Kobe beef in the US

For some time I have been thinking about how ridiculous it is that Kobe beef is even not allowed in the US and yet many people think they have eaten Kobe beef.  But apparently that was only true from 2010 through late 2012 when the USDA began allowing some Kobe beef back in the country.  That's good, because it means that the sushi chef who I'm pretty sure used real kobe beef to make nigiri is no longer violating that particular regulation in order to serve amazing food*.

The Kobe beef controversy is related but not exactly the same as the Champagne controversy. To many people, Champagne just means "sparkling wine." Kobe beef and Wagyu beef are used to mean "high quality beef" because people imagine that they are eating a very specific type of beef from Japan.  When the beef isn't actually from Japan and isn't even a purebred Wagyu, the issue is closer to fraud. 

Champagne producers already won the battle of forcing sellers to label where the bubbly actually came from.  They are hoping to push their victory even farther by recapturing a term that has developed a generic meaning. The Japanese beef lobby hasn't even begun to mitigate the fraud perpetuated by the US beef and restaurant industry.  So even though it's actually possible for people to import Kobe beef, think twice before you order Kobe beef in a US restaurant.  It's probably not the real thing, especially if it only seems mildly expensive.

*Maybe I'm not cynical enough, but it seems like people who import other high cost food from Japan such as fresh fish would be more likely to serve the real thing, especially if it is an off menu item.

Rise of the nerds

First, there were articles about how Settlers being talked about as the new golf in Silicon Valley. Hopefully the people who were playing Settlers have figured out where they can find much better games. One of the difficulties in picking a game is to figure out a game where re-playability is high, the dimensions of luck are controlled, the skill to win percent relationship isn't too high, kingmaking isn't easy and the length of time dedicated to the game is known in advance.  With the right board game, socializing around a board game seems like it should provide the same level of mental stimulation and socialization as golf. The main difference in function is that golf provides marginally more exercise and an excuse to get out of the house.

At around the same time, it has become more fashionable to look like a nerd. Well, maybe I should say that it has become more fashionable to look like an athletic person with good skin and thick glasses.

But it isn't just board games and oddly expensive** nerdy glasses that are getting main stream. Web comics targeting nerdy humor are more popular than ever and were the subject of recent article in the Economist. Around the same time, Forbes had a post on the rise of Esports. These are all trends that are hitting critical mass. The creator of The Oatmeal is able to raise millions of dollars for a Tesla museum, Penny Arcade is able to raise millions for Child's Play, a charity that puts video games in children's hospitals and there is currently a lot of money being spent and made on spectator video games. Next year they will be hosting three of their own convention, with the main one filling up Seattle's convention center and selling out in hours.  Maybe money is all it really takes to catch the attention of the mainstream. 

Board games, web comics and E-sports will remain a growing trend as the generations that grew up with gaming acquire more disposable income with age. It will be interesting to see how their inherently niche nature impacts their growth.  There aren't as many people dedicated to debating whether or not football or baseball is a better sport, and when there is a question the existence of the other sport is not questioned as closely. With E-sports many people fear that if another game becomes respectable their favored game will become superfluous and disappear from the scene. This means that the rivalry is much more intense than it is among traditional sports***, especially for games within the same genre. It is still an open question as to which games will be the main representative of their genre 5 years from now and how long any one game can stay at the top given how faster computers and gaming company's desire for more sales leads to newer versions of the same game being released every couple years.

Societal trends like this almost make up for how shows like Jersey Shore are creating celebrities. Almost.

*A high skill differential means that some games cannot be casually between two people. This is case with chess and go.  It's also the case for many board games but they generally have some mechanisms for luck to sometimes turn the game in the less skilled player's favor.
** Hat tip to VP
***It will probably still be a while before a match shoutcasted by Day9 causes a riot in San Francisco.

