Tokyo: Foodie edition

What's the best city in the world for food? According to this data point, it might be Tokyo. This from the Economist's Tokyo bureau chief, Dominic Ziegler:

All around the world, diners looked up from their plates in astonishment: restaurants in Tokyo had gathered more Michelin stars than Paris, London and New York put together [italics added]. A number of the stars were won by restaurants serving French, Italian and indeed Spanish cuisine.

But most went to Japanese restaurants. And here, the range is striking. Certainly, many starred restaurants serve kaiseki, Japan's multi-course equivalent of haute cuisine, myriad small dishes organised for taste, texture, look and colour. Others, though, specialise only in tempura, or teppanyaki, sushi, soba noodles and, yes, fugu, the pufferfish that is lethal if contaminated with the toxic internal organs.

India, you're on notice!

For those of you that don't pay attention to these things, the price of rice has shot through the roof, leading to global panic at the specter of mass starvation. To give some measure of "through the roof," a ton of rice cost $375 in December. As of April, the same amount costs $1,100. How big of a deal is this? Americans can no longer buy more than two 20lb bags of rice at a time at their local Sam's Club. Yeah, it's just that big.

Interestingly enough, this has not been sparked by any sudden rise in rice consumption, nor in a sudden drop in production. From Tom Slayton and C. Peter Timmer:

Why is there a world rice crisis at all? There is no single reason, but panic and hoarding are playing a big role. World rice production in 2007 was at an all-time high, with forecasts for 2008 to set another record. The world’s rice consumers have not suddenly started eating more rice. World trade has not collapsed—the volume of exports in the first four months of 2008 was about 20 percent higher than in the same period in 2007. And world rice stocks, excluding those held by China, have been steady the past five years. These trends do not look like an impending crisis, and yet world rice prices have exploded.
So, what started all of this? According to the same report, it's all India's fault. Ok, that might be overstating it a bit. It's the fault of India's politicians. Here's what they have to say:
Thus the trebling in rice prices is driven to a greater degree than other commodities by panic and hoarding. These were precipitated by sudden export restrictions in India, which were stimulated by events in other commodity markets, especially wheat, not from local shortages. (Facing a parliamentary election in May, 2009, the Indian government does not want to face further criticism over additional wheat imports—thus rice exports needed to be curtailed to maintain supplies for the public food distribution scheme.) These export restrictions spread to other suppliers and lead to urgent efforts by rice importing countries to secure supplies—at any price—in a thin global market. It is no accident that most of these countries face elections, and
food price inflation is extremely unpopular. Rice has returned as the “political commodity,” even in relatively affluent Asia. The result: the extraordinary price rises we have seen in recent months, even though the underlying fundamentals support only modest price increases.
So, one of the world's three largest rice exporters decided to halt rice exports because of political reasons. How big of a deal was that?

Looks like it was kind of a big deal. It's an interesting report. Check it out.


I like OpenTable a lot. I am frequently surprised by the number of people that don't know what it is, so I will explain. OpenTable is a site that allows you to make dinner reservations online, that simple. Particularly in New York, it's awesome.

OpenTable has an excellent property. Beyond having a model with wide applicability, it's collecting a set of data that almost no one else can collect, i.e. where and when people eat. I say almost, because the payments companies could probably do something like that.

OpenTable is now using that information to do something. Hopefully it's not the last thing that they do with it. This according to Grub Street:

The temptation to give their own places sky-high ratings has proven irresistible to many a restaurant owner — it’s like asking a portly, middle-aged man not to describe himself as "37" and "athletic" in an Internet personal ad. But according to tech blog Techcrunch, OpenTable's new Diners' Choice lists incorporate ratings only from people who actually made resies and showed up. The lists aren’t touted on the site yet, but being Internet geniuses, we found the beta version and the top five NYC picks: Per Se, Le Bernardin, Gilt, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, and Eleven Madison Park. It does say something that people who actually plunked down cash at these places had good things to say about them afterwards.
This is a good start. Let's hope they keep running with it.

Krugman on Oil bubbles

From Paul Krugman:

One of the things I find puzzling about the whole oil market discussion is how complicated people seem to make it. They get all wrapped up in stuff about forward markets, hedge funds, etc., and lose sight of the fundamental fact that there are only two things you can do with the world’s oil production: consume it, or store it.

If the price is above the level at which the demand from end-users is equal to production, there’s an excess supply — and that supply has to be going into inventories. End of story. If oil isn’t building up in inventories, there can’t be a bubble in the spot price.

