The efficient market in West Village restaurants

When we lived in London in 2000 and 2001, it took a while for us to figure out how to find good restaurants. The London Zagat guide was alarmingly unreliable. Just looking in the window wasn’t much help, either. Great-looking, packed restaurants often served near-inedible food. Finally we bought a copy of the Time Out Guide to Eating and Drinking — whether it was recommended to us or we just happened upon it in a bookstore, I don’t know — and our lives were transformed. If the Time Out Guide said a restaurant was good, it was good. (Later we found the Guide Michelin to be equally reliable, but mainly just for higher end fare.)

fatty crabForward to earlier this week, when we went out for dinner in the West Village two nights in a row (the Boy was with his grandparents). First we ate at Fatty Crab, a cool-looking cubbyhole of a Malaysian restaurant on Hudson Street. We got there so early that there was no wait for a table, but that soon changed. (See the photo at left for how things looked outside the restaurant when we left.) And the food was transformatively good, if artery-hardening (the fatty duck and the pork rind and pickled watermelon salad were highlights). The waiter was wonderful, and talked us into getting a bottle of Pinot Auxerrois that matched our meal perfectly. In other words, the crowds were a good indicator of quality. Fatty Crab has also gotten gushing reviews, too, so it’s not really a case of crowds vs. experts. But still, let’s give New Yorkers some credit here.

The next night we tried the Spotted Pig on Greenwich Street, which has also gotten lots of positive press, plus a Michelin star. We didn’t get there until around 7, and were told the wait would be an hour. So we left and headed over to Greenwich Avenue to a restaurant called Good, which Time Out New York had said was “closer to great.” No wait there. After sitting down in the mostly empty room we realized it was the same space that once housed Campo, a vaguely South American restaurant that really was close to great. It turns out Good is owned and run by the same guy who ran Campo, Steven Picker, but on the evidence of our meal everything but the mixed drinks is at best mediocre, and the service clueless. This time the experts said go (a brief search turned up one other positive review), but the lack of crowds was the better indicator of quality.

Molly the catSo what’s the point of all this other than to snidely imply that New Yorkers are more culinarily sophisticated than Londoners? Just that the answer to the great question of whether crowds or expert individuals know best is it depends. The experts at London’s Time Out were clearly better at discerning quality than the mass of Londoners, but in New York the crowds agreed with or outdid the critics — or maybe just noticed a decline in quality that had yet to set in the last time the critics visited Good. It’s also possible that the real point is that while restaurant-hopping in the West Village I took a photo of that (Anglophile) store where the cat named Molly got stuck inside the wall, and wanted an excuse to post it.

Keep NPR in the radio, where it belongs

I’ve got a new piece (column? article? screed?) up on It’s the account of a breakfast chat yesterday with former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who has this endearing (if politically ill-advised) habit of telling things like he sees them.

The piece/column/article/screed is more or less self-explanatory, so no need to elaborate here. But there’s one thing I feel the need to share that I didn’t get to on CNNMoney. NPR’s Robert Siegel ably moderated the discussion, and I cannot tell you how disconcerting it is to hear this voice that’s been coming to me in disembodied form for a quarter century suddenly emanate from the mouth of an actual human being. It was beautiful to hear—Siegel’s voice is mellifluous, but not in a fake radio way. It exudes trustworthiness. Yet it seemed somehow wrong to be a first-hand witness of its production. I didn’t have nightmares about it or anything. But I will in the future think twice about attending events hosted by NPR personalities.

Ah, to be in B’ham in the early to mid-1990s

YardleySo I’ve been thinking about the Pulitzer Prizes that were awarded Monday. My first thought is that Jim Yardley (pictured at right in front of his suburban Beijing pad; I cropped myself out of the photo) is my hero. He arrived in China just a couple of years ago, in his first foreign posting, in as far as I know his first-ever extended stay overseas. When I was in Beijing last spring I was blown away to see him (and his wife, Theo) already yakking away in Chinese with cab drivers and restaurateurs.

Then came the series of articles that won him (and Joe Kahn, but it’s Jim’s stuff that I remember) the Pulitzer — riveting tales of the utterly screwy workings of the Chinese legal system, reported and written with a vividness that makes somebody who makes a living as a reporter want to bow down and chant, “I am not worthy, I am not worthy.” The things were really good.

