Gongol.com Archives: July 2019

Brian Gongol

July 2019
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July 2, 2019

Threats and Hazards Oversight report: Migrant detainees aren't being treated well

If the government is going to spend $10, then $1 in oversight costs may well be needed to ensure that the other $9 are spent well. Oversight matters.

Business and Finance Lee Iacocca passes away

It's well worth noting (as Karl Smith does) that Iacocca was a manager, not a capitalist. Managers are necessary in every economic system, and they are valuable -- but the differences separating managerial capitalism, proprietor capitalism, shareholder capitalism, and corporatist capitalism are all worth a lot more attention than they usually get.

Weather and Disasters The granularity of GOES satellite imagery is amazing

Individual storm anvils and overshooting tops can be seen

Humor and Good News Monetarist Buffalo wings

A delicious complement to "neo-classical Buffalo wings", whatever those might be

The United States of America 158 million adults worldwide would like to become Americans

Per a 2018 poll by Gallup. What would happen if the US said "We will welcome the accession of any city, province, or country on a 20-year path to statehood, provided you bring a balanced budget and a clear commitment to the rule of American law"?

News A day that lacks a lot of sense

Lots of people in high-level positions having rush meetings? That's cause for anxiety. And yet the government is trying to put together a military parade in Washington, DC. Putting on a big military parade (just for show) on Day #185 without a Senate-confirmed Secretary of Defense is the national-security version of doing a bunch of bicep curls without ever taking a leg day.

Business and Finance What should it take to get a Ph.D.?

The artificial barriers to entry in graduate-level economics programs suggest to me that there are too many economists who don't actually value human-capital development as much as they might preach.

The United States of America It's hard to preserve what you don't sufficiently value

The casual freedoms Americans will largely take for granted over the Independence Day holiday are exactly the ones we ought to remind ourselves aren't universal

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July 5, 2019

Broadcasting This news isn't "fake", it's "enhanced"

The ABC television affiliate in Chicago is going to start integrating more animation and visual effects into news stories in order to enhance the product. It's being done in tandem with a journalism school, but this for sure will require very careful scrutiny.

News "Bad ideas are spreading like the plague"

A thoughtful contribution from Stephanie Slade: "What unites the left's flirtation with socialism and the right's move toward nationalism is the willful discarding of long-understood, dearly learned truths about how to make the world a better place." The only comfort to be found in the resurgences of hard-left socialism and witless nationalism is that the classical liberal tradition has survived these clashes before, and ultimately triumphed. It's just that there's so much collateral damage in the meantime.

Computers and the Internet Facebook says it's clamping down on "sensational health claims"

At least, they're doing so in the news feed by busting down posts that appear to make exaggerated claims about health (using algorithmic management of phrases that are associated with those kinds of claims), and by doing the same for posts that appear to be selling something on the basis of exaggerated claims. Good, probably. But it did not escape one reporter's notice that nothing was said about groups, where really bad misinformation spreads like wildfire.

Science and Technology World's tallest modular building finished at 459'

There are actually two of them, side-by-side in Singapore. Most of the 40-story building, made of precast concrete, was fabricated in Malaysia.

News 67 years, and no more MAD Magazine

Weird Al Yankovic isn't the only one who's going to miss the publication. Satire is an important art form, and while MAD has always been a sort of gateway drug to higher forms of satire. "The Hollywood Reporter" says they have sources confirming that it will only feature new content in end-of-year specials, but in the words of a MAD cartoonist, "for all intents and purposes, MAD is folding."

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July 9, 2019

Computers and the Internet Disingenuous, or just plain stupid?

CNBC reports that "Chinese internet stocks may be a good buy for investors, according to global investment banks UBS and Credit Suisse." Which either reveals complete disregard for the investing public or stunning ignorance. But if you think that Internet companies are a gamble in the Western democracies (and they sure are), imagine the moral hazard involved in dealing with a country named year in and year out as "the world's worst abuser of internet freedom".

Humor and Good News Knowing how good you have it isn't so easy to do

Future generations will need to look back on the 90s and appreciate just how gifted so many of the "grunge" and "alternative" artists really were. Chris Cornell could just rip your heart out with his voice. And then there's Scott Weiland, who cut these lyrics to "Interstate Love Song" in one take. An unapologetically hard rock song woven with elegant harmonies, and quite possibly the perfect rock track.

Socialism Doesn't Work Remembering 1989

When Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the reins on Eastern Europe, a bunch of countries reacted and ultimately the Soviet Union fell. What would it take for a Gorbachev-like figure to emerge in China? We have to think of human nature for what it is -- people will do (sometimes extraordinary, sometimes very antisocial) things to protect themselves and their immediate families. We live inside of social systems with rules and expectations (just like China's rulers live within the rule systems of the Communist Party), but sometimes external conditions trigger changes. Gorbachev thought he could bring about a controlled transition away from the worst of Communist excesses; in the end, he couldn't. So what are the incentive structures and the elements of human nature that will determine what happens in China someday, when the irresistible force (of people's natural sense of liberty) finally starts to break the immovable object that is the Communist Party of China?

Humor and Good News Show, don't just tell

A single good illustration beats a hundred overwrought bullet points in a PowerPoint deck. Like a photo of a weight machine quite naturally illustrating a normal distribution.

Computers and the Internet Meeting app can hijack Mac webcams

Webcam covers for laptops cost about $3 apiece. Don't trust; take precautions.

Weather and Disasters Lightning can strike many miles away from a storm

(Video) You can see it happen

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July 10, 2019

News Which Ross Perot are we supposed to remember?

It's possible to envy Ross Perot (1982), to loathe Ross Perot (1992), to have no informed opinion whatsoever on Ross Perot (2002), and to respect Ross Perot (2012). But it's often hard to say that, as our opinions on people become fixed in time like a mosquito trapped in amber. As hard as it may be, it's worth trying. Each of us lives a single existence, linear in time. But to the world, we are infinite slices of parallel beings. Only one Ross Perot has passed. But uncounted Ross Perots are being remembered.

Humor and Good News The brain zooms

The very first time you hear this phrase and connect it to caffeine, you'll probably get it

Threats and Hazards Chinese influence in South America: Yes, really

The head of US Southern Command "told the Senate Armed Services Committee's Emerging Threats subcommittee that China is only going to increase its efforts to live 'inside our own neighborhood seeking to displace the United States as the partner of choice'". Mind your community, or someone else might.

Weather and Disasters New Orleans area gets 7" of rain

Putting stress on a levee system already being challenged by an abnormally high Mississippi River. A tropical storm is coming.

Threats and Hazards A real-life totalitarian nightmare

(Video) Should you watch all 9 minutes of this report from The Economist on the appalling treatment of the people of Xinjiang? Yes. But if nothing else, jump to 5:48 and listen to how China spies on people inside their own homes.

The United States of America "The Conservative Sensibility"

An interview with George Will about his new book

Threats and Hazards Has your member of Congress read the Mueller Report?

Politico asked, and a bunch of legislators admitted they haven't read it. Some haven't even tried. It's hard to believe any of them should be paid for their work.

Humor and Good News Sharkysharky?

What on Earth caused Google's spellchecker to suggest that made-up word when "surveillance" was what was typed in?

Computers and the Internet Standards still matter

Ever since Google shut down Google Reader, all faith should be lost that the FAANG companies would ever go back to supporting broad-based, open standards (like RSS). In a parallel universe, open standards are allowing small businesses to do things like post a simple file somewhere on their website (not unlike robots.txt or favicon.ico) with key identifying information and basic details like hours of operation. Without consistent open standards supported by big players, instead, business operators have to spend all their godforsaken "Internet marketing" time running around updating things uniquely for every "walled garden" on the Internet, and consumers cannot consistently trust any of it.

