10-lane facepalm

I need a new country. This one is lost. To illustrate this I’d like to translate an article about a major current political issue in the Netherlands for you. It’s about the maximum speed on a newly upgraded highway.

Speed on widened A2 highway can be raised to 170 km/h

Engineering firm Royal HaskoningDHV says the maximum speed on the widened A2 highway between Amsterdam and Utrecht can be raised further. Only at 170 km/h are the existing noise-limits exceeded. This according to Trouw (longer article in Dutch).

The newspaper had the engineering company research the feasability of minister Melanie Schultz’s plan to raise the maximum speed to 130 km/h during evenings and nights. The raised speed would only apply between Vinkeveen and Maarssen between 19:00 and 06:00. Now the maximum speed for the A2 is 100 km/h.

The 10 lanes of the A2 have so little traffic running over them that raising the speed to anything under 170 km does not get up to the noise limits, according to Royal HaskoningDHV. The road was built for 230.000 vehicles a day in 2020, but there’s only 136.000 now. The expected growth in traffic is lagging, causing the expected number of 230.000 to be reached only in 2065.

In the maximum speed is raised to 130 km/h, noise will increase but only in 2030 do new sound barriers have to be placed, says Royal HaskoningDHV. Air pollution is already combatted by an extra screen at Breukelen, writes Novum press agency.

I’m not sure where to start. Mind you that I don’t need to agree with my government. What I would like is for them to be in the same reality. I guess this is partly about how extrapolation has become a really bad way of predicting the future, given how non-sustainable present trends are. The most misunderstood part of the very common word non-sustainable is that it means “no way this will continue”. Seriously: where do they hire people that predict the number of cars to be almost double that of today in 2065?

Given that the western part of the Netherlands is built on mud and does sometimes get frost in winter, highways like these are very expensive. I’d like to know who thought building this 10-lane highway right at peak-car was a good way to spend our money?

But by far the most depressing thing about this whole story is that nobody in this country seems to read this article the way I do. Everyone else is just bickering over whether or not to allow 130 km/h on this one piece of highway.

Which is, I kid you not, all of thirteen kilometers long.

What I read

People sometimes ask me what I read. I’ve replied to a few e-mails with small selections, but I guess I should write it down a little bit more elaborately and share it. I don’t read much fiction, and not all that many books. I’ve been buying e-books from Amazon recently. I have a Kindle but I’m mostly reading e-books through the Kindle app for my iPhone. I do read loads and loads of long and short articles and blog postings using Google Reader as my interface. The few twitter accounts I follow and Google News alerts I have set are also in my Google Reader feed.


First off, here’s a selection of some of the books I have been reading in the past 6 months or so. (The book title is a link to the Wikipedia article for the book. If the author’s name is a link, it’s a TED talk by the author dealing with the same subject matter.

  • Anatomy of an EpidemicMagic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America – Robert Whitaker – (amazon)
  • Griftopia – Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids and the Long Con That Is Breaking America – Matt Taibbi – (amazon)
  • Vultures Picnic – In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates and High-Finance Carnivores – Greg Palast – (amazon)
  • The Big ShortInside the doomsday machine – Michael Lewis – (amazon)
  • Drift The Unmooring of American Military Power – Rachel Maddow – (amazon)
  • Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air – David MacKay FRS – (free PDF)
  •  Limits to GrowthThe 30-Year Update – Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers – (amazon)
  • The Great DisruptionWhy the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the birth of a New WorldPaul Gilding – (amazon)
  • The Long EmergencySurviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophies of the Twenty-first Century – James Howard Kunstler – (amazon)
  • The Rational OptimistHow prosperity evolvesMatt Ridley – (amazon)

The first book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, I read after I wrote my keynote for the 2010 CCC Congress in which I worried, among many other things, about the extent to which our society is medicating unhappiness and the political impact thereof. But this is not an activist book as much as it is a work of science journalism, thoroughly investigating the scientific basis for various classes of psychiatric medications. The picture that emerges however is quite a bit more sobering than even I had expected.

