Friday, February 22, 2019

I'm a sucker for this sort of thing

First a quick dose of cool design...

Then one of my favorite topics, the intersection of art and technology. (You'll never look at the sepia-to-Technicolor shot the same way again.)

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Cryptocurrencies pay for themselves in schadenfreude alone

First there's this...

Then there's this.

Final word from Brad Delong.

The highly-estimable FT Alphaville has long had a series: This is nuts. When's the crash?. That is my reaction to learning that Hoover Institution senior fellows are now crypto...

It is not at all clear to me whether they are grifters or griftees here...

I had known about John Taylor, but had thought that was a strange one-off. And now Niall Ferguson. Is anybody even pretending to have a business model other than pup-and-dump?

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

This is perhaps the worst hyperloop story I've read in any major newspaper (and that's a highly competitive category).

The New York Times' Eric Taub really goes for the gold here. For depth of buried lede alone, he may have set a record.

Too much more to list here, but all of our previously stated reminders still hold.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A few points to keep in mind when reading any upcoming story about the Hyperloop (first off, it's not a Hyperloop)

{UPDATED -- now with handy video example.}
[Last time we tried this it went really well, so...]

1. Here was Elon Musk's initial description of the Hyperloop:

"[A] cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table"

or more prosaically

“[R]educed-pressure tubes in which pressurized capsules ride on an air bearings driven by linear induction motors and air compressors."

The idea of air bearings has been around for a long time and has proven useful for a number of applications, but, after a great deal of effort, researchers concluded sometime around the 1970s that it was not workable for high-speed rail. When companies started trying to build even small, very limited working models of the Hyperloop, the first thing that most, possibly all, did was to scrap the one aspect that set Musk's concept apart from more conventional maglev vactrains. This is a small detail but it is enormously telling. They dropped much of the actual idea, but they kept the name and the associated buzz.

2. Neither the Hyperlop or the “Hyperloop” offers much new.

At least in the broad strokes, there's is little new in any of the recent proposals. Musk's original presentation relied mainly on Disco-era technology. I believe most of the current efforts have updated that with passive levitation systems developed in the late 90s. Either way, the systems that are now promised as just around the corner are not that different from proposals from twenty years ago which begs an obvious question: why weren't these trains built a long time ago. The answer is…

3. You didn't see supersonic trains twenty years ago for the same reason you aren't likely to see them in the near future.


Whenever people looked seriously at these projects, they concluded that the cost was prohibitive. And no, this didn't have anything to do with land rights or onerous regulations.

4.  A question of tolerance and other things

Even under the best of circumstances, big projects cost a great deal of money, and with maglev vactrains, the conditions are about the worst imaginable. This is supposed to be a brief overview, so I'm not going to make a deep dive here, but I will mention three factors: reliability, safety, and most of all tolerance.

You've got people traveling hundreds of miles an hour in a near vacuum. Just to get the damn thing to work, every part has to be manufactured to the tightest possible tolerances, every piece of work has to be done perfectly. But just working is much too low a bar here. With a Hyperloop, even a fairly minor failure can turn catastrophic, causing tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure damage, not to mention loss of life. Those standards of construction and maintenance are tremendously expensive, particularly for a piece of infrastructure that will stretch hundreds of miles.

5. Beware science-fair level demonstrations

When trying to follow the Hyperloop discussion, it is absolutely essential to distinguish between the easy parts and the hard parts. Many elements of the proposed system are well understood and in some cases widely used already. If you went through the Birmingham Airport in the late 80s or early 90s, you've probably already traveled on a maglev train propelled by linear induction.

Other elements are extraordinarily difficult to pull off. For instance, radical new construction techniques will need to be developed to make the system commercially viable. As mentioned before, the combination of extremely high speeds with the need to maintain a near vacuum over hundreds of miles requires a stunning degree of reliability and adherence to incredibly tight tolerances. Every seam has to be literally airtight.

You will notice that the "test runs" we have seen from various Hyperloop companies have focused almost entirely on the aspects that don't need testing.

[Ran across this shortly after posting.]

6. So what would a real Hyperloop test look like?

We will know that the Hyperloop is actually getting closer when we start seeing demonstrations that address concerns of civil engineers and transportation researchers (specifically those not in the employ of Musk or companies like Hyperloop One). For example, a process or manufacturing tube segments of sufficient quality cheaply or a system for joining these segments quickly and requiring few if any skilled workers.

7. And no, this is not just like SpaceX and Tesla.

The long-popular "we should take Musk seriously because he has done impossible things" genre has recently spawned the subgenre "we should take Musk seriously because he's doing the same thing with [Hyperloops/brain chips/giant subterranean slot car tracks] that he did with SpaceX and Tesla" This is simply not true. The approach is almost exactly the opposite. With the latter, Musk proposed plans carefully grounded in sophisticated but entirely conventional technology. With the former, he made vague, underdeveloped suggestions that left experts in the respective fields pulling out their hair.

To be clear, Tesla and particularly SpaceX certainly had their doubters, but the skepticism was focused on the business and finance side. Elon Musk unquestionably accomplished some extraordinary things, but he did so by the deviating from conventional wisdom in terms of how you set up companies while staying safely in the mainstream when it came to technology.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

I was going to come up with some sort of snarky left-handed compliment but I'm tired and my heart is not in it.

So I'm just going to come out and say that Reveal is doing excellent work and you should definitely check it out, particularly these stories on the return of redlining. My first job as a statistician was working in the finance industry and, though I have tried to keep up with the field ever since, I learned a great deal from this report including some disturbing aspects of the way credit scores are calculated.

It is also an example of damn good radio storytelling, more effective heard than read, but since I can't include an audio excerpt here...

For Faroul, things suddenly took a turn for the better after her partner, Hanako Franz, agreed to sign on to her loan application. At the time, Franz – who is half white, half Japanese – was working part time for a grocery store. Her most recent pay stub showed she was making $144.65 every two weeks. Faroul was paying for her health insurance.

The loan officer had “completely stopped answering Rachelle’s phone calls, just ignored all of them,” said Franz, 32. “And then I called, and he answered almost immediately. And is so friendly.”

A few weeks later, the couple got the loan from Santander and bought a three-bedroom fixer-upper. But Faroul remains bitter.

“It was humiliating,” she said. “I was made to feel like nothing that I was contributing was of value, like I didn’t matter.”

Contacted by Reveal, the lenders defended their records. Tobin, who turned down Faroul on her first application, said race played no role in the rejection.

“That’s not what happened,” she said and abruptly hung up. A statement followed from Philadelphia Mortgage Advisors’ chief operating officer, Jill Quinn.

“We treat every applicant equally,” the statement said, “and promote homeownership throughout our entire lending area.”

Faroul’s loan officer at Santander, Dennis McNichol, referred Reveal to the company’s public affairs wing, which issued a statement: “While we are sympathetic with her situation, … we are confident that the loan application was managed fairly.”

Reveal’s analysis of lending data shows that nationally, Santander turned away African American homebuyers at nearly three times the rate of white ones. The company did not address that disparity in its statement but said it was more likely to grant a loan application from an African American borrower than five of its competitors.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Why the state of emergency might be Trump's least bad political option

Since into the first shutdown (Joseph can back me up on this one), I've been arguing that a declaration of the state of emergency was highly likely. Here was my reasoning.

[Let's not quibble about the definition of a voting paradox for now. I'm on a roll.] It has been all the noted that if the stock in a company is held by three people with the first holding 1000 shares, the second holding 1000 shares, and the third holding one share, all three have equal voting power. Any two can get together to form a majority coalition.

