Gongol.com Archives: May 2017

Brian Gongol


May 2017
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May 1, 2017

The United States of America Calling all budget hawks

A government that responds to today's greedy voters by shoving its hands in the pockets of tomorrow's taxpayers is, truly, unlimited. And that's an affront to those who believe in limited government.

Threats and Hazards Apparent torture at the Milwaukee County Jail

Seven jail officials could face charges over the death of an inmate who was deprived of water. We explicitly prohibit cruel and unusual punishment for a reason. Deprivation of liberty should be punishment enough. It is un-American to take pride in the abuse of the imprisoned. Heed the words of Dwight Eisenhower: "Throughout America's adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations."

Threats and Hazards Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence

The President walks away from an interview with John Dickerson of CBS when Dickerson asks what proof he has of illegal wiretapping supposedly conducted by President Obama

Computers and the Internet Purdue just grew by 32,000 students

The public university is taking over a big chunk of the Kaplan University system, instantly expanding Purdue's reach as an online-education presence in about the biggest way possible. Purdue's president, Mitch Daniels, said he didn't think Purdue could make a big enough entry into online education on its own without making the jump to an acquisition of this scale.

News A little debate is good for the soul

Responding to outcry over a recent item published in the New York Times, Senator Ben Sasse notes, "We are in danger of becoming a nation that flees all discussion with people and ideas we don't already agree with. That won't work out well." He's right. No great idea has ever been diminished by a challenge from a lesser idea. Either it is sustained intact, or it is refined by the conflict.

Business and Finance A $1.1 trillion spending plan

And, like that, Congress appears to have reached a deal to fund the Federal government through September 30th. A vote is supposed to come later in the week.

Computers and the Internet Bloomberg and Twitter enter a joint venture

Bloomberg will provide 24-hour-a-day news content, and Twitter will provide the distribution platform. With a move like this, one ought to put the odds that Bloomberg will ultimately buy Twitter outright at something around 50-50.

News Andrew Jackson wasn't a laudable President

And we would describe him in colorful words today if he were from somewhere else. That's what makes the President's bizarre and vocal defense of Jackson strange. Even a sympathetic look at Jackson reveals huge flaws in his character.

Business and Finance A universal child allowance

Would we have a better safety net for the young if, instead of specific programs, we instead simply had a national program for cash payments to parents to ensure the well-being of their children? An interesting question. To be sure, the value of targeting individual programs has an offsetting cost in terms of requiring poor parents to jump through lots of bureaucratic hoops.

News "Then why do you support him?"

When an open supporter of the President says he finds it hard to defend the officeholder, Katy Tur has a good question


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May 2, 2017

Business and Finance Upskilling and the social-safety net

Germany is grappling with the question of just how much the government can do to insist that unemployed workers get new training -- how to do it, how much to pay, and whether it should affect their unemployment benefits. The time to make strong structural reforms is when unemployment is low (like it is now), and when pilot programs and other testing can be done with less impact and disruption to the public at large. But it's also worth noting that if there is an accelerated pace of technological change affecting workers, then maybe it's worth taking a bigger look at what should be done throughout the economy to help make the changes less dramatic. The Nordic Council's idea to make life-long education a compulsory requirement might just be the answer, despite how radically that may change how we think about education. It's hard to get people to take voluntary action to keep developing their skills -- Singapore, just for example, has miniscule participation in programs for continuing education (both at the individual level and at the company level). So it might just be necessary to make it a universal requirement in order to get the social commitment necessary to make it work. Work is a social thing, not just an economic one, so it makes sense to consider the social aspects of ongoing labor-force development as part of the big picture, both socially and economically.

Computers and the Internet UK regulators lean on the big websites to counteract hate speech

The problem with leaning on your user base to produce the content you need to make money? It's costly and difficult to weed out the bad content, of which there is a lot. And the producers of bad content have far more vested interest in producing it, getting it seen, and skirting the rules than the producers of good content have vested interest in tolerating it.

Threats and Hazards Russian propaganda seeks to influence the German elections

There are lots of people with Russian ties (including language) living in Germany, and they're getting messages that seek to undermine the incumbent government of Angela Merkel. Watch this closely! For Americans, it may be easier to see this interference from the outside than on the inside...but it's clear that Russia has turned to asymmetric psychological-warfare efforts to interfere with outcomes in democratic countries.

Weather and Disasters Seeing storms like never before

The new GOES-16 weather satellite provides a much more real-time view of North America than meteorologists had before. And with that comes much smoother animation of storm activity. When viewed correctly, it becomes a whole lot more clear that the fluid atmosphere above us behaves like a liquid in slow motion. The frequent updates might also help observers to pinpoint sooner when clouds start to break through temperature caps.

