Quotulatiousness

May 23, 2015

The rise of the Donair

Filed under: Business,Cancon,Middle East — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

I first experienced a donair in Halifax in the summer of 1982. I won’t claim it was a life-changing experience, but it was a revelation that “street meat” didn’t have to be awful. At The Walrus, Omar Mouallem explains how the humble donair is on the verge of conquering the streets of Alberta:

Like shawarma and gyros, donairs are a meaty delicacy shaved from a rotisserie spit and wrapped in pitas — only spicier and sweeter. If you require further explanation, then you’re from neither the Maritimes (where they were invented, in the 1970s) nor Alberta (where they’re most consumed). Topped with a sweet, creamy sauce, they are a Canadian take on tzatziki-coated beef and lamb gyros, which themselves are a Greco-American take on centuries-old Turkish rotisserie lamb (a dish that also spawned a blander German variant called döner kebab). Adding to the cultural confusion, most donair operations are run by Lebanese immigrants such as Tawachi — or my father, Ahmed Mouallem, who introduced Athena’s product to my hometown of High Prairie, Alberta, in 1995. The town of 2,666 now supports four different restaurants that serve the food, but only three traffic lights.

[…]

No one, including John Kamoulakos, who with his brother Peter invented the street food in Halifax, is quite sure how donairs migrated from east to west. Aaron Tingley of Tony’s Meats (based in Antigonish, Nova Scotia), a supplier that purchased the Mr. Donair trademark and recipe from Kamoulakos in 2005, thinks Maritime labourers might have driven Alberta’s demand: “They want to experience a taste of home.”

That’s what Chawki El-Homeira was thinking in 1978, when he left Halifax to chase the Alberta oil patch. Only he was going to feed the workforce. The sixty-seven-year-old remembers his first encounter with the donair, in March 1976, as if it were yesterday. He’d arrived in Nova Scotia from Lebanon with neither family nor English and got a job washing dishes in a restaurant that served the delicacy. “Something attracted me to it,” he tells me. “It was close to our food: it’s pita bread and spicy, quality beef, like shawarma. I thought, someday I’m going to open my own donair shop.”

After watching Maritimers migrate to Fort McMurray, he packed his bags and followed. The timing was terrible. The oil patch dried up in 1980, before he could secure a lease (like a true Albertan, he blames Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program). So he drove a cab instead, first in Fort Mac, then in Edmonton, looking for commercial vacancies while the meter ran.

On a fellow cabbie’s tip, he purchased a submarine-sandwich shop on Whyte Avenue in 1982 (the same year Tawachi opened his) and introduced his Dartmouth recipe to Albertans one slice at a time, offering customers free samples. Word spread of “Charles Smart Donair” (his anglicized name and a poorly translated Arabic adjective), and soon he had a monopoly as a supplier to other Lebanese shop owners. Then his best customer tried to copy his technique and, he claims, sabotage his business by spreading rumours to his predominantly Muslim clientele that he, a Christian, spiked his product with pork.

If anyone knows of a good donair place in Toronto’s financial district, feel free to drop a hint in the comments…

Debunking the “GM killed the streetcars” conspiracy theory

Filed under: Business,Railways,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

There are many railfans who still believe, strongly and passionately, that General Motors was involved in a devious plot to kill off the streetcars across North America in order to sell more buses. At Vox.com, Joseph Stromberg explains that this wasn’t the case — in fact, the killer of the streetcar/interurban/radial railway systems was their willingness to lock in to long-term uneconomic agreements with local governments in exchange for monopoly privileges:

Back in the 1920s, most American city-dwellers took public transportation to work every day.

There were 17,000 miles of streetcar lines across the country, running through virtually every major American city. That included cities we don’t think of as hubs for mass transit today: Atlanta, Raleigh, and Los Angeles.

Nowadays, by contrast, just 5 percent or so of workers commute via public transit, and they’re disproportionately clustered in a handful of dense cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago. Just a handful of cities still have extensive streetcar systems — and several others are now spending millions trying to build new, smaller ones.

So whatever happened to all those streetcars?

