Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Too busy to talk about these now but...

Check out Marshall on McArdle on Gawker


Krugman on bad election narratives.

p.s. and this from Hamilton Nolan in Gawker on pay and working conditions for adjuncts.

At least it's under $5 billion...

As mentioned before, I'm working on a longer piece on the journalistic failure around the “proposal” for a supersonic passenger train called the Hyperloop (sorry about the scare quotes, but they really can't be avoided). It's a story of hype overwhelming the good work of some serious journalists.

The hype around the Hyperloop grows directly out of the carefully cultivated persona of Elon Musk. Here's a representative sample from the credulous Kevin Roose writing for New York Magazine:
For years, government has been a nuisance to Elon Musk. It's slowed him down. It's required him to spend his valuable time lobbying his Twitter followers for support in the New York legislature instead of building rockets. It's required him to explain his mind-bending technical innovations to grayhairs in Congress as if he were speaking to schoolchildren. Over and over, the public sector has convinced Musk that it is hopelessly lost when it comes to matters of innovation, and that anything truly revolutionary must spring from the ambitions of the private sector.

At the risk of a bit of Gawkeresque snark, Roose apparently has a rather unusually definition of “nuisance.”

Here is the far less credulous Jerry Hirsch writing for the Los Angeles Times:

Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.

And he's built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups.

"He definitely goes where there is government money," said Dan Dolev, an analyst at Jefferies Equity Research. "That's a great strategy, but the government will cut you off one day."

The figure compiled by The Times comprises a variety of government incentives, including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits that Tesla can sell. It also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars. [It does not, however, include the more than $5 billion in government contracts that keep SpaceX in business -- MP]

A looming question is whether the companies are moving toward self-sufficiency — as Dolev believes — and whether they can slash development costs before the public largesse ends.

Tesla and SolarCity continue to report net losses after a decade in business, but the stocks of both companies have soared on their potential; Musk's stake in the firms alone is worth about $10 billion. (SpaceX, a private company, does not publicly report financial performance.)

Musk and his companies' investors enjoy most of the financial upside of the government support, while taxpayers shoulder the cost.

The payoff for the public would come in the form of major pollution reductions, but only if solar panels and electric cars break through as viable mass-market products. For now, both remain niche products for mostly well-heeled customers.
Subsidies are handed out in all kinds of industries, with U.S. corporations collecting tens of billions of dollars each year, according to Good Jobs First, a nonprofit that tracks government subsidies. And the incentives for solar panels and electric cars are available to all companies that sell them.

Musk and his investors have also put large sums of private capital into the companies.

But public subsidies for Musk's companies stand out both for the amount, relative to the size of the companies, and for their dependence on them.


California legislators recently passed a law, which has not yet taken effect, calling for income limits on electric car buyers seeking the state's $2,500 subsidy. Tesla owners have an average household income of about $320,000, according to Strategic Visions, an auto industry research firm.

Competition could also eat into Tesla's public support. If major automakers build more zero-emission cars, they won't have to buy as many government-awarded environmental credits from Tesla.

In the big picture, the government supports electric cars and solar panels in the hope of promoting widespread adoption and, ultimately, slashing carbon emissions. In the early days at Tesla — when the company first produced an expensive electric sports car, which it no longer sells — Musk promised more rapid development of electric cars for the masses.

In a 2008 blog post, Musk laid out a plan: After the sports car, Tesla would produce a sedan costing "half the $89k price point of the Tesla Roadster and the third model will be even more affordable."

In fact, the second model now typically sells for $100,000, and the much-delayed third model, the Model X sport utility, is expected to sell for a similar price. Timing on a less expensive model — maybe $35,000 or $40,000, after subsidies — remains uncertain.

Monday, May 30, 2016

"Elon Musk does his best Donald Trump impression" -- the invaluable Michael Hiltzik

This one was sitting in the queue for a while, but recent events have bumped it to the high priority track.

There is possibly no one who plays to the press's problems covering technology the way Musk does. He seems almost genetically engineered to take advantage of journalists' weak grasp of science and engineering, their appetite for hype, their craving for great-man narratives.  Further complicating the issue is the way Musk alternates from laughably obvious bullshit to genuinely interesting accomplishments.

There are a few sharp observers who get Musk. The very smart Michael Hiltzik is a prime example.

Tesla brought down by 'hubris'? Who could have expected that?
Musk deserves admiration for his dedication to the cause of clean transportation and the battle against climate change, or at least to shifting emissions from auto tailpipes to electrical generation, which is increasingly fueled by renewable sources. His corporate mission was on display last week, when he unveiled Tesla's Model 3 sedan, which will be mass-marketed at a projected starting price of $35,000, to great acclaim. But declaring one's commitment to the climate and driving the auto press around in prototype cars is relatively easy (especially if you don't let anyone look under the hood) compared to mass-manufacturing actual vehicles.

There's no reason to gloss over some cold, hard facts. Monday's disclosure underscores several disquieting aspects of Tesla's business performance and Musk's management. One is Musk's tendency to overpromise results and make up the difference with hype when he comes up short. Another is the magnitude of the challenges facing the company as it attempts to ramp up manufacturing to meet demand for the Model 3 sedan, expected to hit the streets as early as year-end 2017. (We delved last week into the likelihood of that happening.)


Tesla's ability to cloud investors' judgments resembles that of some other subjects of intense media attention. In the business world, there's Apple, but in the broader context, the publicity bonanza Tesla reaped last week by unveiling a prototype automobile that won't actually be available for sale for at least another 18 months was almost Trump-esque. Musk even alluded to the phenomenon during the earnings call.

"Tesla does not advertise," he said. "We don't pay for any endorsements. We do not discount our cars for anyone, including me." Nor did he seem to think that any conventional advertising would ever be necessary: "I think I could see us doing advertising where that advertising was interesting, entertaining, and people don't regret seeing it, which unfortunately is not the case for most advertising."

Why pay for advertising when it comes for free? News organizations devoted reams of newsprint and untold pixels to covering the Model 3 introduction — The Times ran no fewer than eight articles from a few days before to a few days following the April 1 event, and most drew heavy readership.

Latest video in the Puzzler's Guide to Problem Solving series

Another look at doublets, but this time with completely different set of heuristics.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

"Wowza" doesn't begin to cover it -- why we need Gawker -- part III

Following up on the previous post and our good friends the Lessins.

From Sam Biddle:

The San Francisco Chronicle was at the fete, and has details on its high-level guest list:

    When former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin celebrated the launch of her journalism startup at a Pacific Heights mansion this week, the event attracted the tech A-list: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrived in a gray hoodie; Brit + Co founder Brit Morin brought flowers; and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo started hugging friends as soon as he walked through the door.

    These high-powered tech celebrities are some of Lessin's close friends.

    Lessin calls herself a "reportrepreneur," someone who not only wants to cover the tech world, but to emulate it.

Emphasis added on that last part, because, just, wowza.

It's generally frowned upon to be very close friends with the people you cover professionally, because there's an appreciable chance you will be less inclined to write true things about them, when those true things are things they'd rather the rest of the world not know are true.

