Seveneves

Last night I finally finished reading Seveneves (Indigo, Amazon) by Neal Stephenson. I don’t know, or really want to know, how many pages this beast was (I bought the digital version) but it even though it was very compelling it still felt like it took a long time to read. I found myself staying up later than I planned several times.

If you liked The Martian you will like this book. It’s slightly less ‘sciency’ and has more of an epic feel. The odd part was that I got into it enough that I started to view the world through the book’s lens. After you’ve read it you will understand.

9/10 – Well worth the time investment.

Climate Wars

[Previous post on Climate Wars]

For most people it is hard to get a sense of what climate change may mean to society and the world. So the world gets 2C hotter. The daily temperature fluctuates far more than this amount. What difference will 2C make? The warnings of sea level rise may have a bit more weight with the general population but how many people really have a good sense of the elevation of a particular point on the map?

In his latest book, Climate Wars [Chapters, Amazon], Gwynne Dyer walks through what climate change means to societies throughout the world. This is accomplished through an interesting mix of fact, extrapolation and fiction.

A large portion of Climate Wars is dedicated to real world facts and ideas. This is the kind of information one might expect in a book on climate change. The current and past levels of carbon-dioxide, main sources and possible solutions are dispersed throughout. As are the best current climate change projections. While detailed and well researched, the discussion of the science behind climate change very accessible. One thing to note is that Dyer does not attempt to convince the reader that Climate Change is a real problem. He opens the book briefly explaining the scientific consensus and simply takes global warming as fact from there on. This in large part helps to keep the book interesting because it is not necessary to overwhelm the reader with facts to make the case.

From the scientific predictions, Dyer explains and extrapolates what they mean to various parts of the world in terms of agricultural productivity, water supply etc. For example, only a few degree rise in global temperature may cause the desert bands that exist above and below the equator to grow north and south. This could quickly destroy some of the most productive ecological and agricultural regions of the world. Specifically, much of the US’s productive agricultural area could turn to desert. On the plus side the growing season and hence agricultural productivity in Canada, northern Europe and Siberia may increase. This is likely of small consequence and dangerous envy to the rest of the world.

What really makes Climate Wars interesting is that Dyer takes the scientific predictions and creates fictional scenarios which outline and explore what effects climate change will have on world society. One such scenario discussed is what will happen at the US/Mexico border when agricultural failure becomes the norm in Mexico and South America. How many displaced people can the US accommodate before it is forced to close the border with lethal force? What will this huge influx of people mean to US society? What parts of the US may be inhabitable in the future? Similar scenarios investigate the fates of most of the major countries and regions of the world. Most of these scenarios are not pretty. This is especially true when you realize how climate change will affect countries who are relatively close to each other. For instance northern Europe, like a lot of the north, will weather climate change better than most other areas. Unfortunately, some of the advanced, industrial countries farther south will not fare so well. Will these countries sit back and watch their people starve or will they fight for resources?

Climate Wars is incredibly sobering and a bit scary. For me at least, it explains why climate change is a problem in a way that the typical, less complete discussions do not. The average person cannot see how a 2C temperature change can be a problem but they can understand how millions of starving people and many thousands of desperate people attempting to cross the border is. A slightly warmer world doesn’t seem like a problem until you realize that it will cause major population, resource and productivity shifts throughout the world.

A few good books

Here are a few short reviews of some of the more interesting books I have read somewhat recently. Beyond the below I have also recently read Blink: The power of thinking without thinking and Here comes everybody. Both of these books are also worth reading. Hopefully I’ll get around to a couple quick reviews at some point.

Good to Great

Author: Jim Collins

Good to Great is a famous business book which describes a huge amount of research which aimed to find out what makes a company attain and sustain exceptional results. The rigorous research that drives Good to Great makes it stand out. Given the high profile of this book the reader may well recognize certain ideas in their corporate lives. 4 out of 5.

Enduring great companies don’t exist merely to deliver returns to shareholders. Indeed, in a truly great company, profits and cash flow become like blood and water to a healthy body: They are absolutely essential for life, but they are not the very point of life.

Indeed, the real question is not, “Why greatness?” but “What work makes you feel so compelled to try to create greatness”? If you have to ask the question, “Why should we try to make it great? Isn’t success enough?” then you’re probably engaged in the wrong line of work.

The World Without Us

Author: Alan Weisman

Have you ever wondered what would happen if every human on Earth disappeared? How long would it take for our buildings to fall, our cities and every other trace of our civilization to disappear?

The World Without Us is a big thought experiment which attempts to answer exactly these questions. There is so much interesting stuff in this book. Facts such as it would only take a matter of days for New York to be irreparably damaged by flooding make this an interesting read.

I started this book expecting a lot of discussion around when the obvious signs of our civilization would be gone. While this is covered, the book spends even more time on larger environmental aspects that I had not considered. 4 out of 5.

Who’s Your City?

Author: Richard Florida

This is a stunningly good book. It is based on a large body of research, contains lots of interesting anecdotes and notably explains why cities are growing in importance even in an age when telecommunications and the Internet should allow people to live and work where ever they like. Who’s Your City? will profoundly change the way you look at the world and your own location choices. 5 out of 5.

I need to read this book again.

The Cult of the Amateur

Author: Andrew Keen

I think it is important to challenge yourself with ideas that you may not agree with. In this spirit I grabbed a copy of The Cult of the Amateur. The sub-title of this book is “how today’s internet is killing our culture’. Basically this book laments the disintermediation or democratization that is so often associated with the Internet, usually with a positive connotation. A critical view of the effects of the Internet is not a bad thing but the author seems to be more upset with change than anything else. Long discussions of lost music stores and music becoming a loss leader for coffee attempt to show the bad side of the digital world. Similarly, the author calls out Craig’s list for destroying news papers because it is stealing revenue from their once profitable classifieds sections. To me, these changes are not ‘killing our culture’. They are the result of technological change and new, more efficient competition. This isn’t a bad thing. Though it may be painful for some participants.

There are also parts of this book which I think border on dishonesty. One example of this can be found on page 24 during a discussion of “remixing”:

Silicon Valley visionaries such as Stanford law professor and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig and cyberpunk author William Gibson laud the appropriation of intellectual property.

I’ve read quite a bit of Lessig’s work. No where have I read anything that would indicate he ‘lauds the appropriation of intellectual property’.

Occasionally the author does make some interesting arguments so the book is still worth reading. If nothing else you will think slightly more critically about the societal change brought about by the Internet which is probably a good thing. 2.5 out of 5.