Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Few things are nicer than being cool when it's hot and warm when its cold.

A few weeks back, while we were discussing Ukraine, Joseph pointed out that, given its role in climate change and the energy economy, heating and cooling played a huge roll but got a fraction of the attention compared to personal transportation. (At this point, long time readers of the blog are expecting a lecture on ground source heat pumps, but we'll save that for another day.)

Hopefully, we can get Joseph to make a serious deep dive into the subject. In the meantime, I thought I'd have some fun with it. I've always believed that, when wrestling with a big topic, there's a lot to be said for wandering off the path occasionally to check out the dead ends, the cool but non-scalable, and the quirky.

Like a heating system based on candles.

There are lots of basic lessons to be learned from the previous video about the science of heating: start with as small a space as possible; insulate well while maintaining good ventilation; minimize waste heat.

The next video isn't nearly so practical but it is much cooler. It's from a highly recommended channel (if you're into this sort of thing) called the Outdoor Boys and it approaches the challenge of making it through a cold Alaska night not as a matter of woodcraft but as more of a physics problem.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Tuesday Tweets -- Musk Edition

See also Marshall's  "Elon Musk and the Narcissism/Radicalization Maelstrom"  (JPM's been on a roll lately).

Since the meltdown, quite a few journalists who had gotten a lot of mileage out of their access to Musk are doing some serious backtracking.

This WSJ story has been getting a lot of attention. It doesn't (pardon the pun) break a lot new ground, but it does a good job pulling the story together for a wider audience.

And in what was probably the worst news for Twitter last week...


Josh Marshall points out that the loss of ad revenue is actually the smaller part of the damage.

From the guy who wrote the book on Tesla.

If you subscribed to Levine's newsletter, you'd already know about this.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Canada's medical system under siege.

This is Joseph.

The thread here by Emer O'Toole is a good example of the craziness that parents in Canada undergo when seeking emergency medical care:

Several days later it turns out the the child has pneumonia. That leads to the discovery that antibiotics are almost unavailable. Forget the long missing fever and pain medications, this is so much of a crisis that there is an official Health Canada page explaining the crisis. Yes, the antibiotics are a crisis too:

Keep in mind this is a partnered adult with resources (university professor) who is unable to find basic care for an asthmatic infant. 

This is also happening in Toronto, the largest city in Ontario, and trends are not reassuring. Even the averaged wait times in Winnipeg are not reassuring: how is it a good idea to put sick people in close proximity for this long just waiting for care. People will avoid the ER if there are other options. Why are these not being considered?

Now, it is quite true that US healthcare is also under strain. It is a very rough world for respiratory diseases right now. But what is the cause of a shortage of antibiotics? Before one starts saying "private markets", do you know of any country in the world willing to gamble on private markets getting it right for food supply? Nor is this situation unnoticed by the media:
Meanwhile, Canadians are suffering because they don’t have access to doctors, or the emergency room wait time is 20 hours, or the wait to see a specialist is months instead of weeks

The other part that is hard is that we see attempts to shift plan for systemic failure:

But when we start talking about government-imposed mandates, we will inevitably see polarization on the issue, a division between pro and anti-maskers. And how much of this internecine squabbling gets our government off the hook for failing to foresee the foreseeable? In this case, for failing to prepare with adequate surge capacity? Why is there no flexibility in this system?

Once again, we're shifting the blame, and putting the responsibility for managing a collective crisis onto individual choices in order to cover for systemic failures. To put it another way, we need a health-care system that can handle the fact that I'm going to breathe on my children. 

This is Jen Gerson, who is admittedly criticizing from the right as well. But there isn't a lot of defense of this situation, so much as a general worry about resources. But this is the thing about central planning (which the Canadian health system effectively does) -- you need to design resilience into the system or else this is inevitable. Only now are we seeing some movement towards system level improvements -- three years are the shock began. 

This really isn't an ideal way to showcase our ability to support these systems.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Twitter and Brexit

This is Joseph.

Now it is true that some of Brexit was made possible by social media, including Twitter, but that is not the angle that I want to take today. For today, I want to talk about simple solutions to complex problems.

