Weekend Reading & Selected Links

3 min read

Here are some links to things I've been reading that you might also enjoy:

1. 'Multilevel cultural evolution: From new theory to practical applications', a new PNAS article by friend of the pod David Sloan Wilson, et al.

2. 'Every little helps: The advantages of gradual reform over long-term thinking', Tyler Cowen's new TLS article.

3. 'The A.I. Dilemma: Growth versus Existential Risk', the new Chad Jones paper.

4. My new podcast episode, with Palmer Luckey. (At the bottom of this email, I've reprinted one of my favourite excerpts from the conversation.)

Have a great weekend,  


Excerpt from my podcast with Palmer Luckey

[28:06 - 31:42]

JOSEPH WALKER: I watched an interview of you where you alluded to the fact that you keep a long list of forgotten technologies.


WALKER: What are some forgotten technologies that could be built which you think are very achievable?

LUCKEY: Oh, man. Well, I'm not sure if I want to give away my whole secret list, but some of them are forgotten, others are underinvested. So I'll say one example is I think steam engines have an enormous amount of unexplored potential in the modern day, particularly closed cycle steam engines, where you're condensing your working fluid and you're not… And when I say steam, I'm talking about all supercritical fluids. So carbon dioxide or nitrogen, water, it doesn't really matter.

But I think that, for example, there's a very reasonable likelihood that the future of ground vehicles in particular is not actually battery packs. It's actually going to be steam. Because you can recharge a boiler, as it were, with electric power, very quickly, very efficiently. You can fast-charge a boiler at rates of many megawatts without any problems, and it doesn't degrade over time. You don't have these chemicals that are wearing out. You don't have these systems that are wearing out.

So imagine a closed cycle steam engine car where you've got a closed loop steam engine hooked up to a boiler that you can plug into any fast charger, it dumps electrical energy into it. You have an insulated tank that can store that energy for days or weeks with only minimal losses. People will point out, "Oh, but you'll lose 5% a day of the heat to losses." Well, guess what? You're going to lose 5% of your battery on a cold day in an electric car, that already exists.

But the coolest thing about this is it could be much cheaper to manufacture, actually, than battery packs. It could be, certainly using a lot less rare metals. You can build these systems out of the dirtiest cheapest, lowest purity metals that you want. You don't have to have all this high-end lithium, you don't need cobalt, you don't need nickel.

So I'm a big fan of steam engines, particularly for cars and for home power storage applications. I think people kind of started ignoring steam because there were cooler things like the internal combustion engine. And then the internal combustion engine got billions of dollars, hundreds of billions of dollars, in research and development that has made it dominant as long as we had cheap sources of fuel. And I'm not sure that's going to last.

And then the other side, I'd say, is fuel cells. Are you familiar with fuel cells in general? So it's a very old idea, but this idea of solid oxide fuel cells that consume hydrocarbon fuels even is very old. And I actually think that there's an alternate universe where instead of internal combustion engines, we instead invested in solid oxide fuel cells and basically just got really good at coating and stacking sheets of thin metal to make electricity come out when you flow gas in between them.

And that, unfortunately, is not what happened. And so instead, we've seen hundreds of billions go into internal combustion engines. People will point out that solid oxide fuel cells are more expensive and harder to make and don't last as long as normal engines. But I think if they were to receive a similar level investment, you'd actually see them become very viable.

So these are old ideas. Some of them actually pre-date the internal combustion engine. And I think there's people who are going to go back to the future on these and a lot of other ideas and really make a lot of money and also solve some big problems. But you're right, I have a long list of about 50 things that we can go back to the future on.