Posted tagged ‘Fail’

The Day The Newsweekly Died

March 29, 2013

Let’s say you are the editor of essentially the last rag standing, the final remnant of the once insanely influential tribe of dead-tree general-interest newsweeklies.  Let’s say you are the lord of Time.

Now, we all know Time is increasingly just another one of time’s victims, a dinosaur in a world filled with post-CGI-meteor digital mammals (extended grotesque metaphor in honor of the party of the first part).  So if you’re the editor, you’ve got a tough trick:  how to cut through all those pesky byting insects? (Consistency? we don’t got no consistency.  We don’t need no Kinky People Can Often Find Good Sex consistency!)

And finally, let’s say you have no moral compass; you don’t care about what’s true, or about the pain your decisions could inflict on millions of people touched by the subject of your cover story.

That’s when you come up with this:

Time Cancer cover

It’s not possible. We’re nowhere near what’s promised on that cover.  Hell, even conceptually, you can’t “cure” “cancer.”  It’s a family of illnesses that share certain characteristics (most importantly, uncontrolled cell division) but that present a whole host of different pathologies and possibilities for treatment; no matter what advances may come, no one who can count past three expects some unitary cure.  But rather than rant on, I’m just going to outsource my rage and disdain to my friend (and MIT colleague) Seth Mnookin, writing yesterday in Slate:

 Witness the headline emblazoned in all-caps on the cover of the magazine’s April 1 issue: “HOW TO CURE CANCER.” It’s followed by an asterisk that directs you to a subtitle, just to make sure you get the point: “Yes, it’s now possible, thanks to new cancer dream teams that are delivering better results faster.”

Which, of course, is completely, utterly, inarguably false. The roughly 580,000 Americans who will die this year from cancer know the reality all too well. For some context, that’s more people than will die from chronic lower respiratory diseases, strokes, accidents, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes combined.

According to Seth, the actual story is more a squib than the blatant idiocy implied by the cover, which is a minor relief.  But the cover on its own is hugely damaging — and Seth gets into what makes it so before coming to the heart of the matter:

Which brings us to the real problem with Time’s headline, which is not that it’s wrong, or even that it might create funding problems for future cancer researchers—it’s that in the context of a fatal disease with excruciatingly painful treatment options, it’s simply cruel.

Exactly.  Cancer has harrowed my own family — non-small-cell lung cancer took my mother ten days before my scheduled wedding, for one example — so I know to the bone what it feels like to encounter witless fantasies like this one.  But it shouldn’t require such a loss to grasp the fact that you don’t get to put the word “cancer” and the word “cure” in the same sentence — hell the same paragraph — unless you’ve cleared the wards and are carrying some folks to Stockholm in sedan chairs.  Go read Seth — and spit on the ground in front of the display everytime you see one of these.

Oh…one more thing: if you had any doubt that the newsweeklies had fully and fatally jumped the shark, doubt no more.

How To Botch A Job Interview

August 31, 2012

I didn’t watch the RNC.  Not a minute.

Wait!  To avoid a Kessler spanking, I should admit that when I turned the TV on Wednesday night looking for a west coast ball game, I found the cable set to one of the network stations.  So there was that glimpse of the convention floor — maybe a few seconds while fumbled for the mute button, and a few more while I tried to punch in the channel I wanted.  There’s that…

But, after I got back from the dinner welcoming our new victims graduate students to campus last night, I had a great time following the comment threads around the web on the trainwreck of Romney’s big night.  And as the hilarity over the Eastwood fiasco played out — a little sadly for me, because he’s done some great work on both sides of the camera — and as the clock relentlessly ticked on and as Rubio made it at least 3 if not more in the list of prime time speakers beginning now in their primary campaigns for 2016 and then as Romney finally tumbled onto stage with only 20 minutes or so left in prime time, and bumbled through much of that precious time before apparently finding his rhythm a bit after at least a chunk of his audience had been switched to local news, or the last beer, or bed — and then to face that fact that when all was said and done on this evening that was supposed to build a bond between the last three true swing voters in the United States and the remarkably sophisticated simulacrum of a human being operating under the code name Willard Mitt Romney, the only thing anyone actually remembered was a kind of recognizable weird old guy channeling the signals picked up by the filling in tooth 31 to drive his argument with an empty chair…

…as all that took place, I thought, W. Mitt Romney has just crashed the last remaining claim he has to the notion that he could do the presidency, even should he (FSM forbid!) manage to occupy it.

Consider:  when one runs for President there are only a few things over which the nominee has true total control.  Really there are only two:  the choice of a running mate, and the production of the wholly staged kabuki of the nominating convention.  The Ryan selection was botched, just from a technical point of view – a Friday evening news dump, the awkward pas de deux in which Romney and Ryan both tried to assert that the Ryan plan wasn’t really the Romney one and so on.  Leave aside the merits or not of Ryan as a running mate, just the way that the choice oozed out into public discussion was weak.

And now this.  The convention was rough from the start — and while you surely can’t blame the Romneybots for Hurricane Isaac, Chris Christie’s giant raspberry, spraying Jersey bluster all over Ann Romney’s red dress was not exactly what the Cyborg/Grannie Starver ticket had in mind.  Then you get to the mostly forgettable second day, made extraordinary by Paul Ryan’s delivery of a speech that was, in the end, an indigestible bolus of falsehood .  As someone pointed out at a link I’ve now lost, you’d think a properly run convention would have given Ryan sufficient guidance to make the lies just a little less obvious — just enough to provide cover to the both-sides-do-it/boys-will-be-boys school of coverage.  But noooo…with the result that what was supposed to be a day of media praise for Ryan’s extraordinary powers of intellect and his courageous embrace of hard truths…and of anticipation of the launch of the Romnoid’s Human Emulation software update…became instead a chorus of disdain — one that even reached the Fox News website!

Amazingly, all that pales before the my-eyes-deceive-me spectacle of Clint Eastwood trading implied obscenties with an empty chair…dragged out so long that the nominee himself was forced into that one true sin of convention production values:  crossing over out of prime time into the local news slot.

Holy Rotini, FSM! that’s just elementary.  Incredibly bad planning.  Grotesque management.  A failure not of ideas or character or of policy analysis or even emotional persuasion…but of the pure, basic demand that someone who wants to run something should, you know, actually do so.

And that for me is the lasting message of this convention.  Mitt Romney presents himself as the controlling intelligence whose experience as a top manager prepares him to run a more effective government than that of slacker/community organizer/government hack/oh, by the way – President Obama.

Remember, Romney isn’t running on his record in Massachusetts because it (a) largely sucked and (b) because the point at which it didn’t — with the passage of Romneycare — is the one that he just doesn’t seem to recall.  He isn’t running on Bain directly, because that record has messy details in it that accompany exercises in vampire capitalism.  He can’t do much with the Olympics because, you know, he didn’t build that.  So all that’s left is this general claim that he’s got the leader stuff down, that he can run things, that he’s a deciderer, and what he decides goes, and goes right.

And now this convention.

Seriously:  you can’t put on a three hour television show, you can’t run the country.  It’s as simple as that.

Images: Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh’s Chair, 1888.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Apotheosis of the Spanish Royal Family, 1762-1766

Megan McArdle is Even More Always Wrong Than Usual: Arithmetic is Hard/Mostly Outsourced edition

July 22, 2010

By now most everyone who cares (a swiftly dwindling number, I hope) has heard of Megan McArdle’s spectacular meltdown when confronted by arithmetical and analytical errors of the most damning sort.

By far the best account of this comes in a spectacular fisking of McArdle by her own commenters, as organized by the invaluable (and stronger-stomached-than-I) Susan of Texas over at The Hunting of The Snark.

I’m not going to bother linking to McArdle herself. Why reward her with even the mote of traffic that might come her way, when SoT provides the complete text with commentary.  A veritable Talmud of McArdle.(I’m not sure I can really get my head around that concept–ed.)

In short form:  Ms McArdle can’t count, and she can’t think either — but those errors of argument are rather more strategic than they appear.  (She can’t deal with criticism either, which leads to much hilarity in this instance.*

So, to begin with, McArdle mistakes $250 for $25, and then uses the lower number as her estimate of how much money could flow to each American if taxes on the wealthiest were allowed to return to the levels experienced in the last epoch of budget surplus and sustained job creation and economic growth.**

She then went on to make an claim in large part based on that error: that the stimulus effect of choosing to recapture foregone revenue from the rich would be tiny, given that $25 buys no more than “one pizza dinner per person.”

Now, you can get the full takedown on the serial sins of fact and logic that McArdle made at Susan of Texas’s place.  Here, I just want to add two thoughts.

For one, McArdle’s first order claim — that redistributing to the population at large the money that is now earmarked for tax cuts for the rich will have no effect because the sums involved are trivial — allows her to ignore the reality of class and economic life as it is lived by most Americans.

In fact, as the upper-middle-class McArdle chooses not to know, the difference between a $100 supplement to income for a family of four and $1,000 boost is potentially life-changing, especially at the economic margin.

That’s roughly one month mortgage payment or better at median house prices right now.***

That’s one more month of high-deductible health insurance for the family in my home state of Massachusetts.

