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May 18, 2023
The close of another school year brings along with it plenty of predictable news stories, like those of students accepted to lots of colleges and parents concerned about summer learning loss. Another perennial favorite story archetype is the one about students winning a class stock-picking challenge. ■ On one hand, financial education in schools is a concept that ought to be celebrated and promoted. In the Civil War era, it was often enough to teach a young man (or often, just a boy) how to farm -- and that was the extent of financial education, and why the land-grand colleges of the period remain closely affiliated with agriculture even today. Now, though, skill in farming, a trade, or even a white-collar profession isn't enough. The financial world, even for the individual, is vastly more complicated than it once was. ■ But on the other hand, unless a teacher (or a department) is committed to sticking with a cohort of students through a multi-year program, then stock-picking contests may well be counter-productive. It's useful to learn what stocks are, how much they cost, and how to buy and sell them, of course. But students are prone to getting all of the wrong ideas if their incentives are structured around winning a short-term contest. ■ Warren Buffett had these words about value-driven investing at the 2023 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders' meeting: "What gives the value investor opportunities is other people doing dumb things, and now it's easier to get money to do dumb things...So many people are short-term-focused. Much opportunity still exists for people who can think long-term." ■ But by "long-term", Buffett is talking on a scale of years and decades, not a semester, or even a school year. If a student team had bought shares of Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, at the start of the 2020 spring semester, the price of those shares would have cratered over the course of that semester. Berkshire shares dropped from $226 a share in January to $200 a share by the end of May. That would have looked like a catastrophe in a classroom stock-picking contest. Yet those shares today, just seven semesters later, are up to nearly $330 a share. ■ The prudent move for a long-term investor in the spring of 2020 would have been to keep on buying as prices continued to drop -- the return on the shares bought at the end of that spring 2000 semester would have been even better than on the ones bought when the price was higher at the start of the semester. In other words, the smart long-term lesson is exactly the opposite of the lesson a normal student would have gathered from the experience of losing a one-semester classroom contest. ■ The way to win that contest would have been to buy shares in Zoom at $67 a share in January 2020, for a great semester-long return on a price of $207 a share at the end of May 2020. Today, though, Zoom is back down to about $69 a share -- yielding virtually no long-term return at all. ■ In the end, everyone is measured as a long-term investor, whether it's the result of a long series of short-term choices or (usually) a much smaller number of long-term choices. Merely buying and holding a broad index like the S&P 500 at the start of 2020 would have been a losing choice for a semester-length contest -- but it would have crushed the returns on short-term winner Zoom if held until today. ■ And that's the lesson it's most important to convey to students: Make a few careful decisions, then have the constancy to stomach ups and downs for much longer than a semester. That's how to win in the way that really counts for your finances in life.
May 17, 2023
Don't let a computer speechwriter outshine you
A graduating high-school student in Nebraska says he used ChatGPT to write a decoy commencement address that got him selected to give a speech at graduation, from which he deviated into a much more critical address once on stage. The speech actually delivered painted an unflattering picture of fights and disengagement and a school experience the graduate "hated". ■ The selection process for the speech involved blind review and scoring by faculty, with final approval by the school's principal. This, by itself, ought to be alarming: If you're a school administrator and you rank a ChatGPT-generated speech higher than what any students submitted, that should rattle you. Either there's something wrong with the review process (suggesting it implicitly favors dull speeches that don't say anything substantial) or there's something wrong with the quality of what the students are writing. Perhaps both. ■ In a sensible world, a graduating class should pick its own commencement speakers. People graduating from high school are generally either 18 years old or on the cusp of turning that age, making them adults in the eyes of the law. Adults who are considered eligible to vote in meaningful elections at the local, state, and national levels. They ought to be considered old enough to choose who speaks for them -- literally -- at their own graduation proceedings. ■ But in a sensible world, speakers would heed this simple advice: Don't blow a commencement address on complaints. It's easy to think that the best place to be heard is when you literally have everyone's attention, like when you're on stage at a commencement. But the most effective place to levy real complaints about a culture that disappoints you is in published writing. Think: Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the Declaration of Independence, or the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Those can, of course, be amplified with speeches and dramatic actions, but grievances deserve paper and ink. ■ Speeches, for all we hail them in the history books, are almost never remembered for their laundry lists. They're remembered for their tone and, usually, for a single signature line. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." "I have a dream today." "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" ■ The hook, to borrow a line from the song, is what brings the audience back to the rest of the speech. People will revisit the rest of the words in a speech if -- and often only if -- it contained a resonant theme with a line that compels them to return to it. And when it's a big speech for a turning point in life (like a commencement), the best course is to have something to say not about how bad things are, but about a vision of how they deserve to be.
May 16, 2023
Everyone follows one of exactly two courses in life: One either grows older or one dies. There are no options to go in the other direction. In a youth-worshipping culture like America's, it's all too easy to conjoin perceptions of aging with expectations of decline. ■ That isn't universally the case; Norman Borlaug worked into his 90s. Benjamin Franklin was 81 at the Constitutional Convention. Frederick Douglass remained a tireless social crusader until he was nearly 80. It's possible for people to do many great things as they advance. ■ It is vital that we separate our assumptions about age from our expectations of capacity, so that we don't make prejudicial decisions about either the old or the young. But it is also essential that we don't use age -- either the freshness of youth or the weathering of seniority -- as an excuse, either. There should be no free passes based on chronology alone. ■ A political journalist for the Los Angeles Times -- a mainstream journalistic institution -- reports that California Senator Diane Feinstein, interviewed briefly just days after her return to the Capitol after a months-long absence, responded to questions about that return by saying, "I haven't been gone. You should...I haven't been gone. I've been working [...] I've been here." ■ Without being cruel or uncompassionate, we can acknowledge that this kind of exchange, especially when documented as part of a pattern, casts meaningful doubt on the Senator's ability to discharge the duties of office. It is cruel for anyone to say, "She is too old and thus she must go". But it is another kind of cruelty to put her in a position of high expectations if she doesn't possess the stamina or the capacity to do so. ■ In a representative democracy, the public depends upon the judgment and diligence of the people sent to make decisions on the voters' behalf. In the words of Edmund Burke, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment". In no other institution do we have higher expectations for judgment than in the United States Senate; it ought to be the place where each state sends the two wisest, most capable decision-makers they can find among them. ■ Some Senators plainly are up to the task and are tireless in giving the republic their best. Others fail to take that charge seriously and would quite obviously rather be doing other things. And some simply don't have the capacities to carry out duties in full. It's lazy to reduce any of those evaluations to merely a measurement of age. But it's also ill-advised to make either seniority or youth an excuse for holding decision-makers in office without holding them to an adequate standard of performance.
May 15, 2023
Some events are newsworthy, even when they are reasonably predictable. Nobody's going to be surprised if and when at least one hurricane makes landfall somewhere on the East Coast or along the Gulf of Mexico sometime this year; 2015 was the last year without a landfall. It will be newsworthy the next time the event occurs: The actual locations affected, the magnitude of the storm, and the cost of the damage are all utterly unknowable right now, even if the event itself is a near-certainty. (If not this season, there will definitely be another landfall in a subsequent season.) ■ Unfortunately, news that the US Department of Transportation was targeted in a cyberattack that exposed the personal information of 237,000 current and former employees is no surprise. The particular magnitude and timing of the attack may not have been known, but the fact that a tranche of personnel data at a Federal government agency was targeted comes as no shock at all. ■ Who was behind the attack? What methods did they use? Were adequate defensive measures in place? How sensitive was the compromised data? All are valid questions. But the big picture to bear in mind is this: Attacking a really big data set generally requires sophistication, which in turn requires tools, training, and funding. Plenty of criminal groups have the means to get returns on their cyber-theft activities without making a big stir. ■ But when someone is going after government employees -- particularly when it's a quarter-million at a time -- the first place to look for suspects is among rival state actors. 237,000 people seems like a lot to most people inside the United States; after all, that's the population of Boise, Idaho, a top-100 American city. But the authorities governing China collect data on everyone in the country. That's 1.4 billion people, or more than four times the entire population of the United States. ■ In other words, the scale of a quarter-million-employee breach sounds huge to us, but it's not even rounding error within the scale of what is likely being done to watch the people of China by a government that is known to track the locations of millions of people in real time. Stealing data related to American government employees, even a little of which might turn out to be useful for data-mining, pressure campaigns, or even kompromat, is well within reach for systems already built to that scale. ■ Americans need to realize just how much more we could easily become targets for ongoing data breaches and cyber attacks. Every day that passes means new programs being coded, new cyber-agents being trained, and more chips being fabricated. 237,000 is a big number. But it's nowhere close to what's ahead.
May 13, 2023
The path to YouTube stardom has been taken by some people through some ridiculous journeys. One used corpses as props. Another leaned on antisemitism and sexism in his rise to the top of the charts. ■ And now, one dope has been convicted of obstructing a Federal investigation by destroying the evidence that he intentionally crashed an airplane for clicks. He didn't just crash the plane, he filmed himself parachuting out -- and then covered up the evidence of the hoax. ■ The Internet almost certainly hasn't increased the total number of bad people among us. But it has increased the number of opportunities and incentives for bad people to do things that probably ought to get them launched straight into the Sun. ■ Internet stardom has made some people very rich: One top revenue-generator brought in $54 million in 2021. Others have brought in tens of millions of dollars annually, too. For a line of work someone can enter with nothing more than a smartphone, those numbers are alluring. ■ But there's also generally no "coming up the ranks" -- it's not like the typical path to success in other lines of work, where one pays their dues in the early phase of a career, learns harder skills from their seniors along the way, and rises to the top after years of grinding. No, this is a field in which lots of people are shamelessly willing to offer YouTuber camps for kids at rates of $1,000 a week or more. A breakout success can mean almost instant riches, but breaking out often requires doing things well outside the mainstream. ■ And it's the counter-mainstream quality that can unintentionally reward the bad people far more often than it should. By raising the incentives to engage in extreme or shocking behavior, YouTube (and lots of other platforms similar to it) decidedly increases the exposure for those who are willing to "go there" in ways others wouldn't. There's no intuitive solution to the problem, but it's one we shouldn't ignore.
May 12, 2023
Google has proudly announced the opening of eight new top-level domains (the part of a website address that comes last, like ".com" or ".gov"). Among them are ".zip" and ".mov", which are already well-established filename extensions (as in, ".doc" or ".txt"), for compressed files and for movies, respectively. ■ Making .zip and .mov into top-level domains is an extremely bad idea. And someone at Google should have known better and put a stop to it. Files that absolutely, positively should not be opened are going to get clicked as a result of this decision. Good cybersecurity practice says never to open a file ending in ".zip" without clear knowledge of its contents ahead of time. The same goes for most other files, including ".mov". ■ That advice is important to follow. People are often the easiest way to hack into networks. But how will cybersecurity practitioners be able to convincingly advise the people they're trying to protect not to click on things that say ".zip" if there are websites with exactly that extension in their names? That's really the only purpose of a domain name -- to be clicked! ■ Trust is vital, and so are the guardrails around trusted interactions. Top-level domains that share their letters with filename extensions only invite people with bad intentions to take advantage of their fellow human beings. And they will, certainly without delay. Blurring the lines between "things you should never click without extreme care" and "things you are being asked to click because that's exactly what they're for" is a terrible decision on the part of people who should know better. ■ If you want to hold on to an advanced civilization, you can't let unforced errors like this go through, whether you're Google or any other trustworthy institution in the world. There's no urgent need for new top-level domains -- we could have stuck with nothing but ".com" forever, and it would have been enough. People would have adapted around that arbitrary limitation. That we created many more -- including geography-based extensions like ".ly" for Libya that now find second lives as clever domain-name workarounds -- has only ever been a matter of increased convenience. ■ Everyone who likes living in a functioning society has a part to play in protecting themselves and others. Most of the time, that takes place by following the expert advice of others. But sometimes, it requires applying one's own expertise in order to put the brakes on bad ideas that could put others at undue risk. ■ Someone -- anyone -- at Google should have known enough to call this out as a bad idea. Nobody is going to die if they don't get to name their domain "mylovelywebsite.zip". But eroding good cybersecurity hygiene practices in a time when almost everything is connected? That really could get someone hurt. Don't be evil.
May 11, 2023
Elon Musk has cryptically announced the hiring of a new CEO for Twitter. It's a job nobody should envy. Musk will remain actively involved, he says, as executive chair and chief technology officer -- which means the buck stops somewhere other than the CEO's desk. And when he announced his plan in December, he openly declared, "I will resign as CEO as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job!" ■ Musk, like many other entrepreneurs and venture-seeking investors, would benefit from engaging in real partnerships -- one-on-one, with someone he could respect as much (or at least nearly as much) as himself. But although it's easy to find colleges teaching courses on corporate finance, electives on venture capital, and workshops on mergers and acquisitions ($17,000 for a six-day session at Harvard Business School!), it's far less common to find anything like "Elements of Partnership". ■ Partnerships can be hard, but they're also in many ways leagues better than going solo or getting swallowed up inside giant investor-owned corporations. A good partnership between two ambitious, skilled individuals with complementary skills to one another is really the story of many of the great business successes of both past and present. We don't seem to explore those arrangements as much as we used to. We focus on big, exciting teams, or we focus on celebrity entrepreneurs. Not much is said about the middle. ■ A good partnership has a lot in common with a good marriage, in which two people help each other look out for blind spots and strive for better results within an atmosphere of equality. Partnerships are often the way, and Americans spend almost no time talking about them. In a world where increasing specialization seems to be rewarded ever the more, it seems sensible to ask whether the default approach to a great new venture shouldn't usually start with an "and" between two names.
May 10, 2023
Gresham's Law holds that bad money chases out good, which is a compact way of saying that once convincing counterfeit currency enters circulation, people will hold on to their supplies of good money while circulating the fake money instead. Gresham's Law isn't just useful in economic thinking, it's also a useful heuristic for considering behavior in many other realms of human life. ■ If, for example, we permit bad people to enter public office and tolerate their presence, then we shouldn't be surprised if bad politicians end up chasing out the good. Teddy Roosevelt said that "Nothing so pleases the dishonest man in public life as to have an honest man falsely accused, for the result of innumerable accusations finally is to produce a habit of mind in the public which accepts each accusation as having something true in it and none as being all true; so that, finally, they believe that the honest man is a little crooked and that the crooked man is not much more dishonest than the rest." ■ The more we corrupt our own expectations of what officeholders ought to be, then the more we open the door to bad politicians chasing out the good. And indeed there are good politicians: To think otherwise is to exercise an unhealthy cynicism. Some are certainly wrong, and a few are sociopaths, but most are more or less cut from the same basic cloth as everyone else -- just with different motivations than those that send, say, a postal carrier or a dental hygienist off to work in the morning. But most people are good at heart, and that includes the people who enter politics. ■ But the corruption of voter expectations also happens when we persecute unnecessarily those who might be good at heart, but with whom we merely disagree. If life for the elected official is made so intolerable that no decent, self-respecting person would volunteer to run for an office, then we shouldn't be surprised if the ranks of our officeholders fill up with indecent people. ■ The over-personalization of partisan attacks is indecent. Protests held at people's homes are indecent. Speaking of our rivals and opponents as though they are sworn enemies in a blood feud is indecent. Naming staff members and revealing personal information with the obvious intent to stir up crowds to mob action is indecent (a violation prominently committed just today by an activist posing as a journalist). ■ There will always be bad people who will seek office, because bad people are often attracted to power. But from a systemic standpoint, voters need to have low tolerance for bad behavior by those they elect, and high expectations for how they themselves will respond when decent people are elected. ■ Not every policy disagreement is the result of someone's moral shortcoming. Compromise is not only inevitable, it is fundamentally necessary to a functioning democratic system. We shouldn't only expect to be disappointed by policy outcomes from time to time, we must insist on it: Nobody gets 100% of what they want. But our tolerance for outcomes we don't like should be balanced with an intolerance for crooked behavior. Bad officials shouldn't be allowed to chase out the good.
May 9, 2023
Life, as everyone knows, can only be lived in one direction: Moving forward. This, of course, deprives us of the ability to revisit past mistakes or to re-live glorious moments. That can make the former seem more painful but make the memories of the latter more treasured. ■ But the linearity of time doesn't deprive us entirely of something else. One of the great under-appreciated life skills is knowing how to recognize when you're in the midst of a golden age. It can be the golden age of a cultural wave, of a great institution, or of an economic cycle. It could be a personal golden age, a professional one, or a moment of sublime health. ■ The first step towards cultivating this life skill is to recognize that all human experiences are changing, and many, if not most, are fleeting. In the poetic words of Ecclesiastes, "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens." Once we accept that most experiences come with an expiration date, we can develop the habit of appreciating them while they last. ■ For a healthy person, the right act may be to pause and soak in the sensation of a body that is fully well: The "mindfulness" practice of body-scan meditation may be the way to achieve that. For the appreciator of the arts, it may be to dwell on the "history until now" of a musical genre or a class of film. For the member of a team -- at work or at play -- it may be to consciously consider just how frictionless the efforts a good squad feel in the moment. ■ We rarely know when a change is coming, or how it might break a seemingly perfect status quo. It has been noted that nostalgia for the 1990s is fierce right now, and those who experienced that period the first time around may recall a world in which the economy was booming, the Internet was still mostly magical, and peace seemed to prevail. That was before the dot-com bubble burst, before anyone heard of ransomware or the "dark web", and before the nightmare of 9/11. If anyone had known at the time just how good they had it, surely they would have wanted to preserve that feeling forever. ■ That we cannot freeze those moments eternally ought to make us appreciate the good times while we experience them all the more. And if we're clever enough, we may begin to notice that it's almost always the golden age of something, even if it's rarely a golden age of everything. We can even measure it sometimes, like the golden age of scripted television happening now. ■ Like all skills, a person must practice recognizing the gift of a moment. But in recognizing that almost all such things come and go, we might grant ourselves the reward of not only living through the times for which we might someday later be nostalgic, but also of actually sensing the greatness of a gift while it is underway.
May 8, 2023
When politicians refer to one another as "my friend", it's entirely possible they mean the exact opposite. It's a term also used to soften the blow of criticism, especially when it happens in writing on the Internet: "My friend, I think you need to revisit your priors on this..." ■ But we really shouldn't get comfortable with the disingenuous use of such an important title. Consider how Warren Buffett put it to use before an audience of tens of thousands of shareholders in 2023: "Ford Motor Company was on its way to the junk heap when the Whiz Kids came in, and Henry Ford II [...] brought in Tex Thornton and my friend Arjay Miller and a few people..." ■ Arjay Miller died in 2017, the last survivor among those "Whiz Kids". He achieved plenty on his own after his time at Ford, including a decade at the helm of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. But were he to be alive today and looking for a job, the only thing any rational manager would need to know prior to uttering the words "You're hired" would be that two-word endorsement from Warren Buffett: "My friend". ■ People often bend over backwards to stand out with the help of inflated LinkedIn titles, "personal brands", aspirational social-media handles, and other "influencer"-style tactics. But even in that world, no strategy is more powerful than being the kind of person whose endorsement carries instant weight. ■ If Warren Buffett calls you "my friend", you're in the door almost anywhere. It says a great deal about you -- but it reveals even more about the accrued credibility of your endorser. People will go to great lengths to make a short-term splash or to find ways to short-circuit the process of earning a reputation. But it remains certain that tactics and platforms will come and go, often in practically no time at all. Cultivating real friendships (especially those where the friends have nothing obvious to gain from one another), being generous with those friends, and earning a reputation as a trustworthy authority on questions where your own expertise is valuable will always be the path with the greatest long-term payoff.
May 6, 2023
It's often a mistake to play hardball for its own sake, but Canada's government appears to face a significant test of its mettle. A Chinese consular employee in Toronto is thought to have been targeting a member of the Canadian parliament for harassment and possibly worse. Nobody wants to see a diplomatic row over nothing, but the gravity of the situation shouldn't be understated. ■ One of the challenges for countries with free and open societies is that their very openness can be a tactical liability when faced with an adversary accustomed to the protections of darkness. It ordinarily takes a while to detect bad behavior in a free country, while unfree places can use tools like mass surveillance and snitching to keep an eye on others. ■ China's government appears to be engaged in a lot of boundary-testing right now. It's not just in the use of intimidation tactics to try to influence elected officials in Canada, it's in behavior like opening secret police stations in New York. ■ Canada might need a little bit of time to figure out the right response, but if the facts of the MP-target have been represented fairly, it shouldn't be a gentle one. Diplomacy is an exercise that depends on trust (even if incomplete) and fair dealing. Attempting to intimidate a foreign country's legislators into breaking to your will is pretty plainly a matter of cheating discussion. If rules aren't made to matter with consequences, then the entire enterprise breaks down.
May 5, 2023
While it's often said (and may well be true) that the strongest memories are hailed by the sense of smell, we as of now have no real way to preserve and transmit the scents we encounter in daily life. It's not like recording a person's voice or taking a photograph -- we don't have a Polaroid for odors. ■ Consequently, we're often left to rely upon images to conjure up conceptual memories of the past. Words are great for making us think, but pictures are often better at stirring up conceptual memories: Not what you were thinking at a time, but a general sensation of how you felt. ■ Living in an advanced commercial market economy, then, it's no surprise that old corporate logos can spark oddly affectionate feelings, especially if they're familiar from one's youth. Take the classic Warner Communications logo, used from 1972 unti 1984 by the Warner Brothers movie studio. For members of Generation X and some Millennials, it's an image that could easily be associated with any number of movies or TV shows from childhood -- making it a "feel-good" memory, even if there's no specific reason why. ■ Corporate identities have been valuable goods for most of the last century, considering their impact on the marketing of mass-market goods and services. But it is strange to note how many of the strongest, most durable identities came from a very limited set of creators. If it's a corporate logo originating from the 1960s through the 1980s and it's still in use, there's a very good chance it was created by Saul Bass (AT&T, Continental Airlines, Warner), Paul Rand (ABC, IBM, Westinghouse), or the team of Chermayeff and Geismar (NBC, Chase Bank, Mobil Oil). ■ Given how frequently companies change hands today -- with mergers, spinoffs, and startups peppering the financial news almost as often as existing companies launch "refreshed" brand images -- it's possible that there won't be quite as much brand-related nostalgia built into the impressionable young minds of right now. Wall Street favors "pure plays", not highly diversified companies. ■ There's also the matter that conglomerate-style corporations had a much stronger raison d'etre in that period of stronger corporate identity than they have today: The taxation and regulatory environment of the 1960s through the early 1980s, especially, favored companies that expanded into diversified industries (which is how heavy-industry conglomerate Gulf + Western got its name associated with Paramount Pictures, and why Coca-Cola briefly owned Columbia Pictures). ■ But let this be a lesson: An investor group has revived the old Westinghouse brand (a Paul Rand creation) and successfully applied it to a bunch of new products that have nothing to do with the old company. The old name and the thoughtfully-crafted classic identity still have value today. If you're sitting on the ownership of one of those dormant classic brands, you might own a treasure more valuable than you might think.
May 3, 2023
Upon the coronation of King Charles III on Saturday, the people of the United Kingdom will be invited to swear an oath of allegiance with these words: "I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God." It's being presented as a "new tradition", whatever that means. ■ Probably owing in no small part to the new king's mediocre public approval rating, the suggestion has gotten a lot of pushback. Princess Diana's former private secretary even scoffed at the idea on live television. ■ But aside from the personal popularity of the new monarch, a much bigger rule applies: In the words of an anti-monarchist group called Republic, "In a democracy it is the head of state who should be swearing allegiance to the people, not the other way around." They're quite right. ■ Every country has to decide for itself how to symbolize the state, and some choose monarchs. It's a strange choice to those who live in places like the United States, Ireland, or France, where sovereignty lies with the people, not the luckiest member of a lucky family, but traditions can be hard to break. But as Americans eye the notion of an oath of "allegiance to Your Majesty" with skepticism, we ought to consider a fluke of our own symbolism. ■ The Pledge of Allegiance, which didn't even exist until three decades after the Civil War, is a promise of loyalty "to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands". The flag is an important symbol, invested with great meaning by our rituals and worthy of considerable civic reverence. ■ But if Americans are to pledge allegiance to anything, it ought to be "to the Constitution of the United States, and to the republic which it ensures". The flag can certainly act as a stand-in symbol for the Constitution -- but not as a substitute. When sworn into office, the President swears to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States", not the flag. Federal officeholders swear to "support and defend the Constitution". So do commissioned military officers and naturalized citizens. ■ The rest of us should do the same. A symbol can be manipulated or interpreted to mean lots of things -- insurrectionists even waved it on January 6th, 2021. But the Constitution means what it says. We may argue about its finer details, but the system is what preserves the American way. Whatever we might think of our friends and allies as they coronate a new king (with or without an oath of allegiance to his person), we ought to think about cleaning up our own symbolic promises of loyalty. The Constitution is the thing that matters most.
May 2, 2023
What cowards would bomb a museum?
A local history museum in Ukraine was destroyed by a Russian missile in a dastardly attack that murdered at least two people inside the museum. It requires a perverted view of humanity to target a history museum using weapons of war. ■ What kind of society is so threatened by its neighbors that it would murder a museum worker? What kind of culture is so fearful that it cannot let its next-door neighbors celebrate their own identity in peace? What kind of cowards use their weapons to destroy artifacts and kill people merely celebrating their own history? ■ These questions are more than merely rhetorical. Erasing the unique identity of a people is a way to weaponize culture; in this case, the self-evident goal of the aggressor is to diminish Ukraine's claim to independence. That has been a signature aspect of the aggression since the beginning of Russia's war against Ukraine. ■ The dastardly strategy has backfired, with Ukrainian self-identity stronger than it has ever been recorded before. Yet the attacks persist, against libraries, museums, theaters, and cultural symbols. UNESCO counts 253 different sites that have been targeted. ■ A self-confident country wouldn't have to assault the cultural memory of its neighbor to justify its own reckless bloodlust. An army committed to the profession of arms in self-defense wouldn't need to lob its missiles at a 55-year-old woman for running a museum. A nation belonging to the 21st Century wouldn't blow up apartment buildings full of children while claiming the presidency of the UN Security Council.
