Sunday, May 31, 2009

Companies Tony Loves: Leonas

This is the fifth installment of the Companies Tony Loves Series. "Companies Tony Loves" posts describe why innovative companies and business practices make us all better off, and therefore why they deserve our love. "Companies Tony Loves" is featured every Sunday on this blog.

Adjusting to customer service in Chicago has been difficult. Maybe it is a Hyde Park phenomenon, but the service here is just plain bad. Even though I can easily recount more experiences, here are four examples of what I mean by bad service:
  1. At one (unnamed) restaurant, I am habitually overlooked by waitstaff. As soon as I need a refill, my waitress disappears for 15 minutes. The only reason I go back to the place is that I love their food.
  2. Whenever I pay for my food at an unnamed cafeteria, the cashier always asks me if I want a receipt, I always say "no thanks," and he always gives me the receipt I didn't want. Why ask me if you were going to give it to me anyway?
  3. When browsing the menu at another unnamed restaurant, the server came to the table saying, "Whadda ya want?" When I told her that I was not ready to order, she didn't come back for 15 minutes.
  4. Bad service is not confined to the restaurants: I have been yelled at by bus drivers for scanning my wife's bus card incorrectly. I know it isn't that hard to figure out, but give me a break, I'm from Montana!
In Montana, it would take years to have as much bad customer service as I have had in our first eight months in Chicago. Because most of these bad experiences have been in restaurants, I avoid eating out whenever possible. I used to really enjoy eating out. In Chicago, I prefer delivery and that makes me sad.

I thought I would never find a place in Chicago that provides good customer service at a reasonable price while serving decent food. To be fair, Hyde Park has plenty of places with good food at acceptable prices. The problem is finding good service. Until Friday, I had not found a sit-down restaurant where I could reasonably call the service "good." That's why this week's company I love is Leonas: we went there for dinner on Friday and the experience was better than good -- it was wonderful.

To start off, Leonas' menu is extensive: they serve burgers, deep dish and thin crust pizza, salads, full-sized meals, vegetarian entrees and desserts. They also serve lena cakes (half brownie, half cheesecake) with almost every meal. Leonas lasagna is devine and their buffalo wings are authentic and spicy. After ordering their Romano Cobb chicken sandwich, I claim that it is the best sandwich on the planet.

Good food wins my business, but good food is not enough to win a spot on Companies Tony Loves -- good food and good service is. Leonas had plenty of good service to go around. The waitress was courteous and frequently asked if we needed anything. While we waited for our food, she brought out a mini loaf of bread for us to share with garlic butter and marinara sauce (on the house). Our food came just as we finished the bread. And, the food was great. The manager even came around to our table to make sure everything was good. Eating at Leonas really had a home town feel.

As we finished our meals, we noticed a set of cards at the table, each with the heading "Leonas' Brain Food." Each card had five trivia questions to help stoke some conversation. I really appreciate those little details. They make all the difference when it comes to great service.

While we were enjoying our trivia discussion about the percentage of Americans with a college degree in 1990 versus 1998 (21 versus 25 percent), the bill came. For three people, our total came in under $30. For great service, good food and some time to ponder trivia, that's a bargain in Hyde Park.

Just as we were about to leave, I noticed a placard in our booth that I think explains Leonas customer service philosophy better than I ever could.
With over 40,000 Chicagoland restaurants, 21,000 where you can get a drink and over 4,000 that serve deep dish pizza, we're glad you're here!

Such gratitude is refreshing in a world where too many people feel entitled. As Leonas wanted to win our business, they were grateful when we walked through the door. That's a philosophy and a company that I can love. We will definitely return for another meal.

If you have ideas for Companies Tony Loves, please let me know. It could never hurt to have more suggestions!

Leona's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Poll: Climbing a tree for a nut

For this week's Empirical Poll, I am asking you, the reader, about something I recently read. Here are some excerpts from this "work:"
Consider a tropical island with many people. Individuals walk along the beach looking for palm trees. Each tree has one nut. [...] There is a taboo on eating nuts one has picked oneself.[...] Having picked a nut, the individual looks for someone with money to whom to sell the nut. [...] Having sold his inventory, the individual goes shopping with the money received. After completing a purchase, the individual goes back to searching for short trees.
My question to you is, "Where did I read this passage?"

(a) A children's book. A story about sharing nuts.
(b) A top economics journal. Economists are nutty.
(c) Paul Krugman's blog. Some economists are nuttier than others.
(d) Rush Limbaugh said it. He's really nutty.
(e) Nowhere. Anything this stupid had to be self-produced.

Some of you know the actual answer. If you do, please vote, but refrain from spoiling the fun for other readers by posting the answer in the comments! I will provide the answer next Saturday when I post another poll.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Our house plant: another metaphor

Yesterday, I was watering Bob (our house plant) when I discovered something alarming -- one of his most brilliant leaves fell off. I was troubled by this, especially given that in a post last month, I proclaimed Bob to be hearty and healthy. This dead leaf caused me to question everything: Could this be a sign that Bob is not healthy after all? How am I going break the news to Bob's many fans? And, what about Bob? Is he going to be ok?

These all appear to be valid concerns, especially given the history of the aforementioned leaf. The leaf was one of Bob's best for the longest period of time. Bob owed a great deal to this leaf, and he just cast it aside. Without that leaf, Bob wouldn't be Bob. We might have had to name him Bo. Casting this leaf aside must mean that Bob is sick. What are we to do?

Was there something I did to bring on this sickness? Maybe I watered Bob too much. Maybe too little. It could have been that I didn't talk to Bob enough or give him enough love. Maybe I need to rotate Bob more often so that all of his leaves can get sunlight. Am I being unfair to some leaves by favoring others?

Maybe Bob needs a stimulus. Here's an idea: how about I reattach the leaf to Bob? At the same time, I should apply some Miracle Gro to fortify Bob's other leaves. This will be tricky, but it might be worth it because Bob owes so much to this leaf. My thoughts could run on from there, but I think that anyone who understand's economics (or botany) sees the absurdity of this line of reasoning.

Leaves come and go. Some are spectacular. Some are unremarkable. Despite the fact that he sometimes sheds leaves, Bob is still a thriving, healthy plant.

My evidence? Bob may have lost one aging leaf, but as this happened, Bob was growing in other areas. In particular, Bob now has five young new leaves that are really starting to look good. If I were to try to save the big dead leaf by reattaching it to Bob, I would compromise the health of all of the other leaves. And, that would really be a shame.

Some people might say that it is worth it to save the leaf that has been with us from the beginning, that all of the leaves are in this together, that casting aside a respected old leaf undermines our purpose as leaves, or that "the country that invented the automobile will not abandon it."

To these people, I say two things. First, in the long run, do you really think we can save the dead leaf? Second, look at the beautiful new leaves on our houseplant. Do you really think it is worth killing the young leaves to save the old one?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Marijuana IV: The Case of Portugal

As reported in a recent article in Time, the Cato Institute has made another striking claim in the debate over what to do with marijuana. Here's the juicy conclusion to the article:

The Cato report's author, Greenwald, hews to the first point: that the data shows that decriminalization does not result in increased drug use. Since that is what concerns the public and policymakers most about decriminalization, he says, "that is the central concession that will transform the debate."
The claim that decriminalizing marijuana does not increase use appears to run contrary to the prediction I made last week's post on this topic. In that post, I predicted that legalizing marijuana in the United States will lead to more use. Given that I used economic theory to generate my predictions, this finding by Cato puzzled me.

In giving my prediction, I did not use fancy logic. For you who missed it, here's my logic in two steps:

Step 1: Legalizing pot will surely decrease the price for everyone (even teens who now have more willing suppliers).
Step 2: When the price of marijuana goes down, people consume more of it. That's just the law of demand, and it holds for every good.

Regarding this finding that decriminalizing decreased use in Portugal, I trust that Cato did the statistics correctly. After all, they are the most reputable libertarian think tank around. I am left puzzling over what happened to the law of demand. The law of demand is, after all, a law for a reason. The key to understand what we learn from Portugal is to understand how decriminalization in Portugal differs from current proposals for legalization of marijuana in the United States.

What did Portugal do? Back in 2001 when Portugal decriminalized, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) applauded Portugal for their new policy. In addition, they described a key element of the policy. That is, "Any pot or narcotics found by police will be confiscated. (link)" Given this strategy of intervention, decriminalization in Portugal did not mean encouraging drug use. This is an important point that cannot go understated.

As the NORML article describes, Portugal had the ingenious reason to decriminalize marijuana: it made the drug easier to control. Because Portugal decriminalized the drug, they were able to deal with the problem of marijuana squarely as a medical malady, rather than criminal misconduct. As the Cato report details, this strategy appears to have been more successful than arresting pot users. This statistical association is compelling just so long as we look past the large year-to-year fluctuations in drug use and the fact that marijuana use among 16-18 year olds actually increased (Catos findings, not mine).

