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Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: Hey, no judgment. I guess a little bit of judgment. 

DUBNER: I’d say more than a little bit of judgement. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: When it comes to success, is talent or effort more important? 

DUCKWORTH: It’s so interesting! And I sometimes say out loud, “I will never get bored of this.” 

Also: What’s the issue with using acronyms like POTUS or SCOTUS? 

DUCKWORTH: Gosh, I didn’t really like the sound of that. When you just said that, I was like, ew.

DUBNER: It’s a little too much like “scrotum”? 

*      *      *

Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela, on this thing called the Internet that I was wandering around the other day, I read a five-year-old paper of yours, called “The Mechanics of Human Achievement.”  

Angela DUCKWORTH: I like that paper.  

DUBNER: I did too. It was really interesting, and I thought it’d be fun to talk about. So, I guess my question today would be: When it comes to achievement, what’s the best way, or a fruitful way, to think about breaking down talent versus effort?  

DUCKWORTH: So, I wrote that paper with a computer scientist, Lyle Ungar, and also somebody who had been a physicist before he was a psychologist, Johannes Eichstaedt. And I needed to sidle up to Lyle and Johannes because I wanted to map Newtonian mechanics onto my developing theory of achievement. And I knew that two semesters of physics in college was not enough of a foundation. 

DUBNER: And what does that even mean to map Newtonian physics onto your concept of achievement? 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, so I took the simplest of Newton’s ideas. Remember in high school when you learned that distance equals rate times time? 

DUBNER: Sure. 

DUCKWORTH: And then you had to solve just a countless number of problems, like a car is going 75 miles an hour, it’s traveling for four— and the idea was always like, you get two of these, and then you have to figure out the third one. So, if you know the distance and the rate, you have to figure out the time, etc. But just taking that simple idea, that distance equals rate times time.

I was like, you know, “Metaphorically, human achievement is like distance. When you say that somebody is really accomplished, they’ve achieved a lot, we really do mean that they’ve moved from point A to point B, and point B is really far right from point A.” Then I thought, okay, if achievement is like distance, rate is like skill. Let’s take Freakonomics, for example. You have a skill, and then you have to apply that skill. So, that’s the time. So, if I multiply your skill as a Freakonomics producer times the amount of energy you put into it, I will get how much you accomplish. 

DUBNER: So, skill is standing for rate, and application of skill is standing for time. Is that right? 

DUCKWORTH: That’s right. So, if you want to achieve a lot, you have to have skill. And you got to spend a lot of time doing it. So, that was the first, like, “Oh, this is kind of Newtonian.” So, let’s go back to your high school — you know, car is traveling 65 miles an hour. It’s going for two hours. How far does it get? Remember that a car can go faster or slower. So, it’s not like the car is always going 65. In fact, I say that the skill that you have is not fixed — that you acquire skill. That your speed, as it were, your rate, actually can change over your life course. And generally, it changes in the positive direction, right? You get more skilled.  

DUBNER: But then, you’re suggesting there’s a whole other dimension, which is how you apply that skill to your route to produce the greatest distance or achievement, yes?  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, so imagine Stephen is a car, okay? You can make all the sound effects that you want. Wasn’t there a Disney movie where it’s all cars, but they’re anthropomorphized and they talk to each other?  

DUBNER: I think it’s called Cars 

DUCKWORTH: Was it called Cars? Well, there is a genius name. Okay, so basically you are a car, Stephen, and you’re not a car that has always been traveling at the same speed. Your skill in what you do is higher than it used to be. You start off and you were a little slower, but then you learn some things and you got faster. 

 DUBNER: Okay. I don’t like your car metaphor. I’m sorry. 

DUCKWORTH: Really?  

DUBNER: I like you. I like this idea a lot. I am having a hard time imagining myself as the car. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s a bridge too far, as it were.  

DUBNER: Honestly, I’m still trying to get the feeling of my wheels. It feels weird to be on wheels — I’m just saying. But the other thing is, when I think about a car as the skill, or the rate, I think of a car as something that is getting slower and deteriorating from the minute you drive it off the lot. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, that is true. It depreciates 50 percent when you drive it off the lot.

