Friday, March 30, 2018

Ironically, the turn-of-the-century printing technology looks worse because I used images compressed with early 21st century technology.


We've been talking a lot about the late 19th/early 20th centuries and what sets them apart from other periods. We've focused on the magnitude of the changes wrought by technology, but that may be less impressive than the ubiquitousness. When you start digging into the era, it is remarkably difficult to find an area that was not experiencing explosive change.

Even the "mature" technologies were evolving so quickly as to often be unrecognizable. Take printing.  We've already talked about how, by the end of the 19th century, machines requiring a fraction of the space and manpower could do many times the work compared to 50 years earlier. What we left out was the spectacular quality of the work. Photographic reproduction, fine details, beautiful color printing.

The comic strip came out of this technology (helped along by the intense competition of press lords like Hearst and Pulitzer). Initially, the strips were printed one per page and the results could be glorious, most of all when the artist was Winsor McCay (also arguably the father of the animated cartoon, but that's a topic for another post).

















Thursday, March 29, 2018

As soon as the phrase "cartoonishly evil" pops up, you'll probably know where we're headed.


There are cases where the sober, balance, and accurate depiction of the facts will leave the subject coming off as cartoonishly evil. In these cases, if the press is doing its job, the personal brand of these subjects should eventually taint any cause or initiative associated with them.

The first sentence certainly applies to the Koch Brothers. Perhaps the second is starting to as well.
The public benefits of jumping on the KentuckyWired offer would be substantial: Not only would West Louisville get a chance at better access for its homes and businesses, but the city could install fiber-controlled traffic signals, create better and cheaper connectivity for public-safety agencies, and ship data around inexpensively to improve its operations. In a nutshell, the city would build the infrastructure and lease capacity to private internet-service providers. "We were looking at this as our smart city foundation," Grace Simrall, Louisville's chief of civic innovation, says. At least half of the new fiber capacity would be reserved for open access leases, to encourage last-mile retail providers to wire homes and businesses. All for just the cost of the fiber lines.

It seemed to be a no-brainer. “I can't think of a more sensible plan," Simrall says. "I just didn't think that we were going to face opposition on this. We thought surely people would understand that this was a way for us to leapfrog where we were for a fraction of the cost."



That's when Simrall learned who had joined the forces determined to block Louisville from spending a dime on fiber for the city's use: Charles and David Koch, the brothers backing environment-hostile fossil fuels and funding politicians who dole out goodies to the super-rich. "It's widely known that they [the Taxpayers Protection Alliance] receive a lot of funding from the Koch brothers," Simrall says.

The connection between the TPA and the Koch brothers emerged from investigative reporting by ProPublica and others. This work has revealed that the Taxpayers Protection Alliance is a front advocacy group, part of a network of dark-money organizations supported in part by the Koch brothers. (The funding seems not to come from the Koch family directly but instead is funneled through other Koch-funded groups.) TPA’s most recent IRS filing shows it received about half a million dollars in contributions in 2016, but the sources of these contributions are blacked out. Tax-exempt organizations are not required to disclose the names of their donors publicly. David Williams, TPA’s president, told the Louisville Courier-Journal earlier this year that the group receives funding from “a lot of different sources," including groups affiliated with the Koch brothers.



Later that month, there were two dramatic public meetings on the city's budget for the fiber project. The first vote went along party lines, with Republicans voting against any city involvement in fiber. Simrall and her team kept fighting, and managed to convince some Republicans that the city plan made a lot of sense—especially the Republicans from districts that have suffered from digital redlining by incumbents. In the end, at the final budget hearing, the council voted unanimously to approve the request. "It was really quite a thrilling thing," Simrall says.

At the end of the day, the Koch-funded campaign backfired. It helped fire up some council members who might not have understood the importance of city fiber; once they knew the Koch brothers were against it, the city's plan got their attention. "That felt pretty good," Simrall says.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Yes, if you promise something that you know you will probably never deliver, you are lying. Glad I could clear that up for you.

