Saturday, June 16, 2018

If you've been spending too much time watching the news...

you really should take a break.

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.

Or maybe they just liked really big things

In our discussions of social and cultural impact of the technological explosion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that probably haven't discussed enough was amend his level of ambition and hubris. In particular the United States and France seemed to have been in a fierce competition to see who could outdo the other in massive feats of engineering, be it transatlantic cables...

Huge statues...

 The Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World; French: La Liberté éclairant le monde) is a colossal neoclassical sculpture on Liberty Island in New York Harbor in New York City, in the United States. The copper statue, a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States, was designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel. The statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886.

The Statue of Liberty is a figure of a robed woman representing Libertas, a Roman liberty goddess. She holds a torch above her head with her right hand, and in her left hand carries a tabula ansata inscribed in Roman numerals with "JULY IV MDCCLXXVI" (July 4, 1776), the date of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. A broken chain lies at her feet. The statue became an icon of freedom and of the United States, and was a welcoming sight to immigrants arriving from abroad.

Bartholdi was inspired by a French law professor and politician, Édouard René de Laboulaye, who is said to have commented in 1865 that any monument raised to U.S. independence would properly be a joint project of the French and U.S. peoples. Because of the post-war instability in France, work on the statue did not commence until the early 1870s. In 1875, Laboulaye proposed that the French finance the statue and the U.S. provide the site and build the pedestal. Bartholdi completed the head and the torch-bearing arm before the statue was fully designed, and these pieces were exhibited for publicity at international expositions.

The torch-bearing arm was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, and in Madison Square Park in Manhattan from 1876 to 1882. Fundraising proved difficult, especially for the Americans, and by 1885 work on the pedestal was threatened by lack of funds. Publisher Joseph Pulitzer, of the New York World, started a drive for donations to finish the project and attracted more than 120,000 contributors, most of whom gave less than a dollar. The statue was built in France, shipped overseas in crates, and assembled on the completed pedestal on what was then called Bedloe's Island. The statue's completion was marked by New York's first ticker-tape parade and a dedication ceremony presided over by President Grover Cleveland.

 or ever taller buildings.

The Washington Monument is an obelisk on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., built to commemorate George Washington, once commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and the first President of the United States. Located almost due east of the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial,[2] the monument, made of marble, granite, and bluestone gneiss,[3] is both the world's tallest stone structure and the world's tallest obelisk, standing 554 feet 7 11⁄32 inches (169.046 m) tall according to the National Geodetic Survey (measured 2013–14) or 555 feet 5 1⁄8 inches (169.294 m) tall according to the National Park Service (measured 1884).[A] It is the tallest monumental column in the world if all are measured above their pedestrian entrances.[B] It was the tallest structure in the world from 1884 to 1889.


Constructed from 1887–89 as the entrance to the 1889 World's Fair, it was initially criticized by some of France's leading artists and intellectuals for its design, but it has become a global cultural icon of France and one of the most recognisable structures in the world.[3] The Eiffel Tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world; 6.91 million people ascended it in 2015.

The tower is 324 metres (1,063 ft) tall, about the same height as an 81-storey building, and the tallest structure in Paris. Its base is square, measuring 125 metres (410 ft) on each side. During its construction, the Eiffel Tower surpassed the Washington Monument to become the tallest man-made structure in the world, a title it held for 41 years until the Chrysler Building in New York City was finished in 1930. Due to the addition of a broadcasting aerial at the top of the tower in 1957, it is now taller than the Chrysler Building by 5.2 metres (17 ft). Excluding transmitters, the Eiffel Tower is the second tallest structure in France after the Millau Viaduct.

As I've argued before, this combination of optimism and arrogance often contained more than a suggestion of manifest destiny. All of these elements came together in the following proposal. Nothing came of it (the project isn't even mentioned in Palacio's Wikipedia entry), but it did make the cover of Scientific American in 1890.

Add caption

Monday, June 11, 2018

An alternate narrative of JFK's commitment to the moon

[I would love some pushback on this. The following goes very much against the conventional narrative which always makes me nervous. If I missed something obvious, I'd rather it gets pointed out here before I build on it.]

The standard story centers on how the nation's imagination was captured by an audacious dream of sending a man to the moon. You've all heard the words of the speech that inspired the country, “We choose to go to the moon...” Except it didn't. The speech was an attempt at drumming up support for a not-that-popular program. As best I can tell, it was a fairly minor and underwhelming effort. It only achieved greatness retroactively due to the tragedy and triumph that came afterwards.

What else does the standard narrative get wrong?

1. Despite everything you hear about the tensions between JFK and LBJ, Kennedy knowingly committed his administration to what was probably Johnson's most cherished policy objective going back to his days in the Senate. Kennedy even put Johnson in charge of National Aeronautics and Space Council. Increasing the budget for manned space exploration was deeply controversial with in the administration. Kennedy's own science advisor, Jerome Wiesner was strongly opposed to it. One of Kennedy's last acts as president was dismissing Wiesner.

2. Of course, administrations failed to deliver on commitments all the time. It could very easily have been pushed aside and things turned out differently.

3. Is also worth noting that while we now see this as a bold objective, the goal did not seem as wildly ambitious at the time. [This is where I veer sharply from the conventional narrative, so this would be a good place to focus your objections.] It is essential to remember where the country's attitudes and expectations toward technology and progress were in the early sixties. As I have said probably too many times, like the late 19th/early 20th centuries, the postwar era was a period of explosive ubiquitous change. As with the turn of the century, there was a sense of constant acceleration. Everything seemingly came faster and easier than the experts predicted. Kennedy was being ambitious, but probably not as ambitious as we tend to remember him being.

4. While modern commentators choose to emphasize soaring rhetoric and the importance of visionary leaders, the overwhelming driver of the space race was the Cold War. There were very real and disturbing consequences to losing this race, both strategic and symbolic. What's more, there was a strong symbiotic relationship between the military and programs like Mercury and Apollo.

5. The Apollo program proved to be far more expensive than expected and quite controversial. Even with the impetus of the Cold War, the decision not just to see it through, but to make the deadline owes a great deal to a series of events breaking in its favor, particularly the assassination and the '64 landslide. Both the legend of JFK and the political power of LBJ meant that Apollo would get what it needed.

