Gongol.com Archives: 2018 Fourth-Quarter Archives

Brian Gongol

November 19, 2018

The United States of America "No one nests in a hotel room"

An observation from Ben Sasse that dovetails with the rule from economics that nobody washes a rented car. Ownership matters not just in the material sense, but in the civic one, too.

November 21, 2018

Threats and Hazards When the President challenges the Chief Justice

As long as everyone remembers that the branches of government are co-equal, the Republic should survive. But we've had better moments as a country than one in which the head of the Supreme Court has to defend the independent judiciary. If nothing else, perhaps, we have the opportunity to be reminded of the central importance of the tripartite Constitutional order.

The United States of America How Ronald Reagan laughed off his assassination attempt

Not because it wasn't serious (it assuredly was), but because a sense of humor put Reagan in control of the situation

News A better way to navigate hospitals

Being in a hospital is usually stressful enough; making one's way wherever they're going shouldn't add needless stress to the experience

News What's the news?

News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo

News The real heroes of education

The educators who think their first job is to get a lesson across to students, no exceptions

Weather and Disasters The incredibly destructive Camp Fire

It's destroyed more structures than the next six most-destructive California wildfires combined

November 22, 2018

Science and Technology "Innovation is the real driver of progress"

We are fortunate to live materially better lives which are far beyond the wildest dreams of our predecessors, largely thanks to their hard work. We ought to be dedicated to doing the same for our own descendants.

Humor and Good News Everyone has heroes, and it's hard to know when you might be one of them

A personal and important story about being decent and humane

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November 23, 2018

News Moral imagination

A definition from Jacqueline Novogratz: "[T]he willingness to respond to the plight of others. To envision how to address suffering and injustice."

The United States of America Book review: "MacArthur at War"

A demanding, definitive, and enormous examination of the legend of Douglas MacArthur

November 24, 2018

Business and Finance What's behind the plunge in oil prices?

A whole bunch of factors, but a surge in US shale oil production, growing stockpiles, and high production levels from many suppliers (some of whom are intent on cutbacks) have all contributed to shifting prices lower.

Threats and Hazards British academic sentenced to life in prison for "spying" on UAE

Matthew Hedges says he was researching his Ph.D. in security. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, one wonders whether anyone who might be out to study the critical topic of security could do so if they had to fear for their own security from the states where they need to do their research.

Iowa Varsity Theater in Des Moines to close at year-end

The owner announced that the one-screen theater on the edge of the Drake University campus is shutting down on December 30th.

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November 25, 2018

The United States of America Enlarge the House of Representatives

The New York Times editorial board joins the chorus: The House of Representatives is too small, and by enlarging it we can do a lot to improve our governance. They back a modest increase in size -- growing from 435 members to 593. But we could easily split every district in two and still not reach an unwieldly stage. Smaller districts would make elections more competitive and diminish the effects of gerrymandering (in those places where it happens, which isn't everywhere). It could breathe some needed life into the intellectual capital of Congress by diversifying the backgrounds of the membership (not just by conventional demographics, but also by occupational background). It would make members of Congress easier to know -- and thus, one would hope, more responsive. And the actual budgetary cost would be trivial compared to the full budget of the United States. Supposing each Congressional office operates on a budget (including salaries) of around $2 million a year, even doubling the size of the House (and keeping every member's staff at its original size) would cost $870 million, or about $2.67 per American. The current limit is arbitrarily small, and it isn't consistent with the Founders' intent: In Federalist Paper No. 77, it was noted of the House that "in half a century it may consist of three or four hundred persons." They knew it would need to grow over time. It hasn't grown in a century. With too many people embracing ideas for changing the Senate in ways that would thoroughly corrupt the basic premises of the Federal system, enlarging the House is a sound plan with meaningful benefits.

Business and Finance Oh, the offers made (to, not by) Amazon!

What Amazon is getting out of New York and Arlington, VA, is a lot. A whole lot. And they also know how much hundreds of other cities would have been willing to give them.

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November 26, 2018

Threats and Hazards Why does Russia keep transgressing international norms?

Security consultant Molly McKew suggests it's because "[S]tates they target, in rising to their own defense, find themselves condemned and isolated for how they do so, despite doing it alone." Russia's behavior doesn't take place in a vacuum: A structure of relations has been built up that creates the incentives on which they are acting. And one of those incentive structures is that the United States under the Trump Administration shows little to no regard for the importance of peaceful self-determination, and demonstrates open hostility to the idea of doing anything within a framework of international rulemaking and multilateral cooperation. This, unfortunately, is the successor to another deeply flawed view -- that of the Obama Administration's learned helplessness. The current President's reckless enthusiasm for breaking alliances and doing all things bilaterally will have lasting bad consequences. As Dwight Eisenhower put it: "No nation's security and well-being can be lastingly achieved in isolation but only in effective cooperation with fellow nations."

Threats and Hazards A gross diplomatic insult

In the words of New York Times reporter Edward Wong: "China is holding two young Americans to try to catch their fugitive father, a former bank official." In addition to being an indefensible domestic practice, this seems to be a gross diplomatic insult as well.

News Blue-collar jobs

The President tells a reporter from the Wall Street Journal: "I happen to be a tariff person because I'm a smart person, OK?" -- which is a statement of utter nonsense. If an economist is required to wear a hard hat at work, has President Trump "created" a new blue-collar job?

