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Tim Harford

Tim Harford

Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of “Messy” and the million-selling “The Undercover Economist”, a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s “More or Less” and the iTunes-topping series “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy”. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House and is a visiting fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.

Articles by Tim Harford

Ten years of social media have left us all worse off

2 days ago

Ten years of social media have left us all worse off
The last decade has had plenty of landmark moments — but one big change crept up on us slowly: our experiences in the liminal space of social media. Somewhere between Silicon Valley and our vibrating pockets, between our closest friends and some faceless trolls, our privacy, politics, economy and above all our attention were reshaped by Facebook and its outriders.
Social media existed before 2010, but not as we now know it. Few of us had smartphones in 2009. Facebook’s active user base has grown sevenfold over the past 10 years, and there simply aren’t enough people for that to happen again. Instagram and WhatsApp were both launched about a decade ago, and swiftly absorbed into the mother of all social networks. As for

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Book of the week 3: Rebel Ideas

5 days ago

Book of the week 3: Rebel Ideas
I hesitated to read Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas, not because I disapproved, but because I wondered whether I would learn anything new. The territory is familiar: cognitive diversity leads to better decisions. Like attracts like, meaning that we fill our organisational toolkits with hammers and neglect to recruit the screwdrivers, hacksaws and wrenches. That’s a bad idea, no matter how good the hammers are.But my hesitancy was a mistake: Rebel Ideas is a great book and I’ve learned plenty that’s new, as well as gaining a deeper appreciation of what I thought I already knew.Matthew Syed does cover some territory that was familiar to me from writing Messy. He cites my book and others that I admire, including Charlan Nemeth’s No!, Sunstein and

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The changing face of economics

5 days ago

The changing face of economics
Robert Solow, the Nobel laureate economist, says he had long been “bothered” by the fact that most people — even educated people — “had no clear idea of what economics is, and what economists do”.
Solow was born in Brooklyn in 1924, to what he has described as a “lower-middle-class family”, and grew up during the Great Depression.
Although his father always had work, Solow has said that from about the age of eight onwards, he was conscious that his parents were constantly worrying, “and their worries were purely economic: what was going to happen, could they continue to make ends meet”.
This awareness would shape his thinking throughout his life. He won a scholarship to Harvard at 16 and began an academic career that would see him reach the top

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‘Salvator Mundi’ and the limits of certainty

9 days ago

‘Salvator Mundi’ and the limits of certainty
Mona Lisa may be famously inscrutable, but “Salvator Mundi” has surely replaced her as Leonardo da Vinci’s most enigmatic work. It has been two years since it was reported that the long-lost painting had been sold to a Saudi prince as a gift to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, for an astonishing $450m — two and a half times the previous record for any painting sold at auction.
Since then the unveiling has been postponed without explanation, and the painting’s whereabouts are unknown: on a yacht, says one report; in secure storage in Switzerland, says another.
No doubt the mystery of its whereabouts will be resolved. The mystery of its provenance is deeper. In 2005, “Salvator Mundi” was bought for about $1,000 at an auction in New Orleans by

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Book of the Week 2: Dreyer’s English

12 days ago

Book of the Week 2: Dreyer’s English
Yes, a book about how to write, by a celebrated copy-editor. Benjamin Dreyer offers an enjoyable tour through all the rules of grammar and style that people break, making their prose dull or ridiculous. He also rails against the pedants who insist on rules that any good writer would happily break, such as prohibition on splitting infinitives.
It’s fun – even funny. Dreyer’s humour is on every page; one reviewer described it as ‘relentless’ but I was glad to have the jokes to keep me company. This is, after all, a book about grammar and linguistic precision. It needs jokes, and some of Dreyer’s are good enough to have me annoying my wife by reading them out to her. (Sorry.)
The book was easily good enough to keep me reading despite the fact

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How Sesame Street set a gold standard for education

16 days ago

How Sesame Street set a gold standard for education
The children’s television show Sesame Street just celebrated its 50th birthday. I know my favourite character should be Count von Count, who shares my fondness for numbers. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Mr Snuffleupagus, Big Bird’s best friend.
Mr Snuffy was thought by every adult on Sesame Street to be imaginary despite being as real as Elmo. It’s a good joke: Mr Snuffy, a strange anteater-mammoth hybrid, is colossal. How could the adults not notice him?
After the gag had run for 14 years, the adults finally realised that Mr Snuffleupagus was real, and apologised to Big Bird for doubting him. This was a weighty decision: Sesame Street’s writers were concerned about child abuse, and reflected that it might be unwise to

