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Marginalia

Books that will help you give a superb talk

Nobody ever mastered a skill by reading books – with the possible exception of reading itself. But books can help. Below are a few that I’ve found helpful over the years. But first, a few observations.

First, a good speech needs to have a purpose. All too often people view speeches the way my daughter sometimes views her school homework: “I’ve got to write an essay about the Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries, and it’s got to be at least two pages long.” “I’ve got to give a talk about information security and it’s got to fill 25 minutes.”

If that’s how you look at things, you’re well on your way to a tedious speech. The starting point will be to sit down with a piece of paper (or worse, to fire up PowerPoint) and start listing all the things you can think of that might fill the void.

Instead, start with the question, “what’s the one thing I want people to learn, or feel, or do, as a result of hearing this?”. Everything else – jokes, stories, visual aids, supporting arguments – flows from that.

Second, deliberate practice helps. Each good speech you give tends to improve every future speech: set yourself the task of giving a truly sensational talk just once in your life. You’ll learn a lot. And when you’re preparing for a speech, practice in front of the mirror, or record yourself on your phone, or recruit a friend to listen. Yes, it’s painful, but even one run-through will make an enormous difference.

Third, distinguish between your speaking notes, your handouts, and your visual aids, and decide whether you need any of them. Your speaking notes are a series of bullet-point prompts; PowerPoint is a perfectly decent tool to generate these but they should be on 3×5 inch cards in your hand, not projected on the screen behind you. Your handouts provide a reminder of what you’ve said, or references, further reading, extra detail. You may not need them at all, but if you do, this is the place for the small print and the footnotes – not on the screen. The only thing that should go on the projector screen is the bona fide visual aid – a graph, image, movie or diagram that makes a genuine contribution to the purpose of your speech (remember that?). If no visual aid is appropriate, insert a blank slide or press “B” or “W” to turn the screen blank black or white.

Okay – lesson over. Here are my recommendations.

The single best book on public speaking I’ve ever read is Chris Anderson’s TED Talks (UK) (US). I reviewed it here; my only caution about the book is that it’s focused on giving the talk of your life. Anyone looking for quick tips to perk up the monthly sales meeting won’t find them here.

A great companion to Anderson’s book is Jonathan Swabisch’s Better Presentations (UK) (US). This is a workmanlike book aimed at academics, and covers all the basics – structure, visual aids, delivery. It’s smart and comprehensive and even an experienced presenter will learn a thing or too.

A more touchy-feely effort is Garr Reynolds’s Presentation Zen (UK) (US). Contains lots of good advice, wrapped up in all kinds of talk about “mind of a swordsman” and “being present”. It would annoy some people but it’s actually full of good advice.

If you want to do the McKinsey slide-deck thing with 50 data-packed slides, but do it well, I would suggest Gene Zelazny’s Say it With Charts (UK) (US). This is not the way I present, but it is appropriate for some contexts.

Finally, good advice on design in general, which will perk up any slide, comes from The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams (UK) (US).

 
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22nd of May, 2017MarginaliaOther WritingComments off
Undercover Economist

Why prize-winners are heading for a fall

With hindsight, the timing was awkward. PRWeek had barely engraved Oscar Munoz’s name on the trophy before the chief executive of United Airlines and Communicator of the Year 2017 was engulfed in a spectacular public relations crisis. The airline had summoned the police to throw David Dao out of the seat he had paid for; the police broke his nose and knocked out two teeth; and Mr Munoz’s first response was to criticise Mr Dao and apologise to the other passengers. At least the PRWeek award has a glorious future as the answer to a pub quiz question.

I’m not even sure this qualifies as the award that turned out to seem the most ridiculous. The American Institute of Architects honoured the Kemper Arena in Kansas City with a national honour award, and then held its annual convention there in 1979. Alas, the roof of the arena collapsed a few hours after the architects’ convention left the site.

Tempting as it may be to mock the judges who hand out such prizes, having a more objective benchmark for achievement does not confer immunity. Just ask Claudio Ranieri, the football manager who masterminded Leicester City’s underdog triumph in the English Premier League last year. As soon as the points dried up, Mr Ranieri was sacked.