News Special counsel's office says Paul Manafort lied and broke his plea deal

Ask yourself this: If you somehow got entangled in a criminal enterprise that became the subject of the most-watched investigation of the decade, what on Earth would convince you it would be a good idea to lie to the Feds? What could possibly be worth doing that?

Humor and Good News The one good thing about winter

From a purely physiological standpoint, air conditioning and heating satisfy basically the same purpose. But for as much as A/C is wonderful on a hot and humid day, it simply doesn't deliver the same psychological satisfaction as a fireplace or a radiator on a cold day.

Weather and Disasters The difference between no accumulation and a foot of snow was barely 45 miles

Iowa's winter storm was...unevenly distributed, to say the least

Agriculture 96% of Iowa's corn has been harvested

Southwest and south-central Iowa still have 10% or so left in the fields

November 27, 2018

Threats and Hazards Justice is blind, but the President's assets aren't

The President tweeted threats at General Motors, and the stock plunged. This kind of behavior would be a problem, even if the President held all of his assets in a blind trust...but we don't even have that much reassurance. How do we know this kind of stock-moving behavior isn't being exploited by people in the President's orbit? It has been clear since before he became President: (1) He likes to attack individual companies in public; (2) He knows his behavior moves markets; (3) His assets are not held in a blind trust and there is little or no transparency about Trump family finances.

Threats and Hazards China's ambassador threatens US over Uighurs

If the US imposes sanctions on China for its apparent imprisonment of a million ethnic minorities, China will "have to retaliate", says their ambassador to the US.

Business and Finance United Technologies completes acquisition of Rockwell Collins, then immediately announces a three-way breakup plan

Not so "united" for long. The company owning the old Rockwell and continuing to own Pratt and Whitney will keep the UTC name. Carrier will become a separate company, as will Otis.

Agriculture Ted Turner is still buying ranches in Nebraska

He's up to more than 506,000 acres of ranch land in the state, and about two million acres nationwide. That's a giant landholding.

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November 28, 2018

Computers and the Internet Drama in the UK over Facebook

A Parliamentary hearing -- with a total of nine countries participating -- is putting Facebook's privacy-related behavior in the spotlight

Aviation News Lion Air crash resulted from a pilot-vs-computer fight

Airplanes are going to continue flying by wire, so there should be a whole lot of soul-searching about what led pilots to do the wrong thing in response to a computer controller that was also doing the wrong thing -- all of which led to a crash with much loss of life

Business and Finance "Debt owed by businesses is at historically high levels"

In a major "Financial Stability Report", the Federal Reserve notes that "After growing faster than GDP through most of the current expansion, total business-sector debt relative to GDP stands at a historically high level." They're worried, too, about the quality of much of that debt and about the standards being used to evaluate credit. And leverage "remains near its highest level in 20 years." Altogether, these seem like important warning signals that are being taken seriously by almost nobody.

Business and Finance Is the sugar high wearing off?

The Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated 2nd quarter GDP growth at a 4.2% annualized rate, and 3rd quarter growth at 3.5%. Many things are possible, but the decline would be consistent with a wearing-off of the "sugar high" effects of tax cuts from the start of the year. Sustainable high growth rates are preferable to spikes that depend on government intervention.

Humor and Good News What New Orleans eats that the rest of us should adopt

"Gumbo and grilled cheese" is a meal apparently served quite routinely in New Orleans schools. Why this hasn't taken the rest of the country by storm is a mystery, as it sounds truly amazing.

Computers and the Internet Vox populi, vox nauseam

One of the worst things about the rise of social media (other than the Russian trolls and the profligate hate speech, of course) is how it has generated a whole new universe of stories predicated on nothing more substantial than "people on social media are talking about...". It's not great for journalism.

November 29, 2018

Threats and Hazards The unpardonable pardon

A deeper analysis of the nature of exchanges between lawyers for Paul Manafort and Donald Trump indicates that the President may be winding up to start fastballing pardons for anyone who might be helpful to protecting him from legal trouble. The problem with that, of course, is that the power of the pardon isn't supposed to be used like that, and to do so would be such a brazen violation of the rule of law that even the hint that he might do it ought normally to be enough to merit serious talk of removing the President from office. The whole situation is likely to precipitate panicked and reckless behavior on the part of the President's inner circle -- a group that has demonstrated a particularly upsetting habit of dismissing the law -- not to mention the truth -- as a nuisance. As noted by the team at Lawfare, the news that Michael Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress in order to protect the President reveals something interesting: "Mueller almost certainly knows a great deal more about what Donald Trump did and said than is included in this document. And that means that Mueller knows what Trump did and what role he played in this matter -- and Trump and his lawyers know that Mueller knows this." For the record, the Founders made it clear (in Federalist Paper No. 74) for what use the pardon was intended: "[T]he principal argument for reposing the power of pardoning in this case to the Chief Magistrate is this: in seasons of insurrection or rebellion, there are often critical moments, when a welltimed offer of pardon to the insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquillity of the commonwealth; and which, if suffered to pass unimproved, it may never be possible afterwards to recall. The dilatory process of convening the legislature, or one of its branches, for the purpose of obtaining its sanction to the measure, would frequently be the occasion of letting slip the golden opportunity. The loss of a week, a day, an hour, may sometimes be fatal." Thus, by a definition left behind by the very creators of the Constitutional order, either the people the President is hinting he'll pardon were guilty of insurrection or rebellion...or the power is being abused by the one who wields it. In this case, the power doesn't even need to be used for the abuse to take place -- merely the hint that it might be used is enough to create the conflict.

