Mark is the most brilliant food mind I have met, here is the opening summary:

Mark Miller is often called the founder of modern southwestern cuisine, but his unique anthropological approach to food has led him to explore cuisines in over 100 countries around the world. He joins Tyler for a conversation on all that he’s learned along the way, including his pick for the most underrated chili pepper, palate coaching, the best food cities in Asia, Mexico, and Europe, the problems with sous-vide, why the Michelin guide is overrated, mezcal versus tequila, the decline of food brands, how to do fast food well, and why the next hipster food trend should be about corn.

Here is the text, audio, and video.  Mark is a blizzard of information density, and I don’t know anyone else who has his experience with the food world, most of all with Asia, Mexico, and the American Southwest.  (You may recall he was an interlocutor in my dialogue with Fuchsia Dunlop, and so we recorded this session with Mark afterwards.)

I thought the highlight was Mark’s six-minute riff on tasting chiles, it really shows Mark in his glory — this is one of those cases where I definitely recommend the video over the text:

Elsewhere in the conversation, see why he picks Seoul, Tokyo, and Bangkok as the three best world cities for food tours.  And:

COWEN: You don’t need brands, right?

MILLER: You don’t need brands anymore. The consumer used to have brands as guide and trust. Today there are other ways of developing that. We’re in consumer level 3. Consumers are defining brands, and how brands get used. I think that the idea of brand is probably — you’re an economist — dated. [laughs]

There is this:

MILLER: You go to a bus station in Monterrey: you can see a hundred of the best tacos in the world.

The questioner was Megan McArdle.  I enjoyed the entire exchange immensely, and hope you do too.

The tweet subtitle they gave my latest Bloomberg column:

Reading articles from other perspectives isn’t enough.  Try writing one.

My final tag line:

We all need to worry about our own growing grumpiness.

I loved Jason Barr’s Building the Skyline a history of New York from the point of view of the economics of skyscrapers. Where else will you learn so much of interest about elevators?

Elevators create a particular problem. On one hand, adding more floors to the building will produce more space from which the developer can collect more money. But at some point, a new shaft and set of elevators need to be added to handle the additional traffic. This then eats into the rentable space….Do the additional floors on top generate enough rents to cover the loss of new space from the elevators?

…skyscrapers must devote about 30% of the total space to elevators, including their shafts, hallways and machine rooms.

And then you have to get the people where they want to go quickly:

The new One World Trade Center will have the fastest cars in the Western Hemisphere, operating at a top speed of 2,000 feet a minute, though a relative snail compared with the Burj Khalifa, which delivers its tenants to any of its 164 floors at a rate of 3,543 feet per minute.

…Maximum [elevator] speed has increased at an average annual rate of 1.7% since 1913.

Barr loves skyscrapers and he writes about them beautifully. Building the skyline also has excellent photos and illustrations. It’s not for everyone but if the statistics, economics, and history of New York’s skyscrapers appeals, then this is the book to get.

Hat tip: Michael Hendrix.

From Garrett S. Christensen and Edward Miguel, from their survey of methodological problems in economic research:

Another potentially useful tool is post-publication peer review.  Formalizing post-publication peer review puts us in relatively uncharted waters.  Yet it is worth noting that all four of the AEA’s American Economic Journals allow for comments to appear on every article’s official webpage post-publication (anonymous comments are not allowed).  The feature does not appear to be widely used, but in one case…comments placed on the website have actually resulted in changes to the article between its initial online pre-publication and the final published version.

One of the biggest problems with “economics as a science” is that economists themselves cannot usually admit how irrelevant so much of the work — even the quality work — turns out to be.  I’m all for worrying about reproducibility, transparency, and the like, but sometimes I feel those micro-debates distract our attention from this bigger and broader problem and indeed help to obscure that problem.

Addendum: This website, JournalTalk, does the same thing.

*The Genome Factor*

by on January 18, 2017 at 12:41 pm in Books, Science | Permalink

The authors are Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher, and the subtitle is What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals About Ourselves, Our History and the Future.

It appears quite serious, I look forward to reading it soon.

