Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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Undercover Friday 9

Podcasts to seek out

A terrific long interview with Anne Case on the FT Alphaville podcast – Dr Case has been making waves with a series of research papers with Angus Deaton studying the contrast between the mortality rates of 45-54 year old American whites (which are rising, or depending on the details, not falling) and mortality rates of African Americans (high but falling) and Hispanic Americans (low and falling) and Europeans (low and falling). Important topic, important interview.

More or Less is back on air, 4.30pm UK time on Fridays, Radio 4. The podcast is here – please send us your thoughts via email hidden; JavaScript is required. We’ll be fact-checking the UK election campaign, of course, but plenty of other stuff too. (This week: who is the better mathematician – Kate Bush, Bob Dylan, or George Harrison?)

Planet Money had a charming podcast asking – who exactly invents “National Caramel Day” or “National Splurge Day”? The answer surprised them, and me.

The latest episode of Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy unveiled the underappreciated joys of The Elevator. There will be a book this summer – you can pre-order here (UK) or here (US).

Fictoplasm, my favourite lo-fi podcast, has just tackled Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea and asks what gaming ideas the novels inspire.

If you’re a fan of podcasts, do spread the word by telling a friend or two about a podcast you’ve enjoyed.

 

What I’ve been reading

Andrew Lo’s Adaptive Markets (US) (UK). Just arrived – looks amazing. Lo is a fascinating thinker.

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea  (US) (UK). Magnificent, of course – although the fourth book, Tehanu, does rather repudiate everything else. The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, might just be the most perfect fantasy novel imaginable.

Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly (US) (UK). Fun survey of cognitive biases.

Tyler Cowen The Complacent Class (US) (UK) – I wrote about some of the ideas in Tyler’s book here in my FT column, but there’s a lot more too it. Very interesting indeed, and original. It made me think about the world in a different way.

 

My columns

They’ve moved from the FT Magazine to the Saturday newspaper. Online, you can find them all here (subscription required) and I’ll be putting them on this website after a delay of a month.

21st of April, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 8

Books on my pile

Michael Shermer The Believing Brain (UK) (US) is intriguing and well-researched with lots of good storytelling. Shermer is the founder of The Skeptics Society so devotes a lot of time to fringe beliefs – UFOs, cults, ghosts, that sort of thing. I would have liked to read more about the less extreme forms of belief formation – why people believe in Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, for example, or why people believe in brands such as Coke or BMW. Still – a good and thought-provoking read.

Tyler Cowen The Complacent Class (UK) (US) – not yet read it, and it seems quite focused on a US audience, but Tyler is always interesting.

Ali Almossawi Bad Choices: How Algorithms Can Help You Think Smarter and Live Happier. (UK) (US) Frustrating book, I’m afraid. It’s short and chatty but not actually terribly clear. Plenty of cases where some kind of diagram would have helped but instead we get cartoons and jokey graphs – which are fine, but not nearly as helpful. Your mileage may vary of course. I think Algorithms To Live By (UK) (US) is much more successful at explaining how computer science works and is relevant to life. 

Robert Cialdini Presuasion. (UK) (US) Very interesting book about how the context or the preliminaries to a request can make all the difference. The FT Alphaville interview with Cialdini is worth a listen.

 

More or Less

The longer Radio 4 edition of More or Less is back on air next week. Tune in 4.30pm Good Friday, 8pm Easter Sunday, or pod to your heart’s content here. And send your questions and comments to moreorless at the bbc.co.uk domain.

 

7th of April, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 7

You might have missed…

“Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” is airing on BBC Radio 4 in a run of 15 daily programmes just after noon. (This project has been such fun to work on.) Loyal listeners will already be subscribing to the podcast, however – and if you’re enjoying it, please spread the word. I meet a lot of “More or Less” listeners who aren’t aware that “Fifty Things” exists.

The Problem With Facts – my long FT Magazine feature (or here on my own website) has been doing the rounds. Thanks to everyone who has been sharing it.

Given the horrific attack in London yesterday, I found myself revisiting a piece I wrote about the real costs of terrorism. These attacks are always so appalling; we need to remind ourselves that that’s by design. They’re meant to appal us and they are aimed at provoking an over-reaction.

 

 

Book recommendations

I’ve had a productive reading week this week.

I enjoyed Richard Nisbett’s Mindware (UK) (US) – it’s a good overview of various thinking tools and traps such as hindsight bias, dialectical reasoning, various statistical errors and techniques. However it does feel pretty familiar if you enjoy this sort of thing; I was also struck by how the fact that Nisbett, writing in 2015, cites a number of psychological studies that have since failed to replicate. A sign of the times in social psychology?

