Gongol.com Archives: 2016 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol


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



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.



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



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


Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

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.