Book Review: Don’t Eat This Book

Don't Eat This Book

Don’t Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America by Morgan Spurlock is probably best thought of as the companion book to the author’s award-winning documentary, Super Size Me. They both cover a lot of the same ground: fast food is EXTREMELY unhealthy for you, fast food corporations are predatory in their marketing practices, schools are negligent in their duties to facilitate good nutrition and physical education, and beneath its thin veneer the “big food” industry is more unwholesome as you can even imagine. The slight difference is that while the movie spent most of its time following Spurlock’s McDiet, the book branches off a bit. But not a whole lot.

Now, I have some issues with Spurlock. Following the success of Super Size Me he produced and sometimes starred in a television show called “30 Days.” Each week someone did something improbable and diametrically opposed to his/her worldview for 30 days to see what we could all learn. Examples included a Christian fundamentalist living with a Muslim family and a soccer mom binge drinking like her college age daughter. It’s the evolution of the neat hook that Super Size Me had, but my problem with Spurlock is that even when he’s making arguments that I agree with, many of the supposedly genuine situations were obviously forced and contrived for the sake of whatever point he was trying to ram through. (If you want examples, ask in the comments of this post and I’ll provide them.) The disengenuineness got so bad that I quit watching the 30 Days show.

So that’s where my mind was going into this book. Fortunately, it’s not that bad. Spurlock mainly sticks to straight forward arguments in the book, railing against McDonalds and its ilk. He also gives some background information about how the documentary came to be and what his life was like afterwards. None of this was news to me –I know fast food is awful and awful for you, and I know that most Americans (myself included, most weeks) don’t exercise enough. Yet Spurlock does manage to communicate the degree to which all of this is true, and that’s pretty motivational and got me to think more about my eating habits (not to mention those of my young daughters). So that was good. It certainly had an impact on me.

On the other hand, Spurlock continues to have problems with credibility. Not that I necessarily disagree with most of his statements, but he often comes across as puerile in his ranting. This is most apparent when he makes stupid puns at the expense of his targets, like referring to fast food as “McCrap” or calling the late Robert Atkins (of the Atkins Diet fame) “Dr. Fatkins.” And in the audiobook version I listened to, when Spurlock –who himself narrates the audiobook– reads quotes from his opponents he often does so using an exaggerated and mocking tone, like he’s providing the voice for some cartoon weasel. Quotes from those supporting his arguments aren’t given the same treatment. These kinds of ad hominem arguments are probably meant for comedic effect, but they distract from Spurlock’s own credibility even more. And then there’s the stuff about how he accuses the providers of McDonald’s beef of feeding ground up bits of cows to other cows (a practice which the FDA banned years ago, though he doesn’t mention it) and how the omission of the word “Milk” from the name of McDonald’s shakes is due to their containing some unholy chemical instead of dairy (even though McDonald’s own website lists “whole milk” as one of the main ingredients).

So, all in all I’d suggest that before picking up this book you watch the movie, Super Size Me instead. It’s a lot better and more to the point. If you’ve already done that or if you’re still hungry (figuratively) for more, read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. It’s a better book on the same subject and it’s free from many of this book’s faults.

Week 200: Counting, Bouncing, and Decorating

Why does counting work? By this point in her life it’s apparent that Samantha is not something that I can control, like the various limbs attached to my body or a food processor with exact and discrete settings. Often her only purpose seems to refuse to do what we tell her, simply because we are telling her to do it. Something as simple as picking up her toys doesn’t become a struggle, it becomes a FULL SCALE, ALL CAPS BATTLE ROYAL THAT MAKES GETTYSBURG LOOK LIKE A TEA PARTY. A while back I discovered that threatening to count to three sometimes gets Sam to grudgingly obey, apparently because it sends the message to her brain that oh geez things are serious now and if she doesn’t at least momentarily acquiesce then there will be shouting and time outs and dear God maybe one less book read at bedtime. It often works, but I’m reluctant to use it since I think it has caused her to hold a grudge against counting and mathematics in general. She’s not going to become an astrophysicist-slash-celebrity-chef with a handicap like that.

