Gongol.com Archives: February 2020

Brian Gongol


February 2020
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February 1, 2020

Computers and the Internet Pew study says Facebook users don't know much about how the news feed is created

The problem is less about understanding how the news feed is created and more about understanding that it shouldn't be trusted as a news source

Health China's problem with trust and doctors is making coronavirus worse

An estimate published by The Lancet suggests that tens of thousands of people have been infected in Wuhan, China. A trade is not a profession unless its practitioners sacrifice some of their self-interest in exchange for the trust placed in them to do what's right for the client. If you don't have that trust, you're just plying a trade like anybody else and deserve no special social status.


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February 3, 2020

The United States of America If they can fire you, then you're not their boss

At the State of the Union Address, the spotlight may be on the President, but it's Congress that's supposed to be in the first chair.

Broadcasting Podcast: "Caucus Eve in Iowa"

It's Caucus Eve in Iowa, and we've already celebrated with our traditional dinner of pork chops and corn syrup. This is going to be a big week for news. But is it going to be a good one for the Constitution?

News Illinois sells $40 million in first month of legalized marijuana

In a state of about 13 million people, that's a little over $3 per capita. So, definitely not teetotalers -- but not quite Cheech and Chong, either. In-staters bought 78% of the weed -- out-of-staters purchased the other 22%.

Health Macau's casinos to close for half a month

You don't shut down a critical industry for weeks at a time unless the situation is dire. Yet that's what China is doing in response to the spread of coronoavirus. Revealed preferences writ not just large, but huge.

Iowa Who's eligible to vote in the Iowa caucuses?

Iowa's caucuses are closed, but voters can change registration on-site -- which explains the big drop in independent voters around big Presidential contests. From 2000 to the present, independents have been the biggest voter bloc, with the Republican and Democratic parties each having taken turns in second place. One interesting data point: There were slightly fewer active voters in Iowa registered as of Feb. 2nd than as of Jan. 2nd.

The United States of America Teach your children well

George Will: "A rights-centered society, must, however, take seriously the fact that duties are not natural. They must be taught. Self-interest is common and steady; virtue is rare and unpredictable."


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February 4, 2020

Iowa People are confusing a predictable app failure with a conspiracy

The delay in getting results from the Iowa Caucuses is the fault of a technology disruption, pure and simple. Matt Tait puts it extremely well: "It is not sufficient to *be* secure, it must be *seen* to be secure, and robust against even false conspiracies". Digital security may seem like an esoteric matter of bits and bytes, but it's ultimately a matter of institutional trust and human expectation-setting. Those are very real flesh-and-blood things. In the meantime, though, a message from Iowa to the nation: Anything else you'd like us to beta-test for you? Quite seriously, that's part of the problem: Test users find bugs much faster than developers can anticipate them.

News We overreact to little things and underreact to big things

Perspective is hard to learn

Iowa Iowa isn't a small state: It's almost dead-center in the rankings

Iowa is the #31 state by population. "Small"? By comparison with California or Texas or New York, sure, but we're actually nearly the median overall. There aren't even ten states with 10 million people.

The American Way A philosophy in a sentence

Make money, have fun, clean up after yourself, and mind your business.

News A timely book recommendation

"Why Flip a Coin?" is a great exploration of the science of decision-making -- which includes a very useful section on why there is absolutely no method of counting a vote that will satisfy everybody's sense of "fairness". It is literally impossible.

Science and Technology Predicting vertebrate lifespans from DNA

Bowhead whales are thought to have natural lifespans of nearly 270 years. What kind of thoughts go through the mind of a bowhead whale around, say, age 230? One has to imagine they're at least somewhat sentient, right?


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February 5, 2020

The United States of America United States En Marche?

Could the United States sustain an American version of En Marche? Are the two major parties at just such a crisis point that a permanent centrist third party could take root?

Broadcasting Fox News Channel is using 8-year-old B-roll of the Iowa Caucuses

A warning: Don't wear ironic hats or trendy haircuts when the news cameras are going to be around

Humor and Good News A semi-pro tip

If you're going to tear a sheet of paper, go the long way down the page. That's usually the direction of the grain.