“There’s this widespread conspiracy theory that the streetcars were bought up by a company National City Lines, which was effectively controlled by GM, so that they could be torn up and converted into bus lines,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.

But that’s not actually the full story, he says. “By the time National City Lines was buying up these streetcar companies, they were already in bankruptcy.”

Surprisingly, though, streetcars didn’t solely go bankrupt because people chose cars over rail. The real reasons for the streetcar’s demise are much less nefarious than a GM-driven conspiracy — they include gridlock and city rules that kept fares artificially low — but they’re fascinating in their own right, and if you’re a transit fan, they’re even more frustrating.

This is one of the reasons I’m generally against new plans to re-introduce streetcars (or their modern incarnations generally grouped under the term “light rail”), because they fail to address one of the key reasons that the old street railway/interurban/radial systems died: they were sharing road space with private vehicles. Light rail can provide a useful urban transportation option if they have their own right-of-way, but not if they are merely adding to the gridlock of already overcrowded city streets.

And once again, I’m not anti-rail … I founded a railway historical society and I commute most work days on a heavy rail commuter network. I don’t hold this position due to some anti-rail animus. If anything, I regret the passing of railway systems more than most people do, but I recognize that they have to be self-supporting (or close to self-supporting) to have a chance to survive. Being both more expensive and less convenient than alternative transportation options is a sure-fire path to extinction.

May 21, 2015

QotD: Silicon Valley hypocrisies

The point of reviewing these hypocrisies is not to suggest that the rich profit-makers of Silicon Valley are any greedier or more cutthroat than the speculators of Wall Street or the frackers of Texas, but merely that they are judged by quite different standards. Cool — defined by casual dress, hip popular culture, and the loud embrace of green energy, gay marriage, relaxation of drug laws, and other hot-button social issue — means that one can live life as selfishly as he pleases in the concrete by sounding as communitarian as he can in the abstract. Buying jet skis is as crass a self-indulgence as buying an even more expensive all-carbon imported road bike is neat.

If Silicon Valley produced gas and oil, built bulldozers, processed logs, mined bauxite, or grew potatoes, then the administration, academia, Hollywood, and the press would damn its white-male exclusivity, patronization of women, huge material appetites, lack of commitment to racial diversity, concern for ever-greater profits, and seeming indifference to the poor. But they do not, because the denizens of the valley have paid for their indulgences and therefore are free to sin as they please, convinced that their future days in Purgatory can be reduced by a few correct words about Solyndra, Barack Obama, and the war on women.

Practicing cutthroat capitalism while professing cool communitarianism should be a paradox. But in Silicon Valley it is simply smart business. The more money you make, any way you can make it, the more you can find ways of contextualizing it. At first these Silicon Valley contradictions were amusing, then they were grating, and now they are mostly just pathetic.

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Valley of the Shadow: How mansion-dwelling, carbon-spewing cutthroat capitalists can still be politically correct”, National Review, 2014-07-22.

May 14, 2015

Moore’s Law challenged yet again

Filed under: Business,History,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Bloomberg View, Virginia Postrel looks at the latest “Moore’s Law is over” notions:

Semiconductors are what economists call a “general purpose technology,” like electrical motors. Their effects spread through the economy, reorganizing industries and boosting productivity. The better and cheaper chips become, the greater the gains rippling through every enterprise that uses computers, from the special-effects houses producing Hollywood magic to the corner dry cleaners keeping track of your clothes.

Moore’s Law, which marked its 50th anniversary on Sunday, posits that computing power increases exponentially, with the number of components on a chip doubling every 18 months to two years. It’s not a law of nature, of course, but a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, driving innovative efforts and customer expectations. Each generation of chips is far more powerful than the previous, but not more expensive. So the price of actual computing power keeps plummeting.

At least that’s how it seemed to be working until about 2008. According to the producer price index compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of the semiconductors used in personal computers fell 48 percent a year from 2000 to 2004, 29 percent a year from 2004 to 2008, and a measly 8 percent from 2008 to 2013.

The sudden slowdown presents a puzzle. It suggests that the semiconductor business isn’t as innovative as it used to be. Yet engineering measures of the chips’ technical capabilities have showed no letup in the rate of improvement. Neither have tests of how the semiconductors perform on various computing tasks.