Brexit was very much sold as a way to take back control and still retain benefits. Colloquially known as "cakeism", it created a narrative that you could have all benefits and no costs to the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Thus the analogy with having your cake and eating it as well. Investment groups have noted that the economic effects of Brexit have tended to be deleterious, with the United Kingdom mostly doing worse in terms of economic growth. 

Now the counter-factual is hard and there are other things happening at the same time (for example, a world-wide pandemic has not been good news for growth and perhaps the health care sector in the United Kingdom was especially weak). But it is hard to see how this ended up as good news. Nor do I have any patience for "if only Brexit was done right". If your policy cannot survive the real world challenges of implementation by three successive Prime Ministers, all of whom have enacted it despite huge political costs, then it is not much of a policy. So forgive me if my patience for "Brexit betrayed" is thin -- the policy needs to be robust enough to survive normal politics and not a religious calling which only the truly devout can make work. The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, not a theocracy. 

Similarly, with Twitter, it is looking like simple solutions to a complex moderation problem have worked out poorly. Now, I do want to make one caveat. It is possible that Twitter is a project for which Elon Musk is expending his wealth out of a vision of a better social media future rather than a business opportunity. Bill Gates has spent more than the $44 billion Twitter cost on charity, so it isn't impossible that this is the plan and then what I have to say won't make much sense. If Musk has a twenty-five year social media vanity project then it might be worth that much of his wealth to shave 5-10 years off of it. Not sure, but just keep in mind these comments are under the rubric of "create functional business" and not "repurpose company for private ambitions to make the internet better". I have thoughts if it is the later, but they are quite different.

Instead, I want to focus on the way that he was managed knowledge workers. Looking at the timeline we see the following the steps (thanks to Gergely Orosz for keeping track of it):

  1. November 4th, 50% layoffs
  2. A quick pivot to discover that some people where laid off by accident and needed to be rehired
  3. November 7th, calls to ask people to come back with 10 minutes to decide
  4. A wave of resignations follow
  5. November 10th, remote work is stopped even for people with remote work contracts (with some unclear and limited exceptions).
  6. Also on November 10th, you need to reaffirm your dedication to Twitter or be let go with 3 months severance.
  7. November 23rd, contractors lose holiday pay
  8. November 24th, as part of the new code review process there were 50 engineers fired
  9. These engineers get only 4 weeks of severance, not 3 months. 
This is a very atypical way to manage knowledge workers. It creates uncertainty and fear when you want dedication and passion to make a tech company work as well as not setting it up well for trying to hire in the future. Further, it seems to think that the primary business of Twitter is coding and not in monetization of the user base for advertiser revenue (90% of the companies revenue right now). This is why the vanity project option even comes up -- fundamentally changing the business the company is in only makes sense in the context of massive unmet need or a repurposing of the company for a different set of goals. 

Further, this all comes at a number of costs. Large layoffs cost you employees that are expensive to replace and this sort of mass layoff policy can create legal consequences:

Which are just another layer of business friction that needs to be overcome. Yikes!

Now it might well be that these projects (Brexit and Twitter) will look very different in a few years as the potential of the new arrangements is realized or the projects crash and burn. But the big take-away that I want to have with all of this is that reforming a complex system is hard and it takes a long time to find a new equilibrium. In some cases, the existing system has already drifted into a global maximum of utility and trying to find a new spot is just trading around what declines in utility that you are willing to accept.

Definitely something to consider the next time simple solutions are posed for complex problems.  

Thursday, November 24, 2022

"As God as my witness..." is my second favorite Thanksgiving episode line [Repost]

If you watch this and you could swear you remember Johnny and Mr. Carlson discussing Pink Floyd, you're not imagining things. Hulu uses the DVD edit which cuts out almost all of the copyrighted music. [The original link has gone dead, but I was able to find the relevant clip.]

As for my favorite line, it comes from the Buffy episode "Pangs" and it requires a bit of a set up (which is a pain because it makes it next to impossible to work into a conversation).

