According to the Washington Business Journal, the D.C. metropolitan area is the fourth-worst commute in the country and has seen a surge of aggressive driving. The mounting frustration with our world-class gridlock is an ideal backdrop for Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic (Knopf, $24.95), the new Freakonomics for cars. First, Vanderbilt wants us to know that we all overestimate our driving skills; researchers say there are some 2,000 discrete skills we employ in driving, and many of them we do not employ well. Take merging, for example. Deciding when to merge is the single most stressful activity undertaken in daily traffic; to merge early or to merge late is a decision often cast in moralistic tones. Vanderbilt says he used to be an early merger, thinking it was the polite and efficient move. After researching his book, he has become one of those late mergers he previously thought of as selfish jerks.
Randall Stross, who writes the “Digital Domain” column for the New York Times, connects all the dots in Planet Google (Free Press, $26), his masterful account of the growth of this high-tech giant. Ten years after two Stanford graduate students designed it as an outsized search-engine, Google has become a $225 billion business. In a bold intuitive move, the two founders conceived of plain-text advertising as their potential jackpot, and that advertising now produces 99% of Google’s annual revenue. Next time you search the Web, look to the Sponsored Links in the right-hand column; all those inconspicuous three-line ads earned Google the money to add YouTube, Google Earth, and Gmail to its bundle of services. In the process, Google has been immodestly expansive in its mission: to develop an engine to search, collect, and access all the world’s information, a process it believes will take 300 years!
Michael Lewis collaborated with Dave Eggers and a number of McSweeney’s interns to produce the timely anthology, Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity (W.W. Norton, $27.95). Lewis made his reputation as an insightful, often humorous financial writer with Liar’s Poker, his best-selling account of the 1987 stock-market crash. Trying to understand why financial markets are constructed on an idea that underestimates the risk of catastrophes, Lewis has collected the writings of some razor-sharp minds, including Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz, and Robert Shiller, to offer a wide range of views on the last two decades of money madness. Panic opens with Black Monday, October 19, 1987, when the Dow lost 23 % of its value, and closes with warnings issued a year ago about sub-prime mortgages, accumulated bad debt, and a growing army of ignorant CEOs.