Wednesday assorted links


#1 - lack of good patents? Probably. Why invent something like a form of aeroplane or glider, lack in ancient China, and have your head cut off by the emperor for doing so? As an anthropologist said, change is risky in a tribe and liable to get you killed by the tribal elders if it fails (evolutionary bias). We have that some bias in today's advanced society; it's in our genes.

I finally read #1. Keyword search the article for the term "PATENT", two hits. Notice the author mentions patents twice by quoting others, how inventors had their patents ripped off by infringers (citing Eli Whitney and also the flying shuttle inventor) and made nothing, but in his conclusion the author could not quite connect the dots, and settled for the generic explanation of "In light of this, I think the deepest explanation is in general economic and cultural factors". Cultural factors = lack of patents adequately enforced. At least it's a start for this journalist.

Bonus trivia: Eli Whitney --who did not 'invent' interchangeable parts, a Napoleonic Frenchman did--got most of his money not from the patented cotton gin but from connections with the US government in fulfilling a armaments contract. He was a savvy businessman and knew how to butter his bread.

The patent is the mother of all invention?

Anecdotes are not the same as evidence. There is not a single evidence that bicycle was not invented before due to the inexistent patent system.

@Anecdote - so, your fallacy is, "if man was meant to fly, he'd have wings!"? Status quo bias.

If you look the earliest iterations of bicycles, it appears to me that, perhaps, people doing the inventing didn't immediately recognize the power of angular momentum principles.

When I was 5 years old and my father was teaching me to ride a bicycle, I asked him why didn't fall over on him. He explained it to me correctly, but I didn't understand it at all, then he just fell back to "people learn to balance it" to shut me up.

I doubt even 5% of the population today could give you the scientific explanation, but everyone now knows you can ride a bike.

#6 - 6. Diane Coyle on the study of progress - and not one mention of typical.

When I was working I'd meet esteemed scientists who had not a single patent in their name, and were proud of that sometimes, presumably for not selling out to The Man. The TC bias of society praise in lieu of money is a powerful drug. Like that Russian fellow who gave up $1M (what happened to him?) so he could study his math anonymously. However, I would argue many scientists are motivated by money, read Paul Rabinow's "Making PCR", and a better patent policy like one giving state money to worthy inventions (regardless of whether the employer gives money) would motivate more non-immigrants to go into STEM. As it stands, STEM doesn't pay unless you are an immigrant who has nothing to lose. Better to be a gatekeeper.

That's what I got out of reading #6, how about you?

With Coyle's quote "[y]et although the public broadly trusts academic research, most academics are poor communicators (which again reflects their professional incentives)", I was heartened to find that academics sometimes have working senses of humor: nevertheless, I don't think stand-up delivery of "progress science" will become much of an entertainment option, even in the entertainment environment of post-secondary institutions of higher training.

"Progress" remains the modernist myth of temporality that we live already in an irrevocable future. (Do any academics today subscribe to "temporal realism"? Why would economists with measurement aspirations succumb so readily to bogus chronometry?)

3. Dollar homes. Ok so paying a buck for the opportunity to haul a shitload of rubble to the dump, in a town devastated by an earthquake (only one? Seriously doubt it) and probably, or at least should, have new building codes. But once you scrape it down to the earth, what have you bought and what do you own? The puff piece article is silent on that.

Maybe you have actually bought real estate, maybe a 15'x45' plot. But maybe you didnt buy that. Maybe you only bought a second story apartment where there is no more first story.

But for a buck, what have you really lost?

Would it surprise you to learn that the offer has strings attached?

6. Progress is, as the word suggests, progressive, as one technological development builds upon prior technological developments. I suspect the hand-wringing today about progress is the doubt whether so-called tech actually contributes to the progression. From my many comments, it's quite clear my view about so-called tech. When Peter Thiel questions tech, one has to ask oneself if we have going down a rabbit hole. The problem with Cowen's proposal that we should study the "science of progress" is that the black hole, so-called tech, will absorb all of the energy.

#1 Good read. From a practical perspective, I think 'the horse' and 'road quality' really stand out as the primary reason. The horse is literally an all terrain vehicle and, if you've never done serious off-road biking, it's a huge amount of effort. Metallurgy is less so as the first bikes didn't have any drive-train and you could've just've easily made them out of wood. I vote 'the horse' and 'road quality'.

