Gongol.com Archives: May 2019

Brian Gongol

May 2019
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May 1, 2019

News Joe Biden: On the hunt since '78

No, really: His interest in the Oval Office has been public knowledge since Carter was President. That's no judgment on whether he's suited for the job, just an observation that he's visibly wanted it for a long, long time.

Threats and Hazards "Civilizational warfare" is just nonsense

The idea that an epic clash between the United States and China is somehow culturally inevitable forgets some really important evidence. To wit: Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Read "The Imperial Cruise" by James Bradley, and come to appreciate that there is a long and misguided history of treating the western Pacific as too remote and exotic for peaceful coexistence with "the West". Unfortunately, the narrative is oversimplified and altogether too satisfying for those who depend on having an "other" in order to have a self-identity. And when those types are in power, that puts our well-being in danger.

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May 2, 2019

News "An alleged Russian spy whale is refusing to leave a Norwegian port city"

As Dan Drezner put it, "Season Three of 'Occupied' is getting pretty weird." If you haven't watched "Occupied", do see it immediately.

The United States of America Send in the governors!

Montana Governor Steve Bullock is planning to enter the 2020 Presidential race

The United States of America Humankind's greatest treasure

Dwight Eisenhower: "We believe individual liberty, rooted in human dignity, is man's greatest treasure. We believe that men, given free expression of their will, prefer freedom and self-dependence to dictatorship and collectivism." Of note: This vision of America as a place and an idea worth keeping because of what we believe -- not how strong we fantasize ourselves to be -- is well worth reviving. Better for us to be a redoubt of goodness in the world than to bluster thunderously about our greatness while neglecting our national soul.

Business and Finance What could Berkshire Hathaway buy?

With well over $100 billion in ready cash, the company could buy just about any other business most people could imagine. But, please, not at the expense of becoming undisciplined.

Business and Finance "If something is worth having, it's worth paying for"

We are in grave danger of using every possible (unjustified) justification for over-spending and under-taxing, right past the point where the Federal debt is utterly unsustainable.

Threats and Hazards "Trump followed with a tweet celebrating his current steel tariffs"

His simple-minded adherence to ham-fisted economic policies (like tariffs on basic materials) is insulting to the world and damaging to the economy. His abject refusal to listen to the counsel of the Senate on this issue is indicative of a mind so set in its ways that it has none of the flexibility required to handle serious challenges in real time.


May 3, 2019

Science and Technology Are electric scooters worth the head injuries?

A study in Austin, Texas, found a rate of 20 individuals injured per 100,000 electric scooter trips taken, and that "Almost half of the injured riders in this study sustained an injury to the head." Almost nobody wears helmets on the scooters, which travel up to 15 mph. While "micro-mobility" might very well help to alleviate conventional road traffic, it's not cost-free if it results in a head injury for every 10,000 rides taken. Maybe that's an acceptable level of risk, but it's an unintended consequence that has to be considered. Always expect unintended consequences.

Humor and Good News What kind of nut turns a muscle car into a limousine?

Who on God's green Earth looks at a Dodge Challenger and thinks, "How can I make this thing slower and harder to maneuver?"

The United States of America Ceteris paribus, we ought to make Presidents out of governors

With the word spreading that the governor of Montana will be one of the next to put his hat in the ring for President, an observation: The Oval Office doesn't come with a simulator, so from a temperamental and practical standpoint, almost any governor enters the job with better on-the-job training than anyone else. There's no better apprenticeship for the Presidency than to be a governor, since it is after all the same role but at a smaller scale. Close seconds would be those who have served as Vice President (assuming they participated actively in the actual administration of the other Presidency) or as mayor of a very large city (since some of our largest cities are administratively larger than some of our smaller states).

Computers and the Internet Facebook tests a "secret crush" tool

There are ample reasons to wonder about the wisdom of this tool -- the prospects for bullying, the risk of inadvertent exposure, and so on -- but from a cultural standpoint, the biggest worry ought to be that people are too afraid of rejection. It's good to be comfortable with hearing the word "No". If everyone's so gun-shy about being rejected (romantically or otherwise), when will anyone but a handful of nuts ever embark on ventures that just might not work?

News Pay for your wants

There are millions of infrastructure projects quite legitimately worth doing. They are worth doing for their own sake, and worth spending prudently to have. But much of real infrastructure goes unseen and unheralded because it's not "roads and bridges". At the state and local level, bonding very reasonably amortizes costs over the long term -- but those bonds are specific. They aren't vague materializations of promises for "stimulus", which too often animate "infrastructure" talks at the national level.


