All of jasoncrawford's Comments + Replies

Progress, humanism, agency: An intellectual core for the progress movement

Thanks for the detailed thoughts Alex! An incomplete reply:

I agree that “human well-being as the standard of value” leaves a lot open. That's deliberate because I think that not everyone in this movement agrees on how exactly we should interpret, measure, etc. human well-being. Utilitarianism is one but not the only approach. It is an important topic for us to work out.

Agree with you about philosophy of risk / philosophy of safety. These are issues I am thinking about. For one preliminary, narrow case study see “How factories were made safe.”

I disagree tha... (read more)

Why haven't we celebrated any major achievements lately?

Interesting, how does Oslo do it? What are the infrastructure changes required?

8pku6dPartly street design to reduce speeding, partly encouraging other mode shares over private cars (see e.g. here https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/16/how-helsinki-and-oslo-cut-pedestrian-deaths-to-zero [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/16/how-helsinki-and-oslo-cut-pedestrian-deaths-to-zero] ) (Disclaimer: I'm ideological about disliking cars, which makes me less objective than I'd usually prefer to be on LW)
Why haven't we celebrated any major achievements lately?

Since writing this, I've run across even more examples:

  • The transatlantic telegraph was met with celebrations similar to the transcontinental railroad, etc. (somewhat premature as the first cable broke after two weeks). Towards the end of Samuel Morse's life and/or at his death, he was similarly feted as a hero.
  • The Wright Brothers were given an enormous parade and celebration in their hometown of Dayton, OH when they returned from their first international demonstrations of the airplane.

I'd like to write these up at some point.

Related: The poetry of progress (another form of celebration, broadly construed)

The 300-year journey to the covid vaccine

One thing I've learned since then: I now think this is wrong:

To my (limited) understanding, this does not produce a significantly different immune response than injecting the antigen directly.

My understanding now (which is still quite limited) is that there is an improved immune response. If I have it right, the reason is that in a traditional vaccine, the antigen only exists in the bloodstream; with an mRNA vaccine, the antigen originates inside the cell—which more closely mimics how an actual virus works.

More power to you

Yeah, I had to pull the data into a spreadsheet and look at the annual absolute and percent increase

More power to you

I think it's still a pretty good proxy. Quantitatively, correlation between energy usage and GDP is pretty high, even at higher income levels. Qualitatively, many things that would greatly improve quality of life would also use lots more energy: supersonic air travel, nanotech, flying cars, etc.

More power to you

For electricity, I don't think production and consumption are that different? Certainly not for the US

2Gunnar_Zarncke1moYou mean this: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/per-capita-electricity-consumption?tab=chart&country=GBR~USA~IND~CHN~FRA~Europe~DEU [https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/per-capita-electricity-consumption?tab=chart&country=GBR~USA~IND~CHN~FRA~Europe~DEU] I'm not sure for export-driven countries, but maybe.
More power to you

If you look at the second-to-last chart, energy production was growing exponentially 1950–73, then about linearly 1973–2005, and then not growing at all after that. 

4ozziegooen1moGood point! I feel like I have to squint a bit to see it, but that's how exponentials sometimes look early on.
The bonds of family and community: Poverty and cruelty among Russian peasants in the late 19th century

I don't think there's more of it than in good times—there's less. But you don't need to get all the way to zero bread for a famine.

The bonds of family and community: Poverty and cruelty among Russian peasants in the late 19th century

That's possible, although she had ways of getting information. For instance, she would stand outside at an easel, painting, and eavesdrop on conversations.

They don't make 'em like they used to

True, but it's not that hard to imagine that a cast-iron stove could still be working a century later. It's pretty simple as far as I understand it… pretty much just a metal box with doors and a stovepipe.

They don't make 'em like they used to

I think the point is not that interdependence is inherently safer, but rather that, all things considered, industrial civilization is both safer and more interdependent than the pre-industrial world. The electric grid, for instance, makes us much more interdependent than tallow candles or kerosene lamps, but it's also much safer than using flames for lighting inside the home. The added risk from interdependence is more than compensated for by other factors.

They don't make 'em like they used to

How does the conspiracy survive when each individual member has a motivation to defect? (Not saying it can't, I just don't understand the dynamics.)

