On the magic behind major blockbusters

The goal of Freakonomics — a series of books and more recently a weekly podcast — was to "explore the hidden side of everything". Basically a program after a magician's heart.

In their most recent episode, they took a detailed look at the visual effects industry — the people responsible for the magical imagery behind everything from Jurassic Park to Star Wars: Episode VIII.

It turns out, quite contrary to the intuition of most people, that the industry is struggling financially. How it got that way is a complicated tale of fierce competition, and tax incentives. Basically the way this essential work is outsourced means that they don't get to profit from the tremendous success of the films involved.

Having worked on countless live events, and been involved in the bidding process for them. One common problem that keeps coming up in these discussions is that clients are unwilling to pay for work which is — for them — invisible. As a point of comparison, a sixty-minute magic show might also include thirty minutes of preparation, forty-five minutes of driving each way, an additional hour (or more) of waiting between setting up.  

Now what happens if instead you want to consider a thirty-minute magic show? Half the time should be half the cost... fifty percent off... provided you ignore the rest of the time. The thirty minutes they shorten the show represents less than fifteen percent of the time commitment. This also doesn't include the time that it took to plan the even in the first place; the lengthy exchange of emails, signing agreements, or even the deeper back end work of putting together a website and branding your services.

It's a major blindspot. Other people's time is literally out of sight, out of mind. The (implicit) message is that any work done outside of a very narrow focus is expected to be done for free. Which is worse when you want to be a professional showman, you work hard to push all of your hard work into the shadows. You don't want the audience to see the set-up, listen to the sound check, fiddle with lighting. It's a major challenge to get people to properly evaluate the value of invisible things. 

Tell me something I don't know

I posted recently about two episodes of Freakonomics Radio that I found particularly insightful. Now one of the hosts of the show, Stephen Dubner, has created a game show, Tell Me Something I don't know.

There is a wonderful new trend in entertainment (which, like most trends is really just a revival of an old trend) which celebrates curiosity and what Richard Feynman called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. This game show challenges contestants to tell a panel of learned judges something they didn't know before. 

The latest episode, titled It's Alive, includes facts about killer snails, zombie jellyfish and poop. You can listen at and be entertained with your education.

This follows on the tradition of a UK show called QI (which stands for Quite Interesting) which was a game show with a similarly strange educational bent. Actually, if you listen through to the credits at the end, you'll hear that their "transatlantic consultant" is one of the "QI Elves" and co-hosts of the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish

In praise of Incrementalism

Two of my favourite authors are Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the duo behind the Freakonomics series of books and the eponymous podcast which has now been running for over five years. They have a wonderfully insightful approach to tackling problems using information and data.

"The Hidden Side of Everything"

"The Hidden Side of Everything"

Many of the most interesting, and arguable the most important, questions for society are also the ones where it is hardest to collect and evaluate hard empirical data. What often tends to happen — informally at least — is that questions that should be empirical questions (like "What is the air speed of an unladen swallow?") get delegated to other fields like philosophy — or worse, religion. (Remember that up until a few hundred years ago, there was no distinction between science and philosophy.)  It's important to recognize the difference between questions which are not scientific, and questions which are scientific but have practical challenges associated with gathering the data. You can't put a teacher through the Large Hadron Collider and measure its properties, but there are empirical ways of evaluating good and bad teaching techniques. 

Recently, the podcast featured to two particularly insightful episodes, back to back: In Praise of Maintenance and In Praise of Incrementalism. They argue that when it comes to things that improve the human condition, we often put our focus in the wrong place, putting emphasis on so-called "revolutionary" advances. They point out first that it's the more "boring" activities like keeping the roads intact and making trains run on time that account for most of the wealth (figuratively and literally) in society.

You can listen to the full episode here:

They go on to show (in In Praise of Incrementalism) that most of what we think of as spontaneous revolutionary advances are actually processes that are much more gradual that we often don't take the time to remember properly. You can listen to that one here: