The Laboratorium
March 1999

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Candies of the World, Unite!


Back on Friday, I went to Cardullo's, the gourmet food store next to the Greenhouse in the Square. Along with the other tasty treats they stock, Cardullo's has a rather impressive collection of imported candy. I made a beeline for that section, and purchased samples of eight different varieties of the most bizzare-looking candies I could find. In the name of Science, I was determined to try them and report back on the results. Here, then, are the conclusions from my experiment on "The Effects of Various Sugar Delivery Systems on a College Student."

Cadbury's Flake

Billed as "The flakiest crumbliest milk chocolate," this chocolate product comes in a long thin wrapper, and, at first glance, looks just like a slightly stretched-out chocolate bar. On closer inspection, however, the finer details of shape resolve, and one realizes that it is actually a large and thin sheet of chocolate that has been folded over onto itself many times. As a technique for folding air into a product, I've got to hand it to them, it's pretty clever.

As promised, Cadbury's flake is extremely flaky. Little crumbly bits wind up all over the table, and the wrapper is filled with tiny choclate grains when my lab partner and I have finished consuming the bar. As another technique for increasing the amount of their product you need to buy in order to ingest enough chocolate to satisfy your chocolust, it is also a very clever trick.

Unfortunately, texture aside, Cadbury's Flake is made with distinctly low-quality chocolate. The taste is stale and thin, with strong waxy notes and a slightly acrid mouth feel. To be fair, it may have been sitting on a shelf for too long, especially given that it's an imported candy, but Cadbury's Flake really rose head-and-shoulders above the rest in displaying this stale taste, and I cannot let this failing in the product under test pass without comment. Flakiness is also not a feature which remains detectable for more than the first few fractions of a second after you pop it in your mouth. On balance, the minuses outweigh the plusses, and Cadbury's Flake must rank as an intriguing idea that went wrong on its way to market.

Cadbury's Mint Crisp

Cadbury's redeems itself with this slightly more traditional item. Featuring "mint chocolate with honeycombed granules," the Mint Crisp looks an awful lot like a garden-variety chocolate bar, divided into segments for easy division. The key question on my mind is whether "honeycombed granules" means that the Mint Crisp contains actual honeycomb (or some close replica) or somthing else entirely.

As it transpires, the "honeycombed granules" are in fact small very hard bits of minty candy. They have roughly the material properties one would expect from candy canes ground into nuggets the size of coarse grains of sand. Cadbury's, it would appear, is obsessed with texture, since most of their products seem to be about starting with a standard flavor base and ringing the changes on the various substrates those flavors can be embedded within.

Where the Mint Crisp distinguishes itself from its evil Flake sibling is in the quality of its chocolate. The Mint Crisp has a reasonably tasty chocolate, with a strong but well-balanced mint flavor. Once again, taste proves its primacy over texture: although the "honeycombed granules" are slightly annoying, the Mint Crisp remains an enjoyable mint chocolate experience. The embedded-granule technique might work better if the flavor contrast between the fossil-like granules and their chocolate matrix were stronger: perhaps Chicken Crisp or Cognac Crisp would might redeem Cadbury's investment in advanced honeycombing technology.

Sherbet Fountain

I didn't know what this was when I bought it. I still have no idea. It comes in a yellow-and-orange roll about four inches long and an inch in diameter. One end is solidly sealed; at the other, the paper is folded over a small black nubbin. It reminds me of nothing quite so much as a firecracker. Perhaps if one sets the nubbin alight and stands back, it will explode in a fountain of sherbet.

Upon peeling back the paper at this end, the nubbin is revealed as the end of a strand of some black substance extending down into the cylinder's interior, where it disappears into a white powder that appears to fill most of the roll. Our laboratory team reports that taste testing revealed the black substance to be licorice. And as for the powder? It tastes like an equal mixture of sugar and chalk. Sweet, yes, but strangely bland and with strange overtones of children's vitamin pills and binding agents and who knows what.

Still puzzled, I turned to the label for help. Other than a helpful comment that "Contents may settle in transit. Tap gently to loosen powder," the label provided no help at all in figuring out how to drink from the promised "fountain." Is the sherbet fountain just fun dip as implemented by someone unclear on the concept, making the licorice stick a dipping agent? Or is it a grossly oversized pixie stick, to be upended and consumed straight, with the licorice stick just a bonus prize? Does one dunk the whole thing in water and stir? Your guess is as good as mine.

