Friday, March 23, 2018

Self driving cars

This is Joseph.

A few thoughts on the recent automated car crash.
  1. The cars need to be able to operate without safety drivers to actually do what pundits want (driverless taxis, shared cars).  If they require a safety driver that is a bad thing.
  2. It sure seems like the failure here was pretty central.  This should have been a case where the car sensors give it an advantage over a human driver.
  3. It is a non sequitur to say that the car was following the rules of the road.  Complex urban areas often have many actions that are technically illegal. Ramming rulebreakers at full speed will make traffic much worse and less safe, not better.  
  4. There is a hint of catastrophic failure here and in the Tesla crash. This means that we need the rate to be lower than for human piloted cars, as severity of incidents may be higher.
  5. Automatic software updates are going to be exciting, as a bad patch is not going to be pretty.  
Mike the Mad Biologist did an estimate of the accident rate. Using his figures the fatal crash rates per billion passenger miles (bpm)

Cars 7.28 per  bpm
Buses 0.11 per bpm
Motorcycles 213 bpm

Duncan Black estimates the Uber rate at:

333 per bpm

Now it is true that there is one crash so far. But if we assume that crashes are uniformly distributed across the whole driving time, it is worrisome to see the fatal crash happen in the first 5% of the 140 million passenger miles driven.  It surely could have happened here by chance.  But it isn't a reassuring piece of data.

This is doubly true as we'd like self-driving cars to be as safe as buses, if we are going to eliminate public transit with a network of cars.  .

None of this is to say that making cars smarter is a bad thing.  But it points out the challenges for some of the more extreme applications, like self-driving taxis.  It isn't clear to me that focusing on improved public transit isn't a viable alternative.  

"Adam ruins Facebook"

A bit of a quibble. There is reason to be a bit skeptical about some of these claims of the amazing predictive and persuasive power of this kind of targeted marketing (more on that later), but before you start feeling too relieved, there is also a reason to believe that this data could be used to do far worse things than encourage a bacon lover to overindulge.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Tech revisionism and the myth of the killer app

I'm wondering if anyone else there occasionally has a "blogger moment." It is similar to a "senior moment," but it involves either thinking you posted something that you didn't or failing to remember you posted something that you did. I had one of these this morning when I went looking for what I'd written at the time about this egregious piece of tech revisionism by NPR's Laura Sydell.
Years later, an Edison assistant wrote: "We were sitting around. We'd been working on the telephone — yelling into diaphragms. And Edison turned to me, and he said, 'If we put a needle or a pin on this diaphragm, it'll vibrate, and if we pull a strip of wax paper underneath it, it should leave marks. And then if we pull that piece of paper back, we should hear the talking.' "

Yet, no one knew what to do with this invention. It took 20 years to figure out that music was the killer app.
Even a cursory check of the historic record would show that the ability to record and reproduce (since that's what we mean when we talk about "recording" technology) spoken words, music, etc. was instantly hailed as a major discovery, that people immediately saw the potential, particularly for music, and that there was from day one an enormous push by a wide range of inventors and engineers to get the technology commercially viable.

These illustrations from the October 12, 1889 issue of Scientific American illustrate the point.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Repost: Given Facebook's current scandals, this seems like a good time to revisit this argument

I don't know if I've actually come out and said this in so many words but Facebook should be forced to divest itself of Instagram (along similar lines, Google should be forced to divest itself of YouTube, but that's a topic for another day). As we've previously mentioned, mid-20th-century regulators would never have allowed Facebook to become this large or to achieve this level of monopoly power. They certainly would not have allowed it to hang on to Instagram as well.

Having Instagram in competition with Facebook would not solve the problem but it would address it in at least a couple of ways. First, to belabor the obvious, competition is good. Second, Facebook has a widely noted aging demographic problem (in my very limited personal experience, the older the friend the more hours he or she spends on the platform). At this rate, if the company is not allowed to grow through acquisition, the Facebook problem might just take care of itself in time.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

As if you didn't have enough to worry about

[This is another one of those too-topical-to-ignore topics that I don't have nearly enough time to do justice to, but I suppose that's why God invented blogging.]