 That was back in 2013. Lessin had already been at this for years, crossing ethical lines and contributing to the culture of silly narratives and sycophancy that defines Silicon Valley journalism. Lots of very rich and powerful people really, really liked that culture and they were not at all happy with those who wanted to undermine it.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"How To Party Your Way Into a Multi-Million Dollar Facebook Job" -- the sad state of business journalism [Why we need Gawker -- part II]

[A repost from 2011. Made sadly topical again by recent events]

Andrew Gelman (before his virtual sabbatical) linked to this fascinating Gawker article by Ryan Tate:

If you want Facebook to spend millions of dollars hiring you, it helps to be a talented engineer, as the New York Times today [18 May 2011] suggests. But it also helps to carouse with Facebook honchos, invite them to your dad's Mediterranean party palace, and get them introduced to your father's venture capital pals, like Sam Lessin did.
Lessin is the poster boy for today's Times story on Facebook "talent acquisitions." Facebook spent several million dollars to buy Lessin's drop.io, only to shut it down and put Lessin to work on internal projects. To the Times, Lessin is an example of how "the best talent" fetches tons of money these days. "Engineers are worth half a million to one million," a Facebook executive told the paper.
We'll let you in on a few things the Times left out: Lessin is not an engineer, but a Harvard social studies major and a former Bain consultant. His file-sharing startup drop.io was an also-ran competitor to the much more popular Dropbox, and was funded by a chum from Lessin's very rich childhood. Lessin's wealthy investment banker dad provided Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg crucial access to venture capitalists in Facebook's early days. And Lessin had made a habit of wining and dining with Facebook executives for years before he finally scored a deal, including at a famous party he threw at his father's vacation home in Cyprus with girlfriend and Wall Street Journal tech reporter Jessica Vascellaro. (Lessin is well connected in media, too.) . . .
To get the full impact, you have to read the original New York Times piece by Miguel Helft. It's an almost perfect example modern business reporting, gushing and wide-eyed, eager to repeat conventional narratives about the next big thing, and showing no interest in digging for the truth.
It is not just that Helft failed to do even the most rudimentary of fact-checking (twenty minutes on Google would have uncovered a number of major holes); it is that he failed to check an unconvincing story that blatantly served the interests of the people telling it.

Let's start with the credibility of the story. While computer science may well be the top deck of the Titanic in this economy, has the industry really been driven to cannibalization by the dearth of talented people? There are certainly plenty of people in related fields with overlapping skill sets who are looking for work and there's no sign that the companies like Facebook are making a big push to mine these rich pools of labor. Nor have I seen any extraordinary efforts to go beyond the standard recruiting practices in comp sci departments.

How about self-interest? From a PR standpoint, this is the kind of story these companies want told. It depicts the people behind these companies as strong and decisive, the kind of leaders you'd want when you expect to encounter a large number of Gordian Knots. When the NYT quotes Zuckerberg saying “Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better,” they are helping him build a do-what-it-takes-to-be-the-best image.

The dude-throws-awesome-parties criteria for hiring tends to undermine that image, as does the quid pro quo aspect of Facebook's deals with Lessin's father.

Of course, there's more at stake here than corporate vanity. Tech companies have spent a great deal of time and money trying to persuade Congress that the country must increase the number of H-1Bs we issue in order to have a viable Tech industry. Without getting into the merits of the case (for that you can check out my reply to Noah Smith on the subject), this article proves once again that one easily impressed NYT reporter is worth any number of highly paid K Street lobbyists.

The New York Times is still, for many people, the paper. I've argued before that I didn't feel the paper deserved its reputation, that you can find better journalism and better newspapers out there, but there's no denying that the paper does have a tremendous brand. People believe things they read in the New York Times. It would be nice if the paper looked at this as an obligation to live up to rather than laurels to rest on.

Why we need Gawker -- part I

There are very few journalistic organizations that would leave a distinct and costly hole if they disappeared tomorrow. Gawker is one of that select group. This is especially true with stories like this by Andy Cush:

There comes a time in the life of every person or youth-oriented organic energy beverage brand when one must reckon with the loss of some previously cherished idea. A young woman realizes that she is no longer in love, or that her religion is now meaningless to her; the organic energy beverage brand that wishes to authentically connect with her as a customer realizes that throwing hundreds of dollars at some dick with a man bun and a few thousand Instagram followers may not be the best way to do it. Friends and beverage brands, that day of reckoning is today. We must throw off the shackles of our relationships and our assumptions and baptize ourselves anew in the fires of whatever bullshit is the next big trend in youth-oriented marketing. We must understand, right here and right now, that “influencers” are not going to save us.

An influencer, for those readers who have never commuted to a funky converted-loft office space for work, is a person, usually a teen or early-twentysomething, who has a large following on some social media platform, and has used that large following to trick some decaying capitalist institution into believing that they are valuable in some way. The decaying capitalist institution pays this teen lots of money to attend a rooftop party or add a branded hashtag to their latest casually racist comedy Vine, and in return, hopes to absorb some of the teen’s cultural cachet before his teen followers find some other, hotter teen to glom onto, or he’s caught on camera saying the n-word.
Based on conversations with a friend in the online marketing industry, this has been an open secret for a long time.

Here's more on the subject by Sam Biddle.
Once brands began to realize that some dipshit’s Vine account wasn’t going to make cans of Ragu or whatever go flying off the shelves, “influencers” cried foul. After all, their way of life–waking up, posting an Instagram of a cereal box, tweeting about laxatives, calling it a day—was threatened. They’d found a tremendous scam, and it sucks when your easy money train gets derailed. (I get it! I’ll be just as upset when blogging dies.)

Even MTV News was angry about the prospect of not being able to make a living typing proper nouns into an app caption. Amber Discko, a former Creative Strategist at Tumblr, has become a sort of Spartacus figure among the disgruntled, entitled influencer class. She’s also the person behind “Who Pays Influencers,” a new website aimed at exposing the payment practices of brands, much in the same way that Who Pays Writers has become a great source of transparency and accountability for freelancers. A key difference between that at “Who Pays Influencers,” though, is that writing can be good and worthwhile, while advertisements from a social media figure are always scummy. Who Pays Influencers has flung open the drapes and brought sunshine to the influencer economy, but instead of making it clear that these Viners are being exploited, it’s made it clear just how moronic this whole thing is.
The world of tech and social media reporting is deeply incestuous, filled with conflicts of interest. Worse still it is rife with insecure journalists who don't understand their subject and who are terrified of missing out and being behind the curve. As a result, every scam and fiasco is treated as a potential next-big-thing. Like Cracked and CollegeHumor, Gawker is exceptionally good at cutting through this bullshit.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Chamberty and barratry -- Josh Marshall takes us through the courts of Ithuvania

One of the things that greatly added to the damage of the Ithuvanian Experiment (giving random subjects of largely average intelligence billions of dollars and telling them that they were super-geniuses) was the twenty or so years of changing attitudes toward the rich. In the Post-War Era, the wealthy were generally viewed with distrust and their power was heavily constrained both by law and social norms. By the time the experiment really got under way, these constraints had been eroding away for about a generation.

We have now reached the point where there is a substantial (or at least highly vocal) group that any attempt to check the power of the wealthy is immoral. If anything, the rich deserve special protection against bigotry and envy directed at them due to their superior character, work ethic and intellect. I'm not going to try to tease out cause and effect here (all the arrows point both ways), but as we've grown more tolerant of concentration of economic power, we've also seen increases in frequency and magnitude and just plain shamelessness of it abuses.

From Josh Marshall:
Indeed, what Thiel is doing used to be illegal. There's even an archaic, Anglo-Norman word for the practice: chamberty, which the dictionary defines as "an illegal agreement in which a person with no previous interest in a lawsuit finances it with a view to sharing the disputed property if the suit succeeds." If, as Thiel claims, he was not looking for any monetary reward but simply pursuing a private grudge, then it is called "maintenance." But both can come under the heading of another hoary word: barratry, defined as "vexatious litigation or incitement to it."

In any case, it was illegal. But it's not anymore (though what Thiel is doing is at least in the proximity of what are called anti-SLAPP laws). But even if these specific torts and laws are no longer in place, it is still a general and needful principle that the civil law exists to provide relief to injured parties and to pursue remedies in the public interest. It's not there to pursue private vengeance by stealth. If we're going to pretend that Thiel's tort jihad might be as much as in the public interest as an ACLU suit, good luck with that. But sure, let the public decided. Do it in public. Don't hide.

