By the time I finished the introduction to How The World Really Works I was completely sold that THIS is the book I’ve been waiting for. Prof. Smil promises “to reduce the comprehension deficit, to explain some of the most fundamental ruling realities governing our survival and our prosperity.” Boy did he live up to his promise! The first revelation for me was how he described energy. He writes: “energy is the only truly universal currency, and nothing (from galactic rotations to ephemeral insect lives) can take place without its transformations (How the World Really Works (p. 21)).” I had always thought that the universal currency was money. I realized that before this thing called money there was energy be it from our bodies or stones and wood or the sun. I ( and I’m sure the vast majority of people ) missed this fundamental point about the world because as Prof. Smil points out, economists whose explanations and precepts exercise more influence on public policy than any other experts, have largely ignored energy. Economists tend to focus on energy when there is a supply crisis and prices skyrocket. Another reason to be wary of economists, I thought! I’ve long been skeptical of how economists assess value.
I’ve been thinking a lot about energy, and not just because of the current energy crisis Europe is experiencing. In fact, I started mulling over it back at the end of January of this year when I read an article in the New Yorker titled: Can Germany Show Us How to Leave Coal Behind? I was drawn to the title because I imagined that the answer would be yes, that there would be much to learn from Germany, a paragon of innovation and industrialisation, and I remembered its highly publicized Energiewende policy of transitioning to renewable energy. I was wrong! Germany’s main home-grown (it mostly imports its energy sources) type of fossil fuel is still coal, and the most polluting kind–lignite. As of 2021 lignite contributed to 19% of Germany’s gross electricity production. I was shocked. I wondered if this is the norm, and how much coal is still used to generate energy globally.
On Saturday mornings I like to peruse FT’s How To Spend It (recently rebranded to HTSI to reflect the current cost of living crisis, and “to make everyone feel that the magazine offers something life-affirming, enriching and diverting” announced its editor). I find it affirming to know where to buy $400 cashmere socks, and that the world’s greatest food stores can ONLY be found in London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles. It is certainly enriching to learn that a well styled home fridge should contain essentials such as white truffle sea salt, bottles of Dom Perignon champagne and carefully selected water in glass bottles (preferably St. Georges, the purest there is). Occasionally I see something in HTSI that inspires, like the article from October 2021 about the world famous Ballymaloe cookery school that I had never heard of. I was surprised to know that there was such a renowned cookery school set on an organic farm in East Cork, which was only two and half hours away from me in Dublin, where I had recently decamped! I thought why not go back to school and learn to cook from professional chefs like the ones on TV and in the cookery books I’m fond of reading.
Of the five books I read in July, unusually three were novels. I tend to reserve reading for learning and not for entertainment so I read mostly non-fiction. I regard reading fiction as play with the exception of short stories from the New Yorker magazine. Since I usually read them after I’ve read one or two of their highbrow, esoteric, long form articles on topics such as timber skyscrapers, state surveillance and how animals see the world, all in paper form with tightly packed small text, I figure it counts as work. But seriously, I actually learn a lot about writing and the power of imagination from reading their short stories . However, it had been so long since I read a novel that I had forgotten the power of novels to educate us on the human condition—if the writing is good.
The first of the two novels I read that left a lasting impact (I ditched the third novel half way through) is Donde mueren las nubes by Oscar Tejero Tojo. The novel is about Lucia, a young woman determined to make it as a top ranking executive in the pharmaceutical industry in Spain. At the start of the book she was a junior executive with just two years working experience, going for her first senior role as product manager. She got the job and within a short few years she became the country head of a major multinational pharmaceutical company.
I mentioned in the last edition of this newsletter my objective to focus more on the good news as opposed to the gloom and doom of the headlines. In that spirit, I picked up Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Pinker wrote this book with the intent to show that overall as a society we are making progress, and that contrary to popular opinion things are actually getting better and not worse. He asserts that further progress will materialize so long as we continue to embrace the ideals–reason, science, humanism, and progress–of the Enlightenment. He believes these ideals are the impetus for the social betterment we currently enjoy. And he fears we are in danger of forgetting them, which would be detrimental. Thus, he took it upon himself to revisit these ideals to showcase their value and to preserve them. Hence the book’s subtitle The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I vaguely recall the works of eminent Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Thomas Paine and Immanuel Kant from my university days. I was intrigued to revisit them.
