Caught In An Avalanche Pick of the day

The snow churns like surf, sweeping downhill at 80mph and burying anyone caught up in it. For those who survive the fall, what follows is worse. “Enough air can diffuse through densely packed snow to keep a human alive, but warm breath causes the snow around the face to melt. Inevitably, that melting snow refreezes. This forms a capsule of ice around the climber’s head. The climber, buried alive, slowly asphyxiates” (1,300 words)

How To Reset The Climate Change Debate

Scare tactics about climate change have failed to move public opinion and weakened trust in government. Climate change is not “an inevitable cataclysm”, but nor is it a hoax. It is a “relatively straightforward but profound risk”, against which the world needs insurance. Governments should take “practical and economic steps” to “manage the risk”, and present these, like insurance, as a “sensible, even boring, necessity” (760 words)

How Zebras Got Their Stripes

An obvious question for students of evolution to ask; hard to answer — not because plausible conjectures are lacking, but because there are too many. Perhaps the stripes were favoured for camouflage; perhaps they attracted mates; perhaps they helped herd recognition. But the best answer seems to be: Stripes discourage flies. Flies hate to land on striped surfaces. Next question: Why do flies hate stripes? (785 words)

Global Solar Dominance In Sight

Solar power has “won the global argument” as the fuel of the future. It is cheap enough already to compete with oil, diesel and liquefied natural gas in much of Asia, without subsidies; and prices have further to fall. World fossil-fuel use will peak around 2030; after which coal, oil and gas consumption will decline in absolute terms “because they cannot compete, not because they are running out” (Metered) (1,500 words)

Global Warming Scare Tactics

Efforts to raise public concern about climate change by linking it to natural disasters are counter-productive. Alarmist tactics mobilise liberals but alienate conservatives. The way to build consensus is to promote popular compromise solutions. Renewable energy sources should be presented as a boost to the economy, and as a complement to — not a replacement for — carbon-based fuels (Metered) (950 words)

Goodnight Clock

What physics tells us about the universe of Goodnight Moon, as glimpsed in the movements of the moon through the window. “I have come to a rather startling conclusion. In the space of an hour and ten minutes the moon has moved 10,000 km closer to the bunny’s room. The little bunny has about two hours sleep before the moon is torn apart by the Roche limit, and three hours sleep before another extinction event” (1,480 words)

How Much Electricity Does Bitcoin Use?

One recent claim that miners consume 39.85 terawatt-hours of power per year — more than all Bangladesh — is out of the ballpark. A reasonable high-end estimate would be 731.8 gigawatt-hours per year, or roughly the output of a single hydro-electric plant. A reasonable low-end estimate would be 7.31 gigawatt-hours per year, equivalent to the yearly consumption of 674.5 average American households (1,750 words)

Haiti’s Shadow Sanitation System

Portrait of Leon, a bayakou, “a manual laborer who empties the cesspools that collect human waste under Haiti’s back-yard latrines”. In a country with no working sewers “he is the sanitation infrastructure”. The job is considered shameful. Some bayakous “never tell their wives what they do for a living”. But the money is good. You can make more in three days than you might from a year sewing T-shirts (1,600 words)

The Mammoth Cometh

Stewart Brand and Harvard biologist George Church back a project to revive the extinct Passenger Pigeon though genetic engineering. The first step, now under way, is to reconstruct the Passenger Pigeon genome using decayed DNA taken from dead museum specimens; then inscribe the DNA into living cells; and the cells into a living embryo. And if it works for pigeons, why not for mammoths? (Metered paywall) (7,000 words)

What Noise Does The Electric Car Make?

The near-silence of electric cars may pose a hazard to pedestrians, especially the blind. So noise should be added. But what kind? “One group of blind people suggested putting some rocks into the hubcaps.” The car industry has other ideas. “Porsche added loudspeakers to its electric car prototype to give it the same throaty growl as its gasoline-powered cars. Nissan wondered whether a hybrid automobile should sound like tweeting birds” (1,450 words)

Interview: Adam Minter On Trash

Highly enjoyable and informative conversation with the author of Junkyard Planet about China, scrap, recycling, and the best books written about the trash trade. First up: Susan Strasser’s Waste And Want, the story of “how we got hooked on goods, and started filling up our landfills. It was a slow process, but you really started to see the beginnings of it in the 1920s, with companies building for obsolescence” (3,900 words)

Shaken And Stirred

Texans have been “fairly sanguine” about oil and gas companies in the neighbourhood since Spindletop gushed in 1901. But fracking is different. When earthquakes rattle your town on an almost daily basis you start to worry and you start to protest. Even in Texas. “If solidly Republican, small-town Texans are upset about the oil and gas industry, it’s a safe bet that something has actually gone wrong” (1,390 words)

