Friday, October 29, 2021

The benefits of procrastination

Andrew Gelman left this comment a few weeks ago:

I think there's something else going on here that lots of people _want_ these people to be non-frauds, in part for ideological reasons. I think about that when reflecting on all the support for Gladwell among various media elites. It's no surprise that the New Yorker supports Gladwell---he's one of their stars!---but it's not just the New Yorker. Or all the fans of Elon Musk. People like Musk in part because he symbolizes something good: the Heinlein-like entrepreneur who's actually building something, etc.

Anyway, I'm not sure but I feel like there's something going on here. The issue isn't just the frauds and bullshitters out there, it's also the respected elites who endorse them.


I was going to respond to the comment at the time, but I got distracted which was perhaps for the best, since I couldn't have come up with an example as good as this.

 First, we need to address something important but not directly related to the point of this post. While Musk didn't actually "attempt to take the company private" (see below), even if he had taken Tesla private, there is no reason to believe that it would now be worth a trillion dollars. That market cap is based on a P/E of around 350, compared to, for example, a P/E of around 20 for Ford, despite the fact that the F-150 Lightning will very probably beat the Cybertruck (so much for first mover advantage). You could tell the same story about pretty much all the major car makers, comparable tech (supported by much larger R&D budgets) and far greater revenue trading for a fraction of the price. 

Simply based on profits and assets, taking Tesla private at $420 wouldn't have been "the deal of the century." It might not have been a deal at all.

But all of this is moot since we know (and have known from nearly the beginning) that "funding secured" was nothing more than a transparent lie to facilitate a crude market manipulation. 

At the risk of hammering the obvious, the NYT's Aaron Ross Sorkin speaks for the establishment press and he is capable of, not just overlooking massive fraud but to actually doubling down on the lie behind it (something that Musk was "contractually forbidden" to do on his own). What's worse, this is more or less what we have come to expect.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Lessons from the Russian Steppe

This is Joseph

This paper explores the huge increase in mortality seen in Russa in the 1990's, when the old system was replaced by a new one. The most interesting piece was:
Age standardised mortality from all causes increased between 1998 and 2001 by 189/100 000 among men and 49/100 000 among women . .  Similar to the increase in mortality in 1991-4 and the decrease up to 1998, over 80% of the 1998-2001 increase was due to changes in those aged 35-69 years (middle age).

It is worth noting that the largest changes occurred among those residents who were old enough to be invested in the system and would need to start over when their whole economy change. While it is quite clear that alcohol was heavily involved, the key question is why was alcohol abuse suddenly so rampant in that age bracket.

Now look at the United States. In the 2000's we opened up trade with China, which the attached article notes was associated with a 17% permanent decline in US manufacturing jobs. Now we are discussing a declining life expectancy due to an opioid epidemic. This was a lesser economic shock then the fall of the Soviet Union, and so the expected consequences are less. But the winners of this bargain were not the blue collar workers in the US, even if gains over the US as a whole may have been realized. 

But, even just as a hypothesis, this would completely change my view of disruptive innovation that involves changing the rules in a way that disfavors the current market. For example, Uber destroyed the value of many Taxi medallions, but the reasons for its success are due to regulatory games. Consider this analysis:

 1) its ability to classify itself has a “technology company” instead of a transportation company, exempting Uber from expensive taxi laws and regulations, 2) the ability to classify their drivers as independent contractors instead of employees, which allows Uber to evade the costly protections and benefits guaranteed to workers in a standard employer-employee relationship, and 3) a depressed labor market in which workers  are willing to assume the burden of risks and costs associated with driving for the company.

Clearly, #3 applies to every large company. But #1 and #2 involve changing the regulatory framework in a way that benefits the oligarchs who run Uber at the cost of the previous Taxi workers. The deaths of despair narrative makes me wonder how much of the recent decline we are seeing is due to  these changes in the rules around which ordinary people have planned their lives. 

Finally, the last part of this whole puzzling mess that has become doctrine is that rich people are better at spending money and thus are job creators. This is logic we use in no other part of the economy. Do we really think the elite central planner is better than the free market? Why is it different if the central planner just happens to control a lot of resources? 

But I think the main point here is that economic disruption without some form of compensation on the losers of the new rules may have serious impacts including on health. The main benefit of the current system is the oligarchs who benefit from a windfall. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

While we were out...

