Early cost estimates of government projects tend to be optimistic, but does that mean an ambitious project should be scrapped when its price increases?
The Washington Post reports on the political storm surrounding continued funding of the Webb Space Telescope, our planned next-generation instrument:
In 2006, NASA estimated that Webb would cost $2.4 billion and could launch in 2014. In 2008, the price tag rose to $5.1 billion. A congressionally mandated report released last year found that NASA had underestimated costs and mismanaged the project. This summer, NASA said it had already spent $3.5 billion on the project and needed a total of $8.7 billion to launch in 2018.
Against critics who say the gap has been growing and the project should be shut down,
[Edward J.] Weiler [retired head of NASA space sciences] said estimating costs on a project that's never been built before is difficult. "You bid optimistically. That's not just a problem with the James Webb Space Telescope. We see it at NASA all the time; you see it at defense contractors. I would argue -- and I'm not making excuses here -- that [the budget overrun] is a product of the way we do business in America."
Top astronomers said early estimates were never realistic.
"People were used to lowballing," said Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "Congress has been part of the game."
The much-acclaimed Hubble Space Telescope, Weiler reminded critics, was also way over budget. And that very point is reflected in the new book by the Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, in the chapter dealing with what he and his colleague Amos Tversky called the Planning Fallacy: using best-case scenarios and not reflecting actual costs of similar projects. Poster child: the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh, originally budgeted in 1997 at £40 million and finished only in 2004 at a cost of £431 million.
But would we always be better off by following Dr. Kahneman's wise counsel? Shouldn't we look the future squarely in the eye and not fool ourselves about costs? Mark Twain, who virtually bankrupted himself backing an ultimately unworkable typesetter, might have agreed.(Or maybe not; he kept backing esoteric projects like a Polish-Austrian inventor's carpet-pattern machine.) But Dr. Illingworth's remarks suggest there's something else at work, a tacit agreement to keep original estimates deliberately low. Regarding the Scottish Parliament and other architectural megaprojects, the Danish-born program management guru Bent Flyvbjerg believes such enterprises are more often than not Machiavellian charades.Of course that leaves open the question of whether some notorious cases like the Sydney Opera House may turn out to have been worth the deception or self-deception, while others like New Jersey's Xanadu have at least so far been mere money pits.
Scientific instruments are different from monuments; even ardent Scottish nationalists might not claim that the new building will give their country better laws, while the Webb instrument, like the Hubble, might change our view of the universe and our place in it, and yield the surprising economic benefits that expensive pure science (and some military cost overruns) often do. The question is whether the benefit of greater realism in the majority of cases would be offset by the loss of benefits if legislators ruled out all projects that by Kahneman's criteria were likely to produce substantial cost overruns. Sometimes coping with unexpected difficulties produces surprising new solutions, a phenomenon that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand.
Fiscal realism can also have unintended consequences. Cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993, it has often been observed, helped drive legions of physicists from big science to even bigger finance, where they developed the computer infrastructure behind the trading that is now the target of Occupy Wall Street. The NASA executive Dr. Charles Beichman wrote tongue-in-cheek to the Financial Times two years ago that it's cheaper to pay scientists and engineers to work on accelerators and telescopes than to turn them loose writing derivatives.
So, on balance I would suggest implementing Dr. Kahneman's procedure, but (in the case of potentially productive investments) looking not just at all the potential additional costs but at the kinds of benefits, including spinoffs, that previous big projects have created. I find it hard to believe that in the context of the whole Federal budget, the Web Space Telescope would not survive that kind of realism.
Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.
Allegations against the comedian are proof that women are angry, temporarily powerful—and very, very dangerous.
Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space. You’re just too old.
This was my experience reading the account of one young woman’s alleged sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, published by the website Babe this weekend. The world in which it constituted an episode of sexual assault was so far from my own two experiences of near date rape (which took place, respectively, during the Carter and Reagan administrations, roughly between the kidnapping of the Iran hostages and the start of the Falklands War) that I just couldn’t pick up the tune. But, like the recent New Yorker story “Cat Person”—about a soulless and disappointing hookup between two people who mostly knew each other through texts—the account has proved deeply resonant and meaningful to a great number of young women, who have responded in large numbers on social media, saying that it is frighteningly and infuriatingly similar to crushing experiences of their own. It is therefore worth reading and, in its way, is an important contribution to the present conversation.
A viral story highlights the lingering difference between the language—and the practice—of consent.
It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.
I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.
That was Aziz Ansari, responding to a story that was published about him over the weekend, a story that doubled for many readers as an allegation not of criminal sexual misconduct, but of misbehavior of a more subtle strain: aggression. Entitlement. Excessive persistence. His statement, accordingly—not an apology but not, either, a denial—occupies that strange and viscous space between defiance and regret. I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart.
The cryptocurrency was meant to be stateless and leaderless. Ironically, the culprits of its latest plunge are ... state leaders.
Bitcoin is a bubble.
That much was clear to economists, investors, and analysts for quite some time. But one of the shortcomings of such analysis is that certainty of an economic bubble offers little insight on how, when, or why that bubble will pop. “I can say almost with certainty that they will come to a bad ending,” Warren Buffett said last week, to the great consternation of crypto fans. “When it happens or how or anything else, I don't know.”
Maybe—maybe—it’s finally happening.
The price of bitcoin plummeted by as much as 20 percent on Tuesday to $12,000, or about 40 percent below its all-time high in December. Other popular cryptocurrencies, like ethereum and Ripple, also posted double-digit losses.