April 30, 2023
Julian Sanchez comments that "[I]t's hard to see how journalism remains viable in an environment where every story can be instantly rewritten for free without infringing copyright." He's right to be concerned, and further still, the worry ought to apply even more once one realizes the customization possibilities. It's not just possible to demand news summaries, it's possible to ask for the news rewritten by artificial intelligence in the style of particular writers. ■ A person could reasonably request: "Give me a 500-word summary of today's news from Chicago, written in the style of Mike Royko". The converging possibilities are hard to fully fathom, and they are absolutely going to complicate matters which are already thoroughly challenging. ■ Consider the decision by Sinclair Broadcast Group to fire the entire news staff at KTVL-TV in Medford, Oregon, and to do likewise at WNWO-TV in Toledo, Ohio. Substitute syndicated news programming will be used instead to fill the local news hole. ■ Medford is market #136 and Toledo is #80 (as ranked by population). Not huge, but not insignificant, either. If local news operations are getting eliminated in markets of those sizes, they could well be under threat in other, larger markets as well. ■ Already, companies like Futuri Media promise that they can deliver "cloud-based audience engagement" services -- like tools to report what content is drawing engagement in real time. And virtual newscasters are already out in the wild. Put those two together, and it might not even be necessary to have an "Action News" team on the payroll, especially if the audience is willing to submit "user-generated content". ■ But news depends not upon a popularity contest, but on news judgment: The ability of a human being to discern what meets the threshold of news and what does not. News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo -- most everything else that gets reported is either information or mere events. Those have their place, but they aren't news. ■ Machines simply tracking a digital popularity contest have no idea how to tell the difference. In the short run, though, we shouldn't be surprised if more outlets cut back like the Sinclair stations are doing, nor if other outlets experiment with virtualizing their coverage. The incentives to generate "news" products on the cheap are strong, even if they're fundamentally bad for society.
April 29, 2023
Is terrestrial AM radio going to survive?
Consultant Fred Jacobs notes: "Even among [...] core radio listeners, Bluetooth edges out FM radio (for the second year in a row), while AM is back in the pack. Fewer than one-third say AM radio is a 'very important' feature in their next vehicle." ■ The reason this is potentially catastrophic? More than 40% of radio listening happens in the car. If you lose access to 40% of your current market, that's a catastrophe. ■ The only real obstacle to a bigger presence for digital streaming to the car is that it's still clunky and obstacle-ridden. That's a user-interface problem, and it's one that the streamers have all kinds of incentive to fix. Listeners overwhelmingly want Bluetooth in the car already; they just want it to be easier to use. ■ Radio's problem is different: As Jacobs also notes, "[I]n too many markets, AM stations are doing blessedly little to invest in serious content." That's a prospective death knell. If your particular content is only able to compete because it saves the listener a couple of button presses (perhaps two or three at most), then that advantage is on borrowed time at best. ■ Radio's core advantage has always been its dual promise of immediacy and locality: Its ability to be right here, right now. But a lot of stations no longer bother to try to be "live and local", or all too often, even to be just one of those things. Meanwhile, the electrification of everything (including cars) is infecting AM broadcasts with more static than ever. ■ Syndicated programming held some attraction for a while, when it was of higher quality than what could be produced locally, and when it served to create a sense of place across a continental nation. 85 years ago, AM radio networks were delivering live sports, scripted dramas, premiere news coverage, and educational programming. National quality was hard to match with local resources. ■ But those advantages have been mostly surrendered (voluntarily), while the leading disadvantages (heavy commercial spot loads) remain -- in an hour of clock time, a widely-listened-to host like Dave Ramsey is only producing 39 minutes of content. Podcasts don't waste that much time -- and they can be started and stopped at will, rewound, or sped up. It takes a lot of programming quality to compete with those listener conveniences. ■ We can get sentimental about what radio used to be ("WKRP" and "NewsRadio" were closer to documentaries than you might think), but the plain fact is that consumer expectations have risen. If the product quality doesn't rise to meet those expectations, then all the incumbent producers are really selling is inertia.
April 28, 2023
Are we beyond the event horizon for attention spans?
Writer Dan Brooks laments, "I think within my lifetime most Americans will become illiterate, not because they can't read but because they can't concentrate long enough to get through a whole newspaper article or book." On the surface, there's some evidence for his concern: People really do spend so much time with digital media now that it's hard to imagine the rapid-fire experience granted by smartphones and big televisions isn't chipping away at long-term concentration. ■ But...after a while the market (of all the most unexpected things) might actually offer the corrective. For most subjects -- not all, but quite certainly most -- nothing is a more efficient and more effective teaching tool than a well-written, well-edited text. Not always a textbook, but at least a booklet. ■ The written word is almost always faster than any other mode of transmitting knowledge. Consider that a mid-range reading speed for a college-level adult is around 250 words per minute, with 500 words per minute easily within the reach of faster readers. Meanwhile, the median pace of speech on television news is around 150 words per minute. That's a 67% advantage for the middle-of-the-road reader, and quicker readers are getting more than triple the content per minute than they'd get from people speaking. It's no wonder that so many people listen to podcasts at increased playback speeds. ■ As people are driven to earn more in a competitive marketplace, they become sensitive to returns on learning investments. Individuals will find themselves tired of sloppy lectures, videos with low information density, and dubious AI-generated texts. Not everyone will notice, but enough will notice to matter. And they'll "return" to reading (likely never really having left), as long as there's good writing to be found on what they want to learn. That signal going back to the market will further encourage the production of higher-quality written materials. ■ So, as counterintuitive as it may sound, the market really does have the capacity to repel the drive towards digital overstimulation. It may take some time for the feedback to work its way through -- and there will undoubtedly be counter-examples along the way. Not everyone will be responsive to workplace rewards, and not everyone will find that writing-based learning works best. ■ And it may not always be obvious where the investments most matter: Editors can be as important as writers, or even more important. An old academic joke goes something to the effect of, "I wrote 500 pages because I didn't have time to write 250 pages." Revision and editing can vastly improve the final quality of a work, while simultaneously decreasing its size. These are skills not easily executed by computers, which tend to optimize for volume of output, not quality. There is, it seems, hope for the human writer after all.
Supporting endangered languages with robots
Fascinating: "SkoBots is an interactive and wearable educational robot that sits on your shoulder to teach our youths their traditional languages."
Some had black hair and had been co-opted into Viking life as a vocation rather than a familial inheritance
A dog walks into a bar...
April 27, 2023
The Art-o-mat project takes old cigarette vending machines and converts them to distribute little works of art instead. They're all over the country, but there's a particularly busy set in Las Vegas. For $5, it's a better guaranteed return than any other machine in the city. ■ Aside from the excellent repurposing of machines that formerly dispensed slow death by the pack, the Art-o-mat idea does something exceptionally worthwhile: It makes art fun. Specifically, it makes the acquisition of art thoroughly democratic, public, and even a touch whimsical. What's going to come out of the machine? The user has a general idea, but it's uncertain until the piece actually lands with a "thud" in the dispenser tray. ■ Art should be a part of ordinary life. We celebrate trips to MoMA and the Louvre, but there's every reason to celebrate small installations, too. No city is required by law to have a museum, but those that do reveal a motivation to show themselves off. ■ The Art-o-mat, though, can be a miniature gallery in a place as unassuming as a brewery outside of Joliet or a library in Sheboygan. And it should be seen as complementary with the development of artificial-intelligence image generators like Dall-E: The more we come to expect art all around (of whatever origins), the more we normalize appreciation for aesthetics. The world need not be ugly.
April 26, 2023
The printed daily newspaper had a pretty fantastic economic profile a few decades ago: Not only did it have the broad and righteous legal protection of the First Amendment, it also tended towards natural monopoly. The costs of content creation were essentially fixed, no matter how many copies were printed, and newsstand or subscription fees generally covered the marginal costs of printing and distributing each incremental copy. Thus, the rewards tended to concentrate around a single producer who could assemble the publication with the broadest possible appeal across the community. High circulation begat high advertising rates, which in turn charged a positive feedback loop of profitability upon which to further entrench and expand circulation. ■ And when broadcasting licenses were kept scarce by the FCC, and ownership of those licenses was tightly regulated (seven each of television, AM, and FM stations, per owner, until 1984), similar effects held for broadcasting outlets, as well. It was good to be on the inside, and once an operator was entrenched, it was hard to displace them. ■ Media outlets in those times obtained much of their legitimacy through scarcity. There could certainly have been debates about quality of coverage, bias, or accuracy, but the legitimacy of the institutions themselves was basically sealed: One newspaper, a handful of radio stations, and usually three network television stations indisputably "spoke" for a particular community. ■ Fast-forward to today: Broadcast licenses are barely limited any longer, anyone can operate a streaming video channel, and newspaper circulations and revenues have effectively evaporated. Scarcity no longer confers legitimacy, because there is no supply-side scarcity anymore. (And that's killing the legacy media industry.) ■ What takes its place now is legitimacy via audience consent. Who speaks for a community? Which are the authoritative, legitimate media outlets in a place? You have to consult with the audience living there to get the answer. It might be the skeleton crew left at a legacy newspaper brand, like the St. Cloud Times, with a claimed staff of one. Or maybe it's a digital-only publication. It might be a podcast, a television station, a daily e-newsletter, or a particularly lively Nextdoor board. ■ To a degree, legitimacy-by-audience-consent is more defensible than legitimacy-by-scarcity. After all, the consent of the governed is what confers legitimacy to a government. But legitimacy-by-scarcity had the effect of forcing media to cultivate mainstream sensibilities; their economic power derived from having the maximum possible reach and appeal to the community as it existed. ■ Not so with media outlets operating without the constraints of scarcity. As has been well-documented, the quest for advertising efficiency rewards audience fragmentation: A small but homogeneous audience may easily command better advertising rates than a large but diverse one. These changes are both significant in size and consequential for questions of how we inform ourselves. The evolving landscape may end up highly satisfying for consumers (as it becomes easier to find outlets that suit us individually), but with less community-responsive legitimacy in total.
A little deviance is good for you
No one is politically interesting until they hold at least a handful of unconventional views. In a time when conformity is widely practiced, that's a lesson well worth remembering. It's unoriginal to depend strictly upon the cliche that "If everyone's thinking alike, then someone isn't thinking", but the central point is valid.
South Korea's president belts out "American Pie"
(Video) Cancel the White House Correspondents' Dinner. What we need is Foreign Dignitary Karaoke Night.
April 25, 2023
China's government is no honest broker for Ukraine
China's ambassador to France takes a ludicrous view of the independence of ex-Soviet republics, saying: "Even these ex-Soviet Union countries do not have effective status, as we say, under international law because there's no international accord to concretise their status as a sovereign country"
And now you know what a "von Karman Vortex Street" is
Vortices in a fluid (like the atmosphere) created by a disruptive body, as in the case of clouds downwind of a mountain disruption to the flow of air. Very cool.
April 24, 2023
Fascinating -- lots of granular detail on parts of the background infrastructure that tends to pass without much notice, despite its ubiquity. Power generating stations, transmission lines, wind farms, solar farms, broadcasting towers, and much more.
(Video) Audiences don't often get to hear authentic, heartfelt appreciation expressed from one broadcaster to another. This is a charming exception, in which Andy Fales thanks Dave Price for a career together.
It's one way to go about branding
Northern Lights visible over Iowa
(Video) It's a rarity. Iceland's tourism bureau ought to be carpeting the northern United States in digital ads right now saying, "Now that you've had a taste, come get the full Northern Lights experience!" The lights are absolutely gobsmacking from near the Arctic Circle.
April 23, 2023
Don't just say "it gets better", show it
School's purpose is to prepare young people for life. People may differ on the focus of that preparation, and whether it should take a practical form, a vocational form, or a classical form. But the nature of things in a democracy is that no one form truly prevails. Some vested interests will promote "back to basics", others will promote "social-emotional learning", and in the end, a little of almost everything makes its way into the curriculum. ■ As part of a well-rounded education, every American high-schooler ought to read at least three important stories of self-discovery: The Enchiridion of Epictetus, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and "Up from Slavery" by Booker T. Washington. Most of life is spent along paths others have walked before. Yet the young person usually doesn't know this, at least not in the innate sense. In youth, we think our troubles are new and our challenges are novel. ■ From Epictetus, the young person gets exposure to a tidy and practical version of Stoic philosophy that says life and happiness descend from perceptions: "[I]f the essence of good consists in things within our own power, there will be no room for envy or emulation." Nobody expects a 16-year-old to have full control over their instincts for envy, but it's easier to start the quest for control knowing that others have sought it, too. ■ Franklin's autobiography is simultaneously a roaring tale of self-creation and a terrific exploration of American self-identity from someone who shaped that identity at least as much as anyone in the country's history. Franklin takes pains to walk the reader through his thoughts on everything from familial love to religious faith to business success. He confesses to the very kind of brash self-confidence that a teenager ought to recognize: "It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other." ■ From Washington, an autobiography no less significant than Franklin's, because it tells the story of his rise from literal chattel slavery -- and it is told exceedingly well. Washington's crisp prose and his relentless focus on rising and lifting are words that young people need to have imprinted on their minds, even if they are too inexperienced in life to truly appreciate everything Washington seeks to teach them in words like, "[T]he happiest individuals are those who do the most to make others useful and happy." For all the terrible things done to him and the vast odds against his work, Washington's character-obsessed optimism comes from a source no reasonable person can contest. ■ Many other works and authors are worth exploring, too. But Epictetus, Franklin, and Washington are special in what they can offer to people looking for direction and guideposts. It's no small matter to know that life is rarely a blank slate. It can be hard to find answers in the people immediately around us, and to find answers in stories written long ago helps to assure the reader that there is always cause for hope. Don't just say "It gets better"; show how others got there. There is scarcely a better lesson for an adolescent to learn.
April 22, 2023
Almost anything related to the environment is subject to the tragedy of the commons. What is good for the individual often has consequences for the environmental resources shared by many others. Good environmental stewardship often consists in making lots of incremental choices (usually at personal expense) that don't have obvious benefits to the person who absorbs the costs. ■ There's no denying that there are plenty of significant environmental troubles that deserve the attention of humankind, not least of which is the evidence that there's a lot more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there used to be. It's largely a problem of human choices. But if we want to change course, it doesn't make any sense to fight human nature. We have to work with it. ■ Lots of people identify themselves as "greens", willing to put the interests of the environment first. There's a certain moral satisfaction that comes from attaching your identity to something that appears to go above mere mortal humanity. But the problem with a message that centers on a hard-left economic message of "people over profits" and uncompromising anti-nuclear electricity sentiment is that it disengages from the actions that would really address environmental issues. ■ The epithet "RINO" (for "Republican in Name Only") has been entrenched in right-wing politics for a long time. Hardly anyone agrees on a definition. But there's a real hazard in people choosing to act as "Greens in Name Only" -- GRinos. To be serious about environmental issues is to accept that real solutions are attached to human self-interest. ■ Real "green" progress is made by finding ways to make it profitable for people and institutions to do the right thing. People need profits, and good policies ought to do things like shaping rewards, rather than denying that rewards are a basic function of human activity. To demand "action" without using the motivating tools of human behavior is to be unserious about achieving the intended results.
China's ambassdor to France oversteps
The Wall Street Journal quotes him as saying, "Former Soviet states don't have an effective status in international law". As Professor Seva Gunitsky points out, "[T]hat's rich coming from an ex-mongol colony with no legal standing in the Khanate".
April 21, 2023
No, the machines aren't coming for your job
It's easy to watch the arrival of a significant new technology and wonder whether it's bound to have an impact of scale and consequence well beyond previous technologies. Already, breathless headlines promise to reveal "the tech jobs most threatened by ChatGPT and AI". Are the machines really coming for your job? No. ■ Well, they are -- but it's immaterial, and it won't take a very long run for that immateriality to bear out. Jim Pethokoukis, a free-market think-tank analyst, puts it like this: "I think GenAI and LLMs are the real deal, but my baseline remains bullish on the long-term demand for human labor." ■ Yet it's easy to share his optimism about the potential upside, assume that the technologies have the potential to develop even faster than anticipated, and still believe that it won't even take the long term for human labor to hold up. Whatever emerges, it's wise to assume that jobs will be disrupted -- probably lots of them -- but that there will be more jobs than ever in the short, medium, and long terms alike. ■ To believe that people will still have jobs for as long as anyone can look ahead, all one has to do is wager on two things. First, as old needs are satisfied more efficiently, human beings will discover new wants. Second, human beings are going to remain social animals with an irrepressible desire to spend time with other humans. ■ Safe bets, both. By the time we become familiar with a technology, we uncover its shortcomings and imagine its next steps. After the printing press came the radio, followed by the television. Then television jumped to satellites and cable systems and streaming services. We discover new wants all the time. ■ And nothing is more basic about the human experience than the desire to share it with others. With families and friends, of course. But also with classmates and co-workers. And with bartenders and physical therapists and hair stylists. And then with whatever comes next. Some jobs will disappear, and prudent societies will find ways to help soften the transitions. But if there's one safe bet, it's that there will always be something new to do.
French group gets Belgian customs to destroy Miller High Life
It may call itself the "Champagne of Beers" in the US, but "champagne" isn't a trade name to use lightly within the European Union. And just like that, more than 2,000 cans of beer were destroyed.
April 20, 2023
Russia banned from basketball track to Olympics
The International Basketball Federation has "decided to not allow the registration of the Russian men's national team in the FIBA Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournaments 2023", which is how teams get into the Olympics. It's a response to the way that Russia has launched a bloody and wasteful war of aggression against Ukraine. ■ There are those who want to keep sports entirely separate from other affairs. That would be nice, if achievable. But it's an impossibility: Russia has used athletes as propagandists, and one doesn't have to dig deep to find historical cases where sports were used to legitimize the behavior of uncivilized regimes. ■ Sports depend upon people voluntarily observing rules of behavior; at the macro level, you can't defeat your competitors by kneecapping them or poisoning their food. At the micro level, we count upon the regulation of fair play, even when the fouls may be unintentional. ■ It isn't unreasonable to bar the participation of athletes from a country that openly defies the rules of a civilized world order. It's not like imposing a grain embargo (as Russia itself has committed against Ukraine): Sports aren't necessary for life. Sports are trappings of cultures that can observe higher levels of behavior. ■ Just as the United Nations undermines its own legitimacy by leaving Russia in charge of the UN Security Council for the month of April, so too do any international institutions that put the interests of playing nicely (literally) with Russian teams over insisting that bad actions have consequences. In this choice, at least, the world of basketball can hold its head high.
Her "Imagination Library" is one of the most remarkable large-scale good works any American has ever put into place. The American Library Association is recognizing her with an honorary lifetime membership in recognition of that work.
If every young man develops a strange affinity for a bygone empire, then perhaps it's best if the empires in question are relatively benign ones like the Hudson's Bay Company
Everyone should exchange vinyl with their spouse at 33 years and 4 months.
April 19, 2023
Slower reactions, better society
It's easy to fall for the conceit that all of our modern problems are somehow different than those of our predecessors. But what if we're really just encountering the same problems, cloaked only in different garb? A whole raft of troubling incidents in the news boil down to the consequences of people acting impulsively. Sometimes the results are uncomfortable. Sometimes they are deadly. ■ But go back to 1755, and you'll find Benjamin Franklin making a very modern case for impulse control: "Who is powerful? He that governs his passions." And, as if to drive home the point, he laments: "Who is that? Nobody." ■ Human nature is much more powerful than we routinely give it credit for being. We are rarely as special in history as ego would like us to believe. But sometimes old human flaws do come with new consequences. The modern problem is to figure out how to make sure our contemporary tools don't exacerbate those longstanding shortcomings. ■ Social media makes it easy to make very bad, very public decisions. Computers make it possible to generate dangerous ideas faster than ever. Weapons make it all too easy to escalate a bad moment beyond repair. ■ If we surrender the idea that humans are born as blank slates and instead realize that we're pretty much cut from the same cloth as our ancestors, then we come into closer contact with the understanding that we're not better just because we came later. And it underscores just how important it is to find, maintain, and regenerate character-building institutions throughout society. As our tools speed up, we need to find ways to practically train people -- all of us -- in time-tested ways of slowing down. There's enormous power in governing our passions.
Thunderstorms are firing along the Missouri River and southward. One supercell in Oklahoma appears to be merging tornadic cells together, and the resulting radar sweeps are something both amazing and terrible to behold.
April 18, 2023
The non-dovish case for pulling America's nuclear bombs out of Europe
Some food for thought regarding old-school nuclear bombs. Exactly the kind of subject about which responsible, non-expert citizen-voters need to brush up our knowledge. Political forces will drive what ultimately happens, so we can't afford to be ignorant.
April 17, 2023
When Soviet leaders dropped dead
It's basically possible to convey to people who didn't live through it just how much the threat of nuclear war hung over the day-to-day "adult" world of the 1980s, at least as seen through the eyes of young people at the time. It was the one news story that never went away.
"French discontent over its security relationship with the United States is nothing new."
University of Chicago professor Paul Poast notes that "French leaders have long hated being dependent on [the United States] for protection." Despite our longstanding friendship, France took the Confederacy's side in the Civil War, and didn't appreciate America's (poorly-considered) post-WWI plans. A history well worth bearing in mind as France makes questionable diplomatic moves with China today.
Opening locks to let floodwaters through the Twin Cities
This is a whole lot of water destined to flow past Dubuque, Davenport, and Keokuk in days and weeks to come.
Russia is drifting towards martial law
All of this -- death, destruction, oppression -- remains the active choice of the regime governing Russia. They could stop this at any time. The unspeakable harm they are doing to Ukraine is harming Russian people, too.
Look at the good nuclear power can do
France used to be well above the world average in its carbon-dioxide emissions. Now, it's down to the average, with a downward trend. It's no coincidence that France also has the highest share of nuclear power generation in the world.
If you're concerned that AI-generated materials are already getting good at passing for human-like construction, consider the warning of John Scott-Railton: "AI-based bots are as bad as they will ever be today. Right now. They can only get better." In lots of human-helping cases, that's going to be great news. But there are lots of human-harming cases for which the same will be true.
April 16, 2023
Artificial intelligence keeps hallucinating
In a couple of test runs, economists found ChatGPT prone to citing works that don't exist. This is both a foreseeable outcome of the system design (so far, artificial intelligence is mainly a sophisticated text-prediction tool, not a method for assembling actual wisdom) and an acute flaw in the technology if used for its most obvious purposes. ■ Human beings have a very reasonable interest in developing technologies that will efficiently supply answers to known questions (like a speedy research librarian). We also have a reasonable interest in developing technologies that will answer novel questions. Since the beginning of writing itself, the superpower of our species has been the ability to store knowledge outside of our own brains. The spoken word allowed our ancestors to start storing knowledge in other people's brains, and the written word let them put that knowledge in places we could protect, duplicate, and move about. There's a reason the loss of the Library of Alexandria remains one of history's great tragedies. ■ Computers have a striking ability to do what books cannot: They can be programmed to generate new knowledge altogether, like detecting objects in space. That generative capacity could truly be profound. But it remains something humans have to double-check. Not only is it imperative to check the work in its own right, it's also essential that humans make sure that the programming stays correct. Computers only work according to their programming, and there are countless ways in which new knowledge can have consequences for old code. ■ Dan Brooks offers the pithy observation that ChatGPT "nails the voice of someone trying to hit word count." He's right; the imperative behind the technology is to keep generating new words, no matter their need or their validity. And that's the problem that causes the "hallucinations": Whether or not real knowledge exists, AI is set to just keep making up something to fill the space. ■ That is no small problem if, as is extremely likely, artificial intelligence tools are on the verge of multiplying in number and output at rates we may have little capacity to comprehend or to double-check. That doesn't mean we should unplug them -- we should be ready and eager to put useful tools to work to make human life better. But we're going to need to think of ways to firewall the generated content that hasn't been checked or validated so that it doesn't form a feedback loop of garbage-in, garbage-out that could leave us all wondering what was ever true in the first place. A hard drive can be reformatted. The Internet cannot.
Farmers get an early start on spring planting in Iowa
It's been a while since that's happened
Chad Gibbs: "Whenever we remember the Holocaust, we should remember the small rebellions, the individual stands, and the little acts of caring"
The second-order problem with an intelligence leak
Matt Tait: "In other words, just because you can't see the significance of how something tiny in a photo can have massive repercussions doesn't mean that experts with extensive experience and that little bit of extra context can't."
The place of a little love in a market economy
Deirdre McCloskey: "There's a mild love that's exhibited in market relationships, even very hands-off relationships. You go to your grocery store that you habitually go to and you keep seeing the same butcher, the same clerk. What the French in the 18th century called sweet commerce makes you into little friends whereas central planning socialism does not make you into little friends."
April 15, 2023
Before the United States of America had any laws to itself, it asserted "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as inalienable rights. The first two are fairly obvious to anyone who gives them fair consideration. But the third, the right to pursue happiness, says something important about the nature of the country. ■ The Declaration doesn't ensure a right to happiness itself, but only a right to pursue happiness. Happiness takes different forms for different people, and framing the right as something chosen by the individual is an important distinction: Nobody is guaranteed to be happy, but everyone is assured of their liberty to make the choices necessary to go after whatever happiness means to them. ■ It is no surprise that Las Vegas, Nevada, is one of the top ten destinations in the US for foreign tourists. It has become a city defined by the mass simultaneous pursuit of happiness in all of its forms, a libertarian setting for adults visiting "America's playground". It has really no distinguishing attractions other than its reputation for the freedom to pursue fun. ■ Strange, then, that the right to pursue happiness isn't duplicated in the same way anywhere else. There are other entertainment-fueled cities, but none quite so free to leave all those choices to the visitor. And the popularity of Las Vegas as a destination for people around the world ought to serve as a testament to just how natural a right that pursuit of happiness really is. America only enshrined something that is already natural to the human disposition.
