Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cover Thursdays - TV on the Radio edition

I was giving the new TV on the Radio album, Nine Type of Light, a listen/watch yesterday. I like the ambition of the concept...
Nine Types of Light is as much an album as it is a movie by TV on the Radio. The movie is meant to be a visual re-imagining of the record, and includes a music video for every song on the album. The band personally asked their friends and the filmmakers they admired to help direct the music videos.
... But have to say that the music left me feeling kinda "meh-ish". (The visual side of things is more impressive. I don't exactly know what the director was going for with /smoking prior to Second Song, but I like it.) To be honest, I'm not sure where this leaves me with the band now. I thought Wolf Like Me was one of the best songs I'd heard in years when it first came out and nothing's changed my mind significantly since. I *liked* Dear Science, although the plaudits it received -- multiple 2008 Album of the Year awards -- were rather generous to say the least. (Fave track on the album: Family Tree.)

So we  appear to be on a slight downward trend as far as this music relationship is concerned. I also know that TVotR aren't to everyone's taste as it is. Still, give these covers a listen and see if they move you...

First up, The Subways remind us that they're so much more than a simple be-my-be-my-rock-n-rock-queen chorus line, with a perfectly melodic version of "Staring at the Sun":

[Note to video uploader: Good spellint, pal!]

Second, here's TVotR themselves taking down the Pixie's Mr Grieves (off the classic Doolittle) in pretty impressive, completely original a cappella fashion.

Avoiding hypocrisy on the big issues

Think of an important environmental issue. Now imagine that there is a large body of scientific research, underpinned by peer-reviewed literature, which has arrived at a broad consensus regarding the relative risks that this issue poses to both the natural ecosystem and human well-being. Standing against this majority scientific position is a stark group of contrarians. They do not have much (if anything) in the way of peer-reviewed science to support their arguments, but instead point to controversial studies by partisan think-tanks and fringe researchers. Further, they invoke a number of conspiracy theories to explain why their position has been marginalised to a scientific minority and yet, ironically, they enjoy significant public support of an almost religious zeal. To be sure, the contrarians certainly aren't adverse to appealing to people's religious sensitivities as way of convincing others of their arguments...

"Yes, OKAY", you're telling yourself, "I know all about climate change scepticism. Get to the point." Except I'm not talking about climate change. I'm talking about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Genetically enhanced?

The climate debate and the GMO debate have eerie parallels. Certainly, both are highly polarising issues, which present a myriad of conflicting "facts" to anyone wishing to form an educated opinion on the subject(s). You can spend weeks... months... lost in the dark recesses of the internet trying to disentangle fact from fiction, whole truths from verisimilitude, and legitimate concern from moonbeam conspiracy theory.

When it comes to potentially confusing subjects like these, I believe that we should always make it our first priority to consult the relevant scientific literature. What better way to start addressing a topic than by referring to the qualified experts who have studied these matters in depth, subject to rigorous cross-examination by their peers? This is how we truly weed out the good ideas from bad. In its best form, peer review doesn't appeal to a priori beliefs or care for ideological predispositions. What matters is that you can design and carry out a study (or present a theory) according to accepted scientific standards, in a manner that can be replicated and/or tested by others. The strongest theories survive, while the weak are discarded. Indeed, that's the beauty of peer review; it acts as self-correcting and self-regulating mechanism.

But here's the rub: There is a tremendous inconsistency in the way that people use peer review to approach the respective issues of climate change and GMOs. Since my post here is directed at "environmentalists" as much as anyone else, let me use them as an example.

An environmentalist will happily cite the leading scientific journals, the IPCC and other major scientific bodies in defending his/her position on climate change -- presumably that it is i) happening, ii) driven by human activity, and iii) will bring negative consequences in the absence of strong mitigating action. To all this, I say, "rightly so". However, change the subject to genetically engineered crops, and suddenly those rules go out the window. The selfsame environmental organisations that invoke the most respected scientific bodies to confront climate sceptics, all but ignore what these organisations have to say about GMOs. If that sounds like an unsubstantiated generalisation, have a look for yourself: Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, etc... are all remarkably consistent in their inconsistency. To be honest, it's disappointing to see just how few exceptions there are to this trend. I realise that people tend to seal themselves off to evidence that isn't congenial to their world view, but we owe it to ourselves to face facts. Speaking of which, let's consider some of the common charges laid against genetically engineered food...

