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April 18, 2021

The United States of America What is "infrastructure"?

Rep. Peter Meijer's sardonic take on the abuse of the word "infrastructure" is that "Respecting the meaning of words is infrastructure." And he's not wrong about that -- words have meaning, and they matter. ■ It's too easy to dismiss "words matter" as a cliche. Yet our entire legal system depends upon the written word -- not oral history, not personal impressions, not interpretive dance. The conflict over how to interpret the words of the past in light of the present is perhaps the central dispute in American jurisprudence: Do the words of the law mean what they meant when they were first written down? As the language changes over time, do the standards set by the words evolve, too? Do intentions matter most, or do dictionaries? ■ Those are big debates, and they are not amenable to unanimous assent. If they were, we could long ago have resolved whether an Equal Rights Amendment would shore up rights that are not clearly guaranteed for women -- or if they were already guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Or, further still, whether "all men" meant "all humans" when the words were used to declare independence. ■ It should be self-evident that we need to seek common linguistic ground if we are to have any kind of productive political speech and debate. And common ground requires everyone to hold themselves to a kind of linguistic precision that isn't always practiced in places where words are constrained (e.g., by a 280-character limit or by a 2-minute video news package). ■ Americans ought to start crusading for common definitions when it comes to spending debates, where matters ought to be at their clearest. For instance, it's easy to find people who use the phrase "Health care is a human right". That's an imprecise and ultimately counterproductive use of language. As it was well-stated by neurosurgeon Philip Barlow in the British Medical Journal in 1999, "A human right is a moral right of paramount importance applicable to every human being." Health care, by contrast, is a universal need. ■ The language of the debate matters: A human right is a thing which cannot be denied and to which every person has an inalienable claim. A universal need is a thing which must be produced from limited resources, and the allocation of which can place people in conflict. We can't resolve the imbalance between the number of Covid-19 vaccines produced and the number demanded by calling the vaccine a "human right". We can only make up the shortfall by figuring out how to produce and distribute more doses, and that is a question of tangible, measurable inputs and outputs. ■ The same kind of definitional discipline should apply to words like "infrastructure", too. Other things, like child care, may be worthy of consideration, funding, and debate -- but if it doesn't involve aspects like engineering or construction, it really doesn't fit a universally acceptable definition of infrastructure. We know what infrastructure is from its root words: The underlying stuff that supports everything else. Other worthy things shouldn't be shoehorned into a definition that doesn't fit. They either need to stand on their own definitions, or they need new names that describe more precisely what they do. ■ If we're truly interested in bipartisan consensus, perhaps we ought to issue a copy of Strunk & White to every household in America. That, at least, might start the process of talking about things with common definitions.

April 17, 2021

Health Bring back lapel ribbons (just this once)

For the moment, people who are vaccinated wear masks to show solidarity. Some may call it performative, but until it's easily evident whether someone has been vaccinated, there's going to be some remaining unease on the part of those who haven't been fully vaccinated yet -- or those who cannot, like the immuno-compromised and children who are not yet eligible. Until the pandemic is actually stopped (and, since it's a completely global event, that's going to be a while), some behaviors are going to serve signaling functions well past the time they serve their primary epidemiological functions. Some kind of button, pin, or ribbon would be a fine way to indicate one's vaccination status if and when mask requirements ease. Vaccine supply is already outpacing demand in some American communities. It's going to take sustained social signaling to nudge the numbers higher.

Threats and Hazards Terrorists should be prosecuted

That includes anyone who set foot inside the US Capitol building on January 6th, or who engaged in violence outside it.

Weather and Disasters Snow in the south, none in the north

One of those situations where the normal rules are reversed -- better chances of snow in the south, lower chances in the north. Either way: April snow is a bear.

April 16, 2021

Aviation News France considers plan to ban short-haul domestic airline travel

The parliament approved a rule to abolish short flights that could also be made by rail in less than 2.5 hours, as part of a broader bill about climate change. ■ Assuming that the "distance" tool on Google Maps is telling the truth, all points within mainland France are within 700 miles of one another...as the crow flies. But the road trip from Brest (in the northwest) to Nice (in the southeast) is almost 900 miles long, suggesting that there's some meaningful inefficiency in getting around the country via overland methods. ■ France does possess a high-speed rail option: the famed TGV. As a representative trip, the TGV will get you from Brest to Paris much faster than driving (perhaps 6 hours by road and 4.5 by rail), but it'll still take much longer than 2.5 hours. That's for a distance of a little over 300 miles as the crow flies -- but more like 370 by road. ■ Thus it's hard to see how the proposal banning shorter flights would be massively restrictive. Marginally, yes, it would prohibit flights that presumably might be plausible for commercial flights. But it's likely not the kind of restriction that has much practical effect: By the Brest-to-Paris metric, the climate-related rule would only do away with trips shorter than about 175 miles. Thus, a flight from Des Moines to Omaha would be prohibited by law, but not from Des Moines to Minneapolis. At that stage, the real constraint is whether it's worth one's time to bother driving to the airport, parking, checking in, passing through security, and being there sufficiently in advance of the flight to board...and then wait. ■ France's high-speed rail network is pretty enticing -- but it appears to serve most effectively as a way to get to and from Paris. It's a hub-and-spoke model on steroids. The rest of the country is well-connected, but by slower service. Extending rail networks (especially for high-speed service) is expensive and slow work. ■ What could be interesting, though, is if the French idea ends up fueling demand in the market for electric-based air travel. Oh, yes, that day is coming. And if it facilitates the arrival of flying taxis, then so much the better. It's not as far-fetched as you might think: If we can de-carbonize air travel with battery-powered electric flight, things could change quickly for the better. Long-haul electric flight may be far outside the capacity of current technology, but short-haul electric flights have already been conducted. ■ If generated from clean sources, electricity can be quite green (we already know how to get to zero-carbon using nuclear and renewables) -- and electric motors are much simpler than combustion engines, which means less complexity and less demand for complicated maintenance. This is why serious companies like Airbus are working on small electric aircraft already. And if air taxis can fly in and out of small, under-utilized airports that already exist (like the 98 general-aviation airports in Iowa alone) and bypass the massive deadweight of security theater associated with airline travel today, their time advantages over road and rail could add up in a hurry. ■ Keep an eye on France: It might be just the right market to prove whether air taxis will be the ride of the future.

News Race for the cities

Could you confidently name the world's ten largest megacities? The UN says they are (in descending order) Tokyo, Delhi, Shanhai, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Cairo, Bombay, Beijing, Dhaka, and Osaka. Sorry, New York.

News First-grader lobbies for pockets in girls' pants

And she wins coverage in the Washington Post for doing it: As 7-year-old Kamryn Gardner argued in her letter to Old Navy, "I want front pockets because I want to put my hands in them. I also would like to put things in them." ■ As trivial as the status of kids' pants might seem, it's a question that demands an answer. What is the message to girls if their pants are decorated with fake pockets? There isn't a single defensible reason that doesn't ultimately lead back to imposing weird standards of beauty on girls, and doing so at an imprudently young age. (Come to think of it, is there even a good age at which those standards shouldn't be set by the wearers themselves?) ■ To make decorative pockets is strictly an aesthetic choice, and it's one that nobody is applying to boys' pants. So that means it's a gender-specific aesthetic choice. And more than that, it's a choice that signals one thing as "normal" (pockets are normal) and another thing as a matter of deprivation (boys get pockets they can use; girls don't). The wearer, of course, is ultimately free to put nothing in their pockets at all. ■ Pockets are useful, by definition. The more utilitarian the clothing, the more likely it contains an abundance of pockets: Scrubs come with bunches of them. The same goes for carpenter pants. And whether we like it or not, we start forming impressions from very early ages about usefulness. It's unwise to let one gender's clothing become equated -- even subliminally -- with lesser usefulness. ■ It was all the way back in 1859 that John Stuart Mill wrote, "That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time." Perhaps bland conformity is a recurring problem in human nature. But it's a delight to see that kids can recognize even the mild injustices around them, and that some of them feel good about insisting on their right to something better. ■ The kid who can call out faulty design judgments in pants today is well-equipped to recognize injustices later, and it's up to adults to cultivate and applaud that kind of spirit whenever we see it.

Health 50% of Minnesota adults have gotten vaccinated

At least with a first dose. One county is at 74%.

Business and Finance Putting a puppy in a home listing is a stroke of genius

Dogs in Zillow listings are the new cookie-scented air freshener for real estate agents. But they still don't make paying $918/square foot make sense. That's just plain crazy.

April 15, 2021

Health Public polling takes wicked turn on vaccine safety perceptions

The CDC's reaction to possible side effects from the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine appears to have dealt a non-trivial blow to public confidence in that vaccine. A poll by YouGov found that 52% of US adults considered the vaccine "safe" before the CDC recommended a pause in its use, but only 37% said it was "safe" after. ■ Putting aside for a moment how preposterously low the original 52% figure was, we really need to come to terms with a big problem of framing. There are inherent limitations to polling, to be sure. But asking a binary question like "Is this vaccine safe or unsafe?" is a disservice, because it trains people to examine important questons as though they are simple binaries. For all the good binary math does us in making digital calculations possible, we mostly make analog decisions. ■ Think of it like this: Lying in a bed full of puppies isn't completely "safe" -- maybe one of them will bite you. Dogs commonly carry germs in their saliva that could kill some humans. Yet still, on a scale rating safety with a value from 1 to 10, playing with puppies is probably a 9.95. Does the missing 0.05 make the activity unsafe? Of course not -- unless you're strictly adhering to a mindset that something is either "completely safe" or not. ■ We deal competently with gray areas, odds, and uncertainty all the time. There may be a chance of rain when you're planning to grill a steak medium-well while thinking about your fantasy baseball roster. Many of us profess to know little about math yet turn out to be very good at understanding complex conditional probabiliies when it's time to set up NCAA basketball tournament brackets. ■ We ought to use that comfort to learn not to be quite so innumerate. Public discourse needs to make room for more gray areas, and one step in the right direction would be to reject the framing that something like a vaccine ought to be labeled so simply as "safe" or "unsafe". ■ The side effect of concern with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine appears to be a potential issue with blood clots that has occurred a reported 6 times after nearly 7 million doses. To call that "extremely rare" is extreme understatement. If something bad happens once per million people per year, that's roughly on par with the odds of being struck by lightning. Prudent behavior accounts for those kinds of risks, but doesn't overreact to them: We don't live every moment inside Faraday cages; we just observe the maxim "When thunder roars, go indoors". ■ The same should apply to how we discuss matters like vaccine safety. Asking the public whether they think the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is "safe" is a lot like asking whether a blue sky with sporadic clouds is "sunny". Strictly sunny? No. But meaningfully so? Of course. If we can't acknowledge gray spaces as an ordinary fact of life, then it becomes basically impossible to distinguish when a tiny change really doesn't alter the truth. And in the case of the vaccine, supposing that a 6-in-7-million side effect were to be found consistently, that would represent a baseline change in "safety" of 0.0000882%. Put another way, you could give the vaccine to the entire population of the United States (330,000,000 people) and fewer people would suffer the side effect (around 300) than the 356 people who are currently in the ICU with Covid-19 -- just in Ohio. ■ We need to be able to see that "safe" is not only a vague term, it is wholly unhelpful in most human contexts. And though it may seem paradoxical, the best way to deal with human risks is to use more math in our language and fewer absolutes.

Computers and the Internet Canadian politician shows up naked to a (Zoom) meeting of Parliament

Remember, you can get a webcam cover for, like, 50 cents. Even in Canada.

Humor and Good News Satellite-photography nerds to the rescue

Satellite photo enthusiast deduces location of missing hiker. Hiker found by rescuers. Awesome.

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April 14, 2021

Health Caffeinate your naps

It takes a short period of time for caffeine to make its way from your drink into your bloodstream, so taking a short power nap right after taking a caffeine hit may be just the thing to maximize post-wakeup alertness. 12 minutes works for some. Napping for too long just makes most people sluggish.

April 13, 2021

Weather and Disasters Might as well be blocking out the Sun

If you're willing to take the threat of rising global temperatures seriously, then you'll want to understand the full spectrum of solutions available. As Bill Gates put it in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone: "[W]e have a real problem, and so we should pursue many solutions to the problem. Even the Manhattan Project pursued both the plutonium bomb and the uranium bomb -- and both worked!" ■ It's broadly agreed that the root cause of the problem is atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which have risen dramatically since the Industrial Revolution. As long as we keep on burning carbon-based fuels, the combustion is going to produce carbon dioxide. ■ De-carbonization is the ultimate goal -- if we perform less combustion, there ought to be commensurately less carbon dioxide produced. Animals are still going to breathe, but hypothetically, we can basically zero out artificial carbon dioxide production by converting from combustion engines to electric motors and powering those motors with energy that comes from non-carbon sources. Some emissions will still come from agriculture, but more than three-quarters of US greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation, electrical generation, and industrial use. ■ Here's the problem: The United States is already decreasing per-capita carbon dioxide emissions, and if we start combining renewable electricity with better batteries and expanded nuclear power generation, we can get to a fairly near-zero state. Expanding nuclear power generation remains a big "if" -- capacity hasn't increased in 35 years -- but serious people must take the solution seriously. But even if the USA went to zero-carbon tomorrow, China's use exploded over the last two decades, and India's use is growing. With many more people, their per-capita effects are magnified relative to the cuts the United States can make. ■ There is also the question of equity: If it's more expensive to de-carbonize (or to grow into a low-carbon advanced economy from the start), then can the willpower be found to join in an international effort that might (at least at the outset) appear to put poorer economies on a slower growth rate? Equity is even a contested matter within countries, too. ■ A "many-solutions" approach to global warming requires us to consider harm-mitigation measures on top of efforts to avoid the problem. We may be able to slam the metaphorical brakes, but the collision could occur anyway and we'll want our seat belts fastened. Bjorn Lomborg has famously argued that climate-change consequences are bad but manageable, and that we're better off investing in mitigating the effects rather than preventing it altogether. Other smart people say we have to do both, and urgently. ■ Among the ideas floated to manage the situation is the radical proposal to try geoengineering the planet to create more clouds to block the incoming sunlight. All choices tend to come with unintended consequences, but that one in particular seems fraught. Among other problems, it's quite possible that miscalculating or carrying out the geoengineering in the wrong way could actually make the problem worse. ■ After all, the idea of trapping solar heat with the help of human-made clouds is the backbone of proposals to terraform Mars to move it from "cold and uninhabitable" to "marginally Earth-like". (The technology, alas, is not in our hands yet.) But that's what clouds do -- they reflect off their tops (albedo), but they also trap existing heat. And, of course, if an experiment goes wrong high in the atmosphere, the effects could easily become global. (Again, if the consequences weren't far-reaching, they wouldn't be worth trying against a problem the size of global warming.) ■ Considering the global risk we already face from unpredictable volcanic eruptions devastating agriculture across most of the planet, it's probably best to keep geoengineering behind a glass to break only in case of the most dire emergency. Other approaches may be difficult, costly, and hard to mobilize on a planetary scale -- but they also tend not to come with a non-zero level of existential risk.

April 12, 2021

Threats and Hazards Some things matter more than attention

Jonathan V. Last concludes that we're in a precipitous state as a result of the rise of attention-seeking behavior as one of the key motivators in politics, and he's right to be worried. Yet there's still something to the idea that self-government is subject to laws that are much like gravity. As the economist Herb Stein famously said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop". ■ Antics cannot go on forever in politics -- at least, not if voters eventually want their government to be responsive. Think of one of America's worst political stunt artists: Sen. Joe McCarthy was eventually censured by his colleagues and left politically neutered until his death. ■ McCarthy's reign of terror could have gone on much longer under another system -- especially one in which the government itself behaves like an extensive criminal syndicate. China's Communist Party embraces supposed "anti-corruption" campaigns as a way to neutralize rival sources of power. They're not about fighting corruption -- they're about strangling any opposition. Under such a system, antics can go on almost indefinitely -- or at least until there's seemingly nobody left to purge. (Even in the Soviet Union, Khrushchev ultimately denounced Stalin's terroristic ways.) ■ This is not to say that stunts and bad behavior cannot go on for quite some time and do a great deal of damage in the process. The stunts can go on for years and through both direct injury and neglect can inflict serious harm -- often of a lasting variety. But within a system where voters retain control, performance art cannot substitute for results forever. In the end, a government that does not deliver finds itself involuntarily unemployed. (Sometimes, even success is rewarded with electoral defeat; see: Churchill, W.) ■ The forecast for clowns, buffoons, and stunt artists with little to offer but cable television hits cannot be any better than the forecast for those who actually do their jobs and still sometimes lose. How long the empty spectacle goes on depends upon the patience of the people paying the bills. If we're smart, we'll change the channel.

Weather and Disasters Middle-of-the-night EF-3 tornado hits Louisiana

It's hard to imagine a worse scenario than a large tornado striking a town at 2:16 in the morning.

Business and Finance Never trust an economist who doesn't own a hard hat

It may seem silly that the Federal Reserve chair has a hard hat and a high-visibility vest in his office. But in reality, it's a very good thing if the people who think about the economy have tangible ties to it. Jay Powell's accessories may be mainly ceremonial, but it's good for the people who think about the economy in the abstract to have first-hand experience with how it works in practice.

Health Progress towards mass vaccination accelerates

Per Axios: "At the current U.S. vaccination rate, all of those vaccine-enthusiastic adults could be inoculated by the end of April." It's obviously great news on one hand -- if everyone who wants one can get a vaccine dose within a matter of weeks, then we've reached an amazing milestone. But on the other hand, if the number who want the vaccine is markedly less than 100% of the entire population, then it's a symptom that we need to stimulate demand.

April 10, 2021

Threats and Hazards Boston Globe reports shocking allegations about its city's police union

"A Globe investigation has found that the Boston Police Department in 1995 filed a criminal complaint against [the former president of the police union] for sexual assault on a 12-year-old, and, even after the complaint was dropped, proceeded with an internal investigation that concluded that he likely committed a crime. Despite that finding, Rose kept his badge, remained on patrol for another 21 years, and rose to power in the union that represents patrol officers. Today Boston police are fighting to keep secret how the department handled the allegations against Rose, and what, if any, penalty he faced." ■ If true, this ought to be grounds for immediate dissolution of the union. And a massive reckoning would be overdue within the police force as well.

Weather and Disasters Satellite view of the volcanic eruption in St. Vincent

Fair to say that GOES-16 is worth every penny. The imagery includes high-resolution views of the ash from La Soufriere and the sulfur dioxide discharges.

Iowa April showers bring...April flowers

To repurpose the great philosopher Ferris Bueller: Spring moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

April 9, 2021

Health Side effects of long-term quarantining probably don't include personality change

After a year of spending far less time around other people than would ordinarily be the case for most Americans, it's natural to wonder whether all that time in quasi-quarantine is going to have an effect on our personalities. There's some reason to believe that it's going to take a little while for people to readjust to a vaccinated, somewhat-back-to-normal world, but it's unlikely that confirmed extroverts are going to become introverts or vice-versa. ■ To a great extent, we are who we are from birth. Most people are somewhere in the middle between the two extremes, anyway. Some of our traits are more mutable than others, but it's a pretty big stretch to expect one of the big five personality characteristics to be so plastic that a year of enforced isolation is going to change it. ■ There's a much better chance that people will find themselves hesitantly adapting to a complex environment for a while, but don't expect radical changes out of anyone. In the meantime, though, we're going to have strange new conversations with strangers as "How about the weather?" turns into "Which vaccine did you get?" And what's interesting about that is -- God willing -- this will be the biggest positive cultural event Americans will have shared in common since the final episode of M*A*S*H (which was seen by 77% of television-watching households and 60% of the entire country at the time). ■ Television doesn't satisfy that mass-experience feeling anymore, nor do other positive events. We barely have any synchronized cultural experiences anymore -- which is not necessarily a bad thing, since it reflects the fact that people are able to choose cultural content much more satisfying to them than books, movies, music, and television programmed for a lowest-common-denominator audience. But it does deprive us of generic things we can all talk about at the same time. "Hamilton" has been touring for half a decade, but there are still plenty of people who haven't seen it. ■ Most adults of a certain age can easily answer where they were on 9/11, but that's not the kind of subject that comes up in casual conversation. Which vaccine did you get? Now there's a question we're free to chit-chat about. And it feels especially weird to be chit-chatting again after a year of social distancing -- but it's going to be good for us.

News Remember those lost to the Holocaust

Each one was an individual, entitled to life and to dignity. The legacy of those millions of murders still has a literally measurable impact today.

Threats and Hazards Contra what the extremists say, Texas can't just secede

"[S]editions and insurrections are, unhappily, maladies as inseparable from the body politic as tumors and eruptions from the natural body [...] An insurrection, whatever may be its immediate cause, eventually endangers all government." - Federalist Paper 28

Broadcasting Johnny Carson learns the Heimlich maneuver

It's all to easy to forget that the Heimlich maneuver is a modern invention -- it only came out in the 1970s. When Carson brought informative guests onto his show, he wielded more power than ten thousand professors.

Health We're reaching the 50% vaccination mark

Typical of many places, about half of the eligible adults have gotten at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in Lincoln, Nebraska

April 8, 2021

Health 3 million shots a day

The United States is now vaccinating against Covid-19 at a pace that covers literally 1% of the entire population each day. That is a mind-boggling mobilization at scale.

News The Titanic wouldn't seem so titanic today

RMS Titanic -- so named because of her enormous size -- was 1/5th the tonnage of the biggest class of ships built for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in the modern day. The Oasis class is rated at upwards of 225,000 gross tons. Everything is relative to something.

Threats and Hazards Large riots in Northern Ireland

Disturbing news: "[P]olice are investigating whether there was any paramilitary involvement, given the level of pre-planning and orchestration. Police came under sustained attack after more than 600 people gathered at an interface between loyalist and republican areas."

April 7, 2021

Science and Technology When the lazy solution isn't the easiest solution

A scientific study of bears found that they often choose to move even slower than would be the most calorie-efficient speed, "choosing" (if they can be said to be considering the question) to be superficially lazy but unintentionally making themselves work harder. It's an intriguing insight, since warm-blooded animals ideally wouldn't want to waste valuable energy. We already burn a lot of fuel just staying warm, so anything that puts even more draw on our resources seems ultimately disadvantageous from an evolutionary perspective. If calories are precious, then why wouldn't nature select for behaviors that reduce any additional waste? That part of the insight is much more interesting than just calling them lazy, which is unfortunately the easy (some might say...lazy?) headline.

April 6, 2021

Humor and Good News Cubs to get special-edition Nike jerseys

A city with a signature attachment to Art Deco fonts, an unmistakable skyline, and the best municipal flag in America should probably get away with a most distinctive "city" jersey. (Nike already did a pretty superb job with the special Bulls jersey.)

Weather and Disasters Skywatch

Being a Midwesterner means getting a general sense for when those clouds in the sky aren't going to stay light and fluffy. It's when you get a puffy, unstable-looking layer below a higher cloud deck that you really have to take notice.

April 5, 2021

News More footnotes, please

Publishers ought to offer special editions of nonfiction books, wherein the author takes all of the content they wrote down just because they wanted them in a permanent record somewhere...and moves them to the footnotes. Nobody can deny that there is a natural "padding" effect that dominates a lot of nonfiction: If an author has gone to the trouble of researching something, they're incentivized to document what they've found, and thus into the book it goes -- even when what's been uncovered isn't all that important. ■ Reader-optimized versions of these nonfiction books would really be a grand invention. Not Reader's Digest or Blinkist versions of these books (in which an outside editor does the stripping), but rather versions where the author him/herself is charged with identifying which parts of the book really matter versus which parts are really just documentation for its own sake. ■ Documentation for its own sake isn't a bad thing, per se: The problem arises when the documentation turns what ought to be a brief work into a tome so laborious that it fails to reach the audience it deserves. Few people were better-positioned to write the history of World War II than Winston Churchill, but it's especially hard for anyone who lived an experience to leave out the details -- and that's why Churchill's series on the war takes up 5,142 pages across six volumes. Footnotes are at once the best and most under-used features of nonfiction books. They let the author come up with a "director's cut" that lets the reader see exactly what's in or out. The stuff the author labored to produce doesn't have to get kicked to the curb -- but it's only fair to the reader for the author to make the distinction. ■ Most nonfiction books could really be wrapped up in 100 to 150 pages of the real meat and potatoes. Any number of people have been attributed with variations on the quote that "I wrote a long piece because I didn't have time to write a short one", and the durability of the statement is a credit to its truth. It takes longer for an author to shave things down than to dump everything on the page the first time around. But considering how complex our world already is, and how inevitable it is that the world will become more complex, we need more readers to spend more time learning broadly about all kinds of things that matter -- and books simply cannot be beaten for their efficiency in transmitting knowledge. Footnotes would still let authors pad their books until they can meet some mystical 250-page quota or 80,000-page word count, but without exhausting readers by drowning them in minutiae. Brief, thoughtful books can say a great deal that needs to be said.

Threats and Hazards China steams an aircraft carrier past Okinawa

Nikkei Asia notes, "The movements come as the U.S. Navy intensifies cooperation with the Quad partners of Japan, India and Australia in the Indo-Pacific." But let's not mistake correlation for causality here. China's regime has certain ambitions. Cooperation among the Quad didn't create those, and it's ill-serving to try to reach a false equivalence.

News Winning the peace, are we?

Just five years after WWII was over, Japan was already a major supplier of trucks to the US Army as America pivoted to the Korean conflict. The United States still occupied Japan at the time. Considering how long we have been engaged in conflicts abroad just this century, we should be asking ourselves whether we can do better at winning the peace. Our trade with Iraq, for instance, isn't much to be impressed by.

Health Iowa opens vaccines to all adults

Time to run up the scoreboard

Iowa Iowans betting hard with online sports gambling

One of the ubiquitous video ads for these sports-betting sites comes right out and says that you'll become a more intense sports fan if you have some "skin in the game". Considering America's unimpressive record with sports-related rioting, do fans really need reasons to be more intense?

Health Pfizer data indicates 100% efficacy against severe Covid-19

These numbers are just jaw-droppingly good. It's hard to contextualize how impressive the Covid-19 vaccines are turning out to be, not just for public health but on an individual basis.

April 4, 2021

Computers and the Internet Why is policy and political reform so slow?

With all kinds of innovation taking place in the digital environment, we shouldn't neglect the ways in which our physical, real-world interactions ought to be improved, too. That very much ought to include our political systems. ■ If you find that kind of innovation lacking, you're not the only one. Notably, as the rest of our lives become more information-dense (thanks to that digital innovation), it's extremely rare to find any forms of public meetings, hearings, or other engagement that have increased any of their information density since the Cold War. Sure, we can watch Congressional hearings on C-SPAN and watch committee meetings on-demand, and that's great. Sometimes state legislatures and city councils stream their meetings, too. That's good for transparency, at least. ■ But thanks to bad PowerPoint habits and the ability to electronically dump 50- and 100-page PDFs on council and board members, we may actually have less information density in our public decision-making than in the past. A solid one-page narrative report is hard. A bad PowerPoint deck is easy. ■ Information density is under-appreciated. Anyone who really wants to increase the information-to-ink ratio in their reports ought to study "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" by the fascinating Yale emeritus professor Edward Tufte. Tufte's deconstructions of how NASA missed the bright-red warning signs that should have prevented the disastrous Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia missions are vastly important. What matters is not just how much data can be documented, but how well it is reported. ■ This is no small matter. Board and council members are exhausted by bad communication from the people who work to deliver government services. Reform can't really happen if everyone is too exhausted by the status quo. And it won't happen, either, if expert staff members aren't available to help decision-makers understand what's important and what's not. ■ Lots of people seem to pin their hopes on radical changes in politics and government. Often, much too radical. Where we really should put our attention, instead, is in going beyond the livestream and finding ways to increase the density of valuable information provided to the public and public representatives alike. Only then will we really have a framework that matches our experiences in the rest of life. It's as though we've unwittingly accepted Baumol's cost disease, but for decision-maker data. We shouldn't settle for that -- innovation shouldn't be exclusive to the digital world when there's so much real life yet to improve.

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April 3, 2021

Broadcasting "Unbundled" radio sounds a lot like full-service radio

Ezra Eeman, who works for the European Broadcasting Union (promoting public broadcasters on the continent), shared a vision of what he called "unbundled" radio -- a radio-like experience of audio programming that comes to the listener across a range of applications streamed directly to the smartphone. The most insightful part of this interesting article is the final graphic, illustrating how a person might easily consume audio from seven or more divergent sources across the day, from a news podcast to a live-streamed interview to customized music apps. ■ What's striking is how much Eeman's mockup of a personalized listening experience looks like the programming clock for what we once fondly knew as "full-service radio" here in the United States. While full-service radio is still around in a handful of places (usually in micro-sized markets where the "general store" approach still works on the air because there may only be one radio station in town), it's surprising that bigger markets haven't tried streaming it. Not broadcasting it over the airwaves -- just streaming it. ■ A never-ending stream of music alone isn't very satisfying (certainly no more than sitting by a jukebox in a bar, especially when someone else is picking all the songs). But on the other hand, the popular malcontent-with-a-mic approach to talk programming isn't very good for companionship. For as much as people repeat the trope that Rush Limbaugh "saved" AM radio, all he can be credited with doing for certain is ensuring that Americans think of speech-based radio as a genre dominated by men with an axe to grind. ■ As Eeman's article suggests, we may well be watching "the great unbundling" of radio right before our eyes, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones (and, boy, was it ever a screwup to fail to get FM receivers activated in all of those phones). But the hangup with the unbundled listener day is that curating one's own highly satisfying day-long listening experience takes...well, programming skill. Not computer programming, but audio programming. And most of us don't want to be part-time radio program directors on top of being listeners. It's quite enough to ask the individual listener to put their podcasting playlist in order, much less to schedule out listening for the entirety of a day. ■ There's still time for radio to offer more complex, richer listening experiences than "perpetual jukebox" and "shouty man". And with an infinite number of streams possible, it's really quite insane for programmers not to try. The rush to try every new live streaming service, from Twitter Live to Clubhouse to Spotify/Locker Room and inevitably more, shows that listeners are eager for an experience they aren't getting today -- one with a richness of content not adequately supplied by the incumbent sources of audio programming. It's likely to take a while for the optimal listening experience to emerge -- but it's probably not going to consist solely of pre-selected tunes, nor of mindlessly-provocative talkers. It's as good a time as any for alert radio programmers to think beyond.

April 2, 2021

News Unlovable main characters can still tell important stories

When there's a compulsion to share everything that we're reading, watching, and hearing, there's also a risk that people will jump to the wrong conclusions about what others are consuming. Sometimes it's important to read books with unlovable main characters because they are essential to telling necessary stories. Kudos to the teachers who know and practice that, even in a time when it's all too easy for parents to make a fuss over imperfect books (and certain school boards to do the same with imperfect historical figures). ■ It's too much to expect that an author writing in the early 20th Century would have been adequately sensitive to the mainstream of what we consider right today. And yet, Sinclair Lewis has much to say to people living today, with books like "It Can't Happen Here" (profoundly relevant in the shadow of Donald Trump), "Babbitt" (which speaks directly to our modern crisis of meaning), and "Arrowsmith" (which addressed the wrenching ethics of epidemiology). ■ We shouldn't look past the shortcomings of the stories our forebears wrote, and we shouldn't be satisfied with any modern curriculum or syllabus that overlooks the historically under-represented stories of people who weren't white men. Yet we also shouldn't purge imperfect works and imperfect authors and imperfect protagonists. It's important to recognize at what stages we truly do stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. The society we occupy today is evolving all the time, and whether that evolution is a positive one -- marked by growth and liberality -- depends heavily upon whether we recognize society-building as a conscious choice. Uncivilized barbarians walk among us all the time: They're called children. We have to choose to teach them (and ourselves) along the way. ■ A common mistake is imagining that we are headed for some kind of perfect end times, that some kind of perfect past can be restored (as from an idealized edition of the 1950s), or that there is some kind of utopian state that can be achieved if only the right conditions are established. The fact is that society is imperfect (and permanently imperfectible) because it's made up of people, and we ourselves are imperfect. Far better to accept the inevitability of that imperfection and in the process face up to the perpetual hard work of making both people and society better than to succumb to the false notion that if we only purge hard enough, we'll make the perfect come true.

Humor and Good News Unicode gains a dumpling icon

Some brand-new emoji are more trans-national than others.

Threats and Hazards A real creep in the halls of Congress

"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." - Calvin Coolidge

News US Marshals bring 7 missing Iowa kids home

They persevered in this important work to protect vulnerable kids, even as the Justice Department was getting kicked in the teeth almost daily for the political gain of a few.

Humor and Good News A better noodle comes forward

Three cheers for innovation in the analog world!

April 1, 2021

Broadcasting Putting a new stretch on "career"

KWWL television news anchor Ron Steele reaches his 47th anniversary at the station

March 31, 2021

Socialism Doesn't Work Do they really think this sloppy nonsense works?

China's state-run Xinhua "news" agency shares an editorial cartoon that appears to try to deflect attention from China's slave-labor abuses in Xinjiang by making a reference to the practice of slavery on cotton plantations in the United States. There are really two different things that are amazing about this episode. ■ First, this isn't just the work of someone freelancing. In places like the United States, where freedom of speech prevails, an individual can have his or her idea published in an outlet that doesn't endorse that idea. In fact, the very practice of publishing opposing viewpoints is pretty central to the idea of the op/ed page or the letter to the editor. That's just not how it goes with a state-run outlet in an authoritarian regime, and everybody knows it. Nobody just "puts an idea out there" through Xinhua. Anything they publish had to have been approved by a whole chain of people. Not just edited -- approved. ■ Second, it becomes self-evident that nobody in the entire chain of approval understands how shame works. Aside from a trivial number of extremists, nobody in America defends slavery. Far too many people still fail to get the message that we need to end racism, but you couldn't gather 100 Americans chosen at random and find even one of them to defend slavery. We're rightly ashamed of that part of our history as a nation. It's our original sin; an inexcusable crime against humanity. Even James Madison knew it was wrong to permit slavery to continue, defending his proposed Constitution in Federalist Paper 38 with the line, "Is the importation of slaves permitted by the new Constitution for twenty years? By the old it is permitted forever." In other words, "It's bad, and we shouldn't let it go on, but at least we know well enough to end it." ■ Anyone who understands how shame works would recognize that no serious person in America today rises to the defense of slavery, and any attempt to remind Americans of the practice only reminds us how abhorrent and unforgivable it was -- and is, as it is being practiced by China's ruling powers today. Loftier minds even use the reminder of our forebearers' failure to ponder the need to continue improving. Condoleezza Rice said it well: "These are the tensions and contradictions that the admirable effort to overcome our nation's birth defect of slavery and prejudice has produced. That we are still struggling with these issues today, after more than two centuries as a nation, is yet another reminder that nothing is smooth on democracy's path." We have to take pride in the effort to struggle with our failures and overcome our sins. That only makes it easier to cast an unforgiving eye on those who practice those sins today, with the full knowledge of how wrong they are.

Threats and Hazards "Patriotism checks"

China's government will require "patriotism checks" before anyone is allowed to run for office in Hong Kong. What a repugnant way for a government to behave. From the outside looking in, it sure seems like the Communist Party is willing to torch everything that made Hong Kong a gem, merely to prop up the illusion that the party is, was, and always shall be the sole rightful power in China. Heartbreaking.

Health Where are the Covid vaccination lapel pins?

It's been a few years since our last lapel-ribbon craze. How long before we're pinning different colors of ribbons on our shirts to indicate vaccination status? Green ribbons for the fully vaccinated, yellow ribbons for those waiting eagerly, and red ribbons for the vaccine refuseniks.

Broadcasting Spotify enters the live-chat game

Live audio is a pretty tough thing to get right without heavy curation. A lunatic once took over a CB channel in central Iowa, just repeating over and over: "Raisins and pancakes...pancakes and raisins."

Humor and Good News Better nursing rooms and changing stations at ballparks

A welcome sign of the times. We need to continue normalizing the idea of parenting in public.

Socialism Doesn't Work Chinese government chases BBC reporter out of the country

There is no surer sign that a regime is destined for failure than when it puts its energy into silencing bad or critical news rather than fixing it. That's exactly what China's government is doing by persecuting reporters and whistleblowers -- and it is a colossally self-defeating practice. ■ Good news can take its sweet time to bubble up, but able managers always want to get alerted to bad news as soon as possible. The sooner you know what's going wrong, the sooner you can fix it. And something is always going wrong somewhere inside a big organization, whether it's a government, a firm, or a non-governmental organization. The most important thing leadership can do about it is get the bad news fast. ■ We may complain a lot as Americans about the fact that our politicians never seem to "work together" to "solve problems", but that's driven in no small part because every vote has some marginal value, and politicians (and parties) have to compete to win those votes. Consequently, some contentiousness is baked into the cake. (That doesn't excuse incivility, of course, but voters are free to punish that, too.) ■ But the consequence of freedom within a democratic framework is that there is a built-in institutional incentive on the part of multiple groups to root out shortcomings, failures, wrongdoing, corruption, and other bad things. The Fourth Estate has that incentive. So does a loyal opposition. Civil-society groups that depend upon their reputations for fundraising purposes have those incentives, and so do institutions with interests in public policies (including religious groups). ■ Of course there's room for bipartisanship and problem solvers. America could do with less cynicism and more mutual trust and common facts. But we should never mistake our fundamentally messy, combative, and sometimes lumbering processes for getting things done for a bad thing. The complications, fighting, and naysaying are features, not bugs. Voters remain capable of rewarding the things they want at any time, and if we collectively really wanted more pragmatic, less ideological politics, then we would get them. But part of that requires sacrificing a little ideological commitment -- which, if the Chinese experience is any guide, wouldn't be a bad idea at all.

Humor and Good News Library book returns -- 50 years overdue

Who would have imagined that the person who checked out "Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook" wasn't a committed rule-follower?

Weather and Disasters 60°F temperature swings

That's pretty normal for springtime in Iowa

March 30, 2021

News Conspiracy theorists are growing exhausted

After a Presidential term dominated by the false promises of "Q", some are still hoping to see their darker imaginations realized. Some were hoping that the ship stuck in the Suez Canal was actually going to be a conduit for human trafficking, and that the ship getting stuck was merely cover for the "good guys" to sweep in. The conspiracy theorists are, of course, only bound for further disappointment. ■ That really raises questions about the psychology of belonging: On one hand, membership in organized religion and fraternal clubs is in decline. Gallup says fewer than half of American adults belonged to an organized religious group in 2020. It's never been lower in the poll's history. Regular religious attendance is even lower. Non-religious groups like fraternal organizations are in no better shape. ■ On the other had, the people clamoring for conspiracy theories are desperate to belong to something. So are the people who rush to social media to try to gain measurable approval from their peers. There is a psychological need for humans to have some kind of social membership, whether it's formally structured or not. So why are people turning to the informal channels (often found online) while abandoning the formal ones (like clubs and churches) that mainly exist in the "real world"? ■ Is it simply a matter of low barriers to entry? That it's easy to join the QAnon cult and harder to volunteer as a church usher? Is it that the formal institutions of old have failed to keep up with demands for convenience? Or have people gotten all their signals crossed, and the dopamine hit that comes from seeing clicks and likes is displacing the more durable (but less intense) sense of belonging that comes from real-world interactions? It's not just a speculative matter: People need feedback that they matter to the world, and there's no way to get that from conspiracy rabbit holes.

News We should see our fellow Americans

The New Yorker's cover art is a subtle but compelling illustration of a woman and her daughter, waiting anxiously for a subway train. Its artist says, "I wanted a gesture that was somewhere between vigilant and fearful." It isn't right that our fellow Americans should be made to feel this way. Racism deserves no place here.

Humor and Good News The ship is free, and so are the jokes

With the Ever Given set free from the Suez Canal, people are out with their jokes. ■ Political science professor Ken Schultz notes, "Bucking global trends, container ship upgraded from 'Not Free' to 'Partly Free' and then to 'Free.'" (That, naturally, raises the question whether the answer to backsliding is backhoeing.) ■ Think-tanker Shoshana Weissmann teases that "What was lost in economic output bc of the canal jam, was gained 10 fold in joy and memes". (Using a multiplier effect previously only seen used to justify public financing for sports stadiums.)

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March 29, 2021

Business and Finance Cross-ownership deal links Toyota and Isuzu in big project to develop better trucks

From the Japan Times: "Toyota, Isuzu, and Hino [a Toyota subsidiary] will set up a joint venture named Commercial Japan Partnership Technologies Corp. in April to co-develop small electric and fuel-cell trucks as well as autonomous driving technologies for such vehicles." Toyota will own the majority of the joint venture. They're also buying equal-sized stakes in one another, which is the kind of activity that would set up an circular-reference error in a spreadsheet. ■ At the press conference announcing the plan, Toyota president Akio Toyoda said, "[I]t is becoming more important not to only compete but to also cooperate." And while there are some American companies and business leaders who have said good things about selectively cooperating with competitors, it's a pretty big practice for Toyota: The company has other such deals with Mazda, Subaru, and Suzuki. ■ Why is it that Japanese companies are so comfortable with joint ventures and American companies are not? Obviously, there are differences in industrial policy (Japan has one and the United States really does not), but it can't all be attributable to the influence of MITI (the Japanese government ministry that coordinated industrial policy from the immediate post-war era until the turn of the century), can it? MITI's power waned from the 1970s onward, and there are notable Japanese industrial success stories that resulted despite the government's influence (Honda being the most recognizable one). The ministry may still be around (now as METI), but it doesn't seem like it's in the driver's seat like it once was. The Toyota/Isuzu deal is being reported as an organic development rather than a government-instigated one. ■ So, how come it's so rare to hear of American companies -- industrial or otherwise -- entering joint ventures with one another? Outright acquisitions and takeovers (hostile or otherwise) are an everyday occurrence, but not long-term agreemeents to do things hand-in-hand. The few American companies that prominently joined hands with others are themselves notable success stories: Corning, for instance, had a number of JVs, including Dow Corning and dozens of others. But Corning stands out as the exception that proves the rule. It's worth pondering: Should American business be more open to the idea of formal cooperation without resorting to the takeover? Toyota is no fly-by-night company: It's the world's largest automaker. If a practice clearly works for them, why shouldn't America take note?

Health The heartbreaking risks of unsecured guns in the home

Dr. Denise Dowd: "There's this mythical idea that you can teach kids not to want to handle a gun...You can't train or educate curiosity out of a little kid, and teenagers are impulsive, and they act without any thought to the future"

News A house with a unique motif

The first few photos of this Baltimore house listing are a bit odd and strangely monochromatic, but it's not until the viewer gets a few rooms in before it becomes clear this is one weird abode. At first, one might think, "Wouldn't it be a shock to live next door and have no idea what was going on inside until you saw this listing?" But by the time you click through to the pictures of the giant "Cemetery" and "Crypt" signs in the backyard, it's pretty clear: The neighbors already know.

Health Cardinals falling short of MLB vaccination target

They brag a lot about having the "Best Fans in Baseball", but what St. Louis apparently needs are the Best Epidemiologists in Baseball.

Weather and Disasters March 25th Alabama tornado outbreak packed a strong punch

80 miles is an eye-popping track length for a single tornado

March 28, 2021

News A 5-year-old in handcuffs

Maryland police officers dealing with an unruly child last January were caught shouting at, berating, and handcuffing the 5-year-old boy. It happened on video. He might have been a downright terrible brat, but a kindergartener is not a hardened criminal, and his treatment truly was outrageous. ■ Naturally, any discipline for the cops' behavior needs to follow due course. But there are some things one doesn't expect to see or hear along the way. A blanket statement from the police union? Maybe. But the police union's statement on the incident includes this flabbergasting line: "Montgomery County police officers do not receive training on how to effectively communicate with a young child in distress." ■ The word "shocking" gets over-used. But that's a truly shocking claim: We tell children to go to police officers and firefighters without hesitation when they are in danger. That's part of why impersonating a police officer is treated as a serious crime; the sight of a police officer must be, without exception, a moment of relief for young people (and, really, for anyone). But it cannot be a relief unless there is adequate trust that the officer is truly there to protect and serve. ■ At the barest of minimums, if the statement really is correct, it is imperative that the police department involved immediately implement a training system for "communicat[ing] with a child in distress". And so should every agency invested with the public's faith and entrusted with guns.

Threats and Hazards China menaces Taiwan with airspace incursion by 20 military aircraft

A rule of thumb: Things are usually not as bad as they seem, but they can get much worse much faster than we can imagine. That rule seems unnervingly appropriate here.

Business and Finance Berkshire Hathaway proposes an $8 billion fix for Texas energy problems

The company -- a massive utility operator already -- has proposed an $8.3 billion generation network to ensure the reliability of the grid so that February's weather-induced blackouts don't happen again. While the prediction was made before the blackouts, at one commentator called a utility expansion "a thoroughly satisfactory way of staying the course without holding still" for Berkshire in 2021.

News Ship blocking the Suez Canal has been freed

But that doesn't necessarily mean the route will be immediately re-opened to traffic. Apparently we're about to hear a lot about the meaning of "necessary but not sufficient".

Humor and Good News Fancy garage doors and their shortcomings

Conor Fridersdorf has an amusing obsession with expensive garage doors. One thing many of them have in common is their use of windows -- which seems like an oddly contra-indicated choice from a home-security standpoint.

