Category: Food and Drink

My Conversation with Michael Kremer

Self-recommending, here is the transcript, audio, and video.  Here is part of the summary:

Michael joined Tyler to discuss the intellectual challenge of founding organizations, applying methods from behavioral economics to design better programs, how advanced market commitments could lower pharmaceutical costs for consumers while still incentivizing R&D, the ongoing cycle of experimentation every innovator understands, the political economy of public health initiatives, the importance of designing institutions to increase technological change, the production function of new technologies, incentivizing educational achievement, The Odyssey as a tale of comparative development, why he recently transitioned to University of Chicago, what researchers can learn from venture capitalists, his current work addressing COVID-19, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I’ve seen estimates — they’re actually from one of the groups you founded — that a deworming pill could cost as little as 50 cents a year per person in many parts of Africa. So why isn’t deworming done much more?

KREMER: You could say the glass is half empty, you can say it’s half full, or you can say it’s almost three-quarters full. I think it’s about three-quarters full. When I first got involved in deworming, it was testing a small NGO program. We found phenomenal effects of that. The original work found health gains and education gains. Now we’ve tracked people over 20 years, and we’re seeing people have a better standard of living or earning more.

Following the early results, we presented the results of the government of Kenya to the World Bank. Kenya scaled this up nationally, in part with assistance from the World Bank, primarily just in conveying some of that information.

Indian states started doing that, and then the national government of India took this on. They’re reaching — a little bit harder to know the exact numbers — but probably 150 million people a year. Many other countries are doing this as well, so it’s actually quite widely adopted.

COWEN: But there’s still a massive residual, right?

KREMER: That is for sure.

COWEN: What’s your best explanatory theory of why the residual isn’t smaller? It would seem to be a vote winner. African countries, fiscally, are in much better shape than they used to be. They’re more democratic. Public health looks much better. The response to COVID-19 has probably been better than many people expected, say, in Senegal, possibly in Kenya. So why not do deworming more?

KREMER: The people who have worms are pretty poor people. The richer people are less likely to have worms within a given society. Richer people are probably more politically influential.

There’s also something about worms — they gradually build up in your body, and one worm is not going to do that much damage. The problem is when you’ve got lots of worms in your body, and even there, it’s going to take time.

I’ve had malaria. I don’t think I’ve had worms. I hope I haven’t. When you have malaria, you feel terrible. You go from feeling fine to feeling terrible, and then you take the medicine. You feel great afterwards. With worms, it’s much more like a chronic thing, and when you expel the worms from your body, that’s sort of gross. I don’t think, even at the individual level, do you have quite the demand that would be commensurate with the scale of the problem. That’s a behavioral economics explanation.

I think there are political issues and then there are behavioral issues. I would actually say that a huge, huge issue . . . This sounds very boring, but this falls between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, and each one of them has different priorities. The Ministry of Health is going to be worried about delivering things through clinics. They’re worried about HIV and malaria, tuberculosis, as it should be.

The Ministry of Education — they’re worried about teacher strikes. It’s very easy for something to either fall between the cracks or be the victim of turf wars. It sounds too small to be, “How can that really get in the way?” But anybody who’s spent time working in governments understands those things can very easily get in the way. In some ways, it’s surprising how much progress has been made.

Here’s one way the political economy works in favor. You mentioned democracy — I think that’s a factor. I actually find — and I don’t want to be necessarily a big fan of politicians — but in some ways, politicians hear how much this costs, and they think they can affect that many people for that small amount of money, and they’re like, “Hey, I want to get on that. Maybe this is something I can claim as an achievement.” We saw that in Kenya. We saw that in India.

And:

COWEN: Let’s say the current Michael Kremer sets up another high school in Kenya. What is it that you would do that the current high schools in Kenya are not doing? What would you change? You’re in charge.

KREMER: Right. We’ve learned a lot in education research in recent years. One thing that we saw in Kenya, but was also seen in India and many other places, is that it’s very easy for kids to fall behind the curriculum. Curricula, in particular in developing countries, tend to be set at a fairly high level, similar to what you would see in developed countries.

