Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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Ideas about the past, present and future of the economy

Books

Book of the week is James C Scott’s Against The Grain (UK) (US) – an examination of the origins of civilisation. Scott – best known for the magnificent Seeing Like A State (US) (UK) – is on fascinating form. There’s a fine long review by John Lanchester in the New Yorker.

I’ve been enjoying Ed Thorp’s A Man For All Markets (UK) (US).  Thorp is a quite brilliant thinker about both gambling and investment – he also built a wearable computer with Claude Shannon to predict the fall of the ball on a roulette table. So far this is a fascinating autobiography. Thought-provoking foreword by Nassim Taleb, too, who emphasises the simple practicality of Thorp’s approach.

Then there’s Paul Goodwin’s Forewarned (UK) (US) – which at first glance seems to be a great survey of what works and what doesn’t in the forecasting game. (It’s next on my list to read.)

 

Bro-casts

I’m going to admit to listening to The Art of Manliness and The Tim Ferriss Show, at least on occasion, because there are occasional gems. Check out this fascinating interview about the professor who taught Homer’s Odyssey to a class including his on octogenarian father – and what both the text and the class taught him about the relationship between fathers and sons. And here’s Mr Money Moustache on Ferriss’s podcast.

And not-at-all Bro-ish, but I loved this recent episode of The Why Factor about why we ask “so what do you do?” of strangers – and whether we can do better than that question. Wonderful radio.

 

The Search For the Fifty First Thing

If you’ve been enjoying the book / series of Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy you can vote for one more special episode here (until noon GMT 6 October 2017) – the shortlist of six is worth a look!

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18th of September, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Your chance to vote for the 51st thing that made the modern economy

It’s been such fun working on the radio series and book Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy – but one of the frustrations was all the fascinating ideas, inventions and stories that I couldn’t squeeze into the book. Well, now there are six more on the table – and I’d love you to vote as to which of them will be the subject of one final episode.

The options are: credit cards, glass, the global positioning system, irrigation, the pencil, and spreadsheets. I chose this short-list of six from hundreds of suggestions that came in from BBC listeners.

So – please vote here before noon GMT on Friday 6 October. Or you could hold your fire until next weekend (23 September) at which point we’ll have a special podcast covering the six shortlisted ideas.

And if you’d like to pick up a copy of the book, it has received some lovely reviews. It’s out now in the UK and in the US (with the title Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy).  Do feel free to order copies for all your friends…

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16th of September, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Monday – ideas about decision-making

A few interesting books have crossed my desk recently.

Garry Kasparov’s Deep Thinking (UK) (US) promises to reflect on “Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins”, although on that particular point it is not especially profound. Nevertheless Kasparov does say a lot that is interesting about innovation and risk-taking (like me he’s concerned that we’re favouring the marginal gain over riskier basic research) and there’s a terrific history of AI in chess. The heart of the book is an account of Kasparov’s battles with Deep Blue, and reads like a thriller. Great stuff.

Tali Sharot’s brand new The Influential Mind (UK) (US) discusses the social, emotional and rational cues that persuade us or deter us from taking action. It’s a familiar formula of anecdote, argument and research, but some of the research is new to me and it’s well-written and combined to good effect. Recommended.

Depressingly relevant at the moment is The Ostrich Paradox (UK) (US) by Meyer and Kunreuther; in a brief, expert book the author apply the cognitive biases literature (familiar from Kahneman and others) to disaster preparedness and crisis management. Very much focused on hurricanes and tsunamis but there’s much of relevance to other catastrophes (banking crises, industrial accidents) too.

 

And some great podcasts for your delectation. Tyler Cowen’s Conversations With Tyler is fascinating – he asks unusual and often revealing questions. The conversation with Kasparov was particularly good. Russ Roberts’s EconTalk is an old stalwart (I’ve been on twice with another appearance scheduled) but it’s often excellent. Two recent episodes – with John McWhorter on language and Benedict Evans on self-driving electric cars – were superb, perhaps because only tangentially related to economics.

 

Meanwhile the US edition of Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy is out as of six days ago. Buy, buy! A few more days available to suggest what the 51st invention should be (details here) or pick up the UK edition here.

 

 

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4th of September, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Publication Day!

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Loyal readers will be aware that the UK edition of Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy is already out (under a subtly different name) but I’m delighted to announce publication of the US edition today. Enjoy! The Wall Street Journal says that the book is “great fun” and while Kirkus says it’s “hard to resist”, and who am I to argue?

Thank you to everyone who’s pre-ordered a copy or reviewed it somewhere on the internet. It’s a great day to order another copy or three for all your friends via Amazon, your local bookshop – or wherever you get your books. More details here.

I loved writing this book and I hope you love reading it.

29th of August, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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What underrated idea or invention most shaped the modern economy?