Why does life seem to deliver such strange reversals? The first explanation is simple but easy to miss: there are a lot of awards in the world. Many of the people or organisations notable enough to make news when they screw up will also be notable enough to have won a prize that will prove embarrassing.

The second explanation is more subtle: for statistical reasons, outstanding performances tend to be followed by something less impressive. This is because most performances involve some randomness. On any given day, the worst observed outcomes will be incompetents having an unlucky day and the best observed outcomes will be stars having a lucky day. Observe the same group on another day and, because luck rarely lasts, the former outliers will not be quite as bad, or as good, as at first they seemed. This phenomenon is called “regression to the mean”.

If you place a speed camera beside a stretch of road where the accident rate has been exceptionally high, the accident rate is likely to fall. But a garden gnome in the same place will also seem to save lives. That is because exceptionally high accident rates are partly the result of bad luck. While the speed camera may encourage safer driving, unlucky driving will tend to disappear whether it is treated with a camera or with a gnome.

Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics, was advising the Israeli air force when he noted a memorable example of how regression to the mean can mislead us. A flight instructor told Mr Kahneman that when the instructor praised cadets for a skilful landing, they usually did worse next time; when he bawled them out for clumsiness they tended to improve. The instructor concluded that harsh criticism worked; Mr Kahneman pointed out that a more likely explanation was sheer chance.

“Because there is regression to the mean, it is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them,” Mr Kahneman wrote. PRWeek now knows what he meant.

Regression to the mean probably explains why many award winners subsequently disappoint. And the disappointment will be spectacular if some people are taking bigger risks than others. The most impressive performance may combine skill with luck. In a financial market — or a casino — the easiest way to become an outlier is to make a big bet. Unfortunately, there is no way to be sure whether you will be an outlier on the upside or the downside. Treading a different path is a good way to look spectacularly right, or spectacularly wrong — or, given enough time, both.

While randomness can explain much, hubris may also play a role. A few years ago, the economists Ulrike Malmendier and Geoffrey Tate examined what happened to companies whose chief executives won accolades such as Forbes’s “Best Performing CEO” or BusinessWeek’s “Best Manager”. Ms Malmendier and Mr Tate picked a statistical control group of nearly-men and nearly-women who might have been expected to win an award, but did not.

Like the near-winners, the winners ran large, profitable companies. But those run by the winners did far worse in the three years following the award, lagging behind the near-winners by about 20 per cent. The prizewinning CEOs nevertheless enjoyed millions of dollars more in pay. They were also more likely to write books, accept seats on other corporate boards and improve their golf handicap.

Winning a prize may strengthen the hands of already dominant CEOs, enabling them to extract more money from shareholders and distracting them with the opportunity to write self-congratulatory books. Right now, I doubt that anyone is rushing to offer Mr Munoz an advance for his management insights.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 21 April 2017.

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Life is getting ever more volatile – or is it?

We live in an age of unrelenting change. That, at least, is what we are told by a consulting industry that thrives on a gospel of disruption, and journalists who overgeneralise from the earthquake in their own profession.

Anecdotal evidence of volatility is easy to find: the financial crisis; the cultural dominance of inventions such as Facebook (barely a teenager) and the iPhone (younger still); the rise of fringe political parties and a maverick president.

But the statistical evidence for disruption is less compelling. The most straightforward evidence of that is low productivity growth in many advanced economies. If the pace of change is really so frenetic, how come we don’t see it in the productivity statistics?

One obvious measure of volatility would be the frequency with which people change jobs. When I entered the UK labour market in the late 1990s, the received wisdom was that a job for life was a thing of the past. Yet typical job tenure is longer today than it was then. People are choosing to move between jobs less frequently.

This is true both in the UK and in the US. In a 2015 study of the UK labour market for the Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, Paul Gregg and Laura Gardiner found a striking fall in the tendency of people to move from one job to another. In the 1990s and early 2000s, about 3-3.5 per cent of people with jobs would leave them each quarter in favour of new jobs. During the financial crisis that rate fell to well below 2 per cent. It has rebounded since, but is still far below historical norms. The decline was particularly pronounced for the under-thirties.

