Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

The Upside of Irrationality

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely just might be my favorite non-fiction book ever.  There’s so much to write about that I have not been able start.  I’ve been irrationally procrastinating.

In fact I procrastinate on all these “book review” topics.  I guess I don’t actually want to review books, but I do want to make something from my time invested and share some of the high points. 

So, I’ll shift gears and just share the amusing stories I read in books instead of really reviewing them.

So, without further ado:

The upside of irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home, by Dan Ariely

I think the title is misleading.  It’s really just another book on the material from Predictably Irrational.  It was interesting, but did little to promote the “upside of irrationality,” or any “benefits” for defying logic.   Perhaps this opinion is just what you get from an engineer type who values rationality.

We value our own work

Experiments show that we value our pathetic attempts at crafts far more than a stranger would if we put any effort into it ourselves.  But here’s the funny story:

When instant cake mixes were introduced in the late 1940s, they were not well received.  It turns out there’s a huge difference in a Woman’s mind (this was 1940) between an I-made-it-myself homemade cake and a just-add-water cake.  When Pillsbury began leaving out the dried eggs, sales took off.  Apparently, adding water and eggs is enough to instill that made-it-myself feeling and enough pride of ownership to make it acceptable to serve.  This is commonly known as the “egg effect.”


In another study, an actor administered a simple test to strangers in a café for a small payment.  In some of the cases, he would impolitely interrupt the instructions to accept a short personal phone call.  After the task was completed, the participant would be slightly overpaid and given the opportunity to violate social norms by stealing the extra money.  Shockingly, the slight, er, slight, was enough to drastically increase the rate of thievery.  Perhaps more surprising, a simple apology “sorry – I shouldn’t have taken that call” is enough to completely neutralize the effect.

Maximizing Your Happiness dollars

There’s a psychological phenomenon called Adaptation, that basically means we get used to stuff – good or bad.  The bottom line of Ariely’s musings is that we get the most happiness bang for our bucks by spreading out our purchases.  If you buy a whole house full of furnishings and decorations, the thrill wears off.  If you buy your items one at a time, the thrill still wears off, but you get a whole bunch of them.

Pop Economics wrote an excellent post on this here.   For the same reason, commercials actually enhance our enjoyment of television programs.  Hard to believe – go read the article.

The other bit has to do with keeping up with the Joneses.   Just don’t get the same stuff they get, because comparisons hurt.  Let’s say you want a Toyota RAV4 and you’re agonizing whether to spend the extra bucks for the Sport edition.  If you settle for the base model and your neighbor gets the sport (and loves it), your going to be unhappy.  If you settle for the base model and your neighbor gets a Subaru Outback Foo Foo model (or a Rolls Royce or Ferrari for that matter), you’re more likely to be happy with your base RAV4.  We have some control over who we choose as our “Joneses”, and that decision has a lot to do with our level of contentment.

On Empathy and Emotion

Human beings are deeply touched by stories.  The tale of a single suffering soul motivates us in a way that suffering millions do not.  This leads to misallocated resources in a big way.  The Cancer Society is able to raise gobs of money by telling stories, and by labeling everyone who as had cancer as a “survivor” (why do we not have “heart attack survivors” and why am I not a “torn ACL survivor”?).   Why do we pour out time and money to help a little girl who’s fallen in a well while the same resources would save 1000 lives in a poverty stricken village in Far-Far-Away?  Ariely’s chapter on this subject paints a rational picture of our collective irrationality, but utterly fails (in my mind) to indicate the “upside.”


The Long-Term Effects of Short-Term Emotions

In Predictably Irrational, Ariely talks about following the herd, and how sometimes our own past actions can be the herd – self herding.  (For example, if you stop at Starbucks for a $4.00 Latte several times (even under extenuating circumstances), you may decide that you are the kind of person who purchases and enjoys $4.00 coffee beverages.  Further stops at Starbucks happen not because you decide you want to stop, but because that’s just what you do.

