Numbers Don’t Lie by Vaclav Smil

Numbers Don’t Lie by Vaclav Smil. This could be a good book but still needs to be properly edited. I intend to offer a positive opinion of this book and I do have a good opinion, it is just that for now it still reads as a work in progress. Apparently this book originated from a collection of short articles or essays that have been published elsewhere and now the author assembled several pieces into a book. I am ok with that but the manuscript still has to be fleshed out.

The book deals with  a large variety of technological challenges for our society, ranging from population, globalization, energy and food. All these themes are important and I think the aim of the author is to condense a few lines of thought into a book as a guide for future development.

The word “Numbers” in the title  comes from the idea of offering a quantitative point of view for comparison among several themes, for instance, how much food we will need to sustain our population in the future, or what is the estimated energy consumption to power our transport and communications. Although these sort of information often is easily found everywhere online, in this book the author manages to put these numbers in perspective for a better understanding, which is good because at the end it is possible to have not only a better quantitative understanding but also a more comprehensive and qualitative view of the present and future technological challenges of our society.

One of the first ideas proposed in the book is that infant mortality is a better indicator of quality of life of a country than GDP, for example. The author argues that GDP can give a false impression of wealth because GDP increases when there are too many admissions to  hospitals or when expenses in policing increase due to violence, etc. On the other hand, infant mortality indicates good healthcare, sanity conditions and support for disadvantaged families.

Another interesting idea in the book is how the author frames vaccination, which is extremely relevant these days. As it turns out, vaccination is a powerful investment because it has been demonstrated that it can offer a benefit-cost ratio as high as 44 times. That’s 4400% in return. The benefits come from savings in healthcare costs and the lost wages and lost productivity caused by illness and death. No wonder the largest investor of the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation is Warren Buffet. 

WWI is considered perhaps the first truly global conflict and this event was also important because it transformed the way wars had been done in previous centuries. During WWI  the first diesel powered submarines were used to attack ships, telecommunications were used to coordinate battles, and the first battle-ready aircraft carrier was launched during this time. All these war technologies are still relevant even after more than 100 years have passed. 

Although the development of synthetic ammonia initially was devoted to producing fertilizers, the blockade of raw materials against Germany during the war, caused the ammonia to be used in the synthesis of wartime explosives.  This new capability transformed WWI into an even more terrifying and deadly global conflict, creating a number of industries that are still relevant in the 21 century.

Another theme. The author makes a comparison between IT and manufacturing industries. As an example, Facebook’s market capitalization is three times more than Toyota, the world’s leader maker of passenger cars. However Toyota has almost nine times more employees than FB.

The chapter on machines and devices is very good. The main idea is that the decade of the 1880’s created our modern world. The claim is that most of the most recent inventions, such as the internet or electric vehicles are not as revolutionary as some people think.

Some of the most notable inventions that appeared in the 1880’s are: the internal combustion engine, the bicycle, ballpoint pen, electric motors, electric street railway, electric elevator, wall street journal, phonograph. All these inventions truy changed our world. On the other hand, more recent devices of our present century, such as the internet or electric vehicles, in reality, can be considered as improved or extended versions of past inventions. 

In contrast to the above, in my opinion the internet in many ways has changed how we interact with other people. As an extreme example, let’s consider socialism as a doctrine. One of the driving ideas of this movement was that in the past the bourgeois class  was in charge of the means of production and therefore the working class was too dependent on a few people with power, and thus socialism emerged. Nowadays normal people run very successful businesses online without the need of state-owned means of production. 

Mobile micro-nuclear reactors are currently being used in russian cities in the arctic. These reactors produce heat from nuclear fission and are an interesting option for cities which will eventually grow larger in the arctic as the northern routes open for cargo ships.

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