Threats and Hazards A suite for Putin at the Trump Tower in Moscow?

BuzzFeed reports that "a $50 million penthouse at Trump Tower Moscow" -- a freebie to Putin -- was on offer as Donald Trump's representatives sought to nail down the deal to build a 100-story building. This took place, says BuzzFeed, when the primary campaign was nearly over. To call this a massive conflict of interest would be to understate the case by several orders of magnitude.

Threats and Hazards "If...America's ability to lead is corroding, the question of whether a power transition will occur peacefully is hugely consequential"

These are the kinds of questions that should rattle all of us. If you have kids when in your 30s, and if those kids will live into their 80s, then you ought to have at least a century-long time horizon for big-picture public policy issues. And there isn't a bigger picture than this. We are too short-sighted about too many things, and the future of a world order based on rules and peaceful interaction is the kind of thing we can't be short-sighted about.

Business and Finance If you don't buy more new cars, don't demand new car factory jobs

Autos are generally better than they used to be, which means they often last longer. Total US automobile sales are about the same as they were from 1999 until 2007, before they took a nose-dive in 2008 and 2009. But the total number of sales isn't growing. So why should the number of related jobs grow? As Margaret Thatcher once said, "We still live under the continuing and undoubted influence of the first industrial revolution. In negative terms concern with tradition has led to great efforts to preserve, regardless of cost, some of the industries created in the past." She was referring to other jobs in another place and another time -- but the principle is precisely the same today. Romanticizing the past is no way to drive industrial policy in the present. Do people have strong feelings about General Motors and its plants? Yes. Should plant closures be addressed with empathy and intelligence? Definitely. But don't forget that there was a time when lots of US farmland was devoted to growing oats -- for horse feed. The rise of cars and tractors hurt that particular farming sector, but it wouldn't have been wise to prop it up artificially. It's better for the human condition to have moved on to the better way of doing things, even if some people had trouble making the adjustment. And there is ample reason to believe that changes like autonomous vehicles could shake up demand for automobiles even further. The President's approach of trying to threaten and coerce General Motors into doing his political bidding is no way forward.

Iowa A likely tragedy averted

A Des Moines police officer showed restraint in a bad situation caught on camera in September -- when a juvenile pointed a replica gun at him. Imagine having to speak these words: "What were you thinking, you pointed the gun at me? You could have been shot."

Iowa "Canadian woman stranded on Iowa mud road for 3 days survived on kombucha and marzipan cake"

That's one whopper of a headline for a story that could have turned out much worse than it did

The United States of America You guys really ought to read this

The "you guys" vs. "y'all" divide is very much a north-south one. Why isn't it an east-west divide? In fact, why are most American linguistic divides more about different latitudes than about different longitudes? Per some research summarized in the MIT Technology Review, "[B]etter east-west transportation links are analogous to shrinking the width of the US in that direction."

Computers and the Internet Is it really living if you're only existing to create an artificial persona online?

The article itself from 1843 Magazine is exhausting to read -- frankly, too much for a sane person to read about a 20-something aspiring "influencer" who needs to spend some serious time contemplating what really matters to her. But embedded in the article is a fascinating chart detailing some major differences -- online and offline -- separating Baby Boomers from Gen Xers from Millennials. There are several areas where prevailing opinions differ from one age cohort to another by 20 to 30 percentage points.

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December 9, 2018

The United States of America From "American Dream" to "American Action"

We need something that the "blue states" and "red states" agree to do together

News Paint it over every doorway in the Capitol Building

Margaret Thatcher: "States, societies, and economies which allow the distinctive talents of individuals to flourish themselves also flourish. Those which dwarf, crush, distort, manipulate or ignore them cannot progress."

December 10, 2018

Computers and the Internet Careful where you put that pyramid

A photographer with a high risk tolerance and an exhibitionist streak documented himself and a female partner in flagrante delicto on the Great Pyramid of Giza. It's not a particularly bright idea, but the response of Egyptian authorities has included the suggestion that the photos were fabricated. And that's where the bigger story lies: It's awfully unlikely that these particular photos were forged. But it's already quite possible to produce convincing photographic fakes, and the rise of "deep fakes" means that even videos can be falsified, convincingly. And that should have all of us at attention. Digital forgery is already real; we just haven't come to grips with it yet. This particular story highlights the notion that officials may be starting to recognize that fake visual "evidence" may exist; but it's not going to be long before those fakes are so easy (and cheap) to produce that any one of us might find ourselves the subject of a fabrication that we cannot disprove. It's already difficult enough for people to erase truthful things they don't like from the Internet -- that desire alone has led to big debates over the "right to be forgotten". But when (not if) it becomes technically feasible and sufficiently inexpensive for someone to produce a convincing forgery of any one of us in a compromising situation, we're going to be in a world of trouble because seeing will no longer be believing. In fact, it may be quite the opposite. All one has to do is to consider how far some people are willing to go to damage their political opponents, harm their romantic rivals, or undermine their competitors. Merge those depravities with the public's voracious appetite for the sensational (or the pornographic), and it's inevitable that in the very near-term future, there really will be fake videos of people doing X-rated things in monumental places.

The United States of America A tribute to Bush (41) and modesty

Wise words from Andy Smarick: "When we're uncertain and modest, we're likelier to be charitable and inquisitive and offer reforms that would incrementally build on yesterday's successes." We are best served by a combination of curiosity, competence, and humility in office.

