Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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Undercover Friday 6

I’ve been on the road, but a few recommendations…

Gameshow: Stephen “Freakonomics” Dubner is having a lot of fun with “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know“, a wonderfully nerdy gameshow podcast. I recorded an episode at 6th and I in Washington DC on Monday. Not sure when it will air, but what a wonderful atmosphere. And I got to meet this remarkable lady.

Podcast episode: I loved Sebastian Mallaby on macro-musings; fascinating detail on the life of Alan Greenspan. Mallaby’s Greenspan biography is The Man Who Knew (US, UK).

Books: I’ve been reading Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking (US, UK) (good, although more philosophical and less practical than I was expecting) and from Gilovich and Ross The Wisest One In The Room (US, UK) (popular social psychology; easy to read and plenty of stuff I didn’t know). Both recommended.

Long Read: I’m on the cover of the FT Magazine tomorrow with The Problem With Facts, a feature article on post-truth politics and why fact-checking is such a thankless task. Enjoy!

 

10th of March, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 5 – A healthy media diet

 

Pondering filter bubbles…

Is there, in fact, a filter bubble? Here’s the man who coined the term, Eli Pariser. We need to remember that the biggest filter bubble isn’t Facebook’s algorithm’s or Google’s personalised search. It’s you and me.

…coup or Keystone cops?

Here’s George Bush’s speechwriter David Frum on How to Build an Autocracy.  It’s a chilling read. So is the more excitable take that suggests last weekend was preparation for a coup. But there are two sides to every story, and here’s the view that what we’ve seen is just incompetence. Or perhaps there are three sides to every story: here’s the excellent Timothy Taylor describing the details of the “border adjustment tax” proposal. The tax looks like it’s punishing offshorers and encouraging exporters, although after the currency adjusts the main effect www.bestxanaxcomparison.com should be – if it works – to make tax harder to dodge. In other words, Donald Trump just proposed something that well-qualified mainstream economists think might work rather well.

 

Books

Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps (UK) (US) is a great read – a bit more philosophical and a bit less self-help than I was expecting. But in any case, good stuff.

And check out Michelle Baddeley’s Very Short Introduction to Behavioural Economics (UK) (US) – a good short survey covering lots of ideas and practical examples.

And another shout out to William Goetzmann’s Money Changes Everything (UK) (US)Fascinating book and a key source for my piece on the warrior-monks who invented banking.

My own book “Messy” is now out and available online in the US and UK.

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3rd of February, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 3 – Neroli

A brief post today, because I’ve been working hard on a book manuscript. Details to follow, but here’s a hint. I’ve had a wonderful time writing the book.

Nevertheless, a few bits of news and some links. I discussed the question “should economists be more like plumbers?” with my FT colleague Gemma Tetlow on Facebook Live.

Terrific feature article from Oliver Burkeman, Is Time Management Ruining Our LivesI don’t agree with every word (here are my 10 email commandments) but I think that there’s an enormous amount of wisdom underneath the clickbaity headline.

This week I’ve been reading For Whom the Bell Tolls (US) (UK). Turns out Hemingway can really write. Who knew?

And if these strange times are stressing you out, try Brian Eno’s Neroli. Magic. (US) (UK)

 

20th of January, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 2 – Resolutions and Recommendations

 

A resolution

My resolution this year is “more social, less social media”. I’m sure I’m not the only one. As we all know, social media can work wonders but it can also be addictive. And of course the comments can be toxic: it only takes one mean tweet to ruin anyone’s day. (Many people suffer far more than the occasional mean tweet, alas.) On the other hand, I continue to find email perfectly functional: when people email me to comment on what I’ve written or said, I don’t always agree but I usually learn something. And I do manage to read and respond to my email, which is quite impossible on Twitter or Facebook. I stopped trying a long time ago, realising that I would never write another book if I spent my time reading the mentions on Twitter.

If you’re trying to spend less time on social media too, the “Note to Self” podcast has had some good advice recently – particularly the episodes with Marina Abramovic. I believe in shaping your environment to help you. So: I don’t take my phone to bed with me, I don’t have Facebook on my phone, I’m logged out of Facebook on my computer so I don’t click over as a reflex, and I don’t have a “mentions” stream active on Tweetdeck. Every little helps. Meanwhile I’ll be trying to spend more time with my friends – in person, on the phone, even by letter.

On the other hand, if you’re loving your social media use, good for you. I’m on Facebook and Twitter – but email me if you actually want to get in touch.

 

Some recommendations

Debatable” was a life-changingly good episode of RadioLab. Please listen to it if you haven’t already – and then check out this interview with the journalist who reported the story, Abigail Keel.

My favourite gift from Father Christmas was the absolutely brilliant graphic novel Vision: Little Worse Than a Man (UK) (US). It’s about struggle of a superhuman artificial intelligence to live a normal suburban family life. Remarkable.

Check out Brad DeLong’s essay on secular stagnation if you want to become smarter.

I’ve been enjoying Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things (UK) (US) – a magisterial history of shopping and consumerism – and found myself going back yet again to Marc Levinson’s excellent The Box (UK) (US), a history of the shipping container. All part of the research for 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy.

 

And a review

I think most authors look at their reviews with trepidation; I certainly do. But occasionally the fear turns to joy. Writing in The Age, Peter Martin opines: “The best pop songs start by giving you what you want, and then build up to so much more… Now there’s Messy, a book that presents itself as an impossibly simple account of the virtues of a messy workspace, then builds to something extraordinary.”

What delighted me so much about the review was that Mr Martin saw exactly what I was hoping to do – but like any self-critical author I was always afraid that I hadn’t succeeded.

