Gongol.com Archives: July 2016

Brian Gongol


July 2016
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July 4, 2016

The United States of America The Declaration of Independence

Still a model for telling the world in clear, plain language why extraordinary action was called for

Business and Finance "[F]inancial crises tend to radicalize electorates"

How financial conditions lead to candidates like Trump and Sanders

News French police on the beach -- swim trunks and pistols?

The need to patrol public beaches is evident. How the police should arm and dress themselves is not.

Computers and the Internet Beware the echo chamber

As Facebook changes its algorithms for the news feed once again, the risk grows that too many people will get too much of their news and opinions from inside the echo chamber of people who are already a lot like them. And it's going to really punch a lot of digital publishers in the gut, too. Many of them have come to depend upon reliable Facebook-driven traffic as a business model. Bad idea.

The United States of America The Presidency after dark

President Obama's late-night work habits sound like a reasonable way for a person like him to process the incredible volumes of information that go along with the role of the chief executive

News Empty promises

Donald Trump simply cannot do many of the things he promises to do. And that makes him a very troublesome candidate.


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July 5, 2016

The United States of America How the financial markets responded to 1776

When the colonies that became the United States departed from British control, the bond and equity markets (such as they were) responded accordingly. Government bond yields rose (in other words, the British government had to pay more to borrow money) and the equity markets declined (reflecting concerns that the war would cramp the economy). An interesting question: On balance, is the world wealthier today than it would have been in a parallel universe where the United States remained under British control? Naturally, it's impossible to fully investigate a counter-factual like that, but it is possible to model some of the internal questions. Has there been more technological innovation because the United States won independence than if it hadn't? The answer there is probably yes: The United States seems to have been unusually fertile ground for innovation for many generations, probably due to a combination of legal, social, and economic motivations. One could also ask whether the presence of a giant free-trade bloc spanning the width of a continent has been fundamentally productive for world trade. Again, the answer is likely yes -- and it probably would not have formed had the United States remained under British control, because the Crown didn't have the same incentive to pursue territorial expansion (like the Louisiana Purchase) as did the independent Federal government in Washington. So, if one accepts the premise that economic growth and innovation for the United States has also been good for the global economy, then at least some of the big-picture questions suggest that July 4, 1776 was a good day for a lot of people outside the 13 colonies.

Threats and Hazards ISIS may have 3,000 girls and young women in slavery as sex objects

These are human beings who are suffering. They only differ from any of the rest of us by accident of birth. You don't get to pick where you are born -- and for most people, that's where you remain. Nothing but a sort of cosmic roll of the dice separates any one of us from having been in someone else's shoes.

Threats and Hazards More than 2,000 people have been shot in Chicago so far this year

That includes 66 over the Independence Day holiday weekend. That is completely out of control.

Threats and Hazards The anti-Semitism has to stop

It is alarming that a Presidential candidate who uses a social-media outlet like Twitter as his primary means of communicating with the public has repeatedly given virtual winks and nods to anti-Semitic participants in those same social-media forums. Free speech is everyone's right, but it's also appropriate to criticize. And it's doubly important to criticize those who thoughtlessly amplify inhumane messages by sharing them with a broader audience. Civilization depends on each generation's commitment to upholding the traditions of classical liberalism -- the ideals of the Enlightenment. It's a shame to see today's technologies being used to echo a mentality that would bring back the Dark Ages, and it's utterly alarming to see it being done by a major-party candidate for President.

Computers and the Internet BlackBerry is pulling the plug on "Classic" units

Goodbye to the tactile keyboard. That's really too bad -- on-screen keyboards just aren't as finger-friendly for a lot of people as the old tactile versions, and none of the smartphone makers seem to be filling that niche anymore, which is odd, considering the number of services like Facebook and Twitter that depend so heavily on people generating written content while on the move.

Computers and the Internet China is taking live-streaming to a whole new level

Tens of thousands of people live-stream what they're doing and even receive gifts from viewers as compensation


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July 6, 2016

Threats and Hazards Chinese newspaper says its country should prepare for "military confrontation"

China is claiming huge parts of the South China Sea, and "heavy US intervention" makes for a very attractive boogeyman.

News Praise for Saddam Hussein? It's nothing new.

Through garbled syntax and bad grammar in a speech this week, Donald Trump endorsed Saddam Hussein's methods of dealing with terrorists. It's nothing new: He's done it before and on several previous occasions. But why double-down on a stupid argument at a time when the politically sharp move would have been to let the Clinton campaign roast a little longer over the FBI's e-mail report? The FBI director was not pleased with what they found, even if the agency did not recommend any criminal charges. Once in a while, it's best to just shut up and let the facts speak for themselves instead of making up stories (no, Hussein was not an efficient killer of terrorists) that give the appearance of endorsing brutal dictators?

News Syrian refugees in Canada spill over with gratitude

It's necessary to use words like "refugees" to describe groups of people -- but it's also unfortunate. They are individuals and they are families, and among them will inevitably be some bad actors, just as there are in every population. But the vast majority, just as in every other population, are people seeking to live decent lives and do the best they can for their families. We shouldn't permit ourselves to forget that where you are born is no choice of your own -- and for every person living in a war-torn or impoverished country, the only difference between any one of them and any one of us is a roll of the cosmic dice. Canadians should be proud of the mercy shown by their country.

Weather and Disasters Lightning can strike the ground 50 miles away from any precipitation

The National Weather Service office in Kansas City shares a radar loop with lightning strikes illustrated. It's pretty sobering stuff. (Remember: Thunder travels about a mile in five seconds, so any thunder you can hear means lightning is much closer than 50 miles away).

News Why the odds favor Newt Gingrich as the 2016 Republican VP nominee

His closeness with Donald Trump is confirmed by Trump's own statements that Gingrich would be "involved" in his administration. Expect it to be more than that -- Gingrich fits the template that suits Trump best: A nationally-known individual who has experience at the Federal level (as Speaker of the House) who relishes the opportunity to play attack dog against the Clintons (which he has since the 1990s). It would be surprising to see Trump pick anyone else.