Today the very term “moonshot” has become one of the most reliable red flags for bullshit in the 21s century. We tell ourselves lies about what happened than hold up a fabricated past to justify the lies we tell ourselves about the present.

Friday, June 8, 2018

I love the part about machines coming with their own fire extinguisher

We've been talking a lot about the ubiquitous changes in people's lives wrought by technology around the turn of the century and in the postwar era, but I still keep coming across seemingly obvious examples I managed to miss. This is a big one.

Over the next decade, Haloid scientists and engineers refined xerography (from the Greek for “dry” and “writing”) into a working machine. The result was the Xerox 914. Introduced in 1959, it had a knob to set the number of copies and a big “PRINT” button, weighed 650 pounds, and could make a copy in less than 10 seconds. Paper jams were frequent and paper fires not infrequent (it came with a small fire extinguisher), but its success shocked even Haloid: The company’s first customers began making thousands of copies a day. By the mid-’60s, the number of copies made nationwide had shot past 10 billion. Haloid changed its name to Xerox and minted a generation of “Xerox millionaires.” [Chester] Carlson’s royalties accrued into a huge fortune, most of which he would give away.

There had been other duplicating technologies before Xerox, but they were all crude, inconvenient, limited in application, or prohibitively expensive. Xerography redefined the way we handled and even thought about documents. I suspect that the evolution of the modern "paperless" office was heavily influenced by a demand for documentation that started in the mid-20th century.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

"We put a man on the moon. How hard can this be?"

Another crowdsourcing project for the science and technology historians in the audience.

The postwar era (roughly defined here as 1945 to 1970) was a period of such rapid and ubiquitous technological and scientific advances that people naturally assumed that this rate of progress would continue or even accelerate. This led not just futurists like Arthur C Clarke but also researchers in the fields to underestimate the difficulty of certain problems, often optimistically applying the within-a-decade deadline to their predictions.

I'm trying to come up with a list of big, high profile goals that proved far more challenging than people had anticipated circa 1970. Here are some examples that come to mind.

The war on cancer. I suspect that the celebrated victory over polio significantly contributed to an unrealistic expectation for other major diseases.

Fusion reactors. It took about a decade to go from atomic bomb to nuclear power compact and reliable enough to deploy in submarines.

Artificial intelligence. We've already mentioned the famously overoptimistic predictions that came out of the field at the time.

Artificial hearts.
From Wikipedia:

“In 1964, the National Institutes of Health started the Artificial Heart Program, with the goal of putting a man-made heart into a human by the end of the decade.”

Not sure whether they meant 1970 or 1974, but either way, they missed their target.

Does anyone out there have additional items I should add to the list?

(Not so) reecent developments in wind power

An interesting bit of historical perspective on the challenges of relying on wind as an energy source. The full article complete with date can be found after the jump, but I'd recommend taking a moment to guess the age before you click through.

Treating recently of the possibility of utilizing the wind power which now so constantly goes to waste everywhere about us, mention was made of two means for accomplishing the object-electrical storage batteries and reservoirs for compressed air. It is worth while to state that the article was written with the full conviction, and for the purpose of bringing presently to fair understanding the fact that neither of these will do the work, and to urge inventors and active minds to work out the problem by which something better may become available.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018


Theranos was claiming to be able to revolutionize medical testing with having many upper level people who knew much about medicine. 

From New York Magazine.
But Holmes didn’t have any medical experience, and for years neither did her board, until former heart surgeon and senator Bill Frist joined in 2014. “Sources who worked with her, even some recently, said that she never really showed any curiosity about what was going on in academia and industry,” Carreyrou told me. Balwani, who ran operations at Theranos day-to-day, “was essentially a computer programmer at first, and then mostly a salesman. And he had zero training or knowledge in medicine or blood diagnostics. So you have both the lying and the outright fraud combined with this hubris that’s in large part founded on ignorance. It’s incredible in that sense.”

Holmes' attitude toward expertise could be considered another example of what we might call the Muskification of the modern CEO. Other traits include exaggerating claims far beyond the credible, putting style, particularly personal style, about substance, building a cult of personality associated with almost magical powers (and sometimes you can leave off the "almost").

Just to be clear, Elon Musk didn't start all these trends – – I'm not even prepared to say he actually promoted them all that much – – but he has become almost iconicaly representative. He has the misfortune of being the ideal example.

So when Musk expresses his disdain and disinterest toward non-Silicon Valley experts --  blithely promising to solve in months problems that have confounded the world's best civil engineering minds for decades -- he is simply expressing the attitudes of the culture, the same culture that didn't blink an eye (or question a multibillion-dollar investment) when a company started by a twentysomething college dropout claimed to be on the verge of revolutionizing medical testing despite having no top-level people with relevant expertise.

Likewise, the tendency toward exaggeration that borders on compulsive lying, taking reasonable estimates and routinely multiplying them by a factor of five or ten to make them sound even more impressive, is pervasive throughout the industry. Consider the following paragraph from a very good piece that ran recently in Ars Technica:
"We target a vehicle that gets from point A to point B faster, smoother, and less-expensively than a human-driven vehicle; can operate in any geography; and achieves a verifiable, transparent 1,000-times safety improvement over a human-driven vehicle without the need for billions of miles of validation testing on public roads," Shashua wrote on Thursday.
Keep in mind, this is a big, successful company that makes real things, highly sophisticated technology used around the world. This executive could have made his point by claiming a tenfold or even a fivefold improvement in safety, but he felt compelled to add the extra zeros that pushed his claim safely into the realm of the unbelievable.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A few days ago, we ran a piece about something we call the "hype economy,"

 Here was the key section.
The hype economy works along similar lines. The ability to get people talking about something (preferably but not always necessarily in a positive way) is tremendously valuable by most traditional standards. For entertainers, it can bring in large audiences. For goods and services, it can drive sales and help maintain customer loyalty. For politicians, it can be votes. For public policy initiatives, it can generate and shore up support.

At some point though (and it's a point we passed quite a while back) the ability to generate buzz becomes disconnected both from the attributes which are supposed to drive it and the objectives it is supposed to serve. It then takes on a life of its own. Hype becomes the primary if not sole metric by which anything is judged. The television show that no one watches, the business with no real prospect of turning a profit, the research claim that collapses under scrutiny are all seen as successful and important as long as you hear enough about them.

A few days after that, I saw the following:

Just to review, Disney is a massive and highly profitable corporation. Through a fortuitous bit of timing, Michael Hiltzik recently wrote a nice summary to provide context for the cancellation of Rosanne.
Disney, of course, is a preeminent entertainment conglomerate comprising theme parks, a film studio, cruise ships and, oh yes, television networks. Altogether, the company collected $55 billion in revenue in 2017, and recorded a profit of about $9 billion. The company’s media network segment contributes a bit more than 40% of revenue and perhaps half of profits, according to Disney’s most recent quarterly report.

By comparison, Netflix is a fraction of the size of Disney in terms of revenue, profit, and assets (which may be overvalued – – unless they been making some very quiet purchases, the company's real content library, rather than the shows they simply licensed or a limited time, isn't that deep). And there are serious questions about the company's debt.

Possibly even worse for the company's prospects, its growth is potentially bounded by an increasingly fierce competitive landscape including such deep pocketed competitors as Amazon, Google, and possibly even Disney.

If you are buying stock in the hope that it will make enough profit and accumulate enough assets to justify the price of the purchase, then it is next to impossible to justify the price of Netflix. If, on the other hand, you are functioning in the hype economy, the market cap of Netflix is not at all surprising.

The company is capable of generating mind-boggling amounts of buzz. It's true that much, perhaps most, of that comes from the billions of dollars that the company has spent directly and indirectly for marketing, PR, and brand building, but that doesn't really matter. Hype is fungible.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Elon Musk -- Then you will know the pravda, and the pravda will set you free.

You probably heard about Elon Musk's recent plan to push back against all of those journalists on the automotive beat with a crowd sourced (read fan boy-based) website called "pravda" that promises to rank the credibility of reporters and editors. Assuming you already know all of the gory details (if not, we'll wait here till you catch up), here are a few quick thoughts from someone who has spent more time than is healthy following this story.

1. As Kai Ryssdal noted on Marketplace, even Tesla admits that its business plan, particularly its lack of traditional marketing, relies heavily on the company's ability to generate tons of press coverage. Inaccuracy was not a concern as long as the stories were positive.

2. He likes to focus on the coverage of recent safety issues with Tesla's autopilot, an area where you can make an argument about autonomous vehicles being safer than traditional cars. It is still an open question as to whether or not the argument is true, but it is at least convincing enough for a sympathetic audience.

In many ways, the more damaging thread has been the coverage of Tesla's business woes. You can take pretty much every number the company would like to see and double it or cut it in half, whichever is worse. Production targets continue to fall far behind. The reasonably priced versions that are supposed to be necessary for the company's future are nowhere to be seen, and the latest reports on quality have been horrible. There too, Musk prefers to focus on one aspect, namely software problems that can be updated from a distance. He spends remarkably little time talking about complaints that the cars are falling apart.

3. Worse yet for Musk, investors are starting to worry about all of this and also about things like financing.

4. It's possible to make too much of the echoes of other current attacks on the credibility of the press but it's possible to make too little of them as well 

5. Pravda?

As usual, with all matters Tesla, Hiltzik is the go-to guy

As my colleague Russ Mitchell reported last month, "Musk originally planned to be building 500,000 cars a year in 2018 at its Fremont, Calif., assembly plant, the vast majority of them Model 3s. Even if Tesla hits all its current targets, no more than 150,000 Model 3s will be produced this year."


On May 2, the company disclosed that Model 3 production had hit 2,270 cars a week in April "for the 3rd straight week over 2,000," obviously missing its first-quarter target. It's proper to note that the $35,000 Model 3 remains largely a dream; the company is focusing on higher-priced versions, including a $78,000 Model 3 that it says will become available this summer; buyers who put down $1,000 deposits hoping to have basic transportation from Tesla this year are likely to be disappointed.


Among other missed targets listed by UBS in a recent report were a coast-to-coast drive using the company's autonomous drive system by the end of last year (Musk said in February that it was then set to happen within three to six months); a doubling of North American supercharger capacity in 2017 (only 120 superchargers were added, UBS calculates, an increase of 35%); and storage battery sales of $2 billion to $5 billion by the end of last year. UBS estimated sales of only $140 million last year.


The most important unfulfilled promise by Tesla may be an implicit one: to deliver a quality product. Recent reports on Model 3s purchased at retail by professional reviewers have been brutal. Consumer Reports this month declined to recommend the car, citing inordinately long braking distances, distracting controls and poor riding comfort. The most gruesome review came from the respected auto shopping site Edmunds, which has been subjecting a $56,000 Model 3 to routine usage for four months.

"We put down a $1,000 deposit to get on a two-year waiting list for this car," Edmunds reported this month, "and it's falling apart." Parts are broken and falling off, the all-important internal control screen is full of bugs, and the smartphone app that locks and unlocks the vehicle is unreliable, among other problems.

Signs are emerging that the investment community is getting wise to Musk's habits. When he claimed in April that Tesla would not need to raise money in the capital markets this year, analysts were quick to point out that in February 2012 Musk asserted that the company would "not need to ever raise another funding round." Since then, Tesla has raised nearly $9 billion in financing. Tesla's high-flying stock price, meanwhile, may be coming down to earth. It's lost more than 25% of its value since peaking in June 2017. At midday Thursday it was trading at about $278.50.

Friday, June 1, 2018

A bit of Samuel Clemens to close out the week.

The following is taken from the end of  "How I Edited An Agricultural Paper" by Mark Twain.

The story describes the narrator's attempts (or more accurately, various people's reactions to the narrator's attempts) to edit a newspaper devoted to a topic he knows nothing about. While most of the jokes revolve around Twain's spectacularly wrong ideas about farming, the tale closes on a more general (and generally applicable) note.

