Archive for August, 2006

Legacies of Katrina

August 29, 2006

As I’m sure you’re all aware (if you manage to catch it in between the hours-long in-depth analysis of JonBenet Ramsey’s non-killer), today marks the one year anniversary of when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Katrina changed the face of America and it’s impact will reverberate for decades to come. Amidst the voluminous things that could be said about it in retrospect, I’d like to focus in on three things that I think are among Katrina’s biggest legacies. (I apologize for the lack of linky goodness; unfortunately I wasn’t blogging or using at the time, and I’d never get this posted if I went hunting on Google for everything I mention here)

1. Day of the Blogosphere

Hurricane Katrina is best known for the massive failure of government that was the response to the disaster. The word “clusterfuck” comes to mind when I think about it. However, there was another massive failure that surrounded the disaster; that of the mainstream media.

It’s hard to believe given my attitude now, but a year ago I was pretty skeptical of the whole “blog thing”; then came Katrina. The power of the network was never more awesome than when the blogosphere covered Katrina last summer. They were the first to show that the breach of the levees had long been predicted. They organized a support and charities. While Fox News and CNN had journalists running around “saving” cats from trees because they couldn’t find the story, bloggers were posting iconic photos with cameraphones. The most poignant and important stories emerged not from the MSM, but rather the people who were caught in the middle of it, communicating with the outside world through cell phones and and donated laptops. In short, they bypassed the clueless media channels and thrust their story onto the net, where network effects quickly and efficiently processed the information and brought the most important stuff to the forefront. BoingBoing had better coverage than CNN.

Further: Craigslist became the de facto community resource for sharing information in those hectic days. Google played an important role by offering Katrina Satellite photos through Google Earth. The mainstream media? They were busy having their reporters stand in wind tunnels.

2. The Emperor With No Clothes

Some of us had been saying for upwards of four years prior that Bush was an incompetent fuckup; Katrina was the event that convinced the rest of the country of this.

The handling of the disaster was so inept with consequences so grand that no barrage of talking points (“state and local officials”) could salvage it. Bush fucked up so bad even he had to apologize for it. His approval rating tanked and hasn’t recovered since.

And oh, how monumental a fuckup it was. The inefficacy of FEMA four years after 9/11 showed just how empty his promises of “you’re safer” are. Bush gave us all the best soundbyte we could ask for with “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” – as it was being revealed that “Brownie” was woefully unqualified to head FEMA, and just how rampant cronyism is in Bush’s world. (And just to show he can’t learn from his mistakes: not four weeks later he tried to nominate Harriet Meiers to the Supreme Court). It gets even better: this was *as* he busted the vacation record for the Presidency, and refused to cut it two days short to deal with the disaster, resulting in a wonderful photo of Bush fiddling while New Orleans burned (and just to drill the point home, his mom did a fine Marie Antoinette impression). And of course, no Bush fiasco is complete without a bald faced lie: “No one could have predicted terrorists would fly planes into buildings the levees would breach”. Except such predictions had been made for years, and Bush was told two days before the Hurricane hit.

A perfect storm indeed.

3. Black people loot; white people find

Perhaps the greatest legacy of Katrina is this: it reminded America that racism and poverty still exist. Katrina put these issues front and center in the American psyche. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”.

I think most Americans were surprised to witness just how impoverished many New Orleans residents were. They couldn’t help but notice how it was black people and poor people who lost everything. Over the coming weeks there would be many accusations of racism on the part of government officials and the recovery effort. Some baseless… some not.

It’s an unpleasant truth most of us would rather forget. Katrina forced us to acknowledge it once again; and hopefully, as time progresses, continue to force us to deal with it.

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Google going after the enterprise? Please.

August 28, 2006

Today, the tech blogosphere has lit on fire with Google’s first moves towards offering an integrated online office suite. It’s amazing how many of these pundits completely miss the mark. For example, Techcrunch’s review:

This is a bold move by Google. They are striking hard at a nearly $12 billion/year Microsoft revenue stream. And they are clearly trying to get this out the door fast, in anticipation of Microsoft Office 2007, which will include collaboration features for businesses (as does Office Live, announced last year).

The blogosphere has long been predicting some epic battle between Google and Microsoft; I think they want it so bad they’re letting their imaginations go wild.

Maybe they eventually will go head to head, but let’s take step back, a deep breath, and really look at what Google is offering for a second. When you do, one thing becomes clear: Google and Microsoft are not competing in the office productivity space. They’re similar products aimed at two entirely different market segments.

