Gate-crash: how computers are adjusting us up of natural disasters | Tim Harford

The Long Read: We increasingly tell computers hover airplanes and to be implemented by security checks. Driverless automobiles are next. But is our reliance on automation dangerously lessening our skills?

When a sleepy-eyed Marc Dubois walked into the cockpit of his own aeroplane, he was currently facing a scene of embarrassment. The airplane was shaking so violently that it was hard to read the instruments. An fear was rotate between a chirruping trill and an automated spokesperson: STALL STALL STALL. His junior co-pilots were at the controls. In a calm atmosphere, Captain Dubois asked: Whats happening?

Co-pilot David Roberts answer was less calm. We completely lost self-restraint of the aeroplane, and we dont understand anything! We tried everything!

The crew were, in fact, in control of the aeroplane. One simple-minded course of action could have ended the crisis they were facing, and they had not tried it. But David Robert was right on one count: he didnt understand what was happening.

As William Langewiesche, a novelist and professional captain, described in an article for Vanity Fair in October 2014, Air France Flight 447 had begun straightforwardly enough an on-time take-off from Rio de Janeiro at 7.29 pm on 31 May 2009, obliged for Paris. With hindsight, the three pilots had their vulnerabilities. Pierre-Cdric Bonin, 32, was young and inexperienced. David Robert, 37, had more ordeal but he had recently become an Air France manager and no longer moved full-time. Captain Marc Dubois, 58, had experience aplenty but he had been touring Rio with an off-duty flight attendant. It was later reported that he had only had an hours sleep.

Fortunately, given these potential fragilities, the gang were in charge of one of the most advanced aircrafts in the world, an Airbus 330, legendarily smooth and easy to fly. Like any other modern aircraft, the A330 has an autopilot to keep the plane winging on a programmed street, but it also has a much more sophisticated automation plan called fly-by-wire. A traditional aeroplane hands the captain direct hold of the flaps on the plane its rudder, elevators and ailerons. This signifies the captain has spate of freedom to form mistakes. Fly-by-wire is smoother and safer. It sets itself between the captain, with all his or her flaws, and the planes machinists. A tactful translator between human rights and machine, it discovers the pilot tugging on the ensures, representations out how the pilot craved the plane to move and executes that manoeuvre perfectly. It will turn a clumsy progress into a elegant one.

This attains it very hard to crash an A330, and the plane had a superb security record: there had been no disintegrates in commercial-grade service in the first 15 times after it was introduced in 1994. But, paradoxically, there is a risk to building a plane that safeguards pilots so assiduously from even the tiniest misstep. It means that when something challenging does occur, the pilots will have very little suffer to draw on as they try to meet that challenge.

The complication facing Flight 447 did not seem especially daunting: thunderstorms over the Atlantic Ocean, simply north of the equator. These were no longer a significant problem, although perhaps Captain Dubois was too relaxed when at 11.02 pm, Rio time, he differed the cockpit for a siestum, leaving the inexperienced Bonin in charge of the controls.

Bonin seemed apprehensive. The slightest indication of disturb made an outburst of swearing: Putain la vache. Putain ! the French equivalent of Fucking hell. Fuck! More than once he expressed a desire to fly at 3-6 36,000 paws and lamented the facts of the case that Air France procedures recommended moving a little lower. While it is possible to avoids fus by winging over a rain, there are limitations to how high a plane can go. The atmosphere becomes so thin that it can scarcely support the aircraft. Boundaries for fault become tight. The airliner will be at risk of stopping. An aircraft stalling occurs when the plane tries to climb too steeply. At this angle the backstages no longer run as wings and the aircraft no longer behaves like an aircraft. It loses airspeed and descends gracelessly in a nose-up position.

Fortunately, a high altitude supplies abundance of time and infinite to rectify the stalling. This is a manoeuvre fundamental to discovering how to fly a plane: the aviator pushes the nose of the plane down and into a nose-dive. The diving plane retrieves airspeed and the backstages once more undertaking as wings. The aviator then gently draws out of the descent and into level flight once more.

As the plane approached the squall, ice crystals began to form on the wings. Bonin and Robert switched on the anti-icing arrangement to prevent too much frost building up and slowing the plane down. Robert nudged Bonin a couple of times to pull left, avoiding the worst of the weather.