There's a huge problem that people aren't talking about nearly enough. More troublingly, when it does get discussed, it is usually treated as a series of unrelated problems, much like a cocaine addict who complains about his drug problem, bankruptcy, divorce, and encounters with loan sharks, but who never makes a causal connection between the items on the list.

Think about all of the recent news stories that are about or are a result of concentration/deregulation of media power and the inevitable consequences. Obviously, net neutrality falls under this category. So does the role that Facebook, and, to a lesser extent, Twitter played in the misinformation that influenced the 2016 election. The role of the platform monopolies in the ongoing implosion of digital journalism has been widely discussed by commentators like Josh Marshall. The Time Warner/AT&T merger has gotten coverage primarily due to the ethically questionable involvement of Donald Trump, with very little being said about the numerous other concerns. Outside of a few fan boys excited over the possibility of seeing the X-Men fight the Avengers, almost no one's talking about Disney's Fox acquisition.

It didn't used to be like this. For most of the 20th century, the government kept a vigilant watch for even potential accumulation of media power. Ownership was restricted. Movie studios were forced to sell their theaters (see United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc). The largest radio network was effectively forced to split in two (that's why we have ABC broadcasting today). Media companies were tightly regulated, their workforce was heavily unionized, and they were forced to jump through all manner of hoops before expanding into new markets to insure that the public good was being served.

In short, the companies were subjected to conditions which we have been told prevent growth, stifle innovation, and kill jobs. We can never know what would've happened had the government given these companies a freer hand but we can say with certainty that for media, the Post-war era was a period of explosive growth, fantastic advances, and incredible successes both economically and culturally. It's worth noting that the biggest entertainment franchises of the market-worshiping, anything-goes 21st century were mostly created under the yoke of 20th century regulation.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


If there's an engineer in the audience, I'd very much like to know what the relationship is between this very cool 1890 system and the history of linear induction trains.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Echo Park Gentrification Watch

While there is always room for the unique and the exceptionally good, Echo Park does not really need another restaurant. It definitely does not need another chain restaurant. And, above all, it does not need a Chipotle.

Before gentrification, Echo Park was primarily known as a Mexican neighborhood and this stretch of Sunset Boulevard has always offered a wealth of spots for burritos and agua fresca and Mexican pastries. These are mostly locally owned businesses and all have deep ties to the community and its culture. When well-funded, heavily marketed franchises move in, the existing businesses get hit from two sides: they lose customers to the new places and they see their rents go up.

I sometimes think the concept of cultural misappropriation is overused, but it's difficult to avoid in this particular case. A Mexican American community seeing its local dining scene being invaded by a trendy the corporate restaurant serving some consumer-research team's idea of Mexican food.

Part of the problem with discussing gentrifying neighborhoods is that, in the early stages, almost everyone is a winner. Crime goes down. Existing businesses start seeing more customers which leads to more hiring. Night life picks up and with it arts and culture. In almost every way, things have gotten better.

Then comes the phase where the original residents and businesses  start finding themselves forced out. Well established locally owned places find it difficult to compete against well financed operations with higher prices, larger capacity and much bigger marketing budgets. Apartment dwellers seee steady increases in rent.

A little later, the younger "creative class" types who started the process are forced out as well along with the independent shops and coffee houses that can no longer hold off the high end retail outlets eyeing their spots.

We are often told that you can't have the first part without the last, that simply stopping when things were good for everyone would violate some kind of natural law. This might be true, or it might be that there's a tremendous amount of money to be made in these last stages, and the people making that money are controlling the narrative.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Twonky

This is not a good movie.

Despite an interesting filmmaker and a fun lead, it's difficult getting through this one in a single sitting.

It is, however of interest as probably the first demonic television set movie, a genre that would go on to include Poltergeist, Videodrome, and many less memorable efforts. Though the Twonky was not released until 1953, it was completed in '51, just four or five years after television became a national medium.