Google is clearly targeting small businesses. Mom and pop shops. Ones that likely don’t have their own server, might have their own web site they paid someone to do in the 1990’s, and are probably pirating MS Office anyway.

Google isn’t going after enterprise customers, which are Microsoft’s bread and butter. At least not yet. Fortune 500 companies aren’t about to trust a third party like Google with their data, and Writely and Google Spreadsheets can’t come close to offering the functionality of Word and Excel. Instead, Google is going after everyone in the world who pirates MS Office by offering them a legal alternative for the same price. Google’s suite is probably already functional enough for those people.

And Google’s strategy in offering this suite is clear – advertising to these users is incidental; the goal is to convert them into adwords customers. “Hey ma and pa shop – come set up your web site with us (no need to hire anyone to do it!), use base/checkout to sell online, and oh yeah, you can advertise locally with us too!”

THAT’S the billion dollar opportunity here: the long tail of businesses.

And if Google happens to snag a good portion of the market in the developing world that can’t afford Microsoft Office… well, that’s icing on the cake for them.

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How much stupider can media companies get?

August 24, 2006

Seriously, these people are approaching George W. Bush levels of incompetence and idiocy.

Listen to this:

Microsoft revealed today that no 32-bit versions of Windows Vista will be able to play back “next generation high definition protected content” (translation – studio-released BluRay and HD-DVD movies).

So another feature gets dropped from Windows Vista. These days, the list of dropped features is far larger than the list of actual new features, so it almost doesn’t even rank as news. What makes this one unique though is the reason it got dropped:

“This is a decision that the Media Player folks made because there are just too many ways right now for unsigned kernel mode code [to compromise content protection]. The media companies asked us to do this and said they don’t want any of their high definition content to play in x32 at all, because of all of the unsigned malware that runs in kernel mode can get around content protection, so we had to do this,” he said.

So, let me get this straight. The media companies, forever afraid of the piracy boogeyman, asked Microsoft to disable playback of HD disks on what amounts to 90% of the desktop PC market. Thus, they’re ensuring that the only way 90% of the market can watch HD content is with the pirated versions that don’t have copy protection.

Just to be clear: they’re combating piracy by making piracy the only option for vast segments of the market. Brilliant.

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Debunking the RIAA’s version of history

August 23, 2006

In the course of researching a longer post/rant on the state of copyright law, I came across this little gem from their RIAA: Their brief “history” of copyright.

The utter bullshit found in it is astounding. Not surprising, given it’s the RIAA, but still astounding. The “history” lasts for about three paragraphs before it descends into flat out propaganda and lies:

Copyright law all started with the “The Statute of Anne,” the world’s first copyright law passed by the British Parliament in 1709. Yet the principle of protecting the rights of artists predates this. It may sound like dry history at first blush, but since there was precedent to establish and rights to protect, much time, effort, and money has been spent in legal battles over the centuries.

In the United States, the principle took hold during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when James Madison suggested that the Constitution include language “to secure to literary authors their copyrights for a limited time.” The provision passed unanimously. It is found in Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution. It states…

The Congress shall have Power . . . To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries . . .

So far so good.

Before free speech, before freedom of assembly, before freedom of religion, there was copyright protection in our Constitution.

The bold is theirs, not mine. I’m not sure if they’ve just never read the constitution (probably) or if they’re too stupid to understand it (also probable).

The copyright provision appears in Article I, Section 8, because it’s a power granted to Congress. As such, it appears in the section of the constitution where it lists the powers granted to Congress.

First amendment rights appear in (shockingly enough) the amendments to the Constitution, listing what rights the people have that the government may not infringe on. Copyright isn’t included here.

To imply that copyright appears before free speech because it’s somehow more important (as they’re doing here) is disingenuous at best and terribly RIAA-like at worst. At the very least, it demonstrates a complete lack of comprehension of even the most basic aspects of our Constitution and government.

The founding fathers knew copyright protection could improve society by preserving the economic incentive for people to come up with brilliant ideas and inventions. They also realized the fundamental fairness of granting control of the creative work to the author.

This, again, is disingenuous. I’m sure you’ve heard of Thomas Jefferson, right? He was opposed to federal copyright protections, because they’re monopoly rights and he believed (quite correctly, IMHO) that the ills of a federally protected monopoly outweighed the benefits of copyright protections.

But notice how they left out that tidbit. Or maybe they just think Thomas Jefferson isn’t a founding father?

