How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (2021) by Bill Gates is a well researched, well thought out and well written description of how we countries could get to net zero emissions of C02. For anyone interested in the topic who can’t, off the top of their head, say how much of Greenhouse gas emissions come from manufacturing and how much come from agriculture it’s very much worth looking at.

The book summarises very well much of what is in books such as ‘Sustainable Energy : Without the Hot Air by David Mackay’ and books by Vaclac Smil both of whom Gates references. What it also brings is that it’s an easy read that makes the major points well. It is reminiscent of Facfulness by Hans Rosling which Gates also references.

The book makes the point that getting to net zero by 2050 will be difficult and expensive. Gates doesn’t address the criticism by Bjorn Lomborg and Michael Shellenberger that expensive and difficult action on greenhouse gas emission does not have as good a cost benefit ratio as other actions that could be taken to improve the world. Nor does Gates look at recent criticisms of the use of RCP 8.5 as a baseline scenario because the emissions trajectory there is already very unlikely. However, Gates reaches some similar conclusions to Lomborg and Shellenberger, namely that the most valuable thing to do again climate change is to research solutions. Gates is also firmly pro-nuclear. He makes the point the renewables require vast energy storage that is yet to be viable. But he does encourage research in this area.

What the book does really well is to go through each large area of emissions, manufacturing, energy, transport and heating and cooling and goes into detail about what could be done for each and openly how hard and expensive this will be.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is very much worth a read for anyone interested in climate change.

Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams (1994) directed by Steve James and produced by Frederick Marx follows two teenagers in Chicago as they pursue their dreams of playing professional basketball. William Gates and Arthur Agee are excellent basketball players who both get scholarships to St Joseph’s, a private school in the suburbs of Chicago that has a strong basketball program and is where Isiah Thomas went to school.

The documentary looks at the boys and their families and their fates as they play basketball and go through high school. A lot happens. It’s quite a ride. The film reflects US race relations and the way US sport is organised in High Schools and Colleges. The film is now also a time piece of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The film is almost three hours long but manages to continue to be engaging throughout. It’s quite a story. It’s also worth reading what happened to the Gates and Agee and their families after the film.

Bunker : Building for the End Times

Bunker: Building for the End Times (2020) by Bradley L Garrett looks at bunkers being built to withstand a catastrophe and the people who build them and also at preppers, that is people preparing for the end time. Preppies, those who are preparing for high paying jobs in the US, are not considered due to the lack of bunkers in their apparel. Garrett is a cultural geographer who has done quite a bit of urban exploration and is now at University College Dublin.

There is an excellent episode of the design podcast Ninety-nine Percent Invisible that interviews Garrett about the book. It’s well worth a listen for anyone pondering reading the book.

Garrett meets and talks with various people who are arrange schemes to sell people space in bunkers for when a disaster hits. Garrett writes well and much of the book is an amusing ride looking at the structures they are attempting to sell. He has a look at people selling shelters that can be buried to allow people to survive for some time. He also has a look at the Berlin system of bunkers that was meant to protect some people for some time in the event of a war and looks at various plans governments had and the bunker systems that they constructed to try and preserve government.

The book covers preppers in Thailand where Garrett talks to a man building a compound for his family to handle a catastrophe. He also talks to preppers in Australia and the US, some of whom are working out ways to farm on their own hidden in the hill. Garrett also gets to ‘PrepperCon’ which is a convention for various firms in the US selling bunkers and ‘bug out’ vehicles that are set up to enable their owners to escape a city and live for some time unaided. PrepperCon is in Salt Lake City and there he looks at the Mormon culture of being prepared for a catastrophe and to help others out in such circumstances. The describes of how many Mormon’s have a month of food they could use in their basements are very interesting. Garrett also goes to a firm that makes bug out vehicles and has a look at some of their vehicles. He also visits a serious, luxury bunker near Kansas City and there is able to view an incredible construction inside a former missile silo.

The book ends with a number of the businesses being shown to be scams but with Garrett pondering the industry and the fact that it seems possible that a catastrophe could come. The book was mostly written just before Covid 19 hit and it makes an interesting addition to the story. There is also a tour of the area around Chernobyl at the end of the book.

Bunker is well worth a read, Garrett makes his trip and observations pretty amusing. As well as that the book is thought provoking. In my mother’s lifetime World War II (~70 million people deaths), The Great Chinese Famine (35-50 million), the Cultural Revolution (1-10 million), the Killing Fields of Cambodia (2 million), the AIDS epidemic (37 million) and now Covid 19 (1million+) have all happened. In addition there were times when a nuclear holocaust was definitely close. Over the lifetime of someone born in the last few years who knows what will happen.