This Wired piece by Erin Griffith shows how the tech community is starting to come to terms with the damage that hype and magical heuristics have wrought. You should read the whole thing but the following seemed worth singling out.
Historically, the startup world’s “fake it till you make it” culture wasn’t a much of a problem; venture investors encouraged startup founders to think big and a high percentage of them fail anyway. So what if someone stretches the truth a little in pursuit of world domination? The nature of technology requires a degree of magical thinking to function. As I wrote in 2016, even the most well-intentioned startup founders have to persuade investors, engineers, and customers to believe in a future where their totally made-up idea will be real:

“That’s not ‘My cola tastes better than yours.’ That’s ‘Let me explain to you how the world’s going to be,’” says Chris Bulger, managing director at Bulger Partners, an investment bank that advises technology companies on acquisitions. “Is that person lying when they turn out to be wrong?”


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

After looking at this 1889 torpedo, you'll find the "Savage" in the name entirely appropriate

Another one of the threads we need to pick up on is how the idea of remote control (both electrical and wireless) changed the way people looked at the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This very cool looking prototype torpedo described in an 1889 issue of Scientific American is a good example.










Monday, March 26, 2018

One more post on the NIMBY/YIMBY debate

[I realize we've covered a lot of this territory before and I apologize for the redundancy, but I thought it might be nice to some everything up in one final post.]

Just to have a framework, let's start with some fundamental assumptions of the conventional urbanist wisdom. These are badly oversimplified, but they should be good enough for our purposes here.

The best and easiest way of alleviating the serious externalities associated with commuting (particularly environmental damage) is by having people move near enough to centers of employment that personal transportation (other than bikes) is not necessary.

The best and easiest way of lowering the often exorbitant rents near the center's is by building up.

The best and easiest way of getting high-capacity housing where we most need it is through market forces.

Putting aside arguments for telecommuting (pretty much by definition the fastest and most efficient way to get to work), here are some of my concerns with this model. Ironically, some of them are fairly closely the concerns that urbanists have about suburban sprawl.

Moving is difficult. Buildings are permanent (and they do have an environmental footprint). One of the hidden social costs of home ownership is that it ties the owner to a specific job market. If you are wedded to the idea of making commuting nondependent on automobiles, this high density approach faces many of the same challenges, particularly for households with more than one working member. These housing units need to be so close to a wide enough range of jobs that two people can find housing within easy commute of two different positions and will have a reasonably good chance of staying in the same location in the event of a job change. What's more, that employment center needs to remain relatively stable more or less indefinitely. Booms and busts could play hell with this model.

Actual researchers tend to take a more nuanced and sophisticated view, but in the press, the urban density debate generally treats the choice of where to live as a fairly simple function of two variables, proximity to employment and housing cost. We have reason to believe that the real relationship has more variables and more complexity with interactions between proximity to employment and the weighting of other factors. For example, we know that a nontrivial number of people in Los Angeles and the Bay Area will opt for rental options that are both more expensive and further from work.

Silicon Valley workers living in San Francisco have gotten a lot of coverage but trendy neighborhoods in LA may be a more useful case for study. "Trendy" is the key word here. We're generally talking about well-paid professionals who are willing to put up with an extra half hour or more of traffic for scenic views, dining and other amenities, and, perhaps most of all, the ability to impress other people with where you live and who your neighbors are. The resulting dynamic can be very much like suburban sprawl, but with the suburb tucked in the middle of a high density urban area.

Partially because of the reasons given above, market forces have a very mixed record when it comes to picking the most efficient spot for development. I'll limit my comments to Los Angeles because I know the town, but I believe they could be generalized to a large number of other areas.

A great deal has been written about the NIMBY push against development in Santa Monica. Utopian urbanists like Dave Roberts have gone so far as to suggest that anyone who claims to be an environmentalist and opposes it must be a hypocrite.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that Santa Monica, particularly the extremely expensive section north of the 10 and west of Lincoln, is one of the worst possible places in the county of Los Angeles (and this is a big God damn County) for using high density development to alleviate the impact of commuting and to reduce cost of living.

