Just in case you have’t heard, Freakonomics: The Movie (Six Rogue Filmmakers Explore the Hidden Side of Everything) is on its way…
From the website:
FREAKONOMICS is the highly anticipated film version of the phenomenally bestselling book about incentives-based thinking by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Like the book, the film examines human behavior with provocative and sometimes hilarious case studies, bringing together a dream team of filmmakers responsible for some of the most acclaimed and entertaining documentaries in recent years: Academy Award® winner Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Casino Jack and the United States of Money), Academy Award® nominees Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp), Academy Award® nominee Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) and Seth Gordon (The King of Kong).
Watch the trailer here.
Yes, I have presented both Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics at the First Friday Book Synopsis. You can purchase these presentations, with handout + audio, at our companion website, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.
If there is one topic that I have no natural affinity for, it is checklists. I don’t use checklists. I’m not interested in checklists.
Yet, against all odds, I read Atul Gawande’s new book about checklists, The Checklist Manifesto in one sitting yesterday, which is an amazing tribute to the book that Gawande has crafted. Not only is the book loaded with fascinating stories, but it honestly changed the way I think about the world. It is the best book I’ve read in ages.
But Dubner is not too confident that the checklist will be adequately adopted and implemented, because there is no money to be made on such a “free” solution to a very real problem.
What a sad and discouraging dilemma…
Newsweek has a great series of short articles on the top 10 new thought leaders. I read about this on Twitter from Guy Kawasaki. He wanted us all to read about Steve Jobs by the Fake Steve Jobs. Yes, Kawasaki is correct – it is priceless. And Kim Kardashian wrote the piece about Twitter.
But I especially liked this piece about Malcolm Gladwell, written by the two Steves, the Freakonomics guys.
Lightning doesn’t strike twice—it strikes three times. Or at least it did in the case of Malcolm Gladwell, the man who singlehandedly invented a genre of nonfiction that has hatched a thousand followers. His first book, The Tipping Point, took a very simple idea—that “little things can make a big difference”—and cobbled together a great variety of stories, all related with care and flair, to argue the validity of that idea. Using the same crazy-quilt architecture, he followed with Blink, which explored the science of first impressions, and Outliers, which limned the secrets of successful people. With each book he intrigued us, challenged us, charmed us, and, most of all, engaged us. His taste is impeccable; he may be the greatest storyteller alive. He can make us care, deeply, about a subject as apparently banal as ketchup. What is his secret? It may be his devout embrace of the soft sell, the antithesis of the chest-thumping triumphalism that marks most business books. “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade,” he declares in the preface to What the Dog Saw, a new collection of his New Yorker articles. “It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.”
The fact is that it’s Gladwell’s head we seem most interested in peeking inside. If you don’t enjoy reading him, you probably don’t enjoy reading very much at all.
One of my great embarrassments is that there is so much that I do not know. There’s much that I don’t know that it’s ok that I don’t know, and then there’s more that I don’t know that I should know — but I don’t. That’s the embarrassing part.
Take the subject of horse dung. (“Dung” is one of the two words word used by the Superfreakonomics authors; the other is “manure”). It turns out that horse dung was the crisis of all crises. In Superfreakonomics, they tell the story of this crisis. The New Yorker review of this book by Elizabeth Kolbert tells us that:
This story—call it the Parable of Horseshit—has been told many times, with varying aims. The latest iteration is offered by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, in their new book, “SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.”
Well, it may have been told many times, but I had not read it – or remembered it if I had. (I don’t know which is worse – not knowing, or not remembering if I once knew it).
It was a whopper of a problem. Everything was transported by horse-drawn vehicles of one kind or another – people, goods, food – everything. In cities like New York, the horse dung began to: stink, pile up, overwhelm. (Read The New Yorker article – the description is pretty awful).
Here’s the book’s description of the problem:
The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day. With 200,000 horses (in New York), that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure. A day. Where did it go?
When there were fewer horses, there was a workable solution. Farmers would pay for the manure, than haul it off to the farm. As the problem grew, the farmers could get it for free. But finally, there was simply too much of the stuff – way too much of the stuff. And it was a world-wide problem. Again from The New Yorker article:
in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure.
In Superfreakonomics, the authors tell:
In 1898, New York hosted the first International urban planning conference. The agenda was dominated by horse manure, because cities around the world were experiencing the same crisis. But no solution could be found. “Stumped by the crisis,” writes Eric Morris, “the urban planning conference declared its work fruitless and broke up in three days instead of the scheduled ten.” The world had seemingly reached the point where its largest cities could not survive without the horse but couldn’t survive it either.
And then the problem vanished.
You know, of course, the solution. It was not some government program — it was the new-fangled horseless vehicle.
Now, there is a lesson in this for all of us. Problems are real. And serious. And must be taken quite seriously. We should search diligently for solutions. But we never quite know what the solution will be, and then we don’t always know what the next problem will be.
The solution to the horse manure problem was a technological solution – that came seemingly out of nowhere.
The Superfreakonomics guys argue in this book that there will be more unexpected and certainly unusual solutions to new problems. Their suggested approach to global warming is creating quite a furor, with all sorts of people condemning their book as wrong, inaccurate, unrealistic… (Their solution is to create some hefty “artificial volcanoes” spewing out volcanic like substance into the atmosphere, which will cool the planet. Their reason? – conservation, going green, will not do the job. The problem is too big, and it’s too late, for that kind of solution).
