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February 18, 2005

Facts from Near and Far

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Some facts that have caught my eye recently.

  • Census figures reveal that the number of American households with five or more people has dropped by half since 1970, while one and two-person households are up by 50%. (Source: The American Conservative.)

  • Every year, Americans spend about $50 billion on caffeinated sodas.

  • The coffee company Starbucks was founded in 1971 as a single espresso bar in Seattle. Today, of course, it's nearly everywhere, with more than 7000 branches. And Starbucks is still growing at an amazing rate. Every working day, the company opens four new outlets and hires 200 new employees.

  • Many scientists and historians believe that the Industrial Revolution wouldn't have been possible without the widespread use of caffeineated drinks.

  • Finns ingest more caffeine -- 145 grams a year per person -- than the people of any other nation.

  • Red Bull, a caffeinated drink in a can, is available in 100 countries, and sells close to two billion cans a year. (I found these caffeine facts in National Geographic.)

  • As traditional trade-book publishers consolidate, conglomerate, and become more risk-averse, "book packagers" (small outfits that bring together concepts, writers, and visual people, and that market their packages to traditional publishers) are becoming more important. In some cases, packagers are now functioning as book publishers themselves. Incentive: as mere packagers, they make 10% of their books' profits, while as publishers, they can pocket 50%. Some packaging companies are already bigger than many publishers. Melcher Media, for example, has 11 fulltime employees and produces 10-15 books per year, with an average of 100,000 sales per title.

  • In Turkey, a book that sells 3000 copies is generally considered a bestseller. (Source for these two entries: Market Partners International's Publishing Trends.)

  • While sales of traditional books have stagnated for several years, sales of audiobooks continue to climb -- up 5.1% from 2002 to 2003. The market for audiobooks is now estimated at $800 million.

  • Tom Wolfe confesses that he's an audiobook fan. He and his family listen to audiobooks on their weekend drives to and from the country. "I shouldn't admit this," he says, "but I highly enjoyed a two-hour rendition of 'Moby-Dick' ... We've heard things I probably never would have read, like 'Dracula,' which was much more interesting than I thought it would be."

  • The audiobook version of Bob Dylan's "Chronicles" is read by Sean Penn. An audiobook version of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" is read by Matt Dillon.

  • Sales of CD (rather than traditional audiotape) versions of audiobooks now account for more than 45% of audiobook sales. Sales of Audible (ie., digital-download) audiobooks were up 69% from 2002 to 2003. (I found these audiobook facts in AudioFile magazine.)

  • Philippe Rousselot, the cinematographer for the current Keanu Reeves cyber-blockbuster "Constantine," didn't always work on big-budget, squaresville movies. He started off as an assistant to the great New Wave cinematographer Nestor Almendros; worked as an assistant on such films as "My Night at Maud's," "Claire's Knee," and "Chloe in the Afternoon"; and is known for his own work on such films as "Diva," "Queen Margot," and "Henry & June."

  • Much of the television hit "CSI: Miami" is actually shot in Los Angeles. What's involved in making L.A. look like Miami? According to one of the visual people at work on the show, "Los Angeles skies are dull, pale blue, white or brown with no interesting cloud formations, and L.A. has mountains and hills all around. Miami is flat, has graphic architecture, and a more brilliant ocean." As a result, the crew uses a lot of filters (apricot, amber) to warm the LA light, and a lot of long lenses to flatten and disguise what's being photographed. Another one of the show's visual guys says, "We exploit the hell out of the palm trees. That's something the two cities have in common. We also exploit any parkland that has sawgrass that can double for the Everglades. We use El Dorado Park in Long Beach for the Everglades sequences." (Source for cinematography facts: (ICG magazine.)

  • 30.4% of America's Hmong immigrants receive public assistance. (Via Vdare's Edwin Rubenstein.)

  • Europe's 7-9 million Roma (ie., Gypsies) are its biggest and poorest ethnic minority. Roma unemployment in Slovakia was 87.5% in 2003, and 69% of Romanian Romas live below the poverty line.

