Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen for the Al

October 16, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So Scholasch and Payen are Frenchmen who are well on their way to revolutionizing the art of making wine, and perhaps agriculture more broadly. They however have faced years of reactionary opposition and general inertia in the wine making community. No good deed goes unpunished in this wicked world, but I for one hope that these two guys become incredibly wealthy and give their skeptics something to cry about through the best sort of revenge- living well.

Wired profiled Scholasch and Payen in 2012 in an article titled the Vine Nerds. Scholasch and Payen are French ex-pats who met in California. Scholasch had worked in vineyards in Napa, France and Chile and came to feel like a scientist trapped in a profession of artists. Scholasch had an unusual desire to improve the process of making wine, which apparently verges on the blasphemous in some circles. Techniques developed in 12th Century France represent the apex of agricultural technology you see, and anyone trying to update them is something of a public menace. A mutual friend introduced Scholasch to Payen, another French ex-pat. Payen holds a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley. As a graduate student Payen designed a novel micro-biosensor. They teamed up to form the Fruition Sciences company, which installs sap sensors to provide real-time data on crops, in this case grapes. The technology allows wine makers to give their vines just the right amount of water precisely when needed- a substantial improvement over tasting dirt, spitting it out, and irrigating fields early and (too) often.

You can read their bios here and how the process works here. Basically their process allows wine makers to make better wine while using only a fraction of the water typically employed.

Some wine makers gave Scholasch and Payen a shot, and became believers. From the Vine Nerds:

Austin Peterson, is one of Fruition’s most vocal supporters and attests to changes the sensor arrays can produce. ‘Before, irrigation management was basically done by our vineyard foreman looking at next week’s weather forecast and at leaves that were starting to fold or tendrils that were drying,’ Peterson says. ‘But visual cues can be misleading. As we started to see the data, it started to explain some things.’

Before becoming a convert, Peterson needed to see proof. In 2007 he divided Ovid’s 15-acre property in half, using the visual method on one side, sensors on the other. Following traditional visual cues led to a regimen of shallow irrigations, which required more water and resulted in unintended side effects, like shriveled grapes and elevated alcohol levels. It also may have helped slow the ripening process and delay the harvest, which is always risky in Northern California, where early autumn rains can destroy a crop in a matter of days. Meanwhile, data gathered from the sensors dictated a near-opposite approach: fewer, deeper irrigations, primarily later in the season. After two years, the result was substantial water savings and earlier harvests. For Peterson, the experiment shed light on how profoundly irrigation affects fruit quality as well as a wine’s flavors and bouquet. ‘It was like going from having an undergraduate degree in something to a PhD, where you have a deep understanding of why vines behave the way they do’ Peterson says. ‘As a winemaker, you understand different flavors. But now you start to understand why the differences exist.’

So it turns out that wine makers have been over-irrigating their vineyards in Napa for decades and producing lower rated wine as a result. One client interviewed by Wired stated that they had dropped their water use from 36-64 gallons per vine to 0-10 gallons. They reckoned this would save them 5.8 million gallons of water and produce better wine in the process. Project that out across California, and it gets to something like a potential savings of 9.1 billion gallons of water per growing season.

Did I mention that the Southwest United States is experiencing a huge drought? It looks something like this (color = bad, dark = worse):

Agricultural technologies that help you get by with less water might come in handy about now, especially in California. So you make much better use of an increasingly scarce resource to produce a better product. Better still, this technology is branching out beyond wine to increase the productivity of other sectors of agriculture. Scholasch and Payen are just two of the most recent entrepreneurs in a long line that have repeatedly thwarted Malthusians and neo-Malthusians through the driving force of voluntary exchange.

The process of updating agriculture sounds almost as frustrating as education reform. After an enthusiastic embrace of the technology by an expert in rice cultivation, Wired noted Scholasch’s reaction:

Scholasch lowers his eyes and shakes his head. ‘The first sap-flow sensors were tested in the ’80s. What we have in place was usable in the early ’90s—and look, it’s taken 20 years to start using it,’ he says, then gives a quick smile, betraying a glimmer of hope. ‘But it’s very rewarding to get recognition from peers you respect. It’s an accreditation.’

Hang in there guys- and remember the motto of the Economist “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” No one ever said it would be easy, but the difficulty of your struggle will only make your eventual triumph all the more flavorful- like your wine, it will get better with age.



We Will We Will FRACK You!!!

July 15, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The above gif is a 14 year time lapse, putting in tiny red dots for new oil wells (HT Mark J. Perry).  After watching this for a while, a few things spring to mind.

