Monday, October 31, 2022

Historical visionaries often come off better if you don't look too closely at history

Historian Bret Devereaux has a long but well worth reading post on the longstanding debate over the role of airpower in war. 

Before we dive in, we need to define what makes certain uses of airpower strategic because strategic airpower isn’t the only kind. The reason for the definition will emerge pretty quickly when we talk about origins, but let’s get it out of the way here: strategic airpower is the use of attack by air (read: bombing) to achieve ‘strategic effects.’ Now that formal definition is a bit tautological, but it becomes clarifying when we talk about what we mean by strategic effects; these are effects that aim to alter enemy policy or win the war on their own.

Put another way, if you use aircraft to attack enemy units in support of a ground operation (like an invasion), that would be tactical airpower; the airpower is a tactic that aims to win a battle which is still primarily a ground (or naval) battle. We often call this kind of airpower ‘close air support’ but not all tactical airpower is CAS. If you instead use airpower to shape ground operations – for instance by attacking infrastructure (like bridges or railroads) or by bombing enemy units to force them to stay put (often by forcing them to move only at night) – that’s operational airpower. The most common form of this kind of airpower is ‘interdiction’ bombing, which aims to slow down enemy ground movements so that friendly units can out-maneuver them in larger-scale sweeping movements.

By contrast strategic airpower aims to produce effects at the strategic (that is, top-most) level on its own. Sometimes that is quite blunt: strategic airpower aims to win the war on its own without reference to ground forces, or at least advance the ball on winning a conflict or achieving a desired end-state (that is, the airpower may not be the only think producing strategic effects). Of course strategic effects can go beyond ‘winning the war’ – coercing or deterring another power are both strategic effects as well, forcing the enemy to redefine their strategy. That said, as we’ll see, this initially very expansive definition of strategic airpower really narrows quite quickly. Aircraft cannot generally hold ground, administer territory, build trust, establish institutions, or consolidate gains, so using airpower rapidly becomes a question of ‘what to bomb’ because delivering firepower is what those aircraft can do.

As an aside, this sort of cabined definition of airpower and thus strategic airpower has always been frustrating to me. It is how airpower is often discussed, so it’s how I am going to discuss it, but of course aircraft can move more than bombs. Aircraft might move troops – that’s an operational use of airpower – but they can also move goods and supplies. Arguably the most successful example of strategic airpower use anywhere, ever is the Berlin Airlift, which was a pure airpower operation that comprehensively defeated a major Soviet strategic aim, and yet the U.S. Air Force is far more built around strategic bombing than it is around strategic humanitarian airlift (it does the latter, but the Army and the Navy, rather than the Air Force, tend to take the lead in long-distance humanitarian operations). Nevertheless that definition – excessively narrow, I would argue – is a clear product of the history of strategic airpower, so let’s start there.


One of those interwar theorists was Giulio Douhet (1869-1930), an Italian who had served during the First World War. Douhet wasn’t the only bomber advocate or even the most influential at the time – in part because Italy was singularly unprepared to actually capitalize on the bomber as a machine, given that it was woefully under-industrialized and bomber-warfare was perhaps the most industrial sort of warfare on offer at the time (short of naval warfare) – but his writings exemplify a lot of the thinking at the time, particularly his The Command of the Air (1921).2 But figures like Hugh Trenchard in Britain or Billy Mitchell in the United States were driving similar arguments, with similar technological and institutional implications. But first, we need to get the ideas. 


Now before we move forward, I think we want to unpack that vision just a bit, because there are actually quite a few assumptions there. First, Douhet is assuming that there will be no way to locate or intercept the bombers in the vastness of the sky, that they will be able to accurately navigate to and strike their targets (which are, in the event, major cities) and be able to carry sufficient explosive payloads to destroy those targets. But the largest assumption of all is that the application of explosives to cities would lead to collapsing civilian morale and peace; it was a wholly untested assumption, which was about to become an extremely well-tested assumption. But for Douhet’s theory to work, all of those assumptions in the chain – lack of interception, effective delivery of munitions, sufficient munitions to deliver and bombing triggering morale collapse – needed to be true. In the event, none of them were.