We can say something similar about a multi player stag hunt. Assuming it takes a dozen hunters to successfully bring down the stag, anyone who controls a big enough group to bring the party under that threshold has the power to end the hunt.

This brings up what always should have been obvious problems with the conservative movement strategy. Just to recap, conservative leaders especially in the 60s and 70s came to the conclusion that their policies would never be as popular in the long run as those being advanced by liberals like LBJ. In order to maintain power under these conditions, they came up with a plan that allowed a strong and disciplined minority to maintain a hold on most of the power in the government. The plan always operated on thin margins. In order for this to work, the GOP had to deliver a higher turnout, especially for elections of high strategic importance.

Arguably the central underlying flaw in the plan was static thinking, the failure to account for the consequences of their own success. For starters, there was the inevitable tendency to shave away margins of safety. We all do this to some degree. Whether it be with time or money, after a close call, we make sure to give ourselves a generous cushion only to find it has somehow been chipped away. In this case, the Republican Party has become entirely dependent on these strategic advantages in order to remain viable. (It is worth noting that, except for the patriotic fervor of 2004, no presidential candidate of the party has won the popular vote since 1988.)

At the margins were growing thinner, the conservative movement was also starting to lose control of the social engineering experiment designed to create a motivated and reliable base. The flaw has always been there in plain sight. A Straussian scheme to use the tools of a totalitarian state media – – propaganda and disinformation – – in a subculture of a free and open society will always prove unstable. The wrong messages will start to go to the wrong people and at some point the misinformed cannon fodder will end up holding positions of power in the party.

It was the worst possible time for things to fall apart. The threat of diminishing margins is twofold. First, there is an absolute lower bound of viable popularity. When enough of the country opposes you, even the most strategic allocation of resources will not save you. To make matters worse, as you approach this bound, smaller and smaller blocks within the movement gained veto power.

Which brings us to today.

Politically speaking, declaring a state of emergency to fund an unpopular project that your administration didn't bother with for the two years you held every branch of government is a bad move, but it might just be the best one open to the Republican Party.

What appears to be an increasing and increasingly motivated majority of the country opposes Trump and the GOP agenda. The Republicans' chances of holding anything more than an entrenched court and a few statehouses are very small and dependent on doing two things: slowing these trends and keeping their coalition completely intact.

Unfortunately, it is now next to impossible to do both of these things at the same time. Just to have some numbers to play around with, let's say that the Ann Coulter/Rush Limbaugh wing represents 10% of the country which is willing to punish a GOP politician in the primary. Furthermore, let's say that half of them might be persuaded to support a third-party candidate or simply sit out one or more future elections. Given the margins we are talking about, even that 5% would be a devastating loss.

We have a similar situation with the cult of personality followers of the president. If the Republicans try to use Trump as wolfmeat, the resulting rebellion of some of those followers will almost certainly enough to push the party deeply into the danger zone.

Under these circumstances, the worst thing that could happen would be to force every Republican member of Congress to cast a vote on the record either for opening the government or for standing firm until the wall was funded. As unpopular as the state of emergency is, it passes the bomb to the courts where the electoral consequences are less immediate and there is a chance it can be diffused.

Of course, there's always the possibility that the declaration will further anger the majority of the country while  failing to placate the Coulter/Limbaugh faction. That would be ugly. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Two suspense campaigns

Probably completely unrelated.

The World-Record Instagram Egg Is Going to Make Someone Very Rich by Taylor Lorenz

Last week, a staffer at Need to Impeach, an organization that advocates for the impeachment of Donald Trump, received an outrageous proposal via email. Jerry Media, the viral marketing agency famous for promoting the ill-fated Fyre Festival, was now working in an unofficial capacity with the anonymous creator of the World Record Egg, and the company was hoping to broker a deal between the nonprofit and the egg.

Over the past few weeks, the egg has become an internet phenomenon. On January 13, the account’s first post became the most-liked Instagram photo of all time; by the time Jerry Media approached Need to Impeach, the account had more than 9.4 million followers. Since then, the account has posted a series of photos of the same egg with a progressively larger crack, suggesting something inside. In a slide deck, Jerry Media proposed that the egg crack to reveal the words Impeach Trump as Trump popped out and did the chicken dance. The agency even created a short animated video demonstrating the stunt.

Need to Impeach ultimately passed on the opportunity. “It was interesting,” said Aleigha Cavalier, a spokesperson for Tom Steyer, the founder of Need to Impeach. “But I probably get 20 to 25 crazy ideas a week, [and] this didn’t move further than that.” Mick Purzycki, the CEO of Jerry Media, confirmed the details of the proposal, but stressed that the goal of the stunt wasn’t monetary. “We liked it for noncommercial reasons,” he said.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

When it takes the FOIA to get at the bad data behind a study

Following up on our 2016 thread, Timothy B. Lee has a great piece up at Ars Technica on how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration screwed up its analysis of the safety record of Tesla's badly named Autopilot. The mistakes are really embarrassing but perhaps the most disturbing part is the way that the NHTSA kowtowed to the very company it was supposed to be investigating. 
In 2017, the feds said Tesla Autopilot cut crashes 40%—that was bogus

To compute a crash rate, you take the number of crashes and divide it by the number of miles traveled. NHTSA did this calculation twice—once for miles traveled before the Autosteer upgrade, and again for miles traveled afterward. NHTSA found that crashes were more common before Autosteer, and the rate dropped by 40 percent once the technology was activated.

In a calculation like this, it's important for the numerator and denominator to be drawn from the same set of data points. If the miles from a particular car aren't in the denominator, then crashes for that same car can't be in the numerator—otherwise the results are meaningless.

Yet according to QCS, that's exactly what NHTSA did. Tesla provided NHTSA with data on 43,781 vehicles, but 29,051 of these vehicles were missing data fields necessary to calculate how many miles these vehicles drove prior to the activation of Autosteer. NHTSA handled this by counting these cars as driving zero pre-Autosteer miles. Yet NHTSA counted these same vehicles as having 18 pre-Autosteer crashes—more than 20 percent of the 86 total pre-Autosteer crashes in the data set. The result was to significantly overstate Tesla's pre-Autosteer crash rate.


It's only possible to compute accurate crash rates for vehicles that have complete data and no gap between the pre-Autosteer and post-Autosteer odometer readings. Tesla's data set only included 5,714 vehicles like that. When QCS director Randy Whitfield ran the numbers for these vehicles, he found that the rate of crashes per mile increased by 59 percent after Tesla enabled the Autosteer technology.

So does that mean that Autosteer actually makes crashes 59 percent more likely? Probably not. Those 5,714 vehicles represent only a small portion of Tesla's fleet, and there's no way to know if they're representative. And that's the point: it's reckless to try to draw conclusions from such flawed data. NHTSA should have either asked Tesla for more data or left that calculation out of its report entirely.

NHTSA kept its data from the public at Tesla's behest

The misinformation in NHTSA's report could have been corrected much more quickly if NHTSA had chosen to be transparent about its data and methodology. QCS filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the data and methodology underlying NHTSA's conclusions in February 2017, about a month after the report was published. If NHTSA had supplied the information promptly, the problems with NHTSA's calculations would likely have been identified quickly. Tesla would not have been able to continue citing them more than a year after they were published.

