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…



Demographics:

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.

And
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.

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.






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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

Muskification

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," -- UPDATED


 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.


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UPDATE


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.