Monday, October 22, 2018

It is always useful to go back and read the contemporary accounts.





One of the nails I've pounded flush to the board recently (apologies to long-suffering regular readers) is that much of the standard 21st-century narrative of technology consists of things that were at best sometimes true in the past and are almost entirely false now. The best example is probably the idea that the advances of old invariably came as a thief in the night with almost no one imagining the magnitude of their impact and what now seem obvious applications going undiscovered for years.



There are, of course, technological developments that caught people off guard or that moved in unexpected directions, but in most cases, if you go back and read early speculations about the potential of breakthrough technologies in the late 19th/early 20th centuries or the postwar era, you'll generally find that people had a pretty good sense of what was likely to come.

The same can be said for the dawn of the personal computing era




.






Friday, October 19, 2018

In case the aerospace allusions are getting a bit obscure, here's a week in video recommendation.




The Mouse on the Moon is an easy film to overlook. Between Peter Sellers' spectacular turn in the Mouse that Roared and the general tendency of the time to look at sequels as second-class cinematic citizens, particularly when none of the original stars made a return appearance), it is easy to think of the 1963 film as "the other one."

That's too bad, because the second film can easily hold its own. It's sharp and funny and like its predecessor. Both get 3 1/2 stars in the Leonard Maltin guide. What's more, it features the direction of a young Richard Lester just before he broke through with Hard Days Night.

From Wikipedia:

The Mouse on the Moon is a 1963 British comedy film, the sequel to The Mouse That Roared. It is an adaptation of the 1962 novel The Mouse on the Moon by Irish author Leonard Wibberley, and was directed by Richard Lester. In it, the people of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, a microstate in Europe, attempt space flight using wine as a propellant. It satirises the space race, Cold War and politics.




Thursday, October 18, 2018


Continuing the visionary aerospace thread, there's almost a "mouse on the moon" quality to India's avatar.

No disrespect meant for India here. Quite the opposite. I think there's long been a tendency to underestimate the country and its extraordinary intellectual capital. Here's one of the projects I would definitely keep an eye on.

From Wikipedia:
:
The idea is to develop a spaceplane vehicle that can take off from conventional airfields. Its liquid air cycle engine would collect air in the atmosphere on the way up, liquefy it, separate oxygen and store it on board for subsequent flight beyond the atmosphere. The Avatar, a reusable launch vehicle, was first announced in May 1998 at the Aero India 98 exhibition held at Bangalore. 
Avatar seems to have, if you'll pardon the metaphor, stalled out (recent tests don't seem to involve any of the really cutting-edge stuff). It could be that the technology actually has hit a wall. That would hardly be surprising for something this ambitious. There's another possibility, however, that is both more encouraging and depressing at the same time, namely that it simply hasn't gotten the funding it needs. Depressing because that would mean we have unnecessarily delayed important advances. Encouraging because it suggests that we still might get this plane flying.

There's a lot of money floating around out there in the vanity aerospace industry and it would be nice to see it go to something ambitious and important. With all due respect to the recently departed, if Paul Allen had taken the money spent on 60 year old visions of space travel and poured it into something forward thinking, his greater legacy might've been what he did after Microsoft.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

It also suggests that I chose the wrong major in college.

This long but well worth your time article approaches some familiar problems from a new and disturbing direction. We've talked a great deal about manipulation of data and research, the corrupting influence of big money on supposedly objective processes, and the tendency to equate overly complicated math with insight and profundity, but probably not nearly enough about how these things can undermine public policy decision-making.

Here are a few excerpts, but you should really read the whole thing.
These Professors Make More Than a Thousand Bucks an Hour… — ProPublica
Jesse Eisinger,Justin Elliott

If the government ends up approving the $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner merger, credit won’t necessarily belong to the executives, bankers, lawyers, and lobbyists pushing for the deal. More likely, it will be due to the professors.

A serial acquirer, AT&T must persuade the government to allow every major deal. Again and again, the company has relied on economists from America’s top universities to make its case before the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission. Moonlighting for a consulting firm named Compass Lexecon, they represented AT&T when it bought Centennial, DirecTV, and Leap Wireless; and when it tried unsuccessfully to absorb T-Mobile. And now AT&T and Time Warner have hired three top Compass Lexecon economists to counter criticism that the giant deal would harm consumers and concentrate too much media power in one company.

Today, “in front of the government, in many cases the most important advocate is the economist and lawyers come second,” said James Denvir, an antitrust lawyer at Boies, Schiller.

Economists who specialize in antitrust — affiliated with Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, the University of California, Berkeley, and other prestigious universities — reshaped their field through scholarly work showing that mergers create efficiencies of scale that benefit consumers. But they reap their most lucrative paydays by lending their academic authority to mergers their corporate clients propose. Corporate lawyers hire them from Compass Lexecon and half a dozen other firms to sway the government by documenting that a merger won’t be “anti-competitive”: in other words, that it won’t raise retail prices, stifle innovation, or restrict product offerings. Their optimistic forecasts, though, often turn out to be wrong, and the mergers they champion may be hurting the economy.

Some of the professors earn more than top partners at major law firms. Dennis Carlton, a self-effacing economist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and one of Compass Lexecon’s experts on the AT&T-Time Warner merger, charges at least $1,350 an hour. In his career, he has made about $100 million, including equity stakes and non-compete payments, ProPublica estimates. Carlton has written reports or testified in favor of dozens of mergers, including those between AT&T-SBC Communications and Comcast-Time Warner, and three airline deals: United-Continental, Southwest-Airtran, and American-US Airways.

American industry is more highly concentrated than at any time since the gilded age. Need a pharmacy? Americans have two main choices. A plane ticket? Four major airlines. They have four choices to buy cell phone service. Soon one company will sell more than a quarter of the quaffs of beer around the world.

Mergers peaked last year at $2 trillion in the U.S. The top 50 companies in a majority of American industries gained share between 1997 and 2012, and “competition may be decreasing in many economic sectors,” President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers warned in April.

While the impact of this wave of mergers is much debated, prominent economists such as Lawrence Summers and Joseph Stiglitz suggest that it is one important reason why, even as corporate profits hit records, economic growth is slow, wages are stagnant, business formation is halting, and productivity is lagging. “Only the monopoly-power story can convincingly account” for high business profits and low corporate investment, Summers wrote earlier this year.

...


These complex mathematical formulations carry weight with the government because they purport to be objective. But a ProPublica examination of several marquee deals found that economists sometimes salt away inconvenient data in footnotes and suppress negative findings, stretching the standards of intellectual honesty to promote their clients’ interests.


 …

Recent research supports the classic view that large mergers, by reducing competition, hurt consumers. The 2008 merger between Miller and Coors spurred “an abrupt increase” in beer prices, an academic analysis found this year. In the most comprehensive review of the academic literature, Northeastern economist John Kwoka studied the effects of thousands of mergers. Prices on average increased by more than 4 percent. Prices rose on more than 60 percent of the products and those increases averaged almost 9 percent. “Enforcers clear too many harmful mergers,” American University’s Jonathan Baker, a Compass economist who has consulted for both corporations and the government, wrote in 2015.

Once a merger is approved, nobody studies whether the consultants’ predictions were on the mark. The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission do not make available the reports that justify mergers, and those documents cannot be obtained through public records requests. Sometimes the companies file the expert reports with the courts, but judges usually agree to companies’ requests to seal the documents. After a merger is cleared, the government no longer has access to the companies’ proprietary data on their pricing.

