Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Any conversation about electability has got to start with the fact that a white male has not won the popular vote since 2004.

The electoral discussion among pundits and data journalists has been taking some especially silly turns of late and before the bullshit accumulates to the same dangerous level it did in 2016, we need to step back and address the bad definitions, absurd assumptions, and muddled thinking before it gets too deep.

We should probably start with the idea electability. While we can argue about the exact definition, it should not mean likely to be elected and it absolutely cannot mean will be elected.

Any productive definition of electability has got to be based on the notion of having reasonable prospect of winning. With this in mind, it is ridiculous to argue that Hillary Clinton was not electable. Lots of things had to break Trump's way for him to win the election and, while we can never say for certain what repeated runs of the simulation would show, there is no way to claim that we would have gotten the same outcome the vast majority of the time.

This leads us to a related dangerous and embarrassing trend, the unmooring of votes and outcomes. This is part of a larger genre of bad data journalism that tries to argue that relationships which are strongly correlated and even causal are unrelated because they are not deterministic and/or linear. In this world, profit or even potential profit is not relevant when discussing a startup's success. Diet and exercise have no effect on weight loss. With a little digging you can undoubtedly come up with numerous other examples.

The person who wins the popular vote may not win the electoral college, but unless you have a remarkably strong argument to the contrary, that is the way that smart money should bet.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Tuesday Tweets -- “rapid unplanned disassembly“ edition

I think Lee is underplaying the role that the huge, broad-based spikes in the late 19th Century and post-war era were in forming the idea of the exponential progress curve (and how resilient the belief has been in the face of conflicting data). 

I've been meaning to do a post on indicators that the standard political model may be heading for a rough patch.

Also want to come back to this.

Silver is having a good run.

Read this.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Taking on the votes-don't-matter meme -- the EC doesn't always follow the popular vote, but that's the way the smart money should bet

And once again we are in the silly season.

First off, a quick disclaimer: You can never reasonably dismiss an incumbent president's chances of being reelected. No matter how poor the prospects look, there are always plausible paths to victory. Not taking Trump seriously  would be irresponsible, but much of what we're hearing from the other extreme are just as foolish possibly more dangerous (the combination of defeatism, panic and bad reasoning seldom works out well).

 Popular variations on the all-is-lost theme include:

"Trump is unstoppable unless the Democrats move to the right/move to the left/embrace my pet issue."

"Trump is actually pursuing a cunning plan that will insure victory."

"The popular vote doesn't matter. The electoral college went the wrong way two out of the last five elections."

 Let's take that last one. The EC is a bad system that should have been scrapped long ago, but at least from a historical perspective, how likely are these undemocratic outcomes?

 For starters, we need to be very careful with our terms. There is a subtle but absolutely fundamental distinction to be made between winning the presidency despite losing the popular vote and winning the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote. In 2016, there is no question that the popular vote went one way and the Electoral College went another. In 2000, however, the picture is much murkier.

When we talk about a split between the popular vote and the Electoral College we mean that, given a reasonably accurate count, the all-or-nothing allotment of votes and the minimum delegate rule for small states will cause the Electoral College totals to go in a different direction that the popular vote.

There is always a certain amount of fuzziness when dealing with ballots. There might be a very slight chance that Al Gore did not win the popular vote. There is a very good chance that he did win the electoral college. Once again, I want to be very clear on this point. I'm not talking about who was awarded the delegates. I'm talking about who would have gotten them had there been a properly conducted  counting of the votes in Florida.

We've seen a recent wave of data journalist making bad distributional arguments about the implications of the Electoral College. Most of these arguments use Al Gore as an example despite the fact he does not at all illustrate their point, since who won Florida (and therefore the EC) is very much a disputed point).

If you remove Gore as an example, you have to go all the way back to 1888 to find another. This does not mean that this won't happen again for another hundred plus years. It does not mean that we don't need to worry about this in 2020. It does not even mean that a split between popular and electoral votes isn't The New Normal. What it does mean is that historically there is an extremely high correlation between winning the popular vote and winning the Electoral College.

Just for the record, the undermining of democracy by the conservative movement, particularly through voter suppression and under-representation, is perhaps my number one issue, even more than climate change and income inequality. I am very worried about gerrymandering and voter ID laws and somewhat concerned about the Senate, but the Electoral College, while not defensible, is way down on my list.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Family Friendly?

This is Joseph.

This tweet makes an excellent point:

The context was the cost of summer camps when you have two working parents, without anywhere near enough holidays to cover the summer.  This has to be one of the odd contradictions of modern thinking; I first noticed in in Ayn Rand's book "Atlas Shrugged" where she glossed over the role of children in a hyper-capitalist society.  While not everyone is a fan of Ayn Rand, it was an early sign of a fault point in the individualist culture we have created. 

The problem is that we can't really decide on two things.  One, is the basic unit of humanity individuals or families?  This isn't meant to be exclusionary, but simply to point out that humanity, as a project, requires new humans so if there is a commitment to the species they have to come from somewhere.  I don't want to say how these come together -- family is a very diverse entity -- but they are real mechanisms for child rearing.

Two, is the social contract that Western Democracies have created is about previous generations being transferred wealth in their old age from upcoming generations.  This works best when there is a continuing flow of upcoming generations and that requires some investment in the future as well. 

I am not sure about the solutions, but I am pretty sure that the solution set does not include seeing children as expensive consumer goods. 

Wonder when they stopped running Thunderbirds reruns in South Africa.

Listening to this, I can't help but try  and reconstruct the conversations he had with the actual engineers who tried to explain these ideas to him. He gets most of the phrases right but there's no indication he understands the challenges involved in what he's talking about.

