Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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Book of the Week 19: Humankind, by Rutger Bregman

Rutger Bregman’s new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, makes a simple argument: most people, most of the time, are decent. Whether this strikes you as absurd, or obvious, may depend on what side of bed you got out of. Bregman makes a strong case that we’ve been groomed to think the worst of each other by books such as The Lord of The Flies and The Selfish Gene, and a diet of grim stories in the daily news. The book is wide-ranging, and while it is most definitely a polemic – Bregman writes to persuade – it is also full of the most fabulous storytelling. I loved reading it.

Some of the material I knew – for example, the ever-growing question marks over Zimbardo’s prison simulation have become infamous, re-interprerations of Milgram’s shock machine were popularised on RadioLab, and if I recall correctly the urban myth that nobody came to help Kitty Genovese was debunked in Freakonomics. It’s all woven together rather wonderfully here, though.

Other tales, in particular the story of the real-life Lord of the Flies, were completely new to me. The book is spellbindingly well written and you should read it. You’ll learn a lt (I did) and you’ll have good reason to feel better about the human race.

UK: Blackwell’sAmazon

US: Powell’sAmazon

While you’re here – my NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in two weeks. Please consider ordering online or at your local bookshop, which will be sorely in need of your support.

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18th of May, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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Book of the Week 18: The Unthinkable, by Amanda Ripley

What is it like to be caught up in the middle of an unthinkable disaster? Why are our responses to these extreme and unexpected events themselves often extreme and unexpected? Amanda Ripley began writing this book after interviewing survivors of the 9/11 attacks. “These people had an agenda,” she writes, “They had thinking they wanted to tell other people before the next terrorist attack.”
One of the strengths of the book – which covers not just 9/11 but Hurricane Katrina and various other catastrophes – is the storytelling, often based on interviews with survivors.
But there are other elements, too. Ripley also relies on historical accounts; her opening tale, well-told, is the explosion of the Mont Blanc munitions ship that devastated Halifax in 1917. One of the survivors Samuel Henry Price, went on to become a sociologist who studied our response to disasters.
Ripley occasionally markets the book as a guide to how to survive if you’re ever in a catastrophic situation, and perhaps it would help. That sells the book short, I think: I was fascinated by the storytelling. The science and psychology of disaster responses is less prominent but there was plenty to interest my inner nerd. I have no doubt you’ll see references to Ripley in the next series of Cautionary Tales.
Recommended!
UK: Amazon Blackwell’s
US: Amazon Powell’s

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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5th of May, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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Book of the Week 17: Rhialto the Marvelous by Jack Vance

Pure escapism this week – Jack Vance’s Rhialto the Marvelous (Kindle only, I am afraid). Rhialto contains three extended short stories, in each case describing the adventures of Rhialto and a small group of other wizards of the 21st aeon. Rhialto is the conceited, narcissistic and amoral anti-hero of these indescribably delightful tales in which a dozen or so powerful, selfish and conceited sorcerors battle strange foes and – chiefly – try to outwit each other in matters of society and petty politics. These are joyful, cruel and wholly original confections. Enjoy!

 

 

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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2nd of May, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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Book of the Week 16: The Ostrich Paradox

A brief shout-out this week for a brief-but-good book, The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare For Disasters by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther. Meyer and Kunreuther combine a nice dose of behavioural science with some striking examples: Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 1935 Labor Day storm, the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, and many others. They explore the cognitive biases that lead us to underprepare, or to abandon protection after a while. Clear writing, good stories, lots of solid academic references.

UK: AmazonBlackwells

US: Amazon – Powells

 

 

 
My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a BIG help.

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20th of April, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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Book of the Week 15: The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin

earthsea

A change of pace this week for Easter: Ursula K. le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. Last weekend I watched the Studio Ghibli Tales of Earthsea – which has its moments but is not up to the usual stratospheric Ghibli standards. (Le Guin agreed.)

It did, however, prompt me to turn to the trilogy once again. I read it as a teenager, and again on a  long holiday in China in 2003, alongside the fourth book, Tehanu. I picked it up with hazy memories about certain plot points, and was not disappointed by any part of it.

The writing is superbly poetic, the plots are fast-paced and unusual, and the world-building is deft and convincing. A Wizard of Earthsea was originally commissioned as a ‘young adult’ novel, and each of the three novels is told from the point of view of a teenage protagonist, but the themes are mature: ambition and envy, evil done in the name of religion, fear of aging and death, restraint in the use of power.

