Damn you, ethanol!

If ethanol subsidies haven’t made you mad already, perhaps this will: the resulting spike in corn prices is causing agave farmers to pull up their plants and replace them with corn. You know what that means? Less tequila!

Of course, less tequila leads to less drinking, which leads to more driving, which leads to more emissions, and thus a net loss for the environment. Ok, well, maybe not. But I do have a more serious post up today about the folly of ethanol subsidies at A Better Earth. I apologize in advance for the terrible pun in the title.

Also at aBE:
Sharks suffer tragedy of the commons
Organic is great, but can it scale?
Amish are early adopters of solar power

[Via Saving the World, One Drink at a Time]


Monster Pig

If for no other reason except that “biggest hog” is still one of the top search queries bringing visitors to this site, it’s worth linking to the story of Monster Pig, a 1,050 lbs. behemoth killed in Alabama. The beast is magnificent and, sadly, now dead.

When the first Hogzilla was exhumed, I jokingly said, “This could be the start of a bad redneck horror movie.” Turns out I was right!

Update 5/29/07: Eh, not so much. Photo manipulation at work.

This could be the start of a bad redneck horror movie
That’s the second biggest hog I’ve ever seen


Lunch at Brasserie Beck

Moules fritesSomeday I’d love to go to Belgium, bike around, drink lots of beer, and eat way too much moules frites. In the meantime, the new Brasserie Beck is a cheaper, but still delicious, substitute.

This new French and Belgian restaurant opened a few weeks ago and I was finally able to drop in for lunch with a few friends today. The restaurant is upscale casual, warm, and inviting. Fresh seafood and a row of beer taps entice on the way in, two of the great draws of the Brasserie.

The wine list is a single piece of paper. The beer list is six or seven pages, leather bound, of mostly Belgians on tap and in the bottle. This place has it’s priorities straight!

Our group ordered the traditional mussels and fries, served with three kinds of mayo (plain, with ketchup, and curry). We opted for the delicious, slightly spicy fennel and chorizo sauce. It’s all very fresh and tasty. After sopping up the sauce with the fresh baguettes it’s also surprisingly filling for less than twenty bucks.

Also notable: The restaurant is wi-fi friendly.

Brasserie Beck is located at 11th and K, two blocks from the Cato Institute. To sum up: great beer, great food, free wi-fi, and close to my favorite think tank. I dig it.

[Photo from the Flickr stream of synaethesia.]


Six dollars worth of advice

“Hey man, I’ve got to tell you a story,” says the guy at the bar as I bring him back his credit card after closing his tab. He’s in his early thirties, dressed professionally, and pretty talkative after downing two Johnny Walker Blacks and a tall soda. It’s a busy night, but everyone has been taken care of for the moment so I lean in to hear what he has to say.

“I’m in the city for a convention. There’s was a big dinner for everyone tonight downtown, but it was really expensive so I couldn’t afford to go. Instead I got on the bus going to the dinner and figured I’d try to sneak in without a ticket.”

“Did you get in?”

“Well, on the way there I ended up sitting next to this lady who’s the president of a national professional association in my industry. We talked the entire ride over. She’s a good person to know. Great luck, right?”


“Yeah, but when we got to the dinner I couldn’t get in.”

“That’s embarrassing.”

“Yes, but she gave me her number and her hotel room. She wants me to come over later tonight and, you know, take care of her.”

“Oh, wow. No kidding.”

“And she could really advance my career.”

“So are you going?”

“Well, there’s just one problem. She’s 82.”

“I see…”

“I’ve been drinking all night trying to get up the nerve to go see her, but I just can’t do it! She’s already called me once to see where I am. I need your advice. You’re a bartender, you should know what to do in this situation. I used to be a bartender and people came to me all the time.” He’s getting ready to write the tip onto the credit card slip when he pauses. “Your tip depends on this, so you better give me some good advice!”

With money and further entertainment from this guy on the line, I dive right in. “OK, here’s what I would do. Stay out and keep having fun. Then when it’s really late, say one or two in the morning, go up to her room and knock very lightly on the door.” I pantomime an extremely light knock. “She’s old, she’ll be asleep. Sneak away. Then, in the morning, send her an email saying you came by but she must have been asleep. Say you’d like to stay in touch anyway.”

I think this is a good strategy, but he doesn’t seem impressed. “I don’t know man. Maybe I should go up there. I already asked my girlfriend about it.”

“You asked your girlfriend?” I’m really thinking, “You have a girlfriend?!” Of course I don’t say that.

“Yeah, she hung up on me! Said I was an asshole. Can you believe that?”

“I can believe that.”

“I mean, this woman’s 82, why should she care.”

“Not exactly competition…”

“Exactly. So should I go up there? This woman could do so much for my career.”

