Monday, January 23, 2017

Collected book reviews

At Bill Gates's recommendation I recently read  The Grid by Gretchen Bakke.  There's been a lot of talk recently about the US having an infrastructure problem but mostly it's in the context of our roads and bridges.  But really our electrical grid is also very important for modern life and impending changes to electricity generation look to increase the strain on the grid.  The cost of solar electricity on average has been plunging but the demand for electricity doesn't go down when a cloud passes over a solar farm.  We really want to be spreading out fluctuations generation between further flung power plants but to do that we need to build new, better, power lines.  There's also a good history of early electrical innovation though I was already familiar with much of it.

Donald Trump's election finally prompted me to get around to reading The Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri.  He wrote about how social media has made the failures of expert opinion more apparent to the public and given the public the confidence to challenge the rule of existing experts in many areas and has ignited political protests around the world.  Before reading this book I hadn't ever stepped back and taken stock of the wide variety of protests that have taken place in areas as diverse as Tunis, Spain, and the US.  I suppose I'd liken myself to a frog who didn't realize the water it's in is heating up.

As people's political self efficacy, to use a phrase from my excellent high school civics textbook, grows they protest mistakes but don't have any unified theory of what to change specifically - just the notion that it must be possible to do better.  Apart from protests this means a lot of politicians who are outsiders or who can present themselves as outsiders get elected.  Obama painted himself as an outsider.  Trump did too.  I can only hope that the democrats get some movie star or other for 2012?  In any event I guess this makes the Greek referendum I was confused about make more sense.  The people conducting it were newly in power so the voters trusted them.  But the forces shaping political results will continue to mostly so I fear we're all going to keep being disappointed.  And I should really write a post at some point on veto points and legitimacy.

Another book I finished recently was The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, also recommended by Bill Gates.  I found the start a bit dull as I'd already been familiar with the story of Darwin and Mendel.  But as we got into the 20th century I was fascinated by all the techniques used to extend our knowledge of genetics and all the stories I hadn't heard before.  I wasn't particularly impressed by his analysis of the implications of genetic technologies.  For instance in one place he implicitly seemed to assume abortion is murder but in another place he implicitly assumed it isn't without noticing.  In his description of the first trial of a genetic therapy he also skimmed over what seemed, to me, to be the most perverse logic I've ever heard of outside a Kafka novel.  The idea was that if researchers provided the option of experimental medicine to parents of children who were doomed to die in pain of a rare genetic condition then the parents would feel they had no choice but to take part in trials of the therapy.  That would violate their consent.  Therefore, only people with a non-life-threatening variant of this disease could take part in the dangerous clinical trial.

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