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Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford
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Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford

Author: Pushkin Industries

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We tell our children unsettling fairy tales to teach them valuable lessons, but these Cautionary Tales are for the education of the grown ups – and they are all true. Tim Harford (Financial Times, BBC, author of “The Data Detective”) brings you stories of awful human error, tragic catastrophes, and hilarious fiascos. They'll delight you, scare you, but also make you wiser. New episodes every other Friday.
118 Episodes
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The Happiness Lab’s Dr. Laurie Santos brings together other Pushkin hosts to mark the International Day of Happiness. Revisionist History’s Malcolm Gladwell talks about the benefits of the misery of running in a Canadian winter. Dr. Maya Shankar from A Slight Change of Plans talks about quieting her mental chatter. And Cautionary Tales host Tim Harford surprises everyone with the happiness lessons to be learned from a colonoscopy. Hear more of The Happiness Lab HERE.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Tim Harford is joined by Jacob Goldstein to answer your questions. Does winning the lottery make you unhappy? Is Bitcoin bad for the economy? When does correlation imply causation? And what will Tim and Jacob do when the robot overlords come for their jobs? We love hearing from you, so please keep your questions coming: tales@pushkin.fm.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Neatly dressed in his suit, Hans Ferdinand Mayer was every inch the unassuming corporate executive. So, when he asked to borrow a typewriter from his hotel in Oslo, nobody could have guessed he would use it for one of the most extraordinary intelligence leaks in history. Mayer's gloved fingers punched out the details of Nazi Germany's most sensitive military operations and, when he had finished, he immediately dispatched his documents to the British  —  who did nothing. Why did the British ignore Mayer? Did they fail to pick out a crucial signal amid the noise of detail — or was something else going on? This episode of Cautionary Tales is based, with permission, on Tom Whipple’s book The Battle of the Beams, which is available from all good booksellers. For a full list of sources, see the show notes at timharford.com.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Sam Israel had a problem. The investors in his hedge fund, Bayou Capital, were expecting spectacular returns. Sam himself had spent years proclaiming the fund's brilliant results. But in reality, Sam had been marking his own homework, publishing fraudulent accounts and using these to lure in new investors.  What to do? Well, the logical thing of course: wait around for an extraordinary profitable streak, and in the meantime keep up the ruse... This episode of Cautionary Tales was recorded live at the Bristol Festival of Economics and studies three incredible investment scams. How do pyramid and ponzi schemes snowball out of control, flattening victim and fraudster alike? For a full list of sources, see the show notes at timharford.com.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Bonus: When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru in 1526, it was the beginning of the end for the Inca. Their bloody pursuit of gold, fame and fortune was rife with treachery and deceit. Within a few short years, the once-thriving Inca empire had been decimated. Tim Harford is joined by Dan Snow for a special crossover episode of Cautionary Tales and Dan Snow's History Hit. Tim and Dan first recap the spectacular defeat of the French knights at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, and then draw surprising parallels with the fall of the Inca Empire two centuries later.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Nicolae Ceaușescu was not beloved. His regime was vicious and he treated Romania as his personal wallet: while Ceaușescu emptied the coffers to construct a vast, ornate palace, his people starved. He imposed disastrous population control policies on his country, too, which saw hundreds of thousands of unwanted children left to rot in squalid orphanages. Ceaușescu's rule endured for a quarter of a century - then crumbled overnight. How do dictatorships unravel? In a second episode, Tim Harford partners with HBO's new series "The Regime" to investigate real-life dictatorships and the social science that explains them. For a full list of sources, see the show notes at timharford.com.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Why are so many autocrats germaphobes? Why was the truth so dangerous for Soviet engineers? And what can salami reveal to us about the mind of Vladimir Putin? This is the first of two special episodes in partnership with HBO's new series "The Regime". Tim Harford investigates real-life dictatorships and the social science that explains them, drawing on insights from game theory and psychology. For a full list of sources, see the show notes at timharford.com.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Do Nothing, Then Do Less

