Review: Material World

I found, while reading this book, that I paid a lot more attention to concrete, and steel, and other aspects of our built environment. It forced me to balance away from the digital world where I spend too much time.

The author, Ed Conway, devotes a section to each of six materials (sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium), looking into the history of their use and their role in our lives today.

One fact that anyone should keep in mind is the large difference between the price we pay for any of these materials and their value in use. That difference is often very large for water, but it’s also large for these “endless” (not!) raw materials.

I was fascinated from beginning to end, so here are some quotes and notes:

    1. Consumption of some materials is falling in some locations, but it is rising globally, which often means that the pollution and other negative impacts from sourcing the materials is rising faster than rates of extraction, due to the common habit of mining the easier stuff (less work, less pollution) before looking to more difficult sources.
    2. Sand is quite the material, with many uses, like mirrors that are “probably the smoothest man-made structures in the universe’. If you blew one of them up to the size of the United States, the biggest bump would be less than half a millimetre high.
    3. Don’t think “supply chain” but “supply web” with all the complexity that allows for.
    4. We need salt in our diets to live, but it’s used in so many other ways. Governments tax salt for this reason (we need it). The obligation to pay for 7kg of salt per year (sel du devoir) spurred the French Revolution. Gandhi’s march to harvest salt outside the British Government’s monopoly (salt satyagraha) spurred Indian independence.
    5. Ironaccounted for roughly 95 per cent of all the metal we produce and use. Indeed, it’s so fundamental to our lives that it is just as good a measure of living standards as GDP. If you live in a developed economy like the US, Japan, UK or most of Europe, you have roughly 15 tonnes of steel in your life.
    6. If we wanted everyone in the world to have the same amount of embedded steel as we enjoy in the rich world – 15 tonnes per person – that would imply increasing the total global stock of this alloy to 144 billion tonnes. And since that is nearly four times what we have ever produced since the beginning of humanity, and since methods of producing steel without any emissions remain experimental and expensive, we are caught in the horns of a dilemma. The world’s twin goals of decarbonisation and development are heading for a collision. As countries become richer and more prosperous, are they really to be denied the concrete or steel the West poured and forged as it developed?
    7. The need to smelt iron and charcoal to get steel led to shortages of wood until that fuel was replaced by coal. Welcome to the Industrial Revolution, an exponential increase in wealth, and the beginning of climate chaos.
    8. In 1800, 95 per cent of Britain’s energy came from coal; at the very same point, almost all of France’s energy – over 90 per cent – still came from burning wood. No longer was Britain yoked to the organic limitations of how many trees could be grown on its landmass. And around this time, its income per capita, which for most of history had been more or less the same as France’s, began to soar. By the early nineteenth century it was 80 per cent richer than France.
    9. Here we run smack bang into the same lesson we learned from concrete [sand]: what makes steel [iron] a mainstay of the Material World? Not merely that it is very good at doing what it does, but that it is both very good and very cheap. That cheapness – which means steel is a vanishing part of our GDP statistics – is its secret weapon. Back in 1810 Americans spent roughly the same proportion of their national income on iron nails as they do today on computers. Today steel nails cost next to nothing – while being far superior to their iron predecessors – meaning we have more money to spend on, well, computers. The same observation (a big gap between cost and value) can be said about water.
    10. Copper is the great, unseen substrate that supports the modern world as we know it. Without it, we are quite literally left in the dark. If steel provides the skeleton of our world and concrete its flesh then copper is civilisation’s nervous system, the circuitry and cables we never see but couldn’t function without.
    11. There was an …astonishing leap in productivity afforded to manufacturers by electric drive motors [built with copper coils and powered by electricity delivered via copper wires]. Out went the clunky, inefficient steam engines in factories and in came electric motors. This alone doubled American manufacturing productivity by 1930, and then again by 1960.
    12. A note for the industrial ecologists: The flipside of getting ever more effective at mining ever poorer copper ores is that we displace ever more amounts of the planet in our bid to do so. Between 2004 and 2016 Chilean miners increased annual copper production by 2.6 per cent. Yet the amount of ore they had to dig out of the ground to produce this marginal increase in refined copper rose by 75 per cent. The most staggering thing about this statistic, however, is not just the numbers themselves but the fact that they show up in no environmental accounts or material flow analysis, which count only the refined metal. When it comes to even the United Nations’ measures of how much humans are affecting the planet, this waste rock doesn’t count.
    13. When scientists discovered the hole in the ozone layer it didn’t take long to engineer near-identical alternatives to the chlorofluorocarbons that were mostly responsible. It was possible to save the environment without even noticing. Oil and gas are by their very nature far trickier to substitute since they represent an almost perfect energy source and a near irreplaceable feedstock into nearly every manufactured product. Weaning ourselves off them will take far more than a bit of goodwill and a net-zero target.
