SFnal Coordination Mechanism Design, Path Dependence and Roads Not Taken
October 31, 2021 10:32 PM   Subscribe

Glass: the most underrated medieval technology? (threadreader) - "Venice sought desperately to keep its monopoly. If a glassmaker left without permission, he would be asked to return. If he refused, his family would be imprisoned, and if he still persisted, an assassin would be hired to kill him off."[1]
The economic and social impact was vast. Spectacles increased the working lives of scholars and helped to spread literacy. Windows increased the duration and efficiency of indoor work. Greenhouses allowed the spread of fruits and vegetables (and thus healthier diets).

The microscope (1590), thermometer (1593), telescope (1608), and barometer (1644) transformed and expanded the sciences, and the Scientific Revolution took off during the seventeenth century alongside the diffusion of Venetian glass.

Most intriguing of all, perhaps, was the impact of the mirror. The ability to see one's own face and body led to the development of a self-consciousness absent in medieval times, and thus to demand for better clothing and cosmetics.

Mirror-gazing cultivated an obsession with individuality, and to new interests in biography, portraiture, and the novel. In the reflection of Venetian glass, Europeans discovered the self—and transformed the continent's economy, thought, and aesthetic sense forever.[2]
Economic History Research: also btw...
The Death and Birth of Technological Revolutions - "Perez's view on how a focus on 'Green' policies could fuel a Golden Age are well fleshed-out in papers like A Smart Green 'European Way of Life': the Path for Growth, Jobs and Wellbeing; one insight that I find very compelling is that the demand that drives job growth is less about the technology itself and more about the new lifestyle that the technology enables (just like suburbanization drove the previous revolution)."[5,6,7,8]
Those who reaped the full benefits of the ‘golden age’ (or of the gilded one) continue to hold on to their belief in the virtues of the system and to proclaim eternal and unstoppable progress, in a complacent blindness, which could be called the ‘Great Society syndrome’. But the unfulfilled promises had been piling up, while most people nurtured the expectation of personal and social advance. The result is an increasing socio-political split…this is a time when deep questions about the system are being asked in many quarters; the climate is favorable for politics and ideological confrontations to come to the fore. The social ferment can become intense and is sometimes quelled with social reforms.

Meanwhile, in the world of big business, markets are saturating and technologies maturing, therefore profits begin to feel the productivity constriction. Ways are being sought for propping them up, which often involve concentration through mergers or acquisitions, as well as export drives and migration of activities to less-saturated markets abroad. Their relative success makes firms amass even more money without profitable investment outlets. The search for technological solutions lifts the implicit ban on truly new technologies outside the logic of the now exhausted paradigm. The stage is set for the decline of the whole mode of growth and for the next technological revolution.[9,10,11,12]
How does progress happen? - "The discipline of 'progress studies' wants to figure out what drives discoveries and inventions so we can supercharge human flourishing."[13,14,15]
At the same time, you know, we can also look back over the last 50 to 70 years, at the revolutions that people thought were coming and didn’t quite arrive, or arrived and then failed.

And so the three big ones that I think of off the top of my head are nuclear power, space travel, and supersonic air travel. I think that the people of the 1950s would be amazed if you told them that nuclear power today, 70 years later, only supplies about 10 percent of world electricity. That is sort of a stunted revolution.

Space travel, of course — we went to the moon and then Apollo was canceled. The Concorde never became really economical, and certainly never became affordable to a wide audience, and ultimately ended up getting canceled. There’s a gap of decades where there was no progress or even regress in those fields...
This is the other huge important theme, which is that technology alone does not lead to a better world. It can only lead to a better world in the context of good moral and social systems.[16,17,18,19]

