Gongol.com Archives: June 2017

Brian Gongol

June 2017
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June 4, 2017

Threats and Hazards Yemen borders on total civil collapse

And the world has done little or nothing to actually help. Do we not think the consequences will affect us somehow? Don't they always?

Threats and Hazards What is "patriotic" about attacking another country's free and fair elections?

When Vladimir Putin says that "patriotic" hackers "may try to add their contribution to the fight against those who speak badly about Russia", he's not really denying that his government could, would, or did try to interfere with the outcome of the US Presidential election. There's nothing "patriotic" about trying to undermine another country's self-determination. What an awful characterization.

News Religion and the Oval Office

It's perfectly fine to have a President who practices no particular faith (as long as he or she has given the matter some thought). It's fine for a President to come from an unusual or small faith tradition (again, as long as some thought has gone into the choice). It's fine for the President to come from a mainstream faith tradition (ditto on the "thinking about it" part). But for a President to not know the very basics of how Christianity is categorized among Protestants, Catholics, and other groups -- or within Protestantism, between evangelicals and mainline denominations -- betrays a deep lack of understanding of something that forms a deep sense of personal identity for millions of Americans. That's pretty astonishing.

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June 5, 2017

Threats and Hazards No, we're not going to "defeat terrorism"

Terrorism is a tactic -- and it's been employed by a wide range of groups over time to achieve political ends all over the spectrum. To talk about defeating a tactic is to promise something that can never be accomplished -- so it only sets up the public for failure, cynicism, and a sense of defeat. Specificity of objectives is important.

Threats and Hazards Every system is perfectly designed to produce the results that come from it

And in the case of the President's management style, the process is perfectly designed to create chaotic results among people who vie for limited attention from a person who desires esteem above all things. That's a recipe for people to push boundaries, bend rules, and cross ethical boundaries.

Business and Finance Productivity figures are nothing to stoke excitement

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that labor in the non-farm business sector in the US is only 1.2% more productive than it was a year ago. Without a lot more labor-hours worked, it's really going to be hard for the economy to expand in any durable way. Weak productivity growth at a time of low participation rates in the labor force (low in no small part due to retirements among Baby Boomers) is really the deepest-seated problem in the US economy.

News Young people need productive things to do

Iceland dealt with a substance-abuse problem among young people by finding them better things to do. It's a universal truth: If there aren't productive alternatives, young people with nothing better to do will fill the voids...and it should never come as a surprise if the voids are filled by things like drugs and alcohol, if those are the things that someone else has an incentive to push. The alternatives don't necessarily have to involve government, but they do usually require some kind of concentrated effort by people who are willing to commit some resources to filling the voids.

News All sides in American politics need to back off the hero-worship

The DCCC is still trying to rally public support around messianic images of President Obama. That's not a path forward.

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June 11, 2017

Computers and the Internet Amazon.com will offer small discount on Prime to people on public benefits

It's self-serving behavior, but it's also potentially a way to do some good for people who are economically on the margins. Anything that reduces the "cost of being poor" (as we've come to understand it) deserves attention and consideration as a public good.

Business and Finance Tesla's market capitalization now exceeds BMW's

That's a long way to go in a short period of time

Iowa UNI enters 3+3 law program agreement with Drake

The university also has a similar deal with the University of Iowa's law school

News A major-party meltdown

Sen. Bernie Sanders is out on the campaign trail again, pushing a hard-leftist agenda. It's full of energy and hype, but short on productive policy. The harder he and his acolytes push on the Democratic Party, the more they risk fracturing it entirely.

Business and Finance French president wants to loosen up labor markets

If Emmanuel Macron is successful, he will have done a great service to his country. The more flexibility to be found in labor markets, in general, the better.

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June 12, 2017

News France's startup political party is crushing legislative elections

En Marche is perhaps the most interesting and most disruptive startup of modern times

News Tennessee enacts free community college for almost all adults without degrees

An educated (and credentialed) workforce is one way to induce demand

Science and Technology Autonomous cargo ships are coming

A substantially larger prospect than self-driving cars -- and yet, in technological terms, not that far away

News The militant left is breaking the Democratic Party

We need (at least) two intellectually honest and principled political parties for our electoral system to work. If the GOP succumbs to a transient populism on one side while the Democrats succumb to a transient populism on the other, then as a nation we're in trouble.

Business and Finance A wish is not a plan

Would 3% annual economic growth be wonderful? Absolutely. Is hoping for that number enough? Not even close. The CFRB notes the kinds of hurdles we'd have to overcome in order to consistently get to 3% annual growth in the United States. This matters because outrageously high growth projections are required for the current White House budget concept to come anywhere close to working.

