Friday, February 29, 2008

2-29-08: Leap Years and the Plight of a Miss Sadie Hawkins

I never know quite what to think about leap years. I know there’s a scientific reason for having them and all that, as it takes roughly 365 ¼ days to orbit the Sun. But… what about the kids? What about the kids born on February 29th? They have to live their whole lives as one big lie. I wonder how many kids were born on February 29th and the parents just lied and said it was March 1st. I think that would be easier than having to deal with the whole “Happy 16th birthday!” at the real age of 64. Imagine your grand-kid doing that to you. That’d be ridiculous.

And what about this whole Sadie Hawkins Day debacle? For the longest time I, for some reason, thought Sadie Hawkins Day was on February 29th. I have absolutely no idea why. I just looked it up on Wikipedia and a couple other websites. Apparently it’s on November 15th. And thanks to Google, I’m not as dumb as I thought. There’s even a website to disprove the great myth. I’m sure that will save lives. It’s good to see people preserve holidays named after fictional characters. That’s important.

Happy Sadie Hawkins Day.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

2-27-08: Starbucks Closes (for three hours)

Shocking news in the world of “gourmet” coffee: Starbucks decided to shut down all of its stores for three hours yesterday evening to re-train its employees in an effort to bring back customers.

I haven’t heard much about a public outcry. Perhaps it’s because every one is just so tired from the lack of coffee for those three hours that they’re just too lazy to make a big stink about it. I’d also be surprised if they did, since what Starbucks did was simply a part of a deliberate attempt to improve their quality of service. I’m not a frequent patron of Starbucks, and I’ve had very few problems in my trips to the store, but I like where they’re going with this.

First off, they’re getting back to basics. They’ve brought back the founder Howard Schultz to spearhead the company back into the forefront of their industry. They even made their baristas (doesn’t that sound like a South American resistance fighter?) take a pledge to serve perfect coffee. I like that. I’m a big fan of good customer service in general. It seems to me that this is often ignored, especially in the restaurant industry. I’m not asking for a whole lot, just smile, be polite, and look like you care.

Second, it’s funny to see how people reacted. It seems to me that most people just found it a minor inconvenience. I’d like to meet some one who was devastated by this, though. Since it was done in the evening, it obviously didn’t disrupt anyone’s early morning routine. Well, at least it didn’t affect any normal morning routine. I’m sure some second shift workers were pissed off, but how many second shift workers are Starbuck’s fans? Who cares, anyway? It’s not like there are any special interest groups out their for caffeine addicts. You’d have to be really special then. America runs on Dunkin’, after all.

The other interesting thing is all the stuff that Schultz is doing to turn his business around. One of the funniest and most ironic steps is that Starbucks will slow down the rate of opening new stores. Oh really? Now you slow down? This reminds me of a great Lewis Black bit where he says he found the end of the Earth (I think it was in Houston). He walked out of a Starbucks, looked across the street, and saw another Starbucks. Hilarious bit. Here’s the Youtube link:

Good move, Starbucks. I hope you do well, and I hope that more businesses follow your lead and shape up. Don’t stop serving Whoppers, start serving your customers.

Monday, February 25, 2008

2-25-08: The Situation Is…

I saw something briefly at work today on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer on CNN. It was a discussion between a Hillary Clinton supporter and a Barack Obama supporter, with Wolf as the mediator. I’m not going to say it’s not expected, or that it was deliberately set up, but the Clinton supporter was a white woman and the Obama supporter was a black man.

Let’s just say the discussion wasn’t going to win any of them the Nobel or even the Pullitzer. The questions were set up to generate nothing more than pointless bickering. It was civil, at least for the three minutes I saw of it, but nothing substantial came out of it. I’m not really sure where Blitzer was going with it, but it really didn’t satisfy anything. I’m not disappointed in the media by this, since my expectations are so low. I’m just puzzled as to why they have these pointless discussions in the first place.

