Gongol.com Archives: January 2018
January 4, 2018
If the President takes nuclear war so lightly as it appears, he has never read any history of war, never pondered the weight of his office, and never cared about any human life besides his own. Certain members of Congress are talking about restraining the power of the President to initiate a nuclear first strike. Policy thinker Megan Reiss quite wisely suggests sending every President-elect to Hiroshima and to a concentration camp, "to contemplate the impact of acting and not acting, and the weight of choosing." Even a war fought with conventional weapons guarantees the loss of thousands of innocent lives. A person who cannot take that seriously is not to be trusted with any weapons at all, no matter what their form.
Instead of posing with the handbook of "Antifa", how about a Constitutional selfie?
If a member of Congress wants to strike fear into the heart of an abusive President, there's no need to take a selfie with "The Antifa Handbook". Just pose with one of the classics: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Federalist Papers. All three provide the necessary foundation for striking proper fear into the heart of anyone who would misuse the power of the Presidency.
The distressing softness of the President's self-confidence
The very thought that the President would threaten a private citizen by sending a "cease and desist" notice -- even to someone as unsavory as Steve Bannon -- is reprehensible. If there is one thing Americans are free to do, it is to criticize officials in high office. That the President has people around him (and likely including himself) who think that their ability to make commercial gains off the family name is of greater importance than the public's right to criticize is a symptom of an irredemable pathology.
An adult man beclowning himself on film next to another man's corpse is appalling. To use the death of another human being as clickbait is surely an indicator that someone harbors sociopathic tendencies, and both this Logan Paul and anyone who shared his video ought to be not only ashamed but scrutinized for their apparent sociopathy.
When Must-See TV got philosophical
A frame from an early episode of "Night Court" captures a sitcom confronting one of the great philosophical issues of all time: The individual struggling against himself
If urbanization is inexorable (and it's definitely nothing new), then it's worth asking whether government policies should seek to encourage particular kinds of mobility, so that it's easier to move labor around to where it's needed or to get it out of places where it's under-productive. A matter surely worthy of serious debate.
52% of new cars sold in Norway last year were electrics or hybrids
Despite being a huge oil country, Norway is turning its back on fossil fuels. Electric-only cars are up to 21%.
Small savings groups help people get on their own feet
A charity that converts donations into tools to help people help themselves is a great thing
Let's move New Year's Day to April Fool's Day
Wins for those who intend to break their resolutions, and for those who intend to keep them
January 5, 2018
Mark Zuckerberg's 2018 personal challenge: Fix "important issues" about Facebook
It's a grand ambition to want to figure out how the platform is being used for bad purposes and causing harm either through malice or neglect. But -- while trying not to read too much into his declaration -- it's a curiously undirected project, in the sense that Zuckerberg really says only that "I'm looking forward to bringing groups of experts together to discuss and help work through these topics." ■ Experts can and should be consulted on issues like these. But the phrase "bringing groups of experts together" is really pretty empty. Lots of experts come together for lots of reasons in lots of places, and in many cases the only result is an empty box of doughnuts and a memo that nobody ever reads. There's no doubt that Zuckerberg himself is an intelligent person, but he's also fortunate to have lucked into being in the right place at the right time with a tool. That's all that Facebook is: A technological tool. And tools are almost always value-neutral; like Teddy Roosevelt once said, "A vote is like a rifle: Its usefulness depends upon the character of the user." A vote, too, is simply a tool. The question is really one of character. ■ And that is the part of the story with the greatest promise -- but also the greatest risk that Zuckerberg's endeavor will end up accomplishing nothing. Ultimately, given the extraordinary control he maintains over Facebook -- the tool and the company -- it is an extension of himself to a degree that has few rivals in history, save a few rare examples like that of William Paley and CBS. So Zuckerberg's plan really doesn't reach far enough: He mostly seems interested in preventing harm, which is necessary...but not sufficient. ■ Being against something bad is not enough; much harm has been done by missions against other bad things. Anti-Communism is an epic example: It was right to be against Communism, but the incompleteness of that mission allowed ills like McCarthyism and the John Birch Society to fill the void. Anti-fascism may have brought together the USSR, the UK, and the United States as allies in World War II, but Soviet anti-fascism was hollow in the sense that it sought to fill the void with its own totalitarianism. ■ Zuckerberg is, in many ways, a techno-utopian: His professed belief is in the goodness of the tools themselves. And that means that an effort to purge the bad from Facebook will be incomplete -- just like anti-Communism