Computers and the Internet Speeding up the euthanization of Google+

Google discovered another bug that might have exposed the personal details of 52.5 million customers to developers. Per a company announcement, "[W]e have also decided to accelerate the sunsetting of consumer Google+ from August 2019 to April 2019." Google puts a lot of projects out to pasture.

Business and Finance Old GM plants could become new Tesla factories

In a "60 Minutes" interview, Elon Musk indicated that he could be interested in buying manufacturing facilities that GM is taking out of service and using them to build Tesla vehicles. That could be a stretch -- getting the factory floor right is such an imporant issue that Honda has built an entire production ethos out of it -- but Tesla is growing fast, and recycling an old facility might be a way to ramp up production in a hurry. Certainly it would represent a moment of creative destruction. (But, wow, does Elon Musk ever need a sidekick -- like a Charlie Munger to his Warren Buffett or a Paul Allen to his Bill Gates.)

Broadcasting Another new owner for WGN-AM in Chicago?

WGN, currently owned by Tribune Media, is the only radio station in the organization. And Tribune Media is now on track to become part of Nexstar Media Group. So instead of dealing with the outlier (the rest of Tribune Media consists of 42 television stations and some networks), Nexstar may just spin off the legendary AM station. And rumor has it that Cumulus, which owns crosstown rival station WLS, may be interested in buying.

News What's the point of assigning gender colors to toys?

If you're boxing kids into artificially gender-specific toys, you're probably stifling their creative play.

Health Know your expertise

Not everything is a matter worthy of a survey. That includes whether something is a good immunooncology biomarker.

Business and Finance What is a company without any assets?

Any time an investor hears a phrase like "asset-light, high-margin alternative partnerships and services", he or she should wonder...what's the limit to that asset-lightness? And if some assets are going to be required no matter what, then who's going to make the profits off them? People say a lot of silly things in business as a means of trying to obscure what they're really doing or attempting to cover for their own foibles. At some point or another, assets have to belong to somebody -- even if they're inconveniently low-margin.

News The criminal charges resulting from the Mueller special counsel investigation

This documentation of the facts is a legitimate public service, as is the investigation itself. The sentencing memos for Michael Cohen reveal that something awfully rotten has been swirling around the President and his team since long before the 2016 election, and it's well worth remembering the words of Calvin Coolidge: "It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation."

Business and Finance Do markets have morals?

The markets themselves? No. They're just functions of nature -- like the tides. But: The relationship between market freedoms and the broader Enlightenment vision of humanity should be on a lot of minds these days. You cannot secure real liberty without capitalism, but capitalism is utterly precarious without a sense of honor and virtue. They are co-dependent features of a (classically) liberal worldview.

December 11, 2018

Computers and the Internet Online trouble doesn't end with Facebook and Twitter

YouTube -- a far more prevalent medium than either of the "social media" services that get the bulk of the scrutiny -- is a tool too often used to warp the world views of people who think they're learning something. The Washington Post reports that "Google overall now has more than 10,000 people working on maintaining its community standards." But is that enough? Is any number enough? The dance they try to perform is on the line that separates a totally neutral platform for content delivery (which YouTube simply can't be) from a real community (which YouTube has never established sufficient rules in order to be). Even though they call some of their policies "community guidelines", it's not a community unless there is some kind of shared vision of what the end ought to be. And YouTube in its present form doesn't have that. It is a product of the Enlightenment imagination, but it doesn't seem bound to the necessary values that protect Enlightenment-style thinking from drowning in a sea of hate and propaganda.

Science and Technology Simulating surname extinction

How many generations does it take for a surname to die out? Given our patrilineal approach to surnames, it depends on how many male offspring each generation produces on average. If you're not averaging 1.05, your name is in trouble.

Threats and Hazards Only the moderate Congressional Republicans lost in November

Per the Pew Research Center: "Among the Republican House incumbents who lost their re-election campaigns, 23 of 30 were more moderate than the median Republican in the chamber". That isn't a commendation for extremism: It's a really bad sign for the functional health of one of the two major parties in America.

News "Who is going to pay?"

A thought-provoking take on municipal leadership from Alain Bertaud: "This focus on 'a vision' emphasizes top-down control, when the job of a mayor should really revolve around indicators that emerge from the bottom up."

Health Sudoku won't save your brain

There's lots of evidence that mental activity in one's early and young-adult years has a positive effect on the survival of one's faculties into old age. But crossword puzzles and Sudoku aren't the silver bullet.

Humor and Good News Police officer scales building like Spider-Man to save family from burning condo

The story (with body-cam video) will absolutely set your hair standing on end.

Computers and the Internet Technology depends on people who think about how it is used

Predictive algorithms everywhere are good at picking up the clues at things like who might be pregnant. But what about making those systems humane enough to realize when something has gone wrong?

Threats and Hazards The national debt is still a problem. A big one.

Your share: $66,400. Per person. In measurable, real debt alone. That doesn't even begin to count future liabilities. A family of four could buy a nice house for the amount of debt the Federal government already owes in their name.

Science and Technology It's called "safety factor"

Most civil engineering is done with the help of generous "safety factors" -- protective margins of error in our calculations, designed to make sure we're not running too close to danger. Most people don't realize how hard we're leaning on the safety factors that previous generations engineered into our infrastructure. Just take a look at the condition of old bridges everywhere.

