Tuesday, May 31, 2016

At least it's under $5 billion...

As mentioned before, I'm working on a longer piece on the journalistic failure around the “proposal” for a supersonic passenger train called the Hyperloop (sorry about the scare quotes, but they really can't be avoided). It's a story of hype overwhelming the good work of some serious journalists.

The hype around the Hyperloop grows directly out of the carefully cultivated persona of Elon Musk. Here's a representative sample from the credulous Kevin Roose writing for New York Magazine:
For years, government has been a nuisance to Elon Musk. It's slowed him down. It's required him to spend his valuable time lobbying his Twitter followers for support in the New York legislature instead of building rockets. It's required him to explain his mind-bending technical innovations to grayhairs in Congress as if he were speaking to schoolchildren. Over and over, the public sector has convinced Musk that it is hopelessly lost when it comes to matters of innovation, and that anything truly revolutionary must spring from the ambitions of the private sector.

At the risk of a bit of Gawkeresque snark, Roose apparently has a rather unusually definition of “nuisance.”

Here is the far less credulous Jerry Hirsch writing for the Los Angeles Times:

Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.

And he's built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups.

"He definitely goes where there is government money," said Dan Dolev, an analyst at Jefferies Equity Research. "That's a great strategy, but the government will cut you off one day."

The figure compiled by The Times comprises a variety of government incentives, including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits that Tesla can sell. It also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars. [It does not, however, include the more than $5 billion in government contracts that keep SpaceX in business -- MP]

A looming question is whether the companies are moving toward self-sufficiency — as Dolev believes — and whether they can slash development costs before the public largesse ends.

Tesla and SolarCity continue to report net losses after a decade in business, but the stocks of both companies have soared on their potential; Musk's stake in the firms alone is worth about $10 billion. (SpaceX, a private company, does not publicly report financial performance.)

Musk and his companies' investors enjoy most of the financial upside of the government support, while taxpayers shoulder the cost.

The payoff for the public would come in the form of major pollution reductions, but only if solar panels and electric cars break through as viable mass-market products. For now, both remain niche products for mostly well-heeled customers.
Subsidies are handed out in all kinds of industries, with U.S. corporations collecting tens of billions of dollars each year, according to Good Jobs First, a nonprofit that tracks government subsidies. And the incentives for solar panels and electric cars are available to all companies that sell them.

Musk and his investors have also put large sums of private capital into the companies.

But public subsidies for Musk's companies stand out both for the amount, relative to the size of the companies, and for their dependence on them.


California legislators recently passed a law, which has not yet taken effect, calling for income limits on electric car buyers seeking the state's $2,500 subsidy. Tesla owners have an average household income of about $320,000, according to Strategic Visions, an auto industry research firm.

Competition could also eat into Tesla's public support. If major automakers build more zero-emission cars, they won't have to buy as many government-awarded environmental credits from Tesla.

In the big picture, the government supports electric cars and solar panels in the hope of promoting widespread adoption and, ultimately, slashing carbon emissions. In the early days at Tesla — when the company first produced an expensive electric sports car, which it no longer sells — Musk promised more rapid development of electric cars for the masses.

In a 2008 blog post, Musk laid out a plan: After the sports car, Tesla would produce a sedan costing "half the $89k price point of the Tesla Roadster and the third model will be even more affordable."

In fact, the second model now typically sells for $100,000, and the much-delayed third model, the Model X sport utility, is expected to sell for a similar price. Timing on a less expensive model — maybe $35,000 or $40,000, after subsidies — remains uncertain.

Monday, May 30, 2016

"Elon Musk does his best Donald Trump impression" -- the invaluable Michael Hiltzik

This one was sitting in the queue for a while, but recent events have bumped it to the high priority track.

There is possibly no one who plays to the press's problems covering technology the way Musk does. He seems almost genetically engineered to take advantage of journalists' weak grasp of science and engineering, their appetite for hype, their craving for great-man narratives.  Further complicating the issue is the way Musk alternates from laughably obvious bullshit to genuinely interesting accomplishments.

There are a few sharp observers who get Musk. The very smart Michael Hiltzik is a prime example.

