Wooden skyscrapers, sunken ships and Worldcoin
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. (977 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)
🌏 Climate change & biodiversity destruction
Is Europe leading the way on the energy transition? (6 mins by Eshe Nelson, Adam Satariano)
The company he co-founded in Munich in 2016, VoltStorage, found some success selling storage battery packs for solar power to homeowners in Europe. Now the company is developing much larger batteries — each about the size of a shipping container — based on a chemical process that can store and discharge electricity over days, not just hours like today’s most popular battery technology.
These ambitions to overcome the unreliable nature of renewable energy fit perfectly with Europe’s targets to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. But Mr. Bitner’s company is facing a frustrating reality that threatens to undercut Europe’s plans and poses a wider challenge in the global fight against climate change: a lack of money to finish the job.
Is China transitioning from coal to solar? (6 mins by Simina Mistreanu)
Over the past 40 years China has built the world’s largest industrial sector and export economy based on power from coal. Chinese officials sometimes call it the economy’s “ballast stone.”
Although in the past few years the country has also become the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, renewables such as wind, solar, and hydropower cumulatively account for only about 28 percent of its electricity generation—and a much smaller percentage of its total energy consumption. Coal still takes the lion’s share, producing more than 60 percent of both electricity and total energy.
Last year, coal burning in China set another record, increasing 4.6 percent as the economy roared back after the COVID lockdowns of 2020. A very hot summer and floods in coal-mining areas put unexpected pressures on the energy system, leading to blackouts last fall across the nation.
Beijing responded in part by ordering mines to ramp up coal production. That has meant Shanxi has had to dig out more coal than before even while piloting the “energy revolution.”
How air quality is impacting peoples’ decisions to buy property. (€) (8 mins by Oliver Barnes)
The speed of low-emission schemes cleaning up urban air pollution could soon mean the biggest bargains in town could be found in the current pollution hotspots. Pryor predicts the “best investments” in London may counter-intuitively be the more traffic-clogged high streets.
The transition to electric cars is also already well under way: there were more units sold in March than in the whole of 2019, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. The UK government plans to force carmakers to sell majority electric cars from 2028 onwards, ahead of a total ban on emitting vehicles in 2035.
“If we carry on on the current trajectory, removing people and petrol from our roads, then in a very short time, houses which were thought to be contributing to adverse health effects may become not so bad. Living next to a main road may become attractive,” says Prof Grigg.
Transforming Trees Into Skyscrapers (20 mins by Rebecca Mead)
Architects and engineers who specialize in mass-timber buildings say that fears of fire are misplaced. I met with Martin Lunke, a project manager for Hent, the contractor responsible for the wooden complex in Brumunddal, and he told me that some locals initially referred to Mjøstårnet as “the world’s biggest torch.” Lunke explained that the kind of laminated wooden blocks used in Mjøstårnet exceed modern fire standards. Unlike wood planks or beams cut from individual trees, the massive blocks of engineered timber used in large-scale construction projects do not burn through: they char only on the surface, to a depth of one or two centimetres, much the way a large log placed in a fireplace will the next morning be blackened but not incinerated. At least, that’s what has been demonstrated in tests: Lunke, like others in the industry with whom I spoke, could not cite any fires in the real world which involved mass-timber buildings. A recent architectural competition in Oslo provided an oblique endorsement of the material’s safety: the city’s fire department elicited proposals for a new station and elected a firm that had designed a two-story structure built from wood and clad in panels of scorched timber.
The Grief of 1 Million COVID Deaths Is Not Going Away (15 mins by Ed Yong)
Many grievers are starved for sympathy and patience because our popular understanding of grief is wrong. An influential but misleading model suggests that it progresses through five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But in fact, it doesn’t involve discrete stages, doesn’t proceed along a predictable linear path, and might not end in acceptance. “Closure” is a simplistic myth. Grief, as it actually unfolds, is erratic, and in many cases slow. Rekha remembers feeling pressured to move past her dad’s death in 2013; she now feels an extreme version of the same compulsion, as if society is insisting that this is the moment for everyone to move past their pandemic grief together. In mid-March, after an especially tough week, she told her husband that she didn’t know why she was having a bad flare-up of grief. He reminded her that her mother died a month ago. “I had internalized this feeling that it’s time to be done with it,” she said, “and I have to remind myself that it just happened.”
🇺🇦 Ukraine / Russia
Now, as Russian propaganda grows more baroque, he sometimes has trouble knowing how to process it. Perhaps that’s why he often leans on pop-cultural analogies: “The way they say that we’re eating people here, that we have killer pigeons, special biological weapons … They make videos, create content, and show Ukrainian birds supposedly attacking their planes. Putin and Lukashenko—they make it sound like some kind of political Monty Python.”