Business and Finance On the virtue of having multiple parallel careers

The column is a little on the flaky side for something from Harvard Business Review, but the main point is valuable: Pursuing more than one career interest gives a person more options and allows them to think deeply about how they can apply interdisciplinary thinking to problems.

News Northwestern's J-school decides special accreditation isn't worthwhile

The official reason for letting the accreditation lapse: It "doesn't lead us to a goal of significant improvement". Good for them, if that's the full story. Ultimately, those certifications, accreditations, trade groups, and regulations that fail to actually cultivate improvement are only relics.

Threats and Hazards Why everyone should know self-defense: Case study #22

A fistfight broke out on a passenger airplane. You never know when you could be trapped in a small space with a crazy person (and no weapons).


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May 10, 2017

News The public deserves answers about the Comey firing

If institutions matter, then processes must be held as important as outcomes. The rule of law depends on it.

Threats and Hazards Political blackmail

The former acting attorney general just told the Senate that she tried to warn the White House that they were opening the door to grave trouble by letting Michael Flynn become the national security advisor. The trouble was that he could be subject to blackmail -- a serious problem for the NSA.

Business and Finance Australia's treasurer wants banks to pay a new tax but not pass it along to customers

He says, "Don't do it -- they already don't like you very much," reports the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Nobody should rise to a position of real power without understanding that tax incidence has nothing to do with who likes whom. It's simple: Cutting the check isn't the same as paying the price. Taxes are always -- always -- shared between buyers and sellers in some proportion, depending largely upon who "wants" the transaction more.

News "Lateral entry" into the Marine Corps

They're looking seriously at letting people enter the Marines without going through conventional boot camp training, as long as they bring necessary technology-related skills. It really may be time to open up a distinct branch of the military devoted to cyberwarfare.

Broadcasting Tribune Media sells out to Sinclair

The purchase price is $3.9 billion plus outstanding debt. Sinclair has quietly covered a huge portion of the country with its owned-and-operated broadcast outlets. A prominent Chicago media columnist reports the story with a dark headline, seeing it as an ominous political move. It might better be portrayed as another step in the demise of proprietor capitalism -- a process which has its own drawbacks.

News When you can't even turn a profit on a casino...

The "Trump Taj Mahal" has been liquidated at pennies on the dollar from its original cost


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May 11, 2017

The United States of America Public officials must be loyal to the Constitution

The New York Times reports that the President asked now-fired FBI director James Comey for a statement of loyalty, and further reports that Comey declined. If so, it is to his credit. This would be a sensible time to point out that we should reconsider our national Pledge of Allegiance. We swear that allegiance "to the flag [...] and to the Republic for which it stands". It would be more patriotic if we swore that allegiance not to the flag, but to the Constitution. It is to the law -- and the Republic which it establishes, not just "for which it stands" -- that we owe our loyalty above all. Most certainly, above loyalty to any person.

Threats and Hazards A ham-handed firing of the FBI director reveals incompetence alongside a craving for power

Megan McArdle writes: "There are a lot of sources of political power in the American system, and those civic institutions will fiercely resist any attempt to remake them into hand-crafted tools of Dear Leader's whims." The President's desire to preserve himself (and promote himself) appears unbounded by any self-control, and the unrelenting urge to appear decisive actively undermines any case he might make on behalf of the legitimacy of his decision. He manages, somehow, to be defiant, defensive, and desperate for approval -- all at the same time.

Health Aetna says it's quitting the ACA exchanges

There's just not going to be any individual insurance left. Iowa has already reached the zero hour, and soon so will plenty of other states. We may find ourselves forced without consent into a single-payer system.

Business and Finance Trade needs its defenders to speak up

Protectionism is the helicopter parenting of economics -- if we plunder the consumer in order to "protect" industries that cannot (or will not) compete, then we're only conducting a transfer of wealth from people who earned it to those who have politicians on their side. Trade agreements are not zero-sum. It is possible to benefit by exporting more -- and by importing more. Importing cheaply that which we can only produce at great expense (or not at all) isn't a loss. Nor is importing something of lower value and converting it (by assembly, refinement, or other upgrade) into something more valuable.

News LDS Church withdraws support for certain Boy Scout programs

The Boy Scouts play an important role in the civic well-being of the country. This is an unfortunate withdrawal: Like America, the Boy Scouts are stronger because they consist of many who can differ about they ways they will live their private lives, yet still share an essential belief in some common principles of civic life and engagement. The less we retreat into our own silos of self-similarity and the more time we spend achieving common good alongside people who are different from us, the better.

