Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Speaking of oracles

This is Joseph

Marginal Revolution pointed me to this quote by Peter Thiel:
[Thiel] has described British people’s affection for the state-backed health service as “Stockholm syndrome.”

The venture capitalist’s comments came during a Q&A session after a speech at the Oxford Union, a 200-year-old debating society, on Monday. He also said that the crisis-stricken health service, currently grappling with strikes and long wait times for emergency care, was making people sick and needs “market mechanisms” to fix it. Such mechanisms include privatizing parts of it, avoiding rationing and loosening regulations…

“In theory, you just rip the whole thing from the ground and start over,” Thiel said after an address in which he argued that a perceived fear of disruption was holding back technological and scientific developments. “In practice, you have to somehow make it all backwards-compatible in all these ridiculous British ways.” 

Let me be blunt. I can improve any pension plan by starting over and no longer needing to pay out previous obligations. It's trivial.

The political challenge is that older adults have paid into the NHS their entire working life. The National Health Service (NHS) started in 1948, only a few people over 90 will have worked at any point in their career without contributing to the national health care plan. Tear it down might be ok, if and only if the new package of services are equivalent. Privatizing and avoiding rationing, together, make it hard to see how services can be maintained. Further, if a major infrastructure projects go way overtime or fail then that is one thing -- but if it is an entire healthcare system is being rebuilt there is a lot of risk inherent in loss of services or poor performance. 

How can you impose a market mechanism without these risks? Now maybe radical change is a good decision in the face of an unsustainable problem. But let us not fool ourselves that it will be  cheaper, just as comprehensive and have equal or better outcomes. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Supply side reforms

This is Joseph.

Following up on Jan 27th's post about resilience, I want to really engage why supply side reforms are tricky. The Canadian example is physicians, the capacity of which has been reduced over time to curb demand by restricting supply. In the short term, this can create efficiency and there can be benefits.

For example, food restrictions can reduce the consequences of diabetes:
During the Franco-Prussian War of the early 1870s, the French physician Apollinaire Bouchardat noted that his diabetic patients' symptoms improved due to war-related food rationing, and he developed individualized diets as diabetes treatments.

It is probably true that, in the very short term, restricting food availability in North America could end up creating some health benefits. But it could also go desperately wrong if this overshot and there was a famine. The consequences of a famine are worse than what one is trying to treat, as we see from the lifetime ill effects from the Dutch famine in WW2.  

Another good example of supply restrictions going terribly wrong is in housing. Tight housing restrictions start off by offering benefits (e.g., adequate parking) but can quickly go very, very wrong. What started looking like a good plan for improving livability has turned into an exodus away from crushing housing prices. Once again, a supply side solution shows extremely poor resilience. 

So the point here is a general skepticism about the consequences of this style of reform. It is easy because it lets you address a problem (i.e., increasing medical costs) in a way that the consequences are diffused (wait times are just a little but longer, just a few fewer people get careers as physicians) so that the political costs are minimized. But the consequence appears, increasingly to induce fragility. It is over 40 years since Ronald Reagan made supply side solutions popular -- could it be time for a serious rethink on what we've learned? 

P.S. See this great comment by Josh Marshall

In the long run, it is rarely a good thing to have a weak bench of workers when you suddenly need them. 

Monday, January 30, 2023

Deferred Thursday Tweets -- TBH, I have trouble arguing against "unvaccinated sperm is the next Bitcoin"

I know this isn't new information, but take a minute and let the following sink in:

1. While many in the mainstream press (particularly the NYT) have been visibly pleased at the thought of Ron DeSantis taking the nomination from Trump, the one issues that genuinely divides the two men is the former president's role in developing (and continued desire to take credit for) covid vaccines. DeSantis has also tacked to the right by being even more trans and homophobic than Trump, but it is with the anti-vaxxers that he has truly set himself apart;

2.  Though it's difficult to define our terms exactly, a large part, possibly a majority, of the GOP are to some degree anti-vaxxers. Many, particularly in the MAGA base, also believe that the covid vaccines is a leading cause of death among the otherwise healthy. There is also a widespread belief that one can literally catch the vaccine and suffer serious effects (including death) by coming into contact with the vaccinated.

3. By the standards of today's Republican Party, none of this qualifies as fringe. You can find these beliefs alluded to and sometimes openly espoused by members of congress, scholars at think tanks, public health officials, powerful journalists, and influencers with massive followings.

And the funniest exchange.

Though it is easy to have a laugh at the crazies, this remains a frightening story, not only because of the damage these people can do, but because, while there are notable exceptions, I honestly don't believe that sane people have come to terms with this level of craziness and its implications. (For my thoughts on this, you might start with our feral disinformation posts.)