May 4, 2019

Computers and the Internet Long overdue, Facebook and Instagram demote a few dopes

A few propagandists and conspiracy theorists who exploit loopholes in the social-media structures are being throttled on Facebook and Instagram. Infowars is getting booted rather broadly from both platforms, while Alex Jones, Louis Farrakhan, and others are being personally banned from the platforms. Social-media sites simply cannot be neutral conduits for content; they have to make choices about what content is appropriate for delivery. Broad deference to individual freedom ought to be the norm, but the services cannot long survive pretending like they aren't making choices about what suits the communitities they're trying to create. If they don't, they can't really take advantage of network effects, and without network effects, social networks fail.

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May 6, 2019

Threats and Hazards What Chinese police are surveilling is astonishing

Human beings have an inherent right to be left alone. Some governments choose to infringe on that right. And they're not satisfied to keep to themselves: Note the data point that the People's Daily is broadly targeting American users of Twitter with ads. When a state propaganda arm pays money to reach out to you, that's not innocuous.

News Some important words on the new British royal baby

Ebony Renee Baker writes: "I'm still worried about how this biracial babe will navigate their identity while under such intense public scrutiny, because even though this baby has not even been born yet, it's still facing one of the most frustrating burdens faced by mixed race people: fetishization."

Humor and Good News The passive voice is dumb

Sometimes the passive voice is necessary, but the whole "unto this woman was born a child" thing used to announce the birth of the new royal baby sure makes it sound like someone else did all the work.

Humor and Good News Artist to watch: Christone "Kingfish" Ingram

Seeing him perform alongside Buddy Guy is like watching a religious investiture

Humor and Good News How specific must you be about where you live?

Only as specific as your audience can handle, really.

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May 7, 2019

News US deploys B-52 bombers to CentCom region

Of important note: We have not had a Senate-confirmed Secretary of Defense for more than 125 days.

Weather and Disasters More Missouri River crests coming

Secondary crests are just insult heaped upon injury.

Agriculture Iowa is the biggest egg state in the US

Iowa's position as the dominant egg producer in the country is probably the least-known major factoid about our state -- to Iowans and non-Iowans alike.

News Canada to exonerate Cree chief, 130 years after wrongful treason conviction

Many of us history grew up with the idea that history was fixed in place, like something carved in granite. What happened may be unchanging, but how it was documented, reported, and interpreted does change -- and often should.

Humor and Good News The Lenten beer diet

Make it whiskey and we might have a deal.

Weather and Disasters 10" rains hit Houston

These rainfall totals are stunning, and the impact is magnified dramatically when they fall on urban surfaces. Believe in climate change or not (or believe that it has anthropogenic origins or not), but it seems pretty clear that extreme weather events are happening in excess of the statistics of the past, and urbanization compounds the effects.

Iowa Higher traffic loads follow I-235 expansion

It seems to be a classic case of induced demand

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May 8, 2019

News A peek at Charlie Munger's bookshelf

A truly happy place would be one where the people entrusted to make decisions in Washington are as dedicated to reading as Charlie Munger. Or, really, where they're dedicated to any of Munger's other tools for reducing errors and misjudgments. He's a modern-day acolyte of Ben Franklin: Dedicated not so much to an ideology, philosophy, or theology, as to a relentless pursuit of better ways to do things, think about the world, and live life.

Iowa Iowa DOT reopens I-29 far ahead of schedule

Flooding wiped out dozens of miles of roadway. The workers involved deserve enormous credit for fixing a giant problem so swiftly.

Business and Finance What does the Uber IPO really say?

Economist Jodi Beggs suggests it's "basically a bet that they can figure out driverless cars before drivers figure out depreciation". She's probably right. And that's why you study economics. It won't magically teach you how to become rich. But it will definitely teach you how to frame human behavior in a useful way no other field of study will -- at least not within the framework of a comprehensive social science.

Iowa "Doomed to decline"?

What hope is there for sparsely-populated rural counties in Iowa and elsewhere? The thought of their inevitable decline is a bitter pill to swallow, but the data seems quite solid that something is systemically wrong and cannot be categorically reversed on a time horizon short of decades or even generations. Economist Dave Swenson probably isn't exaggerating when he writes: "Academics are good at isolating the causes and the consequences of rural decline, but we have yet to figure out what to do about it."

Computers and the Internet Would the Founders have behaved differently if they'd anticipated Twitter?

Benjamin Franklin, to be sure, would have been all over Twitter. The others? Perhaps not.

