Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Superfreakonomics" by Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner - Book Review

Recently finished "Superfreakonomics" by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and found it to be a fast read... with some very interesting stuff.

As the follow up to the 2005 book "Freakonomics", "Superfreakonomics" contained more viewpoints from the economist authors. Basic premise of each is the usage of raw data and actual experience to investigate various and sundry aspects of the world. That's not a very clear explanation, but frankly, it's tough to describe well what Levitt and Dubner write about.

The authors themselves describe "Freakonomics" as only having a unified theme if you consider the idea that "people respond to incentives" as qualifying as a unified theme. If that's not weighty enough as a common denominator, then the original book simply needs to be enjoyed based on it's stories... of how people name their kids, how drug dealers run businesses, and how abortion impacts crime rates.

"Superfreakonics" carries this same data and experience based investigation forward to topics in the first few chapters like walking drunk, how high end prostitutes prosper and why suicide bombers should life insurance. I found these discussions somewhat interesting, but enjoyed more the second half of the book.

This fascinating portion of the book began with chapter 4 and three different topics covered...

- How over a century ago, the simple fix of washing hands saved the lives of countless new mothers and babies... a full decade prior to germ theory being accepted.
- The relative safety benefits (there, but not to the degree one would think) of kids using car seats as opposed to regular belts in the back seat.
- Concept of using what amounts to basically floating inner tubes in targeted areas of the ocean to prevent hurricanes from forming.

Chapter 5 followed up on this idea of preventing hurricanes to look at another "natural phenomenon"... global warming. Levitt and Dubner discuss in depth the company Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, WA... led by ex-Microsoft genius type Nathan Myhrvold. The company works on a lot of cutting edge science and this particular discussion (along with the hurricane / inner tube idea also from them) is around the idea of "geoengineering" or having an actual man-made alteration to the environment.

It's best to just read the section to fully understand it (or, somewhat fully), but the concept in relation to global warming from Intellectual Ventures is that we don't know for sure that global warming will doom the planet, but if that's where it's headed, we need to do more than conserve and use less energy to reverse course. Specific geoengineering based solutions from Intellectual Ventures range from producing additional clouds over the ocean to pumping sulfer dioxide into the stratosphere.

If "Freakonomics" is about how people respond to incentives, I'd say the most interesting portions of "Superfreakonomics" are based in two things... the same response to incentives and the idea of simple solutions.

One of the fundamental reasons Myhrvold and company feel conservation wouldn't do a lot is around incentivized behavior. If either a person or country converses or cuts back, it will help all, but not necessarily help them. In terms of simple solutions, both this idea of geoengineering and washing of hands is simple (geoengineering may not seem simple, but as Myhrvold describes it, it's could be relatively low cost)... and yet would require shifts in attitudes and behavior to be fully adopted.

Whether someone agrees with Levitt, Dubner, Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures or not... it's interesting stuff to think about.

All in all, that's how I felt about "Superfreakonomics"... had some not so great, but some really interesting things (and was a fast read).