Now on with the tweets.

No analyst came out of 2022 looking better than Tom Bonier

More on the Social Security beat.

I should have posted this while it was still topical, but I can't resist a good "how many licks" parody.

I'd make a Foley artist joke if anyone out there knew what a Foley artist was.

Great thread.

Friday, January 27, 2023


 This is Joseph

I wanted to highlight this recent article by Chris Dillow. He doesn't use quite the examples that I would but it is very much a critique of how we have ended up creating a rather fragile system. 

The auto industry was a pioneer of just in time inventory, which was a major savings and a notable improvement in efficiency. But the global shortage of computer chips for cars was a clear example of that system not building in redundancy for a slowdown in sales nor could it pivot quickly when there was a supply interruption. 

Medical systems in Canada experienced a great deal of cuts over the years, to try and save on costs. Health economists convinced premier Bob Rae that you could save costs by reducing capacity, a goal continued by many left of center successors.  This worked well, at first, by increasing efficiency and forcing the health care system to focus on priority cases. But it was left mortally vulnerable to a demand side shock (like a pandemic). It is also notable that they kept this process up even as the large baby boom cohort aged, creating exactly the inverse age pyramid that accelerates a crisis. 

Chris Dillow's conclusion is exactly right:

This issue is, however, off the political agenda. One of the many defects of our political debate is a belief that things will be tolerable if only we could find the right people; this is Bonnie Tylerism, holding out for a hero. This, however, is the wrong question. We should be looking not for good people but for the right institutions, selection mechanisms and processes - devices which would make our economy and politics more resilient to idiots or crooks

In many ways this is also a critique of the general culture of needing "the right people" or the "lone genius" model of success. Mark has been discussing a famous businessman lately, and part of what makes that situation so clearly tragic is that good business plans should still work if the leader is distracted by acquiring a social media company. The corporate plan should also include the real world challenges that arise, when considering realistic targets.  The same way that people say that a policy would have worked had it been "done right" need to accept human fallibility as a design constraint for a good plan. 

None of this is to say that efficiency is bad or that we need to guard against every conceivable tail risk. But I suspect the last few years would have gone better in Canada if there had been a modicum of planning around "what if something goes wrong?".

Thursday, January 26, 2023

As Columbo might say, just one more thing about our previous post

A few days ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a piece arguing that when Elon Musk put drivers' lives at risk with dangerous products, he is actually performing a "blunt utilitarian calculus," tolerating short term sacrifices (not coincidentally from other people) in order to advance his life-saving technologies.

I pushed back.

With the complicated exception of SpaceX, none of Musk's businesses are on the cutting edge of anything. In autonomous  driving, AI, solar cell development, brain-machine interfaces, tunneling machines, and countless other technologies where Musk has promised revolutionary disruptions, his companies are, at best, in the middle of the pack and, in some cases, not making any serious effort at all. (On a related note, despite attempts to muddy the waters with creative statistics, Tesla spends far less than any of its major competitors on R&D)
A few hours after that posted, I came across this perfect coda from Consumer Reports.

Of the 12 ADA systems we just finished testing, Ford BlueCruise came out on top, followed by Cadillac Super Cruise and Mercedes-Benz Driver Assistance. Tesla, once an innovator in ADA with its Autopilot system, fell from its second-place showing in 2020 to seventh this time around—about the middle of the pack. That’s because Tesla hasn’t changed Autopilot’s basic functionality much since it first came out, instead just adding more features to it, says Fisher. “After all this time, Autopilot still doesn’t allow collaborative steering and doesn’t have an effective driver monitoring system. While other automakers have evolved their ACC and LCA systems, Tesla has simply fallen behind.”


Wednesday, January 25, 2023

"Elon Musk’s Appetite for Destruction" is nothing compared to his appetite for suckers

 While a lot of people (your humble bloggers included) were skeptical from the beginning of the tech messiah narrative in general and Musk as a real life Tony Stark in particular, there were real accomplishments coming out of both SpaceX and Tesla and it was easy to get caught up in the moment. Besides, where was the harm? Rockets, electric cars, solar cells... these were all good things. Even if Musk was a bit of a snake oil salesman, his heart certainly seemed to be in the right place. 

It wasn't until four or five years ago that it became obvious to anyone even casually following the story that Musk was neither genius nor altruist. He was simply a moderately talented grifter with no background in or talent for engineering who came along at the right time. Early on he hired some very smart engineers who did produce some impressive advances at SpaceX and solved some daunting manufacturing challenges at Tesla, but it quickly became clear that not only was Musk not the brains behind these things; he didn't even have a basic grasp of the underlying concepts.

Putting aside a few sycophants and Flavor-aid drinkers, everyone on the front lines has seen through the con. Whether it's the LA Times, the NYT, CNBC, Bloomberg, Business Insider, the reporters who work this beat have learned to be skeptical of both his claims and his intentions.

 Somehow, though, with the exception of the LAT (where pretty much the whole paper was onto the guy from the beginning), word never made it up the chain to the editors and star journalists. It's true that Musk's reputation has been tarnished by infantile displays, Covid denial, and the embrace of the alt-right, but that just makes the story better. Now he's a flawed hero, brilliant but self-destructive, trying to save the world despite his personal demons. 

Which brings us to Christopher Cox's piece for the New York Times Magazine.

Peter Thiel, Musk’s former business partner at PayPal, once said that if he wrote a book, the chapter about Musk would be called “The Man Who Knew Nothing About Risk.” But that’s a misunderstanding of Musk’s attitude: If you parse his statements, he presents himself as a man who simply embraces astonishing amounts of present-day risk in the rational assumption of future gains. 


Some of Musk’s most questionable decisions, though, begin to make sense if seen as a result of a blunt utilitarian calculus. Last month, Reuters reported that Neuralink, Musk’s medical-device company, had caused the needless deaths of dozens of laboratory animals through rushed experiments. Internal messages from Musk made it clear that the urgency came from the top. “We are simply not moving fast enough,” he wrote. “It is driving me nuts!” The cost-benefit analysis must have seemed clear to him: Neuralink had the potential to cure paralysis, he believed, which would improve the lives of millions of future humans. The suffering of a smaller number of animals was worth it.

This form of crude long-term-ism,* in which the sheer size of future generations gives them added ethical weight, even shows up in Musk’s statements about buying Twitter. He called Twitter a “digital town square” that was responsible for nothing less than preventing a new American civil war. “I didn’t do it to make more money,” he wrote. “I did it to try to help humanity, whom I love.”


Autopilot and F.S.D. represent the culmination of this approach. “The overarching goal of Tesla engineering,” Musk wrote, “is maximize area under user happiness curve.” Unlike with Twitter or even Neuralink, people were dying as a result of his decisions — but no matter. In 2019, in a testy exchange of email with the activist investor and steadfast Tesla critic Aaron Greenspan, Musk bristled at the suggestion that Autopilot was anything other than lifesaving technology. “The data is unequivocal that Autopilot is safer than human driving by a significant margin,” he wrote. “It is unethical and false of you to claim otherwise. In doing so, you are endangering the public.”

There are serious debates to be had about the trade-offs between short term sacrifices and long term benefits to mankind that can come from research in autonomous systems, AI, and medicine, but none of these debates will feature Tesla or Neuralink, These avoidable car crashes and animals being tortured to death serve no purpose other than to enhance Elon Musk's super-genius brand and to directly or indirectly pump the value of Tesla.  

Musk's fame and adoration, his sense of identity, and the vast majority of his wealth all come from the perception that he is one of the world's greatest engineers and inventors, which is a big problem given that Musk is not only not an engineer, he has never shown any talent in the field even by layman standards.

Even down something like two thirds from its peak last year, Tesla is still wildly overvalued based on conventional metrics for an auto company. The stock price only makes sense if people assume that some wonderful new breakthrough is just around the corner. But the product pipeline appears to be largely empty. The company hasn't introduced a new car for years. Despite having had a head start, the cybertruck was beaten to market by multiple competitors. The semi is a joke. The humanoid robot Optimus looks like something from a science fair, decades behind what we have come to expect from Boston Dynamics, not to mention other car companies like Honda.



With the complicated exception of SpaceX, none of Musk's businesses are on the cutting edge of anything. In autonomous  driving, AI, solar cell development, brain-machine interfaces, tunneling machines, and countless other technologies where Musk has promised revolutionary disruptions, his companies are, at best, in the middle of the pack and, in some cases, not making any serious effort at all. (On a related note, despite attempts to muddy the waters with creative statistics, Tesla spends far less than any of its major competitors on R&D)

Given all this, the "rational assumption of future gains" argument is simply absurd, and anyone who still buys this or the line about Elon's love of humanity needs to talk to the people who actually cover Musk for a living.

* Longtermism: a philosophical school which argues that we should give billionaires more money and which has proven surprisingly popular with billionaires.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Understanding ChatGPT

From the Kids in the Hall:

Monday, January 23, 2023

Reposted for no particular reason.

