Monday, February 28, 2022

Sartre on Trolls

Josh Marshall shares this extraordinarily sharp passage from John-Paul Sartre's Anti-Semite and Jew, which seems to capture the essence of trolling. Trolls understand the asymmetry of reasonableness. They understand that when your opponents feel constrained by the need to engage seriously and responsibly, the willingness to be ridiculous and offensive can provide a great advantage.  

“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.” 

No, Mr. Baquet, that wasn't what happened. We were there. We took notes.

Following up from last week's post

Dean Baquet speaking to the New Yorker

If I had to do that over again, oh, my God, I would do that very, very, very differently. I mean, we treated Trump seriously. We treated him as an investigative story. But I would have covered the country a lot differently in the months leading up to the election of Donald Trump.

The revisionism here is truly stunning. The NYT was widely criticized at the time for downplaying or ignoring entirely numerous Trump scandals (particularly compared to the Washington Post) while spending the majority of their time and energy on Clinton scandals, almost none of which really panned out. 

Charles Pierce described this as a war between the NYT and the Post. Baquet would now like you believe they were on the same side all along but we know better.

Because, like I said, we took notes. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Why do you hate us for caring too much?" – – Dispatches from a besieged institution

Public Editor
From Wikipedia

The job of the public editor is to supervise the implementation of proper journalism ethics at a newspaper, and to identify and examine critical errors or omissions, and to act as a liaison to the public. They do this primarily through a regular feature on a newspaper's editorial page. Because public editors are generally employees of the very newspaper they're criticizing, it may appear as though there is a possibility for bias. However, a newspaper with a high standard of ethics would not fire a public editor for a criticism of the paper; the act would contradict the purpose of the position and would itself be a very likely cause for public concern.

I don't want to impose a template, but generally one expects public editors to serve as the internal representative of external critical voices, or at least to see to it that these voices get a fair hearing. A typical column might start with acknowledging complaints about something like the paper's lack of coverage of poor neighborhoods. The public editor would then discuss some possible lapses on the paper's part, get some comments from the editor in charge, and then, as a rule, either encourage the paper to improve its coverage in this area or, at the very least, take a neutral position acknowledging that both the critics and the paper have a point.

Here are some examples from two previous public editors of the New York Times.

Clark Hoyt
The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not. But a more nuanced answer is that even a newspaper like The Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done. Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.

Margaret Sullivan

Mistakes are bound to happen in the news business, but some are worse than others.

What I’ll lay out here was a bad one. It involved a failure of sufficient skepticism at every level of the reporting and editing process — especially since the story in question relied on anonymous government sources, as too many Times articles do.

The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources. And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism – a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.

Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors’ notes that corrected key elements – elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset.

If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be.

But these are strange days at the New York Times and the new public editor is writing columns that are not only a sharp break with those of her predecessors, but seem to violate the very spirit of the office.

In particular, Liz Spayd is catching a great deal of flak for a piece that almost manages to invert the typical public editor column. It starts by grossly misrepresenting widespread criticisms of the paper, goes on to openly attack the critics making the charges, then pleads with the paper's staff to toe the editorial line and ignore the very voices that a public editor would normally speak for .

[Emphasis added]

The Truth About ‘False Balance’
False balance, sometimes called “false equivalency,” refers disparagingly to the practice of journalists who, in their zeal to be fair, present each side of a debate as equally credible, even when the factual evidence is stacked heavily on one side.

There has been a great deal of speculation as to what drives false equivalency, with the leading contenders being a desire to maintain access to high-placed sources, long-standing personal biases against certain politicians, a fear of reprisal, a desire to avoid charges of liberal bias, and simple laziness (a cursory both-sides-do-it story is generally much easier to write than a well investigated piece). Caring too much about fairness hardly ever makes the list and it certainly has no place in the definition.

Spayd then accuses the people making these charges of being irrational, shortsighted, and partisan.

I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates. CNN’s Brian Stelter focused his show, “Reliable Sources,” on this subject last weekend. He asked a guest, Jacob Weisberg of Slate magazine, to frame the idea of false balance. Weisberg used an analogy, saying journalists are accustomed to covering candidates who may be apples and oranges, but at least are still both fruits. In Trump, he said, we have not fruit but rancid meat. That sounds like a partisan’s explanation passed off as a factual judgment.

But, as Jonathan Chait points out, Weisberg has no record of being a Hillary Clinton booster. The charge here is completely circular. He is partisan because he made a highly critical comment about Donald Trump and he made a highly critical comment about Donald Trump because he is partisan.

