Archive for May 2017

EternaLight White LED Flashlight

Thirty years ago, the most interesting thing I knew of was the digital watch. Never mind that digital watches were harder to read than analog watches, that they went through a set of batteries every few weeks, that they cost a small fortune. These things were not important. What was important was cutting-edge style. You could now wear a computerized device on your wrist that, at the press of a button, would display the time in glowing red LED numerals! How cool was that? When my dad got his first digital watch—a huge, clunky thing—I was deeply envious that he had the best toy in the house.

Just a few years later, though, digital watches had moved into the mainstream. I distinctly remember, as a nine-year-old in 1976, saving my allowance to buy my very own $20 digital watch. I was the first kid in my school to have one, the envy of all my friends. (Yes, my geek roots go way back.) It would be a few years yet before liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) became common; in the meantime, I was thrilled to have a status symbol courtesy of LEDs.

Since their commercial introduction in the 1960s, LEDs (light-emitting diodes) have become common components of every imaginable household product. Your phone, TV, answering machine, clock, and possibly even your kids’ shoes have LEDs in them. LEDs are popular largely because they’re inexpensive and use very little electricity. Compared to ordinary incandescent bulbs, LEDs also produce less heat, last many times longer, and are less sensitive to shock and changes in temperature. These are all wonderful attributes, but until relatively recently, there was one major limitation: color. Your choices were limited to red, amber, and green; anything further along the spectrum just didn’t exist. The invention of the blue LED was groundbreaking, but the white LED that soon followed was cooler by an order of magnitude.

A Little Light Science
To understand why white LEDs are so cool, you need to know a little bit about the technology behind LEDs generally. A diode is a very simple semiconductor device that allows electricity to flow in just one direction. If you apply current in that direction (called forward-biasing), the diode produces light as a side effect. For ordinary diodes, that light is infrared, invisible to the naked eye. By varying the materials used in the diodes, scientists were able to produce diodes that made visible light—red at first, and later, other colors. The physics behind LEDs dictates that whatever light is produced is of a single wavelength (that is, a single color). But for a long time, nobody could figure out how to make colors with shorter wavelengths than green—at least, not at any reasonable level of brightness.

Among the people trying to solve the blue LED problem was Shuji Nakamura, a researcher at Nichia Chemical Industries in Japan. Nakamura thought he had determined just the right type of material (indium gallium nitride, if you care) to use for blue LEDs. The problem was that the existing manufacturing processes did not produce material of sufficient quality. So he had to invent a new process as well. In 1993, after years of research, Nakamura finally produced the first commercially viable blue LEDs.

Now with Extra Whiteners
This achievement alone would have earned Nakamura a place in electronics history. But the real genius was in his next step. He applied a special type of phosphorescent coating to a blue LED. The blue light excited the molecules in the coating—much like the way a fluorescent lamp works—and produced bright white light. So white LEDs are actually a clever spin-off of blue LEDs, and without Nakamura’s insights, neither would have been possible.

A white LED is brighter than a comparably sized, conventional incandescent bulb. However, it’s not as bright as a high-output Krypton or Xenon bulb, such as you’ll find in fancy flashlights. In addition, white LEDs cannot be made arbitrarily large, as incandescent bulbs can. So if you want to replace the bulb in your Mag-Lite or kitchen light fixture, you must use a cluster of LEDs. A good LED flashlight will typically have three or more bulbs; for residential lighting, much larger clusters are used—for example, a 36-LED fixture will replace a 30-watt bulb; to replace a 90-watt bulb would require over 100 LEDs.

Apart from the issue of sheer luminosity, an important reason for using LED clusters is the pattern of light they produce. With incandescent bulbs, the light is omnidirectional, which is why flashlights and lamps usually have reflectors to concentrate the light in a certain direction. LEDs, because of their built-in lenses, produce much more directional light. This can be either a blessing or a curse, depending your needs. If you want to create a “Walk” sign at an intersection, an array of white LEDs will give you just what you’re looking for: bright light with a fairly narrow viewing angle. If you want to illuminate a room, however, that directionality is a problem. LED fixtures that need to disperse light more broadly rely on a combination of varying angles for individual LEDs and light-diffusing coverings.

