Hokusai’s solution for Covid-19

Row together or drown.

I posted this famous image six years ago, and you all know it, but like all good icons it bears endless repetition:

Hokusai, Great Wave off Kanagawa, ca. 1830

Hokusai’s Great Wave has a moral. It’s to do with the almost invisible boats, and the faceless oarsmen in them. They are responding to a threat from nature in the only practical way: rowing together as hard as they can. Their survival is not guaranteed, but decisive cooperation raises the chances of each of them.

The lesson applies straightforwardly to epidemics such as the coronavirus one we are living through ( I hope). The public health experts may not always be right, but doing what they say is far and away your best chance. Most people in the street recognize this: the draconian quarantines in China and Italy have been well supported, in spite of initial screw-ups.

The odd man out is the United States. Clownish lack of leadership and media irresponsibility has left the field open to quarrelling individual opinions. Even the highly regarded CDC mismanaged the testing rollout. This was quite unnecessary. Chinese researchers released the sequenced genome on 11 February, and German ones at the great Charité in Berlin released a reliable test on January 13 (pdf) (using a partial sequence?).  The timing is confusing to me, and multiple teams are at work on both the genome and tests, but basically the enemy has been identified for a month now.  Countries like South Korea have been able to institute mass testing. The episode shows just how deep the Trumpian rot has gone in the public service.

Hokusai does not spell out the alternative, but it’s obvious. If the fishermen do not row together, the boats will be swamped and they are like to drown. A comparable  fate now looks inevitable for the United States.  Without effective and systematic federal leadership (targeted restrictions on movement, public education on social distancing, emergency paid leave and guaranteed care, food distribution, measures against hoarding …) the epidemic will spread out of control and swamp the available critical resources (isolation beds, respirators, nurses, antiviral drugs). Thousands will die, perhaps more than in China.

I hope I’m wrong. The silver lining, if it’s as bad I as I think, is that Trump cannot escape responsibility for the disaster, any more than Bush could for the botched aftermath of Katrina.  The virus could have been designed as a WMD against his supporters: older, poorly educated, individualistic, careless, and trusting in his dangerous lies. You can’t spin gravestones. Some of the mourners will wake up.

 

A nice surprise

The IEA says CO2 emissions went flat in 2019.

I found a press release from the IEA in my mailbox:

Despite widespread expectations of another increase, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions stopped growing in 2019, according to IEA data released today.

After two years of growth, global emissions were unchanged at 33 gigatonnes in 2019 even as the world economy expanded by 2.9%. This was primarily due to declining emissions from electricity generation in advanced economies, thanks to the expanding role of renewable sources (mainly wind and solar), fuel switching from coal to natural gas, and higher nuclear power generation. Other factors included milder weather in several countries, and slower economic growth in some emerging markets.

As late as last December, the central expert prediction  was for 0.6% growth. That’s a difference of 200 million tonnes of CO2 (or 54 million tonnes of carbon, or in my proposed unit, 27 cheopses. (1 cheops = the volume of the Great Pyramid at Giza = 2.5 million m3).

Now OF COURSE the figure is provisional, and the IEA don’t venture past the decimal point, so they are still technically right if it’s 33.1 or 32.9. We need confirmation from the full data in March, and from other teams of analysts like Grantham. Still, for now it’s the best figure available. Industrial emissions are not rising but flat.

To the rational Benthamite policymaker, the correction makes no difference. Flat emissions are still a path to collective suicide; postponing the date of final collapse by a year or whatever is not significant. We need to cut emissions, hard. To keep under 1.5 degrees C of warming, emissions would have to fall by 15% a year, starting in 2020. The IEA’s small correction does not change our policy problem materially, nor soothe our collective failure.

In human psychology, it’s very different. “Going up a little” and “not going up at all” are interpreted in different ways. The latter may be a turning point; the former is not. Perhaps we are primed by evolution to watch out for these: an exhausted prey animal giving up, or an adversary in some contest. Or ourselves. At all events, that’s how we choose to write plays, novels and histories.

In 2020, emissions may go higher again, or stay flat, or decline. Which one it is will determine our retrospective labelling of the 2019 result. If they decline – and in contrast to the 2015-2016 false start, keep declining – we will retrospectively call 2018 the peak and 2019 the turning point: the most important one in history.

