Monday, August 31, 2020

Musk also promised you could use it to mentally summon your Tesla

Julia Carrie Wong writing for the Guardian

Neuralink: Elon Musk unveils pig he claims has computer implant in brain

The tech entrepreneur Elon Musk on Friday showed off a pig whose brain he says has been implanted with a small computer.

“We have a healthy and happy pig, initially shy but obviously high energy and, you know, kind of loving life, and she’s had the implant for two months,” Musk said of Gertrude, the pig.

The billionaire entrepreneur, whose other companies include Tesla and SpaceX, presented during a live-stream event to recruit employees for his neuroscience startup Neuralink. He described Gertrude’s coin-sized implant as “a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires”.


Musk did not present any scientific data to support his claims about the pigs or the devices.

I talked about this three years ago though I didn't realize how far this would go. Check out number 7.

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.

Friday, August 28, 2020

The perils of aggregation in complex systems

This is Joseph

I want to follow up on Mark's great cigarettes and cocaine post. I think the key to the post is the danger of aggregation of complex relationships into a simple pool and then cherry picking a component that might not be representative.

He brought up one of my favorite examples: is it environmentally friendly to switch to a plant based diet. Please note, that we are talking the environmental issues and not the ethical ones, which are a different and may lead to different conclusions . . . for entirely independent reasons

It is like the social security and medicare debate. If you want social security gone because it allows experienced workers to retire from your airplane factory that is an argument. But it doesn't necessarily follow that the economic sustainability argument (social security and medicare costs are out of control, we need to cut social security) is going to hold up. 

But if you look at where rice ends up relative to chicken, it is actually more environmentally costly to produce rice than chicken. Now, to be fair, if you consider post-production costs then chicken looks worse, but this is not the huge difference that beef results in. It is also the case that post-production is very modifiable -- it makes the potato look bad because of how we use it but it could be used quite differently. Similarly, cheese is very expensive to produce environmentally, but milk and yogurt are much less impactful than rice in either model.

What I am getting at is that complex models are often badly represented as aggregates. Furthermore, understanding the underlying dynamics can result in odd guidance. Beef looks terrible but milk is quite benign. But what is the counterfactual to more milk, less meat -- do we keep all of the male animals alive? Do we not consume them? What you really have is a beef ecosystem that is very hard to break apart. 

Similarly, it is easy to observe that rice is environmentally costly but the guidance can be challenging. It is also true that good farmers do crop rotation and winter wheat is a common rotation crop. It would be worse to deplete farmland completely and there is a complicated environmental cost to having more farmland to produce the same output in terms of eliminating animal habitat.  

So I guess my point is that simple solutions to complex solutions are concerning. It may be the case that it really is as a simple as cigarettes and cocaine. But in a lot cases there is important structure all of the way down and simple arguments often miss the complexity of the system. It is also the case that the counterfactual needs to be properly developed. If we get rid of beef are we getting rid of milk too? This is not to say that you can't ask questions like "should there even be pure slaughter based beef herds?" and such. 

But it takes real effort to make thoughtful improvements in complex systems. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Would "North Dakota" have been funnier than "Wyoming"?

It's probably a good thing that Nate Silver doesn't read my blog because for all the man's considerable talents (I'm a big admirer), he has a notoriously thin skin and this is a really embarrassing comment from someone who makes a living, in part, studying the demographics and population distributions of the US.

The issue here is by no means limited to Silver. The majority of NYC based journalists have a shockingly weak understanding of the nation's most populous state (and are somehow even more ignorant of the states in between).

A great deal of the misinformation revolves around a fascination with San Francisco. The New York idea of SF as the only acceptable California city dates back at least as far as All About Eve and Addison De Witt  This SF-centric view of the state has led to a number of mistaken assumptions implicit in most coverage from the East, such as:

While LA is bigger, the population of California is almost evenly divided between Northern and Southern California;

[Greater LA is more than twice as big as the greater Bay Area. There are other ways of dividing things up but they all pretty much tell the same story.]

In Northern California, the big city is San Francisco;

[That would be San Jose, which is itself smaller than both LA and San Diego.]

Silicon Valley is right next door.

[It's about an hour's drive.]

Unless the majority of San Francisco residents move to Wyoming (with its three electoral votes), it's hard to imagine the city having a noticeable impact on the EC. Even considering the entire Bay Area, the numbers aren't all that big.

There's a more important story here about regional bias, provincialism herd mentality and the danger of conventional narratives, but it's late and I'm tired.

We'll come back to this. In the meantime, read more James Fallows, When I complain abut these things, Fallows is always the exception.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Another old post that's feeling newly relevant

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ponzi Thresholds

Another post based on Reeves Wiedeman's Uber article in New York magazine. This one sets up a concept I've been meaning to discuss with the tentative name of a Ponzi threshold. The basic idea is that sometimes overhyped companies that start out with viable business plans see their valuation become so inflated that, in order to meet and sustain investor expectations, they have to come up with new and increasingly fantastic longshot schemes, anything that sounds like it might possibly pay off with lottery ticket odds.