The expert reports “are not public so only the government can check,” said Ashenfelter, the Princeton economist who has consulted for both government and private industry. “And the government no longer has the data so they can’t check.” How accurate are the experts? “The answer is no one knows and no one wants to find out.”

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

There's a lot of bold, visionary thinking coming out of aerospace, just not from the people who are supposed to be the bold visionaries.





Recently, we've been making the point that most of the "futuristic" and "revolutionary" proposals coming from the billionaire Messiah class (dominated by but not limited to the Silicon Valley variety) are usually postwar vintage and, even when you put aside those that probably won't work at all (see the Hyperloop), represent at best incremental advances. This is especially true in the vanity aerospace industry.

In making that point, I may have given the wrong impression about the aerospace industry as a whole. I'll try to post a couple more examples later. For now though, here is one technology that, if it proves viable and it is looking very promising, holds tremendous potential to revolutionize spaceflight.

From Wikipedia:

Like the RB545, the SABRE design is neither a conventional rocket engine nor jet engine, but a hybrid that uses air from the environment at low speeds/altitudes, and stored liquid oxygen (LOX) at higher altitude. The SABRE engine "relies on a heat exchanger capable of cooling incoming air to −150 °C (−238 °F), to provide oxygen for mixing with hydrogen and provide jet thrust during atmospheric flight before switching to tanked liquid oxygen when in space." 

And from the Guardian:


Spaceplanes are what engineers call single-stage-to-orbit (if you really want to geek out, just use the abbreviation: SSTO). They have long been a dream because they would be fully reusable, taking off and landing from a traditional runway.

By building reusable spaceplanes, the cost of reaching orbit could be reduced to a twentieth current levels. That makes spaceplanes a game changer both for taking astronauts into space and for deploying satellites and space probes.

If all goes to plan, the first test flights could happen in 2019, and Skylon – Reaction Engines' spaceplane – could be visiting the International Space Station by 2022. It will carry 15 tonnes of cargo on each trip. That's almost twice the amount of cargo that the European Space Agency's ATV vehicle can carry.
...

Rockets are cumbersome because not only must they carry fuel, they also need an oxidising agent to make it burn. This is usually oxygen, which is stored as a liquid in separate tanks. Spaceplanes do away with the need for carrying most of the oxidiser by using air from the atmosphere during the initial stages of their flight.

This is how a traditional jet engine works, and making a super-efficient version has been engineer Alan Bond's goal for decades. In 1989, he founded Reaction Engines and has painstakingly developed the Sabre engine, which stands for Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engines.

In late 2012, tests managed by the European Space Agency showed that the key pieces of technology needed for Sabre worked. No one else has managed to successfully develop such a technology.
...

Spaceplanes should not to be confused with space tourism vehicles such as Virgin Galactic's Space Ship Two. The highest altitude this vehicle will reach is about 110km, giving passengers about six minutes of weightlessness as the craft plummets back to Earth before the controlled landing.

Although there is no fully agreed definition, space starts at around 100km in altitude. To have any hope of staying in orbit, you would have to reach twice that altitude. The International Space Station orbits at 340 kilometres, whereas the Hubble Space Telescope sits at 595 kilometres.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The technology does not exist. The viability of the market is questionable. Obviously it's the regulators' fault.

I haven't decided if I'm going to discuss this Wired magazine article (Inside the Secret Conference Plotting to Launch Flying Cars by Eric Adams) in greater depth (frankly, probably not worth our time), but I did want to take a moment to hit this one point.
The next morning, the group, which featured more than 100 leaders from well-known high-tech companies, research entities, and investment firms, went to work on a single, seemingly impossible challenge: bringing the nascent air taxi industry to life.

That vision—most prominently laid out by Uber—requires an entirely new class of vehicle powered by batteries far better than the ones we have now. It will depend on approvals from sluggish regulators and safe integration into crowded airspace. Autonomous flight systems that are nowhere near ready for human passengers will be essential. The field will need seemingly unlimited funding and a strategy for convincing the public to put their lives in the hands of this new tech. Oh, and the whole effort already risks being upstaged by well-financed Chinese innovators who are plowing forward absent many of these constraints.
First off, the air taxi industry is not nascent; it is moribund. We've had helicopter-based shuttle services for decades. They just never, if you'll pardon the expression, took off the way a lot of people had expected. To be fair, no one was predicting the kind of door to door service you can get from an automobile, but in a high density area they did provide a fast and flexible way of getting reasonably close to your destination.

Of course, it is entirely possible that we will see some aeronautics innovation that will make this model not only viable but popular. Unfortunately, there are huge engineering challenges involved in developing what we're talking about here, an incredibly compact, autonomous, electric VTOL aircraft that can operate reliably, safely and quietly in dense urban areas with crowded air spaces (that last one alone is enough to make one skeptical about the prospects of the industry. Reducing aircraft noise is a problem that has stumped the world's best engineering minds for longer than any of us have been alive). And we can't begin to talk about the implications for urban planning, infrastructure, and regulation until we see what these things are going to look like.

Given the stunning difficulties on the development side, the questionable business models, and over a century of highly touted proposals for personal aircraft that never made it past the prototype stage, why the hell is the author talking about sluggish regulators?

One of the most cherished tenets of the standard tech narrative is that we would all be living in a wondrous futuristic land – – half sci-fi movie, half amusement park – – if not for those darned regulations. It's a perfect, multipurpose excuse. It teases us with the promise of great things just around the corner. It creates a handy set of villains to boo and hiss. It neatly explains away the failures of tech messiahs to come up with appealing and functional technology or viable business plans.

It is also bullshit. There are certainly cases where onerous regulations hold up big infrastructure projects and you can make the case that the IRB process is delaying certain medical advances, but in the vast majority of cases where a new technology fails to catch on, it is because of incompetent execution, bad engineering or non-feasible business models, but those explanations are difficult to write up, run counter to the standard narrative, and tend to make the journalists look like idiots for having bought the hype in the first place.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Brainwashing and subliminal manipulation – – another entry in our failed postwar technology series and an excuse to play a great movie clip.

[now with links]

We've had a thread going for a while now on technologies and lines of research that looked promising (if "promising" is the right word in this case) in the postwar era but which have failed to produce substantial advances in the 50 years that followed. We came up with a pretty good list (see here and here and make sure to check out the comments), but I don't believe that we included one field that seem to be making major developments in the 1950s and was a major component of postwar pop culture.

The brainwashed secret agent was a standard fixture of the spy fiction of the time. In Fleming even had a mind -controlled James Bond tried to kill M in the Man with the Golden gun. The first and best remembered example is the novel the Manchurian candidate each came out in 1959. The film adaptation (we will ignore the remake) was remarkably faithful to the book, but it considerably toned down both the sex and the politics. The James Gregory character in the movie suggests Joseph McCarthy. In the novel, there is no question that Raymond's stepfather is meant to be tailgunner Joe.

As Pauline Kael pointed out at the time, Richard Condon took a popular contemporary joke about the senator actually helping the Soviets so much through his crude attacks that he might as well be an agent and made it funnier and more subversive by playing it straight. He did so by positing a connection between two Cold War topics that were on everyone's mind, McCarthyism and the breaking of American POWs by the Chinese in the Korean War.

