Friday, April 30, 2010

Is the Double Down really that unhealthy?

Because I'll try anything once, and because I wanted to see (or, rather, taste) what all of the fuss was about, a couple of days ago I went to KFC and purchased their infamous Double Down, a bacon-and-cheese sandwich notable for the fact that the bread is replaced by two slabs of chicken.

I ate it and thought that it really was pretty good. I got the grilled version, instead of the breaded-and-fried version. It was spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. The chicken breasts were tender and the cheese was freshly melted. Its taste reminded me of chicken-smothered-with-cheese dishes I've eaten at sit-down restaurants, such as the Monterrey Chicken at Chili's (grilled chicken topped with cheeses and bacon).

Its taste aside, the Double Down has been controversial ever since it was introduced earlier this month. Why, when the United States is struggling with an obesity epidemic, would KFC unapologetically introduce a food that is so seemingly gluttonous and unhealthy?

Well, the obvious answer to that is that KFC thinks it will sell. They are a for-profit business, after all, and for all the fingers we as a society point at the fast food industry for its role in the nation's obesity epidemic, the fact remains that we as consumers are the ones buying their food.

But compared to other fast-food fare, is the Double Down, with its chicken, bacon, cheeses and sauce, really that unhealthy? The Original Recipe version weighs in at 540 calories - the same as a McDonald's Big Mac - and the grilled version comes in at 460 calories. Not health food by any means, but in terms of calories, fat and sodium, you could do a lot worse when it comes to fast food. The Consumerist had no trouble finding ten fast food menu items that were less healthy than the Double Down, including Burger King's Tendercrisp Garden Salad (so much for salads being healthy...) and Wendy's Baconator sandwich.

Nate Silver at took the analysis a step further, comparing the Double Down to other fast food (and even some sit-down restaurant) offerings in terms of the amount of fat, sodium and cholesterol. He argues that, while in absolute terms the Double Down does not deliver as much "unhealthiness" as items such as a chicken burrito from Chipotle or a Monster Thickburger from Hardees, on a calorie-to-calorie basis it really is unhealthy, because it contains more fat, sodium and cholesterol per calorie. He concludes:
So, is the Double Down the most gluttonous fast food sandwich ever created? It depends on how you measure it. At the margins, consuming one Double Down almost certainly isn't as bad for you as a Triple Baconator, a Thickburger, or even a fully-loaded Chipotle burrito. But while those products should, in theory, fill you up for at least half the day, the Double Down might leave you hankering for seconds. It's a high bar to clear, but it's the closest thing to pure junk food of any "sandwich" being marketed today.
I'm not sure I completely agree with this, because his analysis has one glaring omission: carbohydrates. Considering the growing body of research regarding the unhealthy effects that simple carbohydrates - like those in the refined-flour buns on most sandwiches - have on the body, the low-carb Double Down might not be that unhealthy after all (in that regard, the grilled version is probably perfectly fine for those on the Atkins Diet).

But, as I said earlier, the Double Down is not anyone's idea of health food, and, while I thought it was tasty, it is not something I'll be eating on a regular basis. But at least now I can say I've tried it!

Friday, April 16, 2010

UH-Downtown's new name

Will either be "Houston City University" or just "City University."

Of the two, the former makes perfect sense. The latter is pretentious and is just going to cause confusion.

The purpose of the name change is, among other things, to eliminate confusion with the University of Houston's main campus (the two schools are completely separate) and to raise the visibility of the downtown school.

By the way, had UH-D listened to me about a year ago, they could have saved themselves a lot of money in consultant fees. Thanks to Kuff for the shout-out!

A sign of the times

I guess this was inevitable - in many respects, it's surprising that it hadn't happened sooner - but it still makes me sad:
Gone are the days when you could stroll around the Capitol and casually walk in to see what your elected officials were or were not up to. Now it will be metal detectors.

Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, says the State Preservation Board has approved a plan for detectors and other security measures.