What Thiel's actions and The American Interest article both point to this: One of the great trends of our time is not simply to give greater and greater rein for the extremely wealthy to use their wealth in the public square but the claim that they need additional protections from those accorded everyone else or that they need to be allowed to do so in secret. Otherwise, they risk being "villified" or "demonized." In other words, the sheer magnitude of their power and the paucity of their numbers require special rights to protect them against the reputational consequences of their actions.

Free speech goes both ways. It is a modern and questionable innovation to claim that the mere spending of money amounts to speech. But even today in today's era of degraded logic, speech cannot be silent. If something gets the protection of free speech it should, indeed logically must, be out loud. Under current law, Thiel can try to destroy publications because of private vengeance. But he should be required to and should do so openly.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Running a political columnist through the translation app

A recent sample text from Thomas B. Edsall writing for the New York Times.

On Sunday, Donald Trump pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in the RealClearPolitics average of the five most recent national polls — albeit by 0.2 points. Political realists and polling experts tell us not to overreact to every twist and turn of the numbers, but there is an unmistakable trend here, and it is not one Democratic strategists like the look of.

On Sunday, Donald Trump pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in the RealClearPolitics average of the five most recent national polls — albeit by 0.2 points. Political realists and polling experts tell us not to overreact to every twist and turn of the numbers, but that's basically what they pay me for so let's go.

One of these days, we need to start a serious, detailed thread on journalists' dangerously weak grasp of polling, particularly with regard to things like selection effects, but in the meantime, here's a handy rule of thumb: whenever a columnist uses the word "trend," you should probably haul out the old translation app.

Adventures in Ithuvania -- REPOST

[After reading this and this and this, I think we may be visiting Ithuvania quite a bit in the near future.]

There's a wonderful Far Side cartoon that shows two scientists addressing a man sitting behind a desk in a sumptuous office. The lead scientist says:

"Sorry, your highness, but you're really not the dictator of Ithuvania, a small European republic. In fact, there is no Ithuvania. The hordes of admirers, the military parades, this office -- we faked it all as in experiment in human psychology. In fact, you highness, your real name is Edward Belcher, you're from Long Island, New York, and it's time to go home, Eddie."

Sometimes, when I come across yet another bit of jaw-dropping flakiness from some tech-bubble billionaire, my thoughts turn to Ithuvania. What if this were an experiment? What if some well-funded research organization decided to see what would happen if it randomly selected individuals of average intelligence, handed them huge checks and told them they were super-geniuses?

I'm not saying that's what happened; I'm just saying the results would have been awfully damned similar.

From Wired:

THE SEASTEADING INSTITUTE was the toast of tech entrepreneurs when it received financial backing from venture capitalist Peter Thiel in 2008. Its mission was to build a manmade island nation where inventors could work free of heavy-handed government interference. One early rendering shows an island raised on concrete stilts in eerily calm waters. The buildings atop the platform resemble nothing so much as the swanky tech campus of an entrepreneur’s ultimate dream: No sign of land or civilization in sight. The island, despite appearing strapped for square footage, has room for a full-size swimming pool with deck lounges.

In a 2009 essay, Thiel described these island paradises as a potential “escape from politics in all its forms.” It wasn’t just desirable, he said. It seemed possible. “We may have reached the stage at which it is economically feasible, or where it will soon be feasible,” he wrote.

More than a half-decade later, the dream has yet to be realized. And optimism is starting to waver. Earlier this year, during a talk at George Mason University, Thiel said, “I’m not exactly sure that I’m going to succeed in building a libertarian utopia any time soon.” Part of the problem: A truly self-sufficient society might exceed the range even of Thiel’s fortune. “You need to have a version where you could get started with a budget of less than $50 billion,” he said.

For its part, The Seasteading Institute has also come to appreciate that the middle of the ocean is less inviting than early renderings suggest. It now hopes to find shelter in calmer, government-regulated waters. According to its most recent vision statement, “The high cost of open ocean engineering serves as a large barrier to entry and hinders entrepreneurship in international waters. This has led us to look for cost-reducing solutions within the territorial waters of a host nation.”

Thiel’s reassessment marks a clear departure from tech culture’s unflinching confidence in its ability to self-govern. In recent years a number of prominent entrepreneurs have urged Silicon Valley to create a less inhibited place for its work. Larry Page called on technologists to “set aside a small part of the world” to test new ideas. Elon Musk has aimed at colonizing Mars. And venture capitalist Tim Draper made a proposal to divide Silicon Valley into its own state. But aside from the continued growth of full-service tech campuses such as Google’s and Facebook’s, very little has been accomplished in the way of true societal independence.

Building a government, it turns out, is a more complex challenge than much of Silicon Valley would have you believe. Now, Thiel and other high-profile Silicon Valley investors are carefully taking stock of the anti-government view they helped popularize. For all Thiel’s open criticism of elected officials, he sounded remarkably like a politician recanting false promises on the stage at George Mason. Toward the end of the talk, he reflected for a moment on his early essay on seasteading. “Writing is always such a dangerous thing,” he said. “It was late at night. I quickly typed it off.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

What went wrong with Mars One and Hyperloop coverage -- never let a resolved issue stand in the way of a nice think piece

 One of the many contributing factors to the disastrous coverage of Mars One was the human interest appeal. Almost no publication could resist the temptation to tell the inspiring story of bold colonists about to take a one-way trip to another planet. Some of the articles briefly mentioned the possibility that the mission might not happen, but none owned up to the virtual certainty that it wouldn't. To do so would have ruined the story, or at least made it into something more complex and downbeat.

We see something similar here. The Hyperloop would be a useful example for any number of wide-eyed essays on visionary CEOs and Silicon Valley culture, but much of that usefulness depends on the proposal being a serious effort and not just a sad cry for attention. The desire to make Musk's white paper into what the writer needs combined with a weak grasp of engineering gives us stories like this New York Magazine piece by Kevin Roose.

It's been a day since Elon Musk revealed his grand plans for a so-called Hyperloop, a flashy high-speed transportation system that feels pulled from a Robert Heinlein novel, and nobody quite knows what to make of it. PandoDaily's Hamish McKenzie says Hyperloop is proof that Musk has supplanted Steve Jobs as the tech world's biggest visionary. Sam Biddle at Valleywag says it's an expression of a "very rich man's wild imagination." Pundits and professors are weighing in on whether the proposed technology — essentially, it's a scheme to shoot aluminum passenger pods through giant vacuum tubes at 800 mph — would actually work.

Lost in the debate about the Hyperloop's feasibility, or lack thereof, is the fact that Musk's plan — which he's admitted may never materialize — is not primarily a technical proposal directed at consumers, but a political statement aimed squarely at the Establishment. By proposing a new way to provide mass transportation that is both cheaper and faster than anything approved by state authorities, Musk is taking aim at the government's monopoly on large public works projects. He's saying to policymakers in Washington and Sacramento alike: I can do your job better than you.
Biddle is mildly skeptical; McKenzie goes beyond the credulous into the shamelessly sycophantic. At no point in the piece or in any of the linked articles, do you catch any sense of the real discussion. Even the framing of  "whether the proposed technology ... would actually work" shows a weak grasp of the issue. Given enough time and money, there's no question something along these general lines would work. What pretty much all of the professors (at least those who don't have a vested interest) are objecting to is the proposed timeline and, even more to the point, budget. Particularly regarding money, Musk is proposing numbers that are easily one and possibly two orders of magnitude below reasonable.

Of course, Roose can't come out and say this. Acknowledging it would greatly undercut a narrative built around disruptive entrepreneurs trying "to pressure lawmakers to get out of the way of technological progress." That mean he has to go along with at least the possibility that the Hyperloop is viable.

