Who killed the railroads?

This has been bothering me for a while now. I don’t fully buy the argument that cars outright destroyed the US railroad industry between 1900-1930. Passenger rail, maybe, but railroad conditions and use had steeply declined by the 1920s, (less than?) a decade after the Model T and the implementation of the assembly line at Ford(1). By the time the rails were being ripped out to build roads, they were in terrible, sometimes unusable, condition.

I haven’t read a whole lot on the development of trucks, but my assumption is that cargo trucking didn’t develop as fast as commercial auto. Roads were pretty bad until the 20s, when Thomas Harris MacDonald took over the Bureau of Public Roads. It couldn’t have been the shipping container, either, because that wasn’t widespread until after the 1950s.

So, what gives? What additionally led to the decline of railroads? Did their use decline even during World War I (adjusting for wartime passenger rates)? Did road building actually speed up the decline of railroads much more than I had assumed? Is my understanding of the whole thing wrong?

If you have any recommendations to answer any of the above, please let me know!

(1) Contrary to popular belief, Ford did not invent the assembly line. The idea was implemented by William Klann, a Ford production manager, after visiting a Chicago butcher shop.

Links – 003 (Sunday)

It’s been a while since I did one of these!

An oral history of Gordon Teal. The Engineering and Technology History Wiki has some neat rabbit holes in general.

Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. One of the most niche and interesting books I’ve read recently. I don’t think most people fully appreciate and comprehend the massive empire he was able to build in just seven (!!!) years through nonstop conquests.

Man’s Rights and The Nature of Government by Ayn Rand.

Starlink is a very big deal. “Even taking into account its ludicrously low usage fraction, a Starlink satellite can deliver 30 PB of data over its lifetime at an amortized cost of $0.003/GB, with practically no marginal cost increase for transmission over a longer distance.”

Divided Highways by Tom Lewis. A bit repetitive at times, but an overall good book on the history of American highways.

Oral history of Tom Perkins, by the man himself. (video)

The Soviet Union’s consecutive week (and why it’s a very bad idea).

The loss of dexterity in surgical students.

Dabbawalas are underrated.

Virginia Trimble has seen the stars.

A company in Japan makes life-like human-wearble masks of pets.

Skip the small talk (part one)

I’ve been running an experiment where I ask people at least one of the following questions to understand their thinking and personality better. I feel like a lot of time is wasted on small talk and discussing work, so I encourage you to skip all of that and see what interesting conversations come out of these questions!

  • If you were going to be frozen tomorrow for a one-way 1000-year interstellar voyage, what would you most want to communicate (and to whom) before you leave?
  • What do you think you’re most likely to regret on your deathbed?
  • What do you miss most about your past that could be recreated today?
  • What’s the most important thing to remember daily that you haven’t been able to?
  • What help could you most use that you haven’t asked for?
  • What is your one piece of advice to everyone here?
  • What was the last thing you fell in love with?
  • When was the last time you felt unbounded optimism?
  • Who was the last person you felt inspired by?
  • What simple thing still blows your mind?
  • What sparked your curiosity in whatever you’re most curious about now?
  • What’s the most useful concept you have that doesn’t have a name?
  • What’s something you believe but can’t defend?
  • What taste do you have that most people don’t have, where does it come from, and how has it helped you?
  • What is your most radical belief?
  • Do you think it’s more important to follow the “written” rules or the “unwritten” rules? What is one unwritten rule that you’ve learned?
  • What is the most significant thing you’ve changed your mind on in the last year? Why did you change your mind about it?
  • Which fictional character would be the most boring to meet in real life?
  • What’s the closest thing to real magic?
  • If you could know the absolute and total truth to one question, what question would you ask?
  • Which question can you ask to find out the most about a person?
  • What do you want your epitaph to be?
  • There are two types of people in this world. What are the two types?
  • What is something you are certain you’ll never experience?
  • Who is/was your most interesting friend?
  • What small gesture from a stranger made a big impact on you?
  • If you had a clock that would countdown to any one event of your choosing, what event would you want it to count down?
  • What are three of the most significant numbers in your life?
  • Which of your personality traits has been the most useful?
  • Imagine you have a closet full of robots at the ready. Which of your various obligations would you assign to a robot? Which tasks and activities would you keep to yourself, because you enjoy them too much to delegate them to even a robot who is better than you?
  • What is the best measurement of how an idea is absorbed into culture?
  • Do you think you’re undervalued as a person? If so, why?
  • Why are some people so addictive?
  • What color best describes your personality?