President George Washington signed the first copyright law on May 31, 1790. Nine days later, author John Barry registered his work, The Philadelphia Spelling Book, in the U.S. District Court of Pennsylvania, making it the first “writing” protected by copyright. Since then, the copyright laws have been revised numerous times. The revisions have been aimed at balancing the author’s right to reap the benefits of his or her work, and society’s ability to benefit from that same work.

I’m not sure what world they’re talking about, but it’s not the one we live in.

Each revision of copyright has made it more onerous and almost universally detracted from society’s ability to benefit from creative works, and more often than not did nothing to advance “author’s rights”, instead managing to take away from an author’s ability to benefit from their own work.

How does society benefit from copyright extension after extension? Initially, the maximum copyright term was set at 28 years. Lobbyists fought to change that from even before such people were called lobbyists: the length increased throughout the 19th century, became “lifelong” in the 20th century, extended beyond the life of the author in 1976 and was extended an additional 20 years in 1998 thanks to the Disney’s lobbying (for the sole purpose of preventing society from benefiting from “Steamboat Willie” another two decades.)

As for the author’s rights, how did expanding copyright so that corporations can own them help authors? The law was adapted so that most of the artists, the people the RIAA claims to represent don’t own the copyrights to the works they created, the labels do. How does society benefit from letting a “corporate person” own copyrights (since a corporation is an abstract legal entity that creates nothing)? How do artists that create stuff only to have a corporate claim the rights to it benefit?

But yeah, the revisions to copyright were about “balance”.

Today, in the recording industry, singers Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Sheryl Crow, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, and many others, are fighting for their rights. In the music business, stars are made not born, and it takes plenty of hard work to make it. Poe cut her debut album, “Hello,” in 1995. She knows the value of a copyright, “Copyright protects the creative process….It’s rough out there….There is nothing more inspiring to creativity than independence and that requires protection. If you’re an artist that can do something nobody else can, you need to know that your work will not be diluted or mass produced.” It’s as simple as that.

The principle that work one creates belongs to the creator and should be controlled by the creator is as timeless as it is global.

Then why the hell do you steal copyrights from your artists? Douchebags.

Likewise, for centuries, new inventions, from the printing press to the Internet, have threatened that principle.

No, entities like you have fought new inventions claiming that they threaten that principle (which you yourself violate).

The reality is that every new invention has opened up new markets for creative works.

For centuries, advocates have resolutely defended it. The RIAA is just such an advocate today.

You defend your business model and nothing else. A business model that depends heavily on the exploitation of actual artists and demonstrates day after day just how broken our copyright system is.

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The Digital Generation Gap

August 23, 2006

The Washington Post has a great article on the digital gap that exists between parents and their kids… especially when the parents are high profile newsmakers.

Watts’s views about his employer appear to contradict those of his father, Wayne Watts, who is senior vice president and associate general counsel of AT&T Corp., Cingular’s parent company. The senior Watts, whom Jared credits with landing him the job, is defending AT&T’s customer service record before regulators as the company tries to acquire BellSouth Corp.

Unlike their parents, today’s youth have grown up in the age of public disclosure. Keeping an Internet diary has become de rigueur; social lives and private thoughts are laid bare. For parents in high-profile positions, however, it means their children can exploit a generational disconnect to espouse their own points of view, or expose private details perhaps their parents wish they would not.

“All the things I’ve typed in my blog I’ve argued with my father about,” like whether mergers hurt customers, something Jared Watts said he thinks does inconvenience consumers. But publicly criticizing his company is not the same as a personal attack on the father who supports him “100 percent,” he said.

This ties into what I said recently about how our cultural attitude towards privacy is changing. The internal workings of a corporation have always been terribly opaque, at least traditionally speaking. Teenage life gets recorded on MySpace. Think there’s a disconnect?

What will be interesting to watch over the next several years is what will happen when these opposing cultures clash. As today’s teenagers enter the workplace, which culture will prevail, the culture of secrecy or the culture of transparency?

Going off topic for a second, I just have to highlight this paragraph from the article as well (emphasis mine):

His father, speaking through an AT&T spokesman, said: “I care very much for my son. And like many fathers and sons, we have differences of opinion on many subjects.”

I wonder if the same AT&T spokesman tucked his son in and red him bedtime stories when he was younger?

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YouTube Jumps the Shark

August 22, 2006

YouTube is about to roll out branded commercial “channels” as one way to bring some revenue to the site. The first one? Paris Hilton.

