Sunday, September 30, 2018

Weekend Flashback

[The Brett Kavanaugh hearings have touched on a number of threads we've had running in the blog over the years, so I thought I'd repost a few relevant pieces just to keep them in the conversation.]

Monday, October 17, 2016

Rabbit season! Duck season! Rabbit season!

I'm planning on coming back and elaborating more on this later, but, as frequently noted here and elsewhere, while most commentators have fared extraordinarily poorly over the past year, a handful (including, yes, your not-so-humble hosts) have had a good run. Though they may not have framed it in exactly these terms, pretty much everybody who has gotten it mostly right has approached the election as the final stages of a massive social engineering experiment conducted by the conservative movement.

A key component of this experiment involved setting up radically different information streams for different target audiences. We talked about this before but one aspect that I've always wanted to address but never managed to get to is the way that this dual stream can explain seeming paradoxes in the radically different reactions of different groups of people to the same information.

In order to get a handle on this, it might be useful to think back to that time in psych 101 when the professor brought out the ambiguous pictures.The standard example is the old woman and young woman (originally captioned in a cartoon as  "my wife and my mother-in-law"). For the sake of variety, let's go with another.

The psych lecture would go something like this. Half the class was told to cover their eyes, the other half was shown a series of slides of birds. Then that half of the class was told to cover their eyes and the other half was shown a series of slides of small mammals. After being thus prepared, everyone looks at the following picture and is asked to write down what they see.

For the commentators who took the time to dig through the various media streams and put themselves in the place of each target audience (most notably Josh Marshall), it has been obvious for quite a while that those in the right-wing media bubble have a strong tendency to interpret events in a way that is consistent with the information, framing and narratives of the bubble. Donald Trump succeeded in the primaries because both his arguments and his affect seemed reasonable in the context of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

I'll come back and fill in some more details later but, as much as I want to avoid oversimplifying, this really is pretty simple. The journalists who have come off as sharp and ahead of the curve, have all (as far as I can tell) looked seriously at right-wing media and have asked themselves, if I actually believed everything I just heard, how would I react to the different candidates and their proposals?

This begs loads of questions and I don't want to oversell the explanatory power here, but given all of the overheated rhetoric about how chaotic and unpredictable this election has been, it's worth noting when those getting it right have something in common.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Atomic airplanes and Kodachrome moments.

If was the sister publication to Galaxy Magazine, a bit less prestigious, but still well-respected and catering to the same hard-science audience. This 1957 issue brings up a couple of interesting points for our postwar technological expectations thread.

One is that, at least in the popular press, there was a widespread assumption in the 1950s that nuclear energy would come to play a large role in aerospace in the next few decades.. I'm not sure to what extent actual researchers in the field shared these expectations, but it is safe to say that the young science nerds of 1958 would be somewhat disappointed at how little much of the technology has changed.

Another thing that pops out from a 2018 perspective is the reference to Kodachrome on the cover. The idea that Kodak film would be used to document the first Mars expedition seems rather amusing in retrospect, though I'm not sure exactly where the art wrong. Was he assuming that the iconic company would still be around well into the 21st century or did he believe we make it to Mars in the 20th?

Thursday, September 27, 2018

"I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London."

While reading up on public perceptions of the space race during the postwar era, I was disappointed to learn that my favorite Mort Sahl line wasn't actually from Mort Sahl.

Satirist Mort Sahl has been credited with mocking von Braun by saying "I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London."[39] In fact that line appears in the film I Aim at the Stars, a 1960 biopic of von Braun.
Thank God we still have Lehrer.

"Wernher von Braun" (1965): A song written and performed by Tom Lehrer for an episode of NBC's American version of the BBC TV show That Was The Week That Was; the song was later included in Lehrer's albums That Was The Year That Was and The Remains of Tom Lehrer. It was a satire on what some saw as von Braun's cavalier attitude toward the consequences of his work in Nazi Germany

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Ley on the pre-history of the space station

This 1953 piece by Willy Ley is interesting for any number of reasons, but there are a couple that are especially relevant to our recent threads.

First, there's the comparison of technologies that seem to catch everyone off guard compared with those that have a long history of antecedents in fiction/myth, serious speculation, and failed experiments before becoming viable. It can be difficult to sort these out from a modern perspective, so it is extremely useful to have the topic explored by someone like Ley who combines mastery of the science with extensive knowledge of the fiction.

Second, and even more applicable to our ongoing conversation, is the timeframe. As with many concepts in space travel, the idea of a space station was for all practical intents and purposes introduced by Hermann Oberth 30 years before the appearance of the following article. Within around a quarter of a century, scientists had developed the design into what we still think of today when we hear the words space station, a torus-shaped orbital platform where people and cargo from surface-launched rockets could be transferred to long-range spacecrafts.

This is very much consistent with the push into space of the period in particular and of the postwar science and tech spike in general. Most of the enabling technologies were either truly cutting-edge (like atomic power and transistors) or were developed during or between the two world wars.

By comparison, at least when it comes to 21st-century aerospace, the basic ideas behind most of our highly touted advances and "bold and visionary" proposals tend to be much older, often passing the 50 or even 60 year mark. This is not to say that impressive work is not being done or that major technical challenges are not being overcome, but the role of the cutting-edge and even the moderately recent discovery is far less than it used to be, and that might not be a good sign.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Or you could have just taken away the bullets

I have all sorts of problems with this Atlantic piece [How Mars Will Be Policed by Geoff Manaugh] but before I get into those big complaints, there is a smaller point that bothers me.
When I asked Kim Stanley Robinson—whose award-winning Mars Trilogy imagines the human settlement of the Red Planet in extraordinary detail—about the future of police activity on Mars, he responded with a story. In the 1980s, he told me, a team from the National Science Foundation was sent to a research base in Antarctica with a single handgun for the entire crew. The gun was intended as a tool of last resort, for only the most dire of emergencies, but the scientists felt its potential for abuse was too serious to remain unchecked. According to Robinson, they dismantled the gun into three constituent parts and stored each piece with a different caretaker. That way, if someone got drunk and flew into a rage, or simply cracked under the loneliness and pressure, there would be no realistic scenario in which anyone could collect the separate pieces, reassemble the gun, load it, and begin holding people hostage (or worse).

First off, I wonder if this really happen. It's told in an apocryphal, urban-legend style that makes me somewhat skeptical. More to the point, I'm trying to think of what dire emergency which was likely to occur in an Antarctic research base would require a gun of any kind. It's hard to imagine what external threats they might have been worried about and the "let's have a gun around in case someone goes crazy" theory has one of those flaws that you'd like to think smart people would catch in the planning stage.

If it didn't happen, there is an obvious problem with it being presented as fact, but if it did happen, there is almost as great a problem with the lack of identifying information or collaborating detail. Has anyone out there heard this story before?

Monday, September 24, 2018

On the plus side, the von Braun and Ley Zeppelin designs would make for some very cool steam-punk art

Sometimes, when wandering over what should be well explored territory you come across a pair of familiar facts that suddenly strike you as strange or even shocking when considered together.

I had one of those moments yesterday when thinking about our vanity aerospace thread, and specifically its relationship to the science-fiction and popular science writing of the postwar era. As previously mentioned, most of the "bold" and "visionary" proposals coming from billionaires like Paul Allen, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk are almost all similar and in some cases all but identical to the ideas being laid out by people like Werner von Braun and Willy Ley more than 60 years ago.

That alone is striking – – these are visions of the future are often older than the people making them – – but the full impact didn't hit me until I got to thinking about what looking back 60 or 70 years would've been like back when von Braun and Ley were first laying these ideas out for the public in popular magazine articles and Disney TV specials.

Take a minute to think about the technological gap between the world of the early 1950s and that of the late 1880s. The rocket scientists and their popularizers were discussing multistage rockets, radio communication and control, atomic energy. In the 1880s these subjects were, at best, the subject of speculation. In some cases, even the underlying physics was yet to be established.

When people in the 1950s looked back at how their grandparents imagine the future, the ideas seemed primitive and charmingly quaint. When we look back over a comparable interval, we see a view of the future which looks, or lack of a better word, futuristic. For me, at least, that's a rather depressing thought.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Fly me near the moon...

This isn't really that big of a story – – a remounting of something we did 50 years ago only with some of the most difficult parts left out. That said, you can argue that anything that increases interest in space travel should be chalked up on the plus side. Besides, it's easily the least embarrassing Elon Musk news we've seen in quite a while.

 A Japanese billionaire and a coterie of artists will visit the moon as early as 2023, becoming the first private citizens ever to fly beyond low Earth orbit, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced tonight.

Yusaku Maezawa, the founder of Japanese e-commerce giant Zozo, has signed up to fly a round-the-moon mission aboard SpaceX's BFR spaceship-rocket combo, he and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced during a webcast tonight (Sept. 17) from the company's rocket factory in Hawthorne, California.

The mission — which will loop around, but not land on, the moon — could be ready to launch in just five years, Musk said.

It is also important to note that Musk doesn't the best record with timelines and other details, so the statement "could be ready to launch in just five years" should be judged accordingly.

I apologize for passing over the obvious video accompaniments to this post. Instead, here are some songs from Tony Bennett that stand up better and offer such talented collaborators as Diana Krall and Count Basie.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Poetic economics

I've noticed the rise of a certain kind of proposal that makes little sense in terms of efficiency he, and resource utilization, but which makes a great deal of what we might call aesthetic sense.

Take, for instance, the plan that got a great deal of traction a few years ago for charging batteries in the Third World with special high-tech soccer balls which converted kinetic energy into electricity. It was unsurprisingly a complete disaster, a needlessly complicated and expensive "solution" to a problem that was better solved through a number of other well established approaches. It offered no discernible advantages and many serious drawbacks.

It did, however, have an unquestionable appeal. The image of children playing and at the same time using cutting-edge technology to power their way into 21st century media access felt like something bright and forward-looking. The fact that it made no practical sense didn't matter; it made aesthetic sense.

Likewise, this much discussed proposal to convert sequestered carbon into fuel has an unquestionable poetic symmetry about it, not only solving the tremendous environmental problems caused by burning fossil fuels, but actually going full circle and using that unwanted carbon as a replacement for those fuels. From a practical standpoint, though, it is difficult to see the rationale for using the considerable energy required to extract the carbon from carbon dioxide and the hydrogen from water (don't know much about physics but I'm pretty sure the laws of thermodynamics kick in somewhere here) all so we can take the carbon and change it back into atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Even if we can't find some other use for it (like this), we can always bury the carbon, in effect putting it back where it was before it caused the damage. From an environmental sense, it makes more sense to bury it than to burn it, but that doesn't make for nearly as good a story.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

If. Only.

