Friday, November 13, 2009

Skepticality #115

Tough times for startups

This week Swoopy interviewed Cheryl Lins, a small scale distiller of absinthe in New York State.  Absinthe until recently was an illicit beverage in parts of Europe and the United States.  Lins shared how starting up a small business can be a challenge in regulatory happy New York.  You have to get licensed to open the distillery, get zoning approval by the local government agencies, overcome temperance folks, and the difficulties of expanding a business.  For example, to hire help while complying with the state’s workers’ compensation laws is cost prohibitive since a large amount of money must first be paid into the state workers compensation fund before an employee can be hired.  Lin is caught in the position of being a distiller, a bottler, a labeler, a marketer, and a distributor as she cannot afford to add employers to assist and grow the business. 

On top of all the above difficulties she is bringing back a hundred year old beverage, which means she has to cultivate from scratch all the necessary supplies of various herbs to brew and distill her beverage.  All of the above is a challenged but in the end it is rewarding for her passion in her product keep her moving forward.  If only the regulations for businesses were more accommodating, she could more readily grow her business and be more of an economic engine for her community. 

What?  When did Swoopy start interviewing people from the chamber of commerce or Young Republicans?  What happened to Derek?  Well, a large part of Swoopy’s interview did seem to be out of context for Skepticality, a podcast for the promotion of reason and science.  The hook for this being a skeptical topic was that absinthe after being an exceeding popular alcoholic beverage mix in late 19th century to early 20th century France was railroaded out of existence based upon the faulty premise that absinthe and its alleged dangerous component worm wood caused people to hallucinate and go insane.  Therefore, armed with this faulty information, pressure from the strange bedfellows of the temperance-minded and wine producers in France, Switzerland, and the United States, the beverage was outlawed.  Most of the history of the rise of absinthe from patent medicine to a popular beverage of the masses that threatened wine as the drink of choice among the French to outlaw drink was expertly and succinctly handled by Swoopy on the lead up to the interview. 

However, as a whole the interview was less about how rumor and lie trumped fact in the long history of absinthe, and more about how difficult it is to be an entrepreneur.  My sympathy is with Lins.  It is example of when regulations retard the growth of industry, but I do not know if it was a fitting discussion for a scientific skeptical podcast.  It would be like me listening to the Auto Line After Hours podcast, and after a brief discussion of the limits of battery powered cars as a small hook of skepticism to jump into a discussion on why the Lexus ES 350 is not nearly as good a car as the Buick LaCrosse.  (Do not leave.  It’s just an example.) 

Swoopy did a fine job on the technical aspects of the interview.  It is clear Swoopy is taken with the idea of Absinthe, just like I am taken with the idea of ‘doctor’s car’ Buicks of the 50’s and 60’s. (Sweet, Sweet Buick Electra)  In fairness, the history of absinthe is an example of how bad information contrary to the best evidence can be twisted to outlaw a perfectly safe product.  However, I think Swoopy let the interview slip into a rabbit hole of the challenges faced by the small business owner, which while interesting and unfortunate, was beyond the expected scope of the show that just a bit more aggressive use of garage band's editing would have mended.  

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