Prohibition made me smoke

Cafe Saint-Ex, a popular D.C. bar, has recently taken up the fight against that most pernicious of negative externalities that has been plaguing our watering holes and sickening those of us who don’t partake in the noxious activity. I’m referring, of course, to popped collars.

It’s a moot point now, but the D.C. smoking ban has been a hot issue on the Vandy blogs lately (Zhubin, Joel, David, and I debate it here, here, and here). To the public health fascists in the group, I would like to point out that Saint-Ex instituted its ban on popped collars voluntarily, without pressure from the government. The city-wide popped collar prohibition that so many have called for is clearly unnecessary. The market speaks, norms evolve, and both the tools and the non-collar poppers find establishments that serve their preferences. I take this as irrefutable empirical proof that I was right about the smoking ban and demand a groveling concession from Zhubin within the day.

Unwholesome activities IThose of you who know me well know I’ve never smoked a cigarette and would probably find it comical to see me do so. If you weren’t at Reason‘s happy hour at Mackey’s Wednesday night, you missed your chance. As our merry group of libertarians gathered for drinks and conversation, I thought wistfully of how this would be one of the last times we could all get together without the smokers in the group having to excuse themselves to step outside by order of the nanny statists on the City Council. That made me mad. So mad that I walked up to my friend Eric and, to his great surprise, requested a cigarette and something to make fire with. I then proceeded to cross one more item off the list of unwholesome activities I’ve never experienced:

Sticking it to the man

I can’t say smoking did much for me. This protest cigarette was definitely my first and my last. One negative side effect I noticed immediately: within moments of lighting up, think tankers were approaching to “borrow” a cigarette of their own. These guys clearly don’t get paid enough. Positive side effect: Increased attractiveness and popularity, as shown by Nikki’s willingness to be photographed in public with me:

I was not this cool 30 seconds ago

Note that Nikki could have been standing next to libertarian rockstar Randy Barnett, who was also in attendance. Conclusion: smoking makes you cooler than Randy Barnett.

Who’s the smartest of them all?

The Prospect and Foreign Policy are inviting readers to vote for who they think are the top public intellectuals. The magazines have narrowed it down to 100, from which five can be chosen. My selections (in no particular order):

1) Richard Dawkins
2) Hernando De Soto
3) Lawrence Lessig
4) Martha Nussbaum
5) Richard Posner

They also invite one write-in vote. I was tempted to go with Douglass North, but being already long on economists I submitted Antonio Damasio instead.

Your picks?

[Yet another hat tip to The Morning News.]

Not another RSS post

This is hopefully the last one for a while. You may have noticed that this site’s feed started displaying a few new features over the weekend. That’s thanks to a great new WordPress plugin called Better Feed. I’ve used it to add an additional permalink, a comments link with a running count of the current number of comments, and an “Add to del.icio.us” link to each entry. The plugin offers a lot of other options, too.

WordPress users, download it here.

The hurricanes are Bush’s fault!

Let’s get two points out of the way first:

1) I really, really dislike President Bush. When I have the chance to blame him for something, whether it’s massive government deficits or the fact that I haven’t done laundry for a while and woke up this morning to realize I was out of the “good underwear,” I take it.

2) I think my fellow libertarians often fail to engage with the issue of climate change as seriously as they should, even if many of their specific policy critiques are right on.

That said, I’m a bit skeptical of the claims that the powerful storms we’ve seen recently are the product of man-made climate change that must be stopped. They may be, but the rapidity with which the hurricanes were used to score political points in the global warming debate suggests there’s more than hard science involved in headlines like this.

In that light, this BBC analysis of the relationship among tropical storms, global warming, and the media is well worth reading for a balanced view on the subject.

[Link thanks to The Morning News.]

“A social contract for disaster”

No, that’s not the latest dorky theme party put on by the Koch Fellows. It’s how British psychologist Richard Wiseman describes the relationship between magicians and their audiences.

You see, when I claimed a while ago that my powers were on loan from God, that was a bit of a fib. There are actually rational, logical explanations for how magic works and Professor Wiseman has been exploring this territory from a psychologist’s point of view. From the BBC:

As a former conjurer, he is uniquely qualified to understand the social dynamics between a magician and his audience and he argues that there is a lot more happening in a magic show than people realise.

“The really good performers,” he said, “the ones who know what they’re doing, have an incredible grasp of psychology”, and use it to convince you to see their version of events.

