Mindless Eating

Mindless Eating
Mindless Eating

Why We Eat More Than We Think
by Brian Wansink, Ph.D.

Mindless eating is like Freakonomics for foodies.  Wansink details a variety of studies he’s conducted to explore how and why we eat what we do, especially with regard to our inability to judge how much we’re eating or how much we will eat.  Here’s the Cliffs Notes version of the book:

  1. The Mindless Margin.  Wansink discusses how our bodies and our minds are generally fuzzy about how much food we eat or want to eat.  In other words, there’s a long distance between “not hungry” and “full.”  Strategy: Dish up 20% less than you normally would at each meal.  You won’t notice the difference in hunger and you will get enough to eat.
  2. The Forgotten Food.  We’re bad at remembering how much we’ve eaten.  He did a study of chicken-wing eating that found eaters at tables where the bones had not been cleared ate fewer wings than those who couldn’t see how much they’d scarfed.  Strategy: see what you will eat (dish up portions, don’t eat from the bag) and what you have eaten (keep empties or bones on the table).
  3. Surveying the Tablescape.  Variety and size often drive our eating.  Big plates and bowls make us want to eat more.  The wider the variety, the more we eat.  One study found that people eating from bowls of M&Ms with 10 colors ate more than people eating from bowls with only 7.  Strategy: smaller packages and plates, smaller variety on the table.
  4. Hidden Persuaders.  The lesson here is that if we see it, we’re more likely to eat it.  Strategy: Serving dishes in the kitchen, not on the table; put snack foods in inconvenient spots in the kitchen.
  5. Eating Scripts.  We eat in situations, changing our habits to suit.  Eating with people who eat a lot makes us eat more.  Strategy: be aware of the situations in which you overeat and “rescript” those scenarios.
  6. The Name Game.  This was my favorite chapter.  Wansink details how the names and atmosphere around us strongly affect our experience of food.  A couple examples studies: one study gave half the people at a restaurant a free glass of Two Buck Chuck that had been re-labeled as a new California wine.  They liked it and enjoyed their meal.  The other half of the people got a free glass of the same wine but it had been re-labeled as a new North Dakota wine.  Everything else about the situation was identical (including the design of the label).  These people rated the wine as poor and actually spent less time eating at the restaurant.  Another study found that adding adjectives to food names (such as “red beans with rice” becoming “Traditional Cajun red beans with rice”) makes them not only much more interesting to the eater, they actually experience the food as tasting better.  Strategy: engineering your dinner parties to have success can involve adding fancy names to the food you’re serving.
  7. Comfort Foods.  This chapter is mostly about debunking myths (namely that comfort foods are set and can’t be changed–they can, and that comfort foods comfort–they don’t, people usually eat them more when they’re in a good mood).  Strategy: don’t deprive yourself.  Diets based on completely cutting out some food often result in disastrous overeating when people slip.  Rewire comfort foods by eating specific things in specific situations.
  8. Nutritional Gatekeepers.  The person who buys and prepares the food for the household controls something like 70% of the food habits for the household.  This chapter was most helpful in thinking about how to condition good eating habits into kids.  Strategy: be a good marketer for food and control portion size.
  9. Fast Food Fever.  Wansink argues that fast food companies don’t care whether we eat healthy or not.  They just want us to spend money.  If we all started ordering the salads, they would have more salads.  But he also suggests that they could do more to make the food healthy without sacrificing the taste.  The biggest thing to do, he says, would be not to say anything.  McD’s could start using low-fat sauce on the Big Mac, but they shouldn’t announce that they’re doing it.  He reveals a study that shows “healthy” fast foods often have a health halo that misleads people about how much they’re eating.  At Subway, for example, people are more likely to underestimate how healthily they have eaten than at McDs; the impression that the food is healthy means that people eat more than they think.  Strategy: be wary of the health halo and share food portions.