My praise for Caroline Webb’s How To Have A Good Day (UK) (US) is similarly tempered by the fact that again, some of this stuff is familiar and some of this stuff does not replicate. Still, I found it a very valuable book – I had a meeting this week that would have gone very badly but instead ended up going very well, and Webb deserves all the credit for that. She does a great job of taking familiar insights from psychology and economics, and turning them into practical nuggets of advice. Bravo.

Even better is Designing Your Life by Burnett and Evans (UK) (US). I don’t even know why I picked up this book, to be honest. It would have come in very handy when I was 19, or 23, or 29, and staring down the barrel of painful life and career decisions. Right now I’m lucky enough to have a life and career where no big changes seem needed. And yet – the book was still useful. And I’ve already handed copies to two friends contemplating a career change. It’s really a very useful and fresh take on thinking about careers, creativity, family and work-life balance. Very, very good.

Finally, a nod to Maria Konnikova’s brilliantly-written The Confidence Game (UK) (US) which I’ve recommended before but found myself dipping into again. Fascinating science and great storytelling.

Oh – and finally finally, I recently had the chance to play Roll For The Galaxy. Lots of fun – and while a little complex for younger children they do love the buckets of dice. Check it out. (UK) (US) – or my local store Gameskeeper.

 

Column news

My “Undercover Economist” column has moved from the FT Magazine to the Saturday FT newspaper. If you like to read online, it’s here – and you can click “Add to My FT” to be updated whenever it appears. (I’ll continue to post my writing on timharford.com after a delay.) This week’s column contrasts two different types of innovation:

The idea that developed economies can A/B test their way back to brisk productivity growth is a seductive one. An alternative view is that what’s really lacking is a different kind of innovation: the long shot. Unlike marginal gains, long shots usually fail, but can pay off spectacularly enough to overlook 100 failures. The marginal gain is a heated pair of overshorts, the long shot is the Fosbury Flop. If the marginal gain is a text message nudging you to finish a course of antibiotics, the long shot is the development of penicillin. Marginal gains give us zippier web pages; long shots gave us the internet.

FT subscribers can read the whole thing here.

 

 

My book “Messy” is available online in the US and UK or in good bookshops everywhere.

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24th of March, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 6

I’ve been on the road, but a few recommendations…

Gameshow: Stephen “Freakonomics” Dubner is having a lot of fun with “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know“, a wonderfully nerdy gameshow podcast. I recorded an episode at 6th and I in Washington DC on Monday. Not sure when it will air, but what a wonderful atmosphere. And I got to meet this remarkable lady.

Podcast episode: I loved Sebastian Mallaby on macro-musings; fascinating detail on the life of Alan Greenspan. Mallaby’s Greenspan biography is The Man Who Knew (US, UK).

Books: I’ve been reading Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking (US, UK) (good, although more philosophical and less practical than I was expecting) and from Gilovich and Ross The Wisest One In The Room (US, UK) (popular social psychology; easy to read and plenty of stuff I didn’t know). Both recommended.

Long Read: I’m on the cover of the FT Magazine tomorrow with The Problem With Facts, a feature article on post-truth politics and why fact-checking is such a thankless task. Enjoy!

 

10th of March, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 5 – A healthy media diet

 

Pondering filter bubbles…

Is there, in fact, a filter bubble? Here’s the man who coined the term, Eli Pariser. We need to remember that the biggest filter bubble isn’t Facebook’s algorithm’s or Google’s personalised search. It’s you and me.

…coup or Keystone cops?

Here’s George Bush’s speechwriter David Frum on How to Build an Autocracy.  It’s a chilling read. So is the more excitable take that suggests last weekend was preparation for a coup. But there are two sides to every story, and here’s the view that what we’ve seen is just incompetence. Or perhaps there are three sides to every story: here’s the excellent Timothy Taylor describing the details of the “border adjustment tax” proposal. The tax looks like it’s punishing offshorers and encouraging exporters, although after the currency adjusts the main effect www.bestxanaxcomparison.com should be – if it works – to make tax harder to dodge. In other words, Donald Trump just proposed something that well-qualified mainstream economists think might work rather well.

 

Books

Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps (UK) (US) is a great read – a bit more philosophical and a bit less self-help than I was expecting. But in any case, good stuff.

And check out Michelle Baddeley’s Very Short Introduction to Behavioural Economics (UK) (US) – a good short survey covering lots of ideas and practical examples.

