Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Articles published in June, 2020

Book of the Week 24 – Dark Data by David Hand

What is Dark Data?

Consider the example of the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster. Should the shuttle launch, despite fears that low temperatures might weaken the “o-ring” seals? A graph of seven previous occasions when the o-rings had been stressed showed no relationship between temperature and the degree of damage.

Alas, what was missing was the data from all the launches where there had been no damage at all: in each case, air temperatures were higher. On viewing all the data, a clear relationship was visible.

“Dark data are data you do not have,” writes Hand. “They might be data you thought you had, or hoped to have, or wished you had. But they are data you don’t have. You might be aware that you do not have them, or you might be unaware.”

This book, then has some commonalities with Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women, a book about systematic failure to collect data about women or issues that might be of particular relevance to women. Hand’s book is a shade more technical, but that is not the only difference: as the Challenger example makes clear, there are many different kinds of missing data, and many reasons why we might fail to have them. (The most mundane of all: time series data when some of the data points lie in the future…)

I enjoyed this book a lot; it is well-written and accesible, although mostly aimed at practioners.

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My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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30th of June, 2020MarginaliaComments off

Book of the Week 23 – How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi

‘”Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other.’

Just one of the ideas that stuck with me from Kendi’s thought-provoking polemic. It seemed original (it was certainly new to me) and useful – a way of moving beyond the sterile attempts to peer into each others’ souls and pronounce ourselves and our allies non-racist, while some despicable opponent is, of course, racist. Better to judge by actions.

Kendi begins the book with an account of himself as a young man taking part in a public speaking competition. While he explicitly rejects what he thought and said back then, he certainly hasn’t rejected the toolkit of the debater. He argues cleverly, persuasively, and like a good debater, is happy to take a logical short-cut when it suits him. For example: yes, many racists say “I am not a racist” – but it does not follow, as Kendi repeatedly implies, that “not-racism” is inevitably combination of racism plus lies.

(A personal aside: one of the reasons I picked up How To Be An Antiracist was my sense that I had no idea of the issues involved. I had that generic liberal sense that racism was repugnant and that everyone regardless of skin colour or ethnic heritage should be free to fulfil their potential, free from fear, oppression or discrimination. But it was dawning on me that I really hadn’t a clue what – for example – a young black man in America might have to deal with. Ironic, then, that Kendi’s first anecdote is of him doing pretty much what I was doing when I was the same age: standing on stage and spouting off.)

While I did not agree with everything, I learned a lot from this book – both the personal reflections and the argument. I found it particularly useful to have read Caroline Criado Perez’s excellent Invisible Women; the two books together helped me understand how much damage can be done by the unthinking default to male – or, in Kendi’s book, the unthinking default to white. This made it easier for me to engage with Kendi’s assertion that every policy is either racist or antiracist: what seemed at first a strange exaggeration made sense in the light of Crado Perez’s arguments. Sure, there almost certainly are policies that are neither racist not antiracist, but it’s worth explicitly asking yourself, “what is the likely impact of this policy or idea on different racial groups?”

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My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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29th of June, 2020MarginaliaComments off

Cautionary Tales – The Spreadsheet of Life and Death

Clive Stone was dying, and the drug that might help him was unavailable: a spreadsheet somewhere said that the numbers didn’t add up. But Clive Stone wasn’t a man to accept that sort of decision without a fight.

How do we value human life? What happens when we turn flesh-and-blood people into entries on a spreadsheet? And, perhaps just as worryingly, what happens when we don’t?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Pete Naughton. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

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

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Further reading and listening

Read Clive Stone’s story in his own words on the Kidney Cancer Support Network; the story was also covered by the Telegraph, the BBC, the Guardian and The Oxford Mail.

Spencer Banzhaf’s article, The Cold-War Origins of Statistical Life, was indispensable on the history of the concept. For a recent exploration of the issues, see Howard Steven Friedman’s book Ultimate Price.

Thomas Schelling’s fascinating book, Choice and Consequence, contains his essay, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”.

The BBC reported on the value-for-money of the cancer drugs fund.

NICE offers a useful explanation of QALYs and how they are used.

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26th of June, 2020Cautionary TalesComments off

The cost of keeping schools closed will be grave

British parents received mixed messages this week. On one hand, most children would not be going back to school until September at the earliest. On the other, zoos would be reopening. It’s a shame about the decay in maths and reading skills, but look on the bright side: penguins!

