Thursday, June 30, 2016

You need to watch this

I don't want to give anything away except to say that the journalistic criticism you'll find here is a damned sight sharper than anything you'll find in the New York Times or in On the Media.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

This would also be perhaps the first time a question starting with "how does it feel" will produce an interesting answer

As we've observed before, a handful of journalists and pundits have actually managed not only to maintain but to enhance their reputations through the recent primary. Some names that come to mind are Chait, Krugman, Ornstein & Mann and perhaps most of all, Josh Marshall. Over the past year, I don't think anyone has been better at what Orwell would call seeing one's noise in front of one's face than TPM's founder.

In an earlier post, we addressed the unique role that emotional gratification has played in the Trump campaign and speculated on how the candidate might react to the plummeting levels of fun. In a recent post, Marshall goes a step further, from not-having-a-good-time to “psychic disembowelment.”
If you are campaigning on the fact that you're a winner but you're losing, the premise of your campaign just falls apart.

Just as polls created a positive feedback loop for Trump in the primaries, where they seemed to confirm that no transgression or conventional misstep could hurt him, he is now entering a negative feedback loop with the same polls. The perception of losing amplifies every misstep. It makes him lose more both because the premise of the campaign starts to collapse in on itself but, relatedly, the brittle edifice of a narcissistic ego starts to come under an insuperable strain.

Put simply, he gets more erratic.

I suspect that in a couple months this will become the sum of most of the Democrats attacks on Trump both because it undermines the central premise of his campaign ("I always win; and I can make you win too.") but also because these attacks cut visibly cut Trump so deeply, triggering a sort of psychic disembowelment. You can see this in the increasingly irritated and thin-skinned responses to criticism or any references to his flagging campaign efforts.


At some point in the not distant future, some reporter - probably a not altogether pleasant one - will ask Trump: "How does it feel to be losing so badly? Just on a personal level? Does it hurt? Do regret getting into this?" It won't be pretty because Trump's ego is fragile. From there I suspect you'll see it cropping up in campaign attacks from every direction.

As mentioned before, under normal circumstances, psychoanalyzing presidential candidates is almost always a waste of time, but these are clearly special times. Addressing Trump's motives and emotional problems is not only productive; it's practically unavoidable.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit Bregrets or Polls as Self-refuting Prophesies

I haven't been closely following either the Brexit in general or the Brexit polling in particular, so I don't want to go out on any limbs speculating about what drove what except to note that this post from Scott Lemieux raises an interesting possibility.
I don’t know how many Brexit voters fall into the remorseful category. But I remember seeing somewhere (HELP ME BROCKINGTON) that a large majority of Brexit voters assumed that Remain would win. For what was surely a decisive number of Brexit voters, the vote was not a considered view that leaving the EU would be better than remaining, but rather was a vehicle for sending a message to British elites. 
I'm not saying that this was a factor but just as an intellectual exercise, try this. Imagine that widely reported polls contributed to the perception that the voters would chose to remain. That in turn created the perception that "leave" was a safe protest vote. Does it make sense to say that the polls were wrong in this context?

Monday, June 27, 2016

Still coming up to the edge of the 1964 analogy

As mentioned before, I don't want to push this too far. For one thing, I don't see anything analogous to the Vietnam War and the draft currently on the horizon, which leaves a pretty big hole in the "look what happened then" argument. 1964 might give us some idea what to expect in November, but I don't see much point in looking to 1968 as a guide 2020 (or 1980 as a guide to 2032).

All that said, it has, at the very least, been entertaining looking for points of comparison. Which brings us to Henry M. Paulson Jr. writing for the Washington Post
Simply put, a Trump presidency is unthinkable.

As a Republican looking ahead to November, there are many strong conservative leaders in statehouses across the United States and in Congress, whose candidacies I am actively supporting. They have a big job to do to reinvent and revitalize the Republican Party. They can do so by responding to the fears and frustrations of the American people and uniting them behind some common aspirations, while staying constant to the principles that have made our country great.

When it comes to the presidency, I will not vote for Donald Trump. I will not cast a write-in vote. I’ll be voting for Hillary Clinton, with the hope that she can bring Americans together to do the things necessary to strengthen our economy, our environment and our place in the world. To my Republican friends: I know I’m not alone.
and yet another spin in the way-back machine.

And while we're here.

Friday, June 24, 2016

"Whom are you voting for? This guy can read your mind." -- with that headline, what could go wrong?

A few quick thoughts on this WaPo piece by Jacob Bogage:

Neuroscientist Ryan McGarry swabbed a brain activity headset with saline solution and lowered it onto Brian Hazel’s head, connecting circular prongs gingerly to different spots on his skull.

Then he showed Hazel 40 minutes of presidential debates and commercials as Spencer Gerrol tried to read his mind. Which of the candidates did Hazel, an African American real estate professional in his 40s, support?

Gerrol, founder and chief executive of creative agency Spark Experience, based in Bethesda, Md., stared through a one-way mirror from an observation room. “Trump,” he said five minutes into Hazel’s session.

Gerrol was right. “Donald Trump,” Hazel said after his session. “I’m all about jobs, and if I look at the whole field and who has created the most jobs, I think he would be able to do that better than anyone else.”

