Friday, October 30, 2020

A few quick lunch time notes on making sense of the early and “late” votes -- UPDATED

Here’s how I’m framing this. Very much looking for feedback

Think of the following groups:

1. Vote on election day

2. Vote early in person

3. Vote by mail (drop box)

4. Vote by mail
    a. Before Oct 25
    b. After Oct 25

2., 3., and 4a. appear to favor Democrats.


We assume 1. will favor Republicans.

I’m under the impression that the GOP’s attempts to throw out votes is focused on group 4b.
[Is this correct?]

Because Trump et al telegraphed their strategy months in advance, the Democrats have had time to push back hard with the message vote as early as possible and under no circumstances rely on the mail in the final week.

In order for the GOP tactic to work:

1. The election in important swing states must be fairly close.

2. A large number of voters need to have mailed their ballots in that state less than a week before the election.

3. These must be heavily Democratic.

I am dubious of 2 and 3. At this point only the lowest of low information Democrats would think that mailing a ballot at the last minute is a good idea, but I don’t have any data to back that up.

Can anyone shed some analytic light on this?




 A bit of context. There were 137 million votes cast in 2016. 


With what will very likely be more than half of this election's votes already cast, the order in which they are counted will probably determine the story Trump's advocates will be able to tell.

I also wonder if  this massive and successful push for early voting, especially among Democrats, and the related telegraphing of the Trump/USPS/SCOTUS plan to steal the election means that there won't be that many votes left to worry about arriving after Nov. 3.

Finally, not as a prediction but just as an observation. Early votes are in the bank; election day votes are accounts receivable. One of the problems with encouraging your followers to wait till the last day is that you don't have a floor if that day turns ugly.

Are Nate and Elliot and Andrew klever enough to kope with a K

Many years ago in Paris, Arkansas, there was a small shop owned by a local family named Kafka. I never met them and have no idea what relation they had to the writer.

The shop was of a very common type in the Ozarks, folksy with more often than not a made-in-Taiwan hillbilly décor. I don’t recall ever going inside but I do remember the sign which read something like this:

Fun Stuff
Art Supplies

This memory is not all that relevant but then neither is this post. It would have been had I written it when I first intended to a month or two ago. Back then, economic indicators and forecasts probably probably had a bigger roles in the models of 538 and the Economist. I’d imagine now it’s all about weighing polls and estimating turnout. But even if I missed the timeliness window for this post, there are some less ephemeral issues I still want to hit.

On some level, all predictive modeling relies on the assumption that the important relationships and trends we’ve observed in data in the past will continue to hold in the future. We don’t talk about it all that much but this is one of those things that makes all competent statisticians at least a little worried. This is especially true when we go out of the range of our data, when the variables we put into our model start having values we’ve never seen before.

Pretty much serious election models factor in the economy and where it’s going. The actual relationship may be complicated but, at the risk of oversimplifying, an economy that’s good or trending up favors the party in power and vice versa.

But what happens when the economy is good for half the people and terrible for the rest? Many economists have described our current situation as a K-shaped recovery with white-collar knowledge workers doing fairly well while those in other sectors such as the service industry suffering horribly.

As far as I know, we haven’t had a presidential election during a K-shaped recovery, at least not since we starting scientific polling. This is outside the range of data (as is the pandemic, as is having a president openly undermining the election, as is…).  This is where the art of modeling kicks in. The statisticians at 538 are smart and experienced and I have faith in their judgement.

But when you read credulous story about model confidently predicting some wildly counter-intuitive development, it is also good to remember that modeling is a mixture of science and art and some people aren’t very good at the latter.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Rethinking modeling assumptions in 2020



The idea that you should incorporate a correlation matrix into an electoral model is one of those things that just makes sense across the board. It is supported by the data, it is intuitively obvious, and it is easy to justify from first principles.

But here’s the part that bothers me just a little bit. Historically, these models predicted the outcome of a collection of events that happened in different states but mostly at a single point in time simultaneously, election day.

That’s not how elections work in 2020. Different states now have wildly different cadences and rules. Most of the votes might be cast in one state before another even starts the process. Is the likelihood of a candidate outperforming the polls in the first two weeks of October in one state still strongly correlated to the probability in another state on election day? Do certain aspects of the model fare better than others under these new conditions? Would 538’s model handle these changes differently than the Economist model would?

I have absolutely no idea whether or not these are important issues. I am woefully ignorant on the subject, but it seems like an interesting topic for discussion so if anyone better informed than I (which is to say pretty much anyone reading this blog) would care to join in, I would love to hear some opinions.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Wednesday Tweets -- these anti-mask activists really get in your face

Lots of topics here I've been meaning to blog on.

The implications if we start thinking of the effect of voter suppression as a J-shaped curve.

The culpability of the Hoover Institute for the current crisis.

Long time readers will know where these are going.

I've been thinking a lot about the "surge ahead on election day and cut off the count strategy." Among other things, I've been thinking how stupid it was to telegraph that plan months in advance. If Trump plays Goldfinger in the remake, he'll tell Bond about his Fort Knox plan during the gin game.

The approach of quietly chipping away a reproductive rights on a state level has given moderate Republicans a lot of breathing room. That may be going away.

