Gongol.com Archives: March 2017

Brian Gongol

March 2017
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March 1, 2017

Threats and Hazards Ideology is on life support

Columnist "Lexington" in The Economist points to the lack of substance in the President's address to Congress: "Republican members of Congress are also realising that identity beats conservative principles in this new politics of the right." This is all a terrible reflection of the last decade or so: President Obama undermined the Democratic Party by trying to be a superstar floating above it all. President Trump undermines the Republican Party by existing in a space of empty populism outside the range of commitment to principle. ■ Ideology gets a bad reputation, but there's a difference between blind partisanship and committed ideological consistency. Blind partisanship has very little social payoff; if it's "my party, right or wrong", then nothing good will come of it. But the person who can extract conclusions from a defined system of beliefs that draw from an informed understanding of history and philosophy is a person who can behave with some predictability and who can fall back on the strength of convictions even when challenged by new and novel opposition. ■ Grounding oneself in a principled ideological framework doesn't mean one has to be rigid or act with blinders on. It's less about acting like an unmovable brick wall, and more like behaving like a moored buoy -- free to move with the currents of news and events just like the waves of the ocean, but tethered to a fixed location.

Computers and the Internet Wendy's stores will get self-service ordering kiosks

A thousand stores will get the kiosks -- because customers like them and they pay for themselves in two years. Those who want to fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage should take note. Time and energy would be better spent campaigning on behalf of systems for better job training and human-capital development than fighting for regulations that will only hasten the arrival of the technology that will displace lesser-skilled workers.

News Murder in Olathe

A man is charged with murder in what looks like a clear-cut case of race hatred. A much better man -- one who tried to intervene in defense of the two Indian men who were killed -- is in the hospital with injuries.

Computers and the Internet Twitter takes steps to respond to problems of abuse

Accounts that look abusive will be isolated via artificial intelligence. Individuals can mute tweets that include words they don't want to see. Account types can be filtered out as well. The changes should be helpful in general, but the bad behavior on the platform is so widespread it may be hard to shut it down entirely.

Business and Finance GE boss thinks the US may be drawing back from the world

Jeff Immelt, in his letter to shareholders, calls it "an era when trust in big institutions is so low that the most valued 'strategy' is simply change in any form."

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March 2, 2017

News We must get the Russia probe right

The Attorney General has recused himself from "any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States". It's a necessary step -- the perceived misconduct is severe, and Jeff Sessions seems to be too close to the matter to be able to give it fair and impartial oversight.

Threats and Hazards No, parents don't have unlimited rights over their children

The appalling, utterly inhumane abuse of a Chicago 8-year-old -- at the hands of her father and grandmother -- is all the proof society should require to know that parents do not have absolute authority over their children. At some point, the state is obligated to step in to protect the welfare of the defenseless. And if we as voters, citizens, and taxpayers fail to adequately fund -- and demand accountability from -- the systems required to protect those kids, then we become unwitting accomplices in their harm.

Computers and the Internet Emma Watson won't take selfies with fans -- for geolocation reasons

The actress actually has a sensible policy for her personal security. She'll talk with fans, but won't take pictures with them, knowing that some will share those pictures immediately with geolocation tagging -- giving away her location. It's actually just an extension of the kind of behavior we all should practice -- wait until you're home to post pictures of yourself when you're out. Don't give away your locations, travel patterns, or routines if you don't have to.

News "[G]irls in their natural state -- strong and confident"

It's taken too long, but the more we recognize culturally that females shouldn't be bounded by oppressive taboos any more than should males, the better off we'll be. As Warren Buffett has said, "Look what's happened since 1776, most of the time, using half our talent." There's no reason to hold back anyone's full potential.

News One-paragraph book review: "Novice to Expert"

A disappointing attempt at a book-length treatment of material that would have been entirely serviceable as a short article or workbook

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March 3, 2017

Socialism Doesn't Work Mark your food waste

That's the message the church is trying to promote in Venezuela -- so that people who throw out food scraps can indicate where that food waste can be found by those who are scavenging for something to eat. There is no acceptable reason why a country like Venezuela should have starvation happening today -- but authoritarian government and economic isolationism have come together there in such a way that even in the midst of vast potential oil wealth, the population is going hungry. Politicians can't make an economy grow -- but they clearly have the power to destroy its potential.

Computers and the Internet NBC dumps half a billion dollars into Snapchat

The triumph of hope over sound reasoning. Snapchat's parent company came out with an IPO that priced the company at $35 billion. The business lost half a billion dollars last year and almost $400 million the year before. There's no sound way to place a value on a company like that. In fact, under most circumstances, a company losing that much money that fast wouldn't even really be regarded as a going concern. So for people to believe that it is worth $35 billion -- and for NBC to take out a half-billion-dollar share of that -- requires an active and willing suspension of disbelief in basic accounting.

News Who are we trying to be?

The Department of Homeland Security, says Reuters, is considering a new policy whereby children caught crossing the US border illegally could be separated from their mothers and detained under "protective custody" of the government. With policies like this, who are we trying to be as a country?

News "Republicans once emphasized the limits of government's power to solve problems"

Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman knows that the President's address to Congress wasn't Republican in nature

Science and Technology "Mass timber" construction comes to the United States

Processed wood considered as high-strength building material for tall towers


March 4, 2017

Business and Finance How quickly will the economy grow?