Threats and Hazards Woman tried drowning newborn in a fast-food toilet

And yet she will serve no prison time. There is not a word of this story that won't simultaneously baffle and dismay you. That an "ordinary" person would make such a choice -- or react in such a way, even to the shock of a surprise delivery -- is symptomatic of some kind of moral rot that she didn't just develop on her own.

Business and Finance Toyota and Panasonic to merge housing companies

And if you previously had no idea that both companies were in the housing business, you're not the only one. Something to muse about: What other businesses in seemingly unrelated fields might make for good housing providers?

News Why can't America help more refugees?

We can, but we're choosing not to do it. If you have strength but use it to oppress, you're practicing evil. If you have strength but refuse to use it out of fear, you're demonstrating cowardice. If you have the strength to help those in need and do so, you're showing mercy. Mercy is a privilege of the strong. Nothing would show greater strength than to help the oppressed.

News If I lost a billion dollars...

Doesn't quite have the same ring as the Barenaked Ladies tune

Iowa Casey's breakfast pizza isn't just pizza eaten at breakfast time

So learned Beto O'Rourke this week. We're all (mostly) joking about this, but confusing the two is roughly the Iowa equivalent of strolling onto the campus of Auburn and cheering "Roll Tide!"

Science and Technology Ridiculous numbers of Americans would seek to prevent the automation of jobs

The Pew Research Center finds that 85% of American adults would favor policies to block automation from taking any jobs from humans unless those jobs were "dangerous or unhealthy". Perhaps a few of those adults ought to ask whether they've consulted Siri instead of dialing "Information" or calling a library research desk. We could "create" millions of jobs by taking automation out of the picture everywhere we have it -- but it's quite doubtful that the average person has considered what it might be like to sit in a chair at a sewage pump station and manually start and stop the pumps. A job like that was "automated" decades ago, and for very good reason. Technology can and should be used to enhance the usefulness of activities human beings do, but it's colossally silly to think that automation should only come to bear on "dangerous or unhealthy" tasks alone. Shall we do away with coin machines, too? Put another way: "Siri, what is 'entirely missing the point of technology'?"

Threats and Hazards What's our real relationship with South Korea?

The President wildly mischaracterized the nature of the alliance in a campaign rally. The facts are different from what the President recites onstage, and the very nature of the relationship is more nuanced (and valuable) than he gives credit. Ultimately, his cellophane-thin understanding of and appreciation for the South Korean alliance is a de-facto statement of alignment with North Korea. In past times, that might have been understood as un-American, if not actually treasonous.

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May 9, 2019

Threats and Hazards "Americans would be wrong to believe they are unaffected" by the censorship China imposes

For the time being, China's government doesn't want the rest of the world to talk about its extraordinary oppression of the Uighurs. But that's far from the only thing they wish to keep off the world's screens and out of the world's newspapers. And, critically, the censorship imposed directly has a spillover effect on companies that self-censor in the interest of pleasing China's bosses. What happens "over there" gets exported "over here" much more than we probably think. The oceans used to define our separation from the rest of the world -- but the operative part of that sentence is "used to". Not anymore.

Agriculture Presidential tweets threatening trade-war escalation hurt farmers

Prices on commodity crops are already painfully low, and the threat of new trade restrictions and taxes makes the situation worse. These are thoroughly avoidable self-inflicted injuries. Trade wars aren't easy to win -- they are stupid exercises in damaging those portions of the economy most dependent upon exercising competitive advantage. And yet here we are, about to impose tariffs (that is, import taxes) on $200 billion in goods from China.

News Kim Jong-Un wanted access to American basketball stars

As part of any deal to normalize diplomatic relations. Truly. The first instinct is to mock the demand for the stunning case of stupidity that it is. But it raises a few serious points: (1) America's cultural exports have enormous value. That value shouldn't be overlooked, nor should we take it for granted. (2) Even dictators have bizarre fixations and get starstruck. To the extent that reveals their human fallibility, it's worth further attention and study. (3) North Korea's failure to produce its own basketball stars is telling. If the dictator loves the game so much, why can't they produce their own stars? (The answer, of course, is found in the utter train wreck of a political and economic system they use.)

Threats and Hazards Writer recounts a hazardous ordeal in a ride-share

An incident like this should be investigated swiftly, and the reporting customer ought to be told transparently what conclusions were reached and what resulted. If they can't do that, the ride-hailing service involved shouldn't be in business. Period.