Tesla brought down by 'hubris'? Who could have expected that?
Musk deserves admiration for his dedication to the cause of clean transportation and the battle against climate change, or at least to shifting emissions from auto tailpipes to electrical generation, which is increasingly fueled by renewable sources. His corporate mission was on display last week, when he unveiled Tesla's Model 3 sedan, which will be mass-marketed at a projected starting price of $35,000, to great acclaim. But declaring one's commitment to the climate and driving the auto press around in prototype cars is relatively easy (especially if you don't let anyone look under the hood) compared to mass-manufacturing actual vehicles.

There's no reason to gloss over some cold, hard facts. Monday's disclosure underscores several disquieting aspects of Tesla's business performance and Musk's management. One is Musk's tendency to overpromise results and make up the difference with hype when he comes up short. Another is the magnitude of the challenges facing the company as it attempts to ramp up manufacturing to meet demand for the Model 3 sedan, expected to hit the streets as early as year-end 2017. (We delved last week into the likelihood of that happening.)


Tesla's ability to cloud investors' judgments resembles that of some other subjects of intense media attention. In the business world, there's Apple, but in the broader context, the publicity bonanza Tesla reaped last week by unveiling a prototype automobile that won't actually be available for sale for at least another 18 months was almost Trump-esque. Musk even alluded to the phenomenon during the earnings call.

"Tesla does not advertise," he said. "We don't pay for any endorsements. We do not discount our cars for anyone, including me." Nor did he seem to think that any conventional advertising would ever be necessary: "I think I could see us doing advertising where that advertising was interesting, entertaining, and people don't regret seeing it, which unfortunately is not the case for most advertising."

Why pay for advertising when it comes for free? News organizations devoted reams of newsprint and untold pixels to covering the Model 3 introduction — The Times ran no fewer than eight articles from a few days before to a few days following the April 1 event, and most drew heavy readership.

Latest video in the Puzzler's Guide to Problem Solving series

Another look at doublets, but this time with completely different set of heuristics.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

"Wowza" doesn't begin to cover it -- why we need Gawker -- part III

Following up on the previous post and our good friends the Lessins.

From Sam Biddle:

The San Francisco Chronicle was at the fete, and has details on its high-level guest list:

    When former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin celebrated the launch of her journalism startup at a Pacific Heights mansion this week, the event attracted the tech A-list: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrived in a gray hoodie; Brit + Co founder Brit Morin brought flowers; and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo started hugging friends as soon as he walked through the door.

    These high-powered tech celebrities are some of Lessin's close friends.

    Lessin calls herself a "reportrepreneur," someone who not only wants to cover the tech world, but to emulate it.

Emphasis added on that last part, because, just, wowza.

It's generally frowned upon to be very close friends with the people you cover professionally, because there's an appreciable chance you will be less inclined to write true things about them, when those true things are things they'd rather the rest of the world not know are true.

 That was back in 2013. Lessin had already been at this for years, crossing ethical lines and contributing to the culture of silly narratives and sycophancy that defines Silicon Valley journalism. Lots of very rich and powerful people really, really liked that culture and they were not at all happy with those who wanted to undermine it.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"How To Party Your Way Into a Multi-Million Dollar Facebook Job" -- the sad state of business journalism [Why we need Gawker -- part II]

[A repost from 2011. Made sadly topical again by recent events]

Andrew Gelman (before his virtual sabbatical) linked to this fascinating Gawker article by Ryan Tate:

