Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Feedback Loops

I wouldn't want to own a bar. In most businesses, your continuing customers are the ones for whom you're doing some good, providing a service. With bars, your best customers are the ones drinking themselves to death. Beyond that, there's a history of alcoholism in my family, and just being in bars for any length of time is depressing to me.

But if I were to own a bar, I'd want to institute a simple feedback loop -- you enter the bar, you stick your car keys in a device that combines a thumbprint recorder and a blood alcohol level test. To get the keys back, you get your thumb scanned and blow into the machine -- and if you're legal, it returns them to you. If you're not, it hangs onto them. (If I owned a restaurant that served alcohol, and it's not outside the realm of the possible that someday I might, I'd institute a 3-drink maximum per person. That might fly -- at least, dining there, you'd know that your fellow patrons were less likely to smash into you on your way out of the parking lot.)

The bar scheme wouldn't work. Any bar attempting to institute it would go out of business. People getting falling down drunk is what keeps bars in the black, and the drunks would move onto a bar that didn't care who they killed on the way home. It might work if all bars in a given region were required to install such a feature, though -- I'm liberal enough to think that's not a bad idea. Try it in one city and see if the death and accident rates from drunk driving decline.

What responsibility you have to your customers is an interesting question. I think alcohol should be legal -- I think heroin should be legal, for that matter, and marijuana and cocaine and speed and what have you; adults should be permitted to stick whatever they want to into their bodies, no matter how stupid I may think their conduct. As long as they meet their obligations otherwise, it's a personal matter and not properly a subject for public policy. And it's dangerous to get too self-righteous ....

Let's say that people who own bars are on questionable moral ground. (I'm not saying that, though I am saying I wouldn't care to own one myself.) But let's say ...

OK, obviously people who sell alcohol in other venues are on shaky ground. Ditto tobacco. And restaurants who sell milkshakes and cheeseburgers. Now, I'd like to own a cheeseburger shop some day -- "The Cheeseburger Factory: The World's Best Cheeseburger Technology." (My son Bram suggested "Cheeseburger Factory." I came up with "The World's Best Cheeseburger Technololgy.") Maybe in my old age, after I've put my last kid through college -- Connor will have his bachelor's degree about the time I hit 60.

Am I responsible for serving a cheeseburger to a fat guy? When he falls over and dies from a massive coronary, are my peanut butter shakes and medium-rare burgers with Tillamook Cheddar to blame?

Maybe I can help out. Maybe I can stick a feedback loop into the equation. Instead of having a drive-through, we have a walk-in restaurant ... with skinny doorways. Then you're tempting the Winnie-the-Pooh-problem .... sneak through on the way in, too fat to get back out again. Of course, that's its own sort of feedback loop, isn't it? We stick a treadmill by the door and charge by the hour ...


Had a pretty good conversation with Bill Stewart (copyright holder of The Ring) a couple days ago. It's many months down the road before I'm going to do anything with that material, but it may be that there's room to produce something that's acceptable to both of us. (Apparently I had harsh words about Bill Stewart at one point, and he asked me about it -- I have no recollection of having said anything about him, but I remember pissing off Lou Aronica, the publisher at Bantam at the time. That project, the book portion of it at least, was screwed up from Day 1, and I'd be hard pressed to say who made the worst decisions regarding it. (Well, besides me, for agreeing to do it.) But after me, it was some combination of Amy Stout, Lou Aronica, and Bill Stewart. I haven't spoken to Lou Aronica in years (no hard feelings at all, just haven't ever run into the guy) -- and as I noted, I ended up married and having children with Amy. So I think Bill and I are cool. He's a blunt guy, he'll let me know if we're not. :-)

I look back on that project, and for all the big brass cojones I had as a young man, The Ring was dumb even for me. It's based on Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung -- which I knew almost nothing about and had never seen except in bits and pieces. (The full run is 4 nights long.) I've been to two productions since -- a full run once, and the concluding night of another production -- but at the time, I had a fairly long screenplay, a $6,000 advance (I think), and three months. I missed my deadline by a month -- and ended up with a very long book written almost entirely in stream-of-consciousness first draft. And Bantam published it that way. A chance to repair that misadventure would be nice.