News Shutdown at Three Mile Island

The plant is to be closed and replaced with power generated by fossil fuels. It seems that the most logical things we can do are (a) migrate as much energy consumption from combustion to electricity as possible, and (b) migrate as much electricity generation from carbon to non-carbon as possible. If those assumptions are correct, then this decision is a terrible failure of (b). The plant's owner says it was losing money and couldn't keep the plant open without subsidies.

Humor and Good News "Dude"? You meant "Dood", as in "Yankee Doodle".

The strange origins of the vernacular

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May 14, 2019

Computers and the Internet Tech flashback: What you could buy in 1991

We've upgraded from 2400 baud to 5G wireless, only to spend the time saved making faces on Snapchat.

Threats and Hazards Trump lawyers claim Congress has no authority to investigate him

The entire legal team behind this argument ought to be put in stocks on the front lawn of Montpelier and flogged with a hardbound edition of the Federalist Papers. The Constitution explicitly grants Congress the authority to fire the President (Art. II, Sec. 4), the authority to require reports from the President (Art. II, Sec. 3), and (of course) the authority "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof" (Art. I, Sec. 8). There's no ambiguity here: Congress is the boss, and the President is the employee. Whatsoever they find necessary and proper to investigate regarding the conduct of the government and the execution of the law, they have the power to do. Period.

News Perpetrator in Mall of America attack gets 19-year prison sentence

The victim, a 5-year-old boy, is recovering from the attempted homicide. There's really no question the perpetrator should be kept away from the public. He's clearly a danger. But his public defender is probably right to be frustrated that there isn't a good place to send him.

The United States of America More providential moralism in our public buildings, please!

On the side of an Art Deco-inspired courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee: "The first duty of society is justice" (a line courtesy of abolitionist Wendell Phillips).

Health Not enough care

Per NBC News: "A study of more than 45,000 women found more than half only visit their OB/GYN. Less than 6% visited a primary care physician."

News We need better words than "liberal" and "conservative"

The best alternative to the shifting definitions of words like "liberal" and "conservative" would be to identify with individual leaders (Thatcherite, Churchillian, Reaganite...) -- but those leaders evolved personally over time, and so have the facts, so even those definitions would be ambiguous at best.

The United States of America Montana Gov. Steve Bullock enters the Presidential race

Send in the governors!

Computers and the Internet Big problems for Intel chips

A batch of new vulnerabilities have just been exposed. They are complicated and pervasive -- and somehow, these problems need to be explained to a public that only a decade ago still couldn't get the VCR to stop blinking "12:00".

The United States of America Good for Sen. Mitt Romney

It's not a revolution, but it is a vote against a judicial nominee who "had called [President] Obama an 'un-American imposter'" in public. Words have consequences.

Threats and Hazards Unions circulating the "Marxist" definition of business ought to reconsider

As with most forms of human organization, labor unions are neither inherently good nor inherently bad. The form doesn't determine their goodness, but rather the motivations and the things they actually do. Labor unions have done some great things (Solidarity, for instance, led a Communist-toppling revolution in Poland). But they've also conducted some terrible abuses, and the abuses have their roots in bad philosophy -- like Marxism.

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May 15, 2019

Humor and Good News Craig Ferguson, interviewed by Kathie Lee Gifford

One would never believe that it works, but it does. Ferguson may well be a quicker wit than anyone else alive today.

News What's Joe-mentum mean?

All other factors notwithstanding, Americans got 8 years of practice in picturing Joe Biden hanging around the Oval Office. America already took a test drive in the Joe-Mobile. All the other candidates, for better or worse, are still trying to get you to visit the dealership. Getting the "customer" to envision the end-state is really one of the most important tools in all of sales.

Aviation News You can have your quaint B&B

The TWA Hotel at JFK is now open, and the pictures are glorious. Eero Saarinen's magnificent building has a new life. The real question is, if so many people can agree that the design aesthetic of the building is such a treasure (and it is), then who's following the same path today, and why aren't there more of them?

Weather and Disasters Think what you want about climate change, but...

It's hard to argue with the actions of real people on the ground. Louisianans are quite literally moving to higher ground. It's a pure example of revealed preferences: With real consequences and real money on the line, watch what people do instead of what they say.

News Attention to the finer details

A dive into the nature of callout lines -- those little lines that let people add more information to maps when the space is already too densely filled

News Letters of complaint to John Glenn

Matthew 6 has a thing or two to say about the criticism that he spent too little time publicly thanking God for his safety.

Science and Technology What's infrastructure?

Much of what really constitutes "infrastructure" is concealed from view. You see roads and bridges, which is why politicians try to make hay from them. But the remainder of the spectrum is enormously important, and it's society's cost of doing business.