The Price Is White
Although red and amber LEDs can be purchased for just a few cents each in volume, blue LEDs, which are harder to manufacture, typically cost about ten times as much, and white LEDs are more expensive still. You might imagine that a 100-LED fixture to replace your hall light would be quite costly, and you’d be right: at current prices, that sort of light will run you well over US$500. Of course, over its lifetime, which will probably be decades, you will save quite a bit of money in both electricity and replacement bulbs. This is precisely why they are attractive to municipal governments, which are rushing to replace conventional bulbs in traffic lights (and in some cases streetlights) with LEDs.

Until economies of scale bring white LED prices down to more reasonable levels, their biggest appeal for ordinary consumers will be in products such as flashlights, bike lights, and headlamps used for caving. It’s in applications like these that the LEDs’ low power consumption makes a profound difference. A Krypton flashlight might run for three hours on a set of alkaline batteries, compared to thirty or more for a flashlight using white LEDs. The extra convenience, not to mention the cost savings, can be enormous.

This Little Light of Mine
A bit of additional circuitry can extend the life of LED-based products even further. For example, I bought a white LED flashlight called an EternaLight. It has a built-in microprocessor that flashes the LEDs very rapidly—so fast that the human eye cannot detect it. Because the LEDs only use power when they’re actually on, this technique stretches the battery life to as much as 700 hours—you could leave the flashlight on for a full month. After about three years of frequent intermittent use, I decided to change the batteries simply on principle because I was going on a trip, but for all I know they could have lasted another three years.

There are many reasons to like white LEDs, but for me, the sheer cleverness of the idea tickles my fancy. The novelty has already worn off, but I’ll always be impressed by the creativity and hard work that made them possible. And when some pseudo-retro designer gets the idea to make a white LED digital watch, I’ll be first in line to buy one. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about White LEDs…

For a good discussion of how LEDs (though not specifically blue or white ones) work, visit HowStuffWorks.com. Articles on Nakamura and the process he invented can be found at EE Times and TechWeb, among many other sites, and an interview with him was published on ScienceWatch.

The LED Light.com sells every conceivable white LED product (other colors too). If you want to replace every bulb in your home, RV, and flying saucer with white LEDs, these guys can do it. And yes, they do sell drop-in replacements for Mag-Lites (AA size).

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The EternaLight, which comes in a variety of models, is sold by Technology Associates. I love mine and would heartily recommend it to anyone. If you follow this link to make a purchase, Interesting Thing of the Day will receive a small commission.

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Amazon.com also carries a great many white LED products in such categories as sports and outdoor living.

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When I was about 12 (give or take a couple of years), I had what I thought was a fantastic idea. I was going to build myself a volcano. I’m not talking about a little model made out of clay with vinegar and baking soda for the special effects. I wanted to construct a dirt cone in the backyard that was hollow inside and large enough to use as a clubhouse. I was a bit sketchy on the actual structural details, but I figured I’d start by digging a nice big pit, then add some sort of frame and cover it over with the dirt I’d removed previously. So I got an old piece of garden hose and formed it into a circle about 15 feet (5m) in diameter on the lawn to mark the perimeter of the volcano. The actual digging turned out to be a lot harder than I’d imagined—so hard, in fact, that after shoveling about two scoops of dirt I decided I’d better take a break. Weeks later, when I still hadn’t resumed my project, my mother told me to get that hose out of the middle of the yard, and while I was at it, mow the lawn. Reluctantly, I put the hose away, only to find it had left an unsightly yellow ring on the grass. It looked as though a flying saucer had landed, and the ring didn’t fade until the following spring.

I was embarrassed at both my inability to build my volcano and the condition of our lawn. It never occurred to me that with a bit more effort, I could have turned my blunder into a huge piece of art—say, a smiley face or a basketball. Just as well; I think my parents would have frowned on that. But nowadays, grass art—based on the very same principle I unwittingly discovered—has reached an exceptional level of sophistication, as artists create giant, stunningly detailed photographs on living grass.

