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Marginalia

Book of the Week 19: Humankind, by Rutger Bregman

Rutger Bregman’s new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, makes a simple argument: most people, most of the time, are decent. Whether this strikes you as absurd, or obvious, may depend on what side of bed you got out of. Bregman makes a strong case that we’ve been groomed to think the worst of each other by books such as The Lord of The Flies and The Selfish Gene, and a diet of grim stories in the daily news. The book is wide-ranging, and while it is most definitely a polemic – Bregman writes to persuade – it is also full of the most fabulous storytelling. I loved reading it.

Some of the material I knew – for example, the ever-growing question marks over Zimbardo’s prison simulation have become infamous, re-interprerations of Milgram’s shock machine were popularised on RadioLab, and if I recall correctly the urban myth that nobody came to help Kitty Genovese was debunked in Freakonomics. It’s all woven together rather wonderfully here, though.

Other tales, in particular the story of the real-life Lord of the Flies, were completely new to me. The book is spellbindingly well written and you should read it. You’ll learn a lt (I did) and you’ll have good reason to feel better about the human race.

UK: Blackwell’sAmazon

US: Powell’sAmazon

While you’re here – my NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in two weeks. Please consider ordering online or at your local bookshop, which will be sorely in need of your support.

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18th of May, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Marginalia

Book of the Week 18: The Unthinkable, by Amanda Ripley

What is it like to be caught up in the middle of an unthinkable disaster? Why are our responses to these extreme and unexpected events themselves often extreme and unexpected? Amanda Ripley began writing this book after interviewing survivors of the 9/11 attacks. “These people had an agenda,” she writes, “They had thinking they wanted to tell other people before the next terrorist attack.”
One of the strengths of the book – which covers not just 9/11 but Hurricane Katrina and various other catastrophes – is the storytelling, often based on interviews with survivors.
But there are other elements, too. Ripley also relies on historical accounts; her opening tale, well-told, is the explosion of the Mont Blanc munitions ship that devastated Halifax in 1917. One of the survivors Samuel Henry Price, went on to become a sociologist who studied our response to disasters.
Ripley occasionally markets the book as a guide to how to survive if you’re ever in a catastrophic situation, and perhaps it would help. That sells the book short, I think: I was fascinated by the storytelling. The science and psychology of disaster responses is less prominent but there was plenty to interest my inner nerd. I have no doubt you’ll see references to Ripley in the next series of Cautionary Tales.
Recommended!
UK: Amazon Blackwell’s
US: Amazon Powell’s

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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5th of May, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Marginalia

Book of the Week 16: The Ostrich Paradox

A brief shout-out this week for a brief-but-good book, The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare For Disasters by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther. Meyer and Kunreuther combine a nice dose of behavioural science with some striking examples: Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 1935 Labor Day storm, the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, and many others. They explore the cognitive biases that lead us to underprepare, or to abandon protection after a while. Clear writing, good stories, lots of solid academic references.

UK: AmazonBlackwells

US: Amazon – Powells

 

 

 
My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a BIG help.

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20th of April, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Marginalia

How not to lose your mind in the Covid-19 age

here are as many responses to the Covid-19 pandemic as there are people to respond. Some have of us have children to home-school. Some of us have elderly relatives to worry about; some of us are the elderly relatives in question. Some of us have never been busier; others have already lost their jobs.

One experience is common, however: wherever the virus has started to spread, life is changing radically for almost everyone. It’s a strange and anxious time, and some of the anxiety is inevitable. For many people, however, much of the stress can be soothed with – if you will pardon the phrase – one weird trick.

First, a diagnosis. Most of us, consciously or not, have a long list of things to do. As the virus and the lockdowns have spread, many of the items on the to-do list have simply evaporated. At the same time, a swarm of new tasks have appeared, multiplying by the day: everything from the small-yet-unfamiliar (“get toilet paper” and “claim refund on cancelled holiday”) to the huge-and-intimidating (“organise an inspiring home-school curriculum” or “find a new job”).

The change is so fast and comprehensive that for most of us it is unprecedented. Even a divorce or an international relocation is more gradual. The death of a spouse might be the only experience that comes close. No wonder that even those of us who are safe and well and feel loved and financially secure find ourselves reeling at the scale of it all.

To the extent that the problem is that the to-do list is unrecognisable, the solution is oddly simple: get the to-list back in order. Here’s how.

Get a piece of paper. Make a list of all the projects that are on your mind. David Allen, author of the cult productivity manual Getting Things Done, defines a project as “any multistep outcome that can be completed within a year”. So, yes: anything from trying to source your weekly groceries to publishing a book.

