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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

An Astonishing Record Of Complete Failure

As late as September 2008, when the financial crash was well under way, the consensus among economic forecasters was that no country would fall into recession in 2009. “The obvious conclusion is that forecasts should not be taken seriously”. Economists should emulate dentists, who at least know how to treat problems effectively when they occur; they don’t pretend to know when your teeth will fall out (890 words)

Big Data: Are We Making A Big Mistake?

Big-data enthusiasts make four main claims: That data analysis produces uncannily accurate results; that every data point can be captured, making sampling techniques obsolete; that observable correlation supersedes theories of causation; and that scientific or statistical models aren’t needed because “the numbers speak for themselves”. At best these are simplifications, at worst they are “absolute nonsense” (3,260 words)

The Seductive Appeal Of Cultural Stereotypes

Critical review of The Triple Package, by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, which claims that the “secret to success” in America is to be raised by Jewish, Chinese, Indian or Nigerian parents. The authors avoid “the grossest racism”. But they need be held to a higher standard of evidence. Too much of their argument relies on anecdotes. “We always find stereotyping plausible. That is why it is treacherous” (740 words)

A Universal Income Is Not Such A Silly Idea

Switzerland will vote on a providing a “basic income” of about $30,000 a year for all adult citizens. Which sounds on the generous side, but the principle of basic income has a surprising amount of support on the right as well as the left. Milton Friedman saw basic income as “an alternative to the current welfare state”. It may also gain plausibility if the advance of robots makes large numbers of people completely unemployable (785 words)

Ten Commandments For Mastering Email

One: Switch off the alerts. “Someone has always just sent me an email. I’ll answer when I am ready.” Two: Don’t bother sorting your incoming email into folders — just search the archive when you need to find something, it’s four times faster. And a pro tip: “If you’d like to really aggravate a busy person, send them an email with an attachment saying ‘please see the attached letter’, and add no elaboration” (3,330 words)

Lunch With Cory Doctorow

Conversation with sci-fi writer, Boing-Boing blogger. Self-recommending, as Tyler Cowen might say. “I arrive at Hawksmoor 10 minutes early, he’s there already, sipping sparkling water at the bar and reading a book. He’s wearing thick-rimmed spectacles worthy of Eric Morecambe, a Disney ‘Haunted Mansion’ T-shirt, and a jacket; he’s 41 but looks younger. Did I mention that I have a tiny crush on Cory Doctorow?” (Metered paywall) (2,400 words)

Kuwait Offers Windfall To Big Spenders

Gulf state considers $6bn consumer debt write-off. Sounds like a dreadful idea in economic terms. Penalises savers, rewards spendthrifts, encourages more of the same. All true, but are banking bailouts any better? “Kuwait might be talking about rescuing its debtors; in the UK, it’s the official policy of the fiscal and monetary authorities”

Why Aren’t We Doing The Maths?

Neat illustration of how doctors don’t understand statistics. Which can be important when it comes to deciding whether to recommend a particular type of cancer screening. Politicians, who rate themselves highly, are even worse

Don’t Take Growth For Granted

Economic growth is a recent phenomenon, so why assume it will last? Modern inventions are less impressive than those of the late 19th century, debt repayments will have to rise and then there are resource constraints

What Babysitting Can Teach The World

Harford revisits Krugman’s economic parable of the Capitol Hill babysitting co-operative. Two key questions: Can an economy become mired in depression because of lack of demand? Can economic problems have simple technical solutions?

In Praise Of Pragmatism

“Because the pragmatist tries to take each situation on its own merits and figure out a sensible way forward, pragmatism tends to look hesitant, messy, and prone to error.” But that’s no reason to side with ideologues instead

Positive Black Swans

In telling the story of Mario Capecchi – a man who went from street urchin to Nobel laureate – Tim Harford masterfully shows how science thrives when great minds are given the leeway to pursue risky projects

Priced Out Of An Alcoholic Stupor

“For a rational addict, every swig of Smirnoff planned for tomorrow reinforces the case for drinking Smirnoff today. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the corollary: if prices will rise in the future, the time to quit is now”

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