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Tag Archives: Freakonomics

Freakonomics Questions Podcast: Too close to home?

ImageHow to Think Like a Freak.

That’s the title of the new Freakonomics book just out this Monday, May 12, and it is also the name of this week’s Podcast. It’s a good show and a good premise. However, as a scientist (well, biologist – but it counts!), I think that calling this a show /book about economics is incorrect. It’s really a show about science. Or at least the application of scientific method to problems that are often not tackled by traditional scientists, but by their more handsomely paid colleagues, economists. Or by their equally unhandsomely paid colleagues, sociologists and psychologists.

It shouldn’t be something I stop to point out, but it is somehow troubling to me to parse science. It probably means more about me than it does about the actual topic to say this though.

Nevertheless, the current episode is a combination Q&A and book promotion. Which is why I need to point out that sometimes it is hardest for us to look critically at the things that are near to us. This is exactly why we are judged by a jury of our peers – people who may be able to relate to us in some way, but who are also not emotionally involved in the crime.

Several things struck me in this episode that I considered writing about. One was the questioner who asked about the current fetishism of bacon. It turned out that the question was examined just as I thought it should be: one part seriously considering the question and one part reading the assumptions and position of the questioner.

I put that one out of my mind. Then there were two questions that brought up the financial motivations of Levitt and Dubner. The first was about whether it might be worthwhile to have a tiered questioning scheme in which listeners could pay money to give their questions higher priority, i.e. the highest tiered questions were guaranteed to be answered on air, while lower tier questions would only be answered if they met other quality standards.

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Levitt

Levitt and Dubner addressed this question well too, saying that it would undermine the quality of the show to do this, while also raising an interesting question about the pricing of these tiers. Would they be priced only to separate the listeners? Or would this actually be meeting some financial goal of the show’s producers.

In the course of the discussion, Levitt said this:

LEVITT: And our podcast is defined by a relationship in which we give it away, and we don’t really do this for money. I’m not sure why we do it, but I don’t think it’s for money. It can’t be for money. And so, to then change the frame that this is about money.

then, backing this up further, when the question about how they could participate in a fundraiser for NPR if this show was not, in some way, about the money:

But that makes me feel bad, we shouldn’t have taken their money. Why would we take their money, we’re just doing this for fun. It feels horrible to take their money.

A second question comes in also questioning the financial motivations of the show’s hosts:

 from Meredith Summers. “Hello, I wonder if it would be at all possible to quantify in financial terms Steven Levitt’s contribution to the University of Chicago? For example, does his fame bring in more students who hope to work with him and learn from him, and is this contribution commensurate with his salary.

This question was considered in a number of interesting ways. First, Levitt made clear that he was paid very well by the University of Chicago, and had nothing to complain about there. (I’m glad to hear this. It always makes me happy to hear about academics doing well. It’s so often the case that academics are disenfranchised from their knowledgable contributions, that it is comforting to know that this does not happen at the best Universities.)

They also spoke about the difference between the way Universities take ownership of inventions (they do) vs literary contributions (they don’t). I expect that this is probably due to the bargaining power of academics at the time that each of these legal questions came up for discussion and the argument that being a professor may not actually drastically help you to write a book, whereas many inventions require the infrastructure that a University supplies). “It reminds you of alcohol versus marijuana in that if you were starting over from scratch there’s no way these two would be so different,” Dubner comments.

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Dubner

But still, the question remained largely unanswered. “Why do the show?”

I think there are several reasons why they do the show. The first, they cover: because it’s fun, and it’s cool to do things that are creative and fun. I would feel the same way.

But the part of the answer that is a little too close to them to either see, or to admit, is that the podcast / radioshow promotes their books. It’s right there in the ‘About’ section of their website. Blah, blah blah, wrote an article. blah, blah, blah, wrote a book. blah, blah. Book sold well. Podcast, blog, etc. etc. were born. Fun, yes. But it all fits together neatly as something they enjoy doing that brings more people in to buy their books so they can spend more time doing what they enjoy doing.

Like the quote that works so well for some people but not others, “do what you love and the money will follow.”

I may be getting a little dark here, but I’m not sure that always works…

Nevertheless, listen to the podcast, buy their books, you’ll love them. They’re filled with good questions and how they can be answered in a scientifically rigorous way. More power to you guys!

