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.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Preexisting conditions

This is Joseph

It looks like preexisting conditions may be back as a way to increase the costs of health insurance, and this is a bad thing.  Why?

In traditional insurance, if your house burns down then the insurer makes whole the loss.  In medical insurance, a major medical event may have sequels for many years.  If you change insurers (or your insurer goes out of business) then the original insurer is off the hook for continuing costs.  The new insurer looks at the ill participant as a "house already on fire" and would like to not cover these ongoing costs.

There is also an information issue.  If a house burns down twice then that might just be bad luck.  But if a person has two heart attacks, is the second one a random event or a sequel of the first one.  It is pretty clear that we don't want courts adjudicating this question on a case by case basis (or people being denied care because nobody can figure this out).

The most logical solutions are regulatory (like the Affordable Care Act implemented) or structural (like implementing single payer health care).  A portable system of health insurance might also work, although do you want to bet on your insurer being solvent for forty-five years?:

But there is a reason that preexisting condition clauses are unpopular.  Not because people want a free lunch (although some of that may always be present) but because it opens people up to random events (employer bankruptcy, anyone) leaving them unable to afford health care.

And before anyone talks about market solutions, please try and actually use "self-pay" as an option in a modern medical setting.  I actually tried this and it was very difficult to be seen by an MD (and only MDs can do things like prescribe antibiotics -- which can be life saving).

I have a small confession...

 For an embarrassingly long time, I thought that "epitome" and ep-i-tome were two different words.

The Bret Stephens story is about more than climate change denial

The conversation has gotten muddled and off-topic on both sides (which is not to say that both sides are equally wrong, just that most of the critics of Bret Stephens are making a valid case badly). A great deal of the discussion has come to center around a not particularly relevant debate about whether or not certain positions are acceptable in the pages of a publication like the New York Times.

It is true that, though the exact boundaries are inevitably hazy, there are certain positions that are so innately offensive that they should have to clear and extremely high bar before making it into the public discourse. Two obvious examples are defenses of the Holocaust and slavery. There is, of course, and inherent conflict between condemning offensive ideas and defending freedom of expression, but that's not really what we should be focusing on here.

The issue here is not that Stephens took a position (or even a string of positions) that you or I strongly disagree with; the issue is that he took this string of indefensible positions (effectively taking the pro side on things like racism, torture, religious bigotry, income inequality, sexual harassment, and the war on data) and defended them by recycling tired and hackneyed arguments that are logically flawed, dishonest and/or incoherent , not to mention almost always badly written.

We are not talking about lapses in an otherwise outstanding career or bad traits that are counterbalanced by notable strengths. Bret Stephens did not succeed despite these things; his entire career was built on being an apologist hack.

Here is an illustrative example from an excellent summary compiled by Hamilton Nolan;
The campus-rape epidemic—in which one in five female college students is said to be the victim of sexual assault—is an imaginary enemy. Never mind the debunked rape scandals at Duke and the University of Virginia, or the soon-to-be-debunked case at the heart of “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about an alleged sexual assault at Harvard Law School. The real question is: If modern campuses were really zones of mass predation—Congo on the quad—why would intelligent young women even think of attending a coeducational school? They do because there is no epidemic. But the campus-rape narrative sustains liberal fictions of a never-ending war on women.

When you strip away all of the nonessentials, the underlying claim is that an institution or group cannot be accused of prejudice or harassment if the victims willingly choose to join. This is very closely related to the classic argument: "you don't have to be here."  For a long time, this was one of the default responses to charges of discrimination. It was applied to African-Americans trying to break the color barrier, women entering traditionally male professions, gay athletes trying to be open about their sexuality, you name it.

Stephens is careful to couch his arguments in terms of some shadowy liberal conspiracy rather than an attack on victims of sexual assault, but when you claim that a woman's decision to attend an institution or pursue a profession precludes the possibility of a culture of harassment and assault, you have made this an argument about women, one that is neither sound nor original.

The New York Times knew what it was getting  with their latest hire and they have been full-throated in their defense of the choice. Stephens is a tired, derivative hack of no apparent insight or talent (at least, David Brooks is good at being David Brooks). There is nothing to be learned from reading his new column, but their is a great deal to be learned from the way that America's best known "liberal" paper instinctively genuflects to the worst of American conservatism.

[Note: some typos have been corrected.]

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Just substitute "dropping out of college" for "buying lottery tickets" and Peter Thiel for the stick figure...

On a related note, I've been arguing for years that a winning lottery ticket is the world's best investment (though there is that one little catch).

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

PhD Vouchers

This is Joseph.

Frances Woolley asks about why we don;t have vouchers for PhD programs.  As a part of this discussion she points out the issues of misalignment of incentives for K-12 school vouchers:
It's odd: school vouchers are frequently advocated for primary and secondary school students. Yet there are good reasons why they would not be expected to work well, especially for primary school, as the ones exercising the vouchers (the parents) are not the ones experiencing the education (the children). Also there are very large costs associated with switching schools, and especially going to a school outside your immediate neighbourhood, if you are six years old and not able to drive, or 12 years old and in a tight friend network. Hence the possibility for effective competition between schools is limited at the K to 12 level. 
I think a lot of the same issues would apply to PhD vouchers as would apply to school vouchers, especially in terms of the issues of coordination. So I am not a fan of the PhD vouchers idea, doubly so when there are provincial funding differences for the schools themselves.  I can see too many ways that we could end up with all viable students being at the University of Toronto, for example, with a clever use of network effects.