Personally, I want to see him add one of these pilot slides.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Trickle-down innovation

This is Joseph

I think that this might be the single worst argument in health care today:
The slowdown in pharmaceutical innovation is widely acknowledged, well-documented, and deeply troubling. Most Americans have health insurance. Most Americans are able to get care if they need it. What matters at the point of crisis, then, isn’t just whether someone is covered, but what that coverage can buy. The best insurance in the world won’t save us if our antibiotics fall behind drug-resistant bacteria.
This is particularly pressing for Democrats because the best argument against centralized price setting is that it will slow innovation. So what plans do Democrats have to boost innovation in the health care space? Sanders, for his part, has an interesting idea to use prizes to generate new pathways for pharmaceutical development, but he’s one of the only Democrats with any kind of plan along these lines, and he does
First, even with the current system we are seeing a slow down in innovation.  There is an assumption that that isn't driven by it being easier to rent-seek with current than to come up with new ones.  Or by intrinsic limitations in what low hanging fruit might be left.

Second, the system is actually poorly designed for the example.  Antibiotics are always going to be less profitable than chronic use drugs.  Maybe the slower pace of development is because of the current system that focuses rewards elsewhere?

Third, isn't this the same argument as "trickle down economics"?  If we make health care CEO's rich then others will also seek to become rich and that will drive innovation.  How did that work with economics? 

The US spends twice as much GDP per person as the UK.  The difference between the two systems is about 8% of GDP.  US GDP is around 20,000 billion dollars, so 8% of that would be 1,600 billion.  The NIH budget is around 40 billion.  Let's spend only half of that on research -- I wonder what endless productive NIH could do with a 840 billion dollar budget to drive medical innovation? 

And this is with me not even really trying -- just thinking off of the top of my head.  I think we should be careful with the assumption that innovation by industry is all about improving care.  Some is and there are dedicated people in industry who work hard to help patients.  But some of this is clearly rent-seeking and profit taking.  It's not clear if we could redo the system that we couldn't save money AND be more innovative. 

Just a thought.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Hype Economy runs on faith -- more on Netflix

I was going to run something on this Bloomberg piece, then life got busy and a few weeks passed and soon a number of other posts (including some about Netflix) were demanding to be written. Then this happened and the following seemed too relevant to put off. [emphasis added]
Just the same, Netflix has been producing more on its own. The company will release 1,000-plus pieces of original programming this year. By the time “The Office” deal ends, Netflix will have at least 3,000 new programs in its library and likely surpass 200 million subscribers worldwide.

“People are missing it,” said [Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC]. “The loss of back titles will not kill Netflix or slow subscriber growth. It just forces them to make more original content.”
There is no rational argument for this position. Netflix is in the process of losing the shows behind roughly three quarters of its viewer-hours. It is maxed out on production without clear ownership of many of its most popular originals (such as She-Ra). It is spending at an unsustainable pace. It's about to fall into the ultimate competitive wood chipper.

Faith-based investing can keep things going a long time, but eventually reality-based results make doubter of us all.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Tuesday Tweets -- One Small Step


Monday, July 22, 2019

Netflix represents the overlap of the two great traditions of creative accounting-- Hollywood and Silicon Valley

[I scheduled this a few days ago. Eventful days.]

Since writing this, I've run the story past a number of people who have worked with this kind of consumer data at large companies, and every one of them has had the same reaction. All of them suggested that Netflix was tracking these numbers; it just didn't want anyone to know what they said. I'm also coming around to that conclusion.

I have a feeling that Netflix's transparency is about to become a bigger part of this story.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The myth of a data-driven Netflix

There's been a lot of talk about Netflix stock this week (usually with words like "plummet"), but a big part of the story has largely gone unnoticed, probably in part because it involves statistics.

As mentioned before, some aspects of the Netflix narrative such as the company building and HBO type content library, are simply, factually incorrect. Others, while not blatantly wrong, are difficult to reconcile with the facts.

One of the accepted truths of the Netflix narrative is that CEO Reed Hastings is obsessed with data and everything the company does is data driven (for example "What little Netflix has also shared about its programming strategy is that its every decision is guided by data."). The evidence in support of this belief is largely limited to a model that Netflix crowd sourced a few years ago and to endless assertions from executives at the company that they do know what they are doing despite evidence to the contrary.

Of course, all 21st century corporations are relatively data-driven. The fact that Netflix has large data sets on customer behavior does not set it apart, nor does the fact that it has occasionally made use of that data. Furthermore, we have extensive evidence that the company often makes less use of certain data then do most other competitors.

On pertinent case in point, particularly for the SEC, is churn rates.
But Netflix disagrees. “With respect to various operational metrics, management has evolved its use of these metrics as the business has evolved,” it wrote the SEC in response. Because it is so easy to quit and then restart a Netflix subscription, it said, “the churn metric is a less reliable measure of business performance, specifically consumer acceptance of the service.”
This is problematic on any number of levels. In terms of marketing, pricing and long-term corporate strategy, having a complete picture of how long people stay and why they leave is huge. The only excuse for not reporting churn would be if you had such a detailed picture of who was leaving and why that this additional metric was redundant.

In other words, Hasting should have a good, data-supported explanation for a recent sudden loss of subscribers.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings blamed the subscriber drop-off on a $1 price increase the company instituted back this spring.

"Our best sense is it's an effect of our price increase back in May," Hastings said Wednesday night in an interview with CNBC. "With a little bit higher prices, you get a little bit fewer subscribers. So that's our sense of it. But we can't be 100% sure. We had so much benefit from Orange in Q2 and the early Q3, but that's what we think."
Phrases you don't want to hear in these circumstances include "our best sense" and "that's what we think." They convey the impression of a CEO who was blindsided by a bad day at the NASDAQ.

