Monthly Archives: May 2010

It’s called “The Upside of Irrationality” and it is a faithful sequel which will appeal to the many fans of his “Predictably Irrational” – I am one of them. As before, it contains many entertaining write-ups of Dan’s experiments.

Dan Ariely was vey badly burned in an accident as a young man and although he described his long and agonising convalescence in “Predictably Irrational”, here he writes much more about how that experience made him feel – for example, about pain, dating, and sex. The writing is dispassionate – neither heartbreaking nor cloying. There is also more of Dan’s advice here, and it’s superior to the odd policy prescriptions he was dishing out in the first book.

Ariely is a hugely likeable writer and a relentlessly inventive experimenter. One fascinating study was spurred by discovering that both Ariely and Hanan Frenk (a double-amputee after driving over a landmine) refused painkillers for dental work (why bother?). Frenk and Ariely studied whether people who had suffered traumatic injuries had a higher tolerance for pain. They do. And the terminally ill, it seems (this is more speculative) have a low tolerance for pain.

That said, I have my usual objection about over-interpreting laboratory work. An example: Ariely advises us to take breaks during enjoyable experiences and to get unpleasant experiences done in one sitting. (The thinking is that we adapt to both experiences, and we adapt less if the experience is interrupted.) That’s fine, until he reveals the experimental work behind this recommendation – which involved playing subjects annoying noises for 40 seconds, with or without breaks. That’s suggestive but a 40-second experiment may not tell us how we react to interrupting experiences that last an hour, a week, or a year.

If you’d like to see me and Dan argue, here’s our debate for Amazon (start at the bottom). Here’s Dan’s website; he’s about to start a book tour in the US. This book is strongly recommended, especially if you enjoyed “Predictably Irrational”.

Labour’s election slogan, “a future fair for all”, was vacuous. No surprise there, I suppose: it was an election slogan after all. Fairness is one of those ideas that fails a basic test in a slogan or a mission statement – could you imagine anyone campaigning for unfairness? Moreover, fairness means very different things to different people.

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

While on a brief break in Devon, I was sitting in a coffee shop that provides free wireless internet access. As the lunch hour approached, the proprietor asked me to vacate the table for four because he wanted it to be free for a lunch party. This made me feel as though he didn’t really appreciate my being there – even as a paying customer.

Should the coffee shop offer wireless internet access if it isn’t willing to accept the opportunity cost associated with it?

Jon Upton, Paris, France

The answer to this question can be read here. Please post comments below.

Tomorrow’s More or Less covers a life-or-death statistic that is calculated for most NHS hospitals. Regulators think it’s a helpful indicator of hospital quality; the newspapers think it’s a measure of how many people die because of poor care, and the British Medical Journal has called for it to be scrapped. Who’s right?

We also speak to one of the last men to interview the late, great Martin Gardner, who died on Saturday.

And important questions: who would win in a fight – a shark, or a toaster?

That’s More or Less, 1.30pm BST on Friday, and podcast on the More or Less website.

It’s in front of me now. It’s a wide-ranging take on the problems and opportunities facing the world after the financial crisis, sweeping across banking, financial imbalances, climate change, locavorism, immigration, trade and the rise of the BRICs.

It’s nicely reported (Legrain travels widely) and has the clarity and the self-confidence of an Economist editorial – sometimes a little unnerving from a named author.

I focused on the chapters on climate change and banking. They are intended to inform the lay-reader and justify Legrain’s firmly-stated policy proposals, and they succeed admirably. More expert readers will not feel they are reading a radical new thesis but will enjoy the style and the colour.

On climate change, Legrain is a techno-optimist and a fan of electric cars, but did not lay much stress on the fact that electric cars don’t reduce carbon dioxide emissions by themselves. On banking, I was unconvinced by his proposal that “bankers’ bonuses” be paid in shares, to be held for a minimum of 20 years. It didn’t seem workable. (What counts as a “bonus”?) But I agreed with most of the rest of it. Philippe is clearly a fan of Willem Buiter and John Kay, which is no bad thing.

There’s a huge amount of good sense, sharply conveyed here. If Legrain occasionally fails to tie up loose ends in his arguments, the compensation is that he can cover plenty of ground.

Overall:the book deserves to do well, and I think it will.

From 28th January 2006:

My second-favourite character from Sesame Street was always The Count. Avid viewers will recall that The Count loves to count, punctuating his counting with a throaty Transylvanian chuckle. Laughing aside, I’ve noticed a similar tendency in economists. We spent decades perfecting the theoretical tools and the software to gather and analyse noisy data in a messy world. Most of the data were produced by laborious counting of the most obvious things: goods sold, prices, people out of work. Now the tools are so good and so simple to use, and data so easy to gather and disseminate, it’s hard to resist the temptation not to count, well, something different.

A nice exponent of this is Chicago-based economist David Galenson, who recently demonstrated that Picasso was by far the greatest artist of the 20th century. Galenson’s method is simplicity itself: round up every art history textbook of the past 15 years, and see whose art is reproduced most frequently. Picasso, with 395 illustrations in 33 textbooks, scores nearly as many as his three closest rivals (Matisse, Duchamp and Mondrian) put together.

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In the last days of the British election campaign, The Sun depicted David Cameron in the style of Shepard Fairey’s iconic image of Barack Obama, and claimed that Labour would, if elected, ban topless models on page three. (The topless models problem was doubtless just about to rise to the top of Labour’s agenda after 13 years.) The Mirror showed the Conservative leader in the costume of the quintessential posh-boy society, the Bullingdon Club, with “his chum Boris Johnson and all the other yahoos of the tuck shop”. The Times chose a photograph of Cameron looking wise, wistful, strong yet compassionate. The Guardian, which endorsed the Liberal Democrats, nevertheless handed a chunk of its front page to columnist Polly Toynbee, who in reporting Gordon Brown’s last-gasp revival with “a whisper of hope, a prayer” thoroughly erased the distinction between her emotions and those of the Labour party faithful she was interviewing.

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

My ironing lady – housebound and bored – has taken to phoning me up and begging me to bring round my bed linen for ironing. As I return to pick it up again, proffering a pair of crisp £20 notes, I quip: “But Sheila, aren’t I providing occupational therapy and shouldn’t you be paying me?” She laughs, pocketing the banknotes, and glows with satisfaction as I take my pile of pillowslips. It is my social duty to continue this relationship, but why do I feel I am the one being flattened?

Flora Fortis, London

The answer to this question can be read here. Please post comments below.

More or Less is back!

This week we’ll ask if there really is no such thing as a fair voting system; and whether we can measure the voting power of the Liberal Democrats. We’ll find out why the Eurovision song contest is in fact the ultimate expression of democracy, and find out about a new website,, which is offering prizes to the best data analysts.

1.30pm BST on Radio 4 tomorrow, repeating at 8pm on Sunday – or of course, podcast and available online at the More or Less website.

From 21st January 2006:

I don’t want to complain, but my favourite lunchtime haunt has the rudest barman I’ve ever encountered – and I don’t think it’s an accident. The restaurant is famous for its superb, sophisticated Italian cooking and it prices accordingly. A romantic meal for two costs about $150, plus the price of your selection from a wine list of biblical proportions. Even if you pick the cheapest main course for lunch and sip water, this frugal meal for one will set you back $15.

Or, you could sit at the bar or on one of the tables in the bar area. The food is still superb: you can fill up on rich, soft pork meatballs nestling on pillows of light polenta for about $8. The veal ragu is rich but you don’t have to be, because this perfect spaghetti is half the price of a pasta dish in the main restaurant.

Continued at

Tim Harford’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.