Locklin on science

Technology winter continues

Posted in Progress by Scott Locklin on March 14, 2021

Tyler Cowen seems to be walking back his  horking of my idea that technological progress has stalled; he calls this “the great stagnation.”  His reasoning for thinking that the technological winter might be over is pretty goofy.

Apparently I’m supposed to be impressed that Apple is switching to M1. This is a glorified phone chip with marginally better performance characteristics than current year Intel chips for their laptops. This doesn’t represent any sort of progress. This only highlights the fact that Intel has been asleep at the wheel for the last 12 years or so. And that Apple is rapidly becoming a sinister monopolist, and their desktop/laptop OS is about to become a glorified ipotato in every way.

I’m also supposed to be impressed by GPT3 and deepMind, which appear to be entirely concocted of corporate press releases, and which have deployed exactly zero new capabilities or technical achievements which can be used or even properly checked by …. anyone. This is like saying we have the Concorde back because now there are several supersonic business jet startups making press releases. In my world they have to actually do something which demonstrates value besides press releases and dog and pony shows. There might be something there, but considering the track records of both companies, taking anything they say at face value is indicative of gaping credulity. Perhaps it is some new and peculiar ipotato induced form of brain damage.

For example: despite all the caterwauling about AI and the mighty information transmitting abilities of the ipotato, the West seemed to be completely incapable of calculating and communicating a dirt simple but very important statistical value, the IFR histogram of Covid-19, for almost half a year after the data was available to do the calculation. Our galaxy brain AI-assisted public health officials have still yet to think of anything more creative for mitigating the problem than the medieval technique of locking people up at home where they slowly are losing their minds and are getting sick anyway. We did better at pandemic control before I was born. People were still watching black and white TVs and using slide rules back then and we did a lot better in every way. As in, no totalitarian lockdowns, rapid vaccine development, and similar outcomes: aka lots of sickly older people died, and the disease became endemic. Of course, back then, the people running the place were selected for something resembling competence or in absence of this, at least an appearance of phlegmatic sanity rather than current year which evidently prefers the precise opposite.

I’m also supposed to be impressed with the mRNA vaccines. They may be a useful new capability for humanity. One, mind you, which existed fully formed about 12 years ago when I wrote about stall in technological progress for Taki. Moderna existed for a whole year by the time Cowen got around to writing about it two years after I did, and had essentially the same vaccine available for MERS shortly afterwords.  It may very well be the loosening of regulatory overhead on mRNA vaccines because cat ladies are afraid of the Wuhan coof unleashed a great new capability which will make us all better off. It may also be that these vaccines are ineffective or dangerous. We don’t actually know yet, and only a fool or a Moderna executive speaks with certainty on the subject. Preliminary results out of Israel are not terribly encouraging; I’d have to guess at best, 95% was an extremely optimistic effectiveness overestimate. At worst, mRNA vaccine is both useless (could be) and harmful (also could be; immune system problems can show up years later).

The idea Chinese photonic quantum computing is some breakthrough is laughably insane: big hint: optical QC is O(n^2) in number of optical elements; just like it was in the 90s when they first tried it. Their setup, of course, isn’t even a QC element, and the real news is a Chinese team beat Google’s QC results using GPUs. Which isn’t a sign of progress; it’s a sign that “quantum computing” is a fake subject filled with gibbering imbeciles. Similarly, Chinese nuclear fusion breakthroughs are about as likely as Chinese quantum computing breakthroughs or Chinese mathematicians proving the Poincare conjecture. China hasn’t innovated much of anything in about 1000 years. If it starts to, it will be a surprise to everyone, including the Chinese. China is undoubtedly a civilization on the rise; particularly apparent because the US is declining: that doesn’t make them actually technologically innovative.

Then we have this:

If you are looking for a quick metric to indicate the great stagnation might be over, consider total factor productivity.  It is entirely possible that tfp in 2021 will be 5 or more, its highest level ever.

Cowen, like most current year economists never wonders at obvious facts like; there have been vast layoffs, a giant bolus of money was injected into the economy, and “remote work” has further shifted millions more jobs overseas. If your economy was a furniture factory and  you started using the existing furniture to run the steam plant, your total factor productivity is going to look really amazingly great for a little while. That’s the kind of economic thought that has brought us the last 50 years. Well played: I hope some lizard man contributed for the Marginal Revolution institute for that one.

To his tremendous credit, he at least never mentions “autonomous vehicles” which remain science fiction concoctions of corporate PR nitwits, apparently even in his world. I think the more parsimonious explanation is people like Cowen and his technologically optimistic buddies have become more credulous of corporate press releases due to being locked in their cuckshed^H^H^H oak panel lined computer rooms for the last year with nothing to do but read corporate propaganda. I have no idea how anyone could have become more trusting of such swine over the last 10 years; in addition to their now-obvious active malevolence, the number of tech PR people outnumbers the number of useful tech reporters by something like a factor of 100. Trusting corporate swine and their NGO parasites does seem to be an essential part of remaining employed in academia these days; generally on subjects relating to outsourcing, mass immigration to lower labor costs and various neurono-libidinal genitalia obsessions to distract the plebes with their own bits. Maybe believing in PR-progress (the only kind we have) is now also mandated; I’m always the last one to get the memo. As Upton Sinclair put it, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Thank you lizard overloards for your great innovations