    14. As of 2019, right before the pandemic struck and skewed the data, just over 80 per cent of the world’s primary energy – which includes both electricity generation and also other uses such as transport, heating and industrial processes – came from the burning of fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. The striking thing about this number is how stable it has been: just over 80 per cent at the turn of the millennium, just over 80 per cent in 1990 and only a touch higher – around 85 per cent – in 1980. Wind and solar, by contrast, provided just 1.5 per cent of our energy in 2019.
    15. The story of modern agriculture is really about… replacing natural forms of energy with fossil fuels…a kilogram of greenhouse tomatoes generates as much as 3 kilograms of carbon emissions… And since most consumers are reluctant to spend much more on tomatoes, and for that matter have little conception of how they are actually grown, that suits everyone just fine… In 2022, as gas prices soared after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some growers simply opted out altogether. All of a sudden, glasshouses were left empty, tomatoes were in short supply, and food prices rose across Europe – in large part because of the shortage of natural gas. Even growers in Spain and Italy, who tend not to grow their tomatoes indoors, were hit by the rise in costs of fertiliser and of the diesel fuel in the trucks transporting their produce. Vaclav Smil has calculated that each tomato from this region has an energy cost of five tablespoons of diesel.
    16. So we return to that same tension we have encountered repeatedly: How to balance the demand for stuff with the consequences of producing it? In the case of lithium the balance is even harder to strike, since it is our means of escaping fossil fuel dependence. Yet in much the same way as the internal combustion engine helped humankind out of one hole (the pollution of our towns and cities by horse manure) yet helped create another one, what are the chances the very same thing happens with lithium, or cobalt or nickel or manganese?
    17. As Wright observed this steady fall in prices and improvement in quality, he came up with a rule of thumb: every time the production of an item doubles, its cost falls by about 15 per cent. And Wright’s law, as it is sometimes called, has been eerily successful at explaining the fall in the price of everything from container ships to specialised plastics.
    18. We are beyond carrying capacity: …we went from having to rely on the sun for all our sustenance, complemented by some mined fertilisers such as the caliche of the Atacama, to relying on fossil fuels. Today our tomatoes, our potatoes and indeed pretty much everything else are nourished with fertilisers made of natural gas. Thanks to the Haber–Bosch process, we are all made out of fossil fuels. That allowed the global population to grow beyond its Malthusian limits – the carrying capacity of the planet if we could only rely on renewable resources like the sun, the wind and the unfertilised soil – but as our numbers swelled there was an arithmetic increase in the amount of fossil fuels we burned. There is a paradox here. Without fossil fuels, roughly half of us would not be alive. Yet now, the carbon emissions from those fossil fuels are causing problems that threaten us all.
    19. No energy transition of this sort [net zero carbon by 2050] has ever been achieved as quickly, indeed the previous four would be better measured in centuries and we are still reliant on coal for more of our energy than oil. And this is before you factor in that in each of the previous transitions – the move from coal to oil and from oil to gas – there was a big incentive to shift: manufacturers could benefit from cheaper, more energy-dense fuels. Each previous shift made their lives easier. This time around, the opposite is often the case. Except for nuclear power, we are shifting to less dense sources of energy. And we are doing so even as the world’s most populous nations are industrialising, and hence increasing their energy consumption. The numbers are challenging: some would say nearly impossibly so.
    20. Consider what it takes to replace a small natural gas turbine, pumping out 100 megawatts of electricity, enough for up to 100,000 homes, with wind power. You would need around 20 enormous wind turbines. To build those turbines you will need nearly 30,000 tonnes of iron and almost 50,000 tonnes of concrete, along with 900 tonnes of plastics and fibreglass for the blades and 540 tonnes of copper (or three times that for an offshore wind farm). The gas turbine, on the other hand, would take around 300 tonnes of iron, 2,000 tonnes of concrete and perhaps 50 tonnes of copper in the windings and transformers. On the basis of one calculation, we will need to mine more copper in the next 22 years than we have in the entirety of the past 5,000 years of human history.
    21. As someone who has worked my entire life in the ethereal world, enjoying the spoils of the Material World without ever getting my hands dirty, the journey recounted in this book has been somewhat chastening. The more I travelled, the greater the nagging feeling that we have all become disconnected from the primary industries upon which we all rely for our survival. Perhaps this is simply the quid pro quo of modern capitalism. You can get anything you want from anywhere in the world for a bargain price, but don’t whatever you do expect to understand how it was made or how it got to you. Perhaps it hardly matters that there is no single person in the world who understands how to make a pencil, or a silicon chip. But what if this disconnection is fuelling the alienation so many people feel towards capitalism?