The United States of America Parachute wedding dress loaned to Fort Bragg museum

A bride is lending her wedding dress, made of her husband's WWII parachute, to the 82nd Airborne Museum -- but reserves the right to let her great-granddaughters wear it if they want.

The American Way Private property is a bulwark for personal liberty

And that's the correct order for those priorities: Liberty for the individual first, secured by private property. As Margaret Thatcher said, "I passionately believe that private property should be spread as widely as possible, as a bulwark for the liberty and independence of the people, and to enhance a sense of responsibility to future generations."

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July 11, 2019

News Who is (or might be) America's Macron?

If the old two-party, two-ideology system has truly been replaced with a four-way split (among nationalists, socialists, the center-right, and the center-left), then who's going to make the case for a centrist bloc?

News Immigration raids to begin Sunday

So reports the New York Times.

Weather and Disasters Slow-moving flood works its way across central Nebraska

Portions of the Wood River basin got 9" of rain on Monday and Monday night. The water is moving in a slug that passes town-by-town through the river.

Humor and Good News America's greatest deficit

Sure, the Federal budget deficit is distressing. But is it anything compared to our deficit in power ballads? Related: The most useful YouTube comment ever.

News The most inexplicable traffic stop ever

A stolen vehicle, a rattlesnake, an open bottle of whiskey, a gun...and some uranium that nobody seems to be able to explain. Oklahoma, you've really set a new bar.

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July 12, 2019

Iowa Air conditioning isn't going to be the end of us all

Home heating accounts for vastly more BTU consumption than air conditioning in America. But if you live in Iowa, you can assuage about 99.9% of any guilt you might feel about using electricity (including for air conditioning), because MidAmerican Energy is pushing hard into the production of electricity from renewable sources. Or at least 51.4% of that guilt, for now. So when we're running the A/C, we're really just taking hot blowing air from outside and converting it to cool blowing air inside.

Computers and the Internet Facebook Libra: Another cryptocurrency we probably don't need

Pretty clear that an organization with enough hubris to try to launch its own currency doesn't really have a lot of time for the public good.

News Nobody did the reading

Robert Mueller's testimony to Congress is going to be delayed because, in effect, Congress hasn't done its homework and isn't prepared yet. Per the Washington Post: "Mueller will testify for three hours -- an extra hour -- before the Judiciary panel and then give testimony to the Intelligence Committee for two hours."

Broadcasting It took 22 years for The Verve to get paid for "Bitter Sweet Symphony"

The Rolling Stones got all the credit until finally relinquishing the rights

News Amazon's DC-area HQ2 looks...ordinary

Ordinary in the contemporary "let's put a random adornment on the exterior that makes it look slightly ragged" sense. What's missing from modern architecture? Architectural setbacks. Like, honest-to-goodness Chrysler Building-style setbacks.

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July 16, 2019

Agriculture Japanese beetles attacking Iowa corn

Scarier than Godzilla, because it's real. We really don't need this kind of pest right now.

Aviation News 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch

Science. National interest. High technology. Daring. Quite a combination.

News WWII codebreaker Alan Turing to be featured on British currency

This practice of honoring eminent citizens on the currency is one we should happily endorse.

Threats and Hazards Don't mislabel a political conflict as a "clash of civilizations"

National Security Advisor John Bolton told a political group that the dynamic between the United States and China "has elements of Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations", a line also employed by some representatives of the State Department. Why is it so hard for our diplomatic and national-security leaders to embrace the plain language of our own Declaration of Independence -- that people everywhere are endowed with rights and dignity, and that governments have a duty to preserve them? Governments are different from civilizations.

The United States of America Codebreaker first, Supreme Court justice later

John Paul Stevens was awarded the Bronze Star for codebreaking work

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July 17, 2019

Computers and the Internet People have learned nothing about computer security

When a shadowy app offers to age-progress your picture, perhaps think twice about submitting to their terms and conditions. Sure, FaceApp is an intriguing exercise in artificial intelligence. But we should constantly consider who might be on the receiving end of our data (it's not just the Russians we should worry about!), and always consider the ulterior motives that someone may be using against us.