Now it’s true that oil supply responds very little to price, and that empirical estimates of the short-run price elasticity of demand, like this one, suggest that it’s low — say -.06. But even so, the math of a sustained, large bubble quickly becomes daunting. Say the demand elasticity is -.06, and that you believe that the current price is 40% above the level at which end-use demand equals supply. Then you have to believe that 2 million barrels a day is disappearing into secret hoards somewhere — secret, because it’s not showing up in the OECD inventory data. That’s a lot of oil. And bear in mind that people have been claiming that there’s an oil bubble for years

So my challenge to people who say there’s an oil bubble is this: let’s get physical. Tell me where you think the excess supply of crude is going.

Moral hazard

Compelling point about moral hazard, courtesy of Credit Slips:

While moral hazard concerns are a real issue for any government aid to borrowers or lenders, its worthwhile remembering a major exception to moral hazard--third-party costs. As Larry Summers summarizes: When the fire department rescues people who start fires by smoking in bed, it creates a moral hazard for in-bed smokers. But no one gets exercised about moral hazard, in part because we know that fires can spread and burn down neighbors' apartments in "contagion" fires and that the in-bed smokers won't take care to insure their neighbors. That's what we're seeing in foreclosure crisis--mounting third-party costs to neighbors and local government. If the municipal government goes bankrupt [for readers in California, think about Vallejo], it affects everyone in the community--indeed, those who had to relocate because of foreclosure escape this consequence. Foreclosure is a real problem for everyone, not just those who get kicked out of their homes or whose investment portfolios take a hit.
The point they're making is aimed mostly at people that think those who purchased homes they couldn't afford should just live with the consequences of their stupidity. However, it could be extended to those that think that the Fed did the wrong thing in "bailing out" Bear Stearns. The people that got bailed out at Bear Stearns weren't the employees or the shareholders. In fact, pretty much all of those guys got screwed. The people that got bailed out were Bear's counterparties, who didn't have much to do with Bear's business beyond funding it.

Stupid things

So, I've been occasionally using the JetBlue AmEx card as a way of extending my JetBlue awards. It seemed like a pretty sweet deal - whereas normally your points have a given shelf-life, every time you spend enough on your AmEx to get another point ($200), you automatically extend the life of your points by a full year. Given the amount of points that I accumulate on JetBlue, I thought this would be a good thing for me to use.

Lo and behold, the one time that I actually want to cash in my award flight, I find that it's gone. Hadn't I been using my card and extending the lifetime of my points like a good little boy? I called customer service and found out that JetBlue actually makes a distinction between points and awarded flights. The Amex Card extends the life of your points, but it will not extend the life of the awarded flights.

They referred me to their terms and conditions statement, where I found the following (apologies for the formatting):

4.1 A TrueBlue Award is issued automatically once a member has accumulated 100 points in the Program. The TrueBlue award is composed of 2 (two) TruePasses. Each TruePass is valid for 1 (one) one-way flight. Members will be notified of the award via e-mail and details can be found at the member's personal site at Notwithstanding the notification of awards via email, the member remains responsible for maintaining a current email, as JetBlue shall not be responsible for award notifications that are undeliverable.

4.2 TrueBlue Points may be redeemed for Award Travel by calling (800) JETBLUE or online at Award Travel is redeemable pursuant to the applicable redemption awards as posted on the JetBlue website or as otherwise issued by JetBlue. Once Award Travel is booked, it may only be changed before scheduled departure by calling (800) JetBlue and paying a $100 change fee. Award Travel may not be cancelled and TruePasses that are not flown will be forfeited and will not be re-deposited into your TrueBlue Account.

5.1 Except as may otherwise be provided for Holders of the JetBlue Card from American Express as set forth in paragraph 7.4, POINTS EXPIRE ONE YEAR AFTER THEY ARE EARNED AND TRUEBLUE AWARDS EXPIRE ONE YEAR AFTER THEY ARE ISSUED. Award Travel must be booked for travel available at or before the time of Award Travel expiration.

7.4 The expiration date of all TrueBlue Points in TrueBlue Membership Account's for Holders of the JetBlue Card from American Express will be extended to be 1 year from any date you have a TrueBlue point credited to your TrueBlue Membership Account from one of the following activities: (1) Using your JetBlue Card Account for an eligible purchase (as defined in your American Express Cardholder Agreement), or (2) flying a JetBlue flight segment that is paid for with your JetBlue Card Account. Eligibility and timing are basepon the date the TrueBlue point is credited to your TrueBlue Membership Account from one of the above qualifying activities.
Now, you can interpret this to say that the only thing that the Amex Card specifically extends is the expiration date on TrueBlue Points. Without any sort of legal consultation, I would be pretty hesitant to go to court about any of this. However, from a consumer perspective, I think there's ample room for confusion.