Lots of bloggers know that you can find tons of cool retro-future art (all in the public domain) in the Internet Archive's Galaxy Magazine collection. Far fewer seem to know about its sister publication, If, which is a shame.

From Wikipedia
The magazine was moderately successful, though it was never considered to be in the first tier of science-fiction magazines. It achieved its greatest success under editor Frederik Pohl, winning the Hugo Award for best professional magazine three years running from 1966 to 1968. If published many award-winning stories over its 22 years, including Robert A. Heinlein's novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Harlan Ellison's short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream". The most prominent writer to make his first sale to If was Larry Niven, whose story "The Coldest Place" appeared in the December 1964 issue.

Pohl paid one cent per word for the stories he bought for If, whereas Galaxy paid three cents per word, and like Gold, he regarded Galaxy as the leading magazine of the two, whereas If was somewhere he could work with new writers, and try experiments and whims. This developed into a selling point when a letter from a reader, Clayton Hamlin, prompted Pohl to declare that he would publish a new writer in every single issue of the magazine,[14][15] though he was also able to attract well-known writers.[16] When Pohl began his stint as editor, both magazines were operating at a loss; despite If's lower budget, Pohl found it more fun to edit, and commented that apparently the readers thought so, too; he was able to make If show a profit before Galaxy, adding, "What was fun for me seemed to be fun for them."

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The nurturing of absurdity

There are a wealth of recent examples of arguments and interpretations that, despite being obviously absurd, not only make their way into the popular discourse, but actually become dominant conventional wisdom. Though here at the blog, we've been focused primarily on examples from science, technology, and business, some of the best examples come from mainstream media's political commentary. This isn't to say you can't find as bad or worse in conservative media – – quite the opposite – – but those absurdities are reliably in the service of a partisan agenda. The reasons for institutions like NPR making bullshit the default setting in these cases are more subtle.

The most notable recent example is the Trump base pseudo-paradox. This is actually something of a twofer. It starts with experienced and supposedly savvy analysts expressing amazement over Trump taking some offensive stance and yet holding his base, then the analysts conclude that this spells trouble for the Democrats.

Both parts collapsed under scrutiny. Those offensive policies and statements are (with a few exceptions) popular with core supporters and deeply unpopular with the rest of the country. Trump is in a sense pandering twice to his base here, not only agreeing with them on controversy of issues, but hammering home the point that, by doing so, he is siding with his supporters over everyone else. Paranoia and persecution have long been major components of conservative culture and the rise of conservative media has aggressively and deliberately cultivated those feelings.

Thus, Trump holding on to his base is possibly the most explicable development of the past few years, and it shows no special political genius on his part. Anyone can maintain a grip on supporters by taking their side even when the rest of the country strongly opposes them. The only reason you don't see this done more often is because winning the approval of the 25 to 35% of the country that was going to vote for you anyway while angering and energizing 60 to 70% of the country is that it's a disastrous strategy. Think Goldwater but more extreme.

So how did these points not just persist but become ubiquitous? When you put this together with all the other recent examples of the obviously untrue making its way into the conventional wisdom, the inescapable answer is that plausibility doesn't rank that high. If something complements a safe standard narrative (in this case the Dems in disarray), the fact that it doesn't actually make much sense can be overlooked, particularly when you factor in convergent thinking and the inability of many in the world of commentary to think in terms of appropriate levels of aggregation.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Michael Hiltzik's Donald Trump/Elon Musk analogy

This has been out for a while and I believe we may have touched on it before, but Michael Hiltzik's recent piece for the LA Times has actually become more relevant since it was published:

But there’s another respect in which Tesla CEO Musk and President Trump resemble each other, and it’s one that carries extreme risks for the enterprises they lead—in Musk’s case, Tesla Inc., and in Trump’s case, his administration. They’re both charismatic leaders with strong cores of followers who have, thus far, forced people outside their base to believe in their leadership skills. The question is, however, what will happen when confidence in their skills begins to crack?

The roster of charismatic leaders in politics who led their citizens over a cliff is long, and doesn’t require listing here. Business books and articles bristle with discussions about the qualities, virtues and dangers of charismatic leadership.

A couple of years ago, Joyce E.A. Russell of the University of Maryland listed some of their features in The Times: “They will discourage and censor divergent opinions and will expect that communication should be one-way…. They will strike back like bullies when they hear criticism (using the message that they "must defend themselves against attacks"). Their need for admiration and self-absorption can be so intense that it can lead them to believe that they are infallible. Instead of painting an optimistic vision for the future, they will prey on people's fears.”

The main problem with leadership by personality is that it carries followers sedulously along—right up until the point when they no longer follow. The turn can come in the blink of an eye. But sometimes it comes too late for the underlying enterprise to survive.

In an age of bullshit, track records are extremely important. When obviously ridiculous arguments and narratives inflate to enormous size before imploding, there will inevitably be an embarrassing number of journalists who will shamelessly jump from "[Hyperloops/Bitcoin/Google glasses] will completely change your world." to knew-it-all-along. This was dramatically illustrated during the 2016 election where you had a handful of writers like Josh Marshall and (after he learned his lesson in the primaries) Nate Silver who provided intelligent and often prescient commentary compared with the majority of their colleagues who pretty much got everything wrong and have spent the past year and a half hoping that their readers forget.

Hiltzik's track record is consistently good, but he deserves to be singled out for special praise for being one of the first to see through Elon Musk. The LA Times in general deserves credit for its smart and critical coverage here, as do Al Jazeera and the Washington Post for being among the first to see that the only thing significant about the Hyperloop was its first syllable. This was while almost all of their competitors the New York Times, New York magazine, the Boston Globe, and most egregiously Rolling Stone were burning through their hard-earned reputations with tales of a real life Tony Stark.

It is notable that, since Hiltzik wrote the piece, we have gotten dramatic new examples of chaos and collapse from both the White House and Tesla motors. There are the countless disturbing anecdotes from Woodward's book while, after a brief period of calm, Elon Musk is doubling down on his crazy attacks against the British diver who advised in the recent rescue (in addition to the footage of the CEO of a company worth as much as General Motors getting stoned on camera).

Really spectacular con artists like Ponzi or Uri Geller come to believe their own pitch even though they know that it's not true. I strongly suspect this applies here as well. Trump clearly thinks of himself as a brilliant and incredibly successful businessman with almost superhuman powers of persuasion (and I'm not sure I really need to include the "almost"). Musk thinks of himself as a stunningly gifted engineer and inventor and, on some level, probably believes that he really did come up with all the things he's taking credit for, whether they be the work of his genuinely talented employees, the intellectual property he liberated from TRW, or the stuff he saw in some old science-fiction movie.

Friday, September 14, 2018

I posted this without realizing how relevant it was.

Don't get me wrong. I'd seen this video a number of times, but I didn't rewatch it before including it in the NYT op-ed post last week. I didn't realize how much the impact had increased over the past year.If you skipped over it the last time, I highly recommend taking a few minutes to watch it now.

And on the subject of old political commentary that seems strangely contemporary, check out this 45 year old piece from Art Buchwald helpfully providing Nixon supporters with responses when the subject of Watergate came up.

1. Everyone does it.

2. What about Chappaquiddick?

3. A President can’t keep track of everything his staff does.

4. The press is blowing the whole thing up.

5. Whatever Nixon did was for national security.

6. The Democrats are sore because they lost the election.

7. Are you going to believe a rat like John Dean or the president of the United States?

8. Wait till all the facts come out.

9. What about Chappaquiddick?

10. If you impeach Nixon, you get Agnew.

11. The only thing wrong with Watergate is they got caught.

12. What about Daniel Ellsberg stealing the Pentagon Papers?

13. It happens in Europe all the time.

14. People would be against Nixon no matter what he did.

15. I’d rather have a crook in the White House than a fool.

16. LBJ used to read FBI reports every night.

17. What’s the big deal about finding out what your opposition is up to?

18. The president was too busy running the country to know what was going on.

19. What about Chappaquiddick?

20. People that live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

21. McGovern would have lost anyway.

22. Maybe the Committee for the Re-Election of the President when a little too far, but they were just a bunch of eager kids.

23. I’m not for breaking the law, but sometimes you have to do it to save the country.

24. Nixon made a mistake. He’s only human.

25. Do you realize what Watergate is doing to the dollar abroad?

26. What about Harry Truman and the deep freeze scandal?

27. Franklin D. Roosevelt did a lot of worse things.

28. I’m sick and tired of hearing about Watergate and so is everyone else.

29. This thing should be tried in the courts and not on TV.

30. When Nixon gives his explanation of what happened there are going to be a lot of people in this country with egg on their faces.

31. My country right or wrong.

32. What about Chappaquiddick?

33. I think the people who make all this fuss about Watergate should be shot.

34. If the Democrats had the money they would have done the same thing.

35. I never did trust Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

36. If you say one more word about Watergate I’ll punch you in the nose.

A. If the person is bigger than you: “If you say one more word about Watergate I’m leaving this house.”

B. If it’s your own house and the person is bigger than you: “What about Chappaquiddick?”

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Few 21st-century visionaries realize how old their future is – – Childhoods End edition

I'm finding it increasingly difficult to read these accounts of bold, visionary thinkers without feeling an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.

From LA Weekly

Yuval Harari famously predicts, "We are probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens. Within a century or two, Earth will be dominated by entities that are more different from us than we are different from Neanderthals or chimpanzees." And this quote is at the foundation of Berggruen's newest initiative, a program dubbed Transformations of the Human.

With co-funding from Reid Hoffman and directed by Tobias Rees (a prolific author, professor of humanities at the New School of Social Research and a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, whose background intersects anthropology, the history of art and science, and philosophy), the Transformations of the Human program has some big work ahead. Rees is assembling a team of fellows who are scientists, artists and ethicists to create a holistic understanding of advancements such as artificial intelligence and bioengineering, how to handle the questions they raise about who we are and how to beneficially implement them in our society.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Turn of the Century Childhood's End

This may go against conventional wisdom, but what we now call New Age beliefs (normally seen as children of the counter-culture) are largely a product of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Parapsychology? Check. Ghosts and similar entities? Check. Fascination with paganism and arcane religions? Check. Space aliens? Check. And finally, the idea that humanity is on the verge of a huge evolutionary leap, a leap that might already be happening? Check.

