Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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My recommendations for top podcasts, tweets, videos and anything else that makes economics fun.

Marginalia

Cautionary Tales…

Exciting news – I have a new podcast series ready to burst out upon an unsuspecting world. It’s called Cautionary Tales – true stories of catastrophe and fiasco, sparkling with top acting talent, with the aim of making you wiser with every word. I’m writing and presenting the series and will be adding a soupcon of social science to the narrative. [Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

While you wait for the first episodes to drop on November 15th, I thought I’d share a few of my favourite books about making mistakes.

I received Nigel Blundell’s The World’s Greatest Mistakes as a Christmas gift when I was a child – a strange and compelling array of catastrophes, from famous air crashes and military blunders to amusing vignettes such as the bride who accidentally married the best man. The stories seemed well researched (although no list of references) and were briskly told. That book is long out of print, but I suspect that Blundell’s new book A Century of Man-Made Disasters will have similar qualities.

Levy and Salvadori’s modern classic Why Buildings Fall Down is a skilfully illustrated and fascinating way to learn about structural engineering by studying what happens when it all goes wrong.

For books about human error you could take a look at my list of my favourite behavioural economics books but try also Kathryn Schulz’s beautiful meditation on error, Being Wrongand Tavris and Aronson’s excellent Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) James Reason’s more technical quasi-textbook Human Error.  

And for the all-important intersection of the maths-comedy-error Venn diagram, Matt Parker’s delightful Humble Pi

 

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Marginalia

Books about seeing into the past and the future

What I’ve been reading…

Steven Johnson’s FarsightedI’m a Steven Johnson fan and enjoyed this book a lot – sufficiently to read it in an afternoon in the library, then head to my local bookshoop and pay full retail. Given the number of books I get sent on spec, that’s a sincere compliment. This book is about taking the long view and thinking about non-obvious effects. Among the topics – diversity and groupthink (Steven may have taken some inspiration from Messy, Wiser and The Difference), prediction (with the now-obligatory mention of the excellent Superforecasting) and some really good stuff on wargaming and scenarios. Some good stories, well written – less surprising than, for example, Johnson’s Wonderland but I still learned a lot and enjoyed it.

Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – a very clever way to bring history alive. Lots of insights and many things I didn’t know, even though I (like many gamer geeks) have an interest in the middle ages.

Michael Lewis, The Big ShortRe-reading this to refresh my memory about some CDO-related chicanery. He’s SO GOOD. Such lively writing and a lot of serious explanation smuggled in there too.

Andrew Hunter Murray The Last DayI got an early edition of this; you’ll have to pre-order it now and thank me in February. Terrific debut novel – a dystopian near-future account of a world which has literally stopped turning, leaving most of it either uninhabitably cold or uninhabitably hot. This manages to evoke Brexit and climate change and Syria without actually being about any of them. A great thriller – and the low-rent police-state (1984 on a tight budget) is grimly convincing.

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28th of October, 2019MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Marginalia

The magic of picture books

Perhaps it’s the holiday feeling, but I’ve been looking at books with lots of pictures recently.

First, Randall Munroe’s marvelous How To. It’s in much the same style as What If? and just as funny and informative. I loved it, then my twelve year old daughter stole it and she loved it, then my eight year old son stole it and he loved it. I suspect we’re all getting something different from the book, which explores such questions as: If you wanted to fill a swimming pool with bottled water, could you open the bottles with atomic weapons? (There is actually a study of this question…) If you wanted to ski down a hill with no snow, would it work to drag a snow-machine along with you? How feasible is it to boil a river dry with a big array of kettles? Needless to say, strongly recommended.

Very different, from the equally talented cartoonish Zach Weinersmith and always-interesting economist Bryan Caplan, is Open Borders – which is a polemic essay, illustrated by Weinersmith, arguing for dramatically more liberal rules on immigration. I’m much more sympathetic to this idea than most people, so perhaps not best placed to find the holes in the argument, but it’s well worth a read: Caplan makes a strong case, founded on the idea that immigration is good for the global economy while respecting the basic liberty of every person in the world. Of course, there are many possible objections both to the argument, and to the policy, and Caplan works through all the obvious ones, arguing against them – sometimes from first principles and sometimes by appealing to data. And it’s all pictures – which does make it quick and fun to read.