[Search for the "great unwinding."] In 2020 the GOP will still have to appease the cult members. Though unlikely, I would not rule out Don Jr. or Ivanka or even the return of Trump himself. Whoever gets it will find that holding onto the base while building a broad coalition will be... challenging.

We all need snow days (even if some of us have to drive to them).

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The good news about Tesla's Full Self Driving technology is that it's not advanced enough to lull you into a false sense of security

Interesting companion piece to yesterday's post on Tesla's disturbing beta rollout of FSD. It promises that the driver has to do almost nothing. The claim turns out to be false but perhaps that's a feature, not a bug. It turns out that doing almost nothing is really hard.

John Pavlus writing for Scientific American.

People often use the phrase “in the loop” to describe how connected someone is (or is not) to a decision-making process. Fewer people know that this “control loop” has a specific name: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA). The framework was originally devised by a U.S. Air Force colonel, and being “in” and “out” of the OODA loop have straightforward meanings. But as automation becomes more prevalent in everyday life, an understanding of how humans behave in an in-between state—known as “on the loop”—will become more important.

Missy Cummings, a former Navy fighter pilot and director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory, defines “on the loop” as human supervisory control: "intermittent human operator interaction with a remote, automated system in order to manage a controlled process or task environment.” Air traffic controllers, for example, are on the loop of the commercial planes flying in their airspace. And thanks to increasingly sophisticated cockpit automation, most of the pilots are, too.

Tesla compares Autopilot with this kind of on-the-loop aviation, saying it “functions like the systems that airplane pilots use when conditions are clear.” But there’s a problem with that comparison, Casner says: “An airplane is eight miles high in the sky.” If anything goes wrong, a pilot usually has multiple minutes—not to mention emergency checklists, precharted hazards and the help of the crew—in which to transition back in the loop of control...

Automobile drivers, for obvious reasons, often have much less time to react. “When something pops up in front of your car, you have one second,” Casner says. “You think of a Top Gun pilot needing to have lightning-fast reflexes? Well, an ordinary driver needs to be even faster.”


But NASA has been down this road before, too. In studies of highly automated cockpits, NASA researchers documented a peculiar psychological pattern: The more foolproof the automation’s performance becomes, the harder it is for an on-the-loop supervisor to monitor it. “What we heard from pilots is that they had trouble following along [with the automation],” Casner says. “If you’re sitting there watching the system and it’s doing great, it’s very tiring.” In fact, it’s extremely difficult for humans to accurately monitor a repetitive process for long periods of time. This so-called “vigilance decrement” was first identified and measured in 1948 by psychologist Robert Mackworth, who asked British radar operators to spend two hours watching for errors in the sweep of a rigged analog clock. Mackworth found that the radar operators’ accuracy plummeted after 30 minutes; more recent versions of the experiment have documented similar vigilance decrements after just 15 minutes.

Monday, October 26, 2020

The autonomous driving equivalent to Elon's bolting wheels on the side of the car

One of the foundational beliefs of 21st century tech narratives is that the biggest obstacles to innovation are legal. If not for lawyers and regulators, we'd living in a techno-paradise. 

With the possible and very qualified exception of pharmaceuticals, this has always been unfounded and in many cases, is the opposite of true. Companies like Tesla have long treated legal checks as figurative and often literal jokes, manipulating markets, misrepresenting products and in some cases, threatening public safety. 

Friday, October 23, 2020

The standard narrative on the Uri Geller/Amazing Randi conflict comes from the New York Times, which apparently got it from Uri Geller

RIP Randall James Hamilton Zwinge

James Randi, a magician who later challenged spoon benders, mind readers and faith healers with such voracity that he became regarded as the country’s foremost skeptic, has died, his foundation announced. He was 92.

The James Randi Educational Foundation confirmed his death, saying that its founder succumbed to “age-related causes” on Tuesday.


On a 1972 episode of “The Tonight Show,” he helped Johnny Carson set up Uri Geller, the Israeli performer who claimed to bend spoons with his mind. Randi ensured the spoons and other props were kept from Geller’s hands until showtime to prevent any tampering.

The result was an agonizing 22 minutes in which Geller was unable to perform his tricks.





For Randi, those 22 minutes of magic tricks not being done would ironically become the high point of the magician's biography but there was one more twist in the story

Adam Higginbotham writing for the New York Times Magazine in 2014.

“I sat there for 22 minutes, humiliated,” Geller told me, when I spoke to him in September. “I went back to my hotel, devastated. I was about to pack up the next day and go back to Tel Aviv. I thought, That’s it — I’m destroyed.” But to Geller’s astonishment, he was immediately booked on “The Merv Griffin Show.” He was on his way to becoming a paranormal superstar. “That Johnny Carson show made Uri Geller,” Geller said. To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real: If he were performing magic tricks, they would surely work every time.

 It's a great tale except that there's little reason to believe it actually happened that way. Start with the fact that Geller seems to be the main source, which should have raised some red flags for Higginbotham.

