Friday, June 23, 2017

The sad part is that New York Magazine would probably write a puff piece for it

Assuming Colbert could line up a celebrity business partner. [If you want actual journalism on Paltrow's pseudoscience, check out this excellent piece by Beth Skwarecki.]

Thursday, June 22, 2017

An evergreen quote

This is Joseph.

I juts ran across this quote by Matt Yglesias while reading another article:
But it is entirely emblematic of America’s post-Reagan treatment of business regulation. What a wealthy and powerful person faced with a legal impediment to moneymaking is supposed to do is work with a lawyer to devise clever means of subverting the purpose of the law. If you end up getting caught, the attempted subversion will be construed as a mitigating (it’s a gray area!) rather than aggravating factor. Your punishment will probably be light and will certainly not involve anything more than money. You already have plenty of money, and your plan is to get even more. So why not?
And if  you think that this isn't the case, consider Wells Fargo:
These payouts are on top of the $3.2 million Wells Fargo has paid to customers over 130,000 accounts over potentially unauthorized accounts. That works out to a refund of roughly $25 per account.
Now any one case can be pretty nuanced.  Maybe this settlement is fine.  But does this really look like the sort of penalty that would really discourage any sort of future wrong doing?

There are several reasons to punish bad behavior in a white collar context -- mostly to make it possible to have a fair and free market.  But the punishments need to be at least severe enough that bad actions are discouraged.  Responsibility should not be only for the powerless and the middle class.  I am all for being compassionate about mistakes, but I would like to see compassion across the spectrum, and not isolated to large corporate actors.

This 2016 post on journalistic homogeneity has just gotten relevant again

[When reading the overheated coverage of the Whole Foods acquisition, remember that the chain's relatively few locations are heavily concentrated in the same areas where journalists are over-represented. And yes, Terre Haute is out of luck.]

Location continued

Dean Dad points us to something I wish I had seen before writing the other location, location, location posts.
But with the shift in production has come a shift in geography.  As Joshua Benton’s recent piece notes, jobs in the new journalism are much more concentrated on the coasts than jobs in the old journalism are.  In a recent survey, almost 40 percent of the digital journalism jobs in America were physically based in the New York City and D.C. metros.  That’s compared to less than 10 percent of the jobs in television journalism.  Terre Haute may have a local news team, but it probably doesn’t have a freestanding digital news provider of any size.
I can't really recommend the rest of the Benton piece (too much conventional wisdom for my taste), but he deserves credit for digging up that remarkably telling statistic.

Pretty much all of us news-junkies consume the product on at least two levels: local and national. Ideally, the second should reflect a broad awareness and understanding of the parts that make up the first, not to mention the social and economic strata that make up the parts. This is extremely difficult when the people covering national stories tend to be geographically concentrated, particularly when they also tend to be economically and culturally homogeneous.

Of course,  we have to be careful about overgeneralizing -- there are, for example, food bloggers who just write about local scenes – but digital journalists play a big role in the discussion of national topics like transportation, and those journalists are disproportionately located in those two cities, as are the major print publications that dominate the national discourse. All of this is contributing to debates where not only do all of the participants have the same frame of reference; they are increasingly unable to imagine anyone having a different one.

If I lived in NYC or DC or San Francisco, I could imagine giving up my car and relying on Uber and public transportation. And if I and everyone I associated with lived in NYC or DC or San Francisco, some of the more optimistic Uber business scenarios might strike me as credible.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Aspect dominance, competitive landscapes, and other reasons why the Amazon acquisition of whole foods may not be that big of a deal.

Also ran this one in the food blog.

First off, let's look at some numbers.
[From Wikipedia]

National chains
    Albertsons LLC - 2,400 stores; besides the parent company, some stores are operated under the banners: Acme Markets, Carrs, Jewel-Osco, Lucky, Pavilions, Randalls and Tom Thumb, Safeway Inc., Shaw's and Star Market, United Supermarkets and Market Street, and Vons
    Aldi - 1,401 stores;
    Costco - approximately 500 warehouse stores in the USA, plus 200 elsewhere
    Ahold Delhaize - 2265 stores under the following brands.
        Food Lion (1098 stores in Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia)
        Hannaford (188 stores in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont)
        Giant-Carlisle (197 stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia)
        Giant-Landover (169 stores in Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia)
        Stop & Shop (416 stores in New York Metro: Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, New England: Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island)
        Martin's Food Markets (197 stores in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia)
    Kmart Super Center - 624 stores
    Kroger - 2,460 stores; besides the parent company, stores operate under Baker's Supermarkets, City Market, Dillons Supermarkets, Food 4 Less, Foods Co., Fred Meyer (technically a hypermarket), Fry's Food & Drug, Gerbes Super Markets, Harris Teeter, Jay C, King Soopers, Owen's, Pay Less Super Markets, QFC, Ralphs, Roundy's, Ruler Foods, Scott's, and Smith's
    Schnucks - 100+ Stores
    SpartanNash - operates 167 retail stores in 44 states, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East
    SuperValu Inc. - 1,582 stores (691 corporate and 891 franchised stores); the Save-A-Lot name is its most common banner; others are Cub, Farm Fresh, Hornbacher's, Shop 'n Save and Shoppers
    SuperTarget - 251 stores
    Trader Joe's - 457 stores (as of April 22, 2015)
    Walmart - 3522 stores + 699 Neighborhood Markets + 660 Sam's Clubs (as of January 31, 2017)
    Whole Foods - 430 stores (as of June 14, 2016)

Add in a ton of local and regional players and it becomes evident that Whole Foods is not that big of a slice. 

The distorting effects of aspect dominance
Whole foods is not just small in absolute terms; it is almost exclusively focused on a very narrow target market. Upscale, price insensitive, urban foodies credulously immersed in the world of health and culinary trends. By coincidence, this profile matches almost perfectly with the journalists currently reporting the story.

Whole Foods looms large in the lives of the kind of people who write for New York magazine or produced segments for CNN. This inclines them to lend this story an air of importance it does not merit. For example check out Matt Yglesias.

The post-peak problem

Even with its targeted demographic, there is considerable evidence that Whole Foods was already in danger of losing its dominant position. A decade ago, the chain largely had a lock on the organic and exotic market. If you wanted heirloom tomatoes and cage free eggs and pink Himalayan salt and those big bottles of Dr. Bonner's soap that your stoner friends used to read in the bathtub in college, you could either drive around various health-food shops and co-ops or you could go to Whole Foods.

Recently, though, the company has found its one time monopoly under assault from all sides. Old-fashioned retailers like Kroger's and Walmart have greatly expanded their organic and exotic selections. On the opposite front, small, nimble players like Trader Joe's and Sprouts have gone directly after the target market and have done so with far better prices and superior branding. This latter threat has gotten so bad that Whole Foods was forced to launch the Trader Joe's clone 365.

Before Amazon swooped in, the company had been facing one of the ugliest competitive landscapes in the industry.

"But we'll make it up with volume"

I know it seems a mundane point in this age of disruptors and economages, but Wal-Mart (and Krogers and Costco and ...) have mastered the art of selling groceries at a profit. Amazon appears to have gone into the business largely as a kind of loss leader and it's not clear they have any real plans to move beyond that model.

Wal-Mart, on the other hand, just might

This is an interesting idea, with some potentially big implications.

And finally, Jim Cramer predicts the possibility of great things.

There are few things scarier in the world of finance.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The scariest quote you'll see on antitrust this week

 For reasons I'll try to go into later, I'm not all that worried about the antitrust issues with the Amazon-Whole Foods merger, though that might change with new developments. The sale of a Kroger or a Safeway would certainly make me rethink this, as would a real (rather than all-hype) advance in food delivery systems. For now, though, I'm going to be more concerned by pretty much anything that comes out of Comcast, for example.

But when we do hit the next big antitrust case, this story by Gizmodo's Rhett Jones will worry me deeply. [emphasis added]

Makan Delrahim is Trump’s nominee to handle antitrust cases at the Justice Department. He made it through Senate Judiciary Committee hearings this month and should be starting work soon.
According to The Intercept, Delrahim has spent the last decade working in the private sector on merger deals and is considered to be very corporate friendly in such matters. As The New York Times puts it, he flippantly believes that “a monopoly is perfectly legal until it abuses its monopoly power.” For about 12 years, he has worked for the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which just happens to be registered to lobby on Amazon’s behalf.

