Tag Archives: Stephen Dubner

Singletask, Don’t Multitask – The Jury Really is In!

As I have observed many times, there are themes that crop in multiple books.  And when this happens, I think they hint at true truth.  That is, the kind of truth that is genuinely important, something to pay a lot of attention to.

Here’s one that was reemphasized again this morning.  My colleague Karl Krayer presented his synopsis of The Way We’re Working isn’t Working, the new book by Tony Schwartz.  And the book, with lots of really useful counsel, says this about our multitasking world:

The most surprising drawback of multitasking is the growing evidence that it isn’t even efficient…  Once we’re distracted by something new, we often forget about the original task…  The ultimate consequence of juggling many tasks is not superficiality but rather overload.

There are so many books and articles that are making this point in one way or another.  The point is this:


Singletasking is the need of the hour, not multitasking.

Here are some other quotes to reinforce this now seemingly everywhere-present theme:

From ReWork by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson:
Instead, you should get in the alone zone.  Long stretches of alone time are when you’re most productive.  When you don’t  have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.
During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, e-mail, and meetings.  Just shut up and get to work.  You’ll be surprised how much more you get done.

From The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp:
The irony of multitasking is that it’s exhausting; when you’re doing two or three things simultaneously, you use more energy than the sum of energy required to do each task independently.  You’re also cheating yourself because you’re not doing anything excellently.  You’re compromising your virtuosity.  In the worlds of T. S. Eliot, you’re “distracted from distractions by distractions.”

From Superfreakonomics by Levitt and Dubner:
A person using a computer experiences “cognitive drift” if more than one second elapses between clicking the mouse and seeing new data on the screen.  If ten seconds pass, the person’s mind is somewhere else entirely.

I think the jury is in.  Learn to singletask, really well.  Work with depth and attention and focus on one-thing-at-a-time.

You can leave the multitasking to those who will be left behind by their lack of focus.

What’s Logic Got To Do With It? – Thinking About The Role Of Emotion In The Pursuit Of Persuasion

How many commercials have you seen for Coca-Cola in your lifetime?  Something close to a gazillion (to adapt Forrest Gump’s word).  I’ve seen many of them and the ones for Pepsi, and 7UP, and… But given a choice, I always buy the Dr Pepper product.  (What can I say?, I’m from Texas!  In my youth, it was actual Dr Pepper.  Currently, it’s the Diet Cherry version.  Oh, for my youth back!).

I’m convinced that Coca-Cola (and a host of other companies) would pay you close to that gazillion figure, in cash, tomorrow afternoon, if you could do one thing:  create a commercial that, after one viewing, would get every viewer to buy their product, and only their product, for the rest of his/her life.

But you can’t create that commercial.  I don’t care how creative you are, how brilliant you are, you can’t create that commercial.  Why?  Because persuasion/rhetoric is not a science, it is an art.  It is imprecise, never guaranteed.

For example, Barack Obama was elected President with 52.87% of the popular vote.  That means, after all that campaigning, all those debates, he was unable to persuade some 47.13% of the people to vote for him.  By the way, my favorite illustration of this comes from Nolan Ryan.  Arguably the greatest candidate ever for the Baseball Hall of Fame, he had 5,714 career strikeouts and 7 career no-hitters.  Sandy Koufax, with four, is #2 on that list.  Ryan got 491 votes out of 497 votes cast.  (This was only the second highest percentage in history, at 98.79%.  Tom Seaver beat him with 98.84%, 425 out of 430 votes).

Now, I readily admit that it is an open question as to who the greatest pitcher of all time is.  But did Ryan’s accomplishments, his fame, qualify him to be in baseball’s Hall of Fame?  What idiot could possibly have failed to vote yes?  Yet, six idiots did exactly that.  (I searched, but could not find the quote – but as I remember, Nolan Ryan said something like this:  “I’d just like to find those 6 guys who did not vote for me.”)