And different again: I finally, three decades late, decided I should read Sandman by Neil Gaiman. Two volumes in and I’m loving it. The first volume is occasionally shlocky, awkward or exploitative to modern sensibilities – but only occasionally. Gaiman, one feels, is still finding his feet. Still, most of it is spellbinding. And volume 2 is even better. If you haven’t read it, you should.

One more thing. My father and I are going on an all day walk to raise money for Rennie Grove Hospice Care. I’m not going to pretend it will be a sinew-shredding challenge, although I hope to pick up a blister or too. But it’s a very good cause and we’d be most grateful for any support you can give. My mother died of cancer in 1996 and our whole family hugely valued the hospice care she received during her long and difficult illness.

Thank you in advance.

 

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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1st of September, 2019MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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Range, misinformation and the fine line between stupid and clever

Over the past couple of week’s I’ve been enjoying David Epstein’s Range – about the value of being a generalist. As I may have mentioned it’s in sympathy with my latest TED talk, which cites Epstein. I had the pleasure of seeing Epstein dig up a lot of interesting new research that supports some of what I argued in Messy – about the virtues of moving between fields, switching contexts and improvising. (It felt a bit like an out-of-sample check of my expectations.) Epstein skillfully blends stories with argument and evidence, and he makes it look easy (it isn’t).

Also impressed by The Misinformation Age by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall (he also wrote the very nice Physics of Wall Street). O’Connor and Weatherall cover the territory very well – again, some nice stories, many of which I hadn’t heard – and they use a lot of network analysis to show how true and false ideas can spread or be propagated by various devious pieces of propaganda. Fairly nerdy but easy and fun to read.

 

Next on the pile, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes by David Robson. This comes recommended to me but I have not yet cracked the spine. Looks v. interesting, though.

(While I’m here, I should mention that I just bought a new Moto G7 Play phone for £130 and I’m delighted with it. Seems to be a heck of a lot of phone for not a lot of money.)

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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24th of May, 2019ResourcesComments off
Marginalia

The art of time well spent

I’ve been reading James Wallman’s Time And How To Spend It – which, intriguingly, he described to me as “How to Kondo Time”, which I don’t think it is. I’ve learned a few things worth knowing, though.

Wallman recommends seven rules for spending your time wisely:

  • Story
  • Transformation
  • Outside & Offline
  • Relationships
  • Intensity
  • Extraordinary
  • Status & Significance

(They spell “stories”. Nice, eh?) Actually the first chapter – “story” – was the most surprising to me. Wallman reminds us of classic story arcs (particularly Vonnegut’s “Man in a hole”) and suggests that we think about our time in that way. Does your plan for the next hour, day, month look like it would make for a good story? Would you encounter challenges and meet allies and experience personal transformation? It’s an intriguing approach to trying to spend your time in a more satisfying way – or, sometimes, to reframe the time you’ve already spent.

Much of the rest of the book is more straightforward: there is no harm in being reminded that most of us could do more to cultivate relationships, and that going for a walk is better for your mental health than hunching over a screen – obvious, yes, but true and worth repeating.

 

An alternative – or, perhaps, a complement – is Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which really is “how to Kondo time”. I’ve written before about Newport’s book, which I found bracingly direct, challenging and practical. Newport’s basic theme: we fell into our habits of using phones, social media, email, web-browsing etc without making conscious decisions about what our priorities were. His practical challenge is to think about your priorities – for instance, a need to be connected to friends – and then weigh up how best to achieve those priorities. Is it really through Facebook? If so, how exactly? And if not, what alternative do you have planned?

It’s really a very powerful book. Strongly recommended.