Buffy's luckless friend Xander had accidentally violated a native American grave yard and, in addition to freeing a vengeful spirit, was been cursed with all of the diseases Europeans brought to the Americas.

Spike: I just can't take all this mamby-pamby boo-hooing about the bloody Indians.
Willow: Uh, the preferred term is...
Spike: You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not goin' around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.
Buffy: Well, I think the Spaniards actually did a lot of - Not that I don't like Spaniards.
Spike: Listen to you. How you gonna fight anyone with that attitude?
Willow: We don't wanna fight anyone.
Buffy: I just wanna have Thanksgiving.
Spike: Heh heh. Yeah... Good luck.
Willow: Well, if we could talk to him...
Spike: You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.
Xander: Maybe it's the syphilis talking, but, some of that made sense.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Non-Thursday Tweets (because with the current state of Twitter, running this on Thanksgiving would just be wrong)

Might as well start with...

You know what would make this even better? A Sam Bankman Fried connection.


And let's throw in some creepy alt-right politics.



Turning from Twitter to Fox.

Of course, the PM also believes in crypto...

Excellent thread.


And to less depressing politics

War and Revolution

New on FX. The Swedes


The Fourth Estate is not up to the job

Start with this handy visual explainer.


We'll close with pitchbot...

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Our standards for business disaster have gotten way too high.

Take Bob Chapek.

In a blockbuster development, Walt Disney Co.’s longtime chief Robert Iger is returning to lead the Burbank-based entertainment giant.

The Sunday night announcement by the Disney board — made shortly before Disney+ began its high-profile livestream of the Elton John concert at Dodger Stadium — stunned Hollywood.

The switch comes less than a year since Iger said his long goodbye after a storybook 15-year run as chief executive.

Disney’s board said he had agreed to serve two additional years as chief executive. Iger takes over for his hand-picked successor, Bob Chapek, who suffered a number of setbacks during his nearly three years as chief executive.

Any other year, he would have been a contender.

Under Chapek, Disney’s theme parks division posted an impressive rebound from the depths of the coronavirus pandemic [as did everything else in the tourism economy -- MP], in part through the kind of aggressive price increases that analysts believe Iger opposes. And its streaming business has grown rapidly, reaching 235.7mn across Disney Plus, Hulu and ESPN Plus.

But shareholders are no longer willing to fund streaming growth at any cost, as they were in the early stages of Disney’s foray into the business. Disney shares fell 13 per cent earlier this month after it reported that quarterly operating losses had risen by $800mn to $1.5bn due to exploding content spending and marketing expenses. Days later, Chapek announced a cost-cutting plan.

Chapek was a gifted rake-stepper. To paraphrase Twain, there may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Chapek. Chapek had to turn out and find a rake; and if he couldn't do it, go and borrow one.

I've queued up the part where Bob Chipman explains just how badly Chapek stepped on a political landmine that almost every other CEO would have stepped over effortlessly.

Chapek's run was so bad it's considered the big black mark on Iger's career.

The saddest part is, as bad as Chapek's tenure was, he still ran the company better than the previous and current bosses at Warner Bros.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Back on the Ithuvania beat -- "Hipster Eugenics"



 Just to review...

Sometimes, when I come across yet another bit of jaw-dropping flakiness from some tech-bubble billionaire, my thoughts turn to Ithuvania. What if this were an experiment? What if some well-funded research organization decided to see what would happen if it randomly selected individuals of average intelligence, handed them huge checks and told them they were super-geniuses?

I'm not saying that's what happened; I'm just saying the results would have been awfully damned similar.

In his review of the remake of Death Wish, Bob Chipman was talking about the premise of the new version when he stopped and looked around the said, "Y'know, I don't hear anything, but my dog is going nuts."

