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TinotopiaLog → January 2001 archives
Tuesday 23 January 2001

Ding Dongs and King Dons

I used to live in St. Louis, which, being the home of the Twinkie, is well-provided with Hostess outlet stores. These stores sell almost-stale Hostess products, Wonder Bread, etc. Never mind how old a Twinkie needs to be to be "almost stale".

Anyway, these stores offered a strange product called "King Dons". They looked, felt, and tasted just like Ding Dongs, but they were, as I just pointed out, King Dons. In normal stores in St. Louis, they’re always Ding Dongs. You’ll never see a "King Don" on a shelf at the 7-Eleven there.

At first, I thought that this might have something to do with Don King, the much-beloved boxing promoter. I couldn’t imagine what the connection would possibly be, though, and besides, there’s a difference:

King Dons Don Kings

Anyway, the good people at Hostess wrote back (with what looks like a form letter; mine is not the only copy of this thing on the web), explaining that Ding Dongs (which appears to be the canonical name for the things) are known variously as King Dons or Big Wheels, depending on what part of the country you’re in. This is allegedly to avoid confusion with some other products offered in those regions.

That’s insane:

1. If the problem is some other product (presumably Ring Dings, which pre-date Ding Dongs and which are virtually the same product), why are there two alternate names?

2. Everyone calls these things Ding Dongs, regardless of what the box says. Hostess should in fact be suing or buying the "Ding Dong" name from whoever owns it in these mysterious regions, if that’s the case.

Where I live now, the boxes on the shelves say "King Dons" as often as not. You can’t get Ring Dings — the only thing I can think of that could possible claim a name conflict with Ding Dongs — here.

I think there’s something far more sinister going on.

Thank you for your recent comments regarding the naming of our HOSTESS King Dons Cake.

Many years ago, the HOSTESS product Ding Dongs Cake was introduced with a bell as part of the advertising. So as not to confuse our product with a competitor’s product, in certain regions the name was changed to King Dons, while in other areas the same product was called Big Wheels.

In the past, the original Ding Dongs Cake (with the bell) became Ding Dongs Cakes (without the bell), King Dons, or Big Wheels, depending upon the region.

In January 1987, our Marketing Department decided that in order to have national continuity, one name for a product was necessary, and the original Ding Dongs name was chosen.

This decision was short lived. In June 1987, the name King Dons was added, for the same reason as explained previously, to avoid confusing one product with a competitor’s product which has a similar sounding name.

Posted by tino at 17:00 23.01.01

Campaign Finance

And how we should treat the cause of campaign finance problems, rather than the symptoms.

There is a lot of discussion these days about how best to regulate the financing of political campaigns in the United States. The intention is to remove control from lobbying organizations and corporations, and give it back to the people.

Certainly, the American government is largely bought and paid-for by moneyed interests. It costs an enormous amount to win and retain national office in the United States, and these funds can, for all practical purposes, only be obtained by appealing to those very rich entities in the best position to finance campaigns, be they individual billionaires, trade organizations, or large corporations.

Restricting the ability of any of these entities to give money to the political candidate of their choice is a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution, though. You — whether you are Joe Schmo or General Motors — have the right to spend your money to further your political opinions however you wish. Senator McCain’s intentions are good, but I don’t think he’ll be successful, even if he manages to get his legislation passed. It’ll simply be challenged by some large lobbying organization and found unconstitutional.

The problem is not that the government is bought and paid for — that’s just a symptom. The problem is that it’s possible to buy a controlling interest, as it were, in American government.

The Founding Fathers, some of the sharpest people ever to get together in one place, saw this possibility and provided for it in the original First Amendment, which was never ratified. It’s difficult to find the text of this Amendment, so I have included it here:

After the first enumeration required by the first Article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.

That is, in the early days of the United States, it was thought that one representative in Congress was ample to represent 30,000 to 50,000 people. This was roughly the level of representation afforded by the House of Commons in Britain in those days. Here are some ratios of representation in the ‘lower’ houses of various countries’ governments (all figures here are derived from the CIA World Factbook, and current as of mid-2000):

Country One rep. per
UK 90305
Germany 126215
France 102824
Canada 103923
Mexico 200699
Russia 324447
China 423575

The average is clearly around 100,000 citizens per representative for the wealthier and more democratic countries. It’s not really fair to lump Mexico in with China and Russia (or even Russia in with China), but it’s clear that the fact that these countries are not as democratic as Canada, the UK, etc. might be related to the fact that their governments are structurally less representative. Even if everyone in government in China is perfectly virtuous and free, the Chinese government is not going to be able to cater to the wishes and needs of its population as is the government of the United Kingdom.

Curious yet about what the ratio of representation in the United States in 2000 is?

One representative per 633,477 citizens. Or about half as representative as Russia, and one-third less representative than the government of the People’s Republic of China.

(N.B. These figures have changed following the 2000 census — see the update page for that information.)

Each member of the House of Representatives has to account for the needs of over 600,000 people.

Take any large American stadium, the new huge dome kind that hold about 70,000 people. Fill every seat. Now put another eight people on the lap of every person in the stadium.