It’s interesting that they’re bending over backwards to find any business model that doesn’t include advertising within the videos themselves. (YouTube would put itself on very shaky legal ground if it did that, given the sheer volume of copyrighted content on the site). I’m not sure if this latest tactic will work, but there’s something about it that’s just… disturbing.

Mashable has some interesting thoughts on this latest tactic (emphasis mine):

So will Paris Hilton and other stars counteract YouTube’s ludicrous bandwidth expenses? I actually think they might – despite all the anti-hype around YouTube and the recurring question “Where’s the Business Model”, I think it’s pretty clear that YouTube is a powerful branding platform – and not just for stars like Paris Hilton. MySpace has totally changed the nature of advertising – users now make friends with brands (see MySpace Marketing and Dasani’s custom MySpace layouts), and advertising is no longer about pushing content to people when they don’t want it. The Paris Hilton channel is just the start, and I expect to see hundreds more of these things springing up – why shouldn’t every media company have their own YouTube channel and MySpace page?

I think he’s right, and that sends a chill up my spine. As if corporate personhood wasn’t problematic enough for our society, we have a new phenomenon where people are making friends with products and the corporations behind them. Welcome to 21st century consumerism.

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Good photographic subjects

August 21, 2006

A friend of mine just got a new Digital SLR (Nikon D70, the same camera I have) and asked me what would make for good photographic subjects. As I figure that there may be other aspiring photographers out there with a similar question, I’ll share the answer I gave him.

My response was that there’s three things it’s damn near impossible to take a bad picture of.

  • Mountains
  • Flowers
  • Nude Women

Start off practicing with whichever one is the most readily available. 🙂


Why I Blog

August 18, 2006

One of the recurring debates of the blogosphere is the dichotomy that exists between it’s theoretical “democratic” nature and being “long tail” medium, and the existence of an “A List” of blogs that in turn serve as gatekeepers to which other blogs get read. (See the discussion Nick Carr started the other day, which sparked this post)

There’s some truth to both sides of the equation. Blogging is very democratic and individualistic. The barrier to entry is laughably small (a computer, an internet connection, and an ability to type). I am my own editor; I decide what I write about and exercise absolute control over the content. But the other half is true as well. Just because I put it out here doesn’t mean it gets read. This blog lives on the far, far end of the long tail. My traffic numbers hover in the tens to hundreds. My subscriber base consists entirely of close friends. In short, although I blog, I have the tiniest of audiences and I don’t delude myself into thinking I have any influence over my readers, let alone the blogosphere as a whole.

So why do I do it?

Simply, I blog because I like to write. As much as I’m talking to my readers when I blog, I also talk to myself. I enjoy the process of putting thoughts into words into something coherent. I like that it challenges me to lay out and explain the things I believe and think about; sometimes the very act of writing it down forces me to look at things in a new way.

Further, I love conversation and debate. Long before I was a blogger or even before there was a blogosphere, I was a forum junky. Before I was a forum junky, I was a usenet junky. I may not have a large audience or any influence, but I do get to take part in the conversation, by commenting and by linking. I like that.

And therein lies the primary flaw in Nick Carr’s argument (which has been pointed out in other responses). Not every blogger wants to get on the “A List”, most of us don’t delude ourselves into thinking we’ll change the world by publishing a blog. (Here’s a hint people: you’ll make a much bigger impact writing to your Congressman than you will writing to the internet).

Don’t get me wrong, I’d be more than happy if I found a large audience with whom my blog resonates. But if that was my goal, suffice to say I’d be running this blog completely differently: a successful blog is as much marketing as it is writing, and I just don’t have that much interest in the marketing half of the equation.

I blog about the things I care about, the topics I have passions for, because I like doing it. I blog for me and me alone.

I kind of feel sorry for anyone who does it for any other reason.

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Arrest made in JonBenet Ramsey case

August 16, 2006

And ten years later I’m still asking the same question: Why the fuck is this news? And it’s not just national news, but front-page-of-CNN news. Front page of just about everywhere, actually, as well as all over the TV.

Excuse me while I go contemplate what it would be like to live in a country with a competent newsmedia capable of keeping perspective.

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The Great Eric’s Guide to Loosing Weight

August 16, 2006

I’m lucky enough to have a cool boss who likes taking everyone in the office out for lunch every day (it’s a small company and most of us telecommute, so typically we’re only talking 3-6 people in the office, depending on the day). I quite enjoy these lunch breaks; they’re pretty low key and I’m never one to complain about free food (since I don’t eat much to begin with, getting lunch like this significantly cuts down on my grocery bills).