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Extreme Economies – disaster zones with lessons for us all

18 days ago

Extreme Economies – disaster zones with lessons for us all
In the 17th century, a boy named Hugh Montgomery fell from his horse and lost part of his rib cage; doctors replaced it with a metal plate and he survived — with a living heart that could be inspected by the pioneering doctor William Harvey. Phineas Gage survived a metal spike through his head in 1848, and the changes in his character inspired fresh understanding of how the brain works. If we can learn about the healthy human body by studying people who have suffered catastrophic injuries, might a similar trick work for economics?
That is the premise of Richard Davies’s book, in which he reports on economies that he views as unusually resilient, such as Aceh after the dreadful tsunami of 2004, or dysfunctional, such

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Book of the Week 1: A World Without Work

19 days ago

Book of the Week 1: A World Without Work
I’ve set myself the goal of writing a short book review every week in 2020. Let’s see how that goes. Happy New Year!
Daniel Susskind’s A World Without Work is, primarily, an excellent guide to the economics of automation and to the latest progress in artificial intelligence. Susskind begins by describing “a history of misplaced anxiety” about the machines taking the jobs, before outlining the influential Autor-Levy-Murnane (ALM) paradigm of 2003.
ALM emphasise tasks, rather than jobs: automation is far more likely to encroach on a narrow task (such as adding up the prices of goods at a supermarket checkout) than to completely replace a job such as a checkout assistant. We should therefore expect automation to reshape jobs, not replace

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Exit, voice, or loyalty… what should we do when things go wrong?

23 days ago

Exit, voice, or loyalty… what should we do when things go wrong?
“Under any economic, social or political system, individuals, business firms, and organizations in general are subject to lapses from efficient, rational, law-abiding, virtuous, or otherwise functional behavior.”
That is the first sentence of the economist Albert Hirschman’s book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, published in 1970. No kidding; look around. Rational, law-abiding, virtuous and otherwise functional behaviour is in short supply.
Hirschman’s book is about how we register our discontent with such lapses, and whether our discontent makes a difference. Do we walk away? Do we protest? Or do we suffer in silence?
The instinct of the economist, used to studying competitive markets, is to think of “exit” as the

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Cautionary Tales Ep 8 – You Have Reached Your Destination

29 days ago

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

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Algorithms judge us; how can we judge them?

December 26, 2019

Algorithms judge us; how can we judge them?
If there was ever a demonstration that people think with their guts, it was the furore over the idea that Apple Card is “a f***ing sexist program”. David Heinemeier Hansson, a successful entrepreneur and programmer, complained on Twitter that his wife had a far lower credit limit than he did, and soon everyone from the US senator Elizabeth Warren to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to the New York Department of Financial Services were weighing in to show their support.
The idea of women being treated badly by Big Tech and by banks seems all too plausible. Apple is quite literally an iconic brand. Goldman Sachs, the bank that issues and manages the Apple-branded credit card, is nearly as famous. So the ingredients for a viral story are

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

December 20, 2019

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:

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Extend gratitude beyond platitudes

December 19, 2019

Extend gratitude beyond platitudes
You know that blur of movement on Christmas morning when children meet presents and presents meet children, scraps of wrapping paper fly into the air and float down, confetti-style, all over the living room? Five minutes later, the presents are all unwrapped, the children sit panting, and everyone wonders what to do next.
It does not happen in the Harford household. For the past few years we have had a rule: you cannot unwrap the next present until you have written a thank-you note for the last one.
At first, this was merely my inner economist thinking about efficient incentives. I want my children to write thank-you letters and this generally requires some kind of bribe. At Christmas, that is easy: we are surrounded by gift-wrapped bribes.

