Tim Harford The Undercover Economist


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


Book of the Week 28 – The Monopolists by Mary Pilon

I wanted to like this book, found the early pages a chore…. then suddenly, I found myself hooked.

Mary Pilon’s book revolves around Ralph Anspach’s legal case against Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers own the “Monopoly” boardgame; Anspach, an idealistic economics lecturer, disliked monopolies and created a superficially similar game, “Anti-Monopoly”, in which you win by breaking up corporate power. As you can imagine, Parker Brothers didn’t take kindly to the existence of a similar (?) game with a similar (?) name.

In the course of fighting the case, Anspach researched the history of Monopoly. He made the explosive discovery that the creation myth of the game – that it was sketched out by a desperately poor Charles Darrow in the depths of the Depression – is exactly that: a myth. Darrow was patiently taught the game by a friend; the friend learned it from Atlantic City Quakers, and the Quakers adapted a game in general circulation – which traces its lineage back to Lizzy Magie’s “Landlord’s Game” (1903). But would any of that help Anspach defeat Parker Brothers in court?

Pilon is a bit clunky with her economics, but there isn’t much of that – fortunately. The rest of the book is carefully researched, fascinating in the details of the history – and a total page-turner when it comes to the Anspach court case. Definitely recommended – even if you correctly think Monopoly that is a pretty creaky old game.

UK: Amazon Blackwell’s

US: Amazon Powell’s

My NEW book How To Make The World Add Up is COMING SOON. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Stephen Fry comments, “Fabulously readable, lucid, witty and authoritative.”

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29th of July, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Book of the Week 27 – The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

I re-read this fascinating book today to help me with a column. It’s terrific stuff: packed with memorable facts yet easy to read, counter-intuitive yet persuasive.

Books about technology tend to focus on the inventions, the cutting edge – a timeline of ‘firsts’. Edgerton argues that we should look things rather than ideas – technology as it is actually used rather than life on the technological frontier.

Technologies often stick around. Tanks and trenches robbed horses of their glorious role in the cavalry charge – and yet the Wehrmacht used well over a million horses in the second world war, where they were essential for transporation. The contraceptive pill was revolutionary, yes – but condoms existed before and they still exist now, partly because they do things that the pill does not.

William Gibson told us that the future was already here – just not very evenly distributed. But Edgerton goes further: sometimes the future arrives in a particular place and time, and stubbornly fails to be distributed; sometimes, indeed, the future disappears, leaving the past to overtake us. (The most obvious example: Concorde. But there are more subtle instances, such as the emergence of a low-tech shipbreaking industry in Gujurat.)

Strongly recommended.

UK: BlackwellsAmazon

US: PowellsAmazon

Pre-order my new book, How To Make The World Add Up, out 17 September in the UK.

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21st of July, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Announcing “How To Make The World Add Up”

I’m excited to announce that on 17 September, my new book will be published in the UK and around the world by Bridge Street Press. How To Make The World Add Up is my effort to help you think clearly about the numbers that swirl all around us. 

Over the past 13 years of presenting More or Less I’ve come to realise that this clear thinking is only rarely a matter of technical expertise. Instead, it requires an effort to overcome our biases, set aside our preconceptions, and see beyond our emotional reactions. We need to be open-minded without being gullible, maintaining a healthy scepticism without lapsing into corrosive cynicism. Above all, we need to keeep being curious.

I loved writing the book, trying to understand the heroes and villains of statistics, from Florence Nightingale to John Maynard Keynes. There are some strange cameos from an art forger, an erotic dancer, several alchemists and a whole phalanx of storks. I hope you’ll like it too.

(If you’re reading this in North America… sorry. The book won’t be out until February 2021, albeit with the quicker-to-say title of “The Data Detective.”)

Now comes the request for a favour… If you pre-order a copy of the book from your favourite bookseller, other people are more likely to discover it: bookshops will order more copies and place them more prominently.

