Friday, December 19, 2014

Checking in on the last next big thing

I'm working on a longer piece that involves Uber and I got to thinking about the big discussion we had about Groupon back in 2011. Many of the arguments currently being used to justify Uber's $40 billion valuation (rapid growth, huge potential market, a foundation of new economic and technological paradigms) were also being used to justify faith in Groupon.

I don't want to make too much of the analogy -- they are very different companies with very different business models -- but it is still useful to stop and think about how that bet worked out.

[If you want to get a head start on the Uber thread, check out these exceptionally thorough analyses from Talking Points Memo and NYU Finance Professor Aswath Damodaran.]

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A quick note on Kružno, official game of the village of Kružno*

I've got a couple more post I'd like to do on Kružno, the abstract strategy game I developed a few years ago, a post on abstract strategy games and another on trying my hand at small scale manufacturing (and why I ended up using chess pieces in a checkers variant). Unfortunately, I'm a bit pressed for time and I really wanted to get something out today, so this will have to do for now.

You can find the rules here and the game itself here. The game takes about three to five minutes to explain, perhaps a bit longer working from the instructions (some parts are a bit unclear and need to be rewritten).

If you are, or someone you know is, a teacher (particularly at a school where money is tight) who would like to make more use of games in the classroom, let me know and I'll try to set you up with some game sets or at least some extra boards.

* That's also a subject for another post

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Perhaps claims that are almost certainly false should be fact-checked more thoroughly

If you read Talking Points Memo or the Washington Post, you've probably heard about this story from New York Magazine by up and coming journalist Jessica Pressler:
Late last year, a rumor began circulating at Stuyvesant that a junior named Mohammed Islam had made a fortune in the stock market. Not a small fortune, either. Seventy-two million.

An unbelievable amount of money for anyone, not least a high-school student, but as far as rumors go, this one seemed legit. Everyone at Stuy knew that Mohammed, the soft-spoken son of Bengali immigrants from Queens and the president of the school’s Investment Club, was basically a genius.

As the news spread, Mo’s stock went up. The school paper profiled him, Business Insider included him on a list of “20 Under 20,” and Mo became “a celebrity,” as his friend Damir Tulemaganbetov put it on a recent Friday night at Mari Vanna near Union Square. “A VIP!”
Like [Jordan] Belfort, Mo started with penny stocks. A cousin showed him how to trade. He loved the feeling of risk—the way his hand shook making the trade—but he swore it off after losing a chunk of the money he’d made tutoring. “I didn’t have the balls for it,” he said. He was 9.

It was a while before he was ready to try again. In the meantime, he became a scholar of modern finance, studying up on hedge-fund managers. He was particularly enamored of Paul Tudor Jones. “I had been paralyzed by my loss,” Mo said. “But he was able to go back to it, even after losing thousands of dollars over and over. Paul Tudor Jones says, ‘You learn more from your losses than from your gains.’ ” Mo got into trading oil and gold, and his bank account grew. Though he is shy about the $72 million number, he confirmed his net worth is in the “high eight figures.” More than enough to rent an apartment in Manhattan—though his parents won’t let him live in it until he turns 18—and acquire a BMW, which he can’t drive because he doesn’t yet have a license. Thus, it falls to his father to drive him past Tudor Jones’s Greenwich house for inspiration. “It’s because he is who he is that made me who I am today,” Mo said.
[I emphasized the part about “high eight figures.” It becomes important later.]

Islam fills in some more details on his website:
My interest in finance started at the tender age of 8, but I really started trading when I was 10 years old. I paper traded for a year or so and finally opened a real trading account using my own capital that I saved from entrepreneurial endeavors. 
So we're looking at six or seven years to go from tutoring money to more than fifty million dollars trading part-time. That's a difficult statement to believe but Pressler and her editor at NY Magazine managed to swallow it, as did the New York Post which ran "High school student scores $72M playing the stock market" and CNBC which had Islam and friends scheduled to appear until...

From the New York Observer:
Monday’s edition of New York magazine includes an irresistible story about a Stuyvesant High senior named Mohammed Islam who had made a fortune investing in the stock market. Reporter Jessica Pressler wrote regarding the precise number, “Though he is shy about the $72 million number, he confirmed his net worth is in the ‘high eight figures.’ ” The New York Post followed up with a story of its own, with the fat figure playing a key role in the headline: “High school student scores $72M playing the stock market.”