News NYC used to be Nieuw Amsterdam...

...but now it's Las Vegas that wants to be the new Amsterdam, letting visitors purchase and use marijuana.

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May 16, 2019

News Disagreeing for the right reasons

Sociologist Bradley Campbell notes: "A common error -- if it's error and not dishonesty -- is speaking as if people who oppose what you support oppose it for the same reasons you support it." People may share your desired outcomes, but for the "wrong" reasons. It's useful to examine their reasons to test your own reasoning -- but it's also important not to judge others solely by their allies in a specific cause.

Humor and Good News When file photos bite back

The obsession with putting images into social-media posts results in some odd choices

Threats and Hazards An illiteracy test

Someone actually advocates testing immigrants for their knowledge of "Big Brother" rather than, say, the Constitution.

Business and Finance Boeing wants a 100% tariff on Airbus planes

Imagine a world in which Boeing faces less competitive pressure to produce a safe, efficient aircraft. As Milton and Rose Friedman wrote, "The great danger to the consumer is monopoly -- whether private or governmental [...] Alternative sources of supply protect the consumer far more effectively than all the Ralph Naders of the world."

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May 17, 2019

Threats and Hazards Why does the President hate Toyota?

The White House has issued a truly cockamamie executive order which claims that "domestic conditions of competition must be improved by reducing imports", and that the Secretary of Commerce "concluded that the present quantities and circumstances of automobile and certain automobile parts imports threaten to impair the national security". Toyota and Honda have both very prominently developed massive operations in the United States, as have other "foreign" automotive manufacturers. This idiotic government manhandling of the automotive industry is outrageous, and the crude deference to "domestic" versus "foreign" ownership is a relic of the 19th Century.

Business and Finance Economics in 30 minutes

Everyone in the world should have to take a 30-minute crash course in economics, consisting of 10 minutes on tradeoffs, 10 minutes on unintended consequences, and 10 minutes on sunk costs. And the world would be a better place for it.

Broadcasting Swiss movie theater installs beds

Ew. Just go home and watch Netflix.

Business and Finance An observation on Uber "telling its story" to the stock market

Anyone who buys a stock and then complains that the price hasn't immediately escalated is just looking for a bigger fool to sell it to. If you really believe that a stock's price is too low, then you shut up and buy more.

Health Iowa makes 44 states to sue over OxyContin

Five states filed suit, joining 39 others that had already done so. Paragraphs 4 and 6 of the introduction to the Iowa filing really hammer the crux of the problem: The state's attorney general alleges that the drug was marketed under false pretenses that set up patients for addiction, including misrepresentation of the duration of expected relief from pain. That's an enormously serious allegation.

Agriculture Japan drops restrictions on American beef

Iowa has huge advantages as an agricultural producer, and free trade lets us capitalize on them. This is great news. Naturally, there are consequences to competition, and some people will zero in on those. But there are consequences of technological change, too. And there are a bunch of other factors that create consequences, too.

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May 22, 2019

Business and Finance Buckle up for economic potholes ahead

Macroeconomic tea leaves are the hardest tea leaves to read -- but there's a lot of real money on the line for a lot of people in the housing and construction sector, so it's like a prediction market on steroids. So when it's observed that construction spending is slipping in ways similar to how it has fallen ahead of past recessions, then reasonable observers ought to take notice. In other words, this is a real window into "Watch what I do, not what I say."

Socialism Doesn't Work The dastardly work of authoritarians

A French journalist shares heretofore unseen images of China's crackdown in 1989. It's worth asking: What would happen if similar protests broke out today? Have the tools of government surveillance and repression outpaced the tools of mass organization and real-time reporting? The government is reviving the language of struggle, referring to a "new long march" in the trade war with the United States. That's not the language of glasnost or perestroika.

Computers and the Internet Resignation with clarity

One thing to be said about British politicians: They've learned to format their letters so you can read them as clear single images on Twitter and other social media. Can't say the same for many American politicians.

Weather and Disasters Tornado damage in Adair

An evident tornado track right across Interstate 80

Weather and Disasters Extremely powerful storms in southern Midwest

Lightning from the storms was plainly visible from hundreds of miles away. Debris from the tornado in Jefferson City, Missouri, could be found still falling half an hour later.

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May 23, 2019

Threats and Hazards What to do about facial-recognition technology?