or anti-fascism. And it's quite unlikely that any meeting of "groups of experts" will provide the right thing to fill the void. Ultimately, it hinges on Zuckerberg's conscience to decide that Facebook is actually for something -- not the ultimate triumph of technology over bad things, because that has never been and never will be the case. Great technology in bad hands is an awful thing. ■ For himself and for the tool that is such a pure extension of himself, Zuckerberg needs to find a normative philosophy in 2018: Something to strive to be. It will never be enough to be anti-bad, and it will never be adequate to think that perfecting technology will perfect humanity. In choosing something for it to strive to be, Zuckerberg would ultimately narrow the appeal of his tool -- since some people would decide that they object to the goal or conscientiously object. But he would do well to consider the way in which Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, became the benefactor of the Nobel Peace Prize. Like Facebook, dynamite is a tool, used for purposes both good and evil. Nobel's legacy wasn't to convene experts to tell him how dynamite could be perfected. The tool itself wasn't the ultimate end: It was only a tool. But the goodness of humanity itself and the positive goal of peace? That was Nobel's choice. Whatever comes of Facebook in the years ahead, Mark Zuckerberg has to make a choice, too -- and it isn't about perfecting the "anti-bad" of his platform.
How much of GDP goes to Federal-debt holders living overseas?
A non-zero number, but less than 1%. Important, though: If/when interest rates rise, that figure could be at risk if we haven't also brought the Federal budget under control.
It's habitual for a lot of people over the age of 35, and sacrilege to many under that age. In fairness to members of Generation X (who are often caught in the middle -- applying the double-space out of habit, but knowing that people want it gone), the double-space emerged out of necessity in the typewriter age, and stuck around when computer printers still mainly generated output in fixed-width fonts. Moreover, there was something viscerally gratifying about the heavy mechanical "click" of the early PC keyboards, so the double-space lingered, if nothing else, because it was also an excuse to get extra mileage out of clicking the heavy keys.
Know what's unusual about the times in which you live
For anyone who wants to go beyond basic passive investing (which itself isn't a bad policy for most people), there are two essential things to do: Have a cogent investing philosophy, and know what's unusual about the times in which you're living. The era of the conglomerates, just for instance, rose and fell on tax policies and interest rates that were unique to their time. Warren Buffett's early defining move was to pull out of the stock market altogether when it was still boiling hot, since he understood that the times were about to change. And who wouldn't like to take a time machine back to early 2009 with a bag full of cash and a stock-trading account? ■ What's unusual about our times today? Extremely low interest rates (by historical standards), equity valuations that are untethered from conventional estimates of value, a monumental shift in the workforce, and -- not least of all -- a deeply arbitrary and capricious Federal executive branch. Where the Obama administration tended to be hostile toward capital in general, the Trump administration reflects the President's capricious attitudes and eagerness to capture whatever he thinks can be categorized as a personal "win". He (and, by extension, his administration) is quick to interfere with deals not on the basis of law, but on the basis of what appears to count for a short-term political victory. As Tara Lachapelle notes in a Bloomberg Businessweek column, this means that epic mega-mergers like Disney/Fox and CVS/Aetna could all be in danger of rude surprises.
"What Wolff is describing is an open secret"
Newly-published book or not, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the President lacks curiosity and knowledge about the world, making him a singularly dangerous Commander-in-Chief.
January 9, 2018
Deportation looms for more than 320,000 people
The US government has provided "Temporary Protected Status" to people from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Sudan as a form of what is basically refugee relief. It's hard to imagine how returning more than a quarter of a million Salvadorans to a deeply troubled homeland. The State Department tells Americans to "reconsider travel" there -- the last level of advisory before "Do Not Travel". Putting substantial strain on Central American countries that can't handle the pressure certainly isn't a way to introduce stability there, which likely only makes conditions worse for Mexico.
More than a dozen people killed by California mudslides
With vegetation wiped out by wildfires, there's not a lot left to keep heavy rain from turning the ground into mud
Fitbit data tells us a whole lot more than we've ever really known about how people actually sleep
Omaha developer wants to go back to the future
Or something like that, with old-style buildings in new construction. They would include buildings intended for mixed residential and commercial use -- but one big question looms: If developers are really going to push for new-build live/work spaces, what's going to sustain the relationship? Most business sectors are going to face consolidation and change, so merging living and working spaces with the old model of the "apartment over the shop" is really harder to justify than ever.
