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Book review: Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy by Tim Harford Hachette

Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, book review, Tim Harford, Malcom Gladwell, behavioural economist, economics, micro-economic theory, business industry, unique shopping experience, shopping experience In an eminently readable effort, Harford picks 50 ‘things’ that have had a significant impact on the economy.

When you pick up this book by Tim Harford, the first thing that strikes you is the comment by Malcom Gladwell on the cover, saying every Harford book is ’cause for celebration’. With the reviewer here also being a fan of the author, there would be another endorsement. Harford became famous with his book The Undercover Economist, which explained everyday occurrences in economic terms.

His brand of economics is real, where he explains human behaviour in the context of micro-economic theory. He doesn’t use the label of being a ‘psycho or behavioural economist’ or any other fancy term, but explains in simple words why the coffee shop that you visit when you leave a station charges more than the one across the road. In Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, he takes a detour and chooses 50 things that he considers as inventions that were quite singular and made a significant impact on humanity.

You could have your own choices, but can’t dispute his list. What he does here is that he gives a little background to the invention in question and provides some trivia on the ‘thing’ and then goes on to explain its usefulness. Interestingly, he states that when you pick up a book, there are several inventions involved–each very unique in itself–which, when combined end-to-end, give a wondrous insight.

There is paper to begin with, followed by printing, publishing and, finally, the concept of copyright–which are all special ‘things’. Each of these 50 ‘things’ is explained in four-five pages, which makes the book eminently readable. There are seven sections under different headings, with around seven ‘things’ included under each heading.

The first one is called ‘winners and losers’, a section that will catch your eye instantaneously. Among the seven on the list is ‘Google[1] search’. Now normally, one would talk of physical things, but we all know that this search engine is quite amazing and has transformed the way in which information is sought.

He includes passports also in this list, which is again quite different, as it addresses issues of how people are identified across countries. The second group is called ‘reinventing’ how we live and includes infant formula and the pill, besides interesting things like video games and market research that have added new dimensions to the way in which we plan, as well as do business. The same holds for the department store, where Selfridges was motivated to have a physical structure that has now caught on across the world.

In fact, the store brought in the largest glass window to create a unique shopping experience, something that is today replicated in all shopping malls. The third on ‘new systems’ has ‘things’ like dynamo, shipping container, cold chain, bookcase, elevator and, interestingly, the bar code and tradable debt. The bar code simplifies billing and also identifies products for the same.

Tradable debt is a remarkable innovation in finance that has led to large-scale use of negotiable instruments and credit multiplication. The commonplace elevator is a physical thing that finds mention in the book and is pertinent, as it has actually made possible the construction of high-rise buildings, which would otherwise be inaccessible. The book gets more innovative when he talks of ‘ideas about ideas’.

Here, he includes things like double-entry book keeping that revolutionised the way we maintain accounts and how they can now be made uniform across companies and countries, which would not have been possible in the past. The same holds for limited-liability companies, which is a unique idea on how one does not have to own the business to run it and risk can be shared among a multitude of owners. Intellectual property is another amazing development that provides protection to those who invest in thinking and have the idea fructify.

We all know that in the absence of such protection, there would be less incentive to come up with new things. The author also has space for management consultants who dominate the consultancy space, even though they often tell you what you want them to say, as it becomes easier to sell the idea to stakeholders. The example of McKinsey is described in some detail here.

Harford then gets into the ‘physical innovations’ space under the title ‘where do inventions come from?’ The iPhone, diesel engine, clocks, radar, batteries, etc, all find place here. These innovations are fairly straightforward and identifiable. Harford moves on to what he calls the ‘visible hand’ and gets in tax havens, bank and property registers, among others.

This is interesting, as he traces the origins of banking and later takes us through M-PESA, the revolutionary mobile-based banking system used in Afghanistan and Kenya. Similarly, the idea of property registers, which looks very obvious, was a major innovation.

