Quotulatiousness

April 23, 2014

Happy Meal toys as human rights violations

Filed under: Business, Law, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:16

Amy Otto on the attempt to sue McDonald’s because they were handing out “gendered” toys with their Happy Meals:

A recent article in Slate by Antonia Ayres-Brown, a junior in high school, details the valiant feminist struggle she ultimately brought to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities against McDonald’s for … discriminating on the basis of sex in the distribution of Happy Meal toys. “Despite our evidence showing that, in our test, McDonald’s employees described the toys in gendered terms more than 79 percent of the time, the commission dismissed our allegations as ‘absurd’ and solely for the purposes of ‘titilation [sic] and sociological experimentation,’” she wrote.

Let’s leave aside the fact that Connecticut has a Commission on Human Rights and note that this girl sincerely believes McDonald’s offering toys described, at times, as being for a girl or for a boy is a human rights violation.

While I admire the girl’s plucky disposition and effort, I do hope one day she learns to channel her energy into productive uses that will advance her cause in positive ways. This could have all been solved by her parents simply encouraging her to ask for the toy she wants. If girls are continually taught that they as individuals have no power to negotiate a situation as simple as “I’d like that toy” without the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights getting involved, I submit that these women are proving the case that they should not be put in positions of leadership or power.

By the author’s own admission,“McDonald’s is estimated to sell more than 1 billion Happy Meals each year.” Yet it does not occur to her that the fast food worker giving a “girl’s” toy to a girl is simply trying to give the customer what she wants in the most expeditious manner possible. This is a company that sells a billion of these things a year and gets them in the hands of their customers as fast as possible.

People do not eat at McDonald’s to get into a gender studies discussion with the teenage kid at the register; they go there to get food fast, hence the term “fast food.” If the author had worked in fast food for any nominal period of time, she might realize that the employee’s main motivation is not to spend any time persecuting women but to make it through his or her shift as painlessly as possible.

April 17, 2014

Think carefully before clicking “Like” for a branded product

Filed under: Business, Law, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:58

Did you know that if you’ve “Liked” a product’s page on Facebook, you may have given up your right to sue the company?

Might downloading a 50-cent coupon for Cheerios cost you legal rights?

General Mills, the maker of cereals like Cheerios and Chex as well as brands like Bisquick and Betty Crocker, has quietly added language to its website to alert consumers that they give up their right to sue the company if they download coupons, “join” it in online communities like Facebook, enter a company-sponsored sweepstakes or contest or interact with it in a variety of other ways.

Instead, anyone who has received anything that could be construed as a benefit and who then has a dispute with the company over its products will have to use informal negotiation via email or go through arbitration to seek relief, according to the new terms posted on its site.

In language added on Tuesday after The New York Times contacted it about the changes, General Mills seemed to go even further, suggesting that buying its products would bind consumers to those terms.

“We’ve updated our Privacy Policy,” the company wrote in a thin, gray bar across the top of its home page. “Please note we also have new Legal Terms which require all disputes related to the purchase or use of any General Mills product or service to be resolved through binding arbitration.”

The change in legal terms, which occurred shortly after a judge refused to dismiss a case brought against the company by consumers in California, made General Mills one of the first, if not the first, major food companies to seek to impose what legal experts call “forced arbitration” on consumers.

April 10, 2014

Chiles, peppers, and world trade before globalization

Filed under: Americas, Economics, History, India — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:53

ESR linked to an interesting discussion of the spread of chile peppers and other exotic spices from the Roman empire onwards:

Can you imagine a world without salsa? Or Tabasco sauce, harissa, sriracha, paprika or chili powder?

I asked myself that question after I found a 700-year-old recipe for one of my favorite foods, merguez — North Africa’s beloved lamb sausage that is positively crimson with chiles. The medieval version was softly seasoned with such warm spices as black pepper, coriander and cinnamon instead of the brash heat of capsicum chile peppers — the signature flavor of the dish today.

The cuisines of China, Indonesia, India, Bhutan, Korea, Hungary and much of Africa and the Middle East would be radically different from what they are today if chiles hadn’t returned across the ocean with Columbus. Barely 50 years after the discovery of the New World, chiles were warming much of the Old World. How did they spread so far, so fast? The answers may surprise you — they did me!