“It’s a tough call.” I don’t really think it’s a tough call at all, but he does, so I go along with it.

“I think I’d need to drink some more, but if I do I’m afraid I’d throw up on her!”

“That probably wouldn’t be good for your career.”

“No. But she looks pretty good. For 82, you know.”

“Yeah. Well, I told you what I think you should do.”

“Yeah, thanks. I’ll think about it. Have a good night.”

“You too, buddy.”

He walks off and waves goodbye. I open the bill to find a six dollar tip. For two drinks and advice on how not to sleep with an 82 year old woman, I think that’s pretty good.


Don’t blame Milton!

Paul Krugman’s terrible column on food safety reminds me why I haven’t missed the Times op-ed columnists since they went subscriber only. Krugman tries to make the case that recent E. coli outbreaks are somehow the fault of Milton Friedman. Here’s his logic:

1) The Bush Administration loves Milton Friedman (I wish!)

2) The Bush Administration has never instituted strict new food safety regulations

3) E. coli outbreaks have occurred

4) It’s Milton Friedman’s fault you’re throwing up

As Russel Roberts at Cafe Hayek points out, E. coli outbreaks have happened under all kinds of regulatory environments. When you move a lot of food, it’s the kind of thing that happens. Without researching why these problems are occurring, it’s just as reasonable to suspect that they’re a failure of regulations as they are of markets.

Krugman didn’t do this research. Instead he relies on two very incidental bits of evidence. First there’s this:

What we do know is that since 2001 the F.D.A. has introduced no significant new food safety regulations except those mandated by Congress.

So the FDA actually has instituted significant new regulations. They’ve just been mandated by Congress, not the president.

And then there’s this:

This isn’t simply a matter of caving in to industry pressure. The Bush administration won’t issue food safety regulations even when the private sector wants them. The president of the United Fresh Produce Association says that the industry’s problems “can’t be solved without strong mandatory federal regulations”: without such regulations, scrupulous growers and processors risk being undercut by competitors more willing to cut corners on food safety. Yet the administration refuses to do more than issue nonbinding guidelines.

Citing this as evidence displays an astonishing degree of ignorance from a professional economist. When existing industry players call for supposed public interest regulation, that should immediately send up a red flag that what they really want is to squeeze out potential competitors. Strict regulations will almost certainly put up barriers to entry in the food industry. Whether they’ll actually make things safer is far less obvious. At no point does Krugman explain what regulations he’d like to see put in place, how they’ll deal with imported food, and whether or not they’ll be cost effective.

I claim no expertise in the food handling industry. I’m naturally inclined to the free market position on this issue, but I’d have to do a lot more research before I’d make the case for it — especially if I was making the case in one of the world’s most respected newspapers rather than on an obscure weblog. Krugman’s use of recent food scares to score points against his deceased ideological opponent is just pathetic.

[Cross-posted on EatFoo. Hat tip to Chad.]

Update 5/24/07: Reason weighs in on the market vs. regulation.


A bad country for allergies

Last week at A Better Earth we mentioned Consumer Reports‘ finding that new mandates for energy efficiency have rendered washing machines ineffective and more costly, in part by using lower water temperatures. Now there’s a new study that following environmentalists’ advice to save energy by reducing water temperature results in more allergens such as pollen, dander, and dust mites remaining in clothes. I wonder if many of the newer machines, especially the less expensive ones, get hot enough?

Given the government’s one-two punch in recent years of bad washing machines and ineffective decongestants, I’m happier than ever not to be an allergy sufferer.

[Via New Scientist.]


A peek at daytime culture

I really enjoyed this article from the SF Gate about a reporter who wanders around town asking all the people hanging out in parks and coffee shops during the workday what they’re doing. Having spent the last three years working on and off in restaurants, bars, and coffee shops, I’m a part of that culture, but I still often wonder: who are these people?

The sentiment I most agree with among the interviewees is the wonder at how people with 9-5 jobs manage to get their errands done. If I ever go back to a typical work schedule, one of the perks I’ll miss most is the ability to get stuff done while everyone else is at work, stores are empty, and traffic is light.



From A Better Earth:
Greenwashing: good for clothes?
Will banning trade save endangered species?
Innovative solar concentrator for the home
Will LEDs win the battle of the bulb?
Coffee cup tax creating a buzz
Smarter cars are greener cars
Ethanol: The wonder fuel?
Are carbon markets markets?
Moon lighting
Carbon offsets: Style over substance?
Let people choose compact fluorescents

At iLiberty, a quick roundup of England’s new smoking ban.