April 14, 2023
One cheer for Harry Mountbatten-Windsor
In Thomas Jefferson's artful words, the Declaration of Independence prescribes that even close bonds ought to be severed when they no longer serve the purpose for which they were originally intended. So it goes for a country, but perhaps so too must it be for a family business. Even if that family business is itself a country. ■ Much ado is being made about the upcoming coronation of England's King Charles. It's bound to be a rare spectacle, but it remains farcical at its root. The authority of the state deriving from the personhood of an individual "sovereign"? It's plainly silly. This one man, Charles, is of royal "highness" over "subjects" due to nothing more than the chance of his birth? It's doubtful that any but a few truly committed royalists really believe it deep in their hearts. But the show goes on, apparently by some measure of continued popular demand. ■ But beyond the matter of what monarchy says about a relationship between the state and its people, it's a terrible thing to impose on the members of the purportedly "royal" family. For someone born into it -- particularly an heir apparent to the throne -- it combines all the worst of several things which each would be approached with grave caution. ■ A little royal becomes a child star without having done anything of their own volition. They are dragooned into service as a mascot of the state, to be scrutinized by the public and have countless meanings projected upon their very being. And for an heir apparent, there is no personal agency in the sense of choosing their own destiny -- their real career path is set the moment they become an embryo. ■ Obviously, the experience comes with creature comforts. But even if the way he's gone about it might be questionable (who writes a tell-all book spilling all over their still-living relatives?), it's hard not to credit Prince Harry, at least a little bit, for breaking his children away from a chronically toxic family business. ■ Maybe there is no perfect way to do it without every part of the separation looking like a slight to the rest of his family. But a family dynamic like the one that runs a royal household really by definition cannot be a healthy one. Whatever else he does right or wrong, on the choice to keep his children both metaphorically and physically distant from the "family business" -- even including his father's coronation -- Harry is doing the right thing.
April 13, 2023
In places with paved streets and storm sewers, spring generally brings the ritual sweeping of the streets. It's an act that only appears cosmetic to many citizens, who probably wonder why their hard-earned tax dollars go to the tidying of concrete and asphalt that will only get dirty again. ■ But the real reason for street sweeping is to capture debris before it gets carried off into creeks and streams. And it is a very useful practice for helping to ensure the quality of drinking water for people living downstream. ■ All water is recycled, over and over again. Unlike rocks or sand or soil, new water isn't being generated. It's being transformed and cycle through nature, only to be perpetually used again. Keeping junk like sand and leaves and litter from contaminating it in its natural locations makes it easier to keep clean for those who will drink it next. ■ Good practices for protecting health aren't always obvious -- street sweeping certainly isn't. Municipal leaders should take care to explain their purposes creatively and often so that taxpayers understand the value they obtain from their bills.
April 10, 2023
Some people fantasize about moving off the grid and living in far-secluded areas, and a few even do it. But humans are social creatures by our nature, and the latest Census data on county-level population estimates only serves to underscore what our instincts already tell us. Counties with a lot of people are mostly growing and counties with few are mostly shrinking. Americans are continuing to cluster together. ■ Many factors contribute to any individual family's choice to live in a particular location, but one of the biggest and most irresistible forces behind many of those choices is the basic matter of finding economic opportunities. As an economy matures, it typically evolves from a dependence on agriculture to a stage in which manufacturing comes first, and ultimately settles into dominance by services as it reaches advanced development. So it was for the United States, and so it tends to go for almost all other countries. We're not unusual in this regard; we're like everybody else. ■ Whereas agriculture depends upon spreading out, manufacturing depends on getting workers into the same place (usually at the same time). But so does lots of service work. It's possible, of course, for some services to be rendered remotely. Technology often reduces the friction involved in making that happen. But there are some limits that are hard to overcome: You might get the Mayo Clinic to give you a remote consultation, but if you need surgery, you're probably headed to Rochester. ■ Many services can only be delivered in person. Many more benefit from work by tightly-integrated teams. And many of the institutions that deliver services succeed by developing distinctive cultures that are reinforced by getting participants to commit to experiences in common. Thus, at least from an economic perspective, no matter how service-based the US economy becomes (and we're much more service-based than most people intuitively realize), there will still be lots of factors driving us to cluster together in ever-larger urban areas. ■ What that spells for smaller areas -- like the counties with fewer than 10,000 people, 61% of which shrank last year -- is a compelling need to determine how to competently manage resources in the face of sustained population decline. It's not a pleasant condition to have to grapple with, but decline isn't the same as elimination. ■ Some will escape population decline, if they make conscious choices to do so. But that requires having something special to offer that fits the right need at the right time. Las Vegas has exploded over the last 50 years, but there's no demand for 100 copycat cities. On the other hand, there are lots of cities with municipal governments and infrastructure already in place that could withstand a great deal of growth without losing what makes them special to their incumbent residents. ■ There's a reason utopian cities are rarely built successfully from scratch -- even great visionaries are prone to overestimating their capacities to plan what real people will actually choose when it comes to where they live. Note that lots of people live in Orlando today, but the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow didn't actually take off. But finding the right places for big ideas and big growth to take off from places that are much smaller than their potential could turn out to be a very useful pursuit indeed.
April 7, 2023
Your computer won't ever love you back
Evolution can't be "smart", since it isn't a sentient being; it's only a process. But as a process, evolution does act as a powerful mechanism for sorting. And for hundreds of thousands of years, evolution has been sorting human behavior. ■ It takes a colossal amount of hubris for a person to think that they've outsmarted the results of evolution. We certainly try to beat it all the time: Every time a person undergoes surgery, we're trying to win a bout of hand-to-hand combat with natural selection. Every vaccine dose, bite of fortified food, or blood transfusion is an act using human knowledge to press back against the natural forces that would otherwise take us out. ■ But along comes one Alexandr Wang, an artificial-intelligence company executive who proclaims, "[I] have a pretty strong belief that a meaningful percentage of kids born today will end up being botsexual." What's that? "[B]eing primarily sexually attracted to AI", he writes. ■ Wang has been hailed in a mainstream media profile as a self-made billionaire whose company "helps businesses deal with the data preparation needed to train AI systems". Thus it's no surprise he has great faith in artificial intelligence. But imagine having such a high opinion of an invention that you believe that it will overcome the deepest primal forces of nature. ■ The human drive to understand and to be understood by others is overwhelming. It starts at the most basic of levels: We begin to bond with other humans from the instant of birth. A baby cries because it seeks attention for its needs, responds to tone of voice in the first months of life, and smiles as a social cue in its first hundred days of life. ■ The desire for human interaction, affection, and touch has no technological substitute. And it won't on any timeline that doesn't span hundreds of generations at least. Children develop playground crushes in preschool, long before they can even conceive of romantic love; that's how fundamental and instinctive the drive for interpersonal connection is. ■ To think that human beings will invent machines that can substitute for that drive -- so much that it would affect birth rates, as Wang claims -- is positively ludicrous. Artificial intelligence can and will do a lot. A handful of people will, in fact, find what they experience as "love" with AI, just as a handful of people express attraction to other inanimate objects. But the canon of the world's literature -- from its earliest beginnings -- tells of quest after quest to be understood and loved, not by machines, animals, or nature, but by other people. ■ AI can't leapfrog evolutionary selection among human beings, and its proponents need to grasp how preposterous they sound when they imagine they are equipped with god-like superpowers. Our tools just aren't that smart. To foretell of "botsexuals" is the kind of bold, wrong pronouncement a person makes when they are overconfident in their own technological mastery and ignorant of the humanities.
April 6, 2023
In no small number of schools, older students are paired up with younger ones in programs with names like "Kindergarten Buddies". The age-gapped students spend time together doing activities like reading or performing small projects. Sure, the interaction teaches kindergarteners by giving them older models to emulate. But the secret is that it's really there for the older kids. ■ Kindergarteners will happily learn from just about anyone -- they're wired with a magnificent and overwhelming sense of wonder and curiosity. But it doesn't always occur naturally for older kids to realize that they're being watched. Raising the stakes just a little, by telling them that their "buddies" are looking to them for guidance and instruction, helps them learn the intrinsic reward of having others look up to them. ■ To find themselves admired compels most self-aware people to think about behaving in admirable ways. It doesn't always work, of course, but it's often more powerful than the threat of punishment. "Be on your best behavior; the kindergarteners are looking up to you" is often a more stimulating piece of advice than "Don't cause trouble or you'll be sent to the principal's office." Or, as the philosopher Maimonides put it, "[I]f you suppose a human individual is alone, acting on no one, you will find that all his moral virtues are in vain and without employment and unneeded, and that they do not perfect the individual in anything; for he only needs them and they again become useful to him in regard to someone else." ■ It's hard not to notice the presence of altogether too many people in both public and private life who didn't get the message about being good "buddies" to their juniors. News and culture are all too often packed with examples of people modeling immature behavior long past an appropriate age. 40-year-olds should never be committing violent incidents of road rage. 60-year-olds shouldn't have to be told to keep their hands off umpires and referees. 80-year-olds shouldn't have to be told to keep their weapons away from the United States Capitol. ■ With advancing age should come increasing temperance. If you've lived long enough to "see a few things", then you've earned the responsibility to behave as though you know that the new things you encounter belong in proper perspective. And if we don't share a common expectation that humility and moderation are exactly the kinds of virtues that older people ought to model for younger ones -- if instead we tolerate people acting out well past a tolerable age, either because they never learned to manage and contain their own emotions or because they refuse to model the habits of wisdom -- then society is hobbling itself in ways we can't easily calculate. ■ It's a special job to be the senior partner in a relationship where modeling good behavior for the young to emulate is an intrinsic aspect of the role. Lots of kids understand that implicitly in elementary school. More adults ought to do the same, and the rest of us should cast shame on those who don't.
April 5, 2023
Print yourself a salmon fillet
A new technology often gets a jump-start when it finds itself applied not to its intended use, but to a less obvious but non-trivial alternative. ■ Some attention has rightly been paid to the prospect of raising meats outside of their original animals. The "lab-cultivated" or "bio-printed" food technology has been hailed by many of its advocates as a way to satisfy consumer demand for meat products while exacting fewer environmental externalities than conventional animal husbandry. ■ Early test cases have already made their debuts. In 2021, scientists in Japan printed a piece of Wagyu beef that wasn't cut from a cow. A firm in Israel has touted its successful printing of a 3.67-oz. steak in the same year. And already, people have begun to ask ethical questions, like "Could lab-cultivated meat be kosher?" or "Would it be ethical to eat cultivated meat from endangered species?". ■ While well-intended, efforts to promote laboratory-grown meats on their environmental benefits aren't likely to catch fire. Those will be interesting benefits down the road, but as long as prices are still very high and the volume of production is very low, it will be quite some time before grocery shoppers will even be offered the option. Environmental advantages are a classic case of diffuse benefits and concentrated costs, and those don't activate a whole lot of behavior. ■ The breakthrough application could be found in seafood. The tuna is an apex predator, which of course makes it environmentally significant. But that status also makes it prone to concentrating harmful substances otherwise found only in traces in the environment, like mercury. These concentrated contaminants are why the FDA has produced a detailed chart depicting just how much fish is safe for children to eat. ■ Under a laboratory-cultivation process, though, (synthetic) fish could be produced and harvested without the same hazards. And that could be the breakthrough for the technology at large, because it would shift the focus from diffuse environmental benefits to concentrated health benefits for the individual. Concentrated benefits open wallets. ■ Synthetic production really ought to appeal more to seafood restaurants -- and to sushi lovers, in particular -- than to any other sector. Nobody's actively clamoring to nibble on endangered-species burgers yet, and the scale of production already in place worldwide makes it hard for any new process to compete with raising chickens, hogs, and cattle on foot (even if the FDA just gave the nod to lab-produced chicken in November). ■ But countless inland restaurants advertise that their fish is flown in daily for freshness. Air freighting and all of its associated preparation processes add a lot to the cost of production and delivery. If synthetic alternatives could permit them to grow their own fresh "catch" in a facility next door, that could be a much more economically competitive arrangement. ■ Maybe all of this technology remains too speculative and far-fetched to catch on, either soon or even some time into the future. But the incentives are such that if and when "meat" (such as we might define it) from a laboratory-like setting really breaks through, it will be in the form of seafood rather than anything that originated with wings, legs, or a snout.
April 4, 2023
If you reward a behavior, you should expect to get more of it. The advice is applicable as much on a civilizational scale as it is within a nuclear family. And yet, it is often ignored without much further examination. ■ When people decry the circus-like atmosphere of public behavior -- whether it's the exaggerations of media figures teasing their wares for clicks, the grandstanding of political figures hunting for more small-dollar donors, or the overstatements of snake-oil salesmen out to clear a fast buck -- they need to look at their own part in the exchange. ■ Oscar Wilde was being a scoundrel when he wrote, "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Too many people in what ought to be serious pursuits take his words as aspirational advice. ■ If we as voters, as citizens, or merely as adults wish to have less of the circus, then no small share of the responsibility lies with us. If people are behaving like carnival barkers, we are under no obligation to respond. Nor to amplify. Nor even to acknowledge. ■ Calvin Coolidge wrote, "The only way I know to drive out evil from the country is by the constructive method of filling it with good. The country is better off tranquilly considering its blessings and merits, and earnestly striving to secure more of them, than it would be in nursing hostile bitterness about its deficiencies and faults." ■ Put another way, it is up to us as the intended audience members for any public-facing figure to deliver our time and awareness -- the coins of the realm in the "attention economy" -- to those who approach us with modesty, sanity, and reservation. Make nuance sexy. Make subtlety seductive. Make understatement glamorous. These things only come about if the marketplace of ideas detects a demand signal. It is within our power to send it.
April 3, 2023
Moving forward by holding back
Business is often thought of as the manifestation of possibilities. People start businesses because they see unfulfilled demands, either existing or soon to come, so they do things to create goods or services where either none existed before, or where what was in place was insufficient. Either way, it is a creative act that depends upon looking beyond limitations and towards a blue-sky future. ■ But one of the characteristics that makes some companies successful -- or, at least, what appears to be the secret ingredient to their success relative to their competitors -- is the adoption of an artificial constraint. This seems paradoxical at first: How does adopting a limitation feed success when business seems to be about those blue-sky possibilities instead? ■ Consider Toyota, which adopted just-in-time as its production model out of necessity. Japanese industry in the post-WWII era didn't have lots of excess cash to pay for inputs in advance and needed to be flexible with its outputs, so just-in-time really started as a reaction to external constraints. But over time, the approach was refined into a production philosophy geared towards waste reduction and quality control. Just-in-time certainly doesn't work everywhere; it does seem to work for Toyota. ■ Voluntary, self-imposed constraints are found in other highly successful companies, too. Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays and only serves chicken -- no menu extension into burgers. The forgone profits are easy to estimate, but the constraints are a part of the culture. Likewise, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway is obsessed with investing only with a large margin of safety. And Honda resists using robots for automotive production, choosing instead to invest heavily in cross-functional training for human workers. ■ The existence of prominent case studies isn't dispositive; maybe self-imposed constraints are only holding these companies back. But that seems unlikely. Given how significantly the constraints appear to influence their respective company cultures, it seems more probable that self-imposed constraints might actually be a competitive advantage. ■ It seems less to be dependent upon the nature of the actual constraint -- cross-functional training doesn't seem to have much in common with being closed on Sundays -- but, much like the Hawthorne effect, more about the basic act of consciously choosing a decision-making path. Adopting and living by a code, if you will. It may not be a lesson often conveyed in business school, but it may do many a firm well to decide to pick a constraint -- just about any constraint -- and live by it.
April 2, 2023
A phenomenon to which we are already frequently subjected and which is bound to cause increasing frustration for the indefinite future to come is the disappointment that results from experiences that haven't meaningfully improved while others have. ■ Lots of products and services have improved -- often measurably -- in the last generation. It would have been completely unfathomable to most well-informed people a couple of decades ago that severe weather outbreaks could be forecasted with precision multiple days in advance. Yet today, forecasters are rarely taken by surprise by big storm outbreaks; they merely spend the days prior trying to assess the precise nature of the outbreak and alterting the public with increasing specificity about the risks. Meteorology has come a very, very long way: A highly accurate forecast that models the actual events is no longer a matter of luck. It's an expectation. ■ Yet other experiences remain astonishingly unimproved. The Mayo Clinic's one-stop, same-day team approach to diagnosis is basically unique; most other medical experiences are far less tightly bound. Likewise for airline ticket counters, cable and Internet tech support, and rental-car pickup. Exceptions apply, and some people pay for premium treatment, but the routine service experience often hasn't changed materially in decades. ■ This gap creates frustration -- particularly for those who have been subjected to market forces that have caused them to improve their own products or services who then have to deal with unimproved experiences as consumers. And it's bound to remain on the increase: Lots of jobs are compelled to do more with less, or to improve or be rendered obsolete. ■ If you're an educator who hasn't improved your content knowledge or teaching methods in 20 years, then you probably deserve to be shown the door. Yet it's possible for others to hide their stagnation behind institutional inertia: A religious leader, just for example, may well go those same 20 years without becoming a better preacher, but it's easier to say "Well, church attendance is in decline everywhere" rather than be held to account for engaging the congregation better than before. ■ As long as some experiences continue to improve, often dramatically (see: the performance of elite athletes), while other experiences fall short (see: the performance of inconsistent referees in some of the same sports), the experience gap is bound to cause chronic frustration in the years ahead. No advice in this regard is perfect -- but it's best to avoid being the agent of disappointment.
April 1, 2023
Words can sometimes be literally correct, yet so far removed from the meaning they represent that they fail to explain the concept. "Objectification", for instance, is a term most people have heard -- but it is often used so reflexively in conversations that it doesn't have the impact it deserves, particularly since it is so frequently applied to the specific case of sexual perceptions of women. That is certainly a major case, but the ills of objectification go much farther than that. ■ A truly exhausting number of human problems boil down to "Failure to see other people as human beings, equipped with equal self-awareness and value as myself". Literally, that's what "objectification" really is. Yet to compress the act down to a single word strips it of the real magnitude of what's being said. ■ Other people aren't objects...they're people. Always. Everywhere. Each one. If that were truly grasped and internalized as a universal concept, then in an instant, humanity would strip away many of our worst attributes. No one could commit chattel slavery if they really saw every other individual as a human being equipped with equal self-awareness, agency, and value as their own. Nor could anyone possessing even a modicum of conscience commit wartime atrocities, domestic abuse, or even non-violent acts of casual racism or sexism. ■ To be even modestly aware of one's own humanity and capable of projecting empathy for that sense of humanity onto other people renders a person incapable of most of the worst acts people commit against one another. This indictment applies equally to knuckle-dragging male chauvinists as it does to authoritarian dictators who disregard human rights. They may be different manifestations and on different scales, but they share the same root cause. ■ Everyone is endowed with a uniquely valuable human spirit. Another's value is not diminished because it isn't yours. And to actively see that equivalent humanity in every other person is a practice that depends upon childhood inculcation and self-aware practice by adults. Fortunately, it comes easily to kids. Little people tend to be very good at a frictionless understanding that every human life is of equal value. ■ The real work needs to come from adults, who must model the behavior for their young ones and actively guard their own thoughts against the encroachment of the ills of objectification. Somewhere along the path to growing up, it seems fairly commonplace -- perhaps even instinctive -- to become so absorbed in one's own consciousness that consideration for the humanity of others takes a back seat unless it's deliberately pulled to the forefront, at least from time to time. But everyone needs to make a conscious practice of really seeing the humanity in others. Without practice, it's too easy for the concept to lapse into words taken too lightly.
March 31, 2023
Iowa's second-oldest institution of higher learning will be closing after more than 180 years in operation, following a protracted period of shallow enrollments and deep budget problems. It's an unfortunate turn of events for those who view institutions as being intrinsically valuable; nobody likes to see a college closed down if it can be avoided. ■ But it's also worth noting that the problems of keeping higher-education institutions open isn't about to become easier. There are well-known demographic problems ahead that will challenge many colleges in the very near-term future, not just the small ones. There was a baby bust starting in 2008, and it's now almost 18 years later. ■ There's also a cultural shift that has changed the dynamics of how people value a four-year residential education. Irritation with high debt loads has grown. Certifications are as marketable in some fields as degrees. The trades are paying well. ■ Now would be a very appropriate time for those who haven't done so yet to take a good hard look at alternative and hybrid methods of making colleges and universities both better-priced and more valuable to both prospective students -- and alumni. ■ The life experiences and intangible socialization skills that come from a residential college experience are extremely hard to substitute. College is broadly considered a safe space for young adults to explore their identities and form deep and meaningful friendships. That experience isn't for everyone, though, and America has been long overdue for some social recognition of the value of trade programs and institutions like community colleges. ■ Bricks-and-mortar campuses need to be clear-eyed about what it is that they deliver to students beyond the educational product that they encounter in the classroom. If the "educational" component of a higher-ed experience isn't somehow unique, then perhaps the institution is mainly selling a social experience rather than an educational one. That may be entirely fine to do. ■ But when that is the case, it may be prudent, at least for some schools, to outsource the educational component itself to a firm or an institution that can specialize in the quality of educational delivery, leaving the bricks-and-mortar institution to focus on the student life experience instead. It might make sense for a small liberal arts college without any otherwise particularly distinguishing educational programs or features to outsource the classroom education component to an online learning institution. Some of them are very good, very affordable, and thoroughly accredited. ■ A college campus can't be readily converted to a lot of other things, but it might make sense to take an existing campus and focus on enhancing the features that would attract residential students while letting someone else handle the classroom content. Who is to say that a few hundred or even a few thousand students might not want to live together, share a library and a student union, meet for club activities, and even cheer on some sporting teams -- all while taking classes either on their own time, or in semi-structured arrangements? ■ It's possible that no such clever ideas would have saved a school like Iowa Wesleyan, or others in similar situations. But so much has been invested in many of these colleges over time -- and their value is so hard for the remaining community to recover when a campus closes down -- that ideas from well outside the conventional box ought to be solicited.
March 30, 2023
Now that Turkey has given its consent, all 30 member countries of NATO have ratified Finland's accession to the mutual-defense alliance. Finland's president has thanked them all and promised that his country "will be a strong and capable ally, committed to the security of the alliance". ■ The conditions that precipitated Finland's accession -- to be followed soon by Sweden, it must be hoped -- are terrible ones. It's plainly the case that Russia's attack on Ukraine lit the fire. But the clarity afforded by the moment is useful. ■ Whatever Russian president Vladimir Putin and his apologists might try to say to the contrary, there's only one aggressor in the region. Russia started a war against Ukraine, and sensible parties nearby realized that neutrality was no longer an option. NATO remains a defensive force. ■ Aggressors aren't dissuaded by weakness, indifference, or disarray. They are, however, deterred by evidence that there will be consequences to their actions. We can try to make it more complicated than that, but there's no reason for it. Peace, unfortunately, requires costs and preparations. Dwight Eisenhower advised as much seven decades ago: "[A]s long as there persists a threat to freedom, [free nations] must, at any cost, remain armed, strong, and ready for the risk of war." ■ The reasoning for the enlargement of a defensive alliance like NATO doesn't require a doctoral degree in international relations. Any reasonable adult can examine the evidence and see that voluntary cooperation to mutually deter and repel attack from a belligerent nearby is just that -- a deterrent. May Finland's membership in NATO be the stabilizing, peace-reinforcing move it deserves, and by rights ought, to be.
March 27, 2023
Who will keep the garbage out of the large language models?
Even well-informed people with lots of information resources at their disposal can get things wrong about technology. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, for instance, saw some of the outputs from large language models and declared, "ChatGPT taught itself to do advanced chemistry. It wasn't built into the model. Nobody programmed it to learn complicated chemistry. It decided to teach itself, then made its knowledge available to anyone who asked. Something is coming. We aren't ready." ■ Applause for thinking about the implications of artificial intelligence. But jeers for deeply misunderstanding the technology: It is really important that we approach AI thoughtfully, especially as it will to some extent or another require thoughtful, well-informed regulation -- by people like United States Senators. ■ But artificial intelligence systems (like ChatGPT) are not sentient. Get that part wrong, and there's very little hope of getting the rest right. They are predictive models based upon the information supplied to them as inputs. Much of that information is obtained from the Internet, where lots of useful scientific and technical information can be found. ■ Yet we haven't reconciled ourselves yet with what could end up being a tremendous hazard to these models. We really haven't yet seen the large-scale emergence of audio and video transcripts on the Internet. YouTube has made considerable strides in the direction of automatic captioning, for instance, but there is an enormous volume of audio and video content being produced every day that isn't really being transcribed and made readily available to search engines and language models...yet. ■ That will certainly change. And when it does, transcription content will ultimately be represented disproportionately to its intrinsic value. It's easy to speak at 150 words per minute or faster, but even skilled keyboard users are generally able to type at only about half that speed -- and real, thoughtful composition is even slower. ■ Once the transcription material from Snapchat videos and Facebook Reels and time-filling talk shows makes it into things like large language models, the consequences will be bad. Lots of input sources will be flooded with low-quality content. ■ But the models aren't sentient, so unless the humans who gatekeep their inputs are careful, those models will be contaminated by content that wouldn't pass a Wikipedia test for veracity. Who will see to it that a carefully sourced and edited graduate research thesis means more to the language models than a transcript of whatever nonsense a syndicated bloviator decided to spew on the radio for three hours a day? ■ That doesn't mean the solution requires government regulation. But it does point to just how essential it is that the people who will do the regulating seek to understand what is fundamentally going on. ChatGPT isn't going to "teach itself" anything. But something is indeed coming, and we very well do need to be ready.