It’s been such fun working on the radio series and book Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy – but one of the frustrations was all the fascinating ideas, inventions and stories that I couldn’t squeeze into the book.

I get another bite of the cherry now: the BBC is inviting suggestions for a special episode: one more thing that shaped the economic forces that surround us and changed the way we live, spend or work. Full details here, but the gist is: please send your suggestions to email hidden; JavaScript is required (or the BBC World Service Twitter or Facebook accounts) by noon GMT on Friday 8 September. (Please don’t tweet at me directly – I will almost certainly miss your suggestion, which would be a shame.)

Please search your brains for the surprising and the overlooked. The original list of 50 didn’t include the motor car or the computer, so of course we could do that – but I suspect there’s a more intriguing story to tell.

There are more details about the book here – it’s out now in the UK and next week in the US (with the title Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy).  Do feel free to order copies for all your friends…

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21st of August, 2017MarginaliaRadioComments off
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Remembering the holocaust

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading some books about the holocaust. I never dreamed that all this would become so relevant.

Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Maus (UK) (US) is brilliant, devastating, and occasionally very funny. Spiegelman’s father and mother, Vladek and Anja, survived Auschwitz against dreadful odds. Anja later killed herself. The contrast between the elderly Vladek – weak, needy, apparently socially clueless – and the younger Vladek – strong, ingenious, and socially nimble – is striking. And the details come alive in Spiegelman’s brutally direct telling.

Elie Wiesel’s Night (UK) (US) seems to be required reading in the US but I’d not read it until recently. It’s simple, excellent, unremittingly bleak. I think the figure of Moishe the Beadle – who has witnessed an atrocity but cannot get any of his fellow Jews to believe him – is the most tragic I’ve ever encountered. Grim and brilliant.

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning (UK) (US) has, I’m told, changed people’s lives. Like Wiesel, Frankl survived life the camps. Unlike Wiesel he has a message of inspiration and redemption. It’s an interesting contrast. (Both books are very short.)

Then there’s Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. (UK) (US) It’s heartbreaking.

I’m glad I read these books. I’ll be reading others – histories as well as memoirs.

17th of August, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Three great books about getting the important things done

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about getting things done, and at the top of my list is Cal Newport’s remarkable book Deep Work. (US) (UK) Newport makes a persuasive case that our success in the world of work is often dependent on the amount of time we can devote to serious, deep thinking. This isn’t true for every job, of course, but it’s true for many. (Management is an obvious exception, an example of a knowledge-economy job that requires decisiveness and judgement rather than depth.)

One thing I appreciated about Newport’s book is that while he’s uncompromising in his belief that deep work is essential both for productivity and for happiness, he’s quite flexible in his understanding of how it’s to be achieved, and gives a variety of examples from Walter Isaacson, who seemed to be able to snatch focused time in twenty-minute chunks, to coder-hermits who shun email and deal with most mail in quarterly.

Another powerful observation – one that hit home for me – is that for many of us, the productivity-sink isn’t watching YouTube videos or gossiping on Snapchat. It’s ostensibly-serious stuff like emails and meetings. Email, in particular, is a severe temptation for me – I find it easy and it feels and looks like work. Swift, decisive email etiquette feels very professional – but all too often it’s just an excuse for avoiding the real work.

Deep Work is a brilliant book and I unreservedly recommend it.

 

For a playful take on related themes, I turned to Robert Twigger’s wonderful little book Micromastery. (US) (UK) Twigger – among other things an explorer, prize-winning poet, and Aikido master – makes the case for mastering many deep-but-narrow skills. Learn how to do an Eskimo roll, or a racing turn, or how to draw a smooth circle by hand. Don’t aim to become a brilliant cook; start instead by mastering the omelette. Twigger offers a cornucopia of little tricks – the kind of thing that you might find in a “how to amaze your friends and win bar bets” book – but far more interesting and compelling is his idea of micromastery, which he sees as empowering (because you remember how to learn and discover), as a source of creativity (because you acquire an ever-larger range of insights) and as a step towards broader mastery (because learning one narrow skill well is a fun, motivating way to begin in a new field). A really fun book – and a wise idea explained well.

Micromastery also bridges an apparent conflict between Deep Work and my own book Messy, which sings the praises of switching from one project to another. Twigger argues that if you want to go deep you need variety: master something narrow, but when you feel yourself getting jaded, switch to something else. Day by day you are focused, but month by month or year by year, your experiences and skills are varied.

 

I could hardly finish this without a shout-out for David Allen’s Getting Things Done. (US) (UK) (Not to be confused with Ed Bliss’s classic of the same name (US) (UK) – a great book too, if somewhat dated.) Allen’s book is inelegantly-written and has always felt wordy – but it’s been a huge success because it works. The central ideas of GTD are: take vague incoming issues (a phone message, an email, a meeting, an idea that pops into your head) and turn then into some specific next action, then write the next action down somewhere where you’re confident you’ll see it when you need it. This stops your subconscious constantly churning over the issue.

