When linking to my review of Duncan Watts’s book in a recent post, I came across some fun bits that I’d like to share (for those of you who didn’t just click through and read the whole thing):
On business books:
I’m not so interested in the business angle but I suppose that’s how you sell books these days. The business part of the book was ok—I’m not saying it was filler—it’s just that I’m not particularly interested in which format of videocassette wins, or whether Cisco Systems is a well-run company. I realize that a lot of people care about this sort of things nowadays, but I’d rather talk about sports or politics.
On dodgy science writer John Gribbin:
Sure, people write all sorts of silly things but usually they have some sort of political or religious excuse for why it’s ok to believe them. Truth is not the only important value in life, there are also other concerns such as political convictions, religious beliefs, and the simple desire to avoid offending people. Thus, I could understand someone falsifying data in order to support a political conclusion–it’s not something I would imagine doing except in extreme cases, but I can see the moral rationale for it—or even for the purpose of public health. (Recall the Linus Pauling conspiracy theory, under which the great chemist made knowingly wrong claims about the health benefits of Vitamin C in order to give millions of people the benefit of the placebo effect.)
On not letting killers off the hook:
Duncan describes the story of a person who killed some people while driving a car under the influence of alcohol and points out the difficult in imposing punishment. On one hand, the driver presumably didn’t intend to kill that family, thus maybe the punishment shouldn’t be so harsh. On the other hand, there would seem to be no political will for generally imposing harsh penalties on dangerous driving in the vast majority of cases where nobody gets hurt.
In thinking about this sort of example, I would separate two concerns:
1. Is the killing intentional or not? The law already distinguishes between different varieties of murder and homicide, so it doesn’t seem so relevant to me that the weapon in this case is a car.
2. Discouraging dangerous driving. I recall seeing some statistics that a small percentage of drivers are doing most of the crimes, so I’d think it would be possible to get these repeat offenders off the road.
Duncan writes, “it seems grossly disproportionate to treat every otherwise, decent honest person who has ever had a few too many drinks and driven home as a criminal and a killer. Yet, aside from the trembling hand of fate, there is no difference between these two instances.”
I disagree. First, who’s to say that the driver in question is an “otherwise decent, honest person”? I don’t know the guy, but not everyone out there is decent. And, even if you’re driving drunk, it’s possible to account for that to some extent. I was once in a taxi in Chicago where the driver reeked of alcohol. I was too lazy to get out of the cab so I went all the way to the airport. I’ll say this about the cabbie: he drove really, really carefully. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of an otherwise decent, honest person that, if he does drive drunk, that he recognize he might be impaired, that he stop at every stop sign and every yellow and red light, and that he drives below the speed limit.
After all, it’s not like this dude hadn’t driven drunk before (see point 2 above).
On local dictatorships:
Yahoo is a mini-dictatorship, that is, a “firm.” Here’s another example: the head of a casino company says, “There are two ways to get fired from Harrah’s: stealing from the company, or failing to include a proper control group in your business experiment.”
Duncan used to work at Columbia University (I know him from having occasionally coming to his amazing Friday afternoon seminars). Can you imagine the president of Columbia saying, “There are two ways to get fired from Columbia: molesting a student, or failing to include a proper control group in your teaching experiment.”
No, I didn’t think so. But the funny thing is, I’m pretty sure Columbia would be a better university if we were required to continually work on improving our teaching and if we were required to take careful measurements and use control groups and clearly-defined treatments. Columbia is a pretty free place, though, so the administration can’t make us formally experiment in our teaching (even in the unlikely event that they wanted us to). Paradoxically, the freedom at Columbia makes it more difficult for us to learn in the sort of bottom-up way associated with Zara, Yahoo, and Harrah’s.
What would have happened if Duncan had written Yahoo instead of Yahoo! at various places in the book? I’m just curious. If I had to always write that I worked at Columbia! university, I think it would bother me after awhile. But maybe not, maybe I’d just get used to it.