What do we take away? Aside from the obvious quibbles, Portugal's story looks like success. The question becomes, "What do we learn from Portugal about legalization of marijuana in the United States?" I think the answer to this question depends on our objective. From what I can tell, there are two prominent views policymakers have on why we should legalize marijuana

1. Legalization allows policymakers to treat the problem more respectfully and directly.
2. Legalization will yield a tax windfall.

The first view is the one that policymakers in Portugal took when they decided to legalize. The second view is the prevailing view coming from lawmakers and academics in support of U.S. legalization.

When it comes to policy, what's the difference? In view 1, policymakers unambiguously attempt to reduce use. The whole point of decriminalization in Portugal was to address drug problems more sensibly. Decriminalization is a misleading word because law enforcement in Portugal does not do nothing when someone is found with marijuana. As the Time article says,
[...] people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.
For Portugal, this was not a scheme to raise taxes. Indeed, these counseling services cost money. That does not mean the money is not well spent. It probably is. This just suggests there is likely no costless policy to deal with marijuana, or drug use more generally.

With that in mind, let's examine view 2. Policymakers who are motivated by tax revenues have a conflict of interest when it comes to making good drug policy. More drug use means more tax revenue. Especially for California, there is a huge demand for sources of tax revenue. The potential for a marijuana tax is the number one reason cited by California lawmakers who are considering considering legalization.

Most of us want policy to address the problems of drug use, but if more marijuana use means more marijuana taxes, there's a strong incentive for policymakers to inact bad drug policy (i.e., policy that encourages use).

What's my point? The reasons lawmakers put forth for legalization suggest that legalization in the United States will be very different than those offered for decriminalization in Portugal. Our lawmakers are currently treating legalization like a business, whereas Portugal used decriminalization to address the problem more effectively. Given our current fiscal stresses, we have good reason to doubt that U.S. drug policy will follow that Portugal's path if we embark on legalization.

That's not to say that Portugal is not a good model. But, I think it is worth asking ourselves why we're getting into the legalization debate in the first place.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Companies I Love: The Case of the Stolen Apple

Just over a week ago, I posted an article to this blog called Companies I Love: Apple. The article was about why I, as a PC user, love Apple. In a nutshell, I detest Apple products, but I love the fact that Apple competes with PCs. On the basis of that competition, I get a better product at a lower price, and I don't have to buy an Apple. In my less-than-objective opinion, it was an interesting and engaging article.

As I was proud of the article, I wanted to shout from the rooftops, "Hey computer users, read this article. It might make you smile!" So, here's what I did. I used the social news network site I signed up for an account and I "dugg" my article on Apple, placing it squarely in the Technology News -- Apple category. This is shameless promotion, but I want people to read my stuff.

On Wednesday last week, I checked on how well my shouting from the rooftops worked by conducting a Google search for the phrase, "Companies I Love: Apple." The first hit on this search is to a website called Palluxo. I had never heard of them. Initially, I thought they had linked to me, exposing my blog to a much wider audience. This would have been wonderful. I was excited to reach a wider audience. But, when I clicked on the link to their website, what I saw angered me.

As you can see from the website, Palluxo posted the full content of my blog post. They only things they changed are the title (they added the "Inc.") and they deleted the italicized comments that tell readers that they can find other posts like this one in a series called "Companies I Love" on my blog. In other words, they just took what was valuable to them and posted it where they could profit from it. In addition, they did not link to my site, so it looks like I am some Palluxo staff writer. In fact, they stripped the only information from my post that suggests I write on other topics.

Lest you think they are just Apple nerds who like to share quirky Apple articles, look at their site. They have three Google AdSense ad units on that page alone. In addition, the article comes up with all of the valuable words highlighted. If you put the cursor over a word like "Microsoft," you're directed to a related advertisement (I got a Verizon advertisement). They are clearly trying to make money from this article.

Further investigation shows the extent to which Palluxo is trying to sap my article for money. Conduct the search for "'Companies I Love: Apple Inc.' + Palluxo." When you do, you see that there are 41 hits (or more). There are possibly some duplicates, but each of these 41 hits is a profit-maximizing attempt to direct readers to Palluxo. And, I see none of that profit because Palluxo stole my article and is using it for their own use!

I wanted to contact Palluxo to inform them of their violation of Copyright law. My plan was to tell Palluxo the following (if you work for Palluxo, this is for you):
Dear Palluxo Management,

I saw that you found my article interesting enough to place on your website. Given that it looks like I am a guest writer for your website, I am only to assume that you meant to contract me at my usual consulting rate. I charge $75 per guest post on an external website, unless I have worked out a different compensation scheme in advance of the writing.

I appreciate doing business with you, and next time, I hope you contact me in advance so neither one of us misses any future opportunity.

Tony Cookson
My only problem with doing this? I could not find a viable way to contact Palluxo. Look on their website. They have no Internet contact whatsoever, which is entirely unprofessional and underhanded. It makes me think that they pick on new bloggers who have good ideas. They take these people's work without attribution, and they profit from it.

I looked into who Palluxo is using a WhoIs domain search. Over the last year, Palluxo averaged 5600 unique visitors each month (I have had 255 unique visitors so far). Palluxo is based in Vancouver, BC, and the contact information they have for their web domain is I tried e-mailing them the respectful note you see above, but it came back as undeliverable. The only contact information on their website is a physical address, which given that everything else seems to be rigged, I don't think it is worth the stamp.

Some of you out there may say, "Why do you care? They put your name on the article. You still get recognition, don't you?" To see why I care, go back to the Google search I conducted. Palluxo flooded Google with so many hits and self-referencing links that my article did not show up as a hit on Google at all. That's no longer the case because I found another blogger who posted my words without my permission. After I convinced him to link to me instead of just copying the text, my page shows up in the search results.

I have the screenshots to prove it. Here is before I contacted the other blogger:

In this search, the first hit is Palluxo's stolen version. The third hit was someone Twittering about my post, and the fifth hit is (finally) my blog... but not the "Apple" article; it was a silly post I wrote about why Melissa Rycroft is famous. In that search, Google did not return a single direct link to my "Apple" article! Believe me, I looked through all 75 of them including the omitted results. I don't blame Google at all: this lack of exposure is all because Palluxo took my content.

After getting the other blogger to link to me, my site shows up in the search results (see below), but it still is not first hit. This is because Palluxo is gaming Google's search algorithm. No matter how you look at it, Palluxo is stealing eyes from my web page and profiting from it.

Those of you economists out there are probably wondering about my incentives, so I'll tell you. I wrote the article to

...draw attention to my blog. If this article can direct some eyes to my blog, those eyes might see what other topics interest me. New users might click on some of those other articles. They might like other articles I write. my opinion and hear what others have to say. I really enjoyed writing this article. I was also looking forward to seeing what Mac users and PC users would say in response to the article in the comments.

...earn money. Do you see those ads on the side of the blog? Google pays me for them. More people coming to my blog means more money. Honestly, it is not that much money at this point, but it is also not my reason for writing and promoting my blog. The point is that I have a good incentive to let people know what I am writing about.

Given these objectives, what did Palluxo do to me that was so wrong? They diverted attention from my blog. They subsumed my opinion into their own profit-maximizing system, suppressing other people's comments from ever getting to me (unless I conducted Google searches), and they took money from me by taking viewers from looking at my page. No matter how you slice it, Palluxo is in the wrong.

I suspect that Palluxo thought they could get away with this because I am the little guy. Clearly, my blog is relatively new and I'm still learning the ropes. It costs me more and benefits me less than the big guys (i.e., Freakonomics) to protect my original content. Hey, I might be naive enough to think that this is actually how things work.

This last paragraph should infuriate you. If a sixth-grader steals some second grader's lunch money, we should look down on that. Stealing from the little guy is not a reasonable thing to do (even if you are rather small yourself). The fact that the little guy is more vulnerable makes this violation all the more offensive. My message to Palluxo: create your own content. If you don't, you still need to compensate those who write what you publish.

Please let your friends and family know about this. Content stealing is wrong and it is easy to recognize that what Palluxo did is illegal. With enough attention, we can set the example that content stealing does not pay, either!

What do you think my next step should be? I'm interested in hearing your comments. I don't usually write negative posts. Check out my other work for something more representative.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Chicago and Montana: more information than the travel brochure!

Chicago life and Montana life are quite different. On population and amenities alone, this is not surprising:

Chicago metropolitan area has 9.5 million people, two professional baseball teams, umpteen museums, Lake Michigan, and the primary non-tourism industry is nepotism in politics.

Montana has almost 1 million people, no professional baseball teams, umpteen mining museums, the Berkeley Pit, and the primary non-tourism industry is agriculture.

If you conduct your own search, you'll find many more stark differences between the two places. If you can imagine, the differences between Chicago and Montana are bigger than they first appear. These differences make adapting to Chicago life quite interesting. Rather than comparing the two places on the basis of travel brochures, this post compares living in Chicago to living in Montana on four unconventional dimensions.

1. Driving

Chicago. In a previous post, I commented on Chicago's crazy Rules of the Road. But, the fun does not stop with your interactions with other Chicago drivers. Driving in Chicago involves more than just driving over the speed limit and flashing one's headlights. Since my last post, I have discovered two additional joys of driving in Chicago:
  • One-way streets are wonderful. It is more thrilling than a rollercoaster to go the wrong way down a Chicago one-way street.
  • Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) busses also pose interesting challenges for the Chicago driver. Passing a CTA bus on Lake Shore Drive is like playing Crusin' USA, but in real life!
Montana. To someone from Chicago, Montana driving must be surreal. On almost all interstate highways, there are only two lanes going in each direction. For most places, there is no need for the second lane. Although the speed limit is 75 mph, drivers often encounter people driving around 55 mph, just to enjoy the scenery.

As a Montana driver passes one of these slow moving vehicles, it is often appropriate to smile and wave. On two-lane highways in Eastern Montana, it is customary to wave to every driver going in the opposite direction. It's true! If you don't believe me, rent a car and drive around Eastern Montana near Culbertson.

2. The wildlife.

Chicago. The wildlife in Chicago is breathtaking, especially if you are an entemologist. Since moving in August, we have had numerous visitors to our apartment ranging from ants to gnats to centipedes. Heck, we have even had the joy of seeing about seventeen different species of spider. Chicago isn't just for the bug lovers. The deck on our apartment is perfect habitat for a family of squirrels.

Montana. Although Chicago wildlife are abundant, we have yet to see deer, antelope, moose, or bears in Chicago, unless you are talking about 300-lb linemen. Montana has all of these types of wildlife and more. Indeed, Montana is a haven for wildlife: there are two National Parks (Yellowstone and Glacier) and plenty of open spaces.

3. The underground economy.

Chicago. Especially on the south and west sides of the city, there are numerous social organizations, called gangs, which offer services that the shops on the Magnificent Mile cannot or will not provide. For some reason, the existence of these gangs is left out of the travel brochures. I wonder why! These gangs usually employ young locals who, in turn, provide a myriad of services to their surrounding communities. Want an illegal drug? No problem. Want to know where to find a prostitute? They've got you covered.

Montana. In Montana, you won't easily find service like what's provided by Chicago gangs unless you go to Butte, MT in the 1970s. On the other hand, Montana has six (maybe seven) American Indian reservations. Technically, these reservations are sovereign territory of the tribes that inhabit them, and Montana law does not apply there. The dubious legality of activities near the reservations leads to all sorts of fun underground activities. Tribes use the fact that they can make their own laws to their advantage. That is why we have Indian casinos! On that measure, I hear that one of the Montana tribes is building a casino. I wonder if it will do well. I doubt it.

4. The tourists.

Chicago. You are most likely to encounter the Chicago tourist downtown where the lights are bright. They flock in droves to stores like Macy*s (ahem, Marshall Fields), Nordstrom and Bloomingdales. You may also find these interesting creatures in their natural habitat at Navy Pier or at any of Chicago's fabulous museums.

How can you spot a tourist in Chicago? He or she typically walks slowly, has a big smile and is looking upwards. Much like someone from Montana!

Montana. The Montana tourist is an equally interesting creature. Tourists in Montana scour gift shops at mining museums. If the restaurant has the buffalo burger on its menu, hungry Montana tourists are willing to pay an extra $2 for the novelty. Montana tourists are most frequently found at the two National Parks, but surprising numbers of tourists visit my hometown of Butte.

How can you spot a tourist in Montana? If the weather is in the mid-fifties, the tourists are the ones wearing the down coats. At 50 degrees Fairenheit, Montanans switch from jeans to shorts, making it easy to spot an outsider.

Regardless of whether you find a tourist in Chicago or Montana, if you encounter one, beware! Tourists frequently approach strangers, requesting that you take their picture. The trouble is, so do Montanans!

Do you have any other ways you would like me to compare Chicago to Montana? We have only lived here for eight months, so our memory of Montana is fresh and we are still learning new things about our new place. I appreciate any input.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Companies Tony Loves: The Windy Citizen

This is the fourth installment of the Companies Tony Loves Series. "Companies Tony Loves" posts describe why innovative companies and business practices make us all better off, and therefore why they deserve our love. "Companies Tony Loves" is featured every Sunday on this blog.

Local newspapers started for two complementary reasons: (1) there are always interesting local stories that cannot make the national news because the are not "national" enough, and (2) national news stories had no better outlet than local newspapers before the Internet became efficient at delivering news.

Now that the Internet does such a tremendous job of bringing news to our fingertips, people rationally switch where they look for the latest national news: from the doorstep to the desktop. With only local stories to keep them afloat, newspapers are in a bind. It is not surprising that Internet news innovation poses challenges for traditional print press media outlets.

I am all for creative destruction, but without some replacement, it appears that failure of local newspapers leaves consumers without reliable local news. To be sure, this presumes that the local newspaper provided reliable news in the first place, but does this skepticism imply that "no local news is good news"? I don't think so. Local news is interesting, and more importantly, it helps link a community together. There has to be a way to make local news reliable and available.

The Internet affects how local news works in two important ways.

The Internet decoupled national and local news. It is no longer necessary to bundle ever-popular national news with local stories. As national news stories migrate to the Internet, local news stories now have to stand on their own merit, and writing good stories is hard work. On one hand, this makes it difficult to profitably produce local news. On the other hand, local writers have to work harder to create good content. And, the result of hard work is better, more comprehensive coverage of local news.

Outlets for news on the Internet are biased toward national news. The Internet does a spectacular job of parsing the news stories that are interesting to any particular user. Just conduct a few Google searches and you find plenty of information that is pertinent to you. Google even throws in a couple of extra links to national news stories you might be interested in reading. Yet, local news remains hard to find on the Internet, unless you know where to look. Local newspapers post stories on their websites, but those stories are hit and miss. With multiple media outlets for the same locale, a consumer of news has to search several sites for adequate local information.

Consumers of news don't want to have to spend time searching for it, so they don't do enough to get a representative sample of news. What results is too little exposure for local news stories. With less exposure to the local stories, the local papers can't justify their advertising fees. With less advertising revenue, the paper stands a chance of going under -- even if that paper has gone digital.

I am not too disappointed if a newspaper goes under on account of driving customers away. If people really don't want to read something, we shouldn't waste the paper and ink (nor should we waste hard drive space). But, when a perfectly good newspaper goes under on account of not being found by readers, I am dismayed because everyone is worse off. Someone wrote a moving story and someone would have really enjoyed reading that story, but it was never read.

Enter The Windy Citizen, this week's company I love.

The Windy Citizen addresses the problem of lack of exposure for Chicago news stories by exporting the social news networking approach (used by Digg, Reddit, Delicious, etc) to the local setting. The idea? Let the readers decide and vote on what is good news. The articles and stories that have recently received the most votes go to the top of the reading list. Interested readers are then directed to the websites where the original content is posted. In this way, more eyes are directed to the best Chicago news.

The Windy Citizen is based in Chicago and is designed for Chicago news, but I think the approach is beautiful and generalizable. Clearly, The Windy Citizen didn't come up with social networking news, but it is innovative to apply social networking to local news. The thing I love the most is that the approach can be exported to other locales. For example, someone could start a similar social news network for the state of Montana (The Big Sky Citizen) or Seattle (The Sipping Citizen) or Florida (The Sunshine Citizen). I'm sure they would come up with more creative names than I just did.

No matter what your perspective, you should love The Windy Citizen concept. If you are an author of interesting content, write something good about a local event and you'll get readers. If you are a newspaper that has gone digital, write quality local stories and your local "Citizen" will pick up on it, directing readers to your site, which increases the advertising revenue. And, if you are a reader, you no longer have to search as hard for new stories with local interest. Plus, you can read and enjoy new stories with a network of people who are doing the same.

Now, that's entertainment, information, social interaction and fun reading all in one great package! The best part? It's local.

If you have ideas for Companies Tony Loves, please let me know. It could never hurt to have more suggestions!

If you have been following this series, you notice the name change. "Companies I Love" has now become "Companies Tony Loves." I did this for two reasons.

  • First, "Companies I Love" is an overused phrase out there on the Internet. There are already several popular "Companies I Love" series, but they mostly belong to cult-like websites (i.e., Mac, Linux, other techno-worship sites). I want to distinguish this series from that crowd because I really think the idea of this series is fresh.
  • Second, this really is my original content. Indeed, these are companies that I, Tony Cookson, love. If you want to join me in your admiration of these companies, feel free. But, please tell people that I loved them first! More on this on Tuesday.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Do wildfires eat their veggies?