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July 7, 2016

The United States of America Chicago Tribune editorial promotes third-party Presidential voting

On the Libertarian and Green party tickets, they opine: "Can either win? Not this time. But that's no reason Americans disgusted with the major party choices have to settle on either." The probability of a third-party win is non-zero, but it's exceptionally low. But on the other hand, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party is running as a third-party candidate himself. Donald Trump has no legitimate credentials as a Republican strategist, leader, or thinker; he even led the New York Times to believe that he's not even sure he'd take office if he won. That's not a mainstream or even slightly serious candidacy. So if one of the two major parties has been hijacked by a virus that has infected its host, is it really behaving like a major party anymore? The stable long-term outcome of any first-past-the-post electoral system like our own is a party duopoly -- each party composed of a batch of sub-groups that form an electoral coalition before election day (rather than after, as they do in parliamentary systems). But in the short run, that duopoly can become unstable, as it quite clearly has today. What is unusual about our circumstances right now is that both major-party coalitions are unstable. In historical context, we had the First Party System (Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists/Democratic-Republicans), the Second Party System (Whigs vs. Democrats), the Third Party System (Republicans vs. Democrats), the Fourth Party System (Republicans in the North; Democrats in the South), the Fifth Party System (Republicans vs. New Deal Democrats), and possibly even a Sixth Party System (Republicans in the South and rural areas, Democrats in the North and urban areas) today. Major parties have fallen apart before over sectionalism and hot-button issues (like the Whigs in the 1850s), while at other times, they've just run out of steam. If we are in the midst of a realignment today (which we very well may be), then a meaningful third-party vote at the top of the ticket would be a substantial signaling device. We should also give serious thought to permitting fusion voting nationally; right now, it's almost impossible for two parties to name the same candidate in most places, and fusion voting would permit that to happen. It's used in New York most prominently. The use of fusion voting would permit the different subgroups we already know to coalesce in a more express way. And in an election cycle that is less popular than a dumpster fire, in the words of Senator Ben Sasse, we ought to be open to possibilities that may give us more pleasing outcomes. Strictly from a mechanical standpoint, it can hardly get worse than a system so badly fractured that the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party is actively bullying and threatening the Senators of what is nominally his own party.

News Facebook Live streams a police-involved shooting

A passenger in a car in the Twin Cities metro broadcast a live stream of the instantaneous aftermath of her boyfriend's shooting death by a police officer. By all reasonable appearances, it looks bad -- really bad. And it follows on the police-shooting death of another civilian in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, only really a matter of hours prior, which similarly looks like an abuse of power.

Threats and Hazards ISIS attacks Baghdad

Hundreds of people were killed, and we shouldn't have any less regard for their deaths than we should if the attack had happened in the United States

Computers and the Internet Twitter live broadcast of Wimbledon

A probable preview of what things will look like when Twitter streams ten Thursday Night Football games live this fall. Video on the left-hand side of the page (on a large monitor) with related tweets on the right. Is it broadcasting? Is it social media? Is it both?

Computers and the Internet A 60-terabit-per-second Internet cable under the Pacific

It stretches from Oregon to Japan.


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July 8, 2016

The United States of America Insulted by the Trump/Clinton race? There is a legitimate alternative.

Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and former Massachussetts governor William Weld are on the ballot in all 50 states, and they're considerably more mainstream than Trump and more trustworthy than Clinton. They won the Libertarian Party nomination and while the party itself may be all too often identified with some of its more strident policy positions, Johnson and Weld are actually experienced as elected executives and a meaningfully honorable alternative to the other two tickets. Their platform boils down to "fiscally conservative and socially tolerant". And in their appearance before the National Press Club, they laid out a case for serious consideration. Weld really nailed the situation with one particular line: "Instead of reading 'Art of the Deal' for the 400th time, Trump should read the Constitution for the first time." Some well-versed political experts are skeptical that the two major parties will learn anything from this race, but a clear protest vote may actually carry weight in 2016.

Socialism Doesn't Work It's not "free" college if it's just cost-shifting

Hillary Clinton's campaign is promising "by 2021, families with income up to $125,000 will pay no tuition at in-state four-year public colleges and universities" -- and "free" college right from the start of the program for students with household incomes below $85,000. Here's the problem: Nobody has a legitimate argument that college costs are under control. They're not. But this is a promise only to cost-shift. Within the plan announcement itself, the Clinton campaign acknowledges that "States will have to step up and meet their obligation to invest in higher education by maintaining current levels of higher education funding and reinvesting over time". In the real world, that's called an unfunded mandate. The campaign is making promises for which others will have to pay. And as for the Federal government's part, the campaign promises that "This plan will be fully paid for by limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers." Exactly what is that supposed to mean, other than Robin Hood accounting? Fundamentally, the flaw in a proposal like this is that instead of amplifying the kind of pricing feedback upon which a market economy depends, it mutes it altogether. That means students may not have the incentives necessary to take education seriously (remember...nobody washes a rental car), major programs with poor economic returns won't have any distinctions from those with high returns, and (worst of all) universities won't have incentives to manage their cost structures. The math doesn't add up, and that doesn't even begin to explore the consequences for private colleges -- one can imagine nothing short of an apocalypse for many of them if they're competing with "free" college. The dirty secret about the sticker price of college isn't a secret at all: The system is full of inefficiency, with administrative positions growing at a rate much faster than teaching positions. If nothing is done to control the actual costs of delivery, then all we're doing with "free" college is cost-shifting to taxpayers, and likely cost-shifting at what would be an accelerating rate. We need lots more access to higher education, and for it to be much more affordable. But passing the buck doesn't fundamentally achieve that objective.