If you want Facebook to spend millions of dollars hiring you, it helps to be a talented engineer, as the New York Times today [18 May 2011] suggests. But it also helps to carouse with Facebook honchos, invite them to your dad's Mediterranean party palace, and get them introduced to your father's venture capital pals, like Sam Lessin did.
Lessin is the poster boy for today's Times story on Facebook "talent acquisitions." Facebook spent several million dollars to buy Lessin's drop.io, only to shut it down and put Lessin to work on internal projects. To the Times, Lessin is an example of how "the best talent" fetches tons of money these days. "Engineers are worth half a million to one million," a Facebook executive told the paper.
We'll let you in on a few things the Times left out: Lessin is not an engineer, but a Harvard social studies major and a former Bain consultant. His file-sharing startup drop.io was an also-ran competitor to the much more popular Dropbox, and was funded by a chum from Lessin's very rich childhood. Lessin's wealthy investment banker dad provided Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg crucial access to venture capitalists in Facebook's early days. And Lessin had made a habit of wining and dining with Facebook executives for years before he finally scored a deal, including at a famous party he threw at his father's vacation home in Cyprus with girlfriend and Wall Street Journal tech reporter Jessica Vascellaro. (Lessin is well connected in media, too.) . . .
To get the full impact, you have to read the original New York Times piece by Miguel Helft. It's an almost perfect example modern business reporting, gushing and wide-eyed, eager to repeat conventional narratives about the next big thing, and showing no interest in digging for the truth.
It is not just that Helft failed to do even the most rudimentary of fact-checking (twenty minutes on Google would have uncovered a number of major holes); it is that he failed to check an unconvincing story that blatantly served the interests of the people telling it.

Let's start with the credibility of the story. While computer science may well be the top deck of the Titanic in this economy, has the industry really been driven to cannibalization by the dearth of talented people? There are certainly plenty of people in related fields with overlapping skill sets who are looking for work and there's no sign that the companies like Facebook are making a big push to mine these rich pools of labor. Nor have I seen any extraordinary efforts to go beyond the standard recruiting practices in comp sci departments.

How about self-interest? From a PR standpoint, this is the kind of story these companies want told. It depicts the people behind these companies as strong and decisive, the kind of leaders you'd want when you expect to encounter a large number of Gordian Knots. When the NYT quotes Zuckerberg saying “Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better,” they are helping him build a do-what-it-takes-to-be-the-best image.

The dude-throws-awesome-parties criteria for hiring tends to undermine that image, as does the quid pro quo aspect of Facebook's deals with Lessin's father.

Of course, there's more at stake here than corporate vanity. Tech companies have spent a great deal of time and money trying to persuade Congress that the country must increase the number of H-1Bs we issue in order to have a viable Tech industry. Without getting into the merits of the case (for that you can check out my reply to Noah Smith on the subject), this article proves once again that one easily impressed NYT reporter is worth any number of highly paid K Street lobbyists.

The New York Times is still, for many people, the paper. I've argued before that I didn't feel the paper deserved its reputation, that you can find better journalism and better newspapers out there, but there's no denying that the paper does have a tremendous brand. People believe things they read in the New York Times. It would be nice if the paper looked at this as an obligation to live up to rather than laurels to rest on.

Why we need Gawker -- part I

There are very few journalistic organizations that would leave a distinct and costly hole if they disappeared tomorrow. Gawker is one of that select group. This is especially true with stories like this by Andy Cush:

There comes a time in the life of every person or youth-oriented organic energy beverage brand when one must reckon with the loss of some previously cherished idea. A young woman realizes that she is no longer in love, or that her religion is now meaningless to her; the organic energy beverage brand that wishes to authentically connect with her as a customer realizes that throwing hundreds of dollars at some dick with a man bun and a few thousand Instagram followers may not be the best way to do it. Friends and beverage brands, that day of reckoning is today. We must throw off the shackles of our relationships and our assumptions and baptize ourselves anew in the fires of whatever bullshit is the next big trend in youth-oriented marketing. We must understand, right here and right now, that “influencers” are not going to save us.

An influencer, for those readers who have never commuted to a funky converted-loft office space for work, is a person, usually a teen or early-twentysomething, who has a large following on some social media platform, and has used that large following to trick some decaying capitalist institution into believing that they are valuable in some way. The decaying capitalist institution pays this teen lots of money to attend a rooftop party or add a branded hashtag to their latest casually racist comedy Vine, and in return, hopes to absorb some of the teen’s cultural cachet before his teen followers find some other, hotter teen to glom onto, or he’s caught on camera saying the n-word.
Based on conversations with a friend in the online marketing industry, this has been an open secret for a long time.

