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Tyler Cowen's appetite for ethnic food -- and answers about his life

Tenets about the world

Behavioral economist Tyler Cowen eats dinner at Eyo restaurant in Falls Church.
Behavioral economist Tyler Cowen eats dinner at Eyo restaurant in Falls Church. (Evy Mages - For The Washington Post)

"How do you decide when to walk away from a movie?"

This is one of Cowen's favorite rules, as it relates to consumption of information. "People should be more willing to walk out of movies," he tells anyone who will listen. "Most movies -- they grab you or they don't, and if they don't, just leave. Just go. You have already lost money. Why lose the time?"

If a movie doesn't hook Cowen, he reads a book outside while his wife remains in her seat. Most recent movie they both left: "Greenberg," starring Ben Stiller.

With books, Cowen is even more brutal. If a book is bad, he often throws it away, so it doesn't waste anyone's time. "What if the next book they were going to read is 'Moby-Dick'?" But if a book is good, he might give it away -- to libraries, friends or, if he's on a plane, total strangers (he leaves them in the seat-back pocket for the next passenger to discover). "He drives the flight attendants crazy," his wife says.

Why is ethnic food better in the suburbs?

Cowen's next book is on the economics of eating out. He has studied the subject diligently since he was a student in Germany and tired of sausage; he explored Berlin for other ethnic cuisines. Cowen differs from many other libertarians in his support for expanding immigration, and other economists half-joke that his position is tied to his desire for, say, pig's blood for lunch in the suburbs. Cowen does not totally dispute these assertions.

As a junior faculty member at the University of California at Irvine in the days before the Internet, Cowen kept a list of phone numbers of excellent ethnic restaurants so he wouldn't have to look them up in the Yellow Pages. Word got out in the economics department about the list, so he began photocopying it for colleagues. When the Internet became popular, he moved the list there. When he moved to George Mason, he continued charting his eating adventures. "It's really not written for anybody else," he says. "It's written for me. It's my guide."

Most restaurants in Cowen's encyclopedic guide are in the suburbs. Cowen tells the GW crowd that the problem with city restaurants is that most people are there not to eat but to socialize. In the suburbs, people are more interested in eating. "If you see people in a restaurant who are happy, don't go there," he says, adding with a grin, "You want people to be grim or screaming at each other." In other words, you want diners to be there for the food, not to signal their sophistication.

What did you order at Thai X-ing?

Cowen: "Salmon and red curry, drunken noodles, and chicken larb."

How should we deal with autistic people in society?

Cowen explained in his recent book, "Creating Your Own Economy," that his view has changed since Fasanella first asked him whether he might be autistic. "I have since become comfortable with my affiliation with autism, and indeed proud of it, but it's not a thought I was ready for at the time," Cowen wrote.

In the few years since he got Fasanella's e-mail, Cowen said, the world has transformed into an infinite ocean of information, overwhelming most of us -- but not autistics. "One strong feature of autism is the tendency of autistics to impose additional structure on information by the acts of arranging, organizing, classifying, collecting, memorizing, categorizing, and listing," he wrote. "Autistics are the true infovores, as I will call them."

Cowen may be not autistic but rather a new type of human who organizes today's avalanche of information into rules about how the world should work. The more information the infovore consumes, the more order he brings to his world.

Finally, questions from this reporter to the infovore: Doesn't breaking down stories and information so finely ruin your ability to enjoy them? Don't your rules get in the way of life? Will you enjoy this story?

Answer: "Sure. I can fall into the trap as quickly and as easy as anyone else. There's no alternative to stories. You can be self-aware about stories, but I don't think there's any way out, so you might as well enjoy them if you are spending the time reading them."

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