Or it could just be that ole Tyler is getting old and is hanging around with too many people whose memories don’t extend beyond the 21st century. In his lifetime there were still great leaps forward: the early space program, the microchip, the Concorde, the computer operating system, the fast Fourier transform, the flu vaccine, the birth control pill, the laser, error correcting codes, the 747,  LEDs, pocket calculators, direct dialing, video games, the computer mouse, machine learning, satellite communication, fiber optic communication, the cell phone, the GUI, email, the green revolution, networked computing; these all date from the 60s and early 70s when things were still ticking over. People get old and forget about the wondrous changes that happened in their lifetimes; mostly in the early part of their lifetimes. And they lose the ability to compare them to the less than wondrous changes that have happened lately: basically, diddley squat other than fracking and maybe blockchain.

Meanwhile, back in America: dated aircraft designs dropping out of the skies due to preposterous engineering incompetence, Texas and California can’t keep the lights on due to a lack of rudimentary common sense,  government by hysterical twitter mobs, our latest fighter plane has been declared a failure, tech companies imposing mass censorship and East German style surveillance dystopia, mass obesity and heart disease, favelas of broken and crazy people …. along with normal people bankrupted by a corrupt medical system, three quarters of Western civilization living in medical fascism hell. Yeah, bro, we’re just about to pull out of it. Maybe if we have a giant war and kill off some of the human chum running the place it could happen. It’s definitely not happening right now!


This guy gets it:

Most of the imagery lifted from the excellent Shitty Future twitter feed.


61 Responses

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  1. Marty said, on March 14, 2021 at 10:56 pm

    As a young person I feel saddened by this future we live in. Innovation is reduced to stupid shit like IoT and AI and Machine Learning and all these dumbass buzzwords.

    At my no name engineering school, I had a senior design project presentation (Electrical Engineering). My simple project is to design and build an automatic wire stripper for 22 gauge wires for breadboards in the lab for prototyping. I was grilled by one of the advisers I was presenting to by saying that I should’ve used Rasberry Pi instead of Arduino to run the system because by using Arduino I wouldn’t be able to make it WiFi compatible and IoT friendly. I was bursting with steam and told him why on Earth do you need a touchscreen in a fridge, why on Earth do you need WiFi in a wire stripper.

    I can’t stand it.

    • anonymous said, on March 15, 2021 at 1:26 am

      Kudos to you for building something to solve a problem, and doing it in a way that makes sense to you, not the idiots flinging random PHB requirements from the sidelines. Engineers build things.

      More engineering students should learn how to build things. I sort of snuck into the world of machining: My academic advisor didn’t have the money to pay the school machinists to build things, so he would send us down to the basement shop to cobble together test fixtures out of scrap. (I spent a bit of my own grad-student money on materials for my lab setups.)

      The school machinists, rather than getting territorial about their equipment and department’s funding, took me under their wing and taught me basic lathe and mill operation. It ended up opening up an entire word of capability. Capability that used to be just about every American’s birthright in high-school metal shop class. Now that I have some space (a workshop shed) to set up a small machine shop, I’m accumulating some machine tools and will attempt to build some CNC things.

      Due to America’s *ridiculous* caste system, some of the places that I’ve worked had this strict separation between the engineers and the machinists on the shop floor. Some of this is due to union rules. Some of it is due to class snobbery. Some of it seems to be a conspiracy to keep us trapped in an abstract world of impotent powerpoint begging for permission to do things. It ends up emasculating us as inventors and slowed down our ability to build things manyfold.

      My electrical engineering background I achieved the same way: Against the grain, with my own money, under the table. (Self taught kicad, sourcing components from digikey, and built several pieces of lab equipment that we ended up using.) EE is nice because everything is inexpensive enough that you can do that, and small scale enough that I was able to set everything up on my bed in grad school, and sweep most of the solder blobs off when done.

      • anonymous said, on March 15, 2021 at 1:35 am

        PS: Speaking of ridiculous caste systems – the way this country treats and values its industrial tradesmen and technicians is in general atrocious. Their skills are intricate and vital, and they have to go through brutal apprenticeships before they begin making significantly more than starbucks baristas. You would think this would be the sort of thing market forces would correct, but it seems that caste systems are how human societies really arrange the way they’ll reward people. It’s probably a disease of large hierarchical organizations (which unfortunately, is most of them in our converging economy.)

        • Scott Locklin said, on March 15, 2021 at 11:27 am

          100% agreed on all of this. I guess I’m a little older so I actually had shop class as an undergrad; was a great skill which served me well in my brief experimental physics career. I recently bought some metal tools to make chips with as a way of getting away from the damn computer.

          FWIIW virtually all the great centers of innovation had machinists and technicians working on the same floor with the engineer and scientist types, who were also good at hands on fiddling. LBNL more or less did away with this caste of technician and has drifted into irrelevance because of it: they were the dudes who got stuff done.

        • Marty said, on March 15, 2021 at 3:55 pm

          Yeah I agree with this sentiment. I worked as an intern at a small industrial automation shop that works on assembly line solutions for the medical device industry. There are so few of us that the engineers and the machine builders talk to each other all the time. It’s a great culture and it’s good for solving problems. Definitely going to work there once I’m out of school.

          Since the shop is in the middle of nowhere, a lot of the engineers that work there are “undocumented”, meaning they worked their way up from being electricians or got an associates or something. They all think less of themselves because they don’t have four year degrees.

          Some of those guys are some of the smartest and most mechanically inclined guys I’ve ever met, and they don’t understand how special they are. They’re worth a million engineering PhDs.

  2. Ping O'Reilly said, on March 15, 2021 at 12:13 am

    Cowen is a George Mason University Libertarian so I don’t see how he can function without thinking that technological leaps are ultimately going to pull us out of our unsustainable trajectory. How long could you go without any promising political, social, or economic movements before you start to feel some existential angst?

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 15, 2021 at 12:15 pm

      He wrote a book or two on how progress is slowing down, which took considerable courage at the time, even though it was almost self-evidently true. As for why he thinks it might be speeding up again, see speculations above. I think it most likely he needs to get out of the house more.

  3. William O. B'Livion said, on March 15, 2021 at 12:16 am

    > diddley squat other than fracking and maybe blockchain.

    Hydraulic fracturing has been around since the 1940s (longer if you take a broader view of “fracking”).

    Horizontal/directional drilling is from the 1960s or early 70s depending on where you want to draw the line.

    And isn’t blockchain just an accountant’s ledger + cryptographic hashes? (GD&R)

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 15, 2021 at 11:34 am

      Blockchain has some real interesting ZNP stuff invented in last 3 years, and all of it summed together definitely counts as a new technological capability. Whether or not it’s good for anything for regular people is still an open question, but the market says it will be.

      Similarly lots of the pieces of fracking existed, but it didn’t really start pushing the needle on oil production until the 21st century. I make fun of people for being blinded by the internet, which is a collection of ideas that have been around since the 50s, but it’s fair to say that the search engine and mobile networks both count as new technological capabilities, albeit arguably less important ones than something like fracking or the 747.

      • anonymous said, on March 15, 2021 at 4:50 pm

        Yeah, I think it’s fair to say the cryptographers have delivered: new primitives with ZKPs, homomorphic encryption, ring signatures, MPC.

  4. networdtwo said, on March 15, 2021 at 12:25 am

    What do you think the root progress of progress slowing is, Scott?

    • networdtwo said, on March 15, 2021 at 12:26 am

      *root cause

      • Scott Locklin said, on March 15, 2021 at 5:52 pm

        Too much fucking with computers, too much bureaucracy, too much overrating of collitch ninnies and not enough value for craftsmen, too much anti-intellectual woke nonsense, too much affirmative action, too many drugs (especially the pharma ones for treating unhappiness) and probably too much sex to boot (the ancients were right). Basically you live in a declining civilization. Arguably was declining post 1919; Rome was most creative in the time of the Caesars, then it suddenly wasn’t ever again.

        • gmachine1729 said, on March 16, 2021 at 6:49 am

          Dr. Locklin, what are your thoughts on the IQ argument for the decline of America? I think what is responsible for technological decline, especially in America, is more that we really have reached a bottleneck. After certain hard areas such as high energy physics and rocket technology have more or less peaked, the younger generation stopped going into them, and thus the decline in expertise. As for America, another major cause is the outsourcing of much industry overseas. Though surely, I still think IQ makes a big difference. America is surely fat-tailed in IQ much because of selective immigration, but if you exclude the +3 to +4 sigma level or higher, America is visibly much lower than East Asia and arguably also lower than Europe. America benefited much more top end brain drain from Europe in 30s and 40s; in the next generation, there was regression not only in culture but also in IQ.

          I believe that from 1500 on in the West, with the scalable printing press, major advances in clockmaking, and opening of new lucrative trade links that happened much in 1400s, the people didn’t have to be that high in raw ability to make enormous progress. The printing press of Gutenberg was arguably the biggest game changer. Though moveable type had been invented in China and later in Korea, it was not at scalable, partly due to its being technologically worse and less reliable and also partly due to the burdens of the logographic writing system with thousands of characters which made it way more costly. Before that, the ability to preserve and disseminate information was not only very low but also extremely costly. Transmission of knowledge was a much bigger bottleneck than brilliant minds or capable people.

          The West was leagues ahead a few centuries after the Gutenberg printing press. The advanced knowledge began serious transmission to Russia around start of 18th century and later to Japan and China in latter half of 19th century. Those three latecomers took some time to catch up. Now, those three latecomers are generally technologically stronger than West, though of course, it was West who invented most of it. In the 20th century though, the Russian, Japanese, and Chinese contribution to leading-edge science and technology is arguably close to that of the West. The Russians and Japanese did so mostly in their own countries, while the Chinese mostly did so while in the West, when China was still very much playing catch-up at home. I am inclined to believe now that the IQ of people originating from Russia, Japan, and China including at the far tail are higher than the IQ of Westerners. The pioneering technological achievements of USSR and the enormous Japanese and Chinese contribution to theoretical physics from 1930s on are strong points of evidence of that. Moreover, East Asia and Russia is economically and technologically very much ahead of the West now. As for East Asia, a glaring example is high speed rail, which China is now the largest and best at, which the Japanese pioneered in the 1960s.

