Information tech and variety

Using the food truck industry as the setting, we provide direct evidence for how information technology can complement consumption variety in cities by reducing spatial information frictions associated with locally produced goods. We document the following facts: 1) food trucks use technology to overcome a spatial information friction; 2) proliferation of technology is related to growth in food trucks; 3) food trucks use their mobility to respond to consumer taste-for-variety; and 4) growth in food trucks is positively correlated with growth in food expenditures away from home. Taken together, our results illustrate how information technology can provide a meaningful increase in variety for urban consumers.

Research paper titled Information Technology and Product Variety in the City: The Case of Food Trucks.

It's not just food variety that's increased thanks to information technology, though food trucks are one of the more peculiar instances. I lived in LA from 2006-2011, and that city's lower flatter, more dispersed distribution of retail and people might have made it an optimal ground zero for the food truck boom.

Amazon has increased our retail variety expectations. The internet and the web have increased the variety of information we expect to find with a query typed into a search engine. Information technology plus urban density are an intertwined network that overcomes much of the spatial friction of the past, which is why it's so odd to me that it's still so hard to find good versions of so many types of ethnic food in San Francisco.

The lady had dropped her napkin

The lady had dropped her napkin.
More accurately, she had hurled it to the floor in a fit of disillusionment, her small protest against the slow creep of mediocrity and missed cues during a four-hour dinner at Per Se that would cost the four of us close to $3,000. Some time later, a passing server picked up the napkin without pausing to see whose lap it was missing from, neatly embodying the oblivious sleepwalking that had pushed my guest to this point.
Such is Per Se’s mystique that I briefly wondered if the failure to bring her a new napkin could have been intentional. The restaurant’s identity, to the extent that it has one distinct from that of its owner and chef, Thomas Keller, is based on fastidiously minding the tiniest details. This is the place, after all, that brought in a ballet dancer to help servers slip around the tables with poise. So I had to consider the chance that the server was just making a thoughtful accommodation to a diner with a napkin allergy.
But in three meals this fall and winter, enough other things have gone awry in the kitchen and dining room to make that theory seem unlikely. Enough, also, to make the perception of Per Se as one of the country’s great restaurants, which I shared after visits in the past, appear out of date. Enough to suggest that the four-star rating it received from Sam Sifton in 2011, its most recent review in The New York Times, needs a hard look.

Pete Wells of the NYTimes drops Per Se from 4 stars to 2.

I have no idea if Wells is right or not, but I can't think of too many other food writers who can make a restaurant review as pleasurable to read. Writing about food is like writing about music; language can feel like an inadequate medium for describing something which we experience through our senses, bypassing the symbolic representations of words. Wells avoids those traps by, in large part, not trying to describe tastes.

Through the eyes of a burglar

Geoff Manaugh's upcoming book A Burglar's Guide to the City sounds great:

Encompassing nearly 2,000 years of heists and tunnel jobs, break-ins and escapes, A Burglar's Guide to the City offers an unexpected blueprint to the criminal possibilities in the world all around us. You'll never see the city the same way again.
At the core of A Burglar's Guide to the City is an unexpected and thrilling insight: how any building transforms when seen through the eyes of someone hoping to break into it. Studying architecture the way a burglar would, Geoff Manaugh takes readers through walls, down elevator shafts, into panic rooms, up to the buried vaults of banks, and out across the rooftops of an unsuspecting city.
With the help of FBI Special Agents, reformed bank robbers, private security consultants, the L.A.P.D. Air Support Division, and architects past and present, the book dissects the built environment from both sides of the law. Whether picking padlocks or climbing the walls of high-rise apartments, finding gaps in a museum's surveillance routine or discussing home invasions in ancient Rome, A Burglar's Guide to the City has the tools, the tales, and the x-ray vision you need to see architecture as nothing more than an obstacle that can be outwitted and undercut.
Full of real-life heists-both spectacular and absurd-A Burglar's Guide to the City ensures readers will never enter a bank again without imagining how to loot the vault or walk down the street without planning the perfect getaway.

The book streets April 5, 2016.

Gonna make you sweat

If I were to tell you that there was an entire industry that overcharged the vast majority of its customers, but those customers were fully aware they were being robbed, and that was the only way to make the business viable, what would you guess?