Threats and Hazards It matters whether your allies are monsters

In an interview with Reuters, the President says he still stands beside Mohammed bin Salman, despite the evidence that he was directly responsible for ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Values-free transactionalism is no way to run a foreign policy. We're not selling a used car on Craigslist. If our values don't matter for something, then we're just selling our alliance to the highest bidder.

December 12, 2018

Threats and Hazards Standing by the wrong team

Reuters reports that the President is "standing by Saudi Arabia's crown prince", even though the evidence is overwhelming that he ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist killed in Turkey. Values-free transactionalism is no way to run a foreign policy: We're not selling a used car on Craigslist. If our values don't matter for something, then we're just selling our alliance to the highest bidder.

Threats and Hazards A prediction we should hope is wrong

Conor Sen opines: "This is the last presidential election where the early media attention is going to be focused on statewide officeholders." For the good of Federalism, we had better hope this is not the case. The strength of the United States is directly tied to the strength of the individual states. That's why Federalism works, why the Senate should stay exactly the way it is, and why the Electoral College isn't the abomination that the "national popular vote" movement wants to pretend it to be. If everything becomes a national issue, then there won't be enough room for the states to experiment and differentiate. That's hazardous to the long-term nature of self-government. We need elected officials to prove themselves on the state level before going for national leadership.

Iowa Iowa State Patrol targets tailgaters on I-35

High-speed tailgating is a really stupid risk to take

News What will a deep dive into Trump Organization finances reveal?

What you own is often much less important than who you owe.

Humor and Good News Santa-style arms races

The "Elf on a Shelf" thing is really just a bit out of hand in some quarters

December 13, 2018

News To tell the truth

A person would need to be as dumb as a bag of hammers to need advice from the FBI...not to lie to the FBI. The Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination fundamentally requires that you don't lie in your interactions with the justice system. Tell the truth, or say nothing. If you emerged from high school not understanding that, then you should probably give your diploma back.

News What Pitbull has done to "Africa" is unforgivable

Some songs are great covers. The new cover/overaggressive sample of "Africa" (originally by Toto) is an ear-splitting train wreck.

December 14, 2018

News Things have to be pretty bad before a person would chance a dangerous journey with a 2-year-old

(Video) And yet, that's what's happening and causing people to flee from Honduras

Threats and Hazards The real threat from Chinese hackers

Worthy of urgent concern: "China now can not only build dossiers on U.S. citizens of interest, but can also spoof their identities in cyberspace."

News Ballard's search for Titanic was a cover story

They were really looking for sunken nuclear submarines. The quest for Titanic was just a convenient cover story. Now we deserve to know the declassified truth behind Geraldo Rivera's televised trip through Al Capone's broom closet and David Copperfield's performance at the Statue of Liberty.

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December 15, 2018

Humor and Good News Important life advice: Never trust a drummer who isn't slightly insane

Every drummer should look like they have a screw loose, you're probably getting ripped off. If you're at a concert and the drummer isn't bouncing her head around like a weeble-wobble in an active seismic zone or making faces like he's trapped in a tank full of nitrous oxide, ask for your money back.

December 18, 2018

News Regrets over a lack of regret

Senator Orrin Hatch admits that his recent brush-off of Presidential misbehavior was "irresponsible and a poor reflection on my lengthy record of dedication to the rule of law", according to the Salt Lake Tribune. It's good to see that his conscience won after all.

News New York state attorney general forces closure of Trump Foundation

Ordinarily at this point in a Presidency, someone might be thinking tentatively about where to put the Presidential library...not facing allegations of "a shocking pattern of illegality".

News Vatterott College to close

The for-profit college chain is closing. Remember that the same thing happened to ITT Tech in 2016. And that Purdue Global used to be Kaplan.

News Special-edition Lincoln Continentals to get suicide doors again

They're interesting to see...but why?

Health Reuters report: There was asbestos in Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder

Certainly a damning assertion, if true

The United States of America Slightly bigger laboratories of democracy

Whenever someone suggests that the Federal government ought to do/regulate/pay for something, it's interesting to ask whether we should do that same thing at the level of a Federal Reserve Bank district. All too often, saying the Federal government ought to do something is a lazy way of saying "I want it but I don't want to pay for it." We ought to subject more ideas to multi-state tests that don't rise to the level of national programs. Might take some innovative coordination along state governments, but adults can handle it. The sooner we euthanize this idea that all good things must flow downhill from D.C. to the rest of us, the better.

Broadcasting Should cameras have been in the Michael Flynn courtroom?

There ought to be a fundamental right to press coverage of trials, but the the way TV coverage fueled the OJ Simpson debacle can't be erased from memory.

News We're doing graduate-level education wrong

The direct costs are high. The sunk costs are enormous. On one hand, America has a phenomenal system of graduate-level education. But on the other, it's basically closed to anyone who isn't ready to front the enormous up-front risk (in time, money, and foregone opportunities) to attend years of graduate school. That's messed up. In 2018, there's no excuse for still treating graduate-level education (aside from niche programs like "executive MBAs") like something that belongs to a priesthood, chained heavily to a system of perpetuating the priesthood. There are countless people in the private sector (and public and nonprofit sectors, too) who shouldn't drop everything to take a graduate program that will take years to complete with an uncertain outcome. But they should be on long-term tracks to gain lifelong education. There's a mountain of foregone social utility because people who are busy doing things out in the general economy aren't spending a little time in the classroom every week (including virtual classrooms), learning the latest research-based knowledge in their fields. There's also a mountain of foregone social utility because higher education often isn't getting the active feedback of millions of people who see the massive amount of technological and methodological progress being made *outside* the confines of academic research. If only we could revive the mentality that brought us the land-grant colleges and ag extension programs, but apply that thinking to the manufacturing and service economies. So much good would come from thinking more broadly about graduate-level education as a lifetime thing.

