Efficient aggregation of repugnance

The cycle of outrage on the internet seems to have a well-defined pattern by now, so if you're on your game, you have a contrarian piece which is the backlash to the backlash prepped and ready to go as soon as the outrage descends, and if you're really advanced you have the backlash to the backlash to the backlash volley in your quiver. It's an advanced play. Or you can float above it all with a meta piece about the workings of the internet outrage cycle, which I guess this post is some variant of.

In his great new book Who Gets What and Why, about market design, economist Alvin Roth defines repugnant transactions as ones that some people want to engage in that others object to even if they aren't directly harmed. For example, it's forbidden in most countries to buy and sell kidneys. If you spread a wide enough net across the world, you'll find all types of cultural practices that are repugnant in some societies, legal in others. In America it's illegal to eat horse meat; it's a delicacy in Europe. In medieval times the idea of lending money and charging interest was forbidden; today it still is in a few places, but it's a bedrock of the banking system most everywhere else.

The shooting of Cecil the Lion was a flash fire on social media this week. And of course, suddenly everyone was outraged at the hunting of lions, leading inexorably to the backlash wondering why we aren't more outraged at the shooting of unarmed black teens, or 5 endangered elephants. Why aren't we more outraged at ourselves for eating chicken?

It is too exhausting for most people to live in a state of moral outrage all the time, and so it largely simmers below the boiling point of our consciousness. Every so often, though, some event occurs that comes in a weaponized package, in the perfect form to capitalize on the viral amplification powers of the internet. For example, the murder of a lion so beloved that he is, despite being an apex predator, referred to by the adorable name of Cecil.

And so a practice that many people probably objected to but rarely thought of—trophy big game hunting—suddenly swells up like a tsunami and exceeds our collective dam of ignorance. The internet is more efficient at transmitting information than any human invention ever, but not all information travels equally efficiently. I had never heard of Cecil the Lion a week ago. Now he's up there with the MGM lion and Simba as the most famous lions in the world. His face showed up in every one of my social feeds again and again, his title a perfectly compact hashtag: #CecilTheLion.

More and more, we'll see these flash floods of outrage, because the internet is the most efficient aggregator of repugnance in history. Formerly disparate, even mild pockets of repugnance can carry disproportionate magnitude on social media if formatted optimally to fit into the entry slot of the internet's megaphone. It's one reason something can lie dormant for years, like Bill Cosby's sexual crimes, and then suddenly become the nexus of national outrage. As one victim Tamara Green said:

In 2005, Bill Cosby still had control of the media. In 2015, we have social media.
 

It goes both ways. Lobbying is one area where this dynamic can take on a destructive power. A narrow interest can aggregate its strong feelings into targeted, weaponized money that can overwhelm the mild objections of the majority. And so we have corn subsidies and other oddities locked into place. It's not great for most of us, but most of us don't care as much as the small but vocal corn lobby.

But for many other issues which have long wished to ignite the public imagination and support, there is no better time. Buzzfeed was one of the first media companies to recognize that some types of news, packaged a certain way, attain exponential organic distribution given the way most people discover news through social media.

Alan Moore predicted this all in his great graphic novel Watchmen. Those of you who've read it will recognize this as an early predecessor of Cecil the Lion:

Expense reports I'd want to audit

It might be incongruous to think of spies having to account for expenses, like any old suit on a business trip, but in reality, people working for intelligence services do have to keep track of the money they're spending, file expense reports, and even hound their company (the Company, in this case) to reimburse them. "They're the same as the reports any businessman would submit after meeting a client," says Chris Lynch, former FBI and CIA counterintelligence officer and author of The C.I Desk. "Meals, miles, parking, small gifts, other expenses, receipts if they had them, some kind of 'certification' if they didn’t."
 
Information about expense reports for intelligence operations is somewhat hard to come by, both because it's mundane and potentially revealing. Spy memoirs don't spend a lot of time recalling the hours spent on filling out paperwork, but, on the other hand, boring paperwork, if it included line-by-line accountings of expenses, could show how an officer operates—and how lavishly he or she spends. The expenses for setting up an operation might include sourcing equipment, creating supply caches, arranging safe houses, and training people; one court case in Italy revealed records of U.S. intelligence officers staying at luxury hotels and spending as much as $500 a day eating out.
 