And now it turns out, the real number is … zero.

In an exclusive interview with Mr. Islam and his friend Damir Tulemaganbetov, who also featured heavily in the New York story, the baby-faced boys who dress in suits with tie clips came clean. Swept up in a tide of media adulation, they made the whole thing up.
The Washington Post picks it up from there:
Then on Monday afternoon, Mo backed out of a spot on CNBC, confessing the $72 million figure was inaccurate. “The attention is not what we expected — we never wanted this hype,” he said. New York, however, stood by the story: “Our story portrays the $72 million figure as a rumor … we did not know the exact figure he has made in trades. However, Mohammed provided bank statements that showed he is worth eight figures, and he confirmed on the record that he’s worth eight figures.”
Just to be clear, the NY editors initially pinned much of their defense on the distinction between $72 million and “high eight figures,” and on the easily faked bank statement provided to the fact checker. Apparently the fact-checker didn't ask to see additional documentation or to speak to the parents (who are, according to the Observer, really pissed).

New York Magazine finally came out with a retraction but even here they don't seem to have learned their lesson:
After the story's publication, people questioned the $72 million figure in the headline, which was written by editors based on the rumored figure. The headline was amended. But in an interview with the New York Observer last night, Islam now says his entire story was made up. A source close to the Islam family told the Washington Post that the statements were falsified. We were duped. Our fact-checking process was obviously inadequate; we take full responsibility and we should have known better. New York apologizes to our readers.
The process would have been inadequate if the claim had been credible; for a story this incredible, it was grossly negligent.

This is not an isolated case. Standards for journalistic accuracy have been dropping for at least a couple of decades, but perhaps more troubling is the disconnect between fact-checking and credibility. Even at the venerable BBC, the most unbelievable of claims is not subjected to any extra scrutiny. Fact-checking has become a CYA process, not something you do because you want to get the story right.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Infrastructure part 2

This is Joseph

In the same vein as some of my recent comments on infrastructure, the latest example of tricky projects is happening on the west coast.  Consider:
Transit advocates are often accused, absurdly, of engaging in a “war on cars”. If we were indeed committed to such a war, I’m not sure we could have come up better with anything than this. The overruns will likely cannibalize WSDOT’s budget, including all manner of road repair and construction projects (some of which are necessary and useful) for the foreseeable future. If, as appears increasingly likely, the viaduct must be shut down before the tunnel is ready, transit will become even more crucial for accessing downtown, and far fewer cars will be able to do so with any efficiency at peak travel times.  Meanwhile, Sound Transit’s tunneling project for light rail, using well established, off the shelf tunneling technology and conservative cost estimates, chugs along ahead of schedule and under budget, and Seattle just voted itself a tax increase to fund more bus service.
I don't like the terms luddite and ddulite (I prefer technophile and technophobe), but it is a classic example of a series of expensive decisions caused by trying to save money through a clever technological solution.  I return to my thoughts in the previous post, that the real point of concern is our inability to use off the shelf technology effectively in terms of infrastructure.

From an economics point of view, we really have a case of misaligned incentives.  How do we make more projects look like Sound Transit and less like the projects that have been encountered in the viaduct replacement?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Our annual Toys-for-Tots post

[Slightly modified from last year.]

A good Christmas can do a lot to take the edge off of a bad year both for children and their parents (and a lot of families are having a bad year). It's the season to pick up a few toys, drop them by the fire station and make some people feel good about themselves during what can be one of the toughest times of the year.

If you're new to the Toys-for-Tots concept, here are the rules I normally use when shopping:

The gifts should be nice enough to sit alone under a tree. The child who gets nothing else should still feel that he or she had a special Christmas. A large stuffed animal, a big metal truck, a large can of Legos with enough pieces to keep up with an active imagination. You can get any of these for around twenty or thirty bucks at Target, Wal-Mart or Costco. Toys-R-Us had some good sales last year;

Shop smart. The better the deals the more toys can go in your cart;

No batteries. (I'm a strong believer in kid power);*

Speaking of kid power, it's impossible to be sedentary while playing with a basketball;

No toys that need lots of accessories;

For games, you're generally better off going with a classic;

No movie or TV show tie-ins. (This one's kind of a personal quirk and I will make some exceptions like Sesame Street);

Look for something durable. These will have to last;

For smaller children, you really can't beat Fisher Price and PlaySkool. Both companies have mastered the art of coming up with cleverly designed toys that children love and that will stand up to generations of energetic and creative play.

