Friday, April 30, 2021

Sometimes it's useful to stop and think about what really fast progress looks like

That last post got me thinking. Over the past dozen or so years, autonomous vehicles have made impressive advances, but it's important to remember that many researchers had convinced most of the press that level 5 was just around the corner and that the progress we've seen, while substantial, has not been exceptionally fast by historical standards.

Here's a look at what happened in the first decade of powered flight. The pace of breakthroughs was stunning. Just as important, the adjustments people had to make in the way they viewed the world was tremendous. 

This was not an isolated case. From the same late 19th/early 20th century period, I could come up with a half dozen similar stories, with perhaps as many coming out of the postwar era. As cool and as significant as many of the developments of the 21st century, from a historical perspective we have a ways to go.

From late 1903:

According to the Smithsonian Institution and Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the Wrights made the first sustained, controlled, powered heavier-than-air manned flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, four miles (8 km) south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on 17 December 1903.

The first flight by Orville Wright, of 120 feet (37 m) in 12 seconds, was recorded in a famous photograph. In the fourth flight of the same day, Wilbur Wright flew 852 feet (260 m) in 59 seconds. The flights were witnessed by three coastal lifesaving crewmen, a local businessman, and a boy from the village, making these the first public flights and the first well-documented ones.

To 1913:

A good indication of the progress during the era is provide by the annual Gordon Bennett races. The first competition, held in 1909 during the Grande Semaine d'Aviation at Reims, was over a distance of 20 km (12  mi) and was won by Glenn Curtiss at a speed of 75.27 km/h (46.77 mph). By 1913, the last pre-war contest, the race was over a distance of 200 km (120 mi) and the winner's speed was 200.8 km/h (124.8 mph). At the end of 1909 the record for distance flown was 234.30 km (145.59 mi) and for altitude 453 m (1,486 ft): by the end of 1913 the record for distance was 1,021.19 km (634.54 mi) and the altitude record was 6,120 m (20,079 ft)

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The fact that I could probably pass off a ten year old post on AVs as new suggests that the technology may not be advancing quite as fast as initially promised

In all seriousness, when you look back at periods of ubiquitous revolutionary advances (late 19th/early 20th centuries, the postwar era), you see not only the technology but the conversation around the technology rapidly evolving, changing radically from year to year. I'm not seeing a lot of rhetorical evolution at the moment, certainly not a decade's worth.


Tyler Cowen argues against more regulation with an example that calls for more regulation

Tyler Cowen has a piece in the New York Times on how regulation inhibits innovation in transportation using the example of driverless cars. I'm not sure he's made his general case (that's the subject for an upcoming post), but his specific case is particularly problematic.

In case you haven't been following this story, Google has been getting a lot of press for its experiments with self-driving cars, especially after statements like this from Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun:
"Think about the car as a medium of mass transit: So, what if our highway-train of the future meant you go on the highway, and there's a train of very close-driving cars with very low wind drag, fantastic capacity, is twice as efficient as possible as today, and so there is no congestion anymore?"
Cowen is clearly thinking along the same lines:
Furthermore, computer-driven cars could allow for tighter packing of vehicles on the road, which would speed traffic times and allow a given road or city to handle more cars. Trips to transport goods might dispense with drivers altogether, and rental cars could routinely pick up customers. And if you worry about the environmental consequences of packing our roads with cars, since we can’t do without them entirely, we still can make those we use as efficient — and as green — as possible.
Putting aside the question of the magnitude of these savings in time, road capacity and fuel effeiciency (which, given the level of technology we're talking about here, aren't that great), where exactly are these savings coming from?

Some can certainly be attributed to more optimal decision-making and near instantaneous reaction time, but that's not where the real pay-off is. To get the big savings, you need communication and cooperation. Your ideal driving strategy needs to take into account the destination, capabilities and strategies of all the vehicles around you. Every car on the road has got be talking with every other car on the road, all using the same language and rules of the road, to get anything near optimal results.

Throw just one vehicle that's not communicating (either because it has a human driver or because its communication system is down or is incompatible) into the mix and suddenly every other vehicle nearby will have to allow for unexpected acceleration and lane changes. Will driverless cars be able to deal with the challenge? Sure, but they will not be able to able to do it while achieving the results Thrun describes.

A large number of driverless cars might improve speed and congestion slightly, but getting to the packed, efficient roads that Cowen mentions would mean draconian regulations requiring highly specific attributes for all vehicles driving on a major freeway. The manufacture and modification of vehicles would have to be tightly controlled. Motorcycles would almost certainly have to be banned from major roads. Severe limits would have to be put on when a car or truck could be driven manually.

This would seem to be another case of a libertarian endorsing a technology with less than libertarian implications.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Bitcoin and cryptocurrency as modern gold

This is Joseph

There has been a lot of discussion about bitcoin as a currency. There is a general concern that the value can jump around. From Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times:
From Dec. 18, 2017, to Feb. 10, 2018, bitcoin’s value fell by 55%. This year alone there have been three downdrafts of 20% or more over the course of a week or two, and an additional fall of 16% over 12 days in March. (All metrics are from Coinbase.)

This is obviously fatal to the primary idea of bitcoin as currency. It also finishes bitcoin as being a useful basis for financial instruments. Imagine buying a house for 100 bitcoin and then having it have a value of 50 bitcoin (because the coins are now worth more). Bought for 20 bitcoins down, the value of the mortgage is now 80 bitcoins and the house is underwater. How do you make long term investments when you cannot stably value real or financial assets? Here, I am using fait as a proxy for the purchasing power of bitcoin. 

But if you wanted a medium of exchange that has all of the pros and cons of bitcoin, then gold is actually a pretty good choice. Hiltzik again:

The problem is that as bad as bitcoin is as an investment, it’s even worse as a currency. Blogger Kevin Drum lists five features that a currency should have: It should be hard to counterfeit, stable in value, easy to carry, widely accepted and 100% liquid. Bitcoin fails three of these tests — it’s not stable in value, widely accepted or 100% liquid.

Now you could imagine gold, minted as coins, being able to do everything that bitcoin could do (including recordless transactions) except we know that it can be both liquid and widely accepted. It can be a pain if it is not coined to assess the value, but the trading features of bitcoin are complicated as well. For example, it clearly has a limit on how frequently it can be traded that greatly limits the ability to be used as a routine payment method. Thomas Lumley looks at how low the actual rate of bitcoin transactions is compared to the number of direct electronic transactions in the New Zealand economy. The short answer is that, for just a small country, bitcoin is way below the scale needed to replace the current financial system. This is bitcoin for the world (about 300,000/day)  and just New Zealand for the electronic transfers (looks to be about 5.5 million/day), and Dr. Lumley is quite transparent that these are not directly comparable measures as the blockchain might be bundling several transactions. But bitcoin is closing on on 1% of the world's energy usage, and still seems awful low for the number of transactions for just New Zealand (small, if rich, country). 

Now gold can be stolen but you can create financial instruments out of it. Further, bitcoin is vulnerable to theft or loss of a password. Furthermore, it is just as vulnerable to government snooping and law enforcement, due to the long term nature of the blockchain record. 

My real question is "what problem does it solve"? Especially compared to alternatives like gold. And, to be clear, gold was uniformly worse than fiat currency as a basis for the economy. I just don't see what bitcoin will do incrementally on gold or how it solves any major currency problem. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

"None had ever performed such wonderful things in so short a time"

A hardy perennial  from Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions.

On the 29th of May, the stock had risen as high as five hundred, and about two-thirds of the government annuitants had exchanged the securities of the state for those of the South Sea Company. During the whole of the month of May the stock continued to rise, and on the 28th it was quoted at five hundred and fifty. In four days after this it took a prodigious leap, rising suddenly from five hundred and fifty to eight hundred and ninety. It was now the general opinion that the stock could rise no higher, and many persons took that opportunity of selling out, with a view of realising their profits. Many noblemen and persons in the train of the King, and about to accompany him to Hanover, were also anxious to sell out. So many sellers, and so few buyers, appeared in the Alley on the 3rd of June, that the stock fell at once from eight hundred and ninety to six hundred and forty. The directors were alarmed, and gave their agents orders to buy. Their efforts succeeded. Towards evening confidence was restored, and the stock advanced to seven hundred and fifty. It continued at this price, with some slight fluctuation, until the company closed their books on the 22nd of June.

 It would be needless and uninteresting to detail the various arts employed by the directors to keep up the price of stock. It will be sufficient to state that it finally rose to one thousand per cent. It was quoted at this price in the commencement of August. The bubble was then full-blown, and began to quiver and shake, preparatory to its bursting.

 Many of the government annuitants expressed dissatisfaction against the directors. They accused them of partiality in making out the lists for shares in each subscription. Further uneasiness was occasioned by its being generally known that Sir John Blunt, the chairman, and some others, had sold out. During the whole of the month of August the stock fell, and on the 2nd of September it was quoted at seven hundred only.

 The state of things now became alarming. To prevent, if possible, the utter extinction of public confidence in their proceedings, the directors summoned a general court of the whole corporation, to meet in Merchant Tailors' Hall, on the 8th of September. By nine o'clock in the morning, the room was filled to suffocation; Cheapside was blocked up by a crowd unable to gain admittance, and the greatest excitement prevailed. The directors and their friends mustered in great numbers. Sir John Fellowes, the sub-governor, was called to the chair. He acquainted the assembly with the cause of their meeting, read to them the several resolutions of the court of directors, and gave them an account of their proceedings; of the taking in the redeemable and unredeemable funds, and of the subscriptions in money. Mr. Secretary Craggs then made a short speech, wherein he commended the conduct of the directors, and urged that nothing could more effectually contribute to the bringing this scheme to perfection than union among themselves. He concluded with a motion for thanking the court of directors for their prudent and skilful management, and for desiring them to proceed in such manner as they should think most proper for the interest and advantage of the corporation. Mr. Hungerford, who had rendered himself very conspicuous in the House of Commons for his zeal in behalf of the South Sea Company, and who was shrewdly suspected to have been a considerable gainer by knowing the right time to sell out, was very magniloquent on this occasion. He said that he had seen the rise and fall, the decay and resurrection of many communities of this nature, but that, in his opinion, none had ever performed such wonderful things in so short a time as the South Sea Company. They had done more than the crown, the pulpit, or the bench could do. They had reconciled all parties in one common interest; they had laid asleep, if not wholly extinguished, all the domestic jars and animosities of the nation. By the rise of their stock, monied men had vastly increased their fortunes; country-gentlemen had seen the value of their lands doubled and trebled in their hands. They had at the same time done good to the Church, not a few of the reverend clergy having got great sums by the project. In short, they had enriched the whole nation, and he hoped they had not forgotten themselves. There was some hissing at the latter part of this speech, which for the extravagance of its eulogy was not far removed from satire; but the directors and their friends, and all the winners in the room, applauded vehemently. The Duke of Portland spoke in a similar strain, and expressed his great wonder why anybody should be dissatisfied: of course, he was a winner by his speculations, and in a condition similar to that of the fat alderman in Joe Miller's Jests, who, whenever he had eaten a good dinner, folded his hands upon his paunch, and expressed his doubts whether there could be a hungry man in the world.

Monday, April 26, 2021

It actually takes some effort to devise arguments this conventional and this wrong

It is rare that you come across a comment that is so ill-informed in such an informative way.

Barro is such a creature of the standard narrative that not only does he form his opinions based on the carefully crafted persona of Musk; he assumes that everyone else must be doing the same. If someone disagrees with his take, it has to be due to their reacting differently to that narrative.

E.W. Niedermeyer's response to that same initial tweet could be read as a rebuttal to Barro. 
It's safe to say that no one who has been seriously following Musk and Tesla in the Financial Times,  the LA Times, Business Insider, Atlantic, Vanity Fair, or Wired would attribute the criticism to "fun, futuristic and coded with all sorts of “bro” aspects." 

If anything, it is this reputation as a playful visionary (along with the cultivated misimpression that he is some kind of natural engineer) that has largely shielded Musk from his critics for so long. While it might be possible to find people who like their environmentalism dreary, the vast majority desperately want to live in the kind of world Musk promises and couldn't care less about the bro culture trappings. 

The trouble is, most people paying attention have realized that the man is a habitual liar.

Specifically on the question of climate change, here's a reminder of one reason why environmentalists have been falling out of love with Tesla recently.

Jamie Powell writing for FT Alphaville.

From "Tesla: carbon offsetting, but in reverse"

We’re not the first to point this out by any means, but bitcoin is dreadful for the environment. Still don’t believe it? Well Bank of America published an excellent report last week (which can be found on David Gerard’s blog), on the dominant digital coin. And, in particular, its carbon impact. 

 Here are a few choice stats. 

 Bitcoin -- or to be more precise, bitcoin mining -- currently consumes more energy than Greece, and a touch less than the Netherlands. In theory, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue if mining was powered by renewable energy, but 72 per cent of mining is concentrated in China, where nearly two-thirds of all electricity is generated by coal power. 

 For the moment then, bitcoin has carbon emissions that sit comfortably between American Airlines’s output, the world’s largest airline which currently carries 200m passengers per year, and the entire US Federal government. 

 Perhaps the most relevant stat of all, however, is this one:

Friday, April 23, 2021

‘The pastrami must be amazing’

It says something about 2021 that when I read about a scam that drove the valuation of small deli up to $100 million, my first reaction is "just a hundred million?"

A now-disbarred lawyer who pleaded guilty to federal crimes related to shell company scams is listed as an attorney in early financial documents filed by a New Jersey firm whose stock valuation has risen as high as $100 million or more despite owning just a single, small delicatessen.


In June 2020, Jaclin pleaded guilty to criminal charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Separately, in a related case, the SEC in 2019 entered a final judgment against him “for running a fraudulent shell factory scheme through which sham companies were taken public and sold for a profit,” a press release noted that year.


Hometown International’s stock, which trades on the over-the-counter market, plummeted by about 33% in the hours after trading began Friday morning. A day earlier, CNBC had published articles about the company’s unusually high market capitalization, which was first noted in a letter hedge fund manager David Einhorn sent to clients.

“The pastrami must be amazing,” Einhorn quipped in his letter.


Jaclin, who is still serving his sentence of three years of supervised release for his criminal case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The biographies of Morina and Lindenmuth in SEC filings do not mention any prior experience by either of them in the food service industry, a publicly traded corporation, or the financial industry.

Hometown’s deli had sales of just $35,000 or so for the past two fiscal years. The deli was closed from mid-March to early September last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite that, its nearly 8 million shares of common stock recently traded at levels of nearly $14 per share, giving it a market capitalization in excess of $100 million.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Effect sizes and vaccination

This is Joseph

Okay, I want to address a question about effect sizes and vaccination:

I think that this perspective can only be seen as useful in the context of major infectious diseases being eliminated. 

First, many major diseases create long term disability. A good example is blindness -- I am not sure how large the immune benefit would have to be to make blindness a good trade off but it would have to be immense. Same with death -- smallpox killed a lot of its victims. Look at the 20th Maine (in the 1800's) -- during the civil war this regiment (which saw heated combat) still lost almost identical numbers to disease as to action. This was in a period in which the soldiers were definitely being exposed to diseases on campaign and thus challenging their immune systems. 

