Monday, April 22, 2019

Elon Musk's latest sounds "worse than pointless"

At this point, I don't think that Musk actually expects to get any real money out of the DC to Baltimore tunnel proposal directly, but he has got to shore up his visionary credentials and he has to do it fast.

Demand for Tesla cars appears to have stalled. Stores are being closed. Inventory is piling up. Prices are being cut.
Panasonic, the company’s closest business partner, abandoned plans to expand operations at Tesla’s giant battery factory in Nevada unless car sales pick up.
Although Tesla posted consecutive quarterly profits late last year, Musk has prepared Wall Street for a loss when first-quarter 2019 earnings are announced April 24.
The controversial chief executive also faces contempt charges from the Securities and Exchange Commission. He had agreed to settle SEC stock fraud charges after tweeting falsely last August that he had the funding to take Tesla private. In the settlement, he agreed not to tweet material information about the company without prior vetting. A federal judge said the settlement could be clearer, ordering both sides to put on their “reasonable pants” and revise the agreement.
Amid the bad news, Tesla’s volatile stock has fallen from a year-to-date high of $347.31 a share to 273.26 on Thursday, a 21% decline.

 The valuation of the company was always driven primarily by Musk's carefully cultivated "real life Tony Stark" persona, and that persona is starting to fade just as the company's debts are coming due. He absolutely has to keep the show going.

Aaron Gordon of Jalopnik has an insightful review of the latest act.

Elon Musk's D.C. to Baltimore Tunnel Sounds Worse than Pointless

What if I proposed digging two 35-mile tunnels that would begin and end right next to two train stations that currently have service between one another? And this tunnel would be right underneath an existing highway? But this tunnel would be used to skim cars along tracks at speeds no one has achieved yet? And it would move fewer than two trains’ worth of people per direction per day?


This is no small caveat. 35 miles is a really long tunnel, and they’re not just digging one, but two of them. The report claims a digging time of less than two years, which would be an unprecedented achievement orders of magnitude [Not quite, but still a lot -- MP] faster than any other tunneling project to date, as Kevin DeGood, Director for Infrastructure Policy at the Center for American Progress pointed out:

For comparison, a 35-mile twin-bore tunnel through the Swiss Alps took 17 years to build. Yes, digging through the Alps is much harder than the soil beneath Maryland, but not that much harder.

And, for the record, it takes high-speed trains 17 minutes to travel through the tunnel, or only two minutes longer than the proposed travel time in Musk’s DC-Baltimore route.


Instead of talking about those things, The US and Maryland DOTs are investing actual resources to study this pointless tunnel and openly advocate for its construction. In a statement accompanying the report’s release, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao talked up the potential benefits (heavy emphasis on “potential”):

    The publication of a draft environmental assessment for this unique project demonstrates the Department’s commitment to preparing for the future of transportation across all modes.

All modes?! It’s a car in a tunnel! That mode exists!

Friday, April 19, 2019

It's been an eventful week.

I think we should all take this advice for now and come back refreshed and ready to go Monday morning.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

“Uber for astrological readings” is still a more rational investment than the actual Uber

I'm afraid there's less to this story than meets the eye. All snark aside, astrology has been a popular and profitable segment of the economy for a long time and an app that delivers horoscopes makes perfect business sense. Unlike, for example, a model based on buying movie tickets than reselling them at a loss.

From the New York Times:
As an Aquarius, David Birnbaum is naturally skeptical of astrology. But as an investor, he has zero doubts about the business potential of the $2.1 billion “mystical services market.” It’s an area that he has been trying, unsuccessfully, to invest in for nearly two decades.

Mr. Birnbaum researched lots of astrology start-ups in the Web 1.0 era but concluded then that they were not good investments. “They were pretty much just marketplaces sending traffic off to random astrologers,” he said. “They were definitely shady.”

This year he finally backed one: Sanctuary, an app that can be described as “Uber for astrological readings.” For $19.99 a month, you can receive a monthly one-on-one chat consultation with an astrologer. (The app also provides free daily horoscopes.)

Mr. Birnbaum’s decision to back a horoscope company through Five Four Ventures, the incubator he runs, “gets a lot of grins” from people in the finance world, he said. But they get it. Astrology is having a cultural moment, and for investors, that translates to dollar signs.

In recent years astrology traded its psychedelic new-wave stigma for modern Instagrammy witch vibes, and those vibes are very popular with millennial women. This means there’s money to be made. Start-ups — professional, non-shady ones with interesting business models — are bubbling up, eagerly raising funding from people like Mr. Birnbaum.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

I really should frame this in terms of the hype economy and magical heuristics, but you all have heard it before

Scott Lemieux points us to this from the New York Times

The offering, which could value Uber at around $100 billion, is expected to reverberate through global financial markets and to solidify the company’s position as one of the most consequential technology firms of the past decade. The share sale would be the biggest since the Alibaba Group of China began trading on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014, and would peg Uber’s value at more than four times that of United Airlines’ parent and double that of FedEx.

But the prospectus renewed questions about how sustainable Uber’s business actually is. The company said in the filing that it lost $1.8 billion in 2018, excluding certain transactions, on revenue of $11.3 billion. And the prospectus also showed that its rocket-ship trajectory for revenue growth was beginning to slow.

While I appreciate the dry understatement of describing an annual loss of almost two billion in terms of questions about sustainability, I'll have to go with Lemieux's summary:

I mean, I’m as happy to pocket the subsidies offered by venture capitalists as the next urban dweller. But the fundamental problems of Uber’s business model remain as ineluctable as ever. They haven’t solved the problem of offering prices low enough to get a lot of customers while paying drivers enough that they’ll be quickly available for prospective riders while making money. And the barriers to entry will remain low enough — and the ability of riders to use other modes of transportation if prices get too high present enough — that “drive your competitors out of business and jack up the prices” can’t actually work for the industry either.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

South of 92nd St.

For about a dozen years now, I've been saying that one of these days Watts is going to gentrify. Back then, the response I got from residents of the neighborhood was polite disbelief. A few years later, it was "well, maybe someday." 

Now, it's a nod followed by "look at Inglewood."

From The Root:
Similarly, in neighboring Inglewood, the same type of thing is happening. A new NFL stadium and plans for a new basketball arena for the Los Angeles Clippers have made Inglewood the new target for developers who are swooping in, buying up properties, and pushing out older residents who have lived there for years.

In some instance, as Angel Jennings reports for the Los Angeles Times, tenants have been given notice that their rents will more than doubled—although no new improvements have been made to the units they are living in. In cases where the rent is not being raised, tenants are simply being given 60-day notices to vacate the premises as new owners take over.

In a city with no rent-control or rent-stabilization laws, there is little that anyone can do to stop this from happening to residents—about 25 percent of whom are black and over the age of 55, according to the Times.

In one instance, Tomisha Pinson—who lives next door to site where the new stadium is being built for the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers—told the Times that she received notice that her $1,145 monthly rent would be increasing to $2,725 for the two-bedroom apartment she currently lives in.


Currently, blacks and Latinos make up 42 percent and 51 percent of Inglewood’s population, respectively. Gentrification could change all of that. Two-thirds of the city’s residents are renters, and with no rent-control laws in place to prevent what is currently happening, the city is an attractive investment to those looking to cash in on all the new entertainment construction.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Back on the TV beat

I'll probably be coming back to connect some more dots -- it's a complicated story -- but there's been an interesting development in the streaming television industry which doesn't quite jibe with the some of the assumptions that are essential to the standard narrative.

