Thursday, December 31, 2020

Watch the body language

This is Joseph

In very early 2019 I remember telling my friends "I am not very worried about this new virus in China, but the one that that concerns me is that the Chinese authorities are acting like they are terrified-- that is really the only thing that worries me". These words came back to haunt me.

Recently we heard about a new mutant strain of covid-19 in the UK. I was initially not super worried, as any new strain that shows up will look like it will have a transmission advantage. Whether it is causal or not is very hard to be sure of.

Then I read the latest draft of "in the pipeline":

We do not know. We don’t know for this vaccine, nor for the Pfizer/BioNTech one, nor for Moderna’s. No studies have been designed to find that out, so all we can do is guess based on what we’ve seen with the interval between doses in the two-dose studies. That’s been encouraging with the two mRNA vaccines, but remember: we don’t know how they are over a longer period, because no one was left without a second dose for that long. It’s certainly possible that without the second booster that the protection seen after one shot starts to wane. We do not know. And we know even less about the Oxford/AZ vaccine’s behavior under these conditions. Giving as many people in the UK as possible a single dose of that vaccine with a longer wait until the booster is a gamble, and you wouldn’t want to do it that way if the alternatives weren’t even worse. It’s the right move, unfortunately, and it’s a damned shame it’s come to this.

The bolding is mine. 

Now it is possible that the UK government is trying to get ahead of cases and end the pandemic quickly. This is still the most likely answer, I think. But maybe they know stuff about the new strain that they are trying new strategies because they are really worried and not because they thought out the science

This is likely a situation to keep an eye on, Thankfully it is likely that vaccines will still work on it, but it suggests that getting good with vaccine delivery is important. Early news has shown challenges with TPM reporting that perhaps only 2.1 million of the 14 million doses delivered have been given. But hopefully these vaccine distribution challenges are teething pains and not enduring issues as we gear up to finally end the pandemic. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Follow-up on one dose vaccine strategies

This is Joseph

As a general follow-up, I have never seen a fun discussion overtaken so quickly by events.  

In Ontario, Rick Hillier has actually requested Health Canada to approve single dose Moderna.

We’ll have the answer from population level data to a high enough precision for public health decisions, as we can limit the bias to low enough for public health decisions by comparing Canadian provinces. Meanwhile, the UK said “why not both”. They approved the Oxford vaccine and allowed a 3 month gap for the Pfizer vaccine, which is basically pushing on both pathways at once (increasing supply via the fast to make vaccine and stretching out the high-efficacy Pfizer one). 

So I suspect we’ll know the answer from observational administrative data in about the same time frame as we would from a clinical trial. It is high time we get to do some fun observational work

P.S. There is a robust discussion over on Andrew Gelman's blog

Pólya would have been proud

In addition to the overwhelming cuteness, there's an important pedagogical principle here straight out of How to Solve It.

The little girl is convinced that her sequence of numbers is correct and will not be persuaded otherwise, but when her mother presents her with a related problem, the girl reaches the correct conclusion more or less on her own.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

One dose of mRNA vaccines

This is Joseph

I am starting to see the hot take of "why don't we experiment with giving only one dose of an mRNA vaccine". For example, see this

So let us count the reasons that this isn't a great idea.

  1. The vaccines were tested from phase 1 to phase 3 to find an optimal formulation. People looked at the single dose antibody titers, as compared to two doses, and it was a lot worse. This casts doubt on the durability of the immunity.
  2. Vaccine manufacturers look at these subgroups. the main Moderna trial had 30,351 participants and an efficacy of 94.5% (95% CI 86.5-97.8%). In the one dose subgroup there were 996 participants in the vaccinated group, and 1,079 in the placebo group with 7 cases vaccinated group and 39 cases placebo (80.2%; 95% CI 55.2-92.5%). So we know even short term efficacy is less.
  3. The Oxford vaccine had more participants in the low-dose/high-dose subgroup, with 3 cases in the vaccinated arm and 30 in the placebo arm (efficacy 90·0%, 95% CI: 67·4 to 97·0)
  4. In US dollars and sold in the US, the Oxford vaccine is $4 per shot versus $15/$19.50 for the mRNA vaccines. So it is a lot cheaper.
  5. The Oxford vaccine looks able to make 3 billion doses in 2021, whereas the two mRNA vaccines (combined) look to be able to produce 2 billion doses. So there is more expansion in capacity by adding Oxford than splitting the Moderna or Pfizer doses up. 
  6. This ignores Sputnik V and Sinovac, which are approved in some countries already/ These vaccines claim > 90% efficacy *(Sputnik V and Sinovac). These are both based on low case counts (bad) but no worse than the one dose sub-group for Moderna. 
  7. Oxford can "be stored and transported at normal refrigerated temps of 2 degrees to 8 degrees Celsius (36 degrees to 46 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least six months" whereas Pfizer must be kept at -70 degrees Celsius until six hours before use. That is a huge logistical advantage. Moderna's vaccine is better for logistics, but it is also the vaccine with the lowest production levels. 
  8. Even if the Oxford subgroup is due to the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy, the efficacy of the pooled vaccine estimate is about 70% (either you use the sib-groups or you don't). This is likely not significantly different than one dose Moderna and will likely be more durable
So if we want to argue for an ethical imperative to move quickly, the easy way forward is to approve the Oxford vaccine. There is almost no case where the one dose of mRNA vaccine approach is going to be better than just adding in the next tier of vaccines -- which have trials. Now it is possible that the FDA might decide that they are inferior and should not be given an emergency use authorization. But the one dose approach would require trials (timed to measure durability) and would take years to complete (versus actionable data now -- seriously, the Oxford vaccine has a Lancet publication so the data can be scrutinized). 