Humor and Good News Package thieves discover bomb(*)

A glitter bomb. A glorious, highly-engineered glitter bomb. It's brilliant.

Threats and Hazards Ohio man gets squad-car police treatment for trying to cash a check

The man tried to cash a check for about a thousand bucks and ended up in the back of a squad car because the tellers didn't believe him. It seems quite certain the police were called because he was black. Come on, people. That's outrageous.

News A healthy skepticism of technocrats

Brink Lindsey aptly puts it like this: "We think the technocratic style of reg is highly vulnerable to insider capture as well as to unforeseen consequences due to interaction with other elements of the regulatory thicket. We prefer a few big, dumb, rule-like interventions over countless little nudges." Remember the words of Margaret Thatcher: "The State's concern in economic affairs must be primarily to service the nation. Its task should be to ensure that as few obstacles as possible are placed in the way of our own pursuit of enterprise, not to try and organize how we should do that."

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December 19, 2018

Computers and the Internet Is the time right for a Facebook rival?

For all the sense this makes on paper, the network effects are too large to overcome. If Google couldn't do it with Google+, nobody is going to push aside Facebook on its own turf. Its only credible challenges come from paradigmatic shifts like Instagram.

Threats and Hazards China has eyes on Greenland as a military outpost

There's perhaps nothing more naive than believing that if the United States just keeps to itself, then everyone else will do the same and we'll all be happy. Constructive engagement with the world, according to rules and multilateral alliances, is the way to keep the future from looking like an authoritarian anti-liberal dystopia.

Business and Finance Elon Musk's "boring" tunnel project may just carry cars

Quite possibly no one in business history has ever needed a sidekick quite like Elon Musk needs one right now. Charlie Munger to his Warren Buffett. Paul Allen to his Bill Gates. Takeo Fujisawa to his Soichiro Honda. Musk has a million ideas and a bias in favor of action that is truly remarkable, but he needs a counterweight.

Humor and Good News Targeted ads that burn the eyes

An ad for "transparent crystalline trousers" begs the question: Did Congress pass the Freedom of Too Much Information Act?

Science and Technology Soft hard hats

Thanks to non-Newtonian materials, hard hats might fit like stocking caps. Fittingly, the Australian company trying to launch the product is called "Anti-Ordinary".

Broadcasting The Mid-Atlantic accent isn't heard much anymore

Apparently it caused some confusion on social media the other day when people tried to figure out the geographic roots of the "Frasier Crane" enunciation

December 20, 2018

Threats and Hazards Sound the general alarm: James Mattis has submitted his resignation

A healthy system of government depends not on the individuals in it, but rather on the commitment to rules shared by authorities and civilians alike. But when the "prince" (or in our case, the President) puts his faith only in himself, then it is hard to put our trust in anything other than the individuals who make decisions around him. And we are now scheduled to lose one of the most important of those individuals in a matter of weeks. Mattis isn't quitting because he wants to work on his golf game. He's resigning because the President thinks he knows better than everyone else, even including "the generals". It's time for weapons-grade worry.

Threats and Hazards An immediate withdrawal from Syria

Contrary to public pronouncements and the advice of senior military leadership, the President is ordering an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Syria. It's thought there are about 2,000 of them there -- and they may be the only factor keeping hostile adversaries (Russia, Iran, and ISIS included) at bay.

News China's "Belt and Road" has military overtones in Pakistan

It should be obvious that the "Belt and Road" program isn't just about economics -- it's about geopolitics, too. And though it's a strategy fraught with peril (in other words, don't be surprised when it backfires in spectacular ways), in the short to intermediate term, it's disrupting the balance of power in important places.

Threats and Hazards A shutdown looms again

President Trump is willing to shut down the government to get funding for his mythical border wall

The United States of America Shopping patterns are closely related to local political culture

Even among American communities that have other socioeconomic characteristics in common, sometimes we shop differently because of things that also seem to instigate us to vote differently, too.

Broadcasting UK radio host keeps suicidal caller on the air until help arrives

When we say that radio is the most personal and intimate mass medium, that's not an exaggeration or a boast. It's just the truth.

Humor and Good News The promised land comes with Cheez Curls

Along with six other things that deserve to make a comeback

December 21, 2018

Threats and Hazards All the attention is on the wrong things

A scathing BBC report says that the British government isn't doing anything to counteract Chinese-government espionage being conducted as economic warfare. Border walls and Brexits won't do a shred of good to solve the problem of highly sophisticated, well-funded, state-backed industrial espionage campaigns. Ham-handed tariffs and trade wars among allies don't help, either. All the public attention is going to the wrong things right now, and we're going to regret the neglect.

News Who's next to run the Pentagon?