The evidence is not quite neutral on this. There is a small clue in the timing. Until very late in the year, the 2019 data pointed to an increase. The drop came in the last quarter. An economic slowdown in China and India? Possibly. But it was not big enough to cut world growth from a normal 2.9% for the year. Perhaps the coal collapse in Europe and the USA sped up, and/or electricity demand in developing countries slowed as they converge with the OECD norm of stasis. If the structural factors outweighed the cyclical ones, we are on track to a modest decline in 2020. It is not silly to hope (and if you are so inclined, to pray) for this.

Footnote: the “higher nuclear power generation” highlighted by the IEA was mainly down to Japan finally restarting some of the nuclear reactors closed after Fukushima. This was a once-off and can’t be repeated. 2020 will be back to normal, with a few reactor openings in China almost balanced by closures of old ones elsewhere (pdf, Figures 6 and 7). To a first approximation, nuclear power is irrelevant to resolving the climate crisis. What we have is a useful addition to the low-carbon side of the ledger, that’s about it.

 

 

“Things not seen” in 2020

Seven reasons for hope on our climate.

You all know the reasons to be depressed about the climate. The Davos élite listen respectfully to Greta’s hellfire sermon, but don’t sign up to the 12-step programme. Carbon emissions continue to rise (+ 1.3% in 2019), as does the CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa (415 ppm two days ago). China and India keep opening new coal power stations. 95% of new cars sold have polluting combustion engines. Australia is on fire. The Murdoch press and the Kochs keep spreading their poisonous disinformation. We are all doomed!

Maybe, and maybe not. You need to get into the weeds for signs of hope. But they are there if you look. My hope list falls into two groups: economics and technology, and politics and culture. For each factor, I add a completely subjective confidence factor for a significant impact in 2020. YMMV.

Continue reading ““Things not seen” in 2020″

Nail, meet wood

Update: building in engineered wood is taking off

Remember the satisfying thunk when you strike a nail squarely with a strong hammer blow and the nail sinks an inch into wood? Few metaphors are as sound and accurate as “hitting the nail on the head”. Forgive the boast, dear readers, for a post Mike O’Hare and I made here five years ago proposing more building in wood as a way of cutting carbon emissions. There is a nifty new technology (engineered wood beams and panels) that makes it much easier; trees fix carbon, and using the wood in structures extends the sequestration for decades.

Dave Roberts at Vox has a long new post up  making essentially the same points. With more recent data, he has better and higher estimates than ours of the potential savings in carbon emissions. The other news is that things are beginning to move, as wood is transitioning from a handful of bespoke prestige projects to routine use in large buildings.

I thought the trendsetter would be New Zealand, which is heavily forested and has innovative wood structural engineers. But it’s small (4 million population), remote, and does not export much timber. No, it’s Canada; specifically British Columbia, the centre of the large Canadian forestry industry.

A mundane timber-framed 18-storey block of student rooms, Brock Commons, in Vancouver. The concrete stairwells are presumably required for fire safety.

BC has changed its building code to allow 12-storey wooden buildings routinely, and its code has been copied in the rest of Canada. Three are 500 mid-size wooden buildings under construction across the country. The new standards have spread to China and now much of the USA. US building codes are a local or state responsibility, but they often rely on common models, which now allow engineered wood.

The caveat to the RBC paean is that to get the full benefit, the forest management has to be based on forests that are (1) sustainably managed (2) second-growth. In BC, the timber building movement runs into nuanced criticism from defenders of the splendid old-growth forests. There is no inherent conflict here: engineered wood can perfectly well use fairly small pieces of lumber, such as those you get from smaller second-growth trees (in parts of Europe, eighth-growth), or 40-year thinnings, glued together in factories into panels and beams of the required size. But the lumber industry is what it is, and greater demand poses a threat to old growth worldwide unless its appetite is restrained by firm government and honest regulation. This will be a battle in the Pacific Northwest, and an even bigger one in tropical Africa and South America.

Endnote 1: the inventor of cross-laminated timber

Dave Roberts credits Austrian Gerhard Schickhofer, a professor at Graz Technical University. Alpine forestry is necessarily conservative; prevention of landslides and avalanches has priority over wood yield, and you don’t see clear cuts. Hillside trees tend to be small. This environment encourages a frugal approach to wood use, and lamination is a natural extension.

Endnote 2: Notre Dame

As you all know, the roof of the great Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burnt down in a huge fire in April last year. The roof above the vaulting was supported by massive oak beams, so many that they were known as “the forest”. There were no firewalls or sprinklers in this huge drafty space, an ideal system to keep the flames supplied with oxygen. The rebuilding fund has money: but what to do about the roof?

A very French grand débat has started over this. Suggestions include the wacky (a rooftop open-air swimming pool, an all-glass roof). Nobody will listen to our views but it’s fun to join in anyway.

The baseline restoration scheme is “just as it was before”, including the 19th-century iron central spire. Taken literally, this requires replacing the Forest with new oak beams. Where do you find the trees? The oak forests of France have shrunk since the 12th century, or the 9th when the acorns that generated those beams fell. There are fine oaks like these planted by Colbert to replace those he cut to build warships for Louis XIV – trees that have preservation orders on them. Even in a good cause, felling a thousand of them is not on.

What makes the problem more tractable is that the Forest was not generally open to visitors before the fire. It should be culturally possible to innovate. I’d go for a technically modern roofspace, using a steel space frame or engineered wood, and preserving some of the surviving blackened timbers as a memorial. The space could be made partly usable for religious or cultural purposes, assuming you could put in lifts.

Brexit post-mortem 1 : the Comedy of Errors

A lot of things had to go wrong.

“There is a great deal of ruin in a nation” (Adam Smith). The (pro tem) United Kingdom is bent on finding out how much, with Boris Johnson sweeping to a large election victory on a mendacious promise to “get Brexit done”.

In fact, all that’s certain is that the withdrawal agreement (text here) he negotiated will be signed and on January 31 the UK cease to be a EU member, and I an EU citizen .

But under this agreement (Articles 126 – 132) there will be a transition period in which all EU laws and rules still apply. For all practical purposes except decision-making the UK is still in, for a while. The period is set to end on 31 December 2020 (§126), but may be extended for up to two years by common agreement (§132) – but only before 1 July 2020. Johnson has promised not to ask for such an extension – but since neither the EU Commission nor independent experts believe a trade agreement can be finalised in 11 months, there are plenty of Perils-of-Pauline cliffhanger deadlines coming up. The risk of a No Deal crashout is still very much present.

Who’s to blame? There is a lot of it to share, in a corollary to Smith’s aphorism. Here is Inspector Wimberley’s short list of suspects, in rough chronological order.

1. Press barons: Murdoch, Dacre, etc. For decades, they have fed the British public a consistently biased diet of news on Europe, painting the Brussels institutions as a hostile foreign Them not the framework for a competitive common project like the World Cup. They have kept this up to the present day.

2. The BBC, failing out of cowardice and bothsideserism to act as a corrective to the biased press.

3. Farage and UKIP, who supercharged euroscepticism with nativist propaganda against refugees and immigrants.

4. David Cameron, who called a second referendum on EU membership in a bid to silence the UKIP threat to Tory heartland seats; worded it sloppily, as a vague unicorn aspiration not a concrete policy choice; and made no effort to extend the franchise to a million Britons abroad, excluding me and two of my children.

5. Putin’s FSB and its useful idiots who manipulated the referendum by exploiting social media for propaganda.

6. The British electorate, by falling for the con, three times.

7. Theresa May, for invoking Article 50 and triggering a withdrawal countdown without a negotiating strategy.

8. The DUP (hardline Ulster Protestant Unionists) for supporting May’s Article 50 invocation. You can’t blame them for not foreseeing the exact course the complex Irish border issue would take, but you can blame them for not realising that withdrawal inevitably sets up a clash with the Good Friday Agreement and creates grave risks to the Union – the main reason they are in Westminster.

9. Sinn Fein, for not taking up the seats in Westminster they regularly win, because they won’t take the oath of loyalty required of all new MPs; so the DUP’s folly went unchallenged.

10. Remainer backbenchers in the Commons, both Tories and Labour, and their ultimately ineffective leaders (Grieve, Soubry, Kyle, Umunna, etc). They had a clear majority, and managed to score one tactical victory in the Benn anti-No-Deal bill, but never got their act well enough together to secure a second referendum. Both Tory and Labour rebels were wiped out in Thursday’s election. Consolation prizes for principle and effort, but in politics, as Yoda said, “there is no try”.