He surveyed the wreck, which that old rioter and these two young farmers had made, and then said, "This is a sad business—a very sad business. There is the mucilage-bottle broken, and six panes of glass, and a spittoon and two candlesticks. But that is not the worst. The reputation of the paper is injured—and permanently, I fear. True, there never was such a call for the paper before, and it never sold such a large edition or soared to such celebrity; but does one want to be famous for lunacy, and prosper upon the infirmities of his mind? My friend, as I am an honest man, the street out here is full of people, and others are roosting on the fences, waiting to get a glimpse of you, because they think you crazy. And well they might after reading your editorials. They are a disgrace to journalism. Why, what put it into your head that you could edit a paper of this nature? You do not seem to know the first rudiments of agriculture. You speak of a furrow and a harrow as being the same thing; you talk of the moulting season for cows; and you recommend the domestication of the pole-cat on account of its playfulness and its excellence as a ratter! Your remark that clams will lie quiet if music be played to them was superfluous—entirely superfluous. Nothing disturbs clams. Clams always lie quiet. Clams care nothing whatever about music. Ah, heavens and earth, friend! If you had made the acquiring of ignorance the study of your life, you could not have graduated with higher honor than you could to-day. I never saw anything like it. Your observation that the horse chestnut as an article of commerce is steadily gaining in favor is simply calculated to destroy this journal. I want you to throw up your situation and go. I want no more holiday—I could not enjoy it if I had it. Certainly not with you in my chair. I would always stand in dread of what you might be going to recommend next. It makes me lose all patience every time I think of your discussing oyster-beds under the head of 'Landscape Gardening.' I want you to go. Nothing on earth could persuade me to take another holiday. Oh! why didn't you tell me you didn't know anything about agriculture?"

"Tell you, you cornstalk, you cabbage, you son of a cauliflower? It's the first time I ever heard such an unfeeling remark. I tell you I have been in the editorial business going on 14 years, and it is the first time I ever heard of a man's having to know anything in order to edit a newspaper. You turnip! Who write the dramatic critiques for the second-rate papers? Why, a parcel of promoted shoemakers and apprentice apothecaries, who know just as much about good acting as I do about good farming and no more. Who review the books? People who never wrote one. Who do up the heavy leaders on finance? Parties who have had the largest opportunities for knowing nothing about it. Who criticize the Indian campaigns? Gentlemen who do not know a war-whoop from a wigwam, and who never have had to run a foot race with a tomahawk, or pluck arrows out of the several members of their families to build the evening camp-fire with. Who write the temperance appeals, and clamor about the flowing bowl? Folks who will never draw another sober breath till they do it in the grave. Who edit the agricultural papers, you—yam? Men, as a general thing, who fail in the poetry line, yellow-covered novel line, sensation-drama line, city-editor line, and finally fall back on agriculture as a temporary reprieve from the poorhouse. You try to tell me anything about the newspaper business! Sir, I have been through it from Alpha to Omaha, and I tell you that the less a man knows the bigger the noise he makes and the higher the salary he commands. Heaven knows if I had been ignorant instead of cultivated, and impudent instead of diffident, I could have made a name for myself in this cold selfish world. I take my leave, sir. Since I have been treated as you have treated me, I am perfectly willing to go. But I have done my duty. I have fulfilled my contract as far as I was permitted to do it. I said I could make your paper of interest to all classes—and I have. I said I could run your circulation up to 20,000 copies, and if I had had two more weeks I'd have done it. And I'd have given you the best class of readers that ever an agricultural paper had— not a farmer in it, nor a solitary individual who could tell a watermelon tree from a peach vine to save his life. You are the loser by this rupture, not me, Pie-plant. Adios."

I then left.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

I have to admit the school-within-a-school scam is a new one on me

A while back, Andrew Gelman and I wrote a piece for Vox discussing how the focus on a small set of standardized tests was, consistent with Campbell's law, affecting schools behavior in ways that undermined the value and reliability of the metrics. In some of the cases, the ways in which the changes in behavior undermined the metrics was so subtle that the administrators were probably not aware of the statistical implications (such as the use of pep rallies and other test prep techniques that did not improve students mastery of the material). In other cases, the actions were clearly questionable and rules were obviously being bent (such as the practice of "counseling out" low performing students, particularly those with learning disabilities).

I don't believe we discussed any cases of outright fraud, but then, we didn't talk about Florida.
Several days before the Florida Standards Assessments began near the end of the school year, 13 third-grade students suddenly transferred from the Palm Harbor Academy charter school to a newly created private school on the same school campus, run by Palm Harbor Academy governing board chairman the Rev. Gillard Glover.

With one exception, all of those 13 students had one thing in common: They were at least one full grade behind grade level. Many of the children were multiple grades behind grade level. Another five students in other grades, all at least two grades behind grade level, were also transferred out of Palm Harbor and into the private school at around the same time.

The students’ transfer to a private school meant that they didn’t take the state assessments required of public school students — and, therefore, didn’t drag down the school’s state scores and school grade. A failing school grade would have meant shuttering the school, School Board Attorney Kristin Gavin said, because the school got a D last year.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

"The Telephone as a Promoter of Science"

I've been meaning to open a thread on how some technological advances lay the groundwork for future advances by cultivating enthusiasm and expertise in relevant disciplines. This was particularly true with the telephone since it brought the technology into the home.

Scientific American 1878-08-10

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Theranos was not representative but it was indicative

Yet another example of how dysfunctional Silicon Valley venture capital culture has become. To be ball-peen hammer blunt, the combination of huge piles of money with credulity, hype, a flawed narrative, and magical heuristics has caused us to waste billions of dollars on incredibly stupid ideas and outright fraud.
Holmes and Balwani never allowed investors or anyone else from the outside to scrutinize the Theranos technology. Even staff who asked questions were ostracized, fired, and/or threatened. Investors were told they wouldn’t receive regular reports about the status of the company and that Theranos wasn’t going public anytime soon. And because nobody wanted to miss the opportunity to have a stake in the next Uber or Facebook, the questions always stopped. “In Silicon Valley over the past five years, it was easy to have that attitude,” Carreyrou said. “Money was flowing in from an area where it was so easy to get. So the second she got a question she didn’t like, or too many questions, she just shut off and was basically like, ‘If you don’t want to go by these rules, then I’ll just walk.’”

Monday, May 28, 2018

That's Mark W, Palko to you

Marginal Revolution recently ran a post entitled "Do middle name initials enhance evaluations of intellectual performance?"

I didn't click on the link, but it did remind me of this..

Which in turn reminded me of one of my all time favorite bits of casting.