Why does this matter, if people have jobs? It matters because, as Mr Gregg and Ms Gardiner point out, moving from one job to another often means a promotion and a substantial pay rise. When people — especially young people — find themselves in the same job for year after year, there comes a time when we no longer call this stability. We call it stagnation.

In the US, there is a similar story to be told — a long-term decline in job-to-job transition rates that cannot simply be explained away by a change in the demographics of the workforce.

A parallel trend in the US is the decline in geographical mobility. The percentage of Americans moving from one state to another in a particular year has fallen by about half since 1990 — a striking fall, and one that seems surprising given the standard narratives of a scattered and atomised society. If it’s really true that Americans don’t know their neighbours any more, then they must be working hard to avoid them, because they have those neighbours for far longer than once they did.

Perhaps we fear change more than ever. Tyler Cowen’s new book The Complacent Class (UK) (US) argues that America has become less adventurous in many ways. An album from two decades ago would sound just fine to modern ears; films wrap new special effects around well-worn plots and characters. The chief expression of our cultural courage now is to eat at a trendy new restaurant. Ethiopian or Peruvian cuisine may offer delicious fresh flavours but it is hardly a force for cultural revolution.

Mr Cowen’s argument is fascinating. But one need not invoke culture to explain the stasis in the job market. A 2016 paper from economists Mike Konczal and Marshall Steinbaum argued that the main reason people don’t quit or move to find good jobs is because there are fewer good jobs available. If companies were hungry for talent, but people were reluctant to move, wages should be soaring in a scramble to persuade them. In most industries, they aren’t.

A more upbeat account, at least superficially, comes from economists Greg Kaplan and Sam Schulhofer-Wohl. They point out that, thanks to the internet, people can find the perfect job in the perfect place and never need to move again. (The same logic implies that dating apps reduce the number of fruitless first dates. I am not sure anybody believes that.)

But Messrs Kaplan and Schulhofer-Wohl also note that economies are now more homogenous than once they were. When once people would move to Michigan to build cars, or to coastal ports to work on the docks, now every job is a service-sector job. Whether you flip burgers or perform brain surgery, you can work in any state, so there is no strong need to move.

This is plausible, but it is also sad. It suggests that given the ability to move anywhere, we stay put. I am reminded of a study of college friendships conducted by psychologists Angela Bahns, Kate Pickett and Christian Crandall. They found that students in a large, diverse campus sought out and befriended other students very much like themselves. In smaller universities with fewer friendship options, young people had more varied groups of friends because the alternative was to have no friends at all. Our bias towards the status quo is not new — but perhaps we are taking advantage of new opportunities to indulge it.

 
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 13 April 2017.

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Marginalia

Undercover Monday 2

What I’m reading: How To Books!

Better Presentations (UK) (US) by Jonathan Schwabish. This is the book you need to substantially improve the run-of-the mill presentation you were going to give anyway – in contrast to Chris Anderson’s excellent TED Talks (UK) (US) book, which is about how to give the talk of your life when you have all the rehearsal time in the world. Schwabish runs through all the key topics – visual aids, slide design, structure, etc. – and is packed with practical advice. Strongly recommended.

How to be a GURPS GM by Warren Wilson. If you have no idea what that means, don’t bother clicking. But it’s a very good book – aimed at beginners but full of useful advice.

Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss have published Visions of Numberland (UK) (US) – which is a mathematical colouring book. I know, I know. But it’s rather beautiful and there’s proper maths in it. Enjoy!

 

Elsewhere

William Baumol has died before receiving the Nobel memorial prize that many economists felt he deserved. “A Fine Theorem” has an excellent appreciation.

The FT Management podcast has challenged FT writers to nominate and discuss “books to help in turbulent times”. Some people have picked management books, some have picked classic novels. I was rather literal, I’m afraid, and went for the excellent Designing Your Life (UK) (US). You can subscribe here; I think I’m up next, on Friday.