Do Nothing, Then Do Less

2024-03-1538:325

Chuck Yeager's plane pitched and rolled as it plummeted from the sky. He grappled with the controls inside the cockpit, but to no avail: he couldn't steady the aircraft. The test pilot was known for his nerves of steel but, as the barren Mojave Desert hurtled towards him, even he was afraid. What to do? It's tempting to think that adding to our lives - more action, more work, more possessions - will lead to greater success and happiness. But sometimes doing less is the better option, as Chuck Yeager was to learn the hard way. In their second crossover episode, Tim Harford teams up with Dr Laurie Santos (host of The Happiness Lab) to examine why subtraction can be so challenging and so helpful.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
As US troops approached a Nazi prison camp, they could hear agonized wailing. The stench of rotting flesh filled their nostrils. Moments later they discovered a pile of smoldering corpses, alongside emaciated survivors. Next to the concentration camp they found something else: tunnels filled with tools — and partially assembled rockets. The soldiers had hit upon the evil heart of the V2 manufacturing program: enslaved laborers, imprisoned underground. And the rocket program's director? Wernher von Braun had already fled. He now had just one concern: persuading the Americans to let him switch sides… For a full list of sources, see the show notes at timharford.com. Do you have a question for Tim? Send it to tales@pushkin.fm and we'll do our best to answer it in a Q&A episode.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
In the 1920s, Germany’s Society for Spaceship Travel boasted some of the sharpest scientific minds – like the incandescently brilliant young Wernher von Braun. But it had very little money, and progress was slow. Then, in 1932, the army made a proposal: it would fund more serious research if the enthusiasts at the Society would develop a rocket weapon. Despite a string of failures to launch, von Braun was able to convince key powerbrokers in Nazi Germany that they couldn’t afford to ignore rocket technology. How did he do it? And what happened when the murderous Heinrich Himmler made a play for the rocket program? For a full list of sources for this episode, visit timharford.com. Do you have a question for Tim? Send it to tales@pushkin.fm and we'll do our best to answer it in a Q&A episode.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
At the height of World War Two, British intelligence began receiving reports that the enemy was developing a rocket weapon. The idea seemed fantastical — resources in Nazi Germany were scarce and a rocket-building program defied economic logic. But one intelligence chief took the reports of a rocket weapon seriously and he managed to convince Winston Churchill to heed the threat too. The British Prime Minister gave the order to bomb Germany’s rocket factory to rubble, and 600 bomber planes embarked on a full-scale attempt to obliterate it. From the air, the damage appeared devastating. The British thought they had succeeded in crushing the rocket-building program. But they were wrong. For a full list of sources, see the show notes at timharford.com. Do you have a question for Tim? Send it to tales@pushkin.fm and we'll do our best to answer it in an upcoming Q&A episode.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Teaser: In 1977, two planes collided on the runway at Tenerife Airport. Why did the crash happen? And, given that it took place on the ground, why didn't more people escape? In this new two-parter, Tim Harford explores the most deadly aviation accident in history. Both episodes are available now, ad-free, exclusively for subscribers to Pushkin+. If you're not already a subscriber, you can sign up for Pushkin+ on our Apple podcasts show page, or at pushkin.fm/plus. Do you have a question for Tim? Send it to tales@pushkin.fm and we'll do our best to answer it in an upcoming Q&A episode.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
One speechmaker inspired millions with his words, the other utterly destroyed his own multi-million-dollar business with just a few phrases. Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr (played by Jeffrey Wright of American Fiction, Westworld and The Hunger Games) and jewelry store owner Gerald Ratner offer a stark contrast on when you should stick to the script - and when you should take a risk. We're taking a short rest on Cautionary Tales this January. We'll be back again in February, with a treasure chest of gripping, hair-raising tales for your ears. While you wait, we wanted to share some classic episodes from the Cautionary Vault - this is one of our favorites. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Torrey Canyon was one of the biggest and best ships in the world - but its captain and crew still needlessly steered it towards a deadly reef known as the Seven Stones. This course seemed like madness, but the type of thinking that resulted in this risky maneuver is something we're all prone to... We have a treasure chest of Cautionary Tales to bring you in 2024, but first we need to take a short rest. This week we're taking you all the way back to the start, with a classic episode from our Cautionary Tales vault.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
What if you could never have the same day off as your family and friends? Would you quit your job? What if it was the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin giving you the order? The Soviet Union wanted its factories to run every day, all year long. And so, in 1929, Stalin killed the weekend: workers were prevented from all taking the same day off at the same time. In this crossover episode of Cautionary Tales and The Happiness Lab, Tim Harford and Yale professor Dr Laurie Santos tell the story of Stalin's curious, calendar-reshaping experiment. They explore what it can teach us about time off even today, and why the holidays matter so very much. For a full list of sources, visit timharford.com.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Cautionary Book Club: Mollie Maggia's dentist planned to remove a painful abscess from her mouth. But to his horror, her jawbone disintegrated at his touch, crumbling and splintering until it resembled ash. Like hundreds of her colleagues, Mollie had been slowly poisoned by her work with glowing radium dust. Eight months after her first toothache, she was dead. In the previous episode, Cautionary Tales told the story of the "Radium Girls". Their employers ignored the horrific side effects of these women's work, resorting to obfuscation and even outright lies to deny their claims that they were getting sick. In this follow-up interview, Tim Harford sits down with Kate Moore, author of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. Tim and Kate discuss how the women banded together and worked out what was happening to them, as well as how they fought back against their powerful bosses and their monumental legacy.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
In Goiânia, Brazil, a junk dealer acquires an old medical device from two scrap-metal scavengers. The device itself isn't useful, but it comes with precious lead which will fetch him good money. There's something else inside the device, too: a curious, crystal-like substance that glows bright blue in the dark. At first, the dealer is mesmerized by it: he wants to turn it into jewelry for his wife. But, everyone who comes into contact with the magical glitter seems to get sick. His own family succumbs to nausea and vomiting. A doctor suggests food poisoning - but this isn't like any food poisoning they've ever known before. And soon, the whole city is contaminated. No-one saw this horrifying radiation accident coming. Should they have? For a full list of sources, please see the show notes at timharford.com.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Cautionary Conversation: Just before Christmas 1799, President George Washington was riding around his country estate, Mount Vernon, when it began to snow. When he arrived home, guests were waiting for him. Known for his punctuality, he hurried to entertain them -  still clad in his damp clothes. The next morning, Washington had a sore throat and a chesty cough. His family decided to take a fateful step: they summoned a doctor. Tim Harford is joined by comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, hosts of the hugely popular history podcast The Dollop. They discuss the parade of doctors that tended to the ailing Washington, and the various remedies they prescribed - from lamb's blood to a collar of beetles. Tim, Dave and Gareth also look at what happened when cars first hit the streets in the early twentieth century: why did so many cars "turn turtle"? Who were the first jaywalkers? And which British inventor rode around in a giant white stiletto?See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
William the Conqueror undertook a remarkably modern project. In 1086, he began compiling and storing a detailed record of his realm: of where everyone lived, what they did and where they came from. 900 years later, the BBC began its own Domesday project, sending school children out to conduct a community survey and collect facts about Britain. This was a people’s database, two decades before Wikipedia. But just a few years later, that interactive digital database was totally unreadable, the information lost. We tend to take archives for granted — but preservation doesn't happen by accident; digitisation doesn’t mean that something will last forever. And the erasure of the historical record can have disastrous consequences for humanity... For a full list of sources, please see the show notes at timharford.com.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
On The Dream, host Jane Marie gets to know the life coaches and gurus who claim they know the secret to living our best lives. Is it all in our mindset? Or our privilege? Or are we all under a spell? Tim Harford is joined by Jane Marie to talk about who coaching works least well for. Turns out it’s the exact people who could benefit most from it, according to the industry. Dr. Sherman James and Dr. Arline Geronimus discuss the downsides of positive thinking, bootstrapping, and mindset culture. For some people, striving has negative impacts on health and happiness.See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
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Comments (115)