DUBNER: Yeah, so I want to think about a different kind of activity. So, let’s make it a pursuit — some kind of achievement, or goal, or vocation, whatever, that I or some other person is serious about. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, let’s consider that you are an aspiring scientist. So, first, you’re in high school and you certainly can’t make any independent scientific contributions because you’re still in high school and you hardly know anything. Then you get to college and your knowledge is becoming more complex and deep. And then by the time you get to graduate school, you probably are on the frontiers of knowledge in your discipline. And you know how to run experiments and you know how to analyze data. So you have accumulated skill as a scientist. 

And my point is that if you have reached a certain level of skill where you really actually now have a shot at contributing something, you have to apply that skill. It’s a trivial insight. But if you, for example, go to your postdoc and then at your third year of your postdoc, you just retire. I mean, I actually can think of a few people that they reach a certain high-level skill and they actually stop producing, or they effectively retire. That actually has happened a lot, not just in science, but really in every domain. 

And, okay, let’s take my favorite gritty person, Will Smith. One of the reasons why I admire him is not just that he has reached a certain skill level in his acting and his general creative pursuits, but every year that passes, he does more stuff. And my point with this equation is that, if achievement is like distance traveled, it’s not just that you want to be somebody who is skilled, but you actually have to apply that. And if you’re like a Will Smith, and every year your skill grows, but every year you’re actually producing more stuff, that’s great. 

DUBNER: This reminds me of, you know that famous old paper? It was taxi-driver research. Thaler and Camerer and Babcock and Loewenstein. You remember that paper?  

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yeah. 

DUBNER: This was about earnings. And basically, these economists found that when taxi drivers were having a particularly good day, for whatever reason—

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, it was raining and everybody wanted a taxi. 

DUBNER: Exactly. That usually, what they would do is, once they’d hit their target income, they would stop for the day. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. They satisficed. 

DUBNER: They satisficed, rather than maximized, whereas the economists argued: no, if you’re making a great rate, what you want to do is keep going, keep going, keep going. So they call that a “mental calculation error” that people were stopping when their rate was actually high. So it’s only a metaphor, but if you apply it to your argument about lifetime achievement and how far you can travel once you’ve accomplished a lot of skill, how do you both hang in there but also continue to build the skill? Because it seems as though it’s easy to rest on laurels in any dimension. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, so let’s start with the people I most admire. These are the people who don’t call it in early when they’re having a good day because, for them, the marginal unit of success is very meaningful. And I was recently having a conversation with a friend of a friend and they were saying, “You know, I guess for whatever reason, I’ve reached an age where I just would rather work on my tennis game than get back to my research.” And look, hey, no judgment. I guess a little bit of judgment. 

DUBNER: I’d say more than a little bit of judgement. 

DUCKWORTH: A moderate amount of judgment here. But the people that I admire most are thinking, “I can still improve and I can still contribute something.” They’re not the taxi driver who wants to go home at 4:00 p.m. because they had an especially good run. But people who are like, “Wow, this is getting really good. I’m going to stay out as long as I possibly can.” And those are people who are always increasing in skill, so they’re never done learning. They can achieve more in a smaller amount of time, but instead of working less, they work at least as much, if not more. I like that kind of person. 

DUBNER: I think that’s not only the kind of person you like but the kind of person you are. So, let’s say for the vast unwashed, the rest of us, who will never have either that skill level or that drive to continue to apply with that intensity, how can you up one or the other while still having time to work on your tennis game? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, there’s definitely a tradeoff here. Working on your tennis game comes at a cost, and so does devoting yourself to your career. The choice to keep wanting to improve may be not necessarily what everyone chooses, but it’s a choice that is available to all people, really. You can decide to stay out longer and try to become a better taxi driver. But once you get to a certain point and you’re very efficient at your craft, you’re very good at what you do, the idea that you would do it at least as much, if not more, it shouldn’t be that unusual, right? 

DUBNER: It shouldn’t. But there’s also the idea of diminishing returns. And that can be diminishing financial returns, or cognitive returns, or happiness returns. And I think you’re right in pointing out that the people who don’t operate that way are a select group, and they are able to achieve more. It’s as simple as that. 

But I think it has less to do with diminishing returns, actually, now that I think about it, and more to do with extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. Depending on what realm you’re in, most of us respond really strongly to incentives that come from without, from extrinsic motivation. And there are others who just have a different kind of fuel that is driven not entirely intrinsically, but very, very strongly intrinsically. I don’t know whether that’s genetic, environmental, learned or whatnot, but I’ve seen vast variance in the human population on that dimension. 

DUCKWORTH: I think you’re right. And when you ask the question, “What sort of gratifications tend to diminish with more of it?” Like money — beyond a certain income, the next dollar matters a little bit, but not a lot. And the dollar after that matters even less. Status might be like that, I guess. But the intrinsic motivations, which psychologists tend to think of [as] enjoyment and interest, like doing something because it is enjoyable to you and interesting to you.  

DUBNER: You’re saying it shouldn’t diminish. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah.

DUBNER: I think the problem with that argument is that it excludes the excitement of novelty. 

DUCKWORTH: How so? 

DUBNER: Well, we get excited and satisfied by new sensations. 

DUCKWORTH: Are you bored of doing Freakonomics, though? 

DUBNER: Sure. I get bored of everything that I do for more than a month or two. So it’s a constant effort to try to do new things within it. I mean, I remember when I first met you, which was on the phone, interviewed you about Grit, and you talked about substituting— What was it? Substituting what for novelty? 

DUCKWORTH: Nuance for novelty. 

DUBNER: Nuance for novelty, right. I took great comfort in that phrase of yours because it was exactly what I’d been trying to do. I didn’t have a phrase to describe it. But, to me, substituting nuance for novelty was an attractive concept in that, the thing that I’m trying to do every day, or every week, is essentially the same. It’s not going to change. It’s not like I’m going from making a radio show to driving race cars. It’s still going to be making a radio show the following week. 

So the novelty will not present itself, but there is a way to think about doing small changes that may either intrinsically or extrinsically produce a nuance that’s a small novelty that will still feel really, really good. Maybe not the thrill of creating an entirely new thing, but creating a wrinkle that’s different enough to still keep it exciting.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I think the ability to find a novelty fix through nuance is a wonderful thing. I’m reading this old book about Outward Bound adventure expeditions, and it’s not even written by a psychologist, and I find the psychology so interesting. It’s so interesting! And I sometimes say out loud, “I will never get bored of this.” So the art of nuance is a great recommendation. 

DUBNER: Do you have any advice for people to learn that? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, sometimes I think of why we don’t get bored of our children. 

DUBNER: Says who? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m bored of your children. Just kidding. I’m not bored of your children. I love your children. But, in general, we don’t tend to “get bored” of our closest friends and loved ones. I’m not like, “Oh God, why would I want talk to my best friend, Sue? I’ve talked to her a million times.” So, what is it about that? And I think it is in part because there is something new every time. And I think the idea that when I talk to Sue, it’s a kind of quality of conversation and there’s an appreciation for the nuance, which requires a 20-year friendship underneath it, which honestly is so much more satisfying than a cocktail party conversation with a total stranger. And maybe if we thought about that as a way we could relate to our career, that— which would you rather have: yet another conversation with your best friend, or would you rather have a new conversation with a cocktail party stranger? 

DUBNER: I don’t know. I think that’s a toss up.

DUCKWORTH: No. 

DUBNER: Yeah. 

DUCKWORTH: No! 

DUBNER: Yeah. 

DUCKWORTH: You don’t even want to go to a Zoom cocktail party. I am quite sure of this. 

DUBNER: First of all, I haven’t been to a cocktail party in 10 months. So it would be fun just for the novelty.

DUCKWORTH: Well, what does that say? 

DUBNER: Well, it says that there’s a pandemic. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, there’s this thing going on.  

DUCKWORTH: Sorry. I jumped the gun on that one. 

DUBNER: But no, I see your point. I understand the argument that pursuing novelty above nuance can be a problem in certain areas. But I also think that pursuing novelty is an unbelievably powerful and wonderful component of what makes humans more interesting than we could be if we had a little bit less novelty-seeking appetite. So I’m just saying, I don’t think it’s so cut-and-dry. And also, your friend Sue, I’m sure she’s perfectly nice. She sounds boring to me. I don’t want to talk to her.

DUCKWORTH: No, she’s super interesting. And, by the way, how about I throw this in: she’s a lawyer. Now do you want to talk to her? Look, let’s go back to the car. 

DUBNER: I will say, the car is an upgrade from the lawyer. So that’s a move in the right direction. 

DUCKWORTH: Better to be a car than a lawyer, I always say. So, look, one of the reasons why I liked this metaphor is I do think if you start off in writing, and you’re like, “I did it for a little while, and then I got bored, and now I want to do something else. I want to knit.” And then you knit for a while and then you’re like, “Oh, like, I got bored after six months of that, so now I’m going to surf.

So, I like this analogy to a car because that is like the car changing its direction. And I guess my point is, you never really get anywhere that’s far from where you started unless you point in the same direction for some period of time. So I kind of like this idea that human achievement is trying to get somewhere and not making too many turns that take you in a different route altogether. 

DUBNER: Noted. So, I really like, and now understand, this concept of applying some physics to the notion of lifelong achievement. What do you say to people who have the capacity to endure but don’t have the underlying skill or talent level? Can they think about the same size of accomplishment as the people who do have skill levels that are substantially higher? Or are they forever doomed to be the little car that trucks along but never gets over 50 miles an hour? 

DUCKWORTH: Here’s the thing. I think that there are differences in talent. And actually, I think that you could even define talent, as I try to in that paper, as the rate at which your skill changes. So, if you’re really talented at something, every time you do it, your skill changes a lot. I remember interviewing Abby Wambach once, the legendary soccer player. And she describes her first few minutes of soccer, first time she saw the ball, and she was like, “Oh, I got it.” There was this extremely-steep learning rate that was really impressive. 

So I think that people do have different rates at which they gain in certain skills versus others. But your question about what advice would you give? If you consider that that is a factor in achievement, then yeah, I do think it makes sense to try to choose vocations that you’re talented in.  

DUBNER: Follow your talent. 

 DUCKWORTH: Yeah. With one caveat, if I may, which is that I think talent itself is also malleable. And thinking about whether Abby had a really great few early soccer coaches, which I think she would say she did, her rate of acquiring soccer skill itself was malleable and influenced by her environment. So, yes, you should probably go into things that you’re more talented in, but also you shouldn’t think of talent as fixed. Is that too much? Does that make your brain — does that make your car engine explode? 

DUBNER: That makes perfect sense. All right, one last question for you. Is the amount of raw ability more important in the physical realm — for, let’s say, an athlete or a dancer or a musician, maybe — or in the intellectual realm — let’s say, a scientist, a thinker, a philosopher? In other words, if there’s a realm in which you can build your skill over the long run more, and more fruitfully, would it be in the physical realm or in the intellectual realm? 

DUCKWORTH: God, that is a really good question. My short answer is, I don’t know. But my intuition is that the more cognitive it is, then the more you can apply the principles of deliberate practice, etc. And the more that there are just basic physical limits to your flexibility, or your height, then maybe because of the immutability of certain things, like how long your tibia is, that that would make it less amenable to the principles of practice and skill improvement. 

DUBNER: So, for those with short tibias — podcasting, for instance. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Where is the line between acronyms, initialisms, and complete and utter gibberish? 

DUBNER: “No one can actually remember all these acronyms, and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance.”

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I’ve been wondering for a very long time about this practice that you have. You send me emails and instead of saying, “Hi, Angie,” or “Dear Dr. Duckworth,” you say “A.L.D.,” and you like to call Rebecca, “R.L.D.” Now, I figured out that those are our initials, so I’m not totally in the dark here. But I’m wondering, what is it with you and initials and— 

DUBNER: Do you feel insulted that I reduce your name to your initials. Is that the point? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I wondered whether it was either an insult or, on the other hand, a term of endearment or an initialism of endearment. What’s going on? 

DUBNER: So, definitely not an insult, or not meant to be at least. In some cases it could be a term of endearment. But I think the actual abbreviation of one’s name to two or three letters just comes from journalism, where you have slug lines on a line-up. 