But the real issues are the barriers to change.  These are high -- just differences in the material that is being taught can be brutal to overcome when changing mid-semester.  Market forces will always be inhibited by the challenges in overcoming these barriers, especially since the service is being marketed to a proxy for the consumer.

But my biggest question is why the economist can rattle off real issues that don't even appear in the current conversation.  Everything is about quality, but this all presumes that the new system (at scale) will be better than the old system.  Which might be true, but pure market forces will suffer an uphill battle given transaction costs.  After all, how do you prevent "we will just under-serve a little bit, but not enough to make the costs of changing schools worthwhile" becoming a "race to the bottom" for most schools (with a few high priced and elite exceptions).

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

ESPN and the content bubble

It is easy to forget that, though it does occupy a unique niche, sports is part of the entertainment economy.

For years now, we have been discussing the increasingly apparent content bubble. Even though people's ability to consume content is approaching saturation (even taking into account multiple screens) and the competing sources of content are exploding, prices and production slates continue to skyrocket. This is not to say that there isn't a lot of money to be made or that the amount will not continue to grow, just that the probable rate of growth is nowhere near what would be needed to justify the current level of investment and hype.

We have mainly focused the discussion on things like scripted television and streaming services, but the recent news from the cable sports industry might provide a better example:

ESPN's Diminished Future Has Become Its Present by Kevin Draper

The causes of the layoffs are clear. As ESPN’s subscriber base, and the rate those subscribers paid monthly, grew in the late aughts and early 2010s, Bristol spent flagrantly. They created the Longhorn and SEC Networks, built a massive new SportsCenter studio, hired hundreds of writers to cover specific teams, and, most importantly, spent billions of dollars on live sports rights. They made big bets. They made wrong bets.

Right around the time the ink dried on a $15.2 billion deal to broadcast the NFL, subscribers began fleeing cable television in droves—not because of anything the Worldwide Leader did wrong, but because of secular changes in the way broadcast and video works. Phones, Twitter, and YouTube began instantaneously delivering highlights and entire games to fans, obviating the need for anyone to watch SportsCenter, or any other news shows, to catch up on what happened in sports, or even, in some cases, to watch live games. Terrestrial ad revenue never migrated online, and the revenue to be found there was largely eaten up by Facebook and Google, leaving little to pay those new reporters.

ESPN is still wildly profitable—the operating income of Disney’s media networks (of which ESPN plays the largest role) was $1.36 billion in the 2016 fourth quarter—but it’s less profitable than it used to be, and projects to be far less so in the future. With its latest cuts, ESPN isn’t just trying to stanch the bleeding and/or to be seen by investors as attempting to do so: They’re also laying out what the network will look like over the next five years and beyond.

If ESPN is trying to significantly trim costs, things are going to get grim, because cutting the salaries of online writers isn’t going to cut it. And so the fundamental question is how long ESPN—or Disney, or Disney shareholders—can be content with diminishing profits, and at what point they admit that aggressively outbidding competitors for live rights at the peak of what was at the time clearly a bubble was a mistake. If they do so, the knock-on effect to the leagues that rely upon their money to pay salaries and fund operations will be immense.

Monday, May 1, 2017

No-excuse charters and collateral damage

From Valerie Strauss writing for the Washington Post:

“College or Die.”

That’s the motto of the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School, a charter school in Indiana which, according to its website,  “expects 100% of its students to be accepted at a fully-accredited four-year college or university” and “to achieve exceptionally high levels of scholarship and citizenship.”

The words “College or Die” are posted in giant letters in a hallway of Tindley, an open-enrollment charter school for grades six through 12 that opened in 2004 in a former grocery store in a low-income area of Indianapolis. It became well known in school reform circles when it was visited in 2011 by then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) and then-U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who heaped lavish praise on the school for its success in getting students into college.

Here’s what it doesn’t say: A lot of students leave the school before they get to senior year. Here’s an enrollment chart from the Indiana Department of Education:

As noted by educator and blogger Gary Rubinstein, Tindley had 93 students in ninth grade in 2013-2014. By the time that cohort got to 12th grade, only 40 students were in the class. That’s a loss of 57 percent. Such a big rate of attrition is not exclusive to Tindley; a number of charter schools, especially of the “no excuses” variety, lose a lot of students and don’t replace them. Students who can’t cut it have to find another school to take them, sometimes in the middle of a school year.

One of the points some of us have been raising for years now is that movement reformers lack adequate concern about the collateral damage of their proposals. It isn't just that many of the schools that reformers hold up as models have disturbingly high attrition rates; it is that (as both a motivational and a PR tool) these programs build themselves up as students' best and even sometimes last hope for escaping poverty and having a good professional life.

To say that this gets families' hopes up is a grotesque understatement, but arguably even worse, the kids who are unable to make it into the programs or complete them are essentially told that they are doomed to failure. Between the emotional damage, the disruption and the danger of a costly self-fulfilling prophesy, that is a hell of a toll to inflict on already disadvantaged kids.

Friday, April 28, 2017

That's right, a Rube Goldberg machine as narrative medium

From Gizmodo's Andrew Liszewski:

Biisuke Ball’s Big Adventure is actually a sequel to an earlier Rube Goldberg machine featuring the adventures of Biisuke, Biita, and Biigoro, three colored balls who somehow have more personality than most action stars. This adventure, which involves sneaking through camps and foiling traps, only plays out for about three-and-a-half minutes, but if Hollywood is reading this, we’d gladly sit through two hours of this in a movie theater.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

All of the great ones make sacrifices

I'm planning to come back and connect this to some larger points, but for now I decided to get a quick post in to beat the Gizmodo rush.