* I'd like to soften this position just bit. It's okay for a toy to use batteries, just not to need them. Fisher Price and PlaySkool have both gotten into the habit of adding lights and sounds to classic toys, but when the batteries die, the toys live on, still powered by the energy of children at play.

Heroic bureaucrats and annoying foodies -- one reason so many reforms fail

As promised, here are some more thoughts on West Virginia's promising initiative to improve school lunch programs.

From a transcript of the interview with writer Jane Black:
People in Huntington across the board were very interested and concerned about what he was doing. But the place that the show focused probably the most was in the schools. There he went in and was shocked and horrified that they were eating breakfast pizza and what he called luminescent strawberry milk. He tried to get them to start cooking from scratch. He said it didn't really matter that the food met the guidelines of the USDA as far as nutrients were concerned, but it wasn't fresh.

Of course what people saw on TV were the school lunch ladies being furious about this and feeling like he was stepping on their toes. They also saw the kids taking those lunches, which are paid for by taxpayer dollars, and dumping them in the trash.

What happened in the aftermath was really interesting. After he left, they were audited by the USDA, who came in and said, "These meals may be fresh, but they don't meet our requirements for nutrients." The head of school food, Rhonda McCoy, basically could have gone back to the way she'd always been doing everything. Even though on the show she came across as this cold, aloof bureaucrat, clearly the message had gotten through.

What she did over the next summer was redevelop the recipes, change the flavors a little bit. For example, she took some of the garlic out of his garlicky greens so that the kids liked them better. Within a year they were basically cooking all their meals from scratch.

I went down there. In this kitchen that any New York restaurant would be happy to have, there were 10 cooks making chicken, rolling it in a spice blend, baking it in the oven, taking potatoes, cutting them up, putting them in olive oil and roasting them in the oven. The meal that I ate there included a salad that had lettuce from a student farmer. It was incredible.

What's even more amazing is that since then, Cabell County, the county that Huntington is in, has trained I think 52 of 55 West Virginia counties to do the same. I would say West Virginia, which is not known as a very progressive state, probably has one of the best school lunch programs in the country.
If you follow reform movements, you see this all the time (particularly in education). Outsiders come in with lots of valid criticisms and some good ideas, but they also come in with unacknowledged personal preferences and cultural biases amplified by a subjective viewpoint and a dangerous lack of humility.

Jamie Oliver had some useful things to say about a tremendously important topic, but his initiative was a failure. His creations were, in many ways, less nutritious than the "unhealthy" meals they were supposed to replace. They didn't meet federal guidelines, making the whole enterprise a non-starter. Oliver brought the sensibility of a celebrity chef from a Michelin-starred London restaurant (specializing in Italian cuisine which might explain the level of garlic). He didn't think through the problems of dealing with kids or the other constraints school officials work under.

The difference between success and failure was Rhonda McCoy. We normally think of bureaucrats like McCoy as being, if not out-and-out villains, then at least being part of the problem, but it was McCoy who understood both the kids' tastes and the constraints of the program and who took this dead-in-the-water proposal and made it work. McCoy managed to take the best parts of Oliver's ideas and make meals that were both appealing to the students and manageable from a standpoint of budget, logistics and federal standards.

The press loves stories of the heroic outsider who shows up and fixes everything in a few easy steps. It's a plus if the outsider is a celebrity but an economist is almost as good (for some reason, this is one discipline that is always granted instant expert status). One of the main problems with these stories is that they tend to assume that the people in the field before the outsider showed up were either criminally lazy or dumb as a box of ball-peen hammers.

Finding an entire field full of idiots is rare (finding one with a dysfunctional culture is a bit more common but that's a subject for another post). That means that it is extremely difficult to come up simple ideas that are good and easy to implement but which haven't already occurred to almost everyone already working on the problem. That doesn't mean that people who are new to a field can't make a contribution, but it does mean that these contributions usually need to be collaborative. Fresh perspectives make for good first drafts, but it generally takes experience to fashion them into something usable.

