If it doesn’t fit anywhere else, it’s here.
James Surowiecki’s modern classic The Wisdom of Crowds (UK) (US) set a very high bar for the field. (Why has James not written another book?) This is one of those books that gets talked about a lot, with the emphasis on the idea that the average opinion of the crowd can be very smart indeed – hence prediction markets, etc. etc. etc. All that is true and interesting, but in fact Surowiecki discusses lots of other situations where a group needs to make a decision and covers groupthink and all that good stuff. In short it is a messier and more complex – and also deeper and more interesting – book than many people realise. Well worth a read, or a re-read.
Then there’s Philip Ball’s superb book Critical Mass (UK) (US) – which really lit my fire when I read it back in 2005. Ball’s book asks what social scientists can learn from ideas in physics and chemistry about how large groups of decision-makers behave. Lots and lots of interesting ideas and good stories. A good alternative, although I do not recall it so vividly, there is Steven Strogatz’s Sync (UK) (US); it has been commercially successful so the wisdom of crowds suggests you might take it seriously.
Michelle Baddaley’s new book Copycats and Contrarians (UK) (US) is a good accessible survey of what different academic disciplines have to say about herding, fashion, group dynamics and all such things. I blurbed the book and said, “‘A wide-ranging cross-disciplinary perspective of why we run with–or avoid–the crowd, and why it matters, from choosing a restaurant in a tourist trap to believing fake news. I learned a lot, and you may too.”
Then on the psychology of group decision-making there is Wiser (UK) (US) by Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie. I love this book – my favourite by Sunstein, even better than Nudge. Lots of fascinating ideas about polarisation, echo chambers – and plenty of intriguing research.
Or, try Scott Page’s The Diversity Bonus (UK) (US). Page writes with great clarity about complex ideas in algorithms and complexity science, so you’ll learn a lot about those subjects. But the book is also an excellent argument in favour of embracing cognitive diversity in problem-solving teams.
My own book Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World discusses group dynamics and creative friction in the second chapter, and that’s one of the chapters that seems to have struck a chord with readers.
Come for the complex network analysis of the teams which made the best computer games in history, stay for the mind-blowing “Lord of the Flies” research into 10 year old boys at summer camp. The book is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.
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You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of algorithms about these days, doing everything from recommending a walking route to figuring out how to beat the world’s best players at Go. But what are they, really, how do they work, and how will they change the world?
I’ve read some excellent books recently on the subject and have a few recommendations.
For a fun and memorable discussion of how specific algorithms work (even how you might use them yourself to sort out your sock drawer or find a nice apartment) then try Algorithms to Live By (UK) (US) by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. I enjoyed this book very much, although not quite as much as Brian Christian’s The Most Human Human (UK) (US), which is all about how to have a better conversation, whether you’re a human or a bot. It’s one of my favourite books, ever.
On the economic and social implications of artificial intelligence, I strongly recommend Prediction Machines (UK) (US), by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb. Since I wrote “What We Get Wrong About Technology”, I’ve been telling people not to overlook simple, cheap innovations (paper, the shipping container, concrete). Space travel and supercomputers get all the press. Just being cheap doesn’t. But being cheap can transform the world. “Prediction Machines” gratifyingly chimes with this idea: the authors argue that artificial intelligence is best thought of as a way of producing super-cheap predictions; predicting what you might buy, predicting whether a shadow on a scan is cancer, predicting what the Japanese translation of this sentence might be.
Implication 1: good predictions reduce uncertainty, and lots of things we do are a response to uncertainty. For example, freezers (uncertainty about what and when I will want to cook) Airport lounges (uncertainty about how long it will take me to get to the airport means I show up early). AI is therefore bad for airport lounges.
Implication 2: sufficiently good predictions are game-changers. If Amazon’s recommendation engine gets good enough, they can take the risk of shipping me stuff I haven’t yet bought.
Implication 3: “judgement” becomes an important complement to predictions. How bad is a false positive when I predict a fraudulent credit card transaction and annoy my platinum card holder? What about a false positive diagnosis of cancer?