Talking to JJ Sutherland, intrepid NPR producer/reporter, about a novel based on his experiences in Iraq. He seems interested, and I certainly am -- he's been sending dispatches back from Iraq, to a private list, since the war began -- I don't know if I've mentioned those posts here, since every post has contained the request that his words and observations be kept private, which, for a journalist in a war zone, is an incredibly reasonable request. But it's astonishing, wrenching material. I think he's got something there, I do.


Steve Perry said...

Dan --

Me, I think the guy who walks into the bar is the guy you blame for getting drunk, not the pub owner. Alcohol is a poison and in large and quick amounts, will kill you. If you are old enough to get into a bar, you already know what the effects are -- it's your responsibility for how much you imbibe.

If I have a kitchenware shop and I sell you a butcher knife, you can use it to slice onions or throats.
If you are an adult, that choice isn't mine, and I can't follow you home and see what your life is like.

Yeah, the analogy isn't perfect, but if I put gasoline in your car, is if my fault you drive drunk? Or if I sell you a bottle of Tylenol and you eat them all all at once, that one on me?

Owning it starts at home.

Addiction to drugs or alcohol is a disease, but one which is controllable -- lot of folks are alcoholics who don't drink any more.

Same thing goes for the guy at the 7-Eleven who sells cigarettes. You buy them and smoke them, it's your fault -- it says on the package that you ought not be doing it.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Steve, we agree that the drunk is responsible 100% for his own conduct. But the bartender and bar owner and everyone else involved in supplying that drunk are also 100% responsible for their conduct. Handing a drink to someone you know perfectly well to be an alcoholic may not be immoral ... but it's close enough to it to make me uncomfortable. "There but for the grace of God" and so forth -- I'm not standing in judgement on anyone. But tending bar would depress me and owning a bar would probably keep me from sleeping at night.

Steve Perry said...

Wouldn't be my first choice of a job, either; still, key word here is responsibility -- save for criminals, children, and the feeble-minded, adults are supposed to be their own keepers.

If you -- the royal you -- are looking over my shoulder and telling me how I should behave in bed with my wife? Nope.

Where do you draw that line? If it is a pubtender's job to determine whether or not his customers are alcoholics, then why wouldn't it be a gas-pumper's job to know the driving history of the customers?

If you tell me you are gonna go slice throats instead of onions and I sell you the knife, maybe I have some part in it. But it's not my job to have to psycho-analyze every customer who wants a blender because he *might* shove his wife's hand into it.

I'd be all for the idea of having cars that wouldn't run if you couldn't pass a sobriety test, but then it becomes the car maker's burden. And then there are more laws to protect people from themselves, and pretty much, my idea of law is that it protects people from each other.

Lot of legal cases have come up that make a bartender responsible for serving under-aged patrons, or giving another round to somebody who is obviously drunk and about to climb into his automobile.

Past that, no. You want to drink and then go plow into pedestrians, that's yours from the git-go.

jj sutherland said...


I completely agree with Steve on this one. It is an individual adult choice. And as I'm not fond of others making choices for me, I'm not about to make theirs for them. I'll hold them responsible...but they are theirs to make.

Just so you know, two of my dispatches have been made public for various reasons...they both can be found on the NPR site.

here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5320004

and, this one from Afghanistan here:


jj sutherland said...

Damn...didn't wrap...

once again




Daniel Keys Moran said...

"If you -- the royal you -- are looking over my shoulder and telling me how I should behave in bed with my wife? Nope."

Now, now -- you never know where a useful suggestion might come from. A little open-mindedness never hurt anyone.

"Where do you draw that line?"

Pretty much where it is today. I'm not saying bartenders are morally culpable, or bar owners, or the people who sell tobacco for that matter.