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Why we fall for cons

December 14, 2019

Why we fall for cons
There may be times and places where it’s a good idea to talk back to a military officer — but Germany in 1906 wasn’t one of them. So the young corporal didn’t. The corporal — let’s call him Muller — had been leading his squad of four privates down Sylterstrasse in Berlin, only to be challenged by a captain.  Captain Voigt was in his fifties, a slim fellow with sunken cheeks, the outline of his skull prominent above a large, white moustache. Truth be told, he looked strangely down on his luck — but Muller didn’t seem to take that in. Like any man in uniform, Captain Voigt appeared taller and broader thanks to his boots, smart grey overcoat and Prussian-blue officer’s cap. His white-gloved hand rested casually on the hilt of his rapier.
“Where are you

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

December 13, 2019

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

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A guide to having an actually happy Christmas

December 12, 2019

A guide to having an actually happy Christmas
Is Christmas a time of magic, generosity and conviviality? Or of overconsumption, stress, and social anxiety? It is easy to make a case either way: listen to Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time”, followed immediately by Tom McRae’s slow sighing cover of the song and hear the same lyrics convey backslapping cheer and solitary despair.
Messrs McCartney and McRae illustrate the dilemma, but they do not resolve it. For that, we need data, so I consulted some academics on the slippery subject of “subjective wellbeing”, or as you or I would call it, “happiness”.
Two years ago, wellbeing researchers at the London School of Economics surveyed a panel of experts, asking them: “Do you think that populations on average have higher

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My books of the year 2019

December 8, 2019

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 Statistics. Sir David is a superb explainer of statistical concepts, and here he

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Cautionary Tales Ep 5 – Buried by the Wall Street crash

December 6, 2019

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:

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How to survive an election with your sanity intact

December 5, 2019

How to survive an election with your sanity intact
A week to go — or eleven months, if you’re a US voter — and the time has come to share with you my handy guide to surviving an election.
Step one: think about your goals. Mine are to keep my cool, keep my friends, learn a little about the world and cast my vote wisely. You might well share these goals — but bear in mind that most of the people you will encounter on the news or on social media have very different aims in mind: they would like you to be excited, if not downright angry. Therein lie the clicks, the views and sometimes the votes, too.
It follows that we need to be thoughtful about what sort of political news we watch and read. There is plenty of excellent analysis out there, but one needs to seek it out. Twitter

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Cautionary Tales Ep 4 – The Deadly Airship Race

November 29, 2019

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,

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Why we should all be playing games

November 28, 2019

Why we should all be playing games
“British politics is full of people who think they’re playing mah-jong but they’re actually playing Ludo.” Wise words from Robert Shrimsley on the Financial Times’s politics podcast — but I fear the situation is even worse. British politics may be full of people who aren’t playing any good games at all. That would be a shame for them, and for us. Games are wonderful; we should all be playing more of them.
In truth, any sort of serious hobby seems to be valuable. Many of the smartest people have at least one: Albert Michelson, the physicist who measured the speed of light and won a Nobel Prize, painted well, played the violin, and was a seriously good billiards player.
“Billiards is a good game,” he once announced. But it was not as good as

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Cautionary Tales Ep 3 – LaLa Land: Galileo’s Warning

November 22, 2019

Cautionary Tales Ep 3 – LaLa Land: Galileo’s Warning

Galileo tried to teach us that when we add more and more layers to a system intended to avert disaster, those layers of complexity may eventually be what causes the catastrophe. His basic lesson has been ignored in nuclear power plants, financial markets and at the Oscars…all resulting in chaos.
Featuring: Archie Panjabi, Mircea Monroe, Enzo Cilenti, 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

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What exactly is so bad about uncertainty, anyway?

November 21, 2019

What exactly is so bad about uncertainty, anyway?
The one certainty in politics at the moment is that it is uncertain. From a British point of view, there is the apparently endless game-playing over Brexit — coupled with the looming prospect of an unpredictable and highly consequential general election. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on the situation in the US.
The received wisdom is that political uncertainty is bad news, at least for the economy. Is that really true? And, if so, why? If we understand the problem a little better we may also have a sense of whether there is any chance of improvement.
The evidence from the research of various economists suggests that uncertainty is indeed a brake on economic activity. Nuno Limão and colleagues have shown that uncertainty

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Cautionary Tales Ep 2 – The Rogue Dressed as a Captain

November 15, 2019

One crisp Berlin morning, in 1906, a small group of soldiers were led on an extraordinary heist by a man they believed to be a captain. So how did an ageing nobody in a fake uniform trick them into taking part in the crime of the century? Some say we humans will obey orders from anyone who dresses the part… but the real reason why we fall for tricksters time and again is far more interesting. Fraudsters and charlatans reel us in slowly by using psychology against us.
Featuring: Alan Cumming, Russell Tovey, Rufus Wright, Melanie Gutteridge 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

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Cautionary Tales Ep 1 – DANGER: Rocks Ahead!

