Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hramblings: Cheap food, secondary usage and the great awakening

The Christian Science Monitor ran an AP story about a casual comparison between burgers made with and without "pink slime". The story garnered few comments. This was mine:

At the risk of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, this test is entertaining, but has some problems. First, you can't be absolutely certain that the pink slime burger had any pink slime in it. More importantly, it wasn't a blind taste test. You knew which burger was the unadulterated one. Your comments on texture and flavor profile could have been affected by confirmation bias. But as you say, not enough to keep you from eating both burgers.

As for food handling, cooking a burger to medium rare that you didn't grind yourself is not a great idea whether it has pink slime in it or not.

The hearts of the foodies among us beat fast when they hear talk of nose to tail cooking, but get tense when they realize what that means. Carcasses are broken down into primals which are cut into steaks and chops. Pretty much everything else goes into ground meat and sausages. These things are done to minimize waste and maximize yield.

In short, safe to eat in terms of pathogens is a separate question from nutrition, palatability, target market, and a rising discomfort with the mechanics of our retail food webs. My vegan friends have made their peace with the last issue already. I'm in the "everything is better with bacon" faction.

Food is the US is generally cheap. Food is cheaper than its ever been. To meet that price point, we make a whole series of compromises. As a culture, we need to decide to pay more to get more. Pink slime is the tip of the iceberg.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hramblings: Rural fire protection, civility, community and tragedy of the commons **UPDATES**

The web has been buzzing over a story about a man in Obion County whose house was allowed to burn to the ground due to not paying a $75 fee to the city of South Fulton, TN. Several bloggers have suggested that this highlights the difference between liberal and conservative notions of governance.

I disagree. This is an example of the problem of funding all sorts of services during a time when citizens are unwilling to pay for them (particularly for anyone else) and trying to counterbalance an inexplicable affection for mindless zero-tolerance policies with forbearance and mercy. Our sense of fair play is showing some wear.

First there is the false assumption that every place in the country is (and should be) served by a full-time fire department. Second, that fire service is (and should be) funded through taxes (or staffed by volunteers) as a public good. Finally how to deal with people that are unwilling (not unable) to pay for services they consume. The latter being an example of the free-rider problem that Nicholas Christakis describes in "Connected". The history of full-time fire service and how it evolved from the fire insurance business is covered by NPR.

In the county of Washtenaw, three cities have a mutual aid agreement. Several suburban cities have full-time fire departments, but have opted out of the agreement. Some townships pay a nearby city for support, for example Lodi Township gets fire service from Saline. At least in our county the coverage does not include areas where residents directly pay a fire department.

A problem with a user fee is that people are not very good at estimated risk. Some people will use the money saved to provide for their safety in another way. Another option is to pool labor with your neighbors.

Economically, pricing a user fee is tough because you want it to be low enough to encourage participation, but high enough to cover your costs. The free-rider problem says, if you are willing to put out a fire for someone who hasn't paid the fee, you can teach others that its ok to not pay up. Note that at least in the South Fulton arrangement, paying the fee doesn't guarantee fire service.

Another problem with a fixed fee is it assumes that all fires cost the same to put out. $75 might be a lot for someone on a low or fixed income. Similarly, you're paying $75 regardless of whether your house is a 12x60 mobile home or a 4500 sq ft McMansion. To account for this, some user fees are based on square footage of the property to be protected.

The downside of all this is it puts people who are duty-bound to save lives and property in a position where they can't act. It also contributes to a general coarsening of society and growing incivility. One mitigation is that the homeowner had paid the fee in previous years, so you could make an argument for good faith. One blogger suggests a penalty fee to address people that think it won't happen to them. I don't know whether you could come up with a penalty that could be justified and still avoid free riders but I suspect it wouldn't require rendering people homeless. The TakeAway suggests that it costs an average of $4500 to fight a home fire. Other cities that have a similar arrangement charge non-payers based on number of trucks and time on scene. You'd think that a city that was having trouble balancing the budget would be willing to contract out their firefighters on a time and materials basis. Back a few years, Obion County charged $500 a call for rural fires, but collection was only 50%. This would seem to be a market failure.