And then an alarm sounded. The autopilot had undone. An airspeed sensor on the plane had iced over and stopped serving not a significant problem, but one that required the captains to take control. But something else happened at the same occasion and for similar reasons: the fly-by-wire system downgraded itself to a mode that threw the aviator less help and more latitude to control the plane. Shortfall an airspeed sensor, the plane was also able to babysit Bonin.

The first significance was almost immediate: the plane began rocking right and left, and Bonin overcorrected with sharp-witted dorks on the stay. And then Bonin made a simple mistake: he drew back on his control stick and the plane was beginning to clamber steeply.

As the nose of the aircraft rose and it started to lose speed, the automated singer barked out in English: STALL STALL STALL. Despite the admonish, Bonin saved pulling back on the protrude, and in the black skies above the Atlantic the plane climbed at an breathtaking charge of 7, 000 feet a instant. But the planes breath rapidity was evaporating; it would soon begin to slide down through the hurricane and towards the irrigate, 37,500 feet below. Had either Bonin or Robert realised what the fuck is up, they could have determined their own problems, at the least in its early stages. But they did not. Why?

The source of their own problems was the system that had done so much to keep A330s safe for 15 times, across millions of miles of moving: the fly-by-wire. Or more accurately, the problem was not fly-by-wire, but the fact that the aviators had grown to rely on it. Bonin was suffering from a problem called mode disarray. Perhaps he did not realise that the plane had switched to the alternate mode that they are able to provide him with much less assistance. Perhaps he knew the plane had swapped modes, but did not fully understand the consequence: that his aircraft would now tell him stop. That is the most plausible reasonablenes Bonin and Robert neglected alarm systems they assumed this was the planes direction of telling them that it was intervening to prevent a stalling. In short, Bonin stalled the aircraft because in his bowel he felt it was impossible to stall the aircraft.

Aggravating this disarray was Bonins lack of ordeal in hovering an aircraft without computer succor. While he had invest many hours in the cockpit of the A330, most of those hours had been invested monitoring and accommodating the planes computers rather than instantly flying the aircraft. And of the tiny number of hours spent manually flying the plane, almost all would have been wasted taking off or platform. No wonder he find so helpless at the controls.


The Air France captains were hideously incompetent, wrote William Langewiesche, in his Vanity Fair section. And he thinks he knows why. Langewiesche argued that the aviators plainly were no longer are applied to flying their own aeroplane at altitude without the help of the computer. Even the experienced Captain Dubois was rust-brown: of the 346 hours he had been at the governs of an aircraft during the past six months, only four is now in manual dominance, and even then he had had the help of the full fly-by-wire organisation. All three pilots had been denied the ability to practise their skills, because the plane was frequently the one doing the flying.

This problem has a name: the contradiction of automation. It applies in a great variety of situations, from the operators of nuclear power stations to the crew of ocean liner, from the simple-minded knowledge that we can no longer remember telephone number because we have them all stored in our mobile phones, to the course we now struggle with mental arithmetic since we are surrounded by electronic calculators. The better the automatic organizations, the more out-of-practice human operators will be , and the most extreme the situations they will have to face. The psychologist James Reason, generator of Human Error, wrote: Manual control is a highly skilled activity, and skills need to be performed continuously in order to maintain them. Yet an automated ascendancy organization that flunks only rarely disclaims hustlers the opportunity for practising these basic see skills when manual takeover is required something is normally gone wrong; this means that operators need to be more rather than less skilled in order to cope with these atypical conditions.

The paradox of automation, then, has three filaments to it. First, automated systems accommodate incapacity by being easy to control and by automatically chastening mistakes. Because of this, an inexpert hustler can function for a long time before his lack of skill becomes apparent his incompetence is a concealed weakness that they are able persist nearly indefinitely. Second, even if operators are expert, automatic systems gnaw their skills by removing the need for practice. Third, automated methods tends to miscarry either in unique circumstances and in ways that make unique places, requiring a particularly skilful reaction. A more capable and dependable automatic system does developments in the situation worse.

