Posts Tagged ‘freakonomics’

How to be more productive

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017 | Success & Productivity

Over the holiday period, Freakonomics Radio was rebroadcasting old episodes. One of which was how to be more productive. I had already listened to the episode once, but it felt like the kind of topic you could always use a refresher on.

On the episode, Dubner interviews Charles Duhigg (great surname, right?), author of The Power of Habit. In the book, Duhigg tries to boil down what are the universal aspects of people who are successful in achieving their goals.

Interesting, he starts by dismissing an idea many of us may consider important: having one goal and solely focusing on that. Duhigg explains that he only wanted things that everyone agreed on. A single goal was not one of them. Many people would say “you have to focus on one goal: it’s essential.” But others would say “you have to be flexible, you cannot commit yourself to one goal.”

So what does make the list?

  1. Self-motivation: making a decision to do something helps trigger this
  2. Focus: training yourself to focus on the right things and ignore everything else
  3. Goal-setting: you need a big stretch goal which is your ultimate objective, and then a short-term goal that you can action tomorrow morning
  4. Decision-making: think probabilistically, considering the outcomes and weighing how likely they are to occur
  5. Innotvation: take cliches and mix them together in new ways; being interdisaplinary can help with this
  6. Absorbing data:
  7. Managing others: give the problem to the person closest to it
  8. Teams: who is on a team matters more than what the team does

Those are the eight characteristics Duhigg finds consistent across successful people.

As for how many projects you should be working on, the answer seems to be enough to make things interesting, but not so many that you cannot devote enough time to each. The people who are most productive work on 4-5 projects. Critically, these should all be different so that it teaches you new skills.

When to Rob a Bank

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016 | Books

When to Rob a Bank: A Rogue Economist’s Guide to the World is a book compiled from posts on the Freakonomics blog. Each post is written by either Steven Levitt Stephen Dubner.

They start off by telling an anecdote about how they had been writing the Freakonomics blog and presumed there was no way to monetise it. Then they saw a bottled water factory and realised that sometimes people were actually willing to pay for something that was free if it was put into nice packaging. So they wrapped their blog posts into a book and began selling it.

Some of the posts were interesting, but it literally was just a collection of them, sometimes arranged into a theme. There was no flow, no real overall structure, no main point or take-home message. To me, these are the additions that turn a collection of short anecdotes, good on their own, into an interesting book.

when-to-rob-a-bank

Trust Me

Saturday, November 19th, 2016 | Religion & Politics

trust-and-fear

In a recent episode of Freakonomics Radio, entitled “Trust Me“, Stephen Dubner looked at the decline in trust that many countries were experiencing. This was specifically measured by asking people “do you think most people can be trusted?”

Building this up is important because the most trust you can build, the more social capital people have. This is important because countries where people have higher social capital do better, and also on a personal level as people who have more social capital live significantly longer. As Susan Pinker teaches us it is one of the biggest factors in life expectancy.

Some countries have very high trust levels. Sweden for example. Some of this is explained by the welfare state, but perhaps the biggest factor is the homogeneity of Swedish society. That is to say, everyone looks the same. People trust people who look similar to them. Conversely, when researchers looked at what makes people cheat, cheating across racial lines was a major factor.

One option then would be to resist the diversification of society, join the BNP and insist Britain is just for white people. But aside from the fact that many of us would detest such an attitude, it also ends badly: countries with a lack of diversity are less creative.

Therefore, we need to find a way that we can continue to build trust and social capital in a world that is becoming increasingly more diverse.

How do we do this? By finding ways to connect people across different communities: military service, university, sports teams, etc. University is a great example. You are thrown into a hall of residence where you meet a diverse group of people and build relationships with them. You then internalise the skill of trusting and it stays with you for the rest of your life. This is reflected in the fact that graduates have more social capital than non-graduates.

University is not the only place you can build such trust of course. If you are in the UK, you may have seen adverts for the National Citizen Service. The NCS was introduced in 2011 as a way to get young people to build these skills.

It is also worth noting that these barriers break down over time. There was a time when an Italian person and an Irish person was a “mixed marriage”. Then a black person and and a white person was a “mixed marriage”. Now it is just a marriage. Where possible, it makes sense to speed this process up.

SuperFreakonomics

Sunday, July 31st, 2016 | Books

SuperFreakonomics is a non-fiction book published in 2009. It is written by Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt as a follow-up to their 2005 book Freakonomics.

I had this book vaguely on the back-burner of things I wanted to read. However, while holidaying in Wales I found, to my surprise, a copy lying around in the cottage we had rented. So I sat down and had a read.

It is a short book, weighing in at just over 200 pages plus an extensive notes section. It is also a fun book. I read through it in about 24 hours. While enjoyable, I find it less enlightening or informing than their first book. I enjoy their writing style. There is a short rant about how people say things were better in the old days, even though on almost every metric things are better today. I often have this exact same rant.

The most interesting statistic they produce is arguably in the introduction. They discuss the risk of fatal accidents while driving drunk. It turns out that you are actually more likely to die if you walk home than if you drive. Walking home is dangerous: you might wander out into the road for example, or, if you’re in Leeds, into the river (sadly people frequently have).

It makes sense that drunk driving is illegal, because you are more likely to take an innocent victim with you, but actually it would be safer to let people drive home. Or, if you are the drunk trying to work out what method of transport to take, the best option would be to take a cab.

