Saturday, November 5, 2011

An Open Letter to Corporate America

Dear "Job Creators,"

      We all understand. Times are tough. Profits aren't where they used to be. Costs are up. Minimum wage has gone up as recently as two years ago. You're trying to run a business. We totally get that. So you have to raise the cost of membership, Netflix. We may not like it, but hey, who really does like to pay more for stuff? So RIM has to lay off employees. Android and iPhone competition has really stepped it up, and besides, application development and media integration are where it's at. You see, not all of us are anti-corporation hippies with liberal agendas. But at the same time we're not conservative sheep seeking to enshrine corporations as the panacea for all things American. We are Americans. And as such, we understand our role in things. We understand that consumers purchase goods and services, which drives need for business, thus creating a desire to employee workers, and in turn puts money into the hands of the consumer so they can ultimately continue purchasing goods and services. For us, it's a neat little cycle that has kept the lower and middle classes just happy enough to not revolt. We have purpose. Without us, Big Macs don't need to be served, and World of Warcraft accounts don't need to be created.
     With us you have consumer slavery. You have us convinced that satellite and cable television are just as necessary utilities as electricity and water. You have us maxing out credit cards to purchase the latest gadgets we can't possibly live without, have us spending billions in healthcare costs because we eat your unhealthy, preservative-filled fast food in order to save time and money in the short term. We mindlessly observe your scripted reality television shows in an attempt to learn what passes for popular fashion these days, despite the fact that clothing designers supply your shows with their newest clothing lines with just that fact in mind. Our consumer habits create a false sense of need within our own minds, while creating an environment in which to peddle your wares.
     That being said, we’re not completely mindless. We’re not completely in the dark. Please don’t tell us that operating costs are forcing you to raise fees, or even institute fees, when your overall profits are significantly out of the red. We get it, you have to pay yourselves; you have to pay to keep the lights on. It’s just difficult for us to show sympathy for you when you treat us only as transactions and not as people, put us on hold for 15 minutes before letting us speak to a service rep in another country, or refuse to give us full time employee or family benefits. We totally get it that in this economy something has to give, so to speak. We only ask that it not always be on our end. Some of your companies failed to make a profit, so if you’re going to cut labor to save, why would you reward yourselves with a bonus? In fact, shouldn’t you and the rest of your Board of Leeches take a pay cut, as a way to show you care about your employees? I realize that you have nannies, golf outings, private jets, and expensive bottled water to pay for, but come on, your employees have expenses too; electricity, groceries, medical bills, just to name a few. Oh, we’re sure you have those same expenses; it’s just that they don’t account for nearly half of your paycheck.
     Let’s be blunt. You cut hours in the name of profit, so instead of working full time, we have to do part time, and supplement with a second job. We work second shift and even third shift, we have family members watch our kids, and if we’re lucky, we get two weeks of vacation a year. We’re chastised if we take sick days (children get sick occasionally, I’m sorry to have to be the one to break it to you). We’re encouraged to work through breaks and lunches. Our weekends and nights have been taken away from us, while you and your corporate cronies enjoy 9-5working hours, Monday through Friday, holidays off. Many of us work on holidays.
     In the end, we understand our role in the big picture. Someone has to lay the track for the railroad. We understand that it has to be us. All we ask is that you acknowledge that the next time you’re parading yourselves around as the creators of that proverbial railroad. You may be job creators, but without us, there wouldn’t be a need for those jobs. And ultimately, there wouldn’t be a need for you. Think about that when you’re sitting at home this Thanksgiving, enjoying dinner with your families, while some of us are stuck in grocery stores and gas stations working. Without us, without the labor, corporate America is nothing more than hungry pigs waiting to be fed at the trough.

Just Another Tax-Paying Consumer

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Sweet Revenge of Corn/The Grass is Always Sweeter

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more versatile grain than corn, the jack-of-all-trades when it comes to grasses. In addition to its seemingly infinite number of uses in a culinary setting, it can be used to make alcohol and fuel, as well as clothing and powders. Its use in plastics gives us pillows and mattresses, trash bags, and even batteries. Corn feeds our cattle and our hungry movie-goers, and allows alien spacecraft a place to land. It's such a versatile crop it seems no surprise that one of the more profitable forms of corn is as a sweetener. It's in this form - high fructose corn syrup as it's more commonly known - that controversy begins to accompany profitability. Since widespread use of corn syrup in processed foods as an alternative to cane sugar first emerged in 1975, incidents of type 2 diabetes and obesity have rapidly - and alarmingly - increased, despite inconclusive findings by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. How did something that features such culinary and industrial diversity become such a scapegoat for America's increasing health problems?

