Humankind

Humankind : A Hopeful History (2020) by Rutger Bregman is a curious book that is a mish-mash of various bits of history and psychology research that has a grand thesis that we’re all pretty decent folks and we should just be nice to each other and things will be grand. It’s appealing suggestion.

Bregman starts out looking at how people have recently banded together in various trying times including the Blitz, the Allied bombing of Germany and after natural disasters. Bregman doesn’t pick the Holodomor or The Great Leap Forward where human behaviour under combined suffering was not nearly as noble.

He goes on to look at how the idea that hunter gatherers were inclined to violence against each other and suggests that they were largely peacefuland disputes various claims by others including Steven Pinker. A bit of reading around on the internet appears to show that this is far from a fringe theory and may in fact be the case. But it’s far from clear that it was not the case either. Suggesting that war is due to agriculture and property is more than a bold claim.

The book then looks at how various psychology experiments that showed that people can be made to do awful things, such as the Stanford prison experiment and the Milgram experiment were very poor experiments that shouldn’t be used to push the idea that it’s easy to get people to do ill. However, impressively while citing these dubious bits of research he goes on to cite SLA Marshall who claimed that most soldiers avoid shooting to kill. It’s worth quickly reading Marshall’s wikipedia entry, which includes the line “more recent historians have contended that much of the research he conducted for his most famous work, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, was either biased or even completely fabricated.”

There is an interesting bit on ‘Lord of the Flies’ and what happened to a real group of young men who were shipwrecked where the boys worked hard together to survive.

The book looks at how prisons that concentrate on rehabilitation and try to treat people as well as possible do well, which does seem to be backed up by various justice systems around the world. There is also a foray into very free schools, which Bregman suggests are great at educating. However the one Bregman visits is failing to meet basic educational standards in the Netherlands, which made me laugh out loud.

Bregman does some admirable work in collating the debunking of various false studies, but then accepts happily a few ideas that appeal to him.

Humankind isn’t a terrible book, but it’s worse than his previous book ‘Utopia for Realists’. There are some interesting facts in there and Bregman writes well, but the book overall is pretty weak.

Paterson

Paterson (2016) starring Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani and written and directed by Jim Jarmusch is a charming film that isn’t overly ambitious but that works very nicely.

Paterson lives in Paterson New Jersey and is a bus driver. We see he and his wife Laura go about their days. Paterson listens to people on the bus, comes homes, talks to Laura who works on her creations and takes the dog for a walk and goes to a bar. He also, like Paterson’s two famous poets, writes poetry.

It really does just all work somehow. It’s surprising that it does but it really is good. Often Jim Jarmusch’s films leave me cold but this one resonated for me.

Stealth

Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft (2020) by Peter Westwick is an interesting account of how the US and two US companies, Lockheed and Northrop developed the first stealth aircraft.

In the Vietnam War the vulnerability of aircraft to SAMs was demonstrated and the US government started exploring how to handle the effects of powerful ground based radar and SAMs. A Soviet physicist, Petr Ufimtsev studied how electromagnetic waves were reflected. The Soviets didn’t see great use for this and published his results that the Americans then explored in order to make aircraft with much lower radar signatures.

Lockheed and Northrop wound up in a competition to develop Have Blue which was going to be an aircraft with a very low radar signature. Lockheed won this competition and created the F-117. Lockheed’s design depended on angled plates that they could model the radar return on computationally, Northrop used curves. Northrop lost the Have Blue competition but then worked on Tacit Blue, a low observable craft that was going to have a radar mid mounted on it. They used their expertise to then develop stealthy bomber for another competition with Lockheed. Northrop won this and this led to the B2.

The book has a great deal of detail about the people who worked for the two companies and how they managed to create the remarkable F-117 and the B2. It’s hard not to lose track of all the people coming and going.

Finally the book summarises the work and makes some interesting points. More money was spent on stealth aircraft than was spent on the SDI program. It’s hard to say if stealth aircraft had much impact on the Soviet collapse. Remarkably Ufimtsev actually wound up working for Northrop after the end of the Cold War.

Stealth is a very good read for anyone interested in stealth aircraft and their development. It’s a well written history of the people and companies that created this remarkable technology.