Lately though, this otherwise pleasant ritual has been getting on my nerves. Or more precisely, one of my coworkers has been getting on my nerves every time we go to lunch with her. I don’t mean to badmouth her and that’s certainly not my intent. She’s actually a very nice person and we get along well, it just happens she’s been hitting on this pet peeve of mine.

You see, she’s gone on a diet. And she hasn’t just gone on any diet, but the Atkins Diet. So now, whenever we decide where to go to lunch (and there’s not many options around here), we have to be reminded how she “can’t have bread, because [she’s] on Atkins.”, and plan accordingly to make sure there will be something there for her to eat. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing about our lunchtime ritual that can pass without her making it known to the world that she’s dieting and which diet she’s on: she talks about it constantly. Quite frankly, I just don’t care and I don’t see why she feels the need to bring it up constantly. What makes it worse is that I don’t just have to listen to a female talk about a diet, but I have to listen to the sheer stupidity that is the Atkins diet.

Just take a second to really think about it:

Wheat is one of the earliest crops mankind domesticated, and was one of the enabling factors that directly led to the development of human civilization. We’ve been eating bread for 10,000+ years; it’s one of the most basic components of our diet. Just about every human civilization throughout history had some sort of high carbohydrate crop as a staple of their diet. This was the status quo up until about three or four years ago when Mr. Atkins (whoever granted him the title of “Doctor” should revoke it) managed to convince millions upon millions of Americans, including my coworker, that bread is somehow responsible for making them fat, and said that to lose weight they could eat as much as they wanted as long as it didn’t include carbohydrates. The idiocy is astounding.

The irrationality of this diet plan was epitomized the other day when we went to Burger King for lunch. My coworker – on a diet, trying to lose weight – orders a TRIPLE bacon cheeseburger. But to her, this is okay, because she took the bread off. I just kind of sat there with my mouth open the whole time, unsure how she could possibly rationalize this.

The truly sad part is that she’s not alone. Her behavior is indicative of just how deeply ignorant and downright screwed up our society is when it comes to food, health, and nutrition. It boggles my mind that anyone could think the Atkins diet could work in the first place, least of all after it’s been scientifically debunked time and time and time again. Yet it’s still one of the more popular diets out there.

I realized early on that my attempts to infuse reality into my coworker’s diet plan was most unwelcome, so now I simply hold my tongue at lunchtime while I count the days until she’s done with it (and hopefully, shuts up about it). For everyone who’ll listen to reason though, I’ve done the research for you. Distilled the volumes of scientific research and nutritional information into a concise, easy to follow diet plan that’s guaranteed to work based on everything we know about the human body.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. Consult one. Don’t sue me.)


The Great Eric’s super duper double secret amazing guide to loosing weight:


Step 1:


Eat less.


Step 2:


Exercise more.


Simple, right? Yet millions of Americans are baffled by this approach to weight loss. Mostly, I suppose, because it involves a lifestyle change, complete with actual work and personal responsibility and discipline. Which is why I imagine the “still eat as many bacon cheeseburgers as you want” type diet plans are so popular; they make people feel like they’re doing something despite their ineffectiveness. People would rather be fat than be uncomfortable, even a little bit.

To state my diet plan another way: “You’re fat because you’re lazy; stop being lazy and you won’t be fat”. Harsh? Maybe. True? Yes. Sure, entities like the media, the food industry, biology, and even the government share culpability for the obesity epidemic now upon us. But at the end of the day, the only person who’s responsible for the shape your body in is you.

Still, I imagine there are those of you out there who are skeptical, so let’s break down the plan and examine it in more detail.

“Eat less” should probably read “Eat less and eat right”. I trimmed it down in the diet plan because the first half is the one that would make the biggest difference for most people, and is sufficient all by itself for loosing weight. But “eat right” is another factor which shouldn’t get ignored, so we’ll consider that here as well.

Most Americans eat too much. I’ll let the USDA qualify that (emphasis mine):

Americans at the beginning of the 21st century are consuming more food and several hundred more calories per person per day than did their counterparts in the late 1950s (when per capita calorie consumption was at the lowest level in the last century), or even in the 1970s. The aggregate food supply in 2000 provided 3,800 calories per person per day, 500 calories above the 1970 level and 800 calories above the record low in 1957 and 1958.
(fig. 2-1)

Of that 3,800 calories, USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that roughly 1,100 calories were lost to spoilage, plate waste, and cooking and other losses, putting dietary intake of calories in 2000 at just under 2,700 calories per person per day. ERS data suggest that average daily calorie intake increased by 24.5 percent, or about 530 calories, between 1970 and 2000. Of that 24.5-percent increase, grains (mainly refined grain products) contributed 9.5 percentage points; added fats and oils, 9.0 percentage points; added sugars, 4.7 percentage points; fruits and vegetables together, 1.5 percentage points; meats and nuts together, 1 percentage point; and dairy products and eggs together, -1.5 percentage point.