So please consider doing that, for example from:


And one more treat… the brilliant folks at MathsGear will be selling signed first editions of the book, so if you want to find out more about that, sign up below for updates. (Easy to unsubscribe, and I don’t give or sell your email to anyone else.) There should be more details in a few weeks.

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17th of July, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Book of the Week 25 – A Man for All Markets by Edward Thorp

Edward O. Thorp is a remarkable chap, and so this is a remarkable autobiography. A Depression-era child whose parents were smart but desperately poor, young Thorp took part-time jobs so that he could buy raw materials. As a boy, he made his own gunpowder, pipe-bombs, rockets, rocket-powered toy cars, and even nitro-glycerine. Discovering a powerful dye, aniline red, he used it to turn his local swimming pool a satisfying blood-red colour, earning the headline in the local newspaper, “Unknown Pranksters Dye Long Beach Plunge Red.”

By 1960 Thorp was a young maths professor at MIT and the headlines had migrated to the Washington Post: “You Can So Beat the Gambling House at Blackjack, Math Expert Insists.” Thorp was the father of card-counting, but there’s so much more than that: he recounts a casino trying to poison him as he took them to the cleaners at baccarat, and most splendid of all, his adventures with Claude Shannon – the Einstein of computer science – building a wearable computer in an effort to beat roulette.

Thorp made far more money, in the end, running hedge funds – and his advantures in the early days of quantitative finance are no less interesting.

Ed Thorp is no prose stylist, but with such remarkable raw material he doesn’t need to be: he tends to tell the story brisk and straight, with an eye for nerdy detail. A great book; I should read more biography!

UK: Blackwell’s Amazon

US: Powell’s Amazon

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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6th of July, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Book of the Week 21: Sleight of Mind by Matt Cook

Sleight of Mind offers “75 ingenious paradoxes in mathematics, physics and philosophy” – and there are many classics here – the Monty Hall problem; the Hilbert hotel; Feynman’s sprinkler; Achilles and the Tortoise.

I was expecting a rather breezy discussion of the puzzles and paradoxes – along the lines of Julian Baggini’s popular book The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten – but it’s actually WAY more technical than I anticipated. I studied Godel’s incompleteness theorem, Arrow’s general possibility theorem and Cantor’s diagonalisation argument at university – none of them in introductory classes. I did not find Matt Cook’s treatment to be dumbed down relative to that level – it was more like being taken back to a classroom surrounded by a small number of very intimidating mathematicians…

Cook’s treatment of the problems is perfectly lucid but for those without a background in mathematics or logic it is going to require some very hard thinking.

All that said: there’s a lot to enjoy here, if you feel up to it. And if you’re studying a relevant degree this is a great resource.

An alternative for the generaly reader is Raymond Smullyan’s wonderful book of puzzles, What Is The Name Of This Book? It starts gently, one brain-teaser at a time, but by the end of the book you’ve gone deep into powerful ideas of logic and mathematics.

UK: Blackwells   Amazon

US: Powells   Amazon


My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones.

Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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13th of June, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Book of the Week 19: Humankind, by Rutger Bregman

Rutger Bregman’s new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, makes a simple argument: most people, most of the time, are decent. Whether this strikes you as absurd, or obvious, may depend on what side of bed you got out of. Bregman makes a strong case that we’ve been groomed to think the worst of each other by books such as The Lord of The Flies and The Selfish Gene, and a diet of grim stories in the daily news. The book is wide-ranging, and while it is most definitely a polemic – Bregman writes to persuade – it is also full of the most fabulous storytelling. I loved reading it.

Some of the material I knew – for example, the ever-growing question marks over Zimbardo’s prison simulation have become infamous, re-interprerations of Milgram’s shock machine were popularised on RadioLab, and if I recall correctly the urban myth that nobody came to help Kitty Genovese was debunked in Freakonomics. It’s all woven together rather wonderfully here, though.

Other tales, in particular the story of the real-life Lord of the Flies, were completely new to me. The book is spellbindingly well written and you should read it. You’ll learn a lt (I did) and you’ll have good reason to feel better about the human race.