Life on the Run

Life on the Run (1976) by Bill Bradley is an account of 20 days of Bradley’s time as a New York Knick in the 1973-74 season. It’s well worth reading for a basketball fan to get an idea of what the NBA was like in the 1970s before it really took off in the 1980s.

For anyone interested in this the 1970 NBA final game 7 can be watched on YouTube along with various other highlights of that Knicks team.

It’s also worth noting that Bradley would be a US Senator 3 years after the book was written and was a serious challenger for the Democrat’s presidential nomination in 2000.

The book has a lot on Bradley’s team mates, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Read, Dick Barnett and Phil Jackson. Of those Phil Jackson is of particular interest given he would go on to coach very successfully at Chicago and Los Angeles. Bradley captures really well what it’s like to be part of a team that spends their lives so closely together for 8 months a year.

There is also a lot on the grind of what it was like to travel at that time and their grueling schedule, the disruption to sleep and life on the road. Bradley also reflects on what it was like to be a top basketball player, what he and all of his team mates had done to get there and what it was like for their bodies to fade as they aged and ponder their post basketball careers.

The players were well paid at the time, but nothing like what would come in future decades. Bradley was unusual at the time for doing no endorsements outside playing. It was also an NBA with two referees and no three point line.

Bradley candidly discusses racial attitudes and how the black players grew up and are treated. The back room staff, particularly the coach Red Holzman also get lots of attention.

Life on the Run is very much worth a read for any basketball fan. For people interested in the future Senator Bradley it’s also worth a look.

False Alarm

False Alarm : How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet (2020) by Bjørn Lomborg is Lomborg’s latest book. The gay vegetarian Dane who accepts the IPCC consensus and proposes a carbon tax sets off some environmentalists like few others. His latest book is his second about Climate Change after 2007’s Cool It. Lomborg’s main points are that the impact of Climate Change is often exaggerated and that the current mitigation strategies are unwise.

It’s worth noting that there are clearly already people who have written or given a rating to the book without having read it on Goodreads merely to slander Lomborg. It might be better to look at Amazon where reviewers are more likely to have actually read the book.

In False Alarm Lomborg extensively uses official data, IPCC results and other quality predictions about how much Climate Change has and is going to cost. This includes the work of William Nordhaus who won the Economics Prize in honour of Alfred Nobel for his work on Climate Change Economics.

Lomborg has updated his work from Cool It to include the latest results on how the impact of weather related disasters has reduced as a percentage of GDP over the past 40 years and also how the fatalities as a result of extreme weather have collapsed since the 1920s, going from 500K then to 25K today while global populations have increased from ~2B To 7.8B today. There is also fascinating data on how much US fire there has been from 1920 when records started being kept to today. Lomborg also points out that getting richer and adapting better to changes in sea level and extreme weather events works. For poor countries especially an extra thousand or two dollars of income per year enables much better climate resistance.

Climate Change has been seen as a problem now for over 30 years and so the strategies that have been employed since 1990 can now be examined. Here Lomborg looks at the how the various treaties have gone. The Rio, then Kyoto treaties promises and then the failed attempt at Copenhagen and now the raft of promises made in Paris are examined. Lomborg points out that carbon intensity hasn’t even fallen. Germany’s Energiewende is pointed out to be staggeringly expensive at hundreds of billions of Euros and due to a recent drive against nuclear is no longer even reducing emissions much. Lomborg makes the point that subsidies renewables has not gone well.

Lomborg proposes that a low carbon tax should be levied. He also proposes that far more money should be spent on energy research. He suggests spending on better energy storage, improved nuclear technology and as a last resort on climate engineering. Here Lomborg has changed his views on when climate engineering should be engaged in.

False Alarm is a very interesting read for anyone who wants a different take on Climate Change to that espoused by some environmentalists. Lomborg believes that Climate Change is happening and the recent changes are driven by human C02 emissions but the severity of the crisis has been exaggerated and humanity’s ability to respond has been severely underestimated. He also points out that the current response to Climate Change is unwise and isn’t working.

The Phoney Victory

The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion (2018) by Peter Hitchens is a remarkable book that examines Britain’s actions and the outcomes of WWII.

Hitchens is an Anglican conservative so his views of what many patriotic British people believe are particularly interesting. His brother is the deceased atheist Christopher Hitchens.