 How about the appearance on the Merv Griffith Show? Wasn't he invited shortly after the Carson debacle? Not exactly. He was invited back

From IMDB:

The Merv Griffin Show (1962–1986)
Alfred Drake, Pamela Mason, Uri Geller, Captain Edgar Mitchell
TV-PG | 1h | Comedy, Family, Music | Episode aired 19 July 1973

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962–1992)
Ricardo Montalban/Eskimo-Indian Olympians/Uri Geller
1h 45min | Comedy, Talk-Show | Episode aired 1 August 1973

The Merv Griffin Show (1962–1986)
Eartha Kitt, Richard Dawson, Michelle Phillips, Uri Geller
TV-PG | 1h | Comedy, Family, Music | Episode aired 15 August 1973


 Geller's telling makes it sound like it was the Carson appearance that got him on Griffin, but he was a returning guest and there's no reason to believe he wasn't invited back simply because he had done well a couple of weeks earlier.

[Late Edit: He'd also made appearances on Jack Parr and Mike Douglas before doing Carson -- MP]

Nor is there evidence that Geller's career took off in late 1973.

If anything, it looks like Randi's debunking of Geller starting with the Tonight Show and culminating with 1975's The Magic of Uri Geller was what brought the charlatan down.

Journalists love people-are-stupid narratives, but, while I believe cognitive dissonance is real, I think the lesson here is not "To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real" and is instead that we should all be more skeptical of simplistic and overused pop psychology.


Thursday, October 22, 2020

Farewell, Quibi. We hardly had time to mock you

When rich, successful  people raise huge amounts of money for undeniably stupid business ideas, there is a natural tendency to assume that it can't be as bad as it sounds. Fight that impulse and remind yourself that the PR people who fed the journalist the story you just read went to great pains to put the best possible spin on the enterprise. 

Quibi really was worse than it sounded. 

From the LA Times:

Katzenberg and Whitman told investors Wednesday afternoon that Quibi, which raised $1.75 billion to tackle the growing digital video market, will wind down after failing to attract viewers willing to pay to watch its shows, according to people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment.

Hollywood-based Quibi, which employed 265 people as of April, plans to use its remaining cash of about $350 million to pay back investors, sources said, a stunning turn of events for a company that promised to transform the entertainment industry.

Quibi said in a statement Wednesday it will close down the business and begin the process of selling off assets over the coming months.


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The war on data revisited -- Again, Trump says the quiet part out loud

Eight years, we made the following argument.

To coin a phrase, if the masses can't handle the truth and need instead to be fed a version crafted by the elite to keep the people happy and doing what's best for them, the public's access to accurate, objective information has to be tightly controlled.

A lot has changed since then. What was a tightly controlled narrative has taken on a life of its own and the delegitimizing of the of science and trustworthy data sources has been fully internalized, and not only by the GOP's cannon fodder.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Strauss and the war on data

The most important aspect of Randianism as currently practiced is the lies its adherents tell themselves. "When you're successful, it's because other people are inferior to you." "When you fail, it's because inferior people persecute you (call it going Roark)." "One of these days you're going to run away and everyone who's been mean to you will be sorry."

The most important aspect of Straussianism as currently practiced is the lies its adherents tell others. Having started from the assumption that traditional democracy can't work because most people aren't smart enough to handle the role of voter, the Straussians conclude that superior minds must, for the good of society, lie to and manipulate the masses.

Joseph and I have an ongoing argument about which school is worse, a question greatly complicated by the compatibility of the two systems and the overlap of believers and their tactics and objectives. Joseph generally argues that Rand is worse (without, of course, defending Strauss) while I generally take the opposite position.

This week brought news that I think bolsters my case (though I suspect Joseph could easily turn it around to support his): one of the logical consequences of assuming typical voters can't evaluate information on their own is that data sources that are recognized as reliable are a threat to society. They can't be spun and they encourage people to make their own decisions.

To coin a phrase, if the masses can't handle the truth and need instead to be fed a version crafted by the elite to keep the people happy and doing what's best for them, the public's access to accurate, objective information has to be tightly controlled. With that in mind, consider the following from Jared Bernstein:
[D]ue to pressure from Republicans, the Congressional Research Service is withdrawing a report that showed the lack of correlation between high end tax cuts and economic growth.

The study, by economist Tom Hungerford, is of high quality, and is one I’ve cited here at OTE. Its findings are fairly common in the economics literature and the concerns raised by that noted econometrician Mitch McConnell are trumped up and bogus. He and his colleagues don’t like the findings because they strike at the supply-side arguments that they hold so dear.
And with Sandy still on everyone's mind, here's something from Menzie Chinn:
NOAA's programs are in function 300, Natural Resources and Environment, along with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and a range of conservation and natural resources programs. In the near term, function 300 would be 14.6 percent lower in 2014 in the Ryan budget according to the Washington Post. It quotes David Kendall of The Third Way as warning about the potential impact on weather forecasting: "'Our weather forecasts would be only half as accurate for four to eight years until another polar satellite is launched,' estimates Kendall. 'For many people planning a weekend outdoors, they may have to wait until Thursday for a forecast as accurate as one they now get on Monday. … Perhaps most affected would be hurricane response. Governors and mayors would have to order evacuations for areas twice as large or wait twice as long for an accurate forecast.'"
There are also attempts from prominent conservatives to delegitimize objective data:
Apparently, Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, is accusing the Bureau of Labor Statistics of manipulating the jobs report to help President Obama. Others seem to be adding their voices to this slanderous lie. It is simply outrageous to make such a claim and echoes the worrying general distrust of facts that seems to have swept segments of our nation. The BLS employment report draws on two surveys, one (the establishment survey) of 141,000 businesses and government agencies and the other (the household survey) of 60,000 households. The household survey is done by the Census Bureau on behalf of BLS. It’s important to note that large single-month divergences between the employment numbers in these two surveys (like the divergence in September) are just not that rare. EPI’s Elise Gould has a great paper on the differences between these two surveys.

