Chinese rockets, lightning and crypto fascism
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, 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 (lol!). With a larger question behind it all: how do we progress and how do we progress better?
I hope you like where we go. (931 - nope - 934 of us now! - welcome all new arrivals)
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Reading list - the best stuff to read
(The best reads I’ve come across, with excerpts, links, authors and how long it will take to read. Climate change, COVID and China are consistently the stories at the top so are semi-permanent)
Before we get started - JWST is now fully deployed and completing its journey to L2! Great news!! 🎉🎉🎉🎉
🌏 Climate change & biodiversity loss
After 15 years of working to raise climate urgency, I’ve concluded that the public in general, and world leaders in particular, underestimate how rapid, serious and permanent climate and ecological breakdown will be if humanity fails to mobilize. There may only be five years left before humanity expends the remaining “carbon budget” to stay under 1.5C of global heating at today’s emissions rates – a level of heating I am not confident will be compatible with civilization as we know it. And there may only be five years before the Amazon rainforest and a large Antarctic ice sheet pass irreversible tipping points.
In the former case, consider Fridays for Future, the global movement that was inspired by the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Just as Thunberg ceased going to school to register a moral objection to her country’s inaction on climate policy, groups of schoolchildren around the world now refuse to attend classes on Fridays, choosing instead to peacefully protest in the streets. One international day of protest in 2019 attracted the participation of more than a million people in 125 countries. This movement, however, is being outpaced in countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany by more radical actors, including Extinction Rebellion. Unlike Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion does not presume the government’s good faith, nor do its members believe entirely that peaceful demonstrations are adequate to the present moment. They aim to coerce political change by making the status quo unsustainable, including by organizing debt strikes against major banks that help finance the carbon economy. Meanwhile, activist writers such as Andreas Malm favor even more extreme measures, advocating openly in favor of violent sabotage of carbon-economy infrastructure.
But it’s not only bottom-up activists who are engaging in politics outside the normal channels of electoral democracy. Germany’s constitutional court is a case in point. In a surprise ruling in April 2021, the judges on the court declared that the climate policies passed by the government of then-Chancellor Angela Merkel were insufficient on the basis of the rights of young people to live their future lives in an undamaged environment. This was not a right that anyone in the German government had previously believed was anchored in the constitution—but the ruling left them no choice but to pass a law accelerating their existing climate plans. In recent years, courts from Australia to Pakistan and across the entirety of Europe have issued similar judgments in favor of climate policy, forcing their respective governments to act.
Interrogating these systems is vital for reducing waste and pollution at each stage of an object’s life, from extraction to decomposition. If every product was evaluated in terms of how much waste it generated or how brief its lifespan was likely to be, it would transform the discipline, and consumer behaviour along with it. In many cases, those objects would not be brought into being in the first place. But how can designers implement strategic change when they must fulfil the briefs of their paymasters? The last thing any manufacturer or politician wants is reduced production. Well, in that case, designers need to convince them.
Always read Ed Yong. (10 mins by Ed Yong) A revealing insight into the pressures the health systems in the US face (and likely most countries).
Some experts are hopeful that Omicron will peak quickly, which would help alleviate the pressure on hospitals. But what then? Ranney fears that once hospitalizations start falling, policy makers and the public will assume that the health-care system is safe, and do nothing to address the staffing shortages, burnout, exploitative working conditions, and just-in-time supply chains that pushed said system to the brink. And even if the flood of COVID patients slows, health-care workers will still have to deal with the fallout—cases of long COVID, or people who sat on severe illnesses and didn’t go to hospital during the surge.
The key reason is that transmission of the coronavirus is primarily through aerosols, which float around in the air — you inhale them — and are not filtered well by cloth masks. You really need melt-blown polypropylene, which you find in surgical masks and N95s, to stop these small particles.
We’re also hearing the same paternalistic argument about the tests that officials once used to explain why people shouldn’t wear masks — that it would provide them with a false sense of security that would lead them to abandon other necessary precautions.
What if people stop washing their hands because masks made them feel more confident? Top officials at the World Health Organization asked me that in the spring of 2020. A September 2020 article about rapid tests in Nature noted that people like the virologist Marion Koopmans worried that if these tests became more widely available, people would just use them and say, “It’s negative, so I’m clear.”
