Wednesday , October 28 2020
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Tim Harford: Undercover Economist

What I’ve been reading: a history of D&D, and a serious guide to humour

Not for the first time, I picked up Of Dice & Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play it by David Ewalt. I’ve been researching the history of role-playing games and found Ewalt’s book a useful complement to Jon Peterson’s 720 page brick, Playing at The World. Ewalt’s writing is fluid and engaging, and he can take a paragraph to cover events on which Peterson would lavish fifty pages. (For the avoidance of doubt: I rate both books highly. They’re...

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Should we really scream at each other about lockdowns before figuring out what the word means?

The headlines tell the story. “Thousands in Madrid to lock down”, “New Covid-19 rules for more parts of North and Midlands”, “Can a ‘circuit break’ halt the second Covid wave?”, “‘Voluntary lockdown’ plea to university’s students” and “Further Covid-19 measures ‘likely’ in London”. That is just one website — the BBC — and all those headlines were displayed simultaneously. But despite the numerous headlines, it is far from obvious what a “lockdown” is supposed to mean, and...

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What I’ve been reading: everyday design and the first draft of Covid history

The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. A beautifully-illustrated guide to the miscellanea of our everyday surroundings. Roman and Kurt have produced a cornucopia of miniature essays on topics ranging from the slip-base (an elegant piece of design that causes traffic signs to fail gracefully and safely when someone crashes into them) to the awkward implication of Thomas Jefferson’s plan to package and sell squares of land: namely, that squares of land do not...

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Can you put a number on it?

How far can common sense take us in the field of statistics? At first glance, not very. The discipline may be vital but it is also highly technical, and full of pitfalls and counterintuitions. Statistics can feel like numerical alchemy, incomprehensible to muggles — black magic, even. No wonder that the most popular book on the topic, How to Lie with Statistics, is a warning about disinformation from start to finish. This won’t do. If we are willing to go with our brains...

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What I’ve been reading

Annie Duke, How To Decide. A workbook that talks through all the essentials of decision theory & behavioural science – the outside view vs the inside view; analysis paralysis, pre-mortems, “resulting” – while offering exercises & and self-tests. This is a book that you’re supposed to be scribbling in. It’s well-executed and Duke is a fascinating thinker, but my personal preference – since I love stories – is for her earlier book Thinking in Bets. It might well be that...

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The Financial Times reviews “How To Make The World Add Up”

The full review, by Stian Westlake, Chief Executive of the Royal Statistical Society, is available on FT.com and was published on 6 October 2020. Some excepts below: …Covid-19 has also cranked up our latent data-phobia. Can we trust the statistics our governments are publishing about the virus? Might track-and-trace apps unacceptably compromise our privacy? Covid even gave the UK its first algorithmic political scandal, as the grades of school leavers unable to sit exams...

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How quick and dirty Covid tests could end the weariness

Screwtape, CS Lewis’s unforgettable devil, has this advice for crushing people who are facing a test of endurance. “Feed him with false hopes . . . Exaggerate the weariness by making him think it will soon be over.” Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, we are starting to learn all about weariness and false hopes. It seems endless. And since a highly effective vaccine remains an uncertain prospect, is there any way we might get back to normality without one? I think...

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How to get a personalised copy of How To Make The World Add Up (time limited!)

A confession. I love Blackwell’s, the vast and labyrinthine bookshop in the heart of Oxford. I’ve read stories to my children in the nooks and crannies there, given talks, watched some unforgettable plays, bought second-hand textbooks, and many other adventures over the years. I love them even more now. When “How To Make The World Add Up” came out, Amazon and Waterstones ordered a few to see what happened. They immediately sold out. (It turns out people are ready for a book...

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The challenges of performing, online or off, in the covid age

The FT Weekend Festival, for the past few years a tented spectacular held at Kenwood House in London, is now a three-day online affair. Such are the times in which we live. It’s not all bad, of course: this week’s event boasts even more A-listers than usual and one can enjoy them from the comfort of an armchair. But the altered circumstances got me thinking about the challenges of performing, online or offline, in a post-Covid-19 world. Things were simple — if dramatic —...

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