#2 Same thing in Japan. College is more of a 'finishing school'. You work yourself to death to pass the 高考 and once you do (and do well) it's gravy.

"Same thing in Japan. College is more of a 'finishing school'. You work yourself to death to pass the 高考 and once you do (and do well) it's gravy."

This is not true for the sciences. By the way, 高考 is Chinese.

"By the way, 高考 is Chinese"

I know. That's what I was referring to in making an analogy to Japan. Furthemore, "This is not true for the sciences" I'm not so sure. In addition to the considerably higher bar than an undergraduate program (i.e. my 'finishing school' comment) I've met my share of Japanese biochem grads taking their sweet time both to finish up and enter the workforce. But yes, on a school and individual basis YMMV.

There’s likely a video out there of Larry Bacow on Little St James island dressed in ceremonial robes eating a baby’s brain like an apple. Do you think you can say the same thing about a Japanese university administrator? That’s the real difference between the higher education systems.

Roads tend to be an indirect effect. Bad roads affect adoption rates and influence innovation. Lack of adoption limits innovation. Bad roads impact adoption, so innovation is directed to what can be done to the bicycle to overcome them and increase adoptation. Hence the penny farthing. Innovation in that direction is limited however, the huge front wheel helps with bad roads but makes the bike dangerous - there's only so much you can do to the bike itself.

So lobbying for better roads is the better long term solution. Once enough of them are in place, you can reset the design to eliminate the dangerous elements and focus on other innovations.

#1: the author doesn’t miss any major factors, and comes up with the right answer (pneumatic tires were the novel invention that transformed the bicycle from a toy to a tool).

And as you might expect from the fact the story is linked here, the bicycle is a tale of marginal revolutions: lighter wheel construction and efficient ball bearings were necessary to make proto-bicycles not suck; rubber tires (even the solid ones) were an incremental step that laid the path for pneumatic tires. Steel tube frames were vastly better than wood proto-frames.

The safety bicycle (as opposed to the high-wheel, aka penny-farthing design) was a final invention that was made feasible by pneumatic rubber tires, and arrived almost as soon as it could (note that as far back as the Draisienne, it’s the default shape for a “bicycle”, and only the consideration of gearing, and the side benefit of a smoother ride, created the large-wheel bikes).

One wrong foot: belts and lever drives are both efficient enough to use on a bicycle, but chain is generally better. Bikes using both drive systems are commercially available today.

I’m not an expert on vulcanized rubber, and how easy the process is, in the context of whether it could have been created much earlier, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the heyday of the bicycle followed almost immediately after pneumatic tires were widely available.

An interesting thought-experiment is to conceive the best bicycle makeable in each era. I believe the Romans could have more or less constructed a Dandy-Horse, but it would have been (as it was later) a mere amusement.

Natural rubber is a New World product that didn't make it to Europe until the 18th century, which limits the time frame during which vulcanization might have been in

1. Common knowledge among the bike tech crowd, but perhaps not more generally.

Trivia: there was a guy a few years back who tried to be the first to pedal a penny-farthing around the world. I followed his progress a bit. He mostly seemed to be recovering from bad solo crashes.

He also raced on the penny-farthing circuit. There is such a thing.

Looking now, it seems he made it!

#6 Doyle begins, "In fact, cases of sustained rapid growth, like Japan beginning in the 1960s"

The post World War II fast growth began in 1953 and that was sustained until 1973. But of course Japan had sustained fairly rapid growth from the late 19th century. A lot of people forget this small detail.

I don't understand Cowen's "GDP plus" that others have also discussed for decades (somehow subtracting environmental degradation, etc.) GDP is just a measurement of economic output and isn't supposed to measure progress.

Yup. That's what I said when he mentioned his new article on "Progress"...increase in standard of living = progress is, as far as I can see, circular. It's mostly just a repackaging of GDP/cap. Coyle says:"Over eight decades after its introduction, there is a widespread consensus that GDP is no longer a useful measure of economic progress." I doubt if you can remove values from the idea of progress. In fact, so many political disagreements are about values. But health, happiness, and fulfillment would likely make my list of things that progress must include measures of. Not sure if contentment would make it, nor accomplishment, but maybe.

like having a vaccine against polio, small pox, and tb? that's progress in any way that you might construe it differently.

