Foraging in Central Park with Steve “Wildman” Brill

After reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivores Dilemma, I’ve become increasingly interested in learning how to forage for mushrooms. It turns out there’s a Connecticut Mycology association named COMA (apparently the irony of naming a mushroom hunting society after a state of “profound unconsciousness” was lost upon the members of this group) and they recommended someone named Steve “Wildman” Brill for walks in Manhattan.

After booking a walk with Steve earlier this week, Thessaly and I showed up only 2 minutes late this morning at 72nd St. and Central Park West.

We didn’t find any edible mushrooms, but we did find lots of other tasty wild edibles. The mushroom we did find turned out to be very poisonous. It was a “Little Brown Mushroom” (which is pretty close to its scientific designation since there are so many different types) that Steve told us would deposit poisons in our blood that would slowly destroy our kidneys over time. Steve made a very concerted effort to indicate just how deadly most things are out there. His philosophy of eating wild edibles is similar to the differences between white list and black list web filtering. Instead of giving general rules about what you can’t eat (black lists which will always be insufficient), he gives very specific rules about what you can eat (white lists) and assumes everything else will kill you slowly and painfully.


He was able to identify that the mushroom was of the type Cortinarius, because it had a little spider web-like veil remnant.

Here are the rest of the things that I picked up:

Foraging in Central Park

From left to right, that’s Common Spice Bush, Heritage Apples of Unknown Heritage (they were red on the inside and a little sour), Burdock Root, Something similar to New Garlic, Epazote, Sheep Sorrel, Sassafras, and California Bay Leaf (I think).

Check out Steve’s 2008 calendar to book a walk.

Outsource Your Plagiarism with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk

I saw “Amazing but True Cat Stories” on BoingBoing the other day and it inspired me to come up with some Amazon Mechanical Turk Human Intelligence Tasks. I’m looking into actually implementing some right now and will probably start running them soon, so I’ll write about them here when I have them up.

The Mechanical Turk is a web service run by Amazon that allows you to pay hundreds, if not thousands of people to perform menial tasks that computers are not capable of. It takes it name from the true Mechanical Turk, a hoax from the 18th century that could play (and beat) people at chess, when in fact the pieces were being ingeniously controlled by a midget. But I digress.

I’ve been investigating the HITs that are already on the site. I had looked through a lot a number of months ago, but they have only gotten better.

This one struck me* as interesting:

Rewrite 5 Sentences

Please re-write the below sentences 3 times each.

You should always start and end every meal with a flourish, and a delectable dessert is sure to make a splash. Now is the time to enjoy those tempting food baskets you have on hand, to sweeten up your dessert offerings. Try using the goodies from a gourmet gift basket.

A fruit tart with a tender, buttery crust is a perfect complement to imported chocolates from a chocolate gift basket. Whichever gift baskets you decide to use, your picnic will sure to be delicious.

A good rule of thumb is to start your meal with a bang and give it an impressive finish. A sumptuous gift basket dessert is just the finishing touch that your picnic needs. Gourmet gift baskets are filled with decadent goodies that you can pull out and use anytime.

Tasty treats like imported chocolate gift baskets and fruit baskets, with a flaky, buttery crust will satisfy the love of your life when you bring them for the dessert of your next picnic. Whatever the menu you ultimately decide on, your picnic will be the most delicious part of your day!

Otherwise, you can have fresh fruits, salted nuts and cheese after the meal. Nachos and crackers dipped in sweet sauce, likewise, complements your wine. Wine baskets or Fruit baskets tend to be the most impressionable!

Please upload .txt file when submitting.

The writer, by accepting this HIT agrees to extend an exclusive unlimited term license to the purchaser to use the original content developed. Once the article is accepted by the purchaser and paid for, the content written for this HIT may not be sold, traded or given away to any other individual or company, nor used for any other article writing assignment elsewhere. Moreover, the writer agrees that the purchaser has full rights to amend and modify the content at will and to use it wherever the purchaser deems fit.

At $3.50 this was the most expensive HIT on the site as of this writing. Why would anyone need such mundane cooking copy rewritten?

I’m certain its because someone is rewriting a cook book to resell commercially. But why is it just the text about a recipe and not the recipe itself? Recipes can not be copyrighted, so the actual ingredients and list of steps to make a dish can be freely copied.

Thessaly and I have discovered many, if not all of our favorite chef‘s recipes are available on line gratis from various spammy recipe sites. This is convenient when we’re cooking at friends or away from home and don’t have access to her cookbooks but know the recipe we want to cook.

The part of a recipe that isn’t copyable, however, is the text surrounding it or introducing it, or anything minimally creative about the recipe. This means that if Alice muses about how she came to discover the fact that grapefruit and avocado (can you tell I love this salad?) make a great combination when paired with a white wine vinaigrette and curly endive, you can’t copy that part.

It’s pretty clear that this HIT is designed to route around this “feature” of copyright law by hiring a massive horde of re-writers to do the dirty and boring work of plagiarism. I tried Googling some of the original phrases supplied by the HIT’s creator but nothing came up. Let me know if you recognize any — I’d be curious to discover the source material.

So just remember, the next time you want to blatantly plagiarize a book (or a college essay if you’re so inclined) you can hire hundreds of anonymous web users to do it for you.

*UPDATE: Monday AM my example HIT no long seems active. I’m going to search a bit more for similar ones and try to get a screen shot but I’m sure more will crop up soon.

