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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Extinction: When Does Our Turn Come?

Interesting if true. Stanford scientists estimate the world is losing 11,000-58,000 species annually, out of a total of 5-9 million — about a thousand times the rate of species loss before mankind arrived. “We’ve already lost 40% of the Earth’s invertebrate species in the last 40 to 50 years … We are living in the midst of the planet’s 6th mass extinction event”. So far it’s mostly bugs. But mammals, including humans, beware (1,290 words)

Tesla And GM Race For The Mass Market

Tesla and General Motors compete head-on to launch a $35,000 all-electric mass-market car that can travel 200 miles on a single charge; implying a halving of current production costs and a big leap forward in battery technology. Both companies talk as though they can have their cars ready for 2017-2018. Investors seem to believe in Tesla’s story; they aren’t so sure that GM has the nimbleness needed to innovate on this scale (2,000 words)

Seeds Of Doubt

The structure of this piece is quite demanding. It begins as an admiring profile of Vandana Shiva, absolutist campaigner against genetically-modified seeds and foods. But it goes on to show that her claims are unfounded, alarmist and potentially ruinous to world food supplies, especially in her native India. Finally, it dismantles Shiva herself, who exits the story looking a good deal less saintly than when she entered it (8,600 words)

Stop Obsessing About Global Warming

Not a game-changer, but still a broadside repaying attention. Sen argues that we need to know far more about the externalities — the social costs — of rival energy sources in order to formulate rational policies on climate change. If we did, we’d probably find that we are underestimating the potential for solar power, particularly in poorer countries; and also underestimating the dangers of nuclear power (4,366 words)

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)

Superintelligence

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)

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