1. How was a woman to ride a bicycle while wearing a dress? Thus, the early designs that weren't really bicycles. As for men, or manly men, bicycles weren't exactly manly; indeed, they strike me as feminine, with small frames for small men who, while riding them, would take embarrassing falls in front of the formerly admiring women. I ride a road bike, a far cry from early versions of bicycles: it even has the bicycle version of disc brakes. But it has a small, lightweight frame (to achieve higher speeds and require less effort) that makes it unstable. Just a few weeks ago, as I accelerated onto the road in order to pull ahead of cars coming up from behind, I lost control of the cycle and came within a hair's breadth of a crash, much to the amusement of the people watching the spectacle in the line of cars headed in the opposite direction. Cycles are dangerous; I have crashed more than once and have the injuries to show for it. It hurts, and I wear the proper equipment - no, I don't wear a suit and tie. Bicycles: unsafe at any speed.

"How was a woman to ride a bicycle while wearing a dress?"

With a women's bike that provided space for the dress? However, there was a special 19th-century health risk for women riders -- namely bicycle face. (Funny link, but plenty of pictures that help solve that whole riding-while-wearing-a-dress mystery).

"I ride a road bike....I have crashed more than once and have the injuries to show for it"

Sounds like it's time for you to stop riding a road bike in traffic. Get something beefier and more stable and find some bike paths, trails, or dirt roads. Seriously. I hung up my road bike several years ago. Not because of crashing but because of texting idiots.

Women's costumes, especially among those rich enough to afford something like a bike, were not at all practical for bicycling until the late 19th century. Imagine biking in a hoop skirt or with wide panniers or a long train. The side saddle solved the problem for equestrian women, but that would not have worked for a bike.

"Bicycles: unsafe at any speed."

Depends. I've used bikes since I'm 5 (I'm 35 now) and never had any serious accidents. I commute every day in central London, do some road bikes on holidays or week-ends and used to do some mountain biking when I was a teenager. I know there are risks but I don't think it's an unsafe mode of transport (or sport).

2. Same thing in France with "grande école" system. This kind of system is not a problem per se and a stable equilibrium and Chinese universities won't depart from it.

On topic, because famous economists have been to THE island?

Incentives matter.

#4: A maximum of 2.5 years in prison for tagging is "draconian"? Doesn't seem so to me. Here in Chicago graffiti artists can be sentenced to one year max, but if they hit a church or school the penalty can be up to 5 years.

1. Only recently have scientists figured out why the modern bicycle works: it has to do with positioning the butt in the right spot.

2. From 1, it was not obvious that one can balance a two wheeled contraption. So, I don't agree with this: "(Some commenters have suggested that it was not obvious that a two-wheeled vehicle would balance, but I find this unconvincing given how many other things people have learned to balance on, from dugout canoes to horses themselves.)"

The horse and forms of something you can jump on and row down the water existed in nature (in the latter case think of a log). Point is that it was easy to experiment with these. But a) they occurred in nature -- you did not have to build it and b.1) the horse has 4 legs -- in fact the existence of the house would encourage you to build a mechanical carriage and not a bicycle, just like the author observed; b.2) the bottom of a canoe is not at all like a two-wheeled bike; it is a close to flat bottom that touches the water.

All the bicycle talk is pretty awful. You can balance on a moving bicycle (as opposed to a stationary bicycle) due to the gyroscopic effect of the rotating wheels. Gyroscopes were first understood by Laplace and Foucault, mid 19th century, and French bicycles followed soon after.

"Foucault"? That can't be right... or you mean Fourier?

The pendulum Foucault, not the panopticon Foucault.

Bicycle stability works because of the conservation of angular momentum: a rotating object will resist having its plane rotation changed unless acted on by sufficient torque.

Much of which misses the point. Originally the first true bicycle, the draisine, was balanced more or less by putting the riders feet to the ground, a stable, fleeting, three point contact, as it was pushed it forward.

It wasn't until people began to use the draisine that most people would have realized that you could balance a moving bicycle and keep it stable when your feet were off the ground. No doubt the first ride down a hill with the rider's feet splayed to each side of the bike was preceded by some daredevil shouting, "Watch this! Hey, hold my beer." In German, in this case.

#1: Because it was not a worthy pursuit? Bicycles are not war machines, they don't help to produce more food, they don't get you closer to God. The author deals tangentially with the issue by mentioning people need to be rich enough to have spare time to think beyond food and shelter.