          • Scott Locklin said, on March 16, 2021 at 10:41 am

            Average IQ probably tells you something about potential levels of civilization. I don’t think it tells you anything about the tiny fraction of people who actually push the needle in inventing and discovering new things. Aka Chinese average IQ has been pretty high for a long time, probably due to the Mandarinate and all the other stuff HBD nerds babble on about. They’ve invented or discovered jack diddley squat for 1000 years. China barely survived its cultural revolution where all those smart people used their considerable talents to settle petty grudges in ridiculous miniscule power grabs.
            Unless your smart people are encouraged and given the opportunity to use their talents for something constructive, having a whole bunch of them is arguably worse than having a bunch of average and conformist serfs. But again, the people who really make a difference: they only do so under a very restrictive set of situations. IQ determinism doesn’t explain stuff like the Florentine renaissance of the 15th and 16th century or other flowerings of human creativity that changed the world.

            • Walt said, on March 16, 2021 at 2:51 pm

              I’m obviously biased, but


            • sigterm said, on March 16, 2021 at 5:50 pm

              Pet theory: what the Europeans have that the Chinese don’t is the Neanderthal bump. Better at geometry and astronomy since time immemorial, check.

              Though it’s disappearing from the population anyway; pray there was actually nothing important in there.

    • JMcG said, on March 15, 2021 at 3:39 pm

      Well, I can speak to this a little. I just helped a young man get into an IBEW Local. He’s starting at just over 30.00/hr. With some OT, he’ll gross six figures this year. Some apprenticeships are better than others. Probably because some unions are stronger than others.

      • Walt said, on March 16, 2021 at 2:52 pm

        IBEW is a good one. They need electricians badly

  5. Rickey said, on March 15, 2021 at 12:44 am

    I realize since at least Socrates time, persons have been saying the younger generations are soft and lazy, but here is my short list for the stagnation of technological progress.
    – There is no existential threat. Japan ruling the Pacific rim, the Nazis overtaking Europe and the Soviet union nuking us without any retaliatory response were great motivators. What about China? Most organizations like the NBA, Hollywood or big tech would gladly sell their souls to them for their potential 1.3 billion consumers.
    – K through 12 public education and the universities continually declining. For reference, I am a product of the public education system and graduated high school in 1983 and college in 1987. My children, nieces and nephews first two years of college are at the academic level I had in high school. The “No Child Left Behind” program probably was the largest contributing factor.
    – Follow the money. All of the “smart kids” are going into the financial services or high tech entertainment/social media industries. Why slave away developing a computer model for drug interactions or a nuclear fusion reactor for a mere six figure salary when you can make real money developing software for financial transactions or CGI for movies.
    – Zero tolerance for failure or mistakes. I am not talking recklessness but failure from calculated risk or trying to test your limits. When I was in the Navy, the saying was that “One oh shit can ruing a thousand atta boys” and it is even more true today with cancel culture. ADM Nimitz ran a ship aground in 1907 when he was an ensign. Granted, navigation systems and charts are much better today but someone saw leadership potential in him and only received a letter of reprimand. Now a Tweet from 15 years ago when someone was an immature teenager can kill a career.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 15, 2021 at 12:22 pm

      Part of what makes cancel culture work is we have too many “elites” with college educations, and too few useful things they can do. Find that 15 year old saying of the n-word or whatever pays better returns than, like, being good at your job. Conversely, you get numskulls whose entire careers have been mediocrity or overt fuckups (Fauci for example, too many to name in the hedge fund and government business), and you can’t get rid of them. Look at Cuomo; dude massacred thousands of nursing home residents, destroyed the economy of his state, but is ultimately going to be canceled for being Italian and awkwardly hitting on homely underlings (who presumably support Kamala Harris for the 2024 election).

      • chiral3 said, on March 15, 2021 at 12:46 pm

        The Cuomo thing cracks me up. It’s an age-old phenomenon whereby someone has a brash “my way or the highway” leadership style and then they have a 1-in-10 event, the kind when you need friends, and there’s nothing but crickets. Now we could argue that Al Franken had friends, so maybe there’s a few counterexamples, but I’ve seen this a million times. Cuomo ran his shit without a safety net. Yeah, and Cuomo is a 63 year old Italian from Queens. “How you doin’ there? You doin’ good? How’s you family? You seeing anyone? You’re a nice girl. A good lookin’ girl. Alright, don’t get in any trouble!”

        The interesting thing about these little episodes is how they start. It’s like you need an abelian sand pile model or something to recognize the phase transition / critical phenomena nature. They’re nothing, nothing, nothing, …. BAM ….it goes. The interwebs.

  6. Matt said, on March 15, 2021 at 1:32 am

    Do you play go? The way the computer was used for that is different. True it’s not a breakthrough with controlling any fundamental forces of physics for the first time. So it’s not that. But it’s also more than a faster chip.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 15, 2021 at 11:41 am

      Nah, alpha-go was an obvious evolution, and works very similar to how some chess programs do (aka uses monte-carlo tree search). There were a number of similar projects preceding it which did comparably well that didn’t have the marketing and research departments of one of the world’s largest companies.

      When I first saw it, if you squint hard enough, it looked similar to how TD-gammon works.

  7. Raul Miller said, on March 15, 2021 at 2:17 am

    Well, … we do have innovation problems. From a legal perspective our copyright system applies mickey mouse rules [literally] to all realms of technical publishing (including software), and DMCA makes it worse. Meanwhile, our patent system is optimized for patent spam (with a pay-to-enter and guilty-until-proven-innocent legal structure). Fortunately, we can usually ignore both realms:

    “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats,” — Howard Aiken

    That said, when have we ever had innovation of the sort you’re looking for?

