Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Didn't even get to Thiel's Cato Institute essay on women's suffrage

This 2014 piece by Mark Ames on the relationship between the Holocaust denial movement and the Koch Brothers should be read in its entirety, but I wanted to highlight this section.

The Reason issue discussed here was from 1976. The provocative, contrarian rhetorical approach is familiar to anyone who has been following Robin Hanson. It’s a process that pretends to be a free intellectual inquiry but which always ends up attacking a liberal position and pushing the Overton Window to the right.

Of course, Reason and Hanson have something else in common.

It’s easy to dismiss the more clownish examples, but in today’s journalistic ecosystem, no one from the right is more than one degree of separation from respectability in the mainstream media. Pretty much every major press outlet (the New York Times, NPR, CNN) welcomes Koch-subsidized academics and pundits. For the serious news consumer, they are unavoidable.

Obviously, there are smart people doing serious work at places like the Manhattan Institute or George Mason University, but while we shouldn’t reject their work out of hand, for the sake of the discourse, we need to find a way of reminding ourselves that their funding comes from an initiative that promotes Holocaust deniers, rape apologists and other extremists and propagandists when they serve the agenda, and that even the most independent researchers in that world know that reaching the wrong conclusions too often will cost them.
There is a politics to all of this, a politics that's barely budged since the days of the American Liberty League: The goal is to discredit the New Deal and FDR, which can't be done effectively without discrediting FDR's most popular cause, the victory over fascist Germany and Japan. To far-right extraction industry billionaires like the Koch family, FDR and his New Deal politics were a kind of anti-business "holocaust," because the New Deal forced the long-dominant plutocrats to part with a portion of their wealth and political power. To the nation's Big Business oligarchs in the 1930s, FDR's New Deal reforms — breaking up the power of finance, trusts, and industrialists, while empowering labor unions —was a crime and a wound as raw in 1976 as it was in 1936.

For them, FDR was a tyrant and a criminal, an American Hitler, only no one else could see things their way, because the real Hitler was widely believed to be one of the worst figures in history. Therefore, libertarian "historical revisionism" had to convince these Americans that Hitler wasn't nearly as awful as they believed, which meant that the Holocaust couldn't have happened — if the goal was to discredit FDR and the New Deal.

North’s article appeals to another sensibility popular with libertarians (and the Boomer left): the cult of the anti-Establishment iconoclast, every self-absorbed middle-class Baby Boomer's fantasy. That cult of the iconoclast allows North to paint libertarianism's far-right "historical revisionism" as anti-Establishment Cool, more an expression of one's individuality than a political act. So if the boring, bad Establishment says Hitler was bad and World War II was good, then naturally the anti-Establishment maverick will question that. Gary North writes:

One topic—the ultimate litmus test of hardnosed World War II revisionism—has generally been skirted: Hitler. Was he a madman, diplomatically speaking? Was he exclusively responsible for the Second World War?”

Much of the Reason Holocaust denier propaganda is about promoting a new set of anti-authority voices to replace the Establishment’s. So Martin cites Holocaust deniers Paul Rassinier and Harry Elmer Barnes; and Gary North introduces Reason’s readers to Bay Area Holocaust denier David Hoggan, the “anonymous” author of the 1969 neo-Nazi book “The Myth of the Six Million”:

    “In American revisionist circles the most famous (or infamous) case has been that of David Hoggan, the Establishment’s number-one academic pariah of the revisionist camp...Hoggan’s thesis regarding the origins of the Second World War are straightforward, and completely unorthodox. The primary villain was not Hitler; it was Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary.”

North is a clever huckster who’s studied his Baby Boomer audience, so he uses marketing words that he knows appeal to his target consumer: “unorthodox,” “Establishment’s number-one academic pariah,” and weirdest of all for a strict Old Testament theofascist like North, he even uses the then-popular hippie expression “far-out” (meaning “cool") to sell Holocaust denial:

    “Probably the most far-out materials on World War II revisionism have been the seemingly endless scholarly studies of the supposed execution of 6 million Jews by Hitler. The anonymous author [Hoggan] of ‘The Myth of the Six Million’ has presented a solid case against the Establishment’s favorite horror story—the supposed moral justification for our entry into the war.”

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Tuesday Tweets

These next few tweets go to a longstanding problem with the New York Times and its place in the ecosystem. As many including Josh Marshall have observed, the NYT has a way of coming late to a story and downplaying the work that came before. Because of the paper's standing, from that point on, it's "as reported by the New York Times."

My impression is that the conservative think tank world initially built up Hanson as a deep thinker assuming he'd be useful for moving the Overton Window, Unfortunately, Hanson has been too big of a attention junkie/clown to be effective.

