Tim Harford The Undercover Economist


If it doesn’t fit anywhere else, it’s here.


Publication day… again!

My UK publishers, Little Brown, have decided to release “Messy” a little earlier than planned – by popular demand, they tell me. If you were one of the people who pre-ordered a copy and helped to trigger that decision, thank you!

Official publication date is this Thursday, but I’m told the books should be arriving in bookshops from Monday. You can also order online – I’d expect the books to start shipping almost immediately.

Meanwhile a couple of other bits of Messy news. The New York Times published a lovely review that made me excited about my own book! The reviewer, Maria Konnikova, really understood what I was trying to say, which doesn’t always happen.

“Harford’s argument goes beyond aesthetics, resurfacing over and over in his engrossing narrative, from music (Brian Eno’s oblique strategies defying all convention, which resulted in David Bowie’s album “Heroes”) to tweeting (the non-prescriptivist response of the British telecom company O2 to a power outage). During World War II, Gen. Erwin Rommel’s messy autonomy allowed him to succeed against great odds: Even when the British had broken Germany’s codes, they couldn’t predict his actions. They had no idea that he would disobey direct orders; neither, of course, did his superiors. “Life cannot be controlled. Life itself is messy,” Harford writes. When we try to be rigid in response, the result is a messy failure.”

Another review appeared in The Economist:

“Mr Harford’s book strays well beyond mess of the physical sort (though he devotes a whole section to railing against oppressive tidy-desk policies, which he argues disempower workers and make them unproductive). Most of the book is about other types of mess: randomness, experimentation and human autonomy… “Messy” masterfully weaves together anecdote and academic work.”

And an extract from Messy about the perils of automationappeared in the Guardian.

I also wrote a feature article in praise of messy desks in the Financial Times.

I’ll stop now. Column to appear right here on Wednesday as usual.

17th of October, 2016MarginaliaComments off

A Messy Reader

While I was writing Messy I started to find inspiration in the strangest places, many of which have been rather wonderfully explored by others. For your interest – or perhaps because you’ve read “Messy” and want to go deeper – here are a few suggestions for further reading and listening.


On Music

Kind of Blue by Ashley Kahn (US) (UK) – and of course you should listen to the album. (US) (UK).

Starman by Paul Trynka (US) (UK) – ideally accompanied by a dose of “Heroes” (US) (UK) and Music for Airports (US) (UK).

Listen to this documentary about Keith Jarrett’s concert in Cologne, and then listen to The Koln Concert (US) (UK) and marvel.


On Creative Prodigies

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (US) (UK) is a fascinating book about Paul Erdos, while Ed Yong wrote a great feature about Erez Lieberman Aiden.


On Architecture

Warren Berger’s Lost in Space is the perfect source on Chiat Day’s open plan experiment, but since Messy went to press Planet Money did a great episode on the subject too.

On Building 20, watch Stewart Brand’s remarkable series How Buildings Learn, read the book (US) (UK) and also check out Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker article.


On Martin Luther King

Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters (US) (UK) was the biography that stuck with me, and I found out about the Rev Dr King’s improvisations from James C Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism (US) (UK).


On battlefield improvisers

Brad Stone’s The Everything Store (US) (UK) is now definitive on Amazon’s early years; David Fraser’s Knight’s Cross (US) (UK) was a key source on Erwin Rommel, and I fell in love with Virginia Cowles’s The Phantom Major (US) (UK).


On the paradox of automation

William Langewiesche and Jeff Wise both wrote compelling accounts of the tragedy of Flight 447 – perhaps even more striking in radio form courtesy of 99% Invisible.


On dating, parenting and the art of conversation

Start with Kevin Poulsen’s account of how a maths genius hacked OK Cupid, move on to Hanna Rosin’s Overprotected Kid, but most of all read Brian Christian’s masterful book The Most Human Human (US) (UK).


On the microbiome

Emily Eakin has written two terrific pieces for the New Yorker.


On mess in general 

A Perfect Mess (UK) by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman is a lovely, playful book – particularly on the subject of decluttering and messy desks. For a bigger picture on the upside of mess, read two of the greatest works of the twentieth century, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (US) (UK) by Jane Jacobs and Seeing Like A State (US) (UK) by James C Scott.


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8th of October, 2016MarginaliaComments off

Publication Day!

messy-us-coverAfter five years of gestation, my new book, Messy, is finally out in the US.

I grappled with the way Martin Luther King’s speechmaking style evolved from careful preparation to impromptu genius. I tried to tease out the connections between the brilliant panzer commander Erwin Rommel, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, and the primary campaign of Donald Trump. I interviewed Stewart Brand about the world’s most creative messy building – and Brian Eno about the way David Bowie would reject perfection in favour of something flawed and interesting every time.

I loved writing this book.

If you’re interested in reading it, you can order it here from Amazon – or find other bookseller links and information here. (You can also pre-order UK copies.) And when you get your hands on a copy then please consider reviewing the book on sites such as Amazon or Goodreads. It does help.

Thanks! Normal service resumed tomorrow with a column about why our lives need a little more randomness.