There are plenty of situations in which automation forms no such inconsistency. A customer services webpage may be able to handle routine grievances and requests, so that personnel spared repetitive undertaking and may do a better chore for customers with more complex questions. Not so with an aeroplane. Autopilots and the more subtle the assistance provided by fly-by-wire do not free up the crew to concentrate on the interesting nonsense. Instead, they free up the crew to fall asleep at the dominates, figuratively or even literally. One notorious happen existed sometime in 2009, when two pilots make their autopilot overshoot Minneapolis airport by more than 100 miles. They had been looking at their laptops.

When something is wrong with you in such situations, it is hard to snap to attention and deal with a situation that is very likely to be bewildering.

His nap abruptly ended, Captain Dubois arrived in the cockpit 1min 38 secs after the airspeed indication had flunked. The airplane was still above 35,000 hoofs, although it was descending at more than 150 hoofs a second. The de-icers had done their task and the airspeed sensor was operating again, but the co-pilots no longer relied any of their instruments. The aircraft which was now in perfect toiling ordering was telling them that this organization is barely moving forward at all and were slicing through the air down towards the sea, tens of thousands of hoofs below. But rather than realising the flawed instrument was sterilized, they appear to have assumed that yet more of their instruments had smashed. Dubois was silent for 23 seconds a long time, if you count them off. Long enough for the plane to drop-off 4,000 feet.

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Composite: Guardian Design/ imageBROKER/ REX/ Shutterstock

It was still not too late to save the plane if Dubois had been able to recognise what was happening to it. The nose was nows so high that the stalling threatening had stopped it, like the pilots, simply spurned the information it was get as anomalous. A couple of eras, Bonin did push the snout of the aircraft down a little and the stop caution started up again STALL STALL STALL which no doubt flustered him further. At one theatre he tried to engage the accelerate restraints, worried that they were going too fast the opposite of the truth: the plane was clawing its route sends through the breeze at less than 60 bows, about 70 miles an hour far too slow. It was descending twice as fast. Utterly confused, the captains bickered briefly about whether the plane was clambering or descending.

Bonin and Robert were wailing at each other, each trying to control the plane. All three husbands were talking at cross-purposes. The aircraft was still snout up, but losing altitude rapidly.

Robert: Your quicken! Youre clambering! Sink! Descend, tumble, descend!

Bonin: I am descending!

Dubois: No, youre climbing.

Bonin: Im climbing? OK, so were going down.

Nobody said: Were stalling. Throw the nose down and dive out of the stall.

At 11.13 pm and 40 seconds, less than 12 hours after Dubois first left the cockpit for a sleep, and two minutes after the autopilot switched itself off, Robert wailed at Bonin: Climb climb climb climb Bonin replied that he had had his stick back the entire day the information that might have helped Dubois diagnosed the stall, had he known.

Finally the penny seemed to stop for Dubois, who was sitting behind the two co-pilots. No , no , no Dont clambers no , no.

Robert announced that he was taking self-control and pushed the snout of the plane down. The plane began to accelerate at long last. But he was about one minute too late thats 11,000 paws of altitude. There is not sufficient to room between the plummeting airplane and the black ocean of the Atlantic to regain speed and then pull out of the dive.

In any case, Bonin silently recaptured dominate of the plane and tried to clamber again. It was an play of pure panic. Robert and Dubois had, perhaps, realized that the plane had stalled but they never said so. They may not have understood that Bonin was the one in control of the plane. And Bonin never comprehended what he had done. His last word were: But whats happening?

Four seconds later the aircraft thumped the Atlantic at about 125 miles per hour. Everyone on board, 228 passengers and gang, died instantly.


Earl Wiener, a cult figure in aviation safety, coined what is known as Wieners Laws of aviation and human error. One of them was 😀 igital inventions tune out tiny missteps while creating opportunities for large-scale mistakes. We might rephrase it as: Automation will regularly tidy up ordinary messes, but sometimes create an extraordinary mess. It is an insight that applies far beyond aviation.

Victor Hankins, a British citizen, received an unwelcome talent for Christmas: a parking penalty. The first Hankins knew of the penalty was when a character from the local parliament removed on to his doormat. At 14 seconds after 8.08 pm on 20 December 2013, his car had been blocking a bus stop in Bradford, Yorkshire, and had been photographed by a camera mounted in a transfer congestion enforcement van. A computer had identified the numeral dish, gazed it up in a database and met Mr Hankinss address. An ground parcel was automatically produced, including video of the vistum, a duration embos and spot. The character from Bradford city council expecting that Hankins pay a fine or appearance court action was composed, engraved and mailed by an automatic process.