This is not at all how the standard narrative is supposed to go. Advocates for new technology are inevitably visionaries unappreciated in their own time but vindicated by history while those who disagreed with them are revealed to be fools and luddites. Hell, Gary Cooper played Billy Mitchell in the movie.

And before anyone complains that it's unfair to lump Mitchell in with Douhet, let's check in with Wikipedia. [emphasis added.]

In 1922, while in Europe for General Patrick, Mitchell met the Italian air power theorist Giulio Douhet and soon afterwards an excerpted translation of Douhet's The Command of the Air began to circulate in the Air Service. In 1924, Gen. Patrick again dispatched him on an inspection tour, this time to Hawaii and Asia, to get him off the front pages. Mitchell came back with a 324-page report that predicted future war with Japan, including the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of note, Mitchell discounted the value of aircraft carriers in an attack on the Hawaiian Islands, believing they were of little practical use because they could not operate effectively on the high seas or deliver "sufficient aircraft in the air at one time to insure a concentrated operation". Instead, Mitchell believed a surprise attack on the Hawaiian Islands would be conducted by land-based aircraft operating from islands in the Pacific. His report, published in 1925 as the book Winged Defense, foretold wider benefits of an investment in air power, believing it to be, at both that time and in the future, "a dominating factor in the world's development", both for national defense and economic benefit. Winged Defense sold only 4,500 copies between August 1925 and January 1926, the months surrounding the publicity of the court martial, and so Mitchell did not reach a wide audience

If you go back and read contemporary accounts, you'll find this sort of thing happens quite a bit. Perhaps the most famous of the visionaries, Nikolai Tesla, unquestionably made tremendous contributions to his field, but when it came to predicting the future of the technology, he was wrong far more often than he was right, most notably with long distance wireless transmission of power.

The problem is that when looking back at these advocates, we tend to lose sight of the specifics and conflate the wisdom of their positions with the overall impact of the technology. We retroactively change the questions being debated, often assigning the skeptics stands that no one at the time believed. "Does the future of military air power lie in long range bombing or close air support?" becomes "will air power change warfare?" To go back even further, "you can't sail from Europe to Asia because the world is much bigger than you think" becomes "you can't sail from Europe to Asia because the world is flat."

Friday, October 28, 2022

The Day-late and Perhaps Penultimate Thursday Tweets

First, some fancy segues, starting with Ukraine

Musk has been weighing in on the war recently with suggestions that earned him the thanks of the Russian government and mockery from almost everyone else, particularly Garry Kasparov. Musk dealt with the criticism with the maturity we've come to expect.

As well as being an attack on Kasparov, this is also a dig at his rival Peter Thiel, who actually was something of a chess prodigy.

The far-right Thiel was also a proponent of injecting the blood of the young to slow aging.which has somehow been retconned into QAnon mythology.

A few more MAGA thoughts.

And plans.
MAGA theories provide us with a nice transition to the topic of British politics.

Which gives us an opening to another one of our favorites.

I considered segueing into the next topic, but this is subject I don't want to be flippant about.

Really effective ad. The humor only fuels the anger.
I believe Oz was trying to make the point that the decision shouldn't be up to senators (I'm not going to listen to the clip unless someone pays me). This is dishonest (if the GOP controls congress, we will have a national ban). It is also the worst possible way of saying it.

Moving onto the polling conversation.

This is a big deal assuming...

... We can trust the polls at all. (In case anyone's curious, I'm in the distrustful camp this cycle.)

A thread and assorted tweets on the rise of the fascists.

Though the longest of long shots, Chris Jones continues to do his best to make this a race.
Tucker was one of the victims of Whitewater (when the modern GOP was invented.)


San Jose had a good one this week.

Back on the mad kings beat.


Presented without comment.

Context from Rainer Eisfeld:

While the 19th was turning into the 20th century, canals – like automobiles, dirigibles and airplanes – had come to symbolize progress, the triumph of technology over nature. In 1869, the Suez Canal had reduced the sea route to India by 10,000 kilometers, permitting Phileas Fogg and Passepartout to accomplish their imaginary journey around the world in 80 days. Work on the Panama Canal had begun in 1880, and even if the first French effort had foundered, a second American construction attempt was under way. Canals, whether on Earth or (supposedly) on another world, continued to make for headlines: On 27 August 1911, the New York Times captioned a one-page article. ‘Martians Build Two Immense Canals in Two Years’, its headline read. ‘Vast Engineering Works Accomplished in an Incredibly Short Time.’

Thursday, October 27, 2022

The Nonresponse Problem: What else are we missing?

The shy Trump voter hypothesis does not, by itself, do a good job explaining what we've been seeing in polling data for the past six years. If you are looking for a single theory that will explain large polling biases going in opposite directions in Tennessee and California, you will have to look elsewhere. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that under-response by Trump supporters is a part of the story, and if that is the case, political analysts and data journalists have completely missed perhaps the most disturbing implication.

If we start with the standard assumption of the shy Trump voter hypothesis, that these people tend to distrust and dislike interacting with mainstream media, then it's not just electoral polls that are being affected. All recent polling of Republican attitudes will not just be biased but will be far more biased than the electoral polls (Trump Voters/Registered Voters < Trump Voters/GOP voters).

We would expect the shy (or more specifically mainstream media averse) Trump voter to be, for starters, more likely to be a Trump loyalist rather than just a Republican, and if they are driven by distrust of and hostility toward non-right wing media, we would also expect them to be more likely to be election deniers, more likely to support the January 6th insurrection, more likely to be MAGA, more likely to be Qanon, and more likely to espouse ideas like white nationalism. This would mean that polling has seriously underestimated the support for all of these things within the GOP.  

Of course. We don’t know that the under-responding Republicans are driven by feelings about the MSM. It is perhaps just as likely that the self-selection bias is driven by embarrassment, traditional Republicans who don’t approve of Trump or the QAnon movement but who would not consider supporting a Democrat. 

This second theory might make us feel better but its implications are also troubling. Under the first, we underestimate the danger to the country from these extremists; under the second,  we exaggerate their numbers which helps them entrench their hold over the GOP.

We don’t know if we’re seeing the first, the second, both, or something else, but we can be reasonably confident that we are seeing self-selection biases in recent political polls and there is absolutely no reason to assume those errors stop with the “who are you voting for” section of the polls.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Rings of Power: a few thoughts

This is Joseph.


Amazon made a Rings of Power show set in the second age of middle earth. There are some tough decisions to make when doing this sort of show and I think it is useful to think about the options with a prequel. The downside (of both prequels and historical epics) is that we already know what happens and so certain types of suspense are lost. If you watch the Hobbit after watching the Lord of the Rings, there really is no tension in whether or not Bilbo survives. 

I think there are three solutions to this problem:

  1. Focus the story on somebody that we don't know anything about. Arondir is a good example of this in the Rings of Power. Were he and Bronwyn to be the main characters then we'd not know anything about how their story ends. They could end up being secretly quite important to the events of the second age or involved in things that happened far away from the main characters of the third age.
  2. Engage us in the characters and make us feel empathy for the decisions that are made. This is a common focus of historical epics -- we all know that the Great Heathen Army will lose to Alfred the Great in Vikings, but watching it happen is still interesting as we get drawn into the stories. This is especially effective if there are parts that are not part of the popular understanding of the period that really deepen the story. Henry VIII in the Tudors was a good example (lots of that story was ahistorical but it was great to see them start with the young and optimistic king and not the well known later part of his reign).
  3. Put the events into a completely different context. We all think of Galadriel as a hero but what if she was conspiring with Sauron? A good example of this inversion is Dances with Wolves, where we are forced to think of the American occupation of the frontier in a different context.
I think that the biggest problem with the Rings of Power is that it failed to commit to an approach and that weakened everything about it. By doing #1 and #3, it lost the ability to engage people with the tales that they loved (which is ok, but a choice). A very faithful adaption (even with some cinematic alterations) could have worked. A story about the doomed love of an Elf and Human is very Tolkienesque (see Beren and Luthien) and could be set in regions that simply don't get much treatment. A lot could happen in, for example, Rhun, that people like Elrond might be largely ignorant of in the future. Or the Blue wizards could be the main Istari -- we never did find out what happened to them leaving a ton of possibilities. 

