Mike Schaeffer's Weblog
Fri, 16 Jun 2006
Restaurant Nutritional Information, Part 2
A couple months ago, I speculated that it seems reasonable for the FDA to mandate that restaurants make nutritional information easily available in the store, at the time of purchase. Oddly enough, at a McDonalds the other day, I noticed that they were printing FDA standard nutritional labels on the side of their food cartons. This is a trend that should continue, although if it's not enforced, it's pretty easy to see how Some place like Hardee's might be reluctant to slap a 1,420 calorie label on the side of their Monster Thickburger. It's pretty easy to believe that sales would plummet: with the label on, it'd be much harder to delude yourself about what you are eating.

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Thu, 15 Jun 2006
Wanna buy a car?
Let's see, the modern car buying experience is:
  • Pay interest to borrow money to fund the capital cost of your car.
  • Pay to maintain the car.
  • Pay to repair the car when it breaks out of warranty.
  • Pay for consumables like tires, oil, and brake pads.
  • Pay for gas to fuel the car.
  • Spend your time driving yourself around.
Don't get me wrong, I like cars as much as the next red-blooded American guy, but if you view your car as anything other than a tremendous expense, you really need to rethink your point of view.

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Tue, 13 Jun 2006
Beware HCGS...
So true... The biggest thing that keeps the blogosphere from being an endless cesspool of 'happy critical guys' is that it explicitly forces readers to seek out and subscribe to each individual blog. In contrast, If you subscribe to a USENET newsgroup, the default behavior is that you see posts from all the contributors to the group. You can change this by explicitly killing threads or users, but, by default, you see it all. That makes it easier for individuals to gain readership, which arguably lowers quality.

This post was partially prompted by this thread on comp.lang.scheme.

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Thu, 08 Jun 2006
Toilet paper protocol
I have a small proposal to combat the problem of public toilet stalls without toilet paper. If you notice that a stall is missing toilet paper, take a reasonable amount from an adjacent stall and put it atop the toilet paper dispenser in the stall missing the paper. This does two things: first it signals that the stall is missing paper. For those unfortunate enough to use the stall without noticing, it provides a source of backup paper that can be replenished after use. Either way, it avoids the case of somebody using a stall, needing toilet paper, and then finding themselves without.

Of course, this does not handle the case when all of the stalls in a restroom have run out. It also doesn't handle the similar case of a one stall restroom. To handle these special cases, a refinement of the protocol would be to have the person that consumes the last bit of toilet paper reserve a small amount at the end of the roll to act as the signal piece. To maintain the signal, this piece would have to remain unused, which means that toilet stall customers would have to be more careful to avoid using stalls that are out of paper. After all, they could use the signalling piece of paper, but that would eliminate the signal for the next person. On the other hand, the signalling piece of paper could now be made significantly smaller than it was in the first version of the protocol, when it was able to be used.

Some people think about world peace, some think about curing cancer, I apparantly think about this... 

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Fri, 24 Mar 2006
Restaurant Nutritional Information
No geek stuff today....

The FDA has done a good job of requiring packaged food to be labled with nutritional information, but when you eat out, that food can fall through the cracks. Some restaurants make solid attempts at making the information available: Red Lobster actually puts nutritional information for selected products right on the menu. However, even Red Lobster has limits: they only list information for their LightHouse menu, their menu of lighter fare. Go to their website, and you can see their position on the rest of their menu: "Since our chefs are continuously creating and customizing recipes for our menu, we only have Red Lobster's LightHouse menu information available online.". That rings a little hollow once you realize that dishes like their Crab Alfredo have been on the menu for decades. Of course, what's really going on is that Red Lobster knows that publishing information on the 2,000 calories (that's a guess) in a plate of Crab Alfredo will kill their sales. After all, restaurants are supposed to be a fun treat, not a tiptoe through a nuturitional minefield.

Like you'd expect, some restaurants are better than others. P. F. Chang's China Bistro (wonderful Americanized Chinese food, you should try it if you haven't) does the ultimate: they put all of their nutritional information online. That's everything from the 56 calorie cup of Hot and Sour soup to the 1,883 calorie "Great Wall of Chocolate". Good show (even if it is buried beneath some inconvenient JavaScript). McDonald's is also noteworthy: they have complete nutritional information available in the store, before

Moving down a bit are restaurants like Jason's Deli. Jason's deli claims that "We provide our nutritional information in Adobe Acrobat .pdf format.". However, once you open the PDF file, they ask you to send a mail asking for each piece of nuturitional information seperately. I don't know what their expectation is (do I really need to list every nutritional variable for every menu item?), but the evidence seems to indicate their closing the information up, rather than making it more open. Another trick is on Firehouse Subs' website. They publish nutritional information, but they fail to include cheese or mayo in their calorie counts (which are served by default) in their table of figures. If you order a stock medium sandwhich and skim the chart, you're liable to understimate the calorie count by 30-40%. In fact, the only way you can get the total calorie count of a completely dressed sandwich is to know that there are 9 calories per gram of fat.

I don't know what percentage of calories our country consumes comes through restaurants, but I do know that it's been increasing for a long time. As a result, it seems reasonable for the FDA to mandate that restaurants make nutritional information easily available in the store, at the time of purchase. To avoid too much adverse impact on smaller restaurants, perhaps this could be means tested: restaurants serving fewer than X people per day could be excluded, etc. Either way, I want to be able to know what I'm eating.

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