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Review of Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law

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Title: Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law

Author: Christopher Kuner

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Copyright: 2013

ISBN13: 978-0-19-967461-9

Length: 285

Price: $145.00

Rating: 100%

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Privacy law is a difficult subject to approach, let alone master. The United States has a patchwork of data protection laws at the state and federal level, often restricting government access to data that private enterprises may acquire and combine freely. Extending that analysis internationally is exponentially more difficult, due to both different legal approaches to personal data protection and the details of the laws themselves.

A Well-Qualified Author

In Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law, author Christopher Kuner summarizes international privacy law, details the differing approaches taken by various countries, reports on developments in domestic privacy law and international agreements, and offers a framework for making the laws of the various States more interoperable.

Dr. Kuner is very well qualified to take on this analysis. The brief author bio on the inside of the dust jacket notes that, in addition to his position as Senior Of Counsel with the Brussels office of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, he is Vice-Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce’s Task Force on Privacy and Personal Data Protection, participates in the work of international organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), wrote European Data Protection Law: Corporate Compliance and Regulation, and is editor-in-chief of the journal International Data Privacy Law. Any one of those CV entries would be sufficient to convince me of his expertise—taken as a group they are indeed impressive.

Summary and Background

Kuner begins, as is customary in such works, with a historical synopsis of data privacy laws from the 1970s to the present. Other books, such as the Agre and Rotenberg’s edited volume Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape (1999) and my own Privacy-Enhanced Business (2001), go into significant detail on the development of data privacy laws in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and elsewhere. Kuner, by virtue of his experience in the field, is able to focus his coverage on the aspects of the laws that will most benefit policy makers and legal practitioners.

Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law focuses on European data protection laws, many of which were drafted or modified in response to the EU Data Protection Directive 95/46. European Union laws tend to be the most restrictive, with idiosyncratic laws such as the U.S. Video Privacy Protection Act (passed in response to private investigators accessing Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s video rental records) as notable exceptions, so it makes sense to use that regime as the baseline for analysis.

EU laws treat data protection as a fundamental right, on par with constitutional rights in the US. Casting privacy in that light means EU policies must be evaluated against those rights, rather than against the rather more vague protections afforded privacy in the US as a penumbral right implied by certain amendments to the Constitution.

Further Considerations

After his overview of privacy policies, Kuner discusses the types of regulatory systems available, the differences among them, and the role of technology in privacy regulation. He points out, quite correctly, that legislation naming specific technologies will become obsolete almost immediately. On the other hand, individuals and institutions can protect personally identifiable information using privacy-enhancing technologies. For example, in addition to encryption technologies, data collectors could use geolocation sensors to pinpoint their location to identify which laws apply. As he notes, however:

[U]sing geolocation to control access to data can also undermine data protection, since determining the location of users can make them more identifiable. Thus geolocation can be useful in specific cases, but also raises data protection concerns.

Data that has been anonymized, or stripped of links to the individuals whom the data represents, is another tactic to render personally identifiable information safe. The author cites the proposed General Data Protection Regulation of the European Commission, which provides that “the principles of data protection should not apply to data rendered anonymous in such a way that the data subject is no longer identifiable”. Unfortunately, at least from the data protection standpoint, there has been significant progress in data de-anonymization. The mostly true folk wisdom that knowing an individual’s birthdate and postal code allows US data aggregators to correctly identify 70% of individuals is just the tip of a mammoth analytical iceberg. Reprocessing of medical test data, for example, has allowed researchers to link database records to specific individuals with very high accuracy.

Kuner also examines the role of extraterritoriality in data protection law. Certain policies and conventions, including one proposed by the International Chamber of Commerce, require each Party to the agreement to ensure that data transferred to processors outside the Party’s territory in accordance with the originating party’s laws. He notes elsewhere in the book that subsequent transfers to other processors don’t necessarily create a chain of responsibility back to the originating entity, but where responsibility ends, or even attenuates, is an open question.