    Innovation has mostly always been a gradual improvement sort of thing. People doing things get frustrated by how bad things are and fix something. Rinse and repeat. Mostly you need experience to get things right, and some way of coping with the inevitable mistakes.

    The biggest problem there, that we’re having right now, is the Reagan era decisions to basically outsource all productivity. That took decades to bring us to the brink of collapse, and it’s going to be difficult to recover from (since it’s now law and precedent, embedded in our comfort zones and because most all of the relevant practical experiences now happen elsewhere).

    In this context, it seems like optimizing for high levels of immigration (the sort which already overwhelm our feeble border control systems) might be the cure for our disease. Temporarily, anyways. Which shouldn’t be a problem: we seem to be really good at “temporary”. Likely to induce high levels of misery, though — and that’ll backlash. So you can sort of forgive the people trying to cope with and minimize the inevitable consequences.

    • George W. said, on March 15, 2021 at 5:05 am

      The patent/copyright system is nothing short of an abomination. The fact that patents can exist on food is the really the only thing one needs to know. that, and mickey mouse.

      The medicine-patent intersection is particularly grusome, as is any industry prone to monopolization.

      Also, China and the rest of the world actively ignores our system…. none of it makes any sense

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 15, 2021 at 11:49 am

      I’d say any decade between say 1820 (arbitrary choice) and 1970 was vastly more impressive for actual technological progress than any decade between 1980 and 2021. Think about the titanic changes that took place back then; humanity went from agricultural societies to long distance video broadcasts, mass air travel, etc.

      All of the things you mention, patents, outsourcing, open borders policies (which “increase productivity” by bringing in cheaper labor) are problems. But there are a lot more problems than that!

  8. Walt said, on March 15, 2021 at 3:50 am

    Outstanding poast.

    Apparently I’m supposed to be impressed that Apple is switching to M1. This is a glorified phone chip with marginally better performance characteristics than current year Intel chips for their laptops. This doesn’t represent any sort of progress.

    Microsoft is doing their own ARM. Intel is debating going fabless (out-of-business). I’m hearing RISC-V is the new hotness but not ready for primetime.

    For example: despite all the caterwauling about AI and the mighty information transmitting abilities of the ipotato, the West seemed to be completely incapable of calculating and communicating a dirt simple but very important statistical value,

    I’m reading Peter Kreeft’s book, “Socratic Logic.” In the opening chapters, he defines thinking and shows why a computer can’t think. Apparently modern symbolic logic taught in universities leads to strange and erroneous conclusions such as that a computer will ever be able to understand anything. Old-school Socratic logic, taught up to the turn of the 20th century, would’ve prevented these errors.

    I’m also supposed to be impressed with the mRNA vaccines. They may be a useful new capability for humanity. One, mind you, which existed fully formed about 12 years ago when I wrote about stall in technological progress for Taki. Moderna existed for a whole year by the time Cowen got around to writing about it two years after I did, and had essentially the same vaccine available for MERS shortly afterwords. It may very well be the loosening of regulatory overhead on mRNA vaccines because cat ladies are afraid of the Wuhan coof unleashed a great new capability which will make us all better off. It may also be that these vaccines are ineffective or dangerous.

    The benefits are definitely overstated and the risks are understated. The VAERS data for the mRNA vaccines vs. others are about 10x worse. If you get a shot, get the Johnson and Johnson, Astra Zeneca, or the new protein-based one. They all may be ineffective against the CAL20.C variant (California innovates AGAIN) they’ve known about since July but reported only last month.

    The idea Chinese photonic quantum computing is some breakthrough is laughably insane: big hint: optical QC is O(n^2) in number of optical elements; just like it was in the 90s when they first tried it

    I am absolutely convinced that Chinese technical announcements are just to trick our government into thinking the ChiComs have gotten ahead on something so that billions can be poured into our MIC to work on the next thing they can steal. Look at their J21 fighter. They’re probably stealing all our GaN tech as we speak. Beyond that, I really can’t think of what there is to steal that they haven’t already stolen.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 15, 2021 at 11:56 am

      I won’t take an mRNA vaccine if I have a choice in the matter.

      The level of industrial espionage from China is pretty off the hook. On the other hand, the US economy as it presently exists is basically paid for by Chinese labor, so maybe they deserve it.

      • Huntington said, on March 19, 2021 at 2:55 am

        Would you mind elaborating on why you’d avoid an mRNA vaccine? What have you seen/read that leads you to that conclusion? Genuinely curious!

  9. George W. said, on March 15, 2021 at 4:43 am

    Boredom is a powerful driver of creativity. We introduced portable entertainment to eliminate it. Video games, social media, streaming services, cornhub, drugs: people use these things extensively and they are deleterious to the creativity and proactiveness. China at least acknowledges the gaming problem https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-50315960 and there also exists a retaliation against it more generally https://gamequitters.com/. Then there is a sizeable community of men in nofap, which is only half as weird as what they stand against. I have not seen many anti-weed/psychedelic groups. The fake news media still loves these drugs.

