Monday, October 23, 2017

Baum miscellanea

A few weeks ago, while working on a blog post (I don't remember which one) something (I don't remember what) brought to mind a detail from an Oz book. As has become more or less a compulsion with me, I looked up the specifics which inevitably led to a random Wikipedia walk, in this case through the articles on L Frank Baum. Here are a few bits of trivia that struck me as worth sharing and/or filing away for future reference.

For starters, there's this sly bit of gilded age satire from the Sea Fairies (1911):
"Let's go," said Trot.  "I don't like to 'sociate with octopuses."
"OctoPI," said the creature, again correcting her.
"You're jus' as horrid whether you're puses or pies," she declared.
"Horrid!" cried the monster in a shocked tone of voice.
"Not only horrid, but horrible!" persisted the girl.
"May I ask in what way?" he inquired, and it was easy to see he was offended.
"Why, ev'rybody knows that octopuses are jus' wicked an' deceitful," she said.  "Up on the earth, where I live, we call the Stannerd Oil Company an octopus, an' the Coal Trust an octopus, an'--"
"Stop, stop!" cried the monster in a pleading voice.  "Do you mean to tell me that the earth people whom I have always respected compare me to the Stannerd Oil Company?"
"Yes," said Trot positively.
"Oh, what a disgrace!  What a cruel, direful, dreadful disgrace!" moaned the Octopus, drooping his head in shame, and Trot could see great tears falling down his cheeks.
"This comes of having a bad name," said the Queen gently, for she was moved by the monster's grief.
"It is unjust!  It is cruel and unjust!" sobbed the creature mournfully.  "Just because we have several long arms and take whatever we can reach, they accuse us of being like--like--oh, I cannot say it! It is
too shameful, too humiliating."
"Come, let's go," said Trot again.  So they left the poor octopus weeping and wiping his watery eyes with his handkerchief and swam on their way. 

This description of what we might now call a multimedia show from 1908 demonstrates that the desire for cutting-edge sounding names goes back a long time.

The films were colored (credited as "illuminations") by Duval Frères of Paris, in a process known as "Radio-Play", and were noted for being the most lifelike hand-tinted imagery of the time. Baum once claimed in an interview that a "Michael Radio" was a Frenchman who colored the films, though no evidence of such a person, even with the more proper French spelling "Michel", as second-hand reports unsurprisingly revise it, has been documented. It did not refer to the contemporary concept of radio (or, for that matter, a radio play), but played on notions of the new and fantastic at the time, similar to the way "high-tech" or sometimes "cyber" would be used later in the century. The "Fairylogue" part of the title was to liken it to a travelogue, which at the time was a very popular type of documentary film entertainment.

We even have a genuinely disturbing example of what we would now call body horror from the 1912 sequel to the Sea Fairies.
Sky Island is another split-color country in Baum's fantasy universe, like the Land of Oz. Divided in two-halves, blue and pink, Sky Island supports two separate races of beings, the Blues and the Pinkies. The two halves are separated by a region shrouded in fog, which both peoples are reluctant to enter. The three travellers land on the blue side of Sky Island, which is a grim country ruled by a sadistic tyrant, the Boolooroo of the Blues. In Sky Island, as in Oz, no one can be killed or suffer pain, but that doesn't mean one is safe: the Boolooroo's method of punishing disobedience in his subjects is to slice two of his victims into halves using a huge guillotine-type knife, and then join the wrong halves back together, creating very unhappy asymmetrical mixed people. This is called "patching."

I was about to add a final section on the 1901 fantasy science fiction novel, the Master Key, but I think that one deserves a post to itself.

Friday, October 20, 2017

When I said retro-TV...

This guy actually made a version of a 19th century television by fashioning an old vinyl LP into a Nipkow disk

This one works a little better.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The content bubble -- when reality sinks in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The New York Times has a self-congratulations problem.

This isn't exactly a new complaint (you can find similar charges going back to the 19th century), but the frequency seems to be on the rise while the gap between self-image and reality grows more notable. Today's example comes from Farhad Manjoo, who has belatedly decided to join the techno-anxiety craze.
A lot of these worries aren’t new. Though Silicon Valley runs on heedless optimism, much of The Times’s coverage has long been properly skeptical and critical of the implications of new tech. Consider the evil of “revenge porn,” or the rise in accidents caused by drivers looking at their phones. I’ve shared other fears: In 2008, I wrote a book predicting that the internet would lead us into a “post-fact” world.

For starters, lots of people were making similar points in 2008. If you're going to drop a self-reference that implies prescience, you'd better be able to show you were well ahead of the curve.

More importantly, there is absolutely no reason to single out the New York Times for its skepticism and critical attitude toward 21st Century tech. I've been writing about this for years now and here are just some of the news organizations that I've cited for doing more notable work along these lines:

The New Yorker, Vox, the LA Times, Gawker, the Washington Post, the Atlantic and Cracked

This is not to say that the NYT is horrible on this – – if anything, they are probably a bit above average – – but they certainly haven't done anything worth this kind of reflexive self-congratulation, and that tendency toward patting themselves on the back represents a much greater (and previously mentioned) problem.

The NYT has fully internalized the idea that, in all things, it is the world's best paper. This can make for an intolerably smug editorial voice, but, more to the point, it can undermine journalistic judgment, encourage childish behavior and make it almost impossible for the institution to face and correct its own problems.

The NYT's cozy relationship with Thiel and thinly veiled schadenfreude at the fate of Gawker may or may not have had something to do with the gadfly site's habit of pointing out the grey lady's lapses. The paper's decision to force an incredibly unsupportable framework of “balance” on the last election was certainly a major factor in and possibly a necessary condition for Trump's victory.

The New York Times has become HAL in 2001. It can't admit its own fallibility, and the evidence of its mistakes is driving it to make increasingly bad and dangerous choices.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Apropos of absolutely nothing (I mean, seriously, I can't think of a single 21st century example of this), here's an excerpt from the Big Con.

Not the Jonathan Chait book but the classic 1940 study of confidence games, particularly the "long con." It's the book that launched a thousand screenplays, most notably the Sting. I've been meaning to read this for years. It's not easy to find and I had looked for it in a number of libraries until finally giving up and putting it out of my mind. Recently, though, someone mentioned it in an email and I realized that if I couldn't find it in one of the four large library systems I have cards for in LA County, it probably couldn't be found anywhere.

After all this time, I half expected the book to be a letdown, but I've been very pleasantly surprised. One passage in particular jumped out at me:

From the Big Con by David W Maurer
Most marks come from the upper strata of society, which, in America, means that they have made, married, or inherited money. Because of this, they acquire status which in time they come to attribute to some inherent superiority, especially as regards matters of sound judgment in finance and investment. Friends and associates, themselves social climbers and sycophants, helped to maintain the solution of superiority. Eventually, the mark comes to regard himself as a person of vision and even of genius. Thus a Babbitt who has cleared half 1 million in a real estate development easily forgets the part which luck and chicanery have played in his financial rise; he accepts his mantle of respectability without question; he naïvely attributes his success to sound business judgment. And any confidence man will testify that a real-estate man is the fattest and juiciest of suckers.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Originally I was joking when I compared this to a hyperloop

But the more I think of it, the more serious the comparison becomes.