But the most extraordinary part of the piece and one which reminds us just how strange the final days of 2016 are becoming is the conclusion.

I hope Times journalists won’t be intimidated by this argument. I hope they aren’t mindlessly tallying up their stories in a back room to ensure balance, but I also hope they won’t worry about critics who claim they are. What’s needed most is forceful, honest reporting — as The Times has produced about conflicts circling the foundation; and as The Washington Post did this past week in surfacing Trump’s violation of tax laws when he made a $25,000 political contribution to a campaign group connected to Florida’s attorney general as her office was investigating Trump University.

Fear of false balance is a creeping threat to the role of the media because it encourages journalists to pull back from their responsibility to hold power accountable. All power, not just certain individuals, however vile they might seem.

Putting aside the curious characterization of the Florida AG investigation as a tax evasion story (which is a lot like describing the Watergate scandal as a burglary story or Al Capone as a tax evader), equating her paper's pursuit of the Clinton foundation with the Washington Post's coverage of Trump is simply surreal on a number of levels.

For starters, none of the Clinton foundation stories have revealed significant wrongdoing. Even Spayd, who is almost comically desperate to portray her employer in the best possible light, had to concede that “some foundation stories revealed relatively little bad behavior, yet were written as if they did.” By comparison, the Washington Post investigation continues to uncover self-dealing, misrepresentation, tax evasion, misuse of funds, failure to honor obligations, ethical violations, general sleaziness and blatant quid prop quo bribery.

More importantly, the Washington Post has explicitly attacked and implicitly abandoned Spayd's position. Here's how the Post summed it up in an editorial that appeared two days before the NYT column.
Imagine how history would judge today’s Americans if, looking back at this election, the record showed that voters empowered a dangerous man because of . . . a minor email scandal. There is no equivalence between Ms. Clinton’s wrongs and Mr. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office.

Charles Pierce's characteristically pithy response to this editorial was "The Washington Post Just Declared War on The New York Times -- And with good reason, too."

If is almost as if Spayd thinks it's 2000, when the NYT could set the conventional wisdom, could decide which narratives would followed and which public figures would be lauded or savaged. Spayd does understand that there is a battle going on for the soul of journalism, but she does not seem to understand that the alliances have changed, and the New York Times is about to find itself in a very lonely position.

Friday, February 25, 2022

In memory of Raymond Smullyan

Smullyan's first career was as a stage magician, which is an almost perfect Chekhovian plot twist, surprising at first then nearly inevitable in retrospect. What else would he be? 

In the spirit of Smullyan, here are a math-themed magic trick and a magic-themed math lecture, both from Dr. Tori Noquez.

The Mathematics of 8 Perfect Faro Shuffles

Thursday, February 24, 2022

When Threads collide -- the MAGAization of crypto

The public face of cryptocurrencies and NFTs may be liberal celebrities and trendy lifestyle journalists, but the political faction that has really embraced Web3 leans hard to the right.

And this from the Verge:

But very little of that was discussed at today’s press conference. The event kicked off with three of the protest movement’s organizers, including Tamara Lich, a former fitness instructor and singer in an Alberta band called Blind Monday, who played a prominent role in organizing a GoFundMe campaign that raised about 10 million Canadian dollars ($7.8 million) for the anti-vaxx protest.

After spending several minutes disparaging “fake news” and praising supporters like Jordan Peterson, a philosopher whose work is admired by the right, the group turned to Bitcoin.

BJ Dichter, who introduced himself as “vice president and spokesperson for the Freedom Convoy,” said the group has been in touch with “some of the most prominent Bitcoiners on YouTube” to learn how to use cryptocurrency to raise money for their cause. (GoFundMe shut down the group’s fundraising campaign last week, citing “violence and other unlawful activity” during the demonstrations.)

Dichter turned the press conference over to a man named “Nick” who he described as the group’s “Bitcoin team lead for the Freedom Convoy.” Nick, sporting a thick beard and a black sweatshirt with the Bitcoin logo in the upper-right corner, started by setting expectations. “I wouldn’t call myself an expert,” he said. “But I am a liaison to the experts in the Bitcoin world.” Nick said the aim was to fight for the group’s freedom to raise money “without being shackled by the censorship put in place by our legacy financial system.”

After several minutes of a lecture on the advantages of a decentralized fundraising platform, supporters watching the livestream seemed flummoxed.

“This is not what I thought it would be, thanks guys but I’m thinking you will be losing some money support with this... anyway, have a good day,” wrote one commenter. Others implored the group to ditch the Bitcoin talk and get back to the issue at hand: truckers fighting against vaccine mandates.