Over at the FTC, Abbott Lipsky is the acting Director of the Bureau of Competition. Whole Foods has hired Lipsky’s former law firm, Latham & Watkins, to manage the proceedings with Amazon.

Monday, June 19, 2017

An alternate model for the rideshare business

One of the problems with hype-driven businesses and next-big-thingism is that it tends to drive investments and strategies in questionable directions. The best model for an industry might not be sufficiently hype-friendly or it might entail lots of small and medium players rather than one for to behemoth that investors can get excited about. (See the previously mentioned Ponzi threshold).

This got me thinking about the ridesharing industry. We have all largely accepted the Uber/Lyft  models as the only way to make the industry work: a huge number of employees (or subcontractors if you prefer) working for a big company that takes care of everything except for the car and the driving.

Instead, what if we thought in terms of something more like a franchise model? You have a national company that handles the branding, dispatching, routing, and billing while a middleman handles the inspection, driver recruitment, and dealing with local authorities.

This would insulate the national corporation from many of the labor issues currently besetting the industry. It could very well significantly reduce cost. It could even go a long way toward letting market forces determine where to grow. Rather than letting some corporate bureaucracy determine which region was suitable, the decision would be based on local entrepreneurs willing to put in the work and put up the money.

Friday, June 16, 2017

I know you've probably already seen this, but it's too good not to post.

Great work from XKCD. Of all the embarrassing sub genres of statistical pseudoscience journalism, there is not that beats the popularity and the obvious bullshit factor of the every-states-favorite-______. You inevitably start with a sample so inadequate that states like Montana come in with less than a dozen people. Worse still and defying all logic, each state somehow ins up with a different food, singer, or TV show.

The next time you see one of these what-each-state-thinks maps, send the people responsible a copy of this:

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Keeping the Uber thread going

For those joining us late in the show, we've spent this week discussing some of the problems with Uber's current business model and some of the proposals for the future.

Even evil plans require a certain level of competence

Ponzi Thresholds

A follow-up to Mark's post

One of the issues we've brought up more than once is that some of the companies difficulties appear to run so deep that even achieving a monopoly would not be enough to resolve them. Over at LGM, Scott Lemieux has reached a similar conclusion:

But it should be obvious that the Standard Oil model won’t work. There are two fundamental problems facing Uber’s potential profitability:

    The inherent costs of entry are low
    Demand for cab service is highly elastic

The circle just can’t be squared. The reason it takes a lot of venture capital to compete with Uber is because it’s massively subsidizing riders and drivers. But if you assume that Uber can charge market rates and still make a profit, then it would be easy as pie for a competitor to enter the market. To assume that market rates are profitable and that it would be extremely expensive to enter the field is a Mnuchinesque mistake. If you share my assumption (and, apparently, the assumption of the companies themselves) that they would hemorrhage riders if they charged market rates, then it doesn’t matter if Uber achieves quasi-monopoly status — it’s still losing money.

And the problem is even more acute in smaller, less dense markets than NYC and SF. Some of the problems I identified — cars in poor condition, opaque pricing, forced ridesharing — are regulatory failures and/or cases of companies being incompetent. But there’s a reason why outside of the biggest cities cab service tends to be unreliable if it’s available at all outside of transportation hubs and major hotels. Basically, in cities where people don’t take cabs for most trips you face the choice of making it worth their while for drivers to stay on the road when they don’t have passengers, or you’re going to have cases where people want cabs and can’t get them. Given that demand is particularly elastic in places where people generally have cars and rarely use cabs, cab companies are probably going to choose the latter. But this creates a downward spiral — if you need a cab and can’t get one, you’re even less likely to use a cab going forward. I don’t see anything about Uber’s technology that solves this fundamental problem.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A follow-up to Mark's post

This is Joseph

I wanted to follow-up on Mark's recent posts. One thing that needs to be carefully thought about with disruptive technologies is whether the legal framework will remain static or not.  Consider the example of Amazon and sales tax: for a long time the company benefited from having lower costs due to rules about collecting sales tax in states where it did not have a physical presence.  However, success breeds interest in collecting this revenue and, eventually, a successful company can no longer make the argument that special treatment is needed in order to grow a new industry.

With Uber, the fault line is clear -- as long as the drivers are independent contractors that's fine.  But the new types of variable pricing are undermining that argument.  Felix Salmon:
I do think that it does bring Uber one step closer to being the drivers’ employer, since the drivers are effectively being paid a flat wage for generating a variable revenue stream.
The answer is supposed to be driverless cars, but it is unclear that anybody is likely to own this space enough to make it a monopoly.  Both traditional car companies and Google look like competitors, and it isn't clear that these companies can be simply muscled aside.

Now it looks like the CEO might take a leave of absence, which isn't a good sign.

The part of this that is most painful is that Uber is actually probably a very good company in terms of producing a needed product and the huge valuation is causing more harm than good.  A real time ride hailing device on smartphones really does add a lot of value by matching customers with cars in a way that used to be quite difficult with a taxi.  That's likely to be a product of enduring value.  What's harder to see is how it can ever dominate the transportation space enough to make the market capitalization, weighted for risk, seem reasonable.

Addendum:  After talking with Mark, he suggested breaking out the steps for the driverless car pivot as being:

  1. Invent and perfect the technology
  2. Build a car company or partner with an existing car company on favorable terms
  3. Build the cars -- either by buying a fleet or selling them to customers
  4. Link the cars to their current taxi service
Some of these steps may be quite challenging.  A car is an expensive asset.  It is pricey to build them in bulk and it might be hard to convince people to lend them out (unlike the taxi scenario where the owner is able to stay with the valuable asset.

This also suggests that regulatory and insurance issues are tractable.  Who is insuring the car and how does it work for periods where it is completely empty?  Is summoning an empty car an invitation to theft?  It's not that these issues aren't soluble, but there are a lot of steps before success.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ponzi Thresholds

Another post based on Reeves Wiedeman's Uber article in New York magazine. This one sets up a concept I've been meaning to discuss with the tentative name of a Ponzi threshold. The basic idea is that sometimes overhyped companies that start out with viable business plans see their valuation become so inflated that, in order to meet and sustain investor expectations, they have to come up with new and increasingly fantastic longshot schemes, anything that sounds like it might possibly pay off with lottery ticket odds.

Like I said, this is been bouncing around for quite a while. I may have even slipped in a previous reference that I've forgotten about. There are plenty of potential examples, but the following is the first time I've seen the phenomenon spelled out in such naked terms [emphasis added]:
Meanwhile, in an effort to show potential investors in an IPO that it has multiple revenue streams, Uber has expanded into a variety of industries tangentially related to its core business. In 2015, the company launched Uber Everything, an initiative to figure out how it could move things in addition to people, and when I visited Uber headquarters, the guest Wi-Fi password was a reference to Uber Freight, the company’s attempt to get into trucking. (A former employee said the password often seemed to be a subliminal message encouraging employees to focus on the company’s newest initiatives.) But moving things had its own complications. One former Uber Everything manager said the company had looked at transporting flowers or prescription drugs or laundry but found that the demographic of people who, for example, couldn’t afford a washer and dryer but would pay to have their laundry delivered was a small one. Uber Rush, a delivery service in New York, had become “a nice little business,” the manager said, “but at Uber, you’re looking for a billion-dollar business, not a nice little business.”

It turned out that food delivery was the only area that made much sense, though even that was difficult. In the past year, food-delivery companies SpoonRocket, TinyOwl, Take Eat Easy, and Maple have all ceased operations. Postmates said in 2015 that it could be profitable in 2016, at which point it pushed the date to 2017. Its target is now 2018. “It absolutely does not work as a one-to-one business — picking up a burrito from Chipotle and delivering it,” a former Uber Eats manager said. “It has to be ‘I’m picking up ten orders from Chipotle, and I’m picking up this person next to Chipotle, and I’m gonna drop the burritos off along the way.’ ” Uber Eats has grown significantly, but getting the business up and running had required considerable subsidies, and the manager said it was rumored that a significant portion of the company’s domestic losses were coming from Uber Everything.

