Thursday, August 31, 2017

If you indefinitely allow economic and political power to grow more concentrated and unchecked, it will be abused (even by those who promise not to be evil)

My surprise at the following story is somewhat blunted by my low opinion of the New America Foundation.  It always struck me as the sort of place that grinds out tired variants of failed conventional wisdom, then congratulates itself for boldness and originality, the sort of place that public intellectuals like to lend their names to and that large corporations are happy to sponsor.

That corporate-friendly approach leads to inevitable tensions, particularly in an age where big money increasingly expects a great deal of obedience from the not-so-powerful and when you have a researcher at the foundation actually focusing on the dangers of monopolies, those tensions can reach the breaking point.

From Josh Marshall:
Because this is a big interest of mine, yesterday I interviewed Barry Lynn for my podcast. Lynn is probably the most prominent and influential voice about the importance of monopolies today. He has or at least had his work cut out for him because a number of factors over recent decades had made the idea monopolies and the importance of anti-trust action seem to many like a quaint artifact of a bygone era when reformers lacked a full understanding of how monopolies work in practice. Lynn’s work and that of his working group at The New America Foundation, have led in recent years to renewed attention to the issue from professional economists, the people who have the technical knowledge and (for better or worse) policy world credibility to bring these concerns from concept to proof. ‘Proof’ is probably too strong a word but I mean the kinds of studies that make the theories real or credible in policy and political terms.

In any case, you may have noticed that there’s a big story out today in The New York Times about how Google – one of the three preeminent platform monopolies – apparently used its juice as a major funder of The New America Foundation to get Lynn’s Open Markets initiative booted. As it happens, from my understanding, while this could have been the end of Lynn’s Open Markets Initiative, it’s actually been able to get separate funding and will be even bigger on the outside. But it does show, in a particularly brazen and comical manner, the power of the platform monopolies both in economic terms and political terms.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

“Bubbles and mere cheats"

Another hump-day except from Charles Mackay's  Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Contrary to all expectation, South Sea stock fell when the bill received the Royal assent. On the 7th of April the shares were quoted at three hundred and ten, and on the following day, at two hundred and ninety. Already the directors had tasted the profits of their scheme, and it was not likely that they should quietly allow the stock to find its natural level, without an effort to raise it. Immediately their busy emissaries were set to work. Every person interested in the success of the project endeavoured to draw a knot of listeners around him, to whom he expatiated on the treasures of the South American seas. Exchange Alley was crowded with attentive groups. One rumour alone, asserted with the utmost confidence, had an immediate effect upon the stock. It was said, that Earl Stanhope had received overtures in France from the Spanish Government to exchange Gibraltar and Port Mahon for some places on the coast of Peru, for the security and enlargement of the trade in the South Seas. Instead of one annual ship trading to those ports, and allowing the King of Spain twenty-five per cent. out of the profits, the Company might build and charter as many ships as they pleased, and pay no per centage whatever to any foreign potentate.

 Visions of ingots danced before their eyes, and stock rose rapidly. On the 12th of April, five days after the bill had become law, the directors opened their books for a subscription of a million, at the rate of 300 pounds for every 100 pounds capital. Such was the concourse of persons, of all ranks, that this first subscription was found to amount to above two millions of original stock. It was to be paid at five payments, of 60 pounds each for every 100 pounds. In a few days the stock advanced to three hundred and forty, and the subscriptions were sold for double the price of the first payment. To raise the stock still higher, it was declared, in a general court of directors, on the 21st of April, that the midsummer dividend should be ten per cent., and that all subscriptions should be entitled to the same. These resolutions answering the end designed, the directors, to improve the infatuation of the monied men, opened their books for a second subscription of a million, at four hundred per cent. Such was the frantic eagerness of people of every class to speculate in these funds, that in the course of a few hours no less than a million and a half was subscribed at that rate

In the mean time, innumerable joint-stock companies started up everywhere. They soon received the name of Bubbles, the most appropriate that imagination could devise. The populace are often most happy in the nicknames they employ. None could be more apt than that of Bubbles. Some of them lasted for a week, or a fortnight, and were no more heard of, while others could not even live out that short span of existence. Every evening produced new schemes, and every morning new projects. The highest of the aristocracy were as eager in this hot pursuit of gain as the most plodding jobber in Cornhill. The Prince of Wales became governor of one company, and is said to have cleared 40,000 pounds by his speculations. [Coxe's Walpole, Correspondence between Mr. Secretary Craggs and Earl Stanhope.] The Duke of Bridgewater started a scheme for the improvement of London and Westminster, and the Duke of Chandos another. There were nearly a hundred different projects, each more extravagant and deceptive than the other. To use the words of the "Political State," they were "set on foot and promoted by crafty knaves, then pursued by multitudes of covetous fools, and at last appeared to be, in effect, what their vulgar appellation denoted them to be—bubbles and mere cheats." It was computed that near one million and a half sterling was won and lost by these unwarrantable practices, to the impoverishment of many a fool, and the enriching of many a rogue.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Conspiracy theorists don't just imagine improbable connections; they create them.

Many years ago I purchased a paperback copy of  Proofs of a Conspiracy by physicist John Robison (who also invented the siren [I'm sure there's a metaphor there somewhere]) at a library sale. For those not familiar:
Towards the end of his life, he became an enthusiastic conspiracy theorist, publishing Proofs of a Conspiracy ... in 1797, alleging clandestine intrigue by the Illuminati and Freemasons (the work's full title was Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati and Reading Societies). The secret agent monk, Alexander Horn provided much of the material for Robison's allegations. French priest Abbé Barruel independently developed similar views that the Illuminati had infiltrated Continental Freemasonry, leading to the excesses of the French Revolution. In 1798, the Reverend G. W. Snyder sent Robison's book to George Washington for his thoughts on the subject in which he replied to him in a letter:
        It was not my intention to doubt that, the Doctrines of the Illuminati, and principles of Jacobinism had not spread in the United States. On the contrary, no one is more truly satisfied of this fact than I am. The idea that I meant to convey, was, that I did not believe that the Lodges of Free Masons in this Country had, as Societies, endeavoured to propagate the diabolical tenets of the first, or pernicious principles of the latter (if they are susceptible of separation). That Individuals of them may have done it, or that the founder, or instrument employed to found, the Democratic Societies in the United States, may have had these objects; and actually had a separation of the People from their Government in view, is too evident to be questioned.
Modern conspiracy theorists, such as Nesta Webster and William Guy Carr, believe the methods of the Illuminati as described in Proofs of a Conspiracy were copied by radical groups throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in their subversion of benign organizations. Spiritual Counterfeits Project editor Tal Brooke has compared the views of Proofs of a Conspiracy with those found in Carroll Quigley's Tragedy and Hope (Macmillan, 1966). Brooke suggests that the New World Order, which Robison believed Adam Weishaupt (founder of the Illuminati) had in part accomplished through the infiltration of Freemasonry, will now be completed by those holding sway over the international banking system (e.g., by means of the Rothschilds' banks, the U.S. Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank).

