A nation of outlaws

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

Stephen Mihm notes that a century ago it was not China but America that was a nation of outlaws:

A committee of would-be reformers who met in Boston in 1859 launched one of the first studies of American food purity, and their findings make for less-than-appetizing reading: candy was found to contain arsenic and dyed with copper chloride; conniving brewers mixed extracts of “nux vomica,” a tree that yields strychnine, to simulate the bitter taste of hops. Pickles contained copper sulphate, and custard powders yielded traces of lead. Sugar was blended with plaster of Paris, as was flour. Milk had been watered down, then bulked up with chalk and sheep’s brains. Hundred-pound bags of coffee labeled “Fine Old Java” turned out to consist of three-fifths dried peas, one-fifth chicory, and only one-fifth coffee.

Though there was the occasional clumsy attempt at domestic reform by midcentury — most famously in response to the practice of selling “swill milk” taken from diseased cows force-fed a diet of toxic refuse produced by liquor distilleries — little changed. And just as the worst sufferers of adulterated food in China today are the Chinese, so it was the Americans who suffered in the early 19th-century United States. But when America started exporting food more broadly after the Civil War, the practice started to catch up to us.

One of the first international scandals involved “oleo-margarine,” a butter substitute originally made from an alchemical process involving beef fat, cattle stomach, and for good measure, finely diced cow, hog, and ewe udders. This “greasy counterfeit,” as one critic called it, was shipped to Europe as genuine butter, leading to a precipitous decline in butter exports by the mid-1880s. (Wily entrepreneurs, recognizing an opportunity, bought up genuine butter in Boston, affixed counterfeit labels of British butter manufacturers, and shipped them to England.) The same decade saw a similar, though less unsettling problem as British authorities discovered that lard imported from the United States was often adulterated with cottonseed oil.

Even worse was the meatpacking industry, whose practices prompted a trade war with several European nations. The 20th-century malfeasance of the industry is well known today: “deviled ham” made of beef fat, tripe, and veal byproducts; sausages made from tubercular pork; and, if Upton Sinclair is to be believed, lard containing traces of the occasional human victim of workplace accidents. But the international arena was the scene of some of the first scandals, most notably in 1879, when Germany accused the United States of exporting pork contaminated with trichinae worms and cholera. That led several countries to boycott American pork. Similar scares over beef infected with a lung disease intensified these trade battles.

Food, of course, was only the beginning. In the literary realm, for most of the 19th century the United States remained an outlaw in the world of international copyright. The nation’s publishers merrily pirated books without permission, and without paying the authors or original publishers a dime. When Dickens published a scathing account of his visit, “American Notes for General Circulation,” it was, appropriately enough, immediately pirated in the United States.

In one industry after another, 19th-century American producers churned out counterfeit products in remarkable quantities, slapping fake labels on locally made knockoffs of foreign ales, wines, gloves, and thread. As one expose at the time put it: “We have ‘Paris hats’ made in New York, ‘London Gin’ and ‘London Porter’ that never was in a ship’s hold, ‘Superfine French paper’ made in Massachusetts.”

Counterfeiters of patent medicines were especially notorious. This was a bit ironic, given that most of these remedies were pretty spurious already, but that didn’t stop the practice. The most elaborate schemes involved importing empty bottles, filling them with bogus concoctions, and then affixing fake labels from well-respected European firms.

Americans also displayed a particular talent for counterfeiting currency. This was a time when individual banks, not the federal government, supplied the nation’s paper money in a bewildering variety of so-called “bank notes.” Counterfeiters flourished to the point that in 1862 one British writer, after counting close to 6,000 different species of counterfeit or fraudulent bills in circulation, could reasonably assure his readers that “in America, counterfeiting has long been practiced on a scale which to many will appear incredible.”

What was it that made the 19th-century United States such a hotbed of bogus goods? And why is China’s economic boom today, as New York Times writer Howard French clucked earlier this month, “minted in counterfeit”?