Business and Finance US Labor Secretary Tom Perez: "The more you strengthen collective bargaining, the more you strengthen the middle class"

While there's no need to deliberately take action against labor unions (they can certainly fill vital roles and have in the past), there's no substance to the claim. You strengthen the middle class by promoting productivity, technological progress, skill development, and economic growth. Unionization didn't save the auto workers at the Big Three in Detroit -- it only cost-shifted. If we had a more German-style approach to labor/management relations, the secretary may have a point -- but that's not his claim.

Threats and Hazards Shameful: Former Penn State football players want Joe Paterno statue reinstated

Paterno knowingly permitted the abuse of children for decades. What we enshrine, we honor. That deserves no place of honor, period.

News Jill Stein offers Green Party nomination to Bernie Sanders

Stein is the likely Green Party nominee, but their actual convention isn't until August 4-7. In an "open letter to Bernie Sanders supporters", Green Party leaders argue that "You can try to reform the Democratic Party as others have tried to do for decades through Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, Howard Dean's Democracy for America and Dennis Kucinich's Progressive Democrats of America or you can leave it." They seem to hope they can also get Sanders to "leave it" -- even though he's never really been a committed Democrat in the first place.

Computers and the Internet Full, affordable, credible electronic degree programs cannot arrive soon enough

Coursera's president thinks it's coming in five years

Computers and the Internet Malware attacks 10,000,000 Android devices

And initial reports suggest it's only going to get worse as the trouble spreads through vectors like drive-by downloads.

Weather and Disasters A simple but excellent illustration: Why Tornado Alley is where it is

The ingredients are just right for trouble from Texas to South Dakota (and, regrettably, into Iowa)


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July 9, 2016

Computers and the Internet Facebook scrambles to make rules for live videos

Announcing: "[I]f a person witnessed a shooting, and used Facebook Live to raise awareness or find the shooter, we would allow it. However, if someone shared the same video to mock the victim or celebrate the shooting, we would remove the video."


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July 11, 2016

Business and Finance Compulsory education -- for adults?

Be skeptical of "compulsory" anything -- compulsion should be a rare choice. But this actually may be a very good idea. Just like it reflects some peculiar social priorities that the government spends lots of money on seniors' health care versus very little on that of innocent youth, it similarly reflects a warped set of priorities that we only seem to contribute to the education of the young. "Lifelong learning" is easily manipulated into a buzz-phrase, but a society with its priorities straight would actually set its political agenda to reflect its socio-economic goals, and those goals should include upward mobility throughout an individual's working life and beyond. Job retraining and skill enhancement shouldn't be an exception; they should be the norm.

Socialism Doesn't Work Venezuela's desperate government seizes American-owned factory

The economy is falling apart in Venezuela because the government's economic policies are nonsense. It is nothing more than wildly imaginary thinking to believe that the government is doing anything productive by confiscating the Kimberly-Clark factory and declaring that production will continue.

Computers and the Internet Facebook faces lawsuit for aiding terrorism

The problem for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others is that they're either purely neutral conduits for the content of others (in which case, anything goes), or they're making editorial judgments about what can and cannot be posted. And if they make even a few judgments, that makes it very hard to argue that they are not responsible for a failure to make others if there are lives at risk. It's not an enviable legal position to be in.

Health Sushi, hummus, quinoa, tofu all better for you than people think

At least, according to the gap between what nutritionists believe and what the general public does

Humor and Good News Everything isn't awful

A neat story on an adoption with what appears to be a happy ending


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July 12, 2016

Business and Finance It's not that trade doesn't hurt some workers...

...it's just that a more efficient economy (resulting from trade) is capable of absorbing some of the impact and helping the affected workers to recover, while distributing the benefits of trade to the broader public in a significant way. To reduce trade to "us" versus "them" is not only reductionist, it gets things all wrong and harms people.

Computers and the Internet Is the Internet really helping kids from poor families?

Like any tool, it can be used well or poorly. And if it's not being used well, then its benefits may not be going to where they are needed most.

Health DEKA's prosthetic arm gets FDA approval

They plan to start selling late in the year

Business and Finance Did Ireland's economy really grow at a mid-20% range in 2015?

Seems unlikely -- but then again, it slipped by a huge margin when the financial markets cracked a few years ago

Computers and the Internet Beware the data collection of "Pokemon Go"

When something becomes super-popular in a very short time (like the overnight sensation that is Pokemon Go), there's a very good chance that the general public is missing something very serious behind the scenes. In this case, the app appears to gain a huge amount of access to individuals' Google accounts.


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July 13, 2016

Business and Finance LA Times says Viacom is about to sell 49% of Paramount Pictures to China's Wanda Group

The Great Asset Transfer continues. American ownership of assets will be exchanged for foreign ownership as a means of rebalancing long-standing trade deficits. Some will involve highly prominent, name-brand assets -- like half of Paramount Pictures. It's going to make some people angry, nostalgic, and/or nationalistic, but the asset transfer is inevitable given our long-standing behavior (and our revealed preferences -- people can pay all the lip service they want to "Buy American", but it's hard to find people willing to pay a true premium price to do it). And Rule #1 of private property may well be that ownership means control, so if you don't want to lose control, you can't give up ownership. Selling equity in a company may be a good way to come up with liquidity, but it's a lousy way to remain in the driver's seat.

News Decisions have lasting consequences

A New York Times map from 1956 shows traffic choke points that remain the choke points of today. This can be taken in two ways, both of which are valid: First, decisions have lasting consequences -- New Yorkers are fighting the same commuting battles today that they did 60 years ago, because of decisions that were made even before then. But, second, it's never too late to start working on correcting an error -- at any time in the last 60 years, someone could have changed the course of the traffic problems and the people of New York might be in a better situation than the one they've apparently suffered for more than half a century. Make decisions, seek to make them definitively and well -- and if they turn out to be bad, change course without delay. Inaction is a decision in its own right.

News No surprise: "Horse-race" coverage has dominated 2016

The horse race isn't the real news -- it's just a documentation of events. News is what happens when there is a material change in our understanding of the status quo. The horse race isn't information, either -- it's just a documentation of events. Those three things (information, events, and bona-fide news) are often packaged together as "the news", but the inability, failure, or dereliction of duty to deliver actual news and/or information tends to reward the pure hype of "events"...and that's how bad things happen at the ballot box. The Fourth Estate really does have a role to play in a democratic system.