When contemplating a price increase, well-run companies look at the impact on retention and on acquisition. When Netflix management said
[M]anagement believes that in a largely fixed-cost streaming world with ease of cancellation and subsequent rejoin, net additions provides the most meaningful insight into our business performance and consumer acceptance of our service. The churn metric is a less relevant and reliable measure of business performance, and does not accurately reflect consumer acceptance of our service.
They were basically saying that losing one customer and gaining another is the same as keeping the same customer. That's a dangerous approach under the best of circumstances but it can be deadly when trying to gauge the impact of a pricing change.

Just to be clear, for years analysts and the SEC have been asking for more data, or at least more detailed statistics and Netflix has been saying "trust us, the aggregate number are good enough." Now the company appears to have screwed up badly, and they've done it in pretty much exactly the way you would expect a company to screw up when it doesn't drill down into the data.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

More Apollo reblogging

Monday, June 11, 2018

An alternate narrative of JFK's commitment to the moon

[I would love some pushback on this. The following goes very much against the conventional narrative which always makes me nervous. If I missed something obvious, I'd rather it gets pointed out here before I build on it.]

The standard story centers on how the nation's imagination was captured by an audacious dream of sending a man to the moon. You've all heard the words of the speech that inspired the country, “We choose to go to the moon...” Except it didn't. The speech was an attempt at drumming up support for a not-that-popular program. As best I can tell, it was a fairly minor and underwhelming effort. It only achieved greatness retroactively due to the tragedy and triumph that came afterwards.

What else does the standard narrative get wrong?

1. Despite everything you hear about the tensions between JFK and LBJ, Kennedy knowingly committed his administration to what was probably Johnson's most cherished policy objective going back to his days in the Senate. Kennedy even put Johnson in charge of National Aeronautics and Space Council. Increasing the budget for manned space exploration was deeply controversial with in the administration. Kennedy's own science advisor, Jerome Wiesner was strongly opposed to it. One of Kennedy's last acts as president was dismissing Wiesner.

2. Of course, administrations failed to deliver on commitments all the time. It could very easily have been pushed aside and things turned out differently.

3. Is also worth noting that while we now see this as a bold objective, the goal did not seem as wildly ambitious at the time. [This is where I veer sharply from the conventional narrative, so this would be a good place to focus your objections.] It is essential to remember where the country's attitudes and expectations toward technology and progress were in the early sixties. As I have said probably too many times, like the late 19th/early 20th centuries, the postwar era was a period of explosive ubiquitous change. As with the turn of the century, there was a sense of constant acceleration. Everything seemingly came faster and easier than the experts predicted. Kennedy was being ambitious, but probably not as ambitious as we tend to remember him being.

4. While modern commentators choose to emphasize soaring rhetoric and the importance of visionary leaders, the overwhelming driver of the space race was the Cold War. There were very real and disturbing consequences to losing this race, both strategic and symbolic. What's more, there was a strong symbiotic relationship between the military and programs like Mercury and Apollo.

5. The Apollo program proved to be far more expensive than expected and quite controversial. Even with the impetus of the Cold War, the decision not just to see it through, but to make the deadline owes a great deal to a series of events breaking in its favor, particularly the assassination and the '64 landslide. Both the legend of JFK and the political power of LBJ meant that Apollo would get what it needed.

Today the very term “moonshot” has become one of the most reliable red flags for bullshit in the 21s century. We tell ourselves lies about what happened than hold up a fabricated past to justify the lies we tell ourselves about the present.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Repost: Some context for the Apollo Anniversary

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A few points on Willy Ley and "the Conquest of Space"

To understand the 21st century narrative around technology and progress, you need to go back to two eras of extraordinary advances, the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the postwar era. Virtually all of the frameworks, assumptions, imagery, language, and iconography we use to discuss and think about the future can be traced back to these two periods.

The essential popularizer of science in the latter era was Willy Ley. In terms of influence and popularity, it is difficult to think of a comparable figure. Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson hold somewhat analogous positions, but neither can claim anywhere near the impact. When you add in Ley's close association with Werner von Braun, it is entirely reasonable to use his books as indicators of what serious people in the field of aerospace were thinking at the time. The excerpt below comes with a 1949 copyright and gives us an excellent idea of what seemed feasible 70 years ago.

There is a lot to digest here, but I want to highlight two points in particular.

First is the widespread assumption at the time that atomic energy would play a comparable role in the remainder of the 20th century to that of hydrocarbons in the previous century and a half, certainly for power generation and large-scale transportation. Keep in mind that it took a mere decade to go from Hiroshima to the launch of the Nautilus and there was serious research (including limited prototypes) into nuclear powered aircraft. Even if fusion reactors remained out of reach, a world where all large vehicles were powered by the atom seemed, if anything, likely.

Second, check out Ley's description of the less sophisticated, non-atomic option and compare it to the actual approach taken by the Apollo program 20 years later.

I think we have reversed the symbolic meaning of a Manhattan project and a moonshot. The former has come to mean a large, focus, and dedicated commitment to rapidly addressing a challenging but solvable problem. The second has come to mean trying to do something so fantastic it seems impossible. The reality was largely the opposite. Building an atomic bomb was an incredible goal that required significant advances in our understanding of the underlying scientific principles. Getting to the moon was mainly a question of committing ourselves to spending a nontrivial chunk of our GDP on an undertaking that was hugely ambitious in terms of scale but which relied on technology that was already well-established by the beginning of the Sixties.


The conquest of space by Willy Ley 1949
Page 48.

In general, however, the moon messenger [and unmanned test rocket designed to crash land on the moon – – MP] is close enough to present technological accomplishments so that its design and construction are possible without any major inventions. Its realization is essentially a question of hard work and money.

