Food and Drink

Bras, girdles and leggings infused with caffeine and sold as weight loss aids were more decaf than espresso, and the companies that sold them have agreed to refund money to customers and pull their ads, U.S. regulators said on Monday.

The Federal Trade Commission said Wacoal America and Norm Thompson Outfitters, which owns Sahalie and others, were accused of deceptive advertising that claimed their caffeine-impregnated clothing would cause the wearer to lose weight and have less cellulite.

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank Glenn Mercer.

Hopscotching the globe as Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra repeatedly encountered a distressing problem: bad Thai food.

Too often, she found, the meals she sampled at Thai restaurants abroad were unworthy of the name, too bland to be called genuine Thai cooking. The problem bothered her enough to raise it at a cabinet meeting.

Her political party has since been thrown out of office, in a May military coup, but her initiative in culinary diplomacy lives on.

At a gala dinner at a ritzy Bangkok hotel on Tuesday the government will unveil its project to standardize the art of Thai food — with a robot.

Diplomats and dignitaries have been invited to witness the debut of a machine that its promoters say can scientifically evaluate Thai cuisine, telling the difference, for instance, between a properly prepared green curry with just the right mix of Thai basil, curry paste and fresh coconut cream, and a lame imitation.

Has there ever been a better committee name than this?:

The government-financed Thai Delicious Committee, which oversaw the development of the machine, describes it as “an intelligent robot that measures smell and taste in food ingredients through sensor technology in order to measure taste like a food critic.”

In a country of 67 million people, there are somewhere near the same number of strongly held opinions about Thai cooking. A heated debate here on the merits of a particular nam prik kapi, a spicy chili dip of fermented shrimp paste, lime juice and palm sugar, could easily go on for an hour without coming close to resolution.

The full story is here, excellent throughout, and for the pointer I thank Otis Reid.

Hong Kong bleg

by on September 27, 2014 at 6:38 am in Food and Drink, Travel | Permalink

You know the drill, I have been there before but not in a long time.  Your assistance is much appreciated and I thank you all in advance…

How to make beer a natural monopoly?

by on September 27, 2014 at 1:00 am in Food and Drink | Permalink

Bruges is trying something different:

The Belgian city of Bruges has approved plans to build a pipeline which will funnel beer underneath its famous cobbled streets.

Locals and politicians were fed up with huge lorries clattering through the cobbled streets and tiny canal paths of the picturesque city and decided to connect the De Halve Maan brewery to a bottling factory 3.2km (two miles) away.

It is estimated that some 500 trucks currently motor through Bruges each year on their way to the brewery, which is a famous tourist attraction.

Now they will be kept out of the city limits, as the pipe pumps 1,500 gallons of beer per hour. Construction is set to begin next year.

“The beer will take 10 to 15 minutes to reach the bottling plant,” said brewery CEO Xavier Vanneste. “By using the pipeline we will keep hundreds of lorries out of the city centre. This is unique in the brewing industry with exception of one German brewery that has installed a similar system.”

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank Samir Varma.

Eliminating heterogeneity bias causes 97 percent of the variance in the price level of food products across cities to disappear relative to a conventional index. Eliminating both biases reverses the common finding that prices tend to be higher in larger cities. Instead, we find that price level for food products falls with city size.

That is part of an abstract and new paper from Jessie Handbury and David E. Weinstein, via Kevin Lewis.  They have two additional interesting papers on the cost of living here.

In case you don’t like Wiener Schnitzel and doner kebab:

Now Germany’s Air Food One is a subscription service that lets anyone get airline meals delivered to their home once a week.

Offered by online grocery, members can choose between two options — classic or vegetarian — just like on a real flight. The service has teamed up with LSG Sky Chefs, which provides airline food for Lufthansa, to prepare a different meal each week that matches the business class menu on airplanes. For example, this week it’s serving Arabic seafood or panserotti with porcini mushrooms. The meals are delivered every Wednesday evening and are suitable for freezing. When it comes time to cook, members can simply place the meal in the oven. The idea is that the healthy subscription meals can be ordered by busy professionals who would otherwise be ordering a takeaway. Additionally, the service lets LSG Sky Chefs get rid of the excess meals not needed by its flying customers, avoiding waste and acting as an advertisement for its food quality.

The full story is here, and for the pointer I thank Michael Rosenwald.

That is the recently published (QJE) paper by Douglas Gollin, David Lagakos, and Michael E. Waugh, the abstract is here:

According to national accounts data, value added per worker is much higher in the nonagricultural sector than in agriculture in the typical country, particularly in developing countries. Taken at face value, this “agricultural productivity gap” suggests that labor is greatly misallocated across sectors. In this article, we draw on new micro evidence to ask to what extent the gap is still present when better measures of sector labor inputs and value added are taken into consideration. We find that even after considering sector differences in hours worked and human capital per worker, as well as alternative measures of sector output constructed from household survey data, a puzzlingly large gap remains.