Computers and the Internet China hacked the FDIC

Because that's how cyberwarfare works: Rivals and competitors want every possible angle on information that may give them insight into your decision-making. Knowing how the bank regulators are looking at the financial system probably gives the Chinese government some valuable insight into the function of the American economy as a whole. It would be very interesting indeed to find out whether China is selling some of the information it obtains through cyberespionage to private parties. One could imagine that there are firms and institutions that would be willing to pay for insider information, even if it was obtained through tactics that could be appropriately defined as war-like in nature.

News David Cameron's curtain call as Prime Minister

In comes Theresa May as the new PM


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July 14, 2016

News US Senator shares important personal reflections on police

Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) addresses the Senate and points out that even as a high-status elected official, he encounters police at what he perceives as an unusually high rate -- for "driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial" -- because of the color of his skin. Many people can identify with being pulled over under weak pretenses -- rolling stops, tail lights out, failure to signal, or license tags that are out of date. But it is hard to argue that some people aren't getting additional scrutiny because of their race. That's a problem because it undermines the legitimacy of the policing profession generally, because that profession derives its legitimacy from the consent of the people.

Threats and Hazards On religious tests

Fox News quotes Newt Gingrich as suggesting a religious test leading to deportation for some. That betrays a fundamental belief that democracy and classical-liberal civilization are extremely fragile. While we do in fact need to pass along the values that keep civilization afloat, and while there are certain existential risks to that way of life, it seems that Gingrich is adopting a view that makes out civilization to be much more fragile than it is. Worse, he appears to embrace an intolerance that makes it inherently more fragile, rather than less. Civil law is undermined when it seeks to police the beliefs of individuals.

Broadcasting Twitter will live-stream the party conventions

The Internet and television continue to grow closer and closer

Business and Finance Competition among the states

A Nebraska think tank is looking at five states as chief economic competitors. This is exactly the kind of economic competition that should take place among the states. That competition shouldn't come in the form of special incentive packages.

Broadcasting NBC News returns to radio

It's back from the dead


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July 15, 2016

News Sen. Bernie Sanders rips page from Obama campaign playbook

He's starting three political organizations, including one called "Our Revolution". This reads quite like the "Obama For America"/"Organizing For Action" approach -- and it represents another chip at the foundation of the conventional party system. Sanders never really identified as a Democrat, and now it appears he will continue to operate in a way that will try to position itself as better than the party system, much like OFA.

Iowa Polk County Attorney claims first texting-while-driving conviction

A distracted driver caused a crash that injured a passenger in October 2015, and now she's been convicted and sentenced to 140 hours of community service.

The United States of America "I believe he's going to endeavor, to try"

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, speaking to NPR about Donald Trump and his willingness to change the things that make Ryan unhappy. Paul Ryan isn't sloppy with his words; he's clearly wishing for something much better than what he's seen. Regrettably, emails from Trump's inner circle from the past week suggest otherwise.

Computers and the Internet Technology is only as good as the people using it

And, broadly speaking, most people are inherently good. An example of that emerges as it is reported that a Good Samaritan rescued a baby from the attack in Nice, and used social media to reunite him with his family.

Broadcasting "The Americans" gets five well-deserved Emmy nominations

The FX Network show is really quite excellent. Its real genius is that both the writing and acting are executed with artful restraint. It would be too easy for the show to go over the top, and they manage to instead take the right path. It's excellent television and deserves the five Emmy nominations it received.

Health Are medical professionals suffering from Burn-Out Syndrome?

An article in The Lancet observes that "severe BOS was seen in up to 33% of critical care nurses and 45% of critical care physicians". That's worrisome.


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July 16, 2016

Science and Technology High-school students like science but hate science class

One problem is certainly the way that science classes end up being constructed, and that can benefit from better training for teachers. People who may be highly gifted or skilled at a particular subject may not be simultaneously skilled at explaining that subject or making it engaging for a curious but untrained audience. But another problem is certainly the modern textbook: An overweight, poorly organized, often painfully patronizing monstrosity. The format alone is intimidating (why should it be so much larger than a paperback novel?), and a dismaying number of textbooks are so littered with sidebars, "Questions to Answer", and chartjunk that they are thematically unreadable. Science is really a story, and it deserves to be taught like one.

News Letters of last resort

How the UK instructs its nuclear-armed submarines to act in case of Armageddon

News One vision of a post-2016 Republican Party

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam make the case for a semi-Nixonian Republican Party -- one that doesn't care very much about entitlement reforms and that doesn't mind abandoning several important small-government/libertarian principles. It's not necessarily the right vision for 2017 and beyond, but it's probably a vision worth understanding.

Computers and the Internet 3G and 4G, make way for 5G

The FCC has voted to put some blocks of spectrum to work on behalf of 5G wireless, and there's enthusiastic guessing that it could become a commercial reality by 2020. Wireless data use continues to expand by such leaps and bounds that something has to be done to prevent crippling traffic overload.

Threats and Hazards Missing pages from Congressional 9/11 report released

While it doesn't seem to point the finger directly at the government of Saudi Arabia, it certainly doesn't exonerate the kingdom, either.

Broadcasting Show notes - Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - July 16, 2016

Make money, have fun, clean up after yourself, and mind your business


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July 17, 2016

The United States of America The Presidential contest isn't a two-way race and it shouldn't be polled as such

Third parties are conventionally only a trivial share of the total vote, so for logistical reasons it can often be argued that they aren't worth polling. But in 2016, the Republican Party's nominee-apparent is himself running as though he is in a third party, and there is overwhelming evidence that a meaningful number of likely voters are planning to vote for an alternative to the two major parties. Any poll that only asks about a Trump-versus-Clinton race without at least adding an option for Gary Johnson (the Libertarian candidate, and an unusually serious one) should not be considered a legitimate survey. November's ballots will not be binary, and the state of the race isn't either.