How do you move diagonally in hexagonal chess?

As mentioned before, I've been selling an abstract strategy game called Kruzno. I've got a couple of posts coming up on the game, but in the meantime, I'm doing a thread on a few of the many other games that can be played on a six by six by six hexboard.

One of the most popular hexboard games is Glinski's Chess. I've got the moves posted at the teaching site. Most are fairly straightforward analogs to the game you're all familiar with. The bishops are probably the most counterintuitive, but if you think about it for a minute, you'll see that is a reasonable way of making diagonal moves on hexagonal tiles.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Differential levels of technological progress

This is Joseph

Mark and I often talk about how technology often improve at different rates even in similar areas.  Our go to example is cars (much better now than in 1980) versus airplanes (which have had a more mixed improvement record).  However, the Oatmeal offers up a really good example in terms of computers versus printers.  In a lot of ways, I suspect that this is an even better example than the cars versus planes one, as the modern desktop is massively cheaper and more powerful than what was state of the art twenty years ago

Worth a quick read for a Friday lunch break smile.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The death of the comic book industry (circa 1970)

I've been working my way through the archives Mark Evanier's site. I was familiar with his work as a writer and comics historian, but I only recently caught on to his blog. Many of the posts from a decade ago suffer greatly from a loss of topicality, but most stand up fairly well and a few actually benefit from the added perspective.

This post from 2004 has certainly remained current. We frequently see stories (many of which grow into accepted narratives) about media and industries that are shrinking and facing serious new challenges. The standard response is to assume that trends will hold and business models will remain unchanged until the institution in question rides off into the sunset to join the ice wagon and the rag-picker.

This does, of course, happen, but not that often. In order to completely wipe out a product or service, you have to replace it with something that's better in almost every respect (think chemical film, 8-tracks and, while we're on the subject, ice boxes). If there is still value in something, the market is very good at finding a way to exploit that value.

Creative destruction has become one of the most beloved buzzwords of the Twenty-first Century. It is seen as a moral good, an inevitable force of nature and an irrefutable argument (you can't stand in the way of creative destruction"). The result falls somewhere in between conventional wisdom and a better-a-gram-than-a-damn Pavlovian response. In these cases of groupthink, it is always useful to remind yourself of counter-examples, in this case a major branch of the publishing industry that looked like it was about to disappear.
Around 1970, when I got into the comic book business, the consensus was that there wouldn't be a comic book business for long…and not because of me.  The traditional method of distribution — comics sold on a returnable basis to newsstands around the country — was failing, or at least it was failing comic books.  The biggest distributor, Independent News, was making large sums off more expensive, adult publications like Playboy and Penthouse, and some there suggested that newsracks were no longer a place for kids or low-priced periodicals. Since comic books were low-priced and largely for kids, this was a pretty ominous suggestion, especially when you considered that Independent News not only distributed DC Comics but was a part of the same company.  In other words, DC's wares were being sold by an outfit that no longer believed there was a future in selling comic books.  With that attitude, there couldn't be much of one.

The "returnable" part was what was really hurting comics.  Marvel would print 500,000 copies of an issue of Spider-Man and would get paid only for those that actually sold.  So if the racks were crowded (or the distributor trucks filled with an extra-thick issue of Playboy that week), 50,000 might not make it to the racks at all.  Many more copies would get damaged and returned with all the unsold copies for credit.  300,000 might actually be sold and the rest would get pulped…obviously, not the most efficient way to do business. In the past, the ratio had not been that bad, and a publisher could make a tidy profit…but by the seventies, the numbers were closing in on the comic book industry.

To the rescue came not Superman or Batman but a Brooklyn school teacher named Phil Seuling.  Phil ran the big comic conventions in New York for years so he knew the fan market and its buying power.  Around 1973, he began proposing to DC and Marvel that he sell their comics in a different manner, by-passing traditional newsstands and getting them directly to comic book dealers and shops.  He would pay slightly less per copy to the publisher but he'd be buying the comics on a non-returnable basis, so a sale would be a sale; no printing five copies to sell three.