But that’s not the main point of this post. The main point is that Jim lived down the street from me in Birmingham, Alabama in the early to mid-1990s, reporting for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I was working at The Birmingham News. So was Terri Troncale, now the editorial page editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The Times-Picayune was inexplicably not even a finalist for the editorial writing prize (dudes, did you even read the letter to the president?), but Terri was the leader of the posse of T-P journalists who stuck it out in New Orleans in the hours and days after Katrina hit and won the paper a breaking news Pulitzer (as well as the public service award, shared with the Biloxi Sun Herald, whose editor was also in Alabama — Mobile, not Birmingham — in the early to mid-1990s). Finally, there was the News editorial page, where Terri and I once worked, and now edited by our friend Bob Blalock, which was a finalist in editorial writing for its remarkable series disavowing the death penalty.

I’ve long been plagued — like a lot of people, I’m sure — by the sense that I missed out on spending my formative years where really exciting things were happening: Paris in the 1920s, New York in the 1940s and 1950s, San Francisco in the late 1960s (I was actually there, at least in the burbs, but much too young to appreciate it), Prague in the early 1990s. But there I was in the early to mid-1990s breeding ground of this year’s Pulitzer winners, working for perhaps the greatest editorial page editor in the history of editorial page editors, the late Ron Casey, alongside amazing people like Terri and Harold Jackson and Joey Kennedy (Ron, Harold, and Joey won the 1991 editorial writing Pulitzer). Plus I met the girl of my dreams there. I’ve clearly got nothing to complain about.

Blogging Mr. Kirkpatrick

KirkpatrickMy Fortune colleague David Kirkpatrick is currently sitting in his office a couple doors down from mine e-mailing bloggers, trying to get them to link to his great article about Ray Ozzie’s attempt to transform Microsoft. As a blogger, albeit one with a daily readership of about five, I feel duty bound to do so. In fact, why not link twice? Or thrice?

A better illustration of the shift in media power over the past decade is hard to imagine. A star writer for the country’s best business magazine, not to mention an employee of the world’s biggest media company, is begging a bunch of self-published bloggers for publicity. Not that I think this is a bad thing. Thanks to the bloggers, David’s article will reach readers who wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. If he made any boneheaded errors, the bloggers will let him know. If his article was especially insightful (I say yes, but I’m no expert), he’ll get online plaudits for that.

Of course, no blogger has the time or resources to produce an article like David just did. Which makes this all a nicely symbiotic relationship, for now. My only concern is whether the economics of the media business will continue to allow time and money to be set aside for people like David and me to write long articles that the bloggers can pick apart.

The West Ham-Dubai connection

West HamAs I experiment with this blog, I’ve been struggling to figure out what if any link there is between the stuff I get paid to write about (business and economics, mostly) and the things I keep posting here about food, soccer, Dutch literature, etc.

Thanks to a loyal reader in Philadelphia, I now see the connection. He forwarded me a link to a story in the Guardian about how my team West Ham United went to Dubai for a training camp last week — and failed to bring along the two Israeli citizens on the team, Yossi Benayoun (pictured at left) and Yaniv Katan, because Israelis aren’t allowed into the United Arab Emirates (of which Dubai is one).

Now I don’t feel bad at all for Benayoun and Katan, who were treated instead to a team-paid vacation in Marbella, which sounds like a lot more fun than sweating on the shores of the Persian Gulf. But it was a reminder that all the talk during the Dubai Ports controversy about Dubai being a bastion of freedom and progressive thinking was maybe a bit exaggerated.

Sure, Dubai is more free and progressive than its neighbor Saudi Arabia. But then, so are many European prisons (although not American ones, of course). Is Dubai a democracy? No. Is speech free there? No. More to the point, would Dubai ever let a foreign company run its port? Probably not, since Dubai is effectively one big corporation itself, with Sheik Mohammed as CEO.

None of this means we need to boycott the place. But maybe the politicians who raised all that hell about a company owned by Dubai’s government taking over operations at several American ports weren’t being completely ridiculous.

It’s one thing to let British or German or Japanese companies buy up big chunks of the U.S. economy — we do the same to theirs. Maybe it’s not so crazy, though, to think twice when those who do the buying don’t play by the same rules back home as we do. Orthodox economic theory says we shouldn’t care, of course: Money’s money. But I say economic theory that isn’t tempered with the occasional West Ham anecdote isn’t worth much.