Here's more on the subject by Sam Biddle.
Once brands began to realize that some dipshit’s Vine account wasn’t going to make cans of Ragu or whatever go flying off the shelves, “influencers” cried foul. After all, their way of life–waking up, posting an Instagram of a cereal box, tweeting about laxatives, calling it a day—was threatened. They’d found a tremendous scam, and it sucks when your easy money train gets derailed. (I get it! I’ll be just as upset when blogging dies.)

Even MTV News was angry about the prospect of not being able to make a living typing proper nouns into an app caption. Amber Discko, a former Creative Strategist at Tumblr, has become a sort of Spartacus figure among the disgruntled, entitled influencer class. She’s also the person behind “Who Pays Influencers,” a new website aimed at exposing the payment practices of brands, much in the same way that Who Pays Writers has become a great source of transparency and accountability for freelancers. A key difference between that at “Who Pays Influencers,” though, is that writing can be good and worthwhile, while advertisements from a social media figure are always scummy. Who Pays Influencers has flung open the drapes and brought sunshine to the influencer economy, but instead of making it clear that these Viners are being exploited, it’s made it clear just how moronic this whole thing is.
The world of tech and social media reporting is deeply incestuous, filled with conflicts of interest. Worse still it is rife with insecure journalists who don't understand their subject and who are terrified of missing out and being behind the curve. As a result, every scam and fiasco is treated as a potential next-big-thing. Like Cracked and CollegeHumor, Gawker is exceptionally good at cutting through this bullshit.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Chamberty and barratry -- Josh Marshall takes us through the courts of Ithuvania

One of the things that greatly added to the damage of the Ithuvanian Experiment (giving random subjects of largely average intelligence billions of dollars and telling them that they were super-geniuses) was the twenty or so years of changing attitudes toward the rich. In the Post-War Era, the wealthy were generally viewed with distrust and their power was heavily constrained both by law and social norms. By the time the experiment really got under way, these constraints had been eroding away for about a generation.

We have now reached the point where there is a substantial (or at least highly vocal) group that any attempt to check the power of the wealthy is immoral. If anything, the rich deserve special protection against bigotry and envy directed at them due to their superior character, work ethic and intellect. I'm not going to try to tease out cause and effect here (all the arrows point both ways), but as we've grown more tolerant of concentration of economic power, we've also seen increases in frequency and magnitude and just plain shamelessness of it abuses.

From Josh Marshall:
Indeed, what Thiel is doing used to be illegal. There's even an archaic, Anglo-Norman word for the practice: chamberty, which the dictionary defines as "an illegal agreement in which a person with no previous interest in a lawsuit finances it with a view to sharing the disputed property if the suit succeeds." If, as Thiel claims, he was not looking for any monetary reward but simply pursuing a private grudge, then it is called "maintenance." But both can come under the heading of another hoary word: barratry, defined as "vexatious litigation or incitement to it."

In any case, it was illegal. But it's not anymore (though what Thiel is doing is at least in the proximity of what are called anti-SLAPP laws). But even if these specific torts and laws are no longer in place, it is still a general and needful principle that the civil law exists to provide relief to injured parties and to pursue remedies in the public interest. It's not there to pursue private vengeance by stealth. If we're going to pretend that Thiel's tort jihad might be as much as in the public interest as an ACLU suit, good luck with that. But sure, let the public decided. Do it in public. Don't hide.

What Thiel's actions and The American Interest article both point to this: One of the great trends of our time is not simply to give greater and greater rein for the extremely wealthy to use their wealth in the public square but the claim that they need additional protections from those accorded everyone else or that they need to be allowed to do so in secret. Otherwise, they risk being "villified" or "demonized." In other words, the sheer magnitude of their power and the paucity of their numbers require special rights to protect them against the reputational consequences of their actions.

Free speech goes both ways. It is a modern and questionable innovation to claim that the mere spending of money amounts to speech. But even today in today's era of degraded logic, speech cannot be silent. If something gets the protection of free speech it should, indeed logically must, be out loud. Under current law, Thiel can try to destroy publications because of private vengeance. But he should be required to and should do so openly.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Running a political columnist through the translation app

A recent sample text from Thomas B. Edsall writing for the New York Times.