“I get the safety of donating to Bitcoin… but why are we promoting digital currency?!” another wrote.

In some respects, the convergence of the anti-vaxx protests and Bitcoin was probably inevitable. Last month, the protests drew support from one of the biggest proponents of Bitcoin in the world, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who tweeted “Canadian truckers rule.” Former President Donald Trump has voiced support, and right-wing figures from Tucker Carlson to Ben Shapiro to Michael Flynn have seized on the trucker protests.

The group sees Bitcoin as a possible solution to its fundraising woes. And they may have some support, too. A group of Canadian Bitcoin supporters who go by the moniker “HonkHonkHodl” [Here's a quick intro to HODLing -- MP] have created a crypto crowdfunding campaign on the platform Tallycoin as an alternative funding portal for the Freedom Convoy.

In a less-than-surprising plot twist, the move to Bitcoin didn't work out that well for the truckers.

Conservatives and crypto is not just a North American thing.

Jemima Kelly writing for the Financial Times.

Long-time Alphaville readers will remember that back in 2018, after a certain cabinet minister — then a mere disgraced Tory MP — resigned from two appointments related to blockchain technology when we discovered a secret crypto pay deal, we saw it fit to initiate a series called “What’s the Tory crypto story?” (This title will resonate if you happen to be over the age of about 30 and British.)

After that slight embarrassment for now Transport Secretary Michael Green Grant Shapps, the Tory crypto train has kept on chugging merrily along. There was the spectacular flop of Tory Baroness Mone’s crypto project, EQUI; there was then-chancellor Philip “Spreadsheet” Hammond promoting blockchain as an easy solution for the Irish Borderproblem; more recently there was chair of the UK foreign affairs committee Tom Tugendhat preaching the virtues of crypto by deploying unforgettable syntax such as “when the queen’s head leaves the coin and goes on to the blockchain”. And before any of them, of course, there was David Cameron — a man known for his impeccable taste in all things financial.

It’s not just crypto; it’s blockchain too. In a November report entitled “BlockchainIndustry in the UK Landscape Overview 2021” by “Innovation Eye” and the “Big Innovation Centre”, the ruling party’s love affair with all things related to the distributed dream ledger over the past five years is charted. It’s a nice and politically informative chart:

Just look at that sea of blue! If you’re wondering about the block of red in the second line, well that’s Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, who has a background in technology. But when she mentions blockchain, it’s to say things like: “For some, blockchain is a way of avoiding government”, and that the “libertarian idea that technology is the answer to everything has driven our regulatory approach for too long”. Music to our luddite lugholes, tbh.

Over on the other side of the chamber, though, there’s a new crypto playa in town. And the new pusher of virtual currencies is none other than king of virtual tears himself, Mr Matthew Hancock, a former cabinet minster and now mere disgraced Tory MP (you might notice a theme).

None of this is all that surprising to those who have been following the story. If you push past the next-big-thingism and the Ponzi scheme aspects, the underlying appeal of Web3 has always been the libertarian wet dream of money and property freed from the tyranny of the state. 

Of course, the fact that the current conservative movement is swarming with grifters has certainly sped things along.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

'We really did hit peak stupid' -- Linette Lopez on the return to reality-based markets

Lopez was unfashionably early to this party, having pointed out for years the absurdity and precariousness of the hype and bullshit economy. Her reporting and analysis have been consistently frank and independent, as have her regular appearances on public radio's Marketplace.

 On a not unrelated note, Elon Musk hates her. 

This latest column won't make her any more popular.

Every once in a while on Wall Street there is what is called a "washout": a cataclysmic shift in the market that swaths of the investment community do not survive. Wall Street is standing on the edge of such an event. So if you want your "billionaire tears," you shall have them.

Why now? Well, after more than a decade of keeping interest rates near zero, the Federal Reserve is all but assured to raise them multiple times in the coming year to fight inflation. In the world of finance, these hikes are akin to messing with the Earth's gravity. Assets that were once attractive — companies that used cheap capital to grow rapidly without making a profit — will be shunned. Some of the investors who ate up those growth stories will go out of business. This is not a drill. It's the beginning of a bear market . And based on conversations with some of the most elite investors on Wall Street, it's clear that this drop isn't a months-long process. It'll take a year or more.

"I think there's going to be a few people who've really gone over their skis and will get hurt badly," one billionaire value investor told me.