The 4% figure hailed by the White House is utterly desirable -- but almost certainly unachievable. A plan to get 4% real GDP growth requires more than "And then I click my heels three times..."

Threats and Hazards Someone call an adult

(Video) Former Senator Alan Simpson is angry with the way American voters and elected officials are avoiding the mounting fiscal crisis. People like fiscal discipline and free trade in much the same way they like vegetables: They're often less fun than the alternatives, but without them, we could die.

Iowa Every program has a constituency

A subcommittee of the Iowa House recommended approval of a plan that would repeal the state's 5-cent deposit on can and bottle return. Eliminating the return, though, could disrupt community events and programs that count on people donating their cans and bottles. Once a government program develops a constituency, it almost never goes away -- no matter how benign or mundane the program. The people who depend on the program have very strong incentives to keep it around, while everybody else has only weak incentives to eliminate it.

News Sweden revives the draft

Russian aggression against Ukraine and its drills in the Baltic region have the Swedes understandably nervous. The implicit costs of mandatory conscription are huge and should not be overlooked: A less-secure, less-stable world is not cost-free when compared to the incumbent liberal Western order. And with America unnervingly likely to pull back from soft power, it's time to pay attention.

The United States of America A moment of decency and sincerity

(Video) Senator Lindsey Graham has real words of honor for Senator John McCain

News From the Microsoft Library

A place like the White House boiler room or the broom closet at the Vatican: You ought to assume it exists, but why would you ever think about it?

Business and Finance Beware the hot stock market

"American pension funds are optimistic. Businesses are cautious. Shares are trading on very high valuations." It's that last part that gives extra reason for heartburn. High valuations propped up by lousy alternatives (who wants a fixed-income instrument right now?) and real apprehension about inflation are not good things.

Threats and Hazards Famine in South Sudan

It's vital to understand that most famine in the world today is man-made. That fact also means that we can fix it, but have to muster the will to do so. The situation in South Sudan is one shocking example: 100,000 people are already victims, and 5.5 million people are at risk. It's all due to violent conflict.

Broadcasting Show notes - Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - March 4, 2017

On bacon and cybersecurity, among other topics

@briangongol on Twitter

March 5, 2017

News Sound, sober analysis of the unsupported accusations of bad wiretapping

The Economist is a voice of reason, as usual

News "There's a lack of management, and a lack of strategy."

Still in the chaos phase at the White House, it would appear

Threats and Hazards Even to shrink the Federal government, you must staff the Federal government

Reports the editorial board of the New York Times: "President Trump has appointed fewer than three dozen of the top 1,000 officials he needs to run the federal government." That's a serious problem. Even if it is accepted as an end goal to reduce the size and scope of government, it is malpractice to leave vast numbers of positions unfilled. Any orderly winding-down of government activity would still require that skilled hands be at the controls so that essential functions could be cherry-picked from among the non-essential, and to ensure that responsibilities be handed off where appropriate. Even the Civil Aeronautics Board (one of the few Federal agencies ever to be abolished) had to be wound down statutorily, not just left unstaffed.

Business and Finance Reasons to expect more rate hikes rather than fewer in 2017

The Federal Reserve could be more aggressive than previously expected. One reason that nobody seems to admit out loud (even if it's clearly on everyone's minds): The impact of what could be inflationary (and yet economically contractionary) fiscal policies initiated by the White House.

News Maps that offer unconventional perspectives

How we represent our world in pictures does have an effect on how we perceive it

Business and Finance One-paragraph book review: "The Samsung Way"

A necessary profile of a company that has evolved dramatically in modern times

@briangongolbot on Twitter

March 6, 2017

Business and Finance Automation may very well be coming sooner than you think

There is great incentive for firms to put automation to work whenever it becomes economically feasible, and a world of low interest rates, tight competition, and low returns on other investments -- coupled with the very fast pace of technological development that should by now be obvious to anyone with a pulse and an Internet connection -- make it all the more likely that automation will displace more workers at a faster rate in the years ahead than what we've already experienced. That creates a pressing need for thoughtful public policies to accommodate the substantial social costs that will likely be incurred as an inevitable byproduct of the pursuit of private gain. ■ There's no way to tell employers they should keep people on the payroll if they'll lose money (or even get pushed out of business) if they don't automate. But it would be willfully negligent for us to imagine that there is no meaningful social consequence to the mass displacement of workers in an economy far more complex than the ones in which prior mass displacements occurred. ■ The displacements are inevitable -- and they could come in big numbers very soon. (They might not, but we shouldn't design our public policies around rosy, over-optimistic scenarios.) So whether we need to start thinking seriously about substantial career-retraining programs for displaced workers, or implementing extraordinary accommodations like the universal basic income, or even going so far as to impose compulsory continuing education on all adults, there is no time to waste in treating the possibilities with the seriousness they deserve.

Weather and Disasters A remarkable severe weather complex

750 miles of continuous severe thunderstorm warnings. Double-digit tornado warnings in Iowa, approaching annual totals for some recent years. And it's all happening at the beginning of March, which is much too early by normal standards. It did smell like tornadoes at lunchtime.

The United States of America If the President really thinks he was wiretapped...

