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Tag Archives: Undercover Economist

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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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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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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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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A survival guide for the Covid age

August, 2020. The first wave of the coronavirus pandemic has passed in the UK, and we have all been trying to figure out what to do next. One friend cancelled a trip to see her family in Greece, too anxious to face the airports. Another was all for going out for pizza on a Friday night in a crowded pub, dismissing the “fuss” about the virus. The risks from contracting Covid-19 vary enormously — by a factor of 10,000 between the age of nine and 90. But the perceived risk...

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Don’t rely on algorithms to make life-changing decisions

NEWS! My new book, “How To Make The World Add Up“, is out tomorrow around the world (except US / Canada). Ordering a copy early, online or from your local bookshop is enormously helpful: it prods review interest, encourages physical bookshops to order and display the book, and so I am especially grateful forearly orders. More information here – including a chance to buy signed copies. The governments of England and Scotland have fed the hopes and dreams of students into a...

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We won’t remember much of what we did in the pandemic

NEWS! My new book, “How To Make The World Add Up“, is out next week around the world (except US / Canada). Pre-ordering a copy online or from your local bookshop is enormously helpful: it prods review interest, encourages physical bookshops to order and display the book, and so I am especially grateful for pre-orders. More information here – including a chance to order signed copies. When my mind wanders these days, I’ve noticed that it wanders to odd places — namely,...

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We fall in love with the new, but not everything old is obsolete

The Boeing 747 took another step towards retirement recently. British Airways, the operator of the largest fleet of passenger 747s, announced that the distinctive aeroplane would not be returning to service after the pandemic. For all the rightful concern about the environmental cost of long-haul travel, the plane will be missed by passengers and pilots alike. Mark Vanhoenacker, pilot and writer, describes the plane as “370 tonnes of aviation legend”. The first time I rode...

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Rats, mazes, and the power of self-fulfilling prophecies

It’s 1963. A young psychologist named Bob Rosenthal conducts an experiment in which his assistants place rats in mazes, and then time how long it takes the rats to find the exit. They are housed in two cages: one for the smartest rats and one for rodent mediocrities. The assistants are not surprised to find that the smart rats solve the mazes more quickly. Their supervisor is — because he knows that in truth, both cages contain ordinary lab rats. Prof Rosenthal — he would...

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Young pessimists, old optimists, and the strange ways we think about risk

Young pessimists, old optimists, and the strange ways we think about risk Have we blown the risk of catching Covid-19 out of all perspective? Or are we not nearly frightened enough? The fashionable view is that people have become reckless. Photographs of crowded bars and beaches provide some evidence for that. So too, more worryingly, does the apparently endless swell of the first wave of infections in the US, where young people are making up a larger proportion of new...

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