I think the biggest issue is that nowhere does it explicitly state that once your points are converted into awards, they are considered as being in an entirely different category, subject to different treatment. This is especially important, as no other airline that I know of even has such a distinction.

Moreover, the phrasing in the terms and conditions leaves a lot of ambiguity as to whether or not these things should be treated differently. For instance, section 4.2 would lead one to believe that you are in fact redeeming points for award travel, not a separate category of awards (e.g. the TrueBlue Award or TrueBlue Pass mentioned in section 4.1). Section 5.1, while at least citing Points and Awards separately, states that expiration treatment of both points and awards may be different for AmEx cardholders. At this point, any reasonable consumer would be hard pressed to see what the difference between these categories is and why one should be protected via AmEx usage and another should not. Given the lack of a strict definitional framework, the meaning of section 7.4 seems much more open to interpretation.

Anyway, I have clearly spent way too much time thinking about this. Let's just leave it at me being pissed at JetBlue.

More about Disqus

Fred Wilson's take on why to use Disqus (the commenting system that I happen to be using):

1) Threaded discussions - When you want to leave a comment that is actually a reply to someone else's comment, you click on the reply link and the comment/reply is indented right under the original comment. On any comment thread/discussion with a lot of action, this is absolutely necessary to make sense of the discussion. I am shocked that a popular blog like Techcrunch doesn't have this feature in its comments. Certainly it's possible for commenters to use an @sign to signify a comment that is actually a reply, but threaded discussion is so much better.

2a) Email Replies - Disqus emails every comment to the blogger. If the blogger wants to reply to the comment, he/she simply replies to the email and it is posted as a reply (with the indent described above). This feature, which I requested the day I met/saw Disqus for the first time, is the single best thing about Disqus and has transformed my blog comments because I can now participate in them in real time throughout the day as the conversation develops. This is a BIG DEAL.

2b) Email Replies for Commenters - It works the same way for commenters. If you leave a comment in Disqus and have given Disqus your email address, you will get an email when anyone replies to your comment. You can reply to that just like the blogger can. This is also a big deal and leads to much more active commenting and replying - ie discussion.

3) Shared profiles. As more and more blogs add Disqus (over 10,000 at this point), the profiles that commenters create in Disqus are shared across blogs. This is an important network effect that benefits the blogger and his/her community. For example, if you have a blog that is read by a similar audience as my blog, and you add Disqus to your blog, most of my commenters will already be recognized by Disqus the first time they show up in your comments. They don't need to set up a new profile. They''ll have the same avatar/icon and identity.

Also, there's a greasemonkey script that brings disqus comments and commenting right into Google Reader. You can get it here.

I really only have about 10 regular readers on this blog, so the marginal benefit of installing Disqus has been pretty weak. But, if I did have a real audience, I bet it sure would be neat.

Clearing something up

I was standing in the elevator today, with a copy of Time announcing that the "winner" of the Democratic primary is... probably going to be Barack Obama. My downstairs neighbor Jonathon saw this cover and noted that he likes Obama a lot, but he's been around the block a couple and he's seen this "Hope" thing fizzle out time after time.

I would just like to comment on that. I am not supporting Obama because of his message of hope. All of this "Change we can believe in" and "Yes we can" business is just advertising to me. What's more important is that he actually treats voters (for the most part) as if they are intelligent people that capable of making decisions for themselves. I am incredibly tired and disgusted with politicians that essentially treat elections as popularity contests - smearing their opponents because of their race, gender, passing association with certain people, or phrases taken out of context, and essentially putting bullshit at the center of the political stage, rather than a substantive discussion about what is actually wrong with our country and how it can possibly be fixed.

So for me, this primary and the upcoming election is not about hope. It's about rejecting a set of actors (and I am looking squarely at the media and the politicians that play by their rules) who consistently make molehills into mountains and mountains into molehills.

Daily Show

Jon Stewart never ceases to amaze me. He has John McCain on his show and he asks him the following question, straight up:

"Will you take the opportunity right now to repudiate and denounce President Bush?"

To which, John McCain gets up and tries to flee the stage (as a joke).

Seriously though, I know that Stewart is a Democrat, but I don't know if I've ever seen him ask as tough of a question. To his credit, McCain artfully dodged the question by acknowledging that Bush's poll numbers suck and he'll have to run his campaign in his own way.