In The Upside of Irrationality, he experiments with short term emotional decisions.  Sometimes emotion leads us to make a DECISION.  A DECISION (as opposed to just a decision) guides future behavior.   He uses the Ultimatum Game.  In this game, some money is given to a pair of players.  One player (the sender) divides the money and the other player (the receiver) decides whether to accept the division.  If he does not accept the offer, both players get nothing.  Rationally, the sender could divide $20 so that he gets $19 and the receiver gets $1.  If the receiver accepts, he’s $1 better off.  However, this generally offends the receiver’s sense of fairness and he would rather have nothing than let the sender get away with such injustice.

Enter the twist.  Ariely and company manipulated the receiver’s emotional state so that they felt happy/generous or sad/angry, and then rigged the sender’s offer to be unfair.  Not surprisingly, this changed the receiver’s  behavior.   When primed to be forgiving, they were likely to accept an unfair offer.

Now, the receiver was given the role of sender.  It turns out that the subjects tended to apply their primed receiver emotions in their role as sender.  If they were generous as receiver, they tended to assume, as sender, that their receivers would also feel generous, so they made stingy offers.  This is a systematic misapplication of experience.

Very interesting, but I fail to see the personal upside, save that I can personally watch myself and try to avoid the error.

The bottom line here is that we tend to make permanent behavioral changes based on decisions influenced by short term emotion.  Not rational.

The Bottom Line

Go read Predictably Irrational.  If you really like it and want more, read The Upside of Irrationality.

The Stand-up Economist

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

I may not be ahem completely normal, but I really enjoyed this video.

Yoram Bauman, the stand-up economist translates Mankiw’s ten principles of economics into English.


“Microeconomists are people who are wrong about specific things.  Macroeconomists are wrong about things in general”

If you liked that one, you might also enjoy this one.

My favorite line: “One of the challenges of being an economics comedian is that it’s very difficult to find places to practice.”  No kidding.
At about 3:30, he compares the current economy to a hamster.

On this topic, I highly recommend several economics books I scored when my wife got them from the library.  All make excellent in-the-car listening.  No really.

I never managed to take Econ in college.Basic Economics was clear, concise, well read (in audio), and fascinating.
The Housing Boom and Bust The Housing Boom and Bust.

More on economics, but using the 2009 housing bust as a framework.  Again, really interesting.

Applied Economcs: Thinking Beyond Stage One

I’m cheating to put this one up because I haven’t finished it yet.  I listened to parts of several CDs of the audio version, and so far it sounds just as riveting as the others.

It should be required reading for all voters.

200% of Nothing

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

200% of Nothing, by A. K. Dewdney turns out to be a quick but interesting read.  The subject is “Innumeracy”; the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy.  He, and others, have a good point about innumeracy in America.  We accept, and even celebrate, mathematical ineptitude in a way that is horrifyingly inconsistent with the way we feel about illiteracy.  Contrast the comment “I’m just not a math person” with any similar statement about the inability or unwillingness to read.

Dewdney uses a collection of anecdotes to illustrate a number of the traps we fall into.  It is a decent introduction to ways you can be manipulated if you need it, and the anecdotes are entertaining if you are already well versed.  However, the book is a  bit superficial, and I suppose it is telling that I did end up with pages of notes on the interesting bits, as I have with most of the books I’ve read recently.

The media frequently leaves out information critical to the meaning of a statistic.
A public service advertisement in Sweden illustrates:


The rate of life-jacket-wearing and the number of boaters are important, but omitted.  If only 1% of boaters wear life jackets, and 14% (5/35) of the dead were wearing them, then life jackets might actually be deadly!  To be even more extreme, what if only 5 Swedes wore life jackets in total, and they are all dead now?

Chance, Gambling, and Lucky Streaks
Dewdney spends a lot of pages on Gamblers fallacies.  Apparently, lots of people believe that past events will dictate future events.  If you flip a coin and get 5 heads in a row, then some mystical force of chance will require tails to come up soon.  This is mathematical and statistical nonsense.  However, if you get too many heads without reverting to the mean, you should start to doubt whether the coin being tossed is really “fair”.

In a lottery, all numbers are equally probable, but not all are equally memorable.  Nobody will choose 1,2,3,4,5 because that “will never happen,” even though it has the same likelihood as 13,27,29,40,51. It seems less likely only because it is less memorable.

If you can’t handle 1,2,3,4,5, then don’t play the lottery.

