I love riddles. I don’t mean the Laffy Taffy “What kind of shoes do ghosts wear?” kind (well, actually I love those too), but the non-funny kind that crop up in daily life and require a heapin’ helping of lateral thinking to unravel. This is why, a while back, I got obsessed with Traffic Flow Theory: the study of how people behave in traffic.
As interesting to me as the riddles themselves is the fact that most of us (myself included) don’t even recognize them as riddles until someone calls our attention to them. Why, for instance, do we have traffic jams? It seems like a stupid question — traffic jams results from too many cars on the road, duh — but Traffic Flow Theory illustrates that jams are not inevitable, but occur because people behave in very specific (and often counterproductive) ways. The trick to these real world riddles isn’t so much figuring out the answer as realizing there is a question worthy of investigation.
Another fascinating (to me) “no-brainer” is: “Why do people stand on escalators but walk on stairs?” As with the traffic jams conundrum, it’s not even obvious that there is any behavior worthy of research here — if people stood on stairs they would never get to the top, duh — but that didn’t stop a bunch of economists at the University of Rochester from looking into this very puzzle. Some of the hypothesis those economists cooked up were summarized here by Steven E. Landsburg.
This is just one of many issues that Landsburg has explored in a regular Slate column entitled Everyday Economics. My interested piqued by the escalator question, I went back and read his entire series of articles, which tackle pressing societal issues ranging from how to win Ebay auctions to why tall people make more money to, my favorite, why people peel bananas with the stem-end up. (Monkeys peel ’em the other way, you know.) Eventually, though, I ran out of articles, leaving me with no option but to read his book, The Armchair Economist.
Written before his tenure at Slate, The Armchair Economist serves as a perfect lead-in to his column. It comes complete with a primer on economics, gives you some idea of Landsburg’s worldview, and then tackles a few “Rational Riddles,” such as “Why do movie theaters charge more for popcorn?” (Oh, you think you know why theaters charge more for popcorn? Well, tough guy, what if I told you that the chapter in which this is discussed is entitled “Why Popcorn Costs More At The Movies And Why The Obvious Answer Is Wrong” …)
When not demonstrating that the obvious is incorrect, Landsburg also takes great joy in demonstrating that some plainly ridiculous ideas are, in fact, quite sound: the best way to make drivers safer is to take away their seat belts install sharp spikes on their steering wheels; a city that spends $10,000,000 to build a free aquarium may as well buy $10,000,000 of gold bullion and dump it in the ocean; and it is posible to build a factory that converts corn into automobiles.
For me, personally, The Armchair Economist was especially valuable, because many of the myths is sets out to explode are those that I (as a self-described progressive) hold dear: one chapter is entitled “Why Taxes Are Bad,” another is called “Why I Am Not An Environmentalist.” He even makes a remarkably convincing argument that bipartisanships in politics is something to be feared rather than welcomed. While I often read writers with beliefs counter to my own, I rarely come across an author who not only challenges my convictions but ponies up the logical arguments necessary to make me think “holy smokes, maybe he’s right!” That’s what made this the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year, and one that I recommend highly.