Scientists expect global warming to have an array of consequences. The increase in temperature will make wildfire-prone areas dryer. Coupled with more extreme weather, this sounds like a recipe for wildfire disasters. Last year, wildfires sent California into a budget crisis because the state badly underestimated the costs. It seems like the line at the end of The Terminator is appropriate to describe the state of wildfires in the American West: "a storm is coming."

But, a recent study coming out of Montana State University suggests that this storm might not be as bad as we expect. Research by MSU post-doc Philip Higuera suggests that Mother Nature may adapt to the warmer weather in a way that leads to fewer wildfires than we're anticipating. As the climate warms, Higuera and his colleagues predict the types of vegetation to change. As the vegetation changes, the types of plants that remain will be more resistant to fires.

In particular, shrubs are quite flammable, whereas deciduous trees are fire-resistant. Warmer weather leads to fewer shrubs and more deciduous trees. Over the last 10,000 years, the temperature has fluctuated orders of magnitude more than in the last 20 years. Higuera used coal deposits from northern Alaska to look at these 10,000 years of data. In his study, Higuera observed that as the climate got warmer, the vegetation looked more leafy and less shrubby. As a result, the vegetation was less conducive to burning.

This is interesting and encouraging because my own research suggests that in the absence of vegetation change, the cost of wildfires is escalating and escalating quickly. In a working paper, my co-authors and I estimate that, by year 2025, it will cost $23 million more to protect houses from wildfires in Montana alone.

If Higuera's findings are right, our estimate of these additional costs is high. On the other hand, Higuera himself says that when estimating the costs of wildfires, "You wouldn't be wrong if vegetation doesn't change." I don't know how much vegetation would need to change to avert the higher costs we predict, but I doubt that 15 years gives Mother Nature enough time to convert Montana's forests into fire-resistant trees.

Regardless of the magnitude of these effects in the short term, the long-term implication is that Mother Nature is surprisingly resilient. We can be glad to have Mother Nature on our side!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Poll: Can time travelers change history?

Last week, as I watched the season finale of Lost, I observed what I believe to be an irreconcilable paradox. Here is the essential background for the non-Losties out there (as absent from spoilers as I can make it):
  • Lost takes place on an island with special properties.
  • John Locke is a character who becomes "unstuck" from time on the island. On the show, he and other characters helplessly travel from 2004 to 1954 to .... to 2007 to .... to 1974 until Locke figures out a way to stop the time from skipping.
  • In 2004, John Locke was proclaimed the leader of an island group, The Others.
  • Richard Alpert is an adviser to The Others, providing guidance to the leader, who is John Locke until he disappears on his haphazard time travel journey.

Confused? That's ok. Most people who watch Lost are perpetually confused, but that's most of the fun. Now, here's the paradox:

In 2007, Richard Alpert gives John Locke a compass, telling him to give it back to Alpert the next time Locke sees him (that's in 1954... Locke is skipping back and forth in time).

In 1954, John Locke gives Richard Alpert the compass to prove that he is special. Richard believes him, especially when he disappears again.

But then in 2007, Alpert gives the compass back to Locke and so on... ad infinitum. This is all fine and dandy, but here's my question: When/how was the compass made? That compass has no starting point in time. Ordinarily, I would chalk this up to something that the writers of the show overlooked, but the Lost writers have been extraordinarily good at not burying themselves in paradoxes. I'd be interested in hearing what you think in the comments below.

Later in the finale, I was struck by a more general question. I decided to make it the question of the week.

Can time travelers change history?

The poll is on the sidebar. A simple Yes or No answer would suffice, but I am also interested in hearing your comments on the idea of time travel. Clearly, this is not a real world issue, but it is nice to be fanciful sometimes!

Vote early, vote often, encourage your friends, and your friends' friends to vote. Polls close on Friday 29 May 2009 at 1:30 PM Chicago time.

Elements of Style: Word use and abuse II

This is the fourth installment of the Elements of Style Series where I relay helpful hints for good writing from the classic book, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

In my previous Elements of Style post, I explained why many writers misuse the words certainly, fact and less. This post unveils three more of Strunk and White's phrasings to avoid. I selected the phrases that I find most surprising and useful. Therefore, I probably picked the words and phrases I most frequently misuse. I apologize for any apparent hypocrisy. No writer is perfect!

One of the most. Strunk and White advise against using this phrase because it is bad style, not bad grammar. In their words, "it is simply threadbare and forcible-feeble." I think it helps to see the words in use:

Steve Levitt is one of the most influential American economists.

This is a fine sentence, but it lacks zing. Instead of using "one of the most," let's try a colorful adjective:

Steve Levitt is a supremely influential American economist.

Isn't that better?

If this isn't what you mean to say, there is another alternative. We can avoid the one of the most phrasing by "pulling the trigger." If you really think he is that good, it is appropriate to use:

Steve Levitt is the most influential American economist.

So. Using the word so as an intensifier is a huge no-no unless you are trying out for the cast of Clueless II: Revenge of the Valley Girls. For example, it is bad style to say:

Steve Levitt is a wonderful economist. His analysis of cheating in sumo wrestling is so insightful.

Strunk and White do not look highly upon intensifiers. For the same reason, they denounce the word very as well. Replacing so with very misses the point on why this phrasing is bad style. If the word lacks the spice you desire, pick a spicier word. It is bad style to put salt on a bland word. Here's what a stronger word does for the phrasing:

Steve Levitt is a wonderful economist. His analysis of cheating in sumo wrestling is profound.

While. This word is best used to mark the passage of time. When used as an alternative to although, it can be confusing about what the author means. Take an example:

While I discussed Freakonomics with Steve Levitt, I longed to ask about his sumo wrestling research.

This sentence is wrong if I want to convey a deep longing to talk about sumo wrestling, rather than Freaknomics. For that purpose, replace while with although. On the other hand, if my purpose with the sentence is to describe the thoughts that occurred to me at the time of discussing Freakonomics with Levitt, while is a wonderful word.

Of the commonly misused words and phrases, I selected six. There are many more. Get a copy of The Elements of Style and check them out if you like what you've read here.

The next installment of the Elements of Style Series, "Omit needless words" will appear on this blog on Friday, 29 May 2009. I will continue this series each Friday until I run out of interesting topics in grammar and writing.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why use a credit card?

For responsible consumers, credit cards are a great deal. My wife and I put as many expenses as we can on our credit card, and then responsibly, pay the balance by the monthly due date. With the caveat that you should not use the card to justify spending more or incuring debt, I highly recommend paying your bills this way. There are two key advantages to doing so:

1. Budgeting. Paying for everything by credit card helps us manage our finances because our monthly statement has a record of what we spent and where. It is like an automatic checkbook balancer for our credit card payments, and the printed form has better handwriting than me. American Express even gives us the option of analyzing the expenditures by category, so we know how much of our money went to various broad types of spending.

2. Cash management. Paying for everything by credit card means that we do not need to hold much money. On average, I walk around with $20 in my pocket. For most of my purchases, my plastic money more than suffices. Carrying less money has side benefits. First, I worry less about what I would lose if I were robbed. Second, we can leave the money in an interest-bearing account until it comes time to pay the bill. Such a deal!

In the near future, we might be saying how good of a deal credit cards used to be, at least if the banks are told by Congress that they cannot charge more than a "reasonable" rate of interest. The banks are saying that if Congress imposes this ceiling, they'll be forced into one of two alternatives: bring back the annual fees or start charging interest from the second you make a purchase.

This leaves me with several questions for the readers.
1. Should Congress impose an interest rate ceiling? And, if so, what should it be?
2. Do you think banks will follow through on their threat to charge the "good apples" more money?
3. Of the two proposed changes, annual fees or immediate interest accrual, which would you prefer and why?

I look forward to hearing what you have to say. Happy commenting!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Marijuana III: Top Ten Reasons? Debunked!

In a couple of my previous posts, I have taken on the issue of legalization of marijuana -- once in the affirmative and once in the negative. In this third post in the series, I continue my discussion of the costs and benefits of marijuana, but with the focus of addressing the logic of one of the premiere articles in support of legalization (according to number of Diggs at

As I stated in my last post, my plan was to take the negative another time, but I couldn't resist critiquing a top ten list of reasons for legalizing marijuana that I found on Digg. I think a good case can be made for lifting the ban on marijuana, but I believe that many of the ideas out there are rubbish.

Therefore, I land mostly on the negative side in this critique, but there are sparks of positive intermixed. In the future, I plan to discuss what I think are good reasons to favor legalization. In particular, check out Jeffery Miron. I find most of what he says to be reasonable.