However, kids are facing all sorts of disadvantages, and there are all sorts of problems in the way the system works. There’s often high teacher absence. Kids are sick. Kids don’t have the preparation at home, often. So kids can fall behind the curriculum.

Whereas we’ve had the slogan in the US, “No Child Left Behind,” in developing countries, education system is focused on kids at the top of the distribution. What’s been found is, if you can set up — and there are a whole variety of different ways to do this — either remedial education systems or some technology-aided systems that are adaptive, that go to where the kid is . . . I’ve seen huge gains from this in India, and we’re starting to see adoption of this in Africa as well, and that can have a very big impact at quite low cost.

Intelligent throughout.

My Conversation with Audrey Tang

For me one of the most fun episodes, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  And here is the longer than ever before summary, befitting the chat itself:

Audrey Tang began reading classical works like the Shūjīng and Tao Te Ching at the age of 5 and learned the programming language Perl at the age of 12. Now, the autodidact and self-described “conservative anarchist” is a software engineer and the first non-binary digital minister of Taiwan. Their work focuses on how social and digital technologies can foster empathy, democracy, and human progress.

Audrey joined Tyler to discuss how Taiwan approached regulating Chinese tech companies, the inherent extraterritoriality of data norms, how Finnegans Wake has influenced their approach to technology, the benefits of radical transparency in communication, why they appreciate the laziness of Perl, using “humor over rumor” to combat online disinformation, why Taiwan views democracy as a set of social technologies, how their politics have been influenced by Taiwan’s indigenous communities and their oral culture, what Chinese literature teaches about change, how they view Confucianism as a Daoist, how they would improve Taiwanese education, why they view mistakes in the American experiment as inevitable — but not insurmountable, the role of civic tech in Taiwan’s pandemic response, the most important remnants of Japanese influence remaining in Taiwan, why they love Magic: The Gathering, the transculturalism that makes Taiwan particularly open and accepting of LGBT lifestyles, growing up with parents who were journalists, how being transgender makes them more empathetic, the ways American values still underpin the internet, what he learned from previous Occupy movements, why translation, rotation, and scaling are important skills for becoming a better thinker, and more.

This bit could have come from GPT-3:

COWEN: How useful a way is it of conceptualizing your politics to think of it as a mix of some Taiwanese Aboriginal traditions mixed in with Daoism, experience in programming, and then your own theory of humor and fun? And if you put all of that together, the result is Audrey Tang’s politics. Correct or not?

TANG: Well as of now, of course. But of course, I’m also growing, like a distributed ledger.

And this:

COWEN: You’re working, of course, in Taiwanese government. What’s the biggest thing wrong with economists?

TANG: You mean the magazine?

COWEN: No, no, the people, economists as thinkers. What’s their biggest defect or flaw?

TANG: I don’t know. I haven’t met an economist that I didn’t like, so I don’t think there’s any particular personality flaws there.

Finally:

COWEN: Now, my country, the United States, has made many, many mistakes at an almost metaphysical level. What is it in the United States that those mistakes have come from? What’s our deeper failing behind all those mistakes?

TANG: I don’t know. Isn’t America this grand experiment to keep making mistakes and correcting them in the open and share it with the world? That’s the American experiment.

COWEN: Have we started correcting them yet?

TANG: I’m sure that you have.

Definitely recommended.

Now is an interesting time to visit New York City

And yes, you can find a parking spot in most parts of Manhattan these days, another novelty. Did I mention that my hotel room cost less than a third of what I’ve normally paid?

I visited the Museum of Modern Art, operating under stringent visitor restrictions and with its tourist clientele mostly gone. I had just about every gallery to myself, and thus an unparalleled look at the museum’s masterpieces. If a room had even a few other visitors in it, I moved on and came back later.