That list should have three kinds of projects on it.

First, there are the old projects that make no sense in the new world. For those that can be mothballed until next year, write them down and file them away. Others will disappear forever. Say your goodbyes. Some part of your subconscious may have been clinging on, and I’m going to guess that ten seconds of acknowledging that the project has been obliterated will save on a vague sense of unease in the long run.

Second, there are the existing projects, some of which have become more complicated in the mid-pandemic world. Things that you might previously have done on automatic may now require a little thought. Again, a few moments with a pen and paper will often tell you all you need to know: what’s changed? What do I now need to do? What, specifically, is my next action? Write it down.

Third, there are brand new projects. For me, for example, I need to rewrite the introduction to my forthcoming book (‘How To Make The World Add Up, since you were wondering). It’s going to seem mighty strange without coronavirus references in it. Many of us need to devote more than a little attention to the sudden appearance of our children at home. Some of us need to hunt for new work; others, for a better home-office set-up. Many of us are now volunteering to look after vulnerable neighbours.  In each case, the drill is the same: sketch out the project, ask yourself what the very next step is, and write it down.

Occasionally, you may encounter something that’s on your mind – the fate of western civilisation, for example, or the fact that the health service desperately needs more ventilators and more protective equipment. For my family, it’s an elderly relative, suffering from dementia, in a locked-down nursing home. We can’t visit him. He can’t communicate on the phone or comprehend a video chat. There is, for now, literally nothing we can do but wait and hope. Acknowledging that fact – that there is no action to be taken – is itself a useful step.

I won’t pretend that in this frightening time, working through your to do list in a systematic way will resolve all anxieties. It won’t. But you may be surprised at how much mental energy it saves – and at the feeling of relief as all these confusing and barely-acknowledged new responsibilities take shape and feel more under your control.

Or so it seems to me. Good luck, and keep safe.

 

Oh – and in case it wasn’t obvious, this week’s Book of the Week is David Allen’s superb Getting Things Done.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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29th of March, 2020MarginaliaOther WritingResourcesComments off
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Cautionary Tales Ep 8 – You Have Reached Your Destination

More than two and a half thousand years ago – so the story goes – King Croesus of Lydia consulted the oracle at Delphi. And the oracle assured him that if he went to war against Persia he would destroy a mighty empire. Reassured, Croesus launched his war, and was defeated. The oracle had been correct, but the mighty empire that Croesus destroyed was his own.

Our modern oracles are predictive algorithms. And perhaps the strange old tale of King Croesus has a great deal to teach us about how to interact with these silicon prophets.

Featuring: Archie Panjabi, Toby Stephens, Rufus Wright, Melanie Gutteridge, Mircea Monroe and Ed Gaughan.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

 

Further reading and listening

Both stories about the oracle at Delphi are in Herodotus: The Histories.

Tom Knudson did the original reporting on “Death by GPS” for the Sacramento Bee. Reuters covered the Carpi / Capri confusion. Both stories – and others – are discussed in Greg Milner’s  excellent book Pinpoint.

Gretchen Morgenson covered AIG’s woes for the New York Times in “Behind Insurer’s Crisis, Blind Eye to a Web of Risk” 27 Sep 2008.

Esther Eidinow discusses what we can learn from how the Greeks consulted their oracles in “Oracles and Models” at The Conversation.

The Pierre Wack quote about forecasts is in “Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead” Harvard Business Review Sep/Oct 1985.

The original study of the illusion of explanatory depth is Rozenblit, Leonid, and Frank Keil. “The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth.” Cognitive science vol. 26,5 (2002): 521-562. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog2605_1

The study of how forecasting tournaments nurture humility is Barbara Mellers, Philip Tetlock, Hal R. Arkes, Forecasting tournaments, epistemic humility and attitude depolarization, Cognition, Volume 188, 2019, Pages 19-26

The study of a 1980s diagnostic aid is Wyatt J., Spiegelhalter D. (1991) Evaluating Medical Expert Systems: What To Test, And How ?. In: Talmon J.L., Fox J. (eds) Knowledge Based Systems in Medicine: Methods, Applications and Evaluation. Lecture Notes in Medical Informatics, vol 47. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg

The study of navigating around Kashiwa with or without GPS is Toru Ishikawa, Hiromichi Fujiwara, Osamu Imai, Atsuyuki Okabe, “Wayfinding with a GPS-based mobile navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 28, Issue 1, 2008, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2007.09.002.

