Monthly Archives: May 2012

Let 1,000 Flowers Bloomberg: Thoughts on the NYC Soda Ban

Bloomberg is doing a good thing by banning servings of soda above 16 ounces.

Is it perfect? No. Will it singularly solve America’s obesity crisis? No. But it’s a step.

Now everyone just quiet down for a minute so we can wait for it to come into effect, root for it and see what happens.

1. This is not a consumer choice issue
Banning servings of soda above 16 ounces does not prevent you from drinking large amounts of soda. If you want more than 16 ounces, buy two. All this policy does is create a (slight) disincentive to overconsume diabetes-juice at every meal. It’s not a panacea, and it’s not pretending to be.

2. This effort does not preclude others.
Yes, America should deal with its farm subsidies. And bring PE back into schools. And educate parents. And stop playing video games. And cook more. And jog in barefoot-shoes. Fine, whatever. Those are not arguments against this particular policy, and efforts to make them reality are helped, not hindered, by it. This is what cultural change looks like: Dozens of initiatives in dozens of jurisdictions, until a new consensus forms.

3. Political actors need to freedom to experiment
Fundamentally, this policy represents an elected official doing what is within his power to reduce the negative impacts of obesity. I hope that mayors, governors, principals, civil servants and bureaucrat across the country are watching what Bloomberg did with his authority today, and thinking about what they can do with theirs.

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Filed under America

Peanut Butter is a Nutritional Catastrophe

Now that I’m not eating sugar, peanut butter is one of the hardest foods to find. All of the major brands contain significant amounts of sugar (usually disguised as dextrose or some syrup), even the organic brands. This got me thinking about the peanut butter I used to eat when I lived in the states, so I went to the Jif homepage to look up the nutritional information on their Reduced Fat Creamy Peanut Butter, which was a staple of my breakfast from about 10 years old to 19.

I’ve been out of the US food environment for quite awhile, and Germany and Denmark, say what you want about them, don’t have deceptive labeling or choice-overload the way the US does. Still, a few things surprised me about the spreadable options back in my homeland:

  • All of Jif’s peanut butters have exactly the same calories per serving: 190. As a kid, I would have been better off just eating the full-fat version rather than the ‘reduced fat’, which just makes up for the lost fat with extra sugar.
  • Even the ‘natural’ peanut butter has a shitload of sugar in it, and basically the same nutrition info and ingredients as the standard peanut butter. If you want proof that the term ‘natural’ is pure marketing, look no further.
  • The Jif Omega-3 Peanut Butter is a joke. It’s still laden with sugar, and the nutrition label admits that it contains ‘less than 2%’ of the ingredients that contain omega-3s.
  • All of Jif’s peanut butters contain sugar, even the ‘natural’ and ‘simply’ versions.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that American consumers should just ignore what is on the front of the label and go straight to the nutrition facts on the back. What does it say about America’s political culture that consumers have to maintain constant, hawklike vigilance just to avoid eating products that are demonstrably unhealthy? I’d like to see a survey of how many Jif consumers know that their peanut butter is up to 30% sugar.

Jif obviously has the right to make peanut butter with the nutritional profile of cake frosting. What’s less obvious is why it is allowed to market such cake frosting as ‘natural’, ‘simple’ and containing health-promoting ingredients without any regulation by the government. It’s one thing to make an unhealthy product. It’s another to hide behind a cloak of nutrition and trick consumers into feeding that product to their children.


Filed under Food

Literary Playlist: ‘I know a better truth than his’

I wish educational institutions had twice as many graduations, just so we’d get more commencement speeches. This one makes you want to become a doctor. And this one makes you feel guilty for not graduating harder.

The internet is basically one big Deadwood

Insecurity is really good at making people funny.

Wait, so the KKK is growing increasingly irrelevant? I can’t imagine why.

Maybe Ayn Rand was right and the IRS should be replaced by golden retrievers and set on fire.

Online classes great and free and might change the world.

Saying that politics are genetic misunderstands politics, genetics and are.

This article’s entire premise about why Facebook will fail and drag the whole Web down with it rests on the observation that companies have been overpaying for advertisements for the last 100 years.

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Filed under America, Journalism

Why Suing Food Companies Won’t Work

On the Seoul-Berlin flight I read Peter Pringle’s Cornered: Big Tobacco at The Bar of Justice. I’m interested in tobacco as a model of how the US could apply responsibility for obesity onto food companies, and it reads like the world’s longest, unfunniest bar joke: How many lawyers does it take for a government to hold its own evilest companies to account for their impacts?

