The Roots of Progress

Links digest, 2023-08-17

Cloud seeding, robotic sculptors, and rogue planets


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Trying a new format where I put the full quotes inline. (Emphasis added.) Links go to social media so you can easily share. Let me know what you think:

The invention of the history of ideas (Peter Watson, Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud)

The first person to conceive of intellectual history was, perhaps, Francis Bacon (1561–1626). He certainly argued that the most interesting form of history is the history of ideas, that without taking into account the dominating ideas of any age, ‘history is blind’.

Why automobiles were better than horses—from someone who lived through the transition (David McCullough, The Wright Brothers)

Amos Root bubbled with enthusiasm and a constant desire to “see the wheels go round.” He loved clocks, windmills, bicycles, machines of all kinds, and especially his Oldsmobile Runabout. Seldom was he happier than when out on the road in it and in all seasons. “While I like horses in a certain way [he wrote], I do not enjoy caring for them. I do not like the smell of the stables. I do not like to be obliged to clean a horse every morning, and I do not like to hitch one up in winter. … It takes time to hitch up a horse; but the auto is ready to start off in an instant. It is never tired; it gets there quicker than any horse can possibly do.” As for the Oldsmobile, he liked to say, at $350 it cost less than a horse and carriage.

Even kings and emperors suffered from terrible road conditions, as late as the 18th century (Richard Bulliet, The Wheel)

Until new experiments with road building began to bear fruit in the mid-nineteenth century, the surfaces beneath the carriage wheels remained rutted, muddy, and poorly paved—if paved at all. This was particularly true in the countryside, but miserable roads existed even in major cities. In 1703, for example, during a trip south from London to Petworth, fifty miles away, the carriage carrying the Habsburg emperor Charles VI overturned twelve times on the road. And a half century later, Mile End Road, the major thoroughfare leading east from the entrance to the City of London at Aldgate, was described as “a stagnant lake of deep mud from Whitechapel to Stratford,” a distance of four miles.

Mises against stability (Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe)

Like Popper, Mises saw a similarity between the bureaucratic mentality and Plato’s utopia, in which the large majority of the ruled served the rulers. He thought that “all later utopians who shaped the blueprints of their earthly paradises according to Plato’s example in the same way believed in the immutability of human affairs.” He went on, Bureaucratization is necessarily rigid because it involves the observation of established rules and practices. But in social life rigidity amounts to petrification and death. It is a very significant fact that stability and security are the most cherished slogans of present-day “reformers.” If primitive men had adopted the principle of stability, they would long since have been wiped out by beasts of prey and microbes.

What it’s like to try to redirect the lava flow of an erupting volcano (Eldfell, Iceland, 1973) (John McPhee, The Control of Nature)

During the eruption, when the pumping crews first tried to get up onto the lava they found that a crust as thin as two inches was enough to support a person and also provide insulation from the heat—just a couple of inches of hard rock resting like pond ice upon the molten fathoms. As the crews hauled and heaved at hoses, nozzle tripods, and sections of pipe, they learned that it was best not to stand still. Often, they marched in place. Even so, their boots sometimes burst into flame.


US utilization-adjusted TFP has experienced 3 consecutive quarters of decline and is now below the level it was at in 2019Q4, before the pandemic. This is bad (via @elidourado)

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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