11. Jeremy Corbyn, whose personal hostility to the EU prevented Labour from ever taking the clear Remain stance that large majorities of its members, MPs and voters wanted, and for pursuing the impossible dream of an electoral mandate for a hard left agenda at the expense of an entirely winnable second referendum. Also for being a sanctimonious North London 1970s lefty pacifist vegetarian stereotype and sucker for anti-semitic conspiracy theories.

12. Jo Swinson, leader of the LibDems, for not making an electoral pact with Labour at the start of the campaign out of a reasonable distrust of Corbyn and an unreasonable hope in an election triumph. She lost her Scottish seat to the SNP, and her party half its previous seats (though it increased its vote).

13. Boris Johnson, liar, womaniser, fat cat, and completely unprincipled demagogue. And his mad Svengali Dominic Cummings.

It strikes me that most of these are but-for causes. Leave out 2 (BBC), 9 (Sinn Fein) and 12 (LibDems), which are unlikely to have made a critical difference. The election wasn’t a close result. The Remainer backbenchers (10) at least tried and morally can’t be blamed. That leaves eight causes, for each of which you can make a strong but-for claim. If any one had gone very differently the UK would not be in this mess.

Any more?

That’s a philosophically disturbing conclusion. Summing over the many possible timelines since 2000, most end up with the UK still a member of the EU. The train wreck was just bad luck.

There is another reading, though.

(Stand by for next episode)

Annals of nudge: British company cars

A small change in UK tax may tip large effects.

This post would be wonky if I could be bothered to do a deep dive into the rococo tax rules for company cars in the UK. Try this. But for once the tl;dr is enough.

For reasons I do not, like Cervantes (footnote), care to go into, the British tax code makes it attractive for employers to offer company cars to middle-rank employees as a perk. The company owns or leases the car and lets the employee use it for private travel and work alike. The employee pays tax (Benefit-in-Kind, or BiK) on the imputed value of the benefit for personal use, on a scale.

The typical split looks like this:

  • Company – ownership; book and residual value of the car; depreciation; insurance; breakdowns; maintenance; road tax; choice of the list of available cars, sorted by status.
  • Employee – fuel; BiK tax; choice of car from the restricted list, according to status.
  • Some employers offer fuel too, which is taxed as a separate BiK.

The result is that 35% of new cars are company ones, about 830,000 of them a year. Add to this the true fleets (rental companies, police, etc), and a remarkable 57% of new cars (pdf) are bought by companies, not individuals.

The story is that the shell-shocked British government has found the time to introduce a reform, from April 2020. This will make the BiK use tax more strongly dependent on emissions. It’s a steep progression now, from 9% to 37%. The rate will now fall to nil for BEVs.

Bank of America /Merrill Lynch have done the math and issued a shiny report with lots of pretty graphs (not public, but they sent it to CleanTechnica). The method is confusing, and the analysts do not provide a summary of costs to the company as opposed to the employee. As far as I can see, the takeaways are:

  • For employees, the BiK changes and cheap electric fuel make for very large savings in choosing a BEV or PHEV – up to 22 times less outlays for a Tesla 3 (£659) against a BMW 3 series petrol (£15,137) over three years, a common life of a company car.
  • For employers, the low maintenance costs of EVs are still outweighed by the higher purchase price, so that the total three-year cost of ownership (TCO) of the BEV or PHEV is still somewhat higher than that of a comparable ICEV for 10K miles a year. The significant savings to the employee mean that the total joint TCO is similar. The TCO becomes significantly lower (12% – 32%) for a high-mileage fleet use of 20K miles, including fuel costs.
  • The employer can now in many cases offer a higher-value package to the employee for less outlay with EVs, appropriating (unless they are dumb or unusually altruistic) a large share of the tax break. (My inference, not BoA’s.)

Here’s the cognitive beauty of this setup, which makes it a great nudge: nobody is acting under sticker price illusion. The employee doesn’t pay any part of the purchase price, and has no reason to consider it. For their employer, the analysis is done by professional HR and finance people who are automatically looking at TCO. (By this I understand purchase price plus all running costs and depreciation; Bank of America confusingly exclude the first.) Their decisions have to be justified by the data. Company secretaries and lawyers will start muttering about “fiduciary responsibility” if the Board does not pursue the cost saving. The effect is supercharged if the employer leases rather than buys the vehicles. Car TCO is just a significant side-issue for most employers. For leasing companies, TCO is the heart of the business. They will very soon be offering EV contracts cheaper.