Second, this also goes against historical examples. The Roman empire had cities that were net mortality sinks that needed constant immigration to succeed. Now, it might be that the overall rate of disease is above some magic threshold but I think the real issue here is that arguments about challenging the immune system only make sense in the context of very mild infections. In the same sense, we would never not treat cholera with antibiotics to allow the immune system to strengthen. A process that strengthens the immune system by killing 50% of victims (e.g., untreated cholera) or 30% of victims (e.g., Variola Major) would need to have immense increase in lifespan as a consequence (it's worse when you consider long term complications). 

Third, the vaccines also stimulate the immune system. If we think that this is the goal, then why would vaccinations (strengthening the immune system at lower risk) not be better than natural infections? 

Central to all of this reasoning is the intuition of relative effect sizes. Vaccines that reduce mortality by huge amounts are simply unlikely to be causing more harm than good. Further, naturalistic ideals don't really account for the shift from low density hunter gatherer situations (much lower burden of disease) to high density urban environments. 

Taken as a whole, vaccines simply look like a super-effective health intervention, even before we consider the network effects. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Clash of the Regulatory Titans

Following up on yesterday's post

What's Tesla official safety record, it very much depends on whom you ask.

For a more deeper dive from Niedermeyer, check out his article in the Drive.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The lies we tell ourselves about technology and the future have real costs

Follow-up to yesterday's post.

 Not so long ago, the conventional wisdom (except for a few journalists who really understood the challenges) was that the tech for autonomous vehicles was basically in place. The only thing holding us back was excessive regulation and legal concerns. And it wasn't only AVs; the following is from a post we ran in 2018 on that old standby, flying cars:

One of the most cherished tenets of the standard tech narrative is that we would all be living in a wondrous futuristic land – – half sci-fi movie, half amusement park – – if not for those darned regulations. It's a perfect, multipurpose excuse. It teases us with the promise of great things just around the corner. It creates a handy set of villains to boo and hiss. It neatly explains away the failures of tech messiahs to come up with appealing and functional technology or viable business plans.

It is also bullshit. There are certainly cases where onerous regulations hold up big infrastructure projects and you can make the case that the IRB process is delaying certain medical advances, but in the vast majority of cases where a new technology fails to catch on, it is because of incompetent execution, bad engineering or non-feasible business models, but those explanations are difficult to write up, run counter to the standard narrative, and tend to make the journalists look like idiots for having bought the hype in the first place.

Regulators of autonomous vehicles have been more than compliant; with Tesla, they've been negligent, allowing the company to publicly imply to customers that they have level 5 autonomy while privately admitting that they only have level 2 and are far behind companies like Waymo.

Tesla has brought in billions selling a product that doesn't exist, making Elon Musk one of the two richest men in the world. A byproduct of that fraud has been to endanger everyone who owns or shares the road with a car with Autopilot or "Full Self Driving."

Just think of how bad it would be if Musk were in it for the money.

Monday, April 19, 2021

If you've been following the Tesla story, you'll recognize some of these threads

Other car makers that offer hands-free driving options also have safety features that prevent this kind of misuse.

In addition to the tendency to run into stationary objects, there's this.

The Tesla battery fire issue has been a concern for a while now.

Federal safety officials are probing allegations of defective cooling systems installed in early-model Tesla vehicles.

Tesla installed cooling tubes prone to leaks in Model S vehicles beginning in 2012, according to internal emails cited by Business Insider last week. The Times reviewed copies of the emails and other documentation that show the tubes were installed from 2012 until 2016, at which time Tesla cut off a supplier and began manufacturing the tubes in house.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in a statement to The Times, said it is “well aware of the reports regarding this issue and will take action if appropriate based upon the facts and data.” The agency also reminded auto manufacturers that they are required “to notify the agency within five days of when the manufacturer becomes aware of a safety related defect and conduct a recall.” Tesla appears to never have issued such notification.

A few people have pointed out that this tendency to combust might be especially problematic in certain situations.

For more on the Tesla Vegas Tunnel, check out Jalopnik.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Dispatches from Ford vs. Tesla

For those of you who are just tuning in... 

While FSD is generating controversy for Tesla, the AV/EV space is finally starting to get competitive with lots of players entering the field, particularly VW in Europe and Ford in the US. This has become a very sensitive subject among Tesla fans.
Before we begin, one fact jumps right off the delivery report pages when we analyze the Ford Mustang Mach-E’s delivery volume. The Mach-E entered the market selling at about number 4 overall in the US EV market. Not bad for a new entry. Generally, automakers need six to nine months to reach peak production volumes of a given model, so the Mustang Mach-E could very well be the top-selling electric vehicle in America by later this year. Ford reports the Mustang Mach-E is a conquest model, and that 70% of the Mach-E's buyers come from competitive brands.

Now that you're up to speed.

Here's a good write up of the exchange from the Detroit Free Press.

And if you still think Elon Musk wouldn't play the dead relative card out of anger, just check with Business Insider's Linette Lopez or the good people at Wired.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Mathematically impossible profits are often an indicator of questionable business practices

[Emphasis added throughout.]