Uber’s expansion into an ever-widening gyre of business interests makes sense for a company looking to justify a huge valuation, but it has drawn criticism from some who wonder why the company is moving into so many different markets without becoming profitable in its first one. “It’s a Ponzi scheme of ambition,” Anand Sanwal, a venture-capital analyst, told me. “ ‘We’re gonna raise money on the promise of dominating an industry to come in order to pay for this thing that doesn’t make us money right now.’ ” He had recently conducted an unscientific poll of subscribers to his newsletter asking how many would invest in Uber today, even at a discounted valuation, and 77 percent said they wouldn’t. But the new initiatives have the benefit of keeping everyone excited about the future: In April, Uber held a conference in Dallas to explain why it planned to one day get into flying cars.

That phrase "looking to justify a huge valuation" is one that you need to contemplate for a few moments, let the logical implications wash over you. As I suggested before, like most New York magazine tech writers, Wiedeman does a good job capturing the telling detail, but is reluctant to draw that final Dr.-Tarr-and-Prof.-Feather conclusion, particularly when it threatens a cherished narrative.

There are at least two layers of crazy here. First, hype and next-big-thingism push Uber's value far beyond any defensible level, then, as reality sets in and investors realize that the original business model, though sound, can never possibly justify the money that's been put into the company, Uber's management responds with a series of more and more improbable proposals in order to keep the buzz going.

The phenomenon is not unique to this company but I can't think of another case this big or this blatant. (And they actually used the term "Ponzi scheme.")

Monday, June 12, 2017

Even evil plans require a certain level of competence

This article on Uber by Reeves Wiedeman is less than the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are very good. I particularly liked this observation about the role of competition in the company's valuation and business plans, though Wiedeman does leave one important point unmade. [Emphasis added]
To explain its massive losses, Uber and its investors have often cited Amazon, which didn’t turn a year-end profit for ten years as it built out an infrastructure that made the selling of more and more books — and eventually, of everything — cheaper and more efficient the larger it got. But Amazon’s biggest-ever loss was $1.4 billion, half of Uber’s 2016 deficit, and Jeff Bezos responded by cutting 15 percent of his workforce. Plus, Uber’s economics barely resemble Amazon’s. The taxi business doesn’t scale in the same way, and while Uber’s technology is sophisticated, the barriers to entry are relatively low, and Uber has had to fend off various competitors. So far as [transportation-industry analyst Hubert] Horan could tell, there was only one possible path for Uber to meet that $68 billion valuation: eliminate competition.

Uber’s potential aspirations toward monopoly are a sensitive matter — in discussing how Uber Pool became more efficient the more people used it, [Uber’s former head of mapping Brian] McClendon referred to Uber’s ideal state as a “monopoly,” before correcting himself to call it “not a monopoly, but a heavily used service” — and while every company dreams of owning its entire market, the question of whether Uber can do so has become murky. One Uber investor told me he no longer sees ride-hailing as winner-take-all but didn’t want to speak for the company; when I put the question to Rachel Holt, Uber’s head of North American operations, she ducked it by praising the value of competition and saying she didn’t have a crystal ball.

Being an old Arkansas boy, I was born and raised in the Walmart briar patch and I know a thing or two about anti-competitive practices. The giant retailer mastered the art of driving small, locally owned stores out of business by selling products at a loss, then jacking the prices back up when they had a clear field.

There are two essential components to this strategy: sufficiently deep pockets to stay in the game long enough and sufficiently high barriers to reentry so that, when the profit margin starts going back up, a new crop of competitors does not quickly appear. In the case of Walmart, restarting a collapsed local retail economy is next to impossible, but as noted in the article, the barriers to starting a ridesharing service are relatively low, particularly one targeting a single metro area.

So to recap,

1. Uber's plans depend on establishing an objectionable and quite possibly illegal set of international monopolies

2. Even if they do manage to pull this off, they probably won't be able to jacked prices up sufficiently to cover their losses.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Explaining the upsell model with Porky and Daffy

Upsell models are not necessarily innately evil, but they often align the incentives that way.

If the model is based on leveraging customer satisfaction – – if you're happy with the introductory packet, you'll just love the deluxe – – then there is absolutely nothing wrong with the approach. This model is fairly common in healthy, efficient, truly competitive markets. When people are free to choose, the system works.

If, on the other hand, customers are locked in and there are impediments to switching to a different product, this creates an incentive to make the entry level product just good enough to keep people from storming out the door but bad enough that an upgrade is often necessary for a satisfactory experience.

I could illustrate the point with examples from the airline and cable TV industries, but wouldn't you rather just watch the cartoon?

Dime to Retire by MistyIsland1

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Sometimes, "I forgive you" is evangelical-speak for "____ you!"

There is an oft noted truism that combining religion and politics tends to corrupt both. This is especially true with secular evangelicalism, which is the product of the conservative movement's decades long effort to reshape the evangelical movement into an effective political tool.

When it comes to Bible-thumpers, I was born and raised in that particular briar patch. I spent all of my formative years arguing theology, science, and social issues with Baptist and members of even more fundamentalist denominations. We agreed on very little but I always had a degree of respect for at least certain aspects of their philosophy and approach to life.

With the secular evangelicals (the currently dominant wing of the movement that focuses on the Republican agenda and has largely abandoned truly religious concerns), that is no longer the case. The admirable tendencies (spirituality, charity, and the desire to study and understand their sacred texts) have largely been gutted while the worst (intolerance, presumed superiority, and a strong tendency toward persecution complexes) have been amplified.

Those feelings of persecution are an essential part of this story. If you haven't grown up around evangelicals it is difficult to understand how deeply this runs. Stories of martyrdom resonate deeply, conspiracy theories about government plots are common, and, even with the most overwhelming of majorities, evangelicals often tend to think of themselves as a discriminated against minority.

When challenged and especially when losing an argument, these feelings often express themselves with a patronizing "I forgive you" or "God forgives you" (both are basically interchangeable). The implication is always that you are being sinfully unfair to one of God's favorites.

Which takes us to this recent news story from Minnesota:
Minnesota Rep. Abigail Whelan, a second-term House legislator from suburban Ramsey, was responding to a question from Democratic Rep. Paul Thissen early Wednesday morning about whether she thinks “benefiting people who are hiding money in Liberia is worth raising taxes on your own constituents.”

Whelan ignored the question and instead sounded off about her religion.

“It might be because it’s late and I’m really tired, but I’m going to take this opportunity to share with the body something I have been grappling with over the past several months, and that is, the games that we play here,” she began, leaving the tax haven discussion in the dust. “I just want you to know, Representative Thissen and the [Democratic] caucus — I forgive you, it is okay, because I have an eternal perspective about this.”


“I have an eternal perspective and I want to share that with you and the people listening at home that at the end of the day, when we try to reach an agreement with divided government we win some, we lose some, nobody is really happy, but you know what, happiness and circumstances — not what it’s about,” she continued. “There is actual joy to be found in Jesus Christ, Jesus loves you all. If you would like to get to know him, you’re listening at home, here in this room, please email, call me, would love to talk to you about Jesus, he is the hope of this state and this country.”
Based on the news accounts, this seems to be a bizarre non sequitur in the debate, but for those of us from the Bible Belt, the behavior seems completely in character for a secular evangelical. Since she was facing opposition, she felt persecuted and instinctively fell back up on a trusted defense.

It is also worth noting that she invoked the name of Jesus in defense of a position that was not only entirely secular, but which seems in direct contradiction to Christ's clearly stated position on taxation. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, when the conservative position was in opposition to the Gospels, she rejected the biblical one then suggested that those who disagreed with her were not Christian.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A few thoughts on Twin Peaks

I don't want to spend a lot of time on this one, but a recent post by Ken Levine about declining television viewership numbers got me to thinking. The content bubble story is big and complicated and inextricably intertwined with other big, complex stories such as media consolidation. I have found that it is useful, when following such a story, to take at least brief note of major developments so that you will have a record of them when you go back and try to make sense of things.

