Gongol.com Archives: January 2019

Brian Gongol


January 2019
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January 2, 2019

The United States of America Stop with the Senate-abolition nonsense

The Senate, with two seats per state, is a non-negotiable fundamental of the Federal model. We need capable state governments, a strong Senate, and a national government with a little bit of humility about it.

News In defense of pay-as-you-go

In a sane world, the rules would be:

1. Decide what you want from government.
2. Limit those wants as much as you can.
3. Pay for it all.

And while it is entirely valid to point out that empathy should play a role in determining what those "wants" should be, the decision has to originate out of principle. Resources are limited. More importantly, government power itself must be limited -- even if it does something that is cost-free. Thus we decide these things in imperfect but representative bodies. For instance: A lot of people think the Mueller investigation should be shut down because it costs money. Others say it should stay open because it has actually turned a profit. The principled answer is that a complete investigation is absolutely necessary, utterly regardless of cost, because government power is inherently dangerous, so it must be controlled by the rule of law. When we have credible suspicions about its use, the principle of limiting that power comes before considerations of cost. Thus, if we want limits on government (including investigations of bad behavior), then we need to be willing to pay for them before we start looking at the tab.

Threats and Hazards A story worth reading about Saudi dissidents

Freedom isn't protected everywhere

Threats and Hazards What happened to Sen. Rand Paul?

Reagan was in many ways a great President, but the hagiography has gotten out of control. Once you surrender critical thinking to one cult of personality, you pave the way for later cults of personality -- as Senator Paul is doing now with his inexplicable embrace of Trumpism.

Business and Finance High minimum wages don't necessarily have the intended consequences

Note to the $15-an-hour crowd: It's not that we disagree with your objectives. It's that the means you propose to use just aren't as effective as they need to be.

Business and Finance Motivational speeches

If you're surprised that Joe Biden commands $100,000 a speech, take a look at who else gets that princely sum

Business and Finance "A poor person never gave anyone a job" -- false.

Lots of jobs are created by people who bootstrap their own companies or otherwise start from scratch. Jobs are not gifts that are handed out charitably by the wealthy to the non-wealthy. The perverted defense that Jerry Falwell, Jr., gives to Donald Trump isn't even sound logic.

Business and Finance Trade deficit worsens as tariffs go up

Remember this next time someone offers a ham-fisted proposal as though it's a magic bullet that everyone before them was just too dumb to realize.

Broadcasting The game theory embedded in submarine-chase films

They invariably focus on extended engagements between two actors with limited information, making them excellent examples to use when teaching game theory.

Humor and Good News "In 2019, Canada is positioned to start down a path towards leading the world"

If they're bringing poutine and Labatt Blue, maybe we can do business. But seriously, there is actually room on the global stage for Canada to take a more prominent role -- particularly as a weathly, productive liberal democracy with an interest in at least some claim to moral authority.

News A vegan challenge from Beyonce and Jay-Z

Guess they won't be headliners at the Iowa State Fair this year.


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January 3, 2019

Socialism Doesn't Work China's "social credit" system will permit the government to grade everyone

They say it's because people need to trust one another. And it is absolutely true that a society needs mutual trust among its people in order to function. It is absolutely false to think that government can evaluate, measure, score, or impose that trust from above. If the trust doesn't emerge organically, it doesn't really exist.

News Game theory and the Oval Office

The President frames everything like a Manhattan real-estate transaction (two parties, one round). In reality, the world is vastly more complex than that -- most importantly, almost nothing is excluded to two parties, and almost every interaction is part of a long chain of events (and people have memories). Deep down, it's less an ideological problem and more a game-theory problem.

Computers and the Internet Barbarians at the tweet

When people turn to social media to shout their lack of interest in other people through a megaphone, it whacks civilization in the kneecaps.

News On the European Union, the United Kingdom isn't so unified

Scotland voted 62% to remain in the EU. Northern Ireland voted 55.8% to remain. Such a strange consequence of history that they're being dragged out of the EU effectively against their national wills.