The manned moonship is a different story. The performance expected of it is, naturally, that it take off from the earth, go to the moon, land, takeoff from the moon, and return to earth. And that, considering known chemical fuels and customary design and construction methods, is beyond our present ability. But while the moon ship can make a round-trip is unattainable with chemical fuels, a moon ship which can land on the moon with a fuel supply insufficient for the return is a remote possibility. The point here is that one more attention of the step principle is possible three ships which landed might have enough fuel left among them for one to make the return trip.

This, of course, involves great risk, since the failure of one ship would doom them all. Probably the manned moon ship will have to be postponed until there is an orbital nation. Take off from the station, instead of from the ground, would require only an additional 2 mi./s, so that the total works out to about 7 mi./s, instead of the 12 mi./s mentioned on page 44.

Then, of course, there is the possibility of using atomic energy. If some 15 years ago, a skeptical audience had been polled as to which of the two "impossibilities" – – moon ship and large scale controlled-release of atomic energy – – they considered less fantastic, the poll would probably have been 100% in favor of the moon ship. As history turned out, atomic energy came first, and it is now permissible to speculate whether the one may not be the key to the other.

So far, unfortunately, we only know that elements like uranium, plutonium, etc., contain enough energy for the job. We also know that this energy is not completely accessible, that it can be released. He can't even be released in two ways, either fast in the form of a superexplosion, or slowly in a so-called "pile" where the energy appears mainly as he. But we don't know how to apply these phenomena to rocket propulsion. Obviously the fissionable matter should not form the exhaust; there should be an additional reactant, a substance which is thrown out: plain water, perhaps, which would appear as skiing, possibly even split up into its component atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, or perhaps peroxide.

The "how" is still to be discovered, but it will probably be based on the principle of using eight fissionable element's energy for the ejection of a relatively inert reactant. It may be that, when that problem has been solved, we will find a parallel to the problem of pumps in an ordinary liquid fuel rocket. When liquid fuel rockets were still small – – that was only about 17 years ago and I remember the vividly – – the fuels were forced into the rocket motor by pressurizing the whole fuel tank. But everybody knew then that this would not do for all time to come. The tank that had to stand the feeding pressure had to have strong walls. Consequently it was heavy. Consequently the mass ratio could not be I. The idea then was that the tank be only strong enough to hold the fuels, in the matter of the gasoline tank of a car or truck or an airplane, and that the feeding pressure should be furnished by a pop. Of course the pump had to weigh less than the saving in tank wall weight which they brought about. Obviously there was a minimum size and weight for a good home, and if that minimum weight was rather large, a rocket with pumps would have to be a big rocket.

It happened just that way. Efficient pumps were large and heavy and the rocket with pumps was the 46 foot the two. The "atomic motor" for rockets may also turn out to be large, the smallest really reliable and efficient model may be a compact little 7 ton unit. This would make for a large rocket – – but the size of a vehicle is no obstacle if you have the power to move it. Whatever the exhaust velocity, it will be high – – an expectation of 5 mi./s may be conservative. With such an exhaust velocity the mass ratio of the moon ship would be 11:1; with an exhaust velocity of 10 mi./s the mass ratio would drop .3:1!

The moon ship shown in the paintings of the second illustration section is based on the assumption of a mass ratio of this order of magnitude, which in turn is based on the assumption of an atomic rocket motor.

Naturally there would be some trouble with radioactivity in an atomic propelled rocket. But that is not quite as hard to handle as the radioactivity which would accompany atomic energy propulsion under different circumstances. A seagoing vessel propelled by time and energy could probably be built right now. It would operate by means of an atomic pile running at the center high enough to burden and water steam. The steam would drive a turbine, which would be coupled to the ships propeller. While all this mechanism would be reasonably small and light as ship engines go, it would have to be encased in many tons of concrete to shield the ships company against the radiation that would escape from the pile and from the water and the skiing the coolant. For a spaceship, no all-around shielding needed, only a single layer, separating the pilot's or crew's cabin in the nose from the rest of the ship. On the ground a ship which had grown "hot" through service would be placed inside a shielding structure, something like a massive concrete walls, open at the top. That would provide complete shielding or the public, but a shielding that the ship would not have to carry.
The problem that may be more difficult to handle is that of the radioactivity of the exhaust. A mood ship taking off with Lee behind a radioactive patch, caused by the ground/. Most likely that radioactivity would not last very long, but it would be a temporary danger spot. Obviously moon ship for some time to come will begin their journeys from desolate places. Of course they might take off by means of booster units producing nothing more dangerous in their exhaust them water vapor, carbon dioxide, and maybe a sulfurous smell.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Remembering the Moonshot

A bit of debunking...

And a bit of history.

And this.

From Wikipedia:
Man Will Conquer Space Soon! was the title of a famous series of 1950s magazine articles in Collier's detailing Wernher von Braun's plans for manned spaceflight. Edited by Cornelius Ryan, the individual articles were authored by such space notables of the time as Willy Ley, Fred Lawrence Whipple, Dr. Joseph Kaplan, Dr. Heinz Haber, and von Braun. The articles were illustrated with paintings and drawings by Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman, and Rolf Klep, some of the finest magazine illustrators of the time.

For more, check this out.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Though I have to admit, Alex Jones' chocolate bone broth looks delicious

Paul Krugman's excellent op-ed uses Rick Perlstein's seminal the Long Con as a starting point to discuss the role of Snake Oil in the 21st Century Conservative Movement.

Why should marketing scams be linked to political extremism? It’s all about affinity fraud: once you establish a persona that appeals to angry, aging white guys, you can sell them stuff that will supposedly protect their virility, their waistline, and their wealth.