The center of the city has moved downtown, to Greenwich Village and surrounding areas. Many streets are closed to cars, and restaurants have put their tables on the sidewalk or the street. Instead of choosing a place on the basis of the food, the menu now just has to be “good enough,” with the key variables being the quality of the seating and the degree of the spacing. I have never seen that part of town feel so alive. The most vibrant single street for both food and socializing was slightly further north in Koreatown, starting at 32nd and Broadway and spreading two blocks to the east.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column on that topic.  By no means is my entire assessment so positive, but that is the excerpt you are getting today.

Jimmy Butler markets in everything

You’ve heard of Bubble Tea?  Well, this is Bubble Coffee:

In a recent interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Butler said coffee was hard to find on the NBA’s Orlando campus. He and his French press are keeping his teammates caffeinated, one extremely overpriced cup at a time.

“You can’t get coffee nowhere here,” [Jimmy] Butler said in the interview. “So I might bump it up to 30 bucks a cup. People here can afford it.”

…According to the menu outside his Walt Disney World hotel room, Butler’s offerings include a latte, a cappuccino, a macchiato and more. A small cup goes for the hefty price tag of $20. (A medium and large go for the same price, so you might as well spring for the venti.)

Here is the full ESPN story, via Christina.

Diminished choice in your neighborhood supermarket

Contactless shopping and the elimination of free samples. Less browsing and “product discovery” and more focus on the expediency of repurchasing. These are ways the novel coronavirus has changed how Americans buy groceries. The pandemic has altered what products people purchase, when and where, who is buying them, and how much time is devoted to the endeavor.

Americans are spending more, yet increasingly they are being offered fewer choices, both online and in person, slowing a years-long trend toward innovations that put “good for you” and “environmentally friendly” spins on established and much-loved products.

The winnowing — what one expert calls a “Sovietish” reduction of choice — is also solidifying eating patterns, for good or for ill. With customers’ selections reinforced by online advertising, repeat ordering and other algorithms, the food system is becoming bifurcated as consumers who have expressed enthusiasm for healthful or artisanal foods are offered more of the same, while those with a penchant for highly processed comfort foods are inundated with opportunities to restock.

There is a gender effect as well:

He says more men are claiming to be the primary shopper during the pandemic, and “they do buy different things and buy differently.” Men, Baum says, tend to favor efficiency: shopping club stores for bulk purchases, convenience stores and online. They report making fewer, larger, quicker trips for a narrower range of items.

This part surprised me, though I wonder if they have done a full data check:

This “narrower range” is not just a brick-and-mortar constriction. As the pandemic accelerates the shift to online shopping, the number of packaged food products available to purchase on the Internet fell 21 percent globally from January to May, according to Euromonitor International, a London-based market research company. It found that nine out of the 10 biggest countries by retail sales saw a drop in the number of unique SKUs available online.

Here is more from Laura Reiley, note this also is another reason why actual rates of price inflation are somewhat higher than what we are measuring.

Forthcoming markets in everything, squirrel nut bar edition

An Ohio man built a backyard squirrel bar with seven varieties of nuts on tap.”  And yes this will be monetized:

Dutko’s favorite part of the bar is its quirky bathroom sign: “Nuts” and “No Nuts.”

The project, which measures about 25 inches wide and 16 inches tall, took him eight hours to design and build.

After posting a video on YouTube showing the build process, Dutko said he was “overwhelmed” with comments and requests to purchase the bar. He immediately applied for a design patent and is now planning to launch a business to sell The Nutty Bar for about $175 – $200.

Here is the YouTube video.  Via the excellent Samir Varma.

The polity that is San Francisco

If you were hoping to cure your cabin fever with a quick jaunt to San Francisco to eat a $200 dinner in a geodesic dome next to a homeless encampment, it looks like you’ve missed your chance. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that after a surprise inspection, the city’s health department has ordered Japanese fine dining spot Hashiri to take down the fine dining domes that have made it internationally famous…

Hashiri opted to erect three plastic garden igloos on the sidewalk and reopened for dinner on August 5. The structures, which cost $1,400 apiece, immediately generated controversy, as the restaurant, which caters to the ultra-rich, happens to be located in an area where people experiencing homelessness congregate.