And another shout out to William Goetzmann’s Money Changes Everything (UK) (US)Fascinating book and a key source for my piece on the warrior-monks who invented banking.

My own book “Messy” is now out and available online in the US and UK.

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3rd of February, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 3 – Neroli

A brief post today, because I’ve been working hard on a book manuscript. Details to follow, but here’s a hint. I’ve had a wonderful time writing the book.

Nevertheless, a few bits of news and some links. I discussed the question “should economists be more like plumbers?” with my FT colleague Gemma Tetlow on Facebook Live.

Terrific feature article from Oliver Burkeman, Is Time Management Ruining Our LivesI don’t agree with every word (here are my 10 email commandments) but I think that there’s an enormous amount of wisdom underneath the clickbaity headline.

This week I’ve been reading For Whom the Bell Tolls (US) (UK). Turns out Hemingway can really write. Who knew?

And if these strange times are stressing you out, try Brian Eno’s Neroli. Magic. (US) (UK)

 

20th of January, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 2 – Resolutions and Recommendations

 

A resolution

My resolution this year is “more social, less social media”. I’m sure I’m not the only one. As we all know, social media can work wonders but it can also be addictive. And of course the comments can be toxic: it only takes one mean tweet to ruin anyone’s day. (Many people suffer far more than the occasional mean tweet, alas.) On the other hand, I continue to find email perfectly functional: when people email me to comment on what I’ve written or said, I don’t always agree but I usually learn something. And I do manage to read and respond to my email, which is quite impossible on Twitter or Facebook. I stopped trying a long time ago, realising that I would never write another book if I spent my time reading the mentions on Twitter.

If you’re trying to spend less time on social media too, the “Note to Self” podcast has had some good advice recently – particularly the episodes with Marina Abramovic. I believe in shaping your environment to help you. So: I don’t take my phone to bed with me, I don’t have Facebook on my phone, I’m logged out of Facebook on my computer so I don’t click over as a reflex, and I don’t have a “mentions” stream active on Tweetdeck. Every little helps. Meanwhile I’ll be trying to spend more time with my friends – in person, on the phone, even by letter.

On the other hand, if you’re loving your social media use, good for you. I’m on Facebook and Twitter – but email me if you actually want to get in touch.

 

Some recommendations

Debatable” was a life-changingly good episode of RadioLab. Please listen to it if you haven’t already – and then check out this interview with the journalist who reported the story, Abigail Keel.

My favourite gift from Father Christmas was the absolutely brilliant graphic novel Vision: Little Worse Than a Man (UK) (US). It’s about struggle of a superhuman artificial intelligence to live a normal suburban family life. Remarkable.

Check out Brad DeLong’s essay on secular stagnation if you want to become smarter.

I’ve been enjoying Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things (UK) (US) – a magisterial history of shopping and consumerism – and found myself going back yet again to Marc Levinson’s excellent The Box (UK) (US), a history of the shipping container. All part of the research for 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy.

 

And a review

I think most authors look at their reviews with trepidation; I certainly do. But occasionally the fear turns to joy. Writing in The Age, Peter Martin opines: “The best pop songs start by giving you what you want, and then build up to so much more… Now there’s Messy, a book that presents itself as an impossibly simple account of the virtues of a messy workspace, then builds to something extraordinary.”

What delighted me so much about the review was that Mr Martin saw exactly what I was hoping to do – but like any self-critical author I was always afraid that I hadn’t succeeded.

Enough self-promotion – have a good weekend.

13th of January, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday

I’m planning to post some semi-regular jottings on Friday afternoons. Enjoy!

Fifty Things that made the Modern Economy hits number one… To my delight, my new BBC radio series was the number one podcast in the UK at Christmas, according to iTunes. If you’ve not encountered it, please have a listen – they’re short stories about the inventions and ideas that surround us every day, and the lessons that they can teach us. Everything from concrete to the iPhone, the bar code to the elevator. If you do subscribe then please pop over to iTunes or wherever and review it – it’ll help other people to find the podcast.

Book of the Week: I’ve been reading the new edition of John Kay’s “The Long and the Short of It” (UK) (US). It’s an outstanding and practical guide to how financial markets work and how to invest in them without getting ripped off. Kay sets out several key principles – think about your portfolio as a whole, take the efficient markets hypothesis seriously but not literally, reducing charges is the simplest way to make money – but he also explains the economics behind these principles and produces copious suggestions for putting them into play. Kay knows an enormous amount about this and his writing is clear and sharp – if sometimes demanding. Strongly recommended.