Humor and Good News Teen cancer survivor is now 20-year-old nursing student and hospital fundraiser

Three cheers for Iowa's Hannah Bormann

The United States of America There's no weakness in Sen. Mitt Romney's vote

There are memes circulating trying to denigrate Romney's masculinity, as though that somehow might diminish the strength of his choice. Anyone who uses motherhood as a metaphor for weakness is an idiot. Full stop.


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February 6, 2020

The United States of America 90% of Americans are satisfied with their personal lives

So says the Gallup Poll, and it's grand news. It's a record high. The business titan David Sokol used the phrase "Pleased but not satisfied" (it's even the title of his book. Maybe the average American is "Satisfied but not (always) pleased".

Iowa After blasting Iowa, DNC chair backtracks on "Rachel Maddow Show"

And yet Tom Perez's original tweet slamming the caucuses -- making no distinction whatsoever about "individual precincts" and generally throwing Iowa under the bus -- remains up and unmodified. You don't fix this by clarifying yourself just to Rachel Maddow. Correct your own record.

Weather and Disasters Why is Cedar Rapids only as warm as Des Moines during May and June?

Cedar Rapids is ever-so-slightly north of Des Moines, so it's no surprise that the daily highs in Des Moines would typically be higher than those in Cedar Rapids. But something happens in the April-to-June period that eats up Des Moines's southern advantage. Maybe it's Crunchberry Day more often during that time of year. Or maybe it's just a difference in land cover.

Agriculture Cook beans, earn street cred

The USDA is looking for "citizen scientists" to help them figure out how to cook beans

Iowa Why would you leave a caucus before your vote is counted?

Iowa's Democratic caucus rules are a little arcane, but the idea of realignment actually gives some useful power to those who backed candidates who fell short. Once you're in the room, the marginal cost of sticking around to go with your second choice is a few minutes. At that point, it's crazy to just walk out -- at just the point when your vote has increased marginal value to whomever can win you over.

Socialism Doesn't Work A many-layered snapshot of dystopia

A propaganda banner strung out for all to see, someplace in China where the people are in lockdown over the coronavirus outbreak. The banner, says an interpreter, suggests that making babies is a perfectly good thing to do since China's one family, one child rule is no longer in effect.


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February 7, 2020

Computers and the Internet Governors tackle broadband shortages in rural areas

More often than not, it seems like state and local governments work on the truly interesting stuff.

News Setbacks make tall buildings more beautiful

Taller buildings might well help raise population densities in large cities -- which in turn may have a long list of economic and possibly environmental benefits. But it would be nice if we could have them take humane forms along the way.

Threats and Hazards Red Cross donations aren't making their way to fight coronavirus in China

It would be nice to believe that great revolutions for freedom are begun because people recognize their inherent dignity and their inalienable rights. But if it's ordinary bureaucratic incompetence that topples authoritarians, as it might well be in China, then we would probably take that, too.

News Life is about more than just a series of transactions

Nothing seems to mystify the unprincipled person quite so much as watching someone do the right thing because and only because it's the right thing to do.


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February 10, 2020

Broadcasting Podcast: Who's afraid of a little Korean cinema?

The people who are chicken about facing competition from "foreign" films are really no different from the people who want to "build a wall". Money, ideas, goods, and people ought to move with the maximum practicable freedom.


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February 11, 2020

News Federal buildings don't need to be "classical" in style

Reportedly making the rounds in the White House is a draft executive order to mandate "classical" architecture as the default style for new Federal buildings. Prescribing the style puts the cart before the horse. The real question that should come first is: "Does the presence of this building add value to the community where it will go?" That's a holistic question, and architectural style is only part of the answer. Government buildings can be modern and beautiful or classical and ugly or all over the map. The important question isn't which style is used, but whether the design fits the community and adds value to it. Some do. Some don't.

News Someone inside the MLB hates baseball

A proposal for the postseason would change the first round to best-of-three, give byes to the top seeds in each league, and let some of the teams pick their opponents. This proposal is idiotic. The wild card play-in ought to go to a best-of-three series (because any single game in baseball could be the result of chance) -- and leave the rest of the postseason alone. It's as if MLB hates baseball.