According to Aristotle, rhetoric involves discovering and using the available means of persuasion, and are three primary means of persuasion – logosthe logical argument, the content of the argument itself; ethos, the ethical argument:  the quality of, the believability, the character, especially the credibility, of the speaker; and pathos, the emotional argument:  the passion of the speaker, the “I really care about this issue, and you should to” nature of the appeal.

We tend to believe that the “logic” of the argument should win the day.  But it’s not that simple.  And, frequently, the credibility of the speaker is more important than the logic of the argument.  But, even with those two in agreement (logic of argument  + credibility of speaker), the emotional appeal can still trump them both.

These thoughts all flow from my reaction to a short blog post, and then the video (below), from the Freakonomics blog.  I watched the video. It is really, really good.  It is unanswerable.  The logic is perfect.  But – the logic of the argument has not actually won the argument (I suspect it will be a long time before it does). The logic is unassailable.   But, as the ranter says, we won’t take this step because of “sentimental reasons.”

To reject the argument of this speaker is not logical.  It is an emotional rejection.  The subject — should we get rid of the penny?  Of course we should!  But we haven’t yet, and probably will not, anytime soon.

Here’s what Stephen Dubner wrote:

The Best Anti-Penny Rant Ever?
I’ve already used up
too much of your bandwidth complaining about the uselessness of pennies, but allow me to share with you a wonderful vlog rant by John Green on the many, many reasons why the penny (and the nickel, too) should be abolished. He is good.

And here’s the video. It is very, very funny.

Just in case you haven’t heard, Freakonomics: The Movie is on its way…

Just in case you have’t heard, Freakonomics:  The Movie (Six Rogue Filmmakers Explore the Hidden Side of Everything) is on its way…

From the website:

FREAKONOMICS is the highly anticipated film version of the phenomenally bestselling book about incentives-based thinking by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Like the book, the film examines human behavior with provocative and sometimes hilarious case studies, bringing together a dream team of filmmakers responsible for some of the most acclaimed and entertaining documentaries in recent years: Academy Award® winner Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Casino Jack and the United States of Money), Academy Award® nominees Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp), Academy Award® nominee Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) and Seth Gordon (The King of Kong).

Watch the trailer here.

Yes, I have presented both Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics at the First Friday Book Synopsis.  You can purchase these presentations, with handout + audio, at our companion website, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.

Now, this is an endorsement of a book! — Levitt loves Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, as does Dubner

The Freakonomics/Superfreakonomics guys really like Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto.  (I will be presenting a synopsis of this at the April First Friday Book Synopsis).

Here’s Levitt…

If there is one topic that I have no natural affinity for, it is checklists. I don’t use checklists. I’m not interested in checklists.

Yet, against all odds, I read Atul Gawande’s new book about checklists, The Checklist Manifesto in one sitting yesterday, which is an amazing tribute to the book that Gawande has crafted. Not only is the book loaded with fascinating stories, but it honestly changed the way I think about the world. It is the best book I’ve read in ages.

But Dubner is not too confident that the checklist will be adequately adopted and implemented, because there is no money to be made on such a “free” solution to a very real problem.

What a sad and discouraging dilemma…

Superfreakonomics and the Parable of the Horse Manure — (There is So Much I Don’t Know)

One of my great embarrassments is that there is so much that I do not know.  There’s much that I don’t know that it’s ok that I don’t know, and then there’s more that I don’t know that I should know — but I don’t.  That’s the embarrassing part.

Take the subject of horse dung.  (“Dung” is one of the two words word used by the Superfreakonomics authors; the other is “manure”).  It turns out that horse dung was the crisis of all crises.  In Superfreakonomics, they tell the story of this crisis.  The New Yorker review of this book by Elizabeth Kolbert tells us that:
This story—call it the Parable of Horseshit—has been told many times, with varying aims. The latest iteration is offered by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, in their new book, “SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.”

Well, it may have been told many times, but I had not read it – or remembered it if I had.  (I don’t know which is worse – not knowing, or not remembering if I once knew it).