Nothing from me at STC, but co-blogger Dave uncovers a very cool, very beautiful video having nothing to do with coffee. And at EatFoo, Matt reviews Ballston’s new pizza place. His post on his blog Deglazed about America’s misplaced obsession with sterile food is worth reading, too. Actually, his whole site is worth watching; I’m adding it to the blogroll now.


The war on shrub chewing

From MSNBC, the tale of how the DEA is spending significant resources prosecuting people for possession of khat, a stimulating leaf that’s been used in Africa for centuries, is legal in most of the Western world, and is popular among only a few African communities in the US. Why? Because it gets people mildly high and sends revenue to Somalia where maybe, just maybe, it gets to terrorists.

If this really is a problem, pursuing a high-profile case that introduces the drug to many people who’d never heard of it before and engaging in crackdowns that will increase the risk premium associated with trafficking it doesn’t strike me as the smartest solution.


Rare anti-smoking ban victory

As soon as non-smokers discovered public health provided a veneer of justification for imposing their preferences onto everyone else, the endless march of smoking bans became inevitable. But in Champaign, IL, the unthinkable has happened: after just three months in effect, the local ban has been repealed by the city council.

Not that it really matters. A statewide ban in Illinois is expected to take effect in January. Still, I’ll take my good news wherever I can get it.


My coffee smells like tuna fish

My friend Paul writes:

Here’s a question that hopefully won’t tax your superior barista knowledge banks too greatly. A co-worker of mine once mentioned that occasionally brewing coffee smells like tuna fish to him. I thought that was odd until I noticed it too. Now it doesn’t happen all the time, but sometimes when I smell brewing coffee there is a distinct odor of tuna. I’ve done a google search and found other people who have had this experience, but I’ve found no satisfactory explanation.

My guess is that somehow it’s related to the chemical trimethylamine, which is what gives fish a “fishy” odor. The chemical has an extremely low odor threshold, so it can be detected by scent even in very low concentrations. But what could be producing the trimethylamine? Do you have any idea what could be causing this?

I have no idea, actually. I checked my copy of Illy and Viani’s Espresso Coffee, a collection of scientific papers about coffee, and couldn’t find anything on it. A table reviewing odor compounds found in ground coffee doesn’t include trimethylamine. The compound with the closest description is probably methanethiol, which leaves a “putrid, cabbage like” sense impression.

Another possibility is that the coffee with that smell was stored improperly and picked up off flavors from something else. Any other ideas?

[Cross-posted at STC.]


Thou shalt not smoke

Thou shalt not smoke

We hear all the time — and rightly so — about private smoking establishments protesting smoking bans. That’s why I love the inversion involved in this article from the Telegraph about church leaders upset about having to deface their glorious cathedrals with officious, unnecessary “no smoking” signs to comply with the impending ban on smoking in enclosed spaces:

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Rev Colin Slee, who is the spokesman of the Association of English Cathedrals, was scathing.

“It is such nonsense,” he said.

“One is bound to ask, when did you last hear of somebody smoking in church?”

As if people couldn’t figure out not to smoke in a cathedral without the government’s help. Of course if England officials had any faith at all in people working out their own civil customs, these sweeping bans wouldn’t be passing in the first place.


Hitchens vs. Hoggart

The repugnance of smoking bans has been covered to death on this blog, but this Guardian debate between Christopher Hitchens and Simon Hoggart is too perfect to pass up: perfect for Hitchens’ unrestrained disdain for nanny statists and Hoggart’s self-righteous, absurd apologia. For a taste, here’s Hitchens on zero tolerance for smokers:

Just ponder the implications of those last two words for a second. They say, without any ambiguity, that tolerance is to be despised. Forget all the usual babble about “inclusiveness” and “diversity”. If you want to toddle round to the Rat and Goldfish and have a smoke and a drink while you mutter over the newspaper, you can forget it. There are people who have taken you into account, and weighed and measured your situation, and who have other plans for you. What a pity that you had better things to do than attend that committee meeting where your private pleasures came under scrutiny. Bet you wish you weren’t so easily bored.

And the uniquely relaxing pleasure of good tobacco with good drink:

There have been moments of reverie, wreathed in smoke and alone with a book, and moments of conversation, perfumed with ashtrays and cocktails and decent company, which I would not have exchanged for a year of ordinary existence.

What does [Secretary of State Patricia] Hewitt know of this and by what right does she presume to arbitrate it? I have probably written more books than she has recently read, and I object, mildly but very firmly, to her having any say in my personal decisions. I object to her poisoning my relationship with my favourite bartender, who must now pull a face and regretfully decline, and furthermore act as an enforcer, lest he be fined. Now I cannot go there again, can I? And I do not much want to. One small defeat for me: one giant triumph for Hewitt. The little sum of human happiness – the public stock of harmless pleasure, as it was once defined – has been radically reduced. And who is better off for it? Nobody had to come to that joint if they didn’t want to.

