Friday, July 20, 2018

When Bell Labs got funky

Leafing through Internet Archive's If magazine collection looking for public domain art I could appropriate (sooner or later I will need a shot of robot-on-robot violence)...

... I came across an ad that seemed interesting.

 [If was the sister publication of Galaxy]

 A bit of Googling took me to this from WFMU
"Music From Mathematics" was an album of early electronic music, programmed by the boffins (very likely in authentic period white coats and glasses) at Bell Laboratories way back in the early 1960s, using the then-new IBM 7090 computer and an "electronic to sound transducer". The music on the album, about half of which is included here, is a mixture of strange, other-worldly blips, rushing white noise, tootly reworkings of classical pieces and a marvellous period "singing computer" version of "A Bicycle Made For Two" (already featured on the 365 Days Project, #62, and so not included again). Full marks to Decca Records for releasing the record - remember that in 1962, these alien sounds would have been totally new, and suitably space-age in their sound.

So for your listening pleasure...

Thursday, July 19, 2018

You thought I was exaggerating with the Muskmas line, didn't you?

This amusing thread from Gizmodo's Matt Novak beautifully illustrates some points we've been making for a long time. The language and imagery we use to describe technology in the 21st century has increasingly become that of myth and magic, even for advances that are mundane or trivial. At the same time (and I'm sure the causal relationships run both ways here), our default ways of thinking about tech and innovation have become increasingly dominated by what we've called magical heuristics, mental modes and tools only appropriate for a nonrational, supernatural worldview.

Obviously, it would be a mistake to treat the crazy emails that show up in a journalist's inbox as a representative sample, but before we dismiss these comments as the ravings of random lunatics, go back and take a look at this previously discussed Rolling Stone cover story. Are the messianic unicorn comments from Elon Musk's supporters really that much more over-the-top than this?

Musk will likely be remembered as one of the most seminal figures of this millennium. Kids on all the terraformed planets of the universe will look forward to Musk Day, when they get the day off to commemorate the birth of the Earthling who single-handedly ushered in the era of space colonization.
“Musk is a titan, a visionary, a human-size lever pushing forward massive historical inevitabilities – the kind of person who comes around only a few times in a century”

Of course, the Rolling Stone piece is itself a bit of an extreme case, but not an entirely unrepresentative one. We've collected dozens of examples over the past few years of Silicon Valley saviors and wondrous sorcery in tech drag. These stories ranged from partially to primarily bullshit, but they have had a great impact on the way we invest, make public policy decisions, and pursue research. In other words, we are paying a real price for believing in these fantasies.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018


This is Joseph.

This is an interesting tweet thread by Jeffery Brown.  Here is an image of a few tweets:

What is really interesting here is not that Dr. Brown is wrong.  He isn't.  He is completely correct. 

What is interesting is where the focus is.  In the thread he names two MMTers, Bernie Sanders (an independent failed presidential nominee) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a Democratic nominee for the house who is not even elected yet). 

Now I am huge believer in fiscal responsibility.  Here is Fortune on the recent tax cuts:
Trump’s heady economic potion, however, is masking misguided policies that could leave those same businesses with a severe hangover from today’s celebration. The U.S. government’s huge and growing budget deficits have become gargantuan enough to threaten the great American growth machine. And Trump’s policies to date—a combination of deep tax cuts and sharp spending increases—are shortening the fuse on that fiscal time bomb, by dramatically widening the already unsustainable gap between revenues and outlays. On our current course, we’re headed for a morass of punitive taxes, puny growth, and stagnant incomes for workers—a future that’s the precise opposite of what Trump champions.
I think Jodi Beggs identified why this is important here:

I would like to think carefully about the deficit.  I think that balance of payments is important and I remember that hyper-inflation is something that can really happen.  But if the focus is on minor players on the party out of power and not on the people actually increasing the deficit now, it is now wonder that people wonder about motives.  If the deficit becomes a political argument than the bad fiscal consequences I would like to avoid become a lot more likely. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

More on health care costs

This is Joseph.

As projections go, this one is shocking:
Medical services are expensive. There is no getting around it. The average family health insurance premium in the US is approaching $20,000. By one estimate, average family premiums could rise to 100 percent of US median household income by 2033 if trends continue.
Even now, the median family income in the United States is fifty-nine thousand dollars, which means health costs are starting to dominate expenses.  In parallel with the cost of housing (which is growing faster then wages right now), it is pretty clear that either wages need to go up soon or we need to find a method to control costs. 

One feature of health care costs that is odd is the presence of different costs for different customers (off the street versus negotiated insurance costs versus medicare/medicaid rates) and a complete lack of pricing transparency.  It is difficult to save up for medical procedures when you don't know the actual price and it is common for bills to be a surprise

Obviously, consistent and transparent prices are going to be needed in order to utilize market forces, as is competition.  I think that it isn't a surprise that centrally planned health care systems have proved quite a popular solution to this problem. 

Which doesn't mean that is the way to go.  But if we are going to find a way forward then we need to find a way to contain costs.  I see this as the central question of health policy at the moment. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

What next for health care costs?

This is Joseph

I read with great interest this article by Edward Murphy on US health care costs.  The bottom line was quite interesting:
In March, three researchers from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health published a study in JAMA analyzing the well-known reality that the United States spends dramatically more on health care than other wealthy countries. They compared the US, where health care consumes 17.8 per cent of gross domestic product, to 10 comparable nations where the mean expenditure is 11.5 percent. Despite spending much less, the other countries provide health insurance to their entire populations and have outcomes equal to or better than ours. The researchers found that this inefficiency gap is primarily driven by two characteristics of the US system: the high cost of pharmaceuticals and inordinate administrative expenses.
It is not in the interest of huge profit-making corporations to restrain the overall cost of the US health care system. In fact, their interest is served by driving health care expenditures higher. When combined with the spending analysis provided by researchers, the financial data disclosed by public corporations point to a path that the country must follow to make our system more coherent and less costly. Any progress will require driving down pharmaceutical pricing and reducing administrative costs imposed by middlemen. We are not doing that yet but, ultimately, we must. 
This is an evergreen topic given that health care is expensive and there is a sense that it doesn't have quite the overall outcomes that you'd expect.  If it was just that a wealthier country spends more on health to get better outcomes, then I would say that the market was functioning effectively.  It's unclear to me that being wealthy means an interest in higher administrative costs, although I guess hedge funds might be an example of this phenomenon.

This is relevant because there is a real issue with laws to regulate health care, both in terms of payments and the laws themselves.  I see this as the end of the idea of a regulatory framework for the private marker (the affordable care act) and a prelude to a pivot to some other approach. I am waiting to see who might provide leadership on this front.  What is the vision of the Trump administration on health care policy and cost containment?  How are they going to tackle this difficult and nearly intractable issue?

