Gongol.com Archives: February 2019

Brian Gongol

February 2019
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February 1, 2019

News The floodgates have opened on 2020

A squadron of candidates have suddenly announced real intentions of running for President -- Sen. Cory Booker (announced Feb. 1), Sen. Kamala Harris (Jan. 27), Pete Buttigieg (Jan. 23), and...maybe...Sen. Sherrod Brown. But Brown may need to work on his elevator pitch: The Des Moines Register captures him telling an Iowa audience "I don't know yet" when asked what makes him different as a candidate. You, too, may be a candidate for President and perhaps you just don't know it yet. Of note: Among the prominent names we've heard in (or near) the crowded Democratic field, only Hickenlooper and Bullock have experience as governors. Only Bloomberg and Castro have experience as big-city mayors. This could make a real difference in the end: Elected-executive experience matters, as routinely demonstrated by the shortcomings of POTUS 45 (and POTUS 44).

News There's no excuse for only using half our brains

Women and men (and boys and girls) need to spend time doing constructive, merit-based work together.

Business and Finance Federal Reserve sticks with stable interest rates

They're still targeting 2.25% to 2.5% for the federal funds rate, with perceptions that inflation is at 2%. By historical standards, that remains an insanely low real rate of inflation. The Fed says the flat interest rate choice is made "In light of global economic and financial developments and muted inflation pressures" -- which is the kind of thing you usually hear with someone audibly clearing their throat. What could possibly go wrong right now...other than Brexit, another government shutdown, trade wars, or a bad POTUS tweet?

Humor and Good News What city would your hero build?

Benjamin Franklin's charter city: Libraries everywhere, walkable access to science museums, and cutting-edge fire protection. Also, probably a lot of pubs. Maybe that's something for us to think about today.

Iowa Winter calculus

Winter in Iowa is just one long calculus equation, in which you try to decide which coat to wear based on the number of minutes you'll spend outside, how many of those minutes will be in the sun, and how quickly you'll overheat once you get indoors.

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February 2, 2019

The United States of America Chicago has a team of Good Samaritans

After a propane tank exploded at a homeless encampment near downtown, first responders confiscated a whole bunch of the tanks (out of concern for safety), but that would have left dozens of people literally out in the cold. Their other option was to go to a shelter, but a group of South Side business owners stepped up and provided a few days of hotel lodging for about 100 people.

Health Overdosed ibuprofen recalled from Walmart, CVS, and Family Dollar stores

The company says the doses may be about 10% higher than listed.

Aviation News Gamble of the century for Boeing

Should they build a 797 that could cannibalize parts of their lucrative 737 and 787 ranges? If they don't, will Airbus eat their lunch?

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February 6, 2019

News Who wants to be governor of Virginia?

The political avalanche of the last few days exposes a cultural problem: We might not be structuring our political incentives and systems to send the most desirable people to office. As Bill Gates said in 2016 about running for President: "I wouldn't be good at doing what you need to do to get elected." There should be little to no doubt that someone of Gates's ability would be up to the task -- especially if he were to spend time in elected-executive office at the state level (as a governor, preferably). But the way we treat politics may be a significant disincentive to getting the best people into office, and that has social costs. It's a problem not easily solved.

News Maybe we need a partisan press again

Newspapers used to be nakedly and unabashedly partisan, which is why Iowa has newspapers with names like "Marshalltown Times-Republican" and "Bloomfield Democrat". It's historically illiterate to suggest otherwise. What we see today are partisans who object to the framing of stories they do or don't like, and that is more a reflection of the "receiver" than the "sender" (in the widely-accepted model of communications). But it's also inescapable that editorial choices (forced by various forms of scarcity -- like the scarcity of room on the front page, or of letters in a headline, or of time to cover the news in a 30-minute broadcast) will reflect judgment calls, and those judgment calls are informed by the sender's understanding of the world. So when people who want the world framed in ways that are favorable to them encounter framing choices that they don't like, it could reflect bias (on the part of either the sender or the receiver), or it could simply reflect incongruity in how different people see the same world.