I learned that Mamluk and Ottoman Muslims were nearly as responsible for the discovery of New World peppers as Columbus — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The global pepper saga begins in the first millennium bce with the combustible career of another pepper — black pepper (Piper nigrum) and its cousins, Indian long pepper and Javanese cubeb. Although Piper nigrum was first grown on the Malabar Coast in India, the taste for it enflamed the ancient world: No matter what the cost — and it was very high — people were mad for pepper. The Romans, for example, first tasted it in Egypt, and the demand for it drove them to sail to India to buy it. In the first century, Pliny complained about the cost: “There is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces.”

In one sense, the whole global system of trade — the sea and land routes throughout the known world that spread culture and cuisine through commerce — was engaged with the appetite for pepper, in its growth, distribution and consumption.

Dried chiles shipped well worldwide. From top-left: New World Capsicum annuum varieties include guajillo, ancho and New Mexico; a smaller Capsicum frutescens variety called “birdseye” chiles spread wild in Africa after birds spread their seeds from early gardens, and they are now common also in Southeast Asia; “Indian” chiles are among the most common varieties in India, which today grows and exports more chiles than any other nation. Bottom-left: Three popular capsicum peppers that took root in the Middle East—Maraş, Urfa and Aleppo, shown below in their flaked form—are used in dishes throughout the region. Bottom-right: Fresh serrano, poblano and ripe jalapeño peppers.

Dried chiles shipped well worldwide. From top-left: New World Capsicum annuum varieties include guajillo, ancho and New Mexico; a smaller Capsicum frutescens variety called “birdseye” chiles spread wild in Africa after birds spread their seeds from early gardens, and they are now common also in Southeast Asia; “Indian” chiles are among the most common varieties in India, which today grows and exports more chiles than any other nation. Bottom-left: Three popular capsicum peppers that took root in the Middle East — Maraş, Urfa and Aleppo, shown below in their flaked form — are used in dishes throughout the region. Bottom-right: Fresh serrano, poblano and ripe jalapeño peppers.

ESR said in his brief G+ posting:

More about the early and very rapid spread of capsicum peppers in the Old World than I’ve ever seen in one place before.

I also didn’t know they were such a nutritional boon. It appears one reason they became so entrenched is they’re a good source of Vitamin C in peasant cuisines centered around a starch like rice. My thought is that moderns may tend to miss this point because we have so much better access to citrus fruits and other very high-quality C sources.

The bit about paprika having been introduced to Hungary by the Ottomans was also particularly interesting to me. This was less than 30 years after they had reached the Old World.

April 9, 2014

The rise of the bloodmouth carnists

Filed under: Humour, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:13

ESR has a bit of fun at the expense of a militant vegan:

Some weeks ago I was tremendously amused by a report of an exchange in which a self-righteous vegetarian/vegan was attempting to berate somebody else for enjoying Kentucky Fried Chicken. I shall transcribe the exchange here:

    >There is nothing sweet or savory about the rotting
    >carcass of a chicken twisted and crushed with cruelty.
    >There is nothing delicious about bloodmouth carnist food.
    >How does it feel knowing your stomach is a graveyard

    I’m sorry, but you just inadvertently wrote the most METAL
    description of eating a chicken sandwich in the history of mankind.

    MY STOMACH IS A GRAVEYARD

    NO LIVING BEING CAN QUENCH MY BLOODTHIRST

    I SWALLOW MY ENEMIES WHOLE

    ESPECIALLY IF THEY’RE KENTUCKY FRIED

I am no fan of KFC, I find it nasty and overprocessed. However, I found the vegan rant richly deserving of further mockery, especially after I did a little research and discovered that the words “bloodmouth” and “carnist” are verbal tokens for an entire ideology.

First thing I did was notify my friend Ken Burnside, who runs a T-shirt business, that I want a “bloodmouth carnist” T-shirt – a Spinal-Tap-esque parody of every stupid trash-metal tour shirt ever printed. With flaming skulls! And demonic bat-wings! And umlauts! Definitely umlauts.

Once Ken managed to stop laughing we started designing. Several iterations. a phone call, and a flurry of G+ messages later, we had the Bloodmouth Carnist T-shirt. Order yours today!
Bloodmouth Carnist t-shirt

March 16, 2014

QotD: American “cheese”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Europe, Health, Humour, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:05

Everyone thinks America Alone is about Islam and demography, but in fact it has a whole section in it on cheese, called “The Pasteurization is Prologue”. Page 181:

    I’ve never subscribed to that whole “cheese-eating surrender-monkey” sneer promoted by my National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg. As a neocon warmonger, I yield to no one in my contempt for the French, but, that said, cheese-wise I feel they have the edge.