If you’re a member of a gym, you will be aware that for the first month of the year the place is horribly packed out with sweaty and unfit people, all the classes are booked up and you can’t get on any of the machines you want. If your interaction with the keep-fit industry is more along the lines of walking past the gym on the way to the cake shop, you might be more aware of the equally curious fact that commercial gyms always seem to have a heavily advertised ‘special’ membership deal going on. Paying the full whack listed rate at a gym is actually a pretty difficult thing to do — much more so than paying full freight rack-rate for a hotel room — unless you do the single most expensive thing you can do in physical culture, and join the gym shortly after the Christmas holidays.

SWEATY BETTY Having seen the books of a gym chain or two, we can tell you that the ‘Sweaty January’ phenomenon is not an urban myth or a joke — it’s absolutely fundamental to the economics of the industry and it’s basically impossible to run an economically viable gym without taking it into account. Usually about 75 per cent of all gym memberships are taken out in the month of January. Not only this, but the economics of the industry absolutely depend on the fact that a very great proportion of January joiners will not visit more than three or four times in total before their membership comes to a floundering flop of weight not lost at the end of the year. The founder of Colman’s Mustard used to claim that his fortune was based on the bit of mustard that everyone left behind on their plate, but gym memberships have really pushed things to the limit when it comes to this model of making people pay for a lot more of the product than they have any likelihood of using.

On the bizarre economics of gyms. The spatial inefficiency of gyms is something I hadn't ever spent much time thinking about.

Human nature being as immutable as it is, most gyms are great investments (other than Bally Total Fitness, which reached too far, too fast). In fact, human nature is so predictable that a company like Planet Fitness can come along and offer memberships for just $10 a month and still not be overrun with people. It's found money.

If you're feeling particularly fitness motivated this month, maybe wait a month and see if the impulse passes along with the January prices.

Spectre by Radiohead

James Bond movies have enlisted a diverse set of artists across the years for its theme songs, but I wouldn't have put Radiohead on that list. But I listened to their rejected theme song offering for Spectre, and it's not bad. I can almost picture a retired James Bond, making some spiked, artisanal hot chocolate in a log cabin, snapping a selfie with his hot young wife to post to Instagram.

Santa Claus converts Scrooge with new economics

Noted activist investor Scrooge has changed his mind about Santa Claus.

It is not an exaggeration to say that I have undergone a complete conversion in my view of St Nicholas. Warren Buffett advises investors to seek exceptional managers and I now see that few achieve your longevity.
You embodied the new economy before the idea had been conceived. St Nicholas is a global business, receiving signals from far corners of the earth and delivering packets over an integrated network. It works at super-high speed, faster than broadband in South Korea, and knows no boundaries. The internet is antique by comparison.
Your lack of interest in profitability struck the traditionalist in me as foolish but I have come to understand the virtues of reinvesting revenues over several centuries in order to dominate your market and entrench your monopoly. 
Jeff Bezos, your closest logistics competitor, has copied your tactics but, although Amazon crushes small shops, department stores and big box retailers, it cannot topple you.
This has helped you to build the biggest social network in the world, putting Facebook to shame. Everyone includes your messages in cards and parents pretend the gifts they buy for their children come from you — you outsource many deliveries at zero cost. By combining a jolly presence with sophisticated viral marketing, you have expanded your reach everywhere

Bret Easton Ellis interviews Tarantino (unedited)

Tarantino hasn’t been to many new movies in the last year while working on his opus The Hateful Eight, but he offers, along with the wine, snapshot reactions about one or two recent films and a few auteurs. The last current movie he saw was Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E: “The first half was really funny and terrific but in the whole second half I’m like ‘Oh wait a minute, we were supposed to care about the bomb? What the fuck is going on here? I was supposed to pay attention to the stupid story?’ Henry Cavill was fantastic but I didn’t like the girl at all.” (He notes fairly that he hasn’t seen Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina where a very different actress is on display.) Pixar’s Inside Out? “Haven’t seen it yet but Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece and was my favorite movie of that year.” David Fincher? “I’m excited to go see every movie David Fincher does. Even when I don’t like them I walk around thinking about them for a week or so.” Wes Anderson? “I loved Bottle Rocket but I never thought Rushmore was as funny as everybody else did because I didn’t like Max. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not really the thing I would think I’d love but I kind of loved it. The fact that I wasn’t a diehard Anderson fan before made me even more happy that I could finally embrace him.” Judd Apatow? “His audience is getting smaller and smaller but I think he’s getting better and better.” On Godard now: “He gave me rock-star excitement and he took me to so many places I needed to go but I feel I’ve outgrown him drastically. I’ve outgrown everything I thought was so sexy about his work.” On Hitchcock: “I’m not the biggest Hitchcock fan and I actually don’t like Vertigo and his 1950s movies—they have the stink of the 50s which is similar to the stink of the 80s. People discover North by Northwest at 22 and think it’s wonderful when actually it’s a very mediocre movie. I’ve always felt that Hitchcock’s acolytes took his cinematic and story ideas further. I love Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock movies. I love Richard Franklin’s and Curtis Hanson’s Hitchcock meditations. I prefer those to actual Hitchcock.” And Tarantino also prefers—passionately defends—Gus Van Sant’s meta art-manque shot-by-shot remake of Psycho over the original Hitchcock film.

The unedited version of Bret Easton Ellis's piece on Quentin Tarantino from the NYTimes Style Magazine a while back is online.

What makes Tarantino such a refreshing figure is his unvarnished honesty in speaking about other movies. Generally it's considered unseemly to criticize the work of your peers, and so you don't hear much of it. Not publicly, at least.

That goes for more than just the arts world. It's understandable, but the conversations behind closed doors, over beers, or off the record is usually more useful. What do people say when you're not in the room? That's the damn truth. People who don't hold that back, like Steve Jobs, can attain some shaman-like power, but it's something more people could exercise if not for the strictures of decorum.

Tarantino genuinely doesn't give a damn, and given he can always find enough collaborators to make his movies, it really doesn't matter too much to his career.

I can't wait to see The Hateful Eight tomorrow, err, today?

The false dichotomy of U.S. politics

The Trumpists are our equivalent of Britain’s U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and France’s National Front, both anti-immigrant, nationalist parties. For the past five years, Trumpists have clocked in at about 20 percent of the electorate, if one tracks numbers of committed “Obama is a Muslim-ists.” This makes them even more powerful than Britain’s UKIP, which won 12.6 percent of the vote in May’s parliamentary election. These numbers put the Trumpists on par with the National Front in France, which in March elections took 25 percent of the vote to the 32 percent that went to the center-right party of Nicholas Sarkozy.

The critical difference between our nationalist faction and the European ones is that their parliamentary systems register them as “parties,” whereas our two-party model makes it harder to see that what we’re confronting truly is the rise of a new party. Provided, that is, the Republicans don’t sell their souls.

If the Republicans can hang on to the convictions that make them the party of Lincoln, we ought to see the party split. For the good of the country, we should hope for it.

Good piece on how the U.S. two-party political system masks the underlying fragmentation of our nation's political beliefs. The incumbent two-party system has been around so long that it has a massive fund-raising advantage over any third party, and that's just one element of inertia working in its favor.

From a voter perspective, a two-party system vastly restricts the granularity of your vote and what it communicates to politicians. It's as if you and a dozen of your work colleagues had to decide where to eat for lunch each day, but despite having dozens of restaurants in the area, could only go to one of two restaurants because there were only two cars available to drive.

The true preference of the group might be split among many more restaurants. It's even possible every person might want to go to a different restaurant that day. But instead you end up with one group at Chipotle, and the other at some salad bar, and tough luck if you're in the mood for Chinese or sushi or something else.

For a variety of historical reasons, and it's a fascinating tale, we've evolved to be a two party nation. And at this point, the structural inertia is significant and not likely to be easily overturned.

But the ability to map preferences at a more granular level is something technology can enable at a scale not possible in days past, and I suspect it will be technology that changes American politics in a deep way over the next two to three elections.

First we'll see an election where technology swings a few key races in a very public way. My guess is that the same social networks that enable many more people to become internet famous will allow those same people to sway a lot more voters by allowing them to endorse at scale. Second, some simple mobile app will solve the voter laziness and voter information asymmetry problems and allow them to more efficiently discover which candidates most closely represent their views.

It's amazing how hard it remains to research how to vote optimally based on your personal preferences. It's easier to find a hotel to stay at when visiting a new city, or the best Mexican restaurant in your neighborhood. Google is of surprisingly little help when it comes to researching your ballot, and so many of us end up in a dark voter stall, staring at a long list of names we've never heard of, trying to choose some local area judge or reading some long pro or con position on a local proposition. Frankly, the heuristics I've turned to when faced with choices like that are embarrassing.

Organizing large sets of information, offering customized searching and browsing of that information using algorithms, user preferences, and social network context, and bundling all of that in good user experience on a smartphone has been the technology industry's hammer of Thor in industry after industry for the past decade. Restaurants, retail, news, music, and travel are just a few examples to have felt the blow.

