Sunday, May 11, 2014

David Lee Roth, King Solomon, Game Theory, & Freakonomics

Many 80's rock fans know the infamous story of Van Halen's contract rider that required bowls of M&Ms with "all brown M&Ms removed." While that seemed to be the perfect example of petulant rock star excess and extravagance, it turns out it was truly clever bit of gamesmanship.

When the M&M clause found its way into the press, it seemed like a typical case of rock-star excess, of the band "being abusive of others simply because we could," Mr. Roth said. But, he explained, "the reality is quite different." Van Halen's live show boasted a colossal stage, booming audio and spectacular lighting. All this required a great deal of structural support, electrical power and the like. Thus the 53-page rider, which gave point-by-point instructions to ensure that no one got killed by a collapsing stage or a short-circuiting light tower. But how could Van Halen be sure that the local promoter in each city had read the whole thing and done everything properly?
Cue the brown M&M's. As Roth tells it, he would immediately go backstage to check out the bowl of M&M's. If he saw brown ones, he knew the promoter hadn't read the rider carefully—and that "we had to do a serious line check" to make sure that the more important details hadn't been botched either. And so it was that David Lee Roth and King Solomon both engaged in a fruitful bit of game theory—which, narrowly defined, is the art of beating your opponent by anticipating his next move.
This example of "Game Theory" is at the heart of the latest book of scientific insight from the brilliant mind of Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, along with Stephen Dubner. Levitt and Dubner are so apt at mining the research of things like Game Theory that they have been able to squeeze a third book out of their information on the laws of economics that impact our lives in ways we never imagine. And, now, with the book, Think Like a Freak, they are offering new insight and advice on how to game the world by "tricking the guilty and the gullible into revealing themselves."

Like their other books, and like many of the other "Ideas Gurus" like Gladwell or Pink out there, Levitt and Dubner have example after example and anecdote after anecdote of the many ways people have learned to game the system.

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