May 13, 2015

Google search history … and you

Filed under: Business,Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Reason, Ed Krayewski points out that you now have a way of discovering (and modifying) what Google’s search engine will reveal about you:

In January Google quietly rolled out the capability to view your entire search history with the online service, download a copy of it, and even to delete it from Google’s servers. The new feature wasn’t widely reported online until earlier this month when an unofficial Google blog publicized it.

You can check out your search history here, including web and image searches, and links and images you clicked on as a result. There’s also an option to download under settings (the gear button on the top left of the page), as well as one to “remove items,” including the ability to remove your recent search history or your entire search history.

May 9, 2015

Every time you extend copyright terms, you reduce the availability of our musical heritage

Filed under: Business,Cancon,Law — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Michael Geist on the negative aspects of the Canadian government’s surprise extension of copyright terms:

The government yesterday tabled its budget implementation bill (Bill C-59), which includes provisions to extend the term of copyright for sound recordings and performances. The extension adds 20 years to the term (to 70 years). It also caps the term at 100 years after the first fixation of the sound recording or performance. The change is not retroactive, so sound recordings currently in the public domain will stay there. The government’s unexpected decision to extend the term of copyright for sound recordings and performances will not only cost consumers by reducing competition and stop cheaper, legal music alternatives from coming to the market – but it will also reduce access to Canada’s music heritage.

This is the inescapable conclusion based on studies elsewhere, which find that longer copyright terms discourage re-issuing older releases, which often means that the musical heritage is lost. For example, Tim Brooks conducted a detailed study in 2005 on how copyright law affects reissues of historic recordings. He concluded that longer copyright terms significantly reduce public access. First, he examined the data in the United States, which at the time had the longest term of protection:

    our analysis shows that rights-holders have reissued – or as a practical matter allowed legal access to – only a small fraction of the historic recordings they control. Overall, 14 percent of listed pre-1964 recordings were found to be available from rights holders, mostly from the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. The figure drops to ten percent or less for most periods prior to World War II, and approaches zero for periods before 1920. This study focused on recordings in which there is demonstrated interest; it is likely that the percent of all recordings that have been reissued is even less.

May 6, 2015

China’s burgeoning wine industry

Filed under: Business,China,Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At The Diplomat, Jack Detsch looks at the rapidly increasing Chinese wine sector:

China has surpassed France, the world’s foremost producer and exporter of wine, in total acreage, but don’t expect to bring a Ningxia over to a dinner party any time soon.

“I think they largely have the wrong grapes planted,” Geoff Kruth, Chief Operation Officer of the Guild of Sommeliers, a Sonoma-based non-profit, says. “They’re trying to model Bordeaux and plant cabernet – things that may not even really grow well there.”

Production is still on the rise, with China pushing through the ranks from the world’s eighth largest producer of wine in 2013 to the sixth biggest in 2016, due to growing acreage and soaring domestic demand. Wine consumption in China has increased by nearly 45 percent in the past 15 years, and vine planting jumped by 5 percent in 2014 alone, up to a total of 1.97 million acres, according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine. Chinese consumers have an especially discerning palate for red wine. In 2013, China became the world’s largest market for reds, a lucky color in folklore, downing 1.86 billion bottles, moving past France in that category. Per capita consumption is also on the rise.

But many Chinese vineyards aren’t producing wines yet, and much of the acreage dedicated to growing grapes is still used for appetizers and brandy, not wine. The majority of wine producers in Eastern and Western China, where companies in Xinjiang, Ningxia, and Gonsu have had success, produce bulk wine. At times, they’ve been competitive on a global level: in 2011, Jia Bei Lan, a winery in Ningxia, took home a coveted international gold medal for its 2009 Bordeaux blend.

The “salted caramel inquisition”

Filed under: Business,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Food fashions and the current tyranny of the salted caramel inquisition, by Megan McArdle:

I don’t need to tell you that food has fashions. Remember when every restaurant with any ambition had a spinach salad with pecans, goat cheese and some sort of onion shaving? That’s now passé even in its last refuge, the twee cafes of Rust Belt suburbs. Or when truffles seemed to sprout from menus like, er, mushrooms, only to disappear almost as quickly, presumably off to hibernate in some subterranean darkness?