Jamie Powell at FT Alphaville had interesting reflections on the legacy of Bernie Madoff. In particular, this caught my eye.

Markopolos approached the Securities and Exchange Commission with evidence that Madoff was running a fraud three times between 2001 and 2005. Three times the regulator ignored him. The evidence he presented wasn’t even particularly complicated — one of his findings was that there was simply not enough option volume at the CBOE for Madoff to execute his straddle strategy.

The link leads us to a more detailed account.

After analysing Madoff's vague, broad-brush statements to clients, Markopolos concluded that it was impossible – not only was it mathematically inconceivable to smooth out all the ups and downs in the S&P index's performance, Madoff would need to use more options than existed on the entire Chicago Board Options Exchange, where nobody owned up to seeing any volume from Madoff's firm at all.

This struck a familiar note.

On July 26, the Post started a series of articles that asked hard questions about the operation of Ponzi's money machine. The paper contacted Clarence Barron, the financial journalist who headed Dow Jones & Company, to examine Ponzi's scheme. Barron observed that though Ponzi was offering fantastic returns on investments, Ponzi himself was not investing with his own company.

Barron then noted that to cover the investments made with the Securities Exchange Company, 160 million postal reply coupons would have to be in circulation. However, only about 27,000 actually were in circulation. The United States Post Office stated that postal reply coupons were not being bought in quantity at home or abroad. The gross profit margin in percent on buying and selling each IRC was colossal, but the overhead required to handle the purchase and redemption of these items, which were of extremely low cost and were sold individually, would have exceeded the gross profit. Barron noted that if Ponzi really was doing what he claimed to do, he would effectively be profiting at the expense of a government—either the governments where he bought the coupons or the U.S. government. For this reason, Barron argued that even if Ponzi's operation was legitimate, it was immoral to take advantage of a government in this manner.

 Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned here.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Another example of the non-prophesies of science fiction: The first newscast happened earlier than you thought (unless you're a regular reader)

Picking up from last time.

Science fiction can be a great place to discuss the social and psychological impact of technological advances, but its ability to predict otherwise unforeseen developments is not actually that clear.  Arguably most commonly cited science fiction prophesies are simply slight extrapolations of contemporary technology and widely discussed proposals, the result of a tendency, particularly among 21st century commentators, to underestimate the sophistication of previous generations.
Case in point. Here's an excerpt from an article National Geographic ran on the predictions of Jules Verne:
In an 1889 article, "In the Year 2889," Jules Verne described an alternative to newspapers: "Instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, from interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen and scientists, learn the news of the day." The first newscast didn't happen until 1920, according to the Associated Press—nearly 30 years after Verne imagined it. The first network-television newscast would have to wait another 28 years, according to CBS News. By 1974 millions were able to watch U.S. President Richard Nixon resign on TV.

Putting aside the quibble that Verne's son probably wrote most of "In the Year 2889," this gets the facts wrong and completely misses the larger context. Here's the pertinent paragraph [emphasis added]: 

Every one is familiar with Fritz Napoleon Smith's system—a system made possible by the enormous development of telephony during the last hundred years. Instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, in interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen, and scientists, learn the news of the day. Furthermore, each subscriber owns a phonograph, and to this instrument he leaves the task of gathering the news whenever he happens not to be in a mood to listen directly himself. As for purchasers of single copies, they can at a very trifling cost learn all that is in the paper of the day at any of the innumerable phonographs set up nearly everywhere.

Now some context. This wasn't a bold claim. Edward Bellamy had made a similar prediction the year before. More importantly, to readers in the late 1880s, neither man was saying anything particularly surprising here. Lots of people were discussing these ideas and engineers in the orbits of Bell and Edison were working on adapting the telephone for broadcasting with the first newscast happening not in 1920 but in 1890.

From Wikipedia:

The origin of the théâtrophone can be traced to a telephonic transmission system demonstrated by Clément Ader at the 1881 International Exposition of Electricity in Paris. The system was inaugurated by the French President Jules Grévy, and allowed broadcasting of concerts or plays. Ader had arranged 80 telephone transmitters across the front of a stage to create a form of binaural stereophonic sound. It was the first two-channel audio system, and consisted of a series of telephone transmitters connected from the stage of the Paris Opera to a suite of rooms at the Paris Electrical Exhibition, where the visitors could hear Comédie-Française and opera performances in stereo using two headphones; the Opera was located more than two kilometers away from the venue. In a note dated 11 November 1881, Victor Hugo describes his first experience of théâtrophone as pleasant.


In 1890, the system became operational as a service under the name "théâtrophone" in Paris. The service was offered by Compagnie du Théâtrophone (The Théâtrophone Company), which was founded by MM. Marinovitch and Szarvady. The théâtrophone offered theatre and opera performances to the subscribers. The service can be called a prototype of the telephone newspaper, as it included five-minute news programs at regular intervals. The Théâtrophone Company set up coin-operated telephone receivers in hotels, cafés, clubs, and other locations, costing 50 centimes for five minutes of listening. The subscription tickets were also issued at a reduced rate, in order to attract regular patrons. The service was also available to home subscribers.