 

 

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Cautionary Tales Ep 7 – Bowie, jazz, and the unplayable piano

He’d played with Miles Davis and Art Blakey and this was to be the biggest solo concert of Keith Jarrett’s career – but the Virtuoso pianist was in for a shock when he entered Cologne’s opera house. The only piano at the venue was a wreck. His musical contemporaries David Bowie and Brian Eno proved through their collaboration that staying in your comfort zone isn’t always the best option and that disruption can feed creativity. But Jarrett was famed for liking things just so…. would he risk humiliation in Cologne and play the broken piano or would he walk away?

Featuring: Archie Panjabi, Ed Gaughan, Rufus Wright, and Mircea Monroe.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

 

Further reading and listening

I urge you to listen to Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert, David Bowie’s “Heroes”, and Brian Eno’s Music for AirportsBut you should also listen to a superb oral history, “For One Night Only: the Koln Concert” produced by the BBC.

For a fuller exploration of the ideas in this episode I tentatively suggest my own book, Messy. Paul Trynka’s biography of David Bowie is Starman. Sasha Frere-Jones has a fine profile of Brian Eno in the New Yorker, but my main source is my own discussions with Brian.

The font study is : Diemand-Yauman, C., et al. “Fortune favors the bold (and the italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes.” Cognition (2010), DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.012

The murder mystery study is: Katherine W. Philips, Katie A. Liljenquist and Margaret A. Neale “Is the Pain Worth the Gain? The Advantages and Liabilities of Agreeing With Socially Distinct Newcomers.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin Vol 35 No 3 March 2009 p. 336-350

The tube-strike study is: Shaun Larcom, Ferdinand Rauch, Tim Willems, The Benefits of Forced Experimentation: Striking Evidence from the London Underground Network, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 132, Issue 4, November 2017, Pages 2019–2055, https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjx020

 

 

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Cautionary Tales Ep 6 – How Britain Invented, Then Ignored, Blitzkrieg

Blitzkrieg means “lightning war”, but despite the German name it was not a German invention. Back in 1917 a brilliant English officer developed a revolutionary way to use the latest development in military technology – the tank. The British army squandered the idea but two decades later later Hitler’s tanks thundered across Europe, achieving the kind of rapid victories that had been predicted back in 1917.

This is a common story: Sony invented the digital Walkman, Xerox the personal computer, and Kodak the digital camera. In each case they failed to capitalise on the idea. Why?

Featuring: Toby Stephens, Ed Gaughan and Rufus Wright.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

 

Further reading

Mark Urban’s book The Generals has an excellent chapter on J.F.C. Fuller. Other sources on Fuller include Brian Holden Reid’s J.F.C. Fuller: Military Thinker and Harold Winton’s To Change An Army

Other sources on the development of the tank include Macksey and Batchelor’s TankNorman Dixon’s classic On The Psychology of Military Incompetence and Basil Liddell Hart’s The Tanks.

On modern corporate innovation try Gillian Tett’s excellent The Silo EffectCreation Myth” by Malcolm Gladwell, Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma and The Disruption Dilemma by Joshua Gans.

 

The original paper on architectural innovation is:

Henderson, Rebecca M., and Kim B. Clark. “Architectural Innovation: The Reconfiguration of Existing Product Technologies and The Failure of Established Firms.” Administrative Science Quarterly 35, no. 1 (March 1990): 9–30

 

 

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My books of the year 2019

Not all of them published this year – and of course the list is subjective.

Book that did most to change the way I thought – Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women. My long-time producer, Charlotte McDonald, has been trying to get me to engage with the “gender data gap” for ages, but I never really felt I got the problem. Perez has delivered a much needed correction: full of persuasive examples and analysis of areas from public policy, medicine, economics and elsewhere in which data have been gathered in such a way as to obscure or omit matters of most concern to women. I learned a lot.

Best book about numbers – David Spiegelhalter’s deep yet very readable The Art Of StatisticsSir David is a superb explainer of statistical concepts, and here he delivers much of the material one might find in a first-year undergraduate course on statistics – yet while managing to avoid most of the technicalities. The book is full of memorable examples and crystal-clear explanations.

Best book about catastrophe Meltdown by Chris Clearfield and Andras Tilcik. This book was up against a lot of competition, because I’ve been reading a lot about catastrophe recently – but Meltdown is fun, wide-ranging, vivid and full of clever observations. Two episodes of Cautionary Tales owe a debt to Meltdown and I strongly recommend the book.

Best book about numbers and catastrophe – Humble Pi by Matt Parker. Very funny, terrific storytelling, and despite some hair-raising tales very few people actually die. You’ll also learn about the mathematics behind all sorts of everyday technologies from Excel to a jumbo jet.