    When I’m at the lunch counter in America and I order a cheeseburger and the waitress says, “American, Swiss or Cheddar?” I can’t tell the difference. They all taste of nothing. The only difference is that the slice of alleged Swiss is full of holes, so you’re getting less nothing for your buck. Then again, the holes also taste of nothing, and they’re less fattening. But, either way, cheese is not the battleground on which to demonstrate the superiority of the American way.

Most of the American cheeses bearing European names are bland rubbery eunuch versions of the real thing. I wouldn’t mind if this were merely the market at work, but it’s not. It’s the result of Big Government, of the Brieatollahs at the United States Department of Agriculture:

    In America, unpasteurized un-aged raw cheese that would be standard in any Continental fromagerie is banned. Americans, so zealous in defense of their liberties when it comes to guns, are happy to roll over for the nanny state when it comes to the cheese board… The French may be surrender monkeys on the battlefield, but they don’t throw their hands up and flee in terror just because the Brie’s a bit ripe. It’s the Americans who are the cheese-surrendering eating-monkeys — who insist, oh, no, the only way to deal with this sliver of Roquefort is to set up a rigorous ongoing Hans Blix-type inspections regime.

I’m not exaggerating about that. Nothing gets past their eyes, and everything gets pasteurized. That’s why American “cheesemakers” have to keep putting stuff into the “cheddar” — sun-dried tomatoes, red peppers, chocolate chips — to give it some taste, because the cheese itself has none. And, if you try to bring in anything that does taste of something, the US Government’s Brie Team Six seizes it:

    The US fate of the bright-orange, mild-tasting French cheese has been in jeopardy for months and the Food and Drug Administration has blocked all further imports.

    Why? Because US regulators determined the cantaloupe-like rind of the cheese was covered with too many cheese mites, even though the tiny bugs give mimolette its unique flavor.

    No formal ban has been put in place, but 1.5 tonnes (3,300 pounds) of cheese were blocked from being imported, and nothing is going through US customs.

“No formal ban has been put in place” — because that would involve legislators passing laws in a legislature and whatnot. So they just banned it anyway.

Mark Steyn, “Live Brie or Die!” SteynOnline.com, 2014-03-13

March 3, 2014

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – bacon and booze

Filed under: Health, Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:30

At The Register, Lester Haines fights the killjoys in public health journalism to bring forth the revolutionary booze-and-bacon diet:

“Bacon is particularly problematic,” doomwatched the Daily Mail, a noted proponent of the “if it’s tasty it’ll kill you” school of scientific killjoyery.

It gets worse. Scientists have indicated that bacon also reduces fertility, while a daily consumption of of more than 20g of processed meat in general — “equivalent to one meagre rasher of bacon” — is a surefire shortcut to the hereafter.

Or so they’d have you believe. Among the amazing powers of bacon is its ability to cure hangovers. The negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption are well known — impotence, cirrhosis of the liver, maudlin pub musings, alcopop-fuelled teen pregnancies, the Saturday-night reduction of British city centres to vomit-spattered warzones, and so forth — but booze too has extraordinary properties.

In fact, it benefits cardiovascular health, fights asthma, provides immunity to Mike Tyson and, critically, wards off dementia and makes you clever.

So, here’s the thing: if bacon can be used to combat the negatives effects of alcohol, while alcohol can prevent you from losing your marbles as a result using bacon to counter the downside of alcohol (something we have dubbed the “Baco-Booze Harmonious Feedback Loop”), then you are in a position to exploit the increased intelligence alcohol confers.

February 21, 2014

Delingpole’s “love” letter to Scotland

Filed under: Britain, Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:12

He spends just about as much time trying to persuade Scots to stay as he does in winding them up:

Anyway, here are my ten reasons why I think Scotland and England are much better together than apart.

[...]