4th of October, 2016MarginaliaComments off

Autumnal reading

Some exciting books coming along soon. I urge you to buy David Bodanis’s new book Einstein’s Greatest Mistake. (US) (UK) I read it in an earlier draft and it’s a wonderful, fresh and readable take on one of the most fascinating lives in science.

Later in the autumn, Steven Johnson launches Wonderland (US) (UK) – a book about how play shaped the modern world. Bravo for the concept, Johnson’s previous books are smart and thought-provoking and the associated podcast series has been great so far.

Alex Bellos offers us Can You Solve My Problems? – self-recommending for Christmas. Alex’s puzzles in the Guardian have been delightful and he’s a terrific writer. (US) (UK)

Hannah Fry and Thomas Evans, also self-recommending for Christmas, give us the mathematics of the season with The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus (US) (UK)

If you can’t wait for any of them, try Adam Grant’s Originals (US) (UK) – the TED talk gives a good sense of the book, which is excellent.

Finally, I should perhaps mention that my own book, Messy (US) (UK), is coming soon. More details here.

Advanced orders are helpful for all authors to alert booksellers to demand, so show these folks some love!

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15th of September, 2016MarginaliaComments off

Some good books

I recently re-read Marc Levinson’s modern classic, “The Box” (US) (UK) – a history of how the shipping container made the modern world. Scholarly yet very readable. Levinson has a new book “An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy”. (US) (UK)

As a not-very-good photographer married to a very good photographer, I’ve been loving “Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus”. (US) (UK) Witty and accessible guide to modern photography.

A wholehearted recommendation for my colleague John Kay’s “Other People’s Money”. (US) (UK) John is trying to imagine what banking and finance would look like if we had the chance to redesign from scratch. This is a wise and witty book – angry too, as only someone who truly understands what’s going on can be angry. Strongly recommended.

Ed Yong’s brilliant debut “I Contain Multitudes” (US) (UK) will tell you all you need to know about the microbiome and all that jazz.

Then there’s Peter Sims’s “Little Bets” (US) (UK) – a book that was published about the same time as “Adapt” with the same philosophy, but some different and brilliant examples and case studies. I remember distinctly reading through it and thinking “exactly right!” and “I wish I’d put it like that…”

And if that’s not enough for you, you could always pre-order my new book, “Messy“. (US) (UK) More about that to follow soon…

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30th of August, 2016MarginaliaComments off

Summer reading 2016

A few recent recommendations – and old favourites.

CityAM asked me to recommend an economics book – any economics book. So I went for “Thinking Strategically” (UK) (US), which is an all-time favourite of mine.

I wrote, “It’s the book that first attracted me to economics and one that I find myself recommending over and over again. Thinking Strategically is a guide to using game theory to succeed in business and in life. And what is game theory? Game theory was devised by the economist Oskar Morgenstern and John von Neumann, one of the great mathematical geniuses of the twentieth century. It’s a way of thinking through problems where you are competing or cooperating with others: how should Andy Murray decide whether to serve to the backhand or forehand? Where should you try to rendezvous in New York if you’ve lost your friend and your phone is out of battery? When faced with a competitor, should you raise your prices or lower them? Dixit and Nalebuff produced a fun and fascinating guide to a fun and fascinating topic.”

If you want to know more about Von Neumann and the history of game theory, you could do much worse than William Poundstone’s excellent book, “Prisoner’s Dilemma” (UK) (US). (Poundstone has a new book out, “Head in the Cloud” (UK) (US).)

I enjoyed Manu Saadia’s “Trekonomics”, but would have enjoyed it more if I was really into Star Trek. It’s smart but I think it’s best suited to real Trekkies who want to learn new economics, rather than economists who want to learn about Star Trek. (UK) (US)

I read a lot of books about improvisation while researching my new book “Messy“. There’s Keith Johnstone’s classic, “Impro” (UK) (US) but the book I enjoyed the most was Patricia Ryan Madison’s short, simple and wise “Improv Wisdom” (UK) (US). If you’ve any interest at all, try them both.

Finally, a boardgame recommendation: “Thunderbirds” (UK) (US). Great cooperative game, by the designer of and inspired by Pandemic. But of course it’s better, because it has Thunderbird Two in it.

Or if you fancy reading one of my books, try The Logic of Life.




13th of August, 2016MarginaliaComments off

What I’ve been reading in June

In between all that Brexit, I’ve read some cracking books of late.

TED Talks by Chris Anderson. I wrote a piece about the book here; as a person who devours books about public speaking, this is by far the best I’ve seen. Bravo. (US) (UK)

The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton. (US) (UK) Fascinating take on the history of technology, pointing out that the innovations that make the headlines aren’t necessarily the ones that really make a difference. All hail to concrete and the bicycle!

On a similar topic but a more upbeat vein, How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson is jolly good. Much I did not know here. (US) (UK)

Other People’s Money by John Kay is a magnificent book – witty, penetrating and wise. All about the gap between what the financial sector does and what it could and should do – but by someone who really understand the sector in some depth. (US) (UK)

Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. (US) (UK) This one is very good too: using computer science to help understand how to get a date, how to sort a bookshelf, how to find an apartment, how to tidy your desk, etc. etc. You learn a lot about computer science and a fair bit of self-help too. It’s not quite as good as Brian Christian’s The Most Human Human (US) (UK) but since that’s perhaps the best book I’ve read all decade, no big deal.

