Tim Harford The Undercover Economist


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Book of the Week 7: To Engineer Is Human by Henry Petroski

Henry Petroski is a fascinatingly eclectic writer – a nerd with the soul of a poet. I relied upon his book The Pencil: A History in writing the opening chapter of the forthcoming The Next Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy (coming in May), and turned to Success Through Failure while writing Adapt.

I was delighted to receive To Engineer Is Human as a Christmas present – one of those rare surprise presents that actually works out… It’s a wide-ranging collection of essays and musings. Topics range from the experience of being a toddler in a world of adults, through the distinctive pattern of fatigue in a “Speak & Spell”, to the catastrophic collapse of walkways in the lobby of a Kansas City hotel in 1981.

One provocative idea in Petroski’s work is the idea that engineers learn through trial and error more than one might expect. Yes, there are the laws of physics and in principle one can calculate the load-bearing strength of any structure – but in practice, when we try to do something new we will sometimes run into the unexpected.

Not every essay hits the mark – I didn’t feel moved or improved by the analysis of the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem “The Deacon’s Masterpiece” – but like a collection of poems or short stories, if you don’t enjoy one you can skip to the next. Overall I felt I was learning things from Petroski that I wouldn’t learn from anybody else.

Some overlap with the more recent book Success Through Failure, but lots to intrigue.

US: Powell’s / Amazon   UK: Blackwells / Amazon

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17th of February, 2020MarginaliaComments off

Book of the Week 6: What We Need To Do Now

Chris Goodall’s latest book is What We Need To Do Now (For A Zero Carbon Society). I confess a temperamental kinship with Goodall: he’s a nerd, with a calm manner and an underdeveloped sense of outrage. This, I like very much. The book starts from the premise that we need to get carbon dioxide emissions down dramatically, and focuses on the UK: “the purpose of this book is to give an outline of the strategy the UK needs to adopt to address the climate threat”. 

Goodall acknowledges the progress – domestic emissions down more than 40 per cent since 1990, and down 10 per cent even after allowing for the offshoring of emissions to China and other manufacturers.

He then gets down to brass tacks. The first and most distinctive item on the agenda is to increase renewable electricity generation 20-fold. This should create a large surplus which can be used to create synthetic fuels, cover intermittency and provide for growing demands for electricity such as electric vehicles.

Other items include: mass insulation, electrifying transport, shiftying towards plant-based food, etc. A lot of this looks at the engineering but there’s plenty of discussion of the economics (and the economic instruments, such as a carbon tax) that will be needed.

There were a few surprises for me – I had no idea, for example, that there was so much carbon dioxide tied up in the fashion & clothing value chain.

Anyway: what Goodall sets out is a pretty ambitious plan. Whether you think it’s a good idea, and whether you think it’s feasible, this book is packed with analysis and refreshingly short on hysteria. I learned a lot.

UK: BlackwellsAmazon.

Possibly unavailable in the US; try here for the Kindle edition.

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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10th of February, 2020MarginaliaComments off

Book of the Week 5: You Look Like A Thing And I Love You

What surprised me about You Look Like A Thing And I Love You is that it’s genuinely funny – laugh-out-loud-funny, read-quotes-to-your-family-over-breakfast-funny. Who would not be charmed by an AI that develops My Little Pony names and suggests “Parpy Stink” and “Starsh*tter”? Or the accidental Murderbot that was supposed to be acting as a friendly usher? Or the curiosity-driven AI that plays Pacman by going to watch the ghosts, because they’re so interesting?

It’s not just a bunch of silly-AI gags, though. There may be a My Little Pony called Raspberry Turd on every other page, but there’s also a great deal of information about how machine learning actually works and why it finds certain kinds of problem a lot more difficult than others. Janelle Shane runs through various sources of AI-weirdness: AIs being trained in simulations (because simulators are faster and safer) and then finding ways to hack the simulation; AIs being fed subtly flawed training data (such as the AI which noticed that the difference between cancerous skin and healthy skin is that there’s usually a ruler in the picture when skin cancer is involved); AIs seeing giraffes everywhere in photographs of the savannah (because people like to take photos of giraffes, it’s safest to assume there’s one in the photo).

I learned a lot and laughed a lot.

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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3rd of February, 2020MarginaliaComments off

Book of the Week 4: The Body – A guide for occupants

A confession: Bill Bryson came to visit the More or Less studios, gave us a signed copy of his book and was wonderfully charming to all of us. I was well-disposed to him before I even cracked the spine.
That said: it’s a wonderful book. I used to read a lot of Bryson books (as a rambler, A Walk In The Woods had particular appeal) but it had been a while since I picked one up, and I’d forgotten just what an effortlessly engaging writer he is.
Structurally, The Body: A Guide For Occupants is simple. Bryson tells you all sorts of things about the body – your brain, your skin, your blood, your ears – and while it all seems to be bang up to date, there’s no radical reinterpretation of medical science (thank goodness). Nor is there some too-clever-by-half conceit to the way the tale is told.
Instead, Bryson is just wonderfully fun to read: there’s the perfect blend of crazy medical stories, biographical snippets about scientists, surprising facts and figures, and invitations to reflect on your own experience. A remarkable volume of information is conveyed with the easy charm of a skilled raconteur. Writing a book like this is very, very hard and Bryson makes it look very, very easy.

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

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27th of January, 2020MarginaliaComments off

Book of the week 3: Rebel Ideas

I hesitated to read Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas, not because I disapproved, but because I wondered whether I would learn anything new. The territory is familiar: cognitive diversity leads to better decisions. Like attracts like, meaning that we fill our organisational toolkits with hammers and neglect to recruit the screwdrivers, hacksaws and wrenches. That’s a bad idea, no matter how good the hammers are.
But my hesitancy was a mistake: Rebel Ideas is a great book and I’ve learned plenty that’s new, as well as gaining a deeper appreciation of what I thought I already knew.
Matthew Syed does cover some territory that was familiar to me from writing Messy. He cites my book and others that I admire, including Charlan Nemeth’s No!, Sunstein and Hastie’s Wiser, Joe Heinrich’s The Secret of Our Success and Scott Page’s The Difference. If you haven’t read these books, I suggest that you do – you’re in for a treat.
But even if you have, Syed’s synthesis is impressive. His storytelling is breathtaking – he opens with a discussion of the CIA’s failure to spot the 9/11 attacks, and flits across plane crashes, the invention of the wheeled suitcase, and the rise of Silicon Valley. His discussion of a disastrous Everest expedition is particularly hard to put down. This approach – story plus science – is of course standard in the genre, but I can assure you that it’s very hard to do well, and Syed does it very well indeed.
Syed covers collective blindness, constructive dissent, innovation, echo chambers and the evolution of culture itself. My usual book-reading habit of creasing the bottom corner of a page I want to come back to has somewhat backfired – there are dozens of creases because the book is packed with good stuff.

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

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20th of January, 2020MarginaliaComments off

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

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.


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

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

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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  • Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy
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