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Why moonshots elude the timid of heart
February 14, 2020 | Financial Times | by Tim Harford.

* Loonshots — by Safi Bahcall.
* Major innovations tend to result from investment that is high-risk, high-pay-off.
* Executives at the Cambridge, UK outpost of an admired Japanese company fret that success rate of their research and development, at 70%, was far too high. It signals that research teams had been risk-averse, pursuing easy wins at the expense of more radical and risky long-shots.
* Disney, the belief is that Disney if you weren't failing at half of your endeavours, you weren’t being brave or creative enough.
* The problem is a societal/systematic preference for marginal gains over long shots---It is much more pleasant to experience a steady trickle of small successes than a long drought while waiting for a flood that may never come.
* marginal gains do add up, but need to be bolstered by the occasional long-shot breakthrough.....Major innovations such as the electric motor, the photo­voltaic cell or the mobile phone open up new territories that the marginal-gains innovators & tinkerers can further exploit.[JCK: from Simon Johnson, "public investments in research and development contribute to what the authors call the “spillover effect.” When the product of the research is not a private firm’s intellectual property, its impact flows across the economy."]
* the UK Conservative party’s promise to establish “a new agency for high-risk, high-pay-off research, at arm’s length from government” — a British version of the much-admired US Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency.
* DARPA's failure rate is often said to be around 85%.
* a low failure rate may indeed signal a lack of originality and ambition.
* Arpa hires high-quality scientists for short stints — often two or three years — and giving them control over a programme budget to commission research from any source they wish.
* the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a foundation, deliberately looks for projects with an unusual or untried approach, but a large potential pay-off.....HHMI gets what it pays for — more failures, but larger successes, compared with other grant-makers funding researchers of a similar calibre.
* how long will UK politicians tolerate failure as a sign of boldness and originality? Eventually, they will simply call it failure.
* the trilemma: Be cautious, or fund lots of risky but tiny projects, or fund a few big, risky projects from a modest budget and accept that every single one may flop.
audacity  big_bets  boldness  books  breakthroughs  Cambridge  DARPA  failure  game_changers  high-reward  high-risk  incrementalism  industrial_policies  innovation  jump-start  marginal_improvements  moonshots  originality  politicians  public_investments  publicly_funded  quick_wins  R&D  risk-aversion  science  small_wins  spillover  success_rates  thinking_big  Tim_Harford  timidity  United_Kingdom 
7 weeks ago by jerryking
We need to be better at predicting bad outcomes
September 2019 | Financial Times | by Tim Harford.

A question some of us ask all too often, and some of us not often enough: what if it all [jk: our plan] goes wrong?.....we don’t think about worst-case scenarios in the right way......
The first problem is that our sense of risk is pretty crude. The great psychologist Amos Tversky joked that most of us have three categories when thinking about probabilities: “gonna happen”, “not gonna happen” and “maybe”.....It would be helpful if our sense of risk was a little more refined; intuitively, it is hard to grasp the difference between a risk of one in a billion and that of one in a thousand. Yet, for a gambler — or someone in the closely related business of insurance — there is all the difference in the world.....research by Barbara Mellers, Philip Tetlock and Hal Arkes suggests that making a serious attempt to put probabilities on uncertain future events might help us in other ways: the process makes us more humble, more moderate and better able to discern shades of grey. Trying to forecast is about more than a successful prediction......we can become sidetracked by the question of whether the worst case is likely. Rather than asking “will this happen?”, we should ask “what would we do if it did?”

The phrase “worst-case scenario” probably leads us astray: anyone can dream up nightmare scenarios.....To help us think sensibly about these worst-case possibilities, Gary Klein, psychologist and author of Seeing What Others Don’t, has argued for conducting “pre-mortems” — or hypothetical postmortems. Before embarking on a project, imagine receiving a message from the future: the project failed, and spectacularly. Now ask yourself: why? Risks and snares will quickly suggest themselves — often risks that can be anticipated and prevented.......Contingency planning is not always easy......woes that would result both as the “base case” (the truth) and a “worst-case scenario” (the government sucking in its stomach while posing for a selfie).
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In our increasingly airbrushed world, it becomes ever more necessary to ask the unfashionable questions like ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ - and then plan for it...
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Humanity's survival may well rely on the ability of our imaginations to explore alternative futures in order to begin building the communities that can forestall or endure worst-case catastrophes.
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Amos_Tversky  anticipating  base_rates  beforemath  books  contingency_planning  discernment  failure  forecasting  foresight  frequency_and_severity  humility  imagination  nuanced  predictions  preparation  probabilities  risk-assessment  risks  Tim_Harford  uncertainty  worst-case 
september 2019 by jerryking
Always seek out novelty — even at home
April 26, 2019 | Financial Times | by Tim Harford.
* A Mathematical Theory of Communication by Claude Shannon (1948)
* The search for new experiences should not just be for our holidays.
* Japan: 10 days in a far-off land produces a richer treasury of detailed memories than 10 weeks back home. But why?
* Actively searching for new experiences --whether on holiday abroad or within your daily routine at home!!
* Novelty isn't just about mental stimulation. It also exposes you to opportunity.....Variation also reshapes the mental categorisation of experiences, so that freshness can be found within routine activities.
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While on an adventurous holiday, many people experience that strange sense of time having slowed down in the most pleasurable way, and of conversations that begin, “Was it really only yesterday that we . . . ?”