We are, after all, talking about another "marvelously impracticable" train, but reading through the description from this 1909 edition of Scientific American, it is difficult not to notice other similarities. Like the Hyperloop proposals, this turn-of-the-century air train (at least based on the account here) has the same odd combination of detail and vagueness, carefully spelling out parts of the system while largely passing over the obvious problem areas. There are also the same highly optimistic estimates about speed, capacity, and cost. In the case of the last, the proponents of the zeppelin train even rely on the same argument that elaborate elevated structures would more than pay for themselves through reduced land costs.

The zeppelin train does offer a few notable advantages over the Hyperloop. The passenger comfort is much greater, even including a rest room in each car. The ride would also be far more scenic than a ground level train, let alone a ride inside a metal tube. Perhaps most important of all (since we are comparing imaginary modes of transportation), the zeppelin train looks way, way cooler.

Friday, October 13, 2017

"How College Loans Got So Evil"

Warning to video viewers, thanks to the pivot to video, things are about to get really ugly really quickly. The trouble is that while the volume is going to increase sharply, the supply of people with the ability to make good videos is not going to increase significantly. that means the ratio of quality to crap is going to drop even further (and it's not like we're in double digits to start with).

To make matters worse, video viewing is more linear and less, for lack of a better word, interactive than reading. With text, you can skim, reread, jump around on the screen. All of this makes it easier to determine whether something is worth your time.

My advice (which I follow myself) is to stick with trusted referrals and proven content producers. Recommendation algorithms aren't very good now and they will only get worse as average quality drops.

Fortunately, even the most selective viewers can find enough to fill their time. I have a special fondness for what might be called the Daily Show kids, millennials who came of age wanting to be Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Smart, funny, irreverent but socially conscious (sometimes lapsing into preachy). They also embrace Stewart's and Oliver's emphasis on solid research and often take it a step further (check out the corner of the screen in the video below).

This segment from Adam Conover is a good example of what happens when everything works: the topic is important; the information is clearly but entertainingly presented ; and the central conceit is skillfully executed and perfectly apt.

And if you do run out of video, trying reading something. That's what the young people are doing.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

You probably never thought of a hobbyist market for x-ray machines

Couple of points.

For starters, wow! I knew people were way too nonchalant about the potential dangers of radiation in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but wow!

Second (and, yes, I know I've been hitting this point a lot), it is almost impossible to imagine how amazing and world-changing the technological innovations of this period were. Adults who picked up this copy of Scientific American in 1896 would probably remember the first time they saw a light bulb or a telephone or a moving picture. While being born in a horse-and-buggy age is an overused cliché, it is also very difficult to avoid. For these people, the world was not only suddenly invaded by incredible machines, strange sights, and even new foods, it was also permeated by invisible rays that could actually show you the inside of your body.

1896 was also the year that a fellow named Marconi got a patent on one of his inventions, but that's a story for another time.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Repost 3: The Republicans' 3 x 3 existential threat

[Given recent events and their accelerating pace, I think there’s a good chance in the next few days we’ll be discussing the implications of intraparty war in the GOP. In the meantime, I decided to bump our regularly scheduled programming (which, consisting of late 19th/early 20th century technology stories, was not particularly topical) and repost a thread we ran a while back on the dynamics of the relationship between Trump and the Republican Party. Obviously, there are things I would treat differently if writing these today, but I’m still willing to stand by the general points, and they should serve as a good starting point for the next conversation.]

From August 22, 2017.

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 2: The nuclear moose option

[Given recent events and their accelerating pace, I think there’s a good chance in the next few days we’ll be discussing the implications of intraparty war in the GOP. In the meantime, I decided to bump our regularly scheduled programming (which, consisting of late 19th/early 20th century technology stories, was not particularly topical) and repost a thread we ran a while back on the dynamics of the relationship between Trump and the Republican Party. Obviously, there are things I would treat differently if writing these today, but I’m still willing to stand by the general points, and they should serve as a good starting point for the next conversation.]

From July 28, 2017.

[Just to be clear, I am not claiming that any of the following is inevitable or even likely, but I do think it falls in the category of things to consider.]

We've been arguing for quite a while now that the conservative movement's social engineering experiment has achieved its considerable success over the past few decades at the cost of exposing the party to genuinely existential threats. I had meant to precede this post with a bit more foundation, but events seem to be accelerating and I need to get this down.

Political parties have survived major rifts before. We could find numerous notable examples for both Democrats and Republicans, and, in all of those cases, the wounds were real but temporary. However, these divisions, though bitter, took place in broad-based relatively healthy political parties, I would argue that the Republican Party of 2017, though nominally controlling most of the government, is perhaps uniquely fragile and cannot survive a nasty internal conflict.

Here is a scenario of how such a conflict can arise and grow into an existential threat. I won't say that it is probable, but I think each link in the chain is definitely plausible. This is certainly true for the first link since between the time I outlined the concatenation of events and the time I sat down to write this, the first one had already happened. (That's why this is something of a rush job.)

First, a bit of background from our game theory post back in February  (Charles Schumer predicted a break between Trump and the party in three or four months. I said a year of two. Perhaps we should have split the difference):

The relationship between the Trump/Bannon White House and the GOP legislature is perhaps uniquely suited for a textbook game theory analysis. In pretty much all previous cases,  relationships between presidents and Congress have been complicated by numerous factors other than naked self-interest--ideological, partisan, personal, cultural--but this time it's different. With a few isolated exceptions, there is no deeply held common ground between the White House and Capitol Hill. The current arrangement is strictly based on people getting things they care about in exchange for things they don't.

However, while the relationship is simple in those terms, it is dauntingly complex in terms of the pros and cons of staying versus going. If the Republicans stand with Trump, he will probably sign any piece of legislation that comes across his desk (with this White House, "probably" is always a necessary qualifier). This comes at the cost of losing their ability to distance themselves from and increasingly unpopular and scandal-ridden administration.

Some of that distance might be clawed back by public criticism of the president and by high-profile hearings, but those steps bring even greater risks. Trump has no interest in the GOP's legislative agenda, no loyalty to the party, and no particular affection for its leaders. Worse still, as Josh Marshall has frequently noted, Trump has the bully's instinctive tendency to go after the vulnerable. There is a limit to the damage he can inflict on the Democrats, but he is in a position to literally destroy the Republican Party.

We often hear this framed in terms of Trump supporters making trouble in the primaries, but that's pre-2016 thinking. This goes far deeper. In addition to a seemingly total lack of interpersonal, temperamental, and rhetorical constraints, Trump is highly popular with a large segment of the base. In the event of an intra-party war, some of this support would undoubtedly peel away, but a substantial portion would stay.

Keep in mind, all of this takes place in the context of a troubling demographic tide for the Republicans. Their strategic response to this has been to maximize turnout within the party while suppressing the vote on the other side. It has been a shrewd strategy but it leaves little margin for error.  Trump has the ability to drive a wedge between a significant chunk of the base and the GOP for at least the next few cycles, possibly enough to threaten the viability of the party.