And that's part of the problem.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Essential Kael

I have a couple of posts in the draft stage and a few more in the back of my head that center on either quotes from Pauline Kael or discussion of the New Journalism movement that involve her. I thought it might not be a bad idea to do a quick introductory post because Kael is one of those writers who does need an introduction.

Part of the problem is that, when you say "critic," most people think "reviewer."  Probably the easiest way to explain the distinction is in terms of audience. Criticism is written for people who know a work; reviews are written for people who are thinking about trying it. Kael was, at best, a deeply problematic reviewer. She could wildly oversell films she felt were particularly deserving. Other times, she would simply use the film as a jumping off point for an essay on films or culture or politics. She almost always had something interesting to say, but little that was useful when you were trying to decide which movie to see.

My advice for those new to Kael is to start with the essays, then check out the full (not the capsule) reviews of films you've seen, then stop.

Here are four to get the ball rolling.

Raising Kane
 The New Yorker, February 20, 1971 and February 27, 1971

Kael's best known essay and my favorite. Also her most controversial, though not always for the reasons normally given (see below). The piece is difficult to describe, part critical essay, part historical narrative, part reflection on American culture, but the unifying thread is the story of the East Coast writers and artists who came to Hollywood. By turns affectionate, insightful and sad. At least part of the vitriol it inspired can be attributed to the people she had pissed off a few years earlier with...

Circles and Squares
Film Quarterly (01/Apr/1963)

A relentless dismantling of the American take on auteur theory, particularly that of Andrew Sarris. In addition to pointing out the various contradictions and logical flaws in the standard arguments of the time, it digs into the dangers of praising works and congratulating ourselves just because we catch various allusions and influences (decades before anyone had heard of Tarantino). It may not be a coincidence that many those who came off worst in this piece (particularly Peter Bogdanovich) were among the most vocal of Welles "defenders" after the release of "Raising Kane."

Trash, Art, and the Movies
Harper's, February 1969

Addresses the fundamental paradoxes of taking pop culture seriously. It argues that we should acknowledge the pleasures and the vitality of a good trashy movie without trying to project upon it artistic qualities and deeper meanings to justify our approval. At the same time, we shouldn't equate the lack of trashiness with great art, particularly when it means praising the boring and the high-minded.

Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers
The New Yorker, June 23, 1980

A prescient take on the end of the Young Turk era of American film. Kael didn't care for auteurism as a critical theory but she tended to like auteurs, particularly the big visionary directors like Welles and Kurosawa and Huston. She looked upon the late 60s and early 70s as a golden age with films like Bonnie and Clyde and directors like Altman.

Kael openly viewed herself as an advocate for what she considered important films and visionary filmmakers, and she was willing to cross ethical lines to promote her favorites (such as when she wrote an ecstatic review of Nashville based on a private screening of a rough cut).

The end of the Young Turks era (combined with a brief stint working in Hollywood) left her bitter and pessimistic about the future of American cinema, which led to this 1980 essay. By far, my least favorite  of the four. The topic is too depressing for her to have any fun with and too narrow for her to make the interesting connections that mark the other three pieces. Worse still, the few films of the period she did like are overpraised to the point of exhaustion. That said, the observations on corporate culture are sharp and the predictions about pre-novelization perfectly describe franchises like I am Number Four.

Keep an eye on the follow-up

Check out Just what were Donald Trump’s ties to the mob?

It's an excellent piece of investigative journalism by the reliable David Cay Johnston, building on the solid foundation laid by Wayne Barrett. It's the kind of story where you run across players like the Genovese and Gambino families.

It's also filled with the kind of revelations that should dominate any discussion of the race not focused on policy proposals, but will it? That brings me to the point of this post. Is the 21st Century press able to handle the hard stuff? After all these years of innuendo and pseudo-scandal, do they still have what it takes to deal with the real thing? I'd like to think so but, based on the response to Johnson's piece so far, I'm not optimistic.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Where were we? Oh, yeah, the Hyperloop

Before we get further into the story, there is an important aspect that has bizarrely gone unmentioned in most of the coverage of this.

The Hyperloop is a conceptual high-speed transportation system originally put forward by Elon Musk, incorporating reduced-pressure tubes in which pressurized capsules ride on an air cushion driven by linear induction motors and air compressors.

The outline of the original Hyperloop concept was made public by the release of a preliminary design document in August 2013, which included a notional route running from the Los Angeles region to the San Francisco Bay Area, paralleling the Interstate 5 corridor for most of its length. Preliminary analysis indicated that such a route might obtain an expected journey time of 35 minutes, meaning that passengers would traverse the 350-mile (560 km) route at an average speed of around 600 mph (970 km/h), with a top speed of 760 mph (1,200 km/h). Preliminary cost estimates for the LA–SF notional route were included in the white paper—US$6 billion for a passenger-only version, and US$7.5 billion for a somewhat larger-diameter version transporting passengers and vehicles —although transportation analysts doubted that the system could be constructed on that budget.

To the extent that there is an idea in the proposal, it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a new one. Pretty much everyone in relevant fields of engineering has at least tossed these concepts around in the back of their heads. Many, if not most, have even sketched out something similar on the back of a notebook during a boring class.

We haven't seen a real life version of one of these trains, not because there's necessarily anything wrong with the basic concepts, but because actually making something like this would require either a tremendous financial commitment or a major advance that dramatically reduces the cost of construction. None of the recent proposals have seriously addressed these problems, let alone solved them; they have simply waved them away.

Joseph Brownstein had an excellent summary of some of the issues:

“There’s no way the economics on that would ever work out,” said Dan Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

At projected capacity levels, the so-called Hyperloop would transport 840 people each hour, each paying $20. With capital, labor and maintenance costs factored in, Sperling said, “Those numbers, even in the most outlandish visionary way, do not make any sense at all. The whole technology is unproven. I know he’s a brilliant guy, but it just doesn’t pencil out.”


Bonnie Lowenthal, chair of the California State Assembly's Transportation Committee told the Wall Street Journal, "Big infrastructure projects in California are very difficult. We have very complicated funding, we have environmental protections, seismic faults and land acquisition – but that's just the shortlist.”

Beyond land-purchase issues, any realistic estimate of the costs would say Musk and his team are underestimating them "by at least a factor of 10 to 20," said Michael L. Anderson, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

He said the more realistic price for a one-way ticket would reach about $1,000, based on his own projections of construction costs and Musk's proposed capacity of 840 riders per hour.

"You're talking $100 billion to build what they’re proposing,” Anderson said.

Anderson said that while some of the infrastructure is novel, the elevated guideway was not unlike existing structures such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit's aerial tracks. For the Hyperloop's tracks, that alone would cost in the tens of billions. As for the pipeline for the cars, he said, oil pipelines are $5 million to $6 million per mile, and they are seven times narrower than the Hyperloop's would need to be. In addition, the Hyperloop track could not change direction abruptly the way an oil pipeline could.

"It really has to be built to much higher standards than anybody has ever built a pipeline to," Anderson said.

Ultimately, it comes down to the Hyperloop not being able to transport enough people, Anderson said.

"If it’s going to cost $100 billion, you need to make it very high capacity to make it a worthwhile investment and it’s not," he said, explaining that in order to get a 6 percent return, tickets for the Hyperloop built at his projected costs and Musk's proposed capacity would have to be $1,000 each -- a price not enough people would be willing to pay to sustain it.

Like the woman said, that's the shortlist.

Friday, May 20, 2016

I'm going to see how far I can go into this thread without using either the expressions "train wreck" or "perfect storm."

The hyperloop seems almost designed to prey upon the press's weakness when it comes to engineering and technology. It's a story that demands a grasp of infrastructure, implementation, and the distinction between mature and immature technology. On top of that, it combines an alarming number of the elements of the stories that have suckered the press corps in recent years. Silicon Valley hype, CEOs who are inevitably described as "visionary," ludicrously optimistic cost estimates, and geewhiz heavy technology.