1acylhalide3moThis is an entire field of research (monopolies, anti-trust, etc) and an entire field of business practice but off the top of my head: - More profit when they coordinate versus compete by lowering prices - Small number of firms so they are capable of coordination - This coordination often even happens without actually communicating with the other firms. (Although ofcourse, speaking is helpful) - Entry costs, network effects, info asymmetries, brand value, niche etc. can ensure no new firms enter the market, only incumbent monopoly survives
4Dustin3moEven if conspiracies are necessary (though I agree with clone of saturn that they probably aren't) and even if the conspiracy can't survive, it can usually survive for some amount of time and during this time many people become a victim. Couple this with the fact that there could be many conspiracies across many different products. So, if you accept that these conspiracies exist, and my points above are true, it doesn't seem too crazy to think that the average consumers house is full of products with planned obsolescence.

I don't think any conspiracy is necessary, just information asymmetry. For example, suppose modern stoves are controlled by microchips, and microchips can be programmed to self destruct after X hours of use. The manufacturer can choose any value of X, and the consumer has no way to determine the value of X. Since every broken stove represents a new potential customer, (and especially when the largest "competitor" is stoves that are already installed and the user is happy with rather than new competing products,) each manufacturer has an incentive to choose... (read more)

They don't make 'em like they used to

I haven't researched planned obsolescence; are there any good examples of this?

If extra durability/lifespan (beyond the ~15 years that things already last) were possible with a small increase in cost, why wouldn't manufacturers compete on this axis? I imagine that individual homebuyers don't care that much, but, say, a landlord of a large apartment complex who was making a major purchase of stoves would probably want to optimize for 15 vs. 20 or 25-year lifespans. They would have someone doing the calculation.

2TLW3moI'll offer a slightly different take on this. Namely: there's no reliable way to communicate this to customers at a decent lag time, so the actual price premium customers are expected to pay for this is too low to be worth it. Warranty periods only matter given: 1. People are confident that the company will be around for the duration. 2. People are confident that the company will honor them. 3. People don't mind the time/annoyance of potential warranty calls. 4. Warrantee periods are correlated with actual time-to-failures. Unfortunately, 1 and 2 are not really possible now. Say you put out a new product with a 25y warranty. And you have a fund put aside to deal with failures. Great! Only... it's a 25y warranty . That's a long timespan. How do you protect against the next CEO running things into the ground? Or spinning off that small segment into a separate company with not enough of a fund due to "optimistic" estimates and then having that portion go bankrupt? And meanwhile someone else will also put out a product with the same 25y warranty, where say 25% of products will fail within 10-15y and they are banking on people not to actually return them, and hence they can sell them cheaper. And so you get outcompeted on price.
7Vanilla_cabs3moI don't think the reason for planned obsolescence is that it saves expenses designing products this way. Sometimes, they design appliance so that a small part breaks after a specific time (not too long after the warranty expires). This requires special effort. I think the problem, for the manufacturer, of making durable products is that you're succeeding your way out of business. If consumer's needs are met for the decades to come, then there's no need to make more products. We live in an economy were it's not products that are made to meet consumer's needs, but consumer's needs that are shaped (through marketing) to meet production. That's the definition of a consumer society I was taught: growth is driven by consumption.
5Yoav Ravid3moInk Cartidges [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ink_cartridge#Consumer_exploitation_lawsuits] Apple deliberately lowing down phone processors [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batterygate] The planned obsolescence Wikipedia page [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planned_obsolescence]has more examples, I suggest reading it. Exploring the what links here page [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:WhatLinksHere/Planned_obsolescence] can probably bring more specific examples.

The Phoebus Cartel

The cartel’s grip on the lightbulb market lasted only into the 1930s. Its far more enduring legacy was to engineer a shorter life span for the incandescent lightbulb. By early 1925, this became codified at 1,000 hours for a pear-shaped household bulb, a marked reduction from the 1,500 to 2,000 hours that had previously been common. Cartel members rationalized this approach as a trade-off: Their lightbulbs were of a higher quality, more efficient, and brighter burning than other bulbs. They also cost a lot more. Indeed, all evidence points

... (read more)
3Bezzi3moBecause Moloch. If at least one major manufacturer add extra lifespan, that forces the others to compete. But the real profit-maximizing move for major manufacturers as a whole is to conspire into selling short-lived stoves. As for examples, one of my favorites is this [https://www.instructables.com/Samsung-CLP-365-Laser-Printer-DIY-Imaging-Drum-Uni/] (Samsung printers programmed to stop working after a fixed number of prints). The Wikipedia page linked in my first comment contains other examples.
In the shadow of the Great War

Problems do have to be solved case-by-case, but your basic premises and values—philosophy—guides what kind of solutions you will seek, how you evaluate them, and what you will accept.