I never did more than skim the contents of the actual book. What caught my interest was the introduction which somehow managed to connect the late 18th century text on Freemasons and the French Revolution to mid 20th century conspiracy theories involving communists, intellectuals and Jewish bankers. That last point has become relevant once again, given some of the people close to the current administration.

I've always had a morbid fascination with fringe dwellers and I've noticed that they have an extraordinary gift for seeking out and drawing up on other similarly crazy peers. Remarkably, this sense of companionship and urge to collaborate frequently crosses over seemingly unbridgeable ideological differences. Right wingers too extreme for the John Birch society would find common ground with Maoists talking about evil industrialists. Proof of conspiracy was proof of conspiracy regardless of who was supposedly conspiring against whom.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Positive Thinking and Party Loyalty

It is difficult to find situations where, once you have started a task, there is a negative correlation between positive attitude and likelihood of success. (I know some people out there are starting to form a quibble , But bear with me for a little while.) You can make a similar argument with political success and party loyalty – – the group that sticks together does better in most cases.

This raises an interesting question: if these behaviors are so overwhelmingly advantageous, why do we not see a correspondingly high preference for them? Why are attitudes so negative so often? Why are groups so hard to hold together even when they serve the interests of all of the participants?

At least part of the answer, I think, lies in the hidden fallacy of the first paragraph. The statements are technically true, but they are framed in such a way as to leave out a major problem. Both scenarios started in media res with narrowly defined success. We began with situations and agendas set, but optimism will affect the situation you find yourself in and party loyalty will affect the agendas you commit to. By treating success and failure as a binary, we ignored the variability in the costs and kinds of failure. If two climbers decide to ascend a mountain, the positive thinker is more likely to reach the top, but the negative thinker is more likely to stop before risking a fatal fall.

Friday, August 25, 2017

GOP's Dream Scenario

I tend to have an overwhelming dislike and distrust for any piece of news analysis built around a tweet, particularly an anonymously sourced tweet, but I might just make a limited exception to this one, at least partly because it's an excuse for some Friday videos but also because it dovetails nicely with an ongoing thread.

Here's the tweet:

One thing to get out of the way before we get to deeply in. This looks very much like a trial balloon directly or indirectly coming from an interested party, or as Dave Weigel of the Washington Post put it:

Of course, the presence of sources with ulterior motives does not rule out good reporting. You'd probably be hard pressed to find a major investigative story that didn't rely on such sources. In this case, the ulterior motives are perhaps the most interesting part of the story, but more on that in a moment.

If you have to get a story from an anonymous "top R strategist," someone like Harwood is a good place to turn. He's been working this beat since he became White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in the 1991. He's not above floating a trial balloon, but he is not likely to accept one from someone not in the know.

Does this mean that highly placed people in the GOP know that something big is about to go down with the Mueller investigation? That's possible, but I suspect it's more likely that this is a combination of planting some seeds and wishful thinking.

For well over a year now we have been discussing the central dilemma that the Republican Party faces with Trump. The man is dangerous, erratic, vindictive, and has no personal ties to the party. The leaders (both official and unofficial) mostly have wanted to have him disappear from the moment he went from useful rabble-rouser to actual candidate. The trouble is that there are very few ways to get rid of Trump without alienating a large enough segment of the base to devastate the party.

Impeachment or falling back on the 25th amendment would trigger an intraparty war if Trump decided to go down fighting (and that's how the smart money should bet). A resignation that left the GOP with reasonably clean hands is perhaps the only plausible resolution that leaves the party essentially intact.

That last phrase in the tweet is enormously telling. "GOP recovers" suggests that the party not recovering is not necessarily a given. Furthermore, there is at least an implication that resignation is a necessary condition for recovery.

How likely is the scenario laid out in the tweet? I wouldn't begin to speculate. Between the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns, committing to an estimate would be a fool's game, but what we can say with a little more confidence is that, based on this and other evidence, some of the top people in the Republican Party are pushing this scenario at least in part because they really want to believe it.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

I suppose I should've known it would involve Tesla

I've been meaning to revisit the ddulite thread for a while. I coined the term (derived from Luddite) to refer to those people whose love of technology (or, more precisely, what they perceive as technology) makes them prefer newer and more "sophisticated" tech even when it has inferior functionality.

Recently the always solid Jason Torchinsky of Julopnik supplied us with perhaps the perfect example.
Possibly the most controversial design decision of the Tesla Model 3, even beyond its Renault Caravelle-like grille-less face, is its instrument panel, which consists solely of a center-mounted landscape-oriented LCD screen. This tweeted video showing how the climate-control air-direction system works is one of the first real looks we’ve had at the Model 3's UI, and I really can’t say I’m impressed.

That puts me in pretty direct opposition to noted rich guy Bill Lee, the Tesla investor who posted the video of the HVAC control interface, who called it “genius.”

These controls are invoked by pressing the small fan icon at the bottom of the display, which then opens a window in the lower right corner of the screen. That window is divided into two panes, the left one having the basic climate controls—fan speed, temperature, face/feet airflow, etc—and the right pane containing the interface to adjust where the air flows.

That’s the focus of this little video, so let’s focus on that as well. The interface consists of a horizontal bar, which I guess is supposed to represent the dash’s vent bar, and an oblong ‘thumb’ that can be positioned anywhere on the panel, and can also be split in two via a little button at the lower right.

