Democracy and Violence

Monday, May 31st, 2010

I’m surprised to see a Harvard sociology professor discussing the link between violence and democracy:

The violence tearing apart Jamaica, a democratic state, raises serious questions not only about its government’s capacity to provide basic security but, more broadly and disturbingly, the link between violence and democracy itself.

The specific causes of the turmoil are well known. For decades political leaders have used armed local gangs to mobilize voters in their constituencies; the gangs are rewarded with the spoils of power, in particular housing and employment contracts they can dole out. Opposition leaders counter with their own gangs, resulting in chronic violence during election seasons.

These gangs eventually moved into international drug trafficking, with their leaders, called “dons,” becoming ever more powerful. The tables turned quite some time ago, with the politicians becoming dependent on the dons for their survival.

A case in point is the reliance of Prime Minister Bruce Golding on one notorious don, Christopher Coke, whose refusal to surrender for extradition to the United States to stand trial on gun and drug charges led last week to virtual warfare on the streets of the capital, Kingston, and the deaths of scores of civilians.

By global standards, Jamaica has a robust democracy — voting is fair and governments change at the national level regularly and smoothly:

For most observers of democracy, Jamaica’s violence seems an anomaly. Democracy is held to be inherently prone to good order and peace. According to this “democratic peace” doctrine, democracies do not go to war with each other, and in domestic life they provide nonviolent means of settling differences. Violence, writes the political theorist John Keane, is anathema to democracy’s “spirit and substance.”

It may or may not be true that democracies do not wage war with each other, but a growing number of analysts have concluded that, domestically, democracies are in fact more prone to violence than authoritarian states, measured by incidence of civil wars, communal conflict and homicide.

There are many obvious examples of this: India has far more street crime than China; the countries of the former Soviet Union are more violent now than they were under Communism; the streets of South Africa became more dangerous after apartheid was dismantled; Brazil was safer before 1985 under its military rule.

Three good explanations are offered for this connection between democracy and violent crime. First, it has been persuasively shown by social scientists like David Rapoport of the University of California at Los Angeles and Leonard Weinberg of the University of Nevada at Reno that the electoral process itself tends, on balance, to promote violence more than peace.

Sometimes the ballot can substitute for the bullets of civil wars, as in Nicaragua in 1990 when the Sandinista government was voted out peacefully. However, the opposite is more often the case, as in Greece in 1967, when electoral uncertainty led to a military coup, and Algeria in 1992, when elections were canceled in the face of a certain victory by a fundamentalist Islamic party, leading to civil war.

Another well-supported argument is that democracies are especially vulnerable to ethnic conflict and organized crime. In diverse democracies, the temptation of leaders to exploit ethnic identity for political ends is an all too frequent source of major conflict, sometimes culminating in oppression of minorities and even genocide. We saw this happen in Rwanda in 1994 and the former Yugoslav states in the 1990s. Dennis Austin, who has studied political strife in India and Sri Lanka, has concluded that in such societies “democracy is itself a spur to violence” adding “depth to the sense of division.”

Organized crime, especially international trafficking in drugs, has become a serious threat to democracies worldwide. Felia Allun and Renate Siebert, the editors of an important scholarly collection, “Organized Crime and the Challenge to Democracy,” argue that “it is by exploiting the very freedoms which democratic systems offer that organized crime is able to thrive … although mortifying democratic rights, these kinds of crimes need the democratic space to flourish.”

A third, more nuanced argument is suggested by the work of the Norwegian political scientist Havard Hegre, who has shown that nondemocratic regimes become more prone to civil unrest, and more likely to threaten or start wars with neighboring countries, as they enter the transition period toward becoming democratic. The arc to democratic peace is therefore U-shaped. Authoritarian regimes can tyrannize their citizens into less violence. But as their states become more democratic, the mix of persisting authoritarian traditions and democratic freedoms can be lethal, sometimes resulting in complete state collapse, as in Yugoslavia.

It is only when such countries get very close to democratic maturity that social violence rapidly declines. At least that is the conclusion that my Harvard colleague Ethan Fosse and I came to after examining the relationship between homicide rates and Freedom House’s democracy rankings.

Yet even in these countries on the cusp of democracy there is a complicating factor — they are usually also going through the transition from a poor economy to a more developed one. The expectations of citizens in these transitional economies often outrun the capacity of society to meet them; people get frustrated and feel unfairly treated, leading to high risks of violence.

The worst possible situation for a state, however, is for its economic transition to stall or fail before the transition to mature democracy is complete. And this is what Jamaica now faces. For the first dozen years after independence from Britain in 1962, progress toward democracy and self-sustained economic growth moved nicely in tandem. But then the oil crisis and recession of 1973, and the efforts by the democratic socialist government of Prime Minister Michael Manley to deal with hard times, knocked the wind from the sails of economic progress, and Jamaica has never really recovered. (Disclosure: I was an adviser to Prime Minister Manley at that time.)