The last option would have been the boldest and it is where I thought that they were going. But it doesn't work if you don't increase the stakes. After all, in Lord of the Rings the wise note that Saruman could be of great help to the white council if redeemed. Why are they so sure? One possibility that would be quite interesting is if Galadriel had followed that path in the past (and, long redeemed, nobody feels the need to constantly bring it up). That would create totally new context for her temptation with the ring and her challenge to Sauron in the Hobbit trilogy. It would make us look at her completely differently and make her character richer. 

I was briefly deceived by Sauron but puzzled it out and rejected him before any real harm could be done is a much less compelling redemption story. What if this was real? 

That would make the whole thing about the challenges of visions of the future in Galadriel's mirror make a lot weightier at the end of the third age. 

Now I could be wrong. There are seasons to go and maybe some twists await us. But I think that is the reason that the first season fell a bit flat despite strong acting, decent writing, gorgeous visuals, and a deep well of source material. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Criminalizing solutions -- Western Wildfires edition

We've been banging the drum about Western wildfires for at least a couple of years now. The inactivity has been frustrating to watch, but this story out of Oregon takes things to the level of infuriating.

 Forest Service employee's arrest after fire crosses onto private land sparks larger debate
TONY CHIOTTI Blue Mountain Eagle

When Rick Snodgrass approached Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley, he thought the sheriff was there to help him.

According to Snodgrass, he’d called for law enforcement to help control aggressive traffic and to deal with harassment his crews had been receiving while implementing a prescribed burn on the Malheur National Forest in Bear Valley, about 7 miles north of Seneca.

That burn — called the Starr 6 — had since jumped the fireline, and now there was active fire on both sides of County Road 63, where Snodgrass and McKinley met: the prescribed burn operation on Malheur National Forest land to the north of the road — now flaring up in gusts of wind — and an uncontained slopover on private land to the south. The crews under Snodgrass’ direction were now attempting to quell one fire while holding the reins on another, with tempers, smoke, wind and now traffic adding to the dangers to his crew.

But instead of assistance, what Snodgrass got was arrested.

When the sheriff cuffed Snodgrass, it is thought to be the first time a U.S. Forest Service firefighter has been arrested in the course of performing their job.

Snodgrass, the “burn boss” on the day’s operation, was taken away from the scene and charged with reckless burning, a Class A misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $6,250 fine. Before it was contained, an hour after it kicked off, the spot fire burned an estimated 20 to 40 acres of private land owned by members of the Holliday family.


“I think in a lot of parts of Oregon, it’s just a very real experience for federal employees to have a lot of hostility towards what they’re doing right now,” said Christopher Adlam, a regional fire specialist for Oregon State University’s Extension Service. “I’m not saying that people don’t also appreciate firefighters and thank firefighters. But it’s a pretty common thing in some parts of Oregon for federal employees to face hostility.”


If you use the phrase “controlled burn” in the vicinity of firefighters operating a prescribed burn, you will be corrected.

This is fire. You don’t control it. The best you can plan for is to manage it and be prepared if the fire has other ideas.

Adlam points out that spillover fires like the one that happened in Bear Valley are rare occurrences but can still have a huge impact on people. “I think that, the last 20 years, we’ve had one other occurrence of a burn crossing over from federal land onto private land in Oregon,” he said.

The Malheur National Forest supervisor notes that the spillover was quickly brought under control.


Not only was this a horrible precedent, it also made the situation far more dangerous.

It has also stirred the ire of wildland firefighter communities, who fear this development will set a precedent and only complicate an already difficult and dangerous job. And in these groups’ online conversations, it is clear many believe that the arrest created a situation on the ground that may have added to the real risk faced by fire crews in Bear Valley.

“One of the huge watch-out situations in any fire operation is a transition in leadership,” said Trulock. “And that’s when it’s a plan to transition in leadership. This was obviously unplanned. What I would say is there were definite heightened risks because of that action. Until leadership can be reestablished under a new person, then everybody is distracted because they know something happened. And so it created a huge distraction in the middle of what I would consider is a relatively high-risk operation.”