The Grass Is Always Greener
When grass gets plenty of sunlight, it produces chlorophyll and therefore turns green—but the less light it receives, the more yellow the color is. British artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey discovered that by projecting a bright black-and-white negative image onto a patch of grass as it grows (in an otherwise dark room), they can use the natural photosensitive properties of the grass to reproduce photographs. When I saw one of these grass photos on display at a museum, I was utterly captivated. From a distance it looks like any other monochrome photograph (albeit with a slightly unusual tint); up close, it looks like perfectly ordinary grass. But even individual blades sometimes have a range of hues, as any given cell can respond to the amount of light it receives.

Ackroyd and Harvey stumbled onto this technique after producing an installation that involved covering an indoor wall with living grass. A ladder was leaning against the wall, and the artists noticed that even after it was removed, a faint outline of the ladder remained on the grass. They set about experimenting with ways of enhancing this effect, and soon they were using a slide projector as an artificial light source for growing their unique photographs. A typical exposure time is just over a week, with the image projected for 12 hours a day.

It’s an Art and a Science
At first, the grass photos faded within several days, as the grass adapted to the light conditions in the place where it was exhibited. Ackroyd and Harvey began looking for ways of increasing the longevity of their images, and they found a genetically modified strain of grass called stay-green. Engineered by researchers at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) in Wales, stay-green grass cannot break down chlorophyll easily and thus retains most of its green color—even after it’s dead. When using stay-green grass as their medium, Ackroyd and Harvey dry out their grass images rapidly as soon as they’ve matured. Although this kills the grass, the images remain visible for years, rather than days.

The IGER scientists working on stay-green grass were impressed with the artwork to which their product had contributed. And while looking at some digital images of the grass artwork, they came up with yet another innovation—a noninvasive way to study the chemical changes in the pigments of leaf cells as they age. Their technique, called hyperspectral imaging, relies on a computer to analyze colors that are too similar to be distinguished by the human eye. So science contributed to art, which in turn contributed to science—and sure enough, this additional research has inspired the artists to explore new creative directions.

Ackroyd and Harvey have done grass art installations all over the world. They are especially proud of the fact that although their medium is by nature temporary, the images can be regrown at any time. Some of their most famous pieces have been recreated several times already. If I ever have enough money to commission a work of art, I’m going to ask them to grow me a photograph of a volcano. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Grass Photographs…

You can read more about the grass photographs of Ackroyd and Harvey, and see pictures of some of their work, on a great many Web sites, including:

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In the novel Fish, Blood and Bone by Leslie Forbes, one of the characters is a grass artist. The author credits Ackroyd, Harvey, and the IGER scientists for inspiring this character. For a broader look at the ways molecular biology has influenced visual art, see The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age by Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin.

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I used to go for a walk every night. It was a pleasant habit—exercise, fresh air, quiet time alone to think. I made a point, whenever possible, of walking in an area away from the city lights, where the sky was dark enough that I could get a good look at the stars. I knew how to pick out some of the constellations, though I could never quite understand how anyone could see a goat or an archer in the patterns of stars. Seeing shapes in clouds is one thing, but mentally connecting the dots to form a complex picture didn’t really work for me. That’s not to say I didn’t see anything in the stars, though. As I looked at a particular star, I would think about the possibility of life in outer space, the chance that a planet circling that star may be home to people like me—or unfathomably different beings. I’d think about how Earth is just another one of those countless planets and the sun just another one of those countless stars. And picking my favorite star of the moment, I’d say to myself, “Someday I’ll find a way to go there.”

Looking at the stars and thinking about them in this way always had a very calming effect on me. I felt as though it gave me a sense of proportion, that it put my own crises and ambitions in perspective. It didn’t make me feel insignificantly small; instead, it made me feel somehow privileged to be able to see and understand what may be out there, and to realize I’m a part of something so big.

The Stars at Night Aren’t Big or Bright
Nowadays I don’t notice the stars very often, and when I do, I don’t usually think about them as I once did. But every now and then, I’ll be on a trip—an island, a desert, a rural getaway somewhere—and again the stars will catch my attention. Invariably I’ll wonder why I hadn’t noticed them in so long. Is it just that I’m older and busier? That may be part of it, but a bigger part is that the lights of the city often make it very hard to see the stars, always focusing my attention on the surface of my own planet. This is one consequence of the increasing problem of light pollution.