First, that thumb is needlessly low-contrast; why do a light gray control on a slightly less light gray background like that? Is there a reason not to make it more visible, maybe use the blue color that’s also in this UI design?

The whole idea of the oblong is weird. I don’t normally think of airflow as hitting a given point in space; airflow is more of a directional vector—it flows out from a source, in some direction. Picking a ‘point’ like that for where the air goes is not very natural feeling.

Then, there’s the question of how is this to operate while you drive? The nature of a touch screen, drag-to-position interface is that it is entirely visual. There’s no tactile feedback, and you need your eyes to focus on the control to drag it about with your finger.

With conventional physical vent controls, you never needed to take your eyes off the road; that interface was entirely tactile. You could actually feel the flow of air, and you used your hand to direct vanes to redirect the air. Feedback was instantaneous and immediately understandable.

The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that the Model 3's HVAC solution isn’t “genius” at all; it’s stupid. Perhaps there’s some manufacturing cost savings with the one long mono-vent; making the controls in software could be cheaper, but it also necessitates some sort of electric actuator to direct the airflow. Which is another thing, buried deeply and expensively inside that dashboard, that can break.

I want to be clear that there are things I like about Tesla’s approach here, and I’m not some traditionalist stuck in the past. I very much appreciate that they’re not falling into the usual trap of faking analog gauges, and I think an LCD screen can be designed to be a very effective instrument panel.

Physical vent controls and vanes aren’t ‘clumsy’ as Bill Lee suggests. They’re really quite elegant. They take no extra power, they give direct and immediate feedback, they don’t require taking eyes or attention off driving, they allow for greater flexibility of airflow directions, and they’re non-modal, and don’t lock out any other controls of the car.

The Tesla Model 3's solution is less effective in every possible way. That’s a weird idea of “genius,” if you ask me.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Narrative bias at NPR

One of the points we keep coming back to on this blog is that, while liberal ideological bias has long been held up as a bogeyman by critics of the mainstream media, it is both trivial and rare, at least in the way it is generally presented. You certainly have ideological and particularly partisan bias around the fringes, especially in conservative outlets such as Fox News, and you can find individual issues where the MSM displays strong biases. Entitlement reform, education reform, and gun control are all prominent examples, though it should be noted that only the last is particularly liberal.

That's not to say that biases don't exist and are not a problem – – given recent events, I list them as threats to the republic – – but the forms those biases take have little to do with left/right and everything to do with laziness, cultivating sources, driving traffic, intellectual conformity, and one that gets so little attention that there's not even a widely accepted name for it, narrative bias, selecting subjects and tweaking details to create a "good story" according to certain unstated but fairly standard criteria.

This piece by Carrie Johnson is a depressingly good example.

Robert Mueller May Not Be The Savior The Anti-Trump Internet Is Hoping For

In Procrustean fashion, it forces the facts to justify two decrepit clichés. The first is the Internet angle. For reasons too complex to delve into here, reporters and editors continue after about a quarter century to believe that framing something as an online phenomenon somehow gives it modern sheen.

In this context, you could pretty much substitute "Internet" with "carbon-based life forms." Since most journalists are active on twitter, quoting a few tweets is not evidence of an "online community." What's worse, of the four tweets she cites, one is from a cable news personality, one is from the formerly print-based publication the onion, and the third is from a writer for the still in print magazine the New Yorker.

The second and arguably even more threadbare cliché is the "not so fast" reversal which starts out by depicting a piece of supposed conventional wisdom then claiming to undercut it. In order to fit the narrative to this genre, Johnson has to cut lots of corners. For starters, while Trump opponents are certainly encouraged by the investigation and annoyed by the unavoidably slow pace of the process, it is not clear how many are "counting on" him to be their "savior." Trump resigning as part of a plea bargain would certainly be seen as a happy outcome by most administration critics (and a substantial number of Republicans who see this as the exit strategy least likely to devastate the GOP) but it is not the only happy outcome and perhaps not even the most hoped-for. Trump's critics (particularly his non-Republican critics) are arguably more focused on the Democrats retaking the house and starting impeachment hearings, preferably with the Senate also changing hands. There is also a lot of talk about the 25th amendment. Johnson has to underplay these aspects in order to set up the premise of the narrative.

Then there is the conclusion. This requires downplaying the potential amount of damage this investigation can do. In this case, that means relying on perhaps the most unreliable source imaginable.
Three months into the job, however, it's not clear what, if anything, investigators may uncover about the president, who has repeatedly denied any improper contacts with people in Russia and has called the special counsel probe "a witch hunt."

"They're investigating something that never happened," Trump told reporters last week. "There was no collusion between us and Russia. In fact, the opposite. Russia spent a lot of money on fighting me."

Putting aside the fact that three months does not seem like very long at all given the scope and complexity of this investigation, framing it in terms of Donald Trump's denials is simply unjustifiable. For starters, people under investigation virtually always start by claiming "there's no there there." Even if we were dealing with a normal politician, these declarations of innocence wouldn't count for much, but Trump is no normal politician. Among high-ranking elected officials, he has a unique-in-living-memory record of dishonesty and fabrication both directly and through his surrogates. On top of that, the statement actually ends with a demonstrable lie about Russia trying to undermine his election. If anything, a denial this ridiculous should arouse disbelief in readers and, more to the point, in reporters.

Keeping with the narrative, Johnson further understates the danger to the administration.
Another complicating factor: Mueller is using grand juries in Alexandria, Va., and Washington, D.C., and grand jury information is rarely made public.

"It is going to be hard and frustrating to get this information out," said Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer at the Arent Fox firm who worked on the special counsel team investigating the leak of a CIA operative's identity in the George W. Bush administration.

In his leak investigation, a lot of information eventually became public through the prosecution of former vice presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Absent a decision to charge someone with a crime, investigations in Congress may be the best way for people to understand what happened and why in last year's election interference.

A couple of important points here, one of which is badly understated, the other omitted entirely. First, big investigations like this do tend to produce criminal charges, often of people not immediately involved with the primary case (just ask Jim Guy Tucker). When you start digging into any sufficiently complex scenario involving great money or power, you will generally find that someone broke some law. Second, and this very much affects the previous point, the legitimate scope of this investigation is huge. Of the quid pro quo being investigated, only the middle piece is reasonably well contained.