Robert Cialdini has an excellent discussion of the topic in his seminal book on marketing psychology influence. In his account, the large majority of American prisoners who were found to have collaborated with the enemy after the war were persuaded by entirely mundane but highly effective techniques applied incrementally and based on intuitive and well-established concepts like reciprocation, social norming, and commitment/consistency.
In the popular imagination, however, the process was seen as a mysterious and incredibly advanced application of cutting-edge psychology and neuroscience, usually involving drugs, hypnosis, high-tech torture, and Freudian psychology. Once you stripped away the science and the pseudoscience (mainly the latter), you are left with a magical trope that even predated Mesmer. The idea that there were secret techniques that would allow you to impose your will upon others was further boosted by books like the hidden persuaders which substituted subliminal images for spells and incantations.

As we've said before, it is essential to view these postwar concepts in the context of their times. From the vantage point of the mid-1950s it seemed reasonable, perhaps even self-evident, that virtually every field of science and technology was about to break open with a flood of new advances and discoveries. Any attempt at a list will almost invariably be incomplete, but it was an age when people were mastering the Adam, reaching out into space, making machines that could think, and seemingly on the verge of curing all diseases. In the light of all that, the notion that we had finally unlock the secrets of the brain was believable, perhaps even to be expected.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Sometimes I'm tempted just to rerun all of our 2016 posts


From TPM:

Brian Kemp Is Blocking 53K Applicants From Registering To Vote, Most Of Them Black
By Cameron Joseph

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s (R) office is blocking 53,000 people from registering to vote, according to records obtained by the Associated Press, a huge number that could sway his gubernatorial race against Democrat Stacey Abrams.

As TPM laid out this morning, Kemp has used a controversial “exact match” program to approve or block voter registrations that disproportionately impacts minority voters.

Now we know exactly how many people that might affect this election. According to the AP, fully 70 percent of the voter applications that are being held up by Kemp’s office are from black people.


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Context only counts if it shows up in the first two dozen paragraphs

The New York Times has a good piece on the impact of voter ID laws but I do have a problem with a few parts (or at least with the way they're arranged).

Stricter Rules for Voter IDs Reshape Races

By MICHAEL WINES and MANNY FERNANDEZ MAY 1, 2016

SAN ANTONIO — In a state where everything is big, the 23rd Congressional District that hugs the border with Mexico is a monster: eight and a half hours by car across a stretch of land bigger than any state east of the Mississippi. In 2014, Representative Pete Gallego logged more than 70,000 miles there in his white Chevy Tahoe, campaigning for re-election to the House — and lost by a bare 2,422 votes.

So in his bid this year to retake the seat, Mr. Gallego, a Democrat, has made a crucial adjustment to his strategy. “We’re asking people if they have a driver’s license,” he said. “We’re having those basic conversations about IDs at the front end, right at our first meeting with voters.”

Since their inception a decade ago, voter identification laws have been the focus of fierce political and social debate. Proponents, largely Republican, argue that the regulations are essential tools to combat election fraud, while critics contend that they are mainly intended to suppress turnout of Democratic-leaning constituencies like minorities and students.
In the third paragraph, we have two conflicting claims that go to the foundation of the whole debate. If election fraud is a significant problem, you can make a case for voter ID laws. If not, it's difficult to see this as anything other than voter suppression. This paragraph pretty much demands some additional information to help the reader weigh the claims and the article provides it...

More than twenty paragraphs later.

Mr. Abbott, perhaps the law’s most ardent backer, has said that voter fraud “abounds” in Texas. A review of some 120 fraud charges in Texas between 2000 and 2015, about eight cases a year, turned up instances of buying votes and setting up fake residences to vote. Critics of the law note that no more than three or four infractions would have been prevented by the voter ID law.

Nationally, fraud that could be stopped by IDs is almost nonexistent, said Lorraine C. Minnite, author of the 2010 book “The Myth of Voter Fraud.” To sway an election, she said, it would require persuading perhaps thousands of people to commit felonies by misrepresenting themselves — and do it undetected.

“It’s ludicrous,” she said. “It’s not an effective way to try to corrupt an election.”

I shouldn't have to say this but, if a story contains claims that the reporter has reason to believe are false or misleading, he or she has an obligation to address the issue promptly. Putting the relevant information above the fold is likely to anger the people who made the false statements, but doing anything else is a disservice to the readers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Immigration and talent

This is Joseph

This says so much in so little space:
In 2017, 608,000 students went abroad and 480,900 returned. China is proud of a return rate of 79 per cent; in 1987, the return rate was about 5 per cent, and in 2007 only 30.6 per cent.
Some of this is undoubtedly driven by better conditions in China.  But there is clearly a change in appeal for staying in the United States, as you do not see these kinds of massive shifts without something quite important changing. 

At the very least, it undermines the US as a magnet for international talent.  In some ways this might be good, by creating other clusters of talent across the globe and diversifying the intellectual frontier.  But it does suggest that it is timely to consider why this change has been quite so dramatic and whether it might be below the optimal rate for driving American innovation. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Monday, October 8, 2018

The tyranny of the mean or why most of the analysis you're about to hear on Kavanaugh's impact on the election may be wrong.

[Corrected the title. Everything else is the same.]


This is not a prediction.

This is not a counter analysis.


I don't want to get sucked up into predictions and subjective probabilities or whether my priors can beat up your priors. Instead, I want to make a point about the framework and the assumptions generally used in these conversations and the way they often overlook the obvious.

I perhaps should have called this "the tyranny of central tendency" or possibly even thrown in something about expected value. The argument here is not limited to statements about means but they are the most familiar and by far the most often abused example.

One of our long-standing concerns here at the blog is that while journalists and commentators are far more likely to talk about data these days, they have not gotten any more sophisticated in how they think about statistics. We've already discussed naïve reductionism, the implicit and often completely inappropriate assumptions of linearity, non-interaction, and stability.

This is a good time to add a couple more to the list. When people talk about the impact of some treatment or event, there is a strong tendency to assume that the mean (or in some cases the median) has changed but everything else has remained the same. You still have a nice, symmetric Gaussian with the same variance. You've just shifted it from here to there.

These assumptions are particularly likely to bite you in the ass when the point of interest involves a quantile other than the median. For example, when rent-controlled housing in an expensive neighborhood is torn down and replaced with high density market priced apartment buildings, it is entirely possible for both the average price and the amount of low-cost housing available to go down at the same time.

This brings us to the impact of the Kavanaugh confirmation. Over the next couple of weeks, when you hear people discussing the chances of the Democrats retaking the House, you will notice that many, probably most, of the answers will be to an entirely different question: what are the projected totals for the election?

Once again at the risk of stating the obvious, if you keep the mean the same and increase the variance, the probability of passing some cut off that is between the max and min possible values will approach 50%. Even if you shift the mean away from the cut off, it is still possible to increase the probability of passing that point by increasing the variance.

At the moment (and that's an important qualifier), it is entirely possible that we are seeing this situation with Kavanaugh and the midterms. While we can argue about what the polls are telling us, I think it is reasonable to claim that Kavanaugh has been through most of this process and an increasingly unpopular choice and that most news outlets outside of conservative media have raised serious questions about his fitness. At the same time, his confirmation has unquestionably enraged and energized voters on both sides. This possibly unsustainable level of enthusiasm almost inevitably increases variability. As a result, it is entirely possible for the expected number of Republican House seats to drop while the chances of the Republicans holding the house increases.