Initially corn was a carefully cultivated food staple for the indigenous peoples of the Americas (more appropriately in Mesoamerica, which featured the Aztecs, Mayans, and the Olmec civilizations), originating from a wild grass known as Teosinte. Through generations of developing and refining farming techniques, a small series of kernels became a tighter cluster that more closely resembles the husked ears of "mahiz" that would eventually be introduced as maize to European settlers arriving in the New World. It was this mastery of wild grass that allowed nomadic tribes to form complex and advanced cultures that rivaled those of Roman and Macedonian empires. Agriculture, religion, mathematics, astronomy, and development of a calendar were just a handful of developments made during the reign of maize-cultivating peoples.

The arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s brought disease, slavery, and subjugation, and as the culturally-rich empires of Central and South America fell, so did their knowledge and heritage. Columbus had already brought maize to the Old World and introduced a new grain into the already nutritionally-sparse diets of European countries, one that quickly proved to be higher yielding than the more traditional wheat, barley, and rye crops. Maize became known to Europeans as corn, thanks to the generic term for edible grasses, and the cheap nature of the crop ensured that it would be available to the lower classes. However, with the introduction of corn came the disease pellagra, and the resulting deaths seemed to tell of a dying culture's final revenge from the far side of the globe.

The Spanish, despite their efforts to rob the Mesoamerican peoples of their riches, had never thought to ask if maize came with any special instructions. Lost in the pillaging and destruction was the very necessary step of soaking the kernels overnight in a solution of water and lime, which allows the release of niacin and the amino acid tryptophan. Without unlocking the nutrients within, Europeans were setting themselves up for pellagra, a disease that begins with niacin-deficiency and results in dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and ultimately death if left untreated.

But that was the Old World. Since then, pellagra is virtually unheard of, and corn has become a major player in the world's grains. The discovery in 1957 that corn starch could be processed into a corn syrup that is primarily glucose, and then treated with enzymes that convert much of the glucose to fructose, introduced the idea that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) could be used as a cheaper alternative to cane sugar for sweetening and preserving processed food products. HFCS provided a way around the expensive tariffs placed on importing sugar during the late 1970's, and thanks to government subsidies, corn prices were(and still are) kept relatively low. Prior to 1975 unsold corn would be shipped to African countries for food relief efforts; HFCS made those unsold bushels a loss of potential profits, and humanitarian efforts have since gone the way of the Aztecs and Maya. In fact, profit potential was so great that many U.S. farmers began growing corn specifically for use as manufactured sweetener, not as a staple food grain. Little wonder, then, that processed food companies rushed to utilize HFCS in their products. Both readily available and cheap to produce, it eliminates the need to use more traditional cane sugar or honey to sweeten products. As the Corn Refiners Association has stated with medical backing, HFCS, or corn sugar as the major growers prefer to call it, is equivalent chemically to conventional natural sugars, and does not differ nutritionally. Then why the fuss about rising health concerns?

Expert medical evidence is nothing more than the scientific equivalent of a blurb on the back of a book cover. "So-and-so is one of the hottest authors on the market today." "I couldn't put this book down." "Has all the thrill of a major motion picture." "It's a non-stop roller coaster of literary intensity… a whirlwind of adventure." Pick up any fiction book at your local grocery or mega-mart (heck, even nonfiction), and you're likely to find similar quotations made by big name authors plastered all over the dust jacket. It isn't any different in the world of medicine. Money and free samples dictate who says what or what they even prescribe. Your family physician probably uses a stethoscope provided by one pharmaceutical company, branded with their latest product to hit the market, and click-style pen that features the logo of another. "Let's listen to your lungs, using my Levitra stethoscope. Good, now just a few moments while I record the results on this Prilosec OTC pad of paper with my Plavix pen." The FDA is correct in saying the nutritional numbers match up really well when you compare high fructose corn syrup to honey and cane sugar. At hand, though, is the comparison of apples to oranges; or, more appropriately, glucose to fructose.

