Gongol.com Archives: 2017 First-Quarter Archives

Brian Gongol

January 1, 2017

Threats and Hazards Kremlin spokesperson underhandedly threatens the Baltic states

One of the most troublesome possible flashpoints to watch today

Science and Technology Technology lightens the load of rote work in hospitals

The less time that is spent by skilled people on low-skill work, the better off we all are. Skilled people should do skilled work.

News "[T]wo impromptu, largely fact-free press conferences"

In the brilliant words of a writer for Vanity Fair, the President-elect "offered up a series of misleading, disjointed responses, during which he falsely claimed to have created thousands of new jobs, dismissed alleged Russian interference in the presidential election, whitewashed his sprawling financial conflicts of interest, and offered up word salad in a rambling defense of Israel"

Broadcasting Now it's Hearst in a fight with DirecTV

The carriage disputes between local broadcast stations and the satellite and cable systems are a very strange vestige of the early days of cable television. And now? Now customers just find themselves annoyed by the anachronisms.

Humor and Good News Elegant flags of the Japanese prefectures

Compare these magnificent designs with the cluttered and amateurish flags used by so many American states and municipalities

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

January 2, 2017

Business and Finance Finland is testing a universal basic income

The UBI is worthy of examination -- it possesses novelties that appeal to both the left and the right, which makes it sound a lot like apocryphal $20 bill on the street -- bypassed by the rational economist who assumes that if it were real, someone else would have taken it already.

News It's time for big ideas

This is the wrong time for classical liberals (not leftists) to back down. Now is the time to step up.

Threats and Hazards Does populism have a chilling effect on Congress?

Now is not the time for the Legislative Branch to shrink.

News America needs lots of infrastructure investment, but...

Not if it's intended as a labor stimulus (the unemployment rate is already low). Not if it's just the visible stuff like highways and bridges (to the detriment of lots of critical work that is rarely visible to the public and doesn't make for good press coverage). Not if it's pure deficit spending (the Federal debt is already grotesque in size). Not if it's just for playing pork-barrel political games (the needs are independent of political connectedness).

Threats and Hazards President-elect again ditches his protective press pool

The location of the President and his/her well-being at all times is a matter of national security. The same substantially goes for the President-elect. Ditching the press pool isn't an option for anyone who intends to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.

January 3, 2017

Business and Finance Political risk to the economy is at a high point not seen in a very long time

The President-elect is taking glee in bullying individual companies to suit his own agenda. That is one of the most corrupt forms of crony capitalism -- which is the kind of thing that the truly free market abhors. When companies like Ford then turn to giving credit to the bully-in-chief for their decisions, their flattery is a weak capitulation to the kind of environment that will eventually be their downfall. Good financial advisors tell their clients not to make decisions based on the tax consequences; decisions should be made on the basis of the soundness of the investment itself. It is cowardly and sniveling for a business leader to suck up to a politician in the hope of getting favorable treatment (in taxes or otherwise).

The United States of America "I want my party back"

Writer Patrick Tomlinson: "Instead of fighting for conservative solutions to our shared problems, I find myself arguing with 'conservatives' who, despite all the objective, verifiable evidence, can't even admit that our shared problems even exist in the first place."

Business and Finance Dignity over dependence

The Acumen model for putting donations to work in developing economies is a great one -- based on the idea that markets work, even in poor places. They just sometimes require patient investment.

Threats and Hazards A quick reminder of the trouble Russia has lately wrought

So let's not feign horror at the idea of imposing consequences. Should we seek friendly relations? Always. But friendship requires a foundation of fair play -- that is literally a concept we should learn in children's books.

News "The line between political righteousness and party self-righteousness is wavy and easy to cross"

America deserves good political parties involved in sensible contests of ideas with one another -- not self-righteous, inward-looking machines

January 4, 2017

Threats and Hazards Markets are under-pricing the political risks to the economy ahead

So concludes Larry Summers, and he's quite likely right. The magnitude of political risk to the world economy today is extraordinary. The costs of a correction will be large and painful.

Business and Finance Many high-growth jobs are in occupations dominated by women

Which means that men who are looking for new jobs may need to re-think their attachment to sterotypes about what "women's" jobs are

Threats and Hazards Indonesia withdraws from military cooperation with Australia

The suspension of cooperation can't be taken as a good sign. Indonesia is the world's 4th-largest country (by population), and Australia is the essential anchor for the protection of values in its corner of the Pacific Rim. If the two countries aren't on the same page, it's a bad turn of events.

News Thoughtful column on the subtle sexism of expecting women to smile

Really, nobody goes around telling men how much prettier they would be if only they smiled

Business and Finance Today's asset-light business world means "your" building can go bankrupt without you

OfficeMax used to have a headquarters in suburban Chicago. After merging with Office Depot, OfficeMax no longer needed a headquarters of its own. Now, the building itself is likely to go into default. The choice many (if not most) businesses have made to reduce their direct ownership of real estate leads to some weird circumstances -- like the (former) Sears Tower no longer containing any Sears offices, and "OfficeMax headquarters" going bankrupt after OfficeMax ceased to exist as its own company.

January 5, 2017

Business and Finance Assume the worst about Trump's business-related tweets

When he attacks companies like Toyota, it should be assumed that he is short-selling for himself or otherwise tipping off members of his inner circle to do so. Absent legitimate, authentic, and verifiable declarations of his finances or the adoption of a bona fide blind trust, it must be assumed that he is abusing his position. This is not a partisan issue: It is a matter of good government.

Computers and the Internet Medium struggles to find its sweet spot

Writes the CEO: "[I]t's clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn't serve people." And in the process of seeking a publishing model that will profit, the company is laying off dozens of staff members.

Business and Finance Meredith and Time talk merger

Strength in numbers for publishers?

News Romanizing Korean names

"Lee" isn't exactly the surname most Americans think it is

News A proxy fight for control of the Ohio Republican Party

One into which it would seem very odd indeed for the President-elect to be taking an active role. But that's what he's doing.

January 6, 2017

Business and Finance Of course people on food stamps should be able to order groceries online

If government can cut down on the high cost of being poor, it's making good use of taxpayer money. Proper custodianship should be applauded.