BLS is a highly professional agency with dozens of people involved in the tabulation and analysis of these data. The idea that the data are manipulated is just completely implausible. Moreover, the data trends reported are clearly in line with previous monthly reports and other economic indicators (such as GDP). The key result was the 114,000 increase in payroll employment from the establishment survey, which was right in line with what forecasters were expecting. This was a positive growth in jobs but roughly the amount to absorb a growing labor force and maintain a stable, not falling, unemployment rate. If someone wanted to help the president, they should have doubled the job growth the report showed. The household survey was much more positive, showing unemployment falling from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent. These numbers are more volatile month to month and it wouldn’t be surprising to see unemployment rise a bit next month. Nevertheless, there’s nothing implausible about the reported data. The household survey has shown greater job growth in the recovery than the establishment survey throughout the recovery. The labor force participation rate (the share of adults who are working or unemployed) increased to 63.6 percent, which is an improvement from the prior month but still below the 63.7 percent reported for July. All in all, there was nothing particularly strange about this month’s jobs reports—and certainly nothing to spur accusations of outright fraud.
We can also put many of the attacks against Nate Silver in this category.

Going back a few months, we had this from Businessweek:
The House Committee on Appropriations recently proposed cutting the Census budget to $878 million, $10 million below its current budget and $91 million less than the bureau’s request for the next fiscal year. Included in the committee number is a $20 million cut in funding for this year’s Economic Census, considered the foundation of U.S. economic statistics.
And Bruce Bartlett had a whole set of examples involving Newt Gingrich:
On Nov. 21, Newt Gingrich, who is leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination in some polls, attacked the Congressional Budget Office. In a speech in New Hampshire, Mr. Gingrich said the C.B.O. "is a reactionary socialist institution which does not believe in economic growth, does not believe in innovation and does not believe in data that it has not internally generated."

Mr. Gingrich's charge is complete nonsense. The former C.B.O. director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, now a Republican policy adviser, labeled the description "ludicrous." Most policy analysts from both sides of the aisle would say the C.B.O. is one of the very few analytical institutions left in government that one can trust implicitly.

It's precisely its deep reservoir of respect that makes Mr. Gingrich hate the C.B.O., because it has long stood in the way of allowing Republicans to make up numbers to justify whatever they feel like doing.


Mr. Gingrich has long had special ire for the C.B.O. because it has consistently thrown cold water on his pet health schemes, from which he enriched himself after being forced out as speaker of the House in 1998. In 2005, he wrote an op-ed article in The Washington Times berating the C.B.O., then under the direction of Mr. Holtz-Eakin, saying it had improperly scored some Gingrich-backed proposals. At a debate on Nov. 5, Mr. Gingrich said, "If you are serious about real health reform, you must abolish the Congressional Budget Office because it lies."

Because Mr. Gingrich does know more than most politicians, the main obstacles to his grandiose schemes have always been Congress's professional staff members, many among the leading authorities anywhere in their areas of expertise.                                                                                                                                                                                                

To remove this obstacle, Mr. Gingrich did everything in his power to dismantle Congressional institutions that employed people with the knowledge, training and experience to know a harebrained idea when they saw it. When he became speaker in 1995, Mr. Gingrich moved quickly to slash the budgets and staff of the House committees, which employed thousands of professionals with long and deep institutional memories.

Of course, when party control in Congress changes, many of those employed by the previous majority party expect to lose their jobs. But the Democratic committee staff members that Mr. Gingrich fired in 1995 weren't replaced by Republicans. In essence, the positions were simply abolished, permanently crippling the committee system and depriving members of Congress of competent and informed advice on issues that they are responsible for overseeing.

Mr. Gingrich sold his committee-neutering as a money-saving measure. How could Congress cut the budgets of federal agencies if it wasn't willing to cut its own budget, he asked. In the heady days of the first Republican House since 1954, Mr. Gingrich pretty much got whatever he asked for.

In addition to decimating committee budgets, he also abolished two really useful Congressional agencies, the Office of Technology Assessment and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. The former brought high-level scientific expertise to bear on legislative issues and the latter gave state and local governments an important voice in Congressional deliberations.

The amount of money involved was trivial even in terms of Congress's budget. Mr. Gingrich's real purpose was to centralize power in the speaker's office, which was staffed with young right-wing zealots who followed his orders without question. Lacking the staff resources to challenge Mr. Gingrich, the committees could offer no resistance and his agenda was simply rubber-stamped.

Unfortunately, Gingrichism lives on. Republican Congressional leaders continually criticize every Congressional agency that stands in their way. In addition to the C.B.O., one often hears attacks on the Congressional Research Service, the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Government Accountability Office.

Lately, the G.A.O. has been the prime target. Appropriators are cutting its budget by $42 million, forcing furloughs and cutbacks in investigations that identify billions of dollars in savings yearly. So misguided is this effort that Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma and one of the most conservative members of Congress, came to the agency's defense.

In a report issued by his office on Nov. 16, Senator Coburn pointed out that the G.A.O.'s budget has been cut by 13 percent in real terms since 1992 and its work force reduced by 40 percent -- more than 2,000 people. By contrast, Congress's budget has risen at twice the rate of inflation and nearly doubled to $2.3 billion from $1.2 billion over the last decade.

Mr. Coburn's report is replete with examples of budget savings recommended by G.A.O. He estimated that cutting its budget would add $3.3 billion a year to government waste, fraud, abuse and inefficiency that will go unidentified.

For good measure, Mr. Coburn included a chapter in his report on how Congressional committees have fallen down in their responsibility to exercise oversight. The number of hearings has fallen sharply in both the House and Senate. Since the beginning of the Gingrich era, they have fallen almost in half, with the biggest decline coming in the 104th Congress (1995-96), his first as speaker.

In short, Mr. Gingrich's unprovoked attack on the C.B.O. is part of a pattern. He disdains the expertise of anyone other than himself and is willing to undercut any institution that stands in his way. Unfortunately, we are still living with the consequences of his foolish actions as speaker.

We could really use the Office of Technology Assessment at a time when Congress desperately needs scientific expertise on a variety of issues in involving health, energy, climate change, homeland security and many others. And given the enormous stress suffered by state and local governments as they are forced by Washington to do more with less, an organization like the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations would be invaluable.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

You could argue that 2020 was scary enough as is

I realized that I haven't done any Halloween posts this year so here are some outstanding chillers from the Golden Age of Radio.


 Starring William Conrad, William Conrad, and William Conrad. Narrated by William Conrad.

And a must listen for Vincent Price fans.

John Houseman once said that Orson Welles convinced himself that he had written everything he appeared in with the possible exception of the works of Shakespeare. Lucille Fletcher would probably agree.

History buffs will want to check out the War Bonds pitch at the end.

And perhaps Lucille Fletcher's high point (featuring America's best actor according to Welles).

Monday, October 19, 2020

Repost -- checking in on the work-from-home thread

From Marketplace:

 “I think it’s also … this newfound freedom for many people that now can work from anywhere,” Schuler said. “They’re picking up and moving wherever they want to, for the first time ever, where they’ve had this ability to do so.”

In the Marketplace-Edison Research Poll, nearly half of people who had moved or thought about moving said the ability to work from anywhere was a factor.


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Will Covid-19 finally bring knowledge work practices into the Twenty-first Century?

I don't have numbers but I'm reasonably certain this is the largest number of Americans working from home since the advent of the internet and the smart phone.

There's no good technological reason why most knowledge workers need to live within a hundred or even a thousand miles of where they work. The obstacles are cultural but they are still formidable. Despite a tight job market and a growing housing crisis centered around a handful of overcrowded and overpriced cities, employers have been slow to consider alternative models.

Now new models are being forced upon everybody. New things will be tried. Adaptations will be made. Bugs will be worked out. Attitudes will shift.

Fifty years from now, this might be what Covid-19 is remembered for.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Why do we still have cities?

Following up on "remembering the future."

Smart people, like statisticians' models, are often most interesting when they are wrong. There is no better example of this than Arthur C Clarke's 1964 predictions about the demise of the urban age, where he suggested that what we would now call telecommuting would end the need for people to congregate around centers of employment and would therefore mean the end of cities.

What about the city of the day after tomorrow? Say, the year 2000. I think it will be completely different. In fact, it may not even exist at all. Oh, I'm not thinking about the atom bomb and the next Stone Age; I'm thinking about the incredible breakthrough which has been made possible by developments in communications, particularly the transistor and above all the communications satellite. These things will make possible a world where we can be in instant contact with each other wherever we may be, where we can contact our friends anywhere on earth even if we don't know their actual physical location. It will be possible in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London. In fact, if it proved worthwhile, almost any executive skill, any administrative skill, even any physical skill could be made independent of distance. I am perfectly serious when I suggest that someday we may have rain surgeons in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand. When that time comes, the whole world will have shrunk to a point and the traditional role of a city as the meeting place for man will have ceased to make any sense. In fact, men will no longer commute; they will communicate. They won't have to travel for business anymore; they'll only travel for pleasure. I only hope that, when that day comes and the city is abolished, the whole world isn't turned into one giant suburb.

Clarke was working with a 20 to 50 year timeframe, so it's fair to say that he got this one wrong. The question is why. Both as a fiction writer and a serious futurist, the man was remarkably and famously prescient about telecommunications and its impact on society. Even here, he got many of the details right while still being dead wrong on the conclusion.

What went wrong? Part of this unquestionably has to do with the nature of modern work. Clarke probably envisioned a more automated workplace in the 21st century, one where stocking shelves and cleaning floors and, yes, driving vehicles would be done entirely by machines. He likely also underestimated the intrinsic appeal of cities.

But I think a third factor may well have been bigger than either of those two. The early 60s was an anxious but optimistic time. The sense was that if we didn't destroy ourselves, we were on the verge of great things. The 60s was also the last time that there was anything approaching a balance of power between workers and employers.