From CNBC [emphasis added]:
In fact, a crucial decision Elon Musk was forced to make in 2010 when, by his own account, the billionaire was broke, is one of the reasons Musk has been able to cash in on Tesla's rapid share rise this year: Musk held on to shares at the very moment when a sale to raise cash would have made financial sense.

Musk, who had $200 million in cash at one point, invested "his last cent in his businesses" and said in a 2010 divorce proceeding, "About four months ago, I ran out of cash." Musk told the New York Times' DealBook at that time, "I could have either done a rushed private stock sale or borrowed money from friends."

It's a dilemma that many entrepreneurs face, but there is a big difference between the options available to Musk and the options available to most business owners. Musk was able to live on $200,000 a month in loans from billionaire friends — while still flying in a private jet — rather than sell any of his Tesla stake. Though the root of the problem is the same: intangible assets or, in other words, a business owner who is "asset rich" and "cash poor." And it can lead business owners to the most difficult decision of all: having to sell a piece or even all of their company.

Singapore Health Care Costs

This is Joseph

Ezra Klein has a very good Vox article on US versus Singaporean health care systems in terms of health care cost control.  The real crux of the issue is here:

According to the World Bank, in 2014 Singapore spent $2,752 per person on health care. America spent $9,403. Given this, it’s worth asking a few questions about what Singapore’s model really has to teach the US.
Are Singaporeans really more exposed to health costs than Americans? The basic argument for the Singaporean system is that Singaporeans, through Medisave and the deductibles in Medishield, pay more of the cost of their care, and so hold costs down. Americans, by contrast, have their care paid for by insurers and employers and the government, and so they have little incentive to act like shoppers and push back on prices. But is that actually true?
I doubt it. The chasm in total spending is the first problem. Health care prices are so much lower in Singapore that Singaporeans would have to pay for three times more of their care to feel as much total expense as Americans do. Given the growing size of deductibles and copays in the US, I doubt that’s true now, if it ever was. (It’s worth noting that, on average, Singaporeans are richer than Americans, so the issue here is not that we have more money to blow on health care.)
According to Singapore’s data, in 2008 cash and Medisave financed a bit less than half of the system’s total costs. Let’s say, generously, that’s $1,200 in annual spending. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average deductible in employer health plans is now $1,478 — and that’s to say nothing of premiums, copays, etc. And of course, average deductibles outside the employer market are much, much higher.
The key issue that Mr. Klein's article rests on is that people in Singapore are wealthier than Americans.  So you can make some pretty good inferences about their health care costs being translated to the United States, as it avoids the issue of whether or not we spend more on health care because we have more to spend.  Americans spend 3.4 times as much on health care as Singapore which means the funding instruments that Singapore uses would need to be scaled up.

So Medisave (between 7 and 9.5% of income) would translate to 24 to 32% of income (maybe more as Americans are poorer so there would still likely be shortfall), and then you would have to pay Medishield premiums (hard to imagine these are less than 10% if they also have to be 3.4 times as large). This is before payroll taxes (say 15%), income taxes and sales taxes, in terms of the total government mandated spending and taxation.  This seems very high and would immediately make the United States a very high tax country (remember Medisave is a government mandate).

The other amazing point in the passage above is that deductibles in the US now exceed total costs in Singapore (by a fair bit).  This gives absolutely no evidence that increasing the amount of  "skin in the game" is going to accomplish anything like a transition to a lower cost system (if the cost to consumers is what matters we already exceed what Singapore spends, and our costs do not appear to be rapidly declining).  We have talked before about how the health care system resists patients bargain shopping (or even identifying real costs in advance) and has a monopoly on many services (like pharmaceutical medications).

If we want to reduce costs then we really need new ideas (government regulation?).  Because just passing costs to the consumer isn't doing much to reduce total costs, relative to other health care systems.  This is not to say that there is nothing to be done, but that increasing costs to consumers increases suffering and is having little effect.  Perhaps the redesign of the ACA (AHCA), as it continues to undergo revision, should grapple with creative ways to improve the affordability of health care in the United States.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

More on the possible WGA strike

[Thanks to the scheduling function, my posts can be out of date before they even show up.]

Ken Levine has another interesting and somewhat counterintuitive piece on the possible upcoming writers strike.

One of the strange dynamics of labor politics in general and of this story in particular is the asymmetry of organization and homogeneity. As Levine has noted previously, when we say "producers," we are not talking about the names you see at the end of your favorite TV series. We are mainly talking about the major studios. That means on the management side you have a handful of similar players with similar interests.

On the other side you have a large and remarkably diverse group of writers. In terms of career and economic interests, they range from well-established names at the top of the heap to journeymen who work semi-regularly and support themselves to part-timers (often hyphenated actors, writers and producers) and newbies who are just breaking in. As a result, the impact of a strike varies greatly from segment to segment.

Of course, in labor negotiations, the reality of solidarity is often less important than the perception...
I know it sounds strange, but the best way for WGA members to AVOID a strike is to vote YES to authorize it.

Huh? you may be saying.