The turn of the century probably also marked the peak respectability for these beliefs. It's difficult imagining something like this running in Scientific American in the 21sst century.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

More news on the terrestrial superstation front (and, yes, I will admit to a slight note of "I told you so" in this thread)


From Broadcasting and Cable magazine:

CHICAGO, IL (July 18, 2018)- Weigel Broadcasting Co. announces the launch of the new multicast entertainment television network- Start TV, beginning Monday, September 3, 2018, in association with CBS Television Stations. Start TV showcases strong and resourceful female leading characters in a lineup of contemporary and proven procedural dramas. Each lead character and series embody a boldness and determination to “Start” leading the way, seeking the truth, solving the crime, and defending the innocent.

The talented and award-winning leading actresses featured on the new Start TV Network include: Kyra Sedgwick, Patricia Arquette, Julianna Margulies, Christine Baranski, Bonnie Bedelia, Taraji P. Henson, and Jill Hennessy.


“We are pleased to partner with our friends at Weigel Broadcasting to launch Start TV,” said Peter Dunn, President, CBS Television Stations. "Our CBS Television Network primetime audience has enjoyed great success with procedural dramas for many years. We are excited to feature The Good Wife and many other compelling series in the Start TV line-up as a great companion to our CBS programming.”

This would be a good jumping off point for discussions of all sorts of big topics like the value of intellectual property, how one builds and maintains a content library, the state of the television industry, and why certain stories are covered at nausea while others go unnoticed, but those are questions we will need to come back to at a later date. For now, I just want to make note of the event and leave you with a few brief observations.

A few years ago, I had an exchange with a famous blogger (I probably picked on the guy enough so I'll leave him nameless for now) about over-the-air television and terrestrial superstations. He argued that terrestrial broadcasting was a small and shrinking medium and that the bandwith should be sold off to raise money for better purposes. I countered that the viewership was much larger than he claimed and growing and that the industry was vital, innovative, and served a real social need. Since then the OTA television market has grown substantially, has proven highly profitable (unlike, say, Netflix),  attracting major players such as the big studios and mega-producer Mark Burnett.

With the launch of this network, we go beyond the testing of the water stage and see a division of Viacom doubling down. Though Decades might end up getting crowded out here (which would be a shame. It is been a wonderful experiment in intelligent TV programming) CBS television is currently running two networks in partnership with Weigel and investing increasingly valuable intellectual property into the endeavors.

That last point bears emphasizing. If I have a lot of time I could spend a lot of time on how programming on terrestrial superstations has evolved, but the short version is that (very much pushed by Weigel) the trend has been toward airing increasingly valuable shows and movies on these networks. Start TV may be the clearest indication of this so far. Police procedurals like Law and Order, NCIS, and, yes, the Closer/Major Crimes have proven extraordinarily and unexpectedly durable, while the Good Wife is probably the definitive recent example of a popular and commercial blockbuster. These shows would not be running on this network unless CBS was fully committed to the project and felt that the association would enhance the IP.

Also worth noting that this is the fourth time (counting Viacom twice) a major media company has chosen to hand over programming and creative decisions of one of their networks to the small but tremendously innovative Weigel Broadcasting. This is an amazing story – – a regional independent jumps into a new technology, disrupts a major industry, and soon has half the major studios partnering up with it while the other half launch blatant imitations – – and under any sane standard of journalism, everyone would be wanting to tell it, but, as we have observed many times in many contexts recently, the current state of journalism is anything but sane.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Here there be [the original] monsters.

We've talked a lot about how, from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries, science and technology really did follow the ever accelerating exponential curve people like to impose upon it, culminating with a period of plosive change stretching roughly from 1880 to 1910. Oceanography provides a great example.

Efforts to study the oceans in a systematic and scientific way date back to the late 18th century with researchers like Ben Franklin taking extensive measurements of wind, currents, air and water temperature, and other variables. Below a couple of hundred fathoms, however, the seas were a complete mystery.

For a while, the prevailing theory was that, since water temperature steadily dropped as you went down the first few fathoms, the deeper parts of the ocean were filled with ice. When evidence started contradicting this hypothesis, it was replaced with the idea of a lifeless zone extending most of the way down. This theory was contradicted when engineers repairing transatlantic telegraphs dredged up cables from the ocean floor often pulling inhabitants up in the process.

As with so many other stories of science and technology, modern oceanography basically began in the last quarter of the 19th century with the voyage of the Challenger.

From Wikipedia:

The Challenger expedition of 1872–76 was a scientific exercise that made many discoveries to lay the foundation of oceanography. The expedition was named after the mother vessel, HMS Challenger.

Prompted by Charles Wyville Thomson—of the University of Edinburgh and Merchiston Castle School—the Royal Society of London obtained the use of Challenger from the Royal Navy and in 1872 modified the ship for scientific tasks, equipping her with separate laboratories for natural history and chemistry. The expedition, led by Captain George Nares, sailed from Portsmouth, England, on 21 December 1872.[1] Other naval officers included Commander John Maclear.[2] Under the scientific supervision of Thomson himself, she traveled nearly 70,000 nautical miles (130,000 km) surveying and exploring. The result was the Report Of The Scientific Results of the Exploring Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the years 1873-76 which, among many other discoveries, cataloged over 4,000 previously unknown species. John Murray, who supervised the publication, described the report as "the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries". Challenger sailed close to Antarctica, but not within sight of it.