Instead, NHTSA fought QCS' FOIA request after Tesla indicated that the data was confidential and would cause Tesla competitive harm if it was released. QCS sued the agency in July 2017. In September 2018, a federal judge rejected most of NHTSA's arguments, clearing the way for NHTSA to release the information to QCS late last year.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Chipman wins Twitter

The best line to date on the Bezos/National Enquirer story.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Causal inference and policy

This is Joseph

I was reading this blog and I noted this paragraph:
But Brexiters have created a hermetically sealed logic. Every warning is dismissed as Project Fear, with the jeer ‘you can’t prove Brexit will make that happen’; every time a warning comes true, it is dismissed as Project Fear Mark 2, with the jeer ‘you can’t prove it was Brexit made that happen’.
One problem in causation is that few things happen for one reason.  A company chooses to locate (or re-locate) for a host of reasons.  That doesn't mean that one cause may not be important, or even sufficient.  It just means that complex policy outcomes are hard to prove on a case by case basis.

So instead you look at frequency and patterns.  If homelessness is increasing as policy changes occur then maybe that is a bad thing?  If a firm relocates business to Ireland, could it be that it was planning to do so anyway?  Of course.  But financial uncertainty might make the vehicle more popular and so the timing may well be linked to a policy change.

Of course, all of these associations may be confounded and many (if not all of them) will have other causes that contribute.  Look at dating -- how rare is it that one attribute in a partner is the only consideration in a relationship.  But that doesn't mean that a particular trait (say intelligence or charm) isn't doing a lot of heavy lifting.

It is a tough area for inference but we should look at rates and tendencies.  If the death rate is going up among younger age groups it doesn't mean opioids or bad traffic regulations are to blame for all of this change, but it is worth understanding there is likely a probabilistic factor underlying the policy change and outcome.

Monday, February 11, 2019


Picking up from our previous post about approaching the rise of the Trump voter in terms of a social engineering experiment, one of the best indicators of epicyclic thinking is that each adjustment helps explain only one isolated aspect of the situation. In contrast, when introducing a good framework or mental model, most of what we see should suddenly make more sense. This applies not only to what happens but to how it happens.

With that in mind, let's talk about something that has been largely absent from the various think pieces on the subject but which has great explanatory power and which rises naturally from the social engineering framing: catharsis/emotional release.

If we start with the compound hypothesis that conservative movement propaganda and disinformation has driven a significant portion of the population (let's call it 20 to 40% just to have a ballpark) into a highly unpleasant state of stress and cognitive dissonance and that these people gravitate toward and reward anyone who relieves this emotional tension, either through message, affect, or language.

Consider affect for a moment. From the standpoint of someone who has spent the past few years or even decades hearing a relentless gusher of stories about welfare cheats and foreign criminals and persecution of Christians and countless other threats and outrages, a politician like Mitt Romney seems so bizarrely out of touch as to suggest collaboration or some form of mental illness.

For people in the treatment group, politicians like Trump and members of the tea party provide an enormous sense of emotional release because finally the leaders of the party are saying what the subjects see as appropriate things in an appropriate manner. For the most part this seems to be because this new crop of politicians also received the treatment.

I don't want to get too caught up in the finer distinctions between catharsis, emotional release, relief of stress, etc. What matters is that the conservative movement has spent more than a quarter century using distorted news and disinformation to cultivate a base motivated by anxiety bordering on panic and anger bordering on rage. It is easy to see why the leaders believed that having a base this motivated and hostile to the opposition would be to their advantage. It is not so easy to see why they believed they could control it indefinitely.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Centripetal journalism

With all due respect to Jay Rosen, Margaret Sullivan is the best journalism critic working today.

One of the supposed golden rules of journalism goes like this: “If everybody’s mad at your coverage, you must be doing a good job.”

That’s ridiculous, of course, though it seems comforting. If everybody’s mad, it may just mean you’re getting everything wrong.

But it’s the kind of muddled thinking that feels right to media people who practice what I’ll call the middle-lane approach to journalism — the smarmy centrism that often benefits nobody, but promises that you won’t offend anyone.

Who is the media’s middle-lane approach actually good for?

Not the public, certainly, since readers and viewers would benefit from strong viewpoints across the full spectrum of political thought, not just minor variations of the same old stuff.

But it is great for politicians and pundits who bill themselves as centrists.

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz won big when he got a super-cushy red carpet for his possible 2020 presidential run as a “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” candidate who thinks his centrism can knit up the nation’s torn fabric. He got this despite his lack of political experience.

The Schultz rollout started Sunday evening on perhaps TV’s most prestigious platform — the “60 Minutes” interview — and picked up speed from there. There were naysayers, of course, but the up-by-his-bootstraps billionaire couldn’t complain about the exposure; he became a household name in two days flat.

Former Ohio governor John Kasich, a moderate Republican, benefited this week, too, when he joined CNN as a “senior political commentator.” The cable network’s announcement called the appointment “notable” because he is one of the most prominent critics of President Trump within the Republican Party. The idea that cable news is lacking commentary from anti-Trump Republicans is notable only in its lack of self-awareness.

And there’s more: Jeff Flake, the ineffectual — but square-jawed — former Republican senator, who was the occasional darling of the Trump resistance, benefited when he signed on with CBS as a contributor this week.


But this is rare. Mostly, we have the irresistible pull to the center: centripetal journalism.

It’s safe. It will never cause a consumer boycott. It feels fair without really being fair.

And it’s boringly predictable.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Looks like time for another drinking from the wrong pipe repost

From Rolling Stone:

Who Needs Career Intelligence Officials When You Have Fox News? by Ryan Bort

Concerned as its agencies are with finding facts, President Trump has made sure to keep his distance from the United States intelligence community since taking office. Despite their wealth of expertise, he’s been reluctant to consider their security assessments as any more credible than what he happens to hear on Fox & Friends every morning. It isn’t hard to understand why, and it goes beyond Fox’s use of colorful graphics. The former presents the president with hard truths about dangers facing the nation that he is duty-bound to confront; the latter tells him that all is well — or, if it’s not, that it’s someone else’s fault — and that he’s doing a great job.

On Tuesday, the nation’s top intelligence officials briefed Congress on of North Korea, Iran and ISIS — all issues on which Trump has claimed varying degrees of victory. Their assessments didn’t exactly jibe with what the president would like to believe. Trump responded by attacking the intelligence community, tweeting on Wednesday that its officials are “extremely passive,” “naive” and “wrong,” particularly regarding their assessment of Iran. According to National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, whose warnings about Russian interference in America’s elections Trump has essentially ignored, Iran is still complying with the Obama administration’s nuclear deal, which Trump dramatically abandoned in May. “We do not believe Iran is currently undertaking activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,” said Coats.

“Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” was the president’s ultimate response the following morning.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

In retrospect, it's surprising we don't use more sewage metaphors

A few stray thoughts on the proper flow of information (and misinformation) and a functional organization.

I know we've been through all of this stuff about Leo Strauss and the conservative movement before so I'm not going to drag this out into great detail except to reiterate that if you want to have a functional  institution that makes extensive use of internal misinformation, you have to make sure things move in the right direction.

With misinformation systems as with plumbing, when the flow starts going the wrong way, the results are seldom pretty. This has been a problem for the GOP for at least a few years now. A number of people in positions of authority, (particularly in the tea party wing) have bought into notions that were probably intended simply to keep the cannon-fodder happy. This may also partly explain the internal polling fiasco at the Romney campaign.

As always, though, it is Trump who takes things to a new level. We now have a Republican nominee who uses the fringier parts of the Twitter verse as briefings.