Silly season's over, folks

Before the pandemic, the most pressing problem for central banks around the world was the meandering recovery from the financial crisis. Growth was sluggish, and inflation was well short of their target, prompting the Fed and others to keep interest rates historically low to encourage banks to give out loans and juice the economy. A side effect of making money easy to borrow was that all kinds of garbage ideas could get funding and all kinds of garbage companies could stay in business. Combine that with lax corporate law enforcement and you have Wall Street without consequences. Investors were champing at the bit to pile into companies that used fantastical metrics, like WeWork, and lapped up every utterance from billionaire CEOs who promised flashy technology but consistently underdelivered, like, say, Elon Musk.

And that was before millions of bored, homebound Americans jumped into the market via Robinhood and other trading apps. Armed with their pandemic-era stimulus checks, they bought crypto, piled into blank-check companies called SPACs, and joined message boards claiming that stocks like AMC and GameStop were going "to the moon." Awash with capital, companies — especially in tech — saw their valuations leave Earth's atmosphere and make a home somewhere on Saturn. Short sellers were culled. Value investors went into hiding.

"We really did hit peak stupid, but peak stupid extended beyond truly, truly stupid and then we went to bottom-of-the-ocean-rare-earth-metal-companies stupid," the value investor told me.

This is the kind of bubble a financial professional should see forming — one where investors lose sight of fundamentals like profitability and cash flow and embrace a kind of Beanie Baby zeitgeist. In fairness, on Wall Street you can make a lot of money dancing to the music at a bubble party. Or you can stand by the snacks and watch. What you cannot do is pretend that the music will never stop.

We've all heard the sound financial insight that the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. I'd like to offer a corollary: The market can go back to rational faster than you can get out of it.  

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Who could have seen this coming?

Comments in brackets.

Virgin Hyperloop axes half its staff in focus on freight

by Simeon Kerr and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson

Virgin Hyperloop has made almost half of its staff redundant as the company developing the high-speed transport system pivots from passenger travel to freight.

[In the overwhelming majority of cases, speed is worth far more money for people than for freight. When time is that valuable, you can always go by air, which also offers flexibility of destination.]

The US company said that 111 people were laid off on Friday, as the group focuses on delivering a cargo version of the experimental transport, which propels pods through low-pressure tubes at speeds of up to 670mph.

[Because completely changing your business model and infrastructure requirements requires way fewer staff.]


The company is “changing direction”, it added. “It really has more to do with global supply chain issues and all the changes due to Covid.”

[Just so we're clear. This is a land-based system that is, under the most wildly optimistic assumptions, years away from having a single operational line, let alone the extensive network needed to make this model viable. And they're making these changes in response to current "global supply chain issues."]

Backers of the company, which is developing technology first proposed by Elon Musk, include Dubai government logistics provider and ports operator DP World and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

[Neither Virgin nor any other "hyperloop" company has spent a single dollar developing Elon Musk's completely unworkable air-caster based proposal. They are working on maglev vactrains. All they kept was the name.]


And internal turmoil has followed the departure of Virgin Hyperloop co-founder Josh Giegel last year, triggering a “massive talent flight” as other executives also quit the company, according to one former senior employee. “Morale is low and there is no confidence in the new direction.”

Shunning passenger transport was triggering a “complete unravelling” at the group and would put its sole contract with the Saudi government in jeopardy, the person said.


“It’s abundantly clear that potential customers are interested in cargo, while passenger is somewhat farther away,” DP World said. “Focusing on pallets is easier to do — there is less risk for passengers and less of a regulatory process.”

[Though no apparent reduction in the infrastructure component, which means no significant cost reduction period.]

The company is also considering a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, or Spac, two people briefed on its strategy said. Virgin Hyperloop, Virgin Group and DP World declined to comment on any plans.

[There had to be a Spac.]

This is all, to use the technical term, polishing the turd. The company, which has raised more than $400mn in funding, is very probably running on fumes at this point. They can't come out and say this because they need more money and there's nothing that spooks the greater fool herd like the whiff of desperation. I suspect even Dubai is looking for an exit and it's remarkably difficult for a big, flashy business idea to be so stupid that it scares Dubai. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

A seven year old response to Dean Baquet's farewell revisionism tour

We're seeing another wave of defensiveness from the New York Times regarding 2016, countless variations on "No one could have known."/"We were no worse than anyone else."/"If only we could have sent more reporters to middle American diners."

Dean Baquet speaking to the New Yorker

I don’t think that anybody had their arms wrapped around the mood of the country that allowed for the election of Donald Trump, including us. I don’t think people—including the New York Times—quite had a handle on the anger, the amount of racial animosity. I don’t think any of us thought that Donald Trump was going to be elected President. Anybody who says they did, I don’t buy it.

