/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Tue, Aug 29 2017
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  • Tim Harford's bite-sized "Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy"

    Tim Harford's bite-sized "Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy"

    Tim Harford (previously) is an economist with a gift for explaining complex subjects in simple, accessible terms: his latest book, Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, uses 50 short essays about technologies as varied as Ikea's Billy Bookcase, the plow, and AI to illustrate the ways that the human race has transformed itself, its relations, and the planet.

    The book builds on Harford's excellent BBC podcast of the same name, which I've been enjoying ever since I heard about it on Harford's longrunning BBC programme More or Less, which looks at timely news stories with a sceptical, statistical eye, unpicking the numbers in the day's news to present a much-needed dose of technical rigour as well as an ongoing masterclass in the ways that statistics can illuminate or deceive.

    As you might expect from the critical nature of More or Less, Harford's looks into inventions are not mere cheerleading for innovation -- each of these crisp, short, eminently readable essays takes account of the good and the bad, the winners and the losers (see, for example the entry on "intellectual property").

    Popular economics writers have made a TED Talk industry out of tracing improbable connections and telling just-so stories that elevate market orthodoxy to a moral virtue, but Harford embodies the best of Bayesian thinking, a way of approaching the subject that looks at more than one side of the story, but without landing in a kind of muddled, "Well, you get the good with the bad" view from nowhere.

    This is a lovely book: the kind of thing whose bite-sized morsels add up to a whole meal, but can be enjoyed and shared on their own.

    Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy [Tim Harford/Riverhead]

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