The Roots of Progress

Links digest, 2023-11-24

Bottlenecks of aging, Starship launches, and much more

I swear I will get back to doing these weekly so they’re not so damn long. As always, feel free to skim and skip around!

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“Before Kendall Square was a leading biotech hub, it was a leading manufacturing hub” (@Atelfo). Robert Buderi, Where Futures Converge:

Within an area of two square miles of Kendall Square, where the greatest manufacturing development has taken place, are located more than 200 plants, whose invested capital exceeds $100,000,000. Here the searcher of facts finds the homes of the largest manufacturer of soap in the world; the greatest producer of rubber clothing in the world; the largest manufacturer of mechanical rubber goods in the world; the largest plant in the world devoted exclusively to the printing of school and college textbooks; the greatest producer of writing inks, adhesives, carbon papers, and typewriter ribbons in the world; the largest plant in the world devoted exclusively to the manufacturer of confectionery; a branch plant of the largest manufacturer of optical goods and optical machinery in the world, the largest producer of road paving plants in the world; the oldest and largest school supply house in the United States; the only industrial research laboratory of its kind in the country.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (via @michael_nielsen)

One story in particular illustrates Chandrasekhar’s devotion to his science and his students. In the 1940s, while he was based at the University’s Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., he drove more than 100 miles round-trip each week to teach a class of just two registered students. Any concern about the cost- effectiveness of such a commitment was erased in 1957, when the entire class—T.D. Lee and C.N. Yang—won the Nobel Prize in physics.

A story via @stewartbrand, who says “That’s the way to run a culture”:

NEW COLLEGE, OXFORD, is of rather late foundation, hence the name. It was founded around the late 14th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top. These might be two feet square and forty-five feet long.

A century ago, so I am told, some busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because they had no idea where they would get beams of that caliber nowadays.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some oak on College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked about oaks. And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks has been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for five hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

T. S. Elliot:

The combat may have truces but never a peace. If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.


“Great graph in the latest Works in Progress headline piece by Hannes Malmberg” (@antonhowes)

Progress in fiber optic transmission (via @varma_ashwin97). I used to think the exponential advancement of Moore’s Law was a unique and amazing phenomenon. Turns out exponential progress is everywhere (and not just in information technology):

“60% of the time it happens 57% of the time. Manifold Markets is pretty well calibrated” (@NathanpmYoung)

“Good news of the day: We’ve reduced sulfur dioxide pollution by 94% over the last 40 years (and mostly solved the acid rain problem)” (@AlecStapp)

“NEPA environmental reviews just get longer and longer and longer… (this trend is driven by litigation and will not stop without permitting reform)” (@AlecStapp)

“One society where the suicide rate is highly correlated with the unemployment rate (Japan, red), and one society where it is not at all correlated (Spain, blue)” (@nick_kapur)

“Where you can drink tap water is a fairly good economic indicator (GDP per capita). It roughly matches up with countries where GDP (PPP) per capita is at least US $22,000” (@pitdesi)


“Walked by 51st and Madison today to see our work, just installed on the Villard Houses. First addition to the NY landscape” (@mspringut, founder of Monumental Labs)

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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