Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"These People Need a Lot of Things, but They Don't Need a Coke"


I had some for the first time in about 5 years the other day. I was compelled to read this article by Michael Moss the day before at the suggestion of a friend.

The article is a report on findings related to the internal affairs and consumer research within the [processed] food industry. There's terrible information contained within, but I wouldn't call it appalling, because, in my opinion, there would have to be some sort of surprise regarding the contents. Like everything in this country the food industry is a business driven by profit motive, steered by market regulations, but otherwise, a machine whose main focus is on the acquisition of capital, i.e., money. (And thereby, greed.)

The preface is a history lesson outlining an unlikely 1999 meeting of the heads of all the biggest food corporations in the country. They were gathered with the intent of collaborating to put a stop to the growing epidemic of diabetes, obesity, hypertension and heart disease in America and her children. The article has limited information because there was no transcript of the meeting, but I'll let you read the article. Suffice it to say, amoral profit motive won against consumer health at that meeting.

§ 1. The first section of the article is a report on a mathematical sweet spot, relentlessly pursued in formulating foods called the "bliss point". It's the perfect intersection of the basic elements (like earth, air, fire and water) in a product that leaves a consumer incapable of being satisfied. I probably don't have to list them here, but, in addition to the active ingredients (the ones that give the food its fundamental flavor), there is an "optimum" fat, salt and sugar content in a given food that will result in a taste experience humans crave, but that will not be strong enough to create a sense of satiety–something you can eat it in quantity but will never leave you feeling like you've had enough. Cases in point: Prego, Dr. Pepper, Doritos, Coca-Cola,

§ 2. The second section contains an amusing and very matter-of-fact stream of consciousness explanation on how the Lunchable was created. Moss's article article goes into the step by step process of repackaging a company's products and optimizing them in terms of storability, profit margin, and psychological appeal. It covers the investigation into the psychological sense of agency the product affords to the children, the fundamental motives driving the parents who buy them, and the pinpointing of that information into a marketing campaign that brought a problem solving bull session into a 10 figure product in a few short years.

§ 3. The third section, "It's Called Vanishing Caloric Density" has to do with the intricate, detailed work that goes into crafting the perfect salty, crunchy food–enter my Cheeto. One of the tools Frito lay has is a $40,000 device  simulating a chewing mouth which measures the exact amount of pressure required to crunch a chip. "Vanishing caloric density" is when the food you eat crunches and then "melts" away, your brain doesn't think it had any calories. "Cheetos [are] one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure," Says Steven Witherly, a food scientist who wrote the guide, "Why Humans Like Junk Food."

§ 4. "These People Need a Lot of Things, but They Don't Need a Coke." This section outlines some of the tactics Coca-Cola used to sell product to impoverished nations. The key distinction in the article is that Coca-Cola discovered that it could make more money convincing people it calls "heavy users" to drink more rather than finding new markets. Sadly, those heavy users tend to be in poor, vulnerable and impoverished areas: post Katrina New Orleans and poor Brazilian slums (favelas, they're called) are cited.

So, what about my Cheeto? Well, I'm only guessing that the last time I ate a Cheeto was 5 years ago, because that was when I was working in a place so far from my house that I kept some junk food in my car to keep me from starving on the way home on my long commutes. (Just like they say, it's designed for a long shelf life, so it's perfect for this purpose.) Since then, I've had potato chips from time to time when my friend Ric has them, and the two or three times they're offered as a side when I order a sandwich, but that's exceedingly rare. The truth is, I don't remember the last time I had a Cheeto, and as far as junk food goes, I don't eat anything that's processed–sodas when they're offered free with a meal (and I only take it because I'm cheap) and I cook almost everything I eat. Now, now, there's the occasional fast food sandwich I'll have, but that's a once-in-a-while thing.

Anyhow, where do I stand with my first Cheeto in ages? I had to eat a couple before I could get into the groove of it, and it was amusing. Not satisfying, but fun, just like they said it should be. And I ate them as I wrote this blog entry. About 2 minutes after I got into the groove (about §2), my stomach told me "I'm not full, but I've had enough" and responded by making me feel terrible. I closed the bag.