Like I said, this is been bouncing around for quite a while. I may have even slipped in a previous reference that I've forgotten about. There are plenty of potential examples, but the following is the first time I've seen the phenomenon spelled out in such naked terms [emphasis added]:
Meanwhile, in an effort to show potential investors in an IPO that it has multiple revenue streams, Uber has expanded into a variety of industries tangentially related to its core business. In 2015, the company launched Uber Everything, an initiative to figure out how it could move things in addition to people, and when I visited Uber headquarters, the guest Wi-Fi password was a reference to Uber Freight, the company’s attempt to get into trucking. (A former employee said the password often seemed to be a subliminal message encouraging employees to focus on the company’s newest initiatives.) But moving things had its own complications. One former Uber Everything manager said the company had looked at transporting flowers or prescription drugs or laundry but found that the demographic of people who, for example, couldn’t afford a washer and dryer but would pay to have their laundry delivered was a small one. Uber Rush, a delivery service in New York, had become “a nice little business,” the manager said, “but at Uber, you’re looking for a billion-dollar business, not a nice little business.”

It turned out that food delivery was the only area that made much sense, though even that was difficult. In the past year, food-delivery companies SpoonRocket, TinyOwl, Take Eat Easy, and Maple have all ceased operations. Postmates said in 2015 that it could be profitable in 2016, at which point it pushed the date to 2017. Its target is now 2018. “It absolutely does not work as a one-to-one business — picking up a burrito from Chipotle and delivering it,” a former Uber Eats manager said. “It has to be ‘I’m picking up ten orders from Chipotle, and I’m picking up this person next to Chipotle, and I’m gonna drop the burritos off along the way.’ ” Uber Eats has grown significantly, but getting the business up and running had required considerable subsidies, and the manager said it was rumored that a significant portion of the company’s domestic losses were coming from Uber Everything.

Uber’s expansion into an ever-widening gyre of business interests makes sense for a company looking to justify a huge valuation, but it has drawn criticism from some who wonder why the company is moving into so many different markets without becoming profitable in its first one. “It’s a Ponzi scheme of ambition,” Anand Sanwal, a venture-capital analyst, told me. “ ‘We’re gonna raise money on the promise of dominating an industry to come in order to pay for this thing that doesn’t make us money right now.’ ” He had recently conducted an unscientific poll of subscribers to his newsletter asking how many would invest in Uber today, even at a discounted valuation, and 77 percent said they wouldn’t. But the new initiatives have the benefit of keeping everyone excited about the future: In April, Uber held a conference in Dallas to explain why it planned to one day get into flying cars.

That phrase "looking to justify a huge valuation" is one that you need to contemplate for a few moments, let the logical implications wash over you. As I suggested before, like most New York magazine tech writers, Wiedeman does a good job capturing the telling detail, but is reluctant to draw that final Dr.-Tarr-and-Prof.-Feather conclusion, particularly when it threatens a cherished narrative.

There are at least two layers of crazy here. First, hype and next-big-thingism push Uber's value far beyond any defensible level, then, as reality sets in and investors realize that the original business model, though sound, can never possibly justify the money that's been put into the company, Uber's management responds with a series of more and more improbable proposals in order to keep the buzz going.

The phenomenon is not unique to this company but I can't think of another case this big or this blatant. (And they actually used the term "Ponzi scheme.")

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Tuesday Tweets

When the dust finally settles and we try to makes sense of all this, one of the key elements of the story will be the way the conservative movement cultivated rage and fear largely through disinformation then lost control of the process. 



Elon Musk now has a net worth of almost $100 billion.

Impenetrable pseudonyms like ADAlthousePhD.

It's not so much that she wanted them to do it; it's that she thought it was a good idea to say it out loud.

What would some "Missy" know about... oh, never mind.

Two Economies

I would have gone with a Goodfellas reference, but it's nice to have some variety.

Excellent report on the USPS crisis.

Pretty much sums it up.

Kids, Kids and Dogs

Monday, August 24, 2020

A cigarettes and cocaine argument

Been meaning to do a post on this for a while. The basic form goes something like this:

Our household spending is out of control.

Between your cigarettes and my cocaine habit, we're spending hundreds of dollars a week.

You definitely need to cut back on your cigarettes.

The key to the approach is to take two things, related but of wildly different magnitudes, and conveniently aggregate then disaggregate them to reach the desired conclusion.

For years (post Reagan and pre-Obamacare), pundits and politicians pushing for entitlement reform relied largely, perhaps primarily on C and C arguments. Dire projections for the combined finances of Social Security and Medicare were presented to justify severe and immediate cuts in Social Security. Of course, the horrifying shortfalls were coming from the Medicare side of the ledger, but that pea was inevitably lost among the shells.