Now get all of those people to agree on a single political opinion, that can be expressed as a vote in Congress.

It can’t be done, which is why the Congressman will just take money from, and vote on behalf of, the guy who owns the stadium and his friends sitting in the luxury boxes.

Triple the size of Congress, to about 1300 people, and we’d have about the same level of representation as our neighbors to the south. Then it might be possible for a Congressman to attempt to represent his constituency.

Better yet, return some power to the states, where the rates of representation, for the most part, are already where they should be. That’s one reason why the United States’ governmental structure was set up the way it was. Remember when I said, up in the fifth paragraph, that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. were pretty sharp? It’s still true in this paragraph.

The whole point, you see, was to guard against the situation we find ourselves in today. In the 18th century, it was obvious to them that the interests of people in Virginia were different from the people in Massachusetts.

Consider, however, the 10th District of Virginia as it is today:

It includes parts of the Washington suburbs, densely populated places where Starbucks and The Gap are thick on the ground, and most people drive around in shiny new Mercedes. It also includes the Shenandoah Valley and a good part of the Blue Ridge — main ethnic group: Hillbilly.

This district includes a mall anchored by Nieman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, with stores like Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, and chic European underwear stores in between; it also includes a mall anchored by JC Penney, Sears, and Belk, with a knife store, a place that sells decorative barrels, and a lot of empty storefronts in between. People living in those two communities have very divergent requirements for government, much as the merchants of Boston and the planters of Virginia had different needs in 1790.

Such a diverse group of people cannot adequately be represented by a single vote in Congress. And since the federal government, through coercion of the states, is directly in charge of nearly all policies these days — from medical care to drinking age to marijuana laws to the speed limits on the freeways to who can ride in which seats in a car — this is a problem.

Solve the problem of underrepresentation in the U.S. government — either by expanding Congress or (better yet) by returning to the states the power they’re supposed to have in the first place — and you’ll not only solve the campaign finance problem, but you’ll be able to watch the American popular antipathy toward government disappear.

    the raw material (warning: big page)
  • RESPONSE to a recent Slate article
  • NOTE
    George Will must read Tinotopia! On 14 January, 2001, he published this column, which makes much the same argument as I do here. His numbers are slightly inaccurate.

    Posted by tino at 14:00 23.01.01
  • Thursday 18 January 2001

    Multiculturalism is a Load of Crap

    First off, to ward off accusations of xenophobia or racism: I advocate an open-borders immigration policy for the United States. Anyone who wants to come live here should be able to, and they should all have exactly the same opportunities than anyone else of the same skills, talents, and abilities has. Denying anyone the opportunity to exercise those abilities because of something as silly as their skin color or where they’re from is just plain idiotic, and ultimately it hurts us all equally.

    America’s diversity is what has made it great, and it would be lessened by the absence of any of us — black, white, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Russian, Eskimo, etc.

    Second: Multiculturalism is a load of crap. I happened across an article in the Washington Post today (I’ve mirrored it here in case the Post does away with the archive) about how Catcher in the Rye is being pulled from school curricula these days. In itself, this isn’t news. What makes it news is that it’s being pulled because it’s not "diverse" enough.

    (In case you’ve been living in a cave for the last fifty years, the basic plot of Catcher in the Rye involved our white, upper-middle-class hero, Holden Caulfield, getting thrown out of school, having a nervous breakdown, and being thrown in the loony bin. This nervous breakdown is his coming-of-age.)

    The line in the article that inspired me to write this is this:

    "Our school is 91 percent minority. We have 52 countries represented," said Keshia Beatty, English supervisor at Bladensburg High.

    I just want to see that again: "Our school is 91 percent minority." Ahhhh.

    Bladensburg is in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which is about 51% black and 41% white. I don’t think that by "minority" she means white, though. She means that 9% of the students in the school are white, and the others are one big undifferentiated mass of "minority".

    And so they shouldn’t be reading Catcher, the multiculturalists say. They should be reading Their Eyes Were Watching God or Things Fall Apart.

    Now, while I happen to think that Things Fall Apart (by Chinua Achebe) is a fantastic, worthwhile, and underappreciated novel, I also think that students living in a suburban county of a major U.S. city — a county where the mean annual household income is over $48,000 — can understand a story set in wealthy Manhattan in 1950 than they can a story set in a pre-industrial town in colonial Nigeria.

    However, Okonkwo (the hero of Things Fall Apart) is black; Holden Caulfield is white.

    Therefore, the (mostly black) students at Bladensburg High have more in common with Okonkwo than with Holden.

    And here’s the assumption that seems to be hidden behind this particular brand of "multiculturalism":

    Your skin color, more than anything else, defines what you are like, what you can understand, and what you should do.

    Perhaps Keshia Beatty (the teacher quoted above) should join the Klan; I understand that they believe roughly the same thing.

    We’re all part of the same culture in the United States, whether we like it or not. That culture is made up of all kinds of people, speaking all kinds of languages, and doing all kinds of things. But it’s the same culture. A student in Bladensburg has far, far more in common with a student in Chevy Chase (a nearby, rich, white suburb) than he does with a student in Nigeria.