 If you listen to this article by Julia Black, I'm pretty sure you'll get the same reaction. [emphasis and commentary added]

Malcolm, 36, and his wife, Simone, 35, are "pronatalists," part of a quiet but growing movement taking hold in wealthy tech and venture-capitalist circles. People like the Collinses fear that falling birth rates in certain developed countries like the United States and most of Europe will lead to the extinction of cultures, the breakdown of economies, and, ultimately, the collapse of civilization. [As has been pointed out numerous times (including this post by Joseph), these nations maintain a growing population though immigration which suggests that these particular pro-natalists have less of an issue with birth rates and more of an issue with which people are being born -- MP] It's a theory that Elon Musk has championed on his Twitter feed, that Ross Douthat has defended in The New York Times' opinion pages, and that Joe Rogan and the billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen [the honorary dean of Ithuvania -- MP] bantered about on "The Joe Rogan Experience." It's also, alarmingly, been used by some to justify white supremacy around the world, from the tiki-torch-carrying marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting "You will not replace us" to the mosque shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, who opened his 2019 manifesto: "It's the birthrates. It's the birthrates. It's the birthrates."

Google searches for "population collapse" spiked this summer, after Musk continued to raise the issue in response to Insider's report that he'd fathered twins with one of his employees. According to the United Nations, more than a quarter of the world's countries now have pronatalist policies, including infertility-treatment benefits and "baby bonus" cash incentives. Meanwhile, a spate of new assisted reproductive technology startups are attracting big-name investors such as Peter Thiel and Steve Jurvetson [Another charmer -- MP], fueling a global fertility-services market that Research and Markets projects will reach $78.2 billion by 2025.


Together [the Collinses] write books and work in the VC and private-equity worlds. Simone has previously served as managing director for Dialog, the secretive retreat cofounded by Thiel. While they relate to the anti-institutional wing of the Republican Party, they're wary of affiliating with what they called the "crazy conservatives."  Above all, they are focused on branding pronatalism as hip, socially acceptable, and welcoming [It's the 'welcoming' that makes it truly special -- MP]— especially to certain people. Last year, they cofounded the nonprofit initiative


"We're frustrated that one of the inherent points of this culture is that people are super private within it," Simone said. They not only hope that their transparency will encourage other members of the upper class to have more children; they want to build a culture and economy around the high-birth-rate lifestyle.

The payoff won't be immediate, Simone said, but she believes if that small circle puts the right plans into place, their successors will "become the new dominant leading classes in the world." [Boy, that has a familiar ring to it -- MP]


It makes sense considering that Musk, who has fathered 10 known children with three women, is the tech world's highest-profile pronatalist, albeit unofficially. He has been open about his obsession with Genghis Khan, the 13th-century Mongol ruler whose DNA can still be traced to a significant portion of the human population. One person who has worked directly with Musk and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for this article recalled Musk expressing his interest as early as 2005 in "populating the world with his offspring."


These worries tend to focus on one class of people in particular, which pronatalists use various euphemisms to express. In August, Elon's father, Errol Musk, told me that he was worried about low birth rates in what he called "productive nations." The Collinses call it "cosmopolitan society." Elon Musk himself has tweeted about the movie "Idiocracy," in which the intelligent elite stop procreating, allowing the unintelligent to populate the earth.


The Collinses themselves have been called "hipster eugenicists" online, something Simone called "amazing" when I brought it to her attention.

Malcolm's "going to want to make business cards that say 'Simone and Malcolm Collins: Hipster Eugenicists," she said with a laugh.


Sunday, November 20, 2022

Repost: We're about to revist that first paragraph in a big way


Monday, September 12, 2022

"Russia’s Military, Once Creaky, Is Modern and Lethal"

2022 has been, so far, a remarkably bad year for expert opinion. We've been dabbling in press criticism now for more than a dozen years and I can't think of a time when the anointed experts of the mainstream media been more wrong on more important questions than they have been over the past 9 months. The  conventional wisdom has been comically off on the reaction to Dobbs and the January 6 hearings, the viability of prominent candidates, the GOP "moving on" from Trump, the importance of Social Security and Medicare as an electoral issue, and, of course, the war in Ukraine.

If recent trends continue (always a big if), we can expect to see a lot of revisionism from major pundits and publications. They will shove as much as they can down the memory hole. Where that fails, they will either dredge up some ass-covering quote from paragraph twenty-three and pretend that was the main thrust of their position or they will claim that "It wasn't just us. Everybody got it wrong."

