Category: Food and Drink

What should I ask Ben Westhoff?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event, here is from his home page:

Ben Westhoff is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes about culture, drugs, and poverty. His books are taught around the country and have been translated into languages all over the world.

His new book Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic releases September 3, 2019 in the U.S. (Grove Atlantic) and October 10, 2019 in the UK, Austrailia, and New Zealand (Scribe). Here’s more information.

His previous book Original Gangstas: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the Birth of West Coast Rap has received raves from Rolling Stone and People, a starred review in Kirkus, a five-star Amazon rating, and made numerous year-end best lists. More info can be found here.

…his 2011 book on southern hip-hop, Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop was a Library Journal best seller.

Here is my review of his excellent forthcoming Fentanyl, Inc.  He also has a well-acclaimed book on New York City bars and dives.  All of his work is fascinating.

So what should I ask him?

My Conversation with Masha Gessen

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Masha joined Tyler in New York City to answer his many questions about Russia: why was Soviet mathematics so good? What was it like meeting with Putin? Why are Russian friendships so intense? Are Russian women as strong as the stereotype suggests — and why do they all have the same few names? Is Russia more hostile to LGBT rights than other autocracies? Why did Garry Kasparov fail to make a dent in Russian politics? What did The Americans get right that Chernobyl missed? And what’s a good place to eat Russian food in Manhattan?

Here is excerpt:

COWEN: Why has Russia basically never been a free country?

GESSEN: Most countries have a history of never having been free countries until they become free countries.

[laughter]

COWEN: But Russia has been next to some semifree countries. It’s a European nation, right? It’s been a part of European intellectual life for many centuries, and yet, with the possible exception of parts of the ’90s, it seems it’s never come very close to being an ongoing democracy with some version of free speech. Why isn’t it like, say, Sweden?

GESSEN: [laughs] Why isn’t Russia like . . . I tend to read Russian history a little bit differently in the sense that I don’t think it’s a continuous history of unfreedom. I think that Russia was like a lot of other countries, a lot of empires, in being a tyranny up until the early 20th century. Then Russia had something that no other country has had, which is the longest totalitarian experiment in history. That’s a 20th-century phenomenon that has a very specific set of conditions.

I don’t read Russian history as this history of Russians always want a strong hand, which is a very traditional way of looking at it. I think that Russia, at breaking points when it could have developed a democracy or a semidemocracy, actually started this totalitarian experiment. And what we’re looking at now is the aftermath of the totalitarian experiment.

And:

GESSEN: …I thought Americans were absurd. They will say hello to you in the street for no reason. Yeah, I found them very unreasonably friendly.

I think that there’s a kind of grumpy and dark culture in Russia. Russians certainly have a lot of discernment in the fine shades of misery. If you ask a Russian how they are, they will not cheerfully respond by saying they’re great. If they’re miserable, they might actually share that with you in some detail.

There’s no shame in being miserable in Russia. There’s, in fact, a lot of validation. Read a Russian novel. You’ll find it all in there. We really are connoisseurs of depression.

Finally there was the segment starting with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Russia proper. Let me start with one. Why is it that Russians seem to purge their own friends so often? The standing joke being the Russian word for “friend” is “future enemy.” There’s a sense of loyalty cycles, where you have to reach a certain bar of being loyal or otherwise you’re purged.

Highly recommended.

California markets in everything

A Taco Bell hotel with Taco Bell themed items and equipment:

Just as guests began arriving at The Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel & Resort on Thursday, a viral tweet made the rounds connecting the fast food chain to conservative-leaning political contributions made by its corporate parent, YUM! Brands. Would that cast a cloud over the pop-up activation, which had been in the works for over a year? Would the flood of Instagram influencers, YouTube vloggers, and Taco Bell enthusiasts be less likely to gleefully share their Fire Sauce-smothered content? The answer, of course, was no.

People really, really love Taco Bell. Every reservation for The Bell’s four-night run ($169 per night) booked up in under two minutes.

Here is the full story, via Shaffin.

How honest again is big business?

“A 2015 study of self-checkouts with handheld scanners, conducted by criminologists at the University of Leicester, also found evidence of widespread theft. After auditing 1 million self-checkout transactions over the course of a year, totaling $21 million in sales, they found that nearly $850,000 worth of goods left the store without being scanned and paid for. The Leicester researchers concluded that the ease of theft is likely inspiring people who might not otherwise steal to do so…. As one retail employee told the researchers, ‘People who traditionally don’t intend to steal [might realize that] … when I buy 20, I can get five for free.’

The links are here and here, via The Browser.  And here is the deal on all those super-centenarians.

My Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Here is the audio and transcript.  We covered Ghana, Africa more generally, cosmopolitanism and the resurgence of nationalism, philosophy and Karl Popper, Lee Kuan Yew, the repatriation of cultural objects, Paul Simon, the smarts of Jodie Foster, sheep farming in New Jersey, and the value of giving personal advice.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Take Pan-Africanism. Do you think, in the broader course of history, this will go down as merely a 20th-century idea? Or is Pan-Africanism alive and well today?

