Category: Food and Drink

How to extract information from on-line reviews, or why Star Wars is still a thing

Online reviews promise to provide people with immediate access to the wisdom of the crowds. Yet, half of all reviews on Amazon and Yelp provide the most positive rating possible, despite human behaviour being substantially more varied in nature. We term the challenge of discerning success within this sea of positive ratings the ‘positivity problem’. Positivity, however, is only one facet of individuals’ opinions. We propose that one solution to the positivity problem lies with the emotionality of people’s opinions. Using computational linguistics, we predict the box office revenue of nearly 2,400 movies, sales of 1.6 million books, new brand followers across two years of Super Bowl commercials, and real-world reservations at over 1,000 restaurants. Whereas star ratings are an unreliable predictor of success, emotionality from the very same reviews offers a consistent diagnostic signal. More emotional language was associated with more subsequent success.

Here is more from Matthew D. Rocklage, Derek D. Rucker, and Loran F. Nordgren, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Lex Fridman

2 hours 9 minutes long, Lex is one of the very best interviewers/discussants in the sector.  Here is the video, here is the audio.  Plenty of new topics and avenues, including the political economy of Russia (note this was recorded before the massing of Russian forces on the Ukraine border).  Lex’s tweet described it as follows:

Here’s my conversation with @tylercowen  about economic growth, resisting conformity, the value of being weird, competition and capitalism, UFO sightings, contemporary art, best food in the world, and of course, love, death, and meaning.


Which are the most striking elements of Monkey Pong?

Watch this if you haven’t already:

What comes to your mind is an interesting kind of Rorschach test.  A few options (not necessarily endorsed by me) are:

1. Where did they get that background from?

2. Can I have some of what that monkey is drinking?

3. Wealth concentrations are going to make IRB regulations less relevant over time.

4. How many people want to play Pong against a wired monkey?  Will we employ or enslave monkeys to enable this?  What is in fact the relevant difference?

5. What else can that monkey (cognitively) do better than I can?

6. Which regulatory agency will have jurisdiction over the (presumably disabled) humans who want this as a medical treatment?  What about the non-disabled humans?  The Navy pilots?

7. Where does this all end?

8. Will this raise or lower the price of monkeys?

What else?

Cereal brand to reimburse consumers who paid inflated prices during COVID shortage

For those with pandemic pangs for the sweet crunch of Grape Nuts, take heart. The Great Grape-Nuts Shortage of 2021 is officially over.

After months of being out of stock, the cereal is shipping at full capacity to stores nationwide, parent company Post Consumer Brands told USA TODAY exclusively.

And if you paid wildly inflated prices on the black market to get your hands on a box, you may be eligible for reimbursement.

“It became abundantly clear during the shortage that Grape-Nuts fans are ‘Nuts for Grape-Nuts,’” Kristin DeRock, Grape-Nuts brand manager at Post Consumer Brands, said in a statement. “So much so that some of our loyal super fans were willing to pay extreme prices just to ensure they wouldn’t be without their favorite crunchy cereal.”

Here is the full story, via John B. Chilton.  One way to read this is Grape Nuts subsidizing habit formation.  Alternatively, you might read it as Grape Nuts subsidizing very loyal customers, and hoping to get publicity in the process.  Or is Grape Nuts subsidizing future middlemen in any future black market transactions by assuring them of ongoing demand?  How are you supposed to prove you bought a black market box?  And was it illegal to resell and buy Grape Nuts in the first place?  I don’t entirely understand all of the microeconomic mechanisms at work here.

Nominal Taiwanese salmon arbitrage

Have your fun while you can:

A Taiwanese official has pleaded with people to stop changing their name to “salmon” after dozens made the unusual move to take advantage of a restaurant promotion.

In a phenomenon that has been labelled “salmon chaos” by local media, about 150 mostly young people visited government offices in recent days to officially change their name.

The cause of this sudden enthusiasm was a chain of sushi restaurants.

Under the two-day promotion, which ended on Thursday, any customer whose ID card contained gui yu” – the Chinese characters for salmon – would be entitled to an all-you-can-eat sushi meal along with five friends…

The United Daily News reported that one resident decided to add a record 36 new characters to his name, most of them seafood themed, including the characters for “abalone”, “crab” and “lobster”.