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June 14, 2017

News US Senate approves new sanctions on Russia

And appears to seek new ways to constrain the President along the way

News Apocalyptic fire at a UK housing tower

Shocking images of a tall building completely engulfed in flames

News "The average rent in Oakland now is $2,400 a month"

The shortage of housing in the San Francisco Bay area is apparently at titanic proportions. KGO quotes a housing official as saying there have been 500,000 new jobs created and only 50,000 new housing units built in the last half-decade. The resulting shortage appears to be creating strain all over the place, including among senior citizens who now can't afford housing. The fact that sufficient new housing hasn't been produced when demand should be somewhere on the scale of ten times new supply suggests that some kind of regulatory or resource constraint is creating a massive chokepoint. And, when in doubt, assume that developers will find a way to overcome the resource constraint (like available land) with money (like building taller towers), so there's a pretty good chance you're looking at a regulatory choke.

Computers and the Internet Lawsuit result could categorize LinkedIn as a "work environment"

Such a definition might subject it to a giant wave of new internal and external restrictions and policies

Computers and the Internet "Tweet logorrhea does not reflect a well-thought-out strategy"

The President loves using Twitter...but it's massively against his best interests, at least from a legal standpoint

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June 15, 2017

Business and Finance Rumors of looser capital-reserve requirements

Anything that would reduce the amount of reserve capital required to be held at banks should require some pretty extraordinary justification

News "Presidencies don't come with training wheels"

Excuses are no substitute for knowing what you're doing when you're in the most powerful office in the Federal government

Business and Finance Absorbing Yahoo is going to cost Verizon half a billion dollars

That's a whole lot of spending just to get a new asset to fit under the corporate umbrella

Business and Finance Nestle might sell off its US candy business

Butterfinger, Crunch bars, and Sweet Tarts could all go on the auction block

News Wind turbine collapses in Nebraska

Now, to find out why

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June 18, 2017

Agriculture Tough times in an economic sector lead to consolidation

And with times being tough in farming right now, expect to see more consolidation in agriculture

Threats and Hazards Chair of national Libertarian Party says "smash the state"

That's anarchism, not libertarianism. If your first belief is in the preservation of natural liberties, then some form of government is necessary. Coercion will exist with or without government power, so the only way to preserve liberties is to make sure that some form of coercive power is held by a government subject to rules, so that it can in turn prevent private individuals from coercing or oppressing others. You can't "smash the state" like an anarchist and effectively preserve liberty.

News Concerted effort to raise college education rates among American Indians works

It's no small matter to raise the percentage of degree-earners among an entire population -- particularly one with extremely high poverty rates

Business and Finance Gordman's is being liquidated in a hurry

Just one example of trials (among many) in retail

Science and Technology How automatic emergency braking could be an anti-terrorism tool

It already makes sense to implement "guardian angel" technologies on behalf of ordinary drivers and passengers on the roads -- but it also could serve to prevent the use of heavy vehicles as weapons against crowds of pedestrians


June 21, 2017

Threats and Hazards There was a child in the back seat

When Philando Castile was shot by a police officer -- seven times -- there was a young child in the back seat. And after that trauma, the child could only think of her mother's safety.

Threats and Hazards South Korea wants the US to cool down the conflict with North Korea

One might imagine that Seoul has more skin in the game than people spouting off in Washington, DC -- and that brinksmanship with a tinpot dictator isn't a strategy with a good outcome in game theory

Science and Technology Colorado voter wants to ban pre-teens from getting smartphones

Should preteens be discouraged from living entirely through smartphones? Yes. Should they be banned from getting them? No. That's the attitude of a nanny state. What about the kid from a household with limited means (or disengaged parents) who uses a smartphone to take lessons from the Khan Academy? The problem is that in some ways, smartphones are as useful and good as public libraries. In others, they're all of the worst things about TV. But smartphone use is the kind of thing that should be decided by conscientious parents, not an overbearing government.

Business and Finance Ford is going to build the Focus in China

Ford thinks it'll save $1 billion by making the switch away from US-based production

News "Bannon's War"

An excellent episode of "Frontline"

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June 22, 2017

Threats and Hazards The cost of bluffing

The President of the United States (whomever that may be) needs to be a person with credibility. When a President is caught bluffing (as when President Obama backtracked repeatedly on his "red lines" over incidents in Syria and Ukraine, or when President Trump admits he doesn't have tapes of his meetings with James Comey), that undermines the security of the nation. The words of our chief executive need to mean something so that we don't always have to back them with force.

Threats and Hazards Experts review the Philando Castile shooting

Every police-involved shooting death really should be submitted to independent review, just like we do for plane crashes and train incidents via the NTSB. The reviewing body doesn't even have to be empowered to punish anyone -- but we do need to get a close look at exactly why individuals die during encounters with officers of the peace. If doctors and surgeons have to submit to morbidity and mortality reviews as a means of learning how to do a better and safer job in the future, shouldn't police departments submit their own incidents for the same kind of clear-headed review? Again, it doesn't even have to be punitive to be useful.