News The real story behind children's books

The book is "Bread and Jam for Frances", but the real plot is "Holy Cow, Frances's Mom Does a Ton of Unpaid Work". Her kid eats like she's got an executive chef. The book concludes with Frances chowing down on tomato soup, a lobster-salad sandwich, celery, carrot sticks, black olives, plums, cherries, and vanilla pudding. ■ This is no knock on the book itself, per se -- the intended underlying message is that kids ought to be open to trying new things, and that's a pretty defensible position among parents. But even though the book is only from 1964 (making it the same age as Vice President Kamala Harris and only a year older than the first members of Generation X), aspects of it seem both wildly antiquated and unfortunately current. ■ Keeping up a household (cleaning, cooking, performing maintenance, groundskeeping, paying bills, and in many cases, caring for children) is a major consumer of resources. The allure of devices like dishwashers and clothes washers and dryers is self-evident to any functioning adult who has had to perform those tasks manually. And the amount we are willing to pay to get devices that make other tasks even easier -- like Roombas and robotic lawn mowers -- reveals that at least some people in the modern world know how to place a value on their non-working hours. ■ Just as we place a price tag on the work we do outside the home, we really ought to place a value on the work done inside the home, as well. This non-market housework is valuable. Even if most parents aren't making their children Frances-quality meals for lunch, it all adds up: While it isn't counted in our GDP, the estimated value is in the trillions of dollars each year. It does appear that some of the time spent on this labor has decreased overall in the last two decades, but a yawning gender gap between women and men has remained. The average employed woman does more than the average non-employed man, and the average employed woman spends about 50% more weekly hours on that household work than the average employed man. ■ Measurement is hard, but that shouldn't stop us from acknowledging that household work is an important component of how people spend their time. And even more than that, it is valuable -- to the tune of something around one-fifth of measured GDP. That's a whole lot of tomato soup and lobster-salad sandwiches.

Humor and Good News The quirks of Google search

Noted academic Albert Einstein doesn't have a verified email address on his Google Scholar page. He should get on that -- relatively quickly.

March 27, 2021

Business and Finance Just-in-time gets stuck in the Suez Canal

New York Times journalist Peter Goodman wrote an analysis of the global trade crunch being caused by the Ever Given -- the cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal. Goodman describes the analysis as "the latest warning about excessive reliance on just in time manufacturing". Peculiarly, though, someone at the Times made the headline "In Suez Canal, Stuck Ship Is a Warning About Excessive Globalization". ■ The simplest explanation is that some editor carelessly thought "globalization" was a more economical way to say "just in time manufacturing". Occam's Razor and Hanlon's Razor would both tell us to accept that explanation, so we probably should. ■ Yet it's still a bit odd that someone at such a venerable publication as the Times would have taken that kind of shortcut. "Excessive reliance on just in time manufacturing" is a much narrower critique than "excessive globalization". The narrow critique is defensible. The broad one just...isn't. Someone should ask why the editor involved felt the need to put a Juche spin on it. Was it just for clickbait? ■ We're living through an extraordinary event: A pandemic that raced across the world like a wildfire, and one that has massively disrupted life and commerce for billions. Yet the path out of the pandemic is indisputably through a globalized path. It's one thing to say, for instance, that America found itself at the mercy of fragile supply chains for tools like PPE that failed the stress test of the onset of the pandemic. That's a valid critique of just-in-time manufacturing. Critical thought and attention should go into redeeming those failures. ■ But we're also seeing a truly revolutionary effort that is producing amazingly effective vaccines in totally unprecedented time. The development process has absolutely been facilitated by "globalization", international teamwork is the only way to produce and distribute enough of the vaccine to stop the disease, and long-term international cooperation and coordination are going to be indispensable. ■ A ship got stuck in the Suez Canal. That probably was the result of some combination of human error and mechanical failure. It's been disruptive. It highlights several issues that ought to be fixed. But there's a big difference between casting a critical eye on just-in-time networks and disclaiming globalization generally. Nobody needs to be rooting for the pirates.

News "And then what happens next?"

Behold, the most under-appreciated test in all of politics. There are plenty of ways to dislike what is -- but it's crazy not to imagine how something else might be worse.

Business and Finance What's up with "Austrian economics"?

Everyone should start by reading Hayek and Mises. They just shouldn't stop there.

Humor and Good News How do nerdy obsessions start?

Markets beget division of labor. Division of labor begets comparative advantage. Comparative advantage begets specialization. Specialization begets efficiency. Efficiency begets leisure time. Leisure time begets nerdy obsessions. Nerdy obsessions beget new markets. That's how.

Iowa Derecho-related mulch pile catches fire

Anyone who's ever seen the heat that can come off a compost pile can understand how this could have led to spontaneous combustion, which is what appears to have happened in Hiawatha, Iowa. Linn County lost an astonishing half of its tree cover in the August derecho, so there's just a stupefying amount of vegetation that is still being processed and disposed of. Weird incidents like this are going to be inevitable for a while.

March 26, 2021

Science and Technology How can we get big improvements without big disasters?

The awful conditions of the last year have at least a few silver linings: They've catalyzed some technological improvements that are here to stay. We've had to do so much to accommodate not being together with other people that we've had to make extraordinary progress on things like telemedicine and remote work just to muddle through. The really interesting question is: Is it possible to get some of those really big, really fast changes without having to go through something terrible like a pandemic or a war to get there? Why are so many things stalled by the status quo?

Threats and Hazards There's no such thing as a "nobody"

Kawaski Trawick was having a mental-health incident when two police officers showed up in response to a 911 call. Within two minutes, one of the officers had killed him. When a supervisor showed up to ask whether anyone was injured, someone responded "Nobody. Just a perp." That's a profoundly terrible thing for anyone to say, much less someone entrusted with the tools of lethal force. There's no such thing as a "nobody", and the dehumanization of others -- even "perps", which this victim really wasn't -- is an intolerable practice. ■ It is this very same kind of dehumanization of others that deprives us of the open acknowledgment of the fact that the murders in Atlanta were rooted in racism, whether that was the murderer's avowed belief or not. That racism is a form of dehumanization.

Weather and Disasters Lots of vulnerable housing in the path of Alabama tornadoes

A disaster geographer did some quick analysis and found a lot of mobile homes right in the damaged areas. It always takes a combination of natural conditions and social conditions to turn a storm into a disaster.

News California's new rules could mean a lot of new housing

Rules that effectively liberalize government policy on ADUs (auxiliary dwelling units -- things like granny cottages in the back yard) could well mean that a state widely recognized as suffering a housing shortage could make up for some lost time. Suppliers are moving extremely fast to enter the market, and according to Bloomberg CityLab, "Backyard flats may wind up accounting for a sizable share of the new housing built in California during the 2020-21 pandemic years." It's amazing what can happen in the public interest when people have the option to pursue their own self-interest.

Humor and Good News Why doesn't Swatch make a smartwatch?

You can't deny there would be a massive nostalgia opportunity in making a Swatch smartwatch. Combine it with a slap bracelet, and no 40-something would be able to resist.

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March 25, 2021

Business and Finance Ford tells 30,000 employees that work-from-home options will remain after the pandemic subsides

Cities are always going to have at least some magnetism due to agglomeration effects. But the pivot to broad acceptance of working from home (WFH) and hybrid working models might detour a lot of future commercial office construction. Just because some workers may always need to be within reach of the home office (as opposed to the offices in their homes) doesn't necessarily mean that we will forevermore need to stack them floor after floor above one another. ■ In other words: If your skyline doesn't have skyscrapers now, maybe it never really will. Or, if it does, they won't be purely commercial, but will be multi-use right from the start. The "vertical city" may yet have its day. ■ It's not like the multi-use building is a new concept. Living "above the shop" has been an accepted mode of habitation for centuries. Quite obviously, farmers have long lived where they worked -- but the connection between dwelling place and workplace remained strong even after the Industrial Revolution got well underway. We still use the phrase "cottage industry", often without realizing that the term quite literally refers to work that can be produced from home. Even in modern times, buildings like the John Hancock Center have been intentionally designed for mixed use, as places where people might live, work, and shop. ■ The question is: How might the financing for tall buildings change? Life insurance companies (like John Hancock) once had significant incentives to build giant, long-term buildings. Among other reasons, insurance companies with lots of incoming float from premiums might look at that float as a cheap way to fund major construction if the interest rates available to other builders were very high. If you have ready money and your rivals have to pay 10% interest rates (or higher), then getting into the business of owning tall buildings can be very attractive. But the interest rates that prevail today are literally a fraction of the rates that prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s, so that comparative advantage has evaporated for insurance companies. And if demand for office space might truly be on a long-term downward trajectory (thus putting downward pressure on the rent payments they could hope to collect), that doesn't bode well for new construction. Will those conventional backers of big buildings be as interested in new mixed-use projects as they were in the skyscrapers of the past? Moreover, now that it's easy to invest in bundles of real-estate properties through tools like REITs, insurance companies and other investors have less incentive to invest a great deal in significant properties of their own rather than to spread out their investments into chunks that can be bought and sold with greater ease. ■ It seems less and less likely that companies will build many office towers (like the Chrysler Building or Sears Tower) in their own names, and there's usually at least someone's ego to stroke when building bold new towers. If it's not the executives in the C-suite, who will it be? The answer to that question may well shape the future of many American skylines -- or decide whether they will be remarkable at all.

The United States of America "Are you a manager here?"

On the surface, it's barely even a nuisance worth noting if you're frequently stopped in stores by other customers who mistake you for a manager. But when you're dressed entirely wrong for the job and people still make assumptions, then it's worth examining why that's happening. And it's hard to escape the conclusion that a lot of Americans still assume that the stereotypical manager is a tall white male. We need to get beyond that stereotype, because it favors some people and that means it implicitly disadvantages others.

Computers and the Internet Please put two-factor authentication on your email and social-media accounts

There's a rash of fraud going on right now. This is a small, free, and highly effective step that can make a big difference.

Weather and Disasters Storm-spotting drones capture close-up tornado angles

Drones are still under-utilized as a live storm-spotting tool. It's going to take a while before they can be coordinated safely and effectively, but there's a great deal of potential there to improve upon what spotters can see from the ground. And don't take the value of storm spotting for granted: The lack of a coordinated, widespread effort to use trained spotters contributed to one of the deadliest tornado events in Illinois history, only a little more than 50 years ago. Getting better at forecasting and spotting severe weather is no trivial matter: 55 million people are under a non-trivial threat of severe weather today. The day looks especially ominous for Mississippi and Alabama.

Broadcasting Rest in peace, Jessica Walter

Two facts are utterly indisputable: (1.) Even among a terrifically talented cast, Jessica Walter was THE star of "Arrested Development". (2.) If you thought she was funny on the show, you won't believe how hard she will make you laugh on the DVD commentary.

News How will the Suez Canal get reopened?

Just don't get Elon Musk started on this. He probably has a secret blimp the size of New Jersey just waiting somewhere for this very moment.

Threats and Hazards Accept no crackpottery

Tom Nichols: "'I've done my own research" is always the air horn that announces the arrival of a crackpot". Oddly, that research is never, ever accompanied by footnotes. But peer review isn't much of a standard when all the peers are cranks.

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March 24, 2021

Threats and Hazards Fake nudes are cheaper than you think

And that means it's only a matter of time before a whole lot of people find themselves targeted -- but it's likely to be an especially big problem for women in the public spotlight. Note this warning: "[T]he FBI is warning about threats that have yet to materialize in a big way, with nary a word for those that already exist [...] Telegram channels with over 100,000 members have used a bot to generate nonconsensual nude images of at least 680,000 women for $1.25 each."

Weather and Disasters Fisher sinks truck on Canadian lake

Just because they're made from aluminum now doesn't mean they float. If you're going to drive on a frozen lake, better to do it when there's still plenty of ice beneath you.

Computers and the Internet Needed: A way to come clean about past mistakes

What's worse than making good-faith mistakes? Never giving anyone the room to grow from the mistakes they've made. The entire point of a world built on classical liberalism is that individuals can and should grow and change. If you sacrifice the process, you prohibit the results. We are not all dead at the same time. Lives overlap, experiences reach different individuals at different stages, and self-awareness does not always come cheap. Particularly now that the Internet archives and publishes the mistakes of all, forever, we need to think about what it means to correct ourselves and forgive others' past errors.

Humor and Good News "Libertarian PBS"

(Video) Equal parts "Isn't that the truth?" and "Die-hard libertarians are bonkers". But, in whole, a laugh-out-loud funny video from Reason Magazine.

Threats and Hazards Our adversaries are watching our vulnerabilities

True, and alarming: "The Russian security services have now studied us and worked out (it probably wasn't very hard) that large numbers of Americans [...] are very happy to accept sensational information, however tainted, from any source that happens to provide it."

Threats and Hazards Texas man arrested for carrying a rifle outside the VP's official residence

It's not just that he was arrested with a gun. He had 113 rounds of ammunition, too. (Of note: The Vice President is living at Blair House while renovations take place at the official residence at the Naval Observatory.) We shouldn't casually shrug off the idea that a person was out to threaten the Vice President like this.

Weather and Disasters A rough weather system comes to the South

Three of the biggest metro areas in Texas under a tornado watch until 4:00 in the morning? That alone would be rough, but then morning will come and the Sun will start pouring energy right back into the system.

March 23, 2021

Health Why doesn't the American Psychological Association accredit online doctoral programs?

Seriously, why is there no industry-accredited path into the profession of psychology via online programs? Everyone knows the last year has taken a massive toll on mental health, and yet this obvious reform to expand service capacity hasn't been enacted to help. ■ For example: Iowa's current law requires licensed psychologists to possess a doctoral degree from a program that is accredited by the APA, the Canadian equivalent, or "designated by the ASPPB" -- but the ASPPB stopped its designation program in 2018. So that really leaves the APA, which explicitly says "there are no APA-accredited programs available that ONLY use online methods of instruction". ■ The distinction between programs based upon the mode of course delivery certainly seems like an artifact of a bygone era now. Almost every college became an online school when the first Covid-19 shutdowns began a year ago. Even Harvard Medical School went online for its entire first-year cohort. Any lingering prejudice against online learning ought to have gone right out the window with the events of last twelve months. ■ This matters in particular for psychology because the need has never been as broad (nor, likely, as deep) for accessible and affordable mental health care. Virtually everything about the pandemic has exacted a mental-health toll. It's gigantic: The CDC has been surveying Americans and concludes that 40% of American adults have symptoms of anxiety disorder or depression right now. That's an astonishingly high figure. ■ The brain is an organ, just like the heart or the lungs or even the spleen. We ought to treat it not as something that awaits some kind of acute crisis for treatment, but as something deserving of ongoing clinical care. Getting mental-wellness checkups ought to be as routine (and as free of stigma) as going to the dentist for a semiannual cleaning. But it's clear that we have far too few practitioners available. The shortage was obvious well before the pandemic, and demand is (or at least ought to be) much higher now. We can't have rates of depression and anxiety effectively quadruple and not recognize that an urgent problem is upon us. ■ Social distancing requirements and other measures to protect people's physical health launched online sessions with mental-health care providers straight into the mainstream. It is past time for organizations that have the legal authority to act as gatekeepers to the professions to act in the public interest and acknowledge that if telemedicine is good enough for patients and if online classes are good enough for Harvard Med, then it's certainly time to drop the pretense that there is a mode of education for psychological professionals that is arbitrarily deemed beneath their dignity. We aren't going to get over the mental-health toll of Covid-19 without some help. So, as a matter of public health and in the public interest, why aren't we training more of that help?

Threats and Hazards China's government turns to genocidal whataboutism

This isn't like economic development, where a lower-income country may get some global leniency for producing extra pollution as it industrializes and pulls its population out of poverty. China's government isn't entitled to a free pass for what it's doing in Xinjiang. Nor for what it's doing in Hong Kong, which may be less explicitly genocidal but remains a vast insult to human rights. Of course, nations ought to try to do the right thing and be above reproach -- but it's the refuge of the truly awful government to claim that criticism is invalid unless the critic is without historical stain.

Humor and Good News Yakov Smirnoff is actually Ukrainian

This might not mean much to Millennials and Zoomers, but for a Gen Xer, this is a geographical realignment on par with finding out that Eminem is really from Windsor, Ontario. Also: He has a Ph.D. now. What a country, indeed.

March 22, 2021

Health A free Krispy Kreme doughnut every day if you get a Covid-19 vaccine

This has some people worked up over comorbidity issues, but it's silly to get overheated about it. If a doughnut is the incentive necessary to get more people to vaccinate, then so be it. ■ The beauty of liberal democratic capitalism is that we don't need for everyone's motivations to be as pure as the driven snow...just, on balance, more good than not. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. ■ We are extremely close to having a surplus of vaccines available and not enough willing patients to vaccinate. That crossover moment could be just a few weeks away. Whatever it takes to get the reluctant over their hesitancy and into the clinics to get the shot is a victory for herd immunity. ■ Almost nobody is going to take such frequent advantage of the Krispy Kreme offer that it will change their BMI, and even if they did, then the slow expansion of a few waistlines is better than sending thousands of additional patients to the hospital with a deadly respiratory virus. The person who will go to get a free Krispy Kreme doughnut every morning wasn't going to have a bowl of Wheaties and go for a 5-mile run instead. ■ As Greg Mankiw puts it in his authoritative textbook on economics, "People respond to incentives". If a free-doughnut offer is enough incentive to push even a few hundred people over the line, then Krispy Kreme is doing a giant public service while also earning a lot of publicity. Pure? No. But definitely good enough.

News March Madness never seems to teach us Math Mania

Every March, millions of Americans pick their NCAA brackets and watch them get blown up almost instantly...then go right back to complaining that meteorologists, economists, and pollsters can't predict the future with perfect certainty.

Threats and Hazards Taiwan situation draws US and Japan closer on defense

Given the general thrust of US-China relations, it seems surprising that we don't hear a more robust debate about a statehood option for Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas. China's government makes no apologies for rattling its sabers all over the Pacific right now, and it really is surprising that we aren't talking about binding our far-flung territories a little closer.

Threats and Hazards Lawyer who took center stage in Trump election claims now says she was making it all up

In a court filing, Sidney Powell claims "no reasonable person could conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact". This sort of spectacular bravado would be worthy of applause if it were merely a matter of showmanship. But it wasn't -- it was a set of claims that went directly to the central matter of a Presidential election, and the lies ultimately served the undermining thereof. Benjamin Franklin wrote that "To err is human, to repent divine, to persist devilish." It seems pretty clear that this behavior -- malignant disingenuousness -- would fall under "to persist".

News The trouble with "your truth"

With no disrespect intended to those who are helping people to express themselves and to bear with their feelings, there is some hazard involved with telling people that they can have a "truth" that is independent of objective facts. So writes Elisabeth Braw: "[E]stablishing the real facts isn't easy, and in a liberal democracy, citizens have the right to challenge experts. But the real problem is when enough people decide they're not even interested in seeking the truth, preferring their own ideas about how the world works instead."

News DC statehood push warms up

Idle thought: It's hard to come up with any real-estate deal that has paid off quite like the one that Virginia got in exchange for DC. The state gave up a few square miles, took them back 57 years later, and today has three of the highest-income counties in the country.

Broadcasting Some people are patient by nature

For the rest of us, there's the ability to speed up podcast playback to 2.4x speed. Superficial as it may seem, that kind of hyper-customization of the listener experience is a huge advantage in favor of on-demand streaming services and reinforces how important it is for radio broadcasts to focus on their core competency: Being live and talking about what's immediate.

March 21, 2021

Business and Finance Hot housing market? List at a higher price.

If you praise your agent for "selling your house quickly" instead of cursing them for "recommending a listing price below equilibrium", then you really should have taken economics in school. ■ The problem here is a pure misalignment of incentives. The difference in commission between an easy sale at $250,000 and a hard one at $275,000 isn't much (to the listing agent). It's $875 if they're taking only the seller's half of a 7% fee, or $1,750 if they're working both sides of the deal. How much work would you do for an incremental $875? A day's worth? Two days? A week? Yet that $25,000 bump in the transaction price means $23,250 in difference to the homeowner selling the house. ■ The bulk of the commission is in the baseline market price, not in the marginal difference they obtain for the seller. And while that's standard practice, it doesn't authentically align their incentives with those of the homeowner -- any more than a 1% annual fee for money managers aligns their interests with those of the client. In both cases, the way to get results is to tie the reward to the marginal difference that the professional makes to their client. ■ In 1961, Warren Buffett wrote about his fee structure for managing money (this was before he took over Berkshire Hathaway). Most of the people entrusting him with their money took a deal where Buffett was paid nothing for the first 4% of returns each year, and where he took 25% of the returns over that amount (or nothing for the first 6% and 33% of anything over that). While 25% or 33% sounds like a lot, it's actually a much better alignment of incentives than 1% of total assets. With a 1% annual fee, the money manager has no incentive but to hold the total pot steady and just look busy. The more the apparent alchemy, the better for the manager. But if the manager makes nothing -- zip -- until they've earned a 6% return, then their incentives turn strictly to outperforming the market. And that, of course, is what Buffett did for his partners: He outperformed. ■ In the real-estate universe, this would be the equivalent of paying the agent nothing (or a flat fee of, say, $1,000) for selling the house at its assessed value, but giving them 33% of any price over the assessment. That, you see, would align the incentives of the homeowner and the agent. The speed to sell a listing isn't itself a signal that the agent has done what's most important to the homeowner -- there's a price at which any house would sell instantly, and that price is $1. Somewhere between $1 and $160 million is a selling price for every home. The price that sells the home overnight is almost certainly not the optimal price for the benefit of the seller (unless, of course, they actually need to sell the home instantly). ■ If you want to know how a system really works, look to how the incentives are aligned. Lots of people get paid to look busy. It doesn't mean they're doing anything evil -- it just means that the system in which they operate is not designed for the outcome that would be demanded by a suitably well-informed client.

Threats and Hazards China sails destroyers near Japan

"The Chinese law that recently took effect enables its coast guard ships to fire on vessels around the Japanese-controlled, Beijing-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea." Serious provocation? Minor distraction? Meaningful escalation? The problem is that it's often hard to know what's a serious move until it's much too late.

Weather and Disasters First daffodils of spring?

Forget looking for flowers. Just look ahead to the first night the solar-powered lights collect enough juice to remain on.

Weather and Disasters Drone footage of the Icelandic volcano eruption

Truly some of the most spectacular nature footage ever seen

March 20, 2021

Business and Finance What's the Netflix model for news?

For a rising-but-still-reasonable price, Netflix offers a vast spread of both original and previously-created content for on-demand consumption anywhere, anytime. At a time when news outlets are facing a lot of budgetary pain, it's a model worth some additional study, especially for those who believe in the vitality of the free press. ■ First and foremost is the problem of high subscription fees: News outlets keep vacillating wildly back and forth between giving everything away for free and trying to charge prices for digital access that match what they used to charge for dead-tree editions of newspapers. ■ Given a reasonable subscription option, many consumers would gladly pay for news from more outlets, but in most cases, there's no such thing as the $5 or $10 annual "supporting reader" deal. That's a shame, because it means that many people subscribe to one or two high-priced services and then pay nothing to the rest, even when many of us really do value local news reporting from communities other than our own hometowns. ■ It's criminal that there's no subscription reciprocity for people who really do believe in paying for local news -- but not at full price in every single market. Zoos, aquariums, and museums have this figured out. Toll roads in more than a dozen states have figured out how to harmonize electronic toll systems. So why is this so elusive for news outlets? ■ Basic economic thinking would suggest that a product with a high fixed production cost (reporters' and editors' salaries) and almost zero marginal distribution cost (like news when it is delivered digitally) ought to focus on collecting small payments from the largest number of customers possible. The option for micropayments and other forms of goodwill support would be welcomed by people who think news is valuable. ■ Failing to get our heads wrapped around this issue is going to lead, sooner or later, to a news landscape that either depends almost entirely upon charitable support and benefactor (or vanity) ownership -- or we'll risk that the only "news" that is available for many will be whatever serves someone's interests. ■ Environmental news coverage, just for example, is already heavily influenced by opposing forces like the Heartland Institute on one side and the Environmental Working Group on the other. Both can claim to be "non-profit", but that doesn't mean "neutral" nor "disinterested" nor "objective". It just means that nobody literally owns the organization that is the source of the material being served up. ■ This could have a much more nefarious tinge, as well: A lot of Americans respect the BBC, but not every state-run broadcaster shares the values of a free society. When you see China Daily being distributed in the United States, or CCTV on hotel televisions, you're seeing what the Communist Party of China wants you to see. If we don't find reasonable economic ways of sustaining lots of private-sector news coverage in the United States, we're at risk of seeing the free (whatever its source may be) crowd out the good.

