Food and Drink

Shenzhen notes

by on October 7, 2014 at 2:23 am in Food and Drink, Travels, Uncategorized | Permalink

Many parts of the city are indistinguishable from Hong Kong, and even China pessimists should find it easy to imagine Shenzhen gliding into fully developed status.  At times Shenzhen looks better than Hong Kong, but that is due to what I call the myth of infrastructure.  Shenzhen being poorer than Hong Kong, and having developed later, are coincident reasons with the peak parts of the city having newer-looking infrastructure.

The OCT Design Center was impressive.  China probably will never dominate world music, but my bet is China will be the most important country for the visual arts within the next ten to fifteen years.

It didn’t strike me as a great city for food, if only because the place barely existed thirty years ago.  I passed by a bunch of places, but none were especially tempting and some parts of the city don’t seem to have many non-corporate restaurants at all.  Finally, I had a tasty meal at the Muslim Hotel Restaurant, food (and servers and diners) from the western part of China.  I believe that Cantonese food is due for a steep relative decline, given how much it relies on low labor costs and super-fresh ingredients.  It’s already the case that people thinking of taking you out to eat in downtown Hong Kong fixate on other options.  It is the New Territories part of town which will carry Cantonese traditions forward.

By the way, visiting Shenzhen will make you think that wages in Hong Kong and Taiwan are due for decline.

Alcohol inequality

by on October 5, 2014 at 3:08 am in Data Source, Food and Drink | Permalink

I double-checked these figures with [Philip] Cook, just to make sure I wasn’t reading them wrong. “I agree that it’s hard to imagine consuming 10 drinks a day,” he told me. But, “there are a remarkable number of people who drink a couple of six packs a day, or a pint of whiskey.”

As Cook notes in his book, the top 10 percent of drinkers account for well over half of the alcohol consumed in any given year. On the other hand, people in the bottom three deciles don’t drink at all, and even the median consumption among those who do drink is just three beverages per week.

The piece, by Christopher Ingraham, is interesting throughout.  Here is my earlier post on “The culture of guns, the culture of alcohol”, one of my favorites.

Addendum: Via Robert Wiblin, Trevor Butterworth offers a good critique of the data.

Wild marmosets in the Brazilian forest can learn quite successfully from video demonstrations featuring other marmosets, Austrian scientists have reported, showing not only that marmosets are even better learners than previously known, but that video can be used successfully in experiments in the wild.

Tina Gunhold, a cognitive biologist at the University of Vienna, had worked with a population of marmoset monkeys in a bit of Brazilian forest before this particular experiment.

The forest is not wilderness. It lies near some apartment complexes, and the marmosets are somewhat used to human beings. But the monkeys are wild, and each extended family group has its own foraging territory.

Dr. Gunhold and her colleagues reported in the journal Biology Letters this month that they had tested 12 family groups, setting up a series of video monitors, each with a kind of complicated box that they called an “artificial fruit.”

All the boxes contained food. Six of the monitors showed just an unchanging image of a marmoset near a similar box. Three of them showed a marmoset opening the box by pulling a drawer, and three others a marmoset lifting a lid to get at the food.

Marmosets are very territorial and would not tolerate a strange individual on their turf, but the image of a strange marmoset on video didn’t seem to bother them.

Individual marmosets “differed in their reactions to the video,” Dr. Gunhold said. “Some were more shy, some more bold. The younger ones were more attracted to the video, perhaps because of greater curiosity.”

But, she said, the ones that watched the demonstrations were much better at getting the box open than the ones that had the placebo monitor, and they also tended to use the specific skill demonstrated, pulling the drawer open or lifting the lid.

There is more here (including video!), and for the pointer I thank Philip Wallach.

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux reports:

The new supervisor thought his idea was innocent enough. He wanted the baristas to write the names of customers on their cups to speed up lines and ease confusion, just like other Starbucks do around the world.

But these aren’t just any customers. They are regulars at the CIA Starbucks.

“They could use the alias ‘Polly-O string cheese’ for all I care,” said a food services supervisor at the Central Intelligence Agency, asking that his identity remain unpublished for security reasons. “But giving any name at all was making people — you know, the undercover agents — feel very uncomfortable. It just didn’t work for this location.”

This purveyor of skinny lattes and double cappuccinos is deep inside the agency’s forested Langley, Va., compound.

…The baristas go through rigorous interviews and background checks and need to be escorted by agency “minders” to leave their work area. There are no frequent-customer award cards, because officials fear the data stored on the cards could be mined by marketers and fall into the wrong hands, outing secret agents.

And this:

The chief of the team that helped find Osama Bin Laden, for instance, recruited a key deputy for the effort at the Starbucks, said another officer who could not be named.

Employees at the branch also are not allowed to bring smart phones inside.  The piece is interesting throughout.

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 Allyouneed.com, 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.