From Josh Marshall:

Here's what he said ...
Wikileaks also shows how John Podesta rigged the polls by oversampling democrats, a voter suppression technique. That's happening to me all the time. When the polls are even, when they leave them alone and do them properly, I'm leading. But you see these polls where they're polling democrats. How is Trump doing? Oh, he's down. They're polling democrats. The system is corrupt, rigged and broken. And we're going to change it. [ Cheers and applause ]
Thank you, thank you. In an e-mail podesta says he wants oversamples for our polling in order to maximize what we get out of our media polling. It's called voter suppression because people will say, oh, gee, Trump's down. Folks, we're winning. We're winning. We're winning. These thieves and crook, the immediate, yeah not all of it, not all of it, but much of it -- they're the most crooked -- they're almost as crooked as Hillary. They may even be more crooked than Hillary because without the media, she would be nothing.
Now this immediately this grabbed my attention because over the weekend I was flabbergasted to see this tweet being shared around the Trumposphere on Twitter.
I don't know who Taylor Egly is. But he has 250,000 followers - so he has a big megaphone on Twitter. This tweet and this new meme is a bracing example of just how many of the "scoops" from the Podesta emails are based on people simply not knowing what words mean.
Trump had already mentioned 'over-sampling' earlier. But here he's tying it specifically to the Podesta emails released by Wikileaks. This tweet above is unquestionably what he's referring to.
There are several levels of nonsense here. Let me try to run through them.

 More importantly, what Tom Matzzie is talking about is the campaign/DNC's own polls. Campaigns do extensive, very high quality polling to understand the state of the race and devise strategies for winning. These are not public polls. So they can't affect media polls and they can't have anything to do with voter suppression.

Now you may be asking, why would the Democrats skew their own internal polls? Well, they're not.
The biggest thing here is what the word 'oversampling' means. Both public and private pollsters will often over-sample a particular demographic group to get statistically significant data on that group.
...  You need to get an 'over-sample' to get solid numbers.

Whether it's public or private pollsters, the 'over-sample' is never included in the 'topline' number. So if you get 4 times the number of African-American voters as you got in a regular sample, those numbers don't all go into the mix for the total poll. They're segmented out. The whole thing basically amounts to zooming in on one group to find out more about them. To do so, to zoom in, you need to 'over-sample' their group as what amounts to a break-out portion of the poll.

What it all comes down to is that you're talking about a polling concept the Trumpers don't seem to understand (or are relying on supporters not understanding), about polls that are by definition secret (campaign polls aren't shared) and about an election eight years ago.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Rational actors, stag hunts and the GOP

We have hit this idea in passing a few times in the past (particularly when discussing the Ponzi threshold), but I don't believe we've ever done a post on it. While there's nothing especially radical about the idea (it shows up in discussions of risk fairly frequently), it is different enough to require a conscious shift in thinking and, under certain circumstances, it can have radically different implications.

Most of the time, we tend to think of rational behavior in terms of optimizing expected values, but it is sometimes useful to think in terms of maximizing the probability of being above or below a certain threshold. Consider the somewhat overly dramatic example of a man told that he will be killed by a loan shark if he doesn't have $5000 by the end of the day. In this case, putting all of his money on a long shot at the track might well be his most rational option.

You can almost certainly think of less extreme cases where you have used the same approach, trying to figure out the best way to ensure you had at least a certain amount of money in your checking account or had set aside enough for a mortgage payment.

Often, these two ways of thinking about rational behavior are interchangeable, but not always. Our degenerate gambler is one example, and I've previously argued that overvalued companies like Uber or Netflix are another, the one I've been thinking about a lot recently is the Republican Party and its relationship with Trump.

Without going into too much detail (these are subjects for future posts), one of the three or four major components of the conservative movement's strategy was a social engineering experiment designed to create a loyal and highly motivated base. The initiative worked fairly well for a while, but with the rise of the tea party and then the Trump wing, the leaders of the movement lost control of the faction they had created. (Have we done a post positing the innate instability of the Straussian model and other systems based on disinformation? I've lost track.)

In 2016, the Republican Party had put itself in the strange position of having what should have been their most reliable core voters fanatically loyal to someone completely indifferent to the interests of the party, someone who was capable of and temperamentally inclined to bringing the whole damn building down it forced out. Since then, I would argue that the best way of understanding the choices of those Republicans not deep in the cult of personality is to think of them optimizing against a shifting threshold.

Trump's 2016 victory was only possible because a number of things lined up exactly right, many of which were dependent on the complacency of Democratic voters, the press, and the political establishment. Repeating this victory in 2020 without the advantage of surprise would require Trump to have exceeded expectations and started to win over non-supporters. Even early in 2017, this seemed unlikely, so most establishment Republicans started optimizing for a soft landing, hoping to hold the house in 2018 while minimizing the damage from 2020. They did everything they could to delay investigations into Trump scandals, attempted to surround him with "grown-ups," and presented a unified front while taking advantage of what was likely to be there last time at the trough for a while.

Even shortly before the midterms, it became apparent that a soft landing was unlikely and the threshold shifted to hard landing. The idea of expanding on the Trump base was largely abandoned as were any attempts to restrain the president. The objective now was to maintain enough of a foundation to rebuild up on after things collapsed.

With recent events, particularly the shutdown, the threshold shifted again to party viability. Arguably the primary stated objective of the conservative movement has always been finding a way to maintain control in a democracy while promoting unpopular positions. This inevitably results in running on thinner and thinner margins. The current configuration of the movement has to make every vote count. This gives any significant faction of the base the power to cost the party any or all elections for the foreseeable future.

It is not at all clear how the GOP would fill the hole left by a defection of the anti-immigrant wing or of those voters who are personally committed to Trump regardless of policy. Having these two groups suddenly and unexpectedly at odds with each other (they had long appeared inseparable) is tremendously worrisome for Republicans, but even a unified base can't compensate for sufficiently unpopular policies. Another shutdown or the declaration of a state of emergency both appear to have the potential to damage the party's prospects not just in 2020 but in the following midterms and perhaps even 2024.

So far, the changes in optimal strategy associated with the shifting thresholds have been fairly subtle, but if the threshold drops below party viability, things get very different very quickly. We could and probably should frame this in terms of stag hunts and Nash equilibria but you don't need to know anything about game theory to understand that when a substantial number of people in and around the Republican Party establishment stop acting under the assumption that there will continue to be a Republican Party, then almost every other assumption we make about the way the party functions goes out the window.

Just to be clear, I'm not making predictions about what the chaos will look like; I'm saying you can't make predictions about it. A year from now we are likely to be in completely uncharted water and any pundit or analyst who makes confident data-based pronouncements about what will or won't happen is likely to lose a great deal of credibility.

Monday, February 4, 2019

America is a country bitterly divided into two groups – – treatment and control.

The following would sound paranoid if it hadn't been so openly discussed by the leaders of the conservative movement in real time. At the risk of slightly oversimplifying, during the flush years of the Reagan administration, these leaders came up with a multipart plan to address the challenge of maintaining power in America while pursuing policies that lacked majority support.

The plan included devoting resources to high value-to-cost races such as midterms and statehouses, gerrymandering and voter suppression, dominance of and greater freedom to use campaign money, a highly disciplined carrot and stick approach to the establishment media that played shrewdly on its weaknesses and biases, and a massive social engineering experiment.

The pundit class has always had a problem with acknowledging and honestly addressing the various aspects of this plan, but it is the last element which indicates the largest blind spot. Commentators and more embarrassingly even some political scientists have pushed a string of theories that don't come close to fitting the facts with at least one requiring that West Virginia be re-assigned to the Confederacy.

All of this flailing around might be excusable if there were not an obvious explanation that almost perfectly describes the data. At least on a high level, all you need to ask yourself is who got the treatment?

Yes, there are certainly complications and complexities that need to be addressed. We need to talk about why certain people respond better. We need to look at the various channels and mechanisms beyond media including Astroturfing and the corruption of many of the leaders of the evangelical movement (particularly those espousing prosperity gospel). We need to acknowledge that this is not a clean experiment and that there are multiple levels of selection effects to contend with.