Then my mom, who was visiting for Thanksgiving, struck on a particular bit of mental manipulation that I can only describe as pure genius. One night when the time came to pick up her copious crap from the living room floor so we could enjoy the evening without impaling the arch of our feet with brightly colored blocks, my mom said “Sam, I bet I can count to fifty before you can pick up all these toys. One… Two…”

Sam stood up with a stunned deer in the headlights look on her face, clearly uncertain what to do. She didn’t like picking up, but if there’s one thing she seems to like less, it’s losing a contest. By the time my mom hit “Five…” Sam started shrieking and rushing around the room, tossing plastic plates, blocks, and toy pianos into the toy chest at what I can only describe as a frantic pace. Whenever she got distracted or slowed down, my mom would just day “I’m gonna win, Sam! I’m gonna win!” and keep counting. This would result in renewed shrieking and putting away of toys.

I’ve tried this trick a couple of night since, and it still works beautifully. I never get past forty or so, because Sam always finishes, throws up her fists, and shouts “I WIN! YOU LOSE, DADDY! YOU LOSE!” I just shrug sheepishly and tell her that her reward is to get herself up there and take a bath.

This is not to say that I’m the only one enjoying my mom’s visit. Earlier in the week we took her to a place called “Bounce U” which sounds vaguely educational, like they’re going to teach the kids how to jump, but when we got there it turned out to basically be a huge warehouse that someone had filled with those giant, inflatable bouncie castles, slides, and basketball hoops. The idea was that you yanked your kids’ shoes off, tossed them in there (your kids, not their shoes), and sat back while they bounced around like popcorn kernels and you somewhat hoped that none of them get concussions until the hour and a half of playtime you just paid for was over.

Sam liked all this quite a bit, but it did put to the test the lesson of “waiting your turn.” When you’ve got a couple of dozen keyed up kids –many of them boys– screaming and climbing on these things like ants on a sugar cube, waiting your turn means not getting a turn. I climbed to the top of one of the big slides with Sam, then told her to wait while the two timid girls in front of her gathered their courage to go down. Before I could even get the words out of my mouth, though, a battalion of boys shoved past us, pushed the girls aside, and went down. After that I just kind of quietly booted the other girls aside and told Sam to go go go! She went.

Lots of Christmas themed pictures this week, because we got our stuff up right after Thanksgiving after I discovered that Sam is old enough to be preoccupied for a couple of hours by hanging tree ornaments. Mandy did her part by managing to find every one of those ornament hanging hooks and trying to cram it in her mouth like a suicidal fish. So we found a substitute in the form of one of those vibrating massage thingies. I like this and this pictures of Sam because they were taken less than two seconds apart and pretty well capture how her attitudes can fluctuate between “I will destroy you” and “Aren’t I sweet?”

And that’s all for this week. It occurs to me that this is the 200th weekly Parenting post I’ve done on this blog since Sam was born. Wow. Two hundred posts. I’m kind of surprised, honestly. This started out as just a way to share Sam’s birth with my family and a few friends, but it has really taken on a life of its own and developed into a written and pictorial history of my kids’ early lives and my first 200 weeks as a parent. I’m glad I’ve done it, and while 200 would be a convenient stopping point I find that I’d miss doing it even though it’s hard to find the time some weeks. So while I didn’t do anything fancy like I did for the 100 week milestone, I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.

Book Review: Making Comics

Making Comics

Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Magna, and Graphic Novels by Scott McCloud is, like his other books on related subjects, basically a non-fiction comic. It’s a faintly academic treatment of sequential art using the comics medium itself. This works pretty well, as he’s able to literally illustrate his points using his own comics and other drawings on the page. So when he talks about the six different kinds of panel-to-panel transition types, he does so by presenting a comic that uses each one. And it helps a great deal that McCloud’s style is easy to read, engaging, and often entertaining.

McCloud is also a consumate classification geek, the kind of person who would get stomach cramps if he were to come across a pile of stuff and wasn’t allowed to sort it, organize it, and develop a taxonomy to describe it. Like I said, his treatment of the process of making and understanding comics is a bit academic, and the book is full of diagrams, symbols, and the other models he creates in order to organize, distill, and communicate the nature of the medium. Even something as apparently simple as combining words and pictures gets broken out into a model for seven unique ways that words and pictures can be combined on the page: Word-Specific, Picture-Specific, Due-Specific, Intersecting, Interdependent, Parallel, and Montage.

This kind of thing really appeals to the geek & scientist parts of me even though I don’t actually read comics, much less make them. But I occasionally like stepping outside my normal realms of expertise when I read, and this is kind of the same thing. Still, there were parts of the book that applies to one of my other hobbies. The parts that talk about frame composition, for example, are relevant to composing photographs. And the entire chapter on body language has some information that could be really useful if I ever get around to working with more human subjects.