Street Math
Even without being a math whiz, you should be able to spot claims that just don’t make sense.
Dewdney relates the following problem to illustrate the way we divorce math from reality, and how schools fail to teach kids to make the move from abstract math concepts to applied math.

An army bus holds 36 soldiers.  If 1,128 soldiers are being bused to their training site, how many  buses are needed?

The critical step is to divide the number of soldiers by the capacity of the bus – 1128/36 = 33 1/3.
Only 70 percent of the high school students tested thought to use division.  Of these students, about two thirds seemed to be content with an answer including one third of a bus! (the answer is 34).  I think I would have done that.

Next Reads
Several of the online reviews I saw say that Dewdney borrows heavily from John Allen Paulos’ book, “Innumeracy”, and that Paulos does a much better job.  I don’t know if it’s true, but I found that Paulos has some other interesting books at our library that I will check out soon.

  • A Mathemeatician Reads the Newspaper
  • Once upon a number : the hidden mathematical logic of stories

The World’s Smartest Human Screws Up

In 1990, somebody sent a question to Marilyn vos Savant, author of the “Ask Marilyn” column in Parade magazine and holder of the Guiness Book record for highest IQ, that began a debate that still rages.

“Suppose you’re on a game show and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats.  You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what is behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat.  He then says to you, ‘Do you want to pick door No. 2?’  Is it to your advantage to swich your choice?”

I remember this issue of Parade, and the many “Ask Marilyn” columns that followed with angry and disbelieving comments and rebuttals.

So, what do you think?  Switch or Stay?

What I’m Reading Now

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

I’ve accumulated quite a stack of current reading, most of it really interesting to me. Perhaps someone will be interested in a few of these.

Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond
You have to get some exercise to live and lift some weights to live well.Actually, I just finished this one, and I rather enjoyed it. Probably because I already eat well and get a lot of exercise :)This ties in with In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan. (see my previous post.) I also really enjoyed this book – I think I listened to the audio version of this one. I have his previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meal on my “next” list.
Parenting Today’s Adolescent Helping Your Child Avoid The Traps Of The Preteen And Teen Years by Dennis Rainey, Barbara Rainey, and Bruce Nygren
We have read this one before, but we have a 14 year old and it’s time read it with new eyes.
Predictably Irrational
Yep. I’m still reading this one. It’s too interesting to rush through.
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, by Daniel H. Pink.
This is another that my wife got from the library and I picked up. I’m on the last disc of the audio version.The premise here is that we are at the end of the Information Age, and us “knowledge workers” are going to have to pick up some new skills if we are to survive. Computers and lower-paid workers in other countries are taking away the linear left-brain work – at least the portion that can be parceled out into chunks or reduced to an algorithm.
Complete Baths (Stanley)
We’re trying to put a bathroom in the basement.Nothing is as easy as it looks.But, I got to use a jackhammer last weekend!Now I have a Home Depot credit card, ’cause I’ll put up with a lot for 10% off.
The Shack
Some friends from my church want to discuss this one in our community group.
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
I’m not sure where I found this one (perhaps I intended to write about the source).Sounds interesting.

I’ll let you know if it is…

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz
I haven’t started this one yet either, but I have it in my hands, so it counts.I think I found this one with Nudge.
200% of Nothing: An Eye Opening Tour Through the Twists and Turns of Math Abuse and Innumeracy by A. K. Dewdney
And one final book for the nightstand. This was in the pile of books I picked up at the library today (we’re on a first name basis with all the librarians).Here’s a story to illustrate:

A man by the name of Smith was walking home from work when he spotted a $5 bill on the pavement. He looked around, picked it up, and put it in his pocket. His other pocket already contained a $10 bill. Smith smiled. “My wealth has increased by 50 percent,” he said to himself.

Unfortunately, the pocket that held the $5 bill had a hole in it. When Smith got home, he discovered to his dismay that the $5 was missing. “That’s no so bad,” he said. “Earlier, my wealth increased by 50 percent, now it has decreased by only 33 percent. I’m still ahead by 17 percent!”

Not Such a New Idea, Perhaps

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

I’ve just had one of those interesting coincidences; you know, the kind where six friends from different areas of your life all mention kangaroos in the space of a week.  It makes you wonder.