Some of the observed increase in caloric intake may be associated with the increase in eating out. Data from USDA’s food intake surveys show that the food-away-from-home sector provided 32 percent of total food energy consumption in 1994-96, up from 18 percent in 1977-78. The data also suggest that, when eating out, people either eat more or eat higher calorie foods–or both–and that this tendency appears to be increasing.


Although multiple factors can account for weight gain, the basic cause is an excess of energy intake over energy expenditure. In general, Americans’ activity levels have not kept pace with their increase in calorie consumption. Many people apparently are oblivious to the number of calories they consume. Calories consistently rank toward the bottom of consumer nutrition concerns, according to the annual national probability surveys “Trends–Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket” conducted by the Food Marketing Institute. Of respondents in the 2002 survey who said they were either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the nutritional content of what they eat, only 13 percent cited calories as one of their concerns. That compared with fat (49 percent), sugar (18 percent), salt (17 percent), and cholesterol (16 percent).

Yeah yeah, I know. It’s like, rocket science. How can the average American be expected to understand something like that? There’s an 800 calorie difference between what Americans consumed in the 1950’s and what they consumed in 2000. Maybe, just maybe, you should look to cut about 800 calories from your diet, at least if you’re the average American. You won’t die of starvation if you do. Just a thought.

One thing you might not immediately get the significance of is why I highlighted the bit about eating out, or even why it’s mentioned at all. The correlation between going to restaurants and obesity is pretty clear and has a logical reason for existing. Although portion sizes have increased everywhere in recent decades, restaurants are especially bad in this regard: portions at restaurants have doubled and sometimes quadrupled in size since the 1970’s. And surprise: the bigger the portion, the more you eat, the fatter you get. Contrary to what your mother may have told you, “cleaning your plate” is shockingly bad advice.

Here’s some examples:

In the 1970’s a 12 ounce soda was a typical size you would get as a fountain drink from a restaurant or quick stop and now it is 20 ounces.

Bagels used to weigh 2-3 ounces and now weigh 4-7 ounces. A regular size serving of French fries from McDonalds (you remember…the one that came in the little white paper bag) weighs one third the weight of the largest size now. This becomes so normal to us that when we see the “smaller” servings it looks like a tiny amount of food and surely couldn’t fill us up. This is an even bigger problem for the youth today. This is all they know and when they see what a portion size should look like it will appear very small.

I could expand on the portion size issue a great deal more and talk about the economics of the food industry, psychological tricks, your body’s hunger cues, etc, but honestly I don’t think that’s necessary. While the “why” of all this is fascinating and important in it’s own right, it’s not germane to the point of my little rant here. Just eat less. That’s the long and short of it.

Now, that other part, “eat right” is admittedly more complex and legitimately confuses a lot of people. Nutritional science journalism is simply hideous. What’s good for you depends heavily on your individual traits and lifestyle. But news reports never say “Food X is good under condition A for type of person B”; instead they oversimplify it to “Food X is good for you”. The end result is that the news media will seemingly flip flop on the health benefits of (for example) eggs every year or so. One year they’re good, next year they’re bad. My advice: don’t listen to this kind of stuff.

Despite the complexity of the issue and how greatly individuals will vary in this regard, there’s still a couple of meta-trends that we can apply here. Like, here’s the big one: nothing you eat is really bad for you, but anything you eat can be bad for you if you eat it in excess. The key to eating right, generally speaking, is to eat a little bit of a wide range of foods.

Recently, I’ve become a big fan of Michael Pollan, a journalist who’s written a great deal on the science and history of agriculture and food. He’s written a number of great articles and essays on this subject, and his most recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, covers this subject in great depth. It’s all worth reading and I recommend it if you’re at all interested in learning more about this subject. I bring it up because everything I’m about to say mostly summarizes what he’s written on the subject, and it’s worth learning about more in depth (more links at the end of the post).

