Kung Fu Killer


Kung Fu Killer. One of the small pleasures of international films is seeing the little differences in societal choices. For example, how the police uniforms and prisoner uniforms are different than what we see in the States. Nothing new here story-wise, but plenty of good fightin’, and the variety of weapons, styles, and freakish athleticism is always fun.

Mindless Eating (review)

Mindless Eating

Eating right is a long-term goal, eating better is something we can start today.

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think is really great. It’s not just prescriptive tactics (eat this, don’t eat that). It takes a bigger perspective, drawing on psychology and environmental influences, and suggests some guidelines with those pressures in mind. Smart, moderate changes over long periods of time.

There’s a double meaning in the title there: there’s “mindless eating” in the sense of the subconscious habits and tendencies we have around food (grazing, over-ordering, overeating, impulse purchases), and there’s “mindless eating” in the sense of re-writing those scripts and re-structuring our eating environments so that our choices about food are easier, healthier and more automatic in a smarter way. And since we make ~200 food decisions a day, relying on willpower alone is a recipe (ha!) for disaster.

Besides, deprivation diets don’t work. Our body and brain and environment tend to conspire against us. There are all kinds of signals and cues, both internal and external, that persuade us to keep eating. That brings us to what author Brian Wansink calls the “mindless margin”. We can only lose roughly half a pound per week without triggering our bodies’ metabolic alarms. It’s science. Lose weight more quickly, and your body panics a bit and starts compensating by being more stingy, storing more fats, etc. If 1 pound is ~3500 calories, we’re talking about cutting 1700 calories/week or 200-300 calories a day. Doable. At that amount, you basically won’t miss it. Slow and steady is the key.

With a modest goal in mind, the books explores a lot of the psychology and research behind eating, and comes up with some simple tactics. Many of these are great even if you’re not trying to lose weight, but just trying to maintain weight or get some better habits:

  • We tend to eat by volume, not by calories. So triple how much healthy stuff you put on your plate. Consider serving 20% less of the unhealthy stuff. You’ll tend to eat all that you serve and see in front of you, so get a head-start on setting a smart satisfaction point. Don’t cut the unhealthy entirely, immediately, because deprivation tends not to work and that’s no way to live, anyway.
  • See the food. Plate everything beforehand, and leave the serving dishes in the kitchen. Don’t clear away the refuse like chicken bones or corn cobs. You need a reminder of your progress through a meal.
  • Presentation counts. We eat more from bigger packages → Buy food in smaller packages. And dear God, don’t eat straight out of the box. We eat more from bigger dishes and silverware, and and drink more from shorter, wider glasses → Replace your dishes and silverware with smaller versions and get yourself some taller, narrower glasses.
  • We eat our expectations. We tend to think better-named products taste better. Those aren’t noodles, it’s Grandma’s Artisan Pesto alla Genovese. Would you rather have wine from Burgundy or Tallahassee? We eat what we think we eat. Remember this if you’re hosting a dinner, or if you’re the primary cook in your household. It’s salesmanship.
  • Beware variety. There’s a thing called sensory-specific satiety. You tend to get tired of one flavor or food item and stop eating. Introduce a new flavor(s), and it’s like getting a fresh new appetite. More variety, more consumption. That’s one reason why you overeat at buffets. Besides the fact that it’s really awesome sometimes.
  • Beware variety, part II. Since you’re gonna get bored with any flavor, remember you’ll get the most bang for your bite by ending dessert after a few forkfuls. Perhaps split one with the table.
  • Beware extra food. “Leftovers signal that you made too much—and probably ate too much—of the original meal.”
  • Beware visible food. We eat more of what we see (and think about) often. Apples and carrots go on the kitchen counter. Cookies go in the pantry. (Storytime!: I woke up one recent morning to find a cake on the kitchen counter. I walked past it about a dozen times that day, proud of my will to resist. Then I found myself in the kitchen at 1130 that night, staring at the platter, and sighed, knowing exactly what was about to happen. The next morning I draped a napkin over the cake stand. Haven’t touched it since.)
  • Beware eating scripts. The way you always do things. Do you eat cereal until you finish your magazine? Do you eat Peanut M&Ms until the TV show is over? Do you order a cheese plate basically every time you walk into Brick Store Pub because that’s what you do there? (Oh, me? Guilty on all counts…)
  • Beware distractions. TV. Books. Friends. These things pair well with just about every dish, and you’re pretty much guaranteed eat more and eat longer. Try pacing yourself with the slowest eater.
  • Welcome smart hassles. Leave food in the kitchen so you have to get up for a second serving. You’re much less likely to eat from the candy dish at the office if it’s tucked away in your desk drawer, or better yet, in the office kitchen. Maybe keep only one or two beers in the fridge, instead of the whole six-pack.