Here is the full story, via Jeremy Rubinoff.

“You have to order all at once”

I’ve now been to two different Miami restaurants that have told me the same thing.  They will take your food order only once, and you cannot decide later that you would like additional items, though you can ask for more water (and presumably other drinks?).

Perhaps this is part of a desire to economize on labor costs, so you do not need more staff to run around the room and ask diners if “they are OK”?  Is it so bad to be forced to know what you want in the first place?  And might it induce risk-averse customers to over-order a bit, thereby boosting restaurant profits?  Should your enjoyment of the meal really depend so much on the third derivative of the utility function?

Do any of you know of other instances of this policy, or data on its effectiveness?

Is the policy actually time consistent, namely what if you insisted you wished to spend another $100 on the food there?  Would they tell you no and bring you the check?

Both places, Boia De and Lung Yai Thai Tapas, were excellent, get the Kow Soi at the latter and then walk up the street to the anti-communist memorials on 14th St. for one of Miami’s most interesting and unusual cultural highlights.

Canadian expense arbitrage markets in everything

Good Fortune Burger of Toronto has named its menu items after office supplies so that customers can include them on expense reports:

Fortune Burger: Basic Steel Stapler
Diamond Chicken Burger: Mini Dry Erase Whiteboard
Double Your Fortune Burger: Ergonomic Aluminum Laptop Stand
Emerald Veggie Burger: Wired Earphones With Mic
Parmesan Fries: CPU Wireless Mouse
Ginger Beer: Yellow Lined Sticky Notes
San Pellegrino: Ball Point Black Ink Gel Pens
Build Your Fortune Burger: Silicone Keyboard Cover

“There’s no malice intended in it,” Director of Operations Jon Purdy told blogTO. “It’s all just fun and games.”

Here is the menu, via John Thorne.

Which small changes in pandemic habits will stick?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

I for one will miss the Saturday evening Zoom meeting. Since the pandemic started, I have found it easy to schedule calls at 5:30 or 6:30, even when more than one person is involved. Everyone just says yes. Why not? You’re not going out to the movies or dinner. Even if you think Zoom calls are oppressive — especially if you think Zoom calls are oppressive — it is better to have somewhere to put your marginal Zoom call other than 2 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.

For a lot of people, the blurring of work and private time has been a burden. But I’ve been living that way most of my life. For the last year, the rest of the world has been forced to adopt my work habits, and I am going to miss it when they return to traditional socializing. I’ll still be offering you that Saturday night slot. We’ll see how many takers I get.


I also will miss early lunch, a practice also noticed by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Like a lot of people, I miss eating in a variety of settings — not just restaurants or coffee shops, but cafeterias or my desk — so I look for that variety temporally. The early cooking of a hamburger does indeed provide that break in routine, and with lunch at 11, why do I need breakfast anyway?


Personnel economics working in the supermarket

Yesterday I outlined my supermarket job from ages 16-18 in suburban New Jersey.  I did know plenty of economics at that time, including Adam Smith and Paul Heyne and most of classical economics, and here are some of the observations I made.  Please note this is all n = 1 or n = 2, these may or may not be generalizable.  Here goes:

1. Mockery was the relevant incentive at the margin, and the “enforcer of first resort.”  If you did something wrong you were mocked, sometimes mercilessly.  My first night on the job I put too many fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator, relative to expectations, and so I heard about that multiple times on my next appearance.  The jokes at my expense were funny.

2. There was strong competition to win overtime hours. Working Sunday 12-5 was a prime slot, and not hard work either because customer demand was slow that day.  Saturday 1-9:30 had extra payoffs as well.  These labor supply curves definitely sloped upwards.  And allocation of overtime hours served to keep the better workers around.

3. My sense was that the demand for labor was pretty inelastic in the following sense: once you were soundly established as someone who would show up, complete your list of tasks, and not steal too much, they really were not looking to fire you.  You were “a keeper,” and in principle they would pay you more in response to a minimum wage hike, rather than firing you.