Those details, while important, are secondary. For now, the point we need to focus on is that there is a remarkably strong correspondence between conservative media reaching critical mass and an area going deep red, pro-Trump.

Unquestionably, the causal arrows run both ways here and we should approach some of the more subtle questions with caution, but the highly simplified model – – conservative propaganda and disinformation are the primary drivers of the rise of the reactionary right – – does an extraordinarily good job in explaining the last decade and the reluctance of many commentators and researchers to embrace it is itself a social phenomenon worth studying.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Howard Schultz is exploiting vulnerabilities in the system we've been pointing out for a long time.

God knows we've been over this before (I'm getting a little sick of it myself) but Howard Schultz, a man with no relevant experience whose answers to interview questions consists entirely of word salad garnished with bromides) has garnered the amount of serious attention for a laughable run for the presidency because of longstandiing problems with American journalism.

First, Schultz belongs to one of those groups that is always given extensive and respectful coverage. They include the super rich, Silicon Valley visionaries, economists, celebrities, and frequently ivy league professors resting on their laurels.

Second, he is promoting one of those ideas that have been granted exemption from balance. Though it seems to be receding a bit, many journalists still have an absolute fetish for giving equal time to both sides of the story even when, as in the case with global warming, there really is only one side. Despite this, certain issues have been allowed presented as axiomatic, without giving any room to opposing opinions. For a while, the education reform movement enjoyed this status, but the best example remains that brand of Simpson-Bowles fiscal austerity that is inevitably depicted as the grown up view despite of mountains of conflicting economic evidence.

Third, the Schultz campaign dovetails nicely plays into certain standard narratives extremely popular with a large part of the punditry. The villains of these stories are the extremists in both parties who live simply to make trouble. The heroes are the moderates on both sides who want to push past partisanship so they can role up their sleeves and get things done, and the Holy Grail the successful third party/independent.

It is no coincidence that the few hacks like Matt Bai and Dylan Byer who have rushed in to defend Schultz are the ones most deeply invested in things journalistic sinkholes like radical centricism and old-style horse race coverage.

Just so that some good can come of the Schultz campaign, and in memory of John Banner, here’s a music lesson from Jerry Fielding. Listen for the nicely done counterpoint in the second half. (Next time we’ll do 5/4 time signature with the Mission Impossible theme.)

Thursday, January 31, 2019

We told you to keep an eye on Pennsylvania

From the Philadelphia Inquirer, January 27, 2019
Unlike brick-and-mortar charters which are authorized and overseen by school districts, cyber charters are authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Department officials have offered no good reason why they have failed to properly renew or remove the state’s cyber charters, which include three in Philadelphia that enroll 591 students. That would be bad in any circumstance – especially following a year where the head of one large cyber charter was sentenced to jail for siphoning $8 million from a cyber school — but research consistently finds that cyber schools are less effective than traditional district schools. This costly entry into the educational landscape cost over $463 million in 2016-17 alone; $68 million was spent on Philadelphia cybers. The charter law grants cybers as much money per pupil as brick and mortar schools, a point that Auditor General Eugene Depasquale blasted in a scathing audit of the charter law in 2014.

We've been on the PA charter beat for a while now.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

“I can no longer accept cash in bags in a Pizza Hut parking lot” -- time to add Pennsylvania to the list

In an article entitled READING, WRITING, RANSACKING, Charles P. Pierce makes me think that I haven't been spending nearly enough time looking at education reform in the Keystone State. The quote from the title comes Pierce's account of the federal investigation of former Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School leader Nick Trombetta:
The bags of cash, a private plane bough by Avanti but used mostly by Trombetta, a Florida vacation home and a home in Mingo Junction, Ohio, for Trombetta’s former girlfriend all were described as perks enjoyed by Trombetta as part of a scheme to siphon money from taxpayers’ funds sent to PA Cyber for more than four years.
The case is actually small time compared to the other scandals going on in the state, but you have to admit it's a great quote.

A bigger and much more familiar scandal is the lack of accountability:
For reasons that aren't clear, millions of dollars have moved between the network of charter schools, their parent nonprofit and two property-management entities. The School District is charged with overseeing city charters, but "does not have the power or access to the financial records of the parent organization," according to District spokesperson Fernando Gallard. "We cannot conduct even limited financial audits of the parent organization." That's despite the fact that charters account for 30 percent of the District's 2013-'14 budget. Aspira declined to comment. The $3.3 million that the four brick-and-mortar charters apparently have loaned to Aspira are in addition to $1.5 million in lease payments to Aspira and Aspira-controlled property-management entities ACE and ACE/Dougherty, and $6.3 million in administrative fees paid to Aspira in 2012. 
Add to that some extraordinarily nasty state politics involving approval-challenged Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, the state-run Philadelphia School Reform Commission (which has a history of making teachers' lives difficult basically for the fun of it) and a rather suspicious poll:
"With Governor Corbett's weak job approval, re-elect and ballot support numbers, the current Philadelphia school crisis presents an opportunity for the Governor to wedge the electorate on an issue that is favorable to him," the poll concludes. "Staging this battle presents Corbett with an opportunity to coalesce his base, focus on a key emerging issue in the state, and campaign against an 'enemy' that's going to aggressively oppose him in '14 in any case."
I don't know enough about Pennsylvania politics to competently summarize this, let alone intelligently comment on it but it's difficult to imagine an interpretation that makes things looks good.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Political fantasies

This is Joseph.

Inspired by Mar's post yesterday, I wanted to mention the current trend of political arguments that lack any basis in reality.  At the moment, examples include:

Brexit and the Northern Irish border.  This was a major complication of leaving the European Union, foreseeable at the time of the referendum, and it seems to continue to be a case where politicians would rather pretend that the problem does not exist

The second is Howard Schultz and comprehensive tax reform.  Let me outsource to Paul Krugman:

The idea that we will solve complex problems without specific plans makes for a nice talking point but really does not advance the discussion. 

The irony is that this has led to a new round of attacks on people who do have actual plans.  From Matt Yglesias:

I mean things like Medicare for all are hard because they either require new investments of cash (in a country terrified of raising taxes) or the imposition of some sort of improved efficiency in a health case system with high prices (meaning somebody will lose).  This is awkward and it is true that this piece needs to be addressed.  But that things like free college with an actual offset are being attacked is more concerning -- the viable plans are being attacked for not having pieces they actually have.  Meanwhile, there is much less concern about plans absent entirely of details. 

I will note, in conclusion, the insight that you might have to make very hard decisions is very different than choosing not to make any decisions at all.  Brexit sounds less sexy if it comes paired with a border problem and comprehensive tax reform is meaningless without specifics, and it is only a viable plan if there was a way to resolve this from the beginning. 

Here is a place where reporters really could make a difference.   

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Howard Schultz is the latest example of the dangerous fallacy of omnicompetence

From Jonathan Chait:

Billionaire coffee-shop mogul Howard Schultz is seriously thinking of running for president as an independent. Schultz appears to be one of those rich people who has confused his success in one field with a general expertise in every other field that interests him. His apparently sincere belief that he can be elected president is the product of a sincere civic-minded commitment to the public good and an almost comic failure to grasp how he might accomplish this. That confusion is probably being spread by his hired staffers, whose financial incentive, conscious or otherwise, is to encourage him to embark on a costly political fiasco.

We shouldn’t feel too bad if Schultz wants to waste some of his great-great-grandchildren’s inheritance playing political fantasy camp. The problem is that Schultz’s earnest confusion might succeed just well enough to have catastrophic consequences.