 That last bit of retconning distorts what really happened in two ways. It ignores both the people who actually did get it right and the distinction between slightly wrong and totally wrong. If you two forecasts, one predicting warm and sunny with 0% chance of precipitation and the other warning of moderate to heavy rain, and you get a torrential downpour, both were wrong, but the warm-and-sunny guy doesn't get to use that as a defense.

 The post-2016 revisionist push, "everybody got it wrong" became the go-to line, probably because the screw-up was too big to downplay or deny. Michael Moore doesn't figure into the conversation and Nate Silver's 30% chance of a Trump is grouped with all the single digit predictions.

Here are two takes on the Russian military written during the build-up to the war. The first is from the NYT, as always, the official spokesman for conventional wisdom.

From Russia’s Military, Once Creaky, Is Modern and Lethal

 By Anton Troianovski, Michael Schwirtz and Andrew E. Kramer

Jan. 27, 2022

Two decades later, it is a far different fighting force that has massed near the border with Ukraine. Under Mr. Putin’s leadership, it has been overhauled into a modern sophisticated army, able to deploy quickly and with lethal effect in conventional conflicts, military analysts said. It features precision-guided weaponry, a newly streamlined command structure and well-fed and professional soldiers. And they still have the nuclear weapons.

The modernized military has emerged as a key tool of Mr. Putin’s foreign policy: capturing Crimea, intervening in Syria, keeping the peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan and, just this month, propping up a Russia-friendly leader in Kazakhstan. Now it is in the middle of its most ambitious — and most ominous — operation yet: using threats and potentially, many fear, force, to bring Ukraine back into Moscow’s sphere of influence.

“The mobility of the military, its preparedness and its equipment are what allow Russia to pressure Ukraine and to pressure the West,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian security analyst. “Nuclear weapons are not enough.”

Without firing a shot, Mr. Putin has forced the Biden administration to shelve other foreign policy priorities and contend with Kremlin grievances the White House has long dismissed — in particular reversing Ukraine’s Westward lean in the post-Soviet period.


What is new is not just Russia’s upgraded equipment, but the evolving theory of how the Kremlin uses it. The military has honed an approach that Dmitry Adamsky, a scholar of international security at Reichman University in Israel, calls “cross-domain coercion” — blending the real or threatened use of force with diplomacy, cyberattacks and propaganda to achieve political aims.

That blended strategy is playing out in the current crisis around Ukraine. Russia is pushing for immediate wide-ranging concessions from the West. Russian troop movements into allied Belarus put a potential invasion force within 100 miles of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Russian state media is warning that Ukrainian forces are the ones preparing acts of aggression.

Compared to this from 

Assessing the Military Strength of Russia and Ukraine
Russia may not the hold the military advantage media reports indicate.
Giselle Donnelly
Feb 7

There has also been a profusion of articles summarizing Russian military modernization and reforms since the end of the Cold War and highlighting Russian successes in Syria and elsewhere, including Ukraine in 2014. “Russia’s Military, Once Creaky, Is Modern and Lethal,” headlines the New York Times. Under “Putin’s leadership,” the paper reports, the Russian military “has been overhauled into a modern sophisticated army, able to deploy quickly and with lethal effect in conventional conflicts. … It features precision-guided weaponry, a newly streamlined command structure and well-fed and professional soldiers.”

This is true, but isn’t the whole story. 


But just as in the United States, the logic of defense reductions is inescapable; the priority on “strategic” systems has crowded out investments in other elements of military modernization. Thus, while some elements of Russia’s conventional forces are indeed, as the New York Times puts it, “modern and lethal,” it is far from clear how far and wide the Russian general-purpose force modernization and organizational reforms has progressed. A review of post-Cold War performance reveals a mixed record.


In sum, the famed Russian willingness to suffer, perhaps Moscow’s greatest asset in World War II, has become a grave strategic liability. This, in conjunction with a need to preserve the limited quantity of his well-trained and well-armed conventional forces, has profoundly shaped Putin’s military moves for the past two decades. It also explains why “gray-zone” warfare—the use of unconventional tactics from cyber attacks to local proxies and influence operations—figures prominently in Russian strategy. Putin may be a wily card player, but he has some weak cards.