Table sugar and HFCS both feature near equal amounts of fructose and glucose, with corn's byproduct getting a slight advantage of 55/45 over can sugar's 50/50 ratio. Recent studies from the Journal of Clinical Investigation have shown it's the fructose that makes a world of difference. Glucose, when entering the stomach to eventually make its way into the bloodstream, triggers a decrease in secretion of the hormone known as ghrelin. This hormone, released prior to eating and eventually tapering off once we're fed, tells the brain to find food because the stomach is hungry. The introduction of fructose, however, does not trigger a change in the production of ghrelin. Ever wonder why you can continuously eat Little Debbie snacks and not feel full, only to suddenly have an upset stomach? Ghrelin never ceased to be produced, so your brain thought you required to continue eating. This, combined with the fact that fructose adds fat to the belly (whereas glucose hides it subcutaneous, or under the skin), spells certain doom for anyone taking in fructose that hopes to lose weight.

American society not only embraces the nature of processed foods, which require little more than tearing a package open and eating, but also the cost. One of the reasons that healthier foods are so hard to introduce to people is the time and cost involved in using raw, natural ingredients. It's much easier - and cheaper - to open a package of Hamburger Helper and add water than it is to make homemade pasta and toss in fresh cut herbs and spices. Think of it in terms of Chinese-made goods. For years Americans have been citing the cheap, tainted goods that China creates and then exports to the United States as being a major concern, and yet American consumers continue to purchase those goods without hesitation. Cost seems to outweigh quality in our culture. In a country that continues to build Walmarts and Dollar Generals, can quality really be a deciding factor when it comes to merchandise or food products?

It's the low cost appeal of corn syrup that will ensure its popularity as a sweetener and preservative. PepsiCo, for example, has already proven that it can make money on this concept by staying true to its corn syrup-based recipe for soft drinks, while introducing limited edition concepts such as Pepsi Throwback, which uses "real sugar!" as an ingredient and boasts 2 grams of sugar less than the more traditional corn syrup-based product. Throwback still offers a whopping 67 grams of sugar per 20 ounce bottle! With soda machines so readily available to schools across the country, and fast food companies happily filling cups with carbonated syrup goodness, it's no wonder that U.S. children are counted as the most obese across the globe. At a cost of roughly 15 cents per 32 ounces of soda served, companies such as McDonald's are turning a profit making American kids overweight. With profit being made, and parents not voicing any concern over the matter of obesity, it's no surprise, then, that products containing HFCS (or even large amounts of cane sugar) continue to saturate the market.

The price to pay for European pillaging of Mesoamerica was pellagra, and now, it would seem, U.S. treatment of Native Americans once upon a time is now resulting in corn's sweet revenge; not in the form of disease attributed to niacin-deficiency, but disease attributed to proper nutrition education-deficiency. With the recent debate over health care, one would think Americans would take a long look at what we're putting in our bodies, rather pointing fingers and blame. Large corporations can only produce and market products loaded with high fructose corn syrup; they can't force consumers to purchase use them. Until Americans become more nutrition-conscious when it comes to food choices, we as a culture will continue to face long term health issues and rising obesity, something we can no longer afford to do.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Sweet Potato, By Any Other Name…

No table would be complete without them when holiday dining takes center stage; Yukon Gold, Russet, Yellow Finn, Red, and a whole mess of varieties that can be boiled, baked, roasted, steamed, mashed, fried, scalloped, tossed in stew or used as a battery. They are potatoes, a staple of diets around the Western world and boasting a fairly impressive résumé that began roughly 4,000 to 5,000 years ago in Peru. Spanish travelers then introduced them to Europe, and from there the easy-to-grow perennials became commonplace among colonies and settlements, in part because they served as a cheap source of nutrition (as well as being used to brew vodka). With such a rich history and countless culinary uses, it's no surprise that this super spud has become such a staple in holiday cuisine. What about the potato's cousin, the oft-overlooked sweet potato? Hath not a tuber eyes? Cut out its roots, does it not propagate? Does it not make for an awesome dish of candied yams?

Actually, it does not. Sweet potatoes, despite what your local grocery posts on strategically placed signage, are not yams. Welcome to one of the perils of being a North American: unlike the rest of the world, Canadians and Americans lump sweet tubers together with yams, assuming the latter is simply a white-fleshed version of the former, which tends to feature orange flesh. So what is the difference? Yams are a root originating in West Africa and New Guinea, believed to have originated somewhere in the ballpark of 8,000 B.C.E. Unlike potatoes, yams can be stored for up to six months without the use of refrigeration, a valuable trait in a region routinely devastated with food shortages and famine. In contrast, potatoes and sweet potatoes have a thinner skin that yields quickly to fungus, resulting in a shelf life of several weeks (ten to twelve months using commercial storage techniques).

