October 27, 2009

On winning a book prize

After the American Century

Some readers of this blog already know that my 2006 book, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With, was selected as the winner of this year's Sally Hacker Prize by the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT). The award was handed over at the annual banquet of that association in Pittsburgh, October 17 amid what seemed to me to be wild cheering for at least 2 or 3 seconds.

In previous years the winners of various prizes each made a little speech, thanking friends, family, and fellow scholars for their support. We have all heard such speeches, and know why SHOT might think it a good idea not to have them. So I did not give a moving testimony or tell any humorous anecdotes, but simply stood to have my picture taken with the prize.

Getting rid of the other acceptance speeches was a good idea, but in my case, of course, it was not. I had many important ideas to communicate at just that time, and indeed the wine of the previous hours had enhanced my thinking considerably. I am only sorry that these deep insights into the nature and purpose of research and "the meaning of it all" did not get out, because these penetrating thoughts now seem to have evaporated.

Instead, I will merely note that the prize was given for a work published in the previous three years that best explains some aspects of the history of technology to a wider audience. The plaque abbreviates this to "the best popular book." While I was extremely pleased to have fooled the usually more alert jury and gotten this award, one now former friend dryly asserted that this was the prize for the "least unreadable academic book."

If any of my loyal readers are interested, Technology Matters is in paperback for only a few dollars more than it costs to download it in the format of Amazon's Kindle reader. There is also a strange French translation that eliminates most of the notes and some passages of the work, clearly in an attempt to make it even more popular and better suited for the general audience. A German translation has also appeared. This is much longer and seems more scholarly than my original. Indeed, it appears to be so much more profound and more heavily-footnoted in German that I am hoping it will win a prize as a work written not for the general public but for specialists.

Should it win in German, I will insist on giving the speech I have forgotten from the banquet in Pittsburgh.

October 10, 2009

The Peace Prize, Unexpected but Deserved

After the American CenturyJustify Full
Yes, it is a bit surprising that Obama received the Peace Prize already in his first year as President. But no, I do not think it is undeserved, though this seems to be the standard pundit's response in the US today, where I happened to hear the news while driving across Pennsylvania. Obama has done quite a bit for a man in office far less than a year. Not one commentator that I heard over the afternoon noted it, but he has abandoned the Bush program of installing missiles in Eastern Europe, while angered the Russians and blocked progress in many other areas. This was a major change that opens the way for progress while giving up on an idea that did not make a great deal of sense in strategic or military terms. (It also would cost a lot of money, now saved.) Then there was a major speech given at the University of Cairo, opening a useful dialogue with the Arab world. These two things alone are more than George W. Bush did for peace in 8 years.

But this is not the whole list. Obama has talented full-time negotiators trying to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to talk again, and he has tried to be an honest broker, pushing the Israelis to stop the illegal settlements on the West Bank. Obama has also pressured Iran to abandon its nuclear program, but done so with softer rhetoric than Bush, and tried to begin a dialogue, albeit an almost impossible task with the current leaders in Teheran.

And what about saving the American economy from collapsing? This in itself has been a major achievement of his administration, and it did help to keep the world from spiralling downwards into economic collapse. Peace is not so easy to work for in poverty as it is in prosperity.

But most of all, Obama's achievement of becoming the first non-white person to be elected to the highest office anywhere in Europe or the Americas, must have looked to the Norwegian committee like a powerful demonstration that racial differences can be transcended, that millions of white people could trust and vote for a black person. Apparently, not only the Republican Party but also the pundits, just do not get this. But it made a tremendous impact in the rest of the world, and Obama is not only a symbol of hope, but proof that hope is not delusional.

Ironically, most Europeans and the Nobel Prize committee can see Obama more clearly than the blathering commentators on American radio and television. I admit that I am a little surprised he won this soon, but he would have to be on anyone's short list for the years immediately to come, had he not received it now.

October 01, 2009

The Olympics: Chicago or Rio in 2016?

After the American Century

Tomorrow, in Copenhagen, the International Olympic Committee will decide where the 2016 Olympics will be held. I gather that the odds makers think Tokyo has little chance of getting it and Madrid only slightly better prospects. Apparently the real battle is between Brazil and the United States, or Rio and Chicago.

I would be happy to see the games held in either nation. As an American, I certainly can see Chicago as a good choice. I spent considerable time there in 2003, and was impressed by the city's continued growth and resilience. On the other hand, I have to admit that it seems unfair that no Olympics have ever been held anywhere in South America - though they were once in Mexico, which is Latin America but still part of North America.

There is another argument for Brazil that goes like this. The 2012 summer games are going to be held in London. Is it a good thing to have the games in the United States right after they are in Britain? Shouldn't they be moving around to different cultural and linguistic zones?

What does not come out in the all too brief news stories I have seen, is any detail about the actual facilities these nations are prepared to build or already have on hand. This is not only about the sporting facilities, but also the airports, security systems, hotels, roads, and public transport. Then there is the question of the safety of these cities. Where is the rate of robbery and petty crime high and low? Tokyo might have the edge on that particular issue, for example. Unfortunately, the public does not get a detailed explanation of why a particular city was chosen. London beat Paris last time, in 2005, but it was hard to see why.

We will soon know the result, and of course it could be any one of the four applicants. I have a sneaking suspicion that President Obama would not be coming personally to represent his home town if he did not think there was an excellent chance of success. But then, the President of Brazil came too.

Is Anyone Really Saving Energy?

After the American Century

Is anyone really saving energy? Time for a little reality check, as all the green rhetoric might make one believe the use of electricity and gasoline is falling.

The Kyoto Protocol was intended to help reduce pollution and CO2 levels. Signed by most of the world's nations beginning in 1997, it went into effect in 2005. However, during this eight-year interval, the signatory nations failed even to restrain consumer demand, which galloped ahead each year by an average of 500 billion additional kilowatts.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2005 the world was using one third more electricity annually than it had in 1997. This growth was by no means evenly distributed. Japan, whose economy was not growing much anyway, nearly achieved zero energy growth (4%) in contrast to China's rampant 223% increase. Germany (10%), France (17%), and the United Kingdom (12%) grew rather than shrank their demand, but they were less profligate than Ireland (51%), India (40%), Argentina (39%), or Brazil (27%). Almost everywhere the consumer wanted more and no nation had managed to reverse the trend.

The failure to reduce energy use cannot be explained by cost-benefit analysis. US energy efficiency could be improved by 23% through off-the-shelf technologies such as better insulation, replacement of inefficient appliances and light bulbs, and the like. The cost of making these changes would quickly be recovered through large savings on electricity bills. But consumers do not want to invest up front to get the longer term benefits.

Likewise, automobiles are on sale that are twice as efficient as the average car on the American road. Moreover, Europeans and Asians, who once could sneer at Americans for driving so much have adopted the car in ever increasing numbers. Indeed, earlier this year for the first time the Chinese topped the US in new car sales, with more than 1 million new vehicles sold each month. Not much help for global warming there.

Do not be lulled by green rhetoric into thinking that politicians have actually done anything much to stop global warming. CO2 emissions are rising along with consumer demand. This is a global problem and no nation has yet really demonstrated that it can reduce its level of emissions and consumption to below the 1997 level - which was the idea of the Kyoto Protocol. So far, it is all wishful thinking.