Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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Book of the Week 2: Dreyer’s English

Yes, a book about how to write, by a celebrated copy-editor. Benjamin Dreyer offers an enjoyable tour through all the rules of grammar and style that people break, making their prose dull or ridiculous. He also rails against the pedants who insist on rules that any good writer would happily break, such as prohibition on splitting infinitives.

It’s fun – even funny. Dreyer’s humour is on every page; one reviewer described it as ‘relentless’ but I was glad to have the jokes to keep me company. This is, after all, a book about grammar and linguistic precision. It needs jokes, and some of Dreyer’s are good enough to have me annoying my wife by reading them out to her. (Sorry.)

The book was easily good enough to keep me reading despite the fact that I wasn’t learning very much. I was aware that the book was a combination of advice I already knew and advice I would promptly forget, although one or two observations may stick.

Perhaps I am the wrong reviewer. Not only I have read similar books before, there is the small matter of having been on the receiving end of 14 copy-edits (7 books in the US, 7 in the UK). I have absorbed certain predilections of copy-editors by osmosis by now. I suspect a reader with less of this painful first-hand experience might learn more, but no matter: the point of this book is to be enjoyed, rather than to serve as a style manual. And enjoyable it is.

One thing that was missing from the book is a sense of just what it’s like to be an author on the receiving end of a copy-edit, although Dreyer does mention one author who scrawled in the margin of one edit, “WRITE YOUR OWN FUCKING BOOK”. Just so.

An alternative offering is Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which seemed much briefer to me, and is really two good books in one. The first is all about the cognitive science of why communication is hard, and it’s very good. The second is – again – that list of grammar and style rules that one should obey or ignore. Like Dreyer, Pinker has little patience with old-school pedants; like Dreyer, he’s funny.

Also consider Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Williams and Colomb, if you can find a copy. I haven’t read this book for many years but it made a big impression on me. Williams and Colomb go beyond the tired grammar advice.  They and pull sentences and paragraphs apart to show why some writing is confusing in its very structure. This book is superb, and a real eye-opener. Fewer jaunty jokes, but more likely to improve your writing.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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13th of January, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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Book of the Week 1: A World Without Work

I’ve set myself the goal of writing a short book review every week in 2020. Let’s see how that goes. Happy New Year!

Daniel Susskind’s A World Without Work is, primarily, an excellent guide to the economics of automation and to the latest progress in artificial intelligence. Susskind begins by describing “a history of misplaced anxiety” about the machines taking the jobs, before outlining the influential Autor-Levy-Murnane (ALM) paradigm of 2003.

ALM emphasise tasks, rather than jobs: automation is far more likely to encroach on a narrow task (such as adding up the prices of goods at a supermarket checkout) than to completely replace a job such as a checkout assistant. We should therefore expect automation to reshape jobs, not replace them.

So far, so good – and Susskind’s contribution is to deliver a crystal-clear explanation of the received wisdom in economics, with plenty of examples. It’s a model of popular academic writing.

Susskind then moves to argue that many economists are underestimating what automation is now achieving. The ALM idea of “routine” and “non-routine” tasks is starting to break down – consider the progress in image recognition, legal document analysis (something Susskind has studied deeply), or translation. Is Google Translate really performing a “routine” task? What about AlphaZero, the self-trained system that destroyed the best Chess and Go players in the world, human or computer?

Susskind’s point is that the ALM paradigm needs rexamining: we can no longer simply assume that large numbers of tasks are “non-routine” and therefore robot-proof. Neither can we assume that almost all humans will find it straightforward to earn a living. We need to adapt to a world where technological unemployment may arrive on a large enough scale to cause real misery and disruption.

Finally Susskind reviews solutions, such as a basic income, education, and – speculatively – a “meaning-creating state”, by which he means a state that is able to produce a sense of purpose, meaning and identity that in the 20th century was provided by our careers. I think he’s right to identify the goal of helping people find a sense of meaning and identity; I’ve no idea, however, what a “meaning-creating state” would really look like. But perhaps that is less a criticism of Susskind and more a recognition of how deep and complex the challenge might become.

Recommended!

