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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Lazy social scientist trick: pick three conceptual terms from your paper, put them after a colon, and you have a title. It works for courses as well as it does for papers. Environment, Economy, & Culture. Race, Politics, & the 21st Century. Science, Technology, & Magic. Ad nauseum.

A fun game I like to play is to ask a group who can think of something that there isn’t a word for first. My favorite example of something there isn’t a word for is that phenomenon where you are approaching a locked car and the driver unlocks the door at the immediate moment that the passenger is pulling on the handle. On many cars, this results in the passenger door staying locked while the driver door opens easily.

This all has a point, I promise… and that point is:

Is there a term for works of art that are taken by audiences to endorse actions, depicted in that art, which the artist probably has very ambivalent feelings about? Some examples:

  • drug use in Requiem for a Dream or Trainspotting–these films obviously depict drug use, and heroin specifically, as being pretty much terrible. But don’t we all know that person who would see that and think, whoah, that’s hardcore, I gotta try that?
  • narcissism in The Social Network–a central theme of David Fincher’s film on Mark Zuckerberg is the question of whether Zuck’s narcissism is extricable from his genius. And yet–don’t you think a generation of geeky kids saw Zuck’s rise to fame as confirmation of their own superiority, without noticing the shadow of his, well, moral and personal emptiness?

There are lots of other examples. In any case, slacker wunderkind turned trash-pop auteur Harmony Korine is certainly on his way to mastering this genre. Korine rose to fame in 1995 after writing the harrowing Kids, which gained notoriety for showing kids, well, basically doing everything they shouldn’t be doing.

Spring Breakers‘ basic premise is much the same. On first glance, some might class the film with movies like Project X, what might generally be called a “party glorification.”

What I mainly want to talk about, however, is the gender and power dynamic depicted in the movie. When the film begins, the girls lack agency or control of their situation. Despite saving up for months, they don’t have enough money to go on spring break. They’re stuck at the empty school, wishing they were elsewhere. From that point on, the girls take control of their situation with starkly transgressive means, starting with robbing a Chicken Shack.

Spot the pattern in these instances where the girls “exercise power”:

  • While robbing the Chicken Shack: “Get down on your knees, bitch!”
  • Seducing Alien (James Franco) then pulling guns on him and shoving the pistol barrels into his mouth
  • In a strip club, they take the money Alien gives them and make (female) strippers work for it, then shove the money into the women’s g-strings
  • Trying to convince Alien to go on a revenge mission: “What are you, a little bitch? Are you a pussy?”

Now, these are cherry-picked, but the trend is that the girls generally express “power” in the terms of traditional masculine dominance. Femininity is coterminous with weakness and identified with subservience, particularly sexual subservience. The girls state that they go on spring break not just to have fun but to “find themselves.” Given freedom and agency for the first time, they are–in some ways–constrained by their past experiences, which we can infer occur in a world of traditional male dominance. Knowing no other formula for expressing agency other than masculinized violence means that is how they inevitably do so. Control over self seems to be related to control over others.

More to come.

For a while now I’ve been trying to think, in my head, about what sort of planning economics paper a Very Serious Person would write about apparition (Harry Potter, magic)/ teleportation (Star Trek, science!).

For the purposes of this thought experiment, here are the rules of apparition/teleportation:

  • Apparition entails disappearing from one spot and simultaneous or near-simultaneous reappearance in some other spot, however distant
  • You can only apparate to a place you have previously visited and are able to visualize intensely.
  • You can bring someone with you if they hold onto your arm.
  • You can “splinch”–leave some body parts behind–if you do not concentrate sufficiently on your destination.

What’s unclear? Plenty.

  • How common are serious splinching accidents?
  • How far can a chain of people extend before it is not possible for one apparator to pull all of them along? In order to follow an apparator, must one be in physical contact with the apparator, or is it sufficient to be in physical contact with someone who is in direct physical contact with the apparator (a “chain”)? If a “chain” is possible, how long can the chain be?
  • Can only people “follow” an apparator? It seems clear an individual can apparate with a backpack or purse, but what about something substantially larger?

