Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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Book of the week 14: The Weather Machine by Andrew Blum

I was intrigued by news reports that the Met Office was planning to drop more than a billion pounds on a new supercomputer, and wondered what it was that these clever weather forecasters did with all that silicon. So I picked up Andrew Blum’s recent book, The Weather Machine.
Blum starts with the weather map – and John Ruskin’s metaphor of the “weather machine”, transcending the local observations of an individual forecaster and linking together what James Gleick calls “local surprises” into a larger map. After all, one part of the weather forecasting game is straightforward: if it’s raining to the west of you and the wind is blowing from the west, you can expect rain soon. Weather forecasts begin with weather observations: the more observations, the better.
In the 1850s, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC used reports from telegraph operators to patch together those “local surprises” into a national weather map. This map was based purely on observations, but it was still a useful starting point before we had either the scientific understanding or the computational power necessary to make a reliable forecast.
The scientific understanding began to dawn in 1904, when Norwegian mathematician Vilhelm Bjerknes published “The problem of weather prediction”, an academic paper describing the circulation of masses of air. If you knew the density, pressure, temperature, humidity and the velocity of the air in three dimensions, and plugged the results into Bjerknes’s formulas, you would be on the way to a respectable weather forecast – if only you could solve those computationally-demanding equations.
The British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson attempted just that, attempting to predict the weather of 20th May 1910 given the starting conditions. Alas, it was 1922 before he finished the sums – despite continuing to calculate in the evenings after long days as an ambulance driver during the war. Nor did the equations accurately describe the weather that day, 12 years earlier. Still: one must start somewhere.
Fry Richardson dreamed of a forecasting factory, a stadium filled with 64,000 human computers, conducted by lights and other signals as they furiously calculated the weather equations faster than the weather itself could evolve. It was a remarkable vision: modern weather forecasting works much as Fry anticipated, except that there is no need to perform the calculations by hand – or 128,000 hands. The Met Office’s billion-and-a-half dollars of silicon will do the job nicely.
Blum’s narrative ranges widely and finishes at the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts HQ in Reading. (My understanding is that this arrangement will survive Brexit, partly because the EMRWF is a separate organisation from the EU. But don’t quote me on that.) The EMRWF, says Blum, are the elite among meteorologists, and he spends some time exploring why they are so admired. Part of the secret is a way of working that can be split into modules and relentlessly tested, experimented with, and improved.
I strongly recommend the book, which is a fascinating glimpse of a mysterious world.

UK: Blackwell’sAmazon

US: Powell’sAmazon

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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6th of April, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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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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Book of the Week 12: The Misinformation Age by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall

The Misinformation Age is a good read, although not quite what I expected. Not much on the psychology of misinformation – the backfire effect and confirmation bias, for example, are mentioned only briefly. But that’s fine: such topics are covered very well elsewhere. Instead, the book has two stylistically quite different components: some strong storytelling (and often the stories were unfamiliar to me); and a network-based analysis of the spread of information or misinformation through a nodes-and-edges graph.

O’Connor and Weatherall are interested, then, in the structure of networks that propagate information and misinformation, and spend at least as much time on expert networks (for example, networks of research scientists) as they do on muppets like you and me. The graph-analysis is used to study how pseudo-scientific propaganda (such as tobacco-cancer denial and climate denial) can influence experts. I learned a lot, and was delighted to see that an idea I proposed way back in “Adapt” actually exists in the scientific literature: it’s called the Zollman Effect. (The Zollman Effect describes a situation in which scientists can improve their beliefs by failing to communicate. Too much communication, too early, leads to a convergence of beliefs that might be premature. Pockets of heterodox thought gather data on alternative approaches, which will sometimes prove to be correct.)

The stories are good, too. Some come from the excellent Merchants of Doubt, but no harm in that. There was some very interesting detail on the initial research into the ozone hole, and I loved the opening tale about the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, a piece of fake news that emerged around 1350 CE and persisted for centuries. Bravo.