10. Prohibition has failed to control the use and domestic production of marijuana.
This is an interesting point, but by itself, failure to control an illegal activity does not warrant legalizing. To see why, consider an example. Chicago was swept by a rash of violent crime last year. Some said that it was and remains out of control.

To examine the logic of #10, let's apply the logic to murder: "prohibition on X has failed to control X, therefore we should legalize X." Let X = "marijuana use," we get reason #10. Let X = "murder in Chicago," we get complete nonsense! The same logic as reason #10 can be given as a reason for anarchy. Without some modification, reason #10 cannot be a valid reason to legalize pot.

9. Arrests for marijuana possession disproportionately affect blacks and Hispanics and reinforce the perception that law enforcement is biased and prejudiced against minorities.
This is horrible reasoning. An alternative reason to expect more minorities arrested for doing marijuana is that, on average, a greater fraction of minorities do marijuana. That we see a disproportionate fraction of minorities arrested for marijuana is just the law of large numbers at work; it is not necessarily evidence of discrimination or law enforcement bias. Law enforcement bias is a reason to expect that more minorities are arrested for doing marijuana, but it is not the only reason. Plus, the alternative (more crime leads to more arrests) is arguably more compelling.

Whether or not you think it is compelling, let's suppose that that all arrests for marijuana possession are made on the basis of law enforcement bias. Does this necessarily mean that the law that prohibits the activity is at fault? Clearly, no! If this is the case, the problem is with the law enforcement bias, not with the law on the books.

My point: the remedy for law enforcement bias cannot come from striking some laws from the books. As long as there are both laws and enforcement bias, there will be biased enforcement of laws. This does not mean that the law is right, nor does it mean that enforcement bias is justified. It just means that reason #9 is not a reason to legalize marijuana.

8. A regulated, legal market in marijuana would reduce marijuana sales and use among teenagers, as well as reduce their exposure to other drugs in the illegal market.
The first point is nonsense, but the second point makes sense.

To see why the first point is nonsense, consider very basic economics (Econ101). If you have taken an economics class, you know that as the price of a good decreases, people consume more of that good. With some further thought on the issue, you would recognize that price includes all monetary costs, as well as non-monetary costs (i.e., jail time, avoiding police, etc.) of obtaining the good.

Given this framework, it isn't hard to see that the price of marijuana is currently very high. Not only are the monetary costs high (most likely because suppliers need to be compensated for their risks), but the non-monetary costs are quite high as well. Legalization would decrease both types of costs. Even if we imposed a huge tax on the drug, the full price (including both monetary and non-monetary costs) would likely go down. The law of demand tells us that the inevitable conclusion is more consumption of the good: both by current users and current non-users. This is standard, basic economics.

On the second point, I believe that legalization would make marijuana less of a gateway drug. As a result, we might see the use of other illegal drugs decline, which would be a nice consequence of legalization. From the perspective of the economic argument posed previously, trying another illegal drug has a low non-monetary cost for a marijuana user who is already breaking the law. In an economic sense, that cost is less relevant to trying other illegal drugs. If marijuana were illegal, this would cease to be the case. As a result, we would see a weaker correlation between marijuana use and use of other "hard" drugs.

7. Legalized marijuana would reduce the flow of money from the American economy to international criminal gangs.
I agree. I also think that local gangs (like the ones that neighbor my community on Chicago's South Side) would have less of a reason to exist if marijuana were legal. Currently, gangs fight over territory, and the violence terrorizes communities. Legalizing marijuana would remove a big bone from the pile of bones that these gangs fight over. Not only would some gangs stop fighting, but they would fight less intensely.

In addition, gangs would also have fewer resources to attract and retain members because their market share is smaller. These potential members will do their next best alternative: either work for McDonalds, or perhaps, go to college (depending on your perspective). All of these are excellent consequences to striking the law from the books.

The best counterpoint to this reason for legalization is a question: Doesn't this argument apply to any drug for which there is a black market? Indeed it does! If we were to take this argument as our only basis for legalization of drugs, we would have happily legalized crack cocaine in the early 1990s. Given the severity of crack's effects on communities, that doesn't seem to be sound policy.

To be fair, marijuana is no crack cocaine, but we have to be clear about what is a reason and what is not. This reason is more of a really good side benefit. If we have other compelling reasons to legalize, this one should push us over the edge.

6. Marijuana's legalization would simplify the development of hemp as a valuable and diverse agricultural crop in the United States, including its development as a new biofuel to reduce carbon emissions.
I'm not sure what to make of this argument, especially given that it is followed by "Canada and European countries have managed to support legal hemp cultivation without legalizing marijuana." Sure there are obstacles in the American political economy, but why we can't do what these countries did? I think this reason was added in so the authors could get a "top ten" list.

5. Prohibition is based on lies and disinformation.
This statement means nothing if the truth is equally as horrible as the lies and disinformation. In general, calling the other side a liar is not good rhetoric. With respect to keeping marijuana illegal, I suspect that some degree of propagandizing has taken place, but I am not sure how important the smearing is, especially when I perceive both sides to be fudging the truth to gain some public favor.

Back to marijuana. To me, marijuana is an substance that my roommate in college did. The facts I know:

(1) Marijuana is a drug that has mind-altering properties.
(2) A common way to take the drug is to smoke it, but some ads on my blog suggesting vaporizing is a cool way to get high.
(3) Sometimes people make marijuana brownies, but I don't suspect that's the most common way to do it.
(4) Michael Phelps did it, and supposedly it increases his lung capacity.
(5) Pot users get the munchies, but who doesn't. But, that might explain Phelps' diet!
(6) Pot users are perceived as lazy, but is that selection or part of the mind altering substance. I don't know.

Clearly, I don't know much about using marijuana aside from the stereotypes and basic facts, but the fact that marijuana is both mind altering and taken in vapor/smoke form suggests to me that we should be wary of second-hand effects.

4. Marijuana is not a lethal drug and is safer than alcohol.
I will add this to my list of marijuana facts, but I'm not sure that merely comparing pot with booze is the right idea. That's because there's no such thing as a contact high with alcohol, but there is with marijuana. Given this second-hand effect of marijuana, how can you designate a driver? What about public use? Cigarettes are banned from restaurants in many locations, and their second-hand effects are less severe than marijuana -- at least in the short term: if I have to choose between smelling bad and involuntarily getting high, I'd rather smell bad.

Comparisons aside, this reason misses a very important point because it focuses on how marijuana affects the user. Why should we care about marijuana's first-hand effects? As someone who cherishes liberty, I think we should be allowed to do what we please, say what we want to say, eat what we want to eat, and ingest what we want to ingest, just so long as our actions do not impinge on the liberties of others. That's why my primary concern with marijuana is the second-hand effects.

I expect people to weigh the costs and benefits of first-hand effects, no matter how severe. To take an extreme case, suppose we legalize cyanide pills. Do you really think that people would not weigh the costs and benefits of taking cyanide and fail to make the optimal decision regarding their use? People do the same with marijuana, just not on such a grand scale.

3. Marijuana is too expensive for our justice system and should instead be taxed to support beneficial government programs.
First off, I would like to point out the words "too," "should," and "beneficial." It sounds like the author of this list is really trying to convince the readers that taxing and regulating marijuana would be a good idea fiscally.

Secondly, I instead address the statement "Taxing and regulating marijuana will lead to more money in government coffers." My response: maybe so, maybe no. Given the illegal nature of the drug and the regime shift that legalization would entail, it is hard to make a definitive claim about causation: legalizing might be more expensive.

Here's one reason to think so:

If we still want to prohibit high school kids from using pot under the legal scheme, this may pose a problem fiscally. High school kids' non-monetary costs have decreased because finding suppliers (anyone over the legal age) is much easier. The monetary cost will also decrease because suppliers are no longer in danger of going to jail. On both counts, we see that the price decreases for high school kids. Therefore, in a legal-above-18 regime, there are more high school kids who will attempt to try marijuana. As before, this is just the law of demand, Econ101.

No one would pretend that regulating alcohol or tobacco use by teens is cheap. Moreover, it is reasonable to expect that the number of marijuana cases among teens to increase dramatically. Currently, only about 20 percent of teens have ever tried marijuana. In contrast, nearly 60 percent of high school students have had alcohol in the last year. That's a huge difference, and it would pose regulatory and judicial issues if even half of the gap of casual users were bridged by legalization.

Depending on the ratio of teens to adults who who use (or would use) marijuana, the problems with regulating underage use could imply a net increase in costs. In the worst case scenario, the juvenile justice system would be flooded with marijuana cases. Talk about clogging up court systems!

Depending on how responsive kids are to this decrease in price, the effect on revenue could go the other way. If very few high schoolers try marijuana on account of legalization, the effect on our fiscal health would be positive. On the other hand, if a bunch of high school kids start trying it because it is legal, it likely will not lead to a tax windfall.

