Robyn’s Corner #4

Robyn’s Corner #4

Challenge Updates

Italian with Duolingo:

Still on track for daily practice, but my two kids and a friend are way ahead of me. Am going to experiment with a few YouTube Italian conversation sessions. Just experiment. Am going to Italy this month and still feel confident about mumbling Italian but not really taking on a conversation.


Completed a full month of daily drawing.  I loved this challenge. It was always a highpoint of my day, even though sometimes I felt out of ideas for subjects and also rushed on some days when I barely had time for drawing anything. I did learn a lot: new materials such as liquid watercolors, watercolor brush pens, white ink pens, and felt pens. For March, I want to continue with a daily drawing but because of SXSW and travel, I imagine many will be quick pencil sketches done on the run. Aim to get at least 75 percent of my goal this month. That would be 3 not 4 weeks of drawings, I guess.

Books I’m Reading Now

The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. Being from Los Angeles, this book piqued my interest. Downtown LA appears out of the hazy Southern California sky as a jumble of high-rise concrete buildings. Nested on Hope Street, is the LA County Library, built in 1926 and burnt down by an arsonist in 1986. The building survived but millions of documents were incinerated. Orlean tells the story of the event while shining a light on libraries in general at a time when we download our books. By the time she has wandered through the library and its conflagration, you might find out who the arson was..maybe.

Having met Dan Ariely this past fall at Poptech, I wanted to learn more about his ideas around consumer behavior. This past week, I read Predictably Irrational, and enjoyed his easy to read prose along with his relatable ideas about why we do things that appear irrational. Great insights about why we eat unhealthy food, and pay too much for things we don’t need. This was an unexpected complementary read to the book I read last month about Adam Smith. Ariely puts Smith in a contemporary context, creating some new ways of looking at supply and demand.

Food Routes

Food Routes……My book is out! You can buy it here: …….Would worship you if you bought one and then wrote a stunningly positive review on Amazon. Am grateful to my publicist at the MIT Press; he is doing a great job getting the book out there. Last week, The Wall Street Journal published my article about chicken tracking (J) and then NPR put me on Morning Edition. Then PBS filmed a short segment on pizza as a homage to Pi Day, March 14th. Am writing several pieces for media outlets and hope they run them. It’s all fun, if not intimidating. Enjoyed signing books at SXSW.


This is the month that Austin attracts creatives and technologists from all over the world. Even without an official badge, you can learn about ideas from unexpected places. Will head into the festival this week, starting with our Food+City Challenge, then my panel on The Future of Eating. Psychology professor, Art Markman, Futurist, Max Elder, and Smart City Evangelist Henry Gordon-Smith were rock stars on the stage.

Movies and the Oscars

Caught the Oscars (my allegiance to my home town runs deep). I found The Favourite a little strange but the acting and costumes were superb. This article by Amy Froide in The Conversation, a cool and smart website for news, shares her historical perspective on women at the time of Queen Anne. The whole idea that women were shrewd investors then was a surprise to me. I suggest that reading her book about women investors in the 18th century would be full of such insights.


Now Available: Food Routes

Now Available: Food Routes

Even if we think we know a lot about good and healthy food―even if we buy organic, believe in slow food, and read Eater―we probably don’t know much about how food gets to the table. What happens between the farm and the kitchen? Why are all avocados from Mexico? Why does a restaurant in Maine order lamb from New Zealand?

In Food Routes, Robyn Metcalfe explores an often-overlooked aspect of the global food system: how food moves from producer to consumer. She finds that the food supply chain is adapting to our increasingly complex demands for both personalization and convenience―but, she says, it won’t be an easy ride.

Networked, digital tools will improve the food system but will also challenge our relationship to food in anxiety-provoking ways. It might not be easy to transfer our affections from verdant fields of organic tomatoes to high-rise greenhouses tended by robots. And yet, argues Metcalfe―a cautious technology optimist―technological advances offer opportunities for innovations that can get better food to more people in an increasingly urbanized world.

Metcalfe follows a slice of New York pizza and a club sandwich through the food supply chain; considers local foods, global foods, and food deserts; investigates the processing, packaging, and storage of food; explores the transportation networks that connect farm to plate; and explains how food can be tracked using sensors and the Internet of Things. Future food may be engineered, networked, and nearly independent of crops grown in fields. New technologies can make the food system more efficient―but at what cost to our traditionally close relationship with food?