Discrepancies between apparition and teleportation:

  • As far as I know, teleportation is initiated by a machine, which must be the exit-terminus of the trip. This is fairly constrictive compared to apparition, which is initiated by the individual and not restrictive in terms of destinations (except as regards the apparator’s prior experience and ability to concentrate when apparating).
  • Because of this restriction, teleportation (as envisioned in Star Trek) actually does not offer free and unrestricted travel. It seems likely that teleportation equipment, if it were introduced into our world, would be the property of a very large multinational corporation, which would seek enormous rents from its use. Already then teleportation is not free. In addition, because teleportation is initiated not by the user but by a controller–Kirk can’t beam himself up, he has to ask, “Beam me up, Scotty”–teleportation would likely be highly regulated, especially for international travel. (It is easy to imagine a black market then emerging, and countermeasures taken, ad infinitum.)

The purpose of this post is to predict how our world would change if apparition or teleportation became possible tomorrow.

  1. It seems reasonable to suppose that commercial passenger air traffic would cease or decrease by at least 90%, eliminating businesses overnight but also considerably reducing humankind’s environmental footprint. In the apparition case, it would seem that individuals would still need to fly if they have never been to their destination. However, I believe that “travel agents” would quickly take care of that by offering to ferry individuals to novel destinations. Since there are no costs to travel, they would be able to sell their knowledge of a destination, apparate with a follower, then quickly return to their home base. Teleportation, however, would probably require a fee–probably less than a flight, though we don’t know much about the energy it takes to teleport one person.
  2. Heck, why stop at air traffic–families would likely still need a car, but probably not much more. Cars would still be necessary for shopping–you might be able to do groceries by apparition (remember, it’s basically costless, so even if you bought more than you could carry, you could apparate to your kitchen, drop off three bags, apparate back and grab three more)–but you certainly couldn’t buy a new TV, for example, without physically transporting it back to your home.
  3. What would happen to land use? On one hand, work and play could now be entirely divorced, as there wouldn’t be nearly as much reason for you to live in the same city that you work in. (It’s like telecommuting on steroids.) If you could live in one place and work somewhere else entirely, would you? Hint: I think most people would. I think what would happen is that population density would become very extreme: as commutes become less important, we would see a quick abandonment of the suburban project. Why live in a tract home when you can have a nice ranch in the country? A higher number of people would live in rural areas, but dispersed rather than clumped. Cities would continue to exist and even grow, because there are still activities that require physical proximity–industry, shipping, manufacture–and because of the positive externalities that already power the urban advantage.
  4. Land values would get really weird. Because transportation costs would be so low, the rich would be even more likely than they are now to invest in multiple homes. Today some people think about having a mountain home in North Carolina and a beach home in Florida, but they might be deterred by the prospect of the 10+-hr drive from Miami to Asheville. That deterrent would no longer be relevant in the apparition scenario. I believe the premium would cease to be based on proximity and become, basically, about environment. There is plenty of beautiful rural real estate, in the West especially, that is currently unoccupied because it is not near anything. If people start looking merely for a pleasant place to live, that real estate could get snapped up quickly.
  5. For similar reasons, I fear that we’d see flight of many corporations to pastoral locations that their employees might prefer to the cramped quarters of the city.
  6. The downside of this may sound silly, but I think a huge limiting factor to both commercial and residential flight would actually be infrastructure. I’ve already said roads would be less important, but they wouldn’t be zero, because many companies make things that have to be transported by other means (it is possible that teleporters can transport inorganic materials, but as that’s unconfirmed I won’t go there). Moreover, you have to deal with waste, both human refuse and trash. Perhaps you would see a shift towards in-unit microsystems, such as micropower and on-site waste repurposing. Or maybe individuals would be held responsible for their trash: you have a bin at work, which you take home and consolidate with your home trash, which you can then teleport with to a waste collection point.

I’m not done with this. But just want to show you what sorts of things a man can think about when he’s bored stiff.

 

I still don’t have a job–by which I mean no one pays me to show up somewhere every day and do the same task over and over again. I do have a purpose. That’s different.

But since no corporations or companies or nonprofits have decided to take a risk and believe in me, I’ve had to believe in myself more than ever. In fact, I’m taking a chance on myself.