Threats and Hazards Shameful agitprop from an "institute" head

The president of the Claremont Institute uses his platform to spread the kind of propaganda that brings cheer to the enemies of freedom. It's shameful that he chooses to do this, because Americans live in a perpetual project to be, and do, better. It's un-American to give up on that perpetual project by saying we "deserve" to lose wars or to succumb to "regime collapse" -- all because the Defense Department issued a memo.

News Positive rules beat negative ones -- for kids

In the short run, it's easier to give your kid negative rules ("Don't do X"). In the long run, it's so much easier to parent if you give them affirmative ones ("Please do Z"). If only this knowledge could be transmitted telepathically to every parent shouting at their little ones. One good affirmative rule (applied consistently) takes the place of dozens of negative ones. For instance, "Clean up after yourself" takes the place of "Don't leave your toys on the floor", "Don't make a mess there", "Don't spill your juice", "Don't track mud in here", and many others. Not only is it easier for kids to follow affirmative rules (because they're looking for guidance), it also helps them work on ways they can comply happily since they can devote their energies to meeting expectations instead of complaining about yet another boundary.

Business and Finance What's it going to take to land post-pandemic convention business?

Chicago has a huge convention center that tries to draw a lot of business to the city, but...it has some drawbacks. It helped a lot to get the CTA Green Line to stop nearby, but six blocks is still quite a hike if it's warm outside and you're dressed professionally. There's also the matter of the Byzantine union regulations that apply to the place.

Humor and Good News No (digital) love lost?

The Onion: "Unmasked Members Of Daft Punk Obliviously Stand Near Each Other At Bus Stop"

Humor and Good News Ferrari and McGowan are just other ways to say "Smith"

It turns out that "(iron)smith" has a lot of range

Agriculture Pricing parity approaches for meat substitutes

Ordinary beef and chicken still have the price advantages, but their plant-based and bio-cultured rivals are rapidly closing in on competitive costs. It's happening much faster than people might imagine, given how much the meat alternatives cost just a couple of years ago. The more choices we have for feeding the world, the better.

March 19, 2021

Health Why the US should redirect its excess vaccines to other countries

Writing about WWII, Eisenhower noted with awe, "There was no sight in the war that so impressed me with the industrial might of America as the wreckage on the landing beaches. To any other nation the disaster would have been almost decisive; but so great was America's productive capacity that the great storm occasioned little more than a ripple in the development of our build-up." This has been America's not-at-all-secret weapon for almost a century: The unrivaled capacity of our economic system to move faster than any other, and to scale up in a way no other economy can. It's not just that our economy is really big, it's that we select for decisive action, risk-taking, and a disposition in favor of innovation. Command economies can't match it. ■ There are cases where the government can act as a catalyst -- and should. The choice to facilitate the simultaneous development of multiple Covid-19 vaccines through Operation Warp Speed is a fine example of this, and it's a lesson that ought to be remembered. The many-eggs-in-many-baskets approach may result in a surplus of outputs (like vaccine doses) that may be inefficient by strictly economic terms, but there are circumstances so exigent that it's better to overshoot than to undershoot. As Bill Gates once put it, "Even the Manhattan Project pursued both the plutonium bomb and the uranium bomb -- and both worked!" ■ A lesson worth taking away from Operation Warp Speed is that government can get more of highly desirable outcomes when it does enough to bulk up the rewards for achieving them. Subsidizing a guaranteed market for vaccine purchases gave the pharmaceutical companies the requisite incentives to pursue the goal at flank speed. This makes a compelling case for our government to fund results-based inducement prizes to achieve other worthwhile goals where the public interest could be served by speedy innovation. If the private sector receives a clear signal that a successful solution to a major public problem will be rewarded mightily, then the market will do more to find that solution than it otherwise might. This is a lesson we ought to apply to issues like energy and transportation innovations that can have huge effects on public-interest goals in areas like defense and environmental quality. ■ While we're at it, it's evidently time to do a lot more thinking about issues of ventilation and climate control inside our buildings. A New York Times headline puts it: "How Windows are Crucial to Reopening Schools". Even if we had unfailing certainty that we could stop Covid-19 with vaccines, we need to be thinking ahead to the next pandemic while we're fighting this one. Respiratory viruses aren't going away, and if there's anything we should be learning (and reflecting upon) about pre-pandemic life, it's that we've been really complacent about making each other sick -- in workplaces, schools, and other settings. The CDC says that influenza rates this season have been one-quarter of the rates seen in a previously low-severity flu season. We're not going to be eager to put up with social distancing forever, but we shouldn't lose sight of how careful management of air quality has done to keep us from getting sick in this extraordinary year. This, again, would be an area ripe for inducement prizes to incentivize big new innovations for making our indoor air quality healthier, even after the pandemic is gone. ■ "American exceptionalism" shouldn't be a lazy catchphrase -- we really should be more conscious of how we benefit from an extraordinary system that can do really big things faster and more competently than any rival system. And we don't even need to be selfish about it: Sharing our successes and rallying other countries to ally themselves with our vision of the world will only help us grow stronger over the long term. We don't need vassal states; we need friendly collaborators and eager trading partners.

Weather and Disasters Peculiarities of geography

Because our two biggest population centers are only two hours apart, it only makes sense for Iowa and Nebraska to do things like practicing Severe Weather Awareness Week together. This kind of coordination especially makes sense, considering that the vast majority of Nebraskans are covered by the Omaha National Weather Service office, which also has responsibility for eight of Iowa's 99 counties. But for perspective: It would take you no less than 12 hours to drive from Chadron, Nebraska, to Keokuk, Iowa. It's about 675 miles (as the crow flies) from the northwest corner of the combined two-state area to the southeast. In Europe, that would be roughly the distance from Brussels to Budapest.

News Cruise industry looks to resume sailing in June

Royal Caribbean is going to let vaccinated passengers aboard in the summer, with stops in a handful of places around the Caribbean. One expected stop will be in Sint Maarten, where four in five workers does something tied to tourism.

Humor and Good News Chicago dyed the river green after all

Name a holiday that can beat St. Patrick's Day for pure frivolity of celebration.

Iowa Contested Iowa Congressional seat should have been decided for good -- in Iowa

Josh Douglas: "[W]e should reinforce a democratic norm that elections are final when certified or that losing candidates must use the more neutral procedures in state law to challenge the result". The fact the losing candidate is appealing the result to Congress itself is a real problem. She lost a close race; she didn't die.

News Ripped jeans in India

Sometimes one encounters a story that serves as a reminder of just how much cultural and social convergence is taking place around the world. It's not happening because anyone is forcing it, but because most people just want to be happy and left alone to make their own choices. Such is the case in India, where a social-media-driven response to a politician's lament about women wearing ripped jeans illustrates just how little people really differ.

Broadcasting Performative-outrage artists whine about tough times

Some people have little to offer beyond being a malcontent with a mic, and those people ought to leave the media so that the airwaves can be used for conversations that further the public interest.

News Humanize the victims

A grieving son shares a profile of his mother, who was murdered in Atlanta

Science and Technology The Milky Way, 100,000 pixels across

Truly mesmerizing work

March 18, 2021

The United States of America Thinking about the next big war

James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman: "What we need most is an active imagination; we should enlist insights not only from security professionals, but also historians, writers, foreign policy experts and representatives from the arts. If any hesitation existed before, the pandemic should demonstrate to our leaders the importance of unconventional thinking when it comes to anticipating future threats to our country and taking steps to avert a crisis before it arrives on our doorstep." ■ They're absolutely right. But also: Ordinary citizens need to invest at least as much interest and energy in our changing national defense as we put into, say, arguing about Dr. Seuss books. You don't have to read Clausewitz, but maybe glance at the Texas National Security Review or Defense One occasionally. ■ The extremely lazy thinking that has contaminated most of the American discussion about military power has reduced us to the empty polarities of "Support the troops" and "No more foreign wars". That just isn't enough. The battlefield is no longer guaranteed to be "over there", nor is it guaranteed to be any place we put on a map. China hacked Equifax. Russia treats cyberwarfare as a primary tool. North Korea attacked Sony. It's nonsense to think that we can just withdraw to our own little corner of the world and ignore everything else. That doesn't mean we have to be overzealous expeditionaries. It does mean we (as citizens) have to become critical thinkers about battlefields and threats that don't fit neatly into a context that suits our historical memory. But if civilians are going to have political control of the military (as we should), then civilians need to engage in the training required to be responsible operators. ■ The rush to create a Space Force bypassed the bigger step we should have taken, which is to spin up a Cyber Force with its own dedicated rules of engagement, understanding of threats, command structure, and even a standalone service academy. And we need to examine how other asymmetric and unconventional threats are going to come at us, so that we can figure out the best ways to deploy force (whether kinetic or otherwise), commit resources (of people, money, time, and whatever else we have), and cooperate with allies while engaging with adversaries. And we should be doing it while considering a whole-picture context, particularly in light of the risk that this pandemic will persist and the next could be right around the corner. Not everything that threatens us will happen at gunpoint.

The United States of America The stupidest argument is that we're running out of space

To think there is no vacancy left in America (an unreality one pundit is trying to insert into the nation's dialogue) is to be utterly without knowledge about our geography. Many states are less dense than the country as a whole, which is near the bottom of the list for population density worldwide. Even our cities aren't especially dense, but there's a serious problem of depopulation taking place across much of the Midwest and elsewhere. As communities shrink, it becomes harder to sustain a private-sector economy and harder to pay for basic infrastructure and essential services. There's well more than enough room for many, many, many more people in America -- and don't worry about growing food: Aside from some marginal effects in places immediately adjacent to growing metropolitan areas, population growth really has nothing to do with the price of rural land.

Threats and Hazards An affront to human dignity

Foreign Policy reports: "Last year, researcher Adrian Zenz found the region poured $37 million into programs -- featuring forced sterilizations and IUD implantations -- meant to slash birth rates, which dropped 24% in 2019 in Xinjiang compared with 4.2% nationwide."

News "How to be a better parent during the pandemic"

"The Economist Asks" is one of the ten best podcasts in circulation generally, and this episode is particularly good.

March 17, 2021

Threats and Hazards We must not dehumanize victims after death

The victims of the Atlanta murder spree had lives that were entitled to dignity, just as much as anyone else's. A murderer stole those lives. Nobody in good conscience should speak of those deaths without putting the victims before the perpetrator.

Broadcasting Running secret hospitals in Syria

If you think speech-based radio can be better than just some malcontent with a mic, you're right: This CBC Radio interview with a Syrian doctor is at once riveting, heartbreaking, and uplifting.

Humor and Good News When Irish-American eyes are smiling

May you find one thing in life that makes you as joyful as an Irish-American politician on St. Patrick's Day.

Humor and Good News Why kids like dinosaur knowledge

It's especially fun because most parents learned about dinosaurs in early school years, too, but the facts continue to change. Just ask bronto...oops, make that apatosaurus.

Weather and Disasters An awful forecast

The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center sees an extremely bad day ahead for the South

March 16, 2021

Threats and Hazards Utterly outrageous behavior by China's government

Foreign Policy reports on truly obscene policies in China -- like "...the 'Pair Up and Become Family' program, which has seen more than 1 million Han officials move in with minority families. A common scenario is a Uyghur family's father figure is detained while a Han man lives with the Uyghur woman and children."

Weather and Disasters A distant second to Chocolate Rain

Dust storms in the South carried particles into the atmosphere over the Midwest and resulted in "muddy rain" over Kansas and Nebraska

Humor and Good News A Taco Dome near every home

Until we can get "a taco truck on every corner", how about a Taco Dome near every home?

Socialism Doesn't Work When the opposition has been run out of town

Hong Kong no longer has opposition members in its governing legislature. Everyone who's left has passed a pro-Beijing litmus test. The world should be paying attention, but there's so much else going on that this really awful development may well escape the attention it deserves.

Humor and Good News Don't undercook your corned beef

If you're going to enjoy it on St. Patrick's Day, then start cooking it on St. Patrick's Day Eve.

March 15, 2021

Business and Finance The "Technoking"?

Tesla has filed a Form 8-K with the SEC granting the CEO the additional title of "Technoking". And it's titled its CFO as the "Master of Coin". But...why? ■ No one has ever needed a sidekick quite like Elon Musk needs one right now. Like most good top-tier leaders, he needs a right-hand person who can be implicitly trusted to veto the #1 person's worst impulses. Musk is imaginative, smart, aggressively innovative -- and also quite clearly impulsive. Perhaps he's a genius, but intellect alone isn't enough to achieve the greatest results. Temperament is essential, too. ■ Most great business geniuses have done better by working with partners. Bill Gates had Paul Allen. Soichiro Honda had Takeo Fujisawa. Warren Buffett has Charlie Munger. Part of the value of a great partner is in balancing one's ideas or offering a broader perspective on tough questions. Another part, though, is in offering a temperamental counterweight. And it's hard to imagine that a "Technoking" doesn't need to add a little bit of yin to his yang.

Socialism Doesn't Work The people of Hong Kong have a right to their opinions...

...but only if they're already the opinions that Beijing wants them to have. That's the basic message coming from the Chinese government, as it pretends to be "all ears" about changes to the legal and government system while imposing radical changes without the people's consent. ■ Condoleezza Rice wrote, "Democracy is imperfect at the beginning and will remain so. But men and women still crave it: It alone affords human beings the dignity that comes when those who would govern them have to ask for their consent. There is simply no alternative." There's scarcely a better way to put it. And there is no possible way to interpret the behavior of China's Communist Party as "asking for consent". Thus, they afford the people of Hong Kong exactly no dignity. Sooner or later, any system that fails to respect human dignity is bound to collapse. ■ Whoever runs the social media tools for Radio-Television Hong Kong deserves an award for cramming devastating commentary into a brief story summary: "HKMAO deputy Zhang Xiaoming says the central government is 'all ears' when it comes to views on the planned overhaul to #HongKong's electoral system, as long as people's opinions are based on the decision that Beijing has already made."

Humor and Good News Who's missing a Birkenstock?

Of all the strange things to see at a gas station...

Humor and Good News Like the sands through the hourglass

How should we start measuring time? The period between required password resets? Or by notifications that your credit card has been compromised?

Threats and Hazards Government troops kill 20 pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar

20 people were murdered because they expected their government to obtain their consent first. 20 lives stolen.

March 14, 2021

News "Ignoring [stupidity] won't make it go away"

Jim Golby offers sound advice to military leadership: "Leaders must be judicious on when to engage, but total silence isn't a good option, either -- even if it is tempting. After something like the Carlson segment, their soldiers will be talking about it and their formations may be divided. Ignoring that won't make it go away." Of course, there are options for talking about things without saying certain things (like a television host's name) out loud. When in doubt, the carefully-crafted subtweet can be even more effective than taking on a target directly. It takes more thought than addressing someone head-on, but the results can be devastating. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "[I]f you would inform, a positive dogmatical Manner in advancing your Sentiments, may provoke Contradiction and prevent a candid Attention". Franklin knew that sometimes the best thing to do is to address a principle directly at a time when everyone knows exactly what hot topic you're talking about -- but without hovering around the topic itself. Sometimes, the bully must be punched right in the nose. But at other times, it can be enough -- especially for people who don't want to be dragged into the mud to wrestle with the pigs -- to say something that can't be mistaken for neutrality, without dignifying the name of the pig. And there are plenty of pigs begging to grapple: Sen. Ted Cruz wants military leaders to show up to take a beating for some tweets that were issued by those under their command. Cruz, lest we not forget, was the man who just a month ago threw his kids under the bus for his choice to go on a trip to Mexico. What kind of honor is found in that?

Computers and the Internet Beware apps masquerading as "American"

There remain certain "tells" in the English language that non-English speakers think we use but which we simply do not. One of those is to start a sentence with "Nice day," (inclusive of the comma), which just isn't how Americans use that phrase. Ever. And when it shows up in social-media ads promoting applications of dubious provenance, there's no reason to do anything but walk away.

News Your semi-annual reminder...

...that changing the clocks twice a year is an exercise in futility imposed on the population at large by people who selfishly think that imposing a time change by government fiat is more important than just changing their own schedules voluntarily and leaving the rest of us alone.

March 13, 2021

Computers and the Internet Should you sketch on slides during a live presentation?

Low-fi sketching done live while you're talking can deliver some messages with lower cognitive loading than any of the alternatives.

Computers and the Internet Strange rabbit holes on Wikipedia

Thanks to someone's detailed research, one can be sure that if they remember watching "CHiPs" during the daytime, it was on NBC between April and September of 1982. Did anyone really need to know that? No. Is it a fascinating way to triangulate hazy memories? Yes.

March 12, 2021

News Rating fish sandwiches for Lent

Wendy's came to Lent this year with their "A" game. Their sandwich tastes like fish without tasting fishy, and that's well beyond expectations for fast food.

March 11, 2021

Broadcasting An observation on Clubhouse vs. podcasting

There's always been a niche place for drop-in conversation (just look at ham radio). It's never been enormous, but it has been durable. People like to be surprised, and if an application like Clubhouse can replicate that ham radio, "drop-in" conversational feeling, then there will be a place for it. ■ There will always be a big place for live-to-tape conversations, on radio or podcasts. So long as there are interesting people, there will be others who want to hear them speak. And a good interviewer (like Anne McElvoy) is capable of asking conversational questions of an interesting person that exceed the quality of the content that person may be able to generate on their own. ■ What podcasting has brought to America is scripted, heavily-produced audio programming. It's not something we've done very much -- certainly not by contrast with the work of public broadcasters like CBC Radio One and BBC Radio 4. In those markets, speech-based radio programming (that isn't "talk radio" in the American political sense) is very popular. That makes similar programming a growth market in America, and it ought to long persist in growing as producers become more sophisticated.

Humor and Good News A trip back in time

What would your Y2K-era self have said if you came back to report that in 2021, everyone is required to wear masks inside of banks, we don't know yet where Donald Trump is going to put his Presidential library, and Apple is selling a Dick Tracy watch with a built-in electrocardiogram?

News The real "mockery"

Women in our armed forces are no "mockery" of defense, no matter how much a reactionary pundit tries to argue it. Women are half of our country's talent, hold half of America's skills, and possess half of our national brain power. Tucker Carlson and Fox News should be ashamed for advocating that we only half-defend ourselves.

Computers and the Internet What qualifies as obscene?

If you thought these definitions were difficult before, they're an order of magnitude harder with the arrival of deepfakes. It's not just that the train has left the station -- it split into twelve trains, each leaving in a different direction, and two entered new dimensions.

News Who abstained?

Someone voted "present" as the Chinese government voted to break Hong Kong's democracy. Everyone else voted "yes".

Science and Technology Snapshot from the big-tool economy

We'll always need industrial work to be done, but it's often taking place farther and farther away from our view

The United States of America Should the President hold a press conference?

Americans should expect their Presidents to be accountable, and direct accountability to the press is a component of that. But the reaction to whether President Biden has held a press conference yet is a bit over-wrought. Even the staunchest defender of the press has to temper that criticism through the lens of the recent performance of the White House press corps, and it would be easy to care a great deal more if the last four years had been characterized by tenacious and detailed on-the-record questioning rather than by "access journalism" and an infinite loop of anonymous quotes. Some did right. Many did not.

March 10, 2021

The United States of America Visas to help repopulate shrinking communities in the Midwest

Accepting the proposed precondition that it be voluntary on the part of both the community and the visa-holder, this idea really makes a lot of good plain sense.

Broadcasting The danger of wearing headphones while opining

Certain talk-show hosts -- mainly men -- fall victim to an effect that may not have a name, but which is very real. When he talks into a microphone, he hears himself (through his earpiece or headphones) on a nearly-imperceptible delay. That delay causes him to think he's hearing himself as the voice of God. It's a technologically-induced form of auditory schizophrenia, and if a person isn't careful to mitigate the effects (for instance, by wearing only one headphone of a pair), it really does turn some people into monsters. When Rush Limbaugh said he was using "talent on loan from God", he was revealing a hidden truth about what was happening inside his own head.

Computers and the Internet Could we please pause NFTs for a while?

Could we please just wait until the financial (and carbon) cost of energy drops to near-zero before finding new ways to waste it? Basically everything "crypto" is just a way to light the environment on fire, and it's just not a great idea to keep engaging in it until we can make and use energy with fewer consequences.

Weather and Disasters Stay away from the triple point

"Triple point" remains one of the best meteorological terms out there. Not that you want to actually be where a triple point is happening, but it's a great name.

March 9, 2021

The United States of America Should America lead the world in high-speed rail?

(Video) Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says "I want the US to be leading the world when it comes to access to high-speed rail...especially with the bipartisan appetite for real investments". There's no escaping the fact that America has a historically romantic view of rail travel -- it's a huge part of our identity as a continental nation, and it feels like something that was once great and is now lost. But the very idea of our being a giant, sprawling country is one of the reasons rail has such an uphill climb in America. Italy's high-speed rail network, for example, really came together in the first decade of the 2000s, and it's quite magnificent to ride. But the entirety of Italy would fit roughly between Chicago and Raleigh, NC, and is only about the width of Indiana. In that space live 62 million people. That's in a country just 116,000 square miles in area -- about the size of Arizona, which only has about 7 million people. The population density of places with well-known high-speed rail systems like Italy and Germany and Japan is often almost a factor of ten higher than the density in the United States. That doesn't make high-speed rail impossible, but it does radically affect the economics involved. ■ To remove our romantic blinders and get serious about the question, what we need to ask is "What makes high-speed rail attractive?" Three factors stand out: What we really want is transportation that is high-efficency (and, consequently, low-cost), non-weather-dependent, and reliably scheduled.

Business and Finance Four dozen HuffPost employees laid off via email

What a profoundly unethical way to treat other human beings.

Threats and Hazards FBI releases video showing DC pipe bomber

Find and prosecute this terrorist and anyone who collaborated with them

Health What an anniversary

Somehow, in light of the Covid-19 shutdown anniversary this week, ads for paper towels and toilet paper sound...odd

Computers and the Internet Leaving prison uncorrected

A lawyer shares a story about a client who spent 30 years in prison before being released this year. How is he supposed to know how to navigate a digitally-dependent world? There are times when one is reminded that, although we call it "corrections", we don't always make the choices necessary to produce "corrected" fellow citizens who are capable of reintegration with society.