Food Routes is now available for purchase on Amazon. 


Robyn’s Corner #3

Robyn’s Corner #3

Challenge Updates: 

February is half gone and I’ve done one sketch a day and kept on Duolingo for Italian. So far, holding steady.

A Most Unlikely Twitter Account:

The Museum of English Rural Living Tweeted what might seem a shocking image on Valentine’s Day. The Tweet is just one of many delivered by a crack social media team that manages to engage its over 100K followers every day. They pull it off with a sense of humor, smartness, and loyalty to the museum’s mission. They dig up images from the archives, find a way to inform while amuse, and sure enough, their followers come back with sometimes long and surprising retorts and comments. There’s much to learn here and it may take more than a month of Tweets before their secret sauce becomes apparent.

WIP (Works in Progress)
  • Podcast progress: Just before Christmas, I took the plunge to start a Podcast. Yes, everyone seems to have the same idea, so no credit for originality here. It’s just that blogs have become such a slog for so many. How to share a story without contributing to the noise in the ether? I found three willing subjects for the first three episodes: an expert on GMO salmon, food logistics expert and an professor of international food businesses. I’ve got the recordings, found someone to help with editing and launching, and am now considering what I should call the podcast. For the moment, I’m taking a step back, considering the audience and how the podcast could be interesting to more than one or two listeners. Stay tuned.
  • Geocaching: The one that got away: Over the holidays, I fell for geocaching, the odd sport of finding hidden objects using only a few hints and some compass coordinates. The geocaching crowd consists of yet another nerd cult. And now I know why. Finding these small capsules, hidden boxes, and clues, brings out an obsession with detail and stirs it in with the surreal feeling of living in an alternate universe, filled with Mugglers and people wandering in parking lots and gullies. While on holiday in San Diego our family nailed at least five caches in an hour, actually post mid-night on New Year’s Eve. Back in Austin, I found three in and around the parking lot near our home. When you fail to locate a cache, you must log a Did Not Find note on your profile within the app. Although I am sure no one cares, it feels like a low blow. I’ve returned to the location where the cache is supposed to be now at varying times of the day, wandering around, looking up, down, up into trees, in drain covers, all over the grass dividers ….. while nearby shoppers regard me with mild suspicion and certain curiosity. Am not sure how to recover from this loss, the inability to ever find another cache other than in the post New Year’s Eve haze. Have begun to search for easy caches, those rated on the app as easy finds and see if I can redeem just a modicum of caching confidence.


The Transalpine Run August 31 through Sept 9, 2019

8 days, four countries 275 KM, 170.87 miles) and 16,416 M of positive vertical ascent (about 10 miles).
This is the race I’m doing this year. It’s epic and it will be the second time for me; I ran this 10 years ago. My running partner and I aim to complete this together and as artists, we are a team names “Sketchy Sisters.”

SKETCHY SISTERS   Metcalfe Robyn w | Austin   Bazany-Taylor Alexandra w | Maidenhead SENIOR MASTER WOMEN

We have about 6 months left of training. As of now, we are doing our own training thing, building and maintaining our foundation with lots of cross training. For me this means every week I get in three days of running (a total of 20 miles, broken into three runs of one long, one hills, and one speed. Also 3 days of bike trainer workouts using Zwift. Two days of strength training and one day of boxing. This means double workouts on some days. During the next few months, Sandra and I will work together to do more hills, work on equipment, and work out the logistics for 8 days of runs. Mentally, we are already in the game. We’ll work on what we think we can control and leave the rest to surprises and adventure. You can follow both Sandra and I on Strava, if you are curious about our daily workouts. Other friends and family are joining the run this year, all 8 of us. Very exciting.

Sandra and I had a tough time during the first day of the race when we did this before, so Sandra and I will plan to meet at the race start in June to train over that first day’s route, just to get over it and not have it buffalo us again.

This week, I worked out a way to keep track of my hill repeats. There were 10, as you can see here.

Book Reading:  

Read Ryan Holiday’s Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Atomy of Intrigue. This is a riveting read as Holiday takes you through the conspiracy of Thiel’s team and Hulk Hogan to attack Gawker. While the lawsuits did achieve their intended goal of bankrupting Gawker, Holiday wonders if conspiracies have lost their role in today’s culture of self interest and a fragmentation of resolve.

