Thursday, November 17, 2011


Moving against the 5-O bike commute on the mainline.

Got MDs heading at me, swerving and curving.

They’re hustling to get the hell home,

Out of the UW hospital,

Into the Seattle owl-eye darkness,

And pushing the limits of their stroboscopic LEDs.

Attack mode,

And a busted collarbone waiting at next RR xing.

No problem, an orthopod should be around.

I got my hundred bucks of groceries rattling on the back rack, PCC.

Don’t need to worry too much about my ice cream,

It’s 41F and getting real.

In what ways am I blowing a Condor away?

Couldn’t think of any.

But it did remind me that the great one,

The one, some say, was the last guy in America that knew what he was doing,

Said a computer was like this for our minds.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Review: "Break Through"

Book Review

Nordhaus, T., & Shellenberger, M. (2007). Break through: From the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility [Kindle version]. New York: Houghton Mifflin. Retrieved from

This book by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger advocates dealing with the climate crisis through investment, not through regulation. Acknowledging that rapid climate change is a technological challenge, they argue that the best way to do deal with it is the way we’ve dealt with other technological challenges: by public investment in R&D and government procurement of promising energy technologies. In addition, they argue that environmental groups focus on pollution regulation is really misplaced because it has become a dogma of putting a price on carbon and economic sacrifice to avoid apocalypse, rather than a framework of economic opportunity and innovation.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger make a strong case that environmentalism has failed to accomplish its goals because it approaches the subject from the perspective of placing limits to growth on humanity. They instead suggest that the Malthusian limits to growth are particular to affluent societies and can be overcome by innovation and strong pragmatism. They insist that, “To direct our focus on collapse not only makes for a distorted view of human history, it risks undermining the security, confidence, and optimism required for progressive social and political change” (p. 150).

They state that the time has come for America to embrace a new story about itself. A story focused on aspiration rather than complaint, on assets rather than deficits and on possibility rather than limits. That, “modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, just die so that something new can live” (p. 9).

I object that the book does not clearly define what Environmentalism is; rather it is a term with which the authors play. For example, “If ‘the environment’ includes humans, then everything in environmental and the concept has little use other than being a poor synonym for ‘everything.’ If it excludes humans, then it is scientifically specious, not to mention politically suicidal” (p. 10). Which is it?

The real thesis of this book is that it’s a geoengineered planet that we live on and the solutions to its problems lie in investment in technology. A simpler way to support the authors’ thesis would be to explain that because the environmentalism discourse currently reflects a particular ethical view of the world, that ethical framework is inadequate to address the expanded number of discourses relevant to the climate change debate. But the authors fail to point out that there are no ethical systems adequate to guide behavior to remedy climate change. We need a planetary ethic to guide the investments to which Nordhaus and Shellenberger advocate. Moreover, it is not clear that we can innovate our way out of climate change due to the law of diminishing returns on investment in R & D.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger make a good case for why we should not leave saving the planet to environmentalists. Their investment based solution is very interesting because they seek to deny the Malthusian hypothesis and doomsday models. Theirs is the conventional economic perspective that has a strong faith in the law of infinite substitutability. I’m guessing that their definition of Sustainability is straight out of The American Heritage Dictionary: “To keep in existence”. They are pretty sure we can still innovate our way out of problems, again, again, and again. Are they right? The law of diminishing returns says no.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"I read a study

that measured the efficiency

of locomotion

for various species

on the planet.

The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer.

Humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing

about a third of the way down the list.

... then someone at Scientific American had the insight

to test the efficiency of locomotion

for a man on a bicycle,

[who] blew the condor away.

That's what a computer is to me

... the most remarkable tool that we've ever come up with.

It's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds."

--Steve Jobs, in a 1990 interview

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Gemany is Quitting Nuke Cold Turkey

Germany is going to drop nuclear power by 2022: podcast -

This is interesting to me because the decision to dump nuke comes from a country with relatively low resources for renewable energy – they have a lot of dark, windless days. Fukushima has rocked the German public and swung conservative Chancellor Merkel onto a bold new course. Experts are skeptical that Germany can get off nuke and lower carbon dioxide emissions. Others applaud the decision claiming reliance on nuke prevents investment and development of new, zero-carbon energy technology.