The untranslatable Gerard Reve

ReveOne of the great figures of postwar European literature died last weekend. But no one outside the Netherlands and a few Belgian provinces even noticed.

His name was Gerard Reve (the photo at left, dated 1965, is from the Dutch National Archive), and the book that made him famous in 1947 was De Avonden (The Evenings), a sort of Dutch Catcher in the Rye. Only, by my inexpert reckoning, both funnier and sadder.

Reve’s humor was very much one of language and place and time, which explains why his passing wasn’t an international event. Authors from a small country with a small language don’t break out internationally unless they’re easily translatable, which usually means they deal with big, bold themes in clear, simple language.

“His style was in a certain sense his downfall,” said Dutch writer Harry Mulisch when the newspaper de Volkskrant asked for his verdict on Reve. “There had to be something funny in every sentence. Fifteen years from now there will be a new generation in the Netherlands, and they won’t understand that any more. It is untranslatable. It’s not for nothing that he never broke through abroad.”

Mulisch, whose books The Assault and The Discovery of Heaven have broken through in a reasonably big way in places where people don’t speak Dutch, was nastier than he really needed to be: “I think the appreciation of Reve’s work will soon end,” he declared. But he had a point about the untranslatability. English-language authors can be idiosyncratic and playful in their language and still achieve global success. That’s partly because there are English-speaking countries all over the world, partly because once you’ve had a big bestseller in the U.S. or U.K., the Germans and Swedes and such are likely to translate it even if the translating is hard.

It doesn’t work that way if you’re Dutch. The one piece of Reve’s oeuvre to have any sort of global impact was the 1983 movie version of his book The Fourth Man, directed by Paul Verhoeven of Robocop, Basic Instinct, Total Recall, and Showgirls fame/infamy. I guess you could call it a homoerotic thriller, and I think it was the then-still-daring subject matter, plus the campy way in which it was presented and the great camera work by Jan de Bont — and thus not Reve’s sparkling Dutch dialogue — that made it a modest international hit. I seem to remember a movie theater in the Village showing it every Friday and Saturday night at midnight for a couple years in the mid-1980s. It took over from Rocky Horror.

Reve, who was 82, was buried today in Machelen-aan-de-Leie in Belgium, where he had lived for years. The service was held in the village Catholic church: Reve had converted to Catholicism in 1966. He was a gay, Catholic conservative long before anybody had heard of Andrew Sullivan. But Sullivan is blessed with the good fortune of having English as a first language. So even people in Holland know who he is.

Negative comments about the French

I was told a while back that if you want to get a lot of traffic on the CNNMoney or CNN website, you just need to write a story with a headline that says something negative about France. So here’s my first attempt, “Our protesters are better than France’s.”

From the volume of e-mails I got Thursday afternoon, right after the piece was posted, I’d say my France-baiting was successful, but only moderately so. Nothing like arguing that “Energy independence is a disaster in the making,” that’s for sure.

The Misbehavior of Markets (and Corporations)

My latest Fortune article evolved out of a series of meetings put on by the CFA Centre for Financial Integrity, a part of the CFA Institute (formerly the Association for Investment Management and Research and before that the Financial Analysts Federation), and the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics, which despite the name is not a wholly owned subsidiary of the CEO club that is the Business Roundtable. (I learned this after, in the interest of brevity, cutting down the unwieldy names of the two groups to ” CFA Institute” and “Business Roundtable” in the article.)

Anyway, the meetings were all about figuring out how to get corporate America away from its obsession with quarterly earnings—”short-termism,” the organizers called it. I’m not sure a whole lot of progress was made: The corporate executives who came complained about investors, the investors complained about corporate executives, and everybody complained about the analysts who work for the big brokerage houses (who weren’t represented.)

I was given a seat at the table in hopes that I would write up an eloquent account of the effort. But when the time came to do so, I found it pretty hard: There was so much that I could have written about that I ended up focusing only on a narrow slice of the discussion—the debate over whether corporations should give analysts guidance about what their future earnings will be.

There seemed to be something of a consensus that guidance was bad—that by giving it, CEOs and CFOs lock themselves into targets that become more important to them than the long-term health of their organization. But opinion certainly wasn’t unanimous on this front: One of the corporate investor relations guys was adamant that without some sort of guidance about the future, the analysts who followed his complex company had no hope of understanding whether it was really doing well or not.