And at a grander level, isn’t that what Fox News is really about? Consider it not as an ideological organization per se but as a business: it offers cheap programming (because there isn’t much reporting) that appeals to the prejudices of angry old white guys who like to sit on the couch and rant at their TV, and uses its viewership to help advertisers selling weight-loss plans.

Now, normally we think of individuals’ views and interests as the forces driving politics, including the ugly polarization increasingly dominating the scene. The commercial exploitation of that polarization, if we mention it at all, is treated as a sort of surface phenomenon that feeds off the fundamental dynamic.

But are we sure that’s right? The Alex Joneses, Ben Shapiros, and Fox Newses of the world couldn’t profit from extremism unless there were some underlying predisposition of angry old white guys to listen to this stuff. But maybe the commercial exploitation of political anger is what has concentrated and weaponized that anger. In other words, going back to where I started this essay, maybe the reason we’re in a political nightmare is that our political behavior has, in effect, been parasitized by marketing algorithms.


Anyway, I think it’s really important to realize the extent to which peddling political snake oil, whether it’s about the economy, race, the effects of immigration, or whatever, is to an important extent a way to peddle actual snake oil: magic pills that will let you lose weight without ever feeling hungry and restore your youthful manhood.

 And if you haven't seen it before, you really need to check this one out.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Repost for the Death of a Dog Whistle

Back during the run-up to the election, we had a long thread on the way that conservative movement media strategy and self-serving, short-sighted journalistic norms had combined to allow Republicans to manipulate the press. One of the recurring points in that thread was that Trump was a stressor and that the system was starting to show the strain.

From Reagan through Ryan, this carefully constructed messaging and spin machine allowed Republican politicians to make dishonest or offensive statements with little or no penalty. Even when a reporter did correct the record, it was done often accompanied with a generous dollop of false balance.

Working in concert with the openly partisan media of Fox News, it was remarkably effective, allowing the GOP to maintain cordial relations with a press corps they claimed was biased against them. It was a robust system as long as there was minimal effort put into keeping the messaging at least marginally defensible. Now we're seeing what happens without that effort.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The loss of plausible deniability

One important point to keep in mind while following this year's election is that, of the truly objectionable things about the Trump campaign, very few are actually new. Instead, we have all sorts of practices that have always been unacceptable, but which are now being presented in a way that makes them undeniable.

If you remember the elections of 2000 and 2004, you will probably recall talk of Karl Rove and his mastery of "political jujitsu." It was generally discussed as if it were some sort of mystical Jedi mind trick that allowed Rove to make strengths into weaknesses and weaknesses into strengths. Mainly, it came down to the realization that most reporters would respond to obvious lies with straight faces and no follow-up questions.

In 2004, I remember Republican operatives making the argument that George W. Bush's military record compared favorably with that of John Kerry. Just to review, Kerry was a legitimate war hero in terms of courage, sacrifice, and effectiveness. On the other side of the ledger, even if we push aside all of the accusations and contested points about favoritism and completion of requirements, there is a relatively cushy stint in the National Guard.

These and other clearly untrue statements were usually allowed to stand largely because this was a symbiotic relationship. It was in both the source's and the journalist's interests to keep this relationship going and not to push the boundaries in either direction.

The lies we've been hearing recently are not necessarily that much more blatant, but Trump and associates are no longer observing the social conventions that traditionally went with them. If a reporter asks about your candidate's military service and you reply by saying all sorts of nice things about the National Guard, that reporter can move onto the next question without looking like a complete moron. If you look reporters in the face and tell them that twice cheating on then dumping your wife for a younger, more glamorous woman qualifies as a sacrifice, you leave the reporters looking like asses just for letting you get the words out of your mouth.

Which brings us to (from TPM):
Khizr Khan, the father of the Muslim soldier, said in his speech at the Democratic convention last week that Trump had "sacrificed nothing." And Trump hit back over the weekend, saying that he's "made a lot of sacrifices," like creating jobs.

During a CNN panel discussion Sunday, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes defended Trump's comments.

"Mr. Trump was responding to the fact of sacrificing. Nowhere ever did he ever say that his sacrifice was equivalent or more or even close to what the Kahn’s had given up," she said.

CNN host Fredricka Whitfield then asked, "Is creating a job considered a sacrifice?"

"You know what, creating jobs caused him to be at work, which cost him two marriages,” Hughes said in response. “Time away from his family to sit there and invest.

Clinton surrogate Bernard Whitman jumped in to say, "infidelity cost him."

"No, actually being away from his family, he’s admitted it,” Hughes insisted. "That is the spin of the media and ongoing bias."
 "Creating jobs" normally implies actually paying the people who do work for you, but we can save that for another day.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Tuesday Tweets

The lesson here is, when you see something obviously stupid on Twitter, go back and reread it carefully before tweeting your dismissive correction.

Someone needs to ask Thomas B. Edsall about this.

Another reminder that I need to think more about path dependency.

Need to do a post on the implications of this new direction from Netflix.

This seems to be gaining momentum.

And finally

Monday, July 15, 2019

Robert Cialdini on the relationship between behavorial economics and social psychology

From a good, high-level (and non-walled) article in Psychology Today, quoting from Cialdini's introduction to The Behavioral Economics Guide 2018:

Behavioral economists ask questions mostly about the way people make economic choices/judgments or the way particular financial systems (retirement plans, tax codes, etc.) affect those responses (Thaler, 2018). Social psychologists are willing to consider other, non-fiscal personal choices as well. For instance, my research teams have investigated why people are motivated to litter a public space, wear a home team sweatshirt, display charity organization posters, reuse hotel guest room towels, and volunteer to give a unit of blood.