One thing that I do deeply believe is that our scientific and material technology has raced ahead of our moral and social technology. We need some catch-up growth in moral and social technology.
On Nathan Schneider on the limits of cryptoeconomics - "At this point, it's worth pointing out that the 'neoliberalism' being criticized here is not the same as the 'neoliberalism' that is cheerfully promoted by the lovely folks at The Neoliberal Project; the thing being critiqued here is a kind of 'enough two-party trade can solve everything' mentality, whereas The Neoliberal Project favors a mix of markets and democracy. But what is the thrust of the critique that Nathan is pointing to? What's the problem with everyone acting much more like homo oeconomicus?"[22]
For this, we can take a detour and peek into the source, Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos, itself. The book helpfully provides a list of the top 'four deleterious effects' (the below are reformatted and abridged but direct quotes):"
  • Intensified inequality, in which the very top strata acquires and retains ever more wealth, the very bottom is literally turned out on the streets or into the growing urban and sub-urban slums of the world, while the middle strata works more hours for less pay, fewer benefits, less security...
  • Crass or unethical commercialization of things and activities considered inappropriate for marketization. The claim is that marketization contributes to human exploitation or degradation, [...] limits or stratifies access to what ought to be broadly accessible and shared, [...] or because it enables something intrinsically horrific or severely denigrating to the planet.
  • Ever-growing intimacy of corporate and finance capital with the state, and corporate domination of political decisions and economic policy.[23]
  • Economic havoc wreaked on the economy by the ascendance and liberty of finance capital, especially the destabilizing effects of the inherent bubbles and other dramatic fluctuations of financial markets.

I am far from a Walter Block-style defender of all locally-voluntary two-party commerce. I've written up my own viewpoints expressing similar concerns to parts of Wendy Brown's list in various articles: So where does my own opposition to mixing finance and governance come from? This is a complicated topic, and my conclusions are in large part a result of my own failure after years of attempts to find a financialized governance mechanism that is economically stable.
Markets and freedom - "How can we increase economic democracy and people's real control over their economic lives without damaging too much the genuine good that markets do as technologies of allocation?"

True, Neo-, and Illiberalism - "Sometimes the answer will be command-and-control, sometimes the answer will be deregulation."
  • @ddayen: "This is pretty much the key. Biden has the power to seize patents to lower drug costs. He could cancel student debt. He could eliminate fossil fuel consumption in federal procurement, and move to command-and-control power regulation. Beyond that he could *threaten* to do all these things if Congress didn't give him what he wanted. This is the true road not taken."[24,25]
  • @rauchway: "In 1932, Roosevelt campaigned on a major public works program, farm relief, better labor laws, securities regulation, more public power, reforestation, lower tariffs, old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, coordination of industry…much of we now think of as the New Deal. How did he manage to get support for such a diverse agenda, especially when each single piece of it wouldn't benefit all voters? He articulated a defense of (to use his word) interdependence—the idea that none of us could prosper unless all of us prospered; that farm relief might come today, and manufacturing relief tomorrow, but each would get their turn. Another way he put it was 'social justice,' a phrase we'd find familiar—and which he said was the opposite of 'trickle down' economics. Improve the condition of the vast majority of people, and prosperity would rise up."[26,27]
  • @interfluidity: "if you want to save democracy, ensure it delivers the goods. all your fretting over process and personality is nothing if the demos as you constitute it cannot govern in its own interest."[28,29,30,31,32]
  • @interfluidity: "capitalism is like fire. if it is carefully cabined and managed it will warm your hearth. if left to its expansionary devices it will burn down (and heat up) our world."
  • @kltblom: "All for profit activity without public backstops and constant oversight end up in a marriage between state and corporation."
  • @davidsirota: "BernieSanders recently said if Democrats do not pass a real agenda to immediately help people, 'more and more people are going to drift toward conspiracy theories, authoritarianism, and even violence.' If history is a guide, he's absolutely right."[33,34,35]
  • @wyattreed13: "Imagine working for MSNBC and not batting an eye when they refuse to let you publish 'by far the most shocking thing' you learned about Big Pharma during your investigation."[36,37,38]
  • @doctorow: "But of course, the cost of Molnupiravir isn't merely the cost of production - the major cost is the high-risk capital that was used to fund the initial development and testing. In the world of business, the investor who bears that risk should reap the reward. Right? Here's the thing: that investor was the US government."[39,40]
  • @rickperlstein: "Consider William Kristol, in his infamous 1993 memo 'Defeating President Clinton's Healthcare Proposal.' As I wrote a couple of years ago, for Kristol 'the notion of government-guaranteed health care had to be defeated, he said, rather than compromised with, or else: 'It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.' Kristol wrote on behalf of an organization called the Project for a Republican Future. The mortal fear is that if government delivers the goods, the Republicans have no future.' Even their pragmatists are nuts."
  • @interfluidity: "if you were analyzing this country from a distance might you conclude their exists a tacit project of the political duopoly to continually repurchase civilian control from the strongest military force on the planet?"[41]
  • @iwelsh: "ultimately the difference between the right and the left is this: The right thinks you get more out of people by treating them badly, the left thinks you get more out of people by treating them well."[42,43,44,45,46]
  • @ZaidJilani: "This is pretty obviously the best way forward for the GOP, but political parties don't always do what's best for them. GOP Has a Chance at More Than Election Victory - 'The answer, at least in the short term, may be simpler: Seize the moment to build a coalition of economic populism and cultural conservatism that addresses the dystopia in modern American life, elevates the family and traditional values; resists the advance of cultural nihilism, and rejects the pure neoliberal market economics that has in some ways exacerbated the crisis. Grotesque inequality in the face of rapid technological change and intensifying market concentration isn't going to be addressed by further corporate tax cuts or a regulatory environment shaped by the interests of corporate donors to the Republican Party.'"[47,48,49]
  • @Noahpinion: "Good piece for people who want to know more about China's Gilded Age -- the economic era of the last 30 years, which is now coming to an end."[50,51]
  • @BrankoMilan: "The three inequalities are: 1) Rising share of capital income, concentrated among the top, 2) Emerging elite with high property incomes and high salaries, 3) Lower social mobility due to expensive & ultra-competitive education."[52,53,54]
Developmentalisms - "The forgotten Hamiltonian and German State Socialist ancestry of East Asian developmentalism." (@ernestleungmt: "In this article, which was a decade's worth of work, I trace the origins of East Asian developmentalism back to its roots in German State Socialism and beyond.")
2021 marked the centenary of the creation of the Chinese Communist Party, born of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. History textbooks tend to claim that the Movement emerged out of a widespread realization that China’s rights as a victorious power during WWI had been sold out at the Paris Peace Conference by the European Powers. Students were angered by elite collusion with Japan and the corruption of the early Chinese Republic—also known as the “Beiyang Regime.” The activists found hope in the new Soviet model, and May Fourth is credited with bringing Bolshevism to China and beginning its socialist phase.

