Hello all,

I’ve been obsessed for a few years now by monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Like most people, I had always had a vague sense that it wasn’t good for you and was to be avoided, but I had no real understanding of why that was. But then I saw chefs like David Chang and Heston Blumenthal explaining that it was perfectly safe, that “Chinese restaurant syndrome” was an old wives’ tale, and that it was an important building block of flavour. And so I started using it in my cooking, and have never looked back.

The culmination of that obsession is that last week I and a couple of friends launched a range of MSG-based seasonings called Honest Umami, which aim to challenge the stigma around MSG and get more people using it in their cooking.

I’m writing this not because I want to flog you some MSG, though – heaven forbid. (It is tasty, though…) I’m writing it because the story of MSG is a fascinating one from the perspective that I write about on Roblog. How did we come to discover this versatile ingredient? How did it spread around the world? How did so many people come to believe incorrectly that it was harmful? Is the tide turning?

So I’m going to write a few articles in the coming weeks about this story and why I think it deserves to be better-known. The first of them is below, and it looks at the initial discovery of MSG in the early twentieth century. It’s the story of the cross-cultural spread of ideas, the importance of happy accidents, and the role played by people who approach the world with an enlightened curiosity – people like MSG’s inventor, Kikunae Ikeda. I hope you find it interesting.

Happy Friday,

This week’s article

The Story of MSG: Discovery

The savoury flavour known as umami is fundamental to the enjoyment of food and has been for thousand of years – and yet we only discovered it a century ago. How did we discover it, and why did it take so long?

Click here to read the article »

This week’s six interesting links

The anxious generation

A fascinating interview with Jonathan Haidt, whose new book explores the relationship between rising levels of mental health issues in young people and the prevalance of social media. In interviewer David Epstein’s words, “we basically ran this kind of grand social experiment starting in 2010. And now we have some of the results. And they don’t look very good, particularly for young people.”

Haidt’s broad points are that human beings require social interaction and play during childhood in order to fully develop as social animals, and that indoor play and virtual social interactions are no substitutes for the real thing. Social media, with its dopamine-dispensing feedback loops, rapidly accelerates the development of unhealthy behaviours:

“Social media platforms are the most efficient conformity engines ever invented. They can shape an adolescent’s mental models of acceptable behavior in a matter of hours, whereas parents can struggle unsuccessfully for years to get their children to sit up straight or stop whining.

“On a phone, you’re endlessly presented with things to touch. And if you touch the right thing in the right way, you get a little hit. You get something that will give you a little hit of dopamine. It’ll either be validation of your social standing, or it’ll be entertainment, or it’ll be funny, or it’ll be sexual. As a parent, if we could implant an electrode in our kids’ brains to give them a little bit of reward when they clean up their room, a little bit of punishment when they drop their underwear on the floor, we could train them very quickly to clean up their rooms – if we had that button to deliver a little bit of pleasure or pain. We don’t have that button, but the rest of the world does… Once you put your kid on social media, you’re saying to the rest of the world: ‘Hey, how about if you train my daughter? You give her rewards and punishments, and I’ll just sit back and see what happens.’ And the result is a generation of girls that are anxious, depressed, self-harming and suicidal.”

Via John Naughton. #

What have fourteen years of Conservative rule done to Britain?

Sam Knight with a brutally clear look at the state of Britain 14 years into Tory rule. He grapples with the impact of austerity, the influences of Brexit, and the prospects for future improvement.

“On January 14th, a poll of fourteen thousand people, which Frost facilitated, suggested that the [Conservative] Party is on course for a huge defeat later this year. The question is what kind of haunted political realm it will leave behind… It is unnerving to be heading into an election year in Britain with the political conversation so small, next to questions that can feel immeasurable.”


Juice it or lose it by Martin Jonasson and Petri Purho

An old but excellent talk from Martin Jonasson and Petri Purho about a quality within video games that they call “juiciness”. A “juicy” game is one that has little details, little moments of surprise and delight; it’s the difference between an experience that feels flat and dull and one that feels exciting and engaging.

It strikes me that it’s true of game design, but it’s true of almost all things we produce for human consumption that are at all interactive: good copywriting has juiciness, good design does, good websites do. #

Instagram fatigue and the rise of 'Resentment Reels'

Taylor Lorenz’s video essay on the emergence of “resentment reels”: Instagram videos that express frustration at the vagaries of the Instagram algorithm and the scant pay-offs for most people in the “creator economy”. Lorenz traces their origins back to the initial emergence of the influencer economy and the subsequent pressure on everyone – regardless of their occupation – to also be a content creator.

But what has turbocharged this frustration is the shift towards video content in response to TikTok:

“Online attention had suddenly become the most powerful form of modern currency, but amassing that attention in a video-dominated world was more competitive than ever. Suddenly artists, small business owners and regular users were hit with whiplash. Creating video content is not like creating aspirational photos or making some graphics for a short Instagram story or tweet. It’s exhausting, it’s time consuming, and it requires a level of skill, effort and knowledge about the media landscape that most people don’t have time for.”


Behind F1’s velvet curtain

Road and Track magazine (somewhat predictably) spiked this brilliant piece by Kate Wagner, who I know for more for her excellent website McMansion Hell than for her cycling coverage. In it, Wagner visits a Formula 1 race as a guest of INEOS and says it like she sees it:

“I think if you wanted to turn someone into a socialist you could do it in about an hour by taking them for a spin around the paddock of a Formula 1 race. … I saw $30,000 Birkin bags and $10,000 Off-White Nikes. I saw people with the kind of Rolexes that make strangers cry on Antiques Roadshow. I saw Ozempic-riddled influencers and fleshy, T-shirt-clad tech bros and people who still talked with Great Gatsby accents as they sweated profusely in Yves Saint Laurent under the unforgiving Texas sun. The kind of money I saw will haunt me forever. People clinked glasses of free champagne in outfits worth more than the market price of all the organs in my body. I stood there among them in a thrift-store blouse and shorts from Target.”


Mike Read’s Heritage Chart Show

Pete Paphides on the surreal spectacle that is Mike Read’s Heritage Chart Show:

“A couple of weeks ago, the UK’s only chart-based music show celebrated its hundredth episode, and yet, there’s every chance you’ve never heard of it. That’s because, in order to watch it live, you’d have to be seated in front of your TV at 3am on Monday morning. Furthermore, you won’t find it on a music channel. It’s not on any of our terrestrial stations. Mike Read’s Heritage Chart Show is, in some ways, an aberration on the schedule of vintage movie channel Talking Pictures. In another sense though, it’s a perfect fit among Talking Pictures’ carefully curated menu of Ealing comedies, monochrome sagas of wartime derring-do, old episodes of 70s daytime staple Crown Court and, on one memorable occasion, a 1954 documentary about the Shippams Fish Paste factory.”