Books: Austin: A History of the Capital City [audiobook], The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained [audiocourse]
Austin: A History of the Capital City by David C. Humphrey [audiobook]
This is a brief audiobook from the Texas Historical Association about the history of Austin.
And as such, it does get the job done, running down the facts and recounting how Austin fit fairly neatly into the grooves of 19th- and 20th-century American history. There are some fun details here and there, like the decades-long civic battle over where to put the state capital, or the long, long local tradition of making fun of Houston. I was surprised to learn that race relations reached a kind of brief high point after Emancipation, only to plummet again with Reconstruction.
But generally it all follows the national story that you're already familiar with, from border settlement, to small, isolated town, to city. The city's experience with the Civil War is largely what you'd expect: distant, confused, and with some ambivalence from the locals. In a way, Austin history feels like an attenuated version of national history. The Civil War happens, but it's far away. The Depression hits, but it's somewhat ameliorated by the local oil industry.
Instead, there's a feeling of stability, as the city settles down into its major 'industries' -- first the government, then the university, then the tech sector -- while continually grousing at the heat, insisting that things were so much cooler back in the day, and making fun of Houston.
This is effective, but not great, prose. It gets its points across clearly, sounding like a speech that would go along with PowerPoint slides of bulleted lists. It doesn't reach the high echelons of, say, The Ghost Map or The Big Short, with real-life characters etched in indelibly and historical facts molded into exciting storylines. But it provides the quick overview of municipal history that its readers are likely looking for.
The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained by Michael E. Wysession [audiocourse]
This is yet another audiocourse from the Teaching Company. This one is about energy: the basic nature of energy, how we consume it, and our various resources for it. It isn't a wildly entertaining course, but it does cover the field nicely. The basic material it leads off with was a bit boring -- yes, professor, we know what "fission" is -- but even then, it was interesting to see how the course drew on such a wide range of topics -- biology and chemistry and physics and meteorology and economics and geopolitics and more -- as it nailed down the basics of energy and energy policy.
Soon it moved into more specialized topics. Again, none of this was wildly entertaining, but it was steadily informative. For example, I finally sorted out what "fracking" is, why it was really popular for a while, and why it caused earthquakes. And it was nice to see Professor Wysession present an evenhanded view of the topic -- and I don't mean the TV-punditry false equivalence between science and fringe dissenters, but rather a patient look at the pros and cons of each energy source and each means of conservation. Yes, fossil fuels have lots of negative externalities, but good luck powering a 747 with solar panels. Wind turbines won't power the whole world, but you can spread them across arable farmland.
It's kind of like Professor Wysession is prepping you for a really, really complicated version of SimCity.
For me the course's most fascinating point was that, regardless of how you feel about them, fossil fuels are a historical blip. There was a long stretch of human history with no coal or oil. There have been a few hundred years where we've used them extensively. And within a century, the remaining reserves will dwindle until they're no longer cost-effective. Maybe then we'll be battling over thorium for nuclear reactors or cadmium for fancy solar cells or lithium for massive electric-car batteries. But the battles for fossil fuels that governed so much of geopolitics for all our lives will be quaint, irritating historical trivia.
It's worth the read if you're already curious about the topic, but not worth it if not.
For next week: I'm watching season 8 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising, and also checking out J-dramas with Great Teacher Ozukaza. I'm reading Norwegian Wood and listening to Redshirts.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none