Category Archives: News

IN THE NEWS: Red Hook’s Maraschino Cherry Factory

redhook-cherries-doorAt some point, years ago, we learned that the largest maraschino cherry factory in the US was located in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Always interested in factory tours and local food (this last said with a grin), and often in the neighborhood for bike rides and social events, we searched out the place, hoping to get a look at all the bright red cherries.

But a phone, Google Maps and a search turned up nothing but a plain brick building without identifying markings. We talked about knocking and seeing if we could get an informal tour, Red Hook seems friendly that way, but didn’t. The factory just didn’t feel open in that way.

red-honey-from-beesSome time later, apparently 2010, Dell’s Maraschino Cherry factory was again in the news. Beekeepers in Red Hook found that their bees were making a red concoction rather than their natural honey. The source of the red? The dyed corn syrup in which the cherries are marinated as part of their processing.

Unsurprisingly, bees like sweets! Arthur Mondella, who owned Dell’s (and whose family started the company in the 20s), agreed to take measures to contain his sweet detritus and prevent the bees from getting to it.

A funny story, it seemed, with a happy resolution, until earlier this week, nearly five years later, investigators from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, showed up at the Dell’s factory with a search warrant for documents relating to charges that the company was dumping in the local waters.

Some dicey constructions, the smell of marijuana, and another search warrant led to a surprising discovery and a cascading tragedy you can read about here.

Teju Cole, about liberte’ and Charlie Hebdo

Screenshot 2015-01-11 10.50.43One of the challenges when thinking about this week’s terror in Paris was that much of the work of Charlie Hebdo was offensive, not in the least likable or defensible on anything but the broadest grounds.

Another, as Teju Cole points out in the New Yorker, is the asymmetry between our hand-wringing about this assault on our liberty, and our indifference or silence about the actions of our governments taken in our names. He writes:

“Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen. The U.S., for example, has consolidated its traditional monopoly on extreme violence, and, in the era of big data, has also hoarded information about its deployment of that violence. There are harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly. The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.”

There is a little bit too much in Cole’s piece of the This-was-a-horrible-event-but sort of rhetoric, but he rightly shines a light on our preference for short-term reactions to events that present themselves as personal rather than engage in the formidable struggle to change the behaviors of governments. Of course he also scolds rather than point to an effective action to take.

But maybe there really isn’t a different course, an effective action, at least not until enough of us are suitably maddened about the way our governments make us complicit in their abominable actions in defense of our so-called liberties.


LINK: It’s Election Day and Someone is Writing About Nate Silver!

We all love predictions, and Nate Silver has proven himself adept at making them, so it’s understandable attention turns his way on Election Day.

bayesWhat is also clear is that we have a hard time understanding the nature of a prediction, which is why Silver not only says what he thinks is going to happen but also offers the odds that he’ll be wrong. To determine these odds Silver turns to Bayes’ Theorum and the more modern Bayesians, who have developed a way to measure uncertainty in a prediction based on the work of the English statistician and minister, Thomas Bayes (pictured).

This truth in packaging is what makes even Silver’s miscalls informational.

The mathematician Jordan Ellenburg takes a look at how many of Silver’s predictions will be wrong today in Slate, if Silver’s self-claimed odds of being wrong are correct. It won’t spoil the fun of reading the piece for me to tell you that Silver should be wrong about 2.5 senate races.

Krugman on Amazon: Wrong.

Paul Krugman argues that Amazon has too much power and is abusing it, and that abuse hurts America and Americans. He’s referring to Amazon’s battle with Hachette, which has been written about almost everywhere since it came to light last summer.

Amazon is not working hard to sell most of Hachette’s physical books because it wants Hachette to change the terms by which it sells its ebooks to Amazon. Krugman argues that Amazon is a monopsonist, a player with enough market power to drive prices down, and that this is a bad thing.

Book authors, my wife included, have protested that Amazon is using their well being as a negotiating tool against Hachette, undermining the business model that pays the writers who create the books.

Consumers can’t buy books that aren’t available, and books that aren’t available at Amazon are harder to buy, but it seems to me hard to argue that Amazon is hurting consumers by making it harder to buy books that are available elsewhere. And while their fight may be hurting writers in the short run, Amazon certainly isn’t arguing for a future without authors and books.

Krugman says Amazon has too much power, but he can’t say lower prices hurt consumers, so he makes an odder argument: “Book sales depend crucially on buzz and word of mouth (which is why authors are often sent on grueling book tours); you buy a book because you’ve heard about it, because other people are reading it, because it’s a topic of conversation, because it’s made the best-seller list. And what Amazon possesses is the power to kill the buzz. It’s definitely possible, with some extra effort, to buy a book you’ve heard about even if Amazon doesn’t carry it — but if Amazon doesn’t carry that book, you’re much less likely to hear about it in the first place.”

Is that true? Certainly the Today show or any other media outlet isn’t going to not book an author with an interesting book out because of the Amazon Hachette dispute. And the reason publishers send authors on those grueling tours is to promote sales in actual book stores, where the authors read and sign their books. Amazon doesn’t have that relationship with readers.