News "Show us what you have"

Vice President Joe Biden on the PEOTUS and his fight with the intelligence agencies: "Grow up Donald, grow up, time to be an adult"

Threats and Hazards Technology's massive impact on the labor market could lead to the rise of a real Luddite

And that ought to be cause for serious concern. It's been bad enough to see the political backlash against the straw-man of foreign trade and immigrant workers. What happens when people turn their hostility against technology at large?

Business and Finance Sears sells the Craftsman brand to Stanley Black & Decker

Reasonable people might begin to wonder whether the "lifetime" warranty that went with the tools will remain in force

Health New rules! Now small children are supposed to eat peanut butter.

National Institutes of Health decides that the evidence favors exposure to peanuts early in order to resist allergies: "Clinical trial results reported in February 2015 showed that regular peanut consumption begun in infancy and continued until 5 years of age led to an 81 percent reduction in development of peanut allergy in infants deemed at high risk"

January 10, 2017

News One-paragraph book review: "Giants of Enterprise" by Richard Tedlow

The conclusion is supported well and the stories are worth reading, but it would have been better as seven short books in a series rather than one exhausting tome.

News One-paragraph book review: "The Imperial Cruise" by James Bradley

Strongly recommended reading for anyone who appreciates a historical context for foreign policy-making today.

January 22, 2017

News Germany's welcome of refugees may pay off substantially in the long run

Long-term, Germany is heading towards a worker shortage. Its humanitarian project to welcome refugees (many of them young) could end up paying off quite handsomely. A chance to do well by doing good, as some like to say.

Business and Finance "Working-class colleges"

Upward-mobility machines they can certainly be, even if they don't come with illustrious pedigrees

Aviation News Stumbles in the race to blanket the world with Internet-delivery drones

Turns out they don't always fly as well as hoped

January 23, 2017

Threats and Hazards America in retreat

The new President is ordering a withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It wasn't perfect, but our departure is a sign of a nation that thinks itself small. Big, decent trade agreements make the world safer and more prosperous.

Threats and Hazards An excellent analysis of the world right now

Anne Applebaum: "European security may now depend on Germany, France, Britain and one or two others, and it's better to start planning now for the possibility of European-only cyber-defense, counter-terrorism, and conventional defense too."

Computers and the Internet Facebook quizzes aren't innocent fun

Marketers are building detailed psychographic profiles of us all

Broadcasting Why are American TV programs set in such drab workplaces?

Sample a few television programs from places like Britain or Australia, and it's hard not to notice that their workplace-themed shows are often set in places with lots and lots of windows. Not so for many American programs. What's the reason for that?

News It's amazing the discount rate some people apply to the future value of their own reputations

In a time when practically everything is recordable and storable online, it's not advisable to make up excuses to defend the indefensible

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

January 24, 2017

The United States of America A world order must be led by somebody

If the world retreats from what we know as the "liberal order" (not left-wing, but liberty-driven), then something else will come next. Vacating the liberal order would only clear the way for lesser substitutes to emerge: If you clear a field and let nature take its course, weeds will take over, not roses. If the US quits the trade and defense deals that define the world order today, don't expect roses to take our place.

Threats and Hazards 50 states, 50 election systems -- zero cause for undermining democracy

Statement from the National Association of Secretaries of State: "We are not aware of any evidence that supports the voter fraud claims made by President Trump, but we are open to learning more about the Administration's concerns." The President ought to be ashamed of himself for making unsubstantiated allegations in an effort to undermine faith in the electoral process. He is behaving like a deviant. It is disgraceful.

The United States of America Nikki Haley confirmed as UN ambassador

She departs service as governor of South Carolina, and she enters a role once held by George H. W. Bush. Haley started as a fiery outsider but has shown herself to be a sober leader in office; if she executes this office well, it may augur well for higher ambitions in her future.

Threats and Hazards Chicago has major troubles. Big government isn't the solution.

The President's vague and unsubstantiated threat to "send in the Feds" is no solution. He absolutely must not try to declare martial law, nor should he flood the city with agents of the FBI or ATF. Chicago doesn't have a problem of toughness; its problems are much more systematic than that.

Humor and Good News For those times when you're escorting a really classy load

Not every pilot car is a Cadillac

January 25, 2017

Business and Finance Dropping out of the TPP only shrinks the stature of the United States

Big multilateral trade deals are never perfect, but they're generally preferable. Think of the United States as a giant trading bloc among 50 independent countries: We have just one trade agreement that serves us all, rather than the 1,225 bilateral agreements that would be required if each state went its own way with each of the other 49 states. Remember: One person's "tariff" is another person's use of import taxation to force the entire public to play favorites and subsidize a small share of the population.

News A wall, no matter how concrete, is nothing more than an empty symbol

Can physical barriers obstruct the passage of people and goods? Obviously, yes. But anywhere you look in the world, where there are two neighboring countries with different standards of living, there is always and everywhere pressure on that border by migrants seeking a better life. Indonesians die trying to get into Malaysia. The border between Belarus and Poland is stretched thin. And, yes, many Latin Americans try to enter the United States in search of work. Putting up walls isn't a durable answer. The real systemic solutions come from enhancing the economies of the poorer countries in these relationships, and from normalizing relationships so that migration issues can be handled in a sober way. An expensive, 2,000-mile long wall between the United States and Mexico has all the characteristics of a gigantic boondoggle that will waste taxpayer resources and disappoint its proponents.

Threats and Hazards What evidence of massive fraud at the polls does the President possess?

None has been revealed. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence -- but they do not require extraordinary refutation. If someone claims that the sky has turned teal with purple polka dots, the burden of proof is not on the rest of us to prove that it has not. Unfortunately, there have always been people who are submissive to the claims of those in positions of authority, no matter what the evidence. That is why the President's claims should be clearly denounced as deviant.

Iowa Separation of powers: It matters, no matter the party

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa tweets a series of messages to the President, advising that he intends to stand his ground regarding expectations of transparency and reporting as the Senate reviews nominees to serve in the new administration. Grassley has credibility as an advocate for good-government transparency, so this message ought to stick.

Broadcasting A modest proposal for television news

If the President or the press secretary is demonstrably lying or propagating false information, just switch the feed to black and white instead of color. This is a massively image-sensitive administration; diminishing that image when it is being tarnished by lies is a signal that would serve the public.