In a similar vein, the best thing we could do with Modern is . . . make more of it. Solves the one versus two dose problem if there is enough for everyone. If we really wanted to make a difference -- why not pay Moderna to drop the patent and make it universally free? 

Or push out the Oxford vaccine faster? Hilda Bastian has some concerns with the Oxford vaccine, but at least we have the data to make an informed risk-benefit tradeoff with it (and more data is coming soon when the US trial concludes). 

Monday, December 28, 2020

The handling of the Western mega-fires is another reminder we live in a solution-phobic society

We've had some nice showers recently. We're supposed to get more tomorrow (Monday) with winter storm warnings promising snow in the mountains. It is, of course, welcome. The West always needs water and we've had a fairly dry fall which in recent years has meant fire season threatened to stretch into the winter.

But while the rains are bringing a respite from the mega-fire, they are also a tragically wasted opportunity. Despite a virtually absolute scientific consensus as to the steps we desperately need to be taking, almost nothing is being done and very few people seem to care.

Writing for the LA Times, Bettina Boxall has an excellent account of the depressing details.

When COVID-19 blew a hole in California’s spending plans last spring, one of the things state budget-cutters took an axe to was wildfire prevention.

A $100-million pilot project to outfit older homes with fire-resistant materials was dropped. Another $165 million earmarked for community protection and wildland fuel-reduction fell to less than $10 million.

A few months later, the August siege of dry lightning turned 2020 into a record-shattering wildfire year. The state’s emergency firefighting costs are expected to hit $1.3 billion, pushing the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s total spending this fiscal year to more than $3 billion.

The numbers highlight the enormous chasm between what state and federal agencies spend on firefighting and what they spend on reducing California’s wildfire hazard — a persistent gap that critics say ensures a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction.


Fire scientists have long called for a dramatic increase in the use of prescribed fire — that is, controlled burns that trained crews deliberately set in forests and grasslands during mild weather conditions.

They have urged federal agencies to thin more overgrown stands of young trees in the mid-elevation Sierra Nevada and let nature do some housekeeping with well-behaved lightning fires in the backcountry.

They point to the dire need to retrofit older homes to guard against the blizzard of embers that set neighborhoods ablaze in the most destructive, wind-driven fires.

Yet year after year, state and federal funding for such work remains a pittance compared to the billions of dollars spent on firefighting. 


[Jessica Morse, deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees Cal Fire] cited an August agreement between the state and the U.S. Forest Service in which they each committed to annually treating 500,000 acres [a fraction of what researchers say we need to be doing. -- MP] of California forest and rangelands by 2025 with a variety of fuel-reduction practices, including prescribed fire, thinning overgrown woodlands, timber harvest and grazing.

Yet this memorandum of understanding is non-binding and includes neither money nor staffing.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Friday, December 25, 2020

Little Nemo Meets Lieutenant Kijé

 A few years ago, I was playing around with the very cool open-source video editor, Kdenlive. It's powerful yet remarkably intuitive and, you know, free.

The images are from Winsor McCay. The music is by Sergei Prokofiev, though you may know it better from the many artists like Greg Lake and Sting who have borrowed it over the years.

Merry Christmas from Little Nemo


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

If you've gone through the holidays without hearing "Sugar Rum Cherry"...

 ... you have not had a cool Christmas.

Fifty-two years ago

I was working on a highly critical post on the space colony movement when I happened to channel surf across this Nova episode commemorating the anniversary of Apollo 8. As often happens with that show, I quickly found myself engrossed and watched the whole thing.

Given all the bullshit we've seen in recent years around manned space travel, it's important to remember just how fantastic the story of Apollo was.

Here's the preview:


And if you have time:

Monday, December 21, 2020

Even the hitchhiker with the axe is nervous around the hitchhiker with the chainsaw

 Complete with Michael Flynn.

At the White House on Friday, President Trump held what may have been his most deranged meeting yet. In it, the president raged at his loyalists for betraying him, and discussed taking extralegal measures to overturn the election.

The meeting, first reported by the New York Times, included lawyer and conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell, convicted felon Michael Flynn, and Rudy Giuliani. One plan floated at the meeting was for Trump to appoint Powell as a “special counsel” overseeing allegations of voter fraud. Powell’s voter fraud claims are so fantastical she has been mocked even by other far-right legal conspiracy theorists. Andrew McCarthy, a former birther and author of one book titled How Obama Embraces Islam’s Sharia Agenda and another calling for his impeachment on multiple counts, has described Powell’s vote-fraud claims as “loopy.”


 But the election was not close enough for him to pursue either strategy, whatever chance he had for some kind of Bush v. Gore replay has passed. The measures he is now contemplating lie outside the normal framework for resolving election disputes, and would require, at minimum, almost uniform levels of GOP support.

Trump does not have that. Indeed the striking thing is that he is veering to positions so extreme and self-defeating that even his loyalists have blanched. Perhaps the most alarming fact about the Friday meeting is that Giuliani, who has spent months spreading fantastical claims of imagined voter fraud, became a quasi-voice of reason. Giuliani has proposed using the Department of Homeland Security to seize and examine voting machines — a move the Department has resisted — but even Giuliani opposes appointing a nutter like Powell.

We've gotten a lot of use out of this ad over the years.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Dr. Jill Biden

 This is Joseph.

There is a terrible article in the Wall Street Journal. See this excerpt below:

The argument is a bit muddled, but it seems to be that honorary doctorates are occasionally given to poor choices (this is an earned doctorate) and that standards have slipped. I think standards slipping is simply incorrect on the face of it, at least over in my area. The sheer amount of work that is required to accomplish a PhD has most definitely not decreased (at least not radically). Certainly there is no particular reason that a PhD (or Ed.D., like Jill Biden has) should not have the honorific of Dr. 

The last argument is that it is confusing with physicians, who have started using the same honorific despite having a clinical M.D. I think it is appropriate that modern physicians are also addressed as Dr. but see no reason that it should exclusive to them. In fact both dentists and pharmacists also have clinical doctorates, earned at great effort as well. 

It is true that it might be gauche to be Dr. X at a party, a criticism that applies to both physicians and academics. But in any context that Mrs. Biden would be appropriate, Dr. Biden would be even more appropriate. Not having out with friends, but in contexts in which Joe Biden would be Mr. Biden there is no reason for it not to be Mr and Dr Biden where they are present as a couple. 

The defense of it is actually even worse:
“Why go to such lengths to highlight a single op-ed on a relatively minor issue?” wrote Mr. Gigot, who elsewhere said the responses reflected “what was clearly a political strategy.” “My guess is that the Biden team concluded it was a chance to use the big gun of identity politics to send a message to critics as it prepares to take power. There’s nothing like playing the race or gender card to stifle criticism.”
While I agree that arguments should be allowed and that stifling them is bad, a bad argument does not become good just because it uses gender. Further down Mr Gigot points out that this bad argument applies to male PhD and Ed.D.'s as well. True. What is missing is a compelling reason to change etiquette just because some people may not know that the term Dr is used by several classes of professions. To take an example from his piece, Dentists and Pharmacists don't deliver babies -- do we drop their Drs as well? What about an MD who specialized in an area where they never delivered a child -- does the cardiac surgeon have to say "I have a medical degree but I have not yet delivered a child so call me Mr"? To say it is to see how silly the arguments are. 

And this:
He also noted that Mr. Epstein’s argument that holders of doctorates should not use the “Dr.” honorific applied to men as well as women, and he said criticizing Mr. Epstein’s use of “kiddo” to refer to Dr. Biden was misplaced, since Mr. Biden has also used the term in reference to his wife. He compared the Biden staff members’ tweets to those in which President Trump has referred to the press as the “enemy of the people.”

Ok. I don't actually believe that I need to say this but here goes. A spouse may often address their partner in a far more informal way than a third person. If a random woman can up to me and called me "honey" or "lover", it would be alarming even if my spouse can say such things. If the point of the article is to be about etiquette then why does it start like this by making a far more gauche gaffe than going by Dr in an informal social engagement? Over-familiar strangers seems like a worse etiquette concern than an EdD holder going by (her properly earned title of) Dr. 

Finally, we have a new sport of people making fun of her dissertation. Honestly, I can't even. A dissertation is a teaching document that shows a program of research. Of course they vary in quality and not every dissertation will shine. But the question of whether the underlying research was adequate to justify a degree has already been determined by a panel of experts in the research she undertook. 

In any case, I have probably put more thought into this than the original article writer did. But it seems like a very weak argument and not one that has added much to the discourse. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

Thursday, December 17, 2020

"[Quibi] was bedeviled, from the beginning, by the very antiquated belief that in order for a startup business to succeed, it must actually succeed."

More from  Albert Burneko's piece on the death of the born-terminal Quibi. In this section, Burneko takes one of those bizarre ideas we've mostly come to accept and forces us to face its utter absurdity.

Catastrophic tech-startup failures are the best kind of story that can exist in America in the 21st century, and the only kind of good story that can come out of an industry whose successes are pretty much uniformly horrifying and abominable. I treasure them. American society increasingly resorts to an abstract, Process-ized, anti-human concept of what it even means for a venture to “succeed” or “fail”: Uber, as an example, has never come close to conventional profitability, has ravaged what were once thriving taxicab industries in many American cities, has replaced stable and reasonably normal cab-driving jobs with an underclass of quasi-employees hustling absurd work-hours to barely break even, and at best merely facilitates the dispersal of the very concept of gainful employment into the purgatorial gig economy in which a person increasingly monetizes every moment of their waking life to keep the lights on… and is, by most reckonings, one of the signal success stories of Silicon Valley.


In light of all this it is a source of very nearly orgasmic delight to be reminded that a would-be disruptive tech venture can, in fact, just straight-up fucking fail.

One fun kind of startup failure is the kind that makes wild claims about its ability to deliver a revolutionary product, hoovers up ungodly sums of investor money, then never delivers anything even vaguely recognizable as the product it promised, and collapses as it becomes crystal-clear that its founders were big-talking phonies and investment money was the only kind of money their company would or could ever make. At least a couple of Elon Musk’s various companies, for example, are at various points along this story arc; the eventual hilarious stories of their failure are like unrealized assets, Christmas presents waiting to be opened. When a standard Silicon Valley founder-type (that is to say, a moral idiot who watched The Social Network with the sound muted one time) applies this template to an actual regulated industry (laboratory blood-testing, say), the result is many very serious felonies, but honestly this kind of thing is a hoot even when it’s just some cockamamie nonsense about using algorithms to find previously hidden oil deposits.

Another kind is a little more innocent, but ultimately much funnier: The startup that actually delivers a product, but an obviously worthless one that nobody wants. You may recall Juicero, the company that produced a large, heavy, $400 WiFi-enabled countertop juice press for squeezing fruit juice out of Juicero-branded bags of fruit juice, and which capsized when some of its marginally less stupid early adopters discovered that they could just squeeze the juice out of the bags (of juice) with their hands. What makes this variety of startup failure so magical, what gives it its, ah, juice, is that it functions as an index of the gap between the class of putative business-savvy investor sharks who dump their money into these ventures and the real world, itself largely filled with doofuses who spend their money on stupid things, but no significant number of whom would ever think “Ah yes, a large expensive internet-reliant device, that is what I need in order to get some fruit juice.”


But there’s another sad generation gap manifesting itself in Quibi’s crashing failure: It was bedeviled, from the beginning, by the very antiquated belief that in order for a startup business to succeed, it must actually succeed. Like, as a company that makes and sells a product, even! They dumped over a billion dollars into this thing, they built it at an absurd scale, they gave Quibi programming creators ownership of their shows instead of fashioning some flamboyantly evil legal framework for extracting even their own personal names from them, because they actually thought they were starting a company that would create and sell a good product and fill what they perceived to be an actual opening in the entertainment industry. Those dolts. Those absolute fools! A startup company isn’t an industrious venture that makes and sells a worthy product; a startup company is a plywood box containing a whiteboard with arrows and numbers on it and as few employees as possible, which gets passed around among progressively meaner and more craven moral dwarves until it can no longer sustain even the flimsiest illusion of extractable vitality, and then is dissolved.

The median tech industry startup is all but explicitly smoke and mirrors, rooted in “fake it till you make it” overpromising and theater; startup culture valorizes bullshitting and/or outright deceit as a kind of capitalist derring-do. And while the “make it” part of the formulation certainly can mean “delivering on the good and/or service the creation of which is the company’s nominal reason for existing,” exponentially more often it means sustaining the illusion of efficiency and productivity long enough to secure a huge sale to a larger entity. Often the larger entity knows it’s buying bullshit, and is happy just to squat on a patent or break up a workforce that might theoretically have posed competition had it fallen into the hands of someone who intended to run it as an actual business. There’s an entire industry based on finding out the shit big tech firms haven’t patented yet, creating fake companies only nominally working on the same thing, and then essentially extorting the big companies into paying off those fake companies’ owners. Quibi could have done this. In the hands of a purer charlatan, one not beholden to a dead old world’s notions of business success, it would have had a purely for-appearances staff of four people and a minuscule budget, required show creators to sign over their firstborn children in exchange for dirt, and emptied itself into Amazon’s featureless all-devouring mass a month ago, to the downright criminal enrichment of its founders and early investors.


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Working from home brings its own set of distractions

Living in LA, I do most of my work from the patio. I generally have the area to myself with little but my short attention span to keep me from concentrating, but yesterday I found myself caught in the middle of a territorial dispute that went on for most of the morning.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Yes, IP matters

 Albert Burneko (late of Deadspin) has a wonderfully snarky rant on the demise of Quibi.

Quibi, the subscription digital streaming platform that aired five-to-10-minute TV episodes exclusively on mobile devices, died yesterday. Personally I like to imagine that it happened because Quibi gained sentience just long enough to hear a one-sentence description of itself, and then immediately lowered itself into a vat of molten steel like the Terminator. 

The official story is a lot more boring, though not without its charms. The brainchild of megalomaniacal former Disney and DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg and serial executive-class remora and wildly failed gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, Quibi burned through, at a conservative estimate, somewhere between $1 billion and $1.75 billion in investment or seed money or whatever over the slightly more than two years of its existence, only for its creators to discover within three months of its actual product launch that, whoops, no one, anywhere, wanted to pay money to watch seven-minute TV episodes on a phone. Here is a fun detail from the Wall Street Journal‘s story about the company’s demise:

    The decision to hire the reorganization firm came after starting a process to sell the company, The Wall Street Journal reported. Quibi pitched suitors including Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal on a sale, according to people familiar with the matter, but would-be buyers were put off by the fact that Quibi doesn’t own many of the shows it puts on its platform.