DUCKWORTH: What’s a slug line? 

DUCKWORTH: Like, here’s our table of contents for the magazine this coming week — let’s say, The New York Times Magazine. This is where I did this for a while. And you’d have all the pieces that were going in and who was the writer. You’d usually have spelled out their full name because the writers rotate a lot. But then, the editors’ names are in just initials, and it’s, the thinner you can make the column, the more information you can fit on the page. So, yeah, I do like getting information presented in as tight a format as possible. But I wouldn’t say that I’m a “fan” of initialisms or acronyms. You do know the difference between an acronym and an initialism, I’m sure. 

DUCKWORTH: Can you please remind me? 

DUBNER: An acronym is a shortening of, let’s say, a phrase, or the name of an institution or whatnot, using the first initial of each word. But an acronym is a version that is pronounceable, and an initialism is a version you can’t pronounce. So F.B.I., Federal Bureau of Investigation, would be an initialism, whereas NATO, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, would be an acronym, just because you can pronounce it. So, anyway, you got your acronyms and your initialisms. But your question does make me wonder why we use both of them.

DUCKWORTH: Or either of them, yeah.

DUBNER: Is it to save time? And I think that in a lot of cases, not all, I think it’s actually a status signal. I think it’s a kind of insider shared language — a way to build community or to show that you’re part of the community — to say, “look at me knowing stuff.” I remember when I first got into journalism and publishing, I heard the phrase “pub date,” which was pretty obvious, but I’d never heard it. And it refers to the date that a book or article is supposed to be published. But I remember the first couple times saying it to someone else. I felt like, oh, I know the language now. So I think that’s a lot what initialisms and acronyms are meant to signal. 

DUCKWORTH: So, when you first said status, I was like, oh, Rebecca and I have been elevated in status because you have anointed us with our initials. But you don’t mean that. You just mean that we are in some inner circle where I know what you mean when you say R.L.D., but somebody as an outsider would not.  

DUBNER: Exactly. Now, that said, I don’t mean to imply that I don’t think of you as high status. 

DUCKWORTH: Thank you. 

DUBNER: But let me just say, I think it’s overdone a lot. And our governments and military especially— 

DUCKWORTH: I was going to say the military. 

DUBNER: Yeah. So, name a few of your favorite initialisms or acronyms that come to mind. 

DUCKWORTH: That come from the military? Let me think. I can pronounce it, so it would be an acronym, right? There’s POTUS, and then FLOTUS. So, that’s “President of the United States” and “First Lady of the United States.”  

DUBNER: Don’t leave out SCOTUS. 

DUCKWORTH: What’s that one? 

DUBNER: “Supreme Court of the United States.” 

DUCKWORTH: Oh. Gosh, I didn’t really like the sound of that. When you just said that, I was like, ew. 

DUBNER: I know, it’s a little too much like scrotum.  

DUCKWORTH: Exactly! Yes! I was like, “Where are you going with this, Stephen?” I’ll try to erase the earlier connotation. But that’s not exactly military, but it was as close as I could get. I’ve done studies on the military, but I’m not in that in-group. But I remember, I did an internship for the Clinton administration. And when someone said POTUS as President of the United States, you’re right. I felt like I was on the “in.” Now of course, lots of people know what POTUS and FLOTUS mean.  

DUBNER: But I think twenty years ago they didn’t. The first time I ever heard it was on the first episode of The West Wing. Did you ever watch The West Wing?

DUCKWORTH: I have the whole thing on DVD. 

DUBNER: You have DVDs? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I have DVDs. I no longer have a DVD player.  

DUBNER: Yeah. So, there’s a thing called the Internet. And on the Internet you can press buttons on a thing called the keyboard, and you can get it to do things. 

DUCKWORTH: You can play West Wing

DUBNER: But in the first episode, we, the listener, hear the phrase “POTUS” a few times before we know what it means. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. You had to basically catch on. And you know what else is like that? Slang is like that. My family has this group chat. So, I’ve got two teenage girls, and there’s Jason, and me. And they use acronyms and initialisms all the time. And then last night, I got this one. I want to know if you know what I mean: “L.O.L.Z.”

