Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Michelin guide in North America

Short little New Yorker article on the problems of anonymous testers, the validity of experts within a field, and the Michelin Guide in North America.


The original Guide Michelin was developed by André Michelin, an engineer, and his younger brother, Édouard. Born into a wealthy manufacturing family in Clermont-Ferrand, the brothers, in 1895, presented a new design for a pneumatic tire for cars. Automobiles were still a rarity on roads in France. The brothers had the idea that a guidebook to hotels in the French countryside would encourage people to climb into a car (equipped with Michelin tires) and hit the open road. The first edition, published in 1900, was a five-hundred-and-seventy-five-page alphabetical listing of towns throughout France and the distances between them, with recommendations for hotels and places to refuel, and instructions on how to change a flat. In a preface to the first edition, André wrote, “This work comes out with the century; it will last as long.” In 1933, the Michelin brothers introduced the first countrywide restaurant listings and unveiled the star system for ranking food, with one star denoting “a very good restaurant in its class”; two stars “excellent cooking, worth a detour”; and three stars “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”


Bernard Loiseau, the chef and owner of La Côte d’Or, once told a fellow-chef that if he ever lost one of his Michelin stars he would kill himself. Loiseau had made a life’s ambition of becoming a three-star chef, a goal he achieved in 1991, seventeen years after arriving at La Côte d’Or. His ranking led to a line of frozen food bearing his name and likeness, and the Legion of Honor, awarded by President François Mitterrand. But by 2002 Loiseau’s classic cooking was losing ground to trendier fusion styles, business was slowing, and he was swimming in debt. As Rudolph Chelminski relates in his 2005 book “The Perfectionist,” the food writer François Simon published a story in Le Figaro hinting that Loiseau was on thin ice with Michelin. Loiseau, who had suffered periodic depression for years, sank into despair. In early February, 2003, he was notified by Michelin that he would keep his third star. Still, Simon wrote another piece, in which he suggested that Loiseau and his third star were “living on borrowed time.” Two and a half weeks later, after a day at work in the kitchen, Loiseau killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head. He was fifty-two.

Loiseau’s death ushered in a dark period for the guide. In early 2004, an inspector named Pascal Rémy broke the company’s code of silence when he published a book based on a diary that he had kept of fifteen years on the road as a Michelin inspector in France. (Rémy, having notified Michelin of his plans to publish, was fired; he later sued.) Rémy’s book, “L’Inspecteur Se Met à Table” (“The Inspector Sits Down at the Table”), described the inspector’s life as one of loneliness and underpaid drudgery, driving around the French countryside for weeks on end, dining alone and under intense pressure to file reports. Michelin had always hinted that it employed roughly a hundred inspectors to cover Europe, but Rémy claimed that it employed only eleven within France when he was first hired, in 1988—a number that had shrunk to five by the time he left, in 2003. Contrary to Michelin’s assertion that every starred restaurant was revisited several times a year, Rémy said only one visit every few years was possible. Furthermore, he wrote, the guide played favorites—most notably with Bocuse, whose restaurant in Lyons was known, according to Rémy, to have declined drastically in quality yet continued to hold three stars. Rémy’s revelations made the front page of Le Monde. Derek Brown, the director of the guides at the time, denied Rémy’s assertions in an interview in the Times, but he remained vague about how many full-time inspectors the guide employs in France and offered an anemic rebuttal to Rémy’s claim that certain three-star chefs were untouchable: “There would be little sense in saying a restaurant was worth three stars if it weren’t true, if for no other reason than that the customer would write and tell us.”


Linda Bartoshuk, a professor of community dentistry and behavioral science at the University of Florida, has for more than three decades done research into genetic variations in the perception of taste. Through studies of the disposition and the density of taste buds on the tongues of test subjects, Bartoshuk has divided people into three categories: supertasters, tasters, and non-tasters. Most food and wine experts would fall into the “taster” category. (Supertasters, despite their name, have too many taste buds and are thus oversensitive to flavor, and tend to prefer bland foods; non-tasters can eat an exquisite risotto and say, “Eh.”) I asked Maxime if she believed that she had some biological advantage when it came to tasting and discerning flavors. “You could argue that the inspectors have some biological makeup, or you could argue that they eat so much that they have the grounds for comparison,” she said. “And they have their training, the professional training.”

Michelin Guide North American website: http://www.michelinguide.com/us/famously_anonymous/method.html

Two restaurants mentioned in the article:
Daniel (3 star)
JoJo (1 star that fell to none recently)

How did the states establish long straight borders before GPS?

How did the states establish long straight borders before GPS?

Step 2. Understand the difference between true north and magnetic north. Magnetic compasses don't point to the north pole, but rather to a spot about 500 miles distant, a fact surveyors take into account when determining true north. Everybody gets this. What they may not get is that compensating requires constant adjustment as you move around.