Great stuff. A couple other parts I appreciated…

  • I loved the observation that fast food places are designed for high turnover: bright lights, hard surfaces that do nothing to diminish noise, and high-contrast and high-arousal colors. I’d never put it all together.
  • One reason we tend to buy name brands, despite the added expense: “We like to remind ourselves that we’re not hopelessly cheap.”
  • When it comes to comfort foods, males tend to prefer meals like pizza, pasta, soup, etc. (Think: attention, being pampered, cared for). Females tend to prefer ice cream, cookies, etc. (Think: convenience, ease, time away from other people’s demands).
  • So simple, but kinda blew my mind: “Food companies don’t care if you eat the food, as long as you repeatedly buy it.”

In which I ponder restaurants

Chopped liver
Eating out can be incredibly frustrating. Take this dinner at Shaun’s. Good chopped liver. Followed by a well-prepared pork dish that I forget. Decent? Yes. Worth the price? Hell no. Like I did when considering finishing books vs. finishing movies, here’s some idle theorizing on why I often walk out of restaurants disappointed:

  • I choose crappy restaurants vis-à-vis my preferences (strong, spicy flavors in high volume in a casual atmosphere).
  • I have absurd expectations.
  • I am bad at ordering. (I wouldn’t discount this one.)
  • I have shitty taste buds.
  • I’m generally not given to extreme opinions, but experience most things as more or less average. Thus, I feel disappointment when my expectations are validated at an high price.
  • I don’t have the technical/aesthetic knowledge to appreciate the skill that goes into sourcing, preparing, and serving a fine dish.
  • Truly exceptional meals are just as rare for the cooks themselves are they are for us, cooking at home. I like this theory a lot, myself. Nobody can be transcendent on a daily basis. For many folks in the kitchen, it’s just a job. They may absolutely love it, sure, but they do it 40+ hours a week. You can’t expect awesome hundreds of times every month.

I’m open to other theories. In the meanwhile, I should probably just skip out on the bar food and fancy crap, and see what I can find eating out on Buford Highway.

From an interview with Anthony Bourdain, a passage on those beautiful moments and how they feel kind of sucky at the same time:

I‚Äôve talked elsewhere about there are times in your life… I‚Äôll use the example of you‚Äôre standing alone in the desert, and you see the most incredible sunset you‚Äôve ever seen and your first instinct is to turn to your left or right and say, ‚ÄúWow, do you see that?‚Äù Okay, there‚Äôs no one there, what do you do? Next, where‚Äôs the camera? Look through the viewfinder and you realize you know, what you see through that little box is not what you‚Äôre experiencing. There comes this terrible moment when you realize well, this is for me. There is no sharing this. Worse: if you try to share it with old friends or someone you love it‚Äôs almost an insult. “How was your day?” “Well, we did three hundred covers tonight, somebody sent back a steak…” “Well, in the Sahara there was this sunset and you wouldn‚Äôt believe it.” You know?


I spent Saturday night in the woods. On Sunday morning I walked back through a nice stretch of trail with blackberries growing along the sides, just turning ripe. Hiking pace went from 4mph to 0mph. I ate pretty much anything I could reach without having to go into the brambles.