In 1632, Rasputin would have been considered mildly unlucky.

I know I'm not supposed to call Robin Hanson creepy because that would be mean. How about this? Can I call this creepy?

Could Bernie's branding help him in the primaries but hurt him in the general?

Worth a look.

As we've been pointing out for the past decade, the black and white, us vs them worldview of the education reform movement left it vulnerable to corruption.

'“We remain neutral on geopolitical disputes and make every effort to objectively display disputed areas,” Russell said in the statement. “In countries where we have local versions of Google Maps, we follow local legislation when displaying names and borders.”'

My favorites are the pundits who go from one set of absolute certainties to another completely contradictory set without the slightest pause for doubt, humility or reflection.



Monday, February 17, 2020

High SF housing prices are forcing Silicon Valley workers to make slightly shorter commutes

Just to get the obvious out of the way, California needs to build more housing. Rents are too high and the situation with the homeless is becoming a genuine humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately, as with climate change, the very seriousness of the problem sometimes makes people reluctant to criticize bad arguments, lest they be accused of minimizing the issue (see the reaction to the collected works of David Wallace Wells). The result is some truly silly ideas have lodged themselves into the standard narrative.

Case in point.  [Emphasis added]
Welcome to life on Silicon Valley's new frontier. When tech companies first introduced private shuttles for their employees more than a decade ago, they served the affluent neighborhoods in San Francisco and the Peninsula. Now the buses reach as far as the almond orchards of Salida and the garlic fields of Gilroy.

"That just tells you the story of the Bay Area," said Russell Hancock, president and CEO of regional think tank Joint Venture Silicon Valley. "We're going to be in these farther-flung places, and that's our reality because we're not going to be able to create affordable housing."


A few miles into Alameda County, a fairgrounds parking lot has been transformed into a massive park-and-ride operation. A laundry list of tech companies — Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and others — send shuttles here or nearby train stations, according to a report prepared for the Alameda County Transportation Commission. Around 7 a.m., people in puffy jackets and backpacks jog to a silver bus with its destination displayed as Wolfe Road in Sunnyvale, where Apple has a large campus.

We need to talk about the word “farther” because in this context, it is more of a cultural than a physical concept. Go online and check out the distance and rush-hour driving times from Silicon Valley towns like Sunnyvale to either San Francisco or Gilroy and you’ll find that the differences aren’t great and that Gilroy is often closer.

A great deal of the discussion of Bay Area housing and infrastructure is based on the implicit assumption that Silicon Valley is next to San Francisco rather than 40 or so miles away. It’s not even the closest big city (San Jose is considerably larger).

Nonetheless, Bay Area residents still refer to it as “the City” and the other towns continue to have an inferiority complex that as an Angeleno I’ve always found a bit odd, as if it were 1900 and it was the only outpost of culture west of the Continental Divide.

Whatever its origins, the mystique of San Francisco has badly muddled people's thinking about the housing crisis, and this is a problem that requires clear thinking.

Friday, February 14, 2020

RIP Robert Conrad, good work Kai Ryssdal

At the risk of getting lots of angry comments, Star Trek makes the top ten my best of 60s TV list. This spy-fi/proto-steampunk series makes the top five.

This episode of Marketplace had three stories I was thinking about blogging...

The business and business metrics of music and streaming about 10 minutes in. If nothing else, check out the chutzpah of Justin Bieber.

Wal-Mart will now deliver to your home while you're not there about 20 minutes in. It's not quite as creepy as it sounds but, with the tight margins of the grocery business, it's not easy to see how they expect to turn a profit. Given that the two big players in this are Wal-Mart and Amazon, I wouldn't rule out a purely anti-competitve play to drive smaller competitors out of business.

And finally the show ends with an interesting new hiring policy at the Body Shop retail chain.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Saudi sovereign wealth fund bet big on Uber.. That didn’t work out too well for them. Then they backed WeWork. This time though, I think they picked a winner.

As I've said before, serious money is starting to change hands here.

"Saudi Arabia, Virgin Hyperloop One to conduct world’s first national hyperloop study"

RIYADH: A groundbreaking study will be conducted to build the world’s longest hyperloop track,  the Ministry of Transport announced on Thursday.

It said an agreement with Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO), the world’s leading hyperloop company, would see a groundbreaking pre-feasibility study conducted on the use of hyperloop technology, laying the groundwork for a network of routes across Saudi Arabia.

The study is the first to be carried out anywhere in the world [I assume they mean the first on this scalee – MP] and will examine viable routes, expected demand, anticipated costs and explore the socioeconomic impact, such as the creation of jobs and environmental effects.