This is likely to be short-lived phenomena. A week from now, I expect we will have both a clearer picture and a more stable situation. For now although, this is a good time to remind ourselves to be more careful about how we frame analytic questions.


Friday, October 5, 2018

If you're tired of the Mars rants, just skip to the Rocket Man cover







This Neil Degrasse Tyson segment from the Tonight Show was amusing – – both he and Stephen Colbert are good at this sort of thing and play well off of each other – – but I'm including it because it hits on a point that I've alluded to in previous conversations of space exploration and the vanity aerospace industry.

Much, arguably most, of the 21st century discussion of man's expansion into and utilization of outer space is based on an implicit and often explicit colonial era framework. This includes such respectable news organizations as the New York Times, NPR, the BBC, and most recently and egregiously the Atlantic.

Any time you see the term "Mars colony," you know you are in trouble. Almost inevitably what follows will assume that the second half of the 21st century will basically just be a remake of the 17th and 18th, despite causes and conditions being all but completely non-analogous. I have neither the time nor the knowledge to go into detail here, but if you will forgive the oversimplification, the original system was based on habitable, arable lands which generally offered significant potential for trade and were easily accessed and conquered and which required a great deal of labor in order to pay off for the colonizing power.

None of this applies to Mars or any other body in the solar system. Outside of certain research questions, there are for the foreseeable future very few economically sound arguments for a human presence in space. Even if something like Martian mining proves viable, any work on the surface of the planet will be done largely, perhaps entirely, by autonomous and semiautonomous robots. This is true now and it will certainly be more true with the AI and robotics of 2050. Based on purely practical considerations, there will be no way to justify more than the most minimal of human presences on the red planet.

This leaves us with various romantic arguments about man's need to reach out to strange lands. [Insert super cut of inspirational Star Trek speeches here.] 100 or so years ago, you might have been able to make a reasonably convincing argument for the explore and settle model. Multiple high profile polar expeditions dominated the news while scientist were for the first time probing the depths of the ocean with dredges and other specialized instruments. The idea of cities in previously inhospitable or even impossible places captured the public imagination.

But this is not 1918. This is 2018 and, as Neil Degrasse Tyson points out, no one is lining up to colonize Antarctica, nor do we have undersea settlements or subterranean metropolises. Hell, we have trouble getting people to move to North Dakota.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Repost -- some thoughts on poll volatility and self-selection

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Life on 49-49

[Following up on this post, here are some more (barely) pre-election thoughts on how polls gang aft agley. I believe Jonathan Chait made some similar points. Some of Nate Silver's critics also wandered into some neighboring territory (with the important distinction that Chait understood the underlying concepts)]

Assume that there's an alternate world called Earth 49-49. This world is identical to ours in all but one respect: for almost all of the presidential campaign, 49% of the voters support Obama and 49% support Romney. There has been virtually no shift in who plans to vote for whom.

Despite this, all of the people on 49-49 believe that they're on our world, where large segments of the voters are shifting their support from Romney to Obama then from Obama to Romney. They weren't misled to this belief through fraud -- all of the polls were administered fairly and answered honestly -- nor was it a case of stupidity or bad analysis -- the political scientists on 49-49 are highly intelligent and conscientious -- rather it had to do with the nature of polling.

Pollsters had long tracked campaigns by calling random samples of potential voters. As campaign became more drawn out and journalistic focus shifted to the horse race aspects of election, these phone polls proliferated. At the same time, though, the response rates dropped sharply, going from more than one in three to less than one in ten.

A big drop in response rates always raises questions about selection bias since the change may not affect all segments of the population proportionally (more on that -- and this report -- later). It also increases the potential magnitude of these effects.

Consider these three scenarios. What would happen if you could do the following (in the first two cases, assume no polling bias):

A. Convince one percent of undecideds to support you. Your support goes to 50 while your opponent stays at 49 -- one percent poll advantage

B. Convince one percent of opponent's supporters to support you. Your support goes to 50 while your opponent drops to 48 -- two percent poll advantage

C. Convince an additional one percent of your supporters to answer the phone when a pollster calls. You go to over 51% while your opponent drops to under 47%-- around a five percent poll advantage.

Of course, no one was secretly plotting to game the polls, but poll responses are basically just people agreeing to talk to you about politics, and lots of things can affect people's willingness to talk about their candidate, including things that would almost never affect their actual votes (at least not directly but more on that later).

In 49-49, the Romney campaign hit a stretch of embarrassing news coverage while Obama was having, in general, a very good run. With a couple of exceptions, the stories were trivial, certainly not the sort of thing that would cause someone to jump the substantial ideological divide between the two candidates so, none of Romney's supporters shifted to Obama or to undecided. Many did, however, feel less and less like talking to pollsters. So Romney's numbers started to go down which only made his supporters more depressed and reluctant to talk about their choice.

This reluctance was already just starting to fade when the first debate came along. As Josh Marshall has explained eloquently and at great length since early in the primaries, the idea of Obama, faced with a strong attack and deprived of his teleprompter, collapsing in a debate was tremendously important and resonant to the GOP base. That belief was a major driver of the support for Gingrich, despite all his baggage; no one ever accused Newt of being reluctant to go for the throat.

It's not surprising that, after weeks of bad news and declining polls, the effect on the Republican base of getting what looked very much like the debate they'd hoped for was cathartic. Romney supporters who had been avoiding pollsters suddenly couldn't wait to take the calls. By the same token. Obama supporters who got their news from Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews really didn't want to talk right now.

The polls shifted in Romney's favor even though, had the election been held the week after the debate, the result would have been the same as it would have been had the election been held two weeks before -- 49% to 49%. All of the changes in the polls had come from core voters on both sides. The voters who might have been persuaded weren't that interested in the emotional aspect of the conventions and the debates and were already familiar with the substantive issues both events raised.

So response bias was amplified by these factors:

1. the effect was positively correlated with the intensity of support

2. it was accompanied by matching but opposite effects on the other side

3. there were feedback loops -- supporters of candidates moving up in the polls were happier and more likely to respond while supporters of candidates moving down had the opposite reaction.

You might wonder how the pollsters and political scientists of this world missed this. The answer that they didn't. They were concerned about selection effects and falling response rates, but the problems with the data were difficult to catch definitively thanks to some serious obscuring factors:

1. Researchers have to base their conclusions off of the historical record when the effect was not nearly so big.

2. Things are correlated in a way that's difficult to untangle. The things you would expect to make supporters less enthusiastic about talking about their candidate are often the same things you'd expect to lower support for that candidate

3. As mentioned before, there are compensatory effects. Since response rates for the two parties are inversely related, the aggregate is fairly stable.

4. The effect of embarrassment and elation tend to fade over time so that most are gone by the actual election.

5. There's a tendency to converge as the election approaches. Mainly because likely voter screens become more accurate.

6. Poll predictions can be partially self-fulfilling. If the polls indicate a sufficiently low chance of winning, supporters can become discouraged, allies can desert you and money can dry up. The result is, again, convergence.

For the record, I don't think we live on 49-49. I do, however, think that at least some of the variability we've seen in the polls can be traced back to selection effects similar to those described here and I have to believe it's likely to get worse.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Fixed costs, marginal costs, and the Zeno project management rule of thumb.