March 26, 2023
Safe shipping on the high seas
In Federalist Paper No. 24, Alexander Hamilton revealed thoughts on America as a maritime nation: "If we mean to be a commercial people, or even to be secure on our Atlantic side, we must endeavor, as soon as possible, to have a navy. To this purpose there must be dock-yards and arsenals; and for the defense of these, fortifications, and probably garrisons." ■ It may seem like a fait accompli by now that the United States should have the world's greatest navy, but that wasn't always the case. It really wasn't until World War II that the US took the mantle of naval supremacy. Nor is it adequate to assume that American dominance of the seas is a "forever" condition. ■ If we take Hamilton's ideas seriously, then the purpose of a great navy isn't confined to simple projection of power, though a navy is especially useful for that purpose -- especially one equipped with the world's preeminent collection of aircraft carrier groups. It's hard to find a place outside the reach of American carrier groups. ■ But Hamilton explicitly tied the navy to the protection of seafaring commerce. The literal bulk of international trade floats aboard ships, and in the last World War, the largest number of ships (other than small craft) built were the Liberty and Victory classes of cargo ships. Keeping supplies from being sunk by enemy warships was a critical naval mission. ■ A great deal of intellectual firepower is lining up behind arguments to modernize and scale up the American fleet. An ambitious scale-up would likely be appropriate in light of current events. But we also ought to consider adjuncts to the big ships that are expensive and hard to build. ■ In terms of sheer numerical projection, perhaps America ought to consider a program to build small, remotely-controlled submersible or semi-submersible vessels that could be used as lightly-armed escorts for cargo ships. If built at the right size -- say, just shy of the 40' length of a standard shipping container -- they could be constructed inland and shipped to the water. And if equipped with a battery-electric propulsion system, they could be operated with minimal requirements for maintenance, since electric motors are vastly simpler, mechanically, than combustion engines. ■ If built on a component-type platform, the same vessels could not only be used for cargo escorts, but also for surveillance, coastal patrolling, and even search and rescue. The main value, though, would come from developing a platform that could be scaled up quickly without overburdening the world's existing shipyards, and that could be deployed without stressing the workforce of the existing navy. ■ There are some 5,500 container ships in the world, and the need to preserve their free passage on the seas has been proven by the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports, as well as by China's apparent policy of intimidation of other nations' ships on the South China Sea. ■ Thoughtful, pragmatic policies on the sizing and modernization of a full-fledged blue-water navy ought to be developed nonetheless. But as a useful adjunct to those forces, the same kind of technological imagination that has propelled an unmanned aerial progam in the skies ought to be committed to ensuring that the US Navy can project power in big ways while also protecting commerce -- just as Hamilton imagined -- at modest cost.
March 25, 2023
Doomsday believers forget that most people want to help
A person who assumes that other people are up to no good will never find themselves entirely without evidence. Either they will encounter someone who really is out to do wrong (as will all of us, unfortunately, from time to time) or they will find ways to interpret the innocuous behavior of others in the most nefarious light. Either way, the person who chooses the unflattering view of humanity will usually find reasons to stick with it. ■ But it's an unsound approach to the facts. There are antisocial individuals among us and there always have been, but humanity never would have lasted as long as it has without a strong collaborative streak. We're good at many tasks as individuals, but we really shine at team efforts. Michael Jordan was a sublime basketball talent, but he was better when surrounded by the Dream Team. ■ The most basic understanding of market-based economics is founded upon the understanding that we don't have to like one another to benefit nonetheless from getting along. Team-building wouldn't be a lucrative industry if the dynamics of cooperation didn't matter. ■ Despite all this, the default assumption of any kind of doomsday orientation is to assume that society will collapse and people will resort to violent anarchy. From "Mad Max" to the feverish forecasts of climate apocalypse, people often assume that civilization will break down and violence, scarcity, and conflict will be the result of any bad thing taken to its farthest ends. ■ All too often, doomsayers overlook the fact that humans have a very strong instinct to try to work together. It doesn't mean we always do the right thing, nor that we do it as soon as would be optimal. But faced with disasters, we usually band together instead of collapsing. ■ A passerby rescues a woman trapped in a flash flood. A pizza delivery driver runs into a burning house to save five children. Rescue workers go door-to-door to check on tornado survivors. ■ That's how almost all human beings are wired: To work together. In fact, we're probably inclined to work together even more when faced with calamities than we are in day-to-day life. Urgent situations bring out the best in human behavior, and those who don't rise to the call -- the ones who run away from an opportunity to help, or who take advantage of others when they are in distress -- are the deviants. ■ We shouldn't run from challenges, nor should we abandon hope when things look bleak. And above all, we should remember that, like the radio operator on the Titanic who stayed at his post until the ship went down, most of us would rather be known for working with and helping others than for anything else. The doomsday believers of all stripes ought to take note.
March 23, 2023
It has, for a while, been impossible for a reasonably engaged American to have missed news about China. Whether the issue has to do with trade, Covid-19, human-rights abuses, the prospect of future conflict, or even the stakes involved with TikTok, China is plastered right across the headlines. To a degree, the coverage is both warranted and useful. China is, after all, home to about one in every six people alive. ■ Conflict naturally sparks coverage. So does size. But it shouldn't take flaring tensions for a country to attract attention. ■ Allies and potential allies call for attention, too. One of the ways the world is shaped is through engagement, and engagement depends upon awareness -- just as "It's hard to be what you can't see", it's hard to assign value to things not readily discussed. That's what makes it almost scandalous how little coverage of India breaks through to American audiences. ■ Besides being on the cusp of overtaking China in population, India is the world's largest democracy, a fast-growing economy, and a major center for technology. It's also of substantial importance as a defense partner. ■ Even reputation-sensitive news organizations like the New York Times cover relatively little about the country, resulting in a bland diet of coverage about the country generally confined to broad-brushstroke analyses about high-level politics and predictable stories of environmental trouble. This, despite increasing US efforts to cultivate military cooperation and India's emerging status as an economy of indisputable consequence. ■ It has been two years since the United States had an appointed, confirmed ambassador to India. Symbolically, at least, that does not speak well of our national consideration about such an important relationship. Awareness shouldn't wax and wane opportunistically. Adversaries demand our attention, but courting better relationships with prospective allies is a long-term effort that calls for sustained dedication.
March 22, 2023
Suppose you're driving at night on a rural Interstate highway where the posted speed limit is 70 mph and you encounter some patchy fog, modestly limiting your visibility. The prudent thing to do, typically, would be to ease off the gas and drive at perhaps 60 mph, or whatever your headlights will adequately illuminate. ■ But if another vehicle comes along and is traveling at a consistent speed of 70 mph, it might actually be safer to follow their tail lights (at a distance accounting generously for braking) at the higher speed than to go it alone at a lower one. As long as you're at no meaningful risk of rear-ending the lead car, then following them transfers to the other driver the risk of hitting something obscured by the fog and offers you a comparatively high degree of confidence that nothing new entered the lane in the few seconds between you. ■ Traveling faster may be objectively more dangerous for a vehicle traveling alone or in the lead, but it might be relatively safer for a vehicle following at a prudent distance if it offers the trailing motorist the assurance that the path ahead has been "cleared" by the vehicle ahead. Risk can be a vexing subject, in no small part because it can offer different answers whether judged objectively or relatively. But quite often, it is also dynamic -- changing as its contributing factors change. ■ Few skills are as important to learn as the ability to calibrate and re-calibrate risk. Risk mis-assessment is one of the reasons banks fail, among many other pertinent effects. ■ And yet it is not at all obvious where people are supposed to learn the skill of calibrating risks in school. Is it a branch of mathematics? Of science? Of social studies? There isn't a clear answer. ■ Nonetheless, it is obvious that too few people really grasp its importance. Every commercial flight begins with a three-minute safety briefing that frequent fliers could deliver by heart, even though modern commercial aviation is indisputably the safest form of mass travel ever invented. Yet 40,000 people will die in American road crashes this year, and because of the base rate fallacy, the public will scarcely take notice. Countless other examples could be raised. ■ Getting Americans comfortable with calibrating risk as a matter of routine behavior would be a massive net positive for society. And if one generation of parents is poorly-prepared to train their children, then somewhere, somehow, that training needs to be institutionalized. The great question is: How and by whom will the next generation be trained?
March 20, 2023
Calvin Coolidge rose to national prominence with his emphatic law-and-order response to a Boston police strike when he was governor of Massachusetts. The event produced one of his most famous quotations: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." As vice president, Coolidge was second to a President who famously turned a blind eye to scandalous corruption in his own Cabinet -- but he was himself sheltered by a reputation for probity. ■ Coolidge was a partisan poitician, of course, but his brand was in no small part attitudinal. His icy view of corruption and wrongdoing by public officials -- bordering on preachy, even -- was part of his appeal. ■ In his autobiography, he wrote, "When a man has invested his personal interest and reputation in the conduct of a public office, if he goes wrong it will not be because of former relations, but because he is a bad man [...] What we need in appointive positions is men of knowledge and experience who have sufficient character to resist temptations." ■ We are often sold on how to vote because of policies, but the deeper truth is that most of what we really get, especially in executive office, is character and orientation. Policy agendas matter, of course, but they are largely predictable. The most important things that happen, though, are often matters of surprise: Armed conflicts, natural disasters, financial panics, disease outbreaks. Things that cannot be predicted, but only answered on the fly, using limited information and the best available judgment. ■ There must be some kind of demand for a Coolidge-like attitude today: Not for slick charm or magnetic personality, nor for expansive promises, but for high standards of character and a fierce intolerance for wrongdoing. "Bad men" (and women) should be shown the door without hesitation.
March 19, 2023
Social media has turned out to be very good for periodic one-to-many communications. There's no better way to keep up on the occasional life updates, job changes, and vacation travelogues of past co-workers, old classmates, and other arm's-length acquaintances than to follow one another on social media. ■ Group chats, meanwhile, have been excellent for ongoing conversations among small bands of friends. Their value is revealed indirectly by the strong feelings iPhone users have about Android users trying to join their group texts. ■ Considering the social enhancements wrought by these technologies, it's too bad there hasn't been a development that enhances slow but ongoing one-to-one conversations. If you call or text a friend after a gap in time, the conversation too easily becomes a catch-up visit. The conversation sounds like a highlight reel, and promises are made that "We should visit/get together soon" or "Let's catch up sooner next time", but there's always a finality to the end of the conversation -- even if it's the classic Midwestern, "I'd better let you go". ■ The beauty of a group chat is in how it binds together a group of people with low individual effort, but with high returns to everyone. The participants are part of something together, but no individual has to carry the weight. And it is naturally open-ended; nobody closes the conversation, as it simply rolls over, unconscious of any terminal constraints. ■ But plenty of people have friendships that emerged organically between two people (or among three at most) -- too small for a true group chat, yet no less worth sustaining. Those unique one-to-one friendships came about for a reason, but the communication technologies of the modern world doesn't favor them. That's especially the case for tools like instant messenger chats that alert all parties when the others are online. ■ When a conversation reaches a natural break point, does someone need to acknowledge that with an "End of transmission" message? If no one acknowledges the break specifically, isn't it a bit like putting a telephone call on hold and never returning? ■ Maybe there is (or, rather, ought to be) a technological solution for that -- like a social media tool that only permits the user to send a short message to the other person once every two, three, or four days. Just enough to keep the parties engaged in ongoing conversation rather than sporadic information dumps on one other, but not so much as to make the maintenance of that friendship appear like a burden. ■ Lots of people do have those standalone friendships, and they're worth sustaining. In the past, those might have been sustained by occasional letters (which, by their nature, took time to transmit, thus naturally slowing the exchange to a manageable pace) or perhaps for a while by telegrams (in which brevity was enforced by economic imperative). ■ As Benjamin Franklin advised, "Be slow in choosing a friend, slower in changing." But no friendship endures without at least a little care and attention. Considering the amount of value imparted to the other friendship types by other technological tools, there ought to be room for a tool to facilitate "metered chat" between friends who see value in remaining in unforced -- and unimposing -- contact with one another.
March 18, 2023
Leaving some of it on the field
From University of Zurich economics professor Dina Pomeranz comes this sage advice to academics: "Don't do anything in the process of trying to get tenure that you would regret if you don't get tenure." It's advice equally applicable to any other career field, and to non-career pursuits as well. Just replace "tenure" with whatever it happens to be that you are pursuing. ■ Incentives are often misaligned in the lessons society teaches youth. Quite frequently, we offer young people tournaments and competitions in which only one participant or team emerges as the winner. Phrases like "leave it all on the field" are used uncritically, and the word "champion" is invested with such wonder and awe that it could easily seem to the impressionable young mind that all of life consists of zero-sum games in which going to extremes in pursuit of victory is just what rational actors do. ■ In reality, most "games" in life are not zero-sum. They are often long-running, open-ended, or collaborative instead of competitive. Training people to see the flaws in the "no pain, no gain" attitude starts young, and it's vital to forming adults who value balance appropriately. ■ Should everyone accept some struggle in life? Absolutely: Struggle is often the price of things worth having. ■ Should anyone compromise their integral self in the hope of an uncertain payoff? The answer should far more readily be "no". ■ Gaining outcomes at a cost of health, conscience, or loving relationships ought to be avoided. It's no small matter to know that life is precious and too often short, so living well along the way is essential. Moreover, life has to be lived in totality; every part has a season, to be sure, and within those seasons, different priorities prevail. ■ But of the big aspects to a well-rounded life -- like family, productive work, learning, wellness, creativity, and recreation -- there are rarely times when it's appropriate to shut down any one of them altogether. The single-minded pursuit of any outcome can raise the dangerous temptation to let only one of those matter at the cost of the others. It's best to avoid that temptation.
March 17, 2023
Once a year, Americans from all walks of life take a day to celebrate a day made famous by the Irish immigrants who made a particularly large impact on the culture of the country with their arrival in the second half of the 19th Century. For one day, Irish (and particularly Irish-American) culture is celebrated -- with enthusiasm, even if without much authenticity. ■ Perhaps a purist could get uptight about labeling the behavior a form of cultural appropriation, but much of the effect of the day is a consequence of the ways in which Irish immigrants assimilated (incompletely) into American society. ■ But behind the "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" buttons and somewhere beyond the green-tinted beer, the thoughtful observer could pinpoint at least a few legitimate cultural touchstones worth a nod: The celebration of gathering with friends for its own sake (craic), of great storytelling (a tradition from a homeland and a culture that punch far above their weight in the world of literature), and of bringing cheer through song and dance, parades and fundraisers for charitable causes. ■ The Irish tradition gets a second look in America in a way that other cultures don't. Columbus Day has been dealt an uncomfortable reckoning, Oktoberfest is celebrated only sporadically, and there really aren't any widely-acknowledged holidays imported from Russia, Japan, India, South Africa, England, or Egypt. Maybe that's a mistake. ■ No culture gets everything right, but it's also fair to assume that every culture gets at least one or two things right. (That's one of the basic conclusions one naturally reaches if one assumes that at least some traditions survive from generation to generation because they've proven themselves useful each time before being passed along.) ■ A reasonably open-minded person ought to reach the conclusion that there is payoff in studying lots of different cultures to see what good ideas can be gleaned from each. One doesn't have to live by other Danish principles to take a few good lessons from hygge, for instance. ■ Perhaps the lesson to be taken from St. Patrick's Day in America is that it is possible (and probably even prudent) to intellectually tour the cultures of many countries, after having spent at least a couple of years forming adult opinions about how to live -- but before too much of a lifetime has elapsed for one to be comfortable with making changes.
March 16, 2023
The Sergeant Major of the Army has relayed a veteran's story of being rescued from mortal danger by a helicopter pilot who went above and beyond the call of duty -- by firing a personal weapon out the open door of the aircraft after exhausting the rest of her ammunition. ■ The pilot's pronoun, of course, is what makes some people angry. There remain lots of armchair generals who think that large ranges of people should be excluded from lots of military service, including combat roles. They are often from the same realms as those who fantasize about the purported masculine superiority of the Russian army or who complain about even the most modest steps to promote inclusion among the profession of arms. ■ There is little defense for the exclusionary position. Vignettes like the helicopter pilot with alternative weaponry should alone be enough to dismiss categorical arguments for keeping all but the "manly men" out of the military. But so should a basic resort to logic: Even if all that mattered were brute hand-to-hand combat, sheer muscle size and masculinity wouldn't be enough. ■ There are lots of diminuitive martial artists who could neutralize people much larger than themselves, merely by using smarter techniques. And modern warfare is really no different, in the sense that it's only quite rarely a matter of raw physical strength. It's far more about finding creative, smart, and imaginative people who can solve problems in clever ways, rather than in those that are most costly. And any force that would exclude half its potential brains by prohibiting women would be insane.
March 13, 2023
Good investing, bad television
Most people don't know very much about investing in general, or about stock valuations in particular. It's widely perceived to be one of those subjects that is "too hard", even though it really isn't. The perception is largely a problem of conflicting incentives: Those who understand the material often have vested interests in making it look hard. ■ Fortunately, the material itself isn't as hard as many of its purveyors make it out to be. And more significantly, success is often far more a product of well-regulated emotions than of raw intelligence. Warren Buffett laid it out quite plainly when he wrote of the "Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville" nearly 40 years ago, and yet his lessons collected then are of scarcely any greater popularity today than they were when Ronald Reagan was President. ■ Unfortunately for many, the truly valuable lessons seem too boring, so instead they turn to where the action and excitement appear to be. And one of those places is on television, where people like Jim Cramer make loud noises surrogating for investing advice. Unfortunately, people take his advice -- like a recent recommendation to buy the stock of the banking company that was taken over by the FDIC over the weekend. ■ Taking advice on investing from the showmen on television is like watching "SportsCenter" to learn about health and fitness. It's just a bunch of action shots, with little or no relationship to the actual discipline required behind the scenes. ■ Conditions would be vastly better across the board if more people fundamentally understood that the basic enduring lessons of investing aren't especially complicated, that success is largely a matter of patience and risk endurance, and that the best formulas for investing success are almost excruciatingly boring. ■ Good financial advice generally makes for bad television. Louis Rukeyser knew how to deliver it right, but he was a rare talent, and even then, his style was cut loose by PBS two decades ago. But it would do us a lot of good to realize that excitement ought to be chased in places where the stakes are low -- like on the baseball diamond -- and not in the retirement plans of ordinary Americans.
March 12, 2023
Things are rarely as bad as they seem, but they can get much worse much faster than you imagine. It's a prudent guideline to keep in mind, whether you're unexpectedly stuck in a pandemic or staring down the barrel of a bank collapse. ■ As a matter of prudence, it makes sense to maintain a cheerful outlook while simultaneously observing the Scout Motto: Be prepared. Unfortunately, though, material wealth and social esteem don't always flow in those directions, which is why a small universe of tech-bros, "founders", venture capitalists, and associated folks rack up high audience counts while boasting about themselves through social media. ■ One, for example, has taken to Twitter to announce that he was alerted to panic about Silicon Valley Bank "in one chat with 200+ tech founders". Putting aside how self-important and nauseating that supposed chat certainly must be, it's quite the extraordinary act to implicate one's self in initiating a bank run based upon a rumor mill of dodgy legal status. ■ No banking-related panic is good for society. But perhaps it's also worth observing that narrowly-focused priesthoods can easily get themselves into trouble when they overestimate their capacities. (And make no mistake: There are lots of priesthoods that have nothing to do with religion.) ■ Having one high-demand skill (like coding) or landing some hits in a high-risk market (like venture capital) isn't the same as having high general intelligence. Unfortunately, social reinforcement mechanisms tend to tell successful people otherwise, which is why it's easy to find "angel investors" type-screaming "You're uninformed!" at online passersby and "venture capitalists" trying to cram for "Banking 101". ■ When things go bad in banking, they can go bad in a hurry. That's self-evidently why the FDIC is taking extreme measures. But the consequences will go far beyond deposit insurance limits and also should certainly involve some moral reassessment of people who have made bad choices out of hubris. ■ It's a bad idea for any considerable number of people to choose heroes based upon their willingness to trumpet their own victories and take credit for skill when dealing in matters where luck can and often does prevail. In the words of Benjamin Franklin: "As pride increases, fortune declines." ■ Luck isn't everything, but those who mistake their good luck for a superabundance of personal skill are unlikely to be prepared for those moments when luck turns south. And that can happen much faster than people can imagine.
March 11, 2023
The arrival of a dreadful airborne pandemic forced countless abrupt changes on society. Some, like the vastly increased accommodation for those who want to work from home, have even ended up as positive outcomes. But for the most part, the changes we made were forced on us rather than deliberate. ■ We ought to take the chance, while people are taking a more conscious approach to their social commitments, to reboot the American dinner party as an institution. It seems evident that the classic events reflected some of the status aspirations of a rising middle class out to consume conspicuously. Mistakes were made along the way. ■ This time around, we ought to look to common dining as a way to enhance community-building. Maybe we need an annual holiday set aside for the practice. It's credible to assume that on a civic level, we're going to need the same kinds of systemic habits and behaviors that may not be able to completely curtail the worst things that can happen in a democracy, but that can make us a little more resilient in the face of challenges. ■ Making conscious efforts to strengthen our bonds with old friends while planting the seeds for new bonds with others seems to be one way to reverse the decline in social trust that has been lamented from so many sides for so long.
March 10, 2023
One of the true and unvarnished joys in life is to teach another person -- or a group of people -- and to have at least one of them acknowledge that you have managed to solve a problem for them. Classroom teachers get that experience when graduates visit them to say "Thanks". Workplace trainers and presenters get it when someone comes up after a session to say, "I was just dealing with that thing you described". Others get it from having their explanations liked or shared by others on social media. ■ Maybe we should be grateful more often that as human beings, we have an extraordinary capacity to help solve one another's problems. Collaboration itself towards a worthy goal is often quite intrinsically satisfying, and often the greatest satisfaction comes about when there is no remuneration involved. Normal, well-adjusted people often happily stop to give directions to strangers who look lost, or take time out to explain a smarter or safer way to complete a task someone obviously has underway, or write out an online product review without compensation. ■ It has been noted that some of the things that are easiest for computers are hardest for people, and vice-versa. People share memes without a second thought, yet a 2021 paper concluded that "comprehending memes is indeed a challenging task, and hence a major limitation of AI". ■ Perhaps these few ideas which computer science will probably never be able to solve are the very things that will act someday as the kinds of "kill switches" we could need someday to rein in an artificial intelligence tool that has gone rogue. Computers may be able to answer many questions, but it's not credible to believe they can be made to "feel" a sense of satisfaction from solving problems for people. ■ It is widely believed we are living through an unusually epic moment of technological change, but the evidence remains scant that we've truly covered all the bases when pondering the consequences when -- not "if", regrettably -- things go wrong. It may be satisfying to realize that there are some means of communicating and some motivations for working together that are likely to always elude even the "smartest" of artificial general intelligence. In the end, it may be those peculiarities of human existence that save us.
March 8, 2023
A society does itself no good when it accepts behavioral pathologies as the cost of doing business to get extraordinary performance. That much really should seem self-evident, but contrary examples just pile themselves higher and higher. Whether it's the performing artist with 50 years' worth of prison sentences to serve for crimes against children and other offenses, the billionaire who impulsively feuds with and mocks employees, or the losing politician who salves his wounded ego by selling "retribution" as his brand, we make a giant cultural mistake in elevating people who are guided by their worst impulses. ■ Becoming a decent adult requires effort, yet virtually everyone is capable of rising to the standard. Regrettably, though, some people leverage their shortcomings into perverse advantages; take, for instance, the political liberation that comes with adopting an attitude of shamelessness. People remark about the apparent superpower of shamelessness, but decent people seem ill-equipped to put that pathological behavior back in its place. ■ If someone isn't well-adjusted by the time they reach adulthood, the rest of us don't need to amplify anything they say or do. That's the only effective way to respond. Isolation, silence, starvation of attention -- those are the reactions that serve to put pathological behavior in its place. ■ It can be hard to do, of course. Social media in particular encourages the frequent exercise of the outrage impulse. But the notion of enlarging the gap between stimulus and response is a mighty one for cultivating better behavior. Most animals don't connect events that happen far apart; if you want to punish a dog for stealing a steak off the dinner table, you might swat him on the nose immediately. It would be cruel to delay the punishment and impose it when the animal has no hope of making the connection. ■ But people can choose to wait and to execute on their feelings later on. As Warren Buffett so sensibly puts it, "You can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow". It's advice that too many people in high-profile situations still need to learn for themselves. But it's also advice that ought to guide how we -- as a society -- respond to those individuals who refuse to grow into being well-adjusted adults.
March 7, 2023
The quality of severe-weather forecasting in the United States really doesn't get the widespread credit it deserves, at least not yet. Too many people, perhaps still recalling the days not that long ago when those forecasts were decidedly low-resolution, still complain about weather forecasting as though it remains little more than guesswork. ■ But the proof to the contrary can be found by tracking the evolution of forecasts around several recent severe outbreaks. Maps four days ahead of the March 2nd storms in Texas gave a very good picture of the risk with literally days' worth of time to prepare. Other outbreaks have been similarly well-predicted. The combination of accuracy with precision has literally life-saving power. ■ What's perhaps paradoxical about the improvement in weather forecasting is that it has not been matched by improvements in other kinds of mathematical forecasts. The best forecast we can get from the Federal Reserve about the economy right now is language like "likely to be bumpy". Economic forecasting comes with enormous consequences -- many times similar to those of weather forecasting -- but despite the excessive confidence often on display, the forecasts are often wildly wrong. ■ That's likely to remain the case for quite some time, too. Models of physical phenomena (like the weather) can be improved with time and computing power. Much less can be done to improve models about things like human behavior -- which, after all, is what any economy is all about. ■ So, while we should celebrate the growing usefulness of weather forecasts (and take them increasingly seriously as they improve), we also need to apply a great deal of humility to our forecasts about human behavior, whether economic or otherwise. Anyone confidently predicting anything macroeconomic, from "recession warnings" to near-term booms, ought to be kept at arm's length.