    Our schools — except possibly for a few in the Deep South — no longer attempt to teach anyone to hate other people. But it’s a shame that now, over 30 years since Dr. King was killed, the schools are advocating a curriculum focused on people’s differences, rather than their similarities. That once again, your skin color determines what it is you should study in school.

    Posted by tino at 14:00 18.01.01
    Wednesday 17 January 2001

    District of Columbia

    I don’t even know where to begin with this quote from the Washington Post, Jan 1, 2001:

    Senators Spar Over D.C. Voting Rights

    Two U.S. senators took opposing views yesterday before a national audience on the issue of voting rights for the District.

    Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said on NBC’s "Meet the Press" that Congress must find a way to allow representation for the District in the House and Senate. He said statehood is a possibility that should be explored.

    But Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said statehood is not an option. The District could be considered part of Maryland during national elections, he said, but it would be a "serious mistake" to allow statehood. Nickles said the District does not have a large enough population to deserve two senators.

    (emphasis added by Tino)

    Of course, the humor there is that Washington, D.C. has a larger population than Wyoming, and possibly Montana.

    I ultimately like Washington, something that will astound many. It’s not easy to get me to venture into that city, mainly because it’s a pain in the ass.

    But it’s a very nice city, on a relatively human scale, and some of the things that make it a pain in the ass (very few freeways, for one) are also part of what makes it a good place.

    It’s a terribly mismanaged place, of course; this is the cause of the slums you see on TV every so often, and the crime statistics you hear about.

    Tony Williams, the mayor who came in vowing to give a damn and to end the Marion Berry years of apathy, has just about given up. He’s finally realized that it’s an impossible task, managing D.C. Instead of trying, he’s now pulling Marion Berry stunts; for instance, the D.C. government recently changed the motto on its license plates from "Celebrate & Discover" (itself horrible) to "TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION".

    Which is a good point, and what this complaint is all about.

    D.C. is a strange place. Originally, it was ten miles square; since Arlington was ceded back to Virginia in 1847, it’s less — about 70 square miles. About 1/3 of it is downtown DC: much of what you see pictured on the back of U.S. currency is in downtown DC. Not many people live there; much of the center of Washington, like the centers of most American cities, is deserted at night.

    About 1/3 of Washington is Anacostia. While Washington is and has long been a Black-majority city, Anacostia stands out as being exceptionally Black. There are a few middle-class areas in Anacostia, and even some very wealthy enclaves, Anacostia is in general very, very poor. The unemployment rate there hovers around 20% — when the rest of the U.S. is at something like 2.1% (and 2.1% in the U.S. unemployment statistics is totally insignificant — it’s just noise).

    And the other third of Washington is the western third. The western third of Washington encompasses places Georgetown, Dupont Circle, and a bunch of neighborhoods with names that will not be familiar to you unless you live in or near Washington, which I will lump together as "upper Northwest". Statistically, upper northwest DC is one of the richest places on Earth. DC has a higher per-capita income than any other city in the U.S., despite the fact that the unemployment rate in the city rarely drops below 15%. Upper Northwest is where Washington’s small "middle class" tends to live. Washington’s middle class is made up of people like Congressmen, Senators, Alan Greenspan, etc. They wouldn’t be middle-class anywhere else, though; they live in $700,000 houses, drive Volvos and Mercedeses, frequently have vacation houses, etc. Anywhere else (except maybe New York), they’d be considered rich.

    They’re not considered rich in Washington, though, because that title is reserved for the elite of the lobbyists, the TV stars, the royalty who maintain houses here, etc.: the people who count their income in millions of dollars a year. There aren’t many of these, anywhere, but then it doesn’t take many.

    So: Washington is populated by poor people, rich people, a very few middle-class people, the U.S. government, and a whole bunch of non-profit organizations.

    Poor people don’t pay taxes. Rich people don’t pay taxes in anything like the amounts middle-class people do (the rich have better shelters for their income, and they take up more space, so there are always fewer of them per square mile). Non-profit institutions don’t pay taxes. And the U.S. government certainly doesn’t pay taxes (though it does fork over certain amounts of money to D.C. in return for "services" like paving the roads).

    So D.C. is in the position of having to tax the hell out of anyone who does pay taxes. As a result, since World War II, D.C.’s population has steadily dropped.

    Of the fifty-two jurisdictions reported in the 2000 census (the states, plus Puerto Rico and D.C.), D.C. is the only one that did not gain population since 1990.

    Eventually, there will only be one person left living in Washington, and at the end of the year he’ll be presented with a bill for the entire cost of operating the city. And then he’ll skip town without paying.

    The problem is that you pay the same federal taxes, whether you live in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia. But in Virginia, your income tax is about half of what it is in D.C. Maryland income taxes are lower than D.C., but not by much; but the taxes on everything else are much cheaper. In return for the high taxes, D.C. doesn’t deliver a lot. Crime, as I’ve noted, is high. Trash is picked up or not, depending on some whim of the public works department. Streets are not plowed when it snows. And there is precisely one place for all 572,000 D.C. residents to get their cars inspected. And it’s open banker’s hours.

