Recommended Reading

A few weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Steven Levitt speak to a gathering of UC alumni on the subject of his new book. Reviews and insights on Freakonomics abound, so I won't bother to say much other than while I recommend taking the weekend afternoon required to read through it all, it was sorely lacking in the part that interests me most: the process Levitt goes through to find/investigate subjects.

In addition to the talk being entertaining and engaging (not a frequent characteristic for economists) in general, I was particularly caught by a simple comment Levitt made at the very start of his presentation. Specifically he said that he dislikes using the word "rational" to define actors, since it seems to carry with it baggage that simply gets in the way of the discussion. In its stead, he suggested the term "optimizing". Perhaps this is already orthodoxy in a world in which I don't participate, but I find that I like it, at least as much as "rationality".

The odd nature of the word is well identified in a book I picked up while in transit from Texas this weekend, and heartily recommend: Everything And More: A Compact History of ∞:

It was always around that same time t every morning, and Mr. Chicken had figured out that t(man + sack) = food, and thus was confidently doing his warmup-pecks on that last Sunday morning when the hired man suddenly reached out and grabbed Mr. Chicken and in one smooth motion wrung his neck and put him in a burlap sack and bore him off to the kitchen. Memories like this tend to remain quite vivid, if you have any. But with the thrust, lying here, being that Mr. Chicken appears now to have been correct -- according to the Principle of Induction -- in expecting nothing but breakfast from that (n + 1)th appearance of man + sack at t. Something about the fact that Mr. Chicken not only didn't suspect a thing but appears to have been wholly justified in not suspecting a thing -- this seems concretely creepy and upsetting.


For instance, we know that in a certain number of cases every year cars suddenly veer across the centerline into oncoming traffic and crash head-on into people who were driving along not expecting to get killed; and thus we also know, on some level, that whatever confidence lets us drive on two-way roads is not 100% rationally justified by the laws of statistical probability. And yet 'rational justification' might not apply here. It might be more the fact that, if you cannot believe your car won't suddenly get crashed into out of nowhere, you just can't drive, and thus that your need/desire to be able to drive functions as a kind of 'justification' for your confidence.

IYI Depending on mood/time, it might strike you as interesting that people who cannot summon this strange faith in principles that cannot be rationally justified, and so cannot fly, are commonly referred to as having an 'irrational fear' of flying.

David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite contemporary authors, but I will concede that this book is much more technical than his past essays. The care he takes to explain the enormity of the effort to pin down the precise nature of ∞ makes the effort of reading the book entirely worthwhile.

Also, in case you're a fan of these "microhistories" as they've come to be called, I would recommend you towards Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (clean, enjoyable prose; compelling description of the difficulties and history of the idea, though perhaps too light in technical detail for some) and away from A Tour of the Calculus (Berlinski's apparent desperation to be considered apart from the common idea of a mathematician as someone entirely unable to converse with non-mathematicians makes the writing almost painfully over-adorned with pointless flourishes and bad analogies).


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This page contains a single entry by published on May 31, 2005 12:02 PM.

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