Timothy B. Lee Profile picture
Cover tech policy and future of transportation for @arstechnica. Previously @voxdotcom, @washingtonpost.
Potato of Reason Profile picture 1 added to My Authors
13 Jan
In 2007, my brother @startupandrew called to ask if I wanted to start a company with him. He needed a co-founder. I wanted to say yes but I didn't have a lot of savings and his startup ideas seemed kind of half-baked.
His first idea was a Fiverr-like website to match customers to businesses offering online services. He quickly gave up on that idea and started working on a secure mobile payments app. It was years ahead of its time but way too ambitious for founders with no banking connections.
By 2009, he was working on a lost-and-found service called SendMeHome. You'd buy stickers from SendMeHome with unique identifiers on them, then if your stuff got lost the finder would go to SendMeHome.com and contact you.
Read 18 tweets
12 Jan
Mobileye, a leading vendor of autonomous vehicle technology, is basing its safety case on an elementary statistical fallacy: multiplying together two probabilities as if they're independent when they're not.
Mobileye is planning to build two different self-driving stacks—one based entirely on cameras and the other based entirely on radar and lidar. Then after testing the two separately, they'll combine them into one system.
The theory is that if one system has a 1/10,000 chance of crashing in any given hour and the other system also has a 1/10,000 chance of crashing, a combined system has a 1 in 100 million (10,000 times 10,000) chance of crashing per hour.
Read 6 tweets
12 Jan
The Senate's 50 Democrats (and Kamala Harris) have the power make the District of Columbia a state if they want to.
DC statehood would also need a majority in the House of course but that should be doable. The House passed a DC statehood bill last year with every Democrat voting yes except Colin Peterson. Peterson lost his seat in November. thehill.com/homenews/house…
Joe Manchin, previously one of the Senate's strongest Demodratic holdouts, now says he's open to DC statehood: "I don’t know enough about that yet. I want to see the pros and cons." washingtontimes.com/news/2021/jan/…
Read 4 tweets
10 Jan
One of the many indefensible things about Ted Cruz's behavior last Wednesday is the fact that this supposed "constitutional conservative" was pushing a plan for an electoral commission that would have been wildly unconstitutional.
The Constitution says that electors shall vote in each state, then transmit their vote certificates to Congress. Then Congress counts them. There is no provision for Congress to send the certificates back to the states for a do-over.
So even assuming this electoral commission somehow got approval from Democrats and found clear evidence Trump won the election, it's not clear what Congress could do about it. The Constitution allows for only one electoral college vote and the winner is president. End of story.
Read 4 tweets
8 Jan
Maybe Twitter should alert it's users that some of the claims in this tweet are disputed.
I have emailed Twitter to ask whether the tweet violates Twitter's rule against hateful conduct. Image
Email from Twitter spokesperson: "This Tweet is not in violation of our policies." Cc: @jbarro Image
Read 4 tweets
19 Dec 20
There's an under-appreciated interaction between macroeconomics and manufacturing economics when it comes to renewable energy policy.
A basic factor driving progress in renewable energy is the learning rate: the more of something (batteries, solar panels, windmills) you make, the cheaper it gets.
In the early years, this was the policy rationale for heavily subsidizing green energy technology heavily even though it didn't otherwise pass a basic cost/benefit calculation.
Read 12 tweets
7 Dec 20
Waymo is in a weird place right now. They're now operating an honest-to-goodness commercial driverless taxi service. No safety drivers. No rider non-disclosure agreements. A pretty big service area (~50 square miles). But it's growing very very slowly. arstechnica.com/cars/2020/12/t…
Three years ago, I thought that if Waymo "solved" the self-driving problem first, as seemed likely, its big challenge would be scaling up quickly enough to grab territory before other companies came to market. I was wrong. arstechnica.com/cars/2017/10/w…
Waymo has driverless cars that can operating in most situations in the Phoenix suburbs. But for some reason they don't seem to be trying very hard to scale up. They haven't provided a clear answer about why not.
Read 14 tweets
29 Nov 20
The fact that three different companies have apparently made COVID vaccines in ~8 months makes me wonder if there's room to be a lot more ambitious about other technology projects. Like maybe we should follow the UK and ban internal combustion engines in 2030.
A lot of corporate decision-making is driven by risk aversion about future market conditions. What if your car company goes 100 percent electric and it turns out customers don't want electric cars? When that uncertainty is removed an industry can move pretty fast.
The de facto US ban on incandescent light bulbs a decade seems like an under-appreciated model. It seems to have significantly accelerated light bulb technology, and the transition happened so smoothly that most consumers barely noticed.
Read 4 tweets
27 Nov 20
Robert Caro's first LBJ biography includes a passage that explains how rural electrification transformed the lives of farm families, especially women. It makes a powerful case for Robert Gordon's thesis that innovations of the last 50 years pale in comparison to what came before.
The arrival of electrification relieved farm families of several categories of back-breaking labor: washing clothes by hand, milking cows by hand, canning, hauling wood to (and tending) woodstoves. Refrigeration drastically reduced milk spoilage. Plus of course electric lighting.
Big-screen TVs and smartphones are nice but they just aren't transformational the way washing machines and electric lights were to our great grandparents.
Read 5 tweets
25 Nov 20
Nobody refers to Twitter as a "micro-blogging" platform any more but I think it's under-appreciated how much Twitter today fills the same niche that early blogging did.
A lot of early blog posts block-quoted a paragraph of text and then offered 1-3 paragraphs of analysis. Now we screenshot a paragraph from an article and offer 1-3 tweets of analysis.
Early bloggers spent a lot of time responding to other bloggers. Bloggers today (especially professionals) don't do that much because they're trying to maximize the readership of each post. Instead, we do short, blog-style responses here on Twitter.
Read 4 tweets
19 Nov 20
Nvidia has an amazing new technology that essentially uses deepfake AI technology to reduce the bandwidth needs of video calling by 10x. Full explanation of how it works here: arstechnica.com/gadgets/2020/1…
The software sends a single frame of video. Then for subsequent frames it just sends data on the positions of the subject's eyes, nose, mouth, etc—much less data than a whole frame. The receiving computer then uses a neural network to re-create the subject's face.
Our comments have a lot of hand-wringing about how this "doesn't show reality," but I think this is based on a philosophically untenable conception of reality. A conventional video isn't "reality" it's a pixel-by-pixel approximation of reality. Even more so with compression.
Read 5 tweets
30 Jul 20
People seem to think this is a compelling argument against antitrust enforcement but it's really not. Anyone familiar with economic history knows that new high-tech industries tend to have a lot of competitors in their early years before settling down.
There were dozens of oil companies in the 1860s, dozens of car companies in the 1900s, lots of small-scale experimentation with radio in the 1920s, etc. Then Standard Oil, Ford/GM/Chrsler, and NBC/ABC/CBS emerged and became dominant for decades.
It's relatively easy for new companies to emerge when the industry is still young and growing. New customers who don't yet have established brand loyalties. Untapped innovations for a new company to discover and exploit. It gets harder as the industry matures.
Read 10 tweets
21 Jun 20
I made a scatterplot comparing the change in coronavirus cases over the last two weeks to cooling degree days—a proxy for air conditioning use. (Thanks @jeremy_gibbs!) The hottest states have suffered the worst outbreaks.
I think this effect explains a lot of the partisan divergence in this chart. The hottest states are all Republican. Still, at any given temperature Democratic states seem to doing modestly better, on average, than Republican states.
Lest you think the recent increase in southern states is an artifact of testing: a scatterplot of the positive coronavirus test rate shows a similar relationship. The hottest states are seeing coronavirus infections outstrip testing capacity.
Read 4 tweets
17 Jun 20
I made a chart. On average, blue states have seen steadily declining coronavirus infections since mid-April. On average, red states have... not.
People asked to see the same chart with NY, NJ, and CT broken out. If anything I'd say this makes the point more strongly: red and (non-NYC) blue states were on similar trajectories until about 3 weeks ago. Then blue states started falling while red states rose.
People are also asking for similar charts for hospitalizations and deaths. My source, covidtracking.com, doesn't have good enough data on hospitalizations to make a meaningful chart—a number of states aren't reporting data at all and others seem spotty.