Having spent a long time now chronicling bad journalism, one of the conclusions that keeps coming up again and again is that 21st-century journalists have a serious problem dealing with the obvious, particularly when it goes against the story being told by the subject of a piece. This inability to address these naked emperor situations shows up in every area of news coverage – – political examples alone would fill volumes – – but let's focus on one egregious example, high-speed intra-city rail, best illustrated by a recent proposal from, to no one's great surprise, Elon Musk.

There's a very good rule of thumb when you're trying to devise complex solutions to get you as close as possible to some upper bound: if you think of your progress in terms of a succession of steps that take you halfway from where you are to where you want to be, you should assume that each step will cost more than the previous step. In other words, getting halfway to your goal will be cheaper than going from half to one fourth and going from half to one fourth will be cheaper than going from 1/4 to 1/8, and so on. (I'd probably start using the word "asymptote" here if this were the kind of post where I was going to use words like "asymptote.")

Clearly, this is closely related to the concept of diminishing returns and it immediately suggests that plans which promise complete solutions to thorny problems should be viewed with great skepticism. Recent case in point, the vague pitch for a vague proposal for a vague plan for getting pedestrian deaths in Los Angeles down to zero. With a well-functioning press corps, offers of perfection should be a hard sell.

Unfortunately, this takes us into the bullshit territory of aspirational language and various other magical heuristics. The willingness to commit to the impossible has increasingly come to be seen as a sign of seriousness and visionary thinking. Playing by these rules, the very fact that a claim is unbelievable actually makes it more credible.

While it is possible to come up with exceptions to the Zeno rule, it holds for an exceptionally large number of cases, particularly when you take into account fixed and marginal costs. Let's get back to the subject of transportation.

Consider two flights, one from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the other to some city east of the Mississippi. LA has a fair number of major airports, but they all tend to be understandably on the outskirts so that, if you are starting from a fairly central location, it is easy to find yourself a considerable distance away from the closest option. Between driving, parking, and getting through security, let's call it two hours from stepping out your front door to stepping on the plane (to simplify things, we'll treat the other airport as your final destination).

We'll round up the flying time from Los Angeles to San Francisco to an hour and call the flying time to our unnamed East Coast city eight hours, giving us a total of three hours and ten hours respectively. In terms of travel time and airspeed, those two hours are fixed cost while the rest are marginal. Increasing airspeed would decrease the second but leave the first unchanged, thus paying extra for a much faster airplane would make a great deal of sense for the long flight but almost none for the short one.

Once again, apologies for spending this much time making obvious points, but it's good to have these things in mind when we consider the following:

Elon Musk's company proposes 3.6-mile tunnel to Dodger Stadium
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s tunneling company on Wednesday announced a proposal to build another tunnel in Los Angeles, a 3.6-mile underground route that would carry fans between Dodger Stadium and a nearby Metro subway station.

The Boring Co. said the Dugout Loop would be a “zero-emissions, high-speed” transportation system that could carry fans in about four minutes between Elysian Park and a Metro station along Vermont Avenue, at Beverly Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard or Sunset Boulevard.

Pods carrying passengers would whiz through the tunnel at speeds of up to 150 mph, resting on self-driving platforms called “skates,” the Boring Co. said. The trip would cost about $1, and riders would purchase tickets in advance through a mobile app.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

In 21st-century journalism, being completely debunked is no reason to drop the narrative.

As previously mentioned, there is much to object to in this recent Atlantic monthly piece "How Mars Will Be Policed" by Geoff Manaugh – – if I have the stomach for it, there is easily enough material here for a half dozen highly critical posts – – but perversely enough, it is the one really good part that best illustrates one of the worst aspects of modern journalism.

It is standard in medium to long form reporting, particularly in stories with a speculative or subjective element, to have an article that consists of a string of quotes from experts who are, if not in complete agreement, then are at least taking complementary positions. This chain is broken up by one or two dissenting voices who are completely ignored through the rest of the article.

Manaugh is nothing if not true to the form. Here is the relevant passage that occurs well into the piece.
For David Paige, worrying about crime on Mars is not just ahead of its time, it is unnecessary from the very beginning. Paige is a planetary scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), as well as a member of a team selected by NASA to design a ground-penetrating radar system for exploring the Martian subsurface. Crime on Mars, Paige told me, will be so difficult to execute that no one will be tempted to try.

“The issue,” Paige said, “is that there is going to be so much monitoring of people in various sorts of ways.” Airlocks will likely record exactly who opens them and when, for example, mapping everyone’s location down to precise times of day, even to the exact square feet of space they were standing in at a particular moment. Inhabitants’ vital signs, such as elevated heart rates and adrenaline levels, will also likely be recorded by sensors embedded in Martian clothing. If a crime was committed somewhere, time-stamped data could be correlated with a spatial record of where everyone was at that exact moment. “It’s going to be very easy to narrow down the possible culprits,” Paige suggested.

It is difficult to overstate how effectively this point demolishes most of what has come before. It is completely reasonable to assume that, at least in the near future, any humans living or working on Mars will be constantly tracked. Barring some kind of hack or system failure, we would have a record of the exact position and vital signs of both perpetrator and victim of any crime on the planet. This doesn't preclude the possibility of robbery and murder on extraterrestrial bases, but it does effectively rule out the scenarios spelled out in the rest of the article.

One of the stranger and more malignant tenets of modern journalism is that simply mentioning a counter argument is sufficient for balance. You don't need to adjust your argument or explain why the criticism does not hold. In this case, Manaugh completely ignores the devastating main point, raises some weak and logically questionable objections (we'll go into the absurdity of the space roughnecks claim in another post), then goes back to his stories of mining camp murders and daring bank heists.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Hiltzik's Musk/Trump post is looking pretty damned prescient right about now.







A couple of weeks ago, we discussed a Michael Hiltzik column that looked at some similarities between Donald Trump and Elon Musk and suggested that institutions which rely too heavily on charismatic but erratic con artists are likely to have extremely rude awakenings at some point.

Subsequent events have not undercut his thesis.

Tesla stock drops almost 14% as SEC tries to force Elon Musk out of company leadership
by Samantha Masunaga


Tesla Inc. stock closed sharply lower Friday as investors worried about a Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit that seeks to bar Elon Musk from continuing to lead the electric-car maker.

Shares of Tesla closed at $264.77, down 13.9% Friday afternoon.

The SEC filed its complaint against Musk after markets closed Thursday, alleging that the chairman and chief executive committed securities fraud by issuing a series of “false and misleading tweets about a potential transaction to take Tesla private.”

On Thursday evening, Tesla’s board of directors defended Musk, saying it is “fully confident in Elon, his integrity, and his leadership of the company, which has resulted in the most successful U.S. auto company in over a century.” It did not say what metric it was using for auto-company success.

[This is a good place to note that the LA Times, perhaps due to the influence of Hiltzik, was one of the first major news organizations to start seeing through the real life Tony Stark hype around Tesla – – MP]

Musk also issued a statement, calling the SEC lawsuit unjustified. “I have always taken action in the best interests of truth, transparency and investors,” he said.

The SEC complaint, which asks the court to ban Musk from running any public company, seeks a jury trial.

A request to bar an individual from serving as an officer or director of a public company is not unusual for SEC enforcement action, said Tom Gorman, a partner at law firm Dorsey & Whitney. But he believes a judge is unlikely to agree to force out Musk because of the likely impact it would have on Tesla, its workforce and shareholders.