First he looks at his own embedding in the myths as a child growing up in the 1950s who had numerous teachers who were in WWII. He writes about how he has read further he has changed his mind on the role of Britain in the War. He is also at pains to point out that while the Nazis were far, far worse the Allied conduct in the war was culpable.

The beginning of WWII is looked at, Hitchens points out that the Anglo-French guarantee to Poland made war more likely and that there was no desire to actually fight for Poland. He points out that there was never any consideration of declaring war on Russia which also invaded Poland. Here Hitchens refers to and quotes AJP Taylor repeatedly. He also makes the point that WWII myths are required to repeatedly accuse those who oppose military action of being appeasers. In Vietnam, the Gulf War and even in the invasion of Panama WWII has been invoked.

The Phoney victory looks extensively at the US’s role in WWII and the relationship between the US and the UK. I had no idea that the UK had defaulted and has simply refused to pay the debts incurred in WWI. Hitchens points out that the US made sure in WWII that the terms were very much in their favour and that the war would be the end of the British Empire.

The fact that Germany very quickly gave up any serious plans of invading the UK is discussed. Hitchens also points out the failure of the UK’s bombing campaigns and the folly of the strategy of bombing cities rather than military targets. He points out that as well as being immoral the loss of life for the bomber crews themselves made the bombing foolish. It also made where the UK could have lost the war, on the Atlantic, harder to fight.

There is also a chapter on the ethnic cleansing the Allies carried out after WWII in Eastern Europe.

The Phoney War is a fascinating examination of WWII history by someone who would be expected to be cheer leading for Churchill. It would be hard not to learn something from the book.

In Patagonia

In Patagonia (1977) by Bruce Chatwin is an evocative collection of tales about Patagonia. Chatwin was a journalist who decided to go to Patagonia travel and uncover and write about stories about the area.

The book is divided into 97 chapters that vary from a paragraph to a few pages. There are many tales of various Welsh, American, English, German and Italians who moved to Patagonia and farmed there. Many did well for a while, but then things changed and they remained out on one of the ends of the worlds. Various accounts of Butch Cassidy’s time in Patagonia are included.

Chatwin wanted to find some giant sloth remnants that he did manage to eventually uncover, it was also the motivation for his trip. Apparently Chatwin blended characters and bent the truth.

The first third of the book is fantastic, it really does provide a feeling for a remote place and the people who moved there. However, after a while the fragmentary pieces become a bit tiring and jarring. Still, In Patagonia is definitely an interesting travel book.

The Great Delusion

The Great Delusion : Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018) by John Mearsheimer is a fascinating book where Professor Measheimer describes a thorough theoretical framework for how realism, nationalism and liberalism interact in international relations.

First Mearsheimer defines liberalism. He defines modus vivendi liberalism which is what others would term classical liberalism and also progressive liberalism. These use something like Isiah Berlin’s positive and negative freedoms. Positive freedoms are used for progressive liberalism and negative freedoms for modus vivendi liberalism. But both forms of liberalism are defined as looking at individual humans. Mearsheimer looks at this as a weakness and not being reflective of how people actually are in families and larger groups. The US’s foreign policy is described as being driven by positive liberalism. Classical liberalism is far less interventionist.

The book also makes the interesting philosophical point that liberalism allows for people to find their own values, but anyone who finds values that don’t align with liberal values create problems with liberal democracy.

Mearsheimer points out that nationalism is more powerful than liberals expect or allow for. Liberalism in international affairs is also driven by elites who have less national loyalty and are able to move more easily between countries. The elites pushing these ideas also see spreading these rights and liberal democracy as a mission that gives them a purpose.

Realism is also carefully described. Realism is defined as respect for the balance of power, a realisation that conflict between states is something that must be allowed for and that respecting other states strategic interest is wise.

Finally Mearsheimer points out that the attempt to propagate these rights threatens the rulers of any country that isn’t a liberal democracy and makes normal relations with them difficult. This is because leaders of liberal democracies see leaders of states that are not liberal democracies as illegitimate.