After Trump lost access to conventional funding due to his habit of screwing over business partners, he had to rely on disreputable sources. Much, perhaps most of the time, those sources had direct or indirect ties to Russia. This means that a thorough investigation will need to closely examine the financing of every project Trump was involved in for perhaps the past 10 years. It is highly likely that the grand juries will find something to charge someone with. And we haven't even gotten into the hacking of the election itself.

None of this means that Trump or a member of his inner circle will be indicted. It doesn't even necessarily mean that anyone will be indicted (though that second one seems a bit improbable). What it does mean is that, like the "anti-Trump Internet" premise, the facts have been stretched or truncated to fit the genre.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Republicans' 3 x 3 existential threat

I've argued previously that Donald Trump presents and existential threat to the Republican Party. I know this can sound overheated and perhaps even a bit crazy. There are few American institutions as long-standing and deeply entrenched as are the Democratic and Republican parties. Proposing that one of them might not be around 10 years from now beggars the imagination and if this story started and stopped with Donald Trump, it would be silly to suggest we were on the verge of  a political cataclysm.

But, just as Trump's rise did not occur in a vacuum, neither will his fall. We discussed earlier how Donald Trump has the power to drive a wedge between the Republican Party and a significant segment of its base [I wrote this before the departure of Steve Bannon. That may diminish Trump's ability to create this rift but I don't think it reduces the chances of the rift happening. – – M.P.]. This is the sort of thing that can profoundly damage a political party, possibly locking it into a minority status for a long time, but normally the wound would not be fatal. These, however, are not normal times.

The Republican Party of 2017 faces a unique combination of interrelated challenges, each of which is at a historic level and the combination of which would present an unprecedented threat to this or any US political party. The following list is not intended to be exhaustive, but it hits the main points.

The GOP currently has to deal with extraordinary political scandals, a stunningly unpopular agenda and daunting demographic trends. To keep things symmetric and easy to remember, let's break each one of these down to three components (keeping in mind that the list may change).

With the scandals:

1. Money – – Even with the most generous reading imaginable, there is no question that Trump has a decades long record of screwing people over, skirting the law, and dealing with disreputable and sometimes criminal elements. At least some of these dealings have been with the Russian mafia, oligarchs, and figures tied in with the Kremlin which leads us to…

2. The hacking of the election – – This one is also beyond dispute. It happened and it may have put Donald Trump into the White House. At this point, we have plenty of quid and plenty of quo; if Mueller can nail down pro, we will have a complete set.

3. And the cover-up – – As Josh Marshall and many others have pointed out, the phrase "it's not the crime; it's the cover-up" is almost never true. That said, coverups can provide tipping points and handholds for investigators, not to mention expanding the list of culprits.

With the agenda:

1. Health care – – By some standards the most unpopular major policy proposal in living memory that a party in power has invested so deeply in. Furthermore, the pushback against the initiative has essentially driven congressional Republicans into hiding from their own constituents for the past half year. As mentioned before, this has the potential to greatly undermine the relationship between GOP senators and representatives and the voters.

2. Tax cuts for the wealthy – – As said many times, Donald Trump has a gift for making the subtle plain, the plain obvious, and the obvious undeniable. In the past, Republicans were able to get a great deal of upward redistribution of the wealth past the voters through obfuscation and clever branding, but we have reached the point where simply calling something "tax reform" is no longer enough to sell tax proposals so regressive that even the majority of Republicans oppose them.

3. Immigration (subject to change) – – the race for third place in this list is fairly competitive (education seems to be coming up on the outside), but the administration's immigration policies (which are the direct result of decades of xenophobic propaganda from conservative media) have already done tremendous damage, caused great backlash, and are whitening the gap between the GOP and the Hispanic community, which leads us to…


As Lindsey Graham has observed, they simply are not making enough new old white men to keep the GOP's strategy going much longer, but the Trump era rebranding of the Republican Party only exacerbates the problems with women, young people, and pretty much anyone who isn't white.

Maybe I am missing a historical precedent here, but I can't think of another time that either the Democrats or the Republicans were this vulnerable on all three of these fronts. This does not mean that the party is doomed or even that, with the right breaks, it can't maintain a hold on some part of the government. What it does mean is that the institution is especially fragile at the moment. A mortal blow may not come, but we can no longer call it unthinkable.

Monday, August 21, 2017

That's not to say that sleeping around can't be a plus

Over the past few years I have gotten in the habit of making a quick (or, to be honest, often not-so-quick) visit to Wikipedia when I read something that seems curious and I've spotted some common threads. For example, when a US representative makes a particularly clueless reactionary remark, I will give you excellent odds that he or she comes from a white flight district. I have found this to be the best predictor of far right extremism for politicians at the municipal or district level. Growing up in such a neighborhood is also strongly correlated with journalists and pundits holding these views.

Another curious phenomenon that I think I may have largely explained via Wikipedia is the mysterious rise of young, highly successful incompetents. You know what I'm talking about. You see someone with no apparent ability or qualifications who has raced up the career ladder, or has just been handed a huge check to start a company with a dubious business plan or has landed a high profile gig at a big-name publication. These are incredibly competitive fields and yet some manage to race past countless peers who are smarter, more talented, and better qualified.

The standard joke response is "who did that person sleep with?" but a little digging online provides a better explanation, or at least a highly suspicious pattern. If you look up the bio of a bizarrely successful incompetent, you will notice that the overwhelming majority come from an elite university and, in a truly remarkable number of cases, a ridiculously selective and expensive prep school. Wealth and family connections often figure prominently as well, but they are not as essential. Spending a decade or so in the company of the rich and powerful seems to be sufficient.

Just to be clear, I'm not making a blanket statement about the intellect or abilities of people who come from these schools. There are a lot of smart, capable preppies with degrees from Harvard out there. What I am saying is that the connections and prestige that comes with this kind of education provides enormous advantages, advantages so large that they often swamp the qualifications we like to think determine success.

