Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Biochar? What the heck is Biochar?

Today's technology post is actually about a not so techie technology.

According to Google technology is defined as: "the practical application of science to commerce or industry".

I love wired and I am a frequent reader of everything new and sexy in how-to apply science to create new businesses. But the ideas that really get me, I mean the ones that launch me out of bed in the morning (much to the chagrin of my lovely girlfriend) are those old ideas the really old ones that find new life and rebirth in a modern age.

I think Biochar might just be one of those.

But first, what the heck is Biochar? (according to wikipedia) Biochar is charcoal created by pyrolysis of biomass.

Charcoal - I get that - its what makes my grill delicious in the summer (that and a tasty beverage). Biomass, simple enough, plants and other gunk that comes from biological material. But pyrolysis? Ok, that is the key. Well, (again Wikipedia to the rescue) it is the decomposition of one material into charcoal using heat.

This is pretty cool, we can burn plant matter, and we get the triple threat.
  1. Sequester Carbon
  2. Produce surplus energy (that is green)
  3. Improve biodiversity and crop yields
The first two make sense, as you burn the material you get energy, and what is left is carbon from the original plant in the very stable form of charcoal which might sit as such for 100s if not 1,000s of years. But the third one takes a bit more explanation.

According to well informed friends of mine in Seattle the idea behind number three is that charcoal makes a great home for soil-positive bacteria. Think of it like a frat house for bacteria - dirty, yes - but they seem to just replicate under every nook and cranny.

Fill the biochar full of bacteria and sprinkle it over the soild and voila you get health soil, and the carbon is sequestered for a long period of time.

But what about the numbers? Well, this is where I fall short. I can't find reliable numbers anywhere on the internet for what this is capable of.

How much does it cost to setup an infrastructure for creating the char, filling it with bacteria and planting it again?

How much carbon can be sequestered and how big an impact would that make?

How much energy do you get from this process and in what form?

What are the negative impacts of burning all of this biomass? Does it put particulate matter into the atmosphere? If so how much, how dirty? etc.

Pretty cool, people have been burning their crops for centuries... and it just might be one of the keys to tackling climate change, soil erosion and biodiversity all at once. But it is still a new idea and lacking in firm numbers to back it up.

Please please please leave comments? Do you know anything about biochar? Can you fill in some of the questions above? Drop me a line...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

First Domestic Truffle Oil Released at Northwest Foodservice Show

I was privileged to stop by the Oregon White Truffle Booth at the Northwest Foodservice Show ( That’s when I found out that this was the first time the product had been displayed at any show.

I was given a sample of the truffle oil on a crostini whipped with cream cheese, and was swept away in the midst of lush flavors akin to a walk in an old growth forest, a break in the middle, some spice on the back of my tongue and that ancient, legendary truffle flavor jumping throughout the finish.

It was a pleasant surprise and one of two highlights for me at the show. Stopping by the Peterson Company Booth is always a pleasure as I get to tour the finest cheeses from throughout the world. But this was just such a surprise, their booth tucked away in the back corner of the show, quietly allowing people to experience the first domestic truffle oil.

Oregon White Truffle Oil is certain to experience popularity ( Served in any myriad of ways, this would be my must have appetizer in a Friday evening meal. This oil is also sure to become the sultry dessert with red wine on a romantic evening.

The oil has already been featured on NPR’s “Michael Feldman’s Whadya Know” show, and had a great review in Saveur magazine:

“…though many producers augment their product (truffle oil) with a chemical compound that mimics the truffles’ taste and aroma, making for a more potent but less refined taste. WE PREFER THE PURER CHARACTER OF ALL-NATURAL OILS LIKE THE JOEL PALMER HOUSE OREGON WHITE TRUFFLE OIL, WHICH CONTAINS THE ESSENCE OF OREGON TRUFFLES (It’s the ONLY truffle oil currently sold in this country containing domestically grown truffles).” - Saveur Magazine April 2009

This product is not to be missed, and can be ordered online at the website:

Jack Czarnecki has undertaken a labor of love by hand-crafting the oil in small batches. Jack is a “noted wild mushroom cooking authority and award-winning cookbook author (James Beard Award - “A Cook’s Book of Mushrooms” - 1996). (”

His experience and love of truffles shines here.

“Truffle oil is a finishing oil used to enhance foods by adding to them after preparation.
The oil adds nuance and subtlety to any dish to which it is added. However, there are certain ways I like to use the oil which really brings out its unique character.

• Truffle oil on pasta in cream sauce
• Truffle oil on risotto, especially porcini risotto
• Truffle oil on carpaccio or thinly sliced specialty meats
• Truffle oil blended with drawn butter for lobster or crab
• Truffle oil with flashed-seared foie gras
• Truffle oil over scallops seared in sweet cream butter and slivered endive
• Truffle oil over gnocchi with parmesan

• Truffle oil vinaigrette with arugula

• Truffle oil whipped with cream cheese on crostini
• Truffle oil mayonnaise (”

I will be trying out some of these recipes this weekend, and so should you.


Monday, April 6, 2009

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Typography On the Web

Hey folks,
This is The Design Tzar with the first installment of "Wake-up and Smell the White-space" a weekly design post.

First I should mention that this post is going to have a tinge of irony since it is about typography on the web and yet I am using bloggers' default type settings. Luckily someone over at blogger has a good eye so it looks pretty decent anyways. I should also mention that the goal of this post is to give quick, practical methods to enhance your type rather than a dissertation on the proper use and execution of the subject.

Why should you care about your type? Simply put, because people won't read it otherwise. There are loads of studies that show people retain more information and are able to read quicker and more relaxed if the type is "set" well.

