Friday, March 8, 2013

FedEx Fleet Blasts Past Fuel Efficiency Target (via Environment News Service)

MEMPHIS, Tennessee, March 8, 2013 (ENS) – New hybrid and electric vehicles added to the Fedex fleet have helped the world’s largest express transportation company achieve its fuel efficiency goal years ahead of schedule. In 2008, FedEx set the U.S. transportation industry’s first fuel efficiency…

Wildlife Law Enforcement Gathers Global Strength (via Environment News Service)
BANGKOK, Thailand, March 8, 2013 (ENS) – Wildlife poachers now are well organized criminal syndicates, and in response, wildlife law enforcement officers from around the world convened in Bangkok Thursday for the first global meeting of wildlife enforcement networks. The event was held alongside…

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Southern Environmental Law Center Names Top 10 Places At Risk

Southern Environmental Law Center Names Top 10 Places At Risk (via Environment News Service)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia, February 10, 2013 (ENS) – Political pressure to lift Virginia’s longstanding ban on uranium mining threatens the health of the Roanoke River Basin, which supplies drinking water for over a million people, warns the Southern Environmental Law Center. The advocacy organization…

Friday, December 14, 2012

Thursday, December 13, 2012

On the Post-Election Spike in Gun Sales

by Ian Hoppe

The fallout from the November elections was, on the whole, somewhat unremarkable. Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives, the Democrats held fast in the Senate, picking up two net seats, and Obama clinched the Oval Office, as I’m sure you are all aware.

There was a momentary dip at market open on the 7th of November. This was an expected market response to a divisive and highly publicized presidential election whose practical impact on the markets were overstated, to say the least.

There were cries from the downtrodden right that this was a huge blow to capitalism and that the apocalypse was imminent, firms across the country reported plans to cut down on hours in order to avoid providing health insurance to their employees, or threatened to raise prices to make-up for one regulation or another. To listen to the media, it would seem that the reelection of President Obama struck a huge blow to American small businesses.

However, there was one sector or the economy that saw an explosion of sales in the week following president Obama’s reelection, gun sales. October background checks, an indicator of future gun sales, were up more than 18 percent in the month preceding the election and Smith and Wesson stock bounced 7.6% on November 7th despite the overall DOW drop of 2.2%. In the Birmingham regional area, sales were way up. Three days after the election, a firearms salesman with a local distributor, who agreed to an interview under the condition of anonymity, told me that company sales were nearly 50% above projected sales and that they were struggling to keep up with the sudden spike in demand. The same thing happened with Obama’s election in 2008 and around the Clinton elections in the 90s, all of this despite the fact that Obama has made only one statement about, and no administrative moves towards, any kind of firearms restriction.  

The Telegraph, The Huffington Post, and (the ever dependable) Info Wars reported on this phenomenon and of course spun it in whatever way they thought would most scare their readership. I however, would like to offer a different account of this phenomenon. One based more on detailed investigation of the event rather than fear-mongering and advertisement sales.

My source at the local distributor told me that this kind of torrent in sales post-election has less to do with the election and more to do with what they called a “feedback-loop at the retail level.”
In years past, there has been a small panic among the hypersensitive gun owners of America who run out to retail stores post-election and want to buy a lot of product. More, in fact, than the retailer has in stock. The consumer then runs around town buying whatever product can be found at the retailers in town and spreading the word of scarcity among other firearms enthusiasts who then run out and purchase everything they can. Of course, we can see that this is artificial, self-fulfilling scarcity.

Before you start judging these folks, consider our collective panic when James Spann starts preaching three inches of snow bearing down on the city. Everyone runs out and buys milk, bread, beer, propane, and condoms. But knowing that everyone else will be buying these things, everyone buys early and in large amounts, more than they need really, and suddenly there is nothing left which causes more panic. This is the same thing but with deadly weapons.

Since this is an expected phenomenon, retailers attempt to get ahead of it by buying everything they can from the wholesalers and the entire process occurs on the retail level, where the retailers create shortage, and thus panic, before anything ever happens! So by the time the election rolls around, the market is in shock and the distribution is unbalanced, which amplifies the alarm, and so on.
What I am getting at is that it is not really panic among consumers that drive this economic phenomenon; it is a reaction to a  reaction to what everyone else will do combined with the fear that if you don’t buy extra product and everyone else does, there may be nothing left and you’ll miss-out on the rush.

Economic events, like most events involving large groups of people interacting with one another, are usually a lot more complicated than they seem at first glance. It’s cheap (with a high payoff) to drum-up fear by reporting that guns are running out to the gun-lovers and that lots more people are buying guns to the gun-haters and then manhandle it to make some larger political point. I’m here to tell you that it’s usually bullshit and we’re all smarter than that.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Birmingham Underground Part 2

by M. David Hornbuckle

Birmingham is rife with subcultures that fly under the radar of most people. In this series, the Birmingham Free Press pulls the lid off this underground world and lets you take a peek inside.

Birmingham By Night

Photo by Lachlan Donald

LARP stands for Live Action Role Play. This is sort of a cross between the Society for Creative Anachronism and Dungeons & Dragons. Participants describe it as a kind of improvisational theater with a strategy game element to it. Larping has been around since the 1970s, but it’s had a resurgence in recent years that coincides with the increasing popularity of vampire, werewolf, and zombie stories in popular culture. 

Like D&D, Larps are often based on published games that are customized by a “storyteller” to the particular setting where they will be played. For example, Birmingham by Night is a larp based on the World of Darkness, a fictional universe created by White Wolf Gaming Studio, but the head storyteller James Strader has developed this game so that the city of Birmingham plays an integral role. Strader says, “Birmingham by Night is set up as a political game. Characters use all types of political maneuvering to gain power and control while other players become pawns either willingly or unwillingly to those characters who can ‘work the system’ all the while keeping their supernatural existence from being discovered by normal human beings…We used some real life facts to explain things about the supernatuals of Birmingham like the Yielding family and the McWanes.”