Bottom line: I give this book FIVE STARS. Read it and appreciate the infrastructures that make our modern lives possible and pleasurable, and then think of (a) how expensive it will be to shift to sustainable consumption and (b) the consequences if we do not.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: The Places in Between

Someone recommended that I read this 2004 book by Rory Stewart (a Scot with quite a CV). Although I enjoyed it, I am not sure that the average person would be too enthusiastic about reading a series of mano-a-mano encounters in which tribal customs mix with male violence and companionship.

The book focusses on a “missing link” in  Stewart’s early 2000s walk across Iran, Pakistan and India, i.e., the section in Afghanistan that was closed until America overthrew the Taliban (for the moment).

To the reader’s benefit, Stewart was willing to risk his life while (a) walking a month along a “road less travelled” that no one local knew from end to end and (b) negotiating a “fluid” security and governance situation in regions where the Taliban had killing locals only a few months earlier. Stewart reminds me of  Thesinger (1959) and Sir Richard Francis Burton (19th c.)

This book is thus a travelogue that focusses more on culture and anthropology than on fine dining and the sights. Stewart is utterly vulnerable to the idea(l)s and whims of the people he encounters, the hosts on whose hospitality he depends, and the complex humanity of a culture (or mix of cultures) that outsiders have forever misunderstood and underappreciated — at their peril.

So it’s obvious that he should pick up a dog-as-companion on the way.

He names the dog “Babur,” in honor of the historic Babur who (a) walked the same way (losing many men in the process) and (b) conquored India in the 16th century.

Here are a few insightful passages:

  1. I took out my notebook and sketched Abdul Haq, who was sleeping on his back with his rifle across his thighs, his large chest slowly rising and falling. He had a clear, honest face. I found my fondness for him difficult to reconcile with what I knew of his enthusiasm for killing people and making small children cry.
  2. Islam does not encourage strong social distinctions, and the war and social revolutions in villages had destroyed many of the old feudal structures in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, villagers were very aware of one another’s backgrounds. A multitude of points of etiquette, tradition, and tribal identities differentiated a servant such as Wazir from a feudal lord… Class did not necessarily reflect education and experience. My current host, Seyyed Umar, was a wealthy man from a respected family of landowning clergy, but he could not read or write and had never been abroad. Abdul Haq, who was from a much humbler background, was literate and had traveled. What mattered was power and that depended on allies.
  3. Why did you become a Mujahid [resistance fighter]?” I asked Seyyed Umar. “Because the Russian government stopped my women from wearing head scarves and confiscated my donkeys.” “And why did you fight the Taliban?” “Because they forced my women to wear burqas, not head scarves, and stole my donkeys.” It seemed if the government did not interfere with his women’s headdress and his donkeys he would not oppose it.
  4. Babur seemed prepared to examine, mark with urine, and take possession of every meter of the next six hundred kilometers. Only once or twice in my eighteen-month walk across Asia had I felt some magical claim to the territory I touched with my feet. But Babur apparently felt it all the time. The warm stream of urine was set like a flag to mark his new empire. All his movement was conquest and occupation. He seemed ready to ponder and possess every place in the world. He was like a canine Alexander.
  5. This was a very useful map. It specified everything in terms of a man on foot: the best tracks, the distances that could be walked in a day, whom you should speak to in each village… Day one: Commandant Maududi in Badgah. Day two: Abdul Rauf Ghafuri in Daulatyar. Day three: Bushire Khan in Sang-i-zard. Day four: Mir Ali Hussein Beg of Katlish. Day five: Haji Nasir-i-Yazdani Beg of Qala-e-Nau. Day six: Seyyed Kerbalahi of Siar Chesme… I recited and followed this song-of-the-places-in-between as a map. I chanted it even after I had left the villages, using the list as a credential.
  6. Though most communities, whether Islamic or Hindu, and Muslims talked a great deal about their formal religious responsibilities to a mosafer (traveler), or meman (guest), in practice people often welcomed me reluctantly. This was understandable—they were often very poor, lived tough lives, and were suspicious of the few strangers they met. I was often disappointed by their hospitality. Only later did I begin to see how fortunate I was that they provided me almost every night with shelter and bread to eat.
  7. Six years earlier [1996], two thousand families had lived in Shaidan. Three years ago the Taliban had killed eighty men in the bazaar. A year ago, fresh from dynamiting the giant Buddhas thirty-five kilometers away, they killed one hundred and twenty. Seven months before my arrival, they found the village empty and torched it. Most of the population had fled to refugee camps.
  8. Some [foreign aid workers], such as the two political officers in Chaghcharan, were experienced and well informed about conditions in rural Afghanistan. But they were barely fifty out of many thousands. Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women’s rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance, and civil society; and to speak of a people “who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government.” But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi’s wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? [snip] These differences between groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome. Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts in some areas. Policy makers did not have the time, structures, or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory. [snip] The differences between the policy makers and a Hazara such as Ali went much deeper than his lack of food. Ali rarely worried about his next meal. He was a peasant farmer and had a better idea than most about where his next meal was coming from. If he defined himself it was chiefly as a Muslim and a Hazara, not as a hungry Afghan. Without the time, imagination, and persistence needed to understand Afghans’ diverse experiences, policy makers would find it impossible to change Afghan society in the way they wished to change.
  9. Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.
  10. Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression. Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.
  11. Almost every morning, regrets and anxieties had run through my mind like a cheap tune—often repeated, revealing nothing. But as I kept moving, no thoughts came. Instead I became aware of the landscape as I once had in the Indian Himalayas. Every element around me seemed sharper, the colors more intense. I stared, expecting the effect to fade, but the objects only continued to develop in reality and presence. I was suddenly afraid, uncertain I could sustain this vision. This moment was new to me. I had not dreamed or imagined it before. Yet I recognized it. I felt that I was as I was in this place, and that I had known it before. This was the last day of my walk. To feel in these final hours, after months of frustration, an unexplained completion seemed too neat. But the recognition was immediate and incontrovertible. I had no words for it. Now, writing, I am tempted to say that I felt the world had been given as a gift uniquely to me and also equally to each person alone. I had completed walking and could go home.

I give this book FOUR STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Adventures of Tom Sawyer

I am not sure if I read this book as a school assignment, but it’s obviously one of the great works of American fiction. Mark Twain published it in 1876, and now it’s available for free via Project Gutenberg.

The book’s hero is Tom, a twelve-year-old boy (it’s never stated). The plot involves Tom’s various attempts to (a) avoid school work and (b) go on adventures (often with Huck Finn) and (c) court Betsy Thatcher, a girl whose family arrives in town early in the book.

Long story short, Tom gets into a lot more adventures than he plans, which drives his Aunt back and forth between mourning Tom’s death, thanking heavens that he’s alive, and punishing him for driving her crazy.