Last night I had the pleasure of presenting bakin at the Local Food Lab Venture Fair at the d.school at Stanford University. For three and a half hours I was on my feet telling fellow foodies (and potential investors) about bakin, the startup idea I’ve conceived with Neal Mirchandani. It was an exhilarating, affirming experience that convinced me this is an idea worth sharing. I’ve condensed the pitch below, partially as a way of explaining what our idea is and partially as a practice exercise for myself. I hope you enjoy. If you have any ideas or questions, feel free to reach out–we’re particularly interested in hearing from potential chefs and customers as well as people with investment ties.

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Are you familiar with the Cottage Food Act? Probably not. It was passed in January 2013, just three months ago, and allows individuals make certain foods in their home kitchens and then sell them for profit. These individuals can be artisans looking for a stepping-stone to owning their own restaurant, or the neighborhood mom with a great brownie recipe who just wants to supplement her income.

bakin is poised to become the one-stop shop for consumers and producers of cottage foods. We view this legislation, combined with our platform, as the stepping-stone to a much better world: one with no bad cookies. Our slogan is that every pie can be homemade, & every cookie too.

Before we get to delivering those homemade goods from our online marketplace, however, we’ve got to have chefs and artisans ready to make them. We are going to capture that segment of the market by streamlining the entire process of permitting, insuring, publicizing, and selling as a cottage food operator. We’re currently hearing that the permitting process can be a headache for new entrants to the field, so we’re going to automate that process for them. By embedding ourselves in the system and becoming experts, we can make permitting much easier. (Think legalzoom but for a niche audience.)

Now, a typical artisanal storefront (like Etsy) consists of items the artisan has already produced. That’s inefficient–there’s really poor signaling, because the artisan actually knows very little about whether anyone likes the item, much less wants to buy it. We remove that inefficiency by flipping the model. Where a traditional storefront is supply-driven, we’re demand-driven: the process will typically start with the consumer. This is a huge innovation. Because a consumer posts a request, there’s perfect signaling and we achieve allocative efficiency (only the goods that are being demanded are being produced).

In practice, here’s how it works. Let’s say Margot is our theoretical customer. She’s a young professional who loves to go to Thursday potlucks with her friends. While she normally loves to bake for these occasions, she will be traveling this week and only just make it to the potluck in time.

In today’s world, what does Margot do? She will have to go buy week-old cookies at Safeway that are jammed with food dyes and taste like nothing. That’s not the most efficient solution–we’re convinced that we can offer a world with no bad cookies. There are far too many awesome chefs out there for this to go on.

In our world, Margot posts an open request, which is visible to all chefs on bakin’s online ecosystem. (We’ll also offer closed requests, which would be sent specifically to one chef for approval or rejection.) You can even imagine that if she posts a pastry request–say, cupcakes–that pastry chefs could be signed up to receive text or email alerts.

The interested chefs then post bids which detail how they propose to fill the customer’s request. This injects competition and choice into the marketplace, which ensures customer satisfaction and leads to productive efficiency, which means things are getting produced at the lowest possible price. That’s awesome! In our hypothetical, we can imagine that Margot receives the following two bids:

  • From Bernadette: I can make 25 dark chocolate mocha chip cupcakes for $22.00. Organic? No. Gluten Free? No. Delivery Included? Yes. 340 degree community feedback temperature.
  • From Theo: I can make 25 red velvet organic cupcakes with cream cheese frosting for $20.00. Organic? Yes. Gluten Free? No. Delivery included? No. 450 degree community feedback temperature.

Based on Margot’s individual situation and preferences, she can choose between these options (and hopefully many more). The more bids we can get, the more choices Margot has and the more likely we’re going to be to being able to approximate her needs. In this case, maybe she knows her host loves red velvet, so she selects Theo’s option. But maybe it’s price that matters for her, or delivery. Our ecosystem allows for flexibility, which isn’t incorporated into any other artisanal storefronts.

The analogues for our business model are in the crowdsourcing space, with businesses like Lyft. Like Lyft, we offer on-demand satisfaction to the customer. We also lower the barriers to doing business as a chef and allow costless entry and exit–chefs do business at their leisure on bakin. Lyft has been enormously successful with a similar model, but for taxi service. They lower the barriers to entry, allow entry and exit, and use the consumer’s needs as a point of departure. The success of Lyft and similar businesses like taskrabbit are the augury of good things for bakin.

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Check out my handmade business cards, which I think are really cool, here: bakin business cards

 

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