That’s the food budget for about a month and a half.

You get the idea.

More broadly, the real failure lies with her claim that one basically can’t figure out whether or not spending money on unemployment insurance is good for the economy (and not simply struggling individuals) as compared with retaining the current tax structure.  She writes:

it assumes that the rather optimistic estimates of Mark Zandi about the size of the stimulus multiplier are correct. Estimating stimulus multipliers is incredibly difficult when you try to do it at the macro level (how much spending equals how much extra GDP), and even more difficult when you try to figure out whether food stamps are better than a jobs program–the examples are fewer, and the amounts are smaller, making it hard to pick up direct effects.

I.e., you can’t figure out what a given policy will do (according to McArdle, ex cathedra)…and worse — even if there were a discernable impact, it wouldn’t matter. Why not?  Because the measures of success are meaningless:

It also assumes that any measured increase in GDP measures some improvement in human welfare. It is trivially true that if you increase one component of a measured variable, that variable will get bigger. It’s much harder to know that any particular increase in GDP represents a real change in human welfare, or merely moving chess pieces around the board.

Now that last statement is simply nonsense, as stalwart McArdle commenter Zosima pointed out. measures may be imperfect for all kinds of reasons, but that doesn’t mean that they are devoid of meaning.

But McArdle, I think, doesn’t really care if she’s wrong or risible.  Her real goal is to advance the notion that government action informed by reason and empirical knowledge is impossible.

Hence the value (for her) in repeating stuff like this.  This isn’t about the stimulus, in other words, or appropriate tax policy.  It’s about the impossiblity of governance.

In that light, the key fact to remember is that McArdle’s lapses of reasoning and fact are features, not bugs.   Remember the mission as declared by her home institution: “TheAtlantic – shaping the national debate on the most critical issues of our times, from politics, business, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture.”

McArdle is indeed trying to shape the debate, to constrain what might be possible in the exercise of government power.  Mere logic, paltry fact may not be permitted to get in the way.  She is Always Wrong™ — by design.

*Here I shamelessly steal from Susan, uber smart serial commenter Aimai’s summary dismissal of the divine Ms MM on McArdle’s comment thread:

Hm, lets see if the site lets me post. Can I ask whether this long, incoherent and off point attack by Megan on poster zosina is, in fact, by Megan? I mean, look–for one thing the “Megan” in this post claims to be the child of academics when the real Megan, as far as I know, is the child of a former public employee turned lobbyist and a realtor. Second of all the real Megan presumably grasps that “being the child of academics” doesn’t actually amount to an argument. No, really it doesn’t. Actually, and for real, I’m the child of a Nobel Prize winner and for kicks I’ll add I’m a third generation Harvardite. So what? This really, really, really, never comes up in academic arguments which are actually won and lost not by some kind of bizarre blood test but by concrete arguments. The “you are tedious and lack charm” argument is also one that I have yet to see adduced in a respectable discussion. Certainly, on the basis of the evidence from this thread, its hard to tell which of the two of you, the “megan” poster and the zosina poster is the younger. If I didn’t know that the real Megan is 37 I’d have had to award this avatar the palm for most juvenile approach to intellectual discussion. Finally, I have yet to see the imaginary comments “Megan” refute any of Zosina’s points. If this thread “Megan” isn’t the real Megan I think the real Megan might want to step in and clean up the comments by deleting her. But if she is the real Megan I think the Atlantic might want to step in and jerk the blog entirely. This is a positively craptacular piece of incoherent special pleading on Megan’s part, from the first post to the comment thread. Really, its shameful. And you don’t have to be the “child of academics” to know that.

aimai

**McArdle later tried to excuse herself by noting that her calculator could not handle the millions – billions quantities in the division.  To which I respond that it one of the skills we train our students in at the MIT Science Writing Program is that of estimation, and the honing of a nose for suspect numbers.  I would have thought that someone so inordinately proud of her role as “Business and Economic Editor of The Atlantic” would have cultivated the same.  If she hasn’t, then I would respectfully suggest that this is just one more piece of evidence that she is unqualified for the position she now holds.  I mean, dude — was it so hard to reconfigure the 75 billion/.3 billion raw number into 750/3?  There.  That wasn’t so hard.

***That statement is based on the following calculation:  take the median price for a new home as of Q1 2010, subtract 10 percent for a down payment and come up with a mortgage balance of $195,000 (give or take a buck).  At the current 30 year mortgage rate of 5.36%, you get a principal and interest payment of $1090 and a couple of cents.)

Image:  Francisco de Goya “Old people eating soup,” 1819-23