With that in mind here are a few regarding Twin Peaks:

1. This was a hugely expensive undertaking. Between the length, the ambition, and the names of those in front of and behind the camera, we are talking substantial production cost. Add to that huge marketing numbers. In addition to the considerable advertising budget, Twin Peaks has gotten a vast amount of media coverage. At the risk of seeming a bit cynical, every time you see a story or read an interview about a major upcoming studio release, you should think of it as being paid for by the studio in some way. A few journalist actually receive some kind of compensation (monetary or otherwise) for running the story. Others are happy to let some PR flack write their copy. On the next level up you get journalists who are willing to trade favorable and extensive coverage for access. Then finally, there is the more subtle but still essential greasing of the wheels, having the people and resources available to keep the PR running smoothly. These things cost a lot of money.

2. Given this amount of money, the viewership numbers we are seeing are not good.
With that, 506,000 viewers watched the two-hour, two-episode 9 PM premiere of the David Lynch and Mark Frost series Sunday, according to Nielsen. Among adults 18-49, the return of Agent Dale Cooper, Laura Palmer and more of the mystery of the Pacific Northwest town snagged a 0.2 rating.

3. And don't give too much weight to all the talk about record setting sign-ups. You will notice a certain vagueness about this metric. For instance, there doesn't seem to be much if any discussion of absolute numbers. I don't believe that Showtime has ever had an event this heavily hyped. We cannot, therefore, assume that the previous record was all that impressive. Probably more importantly, many of these sign-ups are presumably for 30 day free trials. As far as I can tell, we have little idea how many people signed up and even less idea how many of those will become paying customers.

4. There is, however, some good news for the company. Supposedly at David Lynch's insistence, all but the first few episodes will be coming out one at a time. This means that anyone dropping after the first 30 days will miss most of the series. Furthermore, as best I can tell, Showtime's parent company CBS apparently has a large ownership share in Twin Peaks. I would need to do quite a bit of research to be certain, but CBS does own Spelling Productions, which was one of the companies behind the original series. I also noticed that and the CBS streaming service have both offered original Twin Peaks for a while now. If the franchise is a CBS property, this means that all sorts of secondary revenue streams will flow back to the parent company. The investment in the new series makes the old show more viable. It also opens up the possibility of future movies and other projects.

5. That said, these numbers still do not look good and they raise real questions about the currently hot model of dusting off some old cult TV show. These programs have built-in name recognition and they are amazingly hype-friendly, but if this level of promotion brings in less than 1 million viewers, that is a very bad sign.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Immigration woes

This is Joseph

This story has some rather chilling implications.  Duncan Black makes the point:
I bet half the country would have a hard time producing clear evidence of citizenship, and 99.9% couldn't do it on the spot.
In a sense this new normal of detention seems to be most dangerous to US-born citizens, who really don't have anywhere to be deported to (they end up as stateless persons).  From the article:
Plascencia and her family say the experience has shaken their ideas about the protections they are entitled to as American citizens. Sepulveda said she is now afraid to leave the U.S., the country she was born in. 
The real issue seems to be the lack of an apologetic response.  A simple "we made a mistake" statement would go a long way to making this situation clear as an accident and not part of a new normal in terms of policing.  That would have done more than anything else to reassure people (including those directly involved) and fix the otherwise terrible optics of the situation.

Monday, June 5, 2017

And how the hell do you make an adverb out of "grammar"?

Though it lacks the immediate punchline quality of Soylent and Juicero, Grammarly maybe an even better example of the dysfunctional Silicon Valley venture capitalist culture. From Christina Warren writing for Gizmodo.
For a company raising its first round of investment (Grammarly was founded in 2009 and has been bootstrapped ever since), $110 million is incredibly significant. As Bloomberg notes, this is among the largest initial investments for a startup recently. 

Intrigued by the buzz, I decided to try the free version of Grammarly’s Chrome plugin (the more robust premium version costs an eye-watering $30 a month) and see what could possibly be worth the hype.

In practice, Grammarly is basically a web-version of the Grammar check feature Microsoft Word has had since, like, 1995. Also, in my experience, the free version only works so well. The service will catch major typos, but plenty of errors, both in spelling and usage, go undetected.

Warren then quotes the Wall Street Journal:
Grammarly learns from the vast amount of writing it ingests, and it adjusts based on usage. In a simple example, when people write “Hi John” in an email, Grammarly was suggesting people add a comma. “But nobody used that,” Mr. Lytvyn said. “So we dropped it.”
Why is this such a good example of what's wrong with the money men up the the Bay Area...

The company raised ludicrous amounts of money.

It proposed an unrealistically expensive product...

An unrealistically expensive product that offered no immediately obvious improvement in functionality over what you already have available if you are running Microsoft office.

The proposal was based largely on trendy buzzwords...

Buzzwords that the CEO apparently did not understand the meaning of. What's described here is not artificial intelligence or machine learning, it is a fairly dumb algorithm. Furthermore, while this would be a good approach for something like an autocorrect function, it is (as Warren notes) a terrible approach for grammar software.

If only it were named for a bad 70s sci-fi picture it would be perfect.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Living in a post-truth world

This is Joseph.

Larry Summers on the heroic assumptions needed to make the current budget deficit neutral:
The Trump economic team has not engaged in serious analysis or been in dialogue with those who are capable of it so they have had nothing to say in defense of their forecast except extravagant claims for their policies. Taking their supply-side perspective, do they really believe that through tax cuts and deregulation they are going to accomplish more than Ronald Reagan, who after all reduced the top tax rate from 70 to 28 percent? Between 1981 and 1988, GDP per adult grew by an average of 2.5 percent, distinctly slower than what they are forecasting. Even this figure reflects a substantial cyclical tail wind from the decline in unemployment from 7.6 percent to 5.5 percent (which from Okun’s law implies adding about half a percent to GDP growth) — something unavailable in the present context.
Two thoughts here.  One, if assumptions this heroic are allowable then there is really no point to doing forecasts, as they are too unlikely to reflect reality.  Maybe we will have a period that is a positive outlier, but maybe it will be a negative outlier as well.  One has to argue for the central tendency as the most likely outcome and this isn't in line with past rates of growth.

Two, this is a pretty good estimate of the maximum effect of supply side reforms. Moving the tax rate from 70 to 28 percent is about the entire range of plausible rates, and increasing employment could be a intermediate step here.  But that would suggest a fairly modest effect, given that the US growth rate from 1948 to 2017 was 2.00%.  

If you see the drop in employment as being unrelated to the tax cuts (recovery from recession), then Reagan had the average growth rate of the post-WWII US.  You know, it might be possible that tax rates aren't a key driver of economic growth, compared to factors like good government.  Just thinking out loud here.

And this leads to my last and most puzzling observation.  If government is run like a business then why do they keep cutting revenue?  Does comcast cut prices in the absence of competition?  Or is this a principal agent problem writ large?

h/t Economist's View

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Liz Spayd was a disaster for the New York Times because she was exactly what the paper wanted

From TPM:
The publisher of the New York Times announced Wednesday that the paper was eliminating its public editor position, a role currently held by Liz Spayd.

“The responsibility of the public editor – to serve as the reader’s representative – has outgrown that one office,” Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote in a memo to colleagues, which was obtained by TPM. “Our business requires that we must all seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers. When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or our coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves.”

For a long time now, we have been talking about the central paradox that prevents the New York Times from moving forward. Going back all the way to the 19th century, the New York Times has been widely noted as being snobbish, prissy, and holier than thou. Perhaps from the paper's very inception, The New York Times has been defined by an unshakable belief in its own superiority.

While this was always a dangerous assumption, for most of the paper's history the risk was minimized by high quality and standards of journalism . When things started to go bad, however, the NYT was fundamentally incapable of honestly assessing and effectively addressing the problems. Judith Miller was not an anomaly; she was an unsurprising and completely representative result of the culture of the paper.

The great irony of a New York Times public editor position is that the more one is needed, the less doable the job becomes. When the paper was having a good run (and it has had quite a few), a public editor could point out real flaws that the paper was willing to address, because the criticism did not undermine any fundamental tenet of superiority. Unfortunately, the past quarter century or so has marked an all time low for the gray lady. Here is a partial list:
Bush V Gore;
The Iraq war;
False balance;
Credulous reporting of untrustworthy anonymous sources;
Weakness in the face of (mostly conservative) pressure;
Inadequate coverage bordering on complicity with stories like swift boating and birtherism;
And finally, a determination to cling to all vendettas with the Clintons that arguably resulted in the Trump presidency.

