What the ‘Twitter Files’ Say About the Future of Journalism

Twitter owner Elon Musk’s decision to share internal records with a trio of independent journalists spawned stories about how Twitter executives worked to invent justifications for content decisions they’d already made on ideological grounds.

But it also feeds into a story about how Twitter itself, and other platforms, like the subscription service Substack, have decentralized the media so effectively that individual voices can drive the news in ways once reserved for legacy outlets .

Journalists Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger each combed through reams of Twitter emails, message chains from the workplace communication tool Slack, and screenshots to publish five sets of analyses on Twitter. Their final products took the form of lengthy Twitter threads about how Twitter suppressed stories on Hunter Biden’s business dealings during the 2020 election and how the company ultimately decided to ban former President Donald Trump permanently.

JACK DORSEY GIVES PUBLIC MEA CULPA FOR CENSORSHIP

The journalists all had several things in common: They all run popular Substack pages, they have all written pieces in the past for legacy media outlets like the New York Times, and they all have large Twitter followings.

The least-followed of the three, Shellenberger, still had more than 357,000 Twitter followers before he posted his batch of the so-called Twitter Files. He now has more than 480,000. Taibbi started December with less than 750,000 Twitter followers and now boasts more than 1.5 million.

And perhaps most importantly, all three have been outspoken about what they see as the excesses of the Left on cultural issues such as speech and corporate influence.

“To me, the media’s response to the Twitter Files is itself a scandal,” Charles Lipson, political science professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, told the Washington Examiner.

“First, they are covering up their own failure to report the story in the past,” Lipson said, referring to the story about Hunter Biden’s business dealings. “And they are undoubtedly disturbed by Twitter choosing journalists not associated with their papers or TV networks to cover the story now — and in the case of Bari Weiss, someone who famously departed from the New York Times over, essentially, political censorship.”

Some prominent commentators and news outlets moved quickly to characterize the recipients of the records as right-wing ideologues — despite each of their affiliations with liberal ideas and publications.

The Washington Post labeled Taibbi and Weiss as “conservative journalists” in a report on Monday about the publication of the Twitter Files. Commentators across the ideological spectrum slammed the Washington Post for the label, which inaccurately describes both writers.

Taibbi has described himself as a “run-of-the-mill, old-school ACLU liberal” who for years championed ideas on the Left as a celebrated writer for Rolling Stone.

Weiss quit her opinion editor post at the New York Times in 2020 after encountering what she said was a culture of censorship and socially enforced ideological conformity that had devolved into bullying from her colleagues.

“I’m called alt-right. I’m called an apologist for rape culture. I’ve been called everything,” Weiss said in 2019 in an interview on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. “I’m a centrist. I’m a Jewish, center-left-on-most-things person who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and, you know, is super socially liberal on pretty much any issue you want to choose.”

The Washington Post later removed the conservative label for Taibbi and Weiss from its Monday story without adding an editor’s note, according to Fox News, in a process known as stealth editing.

“Anybody who falls afoul of the left-wing orthodoxy immediately gets called a conservative,” Batya Ungar-Sargon, deputy opinion editor at Newsweek, told the Washington Examiner. “It’s very funny because the Left thinks it’s an insult. It’s not an insult. It’s just inaccurate.”

Musk’s choice of the independent, but like-minded, journalists as the recipients of key records represented a departure from years of powerful people choosing to leak their stories to legacy news outlets first.

Even distinctly right-wing figures, from members of the select committee empaneled to investigate Benghazi years ago to aides in the Trump White House, have placed records and information they want to disseminate in the hands of legacy media reporters at papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post.

“Elon Musk is proposing a new way to dump documents — a huge departure from past leaks of this magnitude,” Brian Stelter, a veteran media reporter who previously anchored CNN’s Reliable Sources and is currently a Harvard University media fellow, told the Washington Examiner. “Leakers — in this case, Elon Musk and his brain trust — have an ever-increasing number of outlets and options. The traditional playbook, which entails leaking to a national newspaper, is just one of many now.”

Sharing records with legacy publications often conferred legitimacy on storylines that may not have reached as wide an audience had they debuted in conservative media first. It also reflected the market domination of outlets that no longer necessarily have exclusive rights to the most talented and high-profile reporters in political media.

“I have to say, there are no more legacy independent journalists than Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi. These guys are at the top of their field and decided to go independent, but they took their legacy-ness with them,” Ungar-Sargon said. “In a way, I don’t think this really represents a break.”

Taibbi said he had to follow two conditions to gain access to the Twitter records: He had to use the requested attribution “sources at Twitter,” and he had to publish the information first on Twitter itself.

“I was actually hesitant about the Twitter aspect of it because I’m a writer. I like doing long-form and explaining things,” Taibbi said during an appearance this week on Glenn Greenwald’s Rumble program, System Update. “But I actually think it wouldn’t work otherwise. There’s also a sort of delicious irony to using Twitter to basically defenestrate Twitter and also to sort of drop this enormous, fetid stink bomb in the middle of what used to be the private garden of mainstream journalists.”

The Twitter revelations generated intense interest in conservative media but stirred far less coverage at legacy outlets and networks.

A number of prominent journalists either ignored the story or argued its insights about Twitter’s decision-making did not reveal anything the public didn’t already know.

“It’s hard to think that those are legitimate news judgments as opposed to political judgments by the editors, publishers, and reporters,” Lipson said.

Stelter noted how little of the underlying material from Twitter was available for other reporters to examine.

“One factor that has hindered the Twitter Files is the relatively limited amount of raw information that has been released,” he said. “Journalists are trained to seek as much raw material as possible — for instance, the context of Slack conversations before and after the parts that were screengrabbed and shared in the Twitter Files.”