  • The market for ultra-mega-high end cars has been shrinking. Mercedes hoped to sell 1000 of its $350,000 M62 and M57s; sales have fallen far short, and Mercedes now hopes to move only 600 of the cars. Rolls-Royce hoped to sell 1000 of its immense Phantom saloons; sales of these cars might well fall 25% short.

  • The wars in Chechnya, where Russians are battling Chechnyan separatists, have been going on since 1994. Between 10,000 and 20,000 Russian soldiers have died. Chechen deaths are estimated at 50,000 to 200,000.

  • The war in Sudan has lasted since 1983. So far around 2 million people have died in it.

  • Those who think America doesn't subsidize automobile travel might want to consider the following figures, given in current dollars. The laws in question represent direct Federal money to the making and maintenance of highways and roads:
    * Cost of the Federal Highway Act of 1956: $218 billion
    * Cost of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1972: $75 billion
    * Cost of the Transportation Act of 1991: $210 billion
    * Cost of the Transportation Equity Act of 1998: $250 billion.
    * Estimated cost of the current highway bill, HR 3550: $256 billion.

    If I'm adding and dividing right, that means about $3300 has been spent by the Federal government on roads and highways for every living American. You've got a family of four? That's a lot of highway-subsidizing you and your close kin have been doing.

  • 10,000 years ago, the world's human population was likely around 5-10 million people. Some linguists estimate that at that time as many as 12,000 languages were spoken. Today, with world population at 6 billion, about 6800 languages are currently alive. Perhaps 400 of these languages are close to extinction.

  • America's pension systems seem to be in very bad shape. One expert estimates that corporate defined-benefit pensions are underfunded by as much as $450 billion, and the PBGC (the quasi-governmental insurerer of these plans) is itself $23 billion in the red. Oops, there goes my retirement. (The above facts come from The Economist.)



posted by Michael at February 18, 2005


"Many scientists and historians believe that the Industrial Revolution wouldn't have been possible without the widespread use of caffeineated drinks."

I thought it was gin that made the industrial revolution possible.

Posted by: giles on February 18, 2005 4:11 PM

Maybe you need an effective up and an effective down?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 18, 2005 4:15 PM

Well, with both pensions and big expensive cars down, "The Bachelor"'s success makes more sense to me. Anything to forget...

With regard to is chilling. The real-life main character of "Hotel Rwanda" said recently, "The world keeps saying 'never again' and keeps not living up to it with bewildering frequency..." Interesting, though, that people blame the hopelessness of Islamic countries for the violence they induce. Why, then. didn't 19 Sudanese slam into the WTC, or blow up a nightclub? Think that country is "full of hope"? Something is still missing from the explanation. And...what were we doing in Kosovo, again? I mean...if genocide is bad...

Posted by: annette on February 18, 2005 4:32 PM

"The audiobook version of Bob Dylan's "Chronicles" is read by Sean Penn. An audiobook version of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" is read by Matt Dillon."

Speaking of Matt Dillon, today happens to be his birthday. What a coincidence that you've mentioned him today in your blog, as I did! And on his birthday, no less.

Creepy, huh?

Have yourself a good weekend!

Posted by: Waterfall on February 18, 2005 5:44 PM

Given the reclusive nature of Roma society and their penchant for, um, creative accounting, are we relying on their reported income to class them as poverty stricken...or on something a bit more objective? Has it dawned on anyone that reporting poverty-level wages saves you lots in taxes and qualifies you for welfare? I'm not sure your average government bureaucrat is quite up to seeing through whatever front the Roma care to put up.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 18, 2005 10:14 PM

Maybe you need an effective up and an effective down?

Which may explain why the vodka red bull fuelled the second industrial revolution?

Posted by: Giles on February 19, 2005 1:29 AM

"Many scientists and historians believe that the Industrial Revolution wouldn't have been possible without the widespread use of caffeineated drinks."