Some of the public editors, most notably Margaret Sullivan, aggressively pursued their duties and tried to give voice to the most valid criticisms being made about the paper. The NYT, however, showed no interest in acting to rectify those problems and often gave the impression of not even caring.

Perhaps the selection of Liz Spayd was a reaction against the blunt honesty of Sullivan. From the very beginning, Spayd publicly and enthusiastically bought into the best-newspaper-ever belief system. It permeated her columns and put a clear boundary on her criticisms. She was exactly what her bosses had always wanted and the result was a PR nightmare. It turned out that having a public editor who instinctively cited with her editors over the public was a bad idea.

Here is a sample from last year:

"Why do you hate us for caring too much?" – – Dispatches from a besieged institution

Public Editor
From Wikipedia

The job of the public editor is to supervise the implementation of proper journalism ethics at a newspaper, and to identify and examine critical errors or omissions, and to act as a liaison to the public. They do this primarily through a regular feature on a newspaper's editorial page. Because public editors are generally employees of the very newspaper they're criticizing, it may appear as though there is a possibility for bias. However, a newspaper with a high standard of ethics would not fire a public editor for a criticism of the paper; the act would contradict the purpose of the position and would itself be a very likely cause for public concern.

I don't want to impose a template, but generally one expects public editors to serve as the internal representative of external critical voices, or at least to see to it that these voices get a fair hearing. A typical column might start with acknowledging complaints about something like the paper's lack of coverage of poor neighborhoods. The public editor would then discuss some possible lapses on the paper's part, get some comments from the editor in charge, and then, as a rule, either encourage the paper to improve its coverage in this area or, at the very least, take a neutral position acknowledging that both the critics and the paper have a point.

Here are some examples from two previous public editors of the New York Times.

Clark Hoyt
The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not. But a more nuanced answer is that even a newspaper like The Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done. Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.

Margaret Sullivan

Mistakes are bound to happen in the news business, but some are worse than others.

What I’ll lay out here was a bad one. It involved a failure of sufficient skepticism at every level of the reporting and editing process — especially since the story in question relied on anonymous government sources, as too many Times articles do.

The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources. And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism – a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.

Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors’ notes that corrected key elements – elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset.

If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be.

But these are strange days at the New York Times and the new public editor is writing columns that are not only a sharp break with those of her predecessors, but seem to violate the very spirit of the office.

In particular, Liz Spayd is catching a great deal of flak for a piece that almost manages to invert the typical public editor column. It starts by grossly misrepresenting widespread criticisms of the paper, goes on to openly attack the critics making the charges, then pleads with the paper's staff to toe the editorial line and ignore the very voices that a public editor would normally speak for .

[Emphasis added]

The Truth About ‘False Balance’
False balance, sometimes called “false equivalency,” refers disparagingly to the practice of journalists who, in their zeal to be fair, present each side of a debate as equally credible, even when the factual evidence is stacked heavily on one side.

There has been a great deal of speculation as to what drives false equivalency, with the leading contenders being a desire to maintain access to high-placed sources, long-standing personal biases against certain politicians, a fear of reprisal, a desire to avoid charges of liberal bias, and simple laziness (a cursory both-sides-do-it story is generally much easier to write than a well investigated piece). Caring too much about fairness hardly ever makes the list and it certainly has no place in the definition.

Spayd then accuses the people making these charges of being irrational, shortsighted, and partisan.

I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates. CNN’s Brian Stelter focused his show, “Reliable Sources,” on this subject last weekend. He asked a guest, Jacob Weisberg of Slate magazine, to frame the idea of false balance. Weisberg used an analogy, saying journalists are accustomed to covering candidates who may be apples and oranges, but at least are still both fruits. In Trump, he said, we have not fruit but rancid meat. That sounds like a partisan’s explanation passed off as a factual judgment.

But, as Jonathan Chait points out, Weisberg has no record of being a Hillary Clinton booster. The charge here is completely circular. He is partisan because he made a highly critical comment about Donald Trump and he made a highly critical comment about Donald Trump because he is partisan.

But the most extraordinary part of the piece and one which reminds us just how strange the final days of 2016 are becoming is the conclusion.

I hope Times journalists won’t be intimidated by this argument. I hope they aren’t mindlessly tallying up their stories in a back room to ensure balance, but I also hope they won’t worry about critics who claim they are. What’s needed most is forceful, honest reporting — as The Times has produced about conflicts circling the foundation; and as The Washington Post did this past week in surfacing Trump’s violation of tax laws when he made a $25,000 political contribution to a campaign group connected to Florida’s attorney general as her office was investigating Trump University.

Fear of false balance is a creeping threat to the role of the media because it encourages journalists to pull back from their responsibility to hold power accountable. All power, not just certain individuals, however vile they might seem.

Putting aside the curious characterization of the Florida AG investigation as a tax evasion story (which is a lot like describing the Watergate scandal as a burglary story or Al Capone as a tax evader), equating her paper's pursuit of the Clinton foundation with the Washington Post's coverage of Trump is simply surreal on a number of levels.

For starters, none of the Clinton foundation stories have revealed significant wrongdoing. Even Spayd, who is almost comically desperate to portray her employer in the best possible light, had to concede that “some foundation stories revealed relatively little bad behavior, yet were written as if they did.” By comparison, the Washington Post investigation continues to uncover self-dealing, misrepresentation, tax evasion, misuse of funds, failure to honor obligations, ethical violations, general sleaziness and blatant quid prop quo bribery.

More importantly, the Washington Post has explicitly attacked and implicitly abandoned Spayd's position. Here's how the Post summed it up in an editorial that appeared two days before the NYT column.
Imagine how history would judge today’s Americans if, looking back at this election, the record showed that voters empowered a dangerous man because of . . . a minor email scandal. There is no equivalence between Ms. Clinton’s wrongs and Mr. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office.

Charles Pierce's characteristically pithy response to this editorial was "The Washington Post Just Declared War on The New York Times -- And with good reason, too."

If is almost as if Spayd thinks it's 2000, when the NYT could set the conventional wisdom, could decide which narratives would followed and which public figures would be lauded or savaged. Spayd does understand that there is a battle going on for the soul of journalism, but she does not seem to understand that the alliances have changed, and the New York Times is about to find itself in a very lonely position.

[Apologies for earlier cut and paste errors.]

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

War on Science -- part [really big number]

From the Washington Post:

White House budget aims to ‘slow’ gains in weather prediction, shocking forecasters
By Jason Samenow May 24
In an inexplicable budget proposal that has floored the weather community, the Trump administration aims to reduce investments in programs that would improve this model and many others aspects of the nation’s weather forecasting.

Released Tuesday, the proposal slashes funding at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Weather Service, by 16 percent.

The proposal not only reduces investments in weather forecasting technology but also cuts programs that would enhance understanding of phenomena, such as El Nino, hurricanes and tornadoes. NOAA’s weather satellite programs would see reductions in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“This budget would ensure that NOAA-NWS becomes a second- or third-tier weather forecasting enterprise, frozen in the early 2000s,” said David Titley, who served as chief operating officer for NOAA from 2012 to 2013.

It gets worse from there.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

For most politicians, the assault -- strike that -- the creationist dinosaur museum would be a low point

[I really should have researched this one more thoroughly.]

Being both a plutocrat and fanatical Christian fundamentalist requires a highly selective reading of the Good Book.

From the Week via LGM.

Gianforte is a big fan of citing Noah, as it turns out. In a 2015 talk at the Montana Bible College, he told the audience that he doesn't believe in retirement because Noah was 600 when he built the ark. "There's nothing in the Bible that talks about retirement. And yet it's been an accepted concept in our culture today," Gianforte said. "Nowhere does it say, 'Well, he was a good and faithful servant, so he went to the beach.' It doesn't say that anywhere."

He added: "The example I think of is Noah. How old was Noah when he built the ark? Six hundred. He wasn't like, cashing Social Security checks, he wasn't hanging out, he was working. So, I think we have an obligation to work. The role we have in work may change over time, but the concept of retirement is not biblical."