Time arbitrage

"Nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded." - Yogi Berra

It takes a while for people to understand that time is money. But once they do, they don't often think about how certain times being busier than others should change their behavior. This activity is driven by work hours, business hours and social norms.   A busy place can sometimes be a positive. Restaurants, bars and clubs can be a lot more fun with other people around.  However, in other cases trying to do something at a busy time means full restaurants, traffic and long lines. People with flexible schedules should be on the lookout for opportunities to take advantage of peak times by either avoiding them or finding ways around them or anticipating them.

Businesses charge for times in various ways. At restaurants, dinners cost more than lunch. Open Table will award "points" for diners making reservations off of peak hours. In New York, eating between 7:30 and 8:30pm will cost some diners at more money at certain restaurants. On big days like Valentine's Day, many restaurants will only offer a more expensive prix fixe menu. At clubs, people can generally get in more easily when the club is just starting to open than they would if they tried to get in two hours later. Uber has been implementing surcharge pricing on busy nights. 

Even with all of these measures most of the value of optimal times are not charged. It's done on a first come, first serve basis in the case of reservations at most restaurants. When consumers going to places at popular times they will just face extra traffic (potentially some dynamic bridge tolls), longer wait times and longer lines.

Some social norms are fun to follow. Not many people would skip out on a NYE party just because Uber charges 5x for rides, although it might be a good idea to find an alternative means of transportation at that point. But it's interesting to think about the various ways implement time arbitrage and the concept of valuing time more generally.

1. If a work schedule is flexible then working slightly non-traditional hours is an obvious choice for avoiding commute times. Working a little earlier or a little later will save a lot of time in the end. Visits to the gym and supermarket at unconventional hours can be much more efficient.

2. Think harder about making reservations for dinner ahead of time on weekend nights than on less popular weeknights. (As an aside - when walking down popular streets in San Francisco, OpenTable's mobile app will often be able to get last minute reservations at places that would otherwise be full.)

3. Avoid peak travel times whenever possible. During certain times of the year some places are particularly busy. If your own schedule is flexible enough to shift activities by a weekend then a lot of traffic can be avoided. Waking up early for some trips can also be quite important. 

4. Realize that free promotions will often cost the gift receiver more in time than they are saving in money. It doesn't make sense to wait in line an hour for a free Chipotle burrito if their time is worth more than $10 an hour. Cyber Monday >> Black Friday.

Perhaps an interest in time arbitrage is also a way of saying "I don't like being around lots of other people," but it's more fun to pretend that it's an intellectual challenge to exploit inefficiencies. 

Regarding the Grexit

Naked Capitalism has an interesting post on the probability of a Greek exit from the eurozone (Grexit). After Europe agreed to bail out Greece again at the end of November people have relaxed considerably about the prospect of Greece being forced out. On Intrade betting markets, the risk of an exit by Dec13 has decreased down to 30% from over 60% previously. Anecdotally, Intrade seems to over predict rare events such as Israeli air strikes and Euro exits so a real probability 20% makes sense (The way Yves Smith got to the 20% number, by suggesting that Spain and not Greece could leave the EU is harder to believe). Currently, the main risk of a euro exit is that anti-EU parties such as SYRIZA and Golden Dawn outnumber New Democracy and PASOK in the polls. 

If there was an election today, Greece would be put on a path to leave the union. 

An early election could be triggered by a number of events. Failure of the current government to approve future conditions from the Troika during quarterly reviews in 2013 is one route. A gradual bleeding of MPs from ND, Pasok and Democratic Left, which would cause the current coalition to lose its majority, is another route.

It will be interesting to see how ND balances the line between alienating their supporters and kowtowing to the Troika. No one wants to see Greece leave the EU at this point. New Democracy will have to do everything they can to fulfill their side of the bargain. And on the other side of the coin, as long as New Democracy is acting in good faith the Troika will have to give Greece what they need despite their expected continuing poor performance. A country with a broken banking system, capital flight of both the financial and human variety and general political unrest is not going to be able to grow out of their problems anytime soon. 

The news flow might have died down, but the politics in Greece will be quite interesting in 2013.

A rule for everything

China's new standing committee is trying to change its image. Along with a ban of red carpets and fawning state media write ups they have instituted a new rule on speeches.