On Sunday, Donald Trump pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in the RealClearPolitics average of the five most recent national polls — albeit by 0.2 points. Political realists and polling experts tell us not to overreact to every twist and turn of the numbers, but there is an unmistakable trend here, and it is not one Democratic strategists like the look of.

On Sunday, Donald Trump pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in the RealClearPolitics average of the five most recent national polls — albeit by 0.2 points. Political realists and polling experts tell us not to overreact to every twist and turn of the numbers, but that's basically what they pay me for so let's go.

One of these days, we need to start a serious, detailed thread on journalists' dangerously weak grasp of polling, particularly with regard to things like selection effects, but in the meantime, here's a handy rule of thumb: whenever a columnist uses the word "trend," you should probably haul out the old translation app.

Adventures in Ithuvania -- REPOST

[After reading this and this and this, I think we may be visiting Ithuvania quite a bit in the near future.]

There's a wonderful Far Side cartoon that shows two scientists addressing a man sitting behind a desk in a sumptuous office. The lead scientist says:

"Sorry, your highness, but you're really not the dictator of Ithuvania, a small European republic. In fact, there is no Ithuvania. The hordes of admirers, the military parades, this office -- we faked it all as in experiment in human psychology. In fact, you highness, your real name is Edward Belcher, you're from Long Island, New York, and it's time to go home, Eddie."

Sometimes, when I come across yet another bit of jaw-dropping flakiness from some tech-bubble billionaire, my thoughts turn to Ithuvania. What if this were an experiment? What if some well-funded research organization decided to see what would happen if it randomly selected individuals of average intelligence, handed them huge checks and told them they were super-geniuses?

I'm not saying that's what happened; I'm just saying the results would have been awfully damned similar.

From Wired:

THE SEASTEADING INSTITUTE was the toast of tech entrepreneurs when it received financial backing from venture capitalist Peter Thiel in 2008. Its mission was to build a manmade island nation where inventors could work free of heavy-handed government interference. One early rendering shows an island raised on concrete stilts in eerily calm waters. The buildings atop the platform resemble nothing so much as the swanky tech campus of an entrepreneur’s ultimate dream: No sign of land or civilization in sight. The island, despite appearing strapped for square footage, has room for a full-size swimming pool with deck lounges.

In a 2009 essay, Thiel described these island paradises as a potential “escape from politics in all its forms.” It wasn’t just desirable, he said. It seemed possible. “We may have reached the stage at which it is economically feasible, or where it will soon be feasible,” he wrote.

More than a half-decade later, the dream has yet to be realized. And optimism is starting to waver. Earlier this year, during a talk at George Mason University, Thiel said, “I’m not exactly sure that I’m going to succeed in building a libertarian utopia any time soon.” Part of the problem: A truly self-sufficient society might exceed the range even of Thiel’s fortune. “You need to have a version where you could get started with a budget of less than $50 billion,” he said.

For its part, The Seasteading Institute has also come to appreciate that the middle of the ocean is less inviting than early renderings suggest. It now hopes to find shelter in calmer, government-regulated waters. According to its most recent vision statement, “The high cost of open ocean engineering serves as a large barrier to entry and hinders entrepreneurship in international waters. This has led us to look for cost-reducing solutions within the territorial waters of a host nation.”

Thiel’s reassessment marks a clear departure from tech culture’s unflinching confidence in its ability to self-govern. In recent years a number of prominent entrepreneurs have urged Silicon Valley to create a less inhibited place for its work. Larry Page called on technologists to “set aside a small part of the world” to test new ideas. Elon Musk has aimed at colonizing Mars. And venture capitalist Tim Draper made a proposal to divide Silicon Valley into its own state. But aside from the continued growth of full-service tech campuses such as Google’s and Facebook’s, very little has been accomplished in the way of true societal independence.