UK: Blackwell’sAmazon

US: Powell’sAmazon

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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23rd of March, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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Book of the week 11: Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan

“The sagacious businessman is constantly forecasting,” said the great economist Irving Fisher, a man thoroughly convinced of the power of data to make the future legible. Fisher transformed economics and made millions as an entrepreneur, but died in penury. He is now best remembered as the tragic figure who, shortly before the cataclysmic Wall Street crash of 1929, informed the nation: “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”

Poor Professor Fisher appears early on in Uncharted. Margaret Heffernan’s book is less a smackdown of failed forecasts than an engaging ramble across our attempts to predict, control, explore or embrace an uncertain future. Heffernan is admired for books that question the received wisdom of how management works; she is a business guru who brings the stern discipline of good sense to the business book genre. In this book, she turns her attention to a topic that absorbs most business leaders — and the rest of us too: how to think about what the future holds. Gazing into the future is not fruitless, she argues, but it is unnerving and hard work. Lazy and fearful, we are far too quick to reach for overblown gurus, or misleading data or other useless guides. Even a good tool, such as GPS, can dull our senses.

“What matters most isn’t the predictions themselves but how we respond to them, and whether we respond to them at all,” she writes. “The forecast that stupefies isn’t helpful, but the one that provides fresh thinking can be.”

And fresh thinking is what Heffernan wishes to provoke, mostly through storytelling, occasionally through rhetoric. Are we trapped by history? Only if we let our own narratives confine us. Can parents use an app to “predict life outcomes and . . . maximise the life-long potential of your child”? No. She finds the idea appalling.

Better, she suggests, to explore, empower, experiment. Whether you’re running a multinational, pondering a career change or being a parent, the same wisdom applies: sometimes things go wrong, or go right, and we don’t know why. Keep your eyes open. Stay engaged. Listen to others. Don’t be afraid to change course. Contribute to your community, and make connections before trouble strikes: “Don’t exchange business cards in a crisis.”

At times, Uncharted resembles a collection of secular sermons illustrated with a story. Heffernan stands in the pulpit quietly admonishing us to be a little wiser, reflect a little more, to do the things that deep down we already know we should be doing.

Moments of counterintuitive astonishment are scarce, but the book is probably better for that. And it largely avoids the usual suspects: Apple, Google, 3M, the US military. Instead, we find ourselves in the shoes of a disillusioned Catholic priest, realising he has fallen in love and getting no help from the Church. Or in a room with a diverse group of Mexicans, from mobsters to senators, as they try to explore the future with a scenario-planning exercise. Or with the management of Nokia, wondering if there is life after cell phones. These are subtle tales of struggle and compromise.

The storytelling is not without its flaws. Physicist Marzio Nessi morphs into a Mr Messi, who is surely a different kind of genius. A discussion of fresh ideas in healthcare required multiple re-readings to sort out who was doing what, where, and whether these were diverse experiments across the nation. More than once I checked the index because I assumed I’d missed something. These are small things, but in a book that tries to flow so freely across so many stories, they are barnacles that produce a drag.

That said, Heffernan is generally a deft storyteller and the book’s reliance on such stories is a strength. Bad “smart thinking” books offer 2×2 matrices and jargon; good ones offer theory and evidence. Heffernan steps outside the category entirely. She wants us to engage with the particularities of people, places and the problems they faced — to empathise with them, reflect on our own lives and our own careers, and to draw our own conclusions.

Uncharted is not a book to skim in the business class lounge. Heffernan’s approach is more like a music lover trying to broaden the appreciation of a patient friend. “Here’s an example; listen to this; here’s another. Compare, contrast. Now do you see what I’m getting at?” It is messy, and occasionally frustrating, but wise and appealingly human.

UK: AmazonBlackwell’s

US: Amazon – Powell’s (Publishes Sep 2020)
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 19 February 2020.