Science and Technology What are the odds your job will be automated?

A really fascinating tool for seeing which jobs are at highest risk. Automation is vastly more destructive to jobs than trade, but trade gets all the bad press. (But automation and trade also help to create new and better jobs -- in accounting terms, they destroy in gross but create on net.)

News No need for a trade war

The White House needs to back off its threats of trade wars. That behavior is very bad for the economy.

Computers and the Internet Another way cybercriminals can get you

A take on the "man in the middle" attack that could crack even conscientious computer users

The United States of America One-paragraph book review: "The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge"

An overlooked gem in American political biography


June 23, 2017

Threats and Hazards An outstanding timeline of Russian efforts to influence American elections

The Washington Post has delivered a blockbuster report on what happened and when, and how the United States (under two different Presidential administrations now) has sought to respond...or not.

Threats and Hazards Documenting the Philando Castile case

Reasonable people should expect better answers about why a gun was fired seven times into a car with this child in the back seat, leaving an innocent man dead and the child (and her mother) traumatized.

Aviation News Boeing sees no future for the 747

Not as a passenger plane, except for its service as a VIP carrier like Air Force One

News How En Marche reached out to French voters living in the UK

The startup political party went to some unusual measures to win

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June 24, 2017

Threats and Hazards Protesters start using airports for political rallies

Politics notwithstanding, airports are really bad sites for mass protest. Large gatherings of riled-up people create an implicit security hazard, and could easily offer cover for malfeasance by terrorists. No matter how "spontaneous" the organizers want to pretend to be, if they use the same site (like an airport) more than once, then an opportunistic attacker need only scope out the security response the first time before coming back the second time with intent.

News Buildings that integrate plants into their design

Literally "green" architecture: An article to think about the next time you see a drawing of a skyscraper with some random trees depicted somewhere around the 75th floor.

Threats and Hazards President acknowledges Russian attempts to interfere with election

That's a dramatic change in position, but efforts to influence the outcomes of our elections aren't new, aren't over, and aren't to be viewed through narrow partisan lenses. Sen. John McCain issued a lengthy opinion piece arguing that efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 election were just "one phase of Vladimir Putin's long-term campaign to weaken the United States, to destabilize Europe, to break the NATO alliance, to undermine confidence in Western values, and to erode any and all resistance to his dark and dangerous view of the world." As Michael Bloomberg wrote: "Not admitting your problems means you can't fix them." We have a problem, and it's not one that fits a predefined partisan divide. It's a problem for all Americans, together.

News "Another political party will not matter if Americans remain ignorant rage addicts"

Sage words from Tom Nichols. Better politics start with the character of the voters ourselves, so if we're not pleased with the results we're getting, then we need to start addressing the systems we have in place that create the voters and outcomes we get. It may not be reassuring to acknowledge, but self-government doesn't work without decent people choosing how to self-govern.

News White House responds to House intelligence committee by copying a Presidential tweet

By this standard, all Presidential tweets should now begin with the conventional "My fellow Americans" and conclude with "May God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America."


June 25, 2017

Threats and Hazards Russia attempted cyberwarfare on election systems in 21 states

That's per a deputy undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security

News Think you're smart? Try the Debt Fixer.

See what it actually takes to fix America's chronically imbalanced budget. One approach: Make significant reforms to entitlements -- both taxes and benefits, send responsibilities back to the states, and impose some mild tax increases. Unpalatable? Then find and suggest another way.

News An American reporter in Venezuela

A fascinating Q&A with Hannah Dreier, who tells important stories about a nation in the midst of economic collapse

Business and Finance When a "foreign" car isn't

Honda touts the fact its Accord engines are made in the USA

Threats and Hazards Off-duty St. Louis police officer shot by another police officer

The off-duty officer was trying to assist people in need

News Inconsistent open-mindedness

Women were tossed out of a protest march in Chicago because their Jewish rainbow flags "made people feel unsafe"

Business and Finance The "Museum of Failure"

We really ought to celebrate the things that didn't work, or came far ahead of their times, since they often provide the stepping stones to much better things down the road

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June 26, 2017

The United States of America Define the role the right way

The President's sworn duty is not "to keep the homeland safe", but to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.

Threats and Hazards On the President and the Constitution

Jack Balkin, a Yale Professor of Constitutional Law, with a warning: "[M]any people have wondered whether we are currently in some sort of constitutional crisis. We are not. Rather, we are in a period of constitutional rot."

Threats and Hazards Bystander shot in downtown Omaha

It's the scenario people have nightmares about: Walking down the street and getting shot because completely unrelated people near you got into a fight

Business and Finance Break up GE?