I think it's also worth considering the risk of injury and the social norms on risk-taking along history. Leisure injuries are a luxury that the rich can afford (horse riding, hunting, etc). Being injured on the battlefield is praise-worthy for soldiers. Work related injuries are a necessary evil that the lower classes should preferably bear. Indeed, the poor could not afford to be injured because it meant a life of disability and poverty...if people did not die soon afterward. Before modern medicine, people was more afraid of injuries. Talk to very old people and they still consider a broken bone a life-changing event (for the worse). For us, it has become a stop by the hospital, a few weeks resting at home and back to life as before. Modern medicine may have made us more adventurous.

#6 was excellent. Progress Studies can certainly be viewed, or repackaged, as a call for integration of current efforts. And perhaps it was useful that the original Collison/Cowen article was a bit of a hand grenade, in retrospect, and a call to attention.

A different version of the article, referencing other researchers and including a short bibliography, might have ruffled fewer feathers, but it also might have sunk quickly in the Atlantic.

4) I wish Rome would care about its garbage problem. It’s allowing drunk idiots to trash the city with little enforcement. Locals are indifferent to the issue

"Why did it take so long to invent the bicycle? " Since it's impossible to determine what a true "reasonable" period of time is for this development, and also no reason to assume it's inevitability, the whole question is meaningless. And so is the discussion, which comes to the same non-conclusion conclusions that these silly lines of thinking always lead to. "It happened because Reasons". TED talk swill.

It's a useful framework for thinking about the requirements for developing the bicycle. The question pretty clearly isn't intended to be taken literally--but rather as a way to approach the problem. What were the specific steps? What did they require? Why were they taken when they were taken? These are interesting questions, at least to some people (the author and myself included).

And figuring out those reasons why the bicycle took so long to be developed is sort of what that blog DOES. Have you read anything else on it? His whole purpose in blogging (which he makes clear in his early posts) is to dig into the details of technological developments most people take for granted. Complaining that this guy is digging deeply into a technological development you take for granted is wildly missing the point.

2. Isn't it the same in the U.S. for the selective universities? You have to work very hard to get into one of the top 25 or so colleges, but once you're there, the saying is that "The only thing harder than getting into Harvard is flunking out of Harvard." I know my experience (40 years ago) was that I killed myself in high school, but then totally goofed off in college, before again working hard in law school and as a young associate.

I actually attempted to drop out of Harvard. It was explained to me that I could not do this, I needed to go on leave for a year and then and only then would they allow me to drop out.

In the elite US academy most of the professors are part of elite international pedo cults. This explains many things. You don't get tenure at Harvard unless you play the game and become one of "them".

Interesting. We said the exact opposite about my alma matre: They'd take anyone with a pulse, but to stay in required extraordinary effort. A fairly high percent failed out in the first year or two due to inability to adjust to a lifestyle where no one was holding your hand, making sure you got assignments done on time, making sure you ate and slept and the like. I basically lived in the geology building, but that was cultural as much as scholastic--it was a small, tight-knit community.

At the University of Chicago they once had t-shirts reading "If I had wanted an A, I would have gone to Harvard."

€1 houses, not $1.
They don't use the USD in Italia.

#1 I didn't realize that I'm an acquaintance of and Facebook friends with the author until I read further into the blog. I think he's a smart person and has a lot of interest posts there. However, I think the question he asks is fundamentally flawed. Asking why something wasn't invented sooner seems to assume that inventions can come without inventors, as if useful inventions are somehow inevitable. I know the author knows that they are not, and that a combination of knowledge and prior technological breakthroughs have to intersect and that a person with the right awareness and effort has to do the work to invent something new. Thus to me, a more interesting question would be, who invented the bicycle, for what means, and what led it to be such a great success for such a long time, and for what reasons is its use now being supplanted?

1. Why did it take so long to invent the bicycle? (recommended)

The canoe or row boat was the correct model, as the post noted.
From Wiki:
The earliest record of a pedalo is perhaps Leonardo da Vinci's diagram of a craft driven by two pedals.
They should have listened to Leonardo.

#1 the crucial inventions were the "clincher" type pneumatic tire, and the roller chain.

The earliest pneumatic tires were glued onto the rims, but that's obviously a problem if (when) you get a flat. A tire that adheres to the rim more firmly as it's inflated is a huge improvement.

Bicycle chains are roller chains, which have significantly less friction than simple chains. Low friction is important here not only to reduce the effort needed to crank the bicycle, but to increase the life of the chain as high-friction chains wear out faster.