Spark's experiment is leading a new method of human factors research, which asks test subjects to interact normally with everyday products or services while researchers track their emotional reaction and attentiveness. The agency gathers data from four tests — electroencephalograms, galvanic skin responses, eye tracking and microfacial recognition — to instantaneously determine which candidate a subject supports, down to the severity of emotional response.

The firm gathered more than 30 test subjects from across the political spectrum in May. Their findings, released last week, show that what people feel and what they say they feel are rarely the same.

The experiment might be the closest the country gets to an explanation of this crazy presidential campaign without dissecting a brain.

Instead of placing participants in focus groups or asking them to fill out a questionnaire, experimenters harvest data directly from the brain using technology called "BrainWave." Companies such as Nielsen and Affectiva also conduct similar testing, which can gauge the effectiveness of advertisements and viewer response to TV shows and movies.

“This isn’t science fiction,” Gerrol said. “I can’t read your thoughts, but I can read your emotions.”


But it has particular application this election cycle because voters' responses have been so unpredictable. Spark's study may have provided some answers, namely that test subjects may subconsciously lie when they tell people what political messaging works and what doesn't.

“If you ask somebody what they’re feeling, you're not going to get a very accurate response. Emotion is subconscious,” Gerrol said. “The idea is to measure emotion without asking.

“When people make decisions, it’s tempting to think there’s a lot of rational thought. That’s not really true. You can't have decisions without emotion.”


Scores of political prognosticators predicted Trump’s demise almost a year ago. They predicted that Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders would fizzle out.

Alas, no political prediction has rung true, leaving political professionals and junkies alike asking, “What gives?” and “What are Trump and Clinton voters thinking?”

1. First and most obvious, a minimum level of skepticism is required in these situations. None is to be found in the article.

2. There are huge causal and logical leaps here. Determining who a debate viewer supports based on biometrics shouldn't be that difficult -- hell, you could probably do a good job just watching facial expressions -- but Gerrol claims all sorts of insights about the subjects' decision-making process.

3. All based on 30 subjects. If you read the article, you'll see that Gerrol seems able to infer some important relationship from almost every line of the debate. That's a huge edifice for such a narrow base.

4. Let's stick with the 30 a bit more. There's every reason to believe we are traversing a rugged landscape here, with a definite possibility of interactions and non-linear relationships. If you have to disaggregate 30 subjects by gender, age, etc., you start getting some very small numbers.

5. Why do they always want to do politics? There are lots of choices (sometimes strongly held -- "Coke or Pepsi?") that are difficult to explain and predict, choices that are clearly emotional and often marketing driven. Voting is not one of those. We have pretty good models to explain the process which usually comes down to rational factors like social issues and economic interests. If you factor in what information the voters rely on, the choice becomes even more rational (if you believe what you see on Fox News, supporting Trump is a sensible decision).

6. As for this cycle being unpredictable... A lot of people in the journalistic establishment don't want to admit this but the people who got this campaign humiliatingly wrong did so because they argued against the data (see here and here). As far as I know, actual political scientists did fine.

7. Spencer Gerrol is a TEDx presenter.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

How long does Trump stick around after the fun stops?

I'm always leery of attempts to speculate too much about the character and motives of presidential candidates, at least not in real time. There is some potential value when it's done in a historical context by someone like Rick Perlstein, but when done as part of campaign coverage the results are almost always worthless.

This is partly because most pundits are terrible at this kind of analysis, prone to groupthink, blind to their own prejudices, easily swayed by the most blatant of manipulative ploys and generally not nearly as smart as they think they are.  Mainly though, the topic usually isn't worth that much attention. Compared to questions of policies and competence, issues of character and psychological make-up almost always fade into triviality.

Until recently, the only notable exception was Nixon, and even there, I'm not sure real time analysis would have been that productive. It took a while for the full story to come out. With Trump, though, the emotional issues are so close to the surface and are so obviously driving the process that to ignore them is to omit an essential part of the story..

For example, with a normal campaign, whether or not a candidate is having fun is a secondary, if not tertiary, issue. It's true that the best politicians tend to love campaigning, but they don't make tactical, let alone strategic, decisions based on whether they're enjoying themselves.

With Trump, though, it is entirely appropriate to ask what will happen to the presumptive GOP nominee when the process goes from non-stop fun to no fun at all. I was planning to write a post on this but Gawker's Ashley Feinberg got there first and hit most of the points I wanted to cover.
Remember, Trump had a blast during the primaries. Back then, he was free to spew any sort of nonsense he wanted. And not only did no one question him too seriously, but as his discourse became increasingly unhinged and racist, his poll numbers rose in kind. The more his poll numbers shot up, the more media attention he got. And for Trump, there is no purer joy. If Donald Trump is able to buy his way into heaven, it’s just going to be him reliving the 2016 primaries every day for the rest of eternity.

Now, though, the Democrats are just about done squabbling, Republicans are out of distractions, and the cold, sobering reality of what our nation has wrought is finally settling in. Now that the fun is winding down, the small-handed prince of our country’s most base anxieties is going to start looking for a way out. He’s already laying the groundwork, saying on Fox & Friends that “it would be nice to have full support from people that are in office, full verbal support. With all of that being said, I may go a different route if things don’t happen.”