Where Is My Flying Car?

Where Is My Flying Car : A Memoir of Future Past (2018) by John Storrs Hall is a unique view of why we don’t have flying cars. Storrs Hall has a PhD in Computer Science and has worked extensively on nanotechnology and other fields. Where is My Flying Car asks the question about why we don’t have flying cars that were predicted by many futurists in the 1930s to 1950s. While investigating why we don’t have Flying Cars Storrs Hall looks at why technological progress has slowed since the 1970s.

For anyone interested in the book there is an excellent hour long interview on the podcast The Power Hour with Alex Epstein of Storrs Hall that discusses the book.

In looking at aviation, Sorrs Hall points out that planes are now slower than they were 50 years ago, although many, many more people are flying now. Storrs Hall puts the blame of slowing technological advance at people who have slowed technological advance because of increasing bureaucracy and people becoming, as he describes it, Eloi agonists. Such people are like the Eloi of HG Wells’s book the time machine, but modern incarnations that enjoy their wealth in a directionless way and are also environmentally worried. The book points out that our range of activity is driven by how far we can easily travel. With flying cars we’d be able to have a range of everyday activity of 200km fairly easily rather than our dramatically smaller range now.

The book makes many fascinating points. I’d never heard of the general aviation crash of the early 1980s. Also the way in which development of auto-gyros slowed massively due to excessive regulation. Storrs Hall generalises his meditation on the fate of flying cars to look at why technological progress has slowed.

The idea of a ‘space pier’ is put forward. A space pier would be a 100km high series of towers with a 300km ramp that could electromagnetically accelerate objects to speeds fast enough to go into orbit. While it sounds incredibly difficult to build it is actually easier to build than a space elevator.

In the book sections on Flying Cars present a plethora of data on how speeds increased and power densities improved and then flat-lined. Storrs Hall works through a lot of data on how, if people had kept working more on better turbines and different forms of power it could have been done. He also looks at the range of modern flying car vehicles that are starting to appear and displays some hope.

Storrs Hall describes in particular how progress on nuclear energy and nanotechnology has stalled. He includes a number of quotes from famous environmentalists like Paul Ehrlich, Jeremy Rifkin and Amory Lovins about how finding a cheap, clean source of energy would be a terrible thing. He points out that Green activists have been working for ways to stop nuclear energy since the 1970s and have come close to succeeding in the West. He goes into detail about how he believes nuclear fission is already a cheap, clean source of power and had it been researched more since the 1970s it would be even better.

Storrs Hall now works in a Nanotechnology firm and worked on Nanotechnology in the 1990s when the US was allegedly making a push into the field. However, very little was put toward making universal self-replicating nano machines that he believes would have led to viable real nano technological assemblers by now.

Where Is My Flying Car is a really interesting, if somewhat rambling book that looks at how we don’t have flying cars and how our technological progress has slowed. It could do with being somewhat shorter and having a better editor but it’s nonetheless really quite enjoyable and given the price is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in why technological progress seems to have slowed since 1970.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Lawrence Kasdan and based on a story by George Lucas and starring Harrison Ford is a highly entertaining adventure film that has Ford playing Indiana Jones, an archeologist and adventurer.

Watching Raiders 40 years later shows what Hollywood has lost since. Today’s films look better but tend to be comic books with vapid plots. Computer Graphics has made everything possible and everything dull. The limits of technology and stunts in the 1980s wound up making film makers fall back on interesting characters, sharp dialogue, pacing that had pauses as well as action and plots with more substance. Somehow also Hollywood was more inclined to try and make new ‘IP’ and themes rather than re-using older stories. TV and games are now much better than they were in the 1980s but film has become worse.

Raiders still moves marvellously, makes us care about Indy and where the plot is going. Ford is perfect for the role and it works very well. The plot isn’t too ludicrous to break the excitement. It’s still a treat of a film.

Hidden Fortress

Hidden Fortress (1958) directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune is another excellent Kurosawa jidaigeki film. This time the film features two peasants, running away from a battle who encounter an older warrior, played by Mifune who has a mysterious young woman he needs to help.

The film helped inspire Star Wars. There are some similarities but it’s not as similar as I’d expected. But watching the film you can see where some of the ideas for Star Wars came from.

Hidden Fortress is an engrossing film that stands on it’s own as well as being an inspiration to George Lucas. It’s definitely worth watching.

The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees (2016) by Peter Wohlleben describes the lives of trees in German forests. Wohlleben is a forester in Germany.