The closure of schools in many countries around the world puts the dilemmas of the pandemic in particularly sharp relief. There are no easy answers, but I worry that the question is not being given enough priority. We are at risk of making a mistake now with consequences that will last.

Children are not at much risk from the virus. As a parent I understand the impulse to protect your own children at any cost, but in England and Wales, just two children from the age of five to 14 have been recorded as having died with Covid-19 between March 28 and May 29. To put those two tragedies into context, over the same time period we would typically expect eight children to be killed in road accidents. Our children are very safe, by historical standards. If they return to the classroom, Covid-19 will not be the biggest risk they face.

When a society closes its schools, then, it is doing so not for the sake of the children.

What about the teachers, who must stand in front of 30 little viral vectors while some of us write newspaper columns from our homes? I would certainly not want to demand that my children’s teachers go to work while I stay home — doubly so for those in higher risk groups. But the evidence suggests that most teachers who decide to return to school would not be at grave risk. Data from England and Wales studying deaths registered before April 21 — many of whom would have been infected before lockdown — found that construction workers, cleaners, care workers, nursing assistants, taxi drivers, chefs and retail assistants were among those at higher risk. Teachers were not. Nobody should feel compelled to enter a workplace where they feel unsafe and we must find ways to make schools safer. But there is no sign that teachers should feel at greater risk than many others.

The final argument to keep the schools closed is that closures might be an essential component of a general effort to contain the virus over the medium term. But are they? That is unclear. Children will find it even harder than the rest of us to wash hands, avoid touching their faces and maintain distance from one another. Classrooms put them in close proximity, indoors, for an extended period of time. That must risk spreading the virus.

That said, the evidence suggests schools are just one of many places where the virus can spread — and that workplaces are just as risky, while restaurants and public transport are riskier still. In late May, researchers at the Center for Global Development looked at 20 countries that had reopened schools, usually as coronavirus infections were on the wane. In three of them, there was some evidence — albeit weak — that the epidemic had worsened after the reopening. In most, if I showed you a graph of new cases you’d find it impossible to guess the point at which schools returned.

This doesn’t prove that schools pose no risk. In particular, societies may often open them only when they are sure that other measures are keeping the virus under control. Such measures, for example contact tracing, should not be overlooked. Yet the broad fact that so many reopenings have succeeded does suggest that the risk is manageable when done right.

Meanwhile, what of the risk of keeping classrooms closed? That is higher than many seem to realise. It is damaging for the careers of many parents — mothers especially, I suspect. It is hard to see an economy bounce back when so many people’s jobs depend on their children being safely supervised at school.

As for the pupils themselves, we have evidence from numerous school strikes around the world that children’s education suffers when their schooling is interrupted. There is an active debate in academia over whether long summer breaks set back the learning of all students, or only that of those who were already disadvantaged. Either way, a break in schooling of six months or more seems likely to put a serious dent in the skills of many, permanently damaging their chances of flourishing.

Schools are trying to provide resources to help children maintain their momentum, but it is self-evident that some of these distance-learning offerings are much weaker than others. None of them can entirely deliver what young children need.

Reversing lockdown is a perilous moment. If it is bungled, and the virus springs back, we risk combining the health costs of openness with the social costs of lockdown. But we cannot sacrifice our children’s education indefinitely, purely to benefit their elders.

The problem of reopening schools has become central to the pandemic response. It requires wisdom, diplomacy and close attention. So far, the British government has displayed none of those qualities.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 12 June 2020. (The original is free to read and packed with links to original sources.)

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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Book of the Week 22 – The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova

I’ve been a fan of Maria Konnikova’s writing for a while. She’s a Harvard-educated academic psychologist who switching to writing and turned out to be even better at that than psychology – her book, The Confidence Game, is a modern classic with a great mix of psychological research and true storytelling. Just my kind of thing.

The new book, The Biggest Bluff, sees Konnikova taking on the world of professional poker in the hope of learning something about psychology – and perhaps in the hope that her psychological training might give her an edge. 

In some ways this is a cross between James McManus’s astonishing true story Positively Fifth Street (journalist goes to Vegas to cover a murder trial, accidentally goes deep into the world’s biggest poker tournament) and Annie Duke’s excellent Thinking in Bets, in which an academically-trained poker champion shares what she’s learned. No bad thing, that, because both are great books.