Already, we are seeing many aspects of the Mars One fiasco playing out again:

Reporters are asking all the wrong questions;

They are seeking out "experts" with highly unrepresentative opinions;

They are credulously accepting numbers that are easily an order of magnitude off;

As far as I can tell, few have even bothered to look at a map of the route. Otherwise, we'd surely be hearing more about the bizarre decision to start a super sonic rail line to San Francisco just south of the Tejon Pass;

When the occasional journalist does actual... you know... reporting, it has little to no impact on the discussion.

This is going to get ugly.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Another puzzle video -- going meta on Dudeney's Beer Barrel Puzzle

First off, you'll notice that things look a bit different. A friend of mine who works in postproduction (welcome to LA) made up an opening title sequence for the series. The video still looks like something done quickly on the cheap, but hopefully we've gotten to the point where the amateurism is not distracting.

My main focus here and what I want to direct your attention to is the meta. The central idea which is basically taken from George Pólya is that mathematics instruction should be less concerned with individual problems and more concerned with teaching the process of problem solving.

Puzzles are a natural fit for this concept. Their value for explicitly introducing heuristics has been demonstrated by any number of smart people such as Pólya, Martin Gardner (particularly in the Aha! books) and Raymond Smullyan, but the approach has never gotten the traction it deserves, perhaps because it requires both mathematical sophistication and a sense of humor, two qualities sadly lacking in both in traditional education programs and in the reform movement.

With that objective in mind, take a look, let me know what you think, and, if you're so inclined, feel free to share this with anyone who might be interested.

I used this problem as a jumping off point to discuss trial and error methods. For the more mathematically inclined, Dudeney's original solution might be of more interest.

From sandwich-makers to sitcoms -- more tales of monopsony

Continuing our abuse of economic power thread from yesterday, Ken Levine (the writer/director/producer associated with about half the classic television shows you can think of) has an excellent post on the annual upfronts. For those of you not from LA, here's a primer from Wikipedia:

In the North American television industry, an upfront is a group of gatherings hosted at the start of important advertising sales periods by television network executives, attended by the press and major advertisers. It is so named because of its main purpose, to allow marketers to buy television commercial airtime "up front", or several months before the television season begins.

The first upfront presentation was made by ABC in 1962, in an attempt to find out how advertisers felt about the network's new shows.

In the United States, the major broadcast networks' upfronts occur in New York City during the third week of May, the last full week of that month's sweeps period. The networks announce their fall primetime schedules, including tentative launch dates (i.e., fall or midseason) for new television programming, which may be "picked up" the week before. The programming announcements themselves are usually augmented with clips from the new television series, extravagant musical numbers, comedic scenes, and appearances by network stars, and take place at grand venues such as Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall, or Carnegie Hall. It is also the time when it is announced (by virtue of not being on the fall schedule) which shows are canceled for the next season. In recent years, the networks have mostly revealed this information to the public a few days before the actual presentation. Most cable networks present earlier in the spring since they usually program for the summer months; press attention to these announcements is usually much lighter.
Levine's whole post is worth reading but given some of our recent discussions, this part seemed particularly relevant.
Originally, before networks could own shows, the fights were with studios over number of episodes ordered and license fees. The license fee is what the network gives the studio to produce the show. The network was allowed two airings. If the cost of the show was more than the license fee then the studio paid the difference. The networks made their money by selling commercial time.

So if a series was cancelled after thirteen weeks and the studio shelled out a lot of additional costs it took a bath. But if the show was a hit, like say FRIENDS, then the studio owned it outright. At the time, syndication was the brass ring. Warner Brothers has made billions on FRIENDS. 20th continues to rake in money from MASH. It’s like a slot machine that just keeps paying out for over forty years.

Studios made so much money that the networks eventually cried poverty and lobbied the government to participate.  They won and were allowed to own studios and shows.  There was concern that the networks would then just pick up their own shows and squeeze out outside studios.  "Oh no," they promised, "Our goal is to get the highest ratings so we'll buy the best shows regardless of who produces it."   You know the result.  For the most part networks only picked up shows they owned. If they bought a show from an outside studio they usually required partnership.

If you had an ownership stake in a series (let's say you were the writer/creator/showrunner) you now had another partner. Sort of reminds you of the Sopranos,’ doesn’t it? And even the big syndication dollars were in jeopardy. Why? Because networks began buying cable networks and selling their shows essentially to themselves at reduced rates. The ownership partners were undercut again. The networks profited in that they had quality programming for their upstart networks and they alone profited on the advertising. This prompted several lawsuits by folks with ownership stakes, like Alan Alda.
As a bit of context, the television networks have spent more than half their lives under predictions of eminent demise. Go back to the late 70s and early 80s and you'll find columnists speculating that cable and the VCR would kill off at least one of the big three before 1990. These columns were recycled over the years  with the advent of digital cable, DVDs, video games, the internet, the boom in original programming, streaming services and probably a few other developments I can't think of at the moment.

All of these new sources of competition continued to erode (losing a monopoly will do that), but they remained one of the dominant forces in the media landscape and thanks to deregulation and industry consolidation, companies like NBC/Universal/Comcast have unprecedented freedom to abuse market power.

We're thirty-plus years into an experiment in  laissez-faire economics and certain conclusions are difficult to avoid.

1. Left unchecked, economic power tends to consolidate.

2. Once gained, that power is remarkably difficult to lose, even in the case of spectacularly incompetent management.

3. Inevitably, that power will be abused.

As a statistician, I know I'm always supposed to be calling for more data, but in this case, I think we have enough.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

What does Mark Thoma think about Jimmy John's?

Sometimes articles just demand to be paired up.

From Professor Thoma:
The second view of inequality, one that is gaining traction, emphasizes market imperfections and the exploitation of power relationships. Adherents to this school of thought believe that market systems have an inherent tendency toward large monopolies, and this tendency has been furthered by technological change, globalization, and economic strategies by incumbent firms that make it hard for new competitors to enter the market.

As monopoly power becomes established, those with economic and political power can capture the political process and prevent the enforcement of antitrust law and regulatory change that could threaten their market dominance. The political power large firms have can also be used to undermine unions destroying any chance workers have to bargain on equal footing for wages. This leads to even higher profits and more inequality.


These courses do spend time looking at the economic consequences of monopolistic completion, oligopolies, and monopolies, though not enough in most cases. But students are left with the impression that these market structures are aberrations from the norm rather than the normal state of affairs. That needs to change. And what is missing altogether in most cases is a discussion of power relationships. Quoting Professor Stiglitz once again, “historically, the oppression of large groups – slaves, women, and minorities of various types – are obvious instances where inequalities are the result of power relationships, not marginal returns.”

I'm not an economist so obviously anything I say on the subject should be viewed skeptically, but I would assume that when people in power routinely demand concessions from those without power and those concessions are of slight value to those making the demands while being onerous to those complying, we have strong evidence of an unhealthy power dynamic.

From Kerry Close:
Of the workers who have signed non-competes, fewer than half say they had access to trade secrets that a potential rival company could take advantage of. What’s more, 37% of workers say they have signed non-compete agreements at some point in their careers.

While engineering and computer/mathematical occupations have the highest prevalence of non-competes, the agreements aren’t exclusive to highly-skilled professions. For instance, 15% of workers without four-year college degrees are subject to non-competes, while 14% of employees earning less than $40,000 a year have signed a non-compete. That’s despite the fact that employees in both sectors are about half as likely to possess trade secrets than more highly educated and higher-earning counterparts in the work force.


