Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Should French fries be banned or rationed?

By Dick Hirsch

Obesity gets an enormous helping of news coverage these days and many of the stories about the consequences are so frightening you’d think people would be losing their appetites from coast to coast. But that hasn’t happened so far and experience has shown it’s unlikely to happen in the near future.

Not too many years ago obesity rarely merited a mention in the papers and magazines. It was a virtually verboten topic and, as for media interest, obesity ranked somewhere between halitosis and leprosy. People were seldom described as obese; they were a little overweight or stout, husky, paunchy or corpulent. But now, an entire industry has grown up around obesity. Many persons who claim a degree of expertise on the subject---physicians, authors, publishers, dietitians, psychologists and others---have reaped substantial financial rewards by offering advice. Some might say they’ve grown fat by marketing ways for people to lose weight.

With the cooperation of a willing prospect, some of the advice has proven valuable, but that cooperation is not easy to obtain. I have been wondering whether restrictive legislation may provide a better answer. I hate to see the government become involved in such a personal matter, yet if the consequences of obesity are as threatening as they are portrayed, it may be worth a try.

In my view, it is time to restrict the sale and consumption of French fries.

Yes, I realize that would be a bold policy, one that critics would be quick to describe as an infringement on the civil rights of people with appetites large and small. There would be strong opposition from what is obviously a sizable constituency of obese persons, some of whom apparently don’t mind being the way they are. It might be a policy offensive to many, yet it could result in improving the health of Americans.

Statistics from the World Health Organization report that 31 percent of Americans qualify as obese. That figure seems portly to me, but I suppose obesity is a difficult term to quantify; often it’s in the eye of the beholder. For comparison, in France, where eating is revered as a national pastime, the number of those who are officially categorized as obese is only around 8 percent.

I’ll leave it to the bureaucrats to formulate the details of the program and its specific restrictions. Rather than any broad-ranging effort to abolish French fries, perhaps they could develop a policy that might involve the issuance of ration cards. Skinny individuals would be issued a less restrictive card while pudgy persons would either get no card at all, or else a card that permitted the annual purchase and intake of a very limited amount of French fries.

Why do I select French fries? Because they are such an attractive---although formidable---target, being so delectable, so seductive, so universally appealing. There are countless other high calorie consumables, but none as entrenched and abundant as French fries. Yet for all their popularity, there is an evil side to their nature.

Purveyors of fries in the US stress quantity, serving portions that are excessive. Things are different in France. I once ordered French fries in Paris, where they are called pomme frites, and where they supposedly originated in the mid-19th century. When the order arrived it was surprising; the potatoes had been surgically reduced to elegant small cuttings and the portion was unexpectedly small. They were delicious.

In contrast, just a few years ago we paid an initial visit to a small bar and restaurant, ordered sandwiches, and I asked for single order of French fries to share with my wife, Lynn. What arrived was a heaping allotment of crispy fries on a platter large enough to accommodate a Thanksgiving turkey. It was supposedly a single order, but the two of us could not finish the fries. I’m ashamed to admit that I recommended the place to friends, and, on a subsequent visit I watched, astonished, as a friend ate the whole serving. It was far more than any one person should eat, but he ate every last fry, not because he was hungry, but because they were there. Many persons follow that plan and eat whatever is available. If society could only clamp some controls on the manufacture and issuance of French fries, it would be a major step toward reducing obesity.

I’m aware that French fries have a powerful lobby supporting their marketing efforts, even stronger than chicken wings. And, yes, once again I missed the wing festival, Buffalo’s annual tribute to gluttony.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Please tell me you get the point

By Dick Hirsch

These days pencils get very little respect, reflected in the news that some offices don’t even buy them to supply to the staff. Yet soon after I was hired for my first full time job as a newspaper reporter, I learned the value of a pencil.

That may sound surprising, but it is true. Yes, like you, I started working with a pencil in first grade. I even remember my first pencil box, a supposedly useful little contrivance for use in the primary grades. In a pencil box, a diligent pupil could carry regular pencils as well as colored pencils and perhaps a six-inch ruler and an eraser. Pencil boxes were considered essential equipment by the little kids, but by the time they reached sixth grade most students wouldn’t want to be seen carrying one.

Throughout my school years, I never recognized the value of a pencil even though I used one every day. I used a fountain pen, too, especially for penmanship exercises or for writing compositions. Although the ball point pen long ago achieved universal acceptance, it has never attained the status of the fountain pen or the utilitarian recognition of the pencil.

Finished with school, I embarked on my career. New at the paper, I found that the instruments of choice were a folded sheaf of blank newsprint and a pencil with soft black lead. Those were the tools of the trade. I don’t remember anyone using a ball-point.

There was a pencil sharpener over near the water fountain and when a pencil is sharpened, as you may recall, it not only becomes sharper, it becomes shorter. That’s an important part of the story. When my first pencil was reduced to a category classifying it as a stub, I decided I needed a replacement. Since the paper furnished the pencils, I asked one of the editorial clerks for a new one and was told that Mr. Duffy, as part of his role as the city editor, was in charge of the safeguarding and the distribution of pencils.

I immediately approached his desk in a respectful manner and made my request. He still didn’t know me very well but he eyed me as if I had just asked to borrow twenty bucks until the end of the week. Then he made a request that I remember so clearly I can quote it here with absolute accuracy.