The Tesla thread has been heating up a bit.

Tesla, a company that makes electric cars but not an electric truck or electric semi, hit a market capitalization of over $1 trillion earlier today as its stock soared on a spate of good and bad news for the company. One trillion dollars! That is almost in the same league as some other companies you may have heard of, like Google.

Well, not quite yet, as, as of this writing, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has a market cap of a little over $1.8 trillion, while Tesla’s is just over $1 trillion. Tesla, in any case, is in the trillionaire’s club.

Making Musk the world's first quarter-trillionaire.

Elon Musk may soon become the first person with a net worth of $300 billion.

The Tesla CEO and world’s richest man added more than $36 billion to his fortune on Monday after the automaker’s shares spiked 12.7% following the announcement that Hertz is ordering 100,000 vehicles to build out its electric vehicle rental fleet by the end of 2022.

About that deal...

Thank goodness that the sober, critical journalists at the NYT aren't getting swept up in the hype.
[note: LAT > NYT}

For final thoughts, check out this thread. It's short but the points in makes are absolutely essential. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Institutional accountability

This is Joseph

EDIT: the context of this case is that Sarah Everard was murdered by a police officer, Wayne Couzens, who arrested her for an extremely minor charge. People in the UK were concerned about how they could trust arrests by police and the police communication was poor. 

I really liked this post by David Allen Green. He pointed out the absurdity of a post by the Metropolitan Police about the murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens:
Try to seek some independent verification of what they say, if they have a radio ask to hear the voice of the operator, even ask to speak through the radio to the operator to say who you are and for them to verify you are with a genuine officer, acting legitimately.

All officers will, of course, know about this case and will be expecting in an interaction like that - rare as it may be - that members of the public may be understandably concerned and more distrusting than they previously would have been, and should and will expect to be asked more questions.

If you feel you are in real and imminent danger and you do not believe the officer is who they say they are seek assistance by shouting out to a passer-by or if you are in the position to do so call 999.

 The gaslighting is intense. Why? Because Wayne Couzens was an actual police officer at the time of the murder. Even worse, the advice actually changed without any edit note from the even more absurd:

If after all of that you feel in real and imminent danger and you do not believe the officer is who they say they are, for whatever reason, then I would say you must seek assistance – shouting out to a passer-by, running into a house, knocking on a door, waving a bus down or if you are in the position to do so calling 999.

Why did it change? Because it was a real police officer and some of the advice the police were giving was the sort of thing that could lead to a resisting arrest charge. They were so without ideas that they had to pretend that the person in question was a "fake officer". The best that this advice could do is get one criminally charged for resisting arrest after being hit by a Taser and not actually kidnapped by the rogue officer (who will be commended for dealing with a disruptive individual and be free to strike again). Remember, the officer was real and had actual arrest powers. The issue was that the arrest was under false pretenses, and how do you challenge that in real time without getting an actual charge for misbehavior? 

The release is so tone deaf that it actually brags about deploying more officers, instead of explaining how they will make the current force more accountable, When the officers are the predators that is hardly any sort of fix. Sarah was arrested under the pretense of breaching English Covid-19 regulations before she was horrifically assaulted. We have no mechanism for disputing the motives of a police officer at the time. The real problem was an officer using police powers in a rogue fashion and fixing that required examining the powers of arbitrary arrest and detention that we give police officers.  

Why is institutional accountability so hard? 

Monday, October 25, 2021

More on the Missy Cummings story

As Lora Kolodny points out, this sort of the thing has been happening to Tesla critics for years, particularly when the critics were women.  Just ask Business Insider's Linette Lopez.
The big difference this time is people seem to be paying attention.

From David Zipper's Slate article.

Many technologists and automotive experts are cheering a Cummings appointment to NHTSA. But an extremely online community of Tesla fans is furious. A couple of hours after the news broke, Omar Qazi, a Tesla booster with a large online following, tweeted, “If they try and take Autopilot away from us we will riot so hard January 6 will look like a day at Disneyland,” concluding with a laughing emoji. Qazi later deleted the tweet, issuing an apology and claiming it was a joke.