Monday, December 7, 2020

On the bright side, how much damage could one of the world's three richest men with the personality of a cult leader do?

Cult is a dangerous term to throw around and it obviously doesn't apply in the narrow sense to Musk's followers, but there are some aspects that give one pause.

Take a look at the following list from former FBI agent Joe Novarro [emphasis added]:

If you know of a cult leader who has many of these traits there is a high probability that they are hurting those around them emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually, or financially. And of course this does not take into account the hurt that their loved ones will also experience. 
Here are the typical traits of the pathological cult leader (from Dangerous Personalities) you should watch for and which shout caution, get away, run, or avoid if possible:

    He has a grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance.

    Demands blind unquestioned obedience.

    Requires excessive admiration from followers and outsiders.

    Has a sense of entitlement - expecting to be treated special at all times.

    Is exploitative of others by asking for their money or that of relatives putting others at financial risk.

    Is arrogant and haughty in his behavior or attitude.

    Has an exaggerated sense of power (entitlement) that allows him to bend rules and break laws.

    Takes sexual advantage of members of his sect or cult.

    Sex is a requirement with adults and sub adults as part of a ritual or rite.

    Is hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others.

    Publicly devalues others as being inferior, incapable, or not worthy.

    Makes members confess their sins or faults publicly subjecting them to ridicule or humiliation while revealing exploitable weaknesses of the penitent.

    Has ignored the needs of others, including: biological, physical, emotional, and financial needs.

    Is frequently boastful of accomplishments.

    Needs to be the center of attention and does things to distract others to insure that he or she is being noticed by arriving late, using exotic clothing, overdramatic speech, or by making theatrical entrances.

    Has insisted in always having the best of anything (house, car, jewelry, clothes) even when others are relegated to lesser facilities, amenities, or clothing.

    Doesn’t seem to listen well to needs of others, communication is usually one-way in the form of dictates.

    Haughtiness, grandiosity, and the need to be controlling is part of his personality.

    Behaves as though people are objects to be used, manipulated or exploited for personal gain.

    When criticized he tends to lash out not just with anger but with rage.

    Anyone who criticizes or questions him is called an “enemy.”

    Refers to non-members or non-believers in him as “the enemy.”

    Acts imperious at times, not wishing to know what others think or desire.

    Believes himself to be omnipotent.

    Has “magical” answers or solutions to problems.

    Is superficially charming.

    Habitually puts down others as inferior and only he is superior.

    Has a certain coldness or aloofness about him that makes others worry about who this person really is and or whether they really know him.

    Is deeply offended when there are perceived signs of boredom, being ignored or of being slighted.

    Treats others with contempt and arrogance.

    Is constantly assessing for those who are a threat or those who revere him.

    The word “I” dominates his conversations.

    He is oblivious to how often he references himself.

    Hates to be embarrassed or fail publicly - when he does he acts out with rage.

  Doesn’t seem to feel guilty for anything he has done wrong nor does he apologize for his actions.

    Believes he possesses the answers and solutions to world problems.

    Believes himself to be a deity or a chosen representative of a deity.

    Rigid, unbending, or insensitive describes how this person thinks.

    Tries to control others in what they do, read, view, or think.

    Has isolated members of his sect from contact with family or outside world.

    Monitors and or restricts contact with family or outsiders.

    Works the least but demands the most.

    Has stated that he is “destined for greatness” or that he will be “martyred.”

    Seems to be highly dependent of tribute and adoration and will often fish for compliments.

    Uses enforcers or sycophants to insure compliance from members or believers.

    Sees self as “unstoppable” perhaps has even said so.

    Conceals background or family which would disclose how plain or ordinary he is.

    Doesn’t think there is anything wrong with himself – in fact sees himself as perfection or “blessed.”

    Has taken away the freedom to leave, to travel, to pursue life, and liberty of followers.

    Has isolated the group physically (moved to a remote area) so as to not be observed.

Friday, January 20, 2023

We needed that

From SF meteorologist Drew Tuma.

Start of September...

To mid-January.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

"Has it really been ten years" ago at the blog -- When 3D printing was just about to change everything

Don't get me wrong. This is amazing technology with incredible promise, especially in the field of medicine, but it's probably not on the verge of revolutionizing our lives and it certainly wasn't on the verge ten years ago.


Monday, January 7, 2013

The Ddulite Bifurcation

From inappropriate aggregation to silly juxtapositions.

For the original definition of Ddulite check the link. For now it's sufficient to say we're talking about people (particularly journalists) who have an emotional, gee-whiz reaction to technology without really thinking seriously about the functionality.

