Newsletter Number 6

Back again

Hi everyone,

I’m still not as good as I should be about assembling this in portions during the week - but I was marginally better at it this week than last week. Still though, always room for improvement.

One reader has described this newsletter has being “like Mission Impossible but for long reads” - a happy description so long as people do not feel it feels more like homework! I suppose we are on a mission of learning - so it’s not an inaccurate description - but hopefully it’s very much possible.

And while sometimes the stuff I link to is hard to read or watch, the default tone for this newsletter is one of optimism and belief in progress.

After feedback, I’ve added a brief intro to why this newsletter exists and how things are structured. As ever here is the update on how many people are subscribing etc:

Week 1: 87 (of whom 8 are paid subscribers)

Week 2: 107 (of whom 10 are paid subscribers)

Week 3: 150 (of whom 12 are paid subscribers)

Week 4: 183 (of whom 13 are paid subscribers)

Week 5: 233 (of whom 15 are paid subscribers)

Week 6 (this week): 270 (of whom 17 are paid subscribers)

As always, if you like this newsletter please share its existence with others! And if you feel like it feel free to signup for a paid subscription - but at the moment there is no difference between what paid/unpaid subscribers receive.

I’d also that if you do like this newsletter, do tweet about it. It’s nice to see as sometimes I’m not sure if it’s hitting the right spot, or is even worth recommending! 😬

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Best wishes,


News List

🔬 Science - SpaceX

Long time readers will know that I have written about SpaceX extensively, including correctly forecasting their technology and business strategy (with some stuff still to play out). What’s interesting about recent developments is that they are playing out online, in real time. 

You can sometimes forget that enormous strides have been made in rocket technology in the past decade - but because it plays out over long periods it can feel like it’s not really happening. 

  1. The new fully reusable Starship rocket continues to develop apace. SpaceX static fired three Raptor engines together for the first time, and it was streamed by fans live. SN8 is the eight iteration of this generation of rocket, with many more in production. The accelerated pace of development is impressive and whatever you think about Elon Musk, the ability for SpaceX to grow and innovate successfully is staggering. We should see an attempt at a hop test of this iteration before the end of the year. 

  2. In my writings about SpaceX in 2017 I argued that they would become one of the biggest telecommunication companies in the world. I’m still happy with that assessment. Morgan Stanley has now apparently doubled SpaceX’s valuation from $52bn to $101bn. But if things go well for SpaceX, they will easily be a $1tn (if not $2tn) company by the end of the decade. 

  3. Starlink development continues apace. SpaceX made its 100th successful delivery of payload to orbing this weekend, and it was used to deliver yet another 60 satellites for its nascent broadband network. Already a native American tribe is using the broadband network successfully. I’d expect to see early access for Western Europe in 2021 with speeds in the 100Mb - 1Gb range for less than €80/month. 

It’s always worth watching the launches, mainly for the landing of the first stage booster. I never get bored of it - it is elegant engineering. Humans figuring out how to get to space and back sustainably (as Starship is intended) will be one of the biggest achievements of this century, and (if we survive as a species), be looked back on as a transformative event. Here’s this weekend’s launch (the main bit is less than 10 mins):

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📰 Platforms - information

Kevin Roose explores how the Epoch Times became one of the biggest online publishers in the United States, and the role platforms played in that growth - their shift to the right and their involvement in disinformation. (3400 words/12 mins by Kevin Roose)

🔬 Innovation

Apple’s organisation structure and how they innovate in this long read. (h/t Azeem) (4,800 words/17 mins by Joel M. Podolny and Morten T. Hansen) I

🔬 Science - encryption and privacy

This is a really good long look at Moxie, the founder of Signal (by far my favourites messaging tool). (8,400 words/30 mins by Anna Wiener). Funnily towards the end of the piece he talks about travelling to Abkhazia - mentioned in a previous newsletter as a border region where I nearly got arrested by Georgian special forces. But I liked this in particular (emphasis mine):

Signal now has thirty-six employees. Marlinspike told me that he tries to find ways to facilitate collective decision-making. Nora Trapp, Signal’s iOS lead, said, “If there has to be a person who is representing us, it’s good that Moxie is that person. But I also think that having just one individual serve that role is a little bit counter to the way we work and the way we function.” Perrin told me that, despite appearances, “Moxie leads from the front, and he just leads by doing. One of his favorite quotes is ‘The only secret is to begin.’ If you want to get good at something or do something, you just do it, and you figure it out along the way.”

This could be a mantra for this newsletter. You only learn by beginning the process, and committing to it. 

🔬 Science - plastics

Plastics and biodiversity are things we will keep coming back to - they are enormous problems that I think can be solved by human. We just need to begin. Plastic - can we recycle it to make fuel? Would we want to? (1,000 words/3 mins by John Timmer)

🚀 Science fiction and forecasting 

Can science fiction save us? An interview with Kim Stanley Robinson. In general I love the overlap between science fiction and scenario planning / forecasting. Freeing your mind to think of possible futures allows science fiction to be created, but fiction is just one output. 