With that in mind, the following raises disturbing implications:

"Access to colleges varies greatly by parent income," writes Raj Chetty of Stanford University and four co-authors. "Children whose parents are in the top 1% of the income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile." 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Employer sponsored Health Insurance

This is Joseph

Via Mike the Mad Biologist was this gem:
Even people who do not switch jobs are vulnerable to losing their health insurance under the employer-sponsored system. For the health insurance market to actually work like a market, participants need to be prepared to change their insurer every single year. Employers need to constantly rethink what insurers they should contract with to provide benefits. And when open enrollment comes around, employees and those on the Obamacare exchanges are supposed to reassess their options and switch to the best insurer on offer. Put simply: a well-functioning private health insurance system requires people to frequently change their insurance situation, which is precisely the evil that Krugman says we need to avoid.
I think that this is an under-appreciated point.  Insofar as "continuity of care" is an important part of medical care, shopping around is discouraged.  Just think of how long intake medical appointments take, and thus impose a cost on patients switching providers.  Some degree of switching of providers is inevitable in any health care system (people move or retire).   But this stickiness undermines one of the major assumptions behind how markets are supposed to work.

Now this doesn't necessarily limit the options all that greatly, but it is a good reason to be cautious about too strong of a status quo bias when considering the current health care system.  There are some great aspects to the current system but also some real costs that need to be considered as part of any policy-reform.

Feeling stressed? Overwhelmed? Give me three minutes of your time.

Just hit play [Assuming you can read this in under twelve seconds.]

Thursday, August 17, 2017

War on science (outsourced)

This is scary:

Any resident in Florida can now challenge what kids learn in public schools, thanks to a new law that science education advocates worry will make it harder to teach evolution and climate change.

The legislation, which was signed by Gov. Rick Scott (R) this week and goes into effect Saturday, requires school boards to hire an “unbiased hearing officer” who will handle complaints about instructional materials, such as movies, textbooks and novels, that are used in local schools. Any parent or county resident can file a complaint, regardless of whether they have a student in the school system. If the hearing officer deems the challenge justified, he or she can require schools to remove the material in question.

But Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Council for Science Education, said that affidavits filed by supporters of the bill suggest that science instruction will be a focus of challenges. One affidavit from a Collier County resident complained that evolution and global warming were taught as “reality.” Another criticized her child's sixth-grade science curriculum, writing that “the two main theories on the origin of man are the theory of evolution and creationism,” and that her daughter had only been taught about evolution.

“It's just the candor with which the backers of the bill have been saying, 'Yeah, we’re going to go after evolution, we’re going to go after climate change,'" that has him worried, Branch said.

But I do have to admit the music is catchy.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sometimes threads collide and you don't even know it

Over the past few years I written quite a bit about Taylorism, that early and largely discredited school of scientific management that has managed a sustained presence thanks to management consultants and MBA programs and which became the guiding principle of the education reform movement. I've also been working for a long time on a series of long-form pieces on the way that the huge spike in technological progress around the late 19th and early 20th centuries affected and continue to affect our perception of innovation and the future.

I don't know, however, that I ever really made the connection between the two before now. We tend to think of the era in quaint terms, a simpler, slower-moving time, but it was in reality a period of explosive change. Contemporary accounts tell us that people were not only aware that they were living in a revolutionary age; they were fascinated by the process. The promise of Taylorism  – – that scientific and engineering principles could revolutionize the human aspect of work the same way they had revolutionized virtually every other aspect of the world – – was immensely appealing and eminently sensible to the audience of the 1890s and early 1900s. It is hardly surprising that people even attempted to apply the approach to child rearing.

From  Uncovering The Secret History Of Myers-Briggs by Merve Emre

Although Barb invokes Jung's name with pride and a touch of awe, Jung would likely be greatly displeased, if not embarrassed, by his long-standing association with the indicator. The history of his involvement with Myers begins not with Isabel, but with her mother Katharine Cook Briggs, whom Barb mentions only in passing. After the photograph of Jung, Barb projects onto the screen a photograph of Katharine, unsmiling and broad necked and severely coiffed. "I usually don't get into this," she says, gesturing at Katharine's solemn face. "People have already bought into the instrument."

Yet Katharine is an interesting woman, a woman who might have interested Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem or any second-wave feminist eager to dismantle the opposition between "the happy modern housewife" and the "unhappy careerist." A stay-at-home mother and wife who had once studied horticulture at Michigan Agricultural College, Katharine was determined to approach motherhood like an elaborate plant growth experiment: a controlled study in which she could trace how a series of environmental conditions would affect the personality traits her children expressed. In 1897, Isabel emerged — her mother's first subject. From the day of her birth until the child's thirteenth birthday, Katharine kept a leather-bound diary of Isabel's developments, which she pseudonymously titled The Life of Suzanne. In it, she painstakingly recorded the influence that different levels of feeding, cuddling, cooing, playing, reading, and spanking had on Isabel's "life and character."

Today we might think of Katharine as the original helicopter parent: hawkish and over-present in her maternal ministrations. But in 1909, Katharine's objectification of her daughter answered feminist Ellen Key's resounding call for a new and more scientific approach to "the vocation of motherhood." More progressive still was how Katharine marshaled the data she had collected on Isabel to write a series of thirty-three articles in The Ladies Home Journal on the science of childrearing. These articles, which were intended to help other mothers systematize their childcare routines, boasted such single-minded titles as "Why I Believe the Home Is the Best School" and "Why I Find Children Slow in Their School Work." Each appeared under the genteel nom de plume "Elizabeth Childe."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The GOP needs the crazies more than the crazies need the GOP.

The following is not really a voting paradox, but it is kind of in the neighborhood. You have three stockholders for a company. A holds 48% of the shares, B holds 49%, and C holds 3%. Assuming that any decision needs to be approved by people holding a majority, who has the most power? The slightly counterintuitive answer is no one. Each shareholder is equal since an alliance of any two will produce a majority.

Now let's generalize the idea somewhat. Let's say you have N shareholders whom you have brought together to form a majority. Some of the members of your alliance have a large number of shares, some have very few, but even the one with the smallest stake has enough that if he or she drops out, you will be below 50%. In this scenario, every member of the alliance has equal veto power.