I can understand political debates. Those are fine. So long as the real issues are discussed, that is. As soon as personal attacks and simple smear campaign discussions pop up, it gets stupid. I don’t care what party is involved, it just gets annoying. What’s scary is how effective the pointless campaign ads are. It’s really scary.

Friday, February 22, 2008

2-22-08: Negative Feedback and Why Economists are Misleading

As a controls engineer, it puzzles and irritates me when I either read an article or occasionally watch the news and hear some one describe a “negative feedback loop” and how it could worsen the state of the economy.

This is simply incorrect. In a post from today’s Economics Blog on the Wall Street Journal’s website, it does make the correction. However, it also mentions how many economists are using the term incorrectly, making it increasingly more common and tolerable. Aren’t these people supposed to be scientists?

There is no good excuse to simply take a term from another discipline, control engineering or system dynamics, and simply be ignorant about the correct usage and expect to overwhelm people with your ignorance and expect them to deal with it. It hurts your credibility. To say “Well, it would confuse the reader” is even worse. How about educating the reader? What if they saw the term used in another instance and were confused by that? Any one really interested in the term would hopefully do some research into its meaning.

Now, to educate: a negative feedback loop is simply a control engineer’s way of keeping a system from becoming unstable. See the figure below as an example of a simple negative feedback loop. What happens is that an input is brought in to the system, something is done to it in the “plant,” then the output from the plant is looped back (or fed back) and subtracted from the next value of the input. That’s where the “negative” part comes from. What this does is that it helps to keep the output from running off in one direction. It uses the value of the plant’s output to determine the plant’s next input.

A positive feedback loop is almost exactly the same thing as a negative feedback loop, except that instead of subtracting the output of the plant from the next input, it is added. What this does is it deliberately creates an unstable system to drive the output to an extreme. See the figure below for an example. You might wonder why this would ever be used. It’s actually used quite frequently. One example is when the output can only be a 1 or a 0 (true or false). If the output ends up being 0.5 or something like that, the next part of the system (which takes the output from this system and does something with it) would be all confused. What would it do with a value in the middle? In reality, it’s actually worse. There isn’t any real “rounding” like that; there are regions that the output can be in to be a 0 or a 1, and it isn’t split down the middle. A value in between those regions would make things unpredictable. So, positive feedback is enabled to slam the output one way or the other (to a 0 or a 1).

That’s control engineering in a nutshell. Most systems are way more complex than that, and how the “plant” is configured is a whole different ballgame. It’s the source of many great engineering discoveries and innovations, though. The obvious misconception is that the effect of the loop is the reason for it’s name. That’s simply not true. It’s just the math involved.

Happy National Engineers Week!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

2-21-08: The Brevolution

My buddy Scotty and I were talking at lunch today about brevity. So, in honor of the long forgotten principle, I will make this short and sweet.

Brevity is important. Wasted words bog down the meaning. They're simply there to fill up space. If you can say something in two sentences, do not use up two pages. It is nothing but wasteful.

I think the internet, or technology in general, is part of the problem. What used to be done with pen and paper is now done via keyboards and computer monitors. It's much easier and cheaper to keep typing away, and hoping that the reader will be overwhelmed with the amount of words you use instead of deciphering the content. This has got to stop.

Will you take part in the Brevolution?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

2-19-08: Blu-ray Wins, but whatever happened to SACD vs. HDCD?

Finally! A winner in the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD battle has emerged. To be honest, I didn't pay much attention. Like most consumers, I've been biding my time until one of the two came out on top, then I'd go out eventually and buy that player. It's not like I'll be going out tonight and picking one up, though. I'm going to wait probably a year or two so that price goes down. Since the two competing formats were essentially the same, just incompatible, all the HD DVD people will simply buy Blu-ray. So, demand will now be focused solely on Blu-Ray. Then, more companies will make the player, then prices will go down as supply goes up. Simple economics.