Monday, May 29, 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017

Keeping Mr. Magoo out of Class Foghorn Leghorn

Josh Marshall has frequently compared Donald Trump to the character Mr. Magoo. That got me to wondering how many people out there have actually seen one of these cartoons.

Just so our younger readers will get the joke, here's an Oscar-winning short from 1954.

And while we're explaining jokes, the movie Magoo almost saw was a reference to another of the studio's hits, albeit in a very different vein, The Tell-Tale Heart.

The film was the first cartoon to be rated X, indicating it was suitable only for adult audiences, by the British Board of Film Censors. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film but lost to Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom from Walt Disney Productions.

In 1994, animation historian Jerry Beck surveyed 1000 people working in the animation industry and published the results in The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals, in which The Tell-Tale Heart ranked #24

Thursday, May 25, 2017

For most candidates, the assault would be a low point

The threads are converging like crazy on this one.

We've got your crazy tech millionaire.

We've got your GOP candidate wildly overreacting to a question about the healthcare bill.

We've even got your war on science (Mark Strauss writing for Gizmodo back in 2014):

A group of students and faculty at Montana Tech are organizing an unprecedented graduation boycott to protest the university's decision to invite two commencement speakers who are prominent supporters of a young earth creationist museum.

Montana power couple Greg and Susan Gianforte are engineers who have founded several tech companies and made donations to computer science programs at colleges throughout the state. But what rankles critics is that the Gianfortes were also major donors to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, which describes itself as the "largest dinosaur and fossil museum in the United States to present its fossils in the context of biblical creation." Its mission statement:

    When you visit a major natural history museum today, you will see wide-eyed elementary and preschool children (not to mention their parents and teachers) being funneled into an abyss of scientific deception. No matter whether it's the study of animals, earth science, or astronomy, the wonders of God's creation are prostituted for evolutionism. And the end result is just more confusion, mystification, and cynicism in the lives of our young people and adults.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Let's hope "zombie companies" don't become a zombie idea

The OECD has a certain reassuring predictability. When explaining a perceived crisis, they will conclude that the country needs reforms and it needs market-based solutions and, most of all, it needs reforms that unleash market-based solutions.

I first noticed this pattern when I was following the education reform debate (where the OECD figured prominently). I also noticed something else. Though the organization put out reams of impressive looking studies and data, the actual arguments tended to have a context-free snapshot quality. “This country is not following our list of rules and it is in trouble.” It didn't matter that the country had never followed the rules and had previously been doing fine or that some other country (in the case of ed reform, usually Canada) was even further from the OECD prescriptions and was doing great.

Which brings us to this recent piece by Catherine Mann and Dan Andrews (chief economist and deputy head of the structural policy analysis division, respectively, for the OECD).

Second, in well-functioning markets we would expect strong incentives for productive companies to aggressively expand and drive out less productive ones. The opposite has happened. The propensity for high-productivity companies to expand and low-productivity companies to downsize or exit the market has declined over time. This pattern is evident in the U. S. and is particularly stark in southern Europe, where scarce capital has been increasingly misallocated to low-productivity firms.

Third, across the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we are seeing a drop in the dynamism of the business sector. Not only has the share of recent entrants into the market declined, but marginal companies, which would typically exit or be restructured in a competitive market, are more likely to remain. At the same time, the average productivity of these marginal businesses has fallen. In other words, it has become easier for weak companies that do not adopt the latest technologies to survive.

The survival of weak companies drags down average productivity, but the consequences for growth are even worse. Since such firms take up scarce resources, their prolonged survival (or their delayed restructuring) inflates wages relative to productivity, depresses market prices and undermines investment -- all of which deters the expansion of productive companies, particularly startups, and amplifies the mismatch of skills.

Today, the risk is that this phenomenon may contribute to a period of macroeconomic stagnation, as occurred in Japan during the 1990s.

There is no single fix to the productivity problem. But, over time, a strategy centered on encouraging innovation in firms, facilitating entries and exits from the market and helping workers retool can combat the structural weaknesses afflicting advanced market economies. Clearing the path for higher productivity growth is the surest way to ensure that economic expansion helps workers and doesn’t fizzle.

Just to be clear, I am not necessarily opposed to many (perhaps not even most) of these proposals. Furthermore, I certainly agree that we should make it easier for badly run businesses to go away (though my definition of "badly run" may be different than that of the authors). That said, there is a great deal here that gives me pause and it is entirely consistent with the pause-giving elements of other OECD studies.

One troubling aspect was particularly well illustrated by the mention of Japan. Many of the policies that the organization objects to have been in place for a long time, and during that time, many of the countries used as examples have had both very good and very bad economies. For example, I'm under the impression that Japan has long had official practices in place that make innocent young freshwater economists cry themselves to sleep, but those same practices were in place during both the boom of the 60s, 70s, and 80s and the bust that followed. Likewise (though to a lesser degree) the United States has experienced highs and lows in the past few decades that seem unconnected with the reforms the OECD proposes.

And, with the all-important caveat that I am desperately out of my depth, I would assume that the more competitive and uniform markets of the European Union and the far greater employee mobility (at least until last year) would have been just the sort of reforms that the authors insist are the best way of fighting our economic woes.

I am even more troubled by the chronology with respect to the claims about the impact of bringing down barriers to entry for new businesses. The trouble is that we have seen a recent and, as far as I know, unprecedented drop in these barriers due to the rise of the Internet and mobile, and it happened…




Once again I'm not saying that the proposals are bad and I am certainly not arguing that barriers to entry for new businesses are good; I am just saying that, even if our friends from the OECD are getting the direction right (which they very well may be), it is difficult to reconcile the magnitudes of impact they promise with the historical record.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The genre is sci-fi. The business model is fantasy.

One of the hallmarks of a bubble is the strange inversion of perceived risk. You get to a point where, for the people driving the bubble, the pain and anxiety of loss associated with missing out grow overwhelming. The only seemingly rational course of action is to do what ever it takes to get into the game. No matter how onerous the terms, no matter how many treasured possessions you need to hock, no matter how far you need to overextend yourself, the sensible course is to invest as much as you can.

Obviously, there are situations where "getting there the fastest with the mostest" is the best strategy, but even then, the smart investor or executive will at least acknowledge the inevitable point when blank checks will need to give way to caution. When the assumption that more spending is always better becomes axiomatic, the smart money starts backing toward the door.

Which brings us to a recent story from io9.

We were early to the party when it came to talking about the possibility of a content bubble. The basic idea is that while, even allowing for multiple screens (I've got two running myself at the moment), the competition for viewers has gotten brutal between cable and satellite, pay-per-view, streaming video, and our old friend digital terrestrial broadcasting. (We won't even get into games.) In particular, the share allotted to cable and satellite has been steadily shrinking, so that even allowing for population growth and the opening of international markets, this sector is, at best, holding its own.

At the same time, the amount of programming, particularly original scripted programming, has exploded. On top of this, there is something of a bidding war so that increased supply is actually met with spiraling prices. Obviously, this does not mean that investing big bucks in a TV series or the broadcast rights to a major movie franchise is necessarily a bad idea, but it does mean that the decision to open up the checkbook carries notable risks in the middle of a bubble.

What's so troubling about the following from a business perspective is that NBC Universal Cable Entertainment’s President of Entertainment, Chris McCumber doesn't even seem to consider the possibility.

Of course, all of that is window dressing compared what Syfy will actually put up on screens. McCumber said the goal was to go back to high-end, scripted television, with four focuses: space and scifi, fantasy, paranormal and supernatural, and superheroes and comics.

The Expanse and The Magicians are clearly the network’s flagship returning shows, mentioned many times and with pictures all over the presentations. For new projects, it was announced Tuesday night that Happy!, the adaptation of a Grant Morrison comic starring Christopher Meloni that was announced last year, will get a full season. Similarly, the Superman prequel Krypton has a full series order.

The channel has also paid a historic sum of money for Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It’s going to have some of the Marvel movies on it. Syfy wants to be the home of everyone’s content, in some way or another.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Bialystock's Paradox and von Hoffman's Dead Rat Problem

[Brief caveat. I have only a cursory knowledge of Watergate so I may be getting some of the history wrong. Fortunately, most of my readers are better informed than I am.]