I apologize for the really, really basic fun-with-math explanation, but this principle has become increasingly fundamental in 21st-century politics. At the risk of oversimplifying, elections come down to my number of supporters times my turnout percentage versus your number supporters times your turnout percentage. Arguably the fundamental piece of the conservative movement has been to focus on ways to maximize Republican turnout while suppressing democratic turnout. (Yes, I'm leaving a lot out but bear with me.)

There are at least a couple of obvious inherent dangers in this approach. The first is that there is an upper bound for turnout percentage. This is especially worrisome when the number of your supporters is decreasing. Sen. Lindsey Graham was alluding to this when he observed that they weren't making enough new old white men to keep the GOP strategy going.

There is, however, another danger which can potentially be even worse. When you need nearly 100% of your supporters to show up to the polls in order to win, you create a situation where virtually every faction of your base has veto power. One somewhat perverse advantage of the large base/low turnout model is that groups of supporters can be interchangeable. You have lots of situations where you can alienate a small segment but more than make up for it elsewhere. In and of itself, this allows for a great deal of flexibility, but the really important part is the power dynamic. You have to represent a large constituency in order to wield veto power.

Probably since 2008 and certainly since 2012, pretty much every nontrivial faction of the GOP has held veto power which means the question is no longer who has it, but who is willing to use it. The Tea Party was the first to realize this. Now the alt-right has caught on to the dynamic as well.

Even with increasingly aggressive and shameless voter suppression techniques, Republicans tend to get fewer votes. It is true that they have, through smart strategy and tactics, managed to get an extraordinary number of offices out of those votes, but it is a precarious situation. We can debate how many people really believe in shadowy Jewish banker conspiracies or Martian slave labor camps, but it is almost certainly a large enough group to sway some close elections if the crazies collectively decided to go home or, worse yet, opt for a third party.

Ed Kilgore (whom I follow and generally respect) had a badly ill-informed post Trump Should Emulate Buckley and Tell Racists: ‘I Don’t Want Your Vote.’ That simply won't work for Trump or the GOP. They need the crazies more than the crazies need them.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Yes, I am planning on making this another food stamps post

Admittedly, the cases described here are extreme, but they do remind us of the cost of early childhood malnutrition can be devastating.

From the World Bank:

Brain imaging in Bangladesh. Nelson also shared findings from a study using neuroimaging tools (EEG, fNIRS, MRI) to study cognitive development in children 6 and 36 months old exposed to multiple types and levels of early adversities in Dhaka, Bangladesh. For both cohorts, results show reduced cognitive outcomes for those children growing up in the most adverse conditions. Factors such as maternal education, inflammation, and stunting due to chronic malnutrition mediate these poor outcomes. As the figure below shows, these kids’ brain anatomy, metabolism and physiology are all impacted by adversity, particularly stunting.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Some days you just need some Rube Goldberg

I know we've done some of these before, but these days it can be an enormous relief to see absurdity that's intentional.

For those unacquainted with the concept...

Rube Goldberg's cartoons became well known for depicting complicated devices that performed simple tasks in indirect convoluted ways. The example on the right is Goldberg's "Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin", which was later reprinted in a few book collections, including the postcard book Rube Goldberg's Inventions! and the hardcover Rube Goldberg: Inventions, both compiled by Maynard Frank Wolfe from the Rube Goldberg Archives.[3] The "Self-Operating Napkin" is activated when soup spoon (A) is raised to mouth, pulling string (B) and thereby jerking ladle (C), which throws cracker (D) past parrot (E). Parrot jumps after cracker and perch (F) tilts, upsetting seeds (G) into pail (H). Extra weight in pail pulls cord (I), which opens and ignites lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K), which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M), allowing pendulum with attached napkin to swing back and forth, thereby wiping chin.

We've already shown one clip from the Japanese educational series PythagoraSwitch, but I think this one is even better.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Significance of "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"

For what seems like decades, I have been collecting notes for an essay on how the huge technological advances of the late 19th/early 20th Centuries and of the postwar era shaped and eventually distorted our perception of progress. One of the points I plan on hitting is the way that scientific frontiers came to replace geographic frontiers in the American imagination.

That particular argument pretty much has to start with the opening of this seminal essay:
In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: "Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports." This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.
"The Significance of the Frontier in American History"
Frederick J. Turner. 1893

I don't want to get too caught up in the rightness of Turner's thesis; what's important here is its resonance. People responded to the idea that the frontier was the defining influence on the country. It struck them as sensible and profound and it was something they wanted to talk about.

From Wikipedia:

Turner's emphasis on the importance of the frontier in shaping American character influenced the interpretation found in thousands of scholarly histories. By the time Turner died in 1932, 60% of the leading history departments in the U.S. were teaching courses in frontier history along Turnerian lines.

One frontier that had obsessed and arguably defined the nation closed just as another frontier that would do exactly the same thing was opening. I'd argue that this deepened the mystique of technology, but that's a point for a future post.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

On the bright side, he's probably not smart enough to be a Russian agent

The fringe is a strange beast. Almost by definition, it consist of splinters, belief systems that are highly diverse and often mutually exclusive, seemingly sharing only improbability. Furthermore, the members of those groups are often incapable of functioning at what we would generally call a normal level of competence. The very idea of a coherent fringe that can be channeled and useful directions would seem to be absurd.

But contradictory beliefs often mask similar, or at least compatible, personalities. It is remarkably difficult to reconcile flat earth and alien invasion theories, but adherents of both can frequently find common ground in their sense of isolation and, more to the point, persecution by society in general and the scientific and academic establishment in particular.

I'm not sure it makes much sense to impose a left/right ideological framework on fringe groups before, say, 1980. Not only do you find them at every point on the political spectrum, most of them can't really be described in those terms at all, like rowing complex numbers into a discussion that requires real solutions. After the Reagan era, however, the conservative movement started making consistently effective use of these groups. The movement was fundamentally and often explicitly Straussian, misinforming the base to drum up anti-goverment feelings was a logical step.

The system works great until the misinformation starts flowing in the wrong direction. Here's how we put it earlier.

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.

Which leads us to this piece from Ars Technica by Eric Berger
On Thursday, the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee held a hearing to look into NASA's forthcoming big-ticket planetary exploration missions. Those missions include a Mars 2020 rover, a Europa flyby mission, and potentially a follow-up lander to the Jovian moon Europa.