Catch up on the first season of my podcast “Cautionary Tales” [Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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16th of March, 2020MarginaliaOther WritingComments off
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Book of the Week 10: The Rules of Contagion by Adam Kucharski

All authors need a little bit of luck, and Kucharski has it with his suddenly-topical book, The Rules of Contagion.

I enjoyed this one a lot (or, strictly, am enjoying it a lot, since I’ve not finished but I wanted my review to be as timely as the book). Kucharski is a young epidemiologist with first-hand experience of the Zika outbreak, as well as a summer working in finance in the middle of the financial crisis, so is well-placed to write a lively book about contagion both of biological illnesses and of other things such as ideas.

The book is well written, plenty of nerdy ideas (Erdos-Renyi networks, for example) leavened both with practical examples and with nice pen-portraits of the scientists involved, such as Robert May, Hilda Hudson, Paul Erdos and Ronald Ross.

I’m learning fast and having a good time. A welcome distraction from the excitable news.

UK: AmazonBlackwell’s

US: Amazon

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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9th of March, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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Book of the Week 9: Loonshots by Safi Bahcall

Loonshots is a book about “how to nurture the crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases and transform industries” – and I should admit right off the bat that I haven’t had a chance to finish it yet, despite wanting to.

The book has a lot of strengths – some really nice accounts of the development of radar during the war, the creation of Arpa, Pixar, etc. These are case studies that you might have encountered before but the stories feel crisp and lively. Well worth reading for the potted histories alone, in fact.

I wish Bahcall had been less keen to coin new labels: P-type loonshots,  S-type loonshots, the “invisible axe” and the “Moses trap”. A few are fine, but as I skimmed ahead to the chapter about Arpa (which was excellent) I was surrounded by these new terms that I didn’t understand. By the way, P-type loonshots are bold product innovations. S-type loonshots are bold strategy innovations. Not sure why we don’t call them “product loonshots” and “strategy loonshots”.

Also still chewing over the effort to tie everything to phase transition (ice melting, water freezing). Bahcall is pointing to the fact that different organisations behave in different ways: a small start-up has a different culture to a large company; a military research outfit doesn’t act like an infantry regiment. But to get innovative ideas to work, you need both, and you need to manage the transfer of ideas between small and large, or blue-sky and front-line. As a metaphor, fine; but Bahcall seemed to feel it was more than a mere metaphor. Perhaps when I’ve had a chance to think about it some more, I’ll understand.

I wouldn’t be writing this review if I didn’t like the book, I should say. Despite the frustrations, there’s so much interesting material in it that I’m going to need to try again, cover to cover this time.

UK: Blackwell’sAmazon

US: Powell’s Amazon

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2nd of March, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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Book of the Week 8: Deep Thinking by Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov’s Deep Thinking (UK) (US) is subtitled “Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins”, although on that particular point it is not especially profound. Nevertheless I’ve found it well worth a second read.

The book has two particular strengths. First, the account of account of Kasparov’s battles with IBM’s Deep Blue, which reads like a thriller. Kasparov is clearly very sore about how IBM behaved, although he has rowed back from outright claims of cheating. What he does believe is that IBM made a big song and dance about how Deep Blue was going to advance the state of artificial intelligence – while all IBM really wanted was the PR coup of victory. Victory, it turns out, was a scientific dead end. He quotes the late computer scientist Alan Perlis: “Optimization hinders evolution”. In the case of computer chess, Perlis’s maxim describes researchers who chose pragmatic short-cuts for quick results. Deeper, riskier research was neglected.

This leads me to the second strength: it really is a wonderful history of computers in chess – although my hardback edition is from 2017 so Kasparov has nothing much to say about AlphaZero. I enjoyed it a lot, even though my chess knowledge is pretty ropey.

UK: Blackwell’sAmazon

US: Powell’sAmazon

 

 
Catch up on the first season of my podcast “Cautionary Tales” [Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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24th of February, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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Book of the Week 7: To Engineer Is Human by Henry Petroski

Henry Petroski is a fascinatingly eclectic writer – a nerd with the soul of a poet. I relied upon his book The Pencil: A History in writing the opening chapter of the forthcoming The Next Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy (coming in May), and turned to Success Through Failure while writing Adapt.