8th of May, 2017MarginaliaComments off
Undercover Economist

Why we should be grateful to immigrants

In 1929, the great economist Irving Fisher found his fortune and reputation ruined by his utter failure to forecast the great crash. Rival forecaster Roger Babson commented, not without sympathy, that Fisher’s problem was that “he thinks the world is ruled by figures instead of feelings”.

What a pitiable error. And it’s a warning to economists like me. We like to believe that the numbers speak for themselves, but the political world prefers to think with its gut. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of immigration, which economists tend to conclude is broadly a positive force. Politicians, aware that the world is ruled by feelings, tend to view immigration as something closer to a series of prison breaks: if you can’t get a grip on it, apologise and resign.

Immigration was a centrepiece of Donald Trump’s “build the wall” election campaign. It is a stated reason that the British government intends to go well beyond the referendum result and leave not only the EU but the single market. Immigration inspires strong feelings, and those feelings aren’t of happiness and gratitude. That is a shame.

Is there a gut-based case that we should be grateful to immigrants? I’d like to think so. Perhaps we should start with the golden rule of “do unto others”. It has a clarifying effect on our thinking about immigrants — or “expats”, as the golden rule suggests we call them, since that is what we call ourselves if we go to live overseas. The words are synonyms but the difference in perspective and respect is enormous.

The golden rule quickly exposes much of the talk about immigrants — expats — as hypocrisy. One popular idea is that immigration should be based on some kind of “points” system — or as the White House describes it, “merit-based” immigration. It seems reasonable. But not for a moment would we think of telling someone they couldn’t move from Detroit to Dallas because they “lacked merit”. Vox columnist Matthew Yglesias observes that he wouldn’t get away with describing white Americans without college degrees as people “without merit”. Quite.

Another seductive folly is the idea that the authorities should in their bureaucratic wisdom decide how easy it would be for different industries to recruit workers. As migration expert Madeleine Sumption has recently pointed out, an attempt to fine-tune the labour market through immigration policy might seem attractive, but it would require an extensive and expensive bureaucracy that would swiftly be surrounded by eager lobbyists. We need only ask how we’d feel if such a policy applied to us, with a Whitehall department deciding whether Cambridge required another software engineer.

We might also think that concerns about the “brain drain” were not a persuasive reason to force people from Leicester to stay there on the grounds that Leicester needs their skills. All these policies have managed to pass as moderate, sensible and even compassionate when applied to foreigners. The instant we ask if we’d apply them to ourselves we see them for what they are: a ludicrously cumbersome attempt at economic planning, and a woefully illiberal way to treat human beings.

There are many analyses of the costs and benefits of immigration. What’s not widely appreciated is that most of them simply ignore any benefits to the migrants — expats — themselves. Given this handicap, it’s striking that many serious studies find some modest net economic benefits. If I told you that a school or a hospital could pass a cost-benefit test even after ignoring the benefits to the pupils or patients, you might reasonably conclude that the school and hospital were impressive organisations. You’d also tell me it was a very strange way to do cost-benefit analysis.

In 18th-century France, workers had to show their papers to get permission to move from one town to another. The objection wasn’t that immigrants might arrive. It was that valuable workers might leave.

The French nobles were on to something. In most circumstances we’re keen to live close to other people. Densely populated areas tend to be richer, more productive, and more innovative. Because housing is compact and people travel on public transport, cities are also more environmentally friendly. And we know that cities are desirable places to live because people are willing to pay so dearly to live in them. Usually we view other people as customers, colleagues, and friends. From the church to the high street to the nightclub, other people are the lifeblood of our communities. It is only when we call other people “immigrants” that they seem to cause such anxiety.

I think we should be more grateful to the people who have the courage and energy to leave their homes and make a life somewhere new. But perhaps I’m the one who should be more grateful. As the economist Paul Seabright observes in his 2004 book The Company of Strangers (UK) (US), we humans are the recent descendants of shy, murderous apes. Somehow we have figured out a way to live together and co-operate. We have some way to go, but I am grateful for the progress we have made so far.
First published in the Financial Times on 7 April 2017.

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5th of May, 2017Undercover EconomistComments off
Marginalia

Undercover Monday 1

Reading this week

I’m re-reading The Lady Tasting Tea (US) (UK) – which is a fascinating history of statistics by David Salsburg, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (US) (UK) – which is just full of interesting ideas.