More recently we've seen a number of articles making the case that everyone going vegan is essential for saving the planet from global warming. For the record, there are a lot of solid arguments for switching to a plant-based diet in terms of the environment, health, food security (there are a lot of arguments for quitting smoking, too), but the ones here have almost all relied on jumping from cocaine to cigarettes.

[So we're absolutely clear, the following refers only to claims about the impact of agriculture on climate change. There are enormous environmental concerns about hog farming and the poultry industry. They are outside of the scope of this post, but they are very much part of the larger discussion.]

Take this article from the Guardian, "Why you should go animal-free" by  Damian Carrington. While the framing is vegan vs. non-vegan, the specifics are almost all limited to beef or beef/lamb with virtually no mention of pork or poultry. What happens to the numbers when we start looking at other animal protein sources?

Holding protein consumption constant. the improvement caused by substituting pork for beef (a fairly small lifestyle change) is far greater than the improvement caused by going from pork to tofu, and the diminishing returns really kick in after that.

At the risk of repeating myself, there are any number of excellent reasons for going vegan, but when people argue that your chicken sandwich is causing global warming, they aren't being analytically honest.

Does anyone out there have their favorite cocaine and cigarette examples to share?

Friday, August 21, 2020

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Franchises for Netflix are like full self driving for Tesla. Big, companies-saving breakthroughs that are always around the corner. The key difference is, with Netflix when a car crashes and burst into flames, it’s all CGI.

We’ve already covered the discussion of reality television in Julia Alexander’s article for the Verge. Here’s another section that jumped out at me.
Netflix is also betting big on franchises, which may help its library compete with Disney, NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia, and ViacomCBS’s incredible well of IP. Four of Netflix’s most popular movies are either actively developing sequels or end with enough room for a sequel: Chris Hemsworth’s Extraction, Mark Wahlberg’s Spenser Confidential, Sandra Bullock’s Bird Box, and Ryan Reynolds’ 6 Underground. Today, Netflix announced a new $200 million spy movie from Avengers: Endgame directors Joe and Anthony Russo that is designed as a franchise builder.

Blockbuster movies and franchise plays, which also include shows like Stranger Things, Money Heist, and The Witcher, not only bring in subscribers, but they keep people engaged. Extraction and Spenser Confidential were watched by 99 million and 85 million accounts, respectively, within their first four weeks of release, according to Bloomberg. Having access to big IP and building franchises is key to Netflix’s future, and even though some may flop, Hastings said he’s “excited that we’re taking those risks.”

“Ted has big plans to spend future billions on movies and [TV] series and animation,” Hastings said. “We got lots of places to put the money. We’re definitely focused on creating franchises.”

Netflix has been producing big budget scripted original content for more than seven years now and for most of that time they’ve been promising that big movie franchises were just around the corner. They actually seemed to clear the hurdle in 2017 when they announced a sequel to the Will Smith vehicle Bright. It seemed perfect. Huge numbers. Big star. The kind of concept that could support endless sequels, prequels, and spinoffs. The announcement of the sequel came within days of the debut.

Then came the slow walk. Despite being exactly what the company desperately needed, no one seemed all that eager to actually make the next installment. Long development schedules were proposed then followed up by silence until the deadlines were missed. The process was repeated until the pandemic finally gave everyone an excuse to drop the pretense.

How about since then? Consider the three films that Alexander holds up as examples of potential franchises. Two of them already appear to be dead in the water. Only Hemsworth‘s Extraction is moving ahead, and even then in a slow and tentative way.

It’s worth stopping to note here that when a studio really has faith in a franchise, they will often greenlight more than one film at a time. The cost savings from combining production can be enormous and it is the safest way to lock in talent. The technique has been successfully applied to huge budgeted blockbusters and shoestring exploitation films. It is no coincidence that the cheapest man in Hollywood, Roger Corman, successfully used the approach for decades.

No one has ever accused the executives at Netflix of being stupid or of being timid when it came to committing to projects. All of this makes it very difficult to reconcile the claims the company has made about its focus on franchises and its excitement over current projects with its apparent reluctance to actually move ahead with any of them.

The stock price of Netflix depends on convincing investors that it's pursuing a long game.Somewhat perversely, creating that impression is often easier if you focus on the short term at the expense of the long, doing things like spending hundreds of millions producing and promoting shows when other companies hold the rights or setting aside large chunks of your resources for shows of little lasting IP value. If you're going to judge a company's management solely by the stock price, it's not even clear if this is wrong.

But if you're a reporter covering a story stock, you have an obligation to point out the plot holes.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Getting into Match King territory

At least we still have a little ways to go.
Ivan Kreuger
In 1929, at the peak of his career, the Kreuger fortune was thought to be worth 30 billion Swedish kronor, equivalent to approximately US$100 billion in 2000, and consisting of more than 200 companies

Elon Musk
The outspoken entrepreneur is now the world’s fourth-richest person after Tesla Inc. shares surged 11% on Monday, closing at a record high and boosting Musk’s net worth by $7.8 billion.

