My Review Of “Capital in the Twenty-first Century”

Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book is an important contribution to the economic analysis of a major issue of our times, inequality. In a time when non-economists are comfortable talking about the 1% and the 99%, it is clear that this issue has moved into the forefront of social thinking in the 21st century. But even though the title promises an analysis of the 21st century, Piketty begins with an historical look, primarily at England and France. And he uses an interesting and hitherto ignored data source, literature. By looking that the novels of Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert he brings in the assumptions that these novelists had about the nature of wealth and income in these societies. The point here is that inequality of income and wealth are not new results of our time, they are the natural outcomes of laws of economics. His fundamental law involves the rate of return on capital (r) and the growth rate of the economy (g) and he shows that the historical data support an average return on capital of 4-5%, and an average growth rate of the economy of 1-1.5%. And from this he works out that as long as r is greater than g, there will be tendency for wealth to concentrate and accumulate.

This is not healthy for society and cannot proceed indefinitely. Something will come along to restore the balance. In the late 18th century, this would be the French Revolution, followed by the Napoleonic Wars. In the 20th century, two World Wars very effectively wiped out a lot of accumulated wealth. But the inequality is rapidly growing again, as r>g would stipulate, and the growing class of multi-billionaires and increasing numbers of trillion+ companies give evidence. So how will we restore the balance this time? Piketty’s answer is that we should do this by a graduated tax on wealth, which is surely preferable to another World War, particularly with the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

This is a long book, and may be bit heavy going, but I think it is worth the investment of time and effort. Piketty is making the observation that a democratically-controlled tax policy of taxes on wealth to restrain the runaway accumulation is better than any alternative. And while I have joked about eating the rich from time to time, I doubt they would be tasty or particularly nutritious.




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My Review of “Doctor Who: The Early Years”

Doctor Who: The Early Years by Jeremy Bentham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This large-format paperback does what the title says. It starts with Sydney Newman, the father of Doctor Who, who came from Canada to eventually wind up as Head of Drama at the BBC. He had an idea for a show about a mysterious character who traveled through time and space in a ship that was bigger on the inside than on the outside. When no one at the BBC wanted to be the producer he grabbed a young lady who had been a production assistant for him at ITV, and talked her into being the producer. That of course is Verity Lambert, who went on to a very successful career in TV and film production. Then they had to assemble a cast, and a production team, and get the show going. The book discusses all of this and is a good introduction to this historical material. This is useful, but honestly there is nothing in this that is really unique.
Then the book goes into discussions of selected stories from the run of the first Doctor, played by William Hartnell. It isn’t all of the stories, but it mostly picks the ones that are significant to get this attention. It is the illustrations that make this book something you want to have in your library if you are a fan. While there are a few color photos, most are in black-and-white, but then so was the show itself in this time. What you will particularly enjoy are the production drawings and models, and the discussion in particular of Raymond Cusick, the Production Designer for some of the most important stories including “The Daleks”. I am rating this 4 stars out of 5 and recommended for the true Doctor Who fan.



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Battery and Charging Technology 20240128

It has become obvious to nearly everyone that we need to stop burning fossil fuels, and while that is all well and good, what takes their place? We have renewable energy sources that can provide electricity to run our vehicles and power our homes, but they tend to be intermittent. The Sun only shines half of the day, winds come and go, and the key technology we need to bridge the gap is battery technology. Fortunately there have been some important developments that provide good news on this front. Much of this comes from China which has no oil resources of its own is and is therefor incentivized push research into alternatives. And another country in a similar situation is Japan, which has the same incentives and has also done good work in this area. The United States, in contrast, is a major oil producer and as such has faced significant opposition to efforts to move to renewables.

One major area we need to look at is for automobiles. The share of new vehicles that are electric goes up each year, and they will be the largest share of new vehicles sooner than most people realize. In 2023, Norway had 90% of their sales be EVs in the first half of 2023. This figure includes both pure electric vehicles and hydrid-electric vehicles. In Germany the comparable figure was 35%, and in China 33% (https://fortune.com/2023/11/23/us-electric-vehicle-sales-2023-record/). Meanwhile, California and Washington have mandated that 100% of new vehicles be electric by 2035,. New Jersey has a similar mandate and I would expect other states will join in this. But the main obstacle to increased adoption is what is called “range anxiety”. For example, most electric cars right now have around a 300 mile top range on a full charge. And recharging can take up to an hour at a time. I do a trip each year from my home in Michigan to New England, where most of the family for both me and my wife live, and that is around 800 miles. So that would mean stopping at least twice going each way for up to an hour for a recharge. The solution has to be some combination of higher capacity batteries and quicker recharging times. Fortunately there is progress on both of these fronts.