I don't know if we have a good sense for how much use would increase among high school kids if marijuana were legalized. But, to make informed policy, we need to know.

2. Marijuana has positive attributes, such as its medical value and use as a recreational drug with relatively mild side effects.
I don't really know how to address the logic of this one. Either it has scientific value or it does not. I'm an economist, so I'll leave the medical issues to the scientists.

What am I willing to say? I suspect that the illegality of the drug is warranted on some front. Whether or not it was a good idea, it had to have been an idea. To learn more about the purported "mild side effects," I conducted a Google search. Scouring the first result, I found these side effects. Tell me if you think they are mild:

Increased appetite
Lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes
Increased likelihood for accidents (6 to 11 percent of fatal accidents are marijuana related)
Loss of self-identification
Breathing difficulties
Deteriorating physical abilities
Increased heart rate and breathing rate
Speeds up the aging process
Diminished ability to learn and adapt quickly to changes

A point of clarification: whether the side effects are mild is beside the point. From a public policy perspective, the only "side effect" that should interest us is how the drug affects others. If we want to call this "the land of the free," who are we to stop someone from doing something that hurts only themselves?

That said, if non-users are negatively affected by marijuana use, then we have a case for policy intervention -- just like smoking bans in restaurants or harsh sentences for driving under the influence. On the other hand, if marijuana use affects no one but the user, the policy of banning (or even regulating) the drug has no leg to stand on. The fact that we're even having this policy discussion tells us that there are some second hand effects of marijuana. The appropriate question is how to manage them.

1. Marijuana users are determined to stand up to the injustice of marijuana probation and accomplish legalization, no matter how long or what it takes to succeed.
Good for them. That doesn't mean that it should be legalized. Again, this appears to be another non-reason to get the number of reasons in the list to ten.

Of these Top 10 Reasons Marijuana Should be Legal:
Five (#1, #5, #6, #9, #10) are not reasons at all, but empassioned pleas to join the cause.
1.5 (#3, and first part of #8) are false or based on incorrect logic.
Two (#2 and #4) are dubious and vague "scientific" arguments.
1.5 (#7 and the second part of #8) remain valid.

As I said earlier, the legalization reduces gang power argument is only a good point if we have other compelling reasons to legalize the drug. This list offers few compelling reasons even though a good case can be made. If this list is representative of the reasons for legalizing, that's a problem for the legalization debate.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Saving a wet cell phone

Last week, my wife did a load of laundry. In the process, she accidentally laundered her cell phone. If you don't already know, this is a horrible way to clean your cell phone. Running a phone through the wash most likely means that the phone is ruined. In our case, the phone initially worked well enough to retrieve the contacts from the phone, but it stopped working very soon thereafter.

We had to get a new phone. Therefore, we placed an order with Verizon, extended the service contract and we waited for three days for the phone to arrive. Two hours after my wife activated the new phone, it slipped out of her pocket into the toilet. What an unfortunate deja vu!

We immediately started scheming. Could we return the phone to the company with a request for a new phone that works? After all, we just got the phone, and shortly afterwards, it stopped working. Maybe they have some policy that covers this. But, the phone wasn't defective. Dropping the phone in the toilet was clearly our fault. That option felt wrong even if the customer is always right.

I conducted a Google search to see what I could do to save the phone. The first hit on my search was an immensly helpful guide from Wikihow. Based on the advice I found there, here were the steps I followed:

Remove the battery. Submerged cell phones stop working because the circuitry is damaged by misdirected electricity. The water helps short out the circuitry, but this only happens when there is a supply of electricity to the cell phone. For most phones, the battery is the only source of electricity. That's why the first step is to disconnect the battery.

Dry the phone completely. Cell phones are complicated objects with crevices that are ideal for hiding water. This means that drying the phone completely is a difficult task.

Vacuum, but do not blow dry.
Wikihow advises people to vacuum the phone, rather than blow dry. Blow drying the phone can cause a build up of static electricity, which can damage the circuitry by itself. Suction from a vacuum does not have this effect.

Use a desiccant (a substance that induces or sustains a state of dryness).
I rarely find myself inducing something to be dry, and when I do, a towel usually suffices. Needless to say, we did not have any industrial desiccant lying around the house. Wikihow suggested using uncooked rice to draw the remaining water out of the cell phone.

To summarize, I disconnected the battery, vacuumed the phone, and submerged the phone into a bowl of rice overnight. The next morning, when I connected the phone to the battery, the phone turned on and was no worse for the wear. Next step: watch out for puddles!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pain at the pump: some gas math

Today, I filled up with gas only to find that gas prices had risen about 35 cents per gallon since the last time I filled the car up. Like most people, I was not very happy to discover this recent rise in gas prices. I felt the pain at the pump. On the other hand, I wondered how much I should really care that the price increased by 35 cents per gallon. Therefore, I decided to do some "gas math" to put this jump in prices into perspective.

Price per mile? Our car gets about 20 miles per gallon. Ignoring the costs of car maintenance, the 35-cent increase in gas prices increases the marginal cost of driving by 1.75 cents per mile driven.

For some perspective, consider the cost of a five-mile trip when walking versus driving. The walk would be nice for the first mile, but after a while, walking long distances becomes tiresome. At the current price of $2.80 per gallon, the cost of a five-mile trip is $0.70 in our 20 mpg car. That's a downright bargain, especially when the car gets you there faster.

Price per day? Now that we live in the city, we actually do less driving because (a) parking is so difficult, (b) other drivers are crazy, and (c) most things we need are within walking distance or accessible by public transport. We still drive more than the average city dweller. On an ordinary day, we drive five to ten miles. This implies that we usually go a whole month without filling up the tank. So, how much do we pay in gasoline cost per day?

Today's gas bill was $38.08 for 13.606 gallons, but it was the first time this month that we filled the tank. For a 30-day month, that's $1.26 of gasoline costs per day. That's about the daily cost of breakfast for my wife and me (two Costco muffins, plus ground coffee and orange juice). We spend more on lunch, and even more on dinner. Say we spend about $30 dollars on food per day as a family. Rent is even more expensive at about $50 per day.

Compared to our other major expenditures, gasoline totals to only 2.5 percent of our rent and 4 percent of our food costs. That's really not that much.

Why should we care? When it comes to the cost of transportation, most people drive more than we do. Still, multiply our figures by five, and it is not like we're talking about genuine pain. In this range of costs, we might be talking about forgoing a Starbucks latte per day or per trip. So, why do we see so many news stories describing our "addiction to oil" and the "pain at the pump"? At the end of the day, people make a choice to drive just like they make a choice to buy a Starbucks latte versus making their own coffee at home. That doesn't sound like something that should get policymakers too excited.

Maybe we should care about energy costs because of what they do to the price of other goods in our economy. The truck carrying the apples to your store needs gasoline to move the apples. A high price of gasoline raises the cost of bringing that apple to your neighborhood store. This logic applies to anything that needs transport, so it makes sense that you pay more for everything at the store when the price of gas goes up.

I don't think the news agencies have this indirect pain in mind when they run the stories about gas prices on the rise. The real pain from high gas prices is indirect: when gas prices rise, so does the cost of our enire bundle of goods. But, that's not exactly "pain at the pump."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Companies I love: Apple

This is the third installment of the Companies I Love Series. "Companies I Love" posts describe why innovative companies and business practices make us all better off, and therefore why they deserve our love. "Companies I Love" is featured every Sunday on this blog.

My only experience with Macintosh computers is troubleshooting Macs in my former job as a User Support Associate at Montana State University's computer labs. Most of the computers in the lab were PCs, but a select few were Macs. I loved getting questions and helping people who came to the labs, but I loathed helping people who had problems with the Mac computers. I dreaded Mac questions because (1) I had no idea what I was doing and (2) neither did they. In fact, I suspect that the only people who wandered into the Mac section didn't know what they were getting themselves into (i.e., they couldn't tell a Mac from a PC).

I am a PC and I will never be a Mac. I am too accustomed to the Windows interface, and let's face it, Microsoft did an amazing job designing Windows. Even if you don't think that Windows is great, I suspect that no company in the last 30 years has had such a profound effect on our lives. Without an easy-to-use interface, personal computers would have never appealed to ordinary people. It would be hard to imagine the internet, high-tech boom -- let alone ordering flowers or food online!

But, this is a post about why I love Apple, not why I love Microsoft. I detest using Macs. I have a Verizon phone, not an iPhone. I don't really see the point of iPods or iTunes. Instead, I choose to sing my own "I tunes," listen to the radio or listen to internet radio. Moreover, as I type this post, I use Internet Explorer, Microsoft Windows, a Gateway computer, and a Dell monitor. About the only thing I consume from Apple is their advertisements. In this world, how can I love Apple?