The rise vaulted the Tesla co-founder past French luxury tycoon Bernard Arnault, the wealthiest non-American on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Musk’s $84.8 billion fortune puts him within $15 billion of Mark Zuckerberg, No. 3 on the ranking of the world’s 500 richest people.
Absolutely insane. This is a scandal-ridden company known for terrible quality control that's about to enter the competitive landscape equivalent of a wood chipper.

It's trading at P/E of 971.

As we've said before...

A bubble in the middle of an economic collapse in the middle of a pandemic.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Tuesday Tweets

Not the greatest, but top five.

God help, I'm running out of sarcatic things to say about Silicon Valley.


Like a lot of people, I originally saw Elon Musk as a snake oil salesman, but one who had his heart in the right place. I've been revising this opinion.

As with reproductive rights, the GOP has been quietly undermining USPS for decades but has shied away from unpopular direct assaults. Things have changed.

Chait nails it.

"It's a wonder I can think at all"

Wages of Strauss.

Is there a sadder case of intellectual corruption than Dr. Carson?

Or as Krugman would put it, likely boaters

In 2020, when brain surgeons are punchlines; we turn to pop stars for thoughtful commentary.

"Inland hurricane" is another phrase I'd rather never hear again.


And on a more hopeful note.

Monday, August 17, 2020

He basically came out and admitted they're playing a short term game and no one noticed (Damn, Netflix is good at this)

This is another master class in controlling the narrative from Netflix's Ted Sarandos.

For those coming late to the party...
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?

Shows with legs are programs that retain their value as IP for decades, in some many cases more than a half century. Here are a few of the over 50 crowd that can still attract an audience: I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, The Adams Family/the Munsters,  Mission Impossible, Star Trek. You can find similar examples with movies, but with a cable channel or a streaming service where you want to provide as many hours of diversion as possible, quantity has a quality all its own.

The ROI on the almost 700 episodes of the Simpsons is stunning but, in a sense, shows like Leave It to Beaver and the Brady Bunch are even more impressive, non-hits that actually grew in popularity after going off the air. At the other end of the spectrum are reality and talk, which pull in big numbers on first run (and are incredibly cheap to produce) but generate almost no interest after aging a year or two.

Keep all of this in mind while reading this except from Julia Alexander's article in the Verge. [emphasis added]
That includes content that executives like Sarandos weren’t interested in developing even five years ago. In 2015, Sarandos spoke about “the kind of disposable nature of reality” programming at an investor conference, as reported by Bloomberg. He added at the time that it “basically doesn’t have much of a long shelf life,” noting “it hasn’t been a great category for us.” Now, Sarandos has changed his tune. Netflix is all in on unscripted programming and reality television — and numbers cited by Sarandos seem to back it up. (Netflix doesn’t release public numbers for all of its programming, so it’s hard to say for certain.) 

But two of Netflix’s most recent reality TV shows, Floor is Lava and Too Hot to Handle are some of its “biggest hits ever,” Sarandos said on the call. Prior to Floor is Lava and Too Hot to Handle, shows like Love is Blind and The Circle dominated pop culture conversation; Netflix renewed both for two more seasons right out the gate. Sarandos added that Too Hot to Handle was just as popular in Japan as it was in the United States, and as Netflix tries to find content that’s received well around the world, it’s a good sign of what to expect. Sarandos said as much on the call, arguing that “the biggest motivation to invest in reality and unscripted is not that it’s a cost saving production,” but rather “how important it becomes in people’s lives.” 

You'll notice the subtle shift from shelf life to popularity. The piece is presented as a learning from data story, but there's  nothing here to suggest that recent experience in any way contradicts the belief that reality shows are disposable. Instead what the article seems to say is that Netflix is going to spend more money and resources on shows that don't add any lasting value to the content library but which do produce good numbers and lots of hype.

But that's not the story Netflix wants told.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Analog recording without analogs

[slightly edited repost]

Two examples of artists who manually created their works on media normally used for analog recording.

Conlon Nancarrow

Nevertheless, it was in Mexico that Nancarrow did the work he is best known for today. He had already written some music in the United States, but the extreme technical demands his compositions required meant that satisfactory performances were very rare. That situation did not improve in Mexico's musical environment, also with few musicians available who could perform his works, so the need to find an alternative way of having his pieces performed became even more pressing. Taking a suggestion from Henry Cowell's book New Musical Resources, which he bought in New York in 1939, Nancarrow found the answer in the player piano, with its ability to produce extremely complex rhythmic patterns at a speed far beyond the abilities of humans.