March 5, 2023
It comes as no surprise that a politician known for his lowbrow instincts is workshopping denigrating nicknames for his opponents as the 2024 Presidential cycle approaches. But there is a lesson to be learned from the recent past: It is absolutely not necessary to repeat the denigrations in order to report on the subject. ■ This reminder should be taped to every journalist's laptop and locked on every one of their smartphone screens: Every time you repeat a nasty nickname or a disingenuous turn of phrase -- even if you think you're merely mocking the nastiness yourself -- you're granting it a tiny little sliver of legitimacy. You don't have to do that. You really don't. ■ It's not just a lesson for journalists and commentators, of course. If the "social" part of "social media" means anything, then it is by every small act of engagement that ordinary users confer their own legitimacy on what is being said. And we can withhold that legitimacy by choosing not to take part. ■ Politics in America has always been something of a full-contact sport. Partisans on Thomas Jefferson's side in the 1800 Presidential campaign blasted John Adams as a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." It's always been rough-and-tumble. ■ But it takes a certain kind of laziness to merely transcribe insults and call it journalism. Quoting the insult legitimizes it. When a child calls another "Fatso" or "Dummy" on the playground, no competent teacher repeats the insult unless expressly necessary. ■ The central fact of an insult is what it says about the party expressing it. And if the only idea a person has available to express is a cartoonish insult, then they don't really have anything to say that is worth reporting.
March 4, 2023
Some people argue with such unapologetic bad faith and on behalf of such outrageously bad ideas that it seems more satisfying to dismiss them out-of-hand than to rise to the argument. But, for as viscerally satisfying as it may be to point and laugh at those we think are making fools of themselves, every good thing worth keeping deserves to be defended on its merits. ■ In the case of the rancorous and disingenuous notion of dividing the United States, it seems almost ridiculous to try to meet the question on the merits. But we cannot avoid the fact that a sitting member of Congress is openly advocating a split, and even if her attitude is treasonous, the idea of union among the American States is important enough that it deserves to be won on its merits. ■ "Union Forever" isn't merely an echo from Lincoln's time. It is no small triumph that a nation of more than 330 million people has been perpetuated and grown to act as a gigantic free trade zone, with freedom of movement across an entire continental nation. ■ That's truly an extraordinary achievement in human history. And its growth has been overwhelmingly organic -- say what you will about the motivations behind the Louisiana Purchase, the purchase of Alaska, or the annexation of Texas, but most of what is recognized as the United States today wasn't brought in by force. ■ And what has been joined into union has become extraordinarily peaceful and productive. The time, the effort, and the negotiations required to achieve even bilateral free trade agreements between countries or even a minimal amount of freedom of movement is really quite extraordinary. It took the European Union enormous effort to develop the Schengen Area, despite peace and common interest. ■ For the United States to have achieved freedom of movement and freedom of trade among one out of every 25 people alive on the planet, merely by the organic maintenance of the Constitutional rule of law, is really extraordinary. ■ To undervalue those freedoms is to make a colossal misjudgment about the value of human organization. Freedom of exchange and freedom of movement are landmark achievements in the course of human history. They make the people who engage in them better off. ■ To be able and pick up and move because of job availability, or to move away from chronic natural disasters, or to to take advantage of attractive laws or incentives, or merely to "start over", is the kind of thing that people dream about in many other parts of the world even today. And in the course of human history, to take that kind of freedom for granted is an act of ignorance and ingratitude. ■ People have chosen the United States to escape famine, to escape oppression, and for countless other reasons. ■ But once here, they have been free to move about, to specialize in any of our considerable economic sectors, and to live generally in peace and mutual tolerance. Our many advantages as a country would fall apart, even if we split into parts that could work amicably with one another. Free-trade agreements are nice, but it's better for California and North Carolina to be able to trade without needing any treaties at all. ■ Part of a democratic system of government is that none of us gets everything we want, especially not at the national level. But anyone who fails to see the advantage in accepting a few political policy inconveniences in exchange for the much broader power of those freedoms is simply being unserious about the value of union. Union has been achieved peacefully so few times and in so few cases throughout history that it should be self-evident that the only sensible thing to do is to maintain and cultivate it. To be so fortunate and to take that good fortune for granted is a disposition that doesn't make any sense. Union forever, indeed.
March 3, 2023
The words are spicy, but the observation is accurate: "We used to think Russia was the second-best military in the world, and now it's not even the best military in the former Soviet Union." Dr. Kori Schake, who directs the foreign policy branch of the American Enterprise Institute, not only has a way with words; she has a way of seeing the principled order of things. And that order in the eastern half of Europe is changing. ■ In the future, we'll likely regard the period of Russia's terrible war on Ukraine as the turning point when the other Slavic nations decisively divorced themselves, both politically and culturally, from the Russian branch of the broader Slavic identity. In the process, we will someday see this as the turning point when those nations asserted a real, long-denied equality as Europeans. ■ It's obvious how the war is changing Ukraine itself. But it's not merely a political assertion of its right to exist, it's a cultural one. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was raised at a time when the Soviet Union imposed the Russian language on Ukraine, now refuses to treat it as a primary language of his own. ■ Observers note this as Ukraine's "consolidation" as a "civic nation". And The Economist headlines it, "making Ukraine a Western country". ■ But it's not just Ukraine; it's what the rest of the Slavic world sees, and what the world beyond acknowledges. Throughout the Soviet era, the other nations of Eastern Europe were widely ignored, underappreciated, or disrespected. The USSR looked dreary, and it was too easy to assume faults in those countries that were not indigenous to them. They were involuntarily yoked with a bad system, not inherently backwards. ■ As Ukraine's identity is being reassessed, so too are others. Moldova is rejecting Soviet-era impositions on its language. The Czechs just elected a vocally pro-European Atlanticist as president. Poland has been leading Europe's response from the front. ■ Political independence for these countries may have happened on paper a generation ago, but now they are staking claims to cultural and historical identities long denied not just by Russian imposition, but by disinterest or neglect by the rest of the world. The changes are big and they are noteworthy. And the world more generally will be better off for them.
Japan doubles its official island count
14,125 is the new official total; it was 6,852 before.
What do Iowa and New Mexico have in common?
Possibly their largest non-profit health systems. UnityPoint Health and Presbyterian Healthcare Services say they may merge.
(Video) A police chase in Minneapolis ends up with a car going over a bridge railing
Soft socialism meets machine washability
ABBA wore wild costumes because that was the only way to deduct the clothing from their taxes
March 2, 2023
After he recorded and published an appalling rant filled with racist sentiments, a well-known cartoonist has found himself dropped from newspaper pages nationwide and cancelled by his syndicate. While these are appropriate consequences for his actions, they raise another problem to the surface. ■ As newspapers have contracted (both physically and in staff counts), daily editorials have begun to vanish. Gannett has made that a policy. Lee Enterprises has consolidated some days of the week. Even the New York Times has begun editorializing only once every few days. ■ There was a time when even local television and radio stations broadcast their own institutional editorials. That hardly happens at all anymore. And it's a shame, because institutions -- especially the ones that describe the world for their audiences -- ought to be consistent and transparent about where their values stand. ■ An institution always has values, whether they are made explicit or not. They're unavoidably embedded in the decision-making process. Better to be clear about them than not. And far better to be clear long in advance of a crisis created by someone associated with the institution -- like a cartoonist on a pathetic rant. ■ Values evolve over time. That's OK, but part of the continuity of any institution is bound up in explaining what changed: The facts? The interpretations? The whims of ownership? The social habits of the editor-in-chief? Was the old reasoning faulty, or was it simply limited by the prevailing conditions of the time? ■ Newspaper readers (and indeed all media audiences) deserve to be advised of changing values and opinions, especially since they invariably influence coverage. It's disingenuous to suggest otherwise: Limited resources put constraints on coverage, and navigating those constraints is an act driven by judgment and values. ■ Frequent editorials also help to make clear whether news coverage is active or reactive. Are the editors trying to see around corners, or are they just waiting to respond to whatever events they cannot avoid? Better the former than the latter. Had some been looking more carefully, they might have realized sooner that one of their syndicated cartoonists had long been playing with fire. ■ It's good to see institutional responses that expel racism. That's good riddance. But this incident reveals why it's important to hear from the editors all of the time, not just in the event that their hands are forced by the need to cut ties with a prominent bad actor. Consequences like those should be obvious because the values driving the decisions should be obvious as well. ■ The landscape for jobs in conventional media remains awful, and that means some people -- perhaps many -- will be let go without any regard for their performance, whether in print, on the air, or online. The choices that drive who stays and who goes are also inevitably driven by values, and those ought to be made explicit, too. Sometimes, those will involve what might be called "bad riddance" -- choices made against expected values. The fewer of the choices to cut ties come as surprises -- whether for good cause or not -- the better.
February 27, 2023
Storm surveyors need to show discretion
The proliferation of high-quality drones and the insatiable demand for new video content have converged in a way that may sometimes encourage people to intrude on lives disrupted by severe storms in ways that weren't possible in the past and aren't really decent now. Drone operators ought to consider the possibility that, if someone's house was damaged by a storm and valuables were subsequently taken from the premises, they might well have a case against anyone who published video of the exposed property (if at an identifiable level) as an aider and abettor to theft. ■ Particularly since it's so easy to reward content creation via "tip jars" and other methods offering ways of covering tracks, the distinct possibility exists that some bad actors are out there already recording the consequences of storm damage in ways that could reveal the existence of valuable property in exchange for payment. Whether it's happening already or not, it isn't hard to imagine. ■ Even conventional, legitimate news coverage of storm damage is offered in uncomfortably high definition, and when conducted from the sky (rather than on the ground, with the express permission of the property owner), it can tread dangerously into the territory that looks like scoping the neighborhood. ■ Something of our better judgment and discretion ought to pull us back from the full scope of the possibilities offered by technology, to say that just because we can show the impact of a disaster in granular detail doesn't mean that it's the right thing to do. ■ It is important to discuss the full range of consequences following a natural disaster, in terms of both life and property. But just as some worthy thought has been put into researching how best to communicate the risk of storms before they arrive (taking into account how the public responds to official messaging), so too should social science be brought to bear on how we communicate the consequences of natural disasters. ■ It's worthwhile to elicit empathy for those affected, and to enlighten the public so that they can appreciate the consequences as conscientious taxpayers and thoughtful voters. But disaster voyeurism purely for its own sake as an instrument of shock isn't good for anyone.
Better Business Bureau doesn't like funny beer ads
A self-appointed advocacy group within the BBB says Miller Lite shouldn't compare its rivals to water. The ad is funny and it's pretty uptight to claim otherwise.
A pregnancy announcement for the ages
(Video) The very funny Julie Nolke reveals a real-life pregnancy in a sketch where she visits with her reflection in the mirror. It's quite charming, really.
The spork is the El Camino of utensils. It doesn't know which of two completely different things it wants to be, so it just gives up and does a bad job of both, while generally scaring small children in the process.
February 26, 2023
In 1991, 42% of high school students had been in a physical fight in the preceding 12 months. That number decreased a bit, but was still above 35% by the end of the 1990s. By 2019, the figure had fallen dramatically -- all the way down to 21.9%. ■ Any reasonable person should be perfectly happy to see that number fade to zero. The decline in fighting is a cultural improvement and a clearly self-evident good. There are better ways to solve the petty disputes of adolescence than by engaging in fistfights. ■ But no small number of people have been on the receiving end of bullying or schoolyard aggression and have consequently been motivated to study one of the many available arts of self-defense. ■ In adulthood, everyone with self-defense training and a sense of decency is (almost certainly) a net asset to the society around them. The ability to apply just and necessary force to protect one's self or others from harm is an important one to cultivate. ■ Ideally, people would be motivated to undertake those studies without the world forcing the issue. But self-defense is a lot like donating blood: Many people get into it because they've been exposed to a crisis of some sort. They learn first-hand that they can do something to keep from feeling helpless. ■ So how do we motivate people to do the work required to learn how to defend themselves and others if the risk doesn't seem real? In general, it's great if there isn't as much casual fighting going on in high schools as there was a generation ago -- but the adult world is still often dangerous. Violent crime in general is, like teenage fighting, down by something like half since the early 1990s, but it's still not at zero. There is still considerable value in knowing how to fight back. ■ More consequentially, we need to ask: How do we ingrain in young people a sense that force, strength, and power have to be coupled to duty and responsibility? And how do we ensure that they learn that sometimes duty calls for using force in a just and responsible manner? ■ If these things aren't taught together, we risk ending up with a world where people overreact to perceived threats and panic because they haven't been indoctrinated in the principles of proportional response and don't feel equipped to protect themselves. ■ It's indisputably good to see routine schoolyard fighting becoming much less routine. But when part of the culture changes for the better while other problems remain, it calls for a conscious approach to ensuring that important lessons don't get lost along the way.
Ukraine's ministry of defense says 147,470 Russian soldiers have been killed
If there really have been 147,000 deaths among Russian soldiers, that's more than one fatality for every 1,000 people. No matter how tightly a government controls the flow of news, it gets hard to hide losses that significant.
The spoken word is alive and well
US listeners increased their podcast downloading by 20% in 2022, per a report from a digital-marketing firm. Those who listen give podcasts almost four hours of their time every week, which may not seem like a lot at first -- but it's listening that goes directly into the ear (usually through an earbud) and is almost always intentional. There's a lot of value in that kind of encounter with an audience.
(Video) Harrowing to watch, but it contains great examples of both horizontal rainfall and a nighttime tornado from a very, very short distance away. The scientists knew things could turn bad in Oklahoma City -- probabilities for damaging winds were even higher than for the December 2021 derecho that hit Iowa.
A small selection of inexplicably-branded products from the 1970s serves to reinforce a good rule in life: If you find yourself at the crest of a pop-culture wave, SELL OUT. Peter Max, the artist, is still alive -- but his work isn't being used to sell antiperspirant, bras, or sneakers anymore.
February 24, 2023
Bad water killed three Presidents
The EPA is touting the availability of $2.4 billion for infrastructure projects under what is known as the "Clean Water State Revolving Fund". The fund primarily goes towards loans and loan guarantees for work on pollution control programs and the construction of wastewater treatment plants. Nothing about that sounds particularly catchy or attention-grabbing, and that reflects a pretty serious shortcoming in the way we approach those sectors. ■ The agency performing the distribution is the Environmental Protection Agency. But it's a real failure -- of branding as well as of persuasion -- to categorize water treatment as an environmental issue. The plain fact is that we don't treat wastewater for the good of trees and fish. We should spend our resources on that work because it is a lifesaving health measure. ■ Consider this Presidents' Day fact: William Henry Harrison, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor all likely died from drinking contaminated water -- in the White House! Legend has long had it that Harrison's demise was the result of pneumonia, contracted when he gave a long-winded Inaugural Address without a coat in the cold and rain. ■ The speech was exhaustingly long, to be certain. But the truth is probably worse than the legend: Harrison was probably killed by his drinking water. And because the same problems persisted at the White House, bad water probably killed Polk and Taylor, too. ■ As a society, we don't treat water -- either before or after people use it -- for the good of "the environment". We do it to protect and preserve public health. Period. End of story. Contaminated water probably kills half a million people annually worldwide. And it sickens millions more who don't die, but who still suffer. When you hear about natural disasters like earthquakes, the initial trauma is often deadly -- but so is the subsequent exposure to unsafe water. It's a grave but underappreciated risk in quake-stricken Turkey right now. ■ Misdirected branding like "environmental protection" doesn't help the situation. Nor, really, does a mislabel like "wastewater". It's not wasted -- it's been used by human beings, and what we should do is call it "unwell water". Something that has become unwell needs to be healed, and that's exactly the case with water that has been used by human beings. Once it has been made "well" again, then it is safe for people to encounter. "Waste" suggests that a thing goes away, but water doesn't do that -- whether in the White House in the 1800s or in Turkey or Syria today, unwell water finds its way back to people's mouths. ■ All water is recycled, and forever will be. Once we acknowledge that fact, it becomes imperative to think of it not as something that goes to waste or that retreats back to nature, but as something to be healed for our own human health. And once you start to think in those terms, then $2.4 billion in spending (or about $7 per American) seems like very little indeed. We may not agree on how to value "the environment", but surely our health is worth more.
February 23, 2023
According to local news reports from KLAS-TV and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a casino patron was left slumped over a blackjack table last April for more than 15 minutes without attention. When someone finally checked on him and discovered he was in cardiac arrest, "Wynn employees then attempted to render him aid with a defibrillator, the lawsuit alleges, but the employees were not trained to use the machine". ■ Unsurprisingly, the incident has made news because the family of the deceased has filed a lawsuit against the casino. If someone experiences a medical emergency and others around them render aid unsuccessfully, that's one thing. It might be a tragedy, but it isn't a cause of action. We have Good Samaritan laws to protect the aid-givers for just such reasons: Sometimes, the aid just isn't enough. That's life (or death, such as the case may be). ■ But it is another problem altogether if people haven't been prepared with even the most obvious of training protocols. This is a problem both at a population level and at the very specific site level. ■ Ideally, any group of five people anywhere should contain at least one person trained in CPR and the use of an AED. If you don't have the two hours or so required to take the full course, you can watch the American Heart Association's video crash courses in less than three minutes. ■ That there wasn't a single competent person anywhere in the gaming area of a Vegas casino screams of gross neglect. Many actually talk the user through the process from start to finish, so the amount of actual training required is practically nil. A reasonably competent 12-year-old could operate an AED -- which is the entire point. Lack of training in a high-traffic place of public accommodation is inexcusable. ■ Perhaps it will be found that the aid rendered was competent. Perhaps a court case will uncover that the employees had, in fact, been adequately trained. The public does need to realize that people often freeze in an emergency, so even people who have been trained in providing assistance may find themselves paralyzed by the moment. That's exactly why the ideal circumstances call for having the highest possible level of training among the population at large: If half the people are going to freeze in the moment, then twice as many people need to be trained. ■ It might be even worse than that: One paper concluded that only 10% to 15% of people react with calm and quick thinking in an emergency. The good news, though, is that those numbers can be enough, as long as enough of them are ready, willing, and able to do what's required. ■ Most every decent person should be willing to help in an emergency, and even under the worst of assumptions, at least one in ten ought to prove mentally "ready". So the problem to be faced -- for all of us -- is how to ensure that the maximum possible number are able. And if you're operating a place where the public visits in large numbers, society has a very reasonable expectation that you'll do your part to invest in maximizing those abilities.
February 22, 2023
An observation from Winston Churchill, prior to the United States entering World War II (but long after his own country had become a target of brutal and unprovoked assault): "I am very glad that the army, air, and naval frontiers of the United States have been advanced along a wide arc into the Atlantic Ocean, and that this will enable them to take danger by the throat while it is still hundreds of miles away from their homeland." ■ Clearly, that distance still tenders advantages to the United States today, though not nearly as many as it used to (and not in the same magnitude). Jet travel, satellites in space, and ICBMs do a lot to shrink the oceans. ■ These considerations matter in the world, even at a time decades removed from Churchill's observation. Consider the thought-provoking observation from Dr. John Chipman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies: "Putin may be hypersensitive to perceived provocation, but he has demonstrated hyper-responsiveness to perceived license. As the West has pedantically debated what it would not do, his room for destructive manoeuvre has grown." ■ It can be true that we want to avoid instigating conflict by our actions, but also find ourselves opening the door to the escalation of conflict by adversaries. Dithering and equivocation can have consequences, too. ■ Consider the necessarily hard-nosed view of Estonia's prime minister: "Ukraine must win". Estonia is only one among several countries -- particularly those bordering Russia -- with a compelling, existential need to see not just that hostilities cease, but that they cease because Ukraine has won the upper hand with the support of other countries. Estonia has fewer than 1.4 million people, making it smaller than New Hampshire in population. And their border with Russia is 183 miles long, or the distance from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Columbus, Ohio. ■ Estonia and its neighbors don't have the luxury of looking the other way. And while America does have at least some luxury in that regard, we should beware indulging it, no matter what some craven and cowardly members of Congress might want. ■ The oceans aren't as big as they were in World War II -- at least, not in practical effect. But the ambitions of tyrants remain as expansive as ever. That they can evidently be stopped at a cost only of material support and training for Ukraine's armed forces should be seen as the powerful leveraged advantage that it is. Let the oceans work, but remain steadfast in the knowledge that we still sometimes must "take danger by the throat".
February 20, 2023
Not every old building is worth saving
A dilapidated house in Des Moines, built in 1890, is up for sale with a sticker price of $47,000. It's listed with this promise: "With the available tax credits, tax abatement, and grants, this property can be affordable." ■ The current assessment on the property is $56,600, of which $25,200 is in the land alone. The building itself is assessed at no more than the value of a new Kia Sorento. And that's just the gross assessment: There's plainly a money pit inside the four walls. ■ Communities really should ask themselves: Are we better off giving people lots of incentives to rehabilitate a house like this, instead of incentivizing someone to demolish it and build a creative, brand-new narrow-lot residence in its place? The existing house is just 16' wide, on a 25' x 125' lot. But small can be beautiful, if approached with creativity. ■ Look, for instance, at the Pfanner House in Chicago, built on an even smaller lot (24.5' x 79'). While it's not conventionally beautiful from the exterior, it's also not offensive. To be sure, it's not bringing down the neighborhood. On the inside, though, it's probably twenty times better than rehabilitating a shabby old house for a similar amount of money. ■ Some old construction certainly is worth reviving and reclaiming from the clutches of decay and entropy. But Americans have to remain proud that we know when to knock over the old and build the new. Old houses have hazards like lead pipes and asbestos. New ones don't. Sometimes "historic preservation" is a worthwhile investment. Other times, it's best to make like a Disney princess and let it go.
Don't make a spreadsheet do the work of a word processor
If you're entering more than a sentence of text into any single cell in Excel, you don't need a spreadsheet. That's writing, not calculating. You need a Word document with embedded tables.
Parenting: You don't know what you're in for
A huge amount of parenthood is dispositional. What seems to matter most are character traits that are good to start cultivating when you're young -- virtues like patience and humility. Curiosity and a little grit don't hurt, either.
February 19, 2023
The enormous earthquake appears to have leveled an incredible number of buildings, stealing an unspeakable number of human lives. Many of the destroyed buildings appear to have been constructed from masonry and concrete; it's worth asking how structures based on mass timber might have performed in this awful disaster. So many pictures of multistory masonry buildings that collapsed. Was rigidity a factor in the terrible death toll? So much rebuilding that will need to be done; can it be safer? The use of mass timber is still developing, and research on its suitability in seismic events is still limited, but it appears to be worth diligent consideration. Mass timber permits multi-story construction using wood. Turkey is going to need replacement housing, and likely will need a good amount of it to be as tall as what it replaces. Wood and steel appear to be two of the most plausible solutions.
Streaming eats the television world
TV Technology reports: "In total, Americans streamed more than 19.4 million years of content last year, up 27% about 15 million years in 2021." ■ Few things should buttress one's faith in humanity quite like the knowledge that "Bluey" is the #8 most-streamed show in America.
February 18, 2023
One of the best ways to lose an argument is to overstate the case. Certain classes of activists (especially including, though not limited to, many vocal environmentalists) are especially prone to overstatement. Not everything is an "emergency", a "crisis", a "catastrophe", or a "disaster". ■ It's understandable that people can look at a problem and think that it's uniquely threatening -- or that the threat imposes a unique burden directly on them. (Think of the youthful activist berating the world at a climate summit: "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.") ■ But in trying to rally other people to share a sense of urgency about this issue or that, escalating to the language of "catastrophe" risks causing a escalatory spiral, in which nothing gets taken seriously unless accompanied by extreme language. ■ Take, for instance, the train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. It's a disaster, but exaggerations aren't helping the case. It's quite enough to say that it is a disturbing and damaging event of a scale large enough that it calls for the aid of the Federal government. But it does not help for environmental activists to label it "one of the deadliest environmental emergencies in decades" when that claim is patently untrue. ■ As the economist Todd Yarbrough thoughtfully puts it, "people will interpret hyperbole as dishonesty". That's a truth people of all stripes ought to take to heart: Exaggerations undermine reasonable arguments. They give people who might be sympathetic but skeptical the intellectual wiggle room to retreat to their prior assumptions. ■ A willingness to change one's mind is vital, especially in a self-governing society. But minds aren't changed by overheated arguments screamed from a bullhorn. Often, they're made by appealing to the self-interests of the audience first: In Ben Franklin's words, "Would you persuade, speak of interest, not of reason." ■ People may be fooled in lots of ways, but they quite often know both what's "for their own good" and what represents a real threat to that good. And if the person making an argument appears only to believe in it if couched in the language of exaggeration and overstatement, then it's quite often plainly unconvincing to the audience. ■ It's especially unconvincing if the persuasion is intended to compel the audience through shame. "I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him," wrote Booker T. Washington, "and that this is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done." ■ It's a lesson not just for environmental activists, nor just for those making causes from the left. A world filled with many varied and complex problems calls for solution-making through healthy, reasoned persuasion. Modesty of words is a good starting point.
You're really not "built different"
Human nature is astonishingly consistent over time. Almost anything that gets better about civilization comes from developing better rules and teaching better habits.
Microsoft reels back AI-enhanced Bing
Perhaps journalism about AI platforms should include a disclaimer: "This is a pattern-recognition tool and not a sentient organism. Please do not willingly suspend your disbelief." For the good of the reporters as much as the audience. ■ Generally-trained artificial intelligence tools have already gotten defensibly good at writing complaint letters. But in a sense, they're limited by their generality: Too much input exposes the artificial intelligence to bland conclusions and uninspired word choices. But if you could train an AI strictly on the banter from pre-Hays Code movie scripts and then synthesize its voices for radio, it would probably be a ratings powerhouse in morning drive.