“Mint Plaza is a phenomenal space, it’s just sometimes the crowd is not too favorable,” Matsuura said to the Chronicle. “There are people who come by and spit, yell, stick their hands in people’s food, discharging fecal matter right by where people are trying to eat. It’s really sad, and it’s really hard for us to operate around that.”

The restaurant began receiving hate mail prior to last Thursday’s surprise inspection, which Matsuura suspects was the result of anonymous complaints to the Department of Public Health. The domes were ordered removed “due to the enclosed nature of the structure, which may not allow for adequate air flow,” per the inspection report.

Not enough air flow?  I wonder how many kitchens would pass that test?  Here is the full story, via Air Genius Gary Leff.

The farmer-influencer and the economics of streaming

Though Mr. Gold sells poultry and eggs from his duck farm in Vermont’s northeast corner, most of what he produces as a farmer is, well, entertainment.

Mr. Gold, who is short and stocky, with the good-natured ease of a standup comedian, does his chores while carrying a digital camera in one hand and murmuring into a microphone.

Then, twice a week, like clockwork, he posts a short video on YouTube about his exploits as a neophyte farmer, often highlighting failures or pratfalls. Keeping a close eye on analytics, he has boosted his YouTube audiences high enough to provide a steady advertising revenue of around $2,500 to $4,000 a month, about eight times what he earns from selling farm products.

And this:

It’s a lot of work: Mr. Lumnah wakes up at 3:30 a.m. so he can edit the previous day’s footage in time to post new video at 6 a.m., which his 210,000 regular viewers, who are scattered as far as Cambodia and India, have come to expect. “People will say, it’s lunchtime here in Ukraine,” Mr. Lumnah said.

Others, like Justin Rhodes, a farmer in North Carolina, have parlayed a giant YouTube audience into a dues-paying membership enterprise — he has 2,000 fans who pay annual fees of up to $249 for private instruction and direct communication, via text message. “We don’t sell a single farm product,” Mr. Rhodes said. “Our farm product is education and entertainment.”

Some of them earn money through product endorsement deals, like Al Lumnah, who posts videos five days a week from his farm in Littleton, N.H.

Here is more from the NYT, via Steve Rossi.

The Great Psychometric test continues (U.K. fact of the day)

And the results ain’t always pretty:

The number of high-risk drinkers nearly doubled in lockdown and was worst in groups of higher social class, a government report shows.

Here is the (gated) Telegraph article.  Part of the mechanism of course may be that the “groups of higher social class” have not experienced the most severe income hits.  But I wonder if there is not more at work here.  These same “groups of higher social class” are also those who went around to parties to be feted, traveled the world, gave talks at conferences, “did deals,” dominated meetings and grabbed the good seat, and through various other means received big in-person ego boosts in pre-Covid times.  Now those ego boosts are gone, and…what do they do?  Some of them do very fine things indeed.

What are fungi?

I don’t view this as a formal answer, but it is interesting nonetheless:

Mycelium is how fungi feed.  Some organisms — such as plants that photosynthesize — make their own food.  Some organisms — like most animals — find food in the world and put it inside their bodies, where it is digested and absorbed.  Fungi have a different strategy.  They digest the world where it is and then absorb it into their bodies…

The difference between animals and fungi is simple: Animals put food in their bodies, whereas fungi put their bodies in the food.

…to embed oneself is an irregular and unpredictable food supply as mycelium does, one must be able to shape-shift.  Mycelium is an living, growing, opportunistic investigation — speculation in bodily form.

That is from the new and excellent book by Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures.

Moghul Express, Edison, New Jersey

It is the best biryani I have had outside of South Asia, plus the arrangement for outside dining is both spacious and nicely done and offers protection against rain.  Here is their web site.  Just get the biryani, but yes everything there is good it seems.  It is very close to where the Turnpike and Parkway intersect, and thus close to both — what more could you ask for in New Jersey?