3. Deep Fried Mars Bars.

As every Englishman knows, these are the staple diet of inner city Scotland*, usually served with a side order of deep fried pizza, washed down with Irn Bru, and followed with a heroin chaser, which makes them vomit it all up again, as seen in Irvine Welsh’s hard-hitting documentary Trainspotting. (*Although we of course are aware that outside the cities, you subsist on haggis and whisky)

Some Scots like to claim that this a grotesque caricature which is typical of the contempt in which they are held by the snide, ignorant, condescending English. But then, the feeling’s mutual, isn’t it? In any international sporting event, the Scots will always support whichever foreign team is playing England.

And isn’t that exactly what’s so wonderful about our relationship? All the best marriages are based on partial loathing: look at Anthony & Cleo; Taylor and Burton; Petruchio and Katherina. It’s the spark that keeps it all alive.

4. The Pound.

As Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has made perfectly clear, an independent Scotland is not going to keep the pound. Why not? Well look at what Greece did when — with a little book-balancing sleight of hand from its friends at Goldman Sachs — it snuck into membership of the Euro.

So if you want a future where you travel abroad, my Scottish friends, or indeed where you want to be able to be able to import anything at all, it’s very much in your interests to maintain the Union. Otherwise you’ll have to find a currency more in keeping with your new global status: the Albanian Lek, perhaps, or the West African CFA franc, as used by your economic soul-mate Burkina Faso.

5. The economy.

Let’s be blunt: apart from the whisky industry, and what’s left of the tourist industry that hasn’t been wiped out by Alex Salmond’s wind-farm building programme, Scotland doesn’t really have one. It is a welfare-dependent basket case, with near Soviet levels of government spending and a workforce who’d mostly be out of jobs if they weren’t sucking on the teat of state employment.

For various historical and emotional reasons, the English taxpayers who bankroll most of this welfarism — e.g. through the iniquitous Barnett Formula, whereby around £1000 more per annum is spent by the government on Scottish citizens than English ones — have decided generally to be cool about this.

But when we hear about Scotland’s plans to go it alone economically, we’re about as convinced as the parents of stroppy teenage kids are when they threaten to leave home right this minute. The difference is that when in ten minutes’ time we get the phone call “D-a-a-d. Will you come and pick me up? I’ve run out of pizza money” we’re not going to come running.

February 15, 2014

QotD: Cheese with range and striking power

Filed under: Humour, Quotations, Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:17

I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool. Splendid cheeses they were, ripe and mellow, and with a two hundred horse-power scent about them that might have been warranted to carry three miles, and knock a man over at two hundred yards. I was in Liverpool at the time, and my friend said that if I didn’t mind he would get me to take them back with me to London, as he should not be coming up for a day or two himself, and he did not think the cheeses ought to be kept much longer.

“Oh, with pleasure, dear boy,” I replied, “with pleasure.”

I called for the cheeses, and took them away in a cab. It was a ramshackle affair, dragged along by a knock-kneed, broken-winded somnambulist, which his owner, in a moment of enthusiasm, during conversation, referred to as a horse. I put the cheeses on the top, and we started off at a shamble that would have done credit to the swiftest steam-roller ever built, and all went merry as a funeral bell, until we turned the corner. There, the wind carried a whiff from the cheeses full on to our steed. It woke him up, and, with a snort of terror, he dashed off at three miles an hour. The wind still blew in his direction, and before we reached the end of the street he was laying himself out at the rate of nearly four miles an hour, leaving the cripples and stout old ladies simply nowhere.

It took two porters as well as the driver to hold him in at the station; and I do not think they would have done it, even then, had not one of the men had the presence of mind to put a handkerchief over his nose, and to light a bit of brown paper.

[...]

From Crewe I had the compartment to myself, though the train was crowded. As we drew up at the different stations, the people, seeing my empty carriage, would rush for it. “Here y’ are, Maria; come along, plenty of room.” “All right, Tom; we’ll get in here,” they would shout. And they would run along, carrying heavy bags, and fight round the door to get in first. And one would open the door and mount the steps, and stagger back into the arms of the man behind him; and they would all come and have a sniff, and then drop off and squeeze into other carriages, or pay the difference and go first.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.

January 13, 2014

The GMO debate – “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:22

Nathanael Johnson says he has taken more abuse over his articles on genetically modified organisms than anything else in his writing career. And he says he learned something from his research: that it actually doesn’t matter at all.

It’s a little awkward to admit this, after devoting so much time to this project, but I think Beth was right. The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.

I know that to those embroiled in the controversy this will seem preposterous. Let me try to explain.