But some of the most intriguing expenses that intelligence operations rack up come from the requests of agents—the well-placed people that intelligence officers recruit to secretly pass along valuable information. Some agents simply want to be paid for their efforts. But some have much more unusual requests. 
 

Spies have to submit expense reports, too.

Tumblr idea: imagined renderings of James Bond's expense reports from each of the movies.

Law of unintended consequences

There are five times as many people in prison today—nearly 5% of the population will be imprisoned at some point—as there were in the 1970s. The increase in crime during the 1960s and ’70s motivated Americans to get tough on crime, which took several forms. The most striking of these was putting lots of people in prison. Imprisonment is supposed to reduce crime in two ways: it takes criminals off the street so they can’t commit new crimes (incapacitation) and it discourages would-be criminals from committing crime (deterrence).
 
But neither of these outcomes came to pass.
 
A new paper from University of Michigan economics professor Michael Mueller-Smith measures how much incapacitation reduced crime. He looked at court records from Harris County, Texas from 1980 to 2009. Mueller-Smith observed that in Harris County people charged with similar crimes received totally different sentences depending on the judge to whom they were randomly assigned. Mueller-Smith then tracked what happened to these prisoners. He estimated that each year in prison increases the odds that a prisoner would reoffend by 5.6% a quarter. Even people who went to prison for lesser crimes wound up committing more serious offenses subsequently, the more time they spent in prison. His conclusion: Any benefit from taking criminals out of the general population is more than off-set by the increase in crime from turning small offenders into career criminals.
 

More here, based on this paper (PDF) by Michael Mueller-Smith.

Why does prison turn a one-time criminal into a lifelong one? Those coming out of prison have few other attractive options.

Prison obliterates your earnings potential. Being a convicted felon disqualifies you from certain jobs, housing, or voting. Mueller-Smith estimates that each year in prison reduces the odds of post-release employment by 24% and increases the odds you’ll live on public assistance. Time in prison also lowers the odds you’ll get or stay married. Being in prison and out of the labor force degrades legitimate skills and exposes you to criminal skills and a criminal network. This makes crime a more attractive alternative upon release, even if you run a high risk of returning to prison.
 

A mind trick to think more rationally

But one interesting way to try and inject some rationality is to think from an outsider’s perspective. So here’s what happens. When you think about your own life, you’re trapped within your own perspective. You’re trapped within your own emotions and feelings and so on. But if you give advice to somebody else, all of a sudden you’re not trapped within that emotional combination, mish-mash, complexity and you can give advice that is more forward-looking and not so specific to the emotions.
 
...
 
So for example, in one experiment, we asked people, we said, "Look, you went to your doctor. They gave you this diagnosis. You know that the thing that the doctor recommended is much more expensive and there are other things that would be much cheaper. Would you go for a second opinion?" And people say, "No, my doctor recommended it. How could I not take their advice? How could I say, 'Can you please refer me for a second opinion?'" Then we asked another group. We said, "Here is the situation. If this happened to your friend, would you recommend that they go for a second opinion?" People said, "Absolutely. How could you not go for a second opinion?" So one idea is to try and get ourselves from an outside perspective. You look at the situation and then you say to yourself if this was about somebody else, somebody I love and care about and then when this situation what would I advise them? And you would realize that often your advice will be different and often a more rational, useful perspective.
 

A useful trick from Dan Ariely on how to think more rationally.

The real threat to Amazon

No, it's not Jet.com.