At the same time that the president sows doubt and confusion to undermine his adversaries, he finds those forces depriving him of credit he believes he deserves.
A long weekend with lots of executive time, simmering tensions with politicians of both parties, a looming government shutdown: It’s the most potent cocktail that Donald Trump, a teetotaler, could imbibe, and it produced a predictably jarring and erratic series of statements.
Over the course of several days, mostly in tweets, Trump tried to make three points. First, he sought to discredit the idea that he had referred to African nations as “shithole countries” and said, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” (Trump also declared to a reporter that he was “the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”) Second, he jockeyed for position in negotiations over funding the government, arguing Democrats were imperiling the military as he tried to preemptively shift blame to them. Finally, for good measure, he whined a little bit that he doesn’t get more credit for what he’s done:
The cognitive test that Trump passed was neither thorough nor difficult.
Amid growing speculation about President Trump’s unfitness to hold the nuclear codes he has threatened to use, anyone who was suspicious that he could not identify a camel or draw the face of a clock can rest more easily tonight.
This afternoon the president’s physician, Navy Rear Admiral Ronny L. Jackson, said that the president “did exceedingly well” on a test called the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, reporting a score of 30 out of 30.
The Montreal Cognitive Assessment is a 10-minute test. It’s one of the commonly used screening exams for dementia. The questions on the test vary in difficulty, but they include:
Six points for knowing the date and where you are.
One point if you can identify what a train and a bicycle have in common, and another for watch and ruler.
This isn’t the first moment astrology’s had and it won’t be the last. The practice has been around in various forms for thousands of years. More recently, the New Age movement of the 1960s and ’70s came with a heaping helping of the zodiac. (Some also refer to the New Age as the “Age of Aquarius”—the 2,000-year period after the Earth is said to move into the Aquarius sign.)
From dating to job prospects, a name has remarkable power over the path of its owner's life.
I was at a party for Bastille Day in Paris a few years back, and we were leaning over the balcony to watch the fireworks. A cute French girl sat next to me, but after a few flirty glances the moment was entirely ruined with the most basic of interactions: “What’s your name?” she asked in French. “Cody,” I said.
That was it. We were done. “Co-zee?” she said, sounding out the entirely foreign name, looking more disgruntled with each try. “Col-bee?” “Cot-ee?”
I tried a quick correction, but I probably should’ve just lied, said my name was Thomas or Pierre like I did whenever I ordered take-away or made restaurant reservations. Not being able to pronounce a name spells a death sentence for relationships. That’s because the ability to pronounce someone’s name is directly related to how close you feel to that person. Our brains tend to believe that if something is difficult to understand, it must also be high-risk.
A half-century ago, much of the world appeared to be in a state of crisis, with protests around the world, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. But there was some progress to be found as well.
A half-century ago, much of the world appeared to be in a state of crisis. Protests erupted in France, Czechoslovakia. Germany, Mexico, Brazil, the United States, and many other places. Some of these protests ended peacefully; many were put down harshly. Two of the biggest catalysts for protest were the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the ongoing lack of civil rights in the U.S. and elsewhere. Two of America’s most prominent leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, were assassinated within months of each other. But some lessons were being learned and some progress was being made—this was also the year that NASA first sent astronauts around the moon and back, and the year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. It’s fitting that I post this retrospective today, since it is the day I was born—January 10, 1968. So, a 50th birthday present from me to you today: a look back at 1968.
Seventeen years after the original Blue Planet, the BBC Natural History Unit has perfected the art of the blockbuster documentary.
Across seven episodes of Blue Planet II, viewers are treated to a number of wondrous images. Orcas stun schools of herring by slapping them with their tails. Cuttlefish mesmerize shrimp by splaying out their arms and sending moving clouds of pigment across their skin, like a living gif. Mobula rays cavort in the deep, stirring glow plankton as they move, creating an ethereal scene that looks like a clip from Moana. Cutthroat eels slink into a lake of super-salty water at the bottom of the ocean, and some tie themselves into knots in the throes of toxic shock. Pods of bottlenose dolphins and false killer whales meet in the open ocean, greeting each other as if reuniting with old friends.
The series first aired in the United Kingdom last year and finally premieres in the United States this Saturday. It is the latest program from the BBC’s indefatigable Natural History Unit—arguably the greatest producers of such documentaries in the world.
John Hughes’s coming-of-age classic feels dated in retrospect, but the film paved the way for more character-focused teen stories.
When John Singleton—the groundbreaking filmmaker behind movies like Boyz n the Hood, and the first African American to get a Best Director Oscar nomination—first saw The Breakfast Club in 1985, he was reviewing it for his high-school newspaper. “The various characters were teenage archetypes, but they were rooted in genuine human problems,” he later said. “I didn’t feel alienated by the fact that they were all white kids. They were just teens finding their way into adulthood—like I was.”
Six years later, Singleton made Boyz n the Hood, a teen drama about growing up in South Central Los Angeles; he cites the Breakfast Club writer-director John Hughes as a major influence. “He gave me a template,” Singleton has said, according to David Kamp’s essay in the new Criterion Collection release of the movie, which came out this month. Watching Hughes’s foundational tale of adolescent angst more than 30 years on, it’s easy to be put off by the homogeneity and privilege of its main characters: five suburban white kids in Chicago who spend the entire film fretting over their social status, overbearing parents, and existential fears. But The Breakfast Club undeniably laid the foundation for a whole new kind of teen drama—one motivated less by plot, and more by mood.