We often buy ‚ÄúI Can‚Äôt Believe It‚Äôs Not Butter‚Äù despite its awful name and soul-withering chemical composition. Even the product‚Äôs faux-entertaining site refers to it as a ‚Äúnutritious blend of oils.‚Äù… In fact, we just bought the ‚Äúlight‚Äù version of it, which is therefore some sort of simulacrum of the original.

There’s some great naming suggestions in the comments.

How to be a snob when drinking alcohol: “There are guidelines. First, if you’re faking it, everything is faint—you want to talk in terms of hints, notes, and shades. Give the impression that you only barely caught this delicate wisp of a flavor because you were concentrating so intensely back in Step 2.”

When I heard that milk jugs are being redesigned for better efficiency, I felt a sort of witless glee. Part of that is my usual response to efficiency. And also because most of my high school employment was in the local Kroger, stores #444 and #432 (I still remember that…?). I mostly did night stock, but also spent one summer in the Dairy section. Although throwing crates around in the heat of the shelving moment is really fun,1 dealing with crates is a chore, every single day. Some days I would have killed for a nice waist-level pallet of jugs, rather than a 7-foot tower of crates. There’s also a good audio slideshow about the square milk jugs and some of the problems the customers are having. [via austin kleon]

1. Plenty of reasons I really liked stock work (lots of trade-offs, but still noteworthy): I got to work alone, but plenty of joking and yelling back and forth. I could yell or sing when I wanted. I got to walk around. There were very few irate customers at 3am, unlike a Saturday afternoon bagging groceries. There’s also a good bit of healthy destruction involved (wielding a box cutter, breaking down cardboard, tossing damaged product out in the aisles, etc.). And on most nights, things looked perfect when I’d leave in the early morning. I love that severe contrast. Make an absolute mess when I’m working, and then polish it to something where no one can tell it was any different.

King Corn

King Corn is a documentary about 2 guys that move to Iowa to grow an acre of corn. With today’s agro-tech, the actual farming takes just a few minutes. The bulk of it is their interviews and exploration of the food chain from seed to cobs to cattle to what we get in stores and restaurants. Highlights include some fun stop-motion animated interludes, their really funny interview with a PR flack at a high fructose corn syrup factory (and their attempts to make HFCS at home), and the generally straight-shooting commentary from the local Iowans.
Here’s the trailer for King Corn, and an Boing Boing interview with Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the filmmakers.

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (review: 2.5/5)

in defense of food
By now you’ve probably heard Michael Pollan‘s seven words of advice from In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In the book he spends 150 pages talking about nutritionism, reductionist food science, and the negative health effects of the Western diet. In the last 50 pages he finally gets around to expanding just a little bit on those opening words.

If I may do my broken record routine, there are some books that are/would be much better as a long article. This is one—Pollan wrote it a year and a half ago in his New York Times Magazine article Unhappy Meals. Or you can get the gist from Pollan’s entertaining talk at Google. In making an excellent 12-page article 20 times longer, he retreads a lot of the same ground.

One prime example is this bit of repetition, within the space of 2 pages, when he’s writing about farmer’s markets and locally grown produce: “What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of their taste and nutritional quality.” And one paragraph later: “When you eat from a farmer’s market, you automatically eat food that is in season, which is usually when it is most nutritious.” And in the very next paragraph: “Local produce is typically picked ripe and is fresher than supermarket produce, and for those reasons it should be tastier and more nutritious.”

It kills me.

Not to say he’s a bad writer. He isn’t. (I did enjoy The Botany of Desire.) This one comes up a bit thin and repetitive. Maybe he wrote it to turn a buck. Maybe just because he’s fascinated and loves to write about it. Maybe he did it to have good ideas spread even wider and with a longer lifespan (and these are good ideas). But it’s frustrating to read.

On the upside, I like his mention of parking lot science:

“…for a long time cholesterol was the only factor linked to heart disease that we had to the tools to measure. (This is sometimes called parking-lot science, after the legendary fellow who loses his keys in a parking lot and goes looking for them under the streetlight—not because that’s where he lost them but because that’s where it’s easiest to see.)”

And I really liked his suggestion that Wonder Bread “scarcely waits to be chewed before transforming itself into glucose”.