What it does have is enormous market power, lower prices, and an ability to do an end run around the interests of publishers. And that’s what this dispute is about. Amazon would like to crush the publishers, who to its mind add little value to a process that could be made much more efficient. And it would like to do that now, while it has a dominant position in book sales, since Amazon knows that competition from Apple, Google and Microsoft (with Barnes and Noble) is going to inevitably lead to a collapse in digital book prices.

By getting there first, Amazon will keep those big wolves away from its chicken coop.

Krugman seems to think that the publishers need protection from Amazon, as if they weren’t themselves each part of giant conglomerates, each with its own massive power center. Oddly, he doesn’t really say what he thinks should happen.

What should happen is nothing. If Amazon wants to mess with its relationships with its customers, by not selling them the books they want, so be it. Customers will go elsewhere. 

In the meantime, Amazon is arguing that ebooks should cost much less than printed books because the incremental costs of each copy is much lower for the ebook. Hachette is arguing that if the cost of an ebook goes much lower sales of printed books will decline. This is important because Hachette knows that once ebooks dominate sales, its role in the book production chain will be undermined.

The move to ebooks would seem to be inevitable, eventually, and so Hachette is trying to slow its own march to oblivion. While Amazon knows that once ebooks dominate sales, the ecosystem of readers and online sales will be the one thing that differentiates it from the competition.

Which is why the knives are out. Let them play.

UPDATE: I found this Matthew Yglesias story from Vox after I wrote the above. He more elegantly makes many of the same points, and others that are also important. His points about the ability of publishers to promote books and the nature of the book advance are dead on.



Ezra Klein is Pessimistic about global warming.

There is an article at Vox by Ezra Klein that is well worth reading.

He has seven reasons why America will fail at global warming. If you don’t want to read this, he also has a brief video “conversation” with Te-Nehisi Coates at the top of the page in which he summarizes the points he makes in more detail in the article.

Klein’s argument is pretty straightforward. We’re too late getting started fixing the climate (if it is fixable), and our political processes do a poor job of taking on a problem that requires long-term sacrifices for less-than-immediate gains.

He does a good job, too, of showing how the Republican position on putting a price on carbon has changed radically since John McCain ran for president (and lost). McCain supported it. He also writes about why we can’t expect to engineer our way out of the problem scientifically.

All of this is pretty depressing, but he also does a good job of covering his butt at the end, saying he is pessimistic but not fatalistic. He hopes a solution will emerge.

As I watched him talk with Coates in the video I realized that while Klein was limning the depths of the coming disaster, he was also painting this as an obvious problem for America. But as this map shows, while the US may produce a disproportionate percentage of the world’s carbon emissions, we also have one of the biggest cushions for absorbing climate change. It isn’t really our problem yet, unless we look further into the future.  (click to enlarge)

Screenshot 2014-09-23 09.39.36Klein quotes Matt Yglesias on this: “Very few of us are subsistence farmers. Relatively few of us live in river deltas, flood plains, or small islands. We are rich enough to be able to feasibly undertake massive engineering projects to safeguard our at-risk population centers. And the country is sufficiently large and sparsely populated that people can move around in response to climate shocks.”

So, the question becomes, how do we convince Americans to make significant changes and sacrifices when the short term threat level isn’t nearly as dire as the long term threat?

Marching felt great, we should do more of that, but we need to keep talking broadly about how the system works and why it isn’t really designed to answer this question. Maybe, I worry, we’re not designed to answer questions like this one as a species, but I’m not pessimistic. I’m pretty sure that we will hammer on this problem, as other ones, with increasing urgency. And while we talk about it and argue about it and elect public officials who recognize the problems, we’ll make progress.

Will it be enough, soon enough? I hope so.

Arthur T. Makes a Deal With Arthur S.

I wrote about the warring DeMoula cousins a couple of weeks ago. They’ve come to a settlement, finally, after two months of worker actions that essentially destroyed the Market Basket supermarkets’ business.

Arthur S., the worker hating bond salesman who wanted to suck every last penny from the company, will be paid a lot of money to give control to Arthur T., the progressive grocery man who thinks a good business values its employees and contributes to the quality of the communities in which it does business.

He’s taking on a lot of debt, but if the energy of those workers and the supervisors who supported them during the recent job actions can be applied to rebuilding stores with fantastic shopping experiences, anything is possible.

LINK: A Database Tracking Incidents of Deadly Police Use of Force

“The nation’s leading law enforcement agency [FBI] collects vast amounts of information on crime nationwide, but missing from this clearinghouse are statistics on where, how often, and under what circumstances police use deadly force. In fact, no one anywhere comprehensively tracks the most significant act police can do in the line of duty: take a life,” according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal in its series Deadly Force (Nov. 28, 2011).

D. Bryan Burghart is an editor of the Reno News and Review. Confronted with this information gap, one has come to believe is intentionally maintained by the FBI and police forces across the country, he has set up a crowd-sourced database project to collect basic information about every incident of the use of deadly police force.

Progress relies on FOIA requests and research provided by volunteers. We can all help with this important project.