Miscellaneous notes 2013

This document contains only my personal opinions and calls of judgement, and where any comment is made as to the quality of anybody's work, the comment is an opinion, in my judgement.

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These notes are opinions about miscellaneous (non-computing) topics, often brief informal reviews of products or shops or places ranging from canned food to pubs.

131231 Tue: Impressions of the book "The great escape"

The book The great escape by Angus Deaton, a professor of Economics in a prestigious, establishment, USA university, mostly follows the subtitle health, wealth, and the origins of inequality.

The book starts by pointing out that the author grew up in a very poor mining village in the UK and via the prestigious, establishment UK of Cambridge he ended up in a very well paid profession in the USA, and so did his own children.

He then devotes two thirds of the book to showing how the living conditions of the poor and the rich alike improved immensely in the past few hundred years in first-world countries.

He clearly shows this is mostly due to much improve public health and public infrastructure, which have resulted in much lower mortality rates from infectious diseases and other avoidable causes. Part of the discussion is historical as to the enormous progress in first-world countries, and part in comparing with the progress in the rest of the world.

The last third of the book mostly discusses incomes and their inequality among countries rather than within, in particular as to how many people in aeach country are above the conventional poverty line of one dollar a day of spendable income (as in this related article he has written).

In both discussions he draws heavily on his own research, as he is an economist with a large interest in demographics and long term issues, what many economic historians call the longue durèe. Somewhat in the vein of The wealth and poverty of nations by David Landes.

The whole discussion is very interesting as a result, at least compared to most recent research in Economics, which is often pure elitist propaganda veiled in broken mathematics.

It even makes the very important point that in many poor countries until there is a change in the political elites to interest groups with less interest in extractive politics there will be no progress and first-world aid will just support the continuing power of the existing elites.

Also a good aspect of the book is that since the book is mostly about quantitative topics there are at least some graphs, but there should have been many more.

There are a few aspects that I like less, mostly deriving I guess from a long habit of speaking very softly about politically controversial issues:

However as far as it goes in its cautious language this book could be even considered brave, given the very low standards of other even more aligned economists.

But for me the major defect of the book is an omission: in the part about progress in income and wealth there is no mention of the crucial role of cheap oil to boost standards of living in the past hundred years.

Cheap oil provides not just cheap energy, which is extremely important, but also in particular cheap mobile engines, that is engines that provide motive power using a built-in energy source (the petrol tank). The classic example is the aptly-named automobile, that is self propelled mobile carriage.

Without cheap oil mobile power has to be provided by either animals or humans; for example a horse pulling a cart, where the horse is the external power source for the cart, or a human harvesting corn, where the human is the external power source for the sickle.

Cheap engine self-propulsion made possible by cheap oil has allowed replacing very many people with machinery, in particular replacing very poorly paid people who could only supply cheap muscle power. Consider just mechanical harvesters each replacing dozens of serfs needed to harvest by hand, or earth moving machines, each replacing dozens of diggers and porters.

This gigantic omission is the more unfuriating as the authors makes a point on page 9 about how important was coal to the increased living standards of 19th century British people:

Wages were high in Britain after its success in the Age of Empire, and those high wages, together with plentiful coal, provided incentives for inventors and manufacturers to come up with the invention that powered the Industrial Revolution.

Overall I like the book, especially the first two thirds with the discussion of the rarely mentioned but crucial aspect of demographics as driven by public health and public infrastructure. Much less so the last third, which is far too anodyne and generic and politically correct.

This book should have been longer and more detailed too, because as it is it does not amount to easy or exciting reading, and it might as well have been a deeper and longer.

Some other reviews: 1, 2, 3.

130908 Sun: Slight product change for Sainsbury's cooked bacon

The delightful cooked bacon previously mentioned has been slightly revised, and now appears on Sainbury's website.

After being sold for a while for £3 for two packets it is now back to £5 for 3 packets, of the same or different type, withing similar cured meat products.

A detail that I haven't mentioned in my previous entry is that it microwaves very well, becoming warm and juicy, and even a bit crispy.

130907 Sat: Identifying greek-style yogurt

In an article about a greek-style yogurt manufacturers in the USA there is description of what distinguishes it from ordinary yogurt:

The Greek variety contains more protein than regular yogurt, which makes it more filling, but has little or no fat.

Greek can cost about twice as much as regular yogurt, in part because it requires three times the amount of milk to make the more dense concoction;

This indicates how to figure out whether some yogurt is indeed greek-style, by looking at protein and fat content.

Indeed typically greek-style yogurt has 9-10% protein content versus 3-5%.

I like the classic tubs of Greek style yogurt from Fage which are available from Sainsbury's.

130330 Sat: Sainsbury's cooked bacon

Mark&Spencer have been selling for a long time crispy pre-fried bacon and Sainsbury's like others offer now a similar product.

I have delighted to occasionally find in larger Sainsbury's supermarkets British smoked bacon (photo front, back) with a price of £1.85 per 100g tray or £3.00 for two 200g trays.

It is cooked supple instead of fried crispy, and it has excellent taste and texture, and goes really well into sandwiches and baps.

It is also seems to be quite good value; it may cost twice as much per weight as uncooked bacon, but it also has lost much water because of the cooking, and thus it is 42% protein and 28% fat by weight compared to 30% protein and 17% fat for uncooked bacon, and it is ready to go.

It is also much better value than crispy fried bacon which costs £3.64 per 100g or £3.00 per 100g if bought as 3×55g trays for £5.00.

An issue is that they are difficult to find, as they don't seem to be in the online catalogue, and they appear occasionally in the larger Sainsbury's, and not in the bacon shelves, but classified as cook's ingredients. You can use the photos above to recognize the product.