• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

40 Books in 2018

Tim Harford


328pp Abacus 2016

The argument: that we often succumb to the temptation of a tidy-minded approach when we'd be better served by embracing a degree of mess. Harford weaves dozens of vignettes to illustrate his case. Here’s one from each chapter:

COURAGE! (Chapter 4 - Improvising)

When Martin Luther King Jr. started giving sermons as a young boy, he also began his lifetime habit of practicing. Before each Sunday sermon, he’d spend as much as 15 hours writing, rewriting and running through exactly what he was going to say, and how he was going to say it.

A script can seem protective, but sometimes it's more like a straitjacket.

In 1963, King arrived at the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’ prepared to give a speech called 'Normalcy, Never Again'. Seventh of seven speakers that day, he began in front of a tired 250,000 crowd, and the response was muted. Many had been there all day, and were folding their chairs, ready to go. How could King turn up the energy in the crowd, send them home on a high?

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson encouraged him with reference to a speech he had given previously: "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin."

Then King improvised one of the most memorial political orations of the C20th. Years of practice, and then willingness to let go of 'script safety' to be in the moment.


Vera Brandes, then the youngest concert promoter in Germany, had organised for jazz pianist Keith Jarrett to perform in the Cologne Opera House on 24 Jan 1975.

Unfortunately, a miscommunication backstage lead to the wrong piano being placed on stage.

Arriving later, Jarrett tried the baby grand, finding it out of tune and with a pedal not working properly. His assistant told 17-year old Brandes: "If you don't get another piano, Keith can't play tonight."

Getting another piano in the time was not possible, and with 1000 tickets sold, Brandes was in a very vulnerable position. Fortunately, Jarrett took pity on her, and agreed to go ahead.

Handed a mess, Keith Jarrett embraced it and soared.Indeed, at 3.5 million copies, The Koln Concert is still the best-selling jazz album of all time.

WORK AT A DIFFERENT SPEED (Chapter 5 - Winning)

In Rocky II, the plucky southpaw Stallone adopts an orthodox right-handed stance to fight the champion Apollo Creed. On the 15th round (it’s always in the final round the Rocky franchise) he switches back to left-hand. And wins.

It’s not the reverting back to his ‘natural’ side that’s important. It’s about the effect of his actions on his opponent.

One of Harford’s examples of this is Erwin Rommel, perhaps the most successful German soldier in WW1 and certainly in WW2.

January 1915. Rommel's men pressed ahead through a French defensive line, then a second, and then a third. Rapid movement and bold independent action created a feedback loop, leaving his enemies utterly bewildered; he could improvise his way through the mess before his enemies did.

Fleeting opportunities often emerge in the confusion of war. At the Battle of Caporetto in 1917 he again combined unexpected angle, surprise, abruptly changed, and sudden attacks. In 2.5 days, his 150 men took 81 guns and 9,000 prisoners at the cost of 6 dead and 30 wounded.

Another German general wrote in his diary:'Rommel has not sent a single clear-cut report all these days, and I have a feeling that things are in a mess..'

BE DIRTY (Chapter 9 - Life)

Productivity guru Merlin Mann and Argentinian short story writer Jorge Luis Borges are an unlikely dynamic duo - but they have reached the same conclusion (albeit independently):

Our work can map to practical real-world cases or they can be neat and logical, but rarely both at once.

A good job, a good building, even a good relationship, has openness and adaptability - which are inherently messy.

Pause for thought for a moment, and jot down a quick answer to the following question: What does a playground look like?

(Scribble now.)

You’ve probably included a shiny slide, bright coloured swings, some rubberised matting, a seesaw with a shaped seat at either end. Perhaps railings, to protect the children inside and keep potential risks (dogs, footballs) outside.

Now look at this video for ‘The Land’.

There is not sign that says This is a Playground: no bright colours, no shiny slide, no rubberised matting.

It’s out of sync with affluent, middle-class parenting - certainly in the public parks where I live. When fellow parents see this film, the common sentence is "This is insane".

But it turns out that children adjust for risk, and learn how to deal with the reality of mess.


To err is human, but to really foul up things takes a computer. Try this story from the Air France 447 flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris:

After a brief snooze, the airline captain re-entered the cockpit to see his two colleagues - senior and co-pilots - ignoring the computer voiced ‘STALL STALL STALL’

An A330 aircraft is, appently, very hard to crash. It ‘flies-by-wire’, technology that inserts itself between the pilot, with his or her faults, and the plane's mechanics, its flaps, fins and ailerons.

But many pilots have very little experience to draw upon if there's a problem.

STALL STALL STALL. An aircraft stall occurs when the plane tries to climb too steeply. On the Air France A330 STALL was repeated seventy-five times in four-and-a-half minutes. On the black box recorder, at no point did any of the three crew mention it.

The junior of the crew had seen his instruments flagging a storm ahead, and tried to fly over it. Far from climbing out of danger, the climb was the danger. Which resulted in 228 fatalities.

The problem was not the fly-by-wire system, but the fact that the pilots had grown to rely on the system. The plane, not the pilots, was usually the one doing the flying.

James Reason,author of Human Error, writes: "Manual control is a highly

skilled activity, and skills need to be practiced continuously in order to maintain them."