January 26, 2017

News Mexican president cancels planned US visit

This is not the way to start relations between two countries sharing a large border, many common interests, and a great deal of economic interconnectivity. The United States has a giant vested interest in a politically stable, economically prosperous Mexico -- even if the President of the United States is willfully blind to that fact.

The United States of America Sen. Lindsey Graham is a hero

He's taking on the worst behavior of the Trump Administration in a clever and public way, and that's a good thing. The Trumpian notion of imposing high tariffs on imported goods is ridiculous and punitive -- not a smart way to fund anything (including a wall on the border with Mexico). Tariffs are funny things -- they look like a way to target "foreigners", but the fact is that their incidence depends on the relative slopes of the supply and demand curves. Cutting the check isn't the same as paying the price. Tariffs offer concentrated benefits to the workers they "protect", with costs shared among all consumers. That kind of recipe is really good for turning badly-formed political wants into reality.

News To understand Russia's behavior, look at the price of oil

The Russian government depends heavily upon income from the oil business. With that income in retreat, it should come as no surprise that the government there is looking to asymmetric power plays (like trying to interfere with Western elections) and headline-grabbing displays of power. Economic strength speaks for itself; weakness begets the kind of behavior we see in wounded animals.

Business and Finance Uber for advertising

Marketing company sets up deal to put temporary advertising wraps on personal vehicles. Why not? Commercialism is the American way.

Business and Finance Cash flows in China tilt the world's property markets

As the Chinese government has sought to keep its subjects from taking their money overseas, it's going to starve some of the world's hot property markets of interested buyers (and their money)

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

January 27, 2017

The United States of America If the left wing cultivates its own "Herbal Tea Party", they need to hold back

The Economist carries a column with a strong insight about the need for opponents of the Trump Administration to make sure that they don't attack the voters themselves who put him in office. There's going to be a lot of need for reconciliation and unusual alliances in the time to come. There are already a lot of strong voices on the center-right who are as opposed to the direction and misbehavior of this administration as anyone on the left -- because offenses against truth and basic civility have no party. But it does nothing good to scold people who are late converts.

Business and Finance The future of unionized manufacturing jobs isn't rosy

Manufacturing productivity is rising. Non-union manufacturing employment is steady. But unionized manufacturing jobs are on a downward trajectory that hasn't reversed course in more than a generation. It's not because of labor laws. Meanwhile, the President can convene all the "manufacturing jobs councils" he wants, but if government policy is to be used to favor one kind of employment over others, that will require sound reasoning and justification. The bar should be set extremely high for favoritism to be justified.

Computers and the Internet "Fake news" could be a whole lot worse by the next Presidential election cycle

Technology already exists that permits real-time manipulation of audio and video. Technology itself is neutral; whether it is used for good or bad purposes is in the hands of the users. But this technology could easily be used for a great deal of evil. Audiences shouldn't fall for it.

Health Get trained in CPR

A bystander at a gym saved the life of a man in cardiac arrest when the staff fell short. Everyone should get trained in CPR because none of us knows in advance how well we'll respond in an emergency. Some people freeze; that's inescapable. So the more people who are trained, the better the chances of survival for anyone who falls in need.

Aviation News One-paragraph book review: "The Wright Brothers"

A vibrant portrait of one of the great technological successes that is far more engrossing in detail than in its usual abbreviated portrayal in the history books.

The United States of America Don't deify the Founding Fathers

David McCullough in 2001: "If they were marble gods, what they did wouldn't be so admirable. The more we see the founders as humans the more we can understand them."

January 28, 2017

Business and Finance One-paragraph book review: "Good Profit", by Charles Koch

A bit dry, but definitely worthwhile reading for the conscientious student of business management

January 29, 2017

The United States of America A first-person refugee story

What it's like to come to the United States because you're unsafe in the land of your birth. We should be proud to be a refuge to the world's oppressed. That's the behavior of humane, civilized people.

News Compounding unpopularity

Gallup says that 50% of the country already disapproves of Donald Trump as President. He started at an even split (or a remarkably low net approval of zero), and is now almost incomprehensibly far behind his predecessors of recent memory. He is starting with the same approval rate as Richard Nixon in May 1973 -- which, for historical reference, was the the opening of the televised Senate Watergate hearings. Imagine.

News A long, long reading list on public infrastructure

It's not just about "roads and bridges". Infrastructure is much broader than that, and it's not a single thing at which we should blindly throw a lot of money and expect great returns.

Iowa Trends in Des Moines-area home values

Prices in some neighborhoods are declining -- and they're already the lower-valued neighborhoods. That keeps residents from building equity to get into higher-value neighborhoods, if they want. It should be considered a serious local socioeconomic problem, and one that local leaders have an interest in examining thoughtfully. Are there public goods that can be used to make those neighborhoods more valuable?

News France bans unlimited free refills of pop

Yeah, yeah: It's in the name of public health. But it still sounds a little nanny-state-ish.

January 30, 2017

Business and Finance Why you should worry about inflation

When former Fed chair Ben Bernanke writes that, "to increase output without unduly increasing inflation the focus should be on improving productivity and aggregate supply", he's saying something totally different from what's coming out of the White House. In fact, it's almost 180 degrees the opposite. So if you don't expect them to satisfy the second part of the statement (focusing on productivity), then you'd better prepare for an inflationary situation.

Threats and Hazards Astute analysis of the new order of the world

A sobering thought: "Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him."

The United States of America Anyone who tells you the parties are OK is ignoring the data

The Republican and Democratic parties are separately, and together, in basically their worst condition ever. More Millennials and Gen Xers identify as independents than as either Republicans or Democrats. Our one-person, one-vote/first-past-the-post voting system makes a two-party duopoly basically inevitable, but the current arrangement isn't stable.