We are currently living through what I like to call the salted caramel inquisition, with every perfectly law-abiding caramelized dish in the land, however perfect in its simple sweetness, assaulted and forcibly converted to its more aggressive modern version.

For the last 5 to 10 years, the most notable fashion has been for the complex, spicy and exotic. Foodies exchange worried tips for storing the “basic” spices now grown too numerous for any sort of conventional cupboard. Bitter supertasters exchange angry polemics on the snobs who don’t seem to realize that those of us with less blunted palates might not want every alcoholic beverage well fortified with hops, Campari and an extra-strong helping of Angosturas. Those whose sensitive or aging gastrointestinal tracts cannot cope with all that glorious capsaicin sigh, and order the roasted chicken. Again.

History is reaction and counterreaction. The pendulum is swinging back, as gravity says it must, and I detect a new movement afoot: KISS. Which means, yes: Keep it simple, stupid. And I have to say, I like it.

May 5, 2015

The DEA don’t pay

Filed under: Business,Law,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At Techdirt, Tim Cushing carefully explains that the US Drug Enforcement Agency takes on no responsibility when they hijack your company’s equipment and set you up as a drug gang “competitor”, even when one of your employees dies in the resulting gunfight:

Craig Patty runs a tiny trucking company in Texas. He has only two trucks in his “fleet.” One of them was being taken to Houston for repairs by his employee, Lawrence Chapa. Or so he thought.

In reality, Chapa was working with the DEA, which had paid him to load up Patty’s truck with marijuana and haul it back to Houston so the DEA could bust the prospective buyers. That’s when everything went completely, horribly wrong.

    [A]s the truck entered northwest Houston under the watch of approximately two dozen law enforcement officers, several heavily armed Los Zetas cartel-connected soldiers in sport utility vehicles converged on Patty’s truck.

    In the ensuing firefight, Patty’s truck was wrecked and riddled with bullet holes, and a plainclothes Houston police officer shot and wounded a plainclothes Harris County Sheriff’s Office deputy who was mistaken for a gangster.

    The truck’s driver was killed and four attackers were arrested and charged with capital murder.

Until Patty received a call notifying him that his employee had been killed, he was completely unaware of the DEA’s operations involving both his truck and his driver. Unbelievably, things got even worse for Patty after this discovery.

Patty’s truck was impounded by the DEA. After it was released to him, it was out of service for several months as it underwent more than $100,000-worth of repairs. The DEA offered him no financial assistance for the truck it helped fill with bullet holes nor did it offer to make up for the revenue Patty lost while his truck was out of commission. His insurance company likewise turned down his claim, citing his truck’s use in a law enforcement operation.

Nor did the DEA offer to do something to repair his newly-acquired reputation as a drug runner and/or DEA informant — something that makes Patty’s life a little bit more dangerous.

Interesting jobs for foreigners in China

Filed under: Business,China — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

I’ve had a few friends over the years who seemed to somehow be able to spend extended time in China. This article may explain how at least a few of them funded their stays:

In 2010, Mitch Moxley wrote a story for The Atlantic entitled “Rent a White Guy,” relating the story of his trip to Dongying where he pretended to be the representative of a non-existent California-based company that was allegedly building a factory in the city. His Canadian friend Ernie, hired to play the role of director, delivered a speech before a large crowd in which he “boasted about the company’s long list of international clients.” After the speech, “confetti blasted over the stage, fireworks popped […] and Ernie posed for a photo with the mayor.” The article has nothing to say about the extent of the scam. Were Mitch Moxley and his friend Ernie giving a boost to a local company or were the attendees being asked to invest in a company that didn’t exist?

A 2010 CNN report cited one ad posted on The Beijinger by a company called “Rent A Foreigner.” The story describes one foreigner who had police knock on his door one day, “after a financial company he worked at for a couple of months in Xi’an […] allegedly swindled millions of yuan out of clients.”