Ten days in a far-off land produces a richer treasury of detailed memories than 10 weeks back home. But what is behind this phenomenon?

Claude Shannon,in 1948, published one of his two profound contributions, A Mathematical Theory of Communication.....a message can be compressed to the extent that it is predictable. ....(e.g. Ritualised conversations (“How are you?” “Very well, thank you. How are you?”) can be heavily compressed.....A movie can be compressed because, between cuts, each frame tends to resemble the previous one....Although the parallel is not exact, much the same thing seems to be going on with our memories of life. The brain is not a video recorder; we recall the gist. Sometimes the gist is very brief. If I get up in the morning at the usual time, eat my customary breakfast and catch my usual train to the office, why should my brain trouble itself to remember this day two weeks after the fact? The diffs are barely worth bothering with. In contrast, fresh experiences defy compression: the diffs are too big........Brian Christian, author of The Most Human Human, a book about conversations between humans and computers, speculates that if we’re seeking advice we should ask the person of whose answer we are least certain. If we want to understand a person, we should ask them the question to which we are least sure of their answer.
algorithms  books  compression  creativity  creative_renewal  economists  experience_economy  fresh_eyes  habits  holidays  insta-bae  Japan  mybestlife  novelty  non-routine  Slow_Movement  Tim_Harford  travel  unpredictability  vacations  variety 
april 2019 by jerryking
The value of a network
Business Life: The value of a network
First published in Business Life, January 2009

The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users (or devices) on that network.
Facebook  Microsoft  Metcalfe's_Law  networks  network_effects  social_networking  Tim_Harford  valuations 
february 2019 by jerryking
Why big companies squander good ideas
August 6, 2018 | | Financial Times | Tim Harford

.....Organisations from newspapers to oil majors to computing giants have persistently struggled to embrace new technological opportunities, or recognise new technological threats, even when the threats are mortal or the opportunities are golden. Why do some ideas slip out of the grasp of incumbents, then thrive in the hands of upstarts?.....“Disruption describes what happens when firms fail because they keep making the kinds of choices that made them successful,” says Joshua Gans, an economist at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto and author of The Disruption Dilemma. Successful organisations stick to their once-triumphant strategies, even as the world changes around them. More horses! More forage!

Why does this happen? Easily the most famous explanation comes from Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School. Christensen’s 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, told a compelling story about how new technologies creep up from below: they are flawed or under-developed at first, so do not appeal to existing customers. Holiday snappers do not want to buy digital cameras the size of a shoebox and the price of a car.

However, Christensen explains, these technologies do find customers: people with unusual needs previously unserved by the incumbent players. The new technology gets better and, one day, the incumbent wakes up to discover that an upstart challenger has several years’ head start — and once-loyal customers have jumped ship.
............Within academia, Rebecca Henderson’s ideas about architectural innovation are widely cited, and she is one of only two academics at Harvard Business School to hold the rank of university professor. The casual observer of business theories, however, is far more likely to have heard of Clayton Christensen, one of the most famous management gurus on the planet.

That may be because Christensen has a single clear theory of how disruption happens — and a solution, too: disrupt yourself before you are disrupted by someone else. That elegance is something we tend to find appealing.

The reality of disruption is less elegant — and harder to solve. Kodak’s position may well have been impossible, no matter what managers had done. If so, the most profitable response would have been to vanish gracefully.

“There are multiple points of failure,” says Henderson. “There’s the problem of reorganisation. There’s the question of whether the new idea will be profitable. There are cognitive filters. There is more than one kind of denial. To navigate successfully through, an incumbent organisation has to overcome every one of these obstacles.”

......Henderson added that the innovators — like Fuller — are often difficult people. “The people who bug large organisations to do new things are socially awkward, slightly fanatical and politically often hopelessly naive.” Another point of failure......The message of Henderson’s work with Kim Clark and others is that when companies or institutions are faced with an organisationally disruptive innovation, there is no simple solution. There may be no solution at all. “I’m sorry it’s not more management guru-ish,” she tells me, laughing. “But anybody who’s really any good at this will tell you that this is hard.”
Apple  blitzkrieg  disruption  ideas  IBM  innovation  iPod  missed_opportunities  hard_work  Rotman  Steve_Jobs  theory  Tim_Harford  upstarts  large_companies  WWI  Xerox  Walkman  Clayton_Christensen  organizational_change  organizational_structure  MPOF  militaries  digital_cameras 
september 2018 by jerryking
The best way to solve a problem is to wait a while
May 25, 2018 | Financial Times Tim Harford YESTERDAY.

The world is full of risks. Can anyone guarantee that over the next 300 years both the UK trust fund and country will survive asteroid strikes, thermonuclear war or a deliberately engineered pandemic?

Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. The imminent threat to the trust fund is the British government itself, which has decided that a tiny advantage is worth seizing now, since the costs will fall to someone else. (You may supply your own analogy at this point.)

All democratically elected governments struggle to see past the next election, but this one struggles to see past next Tuesday. In fairness, it often feels as if the next election may come sooner than that. And it is hard to take a truly long-term perspective, whether contemplating the future of human life or the prospect of cheesecake.

As long as the [UK] debt stays roughly in proportion to national income — not an outrageous assumption — then the trust fund would be sufficient to pay off the debt a mere four centuries after the original bequest

The Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees wrote a book titled Our Final Century, warning of the existential threats arising from complex, interconnected modern systems. The book was renamed Our Final Hour in the US, perhaps because a century seemed like too much time to kill.

Economists and moral philosophers argue among themselves over how to account for the interests of future generations. The answer is far from obvious. It turns out to be crucial in pondering a rational response to slow-burning disasters such as climate change — assuming that anyone cares about a rational response, which seems a forlorn hope.
problem_solving  Tim_Harford  long-term  books  disasters  slowly_moving  short-sightedness  imperceptible_threats  existential  interconnections 
may 2018 by jerryking
Chaos has its limits even in Donald Trump’s White House
March 23, 2018 | FT | Tim Harford.

The disadvantage of chaos is that it is destabilising; the advantage is that it may destabilise your foes more than you. About four decades ago the US military strategist John Boyd gave a series of influential talks about this idea.

Boyd, whose admirers included senior Republican Dick Cheney and management guru Tom Peters, argued for rapid, confusing manoeuvres, improvised if need be, with the aim of disorienting the enemy. Create enough chaos and you could completely paralyse your foe. If the chaos made life uncomfortable for your own side, no matter. Synchronisation, said Boyd, was not for organisations, but for watches.

This messy, improvised approach to tactics is not entirely new. Sun Tzu, the near-mythical author of The Art of War, declared that “quickness is the essence of war”, but also advised being “without ascertainable shape”. This sounds like the incessant, incomprehensible activity of the Trump White House.....On the battlefield, the master of messy improvisation was the German general Erwin Rommel. He championed swift, energetic action, even if it left his own men scrambling to figure out what was happening.....The same fast-paced seizing of opportunities has worked for some businesses. In the early years of Amazon, Jeff Bezos was clear that he needed to get ahead of rivals such as Barnes & Noble and Toys R Us, even if it meant chaos within Amazon. A more methodical start-up would have been caught and crushed....Of course the more ponderous forces of planning and organisation may reassert themselves in the end....Facebook’s old mantra, “move fast and break things”, suddenly looks less clever. Mark Zuckerberg must now explain exactly what he has broken.....there are limits to improvisation, ambiguity and self-contradictions....On a playing field criss-crossed by technical and legal details, EU negotiator Michel Barnier’s ploddingly careful preparation now seems to be paying dividends.
blitzkrieg  chaos  destabilization  fast-paced  improvisation  leadership  messiness  speed  Sun_Tzu  Tim_Harford  Tom_Peters 
march 2018 by jerryking
Like great coffee, good ideas take time to percolate
Tim Harford FEBRUARY 2, 2018.

why do some obviously good idea take so long to spread?

Even if you don’t much care about London’s coffee scene, this is an important question. William Gibson, science fiction author, observed that the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed....Researchers at the OECD have concluded that within most sectors (for example, coal mining or food retail) there is a large and rising gap in productivity between the typical business and the 100 leading companies in the sector. The leading businesses are nearly 15 times more productive per worker, and almost five times more productive even after adjusting for their use of capital such as buildings, computers and machinery......If there were some way to help good ideas to spread more quickly, more people would have good coffee and much else besides....good ideas can be slow to spread, even when they are straightforward to grasp. In his classic textbook, The Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers points out that many inventions have to cross a cultural divide: the person preaching the good idea is often quite different to the person being preached to. Rogers would probably not have been surprised to see that “not invented here” was a barrier to good practice.....good advice can work, but even good advice wears off. And we can all be resistant to new ideas. The status quo is comfortable, especially for the people who get to call the shots.....An extreme example of resistance to change lies behind the quip that “science advances one funeral at a time”, based on an observation from the physicist Max Planck. A team of economists has studied the evidence from data on academic citations, and found that Planck seems to have been right: the premature death of a star scientist opens up his or her field to productive contributions from outsiders in other domains. People can be so slow to change their minds that we literally have to wait for them to die.

There is an analogy in the marketplace: sometimes old businesses have to die before productivity improves, although that can mean desperate hardship for the workers involved...there is evidence that US industry is becoming less dynamic: there are fewer shocks, and companies respond less to them. The OECD research, too, suggests that the productivity laggards tend to be further behind in markets that are over-regulated or otherwise shielded from competition.

All too often, we don’t pick up good ideas willingly. We grasp for them, in desperation, only when we have no choice (for example, when were facing a crisis, man-made or natural).
barriers_to_adoption  books  cultural_divides  coffee  crisis  customer_adoption  desperation  ideas  ideaviruses  inventions  London  not-invented-here  powerlaw  productivity  science_fiction  status_quo  Tim_Harford  unevenly_distributed  virality  William_Gibson 
february 2018 by jerryking
The case for ending Amazon’s dominance
January 18, 2018 FT | Tim Harford.

