Posts

Progress: Fluke or trend? 2020-09-13T00:21:36.025Z · score: 16 (9 votes)
Indignation in response to the 1890 census 2020-09-08T20:14:30.619Z · score: 24 (9 votes)
Study Group for Progress – 50% off for LessWrongers 2020-09-03T00:17:10.030Z · score: 15 (4 votes)
19th-century progress studies 2020-08-27T02:28:29.765Z · score: 29 (13 votes)
Why haven't we celebrated any major achievements lately? 2020-08-17T20:34:20.084Z · score: 128 (60 votes)
Announcing the Study Group for Progress 2020-08-14T20:18:52.521Z · score: 12 (2 votes)
How to analyze progress, stagnation, and low-hanging fruit 2020-06-15T21:02:46.969Z · score: 39 (13 votes)
Pasteur's quadrant 2020-06-05T17:47:58.569Z · score: 33 (12 votes)
Shuttling between science and invention 2020-05-27T21:25:23.037Z · score: 34 (11 votes)
Announcing Progress Studies for Young Scholars, an online summer program in the history of technology 2020-05-20T00:52:53.706Z · score: 19 (4 votes)
How can nonprofits gain the advantages of the for-profit model? 2020-05-06T01:15:18.507Z · score: 36 (14 votes)
Why anything that can be for-profit, should be 2020-04-29T20:00:09.048Z · score: 50 (22 votes)
Over $1,000,000 in prizes for COVID-19 work from Emergent Ventures 2020-03-13T15:46:33.921Z · score: 23 (11 votes)
Epistemic standards for “Why did it take so long to invent X?” 2020-03-02T18:58:42.783Z · score: 87 (34 votes)
Draining the swamp 2020-01-28T21:37:03.542Z · score: 91 (23 votes)
More on polio and randomized clinical trials 2019-12-27T21:07:02.340Z · score: 20 (6 votes)
Polio and the controversy over randomized clinical trials 2019-12-20T19:49:44.991Z · score: 19 (5 votes)
Were vaccines relevant to 20th century US mortality improvements? 2019-12-10T00:13:46.593Z · score: 12 (6 votes)
A letter on optimism about human progress 2019-12-04T04:21:42.033Z · score: 34 (14 votes)
Instant stone (just add water!) 2019-11-13T22:33:39.903Z · score: 75 (30 votes)
Iron: From mythical to mundane 2019-10-24T22:43:45.898Z · score: 21 (8 votes)
Turning air into bread 2019-10-21T17:50:00.117Z · score: 88 (40 votes)

Comments

Comment by jasoncrawford on Progress: Fluke or trend? · 2020-09-14T01:43:46.429Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe, what would that mean exactly? Or what's an example of how that could be the case?

Comment by jasoncrawford on Progress: Fluke or trend? · 2020-09-13T01:20:06.295Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Good point. Maybe I should have said, we have to believe that there is at least a chance that it wasn't a fluke.

If you are pretty sure it's a fluke, then what is there to study, and why bother?

On the other hand, if you're certain it's a trend, there is still a lot to study: What caused the trend? How much control do we have over the causes? Etc.

I agree that, if progress was somehow a fluke, then progress studies would ideally find that out. We should follow reason wherever it leads, and be open to the truth whatever it is.

But I think the motivation for the field is the idea that it's not a fluke, and empirically it seems to me that most people interested in the field see it as a trend.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Were vaccines relevant to 20th century US mortality improvements? · 2020-09-11T18:30:22.966Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I've done more research since I wrote this. I'm not sure if this is true “for almost every viral disease with a vaccine”, but it might be true for many or most of them.

The big ones I know of where it's not true are smallpox and polio. Smallpox we don't have great data on because its vaccine was invented so early (1700s), but there's no reason to believe that its mortality rate was dropping significantly; in general big mortality rate drops didn't occur until later.

Polio we do have good data on, and it's clear that the epidemics continued, and indeed got worse, until the introduction of the vaccine in 1955. Polio is something of a special case in that it was not improved by sanitation.