I will say that one of the most embarassing things that McCain said is that he views Al Qaeda as basically being transcendent evil, without any sense of individualism. Moreover, he will be "their worst nightmare." I couldn't think of a more simplistc, black and white way of thinking of the world.

Ok, back to work.

This is ridiculous

Every time we have a primary, my traffic numbers roughly double. Why? Because of traffic to a post that I wrote a long time ago about Obama being a smoker. Here's what I had to say:

I would be pretty disappointed if this ever became an issue, though. There are so many more important criteria to think about (e.g. positions on the environment, Iraq, taxes, religion) that if this one actually gains traction, then my faith in democracy as a political system will drop by about five points.
Thankfully, it doesn't seem to have been an issue. Last that I heard, he'd quit the habit (bravo). However, I find it interesting that despite this, enough people are conducting searches about him smoking (example search terms include: "obama smoking" or "barack obama + cigarettes") that they are somehow finding their way to my blog.

Gas mileage

I don't think there are many people reading this blog that actually drive, but for those of you that do, you should check out the following link on How to Get Better Gas Mileage. I wouldn't say that any of the content is particularly earth shattering, but it's interesting to see everything all in one place. Here's a quick sample:

Watch Your Speed

Monitor Tire Pressure

    • One simple thing that you can do in order to improve fuel efficiency is to always keep your tires inflated to the correct level. Tires that are low on air are harder to roll and require more work from your engine and more gas consumption[3]. Make sure that you check your car's tire pressure every time you fuel up (most gas stations have an air pump that customers can use). If you're unsure about how much air to put in your tires, check the owner's manual to find out the recommended psi for your specific vehicle.
Apologies for the crap formatting, Mahalo apparently isn't very good for the cut/paste.

Gas taxes

There's been a little bit of a flap about Clinton and McCain advocating temporary reductions in gas taxes. Key questions include whether or not it's a good idea (consensus being that it's not) and whether or not it's a big deal (consensus being that it's not). Here's a mish-mash of material putting everything in context. The following blurb from the WSJ concisely sums up the problem:

John McCain and Hillary Clinton want to send cash-strapped consumers on holidays from the federal gasoline tax. But the law they can't rewrite -- the law of supply and demand -- suggests it would backfire. Lower taxes would encourage people to drive more, meaning more demand that would push prices higher again.

What the U.S. really needs, if it seeks a real fix to its energy-consumption problem, is less demand, not more. Mr. Market says there's a simple way to do that: Jack up the gas tax. Don't lower it.

Economists call it a "Pigovian Tax," in honor of English economist Arthur Pigou, who early in the 20th century examined economic activity that hurts innocent bystanders. To stop behavior that's not in the public good, you tax it more, not less.

Here is David Brooks's account of Hillary Clinton being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos, with italics added:

She peddled her sham gas-tax holiday and repeated her attempt to blame Indiana’s job losses on outsourcing and Nafta. Stephanopoulos asked her to name a single economist who thinks a tax-holiday plan would work, and the daughter of Wellesley and Yale took the chance to shove the geeks into their lockers: “I’m not going to put my lot in with economists.

When Stephanopoulos pointed out that Paul Krugman, a Times columnist, has raised doubts about the plan, Clinton lumped Krugman in with the Bush administration and said she wasn’t going to listen to the people responsible for the last seven years.

Keep in mind that Paul Krugman has been one of the most vocal critics of the Bush presidency. He has also been one of Hillary's most ardent supporters in her long and protracted battle with Barack Obama. Here is Krugman's take on the gas tax issue:

Hillary Clinton’s proposed gas tax holiday is not, in my view, a good idea. But the furor over what is, when all is said and done, a small and temporary policy proposal is entirely disproportionate. What’s going on?

Part of it, clearly, is the fact that many people in the media really, really want Obama to win and Clinton to lose — read Kurt Andersen — and have seized on the gas tax as their latest proof that she is ee-ee-vil.

But there’s also something going on with economists, a phenomenon I recognize wearing my other hat: the tendency to place excessive weight on issues where professional judgment differs from lay opinion.


Economists really do know something about tax incidence that the laity don’t. So when a presidential candidate says something that conflicts with economistic wisdom, it becomes THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE EVER. Except, you know, it isn’t.