If I had to do that over again, oh, my God, I would do that very, very, very differently. I mean, we treated Trump seriously. We treated him as an investigative story. But I would have covered the country a lot differently in the months leading up to the election of Donald Trump.

This "mood of the country" line is tremendously self-serving. It allows Banquet to ignore the bad judgement and terrible analyses that dominated the NYT's coverage of the election as far back as the summer of 2015.

Fortunately, I was taking notes. We ran more than a dozen posts on the paper's coverage of the election. There were lots of things we got wrong, just not as wrong as the New York Times.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Wishful Analytics

As mentioned previously, Donald Trump's campaign has definitely strained the standard assumptions of political reporting, Though this is an industry wide problem (even Five Thirty Eight hasn't been immune), it is nowhere more severe than at the New York Times.

The trouble is that the New York Times is very much committed to a style of political analysis that takes the standard narrative almost to the formal level of a well-made play. The objective is to get to the preassigned destination with as much craft and wit as possible. Nate Silver's problems at the NYT generally came from his habit of following the data to conclusions that made his editors and colleagues uncomfortable (by raising disturbing questions about the value of their work).

Cohn's articles on Trump have been an extended study in wishful analytics, starting with a desired conclusion then trying to dredge up some numbers to support it. He reallyreallyreallyreallyreally wants to see Trump as another Herman Cain. Other than both being successful businessmen, the analogy is strained -- Cain was a little-known figure who surged well into the campaign because the base was looking for an alternative to an unacceptable presumptive nominee – but Cohn brings up the pizza magnate at every opportunity.

In addition to reassuring analogies, Cohn is also inclined to see comforting inflection points. Here's his response to the McCain dust-up.
The Trump Campaign’s Turning Point

Donald Trump’s surge in the polls has followed the classic pattern of a media-driven surge. Now it will most likely follow the classic pattern of a party-backed decline.

Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point on Saturday after he essentially criticized John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War. Republican campaigns and elites quickly moved to condemn his comments — a shift that will probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.

Paul Krugman (like Silver, another NYT writer frequently at odds with the paper's culture) dismantled this argument by immediately spotting the key flaw.
What I would argue is key to this situation — and, in particular, key to understanding how the conventional wisdom on Trump/McCain went so wrong — is the reality that a lot of people are, in effect, members of a delusional cult that is impervious to logic and evidence, and has lost touch with reality.

I am, of course, talking about pundits who prize themselves for their centrism.


On one side, they can’t admit the moderation of the Democrats, which is why you had the spectacle of demands that Obama change course and support his own policies.

On the other side, they have had to invent an imaginary GOP that bears little resemblance to the real thing. This means being continually surprised by the radicalism of the base. It also means a determination to see various Republicans as Serious, Honest Conservatives — SHCs? — whom the centrists know, just know, have to exist.


But the ur-SHC is John McCain, the Straight-Talking Maverick. Never mind that he is clearly eager to wage as many wars as possible, that he has long since abandoned his once-realistic positions on climate change and immigration, that he tried to put Sarah Palin a heartbeat from the presidency. McCain the myth is who they see, and keep putting on TV. And they imagined that everyone else must see him the same way, that Trump’s sneering at his war record would cause everyone to turn away in disgust.

But the Republican base isn’t eager to hear from SHCs; it has never put McCain on a pedestal; and people who like Donald Trump are not exactly likely to be scared off by his lack of decorum.

Cohn's initial reaction to his failed prediction was to argue that the polls weren't current enough to show that he was right. When that position became untenable, he shifted his focus to the next inflection point:
Mr. Rubio, the senator from Florida, has a good case to be considered the debate’s top performer. A weaker Mr. Bush probably benefits Mr. Rubio as much as anyone, and if Mr. Bush raised questions about whether he would be a great general election candidate, then Mr. Rubio added yet more reason to believe he could be a good one. Mr. Rubio still has the challenge of figuring out how to break through a strong field in a factional party.

Mr. Walker won by not losing. In a lot of ways, the moderators’ tough, specific questions played to Mr. Walker’s weakness. He didn’t have much time to emphasize his fight against unions in Wisconsin. But he handled several tough questions — on abortion; on relations with Arab nations; what he would do after terminating the Iran deal; race; and his employment record — without appearing flustered or making a mistake. His answers were concise and sharp.