Another assumption is that fires will eventually go out and won't present a general risk. Not true for arid areas of the country.

We don't know how many fires occur in Obion County, how many people pay the fee and whether the current fee structure allows for some leniency. We also don't know what services the county residents get for the taxes they are paying, i.e. for lack of $75 the county loses tax revenue due to the loss in property value. What we do know is it failed ethically and from a market standpoint.

Update: The county fire department operates on a budget of $550,000. 85% of the calls are outside the city. The county tried to implement a fire plan that included a property tax increase. They also considered other options for rural fire protection.

Update: American Spectator weighs in (NB: pun quotient is high).

Update: National Review even finds this on shaky grounds.

Update: Added the perspective of one rural volunteer firefighter who writes of the squeeze between declining people and increases in training and equipment requirements. Apparently, those pancake breakfasts and raffles are still important.

Update: Some folks refer to the fee as insurance. Insurance is protection against a financial loss. You pay the premium and meet the requirements of the policy, they reimburse you.
Fire service fees and volunteer firefighting companies are a cooperative. You contribute to purchase/maintain buildings/equipment and provide training. If you pay the fee (or perhaps contribute labor) you get service free or at a reduced rate. One eliminates or reduces the financial loss. The other eliminates or reduces the personal and property loss. Although a few news sources suggest that fire insurance companies used to provide funding and equipment to fire stations.

Update: Another blogger points out that there are no hydrants at rural addresses. You need to carry water to the site and best guess, you have 12 minutes of water available.

Update: Wheakley County, TN states their policy. Has similar issues.

Update: The home was insured. There is also a collection being taken up for the family.
PAYPAL Address is CranickFireFund@Yahoo.Com
Street address: Gene or Mildred Paulette Cranick c/o Heritage Bank PO Box 1410 Fulton KY 42041
Update: Similar situation in Britain.

Update: Another house burns down while firefighters watch.

Update: Looks like the political and karmic damage has taken its toll. There is now an option to pay $3500 on the spot if you skip the fee.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Hramblings: The search for rational pricing continues...

Recently there was a push to raise taxi meter rates in Ann Arbor and we're planning to be out of town for about two weeks. One of the exercises we go through is whether to hire a limo to take us to the airport or drive ourselves. There are now multiple ways to get to DTW from private limo to shared van rides. None of these options can touch driving there and leaving the car for trips upwards of 14 days.

The Michigan Flyer bus is cheaper at $50 for two people roundtrip plus $2/day to park. This works out to 7 days breaking even. BUT, the schedule has a bus departing every 90-120 minutes. It could be a long wait for a ride home. I suppose you take the bus there and a cab back, but that pushes the break even to 11 days again.

Short of having a friend drop you off and pick you up, 2-3 gallons of gas (even at $4/gallon) and $8/day to park wins. Seems like a market failure to me.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hrecommended: My favorite books of 2006-2010