Finally, to cap off this incredibly long post, here's conservative Harvard economist/textbook pimp Greg Mankiw:
Many economic issues (e.g., health care, corporate taxation, the trade deficit) are vastly complicated, with experts holding a variety of opinions. When candidates disagree, it simply means that each is siding with a different set of experts, and it is hard for laymen to figure out which set of experts is right. By contrast, the gas tax holiday is not nearly as complicated, and the experts speak with one voice.

Why, then, are candidates proposing the holiday? I can think of three hypotheses:

Ignorance: They don't know that the consensus of experts is opposed.

Hubris: They know the experts are opposed, but they think they know better.

Mendacity with a dash of condescension: They know the experts are opposed, and they secretly agree, but they think they can win some votes by pulling the wool over the eyes of an ill-informed electorate.

So which of these three hypotheses is right? I don't know [uh huh], but whichever it is, it says a lot about the character of the candidates [by which he means Clinton and McCain, as Obama has derided the gas tax as being political pandering].
That pretty much sums up everything that I think I would ever need to know about this issue. Let's hope it gets put to bed.

Just for Pudge

I have nothing against the Macbook Air (other than some of the frustrations I pointed out earlier), but I found the following video to be somewhat humorous.

Haven't had much time to be in touch recently, but there's definitely a lot of interesting stuff kicking around these days. Definitely seeing more about peak oil these days, to the point where James Kunstler is appearing on the Colbert report and looking really, really not funny. I've also been thinking a lot about the "free content" model and whether or not it's slowly killing the media.

All that being said, I'm just going to drop in a quick link from the Big Picture that would be super cool:

"But the loudest chatter is about Bloomberg, whose fortune—based on his stake in financial-information giant Bloomberg LP—Forbes magazine pegs at $11.6 billion. In a farewell column in January marking his retirement, Journal managing editor Paul Steiger touted the possibility of a friendly Bloomberg-Times merger. In NEWSWEEK interviews last week, a member of Bloomberg's inner circle confirmed that the mayor's confidants and closest associates are, in fact, encouraging him to explore the idea. The Bloomberg source wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the matter and, as a result, insisted on anonymity. Through a spokesman, Bloomberg declined to comment. According to the source, the proponents of the merger are appealing to the mayor's sense of "civic-mindedness," arguing that he is best suited to take the publishing company private to "help protect the brand" in the wake of relentless shareholder assaults. "It is clearly a brand that Bloomberg could help preserve and that he cares about immensely … and could pay a competitive price" for, says this person.

Murdoch, for one, sees a natural fit between Bloomberg and the Journal's uptown rival. Bloomberg, he notes, has pledged to remain a force in national public life after leaving New York's city hall at the end of next year. To that end, owning the Times would help immensely, Murdoch reasons. Yet the prospect of competing against a Bloomberg-owned Times appears to rattle him. "I wouldn't look forward to going up against him," Murdoch told NEWSWEEK, citing his "great respect for Bloomberg's business abilities."

Link to the full article from Newsweek here.

Case study: Freakonomics blog

Following the quote about frictionless media consumption, I wanted to say one more thing.

I used to like the Freakonomics blog. Levitt's posts I tend to find particularly interesting, Dubner is sort of whatever. I stopped reading them a while ago. Why?

A) Truncated RSS feed, which happened when they moved to the NYTimes
B) Bloated posting habits

In B, I'm referring to the fact that they've juiced up the number of posts that they produce on a daily basis. This is a case in which quality has a very clear inverse relationship to quantity. Before, the only stupid posts that I had to filter out were Dubner's. Since then, they've added a random unnamed editor (Melissa Lafsky?) that posts random links and articles, some other economist (who might actually be reasonable, if I bothered to read his posts) and Jessica Hagy of indexed fame. I now have to jump many more hoops to get to the content that I want. Subsequently, I've stopped paying attention and drifted off to other sources.

WSJ, consider this your official warning.


Overheard by Felix Salmon at

Eric Feng of Hulu, on the digital innovation panel:

Media is an impulse business. It's foolish to expect that the user is going to climb mountains and cross hurdles to get to that content.

This is very broadly applicable. Clearly it's the driving force behind Hulu, which is delivering television content to people when, where, and how they want it. But it's also the reason why should go free, it's the reason why RSS feeds should never be truncated, it's the reason why people are buying music on iTunes rather than at Amazon.

Damn straight. When Salmon says "broadly applicable," I think he should double down and say that it's "super directly applicable" to any media content available on the Internet. I'm basically drowning in Internet media these days. Much like a ruthless college admissions officer, the spread in my selection criteria is narrow to the point where I'm looking for just the slightest of reasons to off each of the many candidates for my attention.


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