Friday, May 25, 2018

I shouldn't have to say this, but it's only a "proof of concept" if it demonstrates the parts of the concept that have not previously been proven.

Just hearing myself say it (that's one of the disadvantages of dictation software) feels a little condescending. I certainly don't believe that any readers of our blog have trouble with the idea that if you claim you can accomplish a task using certain technology or under certain constraints of time and cost, it's not enough to simply perform the task; you have to perform it using that technology or satisfying those constraints in order to have proof of concept. Early aviators were not allowed to show it was possible to cross the ocean in an aircraft by sailing a boat. (That last one was a bit of a stretch, but I had to set up the video clip.)

As obvious as this may seem, though, it still needs to be said out loud because most of the journalists covering Elon Musk either don't understand this or choose to ignore it.

From Wired
Six months after Musk went on a Twitter tirade about LA traffic in December 2016, he had created the Boring Company, and was digging a tunnel under the parking lot at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. The internet payment maven-turned-carmaker-turned-space enthusiast-turned-infrastructure baron has promised to completely change the way humanity bores tunnels, pledging make boring as much as 15 times faster, and reduce its cost by a factor of ten.

Thus far, the Boring Company is leaning on two used tunnel boring machines, and has yet to unveil any novel tech. But Musk did recently show off a completed, 2-mile proof-of-concept tunnel in Hawthorne, which begins in the parking lot of SpaceX’s headquarters.

Though I suppose we can't say for certain, it certainly appears that the digging here was done in a completely standard way using conventional (and not even new) equipment. It is, therefore, not a "proof of concept" tunnel, but rather just a tunnel. It is not particularly wide or particularly long. It was not dug under notably difficult conditions. It is just a tunnel.

For those of you who follow the Hyperloop coverage, this is a familiar turn of events. Despite the "dawn of a new age" rhetoric of most of the reporters, all of the demonstrations to date have been entirely limited to mature, well-established technology. We already knew that maglev trains and linear induction motors worked because we've had them for years. There was nothing more groundbreaking in these displays than in your typical, second-place science fair exhibit.

Now on to the good stuff.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

They weren't giving prizes for humility.

"It has been a gigantic tidal wave of human ingenuity and resource, so stupendous in its magnitude, so complex in its diversity, so profound in its thought, so fruitful in its wealth, so beneficent in its results, that the mind is strained and embarrassed in its effort to expand to a full appreciation of it."

Edward W. Byrn

As mentioned before, the 50th anniversary issue of Scientific American is an essential resource for anyone trying to understand the stories we tell ourselves about technology. 1896 was near the peak of arguably the most dramatic period of technological advances, particularly in terms of their impact on society.

This essay on the progress of invention during the second half of the 19th century provides a tremendously informative view into how educated people thought about the state of science and progress at the time, but before we get into that, I want to highlight the list of notable inventions discussed in the introductory column.

There are some notable omissions here. Arguably the most important development of the late 19th/early 20th century doesn't even make the list, but the internal combustion gasoline engine and its progeny (automobiles, airplanes, submarines) wouldn't have their greatest impact for a few more years. The omission of the phonograph is a bit more difficult to explain since Edison's first famous invention gets a large and glowing write-up a few pages earlier in the same issue. That said, the peak impact of recorded media was also a few years away.

As for the essay itself, there's far too much here to comment on in a single blog post, but there are a couple of points I want to emphasize. First, thee people of the time were well aware that they were living in a period of ubiquitous explosive change. It was an attitude remarkably similar to that of today, only more appropriate to the situation.

Second, I've argued in the past that the new frontier of late 19th century technology in many ways fill the hole left by the closing of the actual frontier. As you read through the following, you'll notice more than a hint of manifest destiny. As with the earlier doctrine, it was assumed that Europeans and those of European descent were destined to rule this New World as well.

How widespread were these views? We should probably talk with an actual historian before trying to answer that question, but they were apparently representative enough to win the approval of distinguished judges and be granted a place of honor in the magazine (not to mention the $250, which back then was pretty good money).

Scientific American 1896-07-25

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Mars One: still a story too good to let facts get in the way

I honestly thought we've seen the last of this. Between the irrefutable critiques of every aspect of the plan and the long string of deadlines missed and promises broken, I believed that serious people and major publications were finally ready to let the story die, or at least transition into a "look at how gullible people used to be" narrative.

Apparently though, respectable news outlets like the Boston Globe still can't give up on Mars One and the nearly perfect human interest angle of a group of ordinary people who have agreed to take a one-way trip into space and spend the rest of their lives on another planet. The press is too much in love with these simplistic, melodramatic narratives (when Tom Wolfe and company brought literary storytelling techniques into the field, they were trying to elevate journalism to the level of literature. Now we've lowered it to the standards of a Harlequin romance).

Not only do journalists have a weakness for these stories, they have also gotten very good at finding excuses to justify them. One of the favorites, on display here, is the premise story. Just to review, this is employed when a reporter has a story he or she wants to tell, but it is predicated on assumptions that are obviously very likely untrue. The approved approach in these situations is to quickly get out of the way a bare minimum of caveats, then basically ignore them.

It is worth noting that the caveats in Mars One articles have steadily gotten stronger with time as the against the proposition has grown undeniable, but the writer still pulls back well before an honest picture is painted. Such a picture would fundamentally change the story. Instead of a bittersweet but inspiring account of human aspiration, we would get a depressing story of people suckered into believing an obvious scam (in no small part because of gross journalistic credulity and negligence) and in some cases paying a steep price for the delusion.

As the other world turns: How a trip to Mars thwarted and ignited love
Billy Baker - Reporter

When the initial tingle had passed and the idea had been given time to marinate and settle, Peter Degen-Portnoy said his family split into camps regarding his decision to commit to a one-way trip to Mars.

His sons think it’s cool.

His two oldest daughters stopped speaking with him.

And his wife left him.


Then time passed. Then the questions came. “Daddy, why do you want to leave us?’” he recalled. “Then it all came out. ‘Hey, you decided to leave us, and even if you change your mind, you can’t undo that decision. You made that decision.’ ”

He said his older daughters, who are 20 and 18 — he also has an 11-year-old daughter — viewed it as a breaking of the marriage vows he made to their mother. Till death do us part.

Degen-Portnoy views it another way. When he was a young boy, obsessed with outer space, he promised himself if he ever had the chance to go live on another planet, he would take it.