Although it is somewhat practical to drive a bicycle with a drive shaft, using a bevel gear to drive it from the crankset sprocket, and another to drive the rear hub. It's less efficient than a chain but still pretty good, and plenty sturdy.

Then again, it could take months for messages to move throughout the the Roman Empire; couldn't they have at least invented an optical telegraph?

1. Why not a tricycle earlier? Nothing in the child's classic "big-wheel" design is complicated, and in retrospect is less complicated than the penny-farthing design.

This is a good question. Even as a child’s toy a tricycle has utility. My view is that without a way to manufacture thousands of products, why bother? You put in a lot of experimentation for just effectively your self. It was mass production and mass markets that made inventing things worthwhile.

Simple tricycles have two options.

1. Ride low to the ground. This means you are at the mercy of the terrain, catching any sort of terrain between the wheels on the axles results in damage to the axles and a very uncomfortable ride. This will be worse with iron wheels. Being low to the ground also means that you are much more likely to get trampled by horses, particularly with something like a team pulled coach.

2. Ride high. This moves your center of gravity very high up and makes corners and rough terrain even more unstable. Children's tricycles avoid this by moving very slowly. When the whole point is to move faster than walking, this is not actually that useful.

I have seen significant injuries from both the tendency to tip on cornering (which is why modern tricycles are built to tilt like bicycles) and the tendency to not be seen by traffic.

For all tricycle designs you had the problem of weight. The first tricycle actually predates the first bicycle, but thanks to the weight issue and that it was handcranked made it utterly impractical. Being able to get off the ground, get to speed, and handle turns is actually non-trivial.

Even a Big Wheel needs ball bearing hubs.

And imagine have to ride one over cobblestones.

There is probably a good YouTube on the evolution to ball bearings ..

I once lived on a brick street and I've biked through cobblestone-paved Katyn Circle in Baltimore. Rough rides indeed.

Worth noting a lot of Smolin's ideas are Peircean. Worth bringing up the Leibniz connection since more people know him than Peirce but a lot described in that article is completely Peirce.

#2 Thank goodness for the humanities. They serve a clear purpose in the U.S. as a sink, given the current equilibrium here.

#2 . If College educations is about signalling, chinese gaokao is the way to go. College is a debt + deadweight loss for students in order to support high wage professors. This is specially true in Economics.

#1: the key is the number of people who could afford the tools and equipment to experiment and also had the mechanical knowledge.

Those Italian homes have so much character, but what is the broadband Internet situation and what are the taxes like? Would I get free / subsidized health care? That in and of itself may be a reason to move there.

#5, doesn't help that Smolin has 'Einstein on Politics' in his bookshelf ... otherwise, am reading with fascination.

#1: To combine two of Tyler's pet projects: under-rated or over-rated in the science of progress?

Materials science.

Under-rated, almost criminally so, by most people including the author of that article (and maybe by Tyler and I suspect Collison too).

To build a useful bicycle you need the technology to create materials with the necessary strength, durability, etc. You can't build a useful bicycle out of wood. I doubt you can build a useful one out of iron -- the best you can do is probably the velocipede. You need steel -- and equally important, and completely overlooked in the article -- that steel needs to be affordable. Which is exactly what happened in the steel industry especially in the latter half of the 19th century.

As others have mentioned: ball bearings, chains, spokes, and gears. Try building a useful bicycle without those, and try building those without steel (maybe the spokes and gears would be okay), and to make the whole thing commercially viable the steel has to be sufficiently cheap.

The same can be said, as others have already mentioned, about vulcanized rubber. Even with the steel in place, will anyone want to ride the thing if it doesn't have pneumatic or at least rubber tires?

it seems to me that the modern safety bicycle -- the only practical bicycle, penny-farthings could never be more than a niche market -- was developed about as quickly as we could expect it to have been developed. Prior to that, the necessary ingredients were not in place or were too expensive, and the best we could do was monstrosities such as the penny-farthing or toy amusements such as the velocipede.

As for the website where Tyler found the article: so far I've only read two of the articles. My evaluation is mixed at best. The bicycle article is bad. The article about AC electrical power is on the whole good, but it took me a long time to get past this line where the author is trying to explain electricity: "greater voltage will produce a greater current".

Thankfully it's an example merely of atrocious wording or maybe even a typo of sorts, the explanation and the article in general seem pretty solid to me.

But oh that line. Makes my head hurt.

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