Clearly, I'm not a person that's at high personal risk because of the junk food epidemic, but I know people who are. There's one friend in particular I have who eats almost exclusively processed foods. I think he's what the companies might call a "heavy user". In the article, they drew the parallel between processed foods and cigarettes in regard to the health consequences of heavy usage and the aggressive marketing to find and hook new users, and keeping with that parallel, he doesn't smoke, but there are metaphorical empty "cartons" stacked high in my friend's trash.

The good news in the article is that the addictive effects of these sorts of foods drop off after a few weeks of not using them. One loses one's acclimation to high salt, the sugar cravings go away, and you start to notice the fat you're consuming, so there's a chance to break the cycle. But if the companies have their way, you'll probably buy into the illusion of "convenience" they're selling and never "find the time" to make a healthy lunch–hell, until we can get some government regulation underway limiting what food companies can say about their products, you'll could try and still fail to choose healthy foods on your own. I'm not a nutritionist, and you probably aren't either, so when your box of Froot Loops has "Good Source of Fiber" written on it, or your Cheetos tout being "Made with Whole Grains", you could be reading the nutritional information on the back of the box and still get duped into making bad decisions.

As far as prepared foods go (Lunchables, Hot Pockets, etc.) the best advice is to remember this truism about picking a restaurant:

You can have food one of three ways:

  1. Fast
  2. Cheap
  3. Good or good for you

But you can only have two at a time.

As far as junk foods go (Coke, Cheetos, Doritos, etc.) I say this:

Close the bag.

What does Michael Moss Eat?
Another link to the article.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Angela Hewitt Review

Angela Hewitt
Chicago Symphony Center
February 10, 2013. 3:00pm

•French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817
•Toccata in D Major, BWV 912

•Pour le piano


•French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816

•Le tombeau de Couperin

•Debussy: Claire de Lune

This evening was the third time I saw Angela Hewitt. I saw her once at the 2002 Gilmore Keyboard festival where she played the Bach Goldberg Variations. I saw her play them again in 2009 in Chicago and tonight I saw her play Bach, Debussy and Ravel. I was pleased.

She revealed and reveled in the same enchanting things I enjoy in her recordings and in her live performance: delicate care of phrases, outstanding clarity, tight and well chosen coloring and definitive climaxes. It was there. It was all there. Several times during the performance I thought to myself, "Screw editing, this could be recorded live and sent straight to disk, she sounds so polished!". About the only thing that detracted from her performance was her extravagant keyboard gestures.

The short of my observation is that I think she has gradually become more extravagant over the last 10 years. Now, while I excoriated another pianist for outlandish gesturing in another review, I don't denigrate Ms. Hewitt because to me, at that time, on that day, from where I was sitting, her antics didn't bother me. Perhaps it's because the character of her movements seemed to fit with her concert manner; Her entire demeanor coming to and from the piano was one of tremendous confidence, daresay regality, and there was something about her composure which, even though I found it amusing, afforded me the ability to forgive her the distraction.

About the only chink in her armor came at about the middle of the last movement on the program, during the Ravel Toccata; the tautness waned, and there was a subtle but undeniable weakening of her her playing. The change was so sudden and slight that I can only imagine that something which had nothing to do with her playing was at work–like a carbohydrate crash, or something.  When she finished the piece and I looked at her face, I could see that I wasn't the only person who was unpleasantly surprised. Alas, to err is human, and I'm glad I went.

Perhaps one day I'll figure out how to approach and comfort a performer after an unsatisfying (to them) performance. Maybe I'll figure it out while I'm waiting for a fourth opportunity to hear her.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Thoughts on the Pope's Resignation

Hello Reader,

In case you haven't heard, on Monday, February 11 2013, Pope Benedictus XVI announced that he will be resigning his position effective at the end of the month. Basically he says he doesn't have the physical and mental faculties necessary to carry out his responsibilities anymore. More info can be found here:

In 2010, for the first time in history, the catholic church made a statement about the sex scandals running amok internally. For the first (and only) statement ever made to address the problem, I was left feeling very unsatisfied. Even as a non-catholic, I found the response (in the form of this letter) conspicuously lacking in terms of punishment of known offenders or definitive calls to action. In honor of the resignation of the pope, I am reposting my 2010 response to the pope's address of the sex scandal(s) plaguing the church. Please, feel free to comment.