“We have a vision for the Kingdom, and that vision is of connecting it and the Gulf with the ability to travel from Riyadh to Jeddah in 46 minutes, to Neom from Jeddah in 40 minutes, from Riyadh to Dammam and Jubail in 28 minutes, and to go beyond the Kingdom, from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi, in 48 minutes.     

“It’s not just about providing a future transportation system, it’s the ecosystem behind it. What we want to do is to be able to bring technology to the Kingdom to be able to share and develop that knowledge. We signed an agreement with King Abdullah Economic City in October last year specifically to look at manufacturing, how we can actually bring technology, and that is expected to create about 124,000 jobs.”

Saudi Minister of Transport Saleh Al-Jasser said: “Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has outlined the role of transport in shaping the future of the Kingdom’s economy within Vision 2030. As we enter a new decade, we intend to make rapid progress in building the infrastructure required to define mobility for the future, enabling the efficient movement of people and goods. With the transformative hyperloop technology, Saudi Arabia will not only unlock unparalleled benefits for its people and the economy but will continue to lead the region into an era of prosperity.”

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I started to make a "Vulture" joke, but I realized carrion play an important role in the ecosystem

This screen grab does a great job capturing so much of what’s wrong with the New York Magazine family and with business and entertainment journalism in general.

First off, there’s the article itself. Billed as an explainer, it’s nothing more than an especially embarrassing press release for a business model that makes WeWork look well thought out. It will take more than one post to explore the full awfulness of Quibi as an investment. For here, I’ll just say that this is possibly the stupidest proposal you’ll read involving the streaming industry, and that’s a high bar to clear.

Then there’s the sidebar. I’m sure I could think of a celebrity of comparable stature more despicable than  Gwyneth Paltrow if I tried, but none come to mind (and, no, that’s not an invitation for suggestions. I already spend too much time thinking about horrible people). She uses the press’ sycophancy toward the rich and famous and fascination with lifestyle porn to push flaky and sometimes  dangerous pseudoscience. The New York Magazine group has been playing footsie with quacks and new age charlatans for years (see here and here)

Finally there’s Netflix’s minor but still notable accomplishment of making the normal monthly cycling of shows in and out of rotation into a respectable news genre. Even HBO, which has long been extraordinarily good at working the press, was never able to get this kind of steady, extensive PR out of routine programming changes. We can’t exactly single out Vulture for this one but they certainly seem willing to play along.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Tuesday Tweets

Because sometimes I just like to dominate the conversation





Monday, February 10, 2020

Since it's probably quicker to list the people who aren't losing their goddamn minds, let's start with Paul Campos

Even more than normal for primary season, we've seen a remarkable amount of panic and wild shifts in assumptions, the latter often driven by nothing but noise.

We could debate the odds endlessly, but at this point no one really has any great insight into who's going to win either the Democratic primary or the general election. Neither side is doomed and anyone who tells you _____ has ______ locked up is probably not someone you should be listening to.

Over at LGM, Campos takes on the current wave of WE'VE-PICKED-A-FLAWED-CANDIDATE-WE'RE-ALL-DOOMED hysteria.

You get the idea. Every one of these candidates has serious potential flaws in the general because EVERY CANDIDATE has serious potential flaws. Because they’re human beings, not LARP fantasy figures.

And the problem is losing to Trump is not an acceptable option. Can’t happen. So none of these candidates is the right candidate because they have serious flaws so they could lose, and that can’t happen. So everyone is freaked out right now, and instantly focuses on how what can’t happen could very much happen if X is the candidate.

But the problem aren’t these particular candidates — not really. The problem is that when American political system combines with the contemporary American media environment and then the two of them meet the American voter, you get Donald Trump as president. That’s the problem. And that problem isn’t going away, unless we stop freaking out and do everything we can to make it go away, temporarily, no matter who gets the nomination. All of them could lose but all of them could also win, and if you think any of these people can’t win you’re just panicking. Don’t panic.

Friday, February 7, 2020

RIP Kirk Douglas -- Don't watch the trailer...

... Unless you've seen the movie.

I was going to post just the trailer, but I checked it out and it was absolutely terrible, a complete misrepresentation of the film.

Of course, this was a picture that needed considerable misrepresentation in 1951. Even by 2020 standards, it's a stunningly hard-edged, cynical, mean piece of work. You can imagine the horror the PR department must have felt when they first saw what they were supposed to promote.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

More appetizing than Milton Friedman's Underwear Index

The BBC has a list of oddball economic indicators centered around fast food. I was familiar with the Big Mac Index, and of course, I knew about the Waffle House Index. (I don't like to brag, but I grew up in a two WF town). The rest of these, however, are new to me.