You see, our food industry is deeply fucked up. A combination of technological innovations, political factors, and simple corporate greed has resulted in an agribusiness that greatly overproduces corn, making it much cheaper than it ought to be in any rational market economy. As a result, this commodity finds its way into everything. Most of what you eat was once corn. It’s the main ingredient in any number of supermarket foods, gets fed to livestock, and gets mixed in with a whole lot of other unrelated foods. So far from having a wide ranging diet, ours is a remarkably narrow one. As Pollan explains:

Or perhaps a little of both. For the great edifice of variety and choice that is an American supermarket rests on a remarkably narrow biological foundation: corn. It’s not merely the feed that the steers and the chickens and the pigs and the turkeys ate; it’s not just the source of the flour and the oil and the leavenings, the glycerides and coloring in the processed foods; it’s not just sweetening the soft drinks or lending a shine to the magazine cover over by the checkout. The supermarket itself–the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built–is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.

There are some 45,000 items in the average American supermarket, and more than a quarter of them contain corn. At the same time, the food industry has done a good job of persuading us that the 45,000 different items or SKUs (stock keeping units) represent genuine variety rather than the clever rearrangements of molecules extracted from the same plant.

Basically, if you’re the average American, you’re eating a heck of a lot of corn, and probably have deficiencies elsewhere in your diet. As omnivores, we need balance, and there’s a good chance you’re not getting it.

The problem with corn gets even worse when you consider that much of our overproduced corn is turned into High Frustose Corn Syrup (HFCS). HFCS is a chemical sweetener and preservative that’s makes its way into just about everything on the supermarket shelf, and is particularly bad from a health perspective. You see, HFCS differs from regular sugar in three important respects:

  1. Rather than acting like sugar in your body (producing insulin and burning energy), it acts more like fat, stimulating your body to store energy.
  2. It never triggers the appetite suppressant hormones that make you feel full.
  3. Thanks in very large part to decades of unreasonably large government farm subsidies towards corn growers, it’s cheap to manufacture – cheaper than real sugar.

It has a couple of other properties as well: It’s sweeter than real sugar, it’s effective as a preservative in preventing freezer burn, and it stores longer. Oh, and it causes diabetes, though the industry denies it, much in the same way tobacco companies once denied the health effects of their products.

Add it all up, I shouldn’t have to spell it out.

Do we eat too much of it? Heck yeah.

Until the 1970s most of the sugar we ate came from sucrose derived from sugar beets or sugar cane. Then sugar from corn—corn syrup, fructose, dextrose, dextrine and especially high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—began to gain popularity as a sweetener because it was much less expensive to produce. High fructose corn syrup can be manipulated to contain equal amounts of fructose and glucose, or up to 80 percent fructose and 20 percent glucose.2 Thus, with almost twice the fructose, HFCS delivers a double danger compared to sugar.

(With regards to fruit, the ratio is usually 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose, but most commercial fruit juices have HFCS added. Fruit contains fiber which slows down the metabolism of fructose and other sugars, but the fructose in HFCS is absorbed very quickly.)

In 1980 the average person ate 39 pounds of fructose and 84 pounds of sucrose. In 1994 the average person ate 66 pounds of sucrose and 83 pounds of fructose, providing 19 percent of total caloric energy.3 Today approximately 25 percent of our average caloric intake comes from sugars, with the larger fraction as fructose.

Where do we consume the majority of it? Soda.

A single 12-ounce can of soda has as much as 13 teaspoons of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup. And because the amount of soda we drink has more than doubled since 1970 to about 56 gallons per person a year, so has the amount of high fructose corn syrup we take in. In 2001, we consumed almost 63 pounds of it, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If you’re serious about losing weight, you’ll stop drinking it entirely, starting now. Even if you’re not, you probably shouldn’t drink it. The stuff is terribly unhealthy in most every regard.

New research published in the United States that followed 50,000 U.S. nurses reveals those who drank just one serving of soda or fruit punch a day gained weight more quickly than those who drank less than one soda a month. Those who drank more also had an 80% increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. This risk, by the way, was associated with those who drank drinks sweetened with either sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.

I’m going to stop here to just to reiterate; when it comes to obesity, the culprit is your lifestyle. End of story. As I said above, the food industry, media, government, and HFCS aren’t excuses; I’m just explaining what’s what so you understand the context of my advice. I’d actually expand on this topic more but again, we’re getting off point. Just cut this shit out of your diet as much as it possible if you want to lose weight.

Alright, back on topic: how do you eat right? Look at it this way: Human beings got here by a process of evolution. Our diets were arrived at by a process of evolution too (Hmmm… I wonder if there’s a correlation between obesity and being a creationist?). The people who ate healthy generally managed to survive to pass their genes on, and their diet got passed down by cultural tradition. For a multitude of reasons, those cultural traditions have been all but ignored for the last fifty years, thanks to technology, marketing, and cultural shifts. So to eat right, you should eat what your grandmother would have cooked in the 1950’s.