4. My sense was that the demand for labor was quite elastic in the following sense: the lower-tier workers were given a lot of luxury hours.  For one thing, if you didn’t get an average of at least fifteen hours a week, you might leave for another job.  Second, and more importantly, a lot of the night hours were optional.  Did they really need you back there that Tuesday night after 6 or 7 p.m.?  Well, maybe yes, maybe no.  There was a sense that if customers came by with questions, it was useful to have someone around to help them.  But if the produce department was not making a lot of money, they would cut back on these hours quite readily.  In slow times I didn’t get the 5-10 p.m. slot a whole lot.

5. Department managers, including in produce, were paid an “efficiency wage time profile” of returns, a’ la Eddie Lazear.  That is, in early years they would pay you below marginal product, but pay you above marginal product in the later, outer years.  That schedule would keep you in line, because you needed to avoid getting fired to reap the high later returns.  That said, in the outer years you would end up getting canned, because the prescription is not entirely time consistent.  Why keep someone around who is getting paid above marginal product?  It was called “getting busted.”  At that point you would typically start all over again with another supermarket.  (I did understand this all at the time, though I hadn’t yet read Lazear and a lot of the work hadn’t yet been published.)  A minority of department managers ended up promoted to store managers, but that was hard to pull off, especially without a college degree.

6. There was plenty of employee theft, though never from me.  Things disappeared off the back of trucks, and in this time there was no CCTV.  At a smaller scale, to be caught eating or taking food without a receipt was considered a fireable offense, though if you were a good worker and kept it to brief snacking within limits they did not try too hard to catch you.  They didn’t want to have to fire you, yet they did want to keep the rule in place.  Collusion between male line workers and female cashiers sometimes was a problem, as it meant some people would just take foodstuffs home.

6b. Shoplifting was rampant, though much more in the meat department than in produce.  Overall, the customers and workers were less honest than the bosses.

7. Correctly or not, the line workers typically were cynical about the union.  You paid dues to it, and you were told it gave you higher wages, but otherwise it had no presence in your life.  People saw the dues that left their paycheck, but were not convinced they were getting comparably high wages because of the union.

8. Due to gas prices and commuting costs (you had to keep your car in OK shape, which took competence as well as money), there was a modest degree of monopsony.  Still, everyone understood that a higher cost of labor meant fewer hours and in the longer run fewer hires.  No one thought that allowing vastly more shoplifting would lead the company to hire more labor, which is in fact what the more radical monopsony models imply.  Nope, it wasn’t monopsony of that sort.

9. The store manager, and in turn the department manager, would be terrified when the regional boss would do a store walk-through, and typically that happened by surprise.  That was when they really wanted you to scurry and have everything looking spic and span.

10. Workers had various personality types, and within a given type only so much motivation was possible, no matter what the rewards.  All rewards were seen as temporary, and to be followed by an eventual firing or demotion.  Slackers were slackers, and you had to accept that and work around them accordingly.

My history of manual labor

Here is another request:

What is the hardest manual labor you’ve ever done? I love intellectual policy wonk commentary, but I can’t help but feel some small amount of disdain for people who SEEM (a possibly faulty assumption) to have never really suffered trying to solve problems in the physical realm. There’s so much abstract data/policy up for debate, but how many talking heads have even replaced a toilet or turned a wrench in their lives?

From ages 16 through 18 I worked in the produce department of a supermarket, and that involved a fair amount of lifting of heavy boxes and additional physical labor, though nothing as hard as digging ditches or as unpleasant as cleaning toilets.  My first job was at Hillsdale Valley Fair, where at the same time James Gandolfini (Sopranos star) was a shopping cart fetch boy.  My second job was at Hillsdale Stop & Shop, again in the produce department.

These were fundamental experiences for my core outlook, for these reasons and more:

1. I learned that earning money is very good for people’s psyches.  No amount of money, neither large nor small, ever should be taken for granted because somewhere along the way someone earned it.  At the time I felt very rich.

2. The people slated to fail in life might be just as intelligent as those set to succeed.  And often they are funnier and more fun to hang around with and sometimes in these kinds of jobs more productive as well.  Yet somehow they do not have the conceptual frameworks that might put them on the road to success, nor could they acquire such frameworks easily.

3. It is not that easy to find a good produce department manager.  Really quite a few skills are required, not the least of which is the ability to handle and motivate the junior staff.  The most difficult quality to find in the produce managers, however, was the discipline to avoid saying “**** you” to the store bosses, who were always busting their chops.