News Will there be a post-Trump Republican Party?

Jeb Bush, writing in the Washington Post: "[A] few in the Republican Party responded by trying to out-polarize the president, making us seem anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker and anti-common-sense."

News Thousands detained over coup attempt in Turkey

Hundreds of military officers included

Humor and Good News Where the Libyan dictator's furniture went

Garish displays at Trump Tower

Business and Finance An excellent job-interview question

"If I was to hire you, how would I know if you were doing a good job?"


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July 18, 2016

News Military servicemembers show strong support for a third option

A very substantial number are strongly opposed to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and a very substantial number intend to vote for Gary Johnson or to write in another name. The poll, by Military Times, finds just under 30% of respondents from the Navy are looking at a third option -- and the same proportion of officers across all four branches are doing the same.

News Why would any sane candidate pick Richard Nixon as an exemplar?

It boggles the mind, but that's exactly what Donald Trump is consciously doing going into the 2016 Republican National Convention. A deliberate choice has been made to use the Nixon template. Meanwhile, Rep. Steve King is using the moment to embrace and espouse a most shocking and disappointing philosophy.

Business and Finance Britain's exit from the EU will probably hurt Ireland most

Ireland's interdependence with the UK in economic matters is going to make the extraction process expensive and hard on the Republic, even though they weren't the ones who decided to quit the arrangement.

Threats and Hazards Terrorists or just people out of their minds?

Given the visibility and name recognition of terrorist groups like ISIS/ISIL, it's easy for people who commit insane violent acts to claim that they're acting on behalf of organized groups. But it doesn't serve civilization well to over-estimate the power and reach of the groups involved. That gives them power they want.

News Surgeon who treated Dallas police officers after shootings shares his inner conflict

The surgeon, Dr. Brian Williams, shares his inner disquiet at supporting and serving the police while bearing anxiety and fear of how he will be treated by officers because of the color of his skin. Difficult to watch, particularly given his obvious feelings of anguish over the loss of life, yet strongly recommended. In a reasonable world, he would have no reason for such pain. It's up to people of goodwill to empathize and ask what's holding us back from helping to resolve this kind of anguish.


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July 19, 2016

News Unpredictability: Not always a virtue, or even an advantage

Donald Trump's style -- based on unpredictability -- makes at least some sense when applied to exclusively zero-sum interactions, like property wheeling and dealing. Leaving one's counterparties forever on edge may appear to create an advantage in the short term (even if it may actually be counter-productive in the long run as a reputation emerges for that unsatisfactory behavior). But unpredictability is a terrible characteristic to introduce into any kind of cooperative circumstance or transaction. Game theory would tell you that it's great to be unpredictable when doing zero-sum things like negotiating with terrorists, but even then it needs to be a strategic kind of unpredictability. But when that behavior starts to interfere with what should be a giant cooperative endeavor (like running for President on a major-party ticket), then doing things like plagiarizing inexcusable lengths of text for major speeches is nothing if not destructive to one's purported partners. It may be impossible to salvge the Republican Party after this campaign.

Computers and the Internet Detroit is the "least-connected city in the US"

In terms of broadband and general Internet connectivity, at least. 53% of households had no paid Internet access at all as of 2013. The numbers turn to overwhelming majorities among households under $35,000 in annual income. It's hard to imagine how a community can develop economically when so many households are unplugged from what has become fundamentally an essential public utility.

Computers and the Internet Should social media be analyzed to predict lone-wolf attacks?

There's something vaguely reminiscent of the movie "Minority Report" to the idea, but it may also be the only sane investment that can be made in prevention.

Threats and Hazards Know your world: Turkey is a NATO member

So that coup and counter-coup that went down a few days ago are no small matter to Western allies

The United States of America An idiotic immigration system cuts off vital supplies of brain power

Why the United States persists in resisting the inflow of talented, highly skilled workers is a mystery


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July 20, 2016

The United States of America "This is a decisive moment in the history of party politics in America"

A whole lot of Americans self-identify as fiscally conservative and socially tolerant. That demographic has been abandoned by the two major parties, but most people don't want to go to the step of becoming members of an outlier third party to express themselves, so they register as independent instead. In 2016, though, the Libertarian Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates are the most mainstream in the party's history -- and they are probably more mainstream than the GOP ticket.

Threats and Hazards US and China meet over the South China Sea dispute

Naval leaders met to discuss things, but China is making no hint of stopping its island construction projects -- and that's a political problem with military repercussions.

Business and Finance Polish government lowers retirement ages

Going down to age 65 for men and age 60 for women. This is populist economics twice over -- goodies for the old (with a promise of earlier payouts) and jobs for the young (by pushing older workers out of the competition). But it won't be sound policy. It's going to cost the country a fortune.

Threats and Hazards Stupefying video of a police shooting in North Miami

An unarmed man with his hands in the air tries to help an autistic person having a crisis, and a police officer shoots him. It's incomprehensible.

Computers and the Internet Microsoft may be making the cloud move in the nick of time

Its subscription-based businesses are doing well at a time when sales of phones and computers are both weak


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July 21, 2016

Threats and Hazards What good is an alliance if its partners aren't committed?

The New York Times asked Donald Trump, "If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don't think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?" He answered: "I don't want to tell you what I'd do because I don't want Putin to know what I'd do." Trump is so deeply ingrained in zero-sum thinking that he insists on applying it to world affairs, and that's a very serious problem. Arguing over the value of the Plaza Hotel is a zero-sum game, and unpredictability can confer an advantage to one of the players in such an exchange. But in a question over the defense of NATO allies, it's not zero-sum. There is a preferable and stable outcome to be achieved (peace), and making Putin guess at our response is profoundly destabilizing. It's a bit of logic so basic that it forms one of the key plot elements to the movie "Dr. Strangelove": "Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world?" We don't have to be friendly with Russia (or China, or North Korea, or Venezuela, or Iran...) for us to maintain a stable peace. They only have to know that we are serious and credible. Trump's wobbliness on this matter -- without question -- undermines national security. It's also worrisome that Trump claims not to recognize the historical significance of his slogan, "America First". Great leaders are familiar with history -- enough that they can recognize patterns and game out the consequences of decisions and actions. History doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme. Historical fluency undoubtedly helped leaders like Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, who were both published historians. Not every great leader needs to match them, but at least some knowledge of history is essential.