Senator Ben Sasse says it well: If the President is going to make giant accusations, then it's incumbent upon the rest of us to insist on a full and fair investigation. We can't afford to let the public trust be indefinitely and indiscriminately undermined: Public trust is like a savings account, where deposits can only be made slowly and in small amounts. The withdrawals tend to be big and fast.

News When even $1 million hardly cracks the problem

The Chicago Public Schools are in need of $215 million to balance a budget that is in dire distress due in part to a colossal problem with underfunded pensions. With recording artist Chance the Rapper delivering a $1 million ceremonial check to the school system, people might obviously and naturally applaud the gesture. But when a number as big as $1 million doesn't even cover a single percentage point of the problem, then there's a serious problem afoot. ■ CPS isn't the first public-sector institution to run into a catastrophic pension problem -- but it's part of the vanguard. There are lots and lots of other government and public-sector agencies that are, altogether, trillions of dollars in the red. This isn't the kind of problem that can be wished away -- in many cases, taxpayers are on the hook without any regard to the condition of the economy or their government budgets for other things.

Threats and Hazards "[B]ecoming detached from religious and civic institutions"

People's propensity to want to turn to politics and "burn it down" (in the style of wrecking-ball candidate and President Donald Trump) looks like it has a close relationship to the disengagement those people have from the conventional organizing institutions of public life. People need to see that problems can be solved, differences overcome, and measurable progress achieved -- but also that it involves sacrifice, trade-offs, and commitment. That starts with engagement at the local level. People who pull away from that kind of engagement don't get the kind of psychological reinforcement they need in order to see that we are in control of our own destiny.

Iowa How a slow ag economy drags on everything else

That's how it is in the Upper Midwest, where there's no getting around the fact that farm incomes have a huge effect on the remainder of each state. The current pain in the ag economy is (and will continue to) ripple through to other sectors.

Business and Finance The world's middle class is growing quickly

Brookings says 3.2 billion people are "middle class" in the world today, and there will be a billion more in that category in just five years. A world with a vast middle class is more complicated than the one many of us were taught about. But it's a very good complication. As Margaret Thatcher said, "The sense of being self-reliant, of playing a role within the family, of owning one's own property, of paying one's way, are all part of the spiritual ballast which maintains responsible citizenship, and provides the solid foundation from which people look around to see what more they might do, for others and for themselves."

Science and Technology Five Nebraska counties now have 911 service for text messages

Imagine the benefits to an individual in the back seat of a car being driven by a drunk -- or a person being abused by a domestic partner. Technology is only as good as the people using it, but this is a very good way to use technology to help people.


March 7, 2017

Business and Finance $150 million in new plant spending

Honda is spending about $50 million in Ohio and $100 million in Georgia on new equipment and assembly lines, so the company can produce next-generation transmissions for cars. But take note that with all of this spending, they aren't talking about hiring new workers. That's the crux of the story for American manufacturing today: Making more, better, and higher-value stuff than ever before, but doing it without adding new workers. On balance, that's a net gain to society -- but it doesn't satisfy people with a fetish for classic "smokestack" factory jobs. Advanced manufacturing is all about sophistication, training, and quality -- not lapsing into a 1950s-era caricature of an assembly line.

News Is China planning to start military patrols of the Atlantic?

It's probably too much for the country to spend right now for too little obvious return on investment. But don't bet against an Atlantic strategy for China in the long run -- especially if they have reason to believe that their shipping lanes might be challenged.

Business and Finance Don't mis-count GDP

The current obsession with reducing imports -- especially in pursuit of raising the country's GDP -- is a path down the wrong track. Imports are subtracted from GDP, yes, but only after being counted under consumption. So their net impact on the country's accounts is zero. And if we start clobbering imports for their own sake rather than realizing that they fit within a bigger economic picture, then we're going to get ourselves in trouble.

Broadcasting When cable news drives the day's agenda at the White House

Literally. The President spent hours tweeting about (and with/at) "Fox and Friends".

Weather and Disasters A summary of the March 6th tornadoes in Central Iowa

Very unusual to have damaging tornadoes this early in the year. Tornado warnings usually don't arrive in force until April.

Recent radio podcasts

March 8, 2017

News China is displeased with US anti-missile defense systems going into South Korea

Time for some high-level game theory. What discourages stupid behavior by North Korea without upsetting the stability of a region that contains an ambitious regional power?

The United States of America 400,000 POWs

A word to those who are gripped by fear over the prospect of immigrants and refugees entering the country from troubled places: The United States kept more than 400,000 Axis POWs on American soil during WWII. 400,000 -- including legitimate, true-believer Nazis. This was during a time of war, and we're talking about enemy combatants -- not refugees from the fighting. If we were capable of maintaining the peace and security of the country with 400,000 enemy combatants on our soil at a time when nobody conceived of even the possibility of tools like biometric screening, then perhaps we should assume that we might today have the capacity to open our nation's doors more generously to those who are authentic victims of war, violence, and oppression. Fear of what might happen to us should be tempered by the knowledge that we've handled far greater risks with far lesser resources in the past.

News We don't need to be cruel to obtain security

(Video -- in Spanish) Try to imagine what fortitude it takes for a mother to bring her children from Guatemala or El Salvador all the way to the US border. Then try to imagine what kind of a gut-wrenching decision they must face when told either to separate from their children (and trust, somehow, that the system will take care of them) or to return to their homelands. America, we've got to be better than this.