Cowell had suggested that just as there is a scale of pitch frequencies, there might also be a scale of tempi. Nancarrow undertook to create music which would superimpose tempi in cogent pieces and, by his twenty-first composition for player piano, had begun "sliding" (increasing and decreasing) tempi within strata. (See William Duckworth, Talking Music.) Nancarrow later said he had been interested in exploring electronic resources but that the piano rolls ultimately gave him more temporal control over his music.[6]

Temporarily buoyed by an inheritance, Nancarrow traveled to New York City in 1947 and bought a custom-built manual punching machine to enable him to punch the piano rolls. The machine was an adaptation of one used in the commercial production of rolls, and using it was very hard work and very slow. He also adapted the player pianos, increasing their dynamic range by tinkering with their mechanism and covering the hammers with leather (in one player piano) and metal (in the other) so as to produce a more percussive sound. On this trip to New York, he met Cowell and heard a performance of John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (also influenced by Cowell's aesthetics), which would later lead to Nancarrow modestly experimenting with prepared piano in his Study No. 30.

Nancarrow's first pieces combined the harmonic language and melodic motifs of early jazz pianists like Art Tatum with extraordinarily complicated metrical schemes. The first five rolls he made are called the Boogie-Woogie Suite (later assigned the name Study No. 3 a-e). His later works were abstract, with no obvious references to any music apart from his own.

Many of these later pieces (which he generally called studies) are canons in augmentation or diminution (i.e. prolation canons). While most canons using this device, such as those by Johann Sebastian Bach, have the tempos of the various parts in quite simple ratios, such as 2:1, Nancarrow's canons are in far more complicated ratios. The Study No. 40, for example, has its parts in the ratio e:pi, while the Study No. 37 has twelve individual melodic lines, each one moving at a different tempo.

Norman McLaren

McLaren was born in Stirling, Scotland and studied set design at the Glasgow School of Art.[1] His early experiments with film and animation included actually scratching and painting the film stock itself, as he did not have ready access to a camera. His earliest extant film, Seven Till Five (1933), a "day in the life of an art school" was influenced by Eisenstein and displays a strongly formalist attitude.

That included painting on the optical sound track.

In the 1950s, National Film Board of Canada animators Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart, and film composer Maurice Blackburn, began their own experiments with graphical sound, adapting the techniques of Pfenninger and Russian artist Nikolai Voinov.[2] McLaren created a short 1951 film Pen Point Percussion, demonstrating his work.[3] The next year, McLaren completed his most acclaimed work, his Academy Award-winning anti-war film Neighbours, which combined stop-motion pixilation with a graphical soundtrack. Blinkity Blank is a 1955 animated short film by Norman McLaren, engraved directly onto black film leader, combining improvisational jazz along with graphical sounds. In 1971, McLaren created his final graphical sound film Synchromy.[4]

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Yes, more on Netflix, Avatar and the New Yorker.-- controlling the narrative

As we said earlier, there's nothing especially unscrupulous about Netflix (certainly not by 2020 corporate standards), but if you want to understand how how companies manipulate the press, you would be hard pressed to find a better and more informative business to study.

A big part of that manipulation is controlling the framing. In this case making the story about Avatar and Netflix rather than Avatar and ViacomCBS.

Avatar was part of a spectacularly successful and profitable run of original animated shows produced by Viacom's Nickelodeon including Blues Clues, Dora the Explorer, Doug, Rugrats, The Ren & Stimpy Show, Rocko's Modern Life, Hey Arnold!, The Angry Beavers, Invader Zim, The Fairly OddParents, The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius, Danny Phantom, and the wonderfully strange SpongeBob (which has brought in over  $13 billion in merchandising revenue alone).

Avatar remains an active part of ViacomCBS with graphic novels, Blu-Rays, video games, merchandising, even streaming. Netflix shares rights with CBS All Access, but in the article by the New Yorker's Alex Barasch, the focus is elsewhere.

"And yet when “Avatar: The Last Airbender” arrived on Netflix, in May, it rose through the ranks to become the platform’s No. 1 offering" [As mentioned before, "rose through the ranks" completely misrepresents what happened. -- MP]

"The show is beloved by political commentators ranging from the Times’ Jamelle Bouie to The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, who pledged, following its arrival on Netflix, to “just do tweets about Avatar until November.""

"Last year, Netflix announced a new live-action adaptation."

"This year, as a showrunner in her own right, she succeeded in advocating for a more demonstrative queer relationship in “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power,” which now sits alongside “Avatar” on Netflix."

"The series first ran from 2005 to 2008 on Nickelodeon"

"When Korra and Asami officially became a couple, in the series finale, Nickelodeon ruled that the two were allowed only to hold hands—but the hard-fought moment made bigger strides seem possible to those watching"

For those keeping count:

Netflix references: 4

Nickelodeon references: 2

Viacom and CBS All Access references 0

Remember, Netflix has spends a tremendous amount of money on marketing and PR,

and based on the recent wave of Avatar/Netflix stories, a nice chunk of that is going to a show that Netflix neither owns nor has exclusive streaming rights to (somewhat similar to the situation with She-Ra). This is a great deal for ViacomCBS which gets big checks and sees its IP revitalized. It's also a not bad deal for Netflix, which associates itself with a cult favorite, gets great bang for its buck in terms of hype, and builds interest in its upcoming live action reboot.