The editor of this truly excellent book is Timothy N. Ogden, the subtitle is Perspectives on Randomized Trials in Development Economics, and the contributors include Angus Deaton, Dean Karlan, Lant Pritchett, David McKenzie, Judy Gueron, Rachel Glennerster, Chris Blattman, and yours truly, with a focus on randomized control trials and other experiment-related methods.  Here is one bit from the interview with me:

I would say that just about every reputable RCT has shifted my priors.  Literally every one.  That’s what’s wonderful about them, but it’s also the trick.  You might ask, “why do they shift your priors?”  They shift your priors because on the questions that are chosen, and ones that ought to be chosen, theory doesn’t tell us so much.  “How good is microcredit?” or “What’s the elasticity of demand for mosquito nets?”  Because theory doesn’t tell you much about questions like that, of course an RCT should shift your priors.  But at the same time, because theory hasn’t told you much, you don’t know how generalizable the results of those studies are.  So each one should shift your priors, and that’s the great strength and weakness of the method.

Now, you asked if any of the results surprised me.  I think the same reasoning applies.  No, none of them have surprised me because I saw the main RCT topics to date as not resolvable by theory.  So they’ve altered my priors but in a sense that can’t shake you up that much.  If you offer a mother a bag of lentils to bring her child in to be vaccinated, how much will that help?  Turns out, at least in one part of India, that helps a lot.  I believe that result.  But 10 years ago did I really think that if you offered a mother in some parts of India a bag of lentils to induce them to bring in their kids to vaccination that it wouldn’t work so well?  Of course not.  So in that sense, I’m never really surprised.

And this:

One of my worries is RCTs that surprise some people.  Take the RAND study from the 1970s that healthcare doesn’t actually make people much healthier.  You replicate that, more or less, in the recent Oregon Medicaid study.  When you have something that surprises people, they often don’t want to listen to it.  So it gets dismissed.  It seems to me that’s quite wrong.  We ought to work much more carefully on the cases where RCTs are surprising many of us, but we don’t want to do that.  So we kind of go RCT-lite.  We’re willing to soak up whatever we learn about mothers and lentils and vaccinations, but when it comes to our core being under attack, we get defensive.

I very much recommend the book, which you can purchase here.  Interviews are so often so much better than just letting everyone be a blowhard, and Ogden did a great job.

Maybe not, possibly patents were more effective.  Here is some new research from B. Zorina Khan, entitled “Prestige and Profit: The Royal Society of Arts and Incentives for Innovation, 1750-1850”:

Debates have long centered around the relative merits of prizes and other incentives for technological innovation. Some economists have cited the experience of the prestigious Royal Society of Arts (RSA), which offered honorary and cash awards, as proof of the efficacy of innovation prizes. The Society initially was averse to patents and prohibited the award of prizes for patented inventions. This study examines data on several thousand of these inducement prizes, matched with patent records and biographical information about the applicants. The empirical analysis shows that inventors of items that were valuable in the marketplace typically chose to obtain patents and to bypass the prize system. Owing to such adverse selection, prizes were negatively related to subsequent areas of important technological discovery. The RSA ultimately became disillusioned with the prize system, which they recognized had done little to promote technological progress and industrialization. The Society acknowledged that its efforts had been “futile” because of its hostility to patents, and switched from offering inducement prizes towards lobbying for reforms to strengthen the patent system. The findings suggest some skepticism is warranted about claims regarding the role that elites and nonmarket-oriented institutions played in generating technological innovation and long-term economic development.

I consider the origins of modern science to be a still under-studied topic.

That is a request from Christina, a loyal MR reader.  It sounds like a huge question, and maybe it is, but my answer is pretty simple, which is not to say the problem is simple to solve.

Let’s say you are in Germany.  People engage in rule-following behavior, and they become quite emotionally stressed if you suggest you might break the rules in especially inappropriate ways.

Alternatively, in Naples there is more garbage in the streets, and flexibility and rigidity across a very different set of social variables.  I call that a difference in “culture,” and I am ready to accept culture as an ill-defined, question-begging term.

Now, how do differences of culture — however defined — interact with traditional economic mechanisms involving prices, incomes, and simple comparative statics?  Are those competing explanations, namely cultural vs. economic?  Ought they to dovetail nicely in some kind of broader explanation?  Or might the cultural factors in some manner be “reduced” to questions of more traditional economics?  Some combination of the above?  Something else altogether?  And, from among these and other options, what principles of differentiation rule how “culture” and “economics” will be related in a particular problem?

That to me is the most important unsolved problem in economics and indeed in social science more broadly.