The good news is that I finally made it to Denmark, specifically Copenhagen! I’ve wanted to go for years as I was curious to know why the country often tops the index of happiest countries. I don’t care for the word, happy, and think it is superficial and Hollywood-esque so I find the notion of such a list preposterous. Still, I was curious.
To get as close to living as a local as possible in five days, I rented an Airbnb apartment in a residential area a good distance from tourist attractions. Every morning, as many of ‘my’ neighbors did, I made my way to the beach to exercise. I had to make the most of the privilege of living less than 5 mins walk from the beach. While walking on the beach I saw many jogging, some doing yoga, a Crossfit group grunting their way through lunges. I watched a surprising number undress (some down to their “birthday suit”) and ease into the sea. It was early May and before 8am so the temperature hovered below 12 degrees Celsius with some rain, and at times it was very windy. Intrigued, I approached a young man who looked to be in his late 20s as he was about to start to undress. I asked him how cold the water is and, why swim in the cold?
On a recent sunny day in Dublin, Ireland, walking along the canal I noticed there was a young woman in front of me wearing a tank top and shorts. This got my attention because even with the unusually bright sun, it was 11 degrees celsius. I had on three layers, and a middle-aged couple heading towards me were wearing puffer jackets and wooly hats. I checked with my partner who I was with and had two layers of wool on, if we were over-dressed for the weather or the young woman was under-dressed. We concluded that she must live in a parallel world to ours where winter feels like summer. I’ve been mulling over whether we all live in parallel universes with our own weather, facts and realities. This, I assumed, would be the reason why our politicians think that invasions and wars are solutions to resolving disputes or that economic sanctions are an effective method for punishing leaders they dislike or that inflation could be kept at a perpetual rate of around 2% per annum. I’ve found the latter view of inflation especially puzzling given the current global crisis has pushed inflation rates to 4.7% in the US, 7.4% in the UK and EU. I asked how they can be certain that they can bring it back down to the ideal 2% mark by 2023 as being projected? To answer this question I decided to educate myself on the formation of our financial and economic systems.
In the past month, like many I’ve asked myself plenty of times “what’s going on?” and “how is it that ANOTHER war has started?” Isn’t it well documented that “war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate”? Yep, I’m quoting Marvin Gaye from his track “What’s Going On” as I’ve been playing this track over and over again out loud and in my head. This is my go-to song in times when nothing makes sense. Rather than just avoiding the headlines which were really getting me down, I decided to educate myself instead on how we got here.
2022 is the year of the tiger and since I was born in the year of the tiger, it’s my Ben Ming Nian (本命年) too. Chinese friends reminded me that since it is my Ben Ming Nian I should wear something red on the first day of the new year to ward off any bad luck the year can bring. I did. According to Chinese culture, when your Ben Ming Nian comes around it is likely that it could clash with Tai Sui, the guardian God of the year which could bring year long misfortunes. Another way to ensure you have good fortune for the year is to be kind and do good deeds. In that spirit, I’m going to share with you all things Chinese that I’m loving right now.
Light The Night
I’ve mentioned before how much I love cooking dinner because I get to “yibian zuo fan, yibian kan dianshi ju” (一边做饭, 一边看电视剧, I cook while I watch TV shows) because I can consume hours of TV guilt free. I mostly watch Chinese (Mandarin) TV shows (and occasionally Mexican shows) so I feel like I’m working to keep up my language skills. However, for a while I was bored with the Chinese shows on offer on my TengXunShiPing (腾讯视屏) app. I tried watching some movies but unlike with TV shows they don’t give me the desired effect of me feeling like I’m back, living in China. Cooking became way less fun!
Reading about the death of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu I was reminded of the impact he had had on the world through his activism during apartheid and with the Truth and Reconciliation project. To pay homage I thought I’d read one of his books. I settled on the Book Of Joy as I thought it sounded like a most fitting book for January. I’d like to have plenty of joy in this new year.
A bigger reason why the book caught my attention is because I have been thinking a lot about joy. I’ve been struggling with the fact that I’m doing ok, but so many aren’t; How could I live with joy when there is so much suffering in the world? There was a period last year when this question really got me down. Scanning the book before diving in, it seems that this is the most popular question that was put to both Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, his co-author. The book is based on a series of conversations between the two spiritual leaders over a five day period to answer questions about cultivating joy sent from people all over the world.