Book recommendations from Tim Harford


I have officially finished my second year in university. Hmmmm. I’ll let you know what I think about that when it sinks in more.

Meanwhile, exams are over, and ha, stumbled across just the right article for me to start my vacation – Tim Harford recommends five books!

In particular, I’m quite pleasantly surprised to find a book by Cory Doctorow in that list. I read his Little Brother a while back (because it’s totally free for download) and it just blew me away. He has a kind of creepy ability to construct a world that seems so real and make it seem like the things that happened there can really happen here. And it makes you think. A lot. And the geeky stuff are awesome, though slightly hard to digest if your mind is tired.

Either way, time to hunt down some books! It’s funny how the first thing I really want to do with my vacation is to read books, both fiction and non-fiction alike. There are so many things I want to know and learn, and for some reason it feels like I’m actually prevented from doing that during actual academic term time. There were always project deadlines, assignments or some ECA admin stuff.

Feels a lot like school, when actual learning is not done in class. I thought uni would be different. This issue is worth a post by itself, so let’s leave it at this for now.

I’d like to specialize, but…


The inevitable post Chinese New Year weight gain – and CNY is not even over yet, it’s only the 8th day out of 15 – made me think about getting up early to jog.

Of course, the phrasing I used already gave away the fact that I did not do much beyond thinking about it. But then I see people, middle-aged and sometimes older uncles and aunties, jogging every single morning when I wait for the bus, and evening or even night when I come back. Their steady, continuous jog put me to shame.

Then these words hit me today that made me think about this in a new light – comparative advantage.

In economics, comparative advantage exists when one is able to produce something by forgoing relatively lesser amount of next best alternatives, or opportunity costs. It is often shown that by specializing in things a country has comparative advantage in and then trading for other things, everyone can get better off.

I wonder if it can be used here. What I’m thinking of is of course: I have no comparative advantage in jogging or other forms of physical activity. I am much better at sitting around and thinking about things. So by jogging – especially at the glacial speed I use, not to mention the constant stopping – and the subsequent showers and laundry (hidden costs!), I am forgoing a whole lot of stuff I could have done, like finishing my assignments and projects and writing my story, and the enjoyment I get out of it.

Some people though, not necessarily an athletic but anyone who likes doing physical things, would have a comparative advantage there. They’re better at it, and they like it, dammit. I bet they are forgoing less of other stuff.

The next step should have been to specialize in what we’re good at and trade. The tragedy is that we can’t trade health. But just imagine if we can specialize! All those sports buff can work out all they like, and I can stay here and have fun with my imagination. And we’d all be very good at what we do.

What a contrast it is. Balance, not specialization, is the key in life.

It is not just health. Nowadays, all of us are ‘supposed’ to be good at everything; have the hard and soft skills, be an all-rounder, team player, the list goes on. Well, not all of us conform to that, but we feel the pressure every day.

How wise is it to try, though? I’ve seen people who have all the technical knowledge, who really specialized in what they’re good at, but have none of the soft skills needed to work with other people, or communicate properly, thus limiting their potential at work. Even if specialization makes them very good at what they do. This is one problem with specialization.

Another, though, is the fact that most new developments in knowledge these days are interdisciplinary in nature. And it’s when different disciplines borrow ideas from each other, a kind of trade as well. But if we really specialize and yet do not know how to communicate, or that we specialize until such a stage that we do not have room for other kinds of knowledge – won’t that be putting a limit to ourselves? If we can’t communicate, can we trade?

I think a certain degree of specialization is needed, which will become expertise, but just sticking to things we’re good at shouldn’t be our strategy in life.

Perhaps comparative advantage shouldn’t be used on life. But isn’t the economy part of life? Should comparative advantage be used there as well then? We are always told the reasons why countries don’t always specialize. Food security, politics, threat of war, etc. force countries to listen to their survival instincts and try to be self-sufficient, despite ‘inefficiencies’.

In fact, the existence of sovereign countries itself imply that countries are more like individuals, who can’t trade their health or in this case, their dignity, for the lack of a better word; and who want to watch their own backs, and not stick to what they’re good at.

Hmm. I think it deserves more thought, though I should read more on comparative advantage. But now my opportunity cost of hanging around online has far exceeded the benefits – this is forgoing more sleep than I want.

Happy Chinese New Year. :)