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I’ve never heard anyone before say government-funded science was bad for science!" Ayn Rand has as character in Atlas Shrugged who was a brilliant physicist before he got government funding. Then he became useless. Nassim Taleb (I forget which of his books) also argues that many of our significant inventions came from outside academia.

Funny that the author uses a machine learning analogy, as ML is definitely an invention of academics.

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The utter lunacy of this book quite aside, flying cars are around the corner and we have development of greentech to thank: electric cars beget better batteries that can do the job.

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"The public is wrongly terrified of nuclear energy, but they shouldn’t be. Radiation killed 0 people at Fukishima"

You really lost me with the Fukishima minimization. As if deaths at the time of the incident are the only relevant concern. How much land exactly is contaminated forever?

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I think the real reason for the turn against nuclear was that the public was used to thinking of fallout in terms of being downwind of thermonuclear groundbursts, where it meant dying puking your guts out in hours or days rather than a theoretical increase in your risks of cancer. Order of magnitude comparisons are made hard by the fact that radiation is invisible. I wrote about the matter [on my blog](http://hopefullyintersting.blogspot.com/2019/06/sometimes-you-need-new-word.html) at more length. I already see a change of attitude between the generation who grew up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud die off and as those of us who grew up with reactor meltdows as our image of fallout so I'm optimistic about that aspect of the future.

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At the core of The Green Religion is something I call the environmentalist's habitat paradox: if you really like the environment, a natural first-order desire would be to live in a cottage deeply secluded in nature, far from civilization. But this is either unscalable (and therefore antisocial) as you cannot allow too many others to indulge in the same lifestyle, or you DO proselytize this lifestyle and it becomes environmentally catastrophic. The paradox is that if you love the environment (as in truly want to protect it), you must live in a city.

Eco-pragmatism needs better branding. We need extremely lush, literally-covered-in-plants cities powered by cheap nuclear.

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It seems to me that we've moved on to trickier problems to solve that are mostly based on coordination rather than simply maximizing consumption. For instance, imagine a 40-story office building with about 2,000 workers where each one commuted by flying car. How many landing strips do you need? Remember that unlike parking spots, you can't stack them -- each one needs to be open to the sky -- and you probably need *minimum* five minutes' clearance between cars. If everyone arrived between 8am and 9am, that means that each landing strip can serve a dozen employees, so you'd need 166 total just for this one building. From a perspective of land use and of time spent getting from your parking spot to your destination, this just sounds terrible. So we should be happy we don't have flying cars, because the societal equilibrium they'd put us in would be terrible.

One could argue that this particular problem is specific to transportation technologies, but social media has amply demonstrated that it's possible for many technologies to lead to bad equilibrium outcomes.

All this is not to say that techological stagnation isn't a problem, but when people talk *specifically* about flying cars, I discount their arguments specifically for the above reasons.

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One nit to pick: general (private) aviation was not done to death by regulation as much it was by product liability torts. Lawyers somehow got extremely good at convincing juries that the aviation accident equivalent of "16 year old who just got their driver's license buys a Ferrari, drives it at 120mph on a twisting mountain road at night in a rainstorm, and predictably winds up dead after careening off a cliff" was somehow Ferrari's fault, and awarding the idiot's family millions of dollars in damages. Given that Ferraris are already a low volume market, it doesn't take too many such lawsuits to drive the cost to buy a new one through the stratosphere.

(The actual scenario would be that a rich retired athlete or businessman would buy an expensive, complex high performance airplane, do the minimum amount of training required, then fly off into bad weather in unfamiliar areas - which they should have known not to do if they had been paying attention in flight school - and run into a mountain, or building, or just plain crash. And their widow would then sue the airplane manufacturer, and usually win.)

In 1994, Congress passed https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Aviation_Revitalization_Act, which was supposed to fix this. Lawyers just switched targets from the manufacturers to the mechanics who work on planes, with the predictable result that airframe & powerplant mechanics refuse to sign off on an airplane's annual inspection unless everything is perfect, increasing cost of ownership for private airplanes.

All that being said, as a private pilot, the idea of having to share the skies with several orders of magnitude more aircraft, being flown by the equivalent of your average automobile driver who can't be bothered to use their turn signal or put down their phone while driving, is terrifying.

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I'm sympathetic to the idea that regulation has hampered technological progress, but the negatives of this are (and I understand, yes, can only be) argued from the perspective of our current world.

What I mean is, flying cars have all sorts of logistical challenges associated with them related to infrastructure and training and higher possibilities of disaster if an accident were to occur in a densely populated place, where most of the cars would be. I imagine if the government had been hands off and let them develop, they still wouldn't be common. More of a novelty if anything. It just doesn't seem feasible in an urban area, and probably not desirable from a livability standpoint.

Nuclear, I agree, was a massive mistake to oppose on the basis of climate change, and probably would have gone differently if it were invented today. But we might not feel that way if we had built hundreds or thousands of additional reactors, and one horrible disaster had taken place that killed hundreds of thousands or millions of people. I understand that isn't likely, but we know it to be possible. Current energy sources just don't have that doomsday potential, and I think humans are willing to accept lots of incremental damage but have a strong aversion to potential apocalyptic accidents.

I sympathize with the thesis. We could be living in a very different world. But it's easy to speculate about the positives and give your alternate history a rosier outcome that it might have achieved in reality.

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This book, and Peter Thiels’s famous quote, seem quite odd to me — I am glad we don’t have average humans flying cars, because they would be a massive hazard.

Driving is one of the most dangerous things that people habitually do. Flying a plane is way harder, and should be left to the pros and dedicated amateur hobbyists. Especially given the rates of alcohol, cannabis, opiate, benzo, etc. usage, it would be reckless to encourage casual flight by human amateurs.

Contrary to the idealism of this book and the libertarian movement, it’s government investment in computing, software, the internet, and AI that enables the development of automated flight systems, manufacturing, and maintenance — airplanes need to be in tip-top-shape.

We still don’t have level 5 autonomy for cars. Once that nut is cracked, then flying cars are a viable product.

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Anyone who would trade computers and smartphones for flying cars is out of their goddamned mind.

And we have flying cars - they're called "helicopters". Turns out they're not very practical and I wouldn't trust any regular person with them, but possibly self-flying ones might change that?

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I'm extremely pro-nuclear, but I'm skeptical of arguments that act like the United States is the only country on earth. France, Japan (until Fukishima), South Korea, China . . . lots of countries to pick up the technology and run with it. It's certainly true that regulation made nuclear plants impossible to build it the US after the 1970s, but why don't the Chinese have flying cars?

Also it's perfectly normal for technologies to get cheaper and cheaper until they don't, you can't just assume things would have stayed on the trajectory they were on in the early days of nuclear power. DNA sequencing is a great example, which has been mentioned on this blog before.

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The ML analogy is interesting. One of the most pernicious problems in designing a good ML tool is getting the objective function right. In the 'economy-as-ML', I'm not sure what the objective function would look like at the 'economy' level.

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> Then there should have been nuclear fission and nanotech, letting you fit a lifetime's worth of energy in your pocket.

No, there shouldn't have been, because pocket fission and nanotech (that is, the non-trivial molecular assembler kind) are both physically impossible. Science is not a magic box that takes in money and outputs anything you want. No matter how earnest and enthusiastic you are, and how efficient you are at spending money, you will never get FTL travel or pocket fission or cold fusion or magic transmutation nanotech or anything else of the sort. You *would*, however, get high-energy-density electric batteries and intelligent control software, both of which are finally enabling flying cars today.

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This book sounds as if it would tie in very nicely with the previous review, "The Collapse of Complex Societies"; to the question "What went wrong in the 1970s?", my initial response was "It was the 70s".

Tainter would probably say "complexity"; the people alive at the time would have said "nothing much wrong (well, crime in some cities, sure, and the whole domestic terrorism thing, and oil shortages and things, but otherwise pretty okay)"; but I never heard anyone, until now, say "a lack of nuclear power plants".

If this review is faithful to the book, the guy sounds like a crank. Let's take a few points:

"The average American moved from Level 2 in 1800, to level 3 in 1900, to Level 4 in 2000. We can state the Great Stagnation story nearly as simply: There is no level 5."

Oh yes there is; aeroplanes. Private citizens can own their own, from the basic models to the billionaire's private jet, and the affordability of commercial flight has never been so within the range of the ordinary person (to the point of griping about airlines packing passengers in like sardines and crowding more and more is smaller and smaller seating, which shows the success of 'I want to take a flight and I can afford it' for ordinary people).

In fact, the progress that Hall describes from Shank's Mare to Your Very Own Automobile was forecast by many writers to take that Level 5 step: Your Very Own Aeroplane. Indeed, Kipling for one went so far as to put the entire world, now that air traffic was cheap and commonplace, under the control of the Aerial Board of Control: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerial_Board_of_Control

As for the wicked interference with developing flying cars, Hall seems to want highways in the skies. And think about that - think about Highways. In. The. Skies. Think of the worst snarled-up rush hour traffic, cubed (because you can stack flying cars), in the skies overhead for major cities. Think of your commute, only now you're up in the air.

Hall has the notion of primitive days before everyone could afford their own car, only transferred to flying cars. Hop into your jalopy, rev 'er up, and flit from home to town and back again in the clear blue yonder. A charming notion, but in reality, it'd be you and six thousand others up in those skies.

The terror of nuclear energy comes from it being used first in war, not in peacetime. As the most destructive and terrible of weapons, not as a source of energy generation.

"If you put a completely legal luminous watch in a barrel containing half a tonne of dirt, that dirt would technically be intermediate-level nuclear waste according to the regulations."

Ahhh - when did radium watches become legal again? I think he's doing some three-card-trick shuffling of terms here; radium is radioactive (read this Wikipedia article on what happened to women working with it for watch dials https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radium_Girls) but now luminescent dials are using " phosphorescent- or occasionally tritium-based light sources" which are safer and hence legal.

He is definitely pining for the 70s, when you could wear radium watches on your wrist and fluoroscope your feet! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoe-fitting_fluoroscope A little dose of radiation will do growing kids no harm, in fact it'll encourage them to grow in new and interesting ways!

I do very strongly get the impression that Hall isn't interested in flying cars qua cars, he's interested in them to get that interfering government off his lawn (quick, where's his shotgun, here come those dadgum Revenuers again!)

As for the flying cities, James Blish had an entire series about them https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cities_in_Flight . He had them powered by spindizzies, something I think perhaps superior to the idea of "one single line of nuclear power plants (every 250 feet) along the wing would suffice to keep Aero City flying indefinitely".

My main objection here is that he envisages everything working perfectly all the time (once tech has been so perfected by being liberated) so that nuclear plants will never fail, flying cars will never crash into each other or drop out of the sky, and as for his flying city... well, let's not even imagine how catastrophic that could be.

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As others have pointed out, plenty of other countries have embraced nuclear energy. That doesn't automatically enable flying cars. Unless we're going to put reactors in individual vehicles, which we won't do, you'd need better battery technology to take advantage of widespread nuclear energy. Besides that, there are so many other reasons we don't have and probably don't even want flying cars. Is every apartment building going to have its own air traffic controller? Automated systems on roads work fine because they're roads. Who keeps arbitrary flying machines on pre-defined flight paths? We can do that now because of how controlled and limited airplanes are. Are you going to file a flight plan to go to the grocery store? What happens when a flying car breaks down? It's fine to pull over to the side of the road. Falling out of the sky in the middle of a crowded city is not so fine.