Adlam, the Extension Service fire specialist, agreed.

“The burn boss’s role is never more important than at the moment where something happens that is not part of the plan,” he said. “If you cut off the head of an operation before it’s finished, how is that supposed to be leading to a positive outcome?”

Monday, October 24, 2022

Bombs under everybody's chairs -- starting a thread

What we mean by a bomb? In this case, we are talking about an event or development which has an almost completely unknown distribution of outcomes, but where we are reasonably sure there's a non-trivial possibility of something blowing up, though the direction of the blast may be difficult to predict.

Most of these events lack any real precedent. Many of them suggest sharp bifurcation. Furthermore, since, for a variety of reasons, we can put less and less faith in the polls, we have no reliable picture of where they are heading, and those indicators we do have often point in opposite directions.

Dobbs is a bomb. Inflation is a bomb. January 6th and other Trump scandals are bombs. Ukraine. The rise of fascism both nationally and internationally. The threat of violence and intimidation of the polls is a bomb. That's only a partial list. Add to that the shaped charges, bombs with the potential for a big but geographically constrained impact. Immigration. Power grid failures and school shootings in Texas. ( I know a lot of people would put this in the National category but this is an area where we do have some president and it argues against this going big across all 50 states.) Various stunts by DeSantis in Florida (though I have no idea whether they will work for him or against him).

The pundit class will pull out various supposed precedents to suggest that they aren’t completely in the dark. Almost all of these think pieces can be ignored. Whether you’re talking about Dobbs, or inflation (not to be conflated with stagflation), or American fascism, you have to look too far back and/or too far away to find something similar. While it is certainly worth studying relevant history here, anyone who tries to make look-what-happened-last-time predictions is an idiot.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Well, that didn't take long

We don't normally do this but here's a follow-up to this tweet from yesterday's post.
It may not reflect well on us but it's difficult to resist the Wile. E. Coyote clip reel that the Conservatives (and their US supporters) have managed to compile.
[As various people have observed, This is half right, which represents a personal best for Kudlow.]

Sadly, all embarrassing things must come to an end.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Thursday Tweets

The drip, drip, drip of Dobbs stories

Neo-facsism, the anti-vaxx movement and what the hell happened to Canada?

When incentives are based on metrics...

It took long enough, but Democrats and liberal pundits are finally starting to treat threats to Social Security and Medicare as lines of attack worth pursuing.


And other political stories.

"This foolishness with covid."

Not exactly apples-to-apples -- lots of recent changes in early voting in GA -- but it's fair to say we appear to be looking at a high turnout election in the state.

Things not to say to Bob Woodward...

If you list Ukraine as a failure for Biden, it's fair to ask which side you're on,

Musk and Ukraine (and China)

That should probably read "partially funding."

I'm with Smith on this one.

A tale of bots


I would insert a clip of "the greatest love of all," but I really hate that song.


Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The implications of spite

We need to be talking more about this. We have all too an alarming degree allowed ourselves to get used to the idea that one of our two major political parties has a large contingent, perhaps a plurality, of people who are primarily motivated neither by self-interest nor even ideology but by the desire to punish real and imagined political enemies and to "own the libs."

With that in mind, take a look at this news story which Matt Levine points to in a recent newsletter.

Weeks after a Texas school district dropped UBS Group AG as its municipal-bond underwriter because state Republicans labeled it unfriendly to the oil industry, it’s now demanding the bank cover the costs of having to redo the sale.

The Normangee Independent School District was forced to redo an $18 million bond sale that had already been underwritten by UBS Financial Services after the bank’s parent company in August was added to a list of firms that the GOP state comptroller considers to “boycott” the fossil fuels industry.  

The district is demanding UBS refund it for the costs it incurred after it had to resell the debt as a result. Municipal-bond yields surged dramatically and made it more expensive to reissue the debt. But the school district blames UBS -- not the Republican attorney general’s office that is enforcing the law. In fact, the attorney general’s office is representing the district in its effort to recoup the costs incurred from having to resell the debt, according to a document provided through a public records request.