News "Meth gators" and the real problem of flushing pharmaceuticals down the drain

If it takes alarmist stories about "meth gators" to get people to start thinking more carefully about properly disposing of hazardous wastes, then let's get #MethGators trending. Think downstream, people.

Weather and Disasters A classic shelf cloud on the approach

It looked ominous and dumped a lot of rain in a hurry, but at least it wasn't a supercell

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July 18, 2019

Health Ebola outbreak has killed more than 1,600 people -- and it's reached cities

Urbanization has a thousand and one benefits, but it does put us at greater risk for outbreaks of contagious diseases. Public health needs to be a very high global priority.

Threats and Hazards A lesser man

The President says he disavows the chants of "Send her back" at his campaign rally this week. What empty words. It isn't hard to say "No", and yet he didn't do that. Sen. John McCain knew how to say it when his supporters went too far. A lesser man finds it too difficult. Anyone engaged in an un-American chant like "Send her back" is sending a message that they want to belong to something, and that need isn't being fulfilled in healthy ways. That's the preexisting condition that weakens the body politic and makes it susceptible to infection.

Computers and the Internet A big to-do over a casino that doesn't exist

Sony is making a big deal out of a casino "opening" inside the game "Grand Theft Auto". There's recreation. There's escapism. And then there's...this.

Iowa Life inside the Iowa caucus bubble

Living in Iowa right now means not knowing whether the rest of the country is seeing the same non-stop barrage of campaign ads that you see

Humor and Good News Not the time nor the place

There may not be any public places where a person would want to hear "Sexual Healing", but the Post Office definitely isn't one of them.

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July 19, 2019

News America has never existed outside the world

Sen. Josh Hawley is making a claim that America's "leadership elite" is composed of "cosmopolitans". While his definition of "elite" is utterly nonspecific (and strangely omits, apparently, people like United States Senators), he claims that the "cosmopolitan" identity means a "primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world, not to a 'specifically American identity'". ■ The Senator makes an overwhelming omission from his observation, though: America's identity started -- literally from its very first moment -- with having a place in the world at large. The first sentence of the Declaration of Independence concludes with the words "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." ■ To have a "cosmopolitan" interest in the world takes nothing away from one's patriotism or sense of Americanism, any more than being an American takes away from one's identity as an Iowan, a Virginian, or a Californian. It means only that Americans know their place up and down the scale of identities -- as humans residing on Earth alongside billions of others, as residents of states, as members of our communities and neighborhoods. Or as people sharing a common language and legal tradition with Australians, Brits, New Zealanders, Canadians, and Irish. Or as people who share religious faiths with others in ways that have no correspondence to political boundaries at all. ■ The notion that real "American" interests have nothing to do with our place in the world is short-sighted and insufferably ahistorical. ■ Consider Federalist Paper No. 63: "An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons: The one is, that, independently 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; the second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed."

The United States of America Cattle-call Presidential debates don't do us any good

The upcoming CNN debates, with twenty candidates on two nights, is lined up for maximum television spectacle, but it's not going to tell the voting public anything of value. It's spectacle as a substitute for sorting mechanism. Presidential debates should be replaced with timed writing tests. Essay questions, composition books, and a #2 pencil. No advisors. No Internet. Just you and your ability to explain yourself.

Agriculture Agronomist thinks corn harvest will be shrunk by 10% or more

Scott Irwin thinks the harvest could take a hit of 20 bushels per acre due to weather conditions and their consequences. And he may well be right.

News Puerto Ricans are exercising the First Amendment

Large protests against their governmental administration -- peaceable assembly, petition of grievances, and big signs projected on the sides of buildings

Weather and Disasters The dangers of hot cars

The National Weather Service office in Omaha had some social-media fun testing whether they could bake biscuits inside a car sitting in the sun. The biscuits turned out unsatisfactory, but even in the shade, the car hit an internal temperature of 144°.