Finally the practical implications of the US’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War is described. The Liberal Interventionist idealogy that Mearsheimer has defined earlier is used as the framework for this. The failure to create new liberal democracies and the endless war is the price for this. Mearsheimer points out that the US has been at war for 2 out of every 3 years since the end of the Cold War. Also that the US has now been at war for 19 years since 2001.

Mearsheimer then goes on to say that realism would be a better foreign policy for the US. This is because it would be far less ambitious and it would not threaten other powers that are not liberal democracies. In particular Russia and China would not feel as threatened by the US as they do now.

The Great Delusion is a dense, heavy read that provides a thorough theoretical foundation for current US policy and provides a strong justification for an alternative foreign policy. It was also interesting for me in that it contained careful exposition of theory that wasn’t math. It’s well worth reading for anyone interested in foreign policy. The Great Delusion is an excellent book.

Apocalypse Never

Apocalypse Never (2020) by Michael Shellenberger is a fascinating book by a twenty year social and environmentalist on how the environmental movement exaggerates some dangers and itself causes more environmental harm. Shellenberger has been an environmental activist for decades and was involved with the Obama administration’s renewables policies.

Shellenberger has been invited to be an IPCC reviewer and the book is also praised highly by Tom Wigley who was the director of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and a contributor to IPCC reports. Shellenberger is also an interesting environmentalist in that his views on various issues have changed in a similar way to the Guardian Environment writers Mark Lynas and George Monbiot.

People’s reactions to the book in general are going to be based on prior attitudes and what they know the book says. But first, read this quote. If you knew this then the book has little for you. If you didn’t then the book is worth reading.

“Between 2016 and 2019, the five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies – ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron Corporation, BP and Total invested a whopping $1 billion into advertising and lobbying for renewables and other climate-related ventures.”

The book starts off by going through various quotes from politicians, Extinction Rebellion and others about how we have 12 years to 2030 or we’re doomed or how Climate Change threatens human extinctions. Actual climate scientists, such as Kerry Emmanuel from MIT are also quoted as saying such claims “I don’t have much patience for the apocalypse criers”.

Shellenberger then looks at how the claims about fires in the Amazon just after the right wing president Jair Bolsonaro were wrong and why they were not corrected and the figures were not put into context.

The book follows Shellenberger’s journeys from when he travelled to Nicaragua in high school to visiting mountain gorilla’s in Africa. He also looks at people in different countries and how much energy they use and how much energy use and how much higher energy use contributes to well being.

Shellenberger has converted from believing that renewables could power society to thinking that nuclear is a better low carbon option. He points out that Germany has spent ~580 Bn on the Energiewende and has higher C02 emissions than France which runs on nuclear. He makes the remarkable point that large fossil fuel companies like renewables as it means that they get to sell a lot of gas. The quote earlier in this book highlights this point, he also points out that:

“Wrong. Not only are 350.org, Sierra Club, NRDC and EDF all funded by fossil fuel billionaires, they are all trying to kill America’s largest source of carbon-free electricity, nuclear power”.

Apocalypse Never is a really interesting that book that anyone interested in the environment should read. It has a genuinely new perspective from someone who has been an environmental insider for decades.

How Innovation Works

How Innovation Works: Serendipity, Energy and the Saving of Time (2020) by Matt Ridley is a very good book that looks at how innovation has arisen in recent history and what makes it work.

Ridley defines innovation as different from invention, which is the creation of something new and describes innovation as getting something to market that people actually use and that has an impact on society.

The book emphasizes how innovation almost always gradual, it’s done by teams, it’s mostly not from a theoretical work and large organisations are generally not that good at it. Also Ridley looks at why innovation seems to be slowing globally.

How Innovation Works has an extensive history of various innovations and this part of the book is really fantastic. Ridley goes into how the steam engine was gradually improved, how vaccines were discovered, how the Wright Brothers made their first flight, the story of containerisation, how the Haber Bosch process was discovered and developed and many other tales of innovation. It’s fascinating and enables Ridley to point out the bottom up, practical nature of innovation.

The present day barriers to innovation are examined. Overly restrictive patents and European blocks on GMOs are described in detail. The point is made that just two companies in the DAX top 30 were formed after 1970 and the same is true across Europe in contrast to the US.

How Innovation Works is a really good book. Ridley writes well, knows his subject inside and out and makes the case that innovation is crucial and that it needs a free environment to work.