Most people are familiar with the term “misdirection,” the technique of getting an audience to look in one place while a secret action happens someplace else. The best magicians accomplish this in more subtle ways than simply pointing to the back of the room and saying, “Hey, look over there!”, such as by having things burst into flames unexpectedly on the side of the stage or employing scantily clad assistants. Or, if they’re really sneaky, they pull an O’Brien and slowly alter a person’s memory of events:

“For example,” said Professor Wiseman, “a magician might cut some cards and say ‘Right, they’re mixed up now’. Then he’ll do something else and then say ‘Now, remember I shuffled the cards at the start’.

“That word – ‘shuffled’ – has gone in, and people think ‘Yeah, that’s right, the cards were shuffled’. But they weren’t, he just cut them. It’s cut to mix to shuffle. Small steps. If you had gone from cut to shuffle, it’s too much and people notice.”

Inattentional blindness plays a role, too:

[Dr. Nillie] Lavie specialises in inattention blindness. “The skill of a good magician is to make a very interesting, dramatic act with complex actions and interesting verbal utterances,” she said.

“He loads your attention with all this information, but it’s irrelevant to the act that he presents. It is so you don’t notice the deception.”

However, humans being natural sceptics go to magic shows knowing they are going to be deceived so they pay special attention to everything. But being overly focused can also be turned to the illusionist’s advantage.

She’s right except for the part about the information being irrelevant. Presentation is often structured to distract, but it also plays a role in constituting an effect. Three playing cards switching places for no reason is meaningless; setting their transpositions in the context of a story about how the performer once lost a lot of money in a game of three card monte provides an emotional hook and a motivation for what’s happening. Audiences aren’t stupid. They can tell the difference between a magician who’s just babbling to misdirect them one who offers a cohesive performance to draw them in.

So what motivates people to let magicians mess with their minds. After all, there is a fundamental problem with this relationship. At the end of the day, you are paying someone, to deceive you; you are twice the sucker.

Professor Wiseman calls it a “social contract for disaster”.

“I show you a trick, you want to know how it’s done, I am not going to tell you. Conflict.”

… Magicians have to manage that. And to do that they use these psychological techniques, but they are also giving something back.

In a renowned essay, Paul Harris, one of David Blaine’s technical advisers, has argued it is “astonishment”. This, he claims, is our natural state of mind; analogous to a childlike awe, that is lost in adulthood. Good magic, Harris claims, returns people to that state.

I was surprised to see the Paul Harris essay mentioned in the article. It is an influential piece among magicians, but it’s a lot more New Age mumbo-jumbo than it is empirical science. That said, there’s a lot of truth to it. Paul is a fantastically creative magician who’s done more than just about anyone to challenge his fellow practicioners to become more than tricky guys in cheap tuxes. On that note:

Today, it is the edgier performers like Derren Brown and David Blaine that people want to see.

They are both charged with wresting magic back from the grip of the likes of David Copperfield, Paul Daniels and Lance Burton – the poster boys for high-camp family entertainment.

Yes, Blaine and Brown will astonish, but they will also unsettle; they take you on a journey to the parts of your childhood inhabited by the scary clown, not Peter Pan and the fairies.

I don’t know if I’d call David Copperfield’s recent penchant for innuendo and sapphic dancing “high-camp family entertainment,” but the article is correct in noting the trend toward edgier magic that gets visceral reactions from the audience.

Transporting modern cynical audiences back to a childlike state of wonder is a tall order even for these kings of cool. But Wiseman believes Derren Brown is doubly astute, using people’s natural scepticism and demand for answers to his advantage.

“If he passed himself off as having psychic abilities, he wouldn’t be half as successful,” Professor Wiseman insists.

Instead, Brown offers a rational explanation dressed up in science to explain the tricks he does. He presents himself as having amazing powers of memory and psychological manipulation and so offers the audience a “believable” solution, albeit often the wrong one.

“Derren’s trick is not the magic, it’s creating the illusion that he has these fantastic abilities and getting you to believe him.”

Derren Brown is a controversial figure among magician, mainly for the way he excoriates the vast majority of his peers for being utterly lame and unoriginal. He hasn’t had much exposure in the U.S. yet, but I was lucky to stumble upon a live show of his the one night I spent in London this summer. He’s a fantastic performer; some of the stunts from the second act of his show had even me feeling physically uncomfortable at times.