That may be true, but much of the online Tesla community seemed to be having a meltdown (including more than a few people who employed disturbing and misogynistic language). Within hours, a petition on called on the Biden administration to reconsider Cummings’ appointment, collecting more than 18,000 signatures in two days. Elon Musk himself tweeted, “Objectively, her track record is extremely biased against Tesla,” and then jokingly responded to a fake account created in Cummings’ name. On Thursday evening, after enduring two days of online harassment, Cummings seemingly deleted her Twitter account.

The hyperventilating reaction shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the cultlike loyalty that Tesla has inculcated with its fans, especially those active on social media (who, to be fair, do not reflect all Tesla supporters). In reality, any senior adviser’s ability to set policy is constrained by the rigidities of the Department of Transportation’s org chart as well as the byzantine federal regulatory process. No one should expect a recall of Autopilot anytime soon, even if such steps appear warranted on safety grounds, as I’ve argued previously. (In a nutshell: Autopilot should have stronger driver-monitoring systems, be given a less misleading name, and only be accessible in safe highway environments.)

But could the Biden administration ultimately force Tesla to pull Autopilot or place constraints on its use? That seems increasingly plausible. Five-year-old guidance from NHTSA articulates the agency’s authority to intervene if autonomous driving systems show evidence of “predictable abuse,” a reasonable charge to levy at Tesla given the array of YouTube videos of drivers asleep or playing games in the driver’s seat, despite warnings in Tesla’s manual. Over the summer NHTSA launched an investigation into a pattern of Teslas striking stationary emergency vehicles, and the agency has challenged the automaker to explain why it didn’t issue a recall for a recent software update. Meanwhile, a growing number of fatalities has been tied to Autopilot, including one in California in which a Tesla Model 3 traveling at 60 mph crashed into a pickup truck and killed one of its occupants (the victim’s family has sued the company). Tesla’s defenders often point to the nearly 40,000 annual traffic fatalities in the United States, suggesting that Autopilot is safer than human drivers, but evidence for that claim is lacking.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Moving on from historical grievances

This is Joseph.

In my youth I lived in the SE of the United States. It was not uncommon, at least back then, for people to bring up ways that the confederate states had been treated poorly during the civil war. For example, I lost count of the number of times people had comments about General Sherman's march to the sea and the costs to civilians in that military operation. This led me to ponder how long is the expiration date on historical grievances. 

Here are some examples to consider:
  1. How much should Britons hold against the English for the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England?
  2. Should we still hold the modern Russians to account for the Ukraine famine
  3. When can the citizens of Ireland decide that it is ok to forgive the era of British rule
  4. Is Schleswig-Holstein something Denmark should still be bitter about? 
  5. Are the war crimes of Julius Caesar in Gaul an issue for modern Italians? 
I deliberately picked examples of white European warfare, to make the question clearer. Does it depend on whether the state still exists? There is a pretty good argument that the English monarchy is still around whereas the USSR is not, but one thinks that the Holodomor has a greater influence on modern ideals of injustice than the Anglo-Saxon invasion. 

Now, I want to be very precise. This is the expiry date on historical injustice, not the continuing legacy of these injustices. So, for example, African-Americans who were held in slavery prior to and during the Civil War have distinct claims about civil rights violations that occur up to the present day. 

Part of the problem is trying to decide between groups and individuals. For example, if the goal of an affirmative action campaign is to redress injustice by balancing a University Faculty that can go quite wrong. People hired under this policy are not the persons who suffered the injustice and people who lose opportunities are not the ones who benefited from past discrimination. Now this is not a reactionary argument under false colors, affirmative action is a powerful tool for introducing diversity, which is a positive good in public institutions and, in my opinion, is the correct justification for implementing it. [I happen to be a big supporter]

The reason I ask is that if we don't have an expiry date on injustice then we end up in a world of perpetual grudges. Again, this doesn't mean that compensation for ongoing effects of these historic episodes is not appropriate (it is) but that the discussion should be focused on the ongoing consequences. In this sense, we can probably accept that there is little lingering effect (at least that could be identified and compensated) from Julius Caesar's war crimes in France, no matter how ghastly they were. And, before I get straw manned, this is about the descendants of people who were involved with crimes and not the people themselves. Nazi concentration camp guards are war criminals and should be treated as such. If you find somebody who was involved in the siege of Alesia on the Roman side then I would be quite interested in having the Hague get involved with determining an appropriate consequence. But it has been 76 years since the end of World War 2 and only about 9.5 million Germans were even born before this date (out of 84 million) and some of these must be immigrants -- to what extent is the typical German teenager culpable? Now, again, ongoing actions count separately so a teenage holocaust denier is causing ongoing harm and should be considered appropriately. But to what extent should the sins of ones ancestors be considered? 

