Thursday , December 14 2017
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Tim Harford: Undercover Economist

The dangers of dark nudging

The dangers of dark nudging “If you want people to do the right thing, make it easy.” That is the simplest possible summary of Nudge (UK) (US) by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. We are all fallible creatures, and so benevolent policymakers need to make sure that the path of least resistance goes to a happy destination. It is a simple but important idea, and deservedly influential: Mr Sunstein became a senior adviser to President Obama, while Mr Thaler is this year’s winner of...

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Curious books

Curious books I’ve written recently about how much I’ve been enjoying Soonish (UK) (US) by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, a highly amusing exploration of the latest technologies from satellite launch vehicles to 3D printed houses to gene therapy to self-organising robot swarms. But what else is out there to celebrate the curious? I recommend Steven Johnson’s Wonderland: How Play Made The Modern World (UK) (US) – a history of technology and economics with a difference. Johnson...

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A way to poke Facebook off its uncontested perch

A way to poke Facebook off its uncontested perch We need to talk about Facebook. Google (or Alphabet, if you prefer) is more ubiquitous; Apple makes more money; Amazon is a more obvious threat to the bricks-and-mortar economy; yet there is something uniquely troubling about the social media leviathan. One concern is Facebook’s unwholesome contribution to our diet of information. Because what we see in Facebook is a function of what our friends share, the site echoes our...

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What AlphaGo Zero teaches us about what’s going wrong with innovation

What AlphaGo Zero teaches us about what’s going wrong with innovation It is hard not to be impressed — and perhaps a little alarmed — by the progression. In 1997, IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue beat the world’s greatest chess player, Garry Kasparov. It was a hugely expensive piece of hardware, closely tended and coached by humans. Go is a far harder game for computers to master than chess. Yet when the AlphaGo programme emerged with muted fanfare in 2016, it comfortably...

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Budget 2017 shows a reactive government throwing cash at crises

Budget 2017 shows a reactive government throwing cash at crises Firefighting is a brave and essential profession, but for a politician it is not a good look. Successive British governments have found themselves locked in a vicious cycle: some part of the public sector is squeezed for money, manages decline for a while, then cracks under pressure. The crisis is extinguished by a sudden spray of last-minute cash — an expensive way to solve any problem — while money and attention...

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Fun escapist stuff that for some reason I am reading

Fun escapist stuff that for some reason I am reading Possibly the perfect Christmas present for the fun-loving person in your life… Top of the list is the magnificent Soonish (UK) (US) by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, a book I was happy to endorse. This is properly funny – as one might expect from the creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – but it’s also bang up to date in its exploration of the latest technologies from satellite launch vehicles to 3D printed houses to gene...

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Disruption can be a benefit – shame our politicians are giving us the wrong sort

Disruption can be a benefit – shame our politicians are giving us the wrong sort “We seem to be living in the riskiest moment of our lives, and yet the stock market seems to be napping,” said Richard Thaler recently. He is not alone in expressing such views, although since he had just won the Nobel memorial prize in economics, his comment understandably drew attention. Money is loose and global economic growth is robust, yet the strength and the stability of the S&P 500 is...

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Richard Thaler: How to change minds and influence people

Richard Thaler: How to change minds and influence people The best thing about Thaler, what really makes him special, is that he is lazy.” So said Daniel Kahneman, winner in 2002 of the Nobel memorial prize in economics. Prof Kahneman was talking about Richard Thaler, who has emulated that achievement 15 years later. Prof Thaler’s thesis adviser, the economist Sherwin Rosen, put it differently: “We didn’t expect much of him.” The story of how a lazy and unpromising man won a...

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Some podcasts you should hear

Some podcasts you should hear Forgive me not linking, because different people will access their podcasts in different ways, but here are a few feeds I suggest you check out: Radio 4’s Seriously feed contains two documentaries a week, with a marvellous range of techniques. The US storytelling style is wonderful, but there’s more variety in the Seriously stable, and while it sometimes misfires or is ponderous, when it works it’s glorious. Three recent episodes worth checking out:...

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Review of “The Square and The Tower” by Niall Ferguson

Review of “The Square and The Tower” by Niall Ferguson “The world remains a world of squares and towers,” concludes Niall Ferguson, after skipping across 500 years in about as many pages. The square — the town square, the market square — represents social networks, “the structures that human beings naturally form”. The tower represents hierarchical control and secular authority, the top-down approach to social structure. The study of how networks compete or co-operate with each...

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