Here's why:  Management is just waiting to see how committed the WGA is to strike.   If the Guild sends a resounding message that it is solidly behind our negotiating committee the producers will be way more willing to hammer out a deal and be done with it.   They don't really want a strike either.  They're making $51 billion in profit a year -- why throw a monkey wrench into that?

If however, the Guild does not give Strike Authorization, or even tepid support, then the producers will let us go on strike, let us suffer, and then give us nothing -- knowing the membership is apt to cave.    The worst of both worlds.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A duopoly never provides “sufficient competition”

As follow-up to our earlier post on the inability of market forces to fix airlines, Gizmodo's Libby Watson opens up her evisceration of the current head of the FCC with a great example of someone who doesn't understand how competition and free markets work.

The Federal Communications Commission voted today to eliminate price caps on broadband services for businesses, schools, libraries, and hospitals, known as Business Data Services (BDS). The argument advanced by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, and the big telecoms who wanted this rule repealed, was that there is already “sufficient competition” in this market, and these price caps were getting in the way of the beautiful free market doing its thing. (As Motherboard noted, the Obama-era FCC pointed to research showing that 97 percent of BDS locations are served by just two providers, which doesn’t sound a lot like sufficient competition.) Without price caps and competition, incumbent providers can charge as much as they want to schools and libraries, who of course have been getting a free ride on providing internet to children for too long. Even freedom-loving Republicans like Sen. Tom Cotton asked the FCC to slow their roll on this proposal.

Friday, April 21, 2017

I love this helicopter

Michael Ballaban writing for the Gawker remnant Jalopnik:

The K-Max actually went through an initial production run from 1991 to 2003, and the main reason for the weird rotor configuration is that there’s no need for a tail rotor, which saps power that could instead be used for generating vertical lift. Having two main rotors which spin in opposite directions cancels out the need for a tail rotor to push against the torque of one big main rotor, much like you’d see on another heavy-lifting helicopter, the CH-47 Chinook.

But the Chinook isn’t designed specifically as a heavy lifting machine. It’s a huge, multi-purpose helicopter designed for a variety of missions, which helps explain its fore-and aft rotor layout. The K-Max, on the other hand, is designed specifically to carry loads slung underneath it via a long cable, and that necessitates it being small, narrow, and, well, weird,

Thursday, April 20, 2017

"Southwest, where we beat the competition, not the customers."

[Part of a flight attendant's closing announcement Thursday]

Just to review:
On Sunday, a man was forcibly dragged off a United flight headed from Chicago to Louisville after he refused to give up his seat to a United employee who “needed to be in Louisville” for a flight the following day, The Courier-Journal reports.

Passenger Audra Bridges, who uploaded a video of the incident to Facebook, told the newspaper that United initially offered customers $400 and a hotel room if they offered to take a flight the next day at 3pm. Nobody chose to give up the seat that they paid for, so United upped the ante to $800 after passengers boarded, announcing that the flight would not leave until four stand-by United employees had seats. After there were still no takers, a manager allegedly told passengers that a computer would select four passengers to be kicked off the flight.

As many people have pointed out, United could easily have avoided all this if they hadn't arbitrarily capped their offer at $800, a fairly low ceiling given the potential inconvenience for the travelers. We often hear libertarian pundits and freshwater economists arguing that we could take care of all of air travels problems with less regulation and more airports, but when an industry reaches the point where it avoids obvious market-based solutions, expecting that industry to be fixed by more market-based solutions is naïve bordering on delusional.

Markets can be exceptionally powerful and effective tools for aligning incentives and allocating resources, but they are not magic. The people who think that they are should be granted no more respect or attention then is given to people who believed in any other kind of magic.

The auto industry makes a useful point of comparison here. Relative to the airline industry, it is more responsive, innovative, and customer focused. This is because the conditions necessary for having a well functioning and efficient market are much better met.

We have vigorous international competition. True, this is slightly undercut by the way we license dealerships, but the overall result is still far better than the airlines could ever hope to achieve. Furthermore, there are few principal agent problems (unlike the case with business air travel). The pricing is more opaque than it should be, but nothing like the roulette wheel of buying an airline ticket.

And there is one other factor that is extremely important but which seldom gets mentioned: the car buying process is relatively unconstrained. There is usually a great deal of flexibility as to when and where you can buy a car. That ability to walk away shifts considerable power back to the consumer and makes for more informed and rational decisions.

None of this is meant to hold up the automobile industry as a model of perfect capitalism. There is a great deal of room for improvement, but at least it makes sense to talk about automobiles in these econ 101 terms. Airlines aren't even close. With the possible exception of a handful of very large markets such as Los Angeles/Orange, you will never be able to get enough airlines, flights, and airports to achieve the necessary critical mass of options and competition. No one has proposed a level of expansion that would give most Americans a range of choices whenever and where ever they need to go, which means talk of market-based solutions is premature at best.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

“Special Ed School Vouchers May Come With Hidden Costs”

With the hiring of Dana Goldstein, the New York Times has definitely upped its game in education coverage.
For many parents with disabled children in public school systems, the lure of the private school voucher is strong.

Vouchers for special needs students have been endorsed by the Trump administration, and they are often heavily promoted by state education departments and by private schools, which rely on them for tuition dollars. So for families that feel as if they are sinking amid academic struggles and behavioral meltdowns, they may seem like a life raft. And often they are.

But there’s a catch. By accepting the vouchers, families may be unknowingly giving up their rights to the very help they were hoping to gain. The government is still footing the bill, but when students use vouchers to get into private school, they lose most of the protections of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

Many parents, among them Tamiko Walker, learn this the hard way. Only after her son, who has a speech and language disability, got a scholarship from the John M. McKay voucher program in Florida did she learn that he had forfeited most of his rights.