1) GMO crops are dangerous to our health
Um, no. Since their formal approval and introduction into the American marketplace in 1996 and elsewhere, GMO products have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people. To date, not a single substantiated case of human illness or harm has been documented. Nada... not one. Consistent with this, numerous scientific articles published in leading medical journals have have upheld the notion that authorised GMO crops are safe for human consumption. Claims to the contrary have been rejected by reputable journals precisely because they fail to live up to scientific scrutiny.[*] And, of course, there's a functional benefit specific to genetically engineered crops that somehow keeps getting overlooked in this debate: They can be made to produce additional vitamins and nutrients, which are otherwise lacking in certain staples, and thus improve human health. (E.g. The so-called "Golden Rice", which has been biofortified with provitamin A and thus helps to ward off a deficiency in this important vitamin. Another example, virtually all insulin used to treat diabetes nowadays is produced using GMO processes.)

2) GMO crops are bad for the environment
Again, the evidence suggests quite the opposite. The introduction of GMO crops has generally enabled farmers to reduce their reliance on pesticides and herbicides, or allowed them to use less harmful chemicals (e.g. glyphosate). Using herbicide-tolerant crops has also meant that farmers have had to rely less on tilling the soil as a means of controlling weeds. "No-till farming" is good for the environment in the sense that it helps to prevent soil erosion and rainwater runoff. This not only reduces the loss of important nutrients in the soil, but also means that water quality is improved since less chemicals ultimately end up in the waterway.

3) GMO crops have reduced yields and they are more expensive
Despite the claims of many anti-GMO campaigners, this too remains an unproven accusation. Indeed, according to some of the most extensive studies on the matter, GMO crops have been shown to have lower production costs relative to conventional methods, as well as higher output and other extra conveniences. More importantly, these benefits have generally outweighed the higher costs of the engineered seeds in places like the United States.

Before concluding, let me attempt to pre-empt criticism of this post with two caveats:

First, I am by no means suggesting that peer review or our leading scientific bodies are infallible. Certainly, there are well understood problems associated with group-think (or even article suppression and qualification masturbation), which may undermine the process. Just as a majority position does not necessarily constitute an unassailable truth, so we should not -- to channel Richard Horton -- confuse scientific "acceptability" with "validity". However, while peer review is subject to occasional bouts of subversion, it remains far superior to the alternatives. (A blogosphere free for all? No thanks...) Again, I refer to the self-regulating nature of scientific review. Call it the market economist in me, but I find it incredulous that an unsound scientific theory could persist at the expense of a better alternative for very long. In any case, if you chide people for not following the scientific consensus on one topic, it behooves you stick to these same principles on others.

Second, beyond the issues of human and environmental health that I focus on here, there may be other legitimate reasons to oppose the dissemination of GMO crops. I like organic products as much as the next relatively well-to-do Westerner, while I've had my say about animal cruelty before. Further, potential control of food chains by a small number of multinationals through patented crop biotechnology seems to me to be a reasonable concern, deserving the standard anti-trust treatment. I also believe that it's crucial not to collapse the feed-the-world movement into some purely technological debate. As Amartya Sen eloquently argued three decades ago in Poverty and Famines, access to food is much more a complex mix of economics, social and political factors than simply a matter of food production and availability. Indeed, hunger continues to persist in many regions that have bountiful harvests. Agricultural innovation is a wonderful thing (read Norman Borlaug), but technological solutions are not necessarily a panacea for problems of socio-economic origin. Still... These are distinct issues from the scientific aspects that I have discussed above (i.e. human health and environmental safety). If opponents of GM want to preserve their credibility, then they need to separate legitimate concerns from the unsubstantiated, discarding the latter in the absence of credible evidence.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: What's good for the goose, is good for the gander. Being concerned about the environment and human health doesn't mean that you can have it both ways, choosing to invoke scientific evidence when and where it is congenial to your position. Those of us who think that climate change is a real issue deserving meaningful action rightly point towards the peer-reviewed science as a first stop for informing our opinions. We would do well to do the same for other contentious issues, such as GMOs.

[*] The most  famous example being the highly-charged Puszstai Affair, in which a controversial study by the eponymous researcher was first published and repudiated by the medical journal, The Lancet. That people may feel (justifiably?) dismayed at Pusztai and his co-author's subsequent treatment by the scientific establishment does not detract from the very real flaws in his study. 
For instance, his strange decision to use a non-commercially available GMO crop to pass negative judgement on GMO crops in general. Just to be clear, he created a potato crop (expressing a protein toxin derived from a toxic plant), which had never been approved for human consumption by any government agency. He then fed this to rats and made an assessment of how much damage it caused to their stomachs (as compared to normal potatoes where the same toxin was independently added). As Sir Robert May sardonically observed: "If you mix cyanide with vermouth in a cocktail and find that it is not good for you, I don't draw sweeping conclusions that you should ban all mixed drinks."