Data rarely moves between States without crossing intervening jurisdictions. Kuner cites commentary indicating data transiting across the territory of a State doesn’t constitute a transfer, but even there the mechanics of data transmission come into play. Data is often stored on servers for some time as a normal part of transfers, either in a “store and forward” network or in an e-mail system. The US federal government has argued that e-mail stored on a server is no longer “in transit” and is therefore subject to different rules than are applied to “freely flowing” data. How that policy conflict will be resolved, if it is in fact recognized, is uncertain.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Because of the divergent nature of policies and laws among the various States and the difficulty in negotiating treaties, Kuner recommends a pluralistic approach to harmonizing international data protection regimes. Pluralistic harmonization is a slow and uncertain process, but it is the most realistic option at present. The difficulties of negotiating EU data protection agreements, even when granting specific exceptions such as the UK’s extended transition from paper to electronic records, argue strongly in favor of a more organic approach.

Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law focuses on commercial and routine governmental activity and, as such, doesn’t cover national security law and practice, which the US uses to justify programs such as ECHELON and other National Security Agency programs revealed in the recent past. I was somewhat surprised not to see a discussion of the proposed “right to be forgotten” that has caused so much consternation in the US, but that omission doesn’t affect my evaluation of the book.

Kuner provides a comprehensive and useful overview of data protection laws, both in the EU and elsewhere. The author’s experience in the field, thorough analysis of existing policies, and policy suggestions are of the highest caliber. I recommend Transborder Data Flows and Data Privacy Law without reservation.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Use a Premortem to Anticipate Problems

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Any time you advocate change, you should expect to encounter resistance. There are, after all, vested interests in maintaining the status quo. That’s as true for improv groups as it is for any other type of organization. One way you can reduce the disruption caused by these objections is to anticipate them and prepare responses.

To anticipate these problems, you can do a premortem where you probe a plan for every possible point of weakness. This is where you can release your negativity: Think of every possible way someone could object to your plan, how things could go wrong, whether your assumptions could be called into question, and whether the projected benefits are realistic.

There are two benefits to this exercise. The first, as I mentioned, is that you anticipate potential problems and can develop responses. If you can’t develop a good answer to an objection, perhaps you should put off your presentation. The second benefit is that it helps detach team members from the proposal on an emotional level. Once you think of all the ways something could go wrong, you are much less likely to see it as a perfect plan. Doing so lets you receive criticism objectively, and answer without your emotions taking hold.

Remember that decision-makers prefer to operate on an analytical level, even when they are selling products or political candidates to their target demographic on pure emotion. If you present your analysis and let your persuasive techniques season what you say, you’ll be that much closer to making your plan a reality.

Variety Keeps Things Fun!

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I cringe whenever I hear an improviser say, “Whenever someone does this, I always do that.” If you have multiple people doing that, you always get the same result. There are two improv games that rely on this gimmick: Mr. So-and-So and Pavlovian Response. In Mr. So-and-So, every time a player comes on stage, another player endows him with a particular characteristic. For example, a player could walk on stage and be greeted with, “Hello Mr. Yawns When He Talks.” When the player honors that endowment, he will yawn whenever he opens his mouth to speak.

Even though I say you shouldn’t repeat gags as you go along, I know that players with any significant experience will have characters and bits they can go back to when needed. They’re fine in small doses, but don’t depend on them.

In the game of Pavlovian Response, every player is given a trigger and an action that occurs whenever the trigger is noticed. A player might bark like a dog whenever someone turns away from her. You can have a lot of fun chaining these reactions together. Perhaps, upon hearing the word the, a player could respond by leaving the stage. Another player could be assigned to clap her hands twice whenever someone leaves the stage. If you want to get crazy, you can endow the light operator to turn the lights on or off whenever someone claps their hands twice.

In offstage life, not every interaction has to be unique. Companies have policies and procedures in place for very good reasons: legal compliance, standards compliance, and maintaining audit trails. For example, if you’re in a customer-facing position, you need to have a series of procedures you work through to be sure you weed out the simplest and easiest-to-fix problems. (You’re attempting to save your time at the expense of your customer’s autonomy, but that’s another story.)