    Second, behavioral economists still have to fight the rationality-versus-irrationality-of human-behavior battle (Rosalsky, 2018). For example, to ensure that interpretations based in neoclassical economic theory are duly addressed, they are more likely than social psychologists to include in their research designs at least one condition involving a rational actor prediction. For their part, social psychologists have no such need, having long ago come to concur with Rabelais’ six-century-old observation regarding the pervasiveness of human illogic: “If you wish to avoid seeing a fool, you must first break your mirror.” As an aside, I once asked Richard Thaler’s opinion of why proponents of neoclassical economic thinking have been so reluctant to admit to the frequent irrationality of our species. He thought it was partially due to the elevation within economics of mathematical modeling, which works best at incorporating rational rather than irrational elements—and remains the professional standard, conferring status on the modeler.


Finally, behavioral economists are more likely to test their hypotheses in large scale field studies of consequential behaviors observed in real world settings—versus in laboratory investigations of relatively inconsequential personal choices made on a keypad. Why social psychologists have tended to stay tenaciously in the laboratory has multiple answers. Convenience, quick and plentiful outcomes to be submitted for publication, and the ability to collect ancillary data for mediational analyses have all played a role. But, much like Thaler’s view of what occurred within economics, a reputational factor may be involved. Academic social psychology evolved from a discipline that many considered insufficiently rigorous (until 1965, its flagship publication was the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology) into one that fought for stature as scientifically-based rather than clinically-based. If it is true that many economists have clung to financial rationality because of the prestigious mathematical trappings of econometric models, perhaps many social psychologists have clung to the laboratory because of its prestigious links to rigorous science.

Friday, July 12, 2019

How to write like Harlan Ellison (literally)

Ellison said he generally wrote with movie soundtracks, especially those of Ennio Morricone, playing in the background. If you want to emulate Ellison, you won't have to worry about running out of music. Morricone currently has 519 IMDB composer credits and he's not dead yet.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Thursday Tweets

The New York Times is incapable of learning from its mistakes.

In 2020, failing to compete anywhere is a huge blunder for the Democrats.

Of course, he didn't actually say "telecommuting."

On the EV beat.

And the AV.

And finally.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

If not for the development of the caterpillar tread, these would have been big.

Another cool technology with the bad luck to come in second.

From Wikipedia:

 The pedrail wheel was invented in 1903 by the Londoner Bramah Joseph Diplock. It consists in the adjunction of feet (Latin radical "ped") to the rail of a wheel, in order to improve traction and facilitate movement in uneven or muddy terrain. Sophisticated pedrail wheels were designed, with individual suspension for each foot, which would facilitate the contact with uneven terrain.

Scientific American 1903-04-18

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Keeping that stock up there – one day at a time

When trying to make sense out of the Netflix story, the first thing you have to remember is that there’s not that much to remember. It’s complicated but it’s not all that complex.

The standard case for Netflix is a long game of dominance through content. It is an argument that has launched countless business articles but when it comes to what are effectively the three questions journalists and investors need answered, there has been relatively little attention paid to the first and vanishingly little to the other two.

1. How many people are watching the service’s original content?

2. Who owns that content?

3. Does it have legs and broad, preferably international appeal?

Just to be clear, I’m skipping a lot here (the corporate finance questions alone would be the stuff of graduate classes), and even these three “simple” questions are extraordinarily difficult to answer definitively, in no small part because Netflix does its best to make them difficult.

But they do provide a framework and a way to keep your bearings when reading stories like this.
As for the portion of the deal giving a CBS a window for reruns, while it wasn’t central to bringing ODAAT to Pop, it certainly helped make the financials of the agreement more logical for CBS Corporation, since the company can spread the show’s cost across multiple networks. None of the parties involved in the deal would talk specifics, but the new season of ODAAT won’t be cheap. “It’s a big swing for Pop,” Schwartz said. “But it’s not like we haven’t reached before with shows like Flack. Having said that, this is a little bit of a farther reach. But Sony really came to the table. Everyone was so passionate about this show, and everybody was willing to make it work.”

Under Sony’s Netflix deal, the streamer — as it does with all of its shows — paid the full cost of production plus a premium fee, essentially giving Sony its backend syndication money upfront. Frost confirmed that the deal with Pop will be a more traditional TV deal, under which Sony will deficit finance a part of the overall cost of production, with Pop making up the rest. “It’s still a healthy license fee,” Frost said. “But we worked with our [syndication and international] division to make sure we could monetize the show in other ways. That includes international distribution of the show and, at some point in the future, selling season-four streaming rights to a subscription video-on-demand service.” Frost confirmed the production budget for season four will be reduced a bit, but “nothing that is going to reduce the quality of the show.”

In terms of how long ODAAT will run on Pop, Schwartz made it clear his goal is to keep it on the air for many years to come. “I hope it becomes our huge flagship series that goes on for five, six, seven seasons. That would be the dream,” he said. Kellett concurred, saying she and Royce “have been texting each other” during the past three months trading stories about their own families they’re already envisioning as future plots for the show. “And Rita [Moreno] isn’t going to stop even after seven seasons,” Royce quipped. “She and Norman will be doing this show in season 15.”

First off, I don’t mean to suggest that Sony didn’t care deeply about this show (Studio executives are sincere, caring people – ask anyone), but the company appears to have made out pretty well for itself, as did Norman Lear. Despite its long and successful initial run, the original ODAAT would seem to have been the most moribund of Lear’s hits. It’s hard to imagine Jamie Foxx or Woody Harrelson lining up to play Schneider the handyman.

Netflix took all of the risks, and, as far as we can tell, walked away with nothing more than rights to the shows it actually bankrolled. Furthermore, since the vast majority of shows never make it into syndication, “giving Sony its backend syndication money upfront” is an incredibly sweet deal.