For the rest of us, it's a useful reminder of how much of the news we read is both initiated and shaped by the people being covered.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Whatever-day-of-the-week-it-is Tweets

Even with a visionary CEO?

Interesting what strikes a nerve.

This can't be healthy for a society.

Everyone does get what's going on, right? One political party has decided the only way to hold power and avoid responsibility is to openly and aggressively sabotage democracy.

Tesla, of course.

It's easy to get a really big sample size if you're flexible on other things.

One of these days, I'm going to start a long thread on the infantilization of the far right

There is something wrong with Twitter when this joke doesn't go viral.

And finally.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Andrew Gelman is worth reading

 This is Joseph
Andrew Gelman has an important reminder:
Lots of doctors can do this sort of thing—lots of them are indeed excellent at evaluating research claims—but if so, I don’t think it’s the medical training that’s doing it. The medical training, and their practice of medicine, gives them lots of relevant subject-matter knowledge—I’m not saying this is irrelevant—but subject-matter knowledge isn’t enough, and I think it’s a big mistake when media organizations act as if an M.D. is a necessary or a sufficient condition for evaluating research claims.
This is so true in my experience; there are medical doctors who are preternaturally good at research, I work with some, but their high level of research is rarely correlated with their medical training, per se. It is usually a result of either extensive self-education as a life-long learner or having snuck in some research training along the way. I think Andrew is correct here and it would be a benefit to everyone if we recognized this fact and did not level unfair expectations on M.D.'s.

I just remembered, we've picked on the New Yorker's Culture Desk before

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The New Yorker's culture desk could use a fact checker

I recently came across an uncredited piece that drove my inner film geek crazy. About halfway into the review of Ace Records’s new compilation, “Come Spy With Us: The Secret Agent Songbook,” I came across this.

[emphasis added]
The world of spy themes doesn’t stop at Bond (or at Bond offshoots or Bond antidotes), and neither does Ace’s set. Lalo Schifrin’s immortal “Mission: Impossible” theme is here, along with the Challengers’ version of Hugo Montenegro’s “Theme from the Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Both of those illustrate the relationship not only between spy music and surf music—similar in instrumentation, similar in insistence—but also between spy music and the music of spaghetti Westerns.


There are far too many good selections here to list them all: Billy Strange’s “Our Man Flint,” Nancy Sinatra’s “The Last of the Secret Agent” (Flint and Sinatra would collaborate on the theme song for the Bond film “You Only Live Twice,” which isn’t on the set) [That should be "Strange and Sinatra," Derek Flint being fictional and all. It should also be noted that the version of “You Only Live Twice” that most of us are familiar with is by Barry and Sinatra. Billy Strange had nothing to do with it -- MP], and Matt Monro’s “Wednesday’s Child.”   
Billy Strange was an arranger and session musician now best remembered as a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew. Hugo Montenegro was a minor film and TV composer (other than I Dream of Jeannie, I doubt any of his compositions would register if you heard them) who was best known for cheesy but popular cover arrangements.

[The original link for this blog is dead now so I made the obvious substitution.]

Both released albums of covers of soundtracks of popular movies and TV shows. As far as I can tell, neither had anything to do with the original scores. Those came from composers such as Ennio Morricone, John Barry and, in this case, the man who wrote the theme for the Man from UNCLE and composed most of the music for the show's first season and who scored both Flint films, Jerry Goldsmith.

For movie people, Goldsmith is kind of a big deal:

Jerry Goldsmith has often been considered one of film music history's most innovative and influential composers.[8] While presenting Goldsmith with a Career Achievement Award from the Society for the Preservation of Film Music in 1993, fellow composer Henry Mancini (Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Pink Panther) said of Goldsmith, "... he has instilled two things in his colleagues in this town. One thing he does, he keeps us honest. And the second one is he scares the hell out of us."[65]  ...  In a 2001 interview, film composer Marco Beltrami (3:10 to Yuma, The Hurt Locker) stated, "Without Jerry, film music would probably be in a different place than it is now. I think he, more than any other composer bridged the gap between the old Hollywood scoring style and the the [sic] modern film composer."[67]
For someone writing about film music, crediting Montenegro or Strange with a Goldsmith composition is the kind of mistake that makes you wonder how much of the writer's expertise came from the liner notes. Perhaps worse, it is such an easily avoidable error. Thanks to Wikipedia, it takes so little time to get the facts right.

In fairness to the author, some of the critical points are valid (such as the relationship between spy films and surf music. For example, check out the arrangement from this sequence from Our Man Flint,

But even good arguments are difficult to take seriously when they come with careless mistakes.

p.s. I didn't want to go full nerd in the middle of a post, but if you feel like releasing your inner spy geek, I recommend checking out these discussions of the various arrangements of Man from UNCLE themes (including the revelation that Goldsmith hated Lalo Schifrin's new arrangement).

p.p.s. I ran this past an actual authority, Brian Phillips. He pointed out another one I should have caught: "Though Bill Cosby starred in “I Spy” as early as 1965 (the brassy Roland Shaw theme is included)..."  The I Spy theme was, of course, by Earl Hagen who was, in Sixties television, also kind of a big deal [Andy Griffith Show, Dick Van Dyke Show, etc.].