If Ukraine is to have a secure future, he says, the Russian information barrier will have to be broken. Russians don’t just need access to facts; they need help understanding their own history, what they have done to their neighbors. At the moment, Zelensky says, “they are afraid to admit guilt.” He compares them to “alcoholics [who] don’t admit that they are alcoholic.” If they want to recover, “they have to learn to accept the truth.” Russians need leaders they choose, leaders they trust, “leaders who can then come in and say, ‘Yes, we did that.’ That’s how it worked in Germany.”
Is the West running down stockpiles of weapons that can’t be easily replaced? (6 mins by Hal Brands)
American stockpiles of key weapons are smaller than one might imagine, partly because of production constraints and partly because most of the Pentagon’s roughly $750 billion budget goes to manpower, health care and things other than bullets and bombs.
Don’t bet against the world’s leading economy — and all of its democratic allies — in a long war. But don’t think that America would effortlessly produce what it needs to win.
What’s the future of the tank in a world of ATGMS and drones? Really useful piece of analysis here of the history of tanks, and their potential future. Worth your time. (16 mins by Dave Johnson)
Before the rush to the funeral, however, the first question that must be addressed before one buries the tank is this: Is there a continued role for mobile, protected lethality on the battlefields of the future? If the answer is yes, or even maybe, then the next act in the ongoing drama of how to protect the tank is to enable it to do what only it can do. And, given the events of the day, this question must be addressed objectively and urgently.
“Everyone can play an instrument, but it’s about making music — bringing it all together in a synchronized fashion. And what you saw today was the artillery was doing the artillery thing, the aviation was doing the aviation thing and the maneuver guys were doing the maneuver thing. But part of the delay in their assault on the town was they couldn’t synchronize those three,” he said.
Again, they can look to Ukraine to see how Russia failed to do that in the early weeks of the war. U.S. leaders repeatedly noted that in Russia’s initial multipronged assault in Ukraine, commanders consistently failed to provide the airstrikes and support their ground troops needed to move into key cities such as Kyiv.
Under attack in the east (as the intensification of the conflict there begins) (8 mins)
And Binkov: (10 mins)
And an analysis of how the Moskva was sunk (35 mins)
🇨🇳 China / Taiwan
What lessons can Taiwan learn from the war in Ukraine? Warontherocks looks at eight different ways Taiwan can adapt to a future Chinese invasion.
For Taiwan, the best path is trying to avoid the fight by ensuring that if it starts, it will last for months, be bloody, and prevent China from consolidating meaningful gains before American and allied firepower arrives. With rapidly deployable assistance, munitions, and training, Washington can help Taiwan to become a dragon-choking porcupine before it’s too late.
🏛 Society - crypto
Eileen Guo with a long read on Worldcoin. Worth your time. (25 mins by Eileen Guo)
Blania had just shared how his company had onboarded 450,000 individuals to Worldcoin—meaning that its orbs had scanned 450,000 sets of eyes, faces, and bodies, stored all that data to train its neural network. The company recognized this data collection as problematic and aimed to stop doing it. Yet it did not provide these early users the same privacy protections. We were perplexed by this seeming contradiction: were we the ones lacking in vision and ability to see the bigger picture? After all, compared with the company’s stated goal of signing up one billion users, perhaps 450,000 is small.
But each one of those 450,000 is a person, with his or her own hopes, lives, and rights that have nothing to do with the ambitions of a Silicon Valley startup.
Speaking to Blania clarified something we had struggled to make sense of: how a company could speak so passionately about its privacy-protecting protocols while clearly violating the privacy of so many. Our interview helped us see that, for Worldcoin, these legions of test users were not, for the most part, its intended end users. Rather, their eyes, bodies, and very patterns of life were simply grist for Worldcoin’s neural networks. The lower-level orb operators, meanwhile, were paid pennies to feed the algorithm, often grappling privately with their own moral qualms. The massive effort to teach Worldcoin’s AI to recognize who or what was human was, ironically, dehumanizing to those involved.
🧠 Nature - lifespan
Why do some species live longer than others? (6 mins)
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!).
Friedrich Nietzsche’s masterpiece The Genealogy of Morality (1887) sets out to explain where ideas of good and evil come from and why they have left human beings worse off. He traces their origins in what he calls the slave revolt in morality. David examines the ways Nietzsche’s story unsettles almost everything about modern social conventions and leaves us with the troubling question: what can possibly come next?
Nietzsche on Morality (47 mins)
(A good thing to watch - also serialised - so feel free to go back through past editions!)
Nothing this week!
(The best stuff I’ve listened to, or been recommended by subscribers)
Brian Stelter had a good interview with Masha Gessen on how to cover the war. It’s the first 10 or so minutes of the episode.
The Lawfare podcast looked at how content from war can be used in future prosecutions. (Disclosure: I was on a technical advisory board at the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court with guest Alexa Koenig, who co-chaired it). (60 mins)
Russia downscales the war, but not the brutality. (29 mins)
Still in my tabs
(Or stuff I haven’t read yet, but looks promising)