Threats and Hazards Propaganda on the American front page

Because American photographers weren't allowed inside, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Boston Globe all ran photos from Russian sources of an Oval Office meeting between the President and the Russian foreign minister.


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May 12, 2017

Threats and Hazards President threatens former FBI director

Empty threats of intimidation are conduct unbecoming a Constitutional officer of the United States. A reasonable argument could be made that the President is trying to intimidate people currently in the White House, more than the ex-director of the FBI.

Broadcasting Why carry live White House briefings anymore?

The apparently deliberate misinformation campaign conducted by the present administration suggests that it may be journalistic malpractice to give their press briefings a raw feed to the public. One simple technique could be implemented if broadcasting networks decide to start fact-checking the administration: If the speaker is lying, fabricating, or misleading, switch the video to black and white. That would offer a simple but unavoidable visual cue that could have a real impact.

Threats and Hazards Attorney General wants to look tough

Federal prosecutors are told to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense". The problem with this approach is that discretion in the direction of mercy is a cornerstone of justice in a society like ours. That's why the President retains the Constitutional authority to pardon.

News All lives matter: Refugee stillbirth

A 22-year-old Syrian woman passing through Switzerland as a refugee had a stillborn child, and her treatment by authorities may be to blame. The Swiss authorities have opened a case against one of the border guards involved, as they rightly should. Anyone who vocally countered protests in the United States with the phrase "all lives matter" should examine whether they believe the lives of the refugee and her baby mattered...enough.

Computers and the Internet A global ransomware crisis

Literally tens of thousands of computers have been infected and some people are paying the $300 ransom. It appears to have crippled the British National Health Service. It's so bad that Microsoft has issued patches for Windows XP and Windows 8, both of which are "no longer supported". That's a big concession and an indication of just how significant the attack really is. As is so often the case, the best preventive measure is to make sure that your operating systems are fully up to date. Reputable sources say the NSA used the same vulnerability in the past to spy on computers.

Computers and the Internet Let's put drones in the sky during tornadoes

Much better to fill the air with drones (potentially providing useful live video) than to fill the roads with storm-chasers

Computers and the Internet Facebook imposes "sound on automatically"

As people scroll past videos in their "news" feeds, videos will play their audio automatically (until the user deliberately switches the setting). Auto-playing audio was a stupid feature of the Internet 20 years ago. It's mind-bogglingly stupid to impose it in 2017.


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May 16, 2017

News Norway overcomes the trouble of low oil prices

Oil and gas are obviously hugely influential to the Norwegian economy, but they're fortunate to have diversified away from a purely extraction-based economy.

Threats and Hazards A future fighting Russia's "little green men"

We're a long, long way away from the days of trench warfare

News China's public diplomacy is on the rise and needs a rival

China is using "Confucius Institutes" to launch public diplomacy all over the world tied to their "Belt and Road" project -- an official says, "Confucius Institutes have been launched in 51 of the 65 countries linked to the initiative's two main routes". It's entirely their right to do so, but it should also be a substantial warning to the United States that now is not the time to back down from the world stage, but rather time to step up our own public-diplomacy efforts.

Business and Finance Increasing automation is going to hurt smaller communities hardest

The general thesis: Big cities have specialists, and their jobs are hard to automate. Small cities have lots of generalists, and their jobs are much easier to automate. This thesis is worth much more examination.

News Slavery in the modern day

The Atlantic Monthly cover story "My Family's Slave" is positively riveting


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May 18, 2017

News One-paragraph review: "The New Democrats and the Return to Power"

Worthwhile reading for students of both American political history and political strategy


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May 21, 2017

Business and Finance Indefinite ignorance of our budget problem won't make it go away

Budget watchdog group Fix the Debt: "The President is right to focus on job creation and tax reform. But he should not rely on unrealistic and rosy economic growth projections to pay for his proposals or fix our debt. It is not a good idea to spend as if you won the lottery in hopes that you actually do."

Threats and Hazards It's not the crime, it's the cover-up

McClatchy cites members of Congress: "Investigators into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential elections are now authorized to probe whether White House officials have engaged in a cover-up."

Threats and Hazards Say no to propaganda

Too many Americans who knew that a free press was a key to winning the Cold War are now quick to share propaganda on their Facebook pages. We need to get smarter, not more entrenched in preconceived notions. Perhaps social media apps shouldn't open until you've been forced to read two pages in a book.

News RTNDA statement about attacks on journalists

"Above all, reporters are representatives of the public." Yes.

