Tuesday, February 27, 2007

X-treme Eating!!!!!

I’m making fun of the title a bit (because calling anything “x-treme” these days sounds passé) but the Center for Science in the Public Interest does have an interesting report on the truly calorie-laden dishes at mainstream chain restaurants like Ruby Tuesdays, Cheesecake Factory, Uno Chicago Grill, and Cold Stone Creamery.

“Burgers, pizzas, and quesadillas were never health foods to begin with, but many restaurants are transmogrifying these foods into ever-more harmful new creations, and then keeping you in the dark about what they contain,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “Now we see lasagna with meatballs on top; ice cream with cookies, brownies, and candy mixed in; ‘Ranchiladas,’ bacon cheeseburger pizzas, buffalo-chicken-stuffed quesadillas, and other hybrid horribles that are seemingly designed to promote obesity, heart disease, and stroke.”

Actually from a public relations point of view, I admire the way the report is put together. They use pictures and short blurbs. There’s a regular press release but the “report” is more like a three-page flyer.

Now there’s a little bit of hyperbole in the sense that in order to make their point in a few cases, CSPI adds two items together to explain how bad the food is.

Though fast-food chains or coffee shops typically serve much smaller portions than these and other major table-service restaurants, they too can provide some startlingly high-calorie items. A venti-sized White Chocolate Mocha and a blueberry scone from Starbucks would provide 1,100 calories—or about as much as one would find in a Burger King bacon double cheeseburger, medium fries, and medium Coke.

So do people typically order both the LARGEST SIZE mocha (actually, make that white-chocolate mocha, so it has extra syrup in it) and a scone? Maybe in some cases. Maybe in a lot of cases for all I know. I’m just pointing out that I do think the VP from Rudy Tuesdays has a bit of a point here.
Of course, most restaurants also offer less bulge-inducing options. Richard Johnson, senior vice president for Ruby Tuesday, noted that his chain also features lower-calorie menu items, including grilled chicken, steamed vegetables, a salad bar and other healthier fare.

“We think it’s interesting that they chose two of the items on the menu that are probably the highest-calorie items,” he said of the Center for Science in the Public Interest report.

But that said I think the Center’s main point, that restaurants are actually making their entrees tastier by packing on dangerous amounts of calories and then doing what they can to hide how unhealthy it is, is valid.

The one about Cold Stone Creamery got to me. (Maybe because it’s the one restaurant I have frequented). Even the sizes at CSC “Gotta Have It, Love It and Like It” are trying to keep people from recognizing their choices are “the large/medium/small.” (Of course, in practice I’ve noticed people still tend to order things as “small/medium/large” because people hate calling things by stupid marketing names.)

The issue with portion-control is that it’s really hard to track. I think I’ve talked about this study about bowl-size and appetite before and how this guy showed that even people who KNOW that bowl-size/plate-size effects how much they eat still fall into the same trap of eating more if the bowl/plate is larger. Moving ice cream from the regular sugar cone to the waffle cone (and then chocolate-coating the waffle cone) guarantees you’ll want to pack more ice cream in your waffle cone.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Proof That If You Want Your White House Criticism To Get Reported, Mention “24”

So apparently there’s going to be (or was last Saturday) an exercise by the administration to see how the government would respond to an IED (improvised explosive device) even though there’s no such inkling of this kind of attack taking place in the U.S. In Iraq, every fucking day, but not here.

So Jim Moran (who long timer readers know my fondness for) manages to get his critique of this “plan” reported about by comparing it to a TV show. I’m just saying, the press love writing about TV. You got a criticism you want to air, try to compare it to a Top 10 show.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Malaysia Wants to Ban Fast Food Advertising

It’s an interesting idea that Malaysia has, they essentially want to treat fast food like how cigarettes are treated in this country, as something dirty. They’re also thinking about a “Sin Tax.”

“This is the only country where people discuss over breakfast where and what to eat for lunch. And then over lunch, it will be what’s for supper,” he noted.

Dr Chua said obesity, which was the “root of all problems,” now affected 37% of the population, compared to 20% a decade ago.

About 12% of the population would suffer from diabetes by 2020 if nothing were to be done, he said.

I’m reminded of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” a bit. Just in the concept of how islands are good test cases for larger populations. So if Malaysia’s health crumbles it’s not hard to see that America’s would fall a similar trend line. (Basically wasn’t American Samoa that case? Introduce an American-style diet and watch the population in one generation just start dropping dead of heart disease and diabetes?)

In Malaysia’s case I’m using “they” but it seems like it’s only their Health Ministry or Health Minister that is thinking about this change. And it’s likely to encounter resistance in other parts of the government.