For instance, to address climate change, how do you feel about seeking abundant, cheap, clean energy via nuclear/solar/geothermal? Carbon capture? Geoengineering? Degrowth? Those are very different approaches.

In the shadow of the Great War

I think the relationship between the philosophy of progress and actual progress is reciprocal. When people believe in progress, they do more of it; and when they see it working, they believe in it.

Note that the idea of progress arguably began around the time of Bacon, which was more than a century before the Industrial Revolution.

Didn't the philosophy of progress fade when technological innovation started producing dangers and destructions that were more obvious and dramatic and story-friendly, and hit people where they live on a daily basis?

Yes, but. Hist... (read more)

4AllAmericanBreakfast3moThis seems connected to the broader question of the relationship between ideologies and human actions or social structures more generally. What forces generate, develop, and spread an ideology? How do social forces and the physical environment in turn affect ideology? I'm sure there must be some substantial literature on this, though I wouldn't know how to judge its accuracy. My guess, though, is that individual people have intuitions both about the general average level of ideological potency, and also about the relative level of potencies between ideologies. I don't really know how this is viewed by scholars, and it seems likely to me that scholars and non-scholars alike will claim that ideologies are more or less potent as a persuasive tactic or affiliation signal. Without being confident about this at all, my perception is that "progress" is not viewed as a default-favorable ideology amongst scholars. In my world (biomedical engineering), there's a deep-seated respect for progress, but it's never couched in such lofty terms. We use words like "cool," and "exciting," and "fascinating," but we usually are a bit sarcastic about the real-world impact of our research. It has a sexy end-goal (curing various diseases, creating novel bio-sensors, etc), but we're currently tinkering with lots of optimizations and mechanistic questions in mice, and need to primarily focus on next steps. Every new person in the lab comes in excited to cure disease X, and we have to talk them into accepting that their role right now is to optimize the size of hydrogel beads. So I also suspect that an unaddressed wrinkle is that the people who are professionally invested in creating "progress" have a nuanced opinion on it as a concept. It wasn't the word "progress" that got me into this field, but it was the spirit behind the word that served as a bridge from my former profession into this one. It might be useful to distinguish between "progress" as a way to motivate people to pursue a
How factories were made safe

To be clear, you're quoting a sentence from a paragraph that I described as “one possible narrative”, in a section where I described two opposing narratives and then explored which aspects of each seemed to be supported by this story.

I do think that safety measures could have begun earlier. See my reply to jpsmith: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/DQKgYhEYP86PLW7tZ/how-factories-were-made-safe?commentId=wAPgdiJNHsYewmrzi

How factories were made safe

I think of “externality” as roughly equivalent to “you hurt someone and you didn't have to pay for it.” If a workplace is neglectful of safety, and the worker gets hurt, and the employer doesn't have to pay, that seems like an externality?

9philh4moCaveat that I'm not an economist, but my sense is that's not a great way to think about externalities. The problem is, what does it mean to "pay for" something? If I buy a bag of chips, did I pay 50¢ for the taste and feeling of satiation, and also get an increased risk of heart disease? Or did I pay "50¢ plus increased risk of heart disease" for those things? If people who went to work in a steel mill knew that it had a higher risk of dying than other jobs that were available, maybe they decided that they were being fairly compensated for the risk of death? (Even if they did decide that, that doesn't mean these changes were bad.) Wikipedia has it [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality] that an externality is "a cost or benefit for a third party who did not agree to it". (Benefits come from e.g. vaccines, where I might get one for selfish reasons but it happens to protect those around me.) In this case, there might be a question about whether the steel workers agreed to the cost, but they're not a third party. And whether they're a third party matters, I think, because if we decide there's an unfair outcome happening, the tools available to us depend a lot on whether the person being harmed gets a say in the matter. Things like nutritional info, energy ratings, "smoking causes lung cancer" warnings, are ways to help people decide what is or isn't worth it for them, but they mostly only help the person deciding whether or not to buy something. ("Mostly" because health and energy usage do have their own externalities.) If we want to help someone who doesn't get a say in the transaction, we apply different tools, like taxes and regulation. (I guess I've changed position from my previous comment, I now just think "no, this isn't an externality". Workers resisting safety measures is important, like it feels like the kind of thing that if you apply economic tools to make predictions it's not at all what you'd expect and it seems like this points at an important l
How factories were made safe