Curious minds are waiting for the other shoe to drop and see what the new plan is

Postscript:  And in case you think these high profits are needed for innovation, Noah Smith has a great tweet here

Friday, July 13, 2018

A follow-up to yesterday's post

This is Joseph

In yesterday's post we talked about employer monopsony.  Relevant to this post is today's news about Washington state successfully suing to get fast food franchises to no longer enforce "no poaching" agreements.  The gist is:
The provisions prohibit workers at, for example, one Carl’s Jr. franchise from going to another Carl’s Jr. They do not stop those workers from taking jobs at restaurants run by a different chain.
While this does not lock workers into a single chain, it does make it harder for them to move around if one particular employment situation gets bad.  Any barriers to mobility tend to depress wages and thus the question of minimum wage as a policy.

It's true that tackling the bad policy might be a better overall decision.  But minimum wage is an easy to enforce policy that is hard to weasel around.  Once again, it is a policy that bears more looking at.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Jodi Beggs on employer monopsony power and mimumum wage

This is Joseph

Jodi Beggs has a great post on the minimum wage in the presence of employer monopsonies.  If there is only one buyer of market labor, that purchaser has a decided advantage.  Her main point of doing this analysis was to make the point that:

If a labor market is a monopsony (or if employers have monopsony power), minimum wages could actually increase rather than decrease employment.
She provides a number of worked examples, which are fun to look over.

What this made me wonder about the is the role of non-compete agreements in labor markets.  For example, there is a sandwich company that used to enforce non-compete agreements. Insofar as actors include these agreements in employment contracts, we might be closer to the point where minimum wages have a reduced cost (or even a benefit) to employment levels.  This is also likely to occur in high skill areas where the number of employers is small.  If you are a skilled airplane builder and live in Montreal, you will find limited employer options that are not Bombardier.  Moving has costs and, in the modern world, it isn't necessarily trivial to immigrate.

These effects may also occur in small markets, where the number of competing employers is limited, which is more of what Jodi Beggs was worrying about in her post.  In order for market forces to work properly, there are a number of key assumptions that are required.  There being multiple buyers of labor is one of these and we shouldn't be surprised if your intuitions are reversed in some markets.

Now how that works for things like the Seattle minimum wage are more complicated.  But this could be an important layer to understanding this as different studies had slightly different industries and it may be that employer diversity is confounding some of these associations.

But it is worth reflecting on as it makes the arguments against the minimum wage a lot weaker if there are market monopsonies present.  If so, then the policy benefits of this policy are actually pretty great.

(Jodi Beggs points to an article on the topic, and the evidence seems mixed, but not ignorable).

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Another in our series of revolutionary postwar innovations – – let's go to the tape

With the advent of magnetic tape, audio recording changed more in a few years than it had in the previous few decades. For record producers and sound engineers, performances went from being something holistic that could only be presented as captured to being a collection of elements, each of which could be edited, tweaked, and recombined in infinite ways. Though digital technology has greatly increased the power and convenience of the sound engineer's toolbox, the basic paradigm is about 70 years old.

Though the effects took a bit longer videotape, the impact was arguably even greater. Though film remained the standard for situations where high picture quality had to be maintained, the ability to play back a recording immediately ("and now let's go to the instant replay") and the ability to reuse tape radically altered the business of video production and television news.

Here's a notable example of the new audio paradigm from CBS Radio Workshop.
The premiere broadcast was a two-part adaptation of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, introduced and narrated by Huxley. It took a unique approach to sound effects, as described in a Time (February 6, 1956) review that week:

It took three radio sound men, a control-room engineer and five hours of hard work to create the sound that was heard for less than 30 seconds on the air. The sound consisted of a ticking metronome, tom-tom beats, bubbling water, air hose, cow moo, boing! (two types), oscillator, dripping water (two types) and three kinds of wine glasses clicking against each other. Judiciously blended and recorded on tape, the effect was still not quite right. Then the tape was played backward with a little echo added. That did it. The sound depicted the manufacturing of babies in the radio version of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

A few years earlier, Gunsmoke (a serious contender for best show ever in two different media) was noted for its detailed sound montages, including different effects for the pouring of beer and whiskey.

Interesting bit of trivia about the show. CBS chose to run the show unsponsored for the first few seasons. They wanted a genuinely adult Western and the producers were afraid advertisers would pressure them to lighten the program. If you listen to this episode, you'll understand why.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Back on the urbanist beat

The following video hits a couple of points we've been making over the years about urbanization and the creative class. The first is that utopian urbanists, while not without good ideas and an abundance of fine intentions, tend to operate under a hopelessly romanticized vision of urban living and that they often embrace policies that push reality even further from their own ideal.

If you're looking for a perfect Richard Florida style neighborhood, a place where a film director, a JPL rocket scientist, and a coder might run into each other and decide to have a coffee at a sidewalk café, you'd be hard pressed to find a better spot than this section of Burbank.

You can eat on the cheap (a small coffee and a big pastry at Portos can come in under three dollars). You can watch professional makeup artists comparing prosthetics for an indie horror film and costume designers sifting through the racks of a thrift store. You can see a first-rate play or improv comedy show, go to a book signing, or pick up some groceries in one of the delis.

This is very much in line with the lifestyle many utopian urbanists fantasize about, but unfortunately it can only exist in a fragile Goldilocks zone of just the right density and property values, and ironically, the more appealing a neighborhood like this is, the more factors that make it appealing are threatened.

High density, high traffic areas are really only suitable for two types of retail businesses, expensive and/or fast-turnover. Businesses where customers take their time and don't spend a lot of money cannot survive under these conditions.

Just to be clear, I'm not taking sides or advocating certain policies here. If this stretch of Magnolia is all chain stores in a couple of years, I probably won't hang out there but I won't begrudge the property owners for seeking optimal returns either. I simply want to point out that urbanists and the YIMBY movement may not have thought through the implications of some of their proposals and rhetoric.

Via Mark Evanier.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Media Post: The Last Jedi

This is Joseph.

Since the Last Jedi came out there have been a number of critiques of it; some better than others.  It is quite clear that the attempt to deconstruct the franchise, while artistically interesting, had some issues.  In particular, I would summarize my thoughts as:

Visuals: Stunning.  Simply stunning.  What a beautiful movie
Creativity: I may not love Canto Bight, but boy was it creative
Characters: Ok.  There is a break in continuity of character between movies, but it isn't fatal
Plot: Weak, very weak.

Probably my favorite review of it is this one.  The author lists eight critiques, of which I see #3 as being the most serious:
The primary plot (of the cruiser chase) is riddled with plot holes and doesn’t make any sense. The film suffers because its backbone is broken.
Now, it isn't the case that previous movies completely avoided these issues.  Compare with the Empire Strikes Back -- the asteroid chase has similar issues and while they are more clever about dialogue, the timeline is a mess.  And some characters had big changes -- Darth Vader seems much more important than he used to be, for example, and much less deferential to senior military commanders.

