Friday, August 30, 2019

Townsville has always been a hub of evil science innovation

From Gizmodo:
There’s a certain allure to the geoengineering approach, particularly from the techno-optimist mindset that’s in vogue in Silicon Valley. Keeping the planet at an optimum temperature while humanity gets its shit together with carbon emissions can feel somehow more attainable than doing the hard work to cut emissions. A giant space mirror to reflect sunlight—something Yang said was among his top choices for cooling the planet because it’s reversible if something goes wrong on Earth—is a lot sexier than a closed coal plant.
“If you were to launch a satellite with expandable mirrors and you can make it so that you can bring a satellite back down if you want,” Yang said. “If you find that it’s effective, then great or if you find that is useless, then you don’t use it but then there’s no harm done.”

One of the contradictions of Silicon Valley visionaries (of which Andrew Yang is at least an honorary member) is how often the absolute faith in science and engineering to solve problems is associated with a surprisingly weak grasp of the subjects. The initial reaction to this phenomena is to assume there has to be more to it than that, some cool detail like a Lagrangian point, not enough to make the proposal feasible but at least enough to make it interesting.

But there is seldom more than meets the eye, the big, wildly ambitious ideas generally come down to nothing more than tired old sci-fi movie tropes.

If we are going to talk about giant space mirrors, we might as well do it right. Thank god for the comment section.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

This is a lot of money for an awfully short suborbital flight.

SpaceShipTwo is designed to be lofted by a carrier plane called WhiteKnightTwo. At an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), the space plane separates from the carrier; then, SpaceShipTwo engages its onboard rocket motor to make its own way to suborbital space.

Passengers aboard the vehicle will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and get to see the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space before coming back down to Earth for a runway landing.

A ticket for this ride currently costs $250,000, and more than 600 people have put down deposits to reserve a seat, Virgin Galactic representatives have said.

With all the hype, it's important to remember how little there is here. Technologically there's nothing groundbreaking while as a business model, it does offer a spectacular view and a few minutes of weightlessness, but there are other options for the latter and plenty of spectacular views closer to home, all available at a fraction of the cost. The main selling points appear to be novelty and bragging rights, both of which are likely to fade well before the investors (at least those at the back of the line) see any returns.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Bethany McLean made her name covering Enron, which is never a good sign

There's a major expose out from Vanity Fair on SolarCity. Give a read. We'll talk more later.

Until then, here are some rules I suggested a couple of years ago for dealing with reporting on Musk. There are a few points I might sharpen a bit if I were writing this today, but nothing I'd care to retract.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A few points to keep in mind when reading any upcoming story about Elon Musk

First, a quick update from the good people at Gizmodo, specifically Ryan Felton:

Elon Musk awoke on Thursday with the intention of sending Twitter into a frenzy by declaring that he received “verbal govt approval” to build a Hyperloop in the densest part of the United States, between New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. This is dumb, it’s not how things work, and requires, uh, actual government approval.

Felton goes on to contact the government agencies that would absolutely have to sign on to such a project. Where he was able to get comments, they generally boiled down to "this is the first we're hearing of it." The closest he came to an exception was the federal Department of Transportation, which replied

We have had promising conversations to date, are committed to transformative infrastructure projects, and believe our greatest solutions have often come from the ingenuity and drive of the private sector.
This is a good time to reiterate a few basic points to keep in mind when covering Elon Musk:

1.    Other than the ability to make a large sum of money through some good investments, Elon Musk has demonstrated exceptional talent in three (and only three) areas: raising capital for enterprises; creating effective, fast-moving, true-believer corporate cultures; generating hype.

2.    Though SpaceX appears to be doing all right, Musk does not overall have a good track record running profitable businesses. Furthermore, his companies (and this will come as a big slap in the face of conventional wisdom) have never been associated with big radical technological advances. SpaceX is doing impressive work, but it is fundamentally conventional impressive work. Before the company was founded, had you spoken with people in the aerospace community and asked them "what is closest to being Mars ready, who has it, and who are the top people in the field?", the answers would have been the type of engine SpaceX currently uses, TRW (which sued SpaceX for stealing their intellectual property), and the chief rocket scientist SpaceX lured away from TRW. By the same token, Tesla is pretty much doing what all of the other major players in the auto industry are doing in terms of technology.