Hard to imagine why I haven't posted a book list for five years. Three of those years were spent in grad school. This meant that I spent most of my reading time on course packs and weighty text books. There were times for reading for pleasure and avocation too.
  • Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin. Temple has been in the news due to her HBO biographical film.
  • Black Swan by Taleb Nassim. A timely volume that lays out the sort of biases that make us think that we can be predict the far future with accuracy and avoid high-impact low-probability events.
  • Born on a Blue Day a memoir by Daniel Tammet. We lost autistic savant Kim Peek this year. Tammet is very near the other end of the autistic spectrum and has amazing abilities to learn languages.
  • Connected by Nicholas Christakis. A fine volume on the effects of networks on human behavior and the political landscape. Dovetails nicely with Barabasi's Linked.
  • Giving by Bill Clinton. By far one of the most exhaustive treatments of the many ways we can contribute to society and to the less fortunate.
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. It took two tries to start this book. The opening scene may scare many parents, but stick with it. The characters are broadly drawn and slowly revealed.
  • The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin, SJ. Martin is a frequent contributor to the Colbert Report. In this text, he explores several of the elements of Jesuit life. In particular, I liked the explanation of examen.
  • How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. A well done overview of what we know about the structure of the brain and how the brain can be mislead by built-in biases.
  • Margin by Richard Swenson. An argument for making time and creating gaps between our personal, family and work lives.
  • My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. Takes us through the first hours of a stroke as experienced by a neuroanatomist and her slow recovery. Great insight into brain structure (this time from the inside out), on care-giving, the importance of rest and some inklings of why many of us feel connected to the universe.
  • Plan B by Anne Lamott. You owe it to yourself to read Chapter 1: Ham of God...
  • Reclaiming Conservatism by Mickey Edwards. Edwards was on the Bill Moyer's show in 2008 and was the first person I heard lay out a critique of the neocon philosophy of governance and the Bush presidency in particular.
  • Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew Crawford. A short lesson on tacit knowledge.
  • Uncommon Decency by Richard Mouw takes us through a multitude of arguments for increasing civility while still making room for discussions of morality.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Hrecommended: My Best of Ann Arbor Food for 2010

The alphabetical order by venue is intentional. All of these places have more going for them than just the items I've chosen to highlight. That said, most of these are local, owner-operated and almost certainly have less consistency to their execution than the robots at a chain restaurant can deliver. This was the year of the food cart as vehicle for testing out a menu. It was also the first year of the smoking ban in bars so the "best place to have smoke-free drink" became meaningless. Finally it was the year of the concept burger place. As always, this is my list. Yours will almost certainly be different.
  • Amadeus -- Cheapest Trip to Europe
  • Beezy's -- Best Chicken Salad
  • Cafe Zola -- Best Weekday Lunch Spot (try the crepes, olives, Turkish brunch)
  • Dimo's -- Best Burger (tie), Best Doughnuts
  • Eat! Ann Arbor -- Best Food Cart
  • Lotus Thai -- Best Thai
  • Northside Grill -- Best Breakfast (try the Huron Sampler)
  • Paradise -- Best Asian
  • Paesano's -- Best Seasonal Menu (try the soups, pasta features)
  • Pub Pizza -- Best Pizza (tie)
  • Red Hawk -- Best Bar Food, Best non-Beer tap (try the hard ciders and root beer)
  • Selma Fridays -- Best Hidden Kitchen
  • Sidetrack -- Best Burger (tie)
  • Silvio's Gourmet Pizza -- Best Pizza (tie), Best Pasta
  • Star Cafe -- Best Middle-Eastern
  • Totoro -- Best Sushi (tie)
  • Uptown Coney -- Best Club Sandwich, Best Egg-man (particularly if you like 'em scrambled)
  • Yotsuba -- Best Sushi (tie)
  • Zingerman's Bakehouse -- Best Bread, Best Bagels
  • Zingerman's Roadhouse -- Best Chili (try the Ancho Beef), Best Mac & Cheese (try it mixed with the chili), Best Haute Cuisine, Best Chef (Alex Young)

Sadly, no winners for: Best BBQ, Best Home-style Desserts, Best Fish and Chips, Best Tapas, Best Cajun, Best Service, Best Mexican

Gone but not forgotten: Allen and Rumsey Steakhouse, American Spoon Gelato, Brewbaker's Ginger Cream Soda, Frog Holler Produce's Frog Blog, Manali, Mr. Rib, Latdior, Los Tres Amigos, Philly's, Original 60's Sub Shop, Rio Bravo, Zydeco, chef Takashi Yagihashi, chef Mark Pruitt, chef Isabella Nicolleti. Raleigh's 2nd City Grill was shuttered this year as well.