Monday , September 16 2019
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Tim Harford: Undercover Economist

Should we take a few long holidays, or lots of short ones?

Should we take a few long holidays, or lots of short ones? I know a man who used to deal with a stressful job, working 15-18 hour days in a senior role, by slipping away to a rented house near Richmond Park in London. There, he refused to be interrupted by messages except during office hours, spent time playing bridge well and golf badly, and he ensured that the location of the hideaway was a well-kept secret. The few colleagues who did visit were strictly banned from talking...

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“If you want people do to something, make it easy.” Richard Thaler has Lunch with the FT

“If you want people do to something, make it easy.” Richard Thaler has Lunch with the FT The Anthologist doesn’t serve cashew nuts, so I order a bowl of smoked almonds instead. When they arrive, caramelised and brown as barbecue sauce, I ask for them to be put right in front of Richard Thaler. He protests that the waiter isn’t in on the joke. The readers will be, I assure him. “The educated ones, perhaps,” he concedes. Those educated readers may know that Professor Thaler is a...

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The magic of picture books

The magic of picture books Perhaps it’s the holiday feeling, but I’ve been looking at books with lots of pictures recently. First, Randall Munroe’s marvelous How To. It’s in much the same style as What If? and just as funny and informative. I loved it, then my twelve year old daughter stole it and she loved it, then my eight year old son stole it and he loved it. I suspect we’re all getting something different from the book, which explores such questions as: If you wanted to...

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What we get wrong about meetings – and how to make them worth attending

What we get wrong about meetings – and how to make them worth attending I rely on Google Calendar to tell me where I am supposed to be, when and with whom. When the service collapsed for an afternoon last month, it felt like a teachable moment. For a few seconds, I panicked. Then, I realised that with all the meetings gone, I was free to do some real work. I know I’m not the only person who loves to hate meetings. Will There Be Donuts?, a book by David Pearl, skewers the “Wagner...

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US health care is literally killing people

US health care is literally killing people It is astonishing how far the debate on healthcare has moved in the US, at least for the Democrats. Not long ago offering universal, government-funded healthcare was viewed as tantamount to communism; now, it’s a touchstone of many presidential hopefuls. Not before time. The US healthcare system is a monument to perverse incentives, unintended consequences and political inertia. It is astonishingly bad — indeed, it’s so astonishingly...

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The strange power of the idea of “average”

The strange power of the idea of “average” “While nothing is more uncertain than a single life, nothing is more certain than the average duration of a thousand lives.” The statement is often attributed to the 19th-century mathematician Elizur Wright, who not coincidentally was a life insurance geek. But buried in the aphorism is a humdrum word concealing a powerful idea: the “average”. The idea of taking an average — that is, of adding up (say) a hundred lifespans and dividing...

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How economics can raise its game

How economics can raise its game How can economics become a more insightful discipline? Should it aim to be more like physics, with its precision and predictive power? Or should economists emulate anthropologists or historians, immersing themselves in the details of the particular and the unquantifiable? There’s a case to be made either way. Some critics argue that economics is missing better physics: it got stuck in the 19th century with fusty old ideas like marginal analysis...

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How the Brexit debate was flushed down the drain

How the Brexit debate was flushed down the drain On a scale of one to seven, how well do you understand how a flush lavatory works? This was a question asked by two Yale psychologists, Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil, almost two decades ago. Before I explain why, here’s a follow-up exercise: write down your lavatory explanation in as much detail as you can. You may wish to draw a diagram, or explain it to a friend. Or not. You may then reflect that you knew a little less than...

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How the US is weaponising the world economy

How the US is weaponising the world economy Back in 2002, serious people were worried about the possibility of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. Millions might have died — and the prospect seemed real enough that both the US and the UK advised their citizens to flee the region. How, then, was the crisis defused? Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat, is fond of telling the story that US businesses (in particular Dell) told their Indian suppliers (in...

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What to do when blessings come well-disguised

What to do when blessings come well-disguised Keith Jarrett’s 1975 concert in Cologne should have been a musical catastrophe. Owing to a string of mix-ups and bad luck, he was faced with the choice of attempting his widely admired improvisations on a beaten-up old piano with sticky keys and a harsh upper register — or walking out altogether. He was all for walking out, but felt sorry for the concert promoter and agreed to play the unplayable piano against his better judgment....

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