In this case it’s a series of books on nutrition.  Once again, my wife picks them, and I pick them up because they look interesting.  (Thanks, Honey.)

The first was Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.

I listened to the audio version of the book and found it very engaging.  The premise of the book is simple (and tangential to this post).  Pollan summarizes it thus:  “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”  He also addresses the balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats in our diet and laments the fact the the vast majority of our calories are now derived directly or indirectly from corn and soy.

The second book was Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond, by Chris Crowley & Henry S. Lodge, M.D.

I’m still to young to be reading this one, by the way.

This one is mostly about how important it is to get regular exercise, both endurance and strength. Their premise is that we are either growing or decaying.  Decay is inevitable, and we must fight it by promoting growth.  Oddly enough, growth is triggered by stress and damage, but only at higher levels than we get watching TV.

However, it also discusses nutrition and spends some time on the omega fats.  Omega-3 fats are dynamic and flexible.  Omega-6 fats are stiffer and promote inflammation.  We have so much omega-6 in our diet that our bodies are forced to use these fats for cell construction even when the blueprints call for omega-3.  This leads to brittle cell walls and inflammation.

The final coincidence was an article a co-worker sent me: The Vanishing Youth Nutrient.

In this article, Susan Allport also discusses the American omega-3/omega-6 imbalance.  She adds the concept of Spring vs. Fall fats.

Omega-3 fats are Spring Fats and are found mostly in the green leaves of plants (and in fish, because they eat plankton).

First, let’s start with omega-3s, what I’ll call the spring fats. These are likely the most abundant fats in the world, but they don’t originate in fish, as many believe. Rather, they are found in the green leaves of plants. Fish are full of omega-3s because they eat phytoplankton (the microscopic green plants of the ocean) and seaweed. In plants, these special fatty acids help turn sunlight into sugars, the basis of life on Earth. The spring fats speed up metabolism. They are fats that animals (humans included) use to get ready for times of activity, like the mating season. They’re found in the highest concentrations in all the most active tissues: brains, eyes, hearts, the tails of sperm, the flight muscles of hummingbirds. Because fish have so many of these fats in their diets, they can be active in cold, dark waters. These fats protect our brains from neurological disorders and enable our hearts to beat billions of times without incident. But they are vanishing from our diet, and you’ll soon understand why.

Omega-6 fats are Fall Fats.  They are found predominately in the seeds of plants.

Next up are the omega-6s, what I’ll call the fall fats. They originate in plants as well, but in the seeds of plants rather than the leaves. The fall fats are simply storage fats for plants. Animals require both—omega-3s and omega-6s—in their diets and their tissues. But omega-6s are slower and stiffer than omega-3s. Plus, they promote blood clotting and inflammation, the underlying causes of many diseases, including heart disease and arthritis.

I found it really interesting that information about the balance of Omega fats is coming at me from three sources.  They don’t all say the same thing, but they all agree.  Our traditional American diet has been systematically stripped of omega-3 fats and loaded up with omega-6 fats, largely as a result of misguided science and nutritionism, and it is killing us.  In addition to the direct effects the different fats have on, there are indirect effects that may be even more important.  Our sedentary lifestyles and the prevalence of omega-6 fat both send signals to our bodies that Winter is coming and we’d better prepare.  Preparation consists of putting on fat, slowing our metabolism, and accelerating the breakdown of expensive-to-maintain muscle tissue.

The thought that followed is the one that prompted me to write this article though.  It occurred to me that these revolutionary new ideas came from books. Books – not the newspaper or nightly news.  Not a weekly magazine.  Books take time to conceive, to write, to publish (and more time to get into the libraries, where I get mine).  These cutting edge ideas therefore can’t really be all that new then, can they.

30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

I just read 30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family, by Rebecca Hagelin.

30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family

My wife actually got this book from our library for herself, and I got hooked as I flipped through it out of curiosity.  This is how I find many of my more edifying books.

I believe that successful parents, and successful husbands, get that way by trying to get better.   We need to read good material and talk with good people who have more experience than we do.  Even after we know it all, there is great value in reading, learning, and evaluating.  We have so many opportunities and very busy lives.  Our children grow and change, and we must change our rules and parenting strategies to adjust.

