links for 2005-12-23

One freaky year

According to the NYT, Freakonomics was the most blogged-about book of the year, which isn’t too surprising considering how much I read about it on pretty much every blog that mentions books. It is impressive that it beat Harry Potter out this year, since everyone I know seemed to mention that book at least once on their blog as well.

I enjoyed Freakonomics in the audio version and then without really thinking about it, I kind of followed some of the advice and points made in the book in my own life.

We sold our first house and bought a new one this year and in the process learned that we really could do without a realtor, just as the authors described. We staged our old house ourselves, and pushed our realtor to get us on the weekly home tour. I took photos for our listing and helped write it, keeping in mind the lessons from the book and removed every empty phrase like “fabulous” and “wonderful” and replaced them with descriptive terms like “open” and “large”. We did all of our new home shopping online and by canvassing the city and calling builders with works in progress. We found and bought our new house without any realtors involved at all. It was surprisingly easy — whenever I was wondering what we were supposed to do at a stage in the financing/offer/escrow process, I could just punch up google and get all the info I needed. Google searches lead me to offer letter templates, legal ramifications for each document we signed, and how to find the best financing. While I like my realtor and consider her a personal friend, if we ever sell our new home, we’ll do it ourselves and save a few grand next time around.

The other big takeaway from the book was that life insurance is another industry that only commanded high prices by hiding information. I actually got a great life insurance policy for myself using the site mentioned in the text, accuquote. It was lower than a couple estimates I got from small town agents, since accuquote seems to be a front for a zillion agents that can sell you a policy from any company.

A lot has been written about co-author Steven Levitt asking questions no economist ever has before, but I think his real gift is finding just the right dataset that teases out noise and gets at answers to impossible queries. Someone, somewhere has done a sociological survey of pretty much everything on earth, but few social scientists ever use the data outside those issuing the surveys — but Levitt seems to somehow find them. I became a huge fan of the book because it rekindled my love of the scientific method and I hope the book inspires a generation of students to take an unconventional look at their area of study, ask impossible questions, then find the right dataset to help answer them.


Five undergraduate programs are being dropped: civil and environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, computer engineering and exercise and sports science.

Tulane University got rid of their Civil Engineering program in the wake of Katrina. Doesn’t that seem odd? At the time when New Orleans needs to be rebuilt, the biggest university there dissolves the training for people that build things. I’m sure a lot of graduates helped build and rebuild the levees all these years.

links for 2005-12-15

The zeitgeist

12/10/2005 – Saturday Night Live does a joke commercial on the complexity of the Medicare prescription drug plan, and the joke includes a bit about RSS feeds and podcasts.

12/12/2005 – Arrested Development episode has a joke where the twin brother Oscar is told he can’t update “but i’m oscar dot com” and he replies with something like “ok, I was thinking of trying a podcast.”

It still surprises me when I hear “blog” on TV without a definition attached. “Podcast” being used in jokes on mainstream shows kind of blows my mind.

links for 2005-12-13