For a variety of reasons, industries like finance, health care, automobiles, and government have remained somewhat immune. But that's about to change, and I believe politics is going to be one of the most visible to succumb. The killer election mobile app is coming, and the only question is who will build it and whether it will come in time for the 2016 U.S. elections.

Fundamental to that shift is making public what has long been private. I'm referring to not just party preferences but people's thoughts on individual issues and races. What do people you admire think about the issues on the ballot in front of you, and why? If much of this is made public ahead of election day, then suddenly we have a new, more efficient way to debate the issues and understand how and why different voters are going with particular candidates. Making messaging public was the greatest innovation of Twitter, turning the conversations and soliloquies of people into public theater. Making voting intentions public would have as great a social impact.

We already live in a generation where people feel comfortable making their views on everything under the sun public online, so I can't imagine it's a stretch to do so on political issues. The only thing stopping us from aggregating and organizing this information efficiently has been a focused, directed service.

Money has long been a proxy for political influence, but let's say someone Internet famous carries their millions of followers from social media over into the political arena. For example, let's say Marc Andreessen makes his ballot for the upcoming election public, along with a list of his views on all the issues and where he agrees and disagrees with each candidate. Or imagine popular economist Tyler Cowen gives his views on all the random propositions on a ballot, explaining why he thinks they make sense or not. And so on down the line.

On some mobile app, you import all these people you follow on other social networks and have a ready-made ballot based on the collective views of all the people you trust. As the typical lazy American voter, you already feel more informed. If you want, you can tune your ballot by hand or take some simple survey on a variety of hot button issues to tweak your ballot. Now, ahead of the election, you publish that ballot to the app for anyone else, and more importantly the network itself, to see. People who follow you on other networks automatically follow you here, so now you can see whose votes you're influencing. You are, as on other social networks, both consumer and publisher.

Remember, this information is all made public ahead of the election, so the ripples actually begin long before election day. You're a candidate running for office, and you can go look at a list of the people with the most followers in your district. Suddenly, you realize that someone influencing a sizable bloc of voters in your district is choosing against you because of your view on some issue or proposition. The app offers a quick calculation of how many voters you might gain by changing your view to the other side. It could sway the election. You publicly change your view, and the app sends a notification to all the people who were going to vote against you, informing them of your policy shift.

That may sound a bit too precise, and perhaps that level of granularity isn't possible the first go round because the math isn't so clean. At the very least, though, you can imagine looking through the app to see the top influencers in your district and inviting them to a meeting or one of those fundraising dinners. Usually, a ticket to such an event comes at the cost of a sizable donation, but remember, fundraising and money have long been an indirect way of transacting in votes, but an app like this allows you to do so more directly.

Someone smarter than me can compute how dense a network like this needs to be in a region to be predictive, but if political polls based on random samples can be reasonably predictive, we may already be over the tipping point in many parts of the U.S.

Let's come full circle. This began as a discussion of the restrictive nature of a two-party system. A network like this could unlock the potential for a more granular set of options. A service like this might indicate that a candidate coming in with some mix of views from the left and right could capture a sizable voting bloc. That fabled third party could find a more efficient path to reaching that bloc through a set of influencers on the network who share a certain set of common views. But perhaps it's not just one additional party but multiple ones that find a path to relevance.

This is all jumping far ahead down the road, but it's not unreasonable to imagine how quickly change like this can come to a particular space in public life when you compare how we used to shop, search and browse information, find people to date, or navigate from one place to another just a decade or two ago.

We already probably have many more than two political parties in the U.S. Circling back to the piece I quoted at the beginning of this post, the author believes the Republican Party should split because it really consists of two distinct parties.

If we look to Europe, again, we can see the effects of these tools, not only on the right but also on the left. Progressive Internet activists in Germany, for instance, coalesced into the Pirate Party, which has been able to win seats in four state parliaments as well as the European parliament.

In other words, in this country, too, we would by now have Trumpists, libertarians and netizens in government, if we had a parliamentary system. But because we don’t, we have a very weird, historically important presidential campaign. The weirdness comes from the fact that it is unfolding inside the structure of our creaky, 19th-century two-party framework.

The real story, then, is not about this or that candidate but about precisely how the realignment of U.S. public opinion away from the two major political parties will shake out and about who or what the major parties will sell down the river while trying to save themselves as the “big tents” they need to be to win elections. And the burning question inside this story is whether our two-party system can survive the digital era. Or, perhaps better, how to ensure that it doesn’t so that we can save our center-right party, the Republicans, for the center.