Every time I read a book like this, it reminds me of what I already know I should be doing. If it gives me a motivational boost and causes me to evaluate our situations and strategy, that’s a good thing, right?

This book is organized into 30 short suggestions (the “30 days”). Each section has a challenge (problem), suggestions and encouragement, and a call to action, followed by a sidebar with additional helpful resources.  This format makes it easy to read in bite size chunks, or to pick and choose.  All made sense, but not all were really applicable to our family.  This book is an easy read and is certain to have a few gems for your family.

A handful of these suggestions were particularly meaningful to me — I will write more about a few of those in the coming week or so.

Don’t Bother Me Mom — I’m Learning

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Every so often, I read a book that just keeps popping into my conversations.  I guess that means that the book made an impression, like it or not.

I just finished Mark Prensky‘s book Don’t Bother Me Mom — I’m Learning“.  In this book Mark is making the case that our children are learning far more from their video games than we give them credit for.  He makes some really good points, especially in the first half.  After presenting his case that video games are “good,” and that our kids think differently because of the high tech, high speed world in which they are immersed, he goes on to present ideas for harnessing that power for the good of their educations.  I’m afraid I started to lose rapport with his flow, because I’m already pretty opinionated about my kids’ education.

I think the most interesting idea he presents is the distiction between “digital natives” (our kids) and “digital immigrants” (us).  Some of live in the digital world,  but we will always speak with an accent.  That fits me to a T.  While we were debating the pros and cons of email vs. paper letters, our kids left email behind and moved on to IM, texting, and tweeting.

The book is addressed to the parents who have no idea what their kids are doing on the computer.  He explores the depth and complexity of today’s games, as compared to the pong, solitaire, and MineSweeper most of us are used to.  This is not new to me — I have always enjoyed video games, from Zork and Asteroids to Myst and Duke Nukem.  It’s just that now I live in Colorado, and there are too many outdoor activities competing for my time :).  Unfortunately, Mark paints a pretty rosy picture of these online activities.  I know that the majority (or a vocal minority) of participants in the big wide online universe act like idiots.  It only takes a minute on YouTube to see what kind of people are commenting…  In fact, do a Google search for “youtube comments” — the entire first page is rants about the commenting idiots and utilities to filter them out.

Anyway – back to the topic.  Marc gives an example of a child who is running a 200 person guild in his online world.  That’s great for him, but I have to wonder.  First of all, for every leader of a 200 person guild, there are 199 followers.  Second (of all?), how many of those followers would I allow to speak to my kids in person?  What kind of language will they be exposed to?  Yes, I know we all have to deal with coarse language out in the real world, but why start dealing with it any earlier than necessary?

Our kids are growing up in a different environment that we grew up in.  Change is coming faster.  Information is more available.  Ideas are presented in smaller and smaller bytes.  Multitasking is the norm.  Current brain research favors neuroplasticity — our brains adapt to their inputs.  It makes sense to me that  our kids’ brains are developing differently than ours did; with different strengths and weaknesses.  They are used to (from their games) a fast paced learning environment, to rapid feedback, and to an environment that adapts to fit their performance.  Compared to this, school is slow, ill-fitting, and dull.  I have to think that this is a trend to fight, however.  This mode of learning is great for getting up to speed on something new, but it is not well suited to learning deeply, to reflecting on consequences, or to really developing an idea.  The use of ubiquitous search and research resources (e.g. Google) can only help you catch up to the pack – it won’t get you ahead.  Somebody has to be the first to solve any given problem before it can be published for everyone else.

My takeaway from this book is this:  I can get involved in my kids games.  I can listen to their stories and appreciate their accomplishments.  In many cases, I can play with them.  It’s good quality time, and if anything offensive comes up, it’s a good opportunity for discussions that may go far beyond the game itself.  I will not go so far as to say “games are good,” because they unquestionably (in myh mind) take time away from things that are better.  However, I realize that I have had a very negative attitude about something that is a big part of my children’s lives.  I have not been willing to take it away, but I also tend to be a sourpuss about it.

As for the educational impact, and the steps he recommends for parents, teachers, and schools, I have to pass.  Nobody can educate a child better than a loving, involved parent.  We will continue to teach our kids at home, tayloring the school day to their particular learning styles, catering to their interests and passions, and encouraging them to think deeply.