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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Winged Victories

Review of two books about birds, The Thing With Feathers, and The Homing Instinct, packed with entertaining detail. “Tiny bee hummingbirds are so small you could mail 16 of them for the price of a single stamp. Robins can navigate with the right eye alone, but not the left. Albatrosses can shut down half their brains while continuing to fly at 40 mph. Penguins are afraid of the dark” (Metered) (1,100 words)


Discussion of new books by philosopher Nick Bostrom and natural scientist James Lovelock. According to Bostrom, artificial intelligence will arrive towards the end of the century, rapidly outstrip human intelligence, and “shape the world according to its preferences”, which are likely to “involve the complete destruction of human life and most plausible human values. The default outcome, then, is catastrophe” (1,190 words)

Fossil Industry Is The Subprime Danger

American investors have been piling into fossil-fuel projects that will be probably be unprofitable if they can be exploited at all. “The cumulative blitz on exploration and production over the past six years has been $5.4 trillion, yet little has come of it. Output from conventional fields peaked in 2005. Not a single large project has come on stream at a break-even cost below $80 a barrel for almost three years” (Metered) (1,450 words)

Life Beyond Earth

In the past 20 years astronomers have found two thousand planets orbiting sun-like stars outside our solar system. The question is not so much whether other life is out there, but what kind of life it might be. If it is not even carbon-based, for example, how can we hope to recognise it? Astrobiologists are studying the most extreme life-forms on Earth, from Antarctic ice sheets to Mexican caves, looking for clues (4,116 words)

Gridlock Capital Of The World

Welcome to Dhaka in Bangladesh, the world’s fastest-growing and densest city, with 15 million people and only 60 traffic lights. There is no planned road network, no subway, and 60 separate bus networks. At peak times cars and buses move at twenty feet an hour. The overhead in terms of social and economic costs is crippling. “Alleviating traffic congestion is one of the defining development challenges of our time” (1,450 words)

Save The Elephants

The rise of terrorism and the weakness of governments in parts of Africa is putting elephants at risk of extinction after a quarter-century of successful conservation. Some 45,000 African elephants — about 10% of the surviving population — have been slaughtered for their tusks in the past three years. Rare breeds of rhinoceros are also being wiped out; rhino horn sells in Vietnam for $25,000 a pound (1,130 words)

Hug Some Concrete

In praise of Vaclav Smil, “an original thinker who never gives simple answers to complex questions”, and his book, “Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization”, about basic everyday commodities — such as cement, steel, paper, aluminium. China has used more concrete in the past three years than America used in the whole 20th century. Even so, we should have enough stuff for the next 50 years (1,320 words)

You Don’t Own The Land 300m Below Your Feet

The British government should go ahead with plans to restrict landowners’ property rights, limiting them to a depth of 300 metres, so that landowners cannot block fracking. In the 1920s air travel required a similar limitation on air rights, so that landowners could not claim trespass when a plane flew overhead. The world is “bedevilled by problems caused by too much property ownership” (Hard) (1,080 words)

Will California’s Drought Bring $7 Broccoli?

It might at first. Especially if farmers use more acres of California to grow nuts for export to China; it takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond, leaving even less for the fruit and vegetables. Production of fruit and vegetables could shift massively to the mid-West, displacing grain. But the costs of transition would be high. Farmers would need to invest in new equipment. So prices may have to rise first (870 words)

Consider The Squirrel

Squirrels are “the cursor, the movement” that makes Mother Nature’s guiding hand visible even within cities. But they lead short and precarious lives: “You have about three years in an urban environment, and then your time is up.” The rest of the animal population is ranged against you, humans included. “The squirrel has long served as the American child’s introduction to killing something” (2,890 words)

Helping China To Fight Global Warming

Obama’s proposed rules to clean up US coal-fired power plants are wise and affordable. But most new carbon emission happens in China. The next stage is for America to encourage China to cut back, which America can do in two main ways: First, transfer fracking technology to China, so China can use more domestic natural gas; second, tax carbon-intensive imports, to give China’s factories a hard nudge (890 words)

Cutting Back On Carbon

America’s Environmental Protection Agency plans new carbon-reduction rules to curb global warming. The US Chamber of Commerce and other critics predict “vast costs and economic doom.” Don’t believe them. The chamber’s own data puts the cost at about $200 per household per year. The chamber is speaking for interests of the coal industry, not those of America nor even of American business (900 words)

The Ship-Breakers Of Bangladesh

Ocean-going ships are built to last; you need a lot of firepower when the time comes to break them up deliberately. The ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh use swarms of poor labourers with acetylene torches to slice hulls into pieces; 90% of the ship is recycled. It sounds like a good business — “Until you’ve met the widows of young men who were crushed by falling pieces of steel or suffocated inside a ship” (1,500 words)

See Chernobyl And Live

Notes from visiting Chernobyl and the neighbouring ghost-town of Pripyat, “a museum in handsome disarray”. Ruin-porn tourism is booming. Thousands walk though the deserted maternity ward, the barren supermarkets, the rusting amusement park. The fatal reactor is dormant but not dead, under concrete poured hastily to seal it 30 years ago. If the concrete fractures, a “radioactive dust storm” may follow (5,340 words)

Two Degrees: How The World Failed On Climate Change

Long pieces about climate change usually bore me (which reflects badly on me) but this one held my attention throughout. Clear, intelligent, plausible. Explains how the aim of keeping global warming within two degrees centigrade was formulated by a group of German scientists 20 years ago, and adopted almost universally; considers the scenarios now that the two-degree limit appears sure to be breached (3,690 words)

Springtime Thoughts

Possibly the best short piece about racoons you will read today. “I have reviewed what other columnists and bloggers have written in the last few days on more frequent current political and economic personalities and subjects, and Henrietta and her cub are more interesting and more admirable. We would rather have them sheltering in or near our house than almost any contemporary political leader I can think of” (1,000 words)

Caught In An Avalanche

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)

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