Amazon offers:
* consumers, choice and convenience and a shopping search engine that is Google’s only serious rival,
* start-ups cheap, flexible cloud computing services to start and scale up.
competitors, e.g. Walmart tough competition,
* television networks, a tough competitor,
* Apple loyalists, a competing tablet computers at a price to make stop and think.

economists argue that corporate America is underinvesting.....rather than take a long-term view.......Amazon should be the shining counterexample....The online retailer’s strategy is driven not by short-term profit but by investment, innovation and growth. If only there were a few more companies like Amazon, capitalism would be in a happier spot. But there’s the rub: there aren’t more companies like it. It’s unique, and an increasingly terrifying force in online commerce. Should regulators act? If so, how?....

Begin by disposing of a poor argument: that Amazon must be challenged because it makes life miserable for its competitors, some of which are plucky mom-and-pop operations. However emotionally appealing this might seem, it should not be the business of regulators to prop up such businesses......Antitrust authorities should not be in the business of making life easy for incumbents. What, then, should they do? There are two schools of thought. One is to focus on consumers’ interest in quality, variety and price. This has been the standard approach in US antitrust policy for several decades. Since Amazon makes slim profits and charges low prices, it raises few antitrust questions.

The alternative view — which harks back to an earlier era of antitrust during which Standard Oil and later AT&T were broken up — argues that competition is inherently good even if it is hard to quantify a benefit to consumers and that society should be wary of large or dominant companies even if their behaviour seems benign. ....The narrowing in antitrust thinking is described by Lina Khan in a much-read article, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox”. Ms Khan berates modern antitrust thinking for its “hostility to false positives”.....Tim Harford disagrees, he shares modern antitrust’s hostility to false positives; there is a real cost to cumbersome and unnecessary meddling in a dynamic and rapidly evolving marketplace. US president Donald Trump’s history of publicly attacking Mr Bezos is worth pondering too: Harford asks, "do we really want the US government to have more discretion as to who is targeted, and why?"....Yet for all this,Tim Harford remains deeply uneasy about Amazon’s apparently unassailable position in online retail. Yes, customers are being well served at the moment. Yet the company has acquired formidable entrenched advantages, from the information about customers and the suppliers who sell through it, to the bargaining power it has over delivery companies, to the vast network of warehouses. Those advantages were earned, but they can also be abused.

Antitrust authorities face a difficult balancing act. Regulate Amazon and you may snuff out the innovation that we all say we want more of. Punish it for success and you send a strange message to entrepreneurs and investors. Ignore it and you risk leaving vital services in the hands of an invincible monopolist.

There are no easy options, but it is time to look for a way to split Amazon into two independent companies, each with the strength to grow and invest. If Amazon is such a wonderful company, wouldn’t two Amazons be even better?
Amazon  antitrust  AWS  contra-Amazon  competition  regulators  informational_advantages  Lina_Khan  mom-and-pop  platforms  predatory_practices  Tim_Harford 
january 2018 by jerryking
This is the age of the Microsoft and Amazon economy
Tim Harford

the big digital players: Google dominates search; Facebook is the Goliath of social media; Amazon rules online retail. But, as documented in a new working paper by five economists, American business is in general becoming more concentrated.

David Autor and his colleagues looked at 676 industries in the US — from cigarettes to greeting cards, musical instruments to payday lenders. They found that for the typical industry in each of six sectors — manufacturing, retail, finance, services, wholesale and utilities/transportation — the biggest companies are producing a larger share of output..... “superstar firms” tend to be more efficient. They sell more at a lower cost, so they enjoy a larger profit margin. ....Superstar firms are highly productive and achieve more with less. Because of this profitability, more of the value added by the company flows to shareholders and less to workers. And what happens in these groups will tend to be reflected in the economy as a whole, because superstar firms have an increasingly important role.
Amazon  Big_Tech  corporate_concentration  David_Autor  economics  economies_of_scale  Facebook  Microsoft  monopolies  monopsony  network_effects  platforms  retailers  superstars  Tim_Harford 
january 2018 by jerryking
Diversity means looking for the knife in a drawerful of spoons
SEPTEMBER 8, 2017 | Financial Times | Tim Harford.

Recruiters and admissions tutors are hoping they made the right choices.

So how do we select the best people for a course or a job? It seems like a sensible question, yet it contains a trap. In selecting the best person we might set a test — in a restaurant kitchen we might ask them to whip up some meals; in a software company we might set some coding problems. And then the trap is sprung.

By setting the same task for every applicant we recruit people who are carbon copies of each other. They will have the same skills and think in the same way. Allowing recruiters some subjective discretion might loosen this trap a little, but it might equally make it worse: we all tend to see merit in applicants who look, speak, and dress much like we do. Opposites do not attract, especially when it comes to corporate hiring.