    A lot of this can’t be helped. Even with D.C.’s high tax rates, it’s hard for the city to collect enough money. To begin with, it’s an expensive place to maintain. All of D.C. is an urban area, with high-density sewers, water lines, streets, sidewalks, alleys, etc., etc. And quite a bit of D.C. can’t be taxed. You can’t collect property taxes for the Capitol, or the White House, or the Mall, or the Smithsonian museums. The second largest property owner in D.C., after the federal government, is George Washington University. GWU, of course, also does not pay taxes. I’m not sure who the third-largest property owner in D.C. is, but I would bet it’s the Catholic Church (Georgetown University + Catholic University of America). Also no taxes. Fourth is likely American University. And so on.

    The President doesn’t even pay D.C. income taxes; legally, he’s considered to be a resident of the state he comes from. Ditto Senators and Congressmen, and many of their staff members. They don’t even have to register their cars in D.C.

    And to top it all off, people in D.C. don’t even get a Congressman. Oh, sure, they get Eleanor Holmes Norton, who hangs around the Capitol all day, but she doesn’t get a vote. And this is what’s behind the license plate.

    Eleanor doesn’t get a vote because the GOP controls the Congress. Washington, being an overwhelmingly Black city with high unemployment, tends, as you’d imagine, to vote Democratic. (In 2000, George W. Bush got 9% of the vote in D.C.; Nader 5%; and Gore, 86%.) Giving a vote to D.C. would just be adding another Democratic vote to Congress, and the GOP don’t see why they should do that, particularly when they’ve got a Constitutional excuse not to. The first president that D.C. ever voted for was Johnson, in 1964. The District only has a government of its own (such as it is) at Congress’ pleasure. Should Congress decide tomorrow to dissolve the D.C. government, there’s nothing in the law to stop them.

    Anyway, D.C. doesn’t have any Congressmen because it’s not a state; and just about all of what the Constitution has to say about the workings of the government have to do with the states. States shall have such-and-so-many members of Congress. Nowhere does it say that D.C. should have any.

    This was intentional. Remember that in 1790, rivalry between states was high. The states wanted to make sure that Congress met on neutral territory, so no state would be able to claim that it was more important by virtue of being the home of the capital. And that neutral territory was the District of Columbia.

    Obviously, though, the system is breaking down now. Through the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th, parts of D.C. were still rural. There were farms in Washington. Countryside. And what urban areas there were did not require the level of service that is the norm today.

    Under the current definition of "city", Washington just doesn’t take in enough money to function properly, whether it’s being run by Marion Berry, Tony Williams, or an omniscient genie. And the reality of the viscious circle of taxation — combined with hostility from a Republican Congress — means that it’s not going to get any better.

    But I’ve got a solution! A solution that will make D.C. one of the most sought-after addresses in the world, that will solve the taxation-without-representation problem, and one that will be palatable to a Republican Congress.

    Eliminate the federal income tax for residents of Washington, D.C.

    The D.C. income and property taxes would no longer be a problem, since they would be much more than offset by the lack of federal tax.

    Every high-income person in the U.S. would immediately relocate their primary residence to Washington. The poor people in Anacostia, if they owned their property, could wait a few years until population pressure drove the prices up, sell their house (and the lot is sits on), and move somewhere else, no longer poor.

    Any poor people who managed to remain in D.C. would have access to a much better range of services from the city, which would now be flush with cash.

    And the capital city of the United States would no longer be a slum. Instead, with so many very rich people living in the city, it would be a center of culture, if not enlightenment. Wealth does not equal intelligence or culture, but rich people tend to give a lot of money to cultural institutions, and they persuade themselves that they like to do things like go to the opera or listen to classical music.

    All of this could be achieved simply, though market forces, with only a small cost to the government. (Rich people are not actually a decent source of revenue for the government, even though they pay a higher dollar amount in taxes than others. The real money comes from the vast middle class, which is why you’ll never see a meaningful middle-class tax cut.)

    There it is. Remember that you heard it here first, when George Will starts advocating this in a few weeks. Eliminate the federal income tax in D.C., and watch the city blossom.

    Posted by tino at 16:00 17.01.01

    The Second Amendment

    The Constitution is the supreme law of the United States.  Written in 1790 to codify the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers of the USA, a number of Amendments were immediately tacked on to satisfy various issues that were raised in Congress while debating the document.

    The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads as follows:

    A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

    That’s all it says.

    The popular argument these days is that the Second Amendment is a relic, an antique from the days when there was serious concern that the Crown would attempt to regain control of the U.S., and that "militia" is synonymous with "army reserve".   This is what the official government position generally holds to.

    Balderdash, on both counts.

    A "militia" is just what you think of when you hear the word, if you’re an American — a bunch of guys in the woods muttering about the government and polishing their guns.

    And remember that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written fourteen years after American independence — it’s got nothing to do with the Crown.

    The reference is not to "the security of the United States", but to "the security of a free state".  The Second Amendment provides for the people’s ability to overthrow three government should it become tyrannical.