News The only thing you need to read about the Royal Family

Patrick Freyne: "They live in high luxury and low autonomy, cosplaying as their ancestors, and are the subject of constant psychosocial projection from people mourning the loss of empire." This writing sizzles. ■ However, events like the "Meghan and Harry" interview offer a reminder that some commentators have nothing productive to add to the public conversation. It's possible to let the event pass without any comment at all -- and yet some commentators cannot help but make fools of themselves by revealing how little they actually think about what they say. Those people (who do not deserve to be named here) can be safely ignored. We really, really need to stop making celebrities out of people who are profoundly emotionally stunted. It's not good for them, and it's terrible for the rest of us.

Weather and Disasters Incoming winter storm probably won't drop 111" of snow

Computer-based weather models are great, but sometimes they come up with implausible results. There's a reason human beings are still involved.

March 8, 2021

The United States of America "The price we pay for democracy, which is worth it"

George Will's summary of the minimum wage is a satisfying way to describe quite a number of things that might also be called our "social-cohesion taxes". Sometimes we accept policies which we don't think work very well, because we have been unsuccessful at persuading others and we know that the underpinnings of democracy are more important than individual policy victories.

Humor and Good News "Know your self worth and then add tax"

Great advice from Anna Gifty

Business and Finance The latest bubble: SPACs

Special-Purpose Acquisition Companies: Shell companies formed for the purpose of buying other companies. There's nothing immoral about them, but once you hear that something's a "hot trend" in investing, there's an excellent chance it's already way too overheated to be a value-investing opportunity. But given the simultaneous booms in SPACs, nostalgia programming, and streaming media, it's only a matter of time before Netflixx rolls out "Return of Laverne and Shirley". Follow their zany antics as the girls revive Hasenpfeffer Incorporated as a SPAC while chasing love in the Covid Era and trying to stay one step ahead of the SEC.

News One-paragraph book review: "The Moment of Lift" by Melinda Gates

Verdict: A vital topic explored with humility

Business and Finance Great questions in demographics and geography

"What's the country with the biggest drop-off in population between its first city and its second city?" It would be interesting to see this graphed for a large number of countries. There's a power law to the size of cities in many or most places, to be sure. But it would be worthwhile to investigate whether the countries with flatter relationships between their 1st- and 2nd-tier cities perform better, economically, than places where all the action is found in one place. ■ From a development standpoint, this is a really important question: Can more be gained by putting all of a country's eggs in one basket and leaving some places behind? Or is that such a morally unacceptable choice that no country should choose to do it, even if that comes with a net deadweight loss to society as a whole. And the same questions that make sense for a country make sense for a state, too -- should a state like Iowa just put everything into making Des Moines and Cedar Rapids grow as much as possible? Or would the returns be higher to invest in growth in Jefferson and Oskaloosa and Clinton, too?

News Small-r republican fairy tales are much harder to script

It would be nice, though, if from time to time kids could learn stories that don't involve kings, queens, princes, and princesses. Enough already with all of that monarchist garbage.

Humor and Good News The high-credential version of screaming, "I'm an influencer!"

A lawyer is proud that he was once described by opposing counsel as an uncontrollable publicity hound

March 7, 2021

News Citizen of the Year

Looking at the way that the Royal Family's troubles have brought unfavorable attention to the UK, and how the United States recently spent four years under a President who wanted to do the ceremonial stuff without having to do the hard work of governing, it really seems like we ought to consider having an elected, ceremonial head of government. Elect someone to serve for a single year (with a strict single-term limit) and have them run around playing the part of the national id in a way that can't really hurt anybody. After we let Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Betty White have a shot, we can move along to other people who represent how the country is feeling at any given moment. (Maybe, just to be safe, we should let Betty go first.)

Weather and Disasters Grass fire on fast-forward

A Nebraska State Trooper caught a grass fire on a dashcam video -- and it moves much, much faster than you'd likely imagine

March 5, 2021

News Which religious thinkers reach outside their particular sects?

A quarter of American adults say they are "spiritual but not religious". This is a rapidly-growing identity, and yet it isn't really an identity at all, since it's really just a statement of a negative. This raises an important question: Who among the religious thinkers is trying to reach out to them? Who among the religious thinkers is doing anything at all to reach out to anyone who isn't already a co-religionist? ■ This isn't a question about evangelism, really, but rather a question about the place for thoughtful religious introspection in a time when religion really isn't popular. The majority of American adults only attend religious services a few times a year. Monthly (or more frequent) attendance fell by almost ten percentage points between 2007 and 2019. ■ Yet the "eternal questions" of religion haven't gone anywhere. So, again, who is saying or writing things to reach the people who aren't already in their flocks? For instance, the Catholic Church once commissioned the Jesuits as "soldiers of God". The times of sending missionaries to convert "uncivilized" peoples are over -- but where are the missions to speak to the "spiritual but not religious" who are greater in number than any single church?

Humor and Good News Oh, not now, please

There's an ad for a Type 2 diabetes medication that uses an off-brand version of a song by the Sugarhill Gang and it's not clear that we shouldn't just declare civilization DOA.

Threats and Hazards "The 42nd reported expressway shooting just this year"

Exactly the kind of stomach-churning statistic that sets the nerves of the visitor on edge when in Chicago. A great city with a vast history and an always-promising future, but all too often riddled with bullets.

Humor and Good News In praise of the PB&J

Lent conveniently reminds one of the simple pleasure of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich

Socialism Doesn't Work China's relentless mission to destroy Hong Kong

Writes Matthew Brooker: "Xia Baolong, Beijing's top official in charge of Hong Kong affairs, declared that only 'patriots' can hold positions in all three branches of government: executive, legislature and judiciary. Xia and others have effectively equated patriotism with loyalty to the Communist Party". ■ It says something extraordinary that China's ruling class would torch everything that Hong Kong has to offer -- just to show they have zero tolerance for dissent. It's an incredible (and, long-term, wildly irrational) preference to reveal. Imagine being so terrified of the very idea of individual liberty that you would set fire to the crown jewel of your economy.

News It's OK to be wrong sometimes

The time will come (someday, one hopes) when we collectively realize it's possible to enjoy and even learn from some of a person's work without having to defend their entire canon like it's Gospel. And that it's possible to walk away from the bad stuff without making a scene about it. This is the cure we need for overheated culture wars and "cancellation".

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March 4, 2021

Computers and the Internet Introspection through ad targeting

Jennifer Doleac: "Ad targeting has gotten so good that I now consider new ads an opportunity for self-reflection. (What have I done that makes me the target audience for this product/service?) It's big data as therapy." You can try to avoid it by clearing your browser cookies daily, but then things might get weird.

Broadcasting Setting unrealistically high expectations

The Apple TV show "For All Mankind" is being teased with a preview backed by the Eurythmics song "Sweet Dreams". If you're going to bring Annie Lennox into something, that's setting the bar pretty high.

Business and Finance A sane analysis of Warren Buffett's latest letter to shareholders

In a more rational world, the stock analysts would lose their seat at the Berkshire question-and-answer session, and they would be replaced by Lawrence Cunningham, who actually studies the company instead of trying to divine arcane conclusions about it like they're reading the entrails of sacrificial animals.

Threats and Hazards Setting the grift level to "11"

A recent former President seeks to make himself the one and only route to deciding what belongs in the Republican Party. His argument carries the depth of thought and thematic consistency of the label on a jar of expired mayonnaise.

March 3, 2021

News Time for some nuance

New rule: Take no opinion seriously unless it acknowledges some kind of nuance, exception, or subtlety. ■ Obviously, nobody gets to single-handedly impose a norm on everyone else, but our culture needs to start ranking "comfort with gray areas" above "emphatic about my own righteousness". That's a thing we need to develop, and that's probably going to require as snappy a name as "cancel culture".

News The old "if anyone was offended" excuse

(Video) New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo trots out the threadbare "if anyone was offended" excuse for his own behavior, having been called out for attempting to kiss women who obviously wanted not to be kissed. His excuse? That it's his "customary way" of greeting people -- including men and children. Which sounds like no kind of excuse at all. Anyone with even a modicum of literacy in body language would recognize the pained look on Anna Ruch's face as he grasps her face in a photograph. That's no time for "if anyone was offended". It's time for "I realize I was doing something manifestly out of bounds, I am deeply sorry, and I'm not going to do that anymore".

March 2, 2021

Science and Technology Maintenance tip: Give your equipment humane names

Serial numbers are tremendously important, of course, but it's much better to name important pieces of equipment like they're pets or people. The Minnesota Department of Transportation held a contest to name their snowplows, and you really have to admit that "Darth Blader", "Plowy McPlowFace", and "Ope, Just Gonna Plow Right Past Ya" are just vastly better names for those machines than something like "A47T14". It sounds frivolous until you realize that humane names help us shift our thinking about objects in a way that makes us more conscientious. There's just no comparison between tail numbers registered with the FAA and the classic Pan Am "Clipper" names.

Health Vaccinating 9 to 5

Vaccine-research patron Dolly Parton gets a vaccination against Covid-19. No one should get involved in a cult of personality. But if you're inclined to join one, it would sure be nice if you'd choose a personality like Dolly Parton instead of...well, let's just say some of the lesser ones people have been joining lately.

Business and Finance Banker's hours have gotten out of hand

One of the 25 largest banks in the United States offers no way to reach a branch office outside the local hours of 9:30 am and 4:00 pm.

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March 1, 2021

Business and Finance Buying back

"Berkshire [Hathaway] has spent about $4.4 billion buying back its stock in the first six weeks of this year". Another way to look at it: Berkshire issued a large, tax-free dividend to the shareholders who remained. There are good repurchases, and then there are bad ones. Bad ones happen, for instance, when a company issues shares as rewards to insiders (like executives and board members), then repurchases them as an accounting stunt. Berkshire Hathaway's current repurchases are happening because management thinks the market is under-pricing the company. That's good repurchasing.

News What reasonable person pays $100,000 in tuition for a journalism degree?

Someone's offering that as a menu price, which causes Matthew Martin to ask: "Is a masters in journalism a conspicuous consumption good[?]". It might truly be, and that's neither good for the journalists nor for the public.

News How do you raise the profiles of governors?

Jonathan Martin: "Solution: Compulsory TV coverage of summer and winter NGAs". We could start by making the winter meeting a Festivus Special. Tune in for the airing of grievances! Don't miss the feats of strength! Superficially, it's a gag, of course. But the fact remains that most national reporting on politics comes from people working and living mainly in two places: DC and New York. That skews perceptions of what is, in fact, a great big country. Or, perhaps more closely, a great big collection of mini-Americas, each with its own special take on how government is done.

February 28, 2021

The United States of America Should immigrants be pointed towards shrinking counties?

An intriguing proposal: Considering that we have a great number of counties across the United States that are experiencing population decline (especially among the working-age populations), should the national immigration strategy include an aspect of targeted population growth? That is, should we open up a pathway for people to get special visas, so long as they move to the counties where population decline is becoming a problem? There's a whole lot about the idea that makes sense, especially if it's voluntary for both visa-holders and the communities who would benefit.

February 27, 2021

The United States of America Warren Buffett retains faith in the state of the country

From the newly-released letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders: "[W]e retain our constitutional aspiration of becoming 'a more perfect union.' Progress on that front has been slow, uneven and often discouraging. We have, however, moved forward and will continue to do so."

Humor and Good News The world gets better when caregiving isn't a gender-specific duty

Melinda Gates: "When men develop their nurturing side, it doubles the number of capable caregivers. It helps men build strong bonds with their children that bring joy and last a lifetime. And it helps both men and women develop a wider range of their abilities."

Humor and Good News Should pizza be adorned with Froot Loops?

Fong's Pizza of Des Moines has stepped right into the line of fire by putting Froot Loops on a novelty pizza. Get mad about it if you want to, but just know this: There is but one style of pizza, and its name is deep-dish. Nothing else violates the law of "pizza" because everything else is just toppings on a cracker. In the name of Lou Malnati, amen.

February 25, 2021

Threats and Hazards Terrorism on January 6th; continued terrorist threats today

The acting chief of the US Capitol Police testifies that "members of the militia groups that were present on January 6th have stated their desires that they want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible". Prosecute everyone who espouses this desire. They are terrorists.

Computers and the Internet Twitter tentatively plans "Super Followers" option

The deal would permit users to charge for premium access to tweets. Putting aside that "Super Followers" should be "Super Readers" instead, this is an idea that probably isn't going much of anywhere. However, it could be a great way to uncover the spot prices for really hot takes.

February 24, 2021

Health Another Covid-19 vaccine is coming

And the best news is that the new Johson & Johnson vaccine can be delivered in just one dose. In terms of deployment, adding one new single-dose vaccine is like getting two new dual-dose vaccines. This is great news.

Threats and Hazards China's governing regime is a threat

Aspiring global superpower uses state-controlled media to make big, whiny deal out of trivial editorial mistake. World reminded that same regime often imprisons and threatens journalists, commentators, and dissidents. Not even for being wrong, just for nonconformity.

News Kids, in a nutshell

Parenting often consists of cultivating a sense of contrarianism that you want your kid to apply to everyone -- except you, the parent.

February 23, 2021

Science and Technology The technological evolution of work

One stable fact about change: The jobs themselves will change, but the problem sets we uncover are extremely good at filling the voids and putting people to work doing new things.

News Daft Punk disbands

(Video) The Los Angeles Times does a pretty good job of covering the essential Daft Punk tracks you ought to know, but it skips their underappreciated seminal track: "Digital Love", which triggers the mental picture of an 80s sitcom.

Broadcasting A worthy debate: Who's the central cast on TV?

Noah Smith argues that "media in the 80s and 90s tended to focus a whole lot on working-class people", while RJ Lehmann counters with a long list of shows about rich people. Many of the best-remembered sitcoms of the 1980s were explicitly about what we'd now call creative-class households -- "The Cosby Show", "Too Close for Comfort", "Growing Pains", "Family Ties", and even "Benson". That's what made "Roseanne" and "Married With Children" so unusual: They explicitly rejected the kinds of bourgeoise norms so often seen elsewhere, even when a show wasn't notionally about the professional class. The 1970s may have been more fertile ground for that "working-class" aesthetic. One can even find evidence of a sort of transitional phase in the very late 1970s, when shows like "CHiPs" and "Emergency!" centered on high-status working-class occupations.

February 22, 2021

Business and Finance The reckless vicissitudes of Bitcoin prices

Market-watchers chalk it up to bad press from one negative Elon Musk tweet. The following question is a simple one. In fact, it's the essential one behind all investing: What is the intrinsic value of Bitcoin? Unless you can confidently answer that question, its market price has no real meaning at all. You must have a sense for what something is actually worth before you can decide what price you're willing to pay for it.

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February 21, 2021

Science and Technology Does the trolley problem really apply to self-driving cars?

MIT Technology Review promoted a story with the clickbaity comment "Who should a self-driving car kill?". It's certainly fair to have a broad debate about how to empower computers to address complex decisions, and it's important to realize that there are cultural assumptions about those decisions that may lead to different answers depending upon who's doing the programming. But it's also important to avoid getting too wrapped up in the most granular of decisions when it comes to matters like the safety of autonomous vehicles. There are usually better answers available than strict binary choices -- like jumping a curb sometimes.

News "Obsessive views and brittle temperaments"

"Obsessive views and brittle temperaments", as Kieran Healy describes it, is an elegant filter. It captures a lot of people who quite often have interesting things to say, but to whom the conscientious reader does not owe undivided attention nor unswerving loyalty. The obsessiveness and brittleness aren't exclusive provinces of the left nor of the right -- we see plenty of them from people of all stripes.

February 20, 2021

Weather and Disasters Magnificent winter weather photography

Crisp blues and whites and lots of sharp edges in these pictures from Lake Superior

February 19, 2021

Computers and the Internet The biggest American university you may not have heard of

Western Governors University awarded 47,000 degrees in 2020. WGU is absolutely the model for higher education for life-cycle learning: Classes are delivered asynchronously online, so the only thing that really matters is the motivation of the learner. The entire university is built around a model of student success -- from top to bottom, everything is conducted with a focus on getting students through bachelor's and master's degrees with the least friction (and lowest out-of-pocket cost) possible.

Threats and Hazards A warning on weaponry

Ryan Evans: "[L]ong ago guns took on the status of religious iconography on parts of the right. The logical outcome of this is still unfolding." A gun, properly used, is a tool. So it's useful to ask how she would look displaying other tools in the same way as one member of Congress just did in a videoconferenced hearing -- carelessly and conspicuously. What would we think of someone displaying knives like this? Or animal traps? Or hammers? It wouldn't look good.

Humor and Good News The strength of kindness

Mercy is a privilege of the strong -- it shows real strength to be merciful. Those who can't find it in themselves to show mercy are, more often than not, overcompensating for weakness. Kindness reveals self-control. It also reveals the ability to empathize with others. These two things, together, show that a person's character is three-dimensional -- it reaches both inward and outward.

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February 18, 2021

Threats and Hazards "We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren"

Dwight Eisenhower's words echo today. He was speaking of overspending, of course, but there's something similar (and complementary) to be said about paying for the necessary maintenance of our material assets. Sporadic flurries of spending on roads and bridges do not make for real infrastructure "investment".

Computers and the Internet Why are news sites so user-unfriendly?

They still haven't figured out a way to let people pay for a reciprocal pass, so that if you're a subscriber to one or two local newspapers, you don't hit a paywall at every other one. Practically every local zoo and aquarium has figured this out. It's really not that hard.

Weather and Disasters Most people are trying to do the right thing

Alert snowplow driver rescues little boy wandering away from home in dangerous cold

News Want to see the word "meanwhile" used like a sword?

In a tweet about Sen. Ted Cruz's mid-disaster trip to Mexico, the Houston-area Fox affiliate said "Sen. Ted Cruz flew to Cancun with his family amid a crisis in Texas, FOX News confirmed. Meanwhile, half a million Texans remain without power and at least 20 people have died."

Weather and Disasters Icebreaking on the Chicago River

This looks like way more fun than almost any other job in public works.

February 17, 2021

Weather and Disasters Temperature plunge breaks Houston's water system

The city can't keep up adequate pressure (apparently because the system uses no elevated storage tanks), so everyone's under a boil order. This is a giant water-infrastructure catastrophe in one of America's largest cities. ■ Water service is one of those things people routinely take for granted, but you miss it terribly when it's gone. It can be extremely reliable virtually all of the time for a price -- but there's an additional cost that must be paid if you want to be sure that it is completely reliable all of the time. And the costs involved may come from unexpected places: It's also well worth noting that the essentiality of a particular worker often has nothing to do with their pay grade. The critical path to getting things done often travels through someone who doesn't have much status but holds a particular technical skill. Communities have to invest in both people and equipment if they want total, unreserved, no-exceptions reliability.

News In 2021, a Cheney is far more popular with Democrats than Republicans

Our politics have gone full-tilt monster raving loony

News Popeye's enters the fish-sandwich game

Competition will improve the fast-food fish sandwich. Consumers benefit from variety. But why, pray tell, do we Americans fail to execute on basic fish takeout, mastered long ago by the Irish and English?

Humor and Good News When siblings harmonize

(Video) The moment when talented siblings harmonize is the absolute peak moment for frisson -- the sensation of chills going down your spine. You cannot duplicate the same effect with unrelated singers -- there's just something beyond duplication produced by vocal cords that come from tightly-knit bloodlines. You can hear it when the Wilson sisters nail the harmony in "Alone", or when Klara and Johanna Soderberg do the same in "My Silver Lining".

February 16, 2021

News A neighbor straight out of nightmares

A man took up squatting in a condominium with shared walls -- and then proceeded to do things like breaking through those walls with hammers. Stories like this one make it far more interesting to look at issues like zoning -- especially for novel approaches to higher-density single-family construction than what is presently allowed in most of the US. Zoning rules often make it hard to affordably own standalone urban property without shared walls, and that's a major failure.

Science and Technology The content isn't too smart; the communicator just isn't very good

"Many learned people seem to feel that the quality of readableness in a book is one which warrants suspicion. Indeed, not a few learned people seem to feel that the fact that a book is interesting is proof that it is shallow." - Theodore Roosevelt

Business and Finance Berkshire Hathaway buys a big stake in Verizon

Berkshire effectively purchased an $8 billion utility company and is trusting someone else to manage it.

Weather and Disasters Temperatures drop below zero all the way south into Texas

Basically the entire middle of the country is 30 to 40 degrees below freezing

February 15, 2021

Health Chicago churches take up the wellness of their communities

Some really important lessons here in how churches can play a role in saving lives, not just addressing the disposition of souls

News Lessons are everywhere

That's the point of a truly liberal education: To see how everything fits together, often unexpectedly.

News Cousins of Rep. Adam Kinzinger declare him a "disappointment" and part of the "devil's army"

All because he criticized the former President they idolize. If your partisan allegiances cause you to disown your family members like this, then there's a good chance you've become a cultist.

February 14, 2021

Business and Finance Know your (economy's) worth

Warren Buffett once said, "There is next to nothing in business textbooks about valuing businesses. But making it look hard makes the high priests of finance get rich." That's what makes times like these a bit precarious -- the stock market is on fire, but it's very difficult to see whether it's been properly valued. The difference between value and price is what makes all the difference.

Humor and Good News Should houses come with "conversation pits"?

But where are the USB outlets so everyone can plug in their phones and ignore one another?

Weather and Disasters America takes a snow day

A new record for land area under winter storm warnings

Humor and Good News Everyone can use a good redemption story

How a woman turned herself around after being a teenage criminal who robbed her own family

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February 13, 2021

Threats and Hazards Vice President Pence's national security advisor was at the White House on January 6th

Gen. Keith Kellogg "confirmed to CNN that he was in the Oval Office with Trump and the President's children as the riot was raging, during which Pence was forced to flee the Senate chamber." This is much too important to debate just in the press. Call witnesses, place them under oath, and get them to confirm or deny under penalty of imprisonment for lying to Congress.

Humor and Good News On the mitzvah

The world would be a better place if the concept of the mitzvah were so widely known that it required no auxiliary explanation.

Humor and Good News A Valentine for every organization

Anthony Perillo: "Roses are red, This bears repeating: Not all your issues Require a meeting."

Threats and Hazards Trouble in small-town Iowa

"The investigation uncovered wrongdoing committed by the defendants, including but not limited to misappropriation of city funds, the presentation of fraudulent public records, deploying a Taser against a civilian in exchange for cash..."

Broadcasting "Next on TCM"

Someone has programmed a bot to automatically tweet the summary of every movie to come on TCM, one hour in advance. The fact this is a fan page and not an official TCM house account is completely baffling. Every television and radio signal worth its salt ought to have a dedicated feed like this.

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February 12, 2021

Threats and Hazards Utterly damning video of a terrorist attack

(Video) What happened at the Capitol on January 6th was nothing short of a terrorist attack

News Schedule some dedicated thinking time

Sound advice based on the practice of the just-departed George Shultz: Get a quiet "Shultz Hour" in your schedule.