Weather and Disasters Montgomery (Ala.) just got more than 8" of rain in 24 hours

There really just aren't civil-works infrastructures designed to handle that kind of water

News Why Europe needs to understand China's "Belt-and-Road" concept in a hurry

China is undertaking a big concept: Essentially, that its interests are best served by heavy investment in the infrastructure that will permit it access to markets abroad so it can export more. But the concept isn't just about what China wants to build, but what the nations on the receiving end of the investment decide to do.

Science and Technology Could self-driving electric cars kill the automakers?

One team of futurists estimates that households will save thousands of dollars a year if they start using self-driving cars that are part of fleet services. What's perhaps more interesting is to consider what happens if people continue to own vehicles but (a) simply have a lot more time at their disposal because we waste so much human energy behind the wheel, and (b) save a ton of money because electric cars turn out to be much more reliable than combustion-engine vehicles. Some of the projections in the forecast are far-fetched (recovering "vast tracts of land" seems unlikely), but others could unsettle some of the biggest industries in the economy, including the oil companies.

Agriculture Norway needs to fix the Doomsday seed vault

Water got in the front entrance, where it wasn't supposed to


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May 22, 2017

Threats and Hazards An atrocity in Manchester, England

At least 19 people were killed in a bombing at a pop concert

Threats and Hazards DNI and NSA director both pressured by the President to deflect on FBI investigation

"Coats and Rogers refused to comply with the requests, which they both deemed to be inappropriate". Those with loyalties to the institutions of good self-government are the true heroes of this era.

News Former FBI director chooses to testify to Senate Intelligence Committee

Interesting question: Why not the Judiciary Committee?

News The benefits of agglomeration economies

Writes Noah Smith: "[W]e need to increase the chances of whole new fields of technology being created", and one way to raise the odds of that happening is to encourage lots of migration by smart people to places that want them

Science and Technology Pittsburgh and Uber on the outs over driverless cars

The technology holds enormous promise -- but the developers need to follow the rules while they're still testing things

Weather and Disasters What to know and where to see Total Solar Eclipse 2017

The Upper Midwest is going to have a decent view -- especially Nebraska


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May 23, 2017

Business and Finance Who gains the most from NAFTA?

Note the substantial benefits that accrue to states with substantial ag sectors. There's no good to be gained from producing surplus crops, meat, and other products if there's no place to use or sell the excess output. Anyone who bears even a rudimentary understanding of specialization and comparative advantage ought to grasp that without liberalized trade policies, the states with surplus to sell will find themselves losing out.

Threats and Hazards "A significant person of interest"

If officials within the White House are under criminal investigation, then the investigation must be permitted to proceed without obstruction or interference, and the public ought to be on very serious alert.

News On romanticizing Manchester: "Please stop celebrating my hometown"

Commentator James Palmer (the Asia editor at Foreign Policy), who grew up in the city says the terrorist attack shouldn't elevate the city into a symbol: "Of course Mancunians opened their homes and brought out free sandwiches and hurried into emergency rooms to save lives, and God bless every one of them. But they did that because they're people, not because they were Mancunians."

Threats and Hazards There are no words for what happened in Manchester, and there shouldn't be

If we had words for a time like this -- if we had rituals for reacting -- then we would be acknowledging this kind of attack as something normal. We should resist that normalization.

Health 20% of kids killed in car crashes were improperly/not restrained

There's no reason for preventable child deaths

News When Chinese students speak freely in America, someone may still be listening back at home

A Chinese student speaking at her commencement from the University of Maryland found herself on the receiving end of heavy criticism from home for revealing that her experience in America overturned the notion in her mind "that only authorities owned the narrative". This is exactly why a strong American effort on behalf of public diplomacy everywhere is a worthwhile investment. People shouldn't have to come here to get the message.

Computers and the Internet How essential is broadband Internet service?

From an economic perspective, it's almost as essential as other basic utilities like power, water, and sewer service. If that's the case, then there may be a case to be made on behalf of ensuring universal access -- and that, in turn, may influence whether people consider it worth subsidizing for those who live in places where it's not economical to deliver under conventional assumptions.


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May 24, 2017

Threats and Hazards Keeping the US and China from conflict

A magnificent insight from Graham Allison: "We really need to rethink our vital interests and the way we cling to the Pax Americana established after World War II. That status quo can no longer be sustained when the economic reality has tilted so dramatically in China’s favour. America’s real strategy, truth be told, is hope. At the same time, Chinese authoritarianism is no longer sustainable."

News Presidents don't "save" jobs

The Carrier plant in Indiana -- for which the President took such gleeful credit for "saving" hundreds of jobs through negotiation -- is laying off most of those "saved" employees before Christmas. The President shouldn't have interfered in the first place, shouldn't have taken credit for the jobs, and now deserves as much blame as the undeserved credit he took.