Alabama will get huge new Toyota/Mazda plant
Not a huge surprise, given Toyota's previous pattern of site selection
Should we have a completely ceremonial head of state?
When times are good, perhaps we'd pick a happy figure -- an Oprah Winfrey or a Johnny Carson or a John Elway. And when people are angry, like many are now, we could handle putting a hothead in the spot to express the popular discontent.
Matt Novak: "It was admittedly an odd choice for The Post to just be 110 minutes of Tom Hanks staring at the camera and whispering 'journalism' while getting more and more drunk but honestly it works". Any reasonable person would totally watch this.
January 10, 2018
Self-appointed moral authority Jerry Falwell, Jr. says that the President's behavior "is no longer relevant". This is perhaps the best contemporary illustration why politics and religion should be kept apart: Not because religion would overwhelm politics, but because politics can corrupt religion.
The gig economy isn't bias-free
Women get treated differently not just in conventional workplaces, but in the gig economy, too -- even when they're the employers.
While the United States dithers
The European Union is getting the signals: If the United States is going to hollow out its international presence under the Trump Administration, they're going to have to address a rearranged global power structure. French President Emmanuel Macron is in China, saying "I want us to define together the rules of a balanced relationship in which everyone will win." Europe naturally needs to maintain its own relations with China, but in the long term, we may be witnessing the slow erosion of American hegemony in the world.
Five things to consider before putting Oprah in the Oval Office
Someone can be inspiring, decent, interesting, and popular. That doesn't mean we ought to hire them to be President. There really are different skills required to be President than what can gain a person commercial success.
Milt Rosenberg, a true radio icon, has died
Milt Rosenberg's show was consistently both intelligent and entertaining. He proved that truly smart talk could be must-listen radio.
Why is this particular corruption of the English language so satisfying? Is it because it conveys urgency through its rule-breaking?
Honda's US footprint in a generation
Realizing that the company has only been in the United States for a generation, it's pretty remarkable just how far it reaches
A beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright home sells in Chicagoland
What's truly impressive is just how good the home still looks at more than a century old. The Prairie Style is profoundly enduring.
January 15, 2018
Does Instagram withhold "likes" to play on the insecurities of users?
Really quite sick, if true. Ordinary people are at risk of doing evil things when they only look at what technology can do, rather than pausing to reflect on what it should do.
Cold weather sometimes rewards you with sundogs
A spectacular display in Iowa
On the passing of Dolores O'Riordan
A true genre, as I think of it, needs a foundational set of performers who set the definitions -- but it also needs artists who push out the boundaries, testing how far the genre can bend before it breaks.
An event Iowans mark by lighting corn-scented candles and preparing the guest room for politicians starting their "listening tours".
January 20, 2018
With nothing better to offer on the world market, North Korea is turning to what is literally one of the oldest stunts in economics to raise hard currency: Toll roads.
Tom Nichols assesses the first year of the Trump Administration, and finds that a lot of collateral damage is being left behind for POTUS 46 to clean up
Early contender for 2018's "Person of the Year"
An Omaha nurse donates 8 gallons of her own breast milk to a new mother undergoing chemotherapy whose baby has a milk allergy
January 23, 2018
British cybersecurity chief: "When, not if" a major cyberattack will target his country
The Guardian notes that "As well as North Korea, intrusions have been blamed on Russia, China and Iran." Now would be a good time to heed the words of Sun Tzu: "[T]he skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field." Cyberwarfare is different from kinetic warfare (where the objective is to blow up things), but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have a dedicated sense of what it means, both in theory and in practice. The longer it takes for the United States and its allies to treat cyberwarfare with the gravity it deserves, the worse-off we will be. As one observer notes, "people significantly overestimate the effect of Russian influence, and vastly underestimate the potential effect of disinformation from other sources (including domestic ones)". Fortunately, the antidotes to disinformation are effective no matter where the disinfo originates. Unfortunately, a lot of people are either unaware or unwilling to "vaccinate" themselves against any of it.
Oldest operational ship in the US Navy completes dry dock work
The USS Blue Ridge (commissioned in 1970) is now back in service after a huge refurbishment. Of note: The US Air Force still flies B-52s built between 1952 and 1962 and only three years ago retired a 52-year-old C-130. To have airplanes in flight that are older than the oldest ships in the Navy seems counterintuitive.