However, the downside to his style is that he really does trick the audience into believing that his abilities to manipulate them psychologically are far beyond their true limits. Normally I think it’s laudable when a psychic performer tells his audience that there are rational explanations for everything he does, but Derren leads his fans uncomfortably into the range of pseudoscience. It was fun, yet mildly disturbing, talking with the intelligent audience members around me and hearing that they really believed Derren could control their thoughts hours in advance by showing them certain pictures or saying certain phrases. Is encouraging belief in sketchy subjects like neurolinguistic programming any better than claiming to have ESP?

Perhaps not, or perhaps it’s best to just enjoy the joke he’s playing on a culture so proud of its rational skepticism that it will buy into such bald-faced lies. But it’s late and this entry is long enough as is. I’ll save that topic for a potential future post.

[Via MagiCentric.]

I hate the ABC

Jacob's enemiesVirginia’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is rapidly rising to the top of my enemies list. First it protected Clarendon from the rowdy pinot noir drinkers who weren’t buying enough appetizers at the Best Cellars wine bar (finally reopened, sans bar, btw), then it got in trouble for selling nothing but Virginia wines in its liquor stores, and now it has shut down the beer pong tables at Arlington landmark Dr. Dremo.

Dr. Dremo, located just two blocks from my apartment, is where I lost my Beirut virginity just a few weekends ago. (Astonishingly, I made it through four years of Vanderbilt and two years of IHS and Cato without ever playing beer pong. The tragedies of a misspent youth.) Sure, the beer was bad and the balls were a little unclean, but it was fun, damn it. And given how long it took my friends and I to make our tosses, playing the game probably moderated our alcohol intake. Not that this matters to the busybodies at the ABC. Despite the arbitrariness of their ruling, they saw people having a good time and stepped in to put a stop to it.

In other bad news, Brooke reports that the fight over the smoking ban is essentially over. The city council is going to pass it.

The D.C. area is disadvantaged enough by having the nation’s largest concentration of lawyers, law students, lobbyists, consultants, politicians, regulators, and ass-kissing interns looking for the next big networking opportunity.* Do we really need our local governments making an additional, conscious effort to make this city boring? No, no we don’t.

*I realize that many of my friends reading this blog fit into some of those categories. I didn’t mean you, of course. You’re the fun law students and consultants!

[Hat tip: Chad.]

More down under beasties from Down Under

It’s weird fish time again, folks! Let’s kick off the new website by catching up with long-time Eternal Recurrence friend Mark McGrouther, Fish Collection Manager at the Australian Museum.

First on the list is the Humpback Blackdevil. This guy looks like Mr. Blobby’s evil brother (actually sister, the males of the species are tiny), a floating liver with teeth, or perhaps a video game villain I can’t quite place right now.

Next is the Black Snoek, definitely one of the least attractive creatures we’ve highlighted here.

This larval basslet is “only a piddly little fish,” but it’s interesting for its remarkably long dorsal spines. Their purpose is still under debate:

Larval Liopropoma have extremely long ornate second and third dorsal fin spines. These spines have balloon-like structures which are held above the fish. The Smithsonian’s ‘Expedition to Galapagos‘ website states that “We don’t know the precise function of these structures, but they look very much like a type of colonial jellyfish known as a siphonophore. Perhaps they look enough like them to deter certain potential predators.” Baldwin et al (1991) state that “The elongate filaments could play a role in energy storage by providing space for the assimilation of excess food; however, long, trailing filaments seem an unlikely place for energy storage because they probably are quite vulnerable to predation. In fact, pigmented swellings or other variations in the shape of the filaments could attract predators, distracting them from the body of the larva. The elongate filaments also might function in predator deception by increasing the apparent size of the lava.”

You may have read about the tongue biters on BoingBoing. These are parasitic crustaceans that clamp onto fishes’ tongues, eventually letting them whither away and permanently taking their place. The museum has some great photos and an article on these buggers right here. Don’t miss the oarfish, which I blogged about here back in February.

Finally, after all this time of posting about fish we at last get to see Mark himself in action. Here [wmv, mov] a strong wind and a dark night conspire to make sorting the catch a difficult endeavor. Oh yeah, that’s grace under pressure! Lots more movies on this page.

So concludes this month’s visit to the deep. More to come, as always, in this feature that ensures Nikki will always keep my blog demoted from “the political” to the “delightfully uncategorizable” (which is exactly where I want it to be).

Isemmelweis is back

My friend Trapper Michael has recently relaunched his health policy weblog Isemmelweis. This week he’s promoting the new Cato book Healthy Competition, along with noting other stories about health care and how to liberalize it. If health policy is your thing, Trapper’s site is a great source. Check it out.

