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Thankful Thursday XXII – Freakonomics And Thinkers

I just finished reading a book with the provocative title When to Rob a Bank. It was written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the pair who became famous with the book Freakonomics. This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for the Freakonomics pair… and by extension, any books that make people actually think about things and why they are they way they are.

Freakonomics was a 2005 book which became a surprise smash hit, with over four million copies selling in quick time. It looked at a range of social issues and problems, and in some cases turned them on their heads. For instance, it looked at the problem of cheating on school tests and focused on how to catch teachers who helped their kids cheat (which in itself is quite a concept) in order to make their own performance seem better. Among the things they looked for was rooms where children suddenly jumped ahead in their marks one year then reverted back to previous low grades after moving to another class. Most controversially, they put forth the idea that the biggest reason for a sharp drop in violent crime rates in the ’90s wasn’t cities hiring more police, getting them involved more in community events nor tougher jail sentences for criminals but the Roe vs Wade decision in the ’70s which made abortion legal and comparatively easy to access. They hypothesize that many abortions, if not performed, would have led to babies being born to women who already knew they wouldn’t be good parents… drug addicts, ones who hate kids, ones living risky lifestyles etc. In turn these kids wouldn’t be given good supervision or role models and would be likelier to turn to crime at a young age.

Whether you agree with their assumptions or not, they were thought-provoking and interesting, and a great way to start a lively debate at a dull dinner party. When to Rob a Bank is similar but was essentially a compilation of short blogs and articles the pair had written, resulting in a book with far more stories but less in-depth looks at the topics. They tackle things like are doctors over-stating the risks of being overweight, if gun bans actually work, why the U.S. keeps making pennies that cost more than a cent to produce, how the Endangered Species act might work against the interests of the rare animals it’s supposed to protect, and improving your odds in poker. Apparently both writers are avid poker players and they devote an entire chapter to posts on improving your game by logic and math. I think, I must admit I, being a person who plays cards very rarely, got a bit bored with those stories and skipped over many of them. Now, I will say that I didn’t agree with all their assertions or premises, but I did find myself questioning conventional wisdom and at times, my own beliefs. Which is never a bad thing. Questioning those will lead to one of two likely outcomes – finding you were probably wrong, and thus being a bit wiser , or reinforcing one’s existing beliefs. Seems like either is a desirable occurrence and something encouraged by the best teachers, clergymen and even politicians. Beware those who claim to have all the answers and not to question them is my philosophy.

Levitt and Dubner are similar in their writing to another author I like and respect, Malcolm Gladwell. They take problems and dull studies and find ways to make them interesting and relevant to the masses. They also seemed to create a new niche in the publishing industry, books about intellectual topics geared to ordinary people. People who make us think and keep our interest in doing so. I’m thankful for them!

By the way, their book title, When to Rob a Bank? They say “never”. The risk of a person being caught is great and the “haul” most get far smaller than most people imagine.

Thankful Thursday VII – Malcolm Gladwell

A pop psychologist well-known enough to be picked to flog new electric cars on TV. That can only be one person, and this Thursday, I’m thankful for Malcolm Gladwell. For over twenty years the Canadian’s been a bit of an enigma and at times a lightning rod for scholarly critics…but he’s also authored six of the best-selling, and most interesting Non-Fiction books of that time period and hosted a great podcast.

For the unfamiliar, Gladwell rose to prominence in 2000 with his book The Tipping Point. It looked at why some things catch on – Hush Puppies in the ’90s, syphilis in Baltimore around the same time – and other trends peter out quickly. The book topped best sellers lists and soon topped a million copies sold, rather good going for a book on psychology and sociology. A few years later he followed up with the equally well-recieved Blink, which essentially urged people to listen to first instincts and not overthink many decisions. Before long, book store new release sections were full of books trying to take scientific data and models and simplify them for the masses, often complete with Gladwell-like covers (white covers with a simple single image and bold black type) . Four more similar books have followed, most recently Talking to Strangers which looked at how we automatically typecast people and the far-reaching implications which have ranged from Sandra Bland being put in jail where she killed herself after being pulled over by police for dubious reasons to Bernie Madoff being able to swindle dozens of rich and intelligent people out of billions of dollars. His most recent venture is the podcast Revisionist History, which kicks off by telling the story of Elizabeth Thompson, a British painter who briefly rose to great fame in the 19th-Century but was the only female painter given acceptance by the art “society” of the day.