It’s commonplace in China to see expats paid exorbitant fees as dancers, singers, musicians, or models, often regardless of talent. I have seen unattractive models, dancers who couldn’t dance, and singers who couldn’t sing. One of my friends was once paid handsomely to play bass at a live concert. The thing was, he didn’t know how to play bass — so they left his instrument unplugged and he plucked at the strings as if he had some clue as to what he was doing. Several of the musicians were also pantomiming to a prerecorded track, but the track had no bass, so my friend was pretending to play a part that didn’t exist. No one in the crowd seemed to notice though, and he was paid more than twice what the Chinese band members, who were actually rather talented musicians, earned.

April 30, 2015

Organic wines as mere marketing buzz and gimickry

Filed under: Business,Health,Science,Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At VinePair, Kathleen Willcox explains why the “organic” label on your wine may be little more than a marketing ploy:

A lot of the buzz and imagery about organics appears to be just that – empty sound bites and gimmicks created by folks eager to cash in on the increasingly lucrative organic market. Where does that leave us? Not in an easy place.

Falling for marketers’ ploys is practically a full-time occupation in America (I’m not the only one who’s bought multiple cartons of fat-free ice cream hoping, this time, to finally find “creamy fat-free vanilla bliss” right?). Consumers’ perception of what organic agriculture is vs. the reality, and the halo of virtue with which it is bequeathed (and conventional agriculture’s implicit pair of devil’s horns) is, arguably, one of the biggest boondoggles in our culture today. More than half of Americans (55%) go organic because they believe it’s healthier. Meanwhile, there is really no evidence to back that assumption up. And even organic farmers use pesticides (sorry random lady at the bar). They just happen to be “natural.”

It’s never been a better time for organic marketers and companies. The market for organic food and beverages worldwide was estimated to be $80.4 billion in 2013 and is set to reach $161.5 billion in 2018, a compound annual growth rate of 15% per year. North America has the biggest market share, and will be responsible for roughly $66.2 billion by 2018.

But in the rush to get organic products out the door (and fulfill the public’s desire for healthier, more environmentally responsible products), some producers are often doing little more than following the letter of the USDA law to earn the “organic” label, consequences to the environment and our overall health be damned. In fact, from what producers and studies revealed, it may actually be worse for the environment and your body to buy organic wine from a large manufacturer instead of buying wine produced from grapes on a smaller vineyard sprayed judiciously with synthetic pesticides by a hands-on farmer.

April 28, 2015

Another misleading statistical quirk about US corporate profits

Filed under: Business,Economics,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:02

Earlier this month, Tim Worstall explained why the huffing and puffing over the increased share of corporate profits in the US GDP figures is misdirected:

There’s all sorts of Very Serious People running around shouting about how the capitalist plutocrats are taking ever greater shares of the US economy. This might even be true but one of the pieces of evidence that is relied upon is not actually telling us what people seem to be concluding it is. The reason is that we’re in an age of increased globalisation. This means that large American companies (we mostly think of the tech companies here, Apple, Google, Microsoft) are making large profits outside America. However, when we measure the profit share of the US economy we are measuring those offshore profits as being part of the US economy. But we’re not also measuring the labour income that goes along with the generation of those profits. It’s thus very misleading indeed to be using this profit share as an indication of the capitalist plutocrats rooking us all.

[…]

It’s possible that that rise in the profit share is actually nothing at all to do with the US domestic economy. If American corporations are now making much larger foreign profits than they used to then that could be the explanation. No, it makes no difference about whether they repatriate those profits, nor whether they pay tax on them: those foreign profits will be included in GNP either way. Note also that measuring the profit share this way is rather misleading. Yes, it does, obviously because this is the way we calculate it, mean that the profit share of GNP is rising. But we’re not including the labour income that goes along with the generation of those profits. That’s all off in the GNP (or GDP) of the countries where the sales and manufacturing are taking place. The only part of this economic activity that we’re including in US GNP is that profit margin.