I think it’s a real open question whether a nation can collectively change dietary habits for the better. (They can always change for the worse). I’m not saying that everyone in Malaysia or America will become optimally healthy, but it does seem that our collective eating patterns, the national diet if you will, are designed to make us fat. Is it possible to change a national diet to something better? I’m skeptical, but the increased focus on national eating patterns (rather than individual eating habits) has been a move in the right direction.

When patterns effect large populations I’m always more interested in macro explanations then the micro ones. You can come up with an individual explanation why every fat person in America is overweight but when more people are overweight than healthy isn’t it useful to look at the reasons why those trends are occurring than to argue that each individual needs to do better? (Not that I’m not trying to do my part, but I’m also white, middle-class and come from an upper-middle class background. I have better opportunities afforded to me than many trying to lose weight.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Joel Surnow loves Joe McCarthy?

The Washington Post has an interesting push-back on that New Yorker article about torture on 24. The Post’s Peter Carlson just rolls his eyes that ANYONE could ever possibly take their cues from television.

Am I crazy or is attacking torture by lobbying the producers of "24" almost as ridiculous as trying to make nuclear power plants safer by urging the producers of "The Simpsons" to stop letting Homer play with plutonium in the lunchroom of the Springfield nuke plant?
Yes because we know TV is not an influential medium at all. Even though the people who teach at West Point have said, directly, 'people are looking at 24 and thinking it represents a rational line of thought.' Yes it’s “art” but there is a saying “life imitates art” for a reason.

I even pulled out this old quote from Chris Matthews (from the Washington Post) where here’s a life-imitating-art-imitating-life.
"You know what I find sometimes when I am drifting sometimes on this show, and we do five hours a week? I can't really assume a spontaneous attitude about a guest, so I find myself locking into you. I find myself doing Darrell Hammond doing me, because it's sort of comfortable to get into that sort of slipstream of the way you do me. Isn't that weird?"

-- "Hardball" TV commentator Chris Matthews to his "Saturday Night Live" impersonator, Darrell Hammond. "Yes, that's weird," Hammond agreed. Washington Post February 9, 2004
Anyway the most interesting nugget from Carlson’s article is that Sunrow, who is totally cozy with neo-fascist Ann Coulter, is now collaborating with her on what Surnow describes as “a movie that depicted Joe McCarthy as an American hero.”

I thought Ann had abandoned her crazy line of thinking that people were going to start lining up with Joe McCarthy again but clearly she’s been able to entice others into her way of thinking. And it doesn’t surprise me she picked the most fascist artist of the moment.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Torture on 24: Where Art Meets Reality

One of the issues I’m fascinated by is how TV influences real-life. Not just “serious” TV such as news (which ideally is supposed have influence) but entertainment. So I was super-fascinated to see this New Yorker article “Whatever it Takes” which reported on how the military has responded to the torture depicted in the series 24.

First of all, Human Rights First, had a pretty ingenious idea of setting up a meeting between real Army interrogators and Pentagon officials and the writers of 24. I so want to give props to them for that because you can write a 100 op-eds denouncing something on TV, but actually guilting a writer in person by the real-life people who do the jobs they depict is going to have an impact.

In fact, [U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point] and the others had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. “I’d like them to stop,” Finnegan said of the show’s producers. “They should do a show where torture backfires.”

Of course the show’s producer, self-described “right wing nutjob” (he really did call himself that!) bowed out for bullshit reasons.

Several top producers of “24” were present, but Surnow was conspicuously absent. Surnow explained to me, “I just can’t sit in a room that long. I’m too A.D.D.—I can’t sit still.”

Yeah right. More like “I completely don’t respect Human Rights First and don’t want any real facts from people in the know to change my political viewpoints about anything.”

Before the meeting, Stuart Herrington, one of the three veteran interrogators, had prepared a list of seventeen effective techniques, none of which were abusive. He and the others described various tactics, such as giving suspects a postcard to send home, thereby learning the name and address of their next of kin….

I didn’t find it surprising that the show’s head writer admitted that while he’s got some old CIA interrogation journal from 1963, most of the ideas for how to torture people he pulls right out of his ass. Because the show runner, Howard Gordon, isn’t an interrogation expect. He knows that pain scares him and assumes it scares other people. Very interestingly he knows how to create tension visually with a camera, but doesn’t know how to create tension with a suspect who’s being interrogated. It’s not unlike someone who isn’t a doctor or isn’t a lawyer writing a script for what they think those jobs look like. They’re probably convinced they know what it’s like but the reality is going to be incredibly different from a writer’s imagination.