Meanwhile in the U.S., the TVA is getting ready to ask its board to resurrect the stalled construction of a nuclear facility in Hollywood…AL. -

It seems that nuclear power is going to be left on the table to help meet the world’s 2050 energy forecast. Why? Because we are worried about carbon emissions. However, the German “no to nuke” decision makes this reason seem fuzzier.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Mechanical Engineer Reviews, "A History of Mechanical Inventions"

Usher, A. P. (1988). A history of mechanical inventions (Rev. ed.). New York: Dover Publications. (Original work published 1954)

I thought it would be fun to read this book because I like mechanical stuff. I did my undergraduate work in mechanical engineering, but I was never was required to read anything about the history of mechanical invention, and as a result it was wonderful to finally learn about their development as they relate to economic history. This knowledge helps to illuminate for me the context of current innovation and its origins. With innovation a perennially favorite topic for business literature, a bigger perspective provided by this classic book was refreshing. Some may criticize this book for being dated; however it provides the basis by which we look at the history of mechanical inventions. In fact, since 1961, The Society of the History of Technology has annually awarded the Abbott Payson Usher Prize, named in the author’s honor.

This is a history of mechanical inventions. Abbott Payson Usher was professor of economic history at Harvard and passed away in 1965 at the age of 82. He felt that, “Economic history is concerned with the description and the analysis of the mutual transformations taking glace between human societies and their environment” (p.1). From this point of view, he writes a compelling book, emphasizing social change as a cumulative process. “The development of human societies requires no less careful study of ecology than is necessary for the understanding of the growth of population of the various plants and animals” (p. 18). I very much enjoyed Prof. Usher’s opinion that the problems faced by the historian are not any different than those face by the scientist.

The main point of this classic is to talk about the importance of technological innovation in the cultural and economic history of the West. “Economic history is concerned with the description and the analysis of the mutual transformations taking glace between human societies and their environment” (p.1). Prof. Usher emphasizes the role of economic forces in developing technology to meet demand. For example from 1500—1730 there was no significant invention in the field f of spinning. I find that 230 years is an amazingly long time to go without invention in a fairly practical area. Apparently, there was no pressure upon the spinners which only happened when the flying shuttle was invented.

I also enjoyed his discussion of Leonardo da Vinci. Prof. Usher makes and excellent point that Leonardo lived in two worlds woven by many interests and the loss of either world would have been a calamity to him and an impairment of achievement in the remaining field. I love this thought because sometimes I feel diluted by my many interests and sometimes think that I need to “specialize”.

The definition of technology that Usher uses defines the entire book: the techniques by which resources are utilized at any given moment. Usher feels that the economic historian must pay particular attention to the relation between the geographic environment and the technology that makes the environment useful.

This book is almost sixty years old, but is written with a good understating of engineering. As a result it has aged well because the history to which it speaks it does so in precise terminology that is still important today. There can be little doubt of the importance of technological innovation in the economic history of the West and Prof. Usher demonstrates this admirably with a chapter entitled, “The Emergence of Novelty in Thought and Action”. “Invention in the field of mechanics is, in fact, broadly representative of every feature of the general process of invention” (p. 56). I like this because it turns out that mechanics is not a narrow field as one might guess.

Through a lifetime pursuit of extensive, documented research, Prof. Usher feels that it is important for the historian to limit his efforts to the task of developing operational procedures without attempting philosophical analysis of the underlying postulates. I think Prof. Usher’s underlying assumption in this book is that the limitations of resources are relative to the position of our knowledge and of our technique (p. 9). But technological innovation is subject to the law of diminishing returns (Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, p. 124). For a society to expand it needs high structural diversity and highly developed organization to maintain its complexity.

Prof. Usher’s real thesis in this book appears to be how man makes himself. That is, the quality and importance of great achievements are due to the cumulative syntheses of a very large number of small achievements (p.83). His real argument is that through infinite substitutability man can continue to expand socially and politically. He has faith that as resources become scarce and rise in price, that there will be rewards for innovation. The good professor seems to think that, in this optimistic view, new resources and technologies will emerge.

I believe the real argument of this book is that a dependence on fossil fuels has allowed man a respite from declining marginal productivity of future expansion. If we were to show innovation of technology over the last millennium, we might see that man’s ability to make himself is a result of his ability to maintain a highly differentiated and organized society based on his dependence on fossil fuels, and not of his ability to innovate. As the declining margin of research and development becomes more difficult, innovation becomes more complex and costly.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Sustainability Crank Reviews "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations"

Book Review

Landes, D. S. (1999). The wealth and poverty of nations: Why some are so rich and some so poor. New York, W. W. Norton & Company.