This seems like a good time to revisit this ongoing thread.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

More magical heuristics -- Levy's omnicompetence

Yesterday, I introduced the term magical heuristics (still open to a better name) to describe nonrational mental tools used by many journalists and investors particularly when discussing science and technology. I laid out four general categories for these heuristics: magic of association; magic of language; magic of attitude; magic of destiny.

This post from Alon Levy (one of the most important contributors to the Hyperloop debate) perfectly fits with two of these categories, magic of association and magic of destiny (the idea that there are chosen ones among us destined for greatness). The whole thing is very much worth reading, but I've selected below the paragraphs that are most relevant to this thread and added emphasis to bring home the point:

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.


I write this not to help bury Musk; I’m not nearly famous enough to even hit a nail in his coffin. I write this to point out that, in the US, people will treat any crank seriously if he has enough money or enough prowess in another field. A sufficiently rich person is surrounded by sycophants and stenographers who won’t check his numbers against anything.


The more interesting possibility, which I am inclined toward, is that this is not fraud, or not primarily fraud. Musk is the sort of person who thinks he can wend his way from starting online companies to building cars and selling them without dealerships. I have not seen a single defense of the technical details of the proposal except for one Facebook comment that claims, doubly erroneously, that the high lateral acceleration is no problem because the tubes can be canted. Everyone, including the Facebook comment, instead gushes about Musk personally. The thinking is that he’s rich, so he must always have something interesting to say; he can’t be a huckster when venturing outside his field. It would be unthinkable to treat people as professionals in their own fields, who take years to make a successful sideways move and who need to be extremely careful not to make elementary mistakes. The superheros of American media coverage would instantly collapse, relegated to a specialized role while mere mortals take over most functions.

This culture of superstars is a major obstacle frustrating any attempt to improve existing technology. It more or less works for commercial websites, where the startup capital requirements are low, profits per employee are vast, and employee turnover is such that corporate culture is impossible. People get extremely rich for doing something first, even if in their absence their competitors would’ve done the same six months later. Valve, a video game company that recognizes this, oriented its entire structure around having no formal management at all, but for the most part what this leads to is extremely rich people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who get treated like superstars and think they can do anything.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The press still hasn't figured out what "Netflix original" means.

Just to get this out of the way, I haven't gotten around to Roma yet (my to-see list is very long and still includes an embarrassing number of genuine classics) but there is every reason to believe that it is an exceptional film fully deserving of its accolades. The problem isn't the movie itself; it is the way it's been covered. We have once again a dramatic reminder that journalists, despite having run countless stories on Netflix, still don't understand the subtleties of what they reporting.

When you read about a "Netflix original," you probably assume the process behind it went something like this: Someone came up with an idea for a motion picture or TV show. It could be someone inside or outside of the company, but either way an executive was approached and the decision to greenlight the project was made. At that point, Netflix put up the money, gave some input to the creative decisions, then took full ownership of the finished product. Sometimes, this is a pretty good description of the process but not always.

Often, Netflix owns little or no share of these programs. Instead they pay top dollar for a period of exclusive streaming and the right to call something a "Netflix original." Other times, they step in and buy a finished product, usually something prestigious and awards friendly (and you don't get much friendlier than Alfonso Cuarón in full art house mode). As best I can tell, Netflix didn't have anything to do with Roma until shortly before its release.

It is also important to note that, even by the director's own admission, this was a picture of extremely limited commercial potential. A Spanish-language drama filmed in black and white with no recognizable stars. Even if it wins an Oscar, it almost certainly will not bring in enough subscribers to offset the amount of money that Netflix is spending to acquire and promote it.

As we have discussed at great length in the past, a constant flow of hype is essential for maintaining the sky high valuations of companies like Netflix and Tesla, and keeping these stock prices high benefits senior management in a number of ways. You can't really fault them for playing this game, but you can criticize the reporters covering it for playing along.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

PDF tip

I'm a little embarrassed that it took me long to figure this out, but I had a great deal of difficulty finding the right tool for getting images out of PDFs like this turn of the century Scientific American I got from Internet Archive's indispensable collection.

It turned out that the solution was under my nose all the time. All I had to do was import the PDF into Inkscape, select the page  I needed then ungroup it. Couldn't be easier. Give it a try. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Another newly relevant repost

If you've been listening closely to the reporting on the LA teachers' strike, you may have heard some of the people on the picket line talk about the need to stand up to billionaires. This Monkey Cage post provides a bit of context.

Vergara vs. California: Are the top 0.1% buying their version of education reform?

By Mark Palko June 23, 2014

Tenure Lawsuit
On Tuesday, a California superior-court judge ruled that the state’s teacher tenure system discriminates against kids from low-income families. Based on testimony that one to three percent of California teachers are likely “grossly ineffective”—thousands of people, who mostly teach at low-income schools—he reasoned that current tenure policies “impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.” The ruling, in Vergara v. California, has the potential to overturn five state laws governing how long it takes for a teacher to earn tenure; the legal maneuvers necessary to remove a tenured teacher; and which teachers are laid off first in the event of budget cuts or school closings.
— Dana Goldstein writing for the Atlantic.
The Vergara vs. California decision has garnered a great deal of media attention. It has been covered as an education story, a labor story, a legal story, but the connection to another highly topical subject has been largely overlooked: Vergara vs. California is an income-inequality story.
Put another way, the decision, the course of the trial, even the very existence of the case were largely the result of actions of a small set of very wealthy men. What’s more, this is true for almost every major education reform initiative from Common Core to L.A.’s billion-dollar iPad program to endless charter school pushes. Though the list of names does vary somewhat from story to story, the same figures keep popping up. For instance, it is rare to find a major reform initiative that does not involve someone who has worked for or received support from Eli Broad or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Perhaps more importantly, even when the faces are new, the résumés are remarkably similar: extremely wealthy present or former CEOs, usually male and from the tech industry, with a proclivity for MBA-style rhetoric and approaches. Given the importance of the CEO demographic, it is not surprising that arguably the most powerful figures in the education reform movements of the United States and Britain (David Coleman and Michael Barber, respectively) both worked at McKinsey and Co., the definitive management consulting firm. (Definitive does not mean non-controversial. Barry Ritholtz has a good overview, and you can see my more education-centered take here and here.
The pair of education advocates [Gene Wilhoit, and the previously mentioned David Coleman] had a big idea, a new approach to transform every public-school classroom in America. By early 2008, many of the nation’s top politicians and education leaders had lined up in support.
But that wasn’t enough. The duo needed money —tens of millions of dollars, at least — and they needed a champion who could overcome the politics that had thwarted every previous attempt to institute national standards.
So they turned to the richest man in the world.
— from “How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution” by The Post’s Lyndsey Layton.
Of course, presence does not equate to influence, and influence is not necessarily bad. In order to get to a discussion of social good, we need to start by asking:
Does this group have a disproportionate influence over the current direction of education?
And, if so, is this disproportionate influence in some way undemocratic?
Consider the cases of Common Core and Vergara vs. California. With the former, it is important to note how unlikely it would have been for this program to get off the ground without Bill Gates. Both Coleman and Common Core have always been controversial. Coleman came into the education field strictly on the weight of his work with McKinsey, having no experience either as a teacher or a researcher. As for Common Core, almost immediately after gaining national attention, the proposed standards were greeted with considerable opposition. Here’s popular EdWeek blogger Anthony Cody writing in July 2009:
Sixty individuals, ONE teacher among them, will write national education standards in the next five months, in a secret process that excludes effective input from students, parents or teachers.
Along with the standards, a great deal of additional related material (curricular suggestions, sample lessons) were released, often to extremely negative reviews (including a particularly harsh reaction toward a scripted lesson that made the “odd” decision to teach the Gettysburg Address without referring to the Civil War).
Given the scale of Common Core, the speed of its adoption and, to put it mildly, its lack of grass-roots support, it is difficult to imagine that the initiative would be where it is today if not for Gates’s influence. By the same token, it is equally difficult to argue that competing ideas with more popular support but less influence behind them have gotten the same chance.
With Vergara, the difference is even starker, since it raises questions of equal access to the courts. Virtually every aspect of the case, from the founding of the organization Students Matter to the selection of plaintiffs to the quality of representation to the key witnesses to the research cited in the decision were influenced and, in some cases made possible, by a handful of large personal fortunes.
Students Matter was founded by David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur of considerable wealth and even more formidable connections. From the Mercury News:
And wealth has attracted more wealth — the Broad Foundation, a controversial education reform organization opposed by most teachers unions, and the Walton Family Foundation, started by Walmart founder Sam Walton, have donated to Students Matter. The nonprofit faced costs including a $1.1 million bill in 2012 from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, the high-powered law firm that argued the court case.
The selection of defendants appears to have been based on their willingness to challenge the statutes Welch et al. wanted overturned, not on the level of harm they suffered. There does not seem to be any evidence that any of the students had a tenured but grossly ineffective teacher. Four of the nine weren’t even attending schools that had tenure. From the defense’s post-trial brief:
Plaintiffs Monterroza and Martinez both attend charter schools that are not subject to the challenged statutes at all. Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara both attend a “Pilot School” in LAUSD that is free to let teachers go at the end of the school year for any reason, including ineffectiveness.
Actually, one of the “grossly ineffective teachers” had earlier been named teacher of the year (you can see an example of her work here).
In the trial itself, perhaps the most damning testimony came from Harvard professor Thomas Kane and LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy (previously best known for his disastrous iPad initiative). The quality of their testimony is outside of the scope of this conversation; what is relevant is that much of Kane’s research was funded by the Gates Foundation while Deasy is a former deputy director of the education division of the Gates Foundation and a graduate of Broad’s superintendent academy.
Common Core and Vergara are, of course, isolated instances, but they are both important and representative. In case after case, theories and approaches favored by a handful of very wealthy individuals received preferential treatment in the education debate. You cannot call that a democratic process.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