In one of the most puzzling and criticized example of non-competes, fast food sandwich chain Jimmy John’s requires workers to promise they won’t work for a competitor, defined as a nearby business that derives at least 10% of its revenue from sandwiches, within two years of leaving their job. Specifically citing Jimmy John’s, two senators introduced a bill last summer that would prohibit the use of non-compete agreements for employees earning less than $15 an hour, $31,200 a year or the minimum wage in the employee municipality. It would also require employers to tell prospective hires that they may be asked to enter into such an agreement.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The shift from “is not” to “is” framing or when the irresistible appeal of not-Trump meets the immovable obstacle of is-Cruz

[I wrote this (or at least dictated it to my phone) a month ago back when Cruz was still in the race, albeit fading fast. The tenses are, as a result, occasionally a bit weird but I'm still comfortable with the basic thesis.]

These two posts from TPM got me thinking:

From Trumpmentum. Yes, Trumpmentum. Really.

I don't deny this could still happen. It's quite possible. But it is worth noting that in the nationwide GOP primary polls, after a brief Cruz Boomlet (Dead Ted Bounce) Trump's numbers have rebounded and actually appear to be rising again. Yes, rising. (The rise could just be wobbliness in the polls; but he's at least stabilized his support nationwide.) Conventional wisdom was - perhaps still is - that Trump had hit his ceiling and the sheer weight of bad news was pulling him down. That probably wouldn't stop Trump from winning more primaries. But it would likely make it impossible for him to secure 1237 delegates. Meanwhile, Ted Cruz would accrue enough to make him a plausible alternative nominee.

Again, that's not what's happening. Cruz's numbers nationwide are going down, seemingly shedding at least a margin of support to both Trump and Kasich. There's also little doubt that a big win in New York, which seems highly likely, will give him a wave of good press and allow him to reclaim the look of a winner.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Trump will get 1237 delegates or that he'll be the nominee. I find it hard to figure out or at least game out the chances of any of this - mainly because all the possibilities seem deeply implausible and yet one must happen. What does seem clear to me is this: Conventional wisdom seems to be or has been that Trump had peaked and started to fall with mix of the Lewandowski 'assault', the terrible week with four different positions on abortion, various protester beatings and unified elite GOP denunciation. He likely couldn't be caught by any other candidate. But he might be a 'zombie' plurality winner - still in the lead but so clearly damaged and losing steam that he could with some ease be denied the nomination. But the polls show Cruz is falling and Trump has not just stabilized but actually seems to be gaining steam.

What's not totally clear to me is how much this is being driven by Trump and how much people seeing Ted Cruz is turning people against him. Remember, always start from the axiom of EHTD (Everybody Hates Ted Cruz). And you can't go far wrong. Clearly the anti-Cruz wall Cruz built in the Senate is holding strong. But whether it's more strength from Trump or the failure of the anti-Trump stalking horse doesn't really matter. The upshot is the same. Trump is getting stronger, not weaker. And that portends bad things for any effort to deny him in Cleveland.

And from New York City GOP Gala Crowd Ignores Ted Cruz During His Speech

Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-TX) speech at the New York City Republican gala on Thursday night was met with a cool reception from the crowd, who spoke amongst themselves and milled about as Cruz delivered his campaign stump speech.

"I will admit to you, I haven’t built any buildings in New York City," Cruz said at the beginning of his address, drawing some applause, according to Buzzfeed News.

But it went downhill from there.

As Cruz continued with his speech, his applause lines drew little attention from the New York Republicans at the dinner, according to NBC News. The sound of chatter and cutlery on plates grew louder as Cruz's speech went on, according to Buzzfeed News. People also began wandering the room to chat with acquaintances at other tables.

Though  for very different reasons, both Romney and Trump were front runners who were highly unacceptable to a substantial faction of the party. The result has been two consecutive Republican primaries with a distinctive piston-like action. On a fairly regular basis, some alternative candidate suddenly moves up in terms of polls, coverage, buzz, and expectations, peaks briefly then goes back down.

As mentioned before, game theory gives us a pretty good model of how voters unhappy with the front runner can converge on a second choice, but I think another theory is needed to explain why these candidates almost always fade.

I would argue that we see a shift in voter thinking when the alternative candidate peaks. On the upstroke the question of whom to vote for is framed as who is a viable alternative? While on the downstroke the question is framed as is this a viable candidate? Put another way, the theory is that when people looking for a focal point, they are on the lookout for points that might attract other people; after they've converged, they start examining the choice more critically.

Another somewhat complementary theory is that some people will tentatively move toward a possible focal point only so long as others appear to be converging around that point. I want to be careful with this one. Momentum is perhaps the most overused term in political reporting, and I generally tune out when I hear it. However, in a case where voters unhappy with a front runner are trying to coordinate their efforts and present a united opposition, I think the concept makes sense.

(If all this is true, then both Nate and Nate got it completely backwards when they repeatedly declared Donald Trump to be another Herman Cain. Under these theories Trump was Romney; Rubio and the other candidates who had their brief moment in the sun were Cain.)

Being down to a two-man race changes the dynamic quite a bit, but we are still seeing a similar pattern. A week of bad news for Trump gets voters (and perhaps more importantly analysts and pundits) thinking about the possibility of Ted Cruz as a viable alternative and we see something of a bump. Then the thinking shifts to Ted Cruz as an actual candidate...

"Remember, always start from the axiom of EHTD"

Monday, May 16, 2016

TFA's enrollment woes – the importance of putting numbers into context

This Washington Post piece by Emma Brown on the problems at Teach For America is interesting on a number of levels, definitely something you should take a look at if you've been following the story. [emphasis added]

Applications to Teach for America fell by 16 percent in 2016, marking the third consecutive year in which the organization — which places college graduates in some of the nation’s toughest classrooms — has seen its applicant pool shrink.


TFA received 37,000 applications in 2016, down from 57,000 in 2013 — a 35 percent dive in three years. It’s a sharp reversal for an organization that grew quickly during much of its 25-year history ["grew quickly" is certainly true in terms of budget, not so much in terms of members. See below -- MP], becoming a stalwart in education reform circles and a favorite among philanthropists.

Teach for America now boasts 50,000 corps members and alumni; some have stayed in the classroom and others have gone on to work in education in other ways, joining nonprofits, running for office and leading charter schools. Its alumni include some of most recognized names in public education, including D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle Rhee.


The declining interest means that TFA is providing fewer corps members to school districts each year: The organization generally accepts about 10 percent of its applicant pool, and it refuses to lower its bar for admission, [Elisa Villanueva Beard, TFA’s chief executive] wrote. This year’s corps is likely to be several hundred smaller than last year’s.

“These shortfalls matter. Corps members are good at their work,” she wrote. “Our school and district partners want to hire far more of them than our current recruitment effort is producing.”

This certainly sounds like a big deal, but a few seconds on Google and some very quick, back of the envelope calculations reveal just how small these numbers are in relative terms.To put things in perspective, there are over 3 million full-time teachers. A drop of several hundred applicants won't be all that noticeable, even if all of them were going to high-need areas (and quite a few aren't).

As previously discussed, TFA is a minor player viewed as a supplier of teachers, but in terms of fundraising, it's a big deal.

From Wikipedia:

Year# of Applicants# of Incoming Corps Members# of RegionsOperating Budget

If all TFA did was recruit six thousand new teachers a year, there would be no way to justify these budgets, but of course, that was never the main focus. TFA is an advocacy group with a stated mission to "enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation's most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence." [again, emphasis added]

Though the organization is sometimes coy on the point, the focus has never been on leading from the classroom. The positions of real value are administrators, think-tank fellows, politicians, and education journalists, and the program is set up to help them rise to those spots, often at exceptional speed. We can go back and forth on whether a decline in the influence of TFA would be a good thing or a bad, but we probably don't need to worry about what the loss of "several hundred" prospective TFA mombers will do to the teaching pool.

Friday, May 13, 2016

One of these I'm actually going to write that ddulite mega-thread...