The book has chapters on how trees share nutrients through their roots, how they compete and cooperate in the forest, how different types of trees live their lives, how the various insects in the forest work and how trees migrate due to temperature changes. It’s a remarkably meditative book. It takes the reader into the world of the trees. Somehow it’s very calming. Wohlleben manages to give readers a strong appreciation of the trees that he has spent his life working with.

The Hidden Life of Trees is a charming and fascinating book. It’s well worth a read.

The Young Offenders

The Young Offenders (2016) is an Irish comedy film written, directed and co-produced by Peter Foott. Conor and Jock are teenagers in Cork who are great mates and handle their difficult home lives together. Jock steals bikes. The two hear about a big cocaine shipment that has crashed into the coast that has bags of cocaine missing. They embark on a trip on bikes down the coast to find one of the bags. Hi jinks ensue.

It’s all fun, it’s well paced and the actors play their parts well. It is actually hard to understand at times. But it’s worth paying attention. The Young Offenders is loads of fun.

The Myth of the Rational Voter

The Myth of the Rational Voter : Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (2007) by Bryan Caplan is an interesting but flawed book that posits interesting models of how people vote and how poorly they understand economics and how this impacts democracies. Caplan is a professor of economics at GMU.

Caplan puts forward a fascinating view about voting, namely that people are well aware that their vote doesn’t really matter and so choosing a politician with foolish policies actually costs very little. To give an example, say voting for a politician with a policy that will cost a voter $1000 and everyone else $1000, if the.chance of a particular vote being decisive is 1 in 1000 the expected impact of the foolish policy is only $1 on a person voting for the policy. This is described as a rational description of irrational behaviour. Where as if someone shops foolishly the impact is felt rapidly, but voting foolishly has little expected impact.

The book also examines how the general public’s views differ from economists on things that economists would regard as fairly straightforward, such as the value of markets, the failure of price controls and the value of free trade. Unfortunately the book goes into too much painful detail on this. A shorter summary of the results would have been better.

Caplan contrasts how economists are often labeled ‘market fundamentalists’ when suggesting that markets work better than most other systems while nobody is labeled a Democracy fundamentalists for suggesting that some of the failures of democracy really just need more democracy.

There is a very interesting point made against the hypothesis of the self-interested voter, namely that it doesn’t stand up to empirical scrutiny. Far from all rich people vote for tax cuts for themselves and far too few poor people vote for more redistribution. Instead people vote for what they think is correct.

The Myth of the Rational Voter makes a very interesting case. Caplan puts forward a plausible model for rational irrationality on behalf of voters. There is also a lot of interest on the way through the book. However, the book is a difficult read and this lets it down. But, for anyone who ponders how people vote for parties that propose ideas that would seem to be foolish the book provides a good framework for thinking about how this can happen.

Extraterrestrial

Extraterrestrial : The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth (2021) by Avi Loeb is a really interesting book that examines the case for finding extraterrestrials and looks in detail at Oumuamua, the strange object that passed through our solar system in 2017. Loeb is the chair of the Astronomy department at Harvard which lends more credibility to the book.

For anyone interested in the theme who is wondering if it’s reading the book it’s well worth listening to Lex Fridman podcast interview with Loeb. It’s an excellent interview.

The book first examines the details surrounding Oumuamua. There Loeb details how the shape and behaviour of Oumuamua was incredibly irregular. Loeb describes how he thinks it’s more likely that the object was a probe fitted with a lightsail. It’s a remarkable hypothesis that seems to really have something to it.

Loeb also writes about the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. The Russian billionaire Yuri Milner wants to fund a probe to travel to another solar system and send information back within his lifetime. A solar sail propelled by a powerful laser would appear to be able to do this.

Loeb interleaves his description of Oumuamua and the star sail with events from his life. He also uses the statement from Sherlock Holmes ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ to forward his hypothesis of intelligent extraterrestrial origin for Oumuamua.

Loeb then makes a very strong case that humanity should be investing considerably more into searching for extraterrestrial life. He suggests that searching for many esoteric objects that physicist’s theories predict, such as superstrings or exotic particles, is a considerably worse way to spend money. He undermines his case slightly by pointing out that various new telescopes will be used to search the skies and will also be able to look at celestial items in more detail and that this will be, in part, used to search for extraterrestrial life. But Loeb does make the case well that more deliberate effort should be made for the searching for extraterrestrial life and it definitely should be something that isn’t a fringe activity or something that is unlikely to advance an academic career.

It would be interesting to read a counterpoint to Loeb’s proposals. Just having read the book it’s hard to see why Loeb’s ideas don’t make sense.

The book does really make you suspect that proof of extraterrestrial life will be found in the next few decades. With increasingly powerful instruments and hopefully more powerful instruments we will finally find conclusive signs of alien life. This book is definitely worth a look for anyone interested in the subject.