Also Designing Your Life (US) (UK), the 21st century answer to the evergreen What Color Is Your Parachute? (US) (UK) Both are remarkable and humane careers guides. Parachute helped me a great deal twenty years ago. Designing Your Life has some fascinating new ideas for figuring out what you really want to do with your days, hours and minutes.

And Wendy Cope’s Serious Concerns (US) (UK). Delightful, tender and funny poems.

 

On my pile

Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (US) (UK) is next up. Cory and I are doing an event together at Blackwell’s in Oxford on 22nd May. Come along!

And I’m planning to read Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man (US) (UK).

 

Other suggestions

Hugely enjoyed Adam Buxton’s two-part interview with Brian Eno. They covered a lot of ground and were fun to listen to.

Sheryl Sandberg has written an op-ed about “How to Raise Resilient Kids“. It moved me.

In memory of my mother, I’m cycling from Windsor to Oxford in a few weeks to raise money for Beating Bowel Cancer. Donations to this worthy cause would be very much appreciated – thank you in advance.

1st of May, 2017MarginaliaComments off
Undercover Economist

Marginal gains matter but gamechangers transform

“As Olympic athletes have shown, marginal improvements accumulated over time can deliver world-beating performance,” said Andrew Haldane in a speech on Monday, which is quite true. Mr Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, went on to suggest that the productivity of companies in general would benefit from the same approach.

It’s a bold claim, made more so by the regrettable fact that the most celebrated exponents of “marginal gains”, Team Sky and British Cycling, have been in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

But Mr Haldane may have a point; he usually does. The marginal gains philosophy tries to turn innovation into a predictable process: tweak your activities, gather data, embrace what works and repeat. In British cycling such tweaks reportedly include rubbing alcohol on tyres to improve grip, electrically heated overshorts to maintain muscle temperature and a ban on bikini waxes to prevent saddle sores.

But the same basic approach — using quick-and-dirty experiments, or “A/B testing” — has paid dividends elsewhere. David Cameron’s Behavioural Insight Team, known unofficially as the “nudge unit”, has used simple randomised trials to improve the wording of tax demands and the advice given to job seekers. Google tested 41 shades of blue for its advertising hyperlinks. Designers rolled their eyes — then Google claimed that the experiment had netted an extra $200m in annual revenue. As Mr Haldane says, marginal improvements can add up.

But can they add up to productivity gains for the economy as a whole? The question matters. There is no economic topic more important than productivity, which in the long run determines whether living standards surge or stagnate. Productivity growth has been disappointing for more than 40 years, particularly disastrous since the financial crisis, and worse in the UK than in most other rich nations. The idea that developed economies can A/B test their way back to brisk productivity growth is a seductive one.

An alternative view is that what’s really lacking is a different kind of innovation: the long shot. Unlike marginal gains, long shots usually fail, but can pay off spectacularly enough to overlook 100 failures. The marginal gain is a heated pair of overshorts, the long shot is the Fosbury Flop. If the marginal gain is a text message nudging you to finish a course of antibiotics, the long shot is the development of penicillin. Marginal gains give us zippier web pages; long shots gave us the internet.

These two types of innovation complement each other. Long shot innovations open up new territories; marginal improvements colonise them. The 1870s saw revolutionary breakthroughs in electricity generation and distribution but the dynamo didn’t make much impact on productivity until the 1920s. To take advantage of electric motors, manufacturers needed to rework production lines, redesign factories and retrain workers. Without these marginal improvements the technological breakthrough was of little use.

The latest evidence suggests Mr Haldane is right to remind us of the importance of marginal gains. In 2016 economists Daniel Garcia-Macia, Chang-Tai Hsieh and Peter Klenow sought to quantify different kinds of innovation in the US economy. They concluded that most productivity growth came from existing companies improving existing products, rather than new businesses or products. That was true in the 1980s and still is. In the UK, as Mr Haldane observes, leading companies have been improving their productivity, while typical ones have not. That suggests a problem not with the long shots at the frontier of innovation but with the details of everyday management.