DPS director Steven McCraw says the measures won't hamper the ability of the public to "timely access the State Capitol building."
I remember back to the spring of 1998, when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas. That semester, I had a morning internship at the Downtown Austin Alliance. I did not own a car at the time, so after my internship duties were over and it was time to get to my afternoon classes, I had two options: either walk over to Congress Avenue and wait for the 'Dillo (Capital Metro's since-discontinued free downtown circulator) or walk. If it was a nice day, if I had enough time and/or if I didn't feel like waiting for the next bus, I'd do the latter.

It was a 15 or 20 minute walk, and the most direct path from downtown to my classroom took me up Congress Avenue, through the Capitol Building, across MLK and up Speedway to 22nd Street, which I would then take to get to Sutton Hall.

The Legislature was not in session that spring, so the Capitol was oftentimes empty. Sometimes the only thing I'd hear were my own footsteps echoing through the rotunda as I walked past its terrazzo mosaic. Occasionally, I'd pause to look up into the impressive rotunda or to examine the plaques, statues and portraits along the building's granite and wood-paneled walls; even though I walked through it on a regular basis, the building never ceased to impress me. Not to mention that I enjoyed the couple of minutes of shade and air conditioning that my walk through the Capitol provided during my trek.

Now, with these new security measures in place, I'm not sure that such a walk would be possible anymore. The extra time required for me and my backpack to go through scanners and detectors would probably eliminate the time savings of walking through the building rather than around it, and the fact that I was gaining entrance to the Capitol just to walk through it would likely raise the eyebrows of security staff; nobody, not even university students, are above suspicion anymore.

It's just a sign of the times.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Spirit to charge passengers for carry-on items

I guess this was inevitable, but it still annoys me:
With many airlines now charging a fee for checked luggage, the next step had to come sometime: A carrier asking passengers to pay for the privilege of bringing carry-on bags on board.

Well, that time is here.

Spirit Airlines announced Tuesday that it will charge its customers $20 to $45 for items they place in the overhead bins.

The cost depends on whether passengers are members of the airline's ultra-low fare club and whether they "pre-reserve" their carry-on bag in advance.

Each passenger will still able to bring one personal item that fits under a seat for free, such as a purse, briefcase, backpack or laptop computer. They also won't have to pay extra for items such as diaper bags, pet containers and cameras.

Airline officials called it a "bring less; pay less" policy that would ultimately benefit customers.

"In addition to lowering fares even further, this will reduce the number of carry-on bags, which will improve inflight safety and efficiency by speeding up the boarding and deplaning process," Chief Operating Officer Ken McKenzie said in a statement.

In the airline industry's zeal to wring more money from their customers by charging to check baggage, they overlooked the most obvious consequence of such a move: that it would cause more people to pack all their belongings into rollerboards and other carry-ons, thereby crowding overhead luggage compartments and making the boarding and alighting process longer as people tried to cram impossibly overstuffed bags into overhead bins. It was only a matter of time before airlines addressed this issue by doing what they do best: charging their customers another fee. And although I hope it backfires, I'm afraid that Spirit is just the first of many airlines that will attempt this. We've simply come to the point in the ongoing degradation of the commercial aviation industry that, if you deem to do something as extravagant as actually take things with you when you travel, regardless if you check them or carry them on, you'll need to be prepared to pay up.

I wasn't ever planning on flying Spirit before this announcement - they don't even fly to Houston, after all - so I'm sure they won't miss me or my carry-on bag fee.

Why fare-free public transportation is a bad idea

Public transportation is a taxpayer-subsidized public service, like police and fire protection, parks and libraries. Farebox revenues only cover a fraction of a transit authority's operating costs, and none of its capital costs. So why not make public transportation fare-free? More people would be encouraged to use the service if it were free, the thinking goes, thereby reducing congestion, improving air quality and enhancing overall quality of life. So why not eliminate the time and cost required for collecting fares and just make the service open and available to all?