“NISD resold the bonds and hired a different underwriter, at a loss to NISD,” Lauren Downey, assistant attorney general and public information coordinator, said in the Oct. 12 dated document. “In the event the OAG is unable to successfully negotiate a resolution with UBS, our office anticipates filing suit.”

As Levine puts it.

Most people in the anti-ESG movement will tell you that it is just about maximizing financial returns and avoiding politics. But then you get a case like this where the school district simply incinerates some money to pursue Republican political goals! But they had the nerve to ask the bank for the money back.

But I'm not sure you can really call these "Republican political goals." This law feels more like catharsis for Fox News viewers, lashing out at something that makes them angry. It is not the negligible impact of ESGs (which are often nothing more than blatant greenwashing) that bothers them. The source of the anger is the perception that banks are being nice to liberals. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Five years ago at the blog -- we had questions about the viability of the streaming industry's flood-the-market strategy

We started talking about the content bubble back in 2015, making us early to the party or far on the fringe depending on how you look at it. By 2017, it was still a minority position, but smart people in the industry were starting to get concerned.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The content bubble -- when reality sinks in

[Couple of small edits. Fixed title and added a link I'd forgotten.]

Quick refresher, the content bubble  refers to the explosion in scripted series being produced for various channels, services and platforms. We've spent a lot of time on the drivers of the bubble and the economics of why it's not sustainable, but probably not enough on the reactions of people on the inside.

Ken Levine (who either wrote, directed or produced about half of the sitcoms you aren't ashamed to mention knowing) recently made the following observation in a post about the experience of working on a show that had just hit big. [emphasis added]

How many shows today are produced and aired in relative obscurity? And it takes the same amount of time and effort to produce a show only relatives watch on a network no one has ever heard of than to produce THIS IS US.

Even the first year of CHEERS, when we THOUGHT no one was watching, we averaged 20 million people a week. The show was slowly starting to catch on to where we thought we were an underground hit. 20 million viewers was considered “under the radar” back then. Now the landscape has become so fractured that certain shows on certain platforms shown nationally are seen by 100,000 people. I don’t understand the economics. How can they afford to shell out millions for shows that get way fewer views than cats coughing up fur balls on YouTube?

I suspect in most bubbles, there comes a point when the conflict between the desire to believe and the cold, hard, inescapable numbers becomes so pronounced that the consensus of smart sensible people in the field becomes "this just can't go on much longer." In this case, the realization is sinking in that the handful of winners can't possibly begin to balance out the huge number of losers (particularly when you factor in the rapid growth in PR costs).

Just to be clear, Levine's role in is not analogous to that of an investor in a stock market bubble. He's more like one of the tradesmen who sells high-end goods to the suddenly cash rich investors. The talent behind and in front of the camera is currently benefiting from the bubble and will probably pay much of the consequences for the claps, but they are not the ones green lighting a remake of "One Day at a Time."


Monday, October 17, 2022

Proving the proven part

Let's say I claim to have invented an entirely new kind of artillery which can it take out protected targets by firing a projectile up in the air and then letting gravity bring it down. If you challenge my claim and we are talking about the part where the projectile goes up, the burden of proof is on me. If we are talking about the part where the projectile comes down the burden of proof is on you. I don't have to offer any evidence whatsoever to show that projectiles propelled into the air at less than escape velocity will return to earth.

Admittedly, that's a really contrived example but the basic principle does come up, often involving important questions.

Let's take masks and covid. If you accept that aerosol transmission is a significant factor in the spread of a disease, then I don't need to offer any proof that properly used face masks will reduce that transmission. It doesn't matter if there are no clinical or even observational studies to show this. Given aerosol transmission, it is almost impossible to come up with a viable scenario where wearing surgical masks will not help to some degree.

In general, productive arguments always follow the burden of proof. This applies as much to those making claims as to those challenging them.

Let's say you applied for a government contract to build a "hyperloop" (Musk's hyperloop wasn't a maglev train. It was also so unworkable that all "hyperloop" companies quietly scrapped the concept but kept the name.) Your proposal said that you could design and construct this system and build a network of underground tubes for roughly the same cost required to lay a comparable series of railroad tracks. The first part of the claim is your being able to design and build a working maglev vactrain. The second part is that you can build it at an extremely low cost per mile.

