Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Report: SuperFreakonomics

I don't generally read a lot of non-fiction books, but I enjoyed Freakonomics a lot, and the follow-up, SuperFreakonomics, did not disappoint.

Unlike some writers, who like to draw lots of conclusions based on sometimes slim or anecdotal evidence (coughMalcolmGladwellcough), Levitt and Dubner love data--the more the better. Their stories concern macroeconomics--the study of complex systems with large populations--and they like to highlight "natural experiments," in which some happenstance holds certain conditions constant while varying others.

For example, they examine the effect of television on children's behavior--specifically, violent crime rates in cities which got broadcast TV at different times during the 1950s:
[D]id the introduction of TV have any discernible effect on a given city’s crime rate?

The answer seems to be yes, indeed. For every extra year a young person was exposed to TV in his first 15 years, we see a 4 percent increase in the number of property- crime arrests later in life and a 2 percent increase in violent- crime arrests. According to our analysis, the total impact of TV on crime in the 1960s was an increase of 50 percent in property crimes and 25 percent in violent crimes.

Why did TV have this dramatic effect?

Our data offer no firm answers. The effect is largest for children who had extra TV exposure from birth to age four. Since most four year-olds weren’t watching violent shows, it’s hard to argue that content was the problem...

You can read the relevant excerpt from that chapter, "Unbelievable Stories About Apathy and Altruism," online at

As you can see above, the book isn't all charts and graphs, though it does include some relevant visual aids. My favorite is the mathematical expression PIMPACT > RIMPACT. You'll have to read all of chapter one to understand why that's so amusing.

And the epilogue, which recounts a totally freaky experiment involving monkeys, is unforgettable and hilarious. I first heard Levitt and Dubner tell that story when they gave a talk at my former employer in 2005, and I wish the video were online so I could share it. You'll just have to settle for reading the book.

ADDENDUM: You can read the complete monkey experiment story online in "Monkey Business" (New York Times Magazine, June 5, 2005).


Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

SnoutCast #2: Old People

Not only do we talk about old people, DeeAnn and I also talk like old people in this podcast. It's a performance. Like improv! As far as you know.

[ Download mp3 - 53MB ]

00:00 - "Old People" GC prototype (Sean & Crissy)
04:23 - discussion of same
10:55 - the origin of "we're not having fun anymore"
12:13 - getting back to the prototype...
17:39 - inside baseball and
19:10 - following up on the 10,000 hour rule from Outliers
20:55 - asshats and gaywads (as seen on Daily Show & Colbert Report)
23:30 - we are not experts; doing the math
31:09 - DASH 2 and trying new things
44:23 - "Old People" Clue recorded live (Sean & Lisa and coed astronomy)
56:23 - The End

You can also hear Jasper-cat yelling in the background every now and then.

Music: instrumentals from "Code Monkey," "A Talk with George," "Mandelbrot Set," and "First of May" by Jonathan Coulton

CKL DeeAnn Jasper

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The ORC Equations

Last weekend, at OryCon 31, I ran two Open Read & Critique (ORC) sessions. I've done writing workshops before, but this was my first experience with the ORC format (called "rogue workshops" in other places).

There were a lot of unknowns this year; the ORCs used to be an unofficial, late-night thing at OryCon, and this was the first time they were scheduled in the afternoon alongside other panels. I think the ORCs went well, and I was impressed by the quality of all the pieces read and everyone's critiques, but I have some ideas for better time management in future programs.

I wrote up my analysis into a four-and-a-half page document, which you can download as a PDF. If you're not inclined to slog through four pages of algebra, I'll sum up:

ORC sessions should be broken into hour-long segments. Sign-up sheets should provide slots for 4 participants and 2 waiting list names in each hour. Readings should be limited to 5 minutes, and individual critiques to 2 minutes (if more than 4 people in the room, 1 minute each). Any extra time can be used for group discussion.

(For the next part, it might help you to picture David Krumholtz standing in front of a whiteboard.)

Here's the formula to determine the time for a single round of critiques, t:

t = R + (n-1)C + D

Where n is the number of participants; R is the time to read a single piece; C is the time for each individual critique; and D is the discussion time at the end, when an author can respond to questions.

So the time T required to complete all critique rounds is:

T = n(R + (n-1)C + D)

Given a time limit T and setting certain constraints on R, C, and D, we can solve for n:

Long story short, we set T=60, R=5, and D=2, and we can fit 4 people into one hour if C=2, and 5 people if C=1. Any less than that and most people won't be able to provide a useful critique; any leftover time can be added to D, since most writers never seem to tire of talking about writing. Q.E.D.

Applying these equations to other writing workshops is left as an exercise for the reader.


Labels: , , ,