So this is my question to the general audience. How far removed should a historical event be before there is a statue of limitations? Or are we doomed to hold grudges against people for what happened with their distant ancestors? 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Thursday Tweets

As long as he doesn't try to write about California, he's always welcome.

I dug through the original tweets to see if this was meant ironically but apparently no. It seems that movie star's son turned Twitter celebrity really does feel that lack of two-day delivery to Sun Valley represents societal failure. 

Another reminder that people who complain about being canceled really mean they're being criticized, having their points questioned, or just not being adequately praised.

I realize that the observation itself is fairly obvious, but something about the conciseness of this list brought home just how much this describes the guiding principles of conservative media.

Even more than the LA Times Russ Mitchell, E. W. Niedermeyer is the essential journalist on the Tesla beat.

This one is especially important.

Autonomy tweets.

"How hated is Ted Cruz?" has become one of the great standbys of American political humor.

What's going on with the far right and the Catholic Church could well be the most interesting story in politics.

1981 is not that long ago.

A lot of people call this wage growth, but that's not important right now.

Following the links in the first paragraph, the "critics" seem to be Trump and Fox News. Though they did single out conservative media, the authors probably should have mentioned that the NBC article cited ("'Not by accident': False 'thug' narratives have long been used to discredit civil rights movements") makes almost exactly the same point as the MC article, giving much of the WP piece a bit of a dog-bites-man vibe. The important story here (briefly mentioned) is how mainstream media sensationalism and conservative media disinformation. If you're interested, here are my real time notes.

One doesn't know where to start...
But this is a good place to stop.

Who would have thought the guy who came out against women's suffrage would turn out to be bad for democracy?

There are surprisingly few tweets on survey design.

But quite a few on gerrymandering...

And polarization.

It's the expression that sells it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

I'm sure that Tesla fans will welcome having a leading AI researcher working with NHTSA...





Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The trouble with posting your review five years before the book comes out is that you tend to get left out of the conversation.

I know some of you are going to quibble about this not actually being a review of Bobby Duffy's The Generation Myth, arguing that this is just an old post pontificating on some topics vaguely related to the subject of the book, but isn't that pretty much the standard for reviews of these big think pieces?  


Among living Americans, there are only two "generations"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 18, 2021

Either this is interesting or I'm doing something wrong

This seems to be a good time to remind everyone following this thread that I have no expertise whatsoever here. I work with numbers for a living and I've lived in California for a while and I've made a real effort to explore the state, but other than that, my knowledge of this topic is limited to what I could glean from following the news and doing a few searches on Google, Wikipedia and

My lack of expertise makes me especially nervous when I come across something that is, for lack of a better word, interesting.

For instance, if I am looking at the right numbers, the vacancy rate for SF is and has long been much higher than San Jose or Oakland (or, while we're on the subject, LA or Fresno), despite having the highest housing prices. 

Other places I've checked follow the expected and presumably causal pattern of shortage, low vacancy, high prices (for example, I get 4.5% for Fresno). Only SF seems to break the pattern. 

Are these number the best way of tracking vacancy? Am I getting the math right? Take a look at the Census data for cities you're familiar with. Are they behaving the way you'd expect?

Friday, October 15, 2021

Weekend video miscellanea -- housing and transportation edition

One of the challenges of LA housing and infrastructure has always been that much of it has to be done on a forty-five degree slope. Back in the streetcar era, housing developments relied on networks of stairs (making life very demanding for some postal workers even to this day). The most famous of these was immortalized by Laurel and Hardy in The Music Box (1932)

And since the Central Valley has been caught up in the housing bubble, this is a good time to throw in a reference to the camp classic named after the place, The Big Valley which was basically Bonanza if Douglas Sirk had been the show runner.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

What we were talking about in 2015 was the possibility of basically this...

 By December, the Republicans were finally facing the reality of an impending Trump nomination. They realized they had lost control of a movement they had created through decades of cultivating outrage and anxiety through propaganda and disinformation. There was talk of desperate measures to stop him but they never got anywhere in large part because Trump had the power to devastate the GOP through either running as an independent or simply telling the party's base to stay home. 

