Thursday, October 08, 2015

The best time to read a book

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, economics, philosophy, blogs

It didn't occur to me that Freakonomics authors Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner would be writing a blog. Duh! Everyone has a blog!! So I've lost out on several years of fun and intelligent daily reading.

I got sort-of caught up by reading When to Rob a Bank…and 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants. If the title count is accurate, and they've been contributing to the blog at least a couple times weekly over ten years' time, the 132 items in this book make up about one-tenth of their blog over its history. According to Sturgeon's Principle, 90% of everything is crud (his word). So it makes sense to glean the top tenth and present that to the world. Of course, having perused the Freakonomics blog before starting this review, I'd have to say that the other 90% is pretty good crud!

So, what have we here? Without giving a total spoiler, I have to say that the blog post of the book's title is a trick. What kind of trick? Read the post, on pages 248-251. One thing too cute to conceal: robbing a bank early in the day will yield more cash, but very few banks get robbed in the morning (that tells you when it is the safest to visit your local branch). Dubner wrote in this post, "Maybe if they were able to wake up earlier and go to work, they wouldn't have to rob banks?" But that doesn't answer the title question.

As in the Freakonomics books, the authors look at things differently from most of us. An economist doesn't guess (not a good one anyway), an economist uses data and lest the conclusions draw themselves. But having presented the data, sometimes it is both fun and instructive to consider the Why of it. For example, they looked into the dangers of recreational horse riding. Not much research was required, because a report by the CDC tells us, "The rate of serious injury per number of riding hours is estimated to be higher for horseback riders than for motorcyclists and automobile racers." So possible reasons why are considered. The one that makes the most sense to me is the one they list first, that most horse riding accidents occur on private property, not on the public streets, and typically only the rider is injured. Motorcycle and drag-racing accidents are just so much more public.

Another post asks, "Is Cheating Good for Sports?" It seems so, and not only does the public simply lap up stories about doping, about taping opponents' supposedly private practices, or about balls that were under-inflated, the sports-fan public goes totally gaga over sports stars who have done wrong and 'fessed up and followed up with a lot of kiss-and-tell stories about who else is cheating. Even folks who seldom watch any games will pay attention when the news is about this or that cheating star or coach, and what happened next. We do love our soap operas.

Sometimes they post a question, and one question, "Why are we eating so much shrimp?" garnered more than a thousand responses. They then analyzed the responses to see how many people focused on the demand for shrimp and how many on the supply. An economist thinks of supply factors, such as the falling price of shrimp now that shrimp farmers have gotten a handle on their trade. Most everyone else looked at greater demand such as people getting more conscious of their health. As the post closes, there is a follow-up question: Tuna consumption is falling; is that due to changes in supply or demand? I'd have answered, "Mercury". I suppose that is a supply answer.

A troubling subject has the title, "Is the Endangered Species Act Bad for Endangered Species?" The short answer: usually Yes. Because of the public review provisions of the Act, if the EPA publishes its intention to consider listing a species, those who own the piece of forest or stream or whatever are likely to hurry up and do what they were planning to do, before the listing is effected. Thus, the potentially endangered species is more likely to become an extinct species before the EPA finishes its review.

The study of human motivation yields a never-ending fund of surprising insights. I predict that these fellows will be in business for a long while yet.

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