Broadcasting Channel-surfing mode

Netflix and Hulu are great, but they really need a channel-surfing mode. The joy of stumbling across "Ferris Bueller" or "The Big Lebowski" somewhere in the second act just can't be fully replicated on-demand. Serendipity still counts for something.

Weather and Disasters NASA offers a pretty unambiguous take on climate change

When they say "Since the 1880s, the average global surface temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit", it's pretty hard to dispute that something is going on. But agreeing on the facts and agreeing on the diagnosis don't guarantee that we'll agree on the prescription.

Computers and the Internet Is email superior to an in-person meeting?

It is if the other person is going to blow off the meeting -- that's for sure. Email still seems in many ways like the "fast" way to do things -- especially if there's any follow-up required. Unless the other person is guaranteed to have the information you need right now, the beautiful asynchronicity of email seems much more time-efficient than other choices. But maybe that's a Generation X bias talking.

News Woman gives birth, unassisted, on a Chicago CTA bus

No medical professionals on board -- just mom and her husband

Threats and Hazards Stop "nutpicking"

The phrase, in the words of Sen. Ben Sasse, describes what happens when "people scour the news to find a random person saying or doing something really dumb, and then use that nutjob to disparage an entire group of people, as if the nut is representative." This behavior is a mainstay of lazy broadcast and online opinion-making, and it's rewarded when audiences fail to demand better. When people feed their brains nothing but their own confirmation bias, it's the mental equivalent of taking up a diet based on potato chips.

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February 7, 2019

Business and Finance You can't fight global warming with inflationary hot air

The "Green New Deal" package being floated by left-wingers in Congress includes a massive amount of new government management of the economy, and the supposed promises are all supposed to be payable via a cockamamie scheme that falsely purports to pay for itself. "Green New Deal" promises have to be viewed in the same way as promised "multiplier effects" from publicly-funded sports facilities. It's easy to offer rosy payback forecasts -- but when public dollars are at stake, debts are real even when hopes aren't. Decide what you want, limit those wants as much as possible, then pay for it all.

News It's hard to debate without the right language

We need a shorthand way to discuss the differences we have with others, depending on the source of disagreement: Is it a difference of facts? A difference of goals? A difference of solutions? It would be really helpful at breaking us out of the "I'm right/You're stupid" binary to which so many people seem to be addicted.

Broadcasting The greatest Cold War movie is "Dr. Strangelove"

There were countless great Cold War movies -- "Hunt for Red October" was certainly one of them, as are "Fail Safe" and "Seven Days in May", among many others. But "Dr Strangelove" was not only brilliant in its own right, its exploration of game theory and deterrence remains 100% relevant even today. Peter Sellers is brilliant (playing three parts), and George C. Scott is positively inspired as General Buck Turgidson.


February 8, 2019

Humor and Good News "Ignatian yoga"

The name suggests that you get into a Sphinx pose, then a Jesuit walks across your back.

Computers and the Internet Google pulls the plug on Fiber in Louisville

One of their test markets will lose Google's super-high-speed Internet service in just over two months, on April 15th. Google says the entire Louisville network would have to be rebuilt to fix a persistent problem with the physical cables. It's not uncharacteristic of Google to simply pull the plug on a project, and the company's ever-growing legacy of leaving projects high and dry surely must give prospective paying customers (of things like its business services) some serious second thoughts about trusting the company with any mission-critical services. This falls hot on the heels of them killing Google Plus.


February 9, 2019

Computers and the Internet Microsoft officially begs you to stop using Internet Explorer

From their "Windows IT Pro Blog", a request that IT people stop letting their users surf the Internet with MSIE, because it's not being kept up to date

News The stupidest of arguments

A man is suing his parents for giving birth to him without his consent. This peculiar philosophy -- "anti-natalism" -- seems to be one of the stupidest forms of nihilism.