4. They all thought I was weird.  It was periodically remarked that I didn’t smile very much.  Yet most of the time I was having a blast.  I was producing stuff.

4b. I learned that being called “****head” a few times a week is not such a terrible thing.  Sometimes it made me smile.

4c. I had to wear a tie or they would send me home.  That seemed just to me.

5. I continued working several nights a week for the first half of my freshman year at Rutgers Newark.  After I got back from the long drive to classes (I lived at home still), accompanied by Bruce Springsteen music, I would either wrap lettuce or go read Nassau Senior and Malthus.

6. Back then they did not hire women to work in the backrooms of the produce department, so it was quite a “guys club” in terms of rhetoric and ethos.  I remained polite.

7. It was stupid that they ever wrapped bananas in clear wrap in the first place, and I was relieved when they stopped the practice.  Plums were by far the most fun fruit to wrap into packages.

*Resetting the Table*

The author is Robert Paarlberg and the subtitle is Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat.  This book is a refreshing change of pace from most of the other food books, which tend to be illiterate on the economic side.  Here is one excerpt:

Modern farming protects the environment not only by using less land compared to several decades ago; it also uses less water, less fossil energy, and fewer chemicals for every bushel produced.  One major contributors here is no-till farming, which is a method for planting seeds in unplowed fields.  This method requires specialized equipment, but it reduces soil erosion, protects soil moisture, sequesters carbon, and requires much less burning of diesel fuel, which is why farmers began doing it in the 1970s, a decade of high fuel prices.  According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, more than twice as much cropland is now under no-till or reduced-till compared to intensive tillage.  In parallel fashion, new irrigation systems such as center-pivot and drip have replaced simple flooding, thus conserving water.  Lasers are employed to help level farm fields, which eliminates surface runoff.  GPA auto-steering eliminates wasteful overlaps in the field.  Genetically engineered seeds help farmers protect against insects and weeds with fewer and less toxic chemical sprays.

Recommended, sensible throughout.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jan Golinski, Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820.  One of the best books on the history of Enlightenment science, in addition to the core material it focuses on how the leading researchers went about creating public audiences for their investigations and for the scientific questions that interested them.  Indirectly, it is also a good book for understanding the importance of social media today.  And unlike many books of science, it properly places the “could you actually make a career out of doing this?” question in the forefront.

2. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 1: 1898-1922.  It is striking how quickly in his life Eliot is corresponding with very famous people, including Bertrand Russell, Ezra Pound, Conrad Aiken, Julian Huxley, Herbert Read, Wyndham Lewis, and others, all before Eliot himself is renowned.  I also enjoy the 23 March 1917 letter to Graham Wallas where Eliot boasts about his new job at Lloyds, praises the extraordinary nature of banking work, and roots for a salary boost.  Later Hermann Hesse and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf are added to the mix, and this is only volume one (out of eight).  I have ordered more.  Simply reading the short bios of the letter writers, at the end of the book, is better than most other books.

3. Lara Lee, Coconut and Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen.  Yes, I have been learning how to cook Indonesian food, a natural extension of my previous interest in cuisines from India, Malaysia, and Singapore.  This is an excellent book for several reasons, and a better book yet for a pandemic.  First, you can fold it open easily on the kitchen counter.  Second, the pages can take some wear and tear.  Third, the key ingredients are readily storable.  Galangal, turmeric, and narrow red chiles all freeze very well.  Refrigerated lemon grass stays good for at least a few weeks.  Shallots and garlic and coconut milk and cream are easy enough to buy and store.  This is actually the #1 issue for a cookbook, if like me you cannot so often plan your cooking in advance.  The Thai grocery in Falls Church has all the “marginal’ ingredients as well.  On top of everything, the resulting food product is yummy!

Vaccines Are Not Like Emergency Rations!

According to the Guardian the First Minister of Wales explained their policy of doling out the Pfizer vaccine evenly over the next six weeks:

the Pfizer vaccine has to last us until into the first week of February.

…We won’t get another delivery of the Pfizer vaccine until the very end of January or maybe the beginning of February, so that 250,000 doses has got to last us six weeks.