Now that ODAAT has been brought back to life, there’s the potential for a long run and the show developing the kind of legs that allow certain sitcoms to bring in serious cash for decades. I guarantee you that “I Love Lucy” will still be bringing in real money when it turns 75.

It’s possible that the details of the contract benefit Netflix in ways we can’t see from the outside, but I’m inclined to go with my preferred alternative hypothesis. Maybe the company doesn’t care about the long term. Maybe they’re just trying to generate enough buzz to keep the enterprise up in the air until they can manage a soft landing.

Monday, July 8, 2019

I'm not looking for agreement, just a little conversation.

Daniel B. Poneman is clearly an advocate for the industry and, as previously mentioned, I’m inclined to view nuclear energy as a useful and probably necessary tool in turning back climate change, but even if  I were skeptical, I believe I’d find some of these points persuasive.

All of this goes back to the broader issue of the fundamental unseriousness of the way we discuss serious problems such as global warming, income inequality, the resurgence of fascism, racism and sexism, the systematic undermining of democracy, and the general rise of bullshit.

This is not a question of disagreements. If anything it’s the opposite. We treat clowns and charlatans as important thinkers based on their positions, not on the weight of their evidence or the force and logic of their arguments. We’ve lost all respect for the process, the idea that it is more important to contribute to an honest, factually grounded, productive debate than to reach the “right” conclusion.

In a serious discussion of climate change, prematurely shutting down our leading source of carbon-free energy would be a major topic.

From Scientific American:

Nuclear energy is the largest source of carbon-free energy in the U.S. by a huge margin and it has a major role to play in confronting the global climate challenge. But we must also be vigilant about the prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue regimes.

The threat of nuclear proliferation abroad should not lead us to abandon nuclear energy at home. Indeed, American nuclear leadership has always been critical to guiding the safe, responsible use of civilian nuclear energy around the world.

For example, a number of American companies are developing advanced generation-reactor technologies that offer a host of safety and nonproliferation advantages. These advanced designs would have “walk away” safety, meaning they do not need any backup power or external cooling systems in the event of an accident. And since many of the new reactor designs would rarely if ever need to be refueled, the risk of diversion of fuel from uranium-enrichment or plutonium-reprocessing plants to a bomb program would be greatly diminished.

The 98 reactors in our nuclear fleet are the workhorse of the clean-energy sector. They provide one fifth of our electricity. Unfortunately, over the past few years six reactors have been prematurely shut down, and another 12 are set to close in the next seven years.


Nuclear plants are not only emissions-free and carbon-free, they are by far the most reliable assets in our power generation mix, operating 93 percent of the time—even during extreme weather events when some fossil fuel plants may be forced to shut down or curtail their operations. Under current rules, electricity markets are not allowed to value these attributes, even though they are clearly valuable.


Preserving existing reactors may not sound exciting, but it is a critical first step if we take the climate challenge seriously. Consider that for every reactor that prematurely shuts down, our carbon dioxide emissions rise by about 5.8 million metric tons per year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Equivalencies Calculator, that equals the emissions from burning more than 648 million gallons of gasoline—the equivalent of filling up an NFL stadium with gasoline and setting it on fire. To offset those carbon emissions, we would need to plant over 95 million trees. Or we could install solar panels on one million homes and figure out a cost-effective way of storing the electricity so it is available day and night.

Friday, July 5, 2019

We'll come back to Elektro the Moto-Man

The Atlantic has a beautiful photo spread on the 1939 World's Fair. If ever there was a period when pessimism was justified, this was it, which makes the whole thing that much more extraordinary.

From Wikipedia.

The 1939–40 New York World's Fair, which covered the 1,216 acres (492 ha) of Flushing Meadows–Corona Park (also the location of the 1964–1965 New York World's Fair), was the second most expensive American world's fair of all time, exceeded only by St. Louis's Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. Many countries around the world participated in it, and over 44 million people attended its exhibits in two seasons.[2] It was the first exposition to be based on the future, with an opening slogan of "Dawn of a New Day", and it allowed all visitors to take a look at "the world of tomorrow". According to the official pamphlet:

    The eyes of the Fair are on the future—not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines.

    To its visitors the Fair will say: "Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.

Within six months of the Fair's opening, World War II began, a war that lasted six years and resulted in the deaths of 70–85 million people.

There's Elektro.

And finally, an imagining of the future of 1960.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

America versus the rest of the world

This is Joseph.

All of the points in this piece are good.  But I am particularly struck by:
Of course Americans love their own children as much as any parents anywhere. But raising kids is seen as a private decision, freighted with hardship and annoyances that are to be entirely borne by the parents themselves. Enter many places in America with a preschooler and the unspoken message feels more like, "Please move quietly to the suburbs to suffer in silence. Don't bother the rest of us with your uncool offspring."
But the idea of making children an entirely private concern is culturally unusual.  We have a lot of laws and regulations around children, but a fear of having to contribute to making children viable.  Just look at the daycare expenses that some area have

I don't think that this attitude is necessarily wrong -- everyone has to make some trade-offs but it is odd to see this in any culture that frames itself as pro-family. 

Happy 4th

Some [reposted] music for the holiday.

Listening to Cohan, it's easy to forget how controversial going to war in Europe was.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

And Josh Marshall wins the award for best use of the word "Timesian"

Josh Marshall puts his finger on one of the issues I've long had with the New York Times. (emphasis added)

The New York Times has a rather lengthy and Timesian piece out this morning on the on-going mystery of Jerry Falwell Jr, his wife and family and this “pool boy” who they befriended and then put into the divey youth hostel business in South Florida. For those who’ve read the earlier reporting by Politico, Buzzfeed and Reuters, there’s no big new bombshell or piece of evidence in the new piece. (If anyone’s read it and thinks otherwise, let me know.) What there is is bits and pieces of more confirmation and nuggets of detail throughout. It’s a classic Timesian piece, the kind fellow journalists often grind their teeth over. The Times comes in late, largely with other people’s reporting and makes the whole thing official with splash of Times holy water. And yet, as usual, they’ve used their name and resources to unearth enough new details and additional confirmations to put the whole edifice on a rather firmer footing.

