Restaurant Closing Time

Sometimes, notwithstanding our wishes and hopes, we just can’t change or escape the basic laws of economics.  California restaurants are learning this lesson — one that so many other businesses have learned in so many other settings for so many years.

A number of California communities, including San Francisco, have decided that they should legislate substantial increases to the minimum wage, so that the minimum wage will reach $15 — a number that was picked not through the guidance of the invisible hand of supply and demand, but because it sounds goods when politicians promise it.  Basic laws of economics will tell you that if you increase the costs for a business, the business has only a few options:  either absorb the increase by cutting costs in other areas (or accepting lower profits), or increase their prices to make up for the extra costs, or recognize that you just can’t make the economics of the business work and close your doors.  In California, a number of restaurants have decided that the latter route is the only viable option.

o-restaurant-worker-facebookIn the Bay Area, at least 60 restaurants have closed since September, and as a result a number of line cooks, car valets, dishwashers, table bussers, and waiters — the people who were supposed to be helped by the $15 minimum wage initiatives, incidentally — have lost their jobs.  These results in the San Francisco area, where wages for starting workers are higher than in less affluent parts of the state, are leaving some Californians who aren’t living in economic dreamland wondering what the effects will be when a statewide minimum wage takes effect and inland areas, which already have higher unemployment numbers and where starting pay is correspondingly lower, are affected.

This restaurant closing effect shouldn’t be a surprise.  Many restaurants run on very thin margins as it is, trying to find that magic balance between quality food and reasonable prices and cool ambiance that diners are looking for.  They don’t have big profit margins that can simply absorb higher wages.  If minimum-wage legislation substantially increases their costs, most restaurants just don’t have the option of jacking up their prices because they know they are going to lose their more cost-sensitive patrons.  And there really aren’t many other areas in which restaurants can make up for increased labor costs.  Tinker with the quality of the food, or the ingredients, or the portion size, and you’ll likely end up losing your more discriminating patrons — and many restauranteurs who are passionate about food probably wouldn’t want to change how they prepare dishes, anyway.  So the logical option, unfortunately, is closing.

In short, the five-star joints, where there is less price sensitivity and where the wages may already be higher, will survive, but many of the more basic restaurants will struggle and close.  The cause-and-effect relationship is so predictable that a recent academic study found that every $1 hike in the minimum wage brings a 14 percent increase in the likelihood that a 3.5-star restaurant on Yelp! will close its doors.

The people who are advocating for large increases in the minimum wage no doubt are well-intentioned, but their efforts ultimately are misguided because you simply cannot ignore, or legislate away, the laws of economics.   How many times do we have to see this play before people start getting the plot?

Learning To Speak Chatbotese

So, two chatbots were learning to negotiate and were talking to each other.

(This sounds like the first line of a bad joke, doesn’t it?  And for those of you, like me, who aren’t exactly sure what “chatbots” are, they are computer programs designed to engage in simulated conversations with human beings, such as over the internet.  I think they also can be called “dialog agents.”)

Anyway, researchers at the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research Lab were using “machine learning” to train these two chatbots to negotiate and deal with each other, through talking or engaging in “simulated conversations,” or whatever.

70720-the-terminator-endo-skeleton(“Machine learning,” for those of you who are clueless about it like me, is an artificial intelligence model in which computer behavior isn’t tied to specific, fixed programming.  Instead, it involves the use of analytical algorithms that allow computers to review and “learn” from data, with the computer programming changing as new data is assimilated, thereby hopefully allowing the computers to identify new insights or patterns in the data they are reviewing.  Got it?  Well, I’m not sure I really do, either, but at least I didn’t use the word “iterative” in describing it.)

So, anyway, the researchers were observing these two chatbots that were using machine learning to develop their negotiation abilities when the researchers noticed something odd:  the two chatbots had stopped using human language and started to use a language of their own.   And they also quickly picked up on standard techniques that allowed them to become pretty effective negotiators.

Interesting, isn’t it, that computers using techniques that allowed them to follow their own leads ended up realizing that human language wasn’t the most efficient way to proceed, and decided to  develop their own form of communication?  And, in so doing, they scratched off another of the former dividing lines that are supposed to differentiate humans from everything else — the ability to develop language.  It would be fascinating to know what the chatbot language was like.  What were the words used?  Did it involve any adverbs?

We’re on the far technology frontiers these days, where we’re inching closer to true artificial intelligence and computers that think for themselves and, presumably, will start to factor their own interests into what they are doing.  You can think of the Terminator movies, or 2001, or The Matrix, or any of a slew of sci-fi novels where computers go rogue and target humanity — or you can hope that computers will just be happy to acquire some form of self-awareness, without using their remorseless computer logic to judge the imperfect humans that created them and find them wanting.

Maybe the chatbots invented a word for that.

At The Bottom Of The Lottery Barrel

Here’s a telling indicator of just how bad Illinois’ financial situation is:  the Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries have kicked Illinois out of the games because the state legislature has been unable to agree on a balanced budget.

