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Posts Tagged ‘progress

“Any solution is all too likely to become the next problem”*…




One of today’s defining paradoxes is the contrast between the massive abundance of everything digital and the relative stasis, or even decline, of so much else. Software hasn’t meaningfully improved the world’s physical infrastructure even as it builds increasingly refined interfaces, networks, and marketplaces on top of that infrastructure. I currently have a thousand lifetimes worth of (effectively free) entertainment at my fingertips, but getting to the airport still takes as long as it would have thirty years ago.

Information seems infinite relative to more tangible resources, but it’s not. Digital scarcity is less visible than the physical kind, but no less real. James Bridle observes in his book New Dark Age that while computation contributes to climate change, on one hand—data centers consume a growing percentage of the world’s energy—computation itself is also constrained by a warming planet: The strength of wireless transmission will actually decline as atmospheric temperatures rise, while much of the internet’s supporting hardware—subterranean fiberoptic tubes and undersea cable landing sites—is vulnerable to damage from rising sea levels. In a way, exponential information growth is threatening its own future.

A century ago, driving felt as boundless as computation does now. As a result, we built the whole world around cars, and have since struggled to unwind that effort now that we know better. It’s possible we’re making a similar mistake today, unable to imagine a less abundant future, with digital traffic jams just around the corner…

Drew Austin, editor of the urban transportation newsletter Kneeling Bus. in a edition of another wonderful newsletter, The Prepared.

[image above: source]

* your correspondent


As we rein in our enthusiasms, we might recall that it was on this date in 455 that the Vandals entered Rome, which they plundered for the next two weeks.  It was, as sackings went (this was Rome’s third, of four altogether), relatively “light”:  while the Vandals (who had destroyed all of Rome’s aqueducts on their approach) looted Roman treasure and sold many Romans into slavery, their leader Genseric acceded to Pope Leo’s plea that he refrain from the wholesale slaughter of Rome’s population and destruction of the Eternal City’s historic buildings.


Genseric sacking Rome, by Karl Briullov



Written by LW

June 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”*…


As the number of researcher has grown, the productivity of research has fallen according to a graph in “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, by economists Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones, John Van Reenen and Michael Webb. Credit: Charles I. Jones

Once again, I’m brooding over science’s limits. I recently posted Q&As with three physicists with strong opinions on the topic–David DeutschMarcelo Gleiser and Martin Rees–as well as this column: “Is Science Infinite?” Then in March I attended a two-day brainstorming session–which I’ll call “The Session”–with 20 or so science-y folks over whether science is slowing down and what we can do about it.

The Session was inspired in part by research suggesting that scientific progress is stagnating. In “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, four economists claim that “a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms show[s] that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.” The economists are Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones and Michael Webb of Stanford and John Van Reenen of MIT.

As an counter-intuitive example, they cite Moore’s Law, noting that the “number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling every two years of the density of computer chips is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s.” The researchers found similar trends in research related to agriculture and medicine. More and more research on cancer and other illnesses has produced fewer and fewer lives saved.

These findings corroborate analyses presented by economists Robert Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth and Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation. Bloom, Jones, Webb and Van Reenen also cite “The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder?”, a 2009 paper by Benjamin Jones. He presents evidence that would-be innovators require more training and specialization to reach the frontier of a given field. Research teams are also getting bigger, and the number of patents per researcher has declined.

The economists are concerned primarily with what I would call applied science, the kind that fuels economic growth and increases wealth, health and living standards. Advances in medicine, transportation, agriculture, communication, manufacturing and so on. But their findings resonate with my claim in The End of Science that “pure” science—the effort simply to understand rather than manipulate nature–is bumping into limits…

John Horgan unpacks some of the dynamics that lead him to his gloomy conclusion in “Is science hitting a wall?”  It’s a fascinating, illuminating, and eminently worth the read… even if in the end it’s unconvincing, to your correspondent at least.