And as for that mysterious white powder, after reading the ingredients list, I'm more confused than ever. "Sugar, treacle, wheat flour, cornflour, sodium bicarbonate, citric acid, tartaric acid, anti-caking agent, caramel, liquorice extract, flavorings," it says. Sugar I can deal with. But baking soda, two kinds of flour, and treacle? Treacle?

What is this candy? I do not know. I can conclude only that the British are strange, and the candy-buying British stranger still.

Mint Aero

My roommate Keith tipped me off to this candy from the Commonwealth, which he was introduced to during his semester in Australia. Keith has some very interesting commentary on foreign candy: apparently, Australian candy is very much like American candy, only the names have been permuted. An Australian Snickers, for example, is identical to an American Milky Way. The Australian Milky Way, on the other hand, is suspiciously similar to an American Three Musketeers. But I digress.

Aero, made by the bastards at Nestle who don't sell their really good stuff here in the States, is chocolate with air bubbles whipped into it. On one level, it is another trick to get consumers to pay for air along with their chocolate. But to see Aero only this way is to overlook the remarkable mouth feel that results. As you bite into an Aero, it resists with a satisfyingly chewy feel. And I can only describe the feeling that results as an Aero starts to melt in your mouth as the feeling that chocolate is materializing out of the air and depositing itself on your tongue.

To cap off the Aero Aexperience, an Aero is made with pretty good chocolate. The mint flavor is especially well done: subtle, yet solid. In Aero, texture and flavor work together in harmonious concert, yielding a chocolate bar that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Cadbury's could learn a lot from the Aero about how to use texture properly.

Interestingly enough, the main use of Aero among Australian college students is as a mixer for vodka; molten Aero and alcohol are, if not mutually soluble, close enough for shot purposes. Since the air bubbles vanish during the microwaving process, to consome one's Aero in such a way is to negate the single most distingushing feature of an Aero bar. Such are the ironies of candy.

Klene Zout

Do not eat Klene Zout. Learn from my mistake. Do not eat Klene Zout.

Klene Zout is salted licorice. Salted licorice, for those who have not been introduced, tastes as though it were unsweetened. It is foul stuff. Foul foul foul. I had to wash my mouth out after trying one. Chase tried one, too, and experienced similar revulsion.

Klene Zout has one redeeming feature. It's from Holland, and the ingredients list is in Hollandaise, and therefore a lot of fun:

"Zoute drop. Ingredienten: suiker, gemodificeerd zetmeel, geleermiddle (elwit), glucosestroop, zoethoutwortelextract, tarwebloem, kluerstof (carbo medicinalis vegetabilis), aroma (anijsolie), glansmiddelen (plantaardige olie, bijenwas)."

I thought "suiker" meant "sugar." I was wrong. It means "sucker."

Red Band Top Drop

What is it with these Europeans and their salted licorice? The only difference between Red Band Top Drop and Klene Zout appears to be that the former come in individual wrappers. Although the rest of the lab staff pleaded with me not to try one, in light of the devastation the Klene Zout had wrought, I persevered. On behalf of candy-lovers everywhere, I maintained, it was my responsibility, nay, my sacred duty, to prove or refute the hypothesis that Red Band Top Drop is a good candy.

My lab staff were right; I did not yet truly comprehend the horror that is salted licorice. After a few seconds of dutiful chewing and a very thorough mouthwashing, I was able to pull myself together sufficiently to report that the hypothesis had indeed been resoundingy refuted. Red Band Top Drop is not a good candy. It is not even candy. "Poison" would be a better description.

Yes, these Europeans are crazy. I could understand there being enough odd Europeans with no taste buds to support a salted licorice brand. After all, they do sell sauerkraut juice here in the States. But two brands of salted licorice drops? Who on earth COMPARISION SHOPS for salted licorice drops? Consumer society really has gone over the edge.

Walnut Whip

Despite the promising name, Walnut Whip is actually a rather humdrum candy. It's more or less a conical Mallomar, minus the cookie bottom. A creamy semi-marshmallowy vanilla core is surrounded with a chocolate shell. It tastes good, as a Mallomar should, but with such an allitertive and vaguely suggestive name, I was expecting something more.