Michigan man arrested for threatening to kill CNN employees
Does it have anything to do with the President's non-stop feud with the news media? Maybe -- the possibility certainly can't be dismissed. As columnist Niall Stanage notes: "As I learned growing up in Belfast, when politicians throw lit matches onto gasoline, you'll tend to get fires." Even one person whose anger exceeds his or her self-control is too many, and that hostility shouldn't be stoked from high office.
An America-free Trans-Pacific Partnership moves ahead
Canada, Japan, and nine other countries are marching ahead with a trade agreement despite the dropout of the United States. As Senator Jeff Flake notes, "We're being left behind." All other things being equal: Better a multilateral trade deal than a bilateral one; better low barriers to trade than high ones; better to be inside these agreements than outside of them.
The one justified conspiracy theory
Individual sheets of select-a-size paper towels are scientifically designed to be 25% too small for any purpose under the Sun.
January 25, 2018
Two killed in Kentucky school shooting
It truly is a shame on our national character that violence takes so many young lives. It's a real public-health crisis: Homicide is in the top four causes of death in America for each of the age groups 1-4, 5-9, 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34, and suicide is the #2 or #3 cause of death in age groups 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34. These should be solvable problems, and we should have a sense of urgency about them.
Abusive gymnastics team doctor gets sentence of 40 to 175 years in prison
The sentence for Larry Nassar is deserved, but the judge was speaking to the rest of us when she said, "Justice requires more than what I can do on this bench." What stops the next abuser? Who protects the next victim? Those are systemic duties for all of us. Nassar used powers of manipulation and persuasion to get away with a massive crime spree over many years. One doesn't have to believe there was a broader conspiracy beyond him alone to believe that he was enabled and empowered by systemic and individual failures by others.
Mayors ditch meeting with the President
The mayors of New York City, Los Angeles, and New Orleans were among those who dropped out of a meeting with the President after the Department of Justice threatened to subpoena a bunch of cities, counties, and states over "sanctuary" status issues. The President took shots at Democrats and others in the meeting with those mayors who showed up at the White House despite the boycott by some. Federalism is taking on some pretty unusual forms these days; the notion of a limited but energetic Federal government is being beaten senseless by a variety of opponents.
What we imagine to be important isn't always what's truly important
In a new Pew survey, Americans rank terrorism, education, and the economy as the "top priorities" for the President and Congress, while ranking the military, climate change, and global trade at the bottom of the list. As Scott Lincicome notes, the fact that an issue like trade falls at the bottom of the public priority list may contribute to why public opinion swings so much on the subject -- and why it remains an area subject to hijacking by protectionists with a vested interest in imposing higher costs on the public at large by shutting down trade. What the public values most isn't always what's most important: In fairness, eating vegetables and flossing are also low on voters' preferences -- but, just like trade, they're almost entirely in voters' best interests.
January 27, 2018
It's easier to dream of those possibilities we can see
Aesha Ash is an African-American ballerina who is making herself visible (in full dress) in places people might not expect because she wants "to help change the demoralized, objectified and caricatured images of African-American women by showing the world that beauty is not reserved for any particular race or socio-economic background."
Wall Street Journal ranks the semifinalists for Amazon's HQ2
They conclude that Dallas and metro Washington, DC, are in the lead. That's pretty sound analysis.
The UN Ambassador shouldn't be subject to crude innuendo
Nikki Haley is shooting down crude rumors that she's having an affair with the President. There's no reason she should have to spend time or energy rebutting the rumors. We ought to have a world where we can all agree that issues of personal character do matter in politics -- without weaponizing rumors almost invariably at the expense of women. Women's reputations are indisputably put under attack far more by these kinds of allegations than men's, and there's no question that tends to have an effect that depresses the participation of literally half of the population in our civic affairs. It's not just scurrilous, it's degrading to our public welfare.
"[I]f anyone else had this much contact with Russians [...] they'd be considered a Grade-A security threat"
Tom Nichols gets directly to the heart of the problem: You don't have to believe there's some explicit quid pro quo between the President and the Kremlin to reasonably insist on a thorough investigation of the links. And the Senate had better agree.