“So I was in a position where either I broke a promise to myself, or I broke a promise to my wife.”


Back in the coffee shop near his office, Degen-Portnoy is firm in his belief that it will all happen. That the extraordinary technical challenges will be solved. That the billions in funding will be raised. That he will be chosen for the mission. That he will die on Mars.

In the meantime, he is optimistic that he can repair his relationships here on Earth.

“I won’t get to Mars until I’m 70 at the earliest,” he said. “I’ve got time to reconcile. It should never go without saying that I love my children very much and would miss them.”

And if he gets to Mars, he already knows what his first feeling will be.

“I’ll look around at the landscape of Mars, take it all in, and I’ll wish my children could be there to see it.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

I apologize in advance for the electricity pun

Unsurprisingly insightful work from Robert Shiller on the enduring allure and almost inevitable failure of radical new forms of money. The whole thing is very good, particularly the section on the euro (thanks to Bitcoin, no longer the worst currency idea of the past 50 years) and this section on the technocracy movement of the 1930s. I had no idea that the period produced not one but two proposals for energy-based currencies (or should that be, current-based currencies?). I definitely need to add this book to my reading list.
The Old Allure of New Money by Robert J. Shiller
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a radical movement, called Technocracy, associated with Columbia University, proposed to replace the gold-backed dollar with a measure of energy, the erg. In their book The A B C of Technocracy, published under the pseudonym Frank Arkright, they advanced the idea that putting the economy “on an energy basis” would overcome the unemployment problem. The Technocracy fad proved to be short-lived, though, after top scientists debunked the idea’s technical pretensions.
But the effort to dress up a half-baked idea in advanced science didn’t stop there. Parallel with Technocracy, in 1932 the economist John Pease Norton, addressing the Econometric Society, proposed a dollar backed not by gold but by electricity. But while Norton’s electric dollar received substantial attention, he had no good reason for choosing electricity over other commodities to back the dollar. At a time when most households in advanced countries had only recently been electrified, and electric devices from radios to refrigerators had entered homes, electricity evoked images of the most glamorous high science. But, like Technocracy, the attempt to co-opt science backfired. Syndicated columnist Harry I. Phillips in 1933 saw in the electric dollar only fodder for comedy. “But it would be good fun getting an income tax blank and sending the government 300 volts,” he noted.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Notes on the content bubble

[If you're new to the thread, check out this, this, and this]

One of the classic recipes for disaster in a market bubble is focusing exclusively on a sharp increase in demand while ignoring an even greater increase in supply. The potential audience for video content has greatly increased. Furthermore, the amount of video each member of that audience can conveniently consume has probably more than doubled. Unfortunately, the supply of content has increased by orders of magnitude. This holds virtually across-the-board: scripted and unscripted; new and old; live and recorded; big-budget and web cam in the basement.

Hype always plays a role in bubbles going all the way back to the 18th century. You could even argue that bubbles are primarily the result of buzz distorting markets. In the 21st century, living in the hype economy, the distortions are greatly amplified. Today, we have companies spending billions of dollars primarily to promote shows that almost no one is watching. Depending on how you calculate the numbers, the reboot of Twin Peaks got something like one fiftieth The audience of the original.

Nonetheless, the funding keeps coming.

Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg has secured about $800 million in financing for his video startup NewTV, which the company will use to fund high-end TV series that have YouTube-length episodes, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
NewTV will use the money to finance shows that are roughly the duration of a typical YouTube clip, but at a cost more on a par with a Netflix Inc. series. Each NewTV series will cost about $5 million to $6 million per hour, the people said, but individual episodes won’t run much longer than 15 minutes.
Katzenberg, who declined to comment for this story, has reached out to some of the biggest directors and producers in the entertainment business, the people said. NewTV has yet to announce any shows.

It's also worth noting that perhaps the most prominent company to try to bring big stars and slick production to short YouTube videos was Funny or Die, and that hasn't proven to be a growth model.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Things don't really get weird till you get "computer dating" in the 60s

Science fiction is a sometimes useful but often misleading indicator of how people in the past thought about progress and technology. In order to establish that some new innovation was really on people's minds, you need to look to the mainstream and you don't get much more mainstream than The Desk Set. A successful 1955 play starring Shirley Booth before becoming a vehicle for Hepburn and Tracy. (Certainly not one of their best efforts, but still better than you'd think from this trailer.

It's not entirely clear from the trailer, but the central conflict is the threat that the introduction of computers will lead to massive lay-offs in the office. People were talking about computers sixty-plus years ago, and the conversation has not evolved all that much.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Crowdsourcing my work

If you have a minute, I would appreciate your help with an essay I'm working on. I'm putting together a list of postwar scientific and technological innovations that meet the following two criteria: first, they need to be major advances that either occurred during or had their greatest impact in the period roughly defined by 1945 to 1970; second, they need to have comparable or greater symbolic value.

For example, the eradication of polio was an impressive medical accomplishment:
In 1947, Salk accepted an appointment to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In 1948, he undertook a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to determine the number of different types of polio virus. Salk saw an opportunity to extend this project towards developing a vaccine against polio, and, together with the skilled research team he assembled, devoted himself to this work for the next seven years. The field trial set up to test the Salk vaccine was, according to O'Neill, "the most elaborate program of its kind in history, involving 20,000 physicians and public health officers, 64,000 school personnel, and 220,000 volunteers." Over 1,800,000 school children took part in the trial.

But given the shadow that polio had cast over the public imagination and the suddenness of the development of the vaccine, the symbolic value was arguably even greater.:

Until 1955, when the Salk vaccine was introduced, polio was considered one of the most frightening public health problems in the world. In the postwar United States, annual epidemics were increasingly devastating. The 1952 U.S. epidemic was the worst outbreak in the nation's history. Of nearly 58,000 cases reported that year, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis, with most of its victims being children. The "public reaction was to a plague", said historian William L. O'Neill. "Citizens of urban areas were to be terrified every summer when this frightful visitor returned." According to a 2009 PBS documentary, "Apart from the atomic bomb, America's greatest fear was polio."
When news of the vaccine's success was made public on April 12, 1955, Salk was hailed as a "miracle worker" and the day almost became a national holiday. Around the world, an immediate rush to vaccinate began, with countries including Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, West Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Belgium planning to begin polio immunization campaigns using Salk's vaccine.