The threat of a “false sense of security” has been used against everything from seatbelts to teaching young kids how to swim (because that would supposedly encourage parents to stop watching their children in the water!). Research and common sense shows what one would expect: Safety measures make people safer and people who choose to use them are looking to be safer — if anything, they do more of everything. (Parents should watch their young children in the water, but kids who learn to swim are less likely to drown.)
Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease specialist who’s pushed for more protective masks for the public from the beginning, recently pointed out that as far back as 2008, N95s have been approved for public use during a public health emergency. What happened to that now that we have an actual pandemic?
Even my own doctor complained that he wasn’t sure which ones being sold were counterfeit — baffling that this is still a problem, even two years in.
Why hasn’t the government organized a system to guide people to buy real N95s? Or better yet, how about mailing some to people free? At a minimum, Walensky could tell people that N95s are more protective and let people opt for them if they chose.
All this has left people with the sense that they are on their own, searching for guidance and getting more confused, and perhaps wondering why the government seems so unprepared for the latest Covid wave.
And this could apply to any country, including Ireland:
The government can help us pull out of this fog, but it should always be based on being honest with the public. We aren’t expecting officials to have crystal balls about everything, but we want them to empower and inform us while preparing for eventualities — good or bad. Two years is too long to still be hoping for luck to get through all this.
🇨🇳 China / Taiwan
As we’ve said before on this newsletter - the China launch industry is an underreported story. In 2021 they completed 55 orbital launches - more than any other country. Many have a dual or military purpose. (6 mins by Leo Bruce)
The Chang Zheng 3B mission brought to an end an especially busy year for China, whose 55 orbital launches have far surpassed the country’s previous record of 39, which was set in 2018 and matched last year.
China also ends the year having made the most orbital launches of any country in 2021, ahead of the United States with 51 and Russia’s 25. With new vehicles coming on line both through government programs and a rising commercial space sector, it will be no surprise if China continues to press their space ambitions at a similar or even greater pace in 2022.
Bonus link: (from CGTN: China's private space companies: A race for the universe)
🇺🇸 United States - democracy decline
A persistent theme of this newsletter since 2020 is the decline of US democracy. The trend continues, and did not end with the election of Joe Biden.
Is a civil war ahead? (5 mins. by David Remnick)
“We’re not headed to fascism or Putinism,” Levitsky told me, “but I do think we could be headed to recurring constitutional crises, periods of competitive authoritarian and minority rule, and episodes of pretty significant violence that could include bombings, assassinations, and rallies where people are killed. In 2020, we saw people being killed on the streets for political reasons. This isn’t apocalypse, but it is a horrendous place to be.”
The battle to preserve American democracy is not symmetrical. One party, the G.O.P., now poses itself as anti-majoritarian and anti-democratic. And it has become a Party less focussed on traditional policy values and more on tribal affiliation and resentments. A few figures, including Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney, know that this is a recipe for an authoritarian Party, but there is no sign of what is required to reverse the most worrying trends: a broad-based effort among Republican leaders to stand up and join Democrats and Independents in a coalition based on a reassertion of democratic values.
Wisconsin is perhaps one of the starkest examples of this ugly new attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the ballot box. Once considered progressive, the state today is engulfed in a grotesque partisan farce. The GOP-controlled legislature, copy-catting similar efforts in Arizona and Pennsylvania, has launched yet another probe of the 2020 results, stacked with Trump loyalists and champions of his sore-loser lies. Meanwhile, a county sheriff has pushed for criminal charges against members of a bipartisan election commission – because they took steps to make absentee voting in nursing homes easier during the pandemic.
✈ Conflict - drones
Some pretty incredible video footage of a new counter-UAS missile, Coyote. The Drive has the story here.
🏛 Society - crypto fascism
The crash of crypto is bound to happen for the same reason that all Ponzi schemes eventually crumble: There is not an infinite supply of new people willing to pay ever-increasing prices for the stuff that you currently own. The more interesting question is not whether many small-time investors will lose a lot of money on their crypto investments, but what will happen when they do?