One of the best interactions I’ve had with the company happened very recently. My house has a watering system from Rain Bird. After a power outage, the system turned on, and the only way to get it to turn off was to unplug the system’s control board. After working through the manual, neither my wife nor I could get the system to reset correctly. I called the company’s toll-free help line and, after a couple of questions to verify my information, the technician simply asked me to describe what was going on. Using his expertise with the systems, he was able to guide me to a solution very quickly. This interaction represented the best combination of procedure and allowing for open-ended input that I’ve encountered in quite some time.

In the end, your best bet as an improviser is to embrace the reality of the scene as you and your fellow performers have created it, and allow yourself to go in new directions. In business, you need to be ready to face the unexpected, but you should rely on existing procedures that help ensure smooth operations within your company.

Institutional Memory and Improv

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One of the best ways to pass on important information is to relate what happened on a trip, in a game, or during warm-ups. The more you know about the variety of situations you can face and how to handle them, the better off you are. Stephen Denning emphasizes the value of these stories in A Leader’s Guide to Storytelling:

Listening to these stories isn’t merely entertainment: it leads to the acquisition of vicarious experience by those participating. The limitation of sharing stories in an informal setting is that those who aren’t present to learn. This limitation was overcome by the Xerox Corporation in its Eureka program, in which photocopy technicians were given two-way radios so they could be constantly in contact and share experiences; the most useful of the stories were vetted and made available on the web to the entire workforce of 25,000 technicians.

In addition to our online forums, ComedySportz maintains an internal wiki of games and warm-ups. A wiki is a shared database of information that can be edited by any member of the group. Wikipedia is the most prominent example of a public wiki.

The Portland team also has occasional workshops in which individual players get 10–15 minutes to share knowledge on a topic we’re comfortable with. Some companies have brown bag lunches based on a similar theme. One project I haven’t started yet, but hope to soon, is something I borrowed from a former boss at The MITRE Corporation. He sent out a survey asking what languages people spoke, what skills they had, and so on. A spreadsheet or database that contains this information can be extremely valuable when a situation arises and you need someone who can read Gujarati or can recommend a business hotel in the South Kensington area of London.

Please, Be Easy to Work With

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Comedians make a living by pointing out what’s incongruent, unfair, or simply messed up in society. The hack phrase “What’s up with that?” (you know the line’s overdone when The Jester character on The Fairly Oddparents uses it as his catchphrase) expresses the premise nicely.

You’d think that stand-ups, improvisers, and writers would have a better sense of how to avoid the social traps we make fun of. Not showing up on time, being rude to the gatekeepers who can grant or deny stage time at will, and ignoring time or word limits don’t make for promising careers. Very early in my writing career, an editor told me that hitting all of my deadlines would automatically put me in the top 10% of authors. That’s kind of depressing, but I’m glad the bar was set so low. Once I broke into the writing field, good communication and attention to deadlines let me build up my portfolio and my network.

In an article published on The Atlantic web site, Peter McGraw (the taller and more academic co-author of The Humor Code) cited one of his studies investigating the personality traits of successful improv comedians:

The [Humor Research Lab] once studied 600 novices and experts in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improv comedy troupe, and found that the only difference was that the experts were more conscientious, McGraw said.

“The really screwed up people aren’t comedians, they’re criminals. They’re in jails, and they’re not funny. They’re sad and angry,” he said.

“No, there’s something else that predicts success in comedy.”

The article goes on to cite studies that indicate intelligence is a good predictor for success as a comedian. It takes smarts and a certain social adeptness to find bridges between concepts, identify the incongruities, and shape them into humor. It also turned out that, at least in another study that asked undergrads to create captions for New Yorker cartoons, guys were funnier. Why might that be?