News On the sad, sad extinction of the Blue Dog

Democrats with conservative fiscal views and moderate social ones are a rare breed now -- when they're needed more than ever

Broadcasting An all-women's spin on "Ocean's Eleven" is coming

Anything with Sandra Bullock and Mindy Kaling has to be worth the price of a ticket

January 31, 2017

Business and Finance Warning: The President wants an inflationary currency

President Trump to the press corps today: "Other countries take advantage of us with their money and their money supply and devaluation. Our country has been run so badly, we know nothing about devaluation." This ought to put anyone who believes in a growing real economy and a sound dollar on full alert. The President doesn't set the money supply -- but he does nominate the Chair of the Federal Reserve, and although Janet Yellen has a term on the Board of Governors that lasts through 2024, her current term as Fed Chair expires in 2018. There are plenty of institutional safeguards in place to protect the Fed from political pressure, but there's also a lot of damage a President can do via appointments, from the bully pulpit, and via regulatory and tax tools. The mere fact that a sitting President of the United States would bark openly about "devaluation" of a currency as if it's a tool that we have under-utilized is a dangerous thing. Fiat currency depends upon the faith of the people who use it. The bigger problem may be that President Trump doesn't understand the actual state of the economy, and he's aggressively promoting the use of tools that are inappropriate to its current condition.

News There is only one Syrian orphan living with a US family

It's good and bad news: The good part is that observers seem to think the children who get separated from their families in the troubles plaguing Syria are able to be reunited quickly with extended family as necessary. But the bad news, more glaringly, is that there are lots of entire families who still need help -- and who won't get it from the United States, if the Trump Administration has its way.

Broadcasting One terrific television ad

(Video) Danish television system produces a 3-minute video that probably speaks more to the value of common humanity than we readily acknowledge

News Boy Scouts of America opens door to transgender Scouts

The BSA is a fine institution with a great deal of good it can do for young people. Getting rid of arbitrary obstacles to participation is a laudable step for the organization to take.

Business and Finance Someone just bought 19% of a Russian oil company

But who?

February 1, 2017

Business and Finance Firm creation is at a long-time low

If new firms aren't being created, power is likely being concentrated in the old ones

News Everything you need to know about Donald Trump you get from his extemporaneous speaking

His Black History Month comments are a perfect example of his incapacity to consider anything abstract

Computers and the Internet New FCC boss wants to address the "digital divide"

It's a big deal -- being without reliable high-speed Internet access is in many ways like being without access to paved highways

Health How "Count the Kicks" came into being

And how it caught on

The United States of America A look into the soul of today's diplomacy

Some thoughtful reflection on the situation at the State Department

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

February 2, 2017

The United States of America Burping would be safe under Associate Justice Gorsuch

The Supreme Court nominee dissented in a case where he thought a school police officer went too far in busting a kid who burped to disrupt class. But here's the key takeaway: "...for it is (or should be) emphatically our job to apply, not rewrite, the law enacted by the people's representatives. Indeed, a judge who likes every result he reaches is very likely a bad judge, reaching for results he prefers rather than those the law compels." Yes.

Business and Finance If people don't see their living standards rising...

...then they'll usually look for someone to be worse-off than themselves. And when that fails, we get an election like 2016.

Iowa Free rides home over Super Bowl weekend

Budweiser and AAA will cover the cost of a tow and transportation home for people in Iowa through Monday morning. An interesting way to combat drunk driving over Super Bowl weekend.

News UK parliament approves authority for Prime Minister to negotiate Brexit

The European Union as a political entity has a whole lot of problems -- but this feels like a bad time for such an important participant to get headed urgently towards the exit

News The Dissent Channel

Not a TV network; it's the way diplomats send urgent messages back up the chain of command within the US foreign service to warn that they think a policy is off-track. Probably a model that private businesses should adopt, too.

February 3, 2017

Threats and Hazards Norwegian authorities are most worried about Russia

The nation's top police officer says: "Russian intelligence services are targeting Norwegian individuals." It's unsettling when put in parallel with "Occupied", the phenomenal television drama about a soft Russian invasion of Norway.

Threats and Hazards Executive unilateralism could shut down tourism

Badly-written, hastily-drafted executive orders end up having unintended consequences.

Science and Technology Real progress compounds dramatically over time

You wouldn't believe how cheap light is today compared to when your ancestors walked the earth. Everything that durably improves the quality of life over time comes back to productivity -- we humans learning how to produce more with less waste.

News Calm down, America

Tom Nichols: "Unmodulated shock and outrage, however, not only burn precious credibility among the president's opponents, but eventually will exhaust the public and increase the already staggering amount of cynicism paralyzing our national political life."

News There's no such thing as a Presidential advisor in 2017

"For most of Trump's career he has only trusted a small group of longtime loyalists at the Trump Organization, and even then he has often tightened the circle further to family members." It's important to get the right perspective on things: The President isn't a skilled manager; he's a self-promoter. And it goes further: Where a lot of people see authoritarian instincts, others see deep-seated insecurities and thin knowledge. They may share some superficial symptoms in common, but it's hard to respond correctly without getting the diagnosis right. On a related note, it's a good thing we have Senator John McCain, who is a key player in the Republican resistance.

February 4, 2017

Threats and Hazards Unintended consequences of "America first"

Other countries, if unable to count on America's support, are going to put themselves first

February 5, 2017

Threats and Hazards The President's instability creates real political risk to the economy

Says columnist Matt Levine: "Everything Trump literally said is coming literally true; everything the serious people heard remains an unserious hope. Businesses may eventually get the tax and regulatory reform they wanted, but it's not a priority."

Business and Finance Coming to the defense of the free market

Charles Koch plans to spend a lot of money defending the free market against Trumpism.

Iowa University of Iowa has lost money for two consecutive years on athletics

Athletic programs are a fine adjunct to the college experience, but they are neither essential nor guaranteed to be profitable. Schools should be prudent about them: They're fine to have, but they should never drive the agenda of the university or become centers of consolidated power -- nor should they be above careful scrutiny.

Threats and Hazards The President still doesn't have a blind trust

In fact, he's still the sole beneficiary of the trust set up for his assets. And there's nothing blind about them. We should have higher standards for him, and for his successors -- and it may be time to codify those standards, rather than relying upon convention.

News Ambitious immigrants bring fresh blood to a culture and an economy

Think of it like a compressed spring: If you've been held back by circumstances in the past, and then by good fortune find yourself freed from those oppressive circumstances, it's not hard to imagine wanting to strive just a little more than those who never felt those constraints in the first place.

February 6, 2017

Business and Finance Want to become richer? Add more value.

