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INVENTION AND INNOVATION

A BRIEF HISTORY OF HYPE AND FAILURE

An informative, entertaining package from a gifted, original thinker.

A highly respected scientist takes a close, cleareyed look at the processes of invention.

Smil, the author of more than 40 books on scientific subjects and global matters, is always worth reading. In his latest, the author investigates some technologies that have not lived up to their promise despite huge investments of effort and capital. In the first section, he explores three inventions—leaded gasoline, DDT insecticide, and chlorofluorocarbons—that were initially welcomed but later shunned as environmentally hazardous. This was mainly due to the long-term consequences not being fully understood or the balance of benefits and disadvantages not being properly measured. Basically, they seemed like good ideas at the time. The second category deals with inventions that were supposed to be world changing but never quite got out of a niche—e.g., airships, nuclear fission, and supersonic travel. In these cases, the inventions were overtaken by alternatives that were cheaper and less dangerous. Then there are ideas that failed to mature into useful technology, like nuclear fusion, high-speed travel in vacuum tubes (hyperloop), and nitrogen-fixing cereal crops. These are all intriguing concepts, but there have always been problems that stubbornly resist solutions, and 90% of a breakthrough does not count for much. Smil clearly understands the technical issues involved, but he avoids jargon, and he has a cheeky sense of humor. He wonders why technologies that are proven failures receive regular bursts of enthusiasm, and he points to the media as a primary culprit. A novel, earth-shaking invention is an easy headline even if the fine print shows that real-world application is decades away. In fact, the author shows how new-generation supersonic travel would not markedly improve our lives. Today, the most crucial technologies involve better water treatment methods and improved agricultural yields. It may be unglamorous work, but advancements in both would make a critical difference.

An informative, entertaining package from a gifted, original thinker.

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2023

ISBN: 978-0-262-04805-7

Page Count: 208

Publisher: MIT Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 20, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2022

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ELON MUSK

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

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A warts-and-all portrait of the famed techno-entrepreneur—and the warts are nearly beyond counting.

To call Elon Musk (b. 1971) “mercurial” is to undervalue the term; to call him a genius is incorrect. Instead, Musk has a gift for leveraging the genius of others in order to make things work. When they don’t, writes eminent biographer Isaacson, it’s because the notoriously headstrong Musk is so sure of himself that he charges ahead against the advice of others: “He does not like to share power.” In this sharp-edged biography, the author likens Musk to an earlier biographical subject, Steve Jobs. Given Musk’s recent political turn, born of the me-first libertarianism of the very rich, however, Henry Ford also comes to mind. What emerges clearly is that Musk, who may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome (“Empathy did not come naturally”), has nurtured several obsessions for years, apart from a passion for the letter X as both a brand and personal name. He firmly believes that “all requirements should be treated as recommendations”; that it is his destiny to make humankind a multi-planetary civilization through innovations in space travel; that government is generally an impediment and that “the thought police are gaining power”; and that “a maniacal sense of urgency” should guide his businesses. That need for speed has led to undeniable successes in beating schedules and competitors, but it has also wrought disaster: One of the most telling anecdotes in the book concerns Musk’s “demon mode” order to relocate thousands of Twitter servers from Sacramento to Portland at breakneck speed, which trashed big parts of the system for months. To judge by Isaacson’s account, that may have been by design, for Musk’s idea of creative destruction seems to mean mostly chaos.

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2023

ISBN: 9781982181284

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2023

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THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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