“That said, the parts that were shared are newsworthy on their own,” he added.

Still, the news brought significant attention to the reporters who broke the news.

Weiss, who started a Substack newsletter after leaving the New York Times, used the attention as an early launching pad for a media outlet, the Free Press, that will roll her existing subscribers into a new product with a larger staff and broader mission.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER

“I think there’s a lot of people in this country who are politically homeless, who feel like the old labels — Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal — no longer fit them or no longer mean what they used to,” Weiss told Axios this week in an interview about her startup.

Ungar-Sargon said she believes there’s a market for hard reporting from independent journalists either self-publishing or building up from small teams on platforms like Substack.

Click here to read the full article in the Washington Examiner

Second Installment of Twitter Files Reveals Platform’s Push to Silence Conservatives

Twitter maintained a suite of tools to silence conservative viewpoints on the platform, placing talk show hosts, activists and even respected doctors on blacklists to limit the visibility of their accounts, newly released company documents show.

The documents revealed Thursday in Twitter owner Elon Musk’s second installment of the “Twitter Files” further expose the platform’s left-wing bent that led to its suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story just weeks before the 2020 presidential election.

Despite previous denials by company executives, screenshots of back-end tools show that Twitter employees applied a variety of tags to users’ accounts to stifle contrarian and often conservative voices without their knowledge.

Twitter had been accused for years of habitually “shadow banning” conservatives but always denied it. Liberals derided the charge as tinfoil-hat talk.

The new documents prove the charges were often true.

Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya, a Stanford University professor and an outspoken opponent of pandemic lockdowns, was placed on a “Trends Blacklist.”

Twitter employees put conservative talk show host Dan Bongino on a “Search Blacklist” and set conservative activist Charlie Kirk’s account to “Do Not Amplify,” the documents show.

“What many people call ‘shadow banning,’ Twitter executives and employees call ‘Visibility Filtering’ or ‘VF,’” Bari Weiss, a former New York Times opinion editor, wrote in a lengthy Twitter thread revealing the finding.

Ms. Weiss was one of two independent journalists given access to Twitter’s internal files. 

“Multiple high-level sources confirmed its meaning,” she said.

Ms. Weiss showed in the thread how Twitter executives denied accusations that they tamped down certain accounts.

“We do not shadow ban.” Twitter’s head of legal policy, Vijaya Gadde, said in 2018. “And we certainly don’t shadow ban based on political viewpoints or ideology.”

Mr. Musk began releasing a deluge of internal documents giving the public a behind-the-scenes look into the platform’s work with well-connected political actors, most of them left-leaning.

After teasing his followers with a promise to disclose “what really happened with the Hunter Biden story suppression,” Mr. Musk last week linked to a lengthy Twitter thread by independent journalist Matt Taibbi, the first installment of the “Twitter Files.”

That thread showed the behind-the-scenes deliberations to suppress the New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop, going to extraordinary lengths to suppress the story and even the Post itself, labeling it “unsafe” and blocking users from sharing links to the story via direct message.

“By 2020, requests from connected actors to delete tweets were routine,” Mr. Taibbi wrote. “One executive would write to another: ‘More to review from the Biden team.’ The reply would come back: ‘Handled.’”

The Biden campaign branded the now-authenticated laptop as Russian disinformation in response to the Post’s reporting.

That explanation was also peddled in an open letter by more than 50 former U.S. senior intelligence officials and by social media platforms that, acting on FBI warnings on the authenticity of the laptop computer, began censoring online discussion of the laptop ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Twitter executives decided that the content should be blocked because they could not determine whether the materials on the laptop had been hacked.

“‘They just freelanced it’ is how one former employee characterized the decision,” Mr. Taibbi wrote. “Hacking was the excuse, but within a few hours, pretty much everyone realized that wasn’t going to hold. But no one had the guts to reverse it.”

The initial release ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill and drew fresh scrutiny to the censorship alliance between Big Tech and the Democratic Party.

It has rekindled charges that political censorship by Big Tech helped President Biden win the 2020 election. It has also added fuel to House Republicans’ plans to address this collusion.

“Now we need to start looking at Facebook, at Google. These now have become arms of the Democratic Party, arms of the Biden administration,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”

Mr. McCarthy said the deluge of documents Mr. Musk made public late Friday called into question the roles of the dozens of current and former intelligence officials who dismissed the Hunter Biden laptop as a “Russian information operation.”

Mr. Musk, who closed on his $44 billion buyout of the social media platform in October, has vowed to rein in Twitter’s censorship policies.
The pledge has ruffled feathers, especially among some who warn that unfettered Twitter posts spell doom for democracy.

Mr. Biden this month lamented Mr. Musk’s takeover of Twitter and accused the platform of spreading disinformation around the globe.

Click here to read the full article in the Washington Times

Elon Musk Restores Trump’s Twitter Account After 51.8% Vote in Favor of Reinstatement

Elon Musk reinstated Donald Trump’s account on Twitter on Saturday, reversing a ban that has kept the former president off the social media site since a pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as Congress was poised to certify Joe Biden’s election victory.

Musk made the announcement in the evening after holding a poll that asked Twitter users to click “yes” or “no” on whether Trump’s account should be restored. The “yes” vote won, with 51.8%.

“The people have spoken. Trump will be reinstated. Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Musk tweeted, using a Latin phrase meaning “the voice of the people, the voice of God.”

Shortly afterward Trump’s account, which had earlier appeared as suspended, reappeared on the platform complete with his former tweets, more than 59,000 of them. However his followers were gone, at least initially.

It is not clear whether Trump would actually return to Twitter. An irrepressible tweeter before he was banned, Trump has said in the past that he would not rejoin even if his account was reinstated. He has been relying on his own, much smaller social media site, Truth Social, which he launched after being blocked from Twitter.