It’s a pretty safe prediction that the company car market in the UK will shift strongly to electric vehicles from next April. That’s before taking account of competitive new models like the VW ID.3, improvements in the charging network, further moves towards ULEZ zones in city centres, and censorious pressure from teenage children inspired by Greta. The new sales will probably stimulate emulation sales to envious neighbours, some with their own Greta fans.

Does this extend to true fleets? Police have their own use requirements and are culturally conservative. Rental car companies are less so. However, they are in a rather similar position to standard company-car employers, in that it’s the renter, not the owner, who gets the benefit of the low fuel costs. The number of renters who ask for an EV is still, I would guess, quite low from lack of familiarity. But this too will change, more slowly.

The incentives here are specific to the UK and the same effect won’t be seen in the USA. But there are still many US fleet operators who are likely to be more receptive to TCO pitches than Joe Average in the dealer’s lot. That’s how electric buses are taking over, in site of the sticker premium.

Oh, yes, RANGE hiss hiss. The distance from London to Edinburgh is 402 miles: Brits see this as a major two-day expedition calling for a week’s planning with furrowed brows, as historian John Keegan puts it. A 250-mile Tesla 3 Standard meets all reasonable range needs in Britain. Distances in the US West are of course greater – but the population of Wyoming is 577,000, barely more than Sheffield (553,000). It’s absurd to let the needs of a handful of rural Real Western Men determine the framing of transport policy in a country where 80% of the population lives in cities, towns and suburbs and the average commute is 16 miles.

The EV revolution is happening, much faster than most people think. This chart leaves out e-buses, which have 90% of urban sales in China , and e-tuks, which putter below the statistical radar, but are >1.5m in India alone. For cars, the growth in sales in 2018 was a not exceptional 65%. It will be lower in 2019 because of a large hiccup in China, but the trend is unstoppable.

Footnote

The immortal opening sentence of Don Quixote:

En un lugar de La Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo, de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.

A bad climate chart

Bad in two senses. From a recent post by Kevin Drum with the scare headline “The World Is Giving Up On Climate Change”, a chart from the reliable FT:

Looks terrible! But Kevin truncated the FT chart – the 2019 bar label has the important subscript “H1”. (FT article, paywalled – trust me, I got a sneak view somehow, and it’s definitely there.) The all-year total won’t be great, but it will be fairly close to last year’s ca. $290 bn.

Why would Drum, normally a thoughtful and careful blogger and a chart maestro, make a silly mistake like this? I suggest it’s motivated reasoning. Drum has locked himself into the untenable positions that the energy transition requires large and very unlikely changes in lifestyles, that existing technologies are too expensive, and that the only hope is massive R&D to find something much cheaper. These three positions are nonsense (see for example Jacobson, Blakers, Breyer (pdf), or for the tl:dr capsule, me). To defend an untenable position, you grasp at straws. Look, the FT says renewable investment is collapsing! Only it isn’t.

The chart does tell us a less dramatic, but still real, bad news story. Renewable investment was growing fast until 2011, then the boom stopped and spending has been stuck on a plateau. The effect has been mitigated by the continuing falls in the prices of wind, solar and storage. Lazards give a 10 year decline to 2019 in the costs of wind in the USA as 70%, of utility solar 89% (13th survey of generation costs, pdf, page 8); they don’t supply a trend for storage, as the use cases are so varied, but do note a fall in costs. Price trends are global. So annual renewable installations have been growing in GW terms, only not as fast as they should.

This is not what Econ 101 would lead us to expect. When a technology steadily gets cheaper than its rivals, the rate of adoption should speed up, as investment shifts from higher-cost incumbents to cheaper newcomers enjoying economies of scale and learning. Following the classic logistic curve, the rate of substitution eventually slows as you near saturation, but renewables are only near that today in a few small countries (Norway, Denmark, Costa Rica).

We have to ask: what happened around 2011 that flipped renewable investment from growth to stagnation?

It certainly wasn’t a halt in technical progress or a global recession
– the GFC was essentially over by then. I can see only one
candidate: the victory of austerity policies over Keynesian ones.