(I have often wondered if the experience with polio created unrealistic expectations for the war on cancer, but that's a topic for another post.)

Here's the list I came up with.

Space travel/satellites
Nuclear weapons/power
Jet travel
Polio eradication
Green revolution
Birth control

And possibly lasers

Does anyone see any obvious omissions?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Life in the hype economy – – Moviepass edition

[Continuing the MoviePass thread]

I have no idea whether it is real or apocryphal, but there's an often referred to study with primates where the they earned tokens that could be exchanged for food. According to the standard version, the subjects soon came to value those tokens more than the treats they could be exchanged for.

The hype economy works along similar lines. The ability to get people talking about something (preferably but not always necessarily in a positive way) is tremendously valuable by most traditional standards. For entertainers, it can bring in large audiences. For goods and services, it can drive sales and help maintain customer loyalty. For politicians, it can be votes. For public policy initiatives, it can generate and shore up support.

At some point though (and it's a point we passed quite a while back) the ability to generate buzz becomes disconnected both from the attributes which are supposed to drive it and the objectives it is supposed to serve. It then takes on a life of its own. Hype becomes the primary if not sole metric by which anything is judged. The television show that no one watches, the business with no real prospect of turning a profit, the research claim that collapses under scrutiny are all seen as successful and important as long as you hear enough about them.

This is a big topic for a short post so I won't try to get into the specifics the damage done by the hype economy. We've already spent countless hours talking about how it  distorts markets, wastes resources, undermines our public policy  and corrupts the research needed to drive real innovation.

As he did with the make-it-up-in-volume fallacy, the CEO of MoviePass provides a perfect example of the hype economy.

Emphasis added.
Pogue: OK, but if I’m paying $7 a month, I’m paying less than half of the price of one ticket. You’re paying the theater double that — so I don’t understand how you can stay in business.

Lowe: Well, have you seen Spotify’s financials? They spent $2 billion more on music content licensing than they brought in in revenue. Netflix has to borrow billions of dollars each year to pay for the content that, over time, they hope to make their money back on. We’re investing in building a huge subscriber base.

Pogue: Originally, MoviePass was $50 a month. What did the membership numbers do when the price dropped down to $10 last fall?

Farnsworth: Well there were about 20,000 users at the time, and Mitch’s deal was that we would have 250,000 in 18 months. He had 18 months to get 250,000. We got there in two days.

To be blunt, Netflix is a marginally profitable company in an increasingly competitive market. Spotify is a money-losing company. Neither is likely to justify the investments that have been made in them, but in the hype economy, that doesn't stop them from being held up as examples to justify a business strategy.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"Oh, the things that you'll see."

To get a handle on turn-of-the-century mentality, you have to focus not just on the newness of individual technologies, but of the very idea of being able to do these now ordinary things. At the beginning of the 19th century, the only way to capture an image was to have a highly skilled artist draw or paint it. The process was inexact, expensive and so slow that anything that could not remain still for an extended period of time had to be represented from memory.

For people around 1900, viable photography was still a relatively recent development, very much in living memory. It would not have been difficult to find someone who remember the first time he or she saw a photograph. Furthermore, this fantastic advance kicked off a dizzying flood of ever more impressive innovations. Cameras and film became cheaper, simpler, and more compact. Pictures started to move. Photographs could be transmitted over telegraph. You could see images of the skeleton of a living human being and capture an instant in time.

One of the points we keep coming back to in this thread is that our concept of the future was the product of a generation of explosive and (even more importantly) ubiquitous technological growth which was the culmination of a century of exponentially advancing innovation. Our framework for thinking about the world that's coming was largely formed in a period of technological change unmatched before or since.

From Scientific American 1909/12/18

Monday, May 14, 2018

Yes, we're losing money on every transaction, but we have a plan to increase volume

[Apologies for letting this one sit in the queue for so long. I plan to do a fairly long post on the various absurdities of this business plan, but I realized that the company may not be able to wait for detailed analysis. Therefore, I'm just going to hit a couple of high points in this and an upcoming post.]

I suspect that most people (maybe especially those who read this blog) have become thoroughly jaded to bad business plans running on new economy hype and Silicon Valley money. Many of you probably feel that you seen it all before, that you have lost the capacity to be shocked by how stupid an idea can be or by how many millions it can raise.

I more than sympathize. In a world where Tesla is valued higher than General Motors and Bitcoin is... well, Bitcoin, it is difficult to come up with the topper. That said, sometimes a piece of business logic, while perhaps not the stupidest or the most overvalued, nonetheless manages to stand out through a blinding lack of self-awareness.

Many companies have used the losing-money-but-making-it-up-in-volume argument over the past few years, but I don't know that I've ever seen it stated in quite such naked terms.

From an interview with Mitch Lowe, CEO of Moviepass.
[David Pogue] The math doesn’t really work out, does it? Let’s say you go to the movies twice a month. In New York, that’s $360 of movie tickets a year — but you’re paying MoviePass only $120 a year. MoviePass is losing $240 a year, just on you. Multiply that by MoviePass’s 2 million subscribers, who are currently buying 6% of the nation’s movie tickets. How is that sustainable?


Pogue: You must go through your life explaining how MoviePass works. And everybody says exactly the same thing back to you…

Lowe: Which is, “how can you possibly afford such an amazing deal?”

Pogue: Yeah. How do you make money?

Lowe: There’s two groups of people that go to the movies. There’s 11% that go 18 times a year, and they buy half of all the movie tickets in the country. 5.5 billion tickets.

There’s another 200 million people (89% of moviegoers) that only see the blockbuster hits. They go to four maybe five films a year. They see “Star Wars” and the Marvel films. Our product is priced to reactivate those casual moviegoers, to get them to go see the great independent films that now they say, “I’m just going to wait and stream at a later date.”

Lowe: People have told us they’re starting movie clubs, and now they’re going with a bunch of friends, going to the movies every week together and then going out afterwards. We have a guy who said, “I’m going to turn 40. I’m going to go to a movie for 40 days in a row leading up to my 40th birthday.” But what’s even cooler is people are seeing films they never would have seen without a MoviePass card.