Contemporary Amperex Technology Co, Ltd. (CATL)

This is the largest battery manufacturer in the world, and it is a Chinese company. For that reason, there are accusations in the US that they are a security concern. But the rest of the world is not likely to worry too much about that. What they have done technically is to improve the capacity and charging times of their batteries significantly. They now are shipping batteries that power a car for 400km (about 250 miles) on just a 10 minute charge. So for my trip each year I would spend 30 minutes recharging instead of two hours. That starts to look like a feasible plan. Or with a full charge, it could go 700km (435 miles). So I could get a full charge before leaving home, do a couple of 10 minute charges on the way, and be there with power to spare. That is totally doable. As a pair of senior citizens I can assure you we spend more time than that in the bathrooms as we go. These batteries are fairly conventional as rechargeables go, being Lithium-Iron-Phosphate (LIP) in their chemistry. But what about other technologies?

Solid-State Batteries

One of the leaders with this technology is Toyota, which is the early leader in hybrid vehicles, which combine a gasoline (petrol) engine with batteries and electric motors. So they have probably more automotive experience with batteries than any manufacturer in the business, even though they are a bit later to the fully-electric vehicle market. Solid-state batteries can avoid using Lithium, which can be a safety issue, and they will be lighter and have a higher energy density. Because this is new technology, it may not appear in production for another 3-4 years, but Toyota claims they should be able to produce a car that will go 1200km (750 miles) on a 10 minute charge. Here is a look at Toyota’s plans: https://www.caranddriver.com/news/a45942785/toyota-future-ev-battery-plans/.

Of course, Toyota is far from the only company researching this. Honda is the main competitor to Toyota in Hybrid vehicles, and they have plans for solid-state batteries as well: https://global.honda/en/tech/All-solid-state_battery_technology/. Chinese manufacturer NIO has a semi-solid state battery right now that can go 650 miles (1046 km) on a single charge.

It is worth noting that the idea of solid-state batteries is not all that new, as Michael Faraday first discovered them in the early 19th century. What is new is the technology to scale up the batteries into something that can power an automobile.

For as good look at how solid-state batteries work, here is an explanation from the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences: https://seas.harvard.edu/news/2024/01/solid-state-battery-design-charges-minutes-lasts-thousands-cycles. And here is one from New Scientist: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2398896-what-are-solid-state-batteries-and-why-do-we-need-them. And here is Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid-state_battery.

Other Technologies

BYD is a Chinese company that is the world’s largest EV producer. They employ a technology that is called the Blade battery. This is a variation on LIP technology that the company claims is safer, has a longer range, and a longer lifetime. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blade_battery.

Sodium-ion batteries are a coming thing as well. This is not surprising since Sodium and Lithium are in the same chemical family both being alkali metals. So they should have similar properties. But one advantage of sodium is that it is more abundant. So sodium-ion batteries should cost less, and unlike lithium produce no toxic by-products. The Swedish company Northvolt has made great progress in this area: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/nov/21/breakthrough-battery-from-sweden-may-cut-dependency-on-china.

Role for Government

The biggest problem is the lack of infrastructure around battery recharging, and that is where there is a role for government. In the US, which I am most familiar with, the government has in the past intervened to promote transportation innovations. In the 19th century, it was the promotion of railroads, which the government aided through substantial land grants. Then in the 20th century it was building the road network. Those things would not have happened if the government had not made those investments. I would suggest that there is a need now to build out the charging infrastructure at a speed and scale that the private sector cannot accomplish. That would solve the last problem preventing wide-spread adoption of Electric Vehicles. Companies are now producing, or will be shortly, the batteries we need. Right now, with my fuel-efficient car, it takes me two tanks of gasoline (petrol) to make my trip each year since I can go around 500 miles on a full tank. We should within the next few years have batteries that can exceed that range. What we lack is the charging infrastructure to make recharging as easy as refueling is now. The obstacle now is not technology, it is politics.

