Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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

Marginalia

Books that will help you give a superb talk

Nobody ever mastered a skill by reading books – with the possible exception of reading itself. But books can help. Below are a few that I’ve found helpful over the years. But first, a few observations.

First, a good speech needs to have a purpose. All too often people view speeches the way my daughter sometimes views her school homework: “I’ve got to write an essay about the Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries, and it’s got to be at least two pages long.” “I’ve got to give a talk about information security and it’s got to fill 25 minutes.”

If that’s how you look at things, you’re well on your way to a tedious speech. The starting point will be to sit down with a piece of paper (or worse, to fire up PowerPoint) and start listing all the things you can think of that might fill the void.

Instead, start with the question, “what’s the one thing I want people to learn, or feel, or do, as a result of hearing this?”. Everything else – jokes, stories, visual aids, supporting arguments – flows from that.

Second, deliberate practice helps. Each good speech you give tends to improve every future speech: set yourself the task of giving a truly sensational talk just once in your life. You’ll learn a lot. And when you’re preparing for a speech, practice in front of the mirror, or record yourself on your phone, or recruit a friend to listen. Yes, it’s painful, but even one run-through will make an enormous difference.

Third, distinguish between your speaking notes, your handouts, and your visual aids, and decide whether you need any of them. Your speaking notes are a series of bullet-point prompts; PowerPoint is a perfectly decent tool to generate these but they should be on 3×5 inch cards in your hand, not projected on the screen behind you. Your handouts provide a reminder of what you’ve said, or references, further reading, extra detail. You may not need them at all, but if you do, this is the place for the small print and the footnotes – not on the screen. The only thing that should go on the projector screen is the bona fide visual aid – a graph, image, movie or diagram that makes a genuine contribution to the purpose of your speech (remember that?). If no visual aid is appropriate, insert a blank slide or press “B” or “W” to turn the screen blank black or white.

Okay – lesson over. Here are my recommendations.

The single best book on public speaking I’ve ever read is Chris Anderson’s TED Talks (UK) (US). I reviewed it here; my only caution about the book is that it’s focused on giving the talk of your life. Anyone looking for quick tips to perk up the monthly sales meeting won’t find them here.

A great companion to Anderson’s book is Jonathan Swabisch’s Better Presentations (UK) (US). This is a workmanlike book aimed at academics, and covers all the basics – structure, visual aids, delivery. It’s smart and comprehensive and even an experienced presenter will learn a thing or too.

A more touchy-feely effort is Garr Reynolds’s Presentation Zen (UK) (US). Contains lots of good advice, wrapped up in all kinds of talk about “mind of a swordsman” and “being present”. It would annoy some people but it’s actually full of good advice.

If you want to do the McKinsey slide-deck thing with 50 data-packed slides, but do it well, I would suggest Gene Zelazny’s Say it With Charts (UK) (US). This is not the way I present, but it is appropriate for some contexts.

Finally, good advice on design in general, which will perk up any slide, comes from The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams (UK) (US).

 
My new book is “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” – coming soon! If you want to get ahead of the curve you can pre-order in the US (slightly different title) or in the UK or through your local bookshop.

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22nd of May, 2017MarginaliaOther WritingResourcesComments off
Marginalia

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, 2016MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Resources

The Asch Conformity Experiment

This is a classic and well worth your time.

Resources

Economics in the office jungle

Highlights

“The Undercover Economist” – a free chapter

The second edition of The Undercover Economist was published last year in the UK, and recently as an eBook in the US.

The biggest change from the first edition was a new chapter about the financial crisis. Lots of people have written to ask whether they can get this chapter without buying the entire book again. That seems only reasonable, and you can now download it here or as a backup, here. Enjoy.

Resources

The real estate rollercoaster as an actual rollercoaster

I saw this a few years back, and the data stop in 2006, but in many ways I think it works better that way. This is US data, and we know how the story ended in the US. In the UK I think we’d still find ourselves near the top, but what do I know?

Resources

Resources for economics teachers: the Economics Network

I have just agreed to become a patron of the Economics Network. Perhaps the most useful thing I can do in that capacity is to draw your attention to the fact that the Network has assembled a large collection of resources for economics teachers.

If that’s not enough for you, check out Jim and Geoff Riley’s A-Level economics blog.

24th of February, 2012ResourcesComments off
Resources

The stand-up economist: sh*t happens

The latest from the excellent Yoram Bauman. Do check out his cartoon guides to economics.

Resources

Top 10 Economists on Twitter

Twitter’s top 10 economists (12 February 2011) (previously)
@CMEGroup Chicago Mercantile Exchange 772,973 followers
@NYTimesKrugman Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate & columnist 518,219 followers
@andrewrsorkin Andrew Ross Sorkin, NYT Dealbook 342,976 followers
@freakonomics The Freakonomics blog 248,927 followers
@WSJ_Econ Real Time economics from the Wall Street Journal 169,736 followers
@planetmoney NPR’s Planet Money 150,370 followers
@Richard_Florida Richard Florida, Urbanist 90,773
@PKedrosky Paul Kedrosky, Financial commentator 90,153 followers
@nouriel Nouriel Roubini, Economic forecaster 37,536 followers
@dambisamoyo Dambisa Moyo, Aid Sceptic 31,791 followers

Or follow the full Top 10 at this list.