(Hat tip to Foseti, who quips, “If only someone could have seen this coming…”)

Not Just For Drug Dealers And 15 Year Olds

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

A one-time Cult of iPhone charter member turned Android fanatic found himself without a working smart phone — and just a month away from the release of the HTC EVO — so he decided to kick it old school with a prepaid phone:

So I walked into my friendly neighborhood Radio Shack and took a look at what they had to offer. These aren’t exciting phones, unless it was 1999 again, in which case the tiny color screen would be very cool. But they’re small and, importantly, they make phone calls.

And wow are they affordable. For $25 I walked out of the store with a Net10 LG 100 phone that had 300 minutes of talk time included over a 60 day period. As long as you buy more minutes all the minutes keep rolling over to new months. And there is no contract and no termination fee. I pointed my Google Voice phone number at the phone, and everyone that calls my normal number gets through just like they did on my old smartphones.

The phone has features such as making calls, receiving calls, a speakerphone that’s better than any smartphone I’ve had, and a battery that seems to last forever. It also does text messaging and has a variety of cheesy ring tones to choose from.

That’s it. And five days later after heavy usage I’m not sure I’m going to stop using it. The call quality, despite the fact that it uses the AT&T network, is five stars. Calls fail to be dropped. I consistently am able to hear what the person I’m talking to is saying. All of these things are new experiences to me, or at least new in the last few years.

Natural Farming

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

I had heard of permaculture but not of natural farming until I read Nathan Lewis’s description from his piece on the future of farming:

Natural Farming is a name applied to the farming methods of Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan, who embarked on a multi-decade project to find out how to grow food while letting nature do as much of the work as possible. While Permaculture “imitates” nature, I would suggest that Natural Farming is nature itself, or a sort of dance with nature in which the farmer guides natural energies toward the desired outcome. Fukuoka jokes that his Natural Farming techniques can support a person with three days a year of work. Fukuoka has also consistently produced the highest yields-per-acre of rice in Japan, and quite possibly the highest yields in the world, with continuous cultivation (no fallow periods) and no fertilizers, natural or artificial. There is no tilling of soil, minimal weeding, minimal pest control, no irrigation, and not much else being done either.

Oddly enough, there are not a lot of books about Natural Farming out there, perhaps because it is a plan that emphasizes “not doing” instead of “doing.” The heart of the technique is seedballs. “Just make seedballs” is Fukuoka’s advice. A seedball is a small ball (about 2cm) of clay and humus mixed with seeds. The “dirt” protects the seeds from birds and other seed-eaters, and when the seedball is “activated” by rainfall the seed is already slightly “buried” because it is surrounded by a bit of dirt. One can use a single type of seed, as might be typical of a rice field, or a mixture of dozens or even hundreds of seeds, as might be used for a vegetable garden. You just throw the seedballs out and let nature do the rest. This will create a natural mixture of vegetables growing together. They just grow like weeds. Whatever tends to grow best in a particular microlocation, with its mixture of sun exposure, soil qualities, water exposure, etc, will multiply while less appropriate species fade away. By mixing hundreds of seeds together, you give nature hundreds of options for what to grow there. That’s about all you need to know. “Just make seedballs.” Everything else can be learned, apparently, from personal experimentation based on this foundation.

Seedballs can be used for many things besides vegetable gardens. Fukuoka has suggested that deforested areas could be reforested by making seedballs of seeds of the natural plants found in a forest, and then dropping them from airplanes.

Larry Korn has much more to add:

The basic idea for his rice growing came to him one day when he happened to pass an old field
which had been left unused and unplowed for many years. There he saw healthy rice seedlings sprouting through a tangle of grasses and weeds. From that time on he stopped sowing rice seed in the spring and, instead, put the seed out in the fall when it would naturally have fallen to the ground. Instead of plowing to get rid of weeds he learned to control them with a ground cover of white clover and a mulch of barley straw. Once he has tilted the balance slightly in favor of his crops Fukuoka interferes as little as possible with the plant and animal communities in his fields.

This is not to say that Fukuoka did not experiment. For example, he tried more than twenty different ground covers before noticing that white clover was the only one which held back weeds effectively. It also fixes nitrogen so it improves the soil. He tried spreading the straw neatly over the fields but found the rice seeds could not make their way through. In one corner of the field, however, where the straw had scattered every which way, the seedlings emerged. The next year he scattered the straw across the entire field. There were years when his experiments resulted in almost a total crop loss, but in small areas things worked out well. He closely observed what was different in that part of the field and next year the results were better. The point is, he had no preconceived idea of what would work the best. He tried many things and took the direction nature revealed. As far as possible, Fukuoka was trying to take the human intellect out of the decision making process.

His vegetable growing also reflects this idea. He grows vegetables in the spaces between the citrus trees in the orchard. Instead of deciding which vegetables would do well in which locations he mixes all the seeds together and scatters them everywhere. He lets the vegetables find their own location, often in areas he would have least have expected. The vegetables reseed themselves and move around the orchard from year to year. Vegetables grown this way stronger and gradually revert to the form of their semi-wild ancestors.