Picking up from here...

First off, a bit of background courtesy of Wikipedia:

Nicholas von Hoffman (born October 16, 1929 in New York City)[1] is an American journalist and author.

Von Hoffman was fired by Don Hewitt for referring to President Richard Nixon, at the height of the Watergate scandal, as "the dead rat on the kitchen floor of America, and the only question now is who's going to pick him up by his tail and throw him in the garbage."

Von Hoffman's dead rat is one of many examples of how the Trump scandals turn the dynamics of Watergate on its head (it also reminds us how little predictive value there is in the Trump/Watergate analogy).

At the risk of being one of those counterintuitive types I'm always complaining about, the Republicans were lucky not to hold Congress during Watergate. The Democrats had to pick up the rat; all the Republicans had to do was hold the door through a reasonable level of cooperation across the aisle and an occasional show of independence from the president. The GOP certainly took a hit, but it was probably the best they could do under the circumstances. Furthermore, they were able to avoid intra-party war and exchange a huge and growing problem for a useful martyr.

To go just a bit further down the counter-intuition rabbit hole, I suspect that a significant number of Republicans in Congress are hoping that enough of their colleagues lose their jobs in 2018 so that this disposal job can be handed over to the Democrats. Of course, there are two obvious problems with that strategy. First, it is impossible to guarantee that it will be a colleague who goes down in the tsunami. Second, November 2018 is a long ways off and, if the pace of the scandal holds (or even gets worse), association with Trump has the potential to do a stunning amount of damage between now and then.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Understanding Ailes

This Gawker (R.I.P) article does an excellent job showing the connection between Ailes, the Nixon White House and the beginnings of the social engineering experiment we call the conservative movement (of which Ailes was a primary architect):

Roger Ailes' Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox News by John Cook

While this Sherman interview is the best concise take I've heard on the rise of Fox News.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Content Bubble and the Consideration Deficit

I probably need to do a deep dive one of these days and explore the connection between the content bubble and the larger story of how hype and next big thing-ism drive and distort markets. For now though, I'm just trying to document how big and overpriced and unsustainable the explosion of original scripted television (and the marketing budgets behind them) has become.

With Emmy season approaching and with easily a thousand square miles of LA County lousy with "For Your Consideration" billboards, Ken Levine has a post up that perfectly illustrates the point:

With 455 scripted shows and God knows how many unscripted shows out there, it’s shocking how many television programs I’ve never heard of. In some cases, I don’t even recognize the network. Elaborate programs too (at least based on the cover art).  Costume dramas and battle scenes and crucifixes.

And as I thumb through them one by one I feel a certain pang of guilt. There may be two or three of these shows that are really terrific. Some very talented and dedicated people poured their hearts and souls into these shows. And the studio must’ve spent a fortune sending them out. Some of the boxes and packaging is extraordinary. They should give out an Emmy for packaging.

But Jesus, life is too short. And if there is a series I do want to watch they often only include a couple of episodes. Sometimes they also provide a code so you can watch the series in its entirety on line. So there’s thirteen hours, or more precisely – twelve hours I won’t be watching something else.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


There is a huge distinction between the automobile industry (even the specialized area of electric vehicles) and the aerospace industry. The latter has a handful of players competing for a tiny number of clients; the former has lots of players competing for most of the population in the industrialized world.

SpaceX was able to carve out a substantial niche for itself because the industry was not particularly fast-moving (and, in part, because the company acquired, or by some standards stole, a large chunk of the personnel and intellectual property from TRW).

Tesla, by comparison, is entering a free market thunder dome.

As of September 2016, series production highway-capable all-electric cars available in some countries for retail customers released to the market since 2010 include the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, Tesla Model S, BMW ActiveE, Coda, Renault Fluence Z.E., Honda Fit EV, Toyota RAV4 EV, Renault Zoe, Roewe E50, Mahindra e2o, Chevrolet Spark EV, Fiat 500e, Volkswagen e-Up!, BMW i3, BMW Brilliance Zinoro 1E, Kia Soul EV, Volkswagen e-Golf, Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive, Venucia e30, BAIC E150 EV, Denza EV, Zotye Zhidou E20, BYD e5, Tesla Model X, Detroit Electric SP.01, BYD Qin EV300, and Hyundai Ioniq Electric. As of early December 2015, the Leaf, with 200,000 units sold worldwide, is the world's top-selling highway-capable all-electric car in history, followed by the Tesla Model S with global deliveries of about 100,000 units.

If you include plug-in hybrids (which I would argue that you should for now), the list becomes much longer.

The consensus in the engineering and infrastructure fields seems to be that we are not that far from the end of the age of internal combustion. I'll admit I am a bit skeptical about some of the timetables I've heard, but there is no question that we will get to the point where electric vehicles are cheaper, have better range, and can be charged in roughly the time it takes to fill up your car. When that happens, gasoline powered cars will go the way of chemical film and analog records, continuing to exist but only as a pale shadow of a once dominant technology.

It is possible I'm missing one or two obvious exceptions, but as a rule, it is next to impossible to be wildly profitable in the presence of intense and genuine competition. If you look at companies that were basically printing money by the truckload and take out those that lucked into a quick windfall or were cooking the books, you would almost always find monopolistic pricing/rent seeking or underserved markets or some combination of the two.

It remains an open question whether or not Tesla can be a viable and consistently profitable company going forward (a sober reading of the company's recent history does not strongly support the notion), but even if the company goes on to a long and successful career as a major player in the industry, it is highly unlikely that it will ever have the kind of limited competition needed to be profitable enough to justify its market cap.

That also means it probably will never be profitable enough to justify things like this:
Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was just barely out of the nine-figure club, earning $99,744,920 last year, according to Bloomberg’s calculations.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How things got this bad -- part 4,675

I was digging through the archives researching an upcoming post and I came across a link from 2014. It led to a Talking Points Memo article that I had meant to write about at the time but had never gotten around to.

Since then, we have learned just how much the mainstream media was covering for Roger Ailes. Ideological differences proved trivial compared to social and professional ties and an often symbiotic relationship. We have also seen how unconcerned the mainstream press (and particularly the New York Times) can be a bout a genuinely chilling attack on journalism as long as that attack is directed at someone the establishment does not like.

It was a good read in 2014, but it has gained considerable resonance since then.

From Tom Kludt:

Janet Maslin didn’t much care for Gabriel Sherman’s critical biography of Roger Ailes. In her review of “The Loudest Voice in the Room” for the New York Times on Sunday, Maslin was sympathetic to Ailes and argued that Sherman’s tome was hollow. But what Maslin didn’t note is her decades-long friendship with an Ailes employee.

Gawker’s J.K. Trotter reported Wednesday on Maslin’s close bond with Peter Boyer, the former Newsweek reporter who joined Fox News as an editor in 2012. In a statement provided to Gawker, a Times spokeswoman dismissed the idea that the relationship posed a conflict of interest.

“Janet Maslin has been friends with Peter Boyer since the 1980’s when they worked together at The Times,” the spokeswoman said. “Her review of Gabe Sherman’s book was written independent of that fact.”

Follow me on Twitter (no, I really mean it this time)

I know I haven't been the best tweeter in the past. I played with the idea now and then of being more active, but, given the huge backlog of things I want to write about here and on other forums, it never seemed a justifiable investment of time.

Recently, though, I flipped the question around. For me, unfinished work is a subtle, shaded category with lots of gradations. The lowest and most common was the hyperlink to an article or post I wanted to write about or share sometime the future. Keeping up with these links has gotten to be a real pain. It struck me that the work involved in noting and keeping up with all of these interesting articles was probably greater than the work required to put them in a Twitter stream. Of course, that still leaves me with the challenge of finding time to write up all these posts, but those I don't get around to will at least have gotten out in the form of tweets.

So, if you are active on Twitter, please follow and retweet liberally.

Thanks again for the support.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Using the outcome as a conditioning variable

This is Joseph.