UK: Blackwell’sAmazon

US: Powell’sAmazon

While you’re here – my NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in two weeks. Please consider ordering online or at your local bookshop, which will be sorely in need of your support.

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18th of May, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Book of the Week 18: The Unthinkable, by Amanda Ripley

What is it like to be caught up in the middle of an unthinkable disaster? Why are our responses to these extreme and unexpected events themselves often extreme and unexpected? Amanda Ripley began writing this book after interviewing survivors of the 9/11 attacks. “These people had an agenda,” she writes, “They had thinking they wanted to tell other people before the next terrorist attack.”
One of the strengths of the book – which covers not just 9/11 but Hurricane Katrina and various other catastrophes – is the storytelling, often based on interviews with survivors.
But there are other elements, too. Ripley also relies on historical accounts; her opening tale, well-told, is the explosion of the Mont Blanc munitions ship that devastated Halifax in 1917. One of the survivors Samuel Henry Price, went on to become a sociologist who studied our response to disasters.
Ripley occasionally markets the book as a guide to how to survive if you’re ever in a catastrophic situation, and perhaps it would help. That sells the book short, I think: I was fascinated by the storytelling. The science and psychology of disaster responses is less prominent but there was plenty to interest my inner nerd. I have no doubt you’ll see references to Ripley in the next series of Cautionary Tales.
UK: Amazon Blackwell’s
US: Amazon Powell’s

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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5th of May, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Book of the Week 16: The Ostrich Paradox

A brief shout-out this week for a brief-but-good book, The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare For Disasters by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther. Meyer and Kunreuther combine a nice dose of behavioural science with some striking examples: Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 1935 Labor Day storm, the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, and many others. They explore the cognitive biases that lead us to underprepare, or to abandon protection after a while. Clear writing, good stories, lots of solid academic references.

UK: AmazonBlackwells

US: Amazon – Powells



My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a BIG help.

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20th of April, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

How not to lose your mind in the Covid-19 age

here are as many responses to the Covid-19 pandemic as there are people to respond. Some have of us have children to home-school. Some of us have elderly relatives to worry about; some of us are the elderly relatives in question. Some of us have never been busier; others have already lost their jobs.

One experience is common, however: wherever the virus has started to spread, life is changing radically for almost everyone. It’s a strange and anxious time, and some of the anxiety is inevitable. For many people, however, much of the stress can be soothed with – if you will pardon the phrase – one weird trick.

First, a diagnosis. Most of us, consciously or not, have a long list of things to do. As the virus and the lockdowns have spread, many of the items on the to-do list have simply evaporated. At the same time, a swarm of new tasks have appeared, multiplying by the day: everything from the small-yet-unfamiliar (“get toilet paper” and “claim refund on cancelled holiday”) to the huge-and-intimidating (“organise an inspiring home-school curriculum” or “find a new job”).

The change is so fast and comprehensive that for most of us it is unprecedented. Even a divorce or an international relocation is more gradual. The death of a spouse might be the only experience that comes close. No wonder that even those of us who are safe and well and feel loved and financially secure find ourselves reeling at the scale of it all.

To the extent that the problem is that the to-do list is unrecognisable, the solution is oddly simple: get the to-list back in order. Here’s how.

Get a piece of paper. Make a list of all the projects that are on your mind. David Allen, author of the cult productivity manual Getting Things Done, defines a project as “any multistep outcome that can be completed within a year”. So, yes: anything from trying to source your weekly groceries to publishing a book.

That list should have three kinds of projects on it.

First, there are the old projects that make no sense in the new world. For those that can be mothballed until next year, write them down and file them away. Others will disappear forever. Say your goodbyes. Some part of your subconscious may have been clinging on, and I’m going to guess that ten seconds of acknowledging that the project has been obliterated will save on a vague sense of unease in the long run.