French writer Marcel Proust was a keen follower of théâtrophone, as evident by his correspondence. He subscribed to the service in 1911.


Full scale "telephone newspapers" followed shortly.

From Wikipedia:

The Telefon Hírmondó (also Telefonhírmondó, generally translated as "Telephone Herald") was a "telephone newspaper" located in Budapest, Hungary, which, beginning in 1893, provided news and entertainment to subscribers over telephone lines. It was both the first and the longest surviving telephone newspaper system, although from late 1925 until its termination in 1944 it was primarily used to retransmit programmes broadcast by an affiliated radio station.


The Telefon Hírmondó was founded by Tivadar Puskás (a few reviews translated his name as "Theodore Buschgasch"), an engineer and inventor who had worked with Thomas Edison. In view of the ever-increasing pace of living, especially in major cities, Puskás recognized that daily newspapers, even with multiple editions, could no longer effectively keep up with developing events. He decided that this problem could be rectified through the introduction of a regularly updated audio news source.

Given what was going on at the time, these predictions from Bellamy and Verne were  not about the technology (which was already largely in place) but about the adoption of that technology, and on those terms, they were simply dead wrong. There were never that many telephone newspapers and with the exception of Telefon Hírmondó, most were short lived. 

Like we said before, the most celebrated cases of prophetic science fiction usually come down to modern audiences' flawed understanding of contemporary audiences.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

While I'm being a killjoy... retconning sci-fi predictions

Following up on yesterday's post.

Science fiction can be a great place to discuss the social and psychological impact of technological advances, but its ability to predict otherwise unforeseen developments is not actually that clear.  Arguably most commonly cited science fiction prophesies are simply slight extrapolations of contemporary technology and widely discussed proposals, the result of a tendency, particularly among 21st century commentators, to underestimate the sophistication of previous generations. This is nowhere more true than with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas

Before we go on, take a look at this picture.

If you saw this without any context, you might assume it was Verne's famous Nautilus. You'd be close but off by about a decade. By the same token, if a French reader picked up a copy of Verne's book hot off the presses in 1870, he or she would immediately have thought of the Plongeur.

In 1859 the Board of Construction (Conseil des travaux) called naval engineers for designs for a submarine and reviewed three, choosing that submitted by Siméon Bourgeois (later Admiral) and Charles Brun, naming the project Plongeur with the code name Q00.


The submarine was armed with a ram to break holes in the hull of enemy ships, and an electrically fired spar torpedo, fixed at the end of a pole though later, Admiral Bourgeois who was, after 1871, chairman of the Commission on Submarine Defences opposed to the use of torpedoes as the primary weapon in commerce warfare.

The submarine was 43 m (140 ft) long and 381 t (420 tons) in displacement.


On 18 February 1864, Plongeur was towed to La Pallice and dived to 9 m (30 ft).


A model of Plongeur was displayed at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, where it was studied by Jules Verne, who used it as an inspiration and 3 years later published his novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

For its original audience, the premise of the novel was what if a brilliant revolutionary/outlaw were to build a bigger, faster Plongeur. There was little in the book that was particularly speculative; if anything, just the opposite. Unlike Wells a generation later who who built each of his fantastic tales around some incredible breakthrough, Verne stayed close to the technology of the day. The accuracy is a hotly contentious point (with at least one fan making a dubious stand on Wikipedia), but, except for the scale, there's little tech in the book that wasn't either in use or widely speculated about, and that little hasn't aged well. 

With a few exceptions (possibly including Clarke's telecommunication satellites), most supposed cases of science fiction predicting the future involve concepts that were in the air at the time of the writing. This in no way detracts from the intellectual or artistic value of the genre. It's just a reminder that like all art, science fiction works tell us mainly about the times they came  from. What it tells us about today is normally something we bring to it.

Monday, April 12, 2021

How to be a 21st century tech visionary in two easy steps

1. Allude to something from an old science fiction movie or TV show

2. Claim that the technology to make it possible is just around the corner

Martian cities, maglev vactrains, superfast tunneling machines, cures for aging, and of course, flying cars. These just-around-the-corner stories, often credulously reported by journalists who should know better, are framed as serious proposals and announcements of major technological breakthroughs, but when you dig into the claims, there is almost invariably nothing of substance, just images and tropes from old sci-fi magazines and shows and comic books.

Almost all of these ideas are at least pushing fifty with some well over a hundred. The explanations of the advances that will make these wonders possible are never convincing and more often than not, simply expose the visionary's weak grasp of the problem. Musk and his acolytes (of whom Neuralink's Hodak is very much a member) may be the most visible propagators, but this phenomena is a defining trait of Silicon Valley/VC culture and has been for at least a decade. 

With that in mind, you might even argue that Elon and company are performing a public service. Hodak's tweet  or his boss's latest about impossible timelines for landing on Mars really aren't that much sillier the typical article on biohacking, but these tweets are so naked in their lack of seriousness that we should be safe from anyone actually believing them (we aren't but we should be).

Friday, April 9, 2021

The sad part is this makes me ever-so-slightly homesick


Thursday, April 8, 2021

This has to be peak something

We've heard lots of questionable crypto-based business plans, but as far as I know, this is the first one to actually have "alchemy" in its name. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Vaccine passports

This is Joseph.