Pynchon, Stephenson and others have worked this vein. Some say that the coffee house with newspapers was as vital a cultural driver as the factory was an economic driver.

Me, I've always liked to imagine some European city where the timing worked out so that coffee and tea, sugar, cocoa, tobacco, and cheap distilled spirits all hit in the same generation. Wheeeeee!

Posted by: Monte Davis on February 19, 2005 6:30 AM

You need to subtract gas tax revenue form the highway bills, and any non highway expenses for mass transit and prevailing wages.

The way I look at it we have toll roads, you pay your toll at the pump.

Posted by: Ripper on February 19, 2005 9:52 AM

Waterfall -- That is freaky. Maybe we're tuned into other dimensions. The Matt Dillon channel, maybe.

FvB -- Wouldn't you love to the taxperson assigned to making some sense out of Roma finances?

Giles -- I wonder how caffeine consumption varies by industry, and by company. Do financial people drink more booze, and manufacturing people more coffeee? Do Microsofties tank up more or less than Apple-heads?

Monte -- I've got a long-simmering (hey, appropriate image!) posting I'll get around to finishing someday, I hope, about the importance of coffee houses to one of my favorite periods in Western art history, the British 18th century. Novels, newspapers, short stories, biography, gossip, commercialism -- a sociable, dynamic bunch. And apparently wired to the max.

Ripper -- Despite poking around a bit, I've never seen a totally fair-seeming, convincing breakdown of how much we do or don't subsidize car travel. Have you? There are all kinds of things to take into account, god knows. Certainly many of the zillions we've spent on the mideast (wars, policing, diplomacy, eating shit to ingratiate ourselves) we never would have spent if it weren't for oil ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 19, 2005 11:01 AM

Me, I've always liked to imagine some European city where the timing worked out so that coffee and tea, sugar, cocoa, tobacco, and cheap distilled spirits all hit in the same generation. Wheeeeee!

Of course this happened in Australia, the Pacific and America- and it sounded more like Whoaaa.

Michael - interesting question. I canít think of any industries where coffee isnít commonly drunk Ė airline pilots? Booze seems important in industries where establishing credibility, trust or relationships are important e.g. finance. It less important in things like programming where people are less important.

Posted by: Giles on February 19, 2005 12:06 PM

"If I'm adding and dividing right, that means about $3300 has been spent by the Federal government on roads and highways for every living American. You've got a family of four? That's a lot of highway-subsidizing you and your close kin have been doing."

I'm thinking that people who order enough stuff keep a fleet of Fex-Ex trucks rolling might be accounting for more cost than the average family of four.

Posted by: jc on February 19, 2005 3:32 PM

Redbull and other energy drinks are banned in france, this is because a bunch of finn/ swedish kids died on taking too much of the stuff with vodka (waaaay too much vodka redbulls mess you up!)...

why do the finns drink sooo much caffiene? because alcohol is taxed at rates which cause people to substitute caffiene as their drink of choice for going out...

funny how these things work out

Posted by: azad on February 19, 2005 8:08 PM


I believe you've got the "fedex truck" thing backwards. What consumes more energy: 500 people individually driving to the mall to buy a sweater, or one fedex truck home-delivering 500 sweaters?

People in my town seem to think by maintaining the old post office with its quaint P.O. boxes, we're somehow saving the environment. So now we have 2000 people driving into town to get their mail every day, instead of 4 postal service jeeps making deliveries.

Posted by: dave munger on February 20, 2005 12:18 PM

Dave - we're not talking about energy. (And you might want to look into those numbers more carefully. Just do a simple MBA "the story of a sweater" case and see what happens.) We're talking about highway costs. Having various cars driving is not nearly the strain on the roadway as having one Fed-Ex sized truck. I can easily carry four 50-pound dogs from a car to a house. I cannot easily carry one 200-pound dog, especially if it's wiggling, although that's not entirely the point.