With that in mind, consider the following possible developments:

1. Trump fires Reince Priebus. Keep in mind, the choice of Priebus was (probably accurately) seen as an early indicator that, for all of his outsider talk, Trump intended to run a partisan administration with close ties to the Republican establishment. The firing has to be seen as a weakening of that relationship;

2. After ever increasing harassment, Jeff Sessions jumps or is pushed out of the administration;

3. This, along with other transgressions, prompts Graham and a few other Republican senators to start actively pushing for investigations into and greater accountability from the White House;

4. The strongest remaining link between the administration and the GOP establishment, vice president Mike Pence, is finding it increasingly difficult to keep his skirts clean from the Russia scandals. He does his best to distance himself and, as a result, further marginalizes his role;

5. Further developments in the Russia scandal exacerbate existing tensions;

6. While Trump does have his loyalists and the number of Republicans willing to publicly attack him remains fairly small, the majority of the party starts to see the president as a dangerous liability and attempts to distance itself from him, whenever possible refusing to take sides;

7. Angry at the lack of loyalty and feeling pressure from the investigations, Trump escalates his attacks on the GOP;

8. (Any of the following)
a. Trump fires Mueller
b. Mueller or some other investigator uncovers a major criminal conspiracy involving Trump, his family, or his business
c. Polls start showing serious erosion in support for Trump and the GOP in the conservative base
d. Things just keep getting ugly

9. At some major events such as a large rally or even the state of the union address, Donald Trump announces that, in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, he has realized that both parties are hopelessly corrupt and the only way to drain the swamp is by starting a third-party. So it is his intention to run in 2020 as the candidate for the MAGA Party and to field candidates in every major statewide contest.

Now, I want to be careful about how we frame this. Trump forming a third party remains unlikely, but it would not that unlikely if we hit events 1 through 8 and, taken individually, none of these events seem all that improbable.

I should probably polish this post a bit more, but given the pace of things these days, you have to make your predictions as quickly as possible.

Repost 1: GOP Game Theory -- things are still different

From February 28, 2017.

 [Given recent events and their accelerating pace, I think there’s a good chance in the next few days we’ll be discussing the implications of intraparty war in the GOP. In the meantime, I decided to bump our regularly scheduled programming (which, consisting of late 19th/early 20th century technology stories, was not particularly topical) and repost a thread we ran a while back on the dynamics of the relationship between Trump and the Republican Party. Obviously, there are things I would treat differently if writing these today, but I’m still willing to stand by the general points, and they should serve as a good starting point for the next conversation.]

"It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in."

    LBJ on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover,

Let's start with a prediction:

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted on Tuesday that Republicans will split with President Trump within months unless the administration changes course.0
"My prediction is he keeps up on this path...within three, four months you're going to see a whole lot of Republicans breaking with him," Schumer said during an interview with ABC's "The View."
Schumer argued while most GOP lawmakers aren't yet willing to break publicly from the White House, they are privately having "real problems" with Trump's policies in his first month.

"A lot of the Republicans, they're mainstream people. ... They will feel they have no choice but to break with him," he said.
GOP leadership are largely dismissing any early signs of discord between Congress and the White House as they slowly try to make progress on an ambitious agenda.

Ed Kilgore, however, points out that Trump may not be as toxic as many people think:

So while it is hard to deny that Trump is amazingly unpopular for a new president, unless his approval ratings trend farther down the way even those of popular presidents typically do, his party may not suffer the kind of humiliation Democrats experienced in 2010. For all the shock Trump has consistently inspired with his behavior as president, there’s not much objective reason for Republican politicians to panic and begin abandoning him based on his current public standing. But in this as in so many other respects, we are talking about an unprecedented chief executive, so the collapse some in the media and the Democratic Party perceive as already underway could yet arrive.

The relationship between the Trump/Bannon White House and the GOP legislature is perhaps uniquely suited for a textbook game theory analysis. In pretty much all previous cases,  relationships between presidents and Congress have been complicated by numerous factors other than naked self-interest--ideological, partisan, personal, cultural--but this time it's different. With a few isolated exceptions, there is no deeply held common ground between the White House and Capitol Hill. The current arrangement is strictly based on people getting things they care about in exchange for things they don't.

However, while the relationship is simple in those terms, it is dauntingly complex in terms of the pros and cons of staying versus going. If the Republicans stand with Trump, he will probably sign any piece of legislation that comes across his desk (with this White House, "probably" is always a necessary qualifier). This comes at the cost of losing their ability to distance themselves from and increasingly unpopular and scandal-ridden administration.

Some of that distance might be clawed back by public criticism of the president and by high-profile hearings, but those steps bring even greater risks. Trump has no interest in the GOP's legislative agenda, no loyalty to the party, and no particular affection for its leaders. Worse still, as Josh Marshall has frequently noted, Trump has the bully's instinctive tendency to go after the vulnerable. There is a limit to the damage he can inflict on the Democrats, but he is in a position to literally destroy the Republican Party.

We often hear this framed in terms of Trump supporters making trouble in the primaries, but that's pre-2016 thinking. This goes far deeper. In addition to a seemingly total lack of interpersonal, temperamental, and rhetorical constraints, Trump is highly popular with a large segment of the base. In the event of an intra-party war, some of this support would undoubtedly peel away, but a substantial portion would stay.

Keep in mind, all of this takes place in the context of a troubling demographic tide for the Republicans. Their strategic response to this has been to maximize turnout within the party while suppressing the vote on the other side. It has been a shrewd strategy but it leaves little margin for error.  Trump has the ability to drive a wedge between a significant chunk of the base and the GOP for at least the next few cycles, possibly enough to threaten the viability of the party.

The closest analogy that comes to mind is the Democrats and Vietnam, but that was a rift in a big-tent loosely organized party. The 21st Century GOP is a small tent party that depends on discipline and entrenchment strategies. It's not clear that it would survive a civil war.

Given that, I suspect the next year or two will prove Schumer wrong. There is some evidence that the president's polling has stabilized, perhaps even rebounded a bit, but even if the numbers go back into free fall, Republicans in the House and the Senate will be extremely reluctant to break from Trump with anything more than isolated or cosmetic challenges.

This isn't just a question of not wanting Trump outside the tent pissing in; this is a question of not wanting Trump outside the tent tossing grenades. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Questionable statistics alert – – Whole Foods Markets edition

From Yahoo finance:

High-end grocer Whole Foods is already poaching new customers from Walmart (WMT) and other competitors as the result of its new owner Amazon (AMZN) cutting prices, according to a report from Thasos Group, a data intelligence firm founded at MIT.

Beginning Aug. 28, Whole Foods, which had earned the nickname “Whole Paycheck,” slashed prices on some of its best-selling staple items, including avocados, bananas, organic brown eggs, Fuji and Gala apples, almond butter, and farm-raised salmon and tilapia.

Whole Foods immediately experienced a 17% increase in foot traffic year-over-year for the week beginning Aug. 28, the Thasos report found.

For the week ending Sunday, September 3, the weekly YoY change in foot traffic to Whole Foods peaked at 17%. On August 28, the daily YoY change in foot traffic peaked at 31%.

Of that foot traffic, new customers came primarily from Walmart, accounting for 24% of the new shoppers that week, while Kroger (KR) shoppers accounted for 16% and Costco customers for 15%.

Some of the Whole Foods’ other competitors also saw significant defections during that time. Nearly 10% of Trader Joe’s daily customers shopped at Whole Foods during the first week of price cuts, while 8% of Sprouts (SFM) and 3% of Target (TGT) customers did so.