Piracy, fraud, and counterfeiting, whether of currency, commodities, or brand-name electronics, flourishes at a particular moment in a capitalist society: the regulatory interregnum that emerges in the wake of fast-paced capitalist change. This period is one in which technology has improved, often dramatically, and markets have burst their older boundaries. Yet the country still relies on obsolete ways of controlling commerce. Until there’s something to replace them, counterfeiters and other flim-flam operators flourish, pushing new means of making money to their logical, if unethical, conclusion.


Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

In reading up on Flight of the Conchords and The Lord of the Rings, I just came across the story of Figwit:

In New Line Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy based on the book of the same name by J. R. R. Tolkien, Figwit is the fan-derived name for an unnamed Elf extra played by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame. “Figwit” is derived from “Frodo is great…who is that?” This is in reference to the distraction viewers may experience due to Figwit’s physical appearance and demeanor.

Figwit is seen in the first movie during the council of Elrond. He sits next to Aragorn until they all stand up to argue. After Frodo shouts “I will take it!” and everyone turns and looks at him, Figwit is standing on the far right. He is standing in the background for only a fraction of a second.

Bret McKenzie is also seen in the third movie (credited as “Elf Escort”) in the scene where Arwen is leaving for the Grey Havens and has the vision about her future son Eldarion. He is the one who tells her to get back with the others. He has two lines: “Lady Arwen, we cannot delay!” and then “My lady!”

Figwit’s rise to fame began shortly after the first movie. Peter Jackson, who directed the trilogy, stated in the DVD commentary for The Return of the King that he was given dialogue in the third movie because Jackson became aware of the attention given to this extra. Jackson mentions the phenomenon in the commentary track on the extended version of the Return of the King DVD: “the decision to give him a speaking role was developed after the scene was scripted. Originally just a random cast extra was to give the lines, but it was decided that it would be fun if the Figwit actor was brought in to deliver them.”

HBO renews cult favorite Conchords

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

HBO renews cult favorite Conchords. That’s the good news. Now Bret and Jemaine need to put together enough songs to fill out a second season, and they don’t have years to do it. That’s the not-so-good news.

Frodo, Don’t Wear the Ring

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

I just caught up on Flight of the Conchords, and naturally I loved their video for Frodo:

Of course, the best lyrics come near the end, when Bret and Jemaine start busting rhymes:

Yo Frodo, what you doin’ wearing the ring?
All powerful jewelry, is that your new thing?
I know it’s hard when you’re little more than three foot four
Your little ass so close to the floor.
Trying to lead the fellows to the gates of Mordor
The Fellowship!
(Yea the fellowship)
I don’t rap about bitches and hos,
I rap about witches and trolls,
just passing on the words of the Elven king,
Wisdom to all
Frodo! Don’t wear the ring!
Frodo don’t wear the ring,
The magical bling bling,
You’ll never be the Lord of the Rings

Fans of Tolkien and of rock music probably know that there are plenty of Tolkien-inspired rock songs. Some of the most famous include Led Zepplin’s Ramble On, The Battle of Evermore, and Misty Mountain Hop. The earliest of the three, Ramble On, from 1969′s Led Zeppelin II, shares the folk-and-hard-rock flavor of Frodo:

The Distant Future does not include “Frodo” — but “Robots” and the others should tide you over until the full album comes out.

Holding a Program in One’s Head

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

Paul Graham shares some tips for Holding a Program in One’s Head:

It’s striking how often programmers manage to hit all eight points by accident. Someone has an idea for a new project, but because it’s not officially sanctioned, he has to do it in off hours — which turn out to be more productive because there are no distractions. Driven by his enthusiasm for the new project he works on it for many hours at a stretch. Because it’s initially just an experiment, instead of a “production” language he uses a mere “scripting” language — which is in fact far more powerful. He completely rewrites the program several times; that wouldn’t be justifiable for an official project, but this is a labor of love and he wants it to be perfect. And since no one is going to see it except him, he omits any comments except the note-to-self variety. He works in a small group perforce, because he either hasn’t told anyone else about the idea yet, or it seems so unpromising that no one else is allowed to work on it. Even if there is a group, they couldn’t have multiple people editing the same code, because it changes too fast for that to be possible. And the project starts small because the idea is small at first; he just has some cool hack he wants to try out.