ChowHound Doesn’t Understand The Conversation That Is The Web

There I was, advocating for the power of the web to connect people. How ChowHound was this awesome site to connect people looking for food. I even posted a link on ChowHound to my blog review of Picchu. But apparently that’s unkosher on ChowHound. They don’t like outbound links. I just received this e-mail, indicating that my post was deleted:


We’re sorry, but we’ve removed your post (below). ¬†Chowhound’s mission is to be a trove of opinions and information, rather than a nexus of outbound links to opinions and information. So please opine on the Chowhound site rather than direct our audience elsewhere for your thoughts. Please either cut/paste your blog opinions or encapsulate them in your postings.

We understand that there’s a fine line between sincerely wanting to point your fellow hounds to good info which happens to be elsewhere and plotting to steer our large audience elsewhere for promotion/ self-promotion. The problem is that we have far too many users and far too little time to draw this distinction. We need to stave off the considerable desire to use our loud microphone for promotion.

You can see more on our guidelines for bloggers and other journalists, including the appropriate ways to include your blog URL on Chowhound, in our Etiquette:

The Chowhound Team
For Those Who Live to Eat

I don’t really get this. Is ChowHound worried about serving extra-Google juice to the undeserving barbarians outside their walled garden? What if they implement a nofollow policy ala Wikipedia?

If they’re worried about keeping conversations “inside” their forums, then they don’t seem to be understanding the nature of the Web as conversations happen everywhere. After I post this I’ll send the link to Twitter, and then that will show up on Facebook, and maybe I’ll send it in an e-mail to a friend I know cares about ChowHound, and so on. Finally I’ll track responses and conversations via Pingbacks and Google Analytics. As Dave Winer says, “The web is a conversation, too.

ChowHound’s solution is to have me copy and paste my own work (raising questions about what would happen if I object to what rights they claim to my work) for no other reason than to help ChowHound police their own boards is also silly.

Finally, while I’m sympathetic to the idea that policing ChowHound for “self promotion” is difficult, I’m not sure killing outbound links (or directions to external information) really solves this problem. Why couldn’t I just talk about myself? Or my hypothetical favorite restaurant which I happen to own?

Admittedly the spam / promotion problem is one of the hardest to solve on the web. Millions of words and thousands of hours have been spilled on Wikipedia trying to define what is notable and what is not in an attempt to keep Wikipedia clean from mindless self promotion. But ChowHound is not Wikipedia.

What I ultimately object to is the mindless approach CH has taken to moderation. Instead of really basing the decision on a community standard, the choice to remove posts is made from the top down, using mercenary logic.

Picchu in Sapporo

Originally it was supposed to be me and my friend Henrik heading out to dinner. Then it was me, him, and Henrik’s girlfriend Maj. Great. But then when we finally met in the lobby it became 3 more people.

And I made my disclaimers. I did. I said I had no idea if this was going to work out, that people would just have to follow me. That it was Italian food. But I had to go. The review was too fanatical to missthis was the only concrete recommendation I found for Sapporo. People complained and hemmed and hawed and tried to avoid committing but I just said I had to go. And our party of 2 became a caravan of 6, following me out of the hotel.

I had had the prescience (perhaps from a previous trip to .jp) to attain directions from the hotel desk but was not exactly confident. Flashbacks of menu items featuring “live chicken liver w/ hearts” came to mind. One block down, 5 more before we had to turn left for another 5 blocks, but the Japanese don’t really use street addresses, so what did it matter? I lost count but guessed that we had to go through the pedestrian mall.

When we finally ended up at the block it was as if we were in ex-urban Sapporo. No more street attractions or well lit alleys. Loud bars that smelled of the horrible cigarettes which everyone smokes in Japan.

I start frantically looking around; one of those “mini” blocks that cuts the block in half and suddenly multiplies the number of corners I have to worry about.

Henrik says “I usually don’t see Fred this confident, so its OK.” I ponder what happens when we can’t find the place and we’re 2 miles out from the hotel with no plan.

I turn the corner and its there. Picchu. Why would they have the ‘h’ if they have the double c? Anyway, its undoubtedly the place so we step in after cautiously asking if they’re open. Who knows where the chef is.

When we get the wine menu it is surprisingly decent. I recognize the Chianti and the Barba D’alba and some other wines. They rank them in order of price; typically efficient Japan.

We order the D’Alba. Fine.

Then Juan-Carlos says he’s from Italy, so he knows.

Somehow I dragged an Italian to eat the cuisine of his home country in some backwater Japanese restaurant in Sapporo.

So we get the first course. Seasonal spring pickles. Surprisingly good.

Then the second course of a pate on bread that no one can identify. I’m just happy that there are no vegetarians with us.

We are all impressed with the wine and the Europeans are more so — the dollar is weak against the yen but the euro goes a long way. And that the dish we’re having now is from Juan-Carlos’ home town. Its a garlic paste with anchovies served with raw vegetables to dip.

After 10 minutes of hearing the sous-chef beat a whisk we’re delivered “the best carbonara I’ve ever had” says our friend from Piedmont. The chef doesn’t speak any Italian so we’re totally spooked how he’s pulling this off. But we keep eating. A little later we demand bread for scarpetti. And he spends 5 minutes grilling and toasting a dense mix between challah and focaccia to use to scoop up the rest of the fluffy carbonara sauce.

And the courses keep coming and we keep ordering more wine.

It was a spectacular evening and as we headed back to the karaoke and bars everyone who wasn’t there was asking me “about this Italian place.” I tried to explain to them that it was the Internet, that it was a lonely post on Chowhound that go us there, and nothing more. But somehow, despite this crowd, it doesn’t register. And that’s fine.