Part two will be up when I come up with new questions!


Links – 001

Organizational complexity is the best predictor of bugs – Microsoft Research studied MS Vista code, and found that more people, more departments, and high turnover are major contributors to bugs. This paper extends the original study and backs up the findings on organizational complexity.

Dazzle camouflage was used by British warships to obfuscate a ship’s speed, range, and heading when targeted.

Raising children with voice assistants.

Giovanni De Maria.

Merck completely bypassed animal testing for their first HIV protease inhibitor and tested directly on a human. From David France’s How to Survive a Plague:

“With no animal data, how do you know this one’s good?” he asked.

After a period of evasiveness, Huff made an admission. “There was a ‘big chimp’ experiment.”

Reider understood immediately what this meant: one of Merck’s scientists––a “big chimp”––had taken the pill himself or herself. What went on behind Merck’s closed doors would remain a secret. The results were good, that was the important thing. The “chimp” showed no toxic aftereffect, and large quantities of Crixivan made it from the stomach into the bloodstream. “It’s very bioavailable,” Huff reported.

Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold more than 70,000 ‘kit houses’ by mail. Most can be found in Illinois, though there are a few hundred still left in DC 🙂

Samo Burja argues that prestige matters more than money (ie, awards matter more than prize money), and behavior science agrees with him.

“I think that in studying economic growth, we (and especially we in the Silicon Valley) focus way too much on gadgets, and too little on the simple fact of human knowledge of how to do things.” What Free Solo can teach us about economic growth.

Cryptonetworks syllabus by Dani Grant at USV.

Telomeres and aging, cancer, and death. “Yet, each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell can no longer divide; it becomes inactive or “senescent” or it dies. This shortening process is associated with aging, cancer, and a higher risk of death.”

I hate wasting food. This guy does, too.

Transport Systems and City Organization. Cesare Marchetti, the Italian physicist who wrote this report, has been one of my favorite finds recently. Here he is on green mobility.

Why are the prices so damn high? Alex Tabarrok and Eric Helland examine and explain the Baumol effect.

Send interesting links my way!

What’s today’s version of the homebrew club/crypto-counterculture?

Credit to James for the question. Updated 24 May 2019 to include bio-hacking. Updated 10 June 2019 to add the last sentence to #4. 

Which group of close-knit people are working on the weird ideas and technology that everyone else is ignoring? Here are a few ideas today that come to mind:

  1. 3D printing. This was all the rage a few years ago, as is with any trend that comes and goes. The majority may have given up or lost interest in 3D printing because they only saw the short-term possibility of printing with plastic, and were not patient enough for the long-game where 3D printing would touch metals, real-estate construction, and medicine. There are companies already working on 3D printing in each of those fields. (See Desktop Metal)
  2. Private cities. The larger goal of private cities is generating economic activity in a place that needs it, and improving processes that local governments have ignored or failed to adopt in a technology-driven, changing world. Building a city is really difficult and expensive, which is probably why not many people are trying to build them. (See the Center for Innovative Governance Research)
  3. BCIs for prosthetics. When a lot of people hear BCIs, they think of controlling things with their mind. While that’s true to some extent, I’m more interested in how much better prosthetics are going to get because of BCIs. By understanding how the electrical signals between the brain and the muscle work, a BCI company can start building and selling the technology that makes for more functional limbs and improves the lives of millions of people. (See CTRL-Labs)
  4. True bio-hacking. Progress in medical care and medical devices for patients will change with the abundance of programmers (see hacking insulin pumps and CPAP machines). Med-tech and pharma companies that are too slow for what patients and consumers need will get buried by programmers who are motivated enough to build and hack existing hardware in order to survive. This will branch out to experimentation with actual human bodies to delay mortality and treat death as an enemy. (I don’t believe that humans will become immortal, but I’m still more than happy to befriend you if you do 🙂 )

I’m hoping for a revival of labs à la Alfred Lee Loomis and the revival of gentlemen scientists. I’d love to hear your answers to this question, and if you’re working on any of the above, please reach out!