07 April 2007

Interesting Times

I almost never read the New York Times but I did wander in today and found a host of interesting articles.

Wal-Mart is finding new ways to control its employees -- and everybody is happy. The "personal sustainability" program gets the company involved in improving its employee's health and convincing them to do their part for the environment. Exercise, eat right and reduce waste at the stores, all of which are good ideas but, if promoted in any other way, would bring the wrath of the left down on the anti-union, pro-sprawl Mart.

I found most interesting the idea that walking around the perimeter of the store as exercise could be beneficial to people who, after all, spend all their working day walking around the store. My wife tells me that there have been studies showing that exertion undertaken expressly as exercise has more cardiovascular benefit than exertion undertaken at a strenuous job.

We also learn about an odd Japanese real estate tycoon who is letting eight poor native Hawaiian families live rent free in mansions he owns in Honolulu. His motives are unclear and not necessarily creditable. One issue the Times doesn't address is the tax implications. Being allowed to live in a house rent free is imputed income for the families. Shows like Extreme Home Makeover deal with the same issue and have found ways around it. Over all, I'm convinced that there is something nefarious, or at least reckless, going on here, and the Times is being overly credulous.

Next, a fascinating court case as Nutra-Sweet sues Splenda to try to get it to stop saying "Made from sugar." At issue is not so much what the words mean as what they invoke. Everyone agrees that Splenda starts out with sugar (sucrose) although it need not; that Splenda itself does not contain any sugar; and that Splenda is as artificial as any other artificial sweetener. The sucrose used as a starting point in the manufacturing process is changed by adding three chlorine molecules to the sucrose molecule and, at the end of the day, the sucrose disappears. Splenda argues that "made from sugar" is literally true. Nutra-sweet counters that Splenda knows perfectly well that the effect of the slogan is to confuse the public by making Splenda sound more natural and safer. Personally, I prefer Splenda.

There is an interesting regulatory sidelight worth mentioning. Even though Splenda starts with sugar, it can't list sugar as an ingredient because the FDA won't allow the listing of "ingredients" that disappear during the manufacturing process. This is presented as a reason not to allow Splenda to use its slogan. But what if the chemical process started with, say, cyanide? Would the FDA regulation then be presented as a loophole allowing Splenda to market a product made from cyanide?

In a second FDA story, the agency has banned anti-nausea suppositories on the grounds they don't work. The products date from before 1962, when proof of efficacy was first required. Since I would, as king of the world, get rid of that requirement, I find the story slightly troubling. Not nearly as troubling, however, as the idea that people apparently choose to use anti-nausea suppositories. You'd think the very idea would be counter-productive.

There is a very nice article about an observant Jew married to an observant Catholic (for, obviously, a fairly flexible definition of "observant"). This is the story that made me think, as I often do when I read the Times, that it really is the best written paper in the country. The only Timesian nit I would pick is that they aren't satisfied with having a moving, interesting, well-written human interest story. They try, totally unconvincingly, to show that this couple reflects some important general trend. To the editors I say, "It's a nice story. Be happy." I do note that the Catholic husband was under the impression that Catholicism teaches that contemporary Jews are morally responsible for killing Jesus and that Judaism has been replaced by Catholicism, so there's two for Harry. I would have liked to delve more into the psychology of an observant Catholic who believes that Jews are deicides and yet starts to date a Jewish woman, but that's not the story the Times wanted to tell.

Just to prove that the Times and I haven't completely made up, I did read this silly op-ed that used an obscure news hook to completely misinterpret the implications of a psychological experiment. Apparently, the rich are bad.


pj said...

David - Presumably the Catholic husband believes the Church is wrong to hold modern Jews responsible for the death of Jesus; therefore, he never believed his Jewish wife was culpable for deicide. This is a case of someone being "more Catholic than [he believes] the Pope [to be]." Or at least, more faithful to God and to love.

Duck said...

A few anecdotes of rich people acting bad proves that poor people don't act bad? Where's the comparative statistics? Since I am a confirmed homebody with a congenital aversion to mixing it up with ordinary folks I have to shudder when I hear accounts of said ordinary folks from others, mainly from my separated wife, who likes to mingle with such folks (one of many reasons for our separation) and tell me about all the troubles they get into. Risky behavior is not limited to the wealthy and powerful.

One acquaintance of hers is living paycheck to paycheck, but it didn't stop him from borrowing his sisters ATV and summarily wrecking it, an act that he was financially unable to amend.

A friend of mine from a previous employer lived well beyond his means, piling up debts for a new home, pickup truck, big screen tv and just about every piece of power equipment that a home handy man could use, even though he didn't seem to be that handy. He lost his job and watched like a deer in the headlights as his debts came home to roost over a two year period, capping off with his eviction from his home. On the day that I visited him two years ago, six months from his eviction on a cold winter day, he had his garage heater running. His garage heater!

David said...

Duck: Exactly. That's what he misunderstands about the experiment he notes (see also, the experiments Bryan Appleyard discusses at Thought Experiment). Everyone abuses their power, and maybe those with only a little power engage in more abuse.