Thursday, January 3, 2013

Thursday Links

  • Thought-provoking Kevin Kelly essay arguing that it's not actually obvious that the economic benefits of the third industrial revolution (computers, internet) are less than the second industrial revolution (electricity and internal combustion engines). 
  • I didn't know this: it's possible to uprate existing nuclear power plants by modifying them to produce more power.  In the US we've done about 6 MW GW worth of this since the early nineties. 
  • Off topic, but what an extraordinary story: it just goes to show that sometimes life hands you an opportunity and you just have to drop everything and make the most of it.  In seven days' very hard work at the age of 22, this woman had a massive impact on an entire country and did more good than in the entire rest of her life (or most of our lives).  No-one could have intentionally planned ahead to achieve what she ended up achieving.
  • Also semi-off-topic, but it is absolutely appalling that the President can order targeted execution of American citizens with no transparent legal process.  It makes a mockery of our democracy and constitutional tradition.  The NYT and the ACLU are absolutely right to demand more detailed disclosures.
  • I have to say I am somewhat encouraged that, as limited and problematic as it was, Dems and Repubs in the senate where able to come up with a strongly bipartisan vote on some solution to the fiscal cliff.  Almost any agreement is preferable to complete gridlock and dysfunction.  I know, I know, very low expectations.
  • Awesome Kevin Drum essay on the lead-in-gas/violent-crime hypothesis.  If you want to dig into more details this paper is pretty impressive.  Is there a risks-to-civilization angle here?  Maybe - there are people who think that lead poisoning did in the western Roman empire.  This post suggests that levels of lead in Roman skeletons really were higher than those in previous millenia (and much higher than modern standards).  However, late medieval skeletons showed even higher levels of lead than the Romans, so at a minimum this can only be a contributing threat to civilization.  Little doubt it can greatly reduce quality of life, however.


Greg said...

If Kevin Kelly had been travelling in third-world countries in the 1960s or 1970s instead of the last two decades, he would have written more or less the same essay. But it would have featured the transistor radio in place of cell phones.

Kelly is quite wrong to think that the choice of cell phones over toilets says anything meaningful about development in the third wold. It just means that its residents have moved up Maslow's hierarchy past food, shelter, and clothing, and past the need to feel secure. Maslow's third level includes connection with other people and entertainment. Well, many parts of the third world were at this point in the 1970s.

In the '70s, entertainment and news meant transistor radios and a postal service. Now it means cell phones with built-in radios. Little else has changed in terms of how people experience day-to-day life.

By now, I think most people accept Amartya Sen's argument that development means increasing practical freedom, the range of possible choices of what you do with your life. In saying that third-world countries have "bypassed" the need for plumbing, Kelly is being highly sexist: he dismisses the experiences of women, and the choices available to them.*

The second industrial revolution enormously increased the choices available to first-world women. So far, the digital network 'revolution' hasn't had anything like the same impact on people's lives, and it's not at all clear that it will have a positive impact even if we wait sixty years, despite Kelly's rehearsal of '70s counter-culture ideas of rewards for fooling around.

(Incidentally, the development that has occurred in third-world countries since the 1980s has more to do with the first industrial revolution than the third. A few more countries have partly adopted the institutions of security of property rights, impartial, evidence-based justice, and promotion on merit--and the germ theory of disease.)

On the plus side, Kelly spared us the McLuhanisms that accompanied '70s pieces of this sort. And he stated the big objection to Gordon: Vaclav Smil's point, that transformation in the fundamental technologies of production takes generations to play out. Though without mentioning Smil.

* Economists are notoriously insensitive to social matters, but here the old white male economist Gordon shows more respect for women than does one of the founders of the "Whole Earth Catalog". Hmmm.

James said...


6000 MW of nuclear updates. Not 6.

See your link.


Stuart Staniford said...

Randy - thx, typo.

Unknown said...

I cannot find the source but I guess that the Roman lead content has been linked to spiked wine. Lead tastes sweet - lick it sometime - and lead was an adulterant to lousy wine. Romans drank a fair bit of wine so...

I guess the Medevils must have had their fair share as well?