Even today in India, we lament property disputes due to absence of land records, which also comes in the way of any kind of land reforms. This can be avoided by having these registers in place. Similarly, different tax rates have given rise to the innovative tax havens concept, where people use all kinds of fronts to avoid tax, which is perfectly legal.

His last section is on inventing the wheel, where he includes things like paper, index funds, paper money, concrete and insurance. The Lloyds register is well-known, but the impact of concrete on health has some interesting trivia. Pouring concrete into houses in Mexico allowed homes to have cleaner floors and reduced the incidence of pests and insects, as homes could now be cleaned, which helped to better the health of children, in particular.

The S-bend is another interesting innovation for the disposal of sewage and Harford talks about how this came about in England. Reading along, one can’t possibly not find this book engaging, as it’s simple to read and easy to identify the ‘thing’. At times, the reader may feel like talking to the author just to ask why something was not put in.

It is this kind of mental conversation that the reader would have with the author as she reads along.

Author is chief economist, CARE Ratings


  1. ^ Google (

Book review: 'The Little Book of Black Holes'

Black-holes-little-bookThe Little Book of Black Holes
By Steven S. Gubser and Frans Pretorius
Princeton University Press, 200pp | Buy on Amazon[1]

On September 14, 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, Louisiana, detected gravitational waves[2] produced by the merger of two black holes. This was the culmination of decades-long efforts, allowing scientists to finally pick up the faint whispers murmured by accelerating massive objects, causing ripples in space-time much like a stone thrown in a pond generates oscillations on the water’s surface. This milestone achievement was confirmed recently on August 17, 2017, by the third detection[3] of gravitational waves produced by merging neutron stars whose signal was also detected with conventional methods in ground-based telescopes.

Remarkably, these revolutionizing discoveries were predicted more than a hundred years ago by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which describes how matter distorts the fabric of space-time based on its mass — more massive objects have a greater effect. It was another German physicist by the name of Karl Schwartzchild who found a rigorous solution to the field equations in Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. He did this while serving on the Russian front during World War I.

His work became one of the pillars of modern relativistic studies, eventually leading to the conceptualization of, perhaps, the most mysterious objects in the universe: black holes. [4] Black holes are strange. They’re the last stage in the evolution of some massive stars (at least 10 times more massive than the Sun) which collapse in a region in space where the pulling force of gravity is so strong that not even light is able to escape.

This means that we can’t directly observe black holes. No one has ‘seen’ a black hole so far, but after decades of research, scientists are confident they exist because nothing other than a black hole can explain the physics around us. Black holes are also notoriously difficult to grasp.

Despite this, Steven Gubser and Frans Pretorius, two young professors of physics at Princeton, do an excellent job with their “Little Book of Black Holes”. The brief overview provides a great rundown of the physics and thought system required to get to the bottom of a black hole (spoiler: it’s not pleasant once you cross inside). This lovely book is a rollercoaster ride through time and space, taking the reader right through the ins and outs of peculiar objects like black holes, white holes, and even wormholes, with bouts of ‘real-life’ illustrations to keep the experience (somewhat) grounded. All of this and much more in less than 200 pages, which speaks volumes about the authors’ ability to condense an eminently complex subject into a relatable form.

Prepare for a lot of weirdness but if you can make it to the end, you might feel a little shiver after grazing the last chapter. One can only imagine what Albert Einstein, the man who started it all and who never acknowledged the existence of black holes, would say were he alive today to see where modern cosmology is at. The authors made this thoughtful leap in the last chapter of the book where they write a candid letter to Einstein bringing him up to speed with quasars, dark energy, LIGO, and, of course, black holes.

“A lot of Princeton professors don’t wear ties to work anymore, but most of us do wear socks.

Lake Carnegie is as beautiful as ever. We don’t see many sailors out there, but there’s been an eagle nesting right on the edge of the lake. We haven’t figured out a unified field theory yet, but we’re still trying.

