Newsletter 38

Missile pallets, Plato and nurdles

Hi, I’m Gavin. This is my experimental newsletter that explores thinking - how we might think better and learn together as we do so.

I explore several key topics through the lens of several core themes: systems thinking, scenario planning, trends, future thinking and cross-disciplinary innovation. These often relate to key issues: climate change, pandemics, astronomy, physics, health, history, philosophy, culture, rocketry, conflict, the impact of technology on society and more. With a larger question behind it all: how do we progress and how do we progress better?

I hope you like where we go. (605 of us now!)


PS: if you like the newsletter please share it! (And I always appreciate tweets about it too!) 🙏

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Reading list - the best stuff to read

🌏 Climate change

  1. The media is not taking climate change seriously enough. (4 mins by Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope)

Today, all of humanity is under attack, this time from an overheated planet – and too many newsrooms still are more inclined to cover today’s equivalent of dance competitions. The record heatwaves and storms of 2020 confirmed what scientists have long predicted: climate change is under way and threatens unparalleled catastrophe. And because carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere for centuries, temperature rise and its effects are only getting started. As one scientist said as wildfires turned San Francisco’s skies orange last September, “We’re going to look back in 10 years, certainly 20 … and say, ‘Wow, 2020 was a crazy year, but I miss it.’”

Most major news outlets still present climate change as no more important than a dozen other public issues, when the fact is that if the world doesn’t get it under control, fast, climate change will overwhelm every other issue. Another fact: the climate emergency comes with a time limit – wait too long to halt temperature rise and it becomes too late; CO2’s long atmospheric life makes further temperature rise inevitable, perhaps irreversible.

  1. It should alarm people that the global shipping industry is not taking cutting emissions seriously. (10 mins by Matt Appuzo and Sarah Hurtes)

Behind closed doors, though, resistance remains. At a climate meeting last winter, recordings show that the mere suggestion that shipping should become sustainable sparked an angry response.

“Such statements show a lack of respect for the industry,” said Kostas G. Gkonis, the director of the trade group Intercargo.

And just last week, delegates met in secret to debate what should constitute a passing grade under the new rating system. Under pressure from China, Brazil and others, the delegates set the bar so low that emissions can continue to rise — at roughly the same pace as if there had been no regulation at all.

Delegates agreed to revisit the issue in five years.

  1. This is not good. (4 mins by Damian Carrington)

“Sea ice has begun forming later and later in the year, so the snow on top has less time to accumulate,” said Mallett. “Our calculations account for this declining snow depth for the first time.” The research is published in the journal The Cryosphere.

“We are still learning about the changes to the Arctic environment, and one of the big unknowns – or less well-knowns – is snow cover,” said Walt Meier, at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, and not involved in the new research. “The approach in the study is a significant improvement over older methods, and the results fit with other changes we’re seeing with Arctic sea ice, including earlier melt onset, lower summer ice cover, and later freeze-up.”

  1. This drought is a sign of things to come elsewhere. (7 mins by Mike Baker)

Lake levels fell below the minimum thresholds set by federal scientists, prompting litigation and spurring fears that algae blooms this summer could devastate the imperiled fish populations above the dam; tribal researchers say insufficient flushing downstream from the dam has allowed parasites to flourish.

Already this year, juvenile salmon are turning up dead with parasitic infections. Michael Belchik, a senior water policy analyst at the Yurok Tribe, said the die-off could end up being the worst on record.

“This is really catastrophic,” Mr. Belchik said. “We are starting to talk about the ‘extinction’ word around here.”

🦠 COVID-19

One plus side of the pandemic? It looks like some variants of the flu virus have disappeared. (5 mins by Helen Branswell)

With Covid suppression measures like mask wearing, school closures, and travel restrictions driving flu transmission rates to historically low levels around the world, it appears that one of the H3N2 clades may have disappeared — gone extinct. The same phenomenon may also have occurred with one of the two lineages of influenza B viruses, known as B/Yamagata.

🏛 History - empire

Jim Fallows has been thinking about contrasting the fall of the Roman Republic to the possible pending fall of the US one. His friend Eric Schnurer writes the main piece (third part). The US is in trouble. (7 mins by James Fallows/Eric Schnurer)

But it turned out to be a brief reprieve. The rot had already set in. What mattered most in the long-term was not the immediate threat of the insurrectionists, but rather the complacency, if not sympathy, of the other ostensibly-republican leaders. It revealed the hollowness of not just their own souls but also the nation’s.

Another 10 months in America, another 15 years forward on the Roman sundial. At this rate, we’re about a year before midnight.


Ancient Rome Will Never Get Old. Take It From Mary Beard.

✈️ Military - drones

Thanks to subscriber Markham for this story suggestion. The US military has successfully tested refuelling an F-18 fighter using a drone tanker. These are the sorts of developments that change future conflict in big and unexpected ways. It multiplies the abilities of existing fighters to stay in the air or go further and makes more existing ones available for combat. (2 mins by Caitlin Kenney)

Tests of the drone will continue over the next several months, to include deck handling demonstrations aboard an aircraft carrier later this year. Reed said the Navy is also planning to fly an E-2 Hawkeye aircraft behind a MQ-25 to demonstrate other refueling possibilities.  The drone will reach initial operational capability by early 2025, according to the Navy.

✈️ Military - missiles by pallet

The US is also experimenting with deploying advanced missiles by pushing them out of the back of transport aircraft. This is a direct response to near-peer rivals China and Russia. (2 mins by Joseph Trevithick)

During the latest demonstration at Northern Edge 2021, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFOSC) MC-130J in question carried an "emulator" simulating a load of JASSMs, specially AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extend Ranger (JASSM-ER) variants. While airborne, the aircraft received targeting information for the weapons via a beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) datalink from the Standoff Munitions Applications Center (SMAC) and prepared for the mock launch.