Lots to unpack here, but in consideration of time constraints (both yours and mine), let's just focus on one aspect.

Possibly the most important and certainly the most underemphasized piece of context in the coverage of the acquisition is the size and distribution of Whole Foods Markets. This is a small player highly concentrated in a few areas (such as New York City, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles). These areas also tend to have a highly disproportionate representation of the people who write about and invest in business trends (which explains a lot about the coverage). These areas also (and this is important for this story) tend to have a disproportionately low number of Walmarts.

Because of its size and economic diversity, Los Angeles makes for an interesting case study (it also helps that I've been here for quite a while and have lived on both sides of the county). Keep in mind, when Angelenos talk about the town they are generally referring to the county and Los Angeles County has a land area of over 4000 square miles. There are a lot of good reasons for going from one side to the other, but picking up a few groceries is not among them.

If you know the town and you look at a map of LA Whole Foods Markets, it is immediately obvious that the stores are heavily concentrated in very upscale neighborhoods, particularly in the general vicinity of Santa Monica. Not only are you unlikely to find Walmarts in these neighborhoods; you are unlikely to find them anywhere in reasonable driving distance. Likewise, the parts of town are you are likely to find Walmarts have very few Whole Foods. It is also important to note that this relationship does not hold with Target stores, which have long done a remarkable job adapting their model to both sprawling suburbs and high density urban areas. Anywhere in LA will put you fairly close to a Target.

Obviously, there are exceptions (Austin comes to mind) and we would certainly expect some of the traffic from a WFM spike to come from regular Walmart shoppers, but any analysis that shows them making up the plurality must be viewed with suspicion, even more so when we consider the surprisingly low numbers for Target. These numbers are almost exactly the opposite of what we would expect.

I know what I'm about to say goes against everything you've been told, but when data and common sense diverge sharply, the first thing you should do is question the data. Yes, counterintuitive results can be the most interesting if true, but it is essential to remember that counterintuitive results are also far more likely to be untrue.

Monday, October 9, 2017

I'd heard that "hello" as a salutation was popularized by the telephone, so I looked at the Ngram viewer.

Now I'm going to be distracted every time I hear someone say 'hello' in a Western.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Hotels vs. Airbnb is Godzilla vs Rodan. You don't know whom to root for.

From Gizmodo:

Quartz wrote that after New York passed “some of the toughest restrictions on short-term rentals in the country” last October, it is now effectively illegal in New York to rent out an entire apartment for less than 30 days unless there is a limited number of guests (one or two) and the host is present. The laws were ostensibly intended to go after Airbnb hosts who used the service to effectively run bunk-bed-filled flophouses in violation of laws governing the safety and quality of hotels.

But Quartz talked to several hosts who said sheriffs and police with the Office of Special Enforcement, which handles the city’s regulation of short-term rentals, had fined them up to $1,000 per violation for things like not having sprinklers or fire systems. The hosts also said that authorities appeared to be interpreting the law to mean that even leaving the unit while guests are present is illegal.

It’s part of an overall escalation in the struggle between Airbnb and local governments which accuse the rental giant of profiting by exploiting loopholes in zoning laws and other regulations. The hotel industry, which Airbnb is outpacing in growth, is fighting back too. As Bloomberg reported earlier this year, a hotel industry-funded group named Share Better is running sting operations to report hosts to authorities on the suspicion they are illegally running hotels, not renting out their residences.

It is genuinely difficult to decide who the good monster is supposed to be in this movie. The hotel industry is behaving horribly (and it's not like they came into this with a lot of goodwill). On the other hand, Airbnb is... you know... evil. Both sides are playing a nasty game of regulatory capture that should make good government types violently nauseous.

It does, however, provide us with an excuse to post a clip of a guy in a rubber suit being attacked by a giant puppet.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Good thing Peter Thiel wasn't around to fund the goat gland doctor.

John Romulus Brinkley was a man ahead of his time. Working from a libertarian, anti-regulation mindset, he defied the establishment with bold claims for a new technique that caught the imagination of the world. He expanded his empire first by brilliant marketing, then by embracing new technology making him one of the first international live media personalities. He was also, of course, a quack and a charlatan who made millions pitching worthless and dangerous treatments, but I don't see that making him feel all that out of place in the 21st Century.

Though we cast a fairly large net here at West Coast Stat Views, there are certain threads we revisit frequently. Brinkley was an important figure in two areas we hit a lot, broadcasting and medical pseudoscience. He was also too good an opportunity for a snarky allusion. Do you realize we've talked about topics like Robin Hanson's cryogenic retirement plan or Peter Thiel's desire for the blood of the young and never made a goat testicle joke. That simply can't go on.

From Wikipedia:

John Romulus Brinkley (later John Richard Brinkley; July 8, 1885 – May 26, 1942) was an American who fraudulently claimed to be a medical doctor (he had no legitimate medical education and bought his medical degree from a "diploma mill") who became known as the "goat-gland doctor" after he achieved national fame, international notoriety and great wealth through the xenotransplantation of goat testicles into humans. Although initially Brinkley promoted this procedure as a means of curing male impotence, eventually he claimed that the technique was a virtual panacea for a wide range of male ailments. He operated clinics and hospitals in several states, and despite the fact that almost from the beginning, detractors and critics in the medical community thoroughly discredited his methods, he was able to continue his activities for almost two decades. He was also, almost by accident, an advertising and radio pioneer who began the era of Mexican border blaster radio. Although he was stripped of his license to practice medicine in Kansas and several other states, Brinkley, a demagogue beloved by hundreds of thousands of people in Kansas and elsewhere, nevertheless launched two campaigns for Kansas governor, one of which was nearly successful. Brinkley's rise to fame and fortune was as precipitous as his eventual fall: At the height of his career he had amassed millions of dollars; yet he died sick and nearly penniless, as a result of the large number of malpractice, wrongful death and fraud suits brought against him.

On a related note, for anyone interested in the history of American broadcasting, I highly recommend Fowler and Crawford's Border Radio. You start with Brinkley and end with Wolfman Jack.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Following up on the Equifax thread.

We had an interesting exchange in the comment section for our recent Equifax post. For a quick recap: the original post argued that the stated growth goals of the company, if taken seriously, would require either considerable risk or improper use of the sensitive data the credit bureaus are allowed unique access to. Either way, this would be in violation of the implicit agreement we made with the credit bureaus allowing them their special status.

Here was the statement from the CEO:
RICHARD SMITH: Our goal financially in the next five years or so is to go from about $4 billion of revenue to $8 billion, from a valuation of $20 billion to $40 billion.

The comment thread mainly revolved around the question of whether or not a company in general and Equifax in particular could seriously pursue that growth target without taking unfair advantage of our data or experiencing a level of risk unacceptable for what is in effect a public utility. Here, slightly rewritten, is the gist of my reply.

We've come to accept, as a society, the notion that growth is something that is simply willed into existence. Rather than being the result of market conditions, technological developments, business logic, and trade-offs between growth/risk/opportunity cost, doubling the size of a company is something a visionary CEO simply decides to do.