Business and Finance Tracking investments of time with the scrutiny of investments of cash

(Audio) A really interesting interview with Michael Mankins, a management consultant who argues that firms squander mountains of employee time with a recklessness that they would never waste cash -- even though employee time is easily quantified in dollars and cents. Very interesting.

Business and Finance Hard times for retailers

Rumor has it that Gordmans is on the brink of bankruptcy. American Apparel and Sports Authority have already gone down that road. It's just tough to be in a retail environment when you're competing with online alternatives that can beat your prices, offer wider variety, and spread out their inventory risk over the entire country.

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March 9, 2017

The United States of America A reality check

Thanks to a growing population and the normal distribution of intelligence, America has more geniuses today than we did in the Manhattan Project. While genius alone doesn't solve our problems, we shouldn't fool ourselves into believing that modern problems are beyond our ability to create solutions. We should ask ourselves what modifications to public policy could attract the contributions of people who aren't engaged now. We also ought to examine what should be done about the state of our civic life to draw out the same kinds of people.

Science and Technology Storing solar energy

Tesla is storing solar energy captured in Hawaii and storing it to sell overnight at cheaper rates than conventional electrical generation can provide.

News The bounds of executive orders

The current President isn't the first to use them with abandon. He will still face constraints, as rightly he should. While they have a place in our form of government, it should be as a late or last resort -- not a first course of action.

Threats and Hazards Federal investigators are looking at Wikileaks

As they should

Computers and the Internet 10 things people have made with the Raspberry Pi

When a computer costs $35, it should come as no surprise that people use it for experimentation with great enthusiasm. A great example of the fact we simply cannot predict the outcomes when new technologies are introduced, especially at low prices.

News Gee, why would Sweden have reintroduced mandatory conscription?

An important leading indicator of where things are headed in the geopolitical sphere is (and will continue to be) the behavior of the Baltic and Nordic countries. And when it's clear that Sweden isn't confident in peace and security ahead, that ought to capture the attention of those who prefer a stable and peaceful world order. If they're nervous, the rest of us should be as well.

News On the goodness of sunset provisions

Laws should be made to expire like bad produce


March 14, 2017

Threats and Hazards If the US takes a swipe at the UN, what happens next?

If the United States withdraws dramatically from a world leadership role, we shouldn't expect peace and order to fill the void. Brutal cuts to our participation in (and funding for) international organizations seem shortsighted.

Threats and Hazards Influence-peddling through the back door?

If Chinese companies (which may or may not be acting at the behest of the state) are offering to take part in sweetheart deals with family members of powerful White House officials (like the President's son-in-law and key advisor), then by whom and how is that to be policed?

Business and Finance Businesses will be key guardians of tolerant social norms in the years ahead

Even if the temper of government sways in illiberal directions, the influence of the private sector should serve as an important guardian of tolerance. A good example: The investment-management company BlackRock is going to pressure investees to take action on issues like boardroom diversity. They have the votes, so they'll have the influence.

Threats and Hazards Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence

If the President truly has reason to believe that he was wiretapped, he has to supply some sort of evidence. Otherwise, baseless accusations undermine the basic assumptions of truthfulness required to make an advanced society function.

News Decorating, dictator-style

How come people with authoritarian instincts seem to share really bad taste in decorating?

Iowa Gates on the Interstate

A common scene in the rural Midwest: Permanent gates that swing closed to block entrance ramps to the Interstate highways. Because nothing short of a locked, permanent gate will stop some Midwesterners from proving what (over-)confident winter drivers they are.

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March 15, 2017

News A bilingual Mexican school system in 20 years

It's an ambitious goal, to be sure. And there will undoubtedly be institutional resistance. But Singapore found a way to become an English-fluent country, so it's not without precedent. And over the long term, it's hard to imagine a lot of investments that would have a higher social return than getting Mexico deeply integrated with the English-speaking world. Good luck to the policy-makers.

News Another independence vote for Scotland?

If the UK is going to leave the EU, then Scotland may have a new excuse to leave the UK. And could you blame them for wanting better access to the bigger market rather than the smaller one? The remaining UK would have every incentive to treat Scotland well and seek favorable terms for trade and other policies if Scotland gained independence but joined the rest of Europe. Not too difficult to game out how this would play if all of the parties involved pursued their own self-interest.

Computers and the Internet US Department of Justice charges Russian FSB officers with hacking Yahoo

There's no getting around the message here: "The FSB officer defendants, Dmitry Dokuchaev and Igor Sushchin, protected, directed, facilitated and paid criminal hackers to collect information through computer intrusions in the U.S. and elsewhere."

Computers and the Internet Marissa Mayer will likely get millions of dollars for leaving Yahoo

A golden parachute indeed

News Our actions reflect our priorities

(Video - in Spanish) Amnesty International says the United States is keeping young children in ICE detention centers for stretches exceeding a year. We really have to ask ourselves: Does that sound like it reflects American values and virtues?

Business and Finance Low interest rates are no longer an extraordinary condition

Per the remarks of Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen: "The longer-run neutral level of the federal funds rate is still likely to remain below levels that prevailed in previous decades." That's a huge statement that probably goes over the heads of most casual observers. But the thought that the "ordinary" level of interest rates that prevailed for the last half-century or so could be gone -- well, that's quite the change of mindset.

News On peaceful coexistence

Dwight Eisenhower said, "No nation's security and well-being can be lastingly achieved in isolation but only in effective cooperation with fellow nations." It's interesting to examine principles expressed during the Cold War to see whether they hold up today. This one does. If we want a peaceful existence, then we need a peaceful co-existence. It's perfectly fine for us to be different nations from one another, but we need to be cooperatively different.

Broadcasting On the hazards of cable news programming

Watching cable news no more turns you into an engaged citizen then watching ESPN turns you into an Olympic athlete. Exposure to content isn't the same as practice. Good civics requires effort.

The United States of America Everyone wants limited government when the other side is in power

A keen observation from Senator Ben Sasse: "Community is about persuaded values. Politics is about compulsory values."

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March 17, 2017

Humor and Good News Seven rules for St. Patrick's Day

It's quite possibly the best holiday of the year

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March 20, 2017

Business and Finance Manufacturing output is high -- it's manufacturing employment that's declined

If you don't get the diagnosis right, you risk issuing a deadly prescription. The problem isn't us getting screwed at the trade-negotiation table. It's that technology (mostly) and trade (to a lesser extent) render lots of jobs obsolete or redundant. We can lie to ourselves and pretend like we can stop the shift by barricading ourselves off against trade, but that's just dumb policy that assumes the wrong diagnosis and guarantees the application of really awful prescriptions that will make the situation worse. Ham-handed trade policies that focus on "protecting" primary industries (that is, ones that are very close to the step when raw materials are turned into something basic) can punish American companies that have moved up the value chain. Trade principle #1: If you want to protect anything, focus on intellectual property. Punish theft of trademarks, patents, and trade dress. Trade principle #2: Follow quality-based purchasing guidelines. Americans build great products - use rules-based standards for quality. Trade principle #3: Help workers displaced by trade and/or technology to move up the value chain with flexible, adaptive training programs.

Business and Finance The skyscraper curse

At the time when a Korean conglomerate is opening its 123-story Lotte World Tower, the company is finding itself in the midst of troubles of geopolitical economy and domestic law enforcement. The Korean economic miracle is a fascinating subject for study, but it's hard to shake the notion that the country is paying today for some of the economic vulnerabilities it accepted as part of the structure of its semi-managed economy. The government's strong hand in seeking to guide development (through favoritism and certain protectionist policies) created a class of businesses that are unusually susceptible to trouble when exposed to the wrong uncertainties.

Business and Finance Don't look for manufacturing jobs to "come back"

The jobs that have disappeared from the US market aren't likely to "come back" for any reason, especially not since many of them have departed not due to trade but to increased productivity (especially thanks to automation). What we should be seeking to do is create new jobs that are enhanced by automation and trade -- in other words, to adopt an expansive vision of the economy and employment, rather than an isolationist one.

News "Our mandate is clear, it is to get on with it"

UK will start the formal process of leaving the EU on March 29th. The full divorce is expected to take two years.

News Co-locating libraries with public housing

Chicago is going to build three such facilities. It's a novel idea, and we should hope that the execution lives up to the lofty ambition. An idea like this seems so good and logical that one could be forgiven for looking for the "catch".

Computers and the Internet Solid-state drive so fast it can be storage or RAM

To anyone who grew up with floppy disks (or even cassette drives), this kind of progress is remarkable


March 21, 2017

Threats and Hazards A North Korean missile test goes wrong

We shouldn't be enthused about missile tests, period. But we really ought to worry about tests in which things don't go as planned -- or perhaps more specifically, those that don't go where planned. On a related note, we should also pay attention to the fact that Sweden is back to practicing defense drills that it hasn't used in two decades. An unstable world without the assurances of the liberal postwar order is a much more dangerous one, and those dangers are expensive.

Threats and Hazards Iowa must do better by our kids

The inhumane conditions documented in a police report tell of adult behavior towards children -- including one who died -- that cannot be explained by anyone with a normal sense of decency. Whatever we're doing wrong as a state that kept the children from being able to escape such wretched treatment must be fixed. Urgently.

Business and Finance The twelve ways a company can innovate

Firms can get ahead by more than just making flashy new products. Sometimes, big advantages come about because they simply find new ways to do old things or better ways to source their raw materials.

Business and Finance Soon to come: Companies will have to admit to a lot more debt

Accounting rules coming into force in 2019 will make companies report their operating leases as part of their balance sheets. That's going to reveal that a lot of companies have debt (in the form of those leases) that they haven't admitted to before. It's likely to have at least some impact on the "asset-light" business model. Bloomberg data suggests it's going to have a $3 trillion impact on accounting reports.

Computers and the Internet An argument for a national cyberwarfare academy

The case for a national cybersecurity academy, much like the military service academies, to develop people who can defend the nation in the cyber arena but with a grounding in the kinds of principles and broad knowledge they'll need in order to do the job ethically.

The United States of America What the judiciary is all about

Senator Ben Sasse: "We want the rule of law -- not of judges' passions, not of judges' policy preferences [...] When a Supreme Court justice puts on his or her black robe, we don't want them confusing their job for those of the other branches. We want them policing the structure of our government to make sure each branch does its job, and only its job."