The funny part, and this is something I discussed with a co-worker today, is how little attention has been paid to the Super Audio CD vs. HD CD format war in recent years. Remember that whole debate? One of the two was supposed to eventually emerge and people would flock to it. My co-worker had a great point: with the rise in internet-based music purchases (primarily mp3's), people have chosen convenience over quality. MP3's sound terrible compared to SACD's or HDCD's. But, since audiophiles like some people I know (I wouldn't classify myself as one, though I do like a good tune) are the vast majority of music consumers, the market is simply not there, and a winner is unlikely to be chosen any time soon. I wonder if they even still make either format. What might happen is one company simply stops making them to focus more on other products, just handing over the crown to the other. I hope not, but the trend isn't supporting either right now.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

2-17-08: Global Warming in Schools?

Breaking news out of California: global warming might be a required subject in science at all public schools.

Well, not exactly breaking news, I suppose, but still an interesting article. The article mentions the opinions of a few supporters and opponents to the bill, which has been passed by the California state senate and is on its way to Schwarzenegger's desk this week, so we'll see if it's passed.

Personally, I think it's only a good idea if both sides of the issue are addressed, which is mentioned in the article. I'm not opposed to the idea of putting it in the classroom in general, but I'm a bit weary of making this simply a propaganda issue. It is important for kids to be given the chance to learn the science behind both sides of the issue.

But then again, the climate is quite complex. How would you explain to a fourth grader how global warming works? How would you explain the complexity of mankind's role in this? I think what will likely happen is it will be different in each classroom and textbook. The bias of the teacher or the author will take precedence, and my feeling is that the net gain will be zero. People are generally ignorant now, and they might just become misinformed in the future. I hope this isn't the case. I hope they have debates on this in classrooms one day. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

My mentality regarding the "fair and balanced" approach would be that it would probably be best just to explain the basic concepts of this. There aren't really that many sciences that are studied in schools where the "jury is out," so asking teachers to say "Now kids, this is a really complex issue, so take all this with a grain of salt," is not being realistic. But then again, it's a relatively new debate, so maybe it would be a good idea to wait a little bit. It's not like these kids are going to stop anything by recycling their sippy cups or anything like that. OK, that was a bit much, but still, they're kids. Don't make it "global warming week" or anything like that. Just make it part of a larger subject and put it on a test and try to keep it fair.

I wonder if and when this will expand to the other states... I hope it doesn't hit the east coast any time soon. The last thing I need is a sixth grader telling me that my carbon footprint is too large.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

2-16-08: Gun Control

I figured I'd wait a day or two to just have my say regarding gun control, in the wake of the tragedy at Northern Illinois.

There's no way to stop a maniac like that from doing what he did with the way things are today. Illinois is a state that is quite strict on gun control, and yet Chicago is a relatively gun-happy town regarding crime. This kid was obviously mentally ill, but possessed a gun. I don't know whether or not he had the gun before going nuts, but my guess is he did. He had behaved erratically for two weeks prior (which happens to be the waiting period in most states), but my guess is he owned the gun for some time.

Here's the real issue: people don't know what they're talking about. I just saw something on CNN that was quite interesting. They were reading some viewer e-mails on the issue. One person said he felt, as I feel, that if students were packing in class then the gunman could have been stopped early on. Another person felt that this is the time to act and make it harder for crazy people to get guns. But, unfortunately, the broadcasters didn't make the connection. I like how they showed some good insight from viewers, which is great, but no one really made the connection that both situations can be realized.

The issue isn't stopping a crazy person from obtaining a weapon. Like I said before, this kid probably had the gun before the rampage. Or, if he didn't, then I bet there are plenty of sane-looking people with guns right now who have the potential of losing it. The real issue is how to both prevent them from going crazy and minimizing the damage when an event occurs. You can't feasibly stop a crazy person from going on a rampage by simply denying them legal access to a gun. If you have read or seen A Time to Kill, you'll know that people can get guns no matter what if they want them badly enough. If a gangster ex-convict can pack heat and get away with multiple violent crimes, chances are he didn't obtain the guns legally.

