Tim Harford with his reading list for Christmas

The Undercover economist has long revealed the economic ideas behind everyday experiences. This is a revelation of the books he's liked and would want you to read for Christmas.
Lyonesse
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Lyonesse

by Jack Vance

About the book: No description available


Notes:  From Tim's blog: I recently re-read this in preparation for a forthcoming discussion on the Fictoplasm podcast. It really is magnificent – the finest fantasy trilogy out there. Vance is witty, he’s inventive, and joyful. His bad guys are truly wicked, his heroes and heroines are compelling, and his fairies are utterly mysterious. The dialogue is as distinctive and enjoyable as anything in Tarantino.

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The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
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The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

by Michael Lewis

About the book:  How a Nobel Prize–winning theory of the mind altered our perception of reality. Forty years ago, Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote a series of breathtakingly original studies undoing our assumptions about the decision-making process. Their papers showed the ways in which the human mind erred, systematically, when forced to make judgments in uncertain situations. Their work created the field of behavioral economics, revolutionized Big Data studies, advanced evidence-based medicine, led to a new approach to government regulation, and made much of Michael Lewis’s own work possible. Kahneman and Tversky are more responsible than anybody for the powerful trend to mistrust human intuition and defer to algorithms. The Undoing Project is about a compelling collaboration between two men who have the dimensions of great literary figures. They became heroes in the university and on the battlefield—both had important careers in the Israeli military—and their research was deeply linked to their extraordinary life experiences. Amos Tversky was a brilliant, self-confident warrior and extrovert, the center of rapt attention in any room; Kahneman, a fugitive from the Nazis in his childhood, was an introvert whose questing self-doubt was the seedbed of his ideas. They became one of the greatest partnerships in the history of science, working together so closely that they couldn’t remember whose brain originated which ideas, or who should claim credit. They flipped a coin to decide the lead authorship on the first paper they wrote, and simply alternated thereafter. This story about the workings of the human mind is explored through the personalities of two fascinating individuals so fundamentally different from each other that they seem unlikely friends or colleagues. In the process they may well have changed, for good, mankind’s view of its own mind.


Notes:  From Tim's blog: I have a review coming soon of this book in the Financial Times. It’s a biography of the great psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and it’s nearly perfect – an odd and unnecessary opening chapter, but just start at chapter two and you’ll love it. Kahneman and Tversky are fascinating characters; Kahneman won a Nobel memorial prize and wrote the excellent Thinking Fast and Slow . I thought I knew a fair bit about their collaboration but Lewis’s story is full of surprises and no small degree of tragedy.

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50 Capitalism Ideas You Really Need to Know
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50 Capitalism Ideas You Really Need to Know

by Jonathan Portes

About the book:  Controversial and unavoidable, it shapes our society and our lives - but what really is capitalism? Does it mean greed is good? Are inequality and poverty its inevitable consequences? Can economic growth continue forever or are constant cycles of boom and bust a foregone conclusion? Indeed is capitalism in a fatal crisis - and what, if any, are the alternatives? From capitalism's history, core theories and key institutions to its current-day political power and social impact, this book explains everything you need to understand the world's dominant economic system. Jonathan Portes demystifes the fundamental concepts of capital, creative destruction, the market and the invisible hand; dissects the rival ideologies of socialism, liberalism and Keynesianism; predicts what capitalism means for immigration, the environment and the future of work; and much more - all in 50 concise and authoritative essays. Here is the essential one-volume guide to capitalism: its strengths and weaknesses, past and future - a future that will affect us all.


Notes:  From Tim's blog: Newly crossed my desk, Jonathan Portes’s 50 Ideas You Really Need To Know About Capitalism is presented, as you might expect, in bite-sized chunks. No spellbinding narrative here but that was not the aim. Portes is knowledgeable and the chapters are sharp and clear and full of interesting nuggets.

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Wonderland
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Wonderland

by Steven Johnson

About the book:  “A house of wonders itself. . . . Wonderland inspires grins and well-what-d'ya-knows” —The New York Times Book Review From the New York Times–bestselling author of How We Got to Now and Where Good Ideas Come From, a look at the world-changing innovations we made while keeping ourselves entertained. This lushly illustrated history of popular entertainment takes a long-zoom approach, contending that the pursuit of novelty and wonder is a powerful driver of world-shaping technological change. Steven Johnson argues that, throughout history, the cutting edge of innovation lies wherever people are working the hardest to keep themselves and others amused. Johnson’s storytelling is just as delightful as the inventions he describes, full of surprising stops along the journey from simple concepts to complex modern systems. He introduces us to the colorful innovators of leisure: the explorers, proprietors, showmen, and artists who changed the trajectory of history with their luxurious wares, exotic meals, taverns, gambling tables, and magic shows. Johnson compellingly argues that observers of technological and social trends should be looking for clues in novel amusements. You’ll find the future wherever people are having the most fun.


Notes:  From Tim's blog: And, I’ve mentioned it before but Steven Johnson’s Wonderland is on form – a playful and surprising guide to how play, puzzles and delight have shaped innovation.

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Einstein's Greatest Mistake
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Einstein's Greatest Mistake

by David Bodanis

About the book:  Widely considered the greatest genius of all time, Albert Einstein revolutionised our understanding of the cosmos with his general theory of relativity and helped to lead us into the atomic age. Yet in the final decades of his life he was also ignored by most working scientists, his ideas opposed by even his closest friends. This stunning downfall can be traced to Einstein's earliest successes and to personal qualities that were at first his best assets. Einstein's imagination and self-confidence served him well as he sought to reveal the universe's structure, but when it came to newer revelations in the field of quantum mechanics, these same traits undermined his quest for the ultimate truth. David Bodanis traces the arc of Einstein's intellectual development across his professional and personal life, showing how Einstein's confidence in his own powers of intuition proved to be both his greatest strength and his ultimate undoing. He was a fallible genius. An intimate and enlightening biography of the celebrated physicist, Einstein's Greatest Mistake reveals how much we owe Einstein today - and how much more he might have achieved if not for his all-too-human flaws.


Notes:  From Tim's blog: great short biography with some super storytelling.

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Messy
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Messy

by Tim Harford

About the book:  The urge to tidiness seems to be rooted deep in the human psyche. Many of us feel threatened by anything that is vague, unplanned, scattered around or hard to describe. We find comfort in having a script to rely on, a system to follow, in being able to categorise and file away. We all benefit from tidy organisation - up to a point. A large library needs a reference system. Global trade needs the shipping container. Scientific collaboration needs measurement units. But the forces of tidiness have marched too far. Corporate middle managers and government bureaucrats have long tended to insist that everything must have a label, a number and a logical place in a logical system. Now that they are armed with computers and serial numbers, there is little to hold this tidy-mindedness in check. It's even spilling into our personal lives, as we corral our children into sanitised play areas or entrust our quest for love to the soulless algorithms of dating websites. Order is imposed when chaos would be more productive. Or if not chaos, then . . . messiness. The trouble with tidiness is that, in excess, it becomes rigid, fragile and sterile. In Messy, Tim Harford reveals how qualities we value more than ever - responsiveness, resilience and creativity - simply cannot be disentangled from the messy soil that produces them. This, then, is a book about the benefits of being messy: messy in our private lives; messy in the office, with piles of paper on the desk and unread spreadsheets; messy in the recording studio, the laboratory or in preparing for an important presentation; and messy in our approach to business, politics and economics, leaving things vague, diverse and uncomfortably made-up-on-the-spot. It's time to rediscover the benefits of a little mess.


Notes:  His own book. Perfect companion to all the others mentioned by him.

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