What we actually want and are pretty close to having is widespread fast delivery, ideally via self-driving cars, so people don't need to go to stores at all, and better telecommuting and VR technology to limit the amount of interstate travel and daily commuting that needs to happen in the first place. Flooding the sky with amateur aircraft is not the answer.

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Ok, so this book review isn't bad, but the book sounds too error-filled to be worth anything. DDT didn't get banned for causing cancer; but it is associated with increased Hodgkin's lymphoma, testicular cancer, and liver cancer. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DDT#Carcinogenicity It got banned for it's impact on wildlife, IIRC. The author sounds like some kind of fundamentalist. Hard pass.

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>Imagine if you had to bike to a train station to get anywhere (not such a leap of imagination for me in New York City! But it wouldn’t work in the suburbs).

Wouldn't work in the suburbs we have in the US, perhaps, but my understanding is it would and does work in many European suburbs. (Plus you can get around more effectively just by bike there too.)

Here in the US we have this sharp divide between cities and suburbs (where it's impossible to get around effectively without a car), but it doesn't have to be like that in the first place, and in many parts of the world it's not.

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There's an idea in economics called the Environmental Kuznets Curve which posits that as societies become wealthier, people become less willing to tolerate environmental degradation. Or, alternatively, are willing to spend more money to remediate or avoid environmental degradation. A few years back, I read somewhere about a similar effect regarding certain types of personal risk. E.G., if you wish to understand why children 50 years ago were allowed so much more unsupervised play time than kids today, it's because parents were less risk averse. If you wonder about why the list of mandated safety features on automobiles keeps getting longer (crumple zones, airbags, electronic stability controls, etc.), it's because drivers are more risk averse. And so on and so forth. As someone who leans libertarian, I'm quite sympathetic to concepts like "bureaucratic incentives are to calcify," but I think it has to be pointed out that our bureaucratic paralysis wasn't exactly imposed on an unwilling or skeptical public.

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So how does he explain France? It's famous for dirigisme and arguably is the most statist economy among Western democracies. It is also famous for being #1 at exploiting nuclear power. If anything you could argue that nuclear power is the most socialist form of energy. Likewise does he assume that every single nation as developed as the US made the exact same mistakes so we're all equally handicapped in technological development? I can't help remembering that libertarians were big fans of the Dale.

Personally I found Robert Gordon most convincing - we solved the easiest problems by the 1970s and further gains in productivity were slower because they were more difficult.

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The best counter argument I can think of, to “nuclear power would enable so much more progress, but greens killed it with regulation”, is China.

If what he’s saying is true, why isn’t China building tons of nuclear plants? Are they also constrained by the same regulations?

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“ Then, in 1977, Jimmy Carter established the Department of Energy. Costs immediately skyrocketed, and never came back down.”

So nothing to do with Three Mile Island?

I almost 100% agree with the guy. But why include such bull $hit?

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I wouldn't really call this a review. It's just a naive summary of the main points of the book that doesn't critically engage with any of the ideas. There's not a single word written on whether the author's claims hold water or whether his argument is logically coherent, not a single outside source referenced, nothing to suggest that the reviewer has any understanding of the subjects where Hall is making controversial and unsubstantiated claims. Bluntly, it's the level of writing I'd expect from a 5th grade book report, not a finalist in a review contest.

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Flying cars are an inherently bad idea for many reasons. This is the best analysis I've found that lays out all the reasons why. It concludes that it would be much better to normalize travel on small, autonomous planes based at dense networks of small airports than to try putting a flying car "in every driveway."


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With the benefit of being able to remember the last 40-odd years, I would say the general description of the social change is accurate: there's no question to my mind that modern society hugely more timid than what it was 30-60 years ago, and far more concerned with equity than opportunity.

But there's still some serious chicken-and-egg questions about that. Did we become more timid because of this change or that? Or was it our timidity that drove those other changes? There's a strong interconnect between social attitudes and technological change, but one can make an argument for the causality running either way, and probably in different areas it runs in different directions. Plus there are probably feedback loops, in the sense that once a change of attitudes causes a change in technological progress, the delta in progress informs further change in attitudes, et cetera.

It's definitely the case, though, that the difference between American culture and Soviet culture has narrowed in completely surprising (if you remember the difference in the 60s) ways. We really are much closer that I would ever have thought possible to the culture that, were it told the chocolate ration had been "increased" to 20g, would pretty meekly go along, and viciously choke off any troublemakers who attempted to point out it was 40g last week.

I certainly wish I knew why. I'm not convinced by this it can be easily traced to a failure to go full bore on nuclear power. That feels more like another symptom to me.

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"Before the War, America was an individualistic nation. Then came the Depression, the New Deal, and most of all the War. America won the war with a “completely centralized bureaucratic government structure” - and it was a huge success. And for a while, that worked: the generation forged in the war had a “cooperative “same boat” spirit” that “[made] the centralized corporate structures work.” But then it didn’t. Hall blames the hippies"

I never thought of it this way before -- and the above paragraph doesn't note it explicitly -- but one tends to think of the hippies' individualist ethos as left-wing and the older, Emersonian self-reliance ethos as right-wing, yet perhaps it's the same strain of American culture that gave us both.

One could argue the hippies had the creative, individualistic drive of a child, whereas Emerson was talking about the responsible-minded independence of an adult.