At first, publishers rebuffed his proposal.  The "direct market," as it would come to be called, did not seem lucrative enough to warrant the attention, to say nothing of how it might further destroy the old method.  But before long, it became apparent that the old method was being destroyed, with or without selling books the Seuling way, so DC, Marvel and other companies tried it.  Within a year, around 25% of all comic books were being sold via "direct" distribution, through Seuling's company and about a dozen others, with 75% still on conventional newsstands.  Within ten years, those percentages were reversed.  Today, the "direct market" is the primary market…though Phil, sadly, did not live to reap the full benefits of his idea.  He died in 1984 at the age of 50.
There's also an interesting demographic side to this story, but that will have to wait for another post.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I should really come back to this one

"The Splendid Table" is one of those names that make it easy to get annoyed at public radio, but it's a pretty good show and this is a very good story, both for the points it makes and the issues it raises. Lots of threads intersect here, from nutrition and public health to behavioral economics to class tensions. Definitely worth a listen.


This is Joseph

Larry Summers (via the Mad Biologist):
Walk from the US Airways shuttle at New York’s LaGuardia Airport to ground transportation. For months, there has been a sign saying “New escalator coming in Spring 2015.” The Charles River at a key point separating Boston and Cambridge is little more than 100 yards wide. Yet traffic has been diverted for over two years because of the repair of a major bridge and work is expected to continue into 2016.

The world is said to progress, but things that would once have seemed easy now seem hard. The Rhine is much wider than the Charles, yet Gen. George S. Patton needed just a day to create bridges that permitted squadrons of tanks to get across it. It will take almost half as long to fix that escalator in LaGuardia as it took to build the Empire State Building 85 years ago.
I think that this really does hit on something important.  Yes, in some cases things like safe labor practices matter and have a real cost.  But on the other side, it seems impossible to think that we have simply lost the ability to generate infrastructure.  At the very least, regulatory and financial incentives are failing to properly align. 

Whatever it is that is causing this malaise, I think it is crucial that we understand it -- no matter how much it may annoy entrenched interests.  By that I do not only include workers/unions, but also things as diverse as courts, regulatory structures, and the rest that make it hard for public infrastructure to be efficient, or which impede a properly competitive private sector. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Agon alert -- a post for board game geeks

I believe I mentioned earlier that I recently set up an Amazon store to sell Kruzno, an abstract strategy game I developed a few years while I was teaching high school math. I'll be posting more on the game (partially for the obvious promotional purposes but also because this corner of the blogosphere is actually nerdy enough to read posts on developing abstract strategy games).

On a related note, I used a six by six by six hex board so it could serve as a "utility player" in the game library. Lots of very cool games are played on this board including Gliński's hexagonal chess and the forgotten gem, Agon. I have a write-up over on the teaching blog. Definitely worth a look if you're into two player strategy games.

From commie to Randian and back in under four minute

Nat Hiken was a writers' writer. William Faulkner, who disliked television as a rule and who did not own a set, was a fan of Car 54 and would regularly go over to a neighbor's house to catch the show. Ken Levine called him the "greatest sitcom writer of his era." Larry David lists Bilko as a primary source for Seinfeld.

The Seinfeld connection is easy to spot. Hiken was perhaps the all-time master of the unexpected-consequence plot, where a small and seemingly harmless event would spiral into a series of bigger and bigger complications. An attempt to get a citation or help a couple avoid their weekly fight would spiral out of control, often upending the precinct, the police department or the entire city.

"Toody & Muldoon Meet the Russians" is not good introduction to the series. Rather than building up, the Russian characters pretty much start at eleven and much of the political satire has age poorly (One, Two, Three is one of my least favorite Billy Wilder films for similar reasons). It is, however, an interesting time capsule of JFK's America. Check out the specific business strategies the commissar proposes before spotting his KGB tail.

p.s. It doesn't come up in this clip but both Bilko and Car 54 were notable at the time for their integrated casts featuring African-Americans as as professionals and co-workers.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The challenge of discussing racism is finding definitions under which you and your friends don't qualify as racists.