Konnikova has a compelling story to tell about her rollercoaster ride through the world of high-stakes poker, and she tells it well, effortlessly weaving in the academic insights in between her lessons from her mentor, Erik Seidel, and the dizzying highs and lows of the table. I loved it.

UK: Blackwells   Amazon

US: Powell’s   Amazon

 

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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20th of June, 2020Other WritingComments off

Cautionary Tales – A Tsunami of Misery

Saving people from an urgent threat can cause their lives to be blighted in profound, yet hidden ways.
A monstrous wave and then a nuclear disaster forced Mikio and Hamako Watanabe from their home. But being saved from the potential dangers of a radiation leak destroyed their lives in a different way. Why do urgent dangers prompt us to take action, when far worse long-term ills are so often ignored?

WARNING: This episode discusses death by suicide. If you are suffering emotional distress or having suicidal thoughts, support is available – for example, from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US) or Samaritans (UK).

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Pete Naughton. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

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

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Further reading and listening

I relied on long pieces by two brilliant journalists, Evan Osnos, “The Fallout” in The New Yorker, and my friend Robin Harding “Fukushima nuclear disaster: Did the evacuation raise the death toll?” in The Financial Times.

Additional sources include Mari Saito, Lisa Twaronite “Fukushima farmer takes on nuclear plant operator over wife’s suicide” Reuters

Kyung Lah “Husband of Fukushima suicide victim demands justice” CNN

Makoto Takahashi “Five Years after Fukushima, there are big lessons for nuclear disaster liability” University of Cambridge

Dean Karlan and Daniel Wood.  “The Effect of Effectiveness: Donor Response to Aid Effectiveness in a Direct Mail Fundraising Experiment.” 2015. Economic Growth Center Discussion Paper No. 1038.

Karen E Jenni and George Loewenstein, “Explaining the “Identifiable Victim Effect”,  Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 14:235–257 (1997). Professor Loewenstein is quoted by Quentin Fottrell of  Marketwatch.

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19th of June, 2020Cautionary TalesComments off

The pros and cons of libertarian lockdowns – or “don’t be a dickhead”

In March, an employee of a Melbourne bank was sacked after the bank concluded they had falsely claimed to be infected with coronavirus, triggering alarm for everyone working in the same building. The hands-off response of the local police chief: “It’s not against the law to be a dickhead”.

For weeks, much of the world has been locked down in an attempt to suppress the spread of the virus. The severity of the rules, and the relentlessness with which they have been enforced, has varied from place to place, but the broad theme has been the same: the rules are wide, restrictive and legally binding. Flout them and you will be punished: so it is “against the law to be a dickhead”.

It is easy to lose sight of an alternative approach: a libertarian lockdown. If you want to open a nightclub, rub shoulders in a choir, or offer to shake hands with everyone you meet in a hospital: “It’s not against the law to be a dickhead”. The sanctions will be social or commercial, not legal.

Before considering the objections to this idea — and there are plenty — take a moment to consider its appeal. First, freedom is valuable. To make something punishable by the power of the state is not a step to be taken lightly.

Second, most people try to do the right thing. We are social animals: we look out for each other, especially in a crisis, and we also fear being ostracised. In the UK, the vast majority of people complied with the lockdown, and not because they expected the police to come knocking.

Still, we do not rely on peer pressure as a substitute for making murder illegal. When life and death are on the line, laws and punishments are reasonable.

So the third argument is, I think, the most persuasive: the next stage in the fight against Covid-19 requires a subtlety that the law cannot provide. With coronavirus spreading rapidly, there was a strong case for a blunt, one-size-fits-all message: “stay at home, save lives”. But now the task is different. We are not trying to suppress a spreading epidemic; we are trying reopen our countries where possible while preventing a second wave. That means seeking out the most effective ways to prevent infections while still allowing both the economic activity that supports our livelihoods and the social activity that makes life worth living.

Last week, I discussed ways in which the government might try to discriminate — between young and old, or between different regions. But there is an alternative, which is to let people decide for themselves.

