Sunday, March 1, 2009

Freak Like Me

Current reading, recommended: Nudge and Freakonomics. Both very readable for a wide audience. Nudge is more thematic and could have been shorter in that skipping some of the redundant and verbose examples in the middle will not lose the message. Freakonomics left some things unanswered that I was expecting answers for (but didn't write down and will probably never remember). But those were non-fatal flaws in books that are (or should be) popular for a good reason. They both talk about conventional wisdom: when it's good and when it should be turned on its head. They are both fun and playful reads. I highly recommend both for anyone with a curiosity about why people do stuff.

In Nudge, "choice architects" are people who set up decisions for other people. These would be the people who design cafeterias, organ donation programs, health care plans, mortgage lenders, etc... The authors contention is that these choice presentations are almost never neutral so the presenters, the "choice architects" should set them up so the default is the most beneficial for the person making the choice. But equally important, allow a different choice and make sure that choice doesn't have a significantly higher cost. And the less often someone makes this decision, the more work the experts should put into making the 'best' choice the easiest choice. For example, when people get jobs offering 401Ks with matching funds (aka, free money), instead of waiting for employees to sign up and choose funds, sign them up automatically for the withholding to the match limit AND put their funds in a managed fund like "Fidelity 2040". However, have a box on the intake form where if they choose, they can opt out, and then make changing the default investments easy. (That's Fidelity's job, really, and it's easy to change, if not choose, 401K investments.)

Nudge also talks about how people make decisions and the importance of Anchoring and Framing. For anchoring, if you ask your child if they want pizza or chicken noodle soup for dinner, they will likely just choose one unless they had their heart set on sausages or something. But with those Anchoring referents, they are unlikely to insist instead on Cheetos or Red Lobster, which they might have said if you just asked what they wanted for dinner. Framing is about whether you sell whole milk as 4% milkfat or 96% fat free!

Then there's the loss aversion. People hate losing roughly twice as much as they like gaining. I think I'm worse than that. So to balance a $5K loss, you need a $10K gain. Me, I'd probably need $15K. In my case, it makes it twice or thrice as hard to throw or give away things I know I don't need, or even want, than to not bring them home in the first place because I tend to be extremely loss averse. My brother is not. I have a salaried engineering job, he's a commission only salesman. Guess who earned more last year? Guess who is happy with their choice? Both of us.

Freakonomics. Love the slight twist to everything. Thought there were places where they didn't connect all the dots presented as well as they could have. (Leave the extraneous bits out or integrate them better is my advice.) But still. The chapter talking about the klan made my heart clench in my throat, even to think about it. And I'm a little concerned at how gung ho they were about long prison sentences. I really think we need to stop sending so many people to prison for shit they do to themselves without involving other people. I've got more to say on that topic, but not here. But on the whole, there was lots of wacky stuff people do, according to the data, presented in an easily relate-able format.

Current reading, recommended with reservations:

Jessica Andersen's 2nd "Final Prophesy" book, Dawn Keepers. Contemporary paranormal with Mayan mythos, kind of a romance, more SF/Fantasy tradition though in that sense of: and now you are playing level two!

This one had a little too much infodump, a lot of it about the previous Nightkeepers book, for my taste. She still hasn't explained why the people who run a dojo aren't in charge of physical training. And she almost lost me on the heroine being worth anything around page 100, but she recovered the fumble. There are a lot of secondary characters and I'm trying to decide whether I like how their inclusion was handled. I don't need everything (meaning secondary plot lines) tied neatly in a bow at the end of each book, but stuff needs to be stable; I think she mostly accomplished that.

She kept me hooked until near the end when I kind of fizzled in my interest at the climax. If doing simple magic almost drains a character, they can't then go superpower and save the world. They have to start off at least a *little* fresh! Yes, they got the energy from expected places. It was not Deus ex Machina batteries. But for pages and pages, they were on their last gasp of power and somehow still pulled it off. Start 'em off fresh, drain them a bit, *then* throw the big guns in and have them call up the big reserves.

All in all, the main cohort of protagonists were not on top of their game in this book. While I think that was kind of the point - they're new at this and still getting their grounding - it really made me wonder why some of the antagonists were so competent (we didn't quite find out) and just why are we rooting for these guys again? I find as I grow older I'm less interested in superheroes, I think.

Still, It's still refreshing to see a world built around an uncommon mythology, especially when she gets a lot of stuff right. (If you're overly squeamish about blood, beware that the mayans were big into bloodletting.) Plus there are tattoos. The story is mostly engaging. The characters are mostly likeable and somewhat relate-able though it's hard to tell whether you ought to like some of the characters and then they surprise you. I'll read the next one. I recommend the two books, if read in order, and caution that there's a lot of terminology, but don't need to get stuck on it to enjoy the book. I think she's still feeling her way as a fiction writer so I'm inclined to be charitable and hope some of the draging bits improve in future books. I don't mean to damn it with faint praise. It's good but not great, but the series could wind up being a fun ride.

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