In a strange way, another book I’m reading, Bene Brown’s Daring Greatly explores vulnerability and shame in a way that resonates with many of the characters in Holiday’s book. Finding connections between books is always a surprise.

Am also working my way through a biography of Adam Smith called Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life by Nicholas Phillipson. Am only through the first third of the book and it’s a bit slow going as the author lays out Smith’s background and the ways the Scottish Enlightenment informed the basis of his economic philosophy for The Wealth of Nations.

Doodle of the Week: Teacups 8 Ways


Pen, Watercolor

Robyn’s Corner #2

Robyn’s Corner #2

January Challenges:

  1. Restart Italian Lessons on Duolingo. So far 1458 points, compared to my son’s 5780 points for Portuguese and daughter’s 1201 points for French. But, hey, my son is highly motivated since he married a Brazilian woman and my daughter has only just started. Yeah, we’re competitive.
  2. Read a book every two weeks. So far, so good, with three read in January (see notes below). One was really short, so is that cheating?
  3. Get back to sketching. Nope, total fail. Watch for my new February Challenge.

Lost Opportunities?

Did you know that The University of Texas’ mascot, BEVO, is an endangered livestock breed and that there are only 1,200 purebred Texas Longhorn cattle left in the US? This breed is disappearing because most ranchers don’t want to deal with those enormous horns and instead cross them with other less-horny breeds so they can benefit from the Longhorn’s unique genetics while avoiding those hook’ems. I bring this up because the University has an opportunity to make the breed its poster-child for the conservation of agricultural biodiversity. Why not use $1 from each athletic event at UT to fund a conservation program at The Livestock Conservancy? And to engage ag students to find a market need for these creatures so that farmers will add a few of these impressive cattle to their herds? Just wondering. Seems so obvious a win for ag and a creative way to support diversity.


Anniversaries: Memories of Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919

In case you missed this, on January 15th, one hundred years ago, over two million gallons of molasses burst from storage tanks in Boston’s North End. A combination of warming temperatures, ethanol, cold syrup, and decaying storage tanks all contributed to the wave of sticky molasses that rolled through the area, killing 21 people and injuring over 100 people. I noticed this when researching the history of food supply chains. Could this happen again today?

Unexpected and Surprising

While attending the Antigua Forum in Antigua, Guatemala (of all places) I learned about the history of Haas avocados, our current toast obsession. In the 1920s, Wilson Popenoe of The United Fruit Company brought the Antiguan variety to Southern California where it eventually became the Haas variety. A plaque in Antigua presented in 1946 by the California Avocado Society celebrates the connection with Antigua; in the 1950s, I remember three avocado trees growing in our front yard. I’d pile the ripe ones in my red wagon and sell them door-to-door on the street where we lived. An early startup venture. Wonder if they were the new Haas variety? (See my doodle below)


Books Read in January

  • In January, I read three books, each entirely different. Edward Dolnick’s Clockwork Universe covers enlightened, scientific thought from Aristotle to Sir Isaac Newton. He explains how scientists began to view the world as a machine, decipherable through an enlarged understanding of mathematics. He moves from Copernicus to Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and finally to Leibniz, showing how each built their theories upon others, some arguing, disputing, and sometimes stealing the ideas of their peers. Looking forward to re-reading the last chapter of Newton’s The Principia, written in 1729, where Newton’s spiritual views come to the surface. “This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets,” he says, “could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” Another example of how art, science, and spirituality comingle.
  • J. Jacobs book, Thanks a Thousand (A Gratitude Journey) is just that. A journey from a field of coffee beans to his morning Joe. He seeks out 1,000 people who brought him his cup of coffee and personally thanks each of them. Not only does it reveal just how many people perform the tasks required to deliver a simple food item, but mostly how important it is to practice gratitude. Not naturally an optimistic, grateful sort, he is honest about how challenging it is for us to stop to thank those who perform simple tasks. Inspiring and a quick read.
  • H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald is not a quick read. I picked up the book after taking a lesson in falconry over the holidays and remembered that the book also related to the death of the author’s father. My dad passed away in September, so the two touch points pulled me into her story. Don’t even think about trying to skim those pages for you’d miss her exquisite prose, words that pop, stop, and pleasantly ramble. The passing of her father creates a compulsion to return to her hobby of falconry. Her story exposes her pain and the process of finding her place in a new landscape. So much to learn here about falcons, especially Mable, her goshawk. In the end she her new landscape embraces her as she rediscovers love and a balance between humans and the natural world. There’s a quick trip to Maine near the end that reveals Maine’s falconry culture, a far cry from MacDonald’s Cambridge fens.

Manic Color: Pierre Bonnard exhibit at London’s Tate Modern

One of my favorite museums is the Tate Modern in London. This month it opened an exhibit of paintings by Pierre Bonnard from around 1912. His paintings are full of vibrant color, everyday domestic scenes, transparent yet luminous. Rich layerings of texture and color.

What better canvas for Bonnard’s colors than my own hair, noted above over the past year or so.

Sundance Film Festival, just a taste

For our 39th wedding anniversary, my husband and I attended the Sundance Film Festival and saw (among other films) the premiere of The Innovator, a film about Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos. Most of you will be familiar with the rapid rise and calamitous downfall of the company. Ms Holmes and her former partner (the COO) are currently awaiting trial for wire fraud … among several other counts of fraud. The company has dissolved. The story is dramatic; woman drops out of Stanford, creates a company built upon the promise of making blood tests accessible and affordable to the public. The problem appears to be a combination of a bold vision, miscalculations of the complexity of the problem, and a total lack of transparency. While the film seems to disparage Silicon Valley startups as being arrogant and irresponsible, perhaps a lesson for us here today is that, like technology for blood testing, technology in our food system can have direct life and death consequences. Food poisoning for example. Perhaps, the lesson one could draw from Theranos is that when it comes to startups with ideas that involve our personal health, we need to be even more diligent about the consequences, on multiple levels. Human privacy, physical integrity, health. While the payoff can be huge, transparency, personal control of our health, less waste, the downsides are also huge….some of Theranos users received test results that falsely indicated they had cancer. Innovation in our food system will deliver positive results, but requires extra due diligence not apparent in the Theranos story.

Other films of note that we saw: (star-ratings, totally my own)

Monos: (3 out of 5 stars) Lord of the Flies meets Apocalypse Now

Share: (5 out of 5 stars) Moving story about a young girl who survives the fallout after images from a night she can’t remember appear on social media.

Sea of Shadows: (4 out of 5 stars) Panoramic, action-filled account of the Mexican Mafia, Chinese traders, and the loss of sea life in the Sea of Cortez. The main character is an endangered whale, the vaquita, the world’s smallest whale. Only 10-15 remain, threatened by sea nets used to catch totoaba; the Chinese falsely claim the totoaba bladders are a remedy for various diseases. Intense film, a grim view of how multiple levels of corruption cooperate.

Robyn’s Corner

Robyn’s Corner

1.)Food+City has done its share of conferences and events, so why wouldn’t you do one for fun, real fun. Our family (Metcalfe’s) is crazy about running, food, maps, travel, and prime numbers, it seems. But it is always up for dry, sarcastic humor. Even dark, sometimes. This Christmas, my family held its sporadic Metcon conference. Sporadic because it last took place in 2015. We copy normal conference formats, including pre-registration, registration, an icebreaker, presentations, badges, and breakout sessions. A full house is all five of us. If you want a full debrief of the conference this year, email me at

2.)Am in the process of launching a podcast, something I’ve been curious about for years. In December I recorded three podcasts and am now working on packaging them for a soft launch to come. The first person I interviewed was Mark Walton. The podcast aims to explore what’s happens when technology affects everything we eat. Thanks to the enthusiasm and support from Laura Lorek who showed me the ropes.

3.)At Food+City, we publish a magazine as a way to introduce our readers to the art and science of feeding cities. After 4 issues, we discovered that our beautiful and carefully researched and written magazine wasn’t getting read. Well, it was, by our dozen or so friends and family. So we’re headed back to the garage to see how best to share our stories. Instagram? Youtube?

4.)Tuesday, my book editor and I headed out to visit Steven and Carey Kraemer, owner of Buena Tierra Farm. We are prototyping a new book project that would include photos and stories about the people who are invisible workers within our industrial food system. While the Kraemers are not of industrial size, they were gracious enough to allow us to test our interview style and photo/recording technology. As it turned out, an unexpected story did emerge from our visit, which you can read.