Feinberg then walks through the various scenarios for withdrawal. All of them are long shots, but at this point I'm not ruling anything out.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

It's not "vibranium." Hell, it's not even a "hyperloop."

[Caveat: I've been getting up to speed on the Hyperloop and reaching out to knowledgeable people in the field, but I'm no expert and though I'm trying to be careful, some of the technical details may need to be revised later. On a related note, if you do see something wrong (or even not quite right), please let me know.]

From the Verge [emphasis added]:
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) announced today that it will be using a new type of sensor-embedded carbon fiber to make its capsules, capable of transporting passengers through a nearly airless tube at speeds up to 760 mph, safer than ever. The company is calling this new material "Vibranium," which may sound familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Marvel Comics and its wildly popular Cinematic Universe.

In the comics, Captain America's iconic shield is made of a nearly indestructible metal called Vibranium. It is almost exclusively found in the tiny (and fictional) African nation of Wakanda, the ancestral home of the Black Panther, who had his silver screen debut this month in Captain American: Civil War — and will be starring in his own standalone movie in 2018. Or around the same time the first Hyperloop is expected to be in operation.

HTT's Vibranium, though, won't be used to make any superhero flair, but rather a dual-layer coating for the company's Hyperloop pod that will provide the passengers with twice the protection should anything damage the exterior. The company boasts that its Vibranium is "eight times stronger than aluminum and 10 times stronger than steel alternatives," which is fairly standard for reinforced carbon fiber. What makes HTT's version special is the embedded sensors that can transmit "critical information regarding temperature, stability, integrity and more, wirelessly and instantly." HTT unveiled a section of its Hyperloop capsule made of Vibranium at the Pioneer's Festival in Vienna today.
We should probably come back to this as an example of how these hype spirals mix comically over-the-top language with outlandish claims that are supposed to be taken seriously (Vibranium is explicitly meant as a joke. With the numerous Elon Musk equals Tony Stark comparisons, the call is quite a bit more difficult). Instead of the hyperbole, for now though, I want to focus on the vagueness of the language and the way it interacts with journalists' weak grasp of the topic.

Musk never provided a really good answer to why the Hyperloop would cost so much less than comparable existing structures did but he could make the case that the hyperlink might cost less to implement that other proposed vactrains.

Before we go there, however, it is important to step back and realize just how little distinguishes the Hyperloop from the hundreds of similar proposals that have been made over the past century. This is very much the stuff of a mechanical engineering major's senior project. There is a very real possibility that every major aspect of the plan has been arrived at independently before over the years but without the necessary PR push to get it noticed.

That said, the idea of having the pods use some of the small amount of air in the near vacuum to generate their own air cushions rather than relying on mechanisms in the track is quite clever. Though questions remain as to whether this can be made to work reliably on a large scale over number of years, it does potentially offer a substantial cost advantage over many of the other designs for similar super high-speed trains. As I understand it (see caveat above), this design greatly simplifies the construction of the track (keeping in mind that simple is a relative term when you're talking about a structure that maintains a near vacuum over hundreds of miles and reliable handles passenger carrying pods traveling in excess of 700 mph).

Which brings us to this:
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, one of two LA-based startups working to build Elon Musk’s futuristic transportation system, announced today that it has licensed a technology called "passive magnetic levitation" to power its prototype. The system is "a cheaper, safer alternative" to regular magnetic levitation, or maglev, which is currently in operation powering high-speed trains in China and Europe.

Passive magnetic levitation, which was developed by the late physicist Richard Post in 2000, uses unpowered loops of wire in the track and permanent magnets in the train pod to create levitation. By contrast, maglev requires complex and expensive infrastructure upgrades, such as power sources placed at intervals along the track. Post, who worked for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, until his death in 2015, called his new system "the Inductrack."
For the record, Post's ideas are very cool. They might even be significantly cheaper than a standard maglev, but the system would almost certainly be more expensive than the pod-generated air cushion system Musk proposed.

To sum up:

1. HTT is not actually a Hyperloop but rather a maglev train;

2. The overwhelming consensus among independent experts is that the Hyperloop would cost at least 10 to 20 times as  much as Musk claims;

3. The HTT maglev will almost certainly cost more than the Hyperloop.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Red flags -- when contradiction becomes confirmation

Ariel Sabar as a great long-form piece up at the Atlantic profiling an extraordinarily disreputable figure  called Walter Fritz. If you have the time, you should definitely read the whole thing, but I wanted to highlight this:
On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.


On a more practical level, [King] couldn’t see how a con artist cunning enough to produce a scientifically undetectable forgery could at the same time be so clumsy with Coptic handwriting and grammar. “In my judgment,” she wrote, “such a combination of bumbling and sophistication seems extremely unlikely.” The crude writing, she argued, could simply indicate that the ancient scribe was a novice.

Yet “a combination of bumbling and sophistication” could well be the epitaph of many of history’s most infamous forgers, their painstaking precision undone by a few careless oversights.
Whether it's a con or just a conspiracy theory, if you dig into accounts of smart people falling for the implausible, you will usually find a point where the subject found a way of not just explaining away conflicting evidence, but of actually turning it around so that it supports the contention. Things never go well after that point.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Best pop culture reference by an economist

via Brad

Excellent post by Dietrich Vollrath. In particular, the discussion of the World Bank’s Doing Business index ("Apples and Oranges") is easily worth a thread. For now, though, I've got to share this.

