Monday, April 26, 2010

The 100 Calorie Fallacy

I was hungry for a little snack the other day, so I went into the pantry to scrounge for something to eat. After scanning the shelves, I decided on a small 100 calorie pack of fruit snacks. You know, the sugary jelly treat shaped like fruits and artificially flavored to taste like fruit. Yummy. When my snack attack was finally satisfied, three empty bags of fruit snacks sat in the trashcan. You heard me. Three. I had three hundred calories of fruit snacks and it was good. But it got me thinking what a racket food manufacturers have going with the low calories packs.

When you purchase a processed food item, you used to only have one choice in size—whatever the manufacturer decided. Then we saw the age of supersized packages and jumbo this and mega that. And then, at the turn of the century, we began to see low calorie packaging. Fueled by the outrage at America’s obesity incidence and prevalence, we began loudly professing to want to eat healthier and in moderation. Scared at the potential loss of business, the junk food companies schemed and created the low calorie package.

On the surface it all seems so benign. If you are trying to lose weight and want to cut your calories, you need to be able to count them first. The beauty of the 100 calorie pack is that has already been counted for you. You know exactly how much food is 100 calories. So with a balanced regimen and metered snack packs, Americans should be losing weight like crazy! But of course, we are not. In fact, both the incidence and prevalence of obesity are rising, boosting great money makers such as The Biggest Loser and Food Revolution.

What is the problem? It is obvious, is it not? We have no self control. And by “we” I mean “you”, because I clearly was able to stop at three packs of fruit snacks. Sadly, this is not so for the majority of people. We are fools to believe that a sealed package will actually keep us from our food. One hundred calories of shortbread cookies? Please. I would eat all ten packs in the box. The ploy is perfect because while the correct thing to do is to not eat any shortbread cookies at all, the manufacturer has created a false sense of security with this tiny little package. They also know full well that the odds dictate a lack of self control leading only to more consumption of their product.

That is not really a problem, though. Or at least not a new problem. Our lack of self control is well documented and best detailed by the supersize era of the 1990s. The new problem is that now you are paying more for your vice. In the past, when you purchase a king sized whatever, you knew you were paying more. More food, more money. Now you are paying more money for the same amount of food or even less food. When you buy a box of individually packaged snacks, you pay more that if you bought a simple box of snacks. For instance, a box of 100 calorie craisins may cost $3.29. An equivalent bag of craisins by weight would cost $2.39. You have just paid a dollar extra for the manufacturer to put the craisins in tiny little bags and tell you they are 100 calories worth of two bites and not worth your time to eat.

So we should by the regular bags and divvy up the food ourselves, right? If laziness and poor math skills were not our second and third best detailed traits, we would. How many people do you think you can pull off the street and calculate the weight of 100 calories of whatever if you gave them the packaging that had serving size and calories per serving? I shudder at the answer to that. But even if we did, our lack of self control would not allow us to stop at just one bag anyways. And even though we know we would eat more, we buy food packaged this way because it represents what we wish we would eat. And for craisins it will cost you a dollar. A dollar better spent even on a lottery ticket because at least you have a chance of winning. This is where the money is made. It is quite a racket. And so I have an instant millionaire idea—50 calorie packs. Do not be so surprised if you see it at your local megamart in the near future.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tandem Driving

For everyone out there that has either had to follow someone in a car or lead someone in a car to a destination, I am going to teach you the rules of tandem driving. They are not difficult. There are not many of them. And if followed by both parties may actually get you places faster than if you were driving one car.

Rule #1: Do not lose your follower. It sounds simple and almost self-explanatory, but you would be surprised how often this rule is violated. It is the number one reason people get lost when tandem driving. The infraction can be as simple as going through a very stale green light when the following car is sufficiently far behind you that it will hit the changing yellow light. Or even not waiting a turn at a full four way stop sign and putting two cars between you and the following car. (If you wait one turn, you would only have one car in between, which is much more easily overcome at a later time.) You may also forget that the following driver is not an aggressive driver, and so will not drive as fast as you. This can cause problems on the highway with merging cars.

Rule #2: Do not lose the leader. Of course, the converse is true for the driver following. How could it not be? If you notice that a light is stale green, and you think the leader will go through the intersection, you better close the gap before you end up running a red light. On the highway you have to keep at most three car lengths behind only. You are not a spy. There is no need to hang back when following. If by chance cars end up between you and the leader, you must try to pass them. Preferably on a long stretch where there are no exits for which you might need to scramble back into the exit lane. I would suggest the benefit of drafting behind the leader car, but that would imply driving rather fast, which I cannot advocate.