This touches on one of those ideas that has been lurking in the background of a lot of the posts we’ve done over the years. There is a growing disconnect between the way business analysts and accountants value businesses and the investors and business journalists see them.

One of the many ways that Quibi pushed the business plan of Netflix past the point of parody was with its approach to intellectual property. NF spends a substantial chuck of its budget for originals on shows it has little or no ownership of. This fact isn’t hidden but it’s been downplayed by the company and virtually ignored by the financial press.

Quibi took this to the next level and purchased almost no rights to the content it produced. Once again, the press and the investors paid no attention – based on the “rules” (I’m sorry but I can’t bring myself to type the word without scare quotes) of the new economy, these things don’t matter – but when serious professionals tried to value the company, the fact that it had spent $1.75 billion dollars and had nothing to show for it but a crappy brand was something they found difficult to overlook.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Noah Smith draws an essential distinction in the progress and innovation debate.

Check out the recent post at Noahpinion on what Smith calls techno-optimism. I'm not sure I buy all of his arguments, but he makes some good points, especially this one.


Technology vs. “Tech”

At this point it it’s important to differentiate technology from “tech” as it’s popularly conceived. “Tech”, “Silicon Valley”, or “the tech industry” has come to mean either the software industry, plus anything funded by venture capital, plus anyone who’s perceived to be culturally affiliated with the aforementioned (e.g. Elon Musk). It doesn’t typically include older companies like General Electric or General Motors, biotech/pharma companies, or government-funded science.

Americans could be forgiven for thinking that technological progress mostly comes out of the tech industry. Since 1980, many of the products that changed our lives the most — computers, the internet, smartphones, social media — came out of that industry, as did the Big 5 tech companies (Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook) that together now represent about a fifth of the entire U.S. stock market. To some degree, the archetype of Steve Jobs building computers in a garage has replaced the image of a scientist in a lab coat in popular imagination.

But that tech industry lies downstream of a vast ecosystem of science and innovation. Most published science comes out of universities, which are funded by a combination of government grants, tuition dollars, and corporate joint-venture money. (Big corporate labs used to do a sizeable chunk of research, but this is no longer true, though Google’s efforts in AI might represent a partial return of that trend.)

The private sector does spend a lot on R&D. But the “tech” industry as we know it only accounts for about a third of that spending:


“Tech” is certainly very important, but it’s certainly not the whole ball game.

Also, most product innovation is done by big companies rather than startups. Economists Daniel Garcia-Macia, Chang-Tai Hsieh & Peter J. Klenow recently tried to estimate how much productivity growth comes from improvement of existing products — loosely corresponding to what Clay Christensen called “sustaining innovation” — rather than from creative destruction. They found that it was about 75% to 25%.

Furthermore, lots of technological progress gets implemented through channels other than downloading apps from the App Store or buying electronics at Best Buy. As the amazing and apparently successful COVID-19 vaccine effort shows, plenty of innovation makes its impact through the medical system. The rollout of solar and wind power will be done mostly via utility companies, and electric cars will come from big manufacturers. And the military uses a lot of technology as well, though I hope we aren’t reminded of that via a major war anytime soon.


Friday, December 11, 2020

Rolling Stone: "Elon Musk is the Messiah" Vanity Fair:"Hold my beer"

Admittedly, Nick Bilton's profile lacks the Christ imagery of that notorious Rolling Stone cover story, but in terms of buying into the myth of Elon bullshit, we may have a new winner.

Here's a heavily annotated taste:

Elon Musk is on a mission. He’s on a mission to Mars. He’s on a mission to save humanity from its reliance on fossil fuels, which could destroy the planet and kill us all. [EVs, while helpful, address only a part of fossil fuel dependency. Tesla is just one of the EV makers. Musk didn’t found Tesla (except in the retcons). Other than that. -- MP] He’s on a mission to save us from artificial intelligence algorithms going rogue and machines ending human life as we know it. [It’s not at all clear that  Neuralink is serious about its technology which, even if it works will almost certainly won’t accomplish what it claims and will not even in theory address major concerns over unintended consequences of AI. --MP]
He’s on a mission to help save a group of boys trapped underground in Thailand. [Do I even need to comment? -- MP] A mission to transport people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in giant air tubes. [It takes a lot of time to debunk a hyperloop story. When dealing with a writer who describes a maglev vac-train as “giant air tubes,” it’s almost certainly not worth the effort. -- MP] A mission to build ventilators for hamstrung hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. [Musk boasted  that he could make all ventilators ICUs would need. When he was caught in the lie, he bought a load of surplus sleep apnea machines and claimed those were the kind of ventilators he had been talking about all along. -- MP]