The "walnut" is also something of a misnomer: there is nothing walnutty whatsoever about the whipped core. Instead, the whole thing is topped with a walnut. This strikes me as a flimsy hook on which to hang an entire candy. If your Mallomar clone is going to be the one which distinguishes itself by having the walnut and then naming itself after the walnut, it had better be sufficiently elite to justify the arrogrance. The Walnut Whip is fundamentally not an elite candy. The walnut is like a hood ornament on a Yugo: pure pretense.

Perhaps I may have been unfairly disposed toward the Walnut Whip by the overall resemblance of the candy, in color and shape, to a turd. The rest of our lab staff, however, was similarly underwhelmed by the WW's flavor. Not a bad candy, but definitely a step backwards for Nestle after their superb Aero.

Wine Gums

A British gummy candy that comes in a roll. A glance at the colors indicates that these are not your ordinary gummy candy: yellows, greens, and blacks. The design, too, is off-kilter: each circular candy bears on its obverse the name of a dessert wine: "Sherry," or "Port VSOP," or "Sack." Their texture is a thick, sticky variety of gummy. The taste is sweet and fruity, with extremely strange hints, undertones, and aftertaste. They don't taste like wine. They don't taste like anything else I've ever had. They don't taste bad. They just taste odd. It would seem that while people from the Continent can very easily come up with candy that nobody else will eat, it takes the Brits to come up with candy that nobody else can identify. If they're feeding their youngsters Wine Gums and Sherbet Fountains, is it any wonder those kids grow up to make movies like Trainspotting?

The other strange thing about Wine Gums is that the package states very clearly in large letters "contains no wine." After tasting them, I can confirm this fact. What's more, having tasted them, I don't know how anyone could eat one and think that it contained wine. One might suspect that this warning is presented as a truth-in-advertising defense, so that nobody would buy a roll of Wine Gums and then be disappointed at their sudden failure to taste like wine. But this just begs the question: who would willingly buy, other than for scientific purposes, candy that doest taste like wine?

In the end, it's a mystery to me. Gummi Bears don't come with the disclaimer "contains no bears." You don't see "contains no babies" on a Baby Ruth. Apparently, some things man was just not meant to know.

Report of Findings

In closing, I'd just like to say one thing. Do not eat Klene Zout. All other candies of the world shall be tasty unto thee, but forsake the salted licorice, for it is foul and an offense unto the fair name of candy everywhere.

To Kill a Sparrow

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you are the Chinese Communist Party.

It's the 1950s, and you're a young, headstrong, take-charge, kind of political movement. You've driven the Nationalists off the mainland, established the first government of a unified China in perhaps a century, and now, to complete the hat-trick, you're going to catch China up to the developed West and restore its rightful place among the great nations of the world. But how?

Now the nay-sayers would say, and you have to admit they do have a point, that one of the major preconditions for rapid development is going to be solving China's food crisis. Conservative estimates are that China has been overpopulated since the late Ming dynasty. And her population has only gone through the roof since then. Too many people, not enough land, agricultural technology that was modern six centuries ago, you're going to have problems just feeding your industrial workers, let alone building industry for them to work in.

But you, if you're anything like the CCP of the 1950s, are anything but a nay-sayer. And what those nattering nabobs of negativism see as China's greatest weakness --- its huge and impoverished agrarian populace --- you see as China's greatest strength.

Quiz time. Why might a huge and poor agrarian populace be a strength?

As Chairman Mao realized, the true source of revolutionary power is the rural peasantry. It's just about the First Rule of proper revolutionary doctrine that any societal problem can be solved by mobilizing the peasantry.

The People's Liberation Army tried it, and they fought off both the Japanese and the Nationalists. So did the Chinese Communist Party, and they rebuilt China's national political identity. And when you think about the economic challenges of modernization, a whole lot of them seem like prime candidates for solution-through-mobilization.

Inefficient microscopic byzantine plots of land? Massive communes working millions of acres in precisely regimented Production Teams will create massive economies of scale. Want to irrigate large river valleys and built a few thousand factories? Human labor can realize public works projects of record-breaking scale.

Quiz time: can you think of any other problems you might be able to solve by mobilizing the peasantry?

