Tuesday 2017-01-03

Messy by Tim Harford

Harford jumps into the old collegiate argument of Apollonian vs Dionysian, contending that messy can be helpful in situations where you want creativity or resilience or where it's useful to impose a mental tax.

Since Disorder can be good, when we encounter it we need to evaluate it, and determine whether it is serving some function.

Thacher is right certain kinds of mess are worth tidying up for their own sake. But its striking how easily we fall for the old-fashioned idea that cleanliness is next to godliness -- that a mess is not just a mess, but the precursor to some dreadful evil.

Skirting the mire of politics -- Harford points out that our own subjective sense of whether something is Ordered or Chaotic has a socio-economic dimension:

Neighbourhoods with many poor families, or with a high proportion of African American residents, or both, were perceived as being more disordered by the people who lived there, relative to richer, whiter neighbourhoods with the same levels of trash, graffiti or panhandlers. If we want to predict whether a city blocks residents think that its a mess, we would learn more from looking at data on race and poverty than we would learn from looking at videos of what the neighbourhood actually looks like. People feel that richer white neighbourhoods look neat and poorer black neighbourhoods look disorderly, regardless of what is actually happening on the street.

Overall, it's good to see someone other than Nicholas Nassim Taleb singing for Chaos, as altogether too many public intellectuals / policy wonks seem stolidly Burkean.