Threats and Hazards Former Sen. Alan Simpson isn't persuaded by the White House budget

(Video) He is gravely concerned that we're right about at the tipping point where a reversion to historical interest rates are going to destroy anything left in the budget. He notes that leaving entitlements untouched in the budget leaves no room for any of the discretionary spending that people expect to get from their government.

Threats and Hazards The "strong leader" myth has got to go

A big range of countries have become disturbingly more open to strong-man politics in the last couple of decades. That's a problem, because the appeal of the "strong leader" is an artifact in our brains leftover from the past, when power did more to define groups of people than principles. That doesn't fit with a modern world that broadly depends on peace and trade rather than bloody fights.

Threats and Hazards Assaulting a reporter is attacking the Constitution

A candidate for the US House of Representatives just physically attacked a newspaper reporter for asking questions. When you go after a reporter, you (symbolically) go after the First Amendment. And there is no room for that in our Constitutional order. The news media ought to resist the temptation to overstate what happened...but the candidate ought to be instantly disqualified in the minds of the voters.


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May 25, 2017

News Sweden, now worried about a reanimation of Russian aggression, is putting more resources into national defense

Shameful if nations have to make a rational calculation to spend much more money and time on defense because we abandoned the liberal order. It's an inefficient use of resources to spend them on warcraft if we could have peace through strength (and mutual defense) instead.

Threats and Hazards What's so hard about reaffirming the core of NATO?

The President declined to reaffirm that US policy backs the Article 5 commitment to mutual defense in his hectoring and uninspired speech at NATO headquarters. (He also shoved another NATO leader like a toddler.)

News Rep. Nancy Pelosi promises a $15 minimum wage

It's a ridiculous stunt in her bid to become Speaker of the House again. It's not really a feasible solution to poverty...and worse (from an electoral standpoint), it's not going to attract middle-class voters who aren't now voting Democratic.

Iowa Ankeny, Johnston, and Waukee all remain fast-growing

Ankeny even makes it into the very top tier for fastest-growing cities in the country

Computers and the Internet Uber Freight arrives on the scene

What the company did to remodel the taxi business, now it wants to do to over-the-road trucking. In the short run, it could be good news for independent drivers who are looking for a better way to fill their time carrying loads. In the long run, don't forget that Uber wants to go way beyond paying human drivers; they already own a project devoted to putting self-driving freight trucks on the road. In a sense, drivers who work for Uber Freight will be training their own replacements.

Aviation News Even more new screening at airports

The TSA is going to increase the amount of screening applied to electronics with "new procedures" at ten airports this summer. The official announcement makes it sound like they're just going to require people to take things like cables and devices out of bags and put them in to separate bins for screening. But at this stage, who knows?


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May 26, 2017

Computers and the Internet Defendant loses Israeli case because she texted with too many emojis

By peppering her text messages to a prospective landlord with a bunch of happy emojis, a judge concluded that she intended to show positive intent to rent, and now she has to pay a few thousand dollars in damages. There's a reason the written word beat out the pictogram millennia ago.

News A winning strategy

It may seem quaint, but just being against something (like an unlikeable President) still isn't enough to motivate winning coalitions of voters -- at least not reliably.

Business and Finance Among all the other reasons to worry, now China's taken on too much debt

And a heavy debt burden threatens the prospects for growth, which in turn could destabilize the country if it doesn't liberalize its politics. It's a whole basket full of alarms.

Threats and Hazards Murders in Portland apparently tied to racist attack

Just awful

Threats and Hazards New York Times conducts spectacular forensic reporting on the Turkish protest violence

The report makes it clear: Officials of the Turkish government brought violence to Washington, DC

Threats and Hazards Not only is Russia hacking, it's faking some of the outputs

What better way to take advantage of the "leaks" resulting from their hacks than to deliberately falsify or modify some of the leaked materials in order to do even more damage?

Business and Finance President Trump accuses Germany of being "bad, very bad" for exporting goods

Trade is less about "We sell, you buy" and more about how complex things come together. The President's abject failure to understand how this works is his own deliberate fault, and it is inexcusable. A world that trades voluntarily is a world that delivers material well-being to its people and peace among its nations.


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May 29, 2017

News How the declining cost of transportation could promote exurban growth

While some of the projections are likely to be true, the narrative of this article from Bain and Company assumes that on balance the growth of automation will be bad for cities and good for less-densely-populated areas. That runs contrary to other projections, which suggest that as low-skill, widely-found jobs are disrupted by automation (especially in areas like retail service), cities will be the only places where enough concentrated specialists will be found to make economies sustainable.


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