Second, there are the existing projects, some of which have become more complicated in the mid-pandemic world. Things that you might previously have done on automatic may now require a little thought. Again, a few moments with a pen and paper will often tell you all you need to know: what’s changed? What do I now need to do? What, specifically, is my next action? Write it down.

Third, there are brand new projects. For me, for example, I need to rewrite the introduction to my forthcoming book (‘How To Make The World Add Up, since you were wondering). It’s going to seem mighty strange without coronavirus references in it. Many of us need to devote more than a little attention to the sudden appearance of our children at home. Some of us need to hunt for new work; others, for a better home-office set-up. Many of us are now volunteering to look after vulnerable neighbours.  In each case, the drill is the same: sketch out the project, ask yourself what the very next step is, and write it down.

Occasionally, you may encounter something that’s on your mind – the fate of western civilisation, for example, or the fact that the health service desperately needs more ventilators and more protective equipment. For my family, it’s an elderly relative, suffering from dementia, in a locked-down nursing home. We can’t visit him. He can’t communicate on the phone or comprehend a video chat. There is, for now, literally nothing we can do but wait and hope. Acknowledging that fact – that there is no action to be taken – is itself a useful step.

I won’t pretend that in this frightening time, working through your to do list in a systematic way will resolve all anxieties. It won’t. But you may be surprised at how much mental energy it saves – and at the feeling of relief as all these confusing and barely-acknowledged new responsibilities take shape and feel more under your control.

Or so it seems to me. Good luck, and keep safe.


Oh – and in case it wasn’t obvious, this week’s Book of the Week is David Allen’s superb Getting Things Done.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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29th of March, 2020MarginaliaOther WritingResourcesComments off

Cautionary Tales Ep 8 – You Have Reached Your Destination

More than two and a half thousand years ago – so the story goes – King Croesus of Lydia consulted the oracle at Delphi. And the oracle assured him that if he went to war against Persia he would destroy a mighty empire. Reassured, Croesus launched his war, and was defeated. The oracle had been correct, but the mighty empire that Croesus destroyed was his own.

Our modern oracles are predictive algorithms. And perhaps the strange old tale of King Croesus has a great deal to teach us about how to interact with these silicon prophets.

Featuring: Archie Panjabi, Toby Stephens, Rufus Wright, Melanie Gutteridge, Mircea Monroe and Ed Gaughan.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]


Further reading and listening

Both stories about the oracle at Delphi are in Herodotus: The Histories.

Tom Knudson did the original reporting on “Death by GPS” for the Sacramento Bee. Reuters covered the Carpi / Capri confusion. Both stories – and others – are discussed in Greg Milner’s  excellent book Pinpoint.

Gretchen Morgenson covered AIG’s woes for the New York Times in “Behind Insurer’s Crisis, Blind Eye to a Web of Risk” 27 Sep 2008.

Esther Eidinow discusses what we can learn from how the Greeks consulted their oracles in “Oracles and Models” at The Conversation.

The Pierre Wack quote about forecasts is in “Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead” Harvard Business Review Sep/Oct 1985.

The original study of the illusion of explanatory depth is Rozenblit, Leonid, and Frank Keil. “The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth.” Cognitive science vol. 26,5 (2002): 521-562. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog2605_1

The study of how forecasting tournaments nurture humility is Barbara Mellers, Philip Tetlock, Hal R. Arkes, Forecasting tournaments, epistemic humility and attitude depolarization, Cognition, Volume 188, 2019, Pages 19-26

The study of a 1980s diagnostic aid is Wyatt J., Spiegelhalter D. (1991) Evaluating Medical Expert Systems: What To Test, And How ?. In: Talmon J.L., Fox J. (eds) Knowledge Based Systems in Medicine: Methods, Applications and Evaluation. Lecture Notes in Medical Informatics, vol 47. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg

The study of navigating around Kashiwa with or without GPS is Toru Ishikawa, Hiromichi Fujiwara, Osamu Imai, Atsuyuki Okabe, “Wayfinding with a GPS-based mobile navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 28, Issue 1, 2008, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2007.09.002.



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