What needs to be addressed is keeping crazy people from using guns. This is very, very difficult, and most people in modern society, who rely on quick-fixes and the Federal government, is neither willing nor able to do this. One viewer on CNN nailed it: be more observant of people who need help. Don't just shrug it off, he or she might need help. Just talk to them. See what's going on. This kid was obviously ill, and for some reason didn't take his medication for a couple weeks. If some one had taken the 5 minutes out of their Facebook-driven life and talked to the kid, maybe he wouldn't have killed those poor kids. I'm not saying it would have definitely prevented the crime or the kid would have been talked out of it, but there are steps along the way that could have been noticed.

The issue of gun control is an on-going debate, but it can be resolved by people just paying attention to the multiple sides of the issue. It's not a matter of stopping all people from having guns. You can't think like a maniac without... being a maniac, but you can see the logic at it's core: a gun-free zone means that, if you want to shoot somebody, they probably won't have a gun. I have a buddy who had a permit to carry a concealed firearm, and does so. Back when the Virginia Tech shooting occurred, I asked him what he would have done. He replied simply: "I would've ducked down, waited for the kid to look away, and taken him down." If we allow sane people to carry weapons, they can help keep other sane people from getting needlessly murdered by insane people. There's a reason why it's the Second Amendment. The only amendment it's behind is the most important one there is. I bet that's no coincidence.

Friday, February 15, 2008

2-15-08: Northwestern Columnist Exposes Dastardly Dean

Sometimes an exposé reveals something important. Sometimes it exposes nothing special. Most of the time, it’s blown out of proportion because of its topic. This is, yet again, one of those instances.

A columnist for The Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper for Northwestern University, wrote an article (though not a column, since it was more of an investigative journalism piece) about some anonymous quotes a dean of the school used in two instances in a school magazine. They were allegedly from students, and both were pretty mundane. Neither would have likely given the quoted student a bad name or anything like that. But, the quotes were left as anonymous.

But this didn’t settle well with columnist David Spett. He decided to do a little investigation, and found that none of the students who could’ve given one of the quotes (it was about a class they had recently taken) said they had made it. Spett even went so far as to have a meeting with the dean himself. The dean didn’t get angry or hide anything, he just said it didn’t violate any ethical rules.

I heard this story on the radio, and the host of the program spoke to Spett about this. I have to say, the kid didn’t come across like he had revealed anything monumental, or that he had won any battles or anything. He just remarked that he had been curious and had decided to investigate a little, and didn’t pretend like it was a huge deal. He still wrote an article about it, but that’s his right, so that’s fine.

Frankly, the whole thing came across to me as simply a student catching a lazy dean in the act, and the dean not fessing up to it. He couldn’t recall which student had made the quote or when it had been made. He thought it had been made in an e-mail conversation, and couldn’t find the e-mail. Either way, what I think happened is that he had been given some feedback from students, heard something good from one of them, and paraphrased. It’s not 100% ethical, but does it really need to be if it’s for publicity? The purpose of the article wasn’t to give a fair and balanced look at a particular course or curriculum. It was to say how great a certain class was.

I applaud the kid for writing an interesting article, and calling the dean out. I’m glad he didn’t go crazy and start spewing any conspiracy theories. It turned out to be much ado about nothing, but it did have some potential. I thought the dean also reacted well. He’d look like an ass if he had berated the student.

200 posts!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

2-10-08: Elections and Olympics

I've noticed something funny about the similarities between the Olympic games and Presidential elections. Some are quite obvious, but a few things I find pretty fascinating.

1. They come around every four years.
2. There's a tremendous amount of organization involved, along with accusations of corruption from time to time.
3. Only a few events are seen as truly significant. Most go relatively unnoticed.
4. Most of the time the front-runners ended up winning.
5. The people in good shape tend to be seen more often.
6. Sports announcers and newscasters say basically the same things, only using different words.
7. Most information about a participant is found out secondhand.
8. There's a lot of lead-in to it.
9. Everybody has a sponsor corporation.
10. You never see all the big names on the same stage all at once.

