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Tim Harford: Undercover Economist

Some fabulous books about numbers

Some fabulous books about numbers I had a treat over Christmas avoiding Twitter and reading pre-releases of books about maths. The joys! Two particular pearls are about to be released. The Art of Statistics (US) (UK) by Sir David Spiegelhalter should be self-recommending, but this is a really first class introduction to the power of statistics. David starts with some basics (categories, proportions, visualisation) but by the end of the book has covered big data analytics,...

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“Blue Monday” pseudoscience should teach us to be more curious

“Blue Monday” pseudoscience should teach us to be more curious Given that it is the purest bullshit, the “Blue Monday” meme is showing surprising longevity. While the US this week celebrated Martin Luther King Jr day, the British were reading about what purports to be the most depressing day of the year. The fantasy that the third Monday of January is Blue Monday was dreamt up by Sky Travel, a holiday company that no longer exists. It is based on an equation linking weather,...

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Lessons from the wreck of the Torrey Canyon

Lessons from the wreck of the Torrey Canyon On Saturday March 18 1967, around half past six in the morning, the first officer of the Torrey Canyon realised that his vessel was in the wrong place. The 300-metre ship was hurrying north past the Scilly Isles, 22 miles off the tip of Cornwall in the south west of England, with more than 119,000 tonnes of crude oil. The aim was to pass west of the islands, but the ship was further east than expected. The officer changed course, but...

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How behavioural economics helped me kick my smartphone addiction

How behavioural economics helped me kick my smartphone addiction The year 2011 was a big one for me. My son was born. We moved to a new city. I published a book. But something else happened that was in some ways more significant: on February 9 2011, I bought my first smartphone. It didn’t feel like a milestone in my life at the time. I didn’t note it down in a diary or commit the date to memory. Only finding a copy of the receipt helped pin down the day. Yet I have come to...

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Trump, May and the necessary art of brinkmanship

Trump, May and the necessary art of brinkmanship Brinkmanship is an old idea, but not such an old word. It was first used in 1956, after US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles opined that “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art . . . if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee, began to use the term “brinkmanship” in response. He did not intend it as compliment. Yet we find...

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Why there is no need to panic about fake news

Why there is no need to panic about fake news A new year’s resolution for all: stop talking about fake news. Perhaps we should have stopped talking about it at the same time as we started. That, according to Google Trends, was the week after Donald Trump won the US presidential election in 2016, which suggests the interest was driven by astonished people looking for an explanation. Fake news was not the only scapegoat but it was, and still is, a popular one. It was even named...

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Cash-rich, time-poor: Why the wealthy are always in a hurry

Cash-rich, time-poor: Why the wealthy are always in a hurry Will making more money save you time? Or will it make you feel more rushed than ever? I’ve been pondering this question because a friend challenged me to figure out whether income poverty and time poverty go hand in hand. There are cash-poor, time-poor people, who juggle multiple shifts with childcare and spend precious hours on long commutes. There are cash-poor, time-rich people — pensioners or job seekers wondering...

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Technology can be the friend of creativity

Technology can be the friend of creativity By the time you read this, I shall be sitting in a cinema watching a screening of The Box of Delights (US), nearly three hours of vintage television that captivated me as a boy when broadcast on the BBC in the six weeks running up to Christmas 1984. I’ll be charmed by Patrick Troughton, terrified by Robert Stephens, and mildly amused by the special effects, which were record-breakingly lavish at the time but look amateurish now....

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Stop sniping at central banks and set clear targets

Stop sniping at central banks and set clear targets What is the most important job in the world? President? Teacher? Parent? I suggest a post that would not feature on most people’s lists: central banker. James Carville, who advised US president Bill Clinton, once quipped that he wanted to be reincarnated as the bond market, able to intimidate anybody. But as Ben Bernanke, Mervyn King and more recently Mario Draghi (crisis-era central bank heads in the US, UK and EU...

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