News Capturing the center isn't optional

Democratic governors are worried that a leftward shift in the party's politics could chase off the middle-of-the-road voters who may get turned off by left-wing rhetoric or who may choose not to show up at all. If the Democrats focus on appeasing the left rather than on winning the center, particularly in the Presidential race, they could lose in 2020 -- or they could limp across the finish line with a small victory...and instantly face four years of a non-stop, full-volume blast of "Trump 2024". Remember: Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms as President, so it's happened before.


July 20, 2019

Broadcasting Show notes - Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - July 20, 2019

Airing live on WHO Radio from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm

Computers and the Internet Going incognito with incognito browsing

A pending update to the Chrome web browser will close a loophole that had permitted websites to check whether users were in "incognito" mode

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July 25, 2019

Computers and the Internet Spot-checking student social media?

A prominent Australian journalist suggests "I think all high schools should have the right to do spot checks of students' (children's) social media accounts to ensure they comply with the school ethos. It would surely temper some of the crude behaviour & language on there." We're all entitled to idle thoughts that maybe haven't been fully developed for prime time, but this one is especially bad. This idea would take "in loco parentis" to an extreme that would displace the parents even in their own homes. And even though some would be quick to blame the left for such overreach, there is a loud and intemperate wing of the right that would also have the state decide personal moral judgments for us, openly and unapologetically. It is one of the most distressing developments of our age.

Threats and Hazards What good is the law if it's abused by its executors?

Quinta Jurecic writes: "[D]irecting the attorney general to turn the full power of the state against your innocent political opponent (a thing that is in the Mueller report) does not strike me as beside the point" [of the hearings]. "The rule of law" is meaningful only when it restrains those with power from abusing it. It's not hard to enforce rules against the weak and vulnerable.

News A sense of responsibility

Margaret Thatcher once said, "Ultimately, it is the willingness of its citizens to acknowledge a sense of responsibility towards their fellow men that distinguishes a free society from one dominated by licence and anarchy." Maybe it was a conscious choice, maybe it was a mere coincidence. But the use of "citizens" (a narrow definition) having responsibility toward "fellow men" (a universal one) might well have a lesson in it.

News Pabst to sell "caffeinated malt beverage"

An iced coffee with a close relationship to beer? Nothing about that is a good decision.

News Robert Mueller and "Pickle Rick"

Stephen Stromberg compares the special counsel to a cartoon mad scientist whose exploits are ignored by an audience that doesn't get what it's seeing: "On Wednesday, Mueller's answers could be summed up: 'I made a report. What more do you want tacked on to this?'"

Computers and the Internet Google Street View is on the prowl

Seen in the wild roaming the Des Moines metropolitan area

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July 26, 2019

Threats and Hazards "They are doing it as we sit here"

A warning from Robert Mueller: Attempts to sabotage democratic processes are underway right now. This isn't over. It's never going to be over. And the longer it takes us to realize that, the worse the consequences. Politics have been turned into warfare by other means. Let us all hope -- earnestly -- that we will as a country take the ongoing threat seriously. It's not just Russia. It's not just to help or hurt one party or the other. And it's definitely not over.

Computers and the Internet The device writers need

In this commentary, Chris Taylor lays out a basically perfect roadmap for developing a simple computing device that makes all the sense in the world. That was three and a half years ago, and nobody's done it yet. Fix this, Silicon Valley.

Threats and Hazards North Korean economy shrinks -- a lot

Reuters reports on an official South Korean assessment: "North Korea's gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 4.1 per cent last year in real terms, the worst since 1997". Poor countries do not grow more stable as their economies contract.

News Hong Kong protests overtake the airport

The durability of the protests in Hong Kong is really quite amazing.

News Can news be reported without some form of bias?