“What’s the matter with the one you have?” he said. “Let me see it.”

My palm was sweaty and my fingers trembling slightly as I pulled it our of my shirt pocket. It was less than four inches long. I held it in my hand and he appraised it. He seemed irritated.

“Nothing wrong with that,” he said, in a dismissive tone. “That’s a good size. Check with me next week.”

I skulked back to my desk, embarrassed and disappointed, but suddenly fully aware of the inherent value of pencils, a common object the value of which far surpasses the cost. It is an awareness that has endured over the years.

The most recognized and admired pencil for general use was always the Ticonderoga No. 2, with its traditional yellow color topped with a very useful eraser. The eraser has always been a very important consideration for me, and it’s interesting to note that the pencils supplied by Mr. Duffy did not have erasers. If that was supposed to be an indication the users seldom made mistakes, it was an assumption that proved to be inaccurate.

The invention in 1858 of a pencil combined with an eraser was a significant advancement, allowing the inventor to achieve a modest degree of both fame and fortune. His name was Hymen Lipman and his concept was unique, so unique that it never became popular. He received US Patent 19873 for a pencil that contained graphite at the writing end and a rubber eraser inserted within the wooden pencil at the other end. Lipman’s idea was to enable the user to sharpen the eraser to a point, thus facilitating the erasure of fine lines and small characters. Sounds like a pretty good idea, doesn’t it? It never caught on but Lipman sold the patent rights for a reported $100,000, which was real money in those days.

The office superstores all carry pencils, of course, but the selection is narrow compared with the abundance of choices of other writing instruments. I reject all the others when it comes to working on crossword puzzles, where, in my case, the ability to erase is essential.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

....and try to get the body in the picture

By Dick Hirsch

Sometimes we are unable to realize the significance of events unfolding before our eyes. Later, history makes the judgment. It seems fair to predict that future political commentators will observe that this was the year when every murder became a photo op.

That is the singular triumph of Mayor Byron Brown as he seeks reelection, first facing a Democratic primary that follows in the tradition of recent such events. The operative word in that sentence should not be “events.” It should be “contests,” or even “races,” but none of the recent Democratic mayoral primaries qualify for the use of either of those terms. Then, as now, they were ho-hum charades.

Yet Mayor Brown, who is taking a foolish primary somewhat seriously, has recognized an approach that will enable him to get more than the usual campaign exposure on the local news channels. He has seized the opportunity to show his face at every murder scene in order to offer on camera consolation to the heartbroken families of the victims while at the same time warning the perpetrators that they will be identified, arrested, convicted and jailed. He also takes pains to reassure viewers that the city won’t stand for this kind of behavior.

With the number of fatal street shootings continuing at a horrific pace, the scenario has become commonplace material on the newscasts. Usually it is at night. It’s an awful setting, a setting that once seen is not forgotten by television news producers. The body remains in the street covered with a blanket, bloodstains are on the pavement, yellow crime scene tape is affixed around the perimeter and police are writing observations or conferring. And there is Mayor Brown, on the campaign trail with his well-rehearsed routine, deploring the violence which grips the streets of the city, and pledging vengeance.

It’s a shabby and self-serving role. What positive contribution can the mayor possibly furnish? Has his presence ever assisted in the apprehension of a suspect? Is having the mayor at the scene a distraction for the investigators? Those are rhetorical questions. Here are three others: Would the city be better served if the mayor was either at his City Hall office or else home in bed? Could he be concerned that voters might blame him for the increased murder rate since it happened while he was in office? And, finally, since the mayor is an African-American, as are most of the victims and the perpetrators, shouldn’t he be trying desperately to devise a new program, a creative strategy, some different scheme aimed at reducing the violence?

Of course, then there would be fewer photo ops.

But there might also be fewer funerals.

“Op” is short for opportunity, and photo ops is a term that resonates most clearly in TV news rooms. Newspapers have always been eager to publish relevant photos and illustrations, but TV is clearly a visual medium. The term supposedly can be traced to the Nixon years when a functionary in the presidential press office started notifying the networks whenever there was a “photo opportunity” at the White House. The term became common in political and journalistic parlance. Over the years it has developed something of a negative aura, often being defined as a happening that was staged, an event that really wasn’t news.

Mayor Brown, in his first term, has tried to portray himself as a communicator, appearing to be in perpetual motion on the newscasts. While many find it difficult to enumerate any substantive accomplishments of his administration, no one can allege that he has been isolated in his office, out of camera range.

We can criticize the mayor for taking advantage of the deadly events leading to the creation of these photo ops, but there are others who must share the blame. They are the news editors and producers of the local TV stations. They obviously believe they must broadcast visuals of each and every murder. They also have convinced themselves that it is actually news to air video of Mayor Brown, with his redundant rhetoric. It isn’t news and neither does it solve anything nor does it give any comfort to the grieving relatives of the dead or to the city at large. The Buffalo News, which still sets the standard for news judgment in Buffalo, covers each killing but doesn’t seem to regard photos as essential.

Will the photo ops help him get re-elected? The textbooks claim any exposure is a positive. They also claim voters generally get the kind of elective officials they deserve.