Another possibility that I didn’t get to at all in the article, as my friend Paul Miller pointed out in an e-mail a couple of days ago, is that the best way to wean companies (and investors) of their short-term obsession might be to give out information more frequently. This might at first seem perverse, but the idea is that if companies release sales data and other performance metrics on a monthly or weekly or even daily basis, then “making the quarter” will become an irrelevance. Paul also argues that the more and better information companies provide to investors, the higher their stock prices will be be. (He even has a name for this approach, “Quality Financial Reporting,” and a book about it.)

This argument came up at the CFA/Business Roundtable meetings I attended, and again, there seemed to be some consensus that it was a path worth following. But there were, again, objections. What it comes down to is whether markets are smart enough to handle all that information. There’s lots of evidence that they are—decades of “event studies” that show prices reacting quickly (and in and the right direction) to new information. But there is also lots of evidence now that markets often overreact to information, “react” to no information at all, or are temporarily fooled by superficial earnings tweaks. (The title of this post is lifted from mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot’s newish book The (Mis)behavior of Markets, which details some other ways in which financial markets don’t follow standard pricing models.)

My own take is that it’s really dangerous to assume that you know better than the stock market, but equally dangerous to assume that the market always gets stock prices exactly right. So where does that leave us? Well, that’s what I’m trying to write a book about.

Let’s go, uh, Red Bull! Or is it Bulls?

The home opener for New York’s newly renamed soccer team was tonight. I still can’t decide whether it’s heartening or appalling that the Austrian makers of a cough-syrupy energy drink have bought and remade the local team in their image. It’s definitely hard to get nostalgic about the name New York/New Jersey MetroStars, though. The New York Cosmos would be another matter.

Red BullsThe Red Bull people definitely put on a good show. Former Cosmos Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia were all on hand for a pregame ceremony that also featured a trained bald eagle and three skydivers (one of whom is pictured at left). “Awesome!” the Boy said upon sighting either the eagle or the skydivers or maybe both. He seemed pretty interested in the first half action on field, too (no scoring, but some close calls). But with Wyclef Jean and Shakira making lots of noise on stage at half time, he asked, “When will it stop?” then fell asleep.

Attendance was reported at 35,793, which is huge for an MLS game, but still doesn’t seem like much at Giants Stadium. I pine for the cozy little soccer stadium that they’re going to build in Harrison, N.J. Somehow I think going there will be like heading out to Upton Park in London for a West Ham game — albeit without the jellied eels. And why would that be such a good thing? I don’t know, exactly. Maybe that it would give some sense of connection to the soccer-playing world? Or maybe just that a nice, short soccer game (unlike baseball and football, the whole thing almost never lasts more than two hours) in a nice little stadium would be a nice little thing.

Oh, the final score was 0-0. And rookie defender Marvell Wynne was the best thing about Red Bulls.

Hutong nostalgia

ChinaWent to the opening tonight at the Yossi Milo Gallery of an exhibit of photos of urban China taken by Sze Tsung Leong. They’re part of a series called History Images, which is also coming out as a coffee-table book.

The pictures, shot with a large-format (4″ by 5″ film) camera and printed really big, are breathtaking. They show sterile new neighborhoods going up and atmospheric old ones going down, but bring out a certain geometric beauty even in the new stuff.

There was much tut-tutting among the people around me at the show about China’s disregard for its history. Sze Tsung himself was less judgmental. The impression I got from talking to him is that he was out to document the transformation, not condemn it.

It’s interesting how people in the U.S., a nation that displayed utter disdain for its architectural heritage until about 30 years ago, now get all huffy about destruction of the past in China. Maybe we’re just trying to share the hard lessons we’ve learned (if only we could have the old Penn Station back!). But in Beijing in particular, it’s hard to see what else the Chinese are supposed to do. The traditional architecture of the city is of one-story “hutongs” built around courtyards. They’re charming, but utterly impractical for a city of 15 million people. (For one thing, you need higher density for public transit to work.) So most are being torn down and replaced with apartment buildings. Is that really such a horrible thing?

Some of the hutongs in the center of Beijing, near the Forbidden City, will survive as a sort of urban theme park. Many are occupied by well-connected government officials, an effective (if corrupt) way of ensuring that they won’t be torn down.