Even more striking are the number of officially sanctioned projects that manage to do all eight things wrong. In fact, if you look at the way software gets written in most organizations, it’s almost as if they were deliberately trying to do things wrong. In a sense, they are. One of the defining qualities of organizations since there have been such a thing is to treat individuals as interchangeable parts. This works well for more parallelizable tasks, like fighting wars. For most of history a well-drilled army of professional soldiers could be counted on to beat an army of individual warriors, no matter how valorous. But having ideas is not very parallelizable. And that’s what programs are: ideas.

Low Cost Cooling

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

David Friedman wonders why this Low Cost Cooling idea isn’t in wider use:

A common hot weather strategy, especially for people living in big old houses without air conditioning, is to open windows at night when it is cool out, close them in the morning.

It should be straightforward to automate the procedure, using windows or vents that can be set to open when the temperature outside is cooler than the temperature inside, close when it is warmer, with fans to increase the airflow when desired. I would expect both the capital cost and the operating cost of such a system, used to replace or supplement air conditioning, to be trivial relative to the cost of air conditioning itself.

Yet I do not think I have ever seen such a system. Have I missed it? Or is there some non-obvious problem with the idea?

An anonymous commenter has this to say:

When I was in engineering school about 25 years ago, I did a project studying such systems. They were entirely possible (and in fact some had been built as demonstrations), but the cost was prohibitive. One key enabling technology has blossomed since that time: networking over power wires. You’ve got to run power wires to each window for the motor, so you use them for the control network also.

However, it still costs too much. The cost of networking has plummeted, and a 3-GHz PC costs much less than the TRS-80 8-bit computer I used in that project, but a motor in each window costs just as much as it ever did, and the cost of installation labor is higher.

This is the idea that seemed natural to me:

A more practical idea is to rig the central heat/air with high-volume controlled vents to the outside. You leave your windows closed, but the system detects when it is appropriate to circulate outside air rather than recirculating artificially heated or cooled inside air. A mass-produced system like this should only cost $200 more than a regular high-efficiency furnace & central air (that is, about the same as the building permits required to install a new furnace!), and I think in the climate here it would pay off in the first year. But I just don’t see anything like that on the market…

Women Have Excellent Navigational Abilities To High Calorie Foods

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

Randall Parker (FuturePundit) cites an article explaining that Women Have Excellent Navigational Abilities To High Calorie Foods:

The team asked the men and women to show the direction of a stall where they had bought a certain food, such as strawberries or tomatoes, using a compass.

A zero degree error meant the subjects were bang on target, while 90 degrees meant they were hopeless.

“Men were making 33 degree pointing error, when women were around 25 degree, which is a 27 per cent improvement,” said Mr Krasnow.

Women also did better with a high-calorie food, such as a doughnut, compared with a stick of celery.


Saturday, August 25th, 2007

I’ve been expecting someone to implement the Rent-a-pooch business model for a while now:

There are more than 44 million dog owners in the United States — and untold millions more dog-loving city dwellers who would enjoy having a pooch or two but don’t have the time or space to walk, groom, and clean up after them.

That’s the market Marlena Cervantes decided to tap when she founded Flexpetz, a groundbreaking dog-rental service that lets you bask in the unconditional love of man’s best friend without the trouble of having to care for it.

A dog owner and former behavioral therapist, Cervantes has experienced firsthand the positive effect that interacting with a dog can have on people with health problems, especially children. Many families, however, are unable to take on the added responsibility of dog owner-ship. Renting a well-behaved dog to those families seemed like an opportunity to spread joy – and make some money. So in March, Cervantes quit her job and launched Flexpetz in San Diego and Los Angeles. She has plans to expand her operation by opening branches in New York and San Francisco as well.

Rental and registration fees come to $120 per month. You book time with Flexpetz online or by phone. Each dog comes with its own bed, bowls, leash, chew toys, doggy waste bags, and prepackaged and premeasured dog food.