Implication 4: AI rarely replaces an entire human job directly. It tends to replace specific tasks – small slices of what we think of as a job. Reimagining/reengineering workflow will be an important competitive advantage.
As a bonus, the book has lots of good examples and is written clearly. I learned a lot.
For a sceptical take on the limits and the toxic side-effects of machine learning, there’s Cathy O’Neil’s passionate, political and very readable Weapons of Math Destruction (UK) (US) or the new book Artificial Unintelligence (UK) (US) by Meredith Broussard, which I have barely skimmed but seems to contain a very good mix of storytelling, history and technical ideas. Promising.
Finally, I’ve been fortunate enough to read the manuscript of Hello World (UK) (US) – out in September – by Hannah Fry. This is really a superb overview: lots of good stories, clear explanations, and it’s wide-ranging. I think if you want a general guide to the new world of data-driven computing you couldn’t do much better than this.
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I recently reviewed the excellent Factfulness (UK) (US) by the late Hans Rosling, his son Ola and his daughter-in-law Anna. It’s an absolutely terrific, inspiring, and wise book, which among many other things is likely to make you feel better about the world. This is not because everything is rosy, but because most people’s perceptions of the world are badly skewed by a mixture of outdated ideas, dramatic media stories, and our own instincts to spot the worst and most frightening facts about the world. Hence “Factfulness” is a relaxing condition.
Bravo – everyone should read this book. But there are some others to look out for.
Charles Kenny, in Getting Better (UK) (US), also points to dramatic progress in achieving some (not all) of the goals that really matter, and in showing the connections between economic growth and progress on health, education, freedom and happiness. He also explores what else needs to be done to get the most out of development aid and to make development work for everyone; this is a nice complement to Factfulness, which is more focused on helping people understand the world.
Steven Pinker, in Enlightenment Now (UK) (US) also reviews this progress. But where Pinker differentiates himself is in Better Angels of Our Nature (UK) (US), which even for an optimist like me is surprising in its message that violence, torture and cruelty – measured in a variety of ways – has been in widespread decline for centuries. Well worth your attention, and I found Pinker persuasive in rebutting many of the obvious objections.
Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell (UK) (US) takes a different tack, telling stories of the way people respond to disasters such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina or the Blitz. Solnit argues that the famous “stiff upper lip” is a common response across communities. We scare each other with tales of looting and anarchy, but in fact most communities pull together.
One of the best and most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read – although sadly it did not make me feel as good about the world as the others – is David Mackay’s Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air (UK) (US). David, who died far too young, goes step by step through the way we consume and produce energy, teaching us how to make estimates, what really matters, and what the most promising sustainable energy sources might be. Spoiler alert: sustainable energy will probably involve some very hard choices. Utterly brilliant book and it is available online as a free resource.
I suppose I should mention my own Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy (UK) (US) – although I don’t see the book as making an argument for progress as such, it’s impossible to ponder the list of ideas and inventions, from the contraceptive pill to the cold chain, the S-bend to the light bulb, without feeling grateful for those who went before us. It’s true that barbed wire was a bit of a mixed blessing and leaded petrol was an unmitigated disaster – but still, where would we be without paper, or beautiful beautiful concrete? A French journalist told me that the book put me squarely in the category of optimistic Anglo-Saxons, so there.
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(Business seals; Rishengchang Museum.)
Not long ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Rishengchang in Pingyao – which I tentatively understand to be the oldest “draft” bank in China, allowing merchants to send money across the nation. Pingyao is well worth a visit, if ever happen to be in that part of China. It put me to thinking about some fine histories of money and banking I’ve read in the past few years.
I knew a little about the Chinese system of Feiquan or “flying money” from reading William Goetzmann’s excellent Money Changes Everything (UK) (US), which has a vast trove of material on money and finance in China.
For another magisterial take on money and banking, try Felix Martin’s Money: An Unauthorised Biography (UK) (US). Martin writes deftly and his book, especially the first half of it, is packed with fascinating historical anecdote and colour.
For a take on banking in the great depression, try Lords of Finance (UK) (US) by Liaquat Ahamed. This book won the FT’s Business Book of the Year award a few years back – a riveting account of how the Great Depression could have been prevented, and wasn’t.