In Japan, conversely, state-led economic development has often been attributed to a deliberate attempt to mimic the West industrially and militarily since the Meiji era. Japanese developmentalism is perceived, in contrast to the dramatic revolutionary politics in China, to be strategic and straightforward, enabled by the post-WWII foundation of free market capitalism.

In fact, the state-driven economic development models found in both countries are the products of a long and intertwined ideological history. In the late nineteenth century, Chinese and Japanese economists drew inspiration from Hamiltonianism (also known as the “American School”) and German State Socialism to pursue social reformist aims while managing rebellions from below. Developmentalist ideas formulated in this era formed the foundation for later revolutionary programs and postwar capitalist states across the region. Accurately historicizing these models is crucial to understanding their role in contemporary East Asian politics.
  • @radicalpragmat1: "Well this is a fascinating list of amendments that were proposed but never ratified."[55]
  • @interfluidity: "when stuff you think up as off-the-wall speculation becomes real in the world."
Technoscience Rent: Toward a Theory of Rentiership for Technoscientific Capitalism[56]
Contemporary, technoscientific capitalism is characterized by the (re)configuration of a range of “things” (e.g., infrastructure, data, knowledge, bodies) as assets or capitalized property. Accumulation strategies have changed as a result of this assetization process. Rather than entrepreneurial strategies based on commodity production, technoscientific capitalism is increasingly underpinned by rentiership or the appropriation of value through ownership and control rights (e.g., intellectual property [IP]), monopoly conditions, and regulatory or market devices and practices (e.g., investment dispute courts, exclusivity agreements). While rentiership is often presented as a negative phenomenon (e.g., distorting markets, unearned income) in both neoclassical and Marxist political economy literatures—and much in between—in this paper, I conceptualize rentiership as a technoeconomic practice and process framed by insights from science and technology studies (STS). So, rather than a problematic “side effect” of capitalism, the concept of rentiership enables us to understand how different forms of value extraction constitute, and are constituted by, different forms of technoscience. This allows STS to contribute a distinctive analytical approach to ongoing debates in political economy about economic rents and rent-seeking.
Schumpeter's opening words are apocalyptic: "Can capitalism survive? No. I do not think it can."[57]
Secular improvement that is taken for granted and coupled with individual insecurity that is acutely resented is of course the best recipe for breeding social unrest. (pp. 159–160)

Therefore, capitalism, by providing a previously unknown standard of living — unobtainable through other forms of social organization — actually undermines its own support, essentially by performing its tasks too well, so that the origin of prosperity is overlooked by its greatest beneficiaries.