Felix Salmon has a great comment on Facebook and Female Coders:
To spell it out: The more your code is rejected, at Facebook, the less likely you are to rise up the ranks. So the fact that women suffer from significantly higher levels of code rejection is a big problem. The evidence for this being a problem is precisely the fact that Facebook’s female engineers are disproportionately found at lower levels rather than higher levels. 
And yet somehow, Facebook has contrived to use that fact in support of its claim that there isn’t a difference in how male and female engineers at the company are treated. Instead of treating the prevalence of men in the upper engineering ranks as prima facie evidence that there’s something amiss, they use it to exonerate themselves of sexism.
As Thomas Lumley notes, conditioning on the outcome rather ensures that the model is unhelpful (I found this article reading his most excellent site).

What would be interesting to see would be what would happen if you randomized some gender swapping on the code authorship.  Or were able to blind reviewers to the gender of the code author; that would likely have some pretty positive consequences.  Because another consequence of this finding is that either some sub-par code gets accepted or some good code is being rejected.  You would assume that a private company would want to correct this issue, either way.    

Friday, May 12, 2017

Josh Marshall has my favorite ready-to-mix metaphor of the whole sordid affair

As a fan of the extravagantly mixed metaphor, I wish Marshall had jammed these two together, but they are both good enough to stand alone, funny and remarkably apt.

Last night came word that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reportedly threatened to resign Tuesday night when he realized that the White House was making him the key decision-maker in the firing of James Comey. This tells us a lot, but not necessarily what it might appear on first notice. The main significance is that no more than 30 hours in, the White House’s absurd cover story about firing Comey over his misdeeds toward Hillary Clinton – a lie that virtually everyone at the White House has now publicly repeated and vouched for – is coming apart at the seams. We can also see the staggering fact that after no more than two weeks on the job, Rosenstein’s public reputation, which was formidable, has been destroyed. He now joins a legion of Trump Dignity Wraiths, men and women (though mainly men) of once vaunted reputations or at least public prestige who have been reduced to mere husks of their former selves after crossing the Trump Dignity Loss Event Horizon.

What Rosenstein seems not to have realized was that Trump would blame him firing on him. To put it in mafia terms, ‘I said I’d help you whack Carlo. But you didn’t say you’d tell everyone it was my hit!’ This is why Rosenstein’s threat to resign rings hollow and indeed why I suspect he hasn’t resigned. What’s his argument? That he knowingly participated in the bad act and put his legal knowledge to work justifying it but is outraged that he’s being asked to take the blame?

And now our video accompaniment. First on the subject of event horizons. Before buying the Star Wars franchise, Disney first tried to make their own knockoffs. It did not go well.

Going from the ridiculous to the sublime... When the subject is mafia hits, particularly hits with nasty unexpected consequences, there really is no other choice.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Charles Pierce continues to hammer away at the differences between 1974 and 2017

We've been making the point for ages now that, while the legacies of Goldwater and Watergate are important, the analogies to today are deeply problematic. The differences are, if anything, more important than the similarities.

As noted previously, veteran political observer Charles Pierce was pointing out this contrast even as the Trump White House was preparing to announce the firing of Comey. The next day, Pierce made the same point even more forcefully. 

On July 25,1974, the House Judiciary Committee opened debate on the articles of impeachment. A congressman named M. Caldwell Butler said:

    "For years we… have campaigned against corruption and misconduct…But Watergate is our shame."

And a congressman named Lawrence Hogan said:

    "After reading the transcripts, it was sobering: the number of untruths, the deception and the immoral attitudes. By any standard of proof demanded, we had to bind him over for trial and removal by the Senate."

And a congressman named William Cohen said:

    "I have been faced with the terrible responsibility of assessing the conduct of a President that I voted for, believed to be the best man to lead this country, who has made significant and lasting contributions toward securing peace in this country, throughout the world, but a President who in the process by actor acquiescence allowed the rule of law and the Constitution to slip under the boots of indifference and arrogance and abuse."

And a congressman named Thomas Railsback said:

    "I wish the President could do something to absolve himself."

And a congressman named Walter Flowers said:

    "This is something we just cannot walk away from. It happened, and now we've got to deal with it."

All of these congressmen voted to send the articles of impeachment to the full House.

On August 7, 1974, two senators named Hugh Scott and Barry Goldwater, along with a congressman named John Rhodes, went to the White House and told Richard Nixon that his removal from office was inevitable. Nixon resigned the next day. Now, looking back from the swamp in which we currently find ourselves, there is one remarkable thing about all the people whose actions in that perilous time showed what stuff of which they and the country were made.

They were all Republicans.

Every damn one of them, from Sirica to Goldwater and back again. They all did their duty, as best they saw that duty and, as a result, a Republican president was forced to give up an office he'd won in a landslide only one year earlier.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"Why doesn't anybody have enough anymore?"

One of the questions we've been discussing on and off for a while now is how the Republican Party has changed since Watergate, and what the implications of those changes might be as the Trump administration continues a seemingly inevitable spiral of scandal. With recent events, the question is even more relevant.

A few hours before the Comey firing, Charles Pierce (who knows a thing or two on the subject) provided us with and illustrative clip.

And a characteristically sharp commentary.
That's Senator Lowell Weicker, Republican of Connecticut, telling John Ehrlichman, a thug in the employ of the Nixon White House, that, whatever alibis Ehrlichman had concocted to excuse himself and his boss for their blatant criminality, Weicker wasn't having it any more. This was in July of 1973, a full year-plus before Nixon finally was run out of power. At this point, there was no telling whether the White House stonewall was going to hold or not. (The number who knew was pretty much limited to the guilty, and the shell-mouthed operatives of the Watergate Special Prosecutor's office.) Being an independent-minded Republican still carried a considerable political risk. Weicker did not care. He'd had enough. Why doesn't anybody have enough anymore?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Information from hacking scandals

This is Joseph.

I assume everyone has read Nate Silver's take on the Comey letter by now.

In that context, Josh Marshall has a very good set of points as to how information leaks hurt the recent US presidential election:
Second: The FBI Director broke all precedent and DOJ guidelines to announce a criminal investigation into what proved to be the losing candidate just over a week before the election. There was little reason to believe the purported new evidence would lead to any criminal charges or indeed even any substantial new evidence. And it turned out that the ‘investigation’ was based on nothing. The entire blow up turned out to be based on nothing and knowing what we know now about what investigators and Comey knew at the time suggest he had little reason to think there was anything there.
Third: A rival foreign power ransacked the computer files and email logs of the losing candidate and strategically leaked them out over the final months of the campaign with the intention and the effect of distracting and damaging what proved to be the losing candidate.
Now look at France and their episode of hacking.

This suggests to me that we need to move past the nice but naive idea that leaks can ever be non-political.  The idea of more information always being good isn't false, but we need to acknowledge that a selective information leak affecting one party is a very partisan act.  It isn't like we saw the emails and logs of both sides being released so that people could use "behind the scenes" information to make a more informed electoral choice.

Instead, the decision to hack or leak data should always be filtered via a question of what is the agenda of the person(s) who are releasing this data.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Trying to imagine the pitches that get turned down...

One of these days, we need to have a serious conversation about all of the Soylents and the Juiceros. We need to think about the opportunity costs of diverting hundreds of millions (billions?) into obviously laughable products and services. We need to consider the income inequality implications of a business culture (particularly in Silicon Valley) where having the right connections counts for more than viable business plans. We need to ask credulous journalists how they justified the shameless puff-pieces that invariably preceded the collapses.

For now though, I'm just here for the snark and schadenfreude.

Silicon Valley Can’t Stop Puking Money All Over Soylent by Adam Clark Estes

Soylent, a substance, is about to be everywhere. A team of queasy venture capitalists just invested $50 million into the company. This, despite the fact that Soylent is perhaps best known for lying about its ingredients and giving people fits of relentless vomiting and uncontrollable diarrhea.

The new round of funding is led by GV (formerly Google Ventures) and includes big shot funds like Andreessen Horowitz and Lerer Hippeau Ventures. That extra $50 million brings Soylent’s total pile of cash from investors up to $74.5 million. Rob Rhinehart, the original startup bro who hates food and invented Soylent, told Bloomberg that he soon hopes to sell Soylent “pretty much anywhere you can get a coffee.” That means you might win more opportunities to spend money in order to celebrate the dismal, dangerous future we’re all living in, whether we like it or not. Let’s hope those coffee shops have bathrooms, though. We’re gonna need it.