“Once you take those McKay funds and you go to a private school, you’re no longer covered under IDEA — and I don’t understand why,” Ms. Walker said.

In the meantime, public schools and states are able to transfer out children who put a big drain on their budgets, while some private schools end up with students they are not equipped to handle, sometimes asking them to leave. And none of this is against the rules.

“The private schools are not breaking the law,” said Julie Weatherly, a special-education lawyer who consults for school districts in Florida and other states. “The law provides no accountability measures.”

McKay is the largest of 10 such disability scholarship programs across the country. It serves over 30,000 children who have special needs. At the Senate confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s education secretary, she cited research from the conservative Manhattan Institute, saying that “93 percent of the parents utilizing that voucher are very, very pleased with it.”

Legal experts say parents who use the vouchers are largely unaware that by participating in programs like McKay, they are waiving most of their children’s rights under IDEA, the landmark 1975 federal civil rights law. Depending on the voucher program, the rights being waived can include the right to a free education; the right to the same level of special-education services that a child would be eligible for in a public school; the right to a state-certified or college-educated teacher; and the right to a hearing to dispute disciplinary action against a child.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The rise of the secular evangelicalism started a long time ago

The following excerpts from a NYT piece on Alabama by Alan Blinder have gotten quite a bit of coverage:
But others said it had become clear that for conservative Christians, the cultural and political issues that define modern conservative politics mattered at least as much as moral piety. That was why, they suggested, Mr. Bentley was able to cling to his job for nearly 13 months after his reputation as a paragon of probity came under fire.

“The idea that moral hypocrisy hurts you among evangelical voters is not true, if you’re sound on all of the fundamentals,” said Wayne Flynt, an ordained Baptist minister and one of Alabama’s pre-eminent historians. “Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become. At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.”

Even before Mr. Bentley’s resignation, there was a budding movement among religious conservatives here to combat malfeasance in state government that has extended well beyond the governor’s office. Mr. Bentley’s departure could strengthen that effort, Mr. Flynt said, even as he noted that he was startled by the long-muted response of evangelicals to the governor’s troubles.

“Secular culture is eroding evangelicalism to the point where it takes us one full year to get rid of the governor because of all of these conflicting pressures,” he said. “He would have been out the door in an hour in the 1940s.”

As far as I have seen, though, none of the people posting and commenting on the story have bothered to dig into Flynt's writings, which is a shame, because the context here is important, particularly with respect to his ideas about the corrupting influence of social reactionaries on the evangelical movement.

The segregationists' argument was almost wholly cultural, and not religious at all. Tallahassee's First Baptist Church made a political case, since it was the major church for the political establishment in the state's capital. A lot of really overt racism in that church was political. Older church members who were inactive showed up to cast ballots in the 1964 church vote on integration. They showed up that night and voted, and we didn't recognize many of them.

At that same time I was working a lot on labor history. I wrote a paper on the 1908 transit strike in Pensacola. And I actually did research for a full-scale book on labor in Florida. One of the things I ran across was the fact that so many of these labor leaders were coming from Nazarene churches. They were also members of working-class Baptist churches. Labor in the South absorbed this extraordinarily powerful reform ethos of evangelical religion. Labor leaders in the West Virginia Coal Mine Strike of 1920, or the Birmingham Strike of 1919-1921 quoted the 25th chapter of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount, and referred to the life of Christ. All those strikes were informed by the ethos of the Gospel. This was not Marxism. If they were socialists, they were Christian socialists, but their radicalism was a radicalism born of the church and the very literal teachings of Jesus. You could argue that they were fundamentalists�in terms of their believing that every word of the Bible was literally true�but when they quoted Jesus they picked passages that didn't make polite society feel good.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Trying to get a handle on the plagiarism discussion

I believe I'm on the record as not having much taste for the topic. This is especially true in the case of Neil Gorsuch  (I'm still focused on the ability to combine Evangelical extremism with a stunningly unchristian deference to wealth and power), but it's a debate we seem to be stuck with and I've been meaning to take a little time to clean up my stand on things for a long while now. The current discussion is all too often muddled, illogical, hypocritical, and just plain silly. In order to have a productive conversation, there are some lines we need to lay out and some issues we need to address.

The disparity between severity and punishment:
As we have been over many times before, bad journalism exacts a disturbing cost. It can distort markets, undermine scientific and technological progress, and corrupt democracy. If you start to list the journalistic sins that have caused the greatest damage, plagiarism will almost never break the top five. Despite this, it is perhaps the one sin that is the most readily and heavily punished.

The twin crimes of plagiarism:
We generally say that plagiarism is wrong because it entails theft and misrepresentation. In one of the many contradictions of the debate, misrepresentation is, in most cases, only disapproved of if it comes with theft (theft without misrepresentation of authorship is piracy and is definitely frowned upon). Big name writers frequently have assistants do most of their actual work (or ghosts who do all of it). PR agents often send press puff pieces to friendly reporters who add nothing but their bylines. Co-authors often contribute nothing to academic papers. All of these practices are designed to mislead the reader, but compared to plagiarism, they get almost no criticism, at least partially because of …

The victimology of plagiarism:
It’s useful at this point to think in somewhat simplified terms of three major stakeholders, journalists, subjects and readers/viewers. If you look at the evolution of journalistic standards over the past few decades, you’ll notice a trend favoring the interests of the first and dismissing the interests of the third.  Laziness and inaccuracy are primarily crimes against the reader and therefore have little consequences (which explains the career of Alessandra Stanley). Plagiarism is mainly a crime against other journalists.