Those are just a few. I couldn't think of any good team sports analogies. More to come later.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

2-9-08: The Wonders of Modern Pharmaceuticals

I've been out of work for a couple days with what my doctor thinks could be a lung infection. What fun! I had chills, cold sweats, a bad, deep cough, a fever, and bad headaches for a few days, so I figured a visit to the ol' physician wouldn't hurt. One prescription later, and I'm feeling quite a bit better. I'm on some antibiotics, which are pretty damn good.

While waiting at the pharmacy, I read a small pamphlet on the benefits of generic drugs. I've known about them for a while, but I'm not sick all that often, so I've never had to really use them. What a deal! Basically, it's the same stuff you'd take from the name brand companies, only way cheaper. They save money by not having to make up any costs for research and development, which the big name companies did for them. Once those precious patents expire, the generic brands take over. Great deal.

The other nice thing was that I found out my prescription insurance is pretty damn good. I was expecting to pay way more than I ended up paying. Looks like those biweekly premiums are starting to pay off. It's a good thing I don't have a busy weekend planned. Good time to get some rest.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

2-7-08: Herd Mentality and Voting

I've noticed something interesting regarding the popularity of candidates. A lot of pundits talk about how certain candidates build support by winning certain primaries. John McCain is a perfect example. He was left "for dead" in the summer, had to pull himself up from the bottom, and is now the overwhelming front-runner for the Republican nomination. How exactly did he do this? Well, it all started with New Hampshire.

I'd imagine a lot of it has to do with good campaigning, but how does that apply in this situation? McCain had very little means for quite a while, but pulled off a win in New Hampshire. Perhaps it was leftover McCain supporters from years ago, who voted for him back in 2000. Perhaps people didn't trust Romney. Who knows? But, it was the start of something that's like a phoenix rising from the ashes. McCain has come back strongly.

But how does the "herd mentality" fit into this? I asked my buddy Scott at lunch yesterday how many undecided voters he thought finally voted for a candidate based on poll numbers and/or perceived popularity? I asked this because I thought, and I have no statistics to back this up (just my limited observations), that the most significant changes in support occur after primaries and not debates. Let's say you're a Romney supporter from Texas, and you've seen a bunch of debates and still favor Romney. You've seen, for yourself, how he fits in with other candidates. Let's say you've done your research into voting records and whatnot. Super Tuesday comes along, and you're an observer since Texas' Republican Primary isn't until March 4th. McCain wins many delegates quite convincingly, and let's say he continues to gain more candidates during the following caucuses and primaries. Romney keeps falling farther and farther back in the race, but keeps on going. Do you change your mind based on "electability"?

That's a bad example, because that's the case of a "decided" voter. A better example is the undecided voter. Would popularity be the best tie-breaker? If McCain's lead grows, would that outweigh whatever differences you dislike about him as opposed to other candidates? I suppose if you don't really care for any one candidate, it would make sense to use it. But… does that help or hurt the effectiveness of the system? With the "winner-take-all" mentality of so many Republican primaries, I think it's more important than ever to vote based on the issues. Indiscriminate, "popularity" based voting is completely legal within the system, but I don't see how it helps. However, I'm not saying it's the most common method of voting by undecided primary voters. I just don't agree with it.

The other interesting part of this topic, at least it's interesting to me, is how it relates to economics. A lot of great thinkers have said that decisions are made "at the margin," which basically means that if you had $1 (or a small amount of money), what would you spend it on? That's how decisions ought to be made. At the same time, that $1 could be seen of as a vote. Your vote does count in the system, but realistically one vote matters little. A mob mentality rules in these cases. But does that apply to how a modern super-economy like America's works? I'm sure people buy brand name items for the reputation, but is that always the case? If something is popular, but is too expensive for you or wouldn't fit your needs like a different model within the same category, would you buy the popular item? What if it's something nobody would know about, like a pair of underwear bought online?