3.    From the beginning, Musk has always had a tendency to exaggerate and overpromise. Smart, skeptical journalist like Michael Hiltzik and the reporters at the Gawker remnants have taken any claim from Elon Musk with a grain or two (or 20) of salt.

4.    That said, in recent years things have gotten much, much worse. Musk has gone from overselling feasible technology and possibly viable business plans to pitching proposals that are incredibly unlikely then supporting them with absurdly unrealistic estimates and sometimes mere handwaving.

5.    The downward spiral here seems to have started with the Hyperloop. This also seems to be the point where Musk started trying to do his own engineering rather than simply taking credit for the work of those under him. On a related note, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Elon Musk has no talent for engineering.

6.    Musk’s increasingly incredible claims have started to strain the credulity of most of the mainstream press, but the consequences have been too inconsistent and too slow-coming to have had much of a restraining influence on him. Even with this latest story, you can find news accounts breathlessly announcing that supersonic travel between New York and DC is just around the corner.

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

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Tuesday Tweets





Monday, August 26, 2019

The hyperloop is a masters' class in controlling the narrative

Here's how you do it.

1. Set the topics

For a brief window a few weeks after the initial white paper, boosters of the hyperloop completely lost control of the narrative. Papers like the Washington Post published devastating takedowns which left no stone upon stone of the original proposal and the whole thing seemed dead in the water.

The lull would prove temporary and when the story returned, the pro hyperloop camp pretty much got everything they wanted in terms of setting the agenda. There were speculative pieces about what life would be like in a world of supersonic ground transportation. Stories about new startups and impressive-sounding rounds of funding. Breathless accounts of demonstrations that were limited strictly to the parts of the system that were already widely in use elsewhere. Skeptics were relegated to a paragraph or two, almost always will below the fold.

2. Create the laws-of-physics standard

Promoters of the hyperloop have managed to introduce what is almost certainly the ultimate in low bars for infrastructure proposals, the assertion that it does not violate the laws of physics.

This takes on an added degree of absurdity when applied to a maglev vactrains,  an idea that engineers have been playing around with for at least 100 years, longer if you break it down to its component parts

With no one in all that time seriously questioning its theoretical foundations.

Nonetheless, it has become one of the standard tropes of the here-comes-the-hyperloop article to haul out a physicist who assures the readers that magnetic levitation works and that vehicles traveling in vacuums don't have a problem with air resistance.

3. Work the people covering the story.

The supporters played on the press's weaknesses for tech messiahs and opinions differ journalism. There is a intense desire to believe that things like supersonic trains and Mars colonies and immortality formulas are not just possible but are right around the corner. If anything the Press is particularly susceptible to this, especially when the idea was associated with some Silicon Valley savior.

Most of the reporters on this beat were also notably weak on the subtleties of engineering. Even the best of them tended to think in terms of principles to be explained rather than problems to be anticipated, understood, and solved. Issues that would be top-of-mind for any mechanical or civil engineer like thermal expansion were almost entirely off of their radar unless one of the experts they consulted brought it up.

4. Wait out the critics

Of all the weapons in the promoter's arsenal, patience was perhaps the most valuable. With only occasional exceptions, they ignored their critics and eventually the reporters did too.

5. Keep funding "private" until actual money is involved

At first, the hyperloop was supposed to be so cheap to build and maintain that it was hardly worth talking about. Just charge passengers twenty bucks a head and you'd break even in no time. The development costs were all being handled privately. Even if the plans never came to fruition, what was the harm?

The suggestion that little or no tax dollars would be involved further shielded the proposals from scrutiny, letting them gain credibility simply by going unquestioned for so long in the public discourse. Then, slowly but inevitably, the idea of public funding started to ease its way into the conversation. Now it's public-private partnerships.  Care to guess what the next point on the line will be?

Friday, August 23, 2019

Let's kick the weekend of right

Cabell "Cab" Calloway III was one of the most dynamic entertainers of the 20th Century, but this was one time he couldn't dominate the stage.

Not sure why this Nicholas Brothers number came to mind or how I can tie it into any of our threads, other than with the all-purpose reason that everyone should see this at least once.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

"A public-private partnership" ... nothing ominous about that phrase

Just so we're clear. We are edging closer to see hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of tax dollars go to highly dubious projects, not because the promoters have introduced major technological breakthroughs or have proposed well thought-out plans, but because they managed to wait out their critics, counting on reporters' eagerness to believe a too-good-to-be-true story and reluctance to do the hard work of digging into the complex engineering details.  Yes, there have been exceptions, but by now they are all but drowned out by the hype and bullshit.