February 16, 2023
After the much-heralded public launch of ChatGPT, it hasn't taken long for people to tune in to other developments in artificial intelligence -- prominently including the soft launch of Microsoft's ChatGPT-based "New Bing", which it bills as a "search experience", rather than a mere search engine. Early adopters are already putting it through stress tests, including an unnerving New York Times review, existentialist crises, and a crash course in writing like Kurt Vonnegut. ■ One of the plot points that earned derision for "The Matrix" was the moment when Keanu Reeves, as Neo, "downloaded" a martial art to his mind and declared, "I know Kung-Fu." The necessary conceit was that, inside the Matrix, the rules of data applied, rather than the rules of physical existence. ■ But it's not such a laughing matter in this real-world launch of artificial intelligence, where a computer can be "taught" to "know" subjects through exposure to what's been published on the Internet. False certainty is the kind of folly that human beings learn not to demonstrate after humiliating themselves in front of others -- think of anyone who becomes a know-it-all after taking a 101-level course in a subject. ■ Feelings like humiliation and the course corrections that come with those feelings are impossible to download. They're human experiences, and deeply organic ones. How could you explain to a digital "being" what it's like to blush? Human beings are mostly our own minds, of course, but no small part of what we learn comes through the corporeal existence. And there's no way to give that to an AI. ■ No matter how clever we get with large language models, part of "learning", as we humans will always understand it, comes through a process. And the process isn't always constructive -- sometimes you have to un-learn something you knew differently before, either through necessity or because the facts themselves changed. That sort of consciousness just isn't going to be replicable within artificial intelligence. ■ That's also why rules are a complicated matter: Everyone knows that some rules are more important than others, and we also know that different rules prevail under different circumstances. There may be Ten Commandments, but there are hierarchies among them, and there are cases when even those commandments come into conflict with one another. Resolving the conflicts is an essential aspect of human experience and intelligence. ■ The people launching artificial intelligence into the world -- even with the best of intentions -- need to be intrinsically aware of the limitations of rules, their ability to institute and document those rules, and to deal with the unavoidable conflicts among them. There's a lot of power at hand, but a whole lot of errors waiting to be made, too.
February 15, 2023
This is what democracy looks like
"This is what democracy looks like!": It's a chant often used by people who gather in the streets to protest, and it's untrue. Democracy looks like a 111-year-old woman who never misses a vote. Democracy is knowing that you won't get everything that you want, but neither will anyone else. It's showing up for the routine act of voting, peacefully and consistently, contributing more and more legitimacy to the system as the individual votes pile up. ■ Sometimes we're too quick to mistake mass activities for democracy. Sometimes, protest gatherings are useful: See the examples of the Selma to Montgomery march or the Maidan protests in Ukraine nearly a decade ago. If democratic channels are unavailable, people may well need to gather to make their voices heard. ■ But when universal suffrage prevails, polling places are secure, and the ballot box is counted fairly, then democracy looks like the individual voter informing themselves and voting their conscience -- many individuals over. The "I Voted" sticker is fun as a cultural artifact, but it's also the mark of a functional system, where people are free to indicate what they want in privacy and without fear of reprisals. ■ We honor the people who sacrificed on behalf of democratic rule when we participate in elections. We should of course honor those who risk or sacrifice their personal safety in order to protect democratic institutions. ■ But self-government isn't guaranteed by the armed forces alone. It's also guaranteed by the legitimacy conferred by mass participation. Susie Lewis, the voter who has showed up for nine decades of elections? She's a hero of democracy.
Is the Chinese spy balloon situation a cybersecurity threat? Yes, in the sense that it can be seen as a proof of concept. It's a potential platform from which novel forms of attack could be conducted: Airships that evade detection could be used, for instance, to sniff for stray signals and relay that data back to the home country for collection and analysis. Maybe that's not what was being done this time around, but it's a threat we shouldn't dismiss. Moreover, it may mean that domestic facilities in the United States need to upgrade their defenses. For example: Data centers have security fences, but do/should they have hardened roofs, too?
February 14, 2023
With Russia's invasion of Ukraine approaching the one-year mark, it's inevitable that some reflection and reassessment of the cause of Ukraine's defense will come forth. People cannot help themselves but mark anniversaries. In a Washington Post story, unnamed "senior administration officials" leaked their opinions that "We will continue to try to impress upon them [Ukrainian leaders] that we can't do anything and everything forever" and that they have "warn[ed] that the political path will get tougher once Ukraine has exhausted the current congressional package". ■ Given that the administration has been generally supportive of the Ukrainian cause thus far, the leaks are problematic. Earlier in the war, leaks were known to "displease" the President. Thus it's hard to imagine anyone talking quite so far out of school with an outlet like the Washington Post. ■ It undercuts Ukraine's leaders to give the impression that the United States is unprepared to continue vigorously supporting the country's defense with war materiel. What Ukraine has been doing with the assistance of Western arms and training is truly remarkable. But confidence is a resource, too. ■ On matters this important, it's vital for the President to come right out in front and win the argument. The whole free, democratic world needs to be reminded not to go wobbly -- not just Congress. It's the right argument, and it is well worth winning. But clear advocacy is essential. ■ There are plenty of people who are quick to cast the dispute in terms of domestic partisanship. But opposition to involvement in "other people's wars" is nothing new: For proof, read Winston Churchill's book "Their Finest Hour". Churchill candidly depicts his pleading with Franklin Roosevelt throughout 1940 for arms ranging from rifles to destroyers -- items Churchill believed meant life or death for his country as a free state. In Churchill's telling, Roosevelt was willing, but Congress was not. Congress, at that time, was run by a Democratic majority of 262. ■ It is entirely possible for recalcitrant legislators to make partisan arguments about issues like foreign aid. But it is up to the Commander-in-Chief to steer arguments like this one clear of the rocky shoals of party labels. If Ukraine's ability to expel a brutal Russian invasion is ultimately a matter of national security to the United States (and there is abundant evidence that it is), then those are the terms that a President must take to audiences both at home and abroad. And every member of the team must sing from the same songbook. ■ Winning the argument is essential, particularly when allied teamwork is required. Some countries, like Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland, already get that Ukraine's fight is of existential importance beyond its own borders. Others still need to be brought along. History is clear that this is nothing new. If this is no time to go wobbly, then that should be the unequivocal message from the top.
Maybe only one UFO was for foreign surveillance
Now the government thinks that three of the four items shot down may have been for commercial purposes. So, shouldn't they have had transponders? If they didn't, why not?
A dust storm sweeping across Texas and Oklahoma
A stunning event, and an amazing example of the quality of what we can visualize with satellites in 2023.
February 13, 2023
The odds are slim to none that what the US Air Force shot down over Lake Huron was anything extraterrestrial. The series of unwelcome objects over North American airspace has caught a lot of attention, but it's unlikely to be the opening salvo in a real-life version of the now-classic film "Independence Day". For what should be obvious reasons, that's welcome news. ■ On more than one occasion, Ronald Reagan wondered aloud what would happen if Earth were faced with an alien invasion. He raised it in a 1987 speech to the United Nations: "I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world." And he brought it up directly in conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. ■ What Reagan's question -- and our current quandary -- ought to do is concentrate our thoughts on just how unproductive it is to squabble for the sake of scoring petty points when there really are serious threats to peaceful coexistence in the world. ■ A small but noisy band of dopes are very good at promoting division for its own sake among people who generally agree with one another on the biggest issues and differ predominantly at the margins alone. If you're an American living in 2023, you probably agree more with almost any given neighbor of yours about what is basically important than you would even have agreed with any given American of 150 years ago -- long before the 19th Amendment or two essential victories in world wars or the Civil Rights era. Those were character-shaping turning points for the country, and now almost all of us agree without serious question about what they wrought. ■ Yet it isn't hard to find people who want to label people across the aisle as evil. When people spend too much time routinely vilifying those who are merely their political opponents, they diminish the impact of words like "evil". True evil is rare, but it exists. We see it, for instance, in the evidence of first-person responsibility at the highest levels of the Russian government for decades of terrorism against innocent people. That kind of evil should be cursed unflinchingly. ■ For mere "family squabbles" in our domestic politics, we ought to have more grace. Not because our differences don't matter, but because they pale in comparison with the evils that are self-evident around the globe. It shouldn't take the threat of an alien invasion to get us to think charitably of one another.
February 12, 2023
It seems hard to fathom, but the world will never be as simple in the future as it is today. The same is true for every passing day: Population growth, technological progress, economic advancement, and the relentless expansion of human knowledge conspire to make it inevitable that complexity will be an ever-expanding feature of the human experience. ■ Complexity by itself isn't a bad thing. Most sensible people wouldn't exchange the consequences of our current complexity for the problems of pre-modern life. Dying young, living without antibiotics or food refrigeration, and losing 2 out of every 5 children before the age of five are far worse than dealing with some tougher choices. But increasing complexity does require a conscious approach to decision-making. ■ A complex world calls for better heuristics. Four of them seem like good baselines for both public and private decision-making. ■ Make money. Most people want to earn a good quality of life for themselves and their families. This requires productive activity, and the best way to maximize productive activity is to reward it. Markets aren't perfect, but in general, market-based economies do a better job of that maximization than any other system. As voters, we should select for market-oriented policies, and as individuals, people should seek to do the most of what shows the biggest difference between what other people value and what we have to give up to produce it. ■ Have fun. The Declaration of Independence underlines "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as "unalienable rights". Life and liberty seem obvious enough, but it's worth taking seriously the promise that the pursuit of happiness is a human right. Some people can't help themselves but to be miserable. But they shouldn't bring the rest of the world down -- it is everyone's right to enjoy life. ■ Clean up after yourself. In the process of making money and having fun, it's easy to make a mess. When there are byproducts of human activities -- pollution, costs, impositions on neighbors and outsiders -- whoever creates those byproducts has a duty to clean up. ■ Mind your business. The phrase was applied to the first cent minted in America, at the behest of Benjamin Franklin. It's a delightful turn of phrase, reminding people both to "mind your own business" (leaving others, for instance, free to pursue their own happiness), and to tend to what matters, lest time get away leaving important work unfinished. ■ Progress is a long, unfinished marathon. Getting to a better future requires making good decisions along the way. The better the heuristics that guide us, the better the chances of steering towards a desirable future.
February 11, 2023
In a country of more than 330 million people, fewer than a tenth stopped what they were doing on Tuesday night to watch the State of the Union address, "the second smallest audience for the annual event in at least 30 years", in the words of the Associated Press. ■ It's available for viewing on YouTube anytime, and the full text is online, too. And it's not hard to find commentary on the speech from every corner. C-SPAN has highlight clips. Anyone who wants to be informed about the address can be. ■ But when people comment on the audience size, it's hard to avoid value judgments. A New York Times reporter phrased it, "Just 27.3 million people watched Biden's State of the Union address on television". Putting aside that 27.3 million people is still more than the population of any individual state other than Texas or California, or that it is more than three times the audience for any scripted primetime television program, it's worth considering whether viewing the address is of any importance at all. ■ Calvin Coolidge, who had his own experience with reporting the State of the Union, said to a press conference in 1925, "I would like it if the country could think as little as possible about the Government and give their time and attention more undividedly about the conduct of the private business of our country." ■ Coolidge himself only delivered one State of the Union address in person; he submitted written messages for the rest. And that would be a perfectly fine mode to adopt once again. The Constitution only requires that "He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union". It does not say the message has to be delivered in a speech, nor that it has to be disseminated to the public at large. ■ The State of the Union is, fundamentally, like a workplace report to a supervisor -- after all, Congress is supposed to tell the President what to do, and it reserves the right to impeach and remove any President who doesn't execute. The spectacle that we have come to recognize over the last century is a reflection of a chronic mass confusion about those relative roles. If more than 91% of Americans choose to "think as little as possible about the Government", then that's probably just fine.
February 10, 2023
A good, if uncomfortable, thought experiment proposed by Christopher Balding, regarding recent events: "Imagine it was a Russian balloon[;] the Galaxy Brain would be having an aneurysm." To the extent that the response to China's balloon incursions would be different if they had been Russian or Iranian or Syrian, it's well worth asking why. ■ Does China get special treatment because of its enormous economic scale? If so, what is the price of national security? Is there a dollar value that could be assigned to the amount of aggression the United States would be willing to absorb before considering the costs too much? ■ Does China get treated differently because it is somehow assumed to be less capable than other countries? If so, then its efforts to demonstrate rapid industrial development and scaling ought to be taken more seriously. China's navy has launched its third aircraft carrier as part of an accelerated development program. (And it should not escape notice that the army and navy of China answer to the Communist Party, not to the citizens.) ■ Does China get some kind of benefit of the doubt because it isn't seen as a nuclear power? Russia may control more warheads, but China has 400 and is trying to more than triple that number within a dozen years. And the country's political powers have shown flagrant disregard for human rights (consider the abuses in Xinjiang), so it's not as though there are principled decision-makers at the helm. ■ Balding's question deserves a robust examination, because if it appears that we're operating from faulty assumptions about the character of adversarial powers, that's a problem we alone can fix. It is solvable, to be sure. But it isn't solvable from the outside. Seeing the world as it is (and not merely as we wish it to be) is a matter of discipline. Just as nobody else can floss your teeth for you, nobody from the outside can force a society to deal with substantive problems in a clear-eyed manner.
February 9, 2023
A pillar of the West Des Moines community
A memorial will be held on February 12th to honor Sam Kranovich, who contributed more to Valley High School and to West Des Moines than any reasonable person could quite fathom. When you describe someone as "salt of the earth", you're describing someone like Sam Kranovich. Truly a heart of gold and a selfless pillar of the community he loved. It will take ten highly dedicated people to even begin to cover all the roles he leaves behind.
Smartphone adoption in a nutshell
From 20.2% of users in 2010 to 53.6% in 2014 (a majority), then on to 72.2% in 2020 (a supermajority). There haven't been many comparable cases where the timeline on a technology from "early adopters" to "used by a majority" got this compressed.
February 8, 2023
When people who should know better choose not to
Robert Reich, a professor at a brand-name university and a former United States Secretary of Labor, tweets: "Egg prices are up 60%. That's absurd. People are paying up upwards of $6 and $7 for a dozen eggs. Why? Corporate greed. Cal-Maine, the largest egg producer in the US, is raking record profits -- $198 million in its latest quarter. That's a 65% increase from a year ago." ■ It's entirely within bounds to simply say "I think corporations are greedy". Such an opinion would be simplistic and petty, but it's an opinion and everyone's entitled. But it's toxic for someone with notoriety and status (like a former Cabinet secretary) to bark out this nonsense when it's patently untrue. ■ There were big outbreaks of avian influenza in 2022. That's a fact with very clear consequences for the number of laying hens. That population dropped precipitously, from about 393 million in December 2021 to about 366 million in June 2022. Lose 7% of your egg-producing population and you're going to lose a lot of egg production, and that can have big consequences for marginal costs at the store. ■ The public shouldn't stand quietly for the corrosion of public debate by people who absolutely, positively should know better. It's not an overstatement to call it a blow against civilization. Upon taking office in the Cabinet -- and thus in the line of Presidential succession -- Reich had to swear to "bear true faith and allegiance" to the Constitution of the United States, and through it, to the people. His strict obligation to that oath may have expired on January 10, 1997, but he still profits from his recognition as a public figure. ■ He, and everyone in a like position, ought to recognize the public's reasonable expectation that their continued presence in the spotlight as a public figure comes with a continued expectation of "true faith and allegiance" to the Constitution and to the public. It's entirely well and good for people to take interests in subjects beyond their own expertise, and nobody expects a former Secretary of Labor to also be an expert on animal health. ■ But at the very least, one might expect a person whose curriculum vitae includes 58 instances of the word "economy" (in one form or another) to hold himself to a standard of behavior that might befit a person who once held a significant office of public trust, eleventh in the line of succession to the Presidency. And he ought to hold himself to a critical standard of intellectual curiosity such that he would look for an obvious root cause (like widespread animal disease outbreaks) before offering reductionist rallying cries on the Internet. ■ The public deserves serious thoughts from those who position themselves as thought leaders. If that's too much to ask, then those "leaders" ought to keep their idle musings to themselves. Otherwise, it should be their civic duty to be thought-provoking, not mindlessly provocative.
February 6, 2023
America's housing policy goal, such as it may be inferred, has long been expressed as something along the lines of "get as many households into homeownership as possible". The sentiment is ultimately Jeffersonian in nature: "[I]t is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state", he wrote to James Madison in 1785. ■ And so we get the home mortgage interest deduction from income taxes, the homestead exemption from property taxes, and the support of quasi-agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. All are major policies driven towards the objective of a house for (almost) every household. ■ But America's chronic problem when it comes to housing is that we treat housing as a financial investment. This is suboptimal behavior for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it probably chokes out investments in much more productive assets. But, fundamentally, we need to acknowledge that if an asset is both disproportionately important to household wealth and extremely hard to subdivide or sell in pieces until a desired future date, then the people owning such an asset will be heavily incentivized to favor scarcity. ■ It doesn't have to emerge from a malicious place to have pernicious consequences. NIMBYism is everywhere, in no small part because people are easily terrified by the thought that the value of their most significant investment could be threatened by the arrival of an abundant competitive supply. Thus homeowners almost chronically oppose any moves that would expand the housing supply: Rural areas decry "urban sprawl", suburbanites oppose increased densities, and urban-dwellers fight developments that would "tax the infrastructure". ■ As no more than a thought experiment, consider this question: How different might things look if the implicit policy preference were not "as many households into homeownership as possible", but rather "at least two domiciles for every household"? In other words, what if the policy were one of an explicit preference for housing super-abundance, rather than one placing maximum value on a single home as a family's largest asset? ■ On the surface, even the concept of "two domiciles per household" sounds a little crazy. But then consider the variety of ways in which this is already, to some extent, a choice some families already make. Some have vacation homes. Some take up time-shares. Some are "snowbirds" who move south for the winter, then back north in the summer. There are families with downtown "crash pads" and full-sized homes in the suburbs. There are "granny flats" and kids living in refurbished basements and college students who are still dependents but live on or near campus for nine months out of the year. And there are so very many campers, trailers, and RVs. ■ A policy expressly intended to prioritize housing super-abundance would have implications for taxation, regulation, and innovation alike. And what a second domicile would look like could vary for every family -- plenty of households have "feet" in two places at once, whether it's because an adult is working on a job remotely, someone in the family is in school far from "home", or simply because there's a lot of time spent visiting Grandma or chasing a traveling athletic team. ■ If we were to prioritize super-abundant housing, then we might see much more incentive for innovation, particularly in the "missing middle" of housing. That, in turn, might attract substantial new producers to the equation. Few Americans realize this, but in Japan, Toyota builds houses. The greater the innovation brought to the supply side of the equation, the better off we would be. More housing overall means more people, overall, in housing.
February 4, 2023
People are easier to hack than hardware
While it's understandable that people who haven't grown up as "digital natives" aren't well-prepared to think with a security-driven mindset, it also isn't a novel concept to expect people in positions of authority, influence, or power to realize that sometimes they need to take steps that others don't. The revelation that the Supreme Court has been operating under lax security standards for internal documents isn't necessarily surprising, but it does demand reform. ■ If bad actors want your data, it's easier to hack your people than it is to hack your hardware. This is a truth with which we need to grapple, and quickly. The evidence is overwhelming -- from the very highest echelons of government -- that people are willing to go around security policies if they believe they are beyond the reach of consequences. Unfortunately, anyone at such a level -- like a President, a Supreme Court Justice, or a high-ranking general -- is exactly the kind of person whose access makes them a desirable target. ■ This is ultimately a whole-of-society problem. If information security isn't treated as a prominent, visible priority at the top of government, then it is unlikely to be taken as a priority by the public at large. And there are consequences: Carelessness may reveal secrets better kept under wraps, and chronic under-investment in the kind of ongoing training that's needed in all kinds of environments is likely if the problem isn't recognized. ■ That, in the end, is what has to happen. There is only so much protection that can be delivered by antivirus software and clever network administration. The low-hanging fruit of information security -- the stuff that can be handled by routers and switches and the like -- has either already been plucked, or could be, given the right incentives imposed by laws and insurance policies. ■ It's the human side that remains woefully under-guarded and vulnerable as a result. It was an exceptionally stupid policy for a former Secretary of State to try to conduct government business through a personal email server out of a preference for "convenience". It was exceptionally stupid for a former President to keep Top Secret documents in a Florida resort property. It likewise is exceptionally stupid for Supreme Court Justices to use unsecured personal emails for sensitive work and leave confidential papers in poorly-controlled spaces. ■ All are part of the same problem: The failure to recognize that in the 21st Century, information really is power. And while it can't be contained perfectly, it can be contained within an acceptable level of risk -- but only if the people involved choose not to make themselves the weakest links in the security chain. So much better can be done, and so much more ought to be expected.
February 3, 2023
It probably has something to do with vestigial fears left behind by our evolution up from tiny pre-primate mammals, but the thought of something unknown and potentially hazardous in the sky above our heads seems to terrorize our human minds much more than other threats. These concerns, while not entirely irrational, seem to activate something different and more lively in the human imagination than other threats. ■ Thus, we witness the widespread and loud alarm over the Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the continental United States. Is the balloon a matter for unusual concern? Definitely. It's an unwelcome and illegal provocation. ■ We can be certain that even if the US Air Force doesn't dispatch the balloon, someone on the ground is still going to shoot at it. It won't be smart, and it definitely won't work, but it's practically certain to happen, even if the government deemed shooting it down to be too risky. It's an unfamiliar incursion, and that has snapped Americans to attention. ■ Yet, novelty isn't the only thing that matters. It may be perfectly sensible to be alarmed by the spy balloon, but let some of that alarm also be transferred to other known hazards, like spyware, massive data harvesting, and the intimidation of dissidents abroad (including within the US). ■ There are many other threats that are much more immediately threatening than the spy balloon, as deeply concerning as it is, but it seems to be the "unknown threat overhead" aspect that alarms many of us. And, even if it collects no useful surveillance for China whatsoever, it likely will end up as a net adversarial win. That's because they don't have to produce a weapon, be it kinetic or electromagnetic. ■ China's government merely needs a proof of concept that makes it appear sufficiently plausible that it can penetrate American airspace (and that it is willing to do so) to force the United States to spend a lot of resources on hardening our own infrastructure. The Defense Department has even confirmed taking "additional mitigation steps" against surveillance by the balloon, even while claiming that "it does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit." ■ Unfortunately, whatever measures are taken, they consume time, effort, and resources. If a car thief is known to prowl your neighborhood, it is relatively cost-free for you to lock your car. But if that isn't deterrent enough, then installing a car alarm, buying a LoJack, mounting surveillance cameras, or building a garage all consume resources that might have gone to better productive uses. Triggering your adversary to spend liberally on new defenses can be an effective military strategy. ■ But Americans shouldn't let ourselves fixate on the specific form of this threat just because it activates that portion of the brain we got from smaller mammals millions of years ago. We should, however, use it as the catalyst for much wider strategic debates about how better to protect our interests domestically, whether in physical space or in the electronic domains. There are plenty of things to be concerned about, and we haven't necessarily given any of them sufficient consideration. Perhaps the response to the spy balloon can nudge us to do better.
February 1, 2023
If you wish to have less of an undesirable thing, then the prudent course of action is to study its causes and then work methodically to mitigate or eliminate them. Hospitals conduct morbidity and mortality conferences when things go wrong for their patients. Coaches review the game films from their losses. Toyota popularized the "Five Whys" technique at performing root-cause analysis on manufacturing defects. ■ The methods may vary, but the shared point is the commitment to uncovering the causes of undesired outcomes so that they can be addressed. And when done thoroughly and professionally, the process can have significant effects. It should be a matter of considerable pride, for instance, that commercial air travel has become radically safe by comparison with other means of transportation. Improvements in air safety are at least partly attributable to the investigatory work of the NTSB. ■ The National Transportation Safety Board exists to seek out the root causes of transportation incidents so that they, too, can be eliminated. It is crucial to note that the NTSB "has no authority to regulate, fund, or be directly involved in the operation of any mode of transportation". Its mission is strictly to investigate and make recommendations, entirely independent of any other agency of government. ■ The Fifth Amendment says that "No person shall [...] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law". Yet hundreds of people are killed by police in the United States each year. In some cases, there is little doubt that the actions of law enforcement were necessary and prudent: A man firing a rifle inside a Target store is a clear and present danger to others, and swift action is plainly justified. ■ But other cases -- like the killings of Breonna Taylor or Botham Jean -- are different entirely. In general, it should be uncontroversial to believe that as few people as possible should die in the process of law enforcement, on either side of a badge. ■ If anyone at the Federal level of government were truly serious about reducing the number of civilians killed by police, then they would work to stand up an NTSB-style agency to investigate deaths involving law enforcement. Such an agency would need to be invested strictly with investigatory powers, not prosecutorial ones. It would need to be independent and professional, working solely for the purpose of investigating the incidents and uncovering the causes so that preventable deaths could be eliminated. ■ If politicians at the national level aren't trying to advance the policies that could do something about fixing root causes, then they probably aren't serious about the problem. The basic premise of the Fifth Amendment is clear: The right to one's own life is precious and sacred. Even when a perpetrator is killed under thoroughly justifiable conditions, it remains prudent to investigate how events unfolded as they did and whether anything could have gone differently. The NTSB model has proven itself to the traveling public. It's a model worth duplicating in the line of duty.
January 31, 2023
Taxed enough? Not yet, apparently.
