Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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Five of the best introductions to economics

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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3rd of April, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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Messy – the joy of chaos

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:

You can order Messy via Amazon here or a variety of other stores here. And please spread the word!

‘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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21st of March, 2018MarginaliaComments off
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How To Have Fun

When I’m not writing about economics or talking about numbers, I’m having fun – which means playing games.

 

Role-Playing

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.

(And if you want a grown-up RPG, for me, it’s GURPS (UK) (US) every time, ideally in Dave Morris’s eerie world of Legend (UK) (US).)

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.

 

Gamebooks

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)

I could recommend many more, but for another left-field recommendation, try Michael Stackpole’s City of Terrors (UK) (US), best enjoyed with the vintage Tunnels and Trolls system.

 

Boardgames

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)

 

Craft

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.

 

 

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13th of March, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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Books for people who love numbers

I’ve yet to encounter a maths book with the winning charm of Alex Bellos’s Alex’s Adventures in Numberland (UK) (Here’s Looking At Euclid in the US). Strongly recommended journey through mathematical ideas, both whimsical and essential.

Speaking of whimsicality, I also recommend Matt Parker’s Things To Make And Do In The Fourth Dimension (UK) (US) and Hannah Fry’s The Mathematics of Love (UK) (US).

A shout out for John Allen Paulos’s Innumeracy (UK) (US) – I fondly remember reading this in the 1990s and having my eyes opened to the world of numeracy and innumeracy.

Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not To Be Wrong (UK) (US) is a story-rich, clear exposition of the maths all around us.

A more unusual pick: Apostolos Doxiadis offers us the rather brilliant mathematical novel Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture (UK) (US) which works very well as a novel of obsession and secrecy, but will teach you a bit of maths as a side effect. Doxiadis also wrote the ambitious and excellent Logicomix (UK) (US) – a history of logic in comic form.

Vicky Neale’s Closing the Gap (UK) (US) is an excellent account of recent progress in prime numbers, but also one of the best accounts you’ll read by a mathematician about how mathematics research is done and how it feels to do it.

And recently arrived on my pile, David Acheson’s The Calculus Story (UK) (US) which is a very clear explanation of calculus (wish I’d had it as a maths student!) along with some history of the subject.

 
My recent book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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26th of February, 2018MarginaliaComments off
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The Logic of Failure

The most original book I read this week – after a recommendation from the always-worth-listening-to Cass Sunstein – was The Logic of Failure (UK) (US) by Dietrich Dorner. Dorner sets experimental subjects difficult simulation games (they all sound a little bit like Sim City to me) and observes as they try to master the games alone or in groups. Most of their actions have unintended consequences that are predictable in principle, but often confounding to the players. For example, if you eradicate the tsetse fly then the cattle will prosper, but as the cattle population booms, grass and water will be depleted. Drill more wells and you can get more water – until the entire water table is depleted. Then a famine looms; all foreseeable if only you can keep the whole system in mind and follow the chain of consequences.

Dorner studies the successful players, and the less successful, and looks for patterns – do they ask enough questions? Too many decisions? Too few? Do they blame others, become frustrated? Do they begin to obsess about trivia? While the methodology itself is clearly somewhat limited, it’s enormously thought-provoking.

(By the way, having been reminded of the book’s existence by Cass Sunstein, I should mention that his book with Reid Hastie, Wiser (UK) (US) is the best book I know about group decision-making and how to overcoming polarisation and groupthink.)

I’ve also been reading about military history. I re-read Norman Stone’s WWII: A Short History (UK) (US) which is astonishingly good. Bracingly brief and opinionated, but a remarkable way to gain perspective on what can easily become a bewildering mash of highly partial pieces of folk history.

Also – for a perspective on the brilliant but dreadfully flawed tank strategist J.F.C. Fuller – I read Mark Urban’s Generals (UK) (US) which I enjoyed, and suspect I’ll be back to in due course. There was plenty of useful and telling detail in one chapter than in an entire biography of Fuller I spent the morning reading in the Bodleian – Mark Urban is able to see the wood and the trees. Well done.

13th of February, 2018MarginaliaComments off
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Books about money, the mind, and the planet

A range of books passing across the desk at the moment! I’ve enjoyed Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler’s Small Change (US edition is Dollars and Sense) which is a mashup of all the best in behavioural economics research, whimsical chat and financial advice. Fans of Dan’s earlier work will find this rather familiar – especially if they’ve also read the very good Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes (UK) (US) by Belsky and Gilovich, which covers similar ground in a more sober style – but its a fun book with some wise advice.

I have also been revisiting On The Psychology of Military Incompetence (UK) (US) by Norman Dixon, a fascinating book, if one which looks strange to my modern eyes in some ways. Dixon is excellent in his account of military errors; his explanation is also excellent in some ways and odd in others. Too much about eg the impact of how generals might have been toilet trained as toddlers – but then I realised that this predates the modern behavioural literature on heuristics and biases. Still: thought-provoking!

Tim Jackson has sent me the second edition of his book Prosperity without Growth (UK) (US) with a note saying he wasn’t sure how much I’d agree with it. I’m not sure either, having not made the time to read it in depth, but I turned directly to the chapter on the “Myth of Decoupling” – a subject about which a lot of nonsense has been written – and was impressed with the balance and more importantly the attention to the evidence. I am more optimistic than Tim about decoupling, the idea that an economy can grow without ever-increasing energy and resource use – but can’t fault his chapter on the topic.

I’ve also received a copy of Earth at Risk (UK) (US) by Henry and Tubiana, which seems to be a chewier more academic exploration of “natural capital and the quest for sustainability”. Endorsement by Bill McKibben.