Threats and Hazards Evidence mounts that China's campaign against the Uighurs is as bad as can be imagined

If a state puts all of the writers, artists, and intellectuals of a minority group in prison, you can be sure they are seeking to grind their culture right out of existence. This is a much, much bigger deal than whether the US sold China a few million more or fewer iPhones. How China's government not only aggregates but executes its power is massively important.

News How long is the perfect book?

Substantially shorter than the average non-fiction book of the present day, that's for sure. But it turns out that data about our reading (and reviewing) habits now collected via the Internet gives some useful feedback on the relationship between length and quality. Or, at least, it suggests that people tend to over-rate long books...probably to make ourselves feel better about finishing books with too many pages.


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January 4, 2019

The United States of America A new Congress is convened

And Rep. Thomas Massie, a member of Congress from Kentucky, gets it completely right: "[W]e swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States, not to the government, not to the flag, not to any party, and not to the President." It's good that he gets that. And it would be terrific if that would rub off on some of his colleagues. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee has proposed a Constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. It's perfectly understandable that people might find incongruity in a process that doesn't award the Presidency to the winner of the popular vote. But that complaint is a superficial one: People who don't understand the Electoral College don't understand Federalism. Right at the center of the Constitution is the idea that the individual states have meaning and importance and stature. The Senate isn't supposed to be proportional to population because the national government isn't supposed to be the end-all, be-all of our public life. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper No. 9, "The proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty, by allowing them a direct representation in the Senate, and leaves in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power." The Electoral College is an extension of the disproportionality of the Senate. There's nothing wrong with considering means for diminishing the disproportionality (for instance, by expanding the House of Representatives, which is an idea with considerable merits of its own), but a form of disproportionality is inevitable. And at the extremes, the numbers are attention-getting: Wyoming has about 578,000 people and three Electoral College votes; California has 39,557,000 people and 55 votes. That's 192,579 Wyomingites versus 719,218 Californians per EC vote. But that matters a lot if one thinks that the President is the most important person in America, with the power and the responsibility to impose policies on the country at large. But that's not a Constitutional orientation. The Constitution puts the legislative branch in Article I and the executive branch in Article II, and not by accident. The Constitutional sensibility perceives that anything worthy of national rule-making should begin either with a majority of the population (in the House) or a majority of the states' interests (in the Senate). Things are supposed to start in Congress and be carried out by the White House -- unless they're stupid ideas, in which case the President is supposed to use the veto power to stop them. The sickness in the system isn't the disproportionality of the Electoral College or the supposedly "undemocratic" nature of the Senate. Those exist by design. No, the sickness in the system is the Imperial Presidency. There are occasional acknowledgments of this problem -- as when Republicans talk about rolling back administrative regulations that never went through Congressional approval, or when Democrats insist that the White House be subject to investigation and other forms of accountability. But in the broadest sense, the notions that we should overhaul the Senate or toss out the Electoral College are tacit displays of fealty to a national government that grows too large for the health of the governments closer to the people. The states aren't subsidiaries of the government in Washington, DC. They exist before and prior to the national government -- both in the literal sense (recall that we had thirteen states and the Articles of Confederation before we had the Constitution) and in the figurative one (the very name of the country is "United States of America", in which the noun is "states"). The nation obtains its legitimacy from the authority granted to it by the citizens and by the states. It takes both forms of authority to make the country. Chipping away at the foundations of that relationship makes the country more volatile and makes the states weaker. And weak states cannot forever prop up a functioning Federal government.

Health Back-to-back triple-organ transplants

Two 29-year-olds have undergone triple transplants at the University of Chicago Medical Center: Heart, liver, and kidney. May we see (soon) the day when bioengineering permits us to generate our own organs in the lab, so we don't have to leave people waiting for donor organs.

