Liked When your smartphone tries to be too smart by Tim HarfordTim Harford (

Donald Norman argues that a well-designed product should make functions visible and intuitive: users should be able to grasp how it works, what their options are and get feedback about the results of their actions. That is all very wise, but our modern devices have managed to become so intuitive and versatile by concealing from us how they really operate. Laying bare the true complexity of the supercomputers in our pockets would boggle the mind. We cannot be exposed to how these things really work, lest we lose our grasp on reality. (See also: ChatGPT.)

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There is one very clear parallel between the digital spreadsheet and generative AI: both are computer apps that collapse time. A task that might have taken hours or days can suddenly be completed in seconds. So accept for a moment the premise that the digital spreadsheet has something to teach us about generative AI. What lessons should we absorb?

First, the right technology in the right place can take over very quickly indeed. In the time it takes to qualify as a chartered accountant, digital spreadsheets laid waste to a substantial industry of cognitive labour, of filling in rows and columns, pulling out electronic calculators and punching in the numbers. Accounting clerks became surplus to requirements, and the ability of a single worker to perform arithmetic was multiplied a thousandfold — and soon a millionfold — almost overnight.

The second lesson is that the effect on the labour market was not what we might have expected. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that there were 339,000 accountants and accounting clerks working in the US in 1980, around the time VisiCalc started to take off. By 2022, the bureau tallied 1.4mn accountants and auditors. These two numbers aren’t directly comparable, but it is hard to argue that accountancy was decimated by the spreadsheet. Instead, there are more accountants than ever; they are merely outsourcing the arithmetic to the machine.

What the birth of the spreadsheet teaches us about generative AI by Tim Harford

Tim Harford reflects upon the invention of the spreadsheet and makes comparisons with the rise of artificial intelligence.

Liked Why carbon taxes really work (Tim Harford)

It seems like a huge leap to decarbonise the world economy, but it is better understood as a trillion tiny steps. From frugal shopping to efficient logistics to renewable sources of electricity, carbon taxes gently steer us towards the greener solution every time, whether we are racked with guilt or blithely unconcerned. They should be at the centre of our fight against climate change.

Bookmarked From the clinical trial to role-playing games, why do some ideas arrive so late? (Tim Harford)

I confess, as a boy, to wearing a Leonardo da Vinci T-shirt. Da Vinci was my idea of cool, and the attraction lay not in the Mona Lisa’s smile or his sketches of natural phenomena. It was the …

Tim Harford reflects on the ideas that were behind their time. He posits some reasons why this occurs, such as the ignorance of the complexity involved, that eureka moments are often overblown or that the cliché of the frustrated inventor is a lot rarer than we realise.
Bookmarked What magic teaches us about misinformation (Tim Harford)

Pay attention; get some context; ask questions; stop and think. Misinformation doesn’t thrive because we can’t spot the tricks. It thrives because, all too often, we don’t try. We don’t try, because we are confident that we already did.

Tim Harford talks about the importance of paying attention as a means of seeing beyond the magic of misinformation. This reminds me of the work of Mike Caulfield of way in which the Four Moves provides a structure to pay attention.
Replied to Why bad times call for good data (Tim Harford)

Every previous crisis has provoked a realisation that we lacked the data we needed. The Great Depression prompted governments to gather data about unemployment and national income. The banking crisis of 2007-08 showed regulators that they had far too little information about stresses and vulnerabilities in the financial system. The pandemic should prompt us to improve the data we gather on public health. Governments routinely use labour surveys to understand the economic health of households; they should now do the same with literal health. We could assemble a representative panel of volunteers who agreed to medical check-ups every three months. This would provide invaluable data and, in times of crisis, the volunteers could be approached more frequently, for example, for regular swabs to track the spread of a new virus.

This makes me wonder, when do you have enough data? Although I agree with where the piece is coming from, I worry how data is always good for someone.
Liked Point of order! The use and abuse of debating (Tim Harford)

Competitive debating largely ignores the meta-debate of what motion should be debated. In 2016, the UK electorate was asked whether or not we wished to leave or remain in the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron argued that the only sensible answer was Remain, but simply asking the question implied that either answer was reasonable.

Or consider climate change. We could debate the motion “This house believes veganism is necessary to meet the threat of climate change”, or “This house believes a carbon tax is sufficient to meet the threat of climate change”, or “This house believes there is no threat from climate change”. Which motion gets attention may be more important than any debate that follows.

Debating also feeds some of our less admirable urges. It sometimes pretends to be a search for the truth, but the real goal is not truth but victory.

Liked From forgeries to Covid-denial, how we fool ourselves (Tim Harford)

A Dutch resistance newspaper published the news and Van Meegeren waved it away, claiming that he had signed hundreds of copies of the book and the dedication must have been added by someone else. It’s a ludicrous excuse. But people wanted to believe it. Wishful thinking is a powerful thing.

Caught in a scandal, a modern-day Van Meegeren would say, “That’s not my voice on the tape,” or call the story “fake news”. And their supporters would agree. It seems that if you show people a trickster with a sense of humour, a penchant for mocking experts and the capacity to land a few blows on a hated enemy, they will forgive a lot. What they cannot forgive they will find ways to ignore. Recent experience has only reinforced that lesson.

Replied to From vaccines to homework, why we humans can’t stop overpromising (Tim Harford)

“Facing a choice,” he wrote, “we gave up rationality rather than give up the enterprise.” The project took eight years and ended in failure.

Tim, your discussion of overpromising reminded me of something from Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Black Swans that ‘the longer you wait, the longer you will be expected to wait’.

With human projects and ventures we have another story. These are often scalable, as I said in Chapter 3. With scalable variables, the ones from Extremistan, you will witness the exact opposite effect. Let’s say a project is expected to terminate in 79 days, the same expectation in days as the newborn female has in years. On the 79th day, if the project is not finished, it will be expected to take another 25 days to complete. But on the 90th day, if the project is still not completed, it should have about 58 days to go. On the 100th, it should have 89 days to go. On the 119th, it should have an extra 149 days. On day 600, if the project is not done, you will be expected to need an extra 1,590 days. As you see, the longer you wait, the longer you will be expected to wait.(Page 159)

Listened A free chapter of The Data Detective audiobook from Tim Harford

My book The Data Detective is out today in the US and Canada. (The same book is called How To Make The World Add Up elsewhere in the world.) To celebrate publication, Riverhead Books have teamed up…

In this excerpt from The Data Detective, Tim Harford shares the importance of scientific curiousity when it comes to being a data detective.

A curious person enjoys being surprised and hungers for the unexpected.

One strategy he shares for fostering this is to get people to simply explain what they are talking about. Rather than justifying why a universal based income is important, get them to explain what it is.

Bookmarked Tim Harford (Tim Harford)

Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of “How To Make the World Add Up” / “The Data Detective”, “Messy”, and the million-selling “The Undercover Economist”. Tim is a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s “More or Less”, the iTunes-topping series “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy”, and the podcast “Cautionary Tales”. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House. He is an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford and an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. Tim was made an OBE for services to improving economic understanding in the New Year honours of 2019.

Bookmarked We won’t remember much of what we did in the pandemic | Free to read (Financial Times)

Covid-19 may be as significant an episode as any, but it will not trigger the same sharp memories. Where were you during the pandemic? At home. For months. And without a physical change of scene, even new experiences all start to seem the same.

“You need to get out more,” someone once admonished me. She was right. These days, we all do.

Tim Harford discusses the assocaition between memory and place, explaining why remembering the quarantine will be so hard.