Specifically, the future of television is the Netflix, single-tier, all-you-can-eat model. No ala carte, no ad-based approaches. The services that survive will bell the ones that create the most compelling (i.e. buzzworthy) original content. There is a reasonable chance that this will end with Netflix holding very close to a monopoly over the world market for movies andd television.

Both investors and journalists have embraced these assumptions, and their support have propped up the whole enterprise, but other than that, there has never been much evidence in support and more than a little that seems to go against them.

We've already discussed the rise of the terrestrial superstations starting with Weigel's MeTV. This model, based on ad revenue, older established programming, and minimal spending on original programming, has proven extraordinarily profitable.

With that in mind, the advent of Pluto TV (joining services like Amazon's Freedive and the evil but generally competent Sinclair's Stirr) is worth noting.

From the Hollywood Reporter:
As its competitors rush to launch Netflix-style subscription streaming services, Viacom is making a bet on free programming.

The company is paying $340 million in cash to acquire free streaming service Pluto TV, which it plans to use as a distribution outlet for digital programming from brands like Awesomeness and as a marketing tool for its portfolio of media brands. The deal is expected to close during the first quarter of the year.

"As the video marketplace continues to segment, we see an opportunity to support the ecosystem in creating products at a broad range of price points, including free," CEO Bob Bakish said Tuesday in a statement announcing the purchase. "To that end, we see significant white space in the ad-supported streaming market and are excited to work with the talented Pluto TV team, and a broad range of Viacom partners, to accelerate its growth in the U.S. and all over the world." 

Friday, April 12, 2019


I've always been fascinated with cross-pollination

The music started in the hearts and drums, from another land
Played for everyone, by sons, of the motherland
Sendin out a message of peace, to everybody and
Came across the oceans in chains and shame
Easing the pain, and it was without name
Until some men in New Orleans on Rampart Street
Put out the sounds, and then they gave it a beat
I`m talkin' 'bout Jelly Roll, King, and Satch
I`m talkin' 'bout the music that had no match
Yes the music, and it was born down there
We`re gonna use it, so make the horn sound clear
It`s jazz music...jazz music
Yo, the music that Pops, and other cats made
It stayed, cause people love when they played
To the North, it took a riverboat shuffle
To the big cities, with lots of hustle and bustle
To Chicago, and to the Apple too
This was a scene, that our forefathers knew
Go get your crew, I know they`ll get into
The jazz music... jazz music
The music called jazz had the razzamatazz
It had the flavor, and a lot of pizazz
The big band beat was very neat and unique
The swing was king, it made you tap your feet
There was Benny and Duke and of course the Count Basie
The melody was smooth and yes, very taste
There was Hap, The Prez, and Lady Day and
Dizzy Bird and Miles, they were all playin'
They brought it to the people of the foreign lands
Back across the oceans and the desert sands
Where it echoes in the distant sounds of drums
And it rises with the sun on days begun
This is the music, that we give tribute to
They gave it to us, that`s why we give it to you
The jazz music, the jazz music
The jazz music, uh, uh, uh

This is cool.

And this is scary.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

“All the technology we need to do this already exists,” and other red flags

Perhaps the 21st Century is making me cynical, but this does feel familiar.

There's a genre that we've seen a lot recently. Someone (frequently with a Silicon Valley connection) will announce that we're finally on the verge of the development and/or the the widespread implementation of some innovation we've been promised for decades. Maglev vactrains, Martian colonies, and yes, even flying cars.  These long awaited advances are always just around the corner, surprisingly cheap and almost ready because they depend on "existing technology."

I might be missing some obvious cases but it's difficult to think of an example where people spent years waiting for a breakthrough like this only to realize that, like Dorothy, they had the power all along.  This one could well be different, but from what I'm seeing here, this seems to have less to do with advances in enabling technology and more to do with telling a story that people want to believe.

Even if you missed out on the Concorde, you may soon get a chance to fly in a supersonic airliner
By Eric Adams April 3, 2019


The J85 is GE’s workhorse military turbojet. Three of them will power Boom’s XB-1, a one-third-scale demonstration model of the $200 million, 55-seat carbon-fiber airliner the company hopes to see streaking across the sky at twice the speed of sound by 2025. It would be difficult to overstate the challenges Boom faces as it chases this goal and all the ways its plan could go wrong. Seventy-one years after Chuck Yeager punched through the sound barrier in the Bell X-1, the Concorde and the Soviet Union’s Tupolev Tu-144 remain the only airliners to achieve Mach speed. Neither worked out. The Tupolev mostly carried cargo, making just 102 flights with passengers. British Airways and Air France lost money on most Concorde trips despite exorbitant ticket prices and hefty government subsidies. They grounded the airplanes in 2003 after 27 years of glamorous—if fiscally strained—service.

The business case doesn’t appear much better today. Even as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic make steady progress toward the day tourists will glimpse space through the porthole of a rocket ship, no one’s figured out how to make supersonic transport economically feasible. The problem lies in maximizing fuel efficiency while reducing engine noise and mitigating the sonic boom that inevitably accompanies anything moving faster than the speed of sound. When you throw in the requirement that this tech turn a profit, the puzzle is so fiendishly difficult to solve that Boeing and Airbus all but quit trying, launching precisely zero efforts since the Concorde’s last flight. Why bother, when airlines show little interest in jets that carry fewer people, burn more fuel, and can fly only over oceans because of the awful racket they make?

Given all this, the idea that a guy who’s best known for Amazon’s ad-buying tech could make supersonic work seems unlikely. [Blake] Scholl’s plan sounds absurd when you realize his aviation experience is limited to flying small planes. Yet he exudes the ebullient confidence typical of startup founders. “All the technology we need to do this already exists,” he says. “It’s safe, reliable, and efficient. So let’s take that same proven technology and make passenger’s lives more efficient too.”

For Scholl, the path to that vision is clear. Boom’s success hinges on developing a jet engine capable of achieving supersonic speeds without that fuel-guzzling afterburner. And he believes the boom problem won’t be a problem for his company. His business plan relies on convincing airlines that with new, more-efficient technology, they’ll make plenty of money shuttling business-class passengers across the Atlantic in three hours or the Pacific in six. The Virgin Group and Japan Airlines are among five carriers so intrigued by the idea that they’ve lined up to buy Boom’s airplanes, should they make it to production.


Boom is definitely going for glamorous. With its ­needle-​like fuselage, pinpoint-sharp nose, and triangular delta wing, the Overture is one cool-looking craft. The planned interior is no less impressive. A ­virtual-​­reality demo offers a glimpse of what crossing the sky at 1,400 mph could be like. No one gets stuck in the middle because there’s just one passenger on either side of the aisle. There’s lots of leather, gleaming surfaces, and polished wood. Every one if its 55 seats [about half the capacity of the Concorde -- MP] faces a giant screen, and customers watch the scenery through large round windows. Scholl says the cabin will be so insulated that you won’t hear the engines. “Our goal is to exude tranquility,” he says.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

It's so nice to not be debunking a tech story for a change

 We've been making the point for a while now that the vanity aerospace industry's role in the hype economy has a way of obscuring and perhaps even diverting resources from real innovation. Eventually though, the real thing has a way of rising to the top.

If the still daunting technological challenges can be resolved, air-breathing rockets dwarf the potential of anything currently being proposed by any bored Silicon Valley billionaire.