From by Can we get rich by "Doing Business" better? 

Growth Economics with Nigel Tufnel

Below I’m going to get to the gory details of why the Doing Business (DB) indicators generally suck as a measure of anything useful. But let me start with this note. The DB index Cochrane uses is a “distance to the frontier” index. Meaning you get a number that tells you how close to best practices in business conditions a country gets. If you are at the best practices in all categories, you’d get a 100.

Cochrane says, and I quote, “If America could improve on the best seen in other countries by 10%, a 110 score would generate $400,000 income per capita…”. Stew on that for a moment. Think about how that DB frontier index is constructed.

Cochrane went there. He said it could go to 11.

This brings up the bigger and more important questions of how someone as smart as Cochrane can descend so deep into silliness and how little impact the descent has had on his reputation as a serious thinker, but those are topics for another day.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The coming of Trump -- what we were saying about journalistic decline and Republican dysfunction here at the blog in 2013 [Part 2]

With few exceptions, the failure to recognize the viability of Trump was directly tied to the failure to acknowledge the decline and, in some cases, near collapse of various political and journalistic institutions. We've been making this point for a while now.

Last time we covered why the party didn't decide. Now let's talk about the role of the press.

Journalistic decline and GOP dysfunction

Picking up from Tactics, Schmactics...

When we talk about the mainstream media and the right-wing media and all the other little sliver media out there, there are all sorts of standards with which we can make our distinctions. The one I prefer, at least for this discussion, is axiom-based.

In the New York Times, or Time Magazine, or Slate, or in any section of the Wall Street Journal except the editorial pages, most of the writers start from the same basic set of assumptions. To a slightly lesser extent, you can say the same thing about the right-wing media: Fox news; Rush Limbaugh; red state. We could argue about the validity of each of those sets of assumptions, but the important part for the moment is the difference between the two sets.

Though there had always been right wing papers and left wing papers, it has only been in the past few decades that it is possible to completely immerse yourself in one set of assumptions while your neighbor is completely immersed in another.

That's part one of the story. Parts two and three are what happened to the two halves of the journalistic universe since then and how those changes have affected the breakdown of the Republican party.

On the mainstream side, simplistic narrative journalism, dogmatic centrism, and a increasing disregard for accuracy and for holding subjects to a high standard of honesty all acted together to weaken the press's traditional role in checking party extremes. Since these practices had long been coupled with a sense that the Republicans were the dominant power and a fear of conservative pushback, this primarily worked on the right,  allowing unpopular and extreme Republican policies to gain traction. This was particularly true in the area of governance. Unprecedented use of filibusters and other obstructionist techniques were practiced up until recently with relative impunity due to the "both sides do it" mentality of many journalists.

On the right wing media side, journalists traded off their normal role as providers of feedback in order to be more effective motivators. This is perhaps most obvious with Ailes and Fox News where the goal (after turning a profit) was clearly to shape (and in some cases, falsify) the facts in such a way as to keep the base loyal and energized. In the short term, the strategy worked well but it always had inherent risks, risks that have finally started doing serious damage.

You can read this partly as a cautionary tale of Straussianism gone awry. The first, the most fundamental assumption of any society based on the noble lie is that you have a hierarchy with well-defined classes of the liars and the lied-to and that all major decisions are made by people in the first class.

Here's an analogy: officers have been known to paint overly rosy pictures for soldiers ("Things are going great on the Western front." "The enemy's factories are in ruins." "Victory is near."). We can argue over the ethics of this kind of lying, but it's easy to see why some officers might do it.

Now imagine that through a combination of field promotions, broken lines of communication and general confusion,  strategic and tactical decisions start being made by people who actually believe all of the misinformation that was fed to the ranks. I'm no military historian but I'm fairly sure this would probably end badly.

We had a pretty clear example of this kind of a breakdown in the Romney team's analysis of poll data in the last days of the election. There was clear value for Romney in having his supporters believe that he was ahead but that value was more than negated by having his advisers believe the same misinformation. You can see similar dysfunction in the recent shutdown where many congressmen made what now appear to be disastrous decisions based apparently sincere belief in such Fox News talking point as "people won't get that upset about a shutdown."

Put more broadly, the processes that allow the right version of the truth to get to the right people – something that has been an integral part of the Republican strategy – has seemingly broken down entirely.

In addition to the largely random flow of misinformation, conservative media created an unforeseen problem in the rank and file with narrative momentum. When most members of a group get much of their information from outside, there's a natural friction on in-group narratives when members realize that their version is not shared by the general public. Conservative media is immersive to an unprecedented degree. Narratives like "the only time Republicans lose is when they become too moderate" are allowed to build unchecked.

On a related note, the immersive quality also greatly facilitates social norming. This greatly encourages extreme positions and widens the gap when members of the group try to communicate with outsiders.

More on this soon.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The coming of Trump -- what we were saying about journalistic decline and Republican dysfunction here at the blog in 2013 [Part 1]

With few exceptions, the failure to recognize the viability of Trump was directly tied to the failure to acknowledge the decline and, in some cases, near collapse of various political and journalistic institutions. We've been making this point for a while now.

First, why the party didn't decide.  