1. The motto of the University of Texas at Austin “We’re Texas. What Happens Here Changes the World” comes to mind.

2. Pennsylvania seems perfectly content to drill New York’s shale formation from just south of the border.  Memo to New York: fracking involves horizontal drilling, so you might want to rethink your ban.

3. Canada is just barely getting in on the action thus far, but western Canada has plenty of shale formations. So…

Hey you hosers! Don’t force us to sell our oil to China eh?

Just for the record I’d rather fill up my tank with gas refined from Canadian oil rather than line the pockets of various anti-American regimes. Pipelines please…

4. I have not heard much about Arkansas, but it looks like a boom going on in the north of the state (?)

Al Winner Al is Bringing It July 15th

June 26, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner) Amazon Prime just informed me that Al Copeland Humanitarian Award Winner Weird Al has a new cd coming out July 15th.  The internet refused to reveal the songs on the collection in a 30 second google search, but there are so many pop songs aching for parody now that Weird Al will likely be shooting fish in a barrel. Just in case no one else is going to suggest it, a Weird Al/Me First and the Gimme Gimmes team up would be totally awesome unless it was so awesome that it tore a rift in space-time, unleash cosmic parody forces beyond human comprehension or control, in which case it would be really TOTALLY AWESOME.

For the Al: Kickstarter

October 15, 2013


(Guest Post by Greg Forster)

Access to capital is essential for entrepreneurs. It doesn’t matter how good an idea you have, you can’t get it off the ground if people don’t fund it. Of course that means you have to convince investors, but persuasion is not the only variable. Legal, regulatory and financial systems have to exist that make it possible for people to invest.

On that front, things have been moving in the wrong direction for a while now. It’s harder and harder for an entrepreneur with a good idea to raise funding, because the systems are more and more choked up by regulations, exposure to frivolous litigation, and other barriers to entry.

In the spirit of one of my all-time favorite Al nominees, Herbert Dow, my nominee has found a clever way to exploit a loophole in the system and drive millions of dollars’ worth of entrepreneurial activity through it. In this particular case, the loophole is simple yet ingenious: “investment” is just about totally free if you don’t get equity in return. In four years, Kickstarter has moved $828 million from five million investors to 50,000 entrepreneurial projects.

All you have to do is call it “art.” Sure, there’s lots of legitimate art on KS – you can fund a dance performance, a film project, even a painting. But you can also fund the manufacture of ordinary products, as long as they’re just a tiny bit innovative or aesthetically pleasing. KS is drowning in desk accessories, bike accessories, clothing, you name it. There are tons of video games being made on KS, including some of the biggest creators in the business. Hobby board games are having a huge renaissance on KS – people are funding an amazing variety of new titles. Princess Bride fans should check out this officially licensed Princess Bride party game based on Indigo Montoya’s famous “you killed my father – prepare to die!” line. It’s basically an extremely clever adaptation of Apples to Apples.

But why would you want to invest in something if you don’t get equity? All kinds of reasons, actually. People aren’t motivated only by money. They have all kinds of reasons to want to see a product brought to market. I invested in Zack Braff’s new movie because I think it will be a force for cultural renewal. Other people invest in their friends’ projects or in art that they want to see produced because they enjoy it.

That having been said, most KS projects provide tangible rewards for backers. You can’t get your money back, but you can get an ROI in the form of a product. A lot of the stuff on KS is clearly just an alternative way of selling products – you pay in so much to help them manufacture widgets, and you get a widget as a reward. And if it’s not the kind of project that produces a tangible product, you can still get branded items or other swag that you might easily value at more than the cost of your investment (I’m getting a T-shirt from the Braff movie).

Take a look at UnderRepped Tees, which is using KS to fund the design and manufacture of t-shirts depicting “the forgotten people behind great ideas.” Somebody hire them to make a shirt of Al Copeland! Better yet, we could start a KS of our own and get all the JPGB readers who like The Al to kick in a few bucks to make them. Kick in enough, you get a shirt.

There are two things I really like about KS. One is that it cuts out a lot of useless middlemen who get in the way of entrepreneurs. The gatekeepers to mainstream investment can keep out anything that threatens the status quo too much. This has a particularly bad effect on cultural products like movies – the investors want to know they’ll get their money back, so every movie is now a carbon copy of every other movie. With KS, creators with unique visions can retain total control and get funded, if they can persuade people like me that it’s worth their investment.