 

 
My recent book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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6th of February, 2018MarginaliaComments off
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Busy, Rest, Confessions… what I’ve been reading

Two interesting books about our overly-busy lifestyles: Busy (UK) (US) by Tony Crabbe and Rest (UK) (US) by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Crabbe’s book is pushy, airport business-booky, by no means a masterpiece of writing. But it did make me stop and think about overloading myself with nonsense – and to question bad habits such as boasting about how busy I am. I found it a very useful book to read. Rest is a better structured read, setting out the science about why we need to take more breaks, have more sleep, take longer holidays, etc. etc. – well-argued, although I think Crabbe’s bullet points made more of an impact on me.

I also re-read Scott Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker (UK) (US), which is flawed but will be very useful to some. Berkun is a witty, energetic writer and the book jumps from a description of life as a professional motivational speaker to the lessons he learned from taking part in a TV series, to a set of tips on how to be a better public speaker. The confessions will interest some – not me – but the tips are good and the book is lots of fun to read. (I have a list of books that I recommend about giving a great speech.)

And I’m now 100 pages into Walter Isaacson’s Da Vinci biography (UK) (US). Long and careful, but well-written and full of interesting ideas – and gorgeous reproductions of his art.

 

My latest book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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22nd of January, 2018MarginaliaComments off
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How To Think, in eight easy steps

I enjoyed reading Alan Jacobs’s How To Think (US) (UK). Jacobs could have worked through a list of logical fallacies, or even of cognitive biases (well-covered in David McRaney’s engaging You Are Not So Smart (US) (UK)). Instead, he’s particularly concerned with civility, open-mindedness, and the ability to let oneself be persuaded by others. The weakness of this approach is that Jacobs is rather thin on some important topics such as evaluating evidence or spotting statistical bullshit. (On this topic Bad Science (US) (UK), by Ben Goldacre MBE, cannot be bettered.)

Still, we could all use some nudges to be civil and open minded. Jacobs offers a checklist of 12 items at the end and I summarise a few here:

  1. Take five minutes before responding. Walk around the block.
  2. Don’t argue to win, argue to learn.
  3. Avoid people who fan flames.
  4. Don’t feel you have to weigh in on every topic.
  5. If your peers demand you weigh in, ponder your choice of peers.
  6. Seek out thoughtful people who disagree with you. Listen.
  7. Examine your own emotional responses.
  8. Summarise your opponents’ arguments fairly and thoughtfully.

Good advice; I hope Jacobs would feel my summary of his checklist was fair.

My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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8th of January, 2018MarginaliaComments off
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Help with your New Year’s Resolutions is at hand!

If your resolution is to get more done, I recommend Cal Newport’s remarkable book Deep Work. (US) (UK) Newport argues that success in the world of work is dependent on the amount of time we can devote to serious, deep thinking.

An observation that hit home for me is that for many of us, the productivity-sink isn’t YouTube or Snapchat, but serious stuff like emails and meetings. Email is a severe temptation for me: swift, decisive email etiquette feels professional – but all too often it’s just an excuse for avoiding the real work.

There’s also David Allen’s Getting Things Done. (US) (UK) 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.

In a recent podcast, David Allen’s own New Year advice: don’t get carried away making resolutions, but think about your projects in the year just gone and the year to come. Also: tidy something up. (Your shed; your desk; your glove-compartment.) Not only is the tidying satisfying but it will spark all sorts of intriguing thoughts.

 

Now, if your resolution is to try new things, may I suggest 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. A really fun book – and a wise idea explained well.

 

And if you fancy dipping into some behavioural economics to help you master life’s challenges, Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie’s Wiser (UK) (US) is the best book I know about group decision-making and how to overcoming polarisation and groupthink, while Think Small (UK) (US) by Halpern’s colleagues Owain Service and Rory Gallagher, or How To Have A Good Day (UK) (US) by Caroline Webb, are both practical applications of behavioural science to lose weight, acquire better habits, or deal productively with awful meetings.

 

My own resolution for 2018 is: One Thing At A Time.

Happy New Year!

 

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31st of December, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Curious books

I’ve written recently about how much I’ve been enjoying Soonish (UK) (US) by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, a highly amusing exploration of the latest technologies from satellite launch vehicles to 3D printed houses to gene therapy to self-organising robot swarms.

But what else is out there to celebrate the curious?

I recommend Steven Johnson’s Wonderland: How Play Made The Modern World (UK) (US) – a history of technology and economics with a difference. Johnson covers music, fashion, sports and much else with a lovely light touch.

Caspar Henderson’s new book is A New Map Of Wonders (UK) (US– it’s an exploration of art, science, and the way we perceive the world around us. The book itself is a kind of cabinet of wonders, packed with surprises and delightful digressions.

Puzzle fans will have their minds blown – if you’ve not already encountered it – by Raymond Smullyan’s What Is The Name of This Book? (UK) (USBegins with some silly puzzles, moves to variants of the one-always-tells-the-truth, one-always-lies puzzle, and before you know it you’re in the middle of Godel’s incompleteness theorem.

Richard Feynman was often billed as a “curious character”, although I prefer his lectures to his autobiographical work. Try the astonishing QED (UK) (US). I remember trying to explain this one in the pub to my friends, aged 18.

Claude Shannon’s endless desire to play with things and ideas is explored in a solid new biography, A Mind At Play (UK) (USby Soni and Goodman.

Next on my list: Philip Ball’s Curiosity (UK) (USand Walter Isaacson’s Da Vinci (UK) (US), which has been getting good write-ups.

My UK publishers have a competition going on Twitter to win all seven of my books. Or you can purchase any of them here.

 

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4th of December, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Books

  • Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy
  • Messy
  • The Undercover Economist Strikes Back
  • Adapt
  • Dear Undercover Economist
  • The Logic of Life
  • The Undercover Economist

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