Links round-up

Hi all,

This week’s links are a little longer than usual, but they’ll also be your lot until September 14th as I flit off to Portugal next Friday, where matters of economics and public policy will be far from my thoughts. Instead, I shall be turning what little concentration I have to systematically testing out the Decanter guide to Alentejo (I know, it’s a hard life), eating my way through their entire agricultural production, and copious birdwatching, with occasional breaks to read Rumpole. My only remaining problem is finding a place to watch the first few days of the Oval test

  1. Is brilliance random, a habit, or a temporary state of being? In sports, Amos Tversky and co-authors prompted endless back and forth about whether a ‘hot hand’ exists in basketball, arguing that it’s purely an illusion created by our very human inability to recognise randomness when we see it; others have made repeated attempts to prove that hot streaks of above-average performance are real. A really thought-provoking article based on new research extends this idea to other areas of human endeavour: science, the arts, your career. It finds that there are single peaks of brilliance that aren’t random; instead people hit creative hot streaks that tend to account for a disproportionate portion of their best work. This isn’t just navel-gazing: it extends the Peter principle idea, since if you’re promoted due to your hot streak, you’ll likely never reach that height again. I have some doubts though: one is that this might not be due to a ‘hot streak’ so much as an innovation. If you come up with a brilliant idea or piece of inspiration that’s the backbone of one paper, or piece of music, it’s likely you’ll keep mining it before others leap in – creating a hot streak. There are other explanations, too. Entrepreneurs know that one brilliant success dramatically improves the quality of finance you have for your next project, but that your next failure resets you zero; in film one great movie has stars clamouring to work with you, but a dud makes you toxic. The jury remains out.
  2. Philip Gourevitch pulls no punches in a profile of Kofi Annan.
  3. Can football aid nation-building? This VoxDev piece argues the case for it. I have two main questions: first, is it really reasonable to say that the result of the final round of games in qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations is ‘as-if’ random for teams with a live chance of going through or going home in the final game? And secondly, how long does sporting euphoria last? Maybe we can ask France?
  4. I think Francis Fukuyama is exactly right about this (a sentence I have almost certainly not typed before): public policy education should be more about policy making, rather than policy analysis. It is substantially easier to teach or learn the latter than the former, though – so it’s really important for schools to emphasise applied work or projects.
  5. Planet Money are doing a series of ‘economics beach reads’, which is apparently not an oxymoron. They discuss Diane Coyle’s book on GDP and a forthcoming book about why the modern office is a hellish productivity sink. One good point: cheaper and easier communication only improves outcomes if both sides of the communication are able to assess the costs and benefit of engaging before doing so. But actually, if the recipient feels obliged to respond and the initiator simply thinks of their own cost-benefit, you wind up with a whole load of socially sub-optimal communications.
  6. I liked this more for the ancillary information than the findings on migration, but this piece on what we can learn about how and why people move from studying prostitution in 18th Century France is really interesting.
  7. How strongly do people respond to the marginal return to work? Apparently, not all that strongly at all.
  8. Vijaya Ramachandran and Todd Moss have a paper categorising the different kinds of firm that suffer from unreliable energy provision in Africa; it’s based on the WB Enterprise Surveys, so there’s a swathe of firms not covered, but it’s interesting to see the different profiles that come up.
  9. An finally, the marginalia: first, an irritating new study finds that any alcohol consumption at all is a bad thing – but the only benefits and costs it considers are to health. Next Saturday, when I’m knee-deep in salty, delicious Portuguese pastries and half-way down a bottle of Verdejo, I’ll be measuring my returns in happiness, not longevity. A much less annoying study from MIT considers why it’s so hard to snap spaghetti in two. And finally, if you’ve got a strong stomach: sixty international covers of Lolita, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Have a great couple of weeks, everyone!


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