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One thing I find disturbing about this 'fear of nuclear is just hysteria' argument is how its proponents always casually brush off the cost and the danger associated with cleaning up the few disasters that have occurred. Even allowing for the argument that the cleanups themselves have inflated costs because of excessive fears of radiation, we're talking about thousands of people who HAVE to be displaced, land that remains uninhabitable for decades, and cleanup costs in the tens of billions. And this is just the accidents that occurred at the heavily regulated plants that do exist! Saying Chernobyl killed 37 people is such a bizarre understatement of a) how serious it nearly was and b) just how extreme the actions taken were to prevent more deaths. As an energy source it also generates waste that remains dangerous to people for thousands of years, which has to be safely transported and stored and remains a huge security risk for the duration of its lifespan.

I'm prepared to accept arguments that the impact of climate change could be worse (probably true) or that fear of nuclear is somewhat overblown, but I always find it shocking when people are as dismissive of anti-nuclear viewpoints as they are of e.g. anti-vaxx.

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The case about nuclear energy is one that I always think to myself, but how does it explain non USA (or non Western for that matter) nuclear prices? Since they don't have the same regulatory hell shouldn't Russian or Indian or Chinese nuclear electricity should be so cheap they'll just be selling the rest of the world electricity? I really want more research made on nuclear so we make most of our electricity out of it (and some architectures like MSRs using Thorium etc theoretically can both decrease the prices and increase safety), but also somebody needs to write an article why it's still expensive in other regulatory environments. One more caveat about Chernobyl, there's no way in hell there's so little casualties. Just the extra cancer deaths from the Black Sea coast of Turkey is way more than that. From the top of my head I'd expect in total worldwide somewhere around a few tens of thousands to maybe a hundred thousand dead?

Re: Flying cars well safety regulations are one thing when the vehicle can just stop in case there's something wrong and stay where it is, and another thing when it just falls off the sky. I want a flying car more than anybody but (maybe it's my lack of imagination) I cannot see a world when they're not falling off the skies like flies.

Is the public R&D spending somehow stop the private investors from investing in nanotech? How can the public be blamed for this?

Overall I think this book sounds like one where the ideological fervor of the author clouded his judgement so heavily it doesn't make much sense.

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The runner-up review says of why we don't have flying cars,

"Is it because of air traffic control being difficult? No, not really. Because the skies are vast and there's plenty of room up there, what with three dimensions to play with and no "road" restrictions."

I'd really like the explication of this, because I find it hard to believe. For one thing, the flying cars wouldn't be scattered evenly throughout the air. They'd all be congregating towards the places where people want to go. 2-dimensional traffic jams are bad enough as it is: 3-dimensional ones with no road markers would be far, far worse, and more dangerous, because there effectively wouldn't be such a thing as a minor collision.

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4. At $64 per day, the one billion people at Level 4 own a car.

Wow, $64 per day. That is within single digits of my income (US SS). Except I can't.afford a car. Or perhaps I should put it this way: If I had a car I would have to stop helping many of my Haitian friends. Since I exist quite well without a car, that is a no-brainer.

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There were only 43 deaths at Chernobyl (assuming that estimate is right) because they undertook an expensive and difficult mitigation project, and more or less permanently evacuated an area 2600 square kilometers in size. That's from a single reactor disaster, with a plant design that was being run with cost first and foremost in mind (the main virtue of the RBMK reactor was that it was cheap to build and operate - also why there was no containment structure at the time of the accident).

That's why nuclear power is heavily regulated - the potential downside is enormous, and very much not something to blow off casually as exaggeration. The Soviets actually got lucky in that the disaster happened at Chernobyl rather than, say, St Petersburg (which also had the same type of reactor).

The stuff about the private sector and nuclear power rings false to me as well. The only time nuclear power ever got cheaper either in the US or abroad was when it was being built on a huge scale, by large, quasi-monopolistic utilities with implicit state backing and support (or explicit). Even in the US, nuclear power got a huge boost from having its liability limited in the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act in the 1950s - if they'd had to actually accept the liability for the plants in full, they likely would not have been built at all.

Incidentally, the French are running into cost overruns on new nuclear plants too.

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the noise issue with flying cars. Choppers and aircraft are not quiet.

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An explanation based on the establishment of the department of energy only really works if you ignore the world outside the USA. Arguably similar pressures exist, but there are many places, e.g. France, where nuclear makes up a much larger share of their energy supply. And while they've gained in efficiency due to the benefits of mass production and expertise, there hasn't been the major shifts that would be necessary for this theory to pan out.

A more parsimonious explanation would be that, as in many things, each additional marginal unit of energy is more difficult to acquire. And the returns on additional energy usage in terms of increased quality of life are diminishing. (A flying car would be cool but didn't make a difference to your life in the same scale as having shoes).

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Putting aside the specific merits of flying cars or nuclear power, I think the author is onto something about the change in our society.

Specifically, risk tolerance. Somewhere along the way, we changed from a society that favored growth and change, to one that favored safety and stability. All sorts of things in the 50s and 60s would be considered horribly unsafe nowadays. Nuclear power plants and the Saturn V rocket are big, obvious examples. But there's also smaller examples like car safety measures, drinking, smoking, and letting kids roam freely outside. Or banning lawn darts, for a really trivial example.

I'm not completely against safety measures- they really do save a lot of lives, when you multiply them over a huge population. But there needs to be a countermeasure too- some things are worth risking a few lives over, and I think transformational changes in technology are one of them.

I wonder if the difference is the generational memory of war? The decision makers in the 50s and 60s were people who remembered ww2, and many had fought in it. Compared to that, a fatality rate of 1/100 might seem acceptable, or even trivial. But everyone since then is either a civilian, or used to extremely limited wars where relatively few people die. Now we would think of a 1/100,000 death rate as unacceptable. That's my crank theory, anyway.

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It mentions in passing "stagnant wages" and I can't resist swatting that one down every time I hear it.