This is unfair, of course. But it is also — for many but not all tasks — very unwise. Scott Page, a complexity scientist and author of The Diversity Bonus, invites us to think of people as possessing a kind of cognitive toolbox. The tools might be anything from fluent Mandarin to knowing how to dress a turkey to a command of Excel keyboard shortcuts. If the range of skills — the size of the toolkit — matters, then a diverse team will boast more cognitive skills than a homogenous team, even one full of top performers.
admissions  diversity  heterogeneity  hiring  homogeneity  recruiting  selection_processes  teams  Tim_Harford 
november 2017 by jerryking
Support more thinkers, not only the tinkerers
NOVEMBER 4, 2017 | FT | Dr Simon Roberts, Stripe Partners, London SE1, UK

In my experience this is not just a decision based on the economics of innovation — it’s a shift informed by the changing temporal rhythms of modern organisations. The mantra “move fast and break things” appears to motivate the leadership and delivery teams of even the most slothful companies far beyond Silicon Valley. When research becomes a tool for rapid, iterative, continual improvement, not an activity committed to open-ended exploration and unconstrained thinking, it is unlikely to lead to the sort of breakthroughs in technology, products or strategic outlook that successful companies (and productive economies) depend on.
Tim_Harford  letters_to_the_editor  R&D  innovation  thinking  tinkerers  breakthroughs 
november 2017 by jerryking
Mental bias leaves us unprepared for disaster
August 14, 2017 | Financial Times | Tim Harford.

Even if we could clearly see a crisis coming, would it have made a difference?

The 2004 storm, Hurricane Ivan, weakened and turned aside before striking New Orleans. The city was thus given almost a full year's warning of the gaps in its defences. The near miss led to much discussion but little action.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the city, evacuation proved as impractical and the Superdome as inadequate as had been expected. The levees broke in more than 50 places, and about 1,500 people died. New Orleans was gutted. It was an awful failure but surely not a failure of forecasting.

Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther in The Ostrich Paradox argue that it is common for institutions and ordinary citizens to make poor decisions in the face of foreseeable natural disasters, sometimes with tragic results.[ JCK: poor decisions = bad decisions]

There are many reasons for this, including corruption, perverse incentives or political expediency. But the authors focus on psychological explanations. They identify cognitive rules of thumb that normally work well but serve us poorly in preparing for extreme events.

One such mental shortcut is what the authors term the “amnesia bias”, a tendency to focus on recent experience (i.e. "disaster myopia" the human tendency to dismiss long-ago events as irrelevant, to believe This Time is Different and ignore what is not under one’s nose). We remember more distant catastrophes but we do not feel them viscerally. For example, many people bought flood insurance after watching the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina unfold, but within three years demand for flood insurance had fallen back to pre-Katrina levels.

We cut the same cognitive corners in finance. There are many historical examples of manias and panics but, while most of us know something about the great crash of 1929, or the tulip mania of 1637, those events have no emotional heft. Even the dotcom bubble of 1999-2001, which should at least have reminded everyone that financial markets do not always give sensible price signals, failed to make much impact on how regulators and market participants behaved. Six years was long enough for the lesson to lose its sting.

Another rule of thumb is “optimism bias”. We are often too optimistic, at least about our personal situation, even in the midst of a more generalized pessimism. In 1980, the psychologist Neil Weinstein published a study showing that people did not dwell on risks such as cancer or divorce. Yes, these things happen, Professor Weinstein’s subjects told him: they just won’t happen to me.

The same tendency was on display as Hurricane Sandy closed in on New Jersey in 2012. Robert Meyer found that residents of Atlantic City reckoned that the chance of being hit was more than 80 per cent. That was too gloomy: the National Hurricane Center put it at 32 per cent. Yet few people had plans to evacuate, and even those who had storm shutters often had no intention of installing them.

Surely even an optimist should have taken the precautions of installing the storm shutters? Why buy storm shutters if you do not erect them when a storm is coming? Messrs Meyer and Kunreuther point to “single action bias”: confronted with a worrying situation, taking one or two positive steps often feels enough. If you have already bought extra groceries and refuelled the family car, surely putting up cumbersome storm shutters is unnecessary?

Reading the psychological literature on heuristics and bias sometimes makes one feel too pessimistic. We do not always blunder. Individuals can make smart decisions, whether confronted with a hurricane or a retirement savings account. Financial markets do not often lose their minds. If they did, active investment managers might find it a little easier to outperform the tracker funds. Governments, too, can learn lessons and erect barriers against future trouble.