We've written before about the growth fetish, an attitude common among investors and business writers that overstates the potential returns of growth while understating the risks. The tetish, as a consequence, demonizes stability. There are few pieces of bullshit conventional wisdom about business more common or pernicious than "grow or die." Lots of businesses have done very well making a steady, stable profit while many others have gone under due to badly conceived plans for expansion.

Almost by definition, accelerating growth entails risk. That said, the dangers associated with growth and the reasonableness of highly aggressive targets vary greatly from one situation to another. It is only when you consider the conditions, that the full absurdity of Richard Smith's proposal becomes evident.

The larger the company, the more difficult high growth rate becomes. The most famous exception to this (GE) was largely the result of risky behavior and accounting fraud. Because of the denominator, it is extraordinarily difficult for a few new products or services (such as evaluating online advertisers) to move the needle. This is a case where $100 million cash cow is literally too small to make a difference. Explosive growth for large corporations is especially difficult when you have mature companies or stable industries or saturated markets. (Or in this case, all three.)

Acquisitions are never risk-free, but some are safer than others. Buying up smaller competitors might be the safest. The riskiest acquisitions are outside of the industry (like a bank buying a cell phone company). Equifax acquiring any large company in the financial services industry would be an antitrust/conflict of interest/regulatory nightmare. Expanding into an overseas market would be extraordinarily problematic (most countries wouldn't even allow a homegrown Equifax to exist). Pretty much the only acquisitions the company could make are in areas where it doesn't know what it's doing.

Equifax actually had a respectable growth rate going into this, having doubled its revenue over the past decade (though that doesn't factor in inflation). As mentioned elsewhere, a great deal of this growth came from questionable newer practices such as employers looking up credit histories for prospective candidates (not sure how much more they can grow with that one). Still, even if that growth rate leveled off, the company would still be in an excellent position, bringing in high profits in an expanding and extremely safe market niche protected from new competitors by what is very close to a government monopoly. The fact that the CEO felt the need to promise to double that growth rate and the fact that people tended to believe him tells us a great deal about investor mentality in 2017.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Inevitably, the wacky billionaire and snake oil threads collide

As many others have observed many times before, Michael Hiltzik does exceptional work.

That was a problem, because homeopathy is a discredited and thoroughly debunked “alternative medicine.” Even Howard Federoff, UCI’s vice chancellor for health affairs, agreed that the scientific basis for homeopathy was “lacking.” The issue is important because the donors of a $200-million gift to UCI’s medical schools, the billionaire couple Susan and Henry Samueli, are sworn believers in homeopathy and supporters of a raft of other “integrative” health treatments. As I reported, some medical authorities have raised questions about whether the Samuelis’ beliefs and their rare generosity will undermine UCI’s explicit commitment to science-based medicine.

So it’s interesting that after I raised questions about the treatment’s listing on the website, it mysteriously disappeared. As of this writing, a UCI spokesman hasn’t gotten back to me with word on when it was removed, or whether its removal means that homeopathy no longer will be offered to patients, or merely that UCI is keeping it quiet. The listing was present as recently as last Wednesday, when I asked Federoff about it in connection with my column about the Samueli gift, which appeared online Friday; its presence can be seen on an archived version of the website dated Sept. 19.

What happened to "homeopathy"? As recently as last week, the debunked treatment was listed as a therapeutic offering on UCI Health's website, seen at left. After we asked about it, the reference disappeared, at right. (UCI Health)

As it happens, UCI didn’t succeed in scrubbing all mentions of this quack remedy from its website. At the moment, it appears on the web page of Dayna Kowata, a naturopath and acupuncturist associated with UCI’s Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine. Kowata’s page says homeopathy is Kowata’s “preferred mode of treatment.” (Thanks to naturopathy debunker Britt Marie Hermes for the catch.)

The on-again-off-again appearance of homeopathy on UCI’s website and among its clinical offerings underscores the difficulties the university may face in navigating the inconsistencies between the world view of its biggest donors and its explicit commitment to rigorous scientific standards in its medical teaching, research, and clinical treatment. The Samuelis, after all, will have their names on UCI’s main on-campus medical building, and their gift will endow up to 15 faculty members, all of whom will have to demonstrate some “expertise in integrative health.”

Homeopaths occupy and interesting position in the world of snake oil and medical pseudoscience. From a scientific standpoint, they aren't any worse than practitioners of things like energy manipulation and since the active ingredients are generally diluted to the point of nonexistence, there's a limit to the harm their concoctions can do directly.

But perhaps alone among alternative medicine treatments, homeopathy has lost its plausible deniability.  Everyone who is halfway serious about medical science, knows that this is not medical science. You might be able to convince a knowledgeable audience that the jury was still out on acupuncture or that some treatment with an eastern name that sounded kind of ancient and mysterious needed more research. By now, though, very few people are willing to give homeopathic remedies the benefit of the doubt.

In a very real sense, we got lucky here. In that they featured easy to spot pseudoscience so prominently. If they had gone with something like reiki, Hiltzik's criticisms probably wouldn't have gotten much traction, and the real scandals here would not have gotten nearly as much attention.

What are the real scandals? One is the unholy amalgam of mysticism and credulous hype. The second is unprecedented in modern times concentration of wealth and economic power, amplified by a culture that assumes that the super rich are gifted with extraordinary, even supernatural competence and character.

Both of these scandals have permeated our society. I suppose it was only a matter of time before they overlapped.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Everyone's missing the second scariest thing about the Equifax story.

[Make sure to check out the comment thread. You also might want to take a look at the magical heuristics posts since we are definitely getting into magic of will here.]

As we mentioned before, the data gathering of Google and Facebook is almost entirely a bad thing from the user's perspective, something we tolerate because it comes with lots of features we do like and (often more importantly) it is generally done in such a way that we don't notice what's going on.

The data-gathering of the credit bureaus is just the opposite. It provides a service that is useful and even necessary to alleviate the asymmetry of information when seeking a line of credit. Since almost all of us fall into this group at some point in our lives, simply having the bureaus go away without creating something new to take their place is simply not an option.

The solution we collectively decided upon (or stumbled into) was something close to the public utilities model. Private companies that would be allowed to operate as government sanctioned semi monopolies granted special accommodations. We could go back-and-forth as to whether or not this was a better solution than setting up a government agency to warehouse our financial data, but once the utility model has been settled upon, we should all be able to agree that certain conditions hold.

The companies are exempted from antitrust rules and are allowed to do things that other companies aren't. In exchange, the companies must be heavily regulated and are locked into an extremely conservative business model. Since they provide an essential service, they cannot be allowed to take big or even moderate risks. Since they are given special government accommodations, they cannot be allowed to take unfair advantage of these. Thus, the companies should provide a remarkably safe and stable investment, but with limited returns. Any attempt to deviate from that can only be trouble.

Which brings us to this from the CEO of Equifax.
RICHARD SMITH: Our goal financially in the next five years or so is to go from about $4 billion of revenue to $8 billion, from a valuation of $20 billion to $40 billion. And to do that, we're focused on a couple of things important to us.

Of course, it is possible that the CEO was simply bullshitting the investors. That would be bad enough, but the other possibility is far worse. For a large, mature company like Equifax to double its revenue and valuation in a five-year period almost certainly requires risky behavior or making all possible use of any competitive advantage or probably both. The moment this statement went public it became obvious that the management of Equifax was either willfully misleading its shareholders and/or planning to abuse its position.