All in all, it’s a quick read and even if some of McCloud’s models seem to be arbitrary classification for the sake of classification it’s all done in a pretty readable and entertaining style. And, I suppose, you may walk away with a little more appreciation for all the work that goes on behind the scenes to make a really good comic. Hopefully.

Week 199: Visits, Jabber, and Hot Water

Short update this week, since things are busy. My mom is in town visiting for Thanksgiving, and given that I still have to work most days this means that she’s really less visiting me and more visiting her grandchildren. Which I guess is just fine since they seem to enjoy it. She reads them books and brings them things. I do these things, too, but apparently it’s not the same.

Mandy is still very mobile, and increasingly vocal. She’s jabbering to herself and us in conversational tones all the time, like she’s got this language stuff down pat and just needs to fill in the vocabulary. This picture kind of cracks me up, because it looks like she’s in the middle of a nice chat with her girlfriends over at the coffee shop. She’s still not quite as expressive as Sam was at that age, but she’s quickly getting there. She’s also taken to mimicing actions to the extent she can. The other night in the tub she kept dunking her hands into a bucket of water and rubbing them through her hair, like she was lathering up –an action she’d seen us do to both herself and Sam.

Speaking of bath time, Sam made me wonder about her last night. She was sitting in the tub and the water had gone cool, so I told her to scoot back while I ran some new hot water warm things up. I very clearly said “Sam, this is HOT. Don’t touch the water coming out of the faucet.” Of course, she looks right at me, then leans forward to put one of her toy fish under the steaming stream. Because apparently I needed to be taught a lesson about who’s really in charge here, laws of thermodynamics to the contrary.

I had made sure the water wasn’t scalding hot, but it was hot enough. She jerked back in surprise and looked up at me with wide eyes.

“What the hell, Sam?” I said, throwing up my hands. “Sprechen sie Englisch? I JUST TOLD YOU it was hot and not to touch it. It will BURN you!”

She paused for a moment, looked at the steaming water, looked at me, looked back at the water, looked back at me. Then she picked the fish back up and started leaning forward towards the faucet again.

I can’t tell if she’s incapable of picking up a lesson that most lab mice would grasp after a few trials or if she’s just so strong willed that she’s willing to risk personal injury just to put me in my place. Lord help me, I’m not sure which I’d prefer some times.

This Post Has Not Been Photoshopped


I recently joined a local camera club to try and get out to meet people who are also interested in photography and spending money on photography and photography related things. The club in my area is actually huge –one of the biggest in the country, in fact– and they have weekly meetings. Part of the standard agenda for these meetings is a photo competition, in which anyone can enter pictures in one of three classes –basically Rookie, Intermediate, and Super Fancy. There are also different types of competitions, like Black & White, Color, Photojournalism, Nature, Travel, etc. During the competitions a guest judge goes through each picture, comments on it briefly, and in the end picks 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners, in addition to a certain number of Honorable Mentions. So far this has been my favorite part of the meetings, because I learn a lot by studying other people’s pictures and listening to someone more experienced than I critique them.

Anyway, last night I entered the picture above in my first competition in the Projected (read: Digital) Color category. I think it’s a cute picture with decent composition, a nice curve, and some colors that go well together. No great shakes, but worth throwing out there and better than some of the pics I had seen entered into previous competitions. To my surprise, I won an Honorable Mention. The only annoying and slightly disheartening thing was that the judge kind of came across like he was giving it the HM as a joke. He laughed when he saw the photo, but I didn’t think much of it at first since it’s kind of a silly picture and a good chuckle isn’t outside of the expected range of reactions.

But then he started insisting that the duck had been pasted in with Photoshop (which I can assure you it had not) and that he admired my moxie or somesuch. He kept giggling at the picture each time he came back to it in the winnowing process, so I was both surprised and confused each time he didn’t eliminate it and finally awarded it the HM. It was like he was giving it the award on the weight of the joke and sillyness instead of its merits as a photograph. This feeling was reinforced by the fact that he made no comments about the artistic or technical aspects of the picture, as he did with a lot of the others.

So, in the end I’m not entirely sure if he was serious or not when giving me the award. I guess it doesn’t matter a whole lot, since I got my points for placing in the competition and it hasn’t deterred me from my intentions to enter future ones. It was just kind of an odd moment.