Mars Bars

In 1932, a factory in Slough produced the world’s first Mars bar. Fifty years later, Financial Times writer Nico Colchester pointed out that the price of the confectionary in Britain was neatly correlated with the buying power of pound sterling. By measuring the cost of things in Mars Bars, Colechester noted how graduate salaries had improved slightly in 40 years. Meanwhile, train fares had become cheaper but roast beef dinners in pubs had gone up by more than 60 percent.

Baked Beans and Popcorn

When financial experts are trying to determine whether an economy is generally in good health, they often look to food products. In 2009, the Odeon cinema company announced an “Odeon Popcorn Index” that it claimed showed higher sales and therefore signs of economic recovery in Britain following the financial crisis of 2008. And analysts have also scrutinised sales of baked beans, popular when times are tough, as an indicator of how people are responding to periods of economic decline. When baked bean sales fell in 2013, some took it as a sign that the UK economy was in rude health.

French Fries

A fascinating article in the Oregonian in 1998 observed that sales of French fries could be a helpful indicator of trade between America and Asia. This food “leads US industries into foreign markets” wrote Richard Read, thanks to the fact that America exports so many of them (something that remains true today). And he added that consumption of French fries was also an indicator of how well-developed an Asian economy had become. This meant that when economic trouble in Asia was brewing in the late ’90s, farmers in the US were hit hard.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Josh Marshall on the reaction to the impeachment

We've been pushing this for a long time, but political journalists (at least the smarter ones like Marshall) are getting better about thinking through the implications of selection effects on polling data.
Why Are President Trump’s Poll Numbers Going Up?

But there is another plausible explanation. Pollsters call it differential response. When one side gets enthused or energized their numbers go up but in an ephemeral fashion. The pumped-up side is a bit more eager to answer the phone or fill out the survey. The demoralized side is a bit less eager. This is a real and demonstrated phenomenon, not just a concept or speculation. It’s not necessarily an error per se in the polling. It’s picking up something real. It’s just ephemeral.

One example many of us likely remember came after the first general election debate in 2012. President Obama turned in a stiff and disconcertingly flat performance. The consensus was that Mitt Romney won the debate and for the first and last time in the cycle Romney briefly pushed into the lead.

There are good reasons to think that at least some of that is happening today — the President’s impending acquittal and Republican unity have been the driving news of the last two or three weeks. Republicans are energized and enthused by the certainty of President Trump’s acquittal. Many Democrats are demoralized by seeing an overwhelming and exacting case made for the President’s guilt and seeing it simply not matter.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Tuesday Tweets

Not a perfect film, but damn, are parts of this movie are prescient.

Good. National coverage of Iowa and New Hampshire tends to set up unhealthy feedback loops and pushes them further into Keynesian beauty contest territory.

We're all nerds here. We might as well embrace it.


We'll be making fun of Quibi (and Vulture) later.


I really want to see how Carl's Jr/Hardees markets the cricket-burger.


Still suspect that McConnell made the smart call for the party (not to be confused with the right call for the country), but it couldn't have been an easy calculation.

I wonder if there are new Festinger's already embedding themelves and working on their QAnon books.


Monday, February 3, 2020

On a related note, I completely believe the claim that losing their top viewed shows had no negative impact

Picking up on last week’s story. This is getting more play than I expected.

For those tuning in late (a callback to when media was something you tuned into), Netflix has always been a push-the-envelope when it comes to metrics and transparency, going back to the debut of House of Cards, when the company let pretty much every journalist on the East Coast report that the company actually owned rather than merely licensed their “originals.” (When business reporters finally caught on, the company started actually buying some of the rights, though still less than most people realize.) The narrative that has kept the stock flying high (P/E in the eighties last time I checked) depends on the business press not looking too closely at these details.

[See also here. I'll admit being a bit smug about "I have a feeling that Netflix's transparency is about to become a bigger part of this story."]

The narrative is even more dependent on the idea that Netflix is building a massive library of popular, highly valuable content. Putting aside the enormously complicated question of exactly who owns what with shows like She-Ra, it is also essential to remember the incentive that the company has in portraying their originals as successful, and how much it spends to push that impression.

The streaming wars opened up unprecedented floods of marketing and PR cash, with Netflix taking the lead. An astounding amount of money has been spent getting you to check out the Witcher, either through advertising, SEO, press junkets and interviews, and planting (sometimes ghost-written) stories in major news outlets. Except for SEO, there’s nothing new here – the practices go back to when United Artists meant Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford and Griffith – but the magnitudes are unheard of.