For those looking for references, some suggestions for further reading are under the fold:

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cover Thursdays - Gaslight Anthem

The only logical step after last week's Springsteen edition is these fellas. (Well, logic and the fact that I'm still alarmingly short on time just before the Easter break and need to come up with something quickly. Almost time to come up for air.)

First, taking on Damien Rice's 9 Crimes.

Second, adding some feeling to Kelly Clarkson's I Do Not Hook Up.

Apart from being the heir apparent to Bruce, Brian Fallon... er, Gaslight Anthem is a prolific covers band. There's tons of good stuff waiting for you, just a simple youtube or Google search away.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Snakes on a Plane: The (African) Sequel

Apologies for the lack of posting recently. To borrow a phrase, course work and project deadlines have been tearing me some new ones over the past two weeks. Pulled my first all-nighter in quite some time on Sunday, finishing up a group project. Productivity hit an all time low around 5:30am-6:30am. I must have been working on no more than five words an hour: The mental equivalent of a liquidity trap. It's going to be this way for a while, as getting to crunch time in terms of thesis delivery, etc. (I'm presenting a paper based on my thesis at a conference in May, so need to have all loose ends tied up by then... Cry me a river; I know.)

Anyway, to keep you interested, here's part of an email that I received yesterday from a buddy of mine, writing from (and I quote) "the departure hut of the Lubumbashi airport nestled deep in the Congolese jungle". We were housemates during my bachelors and he's been spending the last three years working on various projects in Africa. And I mean real Africa... Far, far away from the glamorous beaches of Cape Town, the high-rise office blocks and leafy suburbs of Johannesburg, or even the (relative) calm stability of Gabarone. As someone that has done my fair share of travelling in Africa, his emails always bring home the mixture of amazement, frustration and sheer madness that characterises life on the mother continent. Here's one story in particular that deserves retelling:
I have heard some great stories on good authority & I think you’ll find them interesting… This one really shouldn’t be funny, but I find it humorous in a sinister way so if you do too then don’t feel bad. If you think it’s a bit disturbing that I laughed when I heard it, then sorry. (Not really.) 
So, in August last year while flying on an internal flight a small 20 seater aircraft crashed into a house a few hundred feet from its destination airport. There were no distress calls from the pilot before impact & as far as the aviation authorities were concerned the crash was caused by a ”lack of fuel”. There were only two survivors, a Congolese man and a crocodile. Just so we’re all clear, a human & A CROCODILE. After a few days of lying in a comatose state the human awoke and revealed this remarkable story. 
What had happened was one of the passengers caught this juvenile croc in Kinshasa which he wanted to sell in Bandundu but didn’t want to pay the steep transport & licensing fees that would come with sending it up legally so he decided the best thing to do was buy himself a plane ticket to Bandundu and carry the half grown crock on the plane with him in a sports bag. Unfortunately for him (and all the other passengers), this brain surgeon didn’t bind it correctly and it somehow managed to escape from the bag just moments before the plane arrived at its destination. As it jumped free from its “enclosure", the croc startled the passengers who all jumped up from their seats and ran towards the cockpit to escape the gaping jaws of this prehistoric beast. The shift in weight on the small plane caused it to nose dive, the pilot was unable to correct in time and the plane hit a house and blew up. The crocodile was later dispatched with a blow from a machete. (Poor guy didn’t even get to tell his side of the story.) Very sad but really an amazing story! 
The workings of Africa are hard to comprehend unless you’ve truly experienced them, and don’t think to yourself “Well I live in Africa too” because, my friends, SA may as well be in a different solar system when you compare our fair land to the rest of Africa.
What you get if you search Google Images for "Crocodile on a Plane".

There are a few more great stories from the same email that I'd like to reprint here, especially eye-witness accounts to mind-numbing corruption and other acts of incredulity. However, in the interests of space, I'll leave it to this one for now. After having a good (i.e. very humorous) rant about some of political machinations at both local and national government level, my friend signed off as follows:
Let’s just say there are a few reasons I’m writing this email on the day that I leave the DRC... One being that I would very much like to make it out of here, the other is I would not like to return and this email will hopefully guarantee that.
While names and places have been removed, I hope that I'm doing my part to help his cause by spreading the word.