He has played these pretty close to the vest in Georgia in 2008, in Crimea and the Donbass in 2014 and since, in Syria the following year, in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 and lately in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Further, this is a substantial and growing list of conflicts—all of them limited but none of them decisively resolved or allowing for the easy shifting of forces and resources. And none of them is remotely of the same scale as the full-blown invasion of Ukraine he now threatens. For all of Putin’s provocations, he has acted like a man unsure of his own strength, more concerned with maintaining a potential “threat-in-being” than in showing off an undoubted ability to “shock and awe,” Desert Storm-style.


You can argue that no one realized how "creaky" the Russian military actually had become, it's important to distinguish between analysts who at least asked some of the right questions and those who simply followed the standard narrative.


Friday, November 18, 2022

"If this is the last thing everyone sees on Twitter then I can absolutely live with that…"

Twitter (in perhaps the most Twitter thing ever) may be giving its own eulogy. The big topic on the platform tonight is whether it will be there in the morning. Things are speeding up. A couple of days ago. people were debating whether it would last a year; now the discussion is over whether it will last the weekend.

Like Rasputin, Twitter has recently suffered numerous seemingly mortal blows but the proximate cause was the wave of resignations. You probably recall Musk firing half the company, including quite a few people who turned out to be mission critical. He then fired anyone who criticized him either publicly or internally. 

Between the insult and the injury (both to them and to the company they'd built), pretty much everyone who actually made Twitter run by this point hated their new boss. This was the moment Elon chose to play the tough guy, telling his employees they'd have to put in insane hours with no remote work. Then things got ugly.

Personally, I expect the company will limp on for a while, but between the crippling debt and the loss of ad revenue, it's a dead man walking (if the poison doesn't get you the bullets will).

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Five years ago at the blog -- I'd forgotten how non-annoying Pinker used to be

 Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Igon values, superstar coin flippers, and the Gladwell problem

Malcolm Gladwell has started coming up in quite a few major threads and larger pieces, so I decided I needed to get up to speed on some of the controversies involving the author. Some of the more substantial have centered around what Steven Pinker has called the Igon value problem

From Pinker's review of "What the Dog Saw"
An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

Gladwell got the best of the follow up exchange, dismissing “igon value” as a spelling error while getting Pinker sucked into a bunch of secondary or even tertiary arguments. (One of the best indicators of intelligence is the ability to avoid discussions about the heritability of intelligence.)

The spelling error defense is technically correct but it misrepresents the main point of the criticism. First off, on a really basic level, this indicates poor fact checking on the part of Mr. Gladwell and the New Yorker. Even working under the relatively low standards of the blogosphere, I always try to Google unfamiliar phrases before quoting them. You'd think that the editors of America's most distinguished magazine would do at least that much.

More importantly, spelling errors fall in two basic categories. The first does not tell us anything substanitive about the writer. Given the ghoti insanity of the English language, being a bad speller does not necessarily imply a weak vocabulary or poor mastery of the language (put another way, not knowing whether it's double C or double S in "necessarily"does not necessarily suggest that you don't know what "necessarily" means). There are, however, cases (particularly involving transcription) where spelling errors can indicate that the writer is unfamiliar with the words in question. That appears to be the case here.

Pinker's central criticism largely boils down to phonetic reporting. Gladwell often goes into stories with a weak grasp of the field in question, as a result he frequently makes serious mistakes, constantly misses important subtleties, and is almost completely dependent on his subjects for understanding and context. Add to this poor fact checking and a disturbing nonchalance about getting the story right, and things can get ugly quickly.

Somewhat ironically, Gladwell hit back at Pinker for employing one of the same techniques which Gladwell is so proud of, picking a detail that told a good story and memorably illustrated a larger idea. The Igon Value Problem worked beautifully on those terms but it was far from the most serious or conclusive example available, even if we limit ourselves to the single article in question, "Blowing Up."