The arrival of cheap food in England

The period from the 1870s to the start of the First World War saw a steep rise in working-class living standards in Britain, much of it underpinned by a vast array of cheap imported foods. Thanks to new refrigerated steamships and a growing railway network, such items as butter, eggs and meat could be transported from as far afield as New Zealand and Argentina. The British started to eat butter from Denmark; oranges and grapes from Spain; mutton from Argentina; bacon and cheese from the United States; wheat from Canada. The percentage of meat consumed in Britain that was imported rose from 13.6 per cent in 1872 to 42.3 per cent in 1912. The influx of these new cheap food imports gave many in the working classes a much more varied and tasty diet than before. Eggs were no longer a luxury and as the price of imported fruit fell, many in the cities started eating oranges and bananas for the first time. They could only afford to buy these foods because the costers who sold them kept the prices too low to allow themselves a decent life. By the same token, big shopkeepers kept food prices down by forcing employees to work long hours for low pay. A ninety-hour week was not uncommon for a clerk in a Victorian grocer shop, but these hours still might not deliver a wage large enough to live on, despite the cheapness of food.

Here is more from Bee Wilson, via The Browser.

Alcohol is again the culprit

It is “crystal clear” drunk people can’t – or won’t – socially distance, a police chief has warned after scenes showed huge crowds packed into Soho in central London.

John Apter, chair of the Police Federation, said he witnessed “naked men, happy drunks, angry drunks, fights and more angry drunks” while on shift in Southampton – and there were similar scenes across the rest of England.

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, had warned reopening pubs was a “high risk” for spreading coronavirus ahead of the easing of lockdown restrictions which also saw restaurants, cinemas, hairdressers and museums open their doors on what was dubbed “Super Saturday”.

Here is the article (no further reason to click), via Matt Yglesias.

We are living in a (very temporary) dining paradise

Of course current arrangements are terrible for restaurants, and pretty soon they will be bad for your dining too, as more restaurants close up for good.  But right now we live in a window of opportunity.

The owner and/or best chef is in the restaurant at a higher rate than usual — where else can he or she go?

Menus have been slimmed down, so there are fewer dishes, which means fresher ingredients and less delegation of cooking tasks.

Most menus have new dishes, not otherwise available, often in the direction of comfort food, which is a comfort because it tastes good!

They are cooking just for you, yum.

Show up for lunch at 11 a.m. or for dinner at 4:30 p.m.  Please only eat outside.  Bring a mask as well.  And please don’t linger at the table, so that others may follow in your footsteps.

Note which places have good outdoor dining arrangements, and which have nice park benches right nearby.  (Don’t drive the food back home as it becomes soggy and non-optimal for human consumption.)  You won’t end up with that many options to choose from.

Nonetheless I’ve had some very good and special meals as of late.

It’s a Good Summer to Explore America at Random

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

With my summer trips abroad canceled, I decided to be resourceful about travel. Having lived in Northern Virginia for 30 years, I asked myself a simple question: Which local trip have I still not done?

Earlier in the summer I thought I might spend time in scenic Maine, but too many of my friends from the Northeast and mid-Atlantic seemed to be planning the same. I decided a more adventurous course of action would be to get in the car with my daughter Yana and spend a three-day weekend on the road.

The column is not easily excerpted, but here is one bit:

Lunch was in Morgantown, West Virginia, but rather than visit the university, we stopped for excellent Jamaican food with jerk chicken, oxtail and plantains — better than the equivalent in the D.C. area. A tip: If you’re ever looking for great food in obscure locales, don’t just google “best restaurants Morgantown WV,” as that will yield too many mainstream options. Pick a cuisine you don’t expect them to have, and Google something like “best Haitian restaurant Morgantown WV.” Whether a Haitian restaurant comes up (it didn’t), you’ll get a more interesting selection of “best” picks. In this case we learned that a town of 30,000 people has several Caribbean restaurants, highly rated ones at that.

Five states in one day (VA, WV, MD, PA, OH) was great fun.  In my view, every excellent trip has one stop or locale at its emotional and narrative heart, and for this trip is was the Native American Earthworks in Marietta, southern Ohio.