Almost five years later, the situation is remarkably similar, but cranked up to the next level. Trump has essentially cinched the nomination three years before the election and is now explicitly calling for a vote boycott if the Republican establishment doesn't go to extreme lengths to defend him. 


Distracted by the large flock of black swans

[I'm rushing this out and scheduling an early posting because, as previously suggested, Jonathan Chait is writing a very sharp series of post along these lines and I'm afraid he's is going to beat me to the punch.]

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.

What kind of magnitude would we be talking about? It's still too early to say and even if it weren't, I wouldn't feel qualified to speculate, but it would be an interesting conversation to follow among political scientists.

At the very least, the possibility of something big happening down-ballot, though perhaps still not likely, is more likely than it was in the days before Trump.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021


This is Joseph.

One piece of the housing cost piece that is complicated is that a lot of the YIMBYs are also urbanists. For example, look at strong towns. This is the view that density allows us to create more efficient infrastructure and get rid of automobile dependence. 

At some level this is a very logical proposition. Putting in place common infrastructure for a city, like sewer pipes, is always going to benefit from high density. It is also true that places that are walkable are attractive and interesting, which gives this idea a lot of appeal. 

Now it is true that the incredible benefits of car traffic does have a lot of infrastructure costs. Things like fast transportation and convenient parking are expensive commodities to resource. Just look at the budget for Winnipeg, a mid-sized Canadian city. Road costs are nearly three times the cost of public transportation and, even post-pandemic, the roads are not lightly congested. 

However, there is another option that could be explored to reduce housing costs: sprawl. This is an attractive option in places like Southern Ontario (see this discussion on Twitter). But if you want to resist sprawl and projections indicate that you will need one million new homes in the next ten years then the options are "build up" or "build out".

Now, my sympathies tend to be with the urbanists. But I also lived without a car as a responsible working adult. That said, if you want to do this transformation, there is a LOT of planning that needs to be reconsidered. In Canada there are a lot of services directed by the government: it is hard to pick where you have daycare or a medical appointment. Try having twice weekly medical appointments with > 1 hour bus rides each way (and buses are unreliable and appointments are unforgiving of being late). This could be fixed but it isn't a matter of just tinkering with density but rethinking cities from the ground up. 

This doesn't mean that it is infeasible (Europe has great examples) but that this is two intellectual ideas (density and housing costs) quietly linked. It is like when people are anti-carbon but also anti-nuclear -- it could be a sensible position but the second half of the idea needs to be defended on its own merits. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Tuesday Tweets

Monday, October 11, 2021

Eleven years ago at the blog -- on a completely unrelated note, I've been thinking about how the hyperloop will revolutionize commuting

Or maybe flying cars, but definitely one of the two.


The cusp of coolness

One of the most popular genres of science writing since at least the age of Edison has been the "cusp of coolness" story, where the writer breathlessly tells us how some futuristic development is about to revolutionize our lives.

Here's the latest entry:
Although it may sound more sci-fi than sci-fact, a commercially developed jetpack is actually being eyed for mass production, with plans to eventually release it to the public. Let that sink in for a second. Jetpacks are real, and you might be able to buy one someday soon. Or at least see them among the skies.
I don't think we'll need the full second since jet packs have been around for between fifty and seventy years and you've been able to buy them for much of that time. The Germans had a prototype in WWII (Not surprisingly, Wikipedia has an excellent write-up on the subject). By the mid-Sixties they were flying over the World's Fair and showing up in Bond movies (yes, that was an actual Bell Rocket Belt).

But despite consuming countless man-hours and numerous fortunes (and prompting at least one kidnapping*) over what is now more than half a century, progress has been glacial. Jet packs are and will probably remain one of the worst under-performing technologies of the post-war era.

"Cusp of coolness" stories are annoying but they can also be dangerous. They give a distorted impression of how technological development works. Columnists and op-ed writers like John Tierney (whose grasp of science is not strong) come away with the idea that R&D is like a big vending machine -- deposit your money and promptly get what you asked for.

It's OK when this naive attitude convinces them to clear out space in their garages for jet packs. It's dangerous when it leads them to write editorials claiming that the easiest way to handle global warming is by building giant artificial volcanoes.