    The Virginia Declaration of Rights reads, in part:

    […]government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community; of all the various modes and forms of government that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that, whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

    While the Virginia Declaration of Rights has no legal force outside Virginia, it’s instructive to remember that the people who set up the U.S. government were, largely, Virginians.  George Mason, who, more than any other single person, wrote the U.S. Constitution, also wrote the D. of R.  This helps to show the frame of mind in which they were operating when they wrote the Second Amendment.

    They did not see the government, or the state, of being necessarily worthy of preservation; rather, they valued the state of freedom that the government was set up to foster.

    Mind you, I am not suggesting that we overthrow the government on a regular basis (for "light and transient causes" as it says in the Declaration of Independence)!   But if there had been 100,000 armed citizens standing on East Capitol Street in December 2000, the Supreme Court might have rendered a more reasoned decision, rather that appointing George W. Bush president.

    A lot of people will accept the above argument, but still say that gun control is worthwhile, because:

    1. The armed forces of the United States are, collectively, the single greatest assemblage of brute power ever seen on the face of the Earth and so 100,000 rednecks with guns on the Capitol steps do not actually represent a threat; and
    2. Gun control is worthwhile anyway because a whole lot of people get killed in the U.S. because there are so many guns.

    I would answer by pointing out that it’s very rare, outside of certain towns, to see a soldier on duty in public in the USA.  Soldiers (the Department of Defense’s new word for them is "warfighter", but whatever) do not perform police duties in the United States, and I’ve never, ever seen one in public with anything more than a sidearm.  I think that Americans would react very negatively to the sight of soldiers on the streets.  Never mind that those soldiers are citizens too, and have their own political opinions.  Governments that use the army to put down popular rebellion often find themselves on the wrong end of their own army’s guns.

    And as for gun control saving lives or reducing crime, it just doesn’t wash.  Most of the highest-crime areas in the United States are also the areas with the strictest gun control laws.  It’s almost totally impossible to own or possess a gun in Washington, D.C., for instance, but Washington’s got one of the worst — if not the worst — crime rates in the country.

    I’ll admit that that’s a weak argument, though, because it’s likely that the more crime-ridden a place is, the more people are likely to want tough gun control laws.

    (For this to be effective, the would-be criminal has to respect the law banning guns.  Criminals, by definition, do not respect the law — which is why I don’t understand how gun control laws are supposed to accomplish anything.  Killing or injuring someone is illegal, whether you do it with a gun or with a pointed stick.)

    But if we compare the United States as a whole to Canada as a whole, we find some interesting figures.

    In 1999, there were 291,330 "violent crimes" in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.  The population of Canada in 2000 (I couldn’t find 1999) was 30,750,087.

    In 1999, there were 2,530,000 "violent crimes" in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.  The population of the United States in 1999 was 272,700,000, according to the Bureau of the Census.

    (I would have much preferred to use "gun-related crimes" here, but neither country categorizes crimes as such.  Suffice to say that these figures can be used as a barometer for the general level of violence in the two countries.)

    The statistics here are skewed slightly in Canada’s favor (i.e. toward less violence) because the population likely increased between 1999 and 2000.  They are skewed in favor of the United States because I have not eliminated the very young, who are seldom victims of violent crime, from the numbers.  The USA, having more people, will have more very young people.

    The only apparent difference between what’s considered "violent crime" in Canada and in the United States is that Canada explicitly considers attempted murder to be violent.  I imagine that the FBI sees things the same way, but nowhere do they spell this out.  It would only seem logical that if the police think that you were trying to kill someone, you were doing something violent.

    All that said, in 1999 there were 94.7 violent crimes per thousand people in Canada.  In the same year, there were 92.7 violent crimes per thousand people in the U.S., despite the fact that we’ve got more guns down here.  That’s right: contrary to public belief, Canada is actually (slightly) more violent than the United States.  Feel free to check the statistics and do the calculations yourself.  I was surprised, myself.

    (I provide links to the source of these statistics on another page.)

    That difference is so small as to be meaningless, though; it’s likely that it’s smaller than the error introduced by my using Canada 2000 population data, or that it’s nothing more than the difference between the definition of "violent crime" between the two countries.

    Which is my point. Statistically, there is no difference between the rates of violent crime in Canada and the United States. Despite the fact that Canada has much stricter gun control laws — to the point that you spouse or former spouse(s) have to sign your application for a gun license — than the USA (read a précis of Canadian gun laws here), the rates of violent crime are the same.

    This is because the gun control laws do not affect the criminals.  When Snake or Bluto or whatever villain you think of sets out on a crime spree, he does not ask himself whether the gun he’s carrying is legal or not; he doesn’t care.  He’s not going to have his spouse(s) sign the damned form.  He’s not going to take the safety class.   The whole point of the gun, to him, is that it isn’t safe — for the person on the other end of the barrel.

    Posted by tino at 15:00 17.01.01

    Natural Light in Offices

    My office recently moved due to overcrowding. My company rented the top two floors of a building across the street from our old building, and a few departments made the move.