There was just one difficulty: Hankins had not been illegally parked at all. He had been stuck in traffic.

In principle, these technologies should not fall victim to the absurdity of automation. It should free up humans to do more interesting and varied wreak checking the anomalous lawsuits, such as the number of complaints Hankins immediately registered, which are likely to be more plotting than plainly writing down yet another licence layer and issuing yet another ticket.

But the tendency is of the view that the technology knows what it is doing utilizes just as much to bureaucracy as it does to aviators. Bradford city council initially dismissed Hankinss complaint, admitting its error only when he warned them with the annoyance of a court case.

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Composite: Guardian Design/ Getty Images

The rarer the exception gets, as with fly-by-wire, the little gracefully we are likely to deal with it. We assume that the computer is always right, and when a person says the computer made a mistake, we accept they are wrong or lying. What happens when private security guards shed you out of your neighbourhood shopping centre because personal computers has mistaken your look for that of a known shoplifter?( This technology is now being modified to allow retailers to single out particular purchasers for special presents the moment they walk into the store .) When your appearance, or mention, is on war criminals inventory, how easy is it to get it taken off?

We are now on more registers than ever before, and computers have turnedfiling cabinets full of article into instantly searchable, instantaneously actionable banks of data. Increasingly, computers are managing these databases, with no need for humans to get involved or even to understand what is happening.And the computers are often unaccountable: an algorithm that rates teachers and institutions, Uber drivers or ventures on Googles search, will typically be commercially confidential. Whatever faults or preconceptions have been programmed into the algorithm from the beginning, it is safe from investigation: those mistakes and preconceptions will be hard to challenge.

For all the power and the genuine usefulness of data, perhaps we have not yet accepted how imperfectly a tidy database maps on to a messy world-wide. We fail to see that personal computers that is a hundred times more accurate than a human, and a thousand times faster, will constitute 10,000 epoches as many mistakes. This is not to say that we should call for extinction to the databases and algorithm. There is at least some lawful character for computerised attempts to investigate criminal doubts, and remain congestion flowing. But the database and the algorithm, like the autopilot, “re supposed to be” to aid human decision-making. If we rely on computers completely, adversity awaits.

Gary Klein, a psychologist who specialises in the study of expert and intuitive decision-making, summarises the problem: When the algorithms are establishing the decisions, parties often stop working to was better. The algorithm can make it hard to diagnose the rationale for lacks. As parties become more dependent on algorithms, their ruling may weaken, obliging them depend even more on the algorithms. That process sets up a vicious cycle. Beings get passive and little vigilant when algorithm make the decisions.

Decision experts such as Klein complain that many software engineers realize the problem worse by intentionally designing to systematically supplant human expertise by default; if there is a desire instead to use them to supporter human expertise, we need to wrestle with the system. GPS inventions, for example, could support all sorts of decision carry, countenancing a human move to explore options, viewpoint delineates and adjust a direction. But these functions tend to be hidden deeper in the app. They take effort, whereas it is very easy to stumble Start navigation and trust personal computers to do the rest.

It is possible to withstand the siren call of the algorithms. Rebecca Pliske, a psychologist, found that veteran meteorologists would shape weather outlook first by looking at the data and organizing the panel of experts decision; only then would they look at the computerised forecast to see if the computer had discerned anything that they had missed.( Commonly, the answer was no .) By making such a manual predict firstly, these veterans retained their skills sharp, unlike the aviators on the Airbus 330. However, the younger generation of meteorologists are happier to trust the computers.Once the veterans withdraw, the human expertise to intuit when personal computers has screwed up could be lost.


Many of us have knowledge problems with GPS systems, and we have received the trouble with autopilot. Apply the two ideas together and you get the self-driving vehicle. Chris Urmson, who runs Googles self-driving automobile curriculum, hopes that the cars will soon be so widely used that his sons will never need to have a “drivers licence”. There is a discovering suggest in the specific objectives: that unlike a planes autopilot, a self-driving automobile will never need to cede hold to a human being.