You read that right.  The Land of Lincoln is such a financial basket case that even the big lotteries won’t have anything to do with the state.  Apparently the lotteries have been talking about pulling the plug on Illinois for years, and they’ve finally decided to do it.

310-million-powerball-ticket-sold-at-mich-gas-station

It’s a significant step on the lotteries’ part, because Illinois reported $99.4 million in Mega Millions sales and $208 million in Powerball sales within the 2016 budget year.  And the loss of the lotteries will be an issue for Illinois from a budget standpoint, too, because 40 percent of the sales revenue goes to fund public schools — and how is the cash-strapped state going to make up the difference?

A spokesman for the Multi-State Lottery Association, which runs the games, said the group “is focused on protecting the integrity of its games and the experience of its players.”

What does that mean, exactly?  It’s kind of weird for the lotteries, which make their money solely by selling tickets to credulous rubes who don’t know or don’t care that the odds of winning are astronomical, to be talking about the “integrity” of their games.  Are they saying they’re afraid that Illinois, in its desperate search for cash, might try to tinker with the games to jury-rig the results, or seize the proceeds if the winner happens to live in Illinois, or decline to hand over the sales revenues?

It’s not entirely clear, but we do know this:  You know you’re really in deep doo-doo when gamblers think you’re too tainted to deal with.   Even the gamblers aren’t willing to gamble on dealing with Illinois.

When Not Even Early-Morning Baseball Practice Is Safe

Yesterday members of the Republican congressional baseball team met early in the morning for a practice session in advance of an upcoming game against a team of Democrats.  The annual game, which gets played in the stadium where the Nationals play and typically produces lots of money for charity, is one of the handful of remaining vestiges of civility and across-the-aisle cooperation that can still be found in our increasingly polarized national politics.

2017-06-14t131000z1lynxmped5d12artroptp4virginia-shootingBut the world being what it is these days, even an early-morning baseball practice is no longer safe.  A heavily armed gunman, who has been identified as James Hodgkinson, showed up and began firing — apparently with the intention of killing Republicans.  He shot  Congressman Steve Scalise, who remains in critical condition, and others as well before engaging in a firefight with authorities and sustaining fatal injuries.  In view of the fact that the gunman got off dozens of rounds, and the players practicing on the field were described as “sitting ducks,” it’s almost miraculous that more people weren’t killed or seriously injured.  Those who were present say that the heroism and prompt actions of police saved many lives.

The shooter is described as a Bernie Sanders supporter who hated Republicans — but in reality you could just call him a nut, based on what he’s written and posted to social media.  Senator Sanders immediately disavowed what the shooter did, because of course Sanders’ political positions don’t call for his supporters to engage in murderous violence.  And yet there are people out there on the fringes, at both ends of the political spectrum, who can’t simply content themselves with political opposition and have to take the next step, and the next, first into more vitriolic speech and imagery and ultimately into some kind of twisted mindset where going to a baseball practice and shooting whoever is out of the field seems like the right thing to do.

There have always been nuts out there.  What’s discouraging about the modern world is that there seem to be more of them ready to act out their disturbed impulses, heedless of who might get hurt.  And now we’ve reached the point where even a simple baseball practice isn’t safe.

The baseball game is going to be played, by the way.  That’s a good thing, I think, but it’s the only good thing about this whole ugly episode.  And you inevitably wonder:  how many more nuts are lurking out there, thinking the answer to what troubles them is a lot of indiscriminate killing?

 

The Future In The Past

They opened a coal mine in Pennsylvania last week.  It’s the first new coal mine opened in the area in as long as people can remember.

The Corsa Coal Company decided to open the Acosta mine, located about 60 miles south of Pittsburgh, last August.  It made the decision to open the mine because demands for metallurgical coal used by the steel industry, and cuts in coal production in China, have caused the prices for such coal to skyrocket.  Metallurgical coal is a special kind of coal, distinct from coal used for other purposes, and represents about 5 to 10 percent of the coal industry.

1024x1024Even though the decision to open the mine came before the last presidential election, President Trump has touted the opening of the mine as reflective of the new approach taken to coal in his administration.  Corsa’s chief executive said that Trump’s election has made the whole coal industry more optimistic.  He said “The war on coal is over,” and added that “Easing the regulatory burden, lowering taxes, stimulating infrastructure spending, balancing out the interest of economic growth versus environmental policy — it’s very good for coal.”  Corsa believes that if it can keep its costs low, it can compete with any company in the world in coal production.

I view the opening of a new coal mine in Pennsylvania with mixed emotions.  The past practices of the coal industry have left real scars in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or West Virginia, both on the landscape and, in some instances, on people.  At the same time, I am happy for the people of rural western Pennsylvania who have been desperate to find work and some cause for optimism.  It’s no surprise that the new mine has been bombarded with hundreds of job applications for the 100 positions that will be created, and that the mine is being praised as a lifeline for the local economy.