This subtlety was lost on some early surveyors. The knuckleheads who laid out most of the Virginia-North Carolina-Kentucky-Tennessee border didn't realize they needed to adjust their adjustments, so as they headed west, the boundary curved north. The surveyors who handled the western end of the border, working east from the Mississippi, covered less ground and so had less chance to screw things up. Where the two lines meet, at the Tennessee River, there's a 12-mile jog still conspicuous on maps.

(via Geekpress)


At various points since the early 19th century, Georgia has disputed its northern border with Tennessee, thereby denying Georgia its historical riparian and navigation rights to the waters of the Tennessee River. In 1796, when Tennessee was admitted to the Union, the border was originally defined by United States Congress as located on the 35th parallel, thereby ensuring that at least a portion of the river would be located within Georgia. As a result of an erroneously conducted survey in 1818 (ratified by the Tennessee legislature but not Georgia), however, the actual border line was set on the ground approximately one mile south, thus placing the disputed portion of the river entirely in Tennessee.[5][6]

Georgia made several unsuccessful attempts to correct what Georgia felt was an erroneous survey line 'in the 1890s, 1905, 1915, 1922, 1941, 1947 and 1971 to "resolve" the dispute', according to C. Crews Townsend, Joseph McCoin, Robert F. Parsley, Alison Martin and Zachary H. Greene, writing for the Tennessee Bar Journal, a publication of the Tennessee Bar Association, appearing on May 12, 2008.

(via Wikipedia)


One of the greatest books you'll ever read

Here's the pdf
Here's the audio book for your next road trip.

You don't need to like science to love this book.

Feynman's Father

Richard Feynman is one of my favorite people of the 20th century. And he had a wonderful father. Below are some excerpts, from What Do You Care What Other People Think?, showing what Feynman's childhood was like:

When I was just a little kid, very small in a highchair, my father brought home a lot of little bathroom tiles--seconds--of different colors. We played with them, my father setting them up vertically on my highchair like dominoes, and I would push one end so they would all go down.

Then after a while, I'd help set them up. Pretty soon, we're setting them up in a more complicated way: two white tiles and a blue tile, two white tiles and a blue tile, and so on. When my mother saw that she said, "Leave the poor child alone. If he wants to put a blue tile, let him put a blue tile."

But my father said, "No, I want to show him what patterns are like and how interesting they are. It's a kind of elementary mathematics." So he started very early to tell me about the world and how interesting it is.

Feynman's family had the Encyclopedia Britannica (remember those?) and his dad would sit Richard on his lap, and read to him.

We would be reading, say, about dinosaurs. It would be talking about the Tyrannosaurus rex and it would say something like, "This dinosaur is twenty-five feet high and its head is six feet across."

My dad would stop reading and say, "Now, let's see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard, he would be tall enough to put his head through our window up here." (We were on the second floor.) "But his head would be too wide to fit in the window." Everything he read me he would translate as best he could into some reality.

It was very exciting and very, very interesting to think there were animals of such magnitude--and that they all died out, and that nobody knew why. I wasn't frightened that there would be one coming in my window as a consequence of this. But I learned from my father to translate: everything I read I try to figure out what it really means, what it's really saying.

Of course, Feynman's father taught him more than how to translate from words to reality. He also taught him to go from reality to words.

My father taught me to notice things. One day I was playing with an "express wagon," a little wagon with a railing around it. It had a ball in it, and when I pulled the wagon I noticed something about the way the ball moved. I went to my father and said, "Say, Pop, I noticed something. When I pull the wagon, the ball rolls to the back of the wagon. And when I'm pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon. Why is that?

"That, nobody knows," he said. "The general principle is that things which are moving tend to keep on moving, and things which are standing still tend to stand still, unless you push them hard. This tendency is called 'inertia,' but nobody knows why it's true." Now, that's a deep understanding. He didn't just give me the name.

He went on to say, "If you look from the side, you'll see that it's the back of the wagon that you're pulling against the ball, and the ball stands still. As a matter of fact, from the friction it starts to move forward a little bit in relation to the ground. It doesn't move back."

I ran back to the little wagon and set the ball up again and pulled the wagon. Looking sideways, I saw that indeed he was right. Relative to the sidewalk, it moved forward a bit.

That's the way I was educated by my father, with those kinds of examples and discussions. It has motivated me for the rest of my life, and make me interested in all the sciences. (It just happens I do physics better.)

I've been caught, so to speak--like someone who was given something wonderful when he was a child, and he's always looking for it again. I'm always looking, like a child, for the wonders I know I'm going to find--maybe not every time, but every once in a while.


bbrown said...