And for the present and future of banking, I strong recommend John Kay’s Other People’s Money (UK) (US), which begins with the question: if we were designing a financial system to do what we say a financial system is supposed to do, would it look anything like Wall Street today? (Spoiler: the answer is no.) Kay is an elegant writer, a well-informed historian and a superb economist. This is a terrific book.
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“I use normal statistics that are compiled by the World Bank and the United Nations. This is not controversial. These facts are not up for discussion. I am right and you are wrong.”
That was Hans Rosling, delivering a celebrated smackdown on Danish television to a journalist with an excessively gloomy view of the world. And although the quote displays just one facet of the the late Professor Rosling, it isn’t a bad place to start in considering his posthumous book, Factfulness (UK) (US). Rosling takes something rather ordinary – “normal statistics” – and turns it into a passionate, witty, and encouraging view of the world that also happens to be far more realistic than the “realists” have to offer.
Hans Rosling – perhaps most famous for a series of hugely popular TED talks – was the greatest and most versatile communicator I ever met. He would use spectacular graphics, but also props such as jugs of juice, bayonets (for his sword-swallowing demonstrations) and rolls of toilet paper. He was a magnificent storyteller, an inspiring guide to a complex world, and – when the situation demanded it – could display flashes of righteous anger. He was also much more than a showman: he spent long periods of time living in poorer countries and working for underfunded healthcare systems across the world, most recently participating in the fight against Ebola in Liberia.
Factfulness was co-written with his daughter-in-law Anna and his son Ola, although it is in Hans’s distinctive voice. It is a wonderful guide to an improving world, as well as being a well-stocked source of sound advice as to how to think about factual and statistical claims. The book identifies ten often-unhelpful instincts, such as the Negativity instinct (we, and our media, find sudden bad news more interesting and memorable than slow-burn good news) or the Destiny instinct (we feel that some things never change – that, for example, Nigeria will always be poor for “cultural reasons”, when in fact all societies, including modern western societies, are constantly learning and changing). And it suggests antidotes or reality checks for these instincts.
This structure works well enough, but the real joy of the book is the string of surprising facts and unforgettable stories to illustrate them: the Tanzanian midwife whose dearest wish was for a torch, so that when walking barefoot at night to a birth she could spot snakes more easily; the time Hans Rosling’s student nearly lost a leg because she tried to keep open the door of an Indian elevator (which, unlike Swedish elevators, did not have a safety sensor fitted); Rosling nearly drowning in sewage (in Sweden); Rosling thinking on his feet to avoid eating lavae in Congo; Rosling being humbled by the quality of his fellow medical students in Bangalore; and Rosling confessing to numerous mistakes over the course of his life, some embarrassing and some tragic.
The book is a pleasure to read – simple, clear, memorable writing – and when you’ve finished you’ll be a lot wiser about the world. You’ll also feel rather happier, because while Hans Rosling has seen far more suffering and premature death than most of us ever will, he also saw that suffering and premature death are on the retreat almost everywhere. Hence, “Factfulness” – the relaxing peace of mind you get when you have a clearer view of how the world really is.
Meanwhile here is a programme about the fight against Ebola that we made with Hans a couple of years ago; here is a radio obituary; here is an interview I conducted with him on our first meeting; and here is my favourite Hans Rosling talk.
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I am, of course, not sure what the definition of “indy” really is these days, but I’ll leave that one to the philosophers.
I’ve written before about Can You Brexit? (Without breaking Britain) (UK) (US) – a fabulous, well-researched and very funny choose-your-own-story gamebook by Dave Morris and Jamie Thompson. It casts you in the role of the Prime Minister the morning after the Brexit referendum, in a parallel but highly-recognisable universe. (The leader of the Labour party is the dishevelled hard-leftist “Barry Scraggle”, while one of the leading Brexiters is the near-Edwardian “Tobias Tode”.) The book achieves two notable feats: it makes the chewy details of Brexit engaging, and one starts to sympathise – or at least empathise – with the plight of the Prime Minister who has the impossible task of keeping all sides happy.