All in all, Mindless Eating gets a bit long but it’s chock full of small things you can use to “mindlessly” reengineer your eating habits in a way that makes you more healthy without feeling like you’re dieting.  My favorite moment from the book is below.  I have begun using it already and it helps me (I’m a drive-by snacker):

Over coffee, a new friend commented that he’d lost 30 pounds within the past year.  When I asked him how, he explained that he didn’t stop eating potato chips, pizza, or ice cream.  He ate anything he wanted, but if he had a craving when he wasn’t hungry, he’d say–out loud–“I’m not hungry but I’m going to eat this anyway.”

Having to make that declaration–out loud–would often be enough to prevent him from mindlessly indulging.  Other times, he would take a nibble but be much more mindful of what he was doing.

Oh, one more fun fact: if you drink the eight 8oz glasses of water each day that people recommend, and you use ice water to do so, you will burn 70 calories a day eating up that water.

Eureka, season 2


In looking back over the blog, I realize that I haven’t written about Eureka at all. I like this SciFi channel show, which Jenny and I have been watching intermittently over the last couple years. We’re now caught up with the DVDs, as the show is in its mid-season hiatus for season three. Eureka tells the story of a special city, established by the government, where the world’s best and brightest scientists gather to wreak havoc. U.S. Marshall John Carter finds himself employed as the sheriff of this crazy town. Hilarity ensues.

  • The show is facing the problem that most formula (verses sustained-plot) shows face: redundancy. Here’s the plot outline for at least 2/3 of the episodes of the series: weird phenomenon starts happening, no one knows why. Sheriff starts to investigate by asking scientists who work for Global Dynamic (GD) who’s doing whatever they’re doing. Phenonmenon suddenly becomes deadly. They find the problem but aren’t sure how to fix it. Sheriff Carter comes up with a layman’s idea that inspires a scientist to translate the idea into amazing pseudo-science solution. Everyone is happy.
  • The other 1/3 of the episodes are just like these, except that they progress the overarching plot a bit as well. There’s a bit more drama in such events, but not so much that you couldn’t follow any given episode easily. The “previously on” segments at the beginning of the show are very short.
  • Eureka has succeeded this far because it’s got lots of amusing characters — my favorite is Taggart, the eccentric animal hunting expert, modeled (I think) after the game warden from Jurassic Park.
  • The city reminds me a bit of Alan Moore’s Top Ten, where everything is more advanced and chaos happens because of it. In Top Ten, nearly everyone has superpowers. The hot dog vendors use heat vision to warm their wieners. Similarly, in Eureka, everyone is a genius. Sheriff Carter’s love interest runs the dry cleaning store in Eureka but also happens to be a genius chemical engineer. Carter and his deputy are the only two who are not geniuses, and she’s a special forces operative who took the job of deputy.
  • Eureka also reminds us about the dangers of technology. There are many times (such as the second-to-last ep in season 2) where the city’s outrageously advanced technology malfunctions and causes problems instead of solving them.
  • I like Colin Ferguson.  He reminds me of Mark Valley, whom I also like.  I often misremember Valley’s last name as Varney or Varley.  I don’t know why.
  • The last episode of the season had two delightful references. 1) Clue:

    Sheriff Carter: There’s just one thing I don’t understand…
    Nathan Stark: Just one thing?

    2) The Princess Bride:

    Taggart (speaking about the malevolent computer trying to kill them): It forgot just one thing.
    No-name secondary character: What’s that?
    Taggart: Never go up against a Taggart when death is on the line.

All in all, Eureka is pretty good.  I look forward to seeing if the more sustained plot sequences of the last few episodes of season 2 will inspire continued and expanded stuff in season 3.

2009-02-26 Tweets

  • Working at home is difficult today. Damn you, Rock Band. Your siren song is calling. #

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Is it really that strange?

My zombie course got a mention in the “15 Strangest Courses” in America article at OnlineColleges.net  Here’s what they say:

Here’s one I’d have to consider signing up for, the history of zombies in popular media. Lest you think it’s just about zombie movies, it should be emphasized that the course also covers the history of voodoo in Hait, [sic] and video games like Resident Evil as well as zombies in cinema.