This brings us to another of Schumpeter's pathbreaking contributions to understanding capitalism: his work on the "Sociology of the Intellectual." As mentioned above, eroding social protections of capitalism and feelings of grievance against the system itself provide the basis for an assault on the capitalist system. All that remains is that "there be groups to whose interest it is to work up and organize resentment, to nurse it, to voice it, and to lead it" (p. 160). The intellectual class provides this driving force.

The intellectuals watch the economic process from the sidelines; by definition, they essentially have no direct experience in economic affairs. However, they wield decisive power in influencing public opinion, and their bias is strongly anticapitalist. They represent a very real threat to the capitalist system.
Output, Interest and Prices - "The history of macroeconomic thought is a story of how growth theory, monetary theory and business cycle theory came together into one discipline. Throughout this, there are three macroeconomic variables that have stood the test of time as being central: output, interest rates and prices. As such, this history can be understood by examining the evolution of the equations describing and relating these variables. And doing so makes it apparent that, although our methodology has advanced by leaps and bounds, the increase in our knowledge regarding substantive macroeconomic questions has been far less than many might believe."[58]
The accompanying twitter video summary is available here. This has been a long time in the making, and at around 14,000 words, it’s turned out way longer than I expected it would be. Apologies in advance for the wordiness, but it was hard to do justice to the breadth of macroeconomics in fewer words than what I’ve written. The inline text is commentary about this historical evolution of macroeconomics or amusing snark and savagery between economists at the time: lots of really sassy quotes especially in sections 5, 6 and 7.
@_gabrielunger: "Belatedly publicly sharing this short note about my advisor, Emmanuel Farhi. (I wrote it two days after his death, then kept it largely to myself). Hard to believe it's been over a year now; he is still sorely missed."
Emmanuel’s early research consisted of an impressive series of papers in macroeconomics and in public finance, often taking some paradigm like the New Keynesian model or a Ramsey optimal tax problem, and pushing it in some interesting new direction. These papers were written with the tremendous formal elegance his early education equipped him with, and were more than enough to secure tenure, publications in prestigious journals, and a well-deserved reputation as the leading macroeconomist of his cohort.

But what economists in other subfields might not fully appreciate is the extent to which, in the final two or three years of life, Emmanuel had started to embark upon an entirely new research agenda, of even greater originality and depth than his earlier work. A growing body of empirical research across macro, labor, IO, and trade, is all now in the midst of confronting the fact that firm heterogeneity is becoming increasingly fundamental to our understanding of the most basic questions of economics. While newspapers and politicians give huge attention every day to the income inequality between individual workers, the inequality between firms – a small number of large, productive, capital-intensive firms, and the long tail of smaller, less productive, more labor intensive firms – is becoming increasingly significant in understanding everything from the dynamics of long-run economic growth to the transformation of the business cycle.

Much of the empirical work investigating the role of firm heterogeneity and inequality, across different subfields of economics, has rested on questionable theoretical foundations. Economists would rely on crude formulas for aggregating firm-level changes to aggregate economy-wide changes – formulas from the 1970s and 1960s, which often turned out to be invalid outside of a set of extremely restrictive and unrealistic assumptions. Emmanuel saw both how important the deeper structure of the supply side of the economy was, and how unsatisfactory our entire theoretical foundation of investigating this structure was. At the time of his death, he was in the process of unleashing a storm of new papers – most with his co-author and former student, David Baqaee – that attempted to place the deep structure of the supply side of the economy at the center of economic theory, and on rigorous foundations. These new papers emphasized things like network structure, heterogeneity of returns to scale, factor intensity, markups, productivity, etc.; directly and substantively related them to ongoing empirical investigations into growth, trade, etc., and gave empirical researchers a much stronger framework for their own study of firm inequality.