Part of the answer, from a sociological standpoint, is that women often use humor as a proxy for intelligence when judging potential mates. If a guy can make you laugh by identifying and commenting on the incongruities in life, you might have found a match. The other aspect is the interpersonal version of stage time and reps: guys attempt a lot more jokes than women in conversation. That’s good and bad — the guys get more practice, but the other folks in the conversation have to suffer through some atrocious material. Golf pros love and hate “Pro-Am” days, where they play with local amateurs. One golfer said he has a “Wednesday Face” that he puts on for pro-am days. He knows he’s about to hear Bill Murray’s “It’s in the hole!” from Caddyshack and other hack lines a few hundred times from amateurs who use them to crack up their buddies on Mondays.

Repeating bits isn’t intelligence. At best, it’s mimicry. At worst, it’s a slow torture visited upon someone who takes his craft seriously. Show up on time and be pleasant. Be funny if you can, but please don’t try too hard. You’ll just make everybody feel bad.

Review of The Humor Code

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Title: The Humor Code

Authors: Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-451-66541-3

Length: 256

Price: $26.00

Rating: 93%

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book through the NetGalley service.

The Humor Code, written by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, traces the pair’s global journey to investigate McGraw’s “Benign Violation” theory of humor. McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the founder of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL). Warner is a professional journalist. Neither he nor McGraw had any significant performance experience, but they did have a taste for adventure that took them to some complex and potentially dangerous locales, such as remote Tanzania, Palestine, and Los Angeles. Neither author shied away from jumping into an unheated Peruvian military cargo plane with a load of clowns.

No, really—a planeload of clowns. More on that later.

Not Off to a Promising Start

When we first meet our heroes the Professor, sporting his signature sweater vest, is about to do a few minutes at a stand-up open mic night. The bad news is that the crowd is known to be tough and they’re expecting anatomy jokes. You probably won’t be surprised that the guy with the Ph. D. bombed in that environment. This expected and very forgivable failure is brought into sharper relief when you realize that the goal of the exercise is to help prepare McGraw for an appearance at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal.

Comedy is hard. Social interactions with comedians are exceptionally hard. A few pages after the introduction, the authors related how they took the wrong approach to their backstage meeting with Louis C. K. The comedian probably expected academic or thoughtful questions, but McGraw went straight for the anatomy joke, which probably conjured up bad fan interactions and led to an early exit. They were better than most amateurs in that they seemed to understand they’d crossed a line and it was time to leave, but what they didn’t get at that point in the narrative was the vulnerability required to step on stage and do Louis C. K.’s material. You have to be in the proper emotional place to get there as a performer; two guys interviewing a hungry comedian before a show and going all awkward fanboy will kill the mood immediately.

Theory of the Benign Violation

The given circumstances of the book are the authors’ attempts to investigate McGraw’s theory of the Benign Violation. I first learned about the theory from McGraw’s guest lecture for Dan Ariely’s online course A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, presented through Coursera. The basic idea is that humor requires a certain level of discomfort. In this construct, a statement or concept can be:

Benign, which means minimal or no discomfort;

Violation, which maximizes discomfort by challenging deep convictions or evoking disgust;

Benign Violation, which involves enough discomfort to throw the listener off balance, but not enough to disgust or challenge deeply held beliefs.

McGraw argues that, once the listener is uncentered but not overly offended, the comedian can use exaggeration or another technique to twist the reality and generate laughter. It’s an eminently reasonable take on comedy in the English-speaking world, but the question is how well it would hold up internationally. Part of the answer could come from determining why people laugh in the first place.

Why Do We Laugh?

Nobody knows.

The Journey

To start, the authors sampled dishes from the U.S. comedy scene, including stand-up performances and an improvisational comedy workshop with an Upright Citizens Brigade teacher in L.A. I’ve been a professional improviser since 1993 (and, like McGraw, failed horribly at stand-up) and agree with the authors that stand-up and improv are two different worlds. Stand-up comedians go on stage by themselves and (mostly) deliver prepared material, but improvisers usually perform as part of a group, don’t have to carry the load themselves, and ego-involve the audience by using their suggestions.

