Tim Harford (previously) is an economist with a gift for explaining complex subjects in simple, accessible terms: his latest book, Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, uses 50 short essays about technologies as varied as Ikea's Billy Bookcase, the plow, and AI to illustrate the ways that the human race has transformed itself, its relations, and the planet.
Tim Harford is a Financial Times columnist and the presenter of Radio 4's More or Less, which won the Royal Statistical Society's 2010 award for statistical excellence in broadcast journalism. He is also the author of several books, including The Undercover Economist.
Cory Doctorow: First of all, some context -- what's the thesis of Adapt, and how does it refine, extend or improve upon The Undercover Economist?
Tim Harford: The Undercover Economist was a book about the economic principles behind everyday life, from the way Starbucks prices drinks to the rise of China. Adapt isn't primarily an economics book at all — it's a book about how complex problems are solved. (If ideas from economics help, great. But sometimes they don't.)
That said, the two books start from a very similar place: describing the amazing complexity of the economy that produces the everyday objects which surround us. In Undercover it was a cappuccino, and in Adapt I describe a memorable project in which a student called Thomas Thwaites attempts to build a simple toaster from scratch. But in Adapt this complexity isn't just a cause for a "wow, cool" moment — it's a headache, because it's a measure of the obstacles facing anyone who wants to solve problems in this very intricate, interconnected world.
Ultimately Adapt argues that the only way forward is experimentation, which can either be formal or ad hoc. Whether we're talking about poverty in Nigeria or innovation in Boston, solutions tend to evolve rather than be designed in some burst of awesome genius. And then the question is — what do we need to encourage those experiments?
Open Culture has a page with capsule reviews of The 135 Best Podcasts to Enrich Your Mind. The list includes "great podcasts on art, music, history, philosophy, plus captivating true and imagined stories."
Some are familiar to me and I already subscribe to them. — Read the rest
Often, if you ask a human to optimize something, they'll make it orderly: straight lines, simple layouts and clean divisions, but when nature (or evolutionary algorithms) optimizes things, it produces redundancy, gradients, tangles, and complexity — ironically, robots produce systems that look like nature designed them, while humans produce systems that look like robots designed them.
Economist, author, podcaster and radio presenter Tim Harford (previously) has a fantastic new podcast: Cautionary Tales, which Tim describes as "Eight stories of mishaps, fiascos and disasters – served with a twist of nerdy social science."
I woke up this morning to two exciting announcements about crowdfunders for kid-oriented RPGs, which is outstanding news indeed: the first is a set of adventures for Martin Lloyd's superb Amazing Tales, a (four and up) kid-and-adult RPG that's endlessly fun and incredibly easy to get started with; the second is Destiny Dez, from Scott Wayne Indiana, last seen around here with his pacifist RPG Lotus Dimension, now back with an RPG for 3-8 year olds, in which "kids come up with their own plans to navigate situations before rolling a 20 sided die to decide their fate and move on in the story."
In a brilliant Twitter thread, UCSB political scientist Matto Mildenberger recounts the sordid history of Garrett Hardin's classic, widely cited 1968 article "The Tragedy of the Commons," whose ideas are taught to millions of undergrads, and whose precepts are used to justify the privatization of public goods as the only efficient way to manage them.
There's plenty of research that provides evidence to support the idea that multitasking is a fool's bargain: instead of getting two things done at once, you go slower on both, and do worse. But there's more than one kind of multitasking: texting while driving is a terrible idea, but what about juggling multiple projects at once?
Two competing (or, possibly, complementary?) proposals for resolving income inequality and the hole that four decades of demand-side Reaganomics has dug us into are Universal Basic Income and a federal jobs guarantee (the former being a kind of "venture capital for everyone" that provides enough money to live without having to work for an employer; and the latter being a guarantee of a good, meaningful job of social value in sectors like infrastructure, education and caring professions).
Economists Erik Brynjolfsson, Felix Eggers and Avinash Gannamaneni have published an NBER paper (Sci-Hub mirror) detailing an experiment where they offered Americans varying sums to give up Facebook, and then used a less-rigorous means to estimate much much Americans valued other kinds of online services: maps, webmail, search, etc.
The idea of representative democracy is that we pay lawmakers to give serious attention to the nuances of policy questions and cast votes on our behalf in accord with their understanding of our preferences, applied to those nuanced understandings.
Economist and maths communicator Tim Harford (previously) presents a riff on Harold Pollack's aphorism that "The best financial advice for most people would fit on an index card," and comes up with a complete set of rules for statistical literacy that fits on a postcard.
An NBER paper from 2015 tracks the decline in corporate spending on basic science in R&D, which has become a practical, application-focused line-item in corporate budgets, creating a safe, predictable, and slow cycle of innovation.
Thinking of buying a car in the UK? Good news! You can get a personal contract purchase (PCP) and it will cost you less to buy a new Merc than it would to buy a used Ford Focus.
Last night's kick-off event for the UK Walkaway tour was brilliant, thanks to the magic combination of the excellent Tim Harford, the excellent people of Oxford, and the excellent booksellers at Blackwells.
I took great advantage of my 36 hour hiatus from the Walkaway tour, but I'm back at it today, with a 2PM appearance at Burbank's Dark Delicacies, before I go straight to the airport to fly to the UK for my British tour.
Many thanks to the good folks who came out to Bellingham's Village Books for last night's Walkaway event; tonight, I'll be appearing in Vancouver before flying home to Burbank for an event at my local Dark Delicacies on Saturday and then going straight to the airport for the start of my UK tour.
Thanks to everyone (especially Neal Stephenson) who came out to last night's Walkaway event in Seattle: if you're in the area and couldn't make it, you get another chance tonight when I'll be at Bellingham's Village Books at 7PM.