[California Republican Dana Rohrabacher ] asked, "You have indicated that Mars was totally different thousands of years ago. Is it possible that there was a civilization on Mars thousands of years ago?"

 [Kenneth Farley] calmly answered, "So the evidence is that Mars was different billions of years ago. Not thousands of years ago."

"Well, yes," Rohrabacher says. As if duh, of course he knew that.

"And, umm, there would be, there's no evidence that, uhh, I'm aware of," Farley continued, gamely trying to answer the question.

"Would you rule that out? See, there's some people... Well, anyway."

"I would say that is extremely unlikely," Farley responds.

That exchange would be troubling enough on its own, but Berger goes on to speculate that the cryptic “some people” might have referred to this.
On Thursday (June 29), a guest on Alex Jones' radio show named Robert David Steele claimed that Mars is inhabited — by people sent to the Red Planet against their will.

"We actually believe that there is a colony on Mars that is populated by children who were kidnapped and sent into space on a 20-year ride, so that once they get to Mars, they have no alternative but to be slaves on the Mars colony," Steele told Jones, the founder of the controversial InfoWars website.

 "Look, I know that 90 percent of the NASA missions are secret, and I've been told by high-level NASA engineers that you have no idea," Jones told Steele, who the show billed as a "CIA insider." "There is so much stuff going on."

Jones went on to add that "clearly, they don’t want us looking into what is happening; every time probes go over, they turn them off."
Just to be clear, I'm not saying that Rohrabacher got this directly from Jones, but that informationn from sources like Jones are likely to flow in unexpected directions, which is, in many ways, worse.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Charter school movement reaches the every faction for itself phase

Jennifer Berkshire  points us to this article from Chalkbeat:

Has the charter school movement gone awry? A new book says yes, and it’s causing a stir
By Matt Barnum

It's an interesting discussion, but one that arguably tells us more about the debaters than about the nominal topic. Until recently one of the fundamental characteristics of the education reform movement was the way various factions saw it as the coming fulfillment of their often very different and sometimes mutually exclusive desires. It would close the achievement gap, bring back old-fashioned rigor, fix the economy, remove the yoke of excessive government. The optimistic assumption of each group was that, if everything changed, it might just change in their favor.

There were always two dominant factions. The first was technocrats. These were scientific management types whose specific ideas and general worldview owed everything to MBA programs and corporate culture (with a dollop of freshwater economics added.) It was no coincidence that the man who was arguably the founding father of the movement, David Coleman, came from a background not of education but of management consulting.

The second group was antigovernment, anti-regulation, antiunion (in many cases, socially reactionary). A nontrivial segment of this faction had started out in the pro-voucher movement until that had crashed and burned years earlier.

In many ways, the goals of the two factions were diametrically opposed. One was economically focused and socially progressive, looking not just to close the achievement gap but to end poverty through innovation and technology. The other was focused on tradition conservative goals. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), the two groups shared a libertarian tilt and a great faith in market-based solutions. Perhaps more importantly, though, both saw the tremendous buzz and bipartisan support for education reform as the best chance they had to advance their objectives.

Along with entitlement reform and balancing the budget, education reform was the sacred cow of public policy initiatives, one of the very few issues that respectable publications like the New York Times could and would present only the pro side for.

Of course, that was then. Topics like charter school initiatives, standardized testing, and common core have become highly controversial, and the result has been a fraying of alliances within the movement.

Which brings us to this
The book, a collection of essays edited by the Center for Education Reform’s Jeanne Allen and Cara Candal and the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, makes the case that the charter school movement has gone awry: it’s over-regulated, hyper-focused on tests, and dismissive of families.

They appear to have an ally in U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. In a recent speech to charter school leaders, DeVos criticized lengthy charter applications, warning that “many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats.”

What’s needed now, the book’s authors say, is more innovation and less of a focus on test results. That argument prompted Checker Finn, the former president of the Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education think tank, to call the book “idiocy.” In an email exchange among a number of well-known education reformers, Allen shot back, saying Finn was “catching the same disease that befell Diane Ravitch,” the school choice advocate-turned-reform-critic.

Allen and Eden say charter school advocates can be divided into two camps.

In one corner are “system-centered reformers,” who, in the authors’ telling, trust tests to measure school performance and trust themselves to oversee those schools.

In the other are “parent-centered reformers.” They want to see a system “where educational entrepreneurs are freer to open new schools and parents decide which schools should close and which should expand based on whether they want to send their children there.” DeVos — who appeared at a private reception held by Allen’s Center for Education Reform in June — has described her vision in similar terms.

Eden and Allen close the book with recommendations that include expanding the number and type of charter authorizers, ensuring charters are not bound by teacher certification rules, and reducing charter school regulations.

One interesting point here is that neither side is taking a particularly popular stance. Rather they are dividing up the unpopular parts of their once shared platform.

The excessive amount of time spent both directly and indirectly on standardized testing has become highly controversial, as has the use of test scores for the promotion or firing of teachers, the allocating resources, and the closing of schools. The backlash has led to, among the things, an opt-out movement that threatens the entire system. Likewise, the technocrats other favorite policy, Common Core, has reached punchline status.

But the positions on the other side have no great popular support either. The term "deregulation" scores high with fellows at the Cato Institute, but it doesn't have much resonance with the public. What's worse, when you dive down into the specifics, you quickly get to things like the mistreatment of the disabled, corruption/self-dealing and excessive compensation for founders and executives. There is no powerful grassroots movement pushing for kicking LD kids to the curb or giving million-dollar bonuses to the CEOs of charter schools. And, contrary to what the authors may think, it is remarkably difficult to find a parent who wants to see fewer certified teachers in his or her child's school.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Eventually you get to Elon Musk...

Brian Merchant  makes a really important point here, but he glosses over a fundamental distinction. Putting aside for the moment the equating of the two men's impact (with all due respect to Jobs, it isn't even close), it is valid to point out that both are often credited with the work of the teams under them, Edison was able to set up his research lab (itself a tremendous innovation) because of the money he made as an inventor. It's true that most of the patents he held were primarily or entirely the work of others, but he remained an engineer supervising engineers. Jobs was a genius when it came to design, consumer psychology and the future of personal technology, but he was not an engineer.