News Millions of cars added to Takata airbag recall

Subaru, Volkswagen, and others are now involved

News Sen. Elizabeth Warren announces Presidential run

It's certainly not unexpected -- and she's made every sign she's going to push for the left-hand side of the economic spectrum. It was just this past August when she proposed her "Accountable Capitalism Act", which contained a handful of interesting ideas and a whole slew of terrible ones that ignore the fundamentals of how an economy works.

Business and Finance Is Amazon really reconsidering putting HQ2 in New York?

It could be true. It could also just be a negotiating tactic.

Threats and Hazards The White House is answerable to Congress, even when it tries not to answer

The Senate sent the Executive Branch a request for a report on the Saudi Arabian government's responsibility for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. He was killed on October 2nd, and the Senate requested the report (with a 120-day deadline) on October 10th. It's now overdue. And it should be a reminder than the President is accountable to Congress, not the other way around. The Executive Branch doesn't get to say "No" just because it doesn't like what it's been told to do.

News National Pizza Day

There's a holiday for everything -- at least everything with a marketing person and a hashtag behind it

News A tabloid war with one of the wealthiest people in the world

Jeff Bezos (of Amazon fame) has declared war on the National Enquirer

Socialism Doesn't Work Decide what you want, limit those wants, then pay for them in full

The proponents of "Modern Monetary Theory" make convoluted arguments that boil down to "deficits don't matter, because the government can just print more money". The fundamental problem with this is that the bill always comes due -- even if you try to bury it with inflation.

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February 21, 2019

News "These were deliberate choices."

The words of the judge hitting Roger Stone with a gag order are really the words of 2019 in a nutshell. Lots of good people feel demoralized by the seemingly non-stop parade of stupid events in the news. And almost every one of those news stories comes back to someone making deliberate choices. People need to keep the faith (even though it's hard) that consequences will eventually catch up to people deliberately making bad choices. But this is also why it's up to all of us to beat back the clowns (of all stripes) who say that the ends justify the means. The right process matters rather equally with the right result. Anyone who doesn't uphold that belief contributes to ruining the world as we know it. It's not worth getting to the destination you want if the driver chooses to go 100 miles an hour in the wrong direction on the highway in order to get you there. A little bit of humility would suggest that none of us are going to get everything we want out of political processes in a democratic system. Thus, the destination will almost always be a little different than what we wanted. Better to get there the right way, at least.

Humor and Good News Engineering Week starts at home

And it ends there, too

Science and Technology On the radio: Rise of the (snow) machines

We have automatic dishwashers and clothes washers, furnaces controlled automatically by thermostats, and automatic sprinkler systems. So why are people still so opposed to using robots to do manual chores?

Weather and Disasters

A school roof collapsed in Waterloo

Iowa Cedar Rapids will take another stab at a city flag

Their current municipal flag is...not good. Someone at the city ought to spend a little time browsing Japanese prefectural flags for inspiration.


February 22, 2019

Business and Finance Even well-intended economic-development incentives can go bad

Memphis, Tennessee, offered a whole lot of incentives to Electrolux to get the company to build a plant there. But when tariffs and the Sears bankruptcy shook the appliance market, Electrolux concluded the plant was no longer viable. What are the state, county, and city -- which together contributed well over $100 million in cash to the project -- supposed to do to make themselves whole? Economic-development incentives are inevitably a gamble on private outcomes, using public dollars. You may have very high confidence in your bet, but it's still a gamble.

Computers and the Internet Twitter: The powerful tool that newcomers have no idea how to use

The number of obstacles they continue to throw in the way of the novice user -- after more than a decade in operation, and with every news outlet on the globe marketing their service -- is utterly baffling. Wall Street Journal tech columnist Christopher Mims notes that his tech-savvy sibling can't figure out how to reply. Many others are undoubtedly repelled by the site's insistence on making people register to get more than a superficial look at what's happening inside the Twittersphere. It's really quite crazy for the service to have lasted this long with such important flaws.