Brian also questions whether the bassline to "Come Spy With Me"  is really James Jamerson.

Monday, August 10, 2020

More on that New Yorker Avatar piece -- timelines

Caveat1 : No disrespect intended for Avatar, a fine show well deserving of all of the accolades.

Caveat2 : As previously mentioned, the obfuscations and press manipulations of Netflix seem a bit quaint in this age of fraud and pump-and-dump schemes.

I hadn't meant to spend so much on Netflix's PR campaign for Avatar, but the company is such a wonderful fount of examples of the hype economy. It is not an entirely left-handed compliment when I say that no one works the press better, which makes reverse engineering their strategies and tactics so interesting.

First a bit of context:
The extended Avatar franchise includes an ongoing comics series, an animated sequel series, a prequel novel series, and a live-action film, as well as an upcoming live-action remake of the show by its original creators to be produced for Netflix. The complete series was released on Blu-ray in June 2018 in honor of the 10th anniversary of its finale, and was made available to stream on Netflix in the United States in May 2020, and on CBS All Access in June 2020.
Now check out this July 5th New Yorker article by Alex Barasch.(emphasis added):

A fifteen-year-old cartoon is an unlikely contender for most-watched show in America. And yet when “Avatar: The Last Airbender” arrived on Netflix, in May, it rose through the ranks to become the platform’s No. 1 offering, and even now it remains a fixture in the Top Ten for the U.S. The series first ran from 2005 to 2008 on Nickelodeon, and swiftly made a name for itself as a politically resonant, emotionally sophisticated work—one with a sprawling but meticulously plotted mythos that destined the show for cult-classic status. Last summer, after “Game of Thrones” flubbed its finale, fans and critics held up “Avatar” as a counterexample: a fantasy series that knew what it wanted to be from the beginning.

As best I can place it, the show started streaming around mid-May. That means less than two months, perhaps more like one month, elapsed between Netflix adding Avatar to its lineup and the writing of this story.

That is remarkably little time given everything that had to occur. The audience would need time to discover the show. A suitable interval would have to pass in order to have an accurate read on viewership.

Once a network or streaming service knows it has a hit, it takes a while to decide on how best to exploit it. PR firms move rapidly under great pressure, but we’re talking about multi million dollar campaigns of immense complexity. This sort of thing takes time. Strategy has to be decided on. Press releases written. approved, and circulated. Subtle pressure has to be applied to friendly journalists. And, yes, even in 2020 multiple news cycles have to pass.

All of which has to happen before a reporter for the New Yorker can comment on the latest cultural hot thing.


The order of events was different. It is far more probable that Netflix decided they wanted a hit or at least the perception of a hit with Avatar as a way of promoting their live-action reboot. It wouldn’t be that hard of a sell. The show had a large and loyal following and was a long time critics’ favorite.Under these conditions if you push the hell out of the show and keep a heavy thumb on the recommendation engines, something that can be spun as a hit is a pretty good bet.

The rising through the ranks Barasch describes appears to have taken around 48 hours since it took less than a week from the time the show dropped for a wave of Avatar-is-#1 stories to hit. 

The response of search and social media was even more rapid, which actually started trending upward two weeks before the show became available (coincidentally the same pattern you'd see with a big PR and marketing build-up).

The bottom line here is that journalists are far too credulous about the narratives they are given and far too ready to accept astroturf passing for grassroots. This is fairly harmless when covering beloved old cartoons, not so harmless when reporting on politics.

Friday, August 7, 2020

I am contractually obligated to mention that it snows every year in the city of Los Angeles

NWS: Heat wave to bring possible record-breaking, triple-digit temps to SoCal through weekend

Posted: Jul 29, 2020

The National Weather Service warned of hot, dry conditions and elevated fire danger as a heat wave is expected to send temperatures soaring throughout Southern California beginning Thursday.

Highs into the triple digits are forecast in valley and foothill areas through Saturday, while the Antelope Valley could reach 106 degrees.

Coastal and mountain areas will be slightly cooler, ranging from 85 to 95 degrees across the region, forecasters said.

San Bernardino and Riverside are expected to hit 105 and 104 degrees respectively on Thursday, and 106 degrees Friday, while sizzling temperatures of around 120 degrees are anticipated in Palm Springs on both days. 

The good news is the heat wave has broken (according to the morning forecast, we didn't break eighty in North Hollywood yesterday), but it was still too damned hot.for a while there. One days like that (or more accurately, the nights between them), I find there's something relaxing about watching Les Stroud shivering through a Northern Canadian winter.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

"Everything looks worse in black and white"

And this looks really bad.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

"And he mortgaged the house..."