Ryan Kelly, Head of Marketing and Communications for Virgin Hyperloop One, told CU that the next major step is to build what the company calls a “certification track.”

That track would be a little over seven miles long and would enable the company to go beyond what it has achieved at its privately-funded test track. That means putting people in the pods for the first time, developing a switching system that would allow multiple pods to travel in the tube at the same time [I'm not sure about this part. I think the switching system may be for allowing the pods to take different forking paths. -- MP], and seeing if a pod can safely travel through the tube at a much greater speed than it has so far (to achieve the kind of travel times the company has promised, pods would have to travel more than twice as fast as the XP-1 did in Nevada).


Officials in India recently announced that a proposed Virgin Hyperloop One project connecting Pune and Mumbai will be moving into the procurement phase, although Kelly said that the company has not yet decided where to build the certification track.

“Whether India is going to be able to provide the support in order to certify globally (is still unknown)…the U.S. I think has a better opportunity to potentially do that and so that’s why states are kind of vying for that now,” he said, adding that the company estimates the cost of building the track in India at “about $500 million.”

“Our timeline here is that we want to have the certification track up and running by 2024, somewhere in the world, and we want (the Hyperloop) certified and ready to go,” Kelly added, explaining that, even if the track is not built in Ohio, the planning and procurement process for the Chicago route could continue for the next five years, and, once the technology is certified and approved, “we break ground.”

An estimate of the overall cost of a Hyperloop connecting Chicago, Columbus and Pittsburgh has yet to be released, but a study by the Colorado Department of Transportation put a $24 billion price tag on a 325-mile network in that state.

As for who would pay for the $500 million certification track needed to prove the technology works, Kelly said “we’re looking at a public-private partnership; (there will be) private investment, but whatever that public agreement looks like would have to be negotiated case-by-case…so, we’re also looking for, obviously, what’s the best offer that we’re going to get to make this happen?”

One more thing.


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

One of the advantages of having been blogging this long is that when someone says something really stupid, you've probably already written a rebuttal

For example, say that a Washington Post columnist/torture enthusiast/Manafort minion (or Stone crony -- I'm not entirely clear on that point) starts pontificating about kids these days...


I don't have to spend my evening writing a post explaining why you can safely skip all of these op-eds about millennials. I can just dip into the archives.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Among living Americans, there are only two "generations"

 "The ________ Generation” has long been one of those red-flag phrases, a strong indicator that you may be about to encounter serious bullshit. There are occasions when it makes sense to group together people born during a specified period of 10 to 20 years, but those occasions are fairly rare and make up a vanishingly small part of the usage of the concept.

First, there is the practice of making a sweeping statement about a "generation" when one is actually making a claim about a trend. This isn't just wrong; it is the opposite of right. The very concept of a generation implies a relatively stable state of affairs for a given group of people over an extended period of time. If people born in 1991 are more likely to do something that people born in 1992 and people born in 1992 are more likely to do it than people born in 1993 and so on, discussing the behavior in terms of a generation makes no sense whatsoever.

We see this constantly in articles about "the millennial generation" (and while we are on the subject, when you see "the millennial generation," you can replace "may be about to encounter serious bullshit" with "are almost certainly about to encounter serious bullshit"). Often these "What's wrong with millennial's?" think pieces manage multiple layers of crap, taking a trend that is not actually a trend and then mislabeling it as a trait of a generation that's not a generation.

How often does the very concept of a generation make sense? Think about what we're saying when we use the term. In order for it to be meaningful, people born in a given 10 to 20 year interval have to have more in common with each other than with people in the preceding and following generations, even in cases where the inter-generational age difference is less than the intra-generational age difference.

Consider the conditions where that would be a reasonable assumption. You would generally need society to be at one extreme for an extended period of time, then suddenly swing to another. You can certainly find big events that produce this kind of change. In Europe, for instance, the first world war marked a clear dividing line for the generations.

(It is important to note that the term "clear" is somewhat relative here. There is always going to be a certain fuzziness with cutoff points when talking about generations, even with the most abrupt shifts. Societies don't change overnight and individuals seldom fall into the groups. Nonetheless, there are cases where the idea of a dividing line is at least a useful fiction.)