Ddulite journalists can be spotted by a few defining characteristics: a remarkable ability to be impressed by the unimpressive; a focus on shiny, sexy toys; a tendency to report on technologies that really aren't that close as being just around the corner; a recurring amnesia about the slow development of similar technologies; general obliviousness to questions about implementation and demand; and what we might call the ddulite bifurcation.

The typical bifurcation consists of two applications of a new technology, one application mundane but realistic, the other impressive but so wildly ambitious that it may not even be theoretically possible with the technology being discussed.

I was going to make up an absurd example here but now that I think about it, I'm not sure I could do better than this actual story from Planet Money. The subject is 3-D printers and it's worth listening to.The Planet Money people are good, solid reporters and they do a reasonable job putting things in economic context, even bringing in Tyler Cowen to shoot down some of the more extravagant this-is-the-future claims.

But you can count on any story like this to have at least a few ddulite moments and you can certainly find them here, including this classic bifurcation. First we get this claim from a CEO named Pete Weijmarshausen:
Now, I think in a few years, we can print clothing, and then you can have clothing without sizes, but you have the size that fits you.
(Note the qualifiers here: "I think"; "in a few years.")

This is followed a few lines later by analyst Terry Wohlers saying:
WOHLERS: You lose a finger, you print out a new one.
CHACE: Yeah, like, actual body parts, printing out new fingers using your cells.
WOHLERS: Bones and bladders and eventually kidneys and so forth.
(glad he put the "eventually" qualifier with kidneys)

At the risk of belaboring the obvious and working under the assumption that most of you reading this know waaaay more about regenerative medicine and therapeutic cloning than I do, the day when we can easily grow new limbs is probably not just around the corner. Important fundamental research is being done and it's reasonable to talk about being able to do this someday but it could be a long way off. As for 3D printing approaches, we seem to be at the appears to be theoretically possible stage where we can work with masses of tissue rather than just a few cells by creating synthetic vascular systems.

This is exciting research but it's the sort of thing that's probably years away if it ever proves viable. Like most reporting about nanotech, the story mixes the ongoing with the theoretically possible in a way that obscures the huge gap between the two.


Wednesday, January 18, 2023

A Primer on the Western Water Crisis

ProPublica investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten has written around a couple of dozen articles exploring the complex problems facing the Southwest in the age of drought and deluge, but if you don't have that much time, you can spend forty-five minutes listening to this interview from Fresh Air. Excellent quick overview.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Is this conversation from 2019 something we need to revisit?

I don't know enough about this to offer an opinion about this, but if we're entering an age of drought and deluge, I want to hear about all our options.

 Paul Rogers writing for the Mercury News May 2, 2019

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday drove the final nail into the coffin of the most controversial water project in California in more than 30 years: Gov. Jerry Brown’s $19 billion plan to build two massive tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to make it easier to move water from the north to the south.

The Newsom administration announced it is withdrawing permit applications that the Brown administration had submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and several federal agencies.

Instead, the administration said it will begin environmental studies on a one-tunnel project.

“A smaller project, coordinated with a wide variety of actions to strengthen existing levee protections, protect Delta water quality, recharge depleted groundwater reserves and strengthen local water supplies across the state will build California’s water supply resilience,” said Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot in a statement.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Have a safe and contemplative Martin Luther King Jr. Day

 “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”


Thursday, January 12, 2023

Thursday Tweets -- King Elon's Mines

When members of the Musk family disagree, you don't know who to disbelieve, at least until someone starts digging up old interviews. 

Humble beginnings were always a key part of the careful crafted persona of the Tesla CEO. There were always holes in the story, but most slipped by without much attention except for the family emerald mine. Musk's father talks about it often; Elon (and his mother) dismiss the accounts. I always considered it a he-said/he-said. Now I learn it's a he-said/he-said-but-he-didn't-used-to-say.

I haven't seen the Ask Men piece, but you can find the Forbes interview here.

Another big part of the persona is his supposed mastery of first principles thinking. As with engineering, he has learned the terminology, but he doesn't seem to have a strong grasp of the underlying concepts.

Missy Cummings is an engineering professor and part of the NHTSA. She's also one of the leading authorities on human-autonomous system collaboration.

When trying to understand Musk, remember, he has cultivated millions of followers like this.

On a related note.

Checking in on Twitter:

 Musk made a lot of big claims about the reliability of the Tesla Semi ("a million miles" got thrown around). There already appear to be at least two or three breakdowns, which seems like a lot given the small number of trucks on the road and the small number of miles driven.

Some important points about perceptions of regulation from the guy who wrote the book on Tesla.


Niedermeyer also has a great take on the Boring Company's biggest achievement.