Human Overkillers And The Next Great Die-Off

Review of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Great Extinction, which “makes a page-turner out of even the most sober and scientifically demanding aspects of extinction”. For “a work of what we might term mid-apocalyptic nonfiction”, her book is “remarkably restrained”. She explains, as a matter of fact, that humans are destroying themselves and their planet. “She declines to tell us how to feel about it or what to do” (1,760 words)

Yes, We Will Have Flying Cars

A tech investor predicts: Electric-car sales will overtake gasoline-powered-car sales in the US by 2025. First autonomous cars on sale in 2017; ubiquitous by 2030. Flying cars may yet emerge in the convergence between autonomous-car technologies and drones: expect them as expensive rarities in 20 years or so. High-speed trains will gain market share next decade thanks to cheap solar electricity (2,200 words)

Thinking The Unthinkable

Sizzling review of an “occasionally insane, but far more frequently brilliant” short book, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, by Timothy Morton. Hyperobjects are “the very big things that have come to dominate human existence: cancer, global warming, radionuclides, petrochemicals”. By Morton’s reckoning, the end of our world is nigh, but we cannot or will not think about it (1,900 words)

The Birds: A Tale Of Extinction

The passenger pigeon (not be confused with its distant cousins, the carrier pigeon and the rock pigeon) was the most plentiful bird in North America in the mid-19C. A few decades later it was extinct. A boy in Ohio shot the last known wild passenger pigeon in 1900. The last zoo bird died in 1914. “How a bird could go from a population of billions to zero in less than fifty years? The short answer is that it tasted good” (4,120 words)

The Termite And The Architect

Can we design better human habitats, by studying those of animals and insects? Perhaps; but only if we are smart enough to understand them. “We look to nature to validate our own solutions. If the natural world has settled on something similar, that makes us feel good. But you can’t make great explicit leaps between the societies of humans and social insects like termites. There are different value systems at play” (2,800 words)

Where Google Ventures Pins Its Hopes

Profile of venture-capital firm owned by Google but run as a “fully independent unit”. Sixty employees, 220 investments, typically focused on personalised health care, clean energy resources, computer science education. Largest investment so far: $258m in car-hire company Uber. Combination of high-profile parentage and operational flexibility has helped make it “one of the hottest venture firms in Silicon Valley” (1,540 words)

What Happened On Easter Island?

According to Jared Diamond, a group of Polynesians arrived on Easter Island around 1200, thrived for a while, but their slash-and-burn agriculture deforested the island so completely that by 1700 their society had collapsed. Anthropologists from Hawaii dispute this theory. They say Easter Island was deforested by rats that arrived in the Polynesians’ canoes. The Polynesians survived pretty well by eating the rats (1,360 words)

The Best Books I Read in 2013

Note the title: not the best books published in 2013. Powerful short list topped by Mark Levinson’s The Box, a history of the shipping container, and tailed by Paul Sabin’s The Bet, on the wager between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon as to whether human welfare would improve or get worse over time. Also highly recommended: Harvesting the Biosphere, by Vaclav Smil; The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond. (900 words)

Crazy Ants Terrorise Texas

Wonderful piece of writing and reporting. In ten years, a new ant species has infested half of Texas. “They effectively terrorise people by racing up their feet and around their bodies, coursing everywhere in their impossibly disordered orbits. They overtake beehives and destroy the colonies. They may smother bird chicks struggling to hatch. They swarm into cows’ eyes. So far, there is no way to contain them” (Metered paywall) (4,900 words)

Pursuing The Platypus

Notes on Australian fauna. The platypus “looks like it was designed in a pub, by a committee, the night before it was due. To make one at home you’ll need a duck bill, a small beaver, four webbed feet, five X chromosomes and a watch battery. There are a few anatomical giveaways that this was a rush job — they forgot to give it nipples, so it has to sweat milk through its skin — but for the most part it holds together well” (4,600 words)

Bill Gates Thinks You Should Read This Man

Interview with Vaclav Smil, geographer and polymath with a gift for plain talk. Main theme: Innovation. It comes from manufacturing, so countries with strong manufacturing bases, such as China and Germany, are pulling ahead, while America falls behind. Bonus tips: If you want to save energy, add more insulation to your house and drive a Honda Civic. If you eat meat, eat it as Asians do — chopped up with rice. It goes much further (1,890 words)

The Environmental Crime Of The Century

A study in bureaucratic madness. Soviet whaling fleets secretly slaughtered 180,000 humpback whales in the 1950s and 1960s, even though the Soviet economy had very little need or use for whale meat or by-products. Why? Because that was what the Soviet five-year plan demanded. “The progress of the whaling fleets was measured by the same metric as the fishing fleets: gross product, principally the sheer mass of whales killed” (5,300 words)

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