Week 198: Leaves, Standing, and Memory

Ah, autumn. Next to having blandly perfect weather year round (c.f., Southern California) it’s my favorite season. The fall foliage in this part of the country is often spectacular, and raking up leaves provides the perfect opportunity for a gullible child who still can’t discern the difference between playing in the yard and working in it. And kids, you know your dad is into photography when he makes you wait until an hour before sunset when the light is the best to go out and do this sort of thing. Worth it, though, as this is my new favorite picture of Samantha. Her pose is just so natural and relaxed there, so that she really does look more like a little girl than anything like a “toddler.” I think it’s one of those mile marker photos that should probably go in a scrapbook somewhere.

Mandy has been hitting her own milestones, too, such as pulling herself up into a standing position without intervention from humans, animals, or robots programmed to assist with child rearing but never really taught to love. I’m not sure how we got to this point, but it has resulted in Mandy’s community becoming a gated one, with blockades across all dangerous paths. The problem is that Sam isn’t able to open and close the gates herself, so we’re constantly on ferry duty, lifting her back and forth over the gates so that she can go to the bathroom or retrieve some toy she deliberately threw over there just because she thinks this is some kind of game.

One thing I’ve noticed with Sam is that she’s now gotten old enough to remember stuff, and then forget it. A simple exercise in memory diving on my own part is sufficient to remind me that none of us recalls the details of our youngest years. The earliest memory I can currently dredge up is a fuzzy one of my walking through the living room of our house in Oklahoma City and talking to my Dad about some books with weird covers that were on the bookshelf. But that’s it. Everything before that is gone, as is a fair amount of stuff since, such as some thing that Geralyn said she was going to go to some night this week and could I please be home from work in time to watch the kids while she gets ready?

Anyway, Sam has begun to forget going places and doing things when she was younger. The other day I took her to a kids museum that she had fun with once, and she claimed to have never been there. Or there was the other time I talked to her about something we had seen in the San Diego Zoo, and she looked at me like I was trying to screw with her and she was totally on to me, man. Even if I show her photographic proof that she WAS there, she remains skeptical.

In a way, I feel like this is a total rip-off. I mean come on! I spend all this time with her and teach her all these things and she doesn’t remember it just because that’s the way the brain works for some reason? Should I have just stayed home that day and sat her in front of the TV if she’s not going to remember all this superlative parenting action going on over here?

The answer, of course, is “No,” as in “No, you moron, why would you even think that?” Sam may not recall it, but she (and Mandy, for that matter) got benefits out of all of those activities. It may not affect her memory, but I’m sure it affected (for better or worse) her development, her personality, and her long-term relationship with me and Geralyn. And, of course, the answer to the problem of the memory hole is simple: In the future I will have her read and memorize this blog. Any time she asks for anything, she will be subjected to a pop quiz drawn from a databank of several thousand multiple choice questions relating to previous blog entries.

So, I hope she studies hard. Because we’re not going back to the zoo until she tells me everything about it.

Book Review: Lies My Teacher Told Me

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Ostensibly, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen is a book about factual inaccuracies found in a survey of twelve popular History textbooks. That’s a good hook, but unfortunately once the hook gets you the place it pulls you into is slightly different than what you might expect. This book might more accurately be titled Subtle Biases Created by Questionable Omissions in A Few Textbooks. But that, of course, is not quite as bombastic a title and you probably wouldn’t read the book, would you?

After a brief false start involving how Hellen Keller was a raging Communist, Loewen starts his review of American history in precolonial days, beginning with the atrocities of the Conquistadors and other European explorers. Then it moves on to the atrocities of the White European settlers. Then the atrocities of the early American, White colonists. Then the atrocities of the antebellum slave owners. Then the atrocities of the postbellum racists. Then the atrocities of the opponents of the civil rights movement. You see the pattern here? It holds up for most of the book.

Throughout it all, Loewen does a pretty good job of showing how textbooks often omit information and whitewash (pun intended) the characters of prominent Europeans and Americans, such as Christopher Columbus and Abraham Lincoln. And it is pretty interesting to read how, for example, textbooks describe how the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were “storm battered” and floundered into the shores of the new world full of crews on the brink of mutiny, while Columbus’s own personal journal pretty much says that hey, the weather has been awesome this whole trip and everyone is still in a great mood. Or how Lincoln made several campaign speeches in which he turned his nose at the idea of racial equality.