News The author of his own obituary

A New York man wrote his own self-effacing obituary as a plea to others to stop smoking: "At 66 years old, I lived a decent life, but there are so many events and milestones I will not be able to share with my loved ones. The moral of this story - don't be an idiot. If you're a smoker - quit"

Weather and Disasters The weather forecast is a roadkill buffet

In one 24-hour stretch, Des Moines is forecast to get (in order) sleet, freezing rain, rain, thunderstorms, more rain, then snow.

Science and Technology On the radio: Farewell to the little rover that could

In tribute to Opportunity

News What should someone study in school?

In college, pursue two different majors -- preferably in fields that don't generally overlap. Ideally, one "hard" and one "soft", like a physical science and a liberal art, or a business program and a social science. Well-roundedness is a virtue.

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February 25, 2019

The United States of America Atomic centrism

A name for those who believe in the primacy of a central set of rules, norms, and principles around which people of different ideologies and policy preferences can orbit (like electrons bound to a nucleus).

Threats and Hazards Shocking, but not surprising

The immediate past Federal Reserve chair doesn't think the President understands the Fed's impact on the economy

Weather and Disasters Clear a path to your fire hydrant

A wintertime responsibility to one's neighborhood that many people probably don't realize is on their shoulders.

News Cell service has gone 4G. Should war?

Definitely worth reading: "Social media marketing professionals, consumer psychologists, economists and bankers, may all need to become fourth-generation warriors in the fourth generation of warfare."

Iowa Boondocks truck stop will re-open with an Indian restaurant

An unexpected dining option along a thinly-populated stretch of I-35

News Your policies don't matter

The policy proposals of the (seemingly) 15,000 people running for President right now don't amount to a hill of beans. What ultimately matters is whether we elect a President with sound judgment, curiosity, humility, and an even temper. Someone who can handle the unexpected. That's being put on full display this week, as the unexpected pops up everywhere.

Weather and Disasters Re-opening I-35 took interstate cooperation

Iowa and Minnesota had to work out the schedule to re-open so that neither state got hit with a slug of traffic before they were ready

Threats and Hazards "I would maybe think twice [about] what I would tell her"

A daughter of Vladimir Putin's spokesperson works in the European Union parliament. Can we talk about opsec for a minute?

Humor and Good News Public transit textile patterns: Who's picking these things?

A really deep dive into something that's not particularly important. But interesting anyway.

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February 26, 2019

Computers and the Internet Yet another round of alarm: Now, it's the "Momo Challenge"

Maybe this particular phenomenon is a real threat, maybe it isn't. But it highlights the problem that YouTube, the way it operates now, cannot possibly take the amount of responsibility that it ought to take for the content posted on it. Here is a modest proposal for moderating YouTube content: Require any new video to receive 3 to 5 "endorsements" from verified, individual users before it goes public. If you endorse something that violates guidelines, you lose the right to endorse or post for yourself. Nobody, at present, has any incentive to moderate the "community". This would put skin in the game. Given the psychological toll it appears to put on content moderators to troll the Internet all day policing for the bad, it's well past time for services like YouTube to think about imposing accountable systemic restraint. The government shouldn't impose prior restraint on speech, but content vectors like YouTube and Facebook quite likely should do so.

News Amb. Madeline Albright offers belated apology to Sen. Mitt Romney

He was mocked in 2012 for seeing much of what troubles us in 2019. Kudos to Ambassador Albright for doing the right and civil thing.

Threats and Hazards Why Republicans should reject baseless claims of "emergency" power

If you're only skeptical of government power when other people have it, then you're not really skeptical of government power: You just want it for yourself. This would be a very good time for Republicans in Congress to show that they're for limited government ALL the time.