He’s on a mission to prove the coronavirus fatality rate is greatly overstated. [That one I’ll have to give Bilton. -- MP] To dig tunnels underground to alleviate the fatuous cycle of traffic jams. [Once again, Musk made some wild claims then, discovering he was supposed to follow through, had his engineers slap together a half-assed demonstration that literally involved bolting wheels to the side of a Tesla. -- MP] To save journalism. [“Save” in the sense of preventing it from saying critical things about Elon Musk. (though Bilton does acknowledge this deep in the profile) -- MP] To mitigate the effects of climate change. [By setting up a Ponziesque solar panel company to screw over taxpayers and Tesla shareholders -- MP] To transport people in earthbound rockets from one continent to the next in mere minutes. [Once again a claim with little to support it. -- MP] To inhabit other planets before the sun explodes and turns our oceans into boiling vats of water, our skies into steam-filled death, our lands into carbon crusts of darkness. [Bilton’s grasp of science here is actually weaker than Musk’s. -- MP] He’s on a mission to inhabit other star systems. [Calling your rocket a starship doesn’t actually make it capable of interstellar travel. -- MP]  All of these missions are completely possible in the realm of physics and science, especially with Elon Musk’s brain working to solve these problems.

And it just goes on and on and on. The level of fawning and credulousness seen here is both stunning and sickening, comparable and in some ways worse than the most sycophantic Trump coverage from Fox or OAN. Musk is "a true genius" with "superhuman abilities" who is "not merely changing the world but the very fabric of the universe."

Bilton doesn’t have even the courage of his lack of convictions. He tries to hide his sycophancy and lack of professionalism behind touches of hip detachment without showing any skepticism or real distance. The mad genius/flawed messiah narrative is fundamentally dishonest but it allows journalists to maintain a pretense of doing their job.

Perhaps in these times, we should demand more than that.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Sir Arthur strikes back

We've been talking for years now about why Arthur C. Clarke's often prescient speculations about the impact of telecommunications were so badly off when it came to what we would call telecommuting. Now the good people at Pew are suggesting that maybe the problem was less with his predictions and more with his timeline.

Samantha Fields reporting for Marketplace:

Nearly 90% of people who have been able to work from home during the pandemic do not want to go back to the office full time, even once it’s safe to do so, according to a new study out today from Pew Research. And employers are already thinking about how that’s going to change their workplaces.

Jonathan Soon is in that majority of people who would like to keep working from home permanently. 

“At home, I have a window by where I work, so I can open it and get fresh air, or just look out the window,” he said.

Pew Research found that more than half of people whose jobs have allowed them to work from home during COVID-19 want to keep doing it all or most of the time. Another third say they’d like to at least some of the time. 

“That’s creating a lot of conversation about how we’re going to operate in summer 2021,” said Justin Draeger, who runs the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., with about 45 people on staff. Nearly all of them now say they want to be able to divide their time between home and the office. And Draeger’s OK with that.

“This idea of being in the office five days a week, I think, is a bygone era for companies that have successfully moved to telework,” he said.

And a lot have. Kate Lister, with Global Workplace Analytics, said the companies she’s talking to in tech, law, banking and insurance are planning to keep doing it after the pandemic ends.

“We’ve reached the tipping point where there’s enough companies that are going to be offering it, that if you’re a company that doesn’t offer it or allow it, you’re simply not going to be able to hold on to your people or attract the best talent,” she said.

Before the pandemic, most of the people who have jobs that can be done remotely rarely, if ever, worked from home, the study found. 


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Our annual Toys-for-Tots post (pandemic edition)

[Obviously, safety comes first. If you can pick up these toys without making an extra trip, please do so, but if it's a choice of going out or staying home, shop online.]


 A good Christmas can do a lot to take the edge off of a bad year both for children and their parents (and a lot of families are having a bad year). It's the season to pick up a few toys, drop them by the fire station and make some people feel good about themselves during what can be one of the toughest times of the year.

If you're new to the Toys-for-Tots concept, here are the rules I normally use when shopping:

The gifts should be nice enough to sit alone under a tree. The child who gets nothing else should still feel that he or she had a special Christmas. A large stuffed animal, a big metal truck, a large can of Legos with enough pieces to keep up with an active imagination. You can get any of these for around twenty or thirty bucks at Wal-Mart or Costco.

Shop smart. The better the deals the more toys can go in your cart;

No batteries. (I'm a strong believer in kid power);*

Speaking of kid power, it's impossible to be sedentary while playing with a basketball;

No toys that need lots of accessories;

For games, you're generally better off going with a classic;

No movie or TV show tie-ins. (This one's kind of a personal quirk and I will make some exceptions like Sesame Street);

Look for something durable. These will have to last;

For smaller children, you really can't beat Fisher Price and PlaySkool. Both companies have mastered the art of coming up with cleverly designed toys that children love and that will stand up to generations of energetic and creative play.

* I'd like to soften this position just bit. It's okay for a toy to use batteries, just not to need them. Fisher Price and PlaySkool have both gotten into the habit of adding lights and sounds to classic toys, but they remain playable long after the batteries have died.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

So what is the business strategy now?

This is Joseph.

Uber is selling off its autonomous vehicle division. This does, however, bring up one important question -- namely, what is Uber's unique value proposition? 

It is quite clear that Taxi businesses are able to develop and deploy applications to make it easier to order a taxi. So it cannot possibly be the IT piece of the equation, which is broadly imitated, even in cities that ban Uber and Lyft. 