No one questions that, given sufficient time and money, you could accomplish the first part. Almost every independent expert is highly skeptical about the second part being possible. And yet, as far as I can tell (and I have been following the story closely), every highly publicized demonstration we've seen of the "hyperloop" has been focused on the first claim with nothing whatsoever focused on the second.

Which takes us to the big unveiling of Optimus.

For a while now, Elon Musk has been promising an imminent breakthrough in robotics that would revolutionize the world economy and human life as we know it.( if anyone out there thinks I am exaggerating the grandiosity of these claims, you really should get to know Musk a little better.)

This is what he delivered.

Musk promised that he was on the verge of mass producing humanoid robots that could readily step in and do a wide range of boring and dangerous jobs. This kind of off the shelf laborer would require enormous advances, solving problems that the best engineering minds in the world have been making only the slowest of incremental progress on. You'll notice that the demonstration doesn't indicate any work on those problems whatsoever.

It just shows a prototype doing things that other robots have been doing for decades. 

Sidenote: Boston Dynamics was sold not too long ago for around one billion. If Musk was serious about getting into the field, this would have been a considerably smarter purchase than Twitter.

For a deeper and far more critical overview, check out this video from long time Musk skeptic, Philip E. Mason,

Friday, October 14, 2022

Bi-directional disinformation

The 21st century relationship between Russia and the far right ought to give historians and sociologist and political scientist plenty to chew on over the next 50 or so years.

We've all become jaded to the level of influence that Russia has gained over the modern Republican Party despite being something that, as far as I can tell, we have never seen before.

It has been obvious for a while now that the coverage of Russia and Ukraine from conservative media outlets such as Fox News and OAN consist largely of Kremlin talking points. This has reached such a level that Tucker Carlson clips are routinely seen on Russian propaganda television programs.

Here we see that Russian propaganda about America intended for the Russian people is largely based on Fox News talking points.

 [New link]

The first bit I sort of understand -- Twenty-first Century Russia has a horrible problem with homophobia so it's not surprising that propagandists would try to play on that bigotry -- but veganism and and particularly reparations are a strange choice here. This doesn't seem to be the sort of message that you'd push when trying to scare your citizens away from America, unless those citizens had learned about our country from Fox.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Thursday Tweets -- probably the only time I'll use the phrase "rapists' rights Rubicon"

I watched this because I'm from Arkansas. You should watch it because it's a devastating interview.

Great thread. I need to do a post on this.

And this as well.

Once you've crossed the rapists' rights Rubicon, you might as well keep marching.

See our previous threads on secular evangelicalism.

Those familiar with the history of the Nazis may want to weigh in here.

Just like how really cool people constantly tell you they're cool.

This is the second or third time something like this has happened.


In case you missed our earlier posts on this.

Foreign policy experts are having that moment where Musk weighs in on a topic you know a lot about.


Presented without comment.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Ten years ago at the blog -- the terrestrial superstation thread has aged well

You heard it here first.

If you go back 10 years or so and look at what media and business reporters were saying about the future of television, you'll notice that pretty much everything turned out to be wrong. The future of streaming was supposed to be the single tier, ad-free model of Netflix based on original programming. Basic cable was dying and over the air television was already dead. Outside of the Chicago and to a lesser extent, LA papers, there was virtually no coverage of the industry other than the occasional opinion piece arguing for selling off its share of the spectrum. 

Now even Netflix is moving away from the Netflix model, the basic cable show Yellowstone is arguably the biggest thing on television, and over the air television is coming off more than twelve years of steady profitability and growth with channels like MeTV and Bounce beating deep-pocketed competitors and almost all of the majors playing some kind of catch up. Hell, The Wall Street Journal just did a profile of the newly retrocool Svengoolie. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Free TV blogging -- Why Weigel Broadcasting may be the best business story that no one's covering -- part I

[I should start with the disclaimer that all of the information I have about Weigel comes from two sources: Wikipedia and way too many hours of watching television. It's entirely possible that a competent journalist could discover that the truth here is something entirely different, but if competent journalists were paying attention I wouldn't be writing these posts.]