The test took place at Reaction Engines’ facility at the United States’ Colorado Air and Space Port. They were the first phase of an extensive trial program, which will eventually see the precooler exposed to temperatures hotter than 1,000 degrees Celsius – the conditions expected during Mach 5 hypersonic flight.

In space rocket mode, the engines are being designed to speed a craft up to Mach 25.

Over the last four years, Reaction Engines has secured more than £100 million ($130 million) in investment from backers including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, and Boeing’s venture capital arm. The firm has also received a £60 million ($78 million) funding commitment from the U.K. Government.

Mark Thomas, Reaction Engines CEO, said in a press release Monday that the results were unparalleled and a “hugely significant milestone.”

“This provides an important validation of our heat exchanger and thermal management technology portfolio, which has application across emerging areas such as very high-speed flight, hybrid electric aviation and integrated vehicle thermal management,” he said.
 (Now if the Russians come through with nuclear rockets and NASA finally decides to have some fun with railguns, things will really start interesting.)

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Tweet of the Week

Monday, April 8, 2019

Magical Heuristics -- the magic of destiny

You should check out this essay by Adam Morris. I'm not going to comment on his larger thesis, but his observations about Silicon Valley and VC culture are extremely interesting and nicely complement our magical heuristics thread. In case you missed our original post, check it out (particularly the part about destiny). Then see if any of Morris's observations seem to resonate.

In August 2017, I jumped security and made it into the Singularity University Global Summit at the San Francisco Hilton. It was no easy task: The convention is very well staffed, and black-suited convention employees kept an eye out for convention registration badges at the doorway to every ballroom lecture hall and breakout-session dining room. The enormous badges, proudly emblazoned with the name of each attendee and that of his or her employer, were to be worn from a lanyard printed with the phrase “Be Exponential.” The absence of one around my neck was noted in glances directed at my midsection. I’d already been bounced from the expo hall once, and my ploy to acquire a press pass, recommended by a friend who’d crashed the party the year before, had failed. The Global Summit isn’t a secret, invitation-only convention. But admission is priced north of $2,000, so I couldn’t afford to be exponential. As indicated by the badges I studied as I wandered between sessions, large multinational corporations like Deloitte and Procter & Gamble send mid-level executives to the summit to do reconnaissance on technological innovations in established and emerging markets.

The steep entry fee is is part of the high-gloss veneer of selectivity favored by the organization. Most attendees believe their presence at the summit confers a special stature on their intellect and an illustrious destiny on whatever entrepreneurial endeavor has brought them there. Alumni of Singularity University receive “enhanced” clearance, which provides access to private lunches and sessions where the most elite futurists gather to discuss questions related to the future of human civilization. Attendees were overwhelmingly young, male, and poorly shaven.

I spent the afternoon in Hilton Grand Ballrooms A and B, where plenary talks were held. There I listened as innovators and “disruptors” were invited one after the next to take the stage and share with those assembled whatever TED-talk platitudes they’d rehearsed in hotel bathroom mirrors the night before. As a resident of San Francisco, I was accustomed to their techno-futurist cheerleading and unaffected by the customary flattery of libertarian entrepreneurialism steeped in Objectivist self-regard: a “small group of people,” one speaker informed the audience, was now capable of doing things that no nation-state can do. The obvious inference was that some of those people were in the building.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Netflix's Popcorn Problem

This segment of Rob Long's essential show business commentary Martini Shots recently addressed on of the biggest but least discussed points in the discussion of the Netflix business plan.

Most pop culture IP is based on multiple revenue stream models. Toys, syndication rights, physical media (now making something of a comeback with serious fans), and assorted licensing. Netflix appears to have limited itself to locked itself down to one revenue stream.

Keep in mind, investors who are still buying Netflix are betting that it will become the largest and most profitable media company in the world and will do so in the fairly near future, a goal that is even more difficult when you start taking money off the table.

What's more, Netflix appears to have cut deals that allow its partners to cash in on these alternate revenue streams while Netflix bears the bulk of the production and marketing costs. In a sense, it seems like the company is borrowing immense amounts of money to produce elaborate commercials for its competitors' products.  

Thursday, April 4, 2019

A glimpse into the Hyperloop bullshit feedback cycle

According to this ZDNet piece by Asha McLean, the Australian government is ready to go all in on the hyperloop.
"The Hyperloop has significant advantages over competing transport modes," the committee wrote in its report [PDF] into Innovating Transport across Australia: Inquiry into automated mass transit.

"The Hyperloop would have lower capital and operating costs, smaller land requirements, and less environmental impacts than other transport modes. It also offered a more positive passenger experience."

That is an awfully deceptive framing. In the actual report, those quotes are basically summing up the HTT pitch, prefaced by "as envisaged." Furthermore, hyperloops form a fairly minor part of the report.

This is one of the best examples to date of the bullshit cycle that sustains this travesty. Credulous reporting and even more credulous investors give the companies a veneer of respectability. Politicians wanting to sound serious and forward-thinking (and possibly cash in at a later date) play along. Journalists portray even the mildest of governmental interest as an indication that hyperloops are just around the corner.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Some midweek tweets

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

All hyperloop/Musk transportation proposals are bad, but each is bad in its own unique way

This recent piece by Kelly Weill does a good job reviewing some of the recent set backs on the broader hyperloop front, but not such a good job distinguishing between the different technologies being proposed. This problem is by no means limited to Weill; it's endemic in the coverage of the story.

Even the name"hyperloop" applies to two radically different systems. Musk's original proposal was based on aircasters and was so bad (even by the standards of this discussion) that it was immediately dropped by every company pursuing the technology. Then came the proposal for an underground system of sleds that would carry you car around Los Angeles, and the short high speed rail lines that inspired a previous installment of our Elon Musk is a terrible engineer series.

Elon Musk Hyperloop Dreams Slam Into Cold Hard Reality

The Hyperloop was supposed to shuttle passengers incredible distances at 700 miles per hour. The brainchild of tech visionary Elon Musk, it was proposed as a long, underground tunnel system that would propel bus-like pods of passengers at near-supersonic speeds.

Far from its promise of rocketing cities into the future, Hyperloop momentum appears to be slowing with several states and local governments that once flirted with the idea. In Virginia, the idea died after officials examined Musk’s Hyperloop test tunnel. In Chicago this month, leading mayoral candidates appeared to dismiss much-hyped plans for a Hyperloop in their city. And in Colorado, a Hyperloop company went out of business before completing a publicly funded feasibility study.


Arrivo came from a promising Hyperloop pedigree. Its founder, Brogan BamBrogan (his legal name), was a former engineer at Musk’s SpaceX before leaving to co-found the company Hyperloop One. After a dramatic falling out involving two feuding lawsuits, BamBrogan launched Arrivo in 2017 and started pitching Colorado hard. Hoping to reach speeds of 200 mph, the planned Arrivo Hyperloop outside Denver was a far cry from the 700 mph envisioned in Musk’s white paper. But the company’s promise to create “the end of traffic” scored them a partnership with Colorado’s Department of Transportation in November 2017, and $267,000 in publicly funded incentives, Wired reported.

The payout was meant to fund a feasibility study. But by November 2018, Arrivo had quietly furloughed all its employees, without completing the study, the Verge first reported. In mid-December, Arrivo reportedly texted or called its employees to announce the company was shutting down.