The term “pollution” is apt because excess or unwanted light can be an irritation or even a safety hazard. Like air pollution, light pollution is typically a by-product of machines and devices that were intended to make our lives easier, more convenient, and safer. Another similarity is that light pollution can be reduced greatly with careful attention to design. But because most people have become accustomed to light pollution as a fact of life, there is usually little incentive to worry about it when designing or purchasing lighting products.

It Was a Bright and Stormy Night
The most frequently discussed manifestation of light pollution is a phenomenon called skyglow—a layer of glowing air that obscures anything beyond it. Skyglow occurs because the atmosphere itself diffuses the light; the effect is strongest when lights point upward, and it’s exacerbated by moisture, pollution, and dust. If you ever look up into a clear night sky in the city and find that very few stars are visible, skyglow is the culprit. The effect is even more striking from a distance; if you’re outside the city in a darker area, you can often see skyglow as a glowing haze over the brightly lit area, even if the lights themselves are not visible.

There are other forms of light pollution as well. The term light trespass is used to describe light that shines onto someone else’s property. This can be a neighbor’s floodlight that shines into your backyard, for example, or a streetlight that shines into your window at night. Another type of light pollution is glare, a general term describing any kind of light that impairs or obscures one’s vision. Glare interferes with the eyes’ natural ability to adapt to lower light levels at night, and can pose a serious safety hazard—especially for drivers.

I Wear my Sunglasses at Night
Astronomers—both professional and amateur—have always found light pollution to be a serious problem. But stargazers are not the only ones affected. Biologists are increasingly concerned that light pollution is detrimental to wildlife—disrupting natural biological cycles, interfering with the hunting and feeding behaviors of nocturnal animals, and hindering the navigation of migrating birds. Humans may be directly affected as well: recent studies have suggested a connection between the use of electric lights at night and an increased risk of breast cancer. Even relatively small amounts of light reaching the eyes during sleep can throw off natural circadian rhythms, altering the body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin and potentially leading to a variety of health problems.

Light pollution is a solvable problem. The basic principle is to use light at night only where and when it’s actually needed, and only in the amount needed. This may involve shielding light fixtures so that light is directed downward (and away from adjacent properties), putting lights on timers or motion-activated switches, or using lower-wattage bulbs. There’s also the radical notion of turning off outside lights at night. According to conventional wisdom, more light equals more safety, so presumably brighter places should have less crime than darker ones. But surprisingly, this is not necessarily the case. Several school districts, in an effort to save money on electricity, tried turning off outside lights on schools and playgrounds at night and found, counterintuitively, that vandalism rates plummeted. That’s not to say you should start walking down dark alleys at night, but then, I suppose even criminals need to be able to see what they’re doing.

Reducing light pollution is in some ways at odds with modern Western culture—especially when it comes to outdoor advertising and other commercial lighting. And no one is arguing that cities and towns would be safer or better places to live if the streets were completely dark. But even while we teach our children not to be afraid of the dark, we do our best to surround ourselves with light. Perhaps a bit more darkness wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It could turn out to be healthier and safer, not to mention providing some much-needed perspective. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Light Pollution…

To read about the increasing number of fields represented in the anti-light-pollution movement, see Light Pollution Goes Mainstream by Richard Tresch Fienberg in Sky & Telescope.

The Danish site Light pollution or not, that is the question discusses the use of high-powered lighting devices (searchlights, lasers, etc.) for commercial advertising.

Other good sources for information on light pollution and what you can do about it include:

Information on how turning off lights at night has decreased vandalism in several school districts can be found in this article from Peninsula School District #401 in Gig Harbor, Washington.

Want to see what light pollution looks like from a satellite? Check out this image from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day site, or for more details, see The night sky in the World Home Page.

The impact of light pollution on wildlife is discussed in Light Pollution Taking Toll on Wildlife, Eco-Groups Say by Sharon Guynup in National Geographic Today.