A philosophically-minded MR reader writes to me:

Tenure ought to be an occasion to explore radically new intellectual paths, ones not pre-approved by one’s field and ones that could, perhaps, do something to bridge the chasm between academic and non-academic intellectual life–and yet as a matter of fact what seems to happen is that people either stop working altogether or continue barreling down the groove they wore themselves into to get tenure.  (You mentioned this issue in a post last year:  But I want to hear more.

So: why does this happen, how can we prevent it at the University/ departmental level, and, most of all, how can we prevent it at the personal level?  (Keeping in mind that most of us are not cognitively capable of processing information at the speed to go your route!)   The idea that we are incentivized to keep working by the prospect of being promoted to full Professor seems silly, given the increased administrative responsibilities.

Related problem: as one moves up the tenure hierarchy, the administrative responsibilities tend to fall disproportionately on fewer and fewer people,  b/c there are lots of deadbeats. I repeatedly see the few responsible people overwhelmed with administrative tasks which they refuse to delegate to those they know will not take them seriously.  (And I observe these responsible people are disproportionately women, even in a field–like mine–that is disproportionately male.)

I have a few suggestions, all feasible but only a few are practical:

1. All schools should copy the committee obligations policy of the school, within their quality tier, that has the fewest committee assignments for faculty.  Yes this can be done.

2. I don’t know how to operationalize this one, but on average give women half the committee assignments that men have.  That still won’t equalize the total work burden (women on average work harder per committee assignment), but it is a start.

3. Study your lecture preparation, and experiment with cutting parts of it out.  See if that matters.

4. Each year take at least one trip to a place you didn’t think you wanted to visit.

5. Go to some Liberty Fund conferences.

6. Refuse to have colleague lunches based around local politics, politics, small talk, sports (unless of the analytic variety), and campus gossip.  Just don’t do it.  Also avoid lunches with too many people attending.

7. Of the five or so smartest people you hang out with (family aside), try to ensure that no more than half of them are in your department.

8. Change the ratio of foreign-to-domestic TV shows you watch, in favor of the foreign.

9. Hang at least one piece of non-cheery art on your wall that will remind yourself of an ever-pending death.  Change its angle every now and then, or better yet change the picture, so you don’t get too used to it and stop noticing it altogether.  If need be, supplement this with Brahms’s German Requiem.

10. Write a periodic blog post, if only a secret and non-published one.  If you don’t find this process is going well, ask yourself what is wrong.

11. Worry if no one thinks you are crazy.  Supplement this with actually being crazy.

12. What else?

I wanted to like this book, as I am keen to discover new perspectives on the arts, even if I don’t agree with them.  “False” books on the arts often illuminate the artworks themselves, sometimes more than do the “true” treatments.  Yet this work I had a tough time making sense of.  I will confess to having read only about a third of it, and browsed some more.  As I understand the book’s thesis, the plasticity of the brain, as it changes across historical eras, helps explain changes in the content of the visual arts.  But I view brain plasticity as a generally overrated idea, evidence for such claims about the arts is hard to come by (how much do we know about differences in brains in ancient Athens for instance? And how good is our theory linking brain differences to artistic content?), and most of all neuroscience itself so often disappears during the book’s exposition.  Even the Amazon summary indicates the rather mysterious nature of the book’s main argument.  It is a beautifully produced volume, and it feels important, and maybe there is finally scope for a book of this kind, but…

Here is a (very) negative review by Matthew Rampley.  Some of you may nonetheless find this interesting.  It is a big ideas book, and perhaps it can prompt you to write a more clearly defined big ideas book in response.

He is from Brown University, we met at a tacqueria, here is the interview, here is one bit from it, from me:

Popular culture is not nearly pro-science enough…. It should be much higher status to be in science. This would boost the rate of innovation. I think people privately can just choose to respect science more. In a sense it’s a free lunch! You don’t have to spend money, people just have to actually believe science is really good. So that’s what I advocate. And that’s a question of role models and exposure when you’re young. I think TV shows are very important… Star Trek and even Gilligan’s Island I think made science cool to a lot of people. I think President Obama actually has done a pretty good job of being a pro-science role model and how he talks about science. His powers are limited but I think he actually gets this pretty well, because he’s made a real concerted attempt rhetorically to work that into what he’s about. I think historically, America has not been all that pro-science, but we invented the atomic bomb, we industrialized in this fantastic manner. In a bunch of ways pro-science and nationalism should overlap. Being the first country to put a man on the moon gave a huge boost to science. That boost has proven temporary, much to my dismay.