But the issue was the deconstruction, I think.  The writer-director played against type, which the Empire Strikes Back did not do (at least not so completely).  Now you can shake up a franchise, but this is a delicate matter that requires great skill.  Mark Evanier tells an anecdote about a junior writer asking Ray Bradbury if it was ok to be as high maintenance as Harlan Ellison.  The rejoinder was priceless:

"I don't know if that's okay but if you try it, check first and make sure you have the talents of a Harlan Ellison."
I think that this is exactly right.  If you want to subvert expectations then it should be in the service of creating a better or more thought provoking story.  This story was very well shot but needed a serious rewrite of the script and a goal as to how the subversion would make the story sing.

It was also easy in the franchise for this move.  Thor Skywalker points out that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is twenty movies in, with a fairly limited range of characters and plots, and hasn't felt the need to subvert expectations yet:

In fact his comparison of Thor Ragnorak, which is not a perfect movie by a long stretch, to the Last Jedi is quite clever.  Both movies are ultimately about failure.  They even both have the breaking of the protagonist's weapons, the loss of home, and the death of most of the protagonist's organization.   But one has a tighter script and more narrative payoffs.  The other has better visuals and more creativity.  Guess which one grossed higher.

Now it is true, I was cheering for Rey to date Finn and not a serial killer.  But I don't mind being wrong -- that is part of the fun.  Who would have guessed it would be Han and Leia?  Or that Darth Vader would be the one to defeat the emperor?  Or that Yoda actually fought Darth Sidious?  I like being surprised, so long as the surprise keeps the story fresh and interesting.

So my view: good movie, fabulous eye candy, great for kinds, but one that really needed a script doctor for the fans in the audience.

Friday, July 6, 2018

"Back when fifty years was a long time ago" -- updated with new video links

I realized that the Willoughby episode fit into the late 19th century time travel genre (As well as being a good example of how people in the early sixties felt about the pace of their own lives).

And the link on this one had gone dead.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Back when fifty years was a long time ago

I've noticed over the past year or two that people ranging  from Neal Stephenson  to Paul Krugman have been increasingly open about the possibility that technological progress been under-performing lately (Tyler Cowen has also been making similar points for a while). David Graeber does perhaps the bst job summing up the position (though I could do without the title).

The case that recent progress has been anemic is often backed with comparisons to the advances of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries (for example).  There are all sorts of technological and economic metrics that show the extent of these advances but you can also get some interesting insights looking at the way pop culture portrayed these changes.

Though much has been written pop culture attitudes toward technological change, almost all focus on forward-looking attitudes (what people thought the future would be like). This is problematic since science fiction authors routinely mix the serious with the fanciful, satiric and even the deliberately absurd. You may well get a better read by looking at how people in the middle of the Twentieth Century looked at their own recent progress.

In the middle of the century, particularly in the Forties, there was a great fascination with the Gay Nineties. It was a period in living memory and yet in many ways it seemed incredibly distant, socially, politically, economically, artistically and most of all, technologically. In 1945, much, if not most day-to-day life depended on devices and media that were either relatively new in 1890 or were yet to be invented.  Even relatively old tech like newspapers were radically different, employing advances in printing and photography and filled with Twentieth Century innovations like comic strips.

The Nineties genre was built around the audiences' self-awareness of how rapidly their world had changed and was changing. The world of these films was pleasantly alien, separated from the viewers by cataclysmic changes.

The comparison to Mad Men is useful. We have seen an uptick in interest in the world of fifty years ago but it's much smaller than the mid-Twentieth Century fascination with the Nineties and, more importantly, shows like Mad Men, Pan Am and the Playboy Club focused almost entirely on social mores. None of them had the sense of traveling to an alien place that you often get from Gay Nineties stories.

There was even a subgenre built around that idea, travelling literally or figuratively to the world of the Nineties. Literal travel could be via magic or even less convincing devices,
Figurative travel involved going to towns that had for some reason abandoned the Twentieth Century. Here's a representative 1946 example from Golden Age artist Klaus Nordling:

There are numerous other comics examples from the Forties, including this from one of the true geniuses of the medium, Jack Cole.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Images from 1896

From Scientific American 1896-11-14

This is important because it shows how people were thinking about phonographs and recorded media in general.

This is important because it illustrates the age's fascination with the massive.

This isn't important at all.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Fourth of July Americana from the great Jerry Goldsmith.

First, two great scores from two perfect little movies.

Next, two great scores from movies you could probably skip. (Howard Hawks should have stopped with El Dorado. He also should've hired Goldsmith for that one as well. With all due respect to Nelson Riddle, the score they ended up with pretty much sucks.)

And finally, a highly appropriate original composition.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Come to think of it, I'll bet we can find a venture capitalist who'll go for the discounted twenties plan

As bubbles go, the glut of video content is in many ways fairly benign. It means lots of work or people in the industry and a ton of often very good shows for viewers (so many that the main complaint is the inability to keep up). Furthermore, with the exception of Netflix (which may have some very unhappy investors at some point in the future), most of the money seems to be coming from companies with such deep pockets that a few billion here are there can go relatively unnoticed. Apple, for instance, could set up a line of street corner kiosks that sell $20 bills at 50% off and it still wouldn't make a dent in the company's profits.

But though the content bubble is probably nothing to get upset about, it is still worthy of study as an example of the mentality. In particular, this story nicely illustrates how the bubble mania and the fear of missing out of the next big thing creates its own kind of dream logic that overrides normal rational concerns.

As previously mentioned, even before the bubble the amount of content available was probably growing faster than the market, especially when we focus on the United States (more on that later). The introduction of smart phones and to a lesser degree tablets did significantly increase the potential hours of purview or consumption, but that was a one time bump and we are probably seeing it leveling off by now.

Content accumulates. It is true that programs tend to lose audience appeal with time, but the drop off is often quite slow. Numerous movies and TV shows maintain a shockingly stable viewership over the years. I Love Lucy and Perry Mason have maintained a following for over 60 years now. Blocks of MASH run on at least a half-dozen basic cable channels and show up in local syndication in pretty much every market. Some shows even have a resurgence. Golden Girls (no, I can't explain it either) has gone from obscure, to retro, to ironic, to genuinely cool, a status it didn't even achieve in its original run.

Even if the production of new programming had remained steady, there would be real concerns about oversupply, but instead it has exploded with more and more programs featuring bigger and bigger budgets. With each year, the unsustainability of the model has become increasingly obvious and yet the idea that you have to be producing your own content to survive has become an ever more closely held item of faith.

A couple of interesting assumptions get baked into these discussions. One is that you have to have your own content. The other is that the future of online video is the subscription all-you-can-the model. Both are highly suspect. As for the first, there is reason to believe that, while almost all of the hype and marketing center on the Netflix originals, much if not most of their viewership comes from licensing existing programs like blockbuster movies or old shows like the aforementioned Golden Girls.

