travel is scaremongering. The papers made it sound like people don't walk the streets for fear of a drive-by shooting.

Whether or not it's worth a visit depends on your approach to travel. No, it's not an area for tick-box sights, but it is a good place to catch a gig, see another side of London, and maybe get an advanced preview of what, like it or not, has been tipped as "the next Shoreditch". The type of readers tempted to take up Benji's advice are not going to be the ones fitting it in between Madam Tussauds and Tiger, Tiger. "Those with well-cushioned sensibilities need not make the journey," read the first paragraph.

But, as ever, The Mail wasn't going to stop spouting nonsense while it was ahead: "What was it about Deptford that caught the eye of one of the world's most influential papers? Here's a clue. The author comes from South-East London." I'm not sure what their point is here. To me, that sounds like a local likely to be ahead of the game. Usually by the time an overseas reports get to a place, they're well behind the times. (See the Wall Street Journal - which recently discovered the "lesser-known" neighbourhood of San Telmo in Buenos Aires.)

It seems to me that the problem was less about the travel tips and more about the newspaper. "The New York Times! That's for Americans! Americans only like escorted tour-group holidays with all-you-can-eat buffets! They are bound to get mugged!"

The question is who should be more offended by this coverage: the dumb-ass Americans or the slum-dwelling south-east Londoners?

Photo: The Ben Pimlott building, Goldsmith's College, Flickr, Andy Roberts


Rosario restaurant recommendation: El Vomito

I’ve just returned from a place where, when asking the locals for restaurant recommendations, there was one thing on the tip of all their tongues: El Vomito.

It wasn’t looking good, was it?

I was in Rosario – a lovely riverside city in Argentina, best known for being the birthplace of Che Guevara - and, after some initial concern, El Vomito turned out to be a term of endearment for a well-loved haunt – Comedor Balcarce (Brown and Balcarce). A traditional, no-frills restaurant, it’s earnt its nickname for offering such hearty and affordable grub, you could eat it until you make yourself sick.

When you look at it that way, it’s quite charming. Kind of.

On the pavement outside, I got talking to an Argentine-Canadian couple. I told them I was looking for "somewhere called, er, El Vomito”. They pointed to it straight away: an unassuming corner building with the sun shades pulled down. “It’s great!” they gushed. “We live next door and when we didn’t have a kitchen when we first moved in, we ate all our meals there for over a month.”

Inside I found the sort of place that
serves soda siphons to dilute your red wine, fizzy drinks in family–sized glass bottles and, of course, big hunks of meat. There was a wide range of people tucking in and an aged waiter who insisted on calling me either muchachita or niƱa (both mean 'little girl').

I ordered the battered Merluza (hake) with a salad, which came to 15 pesos (around £3). I meant to take a photo for this blog, but I got overexcited and ate it all too fast.

The first person to mention El Vomito to me was Meag an American living the city with her Rosarino boyfriend, Guille. I got in touch with her through her blog, A Domestic Disturbance, and spent a lovely Saturday afternoon with her and Guille. They are both big fans of El Vomito and it is surely a local institution as I heard it mentioned many more times.

It’s the sort of down-to-earth place I love to find on my travels. “Recomienda!!” (Recommend us!), said the menu. And so I will.