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The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

Tim Harford

Consider a single line in a poem/song: "Her hair was beautiful and red", then you just think of all words that rhyme with red - dead, fled, bled etc - then construct a second line that ends with one of those rhyme words.

Study where half class got info printed in an off-beat font that they had to make an effort to understand. Those kids showed better understanding than half of class which got conventional font.

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Michael Crichton wrote best selling novels (Disclosure, Andromeda Strain), TV show (ER) and film (Jurassic Park)

Useful to be working on multiple projects at one time bc can 'escape' from one to next when stuck.

Harford uses a steel whiteboard and magnetic notecards to track all projects/ideas he's running. At any one time he's only working on 3 - rest are on back burner but not forgotten.

Paul Erdos is a brilliant mathematician. But what stes him apart from other brilliant mathematicians is that he is the most prolific collaborator in the history of science. The web of collavoration spreads so far that it is measured in units: your Erdos number. Over 500 people have written papers jointly with Erdos, and so they have an Erdos number of 1. If you wrote a paper with one of those 500, your Erdos number is 2, and so on. Over 40,000 people have an Erdos number of 3 or less.

(See also Erdos-Bacon number and Erdos-Bacon-Black Sabbath number)

This is simply extraordinary. Eah of those 500+ collaborations represents a peer-reviewed scientific paper with a stranger. Erdos did this, on average, every 6 weeks for sixty years. In his peak year - 1987, when he was 74 - he formed 35 new creative partnerships: one every 10 days.

Erdos was familiar with multiple branches of maths. he was often able to crack open aproblem that one colleague was working on by drawing on a related advance from an entirely different field. He would move around a room full of mathematicians like a grandmaster playing simultaneous chess, discussing problems, offering breakthrough suggestions, then on to next conversation.

Socially he was as helpless as a child. He never owned a home, expecting (and receiving full hospitality). He owned few clothes, but his shirts and underwear were silk, which had to be handwashed, and not by him. He could not drive, so his hosts had to drive him everywhere. Henever cooked a meal for himself in his life. If he got hungry, even at 4am, he wd get out a couple of saucepans and bang them together until someone woke up and fed him.

And yet, everyone loved working with him. Years after his death papers continued to be published listing him as co-author, as his ideas continues to fruit.

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Whenever bureaucracies try to measure a process, people figure out how to game the system. UK Govy tried too improve NHS by telling doctors that patients had to be given an appointment within 48 hours. Doctors responded by making it very hard to get through to make the appointment. Hospitals adopted an (Apgar) score to measure health of newborns. This led to big (and unnecessary) incr in caesarians which left mothers recovering from major op. USstarted measuring surgical outcomes, which led to surgeons avoiding difficult cases, and performing more ops on healthier patients.

Operation Match was the first computer dating program, set up in 1960's by Harvard nerds who cdn't get a date on Sat night. They dreamed up a 100 pt questionnaire. But founders realised that girls wanted to date guys the same age or older, the same height or taller, and the same religion. So once they'd sorted sexes on those variables, they basically just randomly coupled them. But the idea of scientifically determined compatibility was irresistible to everyone.

Later studies of OKCupid database showed that just being told thet you were "90% compatible" (whatever that meant!) was effectively a placebo.

The algorithms does what it is supposed to do: deliver someone to your specs - the problem is that no-one really knows what they want.

Extreme case of hacker named Chris McKinlay who wrote a bot which scraped huge amount of data from OkCupid. From this data he constructed an idealised profile that gave perfect answers to the questions that most women asked. He was inundated with messages from interested women. So then he had to start meeting them. He went on 88 first dates; 52 of them were total flops. None of them went past 3 dates.

Finally he met someone he liked, who liked him as well. But she wasn't a partic good match according tohis criteria - she didn't even make the top 10,000 matches in LA. And he didn't find her, she found him. She'd searched for someone who was local, tall and had blue eyes.

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In 2015 Facebook added extra buttons to the 'Like' one; Angry, sad, Haha, Wow, Love. Not needed by users, bc always had ability to make comments to show your reactions. But very useful for advertisers bc much easier to parse simple numbers.

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Compared Donald Trump to Rommel. The German general established a rep in both WW1 and WW2 of continually making unexpectedattacks which kept enemies off balance. Likewise Trump constantly tweets provocative statements - while his opponents are still reacting to one, Trump's already on to the next.

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Children don't much like the playgrounds designedby adults. They much prefer proto building sites where they can build or dismantle their own play things. (The rubber surface that has become standard in most KFC - Kit, Fence, Carpet - playgrounds makes up about 40% of the cost, yet very little evidence that fewer accidents).

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SELF-HELP books offer ways for readers to whip their lives into shape. A new book by Tim Harford, an economist and columnist at the Financial Times, argues that we need to whip our lives out of shape. According to his new book "Messy", the order that we crave is our own worst enemy, and disorder sets us free.

Mr Harford's book strays well beyond mess of the physical sort (though he devotes a whole section to railing against oppressive tidy-desk policies, which he argues disempower workers and make them unproductive). Most of the book is about other types of mess: randomness, experimentation and human autonomy.

Intellectual mess, such as flitting between projects, breeds insight and helps make connections. Paul Erdos, a nomadic mathematician, leapt between collaborators, cross-fertilising projects with abandon. The chaos he brought with him was tiresome for some (if he felt peckish in the middle of the night, he was known to bash saucepans until his host gave him food). But it also meant that he produced a peer-reviewed paper with a stranger on average every six weeks for 60 years.

Mr Harford argues that we should resist our instincts when faced with a disorderly world. Too often policymakers try to tame complicated systems using simple targets, and inadvertently create nasty unintended consequences. When the British government set waiting-time targets for doctors' appointments, for example, doctors responded by making the appointments difficult to book in advance.

More detailed targets are no solution - they can be gamed too, and risk tidying smaller problems out of sight while more catastrophic ones brew. In the mid-2000s, banks faced sophisticated capital requirements, which regulators thought would act as a buffer when a shock hit. But the fiddly requirements simply lulled regulators into a false sense of security and allowed bigger, systemic, risks to build. The meticulously calculated buffers were then no match for the massive financial crisis.

Mr Harford warns against a creeping force for neatness: automation. It makes lives simpler to delegate complex, wearying tasks to robots. But convenience breeds complacency. In 2012 some Japanese students visiting Australia were told to drive into the Pacific Ocean because of a glitch in their GPS system. Rather than question their technology, they ploughed on. (They were fine; their car was not.) While readers may worry that the robots are coming for our jobs, Mr Harford thinks we should be just as worried about them taking our judgment.

"Messy" masterfully weaves together anecdote and academic work. But Mr Harford's call may ring hollow for some. He is rewarded for his messy creativity with money. The person packing his book in an Amazon warehouse is not.

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