BOOK REVIEW: Invention and Innovation by Vaclav Smil

Inventions and Innovations: A Brief History of Infatuation, Overpromise, and DisappointmentInventions and Innovations: A Brief History of Infatuation, Overpromise, and Disappointment by Vaclav Smil
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Release Date: February 14, 2023

This book is about technological failures, the various ways in which technologies fail, and what lessons can be learned from these failures when hearing about new “world-changing breakthroughs.” The author explores nine technologies in depth, three for each of three varieties of technology failure.

The first group are those technologies that came online as promised, fixing a major problem, only to later be discovered to have side-effects deemed disastrous. The examples used are: leaded gasoline, DDT pesticide, and CFC (Chlorofluorocarbon) refrigerant. These technologies have come to be associated with health defects, air pollution, ecological collapse, and ozone depletion.

The second group (like the first) came online, but then never became competitive with existing technologies. The technologies presented as examples are: airships, nuclear fission for power production, and supersonic flight. Airships died out not only because of the Hindenburg disaster, but also because people preferred airplanes to a craft with the combined slowness of a boat and the crash potential of a plane. Nuclear fission became untenable for new commercial power plants due to a risk premium on build costs even though it doesn’t contribute to global warming and (once powerplants are paid for) is exceedingly cheap per kilowatt-hour. Supersonic flight was just too costly and short-ranged to compete with subsonic flight.

The final group are those technologies that failed to come online at all, despite intense efforts. These include travel by vacuum tube (i.e. Hyperloop, and, yes, like at the bank but with people inside) nitrogen-fixing grains (negating the need for fertilizer,) and nuclear fusion. Despite the celebrity billionaire love of Elon Musk and Richard Branson, hyperloop isn’t advancing because of challenges of maintaining vacuum over large distances. Making cereal grains that feature the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes has also proven more difficult than expected. Nuclear fusion recently experienced a moment in the sun when, for the first time, they got more energy out of it than was needed to achieve it. (This wasn’t written about in the review copy I read, but I suspect will be mentioned in the finished book. At any rate, it doesn’t negate the author’s point as it’s still just one breakthrough of several that would be needed for the technology to be commercially viable.)

In the last chapter, the author gets into a number of other technologies with shorter discussions that are meant to illustrate specific issues with excessive technological optimism. He also investigates some technologies that he believes need to come down the pike, given our present and expected future challenges.

I found this book fascinating. The author seems to love being contrarian (he not only contests popular optimism by those overestimating technological progress but also contests the pessimism regarding the first group of failed technologies, so it appears that he enjoys pointing out how mass opinion [or the opinion of another smart person] is wrong.) That said, there’s a great deal of thought-provoking information in the book. And, I think it can help people more critically consider claims about up-and-coming technologies.

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The Rice Gamut [Haibun]

Terraced rice fields. Some, in rectangular blocks. Others, following valley contours. In the tropics, all stages exist at once: The mirrored surfaces of flooded but unplanted paddies. The orderly stubble of freshly planted fields. The max saturation green fields, densely packed with verdancy. The tawny fields of heavy-headed ripe rice. One may pass all of these (and gradations, thereof) as one walks the narrow lanes that dissect farmland. People, birds, and animals transit the slender paddy levees, lending color to a monotony of vibrancy. Sometimes, a weather-beaten man or woman wades in the field -- feet wide and bent at the waist. Nowadays, people come from far away (sometimes even paying admission) to see these fields -- to see so much green packed under blue skies and to let that photosynthetic glory wash over them. 

mirrored paddy --
flooded but unplanted; a
child studies himself

lush green fields.
crows on the paddy dike
command the eye

tawny rice.
stalks bent under
grain-swollen heads 

DAILY PHOTO: Coffee or Tea? Why Not Coffee & Tea

Taken on a Coffee & Tea Plantation in Coorg (Kodagu)

Tractor [Free Verse]

the tractor idles in the end-row,
chugging and sputtering,
with a rattling exhaust flap

soon the tractor lurches
into straight-line locomotion,
chugging down the row,
carving out furrows,
peeling soft, black soil aside

the cut worm does not forgive,
but neither does it know
what hit it --
some thunderous storm,
monotonously rolling nearer -
becoming more all-pervading -
until it starts to fade,
but by then
 the worm is halved

everything becomes something else:
worm aerates soil
then becomes food for the 
tugging bird

BOOK REVIEW: The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

The One-Straw RevolutionThe One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

I kept running into references to this book in my readings about food and farming, and, eventually, I figured it must be a must-read. One topic that’s of interest to me (and should be of interest to everyone) is how [or, perhaps, whether] humanity can be sustainably fed, given the realities of human nature. Fukuoka (d. 2008) was at the vanguard of what’s been called the “natural farming” movement (a term he admitted he didn’t love.) He spent decades growing rice, other grains, and fruits in rural Shikoku, Japan, using a minimalist approach.

The book mixes philosophy, biography, commentary on food / nutrition, and instruction in Fukuoka’s approach to agriculture. Guided by a philosophy of “wu wei” (i.e. “effortless action,”) Fukuoka figured out how to reduce the amount of effort and resources put into farming, while maintaining crop yields that were competitive with the standard farming model. His approach appears backwards, lazy, and unlikely to succeed. He didn’t plow his fields. He planted by casting seed into the previous crop before harvesting it (note: he alternated rice with winter grains.) He didn’t weed, but rather let white clover grow freely and used the stalks and chaff from one harvest as cover for the next (again, rotating crops,) a cover that biodegraded into nutrients. He used no chemicals, neither fertilizer nor insecticide. And yet, important details of his approach kept his yields up while using minimal resources to maximum effect by operating in accord with nature (e.g. no insecticides seems to risk infestation, but it also means that you haven’t killed the creatures that eat pests.)

Fukuoka’s philosophy combines the principles of nature, Buddhist & Taoist concepts, and – believe it or not — something reminiscent of Nihilism (without calling it such.) There are parts of the book that some might find disagreeable. For example, Fukuoka uses an analogy that draws on the Mahayanist view of the distinction between Mahayana and “Hinayana” that Theravadins may find offensive (fyi: the older branch of Buddhism considers “Hinayana” to be derogatory and believes it’s a label based on a mistaken belief.) [To be fair, Fukuoka explicitly stated that he belonged to no religion and he claimed no expertise on the subject.] More likely to take offense are scientists and agricultural researchers, a group who takes it from both barrels. [Fukuoka says his opposition to scientists is that they fill the same role in society as the discriminating mind plays in mental activity, and he values the non-discriminating mind.]

I found this book to be loaded with food-for-thought. It raises a number of questions that aren’t answered inside (e.g. is Fukuoka’s approach scalable?,) but it’s a fascinating and highly readable introduction to natural farming. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in the subject.

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