 

You might also pick up a copy of Robert Twigger’s Micromastery, a charming little book, and an original one. Twigger argues that you should try new things (learn to cook, learn to swim, to play the guitar, to haggle) but in particular that you should find some small sub-set of the relevant skill and focus on that. You then get a skill worth having in its own right (eg learning to cook an omelette) while also gaining motivation to make progress on the broader task. Clever little idea. (NB Twigger wrote Angry White Pyjamas, which is an absolutely perfect book about what happens when a poet bumming around in Japan decides to spend a year on the toughest martial arts course in Japan.)

 

 

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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21st of May, 2019MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Marginalia

How to be more creative

I was on the TED Radio Hour this week; they were kind enough to give me both the first and the last word on the subject of kickstarting creativity.

If you’d like to read more on the subject I would – of course – recommend my book, Messy, which gave me the research base for both of the TED talks and the interviews around them.

But what else?

Perhaps David Epstein’s new book, Range, which sings the praises of broadening your horizons. I’m a couple of chapters in and enjoying it very much: good stories, well-researched. Epstein, an experienced and thoughtful sports writer, points out that what works in sport is actually not a very good guide to what works in life, because in life the rules are unclear, feedback can be patchy, and in general we need the widest possible base of experience. Recommended.

A very different book is A Mind At Play by Soni and Goodman – the first biography of Claude Shannon, one of the pioneers of modern computer science and the creator of information theory. Shannon’s an interesting subject in part because he’s still underappreciated outside his own field, and in part because his creative arc was complex and frustrating. He seems to spend an awful lot of time goofing around and wasting his talent. Was it wasted time? Or was it fundamental to the process? I’m not sure myself. I’ll write more about this sometime.

And I must recommend (again) Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, a wonderful practical guide to creativity for anyone in any field at any stage of their career.

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13th of May, 2019MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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What I’ve been reading

Mark Bostridge, Florence Nightingale – a thorough biography of a remarkable woman, less well-known for her work as a statistician, data-visualisation pioneer and public health campaigner than she should be. One of the founders of evidence-based medicine, she is nevertheless more celebrated for being “the lady with the lamp”. Draw your own conclusions. Good book.

James Reason, Human Error – Reason’s work on industrial accidents is fantastic. This book reviews very ways in which human cognition fails us, with much more emphasis on (for example) potentially-lethal slips and bouts of absent-mindedness than the behavioural economists’ focus on biases and heuristics. More technical than I remember. Next up is The Human Contribution which has more stories and is a little more upbeat.

Jordan Frith A Billion Little Pieces – a sociologist writes about radio-frequency identification tags (RFID). I learned a lot, although would have preferred more reflection on the economic impacts of the technology.

On my pile are Safi Bahcall’s Loonshots, a book about long-shot innovation, a topic that has interested me for years. Also David Epstein’s Range – about the value of being a generalist. Much in sympathy with my latest TED talk, which in fact cites Epstein. Looking forward to reading both books.

 

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8th of May, 2019MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy Season Two

I’m delighted to announce that Season Two of “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” is up and running. Our first episodes included our Christmas special, followed by the Langstroth Beehive, Cellophane, and the Gyroscope – with more appearing on the feed on a weekly basis. If you want listen to the episode about bricks and you just can’t wait, hop over to 99% Invisible – one of the best podcasts on the planet and an inspiration for Fifty Things – where the brilliant Roman Mars presents three of his favourites, including the brick in all its glory.

If you like the series and fancy reading the book – all the nerdy detail in one handy package, plus a few extra thoughts we couldn’t squeeze onto the radio – then in the UK it’s called Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy while in the US, it’s Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy

And if you want to delve deeper, try Bee Wilson’s book The Hive or the magisterial Brick: A World History  – or my history of technology reading list. I love my job.

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9th of April, 2019MarginaliaRadioResourcesComments off
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Some fabulous books about numbers

I had a treat over Christmas avoiding Twitter and reading pre-releases of books about maths. The joys! Two particular pearls are about to be released.