These events [an FDA inquiry, a high-profile ABC News piece on Big Tobacco and a shitload of leaked internal documents] had created a new anti-smoking era and set off an explosion of lawsuits that became known as the Third Wave of tobacco litigation.

The first, from 1954 to 1973, came after the big lung cancer scare of the early ‘50s, when laboratory research linking smoking to cancer in mice was first published. Sick smokers went to court, but proving their cancer was caused by cigarettes was much more difficult than their lawyers had imagined; the companies had little problem creating a doubt in the mind of juries.

In the Second Wave, from 1983 to 1992, the scientific evidence was more firmly established. But the industry still successfully beat back and claims for damages by persuading juries that a smoker chooses to smoke knowing the risks. By this time, the industry had built up the most sophisticated legal defences of any US commercial enterprise and wore down its opponents by outspending and outlasting them.

A tobacco lawyer had once boasted, paraphrasing General Patton, that he won cases not by spending his company’s money, but by ‘making the other son-of-a-bitch spend all of his.’

In other words, it wasn’t enough that cigarettes caused undeniable harm. Before liability could be proven, lawyers had to establish that cigarettes were singularly harmful: They alone caused lung cancer in their users.

The book then proceeds to tell the story of the Third Wave of tobacco litigation, the one that won. The reason it was finally successful wasn’t the leaks or the media or the activist head of the FDA (David Kessler, whose book I’m reading next). The Third Wave succeeded because of two things: 1) Cigarettes were demonstrated to be addictive, and 2) The Mississippi Attorney General came up with the strategy of suing Big Tobacco not for its harm to smokers, but for its cost to the state to treat them all.

Ultimately, the $368 billion tobacco settlement wasn’t punitive damages against their public health effects. It was a reimbursement for all the Medicare and Medicaid money the states had spent treating lung cancer and emphysema, and a hedge against their future costs. In exchange, the states agreed to stop suing.

The reasons the Third Wave lawsuits won are precisely why lawsuits against food companies won’t.

Cigarettes are a class of product in a way that food isn’t. While you can demonstrate that McDonald’s and Coca-Cola produce products that cause undeniable harm, it’s a lot harder to show that they cause singular harm. Fast food and soda contribute to America’s obesity problem, but they’re not the only ones that do. You could just as easily blame General Motors, Monsanto and Playstation for our national calorie surplus and activity deficit.

Addiction is similarly difficult to show. While it’s pretty well established that some foods have the hallmarks of addiction (compulsiveness, tolerance, withdrawal, etc), there’s no evidence that food companies deliberately modify the levels of sugar and fat in their products to trap their users.

And then there’s reimbursement of medical costs. Obesity is related to everything from joint pain to dementia, and estimates of the ‘cost’ of obesity are usually just a finger in the wind. Everybody has to eat; lots of people who eat junk food aren’t fat, and lots of fat people don’t eat junk food. Tying obesity-related morbidity to a particular product (Big Macs), company (McDonald’s) or sector (drive-in fast food) would require a class of monogamous users that probably don’t exist in large numbers.

If the food environment in the US is going to improve, it probably won’t be through legislation, at least without a few more failed waves of litigation and whistleblowing.

More generally, I know we’re supposed to think of the Big Tobacco lawsuits as a victory for public health and a triumph of little victims over big corporates, but it actually demonstrates the opposite. The tobacco settlement represents the culmination of decades of work by personal-injury lawyers to get tobacco companies to fork over astronomical punitive damages, of which they were entitled to a cut.

Pringle blithely notes that in the big-time asbestos lawsuits of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, lawyers took home up to 65 percent of the billion-dollar damages, and the victims of lifelong respiratory illnesses, on whose behalf the lawsuits were filed, received as little as $40,000 each. The tobacco settlements ultimately went to the states, not the victims of smoking-related illnesses.

I suppose it’s nice that lawyers, like the press, represent an informal check-and-balance in the US political system, but the Big Tobacco settlements don’t demonstrate a victory for the ‘little guy’. They’re just one set of big guys winning against another in the third round.

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Filed under Books, Food, Serious

Bad English Translations Always Come Out As Metaphors

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Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Bought and Seoul

Last week I was in Seoul.

It’s too big and complicated to understand in just seven days. I am very blind, and it is very an elephant.

My friend remarked ‘I think I actually know more about North Korea than South Korea’, which is a little weird but a little true.

But this is the internet, so I’d like to share my uninformed observations and premature conclusions.

First: Korea is hella developed-er than you expected. Per capita GDP is higher than Spain and Italy, and just a tad below Japan.