Sweet potatoes are native to Central America, having been domesticated some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Island-hopping Polynesians introduced the plant (it's a relative of the morning glory!) to Pacific Islanders, eventually reaching as far away as Hawaii and New Zealand. Crucial to the success of these native peoples was their ability to see in low-level light, boosted by the incredible levels of beta carotene found in sweet potatoes. A good source of B6, potassium, and manganese, orange-fleshed spuds are truly a super food with much diversity. Like its white-fleshed cousin, the sweet potato can be cooked in a number of ways, making it a very popular addition to Asian cooking (Koreans apparently love it as a topping on pizza).

So what exactly are you getting when you purchase "yams" from the grocery store? One seriously mislabeled product, though the United States Department of Agriculture isn't helping any; it requires that if the product is going to be incorrectly labeled as "yams" it should also read "sweet potato" somewhere nearby. Yams are capable of reaching 7 feet in length, and are a rarity in the United States, so why the continued confusion? It's far simpler to mislabel a product. After all, consumers purchased VitaminWater hoping to find a great-tasting alternative to water that had been richly fortified with vitamins and minerals, only to discover they had actually bought sugar water. What's in a name, anyway?

Here is a great roasted root vegetable recipe that uses sweet potatoes (and not the difficult to find yams we are so unfamiliar with here in the states).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

2008 NFL Draft

Random Thoughts:

With the draft just a few days away, I can’t help but wonder what the local teams will do; namely, the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions. This year’s draft, as with previous incarnations, features plenty of intriguing storylines, despite the clear lack of any clear standout first overall choice. Since the Brownies don’t have any picks on day one, I’ll start with the Lion Cubs.

Detroit holds the 15th pick, a situation they haven’t been in for quite some time. Does this mean that the Lions are finally beginning to show progress as an organization, finishing the season with a record that moves them further away from the bottom of the NFL pack? Not necessarily. A collapse of historic proportions during the second half of the season left Rod Marinelli’s squad in a panicked state of disarray, finishing 7-9 and drafting outside of the top 10 for the first time in seven years. What went wrong? How about what didn’t? Mike Martz proved many doubters correct when he was given way too much autonomy over draft choices and offensive procedures, and promptly dug a hole for the franchise that was ultimately too deep to get out of. He refused to run the ball consistently, which led to opponents waiting for the aerial attack to commence. And commence it did. Jon Kitna threw for an astonishing 4,068 yards, and as a result both Roy Williams and Mike Furrey concluded the season with over 1,000 yards apiece. But while those numbers look impressive, consider that Kitna threw 20 interceptions to his 18 touchdowns and was sacked 51 times. And his passing yardage ranks 6th among NFL quarterbacks, with the top 5 players throwing for more touchdowns than picks. In fact, Kitna was tied with two other players for the most INTs thrown last season (though one of those other players was Eli Manning, who won a Super Bowl without his top tight end). Much of Kitna’s failure to put the ball in the end zone can be attributed to Martz’s abandoning the running game and making a complicated offensive strategy very predictable, in addition to poor play by the offensive line.

Recently there has been thought that perhaps Drew Stanton, selected in the second round on the recommendation of the since-fired Mike Martz, isn’t the answer as the successor to Kitna, who is just a temporary fix anyway. Speculation has the Lions eyeing Boston College QB Matt Ryan in the first round, which is an interesting scenario. Baltimore has been keeping Ryan in their sights, but have also remaining heavily interested Michigan’s Chad Henne. Would Baltimore be willing to swap picks with Detroit in an attempt to move down and take Henne? If Ryan is still available when the 8th pick comes up on the board (a big if, since Kansas City at #5 seems to be the most logical home for him), could Matt Millen put together a package quick enough to meet league approval and land the franchise QB that the Lions have been coveting? I don’t see it happening. I think Baltimore will stay at #8 and select an O-lineman (Boise State’s Clady perhaps?) and Detroit gets stuck deciding which of their needs should be addressed first: RB or defense. Rashard Mendenhall will not slip past the Bears, who have the 14th pick. So if the Lions want him, they’ll have to move ahead of Chicago. My bet is on a DB to accompany Leigh Bodden, who was acquired in a trade with Cleveland: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie or Mike Jenkins are the likely candidates. It’s also possible that the Lions satisfy the D-line hunger that embodies Marinelli by taking Florida’s Derrick Harvey.