Building a government, it turns out, is a more complex challenge than much of Silicon Valley would have you believe. Now, Thiel and other high-profile Silicon Valley investors are carefully taking stock of the anti-government view they helped popularize. For all Thiel’s open criticism of elected officials, he sounded remarkably like a politician recanting false promises on the stage at George Mason. Toward the end of the talk, he reflected for a moment on his early essay on seasteading. “Writing is always such a dangerous thing,” he said. “It was late at night. I quickly typed it off.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

What went wrong with Mars One and Hyperloop coverage -- never let a resolved issue stand in the way of a nice think piece

 One of the many contributing factors to the disastrous coverage of Mars One was the human interest appeal. Almost no publication could resist the temptation to tell the inspiring story of bold colonists about to take a one-way trip to another planet. Some of the articles briefly mentioned the possibility that the mission might not happen, but none owned up to the virtual certainty that it wouldn't. To do so would have ruined the story, or at least made it into something more complex and downbeat.

We see something similar here. The Hyperloop would be a useful example for any number of wide-eyed essays on visionary CEOs and Silicon Valley culture, but much of that usefulness depends on the proposal being a serious effort and not just a sad cry for attention. The desire to make Musk's white paper into what the writer needs combined with a weak grasp of engineering gives us stories like this New York Magazine piece by Kevin Roose.

It's been a day since Elon Musk revealed his grand plans for a so-called Hyperloop, a flashy high-speed transportation system that feels pulled from a Robert Heinlein novel, and nobody quite knows what to make of it. PandoDaily's Hamish McKenzie says Hyperloop is proof that Musk has supplanted Steve Jobs as the tech world's biggest visionary. Sam Biddle at Valleywag says it's an expression of a "very rich man's wild imagination." Pundits and professors are weighing in on whether the proposed technology — essentially, it's a scheme to shoot aluminum passenger pods through giant vacuum tubes at 800 mph — would actually work.

Lost in the debate about the Hyperloop's feasibility, or lack thereof, is the fact that Musk's plan — which he's admitted may never materialize — is not primarily a technical proposal directed at consumers, but a political statement aimed squarely at the Establishment. By proposing a new way to provide mass transportation that is both cheaper and faster than anything approved by state authorities, Musk is taking aim at the government's monopoly on large public works projects. He's saying to policymakers in Washington and Sacramento alike: I can do your job better than you.
Biddle is mildly skeptical; McKenzie goes beyond the credulous into the shamelessly sycophantic. At no point in the piece or in any of the linked articles, do you catch any sense of the real discussion. Even the framing of  "whether the proposed technology ... would actually work" shows a weak grasp of the issue. Given enough time and money, there's no question something along these general lines would work. What pretty much all of the professors (at least those who don't have a vested interest) are objecting to is the proposed timeline and, even more to the point, budget. Particularly regarding money, Musk is proposing numbers that are easily one and possibly two orders of magnitude below reasonable.

Of course, Roose can't come out and say this. Acknowledging it would greatly undercut a narrative built around disruptive entrepreneurs trying "to pressure lawmakers to get out of the way of technological progress." That mean he has to go along with at least the possibility that the Hyperloop is viable.

And that's part of the problem.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Essential Kael

I have a couple of posts in the draft stage and a few more in the back of my head that center on either quotes from Pauline Kael or discussion of the New Journalism movement that involve her. I thought it might not be a bad idea to do a quick introductory post because Kael is one of those writers who does need an introduction.

Part of the problem is that, when you say "critic," most people think "reviewer."  Probably the easiest way to explain the distinction is in terms of audience. Criticism is written for people who know a work; reviews are written for people who are thinking about trying it. Kael was, at best, a deeply problematic reviewer. She could wildly oversell films she felt were particularly deserving. Other times, she would simply use the film as a jumping off point for an essay on films or culture or politics. She almost always had something interesting to say, but little that was useful when you were trying to decide which movie to see.

My advice for those new to Kael is to start with the essays, then check out the full (not the capsule) reviews of films you've seen, then stop.

Here are four to get the ball rolling.

Raising Kane
 The New Yorker, February 20, 1971 and February 27, 1971

Kael's best known essay and my favorite. Also her most controversial, though not always for the reasons normally given (see below). The piece is difficult to describe, part critical essay, part historical narrative, part reflection on American culture, but the unifying thread is the story of the East Coast writers and artists who came to Hollywood. By turns affectionate, insightful and sad. At least part of the vitriol it inspired can be attributed to the people she had pissed off a few years earlier with...