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The book Light Pollution by Bob Mizon is a guide for astronomers frustrated with skyglow. If you want to teach children about light pollution, take a look at There Once Was a Sky Full of Stars by Bob Crelin (illustrated by Amie Ziner).

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Herbs Used to Make Pastis

It’s all Peter Mayle’s fault. Before I fell under his nefarious influence, I had very simple tastes. Food was food; a burger and fries eaten on the run was a perfectly satisfactory dining experience. But then I read A Year in Provence and its sequels, books that tell colorful tales about ordinary life in the southern French countryside. To hear Mayle describe life in Provence, every waking hour is concerned with acquiring, preparing, or eating food. His descriptions of wonderfully rich food and drink, enjoyed course after course in meals that stretch for hours, are sensual to the point of being called erotic. You can just taste the foie gras, the truffles, the escargots as you read. For impressionable minds like mine, there was only one possible outcome. I became a French food snob. And along my path to culinary enlightenment, I felt it necessary to sample—indeed, become somewhat expert on—a variety of French beverages. One drink that receives quite prominent treatment in Mayle’s books is pastis, which is as good a place to start as any.

Pastis is a distilled spirit made from a blend of herbs. The flavor is predominantly that of anise, thus putting it in the same general class as sambuca and ouzo. It is commonly consumed as an aperitif—sort of a liquid, alcoholic appetizer—and in France, where it’s most popular, the custom is to dilute it at the table with about five parts of cold water. The ritual of adding the water, which causes the translucent yellowish liquid to turn cloudy, is part of the fun of drinking pastis. But the most interesting thing about pastis is its history. That it should exist at all is a bit of an accident.

The Fate of the Muse
Throughout the 1800s, the aperitif of choice in France (and in many other places) was absinthe. This potent drink was also distilled from herbs and had a strong anise flavor. Many artists and writers swore that absinthe enhanced their creativity, calling it “the green muse.” This unusual effect of absinthe was thought to come from its key ingredient, an herb called wormwood. However, absinthe was also thought to cause hallucinations, violence, blindness, and even insanity. Although no solid scientific proof of wormwood’s toxicity was produced, absinthe became an easy scapegoat for a large number of social ills. By the early 20th century, public opinion had turned against absinthe and it was banned in France and most other western countries.

While this satisfied the prohibitionist urges of a vocal minority, there were two groups of people who were quite displeased with the ban: the millions of absinthe drinkers who suffered no apparent harm, and the distillers, such as Jules Pernod, whose plant produced thousands of bottles a day. Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention. The combination of public demand for a legal but absinthe-like drink and the distilleries’ desire to stay in business inevitably led to a substitute: pastis. It is made in the same manner—and from many of the same ingredients—as absinthe. However, the alcohol level is much lower and it does not include wormwood. Under such brand names as Pernod and Ricard, pastis rapidly rose to popularity in France, and within a few decades, absinthe was all but forgotten.

Our Secret Recipe: Eleven Herbs and Spices
Today, there are hundreds of brands of pastis, each with a unique formula. Among the most common ingredients are licorice, star anise, cardamom, fennel, and coriander—though some formulas contain dozens of different herbs. Colors range from clear to gold to green, and as with wines (or even colas), the subtleties in flavor provoke fierce loyalties. Having sampled perhaps a dozen varieties myself, I would venture to say that the similarities are greater than the differences, but tasting pastis is a sort of self-defeating exercise. After a few glasses it becomes difficult to distinguish one flavor from another—or, for that matter, up from down. Curiously, even though I don’t care for the flavor of licorice in food or candy, I find essentially the same flavor unobjectionable in pastis.

I have several brands of pastis in my bar at home, but I much prefer the experience of enjoying it at a restaurant, before a good French meal. Although in France pastis is the most common spirit by far, it has not achieved a great deal of popularity in the United States. Almost every well-stocked bar and restaurant has at least one brand of pastis, but customers seldom order it. A while back, Morgen and I had dinner at Masa’s, an upscale San Francisco restaurant whose head chef, Ron Siegel, was the first American to beat an Iron Chef. We arrived a bit early and decided to order pastis at the bar while waiting for our table. The bartender knew what we meant and also confirmed that we wanted it served in the traditional French manner—not on the rocks, as is more typically American. He said it had been a long time since anyone had ordered pastis, and he seemed a bit surprised that we would know about it. I, on the other hand, knew we were in good hands at the restaurant if the kitchen staff knew their stuff as well as the bartender knew his (and they did).