Tactics, Schmactics -- why I don't buy the latest trope on the government shut down

[I haven't seen anyone frame the discussion in the following way, but a lot of the points I want to make in this thread have been made recently by Josh Marshall and Jonathan Chait. Both are on my fairly short list of daily reads and both have a rare gift for, to paraphrase Orwell, seeing what's in front of their noses.]

You've been hearing it everywhere from Paul Krugman to the National Review: the growing rift in the Republican Party is strictly over tactics -- everyone on the right agrees on what they want; they're just fighting over how to get there -- but having looked carefully at this (and I've stared into this abyss longer than I should have), I'm convinced that it's not just wrong but wrong on multiple levels. I don't think it fits the facts but, more importantly, I don't even think it answers a meaningful question.

Here's a rough analogy. Let's say you're standing in a subway station and a man next to you has a seizure, falls to ground and rolls off of the platform. In that situation, "Why would he want to do that?" is not a meaningful question. The idea of explaining actions through desires only make sense if we make certain assumptions about rationality, vantage and control.

When we're talking about groups, particularly groups large enough not to be able to form fully connected graphs, checking similar assumptions becomes even more important. We have a tendency to anthropomorphize institutions. "The business community wants this." "The Tea Party is trying to do that."   Of course, we know this isn't true. The most you can say is that there's a strong consensus or that the group is following the lead of an individual. This doesn't mean that it can't be useful to analyze groups as if they were individual actors; it can often be the best approach, but only if certain conditions are met. The first of these is that the groups have to be, for lack of a better word, functional.

To be functional, the group has to have certain mechanisms in place and working reasonably well:

Mechanisms to bring information into the system, analyze it and make appropriate decisions based on it;

Mechanisms to disseminate instructions for implementing these decisions, and gathering feedback from members to allow adjustments in strategy;

Mechanisms to check those personal agendas when they threaten the overall goals of the group.

My take is that for quite a while now, the Republican party and the conservative movement have not been functional by these standards. I'm not saying that conservatives are stupid or unbalanced or are acting in an irrational or erratic manner. I am saying that the mechanisms needed for functional operation have broken down and, furthermore, they have broken down in entirely predictable ways, as long as you apply the right principles (game theory, social and individual psychology, voting "paradoxes," collective action and principal agent problem, organizational theory, etc.).

For example, the Romney campaign's inability to process poll information clearly indicates a breakdown in the way that information is suppose to flow through a system. More recently, many of the statements being made by prominent conservatives are clearly cathartic; They can only be seen as the actions of people seeking emotional release without regard to the larger strategic goals of the group.

I've got some suggestions as to why this is happening that I will try to flesh out more later (with the caveat that I have no special expertise in any of these areas and I will invariably get in over my head). I've got first drafts of the next couple of posts, but just to restate the underlying thesis, when it comes to recent developments in the GOP, I think that we are less likely to find useful analogies in the Art of War and more likely to find them in When Prophecy Fails.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

We haven't done one of these for a while

A few points on the latest Success Academy controversy:

While supporters of no-excuses charters like Success frequently argue that these schools shouldn't be held to the same rules and oversight as other schools, I've seldom seen the case made in such plain terms;

Eva Moskowitz frequently portrays criticisms of her schools and opposition to her plans as attacks on parents, teachers and/or children;

Between Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein, and, more recently, Andrew Cuomo, the Success Academies spent their first eight years in the most sympathetic administrations imaginable. Adapting to a reform skeptic like Bill de Blasio has not been easy.

From Chalkbeat:
Success Academy Charter Schools won’t offer pre-kindergarten classes next year after losing a high-profile fight with city and state officials.

The charter network has refused to sign the city’s pre-K contract, arguing that it includes inappropriate regulations about how charter schools manage their time and design their curriculum. But neither Mayor Bill de Blasio nor State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has allowed Success to bend the rules, and both have insisted that Success sign the contract or lose funding.

In recent months, Success officials have continued their fight in court. But with no resolution in sight, the city’s largest charter-school network will close its three existing pre-K programs and will not open two more planned for next school year, CEO Eva Moskowitz announced Wednesday.

“It is unbelievably sad to tell parents and teachers that the courts won’t rescue our pre-K program from the mayor’s war on Success in time to open next year,” Moskowitz said.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

I always tried to do my best on tests. Now I learn the real money is in bombing them

... or more precisely, making the school think you're going to bomb them.

We've been writing a lot about the various often subtle and unanticipated ways that selection effects can affect educational metrics. I don't think we ever considered the possibility of schools paying the students at the bottom of their classes not to take certain tests.

From Paul Campos:

Bar-passage rates at the InfiLaw schools are now in a free fall. (The following percentages are for first-time takers of the July exam in the schools’ home states.) Florida Coastal’s bar-passage rate has fallen from 76 percent to 59 percent, Charlotte’s has fallen from 78 percent to 47 percent, and Arizona Summit’s has gone from 75 percent to an astonishing 30.6 percent.