Vera Brandes was stunned. She knew that Jarrett had requested a specific instrument and the Opera House had agreed to provide it. What she didnt realise was that, caring little for late-night jazz, theyd failed and didnt even know it. The administrative staff had gone home, the piano movers hadnt been able to find the Bsendorfer piano that had been requested, and so instead they had installed, as Brandes recalls, this tiny little Bsendorfer, that was completely out of tune, the black notes in the middle didnt work, the pedals stuck. It was unplayable.
That nights performance began with a simple chiming series of notes, then quickly gained complexity as it moved by turns between dynamism and a languid, soothing tone. It was beautiful and strange, and it is enormously popular: The Kln Concert album has sold 3.5 million copies. No other solo jazz album nor solo piano album has matched that.
Another example is Michael Crichton, who in the 1970s and 1980s had written several novels, directed the mid-budget sci-fi thriller Westworld and written non-fiction books about art, medicine and even computer programming. This remarkable range of interests served him well: by 1994 Crichton had the astonishing distinction of having created the worlds most commercially successful novel (Disclosure), TV show (ER) and film (Jurassic Park).
I have a related solution myself, a steel sheet on the wall of my office full of magnets and three-by-five-inch cards. Each card has a single project on it something chunky that will take me at least a day to complete. As I write this, there are more than fifteen projects up there, including my next weekly column, an imminent house move, a stand-up comedy routine Ive promised to try to write, two separate ideas for a series of podcasts, a television proposal, a long magazine article and this chapter. That would potentially be overwhelming, but the solution is simple: Ive chosen three projects and placed them at the top. Theyre active projects and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner. I dont fret that I will forget them, because theyre captured on the board. But neither do I feel compelled to start working on any of them. They wont distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious.
But Eno soon found that the list didnt work. It was too orderly. It was too easy to ignore the disruptive instructions. Your eye would run down the list and settle on exactly the item that would cause the least stress, something that felt safe. And so the idea emerged of turning the checklist into a deck of cards that would be shuffled and dealt at random. Enos friend, the artist Peter Schmidt, had a flip-book filled with similar provocations. The two men teamed up to produce the Oblique Strategies deck a guaranteed method of pushing artists out of their comfort zones. The poet Simon Armitage, fascinated by the cards, says their effect is as if youre asking the blood in your brain to flow in another direction.
In principle the modern world gives us more opportunities than ever to forge relationships with people who do not look, act or think the same way that we do. Travel is cheaper, communication is free and instantaneous, and a host of tools exist to help us reach across previously unbridgeable social divides. But what do we do with these opportunities? We keep our social networks nice and tidy by seeking out people just like us.
the tendency to work on multiple projects is so common among the most creative people that it should be regarded as standard practice.
But few modern offices boast the extreme reconfigurability of Building 20: when Jerrold Zacharias and his team were developing the atomic clock, the group simply removed a couple of floors from their laboratory to accommodate it. And Building 20s true advantage wasnt so much that it was reconfigurable by design, but that the buildings inhabitants felt confident that they had the authority (if only by default) to make changes, even messy changes. It was that it was so cheap and ugly that, in the words of
But few modern offices boast the extreme reconfigurability of Building 20: when Jerrold Zacharias and his team were developing the atomic clock, the group simply removed a couple of floors from their laboratory to accommodate it. And Building 20s true advantage wasnt so much that it was reconfigurable by design, but that the buildings inhabitants felt confident that they had the authority (if only by default) to make changes, even messy changes. It was that it was so cheap and ugly that, in the words of Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn, Nobody cares what you do in there.
Entrepreneur Gerald Ratner managed to self-destruct more quickly. Ratner had spent the 1980s building the largest jewellery chain on the planet. He destroyed it with a couple of jokes. Speaking to a prestigious audience of business leaders in 1991, Ratner joked that one of his products a crystal decanter was total crap and that a set of earrings he sold were cheaper than a prawn sandwich, but probably wouldnt last as long. The comments hit the front pages of the newspapers and sales at Ratners collapsed. Ratner was defenestrated; the company even jettisoned his now-toxic name. The cost of his slip was estimated at half a billion pounds three quarters of a billion dollars. Gerald Ratner himself lost everything.
In 1995, Peter Smith, an economist at the University of York, attempted to provide an exhaustive list of all the ways in which targets might have unintended consequences. Its a sobering array of potential calamities.
The bigger problem was that the guide was too complex to appeal to doctors. So Lee Green and his colleagues developed a simple decision tree, throwing away most of the detail in the diagnostic table and focusing on a few obvious clues. The decision tree asks three yes/no questions: first, does the patient display a particular anomaly on a heart monitor? If so, straight to the coronary care unit. Otherwise, question two: is the patients main complaint about chest pain? If not, then there is no need for coronary care. But if so, then a third question tells the doctor to look for one of five obvious clues any one of them is enough to send the patient to coronary care. The decision tree can be written on a postcard.
Recent research shows that when limited data are available, Markowitzs rule of thumb divide assets equally between categories such as stocks, bonds and property outperforms Markowitzs Nobel-worthy theory. What do we mean by limited data? Remarkably, anything less than five hundred years worth is probably limited enough to tip the balance in favour of the simple rule of thumb.