    The building we’ve moved into is incomparably nicer than the old building (which, ironically, is newer than the new building). The old (i.e. new, i.e. the building I moved out of) building was built as multi-tenant space by a developer, and my company just came along and rented the whole thing. The intention, I suppose, was for insurance agents, small software developers, etc. to each rent a single suite on a single floor, sharing nothing but the elevators and the toilets.

    As a result, there is no cafeteria, no functional mailroom, etc.

    The new building — the one I moved into — was built as headquarters for a very large quasi-governmental financial service corporation. They’re now moving a lot (if not all) of their employees to Indiana or someplace like that, so they’ve got space to spare. The building, as I’ve pointed out, is a little older than the old (new —I promise to stop this, right now) one, but only by two years. The building I moved out of was first occupied in 1998, the building I moved into was first occupied in 1996.

    This building is equipped with a large heated parking garage, a gym and sauna, a sundries shop that actually sells soft pretzels, a cafeteria, lots of nice artwork on the walls, a very nice formal garden with ponds and a gazebo, etc., etc., etc. It’s got marble floors and fancy wood paneling in much of the public space. It is, in short, a fancy building, and much fancier than the old one. For a suburban office building, it’s very nice; it could even hold its own in a lot of urban settings.

    The design of it is obviously expensive. It is also incredibly hostile.

    About half of the old building consists of what we call technical space, which basically means computer rooms. Several floors consist of nothing but batteries, computers, routers, and air-conditioning equipment. Only three floors are given over to office space.

    On those three floors, there are precisely two hard-walled offices, on the top floor, in, strangely enough, the two least desirable corners. All the other partitioned offices in the building are constructed out of what amount to ceiling-high cube walls made out of translucent panels and with nice wood doors.

    Each office floor has two conference rooms (since commandeered as offices) with windows; the other conference rooms are arranged around the building core. Those rooms are grim, but nothing out of the ordinary.

    The walls of the cubes in the old building are about five feet tall, which is lower than the normal height. There is one row of cubes up against the windows (with no wall on the window side), and a double-row in the middle, one on each side of the building core.

    The result is that even if you’re sitting in an interior cube, you get at least a little bit of natural light.

    The new building has much larger floorplates than the old one, so the cubes can be arranged about five deep on each side of the core. Offices and conference rooms alike are placed around the core, or in rows just like the cubes.

    This is all rather abstract, so I’ll provide a few pictures. Here’s the overall floorplan:

    The curved thing at the front of the building (bottom of plan) is the balcony. Now, here’s a detail of part of the bottom left part of the floorplan:

    Note the large windows on the exterior wall. Some of these are doors, and all of them are glass from, effectively, floor to ceiling.

    What I’d like to point out is that the building’s design carefully sees to it that nobody gets any natural light. All of the sunlight falls on blank office or cube walls. Occupants of certain offices and cubes get intense, blinding light (the outside wall faces south) for about 30 minutes once a day, when the sun shines through their doorways (which are always perpendicular to the windows). Otherwise, everything’s done under the buzzing fluorescent lights, and everyone looks a little green.

    Here’s a photo taken at the point marked with a red arrow on the floor plan above:

    (I might also point out that outside the windows is a balcony that runs the length of the building — several hundred feet — that, of course, nobody is allowed on. I will not be covering that idiocy in this complaint, as it seems to me that this is related to insurance anxiety, rather than the architect’s lack of sense.)

    If you’re a close observer, you’ll have noted that there are a few rooms on the full floorplan that do have windows in them. This is correct. The rooms on the back of the building are what amount to LAN closets — the print servers etc. live there. And as for the rooms on the sides — look for yourself.

    The room at upper left, the one with a (locked) door to the balcony? "Shared Tech", which means it’s got a copier in it. Just below it are a couple of conference rooms. These rooms are actually quite pleasant, but they have a maximum occupancy of about three.

    The detail above is a bit larger because I want to call attention to the fact that there’s no fundamental difference between what the plan calls "office" and what it calls "file closet".

    I got to thinking about this today because of the power troubles they’re having in California. As I write this, the power is off in much of San Francisco because the utilities there cannot generate or buy enough power to meet demand. There are a lot of causes behind this crisis, but part of it is that California uses a lot of power, and, relatively speaking, it doesn’t generate very much. I wondered: How much less electricity would be needed if all the offices in California had adequate windows, and could do without electric lights?

    I have noticed that, in Europe, all the offices have big windows, and a lot of them actually open. That’s a huge generalization, and I’m sure that there are actually a lot of offices in Europe without windows, or with sealed windows — though in Germany the law requires that every office shall have a view of the sky. I have never had an office anywhere in Europe without at least one operable window, though, nor have I ever visited one. And I’ve worked in some pretty dodgy places.

    And you know what? In nearly all the offices I’ve worked in or visited in Europe — and this ranges from steel mills in little towns behind the Iron Curtain to the offices of multibillion-dollar operations in Paris, London, and Munch — people leave the lights off. I’ve even seen them do this in retail establishments. (I have to admit that I’ve only ever seen that in places like People’s Revolutionary Grocery Store #17 in towns in Eastern Europe, but the point is that at least it’s possible.)

