Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford

Pushkin Industries

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.

  • 43 minutes 35 seconds
    WW2: How Britain Ignored the Mother of All Secrets

    Cautionary Tales will be LIVE on stage in London this May. Tickets are on sale now: https://www.tegeurope.com/events/cautionary-tales/

    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.

    10 May 2024, 4:01 am
  • 1 hour 1 minute
    The Fraudster's Guide to Magic Money

    Cautionary Tales will be LIVE on stage in London this May. Tickets are on sale now: https://www.tegeurope.com/events/cautionary-tales/

    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.

    26 April 2024, 4:01 am
  • 40 minutes 24 seconds
    Blood and Gold (with Dan Snow)

    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.

    23 April 2024, 4:01 am
  • 58 minutes 14 seconds
    The Rise and Fall of a Megalomaniac

    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.

    12 April 2024, 4:01 am
  • 42 minutes 8 seconds
    Inside the Bizarre World of Dictators

    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.

    29 March 2024, 4:01 am
  • 48 minutes 5 seconds
    Pushkin Hosts Celebrate World Happiness Day

    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.

    20 March 2024, 5:01 am
  • 35 minutes 55 seconds
    Do Nothing, Then Do Less

    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.

    15 March 2024, 4:01 am
  • 39 minutes 17 seconds
    Buried Evil: V2 Rocket (Part 3)

    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 [email protected] and we'll do our best to answer it in a Q&A episode.

    See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

    1 March 2024, 8:38 am
  • 38 minutes 24 seconds
    Into the Black Lair: V2 Rocket (Part 2)

    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 [email protected] and we'll do our best to answer it in a Q&A episode.

    See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

    16 February 2024, 5:01 am
  • 36 minutes 16 seconds
    Supersonic Nazi Vengeance: V2 Rocket (Part 1)

    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 [email protected] and we'll do our best to answer it in an upcoming Q&A episode.

    See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

    2 February 2024, 5:01 am
  • 4 minutes 2 seconds
    Tenerife: The Most Deadly Air Disaster

    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 [email protected] and we'll do our best to answer it in an upcoming Q&A episode.

    See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

    30 January 2024, 5:10 am
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