Particularly when you take into account the rollout schedule of stations, the speed with which TV became one of, if not the, dominant cultural and political force, and one of the dominant economic forces in the country is astounding. The revolution did not go unnoticed at the time. Writers and cultural critics penned any number of alarmist essays and stories. I suspect that no medium before or since has created quite as intense a feeling of anxiety.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Repost Thursday -- Some threads Iwe'll want to revisit III

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Republicans' 3 x 3 existential threat

I've argued previously that Donald Trump presents and existential threat to the Republican Party. I know this can sound overheated and perhaps even a bit crazy. There are few American institutions as long-standing and deeply entrenched as are the Democratic and Republican parties. Proposing that one of them might not be around 10 years from now beggars the imagination and if this story started and stopped with Donald Trump, it would be silly to suggest we were on the verge of  a political cataclysm.

But, just as Trump's rise did not occur in a vacuum, neither will his fall. We discussed earlier how Donald Trump has the power to drive a wedge between the Republican Party and a significant segment of its base [I wrote this before the departure of Steve Bannon. That may diminish Trump's ability to create this rift but I don't think it reduces the chances of the rift happening. – – M.P.]. This is the sort of thing that can profoundly damage a political party, possibly locking it into a minority status for a long time, but normally the wound would not be fatal. These, however, are not normal times.

The Republican Party of 2017 faces a unique combination of interrelated challenges, each of which is at a historic level and the combination of which would present an unprecedented threat to this or any US political party. The following list is not intended to be exhaustive, but it hits the main points.

The GOP currently has to deal with extraordinary political scandals, a stunningly unpopular agenda and daunting demographic trends. To keep things symmetric and easy to remember, let's break each one of these down to three components (keeping in mind that the list may change).

With the scandals:

1. Money – – Even with the most generous reading imaginable, there is no question that Trump has a decades long record of screwing people over, skirting the law, and dealing with disreputable and sometimes criminal elements. At least some of these dealings have been with the Russian mafia, oligarchs, and figures tied in with the Kremlin which leads us to…

2. The hacking of the election – – This one is also beyond dispute. It happened and it may have put Donald Trump into the White House. At this point, we have plenty of quid and plenty of quo; if Mueller can nail down pro, we will have a complete set.

3. And the cover-up – – As Josh Marshall and many others have pointed out, the phrase "it's not the crime; it's the cover-up" is almost never true. That said, coverups can provide tipping points and handholds for investigators, not to mention expanding the list of culprits.

With the agenda:

1. Health care – – By some standards the most unpopular major policy proposal in living memory that a party in power has invested so deeply in. Furthermore, the pushback against the initiative has essentially driven congressional Republicans into hiding from their own constituents for the past half year. As mentioned before, this has the potential to greatly undermine the relationship between GOP senators and representatives and the voters.

2. Tax cuts for the wealthy – – As said many times, Donald Trump has a gift for making the subtle plain, the plain obvious, and the obvious undeniable. In the past, Republicans were able to get a great deal of upward redistribution of the wealth past the voters through obfuscation and clever branding, but we have reached the point where simply calling something "tax reform" is no longer enough to sell tax proposals so regressive that even the majority of Republicans oppose them.

3. Immigration (subject to change) – – the race for third place in this list is fairly competitive (education seems to be coming up on the outside), but the administration's immigration policies (which are the direct result of decades of xenophobic propaganda from conservative media) have already done tremendous damage, caused great backlash, and are whitening the gap between the GOP and the Hispanic community, which leads us to…


As Lindsey Graham has observed, they simply are not making enough new old white men to keep the GOP's strategy going much longer, but the Trump era rebranding of the Republican Party only exacerbates the problems with women, young people, and pretty much anyone who isn't white.

Maybe I am missing a historical precedent here, but I can't think of another time that either the Democrats or the Republicans were this vulnerable on all three of these fronts. This does not mean that the party is doomed or even that, with the right breaks, it can't maintain a hold on some part of the government. What it does mean is that the institution is especially fragile at the moment. A mortal blow may not come, but we can no longer call it unthinkable.

Repost Thursday -- Some threads Iwe'll want to revisit II

Thursday, March 2, 2017

There will be safe seats. There are no safe seats.