Raj Rajkumar, an autonomous driving expert at Carnegie Mellon University, thinks entirely autonomous vehicles are 10 to 20 years away. Until then, we can look forward to a more gradual process of letting the car drive itself in easier conditions, while humen take over at more challenging moments.

The number of scenarios that are automatable are on the rise over hour, and one fine day, private vehicles is able to control itself absolutely, but that last step will be a minor, incremental stair and one will barely notice this actually happened, Rajkumar told the 99% Invisible podcast. Even then, he says, There will always be some fringe cases where situations do go beyond anybodys control.

If this sounds grim, perhaps it should. At first glance, it resounds reasonable that the car will hand over to the human driver when things are difficult. But that grows two immediate problems. If we expect the car to know when to abdicate domination, then we are expecting the car to know the limits of its own competence to understand when it is capable and when it is not. That is a hard concept to ask even of a human, let alone a computer.

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Composite: Guardian Design/ hillandknowlton

Also, if we are hoping for the human to leap in and take over, how will the human know how to react appropriately? Given what we know about the difficulty that highly trained aviators can have figuring out an rare place when the autopilot switches off, surely “were supposed” sceptical about the capacity of humans to observe when the computer is about to make a mistake.

Human beings are not used to driving automated vehicles, so we really dont know how moves are going to react when the driving is taken over by the car, says Anuj K Pradhan of the University of Michigan. It is unlikely that well act by playing a computer game or chitchatting on a video telephone, rather than watching like a hawk how the computer is driving maybe not on our first trip-up in an autonomous automobile, but certainly on our hundredth.

And when the computer renders limit back to the move, it is capable of do so in the most extreme and challenging places. The three Air France pilots had two or three minutes setting out “what were doing” when their autopilot asked them to take over an A330 what hazard would you or I have when the computer in our gondola says, Automatic mode disengaged and we look up from our smartphone screen to experience a bus careening towards us?

Anuj Pradhan has floated the idea that humans should have to acquire many years of manual event before they are allowed to supervise an autonomous automobile. But it is hard to see how this solves the problem. No question how many years of know-how a driver has, his or her knowledge will slowly deteriorate if he or she makes the computer take over. Pradhans proposal pays us the worst of both worlds: we let teenage operators release in manual cars, when they are most likely to have accidents. And even when they have learned some street spacecraft, it will not take long being a passenger in a usually reliable autonomous automobile before their skills begin to fade.

It is precisely because the digital designs tidily tune out small-minded lapses that they generate the opportunities for large ones. Deprived of any clumsy feedback, any meagre challenges that might allow us to maintain our knowledge, when the crisis arrives we find ourselves lamentably unprepared.

Some senior pilots counsel their juniors to turn off the autopilots from time to season, in order to maintain their skills. That is just like good admonition. But if the junior captains only turn off the autopilot when it is absolutely safe to do so, they are not practising their skills in a challenging statu. And if they turn off the autopilot in a challenging place, they may prompted the exceedingly accident they are performing to avoid.

An alternative answer is to reversal the role of computer and human. Preferably than making personal computers move the plane with the human rights positioned to take over when the computer cannot coping, perhaps it would be better to have the human rights fly the plane with personal computers monitoring the situation, ready to intervene. Computers, after all, are tireless, patient and do not motive rehearse. Why, then, do we question beings to monitor machines and not the other way round?

When humans are asked to babysit computers, for example, in the operation of dronings, the computers themselves should be programmed to serve up occasional summary recreations. Even better might be an automated structure that challenged more input, more often, from the human even when that input is not strictly necessitated. If you sometimes necessity human skill at short notice to steer a hugely messy situation, it is likely to make sense to artificially develop smaller mess, simply to keep parties on their toes.

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Photograph: Stephen Strathdee

In the mid-1 980 s, a Dutch congestion engineernamed Hans Monderman was transmitted to the hamlet of Oudehaske. Two children had been killed by automobiles, and Mondermans radar grease-gun proved right away that operators were going too fast through the hamlet. He mulled the traditional mixtures traffic light, rapidity bulges, additional mansions pestering drivers to slow down. They were expensive and often inept. Control appraises such as traffic lights and rate bumps annoyed operators, who would often acceleration dangerously between one weigh and another.