DUBNER: Laughing out loud and something else. Laughing out loud zanily? Maybe it’s just plural.  

DUCKWORTH: I asked what the “z” stood for. It means really laughing out loud. When something’s very, very funny, you put “L.O.L.Z.”

DUBNER: Isn’t that “R.O.F.L.?”

DUCKWORTH: What does that stand for? 

DUBNER: Rolling on the floor laughing. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, I didn’t know that one. Oh, that’s so cute, 

DUBNER: How about FUBAR? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh I know what FUBAR is. We can’t say it on the air. 

 DUBNER: Effed up beyond all recognition. That’s military. How about SNAFU? 

DUCKWORTH: What is SNAFU?  

DUBNER: Situation normal all effed up. Also military. How about the U.S.A. Patriot Act? 

DUCKWORTH: Wait, that’s not an acronym. 

DUBNER: It is. 

DUCKWORTH: How is that an acronym?

DUBNER: Well, I think this is what’s called a “retroactive acronym.” You name something and then you fill in the words to make the acronym work. So, the U.S.A. Patriot Act is: Uniting and Strengthening America — U.S.A. — by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. 

DUCKWORTH: Nobody could possibly remember that. What’s interesting is so many of these things— I think the acronym stands and stays, or the initialism, but then the original words have disappeared. And we don’t even know what they are any more. 

DUBNER: And that is exactly the complaint among some people who don’t like over-acronyming or initialising. 

DUCKWORTH: These people want everything to be spelled out.  

DUBNER: Well, here’s the thing. It’s a pretty fine line from initialisms and acronyms into total obscure Orwellian gobbledygook. If you start to use a lot of jargon and vernacular, as academics do, as people in government do and so on, you can lose the meaning of the thing. Elon Musk, in 2010, sent around a company-wide email saying that there were way too many acronyms being used. He wrote, “No one can actually remember all these acronyms, and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance.” So, there is a dark side to all this abbreviating, even if it’s meant to theoretically confer status on someone by making them part of the in-group. 

I saw on 60 Minutes recently, it was a piece on Operation Warp Speed, the government/military effort to produce a Covid vaccine. And there was a four-star general who was running the operation. And he showed this cheat sheet that he had for learning what all these abbreviations meant to the scientists. And he was doing it out of a perfectly reasonable and laudable instinct to keep up with the conversation. But it did strike me as a case where it could backfire — where you start to talk about the lingo in the shortened version and have no idea how it actually connects to actual science.  

DUCKWORTH: Or, if this heightens in-group cohesion, it also diminishes the ability of other people to enter into conversation with you. And, by the way, like Elon Musk, I scold my graduate students for acronyms because their papers are littered with them. And then when they give talks, they just are speaking this shorthand. And I always say to them, “How is the audience going to know?” So it just makes good sense. 

DUBNER: Okay. Little quiz here. Yes/no. Is the following an acronym: NASCAR?

DUCKWORTH: Oh, since it’s capitalized, I’m going to go with yes. 

DUBNER: Very good. National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, which is nice. It’s also a little bit onomatopoeic. Nascar vrooom! 

DUCKWORTH: Oh yeah.

DUBNER: Okay, how about ZIP code?  

DUCKWORTH: “Z” begins no other words other than zebra. No, it’s not. 

DUBNER: Well, I’m afraid you’re wrong, young lady. 

DUCKWORTH: No. 

DUBNER: It does stand for “Zone Improvement Plan.” It was for delivering mail more efficiently.  

DUCKWORTH: What?! 

DUBNER: Yeah.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I have learned at least one thing in this conversation. 

 DUBNER: All right. The Internet property Yahoo!? 

DUCKWORTH: I know it’s capitalized, with that little exclamation mark at the end. Oh God. I’m 50/50 on this one. 

DUBNER: I know, after your big failure on ZIP code, you’d hate to miss another one.

DUCKWORTH: I’m going to go, yes. 

DUBNER: This is a little bit like the U.S.A. Patriot Act. It was a retroactive fitting, but it was said to stand for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.” Which, yes, the founders did come up with after they’d settled on the name.  