This one might be worth revisiting, particularly the last line

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Defining dysfunction

This paragraph from a recent Paul Krugman post reminded me of something I've been meaning to dig into for a while.
A brief aside: I don’t think it’s right to call this a case of Washington “dysfunction”. Dysfunction is when we get outcomes nobody wants, or fail to do things everyone wants done, because there doesn’t seem to be any way to package the politics. In this case, however, people who oppose TPP voted down key enabling measures — that is, they got what they wanted. Calling this “dysfunction” presumes that this deal is a good idea — and that kind of presumption is precisely what got successfully challenged yesterday.
We hear “dysfunction” thrown around a lot (often by me), so it might be a good idea to pin down some definitions. Krugman is definitely on the right track, but statements about “nobody” and “everybody” are obviously unrealistic. Every scenario makes somebody happy, up to and including the rise of Cthulhu and his dark, chthonic host. A workable definition will have to take that into account, as well as considering differing intensities of opinion.

A system is dysfunctional if there is no consistent weighting of preferences that corresponds to its actions. (I'm going to be careful not to let this drift into a discussion of voting paradoxes because a good portion of this audience knows a great deal about the subject and I would have to do serious research to make sure I didn't make a fool of myself.)

For example, a group could do what the plurality wants, or it could use some sort of weight by rank (first choice is worth five points, second is worth four...), or it could take into account strongly held positive or negative opinions.

Let's use restaurants. A group might go to an Armenian place because three out of seven listed it as their first choice, or they could go to Chipotle because six people listed that as their second choice, or they could take Chipotle off the list because one person refused to go (I'm with that guy. Living in LA and going to Chipotle is like living in Rome and going to Pizza Hut). All of these decisions are consistent with a functional organization.

If, on the other hand, the group ends up going for Thai when everyone would have preferred burgers, that's dysfunctional. I can’t think of a reasonable and consistent weighting scheme that can produce that result.

A political party is more complex than a group of friends, but in some ways it may not be that much more complex. I’ll try to flesh this out later, but for now, while you have to be careful talking about what a large group “wants,” I suspect that there are a lot choices that the GOP would “like” to make (infrastructure spending, for instance) in the same sense that those friends would “like” to be having burgers now.

Based on these definitions, for large chunks of the Twentieth Century, I'd say that the Democratic Party was the more dysfunctional. The Republicans, however, do seem to be making up for lost time.
Reading over this, it's pretty clear that I have a ways to go before I have a proposal for something coherent and measurable and usable, but I do believe there is something out there, What's more, I suspect that, in 2015, it's probably more important to worry about dysfunction than about ideological extremism.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Can Tesla survive without the Musk hype and bullshit?

From 2 Reasons To Sell Tesla: $920M And $26,250 by Peter Cohan

A little more than two months from now, Tesla -- in which I have no financial interest -- could have a considerably lower cash balance.

How so? The terms of a $920 million convertible bond make me think that come March 1, Tesla will have to part with at least a third of its remaining cash.

At the end of September, Tesla had about $3 billion in cash. This brings us to Tesla's $920 million convertible preferred stock -- which comes due on March 1. If Tesla's "average share price [is at] $359.87 or higher for 20 consecutive trading days," Tesla can pay off the note with common shares, according to the Journal.

But that level is 19% above its current price -- and I think it is much more likely that Tesla will need to fulfill its obligations to investors by forking over $920 million in cash.
By my math, the cumulative effect of these cash outflows should bring Tesla's cash balance to a dangerously low level.

I’m not going to pretend to understand the subtleties here – I have no relevant experience in this field – but the general notion that failing to maintain their stock price can have serious and imminent consequences for Tesla nicely complements a point we’ve been making for a while now.

Finally, it is essential to remember that maintaining this “real-life Tony Stark” persona is tremendously valuable to Musk. In addition to the ego gratification (and we have every reason to believe that Musk has a huge ego), this persona is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Musk. More than any other factor, Musk’s mystique and his ability to generate hype have pumped the valuation of Tesla to its current stratospheric levels. Bloomberg put his total compensation from Tesla at just under $100 million a year. When Musk gets tons of coverage for claiming he's about to develop telepathy chips for your brain or build a giant subterranean slot car race track under Los Angeles, he keeps that mystique going. Eventually groundless proposals and questionable-to-false boasts will wear away at his reputation, but unless the vast majority of journalists become less credulous and more professional in the very near future, that damage won’t come soon enough to prevent Musk from earning another billion dollars or so from the hype.

I was thinking simply in terms of the advantages of holding a major stake in a multi-billion dollar company, but as the Forbes piece points out, a big drop in that price can actually threaten the very life of the company.  The valuation of Tesla was always built on a myth and on the willingness of most of the press (with the notable exception of the LA Times) to go along with the fantasy. Now that facade is starting to collapse and it is likely to bring the company down with it.

Friday, January 18, 2019

A few more moments with the super one

There was always more to Super Dave than met the eye. Like many of the signature characters of his brother, Albert (particularly in Real Life and his stand-up), Einstein's doomed stunt man was a study in a recognizable smarmy show-business type whose facade soon cracked, revealing a mixture of anger and desperation.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

I’m not sure whether this is a cautionary tale about data manipulation or about concentration of economic power but I’m pretty sure about the cautionary part.