And on Saturday, during a video speech to a Republican Jewish group meeting in Las Vegas, Trump said that he was aware of Musk’s poll but that he saw “a lot of problems at Twitter,” according to Bloomberg.

“I hear we’re getting a big vote to also go back on Twitter. I don’t see it because I don’t see any reason for it,” Trump was quoted as saying by Bloomberg. “It may make it, it may not make it,” he added, apparently referring to Twitter’s recent internal upheavals.

The prospect of restoring Trump’s presence to the platform follows Musk’s purchase last month of Twitter — an acquisition that has fanned widespread concern that the billionaire owner will allow purveyors of lies and misinformation to flourish on the site. Musk has frequently expressed his belief that Twitter had become too restrictive of freewheeling speech.

His efforts to reshape the site have been both swift and chaotic. Musk has fired many of the company’s 7,500 full-time workers and an untold number of contractors who are responsible for content moderation and other crucial responsibilities. His demand that remaining employees pledge to “extremely hardcore” work triggered a wave of resignations, including hundreds of software engineers.

Users have reported seeing increased spam and scams on their feeds and in their direct messages, among other glitches, in the aftermath of the mass layoffs and worker exodus. Some programmers who were fired or resigned this week warned that Twitter may soon fray so badly it could actually crash.

Musk’s online survey, which ran for 24 hours before ending Saturday evening, concluded with 51.8% of more than 15 million votes favoring the restoration of Trump’s Twitter’ account. It comes four days after Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2024.

Trump lost his access to Twitter two days after his supporters stormed the Capitol, soon after the former president had exhorted them to “fight like hell.” Twitter dropped his account after Trump wrote a pair of tweets that the company said cast further doubts on the legitimacy of the presidential election and raised risks for the Biden presidential inauguration.

After the Jan. 6 attack, Trump was also kicked off Facebook and Instagram, which are owned by Meta Platforms, and Snapchat. His ability to post videos to his YouTube channel was also suspended. Facebook is set to reconsider Trump’s account suspension in January.

Throughout his tenure as president, Trump’s use of social media posed a significant challenge to major social media platforms that sought to balance the public’s interest in hearing from public officials with worries about misinformation, bigotry, harassment and incitement of violence.

But in a speech at an auto conference in May, Musk asserted that Twitter’s ban of Trump was a “morally bad decision” and “foolish in the extreme.”

Earlier this month, Musk, who completed the $44 billion takeover of Twitter in late October, declared that the company wouldn’t let anyone who had been kicked off the site return until Twitter had established procedures on how to do so, including forming a “content moderation council.”

On Friday, Musk tweeted that the suspended Twitter accounts for the comedian Kathy Griffin, the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and the conservative Christian news satire website Babylon Bee had been reinstated. He added that a decision on Trump had not yet been made. He also responded “no” when someone on Twitter asked him to reinstate the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ account.

In a tweet Friday, the Tesla CEO described the company’s new content policy as “freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.”

Click here to read the full article at the OC Register

Changes Begin At Twitter After First Full Day Under Musk

Musk tweets that many will be unbanned for minor offenses soon

Many changes coming to Twitter were teased by the company on Friday, a day after billionaire Elon Musk took over the company. Many who had previously been banned or temporarily banned by the social media site praised the changes while employees had a more mixed reaction.

The sale of Twitter to Musk for $44 billion was made official on Thursday, completing one of California’s largest company ownership transfers ever. Many users who had been banned in the past over certain tweets made called the sale  a victory for freedom of speech and noted that a huge shift was already being felt.

Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro simply tweeted a gif of Champagne popping as well as “We can only hope that other social media bosses (cc: Mark Zuckerberg) follow Musk’s lead.”

Others tweeted that they hoped that the sale meant that former President Donald Trump, radio show host Alex Jones, and commentator Milo Yiannopoulos would be allowed back to the platform.

Later on Friday Musk announced that Twitter would be forming a content moderation council similar to the one in place at Facebook to stop automatic bans and to go through them when needed. But he also said that anyone frozen from Twitter for minor or ‘dubious’ reasons would be unblocked as soon as possible and hinted at fewer bans in the future.

“Twitter will be forming a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints,” said Musk in a series of tweets on Friday. “No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes. Anyone suspended for minor & dubious reasons will be freed from Twitter jail.

“Comedy is now legal on Twitter.”

The news led to Twitter’s largest bannee, Donald Trump, to send out a message on his own social media site, Truth Social, praising Musk and the sale of Twitter.

“I’m very happy that Twitter is now in sane hands following Musk’s takeover,” said Trump on Friday. “Truth Social has become somewhat of a phenomena. It also looks and works better to my eye. I like Elon and I wish him a lot of luck. I hope he does well with it.”

However, he also confirmed via a Fox News interview later on Friday that he would be staying on Truth Social for now, adding, “I am staying on Truth. I like it better, I like the way it works, I like Elon, but I’m staying on Truth.”

Twitter employees in San Francisco had a different view of the sale on Friday, with many now divided in the way that the company is now going.

“Some people are really happy that Musk now owns us while others are now updating their resumes and getting ready to bail,” explained  “Morgan,” a Twitter employee who wished to remain anonymous, to the Globe on Friday. “A lot of people also think that Musk is insane and think he is going to drive Twitter off a cliff.”

“I can’t say for sure what the split is, but since this has been what we’ve been talking about for a lot of the year, I’d say that more here are worried about this than not. I mean, they’ve fired a lot of management in the past few days, so it’s hard to know where exactly we’re going.”