Compare Carl Benedikt Frey’s The Technology Trapa book which is intimidatingly weighty but is well-written and accessible. Frey was one of the researchers behind the viral “xx% of jobs are vunerable to  automation” claim, but this book is much more than a book about robots taking jobs – it’s a history of automation from pre-industrial times.

So far I’ve only read the (penultimate) chapter on artificial intelligence; it’s excellently written, full of examples and studies I hadn’t previously encountered, and I learned a lot. Not obviously contradictory to Susskind’s book, and it is intriguing that there are so many ideas out there that the overlap is modest.

Catch up on the first season of my podcast “Cautionary Tales” [Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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6th of January, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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Cautionary Tales…

Exciting news – I have a new podcast series ready to burst out upon an unsuspecting world. It’s called Cautionary Tales – true stories of catastrophe and fiasco, sparkling with top acting talent, with the aim of making you wiser with every word. I’m writing and presenting the series and will be adding a soupcon of social science to the narrative. [Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

While you wait for the first episodes to drop on November 15th, I thought I’d share a few of my favourite books about making mistakes.

I received Nigel Blundell’s The World’s Greatest Mistakes as a Christmas gift when I was a child – a strange and compelling array of catastrophes, from famous air crashes and military blunders to amusing vignettes such as the bride who accidentally married the best man. The stories seemed well researched (although no list of references) and were briskly told. That book is long out of print, but I suspect that Blundell’s new book A Century of Man-Made Disasters will have similar qualities.

Levy and Salvadori’s modern classic Why Buildings Fall Down is a skilfully illustrated and fascinating way to learn about structural engineering by studying what happens when it all goes wrong.

For books about human error you could take a look at my list of my favourite behavioural economics books but try also Kathryn Schulz’s beautiful meditation on error, Being Wrongand Tavris and Aronson’s excellent Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) James Reason’s more technical quasi-textbook Human Error.  

And for the all-important intersection of the maths-comedy-error Venn diagram, Matt Parker’s delightful Humble Pi

 

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Books about seeing into the past and the future

What I’ve been reading…

Steven Johnson’s FarsightedI’m a Steven Johnson fan and enjoyed this book a lot – sufficiently to read it in an afternoon in the library, then head to my local bookshoop and pay full retail. Given the number of books I get sent on spec, that’s a sincere compliment. This book is about taking the long view and thinking about non-obvious effects. Among the topics – diversity and groupthink (Steven may have taken some inspiration from Messy, Wiser and The Difference), prediction (with the now-obligatory mention of the excellent Superforecasting) and some really good stuff on wargaming and scenarios. Some good stories, well written – less surprising than, for example, Johnson’s Wonderland but I still learned a lot and enjoyed it.

Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – a very clever way to bring history alive. Lots of insights and many things I didn’t know, even though I (like many gamer geeks) have an interest in the middle ages.

Michael Lewis, The Big ShortRe-reading this to refresh my memory about some CDO-related chicanery. He’s SO GOOD. Such lively writing and a lot of serious explanation smuggled in there too.

Andrew Hunter Murray The Last DayI got an early edition of this; you’ll have to pre-order it now and thank me in February. Terrific debut novel – a dystopian near-future account of a world which has literally stopped turning, leaving most of it either uninhabitably cold or uninhabitably hot. This manages to evoke Brexit and climate change and Syria without actually being about any of them. A great thriller – and the low-rent police-state (1984 on a tight budget) is grimly convincing.

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28th of October, 2019MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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Two evenings with Randall Munroe

I’m interviewing Randall Munroe of xkcd on stage twice this week. Being the straight man for Randall is something that would have been on my bucket list, if it had ever occured to me in my wildest imaginings.

Speaking of wild imaginings, Randall’s new book,  How To, is a think of strange beauty. As I mentioned before,

“it’s in much the same style as What If? and just as funny and informative. I loved it, then my twelve year old daughter stole it and she loved it, then my eight year old son stole it and he loved it. I suspect we’re all getting something different from the book, which explores such questions as: If you wanted to fill a swimming pool with bottled water, could you open the bottles with atomic weapons? (There is actually a study of this question…) If you wanted to ski down a hill with no snow, would it work to drag a snow-machine along with you? How feasible is it to boil a river dry with a big array of kettles? “

Come along, if you’re free. Randall is speaking at the Royal Festival Hall in London tomorrow (October 7th) and at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on Friday. And other places too, although I won’t be there to witness.