Here are bits and pieces on the very smart Noah Cowan, who was a Jeopardy champion at a very young age.

Both male and female scientists felt that female scientists (light bars) were more objective, intelligent, etc. than male ones (dark bars), although the differences were larger when it was female scientists making the ratings.

I found this interesting too:

Strikingly, though, early-career scientists were rated as having less objectivity, integrity and open-mindedness than PhD students – or so thought the senior scientists.

Junior researchers, however, saw themselves as being slightly superior to PhD students…

Here is more, via the excellent Samir Varma.

A Yoruba tongue twister

by on December 26, 2016 at 3:06 am in Books, Science | Permalink

Opolopo opolo ni ko mo pe opolopo eniyan l’opolo l’opolopo

That means “many frogs do not know that many people are intelligent.”

That is from Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things, a book of essays.

And here is yet a further update on Nigerian plastic rice.

How to make annoying alarms

by on December 23, 2016 at 1:07 am in Law, Medicine, Science | Permalink

The faster an alarm goes, the more urgent it tends to sound. And in terms of pitch, alarms start high. Most adults can hear sounds between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz—Baldwin uses 1,000 Hz as a base frequency, which is at the bottom of the range of human speech. Above 20,000 Hz, she says, an alarm “starts sounding not really urgent, but like a squeak.”

Harmonics are also important. To be perceived as urgent, an alarm needs to have two or more notes rather than being a pure tone, “otherwise it can sound almost angelic and soothing,” says Baldwin. “It needs to be more complex and kind of harsh.” An example of this harshness is the alarm sound that plays on TVs across the U.S. as part of the Emergency Alert System. The discordant noise is synonymous with impending doom.

After the alarm designers create a range of sounds in the lab, says Baldwin, they will test the annoyance factor of these sounds in a process called “psychophysical matching, or psychophysical ratings.” Yes, this involves subjecting human beings to a bunch of irritating sounds. Participants determine how annoying the sounds are by sorting them into categories ranking them on a scale of one to 100. 

Then there’s more testing. “If it’s a medical alarm, for instance, we’ll start using that sound and then we’ll maybe measure people’s physiological response to it—does their heart rate go up, does their skin conductance level go down, what happens to their brain activity,” says Baldwin. Skin conductance measures how much the sound affects the body—skin gets better at conducting electricity when the body is physiologically aroused.

An effective audio alarm is one in which the annoyance factor and perceived urgency of the sound is matched to the hazard level—a soft little chime for the fridge door, say, and a “BREHHHHK BREHHHHK BREHHHHK” for a plane in a tailspin. “We want it to be detectable, so to get your attention, but for you to recognize what it means right away,” says Baldwin.

It turns out this is a problem in hospitals:

In hospitals in particular, there are “so many nuisance alarms going off all the time, that people—nurses, doctors—just tune them out,” says Baldwin. “They don’t even hear them anymore.” The statistics say that most of these alarms are not indications of peril. A 2012 review of medical audio alarms found that in one intensive therapy unit, “of 1455 soundings of alarms, only eight were associated with potentially life-threatening problems.”

Here is the full piece, from the excellent Atlas Obscura, and for the pointer I thank Torsten Kehler.

In early November Google Translate took a Japanese translation of the opening of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and returned:

Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.

One day later Google Translate took the same passage and returned:

Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

What happened on that day is that Google turned its Translate service over to Google Brain, it’s new division that uses “neural networks” to solve AI problems. Google Brain and it’s history is the subject of  an excellent longread, The Great AI Awakening, from Gideon Lewis-Kraus (from which I have drawn the example).

Today, however, I want to make a different point. In my paper, Why Online Education Works, I wrote:

Online education has the potential to break the cost disease by substituting capital for labor and hitching productivity improvements in education to productivity improvements in software, artificial intelligence, and computing.

The improvements to Google Translate provide an example. Our Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics courses at Marginal Revolution University are captioned in over a hundred languages. Professional human-written captions have been produced for most of our videos in English, Spanish, French, Chinese and Arabic and we are working on more translations. Most of the translations, however, including those for Corsican, Kyrgyz, and Urdu are provided by Google. The earlier machine-translations weren’t great but were still useful to students in Pakistan who might need a bit of extra help to understand a new concept. The translations, however, are getting better.

Indeed, every improvement in Google Translate automatically becomes an improvement to Marginal Revolution University. Amazing.