And Loewen makes good points about how these omissions seem to be systematic done towards the end of downplaying the unpleasant (like, say, the genocide of Native Americans through disease and murder) and emphasizing the heroic (like, say, taming a wilderness that in truth wasn’t that wild because the Indians had already cultivated it but are dead now). At times, his comments are impressively subtle, like when he notes how textbooks often credit President Kennedy and other governmental institutions for coming up with anti-discrimination legislation during the 60s, when the government was, for the most part, bowing to pressure from civil rights activists, who really deserve all the credit. This kind of misinformation, he argues, teaches that Blacks and their White allies were not the ones who enacted these changes can thus not expect to view them as inspirations for future battles. It’s a subtle point, but Loewen makes good arguments that stuff like this is all in the name of making us feel good about our country and unquestioning about our pride in our history. And he’s good about describing how this is doing a disservice to people both as students of history and as eventual participants in our system of government.

BUT, that all being said, I’m not quite sure I’ve ever read anything so awash in liberal White guilt as this book. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with any of this, but the tone of the work is often offsetting and sometimes approaches zealotry. I was really hoping to read more interesting tidbits about stuff that history books get wrong, the kind of stuff that might serve well as idle chit-chat at my next dinner party or bar crawl. But it doesn’t take long for it to become apparent that that’s not what this books is about. It’s really just a vehicle for Loewen’s politics. Not that there’s anything wrong with that and not that I found myself disagreeing with his politics too often (well, sometimes). It’s just not the book I expected or even really wanted.

Week 197: Hallowee, Jokes, and Legs

The big event for us this week was, of course, Halloween. Mandy is still too young to know what the heck is going on, but Sam took much delight in the festivities this year. Indeed, her obsession started months ago, when she insisted that she wanted to dress up as a dragon. We had initially written it off as a passing fancy brought on by one too many viewings of Shrek (the scenes with Donkey and the amorous dragon are her favorite). She surprised us by holding fast, however, so Geralyn found a great Lady Dragon costume in a mail-order catalog for like $20. You can tell it’s a lady dragon by how they gave her enough lipstick, mascara, and rouge to outfit an entire red light district. Mandy was not quite sure what to make of it but she was amazed by the candy.

When the time came to trick or treat we let Sam go for it, wandering up to the door and receive sweets. She seemed to mutter “Happy Halloween” and “Thanks” under her breath for the most part, but whenever someone made the mistake of saying “What a great dinosaur costume!” Sam found her voice and would shriek “I’M A DRAGON!” quite loudly. Then she would demand satisfaction in the form of more candy. We lasted maybe 30 or 45 minutes before she got tired and had me carry her home.

When, by the way, did it become traditional to ask kids to tell a joke when they come to your door? The kids who came to our house were ready with the quips, but these requests bamboozled Sam when she was making her rounds. By the end of the night she had kind of caught on, but had concocted a hodge podge of humorous gags:



“Where do ghosts like to eat fruit?”



Followed by peals of shrieking, sugar fueled laughter. As far as I could tell this was an amalgamation of “Where do ghosts like to water ski?” (answer: Lake Eerie) and “What’s a vampire’s favorite fruit?” (answer: nectarines). I have no idea where robot butt came from. My favorite joke of the night: “Did you hear about the bomb disposal technician who got the entire left half of his body blown off? No? Well, don’t worry –he’s all right now.” Know who came up with that one? ME.

While Mandy didn’t do much trick or treating beyond going along for the ride, she is busy nailing more developmental milestones. She can now stand up. She can’t pull up by herself yet, but if you get her into position she can stay that way pretty much indefinitely. I started to time her once, but then got bored and lost track.

That picture of Mandy standing upright, by the way, highlights something that I guess is incontrovertible at this point: Mandy is a Madigan. I mean, look at those legs. Specifically, notice how long they are not. Now look at her torso. Notice how it’s pretty much normally proportioned. Mandy, if you’re reading this years from now, just know that your Aunt Shawn and I really do feel for you. We do. But there are benefits! Pants that are shorts on ordinary people magically become capri pants on you! You can reach things on the lower shelves of the supermarket without stooping. That’s invaluable! And best of all, with short arms and legs it’s easy to start lifting weights and make them look totally huge and buff where tall, skinny people (like, say, your sister Samantha) have to resort to dangerous steroid abuse.

You see, you have to have a positive attitude about these things.