Geographically, it's bounded on two sides by ocean and mountains thus greatly limiting the number of commuting destinations. The constant flow of tourists means that prices will tend to be high and traffic will never, ever be good. The trendiness of the town makes it likely to become an urban suburb and an appealing spot for second homes among the rich. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the public transportation actuation is extremely bad. Other than the buses, which have to deal with the aforementioned traffic, the only other option is a single, slow train with a not-that-convenient route. (Don't get me wrong, simply having a train to the ocean is a big step forward for LA, but not nearly big enough to alleviate the traffic woes of a much denser Santa Monica/Venice.)

If the goal really were to create a greener, less car dependent Los Angeles, Santa Monica developments wouldn't even be on our radar. Instead, we would be focusing on development around transportation hubs, particularly Union Station. There's plenty of room for growth with in a two-mile radius, but the best places for development are not in the trendy upscale neighborhoods, and developers know that trendy is where the money is.

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

THE PORTELECTRIC SYSTEM

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…



Demographics:

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?

















Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Seems like a good time to reopen this thread.

This post by Jonathan Chait about the renewed demographic threat faced by the GOP got me thinking about a thread I've been meaning to revisit.

For obvious reasons, the broadly liberal demographic trends in American politics have received much less attention since the 2016 election. Yet the fact remains that America is politically sorted by generations in a way it never has before. The oldest voters are the most conservative, white, and Republican, and the youngest voters the most liberal, racially diverse, and Democratic. There is absolutely no sign the dynamic is abating during the Trump years. If anything, it is accelerating.

The most recent Pew Research Survey has more detail about the generational divide. It shows that the old saw that young people would naturally grow more conservative as they age, or that their Democratic loyalties were an idiosyncratic response to Barack Obama’s unique personal appeal, has not held. Younger voters have distinctly more liberal views than older voters:

One could probably quibble with the overall definitions of which voters have liberal views and which have conservative views. What’s telling here is the comparison between generations. By Pew’s given definition, younger voters are wildly more liberal than older ones. The youngest voters have nearly five times as many voters with liberal views than with conservative views. The oldest voters have one and a half times more conservative than liberal voters.

Correspondingly, the Democratic lean of millennial voters is as strong as ever:

In the upcoming midterm elections, millennials are providing a huge share of the Democrats’ edge, with older generations splitting their vote relatively close:
In the first few months of the Trump administration, we did a series of posts on how the underlying dynamics of the Republican Party were changing and what some of the consequences might be. One of the fundamental ideas of the thread was that the country had entered a period where our normal ways of talking about subjective probability made no sense in terms of politics. You could still make directional and even ordinal statements, but we were so far outside of the range of data and precedent that you could no longer confidently assign upper and lower bounds to the probability of a number of events including the destruction of the Republican Party. Note, I never said that this was "likely" to happen, but rather you can't say that it can't happen now.

If I were writing this today, there are obviously things I would handle differently, but I'm reasonably comfortable standing by the main points.





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…



Demographics:

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.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

I guess I'll force myself to have a chocolate malt

I'd like to see a list of all of the foods that were originally sold on the basis of health but which now survive as unhealthy indulgences.  In addition to malted milk, many early soft drinks fall into this category and I have the feeling I'm missing some other obvious examples.

From Scientific American 1908-12-05








Monday, March 5, 2018

Hyperloop watch -- We are now reaching that part of the movie where the wife goes to the bank and realizes that her husband has given their life savings to the con man.


I know I've been harping on this for years now and I'd imagine regular readers are growing a bit tired of the ranting, but the standard tech narrative, the one that is still more or less the default for even sober news organizations like the BBC and NPR, is deeply flawed and genuinely dangerous.

The hype and bullshit and magical heuristics that dominate our discussion of technology and innovation aren't just annoying; they have a real cost. They distort markets, spread misinformation, lead to bad public policy, and starve worthwhile initiatives of both funding and attention.

No figure brings out the worst of these tendencies in journalists more than does Elon Musk. Musk, it should be noted, does have some major accomplishments under his belt as an administrator, promoter, and finance guy. With SpaceX and, to a lesser degree, Tesla, he deserves considerable credit for significant innovations, but even with his most serious projects, there is always a bit of the Flimflam Man present.

The Hyperloop has always been Elon Musk at his most substance-free. A 70s era B- senior engineering project dressed up with 3-D graphics and a cool name. Despite being thoroughly demolished by virtually every independent expert in the field, the "proposal" has generated endless and endlessly credulous press coverage. Hundreds of millions of dollars in financing have been lined up by Hyperloop companies with dubious business plans. And now you can add millions in tax dollars to that.