When I was watching Star Trek TNG as a young person, the idea that you could speak some words to a computer and then it would play any song (ever) you wanted, was science fiction. But it was also just-over-the-horizon possible based on the trajectory of technical development in the 1980s. 30 years later it’s called Alexa + Spotify, or Siri. (3,300 words/12 mins by Tasha Robinson)

“If you think of science fiction as just a kind of modeling exercise, everybody is a science fiction writer in their own lives. You make plans based on modeling in your mind. When you’re feeling hopeful, you have a kind of utopian plan: if you do these things, you’ll get to a good place. And then when you’re afraid, you have these worries that if you do these things, you’ll get to a bad place. So the fundamental exercise of science fiction is a very natural human thing. And then when it gets written down in long narrative forms, like science fiction novels, everybody recognizes the exercises involved there. Although when I say that, I realize that, actually, lots of people don’t like to read science fiction, so they’re not recognizing the way books are the same as what they do for their own lives. That’s surprising to me, but it happens a lot.”

One thing to consider for futurism is what is currently science fiction but also possible with some more development, in that 20-30 year time horizon. Lots of things fit in there - and knowing them helps you model the future in your brain. 

🔬 Science - COVID

If people are telling you that herd immunity is the answer, it can be often because they have not thought through the consequences. Or they think complex problems can be solved with simple solutions - which is usually not the case. The false promise of herd immunity for COVID-19 by Christie Aschwanden goes into this in some detail. (3,000 words/10 mins by Christie Aschwanden

“There’s no magic wand we can use here,” Andersen says. “We have to face reality — never before have we reached herd immunity via natural infection with a novel virus, and SARS-CoV-2 is unfortunately no different.” Vaccination is the only ethical path to herd immunity, he says.

🔬 Science - trees

Trees - along with biodiversity - are things we will keep coming back to,  Three pieces. 

  1. Can we map every tree on Earth? “Yet more challenging is the identification of tree species. Although feasible, on the basis of canopy colour, shape and texture5, it will be particularly tricky at regional and global scales and across biodiverse ecosystems. The mapping of individual tree canopies by species will probably remain at the top of the Earth-observation research community’s wish list for some time.” This is in the “we will do this eventually” bucket. (2,000 words/7 mins)

  2. Can forest regrowth keep pace with climate change? (700 words/2 mins)

  3. What impact do non-native Sitka plantations have on Irish biodiversity? Very bad. (5,500 words/20 mins by Niall Sargent)

🔬 Science - beetles 

The uncrushable beetle. 

The team then 3D-printed similar layered structures, and found them to be twice as resistant to being pulled apart as was a type of joint commonly used by engineers. Designs inspired by the beetle’s wing cases could prove especially useful for joining materials that have different properties, Kisailus says — such as the metal- and carbon-based materials used in composite parts for aerospace engineering.

🔬 Science - COVID 

Masks. What does the data say? (3,000 words/11 mins by Lynne Peeples)

Nevertheless, most scientists are confident that they can say something prescriptive about wearing masks. It’s not the only solution, says Gandhi, “but I think it is a profoundly important pillar of pandemic control”. As Digard puts it: “Masks work, but they are not infallible. And, therefore, keep your distance.”

Vaccines and uncertainty.Something everyone should bear in mind.(1,200 words/4 mins by Professor Kanta Subbarao)

🔬 Society - CCC 

Civil Conservation Corps revival.  Jim Fallows is a fan of its restoration. I hadn’t known as much about it until I read this piece but it seems like a good idea. (1,700 words/6 mins by Matt Simon)

🔬 Science - Carbon

China carbon neutral by 2050? (1,800 words/6 mins by Smriti Mallapaty)

Greek Tragedy Corner

Now that we have covered the three Theban Plays let’s move on to a new writer. Let’s start with The Persians by Aeschylus.  

Here is a recent remote version and subsequent discussion (90 mins): 

Podcast episode(s)

Azeem has been getting great guests on his podcast lately. This week he talks to DeepMind AI CEO Demis Hassabis. DeepMind was acquired by Google in 2014 for $500m. (45 mins) 


The Death of Yugoslavia Part 6. Pax Americana (49 mins). The last episode. It covers the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 people. “The killing went on for days.”  

I attended the 25th anniversary memorial for this in The Hague in July (thread here), where many children of victims were attending, and members of the Dutch military. The Dutch feel a particular attachment to this event and have accepted partial responsibility for what happened (their military were UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica).  

The episode also covers the aerial bombardment and evolution of the Dayton peace agreement that ultimately ended the conflict. 

Bonus link

This is not a documentary link per se, but I love it because it overlaps two things: military equipment and the concept of scope creep. It’s hilarious. It’s from the movie Pentagon Wars and focuses on how the M2 Bradley was developed to replace the M113 but ended up doing lots of jobs poorly. The clip has been used to teach the concept of scope creep in engineering. 

Ironically, the actual replacement for the M113, the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicles started rolling off assembly lines in August 2020

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Still in my tabs:

Investigation into plane-based transmission of COVID to Ireland.

Carl Sagan’s message to aliens

Probe is leaking asteroid material.

Buying credits for the Great Barrier Reef.

Thanks everyone! Until next week.