Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics


Cool Tools Show 237: Stephen Dubner

Our guest this week is Stephen Dubner. Stephen’s an award-winning author, journalist, and TV and radio personality. He’s co-author of the Freakonomics books, which have sold millions of copies in 40 languages, and he’s host of Freakonomics Radio, which gets 8 million global monthly downloads and is heard by millions more on N.P.R. stations and other radio outlets around the world. You can follow him on Twitter @Freakonomics.

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Show notes:

Onitsuka Tigers (Mexico 66) Sneakers ($85)
My first one are the shoes I wear probably about 363 and a half days of the year, which are Onitsuka Tigers, Mexico 66. These sneakers have kind of an interesting history among the earliest dedicated athletic shoes designed and made in Japan. I was a cross country runner in high school, and we had these shoes that were lightweight and made just for running. You didn’t really wear them around. And there was something about them being purpose built, made for running. I also played sports, baseball and basketball, and there were shoes for those things, but these running shoes felt a little more exotic, maybe because running wasn’t that big of a deal. And so I wore them very excitedly back then, even though I hated running and still hate running. Then over the years, as I got older, I came across this literature on barefoot exercise and that led down a rabbit hole and another rabbit hole. And I realized I wasn’t going to go around barefoot because the world is too built up to really be barefoot. But I did want to go to some form of minimalism. And then I found out that these Onitsuka Tigers had been resurrected, I think in the early 2000s. And now they’re kind of a style sneaker. I love them because they’re essentially, a ballet flat that you can wear every day. They’re incredibly lightweight and I’d come to believe, through an episode we did a Freakonomics Radio called, something like These Shoes are Killing Me, where we looked into the physiology of feet and how humans are meant to walk and run, that we aren’t meant to wear these big, built up shoes with all this cushioning. And in fact, there’s a good reason to think that where the more protection you wear, the more your body kind of atrophies and responds in the wrong ways. And so these are sneakers comfortable enough to barely know you’re wearing a shoe. They’re supportive enough to walk on anything, rocks, whatever. You can run and play golf and do anything in them. And they also come in enough styles and colors and so on that if you care about such things, which I tend to mostly not, you can have a beautiful pair that you can wear as the equivalent of a dress or work shoe. And so I think they are a really cool tool.

Anchovy paste ($8)
My second cool tool is, oh anchovy paste. This is not exotic or unknown, unless it is. I’m guessing that most people who cook know about anchovy paste, but everybody’s at different stages of learning. And when I learned to use anchovy paste in my cooking, I felt like it was the first cool tool of cooking I learned years ago. And now we keep it stocked in abundance. And basically if you don’t know anchovy paste, it is the paste of anchovies in a kind of toothpaste type tube. Anchovy paste is the nitro version of the umami that you need in whatever you need. For instance, if you want to make the best Brussels sprouts ever, you would chop your Brussels sprouts relatively small, and then you sauté maybe some shallots and or garlic, in your butter and or oil before the Brussels sprouts hit the pan. But it’s the anchovy paste that you put in while you’re sautéing there that will just bring it to the next level. Also works for all kinds of sauces and is just a really good thing to have around. Especially if you have someone in your family that does not eat fish and is scared of all things from the sea, but also likes flavorful things. You just have to hide it. And occasionally I’ll make a label for something else and call it like clown juice and put it on the anchovy paste canister, so that we fool everybody. There’s a brand called Amore, which happens to be Italian. I’m not sure their anchovies are any tastier than the others, but it’s really useful.

puzzleYOU — jigsaw puzzle made from your own photo
We don’t do jigsaw puzzles as a family the way we did when they were younger, but my wife still likes a jigsaw puzzle now and again, but she’d really put it aside for years and years, but during the pandemic, like a lot of people, she was looking for activities to do. I take that back. She started on this before COVID, for some reason. She just felt like doing some jigsaw puzzles. And so she had a few. And in fact, the reason I remember it was before is because my wife got very sick with COVID and so we quarantined her at home and it was tough. One of the first things she was able to do when she was starting to recover was to get down on the floor to do the jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle kind of became the symbol of her quarantine and to this day now, a few months later, she’s still doing jigsaw puzzles and we all pitch in now and again, but for Mother’s Day, my daughter, teenage daughter found a really nice gift idea, which was a custom made jigsaw puzzle made of a photo that you send in. It doesn’t shock me that it exists, but I was thrilled that it does exist. We selected a photo that we thought she would like a lot. It was a photo of my son and I playing this board game, an election board game. And our little dog had its paws up on the table over the game as if it was playing the board game. It’s one of those kind of vaguely comical anthropomorphizing dog photos. But it happened that this photo happened to have a lot of things in the background that really read like our family. There’s a portrait on the wall behind the scene that showed the four of us. And there was an old photograph of my wife’s dad in the army on on the sidewall. It was his photo that was composed of all these things that represented our family. And we turned that into a jigsaw puzzle and gave it to my wife, Ellen, for Mother’s Day. And when the box comes from this company, they have a message. We put something like, “Happy Mother’s Day, love you.” And it was one of the best gifts that’s ever happened.

Microsoft Word
You will mark me as a combination Luddite and well, that’s not the opposite of a Luddite, but something else really bad. My fourth cool tool and my most important by far is Microsoft Word. It is a computer program made by a company called Microsoft. And it is for making words, things like writing. Look, I recognize that I love Microsoft Word in part because I’ve been using it for a long time. I’m a writer. It’s what I do. I’ve written a lot of books. I’ve used Word on all of them, although I should also say I started writing before Microsoft Word existed. The first computer I wrote on was something called the IBM Display Writer which had a huge floppy disk drive. And there was one disc for composing and another disc for editing and another disc for spell checking and so on. It’s not like I’m wed to it because it was the only program I ever used. I used WordPerfect and I wrote on Commodores and I wrote on early Mac and so on, but I think Word is an amazing program because it does everything I would ever want it to do for any kind of writing. And I only use probably about a half a percent of it. And I got to know Nathan Myhrvold, a little bit, one of the former CTOs of Microsoft, who I believe was involved along with a lot of other people in creating this and had some conversations just about it. And I’m just constantly amazed at how well thought through it is. And I know some people get intimidated by it. I know some people think it’s overkill. I know some people think it’s not modern and beautiful enough, but I think it’s a tool that helps me do my best work writing. And I’m really, truly grateful for it.


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