And so Monderman tried something revolutionary. He suggested that the road through Oudehaske be made to look more like what it was: a superhighway through a village. First, the existing commerce mansions were removed.( Signs always aggravated Monderman: driving through his home country of the Netherlands with the writer Tom Vanderbilt, he formerly railed against their patronising redundancy. Do “youve been” think that no one would recognize there is a bridge over there? he would expect, rippling at a signed that stood next to a bridge , apprise beings of the connection .) The mansions might ostensibly be asking moves to slow down. Nonetheless, bickered Monderman, because signalings are the universal conversation of roads everywhere, on a deeper grade the effect of their existence is plainly to reassure operators that they were on a superhighway a superhighway like any other street, where vehicles rule. Monderman wanted to remind them that they were also in village representatives, where children might play.

So, next, he superseded the asphalt with crimson brick paving, and the caused kerb with a flush pavement and gently arched guttering. Where once motorists had, figuratively speaking, sped through the hamlet on autopilot not really attending to what they were doing now they were faced with a chaotic statu and had to engage their psyches. It was hard to know fairly “what were doing” or where to drive or which seat belonged to the cars and which to the hamlet children. As Tom Vanderbilt describes Mondermans strategy in his book Traffic, Rather than clarity and discrimination, he had created disarray and ambiguity.

Perplexed, drivers took the prudent path forwards: they drove so slowly through Oudehaske that Monderman could no longer capture their quicken on his radar grease-gun. By thrusting moves to confront the possibility of small-scale wrongdoings, the chance of them clearing larger ones was greatly reduced.

Monderman, who perished in 2008, was the most famous of a small group of transaction planners around the world “whove been” pushing against current trends towards an ever-tidier programme for stimulating congestion flowing smoothly and safely. The customary approach is to give operators the clearest possible lead as to what they should do and where they should go: traffic lights, bus thoroughfares, repetition roads, left- and right-filtering traffic signal, fences to restrict pedestrians, and of course signalings attached to every available skin-deep, forbidding or granting different manoeuvres.

Laweiplein in the Dutch township of Drachten was a typical such seam, and accidents were common. Frustrated by waiting in jams, moves would sometimes try to beat the traffic lights by blasting in all the regions of the seam at hasten or they would be impatiently watching the light-footeds, rather than watching for other street users.( In urban settings, about half of all accidents happen at traffic lights .) With a shopping centre on one side of the seam and a theatre on the other, pedestrians often got in accordance with the rules, too.

Monderman knitted his messy supernatural and established the squareabout. He threw away all the explicit great efforts to power. In their situate, he improved a square with fountains, a small grassy roundabout in one corner, pinch parts where cyclists and pedestrians might try to cross the flow of transaction, and relatively limited signposting of various kinds. It ogles often like a pedestrianisation programme except that the square has as numerous vehicles sweeping it as ever, approaching from all four tacks. Pedestrian and cyclists must cross the traffic as before, but now they have no traffic light protecting children. It seems dangerous and examinations show that locals think it is dangerous. It is certainly flustering to watch the squareabout in operation operators, cyclists and pedestrians knit in and out of each other in an apparently chaotic fashion.

Yet the squareabout works. Traffic slips through slowly but rarely stops moving for long. The number of cars passing through the junction was an increase, yet congestion has descended. And the squareabout is safer than the traffic-light crossroads that predated it, with half as many coincidences 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 obtained from, and as a result they drive slowly and with the constant expectation of misfortune. And while the squareabout seems risky, it does not appear menacing; at the gentle hastens that have become the tradition, moves, cyclists and pedestrians have time to stimulate see contact and to read each other as human beings, rather than as menaces or deterrents. When establishing seeing correspondents the squareabout, Mondermans party trick was to close his eyes and walk backwards into the traffic. The vehicles would just flow around him without so much as a honk on the horn.

In Mondermans artfully ambiguous squareabout, operators are never get a chance to glaze over and switch to the automated driving mode that can be so familiar. The chaos of the square forces them to pay attention, employment occasions out for themselves and look out for one another. The square is a mess of disorder. That is why it works.

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Such articles is adapted from Tim Harfords book Messy, is issued by Little Brown

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