How did we get to the point where something this egregious goes unnoticed? For starters, there's the growth fetish – – the tendency to greatly overvalue growth over stable returns. Then there's the widespread modern belief that profit is proportional to social good. And, of course, there's hostility toward regulation. All bad individually, but potentially catastrophic when combined.

Friday, September 29, 2017

An exceedingly good point

This is Joseph

Mike the Mad Biologist: 
Supply-side concerns, even as corporations are sitting on $2 trillion cash? Of course.
Now it is perfectly possible that there are distributional issues here that would make for a targeted plan.  But, in general, if there were great investment opportunities for any firm or skill-set then you'd expect that cash hoarding would be less.

If there are specific areas that need to be boosted, this suggests a redistribution instead of a pure cut.  Sure, there could be other reasons for cutting rates but they sure aren't due to a lack of capital overall, if the corporate cash holdings are remotely accurate (that's more than $5000 per person in the United States -- this is a lot of idle capital). 

Thoughts on a Ouija board

As previously (and frequently) mentioned, I've been chipping away at a couple of essays about 21st century attitudes toward technology. The incredible spike in innovation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries plays a big role. Unfortunately, the more I dig in, the more I find new aspects to the subject.

I came across yet another when watching this Bob Chipman movie review of Ouija. My general rule for movie reviews and criticism (Chipman falls more in the latter but is also pretty good at the former) is to only check out writing on movies that I either have seen, or care so little about that they can't really be spoiled. This one fell in the second category.

Chipman is exceptionally good with historical and cultural context. He started this review with a brief historical overview of the popular board game, suggesting that the filmmakers could have gotten a more interesting and original film had they mined the actual history of the Ouija board rather than opting for something standard and derivative. What caught my ear was the fact that the Ouija board was first marketed in 1891 as an attempt to cash in on the spiritualism craze of the era.

Here's Linda Rodriguez McRobbie writing for the Smithsonian:

As spiritualism had grown in American culture, so too did frustration with how long it took to get any meaningful message out of the spirits, says Brandon Hodge, Spiritualism historian. Calling out the alphabet and waiting for a knock at the right letter, for example, was deeply boring. After all, rapid communication with breathing humans at far distances was a possibility—the telegraph had been around for decades—why shouldn’t spirits be as easy to reach? People were desperate for methods of communication that would be quicker—and while several entrepreneurs realized that, it was the Kennard Novelty Company that really nailed it.

The facts weren't exactly new to me, but somehow I had never thought about the peak of the spiritualism movement coinciding with the explosive scientific and technological advances of the era. I'd always tended to think of that form of spiritualism as quaint and old-fashioned, particularly when compared with the sci-fi infused New Age mysticism of today. Now I'm wondering if I got that exactly backwards.

Particularly in America, the period from around 1880 to 1910 was one of unprecedented technological change, reordering every aspect of society to a degree that hadn't been seen before and hasn't been seen since. It was also, not surprisingly, and era of wild speculation and fantasy. Most of HG Wells' best known scientific romances came from the 1890s. The idea that Mars harbored not only intelligent life but great civilizations had started gaining popularity a decade earlier.

Perhaps living in a time of impossible things makes people credulous, it might even be a form of adaptation. People not only excepted the incredible, they craved more. This gave rise to and army of metaphysical conmen exposed by the  Seybert Commission in the 1880s. While it is always dangerous to generalize from outliers, it is certainly interesting that the greatest age of progress was also remarkable for producing dreamers and suckers.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

I suppose the short version is: "Never read any science coverage in New York magazine"

Let's see, since we started occasionally checking in with the science desk of New York magazine, we've seen questionable often lapsing into irresponsible treatment of autism, homeopathy, beds of healing crystals, magical heuristics and Gwyneth Paltrow's goop. [See here, here, and here] Now we can add manipulation of "energy" fields.

[As a general rule, I don't care much for the use of scare quotes, but what else can I do here?]

By now, pointing out bad science in a NYM article no longer justifies a post. Water is wet. To make this worth our time, we have to look at the specific ways that this piece personifies bad science journalism. In this case, Arianna Rebolini provides excellent examples of a number of genre defining traits.

1. The inexplicable encounter

Before reading something like this, one should probably put on and appropriately eerie piece of music, perhaps and appropriate soundtrack from Bernard Herrmann or (my personal favorite) Jerry Goldsmith. The inexplicable encounter is very much the stuff of movies. The seemingly rational journalist visits a guru or lies down on a bed of magical crystals and soon finds him or herself facing the mysterious, usually resulting in a quest for explanations:

Six months ago, when I walked into my first reiki appointment at a Santa Fe oxygen spa, I had only ever heard the word in passing, and I didn’t really know what to expect. The spa’s description spoke vaguely about healing and relaxation; I thought I’d paid for a massage. What I got was one of the strangest experiences of my life: an hour in which my practitioner waved his hands over me and blew smoke across my body, to which my body responded with warm tingling in my arms and hands, mysterious pressure on my chest, and uncontrollable tremors in my legs. It was unexpected, a little scary, and definitely not relaxing.

According to my practitioner, these sensations indicated an energy blockage being released; they were merely signs that the session was working. He told me my body was returning to its natural state, i.e. “nearly orgasmic” energy. But it didn’t feel orgasmic. It felt crazy. I tend to be a cautious believer, but even I couldn’t accept this as the cause and effect. I needed to know: what had happened to my body?

Side note: you have to admit there's a certain perfection to the "Santa Fe oxygen spa" detail.

2. "How can we say something is impossible when we understand so little?"

Advocates of pseudoscience frequently point out ongoing areas of uncertainty in medicine and other scientific research. The implicit and sometimes explicit message is that so-called scientists don't know everything about their own field so how can they question ours?

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) lumps reiki, along with similar but distinct practices like therapeutic touch and Chinese qigong, within the category of “biofield therapy,” but any definition of “biofield” is maddeningly vague. The clearest description we have is from a 1992 conference, when the NIH defined it as “a massless field, not necessarily electromagnetic, that surrounds and permeates living bodies and affects the body”; however, the NIH has since backed away from that description. In an emailed statement, the NCCIH told me, “to our knowledge there is no current definition of biofield that has been determined by the NIH.” When I asked Miles for more clarity, she explained the NIH’s proposed term describes “the purported subtle vibrational field that surrounds and penetrates the human body,” adding that it’s still a working definition. To my understanding, reiki practice holds that it is the manipulation of this field which causes either physiological distress or allows self-healing. No scientific proof of the biofield exists.

According to [Pamela] Miles, this mystery around the biofield and, in turn, the underlying mechanism of reiki itself doesn’t negate the power of the practice. Indeed, medical professionals have a long history of using medicine before understanding its mechanism of action. Bayer released aspirin in 1897 and it became the most widely used drug in the world; we didn’t know how it worked until 1971. Scientists are still theorizing how anesthesia works. Ditto antidepressants. What’s more, Miles emphasizes, reiki, like meditation, is at its core a spiritual practice being used in medical intervention, and the mechanism of spiritual practice isn’t necessarily provable by scientific technique. But that shouldn’t have any bearing on reiki’s effectiveness, Miles argues.