    A kilowatt-hour is the energy required to run ten 100-Watt light bulbs for an hour (more or less). According to the U.K Electricity Association’s publication, International Electricity Prices (a fascinating read), electricity costs about twice as much in Europe as in the USA. The average price for a kWh of American electricity was 4.03p in 2000; in the U.K., it was 7.97p. Nearly all EU countries fall between 8p and 9p per kWh.

    So lighting an office with 100 22W fluorescent tubes for eight hours would cost £7.09 in the USA, and £14.02 in the U.K. (Add 50% for a quick conversion to U.S. dollars.) A lot of offices in the U.S. are left lit all night; apparently the cost of wiring them to be easily turned off and on and the insurance risk of having someone trip over something in the dark is greater than the cost of the power to leave them lit.

    But I don’t think that has anything to do with the lights being left off in Europe. The Europeans, as a people, are too fond of electric space heaters for me to think they can possibly give a damn what the electric bill is going to be.

    No, I think they leave the lights off because it’s nicer that way. There’s less eyestrain with natural light. There’s a sense of the passing of time as the light changes. People are quieter, for some strange reason, when the lights are off.

    And so I am personally offended when I encounter people-space where there appears to have been no consideration that people prefer to be in space with natural light.

    Never mind that we’ve been living with sunlight for thousands upon thousands upon thousands of years, but with electric light for about a century. Natural light is cheaper. Most of man’s petty, everyday inhumanity to man (like airplane seats or bad food in restaurants) is a direct result of fiscal economy. I’m willing to accept that, since the airline, cinema, restaurant, etc. is in business to make money. But when I see money being spent (and natural resources depleted) to make people more miserable, it just makes me see red.

    Posted by tino at 14:00 17.01.01
    Saturday 13 January 2001

    The U.S. Sugar Support Program

    Brach’s Confections, Inc. recently announced that they are shutting down their manufacturing plant on the West Side of Chicago.

    You will still be able to get your Starlite Mints, though — production is moving to Mexico.

    Of course, Brach’s factory in Chicago is old and inefficient. But what makes it not worth renovating is the federal sugar subsidy, which guarantees that any candy plant in the United States will be a money-loser.

    Let me back up a moment and explain the sugar subsidy.

    Since 1981, the U.S. Government has effectively set the price of sugar in the United States through a program of tariffs on imported sugar and non-recourse loans to growers of sugar cane and sugar beets.

    The intended result, as illustrated by the graph below, is to keep the price of sugar in the United States at roughly double the price everywhere else in the world. From 1991 through 1995, the average world price of raw cane sugar ranged between about 9 and 13 cents per pound. In the U.S. during the same period, the price ranged from 21.39 to 22.76 cents per pound. Since 1995, the world price of sugar has dropped, while it’s gone up in the United States:

    All of this would be well and good, under other circumstances: sugar is twice as expensive in the U.S. as it is everywhere else in the world, but it’s not so expensive that even Americans of the most modest means can’t bake cookies, have sugar in their coffee, etc.

    The problem is that the industrial users of sugar — Coca-Cola, Brach’s, Smuckers, etc. — just can’t compete at those prices. When the main ingredient in your product is sugar, and you’re forced to pay twice as much for that sugar, you stop using sugar.

    As a result, the rate of increase of consumption of sugar in the United States has slowed since the sugar-protection program was put in place.

    Coke, jam, jelly, and most low-end candy produced in the United States now contain not sugar, but a product called "high fructose corn syrup". As a result, sales of imported jam and candy have shot up, and we in the U.S. have to put up with Coca-Cola — one of our main contributions to world culture — that’s inferior to the Coke they drink in Moscow! How’s that for irony?

    And there’s where it all comes together, I think. The sugar price scheme is not a particularly costly one, as such programs go. It’s also not a particularly effective one, from the point of view of helping sugar farmers. The sugar industry has been harmed more than it’s been helped by this program.

    The real beneficiary of the sugar price control program is the Archer-Daniels Midland Company, who produce, among other things, corn syrup.

    Before the sugar program was in place, consumption rates of corn sweeteners roughly paralleled sugar. It was marginally cheaper, but not to an extent that made switching profitable.

    With artificially-high sugar prices, though, corn sweeteners are cheaper, even though they’re still more expensive than the world price for sugar. The average American now consumes more corn sweeteners than cane & beet sugar.

    The sugar growers say that ending the sugar support program would put them out of business. I say, fine! If it’s impossible to grow sugar profitably in the USA, then we should import it from other countries. The loss of jobs in the sugar-growing industry would be offset by the retention of higher-value jobs making candy and the like. Or the sugar workers could go apply for jobs at the restaurants and stores that are always apologizing for their appalling service by telling me that they’re understaffed.

    The current policy is absurd, though. It encourages growing sugar on marginal land, it costs all of us more money, and it keeps us from buying quality products. All, ultimately, to benefit one company, ADM.


