Month: November 2003

How to outfox terrorists and other pursuers

You might try, they offer a two-day anti-terrorist driving school, which includes surveillance and 180-degree spins. You can even give your loved ones a gift certificate for the camp.

Why stop at driving? A three-day anti-terrorist camp in Arizona also teaches espionage and combat pistol techniques, for only $3800, try They offer a special course on Russian martial arts, promising “If you do spend time in a hotel, it won’t be a five-star.” You learn the “Systema” method of self-defense, enabling you to strike from virtually any position, dating from the Russian cossacks. Oddly, the course promises only two hours a day, I suppose you spend the rest of the time sunning yourself at the hotel pool. Their driving adventures include a course in Southern truck racing.

Many Hollywood movies, by the way, suggest that you overtake a car in pursuit by bumping it in the rear. Anti-terrorist driving instructors assure us this is the wrong way to go. Bump them from the back side, cause their car to spin around, and then pin them against a wall. Warning: do not try this on your own.

From this month’s issue of Popular Science. Oh, yes, if any of those anti-terrorist courses are beyond your means, consider a simple computer game for $50 or less, or perhaps the new John Woo movie, due out Christmas day, for $8.50 or so. That will be my pick of the lot.

Cadaveric vs Live Organ Donation

The basic point is simple – financial incentives for cadaveric donation of organs would save lives and would also reduce the demand for live donation, a costly and difficult procedure. (See my previous posts on this issue here and here). Tyler’s post obscures the basic point by introducing a debate about “a truly free market in organs” by which he means allowing payment for live donors. I won’t be drawn into that debate today, not because it isn’t an interesting issue, but because it is not germane to the issue of financial incentives for cadaveric donation. We should have the latter regardless of our position on the former. Note also that for obvious reasons live donation primarily affects kidneys only and doesn’t reach the issue of how to save the lives of transplant patients who needs hearts, lungs and other organs.

Is Alex an organ protectionist? Should he be?

In a recent post, Alex suggests that we should use market incentives to encourage organ donations from cadavers. I am all for this. But I also read Alex as suggesting that cadaver organs will form the bulk of the organ sales market, if such a market is allowed to develop. He is trying to present a relatively attractive picture of a market in organs, no fear of the desperate poor selling their organs for a pittance, and then squandering the windfall.

What about outsourcing, so to speak? If we had a truly free market in organs, I suspect that most organs would come from the living, and mostly from poor countries. The going rate for a kidney, for instance, runs between $1000 and $2000, which is probably cheaper than the incentives needed to garner many more kidneys from the dead in America. So if we wish to defend a trade in organs, we still need to face up to its less savory aspects, gains from trade or not, most people blanch at the idea of cutting live people open to pull out their kidneys. We can avoid this scenario if Alex is an organ protectionist, though I doubt that he is.

One more palatable option would involve harvesting kidneys from the poor dead, in poor countries. This is the best case scenario, as it would combine both free trade and harvesting from the dead rather than from the living. Needy patients get the kidneys, many lives are saved, but without cutting open desperate kidney sellers. But how easy is it to evaluate the quality of a kidney from abroad, much less ship the kidney from somewhere like India? Most likely, the cheapest way to ship kidneys is to put a living body, the kidney owner, on a plane. I could be wrong, indeed I hope I am wrong. But if I am right, perhaps there is at least some argument for organ protectionism. (Imagine the political rhetoric, “no more cheap kidneys from abroad!”. etc., Gephardt could mention this to kidney-selling states in the debates and get all the heads nodding.) If you, like I, believe that most poor organ sellers benefit little from their trades, it could be better to harvest organs from the American dead, than buying them from the living poor abroad.

The best new ideas in applied science

Read this feature article from Popular Science magazine, or just buy the December issue. My two favorite new products are the following:

1. Binoculars that repeat the last 30 seconds. Instant replay, right there in your hands, and only $600 from

2. Speakers that know how to listen. The speakers can measure what kind of sound they are producing in a particular room, and adjust their output accordingly to sound even better, they are called Beolab 5. This item costs a steeper $16,000, I will buy them when they start paying bloggers, from Bang-Olufsen.

Alex will be interested to hear about the new “Lifeport Kidney Transporter,” see, now FDA-approved, which makes it easier to move kidneys around the world, the device makes a soon-to-be transplanted kidney last for 17 more hours than previous technologies.

Hollywood Heavies

While Hollywood lobbies Congress for protection in the more gentile manner (see Tyler’s post today) the Teamsters have taken direct action. Axium International planned to hold a symposium in LA on the Canadian Tax Credit Incentive for film production. The Teamsters threatened to bring hundreds of supporters and 30-50 trucks to shut the hotel down where the symposium was to be held. Axium backed down, cancelled the lectures and wrote a craven letter to Arnie in Daily Variety – “please exert your utmost through the California legislature, the Governor’s office or the federal government to enact legislation ensuring that the entertainment production business remains, for now and ever, in California.”

Note that I have a bias on this issue – see the post below.

Movie IPOs

An investment firm is raising money to finance movie projects by letting film buffs buy a piece of Ethan Hawke, or at least a share in a project he’s involved with, and trade that as a stock.

This isn’t a pretend Internet stock exchange based on the rise and fall of Hollywood stars. Chicago-based brokerage Civilian Capital is letting investors buy actual shares in a film.

(More here.) Why not? You can own stock in the Green Bay Packers and bonds backed by the music of David Bowie. This is a method of generating buzz, a natural audience, and capital. Thanks for the link go to my brother Nic Tabarrok, a movie producer in Toronto. I once invested in one of his films. I lost money but a lot less than in Webvan – I’d do it again.