Iowa Traffic and weather together

Daryl Herzmann put together an animation of the radar signature and the Iowa DOT road conditions report from the latest storm. And it tells a story quite elegantly. We can always count on Herzmann to produce the Iowa weather visualization we didn't know we needed.

Weather and Disasters The "Accumulated Winter-Season Severity Index" says it's been a rotten one in Iowa

As with driving a car, it's not just the speed but the acceleration that counts. Not only are we teetering on the brink of "extreme", basically ALL of the terrible weather has happened since mid-January. It was super-mild up until then, so winter has been both painful and abrupt. In fairness, though, maybe better to have loved and lost a milder winter, than never to have loved at all.

Threats and Hazards Conflict between Pakistan and India could turn out very badly

Two nuclear powers with a longstanding grudge: The kind of thing that ought to make bigger headlines than a dictator showing off his entourage. But it's the President who's meeting with Kim Jong-Un in Vietnam, so that's where everyone seems focused.

Business and Finance MMT: Not much "theory" there

Until someone has written down a definitive statement of principles, it's a fool's game to identify yourself with a "movement". See also: Party, Tea. A "movement" that lacked written principles or accountable leaders that turned into a boondoggle for a few political opportunists (who named themselves the leaders) and a resulting mess of confusion.

Humor and Good News Hear, hear, Jon Lester

The Cubs pitcher says he doesn't like a 20-second pitch clock, and he's against adding the designated hitter to the National League. He's right: The DH is still an abomination and pitch clocks are dumb.

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February 27, 2019

News Who's our person in Pakistan?

With tensions high between Pakistan and India, who's there on America's behalf? India is the world's second-largest country by population. Pakistan is the sixth-largest.

News "Modesty compels me to refrain from disclosing my performance in school"

Not likely the words or justification used by the President to, as Michael Cohen testified, "to threaten his high school, his colleges, and the College Board to never release his grades or SAT scores."

Threats and Hazards Visit North Korea's bomb museum from the comfort of home

The Nuclear Threat Initiative has posted a 3D virtual model of a North Korean weapons-production facility, filled with models of the country's various weapons of the bomb and missile variety. It's a little glib to say "And be sure to visit the gift shop!", but the model is really well-done and is certainly the closest thing any ordinary person will ever encounter to a real weapons lab.


February 28, 2019

News China's hearts-and-minds campaign for high-potential ethnic minorities

The Economist reports on a program that has taken hundreds of thousands of students from places like Tibet and Xinjiang and shipped them off to boarding schools in places where the Han ethnic group is in the majority: "The programme's apparent aim is to win the support of elites in restive frontier areas and give the brightest ethnic-minority children more exposure to Han culture." There are inescapable parallels with the Canadian residential school system, which sought to force assimilation upon First Nations children, and the sins of which are a source of real lasting harm in Canada today.

Weather and Disasters Australia's awful summer was predicted

The country has experienced an extremely hot summer, and one of its premier scientific organizations points out that they think the conditions are consistent with predictions they made about climate change some 30 years ago.

Threats and Hazards A $22 trillion national debt is everyone's problem

Bills come due in the real world. We're not at risk of turning insolvent, but we are decidedly at risk of creating systemic instability that will become costly.

Weather and Disasters Pacific Gas and Electric "probably" responsible for Camp Fire

The fire caused enormous damage and killed dozens of people. The company appears to suspect that it will be found responsible, due to evidence that points at a transmission line failure. They can say they're looking at other high-risk facilities, but what, systemically, keeps this from happening again?

Weather and Disasters The ice dams are growing out of control

And Iowa could be in for some substantial flooding when all the ice and snow finally melt

Health Record-setting preemie goes home

Delivered at 24 weeks of gestation, he weighed 9.45 ounces. Zero pounds, 9.45 ounces. Truly remarkable progress by medical science in evidence here.

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