This was particularly true with mental work. At least in part because of the space race, companies like Texas Instruments were eager to find smart capable people. As a result, employers were extremely flexible about qualifications (a humanities PhD could actually get you a job) and they were willing to make concessions to attract and keep talented workers.

Telecommuting (as compared to off shoring, a distinction will need to get into in a later post) offers almost all of its advantages to the worker. The only benefit to the employer is the ability to land an otherwise unavailable prospect. From the perspective of 1964, that would have seemed like a good trade, but those days are long past.

For the past 40 or so years, employers have worked under (and now completely internalized) the assumption that they could pick and choose. When most companies post jobs, they are looking for someone who either has the exact academic background required, or preferably, someone who is currently doing almost the same job for a completely satisfied employer and yet is willing to leave for roughly the same pay.

When you hear complaints about "not being able to find qualified workers," it is essential to keep in mind this modern standard for "qualified." 50 or 60 years ago it meant someone who was capable of doing the work with a bit of training. Now it means someone who can walk in the door, sit down at the desk, and immediately start working. (Not to say that new employees will actually be doing productive work from day one. They'll be sitting in their cubicles trying to look busy for the first two or three weeks while IT and HR get things set up, but that's another story.)

Arthur C Clarke was writing in an optimistic age where workers were on an almost equal footing with management. If the year 2000 had looked like the year 1964, he just might have gotten this one right.





Friday, October 16, 2020

"The stakes are too high..."

 A few more from '64.








Thursday, October 15, 2020

US Supreme Court

 This is Joseph

The US Supreme Court has been a source of odd thinking, lately 

Josh Marshall has a post about how a reader suspects that John Roberts might decide to retire from the supreme court in order to preserve institutional legitimacy. I think this shows just how deranged the thinking about the supreme court has come. Is there anything that makes people think that judges voluntarily give up power?  

He is 65, way younger than Sandra Day O'Connor (around 78) or Anthony Kennedy (around 82). It just makes no sense that he'd give up influence on the court and the ability to advocate for legitimacy unless there was an external reason. 

Similarly, there is an odd sense of ownership of Supreme Court seats. People seem to think we should honor Ruth Bader Ginsberg's wish that her seat not be filled until after the election. There are a ton of very good reasons to not fill the seat quickly: recent past precedent (Scalia's replacement), lack of time to do a thorough vetting, and an ongoing pandemic creating the need for focusing on helping economic and medical victims all come immediately to mind. The idea that the seat is a feudal inheritance that the current occupant has any control over how it is filled in the future is not a good thing for the health of the republic.

Finally, the fact that covering pre-existing conditions is coming back up to the court, one more time, suggests that judicial rulings are becoming deeply unserious. The US has an insurance system that is based on churn as people change jobs many times over their careers, often without a whole lot of choice. Prices are opaque and systematically higher for people without insurance (the system is not set up for negotiation). Covering pre-existing conditions is simply a prerequisite for having the system function at all. That a seat flipping could credibly threaten this act, twelve years after it passed and after repeated judicial review, is . . . well, hard to credit is the nice way to say this.

Another easy litmus test. As a Canadian, I cannot name a single Supreme Court justice. I kind of remember the chief justice if I really think about it. I can name every single US justice, and give a quick summary of their politics. I worry that the politicization of the court will end in tears. 

Another sign of the process being broken is noted here

Amy Barrett is a former law professor and sitting judge. She does not have any idea about whether Medicare and social security are constitutional? Not hedging and saying that she is unaware of any grounds on which they could be. What is the point of the hearing if the justice is completely ignorant (or pretends to be ignorant) on law and policy? Not even to comment on the grounds on which these laws are currently based? What did she teach students? There are laws and nobody can tell if they are compatible with the constitution nor have I read any precedent? 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

From Dennis the Menace to Vlad the Impaler

You might call this the flip-side of our Trash, Art and the Comics post. There we talked about  gaining insights into a period through its pop culture. Today's post is about how modern audiences often miss the point older works because they don't catch the obvious.
In the the 1890s, people quite rightly thought of themselves as living at the height of a period of unprecedented scientific and technological breakthroughs. (I'd argue still unprecedented, but that's a topic for another post.) The characters in Dracula are well aware of the incongruity of a vampire roaming a contemporary metropolis. They discuss it at length through the book. Their leader, Dr. Van Helsing, explicitly frames the conflict as modern science versus an ancient supernatural force. 

Needless to say, most of this subtext never makes it to the adaptations, but even for readers of the original, I suspect most are likely to miss the point because we tend to underestimate grossly the period's sophisticated awareness of how science and technology was changing their world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Tuesday Tweets -- if you held a gun to Werner Herzog's head...

Watch the whole thing.

 Not really up on total factor productivity (assuming that's what they're talking about) but this can't be right.


Even cooler.


And finally

Monday, October 12, 2020

The alternative theory is that they're making a big play for those three DC electoral votes

One of the many dirty little secrets of the major studios is that a nontrivial share of the advertising budget goes not to actually promoting a movie or series but to keeping a star happy. (Yeah, I split that infinitive. Want to make something of it?) It is not unheard of for all of a show’s outdoor marketing spend to go billboards placed where the star will see them.

We are seeing something analogous in the presidential campaign.