Enough self-promotion – have a good weekend.

13th of January, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday

I’m planning to post some semi-regular jottings on Friday afternoons. Enjoy!

Fifty Things that made the Modern Economy hits number one… To my delight, my new BBC radio series was the number one podcast in the UK at Christmas, according to iTunes. If you’ve not encountered it, please have a listen – they’re short stories about the inventions and ideas that surround us every day, and the lessons that they can teach us. Everything from concrete to the iPhone, the bar code to the elevator. If you do subscribe then please pop over to iTunes or wherever and review it – it’ll help other people to find the podcast.

Book of the Week: I’ve been reading the new edition of John Kay’s “The Long and the Short of It” (UK) (US). It’s an outstanding and practical guide to how financial markets work and how to invest in them without getting ripped off. Kay sets out several key principles – think about your portfolio as a whole, take the efficient markets hypothesis seriously but not literally, reducing charges is the simplest way to make money – but he also explains the economics behind these principles and produces copious suggestions for putting them into play. Kay knows an enormous amount about this and his writing is clear and sharp – if sometimes demanding. Strongly recommended.

Thomas Schelling.  Just before Christmas, Thomas Schelling died at the age of 95. I was fascinated by the range of his contributions to economics and to US strategic thought – and given that he was one of the fathers of nuclear arms control, it’s a particularly poignant moment. I interviewed Tom Schelling for the FT shortly after he was awarded the Nobel memorial prize, made a video about his famous “chessboard” model of segregation, and told a TED-style story about him for BBC radio. Perhaps my favourite Schelling book is Micromotives and Macrobehavior (UK) (US) – but they’re all good.

How disaster planning can help with New Year’s Resolutions: A few years ago, I discussed whether Schelling’s idea of a “commitment strategy” can help us keep New Year’s Resolutions. I suspect, however, that psychologist Gary Klein’s idea of the pre-mortem is particularly useful. Basically: after drawing up your resolution (or any other goal or project) spend some time imagining that it doesn’t work out, and exploring why that might have been. Very often, you’ll think of obvious stumbling blocks and figure out ways to avoid them.

Resource of the Week – The World Wealth and Income Database. The great Tony Atkinson died on New Year’s Day. (Here’s the FT obituary of Tony Atkinson.) Here’s the excellent resource that he helped to create, the World Wealth and Income Database – the first stop for people trying to understand in-country inequality.

Shameless plug. My new book “Messy” is available online in the US and UK or in good bookshops everywhere.

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6th of January, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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A Christmas reading list

A few books that I’ve been enjoying recently…

Lyonesse (US) (UK) by Jack Vance – I recently re-read this in preparation for a forthcoming discussion on the Fictoplasm podcast. It really is magnificent – the finest fantasy trilogy out there. Vance is witty, he’s inventive, and joyful. His bad guys are truly wicked, his heroes and heroines are compelling, and his fairies are utterly mysterious. The dialogue is as distinctive and enjoyable as anything in Tarantino.

The Undoing Project (US) (UK) by Michael Lewis. I have a review coming soon of this book in the Financial Times. It’s a biography of the great psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and it’s nearly perfect – an odd and unnecessary opening chapter, but just start at chapter two and you’ll love it. Kahneman and Tversky are fascinating characters; Kahneman won a Nobel memorial prize and wrote the excellent Thinking Fast and Slow (US) (UK). I thought I knew a fair bit about their collaboration but Lewis’s story is full of surprises and no small degree of tragedy.

Newly crossed my desk, Jonathan Portes’s 50 Ideas You Really Need To Know About Capitalism (US) (UK) is presented, as you might expect, in bite-sized chunks. No spellbinding narrative here but that was not the aim. Portes is knowledgeable and the chapters are sharp and clear and full of interesting nuggets.

And, I’ve mentioned it before but Steven Johnson’s Wonderland (US) (UK) is on form – a playful and surprising guide to how play, puzzles and delight have shaped innovation.

Einstein’s Greatest Mistake (US) (UK) by David Bodanis is a great short biography with some super storytelling.

And finally, it would be perverse of me to omit my own book, Messy. Happy reading!

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6th of December, 2016MarginaliaComments off
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What I’m reading

Steven Johnson’s Wonderland is out this week. It’s vintage Johnson, a fascinating and surprising guide to the history of innovation. Johnson is focusing on the role of delight and play in producing new ideas – from the desire for Indian calico to the tinkering of MIT’s computer gamers. Strongly recommended. (US) (UK)

I loved Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game – Konnikova is a great storyteller and completely in touch with the psychological literature. This book explains why we fall in love with con-men. Topical. And it’s an excellent book. (US) (UK)

Dan Ariely’s new short book Payoff offer Dan’s usual combination of wit, wisdom and memorable experiments. I enjoyed it a lot. (US) (UK)

And one from the archives – I spoke on a panel last week with the remarkable Paul Seabright and was reminded just what a superb book Company of Strangers is. Seabright asks the question – how did we evolve from being violent, suspicious apes to a species capable of amazing feats of cooperation and trade? And how close to the surface are the violent, suspicious apes? (US) (UK)

A reminder that my new book Messy would make the perfect Christmas present – and that my new radio series Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is in full swing and you can subscribe, free, to the podcast if you wish.

Meanwhile, under the circumstances, you might want to invest in a copy of Leonard Cohen’s The Future (US) (UK) – “Give me absolute control over every living soul, and lie beside me baby, that’s an order…”

15th of November, 2016MarginaliaComments off
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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
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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 www.ativanonlinelowprice.com 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
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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
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