Still, because things often do work well, we forget. The old hands retire; bad memories lose their jolt; we grow cynical about false alarms. Yesterday’s prudence is today’s health-and-safety-gone-mad. Small wonder that, 10 years on, senior Federal Reserve official Stanley Fischer is having to warn against “extremely dangerous and extremely short-sighted” efforts to dismantle financial regulations. All of us, from time to time, prefer to stick our heads in the sand.
amnesia_bias  bad_decisions  biases  books  complacency  disasters  disaster_myopia  dotcom  emotional_connections  evacuations  financial_markets  historical_amnesia  lessons_learned  manias  natural_calamities  optimism_bias  outperformance  overoptimism  panics  paradoxes  perverse_incentives  precaution  recency_bias  short-sightedness  single_action_bias  Tim_Harford  unforeseen  unprepared 
august 2017 by jerryking
For workers, challenge is all to easily ducked
July 2017 | Financial Times | Tim Harford

Cal Newport: Deep Work
Robert Twiggs : Micromastery

The modern knowledge worker — a programmer, a lawyer, a newspaper columnist — might appear inoculated from Adam Smith’s concern. We face not monotony but the temptations of endless variety, with the entire internet just a click away. All too easily, we can be pulled into the cycle of what slot-machine designers call a “ludic loop”, repeating the same actions again and again. Check email. Check Facebook. Check Instagram. Check Twitter. Check email. Repeat....what is a ludic loop but “performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same”?

Smith was concerned about jobs that provided no mental challenge: if problems or surprises never arose, then a worker “has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in . . . removing difficulties which never occur.”

For the modern knowledge worker, the problem is not that the work lacks challenge, but that the challenge is easily ducked. This point is powerfully made by computer scientist Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. Work that matters is often difficult. It can be absorbing in mid-flow and satisfying in retrospect, but it is intimidating and headache-inducing and full of false starts.

[Responding to ] Email is easier. And reading Newport’s book I realised that email posed a double temptation: not only is it an instant release from a hard task, but it even seems like work. Being an email ninja looks professional and seems professional — but all too often, it is displacement activity for the work that really matters.

A curious echo of Smith’s warning comes in Robert Twigger’s new book Micromastery. Mr Twigger sings the praises of mastering one small skill at a time: not how to cook, but how to make the perfect omelette; not how to build a log cabin, but how to chop a log. We go deep — as Newport demands — but these sharp spikes of skill are satisfying, not too hard to acquire and a path to true expertise.

They also provide variety. “Simply growing up in the premodern period guaranteed a polymathic background,” writes Twigger. To prosper in the premodern era required many different skills; a smart person would be able to see a problem from many angles. A craft-based, practical upbringing means creative thinking comes naturally. “It is only as we surge towards greater specialisation and mechanisation that we begin to talk about creativity and innovation.”

Three lessons:
(1) learning matters. Smith wanted schooling for all; Twigger urges us to keep schooling ourselves. Both are right.
(2) serious work requires real effort, and it can be tempting to duck that effort. Having the freedom to avoid strenuous thinking is a privilege I am glad to have — but I am happier when I don’t abuse that freedom. [Mavity says: “If you need to produce an idea, isolating yourself can be enormously beneficial.”......“How you do that in a big open-plan office with 100 other people trying to be creative at the same time?.......Solitude is in hopelessly short supply at a time when companies are captivated by the financial allure of the open-plan office and its evil twin, hot-desking. ]
(3) old-fashioned craft offered us something special. To Smith it was the challenge that came from solving unpredictable problems. To Twigger it is the variety of having to do many small things well. To Newport, it is the flow that comes from deep immersion in a skill that requires mastery. Perhaps all three mean the same thing.

Smith realised that the coming industrial age threatened these special joys of work. The post-industrial age threatens them too, in a rather different way. ....“The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments,” wrote Smith. So whether at work or at play, let us take care that we employ ourselves wisely.
Adam_Smith  books  busywork  Cal_Newport  distractions  expertise  GTD  hard_work  industrial_age  knowledge_workers  lessons_learned  productivity  polymaths  premodern  procrastination  skills  solitude  thinking_deliberatively  Tim_Harford  what_really_matters 
august 2017 by jerryking
We are still waiting for the robot revolution
2017 | Financial Times | Tim Harford.

“Our chief economic problem right now isn’t that the robots are taking our jobs, it’s that the robots are slacking off. “

Or at least — it should. Our chief economic problem right now isn’t that the robots are taking our jobs, it’s that the robots are slacking off. We suffer from slow productivity growth; the symptoms are not lay-offs but slow-growing economies and stagnant wages. In advanced economies, total factor productivity growth — a measure of how efficiently labour and capital are being used to produce goods and services — was around 2 per cent a year in the 1960s, when the ATM was introduced. Since then, it has averaged closer to 1 per cent a year; since the financial crisis it has been closer to zero. Labour productivity, too, has been low.

Plenty of jobs, but lousy productivity: imagine an economy that was the exact opposite of one where the robots took over, and it would look very much like ours. Why? Tempting as it may be to blame the banks, a recent working paper by John Fernald, Robert Hall and others argues that productivity growth stalled before the financial crisis, not afterwards: the promised benefits of the IT revolution petered out by around 2006. Perhaps the technology just isn’t good enough; perhaps we haven’t figured out how to use it. In any case, results have been disappointing.