Oddly, it seems like the prestige of this mention lies more in being a front-runner (this is the first post on the blog) than in being mentioned.

2009-02-25 Tweets

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Music for a Wednesday

Talco, Tutti Assolti
Talco, Tutti Assolti

Talco, Tutti Assolti
Talco has a lively sound well within the bounds of the usual ska fare.  The beginning of each song has a good, horn-driven hook that announces “this is a ska song,” and often continues to be enjoyable throughout.  The punk elements of the album are strong without succumbing to screeching or amateurism.  I also like the lively, speedy lyrics.  The only downside to the album is that many of the songs sound very similar.  In that regard, Rachel and La Crociata del Dittatore Bianco are great for their tonal differences.

The album seems to be pretty bold or political, from the few sets of lyrics I’ve translated and from the title, which translates as All Acquitted.  Because of the jaunty beats and the language barrier (Talco is an Italian band) , I encounter the Engels Leren problem.  For instance, one of my favorite songs, Corri, has a delightful rhythm, but its lyrics are actually pretty grim.  Here’s the Babelfish translation of some of the Italian lyrics:

Murderous fire in the sky dell’ East Roads smeared of blood and dolor Face left of the imperialist monster Legalizzare un’ orrenda invasion A threat come from far away Cosparge of terror and died un’ other L’ society; ominous wave of the western cancer With the tracked ones it invades the cities Earth promised from books and tradition A large farce for this truth The blind fury of the superstizione It is destroying un’ other civilization Roads of Gaza between victims and ruins.

Overall, a delightful album, well worth listening to.

where is
where is

wilson noble, where is

Noble’s album includes a nice selection of folk songs infused with a number of different perspectives (the ID3 tags include pop-folk, reggae, ambient, instrumental, country, meditative, new age, and vocal).  The pseudo Caribbean feel of “So let’s dance” works very well, as do the more meditative “middle of the road” and “all around.”  My least favorite song is “Victor,” which has a driving guitar track and a harsh vocal track–by intention, I think.  Noble’s approach feels much like it lies somewhere between folk artists like Greg Brown and Bill Morrissey on one hand and guitar artists like Leo Kottke on the other.

It isn’t bad, it’s just not to my taste.  I suspect no listener will avoid losing at least one or two tracks to the question of taste, as the range exceeds what one might expect from an album. This range of approaches and skillfully created tracks works well, but could use a bit more coherence as an album.  This feels less like an album than like a collection of songs unified only by the fact that a single artist created them.

Penn on Parenting

I’ve been watching Penn Gilette’s youtube channel lately, and while I think some of the stuff he says is outrageously stupid, some of it is lovely and smart.  His commentary on Freakonomics and athiesm here is pretty interesting, and reminds me why I watch his channel.


Written in Blood

Written in Blood
Written in Blood

After having seen The Staircase, the gripping documentary television series about the Michael Peterson murder, I had a few questions–mostly along the lines of “how could they have possibly found this man guilty?”  Then, I did some research online and learned that The Staircase is generally understood as a very biased  perspective of the trial, possibly because the filmmakers were only given access to the defense, but also because they slanted the coverage that way.

So I decided to seek out a more balanced account of the trial.  I got Written in Blood by Dianne Fanning.  Fanning’s book was associated with Capote’s In Cold Blood, a gripping novelization of the trial, because they were nominated for the same award.  Alas, while Capote sought a sense of the entire event, including trying to understand the actions and motives of the killers, Fanning wrote a less even-handed work.  If The Staircase slanted toward the defense and suffered from a dearth of input from the prosecution and its sympathizers, Written in Blood slanted the other direction, offering only the prosecution’s perspective.  A few thoughts:

  • My first thought about the book was to feel pretty duped by The Staircase.  Fanning describes a number of incontrovertible facts that should have been included in The Staircase.  Bloody footprints that had been cleaned up were discovered with luminol after the fact.  Kathleen’s blood was so dry the medical personnel didn’t get any on their uniforms.  Todd Peterson kept violating police instructions to remain silent and off the phone.  Somebody went online that first night and deleted a bunch of stuff from Peterson’s computer.  The Staircase told us that the police found stuff on the computer, but they left out the fact that it had been deleted after Kathleen’s death.  These deceptions by omission make the whole documentary suspect.
  • At the same time, Fanning’s writing seethes with hatred for Peterson and his family.  Instead of presenting the trial and facts on their own merits, she infuses her writing with caustic remarks about the defense team’s facial expressions and looks during the trial.  I wonder if she got an extra dollar each time she used the word smirk.
  • She also slants events in a very biased way.  In particular, there are moments of the trial, featured in The Staircase, that Fanning paints in the most positive light possible.  For instance, at one point prosecuting attorney Hardin tries to make hay with an expert witness who had written “Keep up the good work” in the inscription he’d written when giving his book to a prosecution expert.  The expert protested that courtesy dictated he say something nice in the inscription, and that it wasn’t an endorsement of the officer as a forensic expert.  Fanning ignores this reasonable explanation to suggest that Hardin had won the exchange.  The visual record in The Staircase makes it quite clear that he did not.
  • The most blatant example of Fanning’s slanted writing came when the D.A. called forth an expert witness who used false credentials.  Rudolf produced a letter from the physics department chair of Temple University because this guy kept passing himself off as being affiliated with the university, when in fact he was not affiliated in any way.  Fanning writes:

    Then [Judge] Hudson struck the testimony of Dr. Saami Shaibani, telling the jury that the witness had perjured himself in relating his credentials to the court.  With that, the court day ended.  Many jurors were frustrated, and uncomfortable as well.  The public flaying of the witness by Rudolf was a distasteful sight to see.  They found the testimony of Dr. Shaibani to be full of common sense and practical information that they could readily understand.  They had wanted to consider it in their deliberations.  Now they could not.

    Investigator Art Holland bore the onerous chore of taking Dr. Shaibani to the airport.  Holland was not convinced that Shaibani had perjured himself.  None of it made sense.  What he did see with clarity was a man destroyed, a career ruined.  He wondered if this destruction was justified or Dr. Shaibani was just another victim of Michael Peterson. (353)

    What?  Rather than express some outrage or indignation or surprise that the prosecution had produced an expert witness–a person whose entire reason for being in court comes from their credentials–who had no credentials, she suggests that Rudolf was wrong to attack the man.  She also does not follow up on the story or fact with the chair of the department.

  • I thought Fanning did raise a good point in mentioning the fact that Rudolf did not introduce any testimony about where the alternate blowpoke was found.  As a juror, I would have had to wonder about where that came from.
  • To be fair, Fanning did include a huge amount of information — far more than The Staircase did.  The volume of facts included in the early sections of the book are by far the most useful.  As the book goes on and Fanning’s own opinion slants the presentation of events more and more, it becomes less satisfying.

So in the end, I’m still pretty unsatisfied.  I tend to think that Peterson did kill Kathleen, but probably in a fit of rage after a fight.  I also think the prosecution won by playing on the conservative attitudes of the jury, rather than the facts of the murder.  Despite Fanning’s disdain for the attacks on the crime scene preservation, the lack of skull fractures on Kathleen, and the revelation of the blow poke, Rudolf did raise many points that cast serious doubts on the prosecution’s case.    I wish the book had been more even handed, with less editorializing in descriptions of peoples’ actions.

See also: Don’t Trust Petersons

2009-02-23 Tweets

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The Tin Roof Blowdown

The Tin Roof Blowdown
The Tin Roof Blowdown

by James Lee Burke; narrated by Will Patton

I hadn’t read any Burke before — in fact I stayed away because they advertise his books on the subway and I had an elitist aversion to novels my fellow commuters might be interested in.  But since I’m travelling to New Orleans for PCA this year, I thought it would be a good way to get into the spirit.