We've gone from crediting the engineer/manager (Edison) to the marketing/design guy (Jobs) to the promotions/financing guys (take your pick). This trend will not end well.

“The thing that concerns me about the Steve Jobs and Edison complex,” Bill Buxton, who helped pioneer multitouch in the 1980s (Jobs said Apple invented it in 2007), told me, “is that young people who are being trained as innovators or designers are being sold the Edison myth, the genius designer, the great innovator, the Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates, or whatever,” Buxton says. See: The current myth of the founder-hero, that is partly to blame for steering companies like Uber into peril. “They’re never being taught the notion of the collective, the team, the history.”

Which is why it pains me a bit to see the story of the iPhone reduced to Jobs, brilliant as he may have been. The true version is more intense, messy, convoluted—and human. And it’s not just a matter of doling out credit, either; it’s a matter of understanding how innovation actually happens, so we might facilitate it better in the future. There are lessons here for anyone who might try to build a product, advance a technology, stir progress—or understand how innovation really unfurls. The iPhone is the product of a collaboration carried out on a scale that’s so massive it can seem almost incomprehensible—but it makes more sense than the lone inventor myth. And we can learn more about where we're headed if we look into the iPhone's black mirror and try to see the huge host of faces reflected back—not just Steve Jobs'.

Friday, August 4, 2017

It turns out that the key to bipartisanship is pseudoscience and bone broth

We've been spending a lot of time recently here at the blog on health-related pseudoscience, particularly the kind espoused by Gwyneth Paltrow and all too often non-critically covered by New York Magazine. We even got a little into the demographics which tend to match places like Santa Monica, white, upper and upper-middle class, and generally limousine liberal. We have previously noted that far left is even more susceptible to medical quackery than are the normal goop subscribers.

This characteristically sharp and funny segment from John Oliver on Alex Jones reveals an interesting parallel. Jones's audience virtually defines the alt-right, but when you scrape away the xenophobic and homophobic claims about immigrant-borne diseases and the feminization of the American man, you get down to pitches for products that are virtually identical to what you might see at a Gwyneth Paltrow wellness seminar, the same ingredients promising to cure the same ailments based on the same questionable medical arguments.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Enron, charter schools and related-party transactions

I meant to post this analysis by Preston Green III when it first came out. Then I saw something shiny and got distracted.
Enron’s downfall was caused largely by something called “related-party transactions.” Understanding this concept is crucial for grasping how charter schools may also be in danger.

Related-party transactions are business arrangements between companies with close associations: It could be between two companies owned or managed by the same group or it could be between one large company and a smaller company that it owns. Although related-party transactions are legal, they can create severe conflicts of interest, allowing those in power to profit from employees, investors and even taxpayers

Without strict regulation, some bad actors have been able to take advantage of charter schools as an opportunity for private investment. In the worst cases, individuals have been able to use related-party transactions to fraudulently funnel public money intended for charter schools into other business ventures that they control.

Such was the case with Ivy Academia, a Los Angeles-area charter school. The co-founders, Yevgeny Selivanov and Tatayana Berkovich, also owned a private preschool that shared facilities with the charter school. The preschool entered into a sublease for the facilities at a monthly rent of $18,390 – the fair-market value. The preschool then assigned the sublease to the charter school at a monthly rent of $43,870.

The Los Angeles district attorney’s office charged the husband-and-wife team with multiple counts of fraud. Selivanov was sentenced to nearly five years in jail in 2013.

Fraudulent related-party transactions can also occur between education management organizations (EMOs) and their affiliates. EMOs are for-profit or nonprofit entities that sometimes manage charter schools, and might also own smaller companies that could provide services to those schools.

For example, Imagine Schools is a nonprofit EMO that runs 63 charter schools enrolling 33,000 students across the country. It also owns SchoolHouse Finance, a for-profit company that, among other things, handles real estate for many of Imagine’s charter schools. Though charter schools typically spend around 14 percent of their funding on rent, some of the Imagine Schools were paying SchoolHouse Finance up to 40 percent of their funding for rent.

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, August 1, 2017

A tale of three talks

This is Joseph

Apologies for the simplifications of the descriptions of the talk, but I am going for the main themes and not necessarily all of the nuances of the authors.  All three talks are worth watching.

Here is a TED talk on reversing diabetes by restricting carbohydrates and adding fat

Here is a TED talk about reversing diabetes by becoming a vegetarian

And here is a third TED talk, not on diabetes but improving hunger issues by eating unprocessed foods (third strategy)

Are you confused yet?

I think that there are two major points here that form an underlying theme that links all of these approaches together.

One, humans are remarkably plastic in our ability to adapt to different diets.  The low carbohydrate crowd have long brought up the Inuit, who eat an inherently low carbohydrate diet due to food source availability.  But there are cultures (in which many people live to very old ages) that eat relatively high carbohydrate (Japanese culture comes to mind).  So it would be very surprising if there were not a multiplicity of effective diets, and it is possible, if not likely, that there is more than one way to improve diets to stop diabetes and manage weight.  The best diet is one that the patient can actually follow and succeed with.

Two, and the reason for the third video, is that both of the strategies that appear in the first one naturally shift people towards more complex foods, the point of the strategy in the third one.  Generally speaking, that seems to be a common theme in the actual recipes given.  For example, the Zone Diet could use a chocolate bar to make up the carbohydrate portion of the diet.  But they then immediately bring up glycemic index, which pushes you towards fruits and vegetables.  The second video uses examples of carrots and vegetarian chili as food, not a 2 liter bottle of coke (which is a vegan according to the company).  The first speaker uses the example of sauteing mushrooms, again the use of a vegetable product.

So I suspect (I don;t know for sure) that these three approaches are a lot more compatible than it first appears.  It is hard to overdose on sugar as a vegetarian if I am getting my carbohydrates from apples and broccoli.

Now, I do want to point out that this is a very complicated topic and the research into it is ongoing and challenging.  Food is the classic example of something hard to remember: how many bananas did you eat last year?  But the search for common themes may yet be very useful in puzzling out what might actually be effective.