“And we’re in San Francisco, so a lot of people are seeing right-wingers praise this deal and are horrified at that. Others have pushed for Twitter to be more open with view points too. Policies are shifting, and I can bet you’ll be seeing the type of employee shifting here too. Something the party has ended, others think its now beginning, others think that the party is back after it was shut down for awhile.

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe

Conservatives Notice Thousands of Twitter Followers Restored After Elon Musk Purchase Announcement

Is a complaint against Facebook next?

The purchase of Twitter for $44 billion by Tesla CEO and billionaire Elon Musk announced Monday caused a huge ripple across media and social media. And almost immediately, Pundits and news hosts on conservative media, politicians and candidates announced their suspended accounts were restored, or if not suspended,  tens of thousands of followers reappeared.

One of the first was Fox News host Tucker Carlson, whose Twitter account was suspended in March after the social media company said he violated its fluid rules by referring to Biden Administration Assistant Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, as a man rather than a transgender woman.

Carlson’s “We’re back” Tweet earned him 375,000 “likes,” 41,000 “retweets,” and 20,000 “replies.”

Chanel Rion with One American News Tweeted out the analytics of her Twitter account:

“At one point I was growing 100k/month. Each post would get thousands of responses in minutes. Biden’s inauguration: Lost ~200k followers in a week – impressions cut 70%. Something clearly happened last night – not full stride but we’re #inthegreen

The list of those claiming shadow banning on Twitter is long.

Radio talk hosts Clay Travis and Buck Sexton, who took over the Rush Limbaugh Show following Rush’s death, also reported they each have regained tens of thousands of Twitter followers just since Musk’s Twitter purchase was announced Monday. Clay Travis Tweeted:

“I’ve added 20k Twitter followers in the 48 hours since Elon Musk bought Twitter. Probably a coincidence:

Perhaps one of the biggest Twitter accounts, Donald Trump Jr., reported he gained 87,000 followers since Monday.

“While I’m awesome and totally deserving of 87,000 new followers a day it seems that someone took the shackles off my account. Wonder if they’re burning the evidence before new mgmt comes in?”

Click here to read the full article at the California Globe

California’s Transportation Future – The Hyperloop Option

In July 2012, Elon Musk sat down for a “fireside chat” with Sara Lacy, founder of the PandoDaily website. In between discussions of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX, 43 minutes in, Musk unveiled his idea for the “Hyperloop,” a new transportation technology that “incorporates reduced-pressure tubes in which pressurized capsules ride on air bearings driven by linear induction motors and air compressors.”

The concept wasn’t new. Hyperloop concepts have existed for nearly 200 years. Small scale “pneumatic railways” were actually built in Dublin, London, and Paris, mostly as a novelty, as far back as the 1850s. In 1910, American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard proposed a train that would go from Boston to New York in 12 minutes. Goddard’s design advanced the technology, replacing wheels with magnetic levitation of the passenger capsule inside a vacuum-sealed tunnel.

Musk’s “Hyperloop Alpha” study was released by a joint team from SpaceX and Tesla in August 2013. This 58 page study remains an excellent investigation of the financial and engineering feasibility of Hyperloop technology. The concept is relatively simple. Passengers and freight travel in “pods” or “capsules,” through a tube that has had all the air pumped out, eliminating the friction of air resistance. Moreover, these pods ride on electromagnets, repelled away from the inner surface of the tube, eliminating the friction of wheels. Not only would these electromagnets keep the pods levitated off the inside surfaces of the travel tube, but through “linear induction,” they would provide the force to propel the pod through the tube. Most proponents claim these innovations make speeds feasible in excess of 700 MPH.

A system like this, assuming there were nonstop service, could deliver passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in around 30 minutes. From the Hyperloop Alpha report, here is the route a Hyperloop system could take in California:

“Hyperloop Alpha” – The Original Proposed Route Connecting SF to LA

Hyperloop alpha

The Hyperloop Alpha study was released as an open source document, and none of the companies currently developing Hyperloop systems are directly affiliated with Musk or his companies. Since 2013, at least three noteworthy companies have emerged. Each of these companies have developed substantial technical changes to the design imagined in Musk’s Hyperloop Alpha study. And sadly, despite two of them being headquartered in California, none of these companies are currently proposing a system to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles.

THE MAJOR HYPERLOOP CONTENDERS

Virgin Hyperloop One, founded in 2014, is based in Los Angeles. They have over 300 employees and have raised over $295 million in investment capital. The company was rebranded in October 2017 after receiving a significant investment from Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. In May 2017 they began testing a Hyperloop system on a 500 meter “development loop” built in the desert north of Las Vegas. Regarding next steps for the company, a spokesperson for Virgin Hyperloop One claimed “we’ve already seen ground-breaking commitments in India, UAE, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.” He said construction of the Mumbai-Pune route in India could begin as early as 2022 and be completed in less than five years for passenger operations.

Virgin Hyperloop One’s 500 meter long “DevLoop” in the Nevada Desert

Virgin Hyperloop

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, or “HTT,” founded in late 2013, is based in Culver City in the Los Angeles area. They claim to have over 800 collaborators located all over the world who are working mostly in exchange for stock options.  While HTT uses crowd sourcing and is crowd funded, they have developed proprietary technology. An HTT spokesperson reached for comment said “The model is tricky to define. It isn’t open source, we call it ‘open collaboration.’ We don’t disclose our patents and schematics, we have signed contracts and non-disclosure agreements. But this way qualified candidates can be found worldwide and can contribute their talents in exchange for stock options.”

A Harvard Business School case study on HTT had this to say about the company’s prospects using this business model: “Rather than employees, HTT has invited over 800 people to contribute a minimum of 10 hours per week in exchange for future equity. Everything from recruitment, incentives, culture, technology, and intellectual property controls are handled with the idea that a community can work together to solve a global problem (transportation) by ‘turning a collective passion into a vision and the vision into a reality.’ The open question is how this approach will fair as the organization moves from design to delivery.”