The comically narrow definition of plagiarism:
Outside of academia (where the rules are somewhat different), when you hear about someone getting in trouble for plagiarism, you can be almost certain that it is for a very specific kind.

Writing consist of any number of elements that, with one notable exception, you are allowed to steal, and even rewarded for doing so. Style, arguments, conclusions, imagery, language. As long as you hew  closely to the standard narrative and borrow from "the right people," your work will be celebrated with awards, promotions, and sweet gigs on TV news shows. The only kind of plagiarism that get you into trouble is copying the wording of some passage. As long as you sufficiently paraphrase the work you are recycling, you will be fine. If anything, your lack of orthogonality will be appreciated by the rest of the industry.

None of this is meant as a defense of plagiarism. It's sleazy and slothful, but the discussion of it and of journalistic ethics in general have become hopeless, and given the importance of good journalism, that's a huge problem.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Friday video inversions

Bach seems to survive the transformation nicely, but I think this is more interesting with a more familiar tune.

Für Elise is one of those pieces that almost everyone knows but often only as "that really pretty Beethoven piece (that's not Moonlight Sonata )" so you might want to listen to at least a few bars of the original before proceeding (or the whole thing -- you can afford the two and a half minutes).

Now, with  the original fresh in your mind, check out the inversion.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Bialystock's Paradox as explained by Jonathan Chait

For a while now, we've been talking about the parallels between the Producers and the current situation facing the GOP. ("When you win, people expect you to start fulfilling obligations, and when you've been making promises you can't keep...")

We were doing this as an excuse to post old movie clips and avoid writing actual posts, but Jonathan Chait has taken things to the next level and made serious case for the idea that "Before This Is Over, Republicans Are Going to Wish Hillary Clinton Won."

Imagine what the political world would look like for Republicans had Hillary Clinton won the election. Clinton had dragged her dispirited base to the polls by promising a far more liberal domestic agenda than Barack Obama had delivered, but she would have had no means to enact it. As the first president in 28 years to take office without the benefit of a Congress in her own party’s hands, she’d have been staring at a dead-on-arrival legislative agenda, all the low-hanging executive orders having already been picked by her predecessor, and years of scandalmongering hearings already teed up. The morale of the Democratic base, which had barely tolerated the compromises of the Obama era and already fallen into mutual recriminations by 2016, would have disintegrated altogether. The 2018 midterms would be a Republican bloodbath, with a Senate map promising enormous gains to the Republican Party, which would go into the 2020 elections having learned the lessons of Trump’s defeat and staring at full control of government with, potentially, a filibuster-proof Senate majority.


The Republican Party recovered from its cratering under the Bush administration by having the good fortune to lose control of the White House at precisely the moment that a global financial crisis began to inflict deep, ruinous pain upon the public. They used that backlash to gain control of Congress and stymie Obama’s agenda, especially any measures to hasten the recovery or patch up Obamacare, frustrating his supporters. A sense of how deeply the GOP’s position depended upon not holding the White House can be seen in public support for Obamacare. The unpopularity of the law has been the bedrock of the Republican strategy for nearly eight years. Republican control of government has made it … popular.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

“New Choice!”

Ken Levine, who knows a bit about coming up with new ideas (having worked on MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, THE SIMPSONS, WINGS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, BECKER, DHARMA & GREG ... ) is a big fan of improv classes as a training ground for writers.
There was another great exercise for comedy writers in Andy Goldberg’s improv class recently. This one was called “New Choice!” Two people would do a scene and periodically someone would say something and Andy would interrupt with “New Choice!” The performer then had to devise an alternate line. If Andy wasn’t satisfied he’d again bark “New Choice!” Sometimes it would take two or three lines before the scene was allowed to proceed.


Me and Fred are in a Costco.

Fred: What are you here to buy?
Me: Cheerios.
Andy: New choice!
Me: 300 rolls of toilet paper.
Andy: New choice!
Me: A case of Trojans and a dozen oysters.

Later in the scene:

Fred: I don’t have cash. Do you take American Express?
Andy: New choice!
Fred: Do you take the Diner’s Club card?
Andy: New choice!
Fred: Do you take second-party Group-ons?

You get the idea.

There's an analogous skill that's essential for anyone who teaches mathematics to the non-mathematical: when students don't get something, you should be able to come up with an alternate explanation that uses completely different words and examples.

With all due respect to the demands of rigor and correct terminology, if you can't find different ways of explaining a problem or mathematical concept, you either lack fundamental communication skills or you don't understand what you're talking about.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

They just want to help their children overcome the disadvantages of being rich in 21st Century America

Those Title I kids get all the breaks.

From Dana Goldstein:

Craig Foster, a school board member from Malibu who favors separation, said parents voluntarily giving money wanted to see the fruits of their donations.

An ideal PTA system gives a parent “the opportunity to put your money where your heart is,” said Mr. Foster, a former managing director at Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse. “It has to be an emotional appeal, and it has to be for the benefit of the donor.”

Indeed, the powerful appeal of helping one’s own child has turned the apple-pie PTA into a mirror of society’s larger stratification. According to a new report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group, schools that serve just one-tenth of 1 percent of American students collect 10 percent of the estimated $425 million that PTAs raise nationwide each year.