Other diseases seem to have been ameliorated through sanitation, hygiene, and perhaps nutrition. I go into more detail on this in “Draining the swamp: How sanitation fought disease long before vaccines or antibiotics”.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Why haven't we celebrated any major achievements lately? · 2020-09-10T14:47:27.440Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I disagree, there are plenty of problems left to solve: https://rootsofprogress.org/the-plight-of-the-poor

Comment by jasoncrawford on Study Group for Progress – 50% off for LessWrongers · 2020-09-05T00:42:52.331Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, we'll offer a full refund if you drop out before the third session (that is, you get to try to first two) with no risk. Thanks!

Comment by jasoncrawford on Rereading Atlas Shrugged · 2020-08-27T02:25:24.173Z · score: 2 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Very thoughtful and insightful post, thanks. I'm a big fan of Atlas Shrugged and have read it a few times, although the latest was many years ago. I agree with a lot of what you say here, especially about metaphysics and epistemology being fundamental.

However, I see the notion of the strike as a fantasy idea. Rand herself actually called it a “fantastic premise”. It was meant to dramatize the role of scientists, inventors and industrialists as heroes that society depends on. And it was conceived in the 1940s, when labor strikes were prominent in the news. Basically, instead of a labor strike, Rand asked, what if the thinkers went on strike?

In reality, the strike would never work, because the actual leaders of industrial society aren't all implicit Objectivists, and can't be convinced even in one of John Galt's three-hour conversations. And worse, if it did work, I think it would be an utter disaster—society would collapse, and it would not be easy for the strikers to come back and pick up the pieces.

But none of that matters to me, because the novel isn't meant as a practical plan for revolution, any more than Batman is meant as a realistic model for fighting crime. The value of the book, to me, is the depiction of scientific/industrial achievement as a romantic, noble quest, and (as you note) the relationship of that to a certain way of facing reality and truth.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Why haven't we celebrated any major achievements lately? · 2020-08-24T15:00:18.100Z · score: 18 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I love this, and I actually think it's a very relevant comment! A poem like this is a type of celebration.

It reminds me that at the Golden Gate Bridge, there is a statue of the chief engineer, Joseph Strauss, with an inscription that reads:

Here at the Golden Gate is the eternal rainbow that he conceived and set to form a promise indeed that the race of man shall endure unto the ages.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Why haven't we celebrated any major achievements lately? · 2020-08-18T17:16:02.248Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If you want to see “creativity”, here is a book apparently by a US doctor and printed by a major US publisher that argues against the germ theory, claims Pasteur renounced it on his deathbed, and suggests that covid is due to “electromagnetic pollution” (including of course 5G): https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Contagion-Myth/Thomas-S-Cowan/9781510764620

Comment by jasoncrawford on How to analyze progress, stagnation, and low-hanging fruit · 2020-06-16T15:36:22.794Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Oh that's weird. I thought they hadn't gotten pasted in properly, so I did them again. Must be an editor bug. Will fix, thanks

Comment by jasoncrawford on Why anything that can be for-profit, should be · 2020-05-01T22:51:14.896Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

All of these examples apply differently:

  • Lack of patent protection does not stop a nonprofit from sponsoring research to run a clinical trial for a repurposed drug
  • Regulation on insurance offerings doesn't stop a nonprofit from paying for people's health care as a charity
  • Free public schools don't stop a charity from offering an alternative free school

In each case, if a nonprofit wants to offer a product/service, they can do so, but the corresponding opportunities to offer the same product/service on a for-profit basis are prevented by the structural barriers.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Why anything that can be for-profit, should be · 2020-04-30T21:08:40.904Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My sense is that they don't care nearly enough.

How could we find evidence one way or another?

Comment by jasoncrawford on Why anything that can be for-profit, should be · 2020-04-30T21:07:58.869Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I have started nonprofits, and worked closely with others.

I have also seen nonprofits that produce a lot of material that no one reads and that has no impact, but that keep getting donations from donors who aren't paying much attention to impact, or who rationalize away the lack of it.

Examples of structural barriers:

  • Lack of patent protection, e.g., ability to obtain and enforce patent on repurposed drugs (example I mentioned and linked to in the article)
  • Regulation: e.g., many health insurance products you might want to create are illegal
  • Free public alternatives: e.g., it's hard to profit in K–12 education because of public schools, making private school a premium/luxury product for the rich; something like tax credits for private school could alleviate this
Comment by jasoncrawford on Why anything that can be for-profit, should be · 2020-04-30T19:45:41.667Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm talking about organizations, not individuals.