We are probably all guilty of the above from time to time but among the commentariat it's more or less a job requirement. One popular technique is to couch racist statements in terms of class. Arguing that poor people are genetically inferior -- less intelligent, less disciplined and less moral -- has somehow become an acceptable position in publications like the New York Times

Other times, journalists avoid acknowledging the racism of colleagues by simply pretending to ignore what's in front of their faces. This leads us (via Brad DeLong) to a couple of pieces on the New Republic.

Here's Ezra Klein writing in 2009 about TNR and its editor-in-chief Marty Peretz [emphasis added]:
[Jeffrey ] Goldberg's article was a particularly weird piece of work, but it fit neatly into the "anti-anti" Israel genre. The thing about criticizing Israel is that you get called an anti-Semite rather a lot. This doesn't happen when you criticize sugar subsidies or come out against the stimulus bill. And make no mistake: Anti-Semitism is a serious charge. A genuine anti-Semite would be, should be, drummed out of political journalism, just as a legitimate racist should find no home at a serious opinion outlet. For that reason, being called an anti-Semite by hobbyist Zionists who happen to own and control prestigious domestic political magazines seems like it would be a bad thing. But the charge has been rendered tinny through overuse.
That 'should' gives Klein a bit of wiggle room but a reader could certainly come away with the impression that this sort of thing is not tolerated.

Via Max Fisher (who provides a notable exception to my first paragraph), here's a sample of what Peretz was routinely printing in one of the country's most prestigious journals.
The truth is that no one has ever really cared about the lives of Africans in Africa unless those lives are taken out by whites. No one has cared, not even African Americans like [Jesse] Jackson and [Susan] Rice. Frankly -- I have not a scintilla of evidence for this but I do have my instincts and my grasp of his corruptibility -- I suspect that Jackson was let in on the diamond trade or some other smarmy commerce.
Well, I am extremely pessimistic about Mexican-American relations, not because the U.S. had done anything specifically wrong to our southern neighbor but because a (now not quite so) wealthy country has as its abutter a Latin society with all of its characteristic deficiencies: congenital corruption, authoritarian government, anarchic politics, near-tropical work habits, stifling social mores, Catholic dogma with the usual unacknowledged compromises, an anarchic counter-culture and increasingly violent modes of conflict.
But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imaam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.
I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) "atrocities." They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures. That comparison shouldn't comfort us as Americans. We have higher standards of civilization than they do. But the mutilation of bodies and beheadings of people picked up at random in Iraq does not scandalize the people of Iraq unless victims are believers in their own sect or members of their own clan. And the truth is that we are less and less shocked by the mass death-happenings in the world of Islam. Yes, that's the bitter truth. Frankly, even I--cynic that I am--was shocked in the beginning by the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq. But I am no longer surprised. And neither are you.
Fisher goes on to spell out the reaction of fellow journalists to this "overt racism."
And no one resigned — including me, while I was an intern at the magazine for four months. Though I was unpaid, I eagerly accepted the resume-boosting prestige that came from working there. And, like the rest of the staff, I did it knowing it meant turning a blind eye to Peretz's frequent screeds on the magazine's website, fully aware that they were not just the crazy rants of an old racist but were in fact palpably damaging to the minority families who had to live in a society that was that much more intolerant because Peretz enjoyed a platform that legitimized his views.

I am thinking about this today as I watch senior editors and contributing editors resign en-masse from the magazine, in response to the firings of Foer and Wieseltier. Many of them are friends, and many never worked under Peretz at all.

But a number of the journalists who are resigning their positions as "contributing editor," typically an honorific title granted to former staffers who are no longer actually contributing or paid, did work under Peretz, or did accept this same honorific title from him.

Some of these resigning editors chose to tolerate and lend tacit support to Peretz; I am in no position to critique them for this. But the fact that many of them found Peretz's promulgation of racism to be tolerable, whereas Chris Hughes' firing of two beloved colleagues was not, speaks to a larger problem of how we think about racism in American society and particularly in the elite media institutions that have badly lagged in employing people of color.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Mars One -- libertarian ideology, ddulite fantasies and the decline in journalistic standards

[Update: Before posting, I try to follow up on all relevant links. This time I missed at least one. My apologies to Ms. Keep.]