This collapse has taken place despite the fact that, according to allegations in a lawsuit filed by a former Arizona Summit administrator, all three schools have been offering money to graduates who the schools identified as being at especially high risk for failure, to get them to hold off on taking the bar exam. Indeed, in July Arizona Summit’s dean confirmed that she had called various graduates the night before the exam, imploring them to consider the “opportunity” to withdraw from the test, in exchange for a $10,000 living stipend, that would be paid to them if they enrolled in enhanced bar-preparation courses provided by the school.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The rule for distinguishing the serious Hyperloop articles from the BS

Good reporting on the Hyperloop spends most of its time on infrastructure and cost (mainly infrastructure). Bad reporting spends most of its time on other aspects of the story, such as the technology of the pods, the personality of Elon Musk, and the widely discussed but never specified regulatory obstacles. There may be exceptions to the rule or caveats I should add to it, but I've been digging into this topic extensively and I haven't come across any.

You can make similar criticisms of much, perhaps most writing about supposedly world-changing technology. Issues like infrastructure and implementation costs are routinely glossed over or omitted entirely. The Hyperloop, however, is especially problematic both because of the exceptionally large role infrastructure plays in serious discussions of the proposal and because accepting Musk's cost estimates at face value requires pushing aside consensus opinion on some well established points.

Here's how I put it in an earlier comment thread.

It's useful to step back and think of this in terms of knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. There are a lot of aspects of building an intercity vactrain that are so far outside of our range of experience that any cost estimate has to be highly speculative -- independent experts tend to think Musk is being highly optimistic in these parts of his proposal but they can't say conclusively that he's wrong – but when it comes to things like putting large structures up on pylons or down in tunnels, we have a lot of relevant experience.

Remember this one?

[Michael L. Anderson, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley.] 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.

As a general rule, elevating structures greatly adds to the cost. Building something to exceptionally tight tolerances (such as those required to maintain a near vacuum over hundreds of miles of track) greatly adds to the cost. Doing something big for the first time usually has the same effect. The third is a known unknown. The first two are pretty much knowns. Engineers have been dealing with these questions for a long time.

Unlike pure science, I don't think it's possible to write about technology effectively without seriously addressing issues like cost and implementation and, in general, viability. Implicit in pretty much every story on new tech is the promise of impact in the near future, and if the tech isn't viable that promise is deeply misleading.

Friday, June 10, 2016

"Life as seen in Dickens' fiction"

Mark Evanier points us to a site-relevant tune from the Austin Lounge Lizards.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Proposed* Hyperloop** connecting Austria*** to Slovakia to Hungary***

Not sure what to make of this (from back in March):

HTT CEO Dirk Ahlborn announced that his company has reached an agreement with the Slovakian government. The plan is to set up the Hyperloop from Vienna, Austria, to Bratislava, Slovakia, and from Bratislava to Budapest, Hungary. These are three of the biggest cities in the area, and traffic between the three of them can be quite a drag. The company announced:
    “Slovakia is a technological leader in the automotive, material science and energy industries, many of the areas that are integral to the Hyperloop system,” Ahlborn said in a press release. “With our project in Quay Valley, this agreement with Slovakia, and future developments with other regions of the world, HTT truly has become a global movement.”


    “Hyperloop in Europe would cut distances substantially and network cities in unprecedented ways. A transportation system of this kind would redefine the concept of commuting and boost cross-border cooperation in Europe,” said Vazil Hudak, Slovakia’s economic minister, said in a statement. “The expansion of Hyperloop will lead to an increased demand for the creation of new innovation hubs, in Slovakia and all over Europe.”

The total costs for this project are somewhere between $200 million and $300 million, but if you consider that the project can transport 10 million people every year and the entire system is almost self-sustainable with solar panels, it’s really not that high of a cost.

This announcement got a fair amount of press when it came out, then everyone (including HTT) seems to have gone silent.

And there are some other things that make me nervous about the company:

* The specific word used was 'exploring' which covers a wide range of sins.

** Not actually a hyperloop since it scraps the biggest change that Musk made to the original Robert Goddard proposal.

*** It appears that only Slovakia has made a public statement.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Squandering journalistic reputations on the Hyperloop, the Economist edition

I know I've been hammering at this point for more than long enough to wear out my welcome, but when a respected journalistic institution publishes bullshit, the damage takes multiple forms: the illegitimate is legitimized; bad reporting becomes more acceptable ("if ____ can do it, why can't we?"); and valuable reputations are eaten slowly away.

Which takes us to the Economist's initial reaction to the Hyperloop, which managed to get pretty much everything important wrong both in terms of frame and focus, despite coming out at about the story despite coming out after transportation wonks and  conscientious journalists had largely debunked the fundamental claims.

If you read those first, you can make a fun little game out of catching the screw-ups here.

The Hyperloop would carry passengers across California at more than 1,200kph—faster than a jet airliner—allowing them to zoom between San Francisco and Los Angeles [No, from Hayward to Sylmar. Getting the route wrong is a telling indicator of what's to come -- MP] in little over half an hour, compared with more than two-and-a-half hours for CHSR. It would be solar-powered, would take less land than a high-speed railway [and have a fraction of the capacity -- MP], and would be cheaper to boot. Mr Musk’s notional budget is around $6 billion, less than a tenth of what the high-speed train is supposed to cost. [Almost no independent experts agree with this. Their estimates are higher by one to two orders of magnitude. -- MP]