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Men just want to get ahead (no this isn’t dirty)

Two experiments; same results

Experiment#1: What’s the least part of a female turkey that is sufficient to arouse a male turkey? (by Carbaugh, Schein and Hale 1962)

Experiment #2: “[what’s] the lower limit to how awful a person could be before men would stop messaging her on an online dating site?” (by Alli Reed, 2014)

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Carbaugh et al. added their research, done at Penn State University, to a surprisingly large amount of previous work analyzing the extent to which a number of birds responded socially and sexually to minimal stimulations. In one paper (Lorenz, 1937), demonstrated that parakeets would respond to a small celluloid ball mimicking the head of another bird. Wood-Gush showed that a stuffed bird in a crouched position was sufficient to excite a young male chicken (1957).

So, naturally, the Carbaugh, et al had to see what parts of the whole, when severed and mounted, would make a male turkey ‘hot’?

Three things stand out to me from this paper:

  1. The images the researchers drew to represent different parts of the birds being used.

Image2. This photo of a turkey sizing up a potential mate

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Ooooo la la

3. That it really only takes a head on a stick

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In a very similar experiment, Alli Reed, writing on Cracked.com, created the worst, most obnoxious personal ad paired with a picture of an attractive woman’s face to see whether the personal information accompanying the ad would do anything to deter men from trying to contact a woman.

ImageI heard about this story during her appearance on this week’s Freakonomics radio podcast. Her personal ad, which you can find published on cracked, portays a young woman with scruples the likes of which Dick Dastardly would find loathsome. She’s looking for a rich man to party with her, taunt homeless people, listen to pop- super-nobody Aaron Carter (this is a link to a fan site – beware), and possibly finance her idea for a matching doggie clothes / iPhone case business (ps – Paris Hilton would probably establish a standing order with you, Alli).Image

Despite this, AaronCarterFan got 150 messages in 24 hours. Go read her article. And you’ll see that human males pretty much have no higher standards than these birds we were just laughing about.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Listening to House of Dreams

Today the midwest got hit by its first winter storm. At least it was the first storm to hit the Kansas City area. It even had a name, Draco – I didn’t know storms like this were named. Because of this storm, I had a lot of time in the car going to Home Depot and back to pick up some building materials to repair the workshop (which looks like it has been neglected for a decade or more).

All this time in the car means a lot of podcast listening. We heard the latest Radiolab, which contained a great lead-in story about Aleksander Gamme’s solo walk to the South Pole and back.

But, the podcast that really touched me on a personal level was from Freakonomics. It was about a family home and how it can feel like another member of the family, a living part of your memories. This podcast took a turn to talk about how the host, Steven Dubner’s, home had gone from a family centerpiece to a swingers’ retreat. But that’s not what intrigued me.

Instead, I got to thinking about memories and the feeling of ‘family.’

When I was a kid, I had some wonderful ‘golden years.’ I don’t know how else to describe them. Our family was close – both geographically and emotionally. We celebrated holidays together, had group birthday parties (because otherwise there would be too many) and vacationed together. These vacations were all coordinated by my grandparents, who rented a beach house in Rehoboth, DE every summer and had everyone down.

We spent the days on the beach and the nights playing cards together around the dinner table. Playing cards was my favorite part. We mostly played a version of solitaire, which oxymoronically, combined the games of innumerable players into one raucous mess. We also played Hearts a lot and would delight in not just winning, but pounding one poor victim mercilessly through the night (usually a younger, weak player).

Then, in 1994, my grandmother died and shockwaves went through our family. I think we all knew that she was the one who coordinated things, but none of us knew just how central she was. When she was gone, the family fractured and drifted apart.

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Hermann Hesse

Years later, I think some things have improved, but we will never be the close unit we once were. Perhaps it was inevitable. As families grow, there are simply more people and the family unit refocuses. I’m reminded of the Hermann Hesse novel, The Journey to the East.

This novel has a story, but the story is not what is important. What is important is “The League’s” spiritual journey. From the Wiki page, “Although at first fun and enlightening, the Journey runs into a crisis in a deep mountain gorge called Morbio Inferiore when Leo, apparently a simple servant, disappears, causing the group to plummet into anxiety and argument.”

Leo, the servant was really the leader. Only no one knew this until he was gone.

I never thought of her as a servant, but I never knew how much a leader she was.

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2012 in Personal Life

 

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