Mr. Kasich also advanced his cause. He entered as a largely unknown candidate outside of Ohio, where he is governor. But he was backed by a supportive audience, he deftly handled tough questions, and he had a solid answer on a question about attending same-sex weddings. His answer might not resonate among many Republicans, but it will resonate in New Hampshire — the state where he needs to deny Mr. Bush a path to victory and vault to the top of the pack.

It was Donald Trump, though, who might have had the weakest performance. No, it may not be the end of his surge. But he consistently faced pointed questions, didn’t always have satisfactory answers, endured a fairly hostile crowd and probably won’t receive as much media attention coming out of the debate as he did in the weeks before it. If you take the view that he’s heavily dependent on media coverage, that’s an issue. Whatever coverage he does get may be fairly negative — probably focusing on his unwillingness to guarantee support for the Republican nominee.
You might want to reread that last paragraph a couple of times to get your head around just how wrong it turned out to be. Pay particular attention to the statements qualified with 'probably' both here and in the McCain piece. The confidence displayed had nothing to do with likelihood – all were comically off-base – and had everything to do with how badly those committed to the standard narrative wanted the statements to be true.

This attempt to prop up that narrative have become increasing strained and convoluted, as you can see from the most recent entry
Yet oddly, the breadth of [Trump's] appeal and his strength reduce his importance in shaping the outcome of the race.

If Mr. Trump were weaker, or if his support were more narrowly concentrated in either New Hampshire or Iowa, he would play a bigger role in shaping the outcome. In that scenario, a non-Trump candidate might win either Iowa or New Hampshire — and he or she would be in much better position than the second-place finisher in the state where Mr. Trump was victorious.

If Mr. Trump were to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, the second-place finishers would advance as if they were winners. Assuming that one or both of the second-place finishers were broadly acceptable, the party would try to coalesce behind one of the two ahead of the winner-take-all contests on March 15.

In the end, Mr. Trump almost certainly won’t win the Republican nomination; the rest of the party will consolidate around anyone else. He can influence the outcome only if his support costs another candidate more than others. But for now, he seems to be harming all candidates fairly equally.

First off, notice the odd way that Cohn discusses influence. If I asked if you would like to “play a bigger role in shaping the outcome” of something, you would naturally assume I meant would you like to have more of a say, but that's not at all how the concept of influence is used in the passage above. Cohn is simply saying that a world where Trump was behind in one of the first two primaries might have a different nominee but since Trump wouldn't get to pick who would beat him, it's not clear why he would care and since there's no telling who would win in Cohn's alternate reality, it's not clear why anyone else would care either.

But even if we accept Cohn's framing, we then run into another fatal flaw. Put in more precise terms, “harming all candidates fairly equally” means that each candidate's probability of becoming president would have been the same had Trump not entered the race. This is almost impossible on at least three levels:

Trump has already produced a serious shift in the discussion, bringing issues like immigration and Social Security/Medicare to the foreground while sucking away the oxygen from others. This is certain to help some candidates more than others;

For this and other reasons, the impact on the polls so far has been anything but symmetric;

And even if Trump's support were coming proportionally from each of the other contenders, that still wouldn't constitute equal harm. Primaries are complex beasts. We have to take into account convergence, feedback loops, liquidity, serial correlation, et cetera. The suggestion that you could remove the first two primaries from contention without major ramifications is laughably naive.

Finally there's that “only.” Even if Trump isn't the nominee (and I would certainly call him a long shot), he can still influence the process as either kingmaker or spoiler.

While Cohn's work on this topic has been terrible, what's important here is not the failings of one writer but the current culture of journalism. This is what happens when even the best publications in the country embrace conventional narratives and groupthink, adopt self-serving but silly conventions and let their standards slip. 

Friday, February 18, 2022

A self-driving car rant surprisingly not about Tesla

From Jason Torchinsky writing (for the moment) in Jalopnik:

A New York Times writer named Farhad Manjoo — who I’m sure is a fantastic person in many rich and varied ways — recently found a way to, under the cover of journalism, snag a sweet, comfortable Cadillac Escalade for a family road trip. No shame there, I’ve done basically the same thing.

I too am certain that Manjoo is a great guy in many ways, but I've seen him screw up pieces about autonomous vehicles, climate change. housing, electoral data, and the butterfly effect or, in other words, pretty much everything of his I've read in the NYT.

None of which has had any adverse effects on his career. Like David Brooks, Manjoo is a slick writer who, while often wrong, is generally wrong in the right way as far as his superiors at the NYT are concerned. The paper is notorious for turning a deaf ear to critics, particularly when they like the stories you're telling and the tone you maintain.