News A very thoughtful piece about some very thoughtless comments

Omaha World-Herald columnist Matthew Hansen assesses Rep. Steve King's recent question, "Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?" Kathie Obradovich at the Des Moines Register had a similarly strong response to King's narrow interpretation of history. Western Civilization has done a lot of good throughout history, and a great number of the achievements we recognize in things like technology and the rule of law spring from it. But western cultures have also done terrible things -- like devastating Native American populations; dominating much of Africa, Asia, and South America through imperial force and colonialism; and instigating both world wars. The good to come out of Western Civilization is mainly a result of its commitment to getting better -- to self-examination and improvement. To have turned his comments from stupid into optimistic, all Rep. King had to do was say something like, "I look forward to a future in which all cultures, all people, and all civilizations are free to achieve their full potential. We will see that when we have a world dominated not by force, but by peace, optimism, and liberty." The world is full of untapped potential, and to the extent that the lingering effects of Western institutions have kept that potential from being fulfilled, we should acknowledge it.

Health The good news: Motor vehicle death rates in the US are well below their levels in 2000

The bad news: We still have 30% more deaths per vehicle-mile traveled than the mean for 20 high-income OECD countries. We should be focusing far more public policy attention on this issue than we are -- even if we only improved to the safety level of the second-worst country on the list (Belgium), we'd save 12,000 lives a year, according to the CDC. That's a stunning and unnecessary death toll. More attention should be devoted to problems we can fix, like this one.

Business and Finance How Chicago's congested rail traffic hurts America

Infrastructure matters deeply to a nation's economic health

Computers and the Internet Yahoo reports loss of $482 million on purchase of Tumblr

The company's announcement of quarterly results is a jumble of figures, and that's rarely a sign that things are going well. But the bottom line is that the company has sold off real estate and is looking to sell a bunch of intellectual property -- two signals that they're struggling hard to stay afloat. The Tumblr investment appears to have been a bad one if they're writing it down by that much, and it's hard to recover when a company makes mistakes that big without enough margin for error.


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July 22, 2016

News Washington Post editorial goes all in: Trump a "unique threat to democracy"

A couple of things ought to be borne in mind: First, we have institutions in place to prevent an individual President from over-reaching, and anything that should be done to stress-test those safety nets ought to be undertaken before January. Second, the threat posed by Trump's candidacy is not so much what he would do personally as what he normalizes; he has tolerated, signal-boosted, and winked at a lot of behavior that has been out of bounds in civil society for a long time, and that behavior is a lot more insidious than anything we might expect an Oval Office occupant to do. Third, while opposition to Trump is well-founded, it's going to be very important for his opponents to be specific in their criticisms. Secretary Hillary Clinton likes to lean on the word "dangerous" when describing him, but that's a vague generality. It is actually much more important to lay out clear individual criticisms and to back them up with both evidence and reasoning. For instance, it is evident that Donald Trump isn't a reader. He cannot speak with any fluency about any book that doesn't have his name on the cover (see, for instance, his fumbling with the Bible). Why does that matter? Because it reflects his rather unsettling inability to describe anything in abstract terms. Aside from an idiom here or there, he speaks exclusively in the language of concrete things (just for example, when he says "build a big, beautiful wall", he appears to mean literally that). If there is one thing we should be able to grasp from history, it is that Presidents are rarely called upon to make simple, concrete decisions -- by the time something gets to the President's desk, it is usually complex, abstract, and deeply nuanced. Whatever you may think of the liberal arts in general, they do provide a grounding in and a language for concepts and abstract reasoning. A person who has no interest in that kind of thought process is going to lack a fundamental skill set that is indispensable to the office of the Presidency. Great leaders have fluency in a lot of subjects, including history, that cannot be obtained without reading. Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill -- two great "conservative" leaders of the 20th Century -- were both published historians, just for example. Not every great prime minister or President need be a historian, but they absolutely need basic historical knowledge to do their jobs even moderately well.

The United States of America Sen. Tim Kaine picked as Democratic VP nominee

The Clinton campaign's rollout via Twitter and online seems centered on positioning him as a broadly palatable choice -- a decent guy with center-left leanings, but nothing particularly red-hot.

Threats and Hazards Hackers working for the Russian government broke into the DNC's systems

And now a mountain of internal documents are coming to public attention. Processes matter; the ends do not justify the means. Regardless of what is exposed by the breach, the fact is that agents of a foreign government are actively undertaking cyber-warfare against a major political institution with what is ultimately an underhanded political objective in mind -- an attempt to interfere with U.S. electoral politics.

News Republican defections to Libertarian ticket: DC edition

Four Republican national convention delegates from DC have pledged support for the Johnson-Weld ticket

Computers and the Internet Facebook's Internet-delivery drone takes first test flight

The "Aquila" is intended to hover at 60,000 feet above areas that don't have reliable Internet access and deliver that access via lasers and radio frequencies. The Aquila drones are unmanned and have wingspans wider than the Boeing 737, using solar power during the day and batteries at night to remain in the sky. It's an interesting concept -- Facebook wants tools like this to deliver Internet access to the estimated 4 billion people who don't have high-speed access today, and in developing tools like Aquila, they're trying to leapfrog conventional infrastructure costs and complications. This is private investment in what will surrogate for public infrastructure; Facebook obviously hopes to make money off the new Internet users, but there should be massive social benefits as well, far in excess of Facebook's private net gain.