The book’s tone of every day a new adventure is delightful and innocent, in contrast with that years’ events: the first telephone call, the first transcontinental (US) railway line, and the ongoing exploration and seizure of Native American territories.

…but by far the highlight is the lovely text, imbued with the priorities of boys in the face of adult silliness. Here are three examples:

He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while—plenty of company—and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village. Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.

One feature in these compositions was a nursed and petted melancholy; another was a wasteful and opulent gush of “fine language”; another was a tendency to lug in by the ears particularly prized words and phrases until they were worn entirely out; and a peculiarity that conspicuously marked and marred them was the inveterate and intolerable sermon that wagged its crippled tail at the end of each and every one of them. No matter what the subject might be, a brainracking effort was made to squirm it into some aspect or other that the moral and religious mind could contemplate with edification. The glaring insincerity of these sermons was not sufficient to compass the banishment of the fashion from the schools, and it is not sufficient today; it never will be sufficient while the world stands, perhaps. There is no school in all our land where the young ladies do not feel obliged to close their compositions with a sermon; and you will find that the sermon of the most frivolous and the least religious girl in the school is always the longest and the most relentlessly pious. But enough of this. Homely truth is unpalatable

Brilliant. FIVE STARS…

Is there a classic that you’ve recently (re)read?

Here are all my reviews.

Review: When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

A white woman in South Africa suggested that I read this 2006 book by Peter Godwin, and I am glad that she did.

I mention the color of her skin because skin matters in this memoir of how Zimbabwe fell apart in the late 1990s. This “change of condition” was shocking for many (including me) because of Zim’s prior reputation and status as a safer, richer place than its neighbors. This book explains how those relative positions changed as Robert Mugabe (Zim’s dictator) struggled to hold power. (There are strong parallels with Venezuela’s more recent descent into chaos, which was fueled by a similar “power at all  costs” dynamic.)

Background: Whites controlled Southern Rhodesia in the post-colonial period, but they lost power to Black rebel groups, one of them (ZANU-PF) which was led by Mugabe. After this 1980 liberation, Mugabe allowed the Whites to stay and work, which meant that they continued to run large efficient commercial farms. These farms did not just give Zimbabweans food security and jobs (at least 100 workers for every farm owner, plus around 3-400 dependents), but also export earnings and a reasonably prosperous countryside.

The Issue: Mugabe could not deliver on his promises of a better life for all, so he started blaming Whites twenty years after they had lost power. Plenty of Blacks knew Mugabe was trying to save his own skin, and they joined a rival political party (the MDC) in an attempt to vote Mugabe out.

The Chaos: Mugabe brutally suppressed this peaceful, democratic opposition. Godwin’s memoir traces how Mugabe’s thugs attacked and terrorized Black and White Zimbabweans, extracted $1 in booty for every $999 they destroyed. Citizens’ suffering is immense (Wikipedia):

…at the time of independence in 1980, the country was growing economically at about five per cent a year, and had done so for quite a long time. If this rate of growth had been maintained for the next 37 years, Zimbabwe would have in 2016 a GDP of US$52 billion. Instead it had a formal sector GDP of only US$14 billion, a cost of US$38 billion in lost growth. The population growth in 1980 was among the highest in Africa at about 3.5 per cent per annum, doubling every 21 years. Had this growth been maintained, the population would have been 31 million. Instead, as of 2018, it is about 13 million. The discrepancies were believed to be partly caused by death from starvation and disease, and partly due to decreased fertility [as well as emigration]. The life expectancy has halved, and deaths from politically motivated violence sponsored by the government exceed 200,000 since 1980. The Mugabe government has directly or indirectly caused the deaths of at least three million Zimbabweans in 37 years. According to World Food Programme, over two million people are facing starvation because of the recent droughts the country is going through.

Godwin’s memoir is compelling because it weaves between his reporting as a journalist and the stories he tells about his friends and family.