The stagnation of wages in the US is a frequently repeated myth with a kernel of truth. Real median *personal* income has risen a lot since 1981. *household* income growth has been smaller because the number of earners per household declined due to huge increases in fatherlessness. Which is a big problem but not the one most people have in mind when they're complaining about "stagnant wages".



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The average commute in the USA is 27.6 minutes. And you can do that while listening to a podcast, or great music in a climate-controlled environment. I don't see much economic benefit to shaving time off a moderate commute, as it is unlikely to increase productivity for the average Joe. Small planes are noisy, and it would be obnoxious if there were runways everywhere and constant air traffic. And of course, any kind of "weather" would ground all the small planes. And small aircraft are dangerous and we are increasingly risk-averse. So perhaps physics and cost-benefit calculations are the reason we don't have flying cars yet.

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As a proponent of nuclear energy, I really want to tell this guy to get off my side.

Also: TSCM is working on 2 nm process semiconductor manufacturing. If that isn't "development of nanotech", I'm not sure what is.

Finally: An average car (according to Google) is 1500 kg. If I assume very modest flight altitudes of 100 m (which to my understanding is unrealistically low?), that's 1.5 sticks of dynamite worth of gravitational potential energy *before considering the car's speed*. If flying cars become widely available where I live, I'm moving. For the same reason I'd move if they started selling dynamite to use on the 4th of July.

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Isn't it physically impossible to have a small nuclear reactor? To sustain a nuclear reaction, you need an amount of fissile material that's a good fraction of the critical mass. The critical mass of uranium-235 is about 52 kg; for plutonium-239, about 10 kg. The Kilopower project, intended to produce nuclear reactors for space travel, is probably as small as you can get a nuclear reactor, and their 10 KW reactor still weighs 1500 kg.

Of course, no government in their right mind is going to let private citizens own enough U-235 or Pu-239 for a nuclear bomb, and it takes the resources of a country to produce that a critical mass of those isotopes anyway. A heavy water reactor that uses natural uranium has to use much more uranium. I'm not sure how small you can get a heavy water reactor, but the KANUPP nuclear power plant is one of the smallest in the world, and it still has 30 tons of uranium. Of course, in addition to the uranium, you also need the moderator, control rods, some way to turn heat into usable energy, and shielding (if any humans are going to be around). I'm not convinced it's physically possible to create a nuclear powered car, or even a nuclear powered airliner, with natural uranium.

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Another partial explanation for the less adventurous, risk adverse climate since the 60-70: the aging of the population, together with a feminization of political and economical power. Even if not so strong at decision making level (which was always old - ish and remained largely masculine), political support and typical consumers changed for older and more feminine, so technology directly aimed at consumers changed targets, and regulations followed a much more risk averse population. Even for IT, this can be seen a little, with transition from pc and gaming to smartphones, e-commerce and social media, with supporting server infrastructure hidden from the public.

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Isn't the phrase: "Dude, Where's My Flying Car?"


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My dad's first job as an aeronautical engineer in the late 1930s was designing a small part for a flying car company. It was going to a tricycle road vehicle/aircraft.

He said the project was coming along pretty well. But then the FAA decided that having only one wheel in the front was too risky: while driving, you'd run your front wheel into a curb and put a hairline crack in the front wheel/landing gear pylon and then the next time you are landing it, the lone front landing gear snaps off and you go nose first into the runway. But having two wheels/landing gears in the front would be too heavy to get off the ground. So the company sold their work in progress to the Japanese, who maybe were planning to use flying cars to invade Los Angeles, land them on the Pasadena Freeway. So my dad then got a job at Lockheed from the 1930s into the 1980s

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I'm pretty sympathetic to the central thesis of this book. However, I must point out its glaring scientific weaknesses. First, it treats cold fusion as respectable science and insinuates that the scientific establishment covered it up. Second, it says that "material science [...] trashed the reputation of actual nanotech." In reality, nanoscale materials behave very differently due to quantum mechanics. So the dream of geometrically decreasing "factory" sizes based on everyday technology is wrong.

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Re science funding, a very well-known microbiologist once told me his theory that the (rough) doubling of the NIH budget in the 90s had had a strong negative effect on the pace and quality of biological research.

His reason was simple: a ton of mediocre scientists were now able to get their careers funded, and to make matters worse many of them ended up in high-up administrative positions deciding where to direct future funding, and their decisions were often poor.

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The reviewer summarizes the author’s basic claim as “The Great Stagnation was caused by energy usage flatlining, which was caused by our failure to switch to nuclear energy, which was caused by excessive regulation, which was caused by ‘green fundamentalism.’”

I find plausible the claim that nuclear hasn’t taken off because of regulatory burden, but contra some other commenters, my intuition is that the burden of regulation in nuclear energy should be comparable across countries, given that nuclear energy is already highly regulated at the international level.

On the other hand, I’m skeptical that the reason energy use has “flatlined” in some countries is because of the lack of expansion in nuclear power generation. Here is a chart for comparison of energy consumption per year for various countries:


If you try China, India, France, Russia, and the US, each of which has a home-grown nuclear power industry, you’ll find that energy consumption in the first two (especially the first) is increasing rapidly, while in the last three, it has flatlined. So I’m guessing that the relevant variables are rate of energy use and rate of economic growth, and while regulation must affect both, regulation of nuclear energy in particular seems unlikely to be so relevant.

While we are on the topic of energy, I recently read Energy and Human Ambition, which does some easy and fun Fermi calculations such as how long, at current growth rate in energy use, would it take us 1) to eat the Sun, the Milky Way, the visible Universe, and 2) to boil off the oceans:


In short, not long on a civilizational time scale, from which we can conclude that energy use will probably either flat line or collapse in the next few hundred years (a sub-exponential growth rate would buy a lot of time, but isn’t observed).