@briangongol on Twitter

March 22, 2017

Business and Finance Sears notes major uncertainty about future in financial reports

The company isn't quite so sure it'll even be around for much longer. What's really interesting about the Sears saga is that the company came into its own as a major disruptor in its own right. Sears wasn't the first to offer the delivery of direct-to-home merchandise via catalog sales, but it was the first to really escalate it to an art form. (Montgomery Ward predated Sears, and it's been gone since 2000.) It's curious to see the modern incarnation of Sears put under such (potentially deadly) pressure as a retailer today by what are effectively the same forces that launched it in the first place: Direct-to-home sales by nimbler merchants. Ultimately, it's hard to overcome perceptions of a death spiral once that becomes the dominant narrative about a consumer business.

Threats and Hazards Apparent terrorist attack on London

The subject targeted the Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament

News The flaw in restrictive immigration policies

The Daily Iowan (the student newspaper at the University of Iowa) interviewed Representative Steve King about immigration after his recent odious statements on Twitter. Rep. King's vision of immigration in this interview leans heavily on blocking immigrants if they can't show economic merit. It's vital to bear in mind the fact that first-generation immigrants to the United States have often been very low on the economic ladder -- think, for instance, of poor Irish farmers escaping the potato famine. When a nation welcomes low-socioeconomic-status immigrants, what it's really doing is priming the economy for progress a generation down the road. It's the children of immigrants who are often the real driving force for growth. They're close enough to their parents' experience to have an appreciation for what the country offers them, and they have the motivation to prove themselves in a big way. High-status immigrants will always be sought and welcomed by countries that aren't completely stupid about their borders -- after all, what country wouldn't want to be a premier destination for rocket scientists and brain surgeons? It's the country that sees the value of the second generation -- even the children of unskilled laborers -- that really benefits in the long run.

Broadcasting Netflix to replace star ratings with thumbs-up/thumbs-down

Netflix seems to think the change will help offset the "grade inflation" that applies to programming like documentaries, which people tend to rate more aspirationally than reflectively. But what about those users who are disciplined about their ratings and want to be clear that while some programs are fine, others are wonderful -- and still others, quite terrible? More valuable than going to a binary system (which supposedly makes people more likely to leave ratings) would be a system that permits people to rate television programs by season or episode. Some start strong and then end with a whimper (The West Wing). Others stumble out of the gate but find a real voice later on (Parks and Recreation). Some granularity in ratings might be a good thing.

Threats and Hazards House Intelligence Committee chair goes to the press and the White House with allegations

A troubling demonstration of fealty to the Executive Branch

@briangongolbot on Twitter

March 23, 2017

Threats and Hazards "I'm a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right."

The President rejects study and knowledge because he wants to go with his gut. The problem is this: People who really care about their jobs develop intuition through practice, reflection, study, and self-criticism. Intuition is a different thing from instinct. Animals have instincts. Intuition is the culmination of habit, study, experience, and reflection. The person who relies on instinct alone -- instead of deliberately cultivating intuition -- puts everyone else around him/her in danger. Never trust the instincts of someone who doesn't study new information or reflect on when those instincts went wrong.

News Sen. John McCain says we need a special committee to investigate

Speaking of the investigation into a relationship between the Trump campaign and an adversarial foreign government (Russia's): "[N]o longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone". That is a non-trivial assertion from a person with the kind of moral authority as the Senator from Arizona. And, given the apologies and backtracking underway as the House Intelligence Committee chair acknowledges that he had his priorities completely wrong, Senator McCain is probably objectively correct.

Threats and Hazards CNN says FBI is reviewing evidence of a Trump campaign tie-up with the Russian government

Were they coordinating the release of material that reflected badly on Hillary Clinton? That seems to be the crux of the matter.

Business and Finance A flat statewide minimum wage makes sense

But so does raising the wage marginally, or at least pacing it to inflation. Ultimately, we need to take steps -- either as states or as a nation -- to do a better job of developing people's skills and human capital so that the minimum wage is irrelevant. That is to say, we're much better off as a society if we're churning out people who are worth much more than the minimum wage in the marketplace, so that the minimum wage becomes a non-binding price floor. But until we reach that point, there's not particularly much to lose by pacing the minimum wage along with the rate of inflation, and it's a signal that we are at least conscious of the impact that inflation has on people all across the income spectrum. From a purely political perspective, it's hard to see the harm in a modest increase in the statewide minimum wage to go along with HF 295, which passed the Iowa House and is presently before the Iowa Senate. Even a trivial-looking increase would at least have the benefit of signaling concern for those who earn the minimum wage (which hasn't risen in the state for almost a decade). The local increases in Johnson, Polk, Linn, and other counties are symptom enough of public pressure for some kind of increase.

The United States of America If you have to start life poor...

...then you'd better hope you're born in the Upper Midwest. An economic study points to the region as unusually good at launching poor kids into higher income brackets later in life.

Iowa A report from the "Midwest foreign correspondent"

(Video) A funny sketch on how the Heartland is perceived by others

News Go home, architecture. You're drunk.