Health Iowa records first flu-related fatality of 2019

"[A] middle aged (41-60 years of age) Eastern Iowa man, who had underlying conditions or contributing factors" -- which is a reminder why it's useful for healthy people to get flu vaccinations, especially if you come into contact with the very old, very young, or very sick.

Science and Technology Nothing grows faster than bamboo

Which seems to account for its reputation as an eco-friendly building material. Use the thing that grows fast and captures carbon quickly.

Humor and Good News Interior-decorating goals

John Dickerson shares photos of a gorgeous personal library setup

Humor and Good News Mazel tov!

One of the best phrases that has crossed over from Judaism into secular popular culture. Now, if only "mitzvah" (in the sense of doing a good deed, not the coming-of-age ritual) would make the same leap. It's a great word.

Threats and Hazards The President dismisses Syria as "sand and death"

But that definition is superficial and unfair. We don't have to know all the answers to all of the world's problems. But we have to at least try to frame the problems like decent human beings.

Business and Finance Federal Reserve independence: Planting the flag

At the American Economic Association conference, Jerome Powell said he wouldn't resign if the President asked. An insufficient number of people understand just how important central-bank independence is. If you want to trace most inflationary disasters back to their source, you'll find they start when politicians take direct control of the money supply.


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January 5, 2019

Broadcasting Show notes - Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - January 5, 2019

Live on WHO Radio at 2:00 pm Central Time

News For-profit college to forgo half a billion dollars in student debt

Virtually all of the nation's attorneys general have reached an agreement with Career Education Corp. to settle a dispute over practices that may have pressured or misled students into enrolling in programs both online and at physical campuses using what the AG offices deemed "unfair and deceptive practices". The company will write off about half a billion dollars in student debts as a result.


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January 6, 2019

News One-paragraph book review: "The World Until Yesterday", by Jared Diamond

The very good points of the book (which are summarized surprisingly concisely and well in the 14-page epilogue) drown in a sea of minutiae about the !Kung people and birdwatching in New Guinea.


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January 7, 2019

The United States of America A word or two on restraint

It's really not hard: Never claim powers for yourself that you wouldn't happily place in the hands of your opponents. Anyone who can't abide by that kind of regulation shouldn't come within fifteen city blocks of a position of political power in America.


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January 8, 2019

Threats and Hazards "I can do it if I want"

The overarching problem is that the President frames everything like a Manhattan real-estate transaction (two parties interacting in a deal lasting just one round, perhaps never to speak with one another again). In reality, the world is vastly more complex than that -- most importantly, almost nothing is excluded to two parties, and almost every interaction is part of a long chain of events (and people have memories). Deep down, it's less an ideological problem and more a game-theory problem.

Weather and Disasters 54-mph wind gusts in Iowa

When standing still takes the same effort as standing on top of a car going down a two-lane highway.

Humor and Good News Life hack for finding better friends

Anyone new in your orbit must have the immediate and adoring approval of at least one dog or one child under the age of 4. Both are better judges of character than most adults.


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January 9, 2019

The United States of America Realistic foreign policy demands a foundation in some kind of principle

Sen. Ben Sasse: "Our single greatest asset for realist foreign policy is the idealistic underpinnings and core of the fact that we are a nation that believes in universal human dignity."

News The Chrysler Building is up for sale

It's the best-looking building in Manhattan. Period. That doesn't make it a good or bad investment, per se, but it's a fact: The Chrysler Building radiates Art Deco from every square inch, and there's just nothing better in a tall building than that.

News Enforcing the laws already on the books

When people use the phrase "enforce the laws that are already on the books", they probably aren't thinking of some of the awful laws that are...already on the books. An example: The portion of Nebraska's state constitution that continues to permit slavery. That needs to be removed from the books, and it's a good example why we should pay better attention to the value of sunset provisions.

Business and Finance Liquor industry group surprised that legal marijuana hasn't hurt sales

Seems more like a beer-and-pretzels relationship than a guns-and-butter one. It's unclear why anyone really thought booze and weed were going to be competitors.