We Call it “Pop” in this Part of the Country
Unfortunately, this restaurant is the exception rather than the rule. In my experience, a majority of bartenders and waiters in the United States have little or no familiarity with pastis, even in fancy French restaurants…even in very old and famously absinthe-centric locales…and even if they stock it in their bar. On our honeymoon in New Orleans, Morgen and I visited Antoine’s, the oldest French restaurant in New Orleans—in fact, the oldest restaurant under single-family ownership in the entire United States. Antoine’s is legendary for its excellent menu and outstanding service, and having already visited a couple of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants, we were ready to be impressed. The menus were in French—always a good sign. As we sat down, our waiter asked if we’d like aperitifs, and I said, “Yes, please, two pastis with water.” The waiter gave me a strange look, so I repeated: “Pastis.” Still apparently confused, he nodded and disappeared into the kitchen.

A few minutes later he returned, somewhat befuddled, with two glasses of cassis (a fruity liqueur made from black currants) and a carafe of water. His puzzlement was apparently due to the fact that it is quite strange to order cassis with water. I said, “No, sorry, I ordered pastis, not cassis.” He frowned and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t have pastis.” I was thinking: a legendary French restaurant doesn’t have pastis? Very unlikely. I took a deep breath, and restraining myself from lecturing him, tried my backup plan. “OK, then just bring us some Pernod.” The waiter brightened immediately. “Very good, sir.” I could only shake my head and sigh. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Pastis…

[[http://rcm-images.amazon.com/images/P/0679731148.01.TZZZZZZZ][http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?tag=itotd-20&path=tg/detail/-/0679731148][Peter Mayle is best known for A Year in Provence and its sequels Toujours Provence and Encore Provence. Other books of his relating to food, drink, and France are French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew, Acquired Tastes, a collection of articles he wrote for GQ, and his novels Anything Considered, Hotel Pastis and A Good Year, published in 2004. Mayle also wrote A Dog’s Life, Chasing Cezanne, and Up The Agency: The Funny Business Of Advertising.]]

Besides Pernod and Ricard, some of the major brands you’re likely to see are Henri Bardouin, Pastis 51, and a few names suggestive of absinthe: La Muse Verte, Versinthe, and Absente. You can buy several brands of pastis online from the BeerLiquors.com, an unfortunate name if I ever heard one.

Antoine’s in New Orleans is a fine restaurant and I recommend it heartily, notwithstanding one waiter’s confusion about pastis.

If you’re ever in San Francisco and have a the time and money for a truly excellent French meal, try Masa’s.

Iron Chef is (was) a Japanese TV show featuring one-hour cooking battles between top chefs.

The photo accompanying this article, in case it’s not entirely obvious, is a display of some of the herbs used in making Henri Bardouin pastis. It was taken outside a small market in Provence.

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Every child who grows up in the United States hears the story of George Washington Carver, a former slave who became a botanist and agriculturalist. Carver is best known for devising over 300 uses for peanuts—from ink to glue to soap, not to mention a great many recipes for peanut-based foods. Although I’ve often wondered why I don’t see peanut paint or peanut insecticide at my local hardware store, I have the utmost respect for Carver’s discoveries and for the versatility of this humble legume.

Peanuts have got to be one of my top ten favorite foods. I love peanuts in or on chocolate, ice cream, Pad Thai, satays, soups, sauces, and just about everywhere else. They’re especially good on airplanes (which otherwise tend to have a rather metallic taste). So when I heard about a peanut-based beverage that also reputedly had fantastic health benefits, I couldn’t wait to try it. The product in question is the suspiciously named Signs and Wonders brand peanut milk, developed right here in San Francisco. Although you can buy it from a number of small stores, the best place to get it is the KK Cafe near the corner of Haight and Divisadero Streets, where it was invented.