And when I do, I'm definitely going to use extensive quotes from this beautifully brutal piece by Evgeny Morozov.
What the Khannas’ project illustrates so well is that the defining feature of today’s techno-aggrandizing is its utter ignorance of all the techno-aggrandizing that has come before it. The fantasy of technology as an autonomous force is a century-old delusion that no serious contemporary theorist of technology would defend. The Khannas have no interest in intellectual history, or in the state of contemporary thought about technology. They prefer to quote, almost at random, the likes of Oswald Spengler and Karl Jaspers instead. This strategy of invoking random Teutonic names and concepts might work on the unsophisticated crowds at Davos and TED, but to imagine that either Spengler or Jaspers have something interesting or original to tell us about cloning, e-books, or asteroid mining is foolish. “A new era requires a new vocabulary,” the Khannas proclaim—only to embrace the terminology that was already in place by the end of the nineteenth century. They may be well-funded, but they are not well-educated.

Their promiscuous use of the word Technik exposes the shaky foundation of their enterprise—as well as of many popular discussions about technology, which inevitably gravitate toward the bullshit zone. To return to Harry Frankfurt, the key distinction between the liar and the bullshitter is that the former conceals “that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality,” whereas the latter conceals that he is not interested in reality at all. The bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” To suggest that Parag and Ayesha Khanna—and numerous pundits before them—might be pursuing purposes other than describing—or improving—reality is almost self-evident. (A look at the website of the Hybrid Reality Institute would suffice.) The more interesting question here is why bullshit about technology, unlike other types of bullshit, is so hard to see for what it is.

It is here that the Khannas stand out. Technik, as they use this term, is something so expansive and nebulous that it can denote absolutely anything. Technik is the magic concept that allows the Khannas to make their most meaningless sentences look as if they actually carry some content. They use Technik as a synonym for innovation, design, engineering, science, mastery, capital, the economy, and a dozen other things. It is what fixes cities, reinvigorates social networking, and grants us immortality. Technik is every pundit’s wet dream: a foreign word that confers an air of cosmopolitanism upon its utterer. It can be applied to solve virtually any problem, and it is so abstract that its purveyor can hardly be held accountable for its inaccuracies and inanities.

Of course, any discussion of embarrassing ddulite hype will include an inevitable section on TED Talks,,,

I can surmise why the Khannas would have wanted to write this book, but it is not immediately obvious why TED Books would have wanted to publish it. I must disclose that I spoke at a TED Global Conference in Oxford in 2009, and I admit that my appearance there certainly helped to expose my argument to a much wider audience, for which I remain grateful. So I take no pleasure in declaring what has been obvious for some time: that TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

So much BS, so little time.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The wages of bad journalism are Trump

A  number of commentaries have sprung up trying to argue that the rise of Trump shows that democracy is fatally flawed and that we should think about transferring more power to "the right sort of people" (the elites, thought leaders, the political and journalistic establishment, etc.). One of the many flaws of this argument is that a careful survey of how we got here shows that the vast majority of the blame goes to the elites, thought leaders, the political and journalistic establishment, etc.

One of the few establishment figures who has been getting the story right, Paul Krugman, has a post up today that beautifully illustrates the point.
Still boggled by reports that Trump, having realized that the numbers on his tax plan aren’t remotely credible, has decided to fix things by bringing in as experts … Larry Kudlow and Stephen Moore. I mean, at some level this was predictable. But it still tells you a lot about both Donald the Doofus and his chosen party.


I mean, Kudlow is to economics what William Kristol is to political strategy: if he says something, you know it’s wrong. When he ridiculed “bubbleheads” who thought overvalued real estate could bring down the economy, you should have rushed for the bomb shelters; when he proclaimed Bush a huge success, because a rising stock market is the ultimate verdict on a presidency (unless the president is a Democrat), you should have known that the Bush era would end with epochal collapse. And then there’s Moore, who has a similarly awesome forecasting record, and adds to it an impressive lack of even minimal technical competence. Seriously: read the CJR report on his mess-up over job numbers:
The recurring “oops,” intended as a dig at Krugman, took on an unintended irony after Abouhalkah discovered that Moore’s numbers did not match those of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In fact, Moore later acknowledged, he was using BLS numbers not from “the last five years” but from an earlier five-year period: December 2007 to December 2012. Focusing on that period is arguably dubious, because the span captures the depths of the Great Recession and the housing crash, which hit some states harder than others—and whose impact likely would have swamped any tax-rate effect. There are other issues with the quality of Moore’s argument, too, like its glancing-at-best treatment of how factors like housing costs shape population and job growth.
In any case, Abouhalkah found, Moore’s numbers were wrong even for 2007-12, in ways that complicated the “low taxes = more jobs” message.
Texas did not gain 1 million jobs in the 2007-2012 period Moore measured. The correct figure was a gain of 497,400 jobs.
Florida did not add hundreds of thousands of jobs in that span. It actually lost 461,500 jobs.
New York, with [its] very high income tax rates, did not lose jobs during that time. It gained 75,900 jobs.
Oops, indeed.
Of course, Moore remains the chief economist at Heritage. And maybe Trump believes that this is a certificate of quality, that anyone in that position must be a real expert.
At some point in the past twenty or thirty years journalists (or probably more preciselyeditors and publishers) decided that once someone had been recognized as an authority, that person was in for life. You could be a complete babbling idiot, a raging bigot, and about as accurate as a knave in a knight /knave puzzle. It wouldn't matter. Once on the list, you will be treated as a sober and credible source until the day you die or until concerned family members have you institutionalized for your own good.

In any system with even minimal standards of accountability, neither Kudlow nor Moore would still have careers in media or economics or politics. Instead, not only are they still employed, they are treated with sufficient respect that Donald Trump is able to improve his respectability by hiring them.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

So speaks a person who has never lived with room-mates

This is Joseph.

Kevin Drum wonders about apartments with common living and dining areas, but private bedrooms and baths.  The reason I would be skeptical about this arrangement is that you end up with whomever should happen to rent one of the units.  If a group of people pool resources to purchase an apartment then they get to pick who they live with.  Even so, these arrangements often end in a messy or unfortunate way.  It's the same in college (I lived in a dorm like this once, except with a shared bathroom) in that you have the pressure release of this living arrangement being time limited (and, even then, it can be pretty tough). 

So what happens when your apartment mate is loud at night?  Or does something illegal?  Or is very messy?  Who picks what goes on the TV (I remember this as a non-trivial issue in student residences)? 

This strikes me as an endless series of room-mate fights.  At some point, the shared kitchen is likely to end up in a bad state as that is where bad behavior (dirty dishes, food "borrowing", unsanitary counters) is likely to first peak.  The dorm I lived in mitigated this somewhat using maid service, but it was not a perfect fix. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Aleatoricism and Social Media

Often when I'm writing a post, I realize that what I had intended as a supporting passage would work better freestanding. In this case, I was revisiting an old thread about how the vast majority of even the smartest journalists and politicians on Twitter don't understand Twitter.  Part of the problem is the tendency to think that you can simply cut up something linear and structured into 140 character increments and call them “tweets.”

This is one of those cases where the medium most definitely is the message, and the medium is fast and random with people dropping in and out unpredictably and each reader having a different context based on who he or she is following and what's on his or her screens. In order to effectively use Twitter, you have to channel your inner McLuhan..

All of which got me to thinking about the way previous writers have tried to incorporate the random into their work.

Bryan Stanley Johnson (1933–1973) wrote an experimental novel The Unfortunates (1969), which was published in separate sections, consisting of a "first" and a "last" section, with the sections in between allowed to be shuffled randomly by a reader. This was an attempt to reproduce the randomness of personal memory. The overall narrative is about a sports journalist traveling to a city, to cover a football game, and recalling events and people from years earlier when he had lived in the city.
I wonder if there's an online version of The Unfortunates. It would seem to be a natural fit.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Product placements and hidden costs

Intrusive product placement was one of the reasons I stopped watching White Collar. The annoyance wasn't up there with the plot holes and character inconsistencies, but it was a factor. The spots were so clumsy and blatant that I wondered if they were meant as a protest by the writers, directors, and actors. Either way, it was a major distraction in a show that couldn't afford it.