Mark and I were discussing this tweet and how many assumptions it makes.

First, it looks at a case which is true for basically no actual vaccine, treatment, or protocol. What is 100% safe in life? Financial assets, even those backed by governments, can become worthless.  Just consider 1913 Russian government bonds or shares in Enron. Cars are not 100% safe, which is why we make other cars follow rules. Similarly, what medical treatment is 100% effective? Even very minor medical treatments can have complications. Statins save lives, but rhabdomyolysis does occasionally injure a user of statins. 

I am being pedantic because the assumption of no crossover requires perfect efficacy and safety (so that it can be treated as not having any positive herd effects). Furthermore, it presumes that all parties have access to a vaccine, all parties (even infants) can take the vaccine, and that there is no benefit in dropping the prevalence of the disease to reduce variants emerging. 

So, to be clear: the vaccines are not 100% effective and nobody has claimed otherwise. Pfizer, for example, is 95% effective against mild and moderate disease. Very happy to concede this point. Safety is a bit trickier, as we are still learning about the vaccines, but nobody disputes allergic reactions happen

It is a general principle of public health that requiring vaccinations is a great way to reduce disease spread. For example, it isn't a passport but you need proof of vaccination against measles to attend school. Or to take University classes as a student in health sciences. International travel used to require smallpox vaccinations and even today vaccinations are required for some countries. In other words, cases were a person could be a serious concern as a disease spreader have always been an issue, usually via quarantine in time periods prior to vaccinations

In other words, this stuff is just nuts. Wait until people find out about seatbelts. Until universal vaccinations are a reality then passports are just a good way to reduce disease spread, improve public safety, and rebuild confidence in public gatherings. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Three Sillies

I've been thinking a lot about the way so many of our recent discourse over a range of desperately important issues gets sucked into discussions of improbable possibilities while imminent threats and viable solutions are downplayed or ignored entirely. 

When I finally get around to writing about this, I'll have a literary reference handy.

The opening to "the Three Sillies" from English fairy tales, collected by J. Jacobs

ONCE upon a time there was a farmer and his wife who had one daughter, and she was courted by a gentleman. Every evening he used to come and see her, and stop to supper at the farmhouse, and the daughter used to be sent down into the cellar to draw the beer for supper. So one evening she had gone down to draw the beer, and she happened to look up at the ceiling while she was drawing, and she saw a mallet stuck in one of the beams. It must have been there a long, long time, but somehow or other she had never noticed it before, and she began a-thinking. And she thought it was very dangerous to have that mallet there, for she said to herself: 'Suppose him and me was to be married, and we was to have a son, and he was to grow up to be a man, and come down into the cellar to draw the beer, like as I'm doing now, and the mallet was to fall on his head and kill him, what a dreadful thing it would be!' And she put down the candle and the jug, and sat herself down and began a-crying.

Well, they began to wonder upstairs how it was that she was so long drawing the beer, and her mother went down to see after her, and she found her sitting on the settle crying, and the beer running over the floor. 'Why, whatever is the matter?' said her mother. 'Oh, mother!' says she, 'look at that horrid mallet! Suppose we was to be married, and was to have a son, and he was to grow up, and was to come down to the cellar to draw the beer, and the mallet was to fall on his head and kill him, what a dreadful thing it would be!' 'Dear, dear! what a dreadful thing it would be!' said the mother, and she sat down aside of the daughter and started a-crying too. Then after a bit the father began to wonder that they didn't come back, and he went down into the cellar to look after them himself, and there they two sat a-crying, and the beer running all over the floor. 'Whatever is the matter?' says he. 'Why,' says the mother, 'look at that horrid mallet. Just suppose, if our daughter and her sweetheart was to be married, and was to have a son, and he was to grow up, and was to come down into the cellar to draw the beer, and the mallet was to fall on his head and kill him, what a dreadful thing it would be!' 'Dear, dear, dear! so it would!' said the father, and he sat himself down aside of the other two, and started a-crying.

Now the gentleman got tired of stopping up in the kitchen by himself, and at last he went down into the cellar, too, to see what they were after; and there they three sat a-crying side by side, and the beer running all over the floor. And he ran straight and turned the tap. Then he said: 'Whatever are you three doing, sitting there crying, and letting the beer run all over the floor?' 'Oh!' says the father, 'look at that horrid mallet! Suppose you and our daughter was to be married, and was to have a son, and he was to grow up, and was to come down into the cellar to draw the beer, and the mallet was to fall on his head and kill him!' And then they all started a-crying worse than before. But the gentleman burst out a-laughing, and reached up and pulled out the mallet, and then he said: 'I've travelled many miles, and I never met three such big sillies as you three before; and now I shall start out on my travels again, and when I can find three bigger sillies than you three, then I'll come back and marry your daughter.' So he wished them good-bye, and started off on his travels, and left them all crying because the girl had lost her sweetheart. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

At least it's less than the Netherlands

Jamie Powell writing for FT Alphaville explains why Tesla's recent bitcoin investment is raising questions about the company's environmental priorities. 