That, at least, is the theory. There are doubters, of course. Some worry that passengers will not like the prospect of hurtling through a steel tube, in a cramped capsule [Let's not forget, probably reeking of vomit -- MP], at almost the speed of sound. And there are inevitable questions about safety, though the pods would have wheels that could be deployed if needed, allowing them to limp to their destinations using batteries if the power failed. [just to be clear, if you experience cascading failure traveling through a near vacuum in a pressurized pod at over 1,200kph, having wheels won't be much of a factor -- MP] But, its breathtaking audacity aside, the thing does look feasible as an engineering project. [We need to talk about what feasibility means in an engineering context -- MP]

The tube would be held above ground, on pylons, reducing the amount of land it consumed [the route mainly goes through the Central Valley farming country where the the relatively low cost of land would be small compared with the expense of building hundreds of miles of high tech elevated structure -- MP], and would follow existing roads, which should simplify construction and make maintenance easier. The proposed route features only gentle curves. [That a relative term at these speeds, particularly when you factor in the vertical (anyone else here familiar with the Tejon Pass?) -- MP] And the air cushion surrounding each pod should ensure that the ride is smooth. Moreover, although unexpected engineering problems would be bound to crop up, Mr Musk’s experience—and that of his engineers—with space flight and car design would bode well for overcoming them. [note that none of that experience involves large infrastructure -- MP]


Building it alongside existing roads would certainly cheapen things as well as simplifying them, but critics who are poring over Mr Musk’s cost estimates, for everything from land permits to the construction itself, doubt the numbers stack up (though to be fair, both his electric cars and his space rockets have come in on budget).
I'm going to drop the brackets now because this one demands its own paragraph. The level of misrepresentation and understatement here is stunning. The critics aren't poring over the cost estimates; they're looking only at the big stuff, putting in optimistic assumptions and still coming to the conclusion that it doesn't "pencil out," and that Musk's numbers are between one and two orders of magnitude too low.  As for the parenthesis at the end, budget is inextricably intertwined with schedule and, more generally, with delivering what you promised when you promised it. As previously mentioned, Musk is notorious for over-promising. Furthermore, it's not entirely clear how much credit you get for coming in on budget when you've never made a profit despite raking in billions in subsidies.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Quote of the day

From Charles Pierce [emphasis added]:
Implicit in this, of course, is the notion that the truth of an attack is entirely subordinate to whether or not that attack works.

This is how a "post-truth" politics is developed. Tactics uber alles. And Trump's constant presence on our airwaves isn't due to "his ability to garner" free airtime, or some magical Jedi mind-tricks that only he possesses. It's due to conscious decisions by various important people in the electric teevee business to use a larval dictator to boost their ratings. Conscious decisions, therefore, made without conscience.

I have a dreadful feeling that going forward, the coverage of He, Trump will consist in large part of the elite political media dodging blame for their part in his rise. Not that anybody predicted this three years ago or anything.

Let me go a bit further. We have already seen and will continue to see critical (in both senses) coverage of the GOP candidate seriously hindered because journalists are working around the role their publications played in the process. You simply can't have a thorough discussion of the rise of Trump without mentioning the decline of journalism.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Donald Trump as stressor – – Phase 2

Way back in August, I argued that
[T]he Donald Trump candidacy is providing the kind of stress that highlights flaws in our journalistic system.

On the right, we have seen a blatant alliance of the Republican Party and right-wing media in an attempt to force out a popular but embarrassing candidate. On the center/left, we have seen newspapers like the New York Times loudly point out that the emperor has no clothes while carefully avoiding the fact that he is standing in the middle of a nudist colony. (The bizarre alliance between Fox News and the New York Times on derailing the Donald Trump candidacy is a fascinating topic that will have to wait for another post.)

On the analytic side, where we are supposed to be above this sort of thing, more and more of the coverage is sliding into drunkard's light post territory: using data for support but not illumination.
Last summer and fall we were still in phase 1 -- pre-nomination -- which was focused about one third on opposition and two thirds on denial. Now, with the possible exception of Bill Kristol, everyone has accepted the obvious. The question is how the press will deal with it.

The primary problem journalists face in this phase comes from various bad habits the profession has fallen into. These habits relied heavily on symbiotic relationships with their subjects, particularly on the right. Reporters developed various methods for avoiding confrontation while their subjects found ways to help them avoid responsibility.

Now journalists or screwed on both sides . They obviously need to confront Trump but have lost the tools to do so. This would look bad under any circumstances, but since Trump refuses to give them any cover whatsoever, they are completely left out in the cold.

There were a handful in the press who emerged from phase 1 with their reputations not only intact but enhanced. Perhaps the most notable of these was Josh Marshall, whose phase 2 work is turning out to be every bit as good.
Today while taking questions after announcing belated donations to veterans groups, CNN's Jim Acosta pressed Trump on his criticisms of Judge Curiel. Toward the end of the exchange, in which Trump repeated his claims about bias and unfairness, Acosta asked Trump: "Why mention that the judge is Mexican?" Trump answered: "Because I'm a man of principle. Most of the people who took those courses have letters saying they thought it was great, essentially."

In other words, Trump didn't answer the question and Acosta seemed not to have a chance to follow up or chose not to.

As we've noted, quite apart from the policies he's embraced, Trump has shown himself over the course of the campaign to be an emotionally needy, pathological liar. Here we see that he also not only happily launches defamatory racist attacks on a federal judge but impugns the patriotism of an entire ethnic community in the United States.