For example, the piece is very much invested in the idea of Taleb as Wall Street revolutionary. We could quibble about just how radical the Black Swan ideas and strategies are, but it is an entirely defensible interpretation. Unfortunately, Gladwell doesn't really understand which ideas are debatably new and which are familiar to anyone in finance. Here's an excerpt (starting and ending mid-paragraph):

There was just one problem, however, and it is the key to understanding the strange path that Nassim Taleb has chosen, and the position he now holds as Wall Street's principal dissident. Despite his envy and admiration, he did not want to be Victor Niederhoffer -- not then, not now, and not even for a moment in between. For when he looked around him, at the books and the tennis court and the folk art on the walls -- when he contemplated the countless millions that Niederhoffer had made over the years -- he could not escape the thought that it might all have been the result of sheer, dumb luck.

Taleb knew how heretical that thought was. Wall Street was dedicated to the principle that when it came to playing the markets there was such a thing as expertise, that skill and insight mattered in investing just as skill and insight mattered in surgery and golf and flying fighter jets.


For Taleb, then, the question why someone was a success in the financial marketplace was vexing. Taleb could do the arithmetic in his head. Suppose that there were ten thousand investment managers out there, which is not an outlandish number, and that every year half of them, entirely by chance, made money and half of them, entirely by chance, lost money. And suppose that every year the losers were tossed out, and the game replayed with those who remained. At the end of five years, there would be three hundred and thirteen people who had made money in every one of those years, and after ten years there would be nine people who had made money every single year in a row, all out of pure luck.

But of course, Taleb didn't have to "do the arithmetic in his head" because, like virtually everyone else on Wall Street, he had probably read almost the same analogy in a famous passage from A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton Malkiel [transcribed via Dragon so beware of homonyms]:

Perhaps the laws of chance should be illustrated. Let's engage in a coin flipping contest. Those who can consistently flip heads will be declared winners. The contest begins and 1,000 contestants flip coins. Just as would be expected by chance, 500 of them flip heads and these winners are allowed to advance to the second stage of the contest and flip again. As might be expected, 250 flip heads. Operating under the laws of chance, there will be 125 winners in the third round, the three in the fourth, 31 in the fifth, 16 in the sixth, and 8 in the seventh.

By this time, crowds start to gather to witness the surprising ability of these expert coin-flippers. The winners are overwhelmed with adulation. They are celebrated as geniuses in the art of coin-flipping, their biographies are written, and people urgently seek their advice. After all, there were 1000 contestants and only eight could consistently flip heads. The game continues and some contestants eventually flip heads nine and ten times in a row. [* If we had let the losers continue to play (as mutual fund managers do, even after a bad year), we would have found several more contestants who flipped eight or nine ads out of 10 and were therefore regarded as expert coin-flippers.] The point of this analogy is not to indicate that investment-fund managers can or should make their decisions by flipping coins, but that the laws of chance do operate and that they can explain some amazing success stories.

(I love that second paragraph. Pretty much any time I flip past CNBC it comes flooding back to mind.)

Malkiel published this book in 1973 and though it more than ruffled a few feathers, it quickly became one of the seminal books on investing. Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece came out 25 years later.

None of this is meant to imply any kind of deliberate plagiarism. Quite the opposite. I very much doubt that Gladwell realized he was paraphrasing a well-known passage. What I strongly suspect happened was that Taleb cited this in an interview as a standard example that everyone would be familiar with, sort of like describing a situation as a "frog in boiling water."

Gladwell's unacknowledged paraphrase is yet another indication that he didn't understand the strange role that economic theory and particularly market efficiency (in this case the semi-strong variety) plays on Wall Street, a role that was central to his narrative. This would be bad enough if he was just shooting for a straightforward profile, but Gladwell insists on playing the deep thinker, making pseudo-profound points, even closing with a grand sweeping moral about human nobility:

“That is the lesson of Taleb and Niederhoffer, and also the lesson of our volatile times. There is more courage and heroism in defying the human impulse, in taking the purposeful and painful steps to prepare for the unimaginable.”