*from Wikipedia:
In 1992, one-time insurance salesman and entrepreneur Brad Barker formed a company to build a rockeltbelt with two partners: Joe Wright, a businessman based in Houston, and Larry Stanley, an engineer who owned an oil well in Texas. By 1994, they had a working prototype they called the Rocketbelt-2000, or RB-2000. They even asked [Bill] Suitor to fly it for them. But the partnership soon broke down. First Stanley accused Barker of defrauding the company. Then Barker attacked Stanley and went into hiding, taking the RB-2000 with him. Police investigators questioned Barker but released him after three days. The following year Stanley took Barker to court to recover lost earnings. The judge awarded Stanley sole ownership of the RB-2000 and over $10m in costs and damages. When Barker refused to pay up, Stanley kidnapped him, tied him up and held him captive in a box disguised as a SCUBA-tank container. After eight days Barker managed to escape. Police arrested Stanley and in 2002 he was sentenced to life in prison, since reduced to eight years. The rocketbelt has never been found.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Housing costs

This is Joseph. 

It is without doubt that something is wrong with the housing market. The fundamentals do not change so rapidly over a short period. I think there are two dominant narratives.

One, is that something is wrong with supply. The sources of housing supply are complicated with issues ranging from zoning to cost of building materials. This source of housing shortage is ever popular to discuss, as everyone knows some municipal building or zoning rule that they consider daft. But supply can't be the only driver -- San Francisco has a 9.6% gross vacancy rate and 8,000 homeless persons (>5,000 unsheltered).

Two, is that there is demand caused by low interest rates/asset inflation. Like all forms of investment, it is vulnerable to bubbles, irrational exuberance, and the general problem of searching for yield that tend to become severe in times of high income inequality. Issues of affordability of land certainly go back to the Roman Republic and were a big factor in the rise of Caesar

But the truth is all sorts of places (like London, Ontario or Fresno) are showing rapid cost increases in housing, both rent and purchase prices. These sustained increases seem to be require a fairly strong driver that explains why now and not before. These housing prices have led to an increases in unsheltered persons and a resulting crackdown on things like camps

Sometimes the answer is the less complicated one. Real estate, via mechanisms like REITs mean that we are mixing a human necessity (shelter) with an investment class. The recent crisis accelerated income inequality, even overseas, which means that one obvious problem is that you have aligned incentives to make investors want yield. Some of this comes from the exceptionally low interest rates from the central banks but I wonder to what extent you have influential people making nudges in a thousand little ways to preserve asset values.

The bad news for this explanation is that there is no happy ending. An increase in interest rates would be a huge blow to leverage home owners whereas a drop in rates is a huge recession event (right after the stagnation in productivity caused by pandemic inefficiency). 

Rome shattered and become an empire. France beheaded the rich. At best you have the consequences of a huge asset bubble popping, in an asset class that nearly everyone is highly exposed to.

We need somebody to prove me wrong. 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Does building where the prices are highest always reduce average commute times?

It's late and I don't have time to do this justice, but I do want to take a minute and get it in the housing thread, because it concerns a claim that shows up a lot, implicitly and explicitly. 

Before the housing crisis reached a boil, the main argument offered by the NYT/Vox YIMBYs was based on the carbon footprint of people driving long distances to their jobs. We might push back on their estimates of the impact of the commuting (particularly in an age of remote work) compared to other green policy changes, but there's no question that having fewer cars on the road driving less would be an environmental win. Nor is there any question that far too many people are forced to make horrifying commutes because they can't find affordable housing closer to major employment centers. 

But can we go further and treat housing choice as a simple, straightforward trade-off between commuting distance and affordability? Probably not. There's quite a bit of research around this question that I hopefully will have time to get into later, but for now I've got some interesting counter-examples that are especially relevant to our ongoing discussion. 

From the American Community Survey, here are commute times for those who do not work from home. [quick caveat, I'm not familiar with ACS data so it's possible I'm missing something]:

Keep in mind that SF isn't very big and SM is tiny (with a reverse commute). Driving over twenty minutes from anywhere in the latter and more than thirty minutes from anywhere in the former will take you to or through neighborhoods with lower housing costs. If we're looking at a trade-offs between distance and price, this should almost never happen, certainly not the majority of the time.