5.)Am always interested in anyone working on sensors for our personal biometrics. Check out UT’s Division of Textiles and Apparel’s event hosting Dr. Juan Hinestroza from Cornell University, called Fashionable Nanotechnology. Wouldn’t you hope he will show how fibers can be smart?

6.)My forthcoming book, Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating, will be published by the MIT Press in March. It will be available at SXSW in Austin this year, on Amazon, and in a bunch of independent bookstores. After three years of writing, which included writing two versions of the book, I am almost ready to find a new project that enables me to learn something new. More on that in a later newsletter.

7.)This past weekend, I attended the Antigua Forum, an annual meeting of free-market thinkers who spend the weekend solving problems using a process similar to a hackathon, but better. The ten challenges included finding a way to generate new sources of energy in Lebanon, developing a grass roots project in Senegal to enable entrepreneurs to begin to own and operate their own businesses, developing an integrated health care system that enables individuals to control their own health data. The Forum has some good ground rules, such adding value, not engaging in a critique of ideas, and engaging in the small group format. The process was similar included the design thinking process but included some pretty impressive methods for following the projects after the conference. Congrats to the facilitators; they were impressive.

8.)Books, movies and stuff I’m listening to:

a. I’m reading this month. Just completed The Clockwork Universe, by Edward Dolnick. While you might find the long sections on how to calculate the speed of a falling rock, the book gives you an overview of how we began to use the language of calculus and mathematics instead of relying on empiricism and observation. He begins with Aristotle, Euclid, and ends with Newton and Liebnitz. After seeing the Super Blood Moon last night and hearing the scientists explain the phenomena, it is clear that we’ve come a long way since Galileo looked at the moon.

b. Watched the Netflix movie, Bandersnatch, inspired by Black Mirror. After choosing all the alternative story lines, using a remote for our TV, we finally arrived at and ending that sort of made sense to us. Being in the story feels almost like losing the serendipity of discovering the story rather than shaping it. Almost too much control. If that’s possible….

c. During training runs and bike workouts, I’ve been enjoying Tim Ferris (Interview of Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism. I read his book a couple of years ago and now he’s gotten even better describing how to say “no” to all those projects that distract you from what’s important. Freakonomics continues to inform, now about sports with its series “The Hidden Side of Sports.” Lots there to learn about mental discipline.

This week’s doodle:  “The Tower”  – Buena Tierra Farm

Startup Spotlight: FENIK

Startup Spotlight: FENIK

Originally known as Evaptainers, Fenik started out as a student project at MIT. The team’s goal was to develop a low-cost method for preserving fruits and vegetables in remote areas. Five years and many prototypes later, Fenik recently wrapped up a successful Kickstarter campaign and launched production of its Yuma No-Ice Cooler.

While the new product will keep your camping supplies nice and cool, Fenik’s mission is to provide an inexpensive food-preservation solution for people in developing countries who lack access to electricity and refrigeration. We caught up with co-founder Spencer Taylor to hear Fenik’s latest news.

What’s your founding date?

September 2013.

How big is your team?

Five people.

What problem are you solving?

Last-mile food insecurity in arid developing nations.

What’s been the biggest surprise about running your business?

How few true-impact investors actually exist. They are often talked about, but you rarely meet one.

What was the big idea that got you started?

In an MIT class called Development Ventures, on the first day the professor said, “I want you to come up with a good or service that will change the lives of one billion people.”

Whom are you competing with?

Primitive evaporative coolers, such as the Zeer Pot, or draping wet cloth over food to help to preserve it.

The coolest food system innovation I’ve heard of is…

the sheer amount of innovation going on in the food space these days.

The scariest thing about today’s food system is…

the amount of waste that is endemic throughout the cold chain in both developed and developing markets.

What’s your latest big news?

We’re taking delivery of our first production units of the Yuma in January 2019.

Best advice you’ve received?

Hardware is hard.

What advice do you give to potential startup founders?

Start with a problem you have experienced, or one that you deeply understand through others. Assume nothing and validate your approach compulsively as you progress with your client base. Constant course corrections are not the product of inexperience; they are critical to success.

The Yuma No-Ice Cooler assembles easily and needs only water for evaporative cooling. The water is stored in the cooler’s walls and lowers the internal temperature 10-20 degrees — or more in drier environments.