Findings from the Challenger expedition continued to be published until 1895, 19 years after the completion of its journey. The report contained 50 volumes and was over 29,500 pages in length. Specimens brought back by Challenger were distributed to the world's foremost experts for examination, which greatly increased the expenses and time required to finalize the report. The report and specimens are currently held at the British Natural History Museum and the report has been made available online. Some specimens, many of which were the first discovered of their kind, are still examined by scientists today.

.This was followed by a number of other expeditions, the most notable for our purposes being...
The Valdivia Expedition, or Deutschen Tiefsee-Expedition (German Deep Sea Expedition), was a scientific expedition organised and funded by the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II and was named after the ship which was bought and outfitted for the expedition, the SS Valdivia. It was led by the marine biologist Carl Chun and the expedition ran from 1898-1899 with the purpose of exploring the depths of the oceans below 500 fathoms, which had not been explored by the earlier Challenger Expedition. 

This is yet another example of our understanding of the world shifting from primitive to relatively modern in the late 19th/early 20th century. If you could have a conversation with a group of well educated layman in the 1870s, you would find that they were almost completely ignorant about the nature of life near the bottom of the ocean. If you gathered a similar group 25 or 30 years later, you would discover a remarkable amount of common ground between their ideas and yours. It's entirely possible, that some of the pictures of the strange creatures you have swimming around in your head are actually derived from the samples dredged up by the Valdivia Expedition.

.If you'd like to get a sense of how people in the early 20th century viewed these discoveries, I would recommend Willy Ley's essay for Galaxy Magazine where he describes childhood visits to the museum that housed the preserved samples from the voyage. The essay is also the source of the illustrations for this post.

Finally, there's one more point I'd like to make about the way our view of the world (and beyond) changed radically in this period. It is become common, perhaps even standard, to describe these creatures as "alien," or looking like they "came from another planet." I suspect this gets the relationship exactly backwards. It's not that these strange animals remind us of what we imagine extraterrestrial life to be; it's that we now tend to imagine extraterrestrial life has something like you find at the bottom of the ocean.

Monday, September 10, 2018

"Wear gloves"

A cheerful thought for XKCD to start your week.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Existential threats, soft landings, and the questionable ethics of access journalism – – a few more thoughts on that over-discussed op-ed.

I always have mixed feelings about jumping on trending topics, but this does relate to at least a couple of our ongoing thread's (and it gave me a couple of good ideas for our Friday videos).

I assume you're already sick of hearing about this anonymous editorial that recently appeared in the New York Times, but if you been off spelunking for the past few days here's an excellent piece of commentary from David Frum and a very good (given that it was so hastily written) monologue from Stephen Colbert.

First, as many have noted, this is a self-serving and not completely honest piece from an author who unquestionably is trying to serve a personal and partisan agenda. Particularly egregious is the section about not invoking the 25th amendment out of fear of creating a "constitutional crisis." As Colbert points out, taking steps spelled out in the Constitution is by definition a constitutional remedy, not a crisis. Furthermore, there is no conceivable situation where members of the cabinet are justified in undermining an elected president that does not rise to the standard set in the amendment.

[It should be noted that removing a president through these means is more difficult than most people realize, but the relevant aspect here is that a cabinet official is obligated to take these step if he or she is convinced that their boss is a danger to the country.]

Invoking the 25th amendment would, however, create an existential crisis for the Republican Party. The conservative movement has spent the past few decades cultivating what would come to be the Trump voters to serve as useful idiots and cannon fodder. Now the party is completely dependent on them and publicly jettisoning Trump would drive a lasting wedge between the GOP and the voters it needs the most. The results would play out like the collapse of the Whig party with the fast-forward button pressed.

Part of the calculus of the Republicans' approach to Trump has always been weighing the dangers he presents against the agenda items he helps them advance, but events all the past few months have changed the math. The acceleration and metastasizing of the Mueller investigation (particularly to the Southern District of New York), the tell-all book and revelations of widespread covert taping, the opening of the National Enquirer's Trump safe, and the Woodward book along with myriad other bad news stories have combined to make the possibility of a catastrophe-triggering event (a public meltdown and/or collapse, mass sweeping pardons, firing Jeff sessions and ordering that the Mueller investigation be shut down, etc.) far more likely between now and the midterm elections.

It is important to note that the op-ed was timed to come out just before Woodward's book thus making it a "blockbuster" story that didn't actually tell us anything that wasn't about to be a matter of public record. In this context, the piece has to be approached not as an attempt to inform, but as an attempt to put a positive spin on incredibly negative revelations (from an "unsung hero" no less). At this point, the author and his or her party are looking for at least the possibility of a soft landing.

All of this raises serious ethical questions about the New York Times agreeing to publish this while allowing the author to remain anonymous. The gray lady's greatest strength and greatest weakness has long been its journalistic reputation and its resulting symbiotic relationship with the political and business establishment. This relationship has yielded enormous benefits for the paper, making it the default choice for powerful and famous people who want to get their side of the story out, but it has also compromised its editorial standards to an extent where it may actually be doing more damage than good to the discourse.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Paul Allen's childhood bedroom and other instructive stories.