Meanwhile in Chicago, Hyperloop antagonism has become a talking point in an ongoing mayoral race. Current Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced preliminary plans to award Musk a contract to build a Hyperloop between downtown Chicago and the city’s O’Hare airport, a route already navigable by an elevated train line. (Unlike in Colorado, the project would not receive public subsidies.)

But the two main candidates vying to replace Emanuel have characterized the Hyperloop as a low priority project at best, and a “pay-for-play” scheme at worst. Candidate Toni Preckwinkle told the Verge that the city should focus its efforts on public transportation. Meanwhile, leading candidate Lori Lightfoot has highlighted Musk’s more than $55,000 in donations to Emanuel’s various election campaigns, suggesting those donations give the appearance of a pay-for-play relationship.

I have a feeling one of our regular readers will have something to say about that last one.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Still not even close to the most embarrassing news story to come out of Brexit

Yet another 70s nostalgia act is trying a comeback, mixing in a few topical references to try to sound current.

Of course, the fans still come for the greatest hits.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Apple gives us another excuse to repost something on the content bubble

From CNET:

Between Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and Sofia Coppola, Apple showed off a star-studded lineup for its newly unveiled Apple TV Plus service. Consistent with the Apple way of building up its products and services, the superlatives poured forth from CEO Tim Cook.

"It's unlike anything that's been done before," he said at an event on Monday at the company's Cupertino, California, headquarters' Steve Jobs Theater.

Given the talent signed on to Apple, you might be under the impression that this is a groundbreaking, must-have service.

After all, who are we to question Oprah?

But Apple's legendary track record with products may not automatically equate to success elsewhere. For one, Hollywood is a tough business and one that Apple has little experience in. Spending an estimated $2 billion on A-list talent garners a whole lot of buzz, but it's no guarantee of success. Its first forays into original programming -- Carpool Karaoke and Planet of the Apps -- flopped. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Arguments for a content bubble

First off a quick lesson in the importance of good blogger housekeeping. It is important to keep track of what you have and have not posted . A number of times, I've caught myself starting to write something virtually identical to one of my previous posts, often with almost the same title. At the other into the spectrum, there are posts that I could've sworn I had written but of which there seems to be no trace.

For example, living in LA, I frequently run into people in the entertainment industry. One of the topics that has come up a lot over the past few years is the possibility of a bubble in scripted television. Given all that we've written on related topics here at the blog, I was sure I had addressed the content bubble at some point, but I can't find any mention of the term in the archives.

One of the great pleasures of having a long running blog is the ability, from time to time, to point at a news story and say "you heard it here first." Unfortunately, in order to do that, you actually have to post the stuff you meant to. John Landgraf, the head of FX network and one of the sharpest executives in television has a very good interview on the subject of content bubbles and rather than "I told you so," all I get to say is "I wish I'd written that."

But, better late than never, here are the reasons I suspect we have a content bubble:

1. The audience for scripted entertainment is, at best, stable. It grows with the population and with overseas viewers but it shrinks as other forms of entertainment grab market share. Add to this fierce competition for ad revenue and inescapable constraints on time, and you have an extremely hard bound on potential growth.

2. Content accumulates. While movies and series tend to lose value over time, they never entirely go away. Some shows sustain considerable repeat viewers. Some manage to attract new audiences. This is true across platforms. Netflix built an entire ad campaign around the fact that they have acquired rights to stream Friends. Given this constant accumulation, at some point, old content has got to start at least marginally cannibalizing the market for new content.

3. Everybody's got to have a show of their very own. (And I do mean everybody.) I suspect that this has more to do executive dick-measuring than with cost/benefit analysis but the official rationale is that viewers who want to see your show will have to watch your channel, subscribe to your service or buy your gaming system. While than can work under certain conditions, proponents usually fail to consider the lottery-ticket like odds of having a show popular enough to make it work. And yet...

4.  Everybody's buying more lottery tickets. The sheer volume of scripted television being pumped out across every platform is stunning.

5. Money is no object. We are seeing unprecedented amounts of money paid for original and even second run content.

For me, spending unprecedented amounts of money to make unprecedented volume of product for a market that is largely flat is almost by definition unsustainable. Ken Levine takes a different view and I tend to give a great deal of weight to his opinions, but, as I said before, Langraf is one of the best executives out there and I think he's on to something.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Also, I'm switching to Amazon Basics

This Gizmodo article on Pyrex and the pros and cons of borosilicate soda-lime glass has all of things we've come to expect from the Gawker remnants, sharp writing, solid science and genuinely helpful advice. It also fits nicely with our thread about the radical and ubiquitous technological and scientific changes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.Nowhere was this more true than with material science, where Bessemer steel was one of the primary drivers of innovation and aluminum went from being the world's most expensive metal to the stuff of housewares.  Borosilicate glass fit right in.

Pyrex made headlines recently, because its parent company made a big move. Corelle Brands, parent company of Pyrex among others, is planning to merge with Instant Brands, maker of the very popular Instant Pot. Terms of deal were not disclosed, and it’s unclear how the merger will affect any of the companies’ products. However, the news does bring to mind that decades-old controversy involving beloved glass pans, violent explosions, and some gnarly injuries. Pyrex is also the subject of a class action lawsuit in Illinois. In court filings, Pyrex’s parent company, Corelle Brands, insists that incidents of breakage result from customers improperly using their products. More on that case in a minute.

To understand the Pyrex controversy, you have to look at the reports of explosions within the context of the history of glass. Not the whole history of glass, of course, but rather a series of innovations that started with Otto Schott, a German scientist who invented a new type of glass in the late 1800s. This so-called borosilicate glass was not only heat resistant but also stood up to sudden temperature changes. Corning Glass Works developed its own recipe for borosilicate glass in 1908, and Corning employee Jesse Littleton discovered a new use for the material after his wife Bessie used a sawed-off borosilicate glass battery jar for baking. Seven years later, Pyrex cookware hit the American market. The company referred to its products as “fire-glass” in early ads.

These dates are important because Corning’s patent on the borosilicate glass used to make Pyrex pans expired in 1936. At that time, the company developed a new formula for aluminosilicate glass, which it used to create a line of frying pans called Pyrex Flameware. (This line was discontinued in 1979.) The real roots of the current controversy were planted in the 1950s, when Pyrex began making cookware out of tempered soda-lime glass. Corning licensed the Pyrex brand to a company called World Kitchen—now known as Corelle Brands—in 1998, and by nearly all accounts, all Pyrex cookware sold in the United States after that year has been made of tempered soda-lime glass. This is where the controversy really heats up.

 The vast majority of glass products are made of soda-lime glass: window panes, jars, bottles, all kinds of glass. Soda-lime glass is cheaper to make than borosilicate glass, which is undoubtedly why Pyrex started experimenting with it. However, borosilicate glass is not only harder, stronger, and more durable than soda-lime glass; it’s also more resilient to thermal shock. Thermal shock is what happens when a temperature change causes different parts of a material to expand at different rates, and the resultant stress can cause the material to crack. If the temperature change happens rapidly materials like glass can shatter or seem to explode. Resistance to thermal shock is part of why Pyrex became so popular for cookware; you could move a hot glass pan into a cool spot without worrying about it cracking or shattering. It’s also part of why laboratories prefer to use borosilicate glass rather than conventional soda-lime glass. Pyrex cookware currently sold in the United States goes through a thermal tempering process. In theory, this should strengthen the glass.