When you get to the part about the technology being proven, remember that the testing is entirely focused on the aspects of the technology that we know will work. The main part that has experts skeptical is the ability to make a hyperloop financially viable, and the only way to prove that is to give these companies billions of dollars and see what happens.
U.S. Department of Transportation releases framework for hyperloop development
Jul 26, 2020

Proposed hyperloop transportation systems, which developers say can move pods with passengers or freight through low-pressure tubes at more than 500 miles an hour, have received a key endorsement: validation by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao released a 22-page document Thursday called Pathways to the Future of Transportation that’s designed to encourage innovation and place new transportation concepts under a specific regulatory agency. The document was developed by the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council that Ms. Chao appointed about 18 months ago.

For hyperloop advocates, the important step was placing hyperloop proposals under the Federal Railroad Administration and making hyperloop projects eligible for federal grants to help fund projects.

“This is a turning point for the industry,” said Ryan Kelly, vice president of Virgin Hyperloop One, one of two developers proposing systems to link Pittsburgh with Chicago.

“It gives confidence to stakeholders that this is a priority. This is not a pipe dream.”

Virgin is working with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission on a system that would connect Pittsburgh to Chicago via Columbus in about 56 minutes at a cost of about $93. The agency has completed environmental and feasibility studies for the system, which likely would be built in sections from west to east and take about 30 years to complete.

“Just the Federal Railroad Administration alignment for hyperloop is a big announcement,” said Thea Ewing, director of transportation for the Mid-Ohio group. “That alone is a pretty significant message from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“Once you get to this point and you don’t have an answer for who regulates you, you don’t know what to do. [The proposal] becomes a non-starter for whoever you’re talking to.”

Mr. Kelly said the other important component to Thursday’s announcement is making hyperloop projects eligible for federal funding. The Pittsburgh-to-Chicago proposal always has been pitched as a public-private partnership, but at a cost of more than $20 billion it would be difficult for local agencies to pay for the public share by themselves.

The report said that once the technology is proven, hyperloop projects could be eligible under four different funding categories that have a combined $2 billion available in the current fiscal year.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Hyperloop watch -- We are now reaching that part of the movie where the wife goes to the bank and realizes that her husband has given their life savings to the con man.

I know I've been harping on this for years now and I'd imagine regular readers are growing a bit tired of the ranting, but the standard tech narrative, the one that is still more or less the default for even sober news organizations like the BBC and NPR, is deeply flawed and genuinely dangerous.

The hype and bullshit and magical heuristics that dominate our discussion of technology and innovation aren't just annoying; they have a real cost. They distort markets, spread misinformation, lead to bad public policy, and starve worthwhile initiatives of both funding and attention.

No figure brings out the worst of these tendencies in journalists more than does Elon Musk. Musk, it should be noted, does have some major accomplishments under his belt as an administrator, promoter, and finance guy. With SpaceX and, to a lesser degree, Tesla, he deserves considerable credit for significant innovations, but even with his most serious projects, there is always a bit of the Flimflam Man present.

The Hyperloop has always been Elon Musk at his most substance-free. A 70s era B- senior engineering project dressed up with 3-D graphics and a cool name. Despite being thoroughly demolished by virtually every independent expert in the field, the "proposal" has generated endless and endlessly credulous press coverage. Hundreds of millions of dollars in financing have been lined up by Hyperloop companies with dubious business plans. And now you can add millions in tax dollars to that.

From an excellent Slate article by Henry Grabar.

For American lawmakers, funding public transit often feels like small ball. Politicians prefer to dream bigger. Earlier this month, transportation agencies in the Cleveland region and in Illinois announced they would co-sponsor a $1.2 million study of a “hyperloop” connecting Cleveland to Chicago, cutting a 350-mile journey to just half an hour. It’s the fourth public study of the nonexistent transportation mode to be undertaken in the past three months.

“Ohio is defined by its history of innovation and adventure,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who once canceled a $400 million Obama-era grant for high-speed rail in the state. “A hyperloop in Ohio would build upon that heritage.” In January, a bipartisan group of Rust Belt representatives wrote to President Trump to ask for $20 million in federal funding for a Hyperloop Transportation Initiative, a Department of Transportation division that would regulate and fund a travel mode with no proof of concept.

It’s hard to keep up: Last week, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission announced feasibility and environmental-impact studies for a different hyperloop route, connecting Pittsburgh and Chicago through Columbus, Ohio, to be run by a different company, Virgin Hyperloop One. The company—which fired a pod through a tube at 240 mph in December—is also studying routes in Missouri and Colorado.* Meanwhile, Elon Musk—who has obtained (contested) tunneling permission from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan—pulled a permit from the District of Columbia for a future hyperloop station.

But let’s first look at the hyperloop [from our old friends, the incredibly flaky, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies -- MP] that Grace Gallucci, the head of the Cleveland regional planning association the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), told local radio could be running to Chicago in three to five years, and to the study of which the NOACA contributed $600,000.