To get a sense of how seemingly crazy this would seem to be you have to consider where the Trump campaign is being forced to cut back.

From the LA Times.
Trump’s retreat from Ohio, Iowa and New Hampshire reflects his struggle to change the dynamics of a race that polls suggest he is on track to lose. In the six weeks since his party’s national convention, Trump’s campaign has yanked more than $17 million in ads he’d previously booked in those states.

Two of them, Ohio and Iowa, are must-wins for the Republican president. Polls show him running almost dead even with the former vice president in both. Trump’s withdrawal of advertising in those states — despite the risk — is a sign of his campaign’s poor financial condition.

“It seems the Trump campaign has reached the point where they have to do some triage,” said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads. “They don’t seem to have enough money to run ads everywhere.”

I've suspected for years now that political analysts have underestimated how much of the GOP's messaging has been primarily focused on keeping Trump calm, particularly on the part of loyal soldiers like Graham. The strategy hasn't prevented erratic behavior from the president but it is reasonable to assume it has reduced it.

Now, though, the need for calm extends through the entire party. This is the point of the stag hunt where not only does a successful kill seem unlikely, but where the very possibility of making it back home safely is in question.

Trump and the Republicans are running these DC ads for the same reason that small children repeatedly tell themselves that there is nothing under the bed. The main difference here being that for the GOP this monster is quite real.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Trash, Art and the Comics

[If you haven't already, you owe it to yourself to read the original.]

If you're trying to get a feel for a historical period, not seek out profound insights into the times, but just get a sense of what things were like, you are often better off opting for what Kael would call the good trash rather than the first rate art of the period.

Great art is of a time but timeless. Its creators see further, deeper. They have a unique vision, The works connect with audiences in entirely different ways as the years pass. It would be a mistake to assume we see Lear in the same way groundlings did four hundred years ago, just as it would be a mistake to assume Shakespeare was a typical Elizabethan.

All of this is problematic when you just want a picture of an era. For that, you'll probably be better off going with something competent and popular in its time that has aged badly. John O'Hara instead of William Faulkner. Dennis the Menace instead of Peanuts.

Hank Ketcham seldom pushed boundaries but he and his assistants were solid cartoonists and sharp observers who, probably unintentionally and more in the background than the foreground, caught all sorts of interesting details.

The following panels are from 1960 and 1961.

Note the bench seat and the small child standing on it while his father drives. Unsafe at Any Speed was years away.

Though they were a ubiquitous part of American life for almost one hundred years, I wonder how many people reading this know what trading stamps were

Even in the safest escapist entertain, 1961 was a scary time.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

More on the great unwinding -- the post-Trump GOP is probably inevitable but still unimaginable

Just to reiterate a few points we've been hammering for a few years now.

1. Trump has become more and more toxic to a growing majority of the country. If things continue going the way they're headed, he will be the ultimate example of von Hoffman's rat on the kitchen floor for the Republican Party.

2. But unlike with Nixon,  the base is personally loyal to Trump, not to the GOP.
3. It is difficult to describe what we're seeing as anything other than a cult of personality, complete with the Soviet style propaganda images, the assumption of mental and physical perfection and the messianic overtones.

4. Even if the base were to continue to support the party, the Republicans absolutely must broaden its appeal. After 1988, they have won the popular vote for the presidency exactly once and that was the special case of a wartime reelection.

5. But the base will not tolerate disloyalty to either Trump or his message. Keeping them happy while broadening support is impossible, but the alternative is to find a way to go from a minority to a majority party while trying to make up for the loss of around half of your supporters. 

Are there scenarios where this does happen relatively quickly? Sure, but there are no obvious paths that don't require some deus ex machina plot twist. Which leads to the final and most important point.

6. With a handful of possible exceptions like the extraordinarily sharp Josh Marshall, observers are almost all underestimating the chances of profound and unexpected changes to the way American politics works. I'm not saying what's going to fall or which direction it will tip, but things are going to be different.

From Marshall
But don’t take your eyes off this broader calculus – one separate from Trump, his state of mind, one that is above all rational. Yes, everyone should give their 110%. Everybody get out to vote. The stakes for a second Trump term are too high to take anything for granted. But for those gaming out their own moves and post-January realities, Trump’s defeat is starting to look very likely. Under normal circumstances that would lead congressional Republicans to cut Trump loose and pitch their reelection as a check on the power of a Democratic President. That would be a great card to play for a number of endangered Republican Senators at the moment. But it’s all but impossible since loyalty to Trump is now the centerpiece of Republican identity. And any move away from him would trigger a fatal backlash.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

A year ago today at the blog

There are a few things I'd change if I were writing this today. The big one is that, between the pandemic and mail-in ballots, Straussian ideas and tactics were about cause massive loss of life and threaten democracy.

The rest I'm comfortable letting stand.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Out with the Wages of Strauss, in with the Great Unwinding

We have reached a point in the show which always makes the fans a little nervous. we have decided that one of our oldest and biggest storylines is starting to come to a natural conclusion so we need to begin wrapping up the loose ends and introducing the next one.