This was driven by ideology over good economics, and supported by some very sloppy analysis (as with Rogoff’s debt limit argument). The austeriacs won because their message was congenial to financial elites, and required cuts in public spending and transfers to the working classes. As in the 1930s, the victory was temporary, and a new wave of populist right-wingers (Trump, Johnson, Abbott) rose to power who don’t care at all about financial orthodoxy. But it was for a while complete enough to secure a rollback in the incentives that had enable the rapid growth in renewables of the 2000s. Germany led the way with the EEG “reform” of 2012, and was followed by Spain and the UK. Renewable investment only restarted in Spain last year, with a socialist minority government and a determined environment minister.

This is not a complete explanation, and does not account for the Chinese  cutbacks, which came as late as 2018. Xi is probably not a fan of Alesina and Rogoff, and Chinese policy firmly supports growth and full employment. However, fears of the unsustainability of renewable subsidies can also arise in a controlled economy. In the USA, the self-blocking design of the Constitution and the spectacular incompetence of the Trump Administration have limited the rollback to largely symbolic changes like the waters regulation.

There is another suspicion, which fully applies to China. The fossil fuel industries are large and effective lobbyists for their businesses, to which the renewable transition is an existential threat. It would be astonishing if their minions did not use the austeriac arguments to hand, with superficial academic credibility, and playing to the prejudices of the policymakers they are dining with. Some fossil fuel tycoons – notably the Kochs – reinforced political lobbying by shoring up congenial academic research, notably the Kochs’ support of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in, importantly, Washington. And is Harvard squeaky clean here, with its massive investments in fossil fuels and a lax policy on donations?

Don’t forget that the fossil people had and have a large direct interest: the subsidy rollback was specific to renewables, and the old subsidies to fossil fuels, buried deeper in the tax code, escaped unscathed. The change was a reverse Pigovian tax, a public policy in favour of pollution.

Someone joked that there are two theories of history – cockup and conspiracy. Cockup is the default, and works for some major events like the French and American Revolutions and the start of the First World War. But conspiracies are sometimes real and effective, as the careers of such luminaries as Lenin, Hitler, the Kochs, and bin Laden attest: all the way back to John of Procida, the likely mastermind of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. I have a pet theory that the seizure of Brill by the Dutch Protestant Sea Beggars in 1572, nominally following the closure of Dover to them by the English to placate Spain, was in reality a deniable black op of Francis Walsingham’s.

I can’t prove the hypothesis that the energy transition was kneecapped by a conspiracy of fossil fuel lobbyists using bogus austerity arguments. But it’s worth investigating.

If that’s so, a suitable sanction for the perps could IMHO be life in a gulag, somewhere like here.

Antarctic icecap. Photo credit

Disproportionate you say? What’s proportionate for the crime of procuring genocide for hire?

The two-way street

A standard Israeli till receipt:

The text is on the right, as Hebrew is written right-to-left. The numerals are on the left, written left-to-right, as is standard with Arabic numerals.

Wait a minute. Arabic text is also right-to-left. So why do its numbers go the other way?

Because they were not originally Arabic but Indian. The attribution is not incidentally at all controversial. The two eminent mathematicians who popularised the system in the Muslim world around 830 CE, the Persian Al-Khwarizmi (who gave his name to algorithm) and the Arab Al-Kindi, entitled their treatises respectively On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals and On the Use of the Indian Numerals: no concealed attribution there. The decimal point was the work of an earlier Iraqi Jewish scholar, Sind ibn Ali. A full treatment of zero had arrived quite late in India, in the work of Brahmagupta (628 CE).

India used and still uses a lot of different scripts. But the common ancestor of many is the Brahmi script adopted by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka, reigned 268 to 232 BCE. Brahmi is left-to-right, and so are its numerals.

Brahmi script on Ashoka Pillar (circa 250 BCE), Wikipedia

The first widely used alphabet was the Phoenician, around 1200 BCE. It was right to-left. You have to ask: why would anybody have chosen this unhandy scheme? Unless you are left-handed: a small minority (around 10%) of most populations, but sometimes they get to be kings, high priests, merchant tycoons or tennis champions, in a position to get their way. But both the main earlier non-alphabetic scripts, Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, run left-to-right, so it’s an odd choice. The Archaic Greeks switched direction back at the same time as they democratised writing, including for bawdy inscriptions on winecups.

