Gongol.com Archives: July 2018

Brian Gongol


July 2018
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July 1, 2018

The United States of America The Supreme Court isn't the only guarantor of rights

If you don't trust most of the people most of the time with most of the things they do, you don't have a political problem -- you have a people problem.

News Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wins Mexican presidential race

A leftist takes over south of the border

Computers and the Internet A lamentation for Google Reader

Gone five years and never suitably replaced, Google Reader was the catalyst that made RSS feeds work.


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July 2, 2018

Threats and Hazards "National security" isn't a blank check to do stupid things

Tom Nichols: "This is not a serious appeal to national security, but an attempt to use a magical incantation to shut off debate and dissent."

Threats and Hazards "There is no failsafe...There is, in fact, only us."

The people who think there's nothing to lose by putting a wrecking ball to the world order, to the function of the Federal government, or to the classic notions of civility that make the country function? They are sorely misguided. As Eisenhower put it, "[W]e view our Nation's strength and security as a trust upon which rests the hope of free men everywhere."

Computers and the Internet Unless you type slower than 20 words per minute...

...there's really no excuse for non-standard abbreviations.

Threats and Hazards Protectionism, no matter what?

The Commerce Secretary says the President isn't going to alter course on his trade war against the world, no matter what the stock-market reaction. Putting aside for a moment that the stock market isn't the economy and the economy isn't the stock market, the real worry here is that, as the economic consequences of bad trade policies mount, the President will not only "not be deterred"...he'll double down. Because that's what he does when backed into a corner: He always doubles down. As even Canada retaliates against our nonsensical policies, one doesn't need to begrudge those who wanted to believe the President when he promised that trade wars would be easy to win. He's a masterful self-promoter, and people have been buying what he's been selling. But it's time to tell the emperor that he's naked: Trump's trade wars are stupid.


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July 3, 2018

Threats and Hazards Senate Intelligence Committee concludes that Russia really did try to influence the 2016 election

There's no (reasonably) denying Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. There's no (reasonably) denying they're trying the same in 2018. And 2020. And 2022. There's no (reasonably) denying that other states and non-state actors are trying, too.

News Boring politics are good politics

The three key attributes of a good political leader: Curiosity, competence, and humility. (It's that third one that keeps things the right degree of boring.)

News Syrian government wants 5.6 million refugees to come back

To go back would take an act of extraordinary faith in a government that hasn't earned it

News Why are people torching their credibility?

Commentators like Brit Hume are seeking to argue that certain principled conservatives who stood against the election of Donald Trump are now "standing on a shrinking sliver of ground". After Charlottesville, family separations, and a nascent trade war with Canada...if you still think that people like Tim Miller are the problem, then you're the one missing the point.

Threats and Hazards A heart-wrenching attack in Idaho

A refugee child was killed at her own birthday party. As one resident put it, "I felt how defenseless those kids were, and how their parents felt they couldn't protect them in those moments."

Threats and Hazards China is trying to drive a wedge between the US and Europe

The Chinese government is making opportunistic use of President Trump's indefensible trade aggression to try to wedge the US away from historic allies in Europe. It's an opportunistic tactic in service of a very long-term strategy. As Dwight Eisenhower put it: "So we are persuaded by necessity and by belief that the strength of all free peoples lies in unity; their danger, in discord."

Science and Technology Technology is only as good as the people using it

Nebraska State Patrol uses FLIR technology to find and rescue a man who got lost and disoriented in a corn field

Iowa Most photos of fireworks are overrated, but not this one

A spectacular shot of downtown Des Moines


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July 4, 2018

The United States of America America is neither doomed nor perfect

America is, and always has been, a work in progress. We have work to do today, and more to do tomorrow.

The United States of America Thomas Jefferson was 33 years old on July 4, 1776

Wisdom doesn't always wait for age. Benjamin Franklin was 70 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence, an act that truly put everything on the line for his country. Age is no excuse to stop being a patriotic servant of what is good and right.

Threats and Hazards China's debt-based diplomacy is no trivial matter

The country's "Belt and Road" initiative may be creating a lot of tangible infrastructure projects all over the world, but those projects aren't being done for charity, and they're not all necessary. China's bankrolling them in the expectation of making money off the construction work itself, as well as off the financing. And the government is so touchy about it that it has gotten aggressive with Australian journalists who asked questions about it.