Gladwell loves to tell what Christopher Chabris has termed "just-so stories," cute little fables counterintuitive and surprising enough to catch the eye but neat and simple enough to go down easy. Paradoxically, pulling off that sort of simplicity requires that the writer have a deep and subtle understanding of his or her subject. Simplifying a subject you don't understand never goes well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The NYT's election face plant reflects a long standing problem

Michael Cieply writing in 2016. [Emphasis added.]

Having left the Times on July 25, after almost 12 years as an editor and correspondent, I missed the main heat of the presidential campaign; so I can’t add a word to those self-assessments of the recent political coverage. But these recent mornings-after leave me with some hard-earned thoughts about the Times’ drift from its moorings in the nation at-large.

For starters, it’s important to accept that the New York Times has always — or at least for many decades — been a far more editor-driven, and self-conscious, publication than many of those with which it competes. Historically, the Los Angeles Times, where I worked twice, for instance, was a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?”

It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.

Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?”

The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.” 

Not only is the New York Times far more committed to its narratives than are its peers, the narratives it embraces are almost uniformly the worst possible kind: simplistic; hackneyed; and static. Truths are obvious. Characters tend to fall neatly into the four basic categories: hero, victim, villain, fool. A story of scientific standards and incentives becomes a tired Scarlet Pimpernel tale of revolutionary zealots persecuting a young woman who overcame great hardship to learn how to dance again. A serious debate over the best educational approaches degenerates into a black hat / white hat fight between those who care about children and those who simply want to pursue their own selfish ends. The enormously complex problem of housing is reduced to a handful of trivial old money versus new money fights about tiny pieces of land.

Add to this arrogance, provincialism, enormous resistance to criticism, and a tendency toward the self-serving, and you get a dangerously toxic mix.

For the press in general, and the New York Times in particular, there is no narrative as safe and as reassuring as Dems in disarray.The basic plot had dust on the script back when Shirley Temple was the biggest thing in Hollywood, it plays to comfortable notions and stereotypes, and best of all, it hits that sweet spot for nominally center-left publications terrified of accusations of liberal bias. (Something that conservatives have found extraordinarily easy to take advantage of.) It appeases critics from the right while framing the story as concerned rather than dismissive.

"Dems in disarray" and the New York Times' other narratives and literary tics have become so predictable that the satirical New York Times Pitchbot's parody headlines often show up in the paper a few days later almost verbatim.

Given the paper's self-importance, the satire is deeply amusing, but given its actual importance, this kind of lazy writing and even lazier journalism isn't acceptable in the paper of record.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Tuesday Schadenfreude Tweets -- an embarrassment of embarrassments

I love this quote.

We'll make this first part fairly brief, partly because Joseph has already given us a good overview of last week in crypto and partly because Matt Levine (in his essential newsletter) warns us we don't want to spend too much time staring into this abyss.

If a troubled company has a few days to beg potential investors for a bailout before it files for bankruptcy, and it sends those investors its balance sheet so they can consider investing, and they all pass, and then the company files for bankruptcy, of course the balance sheet was bad. That is not a state of affairs that is consistent with a pristine fortress balance sheet.
But there is a range of possible badness, even in bankruptcy, and the balance sheet that Sam Bankman-Fried’s failed crypto exchange sent to potential investors last week before filing for bankruptcy on Friday is very bad. It’s an Excel file full of the howling of ghosts and the shrieking of tortured souls. If you look too long at that spreadsheet, you will go insane.


Now moving on to Twitter. (You'd think that Sam Bankman-Fried would have had a lock on most embarrassing business news, but no.)


This last one applies to all of Musk's businesses.

Of all of the tweets from fake accounts, this shout out to the age of banana republics is my favorite.

You know what this story needs? A TED connection.

And some questionable ethics.

Interesting thread on the wave of non-parody frauds hitting Twitter.


General Muskiness.

Joseph already mentioned this but it bears repeating.



Musk was betting heavily on the red wave, which segues neatly into our next topic.

And saving the best schadenfreude for last...

And finally, a break from the snark.