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"I’m more convinced than ever that not embracing nuclear power was one of humanity’s worst mistakes (partially because I’m more afraid of climate change than Hall is)"

It occurs to me the failure mode of an overregulated nuclear energy is a reduction in the rate of technological progress. The failure mode underregulated nuclear energy is the backstory of On the Beach. If a country can build a lot of nuclear reactors, it can build a lot of nuclear bombs. If every country can do that, then international politics will get very interesting. At least for a moment.

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I'm a big fan of nuclear power and a big fan of flying cars. To the point where I basically designed my current (well, pre-COVID) lifestyle around the latter. But these are two great tastes that don't taste great together, and I'm wondering how the author makes the connection.

Energy is relevant to flying cars, but it's the wrong kind of energy. The driving requirement there is having to fit on the order of a megawatt of peak power into something the size of a mid-sized automobile (for VTOL performance out of a practical urban "parking space") with no direct connection to the power grid. There is no plausible nuclear option for that. Even assuming too-cheap-to-meter electric power at the wall outlet, your flying car doesn't get off the ground without some non-electric, non-nuclear power supply, or batteries better than anything that were plausibly available in the era the author seems to be talking about.

And there are other critical problems that aren't at all energy-related. Pilot training and/or automation, as has been discussed here already. Plus, disc loading and associated scaling issues mean that if you shrink a helicopter into something that can take off from a driveway, it will be dangerously (literally dangerously) loud, and also dangerous in that the downdraft will e.g. kick up stray beer bottles and accelerate them to potentially lethal velocity.

I like "flying cars", but it's not realistically possible to have them deliver people directly from their homes to their workplaces and favorite commercial districts. Nor is it practical for them to double as groundcars. This is fundamentally a last-mile problem. I can and do fly 95% of the distance from my home to my office, and we can *maybe* make it so most people can do that. Now find an answer for the last 5%, and if you insist that it be "we have to fly!", you're going to fail. Likewise if you think "because nuclear!" or "because nanotech!" is going to solve the problem.

For me, a folding bicycle in the back of the airplane works nicely. And quite possibly the reason we don't have "flying cars" is that the golden age of general aviation, when airplanes were affordable and airports were everywhere, corresponded with a period when bicycles and public transportation were both considered horribly, unacceptably lower-class. Now we have Uber, which might provide an answer but we've almost priced airplanes out of reach of the working class (don't even ask about helicopters) and we've closed most of the airports.

Nuclear power is a completely different discussion.

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Many people make the argument that government centralization of science is a mistake. The problem isnt that money is bad, it's the way the money was allocated. Scientific Freedom by Donald W Braben makes the same case but he has empirics to prove it. He got a company to agree funding scientific research in a way that basically gave academics free reign over the money (no grant process etc), complete freedom. Of course the academics were hand picked by Donald. They managed to produce 1 noble prize winning research and 1 company (>100m net worth). This was out of around 20 I think, which is pretty better than grant funded research. The problem with academic grant system is basically : 1) makes professors spend massive amount of time writing grants 2) very conservative with regards to projects it will fund (unless the prof is very imminent)

3) comes with strings attached that slows down the entire process

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Does the author explain why flying cars didn't happen outside the US? My guess at a steel man would be that everywhere else is even more regulated (or, if not poor).

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"Then there should have been nuclear fission and nanotech, letting you fit a lifetime's worth of energy in your pocket."

and also

"Nanotech, Hall says, is to nuclear energy as the steam engine was to coal - the technology that will unlock the potential of a new energy source."

This statement causes me to update massively in the direction "The book author does not know what they are talking about".

While I am not a nuclear engineer, a central concept in nuclear reactor design seems to be criticality, which is the point where one neutron will, on average, cause exactly as many fission reactions as needed for another neutron to be released. For different fissile isotopes, you would need different amounts to sustain a chain reaction, generally upwards of 5kg. You can use neutron deflectors and the like to lower it a bit, but in the end, that is a minimal scale for a criticality-based nuclear reactor.

You might or might not be able to use nanotech to scale down a cars internal combustion engine to fit into a hair, but you will definitely not be able to do the same for a submarines nuclear reactor, or even fit the reactor into your pocket.

(On the bright side, this is also why scaling down the mass of Little Boy by six orders of magnitude will not yield explosive small arms ammo with a blast of 15kg of TNT.)

I have tried -- and failed -- to parse the first quote in a more charitable way, e.g. that nanotech would provide the batteries to store the nuclear energy, but that would just mean that nanotech would provide energy densities similar to nuclear, which is hardly an easier sell.

For me no amount of Gell-Man Amnesia can overcome the scepticism about a book with its core argument based on "nuclear power + nanotech = reactor in your pocket".

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OK, now I'm sure about how I feel. There's just too many entries for me to judge and it seems almost unfair to the entrants at this point. If you do this again next year (and I hope you do!) I would urge you not to go above 5-7 finalists.

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The phrase "green fundamentalism" really raised an eyebrow for me here - it's very hard to seriously claim that the US regulatory environment is even adequately protecting the environment, let alone overdoing it. Americans by and large live in a very toxic environment, and the lack of progress on climate change is an obvious red flag against this argument.

"Climate change will only cost a few percent of GDP" is also a HUGE handwave of trillions of dollars per year in additional *permanent costs* added to the US budget alone. See also: human suffering, likely abandonment of some affected populations, and extinction risk. That sort of claim makes me doubt his intellectual honesty overall.

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This book has attracted many reviews; there's a (long) review here: https://strataoftheworld.blogspot.com/2021/03/review-where-is-my-flying-car.html

And also this one: https://rootsofprogress.org/where-is-my-flying-car

One of the most interesting points I think is why no country has done better at keeping alive a good regulatory environment and encouraging innovation in atoms. Was the US an outlier before, and does the trajectory of the US therefore have an outsized global role? I also recall some Robin Hanson post about elite consensus across countries being surprisingly robust (regardless of whether it is correct), and maybe this effect has grown with globalisation and the internet, and means that policy between countries is much more correlated than we might think.