As I write, the issue is being discussed on the cable nets in terms of why Trump thinks it's a good idea to attack a judge hearing his case, whether there's any evidence that Curiel is "biased" or "unfair." (It's worth noting that Curiel did Trump the inestimably valuable favor of acceding to his lawyers' request to push the trial back until after the November election - this despite the fact that 'elder abuse' infractions put a premium on conducting an expeditious trial.) But handicapping the wisdom of Trump's attack or analyzing them in substantive terms is an immense dereliction of journalistic duty.

The press routinely goes into paroxysms - often rightly so - about innuendos or phrasings that might in some way be racist or suggest racial animus. Here we have it in the open, repeated and showing itself as basically Trump's first line of attack when he is in anyway threatened. That's infinitely more dangerous than most things that routinely focus all the media's attention. Any reporter who gets a chance to ask Trump to justify his actions and doesn't is not doing his or her job. Few cases show more vividly how dangerous a person Trump is.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

That's a lot of weather to be immune to

I'm still getting a handle on all the problems with the coverage of the Hyperloop, trying to stake out the boundaries of the journalistic toxic spill by posting items that might be relevant, such as the weather conditions a massive, high tech, precision-built infrastructure project would encounter connecting Sylmar and Hayward.

In the initial proposal for the system, Elon Musk said the Hyperloop would be "immune to weather." Presumably this also means resistant to weathering over what Musk assures us will be decades of service. We are talking about a track built to tight tolerances suspended on pylons ranging from 20 to 100 feet tall. It may be too early in the conversation to go into things like material fatigue but it is at least worth noting that the stretch of the 5 north of Sylmar is subject to some fairly extreme conditions.

Pretty much every year, we get stories like this [emphasis added]:

Interstate 5 Along Grapevine Closed Due to Ice, Wind, Snow
By Jonathan Lloyd

A section of the 5 Freeway north of Los Angeles is closed Monday morning due to potentially dangerous travel conditions caused by ice, wind and snow.


The snow level is expected to descend to between 2,000 and 2,500 feet this morning, [the elevation of the Tejon Pass is over 4,000 feet -- MP] with moderate snowfall expected on north slopes in the San Gabriels and in the northwestern corner of the Antelope Valley. Up to eight inches could accumulate in the northwest foothills in the Antelope Valley, and between three and seven inches could pile up on the 5 Freeway near Gorman and The Grapevine amid icy conditions and winds blowing at between 25 and 40 miles per hour and gusting at 60 mph.

There was no estimate when the freeway would be reopened


Dangerous driving conditions are also expected in the Antelope Valley, including on Pearblossom (SR 138) Highway, amid snowfall and winds of between 30 and 45 mph, gusting to 65 mph, it said.

These are, of course, surmountable engineering problems, but we're not hearing a lot from the proponents of the system that suggests they've even started to address them.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Journalistic Betrayals -- Is the NYT experimenting with Pinteresque alternate chronologies?

Just so everyone's up to speed on the allusions:
Betrayal is a play written by Harold Pinter in 1978. Critically regarded as one of the English playwright's major dramatic works, it features his characteristically economical dialogue, characters' hidden emotions and veiled motivations, and their self-absorbed competitive one-upmanship, face-saving, dishonesty, and (self-)deceptions.


Pinter's particular usage of reverse chronology in structuring the plot is innovative: the first scene takes place after the affair has ended, in 1977; the final scene ends when the affair begins, in 1968; and, in between 1977 and 1968, scenes in two pivotal years (1977 and 1973) move forward chronologically.

And  with  a nod to Andrew Gelman's Class Foghorn Leghorn
"The Betrayal" is the 164th episode of the NBC sitcom Seinfeld. This was the eighth episode for the ninth and final season. It aired on November 20, 1997. The episode is colloquially referred to as The Backwards Episode due to its use of reverse chronology, starting with the final scene and playing in order backwards.
While reading this New York Times piece on the reaction of Silicon Valley to Thiel's machinations, it struck me that, while the story as written was notably biased against Gawker, it was possible to rearrange the paragraphs so as to have a much more balanced account.

For example, what would have probably made the best lede:
Twenty-five years ago, tech coverage was the domain of geeks and trade reporters — people who understood their way around a motherboard, were excited by it and wouldn’t dream of crossing certain boundaries. Now, with tech at its zenith, much of the coverage of the industry is still done by enthusiasts. Combine this with the need to get the power players to come to the media’s conferences and there is a real reluctance to look behind the scenes.

was buried very near the end of the piece.

That, in turn, called to mind our earlier discussion of the twenty paragraph gap in a NYT piece between a GOP claim about the danger of voter fraud and a summary of the overwhelming evidence refuting the assertion. The serious flaws in the article could all have been fixed by cutting and pasting.

I initially thought of this as some kind of literary joke where the articles were told backwards like something from a Harold Pinter play. As I started to write the post, however, I realize that we've seen this sort of thing a lot from this paper. Above the fold we get the standard narrative; below the fold, we get all the pertinent details that undercut it. This is pure speculation on my part, but it feels as if some stories are being reworked after-the-fact in order to conform to conventional wisdom and the papers editorial stances.

Or maybe I just watched too many episodes of Seinfeld.