As for the second, this is basically just the old cable TV bundling strategy (which everyone hates) dressed in 21st century drag. With both models, you are paying for programming you have no interest in ever watching. With streaming services, this has been momentarily obscured by a willingness to just break even or even lose money, but that is not likely to go on indefinitely.

The Apple programming slate suggest something close to peak bubble mentality. They are spending obscene amounts of money on big-name talent, most of which has extremely limited international appeal. They have no idea how these shows fit into their existing business plan. They have no need to be producing original content at all. They are doing this strictly because of the extraordinary popular delusion that not being part of this bubble will mean being left behind in the new economy.

From the Verge:

That’s an impressive roster, but it’s important to remember that Apple is building its catalog from the ground up. It has to catch up to streaming companies that have had years-long head starts and are currently producing hundreds of titles. And while we have dedicated platforms from heavy hitters like Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix, as well as exclusive systems such as Stargate Command and CBS All Access, Apple has yet to announce exactly where any of these announced shows will debut.

Monday, July 2, 2018

The world's first photo booth

Another example for the point we've been making about how the period centering around the 1890s was marked not just by amazing technological advances that made headlines but also by smaller, more personal inventions and discoveries that permeated every aspect of people's lives.

For instance, getting a photograph taken was still an elaborate and expensive process in the early 1870s. 20 years later, it was something you paid a nickel for at the local arcade.

From Scientific American 1893-03-18

Of all the many uses to which the automatic selling machine has been put, that of taking photographs seems the most remarkable. And yet this is what is being done now in several public places in New York and Brooklyn by means of a nickel-in-the-slot photograph machine recently patented by Mr. Pierre V. W. Welsh, of New York City. The operation, so far as relates to the exposure, development and fixing of the picture, is entirely automatic, and the little picture which the machine throws out, after a momentary washing, appears to be a marked success over previous efforts in this direction, as judged by the excellence of the work and the rapidity with which it is effected.

Friday, June 29, 2018

"The monster on your TV set"

I wish I knew the exact date on this one. I assume it's some time in the early to mid-70s, late enough that cable TV and services like HBO were clearly on the horizon, they still seemed like something that might be pushed back. I also suspect it was before or at best shortly after the multiplex model took hold.

Eventually, increasingly ginormous home video screens, mobile streaming, and other innovations will probably kill the movie theater as a mainstream venue, but I suspect the industry watchers of 50 or so years ago would have been surprised at how well the basic business model has held up.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Thought for the day

From Paul Krugman [emphasis added]:
What the freshwater school did was to take the actual experience of business cycles and say, “We don’t see how to formalize this experience in terms of maximizing equilibrium models; therefore it doesn’t exist.” It only looks as if recessions result from inadequate demand and that monetary or fiscal expansion can create jobs; our models tell us that can’t happen, so it’s all an optical illusion.


Anyway, this isn’t about me (well, it sort of is, but never mind.) The important point shouldn’t be “don’t formalize”; it should be that formalism is there to open your mind, not close it, and if the real world seems to be telling you something inconsistent with your model, the problem lies in the model, not the world.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

If you have Netflix's PR budget, your own journalistic genre is just one of the things you can buy.

The following showed up in the "Recommended by Pocket" links in my Firefox browser. To be perfectly honest, I only clicked on it because I was looking for a jumping off point from which to discuss the extraordinary PR efforts of Netflix. For that purpose, the article was even better than I had hoped.

First, a few points about what the film Evolution isn't.

It isn't new. It came out in 2015 and was widely and generally positively reviewed. If you're into this kind of art-house horror film, there's a good chance you've already seen it and a very good chance you've already heard about it.

It isn't a Netflix original.

It isn't even exclusive to Netflix. In addition to the DVD, you can buy it online for $3.99 from iTunes or Amazon or a number of other vendors.

 Given all of this, why is the availability of this film on Netflix newsworthy? The short answer is that it's not. Basically it's an ad for Netflix disguised as a piece of news. Probably unpaid for and unintentional, but still an ad. What's more, it's actually part of a series of ads for Netflix running at GQ.

We have all gotten so accustomed to the what's-on-Netflix genre that the strangeness no longer registers. There is tons of great (and I mean that without hyperbole) content out there. There is no good journalistic reason why being on Netflix is any more newsworthy than being on or Film Struck or or the Internet Archive or even MeTV (I would actually make the case that Neil Simon's work under Nat Hiken on the Phil Silvers Show was more noteworthy than most of the Netflix films GQ chose to write).

To be hammer-blunt, what's-on-Netflix is a genre because the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on PR hacks who have spent countless hours planting and pushing these stories. It was a tremendous amount of money, but it was well spent. Netflix is now worth more than Disney because it has been more successful than any of its competitors at generating hype. The editors at GQ deserve a small part of the credit for this and, should the company implode leaving a pile of badly burned investors, they also might deserve a comparable share of the blame.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

I'm afraid even the Brothers Grimm would have found Bitcoin a little too fantastic

I'm edging closer to the notion that the tools which we would normally use to critique journalism are no longer up to the task of discussing the 21st century technology narrative. Instead, the appropriate methods are probably those of the folklorist. We are rapidly approaching the realm of the myth and the tall tale. Why not start thinking in those terms?

It is standard practice when discussing something like a Jack tale to list the Aarne–Thompson classification. For example, Jack in the beanstalk fall under the classification AT 328 ("The Treasures of the Giant"). We could do something similar with the vast majority of tech reported. TakeTheranos. This and other accounts of college dropouts supposedly coming up with some amazing innovation can be classified under "wayward youth finds magic object."

 I've been getting quite a bit of thought recently to how magical heuristics have come to dominate the conversation about technology and innovation, but the idea of actually treating the narrative as folklore didn't hit me until I read this:
The paperclip maximizer is a thought experiment described by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003. It illustrates the existential risk that an artificial general intelligence may pose to human beings when programmed to pursue even seemingly-harmless goals, and the necessity of incorporating machine ethics into artificial intelligence design. The scenario describes an advanced artificial intelligence tasked with manufacturing paperclips. If such a machine were not programmed to value human life, then given enough power its optimized goal would be to turn all matter in the universe, including human beings, into either paperclips or machines which manufacture paperclips.[4]

    Suppose we have an AI whose only goal is to make as many paper clips as possible. The AI will realize quickly that it would be much better if there were no humans because humans might decide to switch it off. Because if humans do so, there would be fewer paper clips. Also, human bodies contain a lot of atoms that could be made into paper clips. The future that the AI would be trying to gear towards would be one in which there were a lot of paper clips but no humans.
    — Nick Bostrom, "Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence", 2003

Bostrom has emphasised that he does not believe the paperclip maximiser scenario per se will actually occur; rather, his intention is to illustrate the dangers of creating superintelligent machines without knowing how to safely program them to eliminate existential risk to human beings. The paperclip maximizer example illustrates the broad problem of managing powerful systems that lack human values

Suddenly it struck me that this was just the magic salt mill ever so slightly veiled in cyber garb. In case you're not up on your folklore...