Set during and after Katrina, Tin Roof Blowdown describes a number of characters involved in a looting and shooting incident and its aftermath.  The wave caused by the crimes and the criminals radiate out to Dave Robicheaux and his family.  The book grips and moves along nicely, with good pacing and enough turns to keep you thinking without feeling forced.  I think I’ll go back to the beginning and see what Burke’s early writing was like.  A few more thoughts:

  • The descriptions of Katrina are horrifying, and make me want (despite my ostrich-like instinct to ignore) to investigate the stories about Katrina that have surfaced since the storm landed.
  • Burke’s characterizations are bold and well-thought out, with nuance and empathy in nearly everyone.
  • He throws in lots of lovely imagery and description I hadn’t expected.  The moment when a character sips from a beer bottle and Burke describes the sun glinting through the brown glass still sticks with me.
  • The book takes pains to talk about how the insurance companies were screwing people out of any payment because flood damage is usually not covered.  It reminded me a lot of Simon Winchester’s account of the San Francisco fire, in which insurance companies (who covered fire damage but not earthquake damage) would refuse claims, saying that buildings were destroyed by earthquake and the wreckage had been damaged by fire.
  • The shifting point of view was strange.  One could say the book is mostly third-person omniscient, explaining what characters are thinking as they do them.  But then there are a number of chapters, those following Dave Robicheaux, written from the first person.  Such shiftiness has always felt like a bit of a cheat to me, though the fact that nearly all the characters get sections following them makes it feel more thought-out.
  • I’m not sure what to make of the book’s title.  While I understand the connection to the area, the storm, and so on, the events at the core of the book have little to nothing to do with the title.  It’s not a story about the storm, per se, but rather one that uses the storm as a backdrop.

Will Patton narrates with a pleasant, Louisiana accent, using good voices for most of the main characters.  The whiskey-smooth purr he uses for the predatory Ronald Bledsoe gives me the heebie jeebies.  Good work, Will.

The book also got me thinking a bit about my ethical position as a soon-to-be visitor to New Orleans.  One of my students today suggested that I make sure to drive through the 9th district, so I can see and attest to how little has been done for that community in the years since the hurricane.  But I feel like that by itself isn’t appropriate or sufficient.  And given that I’m in town for an academic conference, I don’t have space for volunteering or other more progressive activities.  At present, I’m just thinking I should make sure to spend my money at local eateries and local shops to help with the economy.

Oscar goes to Broadway

Brian writes an excellent, as usual, analysis of the Oscars.  Here are a couple choice moments:

“I don’t know what it feels like at home,” Danny Boyle gushed onstage as he picked up his directing Oscar last night, “but here in the theater [this show] looks wonderful.”

Well, Danny, I was watching at home, so I can tell you– on TV, it looked awful….

All this came to a head during the “In Memoriam” section, which came at a very late 11:30 or so. In theory, the idea of the lovely Queen Latifah singing a song over clips of those movie folk who passed away last year is a good one. In practice, it really didn’t work. In part that’s because having a performer onstage means we’re distracted from the clips (which are, after all, the point of the segment), as the camera spent an inordinate amount of time on Latifah before sloooowly zooming into the flat screens that dotted the stage (which meant the divine Cyd Charisse got shafted: you could barely see her, and by the time the camera reached her screen, the clip had changed).

My thoughts exactly.  The camera was weaving in and out, giving the audience barely any time to glimpse the folks featured on the screen.  And I was watching on a fairly big TV.  Imagine watching that mess on 20 inches.  Brian’s suggestion that this was a show designed for people in the theater rings true.

But there were missteps in the digital presentation too.  I liked the idea of the previous winners introducing the nominees, but when they showed the closeups of the nominees, the screen had two insets, one with a closeup of the current nominee, the other showing clips of their movie.  But then surrounding those clips, subdued under a  blue filter, were loops of other movies, presumably meant to serve as background.  And right there, under the moving and often sad clips was Kung Fu Panda jumping for a dumpling.  Over and over.  I couldn’t stop watching it.