Nope. Every decision to cover or not to cover a story -- or an angle to a story -- is a matter of editorial judgment. It also matters whether a story is covered well or badly, by pros or by rookies, in long-form or in briefs, as "straight news" or "analysis" or "magazine-style". The best approach is to think of news like GPS: You don't want one source, you want several -- and then you triangulate among them what is most true.

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July 27, 2019

The United States of America We need more patience for first-order problems

The rush to judge Robert Mueller's testimony to Congress in a manner like it was performance art is a mistake. It may provide a "hook" to make the audience believe they're receiving news, but it's badly calibrated to the information needs of a free society. The easiest shortcut to finding a new hook isn't to cover "the thing", but to cover "something about the thing". But when everyone does that, it's like watching ESPN and thinking you're learning about health and fitness. You're watching the shadows instead of the action.

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July 30, 2019

Computers and the Internet The strangest "other than" in history?

Capital One reports on a cybersecurity breach with a most unusual declaration: "No bank account numbers or Social Security numbers were compromised, other than: About 140,000 Social Security numbers of our credit card customers [and] About 80,000 linked bank account numbers of our secured credit card customers". How is that possibly an "other than"? 140,000 people is the population of a modestly-sized city -- slightly bigger than Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The press release further says "Based on our analysis to date, this event affected approximately 100 million individuals in the United States and approximately 6 million in Canada." It is, in fact, about as bad as bank leaders have long feared that a cyber-breach could be. These things aren't trivial or secondary in importance: This is a bank heist attempted via laptop computer.

Threats and Hazards A pox upon everyone who feeds the trolls

At the apex of technological advancement and the peak (so far) of civilization, we have elected leaders adopting veils of deliberate ignorance so they can feed the trolls of partisan fiendishness. And Madison wept. Rivalries, arguments, and even insults have been around from the beginning of America's status as an independent country -- but we do presently live at a point where blithe ignorance itself has neither any excuse nor any place. We know more than our forebearers ever could, and we can answer virtually any question quicker and more accurately than they ever imagined possible. We can continue to tease and even mock, but we shouldn't do so as willing dolts.

Business and Finance Other measures matter, but GDP shouldn't be manipulated

There are those who would see GDP measurements modified to account for other characteristics they value -- like environmental sustainability. And there may very well be good reasons to account for things that are valuable but which are not captured in GDP. Knowing the speed of a car doesn't tell you if it's driving safely. But knowing its speed -- and if it's changing -- is fundamental to knowing what's happening to the car. Just because a measurement doesn't tell you everything doesn't mean you break the measuring stick. It is quite enough to know that GDP is not everything that matters, but that it is materially important nonetheless.

Threats and Hazards How about your $1,346?

The US Treasury plans to borrow $443 billion in the third quarter of this year, with Federal spending on the rise and the need for cash continuing to grow. To be clear: This means the Federal government adds $1,346 to the national credit card in the name of every child, woman, and man living here right now.

Broadcasting Import this from France

(Video) How come French TV is capable of putting giant timers up on the screen during their presidential debates and American TV isn't?

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July 31, 2019

News A little modesty is in order

If the case for your Presidential candidacy starts with "President Trump is dangerous and has too much power" and ends with "Vote for me so I can make dramatic policy changes", then James Madison would like a word with you. It remains true that Presidential debates should be replaced with timed writing tests. Essay questions, composition books, and a #2 pencil. No advisors. No Internet. Just you and your ability to explain yourself.

Weather and Disasters Four separate typhoons could develop in the western Pacific -- at once

One model shows it happening by August 3rd. Who needs science fiction when reality could be way more tumultuous than any movie script?

The United States of America At the 100th Meridian

There is a Canadian folk-rock song about the 100th Meridian, "where the Great Plains begin". But it's a conveniently accurate description -- even if there's reason to believe that the Great Plains are migrating eastward. It's funny how opinions differ so much on what constitutes the Midwest.

Threats and Hazards "Chinese forces massing on border" of Hong Kong

Nobody seems to be confirming the rumors officially, but that's of little comfort