Crazy Capitalist Day 2005

Celebrate Capitalism (tm, of course) day is coming up on June 5th. Anti-capitalist protestors have a habit of breaking the windows of the nearest Starbucks. What’s a young free marketeer to do in response? Clean the windows? Objectivists of the world, grab your squeegies and demonstrate your love for corporations!

I’m only kidding. I’d never send you to a Starbucks.

Thanks to Nikki for the link.


Shut off the wi-fi, or make it better?

I’m currently sitting at the big wooden table inside Murky Coffee. I’m sharing it with four others, three of whom are also on their laptops. There are four smaller tables behind me, each occupied by one person and one computer. Welcome to the new cafe culture: coffee + free wi-fi = a much nicer place to do your work than at the office.

That’s not to say that the coffee shop has been anti-social. I’ve come to know the regulars around me and conversation does draw us away from our monitors from time to time. Besides, solo activities like reading have always been a part of the cafe experience, though it’s a little easier to start a conversation about a book than about Web browsing (“I see you’re reading The Agitator, too. That’s one of my favorite blogs!”). Still, it’s disconcerting sometimes to look out across the shop and see as many laptops as people.

Seattle’s Victrola coffee shop has noticed the problem and taken the gutsy step of turning off the wi-fi on weekends:

[Owner Jen] Strongin said that the five-year-old cafe added free Wi-Fi when it seemed their customers wanted it a couple of years ago. It initially brought in more people, she said, but over the past year “we noticed a significant change in the environment of the cafe.” Before Wi-Fi, “People talked to each other, strangers met each other,” she said. Solitary activities might involve reading and writing, but it was part of the milieu. “Those people co-existed with people having conversations,” said Strongin.

But “over the past year it seems that nobody talks to each other any more,” she said. On the weekends, 80 to 90 percent of tables and chairs are taken up by people using computers. Many laptop users occupy two or more seats by themselves, as well. Victrola isn’t on the way to anywhere; it’s in the middle of a vibrant stretch of shops and restaurants on Capitol Hill’s 15th Ave. It’s exactly the kind of place that you want to sit down in, not just breeze through…

They’ve gone two weekends with no Wi-Fi, and so far, they’re pleased with the results. The staff “loves it,” she said, and regular customers are “coming up to us and thanking us.” They have received a few nasty emails. But Strongin said that last Sunday was one of the best revenue days they’ve had on the weekends in a while. “It was kind of a bold move.”

I sympathize and have taken to leaving my own laptop at home on Sundays. I also admire their willingness to shape the culture of their shop rather than just giving into the demand for free Internet. It does seem like a drastic approach, though. Perhaps a better solution would use the Internet to facilitate socializing. That’s why I like this idea from the comments section on the entry above: an experimental project called PlaceSite that works as a local social networking site. Wi-fi users in the shop log-in and have the option of posting public profiles and participating in an online message board.

How much information will people share with the strangers around them in a coffee shop? Will increased transparency make it easier for people to find common interests to talk about or will it feel too artificial compared to a delightful chance encounter? The possibilities are intriguing.


Coase-ting toward a solution to the dorm dispute

I hate to bring up the Confederate dorm issue again, but it so nicely illustrates a principle of legal economics that I’m going to anyway. The latest news is that Dr. Eddie Hamilton, a black Vanderbilt alumnus, has offered $50,000 to the United Daughters of the Confederacy if they will allow Vanderbilt to change the name of the building. He’s encouraged others to chip in as well and the UDC has stated a willingness to “look at any offer on the table.” [Thanks to Chad for the update.]

Anyone who’s done some reading in the economics of law will recognize this as an illustration of the Coase theorem, which states that resources will be allocated efficiently regardless of the initial distribution of property rights (assuming there are no transaction costs). As long as this dorm dispute was tied up in the court system, the name was stuck as is. Bargaining has begun now that the appeals court has determined that the right to name the dorm belongs to the UDC. The transaction costs are not insignificant, but if there are enough Vanderbilt alumni who care about this aspect of the university’s image, the name will change.

The other interesting thing about this is that it makes the appeals court’s determination that Vanderbilt could void the contract for about $700,000 (the approximate value of the UDC’s donation in today’s dollars) nearly irrelevant. This was a somewhat arbitrary decision, but if the UDC’s reservation price is below that it doesn’t matter. The existence of a well defined property right forces each side to take the other’s interests into account: the UDC has to ask itself if keeping the name “Confederate Memorial Hall” on an increasingly progressive campus is worth the opportunity cost of whatever else it could do with a sizeable amount of money while the university community considers whether it’s worth compensating the group to change the name. Can we imagine any other situation in which Dr. Hamilton would voluntarily write a $50,000 check to the United Daughters of the Confederacy?

Debates about this stupid dorm have raged for years in the Student Government Association, op-ed pages, weblogs, and the courts. Perhaps people will finally be happy when they let the market decide the issue.


Apology for lack of comments

I knew when an entire day had gone by without comment spam or sarcastic remarks about my taste in music that my comment form must be acting up again. We’ll have it fixed as soon as possible and will switch in the near future from MovableType to WordPress.