Michael Pollan actually explained this one pretty succinctly.

Don’t eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Imagine how baffled your ancestors would be in a modern supermarket: the epoxy-like tubes of Go-Gurt, the preternaturally fresh Twinkies, the vaguely pharmaceutical Vitamin Water. Those aren’t foods, quite; they’re food products. History suggests you might want to wait a few decades or so before adding such novelties to your diet, the substitution of margarine for butter being the classic case in point. My mother used to predict “they” would eventually discover that butter was better for you. She was right: the trans-fatty margarine is killing us. Eat food, not food products.

Avoid foods containing high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It’s not just in cereals and soft drinks but also in ketchup and bologna, baked goods, soups and salad dressings. Though HFCS was not part of the human diet until 1975, each of us now consumes more than 40 lbs. a year, some 200 calories a day. Is HFCS any worse for you than sugar? Probably not, but by avoiding it you’ll avoid thousands of empty calories and perhaps even more important, cut out highly processed foods–the ones that contain the most sugar, fat and salt. Besides, what chef uses high-fructose corn syrup? Not one. It’s found only in the pantry of the food scientist, and that’s not who you want cooking your meals.

There’s more advice in his article; those are just the biggest points IMHO.

Which brings us to step two: exercise.

Balance is crucial. Going back to the USDA’s piece, the basic cause for weight gain is an excess of energy intake over energy expenditure. Simply cutting your intake isn’t enough, because there’s two sides to the equation. You have to exercise, too.

The sad reality of the modern world is that most people spend their lives sitting on their ass; at work, at home, driving, etc. So, walk more. Take up jogging. Go swimming. Play sports. Go to a gym. Eating a 1950’s diet won’t get you thin unless you also get as much physical activity as people did then too; it was a lot more than people get today. In other words, stop being a lardass. Burn off the calories you consume.

From the CDC :

Becoming a healthier you isn’t just about eating healthy – it’s also about physical activity. Regular physical activity is important for your overall health and fitness. It also helps you control body weight by balancing the calories you take in as food with the calories you expend each day.

  • Be physically active, at a moderate intensity for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
  • Increasing the intensity or the amount of time that you are physically active can have even greater health benefits and may be needed to control body weight. About 60 minutes a day may be needed to prevent weight gain.
  • Children and teenagers should be physically active 60 minutes every day, or most every day.

At the end of the day, this is all kind of straightforward common sense if you just pause to think about it for a while. But it’s not always obvious; so my hope is that those of you who read this will be less inclined to try crap like Atkins diets and more inclined to simply make the lifestyle changes necessary to lose the weight you want to lose. Again, I’m not a doctor – but what I wrote here is kind of common sense.

Then again, I’m not a doctor. Plus, while I tried to keep this tightly focused on how to loose weight, there are a number of secondary issues that I raised. I feel that understanding just what’s wrong with our food industry and how it impacts us is critical to being able to do something about it. So here’s some references for further reading, from far more authoritative sources than me:


Reference Materials:

World Health Organization’s Obesity Page
USDA Factbook
Department of Health and Human Services: Diet, Nutrition, and Eating Right
CDC: Overweight and Obesity
CDC: Nutrition


Articles by Michael Pollan.

Children of the Corn Syrup
The Murky World of High Fructose Corn Syrup
The Double Danger of High Fructose Corn Syrup
The Politics of Sugar: Why your government lies to you about this desease promoting ingredient

High Fructose Corn Syrup articles on Accidental Hedonist

And some links from Wikipedia, if you want some further research:

The Atkins Nutritional Approach (See: Criticism)
Body Image (not talked about, but related)
Body Mass Index
Childhood Obesity
Healthy Diet and Healthy Eating

Dieting tips:

Things You Didn’t Know About Your Body
The Hacker’s Diet
Diet Tips by Jeremy Zawdorny
Kicking Sugar to the Curb
Quitting Caffeine

(Disclaimer: Those who know me probably know I eat like crap. I eat very little, but what I do eat is mostly crap foods. I drink too much sod and too much caffeine. I don’t exercise nearly enough. I stay thin and healthy mostly by virtue of being young, I think. So this is definitely a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do post. Does it make me a hypocrite? A little bit, I admit. But then, I don’t have a weight problem… if I did, the above is what I’d do to fix it.)
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