August 19, 2009
Freakonomics has an interesting feature going on with a captain of a major airline they call simply, Captain Steve. Actually, this has been going on for so long that there are multiple posts with Captain Steve answering questions continuing, to answer, and questions. They also have one guest post from Captain Steve where he goes on a bit of a tirade regarding the system of air travel. If you’ve ever thought about being a pilot, or think it might be cool, Captain Steve might well shoot down that notion.
Also, he answers some questions that every traveler has wondered (or may wonder next time) that I think everybody should read like why do all electronics need to be turned off even though I’ve left my cell phone on for the duration of a whole flight before? or How much of the flight is actually on auto-pilot? or What is the general condition of U.S. airplanes these days? and Should I prepare for death during turbulence? Ok, that last one was mine, but you get the gist!
May 17, 2009
Despite the fact that so many people love going out to fancy dinners at fine dining restaurants that can cost you over $30 or $40 a head (or a whole lot more), I genuinely wonder if this is an effective use of their money. Let me explain: I am extremely skeptical of the abilities of the average person’s palate. Can you taste the difference between a $40 steak from Ruth’s Chris and, say, a $20 steak from Outback Steakhouse? If you like steak I’m sure your immediate thought is “of course I can!” So my next question is: can you tell me what makes one steak cost $20 more than another, only in terms of flavor and maybe appearance?
Let me also say I completely understand that a trip to any of these very expensive restaurants is considered more than just a meal – it’s an experience. There is no way I can valuate the “experience” of these restaurants, and I know this. My point here is to get you to ask yourself if it’s worth it to splurge so viciously on expensive dinners if you really just want great food.
I bring this up because the good folks over at Freakonomics have pointed out a new book by Robin Goldstein in which he poses taste tests to see if people can discern a great wine from an average one. (read: expensive vs. cheap) In fact, Steven D. Levitt actually conducted his own taste test on the hoity-toity poseurs known as the Harvard Society of Fellows. Guess what happened. Of course, one is not exactly a large sample size, so here is another example of a taste test by Dan Ariely, this time for those beer lovers out there.
Not one to discriminate against food, let’s take foie gras as an example. It is painfully expensive, but oh-so delicious. It’s pretty much the best form of meat pate/mousse. But while I, and many, many other people think its flavor is mouth-wateringly delectable, I doubt I can even distinguish everything that’s great about a good piece of foie. Knowing good from bad is one thing, but to actually have a flavor palate that can discern flavors is rare, I would argue. Maybe so would some economists at The American Association of Wine Economists who decided to play the same game as the aforementioned wine and beer folks, and then they decided to prove it. It might not be delicious, but odds are you have no idea what dog food tastes like.
So next time you treat yourself and your wife/girlfriend/hot date to a fancypants dinner, just remember that most of the value you get out of it is as much from the experience as it is from the food.
April 13, 2009
I love to read. Depending on how much I have going on outside of work, the density of the book and the amount of sleep I’m willing to lose, I can go cover-to-cover in two weeks or less. But even using old cheapo Amazon.com, I could easily shell out $30 for a new release. What’s a young literati to do!? The answer: Explore my local library! When I was growing up my local library was not within walking distance and was not particularly well stocked. It was a small branch. As a result, I didn’t figure out the genius of this public service until I got to college.
Ironically, I’m strongly advocating the use of the library despite the fact that the best aspects about libraries is that they’re so vastly underutilized. I can get pretty much any book I want at any time, excluding new or newly popular books (like Barack Obama’s last work).
The short of it is that I’ve been able to read classic works of literature, science fiction, travel books and generic non-fiction books alike just by using the public service my taxes already pay for. Not to mention they sometimes have great books for sale for CHEAP! I bought a hardcover book written by a Nobel laureate in chemistry for $2. Two freakin’ dollars! It was a whimsical purchase, but I figured a (sort of) autobiography about a Nobel laureate that had a picture of the guy holding a surfboard was worth a shot. And it was. I read it shortly after getting through a pair of Richard Feynman (sort of) autobiographies so it was right up my alley. I’m thoroughly entertained by stories of eccentric geniuses.
I understand some people just want to start “building their libraries,” but if a book is personal library-worthy then it should be worth reading more than once. That means you can take every book that might be personal library-worthy for a test drive by checking each one out of the library and then purchasing it if it passes your tests. What’s funny is that libraries are the only way to legally do this with any media except TV shows. You can’t test-run a band’s CD through iTunes. There are no public movie theaters to check out if it’s worth the $10 (or so) to see the latest blockbuster hit. It’s such an amazing scam in the public’s favor that it sparked this thread on the Freakonomics blog. If you like reading or would like to start reading more, the library is definitely the best way to start. It’s like pasta to a starving college student: cheap, easy, and readily available.