Apparently so far HTT’s novel approach to financing and recruitment is working, because in April 2018 they announced construction of a kilometer-long test track near its R&D center in France near Toulouse. In addition to being headquartered in California with a test track underway in France, HTT has entered into government partnerships to perform feasibility studies and testing in Slovakia, India, as well as in the U.S. states of Ohio and Illinois. HTT also has impressive commercial technology partners including AECOMAnsys, and Oerlikon.

Hyperloop Transportation Technology’s full-scale tubes are transported to French test site 

Hyperloop

Another entrant in the Hyperloop industry is Transpod, founded in 2015, based in Toronto with satellite offices in Italy and France. In 2018 they announced plans to build a half-scale, 3 kilometer test track in France. Transpod president Sebastien Gendron, reached by phone, said construction would start this summer. He expected it to be ready for tests to begin within a year, or by Spring of 2019. He stated the decision to go at half-scale was based on a need to finalize the technology based on the results of the testing.

The designs Transpod are exploring are illustrative of the variations in the engineering solutions being developed at these three main competitors. Gendron explained that to reduce the cost per kilometer of tube, a major factor is the type of magnetic levitation. “We are developing technology to keep 80-90% of the levitation system on the vehicle itself,” he said. This would eliminate the need for expensive permanent magnets powered up for the entire length of the corridor. Like his counterparts at Virgin One Hyperloop and HTT, Gendron was reluctant to explain further details of their proprietary technology.

Hypothetical Hyperloop Station (artists rendering from Transpod)

Hypothetical Hyperloop

WILL HYPERLOOP WORK AND IS IT SAFE?

A rather caustic attempt to debunk Hyperloop technology was released in July 2016 by Phil Mason, a British scientist and videoblogger who has nearly 800,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel. His video, entitled “The Hyperloop Busted!,” has gotten over 1.5 million views, and takes a dim view of Hyperloop technology. Some of Mason’s criticisms are valid but obvious, and not deal killers. In particular, that Hyperloop systems will cost more than claimed by proponents, and that Hyperloop systems will use more energy than claimed by proponents. Mason is almost certainly correct in these criticisms, but they don’t necessarily kill the argument for Hyperloop transportation solutions. How much more will they cost? How much more energy will they consume? Other concerns merit more attention.

For example, Mason claims that current designs for lengthy Hyperloop routes don’t take into account thermal expansion of metal tubes that are literally hundreds of miles long. When reached for comment on this challenge, a Hyperloop One spokesperson said “We have successfully built a test track in the Nevada desert which is the perfect environment to test the impact of temperature changes upon the Hyperloop tube as temperatures range from over 100F to below freezing. The DevLoop tube experiences daily movement due to expansion and contraction of the steel during temperature swings. To accommodate this movement, we have designed proprietary structural systems into the DevLoop columns to allow for this movement which allows the tube to expand and contract without causing structural damage to the tube, vacuum, and other supporting mechanisms. As systems get longer, we are confident that we can build a flexible, strong, affordable, safe system that can endure a multitude of weather conditions given our testing experience in the harsh climate of the Nevada desert.”

Until systems get longer, it is difficult for Hyperloop proponents to muster convincing arguments that it will be absolutely safe. Depressurizing a tube several hundred miles long is a major engineering feat requiring a lot of energy, as is constructing a tube that long that is capable of structurally withstanding depressurization. There are many unanswered questions.

How will passenger pods exit the main Hyperloop route and switch onto sidings to board and disembark passengers at intermediate stops? How will pods airlock themselves to exit points at the station without letting air into the tube? Since these pods will be traveling at very high speeds, packing almost unimaginable kinetic energy, how certain can operators be that a pod might never bump into the inside of the tube? Wouldn’t a minor “bump,” at high speed in a narrow tube, result in a catastrophic collision, rupturing and depressurizing the tube and likely killing not only the passengers in the colliding pod, but all the passengers in all the pods transiting the tube as they encounter a wall of air?

THE TUNNELING OPTION

One of the strongest arguments for Hyperloop systems, should they function as planned, is that implementing them uses less space. Hyperloop systems can be put onto pylons, elevating the tubes so they don’t disrupt activities on the ground below them, whether that is farmland or the median of a divided highway or freeway. Hyperloop tubes can also be buried underground, enabling them to establish routes through densely populated cities.

It may be that the first use of Hyperloop technology will be within urban areas, where the space advantage they offer constitutes a more decisive argument for investing in a system than the maximum speeds they might achieve on longer routes. It may be the technology can be perfected at lower, safer speeds. Elon Musk, who is not directly involved with any of the companies vying to build the first Hyperloop systems, has founded The Boring Company, where he hopes to apply the same aggressive innovation to tunneling technology as he has applied to rocketry with SpaceX.

If SpaceX challenges NASA in the field of rocketry, The Boring Company faces a similarly entrenched competitor in the German firm Herrenknecht AG. Founded in 1975, its massive factory nestled along the Rhine, this multi-billion dollar company sells tunneling systems – sophisticated snakelike machines that can be over 1,000 feet long – all over the world. Herrenknecht TBMs (tunnel boring machines) dug the 35 mile long Gotthard Base Tunnel under the Swiss Alps in 2009, the longest and deepest tunnel in the world. Today, most of Herrenknecht’s TBMs are digging subways in urban areas, primarily in the Middle East and Asia. For more on Herrenknecht and tunneling technology today, read “The Long Dig” (New Yorker, 2008), or watch this fascinating animation of an operating TBM.