It is Aarne-Thompson type 565, the Magic Mill. Other tales of this type include The Water Mother and Sweet porridge.


A poor man begged from his brother on Christmas Eve. The brother promised him, depending on the variant, ham or bacon or a lamb if he would do something. The poor brother promised; the rich one handed over the food and told him to go to Hell (in Lang's version, the Dead Men's Hall; in the Greek, the Devil's dam). Since he promised, he set out. In the Norse variants, he meets an old man along the way. In some variants, the man begs from him, and he gives something; in all, the old man tells him that in Hell (or the hall), they will want to buy the food from him, but he must only sell it for the hand-mill behind the door, and come to him for directions to use it. It took a great deal of haggling, but the poor man succeeded, and the old man showed him how to use it. In the Greek, he merely brought the lamb and told the devils that he would take whatever they would give him, and they gave him the mill. He took it to his wife, and had it grind out everything they needed for Christmas, from lights to tablecloth to meat and ale. They ate well and on the third day, they had a great feast. His brother was astounded and when the poor man had drunk too much, or when the poor man's children innocently betrayed the secret, he showed his rich brother the hand-mill. His brother finally persuaded him to sell it. In the Norse version, the poor brother didn't teach him how to handle it. He set to grind out herrings and broth, but it soon flooded his house. His brother wouldn't take it back until he paid him as much as he paid to have it. In the Greek, the brother set out to Constantinople by ship. In the Norse, one day a skipper wanted to buy the hand-mill from him, and eventually persuaded him. In all versions, the new owner took it to sea and set it to grind out salt. It ground out salt until it sank the boat, and then went on grinding in the sea, turning the sea salty.

I realize Bostrom isn't proposing this as a likely scenario. That's not the point. What matters here is that he and other researchers and commentators tend to think about technology using the specific heuristics and motifs people have always used for thinking about magic, and it worries me when I start recognizing the Aarne–Thompson classifications for stories in the science section.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The name has always been synonymous with hype

We've been rough on Tesla lately, but this is too good to pass up.

From Scientific American:

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cryptocurrencies: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

“Everything that exists is going to be better.”

I have queued the video up to a clip in the middle. It shows a very slick ad for a pump and dump scheme that really has to be seen to be believed. It's actually not the best part of the episode – – that would come closer to the end – – but if you only have a couple of minutes, this is the part you want to watch.

Oliver's shows have a tendency to build. They generally spend the first 10 minutes or so setting an informative and balanced framework interspaced with a few jokes to keep things from getting too dry. The opening framework provides important nuance and context which allows them to bring out really absurd and infuriating clips without simply playing them for shock value.

Regular readers will recognize lots of familiar elements here. Cryptocurrencies run almost entirely on magical heuristics. There's virtually no way to justify their value based on conventional logic and economic principles. Instead, the narrative is driven entirely by things like the magic of association, faith and language, the belief that we are entering an age of great upheaval but one which will richly reward the faithful. It's like you distilled hype and bullshit and mystical thinking of every Silicon Valley startup into a pure essence of nonsense.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Another cool think-big engineering solution from the turn-of-the-century

Engineers still like to play around with the question of how you might get passengers on and off of a train without having it stop. Most of the ideas I've heard suggested (none of which appear to be practical) involve transferring cars from a second train.

For something considerably more novel, consider this proposal from the 1905/03/18 issue of Scientific American for an endless loop train that never has to stop at any point.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Elon Musk is a terrible engineer (and why that is important)

From Fortune:
In a tweet on Friday, Musk posted a GIF of Dr. David Bowman, the main character in 2001: A Space Odyssey running around a track in space. He said in the tweet that the BF Spaceship will feature a similar track and that running around on it “will look something like this.”

During the scene in the film, Bowman is running around a centrifugal device that creates enough gravitational force to allow him to run and get exercise. But when Bowman was running around in space, he was on the Discovery One spaceship and not the BF that SpaceX is working on.

First, a very brief and hopefully painless physics lesson (with apologies for any details I might screw up – – it's been a long time since I took a class in the subject). We are all familiar with the idea of centrifugal force. When traveling in a circle, the amount of the force you experience is a function of rpm's and radius. Increase either of those and you increase the force.

The ring shaped space stations you've seen in NASA proposals and science fiction movies are based on this principle. (The actual proposals might be more likely to referred to shape as a "torus," but let's not get technical.) Another design, which will get to in a minute, involves a tether and a counterweight. You see this in actual engineering proposals but it seldom seems to make it into the movies.

A big problem with using centrifugal force to get around microgravity is the Coriolis effect. Both volume and mass are at a premium with spacecraft, so we would like to trade speed for radius. Unfortunately, spinning rapidly in a tight circle messes with the inner ear in ways that cause dizziness, nausea, and disorientation. While there's evidence that people can adapt to this to a certain degree, if you want to avoid these effects, you need a very large circle (think hundreds of yards across) traveling fairly slowly (around 2 RPMs).

If you're using the tether and counterweight approach, radius isn't that big of an issue, but with ring-shaped craft increasing radius means proportionally increasing mass and the habitable space you need to maintain and the amount of radiation shielding you need. The specs for the BFR give a diameter of 30 feet making it impractical to squeeze a running track inside one.

Now, obviously this is a hugely complex question and you probably wouldn't have any problem finding serious and highly competent engineers (of which SpaceX has many) who are actively working on ring shaped designs for craft and stations, but that does not at all appear to be what happened here. Instead, we have yet another instance of Elon Musk going off script and showing a fundamental ignorance of engineering while confusing seeing something in an old science-fiction movie with having an idea.

After you follow Elon Musk for a while, his proposals start to fall fairly neatly into two categories: the silly and other people's. It is something of an open secret that Musk likes to take credit for employee's work. Fortunately, the ruse is seldom difficult to see through. The proposals for SpaceX and Tesla that actually make it into production and necessarily involve the work of multiple engineers and specialists invariably come off as professional and mainstream.

Then there are those times when Elon Musk decides to go off script. Musk without his engineers is a bit like a bad comic without his writers.  The concepts he "comes up with" are without exception standard elements from old science-fiction shows, be it the Hyperloop or the giant underground slot car track or the brain communication microchip or the super fast tunneling machine.

As for the engineering, any vestige of competence vanishes when Musk ventures out on his own. A good engineer looks at a problem and sees the complexity. A great engineer sees the complexity and when it's there, sees through the complexity to the underlying simplicity. Bad engineers propose simple solutions because they miss the complexity entirely.