I finally got around to reading, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. It’s an economic history of the world for the last 1,000 years. The main point of this book is to identify the reasons that make some countries financially richer than others. By indentifying these reasons then tracing the main stream of economic advances over time, David Landes (professor emeritus at Harvard) attempts to explain how we humans got to where we are today. In the processes, his beautiful command of the language was a joy to read from beginning to end.

Prof. Landes claims that in the last few hundred years we humans have passed from tinkering and observation to a owning a huge and growing mass of scientific information that is mostly useful for civilization. Further, he maintains that cultural adaptation makes the difference between rich nations and poor nations in the history of economic development.

I had difficulty determining how wealth and poverty were defined in this book. Nor was I able to understand the relationship between. What is a wealthy society? How can we tell? I am sure an economist reading this book will be disappointed to read an economic history of the world that emphasizes cultural influence.

Nevertheless, Prof. Landes insists that an historical approach will contribute to, but not provide, a complete answer to why there is a growing gap between rich and poor. According to him, a survey of historical analyses identifies two schools of thought; both have elements of truth:

· Europeans were smarter and better organized.

· Europeans were aggressive ruthless and greedy.

A third school considers the West-Rest dichotomy false and portrays Europe as a latecomer and therefore a free rider on the accomplishments of the rest of the world. But Prof. Landes dismisses this argument as simply incorrect because, he claims, the record of the last thousand years shows Europe as a leader and innovator in science and technology.

In fact, Prof. Landes’ big assumption in this book is that there is an ultimate advantage and beneficence of scientific knowledge and technological capability. I agree with this assumption. However, there are a lot of people that don’t. Whether millenarians, nostalgics, or anti-intellectuals they look for reasons that are shrouded with feelings rather than knowing.

I think Prof. Landes strayed from his thesis as he wrote this book. Starting with geography, then touching on economics, but ending up as a cultural assessment. It seems his real thesis is that it is best to be an optimist and to keep trying. For example, he points out that Great Britain, France, and Germany kept trying while China, Japan, and Islam have withdrawn from time to time over the centures. Early on in the book, hHe maintains the agnosticism of a historian, but then later, seemed to adopt the business person’s optimism of unlimited economic growth.

Prof. Landes real argument is that a pragmatic approach is the real approach. He asserts that from the historical record of international competition, globalism is a positive-sum game: everyone wins, in the long run. He does not advocate a particular policy; in fact, the less so because he feels that active intervention can make things worse as often as better.

For me, this quote sums up Landes philosophical tone in this book: “We want things to be sweet; too many of us work to live and live to be happy. Nothing wrong that; it just does not promote high productivity. You want high productivity? Then you should live to work and get happiness as a by-product” (p. 523). This sounds a bit grim, and it is hard to tell one nation from the other using this metric. Also I wonder what the Dalai Lama would have to say about it, since his fundamental principle for people is for them to be happy.

Landes himself admits that this philosophy is not easy and notes that the people who live to work are a small and fortunate elite. Elite who accentuate the positive. In closing:

In this world, the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive. Even when wrong, they are positive, and that is the way of achievement, correction, improvement, and success. Educated, eyes-open optimism pays; pessimism can only offer the empty consolation of being right.

The one lesson that emerges is the need to keep trying. No miracles. No perfection. No millennium. No apocalypse. We must cultivate a skeptical faith, avoid dogma, listen and watch well, try to clarify and define ends, the better to choose means (p. 524).

I find this inspiring but also a bit naïve because the average Joe out there is pretty positive even though he is continually getting kicked in the balls.

This book has made a significant contribution to my understating the relationship between wealth and history. Landes erudition is amazing. Though it is likely seen as a polar opposite of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, I didn’t see it that way. Prof. Diamond sees the fates of human societies as geography based rather than Landes’ emphasis on culture. However, Landes begins Wealth and Poverty noting the unevenness of nature and that the world has never been a level playing field. “It [air conditioning] redistributes the heat from the fortunate to the unfortunate” (p. 7). This statement doesn’t seem like right-wing literature to me. I view the two books as complements to each other and having read both, I now see how much was missing from each. Writing big history must be a bitch.

A manager of an enterprise that has any concern at all about the human environment and the world from which it came would do well to read this book at some point in his career.