And those schools, not surprisingly, are some of the least needy, according to the study, which analyzed PTA tax returns from 2013 and student demographics. The richest PTA in the nation, with $2 million in revenue, was at Highland Park High School in a suburb of Dallas, where no one qualified for free or discounted lunch. (Nationwide, about half of public school students are eligible.)

Only 9 percent qualified at the second-richest, Public School 87 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where the PTA’s revenue exceeded $1.5 million. The money was used to pay for dance, yoga, chess, and math and literacy coaching.

Leaders at several overachieving PTAs also said their generosity addressed another kind of inequality: Their schools did not benefit from Title I, the federal taxpayer-funded program for schools that serve large numbers of poor children.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Is allowing a strike in the middle of a bubble ever a good idea?

Sitcom veteran Ken Levine has an excellent (if not unbiased) post on the possible upcoming writer's strike. You should read the whole thing, but there's one particular aspect I want to focus on here.

As we have been saying for years, there is an increasingly obvious content bubble in scripted television programs. Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and the stunningly mismanaged Hulu get most of the attention (largely because they spend ungodly amounts of money on marketing and PR to garner that coverage), but the old-style cable channels may well be a bigger factor. Now everyone from MTV to the History Channel insist on getting in on the act regardless of how badly scripted shows might fit in with their format and programming strategy.

Even taking into account the growth in overseas markets, it is next to impossible to come up with a scenario where the audience size can continue to support the explosive growth in production costs. If content has already expanded past the point where the market can support it, we have a bubble, which would imply that the smart strategy is to extract as much money as quickly as possible. With that in mind, the studios may be playing a very dangerous game.

The AMPTP (producers) completely control the situation. If they feel it’s inconvenient or too costly for a strike they negotiate a fair contract and move on. If they feel there’s something they don’t wish to give up or they want to be punitive and it’s worth the disruption they’ll push us to a strike. So don’t kid yourself --

THEY orchestrate the strike not the WGA.

Likewise, during a strike, when they feel it’s gone on long enough they settle and everybody goes back to work. Usually, it’s not a table of twenty negotiators that hammer things out; it’s a back room with four people. For years, Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal was that guy.

Writers have less leverage than other guilds. That's a fact.  When actors or directors go on strike the industry immediately stops dead. When writers go on strike stockpiled scripts can still be shot.

Since we don’t have as much leverage we generally do get screwed more often. That too is just a fact.

The AMPTP has a lot to lose with a strike. They’re making $51 billion in profits these days. Way up from past years. That’s a pretty nice incentive to keep things going as is.

Friday, April 7, 2017

We haven't talked about the content bubble for a while...

Don't get me wrong, as a viewer, I'm pleased with all the choices, but from a business standpoint, this got silly quite a while back..

Like so much of our economy, the content bubble is largely driven by hype and CEO dick-measuring. At least in the US, the market is beyond saturated and  the present levels, let alone growth curve is unsustainable.

In other words, enjoy it while it lasts.

P.S. After scheduling this, I heard a public radio segment about Emmy season. It turns out that the people who have to watch all of these shows can't find the time to watch all of these shows.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Two terrible things that are absolutely horrifying together

Another example that illustrates two threads. The first thread involves the dangerous implications of allowing a handful of people to acquire unchallenged and perhaps unprecedented wealth and resulting power. The second involves the consequences when a Straussian media strategy designed to keep the electoral cannon fodder angry and paranoid unexpectedly starts feeding the misinformation to the people who make decisions.

From Jane Mayer's excellent New Yorker profile of Robert Mercer:
Private money has long played a big role in American elections. When there were limits on how much a single donor could give, however, it was much harder for an individual to have a decisive impact. Now, Potter said, “a single billionaire can write an eight-figure check and put not just their thumb but their whole hand on the scale—and we often have no idea who they are.” He continued, “Suddenly, a random billionaire can change politics and public policy—to sweep everything else off the table—even if they don’t speak publicly, and even if there’s almost no public awareness of his or her views.”

This concentration of unchecked political power is bad enough under ordinary circumstances, but it's downright terrifying when the billionaire in question is one big box of crazy. According to Mayer's account, the last presidential election may have been decided by someone who actually believes the wackiest conspiracy theories of late-night conservative talk radio and alt-right websites.

Patterson said that his relationship with Mercer has always been collegial. In 1993, Patterson, at that time a Renaissance executive, recruited Mercer from I.B.M., and they worked together for the next eight years. But Patterson doesn’t share Mercer’s libertarian views, or what he regards as his susceptibility to conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton. During Bill Clinton’s Presidency, Patterson recalled, Mercer insisted at a staff luncheon that Clinton had participated in a secret drug-running scheme with the C.I.A. The plot supposedly operated out of an airport in Mena, Arkansas. “Bob told me he believed that the Clintons were involved in murders connected to it,” Patterson said. Two other sources told me that, in recent years, they had heard Mercer claim that the Clintons have had opponents murdered.

The Mena story is one of several dark fantasies put forth in the nineties by The American Spectator, an archconservative magazine. According to Patterson, Mercer read the publication at the time. David Brock, a former Spectator writer who is now a liberal activist, told me that the alleged Mena conspiracy was based on a single dubious source, and was easily disproved by flight records. “It’s extremely telling that Mercer would believe that,” Brock said. “It says something about his conspiratorial frame of mind, and the fringe circle he was in. We at the Spectator called them Clinton Crazies.”