Rule #3: Use tandem driving to your advantage. This is the most underused and forgotten benefit of tandem driving. There certainly are many drawbacks to tandem driving, especially when one driver does not know how to get to the destination. However, there is one significant benefit. There will be times when you are driving on a multilane road and you will need to change lanes for an exit ramp, a turn, a faster lane, whatever. If the road is busy, switching lanes is easy for one car. But with two cars you risk losing the following car is they cannot change lanes as easily. If, however, the leading car puts on the turn signal to indicate the need to change lanes, the following car can change lanes first. Then the following car can slow down just enough to create room for the leading car to change lanes right in front of it. This is especially helpful when there are a lot of cars on the road.

Rule #4: Deal with speed demons. A very common occurrence while tandem driving is that cars will interpose themselves between you as they change lanes to drive faster. Often times this is because you are the faster drivers in the faster lane. However, because the distance between cars is also farther, an interposing car will only lengthen that distance, making it harder for one car to follow the other. In order to close this gap, the leading car needs to slow enough to cause the interposing speeding car to change lanes to a faster lane. The converse is not true with slow drivers—following cars should not tailgate slow drivers to make them change lanes. You simply pass them when you get to a long stretch of road. Leader cars should also notice when a slow car has interposed itself behind them and change lanes to allow the following car to close the gap.

Rule#5: Sometimes you just have to pull over. The final rule. Sometimes you do lose your following car at a red light or an awkward left turn or exit from a parking lot. You should pull over if you can to let your tandem partner catch up.

You might say that you could always just call each other and discuss upcoming turns and exits. (On speaker phone, of course…) Or just use GPS. And I would say that takes the fun out of both driving and tandem driving.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Flying Off The Handle

Flying is like going to Taco Bell. Despite having a horrible experience you keep coming back to it. Let me tell you about a recent flying experience with US Airways. I was flying with my family—my wife and two children, one of who is under a year old. We booked this flight months in advance through Orbitz. We chose seats on Orbitz. Since the youngest was to be an infant in lap, no seat was need for her. So we bought three seats, all together. Or so we thought. And so began the fiasco.

About a week before our trip I refreshed my memory as to our trip details, only to find that instead of having an entire row of seats—14D, 14E, and 14F, we had 14D, 14E, and “—“. Now where the hell is “—“ supposed to be on a plane? I will tell you where it is not. It is not 14F. So I log onto to Orbitz and go to seat selection. The seat map shows that the flight is essentially booked save a few seats in the front of the plane. But lo and behold! 7D, 7E, 7F are open, so I click on those. Orbitz refreshed and my seat assignments have not changed. I decide to check US Airways instead and find a site that is not Mac compatible. Fortunately, I have a Windows based computer as well. When I get onto the website and pull up my reservation, I find that the 7th row is in fact still wide open. I try to check-in online, thinking I can change my seats. It is still more than twenty four hours before our flight, but I try anyways. I am met with a window that says I cannot check-in online due to having an infant in lap traveler. I call customer service.

The first representative that assists me tells me that indeed I cannot check on online because of having an infant in lap traveler. This requires my presence at the ticket counter due to “security reasons”. Clearly a lame stock answer now used by airlines to avoid providing a real answer for any question they either do not wish to answer or for which have no logical answer. Whatever. I instead ask how I can change my seats to the 7th row, since I need three seats together. I am told that the 7th row seats are preferred seating and that I can purchase these seats online when I check in. I ask why I would be buying more tickets when I already have three tickets and she clarifies that these seats are an “upgrade” that costs $15 each. I ask her how I am to purchase these upgrades if I cannot check-in online due to having an infant in lap. She tells me that I will have to do it at the counter. I then ask her how that helps me if I have to wait until two hours before my flight to upgrade seats when anyone else can check in online twenty four hours before the flight and upgrade their seats before me. She has no answer for this. Probably security reasons.

As I hang up and mull the situation over, I remember that my wife and I discussed checking bags for this trip. We had been against checking bags long before the airlines starting raping their customers for it. My current record of lost bags—that had to be delivered up to a week later—for the last 5 years is 67%. That’s right. Two of every three times that I checked a bag it was lost. So I bought a smaller suitcase that actually fit the proscribed measurements of the airlines for overhead baggage and started only using carry-ons. The impropriety of other travelers trying to carry-on a 26” by 20” rolling suitcase can be railed on in another post. Anyways, I lookup the fee for checking baggage and find that it is cheaper if you check baggage online. It is only $2, but at this point I will be damned to fork over any more money to the airline. I realize that I cannot check-in online because of my infant in lap and therefore cannot check baggage online. I call customer service again.