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January 10, 2019

News On walls and wheels

The President seems fixated on the idea that (border) walls and wheels are of similar vintage, which somehow imbues them in his mind with a sort of co-validity. Of course, defensive walls weren't used around every ancient city. Maybe that's because they were peaceful. Maybe it's because walls failed the cost/benefit test. A wall is a pretty expensive investment for something that can't be moved, can't adapt to changing threats, and can't do much to protect you once it's been breached. We shouldn't assume that the people who lived many generations before us didn't know how to do things (like cost/benefit analysis) just because they didn't always have our modern words to describe them.

Threats and Hazards The "Belt and Road" battle ahead

David Rennie: "It's a contest of models, and the liberal, democratic world is too tired and inward-looking to compete". An utterly depressing conclusion -- but not without merit. We're making choices right now (deliberately or by inaction) that are going to have consequences for the shape of our world in the next quarter- to half-century.

News Attentive Milwaukee bus driver rescues lost toddler from imminent danger

Most people are basically decent


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January 11, 2019

The United States of America Nobody is born civilized

In light of the latest insulting, degrading, and plainly stupid remarks on race and civilization from Rep. Steve King, a reminder from nearly two years ago (in response to previous stupidity from the Congressman): Civilization isn't genetic; it's earned and kept through hard work. If you think civilization is all in the genes, you'll neglect the important work of its maintenance. America works because we work at it. Rep. King wants to pretend like his comments are just a "mistake", but not a "mistake" when you keep doing something over and over: It's a bad decision. The good to come out of "Western Civilization" is mainly a result of its commitment to getting better -- to self-examination and improvement. Rep. King is long overdue to make himself a better person.

Business and Finance Individual income taxes pay for about half of the Federal government

Add in the taxes taken out for entitlement spending, and it's more than three quarters

News Michael Bloomberg doesn't do fair fights

He says he would fund his own campaign if he were to run for President in 2020. And that's consistent with a line from his autobiography: "[T]he likelihood that we will prevail five times in a row in a fair fight is only about 3 percent. We don't want fair fights. We want to go into contests with an advantage."

Humor and Good News A Peeps factory tour

Sounds a bit like finding the Golden Ticket to see Willy Wonka


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January 12, 2019

Threats and Hazards FBI opened counterintelligence investigation into President Trump

Once in a while, a truly stunning story breaks. This one requires multiple readings. And not because it sounds like overreach -- but because the threat sounds so plausible. And the President's incapacity to plainly deny the risk is astonishing.

Business and Finance "Don't sign a petition. Buy a subscription."

Maine newspaper converts comments from author Stephen King into a subscription drive

Computers and the Internet Kindle app on Android phones now scrolls books like web pages

On the hierarchy of media, paper books or e-ink (like the Kindle) are still better than reading from a smartphone screen. But this is a big new advantage in favor of the phone. And whatever makes it easier to read more books is surely a good thing, no?

The United States of America "Western civilization's greatness lies [...] in the universality of its message."

A well-worded commentary from John Podhoretz. Civilization isn't something you're born with; it's something you learn. Anyone who thinks it's an entitlement of birth or genes doesn't understand civilization at all.


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January 13, 2019

News Mind your business, America

Kori Schake: "The good news is that America’s problems are largely within its ability to fix; the bad news is there is little sign Americans are interested in fixing them."

Humor and Good News A perfect 10

UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi puts on a spectacular display of athleticism


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January 14, 2019

Socialism Doesn't Work Looking out over the (Berlin) Wall

The Communist world built walls to keep people in against their will

The United States of America Congress, supreme

Deep Constitutional nerdery meets one of the most vexing problems of the present political day in a piece from Jay Cost, who rightly notes that the Article I branch of the government comes first for a reason -- since it's the wellspring of government by the consent of the governed

Iowa What to eat in Des Moines? Anything, really.

A profile in "Food and Wine" illustrates a pleasurable fact of life in Des Moines: If you can't find more restaurants to love here than any reasonable person could patronize, you're just not paying attention.