“Mr. Musk is this company, in many ways,” Gorman said. “If you just say, ‘We’re not going to let you be an officer or director of a public company anymore,’ you could destroy the company and millions of dollars of shareholder value.”

...

Musk’s possible exit is likely one of the reasons Tesla’s stock fell the way it did, said David Whiston, stock analyst at Morningstar.

“Without Elon Musk, Tesla’s just an automaker that’s burning too much cash and has too much debt,” he said.

Of course, with Elon Musk, Tesla’s just an automaker that’s burning too much cash and has too much debt. Musk brings no special magic to this company he is extraordinarily gifted as a fundraiser, a promoter, and a motivational speaker, but he has shown absolutely no exceptional talent in any other area, especially engineering.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Weekend Flashback

[The Brett Kavanaugh hearings have touched on a number of threads we've had running in the blog over the years, so I thought I'd repost a few relevant pieces just to keep them in the conversation.]

Monday, October 17, 2016

Rabbit season! Duck season! Rabbit season!

I'm planning on coming back and elaborating more on this later, but, as frequently noted here and elsewhere, while most commentators have fared extraordinarily poorly over the past year, a handful (including, yes, your not-so-humble hosts) have had a good run. Though they may not have framed it in exactly these terms, pretty much everybody who has gotten it mostly right has approached the election as the final stages of a massive social engineering experiment conducted by the conservative movement.

A key component of this experiment involved setting up radically different information streams for different target audiences. We talked about this before but one aspect that I've always wanted to address but never managed to get to is the way that this dual stream can explain seeming paradoxes in the radically different reactions of different groups of people to the same information.

In order to get a handle on this, it might be useful to think back to that time in psych 101 when the professor brought out the ambiguous pictures.The standard example is the old woman and young woman (originally captioned in a cartoon as  "my wife and my mother-in-law"). For the sake of variety, let's go with another.

The psych lecture would go something like this. Half the class was told to cover their eyes, the other half was shown a series of slides of birds. Then that half of the class was told to cover their eyes and the other half was shown a series of slides of small mammals. After being thus prepared, everyone looks at the following picture and is asked to write down what they see.


For the commentators who took the time to dig through the various media streams and put themselves in the place of each target audience (most notably Josh Marshall), it has been obvious for quite a while that those in the right-wing media bubble have a strong tendency to interpret events in a way that is consistent with the information, framing and narratives of the bubble. Donald Trump succeeded in the primaries because both his arguments and his affect seemed reasonable in the context of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

I'll come back and fill in some more details later but, as much as I want to avoid oversimplifying, this really is pretty simple. The journalists who have come off as sharp and ahead of the curve, have all (as far as I can tell) looked seriously at right-wing media and have asked themselves, if I actually believed everything I just heard, how would I react to the different candidates and their proposals?

This begs loads of questions and I don't want to oversell the explanatory power here, but given all of the overheated rhetoric about how chaotic and unpredictable this election has been, it's worth noting when those getting it right have something in common.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Atomic airplanes and Kodachrome moments.

If was the sister publication to Galaxy Magazine, a bit less prestigious, but still well-respected and catering to the same hard-science audience. This 1957 issue brings up a couple of interesting points for our postwar technological expectations thread.





One is that, at least in the popular press, there was a widespread assumption in the 1950s that nuclear energy would come to play a large role in aerospace in the next few decades.. I'm not sure to what extent actual researchers in the field shared these expectations, but it is safe to say that the young science nerds of 1958 would be somewhat disappointed at how little much of the technology has changed.





Another thing that pops out from a 2018 perspective is the reference to Kodachrome on the cover. The idea that Kodak film would be used to document the first Mars expedition seems rather amusing in retrospect, though I'm not sure exactly where the art director.it wrong. Was he assuming that the iconic company would still be around well into the 21st century or did he believe we make it to Mars in the 20th?




Thursday, September 27, 2018

"I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London."

While reading up on public perceptions of the space race during the postwar era, I was disappointed to learn that my favorite Mort Sahl line wasn't actually from Mort Sahl.

Satirist Mort Sahl has been credited with mocking von Braun by saying "I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London."[39] In fact that line appears in the film I Aim at the Stars, a 1960 biopic of von Braun.
Thank God we still have Lehrer.

"Wernher von Braun" (1965): A song written and performed by Tom Lehrer for an episode of NBC's American version of the BBC TV show That Was The Week That Was; the song was later included in Lehrer's albums That Was The Year That Was and The Remains of Tom Lehrer. It was a satire on what some saw as von Braun's cavalier attitude toward the consequences of his work in Nazi Germany


Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Ley on the pre-history of the space station

This 1953 piece by Willy Ley is interesting for any number of reasons, but there are a couple that are especially relevant to our recent threads.

First, there's the comparison of technologies that seem to catch everyone off guard compared with those that have a long history of antecedents in fiction/myth, serious speculation, and failed experiments before becoming viable. It can be difficult to sort these out from a modern perspective, so it is extremely useful to have the topic explored by someone like Ley who combines mastery of the science with extensive knowledge of the fiction.

Second, and even more applicable to our ongoing conversation, is the timeframe. As with many concepts in space travel, the idea of a space station was for all practical intents and purposes introduced by Hermann Oberth 30 years before the appearance of the following article. Within around a quarter of a century, scientists had developed the design into what we still think of today when we hear the words space station, a torus-shaped orbital platform where people and cargo from surface-launched rockets could be transferred to long-range spacecrafts.

This is very much consistent with the push into space of the period in particular and of the postwar science and tech spike in general. Most of the enabling technologies were either truly cutting-edge (like atomic power and transistors) or were developed during or between the two world wars.

By comparison, at least when it comes to 21st-century aerospace, the basic ideas behind most of our highly touted advances and "bold and visionary" proposals tend to be much older, often passing the 50 or even 60 year mark. This is not to say that impressive work is not being done or that major technical challenges are not being overcome, but the role of the cutting-edge and even the moderately recent discovery is far less than it used to be, and that might not be a good sign.






































Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Or you could have just taken away the bullets

I have all sorts of problems with this Atlantic piece [How Mars Will Be Policed by Geoff Manaugh] but before I get into those big complaints, there is a smaller point that bothers me.
When I asked Kim Stanley Robinson—whose award-winning Mars Trilogy imagines the human settlement of the Red Planet in extraordinary detail—about the future of police activity on Mars, he responded with a story. In the 1980s, he told me, a team from the National Science Foundation was sent to a research base in Antarctica with a single handgun for the entire crew. The gun was intended as a tool of last resort, for only the most dire of emergencies, but the scientists felt its potential for abuse was too serious to remain unchecked. According to Robinson, they dismantled the gun into three constituent parts and stored each piece with a different caretaker. That way, if someone got drunk and flew into a rage, or simply cracked under the loneliness and pressure, there would be no realistic scenario in which anyone could collect the separate pieces, reassemble the gun, load it, and begin holding people hostage (or worse).

First off, I wonder if this really happen. It's told in an apocryphal, urban-legend style that makes me somewhat skeptical. More to the point, I'm trying to think of what dire emergency which was likely to occur in an Antarctic research base would require a gun of any kind. It's hard to imagine what external threats they might have been worried about and the "let's have a gun around in case someone goes crazy" theory has one of those flaws that you'd like to think smart people would catch in the planning stage.