Circles and Squares
Film Quarterly (01/Apr/1963)

A relentless dismantling of the American take on auteur theory, particularly that of Andrew Sarris. In addition to pointing out the various contradictions and logical flaws in the standard arguments of the time, it digs into the dangers of praising works and congratulating ourselves just because we catch various allusions and influences (decades before anyone had heard of Tarantino). It may not be a coincidence that many those who came off worst in this piece (particularly Peter Bogdanovich) were among the most vocal of Welles "defenders" after the release of "Raising Kane."

Trash, Art, and the Movies
Harper's, February 1969

Addresses the fundamental paradoxes of taking pop culture seriously. It argues that we should acknowledge the pleasures and the vitality of a good trashy movie without trying to project upon it artistic qualities and deeper meanings to justify our approval. At the same time, we shouldn't equate the lack of trashiness with great art, particularly when it means praising the boring and the high-minded.

Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers
The New Yorker, June 23, 1980

A prescient take on the end of the Young Turk era of American film. Kael didn't care for auteurism as a critical theory but she tended to like auteurs, particularly the big visionary directors like Welles and Kurosawa and Huston. She looked upon the late 60s and early 70s as a golden age with films like Bonnie and Clyde and directors like Altman.

Kael openly viewed herself as an advocate for what she considered important films and visionary filmmakers, and she was willing to cross ethical lines to promote her favorites (such as when she wrote an ecstatic review of Nashville based on a private screening of a rough cut).

The end of the Young Turks era (combined with a brief stint working in Hollywood) left her bitter and pessimistic about the future of American cinema, which led to this 1980 essay. By far, my least favorite  of the four. The topic is too depressing for her to have any fun with and too narrow for her to make the interesting connections that mark the other three pieces. Worse still, the few films of the period she did like are overpraised to the point of exhaustion. That said, the observations on corporate culture are sharp and the predictions about pre-novelization perfectly describe franchises like I am Number Four.

Keep an eye on the follow-up

Check out Just what were Donald Trump’s ties to the mob?

It's an excellent piece of investigative journalism by the reliable David Cay Johnston, building on the solid foundation laid by Wayne Barrett. It's the kind of story where you run across players like the Genovese and Gambino families.

It's also filled with the kind of revelations that should dominate any discussion of the race not focused on policy proposals, but will it? That brings me to the point of this post. Is the 21st Century press able to handle the hard stuff? After all these years of innuendo and pseudo-scandal, do they still have what it takes to deal with the real thing? I'd like to think so but, based on the response to Johnson's piece so far, I'm not optimistic.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Where were we? Oh, yeah, the Hyperloop

Before we get further into the story, there is an important aspect that has bizarrely gone unmentioned in most of the coverage of this.

The Hyperloop is a conceptual high-speed transportation system originally put forward by Elon Musk, incorporating reduced-pressure tubes in which pressurized capsules ride on an air cushion driven by linear induction motors and air compressors.

The outline of the original Hyperloop concept was made public by the release of a preliminary design document in August 2013, which included a notional route running from the Los Angeles region to the San Francisco Bay Area, paralleling the Interstate 5 corridor for most of its length. Preliminary analysis indicated that such a route might obtain an expected journey time of 35 minutes, meaning that passengers would traverse the 350-mile (560 km) route at an average speed of around 600 mph (970 km/h), with a top speed of 760 mph (1,200 km/h). Preliminary cost estimates for the LA–SF notional route were included in the white paper—US$6 billion for a passenger-only version, and US$7.5 billion for a somewhat larger-diameter version transporting passengers and vehicles —although transportation analysts doubted that the system could be constructed on that budget.

To the extent that there is an idea in the proposal, it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a new one. Pretty much everyone in relevant fields of engineering has at least tossed these concepts around in the back of their heads. Many, if not most, have even sketched out something similar on the back of a notebook during a boring class.

We haven't seen a real life version of one of these trains, not because there's necessarily anything wrong with the basic concepts, but because actually making something like this would require either a tremendous financial commitment or a major advance that dramatically reduces the cost of construction. None of the recent proposals have seriously addressed these problems, let alone solved them; they have simply waved them away.