In practice, the difference between the performance of borosilicate glass and soda-lime glass is significant. When asked about the science behind the glass, Dr. John C. Mauro, a professor of engineering and materials science at Penn State, said in an email that the coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE) is the main parameter used to measure thermal shock resistance. A higher CTE number means the material is less resilient to thermal shock. For example, Corning Visions cookware, a descendent of Pyrex Flameware, is designed for stovetop use and has a CTE close to zero, Mauro explained. Borosilicate glass has a CTE of 3 or 4 parts per million per 1 Kelvin change (ppm/K). But soda-lime glass has a CTE of 9 to 9.5 ppm/K.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

"State to begin study of hyperloop technology, potential Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia route "

More anecdotal evidence that the hyperloop hype is growing both more dangerous and detached from reality.

This also illustrates a couple of essential points in the narrative. We have gone beyond the level of mere distraction; real money is now being diverted from already underfunded projects.

Second, as with Mars One, point is that the proposal is based on long existing tech is seen as an argument for rather than against feasibility. You very seldom see obvious applications sitting unutilized for decades and suddenly becoming viable for no reason. Major advances are almost always due to a breakthrough in enabling technology (think internal combustion or transistors) or a big shift in the underlying economics. Neither appears to be the case here.

From the Post Gazette:
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission this week approved a four-year contract worth up to $2 million for consultant AECOM to review the potential for a hyperloop system that would extend across the state. The turnpike and the state Department of Transportation, which is part of the advisory group working with the consultant, were ordered to do such a study in a resolution approved last fall by the state House.

Hyperloop is a system that developers say can transport passengers and freight at more than 500 mph in pods that move through low-pressure tubes similar to pneumatic tubes at banks. [No, it’s not. These systems have almost nothing in common. Please stop saying that. – MP] The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission is working with one developer, Virgin Hyperloop One, to study and establish a system linking Pittsburgh, Columbus and Chicago, but other companies also are developing the technology.

It is important for the state to stay abreast of new transportation modes, Robert Taylor, the turnpike’s chief technology officer, said Friday.

“This is a technology that can change us as a state, change us as a region,” Mr. Taylor said.

Barry Altman, a communication specialist in the turnpike’s information technology division, said the study will determine whether the use of hyperloop technology will help or hurt the turnpike’s operation.

“Our interest in it is to take a look at it to see how we can use it to grow our business and what threat it presents to our business,” he said. “We don’t see it as a technology that will supersede our business. We’re looking at it interfacing with what we do.”

State Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne County, proposed the resolution for the study to be completed by April 2020. He couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. The resolution said the state has an opportunity to benefit from hyperloop technology “by leveraging corporate and institutional talent and resources to participate in the research and development of the technology, and the supply chain needed to produce and construct hyperloop corridors.”

There are no commercial hyperloop systems in operation now, but Virgin Hyperloop has a test facility in the Mojave Desert outside Las Vegas. The company expects the first system to open sometime in the next decade, likely in India or Dubai, where there is more vacant land and funding.

Mr. Altman said he’s convinced the technology is viable while Mr. Taylor said he’s a “cynic” but is more concerned about issues such as regulatory policies and financing than whether the technology will work.

“I think it’s solid technology,” Mr. Altman said. “They are taking existing technology from a number of areas and assembling it in a system that’s going to be very workable.”

In this region, AECOM already is working with the Mid-Ohio planners on a feasibility study of the proposed Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago corridor, where travel time would be about 48 minutes from one end to the other. Another consultant is doing a preliminary environmental impact study, and both should be finished this summer.
For a bit of context:

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s elected fiscal watchdog is urging state lawmakers to rescue a Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission that is deep in debt from payments it must make to the state, despite annual toll increases going back 11 straight years.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Thursday that the annual toll increases are driving toll-paying truckers and motorists away, but the extra toll revenue is not reducing the commission’s rising debt.

Monday, March 25, 2019

“It’s a car in a very small tunnel”

Via Aaron Gordon of Jalopnik.

Late last year we commented on the strangely positive reaction of  Chicago delegation to the underwhelming debut of the Boring Company's first project. It is with considerable relief (and more than a touch of amusement) that not all of the transit officials who came by helped themselves to the Flavor-aid.

This Virginia Mercury report by Ned Oliver is a study in brutal understatement. [emphasis added]

“It’s a car in a very small tunnel,” Michael McLaughlin, Virginia’s chief of rail transportation, told members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s public transit subcommittee on Wednesday.

“If one day we decide it’s feasible, we’ll obviously come back to you.”

The board has been discussing high-dollar investments in the state’s rail infrastructure, including a $1.3 billion bridge between Virginia and Washington. But board members say those conversations have been clouded by questions about whether such upgrades might be rendered obsolete before they’re even completed if Musk’s much-hyped tunneling and hyperloop technology advances beyond its current experimental stage. [And remember, these are the non-gullible ones. -- MP]

At this stage, all Musk has to show for his work is a Tesla Model 3 running on guard rails through a bumpy, 1.14-mile long demonstration tunnel under an industrial park in Hawthorne, California. (Musk said employees ran out of time to smooth the road bed, and the Los Angeles Times reports it was “so uneven in places that it felt like riding on a dirt road.”)

Tunneling isn’t a new technology. The innovation Musk hopes to bring to it is a drastic reduction in costs. And on that front, he claims he’s been successful, saying the project cost about $10 million. That’s significantly less than the $170 million to $920 million per mile cost of recent subway projects around the country, according to CityLab, which notes Musk’s figure doesn’t include research, development, equipment and, possibly, labor.

The officials from Virginia who met with company leaders and took a drive through the tunnel in January say nothing they saw would lead them to change their approach to transit in the near term.

“I think there’s a lot of show going on here,” said Scott Kasprowicz, a Commonwealth Transportation Board member who made the trip with McLaughlin and public transit chief Jennifer Mitchell.

“I don’t mean to suggest that they don’t have a serious plan in mind, but I don’t consider the steps they’ve taken to date to be substantive. They’ve purchased a used boring machine. They’ve put a bore in the neighborhood where they developed the SpaceX product, and they’ve taken a Model 3 and put guidewheels on it and they’re running it through the tunnel at 60 miles per hour.

Friday, March 22, 2019

An excuse to repost one of the few times probability, classic TV and horse racing collide

It is with profoundly mixed emotions (though surprise is not among) that I have to admit that Matt Novak got here first in his indispensable Paleo-Future.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Some stories I'm keeping an eye on

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

SpaceX is betting on technological stagnation

This isn't exactly a new thought, but I don't think I've ever consciously framed it in just these words before. As we've observed before, SpaceX is making real and important advances, but it is incremental  progress built on technology that is, at its core, over a half century old.

Not only was SpaceX never really the disruptor it was billed as; its position depends on no real disruptor entering the industry. Now it may be facing two, and if both should come through, it is not entirely clear how much of a niche would be left between them.

It is difficult to know for certain how much progress those Russian engineers are making on nuclear rockets, work on a workable spaceplane seems to be moving along at a nice pace.

Not only would Sabre power units enable rapid, point-to-point transport inside the atmosphere, but they would also allow reusable vehicles to make the jump straight to orbit without the need for multiple propellant stages - as is the case now with conventional rockets.

Sabre would work like an air-breathing jet engine from standstill to about Mach 5.5 (5.5 times the speed of sound) and then transition to a rocket mode at high altitude, going at 25 times the speed of sound to get into space, if this is the chosen destination.

The essential innovations include a compact pre-cooler heat-exchanger that can take an incoming airstream in the region of 1,000C and cool it to -150C in less than 1/100th of a second.