Putting aside the part about not necessarily being provable by scientific technique and holding off on the meditation comparison until the next point, let's zero in on the part about using medicine before understanding its mechanism.

On the trivial level this is, of course, always true. There will invariably be unanswered questions about any complex process, particularly in the field of medicine, but when the system works properly, we have a general idea of how things work and, more importantly, strong evidence of a causal relationship. (And, no, placebo effects don't count. More on that later.)

3. There is an important difference between a hypothesis that is generally compatible with well-established principles and one that requires you to, for example, invent entirely new laws of physics.

We did talk about anesthesia here, but meditation may make for a more interesting example. This would generally fall in the alternative medicine category. We could go back and forth about its effectiveness and practicality for addressing various problems and conditions, but the broader assertion that thoughts, attitudes, and emotions could have direct (blood pressure) and indirect (quality of sleep) medical implications is not at all controversial. Therefore, the question is one of specifics. Does this special case work and if so does it suggest a productive line of treatment? This certainly puts meditation below anesthesia, which we know works and is highly effective in certain situations, but it also puts meditation above anything that relies on the existence of a "biofield."

4. When discussing fringy subjects, your main sources should not be true believers and interested parties.

Remember the Pamela Miles we mentioned earlier?

So far, the research cautions that reiki should be used in conjunction with, and never instead of, conventional treatments for conditions like pain, anxiety, or depression. But if reiki is to be used with conventional medicine, then there first needs to be clarity around what, precisely, reiki even is. Practitioners going rogue, blending multiple spiritual practices into something new and naming it reiki, muddies the already sparse data. One person who is working toward a singular definition of the practice for patients, practitioners, and medical professionals is Pamela Miles.

Miles, author of Reiki: A Comprehensive Guide, is the unofficial leader of the movement to legitimize reiki in the mainstream. Having practiced and researched reiki for over 31 years, Miles has published in multiple peer-reviewed medical journals, collaborated on NIH-funded medical research, taught reiki at medical schools, and spoken about reiki in the media. Though she doesn’t necessarily advocate for uniform regulation of the practice, she does emphasize the importance of continued research on its effectiveness, and for the education of those receiving it. When I described my experience to Miles over the phone, she wasn’t entirely convinced she’d call what happened “reiki” at all.

5. "Where there's the perception of the smell of smoke, there must be fire."

Testimonials and satisfied customers do provide a low level of evidence, enough to justify limited research, but not enough to stand on its own, particularly when both research and first principles strongly argue that there's nothing there.
But this is a service, often a pricey one (insurance rarely covers it, and treatment can cost up to $400 per session), and customers wouldn’t be paying and returning if they weren’t benefiting from it. That evidence is mostly anecdotal, seen in gushing testimonials by patients — like Anne in Rochester, New York, who said reiki gave her the “gift of freedom,” attributing a “release of depression, anxiety and feelings of abandonment” to the sessions. And there’s no denying that medical professionals are recommending reiki to patients or training as masters themselves. About 60 U.S. hospitals offer reiki sessions, including New York-Presbyterian, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and UCLA Medical Center; as of 2014, over 800 hospitals offer reiki training.

6. "Even if it's just the placebo effect, doesn't that count as helping people?"

The placebo defense is the last resort of the snake oil defender. Rather than backing away from the possibility that the pseudoscience treatment works, to the extent that it works at all, strictly through the power of suggestion, the advocate simply treats placebo effects as another kind of benefit. If the patient feels better, what else matters?
One possible explanation of reiki’s observed benefits might have to do with recent findings on placebos — that is, that the “placebo effect” might offer more opportunities for symptom management than previously thought. This research is led by Ted Kaptchuk, director of Harvard Medical School’s Program in Placebo Studies & Therapeutic Encounter. Kaptchuk’s past research has demonstrated what is now commonly known about placebos (that when delivered with a suggestion of possible side effects, trial participants will often self-report those side effects) but a recent discovery is more surprising. It turns out sugar pills can ease symptoms in patients even if those patients know they’re receiving sugar pills, and even if those pills are given without any suggestion about the results the patients might see. It suggests a holistic look at the experience of healing, a therapeutic element to the doctor-patient interaction in full.

There are a number of problems with the placebo defense, enough to demand a commitment of time I can't provide at the moment and a level of expertise that is well above my pay grade. Here, however, are a few of the more obvious points.

a. There are clearly serious ethical problems with any treatment based on misleading patients.

b. There are also serious ethical and practical concerns with promoting procedures that have no effectiveness outside of the placebo effect. It's true that the author repeatedly makes the point that this "energy manipulation" is not meant as a substitute for conventional treatments, but no amount of caveats will get around the possibility that some patients will forgo the necessary but unpleasant for the trendy and overhyped.

c. As a bit of a side note, advertisers have known about the marketing power of the trappings of medicine for easily a century. As had regulators (back when we had regulators) who imposed rules about models and spokespersons wearing lab coats. In response to this, there was an infamous commercial featuring a soap opera star in street clothes who started his pitch by saying "I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV."

d. Even if we limit ourselves to practical considerations, placebo-based approaches are problematic at best. With real medicine, we have an idea of how likely something is to work or stop working, what the signs of a change might be, and what to do in each of the different contingencies.

To sum up, this is yet another example of New York magazine not only flirting with pseudoscience, but doing so in a tired, standard narrative that would still qualify as bad writing even if it weren't such bad journalism. As we've said before, New Journalism started out by proving that great reporting also be great literature. Articles like this (and far too many others) remind us that lazy and dangerously misleading reporting often comes in the form of a wretchedly the shade story.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

It's like one of those "you provide the caption" cartoon contest except with blog posts and no prizes

Eventually, I'll get around to using some of these as illustrations. If I don't post them, I'll probably forget about them. In the meantime, feel free to borrow anything that looks interesting.

This one will come in handy next time we write about air travel.

From Amazing Stories Quarterly v1 02 1928

This is also apt for a number of situations.

Old pulp magazine ad. circa 1950

Already used this Wolverton panel on my Twitter page.
Circa early 50s.

And I'm sure these Wolvertons will be appropriate sometime in the near future.

Also circa early 50s, which got me wondering about the term pseudoscience, so ...

And since you won't believe me unless you it for yourself...

Also from Amazing Stories Quarterly v1 02 1928

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Fighting Gresham's law of journalism -- more "yes, it is just a god damn vending machine" blogging

Just to review, a few days ago, there was a great deal of fanfare around an article by Elizabeth Segran from Fast Company magazine entitled:

Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the article was a bad piece of business and technology journalism. It credulously accepted what should have been incredible claims from an entrepreneur with an enormous interest in hyping the story. The response was largely divided between writers who were understandably offended by the cultural insensitivity and those who unquestioningly accepted the idea that a line of low functionality vending machines (no refrigeration, no hot food or beverages, not set up for cash transactions) presented an immediate threat to convenience stores and other small retail outlets. More than a few commentators managed to fall into both camps.

The problem here is not that all of the coverage of the Bodega Vending Machine Co. was bad; it is that the bad got most of the oxygen. This is primarily a business story (the technological aspect is trivial), and it has produced some excellent business writing, but it appears that the coverage is another example of Gresham's law of journalism: the crappy crowds out the good.