Hoggart’s self-pitying journey from smoker to meddler, in contrast, has little going for it, starting with this description of his struggle with addiction:

This resolution has always been tough, and over the years it got tougher. For one thing, there is no such thing as an ex-smoker who becomes a non-smoker. Once you are a smoker, you are trapped for ever. You might be able to give up – in my case, I hope to the end of my days – but you are still a smoker in the way that a dry drunk is an alcoholic. It is easier to change sex than to cease being a smoker, though at least you can ameliorate the effects by not actually smoking.

Hoggart’s lack of willpower not withstanding, there are currently more former smokers than current smokers in the US. Millions of people taste the forbidden fruit of tobacco and give it up.

Hoggart next goes on to claim on behalf of smokers that smoking isn’t even enjoyable:

Smoking is not like drinking. Booze has its drawbacks, as a visit to any British town centre on a Friday night will demonstrate. But we drink wine and beer because we like it. People do not like smoking. They smoke because smoking is the only relief from the pain of not having a cigarette. It is a wholly negative pleasure. That is why there has been so little fuss over the ban. Most smokers are privately relieved that it might help them give up.

If Hoggart doesn’t like smoking and still smoked sometimes 70 cigarettes a day, he’s got problems. But lots of people genuinely enjoy it, either for the social experience, the relaxation, or the taste of fine tobacco.

And then there’s this:

(When, in the 1980s, Northwest Airlines in the US banned all smoking, it was predicted that it would lose business. In fact, passenger numbers improved so much that every other airline had to follow.)

So he’s using an example of non-smoking preferences winning in the free marketplace as evidence that it should be banned by force in bars and restaurants? Did he put any thought into this essay at all?

And finally:

And this is not a freedom issue. It is no stride on the long march to serfdom. Go to any meeting of Forest, the displeasing pro-tobacco lobby, and you will see that quickly. Their predecessors were no doubt around centuries ago defending the right of householders to empty their chamber pots into the street.

Wait a second. The public street is just about the only place people can still smoke (though even that’s not allowed in some places). It’s privately owned places people can choose whether or not to enter where the ban is being applied. Again, what was Hoggart thinking? Perhaps if he still took an occasional smoke break to renew his concentration he could put up a better argument.

Victory: Hitchens.

[Thanks to David for the link.]


The third wave to go cup

The previous post reminds me of my favorite not quite possible, not going to happen coffee shop idea: a shop that sells all its drinks, even to go ones, in durable ceramic mugs. The cups would all have the coffee shop’s address printed on them with a corresponding postal account, and customers could just drop them in a mailbox when they’re finished with their drink to have it sent back to the shop.

Of course, everyone else in the city would have to deal with coffee dregs spilling all over their mail, but it seems like a worthwhile sacrifice.


Cups and councils

City councillors in Toronto are proposing a tax on paper coffee cups. Of course I recommend ceramic whenever possible, but this is ridiculous:

Hundreds of millions of paper cups are tossed into trash bins across Ontario every year, and they all wind up in landfills. That’s why the city’s Works Committee wants to put a stop to the endless waste and is proposing a 25 to 30 cent tax on every cup of coffee that comes in either a cardboard, styrofoam or wax-lined cup.

That would be more money per cup going to the city for doing virtually nothing than goes to the farmers who grow the beans. Whatever the marginal cost is of collecting and disposing of a paper coffee cup, I’m sure it’s less than 30 cents. Such a tax would also place downward pressure on the prices shops are willing to pay for coffee. Increasing the price of cups is only going to make it harder to sell high quality, sustainably grown coffee, an unintended consequence with it’s own negative environmental impact.

None of which is to say that the paper cups that get thrown out every day aren’t a problem. A better way of addressing it might be to turn heaps of office waste paper into the cups people drink from. The story behind why this isn’t happening much is actually pretty interesting.

If you frequent Starbucks, you might have noticed that the cups there advertise being made from 10% recycled paper. For that you can thank the company’s eco-marketing. For the fact that their cups can’t be higher than 10% recycled, you can thank the federal government:

Starbucks asked its suppliers to take up a new crusade: Get the FDA’s approval for a beverage cup that contained recycled paper, not just on the outside, but the inside as well.

Says one of the company’s executive VPs:

The new regulations that the FDA had come out with required testing to be done to really infinitesimal limits. So we not only had to test to those limits but in many cases had to develop the test protocol itself, because it hadn’t been done before.

Whether or not increasing the percentage of recycled paper will prove to be cost-effective remains to be seen. What is clear is that the coffee industry is getting greener all the time quite independently of meddling city councils.

[Cross-posted on STC.]