REL proved the pre-cooler's efficiency at taking an ambient air stream to low temperature in 2012. Now it must do the same in a very high-temperature regime. This is the purpose of the Colorado tests.

"To have a very high-temperature, high-volume flow of air to test the pre-cooler - we needed a new facility. That is now complete," explains Shaun Driscoll, REL's programmes director

"We will be running tests in the next month or two. We will be using re-heated aero engines to drive air through the system. We will drive air into the pre-cooler at up to 1,000C."

REL is a private venture with the backing of aerospace giants BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Boeing. It has also received significant R&D support from the UK government. Esa's propulsion specialists act as technical auditors, assessing each step in the development of the Sabre concept.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Significant negative indicator" is a beautiful piece of understatement

Threads like this by Jawad Mian are one of the best reasons to stick with Twitter.

5) VCs raising ever-larger funds at an increasing pace, despite a lack of viable opportunities. Sequoia raised $8bn, largest ever by US venture firm. “It’s easier to raise money than anytime I’ve been in the business," said David Rubenstein. Does not bode well for future returns.
6) Gulf money is notoriously late to the party, purchasing Carlye Group in 2007 at the peak of the credit bubble, and anchor investors in Glencore IPO in 2011 at the peak of the commodity bubble. Now they are "all in" on Uber and opened offices in Silicon Valley to do more.

7) Discipline is loosening considerably. @bfeld noted, "A number of companies, often times with nothing more than a team and a Powerpoint presentation, have had great success raising capital north of that $10 million level... I view this as a significant negative indicator."

10) After the new SEC chairman, Jay Clayton, “pledged” to look after ordinary investors upon taking the job, he said he wants to make it easier for small mom-and-pop investors to invest in private companies.

14) Uber's new CEO said, "We suffer from having too much opportunity right now as a company." Uber addresses this ailment by burning money some $20 billion since it’s founding a decade ago and now accessing public markets as private capital is tapped out.

15) A century ago, railroad entrepreneurs found a ready market to fund their massive expansion plans based on an extreme overestimation of the market opportunity. This ended badly, of course, and holds more parallels to today’s ride-sharing companies than we might like.
16) On seeing the announcement of a new issue of stock by the Northern Pacific and Great Northern roads, Jesse Livermore said, “The time to sell is right now... If money already was that scarce and the railroads needed it desperately. What was the answer? Sell ’em! Of course!"

Lots more good stuff. Give it a read.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Possibly the biggest mistake the left ever made was demonizing nuclear over coal.

I've said this before and I'm always surprised how little pushback I get.

Hans Blix writing for Time:

Can we responsibly continue to rely on nuclear power after the big accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima? Those were three grave accidents, yes, but accidents in any industry, whether nuclear, aviation or others, lead also to new, safer designs and dedication to safety culture. Plane crashes have not stopped us from flying, because most people know it is an effective means of traveling. They know that risks are rarely zero but also that safety is very high. We must arrive at a similar acceptance of nuclear power.

There was a time, in the early atomic age, when nuclear-generated electricity was expected to be “too cheap to meter” — that it would be more effective, in other words, to provide it for free than to charge. In the end, it did not exactly turn out that way. Nuclear power has never been cheap and today it struggles to be competitive on purely economic grounds with electricity generated by burning natural gas — especially from fracking in the United States. However, the story is very different if we see emissions of greenhouse gases as a cost in themselves. According to a 2011 study, taken on average over the lifetime of an energy plant, the burning of coal results in 979 tons of carbon-dioxide (per gigawatt hour) entering the atmosphere. Gas gives off 550 tons. The figure for nuclear power is just 32 tons.

Some people claim we can manage the world’s great and increasing hunger for energy by using wind and solar power. The call for “renewable energy sources” excludes fossil fuels, but it also excludes nuclear power, which is based on non-renewable uranium resources. It has been a smart but facile message, and we should be grateful that the world’s two most populous countries — China and India — are fast expanding their use of nuclear power as well as of renewables. Solar and wind power are great in many places and have gone down in cost. However, getting rid of technically sound carbon dioxide-free nuclear power plants, to replace them with carbon dioxide-free wind and solar plants, does not make environmental sense. And to reject nuclear power because uranium is not renewable is silly. With modern technology the global resources of uranium and thorium could fuel thousands of years of expanded use of nuclear power. Is it not enough that they are sustainable?

Friday, March 15, 2019

Fascinating little Oscar-winning glimpse into postwar (1949) attitudes toward public health care directed by the great Chuck Jones.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The appeal of elite schools -- old thoughts on a new controversy

From September 29, 2010

The heroin's still doing the heavy lifting -- why Ivy League legacies work

From Christopher Shea's Boston Globe column:
Richard D. Kahlenberg, editor of the forthcoming book "Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions," points out that universities in other countries don't give so-called legacy preferences to sons and daughters of their alumni. (Even Oxbridge colleges don't, despite the class-bound history of British education.) So, he asks, why on earth do we do it in America?
Broadly speaking, students go to college in search of four things: certification; instruction; reputation; and connections.

In terms of certification, any well-accredited school would do. In terms of undergraduate instruction, the best deal for the money (and perhaps the best deal period) is the small four-year school. (I'm leaving this as an assertion but I'm fairly confident I can argue the point if anyone wants to debate.)

In the next two categories, however, the Ivy League cannot be surpassed, in part because of the legacy system.

Without loss of generality, look at Harvard. The student population of the school consists entirely of two overlapping groups: people who can get into Harvard; people whose parents can get them into Harvard.

The first group is hard-working, ambitious and academically gifted. Assuming the number of need-based legacies is trivial, the second group comes from families that are wealthy (they're paying for a Harvard education) and well-connected (at least one parent went to Harvard).

Putting aside luck, you can put the drivers of success into three general categories: attitude, drive and work habits; talent, intelligence and creativity; reputation and connections. It is possible to succeed with just one of these (hell, I can think of people who made it with none), but there is a strong synergistic effect. A moderate talent who works hard and has connections will generally go farther than a spectacular talent who's lazy and isolated.

Connections are governed by the laws of graph theory. I'm not going to delve too deeply into the subject (since that would require research and possibly actual work on my part), but as anyone who has read even the cover blurbs on Linked or Small Worlds can tell you, adding a few highly connected nodes (let's call them senator's sons) can greatly increase the connectivity of a system.

It would be interesting to model the trade off between picking a well connected legacy over a smarter, harder-working applicant given the objective of producing the greatest aggregate success. Because of the network properties mentioned above, it wouldn't be surprising if the optimal number of legacies turned out to be the 10% to 15% we generally see.

Optimized or not, this mixture is almost guaranteed to churn out fantastically successful graduates regardless of what the schools do after the students are admitted. I'm certain the quality of instruction on the Ivy League schools is very good, but, like most education success stories, the secret here is mostly selection and peer effects.

Update: For a different interpretation (this time with actual data), check out this post at Gene Expression.

Updated update: Why doesn't spell check work in the title field?

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Guess which side I'm on...

Here's a hint:

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

More on journalistic tribalism

Having brought up the charge in a previous post, I should probably take a minute to spell out exactly what I'm talking about. I'm using a very broad reading of the term 'tribalism' (perhaps so broad I should say something like 'tribalism and other social psych phenomena'). The traits I'm thinking of include:

1. Us/them mentality;

2. Excessive reliance on in-group social norms;

3. Deferring to and preserving hierarchies;

and as a consequence

4,   A tendency to use different standards to judge interactions based on the relative positions of the parties.

