Monday 7 February, 2022

Quote of the Day

”Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”

  • Henry David Thoreau

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Dire Straits | Why Worry


This lovely song was played at Dom Mulvey’s funeral last Friday and somehow it perfectly matched the occasion.

Dom was an unforgettable young man who had been dealt a terrible hand by fate — a number of congenital physical conditions that made his life almost unbearably difficult. He sometimes also wrestled with mental illness. And yet he was the most outgoing, enthusiastic, friendly person imaginable, a regular patron of many of the nicest cafes in Cambridge — which made him, in a way, possibly the best-known figure in the town. In the way he overcame his physical disabilities, he often reminded me of Stephen Hawking, who likewise outlived all the gloomy prognoses and left a mark on everyone who knew him.

Dom had a wonderful funeral — a packed service, followed by an amazing wake attended by, I’d guess, over a hundred people from all walks of life — with tea, music (compéred by Dom’s brother Nick, himself an accomplished musician), a potluck supper, memoirs and a vast rolling slide-show of photographs taken from the social media feeds of Dom and his innumerable friends. What was remarkable about Dom was the way he managed to be outgoing and positive; faced with the cruel hand he had been dealt, most of us would have curled up and hidden in a cave. And although his funeral was, in one way, an intensely sad event, the collective vibe at his wake was joyful — an evocation of how we humans can be better at love and generosity than hate and selfishness.

May the lovely lad who inspired those feelings rest in peace.

His sister Mary has set up a JustGiving page for donations to charities that Dom cared about. It’s already exceeded its target six-fold. I’m not surprised.

Long Read of the Day

America’s Favorite Pickup Truck Goes Electric

Long New Yorker essay by John Seabrook on Ford’s electrification of its best-selling F-150 pickup truck. Seabrook seems to be a big fan of the vehicle — he even owns a petrol-fuelled one, and has put down a deposit on the EV version (branded the ‘Lightning’ with typical Ford crassness), but his essay is a thoughtful disquisition on the EV phenomenon generally, and an enjoyable read. Sample:

Electric trucks are intended, in part, to appeal to drivers like me, who feel guilty about their gas-guzzler, as well as to citizens whose concern for the common good has kept them from buying a pickup at all. (Two hundred thousand people have reserved Lightnings with Ford dealers; most of those potential customers are neither pickup drivers nor Ford owners.) But will buying a Lightning absolve me of my sins against nature? If one calculates all the nonrenewable-energy costs incurred in manufacturing an E.V. pickup, including the mining and processing of battery metals—lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, among others—and the worldwide shipping of those components, along with the percentage of fossil-fuel-based energy that goes into the grid that charges E.V.s (in 2020, less than twenty per cent of the electricity generated in the U.S. came from renewables), and then compares that with the environmental cost of driving my gas F-150, might keeping my old truck be the better option for now, at least until renewable-energy sources make the grid cleaner?

According to Rahul Malik, a battery scientist who is currently working in the natural-resources department of the Canadian government, even an E.V. plugged into a highly renewable grid must be driven for more than twenty-five thousand miles before it has lower “life cycle” emissions (which include the energy used in mining and manufacturing) than a combustion vehicle. And, as William Green, a professor of chemical engineering at M.I.T., pointed out to me, “if a person sells their used car and buys an E.V., that used car doesn’t disappear, it just has a new owner, so it keeps on emitting.” Ultimately, what matters is that first-time car buyers choose electric.

Then there’s the other big issue with pickups, whether they’re gas-powered or E.V.s: their size. Since 1990, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the weight of the average pickup has increased by twelve hundred and fifty-six pounds—thirty-two per cent. A recent post on Vice observed that the largest pickups and S.U.V.s today are as big as Second World War-era tanks. Now pickups are going to get heavier still. The Lightning, because of its lithium-ion battery, weighs approximately sixty-five hundred pounds; in some cases the pickup can be more than two thousand pounds heavier than its gas counterpart. You’ll be capable of assaulting a mountaintop redoubt, even if you’re just driving to the store for milk.

As the owner of an EV, I have a dog in this fight, but I’ve never subscribed to the delusion that electric vehicles are the solution to our environmental crisis. Although widespread adoption will obviously reduce CO2 emissions from transport (and that’s obviously a good thing), the overall impact of EVs has to be assessed in terms of the entire environmental footprint of manufacturing and charging them. And that’s not such a good story. For the grisly details (and in relation to the cobalt and lithium that are essential for contemporary batteries they are indeed grisly) see here.

John Dizard has an interesting article on battery production in the FT at the weekend. It’s behind the paywall, but some of the detail is compelling. For one thing, the market for lithium carbonate has gone mad. In January 2021 it cost about $9,600 a tonne. At the end of January 2022 it was more than $50,000 a tonne. And, as you may have noticed, Chile (from which most lithium seems to come at the moment) has a new left-wing government which has — sensibly — decided that using virtually irreplaceable underground water to produce more lithium salts in the Atacama Desert is, to use Dizard’s judicious, FT-ish phrase, “environmentally and socially unsound”. It is.

Spotify’s attempt to use the Facebook playbook over the Joe Rogan affair won’t wash

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Two decades ago, the late and much-lamented David Bowie said something that was eerily prophetic. “Music itself,” he observed, “is going to become like running water or electricity.” His point was that in 2002 we were still carrying our music in little bottles called iPods, just as Victorian travellers in India carried bottles of drinking water because you couldn’t rely on their being a safe and sanitary public supply.

Spool forward 20 years and Spotify, the Swedish audio streaming and media services provider founded in 2006 by Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon, is, in Bowie’s terms, the global music authority, providing sanitised recorded music everywhere, on demand. At the moment, it has something like 406 million active monthly users, of whom more than 180 million pay for its “premium” (advertising-free) service…

Read on

My commonplace booklet

  • Airstream’s new camper sips on solar and parks itself I’m not a caravan enthusiast myself, but I’ve always thought the Airstream ones are lovely, so was struck by this. Link

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