Certain disasters stem from many small problems conspiring to cause one very large problem. For want of a nail, the war was lost; for fifteen independently insignificant errors, the jetliner was lost. Subduction-zone earthquakes operate on the opposite principle: one enormous problem causes many other enormous problems. The shaking from the Cascadia quake will set off landslides throughout the region—up to thirty thousand of them in Seattle alone, the city’s emergency-management office estimates. It will also induce a process called liquefaction, whereby seemingly solid ground starts behaving like a liquid, to the detriment of anything on top of it. Fifteen per cent of Seattle is built on liquefiable land, including seventeen day-care centers and the homes of some thirty-four thousand five hundred people. So is Oregon’s critical energy-infrastructure hub, a six-mile stretch of Portland through which flows ninety per cent of the state’s liquid fuel and which houses everything from electrical substations to natural-gas terminals. Together, the sloshing, sliding, and shaking will trigger fires, flooding, pipe failures, dam breaches, and hazardous-material spills. Any one of these second-order disasters could swamp the original earthquake in terms of cost, damage, or casualties—and one of them definitely will. Four to six minutes after the dogs start barking, the shaking will subside. For another few minutes, the region, upended, will continue to fall apart on its own. Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin.
 

Finally finished that Kathryn Schulz piece on the earthquake that will devastate the Pacific Northwest, and I'm no geologist, but it's terrifyingly credible.

Wineglasses, antique vases, Humpty Dumpty, hip bones, hearts: what breaks quickly generally mends slowly, if at all. OSSPAC estimates that in the I-5 corridor it will take between one and three months after the earthquake to restore electricity, a month to a year to restore drinking water and sewer service, six months to a year to restore major highways, and eighteen months to restore health-care facilities. On the coast, those numbers go up. Whoever chooses or has no choice but to stay there will spend three to six months without electricity, one to three years without drinking water and sewage systems, and three or more years without hospitals. Those estimates do not apply to the tsunami-inundation zone, which will remain all but uninhabitable for years.
 

Ironically, the highest magnitude earthquake I ever experienced was in Seattle, and it occurred while I was at work at Amazon. Walls cracked, computer monitors tumbled off of desks, people ran around the halls screaming. Perhaps the human condition is tolerable largely because we choose to ignore tragedies on such long-term time scales.

Life of the domestique

I have no idea why Samsung helped produce this short video about cycling, but it's great. The double meaning of “we are greater than i”—it alludes to both the team nature of pro cycling, symbolized by the role of the domestique supporting the team leader, and to the i in iPhone or iPad—is subtle and clever. Unfortunately I don't think most people except cycling fans will really understand the nuance and the twist ending, and it won't turn around Samsung's handset sales declines, but I'm glad I saw it.

Ludicrous

A few days ago Tesla Motors announced a new Ludicrous Mode for the Model S.

While working on our goal of making the power train last a million miles, we came up with the idea for an advanced smart fuse for the battery. Instead of a standard fuse that just melts past a certain amperage, requiring a big gap between the normal operating current and max current, we developed a fuse with its own electronics and a tiny lithium-ion battery. It constantly monitors current at the millisecond level and is pyro-actuated to cut power with extreme precision and certainty.
 
That was combined with upgrading the main pack contactor to use inconel (a high temperature space-grade superalloy) instead of steel, so that it remains springy under the heat of heavy current. The net result is that we can safely increase the max pack output from 1300 to 1500 Amps.
 
What this results in is a 10% improvement in the 0 to 60 mph time to 2.8 secs and a quarter mile time of 10.9 secs. Time to 155 mph is improved even more, resulting in a 20% reduction.
 
This option will cost $10k for new buyers. In appreciation of our existing P85D owners, the pack electronics upgrade needed for Ludicrous Mode will be offered for the next six months at only $5k plus installation labor.
 

You might wonder why Tesla would even bother releasing a $10,000 upgrade that buys you 0.3 seconds in your 0-60 time. Ludicrous indeed, right? I supposed it could be justified as just a publicity stunt, and it did garner more press than the other announcements they made, but I believe it just emphasizes just how critical it is to Tesla's success to show that going electric does not mean any sacrifice in performance. In many cases they now tout electric cars as a superior experience to ICE cars.