The books, and podcast, are all well-enough written, snappily-paced and just downright interesting enough to make you forget you’re reading what could essentially be entry-level college texts. Why were the Beatles so good? Same reason Wayne Gretzky was in hockey, he tells us in Outliers. I find not only each book, but each chapter fairly fascinating. do I always absolutely agree with him? No. Usually I do, but he sees the world through a different lens than I so sometimes comes up with different conclusions. For instance, in his podcast about Thompson, he connects her difficulties getting other women into the elite arts community to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was voted out of office in 2013 and suggests some kind of conspiracy is in place to allow just one woman into any important office, ever. Given the tumultuous state of politics there as well as here, that only eight years have passed since a woman held the office there and the fact that neighboring New Zealand has a female in charge right now, that seems an exaggeration to say the least. But it does get you thinking about the challenges women have breaking into previously male domains.

I don’t think Malcolm would want me, or any of his readers, to automatically agree with him. I think that he would be happy when people think for themselves and draw their own conclusions… a pretty recipe for life in fact. And for making that popular, making thinking more popular, I thank Mr. Gladwell.

By the way, if you’ve been noticing a number of GM commercials lately touting their new electric cars… yep, that’s Malcolm at the opening.

From Hitler To Drunken College Girls…Only Malcolm Could Make Sense Of It

It’s nice that over time, sitting here typing on my computer, looking out at a Texas suburb, I get to know some of you well enough to feel you’re not a stranger – even if I never met you in real life. And as many of you know, some of my favorite books this century have been from Malcolm Gladwell, a fellow alumni of the University of Toronto, albeit a stranger. But one who’d be a tremendous person to have dinner with, I’m sure.

Gladwell has found his niche making psychology and human nature interesting and combining a number of eminently interesting, but seemingly disparate case studies tie together in million-selling books.  Blink showed us how it can often be useful to believe our first impressions. His mammothly-successful breakthrough The Tipping Point suggested how some things get to be successful and popular – from old-fashioned hipster boots to VD in Baltimore – and other things don’t. His Outliers suggested that to be wildly successful, you need not only talent but a dedication to spend about 10 000 hours honing your craft, be you Wayne Gretzky and your vocation hobby, or the Beatles and your thing… well, being the Beatles. Music!

So, the latest book he wrote, Talking to Strangers, is surprising only to those who don’t know his work. Because those people would surely wonder how anyone could tie together stories about Hitler, ponzi-scheme ripoff artist Bernie Madoff, drunk college girls and midwestern police manuals and make it seem coherent. Which is what Malcolm does this time around. Oh, and did I mention, the war between the Mayans and the Spaniards?

Talking to Strangers does what he does – interesting case stories told well and briskly – loosely tied together.The overall theme is that we, people. as a species, do terribly when having to deal with strangers. We can assume the best of them, and risk the consequences (as thousands did with trusting their savings to Madoff or Olympian girl parents did with the respected Dr Nassar, gymnast doctor to the stars) or assume the worst of them (as police using Kansas City’s old crime-reduction suggestions do) and risk casualties, wrongfully-tarred civilians and worse.

The book is bookended by the story of Sandra Bland, a young woman who was pulled over by a Texas state trooper for making an improper lane change, and ended up dead from her own hand in a Lone Star jail days later. People tended to see it as Bland the victim – Black woman being profiled by racist White cop – or the cop as being vilified – officer pulls over a person and is polite, to begin, but is subject to provocation and verbal obscenity while feeling in danger himself. Gladwell is in the Bland camp, but is observant enough to point out the valid arguments from both… the world is complex, and knowing strangers is difficult. The officer was trained to feel that she was a potential murderer, but she was trying to go about her life and do good. Alas, he doesn’t have any catch-all, solve-all solutions. That’s for the reader to try to descramble in their own brain. An organ under-challenged by most mainstream media these days, so hats off to Malcolm.

Not his best book, probably not even in his top three. But in a world of relationships defined by The Bachelor and power illustrated by late-night tweets from the Oval Office, it might be the most important one yet from him. If you’re a person, and there are people in your life you don’t know … strangers … it’s a book worth your time.