Good reporting from the Verge:
Dirty dealing in the $175 billion Amazon Marketplace by Josh Dzieza

Last August, Zac Plansky woke to find that the rifle scopes he was selling on Amazon had received 16 five-star reviews overnight. Usually, that would be a good thing, but the reviews were strange. The scope would normally get a single review a day, and many of these referred to a different scope, as if they’d been cut and pasted from elsewhere. “I didn’t know what was going on, whether it was a glitch or whether somebody was trying to mess with us,” Plansky says.

As a precaution, he reported the reviews to Amazon. Most of them vanished days later — problem solved — and Plansky reimmersed himself in the work of running a six-employee, multimillion-dollar weapons accessory business on Amazon. Then, two weeks later, the trap sprang. “You have manipulated product reviews on our site,” an email from Amazon read. “This is against our policies. As a result, you may no longer sell on, and your listings have been removed from our site.”

A rival had framed Plansky for buying five-star reviews, a high crime in the world of Amazon. The funds in his account were immediately frozen, and his listings were shut down. Getting his store back would take him on a surreal weeks-long journey through Amazon’s bureaucracy, one that began with the click of a button at the bottom of his suspension message that read “appeal decision.”

When you buy something on Amazon, the odds are, you aren’t buying it from Amazon at all. Plansky is one of 6 million sellers on Amazon Marketplace, the company’s third-party platform. They are largely hidden from customers, but behind any item for sale, there could be dozens of sellers, all competing for your click. This year, Marketplace sales were almost double those of Amazon retail itself, according to Marketplace Pulse, making the seller platform alone the largest e-commerce business in the US.

For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced. A cryptic email like the one Plansky received can send a seller’s business into bankruptcy, with few avenues for appeal.

Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court, says Dave Bryant, an Amazon seller and blogger. Amazon’s judgment is swifter and less predictable, and now that the company controls nearly half of the online retail market in the US, its rulings can instantly determine the success or failure of your business, he says. “Amazon is the judge, the jury, and the executioner.”

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

I'd be nervous about overgeneralizing your findings...

But it would be cool to dig through.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Just imagine what would happen if the New York Times were to announce the discovery of an advanced alien civilization?

Actually, you don't have to.

MARTIANS BUILD TWO IMMENSE CANALS IN TWO YEARS; Vast Engineering Works Accomplished in an Incredibly Short Time by Our Planetary Neighbors -Wonders of the September Sky.


ACCORDING to a telegram dated Aug. 17, from Flagstaff Observatory, Arizona, Dr. Percival Lowell announces the rediscovery of two new canals of Mars, which were seen for the first time at the last opposition in 1909. The canals are now very conspicuous, and attracting world-wide attention because of their startling significance. ...

Monday, January 14, 2019

"Why Horse-Race Political Journalism Is Awesome" is prime Shafer

As mentioned before, Jack Shafer has always been a reliably obsequious sycophant when approaching those high placed in the establishment hierarchy while being a genuinely mean-spirited bully toward outsiders and other safe targets. Even under the best of circumstances, this would make him an odious character, but these are not the best of circumstances. The stakes are now much higher.

It was perhaps inevitable that, when he weighed in on the issue of horse race political coverage, he would do so in an attempt to undermine the work of reformers like Jay Rosen and Margaret Sullivan.

Horseracism might be scary if the campaign press corps produced nothing but who’s up/who’s down stories. But that’s never been the case. American newspapers overflow with detailed stories about the issues and the candidates’ positions. At the end of the 2008 campaign, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell sorted Post political coverage over the previous year and found 1,295 horse-race stories compared with 594 stories about the issues. This ratio seems defensible, seeing as the who’s up/who’s down of the horse race can change daily. Issue stories don’t need that sort of constant revisiting, especially if they’re done well.
Horse-race coverage also helps clarify the voters’ minds when candidates converge on the issues, as happens regularly in the Democratic presidential derbies. If there’s little difference between the views of the candidate you favor and the leader’s, horse-race coverage helps optimize your vote by steering you toward the politician most likely to implement your views. Pundits aren’t the only ones who worry about a candidate’s electability. 
For the main election, these arguments are obviously inapplicable, but even on the primary level, his case is weak and sometimes self-contradictory. The very fact that Shafer, who has built much of his career defending the indefensible in the service of the journalistic establishment, falls back to the “seems defensible” standard tells us he knows he’s got a weak hand.

How weak? For starter, while there is some value in helping voters determine electibility and that polls play a role in this (though not a large one, early numbers mainly tell us about name recognition, and that's not really a factor in the general), it is dwarfed by the importance of helping voters understand the problems facing us and how each candidate plans to address them. What’s more, these questions are enormously complex. This means that journalists were spending less than half of their time on topics that were both more important and needed to be explored in greater depth. 

But it gets worse. Horse-race stories are primarily about prediction, who is more likely to win, and any prediction that swings wildly back and forth is, at best, chasing noise and is by definition bad. Even that is too generous a reading. The primary horse-race coverage that Shafer terms awesome didn’t just waste time and muddy the water by reporting every meaningless fluctuation as a trend, it also managed to get the actual trends wrong. Reporters and editors wanted badly to make the Democratic race seem more competitive than it was (at least, in part, to justify more horse-race stories). More to the point, they desperately wanted to convince themselves that Trump wasn’t the GOP front-runner.

On some level, this descent into denial was based on the knowledge that the rise of Trump was bad for the country, but there was another, less praiseworthy motive. The establishment media had invested heavily in false balance, both-siderism and radical centrist positions. The Trump candidacy required either painful soul-searching like we saw from the Washington Post, or a debilitating level of cognitive dissonance like we are still seeing from the New York Times.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Yes, this is what a content bubble looks like

This post by LGM's Loomis is a perfect example of an unintentionally interesting piece, one that makes a tremendously important point in passing then never returns to it.

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2018 was to watch more television. I’ve slowly increased my TV viewing over the last couple of years in response to the great stuff out there. Now it’s kind of weird, as the consensus is that there’s a lot of just OK shows and not much that’s really that compelling compared to the prestige dramas of earlier this decade. But I’m so far behind that this really barely matters to me.

There's a lot to unpack here.

One. While most of us are making New Year's resolutions to watch less television, Loomis is one of the very few who actually resolved to watch more, particularly those buzz-friendly critical darlings that the major streaming services are spending so heavily on. He is the ideal consumer with respect to this business model, and yet even he acknowledges that he will never be able to catch up with all the shows on his to-see list.

The dirty little not-so-secret secret of most of these must-see shows is that very few people actually watch them. For all their awards and feature stories, they remain more talked about than viewed. We could have an interesting discussion about their role in brand building and other indirect effects, but even with those taken into account, you have to have serious concerns about a business strategy that spends billions of dollars producing shows with such tiny audiences.

Two. Yes, N=1, but the perception that quality is slacking off has tremendously disturbing implications for the business model. For a number of years, the formula for generating awards, buzz, and perceived quality was fairly simple. Obviously, making good shows did help, but the key to getting noticed was hiring big-name talent, spending stunning amounts on PR and marketing, and sticking as close as possible to a handful of genres that lent themselves to extensive coverage and favorable reviews ("it's a dark, edgy crime drama with a quirky sense of humor, ""it's a dark, mindbending science-fiction drama with a quirky sense of humor"). Now, though, there is reason to believe that through a combination of saturation and the half-life of novelty, the formula is losing its effectiveness. That means even more obscene amounts of money will have to be spent to create the same impact.

Three. Finally, as we have said many times before, content accumulates. The 500 or so series that are currently in production are not just competing against each other, but against everything that has come before. If someone like Loomis who is almost genetically engineered to seek out new, trendy shows is opting instead for something that has been off the air for years like the Sopranos, investors should definitely be taking note.