Pierre Miller


This is my response to a friend asking what I meant when I said that the pope played politics in his letter to Irish Catholics abuse victims.

Here's how I see it: The pope had an opportunity to speak out to the world and promise stern punishment for those involved in the sex abuse problem running rampant all over the world. What did he do?

He targeted it to Irish Catholics. Dumb question: Why did he only address it to Ireland? This has been happening worldwide!

Secondly, what is worse (in my opinion): Was there any "This will not be tolerated, the guilty parties will be  rooted out and punished to the fullest extent of the laws in the countries where the crimes were committed?" No.

Mr. Ratzinger said everything in his power in that letter EXCEPT words to that effect. That is what I meant by "playing politics". I read that letter. I saw [the] pope walking onto the world stage carrying a palm full of empathy when every one of those families needed him to be carrying an iron fist. If I were catholic, I would definitely say that I don't feel safe with the way things are handled, and he DID NOT do anything that makes me feel any safer.

He took an opportunity to address to the entire world his position on a plague running rampant through his church, and what did he do? He protected his own. He gave a big fat "I'm sorry" to all the families that have suffered at the hands of "church leadership". To me, coming from potentially the most powerful man in the world, that's just plain not good enough.

The Pierre Miller Breakdown:

"For my part, considering the gravity of these offences, and the often inadequate response to them on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities in your country…"

(Which I could totally have stopped if I decided to put my foot in it and use my position as the [human] HEAD OF THE WHOLE CHURCH to put an end to this. Make no mistake, I knew about it before I came into office. The problem was raging on for nigh 40 years or so.)

"…I have decided to write this Pastoral Letter to express my closeness to you and to propose a path of healing, renewal and reparation."

Read: I still love you, but not enough to laicize the sick priests that work for me and send them to jail.

"Real progress has been made, yet much more remains to be done."

That is to say, I COULD make some [progress], but I'm not going to right now.

Section 6: "To the victims of abuse and their families"

This whole bit doesn't even need to be there. This is the section where everyone involved wanted to hear that these sick priests were to be thrown in jail and locked up forever. What does he do? He COMPARES US TO CHRIST, then preached a little sermon about Christ's experience. That is called passing the buck. He tried to pass our outrage into the shared experience of all Christians.

"Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope."

So, XYZ boy being raped or molested at the hands of a pervert, told to lie about it, and then ignored when he confesses is like REDEMPTIVE SUFFERING? Wow, I had no idea.

"I pray that, by drawing nearer to Christ and by participating in the life of his Church…"

Oh, you mean the church you mentioned above that I am now terrified to enter? Okay.

" – a Church purified by penance and renewed in pastoral charity – "

Uh-huh. Purified? Really?

"you will come to rediscover Christ’s infinite love for each one of you. I am confident that in this way you will be able to find reconciliation, deep inner healing and peace."

Allow me to translate:

Rather than taking punitive action against the evil men who work for me, I offer you this advice: If you look hard enough into the deep well of love that is Jesus our Christ, you will be filled with beautiful feelings of hope and peace that will override all your pain, fear, mistrust and outrage IF AND ONLY IF:

You can summon the courage to  get your ass back through the door after being terrified out of it by those overzealous pederasts we mentioned earlier.

I don't know about you, but that sure feels like a slap in the face.
Section 7. "To priests and religious who have abused children."

I looked really hard through those ten sentences for some mention of punishment or excommunication, or something, but all I got was a "You should be very sorry. Now, pray and go apologize please."

If I assaulted a 12 year old boy or girl, would I get that same sort of lenience and protection?

How might the parent of that 12 year old child feel, If all that happened to me was that I gave a (heartfelt) prayer and an "I'm sorry?" Relieved, huh? Thought so.