I mentioned that Fukuoka’s farm is a fine model of permaculture design. In Zone 1, nearest his family home in the village, he and his family maintain a vegetable garden in the traditional Japanese style. Kitchen scraps are dug into the rows, are crops rotated and chickens run freely. This garden is really an extension of the home living area.

Zone 2 is his grain fields. He grows a crop of rice and one of barley every year. Because he returns the straw to the fields and has the ground cover of white clover the soil actually improves each year. The natural balance of insects and a healthy soil keep insect and disease infestations to a minimum. Until Bill Mollison read The One-Straw Revolution he said he had no idea of how to include grain growing in his permaculture designs. All the agricultural models involved plowing the soil, a practice he does not agree with. Now he includes Fukuoka’s no-tillage technique in his teaching.

Zone 3 is the orchard. The main tree crop is Mandarin oranges, but he also grows many other fruit trees, native shrubs and other native and ornamental trees. The upper story is tall trees, many of which fix nitrogen and so improve the soil deep down. The middle story is the citrus and other fruit trees. The ground is covered with a riotous mixture of weeds, vegetables, herbs and white clover. Chickens run freely. This multi-tiered orchard area came about through a natural evolution rather than conscious design. It still contains many of the basic permacultural design features. It has many different plant and species, maximizes surface area, contains solar sunlight “traps” and maintains a natural balance of insect populations.

Fukuoka invites visitors from Zone 4 anytime. Wild animals and birds come and go freely. The surrounding forest is the source of mushrooms, wild herbs and vegetables. It is also an inspiration. “To get an idea of the perfection and abundance of nature,” Fukuoka says, “take a walk into the forest sometime. There, the animals, tall trees and shrubs are living together in harmony. All of this came about without benefit of human ingenuity or intervention.”

How Cheap Beat Cool in the Chevy Volt

Friday, May 28th, 2010

John Petersen explains how cheap beat cool in the Chevy Volt:

Battery Cost The Chevy Volt will use Li-polymer batteries manufactured by Korea’s LG Chem. While Li-polymer batteries have had a spotty safety record in cell phones and laptops and do not begin to approach the extreme cycle-life of Li-phosphate and Li-titanate chemistries, they are far and away the cheapest variety of Li-ion batteries with prices in the $600 to $700 per kWh range as opposed to the $1,300 to $2,000 per kWh range.

Passenger Safety To resolve the basic safety issues associated with Li-ion batteries, GM has designed a T-shaped battery pack that sits in front of the rear axle and runs forward through the space that used to be taken up by the driveshaft. At first glance, the battery pack looks like it comes out of a battle tank instead of a passenger car.

The topside of the battery pack looks far stronger than the bottom side of the battery pack and it’s clear that the basic geometry has been designed to deflect the potentially explosive force of a battery failure down and away from the passenger compartment. The absence of any visible deformation in the 35 mph crash test photos of the battery pack confirm that GM thinks armor plate is more cost-effective than exotic chemistry. Overall, GM’s battery pack design is a cheap but effective way to avoid potential personal injury risks.

Cycle Life Performance Li-polymer batteries are not renowned for the extreme cycle-life of their more glamorous and expensive cousins like Li-phosphate and Li-titanate. To optimize the cycle life of the batteries in the Volt, GM has chosen to install a 16 kWh battery pack in the Volt but only use 55% of the theoretical capacity to power the car. By limiting the maximum state of charge to 85% and switching to internal combustion when the state of charge falls to 30%, GM believes it can get a 10-year life out of batteries that would die much more quickly with a wider cycling range. Once again, GM has chosen a cheap but cost-effective way to balance battery capacity and cycle life.

Weight and Energy Density The final weight of the Volt battery pack is about 175 Kg. This works out to an energy density of roughly 50 Wh/Kg for useful battery capacity, about the same value as a high quality lead-acid battery.

Recycling While the Chevy Volt battery pack will be built to European recycling standards, those standards only relate to safe disposal of potentially toxic materials and do not get into issues like recovering materials of sufficient purity that they can be used to make new batteries. This is good from a pure disposal perspective, but suboptimal if one’s environmental sensitivities extend beyond landfills to include the environmental damage caused by mining and other resource extraction activities.

In the Chevy Volt, cheap has already beaten cool like I predicted it would. Since GM has established battery cost reduction as a primary goal for future generations of PHEVs, I would not be at all surprised to see GM and other auto makers paying particular attention to advanced lead-acid and lead-carbon chemistries over the next few years because the widely heralded energy density and size advantages of Li-ion chemistry evaporate when the technology is reduced to safe commercial practice.

Ejection Seats

Friday, May 28th, 2010

As a young Air Force maintenance technician, Steve Blank got to learn a bit about ejection seats — maybe a bit too much:

The last thing you want is a seat going off by accident when some maintenance guy sticks his hands to rummage under the ejection seat when he dropped his screwdriver. (Something I did many times.)

When the airplane is parked the crew chief inserts safety pins to “safe” the seat. These pins stop the mechanical systems used to fire the seat. The pins had long red streamers attached to them that said “Remove before flight.”

Each time you got to an airbase you’d get briefed on aircraft safety on the “egress” systems. Someone in your shop would take you out to an aircraft and show you where each of the pins were supposed to go and make sure you knew what not to touch, kick or remove.
The accidents that happened when something did go wrong were gruesome. When I got to my first airbase in Florida they first thing they told me was, “You might want to pay attention, we scraped some airman off the hanger ceiling three months ago.” And a few months later at my base in Thailand the same thing happened again.

When I came home from Thailand I was stationed on a B-52 bomber base. These 8-engine bombers carried nuclear weapons and had a crew of six in a two-story cockpit. On the upper deck the pilot and co-pilot faced forward, and right behind them sat the Electronic Warfare Officer and the Tail Gunner facing backwards. All four crewmembers had upward firing ejection seats just like the fighter planes I had worked on.

But on the bottom deck sat the Navigator and the Radar Navigator (the bombardier) and their seats ejected downwards.

Two of my new shop mates took me out to my first B-52 to get me “checked out.” You entered the plane from a hatch in the bottom deck and climbed a ladder to the top deck. We started on each of the four seats on top as they taught me where all the safety pins went.
As they showed me around the cockpit they kept emphasizing how much more dangerous the B-52 ejection systems were than those I was used to on fighters. “These are really old planes and these ejection systems are really, really touchy.” By the time we got to the bottom deck, I was gaining a real respect for these seats. “Oh, these seats down here? If they ever went off you’d be fired right into the ground and then burned to death by the rocket.”

They sat me in the Navigators seat as they kept telling me more and more horrific B-52 ejection seat stories. “Yeah on these seats the ejection sequence automatically starts when it grabs your legs. The rocket fires in 10 seconds.” Sitting in the navigators seat, I was processing that when they said, “Move your legs back to get some more room.” I kicked my legs back and then heard a loud metallic noise.

All of a sudden my legs couldn’t move. Something had grabbed my ankles.

My shop mates looked at me and yelled, “Holly sxxt! He’s initiated the ejection system! The rocket is going to fire!! Lets get out of here!”

I looked in horror as they jumped out of the hatch and left me alone to die. I struggled to find a way to get out of the seat. Through the open hatch I could hear my shop mates counting down waiting for the seat to fire.

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

I closed my eyes and prepared to die.

Time passed. I was still alive. I could hear laughter coming from the hatch as my shop mates came back up and unlocked the leg restraints. (They were just mechanical devices that didn’t arm the ejection system.)

As they helped me down out of the hatch there must have been 10 more of my shop mates gathered on the tarmac.

“Hey, he didn’t even wet his pants.”

I had just been initiated as a maintenance technician on the B-52.

How real-world corruption works

Friday, May 28th, 2010

How real-world corruption works:

In the public sector, the “consumer” often has little choice. So-called “market discipline” is a lot more diffuse when you have a former-schoolteacher-or-real-estate-broker-turned city councilman whose job it is to disburse a multi-million-dollar street-paving contract or whatever. And neither the schoolteacher nor the real-estate broker has any clue how to write or evaluate a road-paving contract.

Let’s say that there are three credible bidders for that street-paving contract:

Bidder 1 is “Paver Joe”, a local guy with a driveway-paving company and three trucks who sees this as a big opportunity to expand his business and get the city to pay for five new trucks. He puts in a dirt-cheap bid that he wrote up himself with the help of his estate attorney. The cost to taxpayers is very low, but the certainty that he will complete it on schedule and as specified is a little iffy. Paver Joe plans to work overtime and bust his tail on the job, not for profits, but to grow his business. He’s offering the taxpayers a great deal, but a slightly risky one.

Bidder 2 is “Muni Paver Inc”, a company who has the experience and expertise to do the job, who knows what’s involved and who has done this work before. They already have the trucks, their workers are all unionized and paid “prevailing wage”, everything will be done by the book, all their EPA certifications are in place, etc… The bid is a lot more expensive than Paver Joe, but it’s credible and reliable. They are offering the taxpayers a degree of certainty and confidence that Paver Joe cannot match.

