Gongol.com Archives: 2016 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol


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."



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)



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.



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.



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 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.