Here is what will happen when hundreds of thousands of younger investors are smashed by the crypto crash: They will be radicalized. This will not be experienced as simply a decline in prices, because crypto represents much more than a simple investment to its most fervent adherents — it represents a way out of the American trap. It represents the existence of opportunity, the possibility of economic mobility, the validation of the idea that you, a regular, hard working person without connections, can go from the bottom to the top, thanks to nothing but your own savvy choices. When that myth is shattered, disillusionment with the American system will follow. Unfortunately, given the realities of the moment, these newly disillusioned and radicalized and angry and broke people are far more likely to turn to fascism than to socialism.
🧪 Biology - immune systems
Khatri, Sweeney’s collaborator, has spent years working on a link between immune-system markers and active tuberculosis, which claims an estimated 1.5 million lives every year. Globally, about one in four individuals has latent tuberculosis. Khatri wants to be able to detect when the pathogen has become reactivated in a host. In 2016, he and his teammates published a paper that described how the activity of three genes, measured via blood draw, could serve as an early-alarm system. A couple of years later, the group reported that the same test could predict who would develop active tuberculosis six months before a traditional test could. It’s a better option for practical reasons, too: Traditional tests require patients to cough up sputum for laboratory analysis—a process that can be challenging for children and may itself help spread the disease.
⚡️ Physics - lightning
The new observations point to the rival theory. It starts with clusters of ice crystals inside the cloud. Turbulent collisions between the needle-shaped crystals brush off some of their electrons, leaving one end of each ice crystal positively charged and the other negatively charged. The positive end draws electrons from nearby air molecules. More electrons flow in from air molecules that are farther away, forming ribbons of ionized air that extend from each ice crystal tip. These are called streamers. Each crystal tip gives rise to hordes of streamers, with individual streamers branching off again and again. The streamers heat the surrounding air, ripping electrons from air molecules en masse so that a larger current flows onto the ice crystals. Eventually a streamer becomes hot and conductive enough to turn into a leader — a channel along which a fully fledged streak of lightning can suddenly travel.
🔭 Space - telescopes
Scott Manley has a really good overview of big telescopes and telescope design (and includes the big Irish one of course). Later this decade the Extremely Large Telescope - which we looked at in previous editions - should see first light. (16 mins)
💡 2021 discoveries
The year in Maths and Computer Science. (11 mins) This episode looks at:
DNNs & Kernel machines
Set theory & infinities
Gaussian free fields and Liouville field theory
The year in physics. (10 mins) This episode deals with:
The Muon g-2 experiment and potential new particles
Entropy & Time crystals (previously covered in this newsletter)
The galactic polar spurs
The year in biology: (9 mins) This episode deals with:
The brain - new understandings of how to map it
Transposons and a parasitic flower
What is sleep for? And how does it relate to metabolism?
🇰🇿 Kazakhstan - primer
What’s going on in Kazakhstan? A good primer here. (4 mins by CEIP)
The crackdown has split dissent into two directions. On the one hand, growing repression has pushed Kazakhstan’s surprisingly resilient civil society online. This group is highly educated and based in the two main cities, and it has maintained a remarkably robust presence within media spaces such as Twitter, Telegram, and Facebook—at least until the government began shutting off the internet early this week. On the other front are the angry demonstrators ransacking buildings and looting businesses. Lacking systemic ways to get their voices heard, some Kazakhstani citizens have turned to the streets to express their unhappiness, occasionally with thuggish violence. Civic activists have long offered answers to the country’s problems, but it seems the angry voices in the streets have the microphone at the moment. The government has labeled this latter group as “international terrorists.”
Philosophy Corner (a journey through thinking about thinking every week)
(A serialised section that started with Greek Tragedy and moved to philosophy. Something to spark ideas. Feel free to go backwards!).
Next in the series:
(A good thing to watch - also serialised - so feel free to go back through past editions!)
We’re going to go through all four episodes of Ways of Seeing over the next four editions. It’s very enjoyable! Part one explores how art changed when it became reproducible. (30 mins)
Make sure to also read: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
(The best stuff I’ve listened to, or been recommended by subscribers)
Subscriber Mark Coughlan recommended listing to “Decoding the Gurus”, which features a lengthy analysis of Joe Rogan. It’s long but is an excellent and forensic analysis - which rightfully concludes that Rogan is both very right wing and a conspiracy theorist (and, in my view, an idiot). (180 mins)
Azeem’s trends for 2022. (24 mins)
Still in my tabs
(Or stuff I haven’t read yet, but looks promising)