Tunneling, like blasting payloads into low earth orbit, is extremely expensive. But The Boring Company claims tunneling costs can be dramatically reduced. On The Boring Company’s FAQ page, the following innovations are proposed: (1) Triple the power output of the TBM’s cutting unit, (2) Continuously tunnel instead of alternating between boring and installing supporting walls, (3) Automate the TBM, eliminating most human operators, (4) Go electric, and (5) Engage in tunneling R&D, “the construction industry is one of the only sectors in our economy that has not improved its productivity in the last 50 years.”

Apparently tunneling, whether for Hyperloop pods, or just electric powered “skates,” has the attention of the Los Angeles City Council, which in April 2018 approved a CEQA exemption so The Tunneling Company can immediately begin digging a 14 foot diameter, 2.7 mile long tunnel through the heart of West LA. The Boring Company believes they will complete this tunnel in 9 months. Don’t laugh. SpaceX is now routinely reusing first stage rocket boosters, an achievement that eluded NASA for decades. And imagine how long it would take LA Metro to complete the same project.

According to The Tunneling Company, tunneling using conventional methods costs about $1.0 billion per mile. But the current standard for a one-lane tunnel is approximately 28 feet. By placing vehicles on a stabilized electric skate, the diameter can be reduced to less than 14 feet. The area of a 14 foot diameter circle is 615 square feet, whereas a 28 foot diameter circle has an area of 2,463 square feet, exactly four times as much. If Musk is correct that a 14 foot tunnel – which just happens to be the diameter of the tunnel he’s been approved to dig in Los Angeles – is a viable size for mass transit, he’s just brought costs down by 75%. If other proposed innovations are successful, The Boring Company may reduce tunnel costs from $1.0 billion per mile per lane to $100 million per mile per lane. As shown in this animation, electric “skates” can carry cars through these tunnels at speeds of 120 MPH, using elevators to move them down to the tunnel and back up to the roads.

THE FUTURE OF HYPERLOOP TECHNOLOGY

The pace of innovation clearly makes a case that California’s high speed rail project could end up being obsolete before it’s even completed, at staggering expense. But can the same be said for the Hyperloop? What are the emerging competitors to Hyperloop?

Within urban areas, where transportation challenges remain most acute, tunnels underground don’t have to move people at 700 MPH through zero PSI to constitute breakthrough improvement. They can use proven, much safer technology, such as electronic skates that transport cars through tunnels at normal air pressure. Traveling from the San Fernando Valley to downtown Los Angeles takes about 15 minutes if you’re going 120 MPH. You don’t need to go faster.

Between urban areas, there is a clear case for Hyperloop as a superior competitor to high speed rail. Assuming the safety issues and remaining technical challenges can be overcome, it is probably cheaper to construct, and it’s much faster. But these are big ifs. And even if Hyperloop can compete with high speed rail, that’s a low bar. What about conventional air travel? Can Hyperloop construct a network of zero PSI tunnels that connect every major city in California, the way, for example, Southwest Airlines does today?

And at what point does Hyperloop itself become obsolete, unable to cost-effectively compete with new innovations? When the energy density of batteries descends to under 400 watt-hours per kilogram (the best are currently already packing about 300 watt-hours per kilogram), high-speed electric planes become feasible. Because these planes would not have air-breathing jet engines, they could ascend to 60,000 feet where the thinner air offers less resistance, allowing them to travel at supersonic speeds using less energy. And because these planes could be designed like the V-12 Osprey, with rotating engine nacelles, they could take off and land vertically, eliminating the need for airport runways.

One big problem with Hyperloop, ultimately, is same problem with any rail transport. You can only go where the rails – or tubes – go. And only very specialized vehicles can go onto these rails, or into these tubes. Roads, on the other hand, can accommodate anything with wheels. The air, an even more versatile transportation medium, can accommodate anything that flies.

The next article in this series will examine advances in small scale transportation innovations. Advanced vehicles designed for roads and for flight. These new technologies will deliver passengers and freight at high speeds, with ranges that reach from the fringes to the center of large urban areas. It may be that embedded rail or tunnel technologies only make sense in the most densely packed urban cores, or along heavily traveled transportation corridors.

It makes sense to come up with high speed options to connect California’s North Central Valley to the Silicon Valley, or to connect California’s South Central Valley to the Los Angeles Basin. To connect the Silicon Valley to Los Angeles does not make sense for high speed rail, because it doesn’t go fast enough to compete with jets. Whether or not Hyperloop technology provides any of these solutions depends on whether it can indeed reduce the costs significantly below high speed rail, at the same time as it delivers safer, much faster transportation than high speed rail. It also depends on what other high-tech transportation solutions are on the way, using those most versatile of all transportation technologies, wheels and wings.

*   *   *

This article is the 2nd in a series on California’s transportation future. The first installment was “California’s Transportation Future, Part One – The Fatally Flawed Centerpiece,” published in April 2018. Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development.

Will California be the first state to tax space launches?

spaceX launchOne of the world’s leading experts on the commercialization of space questions the California Franchise Tax Board’s move to make the Golden State the first to impose state taxes on private space launch and tourism firms.

John Logsdon, co-founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the commercial launch business was heating up, with private “spaceports” as well as leased military facilities being use to send cargo and – before long – tourists in the state.

The $2 billion in revenue that launch firms generated in 2014 worldwide is expected to continue to grow and make it a lucrative niche industry. Elon Musk’s Hawthorne-based SpaceX company is one of the world’s best-known space firms; a recent launch is pictured above. Vandenberg Air Force Base on the Santa Barbara County coast is considered a superior launch facility.