This Wired article on Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen's attempt to set up a company for launching satellites into orbit contains an almost perfect metaphor for the vanity aerospace industry though the author fails or perhaps chooses not to notice it.

As a teenager, Paul Allen was a sci-fi and rocketry nerd. He dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but that ambition was scuttled by nearsighted­ness. His childhood bedroom was filled with science fiction and space books. Bill Gates remembers Allen’s obsession. “Even when I first met him—he was in tenth grade and I was in eighth—he had read way more science fiction than anyone else,” says Gates, who later founded Microsoft with Allen. “Way more.” One of Allen’s favorites was a popular science classic called Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel, by Willy Ley, first published in 1944. As Allen tells it in his memoir, he was crushed when he visited his parents as an adult and went to his old room to reference a book. He discovered that his mother had sold his collection. (The sale price: $75.) Using a blowup of an old photo of the room, Allen dispatched scouts to painstakingly re-create his boyhood library.

You have here a fantastically wealthy man going to great lengths to recapture childhood dreams. As we've mentioned before and will delve into in greater depth in the future, Silicon Valley futurism is heavily (and I would argue not at all healthily) influenced and bounded by the tropes, rhetoric, and imagery of postwar science-fiction.

Here, the relationship becomes especially obvious when one goes back and studies the probable contents of Allen's boyhood room. Being obsessed with science fiction and a devoted reader of Ley, there was likely a collection of Galaxy Magazines on one of the shelves at some point. There was possibly even a lovingly assembled set of monograms Willy Ley space models hanging from the ceiling.


When you look at the massive aircraft that Allen's company has just introduced and then look at the pictures and stories he obsessed over as a child, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in a very real sense, he has spent millions upon millions of dollars constructing a life-sized version of the childhood toy.

This is not to say that the approach isn't viable or that the business model is necessarily bad. Air launches are a well established technology and while this proposal does not represent a huge leap forward in low-cost space travel, the suggested economies of scale certainly seem reasonable. God knows we've seen worse business plans recently.

But given the extraordinary role that Silicon Valley culture plays in society and the nearly unchecked power that the super rich wield in the new gilded age, we need to recognize how old most of these ideas are and ask ourselves why aren't we seeing more new ones.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Revisiting the GOP's 3 x 3 existential threat one year later – – what got left out.

Back in August 2017, we ran a post of arguing that the Republican Party faced a collection of threats that taken together actually had the potential to destroy the party in its current incarnation. I didn't and don't want to spend a lot of time speculating on exactly what form the destruction might take, whether it would be a ground-up rebuilding (possibly combined with a rebranding and name change) for a third party rising up to fill the vacuum or even a split in the remaining party with the more liberal factions setting off on their own while those who stayed drifted to the right, thus making the Democrats the conservative party. Trying to predict where the pieces will fall after an explosion is a sucker's game. I'm just interested in the conditions that make an explosion possible.

With apologies to our regular readers who have seen this too many times before, here's a recap of the basic argument. Under its current system, the United States is effectively locked into a two-party configuration with one party on the left and the other on the right (I stammered a little bit as I dictated this to my laptop. I have huge issues with the traditional political spectrum, but there's no way to avoid it in this context). Furthermore, these two parties are extraordinarily resilient since it is next to impossible, under normal circumstances, for a third party to take the place of one of the main two.

If, however, you have a number of different threats to the party, each at an extreme perhaps even unprecedented level all working in concert, the likelihood of a Whig party scenario is no longer trivial. A year ago, I ran through a list of unpopular policies (healthcare, immigration, tax cuts for the rich), presidential scandals (involving money, collaboration with foreign powers, and obstruction of justice) and demographic challenges (with women, people of color, and younger voters). The range and severity of these threats appear to be something unique in American political history.

On the whole, the list has held up fairly well over the past 12 months, but there are a couple of threats that need to be added even at the risk of spoiling the nice 3 x 3 symmetry. The first is trade, which remains a real surprise for me. True, Trump talked a good protectionist game from the beginning, but he also promised to strengthen the social safety net and raise taxes on the rich. In those areas, any pretense of economic populism was instantly abandoned for conservative orthodoxy. It was only in the area of trade that those campaign promises were not only fulfilled, but doubled down on. It was also difficult to anticipate just how effective China would be at fighting back or how quickly the trade war would become us against the world.

The other omission, and this when I probably should've seen coming, was the role that smaller Republican scandals mostly outside of the administration and often on the state or local level would play. We already did a post on the subject, one which had to be updated almost immediately. This week we had yet another major development from Arkansas, again involving a member of the Hutchinson family dynasty.

Arkansas governor's nephew leaves state Senate amid charges
By ANDREW DeMILLO, Associated Press 

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A nephew of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson resigned from the state Senate on Friday after being charged with spending thousands of dollars in campaign funds on personal expenses, including a Caribbean cruise, tuition payments and groceries, prosecutors announced Friday.