Pogue: But I’m confused about that, because every time someone goes to a movie, you’re losing more money. Don’t you secretly prefer people who don’t use the card as often?

Lowe: They [the people who see a lot of movies] become more valuable to us. They evangelize the service. They become more valuable to our partners, the studios, exhibitors.

Friday, May 11, 2018

"Those thrilling days of yesteryear"

I keep getting the feeling that there is some bigger, more profound lesson I should be drawing from these examples of the turn-of-the-century fascination with stunts and daredevils. Surely, the desire to see men and women (there was a surprising degree of gender balance) risk their lives in these elaborate contraptions tells us something about the mentality of the time, but damned if I know what it is.

I do know, however, that these pictures from Scientific American (1903/07/18 and 1905/10/14) were  simply too cool not to post.

And for those of you who caught the title reference...

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Abstracts as pitches – – how a Wansink paper is like Will Ferrell's Land of the Lost reboot

Picking up from Andrew Gelman's recent post on why so much of what we hear about the replication crisis seems to center on social psychology, My take is that we should talk more about our old friend hype and the way it distorts discussions and corrupts important processes.

When I started to write out a reply in the comment section, it struck me that there was a pretty good analogy here with movie pitches (and obviously, if I come up with a pretty good analogy, I'm going to save it for a blog post). Researchers in today's environment have a strong incentive to generate buzz around their work.

In a sense, you can think of a paper's abstract as a pitch directed at reporters. Though the scale is very different, the basic dynamic is similar to that of a producer approaching a studio. Both Disney and the New York Times are looking for story ideas that will bring in large audiences, both have limited time and attention, and both are going to make the initial decision to proceed based on a quick summary of the story.

That intermediate step is very important. It means that the primary focus of both producer and researcher needs to be on the pitch more than on the quality or appeal of the larger story. Something that is easily pitched has an enormous advantage.

It is almost certainly not a coincidence that, when you see a big, underperforming movie come out, it's generally easy to imagine how the initial presentation went. "Look at those numbers for Night at the Museum. big-budget action comedy with lots of special effects and dinosaurs. We'll do the same thing with that 70s kids show, Land of the Lost . Old TV shows are big. Will Ferrell is big. We'll just put them all together." .

If you were a researcher trying to get a reporter to write up your study, what areas would "pitch well"? Three that come to mind are broad statements about human nature, dietary findings, and most of all "news you can use"/self-help. You'll notice that studies that fall into one or more of these categories tend to do very well in the hype market. As a consequence, there's also more of an incentive to push these through despite low-quality,
Of course, along with the hype comes increased scrutiny and a greater chance that someone will try to replicate the findings.

While I don't want to push the analogy too far or over into size one aspect of a complicated process, this might be a useful way of thinking about at least part of the problem.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

When you have to go from a world of sycophancy, story stocks, and magical heuristics to a world of reality, that first step can be a doozy.

As you may have heard, Tesla is hitting a bit of a rough patch. Elon Musk probably represents Silicon Valley culture and its dysfunctions better than anyone else and, in a lot of ways, even more than Space X, Tesla is the definitive Elon Musk company.

In aeronautics, Musk has always been somewhat grounded by both his engineers and his customers. You can't simply wave away problems with rockets, and the payloads that they carry are so obscenely expensive that you can't take unnecessary risks either. And the fact that it was privately held meant that the company had to do more than simply tell a good story.

With Tesla, Elon Musk could convert fanboys and a cult of personality into tremendous share price. He could get more bounce for unlikely promises than most businesses could get out of solid earnings reports. The only problem was that at some point you have got to transition out of that world and into one based on product and profits. Musk is now stepping into that new world and it is not going well.

From the indispensable Michael Hiltzik
But Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk's performance on his conference call with analysts Wednesday, following the release of the company's first-quarter financial results, was in a class by itself. To mention the bottom line here at the top: It was enough to make people wary of buying his stock, and could even make people wary of buying his cars.

Aficionados of weird CEO behavior will treasure the hour-and-15-minute call for years. He insulted analysts who asked pertinent (or perhaps, from his standpoint, impertinent) questions. He made unsupported claims about the safety of his cars' autonomous driving systems. He attacked the news media for reporting on accidents involving those systems. At times he seemed distracted, even confused.

Musk displayed particular contempt for analysts who dared to ask about his company's capital spending plans and the state of reservations for the mass-market Model 3 sedan. These issues aren't trivial for Tesla investors. Whether the company will need to raise capital this year has been oft-debated; it became a more critical issue after Tesla revealed that it burned through about $1 billion in cash in the first quarter. And the company's very survival depends on the Model 3, which has been plagued by production delays and quality control issues.

Yet when analyst Toni Sacconaghi of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. asked about capital requirements, Musk cut him off. "Excuse me. Next," he said. "Boring bonehead questions are not cool." The next questioner was Joseph Spak of RBC Capital Markets, who asked about Model 3 orders. Musk gave him the cold shoulder too.

"These questions are so dry," he said. "They're killing me." Musk then cued up Galileo Russell, a Tesla fanboy who issues his sycophantic opinions on Tesla via a YouTube channel. Musk spent about 20 minutes conversing companionably with Russell — who pronounced Musk's answers "awesome" — on issues tangential, at best, to the hard quarterly numbers the company disclosed a few minutes before.


What perhaps was most disturbing in Musk's performance Wednesday was his discussion of the safety of Tesla's cars and the company's Autopilot semiautonomous driving system. In March, the occupant of a top-of-the-line Tesla Model X with the system engaged died after the vehicle hit a highway barrier in Northern California, was hit by two other cars and caught fire. The incidents revived memories of a 2016 crash when the occupant of a Tesla running on Autopilot in Florida was killed in a collision with a truck the system apparently had not spotted.

Let's be clear about this: Musk has no statistical grounds to state categorically that autonomous systems are safer than human-driven vehicles. That conclusion might stand to reason, since human error is blamed for most vehicular deaths and injuries, but autonomous systems might create dangerous situations we can't yet anticipate. His apparent assumption that the debate is over — "Vehicles that we're producing are capable of full autonomy," he said — is a little scary, considering how much still needs to be learned about the functioning of fully autonomous cars, and about the interaction of autonomous systems with humans in the cockpit.