DUCKWORTH: The first intuition was just Yahoo! 

DUBNER: Now, I should say, the acronym should not be confused with the aptonym. 

DUCKWORTH: Wait. What’s that? 

DUBNER: So, “nym,” like “demonym” or whatever, it has to do with naming. So, New Yorker is the demonym for someone who lives in New York. An aptonym is when you have a name that actually reflects who you are or what you do. So in the olden-olden days, many names reflected your occupation. 

DUCKWORTH: Like miller. 

DUBNER: Miller, Tailor, etc. But I like to find aptonyms in real life, people who are named what they do. My favorite ever was a fact-checker at a magazine whose name was Paige Worthy

DUCKWORTH: You know what. And no joke, I had an obstetrician-gynecologist named Dr. Breast, and it was an unending source of amusement. Every time I had an appointment, I got a little chuckle. 

DUBNER: We once ran an open thread on Freakonomics, the blog, back in the days when people blogged, and we asked for good aptonyms. And I would say that about 80 percent of them were either gynecologists or urologists, and some dentists. There was an insurance salesman named Justin Case, I recall. But here, this is my favorite from our open thread. So, this was a case where a reader wrote to tell us of an Idaho court case about expected privacy in a public-restroom stall. And this was in relation to the case of Larry Craig. Do you remember that? He was a U.S. senator who was found soliciting sex in an airport restroom in Idaho. So, this was somehow connected to that case. 

So, the defendant was arrested for obscene conduct after an officer observed him through a four-inch hole in a stall partition, masturbating in a public restroom. This court determined that the defendant, whose name was Limberhand, had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the restroom stall, notwithstanding the existence of the hole. So, yes, the man in the stall caught masturbating was named Limberhand, or Limberhand the Masturbator. I guess L.T.M. If you want to go for the initialism.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I feel like just to protect this poor gentleman’s reputation, we should probably just go with the abbreviated initials. 

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio and People I (Mostly) Admire. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.

In the first half of the episode, Angela notes that a car depreciates by half of its value as soon as you drive it off the lot. But according to automotive journalist Charles Krome at carfax.com, that number is actually closer to 10 percent. The value of a new vehicle then drops by about 20 percent after the first 12 months of ownership. And for the following four years, it loses an additional 10 percent of its value annually. So a new car will be worth about 40 percent of its original value five years after purchase. 

During the conversation about initialisms, Stephen and Angela debate the meaning of L.O.L.Z. or “LOLZ.” Angela asserts that the phrase indicates that something is very, very funny. Stephen thinks that it’s perhaps just the plural of L.O.L. — Laugh Out Loud. According to Collins English Dictionary, L.O.L.Z. indicates laughter at one’s own, or at someone else’s, expense. If you wanted to sincerely communicate that something was extraordinarily funny, you could respond with R.O.F.L., as Stephen suggested. Or, you could go with L.M.A.O. — Laugh My A** Off. Or even, O.M.G. R.O.F.L.M.A.O. — Oh My God, Rolling On the Floor Laughing My A** Off. 

Finally, Stephen thought that the Limberhand case was somehow connected to the sex scandal with Senator Larry Craig. While they’re both ridiculous and lewd, the two events are not related. Craig was arrested at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport in June 2007 for soliciting sex in a bathroom stall. Dale Limberhand was arrested in June 1987 for mastrubating in a public restroom along Interstate 90 in northern Idaho. Stephen might have linked the two cases because, while Craig was busted in Minnesota, he was actually a senator from Idaho. So the men did have Idaho in common — which suggests that, in addition to potatoes, Idaho is also unfortunately on the map as a bastion of public restroom-masturbation. That’s it for the fact-check. 

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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky and James Foster. Our intern is Emma Tyrell. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to nsq@freakonomics.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: What is JPEG? 

DUBNER: JPEG is: Just Picture Everything Groovily. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, that sounds extremely accurate. Good job, Stephen. 

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Sources

  • Lyle H. Ungar, professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Johannes Eichstaedt, computational social scientist at Stanford University.
  • Will Smith, Oscar-nominated actor.
  • Abby Wambach, retired soccer player and Olympic gold medalist.

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