To use Friedrich Hayek’s phrase, making the right judgments from now on requires “knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place”. Every workplace, every social setting, every classroom, is different. There is no law that can accommodate all the different ways in which people might try to protect themselves and each other while still maintaining some semblance of normal social and economic activity. And while firm guidelines and ­standards can be useful, no law can reflect my own intimate judgment about how much risk I am willing to take.

The case for a libertarian lockdown, one that relies on voluntary action and social pressure, is strong. But there is also a powerful case against.

First, and most crucially, this is an infectious disease. Each case of infection risks sparking many others. As I weigh the balance of benefits and risks I may downplay the risks to others, and endanger them. If I am not thoughtful and altruistic enough, people may die.

Second, while we should normally give each other the benefit of the doubt in judging our own best interests, this virus is a novel and invisible killer. We are figuring things out in a stew of ­misinformation, quack remedies and questionable advice. Can we expect mere common sense to be sufficient?

Third, people may lack either the power or the information to make a real choice. If a restaurant reopens, I am free to decide whether it’s safe to show up. The restaurant staff may feel they have no such freedom. And if the restaurant looks conscientious at the front of house but is taking risks in the kitchen, would market forces really punish that hidden offence?

A middle way is, of course, possible. Governments can outlaw the riskiest activities, while allowing free choice to prevail elsewhere, bolstered by firm guidance. The more clarity, trust and social solidarity there is, the more likely voluntarism is to work. It is a shame that the UK government has done so much to corrode that clarity, trust and social solidarity this week in the row over the lockdown odyssey of the prime ­minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

Yet the idea is hardly doomed. We will have to start figuring out how to stay safe, making difficult judgments in ambiguous situations. And it is striking that Denmark, which has lifted many restrictions, has not yet seen a second wave of infections. Perhaps “don’t be a dickhead” is enough after all.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 29 May 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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Book of the Week 21: Sleight of Mind by Matt Cook

Sleight of Mind offers “75 ingenious paradoxes in mathematics, physics and philosophy” – and there are many classics here – the Monty Hall problem; the Hilbert hotel; Feynman’s sprinkler; Achilles and the Tortoise.

I was expecting a rather breezy discussion of the puzzles and paradoxes – along the lines of Julian Baggini’s popular book The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten – but it’s actually WAY more technical than I anticipated. I studied Godel’s incompleteness theorem, Arrow’s general possibility theorem and Cantor’s diagonalisation argument at university – none of them in introductory classes. I did not find Matt Cook’s treatment to be dumbed down relative to that level – it was more like being taken back to a classroom surrounded by a small number of very intimidating mathematicians…

Cook’s treatment of the problems is perfectly lucid but for those without a background in mathematics or logic it is going to require some very hard thinking.

All that said: there’s a lot to enjoy here, if you feel up to it. And if you’re studying a relevant degree this is a great resource.

An alternative for the generaly reader is Raymond Smullyan’s wonderful book of puzzles, What Is The Name Of This Book? It starts gently, one brain-teaser at a time, but by the end of the book you’ve gone deep into powerful ideas of logic and mathematics.

UK: Blackwells   Amazon

US: Powells   Amazon

 

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones.

Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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13th of June, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Cautionary Tales – Fire At The Beverly Hills Supper Club

Why did audience members fail to flee a deadly fire… despite being told to escape?

Flames are spreading through a Cincinnati hotel. The staff know it, the fire department is coming, and the people in the packed cabaret bar have been told to evacuate… and yet people hesitate to move. Why don’t we react to some warnings until it’s too late?

 

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Pete Naughton. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

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

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

 

Further reading and listening

I first found out about the Supper Club Fire from The Ostrich Paradox by Howard Kunreuther and Robert Keyer. The fullest account I could find is in Amanda Ripley’s book The Unthinkable, including an interview with Walter Bailey.

Another source on the fire was Drue Johnston and Norris Johnson “Role Extension in Disaster: Employee Behavior at the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire.” Sociological Focus, vol. 22, no. 1, 1989, pp. 39–51., www.jstor.org/stable/20831497.

For the details on the Torrey Canyon spill, the two key sources are Oil and Water by Edward Cowan, and The Black Tide by Richard Petrow.

For a more contemporary discussion of plan continuation bias I recommend Meltdown by Chris Clearfield and Andras Tilcik.