    People have been bored for millions of years. In the last 10 years or so, people spend no more than a second per day in silence. Smart, nerdy people are particularly prone to spending half of their waking lives on a glass-grid of pixels.

    Is it that big of a stretch to think that these moments of nothingness might prompt an explanation of galaxy rotation curves via gravitomagnetism, rather than assuming the presence of a new, undetectable mystery goo that killed the dinosaurs (even if he’s wrong—people are saying his methodology is error prone—it’s still worth looking into. given the consequences).

    Boredom is not the root cause of the stagnation, but I’d say it’s damn good part of it. The kakistrocrats running our plutocracy may be another.


    I agree with the premise of this post, but what’s the solution? I guess the first step is getting people to see past the illusion of progress acknowledge the current state of things.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 15, 2021 at 12:01 pm

      I recently read a book on China Lake and the Sidewinder’s missile development. It was one of the most innovative defense labs in the country for a good chunk of time; in part by breaking down the caste system that kept machinists away from engineers and end customers, and instituting a new caste system that kept bureaucrats away from everyone. The decline happened when the engineers moved off-base, they installed carpets and computers in offices. Not coincidentally drugs and the sexual revolution came around the same time as the carpets and computers.

      • JMcG said, on March 15, 2021 at 3:44 pm

        I’d say that today’s corporate culture and the rise of the malevolent NGO is directly attributable to the birth control pill. Too many women with too much time on their hands and too many men who give a damn what said women think of them.

  10. Frank said, on March 15, 2021 at 8:16 am

    I couldn’t agree more! I feel that the root of the problem is the financial system. Stock buy-backs and other mechanisms that allow corporations to create the illusion of ‘growth,’ while completely failing to invest in primary research. William Lazonick inspired me in this area https://hbr.org/2020/01/why-stock-buybacks-are-dangerous-for-the-economy

  11. DamnItMurray said, on March 15, 2021 at 9:02 am

    Maybe the climate extremists are on to something when they talk about human thermodynamics going out of wack. Only, they are focusing on a larger goal post – the environment, when in reality social entropy will result in a much less spectacular human extinction than one envisioned by people who think that the biosphere could die before one of it’s many inhabitant species. It’s like saying that your house will burn down before you die from all the smoke inhalation(climate jihadists, pardon my not so accurate comparison, but that’s basically the idea). We’ve reached a point in our development , where we’re expending a lot of energy as a species to prevent most natural threats, and that will at some point result in a net entropy too large to avoid. As I said that won’t result in some spectacular grandiose planet implosion, just a steady progression of wars, famine, infertility etc. Of course, one should always be optimistic, and a reset in human civilization is not unimaginable (though would probably also have a high cost in terms of casualties).

  12. Shion said, on March 15, 2021 at 10:28 am

    My counter argument would be that SpaceX actually is a technological innovative as they have improved the field of rocketry. They currently can get a payload to LEO cheaply and with the development of starship, they will be able to deliver 150T payloads to Mars, the moon or LEO.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 15, 2021 at 12:07 pm

      “They currently”

      No, they do not currently get a payload to LEO particularly cheaply. In fact they don’t even get a payload to LEO reliably. We’re still hitching rides with the Rooskies, who, in fact, do get a payload to LEO both cheaply and reliably using the technologies they developed 50 years ago.

      ” they will be able to”

      They claim they will be able to. So did the space shuttle. It would be great if they pull it off, and kudos to them for trying, but the promises of corporate PR are not facts.

      • Marty said, on March 15, 2021 at 4:01 pm

        I love Elon Musk, but people gotta understand he is only one man. One man does not make an entire civilization. If you do more research, in Western civilizations heyday, there were scores of men like Elon Musk, loaded with armies of engineers and tradesmen much more competent then we are.

        Our ancestors were better than us, no shame in admitting it. Elon is just the last light, bravely burning in the darkness of the new Middle Ages.

        I worry our window for expanding out towards the stars has closed. We won’t have that kind of civilization for another couple centuries

      • anonymous said, on March 17, 2021 at 12:48 pm

        SpaceX is perhaps the last remaining aerospace company in the US being run anything like the old aerospace companies during their more productive periods. You’ve got to admit they have a rocket that they’ve been launching about once a month or more.

        They also actually test their hardware, instead of expecting it to spring forth from powerpoint fully formed like Athena from the brows of Zeus. I’m a little allergic to the fanboyism surrounding them, but I can’t hate the company or what it is trying to accomplish: They seem to be doing everything right that they can do right. Maybe they’ll be able to build their ITS, maybe not – it’s a terribly hard thing they’re aiming at: But they’re out there bending metal.

        You seem to be a bit of a Russophil. It seems to me (from my not-terribly-informed outsiders perspective) that Russia has experienced a similar “innovation freeze” in space that US NASA did post Apollo/Shuttle. They’re flying the Proton and Soyuz, not because they’re some platonic ideal of rocketry (don’t they use N2O4/hydrazine on their booster stages?), but I suspect because that was the last time they had someone empowered to make real design decisions.

        • Scott Locklin said, on March 17, 2021 at 1:05 pm

          The US stopped building their 60s era man-rated rockets, not because they were any worse, but because the shittle was supposed to take over and they had to be killed off to avoid making that program look as obviously disastrous as it was. Rooskies built one too, but rapidly realized what a waste it was, and so continued to use what they developed in the 60s. Meanwhile the US flushed enormous sums down the toilet on the Shuttle, various other paper designs, various heavy lift capabilities fielded by different contractors, SpaceX’s rocket and they STILL need to hitch a ride on the Russian 60s design.