As the authors note, improv classes often attract serial workshoppers who might have no hope of performing due to job or family demands or a debilitating lack of funny, but who enjoy the social experience:

Our UCB class lasts for hours, but the time flies. Improv is play, and it’s a lot of fun. Afterward, at a nearby coffee shop, the students seem ready to do it all again. “I love using another person to succeed or fail on stage,” one of them tells us. “It’s freeing,” says another. “It’s like therapy-light,” raves a third.

It’s not at all uncommon for participants in an improv workshop to go out for drinks afterward. I’ve certainly benefitted from the social aspects of improv and hope to do so for many more years.

From Boulder, L.A., and New York they went on to destinations including Japan, Scandinavia, Tanzania, and Peru. That last destination cast McGraw and Warner as clowns on a team led by Hunter “Patch” Adams (made famous by the movie starring Robin Williams). The team’s mission is to bring relief to a village in the Peruvian Amazon. McGraw started as a clown but transitioned to the role of civilian guide and overseer, as befitting his experience as an impartial observer of humor. Warner, the journalist, dug into his role as a clown…he is told and personally discovers that, when you put on the nose, you have permission to “go insane” in the sense that you become someone else.

That sentiment, of losing oneself in your clown character, echoes the thoughts of Keith Johnstone. Johnstone founded the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary and invented Theatre Sports (the inspiration for ComedySportz, the organization I’ve performed with since 1996). In his classic book Impro, he described mask work as an opportunity to lose yourself in another entity. The pull can be so strong that everyone must agree to take their masks off when directed to do so. It’s a powerful technique and should not be attempted by beginners.

The Book as a Book

I enjoyed the progressive narrative, which chronicled the authors’ experiences and worked McGraw’s theories into the story’s flow. This approach stands in contrast to other recent participatory journalism titles I’ve reviewed, which alternate between the author’s experiences and history or theory. For example, Tower of Babel alternates between chapters about extreme language learners of the present day and the history of an Italian priest who was famous for his linguistic skills. Similarly, Moonwalking with Einstein alternates between the author’s preparation for and participation in the U.S. national memory competition and the history and practice of memorization. There’s nothing wrong with either framework, but I personally enjoyed a break from the strict alternating chapter approach.

I also appreciated the authors’ journey as human beings. Their work as part of the clown mission to the Amazon village came at the end of the arc that started in the developed world, continued through developing Africa, and ended in a subsistence-level community. Though they never explicitly stated that they understood at a visceral level where they’d gone wrong with Louis C. K., I bet they knew.

Conclusions

At the end of The Humor Code, McGraw goes on stage in Montreal and doesn’t bomb. I’ll leave the specifics of his solution as a surprise for when you read the book, but as a nerd who does comedy I appreciated how he solved the problem of presenting at a comedy festival without being an experienced comedian. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Helping Your Team (and Teammates) Succeed

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Most improv is a team sport. Except for solo acts, everyone else has to interact and cooperate with other individuals to create their product. If everyone goes on stage looking for glory, you won’t get a solid product. Rather than setting the base for a solid scene where one or two performers can deliver the lines that get the big laughs, you’ll get a bunch of one-liners delivered to an increasingly uncomfortable audience that realizes no one’s cooperating.

Performers support each other, as do athletes. Olympic athletes are part of a team and, even if they compete in individual events like luge or ski jumping, there’s a strong sense of camaraderie. That’s what makes Canadian speedskater Gilmore Junio’s selfless actions this week so special. Junio skated in the 500m event, finishing 11th. He had also qualified for the 1,000m, but gave up his spot to his teammate Denny Morrison. As Junio said:

“I believe it’s in the best interest of the team if he races. To represent Canada at the Olympics is a huge honor and privilege but I believe that as Canadians, we’re not just here to compete; we are here to win. Denny has proven to be a consistent medal threat in the distance.”