Some local larps like Magic City Nightmares charge fees to play. By contrast, Birmingham by Night is free, although you do still need to buy some books to understand the complexity of the characters you will play and play against. Strader says, “We have the support of Legion; the owner Paul Stewart does not charge us to play there, which is awesome. I have been running larps for a very long time. It is a passion of mine, and I feel that a free game attracts more players and a lot of first time players who would be hesitant because of a pay for play issue. My opinion I guess would be that the books you will need are expensive enough so why add an expense? My goal is to see people have fun and not have to sit at a computer to do it.”

Birmingham by Night:
Magic City Nightmares:
Dragon’s Blaze:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fake Pot Becoming Scarce

by Ian Hoppe

Recently, I’ve noticed the periodic emergence and decline of various blends of the designer drug(s), synthetic cannabis (a.k.a. “Funky Green Stuff,” “K2,” “Spice,” “Haze,” “Herbal Potpourri,” and “Fake Stuff”).

Synthetic cannabis is a product marketed as a marijuana replacement. It usually comes in small plastic or aluminum packages that are often brightly colored and contain anywhere from one to five grams. Most packages are explicitly marked as “not for human consumption.” However, it is understood by everyone involved that the product is meant to be smoked. This disclaimer, just like the disclaimer at the end of alcohol commercials warning not to drink their product and drive, is there for liability purposes. So when the inevitable happens, the company can say, “Well, we told them not to do that.”
That is not to say that these products are (necessarily) dangerous or unhealthy, only that little is known about long term effects among frequent users. Part of the problem in gathering consistent information is the lack of consistency of the products in question. Though the package may be labeled as an “Herbal Smoking Blend,” this is a bit misleading, as is the term “Synthetic Cannabis.” These products are indeed a mixture of fragrant potpourris that are then sprayed with some form of synthesized chemicals. These chemicals only simulate the effect of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol; the psychoactive component of marijuana). It is important to note that these synthetic chemicals are not equivalent to THC in the way they affect the mind and body.

Some users I’ve talked to report a variance of reactions to the product, including intense paranoia and psychosis, especially among users who are prone to substance induced psychotic episodes (see DSM-IV-TR code 292.11). One such user said that, “I wouldn’t even recommend it to someone I hated.” Furthermore, there seems to be some research that indicates chemical dependence among long-term, heavy users, though the withdrawal symptoms mirror those of organic cannabis. This is not the case with everyone, however. The majority of users I spoke to expressed excitement about the products, citing the fact that they are legal to purchase, do not show up on drug screens, are widely available (compared to organic cannabis) at a lower price-per-gram, and offer a different experience than the real thing.

What makes these products designer drugs is their constant bout with legal standards. You see, as these products become available, the federal and state governments scramble to outlaw them. However, given the huge amount of money to be made by their manufacturing, the companies simply synthesize a new “blend” of chemicals that is not (yet) outlawed and rerelease to the public. In April of 2010, The State of Alabama, following up on pressure from the ever-present buzzkills; Partnership for a Drug Free Community, outlawed the sale of both Salvia Divinorum as well as a couple of synthetic blends with the passing of HB697. This legislation, however, was limited in its scope and only outlawed a couple of the possible blends. This meant that it was only a couple of months until the products appeared once again in head-shops and adult stores in the state.

Not to be outdone, in July, the Federal Government passed The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 as part of a larger bill expanding the authority of the FDA. The legislation places five of the known synthetic cannabis blends as well as other designer drugs, including the infamous “bath salts,” into section I of The Controlled Substances Act. As a result, the availability of synthetic cannabis has dwindled as suppliers regroup and find alternatives to bring to market.

This recent onslaught of legislation and enforcement on the state and federal level has caused a bit of a chilling effect among the distributors in the area. Most have either stopped selling any similar products, making them available via request only, or requiring that the purchaser sign a sheet alleviating the seller of liability. I did speak to a couple of shop employees and owners, all of which requested to remain anonymous, who told me that the restriction on their sales was mostly fallout from their distributor’s reluctance to sell in the state. Two of the local head shops that I visited have ceased selling any kind of product that may be construed as illegal presently or in the future. Another had a kind of herbal tea “pain reliever” available for purchase, in both tea-leaf and capsule form. Querying one of the employees only returned reassurances that it was legal and very different from the synthetic blends we’ve seen lately.

For the economically minded, it is understandable that this chilling effect has had a fairly significant effect on prices. As I mentioned above, some of the users I spoke to mentioned the price of the products as a major driver of preference for “the fake stuff” over organic weed. When the first generation of synthetic hit the market (i.e. pre-HB697), the prices were roughly half of street prices of real marijuana ($10-12/g. vs $20-24/g). Given the recent legislation and restrictions on the market, and thus supply, users estimate that prices have increased around 50% and continue to rise. This still puts these heavily restricted blends lower than the real stuff, with the burden of risk entirely on the distributors. Given this dichotomy, I think we can expect prices to rise to at or above the street price-per-unit of its canonically illegal substitute to compensate for this risk.

It is unclear to me whether or not this product offers enough of a different experience, higher availability, and/or low enough long-run price to sustain itself underground. At the moment, it seems as if these synthetic cannabis blends will eventually be outlawed in all of their forms or at least regulated and enforced so heavily that the costs of manufacture and distribution outweigh the prospective revenue. It is then, I think, that the masses will return to their beloved marijuana, decrying the brief tryst with her test-tube sister.