This is a hallmark of Elon Musk's attempts to sound like an engineer. His "solutions" simply make other parts of the process more complicated and unworkable. The perfect example is his handling of thermal expansion with the Hyperloop. Having the terminal points of the line move hundreds of yards based on the day's weather creates far more problems than it solves. His go-to answer of saving money on infrastructure projects by making tunnels smaller falls in the same category.

I realize this seems awfully harsh. To be clear, Elon Musk is a man of extraordinary and extraordinarily valuable talents. As a charismatic leader, finance guy, and promoter, he has few if any equals. Without these talents, there wouldn't be a SpaceX or a Tesla and for that alone he deserves tremendous appreciation.

But there are real dangers to the hype and bullshit standard narrative of 21st century technology. The lies we tell ourselves are increasingly costly and, in that context, the myth of a real life Tony Stark is not one we can afford.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A Krugman tweet from today, a WCSV post from last August

And with apologies to regular readers who are getting tired of this...

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Republicans' 3 x 3 existential threat

I've argued previously that Donald Trump presents and existential threat to the Republican Party. I know this can sound overheated and perhaps even a bit crazy. There are few American institutions as long-standing and deeply entrenched as are the Democratic and Republican parties. Proposing that one of them might not be around 10 years from now beggars the imagination and if this story started and stopped with Donald Trump, it would be silly to suggest we were on the verge of  a political cataclysm.

But, just as Trump's rise did not occur in a vacuum, neither will his fall. We discussed earlier how Donald Trump has the power to drive a wedge between the Republican Party and a significant segment of its base [I wrote this before the departure of Steve Bannon. That may diminish Trump's ability to create this rift but I don't think it reduces the chances of the rift happening. – – M.P.]. This is the sort of thing that can profoundly damage a political party, possibly locking it into a minority status for a long time, but normally the wound would not be fatal. These, however, are not normal times.

The Republican Party of 2017 faces a unique combination of interrelated challenges, each of which is at a historic level and the combination of which would present an unprecedented threat to this or any US political party. The following list is not intended to be exhaustive, but it hits the main points.

The GOP currently has to deal with extraordinary political scandals, a stunningly unpopular agenda and daunting demographic trends. To keep things symmetric and easy to remember, let's break each one of these down to three components (keeping in mind that the list may change).

With the scandals:

1. Money – – Even with the most generous reading imaginable, there is no question that Trump has a decades long record of screwing people over, skirting the law, and dealing with disreputable and sometimes criminal elements. At least some of these dealings have been with the Russian mafia, oligarchs, and figures tied in with the Kremlin which leads us to…

2. The hacking of the election – – This one is also beyond dispute. It happened and it may have put Donald Trump into the White House. At this point, we have plenty of quid and plenty of quo; if Mueller can nail down pro, we will have a complete set.

3. And the cover-up – – As Josh Marshall and many others have pointed out, the phrase "it's not the crime; it's the cover-up" is almost never true. That said, coverups can provide tipping points and handholds for investigators, not to mention expanding the list of culprits.

With the agenda:

1. Health care – – By some standards the most unpopular major policy proposal in living memory that a party in power has invested so deeply in. Furthermore, the pushback against the initiative has essentially driven congressional Republicans into hiding from their own constituents for the past half year. As mentioned before, this has the potential to greatly undermine the relationship between GOP senators and representatives and the voters.

2. Tax cuts for the wealthy – – As said many times, Donald Trump has a gift for making the subtle plain, the plain obvious, and the obvious undeniable. In the past, Republicans were able to get a great deal of upward redistribution of the wealth past the voters through obfuscation and clever branding, but we have reached the point where simply calling something "tax reform" is no longer enough to sell tax proposals so regressive that even the majority of Republicans oppose them.

3. Immigration (subject to change) – – the race for third place in this list is fairly competitive (education seems to be coming up on the outside), but the administration's immigration policies (which are the direct result of decades of xenophobic propaganda from conservative media) have already done tremendous damage, caused great backlash, and are whitening the gap between the GOP and the Hispanic community, which leads us to…


As Lindsey Graham has observed, they simply are not making enough new old white men to keep the GOP's strategy going much longer, but the Trump era rebranding of the Republican Party only exacerbates the problems with women, young people, and pretty much anyone who isn't white.

Maybe I am missing a historical precedent here, but I can't think of another time that either the Democrats or the Republicans were this vulnerable on all three of these fronts. This does not mean that the party is doomed or even that, with the right breaks, it can't maintain a hold on some part of the government. What it does mean is that the institution is especially fragile at the moment. A mortal blow may not come, but we can no longer call it unthinkable.

The "Everyone I know shopped at whole foods" Effect and the Wonderful World of Next-big-thingism

This has a familiar ring to it.

Scooter startup Bird is seeking a $2 billion valuation

E-scooter company Bird is seeking to raise around $200 million in new funding at a $2 billion valuation, according to multiple sources.

Big picture: This would be just weeks after it raised $150 million at a $1 billion valuation, and only three months after raising at a $300 million valuation. Venture capitalists have never before participated in such a rapid and rocketing price spike.

GV to lead $250 million round in scooter startup Lime

Lime, a San Francisco-based bike and scooter-sharing startup, is raising around $250 million in new funding led by GV (formerly Google Ventures), Axios has learned.

Why it matters: E-scooter competition keeps heating up, with rivals like Lime and Bird believing that cash-grabs will translate into land-grabs.

The deal is not yet closed, which means the final size could change a bit. Existing backers like Coatue Management and Andreessen Horowitz are expected to participate.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, these numbers are ridiculous. While not necessarily a bad idea, the dockless electric scooter is a narrow niche product. Only usable on smooth surfaces in reasonably pleasant weather. Not that much faster than walking and probably slower than biking. Worse than both for carrying bags. Only suitable for dense upscale areas. Requiring an extensive support network practical over fairly limited geographic areas. Strictlyly an option for people who can walk in situations where walking is viable.

There's no rational way to justify the amount of money that is being poured into these businesses, but as we've mentioned before, this is not a rational process; it is one of hype, magical heuristics, and tragic provincialism.

A central tenet of those who invest in and cover technology and business is that the next thing is lurking out there ready to disrupt the world of the nonbelievers and reward the faithful. The fear of being left behind (insert Kirk Cameron joke here) can be overwhelming, particularly when reinforced by thee provincialism that permeates the culture.

Economically, racially, educationally, and geographically, the people who shape the technology narrative either through what they say or where they spend their money are dangerously homogenous. They have an extremely limited and largely unquestioned worldview, and when something is highly visible in their little corner of the world, they assume it plays a proportionately large role for everyone else.

This bias was shown in high relief when Amazon acquired Whole Foods. As we pointed out at the time, the high end grocery chain was a relatively small player with virtually no footprint in most of the country, but it was a prominent part of the lives of those setting the narrative, therefore it was seen as a huge deal.