Editorial writer Josh Greenman of the New York Daily News argues that "the idea that we should ban police from taking surveillance camera or cell-phone camera images and running them through a database of mugshots, when they already use fingerprints and DNA, and when they already rely on (chronically unreliable) eyewitness reports to zero in on suspects, is just silly." Perhaps an all-out ban is "silly", but the issue demands a very serious debate about limits and oversight. In fact, it deserves the most extraordinary scrutiny we can impose. And that's because Americans have a fundamental right to be left alone if we're behaving "peaceably", to borrow a valuable word from the First Amendment. That's not a right that government grants to us -- it's an inherent right, forming essentially the foundation for every other civic right we ordinarily take for granted. So anything -- anything at all! -- that would begin to encroach upon that fundamental freedom requires the toughest sort of review we are capable of applying.

Business and Finance "Veep" needs a spinoff

Specifically, one that pits Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) opposite Minna "Finnish Wolf" Hakkinen (Sally Phillips). They form a delightful character rivalry whose narrative arc, incidentally, would absolutely crush the Bechdel Test.

News The suburban faux-stone facade

Sure, it looks fine for now. It permits builders to meet zoning requirements or whatever standards are put into place by corporate planners at national retail and restaurant chains. But someday, it's going to look as dated as the circa 1965-1985 giant panel glass windows (a la Kmart storefront) with the shiny 1" metal frame around the perimeter.

Humor and Good News Better than the stereotypes

Two 10-year-old girls from Nebraska raised $10,000 for charity, had their heads shaved as the challenge, and donated the hair to an organization that makes wigs for pediatric cancer patients. Engage in whatever generational stereotyping you want, but these Gen Z kids deserve a round of applause wherever they go. Their parents should be proud.

Threats and Hazards "I'm an extremely stable genius."

Show us, don't tell us.

Humor and Good News Let the taco trucks flourish!

It's a well-known, documented scientific fact that tacos are the happiest food.

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May 24, 2019

Computers and the Internet Bring back Google Reader

The sunsetting of Google Reader was done so badly that the transition was rough for power users. Feedly, too, but Twitter feeds are widely used in place of conventional RSS.

News Family unveils truly arresting sculptural tribute to daughter

God willing, maybe the message will save some lives.

Humor and Good News "Interstate Love Song" as piano solo

It's a real testament to the quality of the song that a rendition like this -- so completely different in execution -- can sound completely faithful to the original and totally at home in another genre altogether. Not every song can do that.

Threats and Hazards Facebook won't take down manipulated videos of Speaker Pelosi

Then update your rules, Facebook. If you haven't gotten the message yet, this is EXACTLY the kind of manipulative activity that requires a serious response -- not because it's a Democrat or a Republican being targeted, but because it is PATENTLY MISREPRESENTATIVE of reality. Wonder how fast that policy will change when manipulated videos of Mark Zuckerberg start popping up like weeds.

Science and Technology Who should clean up carbon emissions?

Noting that China is already the world's largest emitter, but that it was historically produced mostly by the United States and a couple of other allied countries, it's a question the world is going to hear. A problem like this doesn't lend itself to rivalrous obligations to pay. If you created a mess in the past, whether you knew it was a mess or not, it's your duty to clean it up. If you're creating a mess now, especially knowing that it's a mess, it's also your duty to clean up. Ideally, borrowing an idea from futurist Ian Pearson, demand will rapidly push technological frontiers forward in the markets that can afford to pay for newer and better things, resulting in diffusion of those technologies to places with fewer resources.


May 27, 2019

The United States of America Respecting the troops on Memorial Day

"[T]he American soldier, in spite of wisecracking, sometimes cynical speech, is an intelligent human being who demands and deserves basic understanding of the reasons why his country took up arms and of the conflicting consequences of victory or defeat." - Dwight Eisenhower

News Can the Pentagon do better to stop suicide?

Carl Forsling: "Perhaps the answer is to normalize it, or more precisely, to normalize mental health care. If someone breaks his ankle, we don't freak out. We give him a cast and put him to work doing whatever he can do."

News When Congress calls, White House staffers are obligated to answer

Howsoever you treat Congress, so you treat the American people. Members of Congress may be grandstanding, self-serving, and pandering -- but in the end, they are those things because that is what American voters want. Refusing to answer them is refusing to answer all of us.

News IP theft by China isn't just for industrial production

Paradoxically, American conference organizers often require presenters to (a) release rights for their slides to be disseminated online, and (b) be circumspect about any commercial trademarks or self-identifying info...which is a recipe for inviting this type of theft.

News Circulation at college libraries is plunging

Library dean Dan Cohen: "There has been a 64 percent decline in the number of books checked out by undergraduates from Bass Library [at Yale] over the past decade [...] At my library at Northeastern University, undergraduate circulations declined 50 percent from 2013 to 2017". It's not necessarily a calamity: Library use has changed for many reasons, and digital books play a role. Cohen also notes that adaptations could actually serve a larger public interest if a rise in off-site storage, digitization, and sharing networks "closes the gap between elite institutions such as Yale and the much larger number of colleges with more modest collections."

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May 28, 2019

News Problems aren't new

"Mankind has never been in this position before. Without having improved appreciably in virtue or enjoying wiser guidance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination." Words from Winston Churchill well over half a century ago, and yet someone could speak them today with equal validity.

Business and Finance Trucking industry puts on the hazard lights

Slides from a Bank of America presentation signal that capacity is growing and the outlook for demand is softening...a lot. There's good reason to wonder what that may portend for the economy.

Computers and the Internet SimCity: Still quite popular after all these years

Survey randomly finds that half of registered voters under age 30 have played the game. The original had a number of preset scenarios where you had to take over a city with a defined crisis and work your way out of it. It was basically Giuliani Mode, back when that would have been an honorable thing.

Weather and Disasters Omaha gets late-May hail so deep it called for shovels

2019 is delivering decidedly one of the most wickedly persistent severe-weather seasons in memory around the Midwest.

Business and Finance Judging development not just by income

Noah Smith argues that a country's degree of resource dependency ought to be considered alongside its per-capita income. This is a valid dimension that should be added to any meaningful analysis of development. Moreover, measuring resource abundance is also essential to understanding where generous social-democratic states stand a chance at success (e.g. Norway) and where they do not. Converting resource abundance into a durable social-safety net is attractive -- but very hard. All too often, resource abundance turns into the resource curse.

The United States of America We can (and must) be decent, even in our disagreement

This is an argument well-put by David French. Society isn't a fight, and social problems aren't best resolved by cage match. As Margaret Thatcher put it, "I believe implicitly that you can never make people good by law, but only from something inside them." Those who think that all bad things must be resolved by law, and that by extension, obtaining political power is the only good that matters, ought to reconcile themselves with the facts that (a) humans are inherently flawed and limited, (b) all good is not perfectly knowable, and (c) life is not static -- not for individuals and not for society. There is no end-state of perfection to be attained. There is struggle and there is conflict, and those are the things that ultimately produce growth. And much better to resolve those struggles and conflicts in the hearts of people rather than by waging politics by means that seem a lot like war.

News Crowded Mount Everest becomes a death trap

It's just so...unnecessary. The mountain has been climbed. Many, many times. It's not much of a badge of honor anymore.

Humor and Good News Art is in the limitations

Do with your limitations what you can (not only when making art).

Broadcasting Interview with a dying sister

A testament to the power of storytelling, of family, of music, of memory, and of radio.

News Why Ronald Reagan mystified Edmund Morris

The thing about "Dutch" (Morris's fiction-heavy biography of Reagan), especially when contrasted with Morris's books on Roosevelt, is that somehow the fictionalized second person seemed dishonest -- whereas the omniscient third-person narrator gives us plausible deniability to believe everything he wrote about TR.

Weather and Disasters Severe weather inbound for the Upper Midwest

There's a whole lot to dislike about this situation, not the least of which is that the area of highest risk overlaps a great deal with the areas of least radar coverage.

Computers and the Internet Facebook says another 51 accounts and 31 pages have been booted

Something's rotten, but it isn't in Denmark: Facebook says these efforts are "coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran".

Iowa Iowa's crop progress is abysmal

Iowa's corn is 76% planted. The 5-year average for this point in the season? 96%. Soybeans are at 32% planted. 5-year average: 77%. And it's raining again.

Threats and Hazards Rep. Duncan Hunter wants a one-month legal amnesty for returning servicememberes

This is a shockingly bad idea. As a society, we shouldn't just treat the time after a deployment like some giant mulligan. We owe it to our professionals in uniform to commit the appropriate resources to proper mobilization and demobilization. If we can't do that, we have no business sending troops into combat in the first place. That's the basic principle of cleaning up after yourself.

Computers and the Internet HP adds a wood finish to some laptops

Too late to bring back Ricardo Montalban and his "fine Corinthian leather", perhaps, but quite nearly as fancy as an old Chrysler.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

May 29, 2019

News Rep. Justin Amash can't do it all by himself

The Michigan Republican has broken out as someone who is thinking clearly about what the Mueller Report told the world. He's read the full report -- available to us all -- and he's angry: "The ball is in our court, Congress."