APPIAH: Pan-Africanism involves two different big strands. One is the diasporic strand. The word Pan-Africanism and the Pan-African Congresses were invented in the diaspora by people like Sylvester Williams in Jamaica and W. E. B. Du Bois from the United States and Padmore.

That idea of a diasporic African identity seems pretty lively in the world today, though it doesn’t produce much actual politics or policy, but the sense of solidarity of people of African descent, of the African diaspora seems pretty strong to me.

COWEN: But strongest outside of Africa in a way, right?

APPIAH: Yes, where it began. In Africa, I think, on the one hand, that most contemporary sub-Saharan Africans do have a sense of themselves as belonging to a kind of Black African world. But if you ask them to do something practical about it, like take down borders or do more political integration, I don’t know that that is going to go anywhere anytime soon, which I regret because I think, for lots of reasons, it would be . . .

My sister and her husband live in Lagos. If they want to go to Accra by road, they have to cross the border between Nigeria and Benin, the border between Benin and Togo, the border between Togo and Ghana. And at each of those borders, they probably have to interact with people who are going to try and extract an illegal tax on them.

COWEN: Easier to fly to London, right?

APPIAH: Much easier to fly to London and back to Accra. That’s crazy. And we’ve had these weird things. On the one hand, there’s probably a million Ghanaians in Nigeria, living Ghanaian citizens.

And:

COWEN: Is cosmopolitanism not only compatible with nationalism, but in a way quite parasitic upon it? And in a sense, the parasite is being ejected a bit? Think back to your boyhood in Kumasi. You have all these different groups, and you’re trading with them. You see them every day, and that works great, but there’s some central coherence to Ghana underlying that.

You go to Lebanon today — that central coherence seems to have been gone for some time. You could call Lebanon a cosmopolitan place, but it’s not really an advertisement for Lebanon the way it’s worked out. Are we just moving to a new equilibrium, where the parasitism of cosmopolitanism is now being recognized for what it really is?

APPIAH: I don’t like the metaphor of the parasite.

[laughter]

APPIAH: But yes, I do want to insist that cosmopolitanism . . . Look, cosmopolitanism, as I said, does not only require, or the right kind of cosmopolitan requires a kind of rootedness, but its point, precisely, is that we are celebrating connections among different places, each of which is rooted in its own something, each of which has its distinctive virtues and interest, each of which has its own history. And we’re making connections with people for whom that place is their first place, just as I am in a place which is my first place.

So yes, cosmopolitanism requires, I think, a national sense of solidarities that are not global. That’s why, as I say, you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. Now, if the nationalist says, “Okay, but why do we need anything beyond national citizenship?” The answer is, we have a world to manage. The economy works better if we integrate.

There is much, much more at the link, self-recommending…

The Online Tipping Outrage

The latest outrage cycle was started by April Glaser in Slate who is outraged that some online delivery companies apply tips to a worker’s base pay:

My first DoorDash order is probably my last because, as journalist Louise Matsakis put it on Twitter, “I don’t believe that a single person intends to give a tip to a multibillion dollar venture-backed startup. They are trying to tip the person who delivered their order.”

You will probably not be surprised, however, that Slate is also outraged at tipping.

Tipping is a repugnant custom. It’s bad for consumers and terrible for workers. It perpetuates racism.

But one way for a firm to get rid of tipping is to guarantee a payment per delivery. Many delivery workers may prefer such a system because tips are often perfunctory and therefore from the point of view of the worker random or they vary based on factors over which the delivery person has little control (e.g. worker race but also the customer’s online experience and whether other workers got the pizza into the oven on time). In other words, the no-tip system reduces the variance of pay. Moreover, it won’t reduce pay on average. Delivery workers will earn what similarly skilled workers earn elsewhere in the economy whether they get to keep “their” tips or not. The outrage over who gets the tip is similar to complaining about who pays the tax, the supplier or the demander.

There are exceptions. In some industries, such as bartending, the quality of the service can vary dramatically by worker and tips help to reward that extra quality when it is difficult to observe by the firm. In these industries, however, both the workers, at least the high quality workers, and the firms want tips. If the firms themselves are removing tips that is a sign that they think that the worker has little control over quality and thus tips serve no purpose other than to more or less randomly reward workers. Since random pay is less valuable than certain pay and firms are less risk averse than workers it makes sense for the firm to take on the risk of tips and instead pay a higher base (again, with the net being in line with what similar workers earn elsewhere).

In short, a job is a package of work characteristics and benefits and it’s better to let firms and workers choose those characteristics and benefits to reach efficient solutions than it is to try to move one characteristic on the incorrect assumption that all other characteristics will then remain the same, to do so is the happy meal fallacy in another guise.

The threat is stronger than the execution, installment #437

A Pennsylvania school district is warning that children could end up in foster care if their parents do not pay overdue school lunch bills. The letters sent recently to about 1,000 parents in Wyoming Valley West School District have led to complaints from parents and a stern rebuke from Luzerne County child welfare authorities.

The district says that it is trying to collect more than $20,000, and that other methods to get parents to pay have not been successful. Four parents owe at least $450 apiece.