Business and Finance Meet the people defending trade

It needs a robust defense in this era

News Fastball's catchy song "The Way" is about a real-life tragedy

Which certainly tempers the story a bit

Humor and Good News It's Independence Day

Not, as some on Twitter have mistyped, "Independance" Day. Though it might be fun to see whether anyone could do justice to the Declaration of Independence in the form of interpretive dance.


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July 5, 2018

The United States of America Are you a practicing American?

Being an American takes practice and belief. Some of us just happen to have been lucky enough to have been born here.

News The torment caused by family separations

In the words of Stuart Stevens, "There's not a community in America that wouldn't move heaven and earth to help when an Amber Alert is announced. And yet we have a massive Amber Alert of missing children on the border and it's our government to blame."

Threats and Hazards Russian nerve agent poisons two more in UK

And those two people aren't thought to have been targeted -- they may just be collateral damage from the original attack

News US resettles far fewer refugees in 2017 than in prior years

Having taken in three-quarters of the world's refugees since 1980, the US has closed its doors in a substantial way. That's to our detriment; refugees aren't freeloaders looking for a free lunch -- they're people trying to escape detrimental circumstances at home and make new lives for themselves in a safer place. If we aren't confident enough to be that safer place, then we need to take a long look in the mirror.

Business and Finance Trade war begins tonight

Tariffs and counter-tariffs are scheduled to become no longer threats but reality. And that's just stupid. The President is threatening to escalate from taxing $34 billion in imports to $500 billion. It's hard to stop the bleeding from a self-inflicted wound.


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July 6, 2018

Weather and Disasters An aggregation of coverage from the June 30th flash floods

Rainfall totals of 9" in a short period of time, centered right on top of Iowa's biggest urban center

Threats and Hazards Budget deficits and billowing debt as intergenerational warfare

America's wildly imbalanced budget priorities will spend vastly more on entitlements for the old (and interest on the debt) than it ever will on programs that benefit children. In the words of Margaret Thatcher: "We have first to put our finances in order. We must live within our means. The Government must do so. And we must do so as a country."


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July 7, 2018

Aviation News Case study in a disaster-in-waiting that could be stopped right now

But will it? Or will the normalization of deviance win out?

Humor and Good News Something about exuberant dancing Germans is hilarious

Good for a light laugh

Broadcasting Show notes - Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - July 7, 2018

Live on WHO Radio from 2:00 pm until 4:00 pm Central


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July 8, 2018

Threats and Hazards Read the briefing book

The President refuses to read the briefing book prepared for him, so "ahead of important meetings, aides have made something of a deal with the president: If we put it in a red folder, please read it." If a 2nd-year TSA screener or CIA field agent refused to read assigned briefing materials, he or she would deserve prompt termination.

Weather and Disasters Building "tiny homes" for Hawaii volcano evacuees

Good to see novel solutions being applied to important problems. Finding ways to house people displaced by natural disasters is a persistent problem.


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July 9, 2018

Business and Finance Forget chasing Amazon's HQ2: Cities should focus on their startups

"[E]conomic big bangs can happen anywhere, not just on the coasts." An argument against trying to lure existing hot businesses from elsewhere and for investing in organic, endogenous growth.

News Brexit brings about UK cabinet resignations

Interesting to think what would happen if the US had a similar system, whereby a Cabinet resignation could trigger the downfall of a government. A less far-out version of this would occur if we had a national Presidential recall mechanism, in the style of states like California or Wisconsin. (In fact, more than half of the states have some kind of recall.)

Iowa A tremendous tribute

An exceptional tribute to the departed Governor Robert Ray. Doing the right thing -- like taking in refugees -- may or may not have political payoffs in the short run. But in the long term, character truly does count.

Broadcasting What it's like breaking news

It's hard to describe the excitement of covering true breaking news. It's an intellectual challenge, a social activity, and an adrenaline rush all at once -- a pop quiz, a senior recital, and being down one run in the bottom of the 9th, all wrapped into one.

The United States of America A nominee to the Supreme Court

On one hand, it is right to believe in the co-equality of the branches of government, so the SCOTUS pick ought to be a big deal. On the other hand, we place way too much emphasis on the chief executive and should rather see the Imperial Presidency dialed down than see the other two amplified. We should vigorously support a rebalancing of power among the three branches, in the spirit of Federalist Papers-era Madison. As Calvin Coolidge put it, "I would like it if the country could think as little as possible about the Government and give their time and attention more undividedly about the conduct of the private business of the country."