Iowa Expectations of the Iowa Caucuses shouldn't be precise

The Iowa caucuses are, by nature, a little fuzzy around the edges. It's inherently an imprecise venture, not the College of Cardinals meeting to elect the Pope.

The United States of America If her momentum continues, is it a "Klobucharge"?

A strong performance in the New Hampshire primary has people looking for a name for what's up with Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Klobusurge and Amymentum have both been suggested, but clearly the one requiring the least contortion is best. Klobucharge it is.


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February 12, 2020

News Sen. Michael Bennet quits Presidential race

Sen. Bennet deserves credit for bringing a touch of Coolidgean humility to the 2020 race, while he was in it

Iowa Could Sinn Fein really have a place in the middle of Irish government?

In case you thought the horse-trading, coalition-building, and general electoral madness of things in the United States was wild, the coalition-building games being played in Ireland right now are something to behold

News Is Sen. Bernie Sanders the Trump of Democratic Party politics?

Worth reading from Reason: "The old model of two-party politics, with its indifference to individual political idiosyncrasies, left out many people and worldviews...Yet it's far from clear that the emerging model, with its bias toward fringe populism, is an improvement; indeed, it may be worse."

Science and Technology 3% of American adults think science has a "mostly negative" effect on society

And yet those 3% who say it's "mostly negative" still get to fly on airplanes, view weather forecasts, get prescription drugs, and type on the Internet, just like the rest of us. Freeloading jerks.

Business and Finance Sizeable inflation in China in January

There's no predicting the timing or triggers behind a recession. This kind of out-of-the-blue circumstance is a great example why. While it doesn't mean China is inevitably going to have a recession, it is a valid reminder that tough times can come out of nowhere.

The United States of America How to increase electoral diversity in a winner-take-all system

We really ought to consider adopting fusion voting in more places than we already do. There's no reason to use the law to preserve a two-party duospony on "purchasing" viable candidates.

Iowa We live in strange times

An Iowa House bill "prohibits an employer from requiring that an employee have a microchip or other device implanted or inserted in the employee's body." It probably deserves a real shot at becoming law.

Threats and Hazards What are the odds coronavirus topples China's Xi?

The odds are definitely non-zero. Some signs have appeared already that the economic impact is more than just a blip, and that's the aspect that seems most likely to trigger a big turn of events. Promises are being made and strange experiments are being tried to stop the disease from spreading. But who trusts the government there? Who could?


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February 13, 2020

Weather and Disasters Giant news from Australia

The fire service in New South Wales says "for the first time this season all bush and grass fires in NSW are now contained."

Business and Finance McClatchy files for bankruptcy

The company will "operate as usual throughout this process", says the board chair. What even is "normal" for the metropolitan daily newspaper market anymore? Isn't "operating as normal" itself a tremendous risk factor?

News John Kelly doesn't approve

The former Presidential Chief of Staff second-guesses a long list of President Trump's behaviors -- with good reason

Iowa School district had massive warning about bus driver who crashed

If you've ever wondered whether you should say something -- whether you should speak up about something that looked unsafe or someone who seemed unable to discharge a job -- read this.


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February 14, 2020

Threats and Hazards Is China's behavior really a priority or not?

American national-security leaders in the region say the right things, but what does the proposed Federal budget say? James Madison wrote, "[A] right implies a remedy; and where else could the remedy be deposited, than where it is deposited by the Constitution?" In parallel fashion: A priority implies a commitment of resources, and where else are those found but in the budget?

News The peculiar side effects of zoning

A set of photos from Los Angeles shows just how differently land gets used from one lot to the next under the zoning ordinances set by government. One might conclude that the radical difference between a tower of more than 20 stories and a single-family residence immediately next door reflects some kind of artificial restriction (zoning) rather than a difference in the natural market value of the land.

Humor and Good News A Valentine's Day thought

Austin restaurant sign: "A taco is a beef love letter in a corn envelope that you mail to your stomach"

News Mayo accidentally told 360 prospects they had been admitted to med school -- but they weren't

Whoever you are and whatever you did, you probably didn't screw up quite this badly this week, so you've got that going for you. Which is nice.