So many ideas here have been copied – a young boy going to a school for wizards; a wise and powerful order striving to keep the balance against the dark side – but the books still feel fresh and original fifty years on. Yes, there are wizards and dragons, princes destined to be kings and even a damsel needing to be rescued, but Le Guin transcends or subtly subverts each cliché.

Meanwhile I’ve been trying to figure out how to turn Earthsea into a role-playing game. An interesting challenge. An accomplished wizard seems to be able to attempt almost anything, if he is strong enough and is willing to accept the consequences, so part of the fun would be dealing with those consequences. Each success produces the seeds of later trouble. (There is an Earthsea-inspired game, Archipelago, but I have not yet looked at it.)

I know that Le Guin later revisited Earthsea decades later. Tehanu is the fourth book and there are others I’ve not yet read. I found it unsettling to read Tehanu immediately after the original trilogy; not only is it extremely dark, Le Guin so sharply questions some of the implicit perspectives of the previous books that she implicitly criticises herself for having written them, and the reader for having enjoyed them.

Nothing wrong with that – but perhaps leave a breathing space between finishing book three, The Farthest Shore, and picking up the fourth book, Tehanu.

Earthsea: Amazon UKBlackwellsAmazon US – Powell’s

 

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a BIG help.

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14th of April, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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Book of the week 14: The Weather Machine by Andrew Blum

I was intrigued by news reports that the Met Office was planning to drop more than a billion pounds on a new supercomputer, and wondered what it was that these clever weather forecasters did with all that silicon. So I picked up Andrew Blum’s recent book, The Weather Machine.
Blum starts with the weather map – and John Ruskin’s metaphor of the “weather machine”, transcending the local observations of an individual forecaster and linking together what James Gleick calls “local surprises” into a larger map. After all, one part of the weather forecasting game is straightforward: if it’s raining to the west of you and the wind is blowing from the west, you can expect rain soon. Weather forecasts begin with weather observations: the more observations, the better.
In the 1850s, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC used reports from telegraph operators to patch together those “local surprises” into a national weather map. This map was based purely on observations, but it was still a useful starting point before we had either the scientific understanding or the computational power necessary to make a reliable forecast.
The scientific understanding began to dawn in 1904, when Norwegian mathematician Vilhelm Bjerknes published “The problem of weather prediction”, an academic paper describing the circulation of masses of air. If you knew the density, pressure, temperature, humidity and the velocity of the air in three dimensions, and plugged the results into Bjerknes’s formulas, you would be on the way to a respectable weather forecast – if only you could solve those computationally-demanding equations.
The British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson attempted just that, attempting to predict the weather of 20th May 1910 given the starting conditions. Alas, it was 1922 before he finished the sums – despite continuing to calculate in the evenings after long days as an ambulance driver during the war. Nor did the equations accurately describe the weather that day, 12 years earlier. Still: one must start somewhere.
Fry Richardson dreamed of a forecasting factory, a stadium filled with 64,000 human computers, conducted by lights and other signals as they furiously calculated the weather equations faster than the weather itself could evolve. It was a remarkable vision: modern weather forecasting works much as Fry anticipated, except that there is no need to perform the calculations by hand – or 128,000 hands. The Met Office’s billion-and-a-half dollars of silicon will do the job nicely.
Blum’s narrative ranges widely and finishes at the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts HQ in Reading. (My understanding is that this arrangement will survive Brexit, partly because the EMRWF is a separate organisation from the EU. But don’t quote me on that.) The EMRWF, says Blum, are the elite among meteorologists, and he spends some time exploring why they are so admired. Part of the secret is a way of working that can be split into modules and relentlessly tested, experimented with, and improved.
I strongly recommend the book, which is a fascinating glimpse of a mysterious world.

UK: Blackwell’sAmazon

US: Powell’sAmazon

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 April, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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How not to lose your mind in the Covid-19 age

here are as many responses to the Covid-19 pandemic as there are people to respond. Some have of us have children to home-school. Some of us have elderly relatives to worry about; some of us are the elderly relatives in question. Some of us have never been busier; others have already lost their jobs.

One experience is common, however: wherever the virus has started to spread, life is changing radically for almost everyone. It’s a strange and anxious time, and some of the anxiety is inevitable. For many people, however, much of the stress can be soothed with – if you will pardon the phrase – one weird trick.

First, a diagnosis. Most of us, consciously or not, have a long list of things to do. As the virus and the lockdowns have spread, many of the items on the to-do list have simply evaporated. At the same time, a swarm of new tasks have appeared, multiplying by the day: everything from the small-yet-unfamiliar (“get toilet paper” and “claim refund on cancelled holiday”) to the huge-and-intimidating (“organise an inspiring home-school curriculum” or “find a new job”).