Readers might note that analogous sentiments reigned at the end of the 19th century (as per the quote that provides this post’s title).  Max Planck recalled being discouraged by a teacher (around 1875) from pursuing physics: “in this field,”  Philipp von Jolly told Planck, “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.”  Planck ignored his advice– and became one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, which gave physics a very rich new life during the 20th century.  As we contemplate with Horgan the possible  “end” of its utility, we might take some consolation that brave new models are emerging, theories that might power physics– and science more generally– for at least another century.  Consider, for example, the theory that Stephen Hawking published two weeks before his death, proposing a method of detecting “the multiverse.”

* a quote widely– and incorrectly– attributed to William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, circa 1900.  It is actually a paraphrase of aa 1894 statement made by another great physicist,  Albert A. Michelson.


As we ponder progress, we might spare a thought for Benjamin Franklin; he died on this date in 1790.  One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin was a renowned polymath: a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity.  As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod and the Franklin stove, among other innovations.   And as a social entrepreneur (who grasped the fact that by united effort a community could have amenities which only the wealthy few can afford for themselves), he helped establish several institutions people now take for granted: a fire company (1736), a library (1731), an insurance company (1752), an academy (the University of Pennsylvania, 1751), a hospital (1751), and the U.S. Postal Service (starting as postmaster of the Colonies in 1753, then becoming U.S. Postmaster during the Revolution).  In most cases these foundations were the first of their kind in North America.



Written by LW

April 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much it is whether we provide enough for those who have little”*…


When I published Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think in February 2012, I included about 80 charts in the back of the book showing very strong evidence that the world is getting better. Over the last five years, this trend has continued and accelerated.

This page includes charts and graphs that you can share with friends and family to change their mindset. We truly are living in the most exciting time to be alive…

In “answer” to yesterday’s excursion into dystopia, a collection of evidence from Peter Diamandis that things are on the upswing: “Evidence of Abundance.”

* Franklin D. Roosevelt


As we look on the bright side, we might recall that it was on this date in 1968 that Jimi Hendrix played Philharmonic Hall in New York.  The concert, “An Electronic Thanksgiving,” was originally planned for Carnegie Hall, but the managers there got cold feet, fearful of a rowdy audience.  Promoter Ron Delsener scrambled:

I had to convince Louise Homer, who was the Director of Philharmonic Hall,
that I had to ‘marry’ Rock and Roll to classical music (eclectic music). I then moved the event to Philharmonic Hall… I had to do everything to convince them. I had to hire The New York Brass Quintet and a harpsichord virtuoso (therefore, an eclectic evening). Both would play during the first half of the program. They would be joined by one or two of Jimi’s musicians on several selections.

I informed Michael Jeffery, as well as the attorney, Stevens Weiss, that Noel and/or Mitch must play during the first half of the program for several numbers with a classical group. Naturally, the show went on sale, sold out, and no one wanted to play the first half of the program with the classical musicians.

I begged Mitch Mitchell to please sit in and ‘fake it’ as best as he could, which he did much to the delight of the audience. To Mitch, it was a ‘goof,’ to me it was a lifesaver. To the ushers at Philharmonic Hall, it was a frightening experience because everyone stood in front of their seats for the entire show and clogged all the aisles leading to the stage. [source]


Written by LW

November 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable”*…


… but happily, progress is made.

As we fight hangovers (both from New Years festivities and from the slow-motion train wreck that was 2016), Max Roser reminds us that in many critical dimensions life has gotten better- much better– around the world… and he reminds us why it’s so very important that we understand this

A history of global living conditions in 5 charts.”

* “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”   ― Martin Luther King, Jr.


As we look on the bright side, we might that it was on this date in 1890 that E.A. McIlhenny, the son of Tabasco brand pepper sauce inventor Edmund McIlhenny and manager of the family condiment empire, shot and killed a 19′ 1″ long alligator, reputedly the longest American alligator ever recorded.  McIlhenny, who was an amateur naturalist and conservationist, made the claim in one of his four books, The Alligator’s Life History.



Written by LW

January 2, 2017 at 1:01 am

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