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February 15, 2020

News The Sandhill crane migration begins

It really is one of the craziest natural phenomena you'll ever see. It's a little shy of the Northern Lights from a high latitude, but the sheer quantity and density of these birds is really a sight to behold.

Computers and the Internet News from an unknown number

Just you wait: Between the plague of crooked robocalls and the unbearable persistence of email scammers, soon we're going to have to revive telegrams as a means of delivering important news. If it's really good news, a singing telegram.

The United States of America Don't get mad that primary voting is different from state to state

It's due to Federalism -- and don't scoff at it. Do you really want a Presidential appointee ordering all 50 states how to conduct their own elections?


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February 16, 2020

Threats and Hazards China's President Xi knew that coronavirus was a problem long before making it public

The cover-up is often what gets politicians -- not necessarily the crime. In this case, the Chinese authorities deserve whatever punishment comes their way. Governments officials who lie don't deserve the responsibilities of power.

Humor and Good News You can't recycle much bigger than recycling a whole house

Isn't that really what house-moving is all about?

Health Flu season is back, and it's bad

If you are capable, get the flu shot. Your immunity helps protect others. It's not like the old days; there are plenty of doses to go around. Get the flu shot.

Humor and Good News Major League Baseball gets a female hitting coach

You don't have to be a fan of the Yankees, baseball, or even sports to appreciate Dirk Chatelain's profile of Rachel Balkovec, the new full-time hitting coach for minor-league players in the Yankees' system. It's just a great story of grit -- something we need to teach our girls and boys alike.


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February 21, 2020

Threats and Hazards Grieving mother: "I think I brainwashed myself with the internet"

Internet-driven self-radicalization isn't just a problem in our politics -- it's a problem in our health and our culture and probably every other facet of life, too. This story of a woman losing her baby is wrenching -- but it's only one of altogether too many stories of this kind of radicalization.

Water News Forget the environment

Clean water supplies are routinely regulated by "environmental" agencies and treated like matters of protecting Mother Nature. That's a colossal misjudgment. Water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure is an urgent matter of public health, and nothing less.

Humor and Good News Five half-court shots in a row

(Video) Doesn't matter whether or not basketball is your sport...this is really impressive

Threats and Hazards Now the left-populists are attacking the free press, too

Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to spin reporting on foreign influence campaigns (including efforts to support him) as though the Washington Post is somehow out to get him. Don't take potshots at the messenger, Sen. Sanders. We already get far too much of that.

Broadcasting Worth watching: "Tom Papa: You're Doing Great!"

Laugh-out-loud funny throughout. Highly recommended.

News California's governor has strange ideas about housing

Gavin Newsom tweets, "Doctors should be able to write prescriptions for housing the same way they do for insulin or antibiotics." This sentiment would make a lot more sense if prescriptions could be filled by municipal zoning authorities. Is housing a universal need? Absolutely. Is it a human right? Not in the proper sense of the phrase: A human right is something that a person possesses by nature of birth, of which others can deprive her or him by force -- like the right to speak freely, or the right to practice a religious faith. In a well-governed society, others may not prohibit you from exercising your human rights. Universal needs -- like health care or housing -- are different: Everyone needs them, but someone has to produce them. Houses and prescription drugs do not automatically exist merely because you exist -- which is what separates them from the intrinsic human rights. Mis-labeling a "universal need" as a "human right" leads directly to the kind of wild claim that Governor Newsom makes in supposing that housing can simply be "prescribed" out of thin air. If a shortage of housing exists, it is because of some kind of a market failure -- and identifying the cause of that failure is essential. Why does San Francisco have a housing shortage? In large part because of local zoning challenges. That's a solvable problem -- but it's not solvable by conjuring up out of thin air a "prescription" for an apartment.

News On the new Acting Director of National Intelligence

A distressing story about an important figure, from a highly credible source. Lane Greene, a writer for The Economist, says Richard Grenell "once accused me of inventing my father's (fatal) cancer so I could sneak a colleague (whom he disliked) into an interview with John Bolton". Wow.