The updated rules also ban dull, long speeches and fawning write-ups in the state newspapers, as the party tries to reshape its image.

Emphasis added. This seems silly but apparently the origin of this rule comes from how at meetings Chinese official would speak in monotone for hours. Maybe being able to take up more time than other officials was part of the status games they played. So it sounds like this will be a positive influence until the rule is used to punish people who gave speeches with unfavorable substance. But it also demonstrates just how strange things are over there that there had to be a specific policy shift to bring about this change.

Falken on Taleb

Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, has a new book out about a term he's coined called anti-fragility. The idea is that insitutions should benefit from mishandling rather than be harmed by it.  At first I thought this was a word coined because using the word "adaptive" sounds too normal until it occured to me that new terms were also useful for authors who want to group a lot of not quite related concepts under one roof. He recently published an editorial in the WSJ promoting the concept and his book. 
Some of the anti-fragile industries he mentions favorably are the airline and restaurant industry due to their ability to handle failure. A world full of anti-fragile institutions like these would become poor quite quickly. Maybe anti-fragile economies already are poor, as a society without complex systems that rely on each other can only produce so much wealth. Or perhaps our current society is actually already quite adaptable, as despite many different crisis over the past 5 years life has gone on normally for the majority of the developed world.
But rather than expand my view on his op ed, I would direct the reader towards Falkenblog's take on Taleb's new book. Before diving in, it's important for those unfamiliar with Nassim Taleb to note that he is quite arrogant, and therefore doesn't deserve to be handled with kid gloves.
Here are some of the more amusing excerpts:
"He doesn't identify key attributes of attractive, risky (oops, antifragile!) opportunities, just implies they are the ones that unlike options and lottery tickets, work well. In fact, he's anti-theory, so one supposedly finds them by random sampling (aka 'trial and error'). That's a strategy statistically proven to underperform, catering to the biases most investors have, why both day trading bucket shops thrive and  low volatility investing works. As a self-help book it's like someone saying you should eat more sugar, a strategy many will find highly convenient."
 "Another key to understanding Taleb is that he has a French post-modern tendency to write to impress rather than explain. He provides hundreds of loosely related anecdotes, reminding me of the Talmud quote that 'when a debater’s point is not impressive, he brings forth many arguments.'  I actually agree with a lot of Taleb, such as the intractability of risk because it is endogenous, and I think he's vaguely libertarian, but he says so many inconsistent things that doesn't mean much (when he's right it's probably a good example of the Gettier problem)."

"The fund Universa, of which he is affiliated, states that it is no longer merely long volatility or gamma, but timing when to be long volatility or gamma. I'm sure all those investors who jumped in Universa circa 2009 would be surprised to know that's the strategy, but as part of management, he benefits from the gamma resulting from the asset management fees from investors fooled by randomness. He does have an excuse here, as he did write a book on that, so it's not like they weren't warned."
Falkenstein goes on to note how well Taleb and his fans react to criticism. It will be interesting to see what type of blowback he gets from his review.

Btw, if you found that review fun, Eric Falkenstein has many previous takes on Taleb that are equally amusing.
"He inverts the observation that geniuses are often misunderstood to the insight that misunderstood people are geniuses, and critics of such people are imbeciles who don’t even have the taste to appreciate genius."
"I suspect that Taleb dreams of someday winning the Nobel Prize in Economics for his popularization of Rietz’s peso problem  (1988), fat tailed distributions (Mandelbroit 1963), or Knightian uncertainty (1921) , at which point he would refuse it and then raise his stature above all those before him. Alas, as defective as the econ Nobel is, it ain't the Peace Prize. He has not added any new significant idea to any of these richly researched threads, rather merely tries to convince readers he and his followers are the only ones in the world who really understand them."
"For someone advocating doubt and criticizing expert and 'regular' people’s overconfidence and arrogance, Taleb’s writings are filled with certainty, anger, and immodesty, having the Godelian impossibility of someone shouting 'I am the most humble!'"
"For example, last week in Bloomberg he noted that “Recent events have proved that all risk management was wrong.” Such nuanced insights are usually confined to bigots discussing ethnic rivals."