There is always room for the view that the productivity boom is imminent. Michael Mandel and Bret Swanson, business economists, argue in their policy paper that we are starting to find digitally driven efficiencies in physical industries such as energy, construction, transport, and retail. If this happens, Silicon Valley-style innovation will ripple through the physical economy. If.
Tim_Harford  artificial_intelligence  productivity  automation  economists  efficiencies  energy  construction  transportation  retailers  robotics  physical_economy  data_driven 
august 2017 by jerryking
Gig economy is not watching out for the wellbeing of workers
"There is no utopian world where the gig economy provides for the worker, where everyone can magically create their own software, or where the government provides benefits to gig workers -- as if getting Congress to pass such controversial and costly reform can be done at the snap of Mr. Harford's fingers!" ...."He encourages everyone to be a "supermodel", using Linda Evangelista as a poster child for stating that she would not "wake up for less than $10,000 a day" when most of the workers he is talking about hardly have an autonomy or stability whatsoever."...."Uber's high revenues do not translate to drivers' earnings"......Without an employer providing benefits and watching out for an employee's wellbeing, both mentally and financially, gig workers are leaving their families and their futures exposed"
letters_to_the_editor  Tim_Harford  gig_economy  precarious  freelancing  self-employment  independent_contractors  employee_benefits  Uber  Pablo_Picasso  inconsistent_incomes 
august 2017 by jerryking
Think like a supermodel to wrest control of the gig economy | Evernote Web
July 13, 2017 | Financial Times | Tim Harford.

Smartphones have allowed companies such as Uber and Deliveroo to take critical management functions--motivating staff, evaluating and rewarding performance, scheduling and coordination--and replace them with an algorithm.....But gig workers could install their own software, telling it where they like to work, what they like to do, when they’re available, unavailable, or open to persuasion. My app — call it GigBot — could talk to the Lyft app and the TaskRabbit app and the Deliveroo app, and interrupt me only when an offer deserves attention.

Not every job can be broken down into microtasks that can be rented out by the minute, but we might be surprised at how many can. Remember that old line from supermodel Linda Evangelista, “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day”? GigBot will talk to your alarm clock; $10 or $10,000, just name the price that would tempt you from your lie-in.

It is easy to imagine a dystopian scenario in which a few companies hook us in like slot-machine addicts, grind us in circles like cogs, and pimp us around for pennies. But it is not too hard to imagine a world in which skilled workers wrest back control using open-source software agents, join electronic guilds or unions and enjoy a serious income alongside unprecedented autonomy.

Nothing empowers a worker like the ability to walk out and take a better offer; in principle the gig economy offers exactly that. Indeed both scenarios may come true simultaneously, with one type of gig for the lucky ones, and another for ordinary folk.

If we are to take the best advantage of a true gig economy, we need to prepare for more radical change. Governments have been content to use corporations as delivery mechanisms for benefits that include pensions, parental leave, sick leave, holidays and sometimes healthcare — not to mention the minimum wage. This isn’t unreasonable; even a well-paid freelancer may be unable to buy decent private insurance or healthcare. Many of us struggle to save for a pension. But if freelancers really do start to dominate economic activity — if — the idea of providing benefits mostly through employers will break down.

We will need governments to provide essential benefits, perhaps minimalist, perhaps generous, to all citizens. Above that safety net, we need portable benefits — mentioned warmly but briefly by Mr Taylor — so that even a 10-minute gig helps to fill a pension pot or earn time towards a holiday. Traditional corporate jobs have been socially useful, but if you push any model too far from reality, it will snap.
Tim_Harford  gig_economy  mobile_applications  Lyft  TaskRabbit  Deliveroo  freelancing  self-employment  independent_contractors 
july 2017 by jerryking
Autopilot is the enemy
Oct 6th 2016
Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. By Tim Harford. Riverhead; 327 pages; $28. Little, Brown; £20.

SELF-HELP books offer ways for readers to whip their lives into shape. A new book by Tim Harford, an economist and columnist at the Financial Times, argues that we need to whip our lives out of shape. According to his new book “Messy”, the order that we crave is our own worst enemy, and disorder sets us free.
books  economists  messiness  self-help  Tim_Harford 
june 2017 by jerryking
What the history of the electric dynamo teaches about the future of the computer.
JUNE 9 2007 6:18 AM
By Tim Harford

David's research also suggests patience. New technology takes time to have a big economic impact. More importantly, businesses and society itself have to adapt before that will happen. Such change is always difficult and, perhaps mercifully, slower than the march of technology.

More recent research from MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson has shown that the history of the dynamo is repeating itself: Companies do not do well if they spend a lot of money on IT projects unless they also radically reorganize to take advantage of the technology. The rewards of success are huge, but the chance of failure is high. That may explain why big IT projects so often fail, and why companies nevertheless keep trying to introduce them.

Brynjolfsson recently commented that the technology currently available is enough to fuel a couple of decades of organizational improvements.
technology  Alfred_Chandler  historians  IT  productivity  productivity_payoffs  Erik_Brynjolfsson  organizational_improvements  organizational_change  organizational_structure  Tim_Harford  business_history 
may 2017 by jerryking
Marginal gains matter but gamechangers transform
25 March/26 March 2017 | FT | by Tim Harford.

In the hunt for productivity, the revolutionary long shot is worth the cost and risk.

.............................As Olympic athletes have shown, marginal improvements accumulated over time can deliver world-beating performance,” said Andrew Haldane in a speech on Monday, which is quite true. Mr Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist
........The marginal gains philosophy tries to turn innovation into a predictable process: tweak your activities, gather data, embrace what works and repeat.......As Mr Haldane says, marginal improvements can add up.