Or are some countries succeeding? It looks like Iceland and Singapore have bucked the plateauing energy use trend: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/per-capita-energy-use?tab=chart&country=DEU~JPN~SGP~SWE~TWN~GBR~USA~ISL~CHN

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> we can and have built them ever since the 1930s. They got interrupted by the Great Depression (people were too poor to buy private airplanes), then WWII (airplanes were directed towards the war effort, not the market), then regulation mostly killed the private aviation industry. But technical feasibility was never the problem.

It's because they kept making them again and again, and it was always a crappy solution to a non-existing problem.

Road vehicles and flying machines have different tradeoffs (weight is one). A flying car sounds good abstractly, but is the worst of both worlds.

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The 20th century was the Pre-Cambrian explosion of technology, during which a single generation went from seeing people ride horses, to landing on the moon. Who wouldn’t be optimistic after that?

I can’t find the authors exact age, but he’s an older gentleman and I can assumed he grew up at a time when everything seemed possible. “Technology Progress” can become an ideology, and I think nothing typifies this better than the Jetsons.

I also find that sometime STEM types are not great at inspecting their own ideological biases, and so the author might just not be willing to give up on the future he imagined.

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> I’ve never heard anyone before say government-funded science was bad for science!

You don't read much economics. This isn't even an uncommon claim.

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Could somebody wake me up on wether nanotech (as defined in the book) is pseudoscientific or has real potential. The so-called Drexler-Smalley debate has made me think the former.

Nanotech seems to be mostly propagated by computer scientists and this is something Smalley reproaches Drexler for. I'd be especially interested in the opinions of trained chemists or physicists among us.

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My hot take is that we SHOULD have regulated cars out of existence.

Driving is an extraordinarily dangerous activity, but we've just come to accept that tens of thousands dying on the road every year is fine.

Driving has also completely ruined the urban fabric of most American cities. People often say they strongly prefer to live in walkable neighborhoods, but the necessities of dealing with urban traffic flows makes walkability very difficult to achieve. We've gone from a highly social society where people live in tight-knit communities to a fully atomized society where people routinely never meet their neighbors, and though cars aren't the whole story, they're definitely part of it.

Cars exist as they do today BECAUSE governments stepped in to change the rules in favor of cars. Jaywalking was invented as a crime because car manufacturers wanted to crank up speed limits and not have to worry about hitting people all the time. So all of a sudden, the streets themselves were taken away from pedestrians and given to cars, with tiny strips along intersections allowed for occasional pedestrian use. Miles and miles of highway were built to make cars a convenient long-distance transportation option.

So yeah, flying cars are probably a bad idea, and I think on the whole we are better off for not having them.

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As a person living living in Europe I can only shake my head increduously:

You in the USA already have the most suicidal mass killings world wide, and you dream of putting another instrument/weapon in each garage allowing a frustrated pupil or employee to steer the vehicle right into the classroom or office?

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Working biotech does exist -- it's called molecular biochemistry, and it's something we've made a lot of advances in since the 1970s.

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As far as I can tell nobody is talking about the plasma fusion reactors that are planned (e.g. ITER) which would have no waste. I understand that fission reactors are already developed, but if the idea is to not repeat a past mistake, why not rebrand on a type of reactor that doesn't carry all that baggage.

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There's a bunch of discussion here comparing the results of crashes between flying cars versus non-flying cars. Is it possible to build craft that can fly around, crash into another such craft, get dinged up a bit, but still limp along in the air until it can reach a safe landing point? Or will physical contact with another craft always imply hurtling into the ground with more-or-less gravitational constant based acceleration?

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Electricity was government funded. Radio technology was government funded. Metallurgy was government funded. The railroad was government funded. The automobile was government funded. Aviation was government funded. Interchangeable parts was government funded. Sure, the technologies were rolled out to consumers by private businesses, but the innovations were due to government research initiatives. The government has always provided the initial push and provided the necessary subsidies. Businesses can do just fine with stagnant technologies.

The problem with nuclear power plants was the spent fuel disposal problem. Even the French, who went all in on nuclear power and made it work, have been unable to solve this problem. Every nuclear power plant in the US has a big storage pool full of spent fuel rods and no place to put them. Sure, we could eliminate regulations and accept a higher background radiation the way we accept warmer, less settled weather in exchange for burning hydrocarbons. We'd also have to accept a landscape full of damaged nuclear plants. Finally, run the numbers. Solar is still cheaper and could become even cheaper.

As for flying cars, the roadblocks aren't energy and regulation. There are technological barriers. Unless we totally redesign our cities and suburbs, anything that requires a runway is out. Right now, vertical take off and landing means lots of noise which is a regulatory problem unless you live nearby. Then there's the airspace control problem. The airlines were the ones who got the government into airspace control. Technology can help; TCAS came out in the 1990s, but the general problem is unsolved, and the everyone-has-a-flying-car problem wasn't going to be solved with 1960s technology.

This review makes the book sound like an anti-government screed based on technological ignorance. I hope it's better than that.

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Overall I find the review to be strongly lacking in critical analysis, indeed it is a summary more than a review with limited commentary beyond agreement. Ideas are summarised and well presented by the reviewer, but I don't think the original ideas hold much merit.

The author of the book asserts many things and I can only find agreement in this book review. This is not a totally wrong approach and perhaps the reviewer fully agrees with the book author on the major points they make, but I don't think this is a strong or suitable entry for the ACX community where Scott typically gives a balanced case for and against various aspects and arguments made in the book.