Against this backdrop, Logsdon questioned why California would seek to lead on space taxation: “States that don’t levy taxes would have that competitive advantage over states that do. If California puts in a tax and Florida or Texas doesn’t have a similar tax, I’m not sure that helps California in a competitive way.”

But Thomas Lo Grossman, the Franchise Tax Board official interviewed by the Chronicle, contended that the tax regulatory framework would actually make private launch firms more comfortable being based in California.

As a recent Quartz.com analysis noted, the state framework is what space companies prefer as the overall basis for taxation and hope it is copied by governments around the world.

“The complicated new formula … sets a tax rate based on how often rockets are flown from California. It uses the 62-mile trip to space as a standard, and reduces the levy on revenue earned in launches from other sites,” wrote space business reporter Tim Fernholz. “The new rules, based on formulae used for terrestrial transport industries, appear to ensure that a California-based company like SpaceX won’t be excessively taxed for revenue generated by launches in other states, while Colorado-based ULA pays its fair share for using California spaceports.”

Florida has already lured away California space venture firm

But unlike Quartz, the Chronicle report addressed Logsdon’s point about the business-friendliness of California becoming the first to levy a state tax in a nation in which a half-dozen states already have launch sites and many more are interested in building them. It noted that Moon Express – a well-financed venture capital firm that hopes to mine the moon for valuable natural resources – had relocated from Mountain View in the Bay Area to Florida. Company CEO/founder Bob Richards cited incentives proved by Space Florida, the state’s ambitious space economic development program.

California’s state efforts to promote space economic development are based with the Office of Strategic Technology in Los Angeles County – but space is only one industry the office seeks to help, unlike Florida’s more specific approach. Project California’s Council on Science and Technology also does some related work.

The Franchise Tax Board will consider adopting the rules after a public hearing on June 16. The board is taking comments on the FTB proposal until June 5.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Boycott the Oscars? Why Not Boycott Everything!?

oscarsThe focus of the political world will be on California Sunday when several political speeches are bound to take over the Oscars. According to one account, the Oscars broadcast, which lost viewers last year, could rebound over the expectation of hearing these political speeches. Or there could be a boycott of the broadcast in anticipation of speeches blasting President Donald Trump.

That would be in line with the current political strategy that seems to be capturing activists of all political stripes in this divided country: Boycott everything!

When Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank praised Trump’s business agenda, social media exploded with a hashtag to boycott the company.

With Elon Musk agreeing to serve on Trump’s business advisory committee, customers reportedly canceled auto orders.

Boycott campaigns were aimed at retailers such as New Balance, Macy’s and L.L. Bean because company officials said kind words about Trump’s business or trade policies.

Of course, there was the blowup over Nordstrom’s dumping Ivanka Trump’s fashion line which saw counter campaigns to either support or boycott Nordstrom’s over its decision.

The boycott strategy could also find itself in state law if Senator Ricardo Lara gets his way. Lara’s Senate Bill 30 would prohibit the state government from doing business with any individual or organization that assists in construction of a federal border wall along the California-Mexico border. Consider this a state sanctioned boycott.

I’ve tackled the issue of boycott before: In the free speech universe, boycotts themselves are a form of free speech, an individual expressing an opinion by choosing not to buy (or the obverse — to buy to support a business’ decision). On the other hand, boycotts can have a chilling effect on free speech by discouraging expression by business owners and others.

Of course, California business is not unfamiliar with boycotts. The boycott against grape growers organized by the United Farm Workers is well remembered. More recently, some Southern Baptists organized a boycott against Disney.

Boycotts to make political points have been encouraged by Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A petition signed by supposedly 700,000 people called for a boycott against Target stores after the retailer announced transgender people are welcome to use the restrooms that they identify with the most.

What if all these boycotts were successful beyond the imaginings of their supporters? Some businesses would be shut down. Some voices would lack an audience.

But a major goal of boycotts is shut off debate and that is a dangerous thing. Our great civic divide would deepen because people are not talking to each other.

I still believe in the marketplace of ideas. Discerning good ideas from bad takes debate and discussion. Cutting off and threatening to cut off people or institutions that want to voice their opinion ill serves democracy.

ditor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee.

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Elon Musk’s Tunnel to Nowhere

los-angeles-freewaysElon Musk is tired of Los Angeles traffic, so, he says, he’s going to build his own tunnel. The fact that anyone takes this statement seriously points up what’s wrong with the relationship between tech entrepreneurs and civic planners. Cities have problems, but the solutions require gradual fixes. The right approach isn’t radical revolt; it’s small-c conservatism.

Fifteen years ago, Musk made his fortune selling the PayPal money-transfer platform to eBay. He’s now busy with several other ventures. His Tesla electric-car company has plowed billions of investor dollars and government clean-energy tax credits into battery and automated-driving technology, contributing to the advancement of each. His SolarCity solar-panel manufacturing experiment in Buffalo, New York, on the other hand, depends entirely on a $750 million subsidy from Empire State taxpayers. Tesla and SolarCity merged last year. Musk’s commercial-space venture, SpaceX, suffered a severe setback last year when one of its rockets exploded, destroying a $200 million Facebook satellite.

That’s life as an entrepreneur. You win some; more often you lose some. Investors should be smart enough to know the risks. Musk’s tunnel project, though, isn’t a matter of experimenting with investor and taxpayer money. Instead, if taken literally, it’s civic anarchy. In December, Musk tweeted: “Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging . … I am actually going to do this.” Last week, he reported, “Exciting progress on the tunnel front. Plan to start digging in a month or so.” He said that he’d start near his office in Hawthorne, a city in Los Angeles County. Wired.com has reported that Musk is already experimenting on his company’s own property.