In terms of living Americans, what periods can we meaningfully associate with distinct generations? I'd argue that there are only two: those who spent a significant portion of their formative years during the Depression and WWII; and those who came of age in the Post-War/Youth Movement/Vietnam era.

Obviously, there are all sorts of caveats that should be made here, but the idea that Americans born in the mid-20s and mid-30s would share some common framework is a justifiable assumption, as is the idea that those born in the mid-40s and mid-50s would as well. Perhaps more importantly, it is also reasonable to talk about the sharp differences between people born in the mid-30s and the mid-40s.

There are a lot of interesting insights you can derive from looking at these two generations, but, as far as I can see, attempts to arbitrarily group Americans born after, say, 1958 (which would have them turning 18 after the fall of Saigon) is largely a waste of time and is often profoundly misleading. The world continues to change rapidly, just not in a way that lends itself toward simple labels and categories.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Tuesday Tweets

Kudlow is as close as you'll find to a human knight/knave puzzle.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The essential takedown of the Mars delusion

If you have followed this story at all, you have to read this article by George Dvorsky.
The Red Planet is a cold, dead place, with an atmosphere about 100 times thinner than Earth’s. The paltry amount of air that does exist on Mars is primarily composed of noxious carbon dioxide, which does little to protect the surface from the Sun’s harmful rays. Air pressure on Mars is very low; at 600 Pascals, it’s only about 0.6 percent that of Earth. You might as well be exposed to the vacuum of space, resulting in a severe form of the bends—including ruptured lungs, dangerously swollen skin and body tissue, and ultimately death. The thin atmosphere also means that heat cannot be retained at the surface. The average temperature on Mars is -81 degrees Fahrenheit (-63 degrees Celsius), with temperatures dropping as low as -195 degrees F (-126 degrees C). By contrast, the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was at Vostok Station in Antarctica, at -128 degrees F (-89 degrees C) on June 23, 1982. Once temperatures get below the -40 degrees F/C mark, people who aren’t properly dressed for the occasion can expect hypothermia to set in within about five to seven minutes.

Mars also has less mass than is typically appreciated. Gravity on the Red Planet is 0.375 that of Earth’s, which means a 180-pound person on Earth would weigh a scant 68 pounds on Mars. While that might sound appealing, this low-gravity environment would likely wreak havoc to human health in the long term, and possibly have negative impacts on human fertility. 

Pioneering astronautics engineer Louis Friedman, co-founder of the Planetary Society and author of Human Spaceflight: From Mars to the Stars, likens this unfounded enthusiasm to the unfulfilled visions proposed during the 1940s and 1950s.

“Back then, cover stories of magazines like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science showed colonies under the oceans and in the Antarctic,” Friedman told Gizmodo. The feeling was that humans would find a way to occupy every nook and cranny of the planet, no matter how challenging or inhospitable, he said. “But this just hasn’t happened. We make occasional visits to Antarctica and we even have some bases there, but that’s about it. Under the oceans it’s even worse, with some limited human operations, but in reality it’s really very, very little.” As for human colonies in either of these environments, not so much. In fact, not at all, despite the relative ease at which we could achieve this. 

It goes on from there, demolishing the whole ridiculous sham. If we had a functional discourse, this would kill the topic of imminent Martian colonies and let us move on to a serious conversation about the exploration of space.

Of course, we don't have a functional discourse.

This won't kill the topic.

We won't move on.

Respectable publications like the Atlantic will continue to run articles like CSI:Mars. Elon Musk will continue to be treated as a tech messiah. Actual breakthroughs like airbreathing rockets will go largely unnoticed.

And we will all continue getting dumber by the day.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Thursday, August 15, 2019

After following Uber and Lyft, it's almost refreshing to find a tech company that's competent at being evil

Back in Arkansas, we used to talk about Wal-Mart "killing a town twice." The company would open a store in a small town, drive the local merchants out of business, then close that location so that the residents would have to do their shopping at the Wal-Mart in the next town ten or fifteen miles down the road.

The underlying logic remains the same. If you have market dominance and deep pockets, your quickest path to higher profit margins is to drive the little guys out of business. The complete lack of shame does, however, seem to be a bit of a 21st Century innovation.

From Gizmodo.

Citing interviews with merchants of the e-commerce giant, as well as internal sent alerts to those individuals, Bloomberg reported Monday that Amazon is effectively penalizing its sellers if it finds that their products are being offered for a lower on rival websites. If it finds competitive pricing elsewhere, Amazon alerts a merchant with price comparisons between the two marketplaces and informs them that their product has essentially been demoted by Amazon’s system and will be more difficult to find or purchase on its site, according to the report.