Let’s start off with a thought experiment: Imagine two alternate futures, one in which genetically modified food has been utterly banned, and another in which all resistance to genetic engineering has ceased. In other words, imagine what would happen if either side “won” the debate.

In the GMO-free future, farming still looks pretty much the same. Without insect-resistant crops, farmers spray more broad-spectrum insecticides, which do some collateral damage to surrounding food webs. Without herbicide-resistant crops, farmers spray less glyphosate, which slows the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds and perhaps leads to healthier soil biota. Farmers also till their fields more often, which kills soil biota, and releases a lot more greenhouse gases. The banning of GMOs hasn’t led to a transformation of agriculture because GM seed was never a linchpin supporting the conventional food system: Farmers could always do fine without it. Eaters no longer worry about the small potential threat of GMO health hazards, but they are subject to new risks: GMOs were neither the first, nor have they been the last, agricultural innovation, and each of these technologies comes with its own potential hazards. Plant scientists will have increased their use of mutagenesis and epigenetic manipulation, perhaps. We no longer have biotech patents, but we still have traditional seed-breeding patents. Life goes on.

In the other alternate future, where the pro-GMO side wins, we see less insecticide, more herbicide, and less tillage. In this world, with regulations lifted, a surge of small business and garage-biotechnologists got to work on creative solutions for the problems of agriculture. Perhaps these tinkerers would come up with some fresh ideas to usher out the era of petroleum-dependent food. But the odds are low, I think, that any of their inventions would prove transformative. Genetic engineering is just one tool in the tinkerer’s belt. Newer tools are already available, and scientists continue to make breakthroughs with traditional breeding. So in this future, a few more genetically engineered plants and animals get their chance to compete. Some make the world a little better, while others cause unexpected problems. But the science has moved beyond basic genetic engineering, and most of the risks and benefits of progress are coming from other technologies. Life goes on.

The point is that even if you win, the payoff is relatively small in the broad scheme of things. Really, why do so many people care?

December 21, 2013

Overzealous regulators create nationwide Sriracha shortage

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:56

Baylen Linnekin on the latest attempt to be safer-than-safe in food regulation:

Sriracha rooster sauceLast week California health regulators ordered the makers of Sriracha hot sauce to suspend operations for 30 days. The 30-day hold comes despite the fact the product has been on the market for more than three decades and that “no recall has been ordered and no pathogenic bacteria have been found[.]”

So what’s the issue?

The problem, reports the Pasadena Star News, is that Sriracha is a raw food.

“Because Sriracha is not cooked, only mashed and blended, Huy Fong needs to make sure its bottles won’t harbor dangerous bacteria,” writes the Star News.

Aren’t three decades of sales sufficient proof of that fact?

“The regulations outlining this process have been in existence for years,” writes California health department official Anita Gore, in a statement she sent to L.A. Weekly, “but the modified production requirements were established for the firm this year.”

In other words, the state changed the rules of the game.

December 10, 2013

Equal rights does not mean “having the power to compel others against their rights”

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:11

In the latest Libertarian Enterprise, L. Neil Smith talks about a case in Colorado where a judge has decided that the rights of a gay couple are superior to the rights of a baker who refused to create a wedding cake for them:

They picked the wrong baker — although a local radio talk show host contends that they deliberately shopped around for a baker who would react this way — a Christian who believes that homosexuality is immoral. He told them he would be happy to sell them any other bakery goods. But he refused to create a wedding cake with two guys on the top.

Keep a mental eye on that word “create”; we’ll get back to it.

To make a short story shorter, the matter (it can’t properly be called a “dispute”, since nobody has a right to dispute another person’s private convictions before the law — that’s what America is supposed to be about) was taken before this streetcorner judge, who ruled that the baker would damned well make the cake, as specificed, or suffer fines and jail. Henceforward, the bakery would be monitored to make sure that it humbly and abjectly serves the newly-privileged class.

Now here’s where the wires begin to get crossed. This publication, and its publisher, have never been particularly fond of Christianity. Without going too deeply into it, I think it has a stultifying effect on the human mind, and has been the cause of millions of unnecessary and cruel deaths over twenty centuries. I know that other folks hold otherwise, but I have never found it to be a true friend of individual liberty.

On the other hand, The Libertarian Enterprise and I have always championed gay marriage, or at least legal equality where marriage is concerned. Taking it to the most basic level, the taxes of gay people pay for the courthouse as surely as the taxes of those who are not gay.