Oh, and what about the title? It refers to a belief that a celestial crocodile will eat the sun when it is unhappy with humans on earth. Mugabe, despite an unprecedented repeat eclipse in the middle of the chaos, stayed in power for years after this book (he died in 2019). His replacement is not much better. Pity the people of Zimbabwe.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: Brave New World

I read Huxley’s 1932 masterpiece a few decades ago, but I got the chance to read it again recently, and I found it to be just as compelling and sad as the first time. On the other hand, I didn’t really like the ending, which I’ll also discuss.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Orwell’s 1984 came out 17 years later, after WWII and after the horrors of totalitarian Nazi and Soviet regimes were well known. Both books should be required reading (especially these days) rather than substitutes for each other. Read this short comparison.

Next, let’s indeed focus on Huxley’s plot, i.e., a world where people are engineered into castes (from superior alphas down to subhuman epsilons) in a bid to maximize productive efficiencies (a tragic foreshadowing of Nazi and Soviet policies, but also a rebuke of eugenics, which was popular in the “free world”). Children are “decanted” rather than born; they do not have parents and are brainwashed away from emotional connections in favor of reliability. As adults, they spew propaganda (I gagged several times while reading this… as it reminded me of “fake news,” “Taiwan is China,” “heteronormative,” and other empty dogwhistles that displace actual listening, debate and nuance) as they move from one “maximum consumption” activity to the next (because GDP is all that matters).

The deity in this book is Henry Ford, which is why people say “in Ford’s name” all the time. Ford was a good choice.

After establishing the setting, Huxley introduces a “savage” who was born to a mother, who was allowed to read (Shakespeare, by happy chance), and who is thrilled to be allowed to leave his reservation for the “Brave New World” that he had heard so much about. The phrase is from Shakespeare’s Tempest:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ‘t.

Spoiler alert — it does not go well for the “savage” in this Brave New World, mostly because those creatures are not goodly, but also because of a culture clash between “inefficient” human instinct and “efficient” scientific scientistic planning — which Hayek clearly critiqued in a less creative, but theoretically robust manner in 1945.

As to the ending, I found it a bit of a let down, with too much violence and not enough grace in terms of how the savage would or could handle the clash between his vision and the reality of a “brave new world.” But other may disagree, and the ending does not detract from the book’s critique of the planners who seek human perfection or our willingness to “drink the kool aid” in a quest to fit in. FIVE STARS.

Review: Humble Pi

I got this book after hearing the author (Matt Parker) a few times on various podcasts. Its perspective is captured in the subtitle: “when math goes wrong in the real world.”

The book is a page turner, moving crisply (and humorously*) from one disaster to another.

In most cases, problems arise from conversion errors (metric to imperial), mistakes in formulas (dividing by zero), disagreements on starting points (you’re “zero years old” until you’ve been alive 365 days?), misusing software (Excel is nota. database!), or things going on for longer than expected (the clock runs off a cliff). The resulting problems are sometimes funny but sometimes deadly.


This is a common theme in human progress. We make things beyond what we understand, as we always have done. Steam engines worked before we had a theory of thermodynamics; vaccines were developed before we knew how the immune system works; aircraft continue to fly to this day, despite the many gaps in our understanding of aerodynamics. When theory lags behind application, there will always be mathematical surprises lying in wait. The important thing is that we learn from these inevitable mistakes and don’t repeat them.

And then we can turn from making mistakes and learning from them to the situations where marketers are deceptive (“McDonalds: We have 6,000 meal combos!), where the “average person” doesn’t actually exist (just like the average height of a point between Mt Everest and sealevel is not 4424m high), where what we see now is not what was once there (survivor bias), or where scammers or attention seekers claim big significance in spurious correlations. For example:

If you love numbers and hate the people that abuse them, then read this book. FIVE STARS.

*This was in the end notes: “Charlie Turner fact-checked the crap out of the book and all remaining errors are hilarious jokes I’ve demanded be left in”

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Tally-Ho videos…

I bought my first wooden boat in 2021. That’s when people started telling me that I should watch the Sampson Boat Company’s videos on restoring the 1910 yacht Tally-Ho.

And so I did… for 160+ videos (each averaging 25 minutes) during which Leo  Goolden (the owner of SBC) explains and shows what he’s doing and why.