Bloomberg said the practice began in 2017, but added that alerts have been more frequent as Amazon works to maintain its dominance in the e-commerce space.

The way that Amazon works to undermine sales for merchants of competitively priced products is to remove the “Buy Now” button that appears to the right of products on its platform, Bloomberg reported. While the product can still technically be purchased, it makes the product more difficult for shoppers and can hurt a seller’s bottom line. It also means that sellers are being forced to adjust their prices on rival marketplaces, which can be a blow to any attempts to offset the huge chunk of change that Amazon takes for itself just to list merchant products on its site.

“Amazon works hard to keep prices low for both customers and sellers. We have very competitive fees for sellers and we make significant investments on their behalf to continually improve our store and empower their businesses,” a spokesperson told Gizmodo in a statement by email. “In our store, we feature the offer that predicts the best shopping experience for the customer based on a number of factors including price and delivery speed. Sellers have full control of their own prices both on and off Amazon, and we help them maximize their sales in our store by providing them insights on how to be the featured offer.”

Of course, Amazon controlled just under half of the e-commerce market as of last year, and it only gets bigger every day—meaning online sellers have few places to go to find a customer. And with online markets hollowing out the brick and mortar space, online sellers don’t really have a choice to not be online. This kind of practice might keep prices down for consumers and users glued to Amazon dot com, but it does not create healthy competition or a sustainable marketplace for sellers.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Agent-based simulations and horse-race journalism

[This was never my area of expertise, and what little I once knew I've mostly forgotten. Since lots of our regular readers are experts on this sort of things, I welcome criticism but I hope you'll be gentle.]

I tried a little project of my own back in the early 2000s. One of these days, I'd like to revisit the topic here and talk about what I had in mind and how quixotic the whole thing was, but for now there's one aspect of it that has become particularly relevant so here's a very quick overview so I can get to the main point.

Imagine you have an agent-based simulation with a fixed number of iterations and a fixed number of runs. You randomly place the agents on a landscape with multiple dimensions and multiple optima and have them each perform gradient searches. Now we add one wrinkle. Each agent is aware of the position of at least one other agent and will move toward either the highest point in its search radius unless another searcher it is in communication with has a higher position in which case it heads toward that one.

What happens to average height when we add lines of communication to the matrix? At one extreme where each searcher is only in contact with one other, you are much more likely to have one of them find the global optima but most will be left behind. At the other extreme, if everyone is in contact with everyone, there is a far greater chance of converging on a substandard local optima. Every time I ran a set of simulations, I got the same U-shaped curve with the best results coming from a high but not too high level of communication.

It is always dangerous to extend these abstract ideas derived from artificial scenarios to the real world, but there are some fairly obvious conclusions we can draw. What if we think of the primary process in similar terms? Each voter is doing an optimization search, bringing in information on their own and trying to determine the best choice, but at the same time, they are also weighing the opinions of others performing the same search.

Given this framework, what is the optimal level of communication between voters via the polls? At what point does the frequency of polling reach a level where it makes it more likely for voters to converge on a sub-optimal choice? I'm pretty sure we've passed it.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Tuesday Tweets

These seem to stand on their own.


Monday, August 12, 2019

Repost, repost, repost (I want to revisit this thread)

Monday, February 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Rational actors, stag hunts and the GOP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 11, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 9, 2019

I have to admit I winced a little when he made the guided missile comparison

One of the things that always strikes me when looking at these fifties predictions for the future of space travel is how much Apollo scaled back those ambitions, despite costing perhaps double what people expected.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Tesla's claims are not just unbelievable; they aren't even internally consistent

Over at Jalopnik, Aaron Gordon has an excellent rundown of the Boring Company's Las Vegas tunnel project, but the most important section focuses on another part of the Elon Musk organization. [emphasis added]

So, we’re supposed to believe Teslas will be capable of full-self driving in all conditions by next year even though, by the following year, a safety driver will be needed for a .8-mile tunnel with a dedicated right-of-way, the single simplest application of self-driving that could possibly exist.

Not only does this lend serious doubts to the Tesla robotaxi promise, but it is also a definitive step backwards from better, existing technology.