The other thing I like about KS is that it runs on trust. In theory you can sue the people you invest in if they don’t deliver, but in practice that’s very difficult. Good! That means people have to decide whom they trust – they have the freedom to trust each other. People can prove they’re trustworthy, which they can only do if there’s no safety net. And reputations will matter.

Why give an entrepreneur The Al when we can give it to people who empower entrepreneurs?

Bill Knudsen for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award

October 7, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

For this year’s “Al” award, I nominate William S. Knudsen. Knudsen is a little known name these days, but he was not only an American success story and industrialist, but played an indispensible role in saving the world from totalitarianism.

We face our share of challenges these days, but they mostly look absurd self-made problems compared to those that previous generations stared down. In the 20th Century, totalitarianism posed an immediate existential threat to liberal democracy. One of the three greatest democracies, France, folded like a house of cards once the shooting started in the World War II. Shortly thereafter, another of the three, Great Britain, resorted to sending fishing boats to the shores of France to avoid complete annihilation of their forces.

The third great democracy, the United States, largely sat by in a self-absorbed stupor during the pre-war period, hoping not to get drawn into this conflict. Hope of course is not a plan. It is much to President Franklin Roosevelt’s credit that he began to cautiously plan for the great conflict to come in the teeth of fierce skepticism by the American public. The American military was a sad, underfunded joke at the time. Moreover, American industry was in disarray-not only due to the Great Depression but also to a series of public witch hunts against the weapon manufacturers conducted by Senator Harry Truman and others. American troops trained with cars for standing in for tanks, and many of the companies that might be capable of manufacturing real tanks had decided that it wasn’t worth the political heartburn. America’s military and supporting infrastructure, in short, was a complete mess.

As Arthur Herman lays out in his compelling history Freedom’s Forge, Bill Knudsen was the man President Roosevelt called to clean up the mess.

Knudsen was a Danish immigrant who worked his way up from the docks to become President of General Motors. Knudsen developed/perfected not one but two revolutionary improvements to the assembly line process during his automotive career, historically noteworthy in their own right-continuous mass production and flexible mass production.  Under Knudsen’s leadership, GM had decentralized production into competing product lines under the notion that decentralization would lead the way to innovation. It worked, and GM stole an ascendency in the automotive industry that it would not surrender until the late 1980s.

“Big Bill” was living the American dream when he received a call from President Roosevelt.”Knudsen? I want to see you in Washington. I want you to work on some production matters,” President Roosevelt told him. With that, Knudsen resigned from General Motors to take a position paying him $1 per year.  Knudsen had been a life-long Republican, and when his daughter asked why he decided to take the position in Washington, his answer was simple and direct “This country has been good to me. I want to pay it back.”

Big Bill could scarcely have imagined how difficult it would prove to pay his country back. In return for his enormous sacrifice in relinquishing his private sector position, Knudsen endured constant political and bureaucratic backstabbing. Roosevelt’s Washington sounds all too familiar in Herman’s telling-full of bright but overconfident people imagining that America would enormously benefit from enlightened central planning. Knudsen however understood from the outset that so great a task could only be accomplished with the willing, voluntary participation of American industry.

“Industry in the United States does more for the country in direct, or indirect, contributions to the public wealth than any other country on earth. And it will continue to do so if given the opportunity without restrictions,” Knudsen told a public audience. In private, he explained to President Roosevelt “The government can’t do it all. The more people we can get into this program, the more brains we can get into it, the better chance we will have to succeed.”

Knudsen fought hard to create voluntary participation of American industry through incentives rather than state coercion and control. The wisdom of this approach ultimately manifested itself in the greatest surge in industrial production in the history of mankind, but also in smaller ways. Along the way, for instance, American industrialists figured out that the Pentagon was too hidebound to reliably figure out what kind of weapons and material they wanted. Increasingly over time the manufacturers figured it out for themselves by competing to create the best products possible.

By the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States, Bill Knudsen had a very, very unpleasant surprise waiting for them. Knudsen had primed the industrial might and creative power of American industry to go to war against the Axis powers. Japan’s military leaders and Hitler’s Nazis obviously could have scarcely imagined what they were in for, but these regimes signed their death warrants when the decided to cross swords with the United States of America.

Bill Knudsen deserves as much credit for this remarkable turnaround as anyone, perhaps more.