Leo is a very smart, talented and charismatic shipbuilder (“… and sailor”) — read this interview — and here are a few of my favorite videos:

35: Asking for volunteers (this went way better than he expected)

37: The mind of a boatbuilder

48: Leo’s story

58: Ship of Theseus…

89: “Hey Pete, what are you doing?” (Pete is a very cool guy without feet)

132: How to sharpen tools

144: Fancy woodwork…

168: Tally-ho leaves the shed — time for a mast!

These videos are insightful, funny, and technically well produced. I have learned a lot about wooden boat (re)building, as well as fallen in love with the shipwrights in Port Townsend, WA. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: The Shepherd’s Life

I wanted to read this 2015 book because it touched on two areas of interest: manual labor (check this review or this one) and sustainable agriculture (read this, this or this).

In the book, James Rebanks’s vignettes and observations are collected into the seasons, from summer to fall and winter and back to spring. These seasons matter because Rebanks herds sheep in England’s Lake District.

The book is delightful for its insights into traditions, community and the ever-present and ever-varied (with seasonal variation) tasks facing farmers and herders.

But the book is far more limited for its insights into sustainability or current practices for rearing the animals that give us meat and fibers. Since Rebanks is talking about his own farm and close-knit community, which represents neither intensive, on-farm practices nor extensive, scale-of-farming realities, his perspectives should not be generalized to livestock management by other herders in the area, let alone elsewhere in the UK or world.

With respect to the intensive margin, there are many farms or livestock operations run on slimmer margins, with less respect for future sustainability over current profits, and on larger scales that disconnect man from animal, farm from community.

With respect to the extensive margin, humans are using too much land for producing meat, milk and fibers. Put differently, it doesn’t matter how much you love your sheep if there are too many sheep. (The same can be said for parents’ love for too many children.) We’re just so far over carrying capacity that Nature cannot sustain all humans and the consumption that they see as normal, prudent or justified.

For more on those themes, read my post on biblical notions delusions regarding sustainable land management, read this recent article on England’s unsustainable park management (or this one), or listen to this podcast on land use (it’s flawed for offering an Overton window that is far too narrow — focussing on the sustainable, small-scale end of farming rather than the large-scale norm).

But, putting those qualms aside (most of them far beyond the control of Rebanks and his neighors), this is a very fine book for its insights into a hands-on life that is not easy and not (often) profitable but rewarding. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Ask Me Anything

Volume 1 of Reddit’s AMA series came out in 2015. As someone who appeared in it (!), I received a free copy, which I recently got round to reading skimming (reading what I liked, skipping what I didn’t).

There was never a Volume 2 (these critics were right), so looks like this book was a fail. That doesn’t matter to you, dear (blog) readers, since you can just read the interviews — with better layout — on Reddit.

Here are 20 AMAs (out of 60) that I liked:








I give this book ONE STAR for wasting a lot of paper on links that people can read online.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Salt Sugar Fat

This 2013 book by Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Moss got a lot of attention when it came out — and it deserves it.

(Don’t confuse it with the 2017 cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat, which I also recommend!)

The subject is (ultra) processed food (the book’s subtitle is “how the food giants hooked us”), which are formulated with salt, sugar and fat as ingredients that make the food more attractive to consumers. These ingredients also help with baking, storage and product quality, but the main goal is more sales.

The book is long and detailed and horrifying, in the sense with which competitive food manufacturers (think Kraft, Kelloggs, Nestle, General Foods, and the rest) have fought for “mouth share” and lower costs, with each success putting more people closer to death.

Although I can hardly claim to have grown up with non-processed foods in the 1970s, I can easily say that these foods have gotten more and more dangerous for our health with each decade. (This book made me swear off “grocery-store cookies” — I was already off candy, soda and most prepared meals — as a risk to my daily well-being and long-term health.)

Perhaps none of these observations surprise you, and perhaps you also cook all of your meals, but the vast majority of Americans — as well as an increasing share of humans rich enough to “pay for convenience and taste” are not, and these people are suffering rom obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other “rich world” diseases. Note that they are not suffering or dying from being rich — they are dying from a food-industrial complex that has — with help from the US Department of Agriculture — flooded the market with worse foods, in larger quantities, than was the case in the 1950s.

What changed?