Iowa Tomorrow: 25 years since the Floods of 1993 hit Des Moines

An event of staggering proportions. We're a much more resilient community in many ways today, but we can't ever let down our guard. There's always more we can do to prepare.


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July 10, 2018

Computers and the Internet Is Facebook trying to watch you in retail stores?

Seems like the kind of issue on which we ought to have a vigorous national debate.

News Elon Musk delivers a prototype miniature submarine to Thailand

He can come across in all kinds of bad ways, but Musk has a bias towards action that really is an outlier worthy of some attention (and probably some study).

Business and Finance Striking oil workers in Norway could push prices higher

Low oil prices have been a de facto economic subsidy for so long, a whole lot of people have probably forgotten that things could be any other way.

Iowa A wonderful tribute to Gov. Robert Ray

A great story, told well, about refugees as a success story in Iowa -- thanks to his leadership as governor

Science and Technology An ambitious bucket list

Futurist Ian Pearson wants to do some things you probably haven't thought about yet

Threats and Hazards US government misses deadline to reunite children separated from their families

To what degree the family-separation madness is the result of incompetence and to what degree malice, it's becoming hard to give anyone administratively involved the benefit of doubt.


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July 11, 2018

News Why did the Thai boys in a cave get so much attention?

Especially when there are so many other problems in the world -- including other children in grave distress? People seem to be more interested when a problem seems well-defined than when it is abstract -- or so large that it becomes abstract in our minds. Not every problem lends itself to that kind of granularity, but even when we're talking about big, abstract problems, we may need to think of ways to make the steps in the process seem more concrete (if we want public support, that is).

News Your opponents aren't going away

And they're probably not evil, either. As Margaret Thatcher put it: "I think some of the bitterness of political strife is reduced when we remind ourselves that many of the people who share our deepest convictions about life are on the other side in political controversy." When prominent voices say that "Even CONSIDERING this [Supreme Court] nomination will cement the first American dictatorship", it's a colossal problem: Vladimir Putin and bad actors like him want the maximum division among Americans against one another. The more people conflate "things I don't like" with "things that are undemocratic", the harder it's going to be to resist the actual threats to democratic processes. And those are real.

News What happened to the windows?

Could someone please explain what happened from the mid-20th Century onward that made people board up windows everywhere in otherwise perfectly functional buildings? What did people find so objectionable about natural light? There's certainly a profound counterexample in certain modernist buildings with walls of glass, but there's a reason people find houses and buildings like that to be truly stunning.

News The world is better with friends

Let us toast to our friends: May they be strong and plentiful


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July 12, 2018

The United States of America "Americans and their Congress still believe in the transatlantic alliance"

Necessary words from Sen. John McCain, as the President engages in a pattern of behavior that (at best) confuses and frustrates our NATO allies. If this profoundly transactionalist behavior confuses you, that's good: It's bizarre to think relationships are like an Etch-A-Sketch that gets erased every day. As Sam Zell has said, "You succeed or you fail based on who your partners are." That's advice applicable not only in real estate, where Zell made his fortune, but in the world at large.

News Survival in a photograph

A 5-month-old baby was left buried face-down in the Montana woods for nine hours until he was rescued by a search team. He survived and has been released from the hospital. If there is but one thing civilization should stand for, it should be that innocent children ought never to be subjected to malicious cruelty or endangerment.

Business and Finance Is a corporate recession just around the corner?

The more fiddling around with accounting statements, the more people should worry that something is rotten in Denmark.

Business and Finance Interest payments on the Federal debt: 1.6% of GDP today -- 7% later

2030 used to seem like a long time away. But if you have a kid born this year, he or she will barely be in middle school by that time. That isn't the long term...it's now the medium-to-short run.

Science and Technology Replacing plastic bags with banana-based packaging

A fantastic example why the old moniker of "developing" countries is really misleading. The global middle class is growing fast -- and innovating -- and that's a very good development. More people capable of living lives with a little bit of room for comfort means not only a direct improvement to the human condition (which we should cheer!), but also spillover effects for the rest of the world. The United States was massively innovative at a time when it was still in many ways a "developing" country. Innovations have a way of finding their way to the rest of the world speedily, so the more people who have the capacity to experiment and try out new ideas, the better for everyone.