Weather and Disasters It's been an active winter

Central Iowa has spent roughly as much time under some kind of winter weather advisory as not since late January

Science and Technology Three cheers for automotive engineers

A dash-cam recording from the interior of an Iowa State Patrol vehicle that gets slammed not once, but three times, serves as a healthy reminder of just how impressive modern vehicles are as feats of safety engineering. A tanker-trailer literally rolls on top of the vehicle and it still appears survivable from the interior.

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February 11, 2021

Humor and Good News The birth of the Tactical Turtleneck Caucus?

Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Peter Meijer put Twitter to good use

Humor and Good News Tag Team makes a GEICO comeback

(Video) The Mom/Dad dancing in this commercial should run on a high-digit cable channel, 24 hours a day.

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February 10, 2021

Threats and Hazards New video of the January 6th US Capitol attack

(Video) Revealed at the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump: Security footage showing just how close Vice President Mike Pence came to imminent harm. It's really quite extraordinary to see a trial being conducted at what is literally a scene of the crime. Also noteworthy: Officer Eugene Goodman didn't just lead a mob away from the Senate doors, he also quite directly rescued Sen. Mitt Romney from possible harm.

Computers and the Internet The Seinfeld-Turing Test

Sometimes, you should tweet about nothing.

February 8, 2021

Business and Finance To go public or private with a business?

Abram Pritzker counseled his family: "Any public corporation that seeks vast expansion has a conflict with shareholders, who follow the daily market and are not thinking of future gains." This advice comes to mind a lot these days -- especially with the news full of day traders battling short sellers and celebrities embracing cryptocurrency schemes.

Business and Finance What's a "Federal budget"?

It's a hilarious book published annually by a niche printing house called the GPO. It's more sad-funny than ha-ha-funny, but it sure gets a lot of critical attention.

Weather and Disasters Freezing their pants off in Duluth

Temperatures dropping to -25°F make for instant-freezing weather, or if you prefer, an "Onward" sequel missing some of the charm of the original.

January 21, 2021

Health Chinese government pushes anti-vaccination conspiracy theories

Why would they try to undermine trust in the safety of American-made vaccines? The big picture isn't hard to figure out: President Xi and his cabal appear committed to a dependency posture with the world. The grand scheme is to turn many other countries into client states that depend upon a mighty and industrialized China for economic, military, and even scientific needs. ■ The Belt and Road Initiative is one manifestation of this posture: China is trying to solve some of its own domestic problems by building infrastructure abroad -- but the Chinese government also isn't trying to help build endogenous capacity in the countries where the Belt-and-Road projects are being built. They're strictly looking to build what suits their perceived Chinese self-interests. If it were about actually helping, then the phrase "debt trap" wouldn't come into the picture. But the phrase does come into the picture, because the initiative is, ultimately, about creating dependency (not capacity) between the client states and China. ■ The same logic is at play with making it appear that China has the only reliable Covid-19 vaccine supply. If China's leadership were being responsible -- or even just far-sighted -- they would look to the big scale and see that the world needs an unprecedented supply of effective vaccines, and any rivalry between vaccine-makers pales in comparison with the net good to be done by eradicating the pandemic swiftly and definitively. That's a thing that can only be accomplished by an all-hands-on-deck approach. Spreading misinformation about "rival" vaccines is a strategy that is bound to backfire, and at great cost. It says something grave about the short-sightedness of China's leadership that they would choose such a low-payoff, short-term strategy rather than participating in a global eradication effort as responsible partners. ■ That's a warning sign we shouldn't ignore: The person who's drowning may panic and flail enough to drown their own rescuer and thus scuttle their own hopes of survival. If China's leadership is panicking and flailing this much, perhaps they think there is a domestic threat to their own survival lurking much closer in the water than outsiders realize.

January 20, 2021

The United States of America President Biden sworn in

In the words of Calvin Coolidge, "The chances of having wise and faithful public service are increased by a change in the Presidential office after a moderate length of time." From a historical standpoint, we have a unique situation: A Catholic trifecta at the head of the Federal government, with the President, Speaker of the House, and Chief Justice all members of the Roman Catholic church. The President's Catholicism is a theme it would be hard to miss: He began his Inauguration Day with Mass celebrated by a Jesuit, and the service included "On Eagle's Wings" -- the one you have to hire a cantor to perform at funerals because nobody who knows the deceased can ever get through it without choking up. ■ As Sen. Mitt Romney said, "Despite the differences Americans may have on matters of policy, we share the common goal of ensuring that America continues to be a beacon of hope and freedom for all." It's the right sentiment at all times, but especially so after the last four years. The country -- and the world -- have been drained by the stresses of our last half-decade. ■ One could hardly have known in April of 2016 that not only would President Trump commit offenses worthy of impeachment soon in his term, but that he'd go on to be impeached twice. It was easier to forecast that his Presidency would proceed from early chaos into rank incompetence, then into retribution and score-settling, before ending with looting and exile. ■ America is overdue to be reminded that Presidents don't have to be the end-all, be-all of leadership. Nor should we turn to them as national father figures. To quote again from Coolidge: "It is a great advantage to a President & a major source of safety to the country for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions." Indeed, it would be nice if we could generally turn to our Presidents with a benign indifference.

January 19, 2021

News Day One priorities for the Biden Administration

A whole lot of executive orders are anticipated. Regardless of the merits of any of the particular orders, there ought to be broad consensus that Congress ought to be deciding many of the issues that get punted to the Executive Branch today. We shouldn't be so used to making major shifts based on the vicissitudes of executive orders. It's an unstable way to conduct government, and it really doesn't live up to the purpose of having three branches of government.

January 4, 2021

Business and Finance Do we have too many doctorate degrees?

There is some merit to Noah Smith's take on this matter (that America produces more Ph.D. degrees in some fields than would be optimal for society), but we also need to consider a perspective shift: Instead of front-loading education and creating 30-year-old Ph.D.s, we should try more "education smoothing". As people grow in practical and even commercial experience, there should be affordable and accessible pathways for them to continue formally learning without leaving the areas where they are productively employed. A person with 20 years of focused experience on the job probably knows more about where applied research would pay off than someone in the nonstop BS-to-PhD pipeline. That we don't have many obvious pathways for this (besides executive MBAs and EdD programs for school administrators) is a failure to match smart educational investment to economic development. We should be more strategic than we are.

Health Perverse incentives hurt people

New York is going to fine hospitals that don't use up their allotted Covid-19 vaccine doses -- and then will cut off the supply. We want doses administered promptly and without waste. But government has to be conscious of the dangers of perverse incentives. This approach seems almost perfectly calibrated to ensure that hospitals will order fewer doses than optimal and/or engage in misreporting. Order many, then get them delivered as soon as possible. And if there's overage, give a shot to the pizza delivery driver. Just get the vaccine into circulation in massive numbers without delay! That's the only way to make herd immunity work for us.

Health 4 million Americans have received first doses of Covid-19 vaccines

The next few weeks are going to be interesting for news reporters to cover, since many journalists quite likely have higher-than-average exposure to health-care workers among their social circles. That's going to make it look to the people who report the news as if more people have been vaccinated than is representative of the population overall.

Business and Finance Good intentions have to be enacted through good policies

Fascinating economic research says that the children who lived in large public-housing projects did much better when those projects were demolished: "Public housing projects, particularly large projects, often provide housing to large numbers of people in geographically concen­trated areas. This results in many job-seekers competing for nearby work." Few areas of study are going to have more to do with the health and prosperity of our future (as the United States, and as the world) than the subject of urban economics -- particularly as it deals with universal needs, like housing.

Threats and Hazards If only George Will were wrong about this, but alas...he isn't

As the President plays up a completely false and paranoid narrative of electoral dishonesty, "Hawley and Cruz, both of whom clerked for chief justices of the Supreme Court, hope to be wafted into the White House by gusts of such paranoia." Regrettably, objectively book-smart people like Sen. Cruz and Sen. Hawley are making repugnant choices out of fear. And it's spread to others, like Rep. Elise Stefanik -- a smart and once-promising member of Congress who says she's going to engage in the nonsense, too. Rep. Stefanik would be doing her duty to the Constitution if, as she said, there were "serious questions" about electoral integrity. The problem is that the "questions" are profoundly unserious, and she's smart enough to know better. It's worse than being a simple dupe.

January 3, 2021

Threats and Hazards President calls Georgia state officials to berate them for saying he lost the election

An abuse of the office such as this ought to be universally decried. The states are not to be bullied by a greedy, selfish, and manipulative executive in the Oval Office. As it was put in Federalist 46: "[T]he existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of." President Trump's behavior is utterly outrageous.

The United States of America The military has to cooperate with the political transition

All 10 of the living former Secretaries of Defense co-signed an opinion piece in the Washington Post saying not only that the military needs to stay right out of any disputes over the Presidential election, but also that "Acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller and his subordinates [...] are each bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration, and to do so wholeheartedly." The letter was Dick Cheney's idea. And, in a sense, it seems karmically appropriate that Donald Rumsfeld, author of countless "snowflakes", has signed on to a letter sure to trigger Trumpian snowflakes.

Humor and Good News Science in service to humanity

Maura Quint: "Have we checked all food to see if exploding them makes them into something better or did we just stop with corn?"

December 23, 2020

Threats and Hazards Angry President focuses hate on Vice President

A report from Axios says that "Trump is lashing out, and everyone is in the blast zone" -- particularly the Vice President, who has a Constitutional duty to perform in the coming days as the results of the Electoral College are handed over to Congress. This is happening at a time when the President is actively saying on his Twitter feed that he won't "accept" Joe Biden as President. ■ Vice President Pence cannot be fired by an unhinged President. He could walk up to a bank of microphones at any time and speak without losing his job. He can and should say honest and important things about the election, the pandemic, and the President's behavior. His conscience should compel him. ■ The President's choice to pardon people who willingly and knowingly undermined their country is, in the words of Sen. Ben Sasse, "rotten to the core". Vice President Pence can say so without fear of (prematurely) losing his job. And he should. As Ben Franklin wrote, "Beware, beware! He'll cheat without scruple, who can without fear." ■ The President's choice to veto the defense spending bill is nuts, daft, and bonkers. The President swears an oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States", not to "preserve, protect and defend the names of Confederate generals" -- and yet the renaming of military bases bearing the names of some of those Confederate generals is the second itemized reason for the veto. Vice President Pence can call that un-American (as it is) without being fired. And he should. ■ The President's relentless attacks on the 2020 election are obscene and have damage far beyond a single election. Vice President Pence can call that behavior irresponsible and wrong, and insist that the peaceful transfer of power is beyond dispute. And he should.

Weather and Disasters Dropping the gates on the Interstates

Nebraska closed some of the entrance ramps to I-80 to keep people from driving into a blizzard. The automated gates they use can look terribly foreign to people from outside the Midwest. And yet everyone around here has a story about driving through a snowstorm when we absolutely should not have tried -- like driving when the double-wide plows were on the highways.

Broadcasting Podcast: On truck stops and Dr. Fauci

A 3-minute commentary

December 22, 2020

News What's the strangest thing missing from 2020?

One thing it's strange (but real) to miss: Truck stops. The late-night stop at a Love's, a Flying J, or a TA to refuel and grab some snacks for a long road trip is one of the quintessential American experiences. They aren't architectural marvels, and most of them are destined to be torn down and rebuilt every so often. But especially along the Interstate Highway System, they are unique in their role as modern-day agoras -- marketplaces, centers of commerce, and meeting spots -- where people are found both working and seeking rest 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even the busiest airports have off-peak hours -- O'Hare barely sustains a couple of 24-hour McDonald's locations, and almost all of the concessions close before midnight. But a truck stop is not only free of TSA checkpoints, it's almost always a spot one is guaranteed to find a full meal at any hour of the day or night. ■ Like a lot of things about America, a 24-hour truck stop is a tacit celebration of getting things done. Lots of truck drivers are on the road at night, and while their sleep considerations may deserve some serious safety consideration, they keep the truck stops lively even in the deepest hours of night. ■ For most of us, the travel and gathering restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic have put the brakes on road trips for fun and even most business. That's kept many of us from having the truck-stop experience for almost a year now. When the vaccines have started to have a real effect on the population, one of the signs we're getting back to normal might very well come in the form of a fairly clean restroom, an oversized fountain drink, and a bag of cherry sours.

Health Dear Santa

Dear Santa: All I want for Christmas is to have Dr. Anthony Fauci's sense of mission when I'm 79 years old. Fauci received his first Covid-19 vaccine shot today, on-camera.

Broadcasting Ode to the great '90s television opening sequence

A loving look at what happens when creators get obsessive about the work they do, through the lens of one particular television show's opening sequence. Tom Scott gives terrific voice to the phenomenon of the great 1990s-era opening sequence -- from a time when television was still the definitive mass medium and when computers were getting to be just good enough to do things we couldn't do in the analog world, but before those machines made it into the hands of ordinary people. There's no going back, of course, because today's fully-CG sequences can be made technically perfect. But, for a brief moment, we had artists who sewed glorious, high-craft seams between analog and digital. And their work really did reach, in some fine cases, into the realm of art. ("Beyond 2000" was one of those shows.) Of course, this was also about the time when local television newscasts opened with a bunch of people looking at pieces of paper.

News Be wise

Charlie Munger: "It's dishonorable to stay stupider than you have to be. That's my ethos. You have to be generous, too."

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December 21, 2020

News Beautiful architecture is in the eye of the beholder

But that subjectivity hasn't stopped the President from issuing an executive order prescribing specific styles for use in Federal government buildings. That's a bad mandate, for a simple reason: Anything built with tax dollars ought to be suitable to the community around it and seek to enhance the value of the neighborhood surrounding it. That's it. Different styles will achieve that differently in Des Moines, Manhattan, West Palm Beach, and Ketchikan. Stifling architectural creativity in the name of "classical" style can lead to mediocrity where taxpayers deserve innovation. ■ Norway's national oil company built a marvelous headquarters facility with the specific purpose of creating something to enhance the area. Classical architecture it is not. But it is far better than classical. ■ The opera house and convention center in Reykjavik is breathtaking. Again, not classical in any sense -- but far better. Harpa is iconic, welcoming, and useful. A huge enhancement to the area. ■ The TWA terminal at JFK is so magnificent that it's now a hotel still bearing the iconography of a long-defunct airline. Classical architecture? Nope, not even close. But it's better than anything else around it! ■ One of the finest courthouses in all of Iowa is the one in Woodbury County, which is in the distinctive Prairie School style. It's one of the best-looking structures in Sioux City. But when built in 1918, it was far from "classical". ■ Styles evolve, and every style has to begin with its first building. Lessons should be learned and designs should be improved upon, not just for aesthetics, but for practical reasons, too -- as Louis Sullivan's principle says, form follows function. And improvements to function may change those forms in unexpected ways: Modern Nordic architecture, just for example, often includes thoughtful approaches to materials and configurations that are energy-efficient and suitable to harsh winters -- ideas from which Midwesterners and others in cold climates could learn. But those approaches would conflict with mandates for "classical" styles. And that's the problem: Public buildings in particular ought to serve the community, rather than appear to be the work of a distant occupying government. Bland mandates from DC just don't serve the community interest.

Science and Technology "Vegan leather" needs a better brand

It doesn't sound like nearly as much fun as Naugahyde.

Science and Technology South Korea's broadband speeds put American speeds to shame

South Korea's average 4G download speed (62.9 Mbps) is faster than America's average 5G (55.4), and more than twice our average 4G download (29.8 Mbps). And on 5G, South Korea clocks in at a scorching 351.2 Mbps.

Science and Technology Thinking of exposure to STEM as a matter of privilege

People who have the means should try to get STEM gifts for kids -- it sends a demand signal that can help lead to more (and more affordable) choices for others. The market already knows it can sell more Paw Patrol toys. It need to know there's demand for microscopes and robot kits.

Science and Technology Jupiter and Saturn cross paths in the sky

The AP says it's "the closest Jupiter-Saturn pairing since July 1623". A nice experience, if your view isn't obscured by clouds.

Business and Finance "Nearly 14 percent of office space in Midtown Manhattan is vacant, the highest rate since 2009"

The New York Times points a finger at the pandemic for putting big-city real estate in a bind. And of the 86% that isn't officially vacant, it appears that at last count, 90% of Manhattan office workers still weren't back to working from their offices. So should those vacant offices be allowed to convert into living space? In general, anything that produces more housing is probably worth contemplating: More than 18,000 children are reportedly living without homes in New York City.

December 7, 2020

News The trouble with anarcho-libertarianism

The fatal flaw in anarcho-libertarianism is that liberty is a component of the superior matter of human dignity. There are cases where government intervention, carefully limited by law, advances the dignity of the individual even though it comes at a cost to pure "liberty".

Health Bill Gates: "I expect that we'll have about six vaccines approved by the first quarter"

The approach of funding and pursuing multiple vaccines at once and pre-ordering giant volumes of doses looks like it may well pay off in a substantial way for humanity. Gates is a great advocate for taking off the blinders and firing in all directions when trying to take down a big problem. As he said once to Rolling Stone (about climate change, but certainly applicable to the Covid-19 situation): "[W]e have a real problem, and so we should pursue many solutions to the problem. Even the Manhattan Project pursued both the plutonium bomb and the uranium bomb -- and both worked!"

Broadcasting Layoffs hit ABC News

Widely-known staff members were let go, among many more who weren't household names. A byproduct of relentless waves of media layoffs is that all of the incentives force journalists and commentators into "personal brands", even when they would rather contribute to great teams. This isn't good for our institutions, and is emphatically not the fault of the journalists.

Aviation News Chuck Yeager passes away

The ground he broke was in the sky, but it was a tremendous lift nonetheless

December 6, 2020

News Finding gratitude, even in 2020

Benjamin Franklin: "Who is rich? He that rejoices in his portion."

November 28, 2020

Socialism Doesn't Work China weaponizes tariffs on Australian wines

Show some solidarity and drink Aussie wines today. It's the Trans-Pacific Partnership we all can believe in.

Iowa Every vote matters, but sometimes every individual ballot matters a little extra

"Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks had just six more votes than Democrat Rita Hart after the recount wrapped up Saturday"

Science and Technology Website staff biographies shouldn't stop with the boss

There's a good chance people know the qualifications of the person in charge. It's the subordinates whose details we really need to know.

November 27, 2020

Health Customers are turning against scented candles

It's not because the candles have gone bad. It's because so many people have lost their sense of smell due to Covid-19 that they're not registering the change when buying aromatic wax. If we're not going to get massive daily testing for this dreadful virus, we should make everyone pass a scratch-and-sniff test before entering any public place -- unless they can document that they've passed an antibody test.

Business and Finance I have a joke about Milton Friedman...

...but if I gave it away you wouldn't appreciate it.

Humor and Good News When 3D printing comes to the grocery store

Will we demand anatomically-correct Thanksgiving turkeys?

Science and Technology Don't fight with ghosts

Sage advice from Arthur Brooks: "[M]ake a commitment never to engage with others when they are anonymous online. Social media companies might or might not ultimately require people to reveal their identities before participating, but even if they don't, you don't have to engage..."

November 26, 2020

Iowa 1911-2020

This woman reached age 109 and she lived to see the birth of a great-great-great grandchild. Astonishing.

August 2, 2020

News Lookin' good, Sears Tower

Photographer captures a giant rainbow behind the Sears Tower. (It will always be the Sears Tower, no matter who pays for the naming rights.)

Health Japanese data gives strong evidence: Stay out of bars during Covid-19

"We noted many COVID-19 clusters were associated with heavy breathing in close proximity, such as singing at karaoke parties, cheering at clubs, having conversations in bars, and exercising in gymnasiums". Shame the bar-goers, not the beach-goers.

Humor and Good News The best scene in the entire "Scrubs" canon

In which Colin Hay's guitars goes to the graveyard

Threats and Hazards Murder hornet captured in Washington

Reductionist or not, "murder hornet" is just really good branding -- and that matters if you want people to take the problem seriously.

August 1, 2020

The United States of America "A quiet conscience sleeps in thunder."

Sage words from Benjamin Franklin

Computers and the Internet President Trump says he wants to ban TikTok

A sensible technology user wouldn't touch TikTok with a 10-foot pole. Anyone in charge of any sizable institution should probably try to prohibit its use on any company-supplied devices. There's far too much to worry about with its close relationship to China's ruling party. But to decree that an app will be banned from use in the United States smacks a bit of the divine right of kings.

Humor and Good News We have a Ratt problem

Any television show that calls itself a comedy had better deliver at least one laugh as solid as the GEICO "Ratt Problem" commercial. Just one joke, with impeccable setup and timing.

Humor and Good News Economist puts cupcakes on the barbecue

Creative destruction meets creative convection

Humor and Good News Totally Unnecessary Debate of the Day

On how many social-media platforms are you really active?

July 31, 2020

Threats and Hazards "China is now claiming the right to criminalize speech by foreigners on foreign soil"

Do we still hold certain truths to be self-evident? Do we still believe that everyone, everywhere, is endowed with certain inalienable rights? Do we count liberty and the pursuit of happiness among them? Do we?

Weather and Disasters The Isaias forecast track is going to be a problem

Surely someone in the insurance industry has a tool that can estimate the total value of real property that's within this forecast cone. And surely it's an absolutely jaw-dropping figure.

News When self-respect is a disqualifying condition

A job listing for a "personal assistant to influencer" is enough to induce a terminal eye roll

Iowa No Iowa town has a more ambitious slogan than Riverside

"Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk"

Science and Technology Nature is trippy

There are patterns everywhere

July 6, 2020

Threats and Hazards US government to punish international students if their colleges go online for the fall semester

Students will be kicked out of the country if they're on visas and instruction is made available online. There is no good reason for the government to do this; students from places like China and Iran shouldn't be tossed out just because of a pandemic beyond their control. ■ Look at what's happening in Hong Kong at this very instant. Free expression is under massive assault there as China thunders in with an oppressive "national security" law. Nobody can make a good-faith argument for involuntarily sending a student studying at an American university back to these conditions, just because Covid-19 has closed their university. Nobody.

News Brand-name universities go all-online for fall classes

Harvard is going all-online for the academic year. At Yale, "the bulk of instruction will be conducted remotely". Princeton says "we will need to do much of our teaching online and remotely". ■ Some observers note that tuition remains the same, even though the delivery method is going to be different. Should it? ■ Online instruction is different from classroom-based instruction. Whether it's better, worse, or just equal is entirely up to how it's executed. Make no mistake, though: This pandemic is forcing an epochal shift in higher education. ■ We owe it to ourselves and our children to decide two critical public questions: (1) Should housing be treated as an investment or as a universal need? (2) Does higher education exist merely for sorting or for maximizing the potential of as many people as possible? ■ These two questions represent enormous shares of domestic spending, and bear massively on the long-term economic prospects of many of our people. Decide well.

Health Face masks reduced growth in Covid-19 spread by 40% in Germany

That's a giant change, thanks to a low-cost, low-effort intervention. One wishes we could find similar tools to knock down the growth in other bad things by 40%. If we could easily and cheaply reduce heart attacks by 40% or automobile fatalities by the same, wouldn't we do it without making politics a part of it?