The lady that answers sounds similar to the first representative, but is clearly not the same person. I start by asking how I can get the online baggage check price when I am prevented from checking in online. Without much effort, she tells me that she has made a note that I would like to check bags and should get the online price when I show up at the counter. Riding that tiny bit of progress, I asked how I could change seats since I could not check in online. The lady told me that I could purchase preferred seats when I checked in at the counter. I attempted to make her understand that trying to buy limited seats two hours before check in was not a viable solution when I needed an entire row on an essentially full flight. She then told me that she could remove the “infant in lap” from my reservation so that I could check in online twenty four hours ahead and purchase preferred seats at that time. I would then also be able to check baggage online at the cheaper rate as well. I pressed further, asking why I did not get a third seat when I initially purchasing my tickets. She reviewed the reservation and told me that because I went through Orbitz and not US Airways, my seats were never confirmed at the time of purchase. I should have called US Airways after my purchase through Orbitz to confirm my seats. A significant detail completely omitted by Orbitz. Had I called I would have been able to confirm my selected seats and had an entire row, negating my current predicament. After some more back and forth with customer service and growing frustration on both our ends, she finally gave up the information that 26E was still open. I asked if she could give me that seat and she did. A seat twelve rows away is better than no assigned at all. And she could not have given me that information earlier?

So I went home with the new plan that I could check in online twenty four hours before my flight and check my baggage online as well. I would then purchase the row of preferred seats in row seven and be done with the whole mess. Fast forward to twenty four hours before departure. I go online to check in. I am allowed because the system no longer believes I have an infant in lap. I attempt to purchase preferred seats and find two problems. The first is that I am not allowed to purchase a preferred seat, no explanation given. The second is that one of the seats in row seven is now occupied. In my fury, I call customer service yet again. I ask why I am unable to buy a preferred seat. I am transferred to the web department, since there are the only ones that can “fix” these sorts of problems. Judging from my interaction with the representative, it is a group of employees in a room with desktop computers. The man tells me I cannot purchase a preferred seat because the airport has taken over seat selection and it can only be done at the counter. Let us remember that point. He tells me this because he uses the confirmation code I give him and enters it into the US Airways website just as I did. So essentially, he replicated my actions and wasted ten minutes of my life. I hang up and call customer service again.

This time a man answers and I explain the sequence of events that led me to him. I mention that now even fewer open seats remain open. He tells me that row seven is a preferred seating row that can only be purchased up to twenty four hours before departure. I counter with the fact that the seating map has changed with seats becoming occupied and that clearly some people are able to change or purchase seats. He apologizes for not being clear and clarifies by stating that they are available only to frequent flyers first and then to everybody else last. I point out again that it is less than twenty four hours before departure and ask when it would then be available to everybody else—two hours before departure? He has no answer except that the airport had taken control of those seats. I am sure it is for “security reasons”. I ask him how I am supposed to get better seats. In his exasperation he offers that seat 13E is the only seat open. Immediately I ask if he can give me that seat instead of 26E. He changes the seat. I go home and check in online and purchase two checked bags.

I then write Orbitz a scathing email about the fact they do not recommend calling the airline to confirm seats. They only state, “Policies on advance seating vary by airline. Some airlines assign seats immediately, others may only assign seats 90 days before a flights and several airlines wait to assign seats until the day of flight”. I make specific mention is my email that seat selection was open from before I purchased my ticket. The reply email offers cursory apologies and asks that I call customer service so that they may win back my business. I call. The man that answers not only has no clue why I am calling after he pulls up my account, but chooses instead to repeat the same inapplicable policy to me. I state that I confirmed with US Airways that seat selection was open long before I purchased my ticket. His response is that Orbitz forwards seat selection to the airlines after purchase of the ticket. I counter that Orbitz does not recommend or direct customers to call the airlines for seat confirmation. His response is that the trip receipt from Orbitz will state if seats were confirmed. I hang up on him.

The next day we go to the airport and at the web check in kiosk there is no record of my online baggage check. Having predicted this problem, I flag down an attendant and explain my problem. He insists on repeating my actions at the kiosk. Discovering that there is indeed no record of my checked baggage, he turfs me to another attendant. After about ten minutes the new attendant has us checked in . I ask if there any open seats we might possibly switch. I get a terse no.

When we finally board the plane, we wait until the holder of 14F arrives. This twenty something appears to be traveling alone and with a larger than necessary rolling carry-on suitcase. We ask if she is willing to switch seats—her window for a center seat. She looks at our children and gives a somewhat hesitant agreement.

So what have we learned from all this? First, airlines do not like families. Second, if you do not get what you want from customer service, call again. And again. And again, until you get what you want. Do you hear that, customer service? Stock answers do not work, and customers will only tie up the phone lines more until you actually offer customer service. Third, Orbitz offers nothing other than comparison of prices. Use it to compare prices and then call the airline directly. You will at the very least get the seats you want.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


It is tax time again. I went to my local post office to mail in my tax return. It was Thursday 1:30 pm. It was not a holiday. It was after lunch. When I got there, I was met by a ten person line and one postal employee. Now this post office has three areas for three employees to help customers. And only one person was working. All the people in line, including me, were rolling their eyes. For twenty minutes we all stood there in silence, waiting for the lone attendant to take care of each customer. Then another employee appeared and asked if anyone was “just picking up packages”. When no one stepped forward, he disappeared into the back as quickly as he appeared. By this time I had invested twenty five minutes in line, and was not about to get out of line. And the line behind me had grown by five more people. Fortunately, the line did move, and I finally mailed my tax return, marked certified mail.