Tesla: carbon offsetting, but in reverse

We’re not the first to point this out by any means, but bitcoin is dreadful for the environment. Still don’t believe it? Well Bank of America published an excellent report last week (which can be found on David Gerard’s blog), on the dominant digital coin. And, in particular, its carbon impact. 

 Here are a few choice stats. 

 Bitcoin -- or to be more precise, bitcoin mining -- currently consumes more energy than Greece, and a touch less than the Netherlands. In theory, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue if mining was powered by renewable energy, but 72 per cent of mining is concentrated in China, where nearly two-thirds of all electricity is generated by coal power. 

 For the moment then, bitcoin has carbon emissions that sit comfortably between American Airlines’s output, the world’s largest airline which currently carries 200m passengers per year, and the entire US Federal government. 

 Perhaps the most relevant stat of all, however, is this one:

A spiked pedrail would be really cool

 Should have mentioned H.G. Wells was a fan.


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

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

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

From Wikipedia:

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

Scientific American 1903-04-18


Friday, April 2, 2021

"Hydrodynamics is what a five-year old would do, if a five-year old had a PhD."

 Brendan Greeley writing for FT Alphaville (which you should definitely sign up for) explains the physics behind the recent traffic jam at the Suez Canal. 

Sailors talk about hydrodynamics the way CEOs talk about macroeconomics: they either treat it with mystical reverence, or they claim to understand it and are wrong. Unlike with macroeconomics, though, if you know what you’re doing you can test the propositions of hydrodynamics on actual, physical models in a lab. As in: you build little boats and then you drag them through the water, in a towing tank. Hydrodynamics is what a five-year old would do, if a five-year old had a PhD.

Lataire works with Flanders Hydraulics Research at what he calls the world’s most accurately constructed shallow-bottom tow tank. He’s currently helping build an even bigger tank, to generate more data for a ship simulator to certify pilots. The tanks are shallow-bottomed, because hydrodynamics in shallow water are different. When a boat moves through the water, it pushes the water out of the way — it displaces it. “Where the water needs to be displaced, in a deep ocean it can go under the ship and that’s not a problem,” says Lataire. “But if it needs to go into shallow water, like the Suez, the water simply cannot go under and around.” 

The Suez Canal is basically just a 24m-deep ditch dug in the ground to let the ocean in. When a ship comes by and displaces the water, the water has nowhere to go; it gets squeezed in between the ship’s hull and the floor and the sides of the ditch. A ship in a canal can squat, for example — it can dig its stern into the water. When water gets squeezed between a ship’s hull and a sand floor, it speeds up. As water flow speeds up, its pressure drops, pulling the hull down to fill the vacuum. The effect is more pronounced at the stern, and so the ship settles into a squat: bow up, stern down. 

Lataire wrote his dissertation on a similar phenomenon as a ship passes close to a bank: the bank effect. The water speeds up, the pressure drops, the stern pulls into the bank and, particularly in shallow water, the bow gets pushed away. Stern one way, bow the other. A boat that had been steaming is suddenly spinning. It’s a well-identified phenomenon; in 2009 Ghent University’s Shallow Water Knowledge Centre put together a whole conference about it. Clever pilots on the Elbe, according to Lataire, will use it to shoot around a bend. 

However: the more water a ship displaces, the stronger the effect. And the closer the side of the hull is to the shore, the stronger the effect. The bigger the ship, the faster the bow shoots away from the bank.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The almost perfect 2021 business story: funded by the likes of Andreessen Horowitz, feted by goop, it was a massive fraud built around a literal shit company

If only they could have gotten Musk and Thiel involved.


SF poop-testing startup, once compared to Theranos, charged in $60M fraud scheme

Zachary Schulz Apte and Jessica Sunshine Richman, co-founders of defunct microbiome testing company uBiome, are accused of bilking their investors and health insurance providers, federal prosecutors said. They were indicted Thursday on multiple federal charges, including conspiracy to commit securities fraud, conspiracy to commit health care fraud and money laundering.


Apte, 36, and Richman, 46, founded uBiome in 2012 as a direct-to-consumer service called “Gut Explorer.” Customers would submit a fecal sample that the company analyzed in a laboratory, comparing the consumer's microbiome to others' microbiomes, prosecutors said. The service cost less than $100 initially.

The company grew to include “clinical” tests of gut and vaginal microbiomes, which were aimed to be used by medical providers so uBiome could seek up to $3,000 in reimbursements from health insurance companies. The federal indictment states that uBiome sought upwards of $300 million in reimbursement claims from private and public health insurers between 2015 and 2019. The company was ultimately paid more than $35 million for tests that “were not validated and not medically necessary."

Apte and Richman met in San Francisco in 2012 through the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences Garage, an incubator used by UCSF. Together, they founded uBiome and received funding from Silicon Valley investors like 8VC in San Francisco and  Andreessen Horowitz in Menlo Park, which hold 22% and 10% stakes in uBiome, respectively, according to court documents.

For a time, they were the latest up-and-coming business determined to disrupt the medical testing industry. In 2018, Richman was even named an "innovator" winner in Goop's "The Greater goop Awards" and at its peak, uBiome was valued at $600 million.