Iowa Better streetlights

The move towards LED streetlights (as opposed to yellow sodium lights) is a welcome upgrade

Socialism Doesn't Work Corporatism is just another form of socialism

Don't fall for any of the ugly cousins in this family

News Move to Australia, then move out of it

A new story about the "micronation" boom in Australia teases the claims some people make to having their own states-within-a-state. It's silly, and it's definitely not the wave of the future -- but we should take seriously the more realistic prospects for city-states to re-emerge in the 21st Century.

Science and Technology We welcome our robot (mower) overlords

But what if the first people to get them are also the ones who had the best suburban diagonals? We'll miss it when it's gone.


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July 13, 2018

Threats and Hazards "We've said all along we know Russia meddled in our elections"

The Speaker of the House acknowledges the gravity of the indictments issued against 12 members of the Russian military intelligence service thanks to the Special Counsel's investigation. It's a very serious set of counts, and there are probably more to come. People are understandably anxious for the full truth to come out. The indictments have been hailed as "a powerful show of strength by federal law enforcement".

Humor and Good News Markets in everything, including naps

Mattress company Casper is offering a "napping store" in Lower Manhattan, where 45-minute nap sessions come with a bed and a pair of pajamas. Open most days from 11am to 8pm. Of course, a proper nap lasts 12 minutes and no longer, so the 45-minute session is probably too long.

News Trump-Putin summit to be held at Finnish presidential palace

How many Americans know that Finland only won its independence from Russia a hair over 100 years ago, in December 1917?

Agriculture The states under attack in this trade war

Bloomberg BusinessWeek: "The bulk of punitive tariffs from around the globe falls heavily on Farm Belt and Rust Belt states", and that's no exaggeration. And for the Farm Belt, it happens at a time when total net farm income is at a 12-year low. It's a self-inflicted wound at a time of serious chronic pain.


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July 16, 2018

Threats and Hazards Stand for something, lest you fall for anything

The President, insistent on his own instincts, chooses the denials of Vladimir Putin over the evidence (and the advice of everyone who matters) that Russia actively attacked American electoral processes. His press conference beside Putin was profoundly embarrassing: An apology tour, a plea of submission, and a declaration of surrender all rolled into one 60-second clip. It is almost certainly the most cowardly declaration ever issued by someone who has taken the Constitutional oath of office. Today illustrates why we need to work -- fast -- to develop the kind of vocabulary and mental framework for understanding cyberwar that we already have for kinetic war. We have been attacked and remain under attack, and that's not a "both sides are to blame" thing. If the President can't or won't grapple with the complexity and gravity of cyberattack, he should make way for someone who will.

Threats and Hazards No interrogation needed

The United States doesn't need to question the Russians who, as a state activity, conducted a cyber-campaign against the United States in 2016. The indictments make it quite clear that we have them on the evidence. And to imagine that there is some kind of parity with those who have challenged Putin's autocratic ways and sought refuge here is to be as gullible as a child. When the President whines about the state of US-Russia relations, it's an abomination. If he were merely ignorant of history, that would be shameful. But he chooses to be ignorant of the present, which is inexcusable.

Humor and Good News Cutting down an evergreen tree

It can give a person Cub Scout flashbacks


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July 17, 2018

Threats and Hazards He said "would"

It was insulting when Bill Clinton tried to split hairs over the definition of the word "is". It is insulting now that Donald Trump thinks he can revise history to change "would" to "wouldn't". The President was humiliated in front of a global audience, particularly by his public dismissal of US intelligence services and the US Department of Justice in favor of his naive embrace of the empty words of a known adversary. That is behavior beneath contempt.

News Russian state malfeasance undermines the future of a normal Russia-US relationship

Russia's tactical success at assaulting US elections may end up as a strategic catastrophe -- because what near-term future President has any incentive to treat the Russian government with goodwill?

Threats and Hazards Tariff madness is already backfiring

The persistent costs of tariff madness are going to hang around a whole lot longer than the sugar-rush stimulus of the tax cut.


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July 18, 2018

Computers and the Internet EU official announces non-trivial penalty against Google

It's an antitrust-type action. But will it actually achieve the intended effects?

Humor and Good News Richard Marx: "I misspoke"

When pop-culture icons of the past redeem themselves with sly critiques of the present. What the President tried to erase by claiming he meant to say "wouldn't" instead of "would" is not undone by the record of what else he said.