Emmanuel uniquely saw how much this new work urgently needed to be done, and was uniquely equipped to execute it. Schopenhauer remarks somewhere that talent is the archer who hits a target others cannot reach; genius is the archer who hits a target others cannot see. The moment of his death was the moment Emmanuel was transforming from the first into the second; a fact that makes his death even more incomprehensible and tragic.
The Energy Future Needs Cleaner Batteries [ungated] - "To deal with climate change and power the cars of tomorrow, we'll have to solve the cobalt problem."[59,60]
“My story is that I should not be here,” Manthiram says, sitting in his ninth-floor office in Austin, below a bank of framed patents and bookshelves colorful with toylike, wood-and-metal models of molecules. Manthiram was born in 1951, to parents with no formal education, in a tiny village called Amarapuram, in Tamil Nadu, near India’s southern tip. His father, who sold firewood for a living, died two months later—Manthiram doesn’t know of what—and his mother never remarried. Instead she focused her energy on her only child. She heard about a Catholic school in the next village and sent him there. “Two miles going, two miles coming back, through the jungle!” Manthiram recalls. “There was no road. There was no weather forecast.” When he graduated high school, his mother’s ambition was for him to open a general store in Amarapuram. One of his teachers convinced her that her son had the potential for a different future. The three of them—teacher, mother, and son—took the bus to a small college 40 miles away where the teacher arranged for the gifted young man to be accepted.

In the late 1970s, when Manthiram was getting his doctorate in chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, he focused on metal oxides, a class of materials whose molecular structure makes them useful across a wide spectrum of practical applications. At around that time, a young American physicist named John Goodenough was just starting to think metal oxides might be useful in a rechargeable battery. Goodenough happened to be one of the examiners on Manthiram’s Ph.D. thesis and a few years later hired him as a post-doctoral researcher in his lab at the University of Oxford. When the University of Texas hired Goodenough away from England, Manthiram went with him.

One way to think about chemical reactions is as the trafficking of electrons. Elements that tend to shed electrons (sodium, for example) react with others that tend to gain them (like chlorine) and are transformed (in that case, into table salt). A battery is a technology for getting in the middle of a reaction like that and detouring the electrons to do work. The battery cell’s negative end, or anode, is made of materials looking to get rid of electrons, and the positive electrode, or cathode, is made from materials looking to acquire them. Between the two is an electrolyte-soaked separator that, impervious to electrons, frustrates the two materials’ desire to react. But when the battery is snapped into a flashlight or TV remote, that device’s circuitry forms a loop placing the battery cell’s two ends in contact. Electrons flow out from the anode and through the wiring, powering the device as they make their roundabout way to the battery cell’s other, positive end. The now ionized atoms that lost those electrons make a parallel trip, migrating directly through the electrolyte membrane to balance out the charge of the cathode’s accumulating electrons. (Otherwise the process would grind to a halt.)

When you recharge a phone, that process is reversed. Current from the charger forces the electrons back to the anode, and that draws the ions back through the electrolyte to reunite with them—ready to react once again, be separated, and sent on their different paths. The electrodes, both cathode and anode, are central to all of this. They have to deal with electrons and lithium ions, in the quadrillions, as the battery charges and discharges, while remaining chemically unchanged. And they have to do this over and over and over again.

In 1977 an English chemist named M. Stanley Whittingham, then at Exxon Research and Engineering Co., patented a rechargeable battery using lithium as the active mobile ion. Among the discoveries made by Goodenough and protégés such as Manthiram was that the sturdy layered crystal lattice cobalt forms when bonded to oxygen is almost uniquely effective as cathode material. Layered nickel oxide works similarly, but it’s much harder to work with and will degrade more quickly. And cobalt-based cathodes have a further advantage: Thanks to the element’s thermal stability, they’re less likely to light themselves on fire. Sony Corp. adapted Goodenough’s cobalt-oxide design and, in 1991, released a camcorder that was the first of many consumer electronic devices to run on it. (It’s difficult to imagine the iPhone ever catching on if you had to keep replacing the batteries.) In 2019, Whittingham, Goodenough, and Sony’s Akira Yoshino shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their battery work. Goodenough, who was 97, asked Manthiram to give his Nobel lecture for him.
New Artificial Intelligence Tool Accelerates Discovery of Truly New Materials - "Researchers at the University of Liverpool have created a collaborative artificial intelligence tool that reduces the time and effort required to discover truly new materials."
Reported in the journal Nature Communications, the new tool has already led to the discovery of four new materials including a new family of solid state materials that conduct lithium. Such solid electrolytes will be key to the development of solid state batteries offering longer range and increased safety for electric vehicles. Further promising materials are in development.

The tool brings together artificial intelligence with human knowledge to prioritize those parts of unexplored chemical space where new functional materials are most likely to be found.

Discovering new functional materials is a high-risk, complex, and often long journey as there is an infinite space of possible materials accessible by combining all of the elements in the periodic table, and it is not known where new materials exist...