Architecture studio proposes a U-shaped building in New York City


March 24, 2017

News It's called "rent-seeking", and it's not good for consumers

In seeking to prevent "transportation network companies" (Uber and Lyft, mainly) from competing with conventional taxi services, a union leader in Nevada wants state legislators to try imposing restrictions -- like requiring a 10-minute delay between ride request and pickup and placing a ban on surge pricing. It's completely understandable if taxi drivers feel threatened by competition. It's also perfectly reasonable to consider mild regulations in the direct and immediate interest of public health and safety. But artificial restraints on competition like service delays and price ceilings are pure rent-seeking behavior -- that is, the use of political influence to seek income ("rents") that wouldn't be provided in a competitive market.

Humor and Good News Theo Epstein declines Fortune acknowledgement as "world's greatest leader"

It's probably a bit much to name a baseball guy as the world's greatest leader -- but there's no question that management books ought to be written about Epstein and his approach. There's simply no way that his successes at the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs were simply freak events. And it's Fortune's assertion that Epstein has applied lessons about personal character that he learned (from their absence) in Boston to building a World Series championship team in Chicago.

News AP decides "they" is sometimes OK as a singular pronoun

If the subject isn't interested in being identified as "he" or "she", the AP says it's OK to go with "they"

News Putin's vulnerability hinges on the price of oil

Per a column from the Atlantic Council: "This sector provides 52 percent of Russia's federal budget and 70 percent of its exports. These prices make or break Russia..."

News Honors bestowed on British politician who tried to save stabbed police officer

There's goodness, after all, inside most people -- including politicians

Broadcasting Radio Australia powers down its shortwave service

The long, slow decline of shortwave radio is a sad thing. Yes, Internet streams sound better. But shortwave has universal reach, and the Internet doesn't. Radio remains eminently portable in a way that data streams are not, and that's never been more significant than at a time when authoritarian governments have the power to blockade Internet access for the people living under their oppression. Those people deserve the freedom of thought that shortwave radio has historically excelled at providing.

Threats and Hazards A small example of the cruel oppression characteristic of ISIS/ISIL

In the Cold War, we opposed Soviet imperialism because it violated the right to self-determination. When ISIS/ISIL enters a place and lays down oppressive rule, then it similarly violates the right to self-determination.


March 27, 2017

Threats and Hazards "The protection of America lies in the Baltic states"

The Lithuanian president makes a case for US self-interest in acting to defend her country

Threats and Hazards UK investigators think the recent London attacker acted alone

It's reassuring to hear there's no great conspiracy, but it's an unpleasant reminder that even individuals can do great harm

News Double-stacked freight trains started in the 1980s

They're still not found everywhere in the US, but they have a pretty dramatic impact on transportation efficiency. Good thing so much has been invested in the infrastructure modifications that made them possible.

Computers and the Internet Treasury Secretary is wildly naive about the rise of artificial intelligence

In an interview, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that the impact of artificial intelligence on the labor market is "not even on our radar screen" -- not even on a scale of decades. He's wrong. And being wrong about something like that makes it very difficult to make informed policy decisions and recommendations. Artificial intelligence is having an impact on the labor market already. It'll destroy some jobs, create others, and enhance still more.

News That's a lot of golf

The President has spent a lot of time on golf courses since his election, which wouldn't necessarily be notable if it weren't for the fact that he made such a big deal out of his predecessor's doing the same -- and that so many appointments have yet to be made. Also, it's costing the Secret Service a small fortune in golf-cart rentals.

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March 28, 2017

News "Indyref2": Scotland goes for a divorce, again

"Indyref2" seems like a pretty casual way to describe splitting the United Kingdom, but what's interesting is that the mother country really doesn't want to let the fight happen until after "Brexit" is over and the UK is out of the EU. So: Scotland's leaders have voted for a new independence referendum in 2018 or 2019, and the ministers in London say not until 2020 at the earliest, by which point the European Union divorce ought to be complete -- which would obviously complicate matters for an independent Scotland seeking to get back in.

Broadcasting On Scott Pelley's style of news delivery

He's calling things as they are during the CBS Evening News, and his forthright approach is what we've long needed in broadcasting. It's not editorializing -- but it's not gentle, either.

Threats and Hazards "[H]e's gone off on a lark [...] an Inspector Clouseau investigation"

Senator Lindsey Graham, in his inimitable style, on the things the House Intelligence Committee chair claims to know but won't tell anybody -- including the members of his own committee

Business and Finance Which countries do the most research and development?

Relative to the size of their economies overall, only a few countries in the OECD spend more than the United States -- notably, three of the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, and Sweden), two of our close East Asian allies (Japan and South Korea), and Israel. Switzerland and Austria beat us, too.

Weather and Disasters Severe weather season has arrived

A look at the climatology of past severe weather isn't a perfect guide to any individual year, but it's a very good place to start

Business and Finance Supply and demand: The tiny-apartments edition

A British developer wants to build really tiny apartments in the London region

Recent radio podcasts

March 29, 2017

Threats and Hazards Americans "are being asked to choose between two unpalatable versions of events"

A BBC analyst observes that either there was epic misbehavior on the part of the Obama administration in applying surveillance against Donald Trump and his allies, or there were Americans who collaborated with and enabled a dirty influence campaign by a foreign government with the objective of getting Trump elected.

News The UK files for divorce

It's going to take a while, but they're officially leaving the European Union. It's really happening.