Morrison went on to win the silver medal in the 1,000m event and has nominated Junio to be the Canadian flag bearer during the closing ceremonies. I think it’s a great idea and, if he’s chosen, hope Junio stays in the Olympic Village to accept the honor.

Congratulations to Denny Morrison for winning the silver, much respect to Gilbert Junio for putting the team first, and good luck to Canada in the rest of the Games. You’re doing it right.

Review: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating

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In addition to blogging here, writing books, and creating online training courses, I’m also the editor and lead reviewer for Technology and Society Book Reviews. Here’s my most recent review.

Title: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating

Author: Paul Oyer

Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-4221-9165-1

Length: 256

Price: $25.00

Rating: 89%

I purchased this book for personal use.

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating, written by Paul Oyer and published by Harvard Business Review Press, takes a friendly approach to teaching basic economic concepts. The book covers topics including search, signalling, selection, and network externalities, in an approachable and personal manner. Oyer tells the tale through his own experiences in online dating. As someone who met his wife through online dating, I found myself rooting for the balding economist trying to find love while going through an unhurried divorce.

Light-Hearted, but not Lightweight

Paul Oyer is a professor of economics at the Stanford graduate school of business, so he is used to explaining economics to graduate students. It’s not a simple undertaking to translate that knowledge into terms that can be understood by the general reader. Yes, I understand that anyone who would purchase a book published by Harvard Business Review Press is probably not your average reader, but the book’s title and in the author’s writing style make it clear that this is not a weighty academic tome. If you want one of those, see if you can find a copy of The Economics of Electronic Commerce by Choi, Stahl, and Whinston, which I reviewed on this site in 1998.

Online dating is an interesting process. You go to a site such as Match.com or OkCupid, fill out a profile or answer questions, and let the computer code running in the background show you who it thinks you might be compatible with. It’s a combination of many economic activities: advertising, search, signaling, and network effects among many others. And, just as economics is often called the “dismal science”, online dating can take on an air of despair when you’ve been at it for a while but haven’t found anyone to spend time with.

Of course, some of this frustration can be self-inflicted. On page 12, the author cites an online dating profile published by a graduate student in China:

Never married; master’s degree or more; not from Wuhan; no rural ID card; no only children; no smokers; no alcoholics; no gamblers; taller than 172 cm; more than a year of dating before marriage; sporty; parents are still together; annual salary over 50,000 yuan; between 26 and 32 years of age; willing to guarantee eating for dinners at home per week; at least two ex-girlfriends, but no more than four; no Virgos; no Capricorns.

I hate to say it, but I think the guy she’s looking for is already married.

Economics and the Online World

I’d imagine that most of my readers will be familiar with at least some of the economic concepts that Oyer discusses in this book. That said, even though I have spent quite a bit of time with the popular literature discussing the economics of online commerce, I learned a few things from reading his book and was reminded of quite a few more concepts that I hadn’t encountered for a while. I also like that the author summarizes the economic concepts that he discussed in each chapter with a series of takeaways at the end. He lists a key insight from economics, a valuable or important empirical finding by economists, how dating compares to the concept discussed in the chapter, and a bit of humorous dating advice that puts a button on the chapter. In the chapter on signaling, for example, he gives this dating advice: “If you want to prove you are rich, burn a big pile of money on the first date.”

I enjoyed the author’s take on economics through the lens of online dating. He writes in a familiar, personal style, and ties the economic concepts he wants to explain into his personal narrative seamlessly. I’m just guessing, but I bet his first draft was pretty good. His editor, Tim Sullivan, certainly helped bring the manuscript together into an enjoyable, coherent whole.

Conclusions

I recommend Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating to anyone who is interested in contemporary economics, either as a casual reader just digging into the subject or as a more experienced hand who would enjoy a good-natured review.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over twenty online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.

Finding Your Happy, Creative Place

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It seems obvious that individuals with a happy work environment will be more creative and proactive, but there’s a school of thought among some managers and executives that insists keeping workers off balance makes them better workers. What does the research show?