That's the lesson from Germany's economy: Train workers, focus on areas of comparative advantage, and engage more with the world market (not less). This is emphatically not the course being charted by the Trump administration -- but it would be the right one to follow.

News The missing-syllabus problem

Author Tom Nichols: "Most people do not have the skills or background to know if what they're reading is any good." This could be called the "missing-syllabus" problem: While the Internet (especially) causes us to think we have the world's information at our fingertips, it doesn't come with a syllabus. Without knowing where to start or how to truly teach ourselves, it's quite easy for us to think we're auto-didacts when we're really just filling our brains with intellectual hash. It's an especially complex problem in the Teach-Yourself Economy, since more people need to learn more than they used to, and our formal educational and training systems are slow to adapt to the demand.

Business and Finance A visual guide to the largest employers by state

Walmart, universities, health systems, and the Federal government. That's about it. Enlightening.

News How long should injured pro athletes be eligible for workers' comp?

A fight comes to life in Illinois

Threats and Hazards "The President has no constitutional authority over border control"

Even enthusiasts for expansive executive powers are starting to regret putting too much power in the hands of the Article II branch of government

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

February 7, 2017

Threats and Hazards We are better than this. Let's act like it.

Max Boot, a conservative, criticizing the Republican Party: "By not doing more to distance itself from this morally obtuse president, the Republican Party is becoming, de facto, the party of moral relativism."

Weather and Disasters 3-day weather forecasts in 2017 are as good as 1-day forecasts in the 1980s

Improved granularity of forecasting is making things much more accurate.

Threats and Hazards Russia is literally trying to freeze out Ukraine

Without energy for heat, people literally suffer in the cold. It's not warfare, but it's the asymmetric application of pressure.

Broadcasting In selling CBS Radio, the parent also sells the heritage call letters

Even though CBS Radio stations won't have anything to do with CBS anymore, the KCBS and WCBS call letters will go with the sale, at least for 20 years. How the heritage networks have treated their radio assets is really extraordinary: NBC Radio was killed off, then brought back from the dead. ABC Radio was owned by Cumulus for several years until the deal folded in 2014, and then it was brought back from the dead at the start of 2015 not in its classic format but predominantly as a promotional arm of the parent. It's all quite odd.

The United States of America Watch the flows of immigration over the years

Watch where the people come from over the years

February 8, 2017

Computers and the Internet Don't wake up angry

A message to the President: Waking up and blasting off an angry tweet every morning is a bad way to set the agenda

Threats and Hazards A government going off the rails

"[President Trump's] attempts to run a renegade White House are not working out well". Does he have the opportunity to do better? Of course. Does he have the wherewithal? That's the big question, and it's hard to see any signs the answer will be "yes".

Computers and the Internet Restaurant owner escapes jail time for tweeting pictures of a sting operation

An Omaha restauranteur shared photos of minors who tried to buy alcohol at his establishment as part of a sting operation. A jury decided that didn't constitute obstruction of justice.

News A Kennedy runs for governor -- of Illinois

Yes, one of those Kennedys: Chris, the son of Robert F. Kennedy, and one of the (seemingly few) family members who hasn't ever run for office. He's in part been responsible for managing the extended family's gigantic fortune.

Humor and Good News "Secret Service Adds Emotional Protection Division"

Barbed satire from The Onion

February 9, 2017

News SCOTUS nominee Gorsuch "demoralized" by President's attacks on the judiciary

Before we have left and right, we have three branches of government -- each of which should jealously guard its own role in checking the other two. It's troubling to have a Supreme Court nominee already have to face heat because of ridiculous and troubling things the President has said.

News China appears to be executing diplomacy better than the new US administration

It is perfectly fine for us to find ourselves in a world where the United States and China aren't enemies or rivals or opponents, but instead find ourselves "cooperatively different" (to coin a phrase). But even if that is to be our future, then the United States will need to be playing its diplomatic "A" game so as to ensure we cooperate on the right things in the right ways and avoid unnecessary escalation of conflict in others. No sensible person should expect China to adopt a liberal-Western system of government anytime soon (or perhaps for decades or even centuries to come), but we're all stuck on the same planet together. Negotiations over our differences, though, should be conducted at a level far better than what we've executed thus far.

Computers and the Internet Iowa Senate bill would make texting while driving a primary offense

The problem with a bill like this is that texting itself isn't unique in its capacity to create distraction. There are people who are equally distracted by eating a sandwich, arguing with children in the back seat, or checking out their appearance in the mirror. Why should texting be singled-out when the danger it creates isn't unique?

Computers and the Internet No more telecommuting at IBM marketing

The company is eliminating the telecommute and putting all of its marketing staff in six offices

The United States of America Former Senator Alan Simpson finds himself displaced

He used to hold the record for tallest member of the United States Senate. The new Senator from Alabama, Luther Strange, has knocked him from the top spot.

February 10, 2017

Business and Finance We always expect the nerds to save us

We have to give them the opportunity to do so. The job may be tougher than ever under the current administration: President Trump has decided that the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (whomever that will be; the role hasn't been appointed yet) will not serve in his Cabinet. It's likely because he can't find an economist willing to play yes-man to his economic savagery. Have no doubt: Someone will need to be called in to clean up the economic mess created by this President (should he get any meaningful amount of the economic policy he campaigned upon). The only ones capable of fixing it will be the "nerd" class of sober, pragmatic, level-headed economists. We're in trouble if they're being shown the door already.

News Canadian town (across the border from Minnesota) experiences an influx of refugees

They're crossing from the United States, presumably because they are fearful of what a feckless US government policy on undocumented immigrants will do to them.

Iowa New president at the University of Northern Iowa

Iowa's comprehensive public university needs respect and a high profile

News "Progressive" Democrats want to shove out the centrists

The idea that centrists are rivals to be shunned from the Democratic Party (rather than coalition partners to be embraced) represents the triumph of ideological puritanism over math. The Democrats need a broader tent, not a more leftist one.

The United States of America Americans should resist the consolidation of power

(Video) US Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska is a thoughtful voice on Constitutional separation of power, transcendent of politics. He is a generationally significant voice for the Article I branch of government.

Business and Finance Sunk costs: An economic concept that's good for your mental health

Whatever has been done...is over. Don't make decisions based on the rear-view mirror.