Just a short digression on tobacco -- I do think there's real liability there for having lied to the public about the effects of tobacco. But anyone who stuck a cigarette in his/her mouth after the warnings went on the carton should be out of luck as far as damages -- even though the tobacco companies continued to lie about it. There's a great bit in "The Maltese Falcon" where Bogie tells Mary Astor that they they didn't exactly believe her story -- they believed her money. "You paid us more than if you'd told the truth ... and enough more to make it all right."

Anyone who believed the tobacco companies after the labels went up needs to study up on their Bogie.

"If it is a pubtender's job to determine whether or not his customers are alcoholics, then why wouldn't it be a gas-pumper's job to know the driving history of the customers?"

I would say that I don't think they're comparable. There's a real difference between handing a drink to a visibly drunk bar regular who you know is going to drive home, and pumping gas or selling knives or blenders or whatever.

"I'd be all for the idea of having cars that wouldn't run if you couldn't pass a sobriety test, but then it becomes the car maker's burden."

Probably the least invasive option, that. And doable with modern technology.

"And then there are more laws to protect people from themselves, and pretty much, my idea of law is that it protects people from each other."

I don't care what people do to themselves: I do care what drunks do on the road. I could own a bar you couldn't reach except by a 5-mile hike and not feel too bad about it ....

jj sutherland said...


As someone who has spent more time in bars than I ever should...

I always make sure that my local is within walking distance of my residence. If it isn't I move my residence, rather than the local. Okay, I've only done that once, and there were other factors involved, but I've always been, admittedly guiltily, proud of that.

Drunks on the road, as you point out, are pure evil. However, I'd point out that the city you live in (as I did for 3 years) is particularly unsuited to anyone drinking, even a little bit. Any bar is usually 20-30 minutes, by car, from your house. And if you meet someone, for dinner, or whatever, chances are, in this society, you'll have more than the two drinks in an hour that will make you illegal to drive.

I have no problem with that law. I do have a problem with a city design that encourages drunken driving, as LA is. I'm not trying to sound sanctimonious here, but if I ever went out drinking in LA I would take a cab, which did two things. First, given the incredibly expensive rates of the (regulated) cab industry, it made economically undesirable for most of the people I knew there. (digression: Usually they didn't get that drunk, but where above the legal limite (as is probably wise, your reactions go down far quicker than you think they do) However, the economic and social costs of taking cabs in LA is far higher than the risks of getting pulled over. Add in the cultural imperative of LA of driving your own car....it becomes an economic deficit to not drive a little bit drunk.

Obviously that deficit is reversed with brutal abruptness when one runs over a child...but the rarity of that situation is quite high. Therefore it is a rational economic decision to drive a little drunk (let's call it .8-1.2 for arguments sake), because the economic and social (therfore economic, especially in LA) costs are pretty low. Sure, your reaction time is slowed, but the odds of needing that 1/2 second are pretty low as well. No one wants to be the guy that killed children, but the odds of you being that guy, from an economic/cultural perspective are worth running...unless you are that guy, of course. But that punishment/guilt is low enough that people run that risk nightly in LA. In NYC people are far less likely to run that risk, not because they are better people, but because the socioeconomic cost (and the opportunity cost) of grabbing a cab are orders of magnitude lower.

So basically what I'm saying is that East Cost metropoli are inherently better than their western counterparts.

Go Sox!


joseph said...

The problem here as I see it is when someone drives drunk and kills an innocent person, they turn around and blame the person that sold them the booze in the first place. Be it a bartender or grocery clerk. They say, "I was clearly drunk, and should not have been sold alcohol in the first place."

When a person is charged with vehicular manslaughter, they want to get the blame placed elsewhere to keep from getting sent to jail.

If people would own up to what they have done, things would be different.

It is not the same situation for the kithenware shop owner, since having a knife in and of itself does not immediately make you a dangerous person. Driving a car is dangerous no matter what, it is the nature of the beast, but doing it while drunk is like adding a few more bullets to the gun while playing Russian roulette. You might walk away, but there is less chance of getting away scott free the more you drink.

I agree with owning it starts at home, but want to add that irresponsible people are not ready or willing to own it when they are required to, as a generalization.