I was delighted to receive To Engineer Is Human as a Christmas present – one of those rare surprise presents that actually works out… It’s a wide-ranging collection of essays and musings. Topics range from the experience of being a toddler in a world of adults, through the distinctive pattern of fatigue in a “Speak & Spell”, to the catastrophic collapse of walkways in the lobby of a Kansas City hotel in 1981.

One provocative idea in Petroski’s work is the idea that engineers learn through trial and error more than one might expect. Yes, there are the laws of physics and in principle one can calculate the load-bearing strength of any structure – but in practice, when we try to do something new we will sometimes run into the unexpected.

Not every essay hits the mark – I didn’t feel moved or improved by the analysis of the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem “The Deacon’s Masterpiece” – but like a collection of poems or short stories, if you don’t enjoy one you can skip to the next. Overall I felt I was learning things from Petroski that I wouldn’t learn from anybody else.

Some overlap with the more recent book Success Through Failure, but lots to intrigue.

US: Powell’s / Amazon   UK: Blackwells / Amazon

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17th of February, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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Book of the Week 6: What We Need To Do Now

Chris Goodall’s latest book is What We Need To Do Now (For A Zero Carbon Society). I confess a temperamental kinship with Goodall: he’s a nerd, with a calm manner and an underdeveloped sense of outrage. This, I like very much. The book starts from the premise that we need to get carbon dioxide emissions down dramatically, and focuses on the UK: “the purpose of this book is to give an outline of the strategy the UK needs to adopt to address the climate threat”. 

Goodall acknowledges the progress – domestic emissions down more than 40 per cent since 1990, and down 10 per cent even after allowing for the offshoring of emissions to China and other manufacturers.

He then gets down to brass tacks. The first and most distinctive item on the agenda is to increase renewable electricity generation 20-fold. This should create a large surplus which can be used to create synthetic fuels, cover intermittency and provide for growing demands for electricity such as electric vehicles.

Other items include: mass insulation, electrifying transport, shiftying towards plant-based food, etc. A lot of this looks at the engineering but there’s plenty of discussion of the economics (and the economic instruments, such as a carbon tax) that will be needed.

There were a few surprises for me – I had no idea, for example, that there was so much carbon dioxide tied up in the fashion & clothing value chain.

Anyway: what Goodall sets out is a pretty ambitious plan. Whether you think it’s a good idea, and whether you think it’s feasible, this book is packed with analysis and refreshingly short on hysteria. I learned a lot.

UK: BlackwellsAmazon.

Possibly unavailable in the US; try here for the Kindle edition.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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10th of February, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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Book of the Week 5: You Look Like A Thing And I Love You

What surprised me about You Look Like A Thing And I Love You is that it’s genuinely funny – laugh-out-loud-funny, read-quotes-to-your-family-over-breakfast-funny. Who would not be charmed by an AI that develops My Little Pony names and suggests “Parpy Stink” and “Starsh*tter”? Or the accidental Murderbot that was supposed to be acting as a friendly usher? Or the curiosity-driven AI that plays Pacman by going to watch the ghosts, because they’re so interesting?

It’s not just a bunch of silly-AI gags, though. There may be a My Little Pony called Raspberry Turd on every other page, but there’s also a great deal of information about how machine learning actually works and why it finds certain kinds of problem a lot more difficult than others. Janelle Shane runs through various sources of AI-weirdness: AIs being trained in simulations (because simulators are faster and safer) and then finding ways to hack the simulation; AIs being fed subtly flawed training data (such as the AI which noticed that the difference between cancerous skin and healthy skin is that there’s usually a ruler in the picture when skin cancer is involved); AIs seeing giraffes everywhere in photographs of the savannah (because people like to take photos of giraffes, it’s safest to assume there’s one in the photo).

I learned a lot and laughed a lot.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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3rd of February, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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