This isn't hard to understand. SF and SM are tremendously desirable places to live (not my cup of tea, but even I see the appeal). It's not surprising that people are willing to pay more and tolerate slightly longer commutes to live there, but if you accept that this is what's happening, some interesting consequences follow.

Of the people in the Bay Area and LA who would like to live in SF and SM respectively, the vast majority do not work in those cities. If you increase housing capacity in these popular places and hold the desirability constant, we would expect to see acceptable commute times going up. That suggests that some people who had previously considered a forty-five or sixty minute commute a bit too much will change their minds.

And environmentally speaking, that's a really bad outcome. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Sure the money was small time by today's standards, but did Theranos have lions and tigers and iceless ice?

Surprised no one's made a movie of this fellow.

Keith Johnston writing for the LA Times. 

Success came quickly for Bourgeois, who had a talent for donning new hats when opportunities arose. He had begun his career in Europe as a cinematographer for Pathรฉ Frรจres, jumped in front of the camera when a production needed an actor willing to do a dangerous stunt and learned to train animals with the help of the nature documentarian who directed his first films. Bourgeois’ first picture for Universal was a riotous two-reel comedy, “Joe Martin Turns ’Em Loose.” A series of collaborations with Marstini followed, with Bourgeois credited as actor, writer or director and his wife as the star.


Yet no private correspondence survives that explains why Bourgeois turned away from filmmaking. Geoffrey Donaldson, a seminal Dutch film scholar, once asked Bourgeois’ second wife about it, but she was unable (or unwilling) to disclose more, other than to say he had “lost interest” in film, preferring to work in the steel business — go figure. All that’s known is that by spring 1916, a restless man with a gift for reinvention found himself working as one of many filmmakers at a large Hollywood studio, with a reputation for animal abuse, a history of injuries and, perhaps, a broken marriage.


On March 2, 1916, the fashionable Cafรฉ Bristol, on the ground floor of the Hellman Building at 4th and Spring streets downtown, debuted a new attraction for Los Angeles: a skating rink. Skating was already enormously popular, and cafe rinks were a fad in New York and Chicago. But they were expensive. The Bristol’s 24-by-50-foot surface required a $10,000 ammonia refrigeration system.

Bourgeois, finger to the wind, sensed an opportunity. Among his many skill sets was some knowledge of chemistry. Though his education record is unclear, a 1907 document from a train crossing the U.S.-Canadian border indicated he worked as an electrician in Manitoba. He told acquaintances that he’d received a deferment from service in the Belgian army during World War I because the U.S. Navy was interested in an alloy of his invention, although no record of this exists. In April 1916, he claimed to have invented “iceless ice.”

“Mr. Bourgeois claims that this composition cannot break, unless deliberately chopped up, it cannot wear out and it cannot melt, unless put on a fire,” The Times reported. “The composition is laid down in liquid form and ‘freezes’ over, or hardens, in twenty-four hours.”

Bourgeois secured investment to convert a roller rink and car dealership at 1041 S. Broadway into the Palace Ice Rink. The grand opening was to be attended in July 1916 by the mayor and feature L.A.’s first game of ice hockey. The entrance was constructed to resemble a huge iceberg. Inside were shops that would sell candy, ice cream, cigars and soft drinks.

Vendors paid Bourgeois hefty deposits to secure places in the venture. Cashiers could get a job if they paid $100. Dozens of skating instructors lined up to offer lessons to wobbly Angelenos. Bourgeois needed $17 from each of them to purchase a uniform.

Contractors, still busy through the summer, were paid almost entirely with checks that bounced. The builders sought out Bourgeois to find out how his ice was supposed to work, but he couldn’t be reached. A vendor named Jacques Levi reported him to the authorities, and a warrant was issued for Bourgeois’ arrest on Aug. 4, by which time he, his stenographer and his investors’ money were on their way to Yuma.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Housing Metaphors

Crabs Trade Shells in the Strangest Way | BBC Earth

Monday, October 4, 2021

Monday Tweets

Marshall is, as usual, right. The coverage of of this story has been extraordinarily bad.

OAN keeps talking ABOUT the recall. "Officials are finishing up the ballot count," different anchors reading the same script said at both 5 and 7am ET. But they're not admitting what AP, CNN, and everyone else reported last night: The recall failed. Newsom prevailed. (4/7)

— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) September 15, 2021