I can (almost) see my house from here

Google Maps became my standard mapping program the first time I tried it out. The new map service from Amazon’s A9 is a worthy competitor, however, thanks to its block-level photographs. Type in an address in a major city and it instantly calls up photos of the street taken from the window of a cruising SUV. Walk a block virtually, note relevant landmarks before you drive, or spot someone you know (I found one regular in the Murky Coffee photo).

Wired has more.

RSS feed blues

I’m not exactly sure how well the old RSS feed is functioning. It’s working fine in the Pluck RSS reader, but new entries aren’t showing up in Bloglines. If you’re having a problem, please switch to the new feed.

[Update 9/16/05: Bloglines seems to be working now.]

I’ll be on a train to Boston all day, so no updates. Have fun with the del.icio.us links or the blogroll on the right.

Republicans have the strangest definitions of “victory”

The Onion has a hilarious article on Republicans patting themselves on the back for a job well done. The part about Tom DeLay praising his party for keeping government spending in check is especially side-splitting. From “DeLay declares ‘victory’ in war on budget fat:”

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said yesterday that Republicans have done so well in cutting spending that he declared an “ongoing victory,” and said there is simply no fat left to cut in the federal budget.

Mr. DeLay was defending Republicans’ choice to borrow money and add to this year’s expected $331 billion deficit to pay for Hurricane Katrina relief. Some Republicans have said Congress should make cuts in other areas, but Mr. DeLay said that doesn’t seem possible.

“My answer to those that want to offset the spending is sure, bring me the offsets, I’ll be glad to do it. But nobody has been able to come up with any yet,” the Texas Republican told reporters at his weekly briefing.

Asked if that meant the government was running at peak efficiency, Mr. DeLay said, “Yes, after 11 years of Republican majority we’ve pared it down pretty good.”

Wait, that’s not The Onion. It’s The Washington Times. He really said that. WTF Tom DeLay?

[Hat tip: Brad Ploeger.]

[Update: Brooke links to this op-ed pointing out a few spots Tom DeLay may have missed.]

A warning label I can get behind

The Prohibition Era destroyed the burgeoning American wine industry, but home winemaking actually increased thanks to an obscure provision of the Volstead Act that allowed people to make 200 gallons of “nonintoxicating” cider and fruit juices each year. Unable to sell wine directly, many growers shipped grapes, grape concentrate, and compressed grape bricks directly to consumers. The bricks came with this helpful warning label:

Warning: Do not place this brick in a one gallon crock, add sugar and water, cover, and let stand for seven days or else an illegal alcoholic beverage will result.

Heaven forfend!

That’s from Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible, which I finally finished this weekend. Though 900 pages long, the writing is lively and interesting throughout and it’s a great resource for wine history and as a guide to the major regions. Highly recommended.

Eternal Recurrence 2.0

And we are back, with a new look, new features, and the long-awaited demise of the yellow masthead. Whaddaya think?

After more than two years of using it, I decided to switch from MoveableType to WordPress. WP is easy to use, requires none of the rebuilding MT does, and is supported by a fantastic community of developers who are doing great things for online publishing.

The only problems with the new site I am aware of are that trackbacks from MT blogs are being ignored, some images still need to be imported, and the RSS feed is shut down very temporarily until one minor text issue is resolved. If you find any other problems, please let me know.

A few new features worth pointing out:

Del.icio.us links — I come across lots of sites each day that I’d like to link to but don’t want to devote an entire entry to. The links at the top of the right sidebar solve this problem by displaying my most recent posts to del.icio.us, a social bookmarking/tagging website. Keep an eye on that section for frequent updates or subscribe to the separate RSS feed. [Plugin by Tom Gilbert.]

Post to del.icio.us — If you’re a del.icio.us user, every entry on this site now includes a link to post to your account. Share the ones you find interesting. [Plugin by Tim Yang.]

Upcoming events — Though I haven’t been blogging much lately, I have been busy. Watch this space for some upcoming announcements about magic and wine events. [Plugin by Firetree.net.]

Rotating masthead — The photos in the masthead are rotated randomly; refresh and they will change. A slightly hacked version of the same plugin that does that displays the alternating endorsements at left. [Plugin by Matt Mullenweg.]

Finally, biggest of thanks to webhost extraordinaire Adam Gintis for putting up with my stupid tech questions and fixing all the things I break. It’s a full-time job.

Note to RSS subscribers: This site now publishes a full feed. The new address is here, though the old address should function for the time being (switch anyway just to make me happy). If you don’t already use an RSS reader, I recommend Bloglines.