Here’s The New Yorker’s concluding remarks, denouncing the book:
To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that “SuperFreakonomics” takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness.
They may be right to condemn the book’s suggested solutions. But I have this to say. Pay attention to the deeper issue. Forget their specific proposed solution; instead look at the lesson. Yesterday’s problems that were completely overwhelming were solved, in most unexpected ways. And today’s problems will bring the same unexpected solutions. (At least, I hope they do). And then, sad to say, there will be another problem looming right before our eyes.
Superfreakonomics reminds us that innovation is an absolute necessity. That is a recurring theme in business books, and on this blog, for sure.
I will be presenting my synopsis of Superfreakonomics at the December First Friday Book Synopsis. Register here.
The Freakonomics guys are back at it.
In their first book, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, the economist and journalist duo of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner made quite a splash with a whole new set of questions, and a new way of looking at many things… Here’s an excerpt:
As Levitt sees it, economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions. His particular gift is the ability to ask such questions. For instance, if drug dealers make so much money, why do they still live with their mothers? Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What really caused crime rates to plunge during the last decade?… And how does a homeless man in tattered clothing afford $50.00 headphones?
Levitt’s underlying belief: the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and – if the right questions are asked – is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking.
Experts are human, and humans respond to incentives. How any given expert treats you, therefore, will depend on how that expert’s incentives are set up.
They are at it again in their new book: SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. It has gotten mixed reviews, with more than a few questions about their global warming/cooling section, but it is a big best seller. Volume 1 makes many interested to read volume 2.
I will be reading it this month, and presenting it at the December First Friday Book Synopsis. I’ll let you know what I think. I hope you will mark it on your calendar (December 4).
The set up:
This morning, Andrew Sullivan, who blogs on one of the The Atlantic blogs, wrote a post entitled Bipartisan Book Club. It was a discussion regarding economics. Someone from the conservative end of the spectrum was asking if there were books by competent folks that he could read to give him the other side, to “change his mind” (my words), and this person, Tony Woodlief (I’m sorry – I do not know him or his work) wrote: This got me wondering what books thoughtful leftists and small-c conservatives/small-l libertarians might recommend to one another.
Here’s the key quote from Woodlief from his blog post If only these people would read…:
So, here’s what I’m asking. If you are a leftist, what three books do you believe would best persuade thoughtful people who disagree with you that they are in error? And if you are a conservative or libertarian, what three books do you recommend to thoughtful leftists? In each case, assume the reader is intelligent and educated. Assume as well that he has a life, which means you probably shouldn’t roll up in here with Mises’s Human Action. Unless you really want to.
Andrew then linked to another The Atlantic blogger, Megan McArdle, and her post Three Books to Change Your Mind, in which she made three recommendations for book titles.
I think this is an interesting exchange, but I write this not to enter this particular partisan discussion re. the pursuit of information about economic viewpoint and validity. I write to ask a more simple question: do we actually ever read anything to change our minds?
I think not – certainly, not often. To read anything for the purpose of changing our minds means that we do so with an open mind. And we have very many closed minds today.
I doubt that many conservatives have actually read Paul Krugman or Al Franken in order to change their minds. And I doubt that many progressives have read Ann Coulter or Glenn Beck in order to change their minds. Those books are bought and read by book buyers to reinforce their own viewpoints — to get affirmation for and thus feel good about their own viewpoints. And, by the way, I confess to this myself. You will never find me reading an Ann Coulter book.
But, I also confess that I have read business books from authors that I do not agree with – either going in, or coming out of the read. And yet, there have been times when I have been impressed, and I’ve even partially (or a time or two, fully) changed my thinking after reading some books by authors that I was prone to disagree with from the get-go.
But… why do we read books? Why do you read books? I think we read books for these, among others reasons:
1. We read books to learn – something new. Many of the books I have read and presented in the last decade plus have provided such newness to me. I don’t think I will ever forget the thoughts I had while reading Freakonomics. I had, on page after page, the impression that “I’ve never thought about that before.” That is a fun feelling for me, one that I seek, one that I love. Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything fits into that category. (warning: short = 560 pages. That man needs a dictionary!)
2. We read books to remind us of what we do know, but may not always put into practice – books to reinforce and expand our thinking and acting/behaving. This happens with a lot of business books. It is almost impossible to disagree with practically any book about customer service. We “know” what to do — but we do not do it. Do all companies provide good customer service? I – don’t – think – so!
3. We read books to change our minds. We should read these more often. But we don’t. We are pretty proud of our minds just as they are. I suspect that we all (me included!) need to read more books with this intent in mind.
4. We read books to be entertained (even while we learn). Even serious, nonfiction books. I get actual pleasure from reading a well-written book, and I am especially appreciative of good story telling. Malcolm Gladwell is currently at the top of my list for such writing, and I still love David Halberstam for the same reason. The old phrase for such writing is “page turner,” and a well-written nonfiction book can provide this as well as any good novel.
Of course, I am leaving novels out of this discussion. We read those for another whole set of reasons…
• NEW BOOK ALERT! — The authors of Freakonomics are coming out with SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance in three days. Yes, I plan to read it – soon.
If you never read their first, Freakonomics, you can order my synopiss, with audio + handout, at our companion web site 15minutebusinessbooks.com.