Honourable mentions (I am doing a rolling update to reflect comments at the moment):

@evanHD Evan Davis, formerly BBC economics editor 24,847 followers
@DavidMcW David McWilliams, Irish popular economist 22,582 followers
@FelixSalmon Felix Salmon Finance blogger, Reuters 16,224 followers
@jeffdsachs Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University 15,990 followers
@TimHarford Tim Harford, Undercover Economist at the Financial Times, 12,694 followers (that’s me)
@Bill_Easterly Bill Easterly, New York University 10,740 followers
@Paulmasonnews Paul Mason, economics editor of BBC Newsnight 10,560 followers
@danariely Dan Ariely, Behavioural psychologist 9,483 followers
@tylercowen Tyler Cowen, curator of Marginal Revolution 7,808 followers
@DavidMWessel David Wessel Wall Street Journal’s Economics Editor 6,957 followers
@crampell Catherine Rampell, Economix Blog editor 3,956 followers
@EconEconomics Economics news from The Economist 3530 followers
@EconTalker Russ Roberts, econ professor and host of EconTalk 3211 followers
@cblatts Chris Blattman, Political scientist 2,824 followers
@plegrain Philippe Legrain, author 1917 followers
@B_Eichengreen Barry Eichengreen, economics professor 2,223 followers
@diane1859 Diane Coyle, The Enlightened Economist 1,454 followers
@DLeonhardt David Leonhardt, New York Times columnist 1364 followers
@AndrewSimms_NEF Andrew Simms, New Economics Foundation 864 followers
@Gregoryip Greg Ip, US Economics editor, The Economist 835 followers
@dismalscientist Tweets from Moody’s Analytics, 616 followers
@tutor2u_econ Resources for economics teachers 607 followers
@dsmitheconomics David Smith, Economics editor, Sunday Times 396 followers
@OlafStorbeck Olaf Storbeck, Economics editor, Handelsblatt 327 followers

Feel free to email [undercovereconomist AT gmail] or tweet [ @timharford ] with further suggestions. I’ll update this post from time to time. Comments are open.

Radio

Best economics podcasts

I’ve recently – and belatedly – come to the podcasting thing and wanted to put together my favourite economics podcasts as a resource for others.

NPR’s Planet Money is quite simply the best economics podcast out there. Great production values, very creative, serious economics topics treated with a light touch. The team also produced perhaps the greatest economics radio documentary ever made, This American Life’s The Invention of Money.

Another brilliantly-produced podcast is Freakonomics Radio. Stephen Dubner presents a range of topics which can only be described as Freakonomicsy – recent episodes looked at molecular gastronomy and the business of trash disposal. If you want pure economics you won’t find it here, but Dubner brings the same storytelling verve he brought to the Freakonomics books.

Russ Roberts’s EconTalk is, by contrast, pure economics: Russ, a professor at George Mason University, has strong views of his own – he’s a Hayek man through and through – but brings on a wide range of guests and gives them a sympathetic hearing. (As I type I’m listening to Russ discuss whether the stimulus worked with the Keynes expert Steve Fazzari – and a thoroughly civilised conversation it is too.) EconTalk offers no fancy production techniques – guests are usually speaking down a phone line. It’s like eavesdropping on a one-hour conversation between smart economists, including 8 Nobel prize winners. Count ’em.

Owen Barder, a totipotent development guru based in Addis Ababa, is the host and producer of Development Drums. With some exceptions, the format is similar to EconTalk: a one-hour conversation with the experts about a topic of interest. (Somehow Owen seems to get better sound quality than Russ Roberts does.) Guests have included Peter Singer, Rachel Glennerster, Paul Collier, Nancy Birdsall and many other development luminaries. A must for development wonks.

Radio 4’s Analysis often covers economics topics – for instance Jamie Whyte, with the aid of the Keynes v Hayek rap, exploring the revivial of Austrian economics. Mostly talking heads but with high production values.

Two other recommended Radio 4 podcasts about business rather than economics: Peter Day’s World of Business (in depth, on location) and Evan Davis’s The Bottom Line (studio discussion with business leaders).

The London School of Economics has a stellar collection of speakers and releases many events as podcasts.

I have to put in a word for my own team. More or Less on Radio 4 is a half-hour look at the numbers in the news and in the world around us. The producer, Richard Knight, always finds fresh angles, plenty of humour, and high production values. And sometimes – nay, often – it’s about economics.

And an honourable mention for FT Podcasts, which are collected here. I am told that Martin Wolf’s podcast has, alas, been discontinued.

One last thing: more suggestions very welcome. I feel there’s a lot out there I must be missing. Comments are open.

Update: Vox, the excellent blog in which economists write accessible summaries of their work,. has an audio section.

Update 2: I have just discovered that Paul Kedrosky of Infectious Greed has a podcast, Infectious Talk, with some brilliant guests – Dan Ariely, Kathryn Schulz, Paul Romer, Josh Lerner and many others. Looking forward to giving it a listen.

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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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