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January 15, 2019

Threats and Hazards UK Parliament rejects Brexit deal

The whole Brexit affair seems like a perfect example of the problem of deciding "We hate this; let's get rid of it" without also deciding "When we get rid of this, what comes after it?" Sure, it's clear that among the English (not so much among the Scots or the Northern Irish), there was substantial public disappointment with the EU. But as it was put in Federalist 49, "The danger of disturbing the public tranquility by interesting too strongly the public passions, is a still more serious objection against a frequent reference of constitutional questions to the decision of the whole society."

Threats and Hazards New York Times: "Trump discussed pulling U.S. from NATO, aides say"

Absent any other evidence of his behavior, this alone would represent a serious national security threat. As Margaret Thatcher said, "A nation can be free but it will not stay free for long if it has no friends and no alliances." But it's even more alarming considering the President's other displays of reckless talk and action, erratic decision-making, and suspiciously docile behavior in the presence of Vladimir Putin. Deterrence and alliances depend on psychology as much as on treaties.

The United States of America The President deserves a primary challenger

A look at five people who could contest the Republican Presidential nomination for 2020: Senator Mitt Romney, Secretary Jim Mattis, Governor John Kasich, Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Senator Jeff Flake. He also deserves a challenge from people like Senator Bob Corker or Senator Ben Sasse. The nomination should not be handed again to President Trump. It should be vigorously contested by someone with character and a sense of honor. Stephen F. Hayes offers a robust argument on behalf of a primary challenge, on the grounds that without it, "the 2020 presidential election will almost certainly pass without voters hearing a coherent case for limited government."

News Run for the mountains

Someone shared a mockup of an "Amy Klobuchar for President 2020" logo, and social media ran away with it. But the materials include some allusions to mountains, which Klobuchar's home state of Minnesota doesn't have. In fact, if you'd gotten in your car in Minneapolis and started driving west, in seven hours you STILL wouldn't even have made it to Wall Drug, much less to a mountain.


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January 16, 2019

News A little "light treason"?

Rudy Giuliani is taking to television to defend (?) the President, and nothing he says inspires serious confidence. People keep saying that reality is too much like "Veep", but it seems more like we're just watching a nefarious real-life version of "Arrested Development".

News Publius, 2019

Rap artist Cardi B has a very not-safe-for-work rant about the government shutdown, viewed millions of times in less than a single day. It's unlikely that the same number of people will read, say, the Federalist Papers this year -- so what does that say about our self-government? Should we expect more nose-in-the-books behavior, or are off-the-cuff celebrity video rants the new standard?

News Super data visualization

A German commuter knitted a scarf to illustrate how often her travels were delayed -- two rows of yarn per day. It's a tremendously clever idea.

News Judge them by their words

Here's a test: Judge politicians and candidates by how much their speeches differ from the typical laundry list of utterly unfulfillable promises made by kids campaigning for student council. A whole lot of them fail by that yardstick. Then don't hesitate to hold them accountable for the "good behavior" that James Madison wrote about.

Humor and Good News Someone found Joe Biden's dream board

A fake edition of the Washington Post is apparently floating around DC


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January 17, 2019

Threats and Hazards President Trump denies use of military aircraft to Speaker Pelosi

Pelosi was scheduled to go to Afghanistan, but the President (almost certainly in retaliation for the dispute over whether he will be permitted to give the State of the Union address during the Federal government shutdown) has denied her the use of military aircraft to go there. This is a particularly sticky situation, because the Department of Defense is fully budgeted and isn't shut down. Moreover, there's a big Constitutional problem with the Article II branch of government denying access to government resources to the Article I branch...for basically any reason whatsoever. Congress is the wellspring of all further legitimacy in national government -- remember, they can fire the President but the President can't fire them. The tools of the government, then, ultimately "belong" to Congress first -- including the military. They not only have the power to set the budget (Article I, Section 7), but they also have sole power to declare war (Article I, Section 8). In other words, Congress isn't just equal, in many important regards, it is supreme. Whether you like the Speaker of the House or not, the interests of that entire branch of government are very much the interests of the American public. As Calvin Coolidge put it, "[The Founders] placed all their public officers under constitutional limitations. [...] They were very apprehensive that the executive might seek to exercise arbitrary powers."