Indeed many of the arguments in the book lean into thoughtless mind killing partisan areas and are founded in ideology more than in sound logic. The reviewer overlooked the style, tone, and approach typical of book reviews in Scott's blog and in the fairly pro-logic and pro-analysis less wrong type community which is the audience.

Indeed the non-categorical reference to flying cars as in...actual flying cars rather than to technological innovation in general severely limits the scope and meaning of the book author's analysis. Besides some, misguided in my view, boomer style 1950's childhood dreams....do regular people need, want, or have a use for flying cars which likely have travel distances not hugely different from cars to take passengers no more than 300-400 miles without refuelling or recharging? I don't know of anyone living in any urban or suburban area whose life would be improved by such expensive and noisy machines.

We are having enough problems when considering the usage and approval of small unmanned drones flying over residential areas to deliver packages and takeaway, along with the problems they pose from noise pollution and hazards of drones falling out of the sky causing damage to people and property. Several pilot studies of drones flying around at over communities to do this was strongly strongly disliked and hated by the communities subject to the endless noise of drones flying overhead. Meanwhile we could have networks of autonomous trucks with boston dynamics style robo-dogs going around to delivery small packages instead with existing technology or very near term technologies....or you know...just humans delivery drivers in trucks.

I can certainly say I'd be 100% against my neighbour having a flying car or a helicopter pad in their yard and low and behold the allowance of helipads is very limited and nearly non-existent in residential areas. Such flying cars would be taking off and landing with huge amounts of noise everyday. Perhaps such vehicles could be forced to drive to specific take off and landing locations, but wouldn't' that just create huge congestion there at the mini aircarports if tens or hundreds of thousands of commuters wanted to use them? Along with the high cost of devoting land and airspace to such purposes. Would it be safe for such craft to fly over residential areas...and at what altitudes? Do I even care about the answer to such a question when the vehicles have nearly zero utility compared to their huge social costs?

A flying car is soo incredible unattractive and useless that it is hard to imagine why anyone would bother talking about them beyond as a toy for the wealthy or as a dream from their childhood watching the Jetsons.

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There are a bunch of companies aiming for flying taxi networks within a few years.


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I'm sympathetic to the libertarian perspective here, and It definitely seems reasonable that nuclear was smothered in the crib with no valid justification. But:

1. Government research -- Seems like a lot of the innovations of the 20th century came as a result of research funded due to world war 2 and the early cold war. Obviously though new government institutions ossify overtime and become less beneficial. Am i missing something here?

2. Flying Cars -- Are we talking about anti-gravity or glorified helicopters? What kind of noise pollution would we be dealing with? What would American levels of driving skill mean in terms of accidents and fatalities of these flying cars?

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The book doesn’t sound as if it recognizes there are countries outside America. Japan and France went all-in on nuclear power, continuing that way for several decades after the 70s. Japan especially has obviously changed direction since, but France hit about 70% nuclear generation I think (much of the rest being hydro; a good combination as nuclear is base load and hydro can mostly be turned on and off).

Even if electricity is a bit cheaper in France, they don’t have flying cars.

Sure, the nuclear industrial base would be a lot bigger from the US adopting nuclear power than just France and Japan, but that doesn’t seem like something that should make quite the ‘all or nothing’ difference the book posits. Oh, and the Soviet Union built a lot of nuclear plant too, notably unconstrained by safety regulations. They didn’t develop flying cars either.

I am actually very pro-nuclear by the way. I just thought the book sounded a little blinkered: stuff does happen outside the US, after all.

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> At $64 per day, the one billion people at Level 4 own a car. ... The average American moved from Level 2 in 1800, to level 3 in 1900, to Level 4 in 2000.

This rang weird to me, because 50% of American households owned cars in like 1925. (It went back below 50% thanks to the depression and WWII, I think, but above it again long before 2000.) If 2000 is when the average American hit $64/day, then "owning a car" might not be a good handle for level 4. That said, this might be "the average American", not "the average American household"; do 50% of Americans period (or at least 50% of adults) own cars?

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I feel as though something is missed about radiation here. Radiation exposure as energy is almost certainly not a big deal at low levels. But the author seems to miss the fact that radiatioactive materials ingested into the body are a big deal. Walking past a light bulb is not going to harm you unless we are talking about some exceptionally powerful bubl pumping out a huge amount of light. Swallowing a lightbulb that stays lite inside yourbody for the rest of your life, though is likely to cause damage over time.

Netflix's show "Dark Tourist" has an episode where the host tours Fukishima...where "no one died". The tourists go about in the bus looking at the empty town and the host even sneaks off to go look inside some buildings where things are covered with dust. Over time, though, their geiger counters start increasing, going beyond what they were told is 'safe'...as they continue to rise, even when they confine themselves to remaining inside the bus, nerves start rising and the group leaves the area. This is years after Fukishima and the place is still covered in radioactive dust. Do I believe no one would die if somehow you hypnotised the entire population to have simply remained there and ignored everything? Not for a moment.

The fear of radioactive materials is more rational than the author realizes. They are cumulative over time. They are not able to be seen, smelled or tasted when they are in the environment and in a catastrophic event they are dispersed over a large area and essentially never go away in human history.

This is missed if you are concentrating on doses. In normal environments, you only get doses of radioactive energy (say by getting an x-ray or flying in a plane). Here you normally should not have much to worry about unless you have a major malfunction of the machine or you are exposed to a nuclear explosion for some reason or your finger slips while messing around with a 'demon core'. However if the reactor explodes, it isn't just the dose from the immediate radiation levels you have to worry about but asorbing the material itself.

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Brief review-of-the-review:

Reasonably interesting and well written, but I don't feel like I learned that much from it-- which may be a critique of the book as much as the review. Won't be voting for this one.

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