Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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

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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
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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
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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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Why big companies squander good ideas – a reading list

My FT Magazine cover story tomorrow is “Why Big Companies Squander Good Ideas“, and I wanted to give some pointers to further reading, because I learned a lot and had a lot of fun writing this piece. (I’ll post the feature article on this website in due course.)

 

About innovation

The classic here is Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (UK) (US) – a book I loved and found compelling, but also has some tantalising gaps. Well worth your attention, though.

Then there is Joshua Gans’s The Disruption Dilemma (UK) (US) – this book places Christensen’s work in a broader academic context, in particular comparing and contrasting with the work of Rebecca Henderson. Lots of interesting case studies and the distinction between demand-side and supply-side disruption is instructive.

The seminal 1990 Rebecca Henderson article, with Kim Clark, is here.

Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay on Xerox is a classic, and the New York Times published a lovely biographical essay about Steven Sasson, the inventor of the digital camera at Kodak.

Chris Goodall’s book about solar power, The Switch, is a must-read.

If you’re intrigued about what my colleagues and I were thinking about back in Shell around the year 2000, here are the long-term energy scenarios created around that time, out to 2050.

 

About tanks

The original spark for this piece came from reading The Psychology Of Military Incompetence (UK) (US). Not much of that book made it into the final piece, partly because I don’t really buy Norman Dixon’s curious thesis. But there are some amazing and tragic stories of error in this book.

Brian Holden Reid has a thorough biography of JFC Fuller (UK) (US), and Mark Urban’s Generals (UK) (US) has a chapter on him with some telling details.

And there’s also this more academic essay on military innovation in peacetime, by Murray and Watts.

 

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7th of September, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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Four awesome-yet-accessible economics and business books

The fine folk over at Planet Money’s The Indicator (an excellent podcast) recently spent five episodes discussing five of their favourite fun-to-read economics and business books. It’s a good list, in my humble opinion, and not just because it includes… (drum roll)

Fifty Inventions That Made the Modern Economy, which is emerging in paperback in the US as I type. The fun of this book has been to weave together economic ideas such as winner-take-all effects with the more human side of everything – surprising stories, inspiring (or villainous) people, and generous slices of history. (Or, as my publishers put it, “Who thought up paper money? What was the secret element that made the Gutenberg printing press possible? And what is the connection between The Da Vinci Code and the collapse of Lehman Brothers?”)

Lots more about the book here – the New York Times talked about my “prodigious skills as a storyteller” (shucks) and there are plenty of other cheering reviews too.

 

But what of the other four? One I have not read and cannot vouch for, but three books that I admire more than somewhat:

Diane Coyle’s GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History (US) (UK) – Diane writes elegantly and really understands the topic deeply. This is a thoughtful exploration of the historical strengths and the emerging weaknesses of an important measure of our economy. A lot of books about GDP seem to begin with the assumption that it’s transparently an absurd measure; I learned more from Prof Coyle’s more balanced analysis.

Linda Yueh’s What Would The Great Economists Do? (US) (UK) delivers lovely potted biographies of some of the greats (Smith, Marx, Keynes, Robinson, Fisher and others) and asks what they would think about contemporary economic problems – for instance, Joan Robinson on wage stagnation. The biographies are uniformly fascinating; the contemporary analysis seems (to me) more interesting as the economists get  more recent. Fisher and Robinson had a lot to say about problems today; Smith and Marx not so much, at least not in this book. Still: recommended!

Then there is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. No, I don’t understand why everyone thinks this is somehow a business book. It’s a thing of beauty, though. (US) (UK)

 

 

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28th of August, 2018ResourcesComments off
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Six unconventional introductions to economics

My list of five of the best introductions to economics wasn’t exactly the usual suspects, but I wanted to stray a little further off the obvious territory and recommend six books you might want to read to give you an unusual introduction to economics.

A couple of years after the financial crisis I came across Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents (UK) (US). Perrow is a sociologist who became fascinated by particular kinds of system, ones which were “complex” (meaning that consequences of error are unpredictable) and “tightly coupled” (meaning that the consequences unfold quickly and irreversibly). His case studies include terrible accidents such as the Challenger disaster and Chernobyl – hauntingly described – but I increasingly came to realise that economic and financial systems could and should be studied with the same eye.  (For the same reason, I’d also recommend anything by James Reason. (UK) (US).)

Yoram Bauman and Grady Klein’s Cartoon Introduction To Economics (UK) (US) is perfectly conventional in many ways – except that it’s a cartoon, and also pretty funny, as you might expect from Bauman, a stand-up comedian. Good stuff.

Cory Doctorow’s For The Win (UK) (US) made me question whether I shouldn’t be trying to write about economics through fiction. My conclusion so far has been “no”, partly because Doctorow already does it so well. For The Win describes a a struggle between the young protagonists who work inside multiplayer computer games, and Big Business trying to run a cartel. Learn about globalisation, unionisation, virtual gold mining, and enjoy the thrill of the chase too.

James Owen Weatherall’s Physics of Wall Street (UK) (US) is a fine tour of how physicists and mathematicians from Bachelier to Mandelbrot to Jim Simons have tried to understand how markets work – and profit from their understanding. In the dock: economists, for not getting it. Harsh, I feel – but a very interesting and readable book anyway.

If you want to read an account with novelistic qualities that’s a true story, pick up Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (UK) (US). You’ve probably read it anyway, but read it again. He’s a superb writer and he really understands Wall Street.

Finally, I found Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science (UK) (US) simply revolutionised the way I thought about numbers, evidence, and the newspapers. Like Lewis’s book this will be familiar to many of you, but it bears reading again and again.

And one more suggestion; my freewheeling history of technology tells the story of particular inventions or ideas, and uses each one to teach us a lesson about how the economy works. In the US it’s Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy and in the UK, Fifty Things That Made the Modern EconomyEnjoy!

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25th of June, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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  • Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy
  • Messy
  • The Undercover Economist Strikes Back
  • Adapt
  • Dear Undercover Economist
  • The Logic of Life
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