I don't think it would have significantly slowed things down. I think the costs to employers went from like a fraction of a percent of payroll to a few percent. It was a big relative increase, but still a fairly small cost overall. But it was just big enough to make them say “we should have a safety department.”

How factories were made safe

I'm not sure if there was a specific more-radical proposal on the table, or if that was just a general concern of the businesses. If there was one, I haven't encountered it.

Again, the labor unions actually were originally for the less-radical proposal of simply reforming the tort system (taking away some employer protections) without going all the way to a no-fault system.

The workers themselves seem mostly focused on pay, hours, and other more tangible things.

5Viliam4moI think Orwell already commented on how left-wing activists speaking on behalf of the working class typically propose dramatic redesigns of the system, while workers typically want... kinda the same thing, only with more pay, more vacation, less abuse, etc. (Connotationally, I am not mentioning this to say that the left-wing activists are therefore wrong. Some redesign may be needed to switch things to a different equilibrium, while quantitative improvements may slowly revert, e.g. the pay increase will soon be eaten by inflation.)
How factories were made safe

Did you read all the way to the end? I feel this was addressed in the last few paragraphs.

(Incidentally, many if not most businesses were in favor of the workers' comp law, even though they knew it would raise their costs. In part that was because they thought it would improve labor relations, although it also may have been because they thought some reform was inevitable and they wanted something moderate to pass before something radical came along. Re labor unions, many of them were actually against workers' comp at first, although Samuel Gompers of the AFL then changed his mind and became for it.)

1gbear6054moI did, and I appreciated that you (to the extent you identify with Carla the Capitalist) gave thanks to the people who you oppose ideologically but appreciate for their results anyway. Again, I'm woefully uninformed about the history here, but: It sounds like there was support for something that would solve the issues but was more radical than workers comp (and presumably wouldn't include the short term pain for workers, and perhaps would be worse overall because of it). If workers comp wound up being a middle ground that all sides would accept then it seems disingenuous to discount worker support for a more radical solution when the compromise worked. Of course, if that's an inaccurate view of the history and the workers and their advocates were really just poorly educated and misinformed about safety, let's hope that they're more informed in our modern day and on other issues.
How factories were made safe

I think there is a clear line. If you take the job at 20 hours/day, you know what you've signed up for. You didn't sign up to be injured in an accident. The liability for that needs to fall somewhere.

(You could argue that workers signed up for certain risks, and this is exactly what employers used to argue in many cases. And I'm not 100% sure that's wrong. So I am still slightly ambivalent about this.)

3AllAmericanBreakfast4moIs a person's level of responsibility for the risks they assume proportional to the level of knowledge they had about those risks in advance? Here's a line of thinking we might imagine in the mind of a worker taking full personal responsibility for an unknown level of risk: I need a job, and working in the steel mill seems like good-paying work. But I know that people get hurt or killed there, sometimes. I'll try to be careful, but I can't control what other people do, and the equipment isn't too reliable either. Plus, I might have a bad day, be forgetful, and cause a disaster. I don't want to die for this job. But I don't know how likely it is that I'll get hurt or killed, and it's hard for me to say whether or not, if I really knew my true chances, I'd feel this was the job for me... I guess I'll do it, though. What am I going to do otherwise? Something else that's just as dangerous? Or lower-paying? This line of thinking seems like a plausible account of how a cautious person might have tried to do a risk assessment for factory work. I don't look at it and think "clearly, this man is fully liable for anything that happens to him in the steel mill." Nor do I look at it and think, "anything that happens to this man is his employer's moral and fiscal responsibility." Instead, I tend to think that we should do our best to get an expert assessment of the risk, make the factory as safe as we can, create a culture of safety, and take care of people who get hurt - both for their sake and so that we can keep a feeling of relative confidence in the workers who will continue to do the job after one of their colleagues suffers an accident. Having the moral debate is a symptom that your system has broken down and can't find a satisfactory deal for everybody. It feels like camoflage for a business negotiation rather than a true intellectual debate. Real progress is having to have fewer moral debates.
We need a new philosophy of progress

I don't think the data is cherry-picked, but you could argue with some of his statistical analysis. He lays it all out pretty clearly though, so the book is valuable to read even if you disagree in the end.