🌎 Environment - plastics

This is depressing. The raw material for making plastic products - “nurdles” (which we looked at in a previous edition) has spilled into the ocean. The longterm impacts are mind boggling - including food chain impacts. (3 mins by Ari Shapiro)

"It was just a beach covered in these white pellets," she tells All Things Considered. "This was after the Navy personnel had been cleaning for days on end. Every time they filled bags and took them inland amongst all these other thousands of bags, another wave would wash in with more pellets. So it just seemed so unending. To me, it was really sad to see."

🏛 History - Air war

A review of Malcom Gladwell’s new book argues that he completely ignores the elephant in the room about “precision” bombing during World War Two - that it was always inaccurate and this was known. (7 mins by Colin Dickey)

It turns out precision bombing never worked during World War II, anyway: Norden’s bomb sight never provided the precision he imagined it would, Hansell was never able to successfully carry out precision raids over Japan, and he was finally replaced by Curtis LeMay. LeMay decided to forgo the precision approach. His preference for overwhelming force led to the “longest night” of the book’s subtitle, when American forces napalmed Tokyo and, according to America’s own estimate, more people lost their lives by fire in a six-hour period than at any other time in the history of humanity. By Gladwell’s analysis, this, too, was a success

Wildlife - drones

Elegant terns abandoned their nests because some eejit crashed their drone near their nesting grounds. (1 min, AP)

Fearing an attack from a predator, several thousand terns abandoned their ground nests, according to the state department of fish and wildlife.

Now, during the month when the birds would be overseeing their eggs as they begin to hatch, the sand is littered with egg shells.

It’s one of the largest-scale abandonments of eggs ever at the coastal site about 100 miles (160 km) north of San Diego, according to the reserve manager, Melissa Loebl.

🚀 Rockets - geopolitics

This is one of those things that makes you more concerned for future conflict scenarios. The US military is looking at how it could use rockets like SpaceX’s Starship for moving equipment quickly across the globe. While the concept art shows humanitarian aid - I doubt Russian and China are seeing that as the main potential use and will be developing counter measures and rival systems. (3 mins by Eric Berger)

Officials took pains during the call to not single out any one company as a potential provider of services. However, the grandiose aims of the rocket cargo program, seeking to move as much as 100 tons at a time, would seem to limit the number of potential suppliers. It points most directly to SpaceX and its under-development Starship capability. SpaceX has said it is capable of launching 100 tons to orbit and then vertically landing back on Earth.

"When a rocket can only launch, you know, a few 100 kilograms or maybe even 1,000 kilograms, it's interesting but not game changing," Spanjers said. "It's the fact that we're looking at commercial rockets out there that are in the 30 to 100 ton class."

History - denazification

This is a fascinating essay on how Germany changed after the war. (14 mins by Helmut Smith)

In the postwar period, Germany was full of war criminals. The European courts condemned roughly 100,000 German (and Austrian) perpetrators. The sum total of convictions by the Second World War allies, including the United States, the Soviet Union and Poland, pushes that number higher still, as does the more than 6,000 offenders that West German courts would send to prison, and the nearly 13,000 that the much harsher judicial regimen of East Germany convicted.

And finally, the fourth event: a major, nationwide essay contest for high-school students in 1981, with some 13,000 submissions on the subject of ‘Everyday Life in National Socialism’.

The confluence of these four events created a tsunami effect. Research – in schools and communities – soared. Across the country, literally thousands of schoolteachers, archivists, retirees, interested citizens and school students – such as the real-life Anna Rosmus, whose story was told in Michael Verhoeven’s film The Nasty Girl (1990) – dug into local records and researched what happened in their own communities, often working with Jewish people who’d once lived in these cities and towns and were now in Israel, France, Great Britain, Argentina or the US. Suddenly, the patient work of commemoration that had been missing in earlier decades was being pursued with a vengeance. People restored synagogues, exposed abandoned barracks that had once been used to house forced labourers, and discovered literally hundreds of subcamps of concentration camps throughout the German countryside. They held speeches, wrote articles, published books. Hardly any town in Germany with a population over 20,000 and where Jews once lived is now without an account of what happened then, and what fate befell the Jews who lived there – former Jewish Mitbürger, as many Germans now began to call them.

Philosophy Corner (a journey through thinking about thinking every week)

Last week we looked at some Greek history to set the context. Let’s try this lecture on Plato next (it’s quite a good introduction to concepts) (54 mins)


Last week we ended our look at the history of Jerusalem. Let’s take a break from a series and take something else, with this lovely video from a few years ago. (18 mins)

“Dr. Herbert Fingarette is a philosopher who's tackled many topics: Confucius, psychoanalysis, alcoholism, self deception, responsibility, death. In each case, he thought he'd 'solved the problem'. Now, he's grappling with a question that can't be answered: what is the meaning of life in the shadow of impending death?”


  1. In light of her retirement and book, subscriber Ella recommended this podcast exploring Sinéad O’Connor and her voice and music. (July 2020, 59 mins)

    Ella also recommended re-reading this 1991 Rolling Stone interview. (15 mins by David Wild)

  2. Another exploration of ethics and AI, including a look at animal rights within that sphere. Some difficult questions and no clear answers. (79 mins)

Still in my tabs

The minister of chaos

Here Are America’s Top Methane Emitters. Some Will Surprise You.

World must rewild on massive scale to heal nature and climate, says UN

Nestlé document says majority of its food portfolio is unhealthy

Why the ransomware crisis suddenly feels so relentless

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