The Art of Statistics (US) (UK) by Sir David Spiegelhalter should be self-recommending, but this is a really first class introduction to the power of statistics. David starts with some basics (categories, proportions, visualisation) but by the end of the book has covered big data analytics, confidence intervals, Bayesian statistics and much else. It’s a remarkably accessible read, full of powerful examples, but covers technical ground too, where appropriate. I can’t think of a better starting point for someone who wants to become a statistician or to use statistics in any professional way, and it covers most of what the lay-person would need. Bravo!

Humble Pi (US) (UK) by Matt Parker is a very funny collection of tales of mathematical, programming or engineering errors, generally with non-fatal consequences, although there are a few billion dollars lost here and there. Matt smuggles in a great deal of wisdom and geeky detail – for example, how to produce a rounding error when asking Excel to subtract 0.4 and 0.1 from 0.5. I loved the book.

I’ve also just caught up with the existence of Is That A Big Number? (US) (UK) by Andrew Elliott, which offers much wisdom for putting numbers into perspective by visualising, estimating or comparing them. One idea I particularly liked was the “landmark number” (for example: a book is about 100,000 words long; it’s a 3000 miles or 5,000km drive from Boston to Seattle) – having a few of these numbers in your head or at your fingertips for comparative purposes is much to be recommended.

Next up, Invisible Women (US) (UK) by Caroline Criado Perez, about the way the data we gather often omits or short-changes women. An important topic and the book is getting good reviews. I’ll report back.

UPDATE Friday 1 March – having read the first 100 pages of Invisible Women I can report that it’s an excellent, powerful and thought-provoking book about the way our lives revolve around the assumption that “man” is the default and “woman” the weird edge-case. Examples from interior design (Le Corbusier designed the proportions of his interiors around average men, dooming the average woman never to be able to reach the top shelf) and snow-sweeping (men are more likely to drive, women are more likely to walk: do we clear the roads first, or the sidewalks?). Despite the subtitle (“Exposing data bias”) there is not much yet about data bias but still time for the book to scratch that particular nerdy itch.

ANOTHER UPDATE Tuesday 5 March – quite a lot of v. interesting stuff in the second half of Invisible Women about subtle (and less subtle) biases in the data we collect. For example – gathering data on household income (rather than individual income) isn’t a crazy thing to do, but it does obscure any question of who in the household is earning and / or controlling the cash. I’ll be writing about the blind-spots in our data for the FT this weekend.

See also: Books about algorithms. Books about statistical bullshit.

 

 

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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28th of February, 2019ResourcesComments off
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Self help books that work

The self-help genre gets a bad press, and not without reason, but there are a few self-help books that I’ve read, enjoyed, and felt wiser as a result.

The Tao of Pooh (UK) (US) by Benjamin Hoff is a wise, funny meditation on life that changed the way I looked at the world when I read it as a 19 year old. I may be older and a little more cynical these days but this still feels like a book worth reading.

TED Talks (UK) (US) by Chris Anderson is the best book on public speaking I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of books on public speaking. While I admire what Chris has done with TED, I expected to disagree with a lot of his advice. Nope; he won me over.

Getting Things Done (UK) (US) by David Allen is a modern classic with a cult following. The book feels a bit fussy, full of jargon, and over-complex. But the truth is that GTD wouldn’t have so many fans (including me) if it didn’t work on some basic level. The key idea of GTD is that you need to write down what’s on your mind, somewhere where you trust yourself to check at the right moment – and as a result, you’re more relaxed and more confident that at any particular moment you’re focusing on something sensible rather than leaving a time-bomb ticking away in your inbox. The rest is detail but the details do seem to matter. A strong recommendation from me.

Deep Work (UK) (US) by Cal Newport. Stop messing around and focus on something hard.

The Creative Habit (UK) (US) by Twyla Tharp. A superb book about creativity and the effort involved. Some great stories and advice – and it’s an intensely pragmatic guide to living a creative life.

Designing Your Life (UK) (US) by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. Measured by the number of copies I’ve given away this must be my favourite book. It’s humane and practical, proposing that we use designers’ methods such as prototyping and brainstorming to create better, more fulfilling lives and careers. Full of good-yet-unusual ideas.

 

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21st of November, 2018ResourcesComments off
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  • Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy
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