 

 
My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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6th of October, 2019MarginaliaComments off
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What’s it like to have lunch with a Nobel laureate?

My recent “lunch with the FT” with Richard Thaler (Nobel laureate, author of Nudge and Misbehaving) was a lot of fun. I don’t do these formal sit-down interviews often but over the years I’ve racked up a few.

At the end of the lunch I mentioned to Thaler the other economists I’d lunched with. “Good company”, he said. I think he’s right. So, just in case you missed the other interviews:

Thomas Schelling (1921 – 2016, Nobel Laureate 2005). I interviewed Schelling in his home shortly after he won the Nobel. I was still barely a journalist at all; he was charming and gracious. I find Schelling and his ideas endlessly fascinating. If you’d like to read a Schelling book, perhaps start with Micromotives and Macrobehaviour.

Gary Becker (1930 – 2014, Nobel Laureate 1992). Becker, charmingly, committed a “rational crime” during the interview.  Becker’s ideas were a big influence on my writing The Logic of Life.

My very first “Lunch with the FT” was with Steven Levitt, just before Freakonomics came out. It feels like a long time ago…

And if you want more, here’s my lunch with blogger, activist and novelist Cory Doctorow; here’s the time Michael Lewis played me at an obscure German boardgame.

 

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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The magic of picture books

Perhaps it’s the holiday feeling, but I’ve been looking at books with lots of pictures recently.

First, Randall Munroe’s marvelous How To. It’s in much the same style as What If? and just as funny and informative. I loved it, then my twelve year old daughter stole it and she loved it, then my eight year old son stole it and he loved it. I suspect we’re all getting something different from the book, which explores such questions as: If you wanted to fill a swimming pool with bottled water, could you open the bottles with atomic weapons? (There is actually a study of this question…) If you wanted to ski down a hill with no snow, would it work to drag a snow-machine along with you? How feasible is it to boil a river dry with a big array of kettles? Needless to say, strongly recommended.

Very different, from the equally talented cartoonish Zach Weinersmith and always-interesting economist Bryan Caplan, is Open Borders – which is a polemic essay, illustrated by Weinersmith, arguing for dramatically more liberal rules on immigration. I’m much more sympathetic to this idea than most people, so perhaps not best placed to find the holes in the argument, but it’s well worth a read: Caplan makes a strong case, founded on the idea that immigration is good for the global economy while respecting the basic liberty of every person in the world. Of course, there are many possible objections both to the argument, and to the policy, and Caplan works through all the obvious ones, arguing against them – sometimes from first principles and sometimes by appealing to data. And it’s all pictures – which does make it quick and fun to read.

And different again: I finally, three decades late, decided I should read Sandman by Neil Gaiman. Two volumes in and I’m loving it. The first volume is occasionally shlocky, awkward or exploitative to modern sensibilities – but only occasionally. Gaiman, one feels, is still finding his feet. Still, most of it is spellbinding. And volume 2 is even better. If you haven’t read it, you should.

One more thing. My father and I are going on an all day walk to raise money for Rennie Grove Hospice Care. I’m not going to pretend it will be a sinew-shredding challenge, although I hope to pick up a blister or too. But it’s a very good cause and we’d be most grateful for any support you can give. My mother died of cancer in 1996 and our whole family hugely valued the hospice care she received during her long and difficult illness.

Thank you in advance.

 

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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1st of September, 2019MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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The art of time well spent

I’ve been reading James Wallman’s Time And How To Spend It – which, intriguingly, he described to me as “How to Kondo Time”, which I don’t think it is. I’ve learned a few things worth knowing, though.

