Links round-up

Hi all,

I’m absconding from the office for almost a month next week (the result of basically forgetting to take any real holiday this year and needing to use up my leave days before the end of the year), so this is the last links round-up till the back end of November. Stay your tears, though –  this round-up is a bit of a monster – plenty of reading for the next few weeks. A month’s gap isn’t that long, anyway – Chuck Berry’s next album will be his first in 38 years, and will almost certainly be the most awesome rock album featuring a nonagenarian ever.

 1.       STOP STEALING MY CONSUMER SURPLUS! I cannot be the only person driven to a rage by self-checkout counters in supermarkets, though I may be more unusual in mentally picturing that area under the demand curve but above the equilibrium price being gradually eroded by the disutility of having to do someone else’s job less well than they can. Planet Money has the story behind the creation of the self-checkout (transcript), and it’s fascinating: a machine that was designed to do things faster and more efficiently ultimately failed in its objective because products and people are essentially messy – it’s hard for a machine to process them in a standard way. Which segues nicely into…

2.       Tim Harford (who features heavily this week) unwittingly provides me with the greatest piece of confirmation bias and self-justification I could have asked for, and timed it perfectly. My team moved offices this week, and I had what I thought would be the time-consuming and deeply depressing task of clearing out my locker. Anyone who has seen inside it will tell you it’s like opening a fridge in Ghostbusters – a portal to a dimension ruled by chaos. Well, it turns out, this is all a symptom of productivity and efficiency. I just shove stuff in when I’m done for the day, and find it again when I need it. Over time, all the most commonly used things churn at the top – the detritus settles at the bottom. The mess is actually an efficient system that provides me with the visual cues I need to prioritise my work – and the proof was in the move. It took me about 20 minute – I sorted through the top layers and chucked away everything else. The real truth may be that I’m constitutionally incapable of tidiness, but I like Tim’s explanation better.

3.       There’s another kind of apparent randomness he wrote about this week – random research. The Ig Nobel prize, given out to esoteric and weird research came in for some serious praise, with Harford pointing out that such random research often leads to findings of lasting and serious importance – including research that revealed that incompetent people are often unaware that they are incompetent (there’s a sentence that’ll make people anxious). There really is something to this – both the IMF and (I think) the Bank of England have researchers who are given free rein to write papers about anything, including cricket. The idea is that in thinking about all kinds of things, they’ll stumble on something – an insight, a method – that will provide the key to unlocking a policy relevant, real-world puzzle.

4.       Speaking of random research, this FiveThirtyEight article examines the economics of Ikea and is worth a close read – it is full of fascinating insights into how the global economy has changed over the last forty years – and a few little hints on what changes are still to come.

5.       Much less random research: I continue to be amazed by David Evans’ ability to read virtually everything that has ever been written, understand it, and then summarise it in a machine gun salvo of pithy observations – this time on education research. Heroic.

6.       The World Bank (thanks in no part to CGD and particularly their spectacular attempt to scrape all the data off PovCalNet) have finally started publishing median incomes as a basic indicator for all the countries they have data for. I could not confirm that the first draft of the press release was entitled: “Justin, please stop screwing with our servers”.

7.       I would say that Alan Winters has forgotten more about trade than I will ever know, but I doubt Alan Winters has forgotten anything about trade. Anyway, here he is with his take on the mood in Europe around Brexit. All impressions, and much can still change.

8.       Related, Theo Talbot suggests that post-Brexit, Britain should change the classification of students, taking them out of the long-term immigration figures – for the sake of exports. I like the idea, but it doesn’t look to be flying politically; the problem seems to be a perception that the rules around student visas are being gamed. If it’s going to fly, it might need to be combined with a different way of assessing criteria (or a correction of that perception, if it’s wrong). Related, again: Tarek Hassan on the impact of refugees on long term FDI.

9.       A short piece of political economy 101 – Alex de Waal on the dangerous potential consequences of trying to bankrupt a kleptocracy. Robert Bates made this point a decade ago – it’s shocking that we still haven’t learnt it.

10.   And finally, from the Department of Random Research I have no idea about the application of  – FiveThirtyEight looks at the strange community of speedrunners – people who can complete Super Mario World in under 5 minutes. Fascinating and very, very odd.

 Have a great month, everyone!


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