I have a different take. I think that fare-free public transportation would, in fact, discourage a lot of people from using public transportation.

First, in order make public transportation attractive to "choice" riders (i.e. people who have cars of their own), it needs to provide a level of service that at least comes somewhere within the range of mobility provided by a private car. That's very hard to do, of course, but one way to try to do so is to provide a system that serves as many places as possible and offers service that is reasonably reliable and frequent. The elimination of fares would take away at least a portion of a transit agency's revenues, which in turn would likely lead to service cuts: the elimination of routes, the reduction of frequencies, fewer hours of service, increased breakdowns due to maintenance cuts, et cetera. Far from attracting new riders to transit, it will make the system less convenient to use and end up turning them -and existing riders - away.

Second, fares, nominal though they might be, at least provide something of an barrier to entry. If that barrier is eliminated, then every bus and train will immediately become a rolling homeless shelter and/or rowdy teenager hangout. That, in turn, will make other riders uncomfortable and less inclined to use public transportation.

The third and best reason against making public transportation free, however, comes from one of a list of reasons at Keep Houston Houston:
People don’t value what they don’t pay for
It’s a pretty simple concept, really. Removing fares shifts the public perception of transit away from “something people pay for, which we also subsidize” to “a free public good.” In a sprawling, widely-annexed city like Houston, where most voters have little to no *actual* contact with the transit system (as evidenced by these sorts of crappy proposals), it seems inevitable that fareless transit would ultimately lead to reduced service quality, by eroding peoples’ respect for transit riders’ rights. If you think of transit as welfare, you’ll probably have less of an issue making it as onerous as possible to use – if you want the proof for this statement, just look at what we’ve done with the welfare system over the last 15 years.
Exactly. Even if it is mostly subsidized through tax revenues, the fact that a fare is being collected gives transit's actual users a special sense of ownership of the system because they pay for the service twice: once through taxes and again through fares. That, in turn, empowers them to hold the agency accountable for things like shelters that are clean or buses that run on time. Eliminate fares and the user becomes no more of an "owner" of the system than the public at large. This reduces or eliminates entirely the rider's sense of empowerment and leads to a lack of respect for riders' needs. Service quality degrades, and people are discouraged from using the system.

Reasonable people can differ as to how to encourage transit ridership or how much of transit's costs should be recovered through actual user fees. But fare-free public transportation is not the solution to either issue. Far from encouraging people to ride transit, it will result in a system that is less reliable, less user-friendly and less attractive to current as well as potential riders.

Kuff is on the same wavelength.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Commuting hell

Is the trade-off between that big house in the suburbs and that long commute to work really worth it?

David Brooks, summarizing the current state of happiness research:

The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting. According to one study, being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year.

In other words, the best way to make yourself happy is to have a short commute and get married. I'm afraid science can't tell us very much about marriage so let's talk about commuting. A few years ago, the Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer announced the discovery of a new human foible, which they called "the commuters paradox". They found that, when people are choosing where to live, they consistently underestimate the pain of a long commute. This leads people to mistakenly believe that the big house in the exurbs will make them happier, even though it might force them to drive an additional hour to work.

Of course, as Brooks notes, that time in traffic is torture, and the big house isn't worth it. According to the calculations of Frey and Stutzer, a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. Another study, led by Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger, surveyed nine hundred working women in Texas and found that commuting was, by far, the least pleasurable part of their day.

Why is traffic so unpleasant? One reason is that it's a painful ritual we never get used to - the flow of traffic is inherently unpredictable. As a result, we don't habituate to the suffering of rush hour. (Ironically, if traffic was always bad, and not just usually bad, it would be easier to deal with. So the commutes that really kill us are those rare days when the highways are clear.) As the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes, "Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day."

I personally find sitting in rush-hour traffic to be intolerable in its stressfulness and frustration, which is why I prefer to live in the inner city and close to major employment centers, even though housing is generally more expensive than it is in the suburbs. And, it's why when I did live in the suburbs, I took advantage of METRO's extensive and frequent HOV-based park and ride bus service to commute to downtown. I could nap, read the paper or listen to music while somebody else drove, and I didn't have to pay to park once I got to the central business district.

