Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy
Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy

Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy

But the more ordinary people are able to produce, the more powerful people can confiscate. Agricultural abundance creates rulers and ruled, masters and servants, and inequality of wealth unheard of in hunter-gatherer societies. (Location 138)

Note: agricultural abundance leads to inequality

since women no longer had to carry toddlers around while foraging, they had more frequent pregnancies. (Location 162)

Note: The agricultural revolution saw humans settle and favour farming. Women had more children as they didnt have to carry kids around whilst foraging

The plough, then, did much more than increase crop yields. It changed everything, leading some to ask whether inventing the plough was entirely a good idea. Not that it didn’t work – it worked brilliantly – but because along with providing the underpinnings of civilisation, it seems to have enabled the rise of misogyny and tyranny. Archaeological evidence also suggests that the early farmers had far worse health than their immediate hunter-gatherer forebears. With their diets of rice and grain, our ancestors were starved of vitamins, iron and protein. As societies switched from foraging to agriculture ten thousand years ago, the average height of both men and women shrank by around 6 inches (15cm), and there’s ample evidence of parasites, disease and childhood malnutrition. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel, called the adoption of agriculture ‘the worst mistake in the history of the human race’. (Location 168)

Note: The agricultural revolution had many negative effects, including an increase in death by disease

You may wonder why, then, agriculture spread so quickly. We’ve already seen the answer: the food surplus enabled larger populations, and societies with specialists – builders, priests and craftsmen, but also specialist soldiers. (Location 175)

Note: Food surplus enbled population growth and specialised roles in society

As I researched these stories, I realised that some themes emerged over and over again. The plough illustrates many of them: for example, the way new ideas often shift the balance of economic power, creating both winners and losers; how changes to the economy can have unexpected effects on the way we live, such as changing relationships between men and women; and how an invention like the plough opens up the possibility for further inventions such as writing, property rights, chemical fertiliser and much more. (Location 239)

Note: Inventions can have profound effects on a society beyond the purpose for which they were designed

to dismiss the Luddites as backward fools would be unfair. The Luddites didn’t smash machine looms because they wrongly feared that machines would make England poorer. They smashed the looms because they rightly feared that machines would make them poorer. They were skilled workers who knew that the machine looms would devalue their skills. They understood perfectly well the implications of the technology they faced and they were right to dread it. The Luddite predicament is not uncommon. New technologies almost always create new winners and losers. Even a better mousetrap is bad news for the manufacturers of traditional mousetraps. It is hardly good news for the mice, either. (Location 263)

Note: New technologies always create new winners and losers

Thomas Edison’s phonograph led the way towards a winner-take-all dynamic in the performing industry. The very best performers went from earning like Mrs Billington to earning like Elton John. Meanwhile, the only-slightly-less good went from making a comfortable living to struggling to pay their bills: small gaps in quality became vast gaps in money. In 1981, an economist called Sherwin Rosen called this phenomenon ‘the Superstar economy’. Imagine, he said, the fortune that Mrs Billington might have made if there’d been phonographs in 1801 (Location 315)

Note: The gramophone led to a winner takes all dynamic in the performance industry, called the superstar economy

John Warne Gates described it more poetically: ‘Lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust.’ We simply call it barbed wire. (Location 354)

Tags: quotes

Note: .quotes

Modern economies are also built on the idea that private property is a good thing, because private property gives people an incentive to invest in and improve what they own (Location 413)

This function of matching people who have coincidental wants is among the most powerful ways the internet is reshaping the economy. Traditional markets work perfectly well for some goods and services, but they’re less useful when the goods and services are urgent or obscure. (Location 452)

The futurist philosopher Nick Bostrom has a cynical take on this: twenty years is ‘a sweet spot for prognosticators of radical change’, he writes: nearer, and you’d expect to be seeing prototypes by now; further away, and it’s not so attention-grabbing. Besides, says Bostrom, ‘[t]wenty years may also be close to the typical duration remaining of a forecaster’s career, bounding the reputational risk of a bold prediction (Location 683)

Note: forecasting 20 years into the future is a relatvely safe reputational bet

Martin Ford, the author of Rise of the Robots, points out that robots can land aeroplanes and trade shares on Wall Street, but they still can’t clean toilets (Location 712)

Tags: robots

Note: .robots

But the same basic idea links every welfare state: that the ultimate responsibility for ensuring people don’t starve on the street should lie not with family, or charity, or private insurers, but with government. (Location 735)

Note: The government is responsible for ensuring people dont starve in the streets

But our economies have always relied on the idea that people provide for themselves by selling their labour. (Location 788)

Note: You provide for yourself by selling your labour

For many new mothers who want – or need – to get back to work, formula is a godsend. And women are right to worry that taking time out might damage their careers. Recently, economists studied the experiences of the high-powered men and women emerging from Chicago University’s MBA programme, entering the worlds of consulting and high finance. At first the women had similar experiences to the men, but over time a huge gap in earnings opened up. The critical moment? It was motherhood. Women took time off, and employers paid them less in response. Ironically, the men in the study were more likely than the women to have children. They just didn’t change their working patterns (Location 849)

Note: Women were paid less when they reached motherhood as they took time off

Formula-fed infants get sick more often. (Location 863)

In Utah, there’s a company called Ambrosia Labs. It pays mums in Cambodia to express breastmilk, screens it for quality, and sells it on to American mums. It’s pricey now – over a hundred dollars a litre. But that could come down with scale. Governments might even be tempted to tax formula milk to fund a breastmilk market subsidy. Justus von Liebig sounded the death knell for wet nursing as a profession; perhaps the global supply chain is bringing it back. (Location 884)

Women in the US now spend around forty-five minutes per day in total on cooking and cleaning up; that is still much more than men, who spend just fifteen minutes a day. But it is a vast change from Mary’s four hours a day. (Location 899)

Tags: cooking

Note: .cooking

The data are clear that the washing machine didn’t save a lot of time, because before the washing machine we didn’t wash clothes very often. When it took all day to wash and dry a few shirts, people would use replaceable collars and cuffs or dark outer layers to hide the grime. But we cannot skip many meals in the way that we can skip the laundry. When it took two or three hours to prepare a meal, that was a job that someone had to take the time to do. The washing machine didn’t save much time, and the ready meal did, because we were willing to stink but we weren’t willing to starve. (Location 937)

Note: Ready made meals saved women a lot more time than the washing machine. The introduction of the washing machine increased the frequency of clothes washing whilst ready made meals did not alter the frequency of meals

The industrialisation of food – symbolised by the TV dinner – changed our economy in two important ways. It freed women from hours of domestic chores, removing a large obstacle to them adopting serious professional careers. But by making empty calories ever more convenient to acquire, it also freed our waistlines to expand. The challenge now – as with so many inventions – is to enjoy the benefit without also suffering the cost. (Location 957)

Note: The industrialisation of food freed womens time but also increased calory intake and obesity ratea among the general population

But even the obvious modern alternative to the pill, condoms, have a failure rate. Because people don’t tend to use condoms exactly as they’re supposed to, they sometimes rip or slip – with the result that for every hundred sexually active women using condoms for a year, eighteen will become pregnant. Not great. The failure rate of the sponge is similar; the diaphragm isn’t much better. But the failure rate of the pill is just 6 per cent – three times safer than condoms. In fact, that assumes typical use – use it perfectly and the failure rate drops to one twentieth of that. And responsibility for using the pill perfectly was the woman’s, not that of her fumbling partner. (Location 971)

Note: The pill has a far lower failure rate then condoms. 6% vs 18%

invest in their careers. Before the pill was available, taking five years or more to qualify as a doctor or a lawyer did not look like a good use of time and money if pregnancy was a constant risk. To reap the benefits of those courses, a woman would need to be able to reliably delay becoming a mother until she was thirty at least – having a baby might derail her studies or delay her professional progress at a critical time. (Location 993)

Note: The pill enabled women to invest in their careers by delaying pregnancy

building a factory in an earthquake zone: just one bit of bad luck and the expensive investment might be trashed. (Location 997)

Tags: metaphor

Note: .metaphor

The invention of market research marks an early step in a broader shift from a ‘producer-led’ to a ‘consumer-led’ approach to business – from making something then trying to persuade people to buy it, to trying to find out what people might buy and then making it. (Location 1113)

Air conditioning as we know it began in 1902, and it was nothing to do with human comfort. The workers at Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography and Printing Company in New York were frustrated with varying humidity levels when trying to print in colour. The process required the same paper to be printed four times – in cyan ink, magenta, yellow and black. If the humidity changed between print runs, the paper would slightly expand or contract. Even a millimetre’s misalignment looked awful. The printers asked Buffalo Forge, a heating company, if it could devise a system to control humidity. Buffalo Forge assigned the problem to a young engineer, just a year out of university. Willis Carrier was earning just ten dollars a week – below minimum wage in today’s money. But he figured out a solution: circulating air over coils that were chilled by compressed ammonia maintained the humidity at a constant 55 per cent. (Location 1169)

Note: Air conditioning was created to keep humidity constant in the printing process

Electricity allowed power to be delivered exactly where and when it was needed. Small steam engines were hopelessly inefficient, but small electric motors worked just fine. So a factory could contain several smaller motors, each driving a small drive shaft – or, as the technology developed, every work bench would have its own machine tool with its own little electric motor. Power wasn’t transmitted through a single, massive spinning drive shaft but through wires. (Location 1353)

Note: Small electric motors are far more efficient than small steam engines

Which puts Solow’s quip in a new light. By 2000, about half a century after the first computer program, productivity was picking up a bit. Two economists, Erik Brynjolfsson and Lorin Hitt, published research showing that many companies had invested in computers for little or no reward, but others had reaped big benefits. What explained the difference? Why did computers help some companies, but not others? It was a puzzle. Brynjolfsson and Hitt revealed their solution: what mattered was whether the companies had also been willing to reorganise as they installed the new computers, taking advantage of their potential. That often meant decentralising, outsourcing, streamlining supply chains and offering more choice to customers. You couldn’t just take your old processes and add better computers any more than you could take your old steam-powered factory and add electricity. You needed to do things differently; you needed to change the whole system (Location 1377)

Note: Companies needed to reorganise to take advantage of their investment in computers. This was also the case for factories which installed electric motors

The thing about a revolutionary technology is that it changes everything – that’s why we call it revolutionary. And changing everything takes time, and imagination and courage – and sometimes just a lot of hard work. (Location 1387)

inventing the box was the easy bit – the shipping container had already been tried in various forms for decades, without catching on. The real challenge was overcoming the social obstacles. To begin with, the trucking companies, shipping companies and ports couldn’t agree on a standard. Some wanted large containers; others wanted smaller or shorter versions, perhaps because they specialised in heavy goods such as canned pineapple, or moved them by truck on narrow mountain roads. Then there were the powerful dock-workers’ unions, who resisted the idea. You might think they’d have welcomed shipping containers, as they’d make the job of loading ships safer – but they also meant there’d be fewer jobs to go around. (Location 1417)

Note: Inventing the shipping container was easy, getting everyone to agree on a standard was difficult

manufacturers are less and less interested in positioning their factories close to their customers – or even their suppliers. What matters instead is finding a location where the workforce, the regulations, the tax regime and the going wage all help make production as efficient as possible. Workers in China enjoy new opportunities; in developed countries they experience new threats to their jobs; and governments anywhere feel that they’re competing with governments everywhere to attract business investment. (Location 1465)

Note: Shipping containers drasticaly reduce the time needed to load and unload ships (10 days to hours), Enabling production facilities to be located further from customers

The retailers didn’t want to install scanners until the manufacturers had put barcodes on their products; the manufacturers didn’t want to put barcodes on their products until the retailers had installed enough scanners. (Location 1513)

Note: The barcode faced a chicken and egg problem between retailers and manufacturers, neither wanted to be the first to spend money on scanners/package alterations

the barcode isn’t just a way to do business more efficiently; it also changes what kind of business can be efficient. (Location 1534)

Note: The barcode helped large retailers expand and gain further advantage over small retailers

There’s a name for poor countries with crazy dictators propped up by cynical foreign money: banana republics. Ironically, Guatemala’s woes were intimately bound up with its chief export, bananas. But without the invention of yet another system, Guatemalan politics – and western diets – would look very different. That system is called the cold chain. (Location 1554)

Note: A country where a crazy dictator is propped up by foreign money is called a banana republic

Argentina’s government offered a prize to anyone who could keep its beef cold enough for long enough to export it overseas. (Location 1566)

Note: Argentinas offer of a prize to anyone who could enble them to export their meat long distances spurred the invention of refrigeration for ships

Thermo King, and the last link in the cold chain – the global supply chain that keeps perishable goods at controlled temperatures. The cold chain revolutionised healthcare. During the Second World War, Jones’s portable refrigeration units preserved drugs and blood for injured soldiers. The cold chain is how vaccines get around without going bad, (Location 1580)

Note: The cold chain is a global supply chain which prevents pershiable goods from spoiling

The cold chain is one of the pillars of the global trading system. As we’ve seen, the shipping container made long-distance commerce cheaper, quicker and more predictable. The barcode helped huge, diverse retailers keep track of complex supply chains. The diesel engine – which we’ll encounter later in the book – made huge ocean-going ships amazingly efficient. And the cold chain? The cold chain took all these other inventions and extended their reach to perishable food. Now meat, fruit and vegetables were subject to the economic logic of global specialisation and global trade. Yes, you can grow French beans in France – but perhaps you should fly them in from Uganda? Different growing conditions mean this kind of thing can make environmental sense, as well as economic. One study found it was eco-friendlier to grow tomatoes in Spain and transport them to Sweden than to grow them in Sweden. Another claimed that it emits less carbon to raise a lamb in New Zealand and ship it to England than to raise a lamb in England (Location 1594)

Ikea was not, back then, the global behemoth it is today, with stores in dozens of countries and turnover in the tens of billions. Its founder, Ingvar Kamprad, was just seventeen when he started the business with a small gift of cash from his dad, a reward for trying hard at school despite dyslexia (Location 1694)

Note: Ikeas founder got his first sum of money from bis father as a present for trying hard in school despite having dyslexia

We don’t tend to think of elevators as mass-transportation systems, but they are: they move hundreds of millions of people every day, and China alone is installing 700,000 elevators a year (Location 1753)

Note: Elevators move hundreds of millions of people every day

The city landscape was about to be turned on its head by the man who had invented not the elevator, but the elevator brake. (Location 1774)

Note: The invention of the elevator brake was key to the adoption of elevators

‘Turned on its head’ is right – because the new safe elevators transformed the position of the highest status areas in the building. When the highest reaches of a six-or seven-storey building were at the end of an arduous climb, they used to be the servants’ quarters, the attic for mad aunts, or the garret for struggling artists. After the invention of the elevator, the attic became the loft apartment. The garret became the penthouse. (Location 1776)

Note: The elevator changed the desireability of the top of building apartments. What was once for peasants was then the most expensive location

But often the older, simpler ideas still work: for example, making the wait for an elevator pass more quickly by putting full length mirrors in the elevator lobby. (Location 1799)

Note: Full length mirrors reduce perceived wait time

Throughout history, the development of cryptography has indeed been driven by conflict. Two thousand years ago, Julius Caesar sent encrypted messages to far-flung outposts of the Roman empire – he’d arrange in advance that recipients should simply shift the alphabet by some predetermined number. So, for example, ‘jowbef Csjubjo’, if you substitute all the letters with the one before them, would read ‘invade Britain’. (Location 1916)

Note: Cryptography was often used to send secret messages in times of war

What these academics realised was that some mathematics are a lot easier to perform in one direction than another. Take a very large prime number – one that’s not divisible by anything other than itself. Then take another. Multiply them together. That’s simple enough, and it gives you a very, very large ‘semi-prime’ number. That’s a number that’s divisible only by two prime numbers. Now challenge someone else to take that semi-prime number, and figure out which two prime numbers were multiplied together to produce it. That, it turns out, is exceptionally hard. Public key cryptography works by exploiting this difference. In effect, an individual publishes his semi-prime number – his public key – for anyone to see. And the RSA algorithm allows others to encrypt messages with that number, in such a way that they can be decrypted only by someone who knows the two prime numbers that produced it. It’s as if you could distribute open padlocks for the use of anyone who wants to send you a message – padlocks only you can then unlock. They don’t need to have your private key to protect the message and send it to you; they just need to snap shut one of your padlocks around it. (Location 1930)

Before the Venetian style caught on, accounts were rather basic. An early medieval merchant was little more than a travelling salesman. He had no need to keep accounts – he could simply check whether his purse was full or empty. A feudal estate needed to keep track of expenses, but the system was rudimentary: someone would be charged to take care of a particular part of the estate and would give a verbal ‘account’ of how things were going and what expenses had been incurred. This account would be heard by witnesses – the ‘auditors’, literally ‘those who hear’. In English the very language of accountancy harks back to a purely oral tradition (Location 1982)

But what was that system? In essence Pacioli’s system has two key elements. First, he describes a method for taking an inventory and then keeping on top of day-to-day transactions using two books – a rough memorandum and a tidier, more organised journal. Second, he uses a third book – the ledger – as the foundation of the system, the double-entries themselves. Every transaction is recorded twice in the ledger: for example, if you sell cloth for a ducat, you must account for both the cloth and the ducat. The double-entry system helps to catch errors – because every entry should be balanced by a counterpart. And this balance, this symmetry, seems almost divine – appealingly enough for a Renaissance mathematician (Location 2016)

handling England’s trade with half the world was a weighty undertaking. The corporation Queen Elizabeth created was called the East India Company. Over the next two centuries, it grew to look less like a trading business than a colonial government. At its peak, it ruled 90 million Indians. It employed an army of 200,000 soldiers. It had a meritocratic civil service. It issued its own coins. (Location 2075)

Note: The east india company was the first limited liability company

corporate power is even greater today, for a simple reason: in a global economy, corporations can threaten to move offshore. The shipping container and the barcode have underpinned global supply chains, giving companies the ability to locate key functions wherever they wish. (Location 2103)

Note: Corporate power is greater today as corporation can threaton to move offshore

government regulators cleared a niche for them. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 was a far-reaching piece of American financial legislation. Among many provisions, Glass-Steagall made it compulsory for investment banks to commission independent financial research into the deals they were brokering; fearing conflicts of interest, Glass-Steagall forbade law firms, accountancy firms and the banks themselves from conducting this work. In effect, the Glass-Steagall Act made it a legal requirement for banks to hire management consultants. For a follow-up, in 1956 the Justice Department banned the emerging computer giant IBM from providing advice about how to install or use computers: another business opportunity for the management consultants. Minimising conflicts of interest was a noble aim, but it hasn’t worked out well. A (Location 2168)

Note: Government regulations introduced to prevent conflicts of interest created an oportunity foor management consultants .consulting

consultants continually find new problems to justify their continued employment – like leeches, attaching themselves and never letting go. It’s a strategy known as ‘land and expand’. One UK government ministry recently admitted that 80 per cent of its supposedly temporary consultants had been working there for more than a year – some for up to nine years. Needless to say, it would have been much cheaper to employ them as civil servants. (Location 2179)

Tags: consulting

Note: .consulting

Patents and copyright grant a monopoly, and monopolies are bad news. Dickens’s British publishers will have charged as much as they could get away with for copies of Bleak House, and cash-strapped literature lovers simply had to go without. But these potential fat profits encourage new ideas. It took Dickens a long time to write Bleak House. If other British publishers could have ripped it off like the Americans, perhaps he wouldn’t have bothered. So intellectual property reflects an economic trade-off – a balancing act. If it’s too generous to the creators then good ideas will take too long to copy, adapt and spread. If it’s too stingy then maybe we won’t see the good ideas at all. (Location 2200)

Note: Intellectual property

After the Second World War, ever more powerful and efficient diesel engines led to ever more enormous ships. Diesel’s invention, quite literally, is the engine of global trade (Location 2454)

The Haber-Bosch process uses nitrogen from the air to make ammonia, which can then be used to make fertilisers. Plants need nitrogen: it’s one of their basic requirements, along with potassium, phosphorus, water and sunlight. In a state of nature, plants grow, they die, the nitrogen they contain returns to the soil, and new plants use it to grow. Agriculture disrupts that cycle: we harvest the plants and eat them. From the earliest days of agriculture, farmers discovered various ways to prevent yields from declining over time – as it happened, by restoring nitrogen to their fields. Manure has nitrogen. So does compost. The roots of legumes host bacteria that replenish the soil’s nitrogen; that’s why it helps to include peas or beans in crop rotation. But these techniques struggle to fully satisfy a plant’s appetite for nitrogen; add more, and the plant grows better. (Location 2568)

Note: The haber bosch process extracts nitrogen from the air in the form of ammonia which can then be used by plants to enhance growth

But the thing about land is, as Mark Twain once joked, that they’re not making it any more. (Location 2587)

Tags: quotes

Note: .quotes

Haber-Bosch process today consumes more than 1 per cent of all the world’s energy. That’s a lot of carbon emissions, and it’s far from the only ecological concern. Only some of the nitrogen in fertiliser makes its way via crops into human stomachs – perhaps as little as 15 per cent. Most of it ends up in the air or water. This is a problem for several reasons. Compounds like nitrous oxide are powerful greenhouse gases. They pollute drinking water. They create acid rain, which makes soils more acidic, which puts ecosystems out of kilter and biodiversity under threat. When nitrogen compounds run off into rivers, they likewise promote the growth of some organisms more than others; the results include ocean ‘dead zones’, where blooms of algae near the surface block out sunlight and kill the fish below (Location 2593)

