Skip to main content

Think Like a Freak – Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner ***

I loved Freakonomics and its sequel, so was expecting more of the same here, but Think Like a Freak is a very different book and suffers by comparison. (To be honest it doesn’t belong on this site as it is far less of a popular maths book than the other two, but I’ve kept it in for consistency.)
The thing that absolutely blew everyone away with the earlier books was the absolute string of superb eye-opening stories, taking a sideways look at a problem using statistics and psychology (it wasn’t really economics, but it worked as a title). Perhaps the definitive example was the idea that crime rates had fallen as a result of increased availability of abortions some years earlier. In this book, though, theFreakonomics authors set out to teach us their methodology and, by comparison it’s a bit dull.
What we get is often ittle more than a collection of management consultancy platitudes like ‘thinking small is powerful’ and ‘it’s good to quit’, because in the end the special thing about the Freakonomics approach was not the basic tools, which are two a penny, but the way the authors employed them. Occasionally we do get a great little story – I particularly love the exploration of how to do better in football penalty shootouts – but there just aren’t enough of them, specifically not enough really surprising, ‘Wow!’ stories like the ones that fill the previous books. The authors really should have taken their own advice when they say the most powerful form of persuasion they know is to use stories. We need more great stories, guys!
I would also pick up on another point they made. When talking about the benefits of quitting (where appropriate) they say ‘Should we take our own advice and think about  quitting? After three Freakonomics books, can we possibly have more to say – and will anyone care?’ The answer is yes, and no. ‘Yes’, quit doing this kind of book – but ‘no’ don’t give up and write us another Freakonomics if you can, as we will be ready to lap up more of those mind-bending ideas.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…