Bidder 3 is me, “Corruptocorp”. Instead of Paver Joe’s 2-page contract with typos, or Muni-Paving’s 20-page contract, I’m offering the city council a full package of videos, brochures, and a 40-page contract with a price just a tad higher than Paver Joe (my quoted price is meaningless, as we will see). Moreover, I’m inviting the city council to Corruptocorp-owned suites in a golf resort near my headquarters to give my presentation (all expenses paid, of course, and of course, bring your spouses). There the city council members will, after the first day of golf, dinner, dancing, and cocktails, see a slideshow and chorus-line of smiling multi-ethnic faces and working mothers talking about how much Corruptocorp’s paving improved their town and their lives. I’ll then stand up and tell a self-effacing joke about being one of those corporate guys trying to get their money, and then I’ll wax a bit emotional about my small-town roots and how Corruptocorp was started by a man with a simple dream to make life better for everyone, and to do well by doing good in local communities, and that we actually plan to hire local contractors such as Joe’s Paving to do the work, backed our economies of scale and reliability. I’ll mention that paragraph 32 subsection B of our proposal mandates twice-yearly performance reviews by the city council, to of course be held at the golf resort, at Corruptocorp’s expense, (“so I hope to see you all back here every February and August!”), and of course I make sure that each of them has my “personal” cell phone and home numbers in case they have any questions….

So needless to say I get the bid, and six months later it’s time for our review at the golf resort. After dinner and cocktails I step up to the podium and announce that there is both good news and bad news:

The bad news is that our subcontractor has found over 1,000 rocks in the road. And as I’m sure you know, paragraph 339 subsection D.12 specifies that any necessary rock removal will be done at prevailing wages, currently $1,500 per rock, for a total cost overrun of $1.5 million. But the good news is (and believe me, I had to fight long and hard for this with the board of directors), Corruptocorp has agreed to remove those rocks for only $1,000 apiece! So even though there have been some cost overruns, your smart decisions have saved your taxpayers half a million dollars! Give yourselves a round of applause!

Now, the other situation is that there has been some ‘difficult terrain’ as described in subsection 238b, which I’m sure you’re all familiar with. And as you know, ‘difficult terrain’ is not covered by the contract, which is for paving, not for turning mountains into flat roads… (wistful chuckle). Now, technically, according to the contract, we should be charging your town prevailing rates for these sections, but I’ve worked it so that you will be allowed to re-bid them, if you wish, since our contract doesn’t specifically include terrain as described in subsection 238b.

Now the contract price has doubled, and Corruptocorp has completely sidestepped all of the difficult and costly work, taking profits only on the easy stuff. The city council members can either admit that they were duped and bought (political suicide), or can simply feed corruptocorp’s line to the voters. Which do you think will happen?

Computing smart-scope gunsight for US snipers

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

DARPA has found a way to use a laser for much more than range-finding:

It can also be used to “measure the average down range crosswind profile”. The laser information can be combined with automatic readings of temperature, humidity etc and a “ballistic solution” computed.

Then a set of artificial crosshairs can be generated in the rifle showing where the bullet will actually strike. These can then be moved onto the target. Alongside the crosshairs is a constantly updated readout of how reliable the calculated aim point is and how likely it is to shift during the time the bullet is in flight (perhaps several seconds at long ranges). This lets the sniper choose the right time to shoot.

(Hat tip to Borepatch.)

A Ridiculous Device

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

In 1995, Oracle’s megalomaniacal CEO, Larry Ellison, decided to announce a product that would wipe Microsoft — and Bill Gates — off the map, but he did not time his attack well:

“A PC is a ridiculous device,” he said, launching an attack on Microsoft’s core business. He ran down a list of the desktop’s deficiencies: It was hard to learn to operate, expensive, overpowered, and — thanks to the arrival of the World Wide Web — increasingly irrelevant. That’s why he was ushering in the post-PC era with the network computer, or NC, which Oracle would help build within a year. The simple $500 box would be a stripped-down unit that served one purpose: to connect to the Internet. For the NC, the Web wouldn’t be a mere feature but a utility, as fundamental as water and electricity. “What the world really wants,” Ellison told the crowd, “is to plug into a wall to get electronic power, and plug in to get data.”
Obsessive competitiveness may have inspired Ellison’s idea, but it also contributed to its downfall. His turf battle with Redmond ended up kneecapping his product. Looking to stem the momentum of Windows, Ellison promised to release low-cost machines within a year. That meant rushing out computers before they were fully developed. When it hit stores in the fall of 1996, the Acorn NC — commissioned by Oracle to be the model around which the new market would coalesce — had an underpowered ARM processor that produced blocky graphics and strained to render a Web page in less than four seconds. IBM’s Network Station computers — the flagship corporate version of the NC — didn’t fare much better. They were too slow, too limited, and too complicated to coordinate with company servers. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, who ran the Internet division at IBM and ultimately oversaw its NC project, was embarrassed. “We thought we had a full product,” he says. “But when we took it to market, we realized it was an alpha.”

Oracle’s rush to market also meant that the NC hit shelves before the infrastructure existed to support it. The machine was supposed to run lightweight Web applications instead of installed software — and everyone believed Java would be up to the task. But it was never able to support powerful-enough applications. And with wide-scale broadband penetration still many years away, Internet apps didn’t stand a chance against local software.
In 1999, after spending four years and losing nearly $175 million, Oracle pulled the plug, changing the name of its network computer spinoff to Liberate Technologies and focusing its business on set-top box software for interactive television.