Threats and Hazards The national debt is no less a crisis than it was 12 months ago

At just a hair below $20 trillion, the debt comes out to $61,282 in real, incurred money owed per person for every one of us in the United States. And that doesn't count the massive future liabilities imposed by expenses like our entitlement programs -- which will cost even more.

The United States of America Decency transcends politics

American decency isn't about the boxes we check on Election Day, but about the things we do in ordinary civic life. So when you think of what makes America "great", think about the plow drivers who clear the way for a heart-transplant patient to make it to the hospital in the middle of a snowstorm, or of the foster father who takes in terminally-ill children so they can feel familial love in their short time on Earth.

Business and Finance Don't misunderstand tariffs

If the government were to put a 20% tax on restaurant bills, consumers would eat out less, restauranteurs would find their revenues decreased, and everybody would be worse off. There is no reason to think that a 20% tariff would work in any other way. Remember: Cutting the check isn't the same as paying the price. Tariffs aren't a tax on "other people" or "other countries". A portion of their incidence falls on the consumer -- and quite often, a very large portion indeed. (And don't forget: The Midwest depends on trade.)

News Read "It Can't Happen Here"

A book that ought to be taught in schools, right alongside "1984" and "Brave New World". Written by Sinclair Lewis, it is both a powerful narrative and a novel full of gems, like "...a country that tolerates evil means -- eil manners, standards of ethics -- for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end."

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

February 13, 2017

The United States of America On welcoming refugees

It takes a dim view of human nature to ignore the fact that most people try to be good, regardless of birthplace.

February 14, 2017

The United States of America We need a "CONstitutional CONdition" index, similar to DEFCON

For bad behavior, ranging from bush-league to truly unconstitutional

Humor and Good News Why do coffee-flavored jelly beans exist?

Whoever invented the coffee-flavored jelly bean was a world-class sociopath.

February 15, 2017

Business and Finance Why aren't there more good popularizers for economics?

What's with the shortage of public intellectuals, anyway? The shortage of good "explainers" on behalf of economics is a real loss to society. So much about conflict (of all types) traces back to resources and their creation, destruction, and distribution -- and that's economics. One causal factor, perhaps, is that the answers to economic questions tend toward ambiguities, gray areas, and conditionals. That makes it very hard for anyone credible to gain traction in the public eye.

Business and Finance Beware the perils of "factory fetishism"

Romanticizing a particular sector of the economy without thinking through the consequences of development is a path to waste, inefficiency, and trouble.

Threats and Hazards A Russian spy ship is hanging out just off the coast of Connecticut

30 miles out from a submarine base

News Singapore marks 75 years since the Japanese occupation

The story of Singapore is a complicated one, to be sure, but it is a definitive case study in the power of market economics, trade, and endogenous initiative ("bootstrapping", in a sense) to take a place with no substantial advantage in natural resource wealth and convert it into a tremendously wealthy place.

Humor and Good News A feel-good adoption story

What can and should happen when a person's birth family isn't ready or willing to give a child the care each one deserves.

February 16, 2017

News "Today we learned the length of the president's fuse: 28 days"

CBS News anchor Scott Pelley captures the essence of the President's press conference today with erudition and economy of words

Threats and Hazards What causes conflict?

Neil deGrasse Tyson writes, "Almost all armed conflict in the history of the world came about because opposing sides believed different things to be true." While the conditions he describes may be true, the difference in the way people see things isn't really the underlying cause of most conflict. Instead, we should always be alert to the circumstances where armed conflict can be seen as a more efficient way of capturing resources than honest alternatives like trade or development. Genghis Khan didn't grow a colossal empire on belief, he built it to take resources from others. The Mongol Empire is just one among many examples. The predictive power that comes from understanding armed conflict as a means of capturing resources is that we can start to assemble an understanding of the world that promotes trade and human development and the dignity and rights of the individual. Very little in the world could be more dangerous than a poor country with giant ambitions and low regard (among the ruling class) for the value of common people's lives.

Business and Finance The chaebol under new pressure

From a 2001 paper: "While South Koreans are probably better off than they would have been without the chaebol system, they were living atop an economic fault line that was destined to shift. South Korea should provide yet another warning sign to those who fail to believe that managed economies are bound to experience failure."

Computers and the Internet Problems with White House information security go right to the top

Is the President really still using an unsecured Android phone? A device that hasn't been properly secured could easily be hijacked and turned into a bug by skilled adversaries, among many other bad things that could happen.

News Would getting rid of singlets make wrestling more attractive to prospective athletes?

Maybe compression shorts and separate shirts will make the sport more appealing

February 17, 2017

Threats and Hazards Russia uses disinformation campaign to undermine German soldiers

The German soldiers are in the Baltic states as part of their NATO defense commitment. The disinformation campaign is a clever (though sinister) way for Russia to undermine the defense of those small countries by driving a wedge between the NATO alliance and the locals. Again, Russia is turning to asymmetric techniques of conflict -- they've gotten very good at it.

Business and Finance A great reminder for most investors

Take interest in your own investments, or take out index funds. (But take interest -- it's much better. Learning how capitalism works from the inside is simply a cost of living in an advanced market economy like ours -- just like we all have to learn a few things about computers and modern medicine, too.)

Computers and the Internet Facebook is trying to be too many things at once

Mission creep is probably inevitable for an outfit like Facebook, but it always seems to end in failure

Threats and Hazards 75% of high-level Defense Department appointed positions are still empty

The President needs to spend less time tweeting hate mail, gallavanting off to Florida, and planning campaign rallies -- and more time finding qualified people to run the Executive Branch. What he's doing isn't in the job description, and what he isn't doing...is. He's had a month in office, and that followed more than two months of transition.

Threats and Hazards Norwegians increasingly fear Russia

As they reasonably might. There's some evidence Swedes and Finns may be growing more nervous, too.

February 18, 2017

News Know your moral bearings

If your only standard for behavior is "The worst thing my opponent got away with", then you don't really have a functioning moral compass. Regrettably, a whole lot of people are trying to adjust to the 2017 political reality by using this line of excuse. It's repugnant and it's tiresome.

Humor and Good News Art is in the constraints

Building a cake with inedible fondant is like making a gingerbread house from cardboard.