There is a lot to complain about in the coverage of science and technology and, God knows, I do my share of bitching about the way the NYT et al. report on topics like driverless cars. Just to be clear, though, my complaints are generally meant to be focused on specific problems that tech journalists tend to overlook, usually involving issues like implementation, compatibility, scalability and infrastructure. For example, Google's autonomous car is a tremendous piece of engineering, but it currently requires road-data that cannot be gathered cheaply on a large scale. Google appears to have gotten stuck on this and a handful of other problems that effectively keep the technology from being commercially viable.

Most tech stories play out like that. They start with interesting, even promising ideas from smart, serious people, then the journalists covering them either choose to ignore or don't understand the subtleties and caveats. The researchers aren't always completely innocent here -- there's often a temptation to feed the hype -- but in their primary role they are doing respectable work.

Not all of these stories are cases of good research badly reported. Sometimes the rot goes all of the way down with lazy writers uncritically reporting bad technology and questionable science. Elmo Keep is neither lazy nor credulous. Writing for Medium, she has produced a devastating take-down of one of the most notable of these bullshit stories:
I will have to tell him that from everything I can find, Mars One doesn’t appear to be in any way qualified to carry off the biggest, most complex, most audacious, and most dangerous exploration mission in all of human history. That they don’t have the money to do it. That 200,000 people didn’t actually apply. That, with all the good faith one can muster, I wouldn’t classify it exactly as a scam—but that it seems to be, at best, an amazingly hubristic fantasy: an absolute faith in the free market, in technology, in the media, in money, to be able to somehow, magically, do what thousands of highly qualified people in government agencies have so far not yet been able to do over decades of diligently trying, making slow headway through individually hard-won breakthroughs, working in relative anonymity pursuing their life’s work.
I started to excerpt a few paragraphs of Keep's article but you really need to read the whole thing to grasp just how unlikely it is for this enterprise to go beyond the asking for money stage. Every single aspect collapses under scrutiny, from the unrealistic funding model to the wildly optimistic cost estimates to the nonexistent specs and contracts to the unresolved technical issues.

There is no excuse for a respectable news organization to treat this as a serious and yet we still get articles like this from Vibeke Venema and the BBC:
Could you leave everyone you love for the chance to settle on Mars? Sonia Van Meter describes herself as an "aspiring Martian" - she hopes to be one of the first humans on the planet in 10 years' time. But it would mean never seeing her husband again.

"I don't think you can apply for something like this and not be the tiniest bit insane," says Sonia Van Meter. "But this is the next great adventure, and I'm going to do absolutely anything I can to be a part of this."

The 35-year-old political consultant from Austin, Texas, is one of 705 people in the running to form a 20- to 40-strong human colony on Mars - a group whittled down from 200,000 who sent applications to Dutch not-for-profit organisation Mars One last year.

"I thought: 'Shoot, this sounds like fun!'" she says. "I didn't think there was the slightest chance that I would be selected, I just wanted to be a part of it."

For her husband Jason Stanford, her application - and the fact that she now appears to have a 35-to-one chance of leaving forever - evoked mixed emotions.

"Like any good red-blooded American male, at first I thought this was all about me. I thought: you're leaving me," he says.

Over time he changed his mind. "The more she talked about it, the more I realised she was doing this for the right reasons - she was doing this to show humanity what we can all do if we work together," he says.
There is one quick cover-your-ass 'if' buried deep in the piece ("The mission, if it goes ahead, will be dangerous, some say suicidal."), but even in that single brief sentence, the possibility of it not happening is just an aside. There is no real effort to put this in a realistic context. Instead, we're given figures like that 35-to-one chance; it's almost certainly false but it makes for a good story.

The press likes to maintain the convenient fiction that it is "open to all voices." This is an obviously absurd proposition – – even though the Internet has greatly expanded what news organizations like the BBC can offer, they can still only cover a tiny fraction of the information and opinions out there – – but it serves the purpose of absolving journalists and, more to the point, editors and publishers from taking responsibility for what they present to the public.

When something appears in a major news outlet, particularly when it is presented noncritically, that outlet is implicitly endorsing the story; it is, in effect, saying that this story is something important enough to spend time learning about. I have seen numerous stories on this proposed Mars One mission but Keep's article is the first of those to make any real effort to address the sheer silliness of the proposal.