November 15, 2019

Cautionary Tales Ep 1 – DANGER: Rocks Ahead!

Torrey Canyon was one of the biggest and best ships in the world – nevertheless its captain and crew needlessly steered it towards a deadly reef known as The Seven Stones. This risky manoeuvre seems like utter madness, but the thinking behind it is something we are all prone to do when we fixate on a goal and a plan to get us there.
Featuring: Enzo Cilenti, Ed Gaughan, Rufus Wright 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

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The weakest link theory that explains our economic woes

November 14, 2019

The weakest link theory that explains our economic woes

I was delighted to see Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer announced as winners of the Nobel memorial prize in economics. By championing the use of randomised controlled trials in development projects, they have added large and useful doses of rigorous evidence to a discipline that can be overfond of reasoning from a comfortable armchair.
The spotlight this week has understandably been on Prof Duflo. She is a superb economist, highly charismatic and the youngest winner by far. She is also only the second woman to win the prize, after Lin Ostrom in 2009. Since Prof Ostrom was a political scientist, and not as well known in the economics profession as she should have been, Prof Duflo is arguably the first

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Hug your enemy rather than wrestling the pig

November 8, 2019

Hug your enemy rather than wrestling the pig
Brexit has already taken quite a toll on the British economy, and worse may be lying in wait. But the political damage seems graver. Lies, threats and insults have become ubiquitous. So has open contempt both for the opposite side and for once-respected institutions. As for the situation in Northern Ireland, or diplomatic relations between the UK and the rest of the EU, let’s not even think about it. (The English usually don’t.)
It’s tempting to obsess about the tone of politics, but that is a trap. If we spend our time wringing our hands over the form of the political conversation, it leaves little space to think about the content. Remember the lesson of the lie on the bus: a fact-checking dispute about the UK’s contributions to

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Cautionary Tales…

November 4, 2019

Cautionary Tales…
Exciting news – I have a new podcast series ready to burst out upon an unsuspecting world. It’s called Cautionary Tales – true stories of catastrophe and fiasco, sparkling with top acting talent, with the aim of making you wiser with every word. I’m writing and presenting the series and will be adding a soupcon of social science to the narrative. [Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

While you wait for the first episodes to drop on November 15th, I thought I’d share a few of my favourite books about making mistakes.
I received Nigel Blundell’s The World’s Greatest Mistakes as a Christmas gift when I was a child – a strange and compelling array of catastrophes, from famous air crashes and military blunders to amusing vignettes such as the bride who accidentally

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The risks in raising the minimum wage

November 1, 2019

The risks in raising the minimum wage
You can have too much of a good thing. Somebody should mention this to Sajid Javid, the UK’s new chancellor of the exchequer. This week he announced an increase in the minimum wage to two-thirds of the median wage, bringing it to around £10.50 per hour. His plans are to come to fruition in 2024, assuming there are no unforeseen events in British politics in the interim.
The US House of Representatives has the same deadline in mind for a plan to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15. After the 2020 election, they may get their way.
I fear that we are creeping towards a serious mistake — maybe not now, but soon. And it isn’t too late to correct it. There are three elements to the mistake. The first is the scale of the changes

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Books about seeing into the past and the future

October 28, 2019

Books about seeing into the past and the future
What I’ve been reading…
Steven Johnson’s Farsighted. I’m a Steven Johnson fan and enjoyed this book a lot – sufficiently to read it in an afternoon in the library, then head to my local bookshoop and pay full retail. Given the number of books I get sent on spec, that’s a sincere compliment. This book is about taking the long view and thinking about non-obvious effects. Among the topics – diversity and groupthink (Steven may have taken some inspiration from Messy, Wiser and The Difference), prediction (with the now-obligatory mention of the excellent Superforecasting) and some really good stuff on wargaming and scenarios. Some good stories, well written – less surprising than, for example, Johnson’s Wonderland but I still learned

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