Even problems not typically admitting of engineering solutions can be dealt with through revolutionary means. Heavy industry needs raw iron to jumpstart? The molten-down pots and pans of the peasantry will meet the demand. Corrupt local officials blocking reform efforts? Start a campaign against corruption. Or how about public health problems? Start a campaign. Thus the Four Pests campaign --- an effort to rid China of the malign influence of those four nasties: rats, mosquitoes, lice, and sparrows.

Sparrows, you ask? Mosquitoes, sure, bloodsucking disease-carriers, drain the swamps, yadda yadda yadda. Rats, no problem, they eat our food, live in filth, keep nasty company like the bubonic plague, and are darn ugly, besides. Lice, okay, there're reasons why every schoolkid in America gets a head lice screening by the school nurse once or twice a year. But sparrows?

Quiz time. Why sparrows?

Sparrows eat grain. Should a sparrow come across a kernel of grain on the ground, said sparrow will eat said kernel. When you have large numbers of sparrows hanging round, this has certain implications for your planting methods. Should you, for example, attempt to scatter seeds across a furrow, you would be lucky if the sparrows looking on would wait for you to take three steps away before they swooped in to eat each and very seed.

Should you take the time to carefully bury the kernel and cover it with a layer of earth, the sparrows will have a harder time getting at it; it might even stand a fighting chance of living long enough to put down roots and become a harvestable, growing, living, thing. The sparrows attack the growing cycle at its most vulnerable point, slashing yields, inhibiting the use of modern agricultural technology, and drastically forcing up the amount of human labor required during planting season. Damn sparrows.

But how to get rid of them? Shoot them? That'll take forever, waste tons of ammunition, and leave the fields covered in spent bullets. Poison? Probably not the best idea, taking some of your already-scarce grain supply and deliberately ruining it, plus it takes poison that's safe to use on food-grain fields. Traps? The mind reels at the number of traps required. And all of these methods share the common problem that they will kill, at most, only a moderate fraction of the sparrow population.

Quiz time. How DO you kill large numbers of sparrows quickly?

Stuck? You're forgetting the First Rule. Mobilize the rural peasantry.

It's actually an amazingly simple idea. You get everyone in the village together and go out to the fields where the sparrows are. Then you have everyone run around banging on pots and pans and screaming loudly. The sparrows get frightened and take to the air. Now you just have to keep on making noise for a while.

After about fifteen minutes or so, the sparrows, still too terrified to land but also too dumb to fly somewhere else (especially because a village-ful of people can conver quite a lot of ground) are going to get pretty tired. In fact, they're going to get so tired that they'll drop out of the sky from exhaustion. And when Comrade Sparrow falls to earth, all you need to do is run over and wring its neck, and there you go, no more Comrade Sparrow.

Not only is it simple, it's also stunningly effective; over the course of a few hours, you can kill more sparrows that you know what to do with. There are photographs taken of teams of smiling peasants standing in front of twenty-foot high mountains of dead sparrows. Kill fifty or a hundred, and you get a Mao button, a proud emblem of your revolutionary anti-sparrow zeal.

Incredible as it may sound, this tactic works. Overnight, the sparrow population in Northern China falls to a small fraction of its former size. The CCP hands out a ridiculous number of Mao buttons. As hoped, agricultural yields skyrocket to record levels. The harvests are wonderful.

Quiz time. What is wrong with this picture?

Nature, of course, abhors a vacuum. And nature is pretty good about setting up ecosystems in which every piece plays a role. Consider, for example, the food chain. Consider, for example, what happens when you delete a link in the food chain.

Now, it's not a problem higher up, in the slot labelled "things that eat sparrows." It's not as though humans are particularly dependent on sparrow predators. Nor do we eat usually sparrows. Sparrows certainly aren't generally a part of this complete breakfast. The recommended daily allowance of sparrow meat is zero. No, we're talking about a problem in the other direction, with the next slot down in the food chain, the one labelled "things that sparrows eat."

Quiz time. What, besides grain, do sparrows eat?

Locusts. Sparrows eat locusts. With no sparrows around, suddenly the major check on the locust population has been removed. The harvests are amazing the first year, and the next year witnesses the worst locust infestation of China in living memory. The locusts are so thick they blot out the sky; they settle across the fields like a living blanket from one end of Northern China to the other. Yields plummet.

