Skip to main content

When To Rob a Bank - Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner ****

After a certain amount of disappointment caused by the previous Freaknomics inspired book, Think Like a Freak, I was prepared to find the latest equally disappointing. After all, the authors admit this is just a transcription of parts of their blog. In economics terms, as they point out, this is the equivalent of buying bottled water - paying money for something you can get for free. However they do claim to have culled the best from their blog, so you don't have to, which is a useful service.

Like the huge successful Freakonomics and its successors, the blog is all about taking the tools of economics and statistics and using them in everyday life. Only here the uses are less thought through. Where they might have done a lot of work to get a piece together for one of the main books, here it's usually just a quick thought, without in-depth research attached. However despite this - and arguably sometimes because of this - a good number of the entries are thought provoking, challenging, fun or all three. You'll find everything from a debate with a number of experts on what you should do with $10 in your pocket when passing a drunken beggar and hotdog stall to an idea to 'fix' the UK health service (apparently David Cameron wasn't impressed) and some surprising considerations on what is and isn't good for the environment. Not to mention why most people get the answer totally wrong to 'why has consumption of shrimp gone up'... and, of course, the title question of the book.

Sometimes you do feel that they are just setting out to be provocative without any great reason to be - for example in the items on terrorism. (Though they do underline the important point that most security measures are for show, not to do the job.) Elsewhere, while what they have is an interesting theoretical solution to a problem, it's usually a classic example of economists not understanding psychology. Even though they make several references to behavioural economics, this is mostly classical economics with its undying belief in markets and assumption that we behave as homo economicus. This comes through, for example, in that UK health service 'fix', which is quite logical, but doesn't take any account of the psychology of the British attitude to healthcare free at the point of source.

For me, the biggest problem is the sport section, which I pretty much had to skip. Both participants seem obsessed with sport, and specifically with America's very parochial domestic sports, which to anyone outside of the country are likely to be as dull as all the entries on poker will be to non-gamblers. It was also quite sweet that Levitt and Dubner, for all their efforts at putting logic and numbers to the fore, couldn't overcome the US obsession with guns - so in various entries trying to see how it might be possible to reduce deaths and injuries by firearms, there is no mention of what the rest of the world sees as the blindingly obvious - get rid of the guns. Duh.

Despite the extremely boring sports bit and the gun-blindness, there is plenty to enjoy, so it really wasn't a problem. And if you get to the end and think 'I need more', you can always head over to the blog and get your fill in an all-you-can-eat Freakobuffet. Excellent!


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …