Happy New Year! Out with 2013, in with the new. Let’s all hope 2014 will be better in all kinds of ways. Maybe the economy will finally get some liftoff. Perhaps those in Washington will finally decide to stop throwing food at each other and solve some problems. I hope that what was for me a year of transition in 2013 could turn into a year of opportunities and new directions in 2014. I wish my readers well in their own transitions, opportunities, and new directions—and I wanted to introduce the year with some tidbits, books, articles, and quotes that have recently captured my interest.
Two Areas of Real Innovation
It often seems to me that there are two areas of deep and transformative innovation happening right now in our economy. Yes, the tech sector is certainly one of them. That’s the one that most people would point to. It’s amazing what is happening here in the Bay Area where the denizens of Silicon Valley work to change the world and, in some significant ways, actually succeed. Here is a link to a recent article about Google’s new Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil (who was profiled in my book, Evolutionaries).
The other area where tremendous innovation is happening and rapidly changing the world is the energy industry. The US is increasing its oil and gas supply with technologies that are changing the game of oil and gas extraction. That is, in turn, helping our economy, changing the dynamics of world energy, and affecting the cost of energy in big ways, along with reducing our carbon footprint dramatically. (A good link on the subject).
Now, I understand that this is controversial. Many people are deeply worried about the environmental costs of fracking. I’ve heard both sides of the story, including a passionate Christmas defense of the overall ethics of fracking by a family member who is a top expert in the field. I’m not an expert and won’t comment further here, but what is certain is that the technological changes are having a huge effect on the economics of energy, shocking experts, changing the picture of the world economy, and making everyone re-think their assumptions about energy in the 21st century. Those of you who follow me may know that I come from the oil patch, a small town in OK where oil was akin to life, economically speaking, and I have been fascinated for the last few years by how the worldwide energy industry is developing. Given the economic issues facing the US and the world, our utter dependence on relatively cheap and available energy, and the potentially enormous challenges of Climate Change, the subject is critical. Then throw in various thoughts about the world’s oil supply and peak oil (which may have been overplayed in the short term, but are still a concern over the next years and decades) and the need to find ways to switch our energy use away from carbon and toward clean alternatives, and you have a subject that touches all of our lives directly.
Over Christmas I read a fascinating book about Big Oil. Private Empire: Exxon Mobile and American Power
This was my vacation reading…all 624 pages. Private Empire is an informative journey through the heart of ExxonMobile over the last few decades and by extension a look at the oil and gas industry. For those of you who are not familiar with Steve Coll, let me say a few words of praise. He is an exhaustive researcher who gives a truly kaleidoscopic view of the subject at hand. Ghost Wars is the other book of his I have read and I would highly recommend it as well. Of course, ExxonMobile is the enemy of environmentalists everywhere, and often demonized as the epitome of a bad corporate actor. The truth, as often happens, is much more complicated. They certainly deserve that reputation in some respects, and the CEO became a poster child for climate change denial in the early years of the century for pushing the company to fund questionable science and anti-Climate Change think tanks, as Coll clearly documents. In doing so, he likely tarnished their corporate brand for a generation. At the same time, one can’t help but come away from Coll’s book impressed by this corporate behemoth. The ExxonMobile he portrays is an extremely complex, fiercely independent, unabashedly arrogant, my-way-or-the-highway highly competent global company that made huge changes to their operations after the Valdez spill, where the book begins. Coll’s book is a remarkable window into the global geopolitics and economics of Big Oil.
Talking about TED
TED has been around a while now and has become something of a household name. It is one of the key mediums through which ideas spread in our culture. A “TED talk” is now a thing in and of itself. But TED has come under some criticism recently, the most striking perhaps being this article/TEDx talk about TED itself. The quote below is from a blistering Guardian article. These are criticisms that should be paid attention to:
“Innovation” defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo.
One TED speaker said recently, “If you remove this boundary … the only boundary left is our imagination”. Wrong. If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.”
Biking the Skyway
Love this idea…Are you listening, San Francisco and Oakland?
“Not only would SkyCycle relieve traffic congestion, but the architects hope it would also bring new life to the underutilized industrial areas next to the railway lines. Like other cities that are building up instead of out, SunCycle would create a new urban space by “vertically layering the city to create new social spaces and amenities on these cycling high streets.”
A Final Quote to Start the New Year (from Karl Popper)
“Specialization may be a great temptation for the scientist. For the philosopher, it is the mortal sin.”
Love this. (And thank you Willa Geertsema for finding it). New Year’s resolution: Read more Karl Popper.
Happy New Year!