Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Innovation to the Rescue

I think of myself as a rational optimist. A couple of years ago, I read and reviewed a book of that title by Matt Ridley. Ridley's central theme is the crucial role of trade in the growth of civilization and human well-being - starting with the trade of goods and services that allowed people to become specialized, resulting in more of everything for everyone. But when people learned to trade in ideas, that led to innovation, stimulating the growth of science, technology, and social institutions - things like universities, democracy, and the market economy are all inventions of the human mind (usually many human minds).

I just read another book on this same general idea, the critical role of innovation and the exchange of ideas. I really like The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet by Ramez Naam. Ideas and innovations truly are an infinite resource, and Naam believes (as do I) that in most situations, market forces are the most effective way to implement ideas and solve problems. He also believes that the major area where the market has failed is in "tragedy of the commons," situations such as pollution of air and water, over-fishing, and greenhouse gas emissions. When there is no direct cost for the use or abuse of such shared resources, these "externalities" cannot be affected by market forces. When such factors do have associated costs, these can drive innovation to find better solutions faster than (say) direct government regulation. Reduction of acid rain and the recovery of the Antarctic "ozone hole" are examples of the success of this approach. It could work for greenhouse gases, too, even if ideas like a carbon tax or carbon trade credits sound scary to some people. Even if some energy prices were to go up temporarily, it would provide the incentive for innovative people and companies to find ways to lower costs and gain a competitive advantage. Innovation needs something to work on, and when it has it, it can work fast.

Naam believes that we have plenty of resources on this planet to support 10 billion or more people in American-level affluence if we can learn to use resources more efficiently, especially the huge influx of solar energy that hits the Earth every day. Certainly "old solar" (fossil fuel) resources like oil, gas, and coal are finite. As he says, "Every solar panel built makes solar energy cheaper. Every barrel of oil extracted makes oil more expensive." He also advocates some innovations that are controversial, such as genetically modified organisms (GMO's) in the food supply and increased nuclear power as part of our energy solution. I agree with him on these points. The alternatives are worse - we need GMO's to improve yields and nutritional value, and to reduce pesticide use (and forest clearing) if we are to support billions more humans in the next 30+ years. And although we are everywhere bathed in more than enough solar energy to run the planet with safe, local, non-carbon-emitting power for billions of years, until innovation leads to more advanced storage systems for dark and windless times, solar and wind power can only be part of the energy solution. Burning more coal is bad for a number of reasons, including carbon emissions and radiation (coal plants release more radiation into the atmosphere than nuclear power plants).

I think this book is well worth reading for fresh perspectives on innovation, environmental issues, and much more. I will finish with a couple of quotes that I like:
Our problem in the near term is not that resources are in short supply. It's that we use those resources incredibly inefficiently, with side effects we have yet to eliminate.
For all practical effects and purposes, our growth is unbounded. If we choose wisely, and tap into the right resources, while acting together to put limits on the negative side effects and externalities of our actions, then we can grow for at least centuries to come, and perhaps longer. 
Our only limit, for the foreseeable future, is our collective intelligence in innovating, and in putting in place the systems to guide our collective behavior. 
Easier said than done, I know, and if you live in the US, such optimism may be especially hard to fathom at the moment, as the Republican controlled House of Representatives holds us all hostage in an ideologically (and idiotically) driven federal government shutdown and threatened debt default. But I still believe that enough humans on this planet are sane and clever that we will probably make it through the next few hundred years, with more humans every year living better off than ever before. Just maybe not in the US.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Stella, You Are Stardust!

My granddaughter Stella celebrated her first birthday this weekend. Pretty amazing that it's been a year already. It's a lot of fun being a grandparent and watching her grow. My daughter organized a great party with a lot of family and friends, and I took the opportunity to play Look at You, the song I wrote for Stella's birth last year. Stella laughed and clapped along - she's heard this song a few times and I like to think she knows it's her song, but in fairness, she seems to love all music and laughs and claps along with almost any song. Something we have in common.