Read 8 tweets
13 Apr 20
It seems like the people who are eager to cut back postal service haven't thought very hard about the economics of network industries.
Take subways. MTA, the agency that runs the New York subway and bus networks, only recovers about 50 percent of its operating costs through fares. Normally, we'd consider a business that only captures half its operating costs as hugely value destroying and shut it down.
But the New York City economy, with its ~$1.3 trillion GDP, couldn't operate without its trains and buses. So obviously the value created by the system vastly exceeds the cash captured through fares. A paradox!
Read 8 tweets
16 Dec 19
There's been a lot written about the social implications of deepfakes, but less about how they actually work. Here's a thread about that. Read my article here for the full details. arstechnica.com/science/2019/1…
The goal of a deepfake is to start with a video featuring one person's face, and replace it with a different person's face, while preserving the original face's position, expression, illumination, etc.
The core of most deepfake software today is an autoencoder. That's a neural network that's been trained to take in an image and output an identical image. Training an autoencoder is easy because you know exactly what the output should look like (same as the input).
Read 12 tweets
24 Nov 19
If like me you're sometimes confused or annoyed by the way "neoliberal" has become a pejorative shorthand for centrist, technocratic policymakers, the recent behavior of ICANN provides an illuminating case study for why a lot of people feel that way.
ICANN controls the domain name system and delegates control of domains like .com and .org to other companies. It had rules restricting these companies from jacking up prices, but has been phasing them out.
This summer ICANN removed price limits for the .org domain, run by the nonprofit Internet Society, despite overwhelming opposition from the Internet community—3,000+ comments opposed, just 6 in favor. arstechnica.com/tech-policy/20…
Read 13 tweets
20 Jul 19
It's interesting to imagine a world where humanity never invented the transistor and therefore never had a digital revolution. In that world, the obvious interpretation of economic history would be that the discovery of fossil fuels gave humanity a one-time growth spurt.
It would be clear that the invention of the steam engine in the 1770s triggered a 200-year, S-shaped growth spurt. From the perspective of 2019, people would view the moon landing 50 years earlier as marking the point where the S curve leveled off.
It's not that there would have been no progress post-1969. The developed world would have made incremental gains on the great inventions of the early 20th Century, and the developing world would have catch-up growth.
Read 13 tweets
22 May 19
I was pretty bullish about bitcoin and blockchains from 2012 to 2014. I've gotten steadily more skeptical since then. At this point I'm quite pessimistic that blockchains will turn out to have economically or socially significant applications.
In 2012-4 critics pointed out that Bitcoin wasn't really useful for anything, but there was an easy response: this is still a young technology with a small community around it. Once more people tinker with it someone will figure out useful applications with mainstream appeal.
But now venture capitalists have poured hundreds of millions into blockchain startups for each of the last five years. Plus projects have raised millions more from ICOs. And I still haven't seen any examples of blockchain applications with mainstream appeal.
Read 9 tweets
14 Feb 19
Tweetstorm time! Six months ago I thought Waymo was the clear leader in self-driving technology. Now I think they've gotten themselves stuck in a technological cul-de-sac. Here's why my thinking changed... arstechnica.com/cars/2019/02/g…
Following @ericries and @claychristensen, I've long been most bullish about companies that get a basic product to market quickly and then iterate to make it better over time.
Tesla and Waymo are both pursuing incremental strategies, but they're very different. Tesla is incrementally going from "level 2" to "level 4." I've long thought (and still think) Tesla's strategy was unworkable.
Read 14 tweets
13 Feb 19
NHTSA's 2017 finding that Tesla Autopilot reduced crashes by 40 percent was based on embarrassingly basic math errors. arstechnica.com/cars/2019/02/i…
Some Tesla fans are questioning QCS/Randy Whitfield's credentials or claiming his critique is hard to follow, but you don't need to take Whitfield's word for it. The raw NHTSA spreadsheet is available here and not hard to understand. safetyresearch.net/Library/2018-1…
Here is an excerpt from NHTSA's raw data. Column B shows the mileage at which Tesla says Autosteer was activated for this car. Since the odometer starts at 0, NHTSA treated this as the number of miles the car drove before Autosteer activation—Column F.
Read 10 tweets