In their book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer cite substantial research indicating that a positive inner work life enhances creativity and productivity. In 1987, Isen, Daubman, and Nowicki published their article “Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their experiment applied the traditional creative thinking task of presenting a subject with a box of thumbtacks and a candle, then asking the subject to suspend the candle over the table so no wax dripped onto its surface. Prior to setting out the task, the subjects were either shown a five-minute video clip from a comedy, five minutes of a film on concentration camps, or given a neutral task such as exercise or watching a math film. The experiment revealed that participants who watched the comedy were significantly more likely to find the problem’s solution.

Amabile, Kramer, and other authors criticize studies showing that stress results in improved performance by pointing out that any positive effects are short-lived, the experimental conditions addressed specific rather than generalized tasks, and that focus on external conditions hampers performance. Amabile and Kramer conducted a substantial study of mental affect on creativity by asking employees at several companies to record daily journal entries detailing one event that stood out each day. Based on their results, they concluded:

We even found a surprising carryover effect showing that creativity follows from positive emotion. The more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking he did the next day — and, to some extent, the day after that — even taking into account his moods on those later days. This may be due to what psychologists call an incubation effect. (p. 52)

In the face of this research, why do many managers feel the need to stress their employees through constant reorganizations or manipulative reward schemes? In my opinion, part of it comes down to control. Managers feel like they have to prove their worth by driving their reports to higher productivity than they would have achieved without the manager’s input. Other managers just like pushing people around. Finally, American industry still follows, at least in part, the scientific management philosophy of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylorization entailed breaking processes into component parts that workers could accomplish through rote memorization and adherence to established procedure. Perhaps these principles could work on an assembly line (though the Ford Motor Company experienced massive worker turnover until they modified their practices), but creative and knowledge worker tasks can’t be broken down in the same way.

None of us can be happy all the time, nor should we be. We’ll get frustrated, be unable to complete the tasks we’re assigned without substantial effort, and take many wrong turns as we try to advance the state of the art in our field. We need to be resilient and stand up to these perfectly normal pressures, but we shouldn’t have to suffer through needless stress imposed by management.

One of Amabile and Kramer’s main points is that workers do better when there’s a sense of progress. Even the little victories matter. In one sense, the little victories matter a lot. We’re all working toward a common goal, but it’s hard to maintain a positive attitude unless you feel like you’re moving toward that goal. Just as improv scenes move forward one line at a time, so do your work projects. Keep that momentum up, be ready to help each other, and try to stay positive.

Spend a Five or Break a Twenty? The Denomination Effect

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I’m sure many of us understand the denomination effect on a visceral level. If you’ve ever been in a store, saw something you wanted, but hesitated to buy it because you’d have to pull out a big bill, you’ve experienced this effect. Why did you hesitate? Because you knew that breaking that $20, $50 or $100 bill made it that much easier to spend your change.

Perhaps that’s why prices near a dollar amount, particularly $4.99, $9.99, $19.99, and $99.99 are so attractive to the consumer’s eye. You’re trading one physical item (a printed piece of paper) for another (perhaps a flash drive) and getting a tiny bit of money back. I wonder how much of the attractiveness of prices just below a currency denomination depends on the fact that you’re getting some change back as opposed to the first number being one less (e.g., $19.99 versus $20.00). I bet the two phenomena are intertwined in some interesting psychological ways.

You also see the denomination effect at work in gambling, but the effect works differently there depending on the game and situation. Knowledgeable poker players experience the reverse effect, becoming less likely to get involved in hands when they have fewer chips in their stack. They hesitate to invest in a hand because, when you are low on funds, the relative value of each chip goes up. Other players can use this hesitancy to their advantage and bet big to drive the small stacks out of a pot, but the small stacks can make a modest bet to induce a bluff raise from a big stack, but the big stacks can raise and hope the small stacks will think they’ve fallen into their trap, but…

You get the idea. Poker’s fun, but bring aspirin.