On ambiguous threats see Michael Roberto, Richard Bohmer and Amy Edmondson, ‘Facing Ambiguous Threats’ Harvard Business Review November 2006 https://hbr.org/2006/11/facing-ambiguous-threats

 

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12th of June, 2020Cautionary TalesComments off

What happens when you smash your own face in, in the middle of a pandemic?

My initial instinct, after hitting the road face first, was to call out to assure my wife that I was fine. My second instinct, as I looked at the rapidly spreading puddle of blood, was that perhaps I wasn’t.

Reader, you can deduce that whatever I did, it was not enough to stop me writing this week’s column. It was spectacular, though. Having your bike chain snap as you stand up in the saddle is not an experience I recommend. Absorbing the impact of the tarmac with your mouth is a strategy that I cannot endorse. Next time I’ll try to land on my backside.

Fortunately, that was not the only lesson I learnt. First, I was reminded that people really do look out for each other in a crisis. The coronavirus lockdown awkwardness of tense people avoiding each other on the street evaporated in an instant when I was sprawled face down in the middle of the road. One woman ran out of her house with tissues and water. An elderly fellow ambled over, proffering hand sanitiser and asking what he could do. Friends with bandages and medical degrees were at my side in minutes — I was cycling through my own neighbourhood — but even once the professionals were on the scene, everyone who passed stopped to offer help. Social distancing matters and the coronavirus is a scary thing. But when a poor soul is covered in his own blood, no one passes by on the other side.

Second, I learnt how impressively a healthcare system can perform when there’s some slack. Given that the UK’s NHS is focused on the twin challenges of treating Covid-19 cases and preventing the spread of the virus, I assumed that dental work would be out of the question. Not a bit of it. At half past eight on a Saturday evening, just a few hours after the accident, I walked into a near-deserted dental surgery, rubbed alcohol gel all over my grazed hands — ouch — filled in a form, paid a few pounds and settled in for a couple of X-rays and a temporary filling. (The damage, it turns out, is permanent but trivial.)

A tetanus jab on Monday at my local doctor’s surgery was even easier to arrange. Astonishingly easy, in fact. No mystery as to why: no one goes to see a doctor right now unless they really need treatment; some people are failing to see a doctor even then. As a result, the parts of the health service with which I interacted had plenty of slack. There was no waiting for an appointment, and ­everything was running to time — more like a restaurant than the NHS I grew up with.

In the short term, it will be impossible to maintain that slack. In the long term, we might decide to regain it. When the NHS reopens, all the postponed procedures must be crammed in; some patients will have acquired more severe and complex conditions for lack of treatment. It will be tough for staff and patients alike. But years from now, I hope we will not lose the memory of a healthcare system with both the flexibility and the spare capacity to see patients promptly. Such extra capacity costs money, of course. But we may find that it is worth the extra expense, even in the good times. It is efficient to stretch a healthcare system to capacity, but the strain imposes countless small costs, from long queues to stressed staff to appointments that are sometimes too brief to do the job. If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is that spare capacity can be invaluable when a crisis hits.

The third lesson is one that I have to relearn in every personal crisis: you can change your plans, even those that seem set in stone. It is frustrating to have to delay work, upsetting to cancel long-anticipated pleasures and embarrassing to call others to explain that they will be inconvenienced because I fell off my bike and led with my chin. I am always a little too slow to accept the inevitable, and usually need others — a friend, a colleague, or my wife — to start prying open my iron grip on an obsolete ­schedule.

My own pratfall, bloody though it was, is of course trivial compared with a deadly global pandemic. But the lockdowns are tripping us all up just the same. Our work, our social lives, our holiday plans — all are sprawling on the deck. I see myself and others struggling to let go of our fond aspirations and comfortable habits and, instead, crossing our fingers and hoping things will be back to normal soon. And perhaps they will, but that seems less likely by the day. So we will all have to keep rethinking and adapting. Those people who are quickest to adjust, whether by temperament or sheer happenstance, are the most likely to ­flourish.

The final lesson is the simplest, the most familiar, the most banal — and yet somehow never redundant. I learnt, again, to count my blessings: medically trained friends who sprint to the rescue; NHS staff on duty and happy to help despite the risks; the fact that I didn’t break my jaw. And I am grateful that I work not on television, but in print and radio. Now, more than ever, I have the face for it.

 

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 15 May 2020.

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