Threats and Hazards Three police officers mocked Elijah McClain in pictures

The officers, of the Aurora (Colorado) police department, engaged in appalling behavior. If someone can't show good judgment with a camera, how can they possibly be expected to show good judgment with lethal force?

July 5, 2020

News Good heavens, Los Angeles

(Video) Airborne views of the city on the Fourth of July reveal a whole lot of revelers getting feisty with the firecrackers

July 4, 2020

The United States of America The Declaration of Independence

Worth re-reading every Independence Day. Recall always some of the transgressions the Founders declared among "a long train of abuses and usurpations" justifying their independence: "He has obstructed the Administration of Justice", "For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world", "For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury", "He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us".

The United States of America The wisest of words for the Fourth

Calvin Coolidge gave what is probably the definitive Fourth of July Presidential address in the 20th Century, but there are many other wise words worth remembering on this day. ■ Calvin Coolidge: "If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final." ■ Federalist Paper No. 76: "The institution of delegated power implies, that there is a portion of virtue and honor among mankind, which may be a reasonable foundation of confidence; and experience justifies the theory." ■ Margaret Thatcher: "The preservation of liberty depends not only on institutions, not only on the skill, determination and vision of statesmen. It also depends on the willingness of individuals to exert themselves, to risk their fortunes, and to give up time and money for their ideals." ■ James Madison: "[T]he character of the times particularly inculcates the lesson that, whether to prevent or repel danger, we ought not to be unprepared for it." ■ Ben Sasse: "America is a place for those who believe that fallen humanity -- including me and you -- is so often in error that we are reticent to use force. We would prefer to extend the debate, and try to argue and persuade another day." ■ John Stuart Mill: "The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection." ■ And, perhaps more relevant than any other, James Madison: "Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm."

July 3, 2020

Threats and Hazards Draconian new laws from China put Hong Kong under house arrest

Ousted politician Nathan Law: "As a global-facing activist, the choices I have are stark: to stay silent from now on, or to keep engaging in private diplomacy so I can warn the world of the threat of Chinese authoritarian expansion. I made the decision when I agreed to testify before the US Congress." That's what "When in the Course of human events [...] a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation" sounds like in 2020.

June 30, 2020

Threats and Hazards China sweeps in to rule Hong Kong by intimidation

Per the New York Times: "Ambiguously worded offenses of separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment." A prominent activist called it "End of Hong Kong, Beginning of Reign of Terror". ■ The urgency with which the mainland Chinese Communist Party imposed the new rules reveals that the reputation they have for "long-term thinking" is entirely untrue. Enlightened leaders with a true long-term vision would have reconciled the differences between the two systems by liberalizing the mainland instead of constraining Hong Kong. The move is impulsive and abusive. ■ This terrible moment is why good countries need to have liberal asylum policies. Imagine being a visible pro-democracy advocate in Hong Kong right now: You could face closed-door trials, life imprisonment, or expulsion. The people of Hong Kong plainly deserve better than this. Their autonomy is gone, as is really any sense of self-government. ■ China's central government is repulsed by the idea of individual dignity. In the short term, their new rules may keep the powerful in power. But in the long term, they have chosen a self-destructive path that will collapse under its own immorality. Every person is created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights. The world knows this to be true. Where that self-evident truth is denied, it is only a matter of time -- sometimes, quite a lot of it, but never forever -- before people assert the fundamental truth of their own dignity.

Health Wear a mask, but...

...don't feel like you need to screen-print it with a picture of your face. Nobody needs that.

Health Woman delivers own baby en route to Omaha hospital

From the Omaha World-Herald: "Danessia said she could feel the baby's head. Staying calm, she leaned the seat back, kicked up her legs on the dashboard and delivered the baby." If she can keep this kind of a cool head, put this woman in charge of anything. (After a well-deserved maternity leave.)

Computers and the Internet Would social media be better if users were charged by the hour?

On one hand, yes (if it meant people were disincentivized from endless scrolling). On the other hand, the only things worth seeing on Facebook are the ones that take time to write. It might work if you could disable the copy-paste function and eliminate the sharing of all memes.

Science and Technology Domestication is weird

A fox grows fond of the humans living nearby during Covid-19

News Fireworks? Only if the neighborhood agrees.

If you can keep the fire and fury inside the walls of your own home, then go nuts. If you can't, then maybe the neighbors should have some say in the matter. (Note: You can't keep the fire and fury within the walls of your home without a lot of asbestos.)

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June 29, 2020

News Why should we still care about NATO?

Even if you think all mutual-aid circumstances are in the past (and they aren't), think of NATO like an alumni association. We may have "graduated" from the Cold War, but it sure doesn't hurt if we wear our team colors, tailgate together, and renew offers to help each other out. Alliances require continuing commitment and renewal, but if they're truly mutualistic, then they don't cost any more than going alone.

Health A pandemic-capable flu may be emerging in China

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it's that any problem we think is 6 months away we should treat like it's 6 weeks away. If the worst case were to come true, then what should we be doing about it?

Threats and Hazards The freedom of Hong Kong may be over

A journalist asks, "Do you remember that feeling of lightness when crossing from the Mainland into Hong Kong"? "Remember", as in: In the past and no longer.

Business and Finance Don't be coy about hiring salaries

It seems not only like a pointless power play for an employer to hide the pay range for a position, but it's well worth noting that the practice has consequences for equity, too. Prospective employees deserve to know up-front whether they will be compensated adequately and fairly, not just according to their self-perceived ability to demand more.

The United States of America The plans of 1956 still shape our world in 2020

We rarely appreciate just how much the original map of the Eisenhower Interstate System shapes how we think about distance. As the crow flies, it's about the same distance from Des Moines to either St. Louis or St. Paul. But since the Twin Cities are just up I-35, they seem close -- while St. Louis is like another country.

June 28, 2020

Broadcasting Podcast: Do I look like a manager to you?

What implicit assumptions are you carrying in your head? How do the faulty ones keep people from being treated with dignity?

June 27, 2020

Health Be direct

(Video) Dr. Anthony Fauci really gets the importance of clear, direct language when communicating scientific information to the public. It's a credit to his professionalism.

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June 26, 2020

Threats and Hazards Election interference didn't stop in 2016

Russia, China, and undoubtedly others haven't been made to stop their efforts to influence and interfere with the US electoral process. ■ To quote Federalist Paper No. 41: "Security against foreign danger is one of the primitive objects of civil society. It is an avowed and essential object of the American Union."

News What implicit assumptions are you carrying in your head?

The implicit-association tests offered through Harvard are a worthwhile exercise. Most people of goodwill want to think of ourselves as unbiased, but there's nothing like getting an objective measurement of what's inside our heads. You don't have to tell anyone your results, but it's worthwhile knowing if you're truly approaching people with the open mind you know you should be.

Health Babies need to sleep -- alone -- on their backs

Polk County health officials note with alarm the local deaths of seven babies in the last three months

Health Every CPU helps

The Rosetta@Home project needs more computers to help run computations like the ones that have resulted in experimental drugs now being tested for effectiveness against coronavirus. ■ Ideally, we'll get a vaccine sooner than expected, it will be overwhelmingly effective, 7.6 billion doses will be produced overnight, and everyone will gladly get vaccinated. But those are a lot of preconditions that all have to come together just right to get us out of trouble. So, just in case that doesn't come true, let's find effective therapies ASAP. Everyone's computer can help. So can everyone's mask.

June 25, 2020

Threats and Hazards What is the value of a life?

Elijah McClain committed no crime, but three people with the authority of the law made choices to treat him like an object. Such disregard for the essential dignity of a human life harms us all.

The United States of America Civilian oversight required

Any shortage of virtue, competence, or imagination in our government is a choice. America was a country of 4 million people when the Constitution was enacted. We have 330 million today, plus far more experience and education -- not to mention universal civil rights. Any virtue or genius that you detect in the Founders, you ought to see hundreds of times over in America today. In 1790, the total population of Virginia alone was about 750,000 people -- or about the size of one Congressional district today. That small population included Washington, Madison, and Jefferson. By any objective measure, we should easily have 400 George Washingtons, 400 James Madisons, and 400 Thomas Jeffersons living among us today. Probably many more, considering that the only free white men had a say in matters at their time. It's on us.

Iowa DMACC and UNI to partner on four-year degree program in Des Moines

UNI has a special mission as the state's comprehensive university, and this is a great alignment with that charter. More of this, please!

June 24, 2020

Broadcasting Only about 10% of American radio listening happens via streams

Broadcasting observers wonder why. There are a few hypotheses to consider: (1.) Too many rival apps with no clear leader. (2.) Too many false starts from ca. 1998 until ca. 2015, during which people never got the chance to become accustomed to a habit of listening. (3.) Garbage preroll ads, awful filler material, and bad synchronization, all of which lead to an inconsistent and sub-par listening experience. (4.) Low broadband speeds (no, really; the United States lags in broadband speeds compared to many other countries, and the problem is worst in remote areas where streaming would do the most good for listeners who don't have as many over-the-air listening options). (5.) An ever-dwindling supply of compelling local content. ■ That last one is a doozy. It's a pipe dream to imagine that anyone would invest the kind of money in content it would take to produce an American analog to BBC's outstanding Radio 4, but there has been a semi-conscious choice by American radio management to chase the lowest common denominator instead of investing in great speech-based content first. Radio 4 gets more than 10% of all listening in the UK, and there's nothing at all like it in the US market. ■ But the technical side of things can't be overlooked, either: The platform-dependency model is just nutty. There's a perfectly rational explanation for how and why it emerged, but making the user go download separate apps for Radio.com, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, and so on is daft. It's like needing separate apps to place calls through to your friends depending on whether they subscribe to Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile.

News "[T]here was no evidence from any study that Native American mascots foster positive or beneficial psychosocial effects for Native Americans"

Review of studies on team mascots and psychological perceptions finds, unsurprisingly, that no matter how many times people try to say that using American Indians is somehow an honor, it just plain isn't understood that way. Any team that does it ought to reconsider, particularly the one in the NFL that substitutes a racial epithet for an actual mascot. This really shouldn't be a tough call. Washington's football team needs a new name.

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June 23, 2020

The United States of America Why do we even have a government?

James Madison: "[W]e can rejoice in the proofs given that our political institutions, founded in human rights and framed for their preservation, are equal to the severest trials of war as well as adapted to the ordinary periods of repose." ■ Madison framed the Constitution. He was President during the War of 1812, which could have broken the young country, but didn't. We should take him at his word that the very purpose of our government was and is the preservation of human rights.

Health A sobering and distressing dispatch from Houston

A Texas doctor reports that "in Houston we, the pediatricians at Texas Children's Hospital, will now start seeing adult patients." All because Covid-19 has filled the ICU capacity at adult hospitals.

Humor and Good News Art in many layers

The artist once formerly known as Prince fighting the former prince while the Queen scraps with Queen.

News How the pandemic is changing cities

This article opens with notes on changes to mass transit. One might wonder if small cars (serving, say, 2 to 8 people) could/will be introduced to run on existing rail systems. Still high density, but with greater isolation. The need to efficiently move people at high volumes while minimizing space and energy use remains, but we might need to rethink how we achieve it. Odds seem good that we'll find a way to get Covid-19 under control sometime in the not-so-distant future -- but what if we can't? Or what if something else comes after it? Oughtn't we be prepared for the contingencies?

Humor and Good News "Barcelona opera house reopens with performance to 2,292 plants"

Potted plants don't need cough drops to keep quiet for a recording. Plants 1 - People 0.

Threats and Hazards Even accidental voter suppression is still voter suppression

You can run a polling place with the efficiency of a Swiss train station, but Kentucky's experiment in "only having one polling location in both Louisville and Lexington, the state's two largest cities" didn't enable voters the maximum reach of the franchise, and in fact demonstrably stood in the way of it. Especially during a pandemic, that's un-American.

Humor and Good News The English language needs a punctuation mark to denote a cheerful period

For those times when an exclamation mark is too much, but when a simple period is too dry. If we can come up with the interrobang, then we can invent the cheeriod.

June 22, 2020

Threats and Hazards "A 3-year-old boy was shot and killed in Chicago over the weekend"

Those words alone ought to haunt any civilized person. Violence like this is contagious. It has a community impact. And it ought to be preventable with reasonable interventions. Why don't we treat it as a grave public-health problem? There is no single "cure" for violence, but there are lots of different interventions that can help. Homicide is a top-5 cause of death for every age from 1 to 44, but so is suicide between ages 10 and 54. The problem calls for many answers.

Threats and Hazards We are not angry enough on behalf of our fellow humans

The President of the United States has confessed to turning a blind eye towards China's use of concentration camps against religious minorities, and he says he did it because he was "in the middle of a negotiation" over trade. However angry this might make you, get even angrier. ■ As Calvin Coolidge said, "If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final." Do we believe these things are universally true, or do we not?

Broadcasting Nancy McNally for President

They ought to re-make "The West Wing", but with Anna Deavere Smith in the lead role as POTUS. It's the show America needs to see right now.

News A cruel paradox of editing

It's a cruel paradox that the American Psychological Association established a citation format that gives people existential headaches.

June 20, 2020

The United States of America The words of the Presidents

The Miller Center at the University of Virginia hosts a tremendous collection of past Presidential speeches and writings. Well worth reviewing, especially for words from broad-minded leaders like Eisenhower, who never had to worry about crowd sizes.

June 19, 2020

The United States of America "Why Juneteenth matters"

Well-said by Jamelle Bouie: "Emancipation wasn't a gift bestowed on the slaves; it was something they took for themselves, the culmination of their long struggle for freedom." ■ The people who were held in slavery were just as human -- smart, humane, self-aware, capable -- as ourselves. We have to read history with that in mind, because history has rarely been written to give them that credit.

Business and Finance Bonos basura

You have to admit that the Spanish term for "junk bonds" is a lot more phonetically pleasing than the English one

Computers and the Internet Twitter adds audio tweets

But it's nothing new; Audioboo[m] offered the same service a decade ago. Don't expect this to take off, though. Audio is a magnificent art form, but it just doesn't fit with endless scrolling. Audio requires you to stop and comprehend (if it is to be of any informative value), and without so much as a visual cue (like you might get with video), there's no way to skip ahead or jump around. And people are not patient, on balance.

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June 18, 2020

Health Extremely significant if true

Reuters reports: "The risk for severe COVID-19 was 45% higher for people with type A blood than those with other blood types. It appeared to be 35% lower for people with type O." Always take reporting on studies with a grain of salt. Reporters usually try their best, but it's extremely hard to communicate things like confidence intervals or significance tests in a news story written for the general public. Conclusions easily get exaggerated. But if both true and accurate, this is an item of the utmost newsworthiness.

Threats and Hazards Someone's cyber-attacking Australia

It doesn't take much imagination to fill in the "someone" with "China". We need a Cyber Force far more than we need a Space Force.

News Don't demand perfect heroes

Anything involving humans is going to be imperfect. It's the striving towards becoming better that counts. Stories of redemption are more important than idyllic reports of perfection.

Threats and Hazards The academic priesthood model is a problem

The paradigm within academia that equates certain bona fides (like publications) with worthiness is a gigantic problem. That, in turn, sets up expectations of deference that perpetuate the status quo (including the power structures that make up who is "in charge") that have nothing to do with the positive diffusion of knowledge. ■ Federalist Paper No. 36: "There are strong minds in every walk of life that will rise superior to the disadvantages of situation, and will command the tribute due to their merit, not only from the classes to which they particularly belong, but from the society in general."

June 16, 2020

Threats and Hazards China and India come to blows

Literally, in a brawl in the mountains. Several died. Not good news when a conflict between the two most populous nations in the world gains itself a hashtag like "#IndiaChinaFaceoff.

Health Airlines might start banning passengers who won't wear masks

As they should. It is, quite literally, almost the very least you can be asked to do in service of the general welfare during a time of pandemic.

News Police officer comes to rescue of man who drove two daughters off cliff

"'That's probably the most heroic thing I've seen in my 32 years', said San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit". Nothing beats knowing how to do important things and being willing to do them when they're needed.

Business and Finance A silly question: "Has Buffett missed the rally?"

One sure way to know that stock-market-watchers have gone a little daft is that they're rolling out the weather-worn debate over whether Warren Buffett still knows what he's doing. When someone is dedicated to doing things the right way and circumstances fail to reward it (even for a long time), that's no reason for them to abandon the right way. Carry on, Warren Buffett. Carry on. Right will ultimately be rewarded.

Business and Finance What happens if housing affordability becomes a real public priority?

The matter of ensuring an abundant supply of dignified housing at affordable prices is by far one of the most important policy issues out there. While net government spending on it isn't clearly the best measuring stick, the issue deserves a whole lot of thought. Public policy most certainly can make the problem better -- or worse.

News Missing the point entirely

A newspaper, after encountering blowback for publishing an editorial cartoon, declares: "We will continue to take responsibility for publishing an offensive cartoon, but after the uproar we caused last week, we have made a decision to suspend the use of editorial cartoons on our Opinion page for the time being." That's missing the point. Don't throw the valuable genre out with the bathwater, folks.

The United States of America Self-evident truths require some unchanging parts of human nature

Human nature is a powerful thing. Accepting just how powerful it is makes it possible to think clearly (and modestly) about how to use rules, training, and education to overcome its shortcomings.

Health Severe measures in Beijing to curb Covid-19 resurgence

It's too easy to read that there's an outbreak in Beijing and scale it to the size of an American city, like Baltimore or Denver. Beijing has as many people as the entire state of Florida.

Humor and Good News 2020 class motto: "We really outdid ourselves with senior skip day"

This year requires a mandatory sense of humor

Computers and the Internet Should the anonymous be taken seriously in online arguments?

Real debate should take place under your real name, unless there's a meaningful hazard in so doing. That said: Everyone who has a real-name account ought to have a burner, too, where you can let off some steam. And never the twain shall meet.

Broadcasting 28 jobs cut at Minnesota Public Radio

Now is the worst possible time for media economics in modern history, and the layoffs are overwhelming in number. Outlets like MPR aren't huge, and to cut 28 employees marks a real loss for the institution. Though, of course, the now-jobless are the ones who are really hurt.

June 15, 2020

Health "When I wear a mask, I protect you. And when you wear a mask, you protect me."

Don't wait for the vaccine; we can break this thing now. It can be done.

Computers and the Internet If schools remain closed or semi-closed, broadband Internet will be essential

Imagine taking a time machine back to 1995 and explaining that in 25 years, broadband Internet access will become a major factor in public health. Because it is now.

Iowa Iowans used absentee voting en masse this primary

79.4% voted by absentee ballot. In the middle of a pandemic, you know what that equates to? A lot of Iowans taking a pragmatic step to not only protect their own health, but to protect the well-being of poll workers. More absentee voting means less exposure at the polls. Nice work, team.

The United States of America Don't ask us to imagine a world without immigrants

A country should never be ashamed to import all the willing talent it can find.

Science and Technology Dreaming of high-speed rail

High-speed rail in places like Italy really is fantastic stuff -- it's just great. But Italy has 9.5 times the population density of a place like Iowa. There's little way to make the economics work at the same scale here as there without the help of some stunning breakthroughs.

June 8, 2020

Broadcasting Podcast: "News for Nerds"

Where did James Mattis have his letter published this week, and what does it have to do with the Capital Weather Gang?

Threats and Hazards Anti-bias trainer gets assaulted while trying to keep the peace

Derrick Sanderlin has worked for years trying to help the San Jose (Calif.) police to reduce implicit bias, but he ended up getting hit with rubber bullets fired by police after he tried to de-escalate a situation

Humor and Good News Canada: The best friends ever

Even if a country got to choose its neighbors, it couldn't choose better than Canada.

News "Black in the Ivory"

Reading the stories collected on Twitter under the #blackintheivory hashtag is really a great deal more educational than any dry research paper about a regression analysis on the same subject. Highly recommended browsing. (It's also a helpful source of Twitter accounts worth following.)

The United States of America Why Army bases shouldn't be named for Confederates

It's time to catch up with reality. Also: Now would be a good time to consider removing Woodrow Wilson's name from things, too.

Weather and Disasters Iowa makes the forecast track for a tropical depression

That's a new one. The swing from 90 degrees and sunny to a flash flood watch is going to hurt.

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June 7, 2020

News Newspapers: Pick a (nerd) lane

The Washington Post's "Capital Weather Gang" ought to be a model for every newspaper. It's a deep dive into a very specific topic, and that relentless nerdiness makes it worth following (even if you don't live under DC weather). Every newspaper, big and small, ought to pick one nerd lane and make it a signature feature. Cover a unique topic with a team approach and excessive zeal, and let it become a thing for which the paper can become known outside of the conventional coverage of the local news. Plenty of places have much more interesting weather than Washington, DC -- Chicago, for instance, just among the major cities. But in Chicago, there's WGN television's Dr. Tom Skilling, and then there's everybody else -- it's not really a team thing in the sense of a group literally called the Capital Weather "Gang". ■ It's merely a guess, but a good quarter of the population could probably be categorized as "nerds": People who take an unusual amount of recreational interest in a subject, developing expertise that is either outside their occupation or in excess of what they are paid to know and care about. And a lot of people, though not really nerds themselves, are nerd-adjacent: They like hearing, reading, or watching other people get nerdy about a subject. The enthusiasm is the secret sauce. It's a matter of caring about something entirely out of personal passion, then letting that passion spill over into evangelization of one sort or another. ■ Nerd content may not look like much, but as a tool for institutionally defining a media outlet, it would seem to be an obvious source of potential. As the editorial and content-creation staffs of newspapers and other media outlets shrink, it's becoming ever harder to be the "everything store" for news. But it may be possible to survive in the long term by competently delivering the expected "everything", while specifically becoming the destination for some unique lane of nerd content. People want it -- so it seems wise to satisfy that demand.

June 6, 2020

Weather and Disasters Iowa is literally on track for a post-tropical depression

Cristobal is forecasted to track up the Mississippi River -- which cannot bode well for the flooding prospects in New Orleans once it has departed

News The title of "peace officer" ought to be taken both literally and seriously

The utterly despicable way in which a man was thrown to the ground in Buffalo, New York, is the kind of thing good police ought to denounce far and wide

News Real headline: "Cate Blanchett suffers minor head injury in 'chainsaw accident'"

Aren't famous actors well-advised to stay away from outdoor power tools?