But the number of other differences are tiny. Maybe they are shifting the capital costs to owner/operators, but this is also a taxi business plan as well. Certainly, I have known people who owned their own car and rented access to dispatch and a taxi license as a part of the taxi business.

So it looks a lot like the two things left are:

1) Network effects

2) Regulatory arbitrage

The first is not to be minimized, for visitors and people from out of town. But it isn't likely to be a major draw for people who already live in the location. Price also seems to be a part of this, but there has to be a way that Uber gets cheaper rates than a traditional business. That seems to be based on evading traditional employee protections, a new strategy that is being led by the state of California who has enacted massive legal protections for these companies. 

My question, perhaps too late, is whether this is a good idea. The idea of making money by eroding employment protections isn't new and it is unclear how it accelerates things like innovation. If anything, like slaves in ancient Rome, artificially cheap labor can actually slow innovation. Yeyt, with this move, I cannot interpret the jump in Uber's stock price as anything but a cheap labor ploy. 

Why, California, why? 

Monday, December 7, 2020

On the bright side, how much damage could one of the world's three richest men with the personality of a cult leader do?

Cult is a dangerous term to throw around and it obviously doesn't apply in the narrow sense to Musk's followers, but there are some aspects that give one pause.

Take a look at the following list from former FBI agent Joe Novarro [emphasis added]:

If you know of a cult leader who has many of these traits there is a high probability that they are hurting those around them emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually, or financially. And of course this does not take into account the hurt that their loved ones will also experience. 
Here are the typical traits of the pathological cult leader (from Dangerous Personalities) you should watch for and which shout caution, get away, run, or avoid if possible:

    He has a grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance.

    Demands blind unquestioned obedience.

    Requires excessive admiration from followers and outsiders.

    Has a sense of entitlement - expecting to be treated special at all times.

    Is exploitative of others by asking for their money or that of relatives putting others at financial risk.

    Is arrogant and haughty in his behavior or attitude.

    Has an exaggerated sense of power (entitlement) that allows him to bend rules and break laws.

    Takes sexual advantage of members of his sect or cult.

    Sex is a requirement with adults and sub adults as part of a ritual or rite.

    Is hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others.

    Publicly devalues others as being inferior, incapable, or not worthy.

    Makes members confess their sins or faults publicly subjecting them to ridicule or humiliation while revealing exploitable weaknesses of the penitent.

    Has ignored the needs of others, including: biological, physical, emotional, and financial needs.

    Is frequently boastful of accomplishments.

    Needs to be the center of attention and does things to distract others to insure that he or she is being noticed by arriving late, using exotic clothing, overdramatic speech, or by making theatrical entrances.

    Has insisted in always having the best of anything (house, car, jewelry, clothes) even when others are relegated to lesser facilities, amenities, or clothing.

    Doesn’t seem to listen well to needs of others, communication is usually one-way in the form of dictates.

    Haughtiness, grandiosity, and the need to be controlling is part of his personality.

    Behaves as though people are objects to be used, manipulated or exploited for personal gain.

    When criticized he tends to lash out not just with anger but with rage.

    Anyone who criticizes or questions him is called an “enemy.”

    Refers to non-members or non-believers in him as “the enemy.”

    Acts imperious at times, not wishing to know what others think or desire.

    Believes himself to be omnipotent.

    Has “magical” answers or solutions to problems.

    Is superficially charming.

    Habitually puts down others as inferior and only he is superior.

    Has a certain coldness or aloofness about him that makes others worry about who this person really is and or whether they really know him.

    Is deeply offended when there are perceived signs of boredom, being ignored or of being slighted.

    Treats others with contempt and arrogance.

    Is constantly assessing for those who are a threat or those who revere him.

    The word “I” dominates his conversations.

    He is oblivious to how often he references himself.

    Hates to be embarrassed or fail publicly - when he does he acts out with rage.

  Doesn’t seem to feel guilty for anything he has done wrong nor does he apologize for his actions.

    Believes he possesses the answers and solutions to world problems.

    Believes himself to be a deity or a chosen representative of a deity.

    Rigid, unbending, or insensitive describes how this person thinks.

    Tries to control others in what they do, read, view, or think.

    Has isolated members of his sect from contact with family or outside world.

    Monitors and or restricts contact with family or outsiders.

    Works the least but demands the most.

    Has stated that he is “destined for greatness” or that he will be “martyred.”

    Seems to be highly dependent of tribute and adoration and will often fish for compliments.

    Uses enforcers or sycophants to insure compliance from members or believers.

    Sees self as “unstoppable” perhaps has even said so.

    Conceals background or family which would disclose how plain or ordinary he is.

    Doesn’t think there is anything wrong with himself – in fact sees himself as perfection or “blessed.”

    Has taken away the freedom to leave, to travel, to pursue life, and liberty of followers.

    Has isolated the group physically (moved to a remote area) so as to not be observed.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Hyperloop stories really demand Gawker-level snark

 Fortunately, Albert Burneko (late of Deadspin) is on the case.

