Saturday, December 12, 2009

Freakonomics: Come Fly With Me

Didja ever wonder ... how planes stay up in the air? I do, every time I board one, for as long as I'm aloft. I've already been given the explanation, repeatedly: It doesn't really help. Thanks anyway.

What does help?

Two things: Martinis and airport books.

Last weekend, we headed down to San Francisco to take care of some minor business, and to check out the King Tut exhibit at the DeYoung Museum. Last year, when my daughter dressed as Cleopatra for Halloween, I taught her the words to Steve Martin's King Tut song, and believe me, it's as funny now as it was in 1979, especially if you're nine. I was going to pick up a copy of The Murder of King Tut to read on the plane, but was so busy I forgot, and they didn't have it at the airport. 

What they did have was Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, and since it's one of those books I keep hearing about, I idly picked up a copy, even though I normally avoid books on topics end in "-omics."

I flipped to the chapter called "A Roshonda by Any Other Name," because I love reading about baby names, and I laughed out loud at some of the statistical name lists:
  • "The 20 White Girl Names That Best Signify Low Education Parents." Yes, I read that one first and then breathed a sigh of relief. For the record, I found my daughter's name on the list of "Most Common White Girl Names Among High-Education Parents," and I wasn't terribly happy about that either, because although I consider myself to be relatively well-educated, I don't like being called "common."
  • "The 20 White Boy Names That Best Signify High-Education Parents." I couldn't even hazard a guess at how to pronounce many of these names. I was also baffled to discover that  from a statistical standpoint, naming your son after a cheap Korean car likely indicates you are highly educated, BUT naming your daughter after a luxury German car likely signifies the very opposite.
You see what I mean? I love this stuff. I bought the book. I read it on the plane. I absolutely understand why this book has been so popular: it's chock full of entertaining analyses of oddball things that ordinary people can relate to. If drug dealing is so lucrative, why do so many drug dealers live with their mothers? Do teachers cheat on tests?

The chapter that intrigued me most concerned an analysis by a bagel seller on how honest people really are. I can't tell you how many times I've gone into a store and bought something and realized,  "I don't really have to get on line and pay for this. There is literally nothing stopping me from walking out the door with item. No one is watching, there's no security system, nothing." I never do it and never would, of course, but I always wonder how many other people would.

The answer: 87% of people are basically honest, and he arrives at this conclusion by citing the research done by a bagel seller who set up his business completely on the honor system: delivered bagels to offices with a collection jar with a requested price. After a number of years, that was the result: 87% paid for their bagels. There is some interesting discussion of the variability around that number (executives were less likely to pay, for example) - but the result is heartening, over all.

I could go on and on but I'd spoil the book for you. After all the whining I've done about my book choices recently, it was nice to find a quick, fun read that made me feel slightly smarter (if also more common).

21 books read so far, 29 more to go!


  1. I love that book, there is a freakonimcs opinion blog on the NY Times site.

  2. Sounds like a fun, fascinating boook. I'll look at it again the next time I'm out and about!

  3. I think I'll have to check this one out! Thanks!

    Just stopping by to say Happy VGNO for last week's VGNO....too many things going on this time of year. Holiday preparations, work, school party...yada, yada, yada! Hope you're enjoying the holidays!


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