Thomas Schelling.  Just before Christmas, Thomas Schelling died at the age of 95. I was fascinated by the range of his contributions to economics and to US strategic thought – and given that he was one of the fathers of nuclear arms control, it’s a particularly poignant moment. I interviewed Tom Schelling for the FT shortly after he was awarded the Nobel memorial prize, made a video about his famous “chessboard” model of segregation, and told a TED-style story about him for BBC radio. Perhaps my favourite Schelling book is Micromotives and Macrobehavior (UK) (US) – but they’re all good.

How disaster planning can help with New Year’s Resolutions: A few years ago, I discussed whether Schelling’s idea of a “commitment strategy” can help us keep New Year’s Resolutions. I suspect, however, that psychologist Gary Klein’s idea of the pre-mortem is particularly useful. Basically: after drawing up your resolution (or any other goal or project) spend some time imagining that it doesn’t work out, and exploring why that might have been. Very often, you’ll think of obvious stumbling blocks and figure out ways to avoid them.

Resource of the Week – The World Wealth and Income Database. The great Tony Atkinson died on New Year’s Day. (Here’s the FT obituary of Tony Atkinson.) Here’s the excellent resource that he helped to create, the World Wealth and Income Database – the first stop for people trying to understand in-country inequality.

Shameless plug. My new book “Messy” is available online in the US and UK or in good bookshops everywhere.

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6th of January, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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A Christmas reading list

A few books that I’ve been enjoying recently…

Lyonesse (US) (UK) by Jack Vance – I recently re-read this in preparation for a forthcoming discussion on the Fictoplasm podcast. It really is magnificent – the finest fantasy trilogy out there. Vance is witty, he’s inventive, and joyful. His bad guys are truly wicked, his heroes and heroines are compelling, and his fairies are utterly mysterious. The dialogue is as distinctive and enjoyable as anything in Tarantino.

The Undoing Project (US) (UK) by Michael Lewis. I have a review coming soon of this book in the Financial Times. It’s a biography of the great psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and it’s nearly perfect – an odd and unnecessary opening chapter, but just start at chapter two and you’ll love it. Kahneman and Tversky are fascinating characters; Kahneman won a Nobel memorial prize and wrote the excellent Thinking Fast and Slow (US) (UK). I thought I knew a fair bit about their collaboration but Lewis’s story is full of surprises and no small degree of tragedy.

Newly crossed my desk, Jonathan Portes’s 50 Ideas You Really Need To Know About Capitalism (US) (UK) is presented, as you might expect, in bite-sized chunks. No spellbinding narrative here but that was not the aim. Portes is knowledgeable and the chapters are sharp and clear and full of interesting nuggets.

And, I’ve mentioned it before but Steven Johnson’s Wonderland (US) (UK) is on form – a playful and surprising guide to how play, puzzles and delight have shaped innovation.

Einstein’s Greatest Mistake (US) (UK) by David Bodanis is a great short biography with some super storytelling.

And finally, it would be perverse of me to omit my own book, Messy. Happy reading!

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6th of December, 2016MarginaliaComments off
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What I’m reading

Steven Johnson’s Wonderland is out this week. It’s vintage Johnson, a fascinating and surprising guide to the history of innovation. Johnson is focusing on the role of delight and play in producing new ideas – from the desire for Indian calico to the tinkering of MIT’s computer gamers. Strongly recommended. (US) (UK)

I loved Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game – Konnikova is a great storyteller and completely in touch with the psychological literature. This book explains why we fall in love with con-men. Topical. And it’s an excellent book. (US) (UK)

Dan Ariely’s new short book Payoff offer Dan’s usual combination of wit, wisdom and memorable experiments. I enjoyed it a lot. (US) (UK)

And one from the archives – I spoke on a panel last week with the remarkable Paul Seabright and was reminded just what a superb book Company of Strangers is. Seabright asks the question – how did we evolve from being violent, suspicious apes to a species capable of amazing feats of cooperation and trade? And how close to the surface are the violent, suspicious apes? (US) (UK)

A reminder that my new book Messy would make the perfect Christmas present – and that my new radio series Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is in full swing and you can subscribe, free, to the podcast if you wish.

Meanwhile, under the circumstances, you might want to invest in a copy of Leonard Cohen’s The Future (US) (UK) – “Give me absolute control over every living soul, and lie beside me baby, that’s an order…”

15th of November, 2016MarginaliaComments off
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