Socialism Doesn't Work Three weekends in a row at his private resort

If Americans were bothered by President Obama's trips to Hawaii or his time spent campaigning for Hillary Clinton, then the same people should show concern over the fact the President of the United States has now spent three weekends in a row burning taxpayer dollars to shuttle him back and forth to Florida. That's not to mention the fact that we're now a month into the new administration and still short of massive numbers of key appointees. If it was wasteful spending under Obama, it's still wasteful spending under Trump.

February 20, 2017

News One-paragraph book review: "The Death of Expertise"

A well-delivered call for all of us to do some urgent introspection

News Who's the real failure here?

(Video) CBS News anchor Scott Pelley offers a concise summary of the President's problems: "The media didn't block his travel ban, didn't fire the national security advisor, didn't cause the labor secretary nominee to withdraw, didn't attack the judiciary. It seems like the common denominator of Mr. Trump's woes is the Constitution." His comments (on the February 17th edition of the program, at about the 10:00 mark) manage to make a very strong point simply by illustrating the facts. Opponents of the President ought to take note: His missteps can be refuted through a plain recitation of the facts. No embellishment is necessary; in fact, the less the facts are hyped, the better.

Threats and Hazards FBI has three investigations underway of election interference by Russia

Brazen attempts to skew the outcome of an election by targeted attacks on computer systems and other illegal means of underhanded behavior should be repelled when possible and prosecuted when not. The American public, meanwhile, ought to think hard about becoming more resistant to manipulation -- since there's no reason to believe that Russia will back down from doing the same things again, nor any reason to believe that others will refrain from trying the same thing. Once a vulnerability has been exploited, one should expect continued attacks until it is patched.

News Even unified party government doesn't work very fast

Republicans control both houses of Congress, and a nominal Republican is in the White House. And yet, not much is getting done. That's a good thing -- government should be deliberate, not so nimble that big things can turn on a dime.

News What happened in Sweden last night

The President of the United States inserted comments into a speech making reference to things happening in Sweden. He suggested that they were awful, terrible events. Swedish media conclusively report no such things taking place.

Business and Finance Kraft Heinz decides no further pursuit of Unilever takeover

It would have been a gigantic merger -- estimated at more than $140 billion

February 21, 2017

The United States of America Senator John McCain stands up for NATO

At the Munich Security Conference: "Our predecessors did not believe in the end of history -- or that it bends, inevitably, toward justice. That is up to us. That requires our persistent, painstaking effort. [...] [W]e stand for truth against falsehood, freedom against tyranny, right against injustice, hope against despair...and that even though we will inevitably take losses and suffer setbacks, through it all, so long as people of goodwill and courage refuse to lose faith in the West, it will endure." ■ The line of argument advanced by the President, which suggests that the United States has been ripped off by ne'er-do-well allies, is self-defeating. The point of a security alliance isn't to fight over who pays what share of the bills, but rather to ensure that no individual country is forced to fight its battles alone. The United States most likely plays a role in NATO that is disproportionate to its population; we probably pay more, and we probably do more of the heavy lifting. So what? If the ultimate objective is a secure world in which our interests are protected, then we would be exerting money and effort to advance our security interests globally, with or without allies. The outcome we want is not dependent upon the number of other participants. ■ So, if a peaceful world is going to be subject to the free-rider problem no matter what (and it is -- it's not as though our concept of security is defined by NATO borders), then anything that gets other parties to substantially participate in that common security arrangement is better than no such participation at all.

Threats and Hazards "Putin and his thugs are fundamentally at odds with America's interests"

Midwestern US Senators show broad agreement: No matter your political stripes, the notion of a foreign government interfering with our free and fair elections is noxious. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse concludes (correctly): "This should not be viewed through partisan labels. Congress should investigate Russia's influence campaign in the US."

Broadcasting 75 years of the Voice of America

One of the most sensible and cost-efficient means of conducting public diplomacy has been the operation of an international broadcasting service. (The BBC, to many people around the world, IS Britain.) The United States's effort in this area, the VOA, has been subject to far more than its deserving share of cuts in the last decade or two, and it's high time we recognize just how valuable it is.

The United States of America The self-funded candidate

Which is more peculiar: The candidate for office who has to spend considerable time and effort trying to raise funds, or the candidate who is wealthy enough to self-fund a major campaign (as one of the Pritzker clan intends to do if he runs for Illinois governor)? We should ask ourselves whether there is anything about the structure of our electoral system that makes these outcomes more likely than they ought to be.

News Looking for a lively Lincoln library

Nebraska's capital city is looking for ideas to build a new central library -- and it's a worthwhile question. Ideally, as a society, we would place such a high cultural value on learning (and not just classroom learning for those in the conventional school ages, but well beyond) that libraries would naturally be seen as the most viable and logical centers of most communities. That often isn't the case -- perhaps it's only true in the most extraordinary of situations. But taking serious steps to make the public library a real center of the community -- not just the building and where it's located, but the institution and what it does to the local civic fabric -- is a pivotal step for municipal leaders to take.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

February 23, 2017

News China will stop buying North Korea's coal

An effort to pressure the country into submission over nuclear weapons. May it work, for the good of us all.

Business and Finance A well-reported story on Warren Buffett's acquisition strategy

Rare is the financial reporter who actually understands the Buffett process. It's worth reading.

Iowa Truck platoons could hit Highway 20 in Iowa this year

Cooperative cruise control (involving trucks communicating with one another) could be a reality in Iowa by the end of the year

Business and Finance Hyped-up immigration crackdowns could hurt the US housing market

It's not just a matter of whether law enforcement only actually prosecutes people here without proper documentation -- if they create a sufficient amount of insecurity and uncertainty among people who immigrated here legally that they are starved of the confidence they need to make long-term decisions (like buying homes), then the waves of homeowners looking to exit the market (like, say, Baby Boomers hoping to down-size) may find themselves losing a very ready set of buyers. At the margins (where prices are decided), immigrants have a huge impact on the housing market.

News France's runoff system for electing a president shows how the system determines the outcomes

America's first-past-the-post system works rather differently, with dramatically different outcomes

February 24, 2017

Business and Finance What do we want? Sustained 3% annual real GDP growth!