That makes GTD sound simple and in many ways it is. But in the messy reality of modern work it’s often easier to appreciate the principle than to make it work in practice. I don’t follow every piece of David Allen’s advice but I follow a lot, because it’s smart, practical and useful stuff.

My new book is “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” – out last week in the UK and coming soon in the US. Grab yourself a copy in the US (slightly different title) or in the UK or through your local bookshop.

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19th of July, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Publication Day!

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For those of us who aren’t J.K. Rowling, publication day is a slightly soft concept. None of this opening bookstores at midnight, or releasing at 3.35pm in order not to disrupt school – alas.
Still, it’s always a good day for the hard-working author, and sometime around now copies of “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” will be available on the UK Amazon website and in your local bookshop – if you live in the UK. You may also wish to come along to one of the talks I’m giving.
I loved writing this book and I hope you love reading it. Thanks!

6th of July, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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I’m giving some talks. Come along!

50things-hb-uk-205x300A few upcoming talks, mostly about my new bookFifty Things That Made the Modern Economy. (UK) (US). Do come along if you can!

Interviewing Owain Service at Waterstones Piccadilly on 20 June 2017, 7pm. (Owain’s book, “Think Small“, is great.)

The UK launch of  Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy at HowTo Academy, Conway Hall, 5 July 2017, 7pm.

Talking about Messy at OffGrid, Osea Island, 10 July 2017.

In conversation with the very smart Rohan Silva at Second Home, 19 July 2017, 7pm.

Talking about Messy and Fifty Things at the Edinburgh International Book Festival7.15pm 22nd August.

Talking about “What We Get Wrong About Technology” (inspired by Fifty Things) at the FT Weekend Festival, Kenwood House, London 2 September 2017.

Opining on “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” at the Cheltenham Literature Festival at 5.30pm, Friday 6 October 2017. (details tbc)

The US editionFifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, will be out in late August. I’ll keep you posted!

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12th of June, 2017MarginaliaSpeechesComments off
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Undercover Monday 3

Books of the week

I read Elie Wiesel’s Night – his account of surviving Auschwitz. It’s a simple and powerful book, almost unbearable. I picked it up in a Bodleian Library reading room and for an hour or so, while I read, I was completely unaware of everything going on around me. Brilliant and horrifying. Everybody should read it. (UK) (US)

One thing that will stay with me was the desperation of Moishe, who knows what’s coming – but the Jews of Hungary simply cannot bring themselves to believe him. Wishful thinking triumphs. And the chilling words of a fellow prisoner to Wiesel: “I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.”

 

Totally different in tone is an academic treatment of another serious topic, Alan Krueger’s What Makes A Terrorist? (UK) (US). It’s a useful antidote to the hysteria. Of course, I understand why people are terrorised by terrorists; that’s the whole point. I think we might expect more from our politicians, though. Here’s Krueger’s own take on his own book.

 

As an escape from all that, I’ve been reading Lloyd Alexander’s magnificent fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain – available as five separate short novels or in a collected volume. (UK) (US). I can’t recommend them highly enough – simple enough for children to enjoy, but pacy, direct, full of imaginative twists. And the themes resonate into adulthood – for example, how does a child become an adult? Should we try to shield people from their own mistakes, or do they need to learn painful or even tragic lessons? I’ll be discussing the books soon on the Fictoplasm podcast.

 

On My Pile

Erik Barker: Barking up the wrong tree (UK) (US) – a guide to the latest and greatest in applied behavioural science.

Steve Mould: How To Be a Scientist (UK) (US) – fun science projects for children, but this one is a cut above the normal offering.

Tom Butler-Bowden: 50 Economics Classics (UK) (US) – TBB takes a broad view both of “economics” and “classic” here; for instance Naomi Klein is in here. But breadth is what you want from such a collection, I think.

Andrew Lo: Adaptive Markets (UK) (US) – Lo is a legend, looking forward to this, and to comparing it with the latest from another brilliantly original thinker…

Richard Bookstaber: The End Of Theory (UK) (US).

 

Recommended listening

Macro Musings interviews Paul Krugman.

Alphachat discusses the amazing Albert O Hirschman.

99 per cent Invisible does a live stage show about the Alaska Earthquake. It’s magnificent work.

And Soul Music is back. Best thing on BBC Radio.
My new book is “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” – coming soon! If you want to get ahead of the curve you can pre-order in the US (slightly different title) or in the UK or through your local bookshop.

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5th of June, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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  • Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy
  • Messy
  • The Undercover Economist Strikes Back
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