The company's been spinning off a lot of divisions already. It's a far cry from the times when it was a true and vast conglomerate. Conglomerates (in the pure sense) have fewer inherent advantages over other business types in times like these, when capital is really cheap. But if interest rates were higher (or if the government were to impose tax policies that punished dividends), then it would be rational to expect more of the classic conglomerate form to return.

Aviation News Flying in a classic Ford Tri-Motor to get perspective on today

Air travel is unpleasant in all sorts of ways today, but it's still a million times better than when it was "glamorous"

Business and Finance Ritz-Carlton getting into cruise market with 300-passenger ships

With most other cruise lines doing what they can to stack thousands of passengers on top of one another, this whole niche approach is either a smart innovation or a symptom of complete saturation in the market. Possibly both.

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June 27, 2017

Threats and Hazards Chicago Public Schools to pay $70,000 a day in loan interest

That's just a short-term loan while the district apparently hopes to get a bailout from the state government. Illinois and Chicago (in particular) are at the forefront of one of the biggest unrecognized risks to the US economy: State and local governments with obligations that will be impossible (or extraordinarily difficult) to meet without dramatic changes to spending, taxes, and future promises.

Business and Finance Federal Reserve chair Yellen says bank capital positions have improved

Whether that means the Fed will be enthusiastic about lesser capital requirements is a matter to be watched carefully. She suggested low concern that another banking crisis would re-occur anytime soon.

Health CBO forecasts large numbers of people to lose insurance under proposed health care reforms

The ACA set the ball rolling in an unsustainable direction, and things could in fact get worse

Iowa Major construction ahead for I-80/I-380 interchange

The Iowa DOT plans a dramatic reconstruction of what is presently a wildly over-congested interchange

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June 28, 2017

News Sweden saves in advance to prepare for demographic waves

Social-market/"soft" socialist economies can survive in the long term under a very limited set of conditions: A small, culturally homogenous society with some sort of government-owned (or heavily-taxed) resource wealth with judicious and far-sighted government management, along with a strong entrepreneurial class, pragmatic programs for ensuring useful (and near-universal) employment. That's an extremely tough set of conditions to satisfy, and the Nordic countries are a rare set of examples where these conditions have been more or less satisfied.

Computers and the Internet Using social media analysis to predict riots much faster than calls to the police

A development that requires urgent review and consideration by the civilian authorities who should always oversee the use of police power. There's a whole lot of good that could be done with these tools -- but also an enormous amount of harm.

Business and Finance Rent-seeking is on the rise

What happens when people who are just out to capture royalties and other "rents" displace people who create productive new enterprises? Nothing good, it would seem.

Threats and Hazards TSA might use sheet explosives as reason to scan your reading materials

Is it explicitly the objective of the government to get a look at what you're reading? No. But even if it isn't the intent, it could very well end up being the effect.

News Three Chicago police officers indicted on felony charges of conspiracy

A special prosecutor thinks they engaged in a felonious cover-up of the shooting of Laquan McDonald

Weather and Disasters A long evening of storms in Iowa

Feeling at the end of a tornado watch: "Oh, so I don't have to worry about a black cloud of death dropping randomly out of the sky anymore?"

Science and Technology "Smart" nightlights are here

Connecting to WiFi lets them tap into information that can be signaled in color: Like weather alerts...or incoming emails

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June 29, 2017

Threats and Hazards Federal government requests voter rolls from states

Proceed with caution: States are in charge of their own elections for good reason, except in those cases where they've proven themselves incapable of handling the job responsibly. The default answer to a request like this should roughly be: "Show me a court order."

News Debt is heading in the wrong direction

The CBO's latest estimates show the Federal debt on the rise to about 90% of GDP over the next ten years. As a country, we are on track to borrow an additional $3,000 per person per year over the next ten years, because we fail to arrange our spending priorities and raise the appropriate revenues to pay for the ones that matter. And with an economy that doesn't know how to grow faster than 2% a year, we'd better take seriously the need to restrain our spending habits.

News Estonia takes over presidency of the EU Council

And at a very timely moment for the EU to place a focus on the Baltic states -- as well as cybersecurity, which is a priority for those countries as well

The United States of America Anniversary of the creation of the Interstate highway system

Though government should always be limited, it probably has harmed our national character that we haven't had a big, constructive nationwide goal since the 1960s. Americans haven't really forged anything together (in the sense of a binding national identity) since the Interstate system and the Apollo missions.

News MLB umpire saves suicidal woman in Pittsburgh before game

A timely reminder that most people are trying to do the right thing most of the time. We should amplify that fact.

Business and Finance Big banks plan big dividends and share buybacks

Noted in the Marketwatch report on the "stress test" results: "[T]hey'll be paying out close to 100% of projected net income over the coming four quarters, compared to 65% last year."

Health Don't make unnecessary decisions

Decision fatigue is one of the most useful concepts from behavioral economics that just hasn't quite made the leap into mainstream culture.

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