CNN’s article about this event paraphrases a Virgin Hyperloop executive claiming that the hyperloop pods “can travel at the speed of aircraft.” Which is true, in the sense that commercial aircraft with dozens if not hundreds of people aboard do sometimes travel at 100 miles per hour, on the ground, for seconds at a time, during takeoff or landing, when they are going only a fraction as fast as they’re capable of going. It is also true in the sense that, strictly speaking, a paper airplane is a form of “aircraft,” and you can really whip some of those suckers across a room. A more accurate but perhaps less flattering claim would be that my Honda Odyssey can travel at the fastest speed Virgin Hyperloop has yet attained, and with four times as many people riding in it.

Hell, for that matter, as a Twitter user helpfully pointed out, a freaking steam locomotive hit 126 miles per hour in England, 82 years ago, in 1938.

Yeah, but, when it’s done, it’ll go 600 miles per hour, you’re whining, and it’ll have 25 to 30 people in a pod! When exactly will that be? France opened the TGV in 1981. Japan’s oldest high-speed line debuted in 1964—1964!—and was better and faster then than Amtrak’s Acela trains go now. Shanghai’s maglev train has been operable since John Kerry was campaigning to unseat George W. Bush as president. Measure speed by the number of riders the respective services will have moved by, say, 2050. Measure it in carbon emissions. By the year 2020, the best-funded and most sophisticated high-speed rail developer in the United States moved two (2) people 500 meters.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Perhaps not that unexpected

Five years ago, Joseph and I were having a lot of discussions about what might happen if Trump lost the nomination. Here's one of the scenarios we came up with.

In recent years, a large part of the foundation of the GOP strategy has been the assumption that, if you get base voters angry enough and frightened enough, they will show up to vote (even in off year elections) and they will never vote for the Democrat (even when they really dislike the Republican candidate).

Capitalizing on that assumption has always been something of a balancing act, particularly when you constantly attack the legitimacy of the electoral system ("The system is rigged!" "The last election was stolen!" "Make sure to vote!"). With the advent of the Tea Party movement, it's gotten even more difficult to maintain that balance.

I don't want to get sucked into trying to guess what constitute reasonable probabilities here – – I'm just throwing out scenarios – – but it certainly does seem likely that, if he doesn't get the nomination and does not choose to run as an independent, Trump will still make trouble and things will get ugly.

Keep in mind, Trump's base started out as the birther movement. They came into this primed to see conspiracies against them. Now the RNC has given them what appears to be an actual conspiracy to focus on.

I don't think we can entirely rule out the possibility of Trump calling for a boycott of the vote to protest his treatment but even if it doesn't come to that, it seems probable that, should we see a great deal of bitterness and paranoia after the convention, the result will not help Republican turnout.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

How to be a Tesla bull -- keep repeating EVs = Tesla

  This is perhaps the primary pillar in all attempts to justify valuing a small, marginally profitable niche car maker at a larger market cap than the three biggest money-making auto companies combined. The arguments boil to "In the near future gas-powered autos will be phased out, therefore most cars will be made by Tesla." Bulls spend a great deal of time supporting the premise (which needs little support), and remarkably little arguing for the conclusion.

 Recently one prominent analyst used this line of reasoning to defend a bull case for trading Tesla at a p/e of around 2000.

Tesla Inc. shares could double from current levels as global electric vehicle demand ramps up over the next five years, according to one Wall Street analyst.

Global demand for electric vehicles could reach 10% of auto sales by 2025, up from its current 3%, wrote Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives.

He raised his price target to $560 a share and his bull-case scenario to $1,000 on the belief that Tesla could deliver 1 million vehicles by 2023 (possibly 2022).


 European efforts to reduce carbon emissions and increased regulatory scrutiny will drive a wave of demand led by France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. Tesla is aiming for its Berlin Gigafactory to begin production in July.


Let's take a closer look at the European market.

In case the last few quarters of profitability haven't hipped you to this, Tesla sells a lot of electric cars. This is true pretty much everywhere that it operates. However, according to a report published Wednesday by InsideEVs, Tesla is no longer the biggest fish in Western Europe.

While other electric vehicle makers have had a relatively slow increase in sales compared to Tesla's big spike and subsequent plateau starting in January of 2019, the slow and steady route seems to be paying off for the Renault Nissan Mitsubishi Alliance and the Volkswagen Group, both of which eclipsed Tesla's sales as of August of 2019.

That trend has continued, with industry analyst Matthias Schmidt stating that Tesla's Western European (this includes the EU plus UK, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) market share has fallen from 33.8% down to just 13.5% over the last year. That's a massive drop, but why is the Big T losing ground?

Part of it has to do with the fact that Tesla is a single brand going up against multibrand conglomerates. Next, Tesla doesn't really sell super-affordable electric cars; the competition has more entry-level EVs available for people, even though they don't offer anywhere near the range or performance of a Model 3, for example.

Lastly, and this is a big one, many of these competitor companies are likely willing to sell their EVs with a much smaller profit margin to meet corporate emissions targets. They can use the EV sales to shore up the emissions side of things while their diesel and gasoline product sales keep the lights on, so to speak.

On a related note, check out Warren Buffett's explanation of the investors' fallacy that investing in a winning technology translates to investing in a successful company.