Check your own local standards, maybe you live among enlighted people who build roads for the traffic they'll actually carry.

Posted by: j.c. on February 20, 2005 4:38 PM

I've been told that surgeons don't drink coffee. A tiny bit of coffee nerves could mess someone up pretty bad. ("Whoops!": #1 word you don't want to hear....)

OK then, why do Finns drink so much vodka and ALSO so much caffeine? The substitution theory doesn't work.

I'm with Dave Munger on the FedX. One FedX truck on a route does less damage than 20 tound trips.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 21, 2005 12:09 PM

Michael, Ripper,

Steve Sailer recently posted an interesting piece on how we all paid for highways and roads and sprawl that some of us might not have benefited from.
Another place to look would be James Howard Kunstler's website.

That said I imagine it will be extremely difficult to give a totally fair-minded breakdown of highway subsidies because you would have to talk about everything: art, air, health, risk, the morality of various taxes, history. The exact breakdown seems unknowable. The fact that it occurred, however, is undeniable. Whether it was a net good can only be a debate, albeit enlightening.

Posted by: Chris on February 21, 2005 12:23 PM

I was struck by the factoid that a book in Turkey that sells 3000 copies is considered a best-seller. Michael, you worked in the book trade, so maybe you can set me straight -- it's my impression that for as Big and Important as books are considered to be, the actual print runs and sales of many books are astonishingly low. As in selling out a printing of 2000 hardcover copies for a first novel would be considered a successful outcome. Which leads me to think that relatively few people in the US buy traditional hardcover books at all. I have some dim memory of seeing Garrison Keillor quoted somewhere as expressing his surprise that hardcover sales of one of his books in the US were roughly the same as sales of the same book in vastly smaller Denmark, where he lived for a while. (I'm paraphrasing from memory, but I think that was the gist of it.) If I've got the quote right, that probably says something about American versus European average Joe Consumer book-buying habits.

That makes me wonder about the overall economics of the traditional book trade. I just came across a website for an outfit ( out of Seattle that specializes in language-learning textbooks, bilingual dictionaries, and self-study courses. One of its offerings is translated editions of the Harry Potter books in every available language as a way to practice reading whatever language you're trying to learn. If you're looking for Harry Potter books in, say, Icelandic or Faroese, this is one convenient US-based source.

Judging from this website, all five Harry Potter books have been translated into Faroese. There might be at most 50,000 people in the world who speak Faroese at all. (It's a Scandinavian language descended from Old Norse, related to Icelandic, and spoken on the Faeroe Islands in the north Atlantic.) The fifth Harry Potter book in particular is over 800 pages long in English. Somebody would have to be paid to translate it, then there's the manufacturing cost of making a book out of that great wad of paper. Multilingual charges $165 for a copy of the hardcover, which with the usual import mark-up that roughly doubles the cost of a foreign book, would mean you'd probably pay around the equivalent of $80 or so in a Torshavn bookshop for it. That's probably not unreasonable, considering the cost of licensing the title, translating it, and producing the book, but what would the print run be? A couple of thousand, if that? Even if there isn't much else to do during the stormy north Atlantic winters and people on the Faeroes read a lot, is it feasible to sell a given book to one out of every 25 men, women, and children who know the language? Well, it must be feasible somehow or books in Faroese wouldn't be published at all, but I wonder how it works.

Some books just can't sell more than a few copies, no matter how worthy. During my tech writing days, I worked with a man who was a retired Air Force officer. He had written a handbook on investigating aircraft accidents. I gathered that it was the standard reference in the field, and everyone who had to do with investigating aircraft accidents considered having a copy of it an absolute must. Only problem was, there aren't very many people who investigate aircraft accidents, so there was an absolute maximum of how many copies of the book even could be sold, and it wasn't very high. I would guess that an individual copy of the book was priced accordingly so the publisher could make a profit, so it wouldn't be cheap.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on February 21, 2005 12:51 PM

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