The change is so fast and comprehensive that for most of us it is unprecedented. Even a divorce or an international relocation is more gradual. The death of a spouse might be the only experience that comes close. No wonder that even those of us who are safe and well and feel loved and financially secure find ourselves reeling at the scale of it all.

To the extent that the problem is that the to-do list is unrecognisable, the solution is oddly simple: get the to-list back in order. Here’s how.

Get a piece of paper. Make a list of all the projects that are on your mind. David Allen, author of the cult productivity manual Getting Things Done, defines a project as “any multistep outcome that can be completed within a year”. So, yes: anything from trying to source your weekly groceries to publishing a book.

That list should have three kinds of projects on it.

First, there are the old projects that make no sense in the new world. For those that can be mothballed until next year, write them down and file them away. Others will disappear forever. Say your goodbyes. Some part of your subconscious may have been clinging on, and I’m going to guess that ten seconds of acknowledging that the project has been obliterated will save on a vague sense of unease in the long run.

Second, there are the existing projects, some of which have become more complicated in the mid-pandemic world. Things that you might previously have done on automatic may now require a little thought. Again, a few moments with a pen and paper will often tell you all you need to know: what’s changed? What do I now need to do? What, specifically, is my next action? Write it down.

Third, there are brand new projects. For me, for example, I need to rewrite the introduction to my forthcoming book (‘How To Make The World Add Up, since you were wondering). It’s going to seem mighty strange without coronavirus references in it. Many of us need to devote more than a little attention to the sudden appearance of our children at home. Some of us need to hunt for new work; others, for a better home-office set-up. Many of us are now volunteering to look after vulnerable neighbours.  In each case, the drill is the same: sketch out the project, ask yourself what the very next step is, and write it down.

Occasionally, you may encounter something that’s on your mind – the fate of western civilisation, for example, or the fact that the health service desperately needs more ventilators and more protective equipment. For my family, it’s an elderly relative, suffering from dementia, in a locked-down nursing home. We can’t visit him. He can’t communicate on the phone or comprehend a video chat. There is, for now, literally nothing we can do but wait and hope. Acknowledging that fact – that there is no action to be taken – is itself a useful step.

I won’t pretend that in this frightening time, working through your to do list in a systematic way will resolve all anxieties. It won’t. But you may be surprised at how much mental energy it saves – and at the feeling of relief as all these confusing and barely-acknowledged new responsibilities take shape and feel more under your control.

Or so it seems to me. Good luck, and keep safe.

 

Oh – and in case it wasn’t obvious, this week’s Book of the Week is David Allen’s superb Getting Things Done.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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29th of March, 2020MarginaliaOther WritingResourcesComments off
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Book of the Week 12: The Misinformation Age by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall

The Misinformation Age is a good read, although not quite what I expected. Not much on the psychology of misinformation – the backfire effect and confirmation bias, for example, are mentioned only briefly. But that’s fine: such topics are covered very well elsewhere. Instead, the book has two stylistically quite different components: some strong storytelling (and often the stories were unfamiliar to me); and a network-based analysis of the spread of information or misinformation through a nodes-and-edges graph.

O’Connor and Weatherall are interested, then, in the structure of networks that propagate information and misinformation, and spend at least as much time on expert networks (for example, networks of research scientists) as they do on muppets like you and me. The graph-analysis is used to study how pseudo-scientific propaganda (such as tobacco-cancer denial and climate denial) can influence experts. I learned a lot, and was delighted to see that an idea I proposed way back in “Adapt” actually exists in the scientific literature: it’s called the Zollman Effect. (The Zollman Effect describes a situation in which scientists can improve their beliefs by failing to communicate. Too much communication, too early, leads to a convergence of beliefs that might be premature. Pockets of heterodox thought gather data on alternative approaches, which will sometimes prove to be correct.)

The stories are good, too. Some come from the excellent Merchants of Doubt, but no harm in that. There was some very interesting detail on the initial research into the ozone hole, and I loved the opening tale about the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, a piece of fake news that emerged around 1350 CE and persisted for centuries. Bravo.