It’s the Great Peanut, Charlie Brown
The story goes like this. Jack Chang, who along with his wife Margaret owns a tiny burger joint/coffee shop called the KK Cafe, loved peanuts. But due to chronic gum disease he was unable to chew them, so he set about making a drink that would enable him to enjoy his peanuts in convenient liquid form. It took him months to get the recipe just right, but being a frugal person he felt obliged to drink all the failed batches. As he consumed increasing amounts of this concoction, he noticed that he felt more energetic, his allergies cleared up, and his gums returned to health. He even stopped losing his hair. There could be no other explanation than his peanut drink—well, that and God, but I’m getting ahead of myself—so the couple began recommending the stuff to all of their customers suffering from various kinds of ailments. Sure enough, this person’s arthritis went away, that person’s skin rash healed, and soon testimonials were pouring in and word began to spread that the Changs had invented a cure-all in the form of a tasty peanut drink.

What Chang calls “peanut milk” is a nondairy product made primarily from ground peanuts and water, with some sugar, other grains, and a few herbs and spices. Interestingly, it tastes almost exactly like a mixture of ground peanuts, water, and sugar—which is to say, in my humble opinion, kind of gross. It was all I could do to get through a single 8-oz. (240ml) bottle—and remember, I’m speaking as a peanut lover here. Other people clearly differ in their opinion of the flavor, consuming, in some cases, several quarts per day. Or perhaps they’re too enthusiastic about its supposed health benefits to concern themselves with taste. In all fairness, it does certainly taste much better than, for example, a mixture of cough syrup, castor oil, and spirulina, to pick three ingredients completely at random.

Suspending Disbelief
The Changs are careful not to make specific health claims for their product in its labeling or advertising; all the same, they do point to the huge number of letters they’ve received as anecdotal evidence of peanut milk’s ability to confer on the drinker an astonishing range of health benefits. To be sure, the individual ingredients are nutritious. Peanut milk contains vitamins, minerals, and protein, and is relatively low in calories, so it’s reasonable to believe that it could provide energy and support one’s immune system, in addition to being a healthier drink than soda (or, for that matter, most other beverages). But the stories of its ability to cure everything from asthma to cancer are as hard for me to swallow as a suspension of ground peanuts.

For Jack and Margaret Chang, the explanation of peanut milk’s seemingly magical powers is simple: their formula is a God-given miracle—hence the name “Signs and Wonders.” Personally, I’d feel a bit uncomfortable attributing a recipe to God, especially a recipe whose taste strikes me as, shall we say, less than heavenly—and which, we are adequately warned, could be deadly to those with certain allergies. I wouldn’t go so far as to chalk up all the alleged benefits of peanut milk to the placebo effect, but I would expect that if it really does have curative properties, similar benefits could be achieved by consuming the ingredients in more conventional forms.

Milking Publicity
Even though peanut milk didn’t impress me, increasing numbers of customers swear by it. With barely any advertising other than word-of-mouth and a few news stories, peanut milk has grown in popularity beyond the point where Jack and Margaret can produce enough on their own to meet the demand. So they’ve outsourced production to a factory across the bay in Hayward, California. A few years ago you could purchase peanut milk only at the KK Cafe, but it’s now available in dozens of stores in the San Francisco Bay area, with a deal for national distribution reportedly in the works.

Surprisingly enough, not one of George Washington Carver’s peanut products was “magic peanut elixir.” But then, Carver did achieve considerable success, fame, and influence, and peanuts helped to propel at least one person to the presidency of the United States. You know, now that I think of it, maybe with a bit of chocolate that peanut milk wouldn’t be so bad after all. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Peanut Milk…

To learn more about Signs and Wonders peanut milk and its producers, visit their Web site. Be prepared for some heavy-duty (and weird) religious language, though.

The KK Cafe’s peanut milk has been featured in numerous newspaper articles. For example:

You can read about one person’s peanut milk experience on Matthew McGlynn’s Debris.com blog.

For more information on George Washington Caver, see the Wikipedia or The Great Idea Finder. A list of Carver’s peanut products appears on the George Washington Carver National Monument Web site.

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Source: Interesting Thing of the Day