In 1986, Drexler predicted (in Engines of Creation) that we’d have molecular assemblers in 30 years. They would roughly act as fast, atomically precise 3-d printers. That was the standard meaning of nanotech for the next decade, until more mainstream authorities co-opted the term.

What went wrong with that forecast?

In my review of Where Is My Flying Car? I wrote:

Josh describes the mainstream reaction to nanotech fairly well, but that’s not the whole story. Why didn’t the military fund nanotech? Nanotech would likely exist today if we had credible fears of Al Qaeda researching it in 2001.

I recently changed my mind about that last sentence, partly because of what I recently read about the Manhattan Project, and partly due to the world’s response to COVID.

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Book review: Now It Can Be Told: The Story Of The Manhattan Project, by Leslie R. Groves.

This is the story of a desperate arms race, against what turned out to be a mostly imaginary opponent. I read it for a perspective on how future arms races and large projects might work.

What Surprised Me

It seemed strange that a large fraction of the book described how to produce purified U-235 and plutonium, and that the process of turning those fuels into bombs seemed anticlimactic.

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Book review: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

This book is about narratives of human progress. I.e. the natural progression from egalitarian bands of maybe 20 people, to tribes, to chiefdoms, to states, with increasing inequality and domination by centralized bureaucracy. That progress is usually presumed to be driven by changes in occupations from foragers, to gardeners, to farmers, to industry.

Western intellectuals focus on debates between two narratives: Hobbesians, who see this mostly as advances from a nasty state of nature, and those following in Rousseau’s footsteps, who imagine early human societies as somewhat closer to a Garden of Eden. Both narratives suggest that farming societies were miserable places that were either small advances or unavoidable tragedies, depending on what you think they replaced.

Graeber and Wengrow dispute multiple aspects of these narratives. The book isn’t quite organized enough for me to boil their message down to a single sentence. But I’ll focus on what I consider to be the most valuable thread: we should be uncertain about whether humanity made (is making?) a big mistake by accepting oppression as an inevitable price of material wealth.

The Dawn of Everything asks us to imagine that humans could build (and may have been building) sophisticated civilizations without domination by powerful states, and maybe without depending on farming.

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Book review: The Resilient Society, by Markus Brunnermeier.

This is a collection of loosely related chapters on current political topics such as pandemic response and macroeconomics. I haven’t read the whole book. But since each chapter is designed to stand alone, I feel comfortable reviewing a subset of the book.

They’re more readable than the comparable Wikipedia pages, but less rigorous.

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Book review: Shut Out: How a Housing Shortage Caused the Great Recession and Crippled Our Economy, by Kevin Erdmann.

Why did the US have an unusually bad recession in 2008, followed by years of disappointing growth?

Many influential people attribute it to the 2004-2006 housing bubble, and the ensuing subprime mortgage crisis, with an implication that people bought too many houses. Erdmann says: no, the main problems were due to obstacles which prevented the building and buying of houses.

He mainly argues against two competing narratives that are popular among economists:

  • increased availability of credit fueled a buying binge among people who had trouble affording homes.
  • there was a general and unusual increase in the demand for homes.

Reframing the Housing Bubble

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Book review: The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structure and Social Systems, by Emmanuel Todd.

What features distinguish countries that embraced communism from countries that resisted?

Why did Islam spread rapidly for a century and a half, then see relatively few changes in its boundaries for more than a millennium?

Todd’s answer is that the structure of the family is a good deal more stable than ideologies and religions, and different family structures create different constraints on what ideologies and religions will be accepted. Published in 1983, it still seems little-known.

Maybe this neglect is most pronounced in the English-speaking parts of the world, where one family structure is overwhelmingly popular, and alternatives are often dismissed as primitive relics. France seems more conducive to Todd’s insights, since France has four different family structures, each dominating in various regions.

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It’s been a decade since I blogged about the benefits of avoiding news.

In that time I mostly followed the advice I gave. I kicked my addiction to The Daily Show in late 2016 after it switched from ridiculing Trump to portraying him as scary (probably part of a general trend for the show to be less funny). I got more free time, and only missed the news a little bit.

Then the pandemic hit.

I suddenly needed lots of new information. Corporate earnings releases were too slow.

Wikipedia, Our World in Data, Metaculus, and some newly created COVID-specific web sites partly filled that gap. But I still needed more, and I mostly didn’t manage to find anything that was faster or more informative than the news media storyteller industry.

That at least correlated with higher than normal stress. I suspect that paying attention to the storytellers partly caused the stress.

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TL;DR: loss of topsoil is a problem, but not a crisis. I’m unsure whether fixing it qualifies as a great opportunity for mitigating global warming.

This post will loosely resemble a review of the book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery. If you want a real review, see Colby Moorberg’s review on Goodreads.

Depletion of topsoil has been an important cause of the collapse of large civilizations. Farmers are often tempted to maximize this year’s production, at the cost of declining crop yields. When declining yields leave an empire unable to feed everyone, farmers are unwilling to adopt techniques that restore the topsoil, because doing so will temporarily decrease production further. The Mayan civilization seems to have experienced three cycles of soil-driven boom and bust lasting around 1000 years per cycle.

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