Life is too short to make us unhappy. Driving in rush-hour traffic clearly makes us so. Which is why I remain a believer in the ability of things like public transportation, carpooling, HOV lanes and congestion pricing to improve our quality of life.

Houston's new basketball coach

In what many Cougar fans apparently wish was a bad April Fool's joke, the University of Houston presented their newest men's basketball coach today. James Dickey, the 56-year-old former head coach at Texas Tech, will take over the program's reigns.

This choice was, well, unexpected. Speculation among UH faithful was that the job was former Texas A&M and Kentucky Coach Billy Clyde Gillepsie's for the taking, or if not him then an up-and-comer like Sam Houston's State's Bob Marlin or Texas assistant Rodney Terry. Dickey's name wasn't even part of the discussion until early this week. When word leaked out that Dickey was indeed the man, the UH fan message boards were sent into a frenzy of teeth-gnashing and wailing. For UH fans hoping for a hire that would bring buzz and excitement back to a program that Tom Penders had rescued from the dead but had taken as far as he could take it, this announcement was a disappointment. Which is understandable, considering that Dickey hasn't been a head coach in nine years and was out of college basketball entirely for the last two.

While at Texas Tech, Dickey had some very good programs, including a team in the mid-90s that went 30-2 and made it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen. However, an academic scandal at Tech (for which Dickey was not implicated) brought the program down; his last four seasons at Texas Tech were losing ones. In 2001, Dickey left to become an assistant at Oklahoma State, where he remained until two seasons ago. Dickey's most recent job was coaching a girl's middle school team.

So why were head coaching candidates with more recent experience passed over for this guy? Was Dickey really UH Athletics Director Mack Rhoades' first choice? Speculation as to what actually happened regarding this hire - that Gillespie made too many demands regarding the job or that his past history was seen as a liability to the University - is rampant, but a consensus seems to be forming that Rhoades mishandled this hire. Local sports talk radio host Matt Jackson offered an interesting story about the hire on his blog:
I talked with a coach who was involved with the UH job, and was well aware of the process. His understanding was the following: the search firm in question made the AD aware from the beginning that they did not want to be involved with the search if Billie Gillispie was a target. They had been burned by the Kentucky situation and did not want to have to potentially give any negative feedback about him. The AD proceeded to use them anyway and when they found about it, they pulled themselves out of the process. The AD probably assumed he had BG in his back pocket, but never bothered to run the idea up the "flag pole" of the School President's office to find out if she would approve of hiring Gillispie.

This was no rubber stamp situation. While this charade was going on, "Plan B" Bob Marlin accepted the job at U-La-La. Now Mac Rhodes was in full out panic mode because he insisted on hiring a coach with head coaching experience. A friend of James Dickey's who also happened to have the ear of Mac Rhodes recommended that Mac interview Dickey for the job. Apparently not wanting to hire an assistant coach, James Dickey was the last man standing for the job.
I have know way of independently knowing if Matt Jackson's source is correct. What I do know is that one of my major concerns about Mack Rhoades when he became AD last year was that he had no experience in hiring head coaches while at his previous job at Akron. If this story is true, then my concern was well-founded and my faith in Rhoades' abilities going forward is compromised.

With that said, what's done is done and it's time for the UH faithful to cool off and move on. I have nothing against James Dickey and I hope he does well here. For what it's worth, the Chronicle's Richard Justice thinks he can. If Dickey can recruit locally and put a consistent and well-coached product on the floor - two things that Tom Penders was never really able to do here - then maybe things will turn out fine. Throw some much-needed facilities upgrades to Hofheinz in the mix, and UH basketball might even be nationally competitive again. Time will tell, and I hope for the best.

Right now, however, I'm still underwhelmed. It feels like UH has done nothing more than trade in one retread coach for another.