Wallman recommends seven rules for spending your time wisely:

  • Story
  • Transformation
  • Outside & Offline
  • Relationships
  • Intensity
  • Extraordinary
  • Status & Significance

(They spell “stories”. Nice, eh?) Actually the first chapter – “story” – was the most surprising to me. Wallman reminds us of classic story arcs (particularly Vonnegut’s “Man in a hole”) and suggests that we think about our time in that way. Does your plan for the next hour, day, month look like it would make for a good story? Would you encounter challenges and meet allies and experience personal transformation? It’s an intriguing approach to trying to spend your time in a more satisfying way – or, sometimes, to reframe the time you’ve already spent.

Much of the rest of the book is more straightforward: there is no harm in being reminded that most of us could do more to cultivate relationships, and that going for a walk is better for your mental health than hunching over a screen – obvious, yes, but true and worth repeating.

 

An alternative – or, perhaps, a complement – is Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which really is “how to Kondo time”. I’ve written before about Newport’s book, which I found bracingly direct, challenging and practical. Newport’s basic theme: we fell into our habits of using phones, social media, email, web-browsing etc without making conscious decisions about what our priorities were. His practical challenge is to think about your priorities – for instance, a need to be connected to friends – and then weigh up how best to achieve those priorities. Is it really through Facebook? If so, how exactly? And if not, what alternative do you have planned?

It’s really a very powerful book. Strongly recommended.

 

You might also pick up a copy of Robert Twigger’s Micromastery, a charming little book, and an original one. Twigger argues that you should try new things (learn to cook, learn to swim, to play the guitar, to haggle) but in particular that you should find some small sub-set of the relevant skill and focus on that. You then get a skill worth having in its own right (eg learning to cook an omelette) while also gaining motivation to make progress on the broader task. Clever little idea. (NB Twigger wrote Angry White Pyjamas, which is an absolutely perfect book about what happens when a poet bumming around in Japan decides to spend a year on the toughest martial arts course in Japan.)

 

 

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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21st of May, 2019MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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How to be more creative

I was on the TED Radio Hour this week; they were kind enough to give me both the first and the last word on the subject of kickstarting creativity.

If you’d like to read more on the subject I would – of course – recommend my book, Messy, which gave me the research base for both of the TED talks and the interviews around them.

But what else?

Perhaps David Epstein’s new book, Range, which sings the praises of broadening your horizons. I’m a couple of chapters in and enjoying it very much: good stories, well-researched. Epstein, an experienced and thoughtful sports writer, points out that what works in sport is actually not a very good guide to what works in life, because in life the rules are unclear, feedback can be patchy, and in general we need the widest possible base of experience. Recommended.

A very different book is A Mind At Play by Soni and Goodman – the first biography of Claude Shannon, one of the pioneers of modern computer science and the creator of information theory. Shannon’s an interesting subject in part because he’s still underappreciated outside his own field, and in part because his creative arc was complex and frustrating. He seems to spend an awful lot of time goofing around and wasting his talent. Was it wasted time? Or was it fundamental to the process? I’m not sure myself. I’ll write more about this sometime.

And I must recommend (again) Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, a wonderful practical guide to creativity for anyone in any field at any stage of their career.

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13th of May, 2019MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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What I’ve been reading

Mark Bostridge, Florence Nightingale – a thorough biography of a remarkable woman, less well-known for her work as a statistician, data-visualisation pioneer and public health campaigner than she should be. One of the founders of evidence-based medicine, she is nevertheless more celebrated for being “the lady with the lamp”. Draw your own conclusions. Good book.

James Reason, Human Error – Reason’s work on industrial accidents is fantastic. This book reviews very ways in which human cognition fails us, with much more emphasis on (for example) potentially-lethal slips and bouts of absent-mindedness than the behavioural economists’ focus on biases and heuristics. More technical than I remember. Next up is The Human Contribution which has more stories and is a little more upbeat.

Jordan Frith A Billion Little Pieces – a sociologist writes about radio-frequency identification tags (RFID). I learned a lot, although would have preferred more reflection on the economic impacts of the technology.

On my pile are Safi Bahcall’s Loonshots, a book about long-shot innovation, a topic that has interested me for years. Also David Epstein’s Range – about the value of being a generalist. Much in sympathy with my latest TED talk, which in fact cites Epstein. Looking forward to reading both books.

 

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8th of May, 2019MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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