Юлия Кондратьева

Crimea was an easy salami slice as it had a very little percentage of Ukranian population, it was never totally Ukrainian, just a lucky undeserved gift from Khrushev. Oh, and Crimea was in very poor condition, the Ukrainian government never put any money or resources in to it. So, really, this is like the only case where there's no surprise in 98% votes.

May 8th
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Kronen Bing

Great episode

Mar 9th
Reply

Pedant Vatel

stop the genocide

Feb 22nd
Reply

Habia Khet

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Feb 4th
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mysteriouscauliflower

This episode just ended really suddenly in the middle of a sentence, without even a goodbye. Very odd!

Jan 20th
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A

How not to be accountable for your actions podcast.

Dec 28th
Reply

Brad Scarp

Good grief, how many ads do you need?

Dec 17th
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Pedant Vatel

Crazy that Israel have styled themselves as the new Nazis. They're doing a stellar job of respecting and building on Hitler's legacy

Dec 3rd
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Aldo Ojeda

As someone who considers themself as somewhat of a neoludite, this was a great episode, with the parallels bereeen XIX century and today.

Nov 27th
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Timothy

I'm sure I've heard this episode before?????

Nov 25th
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Teresa Wilkinson

the world can't comprehend how Americans, who for nearly a 100 yrs have made films full of violence, & white men imposing a personal agenda onto others in the guise of a 'moral code', utterly failed to understand that this kind of propaganda is toxic, & comes with horrific consequences, we laugh at Americans proudly displaying hundreds of guns on the front porches of dilapidated houses while the price paid for those very guns would have bought them a better house & an education for their kids

Oct 15th
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A

Interesting podcast until it became Libtastic and endeavored to kick ones ability to protect themselves. Ignorance is evidently frightening.

Sep 27th
Reply (1)

Ricardo Design Education

Good tale, but Tim gets wrong a key piece of the puzzle. The solution (sphere) to the roof wasn't only an insight by Utzon, various sources document the collaboration with Arup engineers. Very interesting audio recordings with interviews are available at the British Library. I'll now be very cautious about the veracity of this podcast!

Sep 19th
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Sahand Bahari

So engaging. Thank you.

Sep 16th
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Regina Burkhart Graham

meh

Jul 11th
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Janet Lafler

The thing that makes converting from °F to °C and back so hard is that the two systems put zero in different places. So you don't just have to multiply or divide to make the conversion, you have to add or subtract either before or after you divide or multiply, and you have to remember the order. It's easier just to remember a few anchor points (37°C=98.6°F, 20°C=68°F, 0°C=32°F) and fudge from there.

Jun 11th
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Matthew Jacobi

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Apr 29th
Reply

John Kelly

P

Apr 16th
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Jim Hoadley

Sarin attack on the Tokyo subway happened in 1995, not 1990. I was living in Japan at the time.

Apr 7th
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victoria fernandez

another cautionary tale for the creators of Miss Monopoly is that even after producing something with the best intention and evidence based approaches (exposing girls to women inventions and inequality) there will be smart observers that will see gaps in what you are doing. I really hope this doesn't make the creators of miss Monopoly feel as if they weren't doing enough. I hope they see this as just as a cautionary tale that no matter what you do, there is always something to improve.

Mar 22nd
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