When do we want it? As soon as we get the productivity growth rates that would consistently make that kind of increase in real output possible! (It's not very catchy, but it's true.)

The United States of America The left discovers Federalism

Better late than never

Business and Finance The Smoot-Hawley tariffs didn't cause the Great Depression...

...but they did make it a whole lot worse. We should never retreat into mindless protectionism again.

News How generals are defending civilian government

With career military men in charge of the Defense Department, Homeland Security, and (naturally) the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we would normally be in a condition that ought to give people alarm: Civilian control of the government and oversight of the military ought to be a priority. But with a wildly inexperienced White House in charge, the sober words of experience and temperance are coming from the men who have spent a lifetime sworn to defend the Constitution. The President seems sufficiently impressed by their credentials to offer them deference he doesn't seem to show anyone else.

News American conference attendees duped into waving Russian flags

If you're sufficiently enthusiastic about politics that you'll show up at a "Conservative Political Action Conference", it ought to be pretty embarrassing that you could be taken by a practical joke that involved you waving a Russian flag. Basic familiarity with the symbols of one of our most important geopolitical adversaries ought to be required of anyone willing to so vigorously espouse a political opinion.

February 25, 2017

Threats and Hazards Terrorism by Americans is still terrorism

A terrorist attack by a white man in Kansas against two Indian men is as deplorable as any other terrorist attack, and it should be denounced with the same kind of volume as any other.

February 26, 2017

News One-paragraph book review: "Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World"

A valuable third-party perspective on the pivotal geopolitical relationship between China and the United States

February 27, 2017

Iowa Should colleges strive for ideological balance?

A state senator in Iowa proposes Senate File 288: To "require partisan balance of the faculty employed at each fo the institutions of higher learning governed by the board." It is a fine concept for universities to promote exposure to a wide range of perspectives -- that's the point of obtaining a "liberal" education (where "liberal" means "open", not left-wing). But as Margaret Thatcher said, "One of the problems, I think, of modern politics, and modern journalists, is that people are always polarizing questions. You know, saying either/or. And in fact life isn't lived in either/or terms, but mostly somewhere in between." Legislating partisanship not only misses the possibility that "balance" may not reflect even the community standards of the state (which, at any given time, might be more of one party than another), but it also misses the exceptionally important notion that "balance" isn't binary -- Iowa, just for instance, has 715,000 independent voters and 12,000 third-party voters, compared with 627,000 Democrats and 665,000 Republicans. Thus, authentic "balance" should require more independents than either of the major parties. Moreover, any consideration of "balance" ought to reflect the multipolar nature of politics -- there are all flavors of Democrats and all flavors of Republicans, and all flavors of "other" as well. What of the person who agrees with 55% of a party platform? Does he or she count as a real partisan? The proposal for party balance at the state universities is silly and should be dismissed out-of-hand as ridiculous, unenforceable, and unproductive.

Business and Finance The deeper meaning of the Billy bookcase

What you can pick up about economics and consumer surplus from looking at a piece of IKEA furniture

News A Frank Lloyd Wright home on sale for $1.4 million

It's surprising that even with the enduring appeal of Wright's Prairie Style that there aren't more homes being designed and built today in the same fashion. Aren't there architects and builders today who want to make a similar name for themselves? Many people obviously don't mind spending obscene amounts of money on hideous McMansions, so why not spend the money instead on something that will still look good 50 years from now?

Aviation News SpaceX to fly two space tourists around the moon in 2018

They say the best way to spend your money is on experiences, not stuff. One could imagine that people with a lot of money might very rationally want to blow through their wealth on experiences like this.

Threats and Hazards No, you don't have to show your papers

Over-zealous hunting by government agents for immigration-rule violators leads to perfectly legal American citizens being asked to "show papers". It may sound like a trivial encroachment, but it ought to be resisted -- freedom of movement is a fundamental American right, and the pursuit of lawbreakers is no excuse for trampling on the rights of the law-abiding.

News White House staff subjected to phone checks

Politics aside, has anyone ever done their best in any workplace where paranoia, anger, and distrust prevail?

Threats and Hazards Disgraceful: Bomb threats against Jewish community centers

Threats like this have no place in civilization

Iowa Iowa county looks at repairing 123-year-old stone bridge

It could be argued that the bridge was built too well in the first place -- anyone who paid for its construction is long dead, and it most likely could be replaced by something using better materials and methods (that's the nature of technology, of course). It could also be argued that we are really too accustomed to coasting on the investments our predecessors made in building an adequate system of public works for us to enjoy today, and have done far too little to invest in their ongoing maintenance and upkeep. And there's a third argument to be made: That some old structures are worth keeping around because of their historical merit.

February 28, 2017

News Dramatic cuts to soft power will undercut the country

(Video) Senator Lindsey Graham rebukes the President's proposal to slash funding for the State Department. Security today is the result of long, patient investment in trust-based relationships, not cavalier transactional deal-making. Things like diplomacy (including public diplomacy, like investments in international broadcasting) don't pay off overnight. That makes them susceptible to short-sighted cuts, unless thoughtful leaders like Senator Graham prevail.

Business and Finance Be realistic about economic-growth projections

It is a hallucination to believe that 4% real GDP growth can be achieved without long-term, sustainable, and patient investment in our physical and human capital. We need to invest in our physical infrastructure -- but not with short-term stimulus programs that just dump some asphalt on existing roadways. We need to invest in our human capital, too -- but not by artificially inflating (and then crashing) a dubious universe of for-profit schools. The United States could probably sustain 4% growth rates in the long term, but that would require increasing our productivity by much more than 4% (unless we somehow expect a dramatic boom in workforce participation). Plans to get to 4% growth absolutely must include plans to raise productivity.

Health The new bird flu

A strain that hasn't gotten a lot of attention before (H7N9) appears to be resurgent in Asia

News Are Republicans short on wonks?

Has a long period in the opposition hollowed-out the ranks of people who can make real proposals happen? It's an interesting question. And it's especially important when it's clear there isn't a lot of policy leadership emanating from the Executive Branch.

Business and Finance Target considers a more downmarket approach

Retailing is such a fickle business

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."

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

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

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

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

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.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

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.

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.

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.

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."

March 17, 2017

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

It's quite possibly the best holiday of the year

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."

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

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.

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

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

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."

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.