There are ungated copies here.

I believe there is something “funny” about agriculture.  Productivity convergence is also slowest in that sector, especially compared to manufactures.  I see a few possible factors at work:

1. Status quo bias keeps a lot of workers living in rural areas and employed in agriculture, lowering productivity in that sector and also hindering the transfer of new ideas and technologies.  Wages stay low and approaches remain hidebound and old-fashioned.

2. The influence of “non-rational” culture — in the Weberian sense — is usually stronger in rural and agricultural areas.

4. Liquidity constraints limit movement into urban areas.

5. Fear of loss of status and local friendships also limit the movement into urban areas and prevent an equalization of returns as defined in terms of pecuniary variables only.

Or put agriculture aside, and let’s pose the same question about wage equalization in Puerto Rico and the mainland United States, given that free migration is allowed and wages in the U.S. are considerably higher.  In a lot of different settings, factor price equalization isn’t as strong as you might think.  Maybe this is just showing that agriculture is in fact a remarkably human activity.

Jennifer Schuessler at The New York Times reports on the work and new book of Dan Jurafsky:

In a study of more than a million Yelp restaurant reviews, Mr. Jurafsky and the Carnegie Mellon team found that four-star reviews tended to use a narrower range of vague positive words, while one-star reviews had a more varied vocabulary. One-star reviews also had higher incidence of past tense, pronouns (especially plural pronouns) and other subtle markers that linguists have previously found in chat room discussions about the death of Princess Diana and blog posts written in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In short, Mr. Jurafsky said, authors of one-star reviews unconsciously use language much as people do in the wake of collective trauma. “They use the word ‘we’ much more than ‘I,’ as if taking solace in the fact that this bad thing happened, but it happened to us together,” he said.

Another finding: Reviews of expensive restaurants are more likely to use sexual metaphors, while the food at cheaper restaurants tends to be compared to drugs.

Previous MR posts on Jurafsky are here.

This I found in a Quora forum on prepaid meals in China:

We’ve actually experimented with prepaid vs postpaid meals in our restaurant. The verdict? Upfront payment increased table turnover by over 80%.

The difference is that customers who haven’t paid can justify their occupation of a table. They surf facebook. They chat away for hours on end. They get comfy. It matters not whether they intend to order more stuff, the mere possibility of them ordering more gives them the moral upper hand.

Customers who have paid up on the other hand, do not have moral justification. They could order more food, but diminishing marginal utility and inertia discourages that act. They get edgy. They feel guilty. They leave.

It all depends on the restaurant’s business model. If it’s a low-end restaurant, this tactic will serve it well. If it’s a high end restaurant, paying $150 for that bottle of wine buys you a little more time.

For the pointer I thank Eduardo Pegurier.

Red vs. white wine, at the state level

by on September 13, 2014 at 3:03 pm in Food and Drink | Permalink

All but three states—Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa—buy more red than white, according to data compiled by online wine retailer Naked Wines. North Carolina, Mississippi, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are particularly fond of red varietals—the four buy red wine nearly 60 percent of the time, and white wine only 30 percent of the time. (The remaining roughly 10 percent account for sparkling and rose purchases).

What’s with the Midwest?  White wine to go with all that fish?  I don’t think so.  The full story, with further data, is here.

This one is so simple it is stupid, yet you hardly ever hear it.  If anything it is mocked, but I will go on record:

Eat at 5 p.m. or 5:30.

The quality of the food coming out of the kitchen will be higher.  Only the very top restaurants (and even then not always) can maintain the same quality at say 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.  It is also the easiest time for getting a reservation.

The best time to eat at @ElephantJumps is 4:20 p.m.  They’re all just sitting around, waiting to cook for you.

Oyamel is a good example of a D.C. restaurant which can be quite iffy, but is tasty and consistent first thing in the evening.

There is a beauty to having a restaurant all to yourself.  And if you don’t like the timing, have no more than an apple for lunch.

This is also a better system for getting work done, if the nature of your workplace allows it.  Few people who do the 7:30 dinner work through to 11 p.m.  If you have  dinner 5-6:30, you are ideally suited to get back into the saddle by 7:15.

But please, I hope not too many of you follow this advice.  The funny thing is, you won’t.  You will leave the low-hanging fruit behind, you strange creatures you.

It seems culture and training matter a great deal.  T.M. Luhrmann reports:

Recently, a team of anthropologists and psychologists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University, both in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, set out to discover how language and culture affected sensory awareness. Under the leadership of Asifa Majid and Stephen C. Levinson, they made up a kit of systematic stimuli for the traditional five senses: for sight, color chips and geometric forms; for hearing, pitch, amplitude and rhythm variations; for smell, a set of scratch-and-sniff cards; and so forth. They took these kits to over 20 cultural groups around the world. Their results upend some of our basic assumptions.