The tool examines the relationships between known materials at a scale unachievable by humans. These relationships are used to identify and numerically rank combinations of elements that are likely to form new materials. The rankings are used by scientists to guide exploration of the large unknown chemical space in a targeted way, making experimental investigation far more efficient. Those scientists make the final decisions, informed by the different perspective offered by the AI...

Society’s capacity to solve global challenges such as energy and sustainability is constrained by our capability to design and make materials with targeted functions, such as better solar absorbers making better solar panels or superior battery materials making longer range electric cars, or replacing existing materials by using less toxic or scarce elements.

These new materials create societal benefit by driving new technologies to tackle global challenges, and they also reveal new scientific phenomena and understanding. All modern portable electronics are enabled by the materials in lithium ion batteries, which were developed in the 1980s, which emphasises how just one materials class can transform how we live: defining accelerated routes to new materials will open currently unimaginable technological possibilities for our future.
In a new book, Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen envision a more unified America - "Even when we fall short of the ideal, we have to acknowledge how far we've fallen short of the ideal. But you know what? It's useful to have a North Star and the belief in the possibility that we can still deliver on an ideal like all men are created equal, or all people are created equal. And it's important for us to affirm and believe the possibility that everybody in this country should have a shot at a decent life, even if we know that we're falling short of it. Because that's the horizon to which we are marching. And if we don't have that, then I think we're losing."
You want to be supplanted. We see it with our own kids. I want the next generation to do it better, smarter, be bolder, have better answers and ideas. But what that requires though, ultimately, is some faith that it can be done, and that I think does require a belief that people are not fixed and immutable. And I think the country has shown itself able and capable of changing and growth.
Want to change the world?
There's nothing to it
In a world of pure imagination
posted by kliuless (22 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
OMG there goes my week. Amazing post.
posted by Megami at 11:52 PM on October 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

The Concorde never became really economical, and certainly never became affordable to a wide audience, and ultimately ended up getting canceled.

I'm really nitpicking here, but that's not exactly true. It was quite economical for British Airways and the package tour operators that wet leased the planes and sold seats at discount rates.

More relevant to the post, it's quite clear that progress involves a series of economic revolutions. The problem is that it's impossible to tell beforehand which ones will take, which ones will be a flash in the pan, and which will go absolutely nowhere until it's too late for the people who have a vested interest in the old order to move their money, which is why we always have powerful people doing their best to ensure that anything that looks vaguely threatening remains in the latter two categories.

Every once in a while something comes along that is too much to stop and we see change. Other times, like with electric cars, change is only delayed, though with that particular example they managed to keep it from happening for a century by eliminating the main incentive to develop better batteries. The rise of portable electronics finally opened the spigot and here we are.

If you want to advance economic change, you've either got to have an existential threat to the people with the money and power, like communism, to scare them into change or you have to come at them indirectly in a way that doesn't have an obvious impact on their interests. You can try pitting powerful interests against each other, but more often than not you'll get a stalemate as in the nuclear power situation and even if you do manage to win the fight, you've just rearranged the Fortune 50 a bit and hopefully gotten something beneficial as a side effect.
posted by wierdo at 12:57 AM on November 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

If the Venetian glass angle is what brought you into this megapost, you might enjoy The Mirror Thief (link to NYT review)
posted by caution live frogs at 5:28 AM on November 1, 2021 [4 favorites]

Space travel, of course — we went to the moon and then Apollo was canceled. The Concorde never became really economical, and certainly never became affordable to a wide audience, and ultimately ended up getting canceled. There’s a gap of decades where there was no progress or even regress in those fields...

Concorde and supersonic travel is a bad example. Concorde got swallowed up by a competing revolution that actually took place.

SST's were supposed to be a "revolution" in aviation, which was a rich person's toy. As a rich person's toy, Concorde did fine. The vision of Concorde and the SSTs was rich people zipping around at 15000 meters as fast as they want. Rich people get to go from LA to NYC in two hours! And the flight path just goes over a bunch of poor people that don't matter, so we don't care if their houses shake with sonic booms twice an hour. But ​rich people's toys got swallowed up by a larger revolution in aviation that took a special, exciting toy for rich people and made it boring shit for everyone; a bus ride in the sky.

