Gongol.com Archives: January 2018

Brian Gongol

January 5, 2018

Computers and the Internet 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.

Business and Finance 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.

Computers and the Internet Double-spacing after a period

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.

Business and Finance 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.

Threats and Hazards "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.