Chinese Food: China vs America

I skype-chatted with Clarissa Wei, a Chinese-American journalist in Los Angeles whose post about stinky tofu in Los Angeles impressed me.

SR What do you think of Chinese restaurants in America compared to Chinese restaurants in China?

CW It depends on where you’re talking about. In broad America, the Chinese food is pretty different from that of China. In places like Los Angeles and pockets of New York… it’s much more alike

SR I’m thinking of the best ones in Los Angeles.

CW It’s definitely cleaner here that’s for sure. In Los Angeles, the food quality is pretty similar. The major difference would be the price and variety. The selections are also pretty similar. The set-up in American Chinese restaurants is obviously different than the ones in China so that influences things a lot

SR I have never been to a Chinese restaurant in America that resembles a high-end Chinese restaurant in Beijing

CW In Los Angeles — there are a couple high-end Canto restaurants. They typically are your seafood + dim sum banquet types. Lunasia is a great example.

SR What do you mean by the set up?

CW Well in China, a lot of the restaurants are literally hole-in-the-walls. There isn’t that much of a standard in terms of being neat and sanitary.

SR There is vastly more range in China, both better and worse

CW In the rural countrysides, it’s out of people’s homes. But in America, everyone has to have at least some degree of sanitation.

SR Chinese restaurants in China are more playful. Like a toilet restaurant, for example. Continue reading “Chinese Food: China vs America”

Assorted Links

  • Nassim Taleb makes a good point. There is a huge difference between using what you already know (or think you know), which is engineering, and finding out more, which is science. People who know little about science confuse science and engineering, but they do blend into each other, in the sense that science is using what you already know to learn more and engineering is full of uncertainties.
  • Association of vegetarian diet and death rate (new study). The vegetarian/non-vegetarian comparison interests me less than the vegetarian/pesco-vegetarian (I call them aquaratarians) comparison, which is less confounded. The pesco-vegetarians lived substantially longer than the vegetarians.
  • Levitating Beijingers. What Beijing really looks like.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Edward Jay Epstein, Bryan Castañeda, Paul Nash, Jay Barnes and Dave Lull.

Positive Psychology Talk by Martin Seligman at Tsinghua University

Here at Tsinghua University, the Second Annual Chinese International Conference on Positive Psychology has just begun. The first speaker was Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former president of the American Psychological Association (the main professional group of American psychologists). Seligman is more responsible for the Positive Psychology movement than anyone else. Here are some things I liked and disliked about his talk.


1. Countries, such as England, have started to measure well-being in big frequent surveys (e.g., 2000 people every month) and some politicians, such as David Cameron, have vowed to increase well-being as measured by these surveys. This is a vast improvement over trying to increase how much money people make. The more common and popular and publicized this assessment becomes — this went unsaid — the more powerful psychologists will become, at the expense of economists. Seligman showed a measure of well-being for several European countries. Denmark was highest, Portugal lowest. His next slide showed the overall result of the same survey for China: 11.83%. However, by then I had forgotten the numerical scores on the preceding graph so I couldn’t say where this score put China.

2. Work by Angela Duckworth, another Penn professor, shows that “GRIT” (which means something like perseverance) is a much better predictor of school success than IQ. This work was mentioned in only one slide so I can’t elaborate. I had already heard about this work from Paul Tough in a talk about his new book.

3. Teaching school children something about positive psychology (it was unclear what) raised their grades a bit.


1. Three years ago, Seligman got $125 million from the US Army to reduce suicides, depression, etc. (At the birth of the positive psychology movement, Seligman proclaimed that psychologists spent too much time studying suicide, depression, etc.) I don’t mind the grant. What bothered me was a slide used to illustrate the results of an experiment. I couldn’t understand it. The experiment seems to have had two groups. The results from each group appeared to be on different graphs (making comparison difficult, of course).