Health Immigrant doctors are critical to rural health care

America is a giant, unstoppable magnet for talent from all over the world. We're incredibly stupid not to take advantage of that at every possible opportunity.

The United States of America James Madision, the internationalist

"[I]ndependently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable, on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy..."

News Populism doesn't have a plan

Noah Rothman has little love for the way a populist wave has crashed into power. And it's not to be trusted -- in the words of Margaret Thatcher, "The essence of a free society is that there are whole areas of life where the State has no business at all, no right to intervene." (It doesn't matter if your "team" happens to have political control of the state at the moment or not.)

Weather and Disasters EF-4 hits Lawrence, Kansas

A mile wide, with a path nearly 32 miles long. That's a very significant tornado. 18 injured, but nobody killed.

@briangongol on Twitter

May 30, 2019

News Obscurity is earned

In the long run, most Presidents earn nothing more than a single line in the history books (some even less than that -- see Millard Fillmore). History isn't written about fractional differences in GDP growth. It's written about the broader impressions of the times, and the unique crises that occur along the way. Thus, the more the President complains about his interminable list of persecutors (real or imagined), the more he makes his complaints his one line. The utter forgettability of some Presidencies reflects choices those Presidents made, either in choosing to do wrong or in failing to do good (to borrow the words of the Catholic prayer). Obscurity is earned.

News "No political 'emergency' justifies abandoning classical liberalism"

David French's take on the rise of Christian statism is worth considering seriously. The problem with Christian statism is the same as with all statism, summed up quite tidily by Margaret Thatcher: "Choice is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose." The shocking enthusiasm with which some people are willing to surrender process in pursuit of a temporal goal is distressing. But what it highlights is the prevalence of a static mindset -- one that thinks of victories as permanent and failures as fatal. It may be quite natural for people to fall into that kind of convention, but it's unhealthy: Most good things aren't a destination so much as a journey or a path. Freedom isn't a level you unlock like a video game; it's an active thing that requires grappling, struggling, and reflecting upon at every turn. The same would go for most good things -- progress, education, parenting, whatever. Thus it is more important to get the process right than to win specific achievements and think of them as forever locked in place.

Iowa What to do with urban runoff?

In the midst of an unusually wet spring, the City of West Des Moines asks what residents think ought to be done about managing stormwater.

Humor and Good News There's no way not to be impressed by Simone Biles

The gymnast has developed some techniques that are completely astonishing

News Japan and China, forever in competition

China's using the Belt and Road program to take some pressure off its oversupplies of construction labor and funding. Japan, meanwhile, is giving cash to many places that might have wanted Belt-and-Road projects.

Socialism Doesn't Work New tariffs? The taxation addiction is out of control.

The President screams that he will impose new import taxes on Mexican goods. It's a bad use of a blunt policy to go after goals not well-related to the policy tool. It all feels both misguided and terribly artificial.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

May 31, 2019

Socialism Doesn't Work "The Tank Man"

If you've never seen Frontline's episode "The Tank Man", this 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square is really the right time for you to set aside 90 minutes to do it.

Business and Finance When is it time to worry about the economy?

Conor Sen says, "[H]aving lived through 2008, whenever the data is a little soft my inclination is to say 'ehh, this is nothing like 2008.' I'm always surprised by the alarmism of others." The counterpoint? In 2008, things got much worse much faster than most people imagined possible. That said, nobody knows the timing or the triggers for recession. We can only see whether evidence is mounting or dissipating.

Health A story that's good for the soul

An adult bone-marrow donor meets the toddler whose life he saved. Sign up with Be the Match if you're eligible.

Weather and Disasters A volatile atmosphere, you say?

Evidence on this dramatic tornado season so far

News How lawyers can avoid lawsuits

If you can't be trusted to behave like an adult in the presence of members of the opposite sex, you probably can't be trusted with most other duties, either. This is shared in a context for and about lawyers, but it sure seems applicable more generally.

Computers and the Internet Apple is killing off iTunes

Rumor has it a simplified program is coming to replace it. And good riddance, too: Never has another app caused the ordinary user as much frustration with its incessant forced updates, crude attempts to piggyback other unwanted applications with it, and infuriating auto-loading by default in Windows.

Broadcasting HBO cancels Wyatt Cenac's show

It's a disappointing choice: "Problem Areas" has taken an original and thoughtful approach to advocacy journalism. Cenac is smart and funny -- a genuine talent -- and he doesn't have to reach all of the right conclusions to be very good at highlighting problems worthy of attention.

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