For music, try the remarkable loops of Duotone, aka Barney Morse-Brown. It’s hypnotic, and he is the most astonishingly talented musician. (One of his side gigs, I believe, is that he plays cello for Birdy.) Ropes (UK) (US) was my introduction to Duotone, but his new album “A Life Reappearing” is out very soon – here’s the single, “Martha”.
I’m still loving Amazing Tales by Martin Lloyd, a lavishly illustrated, simple and elegant role-playing game for parents and young children to enjoy together – often in the time it might take to enjoy a bedtime story. My 6 year old has just created a new character, “Death Man”, whose special skills include “Smashing” and “Eating”. Marvellous. Martin has pared role-playing to its essentials, designed a system that involves rolling funny-shaped dice (indispensable), and offered many ideas for keeping things fast and fun and not too scary.
And while my podcast feed is packed with high-production-value shows assembled by large production teams with talented presenters, somehow whenever Futility Closet drops into the feed, I pause everything to listen to Greg and Sharon Ross chat about the latest quirky historical story, go through an increasingly thought-provoking mailbag, and solve a lateral thinking puzzle. Production values have improved, but the show still sounds a little amateurish in the best possible way. Unique, engaging, and well worth a listen.
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I’m often asked which economics books I recommend to someone who wants to get a good introduction to the subject. There are some obvious choices – a good textbook, for example – and of course I wrote The Undercover Economist (UK) (US) and The Undercover Economist Strikes Back (UK) (US) to be the very best introductions to microeconomics and macroeconomics I could manage.
But of course there’s so much more, and I wanted to make a few suggestions.
Thinking Strategically (UK) (US) by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff is the book that made me fall in love with economics. Without it I’d have dropped the subject completely at university. Thinking Strategically is an introduction to game theory – a mathematical analysis of human vs. human interaction from a tennis match to a salary negotiation. There’s not much maths in the book, but just enough to make the point. The writing is lively and the insights are full of counterintuitive wisdoms. Excellent stuff.
Money Changes Everything (UK) (US) by William Goetzmann was a real inspiration for the financial sections of Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy (UK) (US). Goetzmann goes deep into the history of financial ideas from money itself to insurance to banking. A detailed and scholarly book, but never a dull moment.
Hidden Order (UK) (US) by David Friedman is a brilliant alternative to a microeconomics textbook. Friedman is a libertarian – even more so than his father Milton – and the politics emerges from time to time in this book, but there’s no shame in that. It is scintillatingly clear about how economic theory fits together, and full of clever thought experiments. [EDIT 12 June 2018. Some people have asked, “Why not ‘The Armchair Economist’ by Steven Landsburg?” Well, why not indeed? It’s a superb book: (UK) (US). But I see it as a close substitute for Hidden Order; the two books share some of the same ideas and tone. I like them both very much.]
The Truth About Markets (UK) (US) by John Kay presents the flip side to Friedman: where Friedman sees simplicity, Kay warns that markets are a little messier and more socially embedded. Unlike many critics of classical economics, Kay understands exactly what he is chipping away at, and both the genius and the limits of the market. A wonderful book – and prescient in many ways.
Grand Pursuit (UK) (US) by Sylvia Nasar is a magisterial history of economic thought: Marshall, Robinson, Keynes, Fisher and the rest. A real education for a history-of-thought ignoramus like me. (On a similar theme, I’m looking forward to reading the brand new The Great Economists (UK) (US) by Linda Yueh, which looks good.)
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If you’ve been waiting for the UK publication of “Messy” in paperback, your patience has finally been rewarded! Sorry it’s taken so long; there was the small matter of an epic history of technology and economics to deal with along the way.
‘Utterly fascinating. Tim Harford shows that if you want to be creative and resilient, you need a little more disorder in your world. It’s a masterful case for the life-changing magic of cluttering up’ – Adam Grant
Messy is an exploration of not only of the joys of an untidy desk, but of improvisation, ambiguity, and perhaps most importantly, turning obstacles into ideas. It features Martin Luther King Jr, the jazz legends Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis, a group of near-murderous 11 year old boys, a host of malfunctioning sat-navs, Benjamin Franklin, a pugnacious chatbot, Le Corbusier, Stewart Brand, Brian Eno, and David Bowie. As you can imagine, I loved writing the book.