Patterson also recalled Mercer arguing that, during the Gulf War, the U.S. should simply have taken Iraq’s oil, “since it was there.” Trump, too, has said that the U.S. should have “kept the oil.” Expropriating another country’s natural resources is a violation of international law. Another onetime senior employee at Renaissance recalls hearing Mercer downplay the dangers posed by nuclear war. Mercer, speaking of the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, argued that, outside of the immediate blast zones, the radiation actually made Japanese citizens healthier. The National Academy of Sciences has found no evidence to support this notion. Nevertheless, according to the onetime employee, Mercer, who is a proponent of nuclear power, “was very excited about the idea, and felt that it meant nuclear accidents weren’t such a big deal.”

Mercer strongly supported the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Trump’s Attorney General. Many civil-rights groups opposed the nomination, pointing out that Sessions has in the past expressed racist views. Mercer, for his part, has argued that the Civil Rights Act, in 1964, was a major mistake. According to the onetime Renaissance employee, Mercer has asserted repeatedly that African-Americans were better off economically before the civil-rights movement. (Few scholars agree.) He has also said that the problem of racism in America is exaggerated. The source said that, not long ago, he heard Mercer proclaim that there are no white racists in America today, only black racists. (Mercer, meanwhile, has supported a super PAC, Black Americans for a Better Future, whose goal is to “get more Blacks involved in the Republican Party.”)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"Left of Boom"

Even if Robert Bateman were a dull and clumsy writer, he would still be well worth your time. Between his military background, his historical knowledge, and his sharp eye, he's one of the best analyst when it comes to war and diplomacy. Fortunately though, he also turns out some damned fineprose . He more than holds his own with Charles Pierce, which is a high bar to clear.

In particular, he has an excellent year for the soldiers bluntly poetic turn of phrase.

I plan to use this one again.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the teams who focused on defeating the IED threat coined the term "Left of Boom." In other words, if you look at a timeline of an event with "Boom" in the middle, it is most productive to focus efforts on events to the left of that point. Stopping the explosion is a better way to save lives than adding more and more armor. The same concept applies to defeating missiles.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Picking up on the self-driving thread

Following up on Joseph's earlier post, Timothy B. Lee displayed a devotion to the standard narrative on autonomous vehicles that bordered on Procrustean. Consequently, he got lots of the story wrong. Unfortunately, that is pretty much the going style when reporting on the topic. I don't want to get sucked into a point by point response, but there is one aspect I'd like to hit because it's ubiquitous in technology reporting and it's been bothering me for a long time. With only isolated exceptions, journalists covering technology have no grasp of how implementation works.

Consider the following from Lee:
It seems inevitable that lax regulation of self-driving cars will lead to some preventable deaths. Still, there’s a good argument that today’s permissive regulatory environment is the best approach.

The reason: While self-driving cars are potentially dangerous, human drivers are definitely dangerous.

“It's so easy to immediately focus on self-driving cars as the new and the scary and forget that every day 100 people die on the road,” Smith said. He says that about 90 percent of those fatalities are caused by human error — errors that self-driving cars could avoid some day.

The trouble with this line of reasoning is that autonomy is not a yes/no proposition; it's a scalar. Here is the standard metric:
A classification system based on six different levels (ranging from none to fully automated systems) was published in 2014 by SAE International, an automotive standardization body, as J3016, Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to On-Road Motor Vehicle Automated Driving Systems.[22][23] This classification system is based on the amount of driver intervention and attentiveness required, rather than the vehicle capabilities, although these are very closely related. In the United States in 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a formal classification system,[24] but abandoned this system when it adopted the SAE standard in September 2016.

SAE automated vehicle classifications:

    Level 0: Automated system has no vehicle control, but may issue warnings.
    Level 1: Driver must be ready to take control at any time. Automated system may include features such as Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), Parking Assistance with automated steering, and Lane Keeping Assistance (LKA) Type II in any combination.
    Level 2: The driver is obliged to detect objects and events and respond if the automated system fails to respond properly. The automated system executes accelerating, braking, and steering. The automated system can deactivate immediately upon takeover by the driver.
    Level 3: Within known, limited environments (such as freeways), the driver can safely turn their attention away from driving tasks, but must still be prepared to take control when needed.
    Level 4: The automated system can control the vehicle in all but a few environments such as severe weather. The driver must enable the automated system only when it is safe to do so. When enabled, driver attention is not required.
    Level 5: Other than setting the destination and starting the system, no human intervention is required. The automatic system can drive to any location where it is legal to drive and make its own decisions.

 Lee is jumping from one end of the scale to the other mid-argument. The improvements in safety start at level 1 and, if anything, tend to flatten out as you approach level 4.  If your car takes control of the wheel when you start to drift out of a lane and applies the brakes when you are about to hit something or someone, then you have already achieved most of your gains in this area.

With regulation, the situation is just the opposite. It isn't till around Level 4 that the serious legal concerns start kicking in, and not until you get to the stage of readily available driverless (as compared to self-driving) vehicles that the issues become truly daunting. Strictly from a technological standpoint, we still have quite a ways to go.

For the record, there are still any number of compelling reasons to fully develop this functionality – – for example, Uber's widely hyped plan to use autonomous vehicles to alleviate labor costs makes no sense if the cars still have to have licensed drivers behind the wheel – – but Lee's safety argument simply doesn't hold water.