To ensure some continuity in the dog’s emotional life, Flexpetz members are required to rent the dogs at least twice a month. They also must take an hour-long training session. Each dog carries an embedded chip with GPS and temperature sensors so Flexpetz can find it if it strays and make sure it’s not too hot or too cold. The dogs are screened to determine how many humans they can handle, and when they aren’t out on assignment, they spend their time in cage-free day-care centers.

Hot Air Balloon in Flames

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

This Hot Air Balloon in Flames is a terrifying image:

A hot air balloon’s basket bursts into flames shortly after takeoff when it was about 25 feet off the ground in Surrey British Colombia Canada Friday evening Aug. 24, 2007. Witnesses said passengers screamed and jumped to the ground. The balloon reportedly took off from a grassy field with 12 passengers. The balloon crashed in a trailer park and campground, injuring as many as 11 people, police and local reports said. Two additional people were unaccounted for.

Again, terrifying.

On a lighter note, I recall an interview with a Hindenburg survivor who jumped from the burning dirigible. He was a circus acrobat, and dropping down to a grassy field didn’t daunt him at all.

AT&T Ditches ‘Fewest Dropped Calls’ Ad Campaign

Friday, August 24th, 2007

If you’ve had a friend or family member call you on a new iPhone only to have the call dropped a half-dozen times in a half-hour, then you might be skeptical of AT&T’s claim to have the fewest dropped calls.

Your skepticism would be warranted. Now AT&T Ditches ‘Fewest Dropped Calls’ Ad Campaign:

Following a Better Business Bureau investigation into Cingular’s (now AT&T’s) “fewest dropped calls” ad campaign and a protracted legal fight with Sprint over the issue, AT&T is reportedly dropping its claim, according to an employee.

Turns out, the assertion was never really true, and was based on only a small part of a larger Telephia report. As a whole, the report notes that AT&T Wireless did not have the most reliable network in places like New York, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles, according to Broadband Reports. Recent studies from Consumer Reports and JD Power mirror these findings, and have placed Cingular/AT&T at or near the the bottom of their rankings for reliability and satisfaction.

Understanding the Current Financial Turmoil

Friday, August 24th, 2007

In Understanding the Current Financial Turmoil, Arnold Kling explains the difference between a default premium and a risk premium and then summarizes the current situation:

With some institutional investors burned in the sub-prime mortgage market, this has caused other institutions to question their own portfolios: which of our investments might have more potential to default than we have been allowing for? What if it turns out that bond ratings are less reliable than we thought?

The net result is that risk premiums, which had been trending down in recent years to historically low levels, have bounced back up in the past several weeks. This adversely affects companies, such as Countrwide Financial, that rely on their strong credit ratings to be able to finance their portfolios using low-cost debt. A small increase in the risk premium faced by Countrywide can cause an enormous drop in its profit margin.

Sebastian Mallaby calls this “irrationality” on the part of investors. Instead, I think of it as a breakdown in trust of the financial intermediation process. This breakdown is occurring not so much at the level of the average consumer, but among large institutional investors. Money managers who a year ago were willing to accept low risk premiums for securities are no longer willing to do so. No one is really sure whose tools for evaluating default probabilities are reliable and whose tools are not. Until financial intermediaries can re-establish the reliability of their estimates of the likely performance of various credit instruments, institutional investors will be skeptical of the hide-and-seek process. This will keep the risk premium high, with adverse effects on housing and business investment.

Study reveals why common pneumonia is so deadly

Friday, August 24th, 2007

Study reveals why common pneumonia is so deadly:

Many experts assumed that inflammation killed patients. As with any bacteria or virus, the body’s immune system activates to repel the invader, but in some patients this reaction becomes too strong and can itself be fatal.

“Many patients die at a very early time point — 48 hours or so, but less than 72 hours. People noticed this but they didn’t know why,” Li said.

His team studied the bacteria, first in lab dishes and then in mice. They looked specifically at a toxin known to be produced by the bacteria, called pneumolysin.

It was known to lyse, or break open cells, but Li’s team found this also caused widespread bleeding in lung tissue.

Tests on tissue taken from human patients who died confirmed this.

“When you look at the pathology of the lung, we found bleeding everywhere in the lung. That is a key point,” Li said.