2. Why does a measure of well-being not include health? This wasn’t explained.

3. Seligman said that a person’s level of happiness was “genetically determined” and therefore was difficult or impossible to change. (He put his own happiness in “the bottom 50%”.) Good grief. I’ve blogged several times about how the fact that something is “genetically-determined” doesn’t mean it cannot be profoundly changed by the environment. Quite a misunderstanding by an APA president and Penn professor.

4. He mentioned a few studies that showed optimism (or lack of it) was a risk factor for heart disease after you adjust for the traditional risk factors (smoking, exercise, etc.). There is a whole school of “social epidemiology” that has shown the importance of stuff like where you are in the social hierarchy for heart disease. It’s at least 30 years old. Seligman appeared unaware of this. If you’re going to talk about heart disease epidemiology and claim to find new risk factors, at least know the basics.

5. Seligman said that China had “a good safety net.” People in China save a large fraction of their income at least partly because they are afraid of catastrophic medical costs. Poor people in China, when they get seriously sick, come to Beijing or Shanghai for treatment, perhaps because they don’t trust their local doctor (or the local doctor’s treatment failed). In Beijing or Shanghai, they are forced to pay enormous sums (e.g., half their life’s savings) for treatment. That’s the opposite of a good safety net.

6. Given the attention and resources and age of the Positive Psychology movement, the talk seemed short on new ways to make people better off. There was an experiment with school children where the main point appeared to be their grades improved a bit. A measure of how they treat each other also improved a bit. (Marilyn Watson, the wife of a Berkeley psychology professor, was doing a study about getting school kids to treat each other better long before the Positive Psychology movement.) There was an experiment with the U.S. Army I couldn’t understand. That’s it, in a 90-minute talk. At the beginning of his talk Seligman said he was going to tell us things “your grandmother didn’t know.” I can’t say he did that.



Assorted Links

Thanks to Anne Weiss.

What to Do in Beijing: My Suggestions

Because Tyler Cowen is going to Beijing, I made a list of suggestions:

1. Don’t go to the Great Wall. It’s a long drive. I preferred to see it on the Today Show. The only interesting bit was a guy who sat in a chair on the path to the wall and charged 30 cents to go further. We paid the 30 cents  but in retrospect I wish we hadn’t.

2. Visit some of the many “markets” that consist of a building full of tiny booths. There are markets devoted to cameras, jewelry, clothes, electronics, furniture, etc. There can be more choice of furniture in one building (say, 100 manufacturers) than exists in the entire Bay Area. Along similar lines there is a whole neighborhood full of tea sellers — if you like tea.

3. Peking duck is a good dish but I cannot tell the difference between the better restaurants serving it. So don’t go out of your way to go to an especially good place. I usually go to Quanjude which has a branch very near my school (Tsinghua).

4. Middle 8 is a very good restaurant (in Haidian and Chao Yang).

5. Din Tai Fung is a  very good dumpling restaurant. It is a big international Taiwanese chain. So it isn’t even mainland Chinese food exactly.

6. There are grilled chicken wing restaurants near the west gates of both Peking University and Tsinghua University. I don’t know their names but they are very good. Popular with students.

7. I have never found a nice place in Beijing to walk. Even in parks there is a lack of shade.

8. In my neighborhood (Wudaokou) there are excellent Korean restaurants.

Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments.

A Beijing Bystander Inaction Story

Long after the famous Kitty Genovese story — supposedly many people watched her being murdered without doing anything — doubt was cast on its accuracy. In the meantime, John Darley and  Bibb Latane, two professors of psychology, it as the starting point for a series of experiments on what they called the bystander effect — the more bystanders, the less likely that each one will help. They concluded there was “diffusion of responsibility” — the more people that witness something, the less each witness feels responsible for doing something.

In China the problem is much worse. A few years ago a woman was hit by a car. A second car stopped to help her. The woman told the police that the second driver had hit her. The second driver was furious, gave many interviews, and eventually a witness was found who said it was the driver, not the injured woman, who was telling the truth. Someone I spoke to attributed her behavior to the need to pay hospital bills. The driver who hit her would never be caught, she reasoned. Maybe the second driver could be forced to pay.