This did get me thinking, though. Last year the United States Postal Service (USPS) announced that it lost $3.8 billion in the last fiscal year. That is on top of accumulated losses of $7.2 billion over 2007 and 2008. Apparently the USPS has the ability to “borrow” money from the federal government—$3 billion a year, but cannot maintain a debt greater than $15 billion. On top of all this the USPS is delivering less mail—26 billion pieces less last year, and predicted to deliver 11 billion less pieces this year.

There are several things blamed for the financial troubles of the USPS, including the rise of internet billpay, rising healthcare costs, and employee pensions. And the USPS is a leg down compared to other companies, especially competing ones such as FedEx, UPS, and DHL, because it is also beholden to federal laws governing its management. One such requirement is that it fund retired employees’ future health benefits, which costs $5 billion a year.

So what of healthcare? It is a big deal to all companies and can break profit margins over a few years. The classic case is of course GMAC and the UAW. The UAW had negotiated over the years quite a sweet little healthcare package for its union workers. It had secured healthcare benefits for retired workers for life. That is not a small chunk of change. And with more workers retiring and healthcare costs rising, more money is needed to pay for the costs. And since GMAC did not stash away money over the years to pay for it, but rather used current revenue to pay for it, there was bound to grow a discrepancy between available cash flow and costs of healthcare. Sound familiar? Our Social Security System is based on this principal, as are many pension funds. The USPS has the same setup for healthcare. Once revenues declined due to a changing environment, there was less money available for essentially fixed costs of healthcare. The solution? Reduce benefits. The problem is that you cannot just cut off benefits to long retired workers. So the solution does not help immediately when an immediate solution is necessary.

The same problem exists with pensions. Companies simply do not view pensions as an individual views the concept of a pension. For an individual, you know that you have to save now if you want to have money in your retirement. Social Security will not be enough for workers today on which to retire. It would make sense for companies to save money now to pay for pensions later as well, but they do not. They do the same thing they do for healthcare costs. They pass the cost down the road. And of course, the peril of decreasing profits in the face of fixed costs have come to be. And again, the solution is to cut pensions. And again, the solution is not immediate when an immediate solution is needed.

The last problem is the declining revenue due to fewer pieces of delivered mail. Many blame the internet and the growing popularity of online billpay. After all, if you used to send in three or more bills a month, that is a lot of mail for the US population. But there clearly is more to the story than that. There are certainly fewer correspondences sent through snail mail because of email and ability to send PDF files. And with the growing popularity of online tax filing and online advertising, regular mail is all but obsolete. Even the fax machine, long thought to be extinct with the advent of the internet, is poaching on USPS territory. So what is left for the USPS? The only things that I can think of that requires the USPS are holiday and birthday cards, wedding invitations, thank you cards, college application correspondences, legal documents, and municipal correspondences. That is not a long list. You can see that items on that list are there either because of etiquette, secure documentation, or are governmental mass mailings.

We have not even discussed the delivery of packages by the post office. I would wager good money that the USPS competes rather well against FedEx, UPS, and DHL in this area. This is not where the money drain is occurring. And since the other companies are almost exclusively package delivery companies with the exception of overnight and two day mail (which are very expensive), the problem is the regular mail. So how do you solve that problem? The first step is to realize that nobody else delivers regular mail. Nobody. That means stamps can go up in price like gasoline in 2009. And if you only expect certain pieces of mail to be delivered (see above list), then you can accurately predict revenue. Any additional pieces of mail would then be additional revenue on top of what is expected. Unfortunately, that calculation will result in a lower revenue amount than the USPS is used to seeing. So costs must also be cut elsewhere. Already many employees have been laid off, and many post offices have been shuttered. But that clearly will not be enough. They are discussing stopping Saturday mail delivery, but even that is not enough. You may think that UPS delivers six days a week and so the USPS must somehow be able to make it work. However, UPS does not stop at every house on your street for deliveries. A middle ground is needed. If the USPS only delivered regular mail three days a week it might actually staunch the money bleeding. That is right. Three days a week. Certainly it would still deliver packages six days a week, since the packages department is not the problem.

Blasphemy you say? Cutting the mail delivery to three days? Before you cry foul think about how often you actually send mail (not packages) these days and how often you complain that there is no good mail in the mailbox when you go out to retrieve it. Three days makes perfect sense. And it is better than zero days if the problem does not get better.