From the New York Times website I discovered the Freakonomics Blog which lead me to buy the book the blog is based off of. I also managed to finish the book today, and I must say it is as good as I expected. A collection of interesting anecdotes, data, and adventures that challenge preconceived notions about a large variety of things. It emphasizes the importance of properly looking at data and its context, not just using correlation. My favorite chapter was the one where they utilized data from the Chicago Public School System to ferret out cheating teachers. The chapter showed a problem with standardized testing and did an excellent job of demonstrating the effect of incentives on the actions of people we might not consider in a situation. I am personally not a big fan of standardized testing, but it does have its upsides and provides administrators with important data.
I also found to be of interest to me as someone who is involved in politics, the chapter that describes the effect of money on political campaigns. Levitt asserts that money does not have a large influence on political campaigns, but rather the receptiveness of the public to a candidate is what determines if he wins. This contradicts conventional wisdom in political circles, that raising money is an important measure of the ability of a candidate to win a race. However I doubt my candidate will win if, as Levitt asserts, I do not bother to vote in the election because my vote does not have a large impact. That is why we have political parties, unions, and other interest groups today. When people organize, and block their votes together, the value of their vote increases, and their voices are more likely to be heard. It is much easier and more cost effective for a politician to attempt to persuade a group of likeminded people, than to appeal to individuals. When you participate in these groups, your voice actually becomes amplified. So my suggestion is do not go to the voting booth just for you, but go for what you believe in. Work with other people, and together you can have a real impact.
This Tuesday, November 6th is going to be Election Day, but we will not be electing another President, governor, or congressman. My state representatives and senators are not up for re-election either. Instead on the ballot are candidates for Town Council and Board of Education. You might ask why someone my age, who spends half the year away from his town, does not pay property taxes there, and might care about who is on his town council and board of education. In spite of the lack of time spent there, I still consider my town home. I drive on the roads; I visit the local establishments, and shop in the stores. When I was in high school, the Silas Deane Highway did not look so great. Under the leadership of the current council, we’ve seen more stores brought in. I can get my Starbucks fix locally now. I might not be in the school system anymore, but for the sake of the future of the community, I think it is important that every child receive a first rate education. When one day I might want to settle down somewhere in Wethersfield, I hope my children receive an even better education than I got. That’s not going to happen if we neglect to maintain and better the system as it stands now. So this Tuesday, please remember to vote, whether you are in my town or any other. Maybe it does not affect your right away, or for the whole year, but it can make a difference.
The New York Times has an interesting piece on the merits of taking the SAT versus the ACT. When I was applying to school I took both of them and did slightly better on the ACT, but not significantly. I also did not prepare for either test, taking them straight up with no courses or books that taught me how to do so. My recommendation for those applying to college right now would be to just take both. You get to choose which scores to submit to which schools anyways, so if you do poorly on one you can always submit the better of the two. It might kill an extra Saturday morning, but it'd be worth it. If you are doing preparation though, then it's probably best to just do and focus on one of the tests.
If you are looking for a good read I highly recommend Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. It is an interesting and fun read, with lots of insights on the human mind that I did not know about. It explains why and how we are happy, and the value of that happiness. It manages to be entertaining yet serious at the same time. You can also watch his talk at TED, which covers the basic idea of the book below.