On the third hand (as a science fiction writer, I can do that), if we live in any kind of decent culture at all — something that seems in greater doubt with every passing day — individuals have a right to their opinions, no matter how stupid they may be, to express them freely, and act on them as long as it doesn’t physically harm anybody else.

Equally, no right exists, on the part of any individual or of the government, to compel anyone to have a different opinion (although the technical means to do that are right around the corner — science fiction writer, remember?), or to express it or act on it against his will,

And here’s where that word “create” comes in.

November 27, 2013

OMG! There are scary-sounding chemicals in your Thanksgiving Dinner!

Filed under: Environment, Health, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:23

Our American friends are about to celebrate their (weirdly late) Thanksgiving this week, so junk science food scares are also making another annual appearance. Angela Logomasini explains why you can safely ignore most of the advice you may receive about food safety this Thanksgiving:

Toxic chemicals lurk in the “typical” Thanksgiving meal, warns a green activist website. Eat organic, avoid canned food, and you might be okay, according to their advice. Fortunately, there’s no need to buy this line. In fact, the trace levels of man-made chemicals found in these foods warrant no concern and are no different from trace chemicals that appear in food naturally.

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) illustrates this reality best with their Holiday Dinner Menu, which outlines all the “toxic” chemicals found naturally in food. The point is, at such low levels, both the man-made and naturally occurring chemicals pose little risk. This year the ACSH puts the issue in perspective explaining:

    Toxicologists have confirmed that food naturally contains a myriad of chemicals traditionally thought of as “poisons.” Potatoes contain solanine, arsenic, and chaconine. Lima beans contain hydrogen cyanide, a classic suicide substance. Carrots contain carototoxin, a nerve poison. And nutmeg, black pepper, and carrots all contain the hallucinogenic compound myristicin. Moreover, all chemicals, whether natural or synthetic, are potential toxicants at high doses but are perfectly safe when consumed in low doses.”

Typically, these kinds of food safety scares depend on using unfamiliar scientific names of various chemicals, knowing that most peoples’ memories of high school science have long since faded away. Anything “safe” has an ordinary name, while anything “toxic” goes by a tongue-twisting science-y name that conceals far more than it reveals to non-scientists. Remember how many times the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) have been used to whip up support for petitions to ban the stuff (see the Material Safety Data Sheet (pdf) for it). Dihydrogen monoxide is a science-y way of describing a molecule with two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom … it’s another name for water, but it sounds so much more ominous that way, doesn’t it?

November 25, 2013

Amtrak even manages to lose money on food services

Filed under: Economics, Railways, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:08

As I’ve said several times before, long distance passenger rail service is an economic dead-end, and the latest story on Amtrak’s financial situation just reinforces that:

As any popcorn-stand profiteer posing as a movie house operator can attest, captive eaters create golden opportunities to supersize profits. But on the Southwest Chief — and Amtrak trains in general — food and beverages are a financial drain. Last week, the inspector general revealed at a congressional hearing that Amtrak lost $609 million on its meal services over the past six years, citing all kinds of eye-popping details about giveaways to staff, spoiled food, and service workers earning about four times the standard industry wage. Defenders of Amtrak argue that the report was just a headline-grabbing jab that distracts from the larger story of the organization’s resurgence.

But the food service fiasco is just the tip of the iceberg. Amtrak has a chaotic management culture, routinely misappropriates funding, and is hamstrung by insane union work rules, as has been described in great detail by its former president, David Gunn.

Amtrak’s been running red ink since its founding in 1971, and tales of its financial imprudence are nothing new. But the 2008 law that authorizes it to operate is set to expire, so Congress is once again mulling what to do with this rolling money-gusher. The Brookings Institution has come out with a major study claiming that in the last five years Amtrak has finally gotten on the right track. The study, titled A New Alignment: Strengthening America’s Commitment to Passenger Rail, characterizes the 2008 legislation as a success that should be tweaked and renewed.

By glossing over facts, the Brookings report obscures the real story. In the last five years, Amtrak has grown increasingly reliant on public subsidies at all levels of government. Between 2007 and 2011, it received a record $8.4 billion in federal funding — a 50 percent increase over the prior five-year period. States have now become major contributors to Amtrak’s bottom line, kicking in an additional $842 million over the same timeframe. Amtrak’s ridership gains in the past few years are a nearly undetectable blip when placed in the context of the larger U.S. transportation network.