UPDATE: So I've done a bit of Googling and see that the story was covered by a number of news agencies and other sources at the time. I did not know that, Dude. (This email was the first that I've heard of it.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Africa Black and White" by Nick Brandt

Africa Black and White

HT: Barry Ritholtz

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cover Thursdays - The Boss edition

So, a few months ago the internets were alight about Jimmy Fallon's Neil Young impression... And I have to say, it's pretty damn good. Spookily spot on and funny at the same time.

If you don't know what I'm talking about then have a look at this suitably ridiculous cover of "Whip My Hair", which includes a guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen. I happened to stumble on it again last night and, in need of inspiration for Cover Thursdays, decided that I could do no worse than focusing on The Boss.

Like all cultural icons, Springsteen can invoke a pretty mixed response. An easy target in many ways, sure, but I'm pressed to ask, "So what?" Who cares if you stick to 4/4 time signature verses, followed by rousing choruses? Is it a problem to for an artist to actually play his guitar, throw in a few piano pieces, the odd harmonica solo, and (awesome) sax? Not as far as I'm concerned. Some people seem to forget that music has to be first listenable before it can be groundbreaking; not the other way around. Don't get me wrong, I like it as much as the next punter when one package delivers both, but you don't need to find the next incarnation of Ziggy Stardust with every new album. Plus, there's no shame in knowing your audience and speaking directly to them them.

Now, The Boss has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent years and many of the biggest bands of the decade, from The Killers to Arcade Fire, clearly owe more than a passing reference to his style and song structure. I'm almost ashamed to say that I've yet to make it to Springsteen concert myself (blame geography!). However, I've watched and listened to enough live footage to understand what an amazing performer he -- together with his band -- is... Putting on frantic live shows twice the length of his younger competitors night after night. And, let's not forget that Springsteen has some set of pipes on him. (Did you know that "Born in the USA" was cut as a live studio take. Show me ten mainstream artists that could hit, let alone hold, those notes today and I'll streak through Asbury Park.)

Speaking of pipes, here's Eddie Vedder -- an always safe bet in the covers department -- doing "My City of Ruins" during the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors:

Second choice of the day could adversely impact my already shaky credibility, but it's one that I found pretty cool. Sister group Tegan and Sara show off their acoustic version of "Dancing in The Dark" during a radio interview:

Bottom line: Music is like food. And, sure, Bruce can be a little cheesy, but still awesome. If you're into covers, there are literally thousands to choose from. Here is a good place to start. And here's Vampire Weekend taking on "I'm Going Down".

Etcetera, etcetera.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What BMT looks like

Four straight birdies to close out The Masters.

Augusta Leaderboard 2011

Charl Schwartzel, take a bow (and collect your jacket). An unbelievably cool performance.

Perhaps you could share your secrets with the country's cricket team?

Links - Market Design edition

Regular readers[*] will know that a favourite theme of this blog is thinking about how -- and where -- markets function "optimally", versus cases where some form of intervention/regulation might be preferable. In that tinkering spirit...

1) The Boston Globe has a profile on Harvard's Alvin Roth, who specialises in optimising market design in a variety of sectors. Apart from his dedication to solving real-life problems, about the most interesting aspect of Roth's work is that he focuses on recreating market processes in precisely the industries where markets seem out of place, or even "repugnant" (e.g. organ donors). Much of this involves dealing with goods that are intrinsically hard to evaluate in monetary terms. [HT: Michael Giberson. I'd recommend a visit to Roth's Market Design blog as well.]

Reading the article, I was immediately reminded of the literature on "intrinsic motivation" and "moral crowding out", which highlight the pitfalls of trying to replace moral contracts with monetary incentives. The most famous example of this is probably the study of late parent arrivals at day-care centres in Haifa, which went up after monetary fines were introduced. In other words, the introduction of fines had the exact opposite effect of what was intended. Parents no longer felt bad about making a teacher stay late looking after their kids, since they were incurring a fine in return... A "fair" trade in their eyes.

2) Rob Stavins on the design options for cap-and-trade versus the alternatives. This is an older post, but one that is well worth revisiting for anyone interested in the options regarding climate policy and, as per usual, Stavins gives a really good breakdown of the key issues. To be honest, I've been meaning to write a brief summary on the differences between cap-and-trade and carbon taxes for a while (pros, cons, etc)... But this post (and others by Stavins) are a great place to start if you want to understand the basic arguments for and against the different climate policy instruments.