From an excellent Slate article by Henry Grabar.


For American lawmakers, funding public transit often feels like small ball. Politicians prefer to dream bigger. Earlier this month, transportation agencies in the Cleveland region and in Illinois announced they would co-sponsor a $1.2 million study of a “hyperloop” connecting Cleveland to Chicago, cutting a 350-mile journey to just half an hour. It’s the fourth public study of the nonexistent transportation mode to be undertaken in the past three months.

“Ohio is defined by its history of innovation and adventure,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who once canceled a $400 million Obama-era grant for high-speed rail in the state. “A hyperloop in Ohio would build upon that heritage.” In January, a bipartisan group of Rust Belt representatives wrote to President Trump to ask for $20 million in federal funding for a Hyperloop Transportation Initiative, a Department of Transportation division that would regulate and fund a travel mode with no proof of concept.

It’s hard to keep up: Last week, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission announced feasibility and environmental-impact studies for a different hyperloop route, connecting Pittsburgh and Chicago through Columbus, Ohio, to be run by a different company, Virgin Hyperloop One. The company—which fired a pod through a tube at 240 mph in December—is also studying routes in Missouri and Colorado.* Meanwhile, Elon Musk—who has obtained (contested) tunneling permission from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan—pulled a permit from the District of Columbia for a future hyperloop station.

But let’s first look at the hyperloop [from our old friends, the incredibly flaky, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies -- MP] that Grace Gallucci, the head of the Cleveland regional planning association the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), told local radio could be running to Chicago in three to five years, and to the study of which the NOACA contributed $600,000.


Friday, March 2, 2018

Explaining the principal-agent problem

I thought I posted this years ago.

The Butler and the Maid from The Carol Burnett Show


Thursday, March 1, 2018

Urban suburbs


My first corporate job also led to my first big move. I'd bounced around before that, between teaching and going off to grad school, but the moves had, at most, entailed crossing only one state line. The corporate position took me from just west of the Mississippi to the East Coast, with no social contacts or experience of the area to draw on.

I did what seemed like the sensible thing and got an apartment a few minutes from work. The company's campus was on the outskirts of town deep in the suburbs. Before that, I had lived in the country, small towns, and a couple of urban areas. Each of those three options had some strong pluses and, under the right conditions, could be quite appealing. By comparison, suburban living, at least without kids, had nothing to recommend it as far as I was concerned. I realized quickly but still too late that I should have picked an interesting neighborhood closer to the center of town, even though that would've meant an extra 20 or 30 minutes of commuting per day.

I did not repeat that mistake for my next job. Before moving, I scouted the area and ask around before deciding on a very cool neighborhood featuring lots of restaurants, bars, and the city's best art-house movie theater within easy walking distance. My daily commute was 45 minutes to an hour, but the traffic wasn't bad and much of it skirted around (and at one point across) the Chesapeake Bay making for a relaxing and scenic beginning and in to each workday.

That neighborhood was, for me, functioning as a de facto suburb. I was trading a longer commute for more desirable living conditions. The fact that these more desirable conditions were found in an area of higher density, rather than lower, does not affect the underlying dynamic.

One of the primary tenets of faith among utopian urbanists is that making it dense areas more dense will have a range of tremendously beneficial effects starting with great reductions in commuting and suburban sprawl. The existence of urban suburbs raises serious questions about that argument.

How big a deal is this? A good urban researcher could probably provide us with fairly reliable numbers, but we can say with some confidence that it's having a sizable effect in at least isolated cases. San Francisco has clearly become an urban suburb for Silicon Valley and, to a degree, Santa Monica and the rapidly gentrifying Venice Beach often fill the same role for much of Los Angeles.

It is worth noting that San Francisco followed by Santa Monica are probably the two cities that density proponents are most passionate about. This raises a disturbing question (and one which, I suspect, researchers will find more difficult to answer): if you greatly increase the density of cities that are already largely functioning as urban suburbs, will you in effect simply be producing more suburban sprawl?