Re war, I just didn't analyze that here. It's worth analyzing how that changes selective pressures, and more generally how government organizations fit into this analysis, but I just didn't cover that.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Why anything that can be for-profit, should be · 2020-04-30T19:20:03.626Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Of course people do things for different motivations. But the people who make money (whether or not that is their motivation) are the ones who get to keep doing their thing. So the ecosystem selects for those who make money.

Re war, that is outside my analysis.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Why anything that can be for-profit, should be · 2020-04-30T19:13:20.048Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Technically nonprofit doesn't mean you can't make a profit. It just means you can't distribute that profit, the way a for-profit pays dividends. You have to use any profit for operations.

I was mostly analyzing nonprofits that don't charge for services. In the case of a nonprofit that charges, and does not rely on external donations, then the “product loop” is much more intact. In that case it's only the investor loop, the “return loop” that is still problematic.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Why anything that can be for-profit, should be · 2020-04-30T19:11:06.068Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As an example, some years ago I had some friends who wanted to create curriculum material, I think aimed at homeschoolers. They were thinking of setting it up as a nonprofit. I counseled them to make it for-profit, because it would force them to find a market and have more impact. They did and told me recently that this made a big difference for them.

But an even bigger lesson here is that we should look for structural barriers to for-profits. This could mean legal changes (e.g., in patent protection); creative new business models that challenge the structure of entire industries; etc.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Why anything that can be for-profit, should be · 2020-04-30T19:00:04.967Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

My reaction would be that a vaccine should be made for profit; if there are people who can't afford it there should be a charity to buy the vaccine for them.

Re fraud, etc.: Money doesn't *force* people to be honest. Nothing can do that. But it is much easier to fudge things that can't be quantified.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Why anything that can be for-profit, should be · 2020-04-30T18:04:38.554Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This is an interesting point. I'm not sure if this is really another loop, or just part of the “return loop” for investors. M&A is one way that investors realize a return.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Why anything that can be for-profit, should be · 2020-04-30T18:00:12.438Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Any metric can be gamed or can distort behavior, it's true. No metric can substitute for judgment.

Re programmatic evaluation: It's true that nonprofits *can* do this, but that only matters if *donors* on the whole care. This is why I said:

Different entities can have different designs and make different choices, but the laws of nature decide which of them thrive.
Comment by jasoncrawford on Why anything that can be for-profit, should be · 2020-04-30T17:57:26.230Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think “already is” is correct, except where there are barriers: legal, technological, cultural, etc. Remove the barriers (change the law, invent new technology, etc.) and you could open up opportunities for profit.

Where the world at large pays for research results, those fields are privately funded.

Not sure what you mean by this, examples?

Comment by jasoncrawford on Epistemic standards for “Why did it take so long to invent X?” · 2020-03-08T20:26:26.655Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Good point. It did evolve into more than just a convenience for many people. In the beginning, though, it was seen as a leisure activity with no real practical value. And even today its economic and social impact is not as great as, say, textile mechanization. Almost everyone on Earth wears mass-manufactured clothes; only a minority of people use a bicycle for anything other than recreation.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Epistemic standards for “Why did it take so long to invent X?” · 2020-03-06T23:01:47.976Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I would say “context-dependent” perhaps rather than “subjective”.

Re the cotton gin, any good reference on that? The story I read made it sound like a fairly de novo invention.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Epistemic standards for “Why did it take so long to invent X?” · 2020-03-06T04:16:00.769Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks Raemon!

Comment by jasoncrawford on Epistemic standards for “Why did it take so long to invent X?” · 2020-03-03T04:51:25.800Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks! Re formatting, I had help from Oliver Habryka who knows special formatting magic

Comment by jasoncrawford on Were vaccines relevant to 20th century US mortality improvements? · 2019-12-10T06:25:05.414Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Fair enough. Again, I don't know if it's 10%—could be more or even less.

The rest, I think, is mostly from antibiotics, and maybe general hygiene.