While the book is on the subject of vice, it next moves onto prostitution. Prostitution pays comparably well compared to many other professions, but used to be far better paid. The problem: increased competition. These days, pre-martial sex is acceptable, and so you don’t need to pay a woman to have sex with you, you can just go dating instead.

They suggest this has implications for fighting drugs. If you go after the dealers, more will pop up, because the demand exists. Prostitution reduced because demand reduced, and so perhaps the way to deal with drug dealers is to go after the users and reduce the demand. This ignores the complexities of addiction, but could be a good way to think about many other problems society faces.

They also discuss whether child car seats save lives. I blogged about this last month after watching Steve Levitt’s talk at TED.

While on children, they talk about how increased access to television correlates with criminal convictions later in life. This is something I am also reading about in The Village Effect, a book that stresses the importance of face-to-face communication over raising a child in front of the TV.

The book ends with a discussion on climate change. They note that food transport makes up only 11% of carbon emissions. Therefore, buying locally can actually be bad for the environment because large farms are typically more efficient. Rob Lyons talks about the same thing in Panic on a Plate: local farms might be closer, but in third world farms far more is done by hand, as opposed to carbon-polluting machinery.

I am less convinced about their solution for climate change though. They suggest that a technique called Budyko’s blanket could solve the problem. It would be nice if there was a simple solution that we had overlooked. However, a quick check on Wikipedia seems to rule this one out.

SuperFreakonomics

An economist’s guide to parenting

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016 | Family & Parenting, Thoughts

parenting

In the podcast episode An Economist’s Guide to Parenting Stephen Dubner discusses the ROI of putting time into your parenting. How much should you give?

In The Blank Slate Steven Pinker discusses the nature vs nurture argument. He makes the claim that your child’s life success and personality and predominantly determined by generics (50%), social environment (40%) and parenting (10%). Based on twin studies, you find that twins turn out very similar regardless of environment, whereas a similar environment (adoptions) do not homogenise adopted siblings.

This suggests parenting is not that important. Dubner agrees. There is no evidence that extensive extra-curricular activities or culture cramming provide a measurable benefit to your child. If anything, it might do damage as the sacrifices a parent has to make to ferry their child around to all of this nonsense may reduce the quality of the relationship: obsessive parenting makes parents less happy.

This contrasts Malcolm Gladwell’s argument in Outliers in which he argues that a large part of people’s success is a result of the structured activities organised by parents. Though it could be that success is due to the parental time, and Gladwell has simply interpreted this as the structure providing benefit.

Some things do matter, mostly setting an example for your child. For example, if you are a smoker or heavy drinker, your child is more likely to adopt these characteristics too. The other example given is how you treat waiters in a restaurant, which presumably really extends to how you treat other people in general.

The other thing that matters, and seems to matter a lot, is love. The time you spend with your child doesn’t have to be “constructive” as long as it constitutes quality time. So picking an activity you both enjoy is the best way to make this work, and you shouldn’t be afraid to change it if it isn’t. Less structure, more love makes for a happier parent and a more successful child.

Freakonomics Radio

Thursday, July 21st, 2016 | Reviews

freakonomics-radio

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything is a brilliant book by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I won’t dwell too much on the book here, but following its success, Dubner began to produce a radio show called Freakonomics Radio that looked at the hidden side of other things.

I subscribed to the podcast using the Podcast feature of my iOS device. It’s the first time I have used it and so far it is okay. You just add the podcast and it queues up new episodes, and you can also go back through the archives and queue up old episodes. However, it does not seem to download the episodes, or has some performance issues. There is normally a few seconds delay between me clicking play and it starting.

Freakonomics Radio on the over hand, is very good.

The first episode I listened to was on “why are there so many mattress stores in America?”. Other episodes have taken on a diverse range of topics including science, food, self-improvement, economics (obviously) and interviews.

You can find the show at Freakonomics.com.

Is there a paradox of choice?

Saturday, June 11th, 2016 | Science

jars-of-jam

You may have heard of the idea that there can be too much choice. It’s a paradox because we think that more choice is always better. However, in his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz claims that once you have a certain level of choice, more actually makes us unhappy because it raises our expectations. If there are three choices of trainers, we pick one. If there are a hundred choices we agnoise because with such much choice we expect to find a perfect one, and don’t.

He makes a similar case in a TED talk.

A lot of this comes from a famous study about selling jam, conducted by Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar. They noticed that if you offered people six different choices of jam, they bought more than if you offered them 36.

All of this is easy to identify with. However, to muddy the water, a blog post by Freakonomics suggests that it is less clear after all. When looking at real-world datasets it is actually quite difficult to find examples of this working.

They make a similar claim in a YouTube video, pointing out that you cannot generalise one specific study, such as the jam study, and assume it applies everywhere.

How much is too much jam? Perhaps there is an upper limit. However, more research is needed before we can start making generalised rules.

Freakonomics

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010 | Books

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything is a book co-written by Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner. It explores quirks of society and challenge some commonly held ideas about how the world works, providing better explanations.

For example, why do drug dealers most drug dealers live with their mothers? The answer is that they are earning less than they could make at McDonald’s. Drug dealing is a pyramid scheme at the people at the bottom are on less than minimum wage.

The most controversial chapter of the book looks at falling crime rates in New York. This is the shining example of broken window theory, as Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point. Dubner and Levitt show this is nonsense. Other cities in America that did not implement zero-tolerance also experienced this drop in crime. What fits the actual data far better is that it was a result of legalising abortion, which leads to would-be-criminals simply never being born.

freakonomics