With this story, though, Manjoo failed to read the room in a big way. Serious automotive and technology writers (not to mention regulators) including the NYT's own very good Neal Boudette have gotten increasingly concerned about autonowashing, exaggeration of "self-driving" capabilities leading to dangerous abuse of driver assistance systems. Elon Musk is the biggest offender here, but he's been helped by countless puff pieces over the years. Recently, however, the tide has been turning.

There’s a problem, though. The article about this road trip that appeared in the NYT today is absolutely jam-packed with mischaracterizations about GM’s Level 2 semi-automated driver assist system, Super Cruise, and, really, all L2 driver assist systems, that I think the result is genuinely dangerous.

The problems start right from the title of the article, “My Big Fat Self-Driving Road Trip,” which I guess is a reference to those My Big Fat Greek Wedding movies, but I don’t really get why, as there’s nothing Greek or matrimonial or even fat involved here. But that’s not the real problem with the headline; the real problem is the use of the term “self-driving.”

This term is a huge problem because it’s not just wrong, it’s dangerously wrong. That Escalade was very much not a self-driving car. While there were clearly many times when it seemed like a self-driving car, it in no way at all is.

Look, a Furby may seem like its trying to communicate with you, but if you extrapolate that to believe that it’s alive and capable of reciprocating your love, then you’ll be very disappointed. An Escalade with Super Cruise is similar, in that it seems like it’s driving itself at times, but if you extrapolate that to believe it really is, then you could end up in a really bad situation that could leave people dead.

Manjoo's story prompted a big negative reaction, and we all know how well the New York Times deals with criticism.

More from Torchinsky:

Let’s just pull that quote out of the tweet there so we can really drink it in, why not:

“In short, although the auto industry may distinguish between advanced driver-assistance systems and autonomous or self-driving vehicles, most people do not, and we do not expect them to.”

This approach is, to couch it in genteel terms, fucking terrible. Okay, NYT, even if you “do not expect” people to know the difference between advanced driver-assistance systems and self-driving vehicles, isn’t kind of part of your whole point of being to, you know, inform people?


I get that it’s the Opinion page, and the NYT Opinion page has a rich, proud history of being composed of compressed blocks of absolute sewage. But this is is not a matter of simple semantics. The differences between a full self-driving system and an advanced driver assist system are not a matter of opinion.

If you work for the NYT and you’d like to know what the actual distinctions are—so as to you know, not put people in mortal danger — then let me help by clarifying the differences between a full self-driving system that you will find on precisely zero (0) cars for sale to day, and an Advanced Driver Assist System (ADAS) that you’ll find on many vehicles today, from Ford to Cadillac to Volvo to Tesla and more.

Here’s the key piece of information: an ADAS (Advanced Driver Assist System) does not allow the car drive itself. With these systems, also called Level 2 semi-automated systems, the person in the driver’s seat is in constant control of the car. It’s like cruise control.

An ADAS system may require the driver to take total control at any time, possibly with no warning at all. As a result, the driver’s attention needs to remain focused on the road, what the car is doing, the overall situation at all times, just like they were driving, only that task has been changed from the usual active task of driving into a vigilance task of monitoring how the machine is driving, and remaining ready to intercede.

This sort of vigilance task is, by the way, the kind of things humans generally suck at doing.

I reached out to the same @NYTopinion copy chief myself asking them to talk about this, but have yet to get a response.

So, New York Times Opinion page, I’ll just tell you what I was going to say right here: you have to do better than this. You are correct that the general public is confused about the differences between ADAS systems and full self-driving, and part of why is because sloppy bullshit about these technologies keeps getting written and published, some of it right on your pages.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Thursday Tweets

NFTs and company

Political Round-up

O Canada

I don't have a name for it yet but I want to come back to the idea that we're approaching the level of grift that threatens a movement.

NYT lifestyle porn

And miscellanea 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Canadian truckers continue onwards

This is Joseph

The blockage of the Ambassador Bridge, which was starting to hurt the US, is over but there are still blockades in place at the US border:
The Emerson MB border blockade is costing $73 million, daily.

$73 million. Every. Single. Day. 

This is devastating for Manitoba businesses, large and small.

Enough politics. Support our economy, not just your base.

The truckers at the Alberta Coutts blockade had some impressive firepower:


Meanwhile the chief of the Ottawa police has resigned. The replacement is focused on building up citizen trust after weeks of occupation:

The good news is that the federal government is finally enacting a state of emergency, as a response to all of this. But at some point you cannot have a minority veto the policies of the majority. They should be allowed to protest but it has been weeks. The slow increase in weapons is also concerning; the latest being 2000 stolen guns in Ontario. It could definitely be a coincidence, but it is not a well timed coincidence for people worried about black market firearms filtering over to a protest.