The other issue that should be a concern to some Americans is that all of the leading work on these vital technologies is happening in other countries. I’m less concerned about that because the problems we face are global, but I find it odd that some American politicians consider technology from China to be a security threat, yet seem to have no interest in developing the technology here.

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My Review of Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader’s Companion

Robert A. Heinlein : A Reader’s Companion by James Gifford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is an excellent book, but not exactly a page turner. What it does is provide the metadata for nearly everything (Some things have come out sine it was written) that Heinlein wrote. It will tell youwhen a piece was written, when it was published, where it has been collected, the circumstances surrounding the writing of it, and any “Curiosities and Anomalies” he finds in the piece. As such, it is not a book to be read in a sitting, but rathere one to be kept by the bookshelf and consulted when reading a Heinlein story or novel. And so it is really only for the hardcore Heinlein fan. Since there are still many such in the science fiction public, it has an audience, but if you are not a hardcore fan I would skip it in favor of something more congenial. I happen to be a hardcore Heinlein fan and consider this an important part of my collection.



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My Review Of Sign of the Unicorn

Sign of the Unicorn by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


So the story continues, but oddly. The previous book left off on a real cliff-hanger, and this one picks up in the future with no real explanation of how the cliff-hanger was resolved. Seriously, the antagonists were facing each other with swords drawn, and now nothing? Corwin is now the King in Amber, and Eric is dead, but it happened when they were allied against the dark powers threatening Amber, and Eric gives Corwin key information to help him. Then this story takes us into what I can only analogize as Game of Thrones territory, where every member of the family seems to be making shifting alliances and opposition. One member has been held captive, but they manage to bring him back, only to have him be attacked as the rescue is accomplished. At the end, the nature of Amber is called into question. This makes abundantly clear that this series needs to be read as a whole, and not as individual novels for it to make any sense.



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My Review of The Guns of Avalon

The Guns of Avalon by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is book 2 in the Amber series, and we continue with the story of Corwin. He goes to the Shadow world of Avalon to obtain a particular product that will help him assault Eric in Amber, but he keeps running into sinister black forces that he himself has unleashed by his curse in Book 1. But when he gets to Avalon he discovers his brother Benedict is there, and that could mean trouble since Benedict won’t support Corwin’s plans. This leaves open the question of how far he will go to stop Corwin. Then Corwin meets Benedict’s granddaughter, and that adds more complications. The book ends on a cliff-hanger that may leave you cursing the author, but it is clear that this meant to be a series that won’t have any stand-alone novels and will only be complete when you have read all of it. Fortunately each of the novels is a fairly quick read, around 5 hours for me, at least so far.



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My Review of Nine Princes in Amber

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have read a number of Zelazny’s novels with great pleasure, but had somehow not gotten around to this major fantasy series. This is book one in a ten book series, and it gets off to a great start. The protagonist, Corwin, starts off as an amnesiac, but gradually gets some memory back and discovers that he is one of the 9 Princes of Amber. Amber is the true world, and our Earth is just a shadow of Amber. Corwin has to get back to Amber and contend for the throne, but as you might guess from the fact that this is the first book of ten, he doesn’t make it this time. Zelazny developes some interesting ideas, such as the magical Trumps that let the members of the royal family communicate with each other. The family dynamics are tons of fun as half the family wants to kill the other half, but the alliances constantly shift. And there is a tantalizing but unresolved issue involving the King of Amber, who is not dead, but may be near to it. He is of course the father of these nine princes, but so far no mention of the mother. And there is an opposite counterpart to Amber called Chaos, but little has been revealed about that yet. But it is a good read, and I plan to move on to the next book. If you like fantasy, this is a good book, and Zelazny is one of the best.



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My Review of How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II

How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II by Phillips Payson O’Brien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I thought this was a great book that changed my mind on a few things. The research he did is extensive, and he builds a very persuasive case. In his view, World War II was about air and sea supremacy, and that the achievement of this supremacy by the Allies made the outcome inevitable. One area where he changed my mind was on the subject of strategic bombing. I have always considered it a waste of time and resources. After all, German output kept rising even as the bombs fell, or in the case of Britain, the Battle of Britain, and then the Vengeance weapons, never affected morale on the home front. And of course in Vietnam the US dropped more bombs than they dropped in both theaters of WWII combined without stopping the Vietnamese. But O’Brien makes a persuasive case that what matters is the strategy behind the bombing. I think he has a very low view of Arthur Harris for pursuing a bad strategy of bombing German cities, but I think he finds that bombing aimed at really strategic targets like aircraft and fuel production was quite helpful. and in the Pacific he seems to find MacArthur lacking in strategic insight, but is very admiring of Ernest King for seeing the main point of using air power to cut the lifeline of Japan to the colonies in the Dutch East Indies.