Women’s liberation has brought great good to the world, but it was also used as an excuse to make “food” that was more convenient than healthy.

Why didn’t these busy career moms just read the label? The USDA and food manufacturers did everything they could to hide ingredients (using many names for sugar), portions (a “single serving” of 3 chips out of a bag), and implications (scientists questioning health consequences for a fee).

So this is NOT the consumers’ fault, and it is definitely a case of market failure working together with government failure.

Not-so-fun facts:

  1. Big Food invented Betty Crocker and sponsored “baking with Fritos” type contests to push their products while killing the “cooking from scratch” skills that home economics teachers used to give.
  2. Almost every product has gotten less healthy over time — sugar added to cornflakes, soda that got supersized, adding fat inside of goods (think dry croissant with the same fat) to get us to eat more, etc.
  3. Lots of unhealthy foods (hotdogs, bologna) expanded sales by repackaging (Lunchables)
  4. Some candy bars are healthier than breakfast cereals (!)
  5. The soda industry spends $700 million a year on advertising soda; Americans spend more than $90 billion a year on treating obesity.
  6. Yes, they advertised to kids — all the time — but “heavy users” are the most profitable. So the fat and unhealthy get fatter and unhealthier.
  7. Yes, there are direct parallels between these foods and cigarettes and drugs. It’s not just “cast doubt on the research strategies,” but also physical addiction (it only takes a few weeks to wean yourself off excess sugar and salt). These parallels not accidental: Phillip Morris owns General Foods and Kraft.
  8. The industry routinely switches from one substance that people are trying to avoid to another that might be just as unhealthy — or worse, e.g., loading more sugar into “low fat” cookies.
  9. Cargill is a huge food processor, selling 30 types of salt, for example. They also bought a company that puts a band on your stomach — so they are making money from making a problem, then “fixing” it.
  10. We hit a limit with sugar and salt but not with fat.
  11. Most of the experts and executives that Moss interviewed for the book do not eat the foods they have investigated or that their companies sell.
  12. Kraft cheese used to be made from cow milk; now it’s mostly chemicals and “natural cheeze flavor” 🙁
  13. The beef industry — coordinated by the USDA — spends $2 billion per year selling America on more beef. The USDA’s nutrition center spends $6.5 million per year trying to get Americans to eat healthier. That’s a 500-to-1 edge for bad choices — and I’m not even counting advertising for sugar and salt.
  14. The USDA spent $111 million on “pink slime” beef (a highly processed product taken from the parts of a cow that nobody ever ate) to be served at public school lunches. The slimy beef was 1.5 cents/pound cheaper, so the government saved $1.4 million while dumping industry slop on kids’ plates.
  15. Offering a “healthy alternative” next to the traditional product increases sales of the latter (!), since people buy a bit of the healthy, then reward themselves by doubling down on the crap.
  16. The industry has pushed — and succeeded — at getting people to eat and drink everywhere, all the time. “Don’t spoil your appetite” has turned into “see you at the morgue” (42 percent of Americans are obese).
  17. Potatoes have natural sugars that are “highlighted” by frying, which is why people over-eat potato chips.
  18. Big issue: The newest weight loss drugs do seem to reduce appetite and help with weight loss, but they cost about $10,000 per year. The food industry will surely try to make its offer more attractive, to maintain sales, which will unhelpful for the people on those drugs but catastrophic for the people who are not on them!

What should “we” do to address the slow suicide on our plates? More information does not help. Taxes on sugar, salt and fat can be useful. But the only real solution is industry-wide regulation to ban or limit substances, so that manufacturers are not tempted to add more sugar and take sales from rivals. Will Fox news (with help from sponsors) decry the “nanny state”? Yes — but a nanny who keeps you alive is better than the baby-sitter who kills you while you sleep.

I give this book FIVE STARS. Anyone interested in what they eat, misbehaving big business and government corruption should read this.

Here are all my reviews.

Addendum (7 May 2024): I just ate a traditional shortbread (cookie), which has an ideal mix of sugar, salt and fat. That’s the taste profile that all these industrial chemists are aiming for, in their processed, cheap-as-fuck “foods”.