It was a whopper of a problem.  Everything was transported by horse-drawn vehicles of one kind or another – people, goods, food – everything.  In cities like New York, the horse dung began to: stink, pile up, overwhelm.  (Read The New Yorker article – the description is pretty awful).

Here’s the book’s description of the problem:
The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day.  With 200,000 horses (in New York), that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure.  A day.  Where did it go?

When there were fewer horses, there was a workable solution.  Farmers would pay for the manure, than haul it off to the farm.  As the problem grew, the farmers could get it for free.  But finally, there was simply too much of the stuff – way too much of the stuff.  And it was a world-wide problem.  Again from The New Yorker article:
in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure.


In Superfreakonomics, the authors tell:
In 1898, New York hosted the first International urban planning conference.  The agenda was dominated by horse manure, because cities around the world were experiencing the same crisis.  But no solution could be found.  “Stumped by the crisis,” writes Eric Morris, “the urban planning conference declared its work fruitless and broke up in three days instead of the scheduled ten.”  The world had seemingly reached the point where its largest cities could not survive without the horse but couldn’t survive it either.
And then the problem vanished.

You know, of course, the solution.  It was not some government program — it was the new-fangled horseless vehicle.

Now, there is a lesson in this for all of us.  Problems are real.  And serious.  And must be taken quite seriously.  We should search diligently for solutions.  But we never quite know what the solution will be, and then we don’t always know what the next problem will be.

The solution to the horse manure problem was a technological solution – that came seemingly out of nowhere.

The Superfreakonomics guys argue in this book that there will be more unexpected and certainly unusual solutions to new problems.  Their suggested approach to global warming is creating quite a furor, with all sorts of people condemning their book as wrong, inaccurate, unrealistic…  (Their solution is to create some hefty “artificial volcanoes” spewing out volcanic like substance into the atmosphere, which will cool the planet.  Their reason? – conservation, going green, will not do the job. The problem is too big, and it’s too late, for that kind of solution).

Here’s The New Yorker’s concluding remarks, denouncing the book:
To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that “SuperFreakonomics” takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness.

They may be right to condemn the book’s suggested solutions.  But I have this to say.  Pay attention to the deeper issue.  Forget their specific proposed solution; instead look at the lesson.  Yesterday’s problems that were completely overwhelming were solved, in most unexpected ways.  And today’s problems will bring the same unexpected solutions.  (At least, I hope they do).  And then, sad to say, there will be another problem looming right before our eyes.

Superfreakonomics reminds us that innovation is an absolute necessity.  That is a recurring theme in business books, and on this blog, for sure.


I will be presenting my synopsis of Superfreakonomics at the December First Friday Book Synopsis.  Register here.

The Freakonomics guys are back at it — with Superfreakonomics

FreakonomicsThe Freakonomics guys are back at it.

In their first book, Freakonomics:  A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, the economist and journalist duo of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner made quite a splash with a whole new set of questions, and a new way of looking at many things…  Here’s an excerpt:

As Levitt sees it, economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions.  His particular gift is the ability to ask such questions.  For instance, if drug dealers make so much money, why do they still live with their mothers?  Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?  What really caused crime rates to plunge during the last decade?…  And how does a homeless man in tattered clothing afford $50.00 headphones?
Levitt’s underlying belief:  the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and – if the right questions are asked – is even more intriguing than we think.  All it takes is a new way of looking.
Experts are human, and humans respond to incentives.  How any given expert treats you, therefore, will depend on how that expert’s incentives are set up.

They are at it again in their new book: SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.  It has gotten mixed reviews, with more than a few questions about their global warming/cooling section, but it is a big best seller.  Volume 1 makes many interested to read volume 2.Superfreakonomics

I will be reading it this month, and presenting it at the December First Friday Book Synopsis.  I’ll let you know what I think.  I hope you will mark it on your calendar (December 4).