At other moments, the discussion was more strained. Finnegan told the producers that “24,” by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by “24,” which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24”?’ ” He continued, “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told me that he had similar arguments with his students. He said that, under both U.S. and international law, “Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted.” Yet the motto of many of his students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: “Whatever it takes.” His students were particularly impressed by a scene in which Bauer barges into a room where a stubborn suspect is being held, shoots him in one leg, and threatens to shoot the other if he doesn’t talk. In less than ten seconds, the suspect reveals that his associates plan to assassinate the Secretary of Defense. Solis told me, “I tried to impress on them that this technique would open the wrong doors, but it was like trying to stomp out an anthill.”

So here are the real people who do this job. And more importantly the teachers who are addressing the next generation who will be interrogating. And what are they saying? Look people are mimicking what they see on TV. The show’s writers basically say “well people know the difference between TV and real life.”

Actually, with discussion I’m sure they do but that involves actually engaging the brain in cognitive thought. But one aspect of TV is that is “normalizes” life. That’s why people are so eager to see themselves reflected back on TV. In Stephanie Coontz's “The Way We Never Were” she talks about why those corny 1950s “family-centered” programs were so addicting. Because they showed how “normal” families were supposed to act.

It’s natural for people to want to see how their actions follow an accepted practice. We are social creatures. One of the lines I really liked in the movie Kinsey was when Alfred Kinsey talks about how his students are desperate to know whether their sexual practices are “normal.” I’ve even caught myself in my own life thinking that because I saw something reflected on Sex in The City what I’m thinking of is an acceptable practice.

And this “normalizing” function isn’t just true for observing guidelines for sex and family life. It’s true for young officers and cadets learning what is acceptable behavior in treating prisoners. It’s fucking scary how the power of “art” has on real life actions sometimes. People love to mimics scenes from “glamorous” TV.

Lagouranis said to me, “People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they’ve just seen.” He recalled that some men he had worked with in Iraq watched a television program in which a suspect was forced to hear tortured screams from a neighboring cell; the men later tried to persuade their Iraqi translator to act the part of a torture “victim,” in a similar intimidation ploy. Lagouranis intervened: such scenarios constitute psychological torture.

I won’t even go on about the fact that so many lay-men don’t even get the fact that the “I’m not touching you” defense doesn’t mean you can threaten people with rape, death, death of family, or torture, even if you don’t go through with it. IT’S STILL ILLEGAL TORTURE.

So here are people who do the job that 24 writers portray and they say “yeah torture doesn’t work.”

…Finnegan argued that torturing fanatical Islamist terrorists is particularly pointless. “They almost welcome torture,” he said. “They expect it. They want to be martyred.” A ticking time bomb, he pointed out, would make a suspect only more unwilling to talk. “They know if they can simply hold out several hours, all the more glory—the ticking time bomb will go off.”

Moreover part of the issue in 24 is that the writers continue to set up situations where the audience and Jack Bauer absolutely know that who they have is guilty of something and, perhaps more importantly, they know what information their suspect has. That’s a key detail. In real life in Iraq or other places with the U.S. treads more often or not they simply have someone they suspect might be associated with something, but they don’t know exactly what. They don’t know what information the suspect actually has. I take that from this statement by the other interrogators. Just applying pain and hoping they start sprouting information that is new to the integrators is unlikely because the suspect wouldn’t know what you know about them.

“In Iraq, I never saw pain produce intelligence,” Lagouranis told me. “I worked with someone who used waterboarding”—an interrogation method involving the repeated near-drowning of a suspect. “I used severe hypothermia, dogs, and sleep deprivation. I saw suspects after soldiers had gone into their homes and broken their bones, or made them sit on a Humvee’s hot exhaust pipes until they got third-degree burns. Nothing happened.” Some people, he said, “gave confessions. But they just told us what we already knew. It never opened up a stream of new information.” If anything, he said, “physical pain can strengthen the resolve to clam up.”

But the show’s producer STILL insists that sometimes torture is necessary.

Cochran, who has a law degree, listened politely to the delegation’s complaints. He told me that he supports the use of torture “in narrow circumstances” and believes that it can be justified under the Constitution. “The Doctrine of Necessity says you can occasionally break the law to prevent greater harm,” he said. “I think that could supersede the Convention Against Torture.” (Few legal scholars agree with this argument.) At the meeting, Cochran demanded to know what the interrogators would do if they faced the imminent threat of a nuclear blast in New York City, and had custody of a suspect who knew how to stop it. One interrogator said that he would apply physical coercion only if he received a personal directive from the President. But Navarro, who estimates that he has conducted some twelve thousand interrogations, replied that torture was not an effective response.

I find that that attitude of Joel Cochran’s irritating. Here his is confronted with evidence that his belief is incorrect, torture doesn’t work, the situation he imagines it might work doesn’t happen ever, and more importantly if it ever did it still wouldn’t work, but he continues to stress he believes torture is sometimes necessary.

Beliefs are hard things to go away even with counter-evidence. In fact when given evidence that counters a belief people will often cling stronger to their assertion. Overtime, they might be willing to let go and allow the new facts to be processed. But often the brain will simply start screening out the new facts so as to keep the old belief.

Anyway I’m glad to hear that Kiefer Sutherland is growing concerned about the impact of torture. Even if he didn’t come to the meeting (which I wish he had) he’s clearly going to hear about it if not read that article. Other than the writers, he’s one of the “artists” in charge of 24 that can actually make a difference in the crafting of the show.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Why The Edwards Campaign Blew It With the Bloggers

With all the hubbub about the actions of the two bloggers hired by John Edwards, what I think is most misplaced is how the campaign really lost the chance to turn something that was a political weakness into a strength.

Think about it, it’s only February 2007. Campaigns might have a long tail but this story wasn’t going to last. Even Fox News was going to drop it soon enough. It was a weeklong story, at most, and the real audience for the story isn’t the conservative Republicans who watch Fox News or the handful of people who find what Donahue says interesting.

No, the audience for the story in February 2007 is Democratic primary voters and early donors. And guess what? They don’t find Donahue’s outrage all that newsworthy. What the early donors (both the big and the small) want is to know is that the Edwards campaign has a chance to win.

When the story broke in The New York Times (and AP) the Edwards campaign started running around like a chicken with their head cut off. What they should have done is waited. A week is an eternity in politics but there’s also got to be an adage that the farther from the primary the shorter the “entities in politics” lasts.

So if I had been on the Edwards team what would I have advised? Push-back. Let the cable news chatter. And then do some pitch back to friendly columnists. There were points to be made about all of Donohue’s outrages. All of the offensive statements he’s made in the past. How about a simple statement that most democratic voters don’t find Donohue a credible critic (while agreeing that you don’t agree with everything your employees write, you don’t enforce past-tense loyalty tests.)

I think there were many in the media who could have sympathized with the point that the ball can’t be moved so that campaigns are responsible for things that bloggers say before they are hired. (With the right framing). While there are lines, what Amanda and Melissa wrote would probably have been found less offensive than Donahue. Not to mention less offensive than other people, like Michelle Malkin, who were criticizing them. Use the opportunity to link Republican candidates cozying up to conservative bloggers and flash their most offensive statements. (These guys show up at CPAC don’t they?)

Frankly Edwards could have used the opportunity to make his campaign about highlighting the right wing noise machine. The early donors would have liked to see the energy and the ability to push-back. In way I miss “Slick Willie” for his deftness in going around (and sometimes through) personal attacks and coming out cleaner on the other side.

And furthermore the blogosphere would have started giving everything to back Edwards for showing loyalty to his employees AND for pushing back. In the end he might have been able to shift the frame away from “Does Edwards endorse everything his bloggers write” to “Are conservative politicians as much at risk for associating with bloggers?”

More On Gay Marriage.
Plus: Political blogging brings in the posters

First off I know I haven’t been posting much lately. I’m sorry. I’ve been depressed lately but in light of my promise I’m not going to drag my bad attitude in here.

However I find it interesting that my post about anti-gay marriage has attracted some attention (by “some” I mean any). I’m not going to argue with people who come here to post about it. Because we’re looking at the issue from two different dimensions. I’m looking at an apple and calling it a fruit and while they are calling it a piece of dense matter. There’s no common ground to which to hammer out dialogue in the culture war. There’s no starting point to agreement. We don’t agree about the terms of the debate or the stakes.

Besides what changes people’s minds isn’t arguing with strangers on the internet. It’s interpersonal communications in their real life. Knowing someone who is gay, having a gay family member. Maybe if Marshall McLuhan is right then watching a TV show about gay people might help.

But my blog isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. And they’re clearly not going to change mine. We’re looking at the same object but we can’t even think of common words to describe it.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

No Marriage Without Procreation

This is the most awesome stunt ever! I wish I still lived in Seattle so I could write about it for The Stranger.

The Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance (WA-DOMA) announced on Thursday that their proposed initiative to make procreation a requirement for legal marriage has been accepted by the Secretary of State and assigned the serial number 957.

That’s right anti-gay marriage types (and the passive majority who keeps voting for states’ anti-gay marriage bans). So if you want to keep saying that marriage is important because it produces children and that because gays can’t produce children they shouldn't be allowed to marry than its time to put your money where your big fat mouth is. No marriage for anyone who can’t or won’t produce children.

Yes it’s a stunt. But it’s a good one. It targets the bullshit right back squarely at the people who want to get upset about gays by using some cockamamie argument against gay marriage. (For the record, I don’t believe it’s possible to be accepting of gays but against gay marriage. I suspect anyone who is really against gay marriage is really just uncomfortable with gayness in general.)

Hat tip Feministing.