Who, exactly, is the person who (a) has the credibility to be an effective Secretary of Defense, and (b) looks at the job and confidently thinks "I can persuade and advise the President where Mattis couldn't". That person surely does not exist. The kind of hubris it would take, two years into this Administration, to think that the President could be educated on matters of military importance (much less be persuaded about them) is exactly the kind of hubris that gets fools killed and wiser people hauled off to prison. This is a grave moment. Little to nothing about our geopolitical situation has on balance become more stable or more secure for the United States in the last two years. On net, things are worse. And everyone knows why. It seems quite extraordinary that outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis openly, directly, and publicly rebuked the President in his resignation letter -- posted for all the world to see, directly on the website of the Defense Department. That's no small matter: It's a modern-day echo of Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church door.

Business and Finance US stock markets drop to 17-month lows

A reminder: The stock market isn't the economy, and the economy isn't the stock market. But the terrible performance in the stock market of late is pretty directly traceable to real-world events in economics: The Federal government shutdown, accelerating deficit spending, odious misbehavior and unpredictability in the Oval Office, and trade hostilities among them. Ordinarily, it's out of place to give a President too much credit or too much blame for the state of either the economy or the markets. But not only has President Trump made a spectacular fool of himself by desperately seeking praise and attention for the state of the stock market just four months ago, he has also introduced many of the most notable risks to the economy itself. A President who tries to take credit for the good (when he isn't really responsible for it) most certainly deserves blame when he is clearly responsible for doing harm. He is reported now to be interested in firing the chair of the Federal Reserve. That's a Rubicon he'd best not cross.

Broadcasting FCC among Federal agencies hit by the shutdown

With the FCC shut down, are radio hosts obligated to talk like pirates?

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December 22, 2018

Threats and Hazards Defense Secretary James Mattis resigns: Sound the general alarm

President Trump was hired for his own job in part because many voters trusted him when he said he would hire "the best people". And by most accounts, that's what he got in James Mattis. But President Trump never warned us he'd be so terrible at keeping "the best people" around. This is a seriously troubling development.

Weather and Disasters Volcano causes tsunami in Indonesia

Dozens of people have been killed; possibly more

Business and Finance Manufacturing may come back to the States. Manufacturing jobs may not.

Automation is changing the economic prospects for domestic production, but automation won't create a lot of old-style factory jobs. Paradigm shifts are the hardest to sell. We have so many people emotionally invested in a smokestack-economy vision of manufacturing that even progress like this will instigate blowback.

News Small towns deserve better than cheap stereotypes

It's great to see people thoughtfully sticking up for their communities

The United States of America Radio Free GOP is back

The gods, having taken away the Weekly Standard, have seen fit to grant us a new episode of "Radio Free GOP". Mike Murphy, let your pirate radio flag fly: With the shutdown happening, the FCC isn't listening anyway.

December 23, 2018

Threats and Hazards Why Secretary Mattis resigned

In the words of Bret Stephens: "Mattis also resigned because he has concluded that the problem with Trump isnít that he's an empty vessel. Itís that he's a malignant one." Mattis's resignation is a powerful sign and a significant gauntlet to be thrown down. It does nothing to counter the narrative that the President is thin-skinned and incapable of managing people well that he has decided to force Mattis out early.

Threats and Hazards The President is taking Turkish advice above his own Defense Secretary

It's truly incredible. The President already has a problem with keeping civil-military relations on the right track domestically. But now he's revealing a preference for foreign authoritarians over his own professional warriors. Maybe it's time to stock up on canned goods.

Threats and Hazards What is the Secretary of the Treasury doing with urgent Sunday phone calls?

The calls -- seeking to offer reassurance to major banks about the liquidity of the financial system -- wouldn't be necessary if not for a totally unnecessary Federal government shutdown and Presidential threats to try to fire the Fed chair. The administration has no one to blame but the guy who wasted his Sunday afternoon taunting Bob Corker.

News Nine last-minute gift ideas that could save Christmas

Especially for that person who has everything

Threats and Hazards Two years in, the President is growing more isolated by the day

Ever been around when a family has to take away a driver's license from a senior family member? Nobody wants to do it, and everyone sidesteps the issue, usually until something truly dangerous happens. It's like that, except this particular senior has the nuclear launch codes. Some are asking whether the Mattis resignation truly signals such a terrible warning, and whether he would leave the job if he thought it left the country in real peril. Think of Secretary Mattis like a fighter pilot in a plane that has been hit: If he thinks it's recoverable, he'll struggle to make it to a landing strip. But if so much additional fire comes in that the wings are lost, he has no choice but to punch out. The danger exists either way.

December 24, 2018

News From "Christmas Catholics" to regular churchgoers

A worthwhile perspective from America Magazine: "That is what being a stranger means: Not being known is part of it, but not knowing is the rest."

News What's an "affordable" college education, really?

Our meta-problem is that we continue to treat the college degree as a destination. It may be a well-worn commencement-speaker cliche to say "This is just a beginning", but the 21st Century really does demand that we think about everyone having a path through a non-stop, life-long education. And "everyone" means everyone, without exception.

Humor and Good News There are better things to say than "You're so cute!"

Ask girls about themselves instead of passing judgment (no matter how seemingly innocuous) on their looks.

Humor and Good News "I see how few monsters there are among us"

A counterterrorism-expert-turned-local-cop says he thinks most people are decent. What a great sentiment, and true. Most people -- really, most people, and that means everywhere -- are trying their best to be good. All fall short, some more often than others. But the real monsters are few.

News UNHCR seeks donations for refugees

There are a lot of them in the world right now -- too many. And it's turning cold in much of the Northern Hemisphere.