He covers violent crime (which would include bar fights) as well.

We need a new philosophy of progress

I haven't covered it yet, but Works in Progress magazine did something on ozone: https://www.worksinprogress.co/issue/how-we-fixed-the-ozone-layer/

I've recently been studying the history of factory accident rates and factory safety, hope to have something on this soon.

1ADifferentAnonymous5moPerfect! Glad to know you're on it.
We need a new philosophy of progress

Sure, a crucial question is whether (and to what extent, and in what way) progress in science, technology, industry, and the economy leads to human well-being. That is at the core of what any philosophy of progress should address

We need a new philosophy of progress

I think the starting point is to examine the moral progress that's been made so far in history, and try to figure out how it happens. The best stuff I've read on this so far is from Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature and parts of Enlightenment Now).

8JenniferRM5moI haven't read Pinker's "Better Angels" but I've heard that it is both (1) hopeful and (2) potentially has some cherry-picked data? (The caveman stuff I think is very plausible. It is the post-1800 stuff that I think might be cherry-picked.) Do you think I should read it directly and trust that the data and stats are clean, or should it be mixed somehow with other content. I'd love to get a "highlights and lowlights" summary by someone with epistemic rigor such that I could save time and avoid reading it myself <3 Before that book came out, my working theory was less optimistic, and more straightforward and grew out of the intellectual tradition of Lewis Richardson [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Fry_Richardson]'s pacificism-motivated war (or peace) studies work, where a stationary statistical distribution is assumed (thus we assume no moral progress?) unless it can be positively proven and attributed to something. Here is a modern example of research on the causal structure of war [https://arxiv.org/abs/1901.05086] which suggests that if an-event-plausibly-describable-as-WW3 does not occur until after roughly 2103-2163, then we could decisively say that the post-WW2-Long-Peace is a true deviation from historical trends based on some enduring change to the statistical distribution from which actual historical wars may have been sampled since the invention of muskets and cannons and so on. Aaron Clauset's discussion section is interesting here: My own tendency is just to treat nearly all violence as "just violence" and so if two guys get in a fight in a bar, and their buddies jump in and start fighting "anyone who isn't a buddy of mine" (no personal beefs, but rather treating others merely as members of an enemy group), and 3 people die in that bar fight, then I'd model that as a battle with 3 casualties. If there's a shooting later that kills 7, inspired by that fight, that's another battle with 7 casualties, which is arguably a continuation of the "war"(
We need a new philosophy of progress

We need understanding, yes. As to whether we need optimism, that depends what kind of optimism you're talking about. I've distinguished between descriptive and prescriptive optimism: https://rootsofprogress.org/descriptive-vs-prescriptive-optimism

Descriptive optimism is contingent: it's an assessment about the world (or a part of it), and so it's only warranted when it's true. There are many aspects of the world that I am descriptively pessimistic about.

But prescriptive optimism is an attitude, a choice. It says that we're going to work hard to solve probl... (read more)

The Roots of Progress is now a nonprofit organization

Thanks!

It's true in the past, that many scientists and engineers were independently wealthy (and yes, often though not always through inheritance). Others had patrons or got jobs as assistants to other scientists. More here: https://rootsofprogress.org/funding-models-for-science-and-innovation

Today there's a set of institutions to support science and a whole career path based on them. What remaining important work is there that's not being rewarded? I don't know off the top of my head. My guess is that it's something that most people don't think about and ... (read more)

2ChristianKl5moAcademic science works for learning about objective knowledge. It works less well for learning subjective knowledge like skills. If we look at the question like how one becomes a good software engineer, academia does pretty purely at answering the question. We have inadequate equilibria where nobody is payed to solve it but it's possible for someone who's not payed to organize solving it.
We need a new philosophy of progress

But there are two kinds of “vision of the future”. One is a descriptive/predictive vision: where are we going, what direction are we headed? That kind of vision ought to be accurate.