The best is yet to come.” Yours truly Steve and Frans

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Theater Review: 'Off the Meter, on the Record'

NEW YORK–John McDonagh has never delivered a baby in the back seat of his cab, but he’s come close. Mixing the hilarious with the bittersweet in his one-person show “Off the Meter, on the Record,” he looks back on his 35 years of driving a taxi in New York City as seen from the front seat and rearview mirror. This engaging production runs on all cylinders at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

The son of Irish immigrants, McDonagh got his hack license in the mid-1970s. It was intended to be a temporary gig, but as the years and decades went by, he still found himself behind the wheel. He did switch to the dayshift as soon as he could, the night being much more dangerous.

McDonagh started driving in the days before taxis had air conditioning. It got so hot in the summer that he could, as he puts it, finish a shift drenched in sweat, rub his face, and see the pollution come off on his hand. While conditions have improved since then, it’s still a pretty hard life.

Even the horses in Central Park have it better than cabbies. The animals get regular medical checkups, vacations, and time off when it’s too hot or cold. Cabbies, on the other hand, are always expected to be on the road.

McDonagh comes across as neither particularly endearing nor welcoming, but as just another working stiff–one you wouldn’t look twice at if you walked past him. He speaks with an air of authenticity and just a hint of attitude–in other words, as a quintessential New Yorker. His words are laced with resignation and wry nostalgia: in the “bad old days,” cab drivers would find themselves taking passengers to burned out buildings in Manhattan’s Alphabet City and then wait while their fares went inside to conduct a drug deal.

Other things McDonagh has come face to face with during his tenure include the homeless, racial tensions, and numerous drunken passengers. Like the time a man got into his cab, gave him the destination, and then collapsed. When they got to where they were going, the guy was too inebriated to get out of the car.

This led to McDonagh calling the cops, but their presence quickly attracted a crowd of agitated onlookers, and the entire situation threatened to spiral out of control. In addition to driving cabs, McDonagh is also a writer, performer, radio personality, and political activist. His notoriety makes him a sort of an unofficial go-to guy for the media.

He once took actor Stephen Fry, who was working on a travel show at the time, to a club run by folks who looked like they came directly from central casting–with names to match. McDonagh let it drop that he knows far more about certain illegal activities than he should.

John McDonagh on a set by Charlie Corcoran, and projections by Chris Kateff. (Carol Rosegg)

In the political arena, he organized “C.A.B.” (Cabbies Against [President George W.] Bush). This, coupled with his anti-war stance, led to C.A.B. offering free rides to the airport for any Republican member of Congress who was willing to fight in Iraq.

This led to some interesting encounters with Fox News, including an on-air interview. There was also the time McDonagh found himself part of an international incident regarding a message displayed in Times Square. McDonagh’s show attracts mainly because of his recollections of a time fast disappearing, a time when the only way to show something to others was to take a picture of it–with a camera–and physically pass it on.

While many things have changed since McDonagh started driving, that is, hand-held devices have exploded unto the scene, and ashtrays in cabs have been replaced by television screens, others issues have sadly stayed the same: what was once called “unsubstantiated rumors” is now known as “fake news.” The only problem with the show is that it’s too short. Clearly McDonagh has enough material to add to the running time if he so desired.

It would be nice, for example, if he included more information about his personal life. He does mention his two-year stint in the U.S. Army, enlisting right after high school.

It was an experience which taught him that “18-year-olds should not be able to make adult decisions.” The set by Charlie Corcoran, consisting of pieces of an actual New York yellow cab, is excellent. Chris Kateff’s projection design, showing footage of many of the incidents and places McDonagh describes, is nicely integrated into the production.

Michael O’Connor’s lighting works well, and director Ciaran O’Reilly is able to bring the different elements together to work in perfect unison, with a very illuminating sequence to tie things up. An absorbing portrait of a city and society in continual flux, as told by one who has lived through it, “Off the Meter, on the Record” makes for an extremely satisfying journey. ‘Off the Meter, on the Record’
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W.

22nd St.
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or
[1]Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Nov.


Judd Hollander is a reviewer for and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.


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