How much of this is insult and how much is injury? No institution in journalism is as relentlessly smug and as compulsive with its self-congratulation, but just being annoying isn't a crime, so does this go beyond the hurt feelings of a few competitors? I'd say yes for at least a couple of reasons.

I tend to be dismissive of charges of plagiarism partially because I'm far more concerned with crimes of content underneath the byline, but also because we only focus on a form that is minor and relatively rare. There are all sorts of ways of stealing other writers' work, ideas and style, and as long as you don't actually lift specific phrases, it is a crime without consequence. 

Writers for the New York Times routinely arrive late and build on the foundation of other journalists. They may mention the previous work, but it's the NYT story that gets the attention, even if it adds relatively little.

More importantly, the practice of automatically anointing any story from the paper "groundbreaking and definitive" status feds the rot that is already undermining the paper's culture.

In terms of quality, the New York Times is no longer our best paper (the Washington Post has been blowing it away ever since Marty Baron took over and certainly since they lost Margaret Sullivan). It may not break the top five. It is still, however, the paper that matters.

Self-examination has never been a strong suit of the New York Times, but since its disastrous handling of the 2016 election, it has doubled down on the denial and has become openly hostile to its critics. The reception that stories like this get help the paper maintain the fiction that nothing is wrong, and that's the worst possible outcome.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

"He changed me"

North Carolina in 2019:

There are quite a few clergy members at the picnic. Another is the Rev. Jerry Miller, whose son came out as gay four decades ago. At first, it wasn't easy for Miller to reconcile his faith with his son's identity.

"My wife and I basically went in the closet because I was a pastor of a Baptist church at that time. And I prayed that God would change my son someday," Miller says. "God didn't change him; he changed me."

Thursday, May 7, 2015

An Arkansas Tea Party group plans an anti-equality rally. Guess what happens next...

There is a big and largely untold story here about cultural and political shifts south of the Mason Dixon Line. They don't get much coverage but I've been noticing items like this.
RUSSELLVILLE, AR -- Hundreds of people marched down Main Street in Russellville for the definition of marriage in Arkansas just three days before the U.S. Supreme Court considers the fundamental question of whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.

The rallies were on the same street at the same time, but were on opposite sides of the street because of people's opposing views on same-sex marriage.

The march started off calm. Nearly 80 people walked on Main Street to the Pope County Courthouse holding signs that read, "One man + one woman = marriage and family" and other signs that supported heterosexual marriage and disagreed with homosexual marriage. The group, which included members of the Tri County Tea Party, headed its own march with a separate march trailing behind.


All while hundreds of people rallying at the other march chanted "marriage equality" across the street.


That was the message speakers at the original rally tried to get out, but struggled because of the loud chants across the street.

Even though March for Marriage was the first march formally announced, supporters were outnumbered by the crowd across the street.
Outnumbered is a bit of an understatement.
Because I've heard conflicting numbers regarding the folks on both sides of the two rallies in Russellville this weekend, I asked Travis Simpson, a reporter at the Russellville Courier, who was there on the scene on Saturday.

He said the crowd supporting marriage equality was the larger of the two, "no contest." Simpson said he estimated there were perhaps 30 rallying against same-sex marriage, but around 200 on the pro-equality side.
Nor was that the end it.
On Saturday, a group called Pope County for Equality organized a rally in Russellville to show support for marriage equality and LGBTQ civil rights in Arkansas. More than 300 people showed up — quite a significant turnout for a community of under 30,000. Klay Rutherford, an organizer of the event and an undergrad at Arkansas Tech University, sent this report to the Arkansas Times. All pictures are courtesy of Pope County for Equality's Facebook page.

Residents of Pope County gathered in Russellville at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 2 for a march and rally for marriage equality. Over 300 attendees marched through downtown and congregated at a stage near the historic Missouri-Pacific train depot.

The event was sponsored by Pope County for Equality, an online organization that advocates for the equal treatment of all individuals, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. Speakers included Dr. MarTeze Hammonds, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at Arkansas Tech University; Jeannie Fowler Stone, a proud Christian and an accepting mother of a transgender son; and, James Bittle, a retired sergeant in the U.S. Army who is gay and recently married. Hammonds, Stone and Bittle are all residents of Russellville.

Event organizers said, “Our goal is to be an overwhelming presence of love and acceptance. We aim to lift people up, start discussions, and show our community that we are more than a stereotype. We simply want to bring our community closer together in a setting of love and peace.”

An impromptu marriage proposal took place on stage as Russellville resident Morgan Walker got down on one knee, surprising the crowd and her new fiancé, Silvia Harper (also of Russellville). The band Sad Magick provided entertainment.

The rally was held in part as a response to an event the previous weekend (Saturday, April 25) organized by an Arkansas River Valley Tea Party group in support of defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Protests that weekend were organized by pro-equality individuals not affiliated with Pope County for Equality. While many media outlets downplayed the presence and role of the protesters at the April 25 event, we estimate that there were at least 250 pro-equality protesters and no more than 50 participants among the the anti-equality crowd.

Pope County for Equality would like to thank the Russellville Police Department for their unbiased approach in handling both marches. Despite the surprising turnout at both events, they occurred without incident or injury.
In the fairly near future, I'm planning a deep dive into how the culture and politics of the South are shifting in ways that our standard metrics tend to miss. For now though, just remember that Russellville is in the most Republican part of the state.