The NC is dead. Long live the NC:

Now that the Web-software environment has been established, NC-like hardware has begun to proliferate. The first example, of course, is netbooks. Debuting just two years ago, they currently account for more than 20 percent of PC sales. In the 12 months ending in September 2009, sales jumped 77 percent. Yet while the netbook may be the direct descendent of the NC, its cousin, the smartphone, is seen by most alumni of the NC movement as the more powerful force. Every day, iPhone and iPod users download 4.5 million applications — grown-up versions of the widgets that Ellison predicted would run on the NC. “Ellison is often time-dyslexic — right about the fundamental trend but wrong on timing, ” says David Roux, a partner at private equity firm Silver Lake and a former Oracle executive vice president. “It’s hard to look at a $299 netbook and not see the NC vision come to life.”

Privatizing ABC Stores

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Don Boudreaux and Julia Williams look at the effects of privatizing ABC stores by comparing the 18 states that “control” alcohol distribution by directly running retail or wholesale establishments with the 32 states (and the District of Columbia) that simply license private retailers and wholesalers.

The control states and the license states are indistinguishable in terms of alcohol-related deaths, binge drinking, drunk-driving fatalities, etc.:

These findings aren’t surprising given that per-capita alcohol consumption in control states is statistically no different than it is in license states.

In other words, the data suggests that if a state shifts from being a control state to a license state (or vice-versa), that switch will not affect the amount of alcohol consumed, on average, per person in that state.

The reason is that to reduce the social problems associated with alcohol requires, as a practical matter, changing the amount of alcohol consumed by abusive drinkers. But changing the consumption of these drinkers cannot be done only with population-level policies and high taxes.

Unsurprisingly, research indicates that abusive drinkers are not as responsive to higher prices or government policies as are more moderate consumers. Direct government operation of alcohol retailing or wholesaling cannot possibly target abusive drinkers in ways that would cause them to reform.

The primary difference is that control states bring in less money for the state.

Once, We Were Makers

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

The Lost Tribes of RadioShack must search for a new spiritual home, as their Mecca has transformed itself from a storehouse of transistors and capacitors for DIY hobbyists to a slick store that sells mobility — cell phones:

The problem, in short, was that Americans didn’t think RadioShack was cool. To the extent that most people thought about RadioShack at all, it was as a convenient place to grab some printer ink or a hearing-aid battery.

Between 2004 and 2009, the company’s profits fell by 39 percent. It had gotten to the point where, early last year, executives were putting a little too much hope on the nationwide switch-over to digital TV, imagining that folks coming in to buy conversion boxes could be seduced into other, more expensive purchases, too. But the little old ladies with coupons for government-subsidized antennas were resistant to impulse buys.

Still, where giant specialty retailers like the Good Guys and Circuit City rode the electronics boom and bust right into bankruptcy, RadioShack has survived, although that survival was less a matter of salesmanship than cost-cutting. Around the time new CEO Julian Day took over in 2006, the company liquidated poorly selling inventory, closed 481 stores, and squeezed $100 million out of administrative expenses; even the houseplants in RadioShack stores were sold — to employees for $5 each — to save on the cost of watering them.

One of Day’s other priorities has been to meticulously homogenize RadioShack stores, á la McDonald’s and Starbucks. Whereas the company once gave store managers an astounding amount of autonomy, a recently distributed internal handbook provides precise instructions for everything from organizing merchandise on the show floor to which cleaning fluid they must use to shine their metallic lower shelves. (Armor All Original formula, if you’re wondering.) Another page presents, with a series of painstakingly annotated photographs, the head-to-toe elements of the only two acceptable styles of dress for salespeople: Traditional Business (tie, optional vest or blazer, light-colored shirt, dress shoes) and RadioShack Casual (black, white, or red shirt, no tie, dress loafers).

Day’s efforts have made the company look better on paper, but it was only when it began to sell itself as a place to comparison-shop for wireless phones and calling plans that RadioShack began to seem viable again.

It may seem strange that, finding themselves in a financial morass, executives decided their best option was to compete head-to-head with both the wireless carriers’ own stores and the cell phone departments of giants like Walmart and Best Buy. But they may have had little choice: The average RadioShack store is only 2,500 square feet and can’t possibly stock a competitive selection of large appliances like flatscreen TVs. (Managers have had to stash merchandise in the rafters or rent off-site storage units in the run-up to Christmas.) Cell phones, on the other hand, like the parts and pieces the company once thrived on, are small products with exceptionally high profit margins. There’s the handset and the accessories, but most important, there’s the commission that wireless carriers pay to cell phone retailers for every new contract on a phone. A phone is like a tiny slot machine that pays off month after month.