          I’m a huge fan of common sense; Russians still seem to have it.

    • George W. said, on March 15, 2021 at 7:50 pm

  13. Altitude Zero said, on March 15, 2021 at 11:41 am

    Wasn’t Wenatchee where they had that insane daycare abuse panic in the 1980’s,where they jailed all those innocent people for non-existent child sexual abuse perpetrated in non-existent tunnels under the school? Maybe there’s something in the water…

  14. Maverick said, on March 15, 2021 at 6:01 pm

    Something obvious but underappreciated Peter Thiel has pointed out repeatedly and Cowen neglected to include in his obviously Thiel-sourced pamphlet is that 20th century free-market globalist liberalism (i.e. Cowen’s entire worldview) is predicated on continuing technological progress. Libural dumocracy doesn’t work very well in a zero-sum world of low economic growth; you get annoying things like occupy wall street or tariff wars as classes and countries fight over pies that aren’t getting bigger. If “global order” is a game-theory problem, you need a pretty big surplus to pass around to various opposing elites to prevent them from defecting. Economic growth comes from either people making more babies, or technological progress. The global labor force grew something like 500% in the 20th century, and we’ll be lucky to get 20% in the 21st. So if we’re going to get enough growth to avoid erosion of liberal norms, nationalism, Hitler 2, multiple genocides, and a nuclear apocalypse, that singularity had better be coming soon. I think this sort of dynamic, imagined or real, goes a long way toward explaining the stubborn refusal of people like Cowen to look the reality they can’t help noticing squarely in the face.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 15, 2021 at 6:34 pm

      His book kind of brushes up against it. Lizarddom did a pretty good job of adding women and immigrants to the workforce and halving everyone’s salaries and getting the Chinese to pay for it to make up for the lack of productivity increases. Not a sustainable trajectory of course; half the women are on drugs, we’re running out of non-cannibal immigrants, the Chinese might get sick of it, to say nothing of the real estate prices making the infrastructure impossible to extent to support the existing numbers let alone a billion American population.

  15. NZT said, on March 16, 2021 at 10:28 pm

    Great article, all your writing on this subject has been top notch, and I’ve shared a lot of it with friends and colleagues over the years.

    Having grown up in the 80’s and 90’s I’m amazed anyone could dispute that technological progress has palpably slowed to a crawl. Thinking of the things we gained in the 20c: mass electrification, cars, planes, radios, computers, TV’s, phones, refrigerators, the internet, it’s mind-blowing. Someone born in 1910 who died in 2000 wouldn’t need a libertarian economist to tell them they’d lived through the most astonishing period of technological advancement in history.

    My lifetime hasn’t been anything like comparable. We got computers and the internet, and those things got faster than before and became wireless. Cell phones had cameras and data plans added to them to help distract bored commuters. TV’s got slimmer and sharper (well past the point of diminishing returns). Tons of shit had pointless and intrusive touchscreens and wifi and apps added to them. Movies started featuring so much CGI it all became a video game blur, with less dramatic impact than the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park in 1993. Some people enjoy speculating on shitcoins and have made money, but as a technology it has yet to do anything remotely transformational for the average Joe (and electronic payment systems are decades old). I guess we have drones to blow up weddings and aspirin factories in MENA?

    Even the things we anticipate as future breakthroughs are uninspiring: EV cars are at BEST an incremental bump over ICE cars, and even that is debatable. 5G just means dopes watch Tiktok in 4k instead of 1080p. The “Internet of Things” is 100% Black Mirror dystopia. Rockets are an old, mature technology and only an idiot would ever want to ride one given their apparently ineradicable risk margin. And AI, quantum computing, and fusion are all laughable vaporware boondoggles as you’ve been illustrating for years.

    I think we’ve really just picked most of the low-hanging fruit by now, which combined with bureaucratic sclerosis, monopolistic apathy (just borrow money at 0% and buy back your stock bro, R&D is hard), corrupt and hubristic governance, onset of ubiquitous virtual distractions instead of hands-on hobbies, and overall cultural unseriousness, means we can expect “innovation” for the foreseeable future to boil down to the iPhone 23 and the Playstation 11, with maybe a few heroic interventions for keeping obese people alive a little longer thrown in. Curious how many more decades this churn continues before we start bumping into hard shortages of natural resources, energy, topsoil, etc

  16. Himuro Tatsuya said, on March 17, 2021 at 8:03 am

    Confused, do you think COVID-19 is real or not? To me it made sense to have a lockdown initially in the face of that much uncertainty, but we should have rapidly scaled up testing and made lockdowns a lot more targeted.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 17, 2021 at 10:25 am

      Of course it’s “real.” The response to it, however, was from planet dumbass. Which is exactly what you get when you appoint public health officials who look like a monty python sketch.

      • Frank said, on March 17, 2021 at 10:54 am

        I would also say that people underestimate the hunger for power these people have. Most of the policy response will be incompetence, but a lot of it will be about not having the correct incentives to solve it at all. To a certain extent, these people get a raging hard-on for things like lockdown, and privately these events will be the highlights of their ‘career.’