And antibiotics kill bacteria by cutting them open, which releases even more pneumolysin.


Friday, August 24th, 2007

Paul Graham notes that Stuff has gotten a lot cheaper, but our attitudes toward it haven’t changed correspondingly:

I have too much stuff. Most people in America do. In fact, the poorer people are, the more stuff they seem to have. Hardly anyone is so poor that they can’t afford a front yard full of old cars.

It wasn’t always this way. Stuff used to be rare and valuable. You can still see evidence of that if you look for it. For example, in my house in Cambridge, which was built in 1876, the bedrooms don’t have closets. In those days people’s stuff fit in a chest of drawers. Even as recently as a few decades ago there was a lot less stuff. When I look back at photos from the 1970s, I’m surprised how empty houses look. As a kid I had what I thought was a huge fleet of toy cars, but they’d be dwarfed by the number of toys my nephews have. All together my Matchboxes and Corgis took up about a third of the surface of my bed. In my nephews’ rooms the bed is the only clear space.

Stuff has gotten a lot cheaper, but our attitudes toward it haven’t changed correspondingly. We overvalue stuff.

That was a big problem for me when I had no money. I felt poor, and stuff seemed valuable, so almost instinctively I accumulated it. Friends would leave something behind when they moved, or I’d see something as I was walking down the street on trash night (beware of anything you find yourself describing as “perfectly good”), or I’d find something in almost new condition for a tenth its retail price at a garage sale. And pow, more stuff.

In fact these free or nearly free things weren’t bargains, because they were worth even less than they cost. Most of the stuff I accumulated was worthless, because I didn’t need it.

What I didn’t understand was that the value of some new acquisition wasn’t the difference between its retail price and what I paid for it. It was the value I derived from it. Stuff is an extremely illiquid asset. Unless you have some plan for selling that valuable thing you got so cheaply, what difference does it make what it’s “worth?” The only way you’re ever going to extract any value from it is to use it. And if you don’t have any immediate use for it, you probably never will.

Joybubbles, 58, Peter Pan of Phone Hackers, Dies

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

If you made up a fictional character like Joybubbles, no one would find him the least bit believable. Joybubbles, 58, Peter Pan of Phone Hackers, Dies:

Joybubbles (the legal name of the former Joe Engressia since 1991), a blind genius with perfect pitch who accidentally found he could make free phone calls by whistling tones and went on to play a pivotal role in the 1970s subculture of “phone phreaks,” died on Aug. 8 in Minneapolis.
Josef Carl Engressia Jr. was born May 25, 1949, and moved often because his father was a school-picture photographer. At 4 or 5, he learned to dial by using the hookswitch like a telegraph key. Four years later, he discovered that he could disconnect a call by whistling. He found this out when he imitated a sound in the background on a long-distance call and the line cut off. It turned out that his whistle precisely replicated a crucial phone company signal, a 2,600-cycles-per-second tone.

Joybubbles’s parents had no phone for five years because of their son’s obsession. Later, his mother encouraged it by reading him technical books. His high school yearbook photo showed him in a phone booth.

By the time he was a student at the University of South Florida, Joybubbles was dialing toll-free or nonworking numbers to reach a distant switching point. Unbeknownst to telephone operators, he could use sounds to dial another number, free. He could then jump anywhere in the phone system. He was disconnected from college after being caught making calls for friends at $1 a call. In 1971, he moved to Memphis, where he was convicted of phone fraud. In Millington, Tenn., he was hired to clean phones, a job he hated. In 1975, he moved to Denver to ferret out problems in Mountain Bell’s network.

He tired of that and moved to Minneapolis on June 12, 1982, partly because that date’s numerical representation of 6-12 is the same as the city’s area code. He advertised for people yearning to discuss things telephonic and weaved a web of phone lines to accommodate them. He lived on Social Security disability payments and part-time jobs like letting university agriculture researchers use his superb sense of smell to investigate how to control the odor of hog excrement.

A Farewell to Alms, pp.1-112

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

Tyler Cowen discusses A Farewell to Alms, pp.1-112 and spawns some fascinating discussion. Read the whole thing.