The other is a prescriptive/aspirational vision: what should we work towards? What would be ideal? That's the kind I meant when I said “hold up a positive vision of the future”.

More: https://rootsofprogress.org/descriptive-vs-prescriptive-optimism 

We need a new philosophy of progress

First, I started the research back in ~2017. I'm not writing from a position of total ignorance here.

Look, there are some times where a tough situation means that the rational choice is to accept hardship in order to avoid a worse outcome. Covid is a good example: isolation/“lockdown” measures made sense at least in the early part of the pandemic, despite the hit to the economy and to people's lives.

But (to continue the analogy) the harm to human life from permanent lockdown would be so vast that it doesn't make sense to entertain until you've tried everyt... (read more)

We need a new philosophy of progress

That's very interesting, I didn't know that this was covered in Fukuyama or that he also identified the world wars as a turning point. Will have to bump that up in my reading list, thank you.

Winston Churchill, futurist and EA

Whoops! Correct, I meant the other way around, will fix

Winston Churchill, futurist and EA

It was just a cheeky headline, wasn't meant seriously

1Josh Jacobson6moMakes sense; I think it's nice for that to now be explicit.
8TurnTrout6moEven so, I also think "Winston Churchill, Futurist" makes more sense and better describes the content of your post.
Why haven't we celebrated any major achievements lately?

I'm not sure that's really different from the polio story. The world knew that polio vaccines were under development. They knew a big clinical trial was underway starting in 1954. There was a date announced ahead of time when the results of the trial would be announced (April 12, 1955). This seems similar to there being an announcement in the news of the first results of a covid vaccine trial.

1cj2002066moFair enough. I was solely relying on the literal context of the quoted passage from Breakthrough, “...On April 12, 1955, the world learned that a vaccine developed by Jonas Edward Salk, M.D., could be relied upon to prevent paralytic poliomyelitis.” Thanks for the response.
Why did we wait so long for the threshing machine?

Taking a machine around to different farms did actually happen, once portable machines were made (which was not always trivial). See my reply to @ChristianKl

Why did we wait so long for the threshing machine?

Good question. I think what happened instead is that farmers with threshing machines would rent them out to those without, or people would bring portable machines around to farms—see my reply to @ChristianKl.

Why did it happen that way? Not sure. Maybe transportation costs, which were high. Grain is much more compact and high value-density than unthreshed bundles of wheat. Makes more sense to thresh it on-location before transporting it anywhere.

Oh, also—farmers used the straw! For animal bedding, to mix with manure, etc. It really doesn't make sense to transport stalks to a central location, and then send the straw back.

Precognition

Yeah, it was a pithy tweet-length opener. To be precise, it's unnecessary to have a perfect model of the future / predict it with anything near 100% accuracy, or to have any appreciable degree of accuracy on the long-term future.

3velcro7moI agree.
Why did we wait so long for the threshing machine?

Historically, something somewhat different happened: if one farmer owned a threshing machine, other farmers might bring their grain to him and rent time on the machine.

Or, when portable threshing machines were built, someone would travel around to different farms and thresh there for a fee, then move on.

(But a portable machine was nontrivial, especially when the machines were horse-powered, check out this diagram [from this source]—a horse was hooked up to that harness at letter H on the diagram, so you can get a sense of how big that thing was. That model... (read more)

Why did we wait so long for the threshing machine?

In practice, I don't think it worked that way. If the machine broke, it was not at all easy to repair; you couldn't just factor in a maintenance cost. And if the machine damaged or lost grain, it was worse than useless.

Good question about looms/mills, I don't know. Before the 1800s or so, I think looms were mostly owned by weavers who worked from home. There was no “specialist on site”. But I don't think they broke much, because there weren't high forces involved. (In the late 1800s, when large power looms were set up in factories such as those at Lowell, ... (read more)

3Ericf7moprevious standards of quality (that can be achieved by manual labor) tend to set a quality bar that machines have to meet before they are adopted. People don't like reducing quality, even if the efficiency gain theoretically makes up for it. At least, that's how it seemed to be in the early days of mechanization. That's how it still is, at least in some industries. People hate going backwards in any metric (or software feature)
Why did we wait so long for the threshing machine?

See my reply to @johnswentworth re other benefits of the threshing machine, beyond labor-saving, and evidence that farmers were keenly interested in it.

