Plastic is a brilliant material, our relationship with it is trash ⊗ Great sci-fi about the future ⊗ Black Death, COVID, and the Renaissance — No.151

This week → Plastic is a brilliant material. But our relationship with it is trash ⊗ A guide to great sci-fi about the future ⊗ Black Death, COVID, and why we keep telling the myth of a Renaissance golden age and bad Middle Ages ⊗ With vaccines, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight ⊗ Love the USPS? Join the Infrastructure Appreciation Society!

A year ago → The most clicked link in issue No.106 was A Better Internet Is Waiting for Us by Annalee Newitz.

Plastic is a brilliant material. But our relationship with it is trash

TL;DR: One of the issues with plastics is the CO2 emissions during production (like cement and steel, other great polluters), capitalists always be capitalizing, and perhaps the greatest problem is not their existence or using them, it’s how our culture sees plastics as disposable.

Very interesting analysis by Maikel Kuijpers at The Correspondent, part of a series on materials. He looks at the history of plastics, the most important variations, some of the impacts in production and after, what they are replaced with, some of the reasons why, and how we got to today’s treatment of the class of material as largely worthless and disposable.

Like most pieces at that publication, clickthrough for the many many popable notes, references, and a lot of related articles recommended in the right column, as well as the intro which gives a useful and dizzying run-through of just how many bits of plastic with touch in a day.

All around important topic to think about because “plastic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Better to care about it then, instead of abhorring it.”

We’re producing about 400 million tonnes of plastic per year. And much of this disappears in places where it shouldn’t, only to finally end up in the plastic soup. No other material has such a clear association with a certain kind of behaviour: mindlessly throwing away. […]

Plastic is the chameleon of materials. It’s everywhere, in many different forms. It is so ubiquitous, in fact, that Vaclav Smil – materials expert par excellence – doesn’t even try to list all the types and applications.

Plastic is one of the cornerstones of the fossil industry. Not so much because of the amount of fossil fuels used – that’s actually not so high – but because of how indispensable plastic is in our society. […]

Shell is currently building a petrochemical complex in the US state of Pennsylvania to make plastic out of ethylene. This single factory will emit up to 2.25m tonnes of CO2 per year, which is equivalent to 400,000 new cars. And that’s only one of the 300 (!) new petrochemical building projects in the US. […]

But it is not only the material that has plasticity – our behaviour can be moulded too, which the plastic industry knows all too well. We have been taught to throw things away. Offering free plastic bags was part of that: free is worthless.

Science fiction in 2020: A guide to great sci-fi about the future

From a little while back, I recommend digging through Polygon’s Sci-fi week collection. They cover quite a lot of terrain and present many perspectives (and lists) on the genre.

Can science fiction map a positive future?

Tasha Robinson wonders if scifi can offer more positive visions that deal with the challenges humans face while not being so dark about it, finding hopeful directions without veering to the saccharine.

[C]ulturally, we’ve stopped looking forward to the future as a shiny place of improvement and enlightenment. Instead, we’ve embraced the breakdown of society as the ultimate fantasy. […]

[I]n a particularly cynical and anxious age, when science fiction is more popular than ever, all these fantasies about society crashing and burning don’t feel like effective warnings. Instead, they encourage passive fatalism and “It has to get worse before it gets better” thinking.

Science fiction has been radically reimagined over the last 10 years

Assemblage of bits of interviews “with a group of gatekeepers and tastemakers.” Everything included was handpicked, so consider accordingly but nonetheless, I was happy to read so many answers talking about more diverse voices and what they bring. (Loads of recommendations within and at the end too.)

Whereas I think some of the more interesting science fiction literature right now is happening with groups of characters working together to make change happen, in stories like the Expanse series, or Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline. As opposed to more escapist spacefaring, space-opera stuff, seeing people who are actually protecting and preserving the home we have is really invigorating, motivating, and inspiring.

Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages

The link above is to an essay by Ada Palmer but my notes are from listening to this interview with her, treading much of the same territory.

The interviewer is a bit too singulitarian for me but Palmer’s answers are fantastic and give a superb overview of everything in the title above. I didn’t know that the Black Death didn’t die out, it lasted around 300 years and Europeans developed immunity. That immunity also seems to have repercussions on other deficiencies today. The “there are no definite winners and losers, things just change” example of Greenland is excellent and perhaps the quickest lesson for today. The Renaissance is a moving target in terms of beginnings and endings, and was initially largely aspirational and not that much better than what preceded it. Great art but also great suffering.