Airport people movers, close relatives to whatever the hell The Boring Company is building in Las Vegas, have been driverless for decades. Just last month, for example, I had a lovely, quick journey on Denver International Airport’s driverless people mover, which opened in 1995.

Yet here we are, in 2019, and The Boring Company says they’ll need a driver for their people-mover which moves fewer people over a shorter distance for “additional safety.”

But, hey, 1 million robotaxis on the road by next year. If you can’t believe Elon Musk, who can you believe?

For those who haven't been following this story, Musk's claim that a fleet of Tesla robotaxis is just around the corner is a perhaps essential part of the justification of the company's stock price. The audacity was remarkable, even for him. To run an Uber-type service without human backup drivers requires complete level-5 autonomy, and that appears to be years away.

Though not quite bullshit free, compared to a standard Musk spiel, the Las Vegas project has to be grounded in reality. There are actual contracts and deliverables to consider. In other words, this is what Tesla promises when they know they'll be held accountable.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

As the consequences of the conservative movement's media strategy grows more costly...

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How things got this bad -- part 4,675

I was digging through the archives researching an upcoming post and I came across a link from 2014. It led to a Talking Points Memo article that I had meant to write about at the time but had never gotten around to.

Since then, we have learned just how much the mainstream media was covering for Roger Ailes. Ideological differences proved trivial compared to social and professional ties and an often symbiotic relationship. We have also seen how unconcerned the mainstream press (and particularly the New York Times) can be a bout a genuinely chilling attack on journalism as long as that attack is directed at someone the establishment does not like.

It was a good read in 2014, but it has gained considerable resonance since then.

From Tom Kludt:

Janet Maslin didn’t much care for Gabriel Sherman’s critical biography of Roger Ailes. In her review of “The Loudest Voice in the Room” for the New York Times on Sunday, Maslin was sympathetic to Ailes and argued that Sherman’s tome was hollow. But what Maslin didn’t note is her decades-long friendship with an Ailes employee.

Gawker’s J.K. Trotter reported Wednesday on Maslin’s close bond with Peter Boyer, the former Newsweek reporter who joined Fox News as an editor in 2012. In a statement provided to Gawker, a Times spokeswoman dismissed the idea that the relationship posed a conflict of interest.

“Janet Maslin has been friends with Peter Boyer since the 1980’s when they worked together at The Times,” the spokeswoman said. “Her review of Gabe Sherman’s book was written independent of that fact.”

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Tuesday Tweets

There were those like Josh Marshall who got most things right in 2016, those like Nate Silver who went from mostly wrong to mostly right, and those like Nate Cohn who were pretty consistently wrong. I'm not sure why we should still be listening to the third group.

This goes to the heart of the problem with Chait's education writings. His heart's in the right place and he cares deeply but his knowledge of the field is spotty at best. Among actual educators, this issue has been widely discussed for years.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Persistence of Narrative -- Netflix edition

One of the interesting things about the reaction to the recent bad news at Netflix is the way that the bulls are sticking not just with the company but with the narrative.
"The company appears to operate in a virtuous cycle, as the larger their subscriber base grows ... the more they can spend on original content, which increases the potential target market for their service," said Jeffrey Wlodarczak, an analyst with Pivotal Research Group, in a report after its recent earnings release.

Wlodarczak added that Netflix may remain a hit with consumers because it has continued to defy calls to launch a service with commercials, even though an ad-supported plan could be cheaper. He dubbed Netflix "an increasingly compelling unique entertainment experience on virtually any device."
Let's start with the rather bizarre claim that Netflix will "remain a hit with consumers" because it refused to launch a second ad-supported service. Taken on its own, the reasoning is hard to follow -- a second service might not be profitable but there's no reason it would turn off members -- but it also flies in the face of recent developments in the industry. The free-with-commercials model has had a big resurgence with major players like PlutoTV and Amazon's Freedive entering the streaming space and Terrestrial Super-Stations like MeTV posting extraordinary profits.

The claim makes no sense in terms of business, but it makes great sense in terms of story. Ads were the old way. Netflix is the disruptor. The success of the disruptor is an essential part of our modern mythology. You don't stop believing just because the evidence turns against you.

Even more central to the Netflix narrative was the role of original content. That was the competitive advantage, the secret of their success. "Secret" turned out to be something of an operative word. For years,  the company managed to keep actual numbers largely out of the discourse. Recently though, the picture has started  to fill in. We now know that, despite billions in production and billions more pushing these shows, originals account for only a quarter of the hours viewed and many of those shows don't exactly belong to Netflix.