For looms, rather than comparing loom to no loom, compare the frame looms available in 1700 to the weighted vertical looms or back strap looms from long before. For the printing press, I don't see how this is different. Books were not impossible to make; scribes made them by hand. Again, it was an efficiency gain.

You might be right that something like the spinning wheel, for example, had a stronger economic incentive than a threshing machine. I just don't think that's the main explanation for why it took ~50 years for the technology to diffuse rather than say 20–30.

Why did we wait so long for the threshing machine?

This doesn't match with what I've read by and about farmers, at least not in the place and time of interest (Britain and US, late 18C on). Farmers were quite interested in improving yields and efficiency. There were many journals devoted to it and many experimental machines and techniques being tried. Capital was a limitation, but many farmers had nonzero capital.

Why did we wait so long for the threshing machine?

Good thoughts. You're right that a threshing machine only applies to a portion of agricultural labor, for part of the year. (Then again, weaving is only a portion of the textile manufacturing process, and printing is only a portion of the book-making process.)

My first reaction is that there is lots of evidence of farmers being actively interested in threshing machines. See that block quote from McClelland about how many things George Washington tried. Farmer's journals have lots of stories about them. They got exhibited at fairs. When the compilation of Th... (read more)

2johnswentworth7moViewed another way, the reliability issue is itself a cost issue: sufficiently frequent maintenance could presumably substitute for more robust machinery, if the cost were worthwhile. That raises a question for comparison: how much maintenance did looms or mills require? I would guess the more complicated 17th or 18th-century looms must have needed a ton, presumably from specialists on-site. Likewise, I assume mills usually had someone on-site who handled basic maintenance (among other roles). Possibly the rural location of farms made them less suited to on-site specialists for maintenance, or possibly the maintenance cost was just too high for the ROI. (My inner economist is saying something like "the technology will be adopted iff benefit > (up-front cost)*(interest rate) + maintenance cost". That's a large oversimplification in a world with underdeveloped capital markets, but still seems like a useful framing. We just have to think a little more carefully about what e.g. "interest rate" - i.e. opportunity cost of capital investment per unit time - really corresponds to in this context.)
Epistemic standards for “Why did it take so long to invent X?”

Well, people could barely get computers working with electromechanical parts in the 1930s, and those machines weren't very practical. Just seems impossible on the face of it that you could get something serious working 100 years earlier.

The Difference Engine, as you correctly point out, was much more feasible, and Babbage probably could have finished building it, if he hadn't fumbled the project.

2Douglas_Knight8moThat sounds like an outside view argument, making the use of the example in general argument purely circular. I don't point out that the Difference Engine was more feasible. I specifically asked you for such an argument and you sidestepped. I don't think anyone has ever made such an argument. I only point out that the Difference Engine was feasible, which is an independent claim. For a century people claimed that Babbage's designs were infeasible. This proves too much. Would you have made that mistake? If the construction disproved the conventional wisdom, it is not enough to minimally adjust your conclusions to avoid the falsehoods, but to adjust your methods.
Epistemic standards for “Why did it take so long to invent X?”

Thanks.

Re Hero's Engine, that's an interesting reference. Is there any evidence that this was ever built? (Old inventors drew up a lot of plans that were never implemented and may not even have worked.)

Re Babbage: The Difference Engine was not a computer. It was a calculating machine, but it was not programmable or general-purpose. (The Analytic Engine would have been a computer, but Babbage never even finished designing it.)

2Douglas_Knight8moSure, Babbage didn't finish the design, but how to you justify Do you claim that to distinguish the technology necessary for the two machines?
How counting neutrons explains nuclear waste

Not exactly, although neutron flux is a way to measure radiation

How counting neutrons explains nuclear waste

Note that lead-208 is at a “double magic number”, with a complete shell of neutrons and also of protons. Beyond that you don't get the extra stability from completing a shell

2Adele Lopez8moYeah, but it's surprising that it doesn't begin until after Bismuth, given that. It seems like it skips one on the neutron side as well. Does the shell theory explain why it becomes unusually unstable once there's two neutrons past the shell (and not when there's two protons past the shell)? And also, why does the decay mode suddenly change to alpha particles? I guess the alpha particle decay becoming favorable explains why it "skips one" on each side, and perhaps since He_4 is also doubly magic, maybe that's why it prefers to do alpha decay in this region.
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