In which I promise not to make a sour grapes joke

The Institute for Justice’s recent Supreme Court victory striking down numerous state laws prohibiting direct shipment of out-of-state wines received lots of favorable media attention. Brooks v. Danielsen is a lesser known case, but could be just as important for vintners and consumers right here in Virginia.

The case evolved from Bolick v. Roberts (yes, that Mr. Bolick), a 2001 challenge to Virginia wine laws. The case was vacated when the laws were revised and it eventually developed into the current controversy. At issue are the state’s preferential distribution rules that it grants to in-state wineries and denies to those from out of state. The first of these is that Virginia wineries are permitted to sell directly to retailers and restaurants without using a distributor; out of state wineries are required to use a more costly, three-tiered system of winery to distributor to retailer. The second advantage comes from the state’s ABC liquor stores, which have a monopoly on hard liquor (but not beer and wine) sales within the state. If individual stores decide to sell wine, they are only permitted to sell wines made in Virginia. Wines made anywhere else in the nation or the world are completely excluded.

á la the direct shipping case that went before the Supreme Court, these preferences are highly dubious under the Commerce Clause. That’s why District Court Judge Richard Williams struck them down in April of this year in Brooks v. Danielsen. He ruled that ABC stores may not continue to sell only Virginia wines and that in-state wineries may not continue acting as their own distributors. The reasoning is sound, but it has Virginia wineries in an uproar and seeking an appeal and a temporary stay. The small producers argue that they don’t produce enough each year to make working through a distributor possible and won’t be able to stay afloat without state protection.

The producers’ complaints have some validity. Direct sales to retailers are a large portion, perhaps 40%, of many smaller producers’ sales, most of the rest being sold to consumers in the wineries? tasting rooms and at festivals. Online sales make up only 1.5% of sales for wineries around Williamsburg, according to Beverage Journal, so they probably won’t be enough in the short-term to offset lost sales. Thus, even though Virginia wineries have the potential to benefit greatly from the increasingly free direct shipping market, gaining access to other states won’t immediately compensate them for their loss of in-state advantages.

Not surprisingly, this had led to renewed calls for protectionism. The editor of The Virginia Wine Gazette writes:

If the Danielsen case stands as it is, the small family owned wineries that have become an integral part of many communities would disappear. It has taken 30 years to build the Virginia wine industry to almost 100 wineries today and just one moment’s decision by a Richmond judge could rend that tightly woven fabric of families, friends and hard work to pieces.

It’s time to rally the wine troops and contact your local, state, and federal representatives and tell them that Virginia consumers want to protect the smaller family-owned wineries that do not have the production or resources to interest and/or use an outside distributor for greater retail and restaurant sales statewide.

To paraphrase a famous quote: “Give us liberty to drink Virginia wine, not sour grapes!” [JG: Hey, I promised I wouldn't make any sour grapes jokes. I have no control over what the Virginia Wine Gazette chooses to print.]

I’ve heard some brazen claims in favor for protectionism before, but this is ridiculous. In the name of consumer freedom we must make it harder to obtain wines grown anywhere but in Virginia? The mind reels.

A far better solution would be to get rid of the distributor requirement entirely. Instead of lobbying to preserve an unconstitutional protectionist scheme, Virginia wine lovers should demand that all wineries be allowed to sell directly to retailers without a middleman. This would decrease the cost of wine to consumers, give them access to a wider array of producers, and allow in-state wineries to continue their current selling practices. Since it wouldn’t discriminate between in- and out-of-state producers, it wouldn’t run afoul of the Commerce Clause. The Virginia Wine Guide advocates this much more sensible approach:

Meanwhile, the wineries are hoping they will not face a suspension in such sales until the problems identified by the case can be fixed by the 2006 Virginia General Assembly, which will begin meeting in January. A major “fix” would be state legislation that allows everyone — in state and out-of-state wineries — to engage in self distribution within some kind of limitations, yet to be ironed out.

Even if that “fix” never comes to pass, the situation may not be as dire as it seems. All of the restaurants and retailers that have been selling Virginia wine will suddenly find themselves in need of distributors. Though distributors weren’t interested in the smaller wineries before, perhaps they will be in the changed legal climate. The small producers might even try forming their own distribution company to promote their wines. If politics fails, entrepreneurism may yet save the day.

For consumers the choice is clear: fewer legal barriers lead to lower costs, more variety, increased competition, and higher quality. If the in-state wines are really that great, they’ll be able to hold their own in the market, or will have to improve until they can. Virginia wineries, quit your whining. Show us what you’re made of.