Friday, August 2, 2019

11 songs that more people should know -- Special Guest Blogger

[I had to delay today's  post, so I asked an old friend (and pop culture maven) to suggest a few undeservedly obscure songs to kick off the weekend. Not actually what I meant by a "few" but I'm not complaining.]

Hello! I'm Brian Phillips and here are 11 songs that you may not know, but really should. If you like an eclectic mix of music, take a listen to my show, The Electro-Phonic Sound of Brian Phillips at

1. The Crew was a positively dismal show, but fortunately, the producers had the good sense to hire Wendy Coleman and Lisa Melvoin, late of Prince and the Revolution, to do the very catchy theme. If you continue to have been warned.

2. "Treemonisha" was a triumph for the composer Scott Joplin, albeit posthumously. Sadly his opera, was never fully staged in his lifetime, but when "The Sting", which made extensive use of his music, it triggered a full-blown revival and the opera was finally staged in the 1970's. This is the finale and the oft-used Joplin quote applies here: "One should never play Ragtime fast". This is the "Real Slow Drag"

3.  From Houston, TX, it's Lee Alexander! This was recorded in 2006. This may be his only album.

4. Tribe was a band out of Boston and they recorded two albums before splitting up. They never got very popular outside of their hometown, even with the backing of Warner Brothers Records. There aren't as many great Rock songs in waltz time, but this is a good one

5. The Blue Ribbon Syncopators, a band out of Buffalo, NY who made six known recordings. Banjo is prominent here and, like the tuba, was mostly gone from Jazz by the 1930's

6. This is quite a lot of noise from this NY band, led by the chief songwriter, Joe Docko. Docko was 16 and one can only wonder what his music career would have been, if the Mystic Tide had any significant success. The highlight of this song are the two vocal lines. Docko destroyed all of his remaining Mystic Tide records, so what is out in the wild is all that is left.

7. Looking for the Beagles? For a time, some people were. This was a cartoon by Total Television, the same folks that made Underdog. It wasn't a hit and it was thought to be lost until recently. Surprisingly there was a soundtrack LP from the show, and it has become a collector's item, not only because of its rarity, but the music is quite good.

8. Joe Maphis was one of those fellows who went to the talent store and stayed longer than most. Don't believe me? Take a look at this and watch what he does at 2:00:

9. This is Kenneth "Thumbs" Carllile. You'll see why they called him that when you watch this. He was a sideman with Roger Miller for a number of years and released several albums under his own name.

10.  Oscar Coleman, aka Bo Dudley, is the leader of this session, but what makes this song great is the incendiary pedal steel guitar of Freddie Roulette, who was a sideman to Earl Hooker and Johnny "Big Moose" Walker, and he also recorded as a leader later in his career.

11. Have a good weekend everyone! I am not quite sure why this wasn't a hit. Here are the Loved Ones from California.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

What Nate silver has in common with Bob Dylan, Tom Wolfe, and Pauline Kael.

I don't remember if I ever got around to it, but for years I've been meaning to write an Andrew Gelman style class post on people whose work is great but whose imitators drag down the field.

I go back and forth on Bob Dylan here. There is no counting how many coffee house hacks have convinced themselves that the obscure lyrics they are croaking out are the next Tangled Up In Blue. On the other hand, a lot of brilliant artists have done some of their best work inspired by Dylan.

With Tom Wolfe and Pauline Kael, however, the divide in quality between the originals and the imitators is much more sharp. For more than 50 years now, we have suffered through journalists and critics who have annoyingly affected the tics and mannerisms of both writers, while having none of the talent or insight and being completely unwilling to put in the hard work of research and revision that made Wolfe and Kael so formidable.

I don't want to oversell Nate Silver at this point (he's no Bob Dylan) but he deserves great credit for his Innovations in the way we cover politics. He saw the fundamental problem with remarkable clarity and understood the appropriate level of complexity needed for a solution. As a statistician, he has considerable limitations. When he strays too far from his areas of expertise such as when he writes about climate models, the dunning-kruger effect has a tendency to come down hard, but he does have a natural talent and an all too rare capacity to learn from his mistakes.

His success unfortunately has inspired a wave of data journalists who are more often than not terrible at their jobs. It turns out that being enamored with data and yet being bad statistics is often worse than ignoring data entirely.