3) Daniel Kuehn is frustrated by the asymmetries in the public choice discourse. In particular, he takes issue with the assumption that being interested in market failure somehow makes you oblivious to government failure. I've trod a similar line here before and strongly agree that this is a false dichotomy.[**] However, and while I believe that Daniel is referring more to the armchair proponents of the public choice school than anything else, I would still note that the leading public choice figures themselves generally offer a far more nuanced and considered view of the market-vs-government debate. (E.g. See the paper by James Buchanan that I mention towards the bottom of this post. Some more thoughts on the matter here.)

Daniel quotes a segment from George Akerlof's seminal paper on information asymmetry, A Market For Lemons, which points to a careful arbitration between government intervention and private solutions:
It should be perceived that in these markets social and private returns differ, and therefore, in some cases, government intervention may increase the welfare of all parties. Or private institutions may arise to take advantage of the potential increase in welfare which can accrue to all parties. By nature, however, these institutions are nonatomistic, and therefore concentrations of power - with ill consequence of their own - can develop.
I replied in kind in the comments section by quoting the closing paragraph of Ronald Coase's 1960 essay, The Problem of Social Cost, in which he established the underpinnings for his eponymous theory on bargaining rights and (environmental) externalities:
It would clearly be desirable if the only actions performed were those in which what was gained was worth more than what was lost. But in choosing between social arrangements within the context of which individual decisions are made, we have to bear in mind that a change in the existing system which will lead to an improvement in some decisions may well lead to a worsening of others. Furthermore we have to take into account the costs involved in operating the various social arrangements (whether it be the working of a market or of a government department), as well as the costs involved in moving to a new system. In devising and choosing between social arrangements we should have regard for the total effect. This, above all, is the change in approach which I, am advocating.
So, ya... Call me crazy, but that's two Nobel Prize laureates -- whose respective theories can and have been twisted by completely opposing factions -- essentially coming down on the same side of the issue.

[*] Both of us... Hi Mom. Other readers might be interested in the "regulation" or "externalities" taglines.
[**] I imagine that some might think me slightly schizophrenic to strongly criticize overbearing government in some posts on this blog and then complain about a lack of decent regulatory frameworks in others. However, I'm very much a horses-for-courses man. My basic premise is that markets work fantastically well by themselves most of the time... But it's the exceptions that make life interesting. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"To the Moulin Rouge Dancers!"

That little beauty of a subject line is the title of an email that I received today. The message itself reads:
Dear [XXX]
You all were FANTASTIC on Saturday night!!!  I can't thank you enough
for the time, passion and artistry you contributed to the evening!  It was
so thrilling to see how you all transformed [XXX] into the Moulin Rouge. 
Your energy and joy filled the room every time you entered. 
Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!
Well, it's certainly not every day that I get such a glowing review.

Alas, I cannot claim this one. I actually get these emails fairly often as my name (and hence email address) is very similar to someone apparently heavily involved in Boston's amateur theatre scene.

I used to send my apologies and explain the case of mistaken identity... But as it kept happening, I've since just decided to embrace it. At least this way I get to keep tabs on what's happening in Massachusetts art house scene.

To my (almost) namesake, whoever you are: Keep up the good work!

Lady Marmalade

Cover Thursdays - Plumpish and awesome edition

My mate Nic used to run a regular segment over at his blog called "Cover Thursdays". He's since put his musings on the back burner a bit, but I really like what he was trying to do with that... And so, in trying to keep the spirit alive, here are two covers that deserve your listening pleasure:

1) Radiohead's The Reckoner by Gnarls Barkley

Now, I know that Radiohead fans[*] can be a sensitive bunch, but anyone who tells me that Ce Lo Green wasn't borne to sing this song is a filthy liar. I haven't been this aroused by an overweight black man since Solomon Burke was in his prime.

And -- in what may be the most un-PC segue of all time -- since we're on the subject of "large-ish" singers that have got it where it counts, I hand you over to Beth Ditto and co. ...

2) Wham!'s Careless Whisper by The Gossip

So much better than the original, I honestly don't even know where to start. I wish more bands understood this remarkably simple concept; that a good cover isn't just inserting a new vocalist to exactly the same music. I'd hit the karaoke bars if that's what I wanted, thank you very much.

[*] I take it most people have seen the reaction to The King of Limbs? I've only listened to a few times and, look, it's certainly no In Rainbows (which was also by far the best thing they've done for over a decade IMHO). So, yes, disappointing after all the hype, but I've still got time for a few tracks. E.g. For all the controversy that surrounded the music video -- I mean, it's Radiohead... What did you expect, a love story? -- I think Lotus Flower is a great tune.