UK: Blackwell’sAmazon

US: Powell’sAmazon

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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23rd of March, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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Book of the week 11: Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan

“The sagacious businessman is constantly forecasting,” said the great economist Irving Fisher, a man thoroughly convinced of the power of data to make the future legible. Fisher transformed economics and made millions as an entrepreneur, but died in penury. He is now best remembered as the tragic figure who, shortly before the cataclysmic Wall Street crash of 1929, informed the nation: “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”

Poor Professor Fisher appears early on in Uncharted. Margaret Heffernan’s book is less a smackdown of failed forecasts than an engaging ramble across our attempts to predict, control, explore or embrace an uncertain future. Heffernan is admired for books that question the received wisdom of how management works; she is a business guru who brings the stern discipline of good sense to the business book genre. In this book, she turns her attention to a topic that absorbs most business leaders — and the rest of us too: how to think about what the future holds. Gazing into the future is not fruitless, she argues, but it is unnerving and hard work. Lazy and fearful, we are far too quick to reach for overblown gurus, or misleading data or other useless guides. Even a good tool, such as GPS, can dull our senses.

“What matters most isn’t the predictions themselves but how we respond to them, and whether we respond to them at all,” she writes. “The forecast that stupefies isn’t helpful, but the one that provides fresh thinking can be.”

And fresh thinking is what Heffernan wishes to provoke, mostly through storytelling, occasionally through rhetoric. Are we trapped by history? Only if we let our own narratives confine us. Can parents use an app to “predict life outcomes and . . . maximise the life-long potential of your child”? No. She finds the idea appalling.

Better, she suggests, to explore, empower, experiment. Whether you’re running a multinational, pondering a career change or being a parent, the same wisdom applies: sometimes things go wrong, or go right, and we don’t know why. Keep your eyes open. Stay engaged. Listen to others. Don’t be afraid to change course. Contribute to your community, and make connections before trouble strikes: “Don’t exchange business cards in a crisis.”

At times, Uncharted resembles a collection of secular sermons illustrated with a story. Heffernan stands in the pulpit quietly admonishing us to be a little wiser, reflect a little more, to do the things that deep down we already know we should be doing.

Moments of counterintuitive astonishment are scarce, but the book is probably better for that. And it largely avoids the usual suspects: Apple, Google, 3M, the US military. Instead, we find ourselves in the shoes of a disillusioned Catholic priest, realising he has fallen in love and getting no help from the Church. Or in a room with a diverse group of Mexicans, from mobsters to senators, as they try to explore the future with a scenario-planning exercise. Or with the management of Nokia, wondering if there is life after cell phones. These are subtle tales of struggle and compromise.

The storytelling is not without its flaws. Physicist Marzio Nessi morphs into a Mr Messi, who is surely a different kind of genius. A discussion of fresh ideas in healthcare required multiple re-readings to sort out who was doing what, where, and whether these were diverse experiments across the nation. More than once I checked the index because I assumed I’d missed something. These are small things, but in a book that tries to flow so freely across so many stories, they are barnacles that produce a drag.

That said, Heffernan is generally a deft storyteller and the book’s reliance on such stories is a strength. Bad “smart thinking” books offer 2×2 matrices and jargon; good ones offer theory and evidence. Heffernan steps outside the category entirely. She wants us to engage with the particularities of people, places and the problems they faced — to empathise with them, reflect on our own lives and our own careers, and to draw our own conclusions.

Uncharted is not a book to skim in the business class lounge. Heffernan’s approach is more like a music lover trying to broaden the appreciation of a patient friend. “Here’s an example; listen to this; here’s another. Compare, contrast. Now do you see what I’m getting at?” It is messy, and occasionally frustrating, but wise and appealingly human.

UK: AmazonBlackwell’s

US: Amazon – Powell’s (Publishes Sep 2020)
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 19 February 2020.

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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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16th of March, 2020MarginaliaOther WritingComments off
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Book of the Week 10: The Rules of Contagion by Adam Kucharski

All authors need a little bit of luck, and Kucharski has it with his suddenly-topical book, The Rules of Contagion.

I enjoyed this one a lot (or, strictly, am enjoying it a lot, since I’ve not finished but I wanted my review to be as timely as the book). Kucharski is a young epidemiologist with first-hand experience of the Zika outbreak, as well as a summer working in finance in the middle of the financial crisis, so is well-placed to write a lively book about contagion both of biological illnesses and of other things such as ideas.

The book is well written, plenty of nerdy ideas (Erdos-Renyi networks, for example) leavened both with practical examples and with nice pen-portraits of the scientists involved, such as Robert May, Hilda Hudson, Paul Erdos and Ronald Ross.

I’m learning fast and having a good time. A welcome distraction from the excitable news.

UK: AmazonBlackwell’s

US: Amazon

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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9th of March, 2020MarginaliaComments off
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