Former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, a Republican who wasn't seeking re-election, is charged with eight counts of wire fraud and four counts of filing false tax returns. Federal prosecutors allege that from 2010 through 2017, he used campaign money to pay for personal expenses that also included Netflix fees, jewelry, a gym membership and his utility bills. They say he tried to hide it by falsifying campaign finance reports and tax filings.

Obviously, even with the Hutchinson name attached, this is very much a local story but that does not mean it's an independent event in the larger network of the political landscape. It affects and is affected by other events on the state and national level and if I were a real political scientist, I'd be reading up on concepts like cascading failure and catastrophe theory about now.

The conservative movement created the modern Republican Party much like the deacon built the wonderful one-hoss shay, with each component carefully crafted and supporting all the rest, and while I am certainly not trying to argue by analogy here, it is entirely within the range of possibility that the eventual outcome the same.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

A few notes on the Westside scooter invasion

I spend a lot of time on the Westside. The plurality of my LA-based friends live in the area and it's a quick drive from my current residence. Recently the heat wave has also been a big reason to head west – – the beaches are often 20 or 30 degrees cooler than other parts of town – – but things seem to be getting more temperate and I'm hoping for some pleasant weather until the next Santa Anas kick in.

Over the past month, with a suddenness that caught pretty much everyone off guard, the area has seen a swarm of electric scooters. I've dodged the riders in traffic, stepped over the scooters on the sidewalk, and listened to the reactions of the locals (Check here for Ken Levine's), so I thought I'd jot down a few quick thoughts on the subject.

One. This is not a national, or even an LA story; this is a west of Lincoln story.

[for a bit of background, check out this earlier post.]

This tiny strip of the huge city of Los Angeles gets a wildly disproportionate share of attention, at least in part because a large portion of visitors never make it east of the 405 or south of the 105. The New York Times is particularly egregious in this regard (you have to wonder if the phrase "patronizing, provincial asshole" actually appears in the job listing for the papers travel writers). While these scooters are ubiquitous in places like Venice Beach and Santa Monica, it's likely that most LA residents have never actually seen one in their neighborhood.

Two. So far, these scooters thrive in exactly the neighborhoods you would expect them to.

Here in LA (and I believe in the Bay Area as well) scooters are ubiquitous in places that are upscale, dense, well-maintained and policed, and touristy as hell. They appeal most strongly to the kind of people who hang out in these areas, particularly...

Three. Scooting is very much a young person's game.

Of the dozens of people I've seen zipping around various beach communities, I can recall exactly one who appeared to be over 40. The majority appeared to be in their 20s. Part of this can be explained by the appeal of different activities to different age groups, but a lot of it comes down to factors like balance, even more than writing a bicycle. To get on one of these scooters requires one be confident on one's feet, which leads us to the next point...

Four. Scooters are almost exclusively an alternative to walking.

When we discuss electric scooters as a form of transportation, it is important to note that virtually everyone who rides one of these is capable of walking and the vast majority of the trips they take could be done on foot. Bicycles, with their greater range, ability to handle rougher terrain, can be operated reasonably safely at night, and options for hauling cargo, are often a viable alternative to cars, buses, and subways. None of this applies to scooters.

Five. And pedestrians hate them.

It seems a safe bet that most urban transportation experts would argue that we should prioritize pedestrians first with cyclists a close second followed by various forms of public transportation like buses and subways with cars a distant last. Scooters provide an alternative to walking that inconveniences and sometimes endangers pedestrians. The hazards will be difficult to address – – you can make all the rules you want, but scooters are simply better suited for sidewalks than roads – – but the inconvenience could largely be avoided except for...

Six. Ddulite fallacy and the false dichotomy between dockless and nothing.

This goes back to our long running discussion of the profoundly irrational tendency particularly among journalists and investors to reject the tools that are most appropriate for a given job in favor of some shiny new tech. In this case, it is notable how the concept of docking stations have been relegated to the antiquated pile. Keep in mind that almost everyone who would consider using a scooter is capable of walking a few blocks to and from the stations and that having an assigned place for unused scooters would remove most of the complaints about inconvenience.

Seven. But there are hundreds of millions of reasons why we are going to hear a rational conversation on the subject.

Given the limited potential size of this market, the valuation of these companies is absolutely insane. With Uber and Netflix there was at least a highly improbable scenario for justifying the investments and stock prices. With the scooter industry, there's not even that. Nonetheless all of this money means that small armies of lobbyist and PR hacks are currently being marshaled. Already regulations are being captured and journalists are being dictated to. Unquestionably there will be more to this story, but I'm pretty sure it will have a familiar ring to it.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Labor Day blast from the past

Look for the Union Label

The ILGWU sponsored a contest among its members in the 1970s for an advertising jingle to advocate buying ILGWU-made garments. The winner was Look for the union label.[9][10] The Union's "Look for the Union Label" song went as follows:

    Look for the union label
    When you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse,
    Remember somewhere our union's sewing,
    Our wages going to feed the kids and run the house,
    We work hard, but who's complaining?
    Thanks to the ILG, we're paying our way,
    So always look for the union label,
    It says we're able to make it in the USA!

The commercial featuring the famous song was parodied on a late-1970s episode of Saturday Night Live in a fake commercial for The Dope Growers Union and on the March 19, 1977, episode (#10.22) of The Carol Burnett Show. It was also parodied in the South Park episode "Freak Strike" (2002).