Mike Williams, Charles Rogers, Kevin Jones, Joey Harrington, Shaun Rogers, Kalimba Edwards, Boss Bailey, Teddy Lehman…too many misses in the first two rounds by Millen and Company. If it were my choice, I’d say deal Roy Williams to Philadelphia for a 1st round pick and whatever else I could get (3rd or 4th) and then use the 15th pick on Derrick Harvey and the 19th on a quality linebacker or defensive back. But whatever they do, Detroit won’t do much to improve their chances as long as they keep hemorrhaging draft picks and showing injuries and a lack of talent as a result. And that is why I’m no longer a Lions fan.

Over in Cleveland the situation is sunnier, with clouds threatening in the distance. Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel have done a magnificent job assembling a Browns team that barely missed the playoffs last season. Lineman Joe Thomas (1st round pick) provided an immediate presence and did a great job during his first season, starting every game and eventually being named as a first alternate in the Pro Bowl, thanks to the Browns’ O-Line only allowing 19 sacks and helping Jamal Lewis put up 1,304 yards rushing yards. Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards emerged as quality targets for Derek Anderson, who stepped up to claim the starting QB role after Cleveland dealt Charlie Frye and began preparations to move Brady Quinn into the spotlight. But a word of caution concerning Anderson’s 29 TDs and 3,787 passing yards: he hasn’t duplicated those stats yet, as that was his first time putting up numbers like that. Up until the 2007 season, opposing defenses had not yet seen much footage of the former 6th round draft pick (Baltimore, 2005). While I’m eager to see what he can do with a better defense to hold opponents in check and less pressure to come from behind, I’ll wait to see if he can outwit opposing teams now that the talented cat is out of the bag, especially now that Cleveland has yet to address the issue of acquiring a backup running back to help out Jamal Lewis with ball carrying duties.

But when I say better defense, I still remain skeptical about it. Corey Williams was brought in from Green Bay’s D-line at the cost of a 2nd round pick; Shaun Rogers, a frequent target of criticism while he was in Detroit because of his eating habits and questionable work ethic, came with a price tag of a 3rd rounder and Leigh Bodden. Add those two acquisitions to the 2008 1st round pick that Cleveland gave up to move up and draft Brady Quinn last season, and the Browns don’t get to participate in the Draft Day fun until the 4th round. While building a team through free agency and trades is not necessarily the best way to advance into the playoffs, there is still hope: Cleveland will be well-educated when it comes to late-round talent, having been focusing exclusively on those prospects for months now. More than likely the choice will be either a linebacker or cornerback, but if a 2nd or 3rd round running back slips to the 4th round, then Savage won’t hesitate to pounce. This will be his chance to add depth to the offensive line and possibly even at tight end, which is a sign that the Browns are definitely moving in the right direction…assuming Shaun Rogers new contract doesn’t become a problem down the road.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Waiting In A Winter Wonderland

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.

- from "Snow-flakes", by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Despite the natural beauty of freshly fallen flakes of snow (oh, alliteration, how you haunt me!) I am quite ready for the arrival of spring. Not the official calendar date that sets aside an otherwise not-very-special day in March, but the concluding curtain call of cold climate (argh!). Freshly-planted seedlings litter the top of my bedroom dresser, housed in makeshift mini greenhouses; gardening tools hide unappreciated in the shed out back of my house; flip flops wait patiently in the closet for a chance to be worn in the sunshine. And yet here it is nearly April, and Northwest Ohio is fending off the last remnants of winter. I'm eager to dig in the dirt and plant seeds. Heck, I just want to get outside in the fresh air and feel the warmth of the sunshine. Waking up yesterday to find snow on the ground (as well as everywhere else) was not exactly what I had in mind. Waiting awhile for the winter weather to weaken and wain (sorry, couldn't resist) is a horrible substitute for a hobby. In just over a month the spring semester at Owens will be finished, and with final exams behind me, I plan on spending two weeks away from the stress of work. Two weeks of gardening, fishing, and reading books, with lots of naps and sipping tea scattered throughout; two weeks of relaxation that will be well worth the wait.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Reflecting on NIU

Not much to say in this first post, except that my thoughts are with the students of Northern Illinois University. Today's events were tragic, and hopefully in the coming days and weeks the proper authorities can examine the situation and learn from it, so that future tragedies such as this one can be prevented.

A quick note:

I've been looking at various web browsing alternatives to Internet Explorer, and while Firefox is the most popular option, another one worth trying is Flock. Not only is it well organized and attractive in its design, Flock features a sidebar that can connect with and display social networking sites and blog sites, displaying updates from friends and providing quick links to their respective pages. I've only been using it for a few hours now, but so far I like it. R.I.P., Internet Explorer. Alas, we knew you too well.