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Category: energy

Microsoft's Bill Gates turns to book reviewing

Bill Gates has put his talents to book reviewing
Billionaire Bill Gates, who remains chairman and chief software architect of his company, Microsoft, has put his talents to book reviewing. On Wednesday, he posted his review of "Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines" by Vaclac Smil (MIT University Press) on his personal website, Gates Notes:

As a history buff, I appreciate books that give you a sense of the people behind important inventions and the sweeping impact they have had on society. Often -– as in the case of the diesel engine and the gas turbine -– incremental advances obscure the profound impact of technology. In Prime Movers, Smil focuses in on a slice of 20th century technological innovation and shows the phenomenal impact it has had on international trade and travel.

To put the significance of the diesel engine and the gas turbine in perspective, Smil points out that until coal-powered steam engines came along a few hundred years ago, animals and human muscle were the “prime movers” of manufacturing, and wind and sails the prime movers of international travel and trade. The steam engine was an important underpinning of the industrial revolution. But its impact pales in comparison to the diesel engine and the gas turbine. ...

There are a lot of fascinating historical points and statistics in Smil’s book that make it an interesting read, but what most fascinated me was learning about the incredible impact these two innovations have had on so many aspects of our lives.

It turns out that Gates has been reviewing books on the site every few weeks since March. His recent reads include "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools" by Steven Brill, "Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding" by Charles Kenny, and "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" by Steven Johnson.

His first posted book review was back in February 2010, of Steven Levitt's and Stephen Dubner's "SuperFreakonomics"; frankly, it wasn't much. "I had a chance to read a prepublication copy of SuperFreakonomics before it was officially released," it began. "I really liked Freakonomics and I think SuperFreakonomics is even better." If one of my freshman writing students had turned that in, it wouldn't have gotten a B-minus.

Since then, Gates has much improved as a book reviewer. He often uses a personal take, explaining why he's interested in this topic, and sometimes comes with a critical eye. He picked up Johnson's book "with a little bit of skepticism," he wrote. "Lots of books have been written about innovation -– what it is, the most innovative companies, how you measure it. The subject can seem a little faddish," he said, but he found Johnson's book to be a cut above.

Most of the books Gates writes about fall into the line with his philanthropic pursuits with the Gates Foundation: education, healthcare, technology and the underlying processes affecting those systems. It makes sense that he's reading about them -- but few billionaires take the time to write up their thoughts and share them as a book reviews.


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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Bill Gates, left, with Warren Buffett in 2007. Credit: Nati Harnik / Associated Press

Festival of Books: Homo sapiens, capitalize on those family connections

How water will shape our future.

How “survival of the fittest” gets it wrong.

How Homo sapiens triumphed over the Neanderthals.

All of these threads are connected — at least, that was idea behind Saturday’s panel "Essential Ecosystems" where journalist Steven Solomon, scientist Tim Flannery and archaeologist Brian Fagan brought their respective disciplines to the table to grapple with the problems of our planet.

Los Angeles Times environmental editor Geoffrey Mohan moderated the hour-long panel in which all of the planet’s problems weren’t solved, though it was agreed that the solution lies less in science and  more in society, in our organizational structures and interpersonal relationships. 

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9 books about the gulf oil spill


The BP oil spill that started below the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico began last April and continued for weeks. In today's paper, L.A. Times environmental editor Geoffrey Mohan reviews several books related to the spill. "Few of the books that have been written about the BP oil leak that began last April 20 with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig are good history, and time is the primary culprit," Mohan writes. "[N]early all veer toward the polemical, political and ideological."

Online, Mohan reviews nine books about the incident. Three stand above the rest:

1. "Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster" by oil-rig mariner John Konrad and former Washington Post reporter Tom Shroder, Mohan writes, "deftly navigates around the good-guy versus bad-guy leitmotif.... Artfully and compellingly told, the book marries a John McPhee feel for the technology to a Jon Krakauer sense of an adventure turned tragic. Konrad writes, 'This is not a story of a rig, technology, the environment, corporate policy or government oversight, but it concerns each.' "

2. "A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher" by Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post, Mohan writes, "adds a candid view of the media's coverage." Mohan continues, "Achenbach lives up to his promises to make the disaster 'into a tale that everyone can comprehend,' with fluid, often Spartan prose and a candid tone.... Achenbach appears to be the only author among the bunch who bothered to obtain emails and other documents that were not revealed in testimony, which allows him to focus on Washington's response to the disaster."

3. "Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit" by Loren C. Steffy. Mohan writes: "Steffy focuses unrelentingly on BP's persistent failure to change its management culture.... The culture that rewarded short-term gains business unit by business unit wound up eviscerating the company's engineering, training and safety corps. That left BP more susceptible than most to an industry-wide blind spot: 'Exploration for oil in the Gulf of Mexico had become ruled by the engineer's conceit that the industry's technology was impeccable and by the financial arrogance that argued that safety would never be compromised because the fallout from a disaster would be so great that companies would never cut corners.' "

After the jump: the other six gulf oil spill books.

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BP before the spill

BPDeepwater HorizonGrand Central Publishingoil spillThunder HorseTom Bower


Grand Central Publishing certainly has timing: This week, the company published Tom Bower’s “Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century,” a book that, in surveying the oil industry, devotes considerable space to the activities of BP around the world.

Considering what’s going on in the Gulf of Mexico because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the book may no longer be the “definitive, untold modern history of oil” that the publishers claim. (How can it, when what's happening now is sure to change everything about the international oil industry in the 21st century?) On the other hand, Bower’s book is certainly other things: It’s ominous, even prescient, in what it says about BP’s past practices.

A journalist and investigative historian, Bower tells of BP’s difficulties in the Gulf of Mexico with another platform named Thunder Horse (its previous nickname, Crazy Horse, in honor of Neil Young’s music, was changed, Bower says, after protests by Sioux Indians). The company was intent on using such new rigs to drill 30,000 feet into rock and use computer-guided drills to unleash what they believed was another “100 billion barrels of oil to be found under the sea in the Gulf and the Atlantic.” Then, as Bower relates, in 2005, Hurricane Dennis hit the gulf and Thunder Horse was overwhelmed:

After the hurricane passed, the returning teams discovered the rig tilting at a dangerous angle. Defective valves in the hydraulic control system had allowed water to drain out of the ballast tanks. Oil was leaking from equipment on the seabed that linked the well to the pipeline… Sending divers to carry out repairs a mile down was impossible, and the damage was too great to repair with robots. The equipment would have to be brought to the surface.

And this, from two workers at Shell, a BP rival:

Thunder Horse was more than just a tilting platform—it was symbolic of the company. ‘Poor design and supervision,’ smiled Shell’s head of design about the calamity. ‘BP always shoots from the hip,’ said a Shell technician, characteristically dismissing the abilities of a rival. ‘Their technology and engineering is second rate. They’re always coming to us for help.'

Prior to April, such comments would have been taken as just one company’s bravado. The Times’ coverage continues.

--Nick Owchar

Photo: A May photo of a pelican sitting in an oil slick at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig collapse in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press


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