Now by the time this is posted, it wouldn't be shocking if everything has been peacefully resolved; one of the hardest parts of this process has been seeing the lack of state capacity. Everyone has been puzzled by how bad the response has been, including people who focus on it:
Your Line editors remain somewhat baffled by the inability or unwillingness of the police to do their jobs. In Ottawa's specific case, Line editor Matt Gurney offered some possible explanations in a dispatch last week, but his sources only spoke to the challenge once the protesters were dug in. We can’t explain why they were able to dig in in the first place. Nor does Ottawa’s uniquely awful scenario apply to the blockades at the border crossings. It has seemed clear to us that while the tactical situation in Ottawa seems to have quickly forced the police into a shell-shocked defensive posture, there was more they could have done initially to contain the protest, and lots more that police could have done elsewhere. But they haven't been doing so, and it is not clear why. Is the problem that they need more powers? And if so, has Trudeau now given them what they actually needed? Or was something else missing that the Emergencies Act now gives them?
Nor does anybody seem to care about the economic costs of the blockades, either in terms of money or in terms of the reliability of Canada as a trading partner. 

So stay tuned to see if a G7 nation can really be trying to handle an armed insurrection with traffic tickets and noise complaints. 

"The biggest problem in California right now is that we don't have enough fires" -- everything we said before but more so

We are finally getting another winter storm -- rain in the valleys, snow on the mountains -- so I'm reposting this. Everything in it is as or more relevant now than it was in December. We've already let too many opportunities pass this year and the fires we didn't set in January and February will come back on their own at a much worse time. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The biggest problem in California right now is that we don't have enough fires

It's raining as I type this, snowing not that far from here. We've gotten lucky in the past couple of weeks and we are supposed to have another major storm before New Year's Day. All of this means that we desperately need to start planning as soon as possible for teams to go out into the forest and start some fires.

As Elizabeth Weil explains in her Pulitzer-worthy Propublica piece (which we discussed earlier here). [emphasis added]

Yes, there’s been talk across the U.S. Forest Service and California state agencies about doing more prescribed burns [a.k.a. controlled burns -- MP] and managed burns. The point of that “good fire” would be to create a black-and-green checkerboard across the state. The black burned parcels would then provide a series of dampers and dead ends to keep the fire intensity lower when flames spark in hot, dry conditions, as they did this past week. But we’ve had far too little “good fire,” as the Cassandras call it. Too little purposeful, healthy fire. Too few acres intentionally burned or corralled by certified “burn bosses” (yes, that’s the official term in the California Resources Code) to keep communities safe in weeks like this.

Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire.


[Deputy fire chief of Yosemite National Park Mike] Beasley earned what he called his “red card,” or wildland firefighter qualification, in 1984. To him, California, today, resembles a rookie pyro Armageddon, its scorched battlefields studded with soldiers wielding fancy tools, executing foolhardy strategy. “Put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” Beasley summed up his assessment of the plan of attack by Cal Fire, the state’s behemoth “emergency response and resource protection” agency. Instead, Beasley believes, fire professionals should be considering ecology and picking their fights: letting fires that pose little risk burn through the stockpiles of fuels. Yet that’s not the mission. “They put fires out, full stop, end of story,” Beasley said of Cal Fire. “They like to keep it clean that way.”

Why is it so difficult to do the smart thing? People get in the way. From Marketplace.

Molly Wood: You spoke with all these experts who have been advocating for good fire for prescribed burns for decades. And nobody disagrees, right? You found that there is no scientific disagreement that this is the way to prevent megafires. So how come it never happens?

Elizabeth Weil: You know, that’s a really good question. I talked to a lot of scientists who have been talking about this, as you said, literally, for decades, and it’s been really painful to watch the West burn. It hasn’t been happening because people don’t like smoke. It hasn’t been happening, because of very well-intended environmental regulations like the Clean Air Act that make it harder to put particulate matter in the air from man-made causes. It hasn’t happened because of where we live. You don’t want to burn down people’s houses, obviously.

The term "controlled burn" is always at least slightly aspirational, and as the Western fire season gets longer and longer, our window for safe prescribed burns gets shorter and shorter. As a result, this may be the most urgent environmental action places like California need to take. If the weather takes a bad turn, a delay of two or three weeks can mean missing an opportunity to mitigate disaster in the Summer and Fall. 

We've missed too many already.