But I liked some stuff too:

  • I really liked the design of the background imagery for the clip sequences related to the nominees.  The closeup, nearly-abstract images of technological detritus (like lightbulbs or gears) seems right out of my college’s own design manual playbook, but the aesthetic was nice.
  • My favorite was Janusz Kaminski’s taunt of another DP.  Killer.
  • And the Steve Martin/Tina Fey combo worked very well for me.
  • Cuba Gooding Jr. calling out Robert Downey Jr. was hilarious, both for its “are you crazy?” and the self-depreciating “a brother’s got to work.”
  • And I couldn’t stop laughing at Jack Black’s comment that he makes so much money by betting his salary from Dreamworks animation films on Pixar at the Oscars.
  • I appreciated the few moments of political speakoutery, from both the Milk winners and from Bill Maher.  I took his “go see my movie” comments as pretense at greed, not greed itself.
  • Worst presenters: Daniel Craig looked almost as stiff as the dude from Twilight.
  • Best award speech:

Jenny and I chatted about the length as we retired for the evening.  For me, it didn’t feel so long since we started watching about an hour late and used TiVO to skip the commercials and the speeches we don’t care about (sorry, Sound Effects Editing).  But we had two thoughts about the length.  On one hand, they can’t just schedule it for 3.5 hours because then they would PLAN for 3.5 hours and it would run to 4 or more.  On the other, why the fsck can’t they plan the appropriate amount of time.  They have 80 years of acceptance speeches to look at, they must be able to get a good guesstimate of how long each will be.  Get with it, doofuses.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but I don’t think this is going to be the big “get the audience back’ triumph they thought it would be.

The Coroner’s Lunch

The Coroner's Lunch
The Coroner's Lunch

by Colin Cotterill

Dr. Siri Paiboun, an elderly communist revolutionary from Laos, finds the new regime of 1976 Laos doesn’t fit the high-minded ideals he’d hoped for.  Instead of retiring to a pleasant old shack, he’s wrangled into working as a coroner.  When two murders arrive for him to investigate within a day of one another, he’s pressed to work around the corrupt system and the bureaucratic regime to solve the mystery.

Siri’s wry sense of humor and detached wisdom (likely a product of his age) make him a delightful character.  The rich descriptions, environment, and supporting players makes the overall book pleasant to read.  Definitely worth checking out, particularly if you like mystery novels that make their environment an essential character in the story.

A few more thoughts:

  • The depth of the character development and environment make the mysteries Siri investigates almost superfluous.  We enjoy the story of these people.
  • The deviousness by which Siri gets around the obstacles in his way–party loyalists, lack of resources, lack of training, skullduggery–also adds to the delight of the novel.
  • There’s a strain of the supernatural in the book that the book never quite resolves one way or another.  The book neither confirms the supernatural elements nor disproves them.
  • While few Americans can speak to the experience of living in such a regime, we’ve all encountered plenty of puffed-up bureaucrats whose power encourages them to eschew courtesy for rudeness.  The secondary characters of the regime speak to the anti-bureaucrat in us all.
  • The characters in Siri’s life, such as the crazy homeless man who fondles himself by the riverside or the intrusive neighbor who peeks from behind her curtains each evening when Siri arrives home, make the book a living, breathing environment.

One of the more interesting elements of the book, for me, was the choice to put it in early Communist Laos, in 1976.  The author, a London-born, world-traveling resident of Thailand, has the background and hindsight to see Capitalism as the winner in the struggle between the two ideologies.  And the doctor has the French education of his youth that gives him a different perspective of the Communist corruptions.  So I was interested in what the book club thought of this choice.  Eventually, I asked what we thought the book was saying about Communism and its effect on people.  The general consensus was “the little guy gets screwed, no matter who’s in charge.”

But first, I asked, in usual literary critic fashion, “Why do you think the author chose this era and ideology as a setting for the book?”  Boy, did that misfire.  Among the answers: “Well, the book jacket says he spent time in a variety of countries before settling in Thailand;” “he loves the beauty of the country;” “he’s familiar with the area;” and so on.  I referred to the abstract “author” as a way to invoke intention and hidden meaning–my non-academic book club colleagues, quite reasonably, took the question to be literal: a seeking of the biographical reason, rather than the semiotic one.