There is inevitably going to be a degree of subjectivity when deciding who goes where in the hierarchy, but I think it's fairly safe to say that Maureen Dowd and (till his death) Michael Kelly were in the innermost circle with writers like David Brooks and most prominent, established Washington and, to a lesser degree, New York journalists fairly close.

In this tribal model, it makes perfect sense that Politico would view Chris Hughes' (outsider) request for a small change in the copy of Timothy Noah (insider) as a major affront. It also explains Politico's attacks on Nate Silver (outsider) when his work started making established pundits (insiders) look bad.

The press corps's treatment of Al Gore in 2000 is another case in point. Following the lead of Dowd and Kelly and reinforced by a general dislike of the candidate, the group quickly established social norms that justified violating the most basic standards of accuracy and fairness.

The poster child for this kind of journalistic tribalism is Jack Shafer, or at least he was a few years ago when I was first experimenting with blogging. One of my main topics was the press's inability to face up to its problems and Shafer was the gift that kept on giving (I haven't read him much since). That blog is gone now but I still have my notes so here are some highlights.

Shafer was openly disdainful of readers and generally dismissive of their interests which is an extraordinary starting point for a journalism critic. Consider this passage from the aptly named "Why I Don't Trust Readers"
I'm all for higher standards, but I draw the line when journalists start getting more complaints about less serious professional lapses. Serious: Plagiarism, willful distortion, pattern of significant errors, bribe-taking. Not serious: campaign donations in the low three-figures for reporters distant from that beat; appearance of conflict of interest; a point of view; friendships with the rich and powerful.
First, notice the first item on the list. Plagiarism is certainly a serious offense, but the other serious offenses are the sort of things that can destroy people's lives, conceal crimes and enable corruption. Even more interesting is what didn't make the list: unintentional distortion due to laziness or bias; patterns of minor errors; isolated cases of serious errors due to negligence; selective reporting (as long as it doesn't rise to the level of distortion); failure to dig into important aspects of a story; cozy relationships with subjects as long as it doesn't involve the quid pro quo of a bribe.

What's important here was the victimology. In plagiarism, the primary victim is a fellow journalist. In all of these other cases, the primary victim is either the subject or the reader. Shafer was a tribalist and his main objective was almost always the defense of his tribe and its hierarchy.

There's a remarkable inverse correlation between the rank of Shafer's subjects and the harshness with which he treats them.  This is particularly apparent when different subjects of the same article have different positions. Shafer provided an excellent example when he wrote a post complaining about liberals writing books that actually called conservatives liars in the titles.

The books were Al Franken, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,  Joe Conason's Big Lies and David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush. Of these three, Conason was something of a pariah (Shafer dismissed him as a Clinton apologist) and Franken was clearly a journalistic outsider. Corn, on the other hand, was very much an insider in the Washington press corp (Shafer even described him as a friend in the post).

Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that Shafer finds a way to shield Corn from much of the blast.
This criticism applies more to Franken and Conason than it does Corn—you can't expect a book about Bush's lies to also be about Clinton's lies. And Corn acknowledges in his intro that Bush isn't the first White House liar and that Clinton lied, too. 
Of course, you could easily make a similar but more persuasive argument in Franken's behalf. Lies was largely focused on the relationship between the GOP and conservative media and since the book was published in 2003 when there was no Air America and MSNBC was just starting to experiment with liberal programming, there was no way to provide similar examples on the left.  Just to be clear, I'm not making that argument; I'm only saying that it's just as viable as the one makes for Corn.

For an even more dramatic bit of paired data, consider two obituaries Shafer wrote, separated by only a few months. The first was for Walter Annenberg, best known as a philanthropist and founder of TV Guide. The second was for Michael Kelly, journalist and former editor of the New Republic. Once again there's a clear hierarchical distance between the subjects: Annenberg, though decades earlier a power in publishing and to his death a major force in philanthropy, was not a journalistic insider; Kelly, on the other hand was about as inside as you can get.

As you've probably guessed by now, Shafer's approach to these two obituaries differs sharply. Though they don't fully capture the difference, the epitaphs give a good indication of the respective tones:

Michael Kelly: "Husband. Father. Journalist"

Walter Annenberg: "Billionaire Son of Mobster, Enemy of Journalism, and Nixon Toady Exits for Hell—Forced To Leave Picassos and van Goghs at Metropolitan Museum."

The contrast is sharpest when Shafer addresses journalistic scandals and cozy relationships with controversial right wing politicians, areas where there are definite parallels between the two men. Shafer actually explains away the New Republic/Glass scandal as an instance of Kelly being too loyal for his own good.

Shafer often judges figures on the periphery of the journalistic establishment based on a much higher standard than "Plagiarism, willful distortion, pattern of significant errors, bribe-taking." For someone like Larry King, a few disputable errors and minor discrepancies (such as changing the date of an incident from 1972 to 1971 when retelling an anecdote) merit an entire column. (It's worth noting that this column ran in the middle of 2009, a period when the coverage of politics, the economy and the European crisis were raising all sorts of journalistic questions, questions that didn't get a lot of space in Shafer's column. This raises the issue of trivialism in media criticism -- see On the Media for a myriad of examples -- but that's a topic for another thread.)

If marginal figures committing minor offenses are treated harshly by Shafer, what happens when someone at the top of the hierarchy does something that Shafer normally considers a serious offense like plagiarism? We got an answer to that one when Maureen Dowd was caught lifting a passage from Josh Marshall.

Here's her explanation in Bloggasm:

“i was talking to a friend of mine Friday about what I was writing who suggested I make this point, expressing it in a cogent — and I assumed spontaneous — way and I wanted to weave the idea into my column. but, clearly, my friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me. we’re fixing it on the web, to give josh credit, and will include a note, as well as a formal correction tomorrow.”
And here Shafer explains why it's not so bad:
1. She responded promptly to the charge of plagiarism when confronted by the Huffington Post and Politico. (Many plagiarists go into hiding or deny getting material from other sources.)

2. She and her paper quickly amended her column and published a correction (although the correction is a little soft for my taste).

3. Her explanation of how the plagiarism happened seems plausible—if a tad incomplete.

4. She's not yet used the explanation as an excuse, nor has she said it's "time to move on."

5. She's not yet protested that her lifting wasn't plagiarism.

6. She's taking her lumps and not whining about it.
And here was my response at the time:
1. 'Responded.' Not to be confused with 'confessed,' 'owned up,' 'took responsibility,' or any phrase that uses a form of the word 'plagiarism.'
2. "[A] little soft"?
3. Yeah, near verbatim quotes make it through convoluted processes all the time.
4. "[M]y friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me." -- What exactly would an excuse look like?
5. No, she just implied it wasn't plagiarism. That definitely gives her the moral high ground.
6. What a trooper.
(I apologize for the tone. I was in a snarky phase, but I'm trying to play nicer these days.)

I've spent a lot of time on Shafer because he's a good example,  I was familiar with his work and, as a media critic, he has an important role in journalism's self-correction process, but he's is not an isolated case, nor is he the worst of bunch (particularly not since the rise of Politico).