Now, a vote is worth more than $1. But, should a different mentality be applied?

Monday, February 4, 2008

2-4-08: Super Monday?

Rough weekend for my sports teams (even the Bruins lost!). Both my teams lost their big games, though both lost in the same fashion: beaten by a better prepared team. Good win by the Giants. I don’t think they’re the better team overall, but they played a better game. One could say “Well, the Patriots went full throttle to go undefeated,” but then again, the Giants didn’t exactly have an easy season. Tough loss, but I’ll be happier once those asses on the ’72 Dolphins finally disappear. I’m not saying they’re evil or anything, but they’re acting almost as bad as the ’85 Bears. They had an easier (though not easy by any means) season in ‘72 (in the pre-Free Agent era), and played two fewer games. But then again, that’s probably just me being a bit of a sore loser. I guess being a sore winner is acceptable. The Red Sox are still champions, which helps. New York fans had a rough fall, so all the luck to them. In case you were wondering, the other team I’m referring to is the team I coach, who lost a tough game on Saturday night to a rival. I’m not in the best of moods today. I’m just glad I’m a bigger baseball fan than football. Maybe my fellow New Englanders will come back to Earth now. Let’s go Bruins!

And what is today, anyway? Well, I guess it’s just the day in between Super Sunday and Super Tuesday. But… wouldn’t it be appropriate to call it Super Monday? I guess you could, since there isn’t a real good time of the year for a Super Monday. Why not today? If it only comes around every once in a while (roughly every four years unless they ever change the date of the Super Bowl), why not have it? It’s like Sadie Hawkins Day. But then again… it’s in the same month… Maybe two obscure, relatively meaningless holidays in the same month would be pushing it. And, on top of that, how would one celebrate Super Monday? I’d imagine it would involve a lot of Advil, since many are hung over from the Super Bowl. I’d also think a bit of research into political candidates would need to be done, since the day after is the big primary day.

Here’s my proposal for a Super Monday celebration. Trust me on this. I celebrate Riot Day (April 29th) every year in a very obscure and easy fashion.

1. Buy a big bottle of Advil. Take it to work and get rid of the hangover. Remember to hydrate.

2. Print out as much literature on your top candidates.

3. Invite over a few buddies who both like football AND plan on voting. Have them bring some caffeinated drinks and their own literature on their candidates.

4. Over wings and pizza, discuss the remaining candidates in both races in the context of football. You can, say, pick a player of the past or present in the NFL that the candidate most resembles. Or, you could pick what position, besides Quarterback since that’s easy, that each candidate would be. Use your literature as a reference.

5. Put together a fantasy game for the two “leagues.” Since the number of candidates is limited this year, especially in the Democratic race, make it an open pick among all candidates. Then again, you could make it interesting and try to come up with some bonus points for the guy who finishes last in voting. Come up with your own rules. Some ideas might include picking the percentage of votes among three random states voting. You could also guess how many states your candidate will win. It shouldn’t be a traditional “fantasy” scoring system, since there are obvious favorites. Make it interesting. I got this idea from all the dumb drinking games I played in college. My Fraternity had a real fun one with a dry-walling video. It’s awesome. Yes, it’s a video on how to drywall.

6. Watch the news coverage of the primaries. Include some rules in your fantasy game that involve things the anchors and/or reporters say. Like, bonus points for any clichés used like “Fringe candidate” or anything like that. I can’t think of any good ones right now. Put your heads together. Also, try to figure out which station will declare a winner for either party for any three states. Pick three states, then pick which major news station will call the correct winner first for either party. You can pick two different stations for either candidate, and you’ll need to decide which stations can be picked, like Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, or CBS.

7. No alcohol should be involved, though. Take it easy. You need to vote the next day.

Happy Super Monday!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

2-3-08: Le Super Bowl

If there's one thing about the Super Bowl that separates us from the animals, it's the commercials. Though, the funny thing about that is how popular commercials featuring animals have been in the past. Remember that e-Trade commercial several years back with the monkey just hopping around? Brilliant.