The best of the clear eyed analyses probably comes from  Helen Rosner, a smart, knowledgeable writer who explained in crushing detail the major flaws in the Bodega business plan.
Bodega’s product is, fundamentally, a vending machine. (Well, maybe it’s a mini-bar — open access to product, in fancy places, with a presumed audience that’s affluent and design-minded.) Vending machines are a unique form of commerce, mostly defined by the lack of human interaction at the point of transaction. This kind of unmanned retail operation has a long history (the vending history timeline on the website of NAMA, the National Automatic Merchandising Association, kicks off with Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty; it is delightful), with efficiency as its primary appeal. A tiny, self-contained store without an employee saves all sorts of overhead: Less required real estate, lower payroll, shockingly greater likelihood that shoplifters will be crushed to death.

These efficiencies aren’t gravy, though; they’re essential. They work by way of a simple economy of scale: If you run a few dozen machines (or a few thousand), it becomes possible to buy your products at a discount, to warehouse the products more effectively, and to both fill and repair your vending units in a more streamlined way. These businesses live or die by logistics.

This is where things seem likely to fall apart for Bodega. Even with their wifi connections and app-connected camera sensors, the units themselves are still just offering consumers a basic model of unmanned commerce — only with smaller, fancier machines to process the transactions. What Bodega does offer as a differentiator are the number of unique products per unit (100, the average vending machine has 20-40), and the promise that the products will not just be tailored to their general environments — protein bars in the gym, tampons in a sorority house — but to their specific users. A promise of “machine learning” will, as Fast Company explains, “constantly reassess the 100 most-needed items in that community.”

At 100,000 units — the scale McDonald and Rajan envision — that’s ten million items that are active at a time, plus reserve products for restocking, plus new products to introduce as the “machine learning” (I’m sorry, I just can’t) cycles out low performers. Across specialized markets and user-informed preferences, the number of SKUs (industry shorthand for a stocked product, rather than an individual unit of that product) that Bodega would be dealing with would quickly climb into the thousands.
Labor is not a minor issue, with a company like this one. “Unmanned retail” isn’t a precisely accurate phrase: There may not be a person ringing up your transaction, but there are plenty of people working to maintain a system that allows that absence — even the famous midcentury automats were just the outward storefront of a working, fully-staffed kitchen. Bodega’s warehouses will need to be staffed. The trucks will need to be driven. The Bodegas themselves will need to be manually restocked — each can, bottle, and box placed one by one onto each unit’s shelves. Many traditional vending machine companies employ restockers who double as machine repairers. Will a Bodega restocker be trained to fix a busted computer-vision camera?

Rosner closes with a wonderfully pithy and honest summary of what is probably Bodega's real business plan.
In Silicon Valley, Bodega’s success will not be measured by how well it truly replaces the stores it wants to eliminate — by how many lives it makes better, how many jobs it creates, how many communities it strengthens, or how many families it serves. Like most startups, its success will depend on whether its founders and investors make money, either by cashing in with an IPO or selling to a bigger company for a tidy profit.

Monday, September 25, 2017

It was an age of wondrous sights, flying machines, moving pictures, white blackberries…

[Still laying groundwork for the big essay on the aftermath of the technology spikes of the 1890s (give or take a decade) and the postwar era.The trouble is, the more I look into it, the more I keep coming across interesting examples.]

Though I would need to speak with an actual expert to be certain, it appears that the latter part of the 19th Century was the first time in human history when encountering new fruits and vegetables became a routine part of people's lives. Obviously, there had been previous periods when exploration and trade had suddenly introduced great varieties of fruits and vegetables to a region. By the same token, there had always been the occasional genuinely new variant on something familiar either due to crossbreeding or mutation. Generally though, the progress, while great, was exceedingly slow, measured in centuries not years.

As with so many things in the late 19th/early 20th century, progress in agriculture went from slow and steady to unimaginably rapid. And, as with so many things in the period, the public found a lone visionary inventor to be the face of the movement. This tendency to mythologize always distorted, but there have been less deserving recipients than Luther Burbank.

Luther Burbank (March 7, 1849 – April 11, 1926) was an American botanist, horticulturist and pioneer in agricultural science. He developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants over his 55-year career. Burbank's varied creations included fruits, flowers, grains, grasses, and vegetables. He developed (but did not create) a spineless cactus (useful for cattle-feed) and the plumcot.

Burbank's most successful strains and varieties include the Shasta daisy, the fire poppy (note possible confusion with the California wildflower, Papaver californicum, which is also called a fire poppy), the "July Elberta" peach, the "Santa Rosa" plum, the "Flaming Gold" nectarine, the "Wickson" plum (named after the agronomist Edward J. Wickson), the freestone peach, and the white blackberry. A natural genetic variant of the Burbank potato with russet-colored skin later became known as the russet Burbank potato. This large, brown-skinned, white-fleshed potato has become the world's predominant potato in food processing. The Russet Burbank potato was in fact invented to help with the devastating situation in Ireland during the Irish Potato famine. This particular potato variety was created by Burbank to help "revive the country's leading crop" as it is slightly late blight-resistant. Late blight (Phytophthora infestans) is a disease that spread and destroyed potatoes all across Europe but caused extreme chaos in Ireland due to the high dependency on potatoes as a crop by the Irish.

Though a bit of a digression from this post, Burbank's legacy is also relevant to our ongoing intellectual property thread.

 Burbank's work spurred the passing of the 1930 Plant Patent Act four years after his death. The legislation made it possible to patent new varieties of plants (excluding tuber-propagated plants). Thomas Edison testified before Congress in support of the legislation and said that "This [bill] will, I feel sure, give us many Burbanks." The authorities issued Plant Patents #12, #13, #14, #15, #16, #18, #41, #65, #66, #235, #266, #267, #269, #290, #291, and #1041 to Burbank posthumously.

The big story here is, of course, agricultural and economic, but think about the psychological impact for a moment, particularly in the context of the times. Science and technology were radically changing virtually every aspect of people's lives. This extended from electricity and internal combustion all the way down to the produce at your local market.

Nor was the agricultural progress limited to Burbank. Less famous but arguably more important were initiatives like the Hatch Act.
The Hatch Act of 1887 (ch. 314, 24 Stat. 440, enacted 1887-03-02, 7 U.S.C. § 361a et seq.) gave federal funds, initially of $15,000 each, to state land-grant colleges in order to create a series of agricultural experiment stations, as well as pass along new information, especially in the areas of soil minerals and plant growth. The bill was named for Congressman William Hatch, who chaired the House Committee of Agriculture at the time the bill was introduced. State agricultural stations created under this act were usually connected with those land-grant state colleges and universities founded under the Morrill Act of 1862, with few exceptions.

Many stations founded under the Hatch Act later became the foundations for state cooperative extension services under the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, we're talking about ongoing government-funded university-based research. The cherished notion of a couple of guys in a garage somewhere inventing the future is now almost entirely myth, but even in the late 19th century it was fading as a model for research and development. Most of the great advancements were team efforts, often from surprisingly modern R & D labs funded by corporations and financiers like J.P. Morgan, philanthropists such as Carnegie, and, yes, US taxpayers. This would be even more the case in the postwar technological spike, but that's a topic for another post.