[…]

Now to backpeddle a little bit. I do not in fact insist that this is the entire explanation of the increased profit share. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was but I don’t insist that it’s the entire explanation. I do however insist that it is part of the explanation. The sums being earned offshore by large American companies are large enough to show up as multiple percentage points of the US economy. So some of that change in the profit share is just because American companies are doing well elsewhere in the world. It’s got very little to almost no relevance to the American economy itself that they are. At least, not in the sense that it’s being used here, to talk about the declining labour share. Because these profits simply aren’t coming from the domestic American economy therefore they can’t have any influence upon the percentage of that American economy that labour gets.

This does, of course, have public policy implications. If the above is the whole and total reason for the fall in the labour share of GNP then obviously we can raise the labour share of GNP just by telling American companies not to make profits in foreign countries. Which would be a completely ridiculous thing to do of course. But given that that would indeed solve this perceived problem, and also that it’s a ridiculous thing to do, means that the worries over the problem itself are also ridiculous. So, we don’t actually need a public policy response to it.

Tax credits that benefit almost nobody

Filed under: Business,Government,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Last week, Michael Geist pointed out that the tax credits and other inducements offered by state and provincial governments to attract TV and movie business are a bad deal for everyone except the media companies:

The widespread use of film and television production tax subsidies dates back more than two decades as states and provinces used them to lure productions with the promise of new jobs and increased economic activity. The proliferation of subsidies and tax credits created a race to the bottom, where ever-increasing incentives were required to distinguish one province or state from the other.

In recent years, governments have begun to rethink the strategy. States such as Arizona, Michigan, New Mexico, and Iowa suspended or capped their programs. Louisiana found that it lost $170 million in tax revenue in a single year. In Canada, the Quebec government’s taxation review committee recently admitted that its provincial film production tax credit was not profitable and that numerous studies find that there is little economic spinoff activity.

But the most notable Canadian study on the issue has never been publicly released and is rarely discussed. The Ontario government’s Ministry of Finance conducted a detailed review of the issue in 2011, delivering a sharply negative verdict on the benefits associated with spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year in tax credits. It recommended eliminating a 25 per cent tax credit for foreign and non-certified domestic productions that would have saved $155 million per year.

April 23, 2015

Adult Wednesday Addams: Job Interview [S1, Ep 2]

Filed under: Business,Humour,Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 3 Apr 2015

Wednesday interviews at a cutthroat Hollywood agency.

April 20, 2015

Everything is “interstate commerce”

Filed under: Business,Law,Liberty,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Last month, Elizabeth Nolan Brown reported on another case where the “interstate commerce” excuse is used to justify federal charges for a purely intra-state activity:

Until 2010, Oregon entrepreneur Lawrence George Owen, 73, owned one restaurant, eight strip clubs, and two adult-video stores in the Portland area. At these businesses, Owen installed ATM machines in case customers needed to take out cash. With that cash, customers could do an assortment of things — tip dancers, buy food and drinks, leave the establishment and go grocery shopping. And sometimes, customers used the cash to privately pay some strippers for sex.

Now Owen faces federal charges for “conspiring to use interstate commerce” in promotion of prostitution.

The charges are the results of a nine year joint-effort by Portland’s vice squad and the FBI. Between 2006 and 2009, undercover Portland police officers arranged for 18 acts of prostitution with dancers at three of the clubs. After that federal agents took over, searching Owen’s businesses and the homes of his alleged co-conspirators and seizing $843,000 in cash.

Owen, it should be noted, was living in Mexico most of this time. He is currently on a U.S. Marshall’s hold in a Portland jail, after being detained by federal agents in late February.

You might be wondering how Owen faces federal charges if all of the alleged prostitution-promoting took place in Portland. Promoting prostitution is only a federal crime under certain circumstances, such as when the perpetrator transports or coerces an individual across state lines for prostitution purposes. Using mail, telephone calls, or other “facilities of interstate commerce” in service of prostitution will also do the trick. But the FBI has no evidence that Owen enticed or transported strip-club employees from outside Oregon, nor that he used mail or telephone calls to help facilitate their prostitution efforts.

When the FBI wants to make a case against someone, however, they’ll find a way. In this case, the FBI decided that ATM machines count as “facilities of interstate commerce.”

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