One word: competition. Especially recently, Apple has provided much needed competititon to the personal computer market. As a result, companies like Windows, Intel, Dell, HP, and the rest of the PC universe have been scrambling for improvements to their own products. On account of competition, we get faster processors, more efficient operating systems, better monitors, and lower prices. These are improvements that I get to enjoy, even if I never resort to switching from PC to Mac.

Some day I might try some product produced by Apple. That day isn't today, but that doesn't stop me from loving Apple. Because Apple exists, I get a better PC at a lower price. As an added bonus, I also get to enjoy Mac's quirky advertisements!

If you have ideas for Companies I Love, please let me know. It could never hurt to have more suggestions!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

To save tigers, eat them?

In a previous post, I gave the counter-intuitive reasoning that "to save elephants, hunt elephants." I also suggested a more palatable solution: make paper out of elephant dung. Because elephants are a nuisance, locals look the other way when poachers come to town. As a result, poaching elephants is pervasive and elephants are on the brink of extinction. If locals stood to benefit from selling the hunting rights to elephants in their region, they would be firece protectors of elephants because elephants would be a big part of their own livelihood.

Does this logic work for preserving other endangered species like tigers?

I think it does, but I wonder if leading with the phrase "to save tigers, let's eat them," might be the wrong approach. It could just make the audience angry. It's usually a mistake to anger the audience you seek to win over, especially when compelling logic is on your side. This is because mad people don't reason well. They tend to stop listening. Then again, hoards of angry people might stir up controversy that draws attention to the issue.

That's what I think happened last week with John Stossel's 20-20 report describing PERC's unconventional logic that we can save wild tigers by making them marketable. As of the time of this post, there have been 431 comments on the online article and video, most of which are empassioned calls for ABC to fire John Stossel. If you believe that policymakers should entertain the idea of legalizing tiger farming, is this controversy positive or negative? I'm not really sure.

I don't think ABC should fire John Stossel, but I do wonder if Stossel could have put his report together more tactfully. In his report, he does not seem willing to weigh the logical points of the other side. This is especially apparent when Stossel calls the nice environmentalist out by saying "Your head's in the sand. Dream on." I agree that her head is in the sand, but that's not a very nice thing to say. I can see why people are angry with Stossel.

One last comment: the quote from the nice environmentalist "90 percent of Chinese people actually support the ban" is precisely the bad logic I addressed in a previous post. Popular support and good public perception do not make for correct policy.

I think we need to be logical, and I wonder what this 20-20 report does for our collective logic. What do you think? Is this report a good thing?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Poll: What do you do when it rains?

Chicago has surprised me on a number of occasions. For example, before we moved here, I thought the traffic would be bad, but it was worse than I expected. I expected a lot of Chicago snow, but there isn't more snow in Chicago than Montana. Chicago is called the windy city, but I don't detect more wind in Chicago than in Livingston, MT, unless we're talking about mayor Richard Daley.

The thing about Chicago I have found most surprising is the humidity and the rain. Chicago is a very humid place, which makes summer heat really feel hot. Given the humidity, rain in Chicago actually gets your clothes wet enough that you have to change. Plus, a thunderstorm actually qualifies as severe weather, whereas there is not much substantial rain in Montana (aside from the occasional afternoon thunderstorm).

The first time I felt like a newcomer to Chicago was last fall when I did not have an umbrella for a soaking, rainstorm. I got drenched walking to campus and I couldn't help but notice that every other person on the sidewalk had an umbrella. This leads me to the question of the week: What do you do when it rains? Do you...

(a) Grab an umbrella on your way out the door, and calmly stroll to your destination.
(b) Wear raingear but don't bother with the umbrella.
(c) Run from place to place to avoid the tiresome falling droplets.
(d) Grab an umbrella, wear raingear, and run from place to place.

The poll is up now, and will remain up until next Friday, 22 May 2009. Vote early, vote often, and encourage your friends to vote. There are three options, but you may select more than one! May you save enough umbrellas for your rainy days!

Elements of Style: Word use and abuse

This is the third installment of the Elements of Style Series where I relay helpful hints for good writing from the classic book, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

Most writers mistakenly use words that are not right for their intended purpose. Unlike most books on writing, The Elements of Style has an entire section devoted to exposing the words we most commonly misuse. Some of you might expect that these suggestions are a bit dated. After all, the book was published in 1918. Despite this early publication date, Strunk and White's suggestions for word choice are timeless and surprising.

This post is not about appropriately using your and you're, nor is it about using to, too, and two in the right spots. These are basic mistakes that anyone who has a grammatical pet peeve should know to avoid. Strunk and White's suggestions are much more pervasive. Most writers make at least one of the word choice mistakes in The Elements of Style. We do this because we develop bad habits. Good writing is hard work because we need to constantly guard against these bad habits.

I recently read the chapter on words commonly misused. Here are three of the more useful or surprising words commonly misused. In my next Elements of Style post, I plan to discuss three more.

Certainly. Strunk and White warn against indiscriminately using this word to "intensify any and every statement." If you think that your sentence lacks some zing, don't add the word certainly, use a stronger word. For example, it is bad style to write: Shanna certainly enjoyed the chocolate cake. What is a better phrasing for the same idea? Shanna savored the chocolate cake.

Fact. Strunk and White tell us to use fact only when it is something that can be directly verified. For example, it is a fact that Tony was born on September 17th. Even though it is a reasonable conclusion, it is not a fact that Napoleon is the greatest modern general.

Less (versus Fewer). Less refers to quantity, fewer to number. For example, the speedy lane at the grocery store should say "15 items or fewer." Whenever I encounter a "15 items or less" checkout counter, I wonder about the quality of the store's grapefruit. My personal rule of thumb is to ask whether I can count the objects being described. If so, it is a number and fewer is the appropriate word to use.

The issue becomes convoluted when less versus fewer describe emotions or feelings. As Strunk and White demonstrate, "The King's troubles are less than mine" and "The King's troubles are fewer than mine" are both valid sentences, but the two sentences have different meanings. The first sentence means "The King's troubles are not so great as mine," whereas the second means "The King's troubles are not so numerous as mine."

Returning to my rule of thumb, if I survey my troubles and observe that they are worse than the King's troubles, less is the appropriate word because it describes magnitude. On the other hand, if I survey my troubles and observe that I have more things that trouble me, I should use fewer to convey this point.

Think about that the next time you stand in line at the grocery store!

The next installment of the Elements of Style Series, "Word use and abuse: Part II" will appear on this blog on Friday, 22 May 2009. I will continue this series each Friday until I run out of interesting topics in grammar and writing.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Racism, Eggs and Visualization

One of my favorite books is The Logic of Life: A Rational Economics in an Irrational World by Tim Harford. Not only do I like the style of economics in the book, but I admire the way Tim Harford writes. I think that Harford communicates the findings of economics beautifully. For anyone who appreciates good logic and clear exposition, I highly recommend anything produced by Tim Harford: speeches, books, blog writings, etc. Harford just exudes an ideal outlook on life and that shines through in his writing.

He has now started producing video shorts. These video shorts are a wonderful way to get the ideas of economics out into public discourse. They're all posted on his webpage at

My favorite video short describes Thomas Schelling's model of racial segregation. Of course, I think the model is interesting, but what I find most interesting is the difference in exposition. To see what I mean, let's give it a try. Imagine you have a chessboard in front of you. Read the following description of how extreme racial segregation can occur even if each member of society has only a mild preference for his own race:
Lay out alternating black and white pieces, remove any twenty, and then add five just to mix things up a bit. The board now represents a mixed neighborhood.

Now, these black pieces aren't extreme racists. They're happy to live in a mixed neighborhood, but they don't want their white neighbors to outnumber their black neighbors more than 2 to 1. The white pieces feel exactly the same way. So, take any piece that is outnumbered by more than 2 to 1 and move it to the closet acceptable location.

When you do this, you'll find something astonishing. The black pieces and white pieces will separate out like oil and vinegar. Even a mild preference for the color of your neighbor can lead to extreme segregation.

When you're done, watch the video (here). Now, that's a cool video, don't you think?

It is striking how well the video conveys Schelling's chessboard experiment. Some ideas just have to be seen to be understood.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Marijuana II: Does the ban on marijuana put peaceful druggies in jail?

I have had some interesting discussions with people on the topic of legalizing marijuana since my last post on the topic. In my last post, I argued why we should consider legalizing marijuana. From what I have seen, marijuana commentators fall into two camps: (1) people who favor legalization and provide support with logical arguments, and (2) people who oppose legalization and do so incoherently. The commentators in the first camp far outnumber those in the second camp (just do a Google search for legalize marijuana).

To help provide balance to this debate, I want to make the case for the other side. I will do so in a series of posts. In this post, I summarize the arguments (good and bad) for legalizing marijuana. I plan show why most (but not all) of these points go up in smoke when we apply logic. Throughout this series of posts, I seriously question why keeping the ban on marijuana might be good policy.