So what are some good rules for type? This is a little bit of a longer conversation but in the spirit of having you finish this post I will take a stab at brevity.

First, give your type room to breathe.

Type on your web page should have generous margins, padding and most importantly a good line-height. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you have 140% line-height compared to your font size, and as far as margins and padding go, use your eye, but be generous.

.bodyText { font-size: 12px; line-height: 17px; }

Second, watch your character count.
This is very important and yet very few web designers knowingly employ this rule. In general your character count should be in the range of 45-70. Getting outside of those numbers on either extreme is a baaaaad thing. Ever wonder why you get exhausted while trying to read or edit an essay or paper written in word with a small font. It's because those lines are way too long. And remember character count includes spaces and punctuation.

Third, maintain high-contrast in your text.
That is to say don't put light text on a light background because obviously it is really, really annoying.Type is meant to be read, so make sure it is readable...please. Also an important side note: black on white is preferable to white on black (of course we all break this one sometimes).

Okay now we are getting into the duh rules, and if these seem novel to you, well... (be nice Jarod) well then keep reading!

Fourth, keep your fonts to a minimum, and be consistent.
Part one. Don't have more than three fonts on a page and keep an eye out for contrasting styles (serif vs. sans-serif). The other half of this rule is try and be consistent with what fonts you are using and to what purpose on the site, an easy way to make sure you are doing this is by defining your font or font-family in the body style.

Lastly, colors, sizes, weights, italics, blah blah blah.
This rule is very simple. If you are feeling inclined to add any of the above to a line of type...ask yourself what purpose is it serving. Always try and balance simplicity with information-heirarchy. That is to say, if you are going to use italics for a subheading, than don't worry about making your sub-heading 34px. Likewise if your headings are going to be large, they probably don't need to be bright-blue as well.

And if ever you are inclined to break any of these rules, ask yourself what you are gaining from it. And then sign up at your local art institute and see if you can't channel all the creativity into some DADAesque montage that criticizes the role of greed in a modern capitalist society, with the use of christmas lights.

The Design Tzar

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Techie Tuesday (on Wednesday)

I figured I would share some interesting tech tidbits. Actually I am going to try and share these each week on Tuesday, so check back for good techie tuesday news and thoughts.

My first one is about CADIE - Google's newest artificial intelligence creation:

Well actually this was really their latest April fools joke. Which makes it now 2 years running that it has taken me most of the day to figure out that they were trying to trick me with their april fools jokes! b@st@rds!

Does anyone remember the send it in the past Gmail trick? Yeah that one got me, oh it got me good. I was so excited last year that i actually blasted it out to everyone i know as a good example of how google's engineers just really understand US, the people who use their products.

OK, but I digress, I am actually hear to talk about the would-be CADIE and whether such a thing could be possible. Well the truth is maybe, but maybe not in the way you think.

According to Google the make-believe CADIE (who actually says a whats up to an old professor of mine Dr. Norvig - no seriously his name is Peter Norvig and he is the head of research at Google) is based on "a significant breakthrough" in how to approach "reinforcement learning" problems. People may not realize just how close to reality some of these topics really are - so I thought I would write a short spot on some current topics in AI and more importantly how it relates to our lives.

What the heck does that mean? Essentially it means that they have a way of taking data and learning what about it, then reinforcing what they have just learned by studying a similar set of data again.

Its kinda like slapping your kids wrist everytime they reach for the candy jar. Except that kids usually learn - most kids usually learn (*cough* Jarod... ) - to stop reaching for the candy jar. Whereas most computers reach for the candy bar A LOT - they just really want to make sure you are going to hit them before they decide it is a good idea to truly stop trying to get that candy.

The goal is to create algorithms which can figure out this whole candy jar business in just a couple of wrist slaps - and better yet extrapolate that since your mother told you not to eat candy and she told you not to drink soda that you might get a similar wrist slap for drinking too much soda as eating too much candy.

Well I am not going to get into a discussion about the meaning of intelligence. I will leave it up to you guys to decide if this would truly constitute intelligence. But one thing that is interesting, is to think about how good computers can be at faking intelligence. One of the classical tests (the Turing Test) of intelligence for a computer was whether or not it could converse with a human being and fool the human into thinking it was a human as well.

Then, of course, right after we decided that it was a test worth beating, we went and solved the darn problem and in less than 250 lines of code (if you are not a developer just read - very very little work)!

This is all important because we want to think about what a CADIE-like program might be able to do for us.

Well here are a few things, if a computer were able to learn in the way that CADIE is, it might be able to figure out what food products stores like yours were purchasing and recommend which products you should be looking at. If it were REALLY intelligent it might suggest to a food manufacturer just which food buyers they should market a given product too, it would be like the perfect marketer playing match maker between buyer and seller (in fact these are a couple of the crazier things we are working on at Findood).

In fact we all get functionality like this today from Amazon (people like you bought this product, don't you want to buy this product too?). However, what would be truly revolutionary about CADIE would be that reinforcement and extrapolation part. The part where the program doesn't just look at people like you, but also looks at people that are a little bit like you and other people who are also a little bit like you but in different ways, and then learns and extrapolates what applies to you, because after all we are all at least a little bit special. Seroiusly there really isn't anyone else out there quite like you or me, and it would be amazing if the next time your support call were routed to India it was actually routed to a computer that treated you as unique as you actually are... just an april fools, or is it?

thanks for reading.

PS Do you have questions about how to use technology in the work place? If so, send me an email elliot AT and let me know what questions you have, I will be happy to discuss them here.