The attacks Knudsen endured along the way simply made his ultimate vindication all the more sweet. Senator Truman compared his contracting out to Santa Claus leaving gifts under a Christmas tree, and Roosevelt ultimately fired Knudsen in a Machiavellian move to assuage criticism without even speaking to Knudsen in advance. It didn’t matter- Knudsen’s replacement discerned the wisdom of the Big Dane’s approach and carried on his policies, much to the chagrin of the New Dealers. Knudsen accepted a commission as a three star general in the War Department to head up purchasing-the highest rank ever granted to a civilian.

Herman wrote:

The New Dealers thought they had won. They were too late. America was indeed in production now, with 25,000 prime contractors and 120,000 subcontractors making products they had never dreamed of making, and thousands more to come. And nothing the people in Washington or the Axis could do now would stem the tide…In the first year after a production order, output was bound to triple; in the second it would jump by a factor of seven; at the end of the third year the only limits on output were material and labor-whether it was trucks or artillery pieces or bombs or planes.

Knudsen believed that American industry would generate its own spontaneous order to match the needs of wartime America, so long as the government was wise enough to create the necessary incentives. Herman notes that four days before Pearl Harbor Hitler had ordered German industry to start a program of “mass production on modern principles” (aka Knudsen principles) and put Albert Speer in charge of the effort with all of the central planning powers desired by the New Dealers, and more. Speer had the ability to decide which factory would produce what, could move labor around at will, controlled wages and prices and made extensive use of slave labor.

The result- total blowout in America’s favor. Herman explains:

What Speer lacked was Knudsen’s secret weapon: America’s prodigious industrial base built around free enterprise, which was now giving its full attention to war production…The German car industry, including the Opel factories the government had seized from General Motors, sat half-idle through the entire war. And constant meddling and changes of priorities by the German military ensured that time and energy and materials were lost in a limitless bureaucratic maze.

Meanwhile, American car manufacturers were building the war material which ensured Britain’s and then the Soviet Union’s tenuous survival against the Nazi onslaught before turning the tide completely and dispatching the “Thousand Year Reich” a few short years later. Nazis needed killing, and after that, Soviets needed containing (a second struggle for freedom in which President Truman redeemed himself) in order to make the world safe for self-determination.

Fortunately Bill Knudsen had waded through nearly brain-dead American politics at great personal sacrifice in order to equip American soldiers with everything they needed to get the job done. For this great service to humanity, the Big Dane gets not only a nomination for the Al, but also a heart-felt:


Al Winner George P. Mitchell Passes Away

July 29, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

George P. Mitchell, the Texas wildcatter who revolutionized global energy and (among other things) winner of the last Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, has died at age 94. Rest in Peace big guy- you done good.

Introducing “The Higgy”

November 28, 2012

William Higginbotham

As someone who was recognized in 2006 as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, I know a lot about the importance of awards highlighting people of significant accomplishment.  Here on JPGB we have the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, but I’ve noticed that “The Al” only recognizes people of positive accomplishment.  As Time Magazine has understood in naming Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Ayatullah Khomeini as Persons of the Year, accomplishments can be negative as well as positive.

(Then again, Time has also recognized some amazing individuals as Person of the Year, including Endangered Earth, The Computer, Twenty-Five and Under, and The Peacemakers, so I’m not sure we should be paying so much attention to what a soon-to-be-defunct magazine does.  But that’s a topic for another day when we want to talk about how schools are more likely to be named after manatees than George Washington.)

Where were we?  Oh yes.  It is important to recognize negative as well as positive accomplishment.  So I introduce “The Higgy,” an award named after William Higinbotham, as the mirror award to our well-established “Al.”

Just as Al Copeland was not without serious flaws as a person, William Higinbotham was not without his virtues.  Higinbotham did, after all  develop the first video game.  But Higinbotham dismissed the importance of that accomplishment and instead chose to be an arrogant prick by claiming that his true accomplishment was in helping found the Federation of American Scientists and working for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.  I highly doubt that the Federation or Higinbotham did a single thing that actually advanced nonproliferation, but they sure were smug about it.  Here, I think, is a video of one of their meetings:

I suspect that Al Copeland, by contrast, understood that he was a royal jerk.  And he also understood that developing a chain of spicy chicken restaurants really does improve the human condition.  Higinbotham’s failing was in mistaking self-righteous proclamations for actually making people’s lives better in a way that video games really do improve the human condition.

So, “The Higgy” will not identify the worst person in the world, just as “The Al” does not recognize the best.  Instead, “The Higgy” will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.

We will invite nominations for “The Higgy” in late March and will announce the winner, appropriately enough, on April 15.  Thanks to Greg for his suggestions in developing “The Higgy.”


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