  • Coalition for Sugar Reform
    a consortium of soft drink producers and the like. Quite a bit of good information on their website.
  • American Sugar Alliance
    The ASA is a consortium of sugar producers, and the CSR’s arch-foe. This link is to their press release page. Note that their press releases mainly complain about other countries’ sugar subsidies, and call for more U.S. subsidies.
  • Posted by tino at 15:29 13.01.01
    Tuesday 09 January 2001

    Rates of Representation

    With the release of figures from the 2000 census, the figures presented on the main campaign finance page have changed. Here is a summary:

    1990 2000 Change
    National Population 249,022,783 281,424,177 32,401,394
    Average representation 572,466 646,952 74,485

    Left out of this chart, because it’s so obvious, is the fact that the size of the House of Representatives stayed the same, even though the United States has over 32 million more people. Each member of the House of Representatives is now representing, on average, about 75,000 more people.

    Basically, what happens every ten years is that some states lose seats in Congress, and others gain them. This year, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin lost seats in Congress, even though they all gained in population.

    Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas gained those seats.

    Nevertheless, all of the states have worse rates of representation now than they did in 1990, even the states that gained seats this year. Here are some selected rates of representation, just for fun:

    Citizens per Representative 1990 Citizens per Representative 2000 Change
    Wyoming 495304 455975 +39329
    Montana 905316 803655 +101661
    North Dakota 643756 641364 +2392
    Mississippi 713231 517288 +195943

    Allow me to explain those figures a little bit. In Wyoming, there is now one representative for every 495,000 people — the best rate of representation in the United States. In Montana, there is one rep for every 905,000 people — the worst rate.

    North Dakota did the best this year; the North Dakota Congressman (there is only one) will now be representing only 2,400 more people than he did in 1990. But poor Mississippi — it really is poor, most of it — bears the brunt. Each Congressman there (there are four now, used to be five) will now start representing almost another 200,000 people.

    [back to main campaign finance rant]

    (I should point out that the population figures here are what the Census bureau calls "apportionment population", which is a bit different from what they consider to be the actual population of the United States. The figures on the other page are CIA estimates of the "population" — it’s not more precisely defined — as of mid-2000; the Census figures from 1 April in each year.)

    Posted by tino at 15:28 9.01.01
    Monday 08 January 2001

    Trunk Entrapment

    Pictured above is a trunk release handle on a 2001 Ford Taurus. The point is that people who are trapped in the car’s trunk can escape by pulling on the handle, which glows in the dark.

    If you think that’s insane, consider this: GM was at one point testing — I don’t know whether it ever actually went into production or not — a system that employed infrared sensors to detect a person’s presence in the trunk and to automatically open the lid if it thought someone was inside.

    According to this article, nineteen children — of course, the article only mentions children, since in this country adults are of little value compared to the kiddies — have died in the last ten years in car trunks.

    According to T.R.U.N.C. — the "Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition" — I swear, to paraphrase, or at least quote, Dave Barry, I am not making this up — "over" 1250 people have been "victims" of trunk entrapment, and over 300 people have died in the North America since 1970 due to trunk entrapment.

    That’s an average of about 42 entrapments a year.

    If we assume for a moment a constant population of 250,000,000 for North America for the last thirty years, we come up with annual odds of 1 in about 6,000,000 for being locked in a trunk (1 in about 25,000,000 for dying there).

    Just to put that into perspective, it’s about 21 times more likely that you’ll be struck by lightning than you are to be locked in a trunk. It’s ten times more likely that you’ll be killed by a lightning strike in any given year than that you’ll die as a result of trunk entrapment.

    In the United States, you are, however, slightly more likely to die trapped in a car trunk than you are to be killed by a tsunami. If you group earthquakes and tsunami into the same class of disaster, though, trunk entrapment moves back to second place.

    You are more likely to:

    • die in a crane accident
    • die as a result of a dog bite
    • die in a boating accident
    • die while jogging
    • be accidentally shot by a police officer
    • be executed by the state of Texas
    than you are to die as a result of trunk entrapment.

    To prevent this plague, the U.S. Department of Transportation will require that all cars sold in the United States after 1 September 2000 be equipped with internal trunk-release handles. God bless America.

    GM sell retrofit trunk-release handle kits for their older cars for $50 each.  If we assume that that cost can be cut in half by making millions of the things and by installing them during initial manufacture, fitting every car sold in the U.S. with a trunk release will cost about  $375 million a year, or $37,500,000 for every life saved.

    Now, I realize that $37.5 million would be a small cost to pay to not have your wife, husband, child, or parent — or yourself — die in a car trunk. I know that if someone said to me, "$37.5 mil or your life!", I’d certainly hand over the money, if I had it.

    I am mystified, though, that we find it necessary as a society to spend this kind of money on what I’m going to call "trunk death".  While those individual lives are undoubtedly worth a lot to the individuals involves, I suggest that spending $375 million to prevent 10 deaths a year is going after the seriously marginal cases.  For $375 million, we could save a lot more than ten lives — we just can’t save them in car trunks. Trunk entrapment links:

    Posted by tino at 15:22 8.01.01