Though the improvement in picture and sound got most of the attention, another aspect of the transition to terrestrial digital was arguably more important, particularly for broadcasters: under the new technology, each station could broadcast multiple subchannels. The situation was analogous to the TV landscape thirty years earlier when cable and satellite stations were exploding on the scene. It's not surprising that someone would try to create the broadcast equivalent of superstations like TBS. What is surprising is who was able to get a channel up and running before any of the competitors were out of the gate.

The name of the channel was ThisTV. It was produced by a regional broadcasting called Weigel, best known for operating the last independent station in Chicago and being the home of the cult favorite Svengoolie -- last of old time horror hosts. Weigel had a content deal with MGM which was not nearly as impressive as it sounds -- Turner had bought out the classic MGM library years earlier -- but MGM still had a lot of films including the catalog of American International, the studio responsible for virtually every drive in movie you can think of from the late Fifties through the early Seventies.

Access to all those AIP films probably had a lot to do with the unique ThisTV brand. Here's how I summed it up earlier:
Weigel are the people behind ThisTV and the exceptionally good retro station MeTV (more on that later). ThisTV is basically a poor man's TCM. It can't compete with Turner's movie channel in terms of library and budget -- no one can (if my cable company hadn't bumped TCM to a more expensive tier I never would have dropped the service), but it manages to do a lot with limited resources using imagination and personality. As a movie channel, it consistently beats the hell out of AMC.

ThisTV has caught on to the fact that the most interesting films are often on the far ends of the spectrum and has responded with a wonderful mixture of art house and grind house. Among the former, you can see films like Persona, the Music Lovers and Paths of Glory. Among the latter you'll find American International quickies and action pictures with titles like Pray for Death. You can even find films that fit into both categories like Corman's Poe films or Milius' Dillinger.

If I ran a TV station, I would definitely combine Bergman and ninjas. I would not, however, run Mario Bava's feature length pulp magazine cover, Planet of the Vampires from twelve till two. Some of us have to get up in the morning.

This mix was in place from the very beginning. The station officially debuted on November 1, 2008 with Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It but many stations started carrying it a day earlier to take advantage of a day of cheesy Halloween horror films. It was a formula that made a virtue out of cheapness (rarely seen auteur films and drive-in movies both have the advantage of not costing much) and it produced a format that's been running smoothly with remarkably few adjustments for almost three years.

For a small player to identify a new market, develop a concept, negotiate the necessary deals with a content provider (MGM), line up affiliates, make the countless other arrangements that accompany a major launch and to be up and running with a quality product when the support technology first comes online is an impressive accomplishment. But it gets better.

So far we have a solid business story -- small yet nimble company with some good ideas beats big, well-established competitors into a new market. Not exactly the most original piece of journalism but certainly good enough for the front page of the business section. However the story doesn't stop there. Weigel didn't just beat its big and well-financed competitors; it lapped them. Before the next entrant, Tribune/WGN, was able to get its station, AntennaTV on the air, Weigel managed to launch a second channel, the ambitious classic television station, METV. If this weren't enough, AntennaTV is the only one of the three to look slapped together despite having taken far longer to make it to the air (of course, we have no way of knowing how long it took Tribune to see the opportunity and how long it took them to act on it but either way Weigel looks good by comparison).

To put this in context, at least half of this story takes place after the collapse of '08, a downturn that hit advertiser-based businesses particularly hard. Furthermore, the story occurs in an industry that a large number of lobbyists and at least a few pundits were literally trying to kill. There had even been a New York Times op-ed calling for the government to eliminate over the air television and sell off the spectrum.

One of the great memes of the Great Recession has been that uncertainty paralyzes businesses. Even the possibility of a tax increase or some additional regulation -- both extremely mild by historical standards -- are enough to bring the economy to a standstill, but here's a market filled with unknowns under a credible threat of annihilation and we can still find a company like Weigel moving aggressively to establish dominance of it.

That's the other side of uncertainty. It allows companies to substitute boldness and decisiveness for money and market position and take advantage of opportunities that would otherwise be out of their reach.