My Chinese tutor, who is Korean, told me a story that illustrates the depth of Chinese bystander inaction and suggests another reason for it. A friend of hers was visiting from Korea. When this friend was in Wangjing (in the Chaoyang district of Beijing), she saw a person lying on a busy street, bleeding but still alive. Apparently the bleeding person had been hit by a car. Three hours later, the friend returned — and the accident victim was still there! Now dead. So, with difficulty — she doesn’t speak Chinese — she called the police.

The police treated her as a suspect. She was forced to come to the police station five times, for hours each time.

What a deterrent to calling the police! I cannot believe the police were so stupid as to consider a Korean tourist on foot who calls the police a serious suspect in the death of someone lying in the middle of traffic. I believe that by causing her a lot of trouble, they wanted to send a message: Leave us alone. The fewer calls they get, the less work they have to do. No wonder everyone ignored the bleeding victim.

“I am afraid I am scaring you,” said my Chinese teacher. “You are,” I said.


Gary Shteyngart is a Very Funny Guy

I heard Gary Shteyngart (latest book Super Sad True Love Story) at the Beijing Bookworm. No better job of authorial self-promotion have I seen. He was born in Leningrad in 1972, he grew up hearing jokes from his parents. For example: The 1980 Summer Olympics were in Moscow. At the time, Brezhnev was in charge. He was going senile. At an Olympic ceremony,  he gave a speech. His hands shook holding the text of his talk.

“Ohhhhhh…..” he read.

He paused.


He paused.


An apparatchik ran up to him. “Senior Comrade Brezhnev, those are the Olympic Rings!”

The moderator asked Shteyngart what he thought of Putin’s plan to require every Russian teenager to read a specified 100 great books by graduation. “These things never work,” said Shteyngart. “American cities have done this. Everyone’s supposed to read a certain book, usually To Kill a Mockingbird. Never tell someone what to read.” However, he said one of his favorite authors is Karen Russell. (For a New Yorker podcast, he read a story by Andrea Lee.)

I asked about his favorite TV shows. He mentioned The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. “Who would have guessed that TV would become a great art form?” He is writing a show for HBO about Brooklyn immigrants.

I learned that he was interviewed by a magazine called Modern Drunkard. The interviewer — not Shteyngart — mentions an Russian saying: “The church is near, but the road is icy. The bar is far away, but I will walk carefully.” How true.




Assorted Links

  • One of my Tsinghua American colleagues writes an op-ed: “China wants you. Job prospects are abundant.”
  • Robert Anton Wilson’s skepticism about skeptics. “Those people claim to be rationalists, but they’re governed by such a heavy body of taboos. They’re so fearful, and so hostile, and so narrow, and frightened, and uptight and dogmatic. . . . None of them ever says anything skeptical about the AMA, or about anything in establishment science or any entrenched dogma.” I agree. They should be called one-way skeptics.
  • Excellent Vanity Fair article about Occupy Wall Street. Better than The New Yorker‘s article covering similar stuff.
  • The many side effects of statins. I am impressed by the new way of learning about drug side effects.

Thanks to Ryan Holiday and Gary Wolf.

More About The Willat Effect

The Willat Effect is the hedonic change produced by side-by-side comparisons of similar products — for example, two green teas. It happens in seconds: Suddenly the differences matter more. Some versions become more pleasant, other versions less pleasant.  I first noticed it with limoncello that my friend Carl Willat offered me. Here are some reactions to my recent post about it: Continue reading “More About The Willat Effect”

Beijing Smog: Good or Bad?

I am in Beijing. The smog is bad. It is more humid than usual and the air is dirtier than usual. At his blog, James Fallows, who is also in Beijing, has posted  pictures and pollution measurements. (Incidentally, Eamonn Fingleton, an excellent writer, will be guest-blogging there. In Praise of Hard Industries is one of the best business/economics books I’ve read.)