The United States of America "Russia is not unaware of our own distrust of each other...[or] our own increasing self-doubt"

US Senator Ben Sasse's comments on how an adversarial government in Russia is exploiting the soft underbelly of American political life.

Health If we want new antibiotics, we need to grow new bacteria

And it turns out that only a very small range of bacteria like to live in a conventional lab environment. So developments in the last few years that have enhanced the ability of scientists to cultivate bacteria in an organized way outside regular Petri dishes could be one of the best things to happen to medicine in the era of growing antibiotic resistance.

Humor and Good News "My fully optimized life allows me ample time to optimize yours"

A really funny swing at the people who make a pop-psychology fortune selling their purported insights into living perfected lives

@briangongol on Twitter

March 30, 2017

News "It's just not going to be a 21st-Century Western country."

A dire way to forecast the future of the United States if we don't start acting seriously on our physical infrastructure (and it's a problem that goes way beyond just "roads and bridges").

Business and Finance A big bet on nuclear power goes very, very bad

Toshiba is losing billions of dollars because of trouble with its US nuclear-power unit, Westinghouse, which just declared bankruptcy.

Socialism Doesn't Work Venezuela's supreme court undertakes a coup

They've assumed legislative powers under the claim that the legislature (run by the opposition, not the authoritarian socialists in charge of the executive branch) swore in members who weren't eligible.

Business and Finance Get ready for a loopy future in oil prices

Investment is moving heavily towards oil production that comes from sources that are quick to be tapped -- which could mean under-investment in sources that are more reliable. One of the little-told stories of the US economy today is how much we've been subsidized (implicitly) by cheap energy. It was a surprise -- a bonanza -- and you should never count on a bonanza to go on forever.

The United States of America Government should be a last resort for cushioning the economy

Not a first choice. Robert Samuelson's column probably gives too much credit to the White House for having a coherent vision of government, but he's definitely right when he says, "There's a bipartisan unwillingness to answer this question: What is government for?" -- and even more so when he notes, "We need limited government not in the sense of smaller government [...] but in the sense of government that is focused and reflects agreed-upon boundaries."

@briangongolbot on Twitter

March 31, 2017

Threats and Hazards "He's already rich"

In an interview with The Atlantic, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who is chair of the House Oversight Committee, dismissed a question about whether the President might seek to take advantage of his position for monetary gain. His response is wrong -- or, at best, supremely naive -- for at least four reasons. ■ First, it assumes that the President actually is rich. We don't know that. We still haven't seen any meaningful tax returns. We don't know what he owes, or to whom, nor have we seen anything that constitutes an independent accounting of his net worth. ■ Second, it assumes the President is not trying to get richer. We don't know that. The only evidence we have right now says that he never really divested, and his son confirmed just the other day that he's still giving his father reports on the family business. ■ Third, it assumes the President's greed is limited. We don't know that. In fact, he openly campaigned on the notion that his greed was a virtue, not a vice. ■ Fourth, and most importantly, it defaults to the idea that Congress shouldn't assume an adversarial role with the other two branches of government. That's a faulty conclusion. The three branches of government should be jealous of their own powers and eager to keep the others in check -- and that should be the case, even if all three branches were occupied unanimously by people who shared the same ideology. It's a matter of process, not outcomes, that there should always be tension among the branches of government as they struggle with one another to maintain an appropriate separation of powers. If "oversight" is the very name of your Congressional committee, then nobody should get the benefit of the doubt -- whether they're "rich" or not.

Threats and Hazards Sen. Marco Rubio confirms that Russian hackers went after him

Back in the Presidential campaign, and, he says, just this week. It came out during Senate Intelligence Committee hearings. Testimony from one analyst identified an amplification system for Russian propaganda promoting Donald Trump and attacking his opponents. This is well beyond mischief. It's psyops -- warfare against the mind, saving the hassle of firing a gun. And what do we have to show for it? While it can't be proven conclusively what happened in an alternate reality where none of this took place, it's clear that the man elected President is failing in dramatic fashion to set a course for his administration, get a legislative agenda underway, or establish his own credibility. The Washington Post notes that hundreds of high-level Executive Branch jobs aren't just unfilled -- they're without nominees. The Post's appointee tracking database is a true public service.

Computers and the Internet Twitter nixes the egg and raises the character ceiling

The default profile picture -- currently an egg -- is being jettisoned in favor of an icon that looks like a person. Twitter seems to have put a great deal of excess thought into this. Perhaps more interesting is that they're raising the ceiling on characters allowed in tweets, putting "@username" references and media links outside the 140-character limit count.

Business and Finance How talent is organized has a huge effect on a firm

If star employees are organized so that they can work together, they can get a whole lot more done than if they are spread out all over the company. The more a firm chooses to concentrate the efforts of its top employees on core missions of the company -- and the better it does at stripping out red tape so that people don't waste their time on unproductive activity -- the better the company can perform. At least, that's what consultant research says.

Business and Finance Caterpillar will shut down factory in Aurora, Illinois

And 800 jobs will depart with it. That's not a small number for a city like Aurora (population 200,000). The closure will take until the end of 2018 to complete. Municipal leaders: Put not your faith in any one company, and never count on manufacturing jobs to stay in one place -- even if there's a huge plant that cost lots of money to build.

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