If it didn't happen, there is an obvious problem with it being presented as fact, but if it did happen, there is almost as great a problem with the lack of identifying information or collaborating detail. Has anyone out there heard this story before?

Monday, September 24, 2018

On the plus side, the von Braun and Ley Zeppelin designs would make for some very cool steam-punk art

Sometimes, when wandering over what should be well explored territory you come across a pair of familiar facts that suddenly strike you as strange or even shocking when considered together.

I had one of those moments yesterday when thinking about our vanity aerospace thread, and specifically its relationship to the science-fiction and popular science writing of the postwar era. As previously mentioned, most of the "bold" and "visionary" proposals coming from billionaires like Paul Allen, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk are almost all similar and in some cases all but identical to the ideas being laid out by people like Werner von Braun and Willy Ley more than 60 years ago.



That alone is striking – – these are visions of the future are often older than the people making them – – but the full impact didn't hit me until I got to thinking about what looking back 60 or 70 years would've been like back when von Braun and Ley were first laying these ideas out for the public in popular magazine articles and Disney TV specials.

Take a minute to think about the technological gap between the world of the early 1950s and that of the late 1880s. The rocket scientists and their popularizers were discussing multistage rockets, radio communication and control, atomic energy. In the 1880s these subjects were, at best, the subject of speculation. In some cases, even the underlying physics was yet to be established.

When people in the 1950s looked back at how their grandparents imagine the future, the ideas seemed primitive and charmingly quaint. When we look back over a comparable interval, we see a view of the future which looks, or lack of a better word, futuristic. For me, at least, that's a rather depressing thought.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Fly me near the moon...

This isn't really that big of a story – – a remounting of something we did 50 years ago only with some of the most difficult parts left out. That said, you can argue that anything that increases interest in space travel should be chalked up on the plus side. Besides, it's easily the least embarrassing Elon Musk news we've seen in quite a while.

 A Japanese billionaire and a coterie of artists will visit the moon as early as 2023, becoming the first private citizens ever to fly beyond low Earth orbit, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced tonight.

Yusaku Maezawa, the founder of Japanese e-commerce giant Zozo, has signed up to fly a round-the-moon mission aboard SpaceX's BFR spaceship-rocket combo, he and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced during a webcast tonight (Sept. 17) from the company's rocket factory in Hawthorne, California.

The mission — which will loop around, but not land on, the moon — could be ready to launch in just five years, Musk said.

It is also important to note that Musk doesn't the best record with timelines and other details, so the statement "could be ready to launch in just five years" should be judged accordingly.

I apologize for passing over the obvious video accompaniments to this post. Instead, here are some songs from Tony Bennett that stand up better and offer such talented collaborators as Diana Krall and Count Basie.










Thursday, September 20, 2018

Poetic economics

I've noticed the rise of a certain kind of proposal that makes little sense in terms of efficiency he, and resource utilization, but which makes a great deal of what we might call aesthetic sense.

Take, for instance, the plan that got a great deal of traction a few years ago for charging batteries in the Third World with special high-tech soccer balls which converted kinetic energy into electricity. It was unsurprisingly a complete disaster, a needlessly complicated and expensive "solution" to a problem that was better solved through a number of other well established approaches. It offered no discernible advantages and many serious drawbacks.

It did, however, have an unquestionable appeal. The image of children playing and at the same time using cutting-edge technology to power their way into 21st century media access felt like something bright and forward-looking. The fact that it made no practical sense didn't matter; it made aesthetic sense.

Likewise, this much discussed proposal to convert sequestered carbon into fuel has an unquestionable poetic symmetry about it, not only solving the tremendous environmental problems caused by burning fossil fuels, but actually going full circle and using that unwanted carbon as a replacement for those fuels. From a practical standpoint, though, it is difficult to see the rationale for using the considerable energy required to extract the carbon from carbon dioxide and the hydrogen from water (don't know much about physics but I'm pretty sure the laws of thermodynamics kick in somewhere here) all so we can take the carbon and change it back into atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Even if we can't find some other use for it (like this), we can always bury the carbon, in effect putting it back where it was before it caused the damage. From an environmental sense, it makes more sense to bury it than to burn it, but that doesn't make for nearly as good a story.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

If. Only.





Lots of bloggers know that you can find tons of cool retro-future art (all in the public domain) in the Internet Archive's Galaxy Magazine collection. Far fewer seem to know about its sister publication, If, which is a shame.

From Wikipedia
The magazine was moderately successful, though it was never considered to be in the first tier of science-fiction magazines. It achieved its greatest success under editor Frederik Pohl, winning the Hugo Award for best professional magazine three years running from 1966 to 1968. If published many award-winning stories over its 22 years, including Robert A. Heinlein's novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Harlan Ellison's short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream". The most prominent writer to make his first sale to If was Larry Niven, whose story "The Coldest Place" appeared in the December 1964 issue.





Pohl paid one cent per word for the stories he bought for If, whereas Galaxy paid three cents per word, and like Gold, he regarded Galaxy as the leading magazine of the two, whereas If was somewhere he could work with new writers, and try experiments and whims. This developed into a selling point when a letter from a reader, Clayton Hamlin, prompted Pohl to declare that he would publish a new writer in every single issue of the magazine,[14][15] though he was also able to attract well-known writers.[16] When Pohl began his stint as editor, both magazines were operating at a loss; despite If's lower budget, Pohl found it more fun to edit, and commented that apparently the readers thought so, too; he was able to make If show a profit before Galaxy, adding, "What was fun for me seemed to be fun for them."





Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The nurturing of absurdity

There are a wealth of recent examples of arguments and interpretations that, despite being obviously absurd, not only make their way into the popular discourse, but actually become dominant conventional wisdom. Though here at the blog, we've been focused primarily on examples from science, technology, and business, some of the best examples come from mainstream media's political commentary. This isn't to say you can't find as bad or worse in conservative media – – quite the opposite – – but those absurdities are reliably in the service of a partisan agenda. The reasons for institutions like NPR making bullshit the default setting in these cases are more subtle.

The most notable recent example is the Trump base pseudo-paradox. This is actually something of a twofer. It starts with experienced and supposedly savvy analysts expressing amazement over Trump taking some offensive stance and yet holding his base, then the analysts conclude that this spells trouble for the Democrats.

Both parts collapsed under scrutiny. Those offensive policies and statements are (with a few exceptions) popular with core supporters and deeply unpopular with the rest of the country. Trump is in a sense pandering twice to his base here, not only agreeing with them on controversy of issues, but hammering home the point that, by doing so, he is siding with his supporters over everyone else. Paranoia and persecution have long been major components of conservative culture and the rise of conservative media has aggressively and deliberately cultivated those feelings.

Thus, Trump holding on to his base is possibly the most explicable development of the past few years, and it shows no special political genius on his part. Anyone can maintain a grip on supporters by taking their side even when the rest of the country strongly opposes them. The only reason you don't see this done more often is because winning the approval of the 25 to 35% of the country that was going to vote for you anyway while angering and energizing 60 to 70% of the country is that it's a disastrous strategy. Think Goldwater but more extreme.