Part of the revolution that happened made things like SSTs a lot less useful because air trips became much more likely to be multi-leg things with two-hour stopovers to change planes. Concorde was supposed to cut your trip in half. But when you need to get to your airport two hours early, need to spend 90 minutes in an intermediate hub, need the flight you change onto to arrive at the big fancy international airport with time to spare, need to clear customs, and need to change planes at the other end's big fancy international airport to get to the boring poor-people place you're actually going, Concorde shaves three hours off a fourteen hour trip, which... meh.

There was progress the whole time in aviation. But that progress was centered on making commercial air transport even better at being boring shit for everyone -- engines became much more economical, airliner designs required less maintenance per passenger-flight-hour, and so on. Boring. Yes, commercial aircraft didn't get faster, because going faster turned out to be a dumb way to serve actual human beings.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:01 AM on November 1, 2021 [7 favorites]

There's a James Burke series or two in here.
posted by bonehead at 6:08 AM on November 1, 2021 [7 favorites]

Are we at the comments section yet?
I haven't investigated most of the links, but in the glass one, I guess I had considered a lot of the technological achievements of glass, but the mirror and the idea of self image I found very interesting.

Also, in the Cleaner Batteries link, it's been a while since I got my electronics education, but are anodes minus and cathodes plus now??
posted by MtDewd at 6:15 AM on November 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

The Death and Birth of Technological Revolutions - "Perez's view on how a focus on 'Green' policies could fuel a Golden Age are well fleshed-out in papers like A Smart Green 'European Way of Life': the Path for Growth, Jobs and Wellbeing; one insight that I find very compelling is that the demand that drives job growth is less about the technology itself and more about the new lifestyle that the technology enables (just like suburbanization drove the previous revolution)."[5,6,7,8]

Perez's ideas are really important, and they drive some of my thinking about which kind of speculative bubbles should be tolerated and which shouldn't. Essentially her theory is that a lot of useful capital infrastructure (railways, telegraph lines, fibre optics) get built during speculative manias. Even though when these burst, they hurt investors, they also leave behind genuinely valuable stuff that forms the basis of low cost future growth (because investors already spent the money to build them).
posted by atrazine at 7:03 AM on November 1, 2021

Also, in the Cleaner Batteries link, it's been a while since I got my electronics education, but are anodes minus and cathodes plus now??

Yes but it's complicated. It's industry convention to identify the negative terminal as the anode even though electrochemically, which side is the anode depends on whether the battery is charging or discharging.
posted by atrazine at 7:08 AM on November 1, 2021

> the mirror and the idea of self image I found very interesting

The connection is, if you'll pardon the wordplay, illusory. Mirrors existed since ancient times, and were made of polished metal. We didn't really get silvered glass mirrors like they're thought of now until the advent of continuous-process glass in the 19th century. Blown glass, while it took a big leap during the time period discussed in the article, wasn't flat or pure enough to make much any improvement over metal mirrors, which continued to be used optical instruments from Newton's invention of the reflecting telescope through the mid-1900's.

Meanwhile, this is perpetuating a persistent though mistaken conception of medieval people as thuggish, unhygienic brutes who had no idea nor care what they looked, dressed, or smelled like. Like I said, they had mirrors. They also had several thousand years' tradition of statuary and portraiture, not to mention traffic in cosmetics, perfumes, and fine cloth giving lie to the thread's assumption that this was somehow a new thing in the Renaissance. Venice had been dealing in these goods long before they got good at glassblowing.

Human vanity is a pretty ingrained thing, and it's not like it was waiting for this particular technological development to really get going.
posted by 7segment at 7:17 AM on November 1, 2021 [19 favorites]

.....perpetuating a persistent though mistaken conception of medieval people as thuggish, unhygienic brutes

With a side of attributing the horrors of early modern period justice (wheel-breaking, etc) to medieval times.
posted by thelonius at 7:53 AM on November 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

UK poised to confirm funding for mini nuclear reactors for carbon-free energy - "the first of which could be plugged into the grid by 2031"

Could be, but won't be.

