Cautionary Tales – Fritterin’ Away Genius

14th May, 2021

Claude Shannon was brilliant. He was the Einstein of computer science… only he loved “fritterin’ away” his time building machines to play chess, solve Rubik’s cubes and beat the house at roulette.

If Shannon had worked more diligently – instead of juggling, riding a unicycle and abandoning project after project – would he have made an even greater contribution to human knowledge? Maybe… and maybe not. Are restlessness and “fritterin'” important parts of a rich and creative life?

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

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Further reading and listening

Soni and Goodman’s biography of Claude Shannon, A Mind At Play, was an essential source, as was Ed Thorp’s autobiography A Man For All Markets. Other excellent books that touch on the topics and events discussed are Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory, James Gleick’s The Information, James Owen Weatherall’s The Physics of Wall Street, and Brian Christian’s The Most Human Human.

Bernice Eiduson’s research project is written up as Robert S. Root‐Bernstein, Maurine Bernstein and Helen Gamier. “Identification of Scientists Making Long‐Term, High‐Impact Contributions, with Notes on their Methods of Working”. Creativity Research Journal, 1993.

Nobel prize winners with serious hobbies: Root-Bernstein, R., Allen, L., et al. “Arts foster scientific success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma Xi members”. Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, 2008

Doctors with completion bias: KC, Diwas S., Bradley R. Staats, Maryam Kouchaki, and Francesca Gino. “Task Selection and Workload: A Focus on Completing Easy Tasks Hurts Long-Term Performance.” Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 17-112, June 2017.

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