But can they add up to productivity gains for the economy as a whole? The question matters. There is no economic topic more important than productivity, which in the long run determines whether living standards surge or stagnate.
........
The idea that developed economies can A/B test their way back to brisk productivity growth is a seductive one.

An alternative view is that what’s really lacking is a different kind of innovation: the long shot. Unlike marginal gains, long shots usually fail, but can pay off spectacularly enough to overlook 100 failures.
.....
These two types of innovation complement each other. Long shot innovations open up new territories; marginal improvements colonise them. The 1870s saw revolutionary breakthroughs in electricity generation and distribution but the dynamo didn’t make much impact on productivity until the 1920s. To take advantage of electric motors, manufacturers needed to rework production lines, redesign factories and retrain workers. Without these marginal improvements the technological breakthrough was of little use.
....Yet two questions remain. One is why so many businesses lag far behind the frontier. .......The culprit may be a lack of competition: vigorous competition tends to raise management quality by spurring improvements and by punishing incompetents with bankruptcy. ....
But the second question is why productivity growth has been so disappointing. A/B testing has never been easier or more fashionable, after all. The obvious answer is that the long shots matter, too.
.....In a data-driven world, it’s easy to fall back on a strategy of looking for marginal gains alone, avoiding the risky, unquantifiable research (jk: leaps of faith). Over time, the marginal gains will surely materialise. I’m not so sure that the long shots will take care of themselves.
adaptability  breakthroughs  compounded  economics  game_changers  incrementalism  innovation  leaps_of_faith  marginal_improvements  moonshots  nudge  organizational_change  organizational_improvements  organizational_structure  power_generation  production_lines  productivity  productivity_payoffs  slight_edge  taxonomy  thinking_big  Tim_Harford 
march 2017 by jerryking
How to make good guesses
| FT | Tim Harford

“base rate”,

Base rates are not just a forecasting aid. They’re vital in clearly understanding and communicating all manner of risks. We routinely hear claims of the form that eating two rashers of bacon a day raises the risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent. But without a base rate (how common is bowel cancer?) this information is not very useful. As it happens, in the UK, bowel cancer affects six out of 100 people; a bacon-rich diet would cause one additional case of bowel cancer per 100 people.

Thinking about base rates is particularly important when we’re considering screening programmes or other diagnostic tests, including DNA tests for criminal cases.
base_rates  communicating_risks  economics  forecasting  guessing  howto  predictions  probabilities  Tim_Harford  ratios 
april 2016 by jerryking
The Undercover Economist - Being Economical with the Data
June 1, 2013 |The Financial Times p52.| By Tim Harford.

According to IBM, the computers with which we have surrounded ourselves are now generating 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day around the wor...
massive_data_sets  economics  Mastercard  credit_cards  forecasting  data  Tim_Harford 
june 2013 by jerryking
Living With Mistakes: Why Success Starts With Failure
June 13, 2011 | NYTimes.com | Some of the blogs I
follow—Marginal Revolution, Ezra Klein—have given ample attention to Tim
Harford’s new book, “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.”
failure  David_Brooks  Tim_Harford  book_reviews  books 
june 2011 by jerryking
The Art of Economic Complexity
May 11, 2011

A new way to visualize a country’s development.
By TIM HARFORD
Graphic by CÉSAR A. HIDALGO and ALEX SIMOES.

These diagrams are the early fruits of a new approach to the most important unsolved problem of the last century: how to make a rich country out of a poor one. Development economists have many theories about how the trick is done but few proven answers. A compelling solution would be useful closer to home, too: understanding the process of economic development would help us work out whether it matters that service jobs are replacing manufacturing ones or whether there is anything the government can and should do to stimulate new industries like biotechnology or green energy.......Economies produce "stuff," and if you want more stuff to come out of the process, put more stuff in (like human capital, say). Yet economies do not produce stuff so much as billions of distinct types of goods — perhaps 10 billion.....ranging from size 34 dark stonewash bootcut jeans to beauty therapies involving avocado. The difference between China's economy and that of the United States is not simply that China's is smaller; it has a different structure entirely......we can now visualize the differences between national economies in new ways....... think of economies as collections of "capabilities" that can be combined in different ways like an Erector set to produce different products. ...Economies that export many types of products are more likely to be sophisticated; products exported only by sophisticated economies are more likely to be complex. ............Products are closely connected on the underlying network if they tend to be exported by the same economies. .............At the fringes of the product space are development dead ends. Better-connected nodes represent industries that offer promising prospects for growth..........economies change in structure over time, moving from simpler goods to scarcer, more valuable ones. Countries rarely make radical structural changes. Instead, they generate capabilities gradually, and new industries usually develop from existing ones. Unfortunately, some industries — oil extraction, say, or fishing — do not naturally lead to anything new without a huge leap.
adjacencies  capabilities  complexity  data  digital_economy  economics  infographics  kaleidoscopic  Tim_Harford  visualization 
may 2011 by jerryking

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