      • George W. said, on March 19, 2021 at 8:31 pm

        Won’t be too long before wordpress.com begins censoring comments like these, or worse, linking Wikipedia articles!

      • Himuro Tatsuya said, on March 22, 2021 at 8:13 am

        I sort of agree…I find myself being irritated both by people who act like no lockdown was necessary from the start (amidst high uncertainty), and those who keep thinking New Zealand and Taiwan policies can be applied to places like India and New York. After a certain point, one has to realize that rapidly scaling up testing and contact tracing as well as vaccination is more effective than broad, repeated lockdowns. At the very least, allow outdoor activities…

        • Scott Locklin said, on March 22, 2021 at 10:42 am

          I can’t think of a major decision or statement made by public health authorities which was even reasonable. Most of if has been the equivalent of monkey threat displays or mass hysterias over witchcraft. Compare this to the public health crisis of polio in the 1940s; a vastly worse plague which crippled the young and spread like fire. Or the 1957 or 1968 flu pandemics. All fed by a mass media system which encourages hysteria and clickbait.

          I can excuse early lockdowns based on the uncertainties, but by April 2020, there was absolutely no excuse: it was clear what was happening and that lockdowns were useless.

          • Inquirer said, on March 22, 2021 at 6:43 pm

            Have you seen Nassim Taleb’s statements? It’s been a year. The man and Yaneer Bar-Yam keeps pushing for more aggressive lockdowns, especially on the young.

    • Walt said, on March 17, 2021 at 7:06 pm

      We have data on the effects of lockdowns by country. Lockdowns may have actually spread the virus.
      Where we started:
      Where we are: ​

      The effects of the “control” measures are likely to be much worse than the virus itself.

  17. Rellag said, on March 20, 2021 at 3:49 am

    Apologies for the below – more of a sketch of an idea than a deductive argument

    Whether you call it a Klein Type I Company or something else – I think you’re dealing with one question in many posts (The Post with A Thousand Faces).

    Where do we go to obtain the Promethean Fire? (PF)

    Is it a a collaborative or individual effort?

    Heaviside and Wright found it – despite no institutional support (or wealth)

    Shockley and Von Neumann found it with better pedigrees and more conventional environments

    You can say where it’s not to be found: Can’t be bought or transferred. Can’t exist in a government bureau. Almost certainly doesn’t exist in modern academia.

    Educational attainment not predictive.

    Is it inside or outside or – can only reached traveling outside from inside

    Some of the signposts are strangely similar – Musk’s “staring into abyss chewing on broken glass”, Lovecraft’s Cosmic Horror. Warhammer’s Warp – though that’s probably derivative to Lovecraft, Pressfield’s Resistance.

    I think you have to go out into the pitiless void and bring back *something*

    Good news is there’s a lot of stuff out there in the void. It’s of inifinite extent and not empty – the expected value of finding stuff is *very, very, very* high

    Bad news is there’s also madness and loneliness and failure and despair and physical suffering – Heaviside dealt with starvation and cold in his later years.

    Can bring books and knowledge into void – but books are not the void, nor are they the doors into it.

    What destroys capacity to spend time in void? – loss of concentration – distraction – fear/petty concerns of life.

    I come down on – individual not collaborative route

    A collaborative environment can be PF-permissive and can relieve the despair and physical suffering of going at it alone. But strongly believe that has more to do with being able to walk to Central Square and get a beer and a cheap Chinese meal with a friend than the Gehry-designed monstrosity on Vassar where Building 20 once stood.

    otherwise, environment far more likely to be destructive than supportive.

    Thanks for the patience – I’ll see if I can refine the idea somewhat

  18. kapil kumar sharma said, on March 23, 2021 at 6:18 pm

    hello sir, reading your blogs since a long time.I am curious about a question , i am not sure whether this is the correct place to ask . Earth is loosing 3kg hydrogen per second. the indirect source of free hydrogen on earth is water(water is converted to organic substances and oxygen by photosynthesis, organic substances while decaying release a little amount of h2 too). Will the earth’s ocean evaporate away due to this process in the long run?

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 23, 2021 at 6:29 pm

      You can answer this question yourself. How many seconds in a day?

      • kapil kumar sharma said, on March 24, 2021 at 2:50 pm

        according to my calculations earth loses 230 tons of hydrogen a day and approx 95000 tons annually .According to internet sources hydrogen weight on earth is 10^20 tons(0.14% of earth weight 6.8 * 10^24). By my calculations it will take atleast 100 billion years to finish 1% of earth hydrogen. The problem i am really worried if by any means if we use “clean hydrogen” as a fuel the current rate of leakage will increase many folds and not only that we will destroy our environment in really unexpected ways like leaked hydrogen will move up and create holes in the ozone layer


        the whole “clean hydrogen ” may be a hype though but still a legitimate possibility

        • Scott Locklin said, on March 24, 2021 at 9:36 pm

          Hydrogen turns into water when you burn it, and I doubt they’ll let much leak, so we should be fine. Anyway, good exercise: you can do this sort of check at any time; Fermi tests.

  19. Science and Cummings | TNE said, on May 7, 2021 at 1:47 pm

    […] Locklin, a former physicist, who works on quantitative problems, has this to say about the state of science and innovation in the […]

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