If you live in San Francisco or if your encounters with Los Angeles never go east of the 405 or south of the 105, these electric scooters are a familiar sight, and if you're the kind of person who does not think about how other people live, it's easy to imagine that the next big thing in their neighborhood is the next big thing.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The idea of ancient astronauts is a bit more ancient than I realized.

Another interesting nugget I came across while researching the technology project. We've already discussed how the fundamentals of what we would now call new ageism – – mysticism, extraterrestrial civilizations, psychic phenomena – – were largely a product of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I had always assumed that the belief in ancient astronauts was a fairly recent addition, something that people came up with in the 1960s. Apparently, though, the notion that aliens visited her thousands of years ago and left their mark through mythology and monuments actually dates back to at least the 1890s.

From Wikipedia:

Edison's Conquest of Mars is an 1898 science fiction novel by American astronomer and writer Garrett P. Serviss. It was written as a sequel to Fighters from Mars, an unauthorized and heavily altered version of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. It has a place in the history of science fiction for its early employment of themes and motifs that later became staples of the genre

Emphasis added:

The humans reach Mars, but in spite of their superior forces they have lost half their men to the Martians' overwhelming numbers. The Martians envelop the planet in a smoke screen, and the humans retreat to the moon Deimos. During a raid on Mars for supplies, the earth men find Aina, the last of a population of human slaves whose ancestors were captured from Kashmir in a Martian raid 9,000 years before. During this raid, the Martians also constructed the Great Pyramids and the Great Sphynx in Egypt, the latter of which is a statue of their leader. Aina advises Edison that meeting the Martians in battle would be fruitless, and that they should instead attack the dams that channel water from the polar ice. Since most of Mars' cities are under sea level, the flood spreads rapidly, killing most of the Martians and destroying their civilization. Edison and company force a peace with the surviving Martians, and return home to great celebration.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Friday, June 15, 2018

Perhaps the saddest part is that if some Silicon Valley billionaire gives this project $100 million, I won't be surprised.

The video at the bottom of the post has been popping up all over the place (I suppose this makes me part of the problem as well). The original footage (without text) is from a Russian company that apparently specializes in fancy CGI clips of profoundly stupid but cool looking transportation ideas.

I had originally intended to approach this as another "the more things change, the more they stay the same" story, but I realized that would be unfair to our forefathers. They had their share of silly ideas, but not this silly.

To be viable, a proposed technology either has to do something new, or do something substantially better than the technology currently filling that niche. The dirigible train was probably never a viable idea, but it did offer at least the potential of a lower cost method of building elevated trains, and there are real advantages to elevated construction.

By comparison, it's difficult to see any area of superiority with the train plane. Before someone from the back row shouts something about this system being more energy efficient than regular airplanes, it's important to note that the niche being competed for here is with trains not airplanes. The primary advantages of aircraft are speed, flexibility and minimal infrastructure. Track-dependent systems need to be compared to trains.

And the person to trains looks awful. It doesn't appear to offer a significant advantage in speed or cost. It requires a specialized electrified track. The capacity of the aircraft is extremely limited compared to that of the train. The footprint of the track horizontally and vertically is really big, particularly when you take into account the necessary separation between the parallel tracks going different directions.

This is an exceptionally good example of what you might call anti-engineering. Engineers strive to find the simplest, most reliable solution to a problem, a solution that maximizes functionality while minimizing cost and implementation time. What we have here and in many other recent proposals (remember the bodega artificial intelligence vending machine?) Are the exact opposite of good engineering; they add expensive complication with little or no increase in functionality, just to look "futuristic."

Thursday, June 14, 2018

"The Genesis of Invention"

Take a look at this short essay from an 1875 issue of Scientific American.

The date is important here. In the mid-1870s, Americans saw themselves as predominantly and uniquely the product of technology. This was both completely reasonable given the advances that the previous three quarters of a century had produced, and, in retrospect, rather naïve. As important as inventors had been up to that point, the contributions they were about to make in the next two or three decades would dwarf anything that had come before (and arguably anything that has come after).

As for the main argument of piece, I don't know that I buy the claim that the United States patent system was the most important factor in the progress of technology up to that point, but it is safe to say that American intellectual property laws appear to have worked pretty damn well in the 19th and 20th centuries and that we might wonder if our present policies will fare so well.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Alon Levy alert! Omnicompetence at work

From time to time, we've referred back to this quote from Alon Levy:

There is a belief within American media that a successful person can succeed at anything. He (and it’s invariably he) is omnicompetent, and people who question him and laugh at his outlandish ideas will invariably fail and end up working for him. If he cares about something, it’s important; if he says something can be done, it can. The people who are already doing the same thing are peons and their opinions are to be discounted, since they are biased and he never is. He doesn’t need to provide references or evidence – even supposedly scientific science fiction falls into this trope, in which the hero gets ideas from his gut, is always right, and never needs to do experiments.

The context is usually Elon Musk or some other Silicon Valley superstar who goes into a field where he (or very occasionally she) has no relevant experience and announces he is supremely confident that he can revolutionize the industry. These claims are accepted uncritically by a fawning press, gullible investors, and sometimes even by the people in charge of spending our tax dollars.

While the tech industry is a hotbed of this particular scam, the grift is by no means limited to this one corner of the world. A recent high profile hire here in Los Angeles reminds us that not only are successful people routinely handed huge responsibilities despite a total lack of qualifications, but that with some of these people, this happens again and again.
In this decade alone, Beutner has gone straight to the top in no fewer than four fields in the City of Angels—without having to pay his dues in any of them.

It started back in late 2009, when Beutner convinced Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to appoint him to be first deputy mayor of the city of L.A. Without any prior experience in local government, he helped manage 13 city agencies. During that stint, he was named interim general manager of L.A.’s most fearsome government agency—the Department of Water and Power—without experience in utilities.

After leaving city government, Beutner, without experience in journalism, took over as publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

But all those were a mere appetizer for his latest job. Last week, Beutner became superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. With 600,000 students, it’s the largest school district in California and the second largest in the nation.

And if you think that earning such a position would require Beutner to have experience in school districts, you’re not thinking the right way.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Repost -- Has the NYT seriously addressed any of these problems?

I came across this while searching for something else. The basic criticisms seemed worth revisiting (and, to be honest, I'm still angry about this).

Friday, August 21, 2015

Wishful Analytics

As mentioned previously, Donald Trump's campaign has definitely strained the standard assumptions of political reporting, Though this is an industry wide problem (even Five Thirty Eight hasn't been immune), it is nowhere more severe than at the New York Times.

The trouble is that the New York Times is very much committed to a style of political analysis that takes the standard narrative almost to the formal level of a well-made play. The objective is to get to the preassigned destination with as much craft and wit as possible. Nate Silver's problems at the NYT generally came from his habit of following the data to conclusions that made his editors and colleagues uncomfortable (by raising disturbing questions about the value of their work).