What Arnie wants for Hollywood

Privileges and protection, it would seem. Newsmax tells us the following:

Included in the Hollywood wish list is a bill now in a congressional conference committee that could provide about $250 million over five years in incentives for keeping small- and medium-budget productions in the United States.

Under an amendment, films would qualify for a tax deduction if half of the wages paid to actors, producers, directors and others are kept inside the United States.

According to a recent report, the U.S. economy has lost about $4 billion in economic benefits – about 25,000 jobs per year – since Canada began offering tax subsidies in 1998 to film production companies.

It is believed that Arnie can use his bully pulpit to help push the measure into law.

My take: If Canada wishes to subsidize Hollywood cultural exports, and then cry about the supposed decline of cultural diversity, let the production companies take the money and laugh all the way to the bank.

What is the hot Christmas toy this year?

Just click here to see it. It is called “Lunar Stunt Car.” I can’t for the life of me imagine what is special about it, though of course I am not the typical buyer in this market. It is already hard to get in stores, but of course they are not raising the price, creating yet another puzzle in price theory, in fact they are advertising that it is on sale.

My best guess: They keep the prices low to generate publicity, to drive a fad, and the artificial scarcity makes it an especially sought-after item. Furthermore it may generate trips to the toy store, leading parents to buy other toys, although whether these gains rebound to the Lunar Stunt Car manufacturer is unclear. That all being said, once the toy takes off, I still don’t see why they don’t raise the price to capture higher profits.

Joe Lieberman vs. Howard Dean

Score one for Lieberman, read Jacob Levy’s comparison of the two on economic policy. Dean recently called for the “re-regulation of business”, Lieberman countered with the following:

“Howard Dean doesn’t understand how Bill Clinton created 22 million jobs in 8 years. By responsibly deregulating markets, Bill Clinton allowed exporters to sell more American products to foreign markets and brought competition to existing monopolies.

“Howard Dean would usher in a new era of big government with his re-regulation proposal. He would give us a treacherous trifecta of policies that turn back the economic clock: new trade barriers, a larger tax burden on our middle class, and now bigger bureaucracy. Either he doesn’t know how to turn the economy around, or this is another reckless mistake.

“We need to toughen the integrity of our marketplace, put real enforcers in regulatory posts, and put wrongdoers in jail. We don’t need to cripple the economy with a whole new set of broad re-regulation as Howard Dean proposes.”

It is a shame that Lieberman has no chance within the Democratic party.

What is the fair use doctrine? offers this very brief and useful summary, thanks to for the pointer. This is the best simple statement I have seen of what “fair use” is all about. Note that the fair use doctrine will increase in importance, as companies put up tougher gates around their intellectual property. Bloggers must know about fair use as well, lest they quote too freely from copyrighted material and incur legal penalties.

For this economist, the courts aren’t nearly liberal enough in interpreting fair use. I think, for instance, that rappers should be able to sample songs without clearing copyright, at least provided they are doing more than simply copying large blocks of the song verbatim. Read Robert Christgau’s account of the famous Gilbert O’Sullivan case; O’Sullivan objected when rapper Biz Markie sampled his “Alone Again, Naturally,” a transformative use if I ever heard one. Will more sampling make rap better and cheaper? Yes. Will it diminish the supply of sample-ready material? Unlikely. So why not interpret fair use more liberally in this regard?

The new replacement for Google?

A news-gathering web site that tailors the stories selected to individual users is being tested by Microsoft. Once MSN Newsbot is fully functional, Microsoft says the site will personalise results within 10 minutes of a user starting to browse.

If successful, the site is likely to be a direct rival to the highly popular Google News, which clusters information from over 4000 news sources according to topics but does not customise results.

For the full story, read here.

How might such a service work? One possible algorithm follows the model, and compares the user to what previous like-minded users have been looking for. But if I could ask for one improvement, it would not be this. My searches are so wide-ranging, so strange, and so eclectic, I am perhaps immodest enough to think I have few useful doppelgaenger [“doubles,” roughly, from the German] in this regard. I would prefer the ability to type in questions, often of a conceptual or abstract nature, and receive a ranking of relevant web sites. In short, a better version of would be most likely to draw my loyalties away from google.

Are web tunes profitable?

Apple Computer has been selling songs for 99 cents apiece through its new iPod technology, Napster is selling music at the same price. But will anyone make money?

The November 19 Wall Street Journal, “With the Web Shaking Up Music, A Free-for-All in Online Songs,” suggests maybe not. It is estimated that for each song, 65 to 79 cents must be paid in wholesale costs to music companies and various intermediaries. Then add credit card processing fees, bandwidth charges, and customer service costs. Not much is left over in terms of profit.

Apple hopes to make back the money by selling iPod players, Steve Jobs admitted as such publicly. But what will happen once competitors copy iPod, pushing down its price? Many of Apple’s rivals hope to make money, not on individual songs, but rather by selling music subscriptions. The subscriptions, however, typically let consumers hear the songs but not own or transfer them, a model which has yet to prove popular. It is hard to ignore that shares of Roxio, the company that owns Napster, have lost half their value in the last month or so.

Wal-Mart plans to enter the business, it will sell songs and hope to draw listeners to its web-site, where they can view and buy offerings of electronic goods.

My conclusion: None of these ideas is a proven winner. I still expect free file-sharing, whether legal or not, to serve as the industry norm.

Addendum: Winterspeak offers some interesting observations on the market.

Sleazeball lawyer in a low-cut dress

I am speaking of Erin Brockovich. Sure, I liked the movie but the true story on which it was based was a lie. There was no cancer cluster in Hinkley, no scientific theory of harm, no coverup at the water office (see here for links). Having had one success in Hollywood, Brockovich is now after another this time by fanning hysteria that the kids at Beverly Hills High School (yes, 90210) are getting cancer from a nearby oil well. I smell a movie in the works.