Superfreakonomics notes

A while ago I bought Levitt & Dubner’s Superfreakonomics – I think in Maastricht’s Dominicanen bookstore (a must-visit if you like bookstores) and I finally got around to reading it last month because I wanted a change after re-reading the massive and epic War and Peace. It is thoroughly entertaining, and very informative at times. I have included some quotes below that have gone straight to my digital commonplace book.

[On horse wagons in cities, finally shattering any romantic illusions I may have had about living 100 years ago]: “Horse-drawn wagons clogged the streets terribly, and when a horse broke down, it was often put to death on the spot… The noise from iron wagon wheels and horseshoes was so disturbing – it purportedly caused widespread nervous disorders – that some cities banned horse traffic on the streets around hospitals and other sensitive areas. And it was frighteningly easy to be struck down by a horse or wagon, neither of which is as easy to control as they appear in the movies, especially on slick, crowded city streets… A New Yorker was nearly twice as likely to die from a horse accident in 1900 than from a car accident today (there are unfortunately no statistics available on drunk horse-drivers, but we can assume the number would be menacingly high). Worst of all was the dung. The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day. With 200,000 horses, that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure. A day. Where did it go?… In vacant lots, horse manure was piled as high as sixty feet. It lined city streets like banks of snow. In the summertime, it stank to the heavens; when the rains came, a soupy stream of horse manure flooded the crosswalks and into people’s basements. Today, when you admire old New York brownstones and their elegant stoops, rising from the street level to the second-story parlor, keep in mind that this was a design necessity, allowing a horseowner to rise above the sea of horse manure [personal note: yep, illusions shattered]… No one at the time was worried about global warming, but if they had been, the horse would have been Public Enemy #1, for its manure emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas… The horse was kicked to the curb by the electric streetcar and the automobile, both of which were extravagantly cleaner and far more efficient… Cities around the world were able to take a deep breath – without holding their noses at last – and resume their march of progress.”

Side note: I wonder how many of those epic shows like Game of Thrones have issues with horse manure. Or what they do with it after. Or how many times Kit Harington accidentally stepped into horse manure during the filming of The Battle of the Bastards. These are the questions people should be asking.

[On how schoolchildren are an unlikely victim of the feminist revolution]: “As more girls went off to college, more women emerged ready to join the workforce, especially in the desirable professions that had been largely off-limits: law, medicine, business, finance, and so on. These demanding, competitive professions offered high wages and attracted the best and brightest women available. No doubt many of these women would have become schoolteachers had they been born a generation earlier. But they didn’t. As a consequence, the schoolteacher corps began to experience a brain drain.”

Side note: the governesses’ corps probably too. Times change. Finland’s only hiring people with master’s degrees, so that might be a solution?

[On why professional athletes are likely to be born in the beginning of the year]:  “If you visit a locker room of a world-class soccer team early in the calendar year, you are more likely to interrupt a birthday celebration than if you arrive later in the year… Most elite athletes begin playing their sports when they are quite young. Since youth sports are organised by age, the leagues naturally impose a cut-off birthdate. The youth soccer leagues in Europe, like many such leagues, use December 31 as the cut-off date… Year after year, the bigger boys (usually born earlier in the year) are selected, encouraged, and given feedback and playing time, while boys [born later in the year] eventually fall away. This ‘relative-age effect’, as it has come to be known, is so strong in many sports that its advantages last all the way through to the professional ranks.”

Side note: I tested this with FC Barcelona’s first team because I will take any chance I get to ‘accidentally’ come across Sergi Roberto’s face. Shameless, I know. Born in the first four months: 11 plus 2 youngsters (Ter Stegen, Piqué, Rakitic, Turan, Suarez, Neymar, Rafinha, Bravo, Alba, dear Roberto, Masip | youngsters: Samper, Denis Suárez) , born in the middle four months: 6 plus 2 youngsters (Douglas, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Mascherano, Vidal | Digne, Gomez), born in the final four months: 3 plus 1 youngster (Munir, Vermaelen, Mathieu | Umtiti). Some of the club’s greatest legends such as Puyol, Xavi, Guardiola, Cruyff, Valdes, Ronaldinho, Rexach and R. Koeman were also born in the first four months of the year. Yeah, I’m convinced.

“Mastery arrives through what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice”. Deliberate practice has three key components: setting specific goals; obtaining immediate feedback; and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome”. The people who become excellent at a given thing aren’t necessarily the same ones who seemed to be ‘gifted’ at a young age. This suggests that when it comes to choosing a life path, people should do what they love – yes, your nana told you this too – because if you don’t love what you’re doing, you are unlikely to work hard to become very good at it.” [10,ooo hours of practice anyone?]

[I never knew this about monkeys]: “Then, out of the corner of his eye, Chen saw something remarkable. One monkey, rather than handing his coin over to the humans for a grape or a slice of apple, instead approached a second monkey and gave it to her. Chen had done earlier research in which monkeys were found to be altruistic. Had he just witnessed an impromptu act of monkey altruism? After a few seconds of grooming – bam! – the two capuchins were having sex. What Chen had seen wasn’t altruism at all, but rather the first instance of monkey prostitution in the recorded history of science. And then, just to prove how thoroughly the monkeys had assimilated the concept of money, as soon as the sex was over – it lasted about eight seconds; they’re monkeys, after all – the capuchin who’d received the coin promptly brought it over to Chen to purchase some grapes.”

Plenty more wisdom or fun facts to tell other people when you feel the need to show off your knowledge at the next cocktail function you go to – I love broaching weird subjects during networking because it takes your mind off the inane questions of ‘where do you work?’ and ‘where are you from?’ – can be discovered in the book. It’s a fun read, I promise.

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