I’d often heard that the only profitable portion of the Amtrak network was the Northeast Corridor, but even that heavily used section is only profitable if you play accounting games:

So what about the Northeast Corridor (NEC), which is the busiest section of rail in the U.S.? Contrary to Brookings’ assertions, the NEC is also a giant money pit. The study claims the NEC generated a $205.4 million operating balance in 2011, but that figure was arrived at using Amtrak’s own selective bean counting methods. In violation of generally accepted accounting practices, routine maintenance expenses are counted as capital expenditures, according to O’Toole, while real capital expenditures never appear on Amtrak’s books because the federal government picks up the tab. According to calculations arrived at by Andrew Selden, an attorney and vice present of the United Rail Passenger Alliance, the federal government has poured roughly $40 billion into capital projects for the NEC since 1975. Now Amtrak says it needs another $151 billion to bring high-speed rail to the corridor by 2040.

November 21, 2013

“The food police have a gargantuan appetite for ordering other people around”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:32

In Reason, A. Barton Hinkle explains why the Food and Drug Administration’s latest regulatory move may cost more than a billion dollars, require millions of hours of work … and provide no measurable benefits whatsoever:

In comments shortly after the menu labeling rules were proposed, the Center for Science in the Public Interest — they are the folks forever hectoring the public about the dangers of Chinese food, Italian food, movie theater popcorn, etc. — insisted that “if a restaurant has both an inside and drive-thru menu board, both must list calories.” And: “The calories should be at least as large and prominent as the name or price of the item.” And: “Calories should be posted for each size beverage available.” And: “The color, font size, font type, contrasting background, and other characteristics should all be comparable to the name and price of the item.”

What’s more: “Deli items or prepared foods that are dished up into standard containers should have signs posted next to each item with calorie counts for each container size available. For example, potato salad that is typically dished up into half-pint, pint and quart containers should list calories for one half-pint of potato salad, one pint of potato salad and a quart of potato salad.”

Rules such as these, the CSPI says, should apply not just to restaurants and supermarket delis but also to “salad bars, buffet lines, cafeteria lines, and self-serve, fountain soft drinks.” Moreover, “Calories must be posted for each pizza topping, sandwich component, omelet selection, sundae topping, or salad ingredient or dressing.”

The object of such Byzantine busybody-ness is plain enough: to “nudge” (former Obama regulatory czar Cass Sunstein’s favorite word) people to ingest fewer calories.

Just one small problem: It doesn’t work.

“Restaurant menu labels don’t work, study shows,” reported Today back in July: “No matter how much calorie information is on the menu list, people still choose the food they like, not what’s supposed to be healthier, researchers from Carnegie Mellon reported Thursday. … ‘Putting calorie labels on menus really has little or no effect on people’s ordering behavior at all,’ says Julie Downs, lead author of the new study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.”

November 1, 2013

Wine with food – the natural pairing

Filed under: Wine — Tags: — Nicholas Russon @ 07:28

In the Wall Street Journal, Will Lyons discusses the correct way to drink wine … with food, that is:

HOW SHOULD YOU ENJOY a bottle of wine? The short answer is any way you like. As long as you show it a little respect and serve it at a reasonable temperature, you will be hard pushed not to enjoy its myriad flavors and aromas. I have always found that wine is much more portable and robust than you think. Over the years, some of my favorite bottles have been enjoyed not in the presence of white tablecloths and crystal decanters but on picnics in fields, over a simple lunch of fried sardines or with a salad and a plate of cold meats.

[...]

“If you want to get pleasure out of both the wine and the food, you don’t want one to overpower the other,” he says. “Think of the wine as a seasoning, almost, for the food. If you take oysters, for example, a lovely, lemony, crisp white wine is similar to that little squeeze of lemon juice or drop of vinegar you put on the oysters.”

Balance and harmony are the two watchwords in wine appreciation. Sitting down with family and friends, around the table, is one of the human race’s ancient rituals. Pouring wine with the meal is, as the philosopher Roger Scruton points out, a ritual that allows us to achieve harmony rather than slip into the temptations of excess. In “I Drink Therefore I Am,” he notes: “Wine properly served slows everything down, establishing a rhythm of gentle sips rather than gluttonous swiggings.”

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