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Tim Harford: Undercover Economist

Why we should favour second guesses over first instincts…

Why we should favour second guesses over first instincts… Tension is rising in the Harford household as exams approach and we try to persuade Miss Harford Sr to relax, and Miss Harford Jr to be slightly less relaxed. I’m sure many readers have vivid memories of the exam room, recent or otherwise. But here’s a question about exam technique that suggests a much wider lesson. In a multiple-choice test, you sometimes write down an answer and then have second thoughts. Is it wise to...

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The clash of the two cultures and the challenge of collaboration

The clash of the two cultures and the challenge of collaboration May 7 was the 60th anniversary of the delivery of CP Snow’s famous lecture, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. It is dimly remembered as a lament about the mutual incomprehension between arts and sciences, wrapped up with some pompous anecdotes about Oxbridge high table and airy generalisations about the dynamism of scientists. Some of it is absurd. Snow dismisses George Orwell’s 1984 as pure Luddism,...

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Range, misinformation and the fine line between stupid and clever

Range, misinformation and the fine line between stupid and clever Over the past couple of week’s I’ve been enjoying David Epstein’s Range – about the value of being a generalist. As I may have mentioned it’s in sympathy with my latest TED talk, which cites Epstein. I had the pleasure of seeing Epstein dig up a lot of interesting new research that supports some of what I argued in Messy – about the virtues of moving between fields, switching contexts and improvising. (It felt a...

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Why going on holiday gives us more memories

Why going on holiday gives us more memories Lucky me. I’ve just returned from a family holiday in that most exotic of countries, Japan. So many fresh sights and strange tastes: from flower gardens, temples and communal baths to robots, bullet trains and the Kawaii Monster Café. Although we were there barely more than a week, it’s hard to believe we packed so much in. While on an adventurous holiday, many people experience that strange sense of time having slowed down in the most...

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The art of time well spent

The art of time well spent I’ve been reading James Wallman’s Time And How To Spend It – which, intriguingly, he described to me as “How to Kondo Time”, which I don’t think it is. I’ve learned a few things worth knowing, though. Wallman recommends seven rules for spending your time wisely: Story Transformation Outside & Offline Relationships Intensity Extraordinary Status & Significance (They spell “stories”. Nice, eh?) Actually the first chapter – “story” – was the most...

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Is Thanos a good model for economists? On balance, no

Is Thanos a good model for economists? On balance, no In a few days’ time, Avengers: Endgame will hit the cinemas, and the universe’s mightiest heroes will resume their battle against the supervillain Thanos. Thanos fascinates me not only because he’s the best bad guy since Darth Vader — but because the muscular utilitarian is an economist on steroids. Thanos’s claim to the economists’ hall of fame lies in his interest in scarce resources, his faith in the power of logical...

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How to be more creative

How to be more creative I was on the TED Radio Hour this week; they were kind enough to give me both the first and the last word on the subject of kickstarting creativity. If you’d like to read more on the subject I would – of course – recommend my book, Messy, which gave me the research base for both of the TED talks and the interviews around them. But what else? Perhaps David Epstein’s new book, Range, which sings the praises of broadening your horizons. I’m a couple of...

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Why the world needs a carbon tax

Why the world needs a carbon tax You can’t please everyone, it seems. Royal Dutch Shell has announced plans to plant trees in order to absorb some of the carbon dioxide produced when we burn the fossil fuels it sells. What’s more, it plans to invite motorists to chip in at the pump by buying “carbon offsets”: a clever way to help the planet, raise cash, and spread the blame around. Environmental campaigners are sceptical. So am I. I admit an interest here. I once worked for...

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What I’ve been reading

What I’ve been reading Mark Bostridge, Florence Nightingale – a thorough biography of a remarkable woman, less well-known for her work as a statistician, data-visualisation pioneer and public health campaigner than she should be. One of the founders of evidence-based medicine, she is nevertheless more celebrated for being “the lady with the lamp”. Draw your own conclusions. Good book. James Reason, Human Error – Reason’s work on industrial accidents is fantastic. This book...

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Counting the economic cost and the economic causes of Brexit

Counting the economic cost and the economic causes of Brexit “The economy, stupid.” Pinned to the wall, this motto famously reminded Bill Clinton’s campaign staff to stay on message as he ran for the US presidency in 1992. Somebody may want to pin it up in the UK Conservative party’s headquarters, because the party has instead managed to involve the entire country in its bitter little civil war over Europe. But economies can survive some rough handling by politicians. Amid the...

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