The logic is hard to resist, and in fact, RadioShack’s focus on wireless has been building gradually for at least the past decade — always at the direct expense of hobbyists, says Tim Oldham, a former corporate buyer at the company. “They intentionally decided to downsize the product offering for hobbyists, all the capacitors and resistors and connectors,” in order to cram in more phones, Oldham says. “It’s not coincidental. The money was just too big.”

Some history:

In a single generation, the American who built, repaired, and tinkered with technology has evolved into an entirely new species: the American who prefers to slip that technology out of his pocket and show off its killer apps. Once, we were makers. Now most of us are users.

“We are not looking for the guy who wants to spend his entire paycheck on a sound system,” RadioShack’s chair, Charles Tandy, bragged to analysts in the mid-1970s. “We are in the do-it-yourself business.”

Craftiness was in Tandy’s bloodline. He cut his teeth helming the family business, the Tandy Leather Company, which sold leather and leatherworking tools to veterans’ hospitals and Boy Scouts. The cigar-chomping Texan was the kind of eccentric, larger-than-life executive that any modern PR handler would keep tightly muzzled. He celebrated his 60th birthday by riding a rented elephant around the grounds of his mansion, and he kept a plastic breast on his desk that made a gong sound when he pressed the nipple. It was how he called for more coffee.

Tandy recognized that leatherworking was probably not a growth industry, and in 1963 he strong-armed his board of directors into buying and pouring money into RadioShack, then a 42-year-old company with nine stores. RadioShack quickly ballooned into a chain of more than 6,000 locations, becoming a kind of cluttered general store for the pioneers of the electronic age. That growth was spurred on in the mid-’70s, when the company smartly got in front of one particular technological fad: the CB radio craze. At the peak of the boom, RadioShack was opening three new stores a day. (“Americans sure like to jabber,” a befuddled executive told the press.)

This is not to say Charles Tandy himself was an early adopter or technogical visionary. According to the book Tandy’s Money Machine, by Irvin Farman, when a RadioShack vice president rushed down to Tandy’s departing Lincoln Continental to tell him they had created a promising prototype of a computer, Tandy shot back, “A computer? Who needs a computer?” Nevertheless, by 1977, the company was preparing to unveil the TRS-80, the world’s first mass-produced, fully assembled PC.

“I remember the TRS-80 very well,” says Forrest Mims. At the time, Mims had already begun his career writing how-to books like Getting Started in Electronics and Engineer’s Notebook, definitive editions in the world of hobby electronics that have sold more than 2 million copies. The books were written exclusively for RadioShack and were offered in stores for a few dollars each. They were essentially giveaways; the real money came from all the diodes, transistors, and tools that hobbyists needed to build the circuits he diagrammed. It was a shrewd tactic. Those little parts and pieces had huge markups — some as high as 500 percent — and RadioShack could fit lots of them in its relatively small stores.

Mims was invited to take a look at the TRS-80, before it went on sale, at a RadioShack R&D unit located in a warehouse in downtown Fort Worth. The two young engineers who had developed the machine led him around. “They escorted me into this room,” Mims recalls. “It was all hush-hush.” Inside, arrayed on long tables, were two dozen TRS-80s, with cassette decks for data storage and 12-inch RCA monitors. They were being tested, and each had an image on its screen of a waving American flag. “It was really a shock,” Mims says. He had never seen 24 computers in a room before; in those days, if you wanted a personal computer, you pretty much had to build it yourself.

One of the engineers invited Mims to sit down and try out the TRS-80 — just fool around on it a little. He declined. “I didn’t have a clue how to use the thing,” he says. Mims was an expert engineer, but he didn’t know anything about the machine’s programming language, Basic.

A new era was beginning. Computers, and all consumer electronic goods, were on their way to becoming what they are today: slick low-cost commodities heaped in the aisles of big-box stores. When they break, it’s cheaper to throw them out than open them up and repair them, and most can’t be sold for the kind of profit margins required by small stores like RadioShack. In retrospect, the launch of the TRS-80 was probably the most promising moment in RadioShack’s history — and the start of its decline.

“Let’s put it this way,” Mims says. “Hobby electronics peaked with the advent of the ready-made PC. There was no longer a need for anyone to build digital displays and TTL processors in their garage or spend time messing with circuitry. Now you could spend time at a keyboard, working on an actual computer.” It was a fulfillment of a dream. But it also served as a portent that the hands-on way of life RadioShack embodied would become irrelevant.

Mims couldn’t use the TRS-80 that day because he knew much more about how that piece of technology was wired on the inside than how to do anything with it. In other words, he was the exact opposite of today’s typical consumer. And that cultural shift is what RadioShack has been struggling with ever since.

High Times Are Changing

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Plummeting marijuana prices have created a panic in California — for growers, not consumers:

For decades, illegal marijuana cultivation has been an economic lifeblood for three counties in northern California known as the Emerald Triangle.

The war on drugs and frequent raids by federal drug agents have helped support the local economy — keeping prices for street sales of pot high and keeping profits rich.