The history and causation here is nuanced and difficult. E.g., tuberculosis was basically solved by antibiotics—*but*, it was also declining for many decades *before* that. And I'm not sure if anyone really knows why. Hand-washing? Better diet? Less spitting in the streets? (I'm not kidding, there were actually campaigns to get people to spit less, although I'm not sure if they worked.)

Anyway I'm still researching all this.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Were vaccines relevant to 20th century US mortality improvements? · 2019-12-10T05:35:09.849Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know, that's what some random anti-vaxxer on Twitter claimed. I'm still doing the quantitative investigation. My point is, even if that's true, it's misleading in isolation, and arguably cherry-picked

Comment by jasoncrawford on Instant stone (just add water!) · 2019-11-15T21:45:57.281Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The Venus figurine you linked to is interesting. I knew there were carved figurines that old but not fired ceramic. Maybe Courland is wrong, or maybe he's just talking about kilning (presumably this figurine, dating from over 27 kya, would have been fired on a campfire, not in kiln).

In any case, I wouldn't call the figurine pottery, so maybe what I wrote is still technically correct?

Comment by jasoncrawford on Instant stone (just add water!) · 2019-11-15T21:40:21.303Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

According to Concrete Planet, by Robert Courland, the archaeological site at Göbleki Tepe, c. 9600 BC, shows evidence of lime products (plaster, mortar, and/or concrete). Fired-clay figures (not even pottery) don't show up until Nevali Çori, c. 8600 BC. At least, according to the table on p. 48. On that same page he says that “fired ceramics make an appearance soon after the invention of the limekiln.”

Comment by jasoncrawford on Instant stone (just add water!) · 2019-11-15T17:06:15.274Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Not totally unrecyclable. You can crush concrete and re-use it as aggregate for other concrete, I think.

Not sure if you can re-kiln it to extract fresh lime, but that seems possible in principle. Might just not be worth it right now, given the availability of limestone deposits.

Recycling is not always better than alternatives, it's just one option among many. If the economics don't make sense then there's no reason to do it.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Turning air into bread · 2019-10-30T21:29:23.247Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Agree. We have barely scratched the surface, literally, of one planet in one solar system. We use a tiny percentage of the energy from the one star closest to us. The amount of mass and energy available to us is so many orders of magnitude beyond our current usage that in discussing 21st-century industrial policy it's effectively infinite.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Turning air into bread · 2019-10-30T18:45:22.846Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Do you see any downsides at all to “slowing down”?

How do you weigh those against the risks you're foreseeing?

Comment by jasoncrawford on Turning air into bread · 2019-10-29T21:36:39.655Z · score: 16 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Why do you find it unsatisfying? (Personally, I find it immensely satisfying.)

Why do you place a moral stigma against technological solutions to the problems of life and survival? What do you think we need to “repent”? Why do you say we “got away with it”, instead of, “we solved it!”

Why do you “imagine” we won't continue to find new solutions to problems? Especially when we've already found so many, for many generations? Why make an argument from failure of imagination, rather than from history?

Comment by jasoncrawford on Iron: From mythical to mundane · 2019-10-29T21:30:43.774Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yup, aluminum is even more abundant in the Earth's crust than iron; about 8% vs. 5%. But it requires electricity for smelting and so wasn't common until the very late 1800s or so

Comment by jasoncrawford on Iron: From mythical to mundane · 2019-10-29T21:29:44.748Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's more the other way around: Iron with more than ~2.1% carbon is brittle, and therefore it cannot be worked with tools; it can only be cast—so it's called “cast iron”. The low-carbon iron can be worked with tools, hence “wrought”.

It's the smelting process that results in the carbon content: smelting at temperatures high enough to melt the iron, also causes it to undergo a phase change that causes it to absorb more carbon.

Comment by jasoncrawford on Open & Welcome Thread - October 2019 · 2019-10-17T01:06:29.063Z · score: 47 (18 votes) · LW · GW

Hi everyone. I've discovered the rationality community gradually over the last several years, starting with Slate Star Codex, at some point discovering Julia Galef on Twitter/Facebook, and then reading Inadequate Equilibria. I still have tons of material on this site to go through!

I'm also the author of a blog, The Roots of Progress (https://rootsofprogress.org), about the history of technology and industry, and more generally the story of human progress.