Americans like our acronyms a little too much. We like them so much that people often contort themselves to instill a word with meanings by creating retroactive acronyms ("backronyms", in the words of some). ■ When it was new, the "Tea Party" movement adopted its name in honor of the Boston Tea Party. Later, people retroactively instilled the word "Tea" with a backronym: "Taxed Enough Already". ■ While the movement itself went through a predictable life cycle and has mainly been subsumed into other identities, the "taxed enough already" attitude has persisted. Unfortunately, this is entirely untrue. If anything, the American public is plainly not taxed enough already -- certainly not enough to cover the costs of the things we demand that our elected officials deliver at the Federal level. ■ States and local governments are different: Without the power of the printing press, they're forced to observe a lot more fiscal discipline than Congress is. Virtually all of the states have balanced-budget requirements. Not so at the Federal level, where the budget deficit is a trillion dollars. ■ Accumulated deficits result in debt, which is now at more than $31 trillion. And because the government has a statutory debt ceiling, we're in a dangerous political spot: Congress has already run up the spending, and now it has to account for the fact that deficits create debt, and the world expects us to pay for what we borrow. ■ Reasonable people can disagree about particular spending choices, but it's plain that the far right wing is daffy when it claims we can fix the deficit by cutting discretionary spending (we cannot; the biggest spending categories are basically untouchable entitlements), and the far left is nuts when it claims that we just need to tax "millionaires and billionaires" more (most tax revenues come from ordinary people paying income and payroll taxes, and there aren't enough of "the rich" to soak enough to make up the gaps). ■ There's nothing wrong with persistent budget deficits of a small amount that remains less than the rate of economic growth. We could easily get by with a Federal deficit of 1% or 2% of GDP, especially if some of that spending goes towards productive activities that could enhance economic growth, like building infrastructure. It's the chronic habit of overspending by 5% of GDP that gets us into trouble. ■ And we need to keep some borrowing capacity in reserve for occasional surprise events that require emergency spending -- like wars and pandemics. An emergency is no time to get stingy, especially if the consequences could be existential. And we have been faced with more than a couple of those emergencies, even in recent memory. ■ Nobody wants to admit it, but the truth is that we either have to radically reel back what we expect from our government, or we need to show the maturity to realize that there isn't a magical pot of gold at the end of any rainbow, just waiting for us to raid it. Persistent (and preferably accelerating) economic growth is the best possible way to put our debt to rest, but that growth will be badly threatened if we don't demand an adult resolution to the problem. ■ The debt exists because the deficit already created it. We need to pay what we owe, then set about correcting course and talking about our budget like adults. And unfortunately, we have shown by our voting choices that we are not quite taxed enough, regrettably.
January 30, 2023
National Houseplant Day (January 10th each year) doesn't have the same cachet as most holidays. It's not even a close second to Arbor Day, which is big enough to have its own foundation. But it might be time to consider not just appreciating houseplants for their aesthetics, but expecting a little more work from them, too. ■ While it appears true that plants are capable of extracting volatile organic compounds from the air, their capacity is limited. Most of the successful experiments with using plants to improve indoor air quality have been just that: Experiments. And while the evidence has pointed in the right direction, the problem is one of scale. The houseplants we have now just don't work through enough air to act as indoor air purifiers. ■ Yet a few other things are clear: Trees are big enough to do the job of phytoremediation, removing hazardous chemicals from the soil and water. Lots of people already are predisposed to believe that houseplants can purify indoor air. And it appears possible to genetically engineer plants to do more detoxification than they might without human help. ■ Perhaps what we really need is some innovation to bring together some of that genetic engineering along with interior design and architecture. Green walls aren't particularly commonplace, but there's no reason they couldn't be, if given the right aesthetic and maintenance characteristics. And what about ceilings? What if, in place of popcorn ceilings, builders installed green ceilings composed of plants that would require minimal maintenance? ■ Ceiling space is mostly wasted today, and usually have to be treated so that they perform some acoustic deadening. Tiny houseplants -- or maybe even their rootless cousins, the mosses -- could, hypothetically, be optimized through hybridization or genetic modification to perform always-on, energy-free air purification. ■ Maybe it seems unlikely now -- but it also would have seemed unlikely just a short decade or two ago that we would be building our indoor habitats to feature giant, feather-light televisions and gigabit-speed wireless Internet connections. Some of the same energy and creativity that has gone into making consumer technology better might be put to good use making consumer biotechnology better, too. If walls and ceilings could be making life healthier, shouldn't someone be thinking about trying?
January 29, 2023
Despite its occasional lapses into the ridiculous, the AP Stylebook serves a useful purpose. As a guide for journalists in newsrooms all over North America and beyond, it creates a set of rules that resolve the inevitable conflicts posed by a complex language like English. In standardizing and, to an extent, codifying the use of language, the AP Stylebook makes it possible for people with different backgrounds to find common agreement about what they're discussing. ■ Even when we disagree with others, it's important to have a common base of language from which to differ. That's a value that has become harder to recognize as more and more written conversation takes place not in centralized locations, like Associated Press news articles, but across the vast reaches of the unregulated Internet. ■ On one hand, it's a wonderful thing that so many individuals have basically unfettered access to their own "printing presses". But the absence of a common set of standards for how words are to be used makes it difficult for people to come to reasonable conclusions about the debates that inevitably emerge. ■ Conducting heated debates without open agreement about the rules of the language is like debating the speeds of race cars without resolving the units of measurement first. If one person is using miles per hour, another is using kilometers per hour, and a third chooses meters per second, there's no way they can reach an understanding on the merits. ■ No single source needs to have a monopoly on setting the standards for language, but it would be useful if people could identify themselves based upon the stylebooks to which they adhere. The New York Times has a stylebook. US News, too. There's a Washington Post version, and a [University of] Chicago Manual of Style. Or one could consult the BBC News Style Guide or The Economist Style Guide, for an overseas flair. ■ The point is that it's too easy to talk past one another when we don't even agree on what words are supposed to mean. Dictionaries can only go so far, saying little or nothing on important matters regarding connotations, weighted language, and the boundaries on appropriate use. Those just aren't the kinds of conflicts that Merriam-Webster can resolve. ■ But it would be useful if people could come to common agreement about what they mean by things like "capitalism" or "socialism", "public health" and "balanced budgets", "democracy" and "authoritarianism". What we need is not one style book for the Internet age, but a few of them, all of which could compete with one another for legitimacy. ■ And the more that people adopted them openly, the more legitimacy they would obtain. Lots of people try to signal some of what they mean with their words by identifying with a party or a creed in their social-media profiles, but it might do more good if they'd only tell the rest of us which stylebook they're using.
January 28, 2023
Americans are often quite reasonably frustrated by the endless growth in health-care expenses. It's a problem we sometimes would like to believe is all our own, due to the unusual way that health insurance is handled in this country. But in no small part, what frustrates Americans also frustrates people in other countries -- it just manifests itself differently elsewhere. ■ The root cause is that everyone has an incentive to pursue the maximum available coverage for their own health, and the resources to deliver health care are limited by a variety of real constraints. Take, for instance, the NHS in the United Kingdom: It's widely admired and, generally, free to the user. But demand has exceeded supply quite a lot, to the extent that ambulance response times have stretched to shocking levels, well in excess of the NHS's targets (not to mention patient expectations). ■ And nurses and ambulance staff are going on strike, saying they aren't paid enough. Fundamentally, it is the same problem as anywhere else: Health care is an area of almost uniquely limitless demand, and somewhere along the line, that demand runs up against some kind of limitation in supply. ■ High technology often doesn't help the supply side as much as intuition suggests it should, but we may be on the cusp of something new -- if and only if the regulatory and professional environments are prepared to accommodate the possibility. ■ Consider this possibility: For as much as medical professionals criticize patient reliance on "Dr. Google", it seems inevitable that self-service diagnostic tools built on AI platforms and delivered by credible providers will be offered as alternatives to urgent care and walk-in clinics, perhaps at kiosks in drugstores and grocery stores. Lots of tests require facilities (like the ability to draw blood) that most people don't have at home, but which could be provided in fairly frictionless ways at establishments already connected to health care. ■ A human professional would probably still need to review and sign off on the diagnosis, but most of the heavy lifting would be automated. Just as AI is already showing up in radiology, so too could it have a lot to contribute elsewhere in medicine. But a human's guidance still makes enormous sense, just as it remains logical to keep human pilots in the cockpit even though autopilot can fly a plane by wire. Humans working in concert with computers are better than either working alone. ■ The trends involved are so powerful that the helping hand of automation seems impossible to ignore. Between known workforce shortages in the medical field, the quest for cost containment, and the rising health demands of an aging population, all of the pressures causing troubles now are set to make things worse unless there is some kind of fundamental change to the systems of provision. More burnout is unfortunately likely to beget even more burnout. ■ We're already growing familiar with telemedicine. Like a lot of other things, it was forced on a lot of people due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but now it seems far less unusual or far-fetched than it once did. Medical care driven mainly by machines -- call it automedicine -- is almost certainly coming fast behind. It's up to lawmakers to start thinking right now about what "automedicine" will need to look like. If the people in state legislatures and the halls of Congress don't appear to be up to the task, then perhaps patients need to consider the consequences.
January 27, 2023
"Jobs were not created by capitalism"
There's a certain type of blockhead who seems to imagine that "capitalism" is to blame for nearly every challenge in life, or even every shortcoming from a utopian imagination of the world. While it is difficult to launch an intellectually honest refutation of the advantages of market economics, it's possible for a person to hold an authentic opinion that some other type of system is better. What is impossible for a person to do with any intellectual honesty is to make out all the various troubles of life as the exclusive fault of capitalism. ■ Consider the following argument, apparently made in earnest: "[C]an you imagine being a human during the paleolithic age just eating salmon and berries and storytelling around campfires and star gazing ... no jobs no traffic no ads no poverty no capitalism-caused traumas just pure vibes" [punctuation, capitalization, and all other errors from the original]. It's difficult to pack that much fantastical intellectual dishonesty into so few words. ■ There have always been jobs to do, whether the prevailing economic system was capitalism, socialism, feudalism, or hunting-gathering. It has always been that way, because the world has always been a place where scarcity of resources has forced human beings to compete -- with each other, with other living things, and with the forces of nature. "No jobs"? "No poverty"? "Just pure vibes"? Nonsense. ■ Blaming anyone's current lack of comfort on "capitalism" is impossibly dumb, if capitalism is defined (correctly) as the idea that people should freely exchange things of value and be free to quantify those things as "capital". Nothing in history has ever worked so effectively to improve the material condition of human lives as capital-based market economics. Compare South Korea to North Korea. Compare Hong Kong or Taiwan to Communist-controlled China. Compare the historical West Germany to East Germany. ■ Markets don't create the scarcity that people blame for their problems. More than anything, they help to peacefully resolve scarcity. It's nonsensical to rely on the boogeyman of "capitalism" as the reason people don't enjoy "eating salmon and berries and telling stories around campfires". Those are choices, and they are enhanced by the production of more salmon, more berries, and more leisure time. Markets do just that. ■ It's ludicrous, too, to romanticize the past: It was often sickly, painful, and extraordinarily violent. That doesn't mean the present isn't too often full of troubles and violence, but it is vastly easier to make the case for peaceable coexistence when one starts from the premise that each individual owns themselves and the fruits of their own labor, whether produced by the hand or by the mind. If you, your life, and your work are valuable, then you have a right to protect them, and the state has a duty to help you do that. ■ Benjamin Franklin phrased it artfully a quarter of a millennium ago: "Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to Labour and Industry? May not Luxury therefore produce more than it consumes, if without such a Spur People would be as they are naturally enough inclined to be, lazy & indolent?" ■ Franklin wasn't defending Goldman Sachs when he wrote that; he was identifying a common thread in human nature: That everyone has a hunger to consume, and that it must be satisfied by production. Most alternatives to markets depend upon coercion to get that production done, whether it's the feudal lord compelling work, a Communist government starving 20 million people through forced industrialization, or the chief of a small tribe deciding where and when to hunt. Nothing real in this world comes from consuming "vibes".
After a merger of television and radio operations, what would in a sane universe have been named "Vermont Public Media" has dropped the "media" and is going to be called just "Vermont Public". The compulsion to say "we do more than just media" is strong, but at some stage or another, the "we do everything" approach makes it impossible for a name to make sense anymore. The mind knows something is missing from the name, so then it becomes a game: Vermont Public...Opinion? Engagement? Tacos? What is it, and what does it do? Where is the noun?
January 26, 2023
A ham-fisted execution of a good intention can be frustrating to people who sympathize with a concern but who cannot defend an overreach or an inelegant declaration. The Associated Press has demonstrated just such an overstep via an update to its widely-used Stylebook. ■ Within reason, it's a good practice to center descriptions of people with their personhood first. Calling people "slaves" makes the unjust condition of slavery the noun, rather than the people. A subtle change -- to "people who have been enslaved" or "enslaved people" -- adds words, but reminds the reader that the subjects are people, not animals or inanimate objects. Dehumanization is essential to the evil of slavery, so anyone who rejects that evil (which should include any right-thinking person) should recognize that using "people" as the noun and "enslaved" as the modifier is a reasonable linguistic accommodation. ■ Centering on particular nouns can go too far. The AP has pronounced, "We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing 'the' labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college-educated. Instead, use wording such as people with mental illnesses. And use these descriptions only when clearly relevant." In the case of "people with mental illness", it's probably a reasonable accommodation -- recognition of their very personhood has mattered a great deal to their treatment, both in the past and in the present. ■ But "the French"? Under what possible set of conditions could it be considered "dehumanizing" to call the people of a nation by the name they have chosen for themselves? It's not like calling Germans "Huns" in the First World War. "The French" is a demonym; nothing more, nothing less. There's no dehumanizing connotation to it. ■ Should writers be careful how broadly they paint with any brush that describes large groups of people? Certainly. But it is a huge jump from categories of people whose treatment has all too often been defined by how others have deliberately or even unintentionally dehumanized them (like "the disabled") to people who made choices to join a group ("the college-educated") or who are members of a human nation. Care should always be taken with the language: Words matter. ■ But over-extending a good intention so much that it contorts the language into absurdity risks causing people to miss the point entirely. The difference between a medicine and a poison is often in the dose. Writers, too, need to know when to stop themselves before going too far.
Those who haven't worked in public-facing occupations may not realize just how unbelievably entitled some people feel. But even those with a lot of practice may find this one surprising: Someone actually asking the National Weather Service for a forecast specific to a particular stretch of road, 18 hours in advance.
Dotdash Meredith to lay off lots of staff
Between Meredith and Cowles, Des Moines was once a major publishing powerhouse. Times have changed dramatically.
January 25, 2023
According to the Census Bureau, the median American was born around 1982. This means that anyone older than a "Geriatric Millennial" is now in the upper half of the age distribution. (Sympathies to Generation X.) With that realization occasionally comes the knowledge that one's lived experience is now history. ■ Among the most obvious of social changes from one generation to the next is the extent of consumer technology. Those who attended high school or college in the late 1980s, the 1990s, or the early 2000s didn't realize it at the time, but they occupied a brief and unique window of history when "media" wasn't social, but technology itself was. ■ Thanks to the overwhelming utility of Internet and database connections and to the obvious advantages of word processors and spreadsheets over typewriters and paper notepads, people of that early-computer generation had tremendous incentives to become early adopters of personal computers. But even the slow, under-powered desktops of those days were expensive. After tuition, room and board, and book fees, there wasn't always enough left over in the student budget for a modern computer. ■ And thus the campus computer lab emerged. Colleges (and some well-funded high schools) invested in hardware, installed the machines in centralized locations, and provided (usually) supervised sites for work. At the time, going to the computer lab was often a social occasion just as much as an academic one. It was, in its way, an early edition of the "co-work space". Everyone might have been working on something different from everyone else, but gathering around the technology was defined nearly as much by the gathering as by the devices. ■ The experience was, to a degree, an extension of (and an overlap with) the era of scheduling the use of a school's mainframe. That experience, though, tended to belong more to people in the STEM fields (before they were called that). The computer lab experience of the nascent Internet era was much more democratic: Everyone on campus had papers to write. ■ Computer labs may still exist, but the social aspect of making a pilgrimage to go to the technology is fading fast. The Northern Iowan, the student newspaper of the University of Northern Iowa, reports that on-campus computer labs are languishing because so many students now depend upon laptops and wireless network connections to get things done. The labs still exist, but increasingly their remit is to provide equity of access to students who don't have their own devices, or whose devices lack the expensive software needed to accomplish particular tasks. ■ Is something lost along the way? Yes and no. Generations of people attended higher education before computers became widespread, and they undoubtedly left feeling fulfilled. The computer lab experience was a consequence of scarcity, and that scarcity belongs more and more to historical memory as Moore's Law continues its march. But those who lived through it should know that what they experienced, much like trans-Atlantic crossings via fast ocean liners, airships, or the Concorde, was a rare moment in history. ■ It's rarely obvious at the time, but those moments belong to a different class than most histories. They often seem too unremarkable to record at the time, and often the only things left behind are tangential artifacts. They aren't worth resurrecting for their own sakes, but they are often worth documenting for the historical record and observing for what they might have to say about adaptation to change. Something, sometime, will become the new "going to the computer lab".
Artificial intelligence will most likely be able soon to replicate many if not most pop musicians. But it would be shocking if AI is ever able to sound quite like the wonderful and weird Beck. He's going to be our musical Turing test.
The high-tech layoff figures keep on rising
You'll have to pass more robot tests soon
OpenAI has implemented a robot test for access to Dall-E -- even before a password is required. It makes sense for them to limit login attempts, considering the incentives for people to try to over-use their system. It's probably a sign of things to come more generally online.
January 24, 2023
Minnesota's smaller state schools are shrinking
The mid-sized state university seems to face an especially difficult existential crisis these days. St. Cloud State, for instance, has shrunk from 19,912 students a decade ago to 13,149 now. A decline of some 7,000 students would be an impairment even for a big school like the University of Minnesota (55,000 enrolled at the main campus). For a smaller school, it's a profound contraction. Those schools have a lot to offer, but these times are tough.
Lyndon Johnson wasn't much of an interior decorator
A look at some of his private spaces as President are prime examples of the Imperial Presidency showing roughly the same level of taste as any imperial monarchy.
January 23, 2023
It's not just your imagination: TV is going online
Streaming has overtaken broadcast television viewing, and not by a small margin: "Overall streaming gained 10.4 share points, climbing from 27.7% in Dec. of 2021 to 38.1% of total TV usage in Dec. of 2022. In contrast, broadcast usage was down 3.7% from November, and the category lost a share point to finish at 24.7% of total television, Nielsen said." The two modes of viewing have flipped positions.
Is anyone really serious about AM radio anymore?
Noted by radio consultant David Bialik, with a hint of indignation: "AM owners are grabbing available low-power FM signals to get the signal out -- and then they promote their FM, not the AM. We're even seeing major groups with 50,000-watt signals start broadcasting their programming on FM. Are they wholesaling their AMs?
January 22, 2023
No rite of passage should escape periodic re-examination. And it would seem that, at least in some quarters, the rite of obtaining one's first driver's license is undergoing a revival of scrutiny. ■ There is an obvious case to be made that obtaining a driver's license is a relic of America's engine-obsessed past. Some would even argue that we are doing the next generation a favor by focusing their time on practices that will better serve them in a world full of mass transit and walkable spaces. Time not spent in driver's education class, the thinking goes, is time that can be spent on an extracurricular activity with better returns in the college admissions process. ■ But unlike certain specific driving-related practices (like learning how to drive a stick shift or fix a carburetor), the general need to know how to drive a vehicle has not been obviated entirely by technology. Driving is a skill that is not only widely useful in personal life, it is still often applicable in professional life, too, as well as in a wide number of trades. Whether one ends up as a long-haul trucker, a corporate attorney rushing to meet filing deadlines, or a shipping department supervisor running a forklift, the essences of a steering wheel and an accelerator pedal must be known. ■ Sure, you may choose to live in a place like New York, with lots of mass transit. But that doesn't mean you won't travel to other places -- for work or for leisure -- that won't require you to rent a car or take a long-distance road trip. For now at least, it remains inescapable that driving is a part of basic personal functioning for the vast majority of Americans. Sure, you might be able to virtualize many of your interactions, but there's no enduring substitute for being in the same time and space with your friends. ■ Even with self-driving vehicles, we may remain a car-dependent nation for some time to come. And there is no reason for anyone within a car-dependent nation who is physically and mentally capable of driving to be completely dependent upon others to do the driving. ■ Adolescence is a time for trying new things, learning how to fail safely, and figuring out how to be both resilient and self-sufficient. Parents have to encourage their children along that road: As a parent, your unconditional love and support should be both obvious and unquestionable. But everyone needs to go through a process to earn self-respect, and it's for the best if that starts by trying new things (and sometimes failing) when the stakes are low. That time is in childhood and adolescence. ■ It's a fallacy for parents to try to pack adolescent resumes in order to impress others, instead of training and guiding those adolescents to become self-sufficient and capable adults. Like it or not, your kid becomes an adult in the eyes of the law on their 18th birthday. That's some heavy, heavy reality. And at least for now (and for some time to come), American adults will need to know how to drive.
You'd be tired of the job, too
New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, just stepped down after a surprise announcement that she had reached a state of personal burnout. Given that she has been the target of relentless online harassment, perhaps the bombshell announcement shouldn't have been that much of a bombshell. It's too easy to paint political leaders as caricatures, rather than as real people. Sure, maybe there's something more to her story...but there doesn't have to be. It's been an exhausting time to be a political leader, and anyone who doesn't freely admit that is posing as something they're not. We would do well as a society to de-normalize this caricaturization of political figures, and to treat them as the human beings they are. If done properly, that would cut both ways: We'd stop tolerating the dehumanization among our own aimed at our perceived opponents, but we'd also stop expecting them to go on doing their jobs forever.
If necessary, we could probably reconstruct most of the pertinent canon of Western Civilization from the films of John Hughes and John Landis. Couldn't we?
Parents should tell their children to be careful, but always coupled with affirmative rules, like: "Be careful! Make sure your fingers are in a safe place before using a knife." Human brains want to follow constructive guidance, because it exercises the puzzle-solving part of consciousness. We don't have room for all the "don'ts".
"Extraordinary measures" deployed to pay the Federal bills
Ugh. C'mon, Congress. The debt ceiling isn't a weapon you want to turn on yourself.
January 21, 2023
Changing fashions are good for us
A small band of dyspeptic commentators runs about on the English-languag Internet, decrying various aspects of modernity as having lost touch with the supposed beauty of the past. Under anonymous handles, they point to small samples of art and architecture from the present, selectively lining them up agsinst small samples of historic works, or just point vaguely at great past achievements and weigh them against a vague assumption that people today are too lazy or unambitious to match up. ■ It would all be amusing in an anachronistic way -- like someone who refuses to watch any movie filmed in color -- if it weren't so very likely that the accounts putting on their holy war against modernity weren't serving a truly backwards ideology. ■ The problem is that it is so easy to tap into a human instinct to mistake ornamentation for beauty. If something looks elaborate, it often looks like it required a lot of work, and that seems to appeal to a basic human instinct. ■ But ornamentation isn't equivalent to quality. The Las Vegas Strip is chock-full of ornamentation, but nothing there is permanent, nor is it classically beautiful. It is merely decorated. Lavishly decorated, but that is all. ■ Human tastes change, both individually and at scale. That's a blessing, not a curse. The architecture of skyscrapers alone has gone through at least four major schools since World War II. ■ Some looks have endured. Others have not. But ornamentation hasn't really made any lasting difference, any more than wallpaper can salvage a poorly laid-out room. Fully valid schools of thought have idealized the simplification of design, from Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School of architecture to the Streamline Moderne design movement to Internationalism in tall buildings. ■ What makes the Internet commentators so troubling is the ease with which they seek to recruit people to a broad and unsubstantiated dissatisfaction with the modern world. It's a very old playbook -- representing the modern as corrupt or bereft of "true" beauty, needing replacement by a revival of "traditional" beauty -- which, suspiciously, is always defined by what its advocates oppose. ■ It's gross and backwards, but more significantly, it invites alliances with those seeking conscripts to a war against this straw-man of "modernity". The most important tradition is the continuous evolution of human tastes and standards to match the new things we've learned. Human civilization must conserve what works, while adapting to change and adopting what works better than what came before.
Kit Yates: "I'm sorry, but you can't *always* be experiencing a higher volume of calls than average. That's not how averages work." ■ Come to think of it, has anyone ever been told, "We will be connecting your call without delay, because we are experiencing a lower volume of calls than average"?
January 20, 2023
Major layoffs at Google and Microsoft
Large technology companies have been laying off a lot of workers over the last three or four months, with Microsoft and Google together releasing 22,000 workers in the last week. Those are large numbers for two of the most dependable blue-chip firms in the technology business, and the announcements certainly give people reason for concern. ■ "Layoff" is a word we should always treat with caution. It's a euphemism, and not a very good one at that. Yet we don't have a good alternative word to convey an essential connotation to the act: A layoff is the employer's fault, not the employee's. It's not a release for cause nor for underperformance. And it's an involuntary departure on the part of the worker. Layoffs happen because something has gone wrong at the strategic level of the company. ■ Jobs in high technology often seem like they ought to be beyond the reach of those kinds of ebbs and flows. A business degree or a tech-friendly computer or scientific degree are often seen as virtual guarantees of employability. But they, too, are obviously not immune from economic forces beyond the employee's control. ■ For all the debate that has raged around college debt and which majors are or are not "worthwhile", the best solution is probably for every student capable of the challenge to go after a double major. One major from a practical field, and one from the liberal arts. The former should make the graduate productive, the latter should make them adaptable. ■ That adaptability is going to be all the more important over time. If even the big growth industries (like high technology) are going to be susceptible to big shifts, while others (like journalism) can find themselves in employment freefall, it's only responsible to try to send graduates into the world with both the tools they will need in the short run as well as the ones that will keep them from becoming hidebound in the long term. ■ Changes are coming for most workers, and often the worst of those changes will come through no fault of their own. You could have done all the right things in becoming an automotive engineer starting in 1993 and not have foreseen that electric vehicles would someday decimate the need for your kind of high-skill work. Preparing people to earn an honorable living, both now and in the future, is a challenge for every educational institution to show they're capable of meeting.
UNI and DMACC to offer AA-to-BA accounting program in Des Moines
Three cheers for this development, which is great news for "place-bound" learners -- people who can't just pick up and move somewhere else to start or finish a degree. UNI has a very highly-regarded accounting program, and Des Moines is a city where lots of them can be put to good use. Getting people who might have limited choices otherwise on a path towards a high-demand career through a reputable in-state university is a great development in serving the public.
Bryan McGrath on the ongoing saga of classified documents found where they do not belong: "Over-classification is a problem, but it is not THE problem. THE problem is people who think the rules do not apply to them."
It's hard to believe just how long some of the misdirections and fibs that parents tell their kids go on to linger in the child's mind. Always tell kids the truth. Someday you'll be old and mystified by a cultural development or some advanced form of technology, and you'll want your offspring to give it to you straight. They'll remember if you messed with them for your own amusement when they were kids and they'll be within rights to serve up their revenge cold.