Another area where I think I got a slightly different view after reading this book was the significance of the Western Front. We all know that the largest armies were in the East, and with that the largest numbers of casualties. But virtually all of the Luftwaffe was deployed towards the West, which says something about the way Germany saw the war going. And of course that gave the Soviets air superiority on their front, which made their drive to Berlin a whole lot easier. If you are a WWII buff, this should be essential reading in my view.



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Early Thoughts on the 2024 Election

Right now there is a freak out among some Democrats about Biden being old. It is odd in some ways because it is not exactly news that Biden is old. And part of it is that right now the race appears to be tight in polls. But the thing that people frequently overlook is that polls this far out rarely tell the story of the election. In August of 1983 more people disapproved of Reagan’s performance as President than approved ( https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/ronald-reagan-public-approval ). He was down by 44-46, and went on to win to win every state except Mondale’s home state of Minnesota in 1984. Then there is Clinton. He had lost the House in 1994, faced Newt Gingrich as his political enemy that year, and around this point in 1995 was dead even at 44%approve, 44% disapprove ( https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/william-j-clinton-public-approval ). But in 1996 he won 379 Electoral College votes and was easily re-elected. Or how about Obama? At around this point in 2011, he was down 40-52 ( https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/barack-obama-public-approval ). But bounced back to win 332 Electoral College votes and re-election. So polls at this point don’t tell the story of the upcoming election.

But polls are not the best evidence in any case when we have elections to look at. Prior to the Dobbs decision, the Republicans were doing well in elections. But since then it has been bad news.

In short, the Democrats have been doing very well, and the Republicans have not been doing well at all. And the trials haven’t even really hit yet.

Finally, a little history lesson. In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected in a 3-way race where he got just under 50% of the vote. Scarely a strong mandate. Then in 1994, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans captured the US House, making Gingrich the Speaker. Gingrich then led the House into a government shutdown, Clinton’s numbers recovered, and he won re-election in 1996. Then they tried the impeachment route, eventually finding that Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton not only survived that, the Democrats held on in Congress ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1998_United_States_Senate_elections ). “…this marked the first time since 1934 that the party not in control of the White House failed to gain congressional seats in a mid-term election and the first time since 1822 that this party failed to gain seats in the mid-term election of a President’s second term. “

So what are the geniuses of the Republican clown car in the House up to now? They want to both shut down the government and pursue a bogus impeachment, all in the same year. It is priceless, really. As Napoleon said, never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake, so I am happy to leave the Republicans to their “own goal”. But for heaven’s sake, stop kvetching about Biden. He is the most effective President since FDR, and he has the wind at his back.

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My Review of Heinlein in Reflection

Heinlein in Reflection: Robert A. Heinlein in the 21st Century by Christopher G. Nuttall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I am big fan of Heinlein dating from my earliest memories of reading his juvenile books when I was a kid. And I did get recruited by Bill Paterson to manage the web site of the Heinlein Society for a short period, before someone with better skills took it over. So I have bona fides with respect to Heinlein. That said, I can be critical. Some of his stuff is not terribly good (e.g. I Will Fear No Evil; Farnham’s Freehold). And I got this book because I am interested in the critical literature on Heinlein. So, how did I like it? There was a lot of stuff I disagreed with, and a lot I agreed with. And I think a lot of this hinges on the tension between extreme individualism and social responsibility. Nuttall falls in the camp of “SJW is destroying America”, which is pretty weird to me, although it is arguably something Heinlein might have agreed with. Where I think Nuttall does a good job is in looking at Heinlein in terms of the time he was writing, and the constraints he was working under. Writing books for adolescent boys in the 1950s, there were things you could not say directly, but could only hint at obliquely. If you are a big Heinlein fan you might enjoy this book, but if you haven’t read all of his books I doubt you will enjoy this volume; it really presumes a strong familiarity with his work. But I have that familiarity, and I mostly enjoyed it.



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