For example, it’s fairly common, in scientific literature, to find the view that “humans are astonishingly bad at odor identification and naming,” as a recent review of 30 years of experiments concluded. When ordinary people are presented with the smell of ordinary substances (coffee, peanut butter, chocolate), they correctly identify about half of them. That’s why we think of scent as a trigger for personal memory — leading to the recall of something specific, particular, uniquely our own.

It turns out that the subjects of those 30 years of experiments were mostly English-speaking. Indeed, English speakers find it easy to identify the common color in milk and jasmine flowers (“white”) but not the common scent in, say, bat droppings and the leaf of ginger root. When the research team presented what should have been familiar scents to Americans — cinnamon, turpentine, lemon, rose and so forth — they were terrible at naming them. Americans, they wrote, said things like this when presented with the cinnamon scratch-and-sniff card: “I don’t know how to say that, sweet, yeah; I have tasted that gum like Big Red or something tastes like, what do I want to say? I can’t get the word. Jesus it’s like that gum smell like something like Big Red. Can I say that? O.K. Big Red, Big Red gum.”

When the research team visited the Jahai, rain-forest foragers on the Malay Peninsula, they found that the Jahai were succinct and more accurate with the scratch-and-sniff cards. In fact, they were about as good at naming what they smelled as what they saw. They do, in fact, have an abstract term for the shared odor in bat droppings and the leaf of ginger root. Abstract odor terms are common among people on the Malay Peninsula.

I am good at smelling curries.

Sapiens [the new book by Yuval Noah Hariri] devotes large sections to unsparing accounts of the domestication and factory farming of cows, pigs and chickens. This, he contends, has made them some of the most genetically “successful” creatures in history but the most miserable too.

It is an interesting question how much that will prove to be the equilibrium more generally, namely the genetic superiority of slaves because they can reap more external investment.  After all, capital is more productive today than in times past, so evolution might now produce more slaves.  Here is another bit from John Reed’s coverage of the lunch interview with Hariri:

What allowed humans to become history’s most successful species, he [Hariri] argues, was our ability to construct and unify small groups behind certain “fictions” – everything from national legends and organised religion to modern value systems like human rights, and the modern limited liability company with thousands of employees and vast credit lines at its command.

…I tell Harari I like the idea of fiction as the supreme human construct.

That is from the FT’s lunch with Yuval Noah Hariri.  If I recall correctly, I pre-ordered Sapiens from UK Amazon.

Here is a new paper by Galor and Özak, highly speculative of course:

This research explores the origins of the distribution of time preference across regions. It advances the hypothesis and establishes empirically, that geographical variations in natural land productivity and their impact on the return to agricultural investment have had a persistent effect on the distribution of long-term orientation across societies. In particular, exploiting a natural experiment associated with the expansion of suitable crops for cultivation in the course of the Columbian Exchange, the research establishes that agro-climatic characteristics in the pre-industrial era that were conducive to higher return to agricultural investment, triggered selection and learning processes that had a persistent positive effect on the prevalence of long-term orientation in the contemporary era.

Didn’t Irving Fisher once say something like this?  My view in contrast is that virtually everyone has a high rate of time preference, but some (wise) people can act like low time preference individuals by choosing the proper perceived rewards and benefits, for instance by courting approval from others for saving or waiting.  It may just be pretense, but who cares?  It is not unusual to see the same person switch rapidly from high time preference to low time preference modes of thought and behavior, and this to me suggests it is all about perceptions, environment, expectations, peer effects, and other social factors, rather than genes.  In other words, choose your framing wisely.

More broadly, there is a “brute fact” that one bunch of societies have a lot of correlated positive features, and another group of societies do not.  I don’t think we’ve gotten very far beyond that brute fact in terms of what we can infer from that distribution.

The original pointer to the article is from

Cochabamba notes

by on August 29, 2014 at 8:09 am in Food and Drink, Travels | Permalink

It is very charming here, but no one can tell me exactly what they export.  Grain is a thing of the past.  There are many universities in town.  Trees, birds, and flowers are all first-rate.

I feel like I had never tasted a green pepper before.  For silpancho, go to Palacio del Silpancho.  The only item on the menu is…silpancho.  I also recommend the street tamales with corn and cheese and the street food more generally, most of all at the comedores at the market 25 de Mayo.  The “nice” restaurants are good and cheap, but not materially better than the Bolivian food you get in Falls Church, Virginia.   Viva Vinto, about forty minutes out of town, served the best meal of my trip, the taxi will wait for very little money.  Cochabamba provides one of the world’s best culinary micro-tours, although it requires a working knowledge of Spanish.

You can buy a quality Andean sweater for $12.  The potatoes are the best I have eaten, ever, both purple and otherwise.

Quechua hats are not like Aymara hats.

People smile much more in Santa Cruz.  The hotel electrical sockets use a different form here, and it would not be hard to convince somebody they were two different countries.