With that in mind, think about the difference between a metric that counts people who watched more than two thirds of a show and people who basically made it through the opening credits. Marketing and PR definitely build interest and curiosity, so we would expect the new metric to favor heavily promoted originals over old TV shows and familiar movie (none of which are central to the Netflix narrative and most of which are owned by studios that are starting their own streaming services and pulling their content).
Fuzzy stats. There was a whiff of desperation in some of the data Netflix shared in its letter Tuesday. The company announced it changed the way it counts views on the service. Now, instead of counting a “view” as a subscriber watching 70% or more of a show or movie, Netflix stops counting after the first two minutes. The company said measuring views that way puts it on par with other online video platforms like Google’s YouTube.

But YouTube and other free video platforms are much different than Netflix. Counting a view after two minutes makes sense for them because that’s long enough for a viewer to get an ad served to them. Netflix doesn’t have advertising, and relies on subscribers staying glued to their screens for as long as possible. Even with the new counting method, Netflix said views were up an average of 35%.

Then there was that odd Google Trends chart Netflix plopped into the letter that was meant to demonstrate the popularity of its new show “The Witcher” versus shows on new rival platforms like Disney+‘s “The Mandalorian” and Apple TV+’s “The Morning Show.” Putting aside the fact that a Google Trends chart isn’t the best way to measure interest in a TV show, Netflix used a global version of Google Trends to make its comparison, even though Disney+ was only available in the U.S. and Canada. Netflix said 76 million member households watched “The Witcher” in December, but it’s impossible to gauge how popular it really was if those views were based on just a minimum of two minutes.

Competition affected domestic subscribers. It looks like the November 2019 launches of Disney+ and Apple TV+ took its toll on Netflix in the U.S. and Canada. Netflix said its recent price increases and “competitive launches” in the quarter caused its “low membership growth” for the quarter. (Netflix only added 550,000 subscribers in the U.S. and Canada versus the 1.75 million it added in the year-ago quarter.)

That could spell trouble for Netflix as its rivals expand across the globe.

No “Friends,” no problem. Netflix’s execs were asked on the earnings call Tuesday about the loss of “Friends” to upcoming rival HBO Max. While “Friends” was believed to be one of the most popular shows on Netflix, Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said subscribers find other things to watch when a popular licensed show leaves the service. (Although he didn’t provide any data to back that up.)

The bottom line: Netflix’s mixed earnings report showed the company is sticking to its strategy of investing more and more in content, with the aim of growing its subscriber base. But as the competitors start to light up their own streaming services, it has a renewed pressure to prove it can compete.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Sure, but that's seven billion over twenty years

I knew that CollegeHumor was a powerhouse, but I never realized what kind of numbers until I looked this up.
As of November 2019, The CollegeHumor YouTube channel has reached over 7.1 billion views, and over 13.5 million subscribers.

As many have noted, the economics of video are insane. Between dealing with monopolies like Facebook and Youtube and competing against VC funded unicorns, even an extraordinarily successful and apparently well managed company can find itself doomed.

I was going to segue into into mockery of Quibi, but I'm just too depressed.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The way you define your metrics determines what you measure -- Netflix edition

From Marketplace.
“The Witcher” starts with Henry Cavill and his chiseled jaw battling a gurgling swamp monster. According to Netflix, 76 million member households watched at least this far.

Netflix counts people who watch the first two minutes of the show as viewers. So if you moved onto something else, you still boosted Netflix’s ratings.

“That two-minute period is enough of an indicator for them to [have a] very clear indication of people completing it,” said Courtney Williams, head of partnerships at Parrot Analytics. “So they don’t have to go all the way through.”

Here's the thing. You don't really need an indicator of how many people completed a show (even a very, very clear one), if you already know the actual number who did., No company has fetishized the collection of viewer data more than Netflix. They track how long you watched, when you paused, where you rewinded.

Though it's not the best measure of how many people have watched a show,  the 2-minute warning does give us an excellent read on interest/curiosity level, how well your marketing and PR worked, how appealing your stars are, how much people listen to your recommendation engine.

And it produces really impressive numbers like 76 million. 

In an industry where billions are spent every year on promoting content, there is a legitimate business need for these metrics, but they leave some people wanting more.

But Netflix still has investors who want to know who kept watching.

“It is proverbially grading one’s own homework, and there has to be a bit more transparency,” said Tim Hanlon, CEO of media advisory investment group Vertere.

Netflix probably knows how many people finished “The Witcher.” But unless investors press for more details, we never will.