Take a look at my Messy-inspired reading list, and for a taste of the ideas and the storytelling in the book, try my TED talk:
‘It’s a very very good book, full of wise counterintuitions and clever insights.’ – Brian Eno
In honour of Mr Eno, your Oblique Strategies card for the day is “Humanise something free of error“.
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When I’m not writing about economics or talking about numbers, I’m having fun – which means playing games.
The standout at the moment is Amazing Tales by Martin Lloyd – a wonderful role-playing game for parents and young children. I have, from time to time, run role-playing games with simple systems (a favourite is the classic Dragon Warriors – currently available as a pay-what-you-want pdf). But somehow with young children the system always gets in the way; there are too many things to keep track of both for them and for me. Amazing Tales radically strips back the system (name four things that your character is good at doing, anything from “making friends” to “escaping”) and encourages gameplay that can easily be done in 15 minutes, snuggled up at bedtime instead of a story. My son (six) loves it. My daughter (11) enjoys the odd game too. Congratulations to Martin for figuring out how to make this work.
Best role-playing podcast? Feel free to suggest a few; I enjoy Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice when I’m in the mood for a slow burn. I’m sure there’s much more out there.
I endorsed – and absolutely loved – Dave Morris’s Can You Brexit Without Breaking Britain? (UK) (US) A Brexit gamebook sounds like satire, and there are certainly touches of satire here and there. But it is also an attempt to get to do something our politicians haven’t done, and get to grips with the details of Brexit. From the customs union to citizen’s rights, how do you manage the negotiations while keeping the voters happy? (Or are you secretly planning to reverse the decision? The choice is yours.) Deal with the aging leftist leader of the opposition, Barry Scraggle, and the Edwardian darling of Brexiters, Tobias Tode. It’s very funny, very well-researched, and very difficult to complete. Enjoy!
Speaking of Dave Morris gamebooks, his series with Oliver Johnson, Blood Sword (bad title, great books) is perhaps the most ambitious and best series of gamebooks ever written – and back in print. You can play solo or with a small group; the plot is excellent, the setting full of atmosphere, and there’s even a satisfying combat and magic system. (UK) (US)
If you want to read about the time I interviewed Michael Lewis over a game of St Petersburg, here’s the piece; if you want to read about the time I went to the boardgames festival in Essen and spoke to the creator of Settlers, Klaus Teuber, I’ve got your back.
But if you just want my boardgame recommendations, then:
- Agricola is the best boardgame ever made, although it takes time to chew over the rules and time to play. Works well for two as well as larger groups; my wife and I play and play and play. (UK) (US)
- Puerto Rico is also the best boardgame ever made, and the same caveats apply. Quite similar to Agricola, tactically it is perhaps even more interesting. (UK) (US)
- Carcassonne is a magnificent entry-level game; quick, easy to play, satisfying domino-style mechanic. Also, it has the original Meeples. (UK) (US)
- Settlers of Catan is the modern classic – the game that Monopoly wishes it was. If you’ve never played a modern boardgame perhaps this should be the one. (UK) (US)
- Dominion is a game I keep coming back to. My 11-year old particularly likes it; it’s quick; the expansions are actually good rather than distractions. And as a bonus, it is easy to handicap by tweaking the opening hands. (UK) (US)
- For sheer Germanic atmosphere, Shadows in the Forest is your perfect family game. For a start, you need to play by candlelight in near total darkness. Also, adorable dwarves hide behind trees. Glorious. (UK) (US)
Viviane Schwarz’s “Welcome To Your Awesome Robot” (UK) (US) is fantastic, if you can get your hands on a copy. It’s a splendidly conceived book explaining how to turn a cardboard box into a robot. Every now and then – when a suitable box arrives – this book comes out, along with sticky tape and scissors and other accessories. An afternoon of fun is guaranteed.