It’s controversial whether Indian alphabets had a Phoenician ancestry – some Indian scholars argue for a purely subcontinental origin – but it’s likely. At all events, early Indian scribes followed or paralleled the majoritarian Greek choice of left-to-right, and Ashoka set it in stone.

For numbers, there is no particular advantage in one direction over the other. To evaluate a positional decimal number, you have to count outwards from the decimal point in both directions. Right-to-left and left-to-right are mirror equivalents. The direction was determined by the non-numerical script it was embedded in.

Yad Vashem and plastic plates

We are back from Israel, where I visited Yad Vashem for the first time. Being me, I have written to the curators with a few thoughts and suggestions. An extract follows.

Dear curators of Yad Vashem:

I was recently privileged to spend a morning at Yad Vashem during a holiday in Israel. Among the many strong emotions aroused by this experience is admiration for the work of the designers and curators of this great memorial. The comments and suggestions below are in no way intended to detract from this admiration. In addition, it is I think psychologically impossible to take in everything during a single short visit; if I have got anything materially wrong in my recollections, I apologise but claim force majeure.

[two pages on other stuff]

Disposable plates

As in the Israel Museum, the cafeteria serves cakes on disposable polystyrene plates. The observation may seem trivial and in the context of Yad Vashem ridiculous. Bear with me: I think it’s important.

First, these two museums are world-class institutions, presenting crucial aspects of Israel’s identity to the rest of humanity. At this level, visitors expect exemplary standards of professionalism, and nearly uniformly get it. Polystyrene plates are a retrograde failure to meet the benchmark. The EU will ban single-use plastic plates and cutlery by 2021, and public opinion in Europe is ahead of it.

Second, the mission of Yad Vashem in particular is memory. You seek to fight off the oblivion of time1 and ensure the Holocaust is no more forgotten than the Exodus or the destruction of the Temples. The architecture of the museum well reflects this aim of permanence in its solidity. The same should, I suggest, hold for minor details like plates. In my visits to the Struthof concentration camp in Alsace, I was struck by the shoddiness and meanness of the Nazi construction, and the unexceptional, but dignified and solid, stone memorials to the camps put up postwar by the French were a welcome contrast.

A final thought flowing from the above. As I understand it, the inmates in slave labour camps, Jews and others, were issued metal plates and cups for their starvation rations. I assume these remained the property of the camp, and were passed on to from one disposable slave to the next. I imagine that they played an important and ambiguous part in the mental world of the inmates: at the same time part of the machinery of destruction, but also a concession by the oppressors to the necessity of maintaining life among their slaves and a twisted recognition of their humanity. The tin plates were not evil things in themselves.

You might consider a small display cabinet in the cafeteria, with relevant testimonies from survivors. An additional possibility would be a comparison of the daily rations in a typical labour camp with those of a Geneva-convention Stalag for Western Allied POWs and of an American GI in Normandy.

Respectfully, Shalom

1Julian Barnes’ short story “Evermore”, in his collection Crossing the Channel, is a good exploration of this topic, set in the Western Front after WWI.

[/end letter]

Note: I have chosen this part of the letter as the most likely to spark a useful and focussed discussion – a general one on the Holocaust would be shapeless. Commenters are free to call me names, but I’d be grateful if you could avoid using the argument “so that’s the one thing you could find to write about?” because, you know, it wasn’t.

Just rewards

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry at last recognizes John Goodenough and his revolutionary battery.

The Nobel Prize committee for chemistry took their time but finally did the right thing:

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019 was awarded jointly to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino “for the development of lithium-ion batteries.”

Yours truly has been agitating for this since 2017. I’m sure far more influential voices than mine have been making the case, though I’m still quite proud of the letter I sent them (reproduced in the post), and repeated last year.

It’s particularly gratifying that John Goodenough is still alive to receive the prize. He is amazingly fit and still working, but at 97 nothing can be taken for granted.

Many chemists, including him, are trying to find a better battery formulation, but so far, your mobile phone (revolution one) and future electric car (revolution two) still run on the battery he and others invented over 30 years ago.

If human civilisation gets through this mess, he and his colleagues will be on the short list of unlikely heroes and heroines who gave us a chance.

Thank you, John, Stanley, and Akira, from all of us.