In the television market of 2016, the field is so crowded that every viewing choice comes with opportunity costs. By choosing to watch Veep or Kimmy Schmidt or Silicon Valley or any of the dozen or so of the shows you really do mean to get around to. That level of competition for viewers heightens what has always been a perverse incentive in most corporations and the delayed, the hidden, the intangible.

When an executive suggests a change that saves money or brings in revenue at the cost of quality or customer loyalty, the positives are immediately evident; the negatives (assuming they are recognized at all) are usually delayed until the executive has moved up and out of the blast radius. In a market where all shows have to fight to hold on to viewers, that can deadly.

Friday, May 6, 2016

How a hit show loses (or perhaps "loses") money

This is one of those cases where threads may or may not be colliding. The following could be yet another story of Hollywood cost spirals. We have lots of unambiguous evidence that things are getting out of control. What's more, these examples it into a larger narrative of cost shooting up in the very areas where technology are to be driving it down.

On the other hand, we could have just another instance of a far older and better established genre, the Hollywood accounting story. There is a long history of films that obviously turned huge profits being labeled as money losers when the time came to pay contributors their share.

Regardless of which version you pick, it is interesting and always useful to look at some actual numbers when trying to follow a business story.

From the Hollywood Reporter

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Puzzle and Problem-solving videos [Doublet edition] – now slightly less beta

First the usual caveats. These videos still aren't all that pleasing to either the eye or the ear (which doesn't leave a lot of senses to engage). The plan is still to focus first on concept then on specific content while hopefully keeping the production values at least adequate. For example, recording the audio in a relatively quiet closet-sized hallway to get a reasonably clean track and ignoring the weird acoustics and stilted, choppy delivery that comes from wrestling with a jury-rigged arrangement while trying to narrate.

The concept is a series of math video (initially concentrating on puzzles) that focus less on specific problems and more on problem-solving. The video embedded here talks about analyzing problems to see what makes some easy and others difficult, then seeing if we can use that information to suggest strategies for tackling the more challenging ones. In the follow-up ("turn GRASS GREEN" -- also from Carroll), I talk about flipping problems and working forwards then backwards then forwards... In the Kakuro video I discuss finding footholds. In a couple based on Dudney puzzles, I cover mixing algebraic and trial-and-error solutions to be better guessers. You get the picture.

I'm more or less satisfied with the concept and content (or at least with the direction they're headed) but production and promotion still have a long way to go and I'm not entirely certain how to proceed. A few years ago, if you found a good niche and posted some videos of acceptable quality, there was a decent chance that you'd find an audience through organic search. Based on conversations with people who've worked with SEO, that's very difficult now between the competition and Google changing its algorithms to crack down on people gaming the system (which creates a lot of collateral damage among small players).

I'll be exploring other ways of promoting the videos starting here.If you're interested in the approach I outlined earlier or just in puzzles in general, please check this out (feedback is always appreciated) and keep an eye out for future installments. If you like what you see in terms of content, spread the word around. I'm getting advice from some acquaintances who work in video production so the quality on that side should definitely be improving.

Maybe I'll get around to a post on...

- The extraordinary value of name recognition in the 21st Century built around this post from Ken Levine.

- Exploring (or at least seconding) the points Paul Campos makes in "The key to a more egalitarian society is for everyone to go to elite colleges."

- Indulging in a bit of schadenfreude on how the establishment press's quarter century of tolerating increasingly shoddy and sensationalistic reporting is catching up with them in the form of the Trump campaign, as explained by Mr. Pierce.

- I have great respect for the crowd at FiveThirtyEight (when they're good they're very good), but given their track record, is there any question you'd less like to hear them tackle than Why Did The 'Stop Trump' Movement Fail?

- Connectography is the name of an actual book and not just the title for a parody TED Talk.

- Tierney Sneed does a good job pointing out the limits of the Goldwater analogy. Jon Huntsman proves her point.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Dean Dad on Zero Sum Performance

This is Joseph.

From Dean Dad:
In most states or systems with performance funding, the overall level of funding -- the pie to be sliced, if you prefer -- is either flat or declining.  Which means that if everyone improves by the same five percent, then everyone gets the same zero percent increase.  You may be making progress, but you’re still essentially running in place.  Worse, if you improve by three percent but the statewide average is five, you actually lose ground.
I find these sort of systems to be extremely tough environments to build motivation and success in, so I am glad that they are being scrutinized.  One issue is that it creates some very perverse incentives.  Consider this in a human resources context -- you do well at your job, get promoted, and now you are at the bottom of the ranking for the new rile you are in.  If the bottom group tends not to survive (long term) it suggests promotion is bad.  Or that politics will be played to make a promotion survivable, which can be pretty toxic. 

Where I have seen this system thrive is in very high reward environments.  Only one actress could be cast to play "Rey" in the new star wars film (no matter how good the second best applicant was), but there are no shortage of volunteers because the pay-off is so great. 

But placed into a less highly leveraged environment and it is a recipe for lowering motivation and, occasionally, penalizing the colleges that take on the toughest challenges.  We all want to think that we are so awesome that we can do amazing things with tough problems, and sometimes people do, but it can be a thin line between that and being set up to fail. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Context only counts if it shows up in the first two dozen paragraphs

The New York Times has a good piece on the impact of voter ID laws but I do have a problem with a few parts (or at least with the way they're arranged).

Stricter Rules for Voter IDs Reshape Races


SAN ANTONIO — In a state where everything is big, the 23rd Congressional District that hugs the border with Mexico is a monster: eight and a half hours by car across a stretch of land bigger than any state east of the Mississippi. In 2014, Representative Pete Gallego logged more than 70,000 miles there in his white Chevy Tahoe, campaigning for re-election to the House — and lost by a bare 2,422 votes.

So in his bid this year to retake the seat, Mr. Gallego, a Democrat, has made a crucial adjustment to his strategy. “We’re asking people if they have a driver’s license,” he said. “We’re having those basic conversations about IDs at the front end, right at our first meeting with voters.”

Since their inception a decade ago, voter identification laws have been the focus of fierce political and social debate. Proponents, largely Republican, argue that the regulations are essential tools to combat election fraud, while critics contend that they are mainly intended to suppress turnout of Democratic-leaning constituencies like minorities and students.
In the third paragraph, we have two conflicting claims that go to the foundation of the whole debate. If election fraud is a significant problem, you can make a case for voter ID laws. If not, it's difficult to see this as anything other than voter suppression. This paragraph pretty much demands some additional information to help the reader weigh the claims and the article provides it...

More than twenty paragraphs later.

Mr. Abbott, perhaps the law’s most ardent backer, has said that voter fraud “abounds” in Texas. A review of some 120 fraud charges in Texas between 2000 and 2015, about eight cases a year, turned up instances of buying votes and setting up fake residences to vote. Critics of the law note that no more than three or four infractions would have been prevented by the voter ID law.

Nationally, fraud that could be stopped by IDs is almost nonexistent, said Lorraine C. Minnite, author of the 2010 book “The Myth of Voter Fraud.” To sway an election, she said, it would require persuading perhaps thousands of people to commit felonies by misrepresenting themselves — and do it undetected.

“It’s ludicrous,” she said. “It’s not an effective way to try to corrupt an election.”

I shouldn't have to say this but, if a story contains claims that the reporter has reason to believe are false or misleading, he or she has an obligation to address the issue promptly. Putting the relevant information above the fold is likely to anger the people who made the false statements, but doing anything else is a disservice to the readers.