It’s odd that, even though we have moved well into the 21st century, the American economy is still looking at things like coal mining — work that has been going on for centuries — as a element of future job production.  I just hope that the coal industry has learned from the past as it moves forward into the future.

Adam West And The Age Of Innocence

I was sorry to read about the death of Adam West — known to everyone over a certain age as Batman — this past weekend.  West, who was 88, died after battling leukemia.

adam-west-and-burt-ward-i-010Hearing about West’s death made me think, of course, about the Batman TV show that was enormously popular when I was a little kid.  The word that inevitably is used now to describe the show is “campy,” but really it was more about innocence.  Batman was just like a comic book of those days brought to life, with every punch marked by a Pow! or Whammo!, with characters who weren’t dealing with any “real-world” problems, and with a hero who constantly lectured Robin, the Boy Wonder, in an avuncular way, instructing him all on the platitudes about brushing your teeth and eating your vegetables and being a patriotic citizen that we kids were hearing all the time at home from our parents and grandparents.

Sure, the show was played with a wink, and usually Batman gave Robin the benefit of his wisdom as they were using a rope to walk up the side of the wall in an obviously fake way, just before some famous person put their head out of a window in a silly cameo appearance — but the fact is that the platitudes still got stated on network TV by a hero who apparently meant every word, the hero always escaped from whatever devilish contrivance the Joker or the Penguin or the Riddler put him into, and in the end truth and justice and the hero prevailed . . . and nobody really got hurt beyond taking a few punches to the jaw, either.

The show worked because the theme song was cool, the Batmobile was cooler, and Adam West played Batman right down the line, delivering his homilies and interacting with Commissioner Gordon and even the Catwoman with straight-faced earnestness — presaging the career of Leslie Nielsen playing hilarious deadpan characters in Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies.  West was perfect for the Batman role, and that West was able to impassively act the part was particularly impressive when you consider that he was romping around in an embarrassingly tight superhero costume and cape.  It couldn’t have been easy being Batman, but West pulled it off — and even more remarkable, when you think about celebrities of the modern era who will do just about anything to get attention, he never dissed the show or made fun of it, even after the show had long since ended.  To the contrary, West seemed legitimately appreciative, at least publicly, that he had a chance to be a star and a hero to little kids during those long-ago days.

It’s unimaginable that a show like Batman would ever get made these days, because network executives would insist on complex characters struggling with inner demons and the violence would be much bloodier, and scarier, and deadlier, and Batman would never give Robin the kind of lectures that the Boy Wonder got back in the ’60s.  It’s understandable, I guess, but it’s too bad, too.  There’s something to be said for innocence, and a hero who thinks it’s important to mention dental hygiene now and then.

Primate Rights

A New York state appeals court has rejected a request to issue a writ of habeas corpus to free two chimpanzees who are kept in cages — one in a warehouse in Gloversville, New York, and the other in a storefront in Niagara Falls, New York.  The writ sought to have the primates moved from their cages to an animal sanctuary.

article-2034439-0dbb7fa500000578-543_306x338In the case, the New York courts were presented with expert evidence “that chimpanzees exhibit many of the same social, cognitive and linguistic capabilities as humans and therefore should be afforded some of the same fundamental rights as humans.”  In a nutshell, however, the court of appeals concluded — correctly, in my view — that the fact that chimpanzees exhibit some humanlike characteristics is simply not enough to make them “persons” in the eyes of the law.  The court reasoned that “[t]he asserted cognitive and linguistic capabilities of chimpanzees do not translate to a chimpanzee’s capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions.”  And, the court added, the flip side of personhood would mean that chimpanzees could be held criminally accountable for killing or injuring humans — something that has not been done, obviously, because chimpanzees do not have moral culpability for such acts, nor do they have the capacity to understand the proceedings against then or to assist in their own defense, which is what courts typically look for in deciding whether a defendant is competent.

You can read the court of appeals decision here.

Although I think the law cannot recognize primates like chimpanzees as “people,” with all of the rights of people, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be afforded some rights, beyond being viewed as mere property.  The court of appeals’ decision summarizes expert evidence that indicates that chimpanzees have an impressive array of qualities that we associate with thinking beings, such as “recognizing themselves in reflections,” “setting and acting toward goals such as obtaining food,” “communicating about events in the past and their intentions for the future, such as by pointing or using sign language,” “protecting others in risky situations, such as when relatively strong chimpanzees will examine a road before guarding more vulnerable chimpanzees as they cross the road,” “making and using complex tools for hygiene, socializing, communicating, hunting, gathering, and fighting,” “counting and ordering items using numbers,” “showing concern for the welfare of others, particularly their offspring, siblings, and even orphans they adopt,” and “resolving conflicts” and “apologizing.”

At some point, we need to ask ourselves — do creatures that exhibit these kinds of qualities and characteristics really deserve to be put into cages at the whim of whoever purchases them?