Democrats pick legacy-name member of the House to deliver response to State of the Union
Rep. Joe Kennedy III, grandson of Robert Kennedy, represents a Massachussetts district in Congress. Picking a Congressman from a legacy political family to deliver the response to the ultimate anti-legacy, pro-disruption President in generations is a really dumb idea. The State of the Union address (and its response) is the flagship mass-market political moment of the year. Why they aren't putting the spotlight on a current governor or a recent Cabinet member makes it look rather like they're not taking this seriously. At all.
Radio show notes: Brian Gongol Show - January 27, 2018
Airing live on WHO Radio at 2:00 pm Central
January 28, 2018
Social media ought to mark the end of the vox pop
The "vox pop" (from "vox populi" -- basically, the "man on the corner" interview) has always been a weak spot in journalism. Tying it to easily-manipulated social media buzz only makes that worse. But that's what's happening -- news sources make stories out of the quantity of public reaction to items in social media. But in a time when it's become clear just how enormous and widespread the problem of bot contamination is, news organizations ought to put a stake in the heart of the vox pop altogether.
January 29, 2018
Single-family home in northeastern Iowa contained more than 725 animals
There's no way to make that make sense
Republicans on FCC slam trial balloon over nationalized 5G service
Axios reports that there have been internal debates within the Trump administration about the idea of nationalizing the 5G wireless infrastructure. It appears to be part of an internal discussion among national-security team members, who frame the need to get away from dependence on increasingly dominant Chinese suppliers of 5G technology as a matter of national security.
"Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful"
Warren Buffett's axiom applies today, when the World Economic Forum review of global risks rates virtually no concerns over economic conditions.
Cleveland to retire Chief Wahoo from uniforms after this season
File under: It's about time. Everyone knows that tastes and mores change over time, and sometimes that requires adjusting our present-day reality to match the changes. Does it mean some cultural icons might get sacrificed along the way? Sure. But anyone who is more attached to the rendering of a mascot of a baseball team than to scrubbing pretty blatant racism from the present really ought to adjust their understanding of what's important. We should be happy to take a path toward getting better about how we treat one another.
January 30, 2018
Someone claims to be offering "Human Uber"
A tool to provide virtual presence. The low-wage, low-skill, technology-enabled job of the future is...Larry Middleman from "Arrested Development"?
Russia names fighter plane regiment "Tallinn"
That's some very serious trolling, naming a military group after a national capital of a former satellite state
United Airlines prohibits "emotional support peacock" from flight
Buried lead in this story: Someone has tried to bring an emotional-support spider on board an airplane somewhere.
Omaha-area grocery store won't sell Tide Pods to under-21s
Isn't there some non-toxic, non-staining, extremely bitter flavor additive that could be added to the external gel of these laundry packs? Wouldn't that be the logical step for Tide and others to take? There were more than 10,000 incidents reported to poison-control centers last year involving children ages 5 and under. As a convenience, laundry packs have tremendous merit. But if there's a reasonable way the manufacturers could offset the hazard of ingestion (whether intentional or accidental), then it's worth asking what stands in the way. All of the buzz is about teenagers consuming them intentionally, but that's happened around 100 times this year -- whereas accidental ingestion by little people happens orders of magnitude more often.
January 31, 2018
A $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan
Briefly hinted at the State of the Union, a giant proposal that ought to have some attention. $1.5 trillion is around $4,600 per American. We probably need to spend that much (or more) on a wide range of infrastructure projects, but the needs range widely and call for a lot of technocratic judgment. Saying you'll spend $1.5 trillion on infrastructure is like saying you're going to lose 100 lbs. The admission means you probably need to do it, but it matters a great deal whether you're really changing your lifestyle or just banking it all on a two-week juice cleanse. Low interest rates today are a stupendous incentive to borrow for the long term on work that would have lasting value, but whenever "infrastructure" projects are done as a means of putting people to work, the work that is done may not be an efficient use of the capital.
Sen. Jeff Flake has twice been a first-responder in the span of one year
At the Congressional baseball game, and again at the train crash en route to the Republican retreat. It is tragic that one person should have encountered circumstances like that twice in such a short time, but good for him for being prepared to do good things.
The changing American household
A Pew research piece says that 31.9% of American adults live in households containing an adult who isn't the head of household, a spouse or partner, or an adult child of roughly ordinary college age. Of note: "Today, 14% of adults living in someone else's household are a parent of the household head, up from 7% in 1995."
Should you love your government?
Your country, perhaps. But your government, never.