Threats and Hazards Vladimir Putin wants to "interview" a former US ambassador to Russia, and the White House hasn't unequivocally said "no"

This ought to represent an inviolable red line to anyone in Congress. Or the Cabinet. There is no acceptable answer to this request -- which also included Putin critic Bill Browder -- other than "absolutely not" (unless one chooses a more colorful and forceful way to say it).

News Court tosses California trifurcation vote from the November ballot

Good -- this is not the time for arbitrary and highly divisive internal questions. Whatever the merits of smaller administrative units may or may not be, this is not the time nor the civic environment to argue them.

Science and Technology A pledge against building killer AI is only noble on the surface

Strategic theorist Kori Schake asks, "[I]s anybody exploring the asymmetric vulnerabilities this will create if our adversaries don't likewise constrain themselves?" Nobody wants to build killer robots...but if you have an adversary who might, then you probably shouldn't take all your options off the table. At the very least, we need to actively grapple with the technology, the rules, and the ethics.

Threats and Hazards How can the President misunderstand so much about NATO?

In suggesting that Montenegro is composed of "very aggressive people" who might trigger "World War III", he lays plain that he doesn't get the point of a common security commitment. In the Civil War era, people formed Union Leagues to promote the cause -- is it time for us to start organizing local NATO Leagues?

Weather and Disasters Getting a little close to severe weather

Very strong thunderstorms -- including a large rotating band in contact with the ground -- up close and personal, around Kearney, Nebraska.

Computers and the Internet When Twitter will be better

Looking forward to the day when Twitter has an advanced search that permits a search for "rabbi with a Confucian streak and a sarcastic sense of humor". (In part because that day ought to come after they've found a way to nuke the trolls and mal-bots.)

Aviation News The only true chemtrails are the ones that come out of a crop duster

And, boy, are those crop dusters a lot of fun to watch


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July 19, 2018

Weather and Disasters Video shows large tornado going right through center of Marshalltown, Iowa

The local newspaper uses "devastated" to describe conditions in Marshalltown after the tornado. For it to have damaged downtown, the hospital, and the JBS plant means it must have been reasonably wide: perhaps 1/2 mile in diameter. And that looks about the size in the video taken from near the Hy-Vee, looking at the courthouse. Tornadoes also hit Bondurant and Pella. Pella's local newspaper indicates that the Vermeer plant was hit hard but that employees had taken shelter -- which was good, because cars were tossed around the parking lot.

Iowa Marshalltown newspaper decamps to nearby town to get the paper out

The news editor is from Marshalltown and just started the job ten days ago. Local news is indispensable to a community, and an event like the tornado in Marshalltown is why.

Weather and Disasters What the new satellites saw of the day's storms

New satellite capabilities might end up being very useful in augmenting severe weather forecasting and detection.

News "The press needs to be anti-partisan"

A perspective from Mike Masnick, editor of TechDirt. An interesting perspective, but it probably doesn't need to be quite so complicated. Good news reporting always comes back to good questions. So if news reporting is unsatisfactory, then the first place to look is the questions: Are good ones being asked? "News" is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Everything else is either "events" or "information". While there are plenty of events to document and informational items to share, those aren't really news. When news (properly defined) is being reported, it ought to illuminate something important that somehow changes whatever was "known" before. It's hard to do that if one starts with a conclusion or a mission in mind. Questions like "Don't you think..." or "Wouldn't you say..." aren't authentic news questions. Nor are questions that rely upon restating someone's untruths or disinformation. Nor are questions that permit the subject to spread a falsehood unchallenged. When the status quo includes disinformation, lies, or falsehoods, then we don't need reporters on a mission to be "anti-partisan", per se -- but we need them to ask questions that change what we know about that status quo.

Threats and Hazards The President was told about Russian attacks on the election process in January 2017

Would his responses -- which have been a cavalcade of denials and deflections -- be different if the person issuing the orders had been Xi Jinping? Or Hassan Rouhani?

Science and Technology Congress needs more nerds

A strong case for re-funding the Office of Technology Assessment. Oftentimes the best money government can spend is on appropriate oversight and qualified professional advice. We also need more elected officials who themselves come from technical backgrounds -- engineers, programmers, scientists, and so on.

Humor and Good News Product placement

Maybe it's out of necessity (hard surfaces, power outlets, and available water), but it still seems wrong for hotels to place coffee makers inside their toilet rooms.


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