I missed this UK announcement about SMRs, according to the link "SMRs are understood to be a key component of the prime minister’s pledge to eliminate fossil fuels from electricity generation by 2035"

So basically this is another prime example of a government being persuaded that a technology that doesn't exist yet is the solution to climate change. And also another example of a UK government being persuaded that bigger centralised generation is the way forward, rather than the working and cheap distributed RE technologies that we already have. All persuaded by a big business with the ear of government and in this case, no history of delivering a technology in this area. What could possibly go wrong?
posted by biffa at 7:57 AM on November 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

There's a James Burke series or two in here

Benedictine vows of silence to Facebook's algorithmic control over who is to be heard in eight steps, glass is step three, we can do this folks.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:29 AM on November 1, 2021 [4 favorites]

Glass is sand, silicon, chips, servers, Facebook!
posted by sixswitch at 9:34 AM on November 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Incredible post, thank you for the work you put into this!
posted by Anonymous at 10:00 AM on November 1, 2021

So basically this is another prime example of a government being persuaded that a technology that doesn't exist yet is the solution to climate change

Yeah, we've got that here in Ontario, too. They are just permitting an SMR up at Chalk River (the only slightly leaky research station that used to be responsible for most of North America's medical isotopes) and the developer and province are already pushing the tech as the replacement for Darlington, the *other* huge and monumentally over-budget CANDU station east of Toronto. (We have Pickering nearer than that, which appears to exist to employ more people than any other nuclear station in the world.)
posted by scruss at 10:07 AM on November 1, 2021

I've been thinking about microscopes and telescopes lately after conversations with a young-earth creationist friend. Nothing has transformed our understanding of our place in the universe more than curved, clear glass.
posted by clawsoon at 11:24 AM on November 1, 2021

I'm shocked pikachu scrolling through this post
posted by fleacircus at 2:28 PM on November 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

So much of interest here! Thank you, as always, for pulling all of these together.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 9:03 PM on November 1, 2021

This is the most sprawling, comprehensive metafilter post I've every stumbled across. I don't even know where to start! If it was about glass alone, I would be interested. Now, I've got to spend a week tracking down all the other paths this post takes. I hope this is cross-posted elsewhere so it can get more exposure.
posted by Phreesh at 10:10 AM on November 2, 2021

So basically this is another prime example of a government being persuaded that a technology that doesn't exist yet is the solution to climate change. And also another example of a UK government being persuaded that bigger centralised generation is the way forward, rather than the working and cheap distributed RE technologies that we already have. All persuaded by a big business with the ear of government and in this case, no history of delivering a technology in this area. What could possibly go wrong?

Realistically, SMRs are not relevant to substantially decarbonising the GB grid but may (or may not) play a part in getting the last 10% or so done.

The real backbone of the grid decarbonisation plan is increase in renewable production, the planned offshore wind capacity alone for 2030 exceeds the current winter peak load so the grid will spend a lot of its time with more than enough energy and with some modest investments in batteries, there will be few days where we are net short despite batteries and load shifting.

For those days we need something else to make up the difference. For the time being, that can just be gas. In the future it will be one of hydrogen gas turbines, nuclear, or something else that we haven't thought of yet. It's a sufficiently hard problem that all the rogue's gallery of otherwise no-hope technologies get rolled out as potential solutions, who knows? One of them might genuinely end up being the answer.

The good news is that it barely matters to climate change whether the grid is 95% or 100% decarbonised. Much more important to focus efforts on industry, heating, and transport than worry ourselves to death over how we're going to do the last few % of power sector emissions while we have orchards upon orchards of low hanging fruit in other sectors.
posted by atrazine at 4:50 AM on November 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

You don't think that pitching this as delivering tech by 2031 is an attempt to cast it as relevant to the earlier work of driving down carbon?

The guardian says government is willing to sign off on funding for the Rolls Royce initiative but not how much it will be chipping against the £210mn in private funds. RR called for £2.8bn earlier in the year. Attracting that sort of government commitment seems likely to be a big hole in wider sustainable funding, given the government liking for capping overall support.
posted by biffa at 6:36 AM on November 5, 2021

Oh, I don't doubt that both RR and the sponsors of this scheme within government are trying to do just that. It's just that the adult money is already being spent elsewhere. The total funding for this early phase of the work is less than a single year's CfD budget. Of course if they really did fund £2.8bn then yes, that would be a big chunk of energy related spending.

I don't really like the RR SMR design because it is too big. The NuScale reactors are 60MW each and at that size the surface area / volume ratio is high enough that you can immerse the whole thing in as a pool for backup cooling at atmospheric pressure. NuScale has also been finding that actually validating their design as passively safe is harder than they thought. It's also small enough that you could potentially imagine real series production where it's not unthinkable to have a factory that makes 10+ a year of them with all the learning effects associated with that production rate, the RR one is still so big that even in the wildest fantasy you'd not make so many of them.
posted by atrazine at 5:33 AM on November 6, 2021

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