I started writing this post a few weeks ago but rapidly discovered that a thorough answer will be book-length (the book’s now nearly done in fact).  What I’m sharing now is just a precis,  the parts I think you’ll find most useful now.  So sometimes I’ll make a claim without examples, or move quickly over important things, just linking to a book instead of explaining, because my explanation is approaching 100,000 words.  That book will come, and soon, but meanwhile please trust me as I give you just urgent parts, and I promise more will follow. […]

I don’t love the Renaissance for being perfect.  I love it because it was terrible yet still achieved so much.  I love it because, when I read a letter where a woman talks of a nearby city burning, and armies approaching, and a friend who just died of the plague, and letter also talks about ideas for how to remedy these evils, and Xenophon’s advice for times of war, and how Plato and Seneca differ in their advice on patience, and the marvelous new fresco that’s been finished in the city hall.  To find these voices of people who faced all that yet still came through it brimming with ideas and making art, that makes me love the human species all the more.  And gives me hope.

With Vaccines, the End of the COVID-19 Pandemic Is in Sight

Have a read of this piece by Sarah Zhang for the hopeful announcements but also to better understand mRNA vaccines, and perhaps like me to learn that there are “[t]hree separate components of the immune system—antibodies, helper cells, and killer T cells,” all of which respond to the spike protein that both vaccines use, and “that COVID-19 patients whose immune systems can marshal all three responses tend to fare the best.”

The most tenuous moment is over: The scientific uncertainty at the heart of COVID-19 vaccines is resolved. […]

The mRNA vaccine makes this vulnerability [(viruses hijacking our cellular machinery to churn out infectious viruses)] into a strength. What if we can trick our own cells into making just one individually harmless, though very recognizable, viral protein? The coronavirus’s spike protein fits this description, and the instructions for making it can be encoded into genetic material called mRNA.

Love the USPS? Join the Infrastructure Appreciation Society!

Paul Ford with a short ode to public infrastructure. He writes very well, is funny, and correct, so you should have a read. (I might start using his phrase “a single human node within a lattice of overlapping networks” in my bio.)

This little question—where does it go next, and what happens then?—is the secret to understanding much of what humans built. You can ask this question about an email, a data packet, a census form, or a vote. You can ask it about farm workers, Google searches, photons, and Ubers. […]

A truly big idea isn’t fully formed until it has been arranged to work in a network. And that turns networks into maps of power. […]

I confess that I am suspicious of people who do not love good infrastructure. I’m not saying you must love institutions or trust them. But we should consider them daily and pay them mind, and tend to them with our taxes so they can do their work. And make noise when they fail to serve us.

More → And as always when speaking of infrastructure love and expertise, don’t forget Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York.


  • ? If Wes Anderson Designed The Simpsons. “Created for HomeAdvisor, these scenes and locations from the long running animated series have been transformed into real life places, but with careful style and design that make them seem at home in Anderson’s quirky but deeply lovable movies.”
  • Oh my! ? ? Behold: LEGO Unveils the 9,036 Piece Roman Colosseum, Its Biggest Brick Set Ever. “The Colosseum features an oval base to see it from all angles and display it any way you want. You can leave the crumbled section of the Colosseum facing out or turn the complete North Walls outward instead.”
  • ??‍♂️ ? The iOS Covid App Ecosystem Has Become a Privacy Minefield. “The results show that only 47 of that subset of 359 apps use Google and Apple’s more privacy-friendly exposure-notification system … Albright found that 44 percent of Covid apps on iOS asked for access to the phone’s camera, 22 percent of apps asked for access to the user’s microphone, 32 percent asked for access to their photos, and 11 percent asked for access to their contacts.”
  • ?? ?? ?? ?? ? Taiwan marks 200 days without domestic Covid-19 infection. “Extensive economic and cultural ties to mainland China, and a large volume of travel, meant it was particularly vulnerable at the start of the epidemic. Instead it has recorded 553 cases of Covid-19 and only seven deaths since the pandemic began, making it even more successful than other countries with an exemplary record for containing the disease, including New Zealand and Vietnam.”
  • On the Authenticity of the Chess in The Queen’s Gambit. “Most of the games, it was not difficult, but the biggest challenge was the last game, because the last game is just, it’s a full game. And the problem is that the last game had to be played by the Queen’s Gambit.”
  • ☀️ Dawn of the Heliocene. “Like Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system, sometimes revolutions occur by a simple shift in the axis of rotation. I propose we call our new epoch the ‘Heliocene,’ meaning ‘new sun.’ Heliocene represents the moment when another life form figured out a way to tap into the potential of the sun, and adopts a name for our epoch that better centers humans within the spheres that hold us.” (Via Future Crunch)
  • ? Jupiter’s Glow-in-the-Dark Moon. “Jupiter’s magnetic field is the largest of any other planet in the solar system, and the radiation within its boundaries is many millions of times more intense than the radiation near Earth. The high-energy particles constantly bombard Europa, a world slightly smaller than our moon, with a wispy atmosphere. And when those particles strike the moon’s ice-covered surface, a quirk of chemistry could make it glow in the dark.”
  • ? Op-ed: With Masterplanet, Bjarke Ingels’s architecture has become universal—and incapable of admitting difference. “…resemble one another not because they were derived from the same aesthetic rulebook, or because they share in profligacy for size, but because in each one of them design is only a machine for corporate valorization.”

Header image: Green grasses by Masha Kotliarenko.