That’s why you haven’t seen it all used in week one, because we’ve got to space it out over the weeks that it’s got to cover.

Bonkers! A vaccine isn’t like a limited supply of water that needs to be rationed until you arrive at the next oasis. The sooner you get the vaccine out the better! Start lowering R now! If you run out of vaccine, well scarcity is bad but running out means that at least one part of your system is working well! It’s a bad idea to kill people to make it look like you are following some sort of numerically neat plan.

One year into the pandemic and people still don’t understand vaccines or viral growth.

Hat tip: Arthur Baker.

My Conversation with the excellent Noubar Afeyan

Among his other achievements, he is the Chairman and co-founder of Moderna.  Here is the audio and video and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss which aspect of entrepreneurship is hardest to teach, his predictions on the future of gene editing and CRISPR technology, why the pharmaceutical field can’t be winner takes all, why “basic research” is a poor term, the secret to Boston’s culture of innovation, the potential of plant biotech, why Montreal is (still) a special place to him, how his classical pianist mother influenced his musical tastes, his discussion-based approach to ethical dilemmas, how thinking future-backward shapes his approach to business and philanthropy, the blessing and curse of Lebanese optimism, the importance of creating a culture where people can say things that are wrong, what we can all learn by being an American by choice, and more.

Here is one excerpt:


I should point out, Tyler, what these people don’t yet realize is that mRNA, in addition to being unique in that it’s really the first broadly applied code molecule, information molecule that is used as a medicine and with all the advantages that come with information — digital versus analog — or where you actually have to do everything bespoke, the way drugs usually work.

The other major advantage that it has is that it is something that is actually taking advantage of nature. There was a lot of know-how we had going into this around how the process could be done. In fact, let me tell you the parallel that we used.

We have a program in cancer vaccines. You might say, “What does a cancer vaccine have to do with coronavirus?” The answer is the way we work with cancer vaccines is that we take a patient’s tumor, sequence it, obtain the information around all the different mutations in that tumor, then design de novo — completely nonexistent before — a set of peptides that contain those mutations, make the mRNA for them, and stick them into a lipid nanoparticle, and give it back to that patient in a matter of weeks.

That has been an ongoing — for a couple of years — clinical trial that we’re doing. Well, guess what? For every one of those patients, we’re doing what we did for the virus, over and over and over again. We get DNA sequence. We convert it into the antigenic part. We make it into an RNA. We put it in a particle. In an interesting way, we had interesting precedents that allowed us to move pretty quickly.

And at the close:

Imagine if all of us were also born imagining a better future for ourselves. Well, we should be, but we’ve got to work to get that. An immigrant who comes here understands that they’ve got to work to get that. They have to adapt. The problem is, if you’re born here, you may not actually think that you’ve got to work to get that. You might think you’re born into it.

This will be a funny thing to say, and I apologize to anybody that I offend. If we were all Americans by choice, we’d have a better America because Americans by choice, of which I’m one, actually have a stronger commitment to whatever it takes to make America be the place I chose to be, versus not thinking about that as a core responsibility.

Definitely recommended, he is working to save many many lives, and with great success.

Does soil heterogeneity induce greater individualism?

Itzchak Tzachi Raz says maybe so:

This paper studies the impact of social learning on the formation of close-knit communities. It provides empirical support to the hypothesis, put forth by the historian Fred Shannon in 1945, that local soil heterogeneity limited the ability of American farmers to learn from the experience of their neighbors, and that this contributed to their “traditional individualism.” Consistent with this hypothesis, I establish that historically, U.S. counties with a higher degree of soil heterogeneity displayed weaker communal ties. I provide causal evidence on the formation of this pattern in a Difference-in-Differences framework, documenting a reduction in the strength of farmers’ communal ties following migration to a soil-heterogeneous county, relative to farmers that moved to a soil-homogeneous county. Using the same design, I also show that soil heterogeneity did not affect the social ties of non-farmers. The impact of soil heterogeneity is long-lasting, still affecting culture today. These findings suggest that, while understudied, social learning is an important determinant of culture.

Here is the full paper.  See also his paper on homesteading: “…we find that areas with greater historical exposure to homesteading are poorer and more rural today.”