So how did these points not just persist but become ubiquitous? When you put this together with all the other recent examples of the obviously untrue making its way into the conventional wisdom, the inescapable answer is that plausibility doesn't rank that high. If something complements a safe standard narrative (in this case the Dems in disarray), the fact that it doesn't actually make much sense can be overlooked, particularly when you factor in convergent thinking and the inability of many in the world of commentary to think in terms of appropriate levels of aggregation.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Michael Hiltzik's Donald Trump/Elon Musk analogy

This has been out for a while and I believe we may have touched on it before, but Michael Hiltzik's recent piece for the LA Times has actually become more relevant since it was published:

But there’s another respect in which Tesla CEO Musk and President Trump resemble each other, and it’s one that carries extreme risks for the enterprises they lead—in Musk’s case, Tesla Inc., and in Trump’s case, his administration. They’re both charismatic leaders with strong cores of followers who have, thus far, forced people outside their base to believe in their leadership skills. The question is, however, what will happen when confidence in their skills begins to crack?

The roster of charismatic leaders in politics who led their citizens over a cliff is long, and doesn’t require listing here. Business books and articles bristle with discussions about the qualities, virtues and dangers of charismatic leadership.

A couple of years ago, Joyce E.A. Russell of the University of Maryland listed some of their features in The Times: “They will discourage and censor divergent opinions and will expect that communication should be one-way…. They will strike back like bullies when they hear criticism (using the message that they "must defend themselves against attacks"). Their need for admiration and self-absorption can be so intense that it can lead them to believe that they are infallible. Instead of painting an optimistic vision for the future, they will prey on people's fears.”

The main problem with leadership by personality is that it carries followers sedulously along—right up until the point when they no longer follow. The turn can come in the blink of an eye. But sometimes it comes too late for the underlying enterprise to survive.
.

In an age of bullshit, track records are extremely important. When obviously ridiculous arguments and narratives inflate to enormous size before imploding, there will inevitably be an embarrassing number of journalists who will shamelessly jump from "[Hyperloops/Bitcoin/Google glasses] will completely change your world." to knew-it-all-along. This was dramatically illustrated during the 2016 election where you had a handful of writers like Josh Marshall and (after he learned his lesson in the primaries) Nate Silver who provided intelligent and often prescient commentary compared with the majority of their colleagues who pretty much got everything wrong and have spent the past year and a half hoping that their readers forget.

Hiltzik's track record is consistently good, but he deserves to be singled out for special praise for being one of the first to see through Elon Musk. The LA Times in general deserves credit for its smart and critical coverage here, as do Al Jazeera and the Washington Post for being among the first to see that the only thing significant about the Hyperloop was its first syllable. This was while almost all of their competitors the New York Times, New York magazine, the Boston Globe, and most egregiously Rolling Stone were burning through their hard-earned reputations with tales of a real life Tony Stark.

It is notable that, since Hiltzik wrote the piece, we have gotten dramatic new examples of chaos and collapse from both the White House and Tesla motors. There are the countless disturbing anecdotes from Woodward's book while, after a brief period of calm, Elon Musk is doubling down on his crazy attacks against the British diver who advised in the recent rescue (in addition to the footage of the CEO of a company worth as much as General Motors getting stoned on camera).

Really spectacular con artists like Ponzi or Uri Geller come to believe their own pitch even though they know that it's not true. I strongly suspect this applies here as well. Trump clearly thinks of himself as a brilliant and incredibly successful businessman with almost superhuman powers of persuasion (and I'm not sure I really need to include the "almost"). Musk thinks of himself as a stunningly gifted engineer and inventor and, on some level, probably believes that he really did come up with all the things he's taking credit for, whether they be the work of his genuinely talented employees, the intellectual property he liberated from TRW, or the stuff he saw in some old science-fiction movie.

Friday, September 14, 2018

I posted this without realizing how relevant it was.

Don't get me wrong. I'd seen this video a number of times, but I didn't rewatch it before including it in the NYT op-ed post last week. I didn't realize how much the impact had increased over the past year.If you skipped over it the last time, I highly recommend taking a few minutes to watch it now.




And on the subject of old political commentary that seems strangely contemporary, check out this 45 year old piece from Art Buchwald helpfully providing Nixon supporters with responses when the subject of Watergate came up.

1. Everyone does it.

2. What about Chappaquiddick?

3. A President can’t keep track of everything his staff does.

4. The press is blowing the whole thing up.

5. Whatever Nixon did was for national security.

6. The Democrats are sore because they lost the election.

7. Are you going to believe a rat like John Dean or the president of the United States?

8. Wait till all the facts come out.

9. What about Chappaquiddick?

10. If you impeach Nixon, you get Agnew.

11. The only thing wrong with Watergate is they got caught.

12. What about Daniel Ellsberg stealing the Pentagon Papers?

13. It happens in Europe all the time.

14. People would be against Nixon no matter what he did.

15. I’d rather have a crook in the White House than a fool.

16. LBJ used to read FBI reports every night.

17. What’s the big deal about finding out what your opposition is up to?

18. The president was too busy running the country to know what was going on.

19. What about Chappaquiddick?

20. People that live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

21. McGovern would have lost anyway.

22. Maybe the Committee for the Re-Election of the President when a little too far, but they were just a bunch of eager kids.

23. I’m not for breaking the law, but sometimes you have to do it to save the country.

24. Nixon made a mistake. He’s only human.

25. Do you realize what Watergate is doing to the dollar abroad?

26. What about Harry Truman and the deep freeze scandal?

27. Franklin D. Roosevelt did a lot of worse things.

28. I’m sick and tired of hearing about Watergate and so is everyone else.

29. This thing should be tried in the courts and not on TV.

30. When Nixon gives his explanation of what happened there are going to be a lot of people in this country with egg on their faces.

31. My country right or wrong.

32. What about Chappaquiddick?

33. I think the people who make all this fuss about Watergate should be shot.

34. If the Democrats had the money they would have done the same thing.

35. I never did trust Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

36. If you say one more word about Watergate I’ll punch you in the nose.

A. If the person is bigger than you: “If you say one more word about Watergate I’m leaving this house.”

B. If it’s your own house and the person is bigger than you: “What about Chappaquiddick?”

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Few 21st-century visionaries realize how old their future is – – Childhoods End edition


I'm finding it increasingly difficult to read these accounts of bold, visionary thinkers without feeling an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.









From LA Weekly

Yuval Harari famously predicts, "We are probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens. Within a century or two, Earth will be dominated by entities that are more different from us than we are different from Neanderthals or chimpanzees." And this quote is at the foundation of Berggruen's newest initiative, a program dubbed Transformations of the Human.

With co-funding from Reid Hoffman and directed by Tobias Rees (a prolific author, professor of humanities at the New School of Social Research and a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, whose background intersects anthropology, the history of art and science, and philosophy), the Transformations of the Human program has some big work ahead. Rees is assembling a team of fellows who are scientists, artists and ethicists to create a holistic understanding of advancements such as artificial intelligence and bioengineering, how to handle the questions they raise about who we are and how to beneficially implement them in our society.


Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Turn of the Century Childhood's End

This may go against conventional wisdom, but what we now call New Age beliefs (normally seen as children of the counter-culture) are largely a product of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Parapsychology? Check. Ghosts and similar entities? Check. Fascination with paganism and arcane religions? Check. Space aliens? Check. And finally, the idea that humanity is on the verge of a huge evolutionary leap, a leap that might already be happening? Check.

The turn of the century probably also marked the peak respectability for these beliefs. It's difficult imagining something like this running in Scientific American in the 21sst century.