I don't think Tesla would have succeeded any other way except by starting with a high end performance car and then moving down market. At the time their first model the Roadster was released, electric cars were almost all hybrids, and the pure electric cars that were on the market had really low range, in the neighborhood of 80 miles on a full charge, so they were of necessity second or third cars for people with short commutes. The cars were very underpowered; it wasn't a stretch to say electric cars were like glorified go-carts.

There were very few public chargers, if any, and installing a charger at home was a costly upgrade from the electric company, if it was even available in your area. Electric cars were toys for a sliver of the wealthy.

The Roadster, but more the Model S, was the first electric car to credibly stand in as both a practical and sexy alternative to ICE cars. When it was first announced, there were still very few public chargers, and even today the public charging situation is meager when compared to the number of gas stations. Going electric would still be a sacrifice for many drivers today.

That is why the performance of the Model S in other respects was so critical. The battery life for high end models, around 260 miles on a full charge, was finally enough for more than just a short daily commute (it's not surprising to me at all that most of the sales of the Model S have been for the largest battery, to the point where they dropped the low end model). Battery life was critical to the first iPhone's appeal, and it's even more critical to electric cars because of the limited charging infrastructure.

The styling of the car was a fine balance between conservative and overly aggressive. No matter what you think of it, though, it didn't scream economy car like most compact electric cars before it. The designer came from a background designing European luxury cars, and the lines of the car evoked those more than boxy economy cars.

The 0-60 performance was a thrill then, and it's absurd now. Ludicrous, you might say. I test drove a P85D with insane mode turned on and the acceleration from a standing stop to 60 miles per hour was so extreme I felt dizzy and had to pull over for a few seconds to regain my equilibrium. It's like nothing you've ever felt before unless you're the circus clown they shoot out of a cannon. That so many YouTube videos showed the Model S dusting BMW's, Audi's, Porsches, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis on race tracks underlined the fact that you were sacrificing no performance whatsoever in going electric. In fact, you could now be the fastest kid on the block.

Add all of that up to other talking points like the giant touchscreen and ample storage space and what the Model S did was unlock the ability for relatively wealthy people to signal their concern for the environment without sacrificing anything in driving performance or personal style. It's an expensive signal, but as any knowledgeable sociologist or economist might tell you, the more extreme the signal, the clearer the signal. Driving a Ferrari down the street is a clearer signal than a BMW. The giant tail feathers of a peacock? Ludicrous, perhaps, but a very efficient signal.

Before the Tesla, owning an electric car marked you as an eccentric, a hippie even. Tesla singlehandedly changed the signaling potential of the entire electric car category.

Given the unfriendly car charging context into which Tesla had to launch its electric cars, this is not a market where low end disruption would have worked. The cost of batteries just didn't put that type of price/performance strategy in play. Tesla shook up the market by attacking the high end, luxury car market, just as they had to, and to compete in that segment, sometimes you have to pull up along side the ICE sports car at the stoplight and blow it off the line. Sometimes, the way to achieve escape velocity is by achieving a lot of velocity.

I miss first-gen Google Maps for IOS

This is an oldie, but still relevant: an informative deep dive into the design choices of Google Maps and Apple Maps on iOS.

I wish I had screens from the first version of Google Maps that shipped on the iPhone, a version that was rumored to have been built by Apple for Google. To me, that's still the most usable mapping app ever for iOS, and all subsequent versions, including both of the latest versions of Google Maps and Apple Maps, are more complex. The new maps may do more and offer more functionality, but if you just wanted to quickly get directions to a particular place, nothing beat the first-gen Google Maps for iOS.

Part of this is the result of the new flat design aesthetic, which is sleek but often opaque. In many ways, touchscreen user interfaces seem to have approached a local maximum in which the only innovation is coming up with new icons that users must learn. At some point, we're just substituting new abstractions and not making significant leaps forward in usability. More apps are  better, on average, than the first generation of mobile apps, but the best designed apps today don't feel much better than the best apps from the dawn of the iOS app store.

These days, the great leap forward in interface design feels like it's the complete removal of the abstraction of traditional software design. The interface that feels closest to achieving that in the near future is text, most often found in some sort of messaging interface. Following on its heels, with even greater potential as a democratic UI medium, is voice.