Trains, buses and boats run often and on time, augmented by ubiquitous bilingual touchscreenery.

There’s no graffiti anywhere, and by all accounts South Korea has petty crime like Greenland has chopsticks.

You get the feeling people from Seoul come to European cities and go ‘how do they live like this?’

The most amazing thing about the living standards here is how quickly they happened.

Before the Korean war, the north was the peninsula’s industrial powerhouse, and the south was the backwards, agricultural Redneck Belt.

South Korea doesn’t have any natural resources, and only 40 percent of the land is even arable.

After the war, with all the country’s industrial output locked up above the 38th parallel, South Korea shoved all its resources into infrastructure and industry.

And basically stole the ‘we work hard for cheap!’ market from Japan, which had done the same thing 10 years before.

In the same way you walk around Berlin and marvel that everyone your parents’ age lived through three decades of political division, in Seoul you’re staggered by how different life must have been here just a generation ago.

Anyone born before 1945 experienced Korea as an exploited Japanese colony, then a Cold War bargaining chip, then a military dictatorship and now an enviable diorama of shopping malls, tech companies, earbuds and functioning democracy.

As a tourist in 2012, meanwhile, I experienced South Korea primarily as an inaccessible culture beset with a baffling variety of pickles.

My presence there was equal parts serendipity and curiosity

so it was difficult to decide how to spend the few days I had.

Between meals, there aren’t many ways to participate in a culture where you don’t speak the language or know any locals.

No matter where you’re looking from, you’re at a distance.

In the end I mostly just walked around zigzaggically.

Humans are incapable of true randomness, so eventually a pattern set in: Church, shrine, mall, church, shrine, mall.

One day I rented a bike and explored the Han River and the riverlets that lead into Seoul’s rolling, infinite suburbs.

If it wasn’t for the canals, I would have had to drop bread crumbs to get back to the city center.

Like visible poverty and non-animated signage, bike lanes are a thing of the past.

According to Wikipedia, Seoul is the world’s 2nd biggest metropolitan area, and the 9th densest.

Or maybe it just feels that way because of the traffic, and the smells.

I happened to be reading a book on chaos theory the week I was there

and by day five, I started thinking that the only way to understand something as big and complicated as Seoul is as a fractal diagram.

No matter how much you zoom in, there’s just as much detail as last place you looked from.

So you lean forward, or you lean back. And reach for another pickle.


Filed under Pictures, Travel

Bruges Control

Last week I was in Bruges.

It’s Belgium’s only non food-related tourist attraction

and consists of little beyond a dense, immaculate spindle of medieval buildings.

From the cobblestones to the weathervanes, every square inch has been preserved and manicured for the explicit purpose of making every other world city feel inadequate.

The sign at the border reads ‘Welcome to Bruges. Damn right, it’s better than yours.’

No matter where you stand, you’re surrounded on all sides by an authoritarian dedication to scale, form and aesthetic pleasantry.

As if 1,000 years ago some wealthy, fastidious gay couple crammed all their taste into one facade

and filled in the rest of the city with the PhotoShop clone tool.

It is impossible and unfathomable to take a bad picture here.

In fact, it’s probably illegal.

The inscription on this statue reads ‘You’re not wearing shorts are you?’

Here’s the jail where they send people with asymmetrical faces.

Even the public art looks like you just interrupted it in the middle of brunch at the country club.

The city’s so rich, they have the weather imported from Italy.

And use their windmills to grind leftover waffles into dog food.

Walking around, I kept thinking of Tolstoy:

‘Happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

Whatever Bruges is, it’s happy. And Tolstoy wouldn’t last an hour.

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Filed under Pictures, Travel

Literary Playlist: ‘We’re all higher than the lowest things we’ve ever done’

The only thing humans like better than socializing is making up rules about who and how we’re allowed to do it.

‘Two or three hundred years from now people will look back on solitary confinement like we look back on the burning of witches.’

‘My father remembers what he wore at just about every important moment in his life’

The fall and fall of Sears

Restructuring a flailing manufacturing company begins with vacuuming.

New Yorker readers need to be thoroughly reassured that the person entertaining them with parlor tricks is a scholar. 

Speaking of solitary confinement, 47 people live on a rapey little island in the middle of nowhere.

This one-page blog post changed my thinking about human behavior more than any of the pop-economist books that have come out in the last five years combined.

Europe is fucked, part 47,135

Someone needs to write a book about how this came about.

Big Food isn’t the same as Big Tobacco. Except that they sort of are.

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Filed under America, Journalism