Yet two questions remain. One is why so many businesses lag far behind the frontier. A research programme led by economists Nicholas Bloom and John Van Reenen has tried to quantify management practices, and has found that many countries have a long tail of poorly managed companies. The culprit may be a lack of competition: vigorous competition tends to raise management quality by spurring improvements and by punishing incompetents with bankruptcy. It’s no coincidence that the philosophy of marginal gains is popular in the unforgiving arena of elite sport.

But the second question is why productivity growth has been so disappointing. A/B testing has never been easier or more fashionable, after all.

The obvious answer is that the long shots matter, too. In almost every field except computing, we’ve hoped for revolutionary breakthroughs and they haven’t yet happened. Google may A/B test its way to greater profits but the company’s success has been built on a leap forward in search technology in the late 1990s, and even more fundamentally on the publicly funded efforts to develop the web and the internet.

In a data-driven world, it’s easy to fall back on a strategy of looking for marginal gains alone, avoiding the risky, unquantifiable research. Over time, the marginal gains will surely materialise. I’m not so sure that the long shots will take care of themselves.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 24 March 2017.

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Marginalia

Undercover Friday 9

Podcasts to seek out

A terrific long interview with Anne Case on the FT Alphaville podcast – Dr Case has been making waves with a series of research papers with Angus Deaton studying the contrast between the mortality rates of 45-54 year old American whites (which are rising, or depending on the details, not falling) and mortality rates of African Americans (high but falling) and Hispanic Americans (low and falling) and Europeans (low and falling). Important topic, important interview.

More or Less is back on air, 4.30pm UK time on Fridays, Radio 4. The podcast is here – please send us your thoughts via email hidden; JavaScript is required. We’ll be fact-checking the UK election campaign, of course, but plenty of other stuff too. (This week: who is the better mathematician – Kate Bush, Bob Dylan, or George Harrison?)

Planet Money had a charming podcast asking – who exactly invents “National Caramel Day” or “National Splurge Day”? The answer surprised them, and me.

The latest episode of Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy unveiled the underappreciated joys of The Elevator. There will be a book this summer – you can pre-order here (UK) or here (US).

Fictoplasm, my favourite lo-fi podcast, has just tackled Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea and asks what gaming ideas the novels inspire.

If you’re a fan of podcasts, do spread the word by telling a friend or two about a podcast you’ve enjoyed.

 

What I’ve been reading

Andrew Lo’s Adaptive Markets (US) (UK). Just arrived – looks amazing. Lo is a fascinating thinker.

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea  (US) (UK). Magnificent, of course – although the fourth book, Tehanu, does rather repudiate everything else. The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, might just be the most perfect fantasy novel imaginable.

Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly (US) (UK). Fun survey of cognitive biases.

Tyler Cowen The Complacent Class (US) (UK) – I wrote about some of the ideas in Tyler’s book here in my FT column, but there’s a lot more too it. Very interesting indeed, and original. It made me think about the world in a different way.

 

My columns

They’ve moved from the FT Magazine to the Saturday newspaper. Online, you can find them all here (subscription required) and I’ll be putting them on this website after a delay of a month.

21st of April, 2017MarginaliaComments off
Marginalia

Undercover Friday 8

Books on my pile

Michael Shermer The Believing Brain (UK) (US) is intriguing and well-researched with lots of good storytelling. Shermer is the founder of The Skeptics Society so devotes a lot of time to fringe beliefs – UFOs, cults, ghosts, that sort of thing. I would have liked to read more about the less extreme forms of belief formation – why people believe in Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, for example, or why people believe in brands such as Coke or BMW. Still – a good and thought-provoking read.

Tyler Cowen The Complacent Class (UK) (US) – not yet read it, and it seems quite focused on a US audience, but Tyler is always interesting.

Ali Almossawi Bad Choices: How Algorithms Can Help You Think Smarter and Live Happier. (UK) (US) Frustrating book, I’m afraid. It’s short and chatty but not actually terribly clear. Plenty of cases where some kind of diagram would have helped but instead we get cartoons and jokey graphs – which are fine, but not nearly as helpful. Your mileage may vary of course. I think Algorithms To Live By (UK) (US) is much more successful at explaining how computer science works and is relevant to life. 

