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Tag Archives: Undercover Economist

Technology has turned back the clock on productivity

Has the economic clock started to run backwards? The defining fact of economic history is that, over time, humans have been able to produce vastly more of whatever goods and services they value. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had no doubts that the foundation of this dizzying economic growth was specialisation — the division of labour. Yet much modern knowledge work is not specialised at all. Might that explain why we all seem to be working so hard while fretting...

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Late greats: why some brilliant ideas get overlooked

In 1928, Karl Jansky, a young radio engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, began researching static interference that might obscure voice transmissions. Five years later, after building a large rotating antenna and investigating every possibility he could think of, he published his remarkable conclusion: some of the static was coming from the Milky Way. Jansky’s theory was eye-catching enough to be published in The New York Times but scientists were unimpressed. Radio...

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The painful politics of vaccination

It isn’t often I receive an email that makes me smoulder with rage. This one did, which was strange since it was perfectly polite. My correspondent wanted to know why he wasn’t allowed to meet his friends indoors for coffee. They were in their early seventies and vaccinated. Was there really a risk? Inoffensive enough, you might think. But the question sat in my stomach and burned. If you want to think clearly about the world, you need to notice your emotional responses to...

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Why investing in data is money well spent

In 1935, officials in the British Air Ministry were trying to figure out whether it was possible to shoot down enemy aircraft with a death ray. Reader, they did not succeed. Fortunately, the effort spawned something much more useful. Robert Watson-Watt and Arnold “Skip” Wilkins of the Radio Research Station suggested a better use for radio beams: spotting incoming bombers when the beams reflected off them. The resulting radar system was indispensable in fending off the...

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The hard lessons of home schooling

This week’s meltdown involved a French test. The teacher was displaying questions on screen as a PDF document. As she scrolled down, my son started to panic: he hadn’t finished the early questions yet — and now they had disappeared from view. He raised his hand to tell the teacher but she didn’t notice. When we found him, he was trying to explain the problem to her, through sobs, while ducking out of sight of the camera from embarrassment. Just another day of remote...

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We’re living in a golden age of ignorance

Has there been a moment in modern history where so many people in free societies have believed such damaging lies? It’s easy to point to the US, where nearly 90 per cent of people who voted for Donald Trump believe Joe Biden’s election victory was not legitimate. No surprise, then, that there is considerable support for the recent violent attempt to prevent the democratic transfer of power. But it’s not just the US. In France, a minority of adults are confident that vaccines...

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Miracle tech that is anything but: a taxonomy of bionic duckweed

Is bionic duckweed a dire threat to our health and prosperity? It just might be. But lest you fear that it is a fresh torment to test us alongside Covid-19, wildfires and murder hornets, I should reassure you that it is not a Triffid-like killer plant. Bionic duckweed is, instead, a metaphor for a glorious future technology, which might sound good — but isn’t because it keeps us from acting. The term was coined by a journalist and railway expert named Roger Ford. In...

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From vaccines to homework, why we humans can’t stop overpromising

Is there a more reliable source of disappointment anywhere in the world than my own daily to-do list? Each night I write down everything I plan to do in the morning, and I transfer all the uncompleted tasks from the previous day. I’ve done this for more than a quarter of a century. In 10,000 days, have I ever looked at yesterday’s list and nodded with satisfaction that every item had been ticked off? Not once. I can take consolation in knowing that I am not alone. Whether...

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Covid-19: How close is the light at the end of the tunnel?

Will it ever end? In November, we were celebrating the announcement that the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine seemed to be highly effective against Covid-19, followed with bewildering speed by similar claims for the Sputnik V, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines. Nearly three months later, hospitals are overwhelmed and the global death toll is climbing twice as fast as in the worst days of the first wave. At a time like this, I reach for my calculator. Without minimising the...

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Florence Nightingale: the pandemic hero we need

The Florence Nightingale Museum in London, devoted to the pioneering 19th-century nurse, is closing its doors, indefinitely. The museum director, David Green, describes the plan as “hibernation”; the collection will remain on site at St Thomas’s Hospital. The timing could hardly be more ironic. Last year was Nightingale’s bicentennial. The museum had invested heavily in a new exhibition; it opened in early March, less than a month before the UK’s long first lockdown....

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