Whether you’re a billionaire, a Twitter crank, or both, there are several good reasons why you can’t build your own tunnel beneath broader Los Angeles. Musk may be trying to point out the idiocy of laws and regulations that make it hard to build infrastructure, but he’s actually doing the opposite: reminding us why we adopted our laws and regulations in the first place. Building a tunnel disrupts traffic above it. Who would be responsible for the years-long traffic diversions? Tunnels require entrance-and-exit points. If Musk plans a tunnel for cars, not trains, how would smaller surface roads handle all the traffic going into and coming out of a fast-moving underground thoroughfare? If he plans a tunnel for trains, where will people enter and exit above ground, and how will the city keep all these new pedestrians safe from traffic? What if Musk miscalculates his tunnel’s ability to withstand an earthquake, as his staff miscalculated the safety of his rocket? It’s OK to blow up your own (and your customers’) equipment. It’s not OK to take the same risks with a city.

Extra road capacity often attracts more drivers. Despite the recent widening of L.A.’s 405 freeway, “congestion is as bad — even worse — during the busiest rush hours,” the New York Times reported last month. The way to reduce road congestion in the long term is to do what Los Angeles has been doing for nearly 30 years: build subways and light rail. Musk himself tweeted recently that Los Angeles’s subway is “lame, but getting better.”

Finally, if Musk can build a tunnel from his office to wherever he wants to go, why couldn’t every Angeleno with some money and an ego try the same? We live in a democracy, and democratic processes — particularly local ones — are important. Los Angeles residents may want a new tunnel built, or they may not. They may prefer a different tunnel to the one Musk proposes. They may prefer to live more densely than they do already, meaning more rail, or less densely, meaning more road construction. But the people do — and should — have a say.

USA Today reporter Nathan Bomey took Musk’s tunnel tweets seriously, noting that the entrepreneur is “one of the few people who is just rich, powerful and inventive enough to actually do something about the legendary traffic congestion in Los Angeles.” This is misplaced enthusiasm. Elon Musk may be a dreamer, but surely he realizes tunneling beneath Los Angeles without permission would get him arrested — and rightly so.

Tech entrepreneurs would do better to help improve government rather than bypass it. It takes too long, and is too expensive, to build any kind of infrastructure. City planners and private-sector contractors could benefit from outside review of their work processes; automating repetitive construction work, for example, could cut costs. Unfortunately, the tech industry hasn’t shown much expertise at this in the past. Tech billionaire Michael Bloomberg was a good mayor, but he didn’t cut New York City’s personnel costs during his tenure; in fact, such costs grew significantly. Nor did he make the city operate more efficiently or build its large-scale physical infrastructure more efficiently.

Running a tech business is not the same as running a government, and it never will be. Depending on a single heroic billionaire to rescue you from the result of city-planning decisions made by millions of people over many years is the wrong way to go about basic governance.

Tesla: 1st Profit in Years, Thanks to California Climate Credits

telsa-elon-muskTesla Motors Inc. (TSLA: NASDAQ) reported this week that revenue nearly doubled in the latest quarter. The all-electric car company reported its first quarterly profit in over three years, thanks to cashing in $139 million of California tax credits that are meant to help combat climate change.

The company reported net income of $21.9 million, or 14 cents per share, for the third quarter ended Sept. 30, the first positive net earnings since the winter quarter of 2013. The profit came despite Wall Street analysts expecting a $0.56 loss. The profit compared to a loss of $229.9 million, or $1.78 per share, for the same quarter last year.

Total revenue more than doubled, to $2.3 billion, and the company’s capital spending came in dramatically below what analysts had expected as Tesla ramped up its infrastructure to begin producing its $35,000 mass-market Model 3 sedan.

Chief Executive Elon Musk stunned analysts on the company’s earnings call by commenting that despite moving from a production plan to produce 90,000 vehicles this year to 500,000 vehicles in 2018, the company’s current plan “does not require any capital raise for the Model 3 at all.”

Breitbart News reported in June that despite Tesla never meeting any of its unit production targets in the last five years, CEO Elon Musk told shareholders that through the magic of “physics-first-principles” he would revolutionize auto industry efficiency by “factors of 10 or even 100 times” to improve production profitability by 1,100 percent. Six weeks later, Tesla reported a nasty loss, and Musk was scorned by the financial press.

Tesla had planned capital spending of $2.25 billion this year. But with only $800 million spent in the first three quarters, Musk expects $1.8 billion in capital expenditure this year.

All this good operating news comes during a quarter when Tesla was hammered by the external environment. The company has been battered by reports of a growing number of injuries, and the death of a Model S driver using Autopilot, the company’s semi-autonomous driving system. Musk is also trying to have Tesla shareholders acquire debt-laden SolarCity (SCTY.O), which he and a number of family members control.

Consumer Reports on October 20 trashed Tesla vehicles in the magazine’s annual review. Although the all-electric Model S sedan earned the equivalent of 84 miles-to-the-gallon in energy consumption, and high marks for driving dynamics, the company was blasted by 1,400 mostly terrible responses from owners that took part in the magazine’s Annual Reliability Survey. The only established brands that Tesla beat were Dodge, Chrysler, Fiat, and Ram.

Some analysts scoffed at Tesla for being profitable due to $139 million proceeds from sales of California zero emission vehicle tax credits. But rival automakers are buying the credits, and essentially taxing their own California customers to avoid selling electric cars.

Tesla stated that at September 30, the company had $3.08 billion in cash and equivalents, compared with $3.25 billion at the end of the second quarter. That was $250 million better than Breitbart News had expected the company to report.

Tesla’s shares initially spiked up by over 6.2 percent on the company’s profit release. But by mid-day trading on October 27, the stock had given back most of that gain.

This piece was originally published by Breitbart.com/California

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