Joseph Brownstein had an excellent summary of some of the issues:

“There’s no way the economics on that would ever work out,” said Dan Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

At projected capacity levels, the so-called Hyperloop would transport 840 people each hour, each paying $20. With capital, labor and maintenance costs factored in, Sperling said, “Those numbers, even in the most outlandish visionary way, do not make any sense at all. The whole technology is unproven. I know he’s a brilliant guy, but it just doesn’t pencil out.”


Bonnie Lowenthal, chair of the California State Assembly's Transportation Committee told the Wall Street Journal, "Big infrastructure projects in California are very difficult. We have very complicated funding, we have environmental protections, seismic faults and land acquisition – but that's just the shortlist.”

Beyond land-purchase issues, any realistic estimate of the costs would say Musk and his team are underestimating them "by at least a factor of 10 to 20," said Michael L. Anderson, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

He said the more realistic price for a one-way ticket would reach about $1,000, based on his own projections of construction costs and Musk's proposed capacity of 840 riders per hour.

"You're talking $100 billion to build what they’re proposing,” Anderson said.

Anderson said that while some of the infrastructure is novel, the elevated guideway was not unlike existing structures such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit's aerial tracks. For the Hyperloop's tracks, that alone would cost in the tens of billions. As for the pipeline for the cars, he said, oil pipelines are $5 million to $6 million per mile, and they are seven times narrower than the Hyperloop's would need to be. In addition, the Hyperloop track could not change direction abruptly the way an oil pipeline could.

"It really has to be built to much higher standards than anybody has ever built a pipeline to," Anderson said.

Ultimately, it comes down to the Hyperloop not being able to transport enough people, Anderson said.

"If it’s going to cost $100 billion, you need to make it very high capacity to make it a worthwhile investment and it’s not," he said, explaining that in order to get a 6 percent return, tickets for the Hyperloop built at his projected costs and Musk's proposed capacity would have to be $1,000 each -- a price not enough people would be willing to pay to sustain it.

Like the woman said, that's the shortlist.

Friday, May 20, 2016

I'm going to see how far I can go into this thread without using either the expressions "train wreck" or "perfect storm."

The hyperloop seems almost designed to prey upon the press's weakness when it comes to engineering and technology. It's a story that demands a grasp of infrastructure, implementation, and the distinction between mature and immature technology. On top of that, it combines an alarming number of the elements of the stories that have suckered the press corps in recent years. Silicon Valley hype, CEOs who are inevitably described as "visionary," ludicrously optimistic cost estimates, and geewhiz heavy technology.

Already, we are seeing many aspects of the Mars One fiasco playing out again:

Reporters are asking all the wrong questions;

They are seeking out "experts" with highly unrepresentative opinions;

They are credulously accepting numbers that are easily an order of magnitude off;

As far as I can tell, few have even bothered to look at a map of the route. Otherwise, we'd surely be hearing more about the bizarre decision to start a super sonic rail line to San Francisco just south of the Tejon Pass;

When the occasional journalist does actual... you know... reporting, it has little to no impact on the discussion.

This is going to get ugly.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Another puzzle video -- going meta on Dudeney's Beer Barrel Puzzle

First off, you'll notice that things look a bit different. A friend of mine who works in postproduction (welcome to LA) made up an opening title sequence for the series. The video still looks like something done quickly on the cheap, but hopefully we've gotten to the point where the amateurism is not distracting.

My main focus here and what I want to direct your attention to is the meta. The central idea which is basically taken from George Pólya is that mathematics instruction should be less concerned with individual problems and more concerned with teaching the process of problem solving.

Puzzles are a natural fit for this concept. Their value for explicitly introducing heuristics has been demonstrated by any number of smart people such as Pólya, Martin Gardner (particularly in the Aha! books) and Raymond Smullyan, but the approach has never gotten the traction it deserves, perhaps because it requires both mathematical sophistication and a sense of humor, two qualities sadly lacking in both in traditional education programs and in the reform movement.

With that objective in mind, take a look, let me know what you think, and, if you're so inclined, feel free to share this with anyone who might be interested.

I used this problem as a jumping off point to discuss trial and error methods. For the more mathematically inclined, Dudeney's original solution might be of more interest.