Agriculture Corn bears some of the blame for insufferable humidity in the Midwest

Transpiration off the plants can add 5°F to 10°F to dewpoints


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July 25, 2016

Threats and Hazards Evidence strongly points to a Russian operation behind the DNC email leak

When nuclear powers turn to cyberwarfare like this to influence political outcomes, it's time to pay attention. The FBI has been enlisted to investigate.

Threats and Hazards Threats to abandon our allies are destabilizing and wrong

Donald Trump continues to say things like "We always have to be prepared to walk" on things like our defense agreements with Japan. That undermines national security and global security as well.

Computers and the Internet Verizon is buying the websites of Yahoo for $4.8 billion

They aren't getting the intellectual property or the company's stock in Yahoo Japan or Alibaba

Weather and Disasters Using architecture to solve stormwater problems

Some cities have combined stormwater and sanitary sewers (leftover from the days before that was determined to be a bad practice), and taking some pressure off the system during storms can make things a lot better.

News A county fair inside a (mostly) ghost mall

Omaha's Crossroads Mall is largely empty, and the Douglas County fair has taken up temporary residence.


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July 26, 2016

Business and Finance A lot of young men with nothing productive to do

Having a lot of young people (but especially young men) with nothing productive to do is a very hazardous condition. That's what makes the very low labor-force participation rate among young men (particularly those without a high school diploma, but also among some of their peers) a very hazardous situation. Some studies appear to show that many of them are happy to (literally) sit around playing video games all day, but that happiness isn't going to be durable as they age. Low satisfaction will couple with the opportunities that they will have sacrificed by dropping out of the economic and educational systems, and that's almost certain to be a combustible situation in the years to come.

Threats and Hazards Specific Democratic Party employees have been targeted in cyberattacks

It's no accident what's been happening with this cyber-espionage -- it's not impossible to imagine some party other than a state-backed actor being behind the attacks, but it's close. And while China and Russia are the two likeliest states (in terms of means, motive, and opportunity) to try hacking into American political parties, right now it appears that Russia has the biggest motives.

Threats and Hazards The cable-news TV-watcher-in-chief

That's apparently the job that Donald Trump wants, but it's far from the right thing for leadership in the country. He is reported to watch virtually non-stop (a characterization reinforced by videos that show him obsessively watching television on his airplane), and that is a vastly different thing from educating one's self. There is very little novelty and very little original thinking taking place on cable news, and people who are in positions to face new and original problems (like, say, a President) need to be exposed to a lot of information, ideas, and original interpretations of fact so that they will be prepared for serendipitous moments. If the questions that landed on the Oval Office desk were easy, they would have been answered already.

Computers and the Internet Sales are falling at Apple

But the company still claims a gross margin in the upper 30% range, so they have a lot of cushion from which to adapt to new opportunities. The iPhone remains their leading volume item.

Health The world's tallest countries are the Netherlands and Latvia

On average, of course.

News Book review: "Taking Heat", by Ari Fleischer

Verdict: Too many sour grapes.


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July 27, 2016

Business and Finance Federal Reserve sticks with rates

"[T]he Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/4 to 1/2 percent". The FOMC expects low inflation because of low energy prices, but also hopes for the job market to strengthen. This may be some wishful thinking -- and worse, it may overlook some of the political risks that ought to be considered. Ideally, we'd have a stable growth outlook and could start raising rates slowly but deliberately; this FOMC statement may actually betray the truth that they're more concerned about the situation than they're letting on.

Threats and Hazards WWVPD?

What would Vladimir Putin do? Slate has an argument that he would do whatever he could to put someone like Donald Trump into power in the United States. Maybe that's a bit paranoid, but then again, maybe it's not. Trump is so far outside the norms that he thinks snapping "Be quiet!" at reporters is Presidential behavior. (It's not.) What's important to do here is divine the intent of Russian leadership -- what's the motive, and what are they seeking to gain? With Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spinning the invasion of Crimea as Russia "cleaning up" after Ukrainian mismanagement, it's obvious they aren't above playing dirty. Is it simply a strategic win to have the United States run by a weak wannabe-autocrat? Or is the end game to weaken and diminish regional rivals for power in Asia?

Business and Finance Census Bureau reports two straight months of meaningful declines in durable-goods orders

It's bad news across the board, especially after you take out defense orders.

Computers and the Internet Iowa Department of Public Safety fires employee over social-media rants

You have the right to free speech. But you also have a right to the consequences of shooting off your mouth in a public forum.

Humor and Good News The letter of the law

A woman told to obey a dress code that doesn't accommodate her decided to fight back -- by following the letter of the law in the most outlandish ways possible. Brilliant subversion. It's just not that hard to try to empathize with other people -- and to see that a one-size-fits-all policy for something like a dress code may not apply in a reasonable way to all people.


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July 28, 2016

Weather and Disasters We need more weather radar installations in America

At least in Tornado Alley. The National Weather Service points out that a tornado this week was only detectable at 7,700 feet above ground level, because that's all the closer the radar beam can get. There are lots of places (including meaningful population centers like Waterloo/Cedar Falls) that are much too far from any decent radar coverage anywhere close to the ground, and tornadoes are significant exactly because they are close to the ground. Filling in the national weather radar network wouldn't be that remarkable an investment cost on the grand scheme of things, and people might be shocked by just how much of America is invisible to radar below 10,000'. Iowa, for instance, could use fill-in coverage at Waterloo, Storm Lake, Ottumwa, and Clarinda. Or, for half the cost, we could at least put installations in Mason City and Lamoni and get some improvement. There are lots of holes in the national radar network, and basically by definition they tend to cover places that are less-populated and often poorer. That's no excuse. We as a nation spend billions on uncertain risks like countering terrorism -- but it's strictly a fact that tornadoes and other severe weather events are happening near people who don't have adequate radar coverage. Weak or not, these things are happening in places that are not sufficiently covered. It shouldn't come down to visual spotting alone.