Best science fiction  The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray. I don’t read enough fiction but when I was sent an early copy of this book I found myself drawn in. Very elegantly done – a post-apocalyptic thriller in which the apocalypse is superbly inventive and the Orwellian police state brilliantly low-rent. It’s about Brexit without being about Brexit, about climate change without being about climate change, and I very much enjoyed it.

Best picture book – Sandman by Neil Gaiman. I’ve never read this classic series and after an enjoyable but slightly schlocky first volume it quickly finds its epic, whimsical, endlessly inventive stride. I’ve been reading a book every couple of months all year; what a joy. Honourable mentions.

Best coffee-table book – The Brick: A World History. I don’t own a coffee table, but goodness me this book is gorgeous.

Best business book  Range by David Epstein. Epstein nails the difficult mix of argument, evidence and story. His book is a persuasive argument for not settling down or focusing too narrowly. I explored some of the same issues in Messy but even so I ended up learning much that I didn’t know.

Best computer science book – Hello World by Hannah Fry. An expert but highly accessible account of what algorithms do, how they work, and what they’ll do to the world around us. Great fun and a model of crisp explanation.

Best self-help book – Digital Minimalismby Cal Newport, by a long long way. I would never have found the time to read anything else if I hadn’t read this book last Christmas. Newport eschews tips and hacks and instead demands that we face up to our digital habit and make far more deliberate choices. I cannot recommend this book too strongly.

 

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8th of December, 2019ResourcesComments off
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Cautionary Tales Ep 5 – Buried by the Wall Street crash

Two of the greatest economists who ever lived, Irving Fisher and John Maynard Keynes, thought they could predict the future and make a killing on the stock market. Both of them failed to see the Wall Street crash, the greatest financial disaster of the age – and arguably, of any age. Yet having made the same forecasting error, Fisher and Keynes went on to meet very different fates. What does it take to see into the future? And when you fail, what does it take to bounce back from ruin?

Featuring: Alan Cumming, Russell Tovey, Mircea Monroe, Rufus Wright, Ed Gaughan, and Melanie Gutteridge.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

 

Further reading

 

Walter Friedman’s The Fortune Tellers is a key source on Fisher. It’s a history of all economic forecasting in the US. I loved it.

Sylvia Nasar’s excellent Grand Pursuit has much more on both Keynes and Fisher.

There are several fine journalist accounts of Keynes’s participation in the Degas auction. Try the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, or History Today.

On Keynes, the central source on his investment performances is David Chambers and Elroy Dimson. 2013. “Retrospectives: John Maynard Keynes, Investment Innovator.” Journal of Economic Perspectives27 (3): 213-28.DOI: 10.1257/jep.27.3.213. There’s more biographical detail in the more informal Keynes’s Way To Wealth by John Wasik.

Philip Tetlock’s original study is detailed in his subtle, scholarly and ground-breaking Expert Political JudgmentHis more recent book with Dan Gardner, Superforecasting is more journalistic and covers his recent discoveries. Both books are very good, but quite different in style.

The case of Dorothy Martin and the UFO cult is told first hand by Festinger and his colleagues in When Prophecy FailsThere’s further discussion in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)an excellent guide to all the ways in which we can fail to notice we’re wrong, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

 

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Cautionary Tales Ep 4 – The Deadly Airship Race

A British Lord wanted to build the best airship in the world – and so he had two rival design teams battle it out to win the juicy government contract. Competition is supposed to bring the best out of people, but run in the wrong way it can cause people (and the things they make) to fall apart in the most horrifying ways.

Featuring: Alan Cumming, Russell Tovey, Rufus Wright, Melanie Gutteridge, Enzo Cilenti and Ed Gaughan.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

 

Further reading

Two recent and comprehensive books are Bill Hammack’s Fatal Flight (about the R101) and John Anderson’s Airship on a Shoestring

An excellent – but one-sided – account of the airship race is Nevil Shute Norway’s Slide Rulewhile the case for Lord Thomson’s defence is put in Peter Masefield’s To Ride The Storm.  Alfred Roubaille’s description of the crash is from Nigel Blundell’s The World’s Greatest Mistakes.

The BBC made a documentary about R101, including eye-witness accounts. So did the History Channel.

The academic studies:

Dan Ariely, Uri Gneezy, George Loewenstein, Nina Mazar, “Large Stakes and Big Mistakes” The Review of Economic Studies, Volume 76, Issue 2, April 2009, Pages 451–469, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-937X.2009.00534.x

Robert Drago and Gerald T Garvey “Incentives for Helping on the Job: Theory and Evidence”
Journal of Labor Economics, 1998, vol. 16, issue 1, 1-25 http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/209880 

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