The next books are about the economic situation we’re in. Griftopia is by Matt Taibbi, a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine, who is both hilarious and quite talented in explaining many of the extremely complex issues in laymen’s terms. Vultures Picnic is by Greg Palast, the ‘Lonely George’ of a particular type of investigative journalism. His is the story of tracking down some of the worst global economic offenders and sometimes suffering as a consequence. (If you like him, also check out “Armed Madhouse” about the Bush era White House.) The Big Short is the story of a handful of people in the financial world that saw the sub-prime crisis coming and how they made a handsome profit from it, all the while trying to tell the world this was all just so crazy.

Drift by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (who is as smart and hilarious as Jon Stewart) is a careful study on how over the past 50 years US military power has become gradually immune to outside influences such as democracy. Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air is highly recommended for the geeks amongst my readership because it teaches you to think quantitatively about various sources of sustainable energy without falling for the huge amounts of bullshit that are flying about.

The next books deal with various aspects of the more general mess we’re in. Limits To Growth, the original is from 1972, hardly needs an introduction. If only the world had understood the central message 3 or 4 decades ago. The Great Disruption describes the situation we’re in and the immediate future and manages to end with an only slightly contrived message of hope. The Long Emergency is a more distinctly American perspective on the same circumstances, but Kunstler has clearly thought through a rather dystopian future. I’m planning to read his book “Too Much Magic” next, so I can’t tell you yet what that’s like.

As much as I believe our civilisation is facing its most existential problems to date, I do try to read as much as I can from the opposite point of view as well. In The Rational Optimist author Matt Ridley tries to debunk all the current doomsday theories by arguing the world is only getting better day by day. He does make some excellent points, and the narrative on Ideas Having Sex which is part of the book is well thought out and not something I would argue with. He does succeed in making one think twice about raising the alarm. Ultimately his line of reasoning fails to convince me though. I feel he systematically ignores or belittles a lot of the fundamental problems we’re facing by pointing to upward curves and essentially making the argument that a curve that has always been going up must forever go up. His proof seems to mostly consist of pointing to previous theories of doom that failed to materialize. Which is all too bad, because I really liked some of his previous work. His 1994 popular science book “The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature” taught me a lot of what I know about humans, sex and evolution.

As you probably know by now I believe human civilisation is headed for serious trouble at the “Fall of the Roman Empire except global and made much worse by climate change” end of the scale. But I’m honest enough to admit that confirmation bias and the composition of my daily information diet are causing me to be in my very own filter bubble. I am therefore very grateful for any suggestions for thoughtful papers, articles and (popular-)scientific works that argue that, maybe barring a few hiccups here and there, we’re basically going to be fine. Please use the comments for this, so other people can join in.

Blogs etcetera

Below is a long lost of some of the things I read. Some have many posts a day, others barely post anything. The list is in no particular order, contains all sorts of things and finding out what these are about is part of the fun of clicking around. I think. Or maybe I am too lazy to write descriptions. Although I like most of these, please note that I do not necessarily agree with or endorse any of these sources beyond admitting that I look at at least some of the stuff that is posted there.


As an example, here are two excellent articles that appeared in my feed today:

Two Minutes Hate: Black Ops 2

The upcoming blockbuster military realistic first person shooter Black Ops 2 features, I kid you not, a main villain that appears modelled after Julian Assange:

The game’s main villain is Raul Menendez, described as the “idolized Messiah of the 99%”—a Julian Assange-like character who’s old, experienced, and hell bent on starting a global insurrection against the status quo. 

From the trailer:

“He’s like … a celebrity now. People – in America – idolize him. They’ll wake up tomorrow and realize that their hero … has wiped them out. We have the most advanced technology tracking him, and he’s just … DISAPPEARED! Where .. the .. hell .. is .. he?”

This is bizarre on so many levels I’m not even sure where to start…. Come next year, the most powerful military on the planet will likely use this new video game in its high tech recruitment centers to lure young people trained to track and kill someone modeled after Julian Assange.

When it comes to the state of the world I can be somewhat of a pessimist – I guess – but I would have laughed if anyone had made this up.