In 2017, we have a perfect example of when not to use static thinking and naïve extrapolation.

Not only are things changing rapidly, but, more importantly, there are a large number of entirely plausible scenarios that would radically reshape the political landscape and would undoubtedly interact in unpredictable ways. This is not "what if the ax falls?" speculation; if anything, have gotten to the point where the probability of at least one of these cataclysmic shifts happening is greater than the probability of none. And while we can't productively speculate on exactly how things will play out, we can say that the risks fall disproportionately on the Republicans.

Somewhat paradoxically, chaos and uncertainty can make certain strategic decisions easier. Under more normal (i.e. stable) circumstances it makes sense to expend little or no resources on unwinnable fights (or, conversely,  to spend considerable time and effort deciding what's winnable). The very concept of "unwinnable," however, is based on a whole string of assumptions, many of which we cannot make under the present conditions.

The optimal strategy under the circumstances for the Democrats is to field viable candidates for, if possible, every major 2018 race. This is based on the assumption not that every seat is winnable, but that no one can, at this point, say with a high level of confidence what the winnable seats are.

Repost Thursday -- Some threads Iwe'll want to revisit I

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Though, to be perfectly fair, Tennessee has always been a hotbed of leftist radicals

We have all heard the statistics about how difficult it is for a Congressional representative to lose his or her job. This is partially because of things like gerrymandering and spigots of campaign cash, but it also reflects a process that does a pretty good job allowing a reasonably competent and dedicated legislator to keep the constituents fairly happy in his or her district. A big part of that process is the maintaining of good relationships and lines of communication with voters and communities. Many political career has ended when voters felt someone had "lost touch with the people back home."

In this context, stories like the following from Talking Points Memo's Allegra Kirkland take on a special significance.
Constituents requesting that Rep. Jimmy Duncan Jr. (R-TN) hold a town hall on repealing the Affordable Care Act aren't being met with a polite brushoff from staffers anymore. Instead, Duncan's office has started sending out a form letter telling them point-blank that he has no intention to hold any town hall meetings.

“I am not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals,” the letter read, according to a copy obtained by the Maryville Daily Times. “Also, I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them.”

In the first weeks of the 115th Congress, elected officials dropping by their home districts were surprised to find town halls packed to the rafters with concerned constituents. Caught off guard and on camera, lawmakers were asked to defend President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and provide a timeline on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

Now, many of them are skipping out on these events entirely. Some have said large meetings are an ineffective format for addressing individual concerns. Many others have, like the President himself, dismissed those questioning their agenda as “paid protesters” or radical activists who could pose a physical threat.

Voters turning out to town halls are pushing back hard on this characterization, arguing that they represent varied ideological backgrounds and have diverse issues to raise. Constituents unable to meet with their elected officials over the weekend told TPM that they’re not attending town hall events to make trouble. Instead, they say they want accountability from the people they pay to represent them.

Kim Mattoch, a mother of three and event planner, told TPM that she tried to go to a Saturday town hall in Roseville, California with GOP Rep. Tom McClintock but couldn’t make it in. The 200-seat theater hosting the event was quickly filled to capacity, leaving hundreds waiting outside.

“I’m a constituent of McClintock and a registered Republican in a very Republican district—though I don’t really align very well these days with the Republican Party,” Mattoch said in a Monday phone call. “So I wanted to go to the town hall because I legitimately had questions for the congressman.”

Mattoch said the protesters waiting outside had a wide range of “legitimate concerns.” She personally hoped to ask her representative about how the GOP was progressing on repealing and replacing the ACA and why House Republicans last week voted to kill a ruling aimed at preventing coal mining debris from ending up in waterways.

Yet McClintock told the Los Angeles Times that he thought an “anarchist element” was present in the crowd outside his event, and said he was escorted to his car by police because he’d been told the atmosphere was “deteriorating.”

Ramon Fliek, who attended the McClintock event with his wife, told TPM on Monday that police “were kind enough to block the whole road” to make space for the overflow crowd, and that he overheard protesters thanking law enforcement for “doing their jobs.”