The commercials are so clever nowadays that they've formed their own economy. It's amazing. A 30-second spot costs a minimum of $2.7 million. But the game is so highly rated that many companies see it as worthwhile.

But what causes these high ratings? Well, it has to be the game. But that can't necessarily be it. They've had small market teams play in recent games, and the ratings didn't exactly plummet those years. I'm sure a lot of people watched the game in those cities, but what about the games between two east coast or two west coast teams? An entire coast is unrepresented. How can so many people watch the game?

I would contest that it's the positive feedback of the commercials. Several years ago, some companies realized that making really clever commercials and showing them at the Super Bowl was a good business move. So, more companies tried to do it, driving up demand. Prices then went up. Companies realized that it's not worth it unless they spend more money to look better than the other companies in order to stand out. Then, people started to hear about how much these commercials cost, and began watching the game just for the commercials. It's not only the most-watched sports event of the year, it's the only 3-hour block on television where people watch for the commercials. And, unless the quality starts to go down significantly for multiple years, the cost to broadcast will continue to skyrocket. And... more people will watch.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

2-2-08: Fitness vs. Fatness: The American Conundrum

I was on a stationary bike at the gym today and realized something while staring at all the fancy bells and whistles on the machine: exercise technology has come a long way. Then, while watching a program on the TV above my head, I saw some ridiculous advertisement for "The Biggest Loser," a game show where the contestants race to lose money. On another TV I saw a funny McDonald's advertisement.

Then it dawned on me. This triple convergence of fitness vs. fatness was so typical of American societal views for and against fitness. Technology isn't fighting for one side over the other; there's a tremendous amount of food research and marketing prowess that McDonald's spent on that Big Mac you just bought and consumed. But... it's also easier and cheaper to buy a gym membership. I pay $20 for basically the top package at Planet Fitness. It's a great deal, and the machines are pretty good at the locations I frequent.

But then I asked myself: who is winning the race? I know there's been a movement towards healthier eating in the past 10-15 years. Almost anything is available fat-free, even bacon! But there's an "epidemic" of obesity spreading through the country. I think this is caused by one or any of the following three things:

1. Lazy kids. Have you seen those advertisements featuring popular NFL players like Reggie Bush, which start out with a bunch of kids just sitting around? The players come in and say "What's going on here? You should be out playing!" They now have to not only tell kids to play outside, they have websites that have ideas of what to do. Video games, the Internet, and TV are all responsible for fattening up America's kids. When you're done reading this sentence, stop, go outside for a few minutes and do something, then come back in and finish reading the next two. They're worth it.

2. Poor measurement. I'm sure you've heard of the Body Mass Index. Well, it might not be the best indicator of obesity. I remember watching an episode of Penn and Teller's Bullshit several months ago where they describe the history of the BMI. Well, it was invented by a Belgian statistician (well, a polymath to be more accurate) who was performing research in "social physics." He wasn't a physician of any sort. He was a math guy. But his invention of figuring out your health as a ratio of your weight and height has become the standard. Well, physicians have been saying for years that the BMI isn't the best way to determine obesity. So it is possible that the "epidemic" isn't as bad as it is made out to be. But, that's not to say it isn't present.

3. The economics of fast/cheap food. Cheap food usually has higher fat content. I read articles a few months ago about politicians who ate on $21 (a guess) weekly budgets, which is the average food stamp payment for low income Americans. They realized that healthy food wasn't so easy to come by. So it's possible that poor Americans simply can't afford to eat healthy. And, on top of that, it's possible that they resort to fast food, which is well documented in its fatness, instead of cooking healthy. Real problems have real causes. People just find it easier a lot of the time, and with all the advertisement and new, flashy restaurants, the fast food chains aren't helping. But I don't blame them: it's business. There's nothing more American than that.