For years now, when it came to politics, the big recurring story was what you might call the wages of Strauss. we pushed the we pushed the idea that either the main cause or the essential context of almost every major political development over the past couple of decades came from the conservative movements relatively public conclusion that their agenda, while it might hold its own for a while and perhaps even surge ahead now and then, was destined to lose the battle of public opinion in the long run.

This left them with two choices, either modify their ideas so that they could win over the majority of the public, or undermine the Democratic process through a Straussian model, an approach based on controlling most of the money and increasing the influence that could be bought with that money, changing government so that an ever smaller part of the population had an ever-larger role in governing the country and creating a sophisticated three-tiered information management system where trusted sources of information were underfunded and undermined, the mainstream press was kept in line through a combination of message discipline and incentives with special emphasis placed on working the refs, and the creation of a special media bubble for the base which used spin, propaganda, and outright disinformation to keep the canon fodder angry, frightened, and loyal.

For a long time this approach worked remarkably well, but you could argue that the signs of instability were there from the beginning, particularly the difficulty of controlling the creation and flow of disinformation, the vulnerability to what you might call hostile take over, and the way the system lent itself to cults of personality.

We've had a good run with this storyline for a long time now, but it seems to be coming to a resolution and it has definitely lost a great deal of its novelty. (Lots of people are making these points now.)

The next big story, but one which we believe will dominate American politics for at least the next decade or so will be how the Republican party deals with the unwinding of the Trump cult of personality. Dismantling such a cult is tremendously difficult under the best of circumstances where the leader can be eased out gently, but you have with Donald Trump someone who has no loyalty to the party whatsoever and who is temperamentally not only capable but inclined to tear the house down should he feel betrayed.

If Trump continues to grow more erratic and public disapproval and support for his removal continues to grow, then association will be increasingly damaging to Republicans in office. However, for those same politicians, at least those who come up for election in the next two to four years, it is not at all clear that any could survive if the Trump loyalists turned on them.

But this goes beyond individual candidates. Trump's hold on the core of the base is so strong and so personal that, if he were to tell them directly that the GOP had betrayed both him and them, they would almost certainly side with him. They might form a third party, or simply boycott if you elections, or, yes, even consider voting for Democrats.. I know that last one sounds unlikely but it is within the realm of possibility if the intraparty civil war got bitter enough.

Obviously, if Trump survives this scandal and is reelected in 2020, all of this is moot, but if not, then how things break will be a story we’ll be glad to have been following.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Tuesday tweets -- the great unwinding (plus a really cool snowball fight)

We have been arguing for a while now that the fate of the GOP probably depends on how well it can disentangle itself from a cult of personality that not has reached the level of Soviet era Stalin worship but has also embraced some the most delusional conspiracy theories on record. 

The past few days have brought these issues into high relief.

But rather than leave you with these ugly thoughts, here's something charming to close the post. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Two years ago today -- well, that worked out

I was working on a post about silly but persistent notions about Mars colonies but I realized I wouldn't have time to get it and everything else I had put off until Sunday done, so I decided to do "_____ years ago today" dodge.

Here's what popped up.

Friday, October 5, 2018

If you're tired of the Mars rants, just skip to the Rocket Man cover

This Neil Degrasse Tyson segment from the Tonight Show was amusing – – both he and Stephen Colbert are good at this sort of thing and play well off of each other – – but I'm including it because it hits on a point that I've alluded to in previous conversations of space exploration and the vanity aerospace industry.

Much, arguably most, of the 21st century discussion of man's expansion into and utilization of outer space is based on an implicit and often explicit colonial era framework. This includes such respectable news organizations as the New York Times, NPR, the BBC, and most recently and egregiously the Atlantic.

Any time you see the term "Mars colony," you know you are in trouble. Almost inevitably what follows will assume that the second half of the 21st century will basically just be a remake of the 17th and 18th, despite causes and conditions being all but completely non-analogous. I have neither the time nor the knowledge to go into detail here, but if you will forgive the oversimplification, the original system was based on habitable, arable lands which generally offered significant potential for trade and were easily accessed and conquered and which required a great deal of labor in order to pay off for the colonizing power.

None of this applies to Mars or any other body in the solar system. Outside of certain research questions, there are for the foreseeable future very few economically sound arguments for a human presence in space. Even if something like Martian mining proves viable, any work on the surface of the planet will be done largely, perhaps entirely, by autonomous and semiautonomous robots. This is true now and it will certainly be more true with the AI and robotics of 2050. Based on purely practical considerations, there will be no way to justify more than the most minimal of human presences on the red planet.

This leaves us with various romantic arguments about man's need to reach out to strange lands. [Insert super cut of inspirational Star Trek speeches here.] 100 or so years ago, you might have been able to make a reasonably convincing argument for the explore and settle model. Multiple high profile polar expeditions dominated the news while scientist were for the first time probing the depths of the ocean with dredges and other specialized instruments. The idea of cities in previously inhospitable or even impossible places captured the public imagination.

But this is not 1918. This is 2018 and, as Neil Degrasse Tyson points out, no one is lining up to colonize Antarctica, nor do we have undersea settlements or subterranean metropolises. Hell, we have trouble getting people to move to North Dakota.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Events have gotten ahead of me

Much to think about at the moment.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Maybe we should all lighten up -- more Thursday tweets

Be honest, couldn't you use some aliens, giant robots and Doobie on Murray action about now?