Threats and Hazards Buzzfeed report: "President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress"

If true (and it's an exclusive report for now), it's a spectacularly big story. The story says that "two sources have told BuzzFeed News that Cohen also told the special counsel that after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie". That would be to suborn perjury, which is a massively bad thing to do (and the kind of thing that brought down Richard Nixon).

The American Way Jack Bogle was the real capitalist revolutionary

Forget Che Guevara. Put the face of Jack Bogle on your t-shirt instead.

Business and Finance Omaha Public Schools face $771 million pension shortfall

And they're not even close to being alone on this. Probably no one truly understands the scope and scale of public-sector pension shortfalls in America today. They're all over the country, and they're huge. They are not just contractual obligations, either: They are tied to enormous political risk, too, since public-sector workers (and especially their unions) are extremely powerful in politics.

News Should cities clear snow-covered sidewalks instead of property owners?

If the sidewalk is considered a part of the broader transportation system, then perhaps it should become a municipal responsibility. Otherwise, the results may be simply too haphazard for the safety of anyone who needs to travel by foot.

Threats and Hazards Getting the right perspective on risk

We live in an age when stores offer "extended warranty protection" on a $14 computer mouse, but meanwhile, the Medicare Hospital Insurance trust fund is just seven years away from total depletion.

Health A few notes on vestigial structures

There are some weird things left over in the human body that we don't use anymore, and it's not just the appendix


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January 18, 2019

News "I am now convinced that only a real crisis can cure this 21st-century fantasy of crisis."

Disaster without a plan isn't a good thing. Ever.

Business and Finance Is $15 an hour enough?

A New York Times columnist, noting the city's new $15-an-hour minimum-wage law, suggests that the self-sustaining wage in the city is more like $33 an hour. The essence of the problem is that even if true, that number can hardly be imposed by law without consequence. German has a lot of great words for complex matters. Can we find and co-opt into English their word for "I am sympathetic to what you want, but the way you want to get there is complete lunacy and will never achieve that goal"?

Business and Finance Starting with the man in the mirror

There really is nothing less threatening to anyone with a healthy self-image than Gillette's new commercial focusing on a theme of rejecting toxic behavior by males. It appears they're tacitly acknowledging that their longstanding "The Best a Man Can Get" campaigns may have sometimes lapsed into reinforcing stereotypes that needed to go. Nothing wrong with a little voluntary corporate responsibility. It's reminiscent of the Michael Jackson song "Man in the Mirror": When a man shaves, he literally faces the man in the mirror, and it is to Gillette's credit that they're willing to make something of that moment in a way that isn't universally popular.

News Supreme Court justices in the off-season

Justice Clarence Thomas "will co-teach a two-week Supreme Court class with Creighton law professor Michael Fenner" in Omaha in the next several days. One might kid that the shutdown has gotten so bad, Supreme Court justices are having to pick up adjunct teaching jobs.

News "I've got to just do the right thing"

How House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy decided to punish Rep. Steve King. Rep. King remains obstinately unrepentant, even though his antics -- part of a long pattern of behavior -- cost Iowa a literal seat at the table due to his removal from the Agriculture Committee (fortunately an absence rectified by the appointment of Rep. Cindy Axne to the committee).

News One-paragraph book review: "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up"

Discount the prescriptions, but consider the overall diagnosis

Iowa A truly mobile office

Putting luxury chairs, Wi-Fi, and a TV in a van as a high-end transportation service

News Prince Philip flipped his Land Rover

He's 97 years old. Every family seems, sooner or later, to be forced into a conversation about when it's finally time to take the keys away from a senior family member. And all too often, it doesn't happen until a serious crash.


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