Or if you fancy reading one of my books, I’m rather proud of The Undercover Economist Strikes Back.

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11th of July, 2016MarginaliaComments off

What I’ve been reading in May

Angela Duckworth’s new book Grit (US) (UK) – you can read some of my thoughts here. Enjoyable, but not the best book I read this month; if you liked the TED talk you’ll like the book.

Felix Martin’s superb book Money (US) (UK) – some wonderful stories about the evolution of key pieces of financial technology from the tally stick to international banking. A surprisingly light read for a learned book. Strongly recommend.

Equally strong recommendation for William Goetzmann’s Money Changes Everything (US) (UK) – this is a more technical history of finance from Uruk to Rome and beyond. Smaller print, heavier read, but still full of fascinating nuggets and extremely well researched.

I’ve been enjoying Will Gompertz’s Think Like an Artist (US) (UK) which teaches you a lot of art and art history under the guise of a self-help manual. Very nicely done.

Mark Miodownik’s Stuff Matters (US) (UK) is a clever reflection on material sciences. I loved the chapter on concrete, which tells you something about his lightness of touch.

Next on the pile, Robert Gordon’s magisterial The Rise and Fall of American Growth. (US) (UK) Self-recommending; I’ve not read it yet but must hasten.

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28th of May, 2016MarginaliaComments off

What I’ve been reading in April

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman.  A short book arguing in favour of a universal basic income (and a few other things, but the UBI stuff is easily the most interesting). I’m not totally convinced by the proposal – the arithmetic of a UBI calls for some painful choices – but it’s an excellent read and full of well-told stories and details I didn’t know. (UK) (US)

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton – re-reading my favourite de Botton book. A fascinating and original reflection on how and why we travel – and whether we might find what we seek closer to home. (UK) (US)

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. A practical guide to living a creative life, by a brilliant, driven and entrepreneurial choreographer. I love the story of Twyla’s near-disastrous collaboration with Billy Joel, and often retell the story myself. (UK) (US)

You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney – a fun guide to cognitive errors and logical fallacies. I’ve been adoring the podcast of the same name. (UK) (US)

Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel. Okay, here’s the deal: everyone I know in radio is reading this book to learn how to be the next Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad or Roman Mars. And it’s good – very good. (UK) (US)

Or you may fancy one of my own books – for example, Adapt.


25th of April, 2016MarginaliaComments off

Three pieces of Brexit Bullshit

A referendum on UK membership of the European Union is scheduled for June 23: dodgy statistics ahoy.

“Ten Commandments — 179 words. Gettysburg address — 286 words. US Declaration of Independence — 1,300 words. EU regulations on the sale of cabbage — 26,911 words”

Variants of this claim have been circulating online and in print. It turns out that the “cabbage memo” is a longstanding urban myth that can be traced back to the US during the second world war. Variants have been used to berate bureaucrats on both sides of the Atlantic ever since.

Part of the bullshit here is that nobody ever stops to ask how many words might be appropriate for rules on fresh produce. Red Tractor Assurance, the British farm and food standards scheme, publishes 56 different protocols on fresh produce alone. The cabbage protocol is 28 pages long; there is a separate 28-page protocol on pak choi and choi sum. None of this has anything to do with the EU.

Three million jobs depend on the EU

This claim is popular among “Remain” advocates — most famously the former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. What makes this claim bullshit is that it could easily be true, or utterly false, and it all hangs on the definition of “depend”.

The claim is that “up to 3.2 million jobs” were directly linked to exports of goods and services to other EU countries. That number passes a quick reality check: it’s about 10 per cent of UK jobs, and UK exports to the EU are about 10 per cent of the UK economy.

But even if “up to” 3.2 million jobs depend on trade with the EU, that does not mean they depend on membership of the EU. Nobody proposes — or expects — that trade with the EU will just stop. Three million jobs might well be destroyed if continental Europe was to sink beneath the waves like Atlantis, but that is not what the referendum is about.

EU membership costs £55m a day

This one is from Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who says membership amounts to more than £20bn a year. In fact, the UK paid £14.3bn to the EU in 2014 and got £6bn back. The net membership fee, then, was £8.3bn, less than half Farage’s number.

But even the correct number is little use without context. It is, for example, just over 1 per cent of UK public spending. Not nothing, but not everything either. And non-member states such as Norway and Switzerland pay large sums to the EU to retain access to the single market, so Brexit would not make this bill disappear.

The membership fee is small relative to the plausible costs and benefits of EU membership, positive or negative. If EU membership is good for Britain then £8.3bn is cheap. And if the EU is holding Britain back, then a few billion on membership is the least of our worries.


Written as a sidebar for “How Politicians Poisoned Statistics“, and first published in the FT Magazine.

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16th of April, 2016MarginaliaOther WritingComments off


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