Stella also shares my love of books, so I bought a few for her birthday, including a really cool one I decided to hold onto for a while. Although "Stella" actually means "star" (in Latin and Italian), I think she's not quite ready for the astronomy and other science concepts in You Are Stardust, a book I discovered through Brain Pickings (OK, so maybe I bought the book for myself, but I promise to share it with Stella in a year or so).

As Carl Sagan (and various others) said and wrote, "we are all made of star-stuff." This reflects the knowledge gained by astrophysicists that we are all products of "stella" evolution -- all of the chemical elements other than hydrogen were originally "cooked up" through nuclear fusion in stars that later exploded, spreading those materials as dust and gas that later condensed into new stars and their surrounding planets, such as our sun and its surrounding solar system - including the Earth and everything and everyone on it. And it only took a few billion years! You Are Stardust turns this idea into a beautifully illustrated story about the connectedness of everything in nature, starting with:
You are stardust...
Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born.
You started life as a single cell. So did all the other creatures on planet Earth.
For background on the making of the book and the illustrations, including the science behind it, check here. The illustrations are photographs of 3D dioramas created by artist Soyeon Kim. They are really lovely. There is also an iPad app based on the book which looks cool, though I have not yet decided to spend $4.99 and 392 megabytes of storage on it.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Fire Towers and Shanties: Great Album

Full disclosure: Singer-songwriter Doug Irving is my brother. So you might imagine I could be biased in a review of his album, Fire Towers and Shanties (CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon). While I can't claim total objectivity, I am also a singer-songwriter, and there's always been a certain amount of friendly musical-sibling rivalry between us. While we generally like each other's music, and we have even written a number of songs together, we are unlikely to give each other a pass on any less-than-stellar musical effort just because we're family. So as far as I am able, I'm evaluating this album as I would any album that I like well enough to bother writing about on this blog (probably a dozen albums a year at most).

Doug has written and recorded a lot of great songs over the years, and has released several very good albums covering a wide range of styles from pop to show music to country. A lot of really good stuff. But he never recorded an album where every song really worked for me. Until now. On the bluegrass-inspired Fire Towers and Shanties, I think Doug has reached a sweet spot in his writing, singing, arranging, and playing. This is a great album where every song works and and several are really amazing.

Working backwards, the playing is first-rate. Doug has always been a good acoustic guitarist and keyboard player, and for everything else on this album, he used excellent Nashville session players, recorded with great quality in a Nashville studio. The arrangements and mixes are full and rich but not overcrowded, so you can clearly hear each of the instruments. Doug is a good singer, but on recordings in the past, he has sometimes used portions of his range in ways that did not display his vocal ability to full advantage. On this album, the lead vocals and all of the many harmony and background parts are strong and sound great.

That brings me to the songs. These are some of the most emotionally engaging and well-crafted songs Doug has ever written, with colorful melodies, strong harmonies, and excellent lyrics. While all the songs stand up well to repeated listening, these are the highlights for me:

Before Too Long - Longing for the comforts of home from under a full moon... in Kandahar. Great harmonies and fiddle parts.
Sounds Like Goodbye - The harmonies on this song reminds me of Poco, a country-rock band I liked back in the 70's. It's a "might be trouble" love song with an interesting angle and a promising ending.
Details - OK, Doug and I co-wrote this one, and I recorded it myself in 2003. But this is a better version. A reminder that in love, the small stuff counts.
John Speaker - This is a powerful song that reminds me of Bruce Hornsby (not much bluegrass on this one). War takes a toll over three generations. I'm not sure the age and date math exactly work, but the song definitely does.
Stages (April's Song) - The final song on the album is this beautiful tribute to Doug's wife. I love the chorus:
I've lived my life in stages
And every time I've gained some age
I feel more like starting over, less like turning a page
And your eyes spoke to me like only love can do
Every night and every morning
I thank the Lord for the love I found in you. 
Great job, Doug!