June 5, 2020

The United States of America "We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution"

Retired Defense Secretary James Mattis blasts the President's misbehavior in a letter shared via The Atlantic: "Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people -- does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society." And as he speaks out, John Kelly joins him. And high-ranking leaders in the Armed Forces are subtly echoing the same things. Fortunately, some vocal acknowledgment is being made that the military doesn't exist to serve an individual politician. ■ On a side note: It's fascinating to watch as The Atlantic has effectively moved in to fill the space previously occupied by the triumvirate of Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report. It would be good for there to be more such editorial institutions with such a presence again. The publishing world has suffered a great deal in its transition to the realities of digital economics, but institutions still need to occupy a space where they can serve as clearinghouses for ideas and debate. ■ One of the least-reasonable changes that has occurred of late has been the New York Times's retreat from publishing daily editorials. And now, smarting from the reaction to this week's awful op-ed from Sen. Tom Cotton, the Times is considering a reduction in the number of op-eds it publishes. No, no, no: That's not the point. The Times should publish many ideas. Even a few stupid ones. But...maybe not the violently reactionary ones, OK? ■ Smart, opinionated digital publications have emerged -- The Bulwark, The Dispatch, and others. This has happened while others have been closed (The Weekly Standard) or major changes in tone or style (The Examiner and the National Review, for instance). But we need a contest among publications that think of themselves as representing the consensus of American opinion. The Atlantic may, in fact, be somewhere away from that center, but its identity seems more to be built around being where public opinion will be in six to twelve months -- skating, like Gretzky, to where the puck will be. Canada, with just 37 million people, has Maclean's, with its "uniquely Canadian perspective". One would think that the United States, with 330 million, could sustain more than just one publication in The Atlantic's lane -- and that it should.

The United States of America Strong words from James Mattis may have put steel in some spines

God bless Mattisonian permission structures.

News 161 American kids were named the 2020 U.S. Presidential Scholars

The program is making some headlines because of two bad appointments to the selection commission, but please don't let the rotten news overshadow the honor of the students. They represent all walks of life and all 50 states (plus PR & DC) and they should be the ones making news and being recognized.

News People shouldn't die over minor infractions

A reminder from Federalist Paper No. 62: "It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood..."

June 4, 2020

News Watch "The Tank Man"

(Video) The Frontline episode on Tiananmen Square is worth a re-watching every June 4th. The dignity of the individual is the highest good, and there may be no better illustration in modern history. This year's socially-distanced vigil in Hong Kong must not be the last.

News "I might just ask that the military officers step aside while you're answering these kind of questions"

Australian military leaders knew how to step away from rank partisanship last year

Health Safe hugging in a pandemic

News you really can use

Weather and Disasters Something unholy in the skies over Kansas City

A back-building mesoscale convective system crashed into a forward-propagating one behind it. The radar picture is incredible.

News The US just finished paying Civil War pensions

A woman whose father was an 83-year-old veteran when she was born (in 1930) just passed away. Try thinking through the math on that one.

June 3, 2020

News Hong Kong should have become a US state

Generally: Let refugees in. Specifically: Let lots of Hong Kong residents in before the window closes and China refuses to let them out. And broadly: Don't be surprised by a future populated by city-states. But to the question immediately at hand, the United States, the UK, Australia, and other countries of like philosophy ought to open the doors wide to the people of Hong Kong if they want out.

News "I'm against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop"

Senator Ben Sasse is right to say it. Whether you're an originalist, a textualist, a living-documentarian, or the ghost of Antonin Scalia himself, "the right of the people peaceably to assemble" doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room.

Threats and Hazards Who are the people with the weapons?

Scenes from DC include the grave observation that armed "law enforcement" members won't identify themselves. If anyone is purporting to represent Federal law enforcement without identification, then it's time for members of Congress to demand immediate answers. All Federal authority is ultimately accountable to the Article I branch.

Threats and Hazards Sen. Tom Cotton is at odds with the IRI

He serves as a member of the board at the International Republican Institute. But the Senator is clearly at odds with its honorable mission, particularly with his use of phrases like "no quarter". He should have the character to recalibrate his own words accordingly.

Weather and Disasters Massive cloud complex visible for hundreds of miles

Over Muscatine, visible from Dubuque, with a plume stretching all the way to Chicagoland

News Police shouldn't be all-purpose social workers

Conscientious citizens ought to pursue change on this matter within their own communities. Who would you call if you thought someone needed help not of the 911 variety? Asking police/fire/EMS to be jacks-of-all-trades isn't fair to them, nor to the people in need.

June 2, 2020

The United States of America Air Force leadership speaks out

Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright shares an impassioned plea: "What should you be doing? Like me, acknowledge your right to be upset about what's happening to our nation. But you must then find a way to move beyond the rage and do what you think is right for the country, for your community, for your sons, daughters, friends and colleagues...for every Black man in this country who could end up like George Floyd." It's a statement worth reading. ■ The Constitution's call "To form a more perfect union" is a phrase built around a verb. It isn't a destination or an end-state. It's a process and a challenge. It's not just "all hands" for the military -- it's for all of us. But thank goodness for leaders like Chief Master Sergeant Wright.

Computers and the Internet Florida member of Congress has tweet hidden for violating anti-violence policy

It's a start. Rep. Matt Gaetz asked about "hunt[ing] down" members of Antifa, and it was a needless display of puffery that bordered on incitement to violence. Blood lust is no substitute for courageous resolve. We need more adults in national leadership who can look to a problem and answer it with a summons to duty and an acknowledgment of the inherent challenges of living in a liberal democracy without turning to cheap lines meant to shock.

Health Will your personality change over time?

It can happen, but the odds are against sweeping changes in anyone's big five characteristics

News Names on the street

The names of people who died in police custody are painted on the street in Minneapolis where George Floyd died. This image deserves a very large audience.

Threats and Hazards DEA vehicles block the road to the Cato Institute

Protests in Washington, DC, and the Federal response thereto create a set of circumstances straight out of a Correspondents' Dinner routine. And yet: There are military vehicles and armed Federal agents blocking the streets of the nation's capital.

Weather and Disasters An early-season tropical storm could make a giant mess in the Gulf of Mexico

Tropical Storm Cristobal is already causing deadly floods in Central America

Computers and the Internet Little-known fact: Herbert Hoover opposed regulating Twitter

"Every expansion of government in business means that government, in order to protect itself from the political consequences of its errors and wrongs, is driven irresistibly without peace to greater and greater control of the nation's press and platform."

June 1, 2020

Threats and Hazards A despicable photo stunt

Peaceably-assembled people were removed with tear gas so that the President could get a photo op. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went with him. There was another choice: He could have said no. It's been done before by leaders in similar circumstances who knew how to keep their military uniforms out of a political stunt.

May 29, 2020

News "Do you think the cop with his knee on George Floyd's neck thought of him as a neighbor?"

The perspective and attitude that Patrick Skinner brings to his work as a peace officer (and what he tells us about it) are consistently refreshing. There are too many people who look into the eyes of others and see things that don't belong there instead of the dignified humanity of others. No 7-year-old is deserving of hate. ■ Every individual is entitled to be treated with dignity. Every human life has equal value. These should not be contestable claims.

News How to be a better person

Easy steps for allies

Humor and Good News The bookiest bookshelf ever

Be right back -- gotta go order some new Billy bookcases from IKEA

News Soldiers at the altar, 1918

This colorization is done with great skill -- matched by an evident respect for the original.

Health Plastic shields for fine dining in semi-distant privacy

Some of us depend on nonverbal communication more than anything else, so those cones are going to need wider diameters

May 28, 2020

The United States of America There's no reason voting by mail can't be quite secure

When ostensibly smart people like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas go about spinning the subject as though voting by mail is somehow riddled with fraud, they do a giant disservice to their fellow Americans. Sen. Cotton isn't an idiot, but his arguments substitute narrow, short-term partisanship for the durable good of the republic. ■ The grounds for election security -- even via mail -- are already well-established. Mail tampering is already a Federal offense. Election fraud is already a Federal offense. Voter intimidation is already a Federal offense. ■ Whatever happened to "enforce the laws already on the books"? A good-faith argument over the security of voting by mail would need first to acknowledge that there are already extensive legal prohibitions on the kind of bad behavior that could contaminate a vote. But a good-faith argument would further have to acknowledge that democracy itself is an exercise in trusting one's fellow citizens. There will always be people of bad faith and bad intent. But if they are more than 1 in 100, that would be a stunning revelation. ■ We can and should make rules and establish deterrents to keep people from trying to interfere with a clean vote. But we also need to believe that democracy gains legitimacy as more people take part in it. The United States is a democratic republic, and though we have guaranteed our republican virtues through the Constitution since 1787, we became more democratic in 1870 when the 15th Amendment was ratified, and again in 1920, when the 19th Amendment became law. Those steps made the country more democratic, and thus made the law more legitimate as an expression of the consent of the governed. ■ A vote is not made more worthy because the voter had to experience hardship to cast it. A vote is legitimate because it is cast by an individual, dignified and possessed of natural rights by virtue of birth.

Computers and the Internet Technologies are value-neutral. People aren't.

Jonathan V. Last, on whether Twitter ought to place some guardrails around the President's behavior: "The company can either be the arbiter of some basic shared liberal values. Or it can be a tool used by a political figure who is authoritarian-curious." ■ Twitter, Facebook, YouTube -- you name the platform. All of them have rules against some forms of behavior. Yet, it will never be enough to be merely anti-bad, and it will never be adequate to think that perfecting technology will perfect humanity. Rules reflect choices -- and so does anarchy.

Humor and Good News Astronauts get radio chirps to help prevent crosstalk

We don't quite need to add those to videoconferencing, but maybe we could start using CB radio lingo to help prevent ambiguity. We could start with using "over" and "10-4".

Computers and the Internet Why did you unfollow?

Twitter could really use a follow-up feature so that you could, in fact, explain your unfollowing without drawing needless attention to it. Maybe there's a good reason for your departure, maybe not. But most of us don't unfollow with a flourish but, rather, silently in the night.

May 27, 2020

Business and Finance Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin needs a better autograph

If your signature is going to be on the country's currency, it's better if that signature doesn't abritrarily intermix capitals with lower-case letters. That's not a style; it's a failure of basic penmanship. ■ To be fair, the "S" is probably the hardest letter to add in cursive, so he has an uphill battle to climb from the very first letter. But there are some pretty good ones to mimic in the Declaration of Independence. Roger Sherman probably had the cleanest "S" among the signatories, but there's a neat little flourish in Sam Huntington's that would be worth repeating in a modern autograph. ■ Signatures are a funny topic in an America that has a strange love/hate relationship with cursive writing. As a means of daily communications, cursive is far less important (most of the time) than typing. But there's an inherent value to an individual's handwriting (and, by extension, their signature) that ought to redeem itself in its own right. Not every idea is best expressed through touch-typing on a QWERTY keypad, and that means some kind of handwriting is necessary. And there are times, to be sure, when flowing cursive is preferable (aesthetically or otherwise) to block letters. A signature is one of thse cases -- even if awful signature pads erase all of the quality of effort. ■ Take pride in your signature, whether you're the Treasury Secretary or not. Find a special letter to make yours unique. In this time of "personal branding", there's no reason not to put a little effort into the "personal logo" you affix to any document of importance. (But that goes at twice over if the document in question is the currency.)

News CBS News to lay off somewhere around 50 staff members

We've seen a few steps toward this, but journalism urgently needs a concerted effort to spin up reporting outlets based on some form of co-op model, similar in spirit to credit unions. Not to replace what for-profit outlets do, but to fill the frightening gaps as they drop out. ■ The mutualism model isn't necessarily useful in every sector, but there are industries -- and journalism is increasingly one of them -- where the for-profit sector is abandoning ship due to structural problems that show no signs of changing. ■ Since advertising-supported journalism is being pinched more than ever, subscription-based reporting may well have to take its place. But that shift most likely also requires a change in management approach, as well.

Aviation News SpaceX astronauts take the "Dress for Success" ethic to a whole new level

The space suits aren't quite as shiny as the classic 1960s aesthetic, but they're pretty sleek in a modernist-and-yet-post-modernist way.

Humor and Good News What's in the pool water?

A children's swimsuit label comes with the warning "only non-chlorine bleach". Somebody may be missing the point.

Business and Finance This should really come as no surprise

People rethinking other travel plans are buying RVs. "Social distancing is a lot easier when you can bring along your own kitchen, bathroom and bedroom"

May 26, 2020

Threats and Hazards Man dies in Minneapolis police custody as bystanders are held back

Every encounter with the government should be predicated on a fundamental respect for the dignity of the individual. This much should be beyond debate. Yet it certainly doesn't appear to be on display in this awful incident.

Computers and the Internet When broadband becomes a public-health tool

Broadband access was important before, but the pandemic has made it practically essential as a tool for people to go about their business while keeping their distance from unnecessary crowds, working from home, or attending church and school activities delivered online in lieu of gatherings.

News Dissent among the trainers of the ranks

Civilians depend upon an officer corps that thinks independently, supports and defends the Constitution, and develops critical thinking about duty under the law. We should want our military leaders to be smart and honorable, not uncritical and servile.

May 24, 2020

Threats and Hazards Posted on Chinese social media: "2020-1997=50"

That may be one of the most pithy statements of protest ever made. And it is so deeply sad that this may be true.

News A billion cicadas per section

An NPR report says that parts of the United States are about to see the arrival of one and a half million cicadas per acre. There are 640 acres in a section, and 1.5 million times 640 equals 960 million total cicadas. (A section, by the way, is just one square mile.) That's a positively unfathomable number of insects.

Humor and Good News How do you summon the Laundry Fairy?

Do you have to put a Tide Pod underneath your pillow?

May 23, 2020

Weather and Disasters Smartphones make weather spotting better

With a good connection, spotters can share high-definition observations in real time. Add in just a little geolocation and you have a great way for professionals to verify what they're observing on radar.

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May 22, 2020

Business and Finance A problematic tension

Having (1) a giant industry devoted to getting Americans to think of housing as their "biggest household investment" is not easily reconciled with (2) a titanic problem with the widespread affordability of quality housing. It's one of the most important problems in economics. Housing is something like 15% of all household expenditure. Far more for certain households. And yet in many ways we treat it as immutable. Housing is a universal need, and in general, public policy ought to point in the direction of expanding access and reducing the costs of those universal needs.

Threats and Hazards Watch censorship happen

China's authoritarian government wants people within its borders to know nothing about its attack on freedom in Hong Kong. And what is grave trouble for Hong Kong is quite likely to be grave trouble for Taiwan, as well.

Weather and Disasters Is there such a thing as a "weak, brief tornado"?

Yes, and when the National Weather Service calls those out (at least in Tornado Alley), it helps to fill out the other end of the distribution curve from "PDS" events. It communicates to the fairly savvy local audience what degree of severity is involved, in effect buying credibility for future events that are more significant.

Weather and Disasters Excellent time-lapse view of a supercell up-close

(Video) A true supercell storm out on the Plains is one of the most gripping things you can see in life. The storm can be bigger than a mountain, but it's moving -- sometimes towards you. And on the Plains, you can see the whole thing so it consumes your entire field of vision.

Weather and Disasters Astonishing hail

8.5" in diameter

Agriculture A little harvest here...

...and a little planting right behind it.

May 21, 2020

Business and Finance Bipartisan group in Senate backs $4,000 credit for skills training

Training opportunities and affordability were very important issues before Covid-19. Now they're absolutely critical. As one aspect of tackling a very large problem, this policy approach seems like a healthy place to start. America needs a revitalization in how we think about education and training; for instance, it might be smart if many or most graduates transitioned from HS into a two-year technical program of some sort (like trades, bookkeeping, or computer programming), and if many then went on to additional years of school to complete a bachelor's degree program. Moreover, we need to adopt (culturally, if not statutorily) an expectation of permanent continuing education. It's possible to do this affordably and flexibly (see the work of Western Governors University, and it's the only responsible way to ensure that we are able to afford the social safety net that the public demands. Skills stagnation is a giant problem that lurks beneath the economic surface.

News Pulling weeds

It's satisfying to pull weeds when they're large, but it's smarter to pull them when they're small.

News Literally, a baby left on the front porch

Safe-haven laws are so important...but so is making sure that people know about them. This baby is physically OK, but there's clearly a lot of emotional pain here for the mother, and the child will have needs in the future as well.

Threats and Hazards US to withdraw from Open Skies treaty

Taking verifiability out of the equation makes high-stakes arms races more dangerous

May 20, 2020

News Parent sues university for going online-only during pandemic

This actually gets to the heart of an existential question: What does college tuition really buy? Study time? Social exposure? Status? Access to a curriculum? Professorial time? A signal to employers (a diploma)? And is the whole greater than the sum of the parts? A lot of institutions of higher learning have a whole lot to grapple with. These are questions that aren't going to simply evaporate, and the longer it takes for the virus to be contained (either by treatment or by a vaccine), the greater the penalty for failing to take a hard look at the answers. ■ The pandemic forced the whole of higher education to make a radical shift in delivery, and it's been quite obvious that the change was one that had been institutionally resisted at a titanic scale -- far more so than many other industries have been able to resist the changes brought about by Internet access. ■ Here's the big question: How much of the massive growth in the cost of higher education been tied to quality improvements in the core product? And, just as there are ways of letting consumers engage in price discrimination on, say, an airline flight (first class vs. coach, early-purchase vs. last-minute fares, upgrades for baggage, and so on), will we see the college universe start to break up their prices in similar ways -- with a "core" price for tuition that includes online delivery only, with "upgrade" prices for on-campus experiences?

Broadcasting Video game seeks to "fill the void" with reality TV production halted

If a "reality dating show game" is leaving a void in your life, perhaps a book would be a better way to fill it. Or a hobby. Or, really, anything but a video game based on the TV show.

Threats and Hazards The President threatens individual states

"It will not be denied, that power is of an encroaching nature, and that it ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it." - James Madison

Business and Finance With no sports, gamblers are literally betting on stock markets

Is this even speculation? Or is there yet another level below that on the scale of serious investing?

May 19, 2020

Threats and Hazards Twitter needs to add a button to report agitprop

Really, so does every social-media outlet. Agitprop is propaganda in popular culture and media, and a certain class of people revel in creating it today. There are likely more than a few being compensated to produce it and to inject it into the streams of media in which so many of us spend so much of our time today. But it's noxious. There have always been those who have tried to persuade, but there has to be a cultural expectation that those who do so will participate in arguments using good faith and common facts. That's just not how a disturbing number of people behave now, and many of them are empowered by social-media services that actively benefit from division and fighting because it makes their platforms more "sticky". ■ Civilization depends on a constructive common effort to find the truth. That's it. There is no end state, no final destination, no fixed conclusion. Living peacefully with other human beings is a process, and one that has to be regenerated over and over again. Those who reject the rules that make the process possible are traitors to the common good. ■ "Traitor" is a loaded word, of course, but consider the preamble to the Constitution: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." ■ The "general welfare" is protected by the Constitution, which isn't itself a destination but, rather, a set of rules. The nation is not perfect, but it seeks to become "more perfect". We consent to the pursuit of "tranquility", "liberty", and "justice". These are ideals we seek, but we need to know that the best we can do is approach them asymptotically -- we can come ever and ever closer, but we shouldn't ever succumb to the myth that we have "arrived". We have to keep trying, always. ■ Agitprop falls under the class of behaviors that John Stuart Mill described like this: "If any one does an act hurtful to others, there is a prima facie case for punishing him, by law, or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapprobation." The law generally will not have a legitimate case to dispose of it -- thus it is up to communities to provide the "general disapprobation". Heaven help us if we are not up to that task.

Weather and Disasters Dam failures could flood Midland, Michigan with 9' of water

An incredible natural disaster striking Michigan in the middle of an incredible public-health emergency.

Humor and Good News Presented without comment from the Omaha police scanner

"Caller says there are too many people at Krispy Kreme...Police enroute to investigate."

Weather and Disasters Lakes Michigan and Huron are a whole lot higher than usual

Two to two-and-a-half feet higher than their past century averages. That's significant.

News Will the pandemic send larger numbers to smaller cities?

There are about 160 metro areas in the United States with 50,000 to 200,000 people. These areas already have city-scale infrastructure and amenities, but they're a long way from "big". The pandemic has abruptly sent huge numbers of people working from home. If that shift becomes permanent, the small cities ought to be primed for growth.

May 18, 2020

News Priest uses squirt gun to deliver holy water

Unconventional...but honestly, not any less reverent than the way some priests whip around an aspergillum. (You can sometimes see a slight smirk on the faces of the ones who really get a kick out of the action.)

News A rougher high-school experience than most

This young man's high-school experience included a Category 4 hurricane, a school shooting (in which he was shot in the head), and now a pandemic.

Science and Technology How exactly did snakes become a thing?

The longer you think about it, the less sense locomotion-without-legs even makes. Snakes evolved from ancestors that had four limbs. Somewhere along the line, evolution somehow favored getting rid of limbs. How did this happen?

Weather and Disasters Chicago's basement floods

A flood overtook Lower Wacker Drive. As though anyone needs another reason for their nerves to be on edge on that road.

Health Wear masks. It's just not that hard.

Jonathan V. Last puts it well: "[Whether] masks slow spread by 80% or 20%, we should be eager to bank that decline, because it's basically a freebie. In the grand scheme of economic expense and behavior modification, wearing a mask costs us next to nothing." In the words of research from Arizona State: "[W]hen the relative benefit is small, the absolute benefit in terms of lives is still highly nontrivial."

Aviation News Amelia Earhart: Call me by my name, please

It boggles the mind that in 1932, she had to implore the publisher of the New York Times to stop calling her "Mrs. Putnam" instead of "Amelia Earhart". It's ironic she had to implore the Times to recognize her achievement under her own name, considering that Arthur Sulzberger became publisher of the NYT after his father-in-law died. Without "Mrs. Sulzberger" (nee Ochs), Mr. Sulzberger never would have gotten his own job.

Broadcasting Strong writing beats hot graphics

The team at "Last Week Tonight" is proving that strong writing can carry a show right through the limitations of pandemic production without missing a beat. John Oliver is hitting his stride right now with pacing and the show might well be better without a studio audience.

May 17, 2020

News Time for new ideas

If we don't see some bold new ideas for educational delivery by this fall, we ought to be deeply disappointed. The massive disruption wrought on the educational system by this pandemic had better urge us on to some vibrant local experimentation.

May 16, 2020

Computers and the Internet Here comes asynchronous education (if we're smart enough to embrace it)

The under-appreciated thing about online education (when it's done well): Students can make asynchronous choices to make their low-value time more valuable. Up until now, unless an educational system was deliberately designed (like Western Governors University) to be entirely self-paced, it has largely fallen into the model of "Students show up at the appointed time and watch a lesson remotely". Higher education still largely expects students to take part in cohorts and to follow a prescribed pace for going through a program. ■ That has to change. It has to change right away. The Covid-19 pandemic totally upended the 2019-2020 school year and the disarray is evident everywhere. The American collegiate system wasn't ready for the diaspora and wasn't prepared to move education online. And yet Harvard Medical School has announced that "our fall 2020 courses will commence remotely for our entering classes of medical, dental and graduate students". Any stigma that once might have applied to online education ought to be well and permanently destroyed now. ■ The next seismic shift will need to be the adjustment to asynchronicity. Are there cases in which having a cohort is useful for debate and discussion? Sure. But there are a great many things that students can learn objectively at their own pace without an arbitrary "shot clock" working against them. ■ And if anything has become more evident than ever, it ought to be the need for true lifelong learning. If the economy can be brought to a halt so abrupt that the unemployment rate can jump by ten percentage points in a single month, then we need to be able to re-skill, up-skill, and re-deploy people's labor without arbitrary roadblocks. ■ One of the great human works is to take something of low value and to move it to a higher state of value. Free time is one of those things. The faster we see a broad commitment to facilitating individual choices to turn low-value time into higher-value time through on-demand access to learning