"Predictably Irrational"

Yesterday I went to Town Hall Seattle to hear Dan Ariely talking about his new book, “Predictably Irrational”. He has a blog, here, which includes rather disconcerting reflections on the process of giving a book reading, and a delightfully strange (?strangely delightful) website here. There was a pretty full house at Town Hall, and I didn’t wait to buy an autographed copy of the book; fortunately it is available for the Kindle.
Rather than describing Dan’s work, I’ll let him speak for himself:

Dan writes, and speaks, in a very accessible and witty style, and it’s easy to enjoy his work on a purely personal level, laughing as we recognize how “predictably irrational” we are. But of course there’s a lot more to it than that; like Colin McGinn in “Mindfucking”, Dan shows us very clearly how easily our decisions can be manipulated.
An example, from Dan’s talk: Commonsense would suggest that if you are trying to choose between two items with somewhat different attributes, the addition of a third item which is worse in every respect than each of the other two should make no difference whatsoever. But commonsense would be wrong.
Highly recommended (especially for web-site designers!).

"Euros Only"

Back on November 5, 2004, I wrote a little piece entitled “Follow the bouncing ball” about the tumbling US dollar:

What will this mean for the US economy? Unless the budget and current account deficits are slashed, the probable consequences are rising interest rates, rising inflation, a depressed housing market, and recession. We’ve seen this before: it’s called stagflation. Welcome to the 1970s. Even the oil prices look familiar….

I pointed the reader at an online tool for displaying currency rates, and quoted the BBC correspondent that “It looks like the dollar has further to fall.” Interestingly, the dollar actually staged a bit of a recovery for a couple of years, before resuming its slide. Here’s the graph:
US dollar decline
So why am I revisiting the topic today? From today’s Washington Post: talk about a sign of the times:

NEW YORK — “Euros Only” reads a handmade sign in Billy’s Antiques & Props on East Houston Street in Manhattan. But that’s really just an attention grabber. Actually, owner Billy Leroy explains, the store will accept Canadian dollars and British pounds, and U.S. dollars, too….
Leroy began accepting euros after a buying trip to a Paris flea market in November, when the exchange rate meant he couldn’t afford to purchase his usual volume of dressers, mirrors and wax figurines. This is his way to raise euros back home….
U.S. currency is the only legal tender money in the United States, but parties can agree to satisfy a debt by other means….
However, some people in the United States don’t appreciate stores here dealing in foreign currencies. “I get mail saying I’m un-American,” said Leroy, the antique shop owner. “But it’s American to adapt.”


The philosopher Colin McGinn ((I always enjoy McGinn’s work, although I frequently disagree with him. However I think his CD-based course of lectures “Eternal Questions, Timeless Approaches” is the best introduction to philosophy that’s available today.)) has a a new book coming out on the subject of psychological manipulation. I’m going to be interested to see how he distinguishes between teaching and what he’s calling “Mindfucking”. In his blog, he talks about “rationality” as a way of distinguishing the two, but I’m not sure that this stands up to scrutiny….

Reading, watching

Reading: All other books are on hold while I read the new Iain M. Banks’ Culture novel, “Matter”. This includes everything on my Kindle, plus a book which I ordered over a month ago and showed up when I got home from the East Coast: “In Search of Swallows and Amazons” by Roger Wardale.
Watching: I finally got around to seeing “Juno” this evening. Really nice. Not an instant classic, like “Atonement”, but excellent nonetheless, with a great performance by Ellen Page.

Fine tuning and a sense of proportion

The Barefoot Bum does a nice job of nailing the “Argument from Fine Tuning”. In the spirit of Douglas Adam’s Total Perspective Vortex,

The mold in the grout in my bathtub is more “significant” by many orders of magnitude to all of human civilization than is terrestrial life to the ~9.2×1021 light-year3 observable universe: that specific patch of mold has more justification for believing that all of human civilization has been created specifically and intentionally for its benefit than we have for believing that the entire observable universe has been created for the benefit of all terrestrial life.