Monday, April 4, 2011

It's official...

You may have noticed that things have been a bit slow around the Corral lately. Primary reason being that I have been involved in numerous applications and interviews; both academic and private sector.

And so, after much consideration and classic Stickman-esque stalling...

Looks like I'll be doing a PhD after all :)

Yup, I'll be heading back to the Nordics in August to begin my doctorate in economics, where I am the grateful recipient of a very generous research scholarship.[*] My focus will remain on environmental and resource issues, although I am very much interested in development, as well as behavioural and institutional aspects of economics too. In that spirit, the overarching theme of my research proposal will be the water-energy nexus and I hope to build on the work that I've started during my Master's. (More on that at a later stage.)

My (modest) belief is that this will become an increasingly important topic in the years to come and hopefully I can provide some relevant research to help address the issue. At the least, I'm hoping to get a little more respect than this guy.

Stickman, out!

[*] For those of you interested in advanced studies, I strongly recommend investigating options in the Nordic/Scandinavian region. A PhD is considered as a legitimate job over here and, as with most forms of employment, you are very well compensated. Indeed, the irony is that I stand to earn more doing my doctorate in Norway than I almost certainly would expect from private sector work back in South Africa. Of course, you need to consider living costs and so forth, but even then it's a close-run thing on a relative scale. (Say nothing of long-term prospects after graduation... Well, that's what I'm telling myself at least! Still, much better than the suffocating burden of student debt engulfing the UK and elsewhere.)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tyler Cowen's favourite things South Africa

The alarmingly prodigious Tyler Cowen has a post up on his favourite things South Africa:
I have yet to go, but here is what I admire so far: 
1. Visual artist (you can’t quite call him a painter): William Kentridge. He is one of the contemporary artists who is both a realist and has a lot of the emotional power of the classics. His extraordinary body of work spans film, drawings, prints, and mixed media. Here are some images.

2. Home design: I am an admirer of the Ndebele, some photos of their colorful homes are here. They are better represented in picture books than on the web.

3. Movies: I don’t know many. I enjoyed The Gods Must be Crazy, even though some might find it slightly offensive. Nonetheless I hand the prize to District 9 for its interesting take on ethnic politics, its deconstruction and mock of Afrikaaner[sic] settler myths, and its commentary on how South Africans view Zimbabwean immigrants to their country. 
4. Movie, set in: Zulu, 1964 with Michael Caine. 
5. Novels: My favorite Coetzee is Disgrace, though I like most of them very much, including the early Life and Times of Michael Kand Waiting for the Barbarians and the later semi-autobiographical works. Nadine Gordimer I find unreadable, call the fault mine. Same with Alan Paton. A dark horse pick is Trionf [sic]. Agaat sits in my pile, waiting for the trip of the right length. 
6. Music: Where to start? Malanthini, for one. As for mbqanga collections, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto series is consistently excellent. Singing in an Open Space, Zulu Rhythm and Harmony 1962-1982 is a favorite. Random gospel and jazz collections often repay the purchase price and in general random CD purchases in these areas bring high expected returns.

7. Economists: Ludwig Lachmann was an early teacher of mine and I owe him my interest in post Keynesianism and also financial fragility hypotheses. G.F Thirlby remains underrated. W.H. Hutt was one of the most perceptive critics of Keynes and his insights still are not absorbed into the Keynesian mainstream. His book on the economics of the colour bar remains a liberal classic. Who am I forgetting?
I always wondered whether Tyler was - at least partially - pulling a fast one on his readers when compiling these favourite-things-country-X lists... Surely, he couldn't have informed opinions about different aspects of so many countries? And therein lies the beauty of such a scam; very few people would be in a position to call him out on his bluffs...

But, no. Now that he's referred to a country that I am (hopefully!) intimately familiar with, I have to say he's put together a very impressive list, comprising both obvious and non-obvious choices.[*] For what it's worth, I've added a comment towards the bottom on few additional things he might have considered. They're mostly of a popular culture variety and limited to things that Tyler normally includes in these lists. (Hence my reference to food... All hail Malva Pudding!)

I'd be interested to hear what other Saffas have to say on the issue...

[*] I'm all but resigned to channel Jacob Goldstein, who, in reviewing MR for Time magazine, drily remarked: "Cowen[...] seems to read the entire Internet every day."