Earl Wiener, a cult figure in aviation safety who died in 2013, coined whats known as Wieners Laws of aviation and human error. One of them was, Digital devices tune out small errors while creating opportunities for large errors.
You could even argue that the financial crisis of 2007-8, which plunged the world into recession, was analogous to absent-mindedly driving a car into the Pacific. One of the weaknesses that contributed to the crisis was the failure of financial products called collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) hugely complex structures whose value depended in an opaque way on the health of the US mortgage market. A grizzled market participant might have looked at rapidly inflating house prices and mused that a house price crash was possible, even though the United States had not experienced a nationally synchronised crash before.
With fly-by-wire, its much easier to assess whether the trade-off is worthwhile. Until the late 1970s, one could reliably expect at least twenty-five fatal commercial plane crashes a year. In 2009, Air France 447 was one of just eight crashes, a safety record. The costbenefit analysis seems clear: freakish accidents like Flight 447 are a price worth paying, as the steady silicon hand of the computer has prevented many others.
Monderman wove his messy magic and created the Squareabout. He threw away all the explicit efforts at control. In their place, he built a square with fountains, a small grassy roundabout in one corner, pinch points where cyclists and pedestrians might try to cross the flow of traffic, and very little signposting of any kind. It looks much like a pedestrianisation scheme except that the square has as many cars crossing it as ever, approaching from all four directions. Pedestrians and cyclists must cross the traffic as before, but now they have no traffic lights to protect them. It sounds dangerous and surveys show that locals think it is dangerous. It is certainly unnerving to watch the Squareabout in operation drivers, cyclists and pedestrians weave in and out of one another in an apparently chaotic fashion. Yet the Squareabout works. Traffic glides through slowly but rarely stops moving for long. The number of cars passing through the junction has risen, yet congestion has fallen. And the Squareabout is safer than the traffic light crossroads that preceded it, with half as many accidents as before. It is precisely because the Squareabout feels so hazardous that it is safer. Drivers never quite know what is going on or where the next cyclist is coming from, and as a result they drive slowly and with the constant expectation of trouble. And while the Squareabout feels risky, it does not feel threatening; at the gentle speeds that have become the custom, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians have time to make eye contact and to read one another as human beings rather than threats or obstacles. When showing visiting journalists the Squareabout, Mondermans party trick was to close his eyes and walk backwards into the traffic. The cars would just flow around him without so much as a honk on the horn.
Arnold Schwarzenegger insisted on keeping his diary clear when he was a film star, and even tried to do so when he was governor of California. Appointments are always a no-no. Planning ahead is a no-no, he told the New York Times. Politicians, lobbyists and activists had to treat him like they treated a popular walk-up restaurant: they showed up and hoped to get a slot. This wasnt some strange status play. Well, perhaps it was, a little. But Schwarzenegger had also realised that an overstuffed diary allows no flexibility. Of course, it is much easier to make the world queue up to meet you if youre a billionaire venture capitalist or a global star of film and politics.
The Air France Flight 447 conditions were atypical, but they were not unique. In December 2014 AirAsia Flight 8501 flew into a thunderstorm near Borneo and the autopilot disengaged as a result of a minor mechanical glitch. The inexperienced junior pilot unwittingly put the plane into a stall; the captain spotted the problem but was unable to recover in time. The plane crashed and 162 people died.
Even more extraordinary is the tale of a woman hoping to pick up a friend from the local train station in Belgium who instead trustingly drove eight hundred miles to Zagreb, Croatia.
In the 2010 movie The Company Men, Ben Affleck portrays a white-collar employee who loses his job when a greedy CEO orders savage layoffs in an effort to appease Wall Street and boost the companys stock price.
In traditional manufacturing, products tend to be sold everywhere in the world. But consumption of locally produced goods depends by definition on the existing wealth of an area. After all, someone in the local economy has to pay for these $40 handmade T-shirts and $9 artisanal chocolate bars. In the case of cities like New York and San Francisco, financial and high-tech industries are the sectors generating the wealth that supports these local artisanal efforts.
Mr Blair made the NHS a political priority and introduced a system of targets to hold NHS providers accountable. One of those targets was that when patients called their NHS doctor, they would be given an appointment within forty-eight hours. The target was soon to rebound upon the Prime Minister. During the election campaign of 2005, the smooth-talking Blair found himself floundering when confronted by an ordinary voter in a televised discussion. Diana Churchs complaint was simple: her doctor refused to book a follow-up appointment in a weeks time. You have to sit on the phone for three hours in the morning trying to get an appointment because you are not allowed to ask for the appointment before that, she protested, as the Prime Minister looked confused. She then explained why. Mrs Church and her doctor had both seen the flaw that Blair had overlooked. A doctor could maximise her chances of hitting the forty-eight-hour waiting target by keeping her appointment book clear. Every advance booking was a potential obstacle to an urgent case, so advance bookings were simply prohibited. Instead, each patient had to call the clinic, wait on hold and hope to get through on a day-by-day basis. Those who succeeded would almost certainly get an appointment within forty-eight hours. Those who did not would not be recorded by the system because their request would never have been noted. The target became far more achievable for the doctors, even though the quality of service was falling apart.