Think on that the next time you read about electric cars,controlled by Goggle... without a steering wheel.

YOU ARE AN ENGINEER (Chapter 3 - Workplaces)

‘Designer’ workplaces look sleek and chic and the epitome of productivity. But unfortunately, studies show that such universal pods do NOT support highly creative, high-value output.

Compare the Dilbert cubicle with the MIT Building 20, which was literally designed in an afternoon to house Rad Lab, the laboratory for radiation investigation in WW2.

Only $848k was spent on the building. It subsequently absorbed $2 billion of military funding.

Building 20 threw people together at random, having conversations that were strange and wonderful: nuclear science, plastics research, adhesives lab, acoustics lab, architectural department, model railway enthusiasts and a homeless botanist.

In an atmosphere of chaos and neglect - need more space, then go ahead and knock a wall through - it ultimately produced nine Nobel Prize winners.

REPETITION IS A FORM OF CHANGE (Chapter 2 - Collaboration)

Paul Erdos, a Hungarian mathematician, regarded as the most prolific collaborator in the history of science. Erdos worked on a peer-review scientific paper with a stranger - every six weeks for 60 YEARS.

He never cooked a meal, couldn't drive, and was impossibly demanding. When he came to stay, you were expected to do his washing because, well, he didn’t.

Allegedly, his personal maxim was 'Another roof, another proof'.

Erdos was the personification of the random leap, as he believed that the most irreplaceable social connections are the distant ones. The more peripheral the contact, the more likely s/he is to tell you something you don't know.

WHAT TO INCREASE? WHAT TO REDUCE? (Chapter 6 - Incentives)

Basel is a set of international banking regulations put forth by the Basel Committee on Bank Supervision (BCBS). Since 1988, there have been four versions:

Basel I (1988) had 30 pages, setting a minimum threshold for how much capital the bank would have. It allowed for five categories of risk - but regulators soon concluded that five weren't enough; their rules were too simplistic and had too many loose ends.

Basel II (2005), with a mind-numbing 347 pages, was the most complicated financial stability agreement in history. It was was promptly followed by the most complicated financial crisis in history.

Basel III (2009) - after the outcome of Version II’s :

A) recommendations on ‘risk-weighting’ (= Greek government bonds) and

B) ‘safe-on-paper’ financial engineering (= subprime mortgage lending),

the great and the good produced regulations twice as long as Basel II.

(For the sake of the complete picture - beyond Harford’s book - in December 2017 the Basel Committee announced another regulatory framework. Allegedly, ‘phase-in’ will start January 2022, and full implementation 1 January 2027. Plenty of time for the world’s trees to grow and be pulped for the paper version.) Having unpacked all of this, Harford (an economist) goes back to the beginning and asks whether the five categories in Basel I wasn’t too crude, but too clever? He quotes Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, who offers the following alternative to all Basel, I to IV and beyond:

"Beware Indebted Banks"

GO OUTSIDE. SHUT THE DOOR (Chapter 8 - Resilience)

Jane Jacobs, urban writer and campaigner describes 'the daily ballet of Hudson Street' in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

At their best, cities, towns and neighbourhoods are messy; always busy, but never overwhelmed with people. A combination of homes, stores, workshops; a mix of old and new buildings.

Here’s a comparison of two world cities: Birmingham and Detroit. Birmingham’s history includes steam engines, pneumatic tyres, pen nibs, toys, jewellery, cars, chocolate, buckles, buttons, tanks, banking, electrical engineering.

Detroit did cars, cars, cars and music.

In the world of mess, beautifully designed specialised cities were - and are - fragile.

The economies that do lots of things tend to do most of those things very well. That is the road to prosperity - and in an unpredictable world, it is the road to resilience too.

ONLY A PART, NOT THE WHOLE (Chapter 1 - Creativity)

The combination of gradual improvements and random shocks turns out to be a very effective way to approach a host of difficult problems. In 2014 London Underground went on strike; passengers found new ways to get to work because they had to - and some found that it was better, so never went back after the strike.

Brian Eno basks in such truths about creativity. After leaving Roxy Music (ask your parents about them), he coined the term ‘ambient music’, became a long-standing collaborator with David Byrne, and produced everyone from David Bowie to U2 to Coldplay.

Eno (full name Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno) has been reinventing himself for over forty years. Along we way he’s collected insights and modes of thinking, and shared them whenever possible:

‘Exploring the same old approaches, you get more and more competent, and your cliches become increasingly cliched.’

‘Mistakes are human; try incorporating them into your work.’

‘Random possibilities thrown at you... pushes you into places that you really had not thought of going before.’

‘The enemy of creative work is boredom. And the friend is alertness.'

Eno and his mentor / friend Peter Schmidt published a collection of these bon mot as a card ‘game’ under the name ‘Oblique Strategies’. Some seem straightforward, some are at an angle from an angle. I have the 1978 box set on my desk, that I dip into when I’m really stuck.

As I did for this Rutherpost.

The TITLE above each chapter is one of the first 10 cards I picked from the deck, trying hard to fit Harford's material with a suggestion from Eno.

You decide if it works. And if not, try swapping the TITLES and the Chapters to get a better match. And if it's hard, it's supposed to be. Alertness is the friend of creativity.

(1995 words. Thanks for reading.)

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