Robert Cialdini Presuasion. (UK) (US) Very interesting book about how the context or the preliminaries to a request can make all the difference. The FT Alphaville interview with Cialdini is worth a listen.

 

More or Less

The longer Radio 4 edition of More or Less is back on air next week. Tune in 4.30pm Good Friday, 8pm Easter Sunday, or pod to your heart’s content here. And send your questions and comments to moreorless at the bbc.co.uk domain.

 

7th of April, 2017MarginaliaComments off
Marginalia

Undercover Friday 7

You might have missed…

“Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” is airing on BBC Radio 4 in a run of 15 daily programmes just after noon. (This project has been such fun to work on.) Loyal listeners will already be subscribing to the podcast, however – and if you’re enjoying it, please spread the word. I meet a lot of “More or Less” listeners who aren’t aware that “Fifty Things” exists.

The Problem With Facts – my long FT Magazine feature (or here on my own website) has been doing the rounds. Thanks to everyone who has been sharing it.

Given the horrific attack in London yesterday, I found myself revisiting a piece I wrote about the real costs of terrorism. These attacks are always so appalling; we need to remind ourselves that that’s by design. They’re meant to appal us and they are aimed at provoking an over-reaction.

 

 

Book recommendations

I’ve had a productive reading week this week.

I enjoyed Richard Nisbett’s Mindware (UK) (US) – it’s a good overview of various thinking tools and traps such as hindsight bias, dialectical reasoning, various statistical errors and techniques. However it does feel pretty familiar if you enjoy this sort of thing; I was also struck by how the fact that Nisbett, writing in 2015, cites a number of psychological studies that have since failed to replicate. A sign of the times in social psychology?

My praise for Caroline Webb’s How To Have A Good Day (UK) (US) is similarly tempered by the fact that again, some of this stuff is familiar and some of this stuff does not replicate. Still, I found it a very valuable book – I had a meeting this week that would have gone very badly but instead ended up going very well, and Webb deserves all the credit for that. She does a great job of taking familiar insights from psychology and economics, and turning them into practical nuggets of advice. Bravo.

Even better is Designing Your Life by Burnett and Evans (UK) (US). I don’t even know why I picked up this book, to be honest. It would have come in very handy when I was 19, or 23, or 29, and staring down the barrel of painful life and career decisions. Right now I’m lucky enough to have a life and career where no big changes seem needed. And yet – the book was still useful. And I’ve already handed copies to two friends contemplating a career change. It’s really a very useful and fresh take on thinking about careers, creativity, family and work-life balance. Very, very good.

Finally, a nod to Maria Konnikova’s brilliantly-written The Confidence Game (UK) (US) which I’ve recommended before but found myself dipping into again. Fascinating science and great storytelling.

Oh – and finally finally, I recently had the chance to play Roll For The Galaxy. Lots of fun – and while a little complex for younger children they do love the buckets of dice. Check it out. (UK) (US) – or my local store Gameskeeper.

 

Column news

My “Undercover Economist” column has moved from the FT Magazine to the Saturday FT newspaper. If you like to read online, it’s here – and you can click “Add to My FT” to be updated whenever it appears. (I’ll continue to post my writing on timharford.com after a delay.) This week’s column contrasts two different types of innovation:

The idea that developed economies can A/B test their way back to brisk productivity growth is a seductive one. An alternative view is that what’s really lacking is a different kind of innovation: the long shot. Unlike marginal gains, long shots usually fail, but can pay off spectacularly enough to overlook 100 failures. The marginal gain is a heated pair of overshorts, the long shot is the Fosbury Flop. If the marginal gain is a text message nudging you to finish a course of antibiotics, the long shot is the development of penicillin. Marginal gains give us zippier web pages; long shots gave us the internet.

FT subscribers can read the whole thing here.

 

 

My book “Messy” is available online in the US and UK or in good bookshops everywhere.

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24th of March, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Tim Harford is an author, columnist for the Financial Times and presenter of Radio 4's "More or Less".
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