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27Jun/10Off

Carnival Season, 2010.

It's been a while since I posted anything about the girls, so I thought I'd throw up a few pictures I've taken during "carnival season 2010." About this time of year the local churches and municipalities call in carnival companies employing people with more cigarettes in their mouthes than teeth to run rickety rides. The girls love it, of course, so we usually hit up a couple. There's also some father's day pics in there.

It's worth calling out a few of the pictures below. This year Sam informed us that she wanted to go up on the tallest, scariest ride in the joint, which was this tower structure that took you up quite a ways before letting you free fall for a second or two on your way back down. Sam bravely strapped herself in, and I captures some of her reactions photographically. This is how she looked going up, this was captured during free fall on the way down, and this is the expression she walked around with for about half an hour afterwords.

She's a little thrill seeker, I think.

Mandy, by the way, won second place in the coloring contest she's seen working on here. None of us knows exactly what she's won yet (we have to pick it up tomorrow), but whatever it is, Sam is absolutely, positively sure that she wants it.

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14Jun/10Off

Book Review: Priceless

I've always been interested in the psychology of consumerism, along with related topics like marketing and purchasing behaviors. Both for how shameless it is and how readily we (myself included) seem to fall for what really amount to simple psychological slight of hand. Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (And How to Take Advantage of It) by William Poundstone looked like it was going to scratch that itch, and while it does to some extent I'm left a little off balance by the book.

If you look at Priceless as a whole, it seems to hit a lot of the right notes for me. It takes practical questions like why we buy what we do and why marketers do what they do, and it answers them by turning to theories and well established phenomenon from psychology --most notably Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman's prospect theory. There's chapters on how menu consultants use psychological anchoring and the contrast effect to get you to order what they want, an examination of the effectiveness of prices ending in ".99" and other such "charm" numbers, the allure of all-you-can-eat buffets, the power of breaking out many small benefits in a sales pitch (i.e., the "But wait! There's more!" trope), and other such fascinating topics. And overall I'd say it's a good read for all that.

The main thing that keeps me from whole heartedly recommending Priceless to any reader, though, is that none of that good stuff really starts until page 143 out of about 290. The entire front HALF of the book focuses less on the specifics I listed above and more on the general case of prospect theory and its history. In places it reads more like a mini-biography of Kahneman and Tversky as well as some of their predecessors. And when he's not doing this "history of science" thing, Poundstone is going into some pretty gnarly specifics on the science (both from psychology and economics) of all this. Now personally, I loved all this and ate it up because while I knew most of it I was interested to get some biographical information and see it all in a different context. It's just kind of hard to recommend to someone who's walking into the topic without any other education.

And while the book does turn the corner halfway through when it starts getting into some practical and fascinating specifics, those chapters do assume that you've read and understood most of the stuff in the earlier, technical parts. The discussion of our preference for all-expenses-included vacation resorts, for example, assumes that you grokked an earlier discussion about the convex nature of the value function to the left of an individual's reference point. Or somesuch.

It's an interesting way to structure the book, as opposed to the typical approach of tackling one topic (say menu design or the fallibility of real estate agents) and then presenting all the related research in one chapter. One advantage to the approach in Priceless is that the latter, topical chapters are all really short, averaging just 3 or 4 pages each. I think this will make it a pretty good reference book and I enjoyed it overall, but any recommendation has to come with the caveot that you should know what you're in for.

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8Jun/10Off

Book Review: The Drunkard’s Walk

Yeah, that's right. A book about probability theory. And actually, it's not bad if you can either shrug off or endure a bit of lecturing on basic mathematics and statistics. Author Leonard Mlodinow sets out to review the history of probability, starting with the ancient Greeks and following the field's evolution and application. Mlodinow has a pretty good style, keeping things relatively low level so that anyone with a high school education in math can probably follow along. He also peppers the narrative with jokes and asides to break up the otherwise less-than-fluffy subject matter. And it works pretty well, though I suspect the lengthy discussion of the normal curve might have lost me if I hadn't already had all that info drilled into me in graduate school.

My favorite parts of The Drunkard's Walk were the historical bits dealing with the personalities and biographies of the people who helped define the field. It's interesting to see how one, for example, labored as a would-be academic for years and years, before turning his burgeoning probability theory to gambling and making more money than he ever dreamed of. Actually, that theme shows up a lot --another section describes how another researcher working in the field went to a casino and used his meticulous study of roulette tables to uncover flaws in the system and make himself fabulously wealthy before they kicked him out.

Where The Drunkard's Walk falls down (ha!) a bit is in its examination of the practical problems to which probability theory can be applied. That is, why it matters to YOU. The best books on popular science do this really well, and it moves the work from being academic to accessible by anyone looking to be both educated and entertained. Don't get me wrong, Mlodinow does some of this, but he doesn't really nail it as well as some others I've read. Still, if you've got a little bit of grounding in the topic and want to add some context to your knowledge, The Drunkard's Walk should do that quite nicely.

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