January 19, 2023
And in an effort to get them, the country's defense department has produced a video with all the throwback flavor of a 1992 Chevrolet truck ad. Is this public diplomacy? Yes. Is this defense policy? Yes. Is this postmodern comedy? Oh yes. Is this absolutely brilliant? Beyond question, yes.
Sometimes a difference is just a difference
Someone, somewhere, has apparently labeled it "energy privilege" if a person doesn't need quite as much sleep as other people. The appellation is probably just one person's weird way of trying to make a point, but it's not the first time someone has slapped the "privilege" label on something where it plainly does not apply. Sometimes differences among people are just differences. Framing every difference in terms of power structures only dilutes the meaning for those cases where "privilege" actually does apply. Words matter.
Shovel using the herringbone pattern
If you're in a place where you must shovel snow (and don't have a snowblower or face a snow type that isn't appropriate for one), then you must learn the herringbone approach: Shovel straight down the middle of the driveway to clear a walking path. Then, shovel diagonally outwards from that centerline, pushing downhill. It minimizes the amount of wasted energy and general shoveling ennui.
Lovely Art Deco illustrations from a 1930 high school yearbook
The artist was quite talented; the style should make a comeback
January 18, 2023
The past just isn't what it used to be
Gauzy reminiscences about the past are easy to find. There's never been a shortage of people willing to wax poetic about whatever they consider the "good old days". But it's worth training ourselves to dismantle the flawed arguments (and they are almost always flawed) by realizing that although human progress is anything but linear, it has many incentives to keep improving in the aggregate, even if certain creature comforts are lost along the way. ■ Take, for example, the fawning over the supposedly glamorous days of regulation-era air travel. When airlines were told that they couldn't compete on price, it's no surprise that they turned to competing on accoutrements, like the quality of in-flight dining. Between some hazy recollections by grandparents and the yellowing pages of carefully-staged magazine ads from the time, it's easy to get the impression that something has been lost in today's era of bags of tiny pretzels and Biscoff cookies. ■ But even setting aside the really important differences -- like the vast improvements that have come about in both affordability and safety since deregulation in 1978 -- the in-flight experience today is markedly better, even if you're one of the few who wishes smoking were still allowed onboard. ■ To be fair, the basic coach seat is smaller than its predecessor. (Anyway, for those to whom seat size is a priority, there's always the upgrade to business class, by whatever name it is found. Everyone else just implicitly chooses to pay less and endure the smaller seat.) But once stationed in the seat, the modern traveler has, for one thing, infinitely more choices than in the past. ■ It wasn't that long ago that in-flight entertainment was limited to perhaps ten channels of audio, a mediocre in-flight magazine, a well-worn copy of the Skymall catalogue, and (for the lucky passengers) a pre-selected in-flight movie. Now, even the passenger sitting in the very last row next to the lavatory more often than not has the option to watch or listen to an unlimited range of content. Airlines generally offer free WiFi for a broad array of streaming services (and the savvy traveler already knows to download some preferred content before departure). Seatbacks now often include not just power outlets, but also device holders to make the viewing experience more convenient. ■ We have migrated away from the one-size-fits-all model that used to predominate (with a single in-flight movie shown on unreliable projection screens that were too close for those sitting right behind a bulkhead and too far away for almost everyone else) and towards virtually infinite customization. Giving everyone almost exactly what they want is vastly better than giving everyone the same milquetoast offering. ■ Entertainment is only one aspect of the total experience, of course, and not every aspect has gotten better. But over time, the system has optimized around those things people actually care about the most, not what they merely say they want. You can still get carved roast beef when you're traveling, but it will generally involve ordering from a sit-down restaurant inside an airport terminal between connections. ■ Anytime we are presented with an over-simplified assessment of reality that assumes the best about the past while dismissing the state of the present, it's worth remembering that the reality we inhabit today is the result of an evolutionary process shaped by the past. Not all things that are worth keeping survive, and not all things that survive are truly worth keeping. But in general, the burden of proof ought to be on the upon those who argue that something different than the present state is what's worth keeping, equally whether they think there is progress yet to be made or that the progress achieved thus far ought to be rolled back.
Microsoft is cutting 5% of its workforce
A non-trivial aspect of this news: "Microsoft’s workforce expanded by about 36% in the two fiscal years following the emergence of the pandemic, growing from 163,000 workers at the end of June 2020, to 221,000 in June 2022." That doesn't make the cuts hurt less for anyone among the laid-off, but it does go some way towards indicating whether this is really evidence of an existential risk to the company.
January 17, 2023
Ukraine's train chief says they're running 96% on time
How can you not cheer for a people so determined to make things work like ordinary, despite a brutal war being waged against them?
China's government doesn't get demographics
Something to remember next time anyone tries to tell you the Communist Party has grand plans to do X, Y, or Z. Despite holding the unchecked coercive power of the state, they couldn't work out the basic arithmetic of human procreation until this was already inevitable.
Too many people obsess over replicating past architecture
Imagine the horror when they discover that modern office buildings have things like ergonomic chairs inside, rather than a Louis XIV chair within every cubicle.
January 16, 2023
Which TV stations have the longest affiliate relationships?
At least for a good share of the Upper Midwest, WHBF in the Quad Cities is the record-holder as the television station with the longest stretch holding the same channel number, call sign, and network affiliation. It's been the same (Channel 4, carrying CBS programming) since 1950. That would be a long relationship in any business -- maybe some implement dealers and insurance agencies have gone on with their principal producers longer, but not many. ■ That longevity raises a question worth pondering: How much will affiliation ties matter to media outlets in the years to come? Radio stations once proudly trumpeted their network relationships, but that has faded into almost complete obscurity as once-renowned names like Westwood One and NBC Radio Network have become identities in name only with no connection to their past incarnations, and networks like the storied Mutual Broadcasting System have gone defunct entirely. ■ Television networks still have brand identities (driven in no small part by their newsgathering arms), but it's becoming increasingly important which streaming service carries a program than which network. Finding NBC programs on Peacock versus Hulu may be more relevant to many viewers than identifying the network with a local channel number. ■ This transition, from placing lots of weight on institutional and team identities to placing relatively little, is evident throughout media. Newspaper and magazine columnists have far less incentive to remain loyal to their institutions when there's always the option to strike out on their own, possibly for much greater compensation. In the light of extraordinary downsizing at publications both big (like the Chicago Tribune) and small (like the St. Cloud Times), being a career institutionalist may no longer remain an option. ■ Local radio and television personalities, pushed by management to "build audience engagement" via social media and other outreach, may find that their affiliation with a local station is best used mostly as a springboard to other high-profile occupations (a choice for which they can hardly be blamed, given the dismal state of the broadcasting job market). ■ Longevity is still to be admired, to be certain. When someone can last 40 years at one outlet, it's worth recognition and applause. But something is decidedly different in the media from what it was just a decade or two ago, and the macro-scale forces seem aligned to keep it that way for a while to come, at least unless and until consumers grow so weary of trying to follow their favorite content producers in so many places (and under so many subscriptions) that they reconstitute themselves into bundles much like the old ones -- albeit perhaps more digital this time around.
Tornado warning for Johnson County -- in January
Late-morning thunderstorms. Tornadoes by afternoon. It's an extreme outlier for Iowa weather in January.
January 15, 2023
Chances are good that when her identity as a political figure has passed, Condoleezza Rice will be regarded as one of the most valuable thinkers to emerge from the contemporary age. It's hard for people to dissociate her from her roles as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, who is not a neutrally-regarded figure even now. But it's worth trying. ■ Rice has taught and written since leaving government service, and her 2017 book, "Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom", has particular resonance in the present. Inside, Rice warned that "In today's interconnected world, the creeping and subtle authoritarianism of illiberal elected leaders is a greater threat to democracy than if they were to crush it with tanks in the city square." ■ Given what just happened in Brazil, with a failed apparent coup attempt, and what could of course happen elsewhere, it's timely to remember that adherence to rules and norms is essential to keeping elections within the boundaries of intellectual disagreement. The contest of ideas must be kept from coming to literal blows, and the provocateur shouldn't have a veto against any democracy, no matter how young. ■ The former Secretary of State also noted, "America's Founding Fathers understood that liberty was the necessary condition for citizens to find fulfillment. It is not, however, sufficient." No form of government would be worth its salt without a commitment to liberties, but liberties have to coexist with democratic processes and with civic responsibilities if they are to endure.
Civilian housing isn't a legitimate war target
Ukraine says at least 25 people were killed by a Russian missile attack against an apartment building in Dnipro. If it happened in a country at peace, this would be labeled instantly as an act of terrorism. Russia's deployment of the corrosive, relentless terror of war will be a stain on its history a century from now.
January 14, 2023
Seva Gunitsky, a professor of political science, shares the pithy and cutting observation that "Every generation, upon reaching middle age, begins to see the world around them in decline as a way to habituate themselves to their own decay." It's hard to find fault with Gunitky's hypothesis; history is cluttered with variations on a theme of "Kids these days are terrible", yet most of the meaningful measures of human welfare have trended toward the good for centuries -- and the pace of improvement on many measures is accelerating. ■ Something has to explain the gap between perception and reality, and the dread of one's own decline may well be it. Notable are the exceptions to the pattern, who have recorded their faith that perhaps the kids will indeed be all right. Benjamin Franklin was one of those; he offered the reassurance that "[D]iscretion did not always accompany years, nor was youth always without it." ■ The pessimist, for instance, looks at censorial behavior on college campuses and concludes that the young are bound to turn themselves stupid and servile. These critics may be right to recognize that a learning environment, by design, cannot be made free of uncomfortable exchanges, and that a robust dialogue about meaningful questions (of the kind we easily associate with the idea of "going to school") will invariably push some people out of "safe spaces". ■ The optimist, though, looks at the environment and concludes that the behavior that gets people labeled as "snowflakes" could be attributed much more charitably. Youthful eagerness to behave more inclusively and with greater sensitivity to the identities of others probably deserves to be regarded as a sign that society at large is becoming wiser and more open. But the perpetual hazard of eagerness is that of overreach. ■ In so many cases, the youth-driven movements that are prone to taking things too far are crying out for the guiding hand of those who have seen pendulum swings in the past. That takes a balance between openness to the new and a leavening sense of caution about how to put the new into practice. ■ The human world is only rarely in decay, but it can be disorienting when new ideas are adopted with inexperienced "drivers" at the wheel. It may not always be obvious (even to them), but young people with big ideas are often , if not usually, in search of guidance about how to enact the changes they desire. To the extent that their ideas contain even the germ of a good thing, it's important to avoid reacting as though all change is suspect, and to instead ask "How much of this would really be a good thing, and how can we help shape how (and how much of) it comes into being?"
January 13, 2023
Never read too much into anyone's assessment of culture that assumes consistent behavior across large numbers of people. But don't be surprised, either, when common patterns emerge in the data describing people in large groups. Take, for instance, the amusing case of a poll asking people of Generation X and older whether they take and share "selfies" on social media. ■ The answer -- after nearly 2,000 votes and 20,000 views -- was that for every person who said "I take a lot and share a lot", there were 88 who said "Rarely or never". Nobody ought to read too much statistical rigor into a self-selected set of responses to a poll on Twitter, but that's an extreme imbalance that would seem to be hard to fake. ■ And it's an extreme imbalance that wouldn't seem likely among younger generations. The presence of self-image (and images of the self) presented online are of such importance to some youth that the Seattle Public Schools have sued social media companies -- Facebook parent company Meta, Snapchat, TikTok, and Google-owned YouTube, among others. ■ The school district paints the social-media tools as a public nuisance with contributory responsibility for a crisis in mental health in their state. Whether the suit has merit will be up to the legal system to decide, hopefully with fairness and sobriety. ■ But the very act of initiating such a case shows that the schools realize there is a lot to teach those young people, and there isn't a lot of foundational work to build from. Whether it's called "digital citizenship" or "digital literacy" or something else, there's no hiding from the need to communicate skills and behaviors to the students in the classroom. That's especially the case if the people of, say, their parents' generation are 88 times more likely to avoid taking selfies than sharing them. Adults need to put in lots of extra effort to make sure that their reactions are prudent, not just impulsive.
Of the various named weather phobias, iridophobia seems the least necessary. Who fears the rainbow?
RFE/RL opens new office in Latvia
Whatever further cements the broadcaster's presence in the region is probably for the good
January 11, 2023
When faced with a complex problem and limited access to the truth, a sound course of action is to look at the flow of resources. It's easy to increase the supply of rhetoric -- talk is cheap, after all. But the truth is usually found in the actual commitments that people make with resources that are scarcer than mere words. ■ It is credibly believed that Russia has drafted 300,000 men into the military since late October, and in some corners, it is believed that another 500,000 may be called up soon. ■ Pressing 800,000 conscripts into service to fight a war would be an enormous commitment under any circumstances. For comparison, the Allies in World War II committed 160,000 troops to invade Normandy on D-Day. That operation was enormous in its own right, and it ultimately resulted in victory on the European continent. What the Allies sought to do on D-Day was just and righteous, and Eisenhower rightly grieved the lives lost. ■ But sending five times that number to fight a mad war of aggression against Ukraine is a dreadful confirmation of something Dwight Eisenhower wrote after WWII. Eisenhower noted, "Americans assess the cost of war in terms of human lives, the Russians in the over-all drain on the nation." Many of those whom Russia will send into action will be killed or injured. Many others will be be damaged or broken by the experience, likely to return home with new demons or worse. Russia would be making an extremely large and hazardous gamble with its own domestic future by taking such a risk, to say nothing of its appalling crimes against the people of Ukraine. ■ Someday, we will know the resolution of the Kremlin's awful war. Perhaps it will mark a historical low point and the last moment before a peaceful liberalization, with Russia's present autocrat deposed and the country on a path towards economic and political harmonization with the free world. It happened in (West) Germany, after all. ■ But for now, we can only try to recognize what patterns are being repeated, and Russia's leadership is making choices that show no moral growth over the ones its dictators made eight decades ago. It's troubling enough that the people of a peaceful neighbor are being forced to suffer from an unjust invasion. It compounds the tragedy to imagine that Russia's soul may emerge even sicker at the end than it started.
FAA clears air traffic to resume again
Things got stopped by a serious computer system outage. It's like we keep having all of the technological breakdowns that we were warned were going to happen on Y2K.
January 10, 2023
Who owns the access to your ears?
January 6, 2023
A certain level of mayhem is probably inherent to the lower houses of most democratically-elected legislatures. Anyone who thinks legislative hijinks are an exclusively American phenomenon needs to spend some time watching the Prime Minister's Questions from the British Parliament (or just a super-cut of former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow screaming "Order!" at his colleagues). ■ That doesn't make the marathon to elect a Speaker of the House any less embarrassing, but it does raise a point worth considering. The United States House of Representatives hasn't grown since 1929, even though our current population (at 334 million) is approaching three times the roughly 122 million it was then. The House wouldn't really have to triple in size to be more appropriate, but it really must be made larger than it is. ■ The Founders imagined much more representation than we put to use now. In Federalist Paper No. 56, either Hamilton or Madison wrote that "[I]t seems to give the fullest assurance, that a representative for every thirty thousand inhabitants will render the latter both a safe and competent guardian of the interests which will be confided to it." We're at a representative for about every three-quarters of a million people today. Enlarging the membership of the House to come into line with a principle like the Cube Root Law might have merit for a number of reasons. ■ First, in shrinking the population of the average Congressional district, we would make it easier for individual voters to have access to their representatives. Smaller districts would also, quite likely, be easier to win with relatively smaller campaign budgets (thus diminishing the much-hated influence of money in politics). Smaller districts might also discourage the sort of gerrymandering which Americans have learned to hate. ■ But a bigger House could also do two favorable things regarding the qualities of its members. First, a broader population could well have the effect of drawing in people from a wider range of occupational and other backgrounds -- we don't have many engineers or computer programmers in Congress, and maybe we should have a few in a technologically sophisticated world. ■ Second, a bigger House of Representatives should tend to dilute the power of individual cranks. Any given sample of a hundred or more people is likely to contain a few bad actors. But if we generally trust the public to select away from nuts, then their relative impact should be lessened if the individual bad apples who get through the process are diluted among many other more-normal individuals. ■ Notably, expanding the House of Representatives would be an almost frictionless way to make the Electoral College more proportional, since a larger number of electoral votes assigned via House seats would reduce the relative weight of electoral votes arising from Senate seats. No Constitutional amendments or National Popular Votes required -- just a statutory change. ■ And the cost of adding House members would be trivial; each member's office costs about $2 million a year, between salaries and the operating expenses of their offices. Adding members would barely move the needle from a budgetary perspective, since the same number of constituents could be served by more or less the same number of offices and staffers who serve them now. ■ Expanding the House wouldn't solve every problem, but it does have the potential to mitigate some of the chamber's most unflattering aspects. In the past century, the country's population has nearly tripled, and our national problems have grown in complexity by a factor of much more than three. Holding steady at the same number of Representatives who served when Calvin Coolidge was President is only a way to invite tiny factions to hold everyone else hostage.
January 5, 2023
For as much as people wisecrack about living in a "post-truth" era, human beings haven't really surrendered our basic impulse to try to grasp a sense of what's really happening in the present moment. We are social creatures, and being social requires knowing what other people are doing, thinking, and feeling. If someone in a crowd suddenly turns and points at something overhead, it's a sure thing that almost everyone else will turn and look, too. ■ That is the essential attraction of news: News is whatever materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Lots of other things try to masquerade as news, but many "also-rans" in the world of news coverage are merely items of information or documentation of events. ■ In the free world, we often voluntarily subject ourselves to non-news because it has entertainment value. There are not actually four hours of news contained in one "Today" show. There's a little bit of news, and then a lot of other stuff. But people like to watch, so on it goes into its 71st year. ■ Americans generally have the luxury of taking news less than seriously. But people elsewhere aren't so fortunate. The United States invested in international broadcasting throughout the Cold War as a means of achieving public diplomacy -- reaching people living under Communism, so that they could learn what their governments wanted to suppress. ■ Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are good at filling "news" time with non-news; witness the fawning domestic coverage of North Korean autocrats, the propagandistic efforts of China's CCTV, or the utterly distressing content being broadcast by Russian state television. But people living under those regimes still need and deserve to be told the truth. ■ Taxpayers in the United States should be proud to fund outlets like the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and other arms of the US Agency for Global Media. In seeking to tell the truth and report on what legitimately matters as news, especially in places where that coverage is inconsistent or even prohibited by local authorities, these outlets serve a vital purpose for building a better world. ■ Reality is the best friend of liberty; people who know the truth don't voluntarily choose to be oppressed. People can generally sense when they're being told lies, but that isn't the same as being told the truth. America has taken our international broadcasting agencies for granted for too long. In a complicated world with altogether too many bad actors eager to deny people their natural freedoms, the cost of making sure people can get real news everywhere is a small price to pay.
January 4, 2023
Unless changes are made this year to the nation's intellectual-property laws, Disney is set to lose the copyright protection on "Steamboat Willie", the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoon, next year. It doesn't mean you'll be able to slap mouse ears on your corporate logo in 2024, but the enormous sway Disney has held over copyright law is in no small part due to the enormous significance placed on Mickey Mouse as a cultural icon. ■ Yet, for as sentimental as people get about Mickey Mouse, the most American of all cartoon characters will forever be Bugs Bunny. A canonical rule in Bugs Bunny cartoons is that he never starts a fight. Someone else is always the antagonist: Elmer Fudd on a hunting adventure, Daffy Duck seeking to cheat his way to security, or Marvin the Martian out to destroy Earth. Bugs Bunny's job is to outwit his adversaries -- sometimes humiliating them in order to put them in check -- but never to start a fight. ■ America hasn't always held to that same canonical rule, but we generally aspire to it. And there is no time like the present to revisit the Bugs Bunny doctrine. ■ The United States has become by far the largest material supporter of Ukraine (in absolute terms), not because we desired to engage in any kind of fight, but because Russia initiated an unprovoked war of aggression against what a majority of Americans recognize was a victim state. Drawn into supporting a fight not immediately related to our self-interest, Americans overwhelmingly still see that there is a right side and a wrong side to the war, and that supporting the right side remains our duty. ■ Likewise, we have no interest in starting a fight in the South China Sea or anywhere else in the Pacific. But if China is going to engage in wildly unsafe behaviors like attempting to intimidate American pilots by flying too close in international airspace, then by no means should the United States back down from asserting its right to maintain a global footprint. ■ It may seem quaint or even silly to enlist a cartoon character as a metaphor for a nation's security posture, but it's entirely apt. America has little or nothing to gain from initiating fights with Russia, China, or any other country. Our long-term prosperity and welfare have benefitted from a well-ordered world peace and vibrant international trade. ■ This is no time to be picking fights among great powers (or even among lesser ones). But if other powers are going to start fights, we have to bring our cleverest ideas for direct and indirect deterrence to the fore: Backing down only invites further provocation. It is costly to remain strong: $1.6 trillion was the bill in fiscal year 2022. ■ We should gladly prefer to spend that money on almost anything else. But that's not the choice we are presented, nor is it in our self-interest to look the other way as others undermine a more peaceful order. We should remain congenitally opposed to engaging in a fight unless provoked, but no one anywhere should doubt American commitment to supporting partners and putting antagonists in their place. That doesn't always call for punching them directly in the nose -- but it does require that the outcome of any spat never be in doubt.
January 3, 2023
The House of Representatives is formed by the Constitution in Article I, Section 2 -- prior to the Supreme Court (Article III), the Senate (Article I, Section 3), or the Presidency (Article II) -- and should accordingly be expected to act as the primary locomotive of the entire Federal government. And it is having trouble selecting a leader. On three separate ballots of its first day in session, the House delivered no candidate a majority of the votes for Speaker. That hasn't happened in a century. ■ The Speaker of the House is named by the Constitution before the Chief Justice or the President; so foundational is the job supposed to be. It has always been a political job, of course. But while the Chief Justice must be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and the President must be chosen through the Electoral College, the House is free to choose whomever it wants to serve as Speaker. ■ This raises an interesting thought exercise: How might things run differently if the House, which is so narrowly divided on party grounds that the swing votes could fit in a Kia Sportage, chose a fair-minded outsider as Speaker? ■ Justin Amash, who not long ago left the House, has offered himself as an outside candidate for the job. His would be an unlikely candidacy, for sure -- he already bears deep partisan scars from his time in office. But he does make the valid point that Congress needs some process reforms to function better: Unencumbered bills, committee order, and an open amendment process. ■ America would probably benefit from having a charismatic technocrat as Speaker of the House: Someone likable, a bit nerdy, earnestly committed to fairness, and above all, obsessed with the long-term good of the House as an institution. We have people like that in America; many of them are former governors, including several Republicans. ■ It's extremely unlikely to happen, of course, bordering on the impossible. But given the small group of holdouts keeping the Republican majority from electing their presumptive candidate, it wouldn't take that many Democratic votes to put a mild-mannered technocrat into the role, if mainstream Republicans could find a consensus outsider to put forward. Could the House of Representatives function like a world-class deliberative body with someone like Mitch Daniels or Rick Snyder holding the gavel? Perhaps in a parallel universe somewhere, they're about to find out.
January 2, 2023
Let every new year find you better
Benjamin Franklin, a person of legendary self-regard, offered sterling advice in his 1755 edition of Poor Richard's Almanack: "Be at War with your Vices, at Peace with your Neighbours, and let every New-Year find you a better Man." Franklin's advice isn't why people form New Year's Resolutions today (it's a practice that predated Franklin by thousands of years), but his words have undoubtedly contributed to cementing the practice in the general American vernacular. ■ The problem with New Year's resolutions isn't the quest for self-improvement, but rather their widely-cited rate of failure. "Happy Planet Fitness Day for all those who celebrate", teased one Anthony DeRosa on Twitter as his clock struck midnight to welcome the new year. Gym memberships spike in January, but decay has usually wiped out the gains by April. ■ Gym membership isn't the only marker, of course; about 40% of Americans make New Year's resolutions, and they're not all about pumping iron. Quitting bad habits, managing money better, and eating more wisely are all popular choices. ■ The problem with turning a single event each year into the moment to turn over a new leaf is that the high rate of failure only discourages people from undertaking self-improvement in ways that will work. There's clearly some survivorship bias at play in the figures that say two-thirds of people will keep their resolutions all year; the people who don't keep this year's resolutions will be less likely than the successful ones to make new resolutions next year. ■ Franklin himself built a whole system for keeping his own resolutions under the lofty title of a "plan for attaining moral perfection". It was his tacit acknowledgment that resolving to do something once is incomplete without deliberate follow-up. If we really value self-improvement (which we should), then resolutions ought to burrow their way deeper into the culture. ■ The idea of the New Year's resolution gets perpetuated because it's easy to remember when to make it, and it gives us something common to talk about. But more effective than one ambitious list of resolutions to uphold starting January 1st would be six discrete resolutions, taken up one at a time, every two months. In other words, a single New Year's resolution, then another on March 1st, on May Day, on July 1st, on September 1st, and on November 1st. ■ Resolutions are often about habits, and no magic rule exists for how long it takes to form a habit. But some research suggests that the median length of time to make a behavior into a habit is 66 days, or just a smidge longer than two months. Thus it would probably make us better if the people who talk about New Year's resolutions around January 1st (news reporters, radio and podcast hosts, self-help advisors, and others) were to revive the question two months later and ask, "What's your March 1st resolution?", then again every two months after that. ■ Higher-frequency, lower-stakes resolutions would be great cultural achievements, if we could make them as routine as the nature of changing sports seasons. The philosopher Maimonides wrote, "[H]e should attend to the defective moral habit in himself and continually seek to cure it, for a man inevitably has defects." The wisdom is in the word "continually". But it is often easier to undertake something new if others are trying, too. The lesson to take away from Franklin and Maimonides alike is that people need more on-ramps for that trying.
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