Creativity is ‘Messy,’ notes on Tim Harford’s 2016 book

In June 2009, the veteran lead pilot of Air France 447 was awoken from his scheduled nap to find his junior crew in trouble. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he had three minutes to determine which of the conflicting alerts from the plane’s automated system to respond to, and what were false alarms.

He failed. Nearly 250 crew and passengers died in the Atlantic Ocean.

That’s from the easily most gripping chapter in economics journalist Tim Harford’s 2016 book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. That tragic story is a cautionary tale for our age, demonstrating the paradox of automation: “The better the automatic systems, the more out of practice human operators will be, and the more unusual will be the situations they face.”

How quickly could you look up from your smartphone if your autonomous vehicle alerted you that it had disengaged? Software, like many managers and orderly obsessives, wants a tidy world but the world is actually quite messy. That’s Harford’s message: Embrace the mess.

Below are my notes from the book for my future reference.

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The Undercover Economist: notes from Tim Harford’s 2005 debut

“Economics is about who gets what and why.”

It’s a fundamental part of how the world works, so everyone should better understand how an economy works. So argues business journalist Tim Harford in his 2005 debut book The Undercover Economist, informed by his syndicated columns. Published the same year as the breakout success Freakonomics, The Undercover Economist helped establish a category of pop economics nonfiction books to help explain the world. They’re heavily influenced by behavioral economics and mix in lots of real world examples. Harford was part of a wave of writers that brought in greater familiarity with otherwise arcane economics concepts, a trend that has only continued the last 15 years.

That’s fitting a trend to less academic and more practical uses of the field of economics. Keynes wanted economists to be not great theorists but “rather like dentists” to solve everyday problems. Harford has been part of the movement to make it so.

Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

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