Estimates are that up to thirty million people died in the resulting famine.

The Sounds of Science

This happened a while ago, but that doesn't make it any less wonderful.

To finish out the first half of my lab electronics course, they had the class tackle a medium-size design task. We split up into small teams, each of which had responsibility for a different module. We drew up designs at home, then came into class on Friday, wired them up, and put them together to make a complete optocoupler.

Optocouplers come in a lot of different shapes and forms. Ours was to take audio input to audio output by way of a 30kHz frequency-modulated infared signal. More informally, the centerpiece of the device is a little light bulb which gives off infared light, invisible to the eye. The first half of the circuit takes an audio signal and turns the light on and off more or less rapidly, based on that signal. The second half of the circuit starts from an infared detector and reverses the process, spitting out (ideally) a replica of the original audio signal.

The benefit to going through this whole rigamarole is that it's possible to separate the bulb from the detector, so that the signal can be transmitted, without wires, reasonable distances (in our case, across the room). Kinda cool for something we were to design and build from scratch.

Cool, yes, but not yet magical. The magic came later, after much building and testing and debugging and redesigning and rebuilding and connecting, when we were on the verge of a working device. We could hear, at the output, a battered but triumphant version of the sine-wave test input, a single clear tone somewhere near middle C, peeking out from behind mists of fuzz and buzz. And then, before we had all the bugs worked out, before everything was crystal-clear and perfect, the professor had pulled the plug from the function generator, taking away the tone and leaving only the static.

And then he pulled out an audio cable, connected one end to the optocoupler input, and bent over a boom box for a moment, making a connection and adjusting something or other. He stepped back, and we resumed the calibration process, lining up the transmitter and the detector.

Then we heard it. Underneath the static, richer than a plain tone. Piano, string bass, and a female vocalist singing "I Get A Kick Out Of You." And the lab was filled with the strains of Cole Porter, distant and distorted, but unmistakeable nonetheless. A few adjustments to the alignment and we could make out the full bass line. Twiddling the value of the VCO pot slid us around the resonant frequency, until a tiny tweak locked us into a region of beautiful clarity. There was something going on here, something wonderful, something more than just matching the response curves of transmitter and decoder.

Telephone, radio, phonograph: we were in the laboratories of their birth, hearing the results of years of experiment. Sounds captured, transformed, reconstructed, released again. Experimental science revealed as art. Bearded gentlemen in suits stood behind us, tears in the corners of their eyes, as they heard and felt what they had thought for so long.

Or, perhaps, it was 1938, and we were in a small Hudson River Valley town, playing with homebuilt equipment, made from discarded vacuum tubes and mail-order parts, listening to the great New York City radio stations. A city, three times as far away as we had ever been from home, singing to us through a box of glowing tubes and jury-rigged wiring.

Japanese pilots flying towards Pearl Harbor, picking up the all-night big-band broadcast from an island radio station like an ironic beacon. The children in Beyond Thunderdome listening to a hand-cranked language instruction record with mystical awe. The alien civilization which discovers the Voyager probe and listens to the gold-plated phongraph recording of Bach, Chuck Berry, and Javanese gamelan.

In the Middle Ages, people believed in invisible powers which shaped the world. Demons and angels flitted by all around, unseen by human eyes; witches and warlocks could cause things to happen at great distances, with no physical intermediation. Folk tales tell of the power of sounds, of princesses whose voices are stolen by witches for their own use, of the ability of a single true name spoken aloud to bring palaces tumbling down.

Today, we still believe in invisible powers which shape the world: we call them by different names, and they have different properties, but the distance is not so vast. It is impossible to see the signal sent through an optocoupler -- there is not even a wire inside which it is possible to imagine the visible signal passing. And yet, if you place your hand between the transmitter and the detector, as we did, the music stops, the signal path having been broken. I have heard the invisible, and I have seen both silence and sound on an oscilliscope screen. Is this really so different from seeing the elemental spirits summoned up by a cunning man, or from hearing the cries of mermaids?

To believe in the unseen is not to retreat from the real and rational world, nor does saying that the air is filled with electromagnetic fields make it unfit to breathe. The spirit is actually much the same, whether one speaks of spirits or of gravity waves: to replace small mysteries with deeper, greater ones. Sometimes, there's nothing like a little science to make the world a stranger, more magical place.