Monthly Archives: September 2013

Score Inflation in Restaurant Reviews

Ever since the demise of The Egon Ronay guide we’ve used a number of guides to help us choose restaurants: Michelin, Gault Millau (with its delightful French turn of phrase), Time Out – depending on where we are geographically.

As we used to travel abroad a fair amount for work we used Zagat quite a lot. Zagat depends wholly on the reviews of the punters. So obviously you have to believe in crowdsourcing etc at least a little bit. We used to find it reasonably reliable albeit not perfect. But we did notice that restaurants in New York, San Francisco, etc seemed to get higher ratings for ‘Food’ than the equivalent quality in London. It seemed easier for a New York restaurant to get a high score, of, say 28 out of 30. OK – that’s no big deal.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed two interesting discrepancies in London. There is a great little Tapas place in Camden Town, inner North London. It’s little more than a ‘caif’, really. But the food is honest and tasty, rustic and not ‘refined’. It’s well-priced. It gets a Food rating of 25 out of 30 in Zagat, which seems perfectly reasonable to me. However, we recently discovered a really nice Tapas place in Westbourne Grove, near Notting Hill, inner(ish) West London. There, the food is both tasty and refined and adventurous. Both places seem equally very busy. And we shall continue to go to both places although Westbourne Grove is further from home. But here’s the thing. The somewhat posher and also better Westbourne Grove place gets a measly 22. I have no idea how to begin calculating whether there is any statistically significant difference between any scores in Zagat. For a start you have no idea how many people are rating the restaurants. So we have to take them at face value or not take them at all. And Zagat has, in the past at least, definitely been useful to us. But it struck us as an odd difference. It should, to our way of thinking, have had a better score than the Camden Town place, not a poorer score. I kind of hypothesised that the possibly better-heeled Notting Hill crowd had higher expectations than the Camden Town crowd. And maybe foodie Londoners have higher expectations than foodie Washingtonians (DC). So Zagat scores are geographically sensitive.

So far so good. I can live with that – within limits.

But the limit was breached a couple of nights ago when we explored a restaurant in Highbury/Islington area of slightly grungy inner North London which had been given a 28 Food score. We thought – that should be interesting.  The important thing to note is that the highest score for Food in the London Zagat appears to be 29. That’s for The Waterside Inn – (way out of London). Some really, really posh and also truly excellent and well known places get 28 in Central London. So, what about this place? Folks, it was… err… OK. But is was certainly nowhere near the quality of a Central London 28.  In fact, by comparison I would only have given it a 20 or 21 – perhaps because of possible food sourcing policies – and, err, not sure –  a bit higher than the estimable Cote chain – restaurants within which tend to be given a Food score of 18, and which I’m very happy to eat in, thank you. To be fair, this place was priced quite reasonably – ‘decent’ local eatery prices.

But there you have it. Punters’ scores are as heavily influenced by who they are and where they live as the actual quality and sophistication of the food itself. I should not be in the least bit surprised by this. It’s in all the psychology textbooks in one context (aha! Context! Framing! etc, etc) or another. It’s just that a food guide punter ‘score’, especially that which is an average of those given by a large (?) number of people, has an aura of objectivity to it – which is totally unwarranted in reality.

Or maybe we were just there on a bad night? Perhaps Chef was on holiday? Dunno.

Bring back Egon Ronay?

My lady wife points out to me that we should expect to see many more discrepancies in Zagat – since it was taken over by Google and has become free. Before, you needed to be some kind of committed foodie to write a review for Zagat – as you needed to pay for the guide. Now, however, anyone, committed foodie or not, can and, at the behest of the owner (or, indeed, an aggrieved diner), may write a review, whether or not they know or care anything about restaurant food quality. Expect many more reviews of poorer quality…


What if We Are Seeing a Dystopia in The Making – Caused by The Third Industrial Revolution Finally Reaching its Tipping Point?

OK, so we appear to be coming out of a demand-led recession (or, as a few would have it, a supply-side recession)… provided there are no more ‘shocks’ (China? Ungovernable USA? More eurozone shenanigans?). However since UK business investment is currently down further to more than 8% less than last year, and since the UK trade deficit is stubbornly large despite severe sterling devaluation, and since we have a relatively (to other countries) severe productivity problem, I’m far from convinced our debt ratio will be much improved in the medium term.  I’m also pretty convinced that ‘ordinary people’ will not see much benefit from the growth we do achieve in this ‘recovery’.

But I do also wonder if what happened and is now happening is not only a normal, albeit rarish kind of finance-triggered recession, exacerbated by misguided government austerity policies and their aftermath, but rather a ‘tipping point’ adjustment as an underlying IT/robotics technological revolution has finally reached escape velocity, while increasing globalisation also did the same? Maybe business doesn’t need to invest more?

What would that imply for the future?

There is some interesting research regarding the effect of computerisation on jobs in the UK and in the USA and other ‘developed economies’ too This doesn’t excuse appalling governmental mismanagement via austerity policies with doubtless appalling hysteresis effects on the part of the UK, the Eurozone and, to a lesser extent, the USA. But I wonder if the longer term problem isn’t one rather more equivalent to that of anthropogenic global warming – which hasn’t yet caused its major shock, (but surely will).  In this case, the issue being that there are simply too many people who need jobs for the jobs that will be available – both middle and working class – in the short to medium term. I have no idea how long the employment disruptions of the first two industrial revolutions (say, steam/rail and electricity/internal combustion engine), actually lasted. But I have a nasty feeling feeling that this third industrial revolution’s disruption to people’s employment prospects in the developed economies and, later, worldwide, is going to last much longer and produce much more severe unrest and even revolutions, as large proportions of our populations simply become ‘unemployable’ and feral, while the uppermost tier of our societies – the global elite – live in gated communities which may cut their dependence on the people and infrastructure among and within which they reside.

It would, of course, be theoretically feasible to avoid such an outcome if the production potential and profits could be widely distributed so that ‘ordinary people’ did not need to work very much – their main function becoming simply to consume (l believe Kornbluth got there early, with his novella The Marching Morons in the 1951, if it wasn’t Keynes a couple of decades earlier). But without a nasty revolution it looks to me more like the coming dystopia of Elysium

EDIT: Noted for further thinking: (and multiple links…) Goodstuff!

EDIT again: An interesting 2012 paper on ‘robots’ replacing labour and being at least partially responsible for secular stagnation in advanced economies is here