[Update 5/23/05: Comments fixed. Thanks, Adam.]


The musical baton

Is this meme business getting out of hand? First there was the Caesar’s Bath Meme, and now Jeremy of The LCD has passed me the Musical Baton. Since it saves me from having to come up with a topic of my own, here we go…

Total volume of music files on my computer

6.21 MB. No, that’s not a typo. Don’t take this as any sort of commentary, but I don’t download music. It’s all on CDs. The only two songs I have on my computer are Leah Morgan’s “London” and “My Life is Like a Movie” (currently the featured download on her website).

The last CD I bought

It’s Time by Michael Bublé. I was slow to like this one, but it’s growing on me. Great cover of “Save the Last Dance for Me.”

Song playing right now

“The World is What You Make It” from Jen Cohen’s Far Enough Away.

Five songs I listen to a lot, or mean a lot to me

“Think too Much” (a and b) from Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones.

“What a Good Boy” from Barenaked Ladies’ Gordon.

“Corner of the Sky” from Pippin.

“Surrendering” from Alanis Morissette’s Under Rug Swept

“Guido’s Song” from Nine

Five people to whom I’m passing the baton

Five’s a bit much, but I’ll send it on to Mike, Ben, and another Mike since I know they like writing about music.


Misfortune cookie

I had Chinese take out tonight for dinner. The meal was good but the fortune cookie was rather alarming:


Yikes! I didn’t expect a fortune cookie to make such a negative prediction. And that “Enjoy!” bit shows a real lack of sympathy.

Thankfully, moving my thumb a bit to the left revealed that all will be well:


I guess drinks are on me.


If Richard Feynman had been a chef…

You may have had a chuckle reading the news recently if you saw MSNBC’s story about the best restaurant in the world being a British one; Radley wrote about it here. The chefs The Fat Duck take a new approach to cooking called molecular gastronomy. Begun by a French researcher named Hervé This, its practitioners use imagination and a strictly empirical approach to test the limits of what can be done with food. The results are startling and, reportedly, delicious.

London’s a bit far away. Fortunately, there’s a new restaurant in the U.S. that’s taking a similarly innovative approach. Chicago’s Alinea, named after a typographical sign indicating the beginning of a new train of thought or paragraph, really pushes the envelope. Food and Wine magazine gives it a very intriguing review, beginning with this:

Your waiter will appear bearing a small steel contraption. Wires radiate up and out, like the skeleton of an upside-down umbrella. Snuggled into those spokes will be a small bunch of grapes, but the grapes are gone—all but two, which still cling to their denuded branch, partly visible through a lacy, paper-thin wrapping of toast. It won’t look like food, exactly, but you’re in a restaurant and this seems to be your first course and you’re hungry, so you will pick up the whole weird mess by the stem, dangle it over your mouth, Roman emperor-style, and bite. The outside will be crisp; inside will be something juicy. A grape, of course. But there will be something else, something sticky and totally, utterly familiar. You’ve known this taste since before you could tie your own shoes. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich! And you will wonder: Just what kind of restaurant is this, anyway?

The e-Gullet forums have a photo gallery from a twenty-eight course meal served on opening day, including the PB&J sandwich [h/t Newmark’s Door]. It’s stunning.

Dinner at Alinea comes in three options: twelve courses for $110, eight for $75, and the full twenty-eight course Tour for $175. Twenty-eight glasses of paired wines are available for an addition $125 and the full experience on opening day took over seven hours to complete.


I’ll drink to this

Thanks largely to the work of the Institute for Justice, today the Supreme Court overturned laws that ban the shipping of out of state wines directly to consumers while allowing it from in-state wineries. Twenty-three states passed these laws with dubious justifications like the need to collect tax revenue (this an issue with all shipped goods, not just wine) and the need to protect minors from obtaining alcohol (they could just as easily do this from in-state wineries as from out of state ones, nor is this really a problem). The Court ruled that the laws were poorly veiled attempts at protectionism and violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Full decision here [.pdf].

Stephen Bainbridge, a man who knows his wine and his law, notes that not once in the past ten years has the Court split as it has done in this case: Kennedy, Scalia, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer in the majority and Stevens, Thomas, O’Connor, Rehnquist dissenting. He also cautions that states can still choose to forbid all mail order wine sales, thus not discriminating in favor of in-state producers; the concentrated benefits this would provide to wholesalers and retailers suggests that there are good reasons to expect that many of the states that had their laws overturned today may choose to do so.

The decision is good news for sites like Best Cellars, whose brick and mortar stores are among my favorite places to buy wine. Hopefully they’ll soon be able to drop pages like this one from their website. Unfortunately, Virginia law hasn’t been quite as good for them lately. I dropped by their Clarendon location this weekend to find it completely closed down while they apply for a new liquor license. From what I can gather, their previous license for both on and off site premise wine and beer sales has been invalidated by the state. Virginia requires anyone selling wine for immediate consumption to also have minimum monthly food sales of at least $2,000. Since patrons came to Best Cellars to sample their unique selections of wine, not food, their wine bar had to go. Now Clarendon has lost a nice spot to stop in for a glass of wine and Best Cellars has been shut down for a week while they jump through the requisite bureaucratic hurdles, but at least the neighborhood is finally free from the scourge of rowdy vandals made tipsy by a little too much pinot noir. Thank you, state of Virginia legislators.