Note: The haber-bosch process has negative effects including using 1% of the worlds energy and emvironmental effects of ammonia run off into rivers

But rollout was slow and patchy. Some airports installed it; many didn’t. In most airspace, planes weren’t tracked at all. Pilots submitted their flight plans in advance, which should in theory ensure that no two planes were in the same place at the same time. But avoiding collisions ultimately came down to a four-word protocol: ‘see and be seen (Location 2665)

Note: Radar was used for purposes but its rollout for civilian aviation was slow. It took a collision between two planes to expediate this

That business model is known as two-part pricing. It’s also known as the ‘razor and blades’ model, because that’s where it first drew attention – sucker people in with an attractively priced razor, then repeatedly fleece them for extortionately priced replacement blades. (Location 2944)

Tags: pricing

Note: In two-part pricing the customer pays a low initial upfront cost and is then charged a lot to continue using the product/service

Different US states had phased out leaded petrol at different times. So Reyes compared the dates of clean air legislation with subsequent crime data. She concluded that over half the drop in crime – 56 per cent – was because of cars switching to unleaded petrol. That doesn’t prove leaded petrol was wrong. When countries are poor, they might decide that pollution is a price worth paying for progress. Later, as their incomes grow, they decide they can afford to bring in laws that clean the environment up. Economists have a name for this pattern: it’s called the ‘environmental Kuznets curve (Location 3098)

Note: Poor countries may decide that pollution is an ok problem if they grow rich in the process, and then tackle their pollution problem when they are rich

look. They’re antibiotics. Have they been prescribed by a vet? No, the farmer explains. You don’t need a prescription to buy antibiotics. And anyway, vets are expensive. Antibiotics are cheap. She injects her pigs with them routinely, and hopes that’ll stop them getting sick. She’s far from alone. Cramped and dirty conditions on intensive farms are breeding grounds for disease, but routine, low doses of antibiotic can help to keep disease in check. Antibiotics also fatten animals. Scientists are studying gut microbes for clues as to why that is, but farmers don’t need to know why: they simply know that they make more money from fatter animals. No wonder more antibiotics are injected into healthy animals than sick humans. In the big emerging economies, where demand for meat is growing as incomes rise, use of agricultural antibiotics is set to double in twenty years. (Location 3136)

Note: Farmers in poor countries inject animals with over the counter antibiotics to prevent illness and make them fatter

suppose I run a pig farm. Giving routine low doses of antibiotics to my pigs is the perfect way to breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But that’s not my problem. My only incentive is to care about whether dosing my pigs seems to increase my revenues by more than the cost of the drugs. This is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons, where individuals rationally pursuing their own interests ultimately create a collective disaster. (Location 3173)

The standard way that anyone raises a serious line of credit is to pledge property as collateral. Land and buildings make particularly good collateral because they tend to increase in value, and because it’s hard to hide them from creditors. (Location 3284)

Note: Land is good foor raising Credit as it tends to rise in value an cant be hidden

But how do assets become capital? How does the invisible web get woven? Sometimes, it’s a top-down affair. Perhaps the first recognisably modern property registry was in Napoleonic France. Napoleon needed to tax things to fund his incessant wars, and property was a good target for taxation. So he decreed that all French properties would be carefully mapped and their ownership would be registered. Such property map is called a ‘cadastre’, and Napoleon proudly proclaimed that ‘a good cadastre of the parcels will be the complement of my civil code’. After conquering Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium, Napoleon introduced cadastral maps there, as well. In the mid-1800s, (Location 3296)

Tags: property

Note: Napoleon introduced property registers so that he could tax property owners and pay for his wars

The world still produces more bicycles than cars (Location 3412)

Tags: fact

Note: .fact

Reinforced concrete is much stronger and more practical than the unreinforced stuff. It can span larger gaps, allowing concrete to soar in the form of bridges and skyscrapers. But here’s the problem: if it is made cheaply, it will rot from the inside as water gradually seeps in through tiny cracks, and rusts the steel. This process is currently destroying infrastructure across the United States;* in twenty or thirty years’ time, China will be next. China poured more concrete in the three years after 2008 than the United States poured during the entire twentieth century, and nobody thinks that all that concrete is made to exacting standards. (Location 3694)