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December 25, 2018

Iowa Six things to love about Des Moines for the holidays

The lights on Terrace Hill are a good place to start

Humor and Good News A Christmas list attached to a red balloon

Launched in Mexico, it made its way to a rancher in Arizona -- who tracked down the youthful sender and delivered her wishes

News The Secretary of Defense sends a message to the troops

His holiday greeting includes one line worthy of extra attention: "Storm clouds loom, yet because of you your fellow citizens live safe at home." One wonders which particular storm clouds loom largest in his mind.

Socialism Doesn't Work The world needs to speak up for the Uighurs in China

It seems a million people or more have been detained without trial over their ethnic and religious identity. That's appalling -- especially if one legitimately believes that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

December 26, 2018

Health May we continue expanding our sensibilities about mental wellness

Our country will be much better off when we bring the same prevention-oriented, everyone-does-it attitude to mental wellness that we give to dental care. Nobody gets judged for having a filling. Just as there is a compelling public-health case for dental care (including the use of fluoride in public water systems), there is also a compelling public-health case for widespread access to preventative mental wellness care.

News Read to small children!

They'll learn far more words from children's books than they will from television

Computers and the Internet If you count on Facebook as your lone marketing strategy...don't

It's a useful tool, but the fickleness with which it is managed makes it fundamentally unreliable

Agriculture China didn't import American soybeans last month

File under: Trade wars are stupid

December 27, 2018

Computers and the Internet How Facebook moderates more content than you think

"The [New York] Times was provided with more than 1,400 pages from the rulebooks by an employee who said he feared that the company was exercising too much power"

Socialism Doesn't Work Sen. Bernie Sanders remains a one-way ticket to disaster

In a fundraising email, his people volley a tirade against Third Way Democrats. But the simple fact is that Sanders is toxic and would be a two-time disaster for the Democrats.

Threats and Hazards Sudden US withdrawal from Syria has Kurds looking for new allies in a hurry

There's no love lost between them and the Turkish government just over the border

Threats and Hazards 20 million people are starving right now

A number of people roughly equal to the combined populations of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. That they live in faraway Yemen shouldn't discount anyone's sense of the tragedy. And it is particularly galling because the starvation is truly economic in nature, rather than something more unavoidable.

Health Iowa has a new state epidemiologist

We're social animals, so it's impossible to have health care without spending time, attention, and money on public health

News Power plant explosion in New York City causes unnaturally blue sky at night

And when something like this happens somewhere else, it ought to be a good reminder for the rest of us to check our own preparations for power outages (that might last a good long time...). A cell phone flashlight isn't good enough. And travel with extra batteries, because there isn't always an outlet to save you.

Threats and Hazards Character as destiny

The most important thing Jonah Goldberg gets right in this piece is that "What [the President's] defenders overlook is that his insults are not simply an act". His shortage (nay, absence?) of personal character is a choice. And it is a choice, too, when others defend it.

Business and Finance If "milk" must apply only to stuff from dairy cows, what about baby oil?

While there's definitely something to be said for truth in advertising, is anyone left more confused (rather than less) by the notion of "almond milk" or "soy milk"? Those names generally serve to make things more clear to the consumer, rather than less.

Aviation News Aircraft window shades up or down?

Cabin crews sometimes ask passengers to put the window shades down shortly after landing in order to keep the cabin cool -- which is a pretty radical departure from the old days, when that was a signal of a hijacking. Here's another reason why it's a bad idea: Eyes take time to adjust to outdoor brightness, and if something goes wrong (even on the ground), then passengers need to be oriented to the hazards around them in an instant.

Humor and Good News Architectural eye candy

A $17 million home with just four bedrooms. But it's gorgeous.

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December 28, 2018

Iowa What is it with Black Velvet drinkers in Iowa?

The whiskey is the #1 liquor brand sold in Iowa -- by a big margin over #2 (Fireball) and by a giant margin over #3 (Captain Morgan). It is nearly eight times as popular as a fine Irish whiskey like Jameson.

December 29, 2018

Broadcasting Show notes - Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - January 29, 2018

The last show of 2018 airs at 2:00 Central Time on WHO Radio

Iowa Another swing at the local option sales tax?

On January 2nd, the West Des Moines City Council will consider a resolution to send the local-option sales and services tax proposal to Polk County. So will Des Moines. The vote would tentatively be scheduled for March 5th. Both councils are considering proposals to put 50% of the revenues into property-tax relief.

Health Hospital price transparency comes January 1st

They'll have to post list prices online. It's not a perfect fix, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.

Agriculture It's not just soybean farmers who are suffering from trade nonsense

The Trump Administration's decision to keep the US out of the TPP means Australian farmers are going to have a strategic advantage in selling wheat and beef to markets like Japan, where the US is going to face tariffs that the Aussies won't. Multilateral trade deals are the best trade deals.

Business and Finance Eddie Lampert submits last-minute bid for Sears

He's already the chair of the board, but it looks like an affiliate of his hedge fund has offered $4.4 billion for the company, which is pretty much its only alternative to a complete shutdown and liquidation. Regardless, the company is closing another 80 Sears and Kmart stores, in addition to the many it's already closed. One problem for the company is that it hasn't turned a profit since 2010.

Wells Fargo to pay more than half a billion dollars to settle fake accounts

In a settlement with all 50 states (and DC), the company will pay out $575 million to the states (Iowa will get about $6.2 million, to be allocated to the Consumer Education and Litigation Fund). Another $1.6 billion is going to restitution and Federal penalties in other resolutions.