Business and Finance The economy of every state in the Upper Midwest (except Kansas) contracted in the first quarter

State-by-state (or even region-by-region) analysis of GDP growth is valuable because the national economy isn't evenly distributed -- the Northeast, Pacific Coast, and South are all generally doing well -- but the Southwest, Great Lakes, and Mountain West are all far from comfortable. The first quarter is long over by now, but it's likely that conditions are regionally similar today.

Computers and the Internet Security consultants say DNC ignored warnings about cybersecurity

One observer says: "It looks like they just did the review to check a box but didn't do anything with it". And by not doing anything about it, they appear to have left the door wide open to Russian attackers.

The United States of America Rick Perry: "Republicans have much to do to earn the trust of African-Americans"

The former Texas governor may be redeeming himself on the national political stage by calling out the failures of his own party. He is quite right that the Republican Party needs to pay more attention to issues that disproportionately affect minorities -- and to criminal-justice reforms.

Humor and Good News The tale of Chris P. Bacon

That's the name of a pig. And it cracked up a TV news anchor who didn't see the pun coming.


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July 29, 2016

The United States of America The problem with insisting on more than tolerance

Senator Cory Booker made a speech to the Democratic National Convention in which he made some thoroughly laudable comments -- like "I believe we are an even greater nation, not because we started perfect, but because every generation has successfully labored to make us a more perfect union." Dead right. But he followed with another line that people may want in their hearts to be true -- but that may, in fact, be counter-productive. Senator Booker said, "We are not called to be a nation of tolerance. We are called to be a nation of love." This refrain isn't unique to the Senator from New Jersey; versions of it have been heard before and are echoed in the present. But as lofty as it sounds, insisting that tolerance isn't good enough...is a mistake. Tolerance has a very clear definition: It requires that the individual have an opinion, and be willing to peacefully accept and accommodate the fact that others have different opinions. And that peaceful accommodation is exactly what permits a pluralistic society to function as a civilization. We do not have to like each other -- even families don't always do that -- and we certainly don't have to love one another. But we do have to accommodate our differences peacefully. It is almost certain that when people echo a refrain of "love, not tolerance", they're doing it because it's a poetic rhetorical device. But it's also pernicious to say that tolerance isn't good enough. Tolerance is very, very hard to do well. And when people are told that they aren't permitted to disagree peacefully, but instead have to love their differences, that's simply asking the impossible. Tolerance is ambitious -- but it's also absolutely necessary to a self-governing civilization like ours. Insisting on love is far too much. And it begets overreaction from people who don't want to be told to love what they don't like -- too often causing them not only to reject love, but also to reject tolerance. Thomas Jefferson knew what he was writing when he composed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: "[T]ruth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them." We are better when we are free to disagree peacefully than when we are told to lay down our disagreements. Senator Booker appears generally to be an honorable and decent person, and his speech certainly doesn't leave any trace of deliberate incitement. But he could do more good not by saying, "Tolerance is the wrong way. Tolerance says I'm just going to stomach your right to be different" -- but by insisting that tolerance is essential, even when love is out of reach.

News 63 seconds of the world seen through a child's eyes

(Video) The child is a 4-year-old Syrian girl whose home was bombed by her own government. You can spare the 63 seconds. It is a momentous experience in empathy.

Computers and the Internet Yahoo sale to Verizon probably doesn't mean any meaningful immediate changes for users

Any properties that have survived thus far are likely to stick around once Yahoo becomes part of Verizon, since that's why Verizon was interested in the first place. Yahoo's destiny as a subsidiary and vestige of its former self is a reminder that success on the Internet is never, never, never permanent. High-powered Internet-based businesses have to make a whole lot of right decisions to stay on top -- while upstart rivals still rarely face any overwhelming barriers to entry. Snapchat, Whatsapp, Instagram, and plenty of other examples illustrate how new rivals can emerge at any time.

The United States of America Just get Johnson and Weld on the debate stage

In a year when the instability of both major-party coalitions is at least a couple of standard deviations outside the mean, letting in two expressly qualified former governors is hardly the strangest thing that could be done at the Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates.

Computers and the Internet Nebraska state senator accused of keeping his own sex tape on a state computer

There's stupid, and then there's stupid beyond words. It's just not that hard to separate the personal and the professional. And by now, people should realize the dangers in keeping self-incriminating digital media.


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July 31, 2016

Business and Finance A reminder that we still have serious problems, like a $600 billion Federal deficit

$600 billion is too hard to contextualize on its own. On a per-capita basis, shared among about 324 million of us, it's about $1,850 per person. That's the amount by which the United States is overspending every single year. In a family of four, that's $7,400 in deficit spending per year at the Federal level. Compare that to the national median household net worth of about $81,000, and ten years of deficit spending on behalf of four people (plus a little bit of interest) would be enough to wipe out the entire net worth of the median American household. That's obscene. So is the metric from another angle: Our economy produces $18 trillion or so in goods and services per year. A deficit of $600 billion represents more than 3% of that. An economy experiencing consistent growth of 2% a year can easily withstand deficit spending of 1% of GDP -- no big deal. This year's overspending is more than paid for by the expansion of the economy by next year. But an economy that grows at about 1% a year can't handle 3% in deficit spending. And we're being floated two huge bailouts that don't get any of the acknowledgment they deserve: Near-zero interest rates mean that the cost of carrying the Federal debt is small, and by virtually any measure, energy is absurdly cheap right now -- energy cost deflation is real. Those two factors are cushioning us from the consequences of Federal overspending, but they aren't at all guaranteed to last.

The United States of America "Open vs. closed" replaces "left vs. right"

So concludes The Economist. They're probably right. An open-minded conservative and an open-minded liberal probably have more in common with each other than with their party cohorts.

Computers and the Internet Why try to be the "next Silicon Valley"?

Better for a community to chart its own original course

Aviation News China is building its own passenger jet

Note: One of America's chief exports is aircraft

Science and Technology Porsche is working on an electric car

Fortunes for electric cars have really done a 180° turn in the last couple of decades


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