The point of all this is that journalism has a problem with tribalism and other social dynamics. These things are affecting objectivity, credibility and quality. What's worse, journalists seem to have so internalized the underlying mindset to such a degree that most of them don't even realize what's going on.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

I don't say enough nice things about Ars Technica -- AV Edition

This recent piece is a must read for anyone following this story byTimothy B. Lee

Tesla is clinging to an old conventional wisdom

In 2014, the same year Tesla started shipping the first generation of Autopilot hardware, the Society of Automotive Engineers published a five-level taxonomy of autonomous driving systems that envisioned driver-assistance systems (known as "level 2" in SAE jargon) gradually morphing into fully autonomous systems that could operate without human supervision (levels 4 and 5).
But the last five years have seen a dramatic shift in industry thinking. Most companies now see driver assistance and full self-driving as distinct markets.

No company has done more to change industry thinking here than Google, whose self-driving project was spun off as Waymo in 2016. Around 2012, Google engineers developed a highway driving system and let some rank-and-file Googlers test it out. Drivers were warned that the system was not yet fully autonomous, and they were instructed to keep their eyes on the road at all times.
But the self-driving team found that users started to trust the system way too quickly. In-car cameras showed users "napping, putting on makeup and fiddling with their phones." And that created a big safety risk.

"It's hard to take over, because they have lost contextual awareness," Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in 2017.

So Google scrapped plans for a highway driver assistance product and decided to pursue a different kind of gradualism: a taxi service that would initially be limited to the Phoenix metropolitan area. Phoenix has wide, well-marked streets, and snow and ice are rare. So bringing a self-driving service to Phoenix should be significantly easier than developing a car with self-driving capabilities that work in every part of the country and all weather conditions.

This approach has some other advantages, too. Self-driving cars benefit from high-resolution maps. Gathering map data in a single metro area is easier than trying to map the whole world all at once.
Self-driving cars also benefit from lidar sensors, and the best ones cost thousands—if not tens of thousands—of dollars each. That's too expensive for an upgrade to a customer-owned vehicle. But the economics are more viable for a driverless taxi service, since the self-driving system replaces an expensive human taxi driver.

Over the last three years, most other companies working on self-driving technology have followed Waymo's lead. GM bought a startup called Cruise in 2016 and put it to work developing an autonomous taxi service in San Francisco. Ford made a similar bet on Argo AI in 2017—the company is now developing autonomous taxi services in Miami and Washington DC.
Volkswagen and Hyundai have deals with Aurora—a startup co-founded by Chris Urmson, the former leader of the Google self-driving project—to develop fully autonomous taxi services. Technology companies like Uber and Zoox are planning to introduce autonomous taxi services.

Tesla’s business model locks it into the old approach

Tesla, meanwhile, has stubbornly pushed forward with its original strategy. For more than two years, Tesla charged customers $3,000 or more for a "full self-driving" package. But progress has been slow. And that has put Tesla in a bind. Abandoning the old strategy would likely require refunding customers who paid for the Full Self-Driving package—which would be both embarrassing and expensive.

Instead, Tesla's solution has been to move the "full self-driving" goal posts.

"We already have full self-driving capability on highways," Musk said during a January earnings call. "So from highway on-ramp to highway exit, including passing cars and going from one highway interchange to another, full self-driving capability is there."
Obviously, this statement comes with a big asterisk: the driver still has to supervise the car to make sure it doesn't crash.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Friday, March 8, 2019

We won't even get into the intellectual property theft angle and the original Captain Marvel

It's late and this hits a lot of threads, so I'm just going to hit the high points.

Lots of fans feel a sense of ownership over the characters and franchises they follow.

The intersection between fandom and the alt-right has grown increasingly, if you'll pardon the word, fanatical. Perhaps the ugliest corner is dominated by the men's rights movement.

From the Hollywood Reporter:
Such messages are, of course, not actually reviews of Captain Marvel the movie — that there’s no way any of these people have actually seen a film that hasn’t been released yet is a clue, perhaps — but instead the very fact that Marvel is finally releasing a movie with a woman at the forefront, and that the actor playing the role has been outspoken about real-world issues surrounding sexism, racism and ableism. In other words, it’s more of the same kind of attempts to derail progressive Marvel movies that saw faked accounts of assault by African-Americans at Black Panther screenings last year.

That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering the kind of sexist and racist trolling that surrounded 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and particularly Kelly Marie Tran’s character Rose Tico; genre properties, especially tentpole projects and those released by massive studios like Disney or Warner Bros., have had to contend with increasingly vocal swathes of bigotry online in recent years as power structures inside the movies shift away from white male heroes.

Perhaps the best commentator on the alt-right wing of fandom and andd one of the best on the business of pop culture is Bob Chipman. Here, he points out that Disney does have a hidden agenda and it has nothing to do with social justice, and everything to do with lax enforcement of anti-trust laws.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

What used to be called the Show Me State

Via the comment section, Virgin Hyperloop One is finding a receptive audience for its pitch. [emphasis added]

With the feasibility of a high-speed Missouri Hyperloop route connecting Kansas City to St. Louis in about 30 minutes now established, the conversation has shifted tracks to ergonomics, said Diana Zhou.
Perhaps even more than Mars One, the hyperloop narrative illustrates the power of ignoring irrefutable criticism. Since long before Elon Musk coined the term (still his only real intellectual contribution to the project), the obstacle that has prevented maglev vactrains from catching on has been the enormous costs of major construction with tolerances that tight, followed by the still unsolved problem of high speed stability.

Other than some hand waving and a few unsupported and comically unrealistic numbers, it does not appear that there has been any substantial progress toward addressing those challenges. Instead, proponents have simply kept changing the subject to trivial issues like ergonomics and video screens, before going back to the literal pipe dreams of a world with all of our transportation problems solved.

The key here is that the journalists covering the claims really want to believe them and that makes it all too easy to go along.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Consistency in news coverage

This is Joseph

In thinking about media criticism, I want to link to these tweets by Matt Yglesias:

They bring up the central issue with the Clinton email issue -- there has been no consistent follow-up with succeeding administrations. It is one thing to say national security is very important (and it is).  But if you set the standard that a minor breach of security protocols requires congressional hearings, you are stuck in the face of a major one with either:

  1. Admission that the previous claims were specious
  2. Rigorously pursuing the new (more serious) claims 
Otherwise we end up with an odd sort of double standard that undermines any sort of ability to actually plan for political outcomes. Very much like the "deficits matter only as long as the other party holds the presidency".  These odd double standards undermine coherent debate about national priorities and what voters want.  Insofar as the press has a privileged position as the 4th estate, it is to guide us in debate and not to cultivate random scandals just to drive interest. In this sense, social media models may be failing us even worse than I had previously worried.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

OK, one comment

I must be suffering from red flag fatigue. It wasn't until after I posted this that the significance of the following hit me.

From A Real Tube Carrying Dreams of 600-M.P.H. Transit by Eric Taub
    All three companies contend that because of energy cost advantages over other forms of transportation, a system will be able to break even in a decade after full-scale operations begin. 
No one knows how much it would cost to build and operate a hyperloop over a great enough distance to make the speed worth while. Using existing methods, a project requiring this level of precision on this scale would be obscenely expensive. In order to make a serious attempt, a company would have to come up with radically new approaches and technology.

If Virgin and the rest were each pursuing possible breakthroughs independently, we should be seeing big differences in their cost estimates, even if those estimates were wildly unrealistic. The fact that all three give the same time to break even point is curious.

I'm afraid the most likely explanation is that they haven't really done anything substantive on the construction side. They're still using the orifice-derived numbers from the original whitepaper, which are even more nonsensical since all of them have abandoned Musk's original air-caster proposal.