The effect of smog on health isn’t obvious. Maybe you know about hormesis — the finding that a small dose of a poison, such as radioactivity, is beneficial. It has been observed in hundreds of experiments. It makes sense: the poisons activate repair systems. Even if you know about hormesis, you probably don’t know that one of the first studies of smoking and cancer found that inhaling cigarette smoke appeared beneficial: inhalers had less cancer than non-inhalers. R. A. Fisher, the great statistician, emphasized this (pp. 160-161):

There were fewer inhalers among the cancer patients than among the non-cancer patients. That, I think, is an exceedingly important finding.

This difference (a negative correlation) appeared in spite of two positive correlations: Heavy smokers get more cancer than light smokers; and heavy smokers are more likely to inhale than light smokers. It is far from the only fact suggesting the connection between smoking and health isn’t simple.

So I am not worried about Beijing smog. The real danger, I think, is not eating fermented foods. Which, thankfully, is infinitely more under my control.

Chinese New Year in Beijing

Sounds like we’re under attack. Bombs going off, gunfire. A few fireworks.

More At midnight I was awakened by the densest loudest fireworks I have ever seen. About two per second for ten minutes or even longer. One launch pad was on the street near my apartment; I could see two other sources further away — geysers of glittery light. This proves the Chinese invented fireworks, I kept thinking. They were so pretty and varied I didn’t mind being woken up. And it was so nice to be able to watch them from my warm apartment.

Beijing Students at Berkeley

In downtown Berkeley I met a group of Chinese students from Beijing. They were entering freshmen at UC Berkeley.

They said there were 40 students like them — from Beijing, entering UC Berkeley. (At Tsinghua, there will be 400 entering freshmen from Beijing.) In all of China, 13 students were admitted to Harvard, about the same number to Yale and Princeton. One of them said she’d wanted to go to Northwestern but hadn’t gotten in. Had she gone to college in China, she might have gone to Renmin University, perhaps the #3 university in China.

Surely their parents were wealthy, yes. But they preferred an American college to a Chinese one for two main reasons: 1. They can choose whatever major they want. At Chinese universities students are often forced into a major they don’t want if their scores are high enough to get into a prestigious university but not high enough to get into the major they want at that university. 2. They believe that if they graduate from an American university they will have more opportunities. Where did they get the idea of coming to Berkeley? I asked. Online, they said. Their English was really good.

The “more opportunities” may not be as simple as they think. In Beijing I know a Chinese businesswoman who hired a recent college graduate. She’d gone to college in England, indicating that her parents were wealthy. The new worker turned out to be irresponsible and had to be fired. Perhaps her parents had spoiled her. In this businesswoman’s eyes, an overseas education may now be a negative.

Assorted Links

  • “ant tribes” near Beijing
  • What exactly is umami?
  • Is omega-3 an antidepressant?  “Initial analyses failed to clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of Omega-3 for all patients taking part in the study. Other analyses, however, revealed that Omega-3 improved depression symptoms in patients diagnosed with depression unaccompanied by an anxiety disorder.” Are they fooling themselves? Maybe not. My research suggests that morning faces can reduce only depression but also anxiety disorders. So if you have depression without an anxiety disorder it may indeed have a different cause.

Thanks to Anne Weiss.

Assorted Links

  • Success is fickle: The case of Megan Fox. Is Big Pharma in the same situation? Lacking profound understanding of disease (just as Fox can’t act) . . .
  • Excellent anonymous obituary of Norman Macrae, deputy editor of The Economist. “Give power to the state and you end up with self-serving interest groups [he believed].” Via The Browser.
  • David Healy on Big & Little Pharma (100 words). “Posted parcels are tracked far more accurately than adverse treatment effects on patients.”
  • Beijing Ikea. I shop there often. The cafeteria, with heavy silverware and live music, feels opulent. An industrial design student I know admired one of their chairs for three years and finally bought it as a prop for her final project. During exhibition of her work, unfortunately, visitors said, “What a beautiful chair.”

Thanks to Bruce Charlton and Paul Sas.