And worse yet:

The district’s federal programs director, Joseph Muth, told WNEP-TV the district had considered serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to students with delinquent accounts but received legal advice warning against it.

When I was a kid, we considered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a privilege.

Here is the full story, via Garance Franke-Ruta.

The cow circuit: the tourism culture that is India

The Union government is exploring a new tourism opportunity — a cow circuit. To promote cow-based tourism economy, the newly formed Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog has decided to carve out a route that will wind through places in the country which breed indigenous cows.

The board has identified states like Haryana, UP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Goa for this circuit.

Tourists, especially from foreign countries, students and researchers, will be told about Indian cows, which will also help them in research…

“We have so far focussed on religious, recreational, and adventurous tourism, but if we can link our cow tourism with tourist hotspots, we will be able to promote our indigenous breeds like Gir from Gujurat, Gangatiri from UP, or Ongole from Andrha Pradesh…this will also help in promoting cow-based economy as products made from cow ghee, cow urine and cow dung will be sold at tourist places…”

Here is the full story from Times of India, via Rayman Mohamed.

There is no great stagnation in policing nature through the use of AI-regulated cat flaps

A cat flap that automatically bars entry to a pet if it tries to enter with prey in its jaws has been built as a DIY project by an Amazon employee.

Ben Hamm used machine-learning software to train a system to recognise when his cat Metric was approaching with a rodent or bird in its mouth.

When it detected such an attack, he said, a computer attached to the flap’s lock triggered a 15-minute shut-out.

Mr Hamm unveiled his invention at an event in Seattle last month.

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

Taipei notes

My other visit here was thirty years ago, and most of all I am surprised by how little has changed.  The architecture now looks all the more retro, the alleyways all the more noir, and the motorbikes have by no means vanished.  Yes there are plenty of new stores, but overall it is recognizably the same city, something you could not say about Seoul.

Real wages basically did not rise 2000-2016.  The main story, in a nutshell, is that the domestic capital has flowed to China.  About 9 percent of the Taiwanese population lives in China, and that is typically the more ambitious segment of the workforce.

I am still surprised at how little the Taiwanese signal status with their looks and dress.  The steady heat and humidity may account for some of that, though the same is not true in the hotter parts of mainland China.

The Japanese ruled Taiwan from 1895 through the end of WWII, and those were key years for industrial and social development.  The infrastructure and urban layouts often feel quite Japanese.

Thirty years ago, everything was up and buzzing at 6 a.m., six days a week; that is no longer the case.

The National Palace Museum is the best place in the world to be convinced of the glories of earlier Chinese civilizations.  It will wow you even if you are bored by the Chinese art you see in other places, as arguably it is better than all of the other Chinese art museums put together.  How did they get those 600,000 or so artworks out of a China in the midst of a civil war?

The quality of dining here is high and rising.  Unlike in Hong Kong or Singapore, Taiwan has plenty of farms, its own greens, and thus farm to table dining here is common.  Tainan Tai Tsu Mien Seafood is one recommendation, for an affordable Michelin one-star, emphasis on seafood.  Addiction Aquatic Development has superb sushi and is a first-rate hangout.  At the various Night Markets, it is still possible to get an excellent meal for only a few dollars.

One can go days in Taipei and hardly see any Western tourists, so consider this a major arbitrage opportunity.

Japanese pop-up restaurant markets in everything raise the lfpr edition

Worldwide, dementia affects 47.5 million people with 9.9 million new cases each year. Recently, a pop-up restaurant in Tokyo spent 3 days in operation, changing the public’s perception of those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. The Restaurant of Order Mistakes, which was open in early June, was staffed by sufferers of these disorders.

Six smiling waitresses took orders and served food to customers, who came in knowing they may not get what they asked for. Each waitress suffers either from dementia or Alzheimer’s, hence the name of the restaurant. One waitress, who used to work in a school, decided to participate since she was used to cooking for children and thought she could do it. But, of course, the day was not without mistakes.

Here is the full story, via Chaim K.

Dining out as cultural trade

By Joel Waldfogel, here is the abstract:

Perceptions of Anglo-American dominance in movie and music trade motivate restrictions on cultural trade. Yet, the market for another cultural good, food at restaurants, is roughly ten times larger than the markets for music and film. Using TripAdvisor data on restaurant cuisines, along with Euromonitor data on overall and fast food expenditure, this paper calculates implicit trade patterns in global cuisines for 52 destination countries. We obtain three major results. First, the pattern of cuisine trade resembles the “gravity” patterns in physically traded products. Second, after accounting gravity factors, the most popular cuisines are Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and American. Third, excluding fast food, the largest net exporters of their cuisines are the Italians and the Japanese, while the largest net importers are the US – with a 2017 deficit of over $130 billion – followed by Brazil, China, and the UK. With fast food included, the US deficit shrinks to $55 billion but remains the largest net importer along with China and, to a lesser extent, the UK and Brazil. Cuisine trade patterns appear to run starkly counter to the audiovisual patterns that have motivated concern about Anglo-American cultural dominance.

For the pointer I thank John Alcorn.