Health Influenza has killed more than 100 American kids this season

Don't just let the number roll past you. This is an immeasurable tragedy, and it's happened 105 times over. Maybe we can't stop every one of those tragedies, but the public at large plays a role. You play a role. Get the flu shot. A crucial point from the CNN story: "Schaffner also said everyone should get vaccinated, especially since the flu can strike a perfectly healthy individual and cause severe illness. At least half of the children who die from the flu were otherwise healthy, he said."

Computers and the Internet If you're going to share a link...

...strip out the tracking portion of the URL when you can


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February 22, 2020

Threats and Hazards Nominating Bernie Sanders means re-electing Donald Trump

Contempt for the mainstream is an animal cry, not a path to winning a decisive victory in November. And at this point, Trump has hijacked too much of the "mainstream", and Sanders is still trying to sell a "revolution". It's a colossal mistake.

Business and Finance Charlie Munger: "I think there are lots of troubles coming"

If you won't listen to Charlie Munger, then you need to show your work and give overwhelming evidence that you're right. He's seen too much and thought too hard about it to make big mistakes. Emphatically one of the wisest people in America today, most especially on financial matters.

Broadcasting Credit where due: "Ford vs. Ferrari" is quite good

For a movie about auto racing, "Ford vs. Ferrari" deserves a mountain of credit for the careful understatement of its writing. Just an excellent job of using the right words and no more of them than necessary. Great work by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller.


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February 28, 2020

Threats and Hazards "[I]f the Chinese economy doesn't get back to normal pretty soon, these financial fires aren't going to be campfires but infernos"

Christopher Balding is a China-watcher to watch, and his assessment of the situation is grim. It's not that the powers that rule China deserve to do so, it's that there's so little clarity about how they might peacefully be replaced.

News Rough neighborhood

From Dayton, Ohio: "While executing another search warrant at his home in October 2015, agents discovered an AN/AAR-47 Missile Warning System"

News Night-owl Catholics follow Lenten rules from midnight to midnight

So says the result of a completely unscientific poll

Broadcasting "Occupied" remains must-watch television

This is without a doubt one of the most riveting and suspenseful television programs ever made. And the aesthetics are phenomenal. Through three seasons, the writers have told a tale, much too close to reality, of what would happen if Russia invaded Norway -- but did it in such a way that a wounded European Union failed to come to the rescue.

Business and Finance Keeping your head when others lose theirs

The stock market is in panic mode over the likely economic consequences of coronavirus, but there's no obligation on the part of any investor to go along with the madness. If your time horizon is any greater than about 5 years, then it should be self-evident that any kind of correction big enough to really shock the stock market is really just an opportunity to buy shares at a discount.


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February 29, 2020

Health The astonishing economic consequences of coronavirus

The Financial Times reports: "Based on migration data, ANZ said the Chinese economy was operating at 20 per cent capacity". That's a truly unbelievable figure. Manufacturing has collapsed, and everyone knows that's the lifeblood of China's economy.

Humor and Good News What's the best way to get fast-food fish?

Filet-O-Fish? LJS? Culver's? Arby's? It's the existential question posed every Lent.

Humor and Good News Dead Irish writers

If tasked to assign a belated playwright to the writers' room of a television show, never hesitate to send in James Joyce. He'd be amazing as a contributor to "Curb Your Enthusiasm".

Health Surgeon General: Fight coronavirus by getting the flu shot

Worried about coronavirus? Then get the flu shot. Keeps your immune system strong enough to fight back if you need, and reduces the burden that might otherwise fall on the health system around you. The authorities don't want you hoarding masks, they want you washing your hands. The need for health-care workers to get priority on good-quality masks is obvious, but you know who else is going to need masks if this disease breaks through? Wastewater collection and treatment operators. Don't take infrastructure for granted.

Broadcasting Netflix now shares daily ratings

But where, oh where, did the five-star scale go? The company nixed it a long time ago, citing the behavior of most users, but for those who saw value in rating a "3" differently from a "5", the loss still seems pointless.


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