“If you look at the videos from the event, you can’t get any notion that it was aggressive,” he said. “There was an older woman with a poodle that ran after him and it’s like, okay, the older lady with the poodle is not going to threaten you. I understand that he might want to give that impression, but it was very pleasant.”
Admittedly, it is a long time until midterms, but possibly not long enough to repair this kind of damage.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Part of a wholesome breakfast

As with so many things, the late 19th and early 20th centuries seem to represent the turning point for a modern perspective on nutrition. As far as I can tell, this is the point at which people started thinking of nutrition as a chemistry problem: you take food into a laboratory, analyze the constituent parts, and optimize the things you need while minimizing the things you don't.

The thing that jumps out at the modern reader as particularly off key is the treatment of fiber. I'm assuming “crude” in this context means insoluble, but it is still odd to see fiber treated as an undesirable component.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

When the NIMBYs were primarily motivated by racism and class bigotry, there was no NIMBY backlash.

We've commented before that much of the discussion of urban density, particularly on the advocates' side, tends to be overly simplistic and inappropriately moralistic. This last point is greatly complicated by the fact that historically the motivations for NIMBYism were more often than not pretty repugnant. Opposition to public transportation, low-cost housing, and integration of neighborhoods was based almost entirely on the desire to keep people of color and the poor as far away as possible.

These issues haven't gone away, of course – – try to add another subway stop in Beverly Hills and check out the response you get – – but the NIMBY/YIMBY conflict that makes the news and dominates the public discourse here in Los Angeles (and, I suspect, in the Bay Area as well) has very little racial and class component.

At best, the battle over Santa Monica is a struggle between the top decile and the top quartile. Sometimes, there's not even that much of a class distinction. To be hammer blunt, you have a bunch of well-off people who enjoy the fantastic weather and bland conspicuous consumption of the town and who don't want other well-off people coming in and clogging the place up.

Advocates generally argue that development will drive down prices both in the city of Santa Monica and in the county of Los Angeles. I'm skeptical. While I'm not saying this is a bad approach in general, the arguments I've seen so far seem simplistic and overly linear, and the proposed impacts wildly overoptimistic. I could easily be wrong on these questions but either way, this is not a moral argument and framing it in moralistic terms simply serves to cloud the issues.

Monday, March 12, 2018

We won't even get into the return of vinyl...

I'm assuming that everyone has heard the buggy whip analogy, one of the most shopworn pieces of conventional business wisdom. One of the underlying assumptions, sometimes made explicit depending on who's doing the telling, is that you are always better off abandoning even the best company in a declining industry in order to make the move to a field that's new and growing.

It's important to note that even in declining industries you can find companies that continue to turn a profit for a long time while even in industries that do proved to be the wave of the future, lots of individual companies don't last that long.

Or, put another way, you can still buy a buggy whip from the Westfield Whip Manufacturing Company, but they stopped making Lamberts a long time ago.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The checkers speech was made in 1952.

I know you know that – – everyone knows that – – but think about the implications for a moment. This nationally televised speech is often credited with saving the career of Richard Nixon and making him one of the dominant forces in American politics for the next 20 years. It was unquestionably a turning point in the way that public figures used media, particularly in the face of scandal.

And it happened in 1952.

What's the big deal? Remember that television was still in its experimental phase until the postwar era. It wasn't until around 1947 that it became a national medium and even then, large swaths of the country had no TV stations. The fate of a presidential ticket was determined by something that was, at best, five years old.

When you hear the claim that technology today is changing our lives faster than ever before, remember Checkers.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

All of this would look remarkably modern if not for the horse drawn carriages

What struck me about this 1903 cover from Scientific American was the way planners set aside dedicated spaces for different modes of travel, one  level for pedestrians, one for cyclists, one for automobiles and carriages, and two for trains, an allotment that would no doubt please many urbanists today.

This begs the question, did this approach to urban transportation fall out of fashion? Or was it one of those things that had a way of showing up in proposals but which seldom made it to the groundbreaking?