In other wine news, don’t you hate it when that $1,000 dollar bottle you purchased has been tainted by a faulty cork? Yeah, me too. A new company called Wine Scanner, Inc. has come to the rescue. Their scanners use nuclear magentic resonance technology to detect spoilage products without ever opening the bottle. Think of it as giving your wine an MRI before dropping a load of money for it.

That link comes from The Morning News, which also points to this site that makes me yearn to be back behind the espresso bar again. It showcases some amazing latte art along with step by step photos of how they were poured and etched.


Sticking it to the manicure

A freestater has been arrested in New Hampshire for giving an illegal manicure:

Newmarket’s Mike Fisher was arrested outside the office of the state Board of Barbering, Cosmetology and Esthetics on Monday after he gave a manicure without license. A member of the Free State Project, Fisher, 23, knew his arrest was imminent even before he pulled out his emery board but persisted in order to take a stand against government regulations.

“This is not for me, this is for others,” Fisher said, surrounded by about 20 fellow free-staters. “They have licensing for everything and I think it’s out of control. This all about bringing debate.”

Concord police arrested Fisher shortly before 1 p.m. and charged him with giving a manicure without a license, which is a misdemeanor carrying with it a penalty of a fine up to $1,000. It is illegal to perform a manicure — and various other procedures — without a license according to state law (RSA 313-A:9)…

Fisher has been in contact with the Board of Barbering, Cosmetology and Esthetics for the past few weeks, protesting the licensing process. When Fisher accepted $1 from fellow free-stater Kat Dillon of Keene and began buffing her nails, inspectors from the board informed Fisher he was in violation of the law.

When he ceased, Concord police were called. Police arrived and witnessed Fisher “actively engaged” in giving Dillon a manicure.

It’s humorous, but perhaps libertarianism could use more of this kind of civil disobedience. Regulation is boring. We can talk about it all we want, but we’ll have a hard time finding an interested audience. Mike Fisher’s protest manicure has won him a spot in the press and some cogent quotes in the paper. Kudos to him. Raise thy emery boards in solidarity.

[Hat tip: Ceaf Lewis, again.]


Turning a projector into a camera

I’m not going to lie to you. As geeky as I am sometimes, I don’t really understand the link I’m about to send you to. I do know that it’s really, realy cool. In fact, it’s probably the coolest paper about Helmholtz reciprocity that you’ll ever see.

And what is Helmholtz reciprocity, you ask? Hell if I know!

Bear with me though. I can’t decipher the mathematics behind it, but basically the Helmholtz reciprocity principle means that the radiance emitted by a surface hit by a ray of light is symmetric in both directions, such that the direction of lighting could be reversed without changing its properties. So if a projector sends a ray of light to a surface and its reflection is picked up by a camera, you know that if you exactly reversed the places of the camera and the projector you’d get the same amount of reflected light. The picture on this page illustrates the principle. Make sense so far?

If you’re still with me, you know as much about the principle as I do, and that’s enough to sort of understand what’s going on in this paper entitled “Dual Photography.” The team behind it has developed a technique for mapping the light transport properties pixel-by-pixel from a projector, off of the scene to be photographed, and on to a digital camera and then processing this information to reverse the flow of light and “see” what a camera would see from the projector’s location if the scene were lit from where the camera actually is. This allows them to get a dual image with just one camera: one from where the camera actually is, and one from where the light source is located. In other words, they’ve figured out a way to allow a camera to see around corners.

This allows for some neat graphic possibilities, such as relighting scenes with numerous lighting effects from the location of the camera. It also makes it possible to efficiently figure out how a scene would be lit from multiple angles at once. Previously, this would require having one camera and moving the light source around; you couldn’t use multiple light sources at once because they’d interfere with each other. Cameras are passive receivers, however, so an array of them can be set up at different angles to work at the same time with just one light source. Using the algorithms this team created, the photos can be reversed to see how the scene would be lit from the point of view of the projector if it were lit from the point of each camera.

The most impressive thing about this, though, is the seeing around corners. The video accompanying the paper closes with an amazing demonstration of dual photography in action: a playing card is placed in the scene next to a book such that the camera can only see the card’s back. Light from the projector reflects of its face, however, and then off the book and into the camera. With dual photography, the entire image can be reversed to show the face of the card as seen by the projector as if it were indirectly lit by light from the camera reflecting off the book.

This is all very confusing without pictures. It’s hard to grasp even with pictures. The video is worth seeing, however. The link is at the bottom of the page in bittorrent form. The full paper (in .pdf) provides much more detail about the process.

This would have some great card trick applications if only I could figure out how to unobrusively sneak a digital camera and light source into the room, subtly get the spectator to hold still for a moment so her card could be photographed, and stall for time while a computer processes the image.

I think I’ll stick with sleight of hand.

[Link via Slashdot.]