An outdated lottery heuristic

In January the people behind Powerball implemented an idea: Double the price of the Powerball ticket to generate bigger jackpots.  That strategy is paying off now, with the Powerball Jackpot near $500 million dollars and people are getting very excited about it. But it's important to note that this lottery is farther from positive expected value than the Mega Millions jackpot was.  That's because the price is raised to 2 dollars a ticket, so a "1 in 175 million" means that the jackpot needs to be doubled until it gets closer to the almost positive expected value seen in March of this year.

This marketing gimmick is interesting, since it plays on two factors:

1. The chance to win a large amount of money is seen as very interesting by many people.

2. There was a heuristic widely used by people that when a jackpot got to be a certain size it was positive expected value (before taking into account the lump sum payment, taxes and the chance to split the pot) to play the lottery.

By doubling the price of the Powerball ticket they have effectively short circuited a widely used heuristic. People didn't notice this time, but maybe those who pay attention to the math behind the lottery will learn to wait until the jackpot hits a billion dollars before getting excited about Powerball again. Even then, it would still be excitement about a slightly negative expected value.

Disclosure: I currently have no positions in lottery tickets.

Prediction: Obama or Chaos

When I say that it is either Obama or chaos I don't mean that a Romney victory would mean chaos. Rather, that with Obama ahead in most polls in the key swing states most of the scenarios that would give these states to Romney will be chaotic. If the vote is within 200,000 or so in Ohio, the recount won't even start until November 17 when the 200,000 provisional ballots (absentee voters who decided that they wanted to vote in a polling place) are counted. 

Whether or not the vote is close depends on many things - there is a good chance that polls have been overestimating the likelihood of younger democratic leaning voters making it to the polls. On top of this, with high pressure "ground game" and massive text messages many potential voters in swing states have been so inundated with election ads that they could very easily have taken to habitually lying to those who are asking them about whether and when they vote.  It's also possible that there will be more unlikely but registered voters who get dragged to the polls almost against their will, but with early voting many of those who don't feel like voting can lie about having voted already. One additional wrinkle is there are supposedly internal Romney polls that indicate that he is winning in Ohio, but his team has a massive incentive to lie about being ahead in order to encourage their supporters to go out and vote - on net people like to be part of the winning team.

For those of you looking to track the election results tonight, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/ has done well in the past. But it would probably be more productive to spend your time seeing Wreck it Ralph. It's a good movie and stressing out over voting results isn't going to change anything. 

The capital gains tax increase and Buffett's book

To most people who look closely, it's very obvious that when Warren Buffett proposes an inheritance tax that he is advocating for policies that helps his company. He isn't planning on giving very much of his money away in a manner than can be taxed by the inheritance tax and he runs a businesses that benefits from the tax. One way he benefits from an inheritence tax is through his life insurance companies, which benefit from the tax because their policies can be used to transfer wealth while avoiding some of these taxes. Buffett's company is also in the business of buying businesses, and when smaller businesses must be sold to pay the inheritance tax after the death of a founder the companies who systematically acquire these businesses from forced sellers end up profiting. 

It turns out that a rising capital gains tax can have a similar effect on bringing bargain businesses to market. With a capital gains tax hike coming up, a lot of businesses owners are looking to sell, including some big names. In the US, corporations see no difference on capital gains and ordinary income so a capital gains tax hike won't impact his company negatively. Many non-profits are also exempt from the capital gains tax.

Most people running a business in the business of buying businesses would not benefit from a capital gains tax hike, regardless of the deals that became available to them from people looking to sell quickly. But because Warren Buffett is donating the majority of assets to charity, when he advocates for a higher capital gains tax he is also advocating for something that will help his business with little negative impact to himself or the causes that he is supporting.

Outside of lobbyists and politicians, most people truly believe that the policies they advocate will be the best option for society. But it's interesting when it turns out that a high profile advocate proposing a policy which seem to cause them harm (and thus gives the advocate's arguments slightly more credibility) actually benefits from the policy.