The Roots of Progress

Links digest, 2023-10-12

Dyson sphere thermodynamics and a cure for cavities

I’ve been traveling for a while, so this is a long one, covering the last ~month. I tried to cut it down, but there have been so many amazing announcements, opportunities, etc.! Feel free to skim and jump around:

From the Roots of Progress fellows

On the Progress Forum





Karkió and Weissman win the Nobel for mRNA






Newly available:



Social media


In the late 1800s, some enterprises basically just didn’t measure their business or track any real metrics, except for balancing their books annually. (!) Carnegie, Rockefeller, and others started measuring and found all sorts of inefficiencies to improve (The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie)

As I became acquainted with the manufacture of iron I was greatly surprised to find that the cost of each of the various processes was unknown. Inquiries made of the leading manufacturers of Pittsburgh proved this. It was a lump business, and until stock was taken and the books balanced at the end of the year, the manufacturers were in total ignorance of results. I heard of men who thought their business at the end of the year would show a loss and had found a profit, and vice-versa. I felt as if we were moles burrowing in the dark, and this to me was intolerable.

How much the structure of business changed starting in the mid-19th century (John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Company)

A firm structured like Sears, Roebuck in 1916, with thousands of employees, pensioners, and shareholders, did not exist in 1840—not even in the wild imaginings of some futuristic visionary. Back then, the bulk of economic activity was conducted through single-unit businesses, run and owned by independent traders, who would have been more familiar with the Merchant of Prato’s business methods than Henry Ford’s.

Electricity, literally a life-changing technology (Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth)

One Wyoming ranch woman called the day when electricity arrived “my Day of Days because lights shone where lights had never been, the electric stove radiated heat, the washer turned, and an electric pump freed me from hauling water. The old hand pump is buried under six feet of snow, let it stay there! Good bye Old Toilet on the Hill! With the advent of the REA, that old book that was my life is closed and Book II is begun.

Lower transport costs → more competition → better for consumers. Better engines, faster vehicles, cheaper energy all contribute to this (Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches)

A world of high transport costs is described by an economic model of monopolistic competition. One of the characteristics of such a model is that innovator and laggard can coexist side by side. In the region served by the innovator, lower production costs due to technological change meant a combination of higher profits for producers and lower prices for consumers. Nothing could force the laggards to follow suit, however, and the “survival of the cheapest” model so beloved by economists is short-circuited.

More examples of predicted resource shortages that never appeared (Virginia Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies)

Theodore Roosevelt warned of an impending “timber famine,” driven by the railroads’ insatiable demand for wood. The problem was solved not by the technocratic Forest Service but by the development of creosote to preserve cross-ties and by the railroads’ own natural limits. The story repeated itself with metals in the 1970s and 1980s, as various authorities foresaw shortages or outright exhaustion. Instead, consumers bought fewer refrigerators and automobiles, and more services and electronic gadgets. More efficient techniques and substitute materials reduced the amount of metal needed to make everything from cars to telephone wire. And the predicted shortages never appeared.

The loss of optimism about progress in the 20th century began with the World Wars, the Great Depression, and the rise of totalitarianism around the world (Gabriel A. Almond, Progress and Its Discontents)

The first powerful shock came in 1914 when the “civilized” nations of Europe—most of them boasting the advances of science and technology, education, and self-government—went to war with one another and quickly brought even non-European nations into the vortex of a global conflict. The world had scarcely recovered from the conflagration when other traumas followed: the Russian Revolution, fought, like the French Revolution, in the name of heroic ideals but demanding from its inception to the present unconscionable human sacrifices; fascism in its Italian and in its generic form; the Great Depression; Nazism, reaching its climax of bestiality in the scientifically organized wartime extermination camps of the Third Reich; the carnage of the Second World War; the war’s aftermath of spreading dictatorship and new armed conflicts; and the aborted hopes for democracy and economic advance in the emergent Third World countries.

Verdi’s opera Aïda was commissioned for the opening of the Suez Canal, but was completed late (Jean Strouse, Morgan)

The French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps organized efforts to dig a canal across the Suez isthmus in 1859. Ten years later, a few months after the completion of America’s transcontinental railroad, Empress Eugenie sailed from Port Said to Suez for the formal opening of the canal. Among the other dignitaries who attended were the Prince and Princess of Wales, Emperor Franz Joseph, and an envoy from the Pope. Verdi, commissioned to write an opera for the event, failed to complete it in time: Aïda premiered in Cairo in 1871.

The United States in 1945 (via @CPopeHC)

We own 70 per cent of the world’s automobiles and trucks, 50 per cent of the world’s telephones. We listen to 45 per cent of the world’s radios. We operate 35 per cent of the world’s railroads. We consume 59 per cent of the world’s petrolum, and 50 per cent of its rubber.


The pre-WW2 covers of Fortune (via @simonsarris)

“Once, America found beauty in the blend of industry and nature—a train against the fiery dance at a steel mill. The smoke told tales of prosperity, each puff a testament to our relentless spirit. We embraced the aesthetic of ambition, and we were better for it” (@Itsjoeco)


“What happened around the year 2000 that dramatically altered youth culture?” (@jayvanbavel)

“Neither covid nor WW2 had any lasting effect on US GDP growth trends… our strong prior should be ‘unless this is literally more disruptive than WW2, things will revert to trend’” (@RichardMCNgo)

Everything, Everywhere, All On One Plot (via @AlexanderRKlotz)

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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