But high times are changing. Legal pot, under the guise of the California’s medical marijuana laws, has spurred a rush of new competition. As a result, the wholesale price of pot grown in these areas is plunging.

In 1983, the Reagan administration launched a massive air and ground campaign to eradicate pot and lock up growers in northern California. Charley Custer, a writer and community activist, had just arrived to Humboldt County from Chicago. With the Reagan crackdown, Custer recalls, wholesale prices shot up — to as high as $5,000 a pound. That sudden and ironic windfall for those growers willing to risk prison time transformed the community.

“A lot of people were living on welfare and peanut butter and banana sandwiches for a long time before pot made it possible to be part of the middle class,” Custer says.

Pringles in Singapore

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

The Pringles in Singapore come in slightly different flavors than I’m used to: seaweed, soft-shell crab, and grilled shrimp. I suppose curry wasn’t exotic enough to photograph.

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Reading Old Books with New Tech

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Foseti’s process for reading old books involves getting a Kindle, downloading Stanza, and then downloading books from Google Books in Adobe EPUB format and converting into Amazon Kindle format:

My wife got me a Kindle for something like $250. I’ve probably read almost 200 old books on it and paid $0 for each book. That’s a $/book cost of $1.25 and I’m still going.

In an afternoon, you’ll easily be able to transfer a couple hundred books to you Kindle. There’s no cheaper, easier way to read the best books in the world.

Tyler Cowen would add that you’re getting plenty of old, bad translations, but we do what we can.

Buckethead has gone with an iPad instead:

EPUBs from Gutenberg work great in Apple’s iBooks app. For an additional $2, I got the GoodReader app, which is an excellent PDF viewer. I actually prefer this option, because I can download the PDFs from Google Books, and they look charmingly old-timey on my iPad. The EPUBs from google are often twitchy — the OCR is not perfect. GoodReader also has the advantage of wireless syncing; you have to actually plug in the iPad to update the iBooks app.

I’m reading all three books from Moldbug’s challenge at once, which is slowing me down, but I’m enjoying bouncing back and forth. After that, I’ve got the entire Harvard Classics loaded up and ready to read.

Preventing the Civil War

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

David Friedman’s younger son, Bill, was reading a rather libertarian history of the Civil War, and they started discussing the notion of preventing the War between the States:

A few days ago at dinner, we got into a discussion of possiblities for alternate history, starting with the observation that both sides greatly underestimated how bad the war was going to be. Bill cited Hummel’s estimate that the cost to the North alone would have been enough to buy every slave in the south and provide each with thirty acres and a mule. What if they had known?

Imagine that someone in our future is equipped with a device capable of delivering packages to the past. He makes a list of thirty or forty of the most influential people in the U.S. as of (say) the 1850′s, prepares for each a package of history books, and delivers the package to the recipient’s desk a week or two before some prominent natural event, such as an earthquake or eruption, is due to occur.

Each package includes a dozen identical color photographs and a cover letter. The letter predicts in detail the event about to occur and explains that the package is being sent in the hope of preventing a very bloody war. The photographs could not have been produced with mid-19th century technology; the hope is that they plus the prediction will be enough to persuade at least some of the recipients that the package really is from the future. What happens?

Bill’s guess was that the deep South states would respond by immediately seceding. My reaction — not inconsistent with his — was that what the intervention has created is a high stakes game of Chicken. Leaders in the North can tell those in the South that they might as well surrender now, since the alternative is a long and bloody war that they will lose. Leaders in the South can argue in response that the North, knowing what the cost of the war will be, will have to back down and let them go.

It could make the plot of an interesting novel. If I were writing it — not likely to happen — I would be inclined to show the intervenors from the future as naive do-gooders who take it for granted that if only both sides had known, the war would of course be averted. The recipients are both more realistic and more sophisticated; each sees both his new information and his knowledge that others have the same information as merely additional elements in the complex political game already ongoing.

It’s a fascinating premise. Oddly, none of the (presumably libertarian) commenters discussing causes of the war brought up tariffs.

It has been 100 years

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

It has been 100 years, so Mark Twain’s autobiography will finally be published in its entirety:

The creator of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and some of the most frequently misquoted catchphrases in the English language left behind 5,000 unedited pages of memoirs when he died in 1910, together with handwritten notes saying that he did not want them to hit bookshops for at least a century.

That milestone has now been reached, and in November the University of California, Berkeley, where the manuscript is in a vault, will release the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography. The eventual trilogy will run to half a million words, and shed new light on the quintessentially American novelist…

“He had doubts about God, and in the autobiography, he questions the imperial mission of the US in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. He’s also critical of [Theodore] Roosevelt, and takes the view that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel. Twain also disliked sending Christian missionaries to Africa. He said they had enough business to be getting on with at home: with lynching going on in the South, he thought they should try to convert the heathens down there.”

In other sections of the autobiography, Twain makes cruel observations about his supposed friends, acquaintances and one of his landladies.

Cory Doctorow says, ZOMG. Want to read right now!