Cohn's articles on Trump have been an extended study in wishful analytics, starting with a desired conclusion then trying to dredge up some numbers to support it. He really, really, really, really, really wants to see Trump as another Herman Cain. Other than both being successful businessmen, the analogy is strained -- Cain was a little-known figure who surged well into the campaign because the base was looking for an alternative to an unacceptable presumptive nominee – but Cohn brings up the pizza magnate at every opportunity.

In addition to reassuring analogies, Cohn is also inclined to see comforting inflection points. Here's his response to the McCain dust-up.
The Trump Campaign’s Turning Point

Donald Trump’s surge in the polls has followed the classic pattern of a media-driven surge. Now it will most likely follow the classic pattern of a party-backed decline.

Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point on Saturday after he essentially criticized John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War. Republican campaigns and elites quickly moved to condemn his comments — a shift that will probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.

Paul Krugman (like Silver, another NYT writer frequently at odds with the paper's culture) dismantled this argument by immediately spotting the key flaw.
What I would argue is key to this situation — and, in particular, key to understanding how the conventional wisdom on Trump/McCain went so wrong — is the reality that a lot of people are, in effect, members of a delusional cult that is impervious to logic and evidence, and has lost touch with reality.

I am, of course, talking about pundits who prize themselves for their centrism.


On one side, they can’t admit the moderation of the Democrats, which is why you had the spectacle of demands that Obama change course and support his own policies.

On the other side, they have had to invent an imaginary GOP that bears little resemblance to the real thing. This means being continually surprised by the radicalism of the base. It also means a determination to see various Republicans as Serious, Honest Conservatives — SHCs? — whom the centrists know, just know, have to exist.


But the ur-SHC is John McCain, the Straight-Talking Maverick. Never mind that he is clearly eager to wage as many wars as possible, that he has long since abandoned his once-realistic positions on climate change and immigration, that he tried to put Sarah Palin a heartbeat from the presidency. McCain the myth is who they see, and keep putting on TV. And they imagined that everyone else must see him the same way, that Trump’s sneering at his war record would cause everyone to turn away in disgust.

But the Republican base isn’t eager to hear from SHCs; it has never put McCain on a pedestal; and people who like Donald Trump are not exactly likely to be scared off by his lack of decorum.

Cohn's initial reaction to his failed prediction was to argue that the polls weren't current enough to show that he was right. When that position became untenable, he shifted his focus to the next inflection point:
Mr. Rubio, the senator from Florida, has a good case to be considered the debate’s top performer. A weaker Mr. Bush probably benefits Mr. Rubio as much as anyone, and if Mr. Bush raised questions about whether he would be a great general election candidate, then Mr. Rubio added yet more reason to believe he could be a good one. Mr. Rubio still has the challenge of figuring out how to break through a strong field in a factional party.

Mr. Walker won by not losing. In a lot of ways, the moderators’ tough, specific questions played to Mr. Walker’s weakness. He didn’t have much time to emphasize his fight against unions in Wisconsin. But he handled several tough questions — on abortion; on relations with Arab nations; what he would do after terminating the Iran deal; race; and his employment record — without appearing flustered or making a mistake. His answers were concise and sharp.

Mr. Kasich also advanced his cause. He entered as a largely unknown candidate outside of Ohio, where he is governor. But he was backed by a supportive audience, he deftly handled tough questions, and he had a solid answer on a question about attending same-sex weddings. His answer might not resonate among many Republicans, but it will resonate in New Hampshire — the state where he needs to deny Mr. Bush a path to victory and vault to the top of the pack.

It was Donald Trump, though, who might have had the weakest performance. No, it may not be the end of his surge. But he consistently faced pointed questions, didn’t always have satisfactory answers, endured a fairly hostile crowd and probably won’t receive as much media attention coming out of the debate as he did in the weeks before it. If you take the view that he’s heavily dependent on media coverage, that’s an issue. Whatever coverage he does get may be fairly negative — probably focusing on his unwillingness to guarantee support for the Republican nominee.
You might want to reread that last paragraph a couple of times to get your head around just how wrong it turned out to be. Pay particular attention to the statements qualified with 'probably' both here and in the McCain piece. The confidence displayed had nothing to do with likelihood – all were comically off-base – and had everything to do with how badly those committed to the standard narrative wanted the statements to be true.

This attempt to prop up that narrative have become increasing strained and convoluted, as you can see from the most recent entry
Yet oddly, the breadth of [Trump's] appeal and his strength reduce his importance in shaping the outcome of the race.

If Mr. Trump were weaker, or if his support were more narrowly concentrated in either New Hampshire or Iowa, he would play a bigger role in shaping the outcome. In that scenario, a non-Trump candidate might win either Iowa or New Hampshire — and he or she would be in much better position than the second-place finisher in the state where Mr. Trump was victorious.

If Mr. Trump were to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, the second-place finishers would advance as if they were winners. Assuming that one or both of the second-place finishers were broadly acceptable, the party would try to coalesce behind one of the two ahead of the winner-take-all contests on March 15.

In the end, Mr. Trump almost certainly won’t win the Republican nomination; the rest of the party will consolidate around anyone else. He can influence the outcome only if his support costs another candidate more than others. But for now, he seems to be harming all candidates fairly equally.

First off, notice the odd way that Cohn discusses influence. If I asked if you would like to “play a bigger role in shaping the outcome” of something, you would naturally assume I meant would you like to have more of a say, but that's not at all how the concept of influence is used in the passage above. Cohn is simply saying that a world where Trump was behind in one of the first two primaries might have a different nominee but since Trump wouldn't get to pick who would beat him, it's not clear why he would care and since there's no telling who would win in Cohn's alternate reality, it's not clear why anyone else would care either.

But even if we accept Cohn's framing, we then run into another fatal flaw. Put in more precise terms, “harming all candidates fairly equally” means that each candidate's probability of becoming president would have been the same had Trump not entered the race. This is almost impossible on at least three levels:

Trump has already produced a serious shift in the discussion, bringing issues like immigration and Social Security/Medicare to the foreground while sucking away the oxygen from others. This is certain to help some candidates more than others;

For this and other reasons, the impact on the polls so far has been anything but symmetric;

And even if Trump's support were coming proportionally from each of the other contenders, that still wouldn't constitute equal harm. Primaries are complex beasts. We have to take into account convergence, feedback loops, liquidity, serial correlation, et cetera. The suggestion that you could remove the first two primaries from contention without major ramifications is laughably naive.

Finally there's that “only.” Even if Trump isn't the nominee (and I would certainly call him a long shot), he can still influence the process as either kingmaker or spoiler.

While Cohn's work on this topic has been terrible, what's important here is not the failings of one writer but the current culture of journalism. This is what happens when even the best publications in the country embrace conventional narratives and groupthink, adopt self-serving but silly conventions and let their standards slip.