Regardless of where you stand on this issue, you should recognize that there are two logical sides to the legalization debate. I hope this series of posts conveys that.

Arguments for Legalization
In a nutshell, the best argument for legalization is that an illegal marijuana market gives potential suppliers motivation to fight over market share. Unlike legal markets where suppliers fight over consumers using the weaponry of lower prices and better quality, suppliers in illegal markets fight over territory using actual weapons. Dealers are breaking the law already by selling drugs, so they might as well break the law with flair and use it to their advantage. Legalization would quell these conflicts, and perhaps, give drug-selling gangs less of a reason to exist.

There are numerous other reasons people give for legalizing marijuana. Here is the sampling of reasons for legalization that I have heard in the week since my last post. I'm sure there are more, but these are the ones I plan to address first.
  1. A ban on marijuana puts peaceful people in jail, whereas our resources could be better spent elsewhere.
  2. People are in favor of it. Nearly a majority (41%) of Americans support legalization.
  3. Taxing and regulating marijuana will certainly raise loads of tax revenue.
  4. Marijuana is less harmful to people than alcohol. Yet, alcohol is legal.
  5. Rogue organizations set up marijuana plantations in national parks, damaging the environment. Such operations would no longer exist if marijuana were legal.
Analysis of Legalization Arguments
The case for legalizing marijuana is compelling. In particular, I believe that prohibition of marijuana leads to gang violence. To this argument, the best counterpoint is a question: This reason for legalizing marijuana also would have applied to legalizing crack cocaine in the early 1990s. Don't we need to know more about the effects of marijuana to make an informed policy choice? Indeed we do, but I'll leave that discussion for a future post.

In this post, I address the logic behind arguments (1) and (2) for legalization.

1. The ban on pot puts peaceful people in jail.
This argument is rooted in the observation that marijuana users are typically peaceful. I think this perception arises from the fact that pot users typically become calm while on the drug. Such a loose argument bothers me, so let's tug at some strings. Even if the drug is illegal, do the laws on the books really put recreational users behind bars? A quick Google search provides the answer: not likely. Though laws vary from state to state, the standard penalties for a first offense of possession of marijuana are probation, community service, and drug counseling.

On the other hand, if someone is convicted of possession with intent to sell, that's a more serious offense, which likely comes with considerable jail time. But, isn't possession with intent to sell a much more serious offense than merely using the drug? If someone really intends to sell marijuana, he likely falls into the category of people who are fighting over users. That's no endorsement for being a peaceful druggie.

My impression is that, by default, commentators portray pot dealers as peaceful (i.e., they're only dealing marijuana, so what's the problem?). This is bad logic and I think it is misleading. As an example, look at this editorial, which makes reference to two brothers' arrest for dealing a ton of marijuana (that's an actual ton, 1000 kilos). The title clearly conveys how the author feels: "jailing peaceful druggies a big waste." I think we're entitled to wonder who these "peaceful druggies" are.

Minimal further investigation demonstrates that the so called "peaceful druggies" from the article, Ross Landfried III and Noah Landfried, were not really that innocent after all. For example, this article describes how these brothers were heading a marijuana-trafficking ring that also sold cocaine. This article describes how one of the brothers, Ross, was implicated in a cocaine and ecstacy trafficking bust seven years earlier. After the earlier bust, the state Attorney General displayed the "pillow-sized packets of cocaine at his Pittsburgh office."

Maybe it is the scale of the operation or maybe it is the repeat offense, but I'm beginning to think that these particular druggies were not so peaceful after all. More generally, people who are willing to break the law to sell marijuana do so because they do not mind breaking the law. By and large, this selects people who are not peaceful. Maybe marijuana users are peaceful, but it is quite unlikely that marijuana dealers are. And, when we look at who serves the most jail time on account of the pot ban, it is dealers, not users.

2. The people favor legalization (According to a CBS poll, 41 percent of Americans support legalization).
This is one of four arguments put forth by the Marijuana Policy Project for taxing and regulating marijuana. It is the worst argument I have ever heard. Period. That includes arguments for other things, not just legalizing marijuana.

This is such a bad argument because support for an idea is irrelevant to whether it is a good idea! The consequences of any action are the same regardless of the level of support for the idea. To see why, think back to our last election. It clearly would not matter if Barack Obama received 90 percent rather than just over 50 percent of the vote. More votes do not make him a better president. That's why you don't see people sitting around saying, "Man. I wish I voted for Barack Obama now. Look, he might have put together a better stimulus package if I did vote for him." In the very same way, more support for legalizing marijuana does not imply that it is good policy.

That's it for now. I plan to address the logic behind some other arguments for legalization in a future post on Wednesday 20 May 2009. There will be posts after that.

I'm interested in hearing your comments. Are there arguments for legalization that I left out? Are there any arguments for legalization you think I should consider? Please let me know. I want this discussion to be as open and balanced as possible.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Montana Brewery Fun

Given that we now live in Chicago, I find it ironic that I acquired my taste for beer almost exclusively at a restaurant called Old Chicago. I learned to love beer on Old Chicago's World Beer Tour, which I started and finished with some college friends in Bozeman. This involved drinking 110 different brews from around the world, but no more than four at a time. Along the journey, I earned prizes like t-shirts, sweatshirts and bottle openers. I had loads of fun with our friends in the process.

The fact that Old Chicago has such a successful operation in Montana speaks more to Montana's beer-drinking culture than to Chicago's wide selection of beers. Every time I would go to Old Chicago in Bozeman, the restaurant would proudly display a chalk-board chock full of local favorites. There is even a special section on the beer menu for regional beers. These local beers were consistently among the most satisfying drinks on the menu.

For this reason, I was delighted to read this article on the rich culture of breweries in Montana. As a side note, I was even more excited that the article featured one of my former students, Ryan Bone! You should read the article, but if you don't have time, here are a few of the things I found most interesting.

First, breweries in Montana are not bars, nor are they industrial facilities where barley soup is sloshed around in tanks to be studied by people with clipboards. Rather, breweries are social places where people can enjoy a good beer, some face-to-face conversation and good family fun.

Second, the breweries don't just make beer. Lots of them make cherry soda and root beer to help with the family-oriented feel of these places. It is rare for a brewery to have televisions. This is a stark contrast to Old Chicago, which has the feel of a sports bar.

Third, Montana is in the top five in terms of microbreweries per capita. As Ryan Bone says in the article, "Montana is a big state, and people like good beer." To meet this specialized demand in sparsely-populated Montana, microbreweries pop up all over the place.

Lastly, they're making a documentary about these Montana breweries. Given my love for Montana, my affinity toward beer and that a former student of mine is involved with this, I cannot wait for a chance to see this film. It's just one more interesting thing about Montana!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Rules for Driving in Chicago

Having lived here almost eight months, I can now say that I know what it takes to drive in the big city. I thought it was a stereotype, but city driving definitely follows a different set of rules than driving in Montana. If you plan on driving in a city, you should be aware that the locals follow their own rules of the road. So far, I have been able to discern seven rules for driving in the big city.

All of these rules have come from careful observation. Some are actual events I have witnessed. Let me warn you. These rules are no exaggeration! Here they are:

1. Drive fast. Drive 30 miles an hour over the speed limit on highways. Be more careful on surface streets. For a posted speed limit of 30 mph, driving 45 mph is the maximum acceptable speed. Under no conditions, obey the speed limit.

2. Honk your horn. If you observe a pedestrian at a crosswalk, that's your cue to honk your horn to warn them against crossing the street. If you observe someone driving 30 mph in a 30 mph zone, honk your horn to tell them to speed up. Do so even if they are not in your way!

3. Dispense with the turn signal. City drivers are environmentally conscious. They even save on their turn signal light bulbs!

4. Use your headlights creatively. Suppose you are driving at night and you come upon a vehicle that is only going the speed limit. As you come up behind them, turn on your brights. This should be annoying enough to induce your fellow driver to change lanes. You will have a clear path until you encounter the next slow driver.

5. Create your own lane. If the stoplight is red and there is already a car waiting for the light to turn green, it is appropriate to use the biking lane as a way to pass the waiting car. When the light turns green, just be sure to accelerate quickly enough to beat your fellow driver into the intersection.

6. Use your cell phone. Big city drivers know that time is money. If you're a city dweller, your phone calls and text messages can save lives. Therefore, all of the time spent driving should be put to productive use. More cell phones on the road equals more lives saved, right?

7. Park in the middle of the street. Parking is hard to come by in the city, but city drivers know that's why our cars come with those emergency flashers. If your car is flashing yellow, people won't mind that you're blocking the only available lane.

Do you drive in a city? Have you noticed rules of the road not mentioned here? If so, please share in the comment box below.