That book firmed up in my mind that I would never be the type of parent that would shut down a "why." My kids give up long before I ever do.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the comment. The way you put that is correct too--i.e., never being the type of parent that shuts down a "why."

The value of a "let's see" in answer to any question doesn't shut down the sense of wonder typical in a child.

And, ultimately, I think that matters more than having detailed answers or being able to point out interesting observations without fail--not that there's anything wrong with these!

If the goal is as you stated it, then it it achievable by all. And I--strike that--people don't have to be as knowledgeable as Feynman's father to raise an inquisitive child who is enthralled by all the wonders of reality.


I remember staying up two nights straight listening to this audiobook and painting that map on our dining room wall. I still can't believe my parents let me do that.

So, why exactly is blackmail illegal?

From recent National Post and New Yorker articles..

Halderman discovered Letterman was having an affair with a staff member. Not illegal. Halderman decided to write a screenplay about it. Screenplays, particularly truthful ones, are also not illegal. Halderman then sought to sell his own work, as people are allowed to do. Now if Halderman had shopped his script to Fox or NBC, he would have broken no laws. Similarly if he had sold what he knew to TMZ or some other gossip website, he would have been free and clear. And if Letterman had caught wind of the screenplay and offered, on his own, to pay Halderman $2-million for the privilege of burning it, that too would have been completely legal.

It was only when Halderman implied he might sell the screenplay somewhere else if Letterman didn't pay up that he was alleged to have committed grand larceny, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. So selling the screenplay is legal. But threatening to sell it isn't. Why?


Richard Epstein, the University of Chicago and N.Y.U. law professor, said, “There’s this terrible fear of monopoly power. Halderman is sort of a local monopolist.” To show that he shouldn’t be allowed to “put the squeeze on the guy,” Epstein said, “you have to prove that a world where blackmail is illegal is a better place.” Epstein is the author of an essay called “Blackmail, Inc.,” in which he describes what it would be like if blackmail were legal and were handled by big corporations. In that scenario, Epstein said, Halderman would have hired Blackmail, Inc. “So Blackmail, Inc., goes to Letterman, and they say, ‘Look, this is going to really bust your chops if this gets out, but we’re going to help you keep it a secret. So the company puts out false public information designed to throw people off the scent.” The problem, he said, is that blackmail leads to fraud: “You lie to the world. And lying to the world is wrong.”

Other experts addressed the ick factor. “It has something to do with the truth about human psychology,” Mitchell Berman, a legal theorist at the University of Texas, said. “There’s an anti-commodification norm” (meaning that people aren’t O.K. with there being a market for some things; he mentioned prostitution). Lindgren imagined a cash-free, and legal, scenario: “If Halderman had said, ‘Stop doing this or I’ll expose you,’ and Letterman said, ‘I don’t want to stop doing this,’ and Halderman had said, ‘I’m forcing you to stop doing this or I’ll ruin your reputation’—that would probably not have been blackmail.” The Harvard law professor Steven Shavell, who calls himself a “quasi Letterman fan,” said the issue lay with Halderman’s motives: it’s about “hurting the person who committed the crime.” He suggested that Halderman’s attempt was wrong for the same reasons that vigilante justice is wrong, and he downplayed the idea of a “blackmail paradox,” calling such a notion “a toy of philosophically oriented academics.”

A final call went out to Walter Block, the libertarian economist. Block believes that blackmail, like smoking, is “yucky” but should be legal. “He only threatened to be a gossip—maybe a screenwriter,” he said of Halderman. “Screenwriting and gossiping are legal. If it’s legal to do it, it should be legal to threaten to do it.” Of Halderman’s defense team, he said, “If the purpose is to promote justice, they should argue that it’s an unjust law, and he should get off free.” Of his fellow ethics experts, he said, “They wouldn’t know just law if it bit them in the rear end.”

The Cosby Extortion Case. As Eugene notes, someone with an
underlying legal claim may threaten to expose it to reach a reasonable
settlement. Yet if the amount sought is so substantially out of line

with the injury and the threat to embarrass is a big part of the

threat, then a criminal charge of extortion can be established.

So, basically, it seems to come down to two things. One, using the monopoly power to gain significant increased advantage in a 'negotiation'. I can see this for sure, but, threatening to expose your product to an open market shouldn't be considered illegal, I think. I mean, it's worth as much to you as you're willing to pay. If that's the seller's price to you - versus it being sold for less to others(??); does that make it illegal? Is this extortion? Two, the 'ick' factor, which I don't buy at all really.


Despite all these logical inconsistencies, the jurisprudence of blackmail is well established and Halderman's legal gambit probably doesn't have a leg to stand on. Perhaps a new screenplay is in order --one about the injustices faced by blackmailers. He should have plenty of time to work on it.